WIP: Out of My Mind(s)

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I had a professor in college who was amazed that it was possible for Wallace Stevens, arguably one of the best American poets of the twentieth century, to have worked for an insurance company by day.  “An insurance company!  Probably the most unimaginative, un-poetic career on the planet!”

(We can split hairs here if we choose, since Stevens was actually an attorney who eventually wound up as vice president of The Hartford, but the point is well taken.  No offense meant to anyone who actually works for an insurance company, though, since I know firsthand that such jobs can be fascinating.)


Regardless of what he did for a living, Wallace Stevens the poet was fascinated with the workings of the imagination.  In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” he writes,

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.  (lines 4-6)

I’m not going to get into an analysis of the poem, but I thought of those lines tonight as I was pondering the differences between academic writing and creative writing, and the two minds that produce them.  A fellow writer, to whom I had jotted a note saying her work ethic and word-count successes had inspired me, wrote back and said, “You’re a writing teacher!  I bow to you!”

I got a giggle out of that.  Please . . please . . don’t bow to me.  I don’t deserve it.

I’m not sure what Stevens was actually referring to with his “three minds” –and I’m not going to get into Freudian theory or Taoist possibilities here—but I am going to guess, simply because he was a writer, that I know what two of them were, because writers in general are of two minds:  the “Me” and the “Muse.”

That is to say, the mind of the conscious writer (aka one’s “Me,” the Left Brain, the logical side, driven by one’s Inner Editor) and the mind of the subconscious writer (aka one’s Muse, the Right Brain, the creative side, driven—one hopes, anyway—by one’s imagination).

Stevens may have been an insurance agent (or a lawyer or a vice president or whatever) during his working hours, but outside of work, he was a poet.  And his fascination with the imagination—where ideas come from—is something that turns up in a lot of his work.

In “Study of Two Pears,” he was frustrated because no matter how he tried to metaphorize them, they stubbornly remained pears:

     They are not viols,

     Nudes or bottles.

     They resemble nothing else.  (lines 1-3)

I would argue that when he wrote that poem, his Me was in control.  But when he wrote (the much later) “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together,” his Muse could barely be contained:

     These lozenges are nailed-up lattices.

     The owl sits humped.  It has a hundred eyes.

The title tells the story:  He didn’t even know who was writing it.  That’s how the Muse works.

I understand that.

My “Me” is a well-organized sort of person, at least where her work ethic is concerned.  For instance, she likes to have all her ducks neatly in a row before the semester begins.  I could tell you, right this second, precisely what my classes will be doing on any random day you pick during the coming fall semester.  November 6th?  Yep, it’s already planned.

But that’s work.  And it works fine for academic writing as well, where one must be linear and methodical.

In contrast, as a creative writer, I’m a pantser, which means I tend to write by the seat of my pants, i.e. with a minimum of planning.  This is because my creative writing—my fiction—is driven by, and on good days is mostly written by, my Muse, and my Muse does.  Not.  Like.  Planning.


When I go back and read material I wrote yesterday, I’ll be able to tell you, with no trouble at all, whether my Muse was at work, or my Me.  My Me tends to be pedantic and detail-oriented.  My Me insists on explaining things, and she’s also overly fond of Telling, rather than Showing.  She Tells every single boring detail she can think of.  A character pours a cup of coffee, puts the pot back where it belongs, walks to the door, turns the knob, opens it, steps outside, closes it . . . You get the idea.


My Muse, on the other hand, leaps all over the place like a dragonfly or a hummingbird.  Zip, zip, zip.  When she’s off and running, it’s all my fingers can do to keep up.  Stories go in directions I’d never thought of before, much less planned.  Characters take on lives of their own.

Trouble is, she isn’t all that reliable at showing up for work.

One of my toughest jobs as a writer is to learn to get in contact with my Muse, to convince her that when I place my fingers on the keyboard, that’s a cue for her to show up and get down to business.  But this week, for instance, she’s been off zipping around somewhere else and has barely stopped by even to say hello.

