Books I Might Not DNF

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To say I’ve been in a reading slump for the past few years would be an understatement. I’m not sure why. I used to read voraciously. I mean like at least two or three books per week. Even ‘way back when I was a single mom who had to get up at 5:AM to go to work, I would stay up late reading.

For the past several years, though, I simply haven’t been able to get interested in very many new books. I mean, I still keep buying them! Hope springs eternal, right? I even try reading one of them, once in a while. Unfortunately, I Do Not Finish far more than I finish. My To Be Read piles now totter near the ceiling!

Maybe today’s books, like today’s movies and TV shows, “just aren’t as good as they made them back in my day, sonny.” (That makes me sound real young and vibrant, doesn’t it?) Maybe my brain is just too old and tired for reading, anymore? But I can still re-read my old books (and watch old TV shows, for that matter) over and over! It’s just the newer stuff I can’t seem to get into. I mean I literally can’t make myself read more than the first 20 pages or so of most modern books without being drawn away by something that compels my interest much more intensely, such as cleaning the bathroom or folding laundry.

But! I am told that if I want to be a traditionally published author, I need to converse knowledgeably about today’s literature market, and be able to tell an agent my work is comparable to [insert author and title published within the last five – or preferably two – years] or, as they say, “provide good comps.”

So I came up with a plan. I sorted my To Be Read pile by publication date and put all the books published more than five years ago (with a few exceptions, noted below) into boxes to donate to Dog Eared Books. Then I sat myself down, and told my household I was not getting up again until I had read the beginning of every single one of the remaining books. 

The idea was to get all of these beginnings into my head, and let them stew there awhile. If, while stewing, any of these beginnings should persistently call me back to read the rest of the book I would, you know, actually finish reading it!

A few days later, I went back and sorted the books into two piles. One, I mentally labeled “Will Probably DNF.” The other contains books I have high hopes of actually finishing. Their beginnings are still bright and distinct in my mind, and I’m actually excited about them. But most of all, to my surprise and delight, the “Might Actually Finish” pile turns out to be the taller of the two! Maybe, this time, I won’t get bogged down in books I spend weeks trying to force myself through, precipitating another slump.

Books I Might Finish

An Enchantment of RavensMargaret Rogerson 
This book is a little dated for use as a comp (2017) but people keep telling me I’ll like it, and now I can see why. It’s got real magic in it, but so far the magic doesn’t want to splatter everyone’s guts all over the walls. The voice of the narrator, an artist who does portraits for the fey folk, is smart and funny. So far, I can’t tell if it’s set in a contemporary era or what. Era may well be irrelevant for this particular story-world. If it turns out I do like it, I understand the author has some more recent books in the same series. If the setting turns out to be contemporary, these could work for me as comps.

Mistress of SpicesChitra Banerjee Divakaruni 
Okay this one was published all the way back in 1997. But I want to finish it even though there’s no way I can use it as a comp, because so far it is (pardon my language) Fucking Brilliant. I love the narrator’s voice. It’s beautiful and enchanting, like we’re listening to a sweet, old ghost tell her tale. (I don’t know, maybe we are?)

Tales From the Gas Station, Volume 1 – Jack Townsend
Think Night Vale meets David Wong. I know, right? If I don’t like “dark and gritty” then why do I love these things? But all these works are, at heart, deadpan, satirical, tongue-in-cheek commentary on how stupid the human race is, and I eat that stuff up. This book was published in 2018, but I can’t use it as a comp because apparently it’s self-published. But I’m going to finish it anyway.

Black Water Sister – Zen Cho
Finally! A traditionally published (2021) Contemporary Fantasy that is still enchanting, lyrical, lovely, intelligent, and not drenched in dismembered limbs. Not so far, anyway. Another book with lovely “voice.” I’m really looking forward to following the rest of this modern-day woman’s journey into magic. But if it turns out she’s only hearing ghosts because she has a brain tumor or something, I swear to god I will burn this book right on the living room rug!

This Book is Full of Spiders – David Wong
Speaking of David Wong. This is his sequel to “John Dies at the End,” the book I often cite as the last book (2009) that kept me up reading into the wee hours because I couldn’t put it down. I bought this sequel in 2012 but I confess I have put off reading it because I was terrified it would disappoint me, thereby tarnishing my beloved memory of the first volume. So far, though, I am not disappointed. So far, so good!

