Wizard’s First Rule is the first book in The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind. It’s massive, bigger than any other paperback I own. On the cover, a guy beckons to a woman wearing a dress that is clearly impractical for a walk in such a scenic location. I think she knows it too, that’s why she’s still standing there.
Inside the book is a small illustration of a sword, with the word “Truth” written on the hilt. That’s a little on the nose, don’t you think? But Goodkind probably didn’t draw that himself. Let’s hope he didn’t make the sword quite so literal.
Make Your Opening Matter
It was an odd-looking vine.
That’s not a terrible opening sentence, but it’s not great either. While it provokes curiosity as to how the vine is odd-looking, it doesn’t matter much. Compare this to Battlefield Earth’s opening: “Man is an endangered species.” Now that’s a line with important implications. It would have been worth making this sentence longer to hint how this vine is important. Assuming it is.
It was an odd-looking vine. Dusky variegated leaves hunkered against a stem that wound in a stranglehold around the smooth trunk of a balsam fir. Sap drooled down the wounded bark, and dry limbs slumped, making it look as if the tree were trying to voice a moan into the cool, damp morning air. Pods stuck out from the vine here and there along its length, almost seeming to look warily about for witnesses.
Goodkind imbues these plants with personality; the sap even has its own drool! But while this provides a vivid picture with some conflict built in, we still don’t know why these plants matter to the viewpoint character, or even who the viewpoint character is.
It was the smell that first had caught his attention, a smell like the decomposition of something that had been wholly unsavory even in life. Richard combed his fingers through his thick hair as his mind lifted out of the fog of despair, coming into focus upon seeing the vine. He scanned for others, but saw none. Everything else looked normal. The maples of the upper Ven Forest were already tinged with crimson, proudly showing off their new mantle in the light breeze. With nights getting colder, it wouldn’t be long before their cousins down in the Hartland Woods joined them. The oaks, being the last to surrender to the season, still stoically wore their dark green costs.
Now we know who the viewpoint character is, though it’s a little odd that Goodkind waits until the second sentence to give readers his name, using a pronoun in the first sentence instead. Then he awkwardly tells us Richard has thick hair and has been in a fog of despair. The thick hair is a little out of viewpoint (would Richard really think about how thick his hair was at that moment?) and the fog of despair is too dramatic for such a passing mention. In fact, “fog of despair” might be too melodramatic for any mention at all.
Second paragraph down, and the vine still isn’t important. It sounds like Richard was casually walking through the woods and noticed it because it looked strange. Goodkind hasn’t given us a significant plot hook yet.
Having spent most of his life in the woods, Richard knew all the plants—if not by name, by sight. From when Richard was very small, his friend Zedd had taken him along, hunting for special herbs. He had shown Richard which ones to look for, where they grew and why, and put names to everything they saw. Many times they just talked, the old man always treating him as an equal, asking as much as he answered. Zedd sparked Richard’s hunger to learn, to know.
We have taken an unexpected detour into exposition land. The story has barely begun, and exposition isn’t a good way to draw the reader in. Nor is it a good way to introduce what sounds like a major character. On top of all that, readers don’t need to know this history. They only need to know that Richard is familiar with all the plants in the woods. Goodkind is interrupting the story for nothing.
I’m wondering if Goodkind wrote a lot of short stories before he started this novel series. The dispersal of information in these first three paragraphs is methodical. In the first paragraph, we talk about the vine. In the second, we provide the basic context that Richard is looking at the vine in the forest. Third, we have Richard’s background. This measured style is a bonus for short stories, which have to set the context clearly and quickly. But novels usually do better to start right into the action. Plus, these paragraphs feel disjointed. You could take any one of them out, because they’re not building off each other.
The vine, though, he had seen only once before, and not in the woods. He had found a sprig of it at his father’s house, in the blue clay jar Richard had made when he was a boy.
We’re finally back to our old friend, the odd-looking vine. Richard has seen it before, so it’s… maybe important? It could be a clue that will build to a more important plot arc.
Watch Your Clutter
His father had been a trader and had traveled often, looking for the chance exotic or rare item. People of means had often sought him out, interested in what he might have turned up. It seemed to be the looking, more than the finding, that he had liked, as he had always been happy to part with his latest discovery so he could be off after the next.
