Temple of Baktaar, by Jason Restrick

Bridging the gap between review and shill, it’s time to talk about StoryHack, an action and adventure short story periodical produced by Bryce Beattie.  He had the urge to produce a regular collection of short works that runs the gamut of genres, and that is a much bolder move than you might think.  The state of the art of marketing in today’s world of search engine optimization and direct focus marketing strategies and AI algorithms tells creatives that they should do one (genre) thing and do it well.  Readers don’t cross genres.  Target one niche audience.

That may be right, you may derive a lot more sales from a relentless focus on one niche like that, but the concept bores me to tears.  When Bryce announced his One Genre To Rule Them All, and that genre being action-adventure, I snatched at the ring like a toad-man with a frog in his throat.  And so you’ll see my own name gracing the cover of the second issue, but that’s not why I’m here today.  That’s just my oblique admission that this post might come off as a bit of a self-shill. My motives are as pure as the snows of nuclear winter, but that’s doesn’t mean I’m wrong when I say that Jason Restrick’s entry into the StoryHack library hits the jungle-action-with-a-side-helping-of-weird-tales nail on the head with a ten-pound sledgehammer.

The opening snatches you up in its arms like a 600-pound gorilla and the story doesn’t let go until the last passage and beyond.

Weary and haggard, I was alone in my study when there came a sound beyond the door.  Barely a knock: the faint thud of knuckles and the slow scrape of fingernails.  I started from my desk; not to flee – there was nowhere to run; nor to fight – but only to die on my feet.

The doorknob twitched.  The intruder stepped forth – a tall silhouette in the shadows.  Then, through my blurred vision I recognized the face of a friend, one who I had feared lost.

That’s how you start a story!  It’s a miniature drama all its own complete with mysteries set up and resolved, and more menace in the first two paragraphs than most Lovecraft knock-offs manage in a full blown novella, and we’re only getting started.  Our hero has to trek back to the source of his woes to remove the curse that afflicts, not himself – oh no, so such selfish motivations drive our hero – but to lift the curst on his friend, a curse he feels responsible for.  That’s the kind of unselfish effort that changes this from a tomb raider story to a heroic adventure, and part of the charm of the piece.

Restrick adopts the strong voice of a gentleman adventurer to tell this story of a lost temple that should have stayed lost, a cursed treasure recovered from degenerate jungle cultists, and a wise old hermit witchdoctor.  A tension runs through the story between the unshakable faith of the narrator and his best friend and confidante, and the dark and brooding menace of the jungle and temple ruins.  It speaks of danger at every turn, with only the brief solace provided by the wizened hedge wizard of the deepest Congo rainforest.

By my count the tale features at least three monsters, depending on how you want to count them, two warring gods in fine Weird Tales fashion, some hard hitting action scenes that leap from the page.  The amount of story packed into the brief pages of this tale is impressive, with nary a wasted word or thought.  Everything drives the plot forward towards a resolution that some may find unsatisfying, but which fans of the Weird Tales style will appreciate.

This is my goal as a writer.  To tell stories that can match the evocative spirit of the old stories as does Restrick’s “The Temple of Baktaar”.  It’s a story I’ve now re-read with a closer eye, not as a relaxing read, but as a writer looking to understand how Restrick manages to pull off this story.  It’s that good.

You can get yourself a copy here:

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Solemn Veterans Day

What can be said that hasn’t already.

Thank you boys for all of your sacrifices to make the world safe for whatever the hell it is they are doing down in Florida these days.

I’d feel bad about using today’s commemoration to score cheap political points, except that most of the soldiers I’ve ever known wouldn’t hesitate to laugh at the black humor that lies at the heart of the above joke.

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Must. Resist. Watchmen.

Amazon Prime has made Zack Snyder’s Watchmen available in both regular size and jumbo Director’s cut size, and it’s tempting to give it a re-watch.  So why does this post show an image of the Farrelley Brothers’ Something About Mary?

Because they are the same kind of movie.

Wipe the furrow from your brow, and I’ll explain.

