Why do characters lie?

Fictional liars

The Unreliable Narrator is a character who tells the reader a story which cannot be entirely trusted, or taken at face value. The narrator might be deliberately deceptive, or they may be telling a perfectly reasonable story according to THEIR worldview, their reality, which may not be the reader’s. Perhaps they are working from a misconception because they are not privy to all the relevant information.

Basically, the unreliable narrator storytellers cannot be entirely trusted to tell YOUR truth.

Here’s a piece of homework – think of a story with an unreliable narrator. I’ll start you off. “Clockwork Orange”. “Life of Pi”. “Rebecca”. “Gone Girl”. Justine Larbalestier’s “Liar”. Quite possibly Alice, of Wonderland fame (I mean, she dreamed it ALL…) That’s a start. Cast your mind over books you have read. Add them to the list.

If you are creating your own unreliable narrator, there can be pure exhilaration in doing it, doing it well, and knowing that at some point the reader will gasp sharply when they realize that the things they have been led to believe are real and true… may not be. It is a very delicate web to weave, but when done properly it is an amazing dance between the writer and the reader, and these are books that are remembered for a long time after they are done.

There are a number of ways of doing this. The hardest one is the clue layering all the way in, right from the start, nudging the reader along inch by inch until you pull the curtain on the reveal. The dangers there are obvious. It is possible to give too many clues, leaving the character way too open to being unmasked too early in the game.

It is possible not to give enough clues so that the reveal comes out of left field and the reader feels ambushed by something that was never properly foreshadowed.

The writer can be subtle about this, giving out information through the reactions of other characters (indicating that something about the narrator’s thoughts or actions is considered ‘off’ in his context and circumstances), or simply by placing the narrator within a setting where it is clear that the perceptions being conveyed to the readers are filtered through a lens of a very different set of convictions or a worldview and the things the narrator perceives as being good or right… may not be entirely correctly perceived.

In this sense, the character does not exactly LIE to the reader, he or she simply presents their own version of the truth. This can be tougher than it looks, particularly when the author is not the narrator and does not necessarily share any views that the reader might find abhorrent. It is important not to confuse the voice of the narrator with that of the author. A good author can project an entirely different person with a remarkable degree of verisimilitude.

Facts are empirically provable, but truth is not so easily pinned down. Truth is perceived rather than proved. One person’s truth may not be another’s – a deeply religious person’s truth is that God is responsible for absolutely everything and is all-powerful, while an atheist prefers to trust this world rather than the next. You define yourself as a good person by doing what you perceive are good deeds. That is a fact. But whether you do those good deeds because you are hoping for a reward in Heaven, or because they are in themselves reward enough in this world and you have no expectations of ever seeing another, that is your truth, and your own truth governs how your perceive your life, your world, your experiences, and how you convey your ideas to someone else.

Person A might well consider Person B an unreliable narrator simply because the two of them do not necessarily inhabit the same truth sphere, even though they are both physically very present in the same world. Both persons are telling the truth – their OWN truth – and both persons might be perceived as bending that truth, or actively lying about important things, by the other. They are being perceived as unreliable narrators. And in some ways it is the reader who governs the unreliability of the narrator – simply by providing their own set of lenses through which they might view a particular story. Readers will always find in any story worth its salt far more than the author ever thought they put in there.

All fiction is by definition a lie. None of it “really happened”. But you as the reader get to decide which of the characters within any given story you actually trust to provide you with the inner scaffolding of meta-truth with exists within the narrative you are reading.

And if you’re the writer, you have to decide what aspect of your story is the ‘true’ one, the right one, and which you will present to your readers as subtly skewed… and then you have to trust those readers to perceive it. You get to shine the light of your choice on your story – and you hope that, in the minds of your readers, you get to cast the shadows you wanted.

Within your story, however, on a more granular level, you will sometimes make the choice of having a character tell a blatant untruth at some point.

Why do people lie?

