Be Positive about Negative Capability

As part of our shared journey through the realm of fiction writing, let’s explore a few rooms within a stately mansion belonging to the English romantic poet, John Keats. In particular, what did he mean by the term negative capability, and how does it relate to creative writing?

photo By William Hilton – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 194

Nearly two centuries ago, on December 21, 1817, Keats wrote a letter to his brothers where he mentioned negative capability:

“…at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

That may be confusing, but here’s what I think he means—If you want to be a great writer, be willing to:

  • delve into the essence of your characters (or objects, like a Grecian Urn),
  • shed your preconceived world-view,
  • abandon any search for meaning or the urge to fit things into a logical structure, and
  • accept any mysteries and ambiguities you find without trying to resolve them.

Keats praises Shakespeare for the Bard’s ability to show us his characters, through their speech and actions, as they would be, without the author’s heavy hand fitting everything into a coherent whole. Keats criticizes Samuel Coleridge for starting with a philosophical vision and fashioning poetic characters to illustrate that vision.

Why did Keats call this approach ‘negative capability?’ The Wikipedia entry offers an electrical explanation. However, I believe Keats was saying that a true poet should negate her own capability (to make judgements; detect patterns; deduce from, or induce to, general principles) and instead immerse herself in the object of study and absorb all that is there, with all its contradictions and inconsistencies.

For those of you still stuck on the word ‘Penetralium’ in Keats’ letter, let me digress a moment. The word refers to a building’s innermost part, like a temple’s sanctuary. By extension, it can mean the secret inner essence of a person—the soul. Keats thought in terms of rooms of the mind, as illustrated by a letter he wrote, which is cited in the Wikipedia article: “I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments…”

For another description of negative capability, see this video with author Julie Burstein, especially from 1:00 to 1:25. Also, check out this post at Keats’ Kingdom, and this one by Dr. Philip Irving Mitchell of Dallas Baptist University.

As for me, I take a nuanced view of negative capability, as it regards creative writing. I agree writers should empathize with their characters, to know them as directly as possible. That keeps all the characters from seeming to be slight variations of the author. I also concur writers should embrace “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” The worldview of any character and even the universe of the story itself don’t have to fit neatly together in every detail. The writer should approach the characters and story with an open mind, allowing things to develop as they would in their world, not necessarily in step with the worldview of the writer.

But where Keats asserts “the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration,” I suggest this applies to the story as a whole, not just one character. Characters are not works of art for a writer to portray, however empathetically, in isolation. They are part of a greater whole, the story, and that whole—with its plot, themes, style, setting, and characters—is the thing the writer must strive to optimize for reader enjoyment.

I hope you liked our visit to this mansion of John Keats’ mind. It’s time to continue with the rest of the tour, led by your literary tour guide—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Are Your Stories Antifragile?

That’s no typo in this post’s title. Antifragility is a thing, and today I’m discussing the concept as it applies to fictional stories.

In his book Antifragile, Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb asks if there is an antonym of the word “fragile.” If there were such an adjective, he’d say it describes things that become stronger when stressed.

He doesn’t mean words like ‘robust,’ ‘tough,’ or ‘resilient.’ Those words describe things that sustain shocks without damage. He wants to describe things that improve their resistance to stress by being stressed. Lacking a ready word, he coined the term ‘antifragile.’

Can a story be antifragile? To answer that, we should consider the things that impose stresses on stories. These include criticism in negative reviews and mocking satire.

What would it mean for a story to become stronger? If it meant that the story became more widely read, more popular, with increased sales, then an antifragile story would be one that suffers negative reviews or even satire and yet its sales increase.

Are there any such stories? If I recall correctly, Nassim Taleb offered the more popular plays of William Shakespeare as examples. For four centuries, those plays have endured bad reviews and been mocked, but they are performed far more often and in more languages and formats than they were in Shakespeare’s time.

