Those Pesky Details

Writing a decent murder mystery has to be a huge challenge. There are so many details you have to get right! The other day I picked up Breakdown by Jonathan Kellerman at the library. My first impression was that it’s a good mystery. But toward the end, a key detail was just plain wrong — and as I thought more carefully about the plot, it unraveled before my eyes.

Spoiler alert: In the discussion below, I’ll have to reveal who done it.

At the start of the book, psychologist Alex Delaware (the amateur sleuth) is trying to help a homeless, mentally ill former sitcom star named Zelda. Shortly the cops get a 911 call from a rich old lady named Enid, who has found Zelda’s body lying in her back yard. The cause of death is not immediately obvious; it turns out to have been an exotic poison.

Eventually Alex discovers that not one but two Hispanic domestic servants in Enid’s exclusive neighborhood disappeared within a day or two of Zelda’s death. One of them is Enid’s maid. Alex and his sidekick, police detective Milo Sturgis, then poke around fruitlessly for a hundred pages or so, trying out various theories of the maids’ disappearance and gathering the hard-to-find details of Zelda’s past life.

And then Alex has a brainstorm. On Google Earth, he finds aerial photos of the woods along the back of Enid’s estate. “In seconds I had full-color, one-year-old, 3-D satellite photos of the property at a variety of angles, the forest-like area at the rear of the property revealed in high definition.” That’s on page 286. On the very next page, “The soil of the … pocket garden [was] pale and dry and littered with leaves and pine needles. But just off center, in line with the door, the ground was clear. … At the end of the clear area, two oblong depressions in the ground.” Oblong depressions — yes! Alex has just discovered the graves of the two missing maids. They’re buried at the rear of Enid’s estate.

The trouble is, the maids have only been missing for three weeks, and Kellerman specifically told us the Google Earth views are a year old. Oops.

This could have been a rewrite error that wasn’t caught. However it happened, it’s sloppy, and at the worst possible moment in the story for sloppiness. The story could have been drafted in such a way that there was no room for error. Alex could have spotted an undisclosed part of the estate and then figured out some other way to check for fresh graves in that area.

We shortly learn that Enid, the nice old rich lady, poisoned Zelda and also shot the two maids in the back of the head because they knew too much. Enid and her elderly boyfriend then wheelbarrowed the maids’ bodies out to the woods and buried them. We also learn that Zelda was Enid’s niece. Enid had killed Zelda’s mother years before, and buried the mother in the same spot. Zelda, in her state of total mental breakdown, had gone to Enid’s house and demanded to know about her mother. So naturally Enid had to kill her, lest her rambling accusations lead somebody to suspect foul play.

But why, given all that, did Enid leave Zelda’s body lying in the back yard and call 911? Why not bury Zelda where she buried (shortly before or shortly afterward) the two maids? The answer, sadly, is that if she had done that, there would have been no mystery novel, because Alex and Milo would never have been able to figure out what happened to Zelda. Letting the cops find Zelda’s body was an insane and unnecessary risk for Enid. Why? Because Enid was Zelda’s aunt. That fact was very hard for the police to put together, but Enid couldn’t have known that. For all Enid knew, during a lucid moment Zelda had told somebody about it. A homeless vagrant found dead in the back yard of a mansion — eh, these things happen. But if somebody already knew that Zelda was Enid’s niece, explaining the niece’s body would be a tough row for Enid to hoe. Whereas, if nobody knew what had happened to Zelda, Enid’s secrets were much more likely to be safe forever.

Okay, murderers sometimes do stupid stuff. I get that. But if a murderer does something stupid, it’s incumbent upon the author to give the reader some sort of plausible explanation for the murderer’s bizarre lapse of judgment. Kellerman didn’t bother to do that. By the time the truth is dug up from the shallow graves, Kellerman trusts that the reader won’t rewind the newsreel and ask why Enid, who had gotten away with several murders, suddenly blew it at the moment when it mattered most.

Writing a decent mystery novel is not easy at all.

Theodore Sturgeon Was an Optimist

Sturgeon’s Law, as everybody knows, is, “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then, ninety percent of everything is crap.”

He was talking about fiction published by professional publishers. In his day, self-publishing did exist, but nobody paid any attention to it. There was no reason to.

