Month: August 2012

Precious Prose – Killing Your Darlings

Did you ever write something you really liked – but deep down you knew it wasn’t really working? Perhaps it resonated with you to the point you dug your toes in and refused to cut it – preferring to perform major plot surgery to keep it in? Maybe you told yourself a few lies about how well it worked and took every suggestion it wasn’t as a personal attack?  It might be a turn of phrase or a whole subplot, but sometimes we are our own worst enemies when it comes to precious prose.

Identifying Precious Prose.

I once read about a woman at a writing conference who was publicly critiqued by an agent.  When he was part-way through the reading he stopped and said to her: “You really like this sentence don’t you?”  She had to admit she did.  It was a little piece she was particularly proud of.  It sounded good, and the imagery was good.  It just didn’t work in the scene.

You can often recognise precious prose, if you get a little thrill about the words you’ve chosen or the imagery you’ve sketched.  You like it because of its stand alone merit rather than because it bolsters up the story.  However you want your reader engaged in the story, not pulled out of it by self-indulgent word-smithery.

It might well be brilliant (I’m sure yours is), but it never hurts to ask a few questions.  Is the language consistent with the rest of the piece?  Does the passage drive the story forward?  Does it contain information crucial to plot or character development?  Will it engage your reader?  If the answer to any of these questions is no – you may be dealing with precious prose.

Part of the difficulty is being objective.  If you feel you’re too close to the piece – ask someone else.  Preferably someone you can trust to be blunt.

Dealing with Precious Prose.

The best way to deal with precious prose is to slash and burn and start with a clean slate.  It’s harsh but effective.

But before you start protesting (and I can hear the collective intake of breath from my writing group even as I write this) or trashing your entire novel – there is a safety protocol to follow.

  • Cut the potentially precious piece out of your text and paste it into another file.  (Maybe the piece is brilliant).
  • Consider the original body of work – does it read better without it?
  • If not try redrafting without using the same phrasing.  I’ve wasted many hours trying to re-work a favourite paragraph.  But if you’ve saved your piece, you have nothing to lose.
  • Move on.  Sometimes you just need a little bit of time and a fresh perspective before you take another look.

An Example.

I wrote a piece a few months ago that I believe falls into this category.  I liked it.  A lot.  A few alarm bells sounded though when I realised it had no time frame.  I even talked to my writing group about where I could slot this into the novel.  A word of advice: If you even think it could be slotted in somewhere – it doesn’t need to be there at all.  It certainly captured my character’s voice, but I should be doing that in the story anyway.  It’s not long so I’ve included it to give you an example.  This is in Josiah’s POV:

Some days are so full, so bright and powerful they sear themselves into your memory.  So when everything else dims and fades they remain as clear and as crisp as the day you lived through them.  In the course of my lifetime there have been only a few, yet those days seem to define the whole better than all the rest of them put together.

The day Alyssa agreed to be my wife is the brightest. I can still see the soft flush on her cheeks when I asked her to marry me.  The way she lowered her gaze and how long that second felt before she looked up and I saw her answer reflected in her eyes.

When I think of that moment I can still feel the echoes of joy resonating through time.  Touching me even now.  Sometimes I like to take that day out and hold it.  To remember what it felt like to be the man I was then; when my future was untold and full of possibilities.

But it is impossible to capture even a moment of time.  No matter how hard you try, it is always flowing forward.  And all memories of her are bound to the one that overshadows them all.

The day she died.

Joy is overtaken by the weight of loss.  The breath-stealing, unacceptable truth that she is gone and I am powerless to bring her back.  Even now my heart is speeding up, racing towards it, as though this time it might end differently…

I tossed up the idea of using this passage as a prologue.  But I’ve read the prologue warnings – and The Fall of the Kings is not about Josiah and Alyssa’s past.  I also thought of using it as the introduction to a new section, but even then it isn’t consistent with the way Josiah narrates the story.  So it’s been cut.

A beloved piece of writing, however, is never wasted.  This piece has at least gone out to the world as an example.  It also lives on in my character folder for Josiah and in my culled-favourite file.  There are all sorts of little treasures in there that I re-read when I need a pick-me-up, and which one day may be resurected in another form.

All of our prose is precious, whether it makes the final cut or not.  But as a good jeweller knows, a gem will shine brightest in the right setting.

