Tag Archives: writing

Win a Free Copy of Undead Rising–Courtesy of Rachel Caine!

My husband is awesome. He honored our first anniversary this weekend with a very modern “paper” gift: he reached out to Rachel Caine, one of my very favorite and most inspirational authors, to ask her for a letter to me, to help me get over the first-book jitters.

And she’s proven she’s my idol for a reason: she way over-delivered!

First, she sent me a very beautiful reminder to just keep trying. Here’s part of it:

 There’s no “right” way to publish. We are all blind people in a dark room, bumping into things, making mistakes, learning, moving on… I’ve written under 3 other names in my career, and had to change and reinvent myself because my books weren’t selling, until they were. It’s a hard road, with lots of twists and turns, and it can seem like it *should* be easy, but it’s only easy from the outside.

(I’m keeping the rest, just for me!)

Then, she tweeted about my book (and anniversary!) to all her fans! As a bonus, she’s giving away 5 copies of Undead Rising: Decide Your Destiny.

Undead Rising Rafflecopter giveaway

Enter to win!

And my many, many thanks to Ms. Caine and my dear sweet husband. This is the best anniversary gift I could have ever asked for!

If you aren’t already reading Caine’s books, I can’t recommend them enough. I particularly love her Weather Wardens series, though she’s most famous for her Morganville Vampires series. She’s got another book coming out soon, too!

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Filed under Undead Rising, writing

How NOT to Deal With a Bad Review

Being an author comes with a lot of challenges, but one of the hardest may be managing our own egos. Namely, having the restraint to accept that bad reviews will happen, and the wherewithal to keep yourself from trying to argue.

Because every once in awhile an author comes along, and does that, and serves as a horrific example of what can happen.

It’s like watching a train wreck sliding into the Titanic at the instant it impacts an iceberg. It’s painful to watch but you are so struck that it still is happening that you can’t look away.

His first response to the negative review (which, remember, on Goodreads means “didn’t like it,” not “literally the worst”):

“This review is not good for my business, so unless your desire is to ruin my dreams, it would mean a great deal if you could remove this review from my work and forget about it. But if it’s your desire to hurt me financially and ruin my business, then it’s understandable why you would post such a harmful review.”

In addition to responding to the review at all, this guy really screws up when he implies that this person’s review was posted out of “desire to hurt [him] financially.” What? One bad review certainly won’t be your ruin. But he’s not done. The reviewer politely responded (more politely than I would have) and explained she would not be removing her review, as is her right, and went so far as to compliment aspects of his book. But he came back again:

“Leaving a 1 star review on a book says much more about what kind of person does such a thing, and then attacks it for being “pretentious,” which is an erroneous statement that is defamation at best.”

And then it goes steeply downhill from there. Let’s be clear: a review is about the content, not the author. I mean, no one is leaving a review to just be hurtful to some stranger they’ve never met. I review every book I read; all that says about me as a person is that I read a lot, and that I like to give reviews about it. There’s no moral judgement. Also this guy has no idea what “defamation” is (hint: 100% totally not that).

This schmuck just can’t stop digging a hole, though. He goes on, for another 11 posts, with his rants getting more and more loopy. Worse, he seems to make a bit of a habit of doing this. And may have scared of this (and who knows how many other) readers from ever trying out a new, indie author. That’s just unfortunate.

Now, I commiserate with the author a smidge; I had one one-star review show up on Goodreads. It didn’t even have a review for me to nit-pick and pout over, but it had been created at the same time as like 37 other reviews. I ranted to my husband for 20 minutes, then I closed the page and went to bed and didn’t think about it anymore. And you know what? The next morning, I had two 5-star reviews.

The winds of popularity can change that fast, which is why it’s important to keep perspective. A negative review isn’t the end of the world. And even if it was disastrous for your book, remember, even failure has its values.

But there isn’t anything to be gained from acting out. In fact, it looks like this particular author’s rant lowered his Goodreads rating from a solid 4 stars to a dismal 2 (and falling) in less than two days.

This is one of those lessons it’s good to learn from watching someone else go through it.

Don’t make this guy’s mistake; have some dignity and leave reviews—especially bad ones—alone.