Today we’re inundated by the noxious jabber of self-publishing authors. Yesterday somebody on the Facebook authors’ group accused me of being biased against self-publishing. She was right. I’m biased. I’m biased against crap. The problem with self-published SF and fantasy is that approximately 98% of it is crap.

Tonight I happened to stumble upon a self-published fantasy novel, available for 99 cents as a Kindle download. I’m really tempted to buy it, just so I can have the evil pleasure of ripping it to shreds. I doubt I’ll bother. I already have enough of a reputation as a curmudgeon; I don’t need to reinforce it.

Also, it’s a foregone conclusion that the author would learn nothing from a serious critique. Self-publishing authors don’t want to learn. They want to be admired.

Well, okay, maybe just the first paragraph. Here it is, in all its glory:

A stiff, snow-laden wind pushed against Olorin as he walked out into the night. It was bitter and persuaded him to wrap his heavy, brown cloak around him more tightly. The tidy mountain village of Valeskeep hunkered down against the icy winter squall; its hunched, thatched backs oblivious to the journey he must take. ‘Just three ingredients,’ he thought. ‘Three treasures hidden for eons in the ancientness of Naretia. Two I can find easy enough, but pry less easily from the hands that covet them.’

It gets worse after that. Yet strangely, the book has been reviewed ten times on Amazon, and has a solid five-star rating. Let’s see, the author’s mom, his little brother, the nice lady next door, and probably seven reviews that he wrote himself using pseudonyms. Self-publishing authors do that kind of shit. But let’s get literary.

Rather than “It was bitter and persuaded him to wrap,” the author should simply have written “He wrapped”. The notion that the village rooftops are oblivious to the quest of this particular hero is just plain ridiculous, but if the wind is busy persuading a guy of something, oblivious roofs may be par for the course.

Question: Are thatched roofs impervious to stiff winds? Or would all the thatch blow off? I don’t know the answer offhand, but if  you live in a mountain village that’s subject to snowstorms, I’ll bet you’d prefer a sturdy slate roof.

The land of Naretia has, it seems, an “ancientness.” I wonder if other parts of the land have a modernness. I’m a little worried about those hands, too: The hands are already clutching the treasures, yet they covet the treasures. Usually one covets what one doesn’t have, and usually it’s the owner of the hands that does the coveting.

The viewpoint character is confident that he can find two items that have been hidden for eons. I don’t know quite what to think about that, but I’m fairly sure his confidence shouldn’t be announced so brazenly in the very first paragraph of the book.

Then we have an adjective (“easy”) where an adverb (“easily”) is grammatically necessary. At a guess, the author didn’t want to repeat “easily,” so he changed one of them in a feeble effort to make the sentence read more entertainingly. The semicolon after “squall” is wrong, and the comma after “stiff” is not much better. Finally, there’s no need to put single quotes around an internal monolog; straight italics will do just fine.

I’m not going to tell you the title of this book, but you can probably find it by searching for “Naretia.” Go ahead — read the whole first chapter online for free. I dare you.

When Idiots Abide

In plotted fiction, it’s essential to get the lead character into some kind of predicament. And the predicament has to be serious. If there’s no predicament, you don’t have a plot at all, just a collection of random incidents. If the predicament is trivial or too easily resolved, the plot is a yawner. None of this is my original insight; you’ll find it in any number of how-to-write books.

Less often encountered, but just as important, is this bit of advice: You mustn’t let your lead character get into trouble by acting like an idiot. The lead must do the things that a normal, sensible person would do, given the situation in the story. If she fails to do the sensible thing, you must explain to the reader why she just can’t do it.

Let’s suppose there’s a kitten out at the end of the diving board. The kitten is in grave danger of plummeting into the swimming pool and drowning. Your lead character is darn well going to have to crawl out on the diving board and rescue the kitten! If she doesn’t, it can only be because of an overwhelming fear of heights, a phobia so severe that as a child she slept under the bed so she wouldn’t inadvertently roll over and fall out of bed while asleep. That is, her feelings (concern for the kitten) are normal and sensible, but her action is blocked by a stronger feeling, which you have carefully mentioned to the reader 25 pages earlier. If she has no compassion for the kitten, your readers will have no sympathy for her. As a lead character, she’ll be a dud.

