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Cobwebbed

“Write your story,” the WordPress prompt says. Okay, here’s my story.

Francesca Woodman

This year, my writing pals and I started a group, at the behest of one person who’d been saying since last year that we were all writers and needed a group, by gum. We’ve met four times now, and I think it’s keeping most of us on track with completing new work and meeting goals.

I have spent the summer thinking about a novella I want to write, and in many ways it’s a personal story, although it takes place in a distant year, in a world far different from our present one. It’s science fiction, and also not. It depicts the slow illness my mother struggles with and how it will eat her from the inside out no matter what we do.

I put together a rough outline to present at our recent group meeting, and while I knew there were some gaps in my ideas (it needed bridges and brainstorming, to get from one riverbank to the next), I wasn’t prepared for the “there’s nothing new here” comment.

I am pretty sure no one wants to hear those words leveled at their work, and I was certainly taken aback. A week and change later, I am feeling less enthused about the work than I once was. Despite another group member suggesting some excellent bridges across my weird river of plot, I look at the piece now and think “there’s nothing new here.”

Of course, we tell the same stories over and over; this is not a failing, I don’t feel. Harry Potter was not “new,” by any definition — this is the story that G.K. Chesterton told us we needed because it proves that dragons may be slain. Narnia and Middle Earth showed us the same. Beowulf showed us the same. Does that invalidate all stories that come later and tell us the same?

Maybe I should have asked for clarification — but I was really too surprised to say much, ha. What the comment has done, in addition to taking the wind out of my sails, is make me consider how I have approached crits in the past, and how I should do so in the future. Crits should attempt to help the writer put the best version of their story forward. How can I help this writer refine this idea, without telling them it is lacking, because who makes that kind of judgment? We write what we write for reasons that are not always apparent; perhaps I felt the comment so sharply given my personal intentions for the story, of which this person knew nothing.

Perhaps the comment will be helpful in the end; how can I add to what I have already, how can I make it into something new, though the ideas at the heart of it may never be that. How can I show this idea in a new light, from a new angle? How can I strip whatever cobwebs there are off and show how the silver still shines?

Which is, perhaps, the thing we do with writing every day.

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What You Love

(Well first, holy shit, this WordPress editor is all new — I’m playing around with Gutenberg to see how it works, so we’ll see. Hey, drop caps. Midway in: well Gutenberg won’t let me even make a link, so that’s not the function we’re looking for, WordPress.)

They tell you to write what you love. That the love will shine through the work and all will be well. That people will see what you love and how you love and they will also fall in love and it will simply be a lovely explosion in every way possible.

Except sometimes it’s not. I wrote what I loved. I mashed all the things I loved into one glorious thing: ancient Egypt, Victorian steampunk, creepy gods who roam the earth, dogs and dog men, impossible love, honey, correspondence between ladies who are the best of friends, meteorites, ancient astronomy, curses, the divide between real history and the history told by the winners, time travel, weird tombs, glorious food, women who are monsters and the men who love them, mothers and daughters and granddaughters and the ties that bind, the disasters of colonization, girls disguised as boys to make their way in the world, archaeology, skeletons both real and metaphorical, hidden cameos by real life historical people, airships, addictions, awkward  and hot gentlemen.

I wrote what I loved and it didn’t really go. Where do you go from there?

Sure, we don’t love one single thing, but it feels like starting all over, doesn’t it? How do we start? It’s too big. How does anyone ever write a novel? And yet, my shelves are full of them.

Okay, that was telling: I typoed “selves are full of them.” And well. Maybe that’s where you start. Because that calls to mind Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavors.” I am thirty-two flavors and then some.

The new book is one that has plagued me for years — and I don’t know if I’ll talk about it much here. We’ll have to see how it goes. What I do know is, it has started talking to me, maybe because it knows it’s finally on deck. Its time has come. I keep finding fragments of the book everywhere, in other books, in poetry, in the world around me. All signs point to doing this thing, and what’s the other option, really?

As Alex likes to tell me, you’d just be writing another damn novel, so you might as well leap into this one. Because it’s been in my brain for so long. Why not.

A thousand why nots, omg — it could fail like the last one did.

