On Writing

Dueling Death Scenes


Pic of Scarlett Johansson (Nat/Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (Clint/Hawkeye) from Avengers: Endgame.
Black Widow and Hawkeye plot how to outfox each other in Avengers: Endgame

Last week, an alternate version of Natasha Romanoff’s death scene in Avengers: Endgame surfaced on Twitter. Cue the debate over which version is better. (And also a revival of the debate over which character should have sacrificed themselves. I don’t want to get into that here, but I do sympathize with Team Black Widow.)

This article cherry-picked a few tweets to claim that Marvel fans prefer the alternate version. But a quick survey of the replies and likes on @MCUPerfectClips’ post of the clip shows the opposite: most fans found the original to be more emotional and impactful.

It’s easy to understand why, if you take into account the first rule of storytelling: stories are about people. People who want something. Who meet other people who want different or opposing things. Which creates conflict to drive the story forward.

This conflict could lead to people shooting each other and blowing
things up — or it could lead to acerbic comments over cups of tea, as in Happy Hogan’s favorite show, Downton Abbey. Either way, the action starts in the characters’ motives and goals. The more the story focuses in on that conflict and the relationship between those characters, the more compelling it’s going to be. All the sword fights and shootouts and other activities that pass for “action” are just offshoots of this internal drama.

So let’s look at how this plays out in both versions. First, the setup: Natasha, aka Black Widow, and Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, are after the Soul Stone, one of six Infinity Stones that are key to beating the series’ super-villain, Thanos. And not just beat him, but reverse the events of Avengers: Infinity War in which he wiped out half of all living beings in the universe. To get the stone, they have to trade a soul for a soul by sacrificing someone they love, specifically by throwing them off a cliff. That means one of them has to die, or the timeline in which Thanos destroyed half the universe will remain the same.

Of course, these are heroes who are also good friends, so neither is going to sacrifice the other. They’re going to race to see who gets to go over the cliff in a glorious act of self-sacrifice.

Here’s the original:

And here’s the alternate version that didn’t make it into the movie. You have to watch it in two chunks, which overlap by about a minute. The important thing to know is that in this version, they end up racing Thanos for the Soul Stone.

For me, the original is far better. It focuses in on the sacrifice each character is ready to make. The dialogue and the skilled performances pull us right into the moment. The conflict between them grows for over a minute, through several beats of rising tension, before Clint tries to physically prevent Nat from making the sacrifice.

During that conversation, they reveal a lot about their motives. We see how much each character has grown over the course of the series of Avengers movies when Clint says, “Don’t go getting all decent on me now,” making a reference to Nat’s assassin past, and when he says, “You know what I’ve done.” They both have stuff to atone for. The stakes for Clint are also revealed in a natural way when he says, “Tell my family I love them.”

Nat especially makes it clear that this is her choice, a sacrifice she’s been willing to make since Thanos turned her friends to dust in the existing timeline. It also refers back to her statement in an earlier movie about wanting to erase the red in her ledger. If there’s any way to do that, this is it. It doesn’t really have anything (or much) to do with the fact that she has no family or children to mourn for her, whereas Clint does.

When the action starts, it seems much more impactful because of the depth of the preceding exchange. Everything they’re doing grows out of who they are as characters and what their immediate goals are. They’re both tough and can take hard hits, so each has to disable the other in a nonlethal way, and this shapes the short fight scene. (Some found it gimmicky and silly, but I thought it was much more interesting than a standard fight.) It also seems in character that Nat is able to outsmart Clint by trapping him at the end of the dangling wire once they go over the cliff’s edge. He can’t release himself from the wire without letting her go.

The long moments when he’s trying to hang onto her and she’s pleading with him to let her go are like knives to the heart. But in the end it’s still her choice, as she kicks off from the cliff, overwhelming the strength of his grip. The scene doesn’t have a lot of shooting and knife-fighting, but it’s filled with tension and pathos. From the realization of what they need to do to get the Soul Stone right up to the climax, the scene has a perfect narrative arc, providing both edge-of-your-seat adrenaline and raw emotion.

