Posts Tagged ‘plot’


smallmonster

Nine months ago, something happened that I’d been working very long and hard for: Beautiful Monster got published. It was picked up by Damnation Books, a wonderful publisher in California that I absolutely adore. There was much to be excited about as Monster went through the process of publication, and I didn’t want to waste any time. I immediately started planning my future as a writer. I began revising The White Room, a manuscript I wrote before Beautiful Monster which needed some work before being an acceptable candidate for publication. On top of this, I began an equally exciting top-secret side project—that I can’t really get into at this point—that I’m totally stoked about. Things were going swimmingly—my days and nights absorbed in the fictional worlds of my own creation—until, about three months ago, something else happened: I hit a brick wall. And it wasn’t writer’s block.

This brick wall was far scarier than writer’s block because at least there are things you can do to lubricate a stubborn story. What I faced was something I never expected to: doubt… and not the doubt that I could be a writer—that’s a given—but the doubt that I wanted to be a writer.

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So, I stopped writing—which given my life circumstances at the time—wasn’t all that hard. I was in the middle of moving—again—and I’d met some fascinating writers from the old-school who made me feel like one of them. It was easy to coast for a while, but in truth, I wasn’t coasting at all. I was thinking. I was wondering how, after so many years of dreaming of this, of working toward this, I could possibly feel this way once those dreams were finally coming true. But that’s where I was at, and it wasn’t very fun.

After a while, the people around me started asking questions. They wanted to know why I wasn’t writing. I never told them the truth. I didn’t want to be influenced in any way because I knew this was something I needed to figure out for myself. I was working, just not in any way that was visible. In those months, I produced nothing that would help my career in any way, but I did strip down the layers of who I am, and I did figure a few things out.

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I figured out that the glitter is gone, the shine has dulled, and reality has cast its shadow over the dream. I have a different understanding of what it means to be a writer now—it’s not a better understanding—just a different understanding. I figured out that writing is—in truth—a lot of time spent sitting in front of a computer. It’s picking up the thousands of little pieces of a scattered story and spending hours, days, weeks, and months trying to fit them together in the most cohesive, relatable—and salable—way. It’s sacrificing a lot of time with friends and family. It’s being asked outright in public settings how much money you make. It’s work. It’s a daily decision to sit down and create something that may or may not ever even see the light of day. It’s the choice to devote a lot of time and effort to an entirely unknown outcome. It’s a risk.

I realized that the glamour of being a writer—if there ever was any—doesn’t shine quite as brightly as the world would like to believe. I’ve met my heroes, and they’ve now become my friends—people I talk to on the phone, exchange emails with, and discuss the most tedious details of my life with. This doesn’t make them unglamorous, this simply makes them real. It makes all of this real—and that’s not a bad thing—it’s just a different thing.

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In the beginning, when this was still a dream, I made some conscious choices. I would steer clear of any unattainable expectations. I would not put anyone on a pedestal or hold my heroes to superhuman standards… and in truth, I’m neither disenchanted by the path nor in any way disappointed in anyone I’ve met. But the dream, as it manifests into reality, is grating and unsettling… it feels a little like walking off a ledge. It made me decide I needed to take stock. I needed to step back and look at writing from a realistic perspective. I needed to then ask myself if this was ultimately going to make me very happy. So, that’s what I did… and the past couple weeks have finally brought things into enough focus that I can proceed in what I’m confident is the right direction.

Ultimately, nothing has changed for me except my approach to it. The dream is still intact. Somehow, I still want this, but now I know that only the love of this—and nothing else—is strong enough to withstand the demands and lack of certainty that writing requires. There isn’t enough ego to uphold this—there isn’t enough money to justify it—and there isn’t enough comfort to sustain it. But at the core of who I am, this is what I do—what I’ve always done—and it gets me closer to happiness than anything ever has before. And perhaps the greatest persuasion has been the incredible and unbearable gnawing, gnashing need to write even when I’ve given myself permission to break from it for a while. If nothing else, this has slowly convinced me that my writing days are far from being over. I’ve made some great self-discoveries these past months, but that hasn’t stopped the stories from tumbling in, the characters from blathering on, or the fingers from seeking the keys.

