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Musing on stages of writerly life

There are stages of writing.

Some people start with short stories, and some, bless them, have success with those. It's common wisdom that writing short stories -- and selling them -- will give you some credibility when you try to sell a novel, although there are authors who make their reputations writing nothing but short fiction. Obviously, I'm not one of those. I started writing short stories, or rather, attempting to, and my third attempt was a novel. Then again, I start out writing a short single paragraph response to anything, and the final result is four pages. I'm not really good with length.

The reason you get to hear this is because I was so relieved when Katherine Kerr told me that her first four Deverry books started out as a short story. It was similar to the feeling I get when I read poetry that strikes an experiential chord: I'm not alone. It's not just me.

Finishing a novel is a rite of passage. It means that you can. The first time I finished a novel I felt like I'd climbed Everest. And had no way of getting back down <wry g>. Because, of course, I'd written the novel with the intent that it be published.

Confession: I compulsively read every how-to book on writing and submission I could get my hands on. Every now and then, I still pick one up. I always found process fascinating, especially when it diverged from mine so greatly. I learned about manuscript format via those books. And about SASEs. Basic things.

I was, I think, 25 when I made my first submission; I time this around my wedding because I know I was in contact with the editor before the wedding. I'm not much for dates, unfortunately -- everything happened yesterday, last week, three weeks ago, or a few years ago -- and there's a great deal of inaccuracy in any of those time periods. Time kind of just moves, and I'm slow to figure out how much of it has gone by.

When I finished my first novel, I gave it to a friend to read. I asked her for her input and her criticism, and while intellectually I wanted a critique, emotionally, I wanted her to tell me the book was perfect. This is the first novelist's dilemma. So much has been put into the book with hope and passion that it's hard to be told things simply don't work. First, she congratulated me on even finishing what I'd started. Second, she told me she loved it. And third, she gave me a couple of pointers. Not more than that -- and certainly there was more wrong with the book, as I would discover later -- but it was enough. Let me be clear, though: The intellectual desire for improvement was as genuine as the emotional desire for acceptance. But pain is pain.

When I submitted the novel, I spent days drafting a cover letter. I was nervous, because I wanted to make a good impression. If I could go back and speak to whoever I was then, I would tell that writer not to worry so much; to write a clear and concise letter, and let the book speak for itself. No such thing as time travel. And anyway, I probably wouldn't have listened.

While the book was out, I started on the second one. I didn't want or need a contract for the first one, and I had no deadline -- but I had hope that if the first one sold, I'd have another book ready, and if it didn't sell instantly, more time with which to finish what I'd started. Being able to publish the books at a half year apart would be good, in the bookstore sense of the word, and the longer I had to wait, the more time I had to make that possible. I also find deadlines daunting. I know that many people prefer to have a deadline because it's a spur and it's concrete -- but the closer I get to one, the more panic I feel -- because what if it's not ready? What if it sucks rocks?

During this time, I didn't really tell people that I was writing. I did write. The two were separate. Even after I'd sold the first book, I didn't say anything much until I got the cover flat -- because then, at least, I had something to show people who would ask. Telling people I was a writer was almost out of the question, because the next question they'd ask would be if I'd had anything published. This is me. I neither recommend nor advise against this approach; everyone does things slightly differently.

Later, I discovered that it's actually unusual for someone to sell a first novel (an author of my acquaintance, while talking about how little new writers knew about the business said "They actually expect to sell their first novel -- how naïve can you be?", and I took a poll, because by that time, I knew a lot more writers <wry g>); many people write three, four, even eleven, before they break into print. I knew two local writers personally, and they'd sold short work before they made their first novel sale. I hadn't. They also sold their first novels, so it seemed to me reasonable to expect -- or hope -- that I could manage to do the same.