Have you ever written something you’ve become precious about?  What do you do with those unfinished pieces of writing you just love?  What do you think of Josiah’s little narrative?

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When Writing Gets Hard – A Light For a Dark Place

Trust me; we all have days when we wonder what we’re doing.  When we’ve read our work so many times it seems to blur on the page and we couldn’t spot a spelling mistake in our name.  These are the days we need to dig deep, to remember why we thought we were writers at all.  If you’re having ‘one of those days’, or even if you’re not, I’d like to tell you a story.  It’s full of ego, naivety, crushing truth and a glimmer of hope for all who’ve chosen the writer’s journey…

A long time ago I suffered from ideas block.  It was a terrible state to be in – a blank page and a blank mind.  I knew I wanted to write, but not what I wanted to write.  I’ve always liked the shape and sound of language, so for the longest time I kept a journal and poured all my writing hopes into that.  Mostly I practiced free writing and wrote poetry – some as beautiful as a faded Polaroid, but for the most part pretty tortured and awful.

This went on for years until I signed up for a writing course – which covered a range of styles and promised to help me find my place as a writer.  Just what I needed!

The course included non-fiction, script-writing and novel-writing (at a very basic level, but did include a promising module on sci-fi and fantasy).  It started well.  My first two assignments, an article on sleep deprivation (I had a baby at the time and was absolutely qualified to write that one) and a humorous piece on farmers’ children becoming ‘townies’, were both published.  With money in the bank, I figured I must have some latent skill as a writer. That is until I was asked to produce short stories – and drew a blank.

I had plenty of excuses – the main one being, “I don’t want to write short stories.”  I felt I was born to write the Novel.  I honestly believed I had more to say than could possibly be contained in a mere 1000 words.  (*hangs head in shame*)  So after much procrastination I managed to produce a laboured piece based around the idea of writer’s block.  Yes, I was again taking a write-what-you-know approach.  The story was about pirates who took over a writing room. Nuff said right?  Actually no, it gets worse. I tried to sell it.  My only hope is whoever received it had a good laugh with their colleagues and it has gone to the place where legends fade into obscurity…

By the time I hit the second short story, I’d read ahead to the module about fantasy.  Although it was supposed to be a children’s story, I figured I’d at least turn it to my advantage and write about dragons too. To my mind it was a triumph. I wrote about 12 year old twins, Roan and Eden Carter who rescue a dragon.  Once again I had my eyes on a book idea and thought I’d do a bit of world-building and develop the hook.  It was over the word-limit, but I remember telling a friend, with absolute confidence, that I’d gone over it with a fine-tooth comb and there was no possible way I could cut anything out.  So I sent it in anyway, basking in the knowledge I’d redeemed myself.

You can see where this one is going…

I didn’t.

Truly.

The assignment came back covered – and I mean covered – in mark-ups.  One page had the comment: “Too much information – you could cut down to these three lines.”  Amongst other things there was a decent amount of telling, and a good dollop of melodrama.  You can see what I mean:

As the story unfolded in his mind, Roan could feel his anger towards the Rohe flaring within him.  “How dare they hunt you!” he snarled, his eyes suddenly dark.

*face palm*  How far I’ve come…

The worst part however was about the dragon.  The tutor said:

The ‘dragon’ element needed to be a stronger force in why he was there and his purpose in the story.  There usually has to be a very strong reason why the dragon MUST be saved.

And I couldn’t answer her.  Why were these youngsters risking harm to save this dragon?  Why was the dragon worthy of protection?  I think I’d seen the movies Eragon, and Dragonheart and had climbed on board the misunderstood dragon train without thinking it through. I certainly hadn’t projected any visible motive in the story.

Now I could have done a lot of things.  Blamed it all on the short story form and ignored the advice. Stood on my years-of-fantasy-genre-reading soapbox and convinced myself she didn’t know what she was talking about.  Or crumpled beneath evidence of my ‘in-much-need-of-improvement’ prose – and stuck to writing articles.  But for some reason I didn’t (well I crumpled a little – I am human after all).  Instead it made me step back and think about what I was trying to achieve.

