Fantasy Writers Rejoice: Deb Chester's Fantasy Fiction Formula is HERE!
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Unless you've been able to enroll in Deborah Chester's graduate course at the University of Oklahoma, you'll have missed what her students rate as helpful (4.6/5) and clear (4.8/5) graduate-level instruction.  With more than forty books published in a dizzying range of genres, Prof. Chester knows how to create fiction that will sell.  And if you doubt this is teachable, consider the words of her student Jim Butcher – whose first-published book Storm Front was written in her class, using the novel-crafting techniques introduced to him by Deb Chester.  In interview after interview, he's explained (e.g., here) that "Debbie Chester taught me everything I know about writing" and (frequently, both speaking and in his forward to Deborah Chester's newest book) that he directed his suspicion of her techniques into proving them wrong – by faithfully executing them to show just what kind of product would result.  The result, of course, was the bestselling Dresden Files.

But now, Prof. Chester offers her instruction to the rest of us. The Fantasy Fiction Formula tells would-be writers (as many advisors do) that it's important to understand their main characters so they feel authentic.  But she goes further, giving concrete guidance exactly what this means.  Chester's chapter on characters concludes with a seventy-five-point character design checklist to make sure you know how to test the depth of your understanding of your characters, and give you guidance what you need to know to be able to craft scenes that show them in believable color and in full dimension.  It's this concrete connection to the process, and the detail in how to execute her instructions, that separates her work from the more theoretical guidance one finds in some of the popular works on writing.  Similar guidance exists in hooks:  what kinds of hooks exist are presented in a table – together with the parts of a manuscript each hook is best employed.

Chester's book contains guidance entirely consistent with that one can find in established gems on writing, like Robert McKee's Story: Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.  But Chester's work is specifically directed at novelists, and the creation of salable novels.  Reading Jeffrey Schechter's entertaining My Story Can Beat Up Your Story can provide great insight the magic of effective movie-length presentations, but The Fantasy Fiction Formula doesn't require transposition from a foreign medium or leave one scratching one's head how to compact the commanded number of plot points into a salable-length novel.  Chester's chapter on viewpoint addresses techniques that  screenplay advice wouldn't offer because their medium is so different.  The Fantasy Fiction Formula's entire focus is on writing novels – and that means developing characters as only novels can develop them.  It means using tools available to novelists, and employing them as they are best put to use in novels.  Specific guidance aids recognition and avoidance of novel-writing pitfalls.  Each chapter includes execises and drills to ensure you get a chance to try techniques yourself, often by analyzing works you can find in print.  I recommend McKee and Schechter both – but for someone planning a fantasy novel, Chester's book delivers some of the exact same high-quality advice (characters need goals that matter; readers must care about the stakes; etc.) but delivers each with specific focus on the written product the fantasy novelist is actually trying to make.

And it's not just a 50,000-foot view of the forest, and an invitation to sally forth.  The Fantasy Fiction Formula is a detailed navigational guide, in which Chester moves between the micro and the macro to help writers craft a coherent, immersive, fully-developed whole.  The anatomy of a scene is buttressed on the micro side by instructions how to assemble scenes from actions and characters' reactions, and on the macro side by scene architecture and the pursuit of novel-length plots and subplots.  The specific order of events in a character's reaction is detailed so readers can process with the character what the author needs them to understand to proceed.  Dialogue has its own chapter, and two chapters address the creation and evolution of the conflicts you will need to build your scenes.  Chester discusses how to introduce characters – describing several methods, and their application.  Examples abound.  Clear rules govern climactic reversal, both in design and employment.  Golden advice shows how to recognize and fix broken scenes.  Three chapters deal with the novel's middle – a graveyard that swallows so many promising works based on ideas readers would really love to see executed well.  Resolving novels' story problems is addressed with the same care as the scene problems, to help authors deliver fantasy readers a proper reward for their hours of investment – and ensure they put in a good word to their friends, and come back themselves.