There are people who are incapable of stopping – whose entire lives are built of lie upon lie, one making the next one necessary, and they are just placed one on another and mortared in place until there’s a wall of lies it is impossible to work your way free of even if you tried. There are people who might do this because they want to trap others behind that wall, and there are people who build it to protect some inner core of themselves. Either way, it’s an inevitability, in the end – it’s like pushing a snowball down a hill and watching it get bigger and bigger and bigger and obliterating everything in its path in the end – but that final result is not entirely your fault. All you did was push the snowball off the hill. Everything else it did by inertia, by itself. Unless the character in question is a certifiable sociopath, though, this is a tough row to hoe. Keeping a wall of lies straight is not the easiest thing to do. While some of them are solid they are also very vulnerable to the presence of the smallest inadvertent truth.

There are people who will lie out of compassion – the “it will be all right” lie, to someone who is mortally wounded or who is dying of an incurable disease, the “it’s better this way” lie when some unspeakable tragedy occurs and you’re trying to make it lighter by implying that a greater tragedy would have happened had events fallen out otherwise. That sort of thing.

There are people who lie in the heat of the moment and then have to live by that lie. There are people who will lie to protect themselves. There are people who will lie to protect others to the point of damning themselves.

There are people who will lie for personal gain, who will sell second-hand lemon cars or bad mortgages or shady investments to gullible or vulnerable people. There are people who will not so much lie as simply not speak of something to a third party (who may or may not have a right to know).

There are people who will lie because they don’t like their truth and they simply speak of it in terms that they can live with even if those terms are not real or true. Self deceiving is all too easy because you are lying to yourself and you have no outside way to verify that information..

There are people who will lie for gain, or for pity, or for love, or for incandescent hate, or for indifference. There are people who will lie for the joy of hearing themselves do it.

The first lie told begins a story. The rest of the story… is a search for truth. Not, necessarily, the facts. Just the truth.

 

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Quote of the Day

Building Castles poster

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‘Children of a Different Sky’: Stories of war and exile
A crowd-funded anthology from great authors. Any money collected beyond the costs of publication will be donated to help the dispossessed human tides of our era. Give what you can at the crowd-funding website HERE

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HELP ME BUILD NEW WORLDS: As publishing changes, most authors need new sources of income. If you would like to help me continue writing about wizards and Weres, Jin-shei sisters, and girls who rise from the gutter to Empress, consider pitching in with a small monthly pledge. For the cost of a latte or two you too can become a patron of the arts. Details HERE

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How can I write…?

I and 33 other authors offer advice.

I wasn’t consulted, but my best advice?

Nothing is EVER finished – but you have to know when to let go. It won’t be perfect. Not EVER. Live with it. Get your story as good as you can and then let it step out into the world to seek its fortune. Hope it sends you a postcard to show you how it’s doing.”

That’s it. But it took me a score of books and a few million words to really recognize the truth of it. And between you and me, I sometimes have a hard time practicing what I preach.

I particularly like this advice:

33. “Ignore all lists of writing tips. Including this one…every time you hear a writing tip, you have to decide whether it means something to you, resonates with you, or (it’s) the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s your book, you need to learn to write it your way. Now please ignore this advice. – Marcus Sedgwick, author of The Ghosts of Heaven and others

And this:
As Bad as it gets posterimages.unsplash.com

07. First drafts are always horrible and ugly. Don’t worry about that – it’s the same for everyone…if you keep redrafting, one day you will look at your horrible book and realise that you’ve turned it into something actually quite beautiful. – Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series

See all the advice at Buzzfeed HERE

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The Japanese Museum of Rocks That Look Like faces

Rock faces 1Rocks have faces? Rocks have souls?

This is FABULOUS. this is a cabinet of stories waiting to happen. It gives me a happy and slightly insane urge to go out and start turning rocks over and asking them to talk to me.

Speaker to Rocks. There are worse things to aspire to be…

The museum is called the Chinsekikan (which means hall of curious rocks) and it houses over 1700 rocks that resemble human faces. It’s in Chichibu, two hours northwest of Tokyo and may be the only one of its kind.
Rock face 2 photoThe story in Colossal suggests this looks like Elvis Presley. I think it looks rather like our lamentable president-elect.

