Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Way Forward is Sometimes the Way Back: Escaping the Labyrinth

The wind is a cat:
Angry, it hisses through the trees.
Soft, it brushes against the house
Like a friendly cat rubs against one’s knees.

The wind is a cat:
Wandering, it meanders about
Vicious, its claws rake the shingles
Like a cat’s nails scratch the carpeted floor.

The wind is a cat:
Chill, it bites with tiny, sharp teeth
Gentle, it softly tickles one’s skin
Like a cat’s whiskers may tickle bare feet.

~Carolyn Bond

Wind is a cat2

I liked this poem when I read it in eleventh grade. It fired up my imagination, so since I was on the high school lit magazine, I volunteered to do the artwork for it.  Back then, as now, I had the perfect personality for editing and line art: I was an uptight perfectionist.

Deadlines were approaching so I stayed after school. I was working in the art room with a true artist, which even then I knew I was not.  I was an illustrator, but James, he was the real thing.  As I drew my stylized picture of a cat, I screwed up…something I did a lot with my illustration.  After muttering a few mild curses, I was only sixteen after all, I asked James to pass me the whiteout.  This was for repro on a Xerox machine.  The whiteout wouldn’t register.  James picked up the little bottle, but instead of handing it to me, he put it in his pocket.

Continue reading »

“But I made a mistake, I need it!” I protested.

“No, you don’t,” he told me.  “It’s not a mistake, it’s an opportunity. Embrace it.  Turn it into part of your picture.”

I was not at all happy about that, but the deadline was looming.  I altered my plan and did just what he said; I incorporated it into the drawing.  I did it well enough, that I cannot tell you today where that mistake was.  It is no longer a mistake, it is art.

It was a lesson I picked up readily for my artwork and used as I minored in art in college.  But I wasn’t clever enough to apply it more broadly to my other art—writing. Not until I met Teresa Edgerton.

We used to take long walks and talk about the craft of writing.  At one point, I became stuck in my writing.  I could not find may way out of the labyrinth of plot I’d constructed for my characters.  She told me something similar to what James had told me:  Look back at your work.  What is there that you can use for your needs now?  As with James, I had my doubts, but I also had nothing to lose.  So I combed over my story and found just what she had said I would.  The seeds of something I’d not even known I’d planted were now grown enough for me to use to climb out of my maze.

The advice from James and Teresa is likely the best piece of advice I’ve ever received about my artistic endeavours.  I’ve used it over and over again.  I’ll share some examples.

First an introduction to a few characters from In a Mortal Shadow:  Falion is our hero trying to rescue the damsel in distress, Venae, a magic-wielding character.  Karill is his nemesis in hot pursuit.

My first example is about using using location you have already set up. Karill has nearly caught up with Falion at an inn.  Just as he’s about to go in, the tavern across the way has a loud disturbance. Karill goes to investigate that instead.  It was a distraction, both in plot, but worse, for the reader.  I think one of my writer’s group folk summed it up best in this comment at the point where Karill goes clambering off to the tavern over yonder: “Squirrel!”

She was so right.  I had to fix it.  I realized that the inn also had a tavern, which I’d mentioned already.  So this time, Karill goes to the innkeepress, who is in her tavern, and is distracted there long enough for our hero to get away.  The change may seem inconsequential, but the result was major. Instead of being clearly a red herring that took Karill away from Falion, this tavern visit takes him closer.  Falion nearly runs into him.  Tension is built where as before, it was dissipated…perhaps even comically so.

In this second example, I looked to what I had already established as part of a character’s talents to recycle that talent in a new way to perform a new action. Falion and Venae need to flee the city of Cete Kellen.  Originally, I made up new magic for her to walk through walls.  It never sat right with me.  It hadn’t tested well with beta readers, either.  So here I was, stuck in a city on lockdown, and I had no idea how to get out—until I remembered a magic skill I had used earlier.  Falion, through a curse, is immune to magic directed against him.  But magic can be used around him. For instance, if you were to stop the air moving about his hand perfectly, he would not be able to move it any more than he might if his hand were encased in stone.  If she can do that, then she can stop the air from moving under his feet, and he can stand on it.  Falion escapes the city by walking off the city wall.

