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Book Announcements

A bit of news to share …

After a considerable delay, THE SALUKAN GAMBIT, the sixth title in my SPACEHAWKS science-fiction adventure series previously published in paperback by Ace Books several years ago, is finally uploaded to Amazon and should be live in Kindle format in a day or so. It ties in closely to #2 in the series, CODE NAME PEREGRINE. I am considering using THE SALUKAN GAMBIT as a potential launching point for resuming the series with new adventures, but that project is still in the planning stages at this time.

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Also, my current new work in progress now has a completed rough draft. Woo hoo! I am editing it now, and will provide more specific information about it as it nears publication point. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, my summer’s writing plans went somewhat awry, so I’m especially pleased to be making progress on this project. It is entirely new material, and after spending such a long span of time bringing up my backlist to digital e-book format, something new is a welcome change that’s given my imagination a boost.

I hope each of you is likewise having success in whatever you’re working on, whether a long story or a short one, a screenplay or a novel.

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Star Making

Ever see the movie, A STAR IS BORN? Take your pick among three–soon to be four–versions.

The original film came out in 1937 and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. It is NOT a musical. While ironically in real life Gaynor’s career was waning and March’s was just hitting its stride, Gaynor’s portrayal of a star-struck girl named Esther who comes to Hollywood with no training and no contacts contrasts well with March’s brittle acting technique. This version, unhindered by big musical production numbers, focuses on the plot of a nobody of extraordinary talent discovered by an alcoholic major star on the skids, their relationship first as mentor and student, then as friends, then as newlyweds, then as a married couple held together by her determination, and finally the heartbreaking tragedy of his ultimate sacrifice for her.

Today, some critics find the original story line to be less plausible than the subsequent versions. I disagree in that I feel they are thinking too literally. The story is all about being star-struck, about having dreams that are bigger than you are, about finding the guts to reach for them, about maybe–just maybe–meeting a mentor that will give you a helping hand up to your first foothold, about then clawing your way forward through hard work, persistence, and raw ability, and about the price you always pay for whatever you achieve.

The 1954 version–sometimes referred to as A STAR IS REBORN–is all about a Judy Garland comeback. She’d been off-screen for four years before fighting her way back to the lead of this film. Critics seem to love this one. After all, Judy Garland! What more needs to be said?

Well, I think quite a bit. The story line in the second film has been significantly altered, although most of the major plot points remain. Garland’s character Esther has worked her way up to a mediocre singing career, where she has hit a plateau. She’s happy there, until James Mason’s character hears what she can really do with a song. He convinces her to reach higher. The film, despite having George Cukor as director, struggles to balance the plot against numerous production numbers that showcase Garland’s voice. It often loses that struggle and sags badly in the middle.

In Cukor’s defense, the most egregious number–one that goes on and on and on and on–was added after he’d finished the film, requiring a few plot points to be cut. (And as we writers know, editors can sometimes chop and hack our polished effort brutally to fit some production agenda other than our artistic vision.)

The film also suffers from lost footage, so there are weird patches of black and white photo stills overdubbed by dialogue. While damaged footage is common to silent movies because of age and faulty storage, it seems peculiar for a film made in the 1950s.  I don’t know what occurred to damage Garland’s movie. I believe the film was restored in the 1980s, when the stills were inserted as some sort of Band-Aid measure. If you have never seen the 1937 film, you’ll find this section of the Garland movie to be baffling.

Garland’s talent is undeniable. The voice is still strong. The acting is still delightful. But she looks fragile and strained. Her personal issues show in her face, but like the character she’s playing, she hangs in there.

However, the original version had a grandmother character who embodies the theme of the story. She is the one that encourages Esther’s dreams and sends her cash when Esther is struggling to find work in Hollywood. And when Esther feels beaten and is ready to throw her career away, the grandmother steps in and chastises her for being a quitter. There are several reasons why I prefer the 1937 film, and the grandmother is one of them.

As a writer, over the years I’ve known feast and famine, success and failure, high praise, touches of glory, and moments of disappointment so acute I wasn’t sure I could go on. All of that goes with a writing career. There are times when the only way to keep going, to keep writing, to keep submitting is sheer determination. So I like the grandmother’s scene where she won’t let Esther quit or throw away all that’s been achieved. It speaks to me, and that’s what story (whether prose or film) is for.