If you can't sell your first novel, it's not a badge of shame, and it's not a guarantee that you will never sell. If you stop writing while you're waiting to sell your first novel, it seems to me that you're wasting writing time - because most of us have jobs or other work, and finding the time to write in the first place is always a bit of a struggle. If you stop writing entirely, then you stop writing. It isn't your day job, yet. Some people stop. Some give up. Some come back to the writing years later. There's no set pattern. But at one point or another, rejection is just one of the things that you'll have to deal with. Deal with it by screaming at your friends and pulling your hair out for a day or two -- it hurts, after all, and there's no point in pretending it doesn't -- and then get back to work, because the only people who do make it that far are the people who can.

Many of the writers I know who published first novels workshopped them. If they didn't workshop the specific novel, they spent years in workshop trenches, honing their craft, and learning about structure while they tried to assimilate the critiques they received from their peers. If this works for you -- if you can work this way -- it's my first recommendation. I couldn't. My reaction, in the early days, was to try to fix everything, willy-nilly; to take every piece of criticism to heart, without any objectivity. A workshop requires objectivity on your part. It requires the ability to take the useful advice and jettison the rest. If you can't do this, don't. It won't stop you from writing, and it won't necessarily stop you from being published; you can learn to rewrite on your own. I know a number of published writers who never went the workshop route. I know more who did. Your call. I know none who refused to revise or edit.

Once you've finished your first novel, finishing a novel is easier. This, at least, has been my experience. Finishing a good novel is never a guarantee. Most of the writers I know had some trouble with their second books because -- as I've said elsewhere -- it's the first book you'll write on a deadline, with a publisher expecting it. This is entirely natural.

Also natural are the blues that come along when the second book is published (and often by that point you'll have a third sold, and might be working on a fourth). This is when reality sets in and bites you. If you're lucky, you'll find your audience right away. Most of us aren't that lucky. Finding a publisher becomes a thing of the past; finding the audience becomes a driving worry. The emotional desire for acceptance fades, and the intellectual desire to tell the story itself becomes dominant; resistance to critiques and editorial guidance disappears almost entirely. Unless it's bad advice; that, too, becomes clearer.

But all of that seems like nothing when you haven't sold a novel yet.

(next rock)

Comments

( 70 comments — Leave a comment )
domynoe
Aug. 19th, 2004 10:42 pm (UTC)
Gosh, some of this is so . . . ME. I'm not 25 (God, wish I could see THAT age again) and am novel unpublished (just had my first short sell this year), but the short stories? Probably both the hardest thing for me to attempt because nearly every short i write ends up with comments like, "This ending really isn't an ending - have you considered making this a novel?" I have 2 dozen novel ideas and a world that keeps spawning more novel ideas, I definitely DON'T need another one! (Well, okay, not right now, at any rate.)

I read every book on "how to write" I can lay hands on, and pull away from every single one something I can use, but have had to learn what I need to do to write. It took me 14 years to get to a rough draft with my first book because I was writing the way "everyone else" was telling me to write and not the way I needed to write. To be fair, I didn't know there WERE other ways to write for the longest time. Now I'm wondering if there are other ways to revise because I can't seem to make myself revise "fast enough." (It really is driving me crazy! To get a break from the craziness and frustration, I'm already working on book 2. Probably not the best idea, but with my ADHD it seems to work. I so keep book 1 as the primary project; I just take my break with book 2.)

I feel the same way about time. I lose time all the time . . . on a daily basis. However, I do participate in a wonderful little workshop and it does work for me.

As for all of this seeming like nothing when you aren't published yet, I don't know about that. I am a hopeful planner - I even already have a website set up for me as an author. I may not be a published novelist yet, but I can be prepared for the day, so any information on the things that I may/will have to deal with is something. It's important. I need to know it so when I get there, I'm ready for it.
matociquala
Aug. 19th, 2004 10:48 pm (UTC)
Finishing a novel is a rite of passage. It means that you can.

Amen. It means you are one of the few, the proud, the crazed, who not only get words on paper but who don't hit that 35-K wall and stall.

For the purpose of your flowcharts, I've got three and one third in the trunk, one in submission, and three more waiting their turn in the barrel. I sold numbers four, six, and ten. *g*

I still have hopes for a heavily revised one through three, and I think five, seven, eight, and nine are all pretty decent books--quite possibly better than four, six, and ten.