I first noticed the idiot plot many years ago. By now I’ve forgotten what novel I was reading, but the story began with some people landing their spaceship on an unexplored planet, a planet teeming with life — and they immediately pop out of the ship and go for a hike in the jungle, without taking any weapons! Because what could possibly go wrong?

The characters in that story were idiots. I tossed the book aside without reading any further.

There are other ways to screw up the plot. For instance, your lead character can sit around passively while other characters solve her terrible problem for her. If memory serves, at the end of Lord Valentine’s Castle, a highly regarded book by Robert Silverberg, the hero finally makes it to the throne room of the castle, where the villain has been ensconced for the past few hundred pages — and the villain then obligingly commits suicide by jumping out the window. That’s not an idiot plot, but it’s a 100% fail. The hero has to solve the plot problem through his or her own effort. Allies may sometimes offer important bits of assistance, but the burden rests on the hero’s shoulders.

How It All Is

All fiction is about people, and most fiction includes two or more characters in the story. The only exceptions I can think of offhand are a few stories by Jack London in which one man is confronting nature all alone. (Maybe Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” as well — haven’t read it in a long time.) In their interactions with one another, two people are a microcosm of society.

What’s more, all fiction at least implicitly makes statements of some sort about good and evil. What’s desirable, what causes suffering, whether a specific case of suffering is necessary to procure a greater good, whether a character has failed to do good out of ignorance or cowardice — all that stuff. A fiction writer who takes no position, even implicitly, on what is desirable or undesirable is inevitably going to produce a very dull story. The events in such a story can only be chosen at random, because if the writer makes non-random choices, he or she will be introducing the question of what he or she considers good or not-good in human life.

That being the case, all fiction (other than those stories by Jack London) is political. The question of what is desirable or undesirable in society is, unavoidably, a political question.

Writers of fiction have, I’m sure, the usual gamut of political views. Some of us have an axe to grind; others simply want to tell a story. But even if you’re not trying to promote your political views explicitly, they will be there on the page in one form or another. The kinds of characters you choose to write about and their economic circumstances will be influenced by your views.

It has become commonplace in the past ten or twenty years, for instance, to include a gay character. If you do, you’ll have to decide how to portray that character, which may be difficult if you’re not comfortable with homosexuality. If you don’t include a gay character, again you’re making a statement. You can’t avoid it. If you’re writing plotted fiction, you’ll probably have a villain or two in your story, and the type of villain you choose (a corporate lawyer, a crooked police detective, a sadistic pimp, a Communist spy) will reflect your view of what a good society would be like, if only there weren’t any of those evil people around screwing things up.

Whether a reader thinks an overtly political book is good or bad will depend on whether the reader agrees or disagrees with the writer’s views. I happen to think Atlas Shrugged is a pernicious piece of crap. Some people find it inspiring. I bring up that particular book because Ayn Rand’s most troubling failure was a failure of compassion. She had none. Her political philosophy was explicitly based on the idea that everybody should fend for themselves, that nobody should ever help anybody else. It’s a vile philosophy, and it could only be sustained through a systematic failure of compassion.

Good writing demands that we have compassion, even for people (and characters) with whom we disagree profoundly. We need to understand their weaknesses, their confusion, the ways in which they have been trapped into bad thinking. I haven’t done a survey, but I’d bet money that liberal writers are a lot better at showing compassion for conservative characters than the other way around.

The chore for all writers is not to oversimplify. A writer who takes the attitude, “If everybody agreed with my wonderful philosophy, the world would be a wonderful place,” is already guilty of a horrible mistake, quite aside from the specifics of the philosophy. The real world is messy. There are no easy answers. When shit happens, there are repercussions.

Failing to show the repercussions is TV writing. Have you ever noticed that when people are shot and killed in a TV script, the show almost never shows the funeral or the grieving survivors? That’s how oversimplification works. You leave out the messy stuff. You trivialize. And if you’re trivializing, that’s a political philosophy too — it’s an immature and unworkable philosophy, but you haven’t dodged the question. If you want to be a good writer, you don’t dare trivialize. Roll up your sleeves and deal with it.

Out of Oz

Here’s a pro writing tip you will read nowhere else: If your lead character comments that she feels like she’s in an illustration in an Oz book, alarm bells should go off in your head.