The Farrelley Brothers made big money back in the late 90s-early aughts with a string of successful raunchy comedies that consisted of, as some wag more clever than I put it, “a whole lot of filler to sit through to get to four big belly laughs that will put you on the floor hoping your heart doesn’t give out.”  That’s an exaggeration, but not by much.  Films such as Me, Myself, and Irene, Dumb and Dumber, and KingPin, are like power hitters – their jokes strike out most of the time, but when they connect, the ball goes sailing out of the stadium.  That’s a smart plan, as audiences left their films remembering the high points rather than the long strings of dead air filled by flat and uninspired humor.

Which is exactly what happened with Watchman.  That film contains some of the most impressive moments of dread and anticipation ever put into a superhero movie.  Those imminently meme-worthy moments linger in your mind when you scroll through Amazon’s otherwise weak collection of films on offer, but Alan Moore’s dreary tale of miserable protagonists and mean-spirited philosophies – and Rorshach! – only parcels those morsels of goodness out to those willing to filter through the muck of his nihilism.

So it turns out, Alan Moore is the Farrelly Brothers of the comic book world.

And every time I’m tempted to give Watchmen a second chance, I remind myself that I’d rather have a line-up of guys with consistently high on-base percentages than one filled with power hitters.  The highs and lows might not be as high and low, but it’s a strategy that leads to a lot more consistent runs on the board, and one that delivers a lot more fun and a lot less disappointment.

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Deadpool: Too Soon? Yep

Mainstream comics are so much worse than I thought.  All dazzle, no razzle.

I’m a sucker for ten cent comics, particularly when they are bundled in plain brown wrappers and sold in ten packs to clear shelf space down at the local friendly comic and game and community based brand signal store.  Once my youngest daughter and I tossed the duplicates out, we were left with an even dozen cheap comics passed over by today’s more *koff* discerning comic book readers.

She wanted Spiderman first, and we got a side-story that explained how Doc Ock went forward in time, switched bodies with Peter Parker, got killed moments after downloading his brainwaves into a crawling wristband he shares with an AI copy of his beloved, then came back to the present to trick some rando clone-master villain into rebuilding him a body that he could redownload his brainwaves into and thus be reborn.  That sounds incredibly convoluted and gonzo and awesome, and the art was a great match for the over-the-top sensibility, but the writer never let you forget that he found the whole thing ridiculous to the point of stability.  He went through the motions, but couldn’t resist a lot of sly and smug asides to reassure you he is really above all this silliness.  It sucked all the life out of the story, as did the frequent, “Wouldn’t it be funny if”s.  It had a lot of potential, but refused to consistently treat the material with the respect it deserves.

The second story featured Deadpool and Squirrelgirl’s mutant offspring kidnapping them and then a black shadow guy attacks and it was so silly and then Deadpool’s demon wife shows up and the shadow is a demon stalking her because the real bad guy is toxic masculinity but they cut his johnson off and he’s sad because she cooks rocky mountain oysters and Spiderham and Howard the Duck are there because of course they are.  It’s a cavalcade of cringe as joke after joke falls flat and the writer even has an “explain the joke” joke fall flat because it needs to go all the way around to unfunny-ception.  This thing was as hilarious as a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Ever been around a hot chick that thinks she should be a stand-up comic because thirsty guys laugh at every jokes she makes?  Yeah.

Worst of all, this happens once again largely because everyone involved treats the material with a utter contempt.  They feel like they are marking time until they can get a real job at a real company.  Nothing matters, graphic kills happen regularly to name characters you know will be revived at the end of the issue because ain’t no way Punisher is getting killed by some random demon villain of the week.

My five year old thought the squirrel was funny, though.  Not squirrel girl.  The actual squirrel.  Congratulations, sophisticated Deadpool writer, you’re writing humor for the PJ Masks set.

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Zero Jumper: A Meta-Review

Yesterday I told you about Alterna Comic’s Zero Jumper.  In the interests of showing Peter Simeti, the big hearted entrepreneur behind Alterna, an open and honest appraisal of the comic, I waited until today to discuss the broader cultural issues that surround this particular company.  Mr. Simeti is a “comics first, fans first, fun first” kind of guy who gets quite enough of the political drama from the left.  We’ll let him enjoy yesterday and not drag him into our own sojourn into the meta-issues in a separate, and thus more easily ignored, post.

The larger question it raised in my mind was, “This is the guy the SJW Comic Gestapo went after? Really?”