I agree with almost everything you have to say here, except I'm not sure about your last paragraph. Because for me, the overwhelming desire is to tell a story *to* somebody. Now, admittedly, my novels aren't out yet, and this may bery well change as time goes by--but I have a number of short stories in print, and for me the true gratification is not so much seeing them in print, or getting the story right--

--it's connecting with the reader, and illuminating some corner for him, and having him turn around and say "hey, I liked that."
elialshadowpine
Aug. 20th, 2004 04:25 am (UTC)
On first novels ...
It also seems to me that a valid question could be, "What counts as my first novel?"

When I was thirteen, I wrote a 20k story and considered it a "novel."

When I was seventeen, I wrote a 75k story that I refer to as my first full-length novel. It sucked rocks. Oh, gods, did it suck rocks.

Thing is, it's not unfixable. I'd started the book with no idea of where I was going and it rambled everywhere. Add in gratuitous violence and 1600 word haircutting scenes without any real description. (I'm still not sure how I managed that one...) By the time I wrote the second book, I'd had more direction, and threw a lot of twists into the plot.

Never did finish book three.

But, anyway, while the execution sucked, the trilogy has promise, and I've reoutlined the first book. (Which had essentially a thin plot, thin characters, and no villain.) I haven't been able to write it yet because the book's themes are too close to home at the moment. (It's key that my MC fall in love with a character who will later betray her, and the problem is, said character must trick her about the same way my abusive ex tricked me.)

When I do write it, I know it will be a good, competant novel.

But will it be my first novel anymore? I'll have rewritten it so thoroughly that the plot and characters are only vaguely the same. Considering this, does it still "count" as my first book?

*all contemplative now*
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elialshadowpine
Aug. 20th, 2004 05:00 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
The first one you sell is your "first published novel" which is what "first novel" is short for.

If that's true, then people wouldn't say, "You're not likely to sell your first novel."
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Re: On first novels ... - elialshadowpine - Aug. 20th, 2004 11:02 am (UTC) - Expand
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zhaneel69
Aug. 20th, 2004 09:45 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
*eyes boggle*

Woo. Another author who's stuff I read and like. Mind if I friend you?

Zhaneel (Dawn)

PS: I almost got to review that for Locus but didn't have the time before Charles needed it. Really enjoyed the book though.
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Re: On first novels ... - zhaneel69 - Aug. 21st, 2004 11:03 am (UTC) - Expand
mrissa
Aug. 20th, 2004 05:46 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
I only count novels still in existence, that is, novels I have not burned, when I'm talking about which one is my first. The one I wrote when I was 11 and the one I wrote when I was 14 thus do not count.

I also tell people I've written six books and immediately get sharp corrections from the spousal unit: "Nine," he says in a pained voice. But the other three are nonfiction, textbooks-for-hire; for me, they don't count. They're my only published books right now, sure, but I don't own the rights to them any more.
domynoe
Aug. 20th, 2004 06:44 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
After struggling nearly 16 years just to get this one book done, I would never discount it. Heck, I would never discount any book - whether fiction or nonfcition and whether I had the rights still or not. If I did all that work, then it counts.

But I have to finish just the one . . . . *sigh*
msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 08:45 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
It also seems to me that a valid question could be, "What counts as my first novel?"

For the purpose of my above comments, I consider a first novel to be the first novel one writes with the express idea that it will be published. So if you wrote your first 20K with the idea that you were then going to send it to market, that would be your first novel (I wrote a lot when I was 13, but I really wrote for myself with no intent to publish; this would be papersky's juvenalia in my case.
elialshadowpine
Aug. 20th, 2004 10:56 am (UTC)
Re: On first novels ...
Well, I intended on publishing the dribble I wrote when I was eight years old. I was an arrogant child and was certain it could be published. (Only reason I didn't send anything out was because my parents wouldn't let me. I had the habit even then of writing about tough subjects, including abuse.)

The 20k "novel" I wrote was intended to be sold as a children's novel. It was ... bad. And made worse by my father, whose critique I trusted, as he wrote himself. He read the first three chapters and said, "You're hinting at too much here. You need to explain everything about the world in the first few chapters or no one will understand anything."