Unfortunately, Goodkind has a problem with clutter. In particular, he’s been overusing “seemed to” and “trying to.” When he goes back in time here, he also applies “had” too liberally. When you are writing in past tense, and you need to talk about the past of the past, just use “had” once for the first verb in the section, then use regular past tense.
Let’s look at this paragraph with some clutter removed:
His father had been a trader who traveled often, looking for the chance exotic or rare item. People of means sought him out, interested in what he turned up. It was the looking more than the finding that he liked. He was happy to part with his latest discovery so he could be off after the next.
Prioritize What’s Important
From a young age, Richard had liked to spend time with Zedd while his father was away. Richard’s brother, Michael, was a few years older, and having no interest in the woods, or in Zedd’s rambling lectures, preferred to spend his time with people of means. About five years before, Richard had moved away to live on his own, but he often stopped by his father’s home, unlike Michael, who was always busy and rarely had time to visit.
At this point three important characters have been introduced in exposition. Establishing Richard’s father this way could be appropriate since his father left him the sprig, and it doesn’t sound like he’s around anymore. Zedd is definitely superfluous right now. Michael is not only superfluous but also depicted negatively. It feels like he’s mentioned just so Goodkind can compare him unfavorably to Richard. The “unlike Michael” sounds so much like immature sibling resentment that I broke out laughing.
Whenever his father went away, he would leave Richard a message in the blue jar telling him the latest news, some gossip, or of some sight he had seen.
On the day three weeks before when Michael had come to tell him their father had been murdered, Richard had gone to his father’s house, despite his brother’s insistence that there was no reason to go, nothing he could do. Richard had long since passed the age when he did as his brother said.
Stupid, mean old brother. You’re so much better than him, Richard.
Goodkind also has a problem with long, rambling sentences. In the above excerpt, he even tells us Richard’s father was murdered in the adverb clause: “On the day three weeks before when Michael had come to tell him their father had been murdered.” Doesn’t such grim news deserve to be the main thrust of a sentence? That’s easy to fix:
Three weeks before, Michael came to tell him their father had been murdered. Then Richard went to his father’s house despite his brother’s insistence that there was no reason to go, nothing he could do.
Long sentences aren’t necessarily bad, but they do make it a little harder for readers to understand the narration. Use them when appropriate, but if you have a habit of putting them everywhere, work on breaking it.
Wanting to spare him, the people there didn’t let him see the body. But still, he saw the big, sickening splashes and puddles of blood, brown and dry across the plank floor. … Yet he had heard them talking, in hushed tones, of the stories and the wild rumors of things come out of the boundary.
Richard was shocked at the way his father’s small home had been torn apart, as if a storm had been turned loose inside. Only a few things were left untouched. The blue message jar still sat on the shelf, and inside he found the sprig of vine. What his father meant him to know from it, he couldn’t guess.
So a piece of the odd-looking vine was a message from his murdered father. Why oh why didn’t we know that in the first paragraph? That’s far more compelling than a lively description of plants, even if the plants are slowly killing each other.
Here, I’ll help out:
Richard didn’t know why his father left him the vine sprig, but it made a sickening sense. His father had been murdered three weeks before, and here was the vine, strangling a balsam fir. Sap dripped down the wounded bark of the fir’s smooth trunk. Along the vine’s length, pods peeked out as though they scouted for witnesses.
The vine is still murdering another plant, but now we know why Richard cares. We also understand that Richard is upset without any mention of some “fog of despair.” The next paragraph could introduce the proud maples and warn of “the stories and the wild rumors of things come out of the boundary,” but maybe not with that phrasing.
Telling Creates Melodrama
Grief and depression overwhelmed him, and even though he still had his brother, he felt abandoned. That he was grown into manhood offered him no sanctuary from the forlorn feeling of being orphaned and alone in the world, a feeling he had known before, when his mother died while he was still young.
Welcome to the land of melodrama, please enjoy the fog of despair during your stay. I appreciate that Goodkind is willing to make his male hero lonely and sensitive, but he’s telling Richard’s loneliness instead of showing it. That creates cheap theatrics instead of the rich emotion he wants. Let’s look at how he might have demonstrated these feelings instead.
- Grief: Every morning when he woke up, Richard tried to suppress visions of his father’s wrecked house with its brown stains. As he ate breakfast, he struggled not to remember his father’s grits and fried ham. When he succeeded at both, he’d go searching for the meaning of that final message. When he failed, he never made it out the door.