For me, the weakest part of the MCU has always been its cartoonish villains (go figure, it’s a cartoon!), while its strongest points are exactly these moments where the action slows down and characters and their relationships get room to breathe. So by that measure, the version without Thanos is automatically better for me.

The scene with Thanos, on the other hand, goes mostly for a big action sequence, with much less of the character development of the original release. And the briefer verbal interaction is far less compelling. Nat shouldn’t need to remind Clint that “If this works, you know what you get back.” He already knows that his family will still be alive if the Avengers change the timeline and beat Thanos. Not only is this bald exposition unnecessary, but it also makes explicit what was only hinted at in the original: that people, especially women, who don’t have families are worthless. The original was criticised for that implied perspective on women (for instance, in this Vanity Fair article), but this version is worse.

The whole conflict between Nat and Clint is cut short when Thanos appears. Now they have to beat him to the cliff’s edge, and they need to battle their way through a bunch of his minions to do it. This provides them both an opportunity for much more standard heroics, but for me, Thanos’s appearance only waters down the conflict, rather than strengthening it. The goals and the stakes become muddled and confused.

In this version’s ending, Nat also makes the choice to sacrifice herself, after having also saved Clint from a sword-wielding minion, but it seems much more rushed, and much less dramatic than in the original. There’s far more dramatic action in her one whispered line from the original, “It’s okay,” than in an hour of sword skills and futuristic weapon blasts.

Pic of Black Widow about to sacrifice herself in Avengers: Endgame

Which goes to show, you don’t need to go out in a blaze of energy pulses or light saber thrusts to have a heroic death. And in writing, you can throw in all the event and spectacle you want, but it won’t mean much if that action doesn’t emerge from character.

On Writing The Highwayman

The Highwayman’s Quarry – Thieves’ Cant

The Thieves Den -18th-c engraving by William Hogarth

“Mill the gig with a betty, then we’ll strip the ken and backslang it out of here. I’ll lumber the swag at the stalling crib and we’ll be up in the stirrups.”*

One of the fun parts of writing a story set in the underworld of 18th-century London is getting to use Thieves’ Cant, or flash speech. What is Thieves’ Cant? It was a secret language attributed to criminals, mostly in Great Britain, beginning in the 1500s. Whether thieves actually used this language to disguise their activities, or whether it was invented by writers of pamphlets about thieves’ culture and dictionaries of their language, there seems no telling; probably there was a little of both. The speech became popular in Elizabethan theatre, and in the 18th century the Bow Street runners (early police) were said to be familiar with it.

Many of the terms are still used today: crib, crack, fence, gams, and grub all meant roughly what they do in today’s slang (or maybe the slang of old Hollywood gangster movies). Now we call an alcoholic a lush; back then the word meant either an alcoholic drink or the state of being intoxicated, and a drunken man was a lushy-cove.

A buz-cove (pickpocket) caught in the act.

On Writing

Showing vs. Telling Part Two

Yesterday I talked about how to get just the right amount of “cowbell” in your story: no more than 10 or 20 percent should be exposition or “telling.” I also broke down three different types of writing: exposition, narrative summary, and scene. Now let’s look at some examples to see how writers, from novelists to songwriters, have handled this mix.

First up, chapter one of Pride and Prejudice. It opens with one of the most famous (and famously abstract) opening passages in literature:

On Writing

On Showing vs. Telling; or, More Cowbell!

Pic of Christopher Walken with famous line: I got a fever and the prescription is More Cowbell!I’m going to say a couple of blasphemous things here. First, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” could use more cowbell. And second, in writing it’s sometimes okay to tell rather than show.

A friend posted this article by Chuck Palahniuk in our writing group a few weeks back, and somehow it got under my skin.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half-year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

He was right, I did hate him. Or rather, I felt a pressure around my temples as I hovered the cursor over the Facebook “anger” emoticon. Really, Chuck (I thought!), no thinking at all? Sounds extreme. My novel is in first person, and my narrator naturally thinks a bit, so maybe I felt somewhat sensitive on this issue.