Chester's formula encourages and supports what she helped Butcher achieve: readable, fast action built of action/reaction units that advance a character with a meaningful goal through scene after scene of disaster and disappointment until, after a clamactic high-stakes character-defining decision, the story goal has been reached.  There's more, but why spoil a good thing?  If you intend writing novels, you should have a copy yourself – even if there's no magic in the scenes, Chester can show you the magic that gets it right on the page.  It's not a matter of chance.  It's ritual magic, and Chester lays out the spell.

Interviewing Jim Butcher at Comicpalooza 2016!
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UPDATE:  Jim Butcher has informed Comicpalooza 2016 he will not be able to attend as previously scheduled.

This year, Comicpalooza's Guests of Honor include the outstanding multiple-bestselling author Jim Butcher, whose three different series include the (completed) Codex Alera, the long-running and about-half-done Dresden Files, and his newest: The Cinder Spires.  On Sunday June 19, 2016, I'll be interviewing Jim Butcher before a live audience, who will hear the real words spoken directly from his mouth as he reveals great truths and Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know or at least more reasons people should be reading his books.

I'll post links to the interview when I get them.

I'm especially excited Jim Butcher is at the Con not just because I like to see his fans squee, but because Jim Butcher has done something extraordinary, and he says it's learnable.  He's managed to wrote more than twenty novels that are all good and that I am willing to buy with my own money – more than twenty, mind you, which I'm convinced cannot be done by accident.  When interviewed, he's attributed his winning formula to a writing class given him by University of Oklahoma profefessor and more-than-forty-times-published author Deborah Chester, whose new book The Fantasy Fiction Formula has been released this month and for which Jim Butcher has written a forward that instructs people to do what Deb Chester tells them.  Although I don't normally review books here I'll be reviewing The Fantasy Fiction Formula shortly because it is itself about writing and writing process and, according to Jim Butcher, makes the diffrence between his unreadable first several unpublished novels and his actual career as a published author.

Stay tuned!

Law & Society Worldbuilding Presentation: Success!
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The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's meetup group held a worldbuilding workshop yesterday, and it attracted enough people to fill the room.  I'd like to thank Dominick D'Aunno for providing the venue and for all his support of art in Houston.

For those that missed it, the big idea is this:  all the other worldbuilding features appearing in stories (time and place, presence of supernatural elements, geography and weather, food, work, inhabitants, etc.) are all really law and society worldbuilding elements in disguise.  Unless a work is so short that it doesn't paint much scenery, these things will be reflected in the social fabric of the communities relevant to the story, and the societies experiencing these worldbuilding features will have characteristics to expose the underlying world and the conflicts it generates.  Societies and their relationship to characters can be used to enhance not just the full-color/3-D feel of the world but escalate the stakes and ratchet up the tension in the conflict.  It's everywhere once you look.

At Comicpalooza 2015 last month, the content of our Law and Society in Science Fiction panel skewed much more toward the developing law of places like the Moon and Mars, based on current international treaties, which inspired some interesting discussion.

Come by for the next session :-)
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Myke Cole's Tor Interview: Did He Call Neil Gaiman the Anti-Christ?
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People who liked the Myke Cole interview that appeared on this blog might want to see hear the one he gave for Tor.com.  Did I just hear him call Neil Gaiman the Anti-Christ?

Myke Cole depends on process-driven approach to write stories with a pre-planned, explicit, formal sructure.  By contrast, Neil Gaiman put down Campbel's The Hero With A Thousand Faces because he didn't want to know the formula: "I think I got about half way through The Hero with a Thousand Faces and found myself thinking if this is true – I don’t want to know. I really would rather not know this stuff. I’d rather do it because it’s true and because I accidentally wind up creating something that falls into this pattern than be told what the pattern is."

And Myke Cole said he was re-reading Gaiman classics like American Gods, and called some passages "poetry."

So I'll suggest to Myke that not all magic is black magic, and that Gaiman need not serve as the harbinger of the end of the world.  You can still like the books :-)

For some Neil Gaiman "rules" on writing, consider this list at BrainPickings.org.

Interview: Myke Cole, Creator of Shadow Ops
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I'd like to thank Myke Cole for his time over the holidays answering questions and follow-up questions for an interview about his work in the Shadow Ops universe, and its fourth installment: Gemini Cell.  The novel is reviewed here.


