More to Say About Dialogue

My most recent post, Much to be Said About Dialogue, touched on a few common problems (and how to fix them) when contemplating dialogue in your stories. One was the use of said as the go-to attribution to identify the speaker.

But said can be overused.

“I don’t want to go to the movies,” Justin said.
“You never want to see a movie,” Josie said. “How about dinner at that little seafood place on the pier?”
“Nah, the service is terrible,” he said.
“But the food’s good,” she said.

As a reader, boredom quickly sets in and casts a pall over the conversation and the story as a whole. Can you think of a worse response?

Once the characters are established within a conversation, the attributions and beats are only necessary if the back-and-forth is prolonged, in order to keep the reader “in place.”

In the example, tension exists but is minimal—conflict does not (and cannot) be earth-shattering all the time, but should be apparent at least as an undercurrent.

Rewriting the example conversation might look like this:

“I don’t want to go to the movies,” Justin said.
Josie sighed. “You never want to see a movie. How about dinner at that little seafood place on the pier?”
“Nah, the service is terrible.”
“So what do you want to do? The pub and a plate a fries, I suppose.”
His face lit up. “That’s a great idea.”
So much for a nice quiet night, just the two of us.

One of the main purposes of using dialogue attributions is showing who is speaking—the reader must never be confused. Adding character movements, beats, or thoughts helps make clear who is speaking; the reader will know the speaker and their emotional status, which should include tension. Differences in vocabulary, emphasis, and cadence will also help differentiate the characters.

Adding an -ly adverb to describe how the character is talking (Frank said nervously) weakens the character’s words. Here’s another type of attribution that will throw off a reader and scream amateur:

“You better not be going over to that boy’s house,” he snarled.
“Billy’s a nice boy,” she replied, “and he treats me good.”
“What do you know about it? You’re only fifteen.”
“I know enough,” she exclaimed.
“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady,” he said through gritted teeth.

Had enough? For one thing, people don’t snarl, dogs do; replied is redundant; if the girl in this encounter (supposedly the daughter) exclaims, let her do so, but don’t tell the reader.

Through gritted teeth. As a writer, you may be able to get away with that particular phrase once in a novel . . . maybe. Putting the action before the spoken words would be more effective:

He gritted his teeth. “Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”

Add her reaction and you have a scene rife with tension. Or, even better, leave off the last beat and let the words speak for themselves—they show the rising emotions and tension during the exchange.

“You better not be going over to that boy’s house,” he said.
“Billy’s a nice boy, and he treats me good.”
“What do you know about it? You’re only fifteen.”
“I know enough!”
“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”

Smoother, wouldn’t you agree? Smooth transition from one character to another is the key to believable dialogue. And please, never this:

“How you doing?” Ralph asked. (asked is unnecessary because of the obvious question.)
“Great, you?”
“Fine, thanks. What did you do last night?”
“Stayed home and played video games. What’d you do?”

As a reader, do you care?

Believable and trustworthy dialogue in fiction is vital. Having your characters speak to one another accomplishes several things in relatively few words: adds depth and substance to the characters, an important aspect in the reader’s illusion that the “people” populating your stories are real and multi-dimensional; dialogue, and the white space breaking up long narrative blocks of print, allows the reader to catch a breath; people talking speeds up the prose, the action, and the plot.

The last point is invaluable. If while reading your story over and you find it’s dragging, adding dialogue moves the story into second gear.

Word of caution: don’t use dialogue to inform the reader information you deem necessary that the characters would already be aware of.

“As you know, Dobson, a person’s molecular structure changes when in space. Your experiments prove that space travel can also alter DNA, if only marginally.”

“That’s true, David, but it has only been tested while in orbit. What you are talking about is inter-planetary travel. There’s a difference.”


I enjoy writing dialogue: it’s challenging, and when done right, brings to life the characters, their conflicts, and adds a robust flare to the other story parts.

Practice writing dialogue. Here’s a little exercise to open a well-spring of ideas:

“I know you love me, honey. I’m just not sure if you like me.”

