Playing at Being Motivated: Habitica for Writers

Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 11.06.55 AMOne thing that was fascinating about this year’s Nebulas was the chance to meet so many people in the publishing industry, including a couple of the founders of Habitica, Vicky Hsu and Siena Leslie, who were on a panel about avoiding distractions – a key skill for a writer.

Habitica is a motivational game. It lets you gamify your daily tasks and to-do list, turning them into challenges you face in the game. As you complete tasks, you gain levels and items in the game, giving you an extra push to get things done. You can also set it up so you lose points for doing things, if there’s habits you want to avoid. There’s a social aspect; you can join parties and guilds in order to share your progress with friends.

I am always on a quest for a method that will help me stay organized. Various systems have come and gone, some more successful than others, and I’ve learned a few things about how to make such systems more effective. As I share how I am using Habitica, I’ll include some insight into how that knowledge shapes that use. I’ve been logging into it consistently for two weeks now, and I believe it’s going to stick, because I’m finding it very effective for a) nudging me to do things, b) helping me remember stuff, and c) motivating me to use free time and options (like snacks) better.

Core Component: Dailies, Habits, and To-dos

The key to Habitica is its tasks, which fall into three categories: dailies, habits, and todos.
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You Should Read This: Five Satisfying F&SF Series for Vacations

I just got back from a trip that included a couple long plane rides. I’m a very fast reader and finding a long, well-crafted series immersive enough to make me forget that my back is aching, the kid behind me keeps kicking the seat, and all the other discomforts of travel. Airport bookstores are usually full of stuff I’ve already read, so I try to load my e-reader with an abundance beforehand. Here’s a few that have stood me in good stead in the past few months.

Most recently, Kate Elliott’s The Novels of the Jaran (Jaran, An Earthly Crown, His Conquering Sword, and The Law of Becoming), which come as a single ebook bundle that Immensely satisfying space opera mixed with nomadic life with the Jaran on their unexpectedly pivotal planet. Elliott has become one of my goto writers (another favorite is Walter Jon Williams) – I know anything I pick up by her will be a satisfying and sustaining read.

Martha Wells’Picture of a Book Shelf The Books of the Raksura is fantasy, following the adventures of one of the Raksura, Moon, as he finds a new home and family, only to have to defend them. Moon is a character who shines; you desperately want him to be happy, and his path towards that is deeply engaging. And the most recent book, The Harbors of the Sun, is out now!

Max Gladstone’s The Craft Sequence. I had read the first three of these, but another nicely-priced ebook bundle let me pick them up all together and read them that way, which I highly recommend. They connect in a interesting and convoluted way that makes the series do what a series should – create a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual books. Awesome fantasy with a modern flavor and a delightfully careful attention paid to economics.

Kristine Smith’s The Jani Kilian Chronicles is military-flavored space opera with a strong and engaging protagonist, games with linguistics, and plenty of action. A protagonist who is flawed, fearless, and feisty, and a romantic life that adds to the book but is certainly not the focus. Not quite military SF but close, I guess – I’m never sure where space opera ends and military SF begins.

Short stories are not something I would normally take on a vacation – they’re candy, not sustaining rations. But there’s a lovely series collecting all of Theodore Sturgeon’s work that I’ve been picking up book by book, using them as rewards. I’m up to Volume Five of those, The Perfect Host. And yay! All of them seem to be available on the Kindle. If you’re an F&SF short story writer, Sturgeon is one of the people you should read, in my opinion, to see how brilliantly and beautifully he does things.

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Writing and Gender Class

rainbowflagbygilbertbakerOften when I add new classes, it’s because someone has specifically asked for them. I know whenever I teach something new, it’ll be a learning experience for me as well, because I’ll have to think hard, come up with an outline, figure out some writing exercises, and have some resources to provide people afterwards.

That need for thoughtful preparation is why I’ve put off something frequently asked for, a class about Writing and Gender. But now I’ve been working on one, and the live version will take place on Saturday, August 26, 9:30-11:30 AM Pacific time. I am very pleased to say that Cheryl Morgan will be guest-speaking in it – I find classes with two teaching perspectives are usually much more interesting, and this class is going to be interesting, thoughtful, and stuffed full of good and useful information and concepts.