From an author’s point of view, antifragility seems like a wonderful property for a story to have, especially the increasing sales part, right? If you wanted to write an antifragile story, and perhaps lacked the skill of Shakespeare, how would you go about it? Are there tangible attributes of such stories? Is there a checklist to follow?

I hate to disappoint you, but there’s no checklist. Further, the only authors who really understand what it takes to make a story antifragile…well, they’re dead. That’s because stories don’t really demonstrate that property to the greatest extent while the author is alive.

Still, being me, I’ll take a crack at it, because I like a challenge. Here is my proposed checklist for making your stories antifragile:

  1. Create complex and compelling characters. They need to seem real, with strong emotions and motivations, with goals to attain, with difficult inner problems to surmount, and with bedeviling decisions to make.
  2. Appeal to every reader. That may be impossible to achieve in a single story, but in your body of work you should include characters of many types, in diverse settings. Include rich and poor, young and old, introvert and extrovert, city and country, etc.
  3. Explore the eternal truths about the human condition. You know many of these eternal truths—we’re born, we grow up, we have parents, we learn to relate to others and even fall in love, we have disagreements and conflicts with others, we become curious about the nature of our world, we deteriorate with age, and we die. When I say to ‘explore’ these truths, I don’t mean to write a philosophy book. Write a fictional story that entertains, but causes readers to ponder those deeper truths after reading it.
  4. Execute your story with style, flair, and creativity. Yeah, right. Simply do that. This one is hard to implement, but I’ll suggest some thoughts. Look for ways to turn a phrase well. Create a new word that English lacks but needs. Write in a manner that stands out, such that readers could identify your unique voice from a couple of paragraphs chosen randomly from your stories.

Okay, it’s not really a checklist where you mark off each item in turn: done, done, done. It’s more of a guideline with concepts to aim for. Who knows if it’s even accurate? After all, I’m not dead yet (as I write this), so I can’t possibly know.

Still, it’s intriguing to think that one day, readers may consider your stories to be antifragile, and when scholars trace it back, they’ll discover you learned how to do it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Upcoming Anthology – Hides the Dark Tower

My short story, “Ancient Spin,” will appear in the anthology Hides the Dark Tower, scheduled to appear in October. It’s a new publisher, Pole-to-Pole Publishing, and I think this is their first anthology.

Hides the Dark Tower-Purchased_Artwork_72pxThe anthology’s editors, Kelly A. Harmon and Vonnie Winslow Crist, have been great to work with. They’ve selected a stunning piece of artwork for the cover, don’t you think?

The anthology features stories involving towers. There’s just something about towers. They represent man’s attempt to reach the heavens. Viewed from the ground, they’re mysterious and imposing. From the top, they provide a view that makes you feel commanding and godlike.

By now, you’re wondering where that title, Hides the Dark Tower, comes from. Glad you asked. It’s from the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” by Robert Browning. Here are two of the 34 verses (italics are mine):

What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guess’d what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch ’gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.

Browning, in turn, spun off his poem from Shakespeare’s King Lear, so maybe all literature just builds on other works, like bricks upon bricks. Like a tower.

As I mentioned, the anthology comes out this fall, and I’ll provide more details and reminders as the date nears. Looking down upon you all from the newly constructed, sky-scraping, world-record-holding tower here at Poseidon’s Scribe Enterprises, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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The Story behind “Time’s Deformèd Hand”

You were wondering about this new story of mine, “Time’s Deformèd Hand,” so I’ve written this blog post to answer all your questions. It’s the least I can do to satisfy your curiosity. Luckily for both of us, the post contains no spoilers.

Q: What’s the book about?

A: Here’s a short book blurb: “Time for zany mix-ups in a clock-obsessed village. Long-separated twins, giant automatons, and Shakespeare add to the madcap comedy. Read it before it’s too late!”