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I now have what I believe is a deeper, more accurate understanding of being a writer. It’s not pretty anymore, but it’s mine, and it’s real. I’ve learned that even when I’m “not” writing, I’m still writing, and so—at the risk of sounding melodramatic—how can I possibly not write? I can’t, but I do have a choice in how I proceed. I can either gather up the scattered pieces of story, glue them all together, and try to make something out of this that matters… or I can return to the days when jotted-down descriptions, disjointed dialogue, and fragmented portions of plot and poetry haunted me from hundreds of loose scraps of paper that invaded and overran any space within ten feet of me.

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For me, that choice is clear. After giving my soul a thorough strip-search, I’m realizing there isn’t really anything else I can do and be happy. The dream may be over now… the real world may have settled in… but there are still stories to be told.

And I’ll do my best to tell them.

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Yesterday I received a text from a friend of mine who has been reading my manuscript, The White Room. “I can’t believe you killed him!” he said, referring to one of the characters in the story. I explained to my friend the reasons behind the macabre act and why it had to be done… and it got me to thinking about the reasons we kill some of our favorite characters.

 

When killing a character that the reader has invested in, an author walks a fine line between further engaging the audience and losing them altogether. The key to successfully murdering a make-believe person without repelling the reader lies in the reasons behind the character’s death and the string of events and ultimate outcome it provides.

We’ve all read stories or seen movies where a character we love dies for no good reason. At best, this divorces us from the active role we felt we were playing in the story. At worst, it offends and alienates us entirely, angering us enough to put the book down, change the channel, or otherwise find new and better things to invest our time in. Shock value, convenience, gore factor or just plain whimsy are not good enough reasons to kill someone you’ve asked the audience to care about.

The character my friend was referring to was the hardest character I’ve ever had to kill. My initial intention was to let the guy live, but as was pointed out to me in the process of writing the book, he had to die. He had to die not only for the sake of moving the story forward with its integrity in tact, but mostly, for the sake of propelling my protagonist forward and arming him with the conviction and wrath he would need in order to believably make the choices he had to make.

I did everything I could to find a way to reach the end of my story without killing this guy. For many reasons, I was incredibly attached to this character and accepting that he had to die was a gradual process that took place in slow sections. I fought with myself and with my mentor the whole way… but when the story was finished, I understood. Reading the manuscript from beginning to end, I realized that this character’s death was vital in the overall power of the story.

Murdering my all time favorite character was a good learning experience for me as a writer. I learned that, as it is in life, some things need to be compromised for the greater good; that even in the world of fiction, there is a price for everything… and if you want to write a good, strong story with enough emotional impact to keep the readers reading, sometimes you have to do things you don’t necessarily want to. I learned to tiptoe the precarious edge of good storytelling and cheap shots; that the death of a beloved character must be a kind of fictional human sacrifice for the greater good of the story. I learned the bottom line of all storytelling:  if it serves to further strengthen the story, do it… and if not, don’t.


You’d think that after spending the countless hours, days, weeks and months required to write a novel, you’d get to relax. You did your research, developed your story, and invested almost all of your free time into writing it. Now 80 to 120 thousand words later, it would be nice to be able to call it finished. Unfortunately, the hard part is just beginning. Now it’s time to reread, revise and rehash.

Although this is not my favorite part of the writing process, it certainly isn’t the worst. Revisions are a good opportunity to strengthen story, add necessary detail, and perhaps most important of all, cut the fat.

I’ve learned that there are a few key things to look for in the editing process. One of them is character consistency. Are the characters solid? Do they remain true to their base nature throughout the story, and if the character goes through personal changes, are they believable? In Gallery of Dolls (the project formerly known as ‘An Evil Heart’), this wasn’t too big of a problem. My main character was very clear to me from the beginning and I was happy to see that he remained pretty true to himself throughout. There were a few lines of dialogue though, that when reread, didn’t sound like him. These, luckily, are easy fixes.

Plot consistency and holes in the plot are another, and probably the worst, potential good-story-destroyers that are commonly found in the revision process. Rereading Gallery of Dolls, Kim (my co-author) and I discovered some interesting issues. Hearing the story front to back, we think we may have to move the meeting of our two characters up a couple of chapters. This means some very serious rewriting and I am hoping that once we have a few outsiders read the story, it won’t be as big of an issue as I am afraid of. Beyond that, we found minor inconsistencies. I will need to go in and add a couple new scenes to smooth some transition but that’s about the worst of it.

