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Why Writers Are Often Blind to Their Own Faults

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

 
By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

No one ever sends their manuscript off to an agent thinking, “There goes that horrible piece of junk. Boy am I glad to get that worthless manuscript off my desk.” No one sends the first pages of their book into a contest saying, “I know I’m going to score poorly and lose.” And certainly no one who self publishes says, "It's not all that great, but oh well, I'm publishing it anyway."

Instead, most of us polish up our work until we think it shines with brilliant glory. We labor over it and try to get every word perfect. Sure, our fingers might tremble with anxiety when we finally hit send or publish. But let’s admit it. We usually think our work is pretty darn good. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t put it out there.

Yet . . . many manuscripts that agents and editors see just aren’t ready for publication. I've judged numerous contests entries that still need a lot of work. And let's face it, there are even plenty of self-published books that aren't up to par either.

Why do we struggle to know our skill levels? When we’re just beginning, why do we often think we’re better than we really are? Why are most of us blind to our own faults?

Here are a few of my theories: (Make sure to chime in with yours!)

We naturally view our work through our maturity level.

My daughter likes to bead. Recently, she pulled out some bracelets she’d beaded when she was younger. “Wow, these are ugly,” she remarked. “I can’t believe I ever thought they were pretty.”

At the time you made them,” I said, “that’s all you were capable of. You viewed their beauty through the eyes of a little girl. But now that you’re older, you know more about colors, designs, patterns, and styles so you can create more complex jewelry.”

The conversation reminded me that we naturally see our writing through the eyes of our maturity level. As a beginner, we’ll think our story is riveting or our descriptions beautiful simply because we don’t know better yet.

As we grow, our insight and understanding will deepen. We’ll see writing patterns and styles with more complexity. And we’ll realize what we once thought was beautiful was amateur at best.

We have a tendency to overlook our faults.

Whether in marriage or parenting or whatever, we can easily point out the faults in our spouses or children. But it’s much harder to recognize our own issues.

No matter how long we’ve been writing, it will always be easier to see what someone else is doing wrong and so much harder to see the same problems in our own work.

In some ways the blindness to our issues is a natural defense mechanism. We want to protect ourselves from the pain that comes from admitting we’re wrong, that we’re not perfect, and that we have an uphill battle of hard work before us.

The creator’s love is a powerful bond that precludes objectivity.

If you’ve ever been a parent, you’ll understand the bond that happens the moment you give birth to your own flesh and blood. As the parent, your love for that creation supersedes the love anyone else could ever have. After all, the baby is a piece of you.

When we birth our stories, no one else will have the same depth of love for our creation that we do. Invariably as I write my first drafts, I fall in love with each story. That’s why it’s always so hard when my editors don’t fall in love with it right away and end up sending me lots of rewrites.

Most of us don’t realize how much hard work published authors have put in.

We often have a distorted view of writing and the publication process, especially when we’re starting out. How many times have you heard someone bash an author by saying, “This book isn’t any good. I’m sure I could write something better”?

Now that I’ve been writing a while, I realize writing isn't just about talent. What I’ve come to understand is that it’s more about hard work. Those authors with 10, 20, or even 40 books aren’t where they’re at because of luck or talent alone. They make it look simple and easy, but in reality they’ve put in hours, weeks, and years of sweat and back-breaking labor.

If we think writing a book is easy, then we likely haven’t immersed ourselves in the reality of what it takes to write good fiction in today’s market.

The point of all this theorizing is threefold:

1. ALL writers MUST have critical and objective feedback on their work, preferably multiple edits from qualified writers or professionals.

2. We must resign ourselves to the fact that writing a publishable book is NOT easy. We have to stop trying to take the easy way and simply embrace the reality of the hard work.

3. Stay humble. If we attempt to view our skill level realistically and humbly, we’ll be much more open to hard feedback and subsequent growth.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Why do you think it’s so hard for writers to know their own skill level? And why are so many of us blind to our faults?

How to Make Your Book Play Out Like a Movie

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


 By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Recently I received a reader email that said this: "My friend gave me one of your books and I devoured it in two days . . . The scenes play out like a movie in my head, and I felt the characters were all real people!

