Yevgeny Zamyatin: a brief biography

Yevgeny Zamyatin is among my literary heroes. A subversive writer who protested first the Czarist and then the Bolshevik governments in Russia during the tumultuous period between 1900 and the 1930s, Zamyatin was multi-talented and pretty damn close to fearless. He wrote novels, short stories, political essays, literary criticism, and plays; edited literary magazines and journals; served on editorial and theatrical boards; mentored the Serapion Brothers Literary Group; lectured on Russian literature, naval engineering, and creative writing; and designed warships for Russia and England during World War I.

Somehow, with all that on his plate, he also managed to find time to be exiled on three separate occasions. The first time, he was a student in St. Petersburg (known in the Soviet years as Petrograd) who regularly participated in demonstrations against the Czarist government and was caught hiding an illegal printing press in his dorm room. He was exiled from the city in 1905, but he sneaked back in to finish his degree in 1906. Through a bureaucratic loophole, he was able to stay and begin his teaching career at the Polytechnic Institute. He was exiled from the city again in 1911 and then sent to Ukraine in 1913 to get him out of Russia. He worked on warships in England from 1916-1917, where he became an associate of George Orwell (Orwell’s 1984 would be heavily inspired by Zamyatin’s ideas and his novel We). Zamyatin managed, again, to sneak back into St. Petersburg, this time for the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Although Zamyatin had been a Bolshevik since his student days, he was (like many others) repulsed by the brutality of the civil war that followed the Revolution, as well as the pressure for conformity which the new Bolshevik government imposed on society. Zamyatin was as quick to criticize the authorities of the Soviet regime as he had been those of the Czarist regime, earning him epitaphs such as “The First Dissident,” “The Devil of Soviet Literature,” “The Soviet Heretic,” and “the most left-wing man in Russia.” His 1920 novel We became the first novel banned in the USSR; it wasn’t even published yet, and had only been read in literary circles in manuscript format. (It was published abroad in 1924 and would go on to inspire Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Vonnegut’s Player Piano.) Truth in literature, empathy toward others, and a deep awareness of reality were paramount in Zamyatin’s philosophy. He once wrote, “It is not possible to build on negative emotions. Genuine literature will come only when we replace hatred for man with love for man,” (The Goal).

In 1931, after being systematically banned from publication and from the theater, and removed from his teaching positions, he wrote a letter to Stalin requesting to leave the Soviet Union to live abroad. Here is a quote from that letter which pretty well displays Zamyatin’s lack of fear:

I know that I have the very uncomfortable habit of saying what is not advantageous at a given moment, but whatever I believe to be the truth. I never concealed what I think of literary servility, toadyism, and coat changing. I have always thought and I continue to think that such things are as degrading for the writer as they are to the revolution.”

Yevgeny Zamyatin to Yosef Stalin, 1931

As much to Zamyatin’s surprise as anyone’s, Stalin granted passports to Yevgeny and his wife. The Zamyatins traveled in Germany and Czechoslovakia before settling in Paris, where they met Marc Slonim, the man who had published We. Sadly, Zamyatin’s health deteriorated rapidly; he had heart disease. Slonim sheltered him and helped nurse him through his final years before Zamyatin died in 1937.

The striking thing (to me) about Zamyatin’s ideas, his philosophy, his writing advice, is how deeply rooted they are in his particular moment in time and place, and yet how universally they apply. Some of Zamyatin’s quips and quotes could belong just as well to an L.A. punk rocker of the 1970s or a Zen philosopher as a subversive shouting his message from the early days of the USSR.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, the “Devil of Soviet Literature”

A few fun facts:

  • As a child, Zamyatin was bitten by a rabid dog. He didn’t tell anyone until two weeks later, because he wanted to see what it would feel like to have rabies. Luckily for him, he didn’t contract the disease
  • Zamyatin struggled with math as a child; he chose to study engineering specifically to challenge himself
  • Zamyatin applied Einstein’s theory of relativity to his writing style, which is why he avoids chronological narration, changes point of view, utilizes multiple planes of action, and expands time relative to the moment in his work
  • Zamyatin was deeply inspired by Dostoevsky, particularly his concept that the irrational is the ultimate source of freedom and individuality (most famously expressed in The Brothers Karamazov in the Grand Inquisitor sequence)