I'd been very carefully disseminating information in the proper places, and looking back, the draft I wrote before the one he butchered wasn't all that bad.

I still like the base story that developed in draft three of that novel, and I do want to return to it someday. It, like with Sanctuary, the other novel I mentioned, will take a complete and total rewrite for selling it to be feasible. By that point, it will probably no longer be recognizable from the original.

But, that's something that can happen in rewriting ... :)
janni
Aug. 20th, 2004 07:46 am (UTC)
Finishing a novel is a rite of passage. It means that you can.

I felt this way after I finished Ghost Horse. Like suddenly everything changed, and I knew something about writing I hadn't before, and even if the next one was just as hard I'd have more understanding of what I was doing.

(You can all laugh now. Ghost Horse wasa 25,000 word novel. But as someone who started with short stories not because she ought but because she was better at and more comfortable with them, it was a really big deal.)
msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 08:46 am (UTC)
(You can all laugh now. Ghost Horse wasa 25,000 word novel. But as someone who started with short stories not because she ought but because she was better at and more comfortable with them, it was a really big deal.)

That's not laughter, that's envy <wry g>. Or at least, from me it is. I sent in a novella to a YA fantasy collection that's 30,000 words (and the longest short thing I've written to date, although it's the third to break the 20K word mark). I would have been happy to consider it a novel, though...
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oldmotherchaos
Aug. 20th, 2004 08:00 am (UTC)
I was lucky. Suspiciously so, actually. Writing professionally snuck up on me long before I got the guts up to write for myself.

My tutor at university was approached by a publisher to help research a ghost book for a pittance. She said no, but knew I was broke, and knew my essay writing style got positive comments, so passed them to me. That gave me leverage to get given an interview to do for the London Student newspaper (Terry Pratchett, of all people!), which in turn led a mate to pass my name to a family friend who needed someone to dash out cheap non-fiction direct-marketing books...

... cutting it short a bit, that work gave me enough of a history to swing a couple of pitches for more serious non-fic work -- guides for a game produced by a company I'd worked for (Alright, alright, it was Magic: The Gathering). The guides swung me a job full-time as an editor, and part-time work writing for RPGs. That's straying into speculative fiction territory, and some of the RPG work included short stories. By this point, my publication history legitimately carried 60+ items. One of the RPG companies decided to use me for an entirely in-character artifact (the diary of a mad visionary), and that actually worked really well. It's still the piece I'm closest to being happy with, I think. Then when the same publisher got let down at the 11th hour for a novella (the 11th segment in a 13-book story arc, ouch), the diary piece swung it for me. They liked the novella enough to give me a trilogy the following year, which brings me more or less up to date.

I got to the end of the trilogy worn out and mildly traumatised (it was a hellish year for many reasons), but having discovered that yes, I could write a novel. In fact, I could write three of them, and while they aren't high art -- 3 novels in 16 months didn't leave time for that! -- the target audience seemed to like them. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the confidence to admit to myself that yeah, actually I'm not all that bad at this lark.

I am finding though that it's hard to maintain the discipline to write when it's for myself. It's a lot easier for me to write when it's the way I pay the rent than it is when I get home so drained I can barely talk...

I have many Evil Plans(tm) hatching to get back behind a keyboard of my own full time. I guess though that my acid test is going to be whether I can keep at it anyway, despite being exhausted, despite having a hundred other things I have to do, despite having no guarantees that the time and effort will fetch any reward.

In many ways, it's like being cast back to the beginning, having done the middle.

Anyway, I'm really rambling, and it's your journal, so I'm going to shut up!!
msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 08:51 am (UTC)
I am finding though that it's hard to maintain the discipline to write when it's for myself. It's a lot easier for me to write when it's the way I pay the rent than it is when I get home so drained I can barely talk...

I've also heard this -- that part of what drives one to write (at least once you've started to sell even shorts) is the need for money. Not everyone is motivated by it; a lot of writers who suddenly find they don't do it for money write more slowly, though.