Filed under Publishing, writing

Inclusion as Rebellion: Adding Diversity in Fiction

Tales from Earthsea poster

It shouldn’t be surprising that Hollywood made the cast white when they made a movie version. But apparently it’s also just a really bad film.

I didn’t happen to think much of Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, but I did absolutely love the author’s afterward. In it, she talks about writing A Wizard of Earthsea in 1967, and how she ever-so-quietly tried to subvert convention. Her rebellion? The main character, Sparrowhawk, and the vast majority of the “good guy” supporting cast, are all non-white people. The people who are pale are seen as the dangerous outsiders.

She writes: “I was bucking the racist tradition, ‘making a statement’—but I made it quietly, and it went almost unnoticed.”

But LeGuin writes about how she was, is, somewhat disappointed. It seems her rebellion was a little too subtle, and didn’t attract the notice it deserved, most notably because cover artists tended to put a white person in the artwork, and apparently many readers didn’t pick up on the many small hints of the characters’ skin color. (My copy was released in 2012, and features a hawk, no people.)

She goes on to discuss the philosophical roots of her book, how the main action turns aside from battle and war, favoring instead to be a rather quiet hero’s journey of the self (which…ok. But I found it a little too detached). But I’m fixated on that concept of trying to push cultural boundaries with fiction.

The most notable and painfully glaring example is Rue from The Hunger Games. Despite many clear mentions of Rue and her companions as black characters, some movie-goers were rabidly furious when they showed up to the film and saw the (incredible, wonderful!) acting done by Amandla Stenberg. Not only were these people poor contextual readers, apparently (seeing as they missed this fact), they felt they actually had a right to be angry about a black actor being cast for a black character. It was stomach-churning.

It’s not the only example, either. Neil Gaiman makes a point of writing in non-white characters (my favorites show up in Anansi Boys) but even so, a challenge was famously issued to stop reading books by white men which prominently featured his (multicultural) book American Gods. When some readers/fans cried foul (either because they liked Mr. Gaiman or realized that the book’s character was himself nonwhite), Gaiman stepped in to say, “no, absolutely, go read those other books. Have at it.”

And if that’s not enough for you, this year’s Hugo Awards were hijacked by a group calling themselves “Sick Puppies” who felt, for whatever reason, that books featuring straight, white, men were being somehow maligned by authors who wrote other things or who themselves came from different backgrounds. They effectively rigged the awards and caused a lot of controversy. All because science fiction authors did what they are supposed to do: push cultural boundaries.

One good thing may have come from these incidents, at least: people are talking about the power of fiction in culture, the power to change culture, and the importance of inclusion. We need more stories, from more people; different stories, interesting stories. I know for my book I worked hard to create a diverse cast of background characters from different nationalities, while also working to ensure that the main character (the reader) remained gender-neutral and accessible to just about anyone who decided to pick up the book.

Do you attempt any cultural rebellions in your books or in the books you read? Do you see value in including a variety of characters of different skin colors? Or of breaking other boundaries? Let’s talk about it.

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Filed under Reading, Undead Rising, writing

Should Books Come With Trigger Warnings?