Without further ado, as promised, the interview:

I just read Gemini Cell, and – there's no way to put this gently – it's no five-paragraph operation order. What gives?

Myke:

What can I say? I'm trying to push the envelope and grow as a writer with each book. Sometimes, it get's messy :)

In all seriousness, if there's one thing I'm really proud of, it's that each of my books is different from the others. People may disagree about whether or not I am a good writer, but I don't think anyone can seriously charge me with rubber-stamping out novels that are carbon copies of each other. I work hard to extend myself with each one, and I feel that I've largely succeeded.




You wake up tomorrow and manifest a power. (Not in a world with laws governing it, just in this one, where it will get the reactions you can imagine.) What is the power? Whom, if anyone, will you tell?

Myke:

Keep in mind that the "schools" system in the Shadow Ops universe is externally imposed by the US government. Magic doesn't follow rules or organizational principles. This is proven by the fact that Alan Bookbinder Manifests in a "new" school, never before known. There's also an epigraph in Fortress Frontier that specifically mention that the magic we see is the tip of an iceberg that is very wide and very deep below the surface. Keeping that in mind, there are two powers I really want:

1.) The ability to speak, read and write all languages with perfect fluency.

2.) The ability to function comfortable without having to eat, sleep or excrete.

I would spend my life travelling the world, made rich by the fruits of labor I would reap by being three times as productive as I am now.


(Dude. That's two powers. Minimum. The answer does explain some things, though.  On the other hand, it also raises its own questions.  For example … if you don't sleep more than eight hours, and you eat with even half the efficiency in your tilapia guidance, then to triple your productive hours by halting the need to eat, sleep, or excrete means you must have a very tolerant mate to let you hog the bathroom like that. Just sayin'.)

It wasn't long after Aliens came out that I realized Vasquez had fans. Some of them, BIG fans. But lots of military SF with tough women has been set so far out in the future that it doesn't really challenge anyone's view on gender in the current military. In recent years, though, the U.S. has gone from lifting the ban on women in "combat roles" to having SOCCOM brass describe women as desirable to recruit in greater numbers.

It's advancement, but the timelines on some of this progress involves some future dates. Readers haven't often seen women depicted as front-line Special Forces operators in current-day settings. So it was fun in Gemini Cell to notice, a few paragraphs after you introduce Chief Petty Officer Ahmed, that Jim referred to his fellow operator using a feminine pronoun – and to do so without comment, as though this were unremarkable. The Shadow Ops universe is clearly a few years ahead of our own in this area. Was the idea to future-proof your book in light of news on the expanding role of women in US forces, or was this intended to reflect a reality you thought people should be imagining now?


Myke:

The Shadow Ops universe has always been set just a few years ahead of our own time, and the prohibition against women in combat roles was just as nonsensical and bigoted as the prohibition of open homosexuals in military service. War doesn't care about that crap. Women were already in combat zones and already dying for their country. I knew that the prohibition would be lifted to conform with reality, and fairly quickly too. So, I called it to match what I knew was coming. This time, I got it.


On a related note: exactly how much fun did you have writing about Sarah and her canvas knife? Dish :-)
[Note: I didn't ask for spoilers, but I don't control the answers. If you hate spoilers, you might come back to this one answer later to roll around in it with Myke.]

Myke:

It was a real victory for me, because it was one of the few times that one of my characters came to life to the point where they went off script and did their own thing. I had never planned on Sarah flying into battle with only a canvas cutting knife, but when her son was threatened she said "fuck this. I don't care what your precious plot outline says. Nobody is hurting my boy." It's incredibly affirming for a writer to have these moments, because it's the most surefire sign that you're "doing it right." It means your characters are fully realized, alive.


Some of your most frightening conflicts have been between a soldier and the soldier's own service. Why's that? (Is it intentional? Does it reflect real-world concerns, or concerns that derive solely from fictional elements of the Shadow Ops universe?)