In my third example, I found an existing character ready to take up a new role. Sharp started out a walk-on character.  I needed someone to guide Falion and Venae across the border. I was about to create a new character when I heard Teresa’s and James’s voices in my head. I looked around, and there he was, sitting in the corner, whittling away on a stick and whistling, waiting for me to discover what, apparently, he already knew.  He wasn’t some wandering merchant after all, he was much more.  Merchant was just his cover.  Good cover—it worked on me for years!

So when you are stuck.  Take time to review your work keeping your problem foremost in your mind.  Get a friend or beta reader to go over it if you can.  New perspectives can widen your view of your own work. You two can talk it through, stir up the story, which has been too staid in your mind. See what seeds are growing back where you dropped them two chapters ago, or five, or ten.  Not only can it get you out of the Labrinth right now, but it makes your story look richer and more put together.  Those incidental seeds you cast out have suddenly turn into foreshadowing. Now don’t you look clever!   And all you had to do was remember:

Sometimes the way forward is the way back.

And Lo! And There Shall Come…An Ending!

By Rosemary Edghill

NY Times bestselling author, Rosemary Edghill shares her knowledge and her wit in one of her “Dear Author” commentaries.  I’m been a fan of her “Dear Author” posts on Facebook and feel very lucky to share the laughter and insight this one brought me.

Screen shot 2015-02-15 at 10.05.32 AMThis is the story of Childeric, called The Shatterer, Last Emperor of the Eidolon Empire. He swashbuckled through a swordly and sorcerous universe…in four novels written by A. E. Phillips during the fantasy revival of the late 1960s. This is the story of Arcadia Stanton McCauley, who spent a couple of summers being A. E. Phillips and got on with her life…until her life was over. Only it wasn’t. Not quite. Because Cady McCauley died one night on an LA freeway. But she woke up in the Eidolon Empire….

Available on Amazon

Dear Author:

You and I should talk.  I know you’ve been sending stories in to that online magazine regularly—sometimes five or six a month!—and I’ve been rejecting them (with a form letter, not even a personalized reply), just as regularly.  But you keep trying, no matter how many rejections you get.  I think that’s great.

I just wish you’d learn how to write.

Continue reading »

Oh, don’t get me wrong: your grammar’s fine, your spelling’s good, and your sentence structure is usually adequate.  But you see, the magazine only buys STORIES, and you aren’t sending me stories.  You’re sending me ideas—some could only be handled properly (by “properly” I mean: “in a way that does not make me want to gouge my eyes out and run screaming through the streets of Poughkeepsie”) at novel length.  Some are clichés (and you don’t know that because you have very little exposure to the last hundred years of written science fiction and fantasy) that you haven’t found a fresh spin on.  (And do not get me started on your endless thirst to do grim’n’gritty remixes of Disney cartoons: recursive much?)  The worst of the lot—the stuff that makes me beweep deaf heaven and turn to drink—are the ones that have a wonderful set-up, an exciting idea, a great set of characters…

And stop.  In the middle.  Without a resolution.

Dear Author, I know your mentors and moral exemplars said that you get points for showing up, that half of life is showing up, and so on.  NEWS FLASH: THEY LIED.  You get ZIP for showing up (as with all of these half-baked “flash fictions”).  You get the brass cupcake for SEEING IT THROUGH.  Another lie the mentors tell?  “Leave something to your reader’s imagination.”  No, no, no, no, NO!  Especially when what you, with a fey and elfin delicacy, want to leave to your reader’s imagination is the ENDING.  (Yes, dear Author, I am capslocking in a paroxysm of anguish.  I like you, I really do.  And I want you to stop shooting yourself in the foot.)  Trust me, readers have plenty of imagination.  They’ll find something to do with it when they read your story.  But they aren’t signing on for a “Choose Your Own Adventure” experience, and when I review your submission, neither am I.