The scenes play out like a movie.

The comment was interesting and pushed me to analyze some of the techniques that I utilize to bring the book to the big screen of the reader’s mind. Because ultimately, we want to bring our story to life in such a way that the reader feels they are there experiencing the story right along with our characters.

So how do we make our books play out in the reader’s mind like a movie? Here are just a few things I do:

1. Choose scenes strategically.

In the most recent book I wrote (which I recently turned in to my publisher), I had approximately 40-45 scenes. How did I choose what scenes to include and which ones to leave out?

Part of the decision-making will have to do with genre expectations. Romance readers want to see the developing love-relationship between the hero and heroine. So we usually need to play out the key relationship-changing moments (dates, conflicts, important meetings, etc.). Readers will be disappointed if those kinds of scenes happen off-screen. Other genres will have reader expectations as well (that’s why it’s important to study our genres!).

I also try only to display scenes that move quickly and have the most tension, conflict, and action—scenes that could truly play out on a movie screen. I eliminate having a bunch of slower-paced, smaller, static scenes with little happening in them. Instead, I economize by finding ways to slip minor but necessary details into my conflict-laden scenes.

2. Eliminate unnecessary transitions.

Obviously we can’t include everything that happens to our characters spanning many months. So we’ll summarize what happens between scenes (often called a sequel). I like to think of those summaries as transitions—a way to get from one important scene to the next critical happening.

Yes, transitions are sometimes necessary—especially when we want to skim over a large passing of time. However, movies have very few transitional scenes. Instead they jump-cut from one important point to the next, allowing the viewers’ imagination and intelligence to piece together what’s happened in the interim.

We can use that technique in our books too. Our readers are just as intelligent as movie-goers and don’t need to know anything other than what’s truly important to the story itself. If we must fill them in with the between-time happenings, we can often do so by dropping the information into the current scene in quick bites or subtle ways.

3. Craft the setting carefully.

We want the setting to become so vivid that our readers visualize, smell, hear, taste, touch, and are immersed into the scene right along with the characters. On the other hand, we don't want our readers to realize we’re describing things. Too much portrayal (or describing unnecessary or unimportant details) will bog the reader down.

So how can we make a setting seem movie-screen real without overpowering our readers? Like with other story elements, we'll need to be strategic in what we choose to describe and where we place those descriptions. Often we do a good job of grounding the reader in the setting at the beginning of the scene, but then we allow our characters to act in a blank vortex for the remainder. The key is to look for ways to intentionally thread the setting details throughout the entire scene.

4. Breathe life into characters.

Bringing our characters to life is one the most challenging aspects of writing. We can pick the dramatic scenes to “film,” eliminate pesky transitions that slow down the story, and give the setting a makeover. But then we often fail to breathe life into our characters and instead populate the page with stick-figures.

One way to make our characters three-dimensional, is to get inside their heads. We need to see what they’re thinking. If all we do is “show” them acting, but never take the time to move into the characters' minds to hear their reactions, emotions, and struggles, then we risk having flat characters. We need to know their intense joys, deep pains, and heart-wrenching conflicts—and we can do this by giving the reader glimpses into the characters' internal struggles and thoughts.

In getting the reader into a character’s head, we help them see the story through the character’s eyes. The book plays out even more like a movie because now the reader has “become” the main character.

Have you read any books lately that felt as if you were watching a movie? What helps bring a book to life for you? 

When You Feel Invisible in the Crowded Book Market

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Over the past few years, the book world has grown increasingly crowded as droves of indies have rushed to publish books. In the last year, we've also seen traditional publishers beginning to experiment with novellas, niche genres, and other markets thanks to the revolutionary nature of ebooks. In addition, established authors are re-releasing backlists as fast as they can.

All of that means that more books are available than ever before.

I think most of us can agree that it's become much harder for any ONE author to really stick out from the masses of other authors. There are just so many of us scrambling to get our books in front of readers, shouting, "Read my book! Read my book!" (Well maybe not literally shouting, but often it feels that way!)

Sometimes we can begin to feel like we're drowning in the sea of all the other books, that we're mostly invisible, that even when we supposedly do everything "right" to spread the word about our books, we still go largely unnoticed.