I honestly thought being a writer meant writing down your story and sending it into the world.  That it might need extensive editing, or that writing was a learned skill never crossed my mind at all.  In fact I thought the course would merely confirm my outstanding natural ability. Instead I discovered there was a whole craft that I still needed to learn.

A. Whole. Craft.

And I had to accept that if I couldn’t master that in 1500 words how on earth was I going to pull it off in a novel?

The other life changing revelation made me really question what I wanted to say.  Why did I love reading fantasy? What did I want to say in a genre I have always loved?

When I pushed deeper into what I’d written, I discovered a story I got excited about telling.  My 12 year old twins grew up and I found a real hero, complete with a totally new attitude towards dragons.  The third book in my trilogy is Roan’s part of the story.

Over the years I’ve learned so much and I’m sure my writing is much stronger because of it.  But I know there will be more critiques that will continue to expose areas that need work.  And each time I’m going to need to dig deep and remember why I am a writer.

So the moral of the story?  Don’t give up.  Don’t ever give up your writing dreams.  The hardest critique can bring the greatest growth and fire your creativity if you’ll let it.  In the words of Galadriel (yes from The Lord of the Rings again):

‘And you, Ring-bearer,’ she said, turning to Frodo. ‘I come to you last who are not last in my thoughts.  For you I have prepared this.’ She held up a small crystal phial: it glittered as she moved it, and rays of white light sprang from her hand.  ‘In this phial,’ she said, ‘is caught the light of Earendil’s star, set amid the waters of my fountain. It will shine still brighter when night is about you.  May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.’

Now that is really great writing!

How about you?  Have you had a defining moment in your writing journey?  Or have you received a critique that shook you to your core – but ultimately spurred you on?  Maybe it’s just been a bit too hard lately and you needed a reminder that you’re not alone? I’d love to hear from you.

Multiple POVs – When Everyone Has An Opinion

If, like me, you’re going to start out writing epic fantasy, create a whole new world from scratch,  and attempt a trilogy to boot – why not go all out and write in multiple POV’s too?  I mean why not tell two stories – or five while you’re at it?  Sure I question my sanity every time I look at the big picture.  But there are benefits from writing in multiple points of view if you keep a tight grip on your cast of characters.

The Benefits

Depth, Breadth and Perspective.

Telling a story from different points of view adds a sense of dimensionality, and – if done well – can make the story feel more complete.  In my WIP, Josiah’s  view of Marcus is quite different from that of Marcus’s wife Celeste.  If the story was told entirely from Josiah’s POV, Marcus might be seen as cold as calculating, with little to redeem him to the reader.  However through Celeste’s eyes we have an opportunity to see the man behind the General; a husband and father with a good reason for choosing the path he does.  All of a sudden the conflict isn’t so cut and dry.

A Bigger Canvas.

Epic fantasy by definition needs to be played out on a grand scale.  Carefully chosen POVs can increase the scope of the story by pulling together action happening simultaneously at different locations.  In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo needs the backdrop of Middle Earth cracking up around him to lend weight to his task. Using multiple POVs gives the reader a fuller picture of the extent of the crisis unfolding across Middle Earth – Elves leaving, Ents reluctant to get involved, armies being raised, leaders refusing to see the truth, strongholds breached – I could go on.  This raises the stakes considerably – will there be anything left even if Frodo can destroy the ring?

Controlling Story Pace.

A story should always be moving towards the final climax, but the pace needs to be one the reader will enjoy.  Light and shade, urgency and discovery.  Multiple POVs can be a valuable tool allowing the writer to build tension, or relieve it when necessary.

In my story two of my main characters are struggling.  Things are tense and somewhat uncomfortable.  A number of bad things happen in succession, building to a key plot point. Read alone it could feel heavy and a bit depressing, but woven together with a lighter more positive subplot occurring well away from the main action – the story feels more balanced.  The reader gets a rest from the emotional pummelling, and is given a thread of hope that the protagonist might come through in the end.

Reader Reveal.

As a reader I love knowing things the character doesn’t.  Every nuance becomes more important, I see foreshadowing everywhere (even if sometimes it isn’t) and I tend to become more involved in the story.  A different POV character is a great way to deliver additional information – if done well.

In my WIP, neither the protagonist nor the antagonist are aware that someone is working behind the scenes manipulating events to his own end. But the reader is.  For most of the story the mystery person is known only as the Elder.  I’ve only written a few chapters from his POV, but his short snippets frame the story for the reader and hopefully raise the stakes and increase the tension.