Because they can afford to, and because they can give in a bit more to the "it's not ready it's not ready" stress that would otherwise have to be comparmentalized in order to make a deadline.

So, you're not alone in that. I remember back at the store, I hated hated hated having contracts and deadlines because of the pressure, and andpuff conversely required them because if they didn't exist, she (at that time, let me quickly add) felt that it was almost a waste of time; it wasn't professional if someone wasn't paying for it, and she was much more likely to do something else, and to write Very Slowly instead. Once a contract was in hand, otoh, she wrote every day, and was absolutely bloody-minded about writing time because it was a matter of being professional.

The rambling's okay <g>.
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zhaneel69
Aug. 20th, 2004 11:26 am (UTC)
I'm assuming if you wrote for the owners of M:TG you are talking about WotC. Which triology did you do for them?

And any hints to someone writing the Eberron open call?

Zhaneel
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msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 08:55 am (UTC)
*puzzled* The first 2.5 novels went fine.

I'm curious -- these were written with the goal of publication? My first novel went fine in the sense that I sat down and wrote the damn thing, (it was the second of the SUNDERED series, fwiw), and my first novel published was the fastest novel I've ever written, but the third was hell. I had to toss the whole thing and start it again. Otoh, the third novel published was the second novel I finished, and I took a break at about the halfway to write the first published novel (Lester wanted the flashback as its own book).

The book that killed me to write: SHINING COURT burned my brain out. I was mental mush for a year after. No, I don't know why.
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lnhammer
Aug. 20th, 2004 08:58 am (UTC)
Maybe I'm working on the wrong novel?

Without hearing more details, that sounds likely. When one thing is easier to write than another, Fred the Muse is usually trying to tell you something.

---L.
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zhaneel69
Aug. 20th, 2004 09:47 am (UTC)
I've never written a novel. Every time I try I get scared by the length and by the idea that I have to stay with these characters and by home OMG hard it will be to keep them busy.

Hence, I stay with short stories. My natural length (0 draft) is about 4-5k. Mostly because I'm still having issues with conflict. I'm just not that great at putting more than one obstacle in the character's path. And I don't want them to fail at resolving them.

I really need to just sit down and write a whole bunch of stuff that will NEVER be published [or at least with the idea that it won't be] wherein there is just conflict, conflict and more conflict.

Zhaneel
kristine_smith
Aug. 20th, 2004 10:29 am (UTC)
Some of this describes so well my own experience, it's funny. It's a relief in a way that I wasn't alone in my feelings.

My first sense of Jani was as the main character in a series of short stories. It never occurred to me to attempt a novel until I started writing, and writing, and writing. I did try a couple of short works, but never sold them. I am most comfortable in the long form, which unfortunately seems to be getting longer all the time. I never realized how easy it could be to fill 700+ manuscript pages.

The first novel I finished was the first novel I sold. No trunk novels. This was bad in a way--I think I would have felt more confident knowing that I could formulate multiple universes with their own distinct casts of characters. I didn't try to think up a non-Jani book until a few years ago, three books into the Jani series. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to do it. I envy the people who can cobble a proposal in a few days and actually pull a book out of it. They possess a brand of quickness that I lack.

Each time I start a book is like the first time for me. I know I've done it in the past, but I still wonder whether I will be able to pull it off one more time. It's been getting harder, not easier. A friend told me that this is because one expects more from oneself, that one has learned more about the craft and thus raised the bar.

I have tried workshopping novel sections--maybe it was the environment but it didn't work for me. I have settled on a multiple First Reader system--they usually get the first draft in its entirety, but I have sent out sections if I'm desperate for feedback and wondering if I'm headed in the right direction. I don't enjoy constantly taking a manuscript's pulse--that way lies madness--but sometimes I still need the reassurance that I can write lucid sentences.