Neil Gaiman’s most recent book was a collection of short stories under the title Trigger Warning. He opened the book with a short discussion of “trigger warnings” (an internet phrase that is used to indicate that there may be objectionable or deeply troubling content to follow, to allow readers to “opt out” if they feel unprepared for it). Gaiman comes out neither for or against trigger warnings—he basically says if someone will be greatly upset by something, they do have a right to avoid it, but that sometimes it is good to introduce ourselves to troubling things, in order to grow as people—and I didn’t think too much about it beyond “hm.”
Then I read Ship of Destiny. Not to spoil too much, but there is a sudden and unexpected rape scene in the story. Much like a real rape, it occurred practically without warning. It was not a particularly graphic scene, violence-wise, but the word choices and the trauma of the victim that played out over the next several chapters deeply troubled me.
I think I would have liked to have had a trigger warning that there would be a rape in the book. I think I would have still read it—it was very well executed, sensitive to the victim, and made it clear that the villain was a deeply conflicted, messed-up person—but I would have liked some warning, so I could have emotionally prepared myself.
I struggle with rape scenes in all genres. I was interested in Girl with a Dragon Tattoo until I heard there was a graphic rape scene, and I know myself well enough to know I just can’t handle that. I had to stop watching a movie (I think it was The Missing?) because it looked like the main female character was going to be raped–I ran out of the room crying and couldn’t bear to finish.
Someone I know has told me she wishes TV shows and movies came with trigger warning-esque labels: she has a crippling anxiety about people being shot in the head after someone close to her died that way. I can’t blame her for that.
But of course, content creators may not want their work to be labeled in this way. (Publishers probably wouldn’t!) It might put off potential book-buyers. People might protest something that, if they just read it in context, would be fine. There’s a danger inherent to telling people your work might be challenging to them.
I don’t know that I feel that all books should carry a trigger warning. After all, I found Kushiel’s Dart …troubling… but it was still a great book and I’m glad to have read it. (The difference between that and Ship of Destiny? Kushiel’s Dart had lots of clear warnings about what I was getting into!)
I agree with Gaiman that sometimes we have to push our boundaries a little, and that may mean reading something we find unnerving. But I also think people do have a right to protect themselves, particularly that very delicate emotional scared place we all have.
What do you think? Would you want your book to have a trigger warning?

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How to Write a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-Style Book

In the ’70s and ’80s, a new genre in teen literature was born: the gamebook. The books, under the umbrella title of “Choose Your Own Adventure,” were the brainchild of a man named R.A. Montgomery. The interesting twist in these books was that the story was not singular: the reader would have a choice at the end of each section, with each choice directing to a new page number.

Montgomery either wrote or facilitated the production of every one of the books in the series, which is impressive, but has also meant there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in the genre. But it’s a lot of fun! So, if you want to try to write a gamebook, here are my suggestions:
Decide What Will Effect Everything
I’m a bit of a seat-of-the-pants writer, and that worked pretty well with Undead Rising, but I had to make decisions along the way. There were certain things I knew I wanted from the beginning:
  • not deciding too much about the reader (the protagonist)
  • a completely gender-neutral protagonist (which is tough! Be really careful with those pronouns!)
  • a office environment and a home environment
  • set in New York
  • it will be hard to survive
But I had to make other decisions as I went. I decided that if something existed in one storyline, it had to exist for every storyline, even if the character never encountered it. Because much of the action takes place in an office building, this mostly meant that if there is an ad agency on the top floor in some scenarios, there will always be an ad agency on the top floor. This may be something you choose to do differently! But I found it helpful to have some kind of internal consistency, both for my sake and as a hint for the reader, who may encounter something story-related in one scene that will help them in another scene.
Number Your Outcomes
Though you’ll eventually have to go back and put page numbers or links in, that’s unmanageable when you start writing. I found it was much simpler to just number each choice as I went along. With every possible solution, I put a number in front of the option (ex. #1 Go to Lunch) and then put that number also in front of the first part of that section (or in the title in Scrivner; see below). This way I could search for #1 and quickly find both the launch point and the ultimate solution.
This was also helpful when I came back later to add new outcomes. My numbering might look like: #1, #2, #15. And that is perfectly fine! The numbers are for me, not for the reader.
Write The Choices Before the Scenes
As I wrote, I would complete a scene, and then immediately write down all the options that were possible from that scene. For example, you have an option to choose a medicine when you think you’re getting sick. As soon as I wrote the scene where you are picking the medicines, I decided what I wanted all the options to be and just wrote them in. Then I immediately went and created new sections (carefully numbered) based on those choices. I didn’t necessarily fill them in right away, but I needed to a) remember that I’d created that option and b) guarantee that every option actually went somewhere. There can be no dead ends except those you intend to be stopping points! By writing the choices as soon as I finished the scenes, I made sure every option was accounted for up front.
Get Out Paper and Pen
I originally tried to keep track of each reader “path” with a digital flowchart. That was a great idea…until I quickly found out that there was just too much going on. (I broke the Google Flowchart I was using. 😦 ) It was a lot easier for me to just write it out in paper and pencil. I made notes of what each section was (using the numbers, above), a little bit about it and anything that made it particularly important, and whether it was an outcome. I also listed the choices that came out of each scenario. My notes might look something like this:
#1- Stay in or go out for lunch from office? #2 #18 #34
#2- Go out for Thai food. #14 #16 #45
Use the Right Tools
I wrote Undead Rising with Scrivner, a writing tool specifically for authors, and it was a lifesaver. Unlike Microsoft Word, Scrivner lets you create a new section for every piece of the story. This might matter a bit to typical authors, but it is critical for gamebook authors. I was able to title each section with a few words of description, so I could tell what each was at a glance. I also could easily add or rearrange sections with the simple drag-and-drop interface. So much better than having to endlessly scroll in a single document!
Scrivner’s tools also let me label sections, so I could keep track of what was blank, what needed a second pass, and what was perfect.
With these steps–and a good amount of patience–you’ll quickly have a gamebook of your very own! And then…you’ve just got to edit it…. *dun dun dun!*
Undead Rising coverWant to stick to reading gamebooks? Pick up a copy of my book, Undead Rising: Decide Your Destiny, a zombie adventure for adults!