Q: What’s with the weird title, and why is there a grave accent mark in the word ‘deformed?’
A: The title is stolen from Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” In fact, I pretty much ripped off the Bard’s whole play. The story has many, many references to time, clocks, and calendars, and all the sorts of errors associated with time measurement, so the title is appropriate. The grave accent mark (`) means to pronounce that usually-silent ‘e’ as you would in ‘scented,’ to make the poetic rhythm come out right.

Q: What made you think of writing it?

A: I got the idea, somehow, to combine Shakespeare and clockpunk. I wanted the tale to be lighthearted, so I picked one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Having raised a set of identical twins myself, I was drawn to “The Comedy of Errors” due to all its mistaken-identity gags. Rather than two sets of identical twins separated at birth, I thought I’d have just one set, but each young man has a clockman, and all clockmen are identical.

Q: What are clockmen?

A: In my story, clockmen are clockwork automatons, invented by Leonardo da Vinci a century before my story. They’re eight feet tall, with an outer shell of wood covering the metal gears, ratchets, and cogs. They display a clock on their chest, and have a large, wind-up key protruding from their back. Due to a special property of a certain kind of wood, clockmen are sentient, though they seem dull-witted.

Q: What are the story’s strangest characters?

A: First, I’d have to say the town’s Wachmeister, or constable. Wachmeister Baumann is pompous, and also overconfident, considering he can’t seem to correctly pronounce any policing terms. Then there’s the proprietor of the city’s clockman repair shop, a certain William Shakespeare. Herr Shakespeare had moved from England to this Swiss village. For a repairman, he has the rather odd habit of speaking in iambic pentameter, and a deep understanding of human nature.

Q: What do you mean by ‘many references to time?’

A: The setting of the story is a Swiss village called Spätbourg (“late-town”). It is shaped like a clock, with twelve streets radiating out from the center. It contains the Tempus Fugit Restaurant, the Oaken Cuckoo Tavern, and the Sundial Inn. In addition, the story includes several clock jokes, clock mix-ups, as well as clock and calendar paradoxes.

Q: When and where can I buy it?

A: Thought you’d never ask. The book is launching today! You can buy it here, here, and here, and soon it will be available at Gypsy Shadow Publishing and other places.

What? You have more questions about “Time’s Deformèd Hand?” Better leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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November 16, 2014Permalink

Time for a Story to Launch

I just learned my next story, “Time’s Deformèd Hand,” is scheduled to be launched by Gypsy Shadow Publishing in just three days, on November 15th. It’s the 12th book in that What Man Hath Wrought series everyone’s talking about.

Here’s the blurb: It’s 1600 in an alternate Switzerland, a world where Da Vinci’s mechanical automatons and human-powered flight almost work, thanks to magic trees. Long-separated twins, Georg the reluctant groom and Georg the clock thief, roam the clocklike village of Spätbourg, beset by more time and date errors than you can shake an hour hand at. Will Georg get married after all, and repair the town’s central tower clock? Will Georg—the other one—purloin more timepieces, or give up his pilfering ways? Will William Shakespeare lend a hand, and some iambic pentameter poetry, to reset the cogs and gears of this zany comedy? Only time will tell…or maybe not, in this ultimate clockpunk tale of mistaken identity and temporal mix-ups.

I’ll be sure to let you know when “Time’s Deformèd Hand” is launched and where you can buy it. You know if there’s one person who’d never leave you uninformed, it’s—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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November 13, 2014Permalink

Don’t Refuse Your Muse

Is your brain in a rut? If so, you’re not alone. Today I’ll examine this tendency and suggest what you can do about it.

For all its desirable features, the human brain suffers from a love of the familiar and a fear of the unknown. This served as a good survival trait for our ancestors in their world, but it’s no advantage for a writer today.

Dont refuse museThis hard-wired preference probably prevents many people from becoming writers in the first place, since that can be a scary unknown. Even for those of you who’ve chosen to writers, this unfortunate brain feature keeps you using the same vocabulary words, writing about the same topics in the same genres, writing stories with the same themes and using very similar characters. It thwarts your creative urge, putting you at war with your muse.