Read the whole story at the Colossal website HERE

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26 Very Long Books Worth the Time They’ll Take to Read

My choice in this list of books selected by Boris Kachka in Vulture might be obvious if you know my background. I was born in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. Clifton Fadiman of the New Yorker called it “one of the great books of our time“. I certainly agree.

I find the comments on the back cover of my own copy that was given to me shortly after the US and NATO’s war on my homeland to be very perceptive:

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon coverBlack Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia,  Rebecca West (1941, 1,181 pages)

Written on the brink of World War II, West’s classic examination of the history, people, and politics of Yugoslavia illuminates a region that is once again the center of international concern. A magnificent blend of travel journal, cultural commentary, and historical insight, it goes into the troubled history of the Balkans and the uneasy relationships among its ethnic groups. The landscape and people Yugoslavia are brilliantly observed as Rebecca West and untangles the tensions that rule the country’s history as well as its daily life.

See all the other books at the Vulture website HERE

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Quote of the Day

The best novels are those that are important without being like medicine; they have something to say, are expansive and intelligent but never forget to be entertaining and to have character and emotion at their centre.” ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Why is writing so damned hard?

Some thoughts on common conceptions and misconceptions about writing.

1) I’ll write that book as soon as I have some time.

Buzzzz, no. You MAKE the time. If the book wants to be written, it will eat you alive from the inside if you don’t write it. If the only reason that you aren’t writing is because you can’t “make time” for it, you probably aren’t meant to be a writer at all.

People who want to, need to, write stuff have been known to write ten words while stopped at a traffic light, type with one hand while trying to burp a toddler with the other, write during their lunch hours while working their second job as a janitor.

I was writing fairy tales with my biochemistry textbook open in front of me two days before finals. Harry Potter was born to a struggling single mom on benefits.

I am not saying that you aren’t a writer if you don’t do all of these things. But blaming “time”? You won’t suddenly “find the time” when you retire. You write because you can’t help writing. If you don’t really want to write, nobody can help you. But if you do… nobody can stop you. Not even “lack of time”.

2) Everything I write must be perfect the first time.

Sorry. First drafts suck, by definition. That’s what they are FOR. You blurt out the story you want to tell onto a permanent record, so that if it turns all evanescent on you and vanishes as soon as you stop thinking about it, you still have it. The basic story is there to be tweaked, and polished, and played with, to be made perfect.

Much as I hate to admit it, all the best writing is rewriting – the thing that you do with that first draft once you’ve got it down. No. It does NOT need to be perfect out the gate. NOTHING is. Give yourself this golden opportunity to make your mistakes – because it is here that you will have a chance to correct them.

3) Everything I write is terrible.

If it’s the first draft, it probably is because what’s in your head is not what’s in front of you on the paper or screen. In your head you have already begun improving it, fixing errors and infelicities and the version before you doesn’t reflect that…yet.

Oh and also – write this down and put it on top of your computer monitor so you don’t forget it – YOU ARE NOT THE BEST JUDGE OF YOUR OWN WORK.

Before you condemn it as the world’s uttermost crap, run another pair of eyes over it – no, not your mother’s, nor your best friend’s — the eyes of a cold reader. They will inevitably see things in your work that are too deeply buried in there for you to notice. This second look gives you a chance to fix the things that may TRULY need fixing. It will also serve to show you that you aren’t necessarily writing the complete drivel that you think you are. Distance yourself from your work. It’s freeing.

But do be prepared that there will be some out there who will genuinely NOT LIKE IT. This is nothing to do with how good or how craptastic it is. It’s subjective opinion. Don’t take it personally.

4) I have to start at the beginning, go on until the end, and then stop.

Well, that is one way of doing it — if you are that kind of linear thinker; if your story is that kind of linear story.

But now hear this – IT DOESN’T HAVE TO WORK THAT WAY.

The genesis of one of my novels came when I first wrote a vivid scene that I rather liked. It wasn’t the starting place for the novel, but I knew I’d find a place to fit it in. I did, of course, but that place was nearly 2/3rds into the book.