While epic fantasy lends itself to multiple POVs, they aren’t always easy to pull off.  You run the risk of jarring the reader if your transitions aren’t good, confusing the reader, or even losing them if they don’t connect with one of your POV characters.  Not to mention the risk of losing control of your plot if you can’t weave everything back into the main storyline.

So How to Keep Everyone in Line?

Choose Carefully.

We don’t need to see every side of a story, nor does every aspect need to be explained in detail (there’s something to be said for letting your reader draw their own conclusions).  Ask yourself what benefit will this POV bring to the story?  Could you achieve the same thing a different way?

Keep Tabs.

I tend to outline each character arc and note crucial points that impact the main plot.  On a practical level I put these on (colour coded) note cards and display them on a corkboard.  This enables me at a glance to see where the character should be headed and where he / she fits in to the main story. It also helps me rein them in when they head off on a tangent.

Reserve the Right to Change Your Mind.

If when you read over the finished novel you have trouble keeping everyone in line – consider culling some of the POVs.  I’m still writing a first draft and at this point I have good reasons for using each POV.  However when I’m finished I’ll want to look back and see if it works as a whole.

Working with different character viewpoints can be equally rewarding and frustrating, but as a writer I find there is rarely ever a dull moment.

How about you?  Do you enjoy reading stories told through multiple POVs?  How about writing them?  How many characters are too many?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

When Lightning Strikes

I felt a bit like Dr Frankenstein today – raising my paddles above my WIP and infusing it with life.  It was a heady mad-scientist moment and I’ve been coasting on the rush all day.  So how did it happen?  And more to the point am I going to be able to recreate it?

In the spirit of experimentation I’ve noted down my learned observations:

1. Chase the Storm.

You’re unlikely to be hit by lightning unless the conditions are right.  So rather than wait for inspiration to strike – strap on your wet weather gear and go after it.  After struggling with flat scenes I finally stepped back and had a look at the big picture.  Only then was I able to see a few gaping plot holes. My typical outlines weren’t working so I invested in a stack of note cards and attacked the holes a layer at a time.  One brainstorming session, a few key pieces of information and I was back in business.  You’ve seen those storm chasers (on TV right?) – they always looked so pumped.  Well prepare to wind the windows down and stick your head out into the rain…

2. Open your Eyes.

Sometimes the answer is there is if you really look.  For me I’d forgotten to ask why the troublesome scene was crucial to the main plot.  I’d been trying to achieve a lot of things, but what I needed to establish was a connection between two characters in a short space of time.  It had to be insignificant enough for them to brush it off as a chance encounter, yet strong enough for one of them to recognise the other and act later on in the story.  It was also an early chapter, the first time we encounter two POV characters, so there was a fair amount of world building going on too.  The answer came like a bolt from the blue.  They were from different worlds (culturally) so have one act against stereotype and have the other wonder why.  Once I really started looking out of the characters eyes, and feeling what life was like for them a whole lot of things about their lifestyle made sense and my scene really came alive.

3. Enjoy the Show.

When it all comes together there is nothing more satisfying than sitting back and enjoying it.  Even though I was working, I was also loving reading this brand new storyline as it was born.  Little things I’d wondered about had more meaning than I’d originally anticipated.  I even discovered another character (already written in book three) was in this scene as a child.   Funnily enough even that little detail answered a question I was yet to tackle at the end of the book.  There were many such moments, most of them quite small, but hugely satisfying to see them come together.

4. Build a Weather Machine.

Can I do it again? Can every writing day be as bright and highly charged as this?  I don’t know but I’ll certainly keep trying to recreate the elements.  I love my story and as long as it continues to captivate me I don’t see why not.  Character motivation, tying things into the overall story and keeping an eye on the details have all helped this week.  I can feel the charge building already.

How about you?  Where are you at in the writing process – fully charged and plowing through?  Or waiting for the next bolt of inspiration to strike?