But yeah yeah yeah, it could also fly. Someone said that about something once. Ultimately, it’s the writing we love, no matter how maddening that is. Help me, Jean-Luc, you’re my only hope!

 

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Creed

When Assassin’s Creed Origins was announced, I was pretty excited. A game set in ancient Egypt? With a setting where you can just explore and not worry about Romans or gods trying to kill you? A game where you can wander around and pet cats, and scritch your pet falcon under the chin?

ACO provides the best of all possible worlds: you can fight Romans and gods, you can slay crocodiles, but you can also be chill and climb pyramids, and wander temples, and swim in the Red Sea. You can dive into shipwrecks (you can discover an underwater beer cache), you can learn about honey making and farming. The world here is huge and ready for exploring — and gets two more layers with expansions (the Red Sea is part of one expansion).

I could probably write entire books about this game, but I think I will talk about the Curse of the Pharaohs/The Hidden Ones expansions mostly, because they tie into the very novels I’ve been writing for four years. Anubis lurks in the shadows of the main game — you see him in statues, and only briefly in the underworld, but then you add the expansions and lo, there are jackal guards stalking you when you enter temples; they are golden and fierce, created in Anubis’s own image. When you explore tombs, you pass through cracks of light to find yourself in various Egyptian afterlifes. (Later, jackal guards slip back into the real world to stalk you there!)

The Duat is the afterlife that factors most heavily into my own novels, so it has been a real kick to wander Ubisoft’s version. The Duat is a kind of purgatory, where souls wait to be judged by Anubis. It’s filled with all kinds of strange monsters — Ubisoft has included sacred blue lotus everywhere, and the cities appear built into the skeletons of giant beasts.

The jackal warriors wander here, too. It was startling to see them, given the way I’ve written about Anubis and the Duat.

You can also explore Aaru, the reed fields where ships move as if in water, where those who were balanced in life spend the rest of eternity. Huge scorpions move through the reeds, antelope concealed until you startle them into motion.

You also get Aten, which is the disk of the sun; this realm is the complete opposite of the Duat. Where one is shadows, this one is blinding sun, the disk taking up most of the sky. In the afterlife, you also acquire a DEATH HORSE for your mount; Bayek wonders how he can ride such a thing, for he is still living.

OR IS HE.

I haven’t played the expansion to the end yet, but I begin to wonder if Our Hero has met with calamity. (I think Kadesh is the final realm we get, but I am not sure!)

The other hugeness of the expansion for me was the opportunity to explore Thebes, which also got me wondering if we’d be allowed across the Nile into the Valley of Kings, WHICH meant we might get to explore Hatshepsut’s temple??

Like Anubis, Hatshepsut and her court play a large part in my Folley and Mallory books; it’s her court Anubis draws them to, for Very Specific Reasons. When this location came up in-game, I shouted. I got chills. I never expected this to be part of ACO, and to find myself about to explore it… Beyond cool.

It’s not historically accurate, but I totally don’t care; it’s a little weird that they didn’t build the Anubis Chapel, given Anubis’s presence elsewhere in the expansion, BUT I can see why they didn’t — they kept the temple innards simple, because the story that plays there doesn’t require more. AND YET, this temple is lovingly made with a good eye on history, because you’ve got those rows of Hatshepsut pharaohs, you’ve got the ramps, you’ve got Mentuhotep II’s temple right nearby (that’s the wee pyramid), and it’s all extraordinary. (But apparently the discovery tour doesn’t reach there, boo!)

It’s a great game and these expansions are fantastic. If you have any interest in ancient Egypt, Ubisoft has done well by it. I’m looking forward to seeing how they handle Greece in Odyssey, too!

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Crones

Leia Organa Solo

We are not taught how to age gracefully. Our culture tells us what has value: beauty, youth, health. Here’s how to mask your wrinkles. Here’s how to hide your gray hair. Never matter that wrinkles come from a body in motion. Never mind that hair losing its color is wholly natural — and happens to some people at early ages. Have some plastic surgery! You’ll be better in no time!

We are not taught how to love our bodies as they get older. We are taught that our peak is a ridiculously low number, that being one of the thirty under thirty is vital and necessary and desirable. If you haven’t published by the time you’re 25, you are surely doomed. If you haven’t found your Dream Job, your Dream House, your Dream Date by the time you’re twenty-one, all is misery.

