What next?

I have spent the past 3 months preparing for the marketing and distribution of the book that was published on June 30. A cautionary note to those selfie-publishers: there’s still a lot of writing to do. This time the verbiage is about the book, not the fun stuff that you want to put into your second book. That material still lies in files and notes and in my head.

Now you get to write about the story you were so glad to be done with after years of mulling it over. Now come the blurbs for online books, for distribution catalogs and for other great sites like Goodreads. Then the distribution of copies to local book stores, local events on signings and readings. Pretty soon the marketing gods have sucked up three months of your time.

And you still want to write, research and create that new project.

May the sales gods be with you.

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On Storytelling

So, at last, I’ve published The Book. It’s been years in the making.

At the start of this journey I was dwelling in limbo as “storytelling issues” cast a pallor over my first two novels, mysteries. Two words easily thrown about by agents and publishing house editors dismissively. I had clearly missed the mark on my stories, yet in 2000, few people were able to articulate exactly what that meant.

I could never quite get the hang of it myself. It was like scanning photographs of trees climbing up a mountainside, with close-ups of individual trees, diverse colors and textures of bark, leaves in all shapes of yellow and green, and other indications of tree culture but having no inkling of where the forest began or ended.

To me storytelling belonged to the fields of history, religion or culture. Oral traditions were the library of origination tales, told around campfires by native American songsters, or the stuff of Appalachian tall tale competitions, or the ancient myths of earliest peoples. I did not understand in these traditions the story models I had spent years studying in literature and fiction writing, that is, of characters wandering around a setting in search of a plot.

While pursuing research on the storytelling topic, in 2001, I was compelled to examine the ideals of love through my writing. Provoked  by the loss of my dearest friend and sister, I was drawn to understand as best I could the complexity of memory and shared relationships that defined the love between us. Not a romance or a love story, but a tale about love lost while we are chasing illusive dreams into an undefined future. In every scene and conflict and event of that book, I tried to find or chase down the story that bound these characters yet I never found it. It turned out that story is what finally happened when I let the characters free to pursue their individual paths through the pages.

These days everyone seems to be pitching storytelling: it’s the key to creating great essays, great copy, great films, novels, poetry collections, even poems. I have finished four classes in the past year on storytelling from a range of sources. All cover similar approaches and the same steps from beginning to end processes.

This is a worthy tool to add to your writer’s tool kit. Although exposition varies dependent on how well the author understands the underlying concepts, structural concepts and tenets of storytelling are easy to grasp. The challenge comes in how much you believe in the usefulness of the tools.

By far my favorite book on the subject came by way of my six-year-old granddaughter, who is a fan of Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty books. In Bad Kitty Drawn To Trouble, Bruel not only teaches first graders how to draw his mischievous character, but leads them along on a journey through character, setting, plot, rising conflict, obstacles, theme and resolution as well. And he does so with great affection and humor. It’s a great primer on story telling, and a great story to read too.

The most useful storytelling guidelines are those that keep you writing your story in your own words, providing just enough encouragement to keep your reader riding shotgun alongside you through the journey.

The rules can assist but offer little help in creating the recipe for your story. Only you, the writer, can do that.

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Hope Springs Eternal…

And so all my hopes and prayers and sweat and tears have finally roiled themselves into the story that forms my first published novel, There is Love. Published on June 30th from Abbott Press.

In all these years, I’ve chased ideas through words and sentences around the page, I’ve flung out scenes and settings at unwitting writing groups. I’ve marched drafts before fellow travelers such as editors and classmates. Crafting my wilting pages to obey the warpings of constant critique and rewrites.

And now it is DONE.

For better or worse, it’s in the public eye.

Is it THE END?
Of my writing? NO!
Of this book? Not quite.


The fourth wall…the reading by others…the critiques of buyers yet unspoken who make their approvals known in substantive support at the bookseller.

MARKETING is, of course a horse of a different color!

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On Publishing What? A Cautionary Tale

I finally submitted my novel to a fee-based publisher four months after my mother died.  The fees  were to cover editing, printing, marketing materials, distribution and several bound copies of the books as well as distribution. My manuscript was “approved for publication” after three months of waiting for initial “content” editing. I was thrilled.