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig 
Published in 2020. I haven’t got to where anything magical has actually happened yet, but I think I can tell by now that this author won’t be trying to conflate fantasy with horror. The voice is very lyrical. The construction of the storyline itself is also an interesting time-skipping device, done properly. I’ll let you know how it goes. It might legit turn out to be useful as a comp.

Books I Will Probably DNF

I put these aside, rather than into the donation box, because I tell myself I “might finish them someday, after I finish the others, and if something new doesn’t come along by then that I’ll find worth reading.” In other words, I almost certainly will not finish them, and will end up donating them ten years from now or something.

Dead Heads (Gloomwood Book 1) – Ross Young
The premise is cute so far but, 20 pages in, still nothing is actually happening. We are still being introduced to a lot of (I think there are six, so far) POV characters who do a lot of world-building thinking aloud about life in the land of the dead, but we keep hopping from one POV to the next, like, every page and a half or so, and none of them has a unique enough voice for me to be able to keep track of which one is who.

Kings of the Wyld – Nicholas Eames
Unlike the rest of this pile, I actually started this one a few months ago. But one day, after I stuck in the bookmark and went to dinner, I found myself not motivated to pick it up again. I was enjoying it quite a bit at first, but 15 chapters in (out of 53) I’m finding the “aging hero” jokes are starting to wear a bit thin. The premise was cute, and the rock-music references really rocked, but now it’s all just devolved to a bunch of manly men doing manly-man things, and I’ve always found that stuff tedious. I have a feeling we’ve already reached the mushy (and greatly protracted) middle; there are still two inches of pages in my right hand and the story has started going nowhere fast. I’m not even sure I care anymore about the far-off adult daughter caught in a besieged city who they, ostensibly, are intending to eventually rescue, since even if, after about a thousand more manly battle-pratfalls, they ever do win through to her and get her out, it’ll only be to let her live “free” in an altogether dismal, war-torn world without a speck of beauty anywhere in it. I’m sure there will be sequels (if there isn’t one already.)

The Other Black Girl – Zakiya Dalila Harris
I have to admit I was intrigued by the premise of the story even though it’s not even remotely fantasy. But it has reminded me of why I don’t care much for what they call Literary Fiction. Or is this Women’s Fiction? Literary Women’s Fiction, I don’t know. Anyway I’m 22 pages in (counting the prologue, a thing I’m told no debut author should ever attempt to get away with) and we’ve had about 20 pages of introspection and retrospection. Of the 3 brief passages that could be construed as “action” or “dialogue,” two of them have been conversations held over a cubicle divider. And by “conversations” I mean the other character speaks and then the main character introspects, for a few paragraphs, about what they said. I mean, at least get up and walk to the water cooler or something while doing all this deep thinking, FGS! The whole thing so far is like reading some long and rambling blog post… oh, wait…

Anyway, before you try to recommend them to me, I have already DNFed:

  • The Golem and the Djinni
  • The Bear and the Nightingale
  • Nevernight

I won’t go into great detail about why I DNFed these, other than to say the first two pissed me off by being the much-touted debuts of authors who got away with things I am told I should never, ever, ever do if I expect to be traditionally published, unless I’m already a bestselling author. Said things include, of course, prologues, as well as not even starting the story until after six chapters of events and characters we will never see again in the book. I might have finished these books regardless, of course, had I found them to be at all gripping, but they just slid out of my consciousness and didn’t call me back. As for Nevernight I can only say: please just stop. Just stop. Please.

Also. Some time ago, George R. R. Martin referred to his work as “Tolkien for grownups” and (after proposing he engage in several activities that are probably physically impossible) I vowed never to read or watch any of his work, ever. And to that I hold.

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Break Into Two

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I don’t always write according to any currently codified Story Structure, but when I do, it’s usually some form of the Three Act Structure.

I’ve found The Hero’s Journey to be a helpful guide in regulating my pacing, and also sometimes in figuring out just where the heck I’m going from here. Lately, though, I’ve become fascinated with Blake Snyder’s 15-beat “Save The Cat” structure. Not that I carefully adhere to it while actually writing, or anything like that, but on looking back I find I can deconstruct most of what I’ve written (or read, for that matter!) into these structures. I guess story, when you really let story tell itself through you, just naturally follows this sort of growth pattern. It’s in our DNA or something.