There’s plenty of time, but with stuff like this, I find I do well to start jotting down notes early and building on them over time, with one last frenzied spurt of effort dedicated to completion in the last week or so. Here’s some thoughts so far:

I want to discuss how modern Western views of gender have fractured, and concepts like asexual, aromantic, cis, gender fluidity, etc as well as moving outside binary thinking.

I asked on Twitter about fiction thqt does interesting stuff with gender and am compiling a list, but here’s a Storify with all those titles in it. Some science fiction that has dealt with gender: Ann Leckie’s Radchai series, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill — and what’s the name of that John Varley story where the woman switches genders and her husband has such a hard time with it?

For me, Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her was an important text in thinking about the construction of femininity and language, so I want to look at a couple of passages from that and see if I can derive an interesting writing exercise from that. It came out in the 70s, though, so I have some fears that it’s going to be dated.

Along the same lines, at least one writing exercise that invoves genderflipping (or other-flipping in a different way) a passage of writing. I’m looking for other ideas like that which help me show students different perspectives in a way that sinks in. So much writing depends on finding the unexpected angle, the voice that has been too quiet to hear before, the elusive scent on the breeze that tugs at some memory — that’s what is both thrilling and terrifying about exploring things in one’s writing.

I will remind you that classes afre basically half price if you register by July 1, and that there are three Plunkett slots – scholarships for people who couldn’t otherwise afford the class – in each one. I am always pleased when people take advantage of the Plunketts – so help make me happy by passing the word along to someone who might be interested!

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Nattering Social Justice Cook: Celebrating Rainbow Hair

And as he spoke of understanding, I looked up and saw the rainbow leap with flames of many colors over me. -Black Elk

One place recent culture wars have been being played out has been the virtual space occupied by Twitter and its adjacent social media. Examining a particular hashtag or recurring phrase often provides insight into what the topic of the moment is, as well as what tropes and memes are being deployed.

A common adjective in many of the more conservative, alt-right, and other theater-of-outrage rants I’ve seen in the past couple of years is “rainbow-haired,” never in a positive sense. It’s usually paired with some form of “social justice warrior,” and often accompanied by an emotional catch-phrase or verbiage like “feels” or “drinking the tears.” There’s a lot of interesting stuff built into that particular fixation. So let’s dig around to find what’s contained in the phrase and its use in this pejorative sense.

The rainbow itself has plenty going on, symbology-wise. In many mythologies, it’s the bridge between heaven and earth, used by gods, heroes, and shamans. In the Christian allegory of Noah, it’s the sign of God’s covenant with humanity. Leprechauns hide their gold at the rainbow’s foot, Indra uses it for his bow, and in the Australian Dreaming, it adorns the scales of the Rainbow Serpent who created the world. It’s also got a maxim built into it: something positive that cannot appear without something negative happening first. There are no rainbows without rain, at least a little of which must fall into every life.

In 1978, this metaphor for something containing a multitude of variations became associated with gay pride and diversity, through the efforts of artist/drag queen Gilbert Baker, who said of it: “We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag—it’s from the sky! And even though the rainbow has been used in other ways in vexilography, this use has now far eclipsed any other use that it had.”

And we should not forget Skittles and the slogan “verb the rainbow.”

What happens when it becomes hair color that makes it particularly hate-worthy for dour conservatives? It’s something I’m fairly familiar with, since I started dying my hair with streaks of pink in 2006 when I found Loreal’s Color Rays on a Bartell’s shelf. The dye requires no pre-bleaching; it is alarmingly, wonderfully bright when it first goes on, and fades over the course of the next couple of months. While it only comes in three colors rather the multitudes other lines hold. I have yet to find another dye that lasts as long and well. I’ve tried plenty over the years, including Manic Panic, Ion, Arctic Fox, and Vibes. I wrote at length about the (over a decade-long now) experience in The Pink Hair Manifesto so I’ll avoid saying anything other than it’s something I anticipate continuing to do, particularly since it’s become part of my authorial brand.