On Writing

Endless Cups of Tea

Kameron Hurley has a great new post, “The Madhatter Teaparty: Rescuing Your Characters from Endless Cups of Tea,” about the problem of novels becoming too talky.cup-of-tea

Plot kicks my ass. It kicks my ass up one end of a story and down another, because honestly, all my characters want to do is snark at each other over tea. Or whisky. Or coffee. Or bug juice. Whatever. Any excuse for them to sit around flinging zingers at each other and discussing what they are going to do next works for me.

Snarking at each other — or perhaps politely teasing each other — over tea is about all my characters do (when they’re not being robbed by cross-dressing highwaymen or dueling with swords). In some novels, it’s literally all they do (see Rachel Cusk’s Outline). Jane Austen was criticized for exactly this. Even her publisher said that Emma “wants incident and romance, does it not?”

On Writing

Writing Fiction Ate My Nonfiction Brain

(So I only waited nine months to write my first post of the year — long story for another time.)

I was writing an article for recently when I realized that my brain doesn’t work quite the way it used to. This should have been a return to familiar ground, since the article was about the ways California’s indigenous peoples affected their environment before Europeans invaded, which is the topic of my first book (and thanks to my friend and former conservation colleague, Chris Clarke, for asking me to write the article).

ButGIF of frustrated writer in the middle of it I realized I was having trouble getting the ideas in the most sensible order. I was taking a compare-and-contrast approach, which should be simple. And yet my brain kept bouncing from one idea to another and then back, the differences and the similarities running into each other like bumper cars driven by three-year-olds. It was a godawful mess in the beginning of the process, and even in the middle, though I did get it straightened out in the end.

This never used to happen to me. And then it hit me, maybe writing fiction uses my brain in a whole different way.

When I’m working on a novel, I want that state of cacophony. As I’m writing a scene, I want the characters and their actions to bounce off each other, conflicting, forming new possibilities. I can’t just focus on one character and then move on to the next. I have to know what all the characters want, all at once. I also have to know where they are, what they’re doing, how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking. At any given moment, I have to be ready to draw from all of the fiction writer’s tools: action, dialogue, description, internal monologue, idea.

Of course, this can’t just come out as a random spew. Fiction is still linear, so actions have to follow each other in a logical order. Descriptions of setting need to be structured and selective. Dialogue has to have an order to it as well, even when it’s non-directive. But to get that magical thing that happens with fiction — to make it immersive — I have to have that cacophony going in my brain first. Maybe writing fiction is like making a stew (or a gumbo or a salad) while writing nonfiction is like creating an intricate five-layer cake. (Or something.)

Sometimes, if I’ve done enough work in advance on a scene, it feels like it’s writing itself. But most often it’s like I’m picking bits out of the air as my mind skips around among the possibilities. I might go from “What does Character X say next?” to “What does Character X do five chapters later?” and then back again by way of “Exactly what shade of green is the meadow where she’s standing?” or “Wait, is there really a street lamp here in 18th-century Bath?” So I spend a lot of time musing, writing a sentence or two, more musing. It may not be the quickest way to write (I’ve never won one of those word count writing challenges) but it all feels productive.

I actually had to train my brain to write this way. When I first tried writing fiction seriously, way back as a sophomore in college, I would get frustrated not automatically knowing what the next sentence should be. (This was so long ago that I don’t think “pre-writing” was even a thing yet.) I should know what comes next just as easily as I know which idea comes next when writing a term paper or an article, right?

GIF of crumpled paper hitting trash canEven when I was writing “narrative nonfiction,” the narrative was drawn from my own experience. I’d narrate what happened, with a big focus on where it happened, and then link that to whatever idea I was exploring. It wasn’t completely linear — sometimes those links were metaphorical — but it required me to keep my thoughts in order much more as I wrote. When I dabbled in fiction during these years, the requirements of building a whole fictional world from scratch were daunting. My linear, nonfiction brain just wasn’t up to the task. I’d begin a story, but everything felt flat, the characters seemed like cartoons, nothing moved.