I’ve been told that it’s only after you get the first draft down that you should let your Me step in and do any editing.  I’m just now beginning to understand the reasoning behind that rule.  There are two very different minds at work.  The Muse gets the draft down.  It’s spotty and flawed and it makes my Inner Editor cringe.  But she’ll get her turn too.


Assuming I don’t lose my mind.

WIP: Working at a Snail’s Pace


This week’s been a bit of a struggle, WIP-wise.  I guess that’s what I get for being so smug about last week’s accomplishments.

My deal with myself is supposed to be that I will write every day—write new material without getting lost in revision and without scooting off into Google-land every time I have a question.  The deal is supposed to be “No research, no planning, no revision, just writing.”

But I didn’t do so well on that this week.  I did a lot of revision.  I did a lot of planning.  And I spent a heck of a lot of time in Google-land.  But actual writing of new material, not so much.  Only four days of actual writing for a total of less than 2500 words for the whole week.  I console myself with the knowledge that I did work on a different story every day, and that most of that work was actually pretty useful.

Writing-wise, the first draft of Eddie’s story is now finished, and I’m truly happy with it.  It was for this story that I spent all that time in Google-land (it’s set in Belgium during WW2), but the time spent was well worth it.  The story wound up taking a couple of twists I wasn’t expecting (don’t you love when that happens?), and they set up some great potential for Chatón’s (his daughter’s) story, which up until this week I had barely even begun to think about.  Now I can’t wait for her name to come up!

Planning:  I did scene cards (a Holly Lisle tactic that my Muse usually balks at) for Emma’s story.  Emma’s and Chatón’s stories are the only two I haven’t even begun drafting yet, and this is the second time Emma’s has come up in the past couple of weeks.  Last time, I did a lot of character and story development, and now, with the scene cards, I think I’ve reached a point where the next time it comes up, I should be able to pound out a good couple thousand words on it–or maybe even get the whole draft done, who knows?  I’m really excited about this one, too.

I also got some revising done on Amelia’s and Tanna’s stories this week, but not as much as I would have liked.  Amelia’s in particular needs some serious cutting.  So now that my Muse has decided she’s willing to do the scene card thing, I think I’ll go back and re-plot Amelia’s story and see what can come out and what just needs tightening.

And finally, John’s story underwent some serious re-conceptualizing this week based on another of Holly’s methods, the Shadow Room, which provided me with a couple of surprising conflicts I hadn’t originally planned on.  Those are going to be fun to write, too.

So all in all, it looks like I’m still on track to have the novel’s entire first draft completed by September 15, as planned.  I may be working at a snail’s pace, but slow and steady wins the race.

Looks like it’s been a pretty productive week after all!

WIP: What a Good Week Looks Like

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I’m behind in the Pot Luck department, and I apologize.  But I’m also going to be behind in the WIP department too if I play catch-up first.  So, today, more or less on time, I’m doing WIP.

And there’s plenty of WIP to talk about.  It’s been a great week!  My Tupperware container (see my WIP post on Job Jar:  “Who’d a Thunk It?”) has become my friend.  Such a friend, in fact, that I’ve taken to calling it Tup.

Thanks to Tup, I’ve made substantial progress on the novel since my last WIP post.  The day I printed out the Eighteen Crossroads ms, I had just under 55,000 words.  Today, I have just under 61,000.  For some writers, six thousand words in ten days isn’t a lot—and even for me, I suppose it isn’t.  I mean, it does only break down to a rather piffling 600 words a day.  But what I’ve done in the past ten days is manage to send my Inner Editor on (what I hope will be a very long) vacation and get my butt in the chair and write.

Every.  Single.  Day.

And that’s not piffle.