I know you watch a lot of television.  (So do I: stop trying to slip re-written Supernatural fanfic past me, because filing the serial numbers off your fanfic is a whole ‘nother rant.)  Television is a five-act structure in 42 minutes: Freytag’s Pyramid (  Five-act structure is long-form structure: if you model your narrative on the storytelling structure you see on television (or in the movies) you are going to be writing a novel.  That’s fine, but don’t send it to me: the magazine publishes short stories.  And a short story has a three act structure.

Dear Author, you rarely send me the second act, let alone the third.  I’m starting to suspect you have no idea what happens in the third act.  You need to figure that out before you submit your story, and it needs to be on the page.

Take, as an illustrative example of the thing done right, C. L. Moore’s masterwork, “Vintage Season”.  In Act One (the set-up), we establish that the time is now, the place is here, the narrator is Oliver Wilson, and some very odd people are renting Oliver’s house.  (Dear Author, you may think Act One is for “Setting The Scene”.  Nope, sorry.  You get a paragraph—at most—to do that, and it’s PART of Act One.)

In Act Two (the reveal), we discover two things: 1. The odd people are Time Tourists.  2. The Time Tourists visit the most perfect seasons in Earth’s history, after which they leave.  And this is where (in your own stories, dear Author) you usually stop.  Protip: this is not (yet) a (finished) story.  This is a set-up for a finale that you do not deliver.  Because in Act Three (the blow-off) of “Vintage Season” we find out that the perfect seasons—the vintage seasons of the title—come just before terrible disasters, which the Time Tourists are aware of and do nothing to prevent.

If you’ve managed to get an equivalent part of Act Three into your story, bravo! dear Author.  But your story still isn’t over.  (This is where I send you the form letter saying your story “lacks sufficient closure”, BTW.)  Because here’s the rest of Act Three:  Oliver, in possession of all this information, writes it down in a document meant to serve as a warning to others: the Time Tourists are easily recognizable, and their presence is a warning of disaster.  Unfortunately, his message is destroyed (along with Oliver) in the very disaster to which the vintage season was the prelude.

And that, boys and girls, is how you end a story.  Something happens.  We find out what it is.  We then see its consequences.  And seeing what your set-up resolves as is really important to the reader.  Does the princess marry the goatherd?  Does the spy complete his mission?  Do the aliens destroy Earth?  Don’t leave us in suspense!  “So what happened then?” is the eternal cry of every audience ever.  And we would like to know.  Really we would.  All of us.  You can come up with the prettiest and most amazing situation ever limned in English prose, and it is just going to lie there like a dead flounder unless you do something with it.  By the conclusion of your work, its reader should be able to answer the following questions: 1. Who is the protagonist?  2. What do they accomplish?  3. Why do they do it?  4. What are the consequences of their actions?

Dear Author, if, based solely on the information you provide in the text, that would be impossible for the reader, do another draft.  Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends.  No matter what Meatloaf may say, two out of three is bad.

Rosemary Edghill is the keeper of the Eddystone Light, corny as Kansas in August, normal as blueberry pie, and only a paper moon.  She was found floating down the Amazon in a hatbox, and, because criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, she became a creature of the night (black, terrible).  She began her professional career working as a time-traveling vampire killer and has never looked back.  She’s also a New York Times Bestselling Writer and hangs out on Facebook a lot. Her webpage is: and there is not now nor ever was an E in the middle of her last name.

The Writer’s Toolbox:
There Has to Be a Better Way


An editor shares her thirty years of editing and writing experience to explain why many of the writing tips and tricks you’ve heard about are effective tools so that you can fully understand where the power lies in that writing tool and leverage it to its fullest.

