NaNoWriMo is over. Let the editing begin.

November is over, everywhere around the world. Congratulations to all who have met the 50,000 word target, but an even bigger congratulations to all those who actually wrote that story that was whizzing around in your heads. But with NaNoWriMo over, now is the time to think about the next steps in your writing journey.

The first thing you need to do is ask yourself the following question: have you finished that first draft in its entirety? Have you actually typed those coveted words of The End?

If the answer is no, then stop reading this post right now. Get your butt over to your manuscript and carry on writing. I mean it. This post will be here when you’re finished. Come back when you actually have a full manuscript to work with.

Now for those of you who have a completed first draft, before you do anything else, I want you to celebrate. You have written a full manuscript. That’s a massive feat and you deserve a pat on the back — just don’t break your arm in the process, because you’ll need it for what comes next. Now begins the long and laborious road of editing.

I say long and laborious because writing that first draft is actually the easy part, even if you struggled to get it out. Editing is hard. It’s during the editing process that the true talents of a writer shines through.

There are many out there who believe that editing involves looking at spelling, grammar and punctuation, however, editing is so much more than that. The type of editing your manuscript requires will depend entirely on what stage your manuscript is at.

Editing falls into four main categories: critique, developmental, line and copy-edit. Each stage is necessary to the development of a manuscript. In a previous post, I delved into the Who and When of Editing, however, I’ve recently discovered that understanding the Who is not enough. It’s the What that seems to elude most writers.

For those who have just completed their NaNoWriMo first drafts, you will now be entering into a combination of the critique and developmental editing phases. You will be looking at your story with that critical eye, getting ready to make the difficult decisions.

Does your plot follow a semi-logical progression of events? Do the plot twists make sense, or do they blindside the reader? Could you hint at events along the way?

It’s the plot of a story that will first grab the attention of any reader. Your characters are going on this journey and the reader wants to go with them. That plot needs to be solid and believable.

But readers don’t continue reading because of a plot. They continue reading because of the characters. They’ve become attached and they want to know if Jimmy is going to kiss the girl, or if Heath is going to dive off that cliff to his death. As such, you will also need to look at your characters with the same critical eye.

Do your characters behave in ways that make sense? Do they have identifiable traits that make them individuals? Is that character really the right character for this story?

That last question is actually a hard one to ask, but it’s vital. You may have written this little girl in your story, complete with the fun game of tag, however, that character might be better suited as a teenager, grumpy and hormonal. In some cases, that side character that you wanted to use in other stories really has no benefit to the current story — they’re just a distraction. However, until you take the time to look at your story critically, you won’t be able to truly answer the hard questions.

Then you need to look at the narrative voice. How much show do you use? Do you share every detail of backstory you can, bogging down the reader in unnecessary facts? Have you shared enough? Do you set the scene and play with the actions? Is the scene told from the perspective of the right character?

And what about first person vs third person? Or past tense vs present tense?

file5951239550691There are so many questions and each manuscript will be accompanied by a different set. There are no right or wrong answers, but to make the best decision for your story, you need to remove the emotionally-attached writer’s hat and put on that detached editor’s hat. It’s not easy. It will likely be the most difficult thing that any writer will face. But the rewards… The satisfaction…

The only real way to be able to make this mental transition from writing to editing is to give yourself distance. After each phase of a manuscript’s life, be it drafting or an editorial pass, you need to put that manuscript into that metaphorical drawer and do something else. If the mood strikes, write another story. Or perhaps it’s time to read that book that you were wanting to read. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you force yourself to back away from your manuscript. The longer that manuscript is in that metaphorical drawer, the greater the distance that you give yourself, making it that much easier to make those hard decisions.

For those working on their NaNoWriMo novels, that first draft needs to be rewritten into a second or third draft. The skeleton that you constructed during November now needs the muscles and connecting tissue. It needs blood.

When you have rewritten that precious story, it will be time to let another set of eyes see it. Those eyes need to belong to another writer, not your family or friends. You loved ones want you to be happy, so they will lie to you instead of giving you the bitter truths that are vital for shaping your manuscript. Hopefully, during November, or at other times, you’ve managed to build of list of writing buddies that you can lean on, swap chapters with. However, don’t just send it to anyone who puts their hand up. Be selective. Remember that your manuscript is still an early draft. You want to use someone who will look at your writing for the story and characters, not for the punctuation and grammar (that comes later — much later).