Zero Jumper wasn’t written for me.  It’s a very female-centered story, and I’m a pretty manly dude, you know?  Hence my confusion about why Alterna drew the ire of the SJW’s All Seeing Brown Eye of Doom.

Just gorgeous with a bit of a hard edge that

In short, this is exactly the kind of comics the SJWs that have taken over mainstream comics think they are producing – excellent and good looking stories written from a female-centric point of view that everyone can enjoy.  It’s what the mainstream comic companies should be striving to produce.  Badass chiquitas whut don’t need no man, and tween girls capable of (plausibly, thanks to that supersuit) beating up galaxy conquering aliens.

But then, Alterna refused to bend the knee and disavow mer nerzis, so it gets thrown up against the wall alongside admitted crimethinkers such as yours truly.  Which demonstrates that the real goal of the SJWs has nothing to do with high-minded ideals – misguided though they be – nor even a pursuit of inclusion or fighting toxic masculinity the Narrative.  Those are all just social weapons used to achieve their real goal.

Power.

It’s all about control.  They wanted to control Alterna, to show Peter Simeti who was really boss around these comic parts.  He could offer up the Danegeld of joining their alliance as a junior member in their crusade against the Old Guard, or he could be ostracized and his name stricken from the rolls of goodthinkers and forever banished to the dark realms.  The fact most of the stories in Alterna’s back library actually align with the stated goals of the SJWs means nothing.  It’s not about the stories.  It’s about control.

What they didn’t count on was that we are onto them.  They have banished so many crimethinkers that the dark realms are alight with the fires of banished creatives crafting works of art the likes of which they can only dream of.  The crimethinkers, and even moderates who wouldn’t dare throw their lot in with a dirty MAGAbro like yours truly, rallied to his defense and gave him the best month of sales he’s ever seen.

And even if Zero Jumper wasn’t my cup of tea, I can recognize the value and entertainment it might bring to a different sort of comic reader.  Better yet, I can enjoy the story for what it is, content with the knowledge that its creator doesn’t really care what I believe.  He isn’t trying to convert me to anything, and he isn’t trying to remake something I love into something it was never meant to be.  He’s a good guy telling good stories, and as one of the few doing so today, he has earned my support and good will.

And besides, my daughter enjoyed Zero Jumper where she immediately turned up her nose at more mainstream fare like Squirrel Girl.  If this was all about “owning the libs” my purchase would have been a one-shot deal, but Simeti brings the heat, so I’ll keep coming back for more.

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Zero Jumper: A Comic Review

Patrick Mulholland and Peter Simeti bring this four issue sci-fi adventure to us by way of the usual $1.50 newsprint titles, which I love, smudged fingerprints and all, or via  trade paperback.

I’ve read it, and it’s okay.  I’m really not the target audience.

The story is suitably epic, though the galaxy feels surprisingly empty.  We see glimpses of denizens of various planets and towns and villages, but very few actual people.  Rather than fight her way to success, Juno slips through empty landscape after empty landscape, which gives the comic an oppressive feeling similar to what one feels when reading Jack Vance novels.

That’s all I can say without spoilers.

Juno (pic related) represents the last living human being in the universe.  Protected by a supersuit, guided by a powerful AI, and hunted by the ruler of the galaxy, she can leap back in time, hence the name of the comic, a few moments to correct the past.  Maybe, if she can avoid the Scion of the ruler long enough and secure enough MacGuffin crystals to make one big jump, she can go back in time and prevent the earth from being blown up in the first place.  The art is gorgeous, the colors vibrant despite the medium, and the action swift and easily followed.  As has been my experience to date, the comic shines brightest when it focuses on the characters and their relationships.  Juno’s struggle to honor her mother’s wishes while charting her own course are the heart of Zero Jumper, to its credit.

For my tastes, the focus on the mother-daughter relationship and the empty landscapes and limited cast resulted in a story with fairly low stakes.  That shouldn’t be the case when one panel shows the earth blown to smithereens a la Thundarr The Barbarian’s moon.  The bad guy’s evil is all shown off-screen, making him largely a shadow with little menace, particularly given how easily he gets clowned by Juno, her super-science Mom, and a rebel with a heart of gold smuggler/bounty hunter.