Let’s ground the recent phenomenon of chemically-colored hair plumage historically, since it happened a few decades earlier than my decision. Fabulous colors required science to make it possible, but the earliest adopters were the punks, particularly Cyndi Lauper. This was considered pretty shocking; I can remember a girl at my high school dying a small patch of hers blue and having her father threaten to kick her out of the house as a result.

Rainbow hair, rooted in a counter-culture movement, revels in individuality and a certain DIY spirit (there is no shame in going to the salon for it, but I find it much more fun to do my own). It celebrates one’s appearance, draws the eye rather than shrinking away from it. It is something beautiful that those who don’t fit inside normal standards of beauty can have. It is playful, joyful, delightful at times.

Very recently it has spread like wildfire, and many of the people adopting it are millennials. This gives the anti-rainbow hair sentiment a double-whammy, providing an “oh these kids nowadays” moment while slamming anyone older for acting overly young. (Which implies that’s a bad thing, which isn’t a notion I agree with).

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 10.19.06 AMHere’s something that I think also often makes conservative minds bristle: it confuses gender norms. In traditional thinking, men aren’t supposed to care about or celebrate their appearance in the way women are. But rainbow hair appears all over the gender spectrum. Pull in the strand of meaning associated with gay pride, and the objectionability quotient increases.

There’s a reason alt-right and other manifestations of conservative trollish rhetoric so often focuses on appearance, on fat-shaming or fuckability or even how a new Ken-doll wears their hair. It’s a reversion to the schoolyard insult, the way insecure children will be cruel to others in order to try to build their internal self-worth, a behavior many, but sadly not all, outgrow. Worthy of an essay in itself is the fact that it’s also behavior advantageous to advertisers: anxious consumers who want to fit in are willing to spend money in the effort.

This strategy of playground taunts based on a) something most people have little control over and b) a rigid set of norms is curious when we go back to the associated ideas of emotion and “feels” (I do want to talk about what additional stuff is built into the latter, but let me return to that in a second.) Emotion is traditionally seen as the domain of women and children; men keep a stiff upper lip and a silent heart of winter. Often emotionality is built into the verbs used to describe speech: shrill, shriek, and scream are favorites.

Big boys don’t cry. Women and other non-males do, and there is a Smeagol or Renfield-level insistence on the deliciousness of such tears, as with so much of the writing, which depends on mockery of other people’s passions or even what’s portrayed as their rude insistence on co-existing in this world.

It would be nice if pointing out the gender and other biases BS built into such language defused it entirely, but certainly it’s easier to keep it from affecting you if you’re aware of it. Life for many non-mainstream groups is a constant course of avoiding the particular lumps of low-level radiation scattered throughout our daily landscape. I’m aware I’ve got some shielding from that denied others.

So what’s built into “feels” beyond that? It’s a denigration of the memespeak and emoticons of the millennials, as far as I can tell, a curious mockery of Tumblr and lolcat culture. And there’s a reason that they fear that group, which is better (IMO) at seeing through the clouds of Internet argument than some of the other generations.

Literally four decades ago, when I was a kid, we saw football player Rosey Grier singing that it was all right to feel things:

I’m bemused that the people in the world I inhabit remain so wedded to a norm that seems harmful to men and makes them less capable of understanding the world. Maybe the feelz aren’t such a bad thing after all.

Which leads me to my conclusion, which is that it seems like an ineffective and overly dour point to hammer on. Overall, I can’t read any of the negatives being packed into rainbow-haired as actual negatives. Celebrate the rainbow connection, I say, and close accordingly with that.

Who said that wishes would be heard and answered when wished on the morning star?
Someone thought of that and someone believed it.
Look what it’s done so far.
What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing and what do we think we might see?
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

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Guidelines for Guest Blog Posts

IMG_3041Because I’ve run a number of guest posts on my blog and get offered additional ones from time to time, here’s the guidelines. I prefer they fall into one of the following areas but I’m open to interesting pitches:

  • Interesting and not much explored areas of writing
  • Writers or other individuals you have been inspired by
  • Your favorite kitchen and a recipe to cook in it
  • A recipe or description of a meal from your upcoming book
  • Women in the history of speculative fiction, ranging from very early figures such as Margaret Cavendish and Many Wollstonecraft up to the present day.