While you’re waiting for the comments, you’ll be working on something else. (Remember that need to distance yourself from a manuscript.) When you get the comments back, you’ll need to look at them critically, which is not always easy to do; this manuscript is still your baby, no matter how much distance you give yourself. This is something I wrote about some time back, about how to find value in the harshest of critiques. Then it’s back to the rewrites and the hard questions. You’ll send your story to different sets of eyes, and the whole process starts again.

Then you start the line-editing phase, if you haven’t already done so. This is when you look critically at the language and the words. You start delving into the grammar, but on a rudimentary level.

You have a series of carefully chosen phrases, but do those words flow off the tongue, or were you trying to be so cleaver that you get tongue-tied? Can you restructure a sentence to make it stronger, invoking more of an emotional response from the reader? Is that sentence even necessary?

All the while, you are getting different people to read your story, perhaps a professional editor or two. With each set of eyes, you are getting that much closer to a polished product.

Copy-editing, looking at the spelling, grammar and punctuation, is the last thing you do. It’s like putting that skin on your manuscript. For those who are self-publishing, typesetting and cover design are putting on the makeup.

But with all of this comes a question that many have asked me: how do you know when you’re actually ready for publication and/or submission? Remember that distance. How long has that manuscript been sitting in that drawer? If you take that manuscript out, blow off the cobwebs and read it through… if nothing is screaming out at you saying “change me,” then you know it’s ready. You’ve taken that manuscript as far as you possibly can.

Writing a book can be a long journey. That month spent writing the first draft was just the first step. But like all journeys, you’ll never get there unless you start walking. And like the child taking their first steps, eventually you’ll be able to run, then you’ll be able to jump and leap, climbing that steep rocky mountain. Not to sound cheesy, however, I believe that a certain rock star, who shall remain nameless, said that it’s all about the climb.

(Now I’ve done it… That song is going to be stuck in my head for days on end… DOH!)

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Time to Add Zombies to Your Manuscript

We are midway through the month and many writers are pushing themselves toward their NaNoWriMo or CampNaNoWriMo goals. It might be just to write the 50,000 words to become a winner. Or maybe they're pushing themselves that much further to complete a full first draft within the span of one month. Regardless, it is roughly about this time of the month when many writers start to lose steam and they feel that their stories are running flat.

Time to add zombies.

It's an old saying, one that relates to how some writers deal with that age old problem called writer's block. Some writers will take the phrase literally and add flesh-eating monsters into their manuscript. Why not? This is NaNo. Anything can happen in our manuscripts. However, those monsters only suit certain genres and only a fraction of the stories in those genres at that.

No... The phrase "just add zombies" means much more than that.

If you are struggling to push your story forward, moving the characters into the next scene — if your feeling that your story is starting to drag — that's a sign that you have lost the tension of the story. It's time to change it up.

Adding plot zombies is about putting your characters into the worst scenario that you could possibly think of and letting things fall where they may. For a romance, that situation might be the kiss that shouldn't have happened and the girlfriend that walked in on it. For a thriller, it might be the bad guy has just escaped those bounds that you were so sure were tight as anything and now has a gun pressed to your temple. For a crime story, perhaps they found another dead body. And for that space opera, the ship has sprung a leak and if they don't find a way to seal it, all the air will be vented out into space — oh, and the gravity plating has just gone off-line.

But if you're suffering from writer's block, perhaps the issue really isn't your story. Maybe you're just trying to hard. Some writers will have plotted out every single inch of their novel. (If you've done this, you plotters know exactly who you are.) You may have found that you are trudging along quite happily, then the path is suddenly blocked and your characters are refusing to take the left fork in the road like you had planned. You keep forcing them that way, but they keep rebelling. The words are just not flowing like they once did. Did you ever stop to think that the path down the right fork is actually the more interesting one?

This is where the pantser has the advantage over the plotter. The characters want to take the right fork, so the pantser lets them and is just along for the ride. Meanwhile, the plotter is still trying to force their characters down the left fork.

gull-talk_annotated_rightvsleftPlotters, give yourself permission to deviate from your original plot. You never know what might happen.