Myke:

It's no secret that I'm highly influenced by Captain America. Cap's one of the oldest superheroes, in near-constant action (and print) since WWII. Much of Cap's story is him having to go against his government, and about the conflict between his duty and what he knows is right. This story is as old as the hills. Governments use their incredible power to serve the national interest. But what the national interest is, is different things to different people. Nobody will be happy with how that power is used 100% of the time, and there will always be conflict over how to put it to work. Military members are human beings. We do our best to function as machines, but it's a losing battle. We try our best to salute smartly and follow orders, but all of us come to that crossroads where the institution we love is undertaking a mission we fundamentally oppose, or taking on a mission we support but doing it in a way that makes our skin crawl.

That's a conflict, and conflict is the soul of drama. Drama, in real life, sucks.

But in a story? It's pure gold.


Question:
The first books seemed to portray even really nasty decisions as being driven by intentions a reader could understand. (Boy, it was tempting to root for Scylla to somehow be redeemed!) The adversaries in Gemini Cell engage in some activities hard to picture as anything but villainous, even if some of their middle-men seem sympathetic. Do you worry that readers will decide that some of the characters in the adversary's chain of command are irredeemably evil? Are there flat-out evil people (as opposed to inhuman monsters) in the Shadow Ops universe? Is Jim's post-reanimation "roommate" your clear sign that irredeemably screwed up humans exist in the Shadow Ops world? Or is that just an inhuman monster? Are there inhuman monsters in Shadow Ops, or is everything equally sentient, responsible, complex, and conflicted even if it's not obvious through the point of view shown to the reader?

Myke:

My thoughts on evil are closer to Sarah's sentiments when she lounges with Jim on a beach (one of Jim's memories of their marriage at a more peaceful time). I don't really believe in true evil. People behave in a manner that most of us would characterize as "evil" because they're sick, or they're frightened, or they're weak. The action and the consequences are still the same, but the label matters. I honestly don't think there really are many genuine evil people, mostly scared ones, flailing in desperation.

The jinn in Gemini Cell aren't evil per se. They're driven mad by eons twisting in the soul storm. They are simultaneously hungry for warmth and life, and filled with jealous rage toward those who have it. That can make them act like feral monsters, but the motivation isn't evil, it's the reaction of the dead toward the living.

This is important in writing. Every villain is the hero of their own story. You have to understand their motives and make sure you craft their characters accordingly. Otherwise, you wind up with moustache-twirling types that nobody believes in.


(I won't name names, but I've given up on authors over antagonists that appeared to act more from a need to produce plot events on command than any plausible internal cause.  Believability is a big deal in a story's non-fantastic components. Which is a nice segue into…)

Mark Twain claimed that to feel plausible, a story needed two parts nonfiction for each part fiction – and you've said that in military fiction in particular, accurate details are crucial to connect with the stories' natural audience. I'm interested in the non-fiction elements of the Shadow Ops world. In the U.S. that exists in this world, members of the armed forces take an oath at enlistment to defend "the Constitution of the United States" – not a current politician or a particular administration's political objectives.

One of the frightening aspects of Gemini Cell is the unit's deployment against Americans in America, targeted without indictment, trial, or jury – including over things like a unit's OpSec. So, is this nonfiction? That is, are such actions a normal state of affairs copied from a world in which the Attorney General green-lights using drones to kill Americans inside the US should officials decide they're terrorists, as suggested in stories like this? Is this conduct misbehavior even in the Shadow Ops world?

Myke:

No one who pays any attention to current events can possibly labor under the delusion that the US government operates entirely legally or ethically. The recent revelations from the Snowden and Manning compromises, the drone strikes on US citizens, the nonindictment of police officers for slayings that were ruled homicides by authorized municipal medical examiners, the senate torture report. Whether or not you agree that the ends justified the means, it cannot be disputed that the "force of law" isn't being played with by those in power, as it has throughout the history of this nation. Legacy of Ashes is a great book based on declassified covert operations carried out first by the OSS and later by the CIA. It isn't conjecture, it's fact, supported by government documents. It proved that every single conspiracy theory about the CIA that I ever doubted growing up, from the plot to assassinate Castro, to the dosing of military members with LSD, to attempts to rig Latin American elections, every single one was true.

Gemini Cell is a fantasy, but it's a pretty realistic one.