Recently John Owen emailed me and asked me a question that I'm sure many of us are grappling with: "How do I expand my reach and make aware to the general book buying public the availability of my book?"

When browsing online bookstores, most (non-writing) readers don't look at the publisher as they make buying decisions. So indie versus traditional publication is not a hugely important factor in reader buying habits.

Obviously readers gravitate most to the already established authors. So being a name brand like Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, or Danielle Steele still counts for something.

But readers who are willing to explore beyond the tried-and-true brand names often look for recommendations from other readers, keep an eye on trending books, and gravitate toward the buzz.

They also take into consideration price as well as reviews, particularly leaning toward books with lots of reviews. Sometimes, they even consider the number of books an author has published as a benchmark for reliability.

It stands to reason, then, that authors who are trying to get their books noticed can take advantage of those common reader patterns:

1. Find ways to get others to genuinely recommend our books. Often that takes the form of initially giving away limited copies of our books (like on Net Galley) or to specific reviewers or Influencers. In exchange for the free book, we should make sure the reviewers or influencers know our expectations about promotion or reviews.

2. Try to generate buzz about our books. Obviously it's very difficult to quantify the effect of blog tours, facebook chats, social media sharing contests, Pinterest boards, Goodreads giveaways, taking out ads, etc. Since all of those things are usually occurring at the same time, we can't easily identify which ones are the most helpful. However, every little bit of buzz we create has the potential to get our books in front of a new reader.

3. Look at ways to make the price workable. There are LOTS of theories about how to price ebooks. The general consensus is that ebooks should be priced lower than print books. But beyond that, opinions range all over the place for the "right" price. For multi-published authors, having one on sale (or free) can be a way to hook readers (particularly with a series).

4. Encourage readers to leave reviews. This can be done as simply as leaving a request as well as link at the back of the ebook. "If you've enjoyed this book, please consider leaving a review at an online bookstore." I usually ask my launch team (influencers) to leave reviews. Book bloggers are often open to reviewing books. We can also look for people who might be interested in the specific topic or message of our books and offer a complimentary copy for the purpose of a review.

5. Keep writing and always look for ways to improve our books. If readers stumble across an author with only one book containing a handful of reviews, the reader will be less likely to take a chance on the book. But if the author has written lots of books that each have lots of reviews, the readers will think the author is more successful/popular and thus more reliable. Whether true or not, that's the reality of the system.

The bottom line is that there are no magic formulas for getting noticed in today's crowded market. My philosophy is to first and foremost continue writing the best books that I possibly can. Then at the same time, I try to be savvy about marketing and trying new things.

What about YOU? Have you ever felt invisible in today's crowded market? What are some ways you've found especially helpful in getting noticed?


Methods of Writing: Plotter, Panster, or In-Between

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund
 
Some writers are plotters. They thrive on planning out their books in great detail, making outlines, filling out note cards, and making story boards.

Other writers are pantsers. They write by the seat-of-their pants. They start with a blank slate and let the story and characters take them where they will.

I’ve seen both types of writers—plotters and pantsers—do very well. If you were to read their final manuscripts, you likely wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. They both end up in the same place—with a delightful well-told story.

With that said, however, I will admit I’m neither of the above, that I’m really more of a combination. You might call me a plantser (plotter + pantser).

Before I start my first draft, I do a TON of research (as in weeks of reading and scouring books). But most historical writers have to do that. It’s just part of the nature of writing a book set in a different time and place.

And before I begin writing, I also do a TON of brainstorming. I pull out a new spiral notebook and jot down ideas as they come to me or as they arise from all my researching. I fill pages with lists of all kinds of wild and crazy possibilities.

Eventually I narrow down my plot and come up with a very rough sketch of how I’d like to see my book progress. I write a few brief ideas for each chapter. But usually those ideas are fluid and vague.

Of course, I also get to know my characters before starting the first draft. I need to have a good grasp of each of my characters' backstories, their personalities, quirks, goals, etc.

Once my characters come to life, I usually begin to have the feeling that I’m ready to write the story. I have a pretty good idea of the plot and where I’d like it to go, but I’ve also left plenty of room for the story to develop as I write (and my characters too). For me that’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing—seeing the story and characters become bigger and more dynamic than I could have ever initially imagined.