Unless you’re writing an Oz book, of course.

A few days ago, I thought I was doing nicely with the draft of Book IV of my YA fantasy series. I had drafted 22,000 words, and was working on Chapter 7. Kyura is about to set off on an expedition which is the mainspring of the plot for this novel, in search of the thing she needs to solve most of her problems. I found myself writing this:

Kyura was glad to have a solid group of trustworthy people with her; it was so much better than the first time, when she and her friends had been manacled and dragged through the tumblerock by demons. But she also felt a little silly striding out in front of a group of armed men. She thought she ought to be wearing a cute little tin helmet, or maybe a bright red coat and short skirt instead of sensible denim trousers.

Does that last sentence remind you at all of one of those line drawings of General Jinjur? It should. Of course, Kyura doesn’t live on our Earth, and has never read an Oz book, but she dipped into my subconscious and noticed that she really ought to look more like General Jinjur.

At that point I sat back and took a serious look at the plot. I swiftly realized that it was a flabby mess. I was making life much, much too easy for my heroine. I was serving up solutions to all of her pressing problems on a silver platter. Now, technically, the first sentence in that passage is irony, because her group of trustworthy people includes a pair of assassins who are planning to kill her. The reader knows it, but Kyura doesn’t. Even so, her comment about the tin helmet made it clear I was turning the story into a kids’ book.

Not good.

I have now brainstormed half a dozen ways to crank up the tension in the story. Bring the villain onstage more, and give him more schemes. Toss in a few other forms of treachery. Will that expedition still take place? Sure. But getting it started will be harder, the tension and conflict will be greater, and the dangers will be more concrete. If I do my job right, that is.

I may have said this before, but it bears repeating. The procedure for writing plotted fiction is actually quite simple. First, put your protagonist’s ass in the meat grinder. Then keep turning the crank! Is Kyura’s ass in the meat grinder in that passage? Not a bit. Time for a rewrite.


The story may or may not be true, but it’s instructive. Robert Rauschenberg, a painter and collage artist who died a few years ago, is supposed to have sneaked into the houses of people he had sold paintings to, possibly in the middle of the night or when they were out of town, in order to make further changes in the paintings. His work was magnificently chaotic, and the owners might have suspected he had done it even if he hadn’t.

Maybe some works of art can confidently be declared to be finished. Other works, surely not. At the moment I’m working on Book IV of a series of fantasy novels. Essentially the four volumes tell one large story. And fortunately, the first three books haven’t yet been published. When it becomes clear that I misjudged what needed to happen in an earlier part of the story, I can go back and freely apply the hammer and tongs.

I’ve just spent the entire morning making changes in three different scenes in Book II, after which I had to do a quick search in Book III for references to those scenes and do a little nip and tuck where it was needed. I hope I got it all straightened out. Eventually I’ll want to spend a couple of days re-reading the whole story from top to bottom. Not until I’ve reached the bottom, of course, and dredged it out.

The ability to keep a whole bunch of stuff in your head is, I would say, all but essential if you hope to write novels. When I was younger, I don’t think I appreciated that my ability in this area may be unusual.

But that’s only the second half of the process. The first half is figuring out that you need to make the changes. In Book II, Kyura and a couple of her friends are dragged off to the land of the dragons. In Book IV she has to return, more or less voluntarily, in order to solve a big problem. I had originally supposed that the Ribbonglass Tree was hidden in an underground lake in the mountainside city of the dragons, and that the dragons thought the Tree had been destroyed centuries before. That turned out to be a bad assumption. They know it’s there. This alteration has two or three useful consequences, which you’ll have to wait to learn about when the series is published.

Honestly, I don’t know how George R. R. Martin can do it. Trying to write Book VI after Book V has been published? That would give me the jumping willies.

Me! Me! Me!

Naturally I’d like it if tomorrow morning I get an email from my agent saying a major publisher loves my fantasy series and wants to send me a big fat advance. Counting on my fingers, though, I find that I signed up with this agent five months ago. The wheels grind slowly — but also, there’s a lot of competition. No, let me rephrase that ever so subtly: There’s a LOT of competition.