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On the Precipice of Publication

I am almost published. It’s ridiculously close now: I’ve ordered a print proof copy that could be delivered any day now; I’ve previewed and reviewed the Kindle version; I’ve sent out advance copies for review. I could literally push a button and have it published (to Kindle) right now. 

But there are still decisions to be made: I stared at the screen with the two little buttons about DRM (digital rights management) for about 15 minutes–do I let this ebook be shared, in the spirit of print, or lock it down so I can earn more money? 

And there’s this whole new, scary arena that’s opening up: how am I going to market this? I mean, I probably should market it somehow, right, more than just occasionally tweeting about it and telling my family and friends. Thinking about it is overwhelming; I need to dust off those old marketing books.

But being here is terrifying. It’s six full months from when I first declared I was gonna do it–partially because some serious real-life things happened and sucked the energy out of me, but also because publishing, actually publishing, is game time. Can’t un-ring that bell. Have to have the thick skin in case people hate it or don’t get it or just don’t buy it. It has been a week of sleepless nights, and I haven’t even done anything yet. 

I’m both extremely excited and really afraid, like the heartbeats before the curtain rises on opening night, when you can hear the susurrus of the crowd settling in and you know this is the time you might pull a Jennifer Lawrence and fall right on your face. 

And yet I know it doesn’t mean practically anything to anyone I know: I’ve mentioned it to a few people, and the reaction is universally, “Oh? That’s nice.” Inside it feels like brass-band news, but self-publishing isn’t really the finish line anymore. That’s the thing I’ve learned the most about this process: the finish line keeps moving–First it’s “get it written.” Then it’s “make it good.” Then it’s “get it published.” Then–the finish line that is perpetually moving further back–it’s “make it popular/make money.” And then, of course, start again. 

But… the curtain’s going up. It’s showtime. Because it’s better than not trying at all