Anyway there’s a beat that almost all Three Act stories share, and that is the Break Into Two. And I don’t know why, but that’s just magical for me. I mean, all it really means is that this is where the story breaks into Act Two. Very prosaic.

But even knowing that, it still gives me shivers every time I hear it. Break Into Two. As far as I’m concerned, this is the real beginning of the story. The much-touted Inciting Incident is the very necessary beginning of the story itself, but it is usually something that happens to the character, outside of their control. The Break Into Two, on the other hand, is the beginning of the character’s story, because it’s something they choose willingly.

Here the character breaks their own world with their own hands. They know if they take one more step, they will plunge “down that damn rabbit-hole, where you know you can’t be saved.” But if they don’t take that step, there will be no story.

Couples and friendships are frequently broken up by the Break Into Two. When the old world is broken, the only hope of ever making it whole again is to forge unrelenting through the new world. The road is intimidatingly long, but the character shoulders their hastily-packed rucksack and sets out anyway (usually discovering too late that they have forgotten to bring a handkerchief.)

So I’ve just reached the Break Into Two in the [very rough] first draft of my current work in progress. This is the point where I, as the main character in my Author’s Journey, now honestly get a glimpse of just how far I have to go, how much work lies ahead of me, how ill-equipped I am to complete this task. It is also the point where I know there is no turning back. I’m as caught up in my character’s journey as my hapless character is, and abandoning the quest now would be as devastating for me as it would be for them.

Oh! Yes. About my story, my character, my current work in progress. I have given it the working title “Rivers and Roads” (you might remember this was also the original working title of Ghost of a Chance.) This, also, will probably change but I have realized there is definitely a theme (a river, and at least one road) running through all of my work, past and present. And yes, it’s the same river, in case you want to know. Just a different muddy riverbank.

Below is the blurb I’m writing toward. The content and wording, like the title, will almost certainly change as I get closer to the end, but now that I’ve reached the Break Into Two, it’s too late to turn back from the story itself.

Blurb v1.1 19June2021

Geddy Leigh Arkwright has a perfect, normal life – except she doesn’t. She vaguely remembers a magical childhood, wherein she believed in things more extraordinary than soul-stifling jobs and abusive fiancés. On the night when she decides she’s had enough, she throws her cell phone out her car window and sets off a chain of events which sends her tumbling, literally, into a hidden world of enchantment and mystery.

Only those who need a second chance can find the village of Tavisheen, or so its denizens keep telling her. Geddy isn’t sure she’s ever even had a first chance, but she checks into Keeper’s, a centuries-old country inn, anyway. After her initial shock at realizing not all of her fellow second-chancers are, strictly speaking, human, she begins to adjust to – and possibly even enjoy – her strange but intriguing new life.

But her old life comes back to haunt her when the dead body of her ex-fiancé turns up in the street in front of Keeper’s. She begins to understand it’s not so easy to leave your past behind by simply running away from it.

The Inn at night
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And so it begins. Again…

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Moon reflected in river

Yesterday I officially began writing my next series. I’m still not sure how I feel about this, but by the time I was able to stop myself writing I had penned over 4,000 words!  

I’ve been planning this, both in my head and on paper, for a long time. That’s probably why the first day’s writing went so smoothly. I’ve been saying, ever since I released A Midnight Clear, that I’d spend the first 3 months of 2021 reading, reading, reading – and then start writing again on April 1. But I have an appointment for my first Covid vaccination on April 1, so I said the heck with it, I’m just going to start writing right now.

I’d been thinking so obsessively about the beginning of the new story for so long that by the time I sat down to write it, I couldn’t stop until I came to the end of … well, what I’d thought was going to be the first chapter. Turns out it’s probably more like three chapters. Am I overwriting again? That’s what I do. I have set myself a goal of 80,000 words for this first volume which, to make it more appealing to potential agents, is a “standalone with series potential.” I am determined to stick to this low word count. Well, 80K is low for me! I can always edit and make it shorter. I mean, I always have to do that anyway!