Ironically (or perhaps understandably), it wasn’t attempts at “serious fiction” that helped me retrain my brain; it was writing completely frivolous fanfiction based on a video game. (You can check out the results here.) This was low-stakes and fun to write, plus there was the crutch of using the setting and the scenarios developed by Bethesda Softworks, allowing me to focus on characters and dialogue and action — all the things that had proved so difficult for me when creating something completely new. (Even the first novel in my current series isn’t completely invented, but a mashup of Jane Austen and a famous Alfred Noyes poem. You’ve heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This might be called Sense and Sensibility and Cross-Dressing Highwaymen. But few works of fiction are completely new, especially in this post-post-modern age.)

Photo of writing journals
Photo credit: Abizern on Flickr.

The main thing I learned in writing that fantasy fanfiction was the patience to let my brain work itself into a productively cacophonous state. And now, four years and 400,000 words later, maybe that’s the only way my brain works anymore (or maybe I’m just getting old!). But since I just crossed the 50,000-word mark in the second of my Highwayman novels, maybe I shouldn’t be too worried.

On Writing

Sleep On Your Manuscript

photo of a writer asleep on a typewriter
Writer at work. (Found in the wilds of the Internet.)

No, don’t tuck your laptop under your pillow. Or print out your novel and sprinkle the pages between the sheets. And certainly don’t sleep on a typewriter, like the young woman at right. (Ouch, my neck hurts just looking at that.)

But if you’re a writer short on time for writing, and especially if you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month, putting your subconscious to work while you sleep can be the key to making progress on your novel (or memoir, short story, or whatever).

It’s no secret that the subconscious is where a lot of creative work gets done. It’s the source of those “Aha!” moments, the creative breakthroughs that come seemingly out of nowhere. The cliché of the writer keeping a notepad and pen on the night table exists for this reason: it works. Sci Fi writer William Gibson takes a power nap in the middle of his writing day, and says it’s the key to keeping his work flowing.

But wait, you say, your subconscious is busy with other stuff: obsessing about work, rehashing a mean thing a friend said, or replaying scenes from the latest mega action thriller. If you dream, those are the things you dream about, and when you wake up at three a.m., that’s what’s going through your head.

The trick is to make your Work in Progress (WIP) the main thing your brain obsesses over. Here are some tips to put your subconscious to work for you:

  • Read your WIP right before shutting off the light. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your novel, whether it’s an outline, character sketches, or the first few chapters. If you read your notes or most recent scenes right before going to sleep, chances are your mind will continue working on them overnight. If you wake up at three a.m., you’ll be thinking about how to get your heroine out of that tight spot (or, if you’re really lucky, she’ll present the solution to you).
  • Be that clichéd writer who keeps a notepad by the bed. Or tablet, smart phone, whatever, just as long as you can capture whatever burst of inspiration you have in the middle of the night or as you wake up. (But don’t stress if you fall back asleep before getting it down. I find that the good ideas stick, so I’ve never developed this habit. As with anything in writing, YMMV.)
  • Carry your manuscript with you. Remember the potato baby or sack-of-sugar baby the sex ed teacher made you carry around? Be like that with your manuscript, whether you print out a few pages, or view it on your tablet or smart phone. You don’t even need to add to it, but just review it on your coffee break, train commute, or whatever scraps of time you have. You may not be able to increase your word count much in ten or fifteen minutes, but you can keep your novel at the forefront of your mind.
  • Clear the decks. Avoid other media that tend to occupy a lot of imaginative space. A gripping novel. A spine-tingling movie. Or, if you’re like me, that really involving video game. Whatever it is, if you find you’re dreaming about it or waking up in the middle of the night thinking about it, then you should avoid it like last month’s leftovers in the back of the fridge.
  • Read for inspiration. It’s often said that writers should spend half their writing time reading. But when you’re cranking out a manuscript, whatever reading you do should keep your head in the world of your novel, not distract you from it. Nonfictional background material is great. Maybe books on police procedure if you’re writing a crime novel. History, if you’re working on a historical. If you have to read fiction, try novels you’ve already read and find inspiring. Since you already know the plot, you can focus on techniques without getting too involved.