As I’ve said before, your muse gets bored with the familiar and seeks the new and fresh. She grabs your arm and pulls you away from the safe and the known, beckoning you to explore the untrodden path. Her brain is wired in a different way.

Perhaps you disagree, thinking you don’t suffer from the malady I’ve described. You deny being a creature of habit who rushes to the familiar and avoids the unknown. Fine. Here’s your test. Tonight, before going to bed, hide your toothbrush. Let’s see how Mr. or Ms. Creativity handles things the next morning. Good luck!

For a great illustration of the problem, I encourage you to read “The Calf Path” by Sam Walter Foss. This poem paints an amusing metaphor of how our brains work.

Advertising Director Gina Sclafani wrote about dealing with the phenomenon. I find it interesting how she thought at first the task would be easy, since she prided herself on being open-minded. Then she well describes the difficulty, the inner resistance, to any steps outside the mind’s comfort zone. In the end, she’s glad she did, because the rewards are great, but she warns it is a journey pitting one part of your mind against a powerful counteracting part.

Here’s a three-step method you could try as a writer to push yourself out of your comfort zone. I’ll illustrate it with story genres, but it could also work with characters, themes, settings, style, or any aspect of story-writing in which you’re stuck.

1. Make a list of story genres you’d never consider writing about. Include the ones you find stupid, abhorrent, unseemly, etc. It’s no big deal, right? After all, you’re never going to write in any of these genres.

2. Spend five to ten minutes thinking through each genre on your list. Think about each one as follows: “I’ll never write in this genre, of course, but if I were to do so, here’s the story I’d write…”   You needn’t write down any of these ideas, just think through them.

3. Now let some time pass. A few days, weeks, or even months. This allows your muse to do her thing. You might well find she’s yanking on your arm and leading you down an unfamiliar path toward writing in one of those unwanted genres.

A similar thing happened to me. I knew I’d never write in the horror genre. Then I noticed a publisher seeking stories for an anthology to be called Dead Bait. I dismissed it, but my muse didn’t. She worked on the idea for a story she made me write called “Blood in the River.” I’m still not a horror story writer, but it felt good to get out of the comfort zone.

One final thought. At one point in their lives, each of history’s greatest contributors (think of da Vinci, Shakespeare, Bach, Edison, Einstein, etc.) had to leave a comfort zone in order to develop his or her eventual talents. Imagine the loss to mankind if one of them hadn’t taken that step? What if you could become a popular, successful, or timeless writer if only you stretch your mind in a direction it doesn’t want to go?

You’ll have to excuse me. This calf-path I’m walking along is nice, but some woman wearing a chiton is tugging at my sleeve. “What’s that? Where? But that’s off the path and looks terrifying to—

                                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe”

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The Software Shakespeare Used

Wow!  There are a lot of writing software packages available!

By writing software, I’m not talking about word processors like Corel Write, Microsoft Word, TextMaker, WordPerfect, etc.  I mean software designed to help you write fiction stories, software packages like Liquid Story Binder, Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, Master Storyteller, MyNovel, Power Structure, Power Writer, Scrivener, StoryBlue, Storybook, StoryCraft, StoryWeaver, WriteItNow, Writer’s Café, Writer’s DreamKit, WriteMonkey, and yWriter5.  I’m sure I’ve left out some…sorry.

writing softwareWould you like a nice analytical comparison of all those writing software packages to help you choose the best one for you?  Again, sorry, wrong blog post.  I don’t have the money or time to buy, test, and rate software packages, (though that would be interesting).

When I thought of the idea for this blog post topic many months ago, I had intentions of test-driving at least two or three and giving you a comparison of those, at least.  Alas, that didn’t happen.