It took several more weeks before I received a detailed scrub of my first chapter.  A “developmental” editing was required to ready the book for publishing. Huh? My education on levels of publishing houses and editorial phases had begun. For a mere eight thousand dollars, the editor would help me shape up the book for the market.   Was this the same editor who had done did the “content” editing? A person to whom I had been denied access to during the four-month setup process.

The editorial status had been communicated to me by a new recruit, who was not the same  editor who had executed the actual scrubbing of my first chapter. I was informed that the editor’s thorough examination of my first ten pages had revealed adequate writing, but demonstrated “structural problems.” She (the scrub editor)  got that out of 10 pages into a 400 page novel. I questioned that I needed “developmental” editing for a novel. What exactly would she be developing, without any knowledge of the story arc or its intention?

I had the rudimentary structure of story. It was no page turner, but had a decent beginning, middle and end. In all the writing classes and master’s program classes I had taken no one had ever mentioned “developmental” editing to me. Plenty of people had read the book and it had passed my dissertation committee.

The term “developmental” editing was not a foreign one, though. I had spent 25 years writing user guides for computing systems, business proposals fifty to one hundred pages in length, education programs and curricula for several training programs, and led a variety of task forces on creating healthy publishing projects for internal or external publishing.

Developmental editing referred to the technical breakdown of the writing pieces from executive summary to detailed specifications. It was the breakdown of the project so that many  writers could be assigned to work on different pieces of the project. This experiential definition did not equate to my understanding of “the novel.”

Then I did what I always do when faced with overwhelming ignorance. I started reading books on editing, from first draft to final novel, on how to breakdown the editing process, on how to create that final work. Some of the books were written by fiction writers who turn over the editing process to others. Some of those books gave advice in breaking down writing projects as if they were of engineering projects. More than a few advised against the writer editing her own work.

After six months of applying different approaches to my work, the story was even more fractured than the “approved” version I had submitted to the publisher. I abandoned the choppy technical process, deciding to go back to storytelling at a future date, quit the work at once, and languished in a state of separation anxiety from my dream of being a “published author.”

I gave up creative writing and turned to my faithful old journal and its tacit commands for me to speak the truth, be open, and accept everything.

I then thoroughly doused myself in Netflix and Acorn binges. After years of media  drought, I allowed myself to be inundated with stories, any stories, good stories, active stories, suspenseful stories, and imaginative stories.

The dried-out well was filling with story again. My love for writing– moving the pen across the page–began to flourish. Untold tales rose up, old characters embraced me once more: Tess, Steve, Charles, Clarke, Moira, Kate, and so many others. Gloriously, I was now tempering a new respect for all the work I had accomplished and discovering new-found hope for situations and problems yet to come.

This year I am revisiting my unpublished novel with a fresh eye and heightened imagination. Still under contract with the publisher,  I plan to finish the book this year. Stories pop up daily begging for attention, Mother’s oral stories of her family and childhood, Father’s stories of his wild youth in San Francisco and the Sonoma valley ranch.

My imagination swathes these people and places into stories of intrigue, secret longings, and nefarious adventures.Thankfully, I have a small group of diverse writers who help me attack the “developmental  editing” week by week.

Keep your writing dream alive. First and foremost, write for yourself.


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Lessons from the Front: On Revising My Novel

The emerging novelist has had a difficult time keeping up the nagging demands of blog-life, obviously. The past months have eroded to passive regrouping of my energies after submitting a novel for editorial consideration. End result: my story is too long (especially for a first novel). It has too much dead space (more on that below) and a story line that protracts into several long and dull passages. The writing while at times lyrical is not consistently so.

I summarize in my own words from editorial comments of a handful of readers. Editors are fine for making generic comments, but they leave the interpretation up to you. The problem here is a writer (me) is that I cannot fathom exactly how I need to proceed in order to fix the issues. I am a person who ripped out 5″ of a knitted panel for the sake of one dropped stitch (easily fixed in 5 minutes, according to my Mom). Thanks to the works of Donald Maass, in an excellent workbook called The Breakout Novelist, I am able to approach the effort with some intelligence. I know enough about writing to understand that I am a fool wandering around passages in the deep cave of success, hoping that I am making the correct assumptions about how to use this map. 