Zamyatin quotes:

  • “We have long become overgrown with calluses; we no longer hear people being killed,” The Dragon: Fifteen Stories
  • “If I mean anything to Russian literature, I owe this completely to the Petrograd Secret Service.”
  • “Irony, sarcasm, and satire are the most effective weapons of progress…for stopping man kneeling before someone or something.”
  • “There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes once, whereas a book explodes a thousand times,” A Soviet Heretic
  • “Who knows who you are…a person is a novel: you don’t know how it will end until the very last page. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth reading to the very end,” We
  • “Knowledge! What does that mean? Your knowledge is nothing but cowardice… You just want to put a little wall around infinity. And you’re afraid to look on the other side of that wall,” We

If you’re curious to read some Zamyatin, I can’t recommend enough the short story “The Cave.” It’s my favorite of his works that I’ve read. The novel We, as you can tell from this post, is probably his most important piece in terms of influence on literature.

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InConjunction 2019

This past Friday-Sunday (July 5-7) I spent in Indianapolis at InConjunction Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. As usual at these types of events, I was wearing the multiple hats of vendor, panelist, writer, reader, and partner/marketing director in the small press publishing house, Per Bastet Publications. This might seem like a lot of hats, but I’m used to it.

Although my panels were MANY, they were a lot of fun, and a nice mix of readings and discussions. I did two readings (one action scene from my novel The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn and one fun scene from the opening of my short story “She Who Dines on Heavenly Food), swapped book recommendations at the Best Book I Read Since InConjunction 2018 panel, spoke on a panel on world-building, and spoke on a panel about balancing plot-driven and character-driven elements in writing.

I was also very excited and honored to be on two panels with the curator of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and the director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University (shout out to Doug Powers for the fantastic job he did as moderator)! The first was about science fiction in Vonnegut’s works, and my part was mainly to comment as a Vonnegut reader and as a writer of speculative fiction–although Vonnegut and I do have in common a degree in anthropology, which shows up in the way he writes about both our society and fictional societies in his work. The second panel was about censorship and banned books, which both apply to Vonnegut and Bradbury, but also to another little niche of mine: while I was getting that aforementioned anthropology degree, I did two projects on censorship: one on censorship in general, and one on Soviet subversive literature during the Stalin era. Here’s the thing about being on panels and attending panels: you come away really excited about things all over again. I’ve been away from academia since I graduated in 2015, but being on these two panels in particular reminded me of all the things I miss about it. Not that I don’t talk about ideas a lot, and not that I’m not constantly learning new things in my current capacity as a CRM archaeologist, but damn, school was fun.

It also made me realize that, hey, I have a blog that’s primarily about writing, and that I’ve said very little here about the brilliance, courage, and resourcefulness of subversive Russian writers. Also that I have a lot to say, and that I use my blog far too little for someone who’s as impassioned about as many topics as I am. So, dear readers, although my primary focus at the moment is finishing The Death and Times of Seth McCoy, methinks I’ll try to write a few posts here in the near future about two of my literary heroes, Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov.

If you write, whether you’re published or trying to be or are just starting out, I can’t stress to you enough how good for you it is to attend conventions. Many writers are not people people, or are not good with crowds, or are not good with strangers, or are socially awkward, or all of the above. I don’t exclude myself from at least a few of these categories (one of my dreams is to own a coffee mug that says I’d rather be digging your grave) but there’s this gorgeous energy you only get from conventions, and you’re cheating yourself if you don’t tap into it. Everybody else there is just as nerdy as you are, after all. And once you step into it, you’re family. Seeing friends and welcoming newcomers is part of the joy, and one not absent for me this weekend!

For me personally, there is also always the benefit of sharing even the shittiest hotel room with my crime business partners, T. Lee Harris and Marian Allen a.k.a. Mom, who loves me so much she bought me a plague rat from one of the vendors this weekend. His name is Bubo.

Bubo the Plague Rat. Yes, that is a Wolfman figurine astride Ein from Cowboy Bebop in the background.