Your background in the military and law enforcement is well-known, but how you began writing readable prose is less well-known. You explained in a recent interview that you dreamed of being a novelist all your life, but lots of folks dream big. What did you do to put yourself in a practical position to write something worth reading? (Studies? Exercises? Classes? Innate, natural-born superiority? Extra push-ups?)

Myke:

This is one of those "magic key" questions, where folks are wondering what the difference is, a switch they can flip. I'm sorry to say that it doesn't exist. In some ways, I did get lucky, but I had a good manuscript ready to take advantage of the opportunity that was presented to me. Other than that, there's no mystery. I worked really hard, in every spare second afforded to me as I handled my myriad other responsibilities. I wrote a lot, sought criticism from professionals, tried hard to be likeable and personable, and was receptive to feedback. Writing is like a marriage, or a day job, or anything else in life. You roll up your sleeves, you do the work, and you keep the fingers crossed. The odds are against you, but that's the case with any worthwhile endeavor in life, and Gretzky was right when he said that you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

Wait. Did I just quote a sports figure? Who am I and what have I done with Myke Cole?


(It's okay, I've quoted Gretzky, too.)

The reply "I worked really hard, in every spare second afforded to me" is a good answer. If it were easy, after all, everybody's stories would be a pleasure to read. Jim Butcher's story of getting published included not only years of diligent work and persistent self-marketing, but a sneak into a restricted area at a convention to meet people who ended up inviting him to a lunch that landed him an agent referral. I was kind of hoping your story involved rappelling into an office window or tracking down an agent cruising on the high seas. Maybe an endangered fish? Shall I just make something up? :-)

Myke:

You could, but it wouldn't help. This is the thing with Butcher's story: he may have had the bravery and luck to go into that restricted area and have that meeting result in his first book deal, but think about this:

1.) He had to have cultivated his personality to make the publishing person want to invite him to lunch. That means he was interesting, nice and likeable.

2.) When it came time for someone to say, "hey, do you have a manuscript I could look at?" He did. A finished manuscript. A finished, polished manuscript. A finished, polished, AWESOME manuscript.

See what I'm driving at here? Butcher did a TON of work, and that made him ready to take advantage of a tiny amount of luck.

Get to work.



With that in mind…

You did mention meticulously planning your novels – by the sound of it, very much the opposite of a seat-of-the-pants writer. Rowling said her method looked like this:

What's yours look like?
Myke:

I am an uber-planner. I write a 3-4 page treatment that gets beta-read before I expand it into a 80-150 page outline. That gets beta-read before becoming the actual prose novel. There are two things at work here, and both are fear driven: the first is fear that I will paint myself into a corner, and have to throw out tens of thousands of words because the story simply doesn't work as written. The second is that I will construct a story that's solid, but won't sell for one reason or another.

The beta-reads at each stage of the process: treatment, outline and finally novel, help quell this fear. I am soliciting inputs from pro-writers like Peter V. Brett, and heavy-hitting agents like Joshua Bilmes. Now, neither of these things guarantee that I won't paint myself into a corner, or that my work will sell, but they help put the anxiety to bed, and that's something. I'm working on my 5th contracted novel now, and it's safe to say I don't know any other way to write.


You seem to have a lot of fun with fans, telling folks how to eat fish without going soft and exhorting them to work for the common defense. It certainly makes you entertaining to follow on Twitter. What's the most fun you have with fans? Examples?

Myke:

The absolute most fun I have with fans is drinking and gaming with them. The downside of this is that it's the one fan interaction I have the least of. My con time is work time, and cons cost me a lot of money to attend. In order to make them effective, I have to be hustling, and that seriously detracts from the thing I'd most like to be doing: geeking out with fellow dorks in the gaming room. I will never forget the impromptu Munchkin game two Balticons ago. It lasted three hours, and we all swore we'd never play again, but I think we all knew we didn't mean it.

Freedom-loving people everywhere have been improving trigger discipline in blaster-rich conventions at your command, and want to know what instructions you have for them after they have mastered the discipline of proper tilapia preparation. Your next orders?

Myke:

Always wear a United States Coast Guard approved personal flotation device. No, seriously. I mean, *always*. Don't let me catch you leaving your house in the middle of the Arizona desert without one.