Yes, I love the freedom that comes from not having things too planned out. That’s the pantser in me. But I also need a simple road map for my story. And that’s where the plotter in me comes out.

As I begin the actual writing of the story, the pantser in me likes to go off on detours, try unexpected twists, and meander at times. But to help me from getting too far off track as I'm writing, I take a little time before I start a new scene to write a brief sketch of what I hope to accomplish with that scene.

Here are some of the things I jot down in outline format before I write a scene:

Time and Place: (This helps me keep track of the story timeline and how well I’m varying my setting.)

Point of View: (This helps me monitor how often I’m switching POV; I try to keep it fairly even throughout the book.)

Hook: (How can I initially grab the reader’s attention at the beginning of the scene?)

Intensity: (Will this scene be high action or more contemplative? I want this to vary.)

• Read on Prompt: (How will I end the scene so that I make the reader want to keep going?)

Mood: (What kind of mood do I hope to portray and what kinds of things will help with that?)

Sensory details: (I brainstorm ways I can get most of the five sense into the scene, hopefully in ways that will match the mood.)

Goals: (This is where I list any and everything that I hope to write in the scene including character details, plot points, minor characters, etc.)

Once I pencil these details out, then I refer to the “outline” as I write the scene. It helps give gentle direction and keeps me from leaving out important points. By doing the plotting in small increments as I go, I’m able to allow the story the breathing room it needs to develop, but I’m also able to keep myself on track with where I need to go next.

How about you? Are you a panster, plotter, or a plantser? What’s your method for getting through the madness?

Planting Minor Characters With Purpose

Tuesday, October 21, 2014




By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Every story needs minor characters to add layers of richness and dimension. But like every other element or technique that we employ in our stories, minor characters should be added with purpose.

There are three general TYPES of minor characters:

1. Pivotal minor characters who play an integral part in the story: the main character's sister, a old fling, a grandmotherly caretaker, etc. Almost always we give these minors a name and distinguishing tag.

2. Walk-on minor characters who are there for a moment and then gone: a cashier at the grocery store, a mad cab driver, a creepy neighbor, etc. Usually we don't need to name these characters or describe them, but we can if they appear more than once.

3. Background minor characters who are never named, but only referenced in general terms: other dancers, guests sitting at the tables, hordes of zombies, etc. These minors never need names or descriptions except in the most general terms.

We want to make sure that we're not overpopulating our manuscript with minor characters, otherwise readers may have a difficult time keeping names and faces straight. Before adding a new minor character, we can evaluate if another character that is already on the stage can do the “job” first or if we should simply have another background character that isn't named.

In other words, when we have too many miscellaneous people standing around, they can clutter up and detract from the really important story elements. In addition, the fewer the minor characters, the more memorable we can make each one.

As we narrow down those pivotal minor characters that truly need to be included in the story, sometimes it helps to discover what ROLE they will play in the major character's life. Here are some common roles that minor characters can have:

• Mentor: Wise counselor-type of people that the main characters (MCs) can turn to for wisdom, advice, or help. Mentors help the MCs realize the error of their ways, help them think through problems, or are instrumental in their spiritual growth. Often mentors help the MCs see the obstacles that are separating him or her from their true love.

• Competition: We may add in another man or woman to serve as competition to a budding romance, to a potential job promotion, or a coveted acting role.

• Tease/Humor: We might have one of our minor characters there to add some comedic relief or to lighten the mood especially during those tense moments in the character development and plot.

• Protector: This type of minor character is someone who watches over the MC, defends, provides financially, shelters, or fixes things. Perhaps the protector will even try to protect the heroine from the hero for a time.

• Contrast: We may have a minor character who reflects qualities that our character envies (like wealth, beauty, strength, wit). Or we may add a minor character whose negative qualities emphasize the heroic qualities of our MCs.

• Urchin: Adding in helpless children, an older relative, or someone dependent upon our MCs can help make the MCs more likeable. When readers see our MCs taking care of others, acting selflessly, sacrificing in order to help others, it builds empathy toward the MCs.