See how many different paths a conversation begun this way might travel. A husband and wife? Lovers? Remove “honey” and have the conversation take place between a father and son, mother and daughter, or siblings—tension is inherent in these few words regardless of the cast of characters.

See you on the next page,


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Writing Quote:

Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.” ~Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction, 1991

Writing Links: Free stories and places to send your fiction:

Short Stories
Daily Science Fiction



Much To Be Said About Dialogue

In a previous post, The Making of a Hero, Part 2, I wrote that a character comes alive to the reader through four processes: their actions, descriptions (least preferable most times), their thoughts, and what they say (and to a degree how they speak).

He Said it Best

Dialogue gives readers insight to your character’s purposes, desires, and motivations, and thereby speaks volumes about who they are—Let them speak.

And use said most often. Said is an innocuous word passed over like the or a, connectors allowing the reader to focus on what’s really important in the sentence. In the case of dialogue, said gives the clarity of who is speaking each time. That’s its purpose.

The trouble looms—and foolishness follows—when the writer decides to add adverbs to explain what Frank said, or how.

“I didn’t know he’d come,” Frank said foolishly.

Who says Frank is being foolish? Is Frank the viewpoint character, or is it someone else, and why would either think his words are foolish?

The problem, you may realize, is that the writer of that sentence is telling the reader how to feel about Frank. When you use -ly adverbs to tell the how something is being said, you are in essence telling the reader that the character’s words do not accurately or wholly describe what you want them to feel.

Writing such a sentence is laziness. Although it may be fine as a “reminder” in the first draft of what you really want to say, that’s all it’s good for—Rewrite the sentence.

One way is to add an action beat or a thought.

“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, feeling foolish.

Better yet, use sensory description to indicate Frank’s state of mind.

“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, and felt his face flush.

Frank could lower his eyes, glance away, or any number of reactions that shows how he feels. Consider, though, that what you show may not be absolutely clear to the reader unless they have a good idea of Frank’s personality beforehand. Lowering his eyes, glancing away, even his face flushing could indicate Frank is shy rather than embarrassed or feeling foolish.

Said followed by an adverb, though grammatically correct, removes the power of the words spoken.

He said feverishly; she said poetically; they intoned simultaneously all say little. How do you say something feverishly? Are the words fast and furious, or is the character sweating? If your character is going to say something poetically, wouldn’t it be just that, a poem? Intoned simultaneously—you probably lost the reader here.

No Tension, No Reason

Dialogue has one of two functions that are always entwined: characterization and forward plot movement. Adding tension is critical to up the ante for your characters.

Gloria Kempton, in her book, Dialogue, from Writer’s Digest’s Write Great Fiction series, states the value of tension within dialogue this way:

“Dialogue’s purpose, and there is no exception to this, is to create tension in the present and build suspense for what’s to come.”

Can’t get any clearer about dialogue’s importance than that.

“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, looking away.
What a fool. “Of course you knew he’d follow you.”

In this example, the viewpoint character is not Frank, and the VP’s reaction (their words and internal thoughts) speak to Frank’s character as well as their own while adding tension between the two. It’s always nice to have multiple layers within dialogue.

Character movements can often add to the words and a scene’s tone.

Dana adjusted the flowers in the vase, and glanced over her shoulder at Francis. “Ben must have gone to the cabin in the middle of a work week for a reason.”

Depending on your story (has Ben gone missing, was he found murdered at the cabin, or caught in an affair?), Dana’s words hint at a tension, asking the question why Ben was at the cabin when he should have been at work.

Dana stared the bay window, focused on nothing but the one question that kept rattling through her head. “Why did Ben go to the cabin when he had an important appointment scheduled at 2 PM?”

This example shows distraction and concern: again, tension underscores her speech.

Making Speech True

Another point: watch to make sure your characters speak according to their environment and time period. Today few people say “groovy” although it was quite popular among the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s, and in the same way someone from the JFK period would not refer to “virtual reality.”