- Feeling abandoned: Richard’s mother had died when he was young. At the time he hadn’t understood; he thought she was still out there somewhere. He asked his father over and over why she wouldn’t come home. He supposed he couldn’t blame his father for spending so much time away after that; adventures abroad were more alluring than the sad boys in the hut. So Richard clung to Michael instead, but now even Michael preferred his fancy parties and important meetings over visiting his little brother.
- Forlorn: He lived alone, but he rarely went home anyway. In the hut he could hear no voices or birdsong, and even his own laughter felt hollow as it echoed off his empty walls.
- Feeling of being orphaned: All he had left of his mother was a small portrait he kept in a locket, and now he supposed his father would live there too. Maybe he’d ask Michael for an image; the locket was closer to Richard than his brother was these days. What remained of his family could sit against his chest as he traveled the woods alone.
Aside from telling these feelings, Goodkind is just plain overdoing it. Since grief and depression are almost synonyms, using both is redundant. So is saying Richard felt abandoned, forlorn, orphaned, and alone in the world. They convey slightly different flavors, but he should’ve chosen one.
And where is Zedd in all this? If Zedd is such a great mentor, why isn’t he keeping Richard company?
Not All Traditions Are Worth Keeping
We’re not ready to move on quite yet. While I’ve let this go in previous critiques, I think it’s time to talk about a little something called sexism.
Writing fantasy means following a troubled legacy; the genre is full of classic works where women are all but absent. This exclusion of female characters is never so blatant as with the all-male family. This is a family composed only of a father and one or more sons, perhaps with some extended male members. Usually a mother or daughter still technically exists, but they are either dead or completely sidelined from the story. Sometimes they are not mentioned at all, leaving the audience to wonder if the sons sprung fully-formed from their father’s loins.
All-male families are not an accident. They happen because the writer doesn’t want women in his story. Sometimes, it’s because the writer stereotypes women as caring and nurturing, and he thinks having them will reduce the conflict (in this case, relieve Richard’s suffering). The notion is that women exist to serve other people rather than live for themselves. If women were independent people following their own dreams, then Michael might be a sister, and Richard’s father might be a mother. Instead, we’ll have to wait for a love interest before Goodkind gives us an important female character.
If you’ve done this, it doesn’t make you a horrible person. But you need to acknowledge that stereotyping women and excluding them from your stories is sexist. If you don’t want your work to be sexist, some of your major characters other than your love interest must be women. If you find writing female characters intimidating, it could be because you’re stereotyping women. Female characters don’t need “feminine personalities,” just feminine pronouns.
As for Goodkind, this book was first published in 1994. He has no excuse.
Don’t Put Whole Scenes in Exposition
Michael wouldn’t let him have anything to do with the search for the killer. He said he had the best trackers in the army looking and he wanted Richard to stay out of it, for his own good. So Richard simply didn’t show the vine to Michael, and went off alone every day, searching for it.
Wait a minute: This exposition about Richard getting the vine from his father even has a dramatic moment where his mean old brother warns him not to get involved, and he does anyway? These aren’t just some essential details told through exposition, this is an entire scene told in summary. What is it doing here?
To demonstrate why everything we’ve heard about the father’s death should not be exposition, I’ll use my old litmus test for judging whether content should get a scene. It has three simple criteria:
- If these events were removed, would future events be different? If Richard doesn’t go to his father’s house to get the vine sprig from the blue jar, these scenes in the woods would never occur, and probably everything that comes after. It passes.
- Will the viewpoint character remember this moment in ten years? I’ll add that the viewpoint character should be the main character or another central character. Richard is the main character, and in ten years he will definitely remember how he learned his father was murdered, saw the ransacked house with blood stains, got the vine sprig, and had to fight with his brother over doing something about it. Pass.
- Does it have conflict or tension? Richard goes to his father’s house against his brother’s wishes, has to deal with all the people there that don’t want him to see anything, and then he fights with his brother about being part of the investigation. Pass.
Content that passes all three criteria should definitely get a scene. And not only do these events fully qualify, they are necessary precursors to the opening scene of the book. In other words, we have unearthed the remains of the true first scene, murdered before its time.