If you practice these tips every day, soon your co-workers will wonder about that faraway gaze you wear during meetings. And if it really works, you’ll feel like you can’t wait to sit down to write, rather than staring at a blank screen when you finally have the time.

Oh, and if you still want to put that laptop under your pillow, go right ahead.

What tricks do you use to keep your brain focused on your manuscript? Share them in the comments below!


On Writing

One Writer’s Distractions

Being a successful writerToday’s distraction chain:
Sit down to make notes for next project
Turn on Pandora to drown out distracting radio
Pandora not working because of Flash issue
Research Flash issue —
my Chromebook not affected but need to turn off auto-play videos
Go to Facebook to do that
Notice a confederate flag profile pic liking one of my posts –grrr. Post about that.
Check email, reply to several.
Follow several suggested Twitter people.
Notice that one of my friends on Twitter isn’t in lists, so I’ve been ignoring her.
Fix that, read some of her tweets, retweet.
Remember another friend has just joined Twitter.
Search her name, but another person pops up in the auto-fill.
She’s tweeting about my fave author Ellen Kushner, so I have to join in.
Back to searching for friend, welcome her to Twitter.
Check Feedly, notice nice essay from Nicola Griffith about Alice Sheldon.
Bookmark for later, but notice link to her essay about the meaning of ‘wife.’
Post about that.
Hear recycling truck, rush to take out trash and recycling.
Reauthorize flash plugin
Start up Pandora (Loreena McKennitt mix)
Back to work
(oops, have to post about all these distractions)
Now, back to work
#writerproblems #it’sgreattobesocial

On Writing

Hacking the Pluperfect

I’ve noticed an increasing allergy to the pluperfect among some writers lately. One writing advice columnist even suggested doing away with the verb “had.” This is a serious condition, folks, and it can lead to some seriously confusing writing. We need to stomp it out before it’s too late.

Had plus party what? (from
Had plus party what? (from

What’s the pluperfect, you ask? Good question, because pluperfect is one of those grammar terms that are unnecessarily daunting. Some people call it the past perfect, but that hardly helps. What’s perfect about it? Throw around a lot of terms like that, and you sound like a stuffy old guy in a coat with elbow patches. (Okay, guilty as charged, except for those elbow patches.)

Forgetting its opaque name, pluperfect or past perfect simply means using “had” as a helping verb to distinguish between the past and the “farther past.” Writers use it when they’re writing in regular past tense, but want to include an action that took place before the time of the current scene — maybe even just a few seconds before.

Does that still sound a bit complicated? It’s really a verb tense we use all the time, often in a contraction: “I’d just reached the head of the line when the only teller put up her closed sign, giving me an apologetic shrug.” Or how about this: “I arrived in New York on a Monday morning, emerging from Penn Station into the rush-hour crowd. I had just spent a solitary week in the Grand Canyon, climbing back up to the South Rim only the day before, and this sudden press of humanity made me want to catch the next plane out.”

(Watch out for irregular verbs when using the past perfect. “I drank two sodas yesterday” is simple past tense, but in the past perfect it’s “drunk,” so it can sound strange: “I had already drunk four beers when my girlfriend asked me to drive over and pick her up.)

Some website says this quote is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I don't think so.
Some website says this quote is from Emerson, but I don’t think so. (

Two common writing situations call for the pluperfect. Probably the most frequent in fiction occurs when narrating an action scene in the past tense, with lots of stuff happening at once. You can’t get everything in simultaneously, so sometimes you need to go back and narrate what happened while other events were taking place.

This is the situation in which I first noticed the pluperfect allergy, in an otherwise excellent zombie story. It went something like this: “I aimed the gun at the monster, but before I could fire he smashed into me, knocking the gun from my hand and pushing me into the kitchen counter. We struggled for a moment as I desperately sought to keep his teeth off me. Finally I kicked him in the groin. As he doubled over in pain, I looked for the gun. It slid under the stove.”

Wait, what? Time has passed since the narrator dropped the gun, but it’s only sliding under the stove just now? Serious time distortion! If she could rewind time like that, why not go back to before the zombie attacked?