There are writing lectures in my brain.  Push one of my buttons, and there is a lecture ready to pop out.  There is the one on sentence structure reflecting story content, the one on verbs as engines, and the one on light verbs.  Then there is the one on there is.

There is? you ask.  What’s wrong with there is?  Everybody uses it. You wouldn’t be alone in making this observation.  In one of my writers groups a long time ago I got into a heated debate with another member.  We sat opposite each other at a big round table and argued across the poor author who wrote the words there were in her story without the faintest hint of what would rain down upon her. Poor woman.

Continue reading »

So what are my objections to starting a sentence (or phrase or clause) with the words there is or with there followed by any to be verb?  As an editor, I am constantly looking at sentence structure, not just content.  A sentence has three positions of power: the subject, the verb, and sometimes the end.  Use there is to start a sentence, and you have given up the most powerful positions in your sentence to two words that have no meaning in and of themselves.  In most sentences, the subject is a marker on the map of where your reader is and the verb is the path they take on your map.  It may not contain the end point, or it can.  So consider

I went to the store

The subject (I) and the verb (went) establish in your mind an actor for the whole sentence (called an agent in grammar—the agent and subject are often but not always the same) and the beginning of understanding for where the sentence is going.  I went establishes an agent, an action, and narrows down the possibilities for the end of the sentence. Readers have an expectation of what they will find there, which makes reading easier and smoother. There is delays the passing of information to the reader until after the verb. A clear and strong subject and verb are signposts.  For examples, let’s finish some sentences that start with there are.

There are 100 angels dancing on the head of a pin.

There are great chocolates in that store.

There are two serial killers outside your door.

See how there are does not narrow down the options that follow the verb?  Also consider the delay: if there are two serial killers outside your door…don’t you want that info up front as fast as it can be imparted?  

Two serial killers are at your door! 

In other words, get to the point.

Using there is can also be the sign of lazy writing.  For instance, you might be going into your scene and just putting a sign post there and there and there.

There was an assassin somewhere in the party. 


Somewhere in the party, an assassin lurked.

In this there was sentence, the writer doesn’t take the time to find a good verb, and the sentence and reader engagement suffer for it.  The second sentence conveys tone and tension more than the first. In fact, there is might be blocking some of your creativity. You might be using it as a placeholder.

There was a dining set with six chairs and a large oak table sitting right behind the door.

Now take a moment to imagine it and set a scene, not give directions for staging a play:

She tried to enter the room, but the door banged into an old dining set.  She slid in sideways and pushed the bulky chair back up against a huge table black with age.  Edwardian, she thought, long, heavy with ornate carvings, a 100 years past fashionable, like everything else in the dusky, faded room.

Take a look  at your uses of there is/are/was/were, and ask yourself why you used it in that spot in your writing.  Did you need it? Or was it a placeholder for your scene while you were focused on the main story points?  In answering these questions, you might find more vivid imaginings to shape for you reader.

Don’t get me wrong, There is has its uses.  Day-to-day dialog is chocked full of it. People talk that way in real life, so why wouldn’t your characters?  It sounds very natural to us.

Sometimes, rewriting there is sentences just gets downright ugly.  The simplicity of there is can sometimes be better. It’s not a grammatical mistake, so I sometimes let it slide when doing otherwise just produces a tortured sentence.

One more case can be made for using there is.  Do you remember above when I said a sentence has three positions of power?  Sometimes the end is the point where the punch needs to be.  Consider this example from my novel, In a Mortal Shadow.  In their youth, Hethew and Falion (the protagonist) were friends.  When Hethew came into his Terael (or his magic), he found he could not bear to be around the half-Blood Falion, who suddenly felt different from all other people to Hethew. Now they are grown, and Hethew tells Falion why.