 There appear to be three major issues, according to my readings, that provide opportunities to cultivate dead space. The first problem to consider is my opening—Chapter One. While meeting the stringent requirements for setting up scene, introducing character, and getting my hero moving across the page, this opening did not grab the reader’s attention, make her feel uncomfortable in anticipation of conflict, or give her any reason to turn the page. It did move my hero forward through his world, across the lawn into the college, but not into the story. In fact, the first third of the book (148 pages) does little to move his story forward, offering backstory instead, a justification of the hero’s existence, really, and a test to see if I could write the academic male viewpoint. The classic “threshold” from the hero’s journey occurs on page 149, leaving the opening stagnant and dull. Ho-hum, who cares?

Establishing character time and place is good but the real journey takes place elsewhere. A lot of wasted images, scenes and dialogues are in these pages—wasted on the reader, not the writer who apparently needed to experience it all so that she could see the story. The journey is a journey into his past, which happens at the place of his birth. Eventually he runs into all of the thematic elements once the journey begins. Having been explored in the opening third of the novel, these are revisited in the “special world” of the journey, a second contributor to dead space: repetition.

To be candid, I got into this mess by attempting to merge two stories—and two story structures—into a grand tale. The first story followed a student coming to terms with her less than perfect background in the nascent energies of women’s liberation. The second followed a socially inept young professor who aims to be a successful scholar envisioning himself rising above the poverty of his youth to become an eminent scholar in an Ivy League school. He saw himself as Percival the lad of woodsy ignorance who became a knight of the Round Table. The novelist in me wanted the story to end nicely, a quaint romance. I was of the mind that these two characters had to be become equals at the end, so that one would be worthy of the other. I proceeded to take the reader on each journey, in order to demonstrate the evolving shapes on each side of the balance.

Talk about repetition. Yet, by trying to develop two stories I cheated the professor of his true story and short-shifted the student of her rounded story arc as well. The ending, which forces them together, actually thwarts the theme I set out to demonstrate: that is, in order for “true” love to exist, one must park his ego and allow his heart to rule. I learned that pushing the story askew to demonstrate a pet theme is no simple task. And when it is done, the story feels forced. Many of the story’s underpinnings feel false. It is like deciding who the murderer is in the middle of your mystery and then pressing forward to wrap up without laying the necessary field case.

Too much concern on how the story should turn out kept me engaged in theme when I should have been paying attention to how the story was unfolding, to the here and now details of each scene, to what Maass calls the “tension on every page.”

By focusing on these three issues, I expect the manuscript will improve greatly, being more readable, and appealing to a greater audience, making it more publishable. First, focus on one story. Second, push backstory to the second half of the novel, and third, ensure that the conflict keeps the reader in continual distress by writing tension into every dialogue, every scene and every major turning point of the story.


The hero’s story is the one that demonstrates ego surrendering to heart, and so I have chosen to go with that one. Since the heroine’s story line shows her transition from leaning on the privilege of her position as a wealthy scion’s daughter to a self-sufficient adult, it becomes a subplot that enhances the hero’s transition. My work on her journey has not been entirely wasted. In its length it comprises the fodder for another novel, one where her concern for others detracts her from looking after her own self-interest. The work produced by this change is significant but not overwhelming. I have to rewrite the first chapter to resonate with a restrained focus and less expansive goals. It also requires the tightening of story structure, which will—hurrah!–reduce the final novel by at least a fourth of its size.


Next, every line of backstory in the first 148 pages needs to be plucked out, leaving only 6-7 pages in the first chapter. Maass suggests that backstory, if used at all, be deferred until the second half of the book. This was the lesson hardest for me to learn. I was absolutely convinced that my story made no sense to the reader who was not clued in from the beginning. I struggled with this for months, striking out then putting back in, over and over. Finally I resorted to watching film and reading novels to test his “theory”. Maass most likely had done the tests himself over time with the thousands of manuscripts he had read as an editor. I found it to be a valid tenet. Science fiction offers the most striking examples, as with Star Trek episodes, and Star Wars which drops us into the middle of the battle, <or Matrix–where the whole film is a revelation of backstory even as characters race to its conclusion. The tenet holds true in the love story, Cold Mountain, a literary example closer to my own story. The revelation of the Civil War and the hero’s displacement in his society unfolds uncomfortable on every page.