The 1954 Garland version lacks the grandmother character. Occasional care and encouragement are provided now and then by the character of the studio head, but there’s no tough love coming from granny. (As for those who claim the Garland film is more plausible than the Gaynor version, I ask if you really swallow the concept of a studio head being as warm and kind as a grandmother.)

Few actors can cry or transmit grief better than Garland, so she tugs your heartstrings enough, especially in the scene when Esther is worried and crying about her husband and then is called by her director to resume her performance and hits it perfectly, but I wish there had been one less overdone song to make room for preserving the grandmother role. Scriptwise, it’s important to keep that theme of paying the price–which to me is the core of the entire plot–going.

As for the two other film versions, also centered on music, there’s the 1976 vehicle with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. I admit I haven’t seen it. Streisand’s singing ability is huge, although her acting annoys me. Kristofferson–a talented songwriter–has never otherwise impressed me. Since I haven’t seen the film, I don’t feel it’s fair to comment on its merits or possible flaws. However, it’s a copy of the copy. Let’s leave it at that.

Now, there’s going to be a 2018 effort. I believe the film will be released this October. It stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Is it to be a copy of the copy of the copy? In 1937, Frederic March channeled the amazing but self-destructive John Barrymore for his performance. In 1954, for her performance, Judy Garland channeled the very best of the amazing but semi-destroyed Judy Garland. Who will this year’s stars channel, if anyone? I hope the music appeals to Gaga’s fans. I hope the best of the plot remains preserved. But I hope most of all that the theme of reaching for your dreams despite the price you pay has not been tossed aside as irrelevant.

Anyone in the performing arts, whether writer, actor, or singer, has to face that reality sooner or later at any level, and find the guts to pay up. Anyone who’s driven to perform or write–or why else do we do this–must pay. If you don’t, if you quit either by giving up due to discouragement and fear or by refusing to train and hone your craft or by drowning your doubts in self-destructive behavior, then that means you are silencing the muse and destroying your gift. Think of poor Whitney Houston–blessed with outstanding talent–who threw it away. There are so many other tragic examples. Don’t be one of them.

If the price before you seems too high, ask yourself why. What must you give up or sacrifice for it? Time, effort, and hard work? What else are you going to do?

If the timeline for success seems too long and discouraging, so what? As my father always says, “Time goes on anyway.” Get started and keep going!

If the price challenges your ethics or honor, take a second, even harder, look at the situation. No writing gift requires you to cheat, plagiarize, steal, or lie. Back away and choose a different path to your dreams. Find a price you can pay.

Face reality. Your heart may be set on writing bestselling novels, but your ability lies in nonfiction. How can you make that work for you? When I began my career, the hottest genre on the market was romances. I tried, but my heart wasn’t in them. I had to choose other genres, knowing they were less lucrative. That was a price I became willing to pay. One of my favorite novelists, Georgette Heyer, was brilliant at writing witty, socially satirical Regency romances in the style of Jane Austen. She wanted, however, to write mysteries. And although she penned several, they never achieved the outstanding success of her Regencies. Did she pout? Did she quit? No, she kept going.

Once you’re in the game, how will you stay in it? By being willing to make sacrifices, by putting in hard work, by adapting and changing what you do and write as the world, your readers, and the markets shift, and by never quitting.

Remember that whether you are a big or little star, you make your luck through persistence, hard work, and being prepared to seize opportunities when they come your way.

 

 

 

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Critters: Part I

I have often said that distractions are one of the biggest challenges writers face in planning, writing, and finishing a manuscript. Life is messy and could care less about book deadlines. People, pets, family, random strangers, and Mother Nature are all lurking out there, ready to knock us off course when we least expect it.

Since mid-March, when I blazed a path out of state to enjoy a vacation and recuperate from the stress of teaching scene structure to young, resistant minds, varmints of several types and varieties held a meeting and decided to focus on distracting me as much as possible. Some have been amusing; others, not so much.

In short, I have been wrangling critters. My mind has focused more on waging war in real life than in my fiction. And my work in progress has fallen behind schedule as a result. Steven Pressfield, author of THE WAR OF ART, would call this a sure sign that my manuscript is worthy of continuance, since so many factors have been hindering it. Let’s hope so!