Mernan’s Betrayal – $0.99c Short Story Release

Released today on Amazon Kindle is my short story, Mernan’s Betrayal, for the low low price of 99 cents! Originally published in Southern Indiana Writers’ Off the Rack anthology, it’s the first of the Tales of Pasmira stories to be published.

Click image to see on Amazon!

The use of magic is forbidden to everyone but the village mage, Mernan. But a stranger from the north, a man of the longren race said to be descended from dragons, is caught nearby, and the villagers demand his execution. Mernan must choose between his duty and his conscience to decide the stranger’s fate. This story is one of many Tales from Pasmira, a world where humans, elves, longren, and rarer races coexist in anything but harmony.

This story is based in a world I began building for a novel back in 1998. The world has by far overflowed what one novel can hold,  with over 1500 years of history timelined and a plethora of legends, characters, creatures, and encounters with their own stories to tell. This is the first of these stories released, and takes place in the equivalent of the Bronze Age. Most of the others take place roughly a thousand years later. I hope (fingers crossed!) to announce the publication of another before long, and there will eventually be a collection, at least one novella or novel, and possibly a storytelling game! But for now, here is an introduction to the world of Pasmira.

Reflections on a Writer’s Retreat

This past week, my mom (fellow author and fellow member of Per Bastet Publications) Marian Allen, hosted a writer’s retreat for the Southern Indiana Writers Group (which I am technically a member of even though I live in Louisville and rarely make the meetings). The retreat was in my late grandmother’s house (next door to my parents’ house) in the woods, which renters recently vacated–Just in time for NaNoWriMo!

While we didn’t experience any ghostly activity (which is why the renters left) whatsoever, we did get a lot of writing done! And a lot of drinking. And a lot of eating good food, despite the fact that there is no stove or refrigerator in the house anymore. Thankfully, the third member of Per Bastet, T. Lee Harris, brought a mini-fridge and a griddle and an outlet-powered cooler, and Mom brought her Instant Pot cooker, and there was a microwave. All the attending writers took turns making meals and cleaning up, and everybody brought some booze, and we had a great time talking story at mealtimes. The rest of the time, we were pretty quiet because, you know, WRITING.

And there was no TV and only a smidgeon of internet, but that was okay because WRITING! There were also no beds, so the options were floor, air mattress, or cot, but despite sleeping on the floor I zonked out at night because my brain was so worn out from WRITING.

The outcome: 22.5 pages (just under 6,000 words) in 6 days, plus I fixed a bunch of problems in the previously-written part of the manuscript. Not bad! And I’m still on a

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Grandma in her kitchen, c. 2002

roll, having written another 600+ words this evening (so far) after work. Plus I got to visit with friends, my parents (Dad had dinner with us one night), and my grandma’s house. Grandma would have been tickled to know we used her home for a writer’s retreat, and even more so that two books she was particularly looking forward to reading were being drafted there this week. ❤

NaNoWriMo: My Way

So I’ve only successfully drafted a 50,000 word manuscript one year out of the four I’ve participated, but I still love National Novel Writing Month, which is November. If nothing else, it’s something to look forward to about an otherwise cold, rainy, darker-by-the-day month that’s only a taste of the icy misery to come (can you tell I’m not a winter person?) Besides, any event that encourages creatives to prioritize their creativity is a Good Thing in my worldview. I’ve badly needed to prioritize writing and haven’t been very disciplined about it, so that’s my main goal this NaNo.

And I do have a leg up this year, since I’ve already drafted the core of my storyline in just under 20,000 words. Now it’s a matter of building around it and making it coherent, tying together loose ends, and writing the ending. Easier said than done, of course, but it sure beats having a zero word count and no direction! So yesterday I re-read what I’d already written and today I added 1,000 words–500 before I wasn’t sure what to do and another 500 after I took a shower and worked out what the story needed.

So, to all of you who are doing NaNo, either by the official rules or adapted to suit your own writing purposes, happy November, and good luck to us all!