A Little Light Relief

A new character breezed her way through my WIP this week. Against a backdrop of betrayal, grief, scheming and murder, she burst onto the scene fluttering her eyelashes and began flirting with my oldest, crustiest, and to my mind most unattractive character.  I didn’t see it coming.  Neither did Artemis (the crusty old librarian) – or Jae, her young ward for that matter.  I think all of us sat there with our jaws on the floor – until Artemis realising she was talking to him, shook off his permanent disgruntled attitude and transformed into a perfect gentleman (who knew?!).

So who is this gracious, charming creature?  Stellar is a cross between someone’s old nana and an unstoppable force of nature.  From Jae’s perspective:

This was Stellar being inconspicuous?  She might not look like the Stellar Jae knew – her head was bare, silvery tresses bound in a tight bun and the long shapeless dress and grey shawl made her look dowdy and harmless; but the disguise would only go so far if she kept behaving like — like Stellar.

It doesn’t happen to me very often, but it was a wonderful thing to see a character step onto the page almost fully formed.  I knew in a general way what her part was going to be in the story, but I’d never actually seen her in action until now – and she totally stole the scene.

It’s taken a big push this week to sort out a gaping plot hole, so it was a joy to write a character whose only agenda was to be part of a big national celebration.  It also marked the start of a lighter sub-plot that looks like might be more fun than I’d previously imagined.

It never hurts to have a lighter element in a big story – a moment when a sunbeam breaks through the clouds.  My favourite character in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is without a doubt Tyrion Lannister for that reason.  Whatever he lacks in stature (he is a dwarf) he clearly makes up for with a sharp intelligence and a dry wit (often lost on other characters).  No matter how dire his circumstance, Tyrion lightens the story merely because of his attitude and approach to life.  With characters being killed off left right and centre, Tyrion’s character lets the reader take a well deserved breath before being pulled back into the darker mechanisms Martin seems to favour.

Other personal favourites include Emmett in Twilight.  He doesn’t get much page time – but the way he winds Bella up about being married (and what that entails) in front of Charlie is classic young male behaviour – and funny.  And his attitude when Bella beats him arm-wrestling was brilliant.  (You can tell Stephenie Meyer had brothers).

Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series was another scene stealer – she almost always made you do a double-take whenever she spoke.

In a strange way Cara, the Mord-Sith in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series also falls into this category.  Cara was essentially a very repressed magical warrior (doesn’t sound very light does it?), who was freed from serving an evil ruler early in the series, and had to learn what it meant to be free.  Her blunt comments, and habit of speaking exactly what was on her mind (and being baffled when people reacted badly) were some of my favourite moments in the books.

There is a fine line between a touch of light and crossing the line into comedy.  I have to say Grandma Mazur in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series must be my all time favourite light relief character.  A funeral groupie, and totally age inappropriate – she always makes me laugh.  But although she works well in Stephanie Plum’s dysfunctional family, a character so much larger than life might not work in a more serious story.

A great story strikes a good balance between light and shadow.  I love taking my characters into hard places, but in my opinion there’s always a place for a little light.

How about you?  Have you ever been surprised by a character?  Who are your favourite characters that bring a bit of light relief into a serious story?

 

Ready, Brain – Storm!

There comes a time when it finally hits home – if you keep doing the same thing, you’ll keep getting the same results.  This week it was clearly my turn for the revelation.  I was trying to write myself out of a hole and failing miserably.

I’ve been writing fairly consistently for a while now, yet recently a disproportionate number of scenes have been discarded.  One was a bit too fluffy and felt fake.  Another had great tension, but when I stood back I didn’t think the character motivation was consistent.  I had scenes of witty repartee that went around in circles.  I even tried to pants my way out of the hole, but with no direction the scene wobbled off into overly descriptive mode.  Eventually I had to face the fact:

My story had stalled.

It was clearly time to change tack and try something new. In my last post, Lost in Transition, I looked at the problem from a timeframe perspective.  I figured I could skip a relatively uneventful part of the story and pick it up later, so long as the transition for the reader was seamless.  But it didn’t work.  Whatever timeframe I went with I needed a better way to tie the story together; and it was going to take more than a small linking scene.

So I scheduled a brainstorming session.  My plot had a hole in it and it was going to take time to patch it properly.  I blocked off a couple of hours, turned off the phone and sat down with a notepad and stack of note cards.  (I’ve never worked with note cards before, but figured they would be the perfect accessory for a plot-brainstorm).