This is what some might call my “zero draft.” I write the initial draft by hand, with an actual pen, on actual paper. I understand old farts like me find the hand/body component of handwriting to be beneficial to our creativity. I don’t know about that, but being forced to slow down, if only to keep my handwriting legible, does give my brain time to imagine details and make connections to future scenes in the story. If I write on the computer at first, I end up having to go back and put these connections and details in later. I spend a lot less time fixing plot holes down the road, this way, and a lot less time lying awake at night trying to iron out problems in the story that just don’t happen in the first place when I write by hand.

So in a few minutes I’m going to start typing what I handwrote into a Word document. This will be what I refer to as my “first draft.” While I’m typing, I’ll do a bit of line-level editing.

But! I must discipline myself not to spend a lot of time doing syntactical or atmospheric edits at this stage! I have learned the hard way, after many years of struggling, that if I start seriously editing now, I will get stuck in an endless cycle of rewriting and revising one page, one paragraph, one sentence over and over, and will never finish the actual book. I now make it my strict policy to make sure I am at least 3 chapters ahead with my handwritten draft before I begin typing it in, and eight chapters ahead in my first typed draft before I allow myself to edit anything in previously typed chapters. Once I’ve worked my way to the end of the story this way, that is what I consider to be a finished first draft. After that come second, third, and subsequent drafts.

And so it begins. Again

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not sure how I feel about this new beginning. I feel the story itself is quite good – well, has the potential to be quite good – but I miss Woodley, and Cally and Georgie and all the rest. I really fell in love with that whole story-world and its characters, and I did it quite quickly! I still vividly remember how I felt when I left the coffee shop on that first day, after writing the first two chapters of Seven Turns. I felt like my feet weren’t even touching the sidewalk as I walked to my car. I was over the moon – and wishing I had someone I could talk to about what I was feeling! But there wasn’t anyone, at the time. That is actually a large part of the reason I created this blog, to tell you the truth. Just to have someone to talk to about how excited I was about my story, even if it was just a theoretical audience.

Well, I have a wonderful circle of writerly friends, now, and a real-world audience. And I was pleased with myself, yesterday, but not floating. I felt accomplished, but not in love. Cally et al are a hard act to follow, it seems. I like my new MC well enough. And I’m starting to get a little turned-on by the new love-interest, even though he’s only appeared for a few seconds so far. I’m looking forward to discovering the new town and its denizens. It really is a beautiful and intriguing place!

But I remain skeptical, somehow. I really hated having to say goodbye to Woodley, and now this new world feels kind of like a new pet. You know – one you adopt after losing one you’d loved for so long. You know you’ll come to love the new pet just as much in time – and you will! But it hasn’t happened yet.

The Inn at night

I guess I should be excited about finding out how it’s going to happen. Well, my new MC is a skeptical type herself, so maybe she and I will figure it all out together!

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A Midnight Clear is available for pre-order

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After I launched Ghost of a Chance out into the newly locked-down 2020 world, I intended to take a purposeful break for a few months. I would do some reading, particularly of old, gothic classics such as “Jane Eyre.” Maybe even take a class or two to polish my craft.

As I carefully picked through my towering To Be Read pile (ready to run, in case it came crashing down on my head) I came across a notebook that looked vaguely familiar. Upon opening it I recognized my own “handwriting” and realized: this was the notebook in which I had penned my 2019 NaNoWriMo project. I remembered, then! I had written it to explore the idea of what Christmas must be like at Vale House in Woodley, USA.

I won NaNo that year, by the way. The rough draft was nearly complete at just over 50,000 words. All it needed was a bit of revising, a few editing passes, and hey presto, I could publish it in time to give it as Christmas gifts to all my beloved critique partners and beta readers. Right?

As you might expect, it turned out not to be as simple as that. “Revising” quickly became “completely rewriting,” and I soon found myself turning my back on my long-neglected TBR pile. I was still determined to keep this manuscript short, though. Well, short for me. Just a bit of Christmas fluff. A Hallmark special to tuck into the boxed set as bonus content, someday, maybe.

I just couldn’t stick with the “fluff” part, though. I found myself getting really serious about making this tale as fully-developed a story as the rest. The final result turned out, I think, a bit too dark for Hallmark. But it’s just the right flavor for existing fans of Woodley, USA and its quirky denizens. And I did manage to keep it down to around 50K! That is quite an accomplishment, for me. I’m really proud of myself about that!