However, I did try out yWriter5, so I can comment on that one.  I also was given a disk with Writer’s DreamKit, but it reacted badly with my computer for some reason, and after restoring things I haven’t been brave enough to try it again.  I don’t blame the Writer’s DreamKit software; I was able to explore around in it and get a feel for it, but I had problems when I restarted my computer the next time.

yWriter5 is free!  It allows you to organize your novel by scenes, then chapters.  It keeps readily available all the information about your characters, scene locations, and significant ‘items’ (objects) in your story.   It has a storyboard feature; it includes a word usage feature to see if you’re over-using certain words; and it keeps track of your daily word count in a log.  There are many more features, too.

I used yWriter5 for one of my short stories.  For a short story, yWriter has far more features than I needed.  It was a good way to organize notes, characters, etc.  Since I do much of my writing while away from a computer using an ancient method involving a ‘pen’ and a ‘pad of paper,’ I was pleased with yWriter’s ability to print reports that could include my characters, scenes, items, and notes.  I think yWriter would be quite useful for a complex novel.

In my brief exposure to Writer’s DreamKit, I found that the software asks you an enormous number of questions before you can get going.  If you have good ideas for your story in your head and the patience to answer the questions, I’m sure the software would prove useful.

My overall point here is to set expectations.  Do not purchase or use writing software with the idea that it will make you a published author.  By itself, the software won’t improve your writing.  It won’t think for you; it won’t come up with engaging characters, clever plot twists, or vivid settings.  It will not write the story for you.  Those are the hardest parts of writing fiction, and no software will do those things…yet.

What these software packages will (or can) do is help organize thoughts, keep information readily available to minimize searching for it, measure your progress (word count), and do the sort of low level, background stuff that you wish some assistant would take care of.

No, Shakespeare didn’t use writing software, just the ‘wetware’ within his skull.  I’m not even sure he would have recommended any of the packages currently available if he’d had a chance to try them.  But neither you nor I are Shakespeare.  If you need help with organizing or desire an easy way to sort out scenes, characters, and chapters, then feel free to use software for that.  I’d love to read and respond to your comments about this post.  Now available in version 3.55, I’m—

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

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Does Blogging Help Your Writing?

If you’re thinking of starting up a blog as a way to improve the quality of your fiction writing, I’m here to tell you—blogging will have just as much effect on your golf swing.

Hamlet blogMy answer is different if you write non-fiction.  Well-written blogs are like essays, with the same structure and purpose.  The skills needed are the same.

For fiction writers, there’s very little in common between your stories and your blog posts.  The talents you develop doing one won’t translate well to the other.

It’s even possible for blogging to worsen your fiction writing.  Certainly it’s cutting into your productivity, at least.  Each precious minute spent blogging is sixty seconds lost and unavailable for writing fiction.

Also, let’s say you become an expert in all the aspects of blogging, able to craft persuasive, short essays with well-researched facts, finely structured arguments, and logical conclusions.  It’s possible for that ‘lecturing voice’ to worm its way into your fiction, and you don’t want that.

Am I telling you, the beginning fiction writer, not to blog?  No, I’m just helping you set expectations; blogging won’t make your fiction better.  But there are several valid reasons for fiction authors to blog:

  • It helps enforce schedule discipline, and to associate deadlines with writing.  This is only true if you post to your blog on a regular basis.  Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, getting to ‘The End’ is important.
  • It’s a form of self-education.  When I come across an idea for a future blog entry, I add it to my list, (which is quite long now).  When I look to see what topic is scheduled for any particular week, I find it generally involves a bit of research.  So while blogging about the craft of writing, I’m coming across knowledge I can use.
  • The best reason for a fiction writer like you to blog, though, is to build your platform, increase your web presence, and connect with readers.

Blog if you want to, but don’t go into it thinking it’ll make your fiction better.  For those of you who disagree, that’s what the comment feature is for.  Please comment and let your views be known to the world and to—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe 

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You Might Be a Writer If…

Jeff FoxworthyDo you have what it takes to be a writer?  If you did, would you know you did?  Sometimes it’s difficult to tell.  To make it easy for you, I’ve developed a handy test along the lines of Jeff Foxworthy’s ‘Redneck Test.’  See how many of these apply to you.