Chrisjen Avasarala

We know nothing when we’re twenty-one. We know only a little more when we’re twenty-five. The world is vast and we will have seen almost none of it as we emerge from school (if we were so lucky to attend). We are told that what has value is youth! Beauty! We are not taught that experience has its own value, that scars and wrinkles are evidence of a life well and fully lived. Smile lines are not a curse — you smiled so much, your skin made a memory of it.

Beverly Crusher and Jean-Luc Picard

We rarely see older women in loving relationships, because we rarely see older women. We are shown that they are mothers, grandmothers, and do not have sexual or romantic partners because that time in their life has passed. We are taught that older bodies are not as beautiful as younger bodies. We are taught that slender bodies are the only bodies capable and worthy of physical affection. We are not shown how to operate bodies outside the norm, bodies with fault lines.

We are taught that giving something up because we can no longer do it is a failure. We are taught that coming to the end of a life is traumatic and that by merely becoming older, as is the way of every thing in this universe, we have failed. Physical beauty — the kind that is valued, because there is beauty in so many things — is temporary. Youth is temporary, no matter how we chase it with creams, salves, and ointments. “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments,” Carrie Fisher reminded us. “They’re the temporary happy byproducts of time and/or DNA. Don’t hold your breath for either.”

Queen Ramonda

We are perhaps taught that all things come to an end, but never how to handle those endings. How do you stop doing something you’ve done for most of your life, because you can no longer safely do it? “I am angry because I am old,” my mother says, and when I jokingly say it’s better than the alternative, she now says she isn’t quite so sure. She is tired of everything. Tired of trying to live inside a body that has become a stranger. Tired and perhaps scared, because she remembers her grandmother coming to live with them when she could no longer be on her own; afraid of that old woman in the den who bore no resemblance to the grandmother she remembered.

Yubaba

Neither are we taught how to deal with memory, and what happens when sixty years ago feels more present than what happened yesterday. What did you have for dinner last night — I don’t know, but let me tell you about what it was like to move to a completely new community when I was a new bride, when my hair wasn’t gray, when I could stand up straight and walk across the world without assistance. And so we sit and listen, and keep that memory for when she will no longer be able to.

We are not taught how, but we try every day.

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Dear Amazon

Dear Amazon,

Yesterday, you told me that Rings of Anubis could be had for $4! Well that’s deal, I thought, and I went to look at the page, thinking I would advertise the sale to my five readers. Only, when I got to the page, I saw the book was no longer part of Prime, and that Amazon was not, in fact, the seller.

Huh.

I wrote to my publisher, asking if the book was going out of print — it was the only thing that made sense at the time, that perhaps only used copies were now available. (It’s not the case.) While I waited for a reply, a poked around the page a little more and discovered that there was still an Amazon option for buying the book, further down the page and for more money, where someone who has already seen a $4 deal is probably not going to wander.

Well, that’s bullshit, I thought. My publisher wrote back and said, “it can happen.” Talk about some shrug emoji.

I asked my online writing group about it, and was pointed to this article from Publisher’s Weekly, and then later found this other piece PW did. Apparently it’s a thing you do, Amazon, and apparently it’s not going away.

I asked my publisher what could be done about it, and it’s still radio silence on that front. What can we do about this, Amazon?

Reading more online though, it makes me wonder how this random seller got copies of my books. I have a guess, but haven’t been able to confirm it.

Hundreds of copies of Rings of Anubis were donated by my publisher to a fundraiser built on geeks and their works. Super cheap books for someone — anyone — to buy, to support this charity and their humanitarian efforts around the world. The author sees no royalties from such a donation, or the sales that follow. And people who buy those books can do anything with them, including resell them on Amazon. Is this what happened? I don’t know.

What I do know is, Amazon, I will likely see no income from those copies sold on your platform. Rings of Anubis was not a bestseller; it had no marketing support and no big fanbase; the book has all of 16 reviews in its four years of life. Rings of Anubis is nothing in the scheme of publishing. But it was my debut novel, so means something to me even though it was a failure. It was a story that Apokrupha believed in and wanted to see the conclusion of (book five comes out soon! Book six, the end, is nearly written!).