I also believe A Midnight Clear, while it revisits many of the town’s most beloved characters, fills out their storylines and answers many reader questions about them, has turned out to be a story which is able to stand perfectly well on its own, even for people who have never read any of the other books.

It’s available for pre-order now in All the Usual Places, and will be officially released for retail sale on November 16, in time to get you into the spirit of whatever midwinter holiday you may be celebrating. And now, I promise, I will get to that Reading Pile, and I will take a Masterclass or Skillshare class (or maybe both!) And then I will begin research for my next series, coming soon to a mysteriously enchanted border-town near you.

Whatever you are celebrating this midwinter, I wish you warmth and cheer and good health and, if possible, loved ones all around you. To your health!

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Moonlight and Moss – Coming Very [Very!] Soon

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It’s official! The release date for Moonlight and Moss is May 31, 2019. But you can pre-order it right now (see links below)!

Now, I’ve never understood authors who make their pre-order price higher than the regular price. It’s like you’re punishing your biggest fans for their enthusiasm. I think my Biggest Fans should be rewarded! Honestly, I’d make the Kindle version like 1 cent for pre-order but Amazon doesn’t allow anything lower than $2.99, so I did my best! The pre-order price is $2.99 – after June 1, the price will be going up to $4.99. Barnes & Noble has made the paperback available for $11.99; after release it will go up to the full price of $15.99.

My journey to deciding to self-publish was fraught with self-doubt and anxiety, but I’m glad now that I did it. The interior design stuff (especially getting the pagination to match up with my table of contents) was kind of a nightmare! But I really had a lot of fun being an active participant in the cover design. I’m really proud of the final product, and I hope you’ll like it, too!

Let me state unequivocally, here, for any other authors considering whether to self or traditionally publish:

Fear of “loss of creative control” should never be a factor in deciding whether or not to publish traditionally because, frankly, it’s a complete and utter myth.

Even with traditional publishers, the author retains authority (that’s where the word “author” comes from, peeps!) and has final say over any and all suggested changes. Fear of “loss of creative control” was not why I decided to self-publish Moonlight and Moss. I chose this route because it became evident to me early in the querying process that it was highly unlikely any traditional publisher would ever be willing to pick up the second book in a series. Once I finish Cally’s story arc in the Woodley, USA universe (this will happen when Rivers and Roads is released in 2020) I will begin a new series. It will probably also take place in Woodley, but since it will be a whole new series with a whole new main character, I will be ready to begin pursuing traditional publishing again.

Because I have other things to do besides going crosseyed formatting text for PDFs and .epubs. I have many books to write before I sleep!

Oh, and that reminds me: Who would you like the main character of the next series to be? Is there anyone you’ve already met whose story you’d like me to explore from their own point of view? Or would you like a new main character all together? Let me (as the YouTubers say) know in the comments below.

[Pre-]order Moonlight and Moss:

Somebody’s Calling Your Name…

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Thanks For the Rejections!

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I’ll start, here, by thanking all the agents who have sent me rejections. I know agents have somewhere on the order of bazillions of queries to get through daily. They barely even have time to paste in boilerplate rejection verbiage and hit “send.” Many, nowadays, don’t even do that. So, when I get a rejection that gives me even the slightest hint of why the agent decided to pass on my project, far from being bummed about it, I am actually grateful.

I often feel like I’m working in a complete vacuum with regard to trying to sell my work. I feel fairly confident that my writing, itself, is good. Good enough, I mean, though of course any writing can always be improved and polished. The manuscript I am currently querying is as polished as I can make it, with critique partner and beta reader feedback. I am fortunate that I don’t have to work in a vacuum, there. On the other hand, the query letters I send out about said manuscript, well, really, the only feedback I can get about those, from real industry insiders, is through rejections.

OK, yes, I know: there is a ton – multiple tonnage, really – of Querying Advice on the interwebs. But much of it is conflicting or grossly outdated. Even AuthorTube videos by actual literary agents offer advice that conflicts wildly!  I wade through all this cognitive dissonance and snatch desperately at what seems to be the most common advice. I do my best to incorporate it all into 350 words or less but, in the end, I’m totally winging it. I have no way of knowing – not really – whether or not my query letter is really the killer pickup line that will get me the girl, or just a slap in the face.