• Best Friend: A minor character can be used to reveal our MC's character or true nature. This is the friend, brother, or close confidant who knows our character on an intimate level and sees the person for who they really are, faults and all.

Obviously we don't need each role in every story. Sometimes minor characters can function in more than one role (i.e. acting as both a mentor and protector).

The main point is that we want to avoid randomly dropping minor characters into our stories. Rather we want the minor characters to intertwine integrally so that they enhance the major characters, the plot, and theme. The more we accomplish that, the more satisfying the reading experience we give our readers!

Do you have any pet peeves regarding minor characters? What should writers avoid or employ as they craft minor characters?

Scavenger Hunt Stop #7

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Welcome to the Autumn 2014 Scavenger Hunt!

I'm doing something a little different on my blog today! I'm participating in a Fiction Scavenger Hunt! Please join in the fun!

You have arrived at Stop #7 in the hunt.

WHEN: The hunt begins 10/17 at noon, mountain time and ends at 10/19 at midnight, mountain time. 

WHERE: Once the official start has begun, go to Stop #1 (www.robinleehatcher.com) and then go to each site, gathering clues and entering bonus giveaways, until you reach the final stop which will also be on the site of Robin Lee Hatcher. (For a list of all participating blogs, go here.)

HOW: Collect a CLUE IN RED at each stop. Write them down as you go. At the final stop of the scavenger hunt, enter the clues into a Rafflecopter form.

WHAT: The GRAND PRIZE is a Kindle Fire HDX. Two runners-up will receive a new release from each of the 33 participating authors. (The hunt is open to international entries.)

Make sure you check out the bottom of this post for the rest of the information you need for your clue and to continue to the next blog in the scavenger hunt!


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My Special Scavenger Hunt Guest: Tricia Goyer

Today as part of the scavenger hunt, I'm hosting the fabulous Tricia Goyer, another one of the authors participating in all the fun! (You'll visit her blog on the next stop in the scavenger hunt!)

Tricia is the award-winning author of more than forty books. She writes regularly for several popular Christian women's blogs in addition to her own. She's been married for more than twenty years and is the mother of six children.

Tricia and I blog together over on Inspired by Life and Fiction. Not only do I admire Tricia for her words of wisdom on all kinds of issues from parenting to writing, but I also LOVE her fiction!

Her most recent book is the novelization of the hit movie, Moms' Night Out, which is a hilarious family comedy that celebrates real family life—where everything can go wrong and still turn out all right.

All Allyson and her friends want is a peaceful, grown-up evening of dinner and conversation . . . a long-needed moms’ night out. But in order to enjoy high heels, adult conversation and food not served in a bag, they need their husbands to watch the kids for a few hours—what could go wrong?

 LOTS goes wrong! But you'll have to read the book to find out exactly what!

You can purchase Moms' Night Out and Tricia's other books on Amazon, B&N, and Christianbook.com

Join me in welcoming Tricia today!

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Fiction Helps You Find the Joy in Life

By Tricia Goyer

I'm a mom of six, and there are days when it's hard to laugh. Like moments when I find permanent marker on the wall, or I discover that crayons in the dryer (from a little boy's pocket) have ruined my new blouse. Sometimes I'm so tired that it's hard to laugh. But it's times like this when I need to laugh the most.

I was asked to write the novelization of Moms' Night Out last December, and honestly I didn't know if I had the time to write it. As a mom of six I had lots to do for the holidays—like Christmas shopping, and making cookies, and spending time with my family. We also had a family vacation planned, and I didn't know if I could fit writing a novel into that schedule.

I prayed about whether or not I should write the novelization, and I felt peace. I talked to my husband, and he felt peace too. So in a very full month I embarked on the impossible—turning a movie into a book.

Laughter bubbled up as I watched Moms' Night Out for the first time. I could so relate to Allyson and the other ladies. I could so relate to the questions of, “Am I doing this mom thing right?”

In order to write the novel I watched the movie … again, and again, and again. And the messages of encouragement and hope dug deep into my heart. Yes, I was able to write a book that readers enjoy, but I have a feeling that God wanted to share that message with me first.

That's what I love about fiction. It's universal, yet so personal. Fiction allows us to take the hard stuff of life and make sense out of it. Fiction helps us to find the joy in life … and the joy in ordinary days.