Obviously, that sentence should read, “It had slid under the stove,” (or “had slidden,” God help us). The phrase “had slid” must have sounded strange in the writer’s ear. Or maybe the writer just wanted a strong, active verb, and ‘had slid’ sounded passive and weak. “It had fallen” would have been less awkward, but still weak. This is a case where going for strong verbs at the price of clarity isn’t worth it.

Notice that the past perfect indicates an action that has been completed. The gun has come to rest. If for some reason it took the gun an incredibly long time to fall to the floor, you’d use the past continuous: “It was sliding under the stove,” maybe adding, “and I dove for it while I could still reach it.”

Are there other ways to narrate this action without using the pluperfect? Sure. Maybe something like this: “I turned to look for the gun. There, under the stove.” (Or, if you’re a stickler about sentence fragments: “I finally saw it, lying under the stove.”)

This kind of shifting back and forth in a scene happens all the time. Here’s how Rachel Cusk handles it in her novel, Outline. “I jumped in, swimming out in the opposite direction all the way to the perimeter of the island so that I could see the open sea beyond it. The other way, the distant shore was a bobbing line full of tiny shapes and figures. In the meantime, another boat had arrived and was anchored not far from ours.”

And here’s how George R.R. Martin uses it in a more active battle scene (or right after the battle, actually):

Tyrion in the Vale (from
Tyrion in the Vale (from

As [Tyrion] limped back to the others, he glanced again at the slain. The dead clansmen were thin, ragged men, their horses scrawny and undersized, with every rib showing. What weapons Bronn and Chiggen had left them were none too impressive. … He remembered the big man in the shadowskin cloak who had dueled Ser Rodrik with a two-handed greatsword, but when he found his corpse sprawled on the stony ground, the man was not so big after all… Small wonder the clansmen had left nine bodies on the ground.

Martin masterfully shifts back and forth between tenses, keeping the immediate past of the battle separate from the “now” of the present moment, which is also told in past tense.

But what about when you jump back in time not just for a phrase or a sentence, but for a long section of narrative? These longer “stories within a story” require a more subtle use of the pluperfect.

Let’s say you’ve started your story in media res, with your heroine engaged in a phaser shootout with three Zogdilian soldiers. In the middle of that fight, you want to flash back to how she found herself in such a predicament. “It had begun as a routine patrol,” you write. “Stepping out of the lander that morning, Molly had seen just what she expected on the planet Zog: rocks and strange vegetal shapes and not much else.” But wait, you think, do I have to keep going with all these “hads,” all the way up to the current moment in the middle of the battle?

Logic would dictate that yes, you should. No matter how many events lead up to that battle, it should all be, “Molly had done this, Molly had done that, the Zogdilians had done this other thing,” no matter how stilted the language becomes. But logic and usage go together less often than one might think. Most writers get around this predicament by using the past perfect only to shift the frame back to the time of those previous events. Use one or two or three hads to settle the reader in the new (older) time frame, then use simple past tense.

No Zogdilians here, but you get the idea. (from many random geek sites)
No Zogdilians here, but you get the idea. (from many random geek sites)

So, continuing from above, it might be: “But her complacency was quickly shattered when Jenkins, the ensign, spotted the first dead Crimethean. She called the mother ship for reinforcements, then began following the three-toed footprints leading away from the victim’s body, Jenkins following behind with his phaser set to kill.” (Pretty obvious I don’t write SF, eh?)

When you get back to the point where you started the story, you’ll need a little time cue to shift the action back to where you left off. The most obvious cue might be: “Now, as she crouched over Jenkins’ inert form, Molly considered her options.”

Here’s how John Irving manages stories from the past in his novel, In One Person, which has numerous jumps back and forth as the narrator recalls his life:

“How did Dr. Grau really die?” I asked Mrs. Hadley.

The story they’d told us boys — Dr. Harlow had told us, in morning meeting — was that Grau had slipped and fallen in the quadrangle one winter night. The paths were icy; the old Austrian must have hit his head. Dr. Harlow did not say that Herr Doktor Grau actually froze to death — I believe that “hypothermia” was the term Dr. Harlow used.