The focus on an all-female hero team drained a lot of the drama out of the title for me as well.  Even powered by a super-suit, there’s something empty about a panel showing a tween girl facing off against a towering dark lord.  We’ve been exposed to too many stories over the last few decades to have any doubt about the outcome.  Not only will our plucky heroine win through, it will look easy, and will occur without complications.  We know this.  It’s no surprise, and it sucks a lot of the tension out of the narrative.

If you have a tween girl you’re looking to get into comic books, she might be surprised, and she probably represents the target audience for this title.  This jaded Gen-X cynic found the art and relationship fun enough to stick with the story through the bland lifelessness of that aspect of the story, but its worth noting that of all the Alterna titles I’ve read to my five year old daughter, this was the one she appreciated the least.

And that includes some of the odd-ball stories in the sci-fi anthology If.

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Last First Sentences – My Own Petard

This past week we’ve looked at more than a dozen story openings, and hopefully the exercise has been of some value to both the writers out there and the readers.  My thanks to all of the authors whose works were featured in Cirsova magazine, and my sincere hopes that they take my criticisms as constructive.  My interests lay with those working to build a better culture of fantasy of science-fiction, and if my efforts help improve anyone’s writing they will not have been in vain.

Before we get to the promise of this post’s title, let’s take a look at the first sentence of Cirosva Issue 9’s Editorial note, Notes from the Eagle’s Nest and see how well Mr. Alexander measures up against his authors:

404: Item not found

Well that’s disappointing.  This issue didn’t have a Notes from the Eagle’s Nest. Mr. Alexander must have known this was coming and used his Timeslip Contraption Mark III to erase his editorial from our timeline.  Clever bastard.  I’ll get you next time.

In the meantime, let’s look at a few of the opening sentences from my own works and see how they measure up!

From Sudden Rescue:

A staccato drumbeat on ringing metal caused Sudden to raise his eyes from the magazine he held.

It’s a name!  Curses!  Looking at this through fresh eyes it strikes me that I’m guilty of much of what I complained about this week.  “Ringing metal” makes little sense.  That magazine just kind of lays there flat.  I’d improve it thusly:

A staccato drumbeat rang off the metal hull of the Jade Rose, and Sudden’s startled reaction sent the magazine draped over his face tumbling to the deck of his ship.

That feels a lot better.  Hooks you in with a nice threat and a instant reaction by the titular character.

That was my first novel, so how does my latest measure up?

From Barbarian Emperor:

Barbarian Emperor, you name me.

It’s just a repeat of the title of the book!  How disappointing.  In my own defense, establishing the narrative framework of a first person recounting of the events that follow serves an important role that only becomes apparent much later on in the book.  Let’s look at a more classically told tale, A Moon Full of Stars:

It was a hard life.

Now that’s terse.  It has a grim stoicism to it that sets the mood of this post-apocalyptic tale nicely.  It establishes the characters to follow will be hard people capable of great feats.  It suffers a bit from the use of a passive verb – a sin that none of the works in Cirsova 9 committed, to their credit – but I think it also buys the main protagonists a lot of goodwill on the part of the reader, even before their village is destroyed by mutant slavers.

Let’s close out this moment of shame by looking at the first sentence in two of my published short stories, and see if those fare any better.  First up is the introduction to the superhero tale, Like Father, included in Paragons:

It was supposed to be a routine convenience story robbery.

That’s a lot better.  Again with the passive verb to kick things off, but at least this establishes setting and stakes, and simultaneously subverts them with the announcement that things are not what they seem.  That’s a strong hook that carries the weight of the passive verb on its back.

Although it’s vague and includes the dreaded NAME FIRST, I quite like the opening of Desert Hunt, included in the first issue of StoryHack Magazine:

A symphony of destruction sounded in Karl’s ears.

It just got real, yo.  That’s a heck of an opening statement to make.  Things are already in motion and falling apart.  If that sentence doesn’t make you want to find out what’s going on, then I don’t know what to tell you.  You’re reading the wrong blog.  Maybe hit up the cozy mystery section of the writersphere – they seem nice.

Thanks again to everyone for playing.  It’s been a fun and informative week for me, and hopefully for all of you as well.