Another thing to look for in revisions are wasted words. I tend to reiterate. And reiterate. This is a very bad habit that needs to stop. But that’s what revisions are for. It never ceases to amaze me how much stronger a sentence can become by taking away from it rather than adding to it. Adverbs are a fine example of this… but I’ll get into that later.

Also, a lot of what you find in revisions are total surprises. When we reread Gallery of Dolls, we found an unusual likeness in the names of our characters: almost all of them started with a C. We had Courtney, Cassidy, Claire, Connie, Claudia, Cassandra, and Carlisle the cop. We don’t know how or why this happened, but there it is. Again, this is an easy fix. We have since changed several of the names.

The last thing I like to do in revisions is assassinate the adverbs. Not all adverbs are bad, of course, but when it comes to these cute little verb modifiers, a little goes a long way. In my first drafts, I never worry too much about them. Personally, I love adverbs, but it really is true that there is usually (<—-see? adverbs!) a finer way of saying what you meant without them, so the last thing I do is an “ly” search in my document. I go through each adverb and see if there isn’t an opportunity for more powerful phrasing.

Like it or not, revisions are a necessary part of (good) writing. Many people are intimidated by the process. Others believe they are golden enough that their work requires no revision. Personally, I try to write clean first drafts in order to keep editing to a minimum, but the fact remains that in order to get the book written, you need to sit down and actually write it. In order for me to do this, I have to try my best to minimize or eliminate the need to edit as I go. If I am editing as I go… I am usually not going at all. It’s a slippery slope.

The worst part about revisions in my opinion, is that after reading your story over and over, it loses its shine and numbs you out until it’s impossible to even tell if the story is any good. I think this is a good time to put the story down for a while and pick it up when you can view it with semi-fresh eyes again. That’s where I’m at right now. I need to not look at it for a couple of weeks. Our goal is to have it presentable by October, so if I take one or two more weeks away from it, we should easily be able to attain it. Till then… I’ll be thinking of the next story…

Write (and revise) on! And remember….

 


   

     Earlier today, I had an unusual and rather in-depth conversation with a good friend of mine about sex.  We talked about everything from the obvious basics to the more sophisticated habits, rituals and desires of our fellow men and women, musing over the roots of their various tastes and beliefs.  Many hours later, I again wound up engaged in yet another sex-based discussion with a different friend entirely.  This talk centered more around sexual orientation rather than the act itself, but still, today’s sexual theme was not lost on me, and it made me wonder at the sudden prominence of the subject of sex.  After all, despite what it may sound like right now, I don’t usually sit around and discuss the various forms of human intimacy with everyone I know.   I don’t even know what inspired the topic in either case, but it got me thinking of how dominant of a force sex really is in our lives, and how important it is in writing.

     For all the years I’ve been writing, sex has never been one of my subjects until recently (except a little erotic poetry, of course).  I wasn’t avoiding the topic really, it’s just that until I began the book I’m working on now, there was never a place for sex.  I’ve been pretty diligent about incorporating all the other factors that make characters feel more human, such as bathing, brushing their teeth, changing their clothes and getting an occassional night’s sleep, but it never occurred to me that perhaps fictional people like having sex, too.  Until now.

     In the book I’m currently working on, it’s as if all the sex-starved characters of fiction’s past are exacting their revenge on me.  In this story, I don’t think a chapter has gone by that someone wasn’t getting skins, knocking boots, doing the horizontal hokey pokey, or at least getting well felt up.  The particularly challenging thing is, in this book, no one is having conventional sex.  The main character is a perverse, sexually deviant murderer, so most of the time, the sex isn’t even consensual, making this especially foreign territory for me.  But I’m learning.