Distraction #1:  Squirrels invaded the attic. Moved in. Set up a little family. Called it good.

I found myself suddenly hearing thumping and scratching noises above the ceiling, usually over the head of my bed. Awakening to this, aware that something was up there, and suspecting initially that a colony of mice had taken over, I veered from thoughts of How did they get in? Where is the hole? to How much does a pest company charge? to Who can I talk into sprinkling poison in the attic? to Will the poison’s off-gassing make me sick? to Should I move? to If a poisoned mouse staggers into the yard and my dogs find it, will they be poisoned as well? to Should I move? to Am I a wimp? to Of course I’m not moving!

As the crashing, thuds, gnawing, and romping grew daily louder, I couldn’t help but think of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Trapdoor.” A woman suddenly notices a door to her attic that’s never been there before. After her initial surprise, she convinces herself that it’s always been there. In a few days, she hears noises in the attic. She calls an exterminator. He goes up to investigate, but he never comes down. And finally, whatever is up there gets the protagonist.

Such stories should never be read by people with over-active imaginations. I had to take myself firmly in hand.

I was busy with work and writing. I procrastinated as long as possible. Given that the noises began at 8 a.m. and I left for work at that hour, I was mainly able to ignore the situation.

Then one day I found a tiny acorn in my lawn. It was partially chewed, and I knew that I had squirrels instead of mice. I don’t know who on my street has an oak tree. Only in the past few months have squirrels entered my subdivision at all. We are treeless, raw, new. We are not a good environment for tree dwellers. A few of the oldest houses have achieved normal-sized trees. Everyone else has saplings tied with stakes. However, since the winter there have been squirrel sightings. Like soldier ants, only slower, the squirrel invasion has been coming.

I picked up the acorn and laughed at it, and thought to myself that the bushy-tailed rodents were probably romping across my rooftop.

Not a problem! I like squirrels. I find them pretty and their antics amusing. I used to live in a historic area endowed with enormous pecan and oak trees. Squirrels swarmed everywhere and raided my bird feeders like gymnastic pirates. We co-existed just fine. Squirrels will give my dogs something to do, I thought.

Then the semester ended, and I sat down in the quiet peace of my home to read and evaluate student novel manuscripts. The noises bounced all over the attic. I couldn’t ignore them. And I knew I had been kidding myself. They weren’t on the roof. They were under it.

This time, when I raced around the house to check, I found their access hole. A broken screen to a soffit vent, right over the gate. How convenient for them.

How alarming for me.

I thought of chewed wires and a destroyed air conditioner. I thought of fires. I thought of having to hire electricians to rewire my house. I thought of my scrawny savings account that couldn’t cover such expensive repairs. Did my homeowner’s insurance cover squirrel damage?

It was time for reinforcements.

My handyman fixed the broken screen, and thumped around in the attic in an attempt to scare them out before he nailed the screen back in place. He is not a young man. I had visions of him perishing of heatstroke and/or falling through the ceiling. He managed to get down safely, but the squirrels hid in my fluffy insulation and went nowhere.

Now I had a new problem. Squirrels sealed in the attic.

“They should have left. Now they’ll die up there,” I declared.

“Yep,” agreed the handyman. “The heat’ll get ’em sure.”

He drove off, leaving me vacillating between murderous glee (a squirrel in the attic is like a weed; it has to be eliminated!) and compassion (poor things; I don’t want them to suffer).

I thought about dying squirrels and the stench to come. I called the pest control people. “Get them out!”

They told me what it would cost for their subcontractor trapper to come and get them out.

I reconsidered and drove to the ranch supply place to buy myself a trap. Yes, instead of writing a book or grading papers, I was standing in a store stacked with chicken feed, horse toys, and live-animal traps. There were two sizes in stock:  huge, tunnel-shaped contraptions designed for raccoons or foxes, and squirrel traps. I picked up the latter box, which announced the trap’s capacity for holding 15 squirrels.

My imagination grabbed that and ran with it. Just how many squirrels were in my attic? I could have conducted a Google search to discover how many squirrels are typically in a litter, but time was wasting. I had a trap to set.