However, pantsers suffer from writer's block too. The true blood pantser will just wait for inspiration to strike. They have no idea what they're going to write until they sit down and start writing. But sometimes inspiration completely eludes them. They don't even know where to start. (At least the plotters have a start point and an end point.)

The biggest advice I can give to anyone in this situation is to find a new place to write. Grab your notebook, or your laptop, and head out to the park, the beach, the local library, the nearest coffee shop... Maybe even the art gallery or the museum. It doesn't matter where you head, just as long as it's somewhere new. Watch the people going by. Watch the snail attempt to get across the sidewalk before it gets squished. These new environments just might be the inspiration you need.

(True story: One year, I was watching a sparrow as it soared through the air, only to be joined by another sparrow. Spring time. Mating season. My fingers suddenly started typing this whole scene where my main character shape-shifted into a bird and soared through the skies. Inspiration can come from anywhere.)

There are some other tricks that you can play to get yourself out of this writing slump. Maybe you need to turn your attention to another project. You may have had your heart set on writing a particular project, but if your mind is just not into it at that moment, then the writing will be forced and you will hate every inch of it. Writing is meant to be enjoyable. If one project is not doing it for you, open another. Writers often have multiple projects on the go. I, myself, have near on 20 different manuscripts that I'm working on, all in various stages of development.

Chip Challenge: Get some poker chips and write numbers on them. Place them in a bag by your favourite writing device. Every time you sit down to write, pull out a chip. That’s your session target.

Chip Challenge: Get some poker chips and write numbers on them. Place them in a bag by your favorite writing device. Every time you sit down to write, pull out a chip. That’s your session target.

Then again, maybe you are too focused on the big picture that you need to give yourself smaller goals. Even though with CampNaNoWriMo you can choose your own goals (word counts or hours), NaNoWriMo imposes a minimum 50,000-word-count limit. That can be a scary number, especially when you're in a writing slump. What you need to do is break that number up. Last year, I wrote about how you can use the chip challenge, where you have a small bag of poker chips, each with a different number on it. When you sit down to write, pull one out of the bag and that's your target.

Or maybe you're one of those that needs to sprint. Set yourself a timer and just go for it. Take a break, then do it again and see if you can get further than you did last time.

There are many different tactics to concur this common problem. Just remember that you're not alone. Remember that there is a big community out there of writers, all of us at different stages within our careers, but all of us there to support one another.

Perhaps you can share one of your favorite methods for getting the creative juices flowing in the comments below.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Developing the habit of writing…

Right now, writers from around the world have pledged themselves to either the NaNoWriMo or CampNaNoWriMo challenge.  They’ve signed their lives away, at least for remainder of the month, determined to write 50,000 words within the span of 30 days. (For CampNaNoWriMo, they have elected to work toward something much smaller.) 50,000 words may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t. In many cases, it’s not even a full novel. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was 76,944 words.

So, 50,000 words in 30 days… For some, it can seem like a scary number, but it’s only 1,667 words a day. But this is where things can start to go awry.

There are many who see the prestige of writing 50,000 words in one month and will take it to the insane level of writing 50,000 words in one day. No joke. Within my home region of Christchurch, New Zealand, there are those who do this every year. Granted, they tend to be the university students heading into exams just as NaNo starts — they wanted to get NaNo out of the way so they could focus on their studies. Perfectly valid idea in my mind, however, I believe that people who are fixated on the word count are missing the point behind NaNaWriMo and CampNaNoWriMo entirely.

While the folks at NaNoWriMo have set a word count goal to win the challenge, the true challenge is to create a habit of writing.

The idea behind NaNoWriMo and CampNaNoWriMo is to write a little bit each day. If you have time to write more in one sitting, that’s fantastic. However, just a little bit everyday adds up. Some days, you’ll be on a streak, unable to stop, the fingers flying across the keyboard or the pen across the paper. Other days, you’ll be lucky if you manage a single paragraph. Whether it’s a good or bad writing day doesn’t matter. The fact that you sat down and wrote something is what counts.