Amazon, you are engaged in a seriously dishonest business practice and you’re probably cackling because there’s not much I, a super tiny author, can do to change it. But maybe readers can. They can stop supporting your bullshit practices that cut the author out of the equation. They can support their local independent booksellers, who understand that without authors, there are no books.

Fuck you, Amazon. Fuck you for doing this to me and countless others.

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Groove

Francesca Woodman, photograph

Francesca Woodman

Two weeks ago, I slipped down the stairs — because who doesn’t love doing that, really — and bruised my tailbone. The bruises have only just shown themselves, and it was kind of a relief to see them, and say “oh hey, that really did happen, and I’m not quite nine hundred and three years old after all.”

I suppose I’m bad when it comes to believing in things unseen, sorry Jesus.

I started this blog a week ago, with its title, and now I’m like “Well, what the heck was I going to talk about,” and I’m pretty sure it was this: I wrote eight days in a row on the sixth F&M book (clearly a groove), and made a ton of progress, while also moderately liquefying my brain in the process. Last weekend was writing; this weekend just past was for recovery (which apparently involved a lot of Expanse episodes — they’ve entered book three, where things get INtense. It also involved Solo with my peeps — I thought it was a great escape, very fun).

I used to think that writers had to write every day. I don’t find that to be useful any more — though your mileage may vary. For me, I fill up, I write, my brain gets empty, and then I fill back up so I can put out again (dirty).

Of course, now it’s hard to sit for long periods of time. I find myself needing to stand and move a little more, lest my black and blue behind get very angry with me. This results in finding another kind of groove, the one where you put Madonna on the turntable and relive your youth.

But then Madonna helps fill that well, too, and the book words rush back and you’re excited over structure and mothers and daughters and grandmothers and you think, if you are very-impossibly lucky, you will be able to pull the book out of your head and put it onto the paper exactly as you see it.

Do you know how rare that is?

Will it happen?

We don’t know! I hope the suspense lasts!

But it sure has been going well so far. I never love the middle of novels, but this one is flying and singing, and maybe it’s because it’s the last book, that all the worries have fallen away, and maybe it’s because I know the characters so well now that they just do their thing when I’ve got them on the page. These books have taught me a lot.

As I write F&M #6, the fifth book is soon to launch — I’ve seen the cover art for The Quartered Heart and it’s beautiful and you will not love it as much as I do, but I hope you will look at it and believe it is a book you need to read. TQH is about love and loss, it’s about discovery, and how success can feel very much like failure. It is about losing, and picking yourself up and carrying on anyhow. It is a book about life, the universe, and some very angry jackals.

Soon.

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Weight

I used to really enjoy lifting weights. There’s something comforting about it, which… I know that sounds weird. But it feels good to have moved iron around. And to look at me, you’d certainly never think oh my this lady likes going to the gym, but I used to — until all the other weight I was carrying kind of lodged me in place.

By weight, I mean everything I’m doing — I looked back at my previous post here, and had a come to Jesus talk with a couple of friends, and there’s a plan going forward, but it’s scary, because that’s what the unknown does best, right. There is an abyss out there and the only way across is via clever metaphors that people may never read or understand..erm.

In weightlifting, you don’t put the heavy plates on first, of course. You work your way up to them. Sometimes, as you increase weight, you can only do one rep at this new, heavier weight, but that possibly marks a personal best, given you’ve never hit that weight before. Still, that weight may also be too much; you might not be there yet. You may never get there.

But you look at the others in the gym, adding plates and squatting 300 and you think damn that looks awesome and you wonder why you aren’t doing that, why you can’t do that, and remind yourself that all bodies are different, and that yours is unique because it’s not as strong in places as it used to be, so you lift much less, and watch as others lift even moar, and have support in doing so (stronger thighs and backs, back braces, and wrist guards and spotters and and and).

Is this a metaphor? Is this weightlifting alluding to something else entirely?

And what’s with the Fionna and Cake picture, Elise, really? (I love Fionna and Cake, c’mon, but also you know who they almost are — the stars of the show — yet they’re not that, but still are comfortable being who they are, because they have the support of everyone who also isn’t the star of the show and — God, what’re you even talking about at this point…)

Watching everyone else is part of the problem. Someone can lift 300 because they’ve trained to lift 300, and maybe you feel like you should be at that level because how many years have you been training? But you still can’t do it.