If you enjoyed the movie Moms' Night Out, consider picking up the novelization and spending time with those characters again! I've seen the movie more than most, and I'll never get tired of the messages shared. And, friend, may you find true joy as you pick up your next book!

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GET YOUR CLUE HERE: Before you move on to Stop #8, which is Tricia Goyer’s site, be sure to write down this clue: IN ANY OTHER WAY."

BEFORE YOU GO: Please Enter the Rafflecopter below for a chance to win my latest release Captured By Love. Publisher's Weekly gave it a Starred Review calling it: "Superbly written romantic tension comes together with rich historical and scenic detail."

LEAVE A COMMENT: What novel have YOU read recently that's helped you find the joy in life?

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Update: THE WINNER OF CAPTURED BY LOVE IS: Cheryl Grubbs! Congrats, Cheryl!! 

Encouragement for Writers Who Don't Know If They Should Keep Going

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I had the recent privilege of doing some paid critiques at a writer's conference. Ahead of the conference, writers sent me twenty pages of their manuscripts which I then read and carefully critiqued.

As I met with each writer one-on-one at the conference, many of them voiced their concerns, saying things like, "I just don't know if I should keep going" or "Should I really be spending so much time on my writing?"

I only had fifteen minutes with each of the writers which I quickly realized wasn't enough time to encourage them the way I would have liked.

So today I thought I'd share everything that I didn't have time to say–a special encouragement for those who've written a book, but don't know if they should keep going . . .

1. Finishing a first book is a HUGE accomplishment. Anyone who does so should be proud of the feat. There are a lot of people who talk about writing a book, who have all kinds of great ideas, or who may even get a few chapters written . . . but for all the good intentions, they never complete the book.

I always applaud anyone who actually makes it to "the end" of the first book or two. It shows that we have the endurance and self-discipline to persevere.

My first books were my hardest to write. Half the time I didn't know what I was doing or where the story was going. I was filled with all kinds of self-doubts and didn't really know if I had what it took to be good.

But isn't that true of anything we just begin? For example when I first started running a year ago, I wanted to puke and die every single step of the run . . . even though I only went around the block (which is barely a mile!). I can't say that I run effortlessly now, but it sure is a LOT easier than when I started and I can go a lot further.

The same is true of writing. If we can write the first book or two (or three), our writing muscles and skills grow stronger. And while writing may never be totally effortless, it will get easier.

2. Don't get overwhelmed with well-intentioned feedback. I have to be honest, I was never brave enough to get feedback on my first few novels. I never let any eyes but my own ever see them. So I admire those writers who can take critiques on early manuscripts.

I would just caution against getting overwhelmed by all of the advice. I've seen too many writers who spin their wheels editing the same chapters (or same book) over and over and trying to perfect it. While there's nothing wrong with improving a manuscript, sometimes being in editing mode for too long can zap the joy out of writing.

It's best for "younger" writers to keep the writing hand moving and the creative part of the brain unfettered. If we apply what we're learning as we write the next book, we're bound to take greater strides forward than if we simply keep nitpicking an old manuscript. After completing several manuscripts we'll be able to look back on our first ones and see how far we've come.

3. Finally, keep the dream of publication alive. We can't let it die because we think it's too hard to get an agent or land a book deal, or because there are already too many books out there, or because of the uncertainty of the market.

The good news is that publishers and readers still love discovering new authors. There will always be a place for an author who has honed her writing craft and is able to tell a riveting story. But that means, however, that we can't rush the process, that we have to make the effort to actually hone our skills and learn what comprises a good story. Taking the time to "do writing" right still works best in the long run.

My Summary: Should you keep going? Do you have what it takes? If you love writing and if you're passionate about story-telling, then keep fanning the flame. Don't let the dreams of publication die. Maybe you won't find extreme riches and fame, but you'll find extreme satisfaction in a story well-told.

What about YOU? Do you ever struggle with knowing whether YOU should continue writing? What's helped you to keep going?

P.S. If you haven't yet downloaded my FREE e-novella, OUT OF THE STORM, I invite you to give it a try! Amazon, B&N, and CBD


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