Remember: you heard it here first.

Gemini Cell Reviewed!
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My review of Myke Cole's forthcoming Gemini Cell is now available at The Jaded Consumer.

Enjoy it, then come back for the interview!

Myke Cole Interview On The Way!
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The Myke Cole interview discussed in the previous post has wrapped, and I'm working on making it presentable, like this one.  You know, unformatted paragraphs with ugly URLs hanging in the middle need converting into nice-looking text with links in the right place.  I've suffered through enough hard-to-read garbage on the Internet not to want to do that to you, so gimme a few days.

In the meantime, the interview appears to have the Myke Cole Seal of Approval: "I really enjoyed these very in-depth and well thought out questions. Thanks for taking the time to ask them. Let me know when the interview goes live!"

Soon, soon :-)

Coming Soon: Myke Cole Interview!
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In the spirit of my interview of The Incrementalists' authors Skyler White and Steven Brust, I'll post an interview of Myke Cole, author of the forthcoming Gemini Cell (and the existing Shadow Ops books you can already buy and read).  The interview hasn't been done yet, as I need to figure out how he wants to give it.  (I'm not on a Coast Guard vessel in New York, or this might be easier.)

My first interview plan was, sadly, a failure.  After my incremental interview of The Incrementalists' authors, I felt it fitting that I should send an animated corpse to interview Myke Cole about Gemini Cell.  You wouldn't believe the trouble I've had getting someone to agree to be reanimated for this purpose.  I mean, you have to sacrifice for art.  Everybody knows this.  So people should trust the process when I've got my knife out, ready to sacrifice.  And, yet ….

Oh, well. Working through little details like this are just part of the process.

Terraform: New Stories Reviewed
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Last month, Terraform launched as a short SF weekly.  Its first publication came in a batch of four stories (reviewed here), and there have been publications every Monday since.  On Christmas Eve, Terraform posted a holiday story.  It's worth bookmarking Terraform to re-visit and read.

Most of my short story reviews can be found at Tangent.

On Structuring Novels' Chapters
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Writing professor and multiply-published author Deborah Chester's recent post "Chapter Structure" provides a look at how chapter lengths and their content have evolved in modern books, and offers advice on what to put in a chapter.  She writes:

"Don’t worry about whether you have a one-scene chapter, a one-sequel chapter, or a combination of the two types of dramatic units.
Instead, think about a chapter as a division of story that opens with a grab for the reader’s attention and builds to a hook at its conclusion."


While reading the work of her former student Jim Butcher, I noticed he frequently places chapter ends on a scene disaster.  This practice has two apparent effects.  First, think of your own book-reading.  Ask yourself if you've ever had a thought like this: "It's late, I should go do X, so I'll just bookmark this at the end of the chapter I'm on.  It's not far.  I'll stop then. At the end of the next chapter."  Jim Butcher thwwwwwarts (this is like regular 'thwarts' but more vigorous) this intent by creating an emergency you must see resolved.  You can't put the book down there, you have to know what happens.  (This is why I think folks raged at the end of Changes: they had more than a year to wait for the other shoe to drop after reading the scene disaster that answered the book's question about whether the protagonist would survive ocnflict with the forces arrayed against him.  While Jim Butcher likes to claim Changes wasn't technically a cliffhanger – it did answer the story question – Butcher's description of Changes, Ghost Story, and Cold Days as a sort of middle-of-the-series turning-point trilogy helps explain why people struggled while waiting to get the different parts of the three books: they were examples of scene disaster occurring at a book's end, and made people want to turn pages they hadn't seen yet.)  The truth is, you *can* find places to set down a Jim Butcher book.  Just don't look for it at the end of a chapter. (Besides: you bought the book. Indulge yourself and just finish it already!)

The practice of closing the chapter on a scene disaster also draws attention to the disasterous nature of the scene end.  There's no text immediately after the chapter-ending scene-disaster text: while readers turn from the rest of the blank page, those last words echo in their minds.  It's much more effective than mere boldface text to get people to notice an idea, dwell on it a moment, and encourage them to roll it about in their heads.

I'm looking forward to Deb Chester's forthcoming The Fantasy Fiction Formula.

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