And, for your reader’s sake, do not give a character warped speech (even if it’s what you want to imply) by having them say, “Took me youngins down fir to the wat’rin hole cuzin’ they’s be wantin’ ta swim.” This becomes tedious quickly.

Instead, use only one or two “triggers” to indicate dialect: “Took me youngins to the watering hole ’cause they wanted be swimmin’ ” does a much better job, and doesn’t force the reader to work so hard.

And sometimes a zinger is the perfect fit.

“You could have said it different.”
“What, like gentle?”
“At least a little softer.”
“To save her feelings?” She nodded. “Sure, I could have sympathized, told her I understood it’s hard to leave, but that’s just another person giving her a reason to stay. I told her the truth, tomorrow she could be wheeled out under a pressed white sheet.”

Most of all, have fun writing dialogue. Think of the back-and-forth of a conversation, one character needling for answers while another is trying to save face or protect something or someone.

For a deeper study of dialogue, I recommend Gloria Kempton’s book mentioned and Character, Emotions, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress (also within the Write Great Fiction series).

See you on the next page,


Writer’s Quote:
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” ~Joseph Heller

Writing Links:
Writer Beware from SFWAGood information for writers looking for agents or publishers.

Some of the best Sword and Sorcery books.


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Writing is a Psychological Pursuit: Smile Past Doubt

To be a writer requires studying the effect life has on the human mind.

In a non-clinical environment, writers are psychologists, and better suited to the task than your local bartender—bartenders watch behavior, writers study what causes human action.

The study of human nature is essential for writers, whereas it’s just a bartender punch-line.

Characters act and respond based on how they think, flavored by their experiences and individual perceptions. Asking what motivates a character, and the life before the story that impacts their decisions, is a natural process for the fiction writer. Often, looking into one’s own outlook is the springboard catapulting the writer into the character development pool.

Self-doubt sharks swim in that psychological pool.

Writers worry if they are good enough, cringe and get defensive when others critique their work, betrayed when a story is rejected–each ignites the self-doubt fires. Self-doubt comes in many shapes, always wrestling with the fragile duo of confidence and ego. Invariably, the internal battle causes strife and creates a maligned attitude.

I love quotes because of their simplicity to a complex problem. One of my favorites is from the Moody Blues song, In The Beginning; although not specifically geared toward writing, it does deal with the psychology of writing.

“Face piles and piles of trials with smiles, it riles them to believe that you perceive the web they weave.”

The first part of the quote speaks to your response when faced with adversity, the second your perception and attitude toward the world around you.

Once you acknowledge the attitude problem is not them, but You, the hurdle becomes easier to leap.

You create the doubt and valleys of pain. When you take responsibility for that view, you begin to realize the roadblocks are not uncaring editors, a system stacked against you, harried agents that didn’t take time to fully consider your genius, but your own whining.

Yes, whining. We all do it. I’m sure my wife is tired of hearing mine; I know I am, so I decided to stop. Being a contemplative fellow, I considered:

What if I didn’t complain when a rejection appeared, but smiled? It felt counter-intuitive, and I admit at first it was just bad acting. I didn’t feel all fuzzy, nor happy or even content.

But then I thought, “Hey, it just didn’t work for them, the same way buying a new smart phone doesn’t work for me.” It doesn’t necessarily mean the smart phone is bad (the same is true of the story), but that it wasn’t the right fit at this place and time.

As I once told my son, “You have every right to disagree with me and be wrong.”

Maybe the next submission will be a better choice, and the editor will make the right decision.

Repackage the story or novel and send it to the next one on your list, and most importantly, get to work on your current project. And smile about the work you have before you.

You can’t control what others do, no more than they can control your actions. Control what you can, which is the delirious act of creation. Let the world take care of its own problems as you take control of the worlds you create, and those of the characters wrestling with their own doubt.

And smile—it’s the shield against the angst.

See You on the Next Page,


Writing Quote:
“Don’t write to become famous or to make a lot of money.  Write because you love it. Write because not writing for more than a few days feels like you have abandoned a puppy in a mineshaft.  Save the puppy.”  – Joe Beernink

Links on psychology and writing:

Psychology Today

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Are You Ready To Nano and Wri Mo?