The process was simple. I positioned the trap–a flat wire cage about 30 inches square and six inches tall, equipped with entry doors and a release door in the top. This thing was designed somewhat like the Hotel California in that old Eagles song. Once you’re in, you can never leave.

I baited it with fat, prime pecans from my freezer and after much thought, a tuna-fish can of water.

The next morning, at 8 a.m., bam! Commotion, crashing, banging, rattling. Yessirree, I had me a squirrel.

Call me Trapper Deb.

I fetched my leather gardening gloves and climbed the attic stairs. As my head came even with the attic floor, I found myself eyeball-to-eyeball with my captive.

I had caught the mother squirrel.

She was huge, maybe twice the size of the OU campus squirrels I’ve become used to, with a fine pelt and a luxurious tail. Although the pest control people assured me squirrels were easy to handle because they were “skittish, and just hide at the far side of the trap,” this I immediately found to be untrue.

Mama was as fierce as the Queen in the movie Aliens. She was soaking wet from having splashed her way through the dish of water. Skittish was the last word in her vocabulary. She was feral. She was a wild creature. She was defending her young. And she aimed to get me if she could.

Every time I reached for the handle, she charged my hand. Having no desire to lose a finger to this snappish rodent, I cautiously determined that she couldn’t quite reach me. Even so, she remained on the warpath while I carefully lowered her from the attic.

I had laid my plans. Not wanting to haul her in my car, although I knew she needed to be taken a far distance before release, I had decided to carry her to the back of my subdivision where new streets had recently been cut. There was a pond there and trees.

It seemed easy to do. It wasn’t. She wouldn’t be still. She charged here and there, hissing and chattering at me. She lunged at me. She glared. She climbed back and forth. She tried to leap through the openings of the cage, skinning her nose in the process. The farther I walked, the heavier she and the trap became. The morning grew hot. I rested. Finally she rested. I walked. She lunged and fussed.

At last I reached the spot. I laid the trap down and waited until she’d zoomed to the far corner of the trap before gingerly opening the release door. She wouldn’t leave. She was so focused on glaring at me in full killer-squirrel mode that she didn’t realize she was free.

It was squirrel standoff.

Finally I circled the trap and stood on the opposite side. She rotated to keep her beady eyes on me. In doing so, she realized her head was free. In a flash of brown fur, she streaked across the grass to the trees and was gone from sight.

Did I take her picture? Duh, no. I was focused on the reality of the experience, instead of a virtual moment.

Sighing, I picked up my trap and trudged home. Mama was likely to beat me back, depending on the size of her babies. I set the trap again and waited.

Next morning, at 8 a.m., crashing, thundering banging, whumping. I had caught another squirrel.

Except I had two. Fine sassy fellows, larger than I expected. They were simply wild, not fierce warriors like their mama. Half-grown and plenty big enough to be weaned. Although they weren’t fighting me, they were crazy-active. One even got cute and hid for a moment under his tail. Even so, I decided I wasn’t quite up to the task of carrying them out of the attic.

My handyman fetched them down for me, and since he had a pickup we loaded them in the back and took them for a drive until we found a spot away from houses, with trees and water nearby. Then he opened the release door and shook them out.

I reset the trap once more, feeling confident that Trapper Deb could do the job. Pecans and water. Everything in place. The pest control people told me that if nothing came to the trap for a couple of days, I had them all. This time, I promised myself, I would take a picture.

The next morning at 8 a.m., silence.

I climbed the attic stairs. My trap stood empty. Yet all the bait was gone. Even the nuts inside the trap had been taken.

That was weird. How had the critter done it without getting caught?

Aha, I had a sneaky, wily squirrel.

I fetched more pecans and placed them carefully. I checked the water in the tuna-fish can. Everything was set.

Next morning, silence. I checked the trap. All the bait was there. And is still there, after several days of puzzled checking.

I’ve found no more broken screens. I’ve heard no more scratching and thumping overhead. I’ve smelled nothing amiss. All is quiet in the attic.

Except what ate the bait? Ray Bradbury, why oh why did you write “Trapdoor?”

 

 

 

 

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Day of Infamy

Pearl Harbor Day will be observed this week. In the bustle and chaos of the end of this semester’s classes, my rush to wrap up a book project, Christmas shopping/decorating, and hauling my geriatric dog to the vet’s office for expensive testing, I nearly had forgotten all about it. But this afternoon, the radio station was tuned to old radio classics and it was broadcasting a famous speech about the day that will live in infamy when Hawaii was attacked without warning by a foreign power. And with a jolt, I realized that this is a time to pause and remember.