At some point, if nothing happens, I’ll want to consider publishing this series myself. As I muse vaguely about this rather daunting prospect, it occurs to me that I know very little about promotion. I know how to hire someone to make me a professional-looking website, but a website is just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s unless people aim their browsers at it. I can figure out how to get a book available on Amazon for Kindle, but availability does not translate to sales. If no one knows about the books, the books will not sell.

Hunting around on the web for beginner tips on author self-promotion, I found a couple of great blog entries from Delilah S. Dawson. Her blog is at, and the post that I found revealing was this one. She quickly followed it with this one.

At a guess, Delilah is probably a lot younger than I am. I have never tweeted, so her observations about how to tweet (and how not to) … well, if I decide to tweet, I’ll know what to avoid. How I would get even one follower on Twitter (or why I would have even a speck of interest in following someone else) I have no idea.

The take-away in her essays, for me, is that, yeah, it’s a jungle. Standing on a soapbox and shouting, “Me! Me! Look at me!” is not only distasteful, it’s not going to be effective. And that’s a relief.

Some numbers posted recently on the SFWA forum by self-publishing authors suggest that it really is possible to bring in a six-figure income on one’s fiction writing. To be honest, I was surprised to learn that. I’m not in it for the money, though. I’m just hoping a few people will enjoy the complex adventure story I’m working on. I quite like the way Book IV is developing, and I’m encouraged that Delilah thinks the best thing I can do, by way of self-promotion, is to keep writing.

On the other side of the coin, the next item the Startpage search engine serves up is a site called Their service seems really quite peculiarly limited. For $475 they will feature your book in their newsletter (zowie) and in their e-newsletter, which they state goes out to more than 5,000 readers (are you trembling with anticipation yet?). They will use your book in their ads (bound to be a thrill), “or a copy of your book will be bought send out for additional reviews or donated.” (Say what?) Your book “will be recommended to readers online and are also promoted through [unspecified] Facebook apps.” They promise to post at least five book reviews of your book to Amazon or Barnes & Noble. (Favorable reviews? Reviews by someone who has actually read the book? Who knows?) You’ll get an interview — with whom, or posted where, they don’t say. You’ll be part of a book giveaway — books being given to whom, or on what basis, they don’t say. And finally, the piece de resistance, the cherry atop the hot fudge sundae, “Your book will be automated on every page of our website (which receives 100 clicks per day).”

This is not a joke. They actually expect you to be impressed with the fact that their site receives 100 clicks per day.

Now, it’s possible that some of this site’s customers feel they’re receiving value for their money. And just to be clear, I’m not for a moment suggesting that fails in any way to provide the promised services. The lesson here, I think, is that one really does need to think about the difference between effective promotion and Internet whiz-bang.



The contortions a writer goes through in crafting a workable plot are really too convoluted to be worth describing. Compared to plotting, jumping through hoops would be a picnic. Most often I’m able to get where I want to go; or, to put it another way, to get the story to go where the story needs to go. But sometimes talking my way out loud through the coils of a perplexity can be useful.

If nothing else, explaining the conundrum to another person forces me to articulate the various factors that are impinging on the plot. That in itself can help. Sometimes the person who is listening to my rant may come up with a great suggestion; that’s even better. Also, talking about the book to someone who is obviously interested can boost my morale. All of which are good reasons to brainstorm.

Sadly, I live alone and have no ready access to interested listeners. So here we are, wandering lost in the vast impersonal space of the internet. Comments are encouraged.

Here, in a large and lumpy nutshell, is the briar patch into which I have tumbled. (No apologies for the mixed metaphor. It describes the situation pretty well.)

A boy and a girl are trekking through a dangerous swamp on an impromptu quest. (The goal of the quest may not be relevant; it has to do with a sort of Holy Grail that the boy’s father pawned for drinking money some years before.) He is 18 or 19, she is 17 or 18. They have only recently met. They’re attracted to one another, but the boy can’t stop thinking about another girl, who is not present and who for all he knows is dead by now, who is his True Love.

The boy and girl are just about to, ah, you know. G-rated book, but tongues are mentioned and groping has commenced. They’re interrupted by a band of nasty little elf-demons with stone-tipped spears. The elf-demons tie them up and take them off to the elf-demon village. The villages is in treehouses, which may or may not be relevant. At dawn, the captives will be tossed off of the edge, where a mad god will tumble them in the air for a while and then dunk them into a pool, where large piranha will chew them up and they will die.