In addition to the Butt-in-Chair success, another reason the 600 words a day pleases me so much is that it doesn’t all represent actual writing, since some of what I’ve done this week is revision.  Not the kind of procrastinating, time-wasting revision I so often used to find myself doing, but some very effective revision.  I remind myself that what I have here is a net 600 words a day.

I’m aware that many writing gurus eschew revision while one is still working on a first draft; Holly Lisle is one of them, and I have great respect for her and her methods.  But those gurus’ primary concern, I think, is with writers getting bogged down in unnecessary revision, whereas the revision I’ve done this week, far from bogging me down, has helped to move the book forward, so I’m pretty dang pleased about it.

I’ve also added fairly considerably to four stories this week (Josef’s, Tessa’s, Amelia’s, and John’s) and started three entirely new ones (Stan’s and Daphne’s, both of which I’d been planning for years but had never been able to force myself to sit down and actually start writing before Tup came along, plus an entirely new one for Tanna, which I had never planned to write at all), and I’ve also made substantial headway in my planning for Emma’s and Chatón’s, which are the only two left that I haven’t actually started writing.

But wait, that’s not all!  I also received my copy of The Adventure of Creation this week, and have been reading that, too.  And I haven’t read a single story yet that doesn’t make me feel very, very honored to have had one of my own chosen to be part of this collection.

Oh, yeah.  It’s been a good, good week.

WIP: Dilemmas

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I went to Fed-Ex Kinko’s the other day and had them print out a hard copy of the Eighteen Crossroads draft, which is currently 178 pages long (just under 55,000 words).  This was not a task I wanted to do at home, since I wasn’t sure my printer could handle it, and in any event, I knew I wouldn’t have enough ink.

I handed my flash drive to the girl at the counter, and she asked if I wanted single- or double-sided pages.

I hadn’t realized printing this thing would present me with dilemmas.

Double-sided printing would make it look and feel more like a real book.  It was tempting.  But it’s not a book yet—it’s only a working draft (and an unfinished one at that), and I was printing it, after all, to work on it.

Single-sided, I said.

Then she asked if I wanted it bound.  Again, it was tempting; binding it, of course, would make it look and feel like a real book.  But again, I hesitated.  Remember your purpose here, I told myself.  But I pictured a box full of loose pages and knew that would be potentially even worse.

So I had her three-hole punch it and stick it in a loose-leaf binder.  (It’s a binder, right?  So it’s bound.)

I’ve been carrying this thing pretty much everywhere with me all week, and have been reading it just as if I were reading a real book—which means I’ve been interacting with it, interrogating it, engaging with it, and sometimes talking to it, either in writing (I always read with a pen in hand) or out loud.

It has a lot of good spots in it. . .  And a lot that aren’t so good.  Printing on one side was a good idea, it turns out, because in addition to writing in the margins as I usually do, I’ve been using the blank sides of the facing pages to write notes.

Lots and lots of notes.  In fact, that’s the only writing I’ve done this week.

There are only a few stories that aren’t drafted yet, and I wanted to get a feel for exactly where the novel as a whole was at before writing them.  Where am I now, and where do I need to go?  What do these so-far-unwritten stories need to do, in order for the novel to maintain (or even achieve) the coherence I want it to have?

A conventional novel, one that starts with a beginning and moves logically (and at least fairly linearly) toward a conclusion, generally has a pretty identifiable coherence to it.  But Eighteen Crossroads isn’t a conventional novel, and I’m finding it trickier to identify the degree to which the necessary elements are clicking together the way they’re supposed to.  The novel as a whole should certainly have an overall coherence, yes, but as this is a collection of short stories that also need to be able to stand alone, this is not a single linear story, and it’s not supposed to be.  Each stand-alone is a sort of vignette from an individual life, and collectively, they also have a larger meaning, a significance that reaches beyond this particular family.

Or that’s the plan, anyway.  And I’ve been surprised at the places where the book so far does, and does not, seem to be achieving the goals I’ve set for it.