On the cards I wrote the last few scenes I felt were keepers, and the next major scene I was heading for.  I made a list of the five (yes five) POV characters, and sketched out their motivations heading into this phase of the story.  What I discovered was two of the characters were frustrated, and trying to write their POV was like wading through porridge.  Yet my villain, who has very limited POV page time, was in raptures. His plan was falling into place nicely thank you, and he was enjoying pulling the chains of the other two.

So I looked at this period through his eyes.  Neither of my main characters knew they were being manipulated, and my villain loved being close enough to watch them struggle.  He had plenty of ideas of how to cause trouble and make sure none of it was attributed to him.  I jotted each one down on a card, and then put my increasingly frustrated characters into them.  All of a sudden I had a handful of scenes with some depth, and purpose – even if the POV character couldn’t understand it.

The note cards, turned out to be extremely effective for this process. By using a one sentence scene shot on one side, they were easy to manipulate and helped me visualise the flow of the story.  And I used the back of the card to jot down snatches of dialogue and/or ideas for the execution of the scene.

A few hours later I had enough cards to comfortably bridge the plot gap, as well as a few new gems which should help tie the end up tight. Best of all I’m excited to start writing again!

A few hours brainstorming has given me a new lease of story life.  How about you?  How do you jump-start a stalled story?

Lost in Transition

Sometimes you have a clear vision for where your story needs to go.  You have a goal, you know what needs to happen to get there.  You move your characters around, manipulate events, drop in foreshadowing and if you can keep the inner editor under control it’s fairly straightforward drafting.  That is until you hit transition.

Of course a story is constantly transitioning on one level or another (check out Janice Hardy’s great post, Next! Transitions).  But what I’m referring to is the BIG transition; where a significant amount of time needs to pass before the story picks up.  I’m staring down the barrel of one right now.

My WIP started life as a legend told in what is now book 3 of a trilogy.  So I feel pretty comfortable knowing how the story is going to pan out.  However I’ve just hit the point in the original story which says “eventually…”.  And I’ve wracked my brain to figure out how to move it forward without losing momentum.  Here are my best theories:

1. Shorten the Timeframe.

This is clearly an option, but in order to hit the next plot point I need a few of the characters to struggle. And I’m not sure I can pull it off in a short time frame.  I could show different scenes where things go wrong for them, how the dream wasn’t what they thought it would be; but what I have right now feels flat.  And if it isn’t working for me, I’m sure it won’t work for my reader.  I can’t rule it out totally, but for the sake of the story I’ll need to come up with better scenarios.

2. Focus on Subplots.

I have few subplots I could tug on to keep the action flowing during this ‘time period’.  But I’m worried it would detract from the story if I give too much time to any of them.  Especially at a time where the main story is moving slowly.

3. Make the Timeframe Work.

Back to the drawing board.  Surely somehow I can come up with enough action and intrigue to build the layers my fussy inner-editor insists upon, without blowing out the word count.  Or maybe I should forget the word count and just write big – I am writing fantasy after all. However to date I’ve written, and re-written scenes, but I still can’t see a way for them to hang together well.

4. Take a Leap in Time.

I have to admit this is the most tempting of the lot at the moment.   There’s nothing stopping me leaping six months into the future and picking things up then.  Enough things will have happened to justify my characters’ attitudes, and hopefully a few quick scenes can show the effect of the last major plot point.  But there is always the risk the break is too big.  As Janice Hardy cautions:

Jarring jumps, awkward shifts, missing information, can all knock a reader right out of the story. Are your transitions making the reader want to keep reading or look for the remote?

The problem, like shortening the timeframe, is will the story flow naturally or will it feel contrived?  What if the characters have changed too much and the reader has to work to reconnect?  Or should I draw the big line and actually declare we’ve entered part two of the story?

5. Carry On and Hope for the Best.

After the dreaded ‘eventually’ in my original story is a fairly well developed plot.  Perhaps I should just start at the next known plot point and go back and fill in the transition at a later date.  It goes against my personal writing ethos, but it couldn’t hurt to try?

So what’s the answer?  For now I’ll keep pushing through these different scenarios until inspiration strikes and the story falls into place.

How about you? Have you encountered big transitions in your writing?  How have you handled them?  Am I missing any key strategies?  Do you have any suggestions?