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IMAGINARIUM 2018

Instead of waiting to do a review of Louisville’s Imaginarium 2018 until after it’s over, I’m going to do you a favor and explain, in advance, why you should come if it’s even remotely possible. This is the 5th anniversary of Imaginarium, a writer’s workshop with a gaming track, film festival, kids’ programming, burlesque show, magic show, cosplay contest, FREE book fair and expo hall, and pretty much anything else you can think of that any reader, writer, artist, costumer, gamer, or fan could ask for in one space. I have gone every year, and so have 90% of the people who came to the first Imaginarium. It’s hands-down my favorite event of the year, my favorite weekend of the year, every single year. The panels are engaging, the staff is fantastic, the organizers treat everyone like royalty, and those of us who keep coming back each year are like family. It is truly, in this rather bleak world modern homo sapiens have found ourselves in, a community. I would like to point out that I do not get paid to say these things. Haha!

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I am particularly excited this year because I have two short stories up for the Imadjinn Awards, nominations for which were featured in Locus Magazine on September 10th. Whether I win or not, I’m proud to be in the same league as the other authors listed in these nominations! Also, I’m particularly excited about the very fancy dress I got to wear to the Imadjinn Awards Banquet, since my work uniform this time of year is muddy work boots and sweaty t-shirts and grubby-sleeved hoodies. (It’s nice to be a girly girl when it’s not every day!) And I’m also stoked about the panels I’m speaking on: Crossing Genres on Friday (my favorite writing topic); Releasing Steam (Steampunk), Occult in Fiction, and Marvel vs. DC on Saturday; and Gothic Fiction and Noir in Fiction on Sunday.

But if you’re new to Imaginarium and you don’t already have friends you’re looking forward to seeing there, or you don’t wear fancy dresses or you don’t write or you aren’t a spec fic nerd, is there a reason for you to show up? YES. There is literally something for everyone. If you just want to shop for local or indie authors, fine – it’s free to come to the vendor’s hall! There’s also jewelry, art, all-natural products, and other cool stuff to buy. If you write, read, game, like indie films, like science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, history, comic books, poetry, or anything else to read, there will be writers there talking about your favorite reading material. For writers, Imaginarium is a *bargain*. It’s literally 1/3 the price of a lot of workshops, with 3X the programming (and more fun activities included!) Every year, I come away from Imaginarium exhausted and bedazzled with ideas, inspired and scribbling frantically into notebooks and on napkins for weeks afterward. And every year, I come away missing my fellow Imaginators, eager for next year’s event so we can catch up in person.

I’m an introvert, and every time I go somewhere with more than about 3 people, I wonder, “Will this really be worth it?” If *I’m* telling you this event is something you should be excited about, take me at my word. 😉

How to Cut a Scene

I’d say about 1/3 of good writing is cutting dead weight out of your work. It’s gotten substantially easier for me to do this the longer I’ve written. Maybe it’s from trimming down articles and reports, maybe it’s my experience as an editor, or maybe it’s just that the more years you write, the more you know your best work from the weaker stuff. Having cut the last two and a half chapters I’ve written in the last month, I feel like giving three pieces of advice:

First, don’t worry about whether you’ll keep what you write in the final version. Write to discover. About your characters, your world, testing plot ideas, etc. If it doesn’t work, fine. You can take it out after it’s written, but don’t stare at a page worrying if you’re about to write your masterpiece or a pile of junk. As four wise men once said, Let it be.

Second, don’t be too generous when it comes time to edit. Are you excited about the scene? No? Neither will the reader be. Is the scene vital to the plot? Yes? Make it exciting. No? Cut that sucker. Can’t make it exciting? Find another way to tell the vital part of it–a way you are excited about.

Third: NEVER delete. If you cut a scene, you COPY and PASTE it to another document. I used to keep a “scraps” document in Word; now I use YWriter5 (*free* outline software) to better organize my cut scenes. You never know when you’ll want to cannibalize some description, quip, exchange, or idea that got lost in an otherwise not-so-special scene.