“And then there was you. In the midst of this maelstrom of life and emotion and feeling everything, you were like, like—” Hethew faltered. Falion wasn’t sure he wanted him to go on, yet he couldn’t turn away or interrupt, part of him wanted to hear the end of that sentence. The two of them locked eyes and Hethew managed to find the words to finish. “You are an absence in the middle of all that life. When you were around, I felt the shadow of death hovering over me.”

By stripping the subject and verb of meaning and thus of their power, you imbue the end of your sentence with greater significance.  In essence you shine a spotlight on the end.  In the above example, And then there was you, it shines on the word, you, which is what the whole paragraph is about.  I focused that big old spotlight on Falion. The sentence funnels the attention all onto him. It is part of establishing an uncomfortable place for him to be in.

Writing is about learning rules and then bending them to your will and purpose.  I don’t suggest you throw out any tool in your box, but remember to learn them and use them appropriately. Some, like there is, need to be applied sparingly to reach the greatest effect.  So I suggest you do a search for the words there were/was in your writing.  As an exercise, try replacing them. Rewrite a bunch then contrast the original to the rewrite.  Some won’t be better, but many will.  So with all this in mind, let’s try that first paragraph again, shall we?

I lie awake nights with thoughts about writing gnawing at my brain.  In thirty years of editing and writing, I’ve learned a lot.  Push one of my hot buttons, and a lecture might just pop out.  You might get an earful on how sentence structure should reflect story events, or how verbs are like engines to your sentences.  Or you might learn more than you wanted to about light verbs.  But one writing lecture I give across the board from engineers to fantasy writers: my lecture on there is

The Writer’s Toolbox

I was adrift, alone.  After college, my life had somehow turned into a blur of wake, work, eat, and sleep.  Sometimes I wondered if I might be stuck in the movie Groundhog Day.  I hadn’t yet found the community that I have often written of as so important.  Even though I was working editorial for Addison Wesley/Benjamin Cummings, I had no connection to the fiction-writing community—not for fantasy and SF where my heart lay.  I didn’t even know a genre community existed.

My favorite place to break the parade of endless days was a little hole-in-the wall mom-and-pop SF/F bookstore on El Camino in Palo Alto.  I used to drop in and talk to the owner.  It gave me a tenuous but much treasured connection into the genre world.  One day, the subject of writers groups came up.  Turned out, she knew a customer…  I was so excited to have hope of getting involved in anything writing. It had been years since I’d had that at college.  In those pre-Internet days, I left her my phone number and prayed that her customer would use it.

She did.

Continue reading »

That call was one of those moments that your life changes, and you don’t even know it. She not only brought me into a writers group that boasted professional  genre writers (oh, the thrill of it!), she introduced me to my first SF/F con.  The seed of friendship sprouted fast and rooted deep.  We spent hours talking about writing, the mechanics of it, the people, the cons, the books.  She talked most about her Clarion West experience and one of the instructors that changed her life, Algis Budrys.  She was always on the look out to hone her skills or discover new ones to, as she put it, put in her writer’s toolbox.  Algis and Clarion evidently put some pretty nice tools in there.

Looking back, I now see that moment was the linchpin in my genre life. Without her I wouldn’t have met the friends who fill my life and make up my community almost entirely.  Had she not chosen to dial the phone number of a young woman loitering in bookstore and bugging the hapless proprietor, I would not be posting this here today.

Her name was Tina, and she opened her heart, her world, and her toolbox to me. I am sad to say, she only graced my life a few short years before she died, but I’ve never forgotten.  So today, I honor her by opening up my toolbox to you.  I have a lot I want to share after 35 years of editing and writing, so in Tina’s honor, I have put together this series, The Writer’s Toolbox. In each of these blogs, I will take out one tool and share it with you.  I will tell you why I like this tool and how I use it.  Maybe you will be able to find a use for it, too, and tuck it into your writer’s toolbox.

Here’s to you,Tina.

Next in The Writer’s Toolbox: There’s Got to Be a Better Way