Please do send a pitch along with relevant dates (if, for example, you want to time things with a book release) to cat AT If it sounds good, I’ll let you know. Length is 500 words on up. Please include 1-5 images that can be used with the piece and a 100 word bio that includes a pointer to your website and social media presences

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You Should Read This: Some Recent Reading

Image of bookshelves filled with books about writingPost-Nebulas, I’ve been going through and trying to clear away a lot from my shelves and TBR list, particularly given that I still had a substantial armload from the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts and its munificent book tables. Here’s some particular recent favorites.

  • The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente. Funny, fierce, and feminist. Valente gives a voice to some women who’ve got shrewd insight into and experience with the gender norms of the comic book world, including Phoenix, Harlequin, and Gwen Stacy. If you are a woman who loves comic books you should stop reading this and go find it. Fucking fantastic.
  • Deadwood by Pete Dexter. This historical novel is the one the HBO series was based on, and it’s terrific, particularly if you enjoyed that series and want to revisit some of those characters. The plain style of the writing combined with a sharp eye for historical detail is lovely, and it’s a book worth savoring. There are few things on earth more disappointing than reading a regular Western when you’re hoping for a weird one, so let me emphasize again that this is straightforward, non-fantastic fiction.
  • All Systems Red by Martha Wells. Far future SF with one of the most engaging first person narratives I’ve ever have the pleasure of watching in action, Wells’ independent, wry and stubborn Murderbot. Snappy and funny and yet thoroughly engaging. Alas, all too short since it’s a Kindle Single, but luckily it’s billed as the first in a series.
  • The Greatcoats by Sebastian de Castell. Early on in the first book, I knew I’d be picking up the rest, and did so, quickly working my way through to the highly satisfying conclusion. Basically French musketeers and a cool magic system, with the snappy dialogue and fast-paced, high-stakes action you would expect. Very enjoyable. I should note I picked them up due a Kindle deal that’s no longer going; if your budget is limited you will find more bang for your buck elsewhere (IMO).
  • Super Extra Grande by Yoss. In some ways this read like a more modern version of Keith Laumer’s Retief series, with a lot of the things about them that I loved as a teen and less of the stuff I’m not so fond of as an adult. Fast-paced and funny, and Spanglish scattered throughout made it more fun for me, but the mileage for a non-Spanish speaker may vary, I’m not sure. I picked this up because I wanted to read some Cuban science fiction; Yoss is one of the people at the forefront of that.
  • Dreadnought: Nemesis by April Daniels. Superhero YA with a trans main character who is identifiable and fabulous. I’m looking forward to the next in the series. Along the same lines, I want to point to Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee, also snappy and fun. I’m so happy to see superhero fiction have become an established thing in fiction; I will happily read as much of it as our fine genre writers can produce.
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My Report: Pittsburgh 2017 Nebula Conference

Swag bags assembled and awaiting distribution.

Swag bags assembled and awaiting distribution.

I got back late last night, after a trip back that included a lost reservation, my luggage being overweight (how could that be? oh, look at all those books) so I had to repack a bit at the counter under the check-in agent’s impatient gaze, and the poor kid beside me throwing up steadily all the way from PIT to IAD. It’s always weird, the day after travel, because one feels as though you’ve been simultaneously on vacation and yet working harder than most days.

I cannot begin to enumerate all the ways that weekend was wonderful. It was a great joy to see months and months of planning finally bear fruit and now we can relax for at least a couple days before thinking about next year. The programming was, in my opinion, outstanding. My only quarrel would be that there was so much good stuff that I could not get to every panel I wanted to, and that I could not spend enough time with the fabulous SFWA events team of Kate Baker, Terra LeMay, and Steven H Silver, who are responsible for everything that was wonderful.