Most of the rejections I get are some form or other of the standard boilerplate: “This is not on my list.” And, if this is the actual reason for the rejection (rather than an attempt at the most inoffensive waffle possible) I can’t complain about it. My little world of Woodley, USA is never going to fit neatly onto anyone’s list – it crosses too many genres. Agents who rep Fantasy seldom rep Horror, for instance. Not that there’s any Horror in my work, but nowadays the word “ghost” is synonymous with “guts splattered all over the walls” and I totally understand why some people are not interested in that. God knows I’m not. And, sure, it’s not fair that when a Fantasy-inclined agent sees the word “ghost” in the second paragraph of my query, they roll their eyes and ball up their fists and hiss through clenched teeth, “Oh, FFS, why don’t these #^&$@ writers ever bother to look at my profile – I specifically stated I do not do Horror!”

But it is what it is, and until Western entertainment culture undergoes another sea-change (a sea-change I actually hope to help incite with my work!) I have to figure out how to deal with the situation as it is.

Two rejections I’ve received recently, though, contained completely new and different feedback! This gives me hope that I’m at least getting better at writing query letters. I mean, I’m sure these rejections are also copy-pasted – I can imagine agents need to send this particular one out a thousand times a day, too. But, honestly, I got a little giddy about these because they made me think the agents who selected this particular verbiage from their copy-paste choices had actually got past the word “ghost”!

They said, basically: “The concept of your story just did not draw my interest strongly enough.”

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Dear Agents, for this specific feedback! Even though it may seem like a slap in the face to some, it was a gift to me, and I truly and honestly do appreciate your having taken the time to send it to me.

My first response, of course, was to think, “Oh, OK, so what can I do to change my story to make it more gripping? Give it more pizzazz! How can I make the stakes higher? Maybe I should give in and put in some guts splattering across a wall here and there after all? Oh, I know: a climactic car-chase where the world will end if I don’t make it over the cliff in time to rescue the president from terrorist dragons from Alpha Centauri!”

And then I said:

NO

My story is what it is. It is what it is because that’s exactly what it needs to be. It is internally consistent and beautiful. It gave itself freely to me from an eternal well of Story, and I will be true to it in return. The world does not have to be about to end in order to make the stakes heart-wrenching. Kittens and little children do not have to die horribly. I will not change the actual story itself, even if that’s the only way to get myself an agent. (I don’t believe it is, mind you. I just don’t know how to sell the damn thing, is all.)

Because I know it does, in fact, “draw my interest strongly enough.” I know for a fact that it does this to other people, as well. I am even reasonably confident that the kinds of people whose interest is drawn are not all that uncommon. These are the people I wrote it for. People who, when I describe it to them, say “Oh, I LOVE that sort of thing! Where can I find a copy?” Readers who say, “OMG I hope there’s going to be a sequel – I want to read more about this world!”

If I change my story in order to land a publishing deal, I will be betraying them. And I will be perpetuating the literary vacuum that led me to write this story in the first place because I couldn’t find enough of it in bookstores. There are people out there who want to walk down Main Street in Woodley, USA, and sleep in the Rose Room, and bump into George in the hall in the middle of the night, and jump the fence into the meadow and discover what lies beyond. Hang in there, peeps: I’m still trying to figure out how to reach you, but I am reaching!

All this by way of saying, I am grateful to all who have contributed the various data that has helped me make a decision. Thank you readers, critique partners, beta readers, and literary agents. I think I’ve made a decision? I’ve been trying to make this decision since last fall. I think I’ve decided I’m going to go ahead and self-publish Moonlight and Moss. Maybe. Probably. I will probably do this sometime in May 2019 (which is about a year since Seven Turns came out.)

On some level, it feels like I’m accepting defeat, but I’m not, really. I just don’t want to leave my readers waiting too much longer for the sequel to Seven Turns. My pride isn’t as important to me as loyalty to my readers – they’ve earned it! That’s the only thing of which I am absolutely certain.

I am fully aware that the second I hit that “Publish” button over at IngramSpark, I will turn to check my inbox and see I’ve just received an offer of representation. Because of course I will. Murphy is a real jerk, sometimes! OK all the time. Maybe I’ll kill him off in my next book.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep gathering data and polishing my querying skills so that someday when I finish this series and start a new one, I will – as I am still determined to – obtain agent representation.

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