Firstly, to remember those people who lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor. That attack galvanized the USA to enter World War II. We had wanted to stay out of it. We wanted to be left alone. We wanted to remain isolated.

On December 7, 1941, the world for Americans changed forever. We continue today to live with the effects of that war. Because of it, we roused ourselves from a semi-rural nation into a worldwide powerhouse and leader. Because of it, our industrial, scientific, and productive gears spun into overdrive, and we have been a consumer-driven country ever since. Because of it, we developed nuclear power and clawed our way into outer space. Because of it, our customs changed and our population shifted. There aren’t many veterans of WWII still living now, but I honor those who served–including some of my uncles–risking their lives and throwing their hearts and courage on the line to preserve us from domination. And as an American, enjoying the privileges of living in this free nation, I give thanks for the sacrifices and bravery our military expended then for the generations to come.

But secondly, I have to remember a different Pearl Harbor Day … December 7, 1977. I was a college senior, majoring in Professional Writing at the University of Oklahoma. And I was enrolled in the novel course, required for my major coursework. That class was the sole reason I moved out of state and attended OU. I wanted to be a novelist, and I wanted to take the novel class more than life itself. I’d wanted desperately to take it as a freshman, and it was agonizing to wait until I was a senior to enroll. But that’s the way the requirements fell.

It was a semester I might refer to–stealing a book title from Irving Stone–as The Agony and the Ecstasy. The ecstasy was that finally I was receiving the training I’d longed for since my childhood decision to become a writer. The agony was that the instructor, Jack Bickham, was intimidating, terrifying, strict, exacting, and tough. He was the kind of teacher that pulled no punches and took no prisoners. When you entered that course, you could psychologically identify with the warriors of ancient Sparta–told by their wives to come home with their shields or on them.

Jack didn’t believe in praise. Or encouragement. He issued a single assignment for the class, which was to submit a novel manuscript at the end of the semester. He always chose Pearl Harbor Day as the due date. With a rather evil chuckle, he said it was appropriate because many of us students were headed to destruction. (It was not a remark to inspire confidence.) We had no rewrites, no second chances. One assignment and one grade for a semester’s worth of hard work.

Was he just a sadistic old coot? The kind of jaded, cynical college professor that enjoyed tormenting the young?

No.

It was a writing boot camp designed to make us tough, resilient, and determined to survive. It was to prepare us for the ruthless arena of the publishing industry. He knew in his wisdom and experience that to coddle us and pamper us, to wrap us in praise before we were ready, would be to send us off to be trampled by editors–if we even got that far.  And so, somewhat like a Marine drill sergeant, he scared us and set the bar of achievement high, weeding out the weak, lazy, untalented, and foolish as best he could.

Pearl Harbor Day–a date when a sleepy, naive nation awoke and showed the world what it could do when roused to action. Pearl Harbor Day–a date when I turned in a completed novel manuscript despite fear, shyness, and a dinky portable typewriter that wore out along the way.

America won its war. And my manuscript (THE SIGN OF THE OWL) went onward through more revisions to find eventual publication and a national award.

 

 

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FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING

Just an update on the forthcoming books. I have finished preliminary edits on both my new book on plotting and its companion workbook of drills and exercises. I have both manuscripts in for another round of proofreading, and then I’ll be busy with cover design and other marketing details.

Although these projects have gone more slowly than expected, I hope to have them available within the next few weeks.

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The Slog and the Glory

From time to time, I’m approached by a student wanting reassurance that writing will bring guaranteed success or income. My answer is usually to tell the individual to choose another major. Shocked, the young person often walks sadly away and gives up the creative dream.

The reality of writing is that it bring no guarantees of any kind. Very few things actually do. Those of us who write generally do so because we can’t not write. It is a part of our heart. It is our blood, our breath, our life. We can turn our backs on it. We can close our ears to its siren’s call. We can ignore it, and we can smother it. But we do so at the peril of rejecting a gift that most people will never experience.