Ending a Book (Do’s and Don’ts)

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I said two weeks ago I was going to talk about what I’d been reading lately, but I got distracted and posted about other things last week. (Welcome to conversations with me.) So here are some of the last few things I’ve read: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore. All three are historical fiction, and all mystery/thriller in some way or another. I adored the first 2/3 of The Luminaries, the way the story was told, the style and atmosphere, and the setting. I adored the first 2/3 of The Alienist for its plot and pacing, characters (including Theodore Roosevelt), and attention to detail. Unfortunately, in the case of both these books, I can only describe the last third of each of them in terms of Johnny Rotten:

I almost stopped reading Catton’s book (which I never do once I’m past the first 100 pages), though strangely I forgot how disappointed I was in the last section of it afterward. Which does speak volumes about Catton’s writing skills, since her style, characters, and world completely overshadowed a black hole in the plot. Props for that! As for The Alienist, I was willing to go for it up until the very end. And then the chapter that needed to be there…wasn’t. It’s like if a Sherlock Holmes book stopped before the part where Holmes explains to Watson how he figured out the mystery. Sure, we know who the killer is, but what we’re interested in at that point is what was going on in the detective’s mind when he was working on the solution–or in this case, the Alienist’s mind.

The Last Days of Night, I’m happy to say, was consistently good all the way through. A legal thriller set during Thomas Edison’s lawsuit against Westinghouse (with Nikola Tesla sort of caught in the crossfire), it’s very well-written and clearly well-researched. In fact, everything I thought was a bit far-fetched in the story turned out to be true, according to Moore’s detailed afterword.

The part of a book I struggle with the most is after the set-up and before the first major shift happens, rather than the ending. That said, endings do require a lot of decisions. How far after the climax do you go on? How do you give readers enough extra without dragging on too much? What’s the most emotionally satisfying point to end on? Do you show an action, a scene of dialogue, or narrative reflection to wrap up? Oh, and of course, is there going to be a sequel? Personally, I’d say a good ending should have the following properties:

  1. Resolves the main conflict in a way that makes logical sense within the rules of the story world.
  2. Resolves or shows the promise of resolution for secondary conflicts.
  3. Shows or reflects on how the events in the book affected the world of the story.
  4. Shows or reflects on how the events in the book affected the main character(s).
  5. Reflects at least one significant change in the main character(s).

Because you don’t want your reader to leave feeling like this:

cheated

The Wisdom of James Herriot

I don’t know how much of what I’ve written this week I’ll end up keeping vs. cutting. I finished a chapter tonight which may well be completely replaced. But I’m not sorry I wrote it, because 1. I enjoyed writing it, and 2. it gave one of my characters room to open up on the page–not that I didn’t already know certain things about him, but just like with real people, it’s one thing to know a character, and another thing to really empathize with them, to feel what it’s like inside their head. Whether the scene is integral enough to the plot of the novel or not to keep it remains to be seen, along with whether or not it’s anything a reader would care to sit through when there are much more adventurous moments to be had in the book. In a first draft, you can’t worry about that kind of stuff, or you’ll never finish. Be generous with your first draft and ruthless with your second, I always say. Or, in other words, write the first draft as a writer and the second as an editor.

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Alfred Wight, a.k.a. James Herriot with doggie. Image cribbed from James Herriot Twitter account.

And speaking of writing, I just finished re-watching the excellent BBC series All Creatures Great and Small, based on the autobiographical books of a Yorkshire veterinarian. The books were written under the pseudonym of James Herriot, real name Alfred Wight. I grew up on his books, which both my mother and my grandmother read to me as a child, and on the BBC television series which aired on PBS when I was little. The time period is the 1930s-50s, the setting rural Yorkshire, the style funny and touching by turns, and the characters (both human and animal) portrayed with a beautiful balance between honesty and compassion in the narrative. Herriot’s (or rather, Wight’s) stories are as ingrained in me as if they were the mythos of my personal culture. So when I finished the series and sat down to check out the special features, I was thrilled to come across a 1970s interview with the author.

There were several things in the interview that particularly struck me. First, Wight spent twenty years saying he was going to write a book before, at age 50, he ever attempted the task. He described his struggles with learning to write from the heart, rather than trying to write “well,” with finding his own voice in the shadow of the literary classics he loved. And then his struggles with rejection letters and the inevitable depression that accompanies their repetition, disasters like having an editor who liked his work but asked him for rewrites leave for another company by the time he did the rewrites, and a host of other obstacles. And yet, he ended up with one bestseller after another, translations into languages for readers all over the world, and a TV series on the BBC.