Maass provides the revising writer with examples that sharpen his lens, rendering abstract concepts into living experience. Working with this workbook was like having a tutor working by your side. “Tension on every page” is the most difficult of the revision tasks for me because I will have to read every line of my extant novel and evaluate its ability to move the story forward. I have to admit I am not the greatest proofreader of my own work.

The whole novel needs revision, a daunting task. But, while I am revising this baby, I will continue to germinate my current novel, a story that takes me back to my first love of mystery novels, to the San Francisco of my youth and to my life today on a not-so-remote island off the Pacific coast. Patches of images are cropping up every day. The dream lives on.

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The Human Heart

Character is the story: that’s why we start with character. There are many ways to get to the heart of the character. My earlier entry offers one of many ways to do so. Stories—novels, plays, poems, even nonfiction—are about connecting to the human heart. Connection is the key, because stories about flesh and blood people who fail to connect to the emotional layer of being human seem to fade quickly in the reader’s interest. Roger Rosenblatt exhorts his writing students to touch the reader in Unless It Moves the Human Heart.

Even science fiction, I discovered, is not exempt. Plot devices and mechanized people in science-forged settings must ultimately move the human heart. A story comes to mind, a piece written by a sci-fi enthusiast in one of my classes. He created a fascinating world of androids cloaked in a setting of engineering marvels on a spaceship equipped with organic-like services and functions to aid the androids. That world lives on in my imagination—metal and glass orbs drifting through endless space, but I can’t recall anything of the story.

People moved through the setting operating cleverly designed gadgets, ate strange and wonderful vittles, yet they exchanged words without communicating and shared space without interacting. In doll-like motions, they acted without kindness or rancor, without joy or hurt or any sense of satisfaction. The author took no trouble to direct me, the reader, in establishing an emotional center where the incidents and events could be interpreted into greater human values.  The author saw no need to do this.

Yet, without this emotional centering, the reader does not know who to root for or who to work against. In establishing protagonist versus the antagonist (Sept. 3 blog) you are beginning a definition of that center. But there’s more. One of the tasks that has diverted my attention from this writing for the last few weeks is the need to revise a novel for submission, especially the opening paragraph. I found that in reading the piece I was about to submit, I had failed to establish the strength of the central character, the protagonist. I had failed to impress the reader with his strengths and his weaknesses especially as it pertained to hooking the reader into the story. In fact, I was back to my old tricks of dissipating tension and reader interest by making my character limpid.

What I need in a strong first chapter:

  • A character who is likeable enough to spend some time with but flawed enough to need a change in direction. That’s what the story is, how the hero is finally capable of changing direction to win his goal.
  • A clearly demarcated goal that is a worthy challenge to the hero AND a peek at the consequence if he doesn’t cut it. In nonfiction writing I would be able to write “this is my goal….” However, in fiction we must show a character in terms of his goal and its consequence.
  • The hero needs some tangible conflict that he works against, and you must show it to the reader. This was a pertinent point where I dissipated a lot of tension on the first page. My hero hates where he lives; it is a place of exile to him and it grates on him every day. The setting is conflict, that’s its dramatic function in this story.
  • The first chapter needs to grab the reader and move quickly. In a 380 page novel, my first turn does not appear until page 132. This is far too late.  Pacing is critical to hooking the reader and to keeping his interest from page to page.  I need to bring energy back to chapter one by introducing a hint of the major conflicts in the story.
  • Anticipation is the author’s connection to the reader, making the experience more pleasurable. The first chapter needn’t articulate the full nature of  conflicts, but should give a hint as to what’s going to come back to bite the hero.  In my story there are two incidents that I can move up to the first scene in order to sharpen the focus on them.

Three months ago I did not believe that it would be possible to stack all this stuff into the first ten pages of the novel. Over the course of my summer, I have read five novels, though, that have enlightened me (see list in box below).Without exception, including a middle grade novel and a young adult novel, these works offered a prime-stuffed first chapter. Two mysteries, a love story, a hostage situation and a retrospective of coming of age, all managed to weave these elements into the first chapter.