     One thing I’ve determined about fictional sex is that it follows the same basic rules of fictional anything.  In the world of fiction, everything seems to be slightly dramatized. When fictional characters are rich, for example, they are filthy rich.  If they’re depressed, then they’re really tormented… and if they have sex, they have a lot of sex, and if it’s good sex, then it’s got to be mind-bogglingly great sex.  The key, of course, is striking a balance that is believable but also engaging.  If you don’t amp up the intensity of the characters lives and emotions, then you’ve got a story as dull and lifeless as, well… real life, and why would anyone want to read a book about someone whose life is as drab as their own?  But, on the other hand, if you aggrandize your character’s experiences too much, it becomes melodramatic and ultimately alienates the reader.  Regarding sex, striking this balance is an especially challenging feat for me.

     There are other problems also.  I’m finding that writing about sex (especially sex of the deviant variety) is a multi-faceted and precarious thing in that, on one hand, there’s the fear of repulsing and offending your reader, and on the other hand, setting out to do just that. After all, don’t I kind of want to repulse and offend the reader?  And if so, to what degree? 

     Also, there is description.  Just how much detail do we need?  Do we need to know how bad Martha wants it (or in my case, doesn’t want it), and is it important to mention the exact bodily and psychological responses of each character in this situation? 

     Finally, there is word choice.  This one is especially tricky because there are times that the clinical terms for certain acts (or parts of the anatomy) just don’t properly illustrate the mood you’re trying to create.  Which brings us back to the first problem: am I offending the reader? 

     It’s a cyclical and potentially stressful dilemma, writing about sex.  And add to this your mother’s voice (real or imagined) – disapproving and stunned by your foulness – to the mix, and you’ve got a pretty toxic cocktail of troublesome puzzles to contend with.

     For me, the key to overcoming the stumbling block that is sex can be found in two words:  just write.  I can’t stop and think about what the agent, the mother, the sister, the priest, or the produce manager at Wal-Mart is going to think of my book.  If I do that, then I’ll be writing to please other people.  And if I do that… then I’ve lost all integrity and should look into getting a new, tamer passion than writing.  No matter what you do, some people will love you and some people will hate you.  The way I see it, I’d garner just as much criticism if I wrote stories about butterflies and dandelions… so I might as well write what feels true to me, because in the end, my own truth is all I have… and honoring that is the only way I know how to sleep with a clear (well… somewhat dirty) conscience.

   


     No matter how many times I hear writers state that they don’t know where their ideas come from (“they just kind of come to me…”) I don’t buy it.  Maybe they don’t want to give their secrets away, or maybe they are trying to convince their audience that their minds are so enigmatic that they defy logical explanation, or maybe they’re just incredibly unaware of themselves; I don’t know, but any way I look at it, I think the answer to that question is simple.  Ideas come from people.  And more more specifically, (fictional) people come from (real-life) people.  At least, that’s the way it’s always been in my case.  To a point.

     While I have never created a character that was based entirely on anyone I knew, I have relentlessly and unapologetically stolen little pieces of my friends, my family, my neighbors, my childhood friends, the lady at Wal-Mart with the thigh highs and hair rollers, and the most obvious of all, myself.   I have taken their eyes, their wit, their courage, their pride, and in some cases, I have even taken their heinousness.  Often times I have done this unconsciously, and only after having brought the character to full form, read him or her back to myself and said, “Wow.  This guy is just like cousin Bobby!”   Other times, I see some trait or personality quirk in a person and am writing it down right away, already knowing exactly which character to assign that quality to.  No matter which way it’s done, I like to think of this as (politely) kidnapping my friends. 

     To (politely) kidnap your friends, you must first of all be subtle about it.  Remember, you’re a thief in the night, not the paparazzi.  To follow people around, notebook and pen at the ready, will not do.  Nor will photographing complete strangers (unless you’re really smooth about it), feigning a heart attack to test their level of emergency response, showing an overt sexual interest in their spouse to assess their level of temper, or confiding to anyone, friend or not, “I’ve killed a man… but don’t tell anyone,” to gauge their degree of trustworthiness. 

     To (politely) kidnap your friends, you must be respectful.  Sometimes, your rapport with someone is such that you can point at the interesting trait or physical attribute, wave the pointed finger Karen Walker-style and say, “I like that.  I’m going to take it,” and it’s all good.  Other times, depending on the singularity or uniqueness of the trait, you may feel you need to ask permission.  However, more often than not, I think the key to successfully (politely) kidnapping your friends lies in the imagination it takes to tweak the desired quality enough that by the end, it is, if not entirely unrecognizable, at least doctored up enough that it feels unique to the character you’ve assigned it to.