But that’s not the problem. I’d kind of like this dramatic action to be seen rather than just threatened by the evil chief of the elf-demons, but that’s not the problem either.

I can rig it so that one or both of them escapes this dire fate. Slice the rope with the magic knife (yes, the boy has a magic knife), kick the elf-demons off of the edge, climb down the rope ladder, and run. Piece of cake.

No,the problem is that during this incident I need to drive a wedge between the boy and the girl, so that the impending romance (or lustful encounter, if you prefer) quite definitely fizzles out. The girl needs to run away, hurt or repelled or something. That way, the boy will turn around, get out of the swamp, and go off to find his True Love. And I can’t do it by having the boy do something ugly or insensitive, because he’s The Good Guy. He’s destined to marry his True Love. So he can’t be a bastard — but somehow, in the midst of this gripping action, the girl needs to freak out and run from him.

She can’t very well abandon him to his fate and run off by herself leaving him tied up in the treehouse, because she has already saved his life once (in an earlier volume of the saga). That would be inconsistent. And since she has the hots for him, it would take something pretty major for her to change her mind.

She has trust issues; we’re fairly sure of that. She also has a hawk or falcon who is a sort of familiar — there’s a mind link between them. Could the boy perhaps kill the hawk in the process of saving their lives? Maybe, but wouldn’t that make him kind of a bastard?

I may have to kill her to get her out of the story, but I purely hate to do that, not only because I like her but because if this series is successful, she may turn out to be the heroine of a spinoff series somewhere down the road. Her and her hawk, roaming around.

How can a Good Boy stupidly give a Good Girl the impression that he’s Truly Awful, so that she runs off leaving him to almost certain death in a dangerous swamp, so that he never sees her again and doesn’t feel too awful if he tries to run after her and apologize but can’t find her? How can I get her out of the picture and leave him not feeling too bad about walking away?


There never used to be such a thing as beta-readers. There were critique groups, to be sure, where other writers would read your work and offer criticisms or suggestions. That was a form of beta-reading, but the term “beta-reader” popped out of the woodwork only after it became common knowledge that unreleased tested by beta-testers. (The term “beta” refers to the fact that alpha-testing is done in-house by the software developers themselves. A beta-tester is an outside person, and may bring a fresh perspective to the testing process, thereby uncovering defects that the alpha-testers missed.)

Probably the insanely competitive nature of publishing has something to do with the trend toward beta-reading. One has the sense that Jane Austen and Charles Dickens finished their manuscripts and sent them directly off to the publisher. The idea of having a select group of readers read the unpublished novel and give you comments might even have seemed bizarre in the 19th century. Who but the writer could possibly know what he or she intended? If the reader failed to comprehend or appreciate the material, that would have been thought the reader’s fault, not the writer’s.

Or at least, that’s my speculation. Be that as it may, today beta-readers are felt to have something useful to contribute to the process of authorship. With that in mind, I’ve slapped together a list of questions that one might provide to one’s beta-readers alongside the manuscript. This list is not, for the most part, my own work. It’s based on a very nice blog post in a group blog called The Kill Zone, and seems to have been written by guest blogger Jodie Renner. I reorganized the ideas, rewrote some of the questions, and added a couple of questions that relate specifically to fantasy/sf books, which are often part of a series.

Oh, and I found that blog thanks to a link in a piece Nat Russo wrote on beta-readers in his blog.

When you’re ready to present your work to a few beta-readers, below are some questions you may want to steer them toward:

About the beginning and the ending:

Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, did you find the beginning dull or confusing? Was there something you wished would happen in the opening that didn’t happen? What was it?

Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when the story takes place? If not, did you feel that the beginning was “floating,” with no anchors to tell where and when it was happening, or did you think you knew, but guess wrong?

Was the ending satisfying? Was it believable? Did the ending of one book leave you wanting to read the next book in the series?

About the characters:

Could you relate to the main characters? Did you feel their pain, confusion, or excitement?

Did you find it easy to believe the characters were real people, or did they seem stiff and artificial to you? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?

Which characters did you really connect to? Which characters seemed kind of blah, so that you wished they had more development or focus, or you wanted to know more about them?