One of the challenges for the Programming Team, led by Mary Robinette Kowal, was making sure the programming had something for all writers, whether they were tradpub, small press, indie, or hybrid. There were so many terrific, in-depth panels, including a wealth of shadow programming additions and office hours with writers and other publishing professionals. It made me think back to a Nebula from several years when I was on a lackadaisical panel about writers block that was, I think, so much less useful than it could have been and realize just how far the Nebula Conference has come from the days of “let’s all get together in a hotel and hand out the awards and then drink a lot.”
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Cussin’ in Secondary Worlds

swearing-294391_1280Cussin’ in Secondary Worlds
Saturday, June 10, 9:30-11:30 AM Pacific Time

Cursewords, expletives, and more – those things your characters say when nothing else will do – tells you more about the world (including issues of class, cultural taboos, and more) than you might imagine. How cussing and worldbuilding interrelate. AKA the class where we say F*ck a lot.

Join Norton Award winning author Fran Wilde, author of Updraft, Cloudbound, and The Jewel and Her Lapidary for a workshop that will leave you ready to swear magnificently.

Classes are taught online via Google hangouts and require reliable Internet connection, although in the past participants have logged on from coffee shops, cafes, and even an airplane; a webcam is suggested but not required.

To register for this class, mail me with the following details:

  • The email address associated with your Google account
  • Which class or classes and the dates
  • Remind me if you have already taken a class with me so you can get the former student rate ($79). Otherwise the cost is $99.
  • Whether you would prefer to pay via Paypal, check, or some other means.

Upon receiving that, I will send you an invoice.

Important! Remember every class has at least one Plunkett scholarship for students who could not otherwise afford the cost. To apply for a Plunkett, mail me and tell me why you want to take the class in 100 words or less.

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Guest Post from Carrie Patel: Whose Story Is This, Anyway? – Character Craft for Novels and Games

Picture of carnival masksGrowing up, two of my favorite things were books and video games. If you’d told me twenty years ago that I’d grow up to write both, I probably would have choked on my Mountain Dew.

But over the past few years, I’ve been doing exactly that. I’ve written the Recoletta series, a science fantasy trilogy published by Angry Robot, and I’ve worked as a narrative designer at Obsidian Entertainment for three and a half years now, writing for the Pillars of Eternity games and expansions.

In both media, the principles of good storytelling—establishing a strong story arc; building a vivid, believable world; and populating it with complex, memorable characters—are the same.

But the user experience differs, and understanding that is key to knowing how to satisfy both audiences.

Readers generally pick up novels to immerse themselves in stories that they experience through the eyes of another character. Players generally sit down with games to immerse themselves in stories that they discover and define through their own actions.

A large chunk of storytelling in both media comes down to understanding the role your characters play and how to make them real.

Characters bring a fictional world to life. Their problems and dilemmas create the oft-sought tension and “stakes,” and their choices and conflicts drive the story. Most readers and gamers would be hard-pressed to discuss their favorite stories without also talking about the characters who populate it. We connect emotionally with the people in stories rather than the ideas and philosophies.

But who are those characters?

In a novel, the most important character is typically the protagonist. It’s not just because the action (mostly) follows her. It’s also because we experience the story through her perspective. We see what she sees and know what she feels, even if we don’t always agree with it. First-person and close third-person stories have become immensely popular because of the intimacy of the perspective they offer.

For the protagonist’s story to be engaging, she has to have challenges to overcome. Strengths and vulnerabilities that add variation to her journey. A deeply personal investment in the events of the plot. Writing a protagonist who meets these criteria is often a matter of architecture in the planning stages—figuring out who this person is and what it is about her that generates interest and tension—as well as retrofitting in the revision stages—finding ways to connect her more deeply to other characters and events and building momentum over the successes and setbacks she faces.

When it comes to games, protagonists may be a lot more varied. For the sake of simplicity (ha!), I’m mostly talking about Western-style RPGs, which are often characterized by protagonists who are defined by the player in some significant way and whose stories are often discovered over the course of (fairly) open-ended gameplay.

The degree to which players define their characters differs widely between games. In some games, you have a protagonist with an established identity and established personality whose significant choices are defined by the player. That includes Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher.

In other games, you have a character whose overall identity is set, but whose personality and outlook is determined by the player. For example, Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect series is always a human operative intent on saving the galaxy, but the player can cast her as an idealistic savior or a ruthless maverick.

Finally, there are other games, such as Pillars of Eternity, in which nearly everything about the protagonist, including personality, backstory, and race, is player-determined.