Some backs aren’t meant for that kind of weight.

So you look at the weight you can carry, and the additional weight you have been trying to bear, and you figure out what has to be set aside before you can actually move forward, before you can be not lodged in place.

You wonder, who will I be without this burden I have been trying to carry? Who will I be with a smaller bundle on my back?

And it’s probably terrifying, but look, you can walk straighter without it.

Adventure Time,
C’mon grab your friends,
We’re going to very distant lands…

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The Well, Actually

I first met Anne Lamott in the 90s, via her book Bird by Bird. Someone told my mom about the book and she said she wanted to get it for me, because it was about writing. We gleefully crossed paths with the hardcover (in a bookstore! gasp!) some weeks later, and brought a copy home. It is a book I return to so frequently that its spine has begun to split.

One thing from the book I hold tightly to is the idea that writer’s block doesn’t really exist (your experience may be different, of course, as we are all different humans). It’s more that the creative well inside ourselves runs empty, and we have to allow it to fill again before we can put anything else onto a page. I find this true in my work, that if I haven’t taken something in, I can’t put something out. Lately it feels like there isn’t enough time to take anything in.

This isn’t to say that I’ve been lax — I’ve seen Infinity War, after all, so Important Works are being consumed. I’ve recently finished Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and A Human Stain by Kelly Robson; I’ve started reading The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton.

I’ve read a writer friend’s drafted manuscript; I’ve read a writer friend’s drafted script; I’ve pondered a writer friend’s poems; I’m taking care of my mom as her memory continues to degrade; I’ve edited stories for an anthology I’m joint editing; I edited stories for Shimmer and those are endless, aren’t they; I formatted the May Shimmer not once but twice because of scheduling conflicts; I assembled the cover design for the May Shimmer; I’ve read an excessive amount of slush and we’re still not caught up.

I edited 60k words of manuscripts for my main freelance gig; I’ve explained exactly why plagiarism isn’t allowed; I’m reading another 200 pages of manuscript for another freelance gig; I have an edit to handle for a Kickstarter reward; I handled three other edits for other Kickstarter rewards; I’m figuring out why the hell the hood over the stove suddenly doesn’t work and oh it’s just the dumb solder on the light that doesn’t allow it to sit flush and actually illuminate; I’m trying not to scowl at the Mormons who broke my doorbell, but c’mon man; I added almost 11k to the Anubis manuscript in April…what.

I’m a little staggered by that last fact there — I didn’t expect that number to be anywhere near that high. I’ve felt very empty when it’s time to work on my own shit; some days, it doesn’t happen, I’m not gonna lie. Some days, you open the file and have nothing to give. Some days, maybe you don’t even get to open the file.

Some days, though, you open the file and add 500 words. Maybe it turned out to only be a session of plotting, of getting people out of a metaphorical corner. Maybe it was 50 words and no more.

Those words add up, though. Small chunks? Keep going.

At writing group, I suggested we talk about everything we’ve accomplished in the time since we last met. I think it’s easy to look at our work and say “omg look at everything I haven’t done.”

Okay, but look at everything you did.

If literally all you’re doing is queuing up video games when you get home and losing yourself for days, then maybe we need to reconsider our choices, but I sure as heck have been exploring Assassin’s Creed Origins when I have bits of time. You could have been writing during that time, someone is thinking right this very second. And no, I don’t think I could have been.

Wells need refilling.

Sometimes that means you need to go pet cats in ancient Egypt.

Neko Atsume, Egypt edition

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Not Always Graceful

Goodbyes aren’t always graceful.

You can’t always plan for them.

Sometimes we know.

Sometimes they come out of left field and sock you in the face like a baseball.

If you haven’t seen Infinity War, you may want to skip this entry. I have no idea what I’m going to say, but suspect a spoiler might leap up and grab you when we least expect it.

Mostly, the movie has me thinking about goodbyes, and how we aren’t always given the space or time to properly process them. This movie ends with a cliffhanger, if you want to call it that. I would call it a pause, because we know there will be more Avengers films. We know certain characters will be returning.