Filed under Publishing

Layout Design for eBooks vs. Print

I finished the layout process for the print draft of my book Undead Rising (woo hoo!) and then….had to work on the digital draft. I intend to release a print and digital version simultaneously, but because of the nature of my book–where the page really matters–I couldn’t just use the KDP automated tool to prepare the document. (Related: Did you know that after you upload your print book to CreateSpace, it offers to do the KDP for you automatically? Boy I wish someone had mentioned that beforehand!)
If I were printing a traditional book (rather than the kind where you turn pages to find the next bit based on your choices), the differences between print and digital may not have been as pronounced, but there are still things to think about:
  • Font: You may want to choose a different font for your digital composition. While they’re getting better and better, not all fonts are available for digital. You also want to pick something that is easy on the eyes, because digital readers can provide more eye strain (look for something with serifs, like Times New Roman–compared to the straight-edged Arial). Similarly, you may have to abandon the fancy typefaces you used in print, to make sure readers can actually read your font in digital form. (Sad, I know. Maybe one day!)
  • Page Numbers: You don’t need them for a digital book! Particularly because ereaders come with the ability to resize typeface for the reader, setting a hard page number on every page will just mess up the formatting. Take ’em off!
  • Table of Contents: Now that you don’t have reliable page numbers to tell a reader where to go, you need to swap out your ToC of page numbers to one that links directly to the start of that chapter. You can do this with Microsoft Word’s Bookmark feature, which will let readers “jump” directly to that page. It’s pretty neat.
    This is particularly important for books like mine. I don’t need or want a Table of Contents (that would kinda ruin the point!), but I do need to have lots (and lots and lots!) of working links between sections. To move to the next section, readers will just click a hyperlink–just like on a website. (The future is now!)
  • Front matter: This is a bit subjective, but you may want to reorganize your book’s front matter; the dedication, copyright page, prologue, etc. I moved some of those pages to the back of the book, because on an ereader I have very few pages to get the reader into the story, so I want to make the most use of those pages. I also doubled-up content on the copyright page, adding a “Survival Tip” exclusively for Kindle readers, to help explain the best way to read my book on that device. It’s a whole new world of book design, so it’s ok to rearrange things if you want! (You DO still need to keep the title page and the copyright page toward the front, however. But it doesn’t have to match the print 1:1.)
  • Images: If you have images in your book, you’re going to want to take extra care with them to make sure they are properly embedded in the document and don’t end up “floating” in the wrong puddle of text!
  • Reach Out: Particularly with an ebook (but also in print) you should provide the satisfied reader at the end of your book with a link or means to contact you to read more of your work! If you already have other books out, here’s your chance to drop in a referral link so they can click over and instantly read more of your stuff!
How do you find digital book layout to be different from your print version? Did you change anything?

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Publishing Nightmares: When the ‘What Ifs’ Come To Get You

I couldn’t sleep last night. It was my book, Undead Rising: Decide Your Destiny. Out of nowhere, I was just struck with this sickening realization that my book is, at its core, stupid. I mean, I knew that, all along: it’s supposed to be stupid-fun to imagine you’re being chased by zombies in New York; it’s supposed to be stupid-fun that you’re choosing what will happen next in the story, because that’s a rarity and a hefty dose of nostalgia. It’s stupid because no one really expects to have to put their zombie plan into place. In fact, I wrote it, at least in part, because it was a stupid idea that made me laugh and I had a great time doing it.

But last night, for whatever reason, I was swallowed by a tidal wave of shame. And because it was late and I was tired and fears were coming out of the depths of my brain, it ballooned. OMG, I thought. I can’t publish that. It’s not serious literature. Everyone will know me as ‘that author who writes really stupid books. I’m doomed.

I’m blessed in that I have a very forgiving husband. Because he moaned in his sleep, so I decided he was awake, so I woke him up. I told him I was going to publish a stupid book and no one would ever take me seriously ever again.

He told me it would be fine and to go back to sleep already.

This isn’t the first time he has had to talk me down from some big scary publishing fear that came out of nowhere. I keep finding more, actually. There’s a lot to be intimidated and afraid of.

I wish I could tell you that my fears were stupid by the time I woke up, but I can’t. My book is still kinda stupid. Fun, absolutely. But it will never be studied in high school English classes (and we can all be thankful for that). It’s not “serious.” But it wasn’t meant to be. There are lots of “not-serious” authors out there who nonetheless had a huge impact on readers (for example, the recently deceased Terry Pratchett. May his books be read forever.).

So it may not be bad to be a “not serious” author.

It probably won’t be the last time self-publishing wakes me up with a nightmare. What are your self-publishing fears? Why are they unfounded?


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Editing Quick Hit: Inner Monologues

Oh shit! he thought. I have no idea how a monologue should be written! What will I do?

Ah, rest easy, writer’s inner muse. I’m here to help.

Insight into a character’s mind is one of the gifts of fiction. In real life, even when someone tells us what they are thinking, they aren’t often telling us what they are really thinking. But in fiction, we can climb right into someone’s head and learn from their very thoughts. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

But how do you convey that something is an inner monologue?

First, make sure you’re in the right kind of story. Sorry, nonfiction, you’re right out: even if we have someone’s journal, we don’t know exactly what they’re thinking (don’t worry, historical fiction; you can stay). Also excluded are stories written in “third person limited”–ie., are told by an outside narrator who doesn’t have access to the thoughts and motivations of the characters. (IMPORTANT: If you switch between characters’ perspectives, do so only at a clear break, such as a chapter, so that the reader can keep up. Don’t “head hop.” If you’re in third person limited, you’re limited!)