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Third and Final First Sentences

First sentences matter.  People are judgy and they love to find reasons to reject your works.  Knowing the how and why people judge can help you writers make sales, and they can help you readers be better judges of whether what you’re reading can recover from its doldrums or just continue make for a painful read.

As with the last few days, we’re looking at the first sentences of every story in the most recent issue of Cirsova Magazine.

PC Bushi brings us this word picture from the opening of Antares:

In a system far from here, on a blue world much like ours, orbiting a sickly green sun, the city of Antares stood towering over a barren landscape.

We know we’re headed for a story of forbidding isolation.  The setting has clearly been established as not-of-this-earth, and one that suffers from a faintly nauseating green patina.  For the rest of the tale, my mind’s eye will view everything through a wan green filter.  As usual, I’d swap out the name for a few words of dscription, (i.e., “the graceful spires of an ancient city towered over a barren landscape).  That gives the picture a little more detail at no cost of words.  Throw the city name in later, when it becomes absolutely necessary – particularly given the title of the work, playing coy with the city name buys the author one more “aha!” moment on the part of the reader when they connect the story title to the city.  Those are cheap candies to throw at readers, and they work incredibly well at winning readers over, so never deny them even one chance at feeling smart by making obvious connections.

Bo Balder kicks off Cirque des Etoiles with a concise statement filled with hooks:

The first commissioner of A’a’a undulated into the circus ring.

Hey look, it’s another name to start things off, and this time a name paired with a rank in the bureaucracy.  And yet it works because the name is so alien, and gets paired with such an unusual verb, undulated, that it sets up a whole lot of story.  We’re going to read about an alien circus run by a creature that moves in ripples.  That’s a great hook that sells me on the rest of the story.  Bo knows when to break the rules, and knows how to break them in a way that you don’t care he broke them.  Well done.

My pet peeve crops up twice in the beginning to Robert Lang’s Hot Water in Wormtown:

“I don’t know why I ever listened to you,” said Lady Alexia FitzClarence to Foskin, her composite servitor, as they trudged abreast through the desert heat.

And I may have to abandon my pet peeve.  Two characters are presented in a bad situation complete with setting, and Lang manages to convey that we’re in for a humorous tale in which a proper Lady can berate her long suffering robo-butler even in the most dire of situations.  This feels like a set-up, and it makes the reader eager to get to the punchline.  How did they get here?  What did Foskin suggest?  Where are they going?  Where will they find water?  So many questions raised in such an economic manner makes for some good reading.

Also by Brink

Another light-hearted romp caps off Cirsova 9.  This one brought to you by J.D. Brink consists of the sequel to last issue’s Littermates, and it’s hard for me to pretend that I read this sentence with no awareness of the milieu previously established.  Nevertheless, we shall soldier on as:

We’d come all the way to Alpha Dog station and had not yet found the rest and relaxation bragged about upon the brochure (had there been one).

Whoever narrates this sounds exasperated.  He also sounds like he isn’t too disappointed to have found the action that surely follows such a self-aware and tongue-in-cheek introduction.  We get that Alpha Dog ain’t the best space station around, and that it’s probably even more seedy than Groot’s dandruff.  Most important of all, we know we are in for some drama.  Everything is perhaps a little too vague at this point for a proper pulp-style introduction, but Brink has bought himself enough goodwill with the humor inherent in the sentence to carry the reader far enough into the story that they won’t even notice.

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Second First Sentences

Happy All Saints Day!  Don’t forget to ask your favorite Saint to put in a good word for you with the man upstairs.  That’s what they’re here for!

Today we continue our look at the first sentences of stories you can find in the most recent issue of Cirsova Magazine.  If you’re a writer looking to make it through the slush pile, you’ve only got a few minutes to grab the attention of the editor.  Make those first words count.

Today’s first entry falls prey to the “I gotta get a name in there, STAT!” sickness, but recovers with the second half.  Paul Lucas probably knew what he was doing with All That Glitters when he wrote:

Just as he was about to enter the tavern, Theofian Nap was interrupted by his knives, which were talking to themselves.

Wait, what?  Talking knives make for a great hook.  The detail of the Tavern grounds the story in a medieval setting, and the knives announce plainly that we’re in the realm of fantasy.  They also present a mystery that draws the reader in.  That they interrupt their mount makes things all the more intriguing.  It would be nice if Theofian’s name had been swapped with a few details or short archetypal description instead – is he a weary traveler, wealthy aristocrat, or proud knight in armor – but that’s pale criticism in the face of how effective this sentence is.