Changer Of Days USA coveThe scene that inspired this and which I wrote first shows Anghara, my heroine,  atop a hill looking  back at a plain black with the dust of the army pursuing her. In the final manuscript it doesn’t appear until  two-thirds of the way through the book. 

If your story insists on being a jigsaw puzzle that’s fine too. Write the scenes that scream to be written, and then see how they fit together. The only true way of writing is the way that works for you. Everything else is true, too – it just isn’t YOUR truth. And your truth can, and often does, change depending on the sort of story you’re grappling with. Accept this with grace.

5) Beginnings are difficult.

Yes, they are. Beginning writers often start way too early and drone on and on – or they will start way too late, in the middle of a situation the reader doesn’t understand and full of characters they haven’t been given a chance to care about yet.

So yes, beginnings are difficult. BUT…it is also somethng that is made easier by practice. And by that I don’t mean write a million words of beginnings of your own. Read and re-read the books you love. See how THOSE writers led you in and made you want to stay. Beginnings are difficult, but they are not insurmountable. But once you begin something, the next thing that you’re going to say is…

6) Endings are difficult.

Yes, they are. Again, beginning writers have their problems because they don’t know that their story ended three chapters ago. Or they just stop, in the middle of something, and leave a reader screaming for closure.

The perfect ending is elusive… but achievable. Practice. Read. Become familiar with what an ending needs to do in order for your story to remain in the reader’s memory. Make sure an ending is satisfying – it doesn’t have to be neat and all deus ex machina but it has to be satisfying – you have to give emotional truth and closure.

It is difficult, yes, but it is only impossible if you give up.

7) Middles are impossible.

In between those difficult beginnings and endings you have to TELL A STORY THAT MATTERS.

Have you ever heard about the EIght Deadly Words of Literature? They’re these: “I DON’T CARE WHAT HAPPENS TO THESE PEOPLE.” Whoever your people are, whatever happens to them, your reader HAS TO CARE. And this does makes middles an almost impossible achievement.

They can paralyze a writer because they don’t seem substantial enough or important enough or even just not worth telling. But a good story is a good story – and a good writer can make almost anything into a good story. The middle is a path through the wilderness. Learn to recognize these trails. They’re worth following.

8) You start with short stories and then graduate to novels – that’s how you build a career.

Sounds logical, but it’s nonsense.

Novels and short stories are two very different animals. I’ve known exquisite short story writers who have NEVER made the leap to novel-length works – and I’ve known amazing novelists who simply can’t write a short story.

Some writers can do both, but it isn’t a given, and it certainly is not the career stepping stone that it’s been touted as. Short stories and novels require completely different skill sets, and they are not training for one another.

If you want to write novels, write novels. You don’t have to master the short story first. By all means write short stories if you want to but you don’t HAVE to. It is NOT obligatory.

9) Your work is done when you’ve finished the first draft.

Oh, Hell, No. As I said before, your first draft is going to suck.

Your first draft is there so that you have the story in front of you. The real work doesn’t END here, it begins. You have to tease that first draft monstrosity into shape. You have to hack at the rough edges. You have to mold corners. You have to make sure the light falls on it JUST SO. You have to buff and polish and fine-tune. Are you SURE there isn’t a better word for this? are you SURE this is the character’s real motivation? Are you positive that nothing at all in here can’t be made better?

And even then you aren’t finished. It goes out to editors, and comes back with THEIR comments and corrections. No, you don’t have to accept them all, but a good editor is worth their weight in rubies and you at the very least must pay attention. Often their best comments arent specific – they just tell you that they feel that there is a problem here somewhere and it is UP TO YOU to find it and fix it.

Now you’re done, right? Wrong. You return the editorial MS, it gets published, people read it, review it and then you have to deal with their reactions and responses. And then you have to go on and write the next thing.

What, you thought writing was a destination? It’s a JOURNEY, my friend. You’re always thinking, working, dreaming, researching, pushing words around to make new and pleasing patterns. Call yourself a writer? Your work is NEVER done. You’ve just given yourself DIFFICULT homework to do every night. For the rest of your life.