We can also guess about two or three who may not.

But the end of the movie puts a lot of things on hold, leaves a lot of storylines without resolution. I’m okay with that, because it made things feel more real. For all the aliens and super powers, for all the portals and witty quips, the end of the movie feels real, because there’s no time to breathe or to understand what we just saw.

It doesn’t make sense. Death is like that.

It isn’t fair. Death is like that.

It makes you want to scream. Death is like that.

Two stories hit me hardest here — oh hey, here come the spoilers, I can feel it.

First, Gamora. If I have to see or read about another man who said “I love you,” and then killed the woman he just said that to, I’m probably going to hurl the world into the sun, It’s too real. And here I was just advocating that the end of the movie was real so I was okay with that.

But watching another woman get fridged so a dude can complete his Utterly Nonsense Plan?

Were we supposed to be shocked that Thanos actually did love her? Was Gamora’s surprise intended to foster ours? It only made me angry, watching him cry over her, over knowing that he was about to kill her to make the universe a “better place.” Fuck that.

Second, Peter Parker. The movie opens with Tony having dreamed that he and Pepper were pregnant; the movie opens with Tony feeling it’s time to be a dad. The movie ends with Peter turning to ash in Tony’s arms, after Tony has, perhaps unintentionally, spent the movie being a dad to him.

I can’t even with that. Even though we know Peter’s coming back (hi, movie contracts). But. BUT. Even as I can’t, I CAN, because apparently I contain multitudes. If time is reset, and they remember this timeline, how does that change who they are going forward? If the reset button erases memories, that will mean this film was a waste.

Goodbyes aren’t always graceful. Those on screen, in a book, or in real life. I’ve had people vanish without warning. They may as well have turned to ash in my hands. Some of those people never came back. A few of them did and I’m never ever letting them go again.

No matter all the magic and wonder and portals and pryotechnics, goodbyes are sloppy and imperfect, and so is Infinity War. So though it makes me angry, I think I understand it.

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Say the Thing

Writing can be really weird, right?

In my current WIP, I’m alternating points of view for my chapters, which means that at some points of the plot, I’m not in what I think must be the ideal POV for the moment — and as I keep writing, I continue to discover that I’m entirely wrong, and that the POVs I’m using are layery and flexible so as to accommodate what I’m doing, because what I’m doing impacts everyone there, so…

This moment is Eleanor’s, so why am I in Virgil’s POV?! But then I noodle around with Virgil and Something Reveals Itself, and everything is really layered and Doing Things and well, okay.

Sometimes, we need to chill out and let the brain do the thing. At some point, you trust the process.

This past weekend was the first official meeting of Writing Group, which doesn’t have a name and I’m not sure if it will get a name, but we shall see. This is my first in-person group in about forever, so I hope I don’t fuck it up.

I like the idea that there are people who will hold me accountable when it comes to getting shit done. Surely I am good at this on my own, but let’s not be silly: there are many areas in which a girl could stand to improve.

Mostly — and perhaps this is ridiculous — I am going to need someone to hold my hand as I write the book after the last Anubis book. Right now, it looks like a yawning abyss, an abyss that isn’t even really interested in gazing back at me, so yeah.

Having time (making time) to focus on craft and intent should be good. Also, SNACKS.

Yesterday’s novel writing involved throwing everyone into significant jeopardy, hooray? And because I didn’t think I was in the right POV, I kept wanting to delay one chapter, because then we’d be with Eleanor, and not Virgil, because WHAT was his investment in this scene, really.

But I leapt into the jeopardy and trusted Virgil to tell me his shit, which he did, and I’m pleased and astonished with how it turned out. This is a reminder that usually, there’s no point in dragging a thing out or hiding information from your reader.

I am also reminded of the one editorial note I got from Marion Zimmer Bradley on a submission I made to her Fantasy magazine. I cleverly tried to obscure a thing my heroine was grasping in a sand dune, because I wanted suspense and intrigue and mystery machines. MZB wrote on the page “doorknob!” and I have never forgotten this (nor have I thrown that page away). It is infinitely more interesting to say my heroine found a doorknob/door beneath a sand dune than show her touching something vague and round and unnamed.

SAY the interesting THING always.

Let your character DO the THING.

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