Wednesday begins the yearly writer challenge.

November is the acknowledged National Novel Writing Month, spearheaded by the non-profit, NANOWRIMO, which began in 1999 with 21 members. In 2016, more than 400,000 people participated from every corner of the world. You can learn more about it here.

The plan is to write 50,000 words during November, that’s it. But the it is enormous, you say. 1,667 words a day!

That’s the goal, but the main focus is better expressed by writing every day of the month.

I have participated twice, and I have not reached 50,000 words; more in the range of 30-35k, which to me, is an improvement over my normal output. That’s what it really should be about, writing every day of the month, using November as a springboard into the habit of writing every day of the year.

The whole idea is to Write More. Get it? NaNoWriMo.

First draft, no editing allowed or you will waste precious time and hamper output—output is the key. And we know it’s going to be crap, so don’t worry about how good your story is: you will fix it during revision, which follows getting the draft written in the first place. And 50,000 words (or 30,000, or 40,000) won’t be a full novel anyway, but it will spur you well on your way.

November is geared to create the tale languishing in your subconscious, to transfer the story from your head to document: computer, paper, makes no difference. Write Every Day.

Imagine what you can accomplish? The rewards are dazzling, gems to tuck in your private space while you leap beyond your normal daily word count, and in so doing, form the daily habit.

Use the next few days to plan your novel.

Whether you outline or not, lay out the main players in your story, the setting, type or genre, a few scene ideas, and maybe even the eventual ending; it’s up to you.

I have decided to try something different this year: a mystery.

I normally write fantasy, but there’s this story that’s been swirling around my gray matter for a while, and I’ve decided to use November to finally get it on paper. It’s titled The Case of More Than Six, and I have my protagonist, a couple other characters, a bit of the plot, but little more. That’s okay. Remember, the main goal is to pull the story from your thoughts and get it into a form (first draft), a rough stone to be polished into a shiny diamond at a later date.

The first thing is to create your protagonist.

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post, The Ultimate Character Sketch, a place to start developing your main character (add to it as suits your needs). The “sketch” is a place to brainstorm who your protagonist is, but can be used for each character, the depth depending on the importance of your secondary actors.

While developing my MC’s sketch for NaNoWriMo, bits and pieces of scenery, additional characters, and plot started to form, much to my delight.

So, get started, and check back and let us know how everything is progressing . . . we’d love to hear from you. We understand you will be too busy writing the novel in November, so let us know in December when everything has settled down. Until then,

See you on the next page,


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How to Hook the Reader Every Time

no trespassing

The first few words or couple paragraphs of a story are called the Hook. I sometimes refer to the beginning of a story as the “calling” or “invite” where your job as creator is to tantalize the reader and yank them, screaming if necessary, into your tale.

Without the hook, the reader will not care about the line or the sinker.

Here are two terrific novel beginnings from well respected authors, Dean Koontz and Octavia Butler.

Dean Koontz, and the beginning of Midnight:

Janice Capshaw liked to run at night.

This sentence is also the novel’s first paragraph, which makes it all that more ominous. Who runs at night? Isn’t that dangerous? You know because of the importance attributed (It’s the first sentence!) that something bad is going to happen. The tension mounts from the very beginning.

Right off, Koontz hooked me, implanting those questions–the lurking mystery—so I HAD to read the next sentence.

Octavia Butler’s beginning of The Wild Seed:

Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages.

How many villages does Doro have, who is Doro, and what is a seed village?

Both writers grab the reader at the outset, forcing them to continue and answer the questions their well chosen words prompted.

A couple interesting things: each writer named the character immediately Why? A reader identifies with a character, a person, someone like them . . . or maybe not. But the reader does need someone to relate to—this is important stuff; don’t miss it.

In the examples above (and the ones following), the first word(s) is the character’s name, but it does not have to be so—I do encourage writers to name the character in the first sentence, though, or the second at the latest. Readers want to know the “Who” of the story as soon as possible.