I keep hoping that I get over that, but I'm not holding my breath.
domynoe
Aug. 20th, 2004 11:04 am (UTC)
I think most my problems in workshops has been time. For example, SFFHOW allows you only 3 (maybe 4) posts to be up at one time. this didn't work for me because it can take a long time to get enough input to make a difference (for me anyway). But DII allows you to have the entire novel up at once, so while I was working through revisions, I'd post each chapter as it was done and keep going. When i got to the end, I had enough input on chapter 1 to be able to finally take it down.

I now use DII and a two tier readers system. First readers get the rough draft and look for plot holes only (which also gets te book out of my hands for a few weeks so I can get some space). Then it goes through the workshop. Finally I have what I call beta readers look at the more nit picky things as I polish. This does work for me. It's not my readers' faults that I seem to plod through the dang revisions. :(
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msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 09:00 pm (UTC)
Some of this describes so well my own experience, it's funny. It's a relief in a way that I wasn't alone in my feelings.

Which is most of the reason to post it <g>.

I never realized how easy it could be to fill 700+ manuscript pages.

Me too :/. I've finally figured out, some umpteen hundreds of thousands of words later, that I really really really have to stomp on viewpoints if I want to keep things at a reasonable 150,000 words. My current universe doesn't support this.

The first novel I finished was the first novel I sold. No trunk novels. This was bad in a way--I think I would have felt more confident knowing that I could formulate multiple universes with their own distinct casts of characters.

CJ Cherryh said, when she was GOH at a convention in Toronto, that it's sometimes harder to have success come too quickly (she was thinking of both myself and another writer friend she knows); that in her day, she would wait by the mailbox for those initial rejections that contained no information whatsoever, and that in the end, enduring the whole rejection and isolation made her toughen up enough that the rest of the publishing process wasn't so deadly. Except, of course, she said it better, with humour and a certain wry wisdom I don't have.

Each time I start a book is like the first time for me. I know I've done it in the past, but I still wonder whether I will be able to pull it off one more time. It's been getting harder, not easier. A friend told me that this is because one expects more from oneself, that one has learned more about the craft and thus raised the bar.

This is me. This is very me. This is so much me it's almost shocking <wry g>. Right down to the advice from friends...

... but sometimes I still need the reassurance that I can write lucid sentences.

I keep hoping that I get over that, but I'm not holding my breath.


Me either -- because this is me, as well. I usually reach a point at the beginning of the book where I know that this is the beginning. Of course, it's varied -- it could be my first attempt or my 12th (in the worst case), and I could have spent 6 pages or 600 (in my worst case) -- but at this point in my career, a little alarm goes off that says Right Here, and at that point, I usually pass it on to the spouse for vetting.

In the middle, though, each and every book has been the Worst Thing Written by Man. Or me. Or both. It's the book that will kill me. It's the book that no reader of mine will ever forgive me for. It's the book that will cause them all to say "I waited two years for this??" My husband is so used to this, he plugs his ears. If it helps, I have another friend who is exactly the same, and we make fun of each other where appropriate, but gently <wry g>.

It's only when I've hit that end stretch that things run, and I almost can't stop the book. But... I wasn't sure that SC had a good ending, and, since I've been thinking about it, I'm wondering if that wasn't part of the anxiety and the strain. I know endings. I may not know anything else, but dammit, I know when my endings work. And if I don't have that sense of certainty... blarg.

Mind, it's the only thing I'm certain about for the most part, and even then, my spouse says I waver.
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(no subject) - lnhammer - Aug. 21st, 2004 07:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 21st, 2004 10:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kristine_smith - Aug. 21st, 2004 08:03 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 21st, 2004 10:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
lnhammer
Aug. 20th, 2004 01:37 pm (UTC)
(Was it really the first four Deverry books started as a short story? Somehow I'd gotten it into my head that she finally reached the opening of the original short story in book 10.)

(---L.)
msagara
Aug. 20th, 2004 09:04 pm (UTC)
I believe she said the first 4 Deverry books came out of a short story, but these two data points are not in conflict; I think they form the prologue for the point in a later book when Jill and Rhodry are together on the road and meet a young girl. Vague GEnie memories at this point, though.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - lnhammer - Aug. 21st, 2004 09:22 am (UTC) - Expand
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