For some people, finding the time to actually write is the biggest challenge. Most of us are on the constant go, hardly knowing which way to turn. The best advice that I could give any writer is to carry a notebook and writing implement everywhere you go. If you are one of those that hates notebooks, then carry your phone with a dicta-phone app.  Don’t force yourself into this thought that to write you need to be sitting down at a computer. This couldn’t be any further from the truth.

When I starting writing fiction on a regular basis, there was no way that a computer was going to see my precious mental release. I spent day in and day out programming, staring at print outs and data graphs. I wasn’t going to fight with a computer for something that was meant to be a pleasure. So, I wrote the first draft of my first novel entirely by hand. I wrote while I was on the bus travelling between the university and my house. I wrote while my husband was watching TV. I wrote while I was eating my breakfast or lunch. I wrote in bed at night, just before I fell asleep and dreamed of the next scene in the story. For a full year, I wrote my fictional works in small notebooks, stealing the precious writing time from wherever I could.

Instead of scrolling through the social media feeds on your phone while savoring that cup of coffee, write down a paragraph or two in that notebook that you carry around.

Events like NaNoWriMo and CampNaNoWriMo are meant to force you to think about writing, forcing yourself to find the time to dedicate to it, but what about when it’s over? According to psychologists, it takes anywhere between 21 to 66 days to form a habit. Instead of spending the month focused on word count targets, use this month to develop a habit of writing that you’ll be able to carry on with come next month, and possibly for the rest of your life.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Backlit keyboard

Scrivener: Software for the Writer

Many writers spend endless hours writing their precious manuscripts using MSWord or some other equivalent word-processing program. In the initial writing phase, they encounter very little problems. Then editing begins. So too does the grumbling.

The filesize increases dramatically and previous versions of certain chapters are lost. To move a chapter, the cut-and-paste hell takes over. Versions are sent out for review, resulting in hundreds of copies of the manuscript. (Exactly which one was the one I was working on?)

Here’s the situation: I have NEVER liked MSWord. It stems back to my Master’s thesis where MSWord frequently moved my images off the screen so I would spend forever hunting for them. Then it would goggle up whole chapters and all my editing would be lost. And when it came to printing… The Master Document feature failed completely and I had to change all the cross-references and auto-numbering manually, including page numbers. I was not a happy chappy.

Granted, I was working in MSWord95. Things have significantly improved since then, but MSWord still doesn’t like my documents.

When I did my PhD, I used LaTex: a freeware software package that was designed for scientists and academics. The system had very little memory overhead and I never lost my images again. Moving chapters around was a simple matter of moving a single line of code.

When I finally started writing my high fantasy series, LaTex was my choice. Then I started looking seriously at agents and publishers. The horrible truth was that all manuscripts needed to be submitted in DOC format. DOH! LaTex outputs to PDF no sweat, ePub/MOBI with gentle persuasion (and a wooden mallet), RTF is covered, but DOC? Aaahh! Nope. It ain’t happening.

Write here, write now. Scrivener. After extensive research, and trialing various programs, I discovered Scrivener. It promised to provide the flexibility needed for editing, low memory overheads, and varied outputs, including DOC, PDF, RTF, ePub and MOBI. OMG, the transition from LaTex was beyond easy and Scrivener upheld its promises.

Today, ALL of my personal writing is done in Scrivener. I export my files to DOC for submission and to share with critique partners, but that’s all MSWord is allowed to see of my manuscripts. From the conception through to the final revision, everything is in Scrivener.

The full license of Scrivener is $40USD, which entitles you to updates and full technical support. And this is a lifetime license. (When was the last time MSWord was that cheap?)

Scrivener is available for Mac, Windows, iOS (this version is $19 USD), and a beta-version is available for Linux. Sorry, but no Android version… yet.

Every year, Literature and Latte, the developers of Scrivener, sponsor NaNoWriMo. If you are registered for the NaNoWriMo, CampNaNo or the young writers program, then you will get a discount, normally 20%. Winners are normally given a 50%-discount code.

The trial version of the software is the full package, with all features enabled. You get 30 non-consecutive days to trial the software. And in October, Literature and Latte release a special NaNoWriMo trial version.