In these types of games, the task of the writer is to build everything around the player character as much as—or more than—defining the player character on his or her own. You develop a story that is just loose enough to fit whatever way the player might choose to define the protagonist according to the options you have given them. You create a world with enough freedom for the player to make choices and enough context to give meaning to those choices. You write side characters who establish the world as a living place and who frame the stakes for the player.

It’s a delicate balance, and it’s one that places a much greater burden on the writing that establishes the world around the protagonist.

That’s because you’re defining this character—or, to some extent, allowing your player to—through negative space rather than positive space. You’re creating a stage that will allow the player to shape a personal story, and one that doesn’t feel at odds with the choices you’ve given them.

TheSongOfTheDead_144dpi (1)Heroes of their own stories

And yet, protagonists aren’t the only characters on the page (or screen). A common piece of writing advice is to write villains as though they were the heroes of their own stories. It’s good advice, and it holds true for all characters—sidekicks, love interests, mentors, and spear carriers.

In many books, the most memorable and beloved characters are often secondary characters. Written well, they are typically less encumbered by the constraints of following the plot. Writers may feel freer to embody them with the quirks and idiosyncrasies that help them stand out. And the foil they frequently provide for the main character—whether as comic relief or as someone who pushes and challenges the protagonist—can create entertaining humor, conflict, and character development.

Put simply, these characters work because they have goals and interests that do not always line up with those of the protagonist.

Games may contain even more secondary characters—often called NPCs (non-player characters). Of course, if every character is the hero of her own story, you’ve still got to make them good stories. And “bring me five puffleberries” and “get my cat out of this tree” don’t quite cut it. We don’t like busywork in real life, so why does anyone assume we’d do it for fun? Yet “fetch quests”—formulaic tasks in which the player character is sent to handle a routine errand for someone else—are everywhere.

The problem isn’t just that they usually make for dull content. It’s also that they suggest a world in which other characters’ concerns go no deeper than grocery runs. In which they only exist to provide some degree of involvement for the player. And in which the protagonist only relates to them as an errand boy.

Every quest need not be epic. But it should mean something or reveal something, both with respect to the protagonist and the other characters involved.

In both games and novels, we rely on good characters to develop our stories and to hold our audience’s interest in them. Novelists and game writers merely need to understand how their readers and players will relate to them in order to deploy them most effectively.


Bio: Carrie Patel is a novelist and a narrative designer at Obsidian Entertainment. She is the author of the Recoletta trilogy, which is published by Angry Robot. The final book in the series, The Song of the Dead, comes out on May 2. She works at Obsidian Entertainment as a narrative designer and writer. She has worked on the award-winning Pillars of Eternity and its expansions, The White March Parts I and II. She is currently working on Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. You can find her on Twitter as @Carrie_Patel as well as at

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Reading Doc Savage: Land of Always-Night

FullSizeRender (49)In packing for a trip, I discovered I’d somehow bypassed some of the earlier Doc Savages, so we backtrack now to book 13: Land of Always-Night. On the cover, Doc, wearing torn shirt and steampunk goggles, looks back and away from a grove of giant mushrooms, not noticing the several odd figures vaguely resembling the Monarch from The Venture Brothers menacing him with raised hands.

This one has to be my favorite beginning yet:

It is somewhat ridiculous to say that a human hand can resemble a butterfly. Yet this particular hand did attain that similarity. Probably it was the way it moved, hovered, moved again, with something about it that was remindful of a slow-motion picture being shown on a screen.

The color had something to do with the impression. The hand was white, unnatural; it might have been fashioned of mother of pearl. There was something serpentine, hideous, about the way it strayed and hovered, yet was never still. It made one think of a venomous white moth.

It made Beery Hosmer think of death. Only the expression on Beery Hosmer’s face told that, for he was not saying anything. But he was trying to. His lips shaped word syllables and the muscle strings in his scrawny throat jerked, but no sounds came out.

The horrible white hand floated up toward Beery Hosmer’s face. The side street was gloomy, deserted except for Beery Hosmer and the man with the uncanny hand. The hand stood out in the Merck almost as if it were a thing of white paper with a light inside.

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