Did you get confused about who’s who among the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Are any of the characters or their names too similar, so that you weren’t sure who you were reading about?

Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, was there a particular character whose dialogue sounded artificial or not the way that person would speak?

About the world of the story:

Did the setting interest you? Did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you, so that you understood where you were and what was going on, or did the descriptions seem blah, jumbled, or too short?

Did the world of the story seem real to you, including the magic (or future technology) and the way people live? Or did you notice things that didn’t seem to make sense? If something didn’t make sense to you, what was it?

About the story itself:

Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?

Was there a point at which you felt the story started to sag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where did that happen, exactly?

Were there any parts that confused you, or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts? Were there places where you felt disgusted or uncomfortable? What were those places? Please try to describe why you felt the way you did.

Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details? If so, what were they?

Which scenes did you dislike or not like as much, and why?

Were there places where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down? Were there parts you thought might be condensed or even deleted?

Which parts of the story resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?

Which parts would you like to see developed further or brought more to life?

About the writing:

In scenes where there was a lot of dialogue, did you ever find it hard to keep track of who was speaking?

Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?

Did you notice any grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? If so, what were they?

Do you think the writing style suits the story? Or was it too elevated? Too modern? Too casual?

Were there scenes or lines that you really liked?

More About Scrivener

Yesterday I finished the draft of Book III of the Leafstone Saga, my four-volume series of fantasy novels, and started fleshing out my ideas for Book IV. A couple of weeks ago I bought Scrivener, and this seemed the right moment to give it a serious try.

After only one day with it, I’m convinced. I’ve barely tapped its features, and already I can see how useful it’s going to be.

Starting a novel means jotting down a ton of notes. At least, that’s how I work. I’m told some writers are “pantsers.” They write by the seat of their pants, without outlining or even planning what will come next. I’ve never met a pantser, and if there is such a creature its feeding and mating habits will remain forever mysterious to me. I mean, when you draft a scene of course you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Even if you’ve outlined, things will change when you start writing the scenes. But to start writing a book without knowing where you’re headed? I shudder to imagine it.

As a writer, my motto is, “Well begun is half done.” I outline.

So anyway, here I am, taking notes for The Firepearl Chalice. Until yesterday I had only a couple of vague ideas about the overall direction of the plot. Now I’m starting to fill in the details.

In a conventional word processor, a file full of notes quickly becomes a disorganized mess. Ideas are scattered higgledy-piggledy, hither and yon. Continuity is close to nil.

In Scrivener, organizing one’s ideas is a stroll in the park. The binder (the left panel, which in many programs would be called a browser, except in Scrivener it isn’t a browser per se, it’s more powerful than that) can contain a dozen files or more. You’re always looking at one of them in the main window (or two, if you split the screen), but they’re all open at once. Moving from one file to another is a single click, so if you suddenly get an idea for one of the other characters, you simply switch to that document, enter the idea, and then hit the back button. Slam-dunk. The files can be grouped freely into folders — one folder for the characters, one for the settings, one for the plot, or whatever. The organization is totally up to you.

Technically, you could keep a dozen Word or OpenOffice files open on your screen at the same time, but switching from one to another gets to be fairly annoying, because you have to scroll up or down through a linear list. There are no folders in the list.

Plus, when it comes time to back up your work, if you’ve created a dozen Word files they have to be backed up by drag-copying. You can do this one file at a time, which is a pain and also error-prone, as you may miss one; or you can drag-copy a whole folder, at which point Windows is going to ask you some slightly confusing questions about what you want to do. Scrivener backs up the whole project as a single zip file, and always gives it a new filename based on the date and time of the backup. Saving sequential backups is handled for you.

As an added fillip, you never have to remember to save your work, because Scrivener automatically saves whenever you haven’t typed for two seconds. Oh, and highlighter. Got an especially important insight? Sure, in OpenOffice you can underline it, but there’s only one kind of underline. Scrivener has dozens of highlighter colors, so you can make the page as messy as you like.

Don’t want to stare at your computer desktop while writing? Hit F11. The desktop disappears, leaving you with one Scrivener page on a blank screen or one with the soothing backdrop of your choice.

Not sure yet how it will handle actual outlining, but I’m optimistic.