Secondly, Koontz and Butler give the reader action and excitement at the start. This is not the place for back-fill, which is often called “Info Dump.” The history of your world and characters, ideally, should be sprinkled in throughout the action, shedding bits of light as the story grows and clarifies.

Reader’s lives are busy, hammered by a myriad of distractions—you must shake their mundane everyday world and pull them into the story you have to tell, and it better be quick.

Here are the beginning two paragraphs of my short story, Nychelle’s Gate.

(In no way do I compare myself to the two masters quoted, but by using my own writing, I KNOW what I tried to do: it’s up to you to decide if I succeeded).

Nychelle staggered through the tent flap, and fell to her knees on the dusty floor. She spun to face her mother and father.

“I won’t do it,” she spat, tasting blood from the Elder’s backhand. The Elder’s slap was not the worst of being “taken,” nor the most painful, and far from the most humiliating. She shuddered and ignored the stickiness down there.           

The opening two paragraphs attempt to accomplish the following:

  1. Introduces the main character, Nychelle, right off.
  2. Gives the setting, at least at this point in the story, being the tent and probably that of her parents. Using “tent” implies the people are nomadic, or at least have not reached the point as a culture of developing towns and cities. Or they are outsiders. Either way, there is some mystery as to the situation of the people populating the story.
  3. Confrontation demonstrated by her dialogue: “I won’t do it” shows a problem and her parents are at the center of it. This confrontation is geared to raise the tension of the scene: it’s called conflict.
  4. There are other hints within these 63 words such as the hierarchy of the culture (Elder), which indicates a clan rather than a kingdom, that she had been struck (tasted blood from the Elder’s backhand), and that she endured something cringe-worthy (shuddered at the stickiness down there).
  5. Speaks to Nychelle’s character: strong and defiant, even against great odds of opposing her parents and the clan elder.

Another from my published short story, The Accomplice.

Deke turned the headlights off and sat for a moment, letting the plan roll through his mind one last time.

What plan? The fact Deke “turned the headlights off” indicates night, and darkness is when trouble happens.

Introduce your character at the outset, give them a problem, and provide a mystery the reader is drawn to solve. Pretty straight forward, and guarantees the reader will read the next part of your story . . . hook, line, and sinker.

See you on the next page,


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Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend

It’s hard saying goodbye to a 30-year-old friendship. Emotions run the gamut—sadness (moist eyes, a lone tear escaping onto the cheek), regret and disappointment (the I shoulda’s), anxiety (what will I do without the comfort they give?), anger (face heating up, hands trembling), and a heart-sinking melancholy.

Emotions are what drive people to act and think the way they do. You know this from your own life, and the emotional stability (or instability) should be apparent in your characters as well.

Yesterday we sold our 1971 VW pop-top camper, and lost a dear friend.

The first two paragraphs “seemed” to indicate the lost friendship dealt with a person, but instead, the emotions rattling through my wife and I related to a vehicle we owned and enjoyed while raising our children; as my wife pointed out, “We’ve owned the bus over half my life.”

Mystery and surprise within fiction keeps the reader turning the pages, all-important ingredients we must not forget—make the reader wonder, then shock them.

Emotions are real regardless of their source, and the same is true of your characters: an heirloom conjures happy memories of a grandparent, or a Purple Heart reminds an ex-soldier of friends who died on the battlefield.

Emotions are strong motivators, and every character needs a believable reason why they do the things they do.

The mystery of why and how a character acts—along with appropriate plot twists—fuels a reader’s interest as you dole out bits and pieces during the pages and chapters of your story. Why did they do that? What will happen next? How will they solve the problem? These questions and others should be imparted in small doses to the reader throughout the story.

Think of a TV drama; the lead character is faced with a dangerous situation, an event that jeopardizes their life or the life of a loved one—fade to commercial. This is known as a cliff-hanger, and within literature, is best used occasionally, and normally at the end of a chapter.