  • A sympathetic character with a pronounced flaw that will become a challenge to her as the story unfolds (a weakness), matched by an attitude that makes the character function adequately in her world.
  • From the first pages of every story, the hero is striving for something and the reader discovers what may happen if she fails to obtain it. The intangible goal is locked into a physical presence, such as the environment in my story which stands for what the character has been denied in life.
  • Conflicts from the first page. The conflict on page one may not seem related to the overall conflict that drives the novel. However at the end of each story I read, the opening conflict was indeed a piece of the greater story problem. And in a closer look, each conflict developed in the book had a tasting offered to the reader in the first chapter. Those tastings are hooks. They are what keep a reader reading.

A year ago I did not understand the workings of these notions in my novels, although I had studied fiction and fiction writing for the past twenty years. There is so much more to learn than I have dreamed of.

FYI: My SOURCES for reading fiction this fall were:

Ann Patchett, The Magician’s Assistant
                            Bel Canto

Julian Barnes, The Sense of An Ending
Elizabeth George, The Edge of Nowhere
Kathleen Ernst,  Secrets in the Hills

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Hit a little snag on the Blogging trail

Traveling through the Appalachians visiting family and friends. Web service is splotchy and dependent on many factors. It will be a few days before I can get to a blog-free zone where time, opportunity and service combine to render a perfect scenario for onward blogging…Should clear up in a few days…

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Start with Character

My first novel was a cozy mystery set in Issaquah, Washington, a picturesque little town at the foot of three ancient mountain tops. The main character was a twenty-three year old female named Kate who was coming of age in the eighties.

My killer—the antagonist—was a network engineer in his thirties who was stealing the network architecture from his employers. These two characters were drawn to each other, so I made them as likeable to each other as possible. In fact, I made Kate as likeable to everybody as possible.

  • PROBLEM: No conflict. This was such a problem that in the end I had to create a new character, a crony of the killer, who became the villain.
  • PROBLEM: Tension disintegrated with every new scene.
  • PROBLEM: I didn’t see the problem. I had not yet learned to create conflict in character, something I later learned from the world of drama and play writing, contradiction, a subject we’ll return to in a future blog.

Kate was a delightful girl. She lived well in her environment, got along with most people and the reader found no issues with her. In short, she was most boring as a character.

So with all these pleasantries, I gave my reader very little to be interested in, so I made up an exciting opening to hook the reader. The opening was dramatic and exciting, a man jumped off the ferry in the middle of Seattle’s Elliott Bay. The opening event had action and drama and definitely a creative pull into story but, alas, it had little to do with the story. It did become, after much writing and literary machinations, the inciting incident of the plot, but it also stretched the story into convoluted and implausible directions. The tone of the opening did not reflect the tone of the remainder of the book, the pacing was a false cue as well. The book did not deliver a story that warranted this opening.

LESSON: Start with Character.

Define the main character first. Understand the main character (a detective in a mystery) on her own terms. What is she like? What does she think like? What behaviors define her? Journal her for a month or so to drive out her core.

We will look at character in depth later.

 With the main character established on her own terms, then turn to the antagonist (the villain, in a mystery). The antagonist should be opposite the hero in core values and characteristics that are important to the central plot. So if the central plot revolves around religious values, the conflict should arise from opposite values of beliefs and spiritual vitality.  If the plot involves law and the courts, the contradiction between the two characters should emerge from different ideas or applications of jurisprudence.

The contradiction between these two characters will drive the action and reaction of the drama. It is from this base contradiction that the tension and conflict of the plot arises.

Look again at your main character and your antagonist.
How do they differ?
How are they the same?
What is the heart of your story’s conflict?
What drives the conflict from page 1 to the end? Does something else besides character drive the tension in your story?

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About Those “Storytelling Issues”

Write what you read? I have always been, since my Nancy Drew days, an addictive mystery and spy novel reader. So that’s what I should write, right? My first two novels were indeed mysteries. Unfortunately my favorite author by that time was Elizabeth George. I had read every one of her novels to date that I could get my hands on. Then I started studying her style. Bad idea…not studying her style, but trying to write a complicated multi-level story on the first try. I would have done better emulating the early Agatha Christie.