     That being said, I’ve broken all of these rules myself.  The good news is, no one has legal claim to eye color, sense of humor, height, sincerity levels, etc… even names are pretty much up for grabs.  Still, I do think it’s important that, when fashioning a character after someone you know, you do so in a way that when people ask you, “where do you get your ideas?!”, you can smile knowingly, and confidently answer, “I don’t know… they just kind of come to me…” 

     I don’t know why it’s important, but it must be…


     Today, me and my friend Joe attended the League of Utah Writers spring conference at the Bountiful Arts Center.  Writing conferences, workshops and retreats are quite varied in their range of possibilities.  Some of these events are overflowing with writers, publicists, agents and publishers, while others are smaller and more limited in their scopes of activities and purpose.  I have attended several of these conferences in the last year and, for a couple of reasons, the one I attended today was one of my favorites.

     The spring conference began at 9:00 a.m. and ended at about 3:30 p.m.  The first speaker was Jennifer Nielsen, author of Elliot and the Goblin War, with Sourcebooks Publishing.  The next in the series, Elliot and the Pixie Plot will release in May and a third will follow this fall.  Jennifer Nielsen opened with a great speech on the psychology of characterization.  In this segment, we learned how to understand the psychology of our characters through a series of different exercises.  Jennifer was an awesome speaker and presented the material in a way that was both fun and informative.

     John Brown, author of Servant of a Dark God series by Tor Books was next.  From him, we learned the secret of story structure and how to develop a killer story.  In the secrets of story structure, I was struck, as I often am when I am talking to a real-life published author, by his no-nonsense and simplistic approach to the art of storytelling.  There are so many convoluted myths and “formulas” out there that it’s always nice to hear  a successful writer tell you, as John did, that in order to be successful, you don’t need to follow any specific confusing formula, be an alcoholic, suffer from any mental disorders, be especially blessed by the talent gods, be inordinately gloomy and moody, or wear funny hats.  Instead, what he (and so many other published writers) believe in is practice, self-discipline, goal-setting, the tenacity to continually improve your craft, and the courage to press onward in a business that is highly competitive, persnickety and often seems unfair.   John Brown was a passionate, enthusiastic and incredibly funny speaker.  He is someone I’ve decided I would really like to get to know.

     After him, Margot Hovley, whose first novel will be released in summer of this year, spoke about the ten most important rules of (good) writing, and finally, Marion Jensen (who writes under the pen name Matthew Buckley), author of Chicken in the Headlights and Bullies in the headlights, spoke on using social media in the writing process.  From him, we learned the importance of, and the most advantageous ways of using sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and myriad blog sites for networking with other writers, promoting our work and utilizing the kind of content that will attract the kind of following you want.

     This conference is one of several I have recently attended and what fascinates me is the fact that it hasn’t become dull to me.  Each time I attend a conference, I learn new things, meet new and fascinating people and leave with a stronger sense of confidence in my writing as well as a firmer belief that I am doing what I should be doing, that I am right where I belong.

     My friend Joe just signed up with the League of Utah Writers last Tuesday.  This was his first conference, so it was very cool for me to get to be there.  Joe is an incredible writer who seems to be in that same frustrating place I was in a few years back~ I knew I wanted to write, knew I was good at it, but wasn’t quite sure exactly how to go about it.  At that time, the whole thing seemed so overwhelming.  It intimidated me and vexed me to no end.  Then, after much hesitation, I decided to check some of these conference things out.  What I didn’t realize until I started attending was how important these conferences are, and how many doors they can potentially open.  Don’t get me wrong… I am still frustrated, vexed and intimidated, but now, I understand how very normal these feelings are in this business… and that I am not alone, and that makes this all a whole lot easier.  Not to mention, I have met some incredible people, been given some awesome opportunities and had a damned good time of it.  I hope my friend Joe finds the same things.  He seemed interested throughout and afterward, said he had a good time and said we should do it again.  So Joe… good luck to you!  And yes… let’s do it again. 