The reader sucks a breath, glances at the clock, realizing they need to get to bed, and turns the page to see what happens next. You have accomplished your job as a writer—kept the reader wondering, fearing, and hoping as you disrupt their sleep.

Keep your story mysterious and thrill the reader with surprises of unexpected outcomes to life threatening events.

I have been fortunate to have eight beta readers for my novel, The Returning; each has been valuable at showing what does and does not work in the story. Four of my readers were given only the first two chapters where my initial cliff-hanger took place following a monumental surprise for my protagonist.

Something crashed against the back of his head–blackness.

The response was unanimous: each of the four readers berated me (gently and with good humor) with comments like, “How dare you leave me hanging like that!”

Perfect—just what I wanted.

Keeping the reader on edge, wondering what will happen next, and then fulfilling their anticipation with an undreamed of resolution entices readers to the next page. Isn’t that the point?

Now go write your story, adding foreshadowing hints along the way, and then knock the readers from their comfort zone.

See You on the Next Page,


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Fiction and Natural Disasters

Catastrophic natural disasters happen all the time.

Hurricane Harvey has dominated the news over the last week, but it is only one of several natural disasters affecting and displacing people around the world. As terrible as Harvey has been for Texas (now accounting for 44 deaths and dozens still missing at last count), the monsoon that hit Napal, India, and Bangladesh last week killed over 1,200 and made millions homeless.

Currently, fires scorch the western U.S. and Canada, threatening thousands of homes while smoking up several states. Our small town at the foot of the Oregon Cascades sits in a valley where smoke accumulates and has made life miserable the last month—we are surrounded by several fires burning the forested canyons where biking and hiking are normally the call-of-the-day.

Disasters magnify the human condition in the suffering and peoples’ response to events beyond their control. Over the next days and weeks stories of bravery and tragedy will underscore the disasters—those instances are fiction’s ripe fruit.

Fiction is all about people in conflict, whether with themselves, other people, circumstances, or nature; disasters and a character’s reaction can include and embody all simultaneously.

Uncountable movies and books use disasters as their catalyst, and in some cases the events comprise the entire plot. Contemplating the disasters inundating us on the daily news, I realized I have never used a natural disaster in my own writing.

Perhaps character “motivation” is so deeply ingrained in my plot development—the how’s and why’s they react—is why I have never used an “act of nature” in my stories; I’m not sure.

The world impacts my characters (my MC hurtling over a waterfall, for example), but the cause of such action was another character’s betrayal and a bit of bad luck. Weather has certainly affected my characters, and the climate hints at a character’s mental state or the perception I want my reader to experience.

The magnitude of natural disasters and the lives affected are often lost on us as we have become complacent due to the sheer volume we read and hear about. But when writing, we leave our aerial view of the world and swoop down onto the shoulder and into the minds of our characters and their reactions to the world around (and within) them.

This is how it should be.

Writing about a natural disaster can be a doorway into a deeper understanding of a character’s motivations and reactions. Think of a macho-man cowering and polarized by fear during an earthquake, or a young female store clerk who risks her life to save a drowning puppy: each instance speaks to who these people really are beyond the persona they exhibit under normal situations.

I remember in the Kevin Costner movie, The Guardian, where as a Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician, he drops from a helicopter into a raging sea to save a drowning couple. During the ordeal the husband is only interested in his own survival: the Costner character has to punch the man to calm him, and after the rescue, the wife’s reaction to her husband’s cowardice is classic.

People act differently during duress than they think (or hope) they would. My dad always said, “No matter how you think you would react, you don’t know what you’ll do until a person puts a gun to your head.” He was right.

As a writer, you need to know how your character will react. Even if you don’t plan a natural disaster in a story, knowing a character’s reaction to all sorts of stimuli will give you—and, thereby, your reader—a better understanding of a character’s many facets.

Fiction is about people and how they respond to calamity.

As an exercise, put one of your favorite characters into a natural disaster and see how they react. Add that to your Character Sketch. Even if you do not use what you write, it will give you a better understanding and will help “round out” your understanding of the character.

See you on the next page,


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