Why did Goodkind summarize this scene? My guess is that his publisher told him he had to cut this book down; it’s almost 850-pages long as is. Instead of doing the hard work of decluttering his sentences and tightening throughout, Goodkind might have just lopped off some scenes and summarized them instead. Then he didn’t bother to work the important information from those scenes into the remaining ones. His new opening paragraph might not mention why Richard cares about the vine because when Goodkind wrote it, the audience was supposed to know already.
Establish Details Before They’re Important
For three weeks he walked the trails of the Hartland Woods, every trail, even the ones few others knew of, but he never saw it.
Finally, against his better judgement, he gave in to the whispers in his mind, and went to the upper Ven Forest, close to the boundary.
He has whispers in his mind??? Why didn’t we know about this before? Maybe an early mention was murdered along with the true first scene. In any case, when you use words like “finally,” “once again,” “for the last time,” etc., your readers should already be familiar with what’s about to happen. Introducing a new element that is supposed to be happening again is jarring. That is, unless it’s your very first line. Imagine if this were the opening line of a book:
Finally, against his better judgement, Richard gave in to the whispers.
I want to read that. Will someone write that book for me? This works because readers expect the opening line to thrust them into the middle of the story, and adding a word like “finally” makes the line more evocative. Readers are provoked into imagining what has happened, building curiosity that pulls them into the story.
Back to the book:
He had thought that when he found the vine it would give him some sort of answer. Now that he had, he didn’t know what to think. The whispers had stopped teasing him, but now they brooded. He knew it was just his own mind thinking, and he told himself to stop trying to give the whispers a life of their own. Zedd had taught him better than that.
Wait, the whispers are just Richard’s own thoughts? That’s so disappointing. I thought there was something interesting happening here. In spec fic, more care is required when using metaphors and other creative imagery. Especially in the beginning of a story, the reader has no idea what the world is like. For all we know, the whispers could be a symbiotic entity that each person earns when they turn 16.
Richard looked up at the big fir tree in its agony of death. He thought again of his father’s death. The vine had been there. Now the vine was killing this tree; it couldn’t be anything good. Though he couldn’t do anything for his father, he didn’t have to let the vine preside over another death.
We have come full circle; we’re finally back in the present with the vine. Goodkind is directly linking the death of the balsam to the death of Richard’s father. This is a good idea; I did it myself when I edited his opening paragraph. But the way he’s writing it here is incredibly awkward. He doesn’t need to spell out the connection so much, and he keeps repeating the word “death”… on purpose? By accident? I’m not sure. Instead of weaving a graceful metaphor he’s hitting readers over the head. Everyone must know evil vine = death! EVERYONE.
Skip the Gimmicks
Gripping it firmly, he pulled, and with powerful muscles ripped the sinewy tendrils away from the tree.
Woah! Richard’s like the Hulk or something. Vines are not always small. This vine has been strangling a fir, so it must have a significant woody stem. Richard is an experienced woodsman; didn’t he bring a small axe, saw, or even a knife he could use?
That’s when the vine bit him.
It bites! That’s awesome; I love carnivorous fantasy plants. This must be why Goodkind personified the plants so much in his opening.
One of the pods struck out and hit the back of his left hand, causing him to jump back in pain and surprise.
Wait a minute… it didn’t actually bite him. It just hit him, didn’t it? Once again, I face disappointment. This is why you should stay authentic in your storytelling and not sensationalize anything that isn’t actually exciting. Instead, Goodkind should have used a comparison similar to the one in his opening paragraph, where he wrote the pods were “seeming to look warily about for witnesses.” This used personification for effect without misleading readers.
Choose Your Perspective Wisely
Inspecting the small wound, he found something like a thorn embedded in the meat of the gash. The matter was decided. The vine was trouble. He reached for his knife to dig out the thorn, but the knife wasn’t there. At first surprised, he realized why and reprimanded himself for allowing his depression to cause him to forget something as basic as taking his knife with him into the woods.
This paragraph showcases distant limited perspective. This perspective is used by Goodkind and many other medieval fantasy writers, and it’s usually a weak choice. But don’t take it from me, take it from the other me who wrote an article about it, using this paragraph as an example.
I’ll summarize the next bit because while it’s effective, it’s also gross.* Richard tries to get the thorn out of his wound and fails; it just burrows farther in. So he finds a magical herb and uses it to heal the wound, but with the thorn still inside.