Okay… This really is coming across as an ad for Scrivener, but after the experiences I’ve had with other programs…

Later this month, on the Black Wolf Editorial YouTube channel, I will be releasing a series of videos on how to use Scrivener, beyond the demonstration videos that come with Scrivener or found on the Literature and Latte website. I will show you how to customize and use Scrivener to its full potential, including how to set up prologues, customize chapter numbering designs, and use annotations. Yes, Scrivener does have it’s limitations; I will be going over those too.

Keep an eye on the Black Wolf Editorial YouTube channel and here on this blog for more details.

P.S. I’d love to meet you on Twitter or Facebook.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ below. You can read other posts like it here.

© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Struggling with #NaNoWriMo word-counts? Maybe you’re trying too hard.

This post was originally posted on Judy’s personal blog, but was moved here because it is filled with valuable information.

Here I go — breaking all the rules that I had set myself for my own personal blog. I had decided earlier this year when I set this thing up that I wasn’t going to post anything that would look like writing advice, but with the number of people that I know struggling to keep their word counts up for NaNoWriMo, I decided that I would break my own rule just this once. As a Municipal Leader for my local region and a veteran WriMo myself, perhaps I do have some advice to give that is actually worth listening to. Here goes…

We have just crossed the mid-month point and you’re looking at those word counts. Some of you are starting to freak out. Maybe you haven’t hit 25000 words yet and are seeing that you need to write over 2000 words per day to make it on-time. Maybe when you sit down at the computer to write (or with the pen and paper if that is your method) you find that only 200 words grace the page, and you’ve been at if for hours. Maybe you just stare at the blank page and your mind goes blank as well. Or, the worst of all, maybe your story doesn’t excite you like it did when you started. Well, you know what… These are all things that happen to every writer. They’ve happened to me too. But there are some simple easy things that you can do to get out of this rut and get back on track for NaNoWriMo.

You may have a high total word count left to write and your required daily count to hit that 50000-word target is getting higher by the day. The first thing that you need to do is forget about the total word count and those mounting required daily limits. If you keep staring at that big number of words left to write, you’ll never make it. There is a philosophy out there that the most successful people are the ones that have the ability to take every problem and break it down into smaller chunks. Let’s face it. You can’t add 2 + 2 together and have it mean anything unless you have a concept of what 2 is in the first place.

Make no mistake about it, 50000 is a big number. Can you imagine what you could do with $50,000? Just imagine the goodies you can buy with that. Write it down. Look at that… You’re writing again.

What? You were reading, not writing? Should I shake my head now, or later?

No, seriously. Here’s a little trick that I’ve started using this year with the WriMos in my region.

The Chip Challenge:

Chip Challenge

Chip Challenge: Get some poker chips and write numbers on them. Place them in a bag by your favourite writing device. Every time you sit down to write, pull out a chip. That’s your session target.

Get yourself a small set of poker chips. I spent all of $3 on mine at the local nick-nack store. Take a vivid, or some other permanent marker, and write numbers on the chips, ranging from say 250 to 1500. Make sure you have a good spread. Now put the chips into a bag by your favourite writing device. Every time you sit down to write, pull out a chip from the bag. That is your session target. Complete that chip, then give yourself permission to indulge in some sort of reward. For the WriMos who attend my write-ins, the rewards are things like erasers with stupid faces on them, shiny pencils, fluorescent gel pens, etc. For a while there, my personal reward was little chocolate mints, or that cookie. I stepped on the scales this morning and decided that chocolates and cookies were not such a good idea, but you get the hint.

ML Box

Some of the goodies in my ML box for the chip challenge at write-ins.

By giving yourself a chip challenge, you’re no longer focused on that giant word count or any pressures that NaNoWriMo is putting on you. All you see is that little chip with a number on it. That is your goal. If inspiration strikes and you feel like taking another chip challenge after you have completed the first one, then for go it. You’re the writer. You’re the one in control.

But what if the words are still not flowing. I have so been there. Only the other night, I struggled to write more than 45 words within a span of 90 minutes. You read that right, people. I had a massive case of writer’s block. I knew where the story needed to go, but… Well, we won’t get into the buts. Let’s just face it… I was having an off day and even the chip challenge wasn’t working. So what did I do? I closed one story file and started working on another.