Contrast with Xavier Lastra’s opening gambit in The Orb of Xarkax:

The local populace knew of that forgettable mountain only for its treacherous ledges and the old tales of bandit hideouts near the top.

Also by Lastra

Something about this sentence doesn’t work for me.  If the mountain is forgettable, why does it feature in old tales?  The treacherous ledges is a nice touch, as is the promise of bandits, but the overall effect is pretty lackluster.  The second sentence about two men standing warily before a doorway at the base of one treacherous cliff, exposed by a landslide, packs more punch than this first sentence.  Give me a shadowy opening first, a doorway into mysterious depths, and two shadowy figures about the challenge them, then fill in the surrounding details to increase the isolation and mystery.

Michael Tierney does the same thing in Jack’s Basement, but compounds the problem with an avalanche of descriptive text:

The psychologist shifted through the young man’s pile of artwork, each sheet filled with apocalyptic scenes of strange alien beings that were surrounded by dramatic explosions from the havoc and destruction they wreaked.

That’s a lot to pack into a single sentence.  It solves a mystery before that mystery was even introduced, and it spends a lot of time on extraneous details that don’t mesh well with the cold opening of “the psychologist”.  The phrase “strange alien” is repetitive.  It’s wordy, and not in a good way.  One way to give this opening more impact would be to describe the scribbles first, and then introduce the good doctor mulling them over.  Another would be to describe the emotion those scribbles evoke in the doctor first, and then describe the artwork.  Like so:

That scenes of alien creatures surrounded by the detonations of apocalyptic devastation wrought by their presence had been crafted in such loving detail by crayons gripped in a child’s hand troubled the weary psychologist.

There you have basically the same information, presented in a way that allows for the contrast between the horror of the pages and the innocence of childhood, and for the disconcerting effect they have on a beleaguered man of science.  Instead of an emotionless doctor, you’ve got a man both tired and concerned.  Hey reader – there’s something very strange going on here!  It lacks subtlety, to be sure, but it also works.

Also by Tierney

Let me back up a step here and openly admit that much of my analysis rests on a firm foundation of “in my opinion”.  More importantly, there’s a certain amount of hubris involved with judging an entire work based on one sentence.  Jack’s Basement is a fun story, and one I enjoyed.  The purpose of this exercise is to strip sentences down to the bare functionality.  Whenever you talk about things in isolation you lose the wider view, and in the wider view my criticisms of Tierney and Lactra’s work fall flat on their faces.  Both are talented writers who recover from their first sentence doldrums almost immediately.  You should definitely check out Cirsova and their works, because you’ll enjoy them.  They are, in fact, operating at a high level, and this nit-picking of mine is a close look at those few areas where they have room for improvement.

 

 

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No NaNoWriMo Fo Jo Mo

Nothing against it, just seems counterproductive for a writer in my position.

Writing a novel in a single month represents a considerable challenge for new and old writers alike.  Tapping into the inspirational support of a host of like minded writers can be a great help, especially when you add the psychological pressure of a hard and fast timeline like December 1.  It even helped me write my first long form fiction – a terrible screenplay, for the record – a decade ago.  It was a fun experiment, but didn’t have a lasting effect.

Now that I’ve got multiple novels under my belt and established a steady output of work dedicated a month to changing up a routine that already generates on average somewhere around 500 words per day.  Why run the risk of burning out or pressuring myself to forgo the usual juggling act between writing, reviewing, and recording audiobooks?  I’m on track to get my fourth or fifth audiobook out and the sequel to my Heroes Unleashed superhero novel submitted to Silver Empire by the end of the year.  That’s not gimmicky and it doesn’t let me tap into the vast NaNoWriMo community of sprinters.  On the other hand, my steady output should result in considerably more and better writing in the long run.

So best of luck to all of you taking up the 1700 words per day gauntlet.  Whatever your reasons and whatever your level, I wish you the best.  You never know when the next month’s effort might bear fruit.  My own experience took another decade to blossom into my nascent writing career.

So keep your fingers warm, your powder dry, and your spirits up.  I’m pulling for you.

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