Monsters Aren’t Scary Unless You Make Them Scary
The sounds of the forest fell dead still. Richard looked up, flinching as a dark shadow swept over the ground, leaping across limbs and leaves. There was a rushing, whistling sound in the air overhead. The size of the shadow was frightening. Birds burst from cover in the trees, giving alarm calls as they scattered in all directions. Richard peered up, searching through the gaps in the canopy of green and gold, trying to see the shadow’s source. For an instant he saw something big. Big, and red. He couldn’t imagine what it could be, but the memory of the rumors and stories of things coming out of the boundary flooded back into his mind, making him go cold to the bone.
Goodkind must be a fan of The Sword of Shannara, because both series start with a nebulous flying shadow thing in the woods. This is much less melodramatic than the Shannara version, but it lacks urgency or tension.
That’s partly because the narrative is repetitive and disorganized. Events should be in a neat order with cause first, effect after. Here’s what happens:
- The forest goes silent.
- Richard looks up, flinching.
- A dark shadow sweeps over the ground.
- There’s a rushing, whistling sound overhead.
- The shadow in #3 is of frightening size.
- Because of either #3 or #4, birds burst from the trees.
- Richard looks up again.
- He sees something big and red.
I’ll edit this paragraph to give it a stronger order. I’ll also reduce repetition and other excess details that slow the scene down.
The forest fell silent. Richard looked up and saw a dark shadow sweep overhead with a rushing, whistling sound. Birds burst from cover in the trees, giving alarm calls as they scattered in all directions. Richard searched through the gaps in the canopy. For an instant he saw something big. Big, and red.
In the original, we also pop out of Richard’s head. He looks up, then Goodkind says the shadow swept over the ground. I’ve corrected that here. Staying with the character adds tension by making the scene feel more real and reminding the reader that the viewpoint character could be in danger.
Goodkind also doesn’t provide a reason for readers to be scared. Richard isn’t in danger, and despite the creature’s size, we have no reason to believe it’s predatory. The passage needs some concrete details. Clearly Richard can imagine what the creature could be, because he’s comparing it to rumors he’s heard. Why not share those juicy tidbits with the reader?
Richard knew of only one thing it might be. They said back in the days before the boundary, great crimson birds would appear from afar. Their claws would skewer men on horseback and carry them away, leaving a trail of blood and screams behind them.
You can provide details while keeping your baddie mysterious. Just don’t let your hero get a close look at it or have a conversation with it. Strange noises, destruction left in its wake, and rumors will help build the threat.
Always Beta Test Your Stories
The vine was trouble, he thought again; this thing in the sky could be no less. He remembered what people always said, “Trouble sires three children,” and knew immediately that he didn’t want to meet the third child.
This was confusing; I had to stop and think about what the third child was supposed to be. Did Goodkind mean the father’s death, the thorn, and the creature were the three children, or did he mean the thorn, the creature, and something we haven’t seen yet? I also find it difficult to believe “trouble sires three children” could be a folk saying, but maybe that’s just me. Problems like these are hard for a writer to identify without an outside perspective. Get some people to read your stories and point out confusing spots.
Later it becomes clear that the thorn and the creature are the first two children of trouble. Goodkind’s trying to increase the tension with foreshadowing, but if the reader doesn’t buy into the folk saying, the foreshadowing doesn’t work. An actual sign of upcoming trouble would be a better choice.
Next, even though Richard doesn’t want to meet the third child of trouble, he must want to meet the second child, because he starts running after the creature, trying to get another glimpse. After two paragraphs of running and wondering if the monster was somehow a cloud, he barely sees it in the distance, and he thinks it probably has wings. That makes three paragraphs with no purpose to the story. My guess is that Goodkind has Richard chase the creature just to move him to a different location. Is it so wrong for a guy to get creeped out and hurry home?
Be Cautious With Complaints
After the several paragraphs of pointless running, there’s this:
Maybe he should go tell Michael what had happened, tell him about the vine and the red thing in the sky. He knew Michael would laugh at the last part. He had laughed at the same stories himself.
No, Michael would only be angry with him for being up near the boundary, and for going against his orders to stay out of the search for the murderer. He knew his brother cared about him or he wouldn’t always be nagging him. Now that he was grown, he could laugh off his brother’s constant instructions, though he still had to endure the looks of displeasure.