An agent who had kindly perused my first novel deemed that I had “storytelling issues.” My narrative was episodic, a boring tale of people working, eating, hiking and dating. I tried to make my scenes “realistic.” They were realistically boring. The characters had no goals, only the story imposed any goal and that was to find the killer of the crime. No gore for me, the crime was about stealing secrets on network design in a software company, something that I knew a lot about.

There was virtually no action unless I forced it on the story. All the characters spoke to each other in direct confrontation. There were big secrets but no small secrets, there was lying in a grand way but no small deceptions. The characters were interesting and multi-cultural as in my real environment, but everything but the crime was out in the open. So where was the mystery–where was the feeling of mystery? Suspense was little understood by me and I did not see it as a tool to use here.

All of these issues and more leech the storytelling from the narrative. I wrote open issues, explained a lot and directed the reader toward plot motions because I had spent 25 years writing business and technical papers which were intended to do exactly this. My writing skills had been honed by fountain pen in journal which led to exploring feelings and opinions and what people did to me all day. All of which adds to a very boring writing style for novels.

Even before deciding on a genre, you need to have a story:  2 characters in conflict during a specific place and time. The story is the story of that relationship. Elizabeth George uses this approach and offers her process in her nonfiction book,  Write Away.

Story is contradiction. It’s fine to write about what people do all day like building network systems (as long as you keep the detail at a high story level). The story in the novel will focus on the contradiction of everything that goes as it should. The whole system is awry, a particular process has broken, the security is at risk. Whatever it is, the reader must feel it being wrong. So textbook descriptions of network systems are out. The switch automatically flips to connect the ambulance to the hospital to send the patient’s heart signals. The switch doesn’t work. Contradiction leads to problem.

I made the last example easy by involving a human heart. That’s a good thing to do, but unfortunately my story had nothing to do with life support systems. The design of the network was being filched and leaked to a competitor in China. Well, this is the stuff of spy thrillers. I had a lot of storytelling to lay down before I could reach those readers. Reaching the reader is the job of the characters. Their struggle is the reader’s struggle. The reader can only identify with one character at a time.

The reader becomes vested in one character’s story goal. What does the character wants and what will happen if he fails to get it? This is one of the first jobs of the writer is to hook the reader. Often hooks are thought of as plot devices–and there has to be some of that as well. But the character must have a desire so strong that it pulls him/her and the reader across the story arc, beginning to end.

In the next discussion we will look at story in the first chapter and what it must contain to keep the reader with you, no matter what type of story you are writing.

Look at the first chapter of your work in progress (WIP).
Who is the main character? Where is he? When is the time frame?
Who is the second character? What is their conflict?
Conflicts can also involve environment (nature v man) or society (manners v individualism). Does something like this replace your 2nd character?
What else is in your first scene?
Have you hooked the reader into your story? Into your character?

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Back at my desk…

I spent the past few weeks building my skills in two learning venues. The first was the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in Seattle. There I focused on learning how to market my latest novel, The Matter of the Unicorn. It is NOT a high-concept fantasy but a novel about love in the time of women’s lib (circa 1980’s), told from the male viewpoint of a young professor of medieval studies. The unicorn myth is a thematic vehicle (matter in its body of literature sense). This title replaces The Paraclete, which served the same purpose but turned out to be off-putting to most readers.

The second opportunity I took advantage of was a return to my alma mater, Whidbey Writers Workshop for its summer residency and the alumni weekend. I participated in several seminars which proved most beneficial to my current state of the writing life. A series of talks by Renda Dodge of the Pink Fish Press took us through a high level vista of the world of 21st century publishing. Jane Friedman, a former editor of Writer’s Digest, shared her knowledge and experience in  building an author’s platform online and face to face.  John Calderazzo who writes nonfiction, held workshops on recycling writing material, reusing images and experiences from your library of life, and freelancing for fun and profit.

The alumni part of the weekend focused on a fiction writing intensive with freelance editor, Jason Black and individual critiques on the first ten pages of submitted works.

I’m exhausted with input. Now it’s time to output. Back to work tomorrow.

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