You might be a writer if:

  1. You’ve ever jotted down a plot idea by interrupting a shower.
  2. You celebrate the birthdays of William Strunk and E.B. White.
  3. You’ve day-dreamed an entire talk-show interview about your best-selling novel.
  4. You have a favorite intransitive verb.
  5. You’ve cried over the loss of your favorite pen.
  6. You’ve ever invoked Hemingway to defend a drunken binge.
  7. Your muse is as real to you as your spouse, and that seems to bother your spouse.
  8. You have checked the Thesaurus…for mistakes.
  9. You’ve ever sneaked in extra writing time while at your day job, in the bathroom.
  10. Your computer keyboard cringes when you come in the room.
  11. You’ve ever said, “Honest, Officer, I was doing research.”
  12. Your few remaining friends groan when they hear you say, “Want to hear about my latest story?”
  13. You’ve called a company to rant about grammatical mistakes in their advertisements.
  14. You read the dictionary for pleasure, and then re-read it.
  15. The last three months of your wall calendar read October, Nanowrimo, December.
  16. Your study is wallpapered with rejection letters.
  17. Microsoft Word software development engineers call you for ideas.
  18. Your three children have told you they hate their names.  All three of them, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Dostoevsky.

Lastly, you might be a writer if:

19. Your spouse has asked when you’re coming to bed, and you’ve replied “as soon as I finish writing this intimate bedroom scene.”  An hour later, your characters collapse in satisfied weariness, but your spouse is no longer in the mood.

For those of you out there who are already authors, feel free to comment and add any other items to my test.  If you weren’t sure if you’re a writer, let me know if you found the test useful, or at least interesting.  As always I strive to be of help to beginning, struggling writers.  It’s all part of the free service provided by—

                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe


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January 13, 2013Permalink

The first thing we do, we kill all the darlings!

The title of this blog post combines a bit of William Shakespeare with William Faulkner.  I’m fairly confident neither William will sue me.

Faulkner’s quote actually was, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”  What did he mean by that?  My interpretation is he meant for writers to look, as they edit their stories, for passages with clever phrases, little jokes, or humorous anecdotes—the passages that made them smile as they wrote them for the first time.  Then they are to ask themselves, “Does this passage relate to the story?  Does it advance the plot?  Does it help the reader understand the characters?  Does the style or tone of the passage match the rest of the story?”

Here’s the hard part.  If the passage does not pass these tests, the writer must delete it.  That’s difficult because the writer might consider the passage a demonstration of the greatest height of her talent.  The writer may have fallen in love with a particular clause, a sentence, a paragraph, a character, a scene.  However, for the sake of the story, the darling must go.

Here’s the even worse part.  As he was writing, the author might have thought of and written the darling, fallen in love with it, and then bent the story around to force-fit the darling in.  Now the question of killing the darling involves how much of a force-fit it was, and how much rewriting is necessary for the deletion.  Even so, the writer should think hard about this, keeping in mind the story is more important than the darling.

Fortunately, the darling need not be so terminated that it vanishes to wherever deleted bits and bytes go.  The writer can save it in a separate file, for potential use in a later story, one where it will fit better.  Perhaps an entire story can be written around that darling.  In the directories where I save my stories, there is almost always a “Deleted Sections” file I’ve created to dump the parts of early drafts that I’ve axed.

I don’t know that Faulkner was necessarily advocating more concise writing.  After all, a writer could go back, kill the darlings, then replace them with even longer passages that fit the story better.  I think he was advocating the writing of more integral stories, where each piece of the story is necessary and supports the plot and theme.

As you do this in your writing, don’t think of yourself as moving along the path to becoming a psychopathic murderer.  Think of it as your effort to become a better self-editor, a writer who produces well-crafted stories.  Though I may be known to my computer as the Killer of a Thousand Darlings, to you I’ll always remain—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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