Second, I was struck by the accuracy of his portrayal of himself and his wife, and their relationship, based on the books in comparison to things he said in the interview. It can’t possibly be easy to portray anything that close to home without skewing it. And I’m sure there’s some of that, but it made me smile to see him act so much like the James Herriot I knew from his books.

Third, the interviewer asked several times, in different wording each time, why a multi-national bestselling author was, at that time, still working full time as a country vet. Wight’s answer: He loved being a vet, his love of being a vet is what he writes about, and he felt it was important to balance his writing life with the activity his career provided him with. All of which just makes me love his books more, because of the depth of his feeling for his work with animals–and the people who care for them. But that third component, balancing creativity with daily life, struck me in particular. It’s something all but the most successful writer struggles with: balancing a day job with writing. And yet, here’s an author who could easily have lived on his sales, who felt that without his day job (if you can call a job where you’re on call 24/7 a “day job”), he wouldn’t have been as productive as a writer. Granted, he wrote about what he did for a living. But still, it’s a point to ponder. We tell ourselves we need time to write, but is it time we need, or is it motivation, self-discipline, and drive?

For my own part, if I’m honest, it’s the latter. Thank you for the reminder, “Mr. Herriot”!

Write Like a Social Animal

One of the most delightful parts of writing–and reading, and watching a well-done movie or TV series–is character dynamics. Playing characters off of one another, testing them against each other, seeing how their differences clash or compliment (or how their similarities clash or compliment) is just fun. It’s probably the same thing that makes a good party entertaining for people who enjoy parties (Personal Fact: I enjoy parties until I get home and think about all the ways I might have looked stupid). An ensemble of characters is great in its own right, but for now, I’m going to talk about dynamic duos.

Let’s face it, the original Star Trek would not have been nearly as good without Spock and Bones perpetually digging at each other, or without their obvious friendship in spite of that. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing wouldn’t have been the least bit fun without Beatrice and Benedick aggravating the hell out of each other and falling in love (either outcome of their interaction, by itself,  would have been pretty vanilla, but both made it both spicy and hysterically funny). Even better is Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship simultaneously makes each character redeemable and monstrous.

The pitfall for a writer, particularly with duos and particularly particularly with opposite-sex or romantic duos, comes when one character is too strong for the other. One way to go wrong with this is to tone down a great character to prop up another. The first example that comes to mind, for me, is the Golden Compass series. We had a strong female lead in the first book, and in the second book she is completely different in her behavior and responses to things. She goes from being courageous and active in the first book to being passive, submissive, and unsure of herself once a male character becomes the lead in the second. To me, this does not come across as, “Oh, this guy must be really something, if a strong girl like her looks to him for answers.” It comes across as, “Well, someone doesn’t know how to balance two strong characters.” This irritated me to no end. And it can certainly go both ways, when it comes to gender. Some writers of strong female characters think that toning down men boosts their women.

As someone who is in the process of writing a novel with a strong female character with a husband, I have to say that my approach is not to tone either wife (Erica) or husband (Dom) down to up the other’s game. Like ANY good dynamic duo, the key for me is to show the ways, both quirky and vital, that each plays off the other. It’s par for the course in writing to match the antagonist’s strength to the protagonist’s. Why should it be any different for a pair of protagonists? If it takes a strong person to fight a strong person, why wouldn’t it follow that it takes a strong person to love a strong person–whether that love is romantic, platonic, or love-hate? The fun part is digging around in the realms of whose strengths compliment whose–who’s too focused on this to pick up on that, who picks up the pieces when the other goes too far–and how each of them sees their own strengths and weaknesses compared to the other? This is far from applying only to romantic couples, or even to duos. Any system of human interaction depends on members contributing something or other, and good storytelling brings together individual contributions to the whole of a satisfying story. Even the bad guys, because they did their part to make the story good, too. We’re social animals, when it comes down to it. Write like a social animal.

Happy Sunday! Now I’ll have another glass of amontillado in honor of you, dear readers. Next week, I think I’ll write about what I’ve been reading lately!