10) Only books on bestseller lists are worth reading.

If you think that, we don’t have much to discuss, do we? Do I need to tell you that sometimes bestseller lists are self-fufilling prophecies? Sometimes you can find a rack of books for sale which are labelled #1, #2, etc – but they’re the ONLY books for sale, so of course every sale goes to boost that number? Often the best and most satisfying reads never make the best seller ranks.

Don’t read only the things everyone else reads. Go wander in unfamiliar groves and pick strange fruit on occasion. And wait for the amazing taste of it to burst inside your mouth as you bite into it, the kind of taste that doesn’t always live on bestseller lists where everything is in some way shape or form a Red Delicious apple – good but bland and after a while it ALL TASTES THE SAME…

11) Showing and telling.

“Show, don’t tell” – a scene with action or dialog rather than just narrative – is a dictum often leveled at beginners because quite often it IS a problem. The story was started in the wrong place and too much background is missing and needs to be supplied somehow, or you’ve got the wrong POV for the story and your poor character is flailing while trying to understand things that (s)he could not possibly have known in the circumstances which you have set up.

But all that being said, sometimes TELLING something is precisely the right way to go. Once again, it comes down to practice – and honestly, I’m sorry, but there really is no way to learn writing except to WRITE. And you really do have to write your million words of crap before you start having an educated enough sense of what you’re doing to KNOW that it isn’t the right thing and to begin to have the ability to reach for the right thing through all the mess that you’ve got on your hands.

In other words, feel free to tell.

Sometimes description MATTERS. Just know when it’s enough telling, and sweep us forward into what happens next. It’s like cooking with salt. A little goes a long way. Use a light hand.

12) ALL the research I have ever done on this subject needs to go into the book.

Oh, you’ve seen it in a lot of novels, haven’t you? The ones where it’s obvious that the writer has REALLY done his or her research because the book rings with it hollowly like a bell every time you strike it. The author had to learn all these things, and by gum, YOU WILL KNOW THEM TOO, or at least you will know that the author knows them.

But there is a little thing called the Iceberg Theory of Writing. An iceberg is beautiful and imposing and you can admire and appreciate it while you’re floating past it. But NINETY PERCENT OF ANY GIVEN ICEBERG IS BELOW THE SURFACE. Sure, it gives the iceberg stability and balance and presence. Without it, there wouldn’t be an iceberg. But you don’t have to know precisely its shape and size and position and how much of it there is and how heavy it is and all the relevant physics and chemistry of it all in order to know that it exists, that it needs to exist, and that the iceberg knows what it’s about. Do thou likewise with thy research. Make it the basis for your world. Don’t make it YOUR WORLD.

13) All it takes is talent.

And perseverance. And luck. And a thick skin. And a coin whose heads is humility and whose tails is pride (yes this makes sense. Think about it). Many things go to make a writer. An ability to sling words is important but it is not nearly enough. You have to have all those other things, and you have to have faith.

Now go. Write. Believe.Good luck.

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Quote of the Day

Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. ~ JOHN MAXWELL

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Alma Alexander

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In the House of Books

I’m rarely envious of other’s homes and possessions, but … sigh …
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Pulitzer Prize biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin recently spoke to The Wall Street Journal reporter Marc Myers about her life — and her books.

Doris Kearns GoodwinDoris Kearns Goodwin in her study. (Bryce Vickmark for The Wall Street Journal)

Twenty years after my husband and I moved to Concord, Mass., we ran out of book space. So in 1998, we bought a larger home nearby, and today it’s a house of books—about 20,000 in all.

Part of the reason Dick and I bought the house was … we saw the spaces as expansions for our books. We also loved the home’s layout. When you enter the house, there’s a reading room on the right with a fireplace. In front of you is a hallway that leads to the kitchen, dining room and the home’s great room. Upstairs there are three bedrooms and a study.