But say you’re in first person, or third person omniscient, and someone is thinking something. How do you write it?

  • Where is she going with this, he wondered?
  • “Where is she going with this?” he wondered.
  • Where is she going with this? he wondered.

Which of the above is clearest for the reader? The last one: the change of the font gives the reader a hint, from the beginning, that something is different about this sentence. They’ll know to read it in a different “sound” than other dialogue.

On a similar note, why does the placement of that question mark matter so much? Read it aloud. English sucks for questions, because we don’t alert readers that it is, in fact, a question until the very end of the sentence. When we ask a question, we raise the tone of our voices toward the end of the sentence (when we’ve figured out it’s a question after all!). If you move that question mark to after the “he wondered,” that lift will come on “wondered” rather than on “this?” where it belongs.

Now, if there is some reason you can’t use italics in your book (I pity you greatly), it is ok to write thoughts without italics–I think it’s just the most efficient method. If you leave off the italics, try to clue the reader in some other way. For example, don’t make it dialogue:

  • He wondered where she could possibly be going with this blog post.

Or keep it as dialogue but warn the reader up front:

  • He wondered: Where is she going with this blog post? Will it ever end?

Don’t ever use quotation marks! Those are reserved for–duh!–quotations, said aloud.

Your job as the writer is to make your story as clear for the reader as possible: after all, if they’re busy trying to figure out how to say the sentence you just wrote, they’re not getting immersed in your great story.


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Filed under Editing, writing

Editing Tip: Keep the Mystery Alive

This is titled as an editing tip, but it may be more of a writing tip. However, it doesn’t really matter whether you handle this at the beginning of your writing process or during an editing phase: it is essential that you keep some things from the reader.

“What?” you’re screaming right now. “But I’m supposed to show, not tell!”

Yeah, you are. But don’t show the reader everything. They don’t really want to know everything. Mystery is one of the reasons people read stories; trying to figure out the plot of the puzzle.

I’ve seen this from many beginning authors. They get so excited about the story, the world, they’ve built in their imaginations, they just share all of it. Because it’s just SO awesome, right?

But what ends up happening is the plot gets weighed down by unnecessary, irrelevant details, the reader gets bored, and the story overall doesn’t feel very good.

Take Harry Potter, for example, all the books. JK Rowling is known for having developed a deep complexity to her world, with pages and pages and pages of notes and plans for each character. But the first book does not, say, cover every year of Harry’s life from birth until he gets picked up at Hogwarts. Nor, when he arrives, does she take the time for a luxurious tour of the castle: all we the reader get is a bit about the exterior, the Great Hall with the floating candles, some moving staircases, and a rough sketch of the tower for the Gryffindors.

Basically, she only introduces the rooms that Harry directly interacts with–and then only includes the relevant ones (no bathroom breaks in Hogwarts). And yet Hogwarts is a lush and beautiful scene that doesn’t feel at all shortchanged by these exclusions.

So, why should you leave things out of your story?

  • To get to the good stuff. Unless you’re writing an architecture book, your readers probably don’t care about all those luscious details you’ve got planned out. They want to know what’s going to happen next, not the color of the chandeliers!
  • To avoid an info-dump. It’s much more exciting to figure out the shape of a story little by little than to suddenly be told everything. If I wanted to know everything in one go, I’d read the Cliff’s Notes.
  • To protect you when/if you change your mind. Oh, you want the windows to be curved? Sorry buddy, you wrote that they were rectangular four books ago. If your book becomes popular (as you hope it will!), you’ll have everyone poring over every detail, trying to make them fit together. Just ask GRR Martin how that goes.
  • To leave room for more stories. This is actually the BEST reason: if you leave folks wanting more, you’ll have the opportunity to write (and sell) more. But that can’t happen if you spill everything in the first go! Keep some details under your hat, and you’ll continue to find more to develop.

It’s a tricky balance for sure: how do you balance juicy descriptions with holding a bit back? I can’t tell you the how or the what, unfortunately–just the why. But trust me: when you figure it out, your book will be the better for it.

Have you read anything that just over-described and gave too much away? What did it tell you about good writing?


Filed under Editing, writing