Of course, the writer’s life is not always kind. It’s certainly not easy. Dictating bestselling novels while reclining on a chaise longue and eating chocolate is more fantasy than reality. Just when you think you’ve come up with a genius-level story premise, you find that no editor is interested and no publisher will buy it.

And when you’re slogging along in what feels like a muddy rut to nowhere, a friend will email you and ask, Have you checked your numbers lately? They’re fantastic. Congratulations!

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to say over and over, “Trust the process.” And that’s all a novelist can do when half-blind, dazed, fatigued, and unsure whether any scene in the middle of his book is working. You trust your idea and your knowledge of the writing craft. You have faith in those elements, and you just keep going.

Once I learned how to put scenes together, how to write dialogue, how to design characters, how to control viewpoint, and what pacing was all about, I had to learn trust. And trusting something can be the hardest lesson of all.

I’m stubborn. I’m deliberate. I’m inclined to take my time. I do not trust quickly or readily. I was the child who spent the entire first week of my two-week series of swimming lessons learning to put my face in the water. But once I give my trust, I give it.

When I learned that trusting the writing craft would see me successfully through the completion of a novel every time, I put my belief in it. I won’t say that every book I’ve written since then has been stellar, but I know that when a story falters it’s due to my mistakes and not the fault of writing principles.

I’ve also learned to trust my story sense and the fact that I was put on Earth to write stories. I don’t mean to sound grandiose or egotistical in expressing that. It’s just the way I’m made. It’s what I do.

For me, writing flows in a feast or famine cycle. There are lean years and fat years. There are times when I am unable to explain to anyone why I continue to write. I just have to.

Experience has taught me that if I keep going, keep utilizing my craft to the best of my ability, then just about the time I feel most lost is about when the famine cycle flips to a feast.

In my view, if a writer gives up when feeling most discouraged, then he’s never going to find the glory that follows the slog.

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Direct Opposition–Part II

In this series, I’m discussing the array of possible villains at our disposal. Here’s the list:
Concealed villains
Visible villains
Enemies
Antagonists
Opponents

Previously, I provided an example of how to bungle conflict using a concealed villain.

This time, I want to look at handling visible villains.

Wilbur Writer, fuming over having been chided so publicly in my prior post, has tweaked his story’s scenario as follows:

Peter Protagonist, determined to seek adventure, has enlisted in the Planetary Patrol. As soon as he’s completed basic training, he’ll be shipped off to a rebellious colony world to suppress an uprising.

Velma Visible, Peter’s mother, believes in galactic peace and worries about the safety of her only son. (Motivation) She leads a protest march through town, carrying a placard that reads, Moms Against Enlistment. She argues with his recruitment officer–thereby embarrassing Peter. She throws a hissy fit when Peter leaves for boot camp.

“There!” Wilbur declares with satisfaction. “Velma is right out in the open. She’s causing trouble. I have a good story premise now.”

Not so fast, Wilbur!

Let’s look at this example again. Do we have direct opposition between Peter and Velma?

Not quite. Velma’s certainly making her presence known. She’s raising a ruckus, but what happens to her when Peter ships out?

What carries the conflict through the other 215 pages of Wilbur’s story?

Once again, Wilbur has chosen oblique opposition over direct. The result may be anger, but Wilbur doesn’t even have Peter and Velma arguing face to face. Instead, he’s got Velma leading a march, Velma confronting the recruitment officer, and Velma crying and yelling instead of bidding her son farewell.

Oh, Wilbur, Wilbur, Wilbur, what are we going to do with you?

First, we’ll correct the obvious problems by looking at Peter’s goal, then positioning Velma directly against it.

A.) If Peter is determined to join up, then Velma should be equally determined that he won’t do it.

B.) If Peter has enlisted before his mom finds out and she heads to the recruitment office to rescind Peter’s enlistment, Peter will do his best to stop her from going.

C.) If Peter is in line to board the ship, then Velma should be throwing herself bodily in front of him, physically trying to stop him.

Even so, these corrections will help Wilbur only until Peter Protagonist boards his ship. The rest of the story still lacks a central antagonist.

“Don’t worry,” Wilbur cries with sudden inspiration. “I’ll introduce lots of enemies that will confront Peter. Wait and see!”

I see already the pitfalls that lie ahead of Wilbur. Do you?

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