LibraryLibrary with her Lincoln books. (Bryce Vickmark, The Wall Street Journal)
The great roomThe great room. (Bryce Vickmark, The Wall Street Journal)

We refer to our rooms based on the books we keep there: the fiction room, the sports room, the biography room and so on. As writers, we have a terrible time letting go of books.

House of Books

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Seeing with Your Whole Body

One day, as artist/sculpture Jane Rosen stepped out of her house on a California ranch, she saw a red-tailed hawk soaring above her, Richard Whittaker writes at Daily Good, “and I heard these words: ‘Tell my story’.

To do that, she has had to learn to really see, to see with much more than her eyes.

I’m not saying it doesn’t include the eyes…(but) when I’m looking at a bird or an animal, especially when I’m drawing it, the key is the shift in cognition where—and I know when it happens, I can sense it.

Are you talking about drawing?

I’m talking about life.”

Jane Rosen
Interview with an artist
 
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The wishing trees

At First, It Looks Like A Normal Old Tree. But Look Closer… It’s Where Dreams Are Made.

They say money doesn’t grow on trees, but I’m willing to guess that “they” never saw these kinds of trees before. Look closely at these trunks. Do they look a little strange to you? They should.

Money TreeFlickr / Ken Wewerka
Money TreeFlickr / Paul Morriss

According to the BBC, in the 1700s, the Scottish people would sometimes hammer florins into a tree as an offering, hoping to take away sickness.

Wishing trees

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Writing Lesson

A handy chart from Writers Write on a very common problem
 
Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain

Very chart
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33 Tips to Being a Better Writer

James Altucher has a bunch of rules, some of them very unusual rules. Take the first one, for example:

Write whatever you want. Then take out the first paragraph and last paragraph. Here’s the funny thing about this rule. It’s sort of like knowing the future. You still can’t change it. In other words, even if you know this rule and write the article, the article will still be better if you take out the first paragraph and the last paragraph.

Another: Break the laws of physics. There’s no time in text. Nothing has to go in order. Don’t make it nonsense. But don’t be beholden to the laws of physics.

I know that he has at least some of the right stuff because of another one of his rules:

CoffeeCoffee. I go through three cups at least before I even begin to write. No coffee, no creativity.

Unusual writing tips

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Quote of the Day

Part of doing something is listening. We are listening. To the sun. To the stars. To the wind.” —Madeleine L’Engle

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Alma Alexander

Check out my books

Email me

Comments welcome
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Which vehicles get the worst mileage?

From supercars to supercarriers, when it comes to burning dollars faster than gasoline, these ten vehicles are the absolute worst.

Moon mission
Fueled by money

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Great writers can be nice guys

Judy BlumeAuthors are notoriously difficult to deal with, Huff Post Books tells us. But here are some notable exceptions to the “all famous authors are jerks” rule.

Nice authors

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Odd Bookshops Around the World

An underground car park In China has a bookstore, the International Business Times tells us. The Book Barge is found floating on the waterways of the UK.

And the John King bookstore is located inside a glove factory that dates back to the 1940s. It is made up of five stories of book shelf mazes. It houses the rarest in second hand books that you have been trying to search for all your life.

Odd bookstores

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Tips For Creating Great Stories

In Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook: The Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, George R.R. Martin, Junot Diaz, and other top storytellers tell us how to do it, Hugh Hart reports.

Writing fantasy

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30 Fabulous Store Notices

Your Daily Giggle. You can thank me later.

PomisesHats off to these fine retail establishments who have gone the extra mile with their customer notices, a story at The Poke says.

Store signs

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Feral books will stalk readers

In the future, readers will not go in search of books to read, Charles Stross, says.

Feral books will stalk readers, sneak into their ebook libraries, and leap out to ambush them. Readers will have to beat books off with a baseball bat; hold them at bay with a flaming torch: refuse to interact: and in extreme cases, feign dyslexia, blindness or locked-in syndrome to avoid being subjected to literature.

Future of books

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The American flags on the moon

NASA has finally answered a long-standing question, Gizmodo tells us: all but one of the six American flags on the moon are still standing up. The only problem is that they aren’t American flags anymore. They are all white.

White flag
White flags

Alma Alexander

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