For more information on the authors, check out their websites:

www.johndbrown.com

www.jennielsen.com

http://www.appendixpodcast.com

www.marionjensen.com

www.margothovley.com

www.luwriters.com


        At some point in the writing of every novel, the time comes when the author (or authors) need to block out a broad segment of time, sit down and read the story from page one to the last page written, and take out their little mental microscopes and search for all the little (and large) mistakes that weaken (or entirely ruin) their stories.  This is called a “comprehensive reading.” 

     Today marks the finish of chapter ten of “An Evil Heart,” the joint novel I’ve been writing with my friend and mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen (Mimi).  I spent several hours at her home yesterday, and a few more hours this morning, finishing up the scenes that we weren’t able to write without the other person being present.  Now that the paths of her character and my character are fully intertwined, me and Kim’s “together time” will need to be multiplied.   Kim and I have chosen to do comprehensive readings about every ten chapters, so I will spend the next week revising and refining the previous chapters so that the story can be read with as little interruption as possible.  

     A week from today, she and I will get together, find a relatively private location and spend the whole day reading what we’ve written.  Because I hate to read aloud, and am more audibly oriented in my learning style, Kim reads and I listen.  This is a tedious process, but it is where all the logic flaws, plot problems, character inconsistencies and previously overlooked grammatical errors shine through.  

     Although this will be the first read-through we’ve done of An Evil Heart, we did several on my first book, The White Room (which is currently looking for a home somewhere in New York right now), so I have an idea of how this works.  It is a process that can take anywhere from nine to thirteen hours.  But it’s worth it.  In my previous read-throughs, I was continually amazed by the blatant errors an author of a novel can overlook.  Worst of all, perhaps, are the logic flaws.

     A logic flaw is just that: a flaw in logic.  During one read-through, I was made embarrassingly aware that a character had taken the last sip of the same beer three different times.  At another point, a crucifix that burst into flames and turned to ash suddenly reappeared in a characters front pocket.  These little things are so easily written but become terribly apparent when read aloud. 

    Plot consistency is another obstacle you’ll contend with during a comprehensive reading. For example, in The White Room, I had created vampires who, of course, could not go out into the daylight.  I can not count how many times a vampire appeared in the middle of the day, totally unaware of the sun shining above.  In writing entities who could only survive in the darkness, I realized I’d placed a terrible restriction on myself and continually had to change the story around to keep consistent with the “reality” of the storyline.    

     Characters also like to lose consistency throughout the duration of a novel, and some characters end up being completely unnecessary.  There was one character I really liked and wanted to give more presence to.  Reading the story through, I realized this character seemed like a kind of strange appendage of the larger characters, and really had no place in the story other than the original two or three lines she was given.  I then had to go back and cut her out of all the scenes she didn’t fit into.  At another time, one of my characters voices changed so dramatically as the story progressed that by the end, he was nearly unrecognizable.  He began as a wise type who used proper English and eventually evolved into the barely educated boy next door.  This was one of the largest problems I had with that story and it took considerable time and energy to rephrase all of his dialog as well as correct his general disposition. 

    Not all flaws are big ones though.  Reading your manuscript through, you could continually find little sentences and phrases that, when heard aloud, just sound ridiculous.  “Bob flicked concerned eyes at me.”  Oh yeah?  And from just whose head did Bob pluck these concerned eyes out of?  And why on earth did he flick them at me? 

    These are just a few examples of the potential corrections a comprehensive reading offers a writer.   If it weren’t for several such sessions of my last story, I could have easily made the fatal mistake of sending a fault-riddled manuscript off to an agent, who would take one look at it and surely deem me unfit to write fiction. 

     I am both excited and reluctant to see what errors we find in An Evil Heart.   I’m learning that we humans, unfortunately, are flawed creatures by nature and we insert a little of that nature into everything we produce.  A comprehensive reading is a good way to spot and correct enough problems that by the time the story reaches the hands of an agent or editor, it is in acceptable and semi-professional condition.  The side effect to this, of course, is that by the end, you’ll be so tired of your own story that you’ll just want to kill every character in it call it a day.  But don’t.  It’s about that time that you know you’re getting close to being done. 

   And no, it will never be perfect. But it can be damned good… and given the right amount of attention to detail, you might even find an agent who agrees.