Many writers have more than one project going at a time. I have tons. My brain constantly jumps around, very rarely focused on one plot for any length of time. It’s probably why I write stories that have multiple plot-lines. Some would argue that it’s the sign of a writer who doesn’t plot sufficiently, however, I would argue that it’s my brain’s way of plotting. My mind sees snippets of scenes from here and there, but rarely knows how they all fit together until I have managed to see enough of the scenes to slot them into place. It’s like little islands that grow out of the flowing waters of my imagination, all isolated, but as I continue to jump around, the bridges between those islands slowly get constructed. Then bam… I have a full plot and story arc.

My core NaNoWriMo project for this year has turned into one massive plotting exercise. So many little scenes: cats using the toilet; US Air Force pilots buzzing the tower; murder investigations and people getting run off the road; jumping through rainbow portals; and the list goes on. But those scenes are clear in my imagination, the dialogue, the setting, even the body language of the characters. So I write those scenes. The ones that are still hazy, I write what details I can see and move on. Because of this, I now have a full story arc for the first novel in what looks to be a series of six. The full manuscript is completely plotted out, even with its subplots, and the overall arc for the whole series is also plotted out. 25000 words worth of notes and scenes that don’t necessarily all fit together, but it’s all words that count toward NaNoWriMo.

But notice that I said “core” NaNoWriMo project. The novel I have listed on the NaNoWriMo website is only one of the projects that I have been working during the month of November. I am also working on various blog entires, the edits for my first novel, edits for a client’s novel, the start-up of my editorial business, and the list is just getting bigger. Now here’s the thing… All writing is still writing. I count all writing tasks into my NaNoWriMo total because it still took me time to formulate my thoughts into a coherent fashion. Even this particular blog post will be added to my total when I’m done.

Counting editing into the word count is a simple calculation: look at the total number of words in the passage that you were editing (after you have finished editing for the day), then for every hour that you were actively editing it for, take 15%. E.g. A passage that is 3000 words when you’re finished that you were editing for 2 hrs solid, would give you 900 words you could add to your NaNoWriMo total.

Some would say that editing is not in the spirit of NaNoWriMo. Well, I have one response for those nah-sayers: raspberries and lots of them. Editing is one of the core activities of any writer. We may write fantastical worlds, but no one can write that brilliant masterpiece from the first draft only. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “The first draft of everything is shit.” Every writer needs to spend a significant amount of time to edit and rewrite that manuscript to make it sparkle and shine (hopefully, not like vampires). The writers that don’t understand this are in for a rude awakening. Even agents and publishers dread the months after NaNoWriMo because of the number of people that falsely believe they have written the next No1 Best Seller but haven’t spent the time (normally months to years) to actually edit and rewrite said masterpiece.

So here is my little bit of real advice: if you are feeling that your story has stalled, and you have given yourself enough time to back away from it by working on something else for a while, then give yourself permission to actually go back and reread what you have written, and perhaps do a little editing. It doesn’t matter if it’s November and you’re supposed to be working solely on “new” material. Give yourself permission to remind yourself why you wanted to write this story in the first place. Maybe then you’ll be able to see where the story was heading and be able to write more.

But the best thing that any of us can do for our writing, the one thing that I have found that helps with the word counts the most, is to actually give yourself permission to not do anything writing related for an evening or two. Sometimes you just need to recharge — and sleep.

We writers often make a joke of it — sleep is overrated — but sleep is the brain’s way of fixing itself and anything else that might be going wrong with your body. When we’re overtired, the brain starts to shut down the higher functions so it can focus entirely on what it needs to do to keep us alive. This means we become cranky, irritable, irrational and our writing is no longer just “shit” but becomes worthless dribble that makes no sense in our waking states.

Some of my writing buddies have become so fixated on that NaNoWriMo-set target that they have forgotten what it means to sleep. This brings me right back to where this post first started. It doesn’t matter if you have a high number of words left to write to reach your 50000-word target. Forget about that. Take that larger goal and break it down into smaller, more manageable, chunks. Spread those chucks across multiple projects. Do some editing if you feel you need to. And take a break.

The true spirit of NaNoWriMo is not about meeting a word count for the month. It’s about training yourself to become a writer. It’s about setting that goal that is attainable: writing that novel.

P.S. I’d love to meet you on Twitter or Facebook.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2015