Richard snapped another twig in frustration and threw it at a flat rock. He decided he shouldn’t feel singled out. After all, Michael was always telling everyone what to do, even their father.
Even when Richard is supposedly thinking about how his brother cares about him, it’s used to channel even more complaints. Goodkind really, really wants the reader to hate this guy without even meeting him. The narration wouldn’t come off as adolescent whining if we just saw Michael being a jerk in person.
I can only guess Goodkind is setting up Michael as an antagonist. But why bother making the antagonist Richard’s brother if Richard dislikes him from the start anyway? Becoming enemies will mean more if they have a close relationship when the story begins. Michael’s downfall has to be realistic, but that doesn’t require making him a complete ass, just foreshadowing his weaknesses.
He pushed aside his harsh judgments of his brother; today was a big day for Michael. Today he was accepting the position of First Councilor. He would be in charge of everything…
That afternoon there was to be a ceremony and big celebration at Michael’s house. Important people were going to be there… Richard was supposed to be there, too.
Wait—Richard went to the boundary right before he’s supposed to be at a big fancy party? Since it’s called the boundary and people have been avoiding it, I assumed it was someplace other than right next door. Apparently not.
Making Richard go into the dangerous wilderness before his brother’s party sets up some great conflict, but Goodkind should have explained why he would do something that extreme. Obsession with his father’s death is a great reason, but Goodkind hasn’t actually established that. He needs to demonstrate that Richard knows he shouldn’t go out but can’t help himself, or that Richard is just chronically late and short-sighted.
End With a Strong Line
His eyes locked on something. There was movement. Unsure what it had been, he stared hard at the spot on the far side of the lake. When he saw it again, on the path, where it passed behind a thin veil of trees, there was no doubt; it was a person. Maybe it was his friend Chase. Who else but a boundary warden would be wandering around up here?
… It wasn’t Chase; it was a woman, a woman in a dress. What woman would be walking this far out in the Ven forest, in a dress?…
You gotta love how Goodkind adds a comma before “in a dress?” just to make it clear that it’s not just the dress that’s weird, but also that there’s a woman walking around outside! The forest near the boundary has evil plants and strange dragon creatures, but a woman walking out there is going too far.
Finally, we reach the end of the chapter:
Other movement snatched his attention. Richard’s eyes searched the shade and shadows. Behind her, there were others. Three, no, four men, in hooded forest cloaks, following her, but hanging back some distance. They moved with stealth, from tree to rock to tree. Looking. Waiting. Moving. Richard straightened, his eyes wide, his attention riveted.
They were stalking her.
He knew immediately: this was the third child of trouble.
Naturally, Goodkind waits an entire paragraph before damseling the first female character in his story. He does a decent job at least, describing the men’s movements rather than just declaring they’re up to no good.
Goodkind clearly intended this section as a plot hook. It’s not bad, but it would be better if he wasn’t weighing it down with clutter. His distant limited viewpoint is really encumbering him here. Instead of immersing readers in the tense moment, he keeps pausing the action to frame what’s happening from Richard’s point of view.
“They were stalking her” is a line full of tension. Goodkind should have ended the chapter right there, but instead he rambles about how Richard knows a folk saying. Even for readers who like this folk saying, it’s difficult to believe a speculative child of trouble is more ominous than watching four guys stalk a woman.
I Dub This Writing… Awkward
While Goodkind was slow warming up, look at all the plot hooks he got in:
- Richard’s father has been murdered by an unknown person.
- Richard’s father left him a sprig of an evil vine for an unknown reason.
- A piece of the evil vine is inside Richard’s hand.
- A large and possibly dangerous creature is about.
- A woman is being stalked by four men.
- Richard might miss his brother’s all-important party.
Add in the interesting description of the boundary and its evil plants, and Goodkind’s audience has many reasons to continue.
However, Goodkind takes telling to a whole new level. This sabotages his work in many ways. His characters are contrived, their emotions wander into melodrama, and the exposition is so out of place that I can only explain it with editorial mishaps.
Overall, the chapter is packed with great intentions that were spilled awkwardly onto the page. Does Goodkind get better at expressing his ideas? If you’ve read the whole book, let me know!
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