The story of what actually happened continues in simple past tense for another paragraph, before returning to the present moment with, “‘Grau was a drunk,’ Martha Hadley told me.” The “present” of the scene is the narrator asking Mrs. Hadley the question and her response. There are actually two pasts before this: the night when Dr. Grau died, and the next morning when Dr. Harlow explains it to the students.

But putting two whole paragraphs into past perfect would have been too awkward. So Irving uses the first sentence, all in past perfect, to reset the time frame back to those earlier events. Then in the second sentence he just switches to simple past (“were icy”) and carries on in that tense for the remainder of the story of Dr. Grau’s death. He doesn’t even need an overt time cue to return to the “present,” because Martha Hadley’s response to the narrator’s question serves that purpose.

See how easy it is to use the pluperfect? Now you can go boldly forth, switching between past and “farther past” like there’s no tomorrow — only yesterday, and the day before that.

Need help with your manuscript? I provide beta reading, manuscript editing, help with voice, and that mysterious quality, “flow.” I don’t do copy-editing or proofreading, but I can help you improve the readability of your prose. Since I’m just getting started as an editor-for-hire, my rates are low, low, low! Shoot me an email at Lahogue AT gmail DOT com to learn more.

My background and qualifications: MFA from the highly regarded University of Montana graduate program in creative writing (nonfiction emphasis). Seven years teaching at National University, UCSD Extension, and the University of San Diego, covering creative writing (fiction and nonfiction) and basic and advanced composition classes. My favorite teaching has been in university writing labs, where I enjoyed working with students one-on-one.

I read most genres, including “literary” (whatever the hell that means), SF/F, mystery/suspense, and romance (pretty much everything but horror). Diverse topics, themes, and authors encouraged. Whatever your vision for your work, let me help you achieve it.

And if you’d like to receive more of my writing tips via email, fill out the form below.


On Writing Politics

Jailed for Fiction



Update 9/3: And the other shoe has dropped. I should have known better than to trust a story based on reporting from local TV stations. Thanks, WBOC, “Delmarva’s Fake News Leader”! Turns out McLaw’s dismissal had little or nothing to do with his books, and more to do with a letter he wrote with suicidal undertones and a model of the school he was building in his back yard, according to the Baltimore Sun. Jeffrey Goldberg also has an excellent update at the link below.


Patrick McLaw, a teacher in Maryland, has been “disappeared” after writing a novel set far in the future detailing “the largest school shooting in history.” He’s been put on leave by his school district, and ordered into an “emergency medical evaluation.” No one knows where he is, but authorities say he’s no longer on the East Coast Eastern Shore of Maryland (apparently a different place than the “East Coast”).

More from Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic Monthly:

It is somewhat amazing that local news reports on this case don’t make clear whether McLaw is under arrest, and if so, on what charge. It is equally astonishing that the reporters on this story don’t seem to have used the words “First Amendment” in their questioning of law-enforcement officials, and also astonishing they don’t question the Soviet-sounding practice of ordering an apparently sane person who has been deemed unacceptable by state authorities to undergo a psychological evaluation.

It would be useful to know if McLaw is under investigation for behavior other than writing two novels—and perhaps he will be shown to be a miscreant of some sort—but so far, there is no indication that he is guilty of anything other than having an imagination, although on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, as news reports make clear, his imagination is considered an active threat.

What’s next? William Gibson jailed for potential cyber warfare? Stephen King charged with possible random acts of spooky mayhem? George R.R. Martin sent to the dungeons for imagining rape, murder, and magical assassination? A posthumous prosecution of David Foster Wallace for possible drug use and writerly hubris? The penitentiary for E.L. James for numerous assaults on the English language? (Now there’s one I’d like to see.)

Oh, wait, unlike Patrick McLaw, none of these writers is black. Seems writing while black is as dangerous as traveling while black. I wonder why the Tea Party isn’t starting a revolution over these gross abuses of governmental authority?