There have been other surprises this week as well.  More than anything, I’ve been surprised to discover that reading the hard copy is different from reading the electronic copy I’ve been working with on my computer screen.  That is to say, I read differently, and I react differently to what I’m reading.  The story I thought was going to need the most revision, for instance, turns out in hard copy to be one of my favorites.  And the one that’s been my favorite all along is going to need more revision than I’d thought.

This “bound” hard copy, all in all, is a very different manuscript from the electronic one I’ve been writing.

And this made me wonder—with the popularity of e-books, of Kindles and Nooks and whatever other e-readers are out there on the rise, will people read differently?  Do they already?  And if so, in what way(s) do they read differently, and will writers need to find a way to accommodate this new way of reading?  Should the hard copy and the e-copy of a book differ somehow, and if so, how?  Does the advent of the e-book create dilemmas not just in publishing, but also for writing itself?

Suddenly my dilemma about going with one-sided pages or double-sided pages pales in the face of the questions that arise as I read and annotate the draft.

I don’t have a Nook or a Kindle, but I’d be very interested in getting feedback from people who do.  Have you found your reading habits changing in any way with the e-reader?  Do you enjoy books more, or less, now that you’ve made the switch?  Do you still read hard-copy (that is, printed) books, or have you made a complete transition to electronic reading?  And most particularly, can you think of any books that you’ve read in both print and e-book form, and what differences, if any, did you find in your reading experiences?

I hope you’ll take a minute to share your thoughts.  I really want to know!

WIP: Magic


What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. –Carl Sagan, from “The Persistence of Memory” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan

Among my very earliest memories is a vivid image of my best friend and next door neighbor, Monica (then known as Mickey) and me drawing pictures of cats. In order to draw a cat (the way I first drew them as a child), I started with an M. The M was its ears.

The point is, I knew what an M was.

We must have been about three at that point, maybe four. I know I was less than five, because when I was five, we moved away.

This means I could write an M before I could draw a cat, and though this fact may not be enormously surprising (as my name, after all, begins with an M), it does emphasize the point I’m trying to make, which is that writing, in my life, has such early roots that I don’t remember learning to do it.

Similarly, I don’t really remember learning to read. I can’t recall a time when I couldn’t. As an only child, I often found books to be my best company, and from the time I could read by myself, I read everything I could get my hands on. Books, to me, were windows into worlds I would never see. Worlds their authors saw and wanted to share. Some of my favorites were Carolyn Hayward’s “Little Eddie” series and all the Beverly Cleary books in the third grade; Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret along with all the Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry books in the fourth, which was also when I scandalized the PTA by doing a book report for school on Arthur Hailey’s Airport; and Sid Fleishmann’s, Joan Aiken’s, and Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books in the fifth.

And the more I read, the more I wanted to write. Not just physical writing–printing or cursive–but writing as the transmission of ideas and the creation of worlds.

It was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Harrow, who got me started. Her specialty, fortuitously, was creative writing, and every Friday, she would post a full-page photo from Life Magazine on the board, folding it over to hide a crucial detail, and have us write a story that would complete the picture. In another exercise, she once provided a long list of items and asked us to pick three of them and write a story about how we would survive on a desert island with just those items. I recall one that I picked was a hubcap, which I proposed to use as a plate.

I may not remember much of anything else from fifth grade (so I’m probably not smarter than a fifth grader), but I do remember the writing assignments.

Mrs. Harrow liked my stories a lot, but found them frustrating because they rarely had endings. I had such trouble with endings in those days that she called my mom in for a conference to discuss it, thinking there must be some deep-seated psychological reason for it. I don’t remember if there was, or what solution they came up with, but my first complete story—a ten-page mystery-suspense short titled “The Intruder”— was the product of it. It was the first story I’d ever finished. Mrs. Harrow was quite pleased with it, and so was I. Being a pack rat, I probably still have it here somewhere, still buckled into its navy blue folder.

I still have trouble with endings—and sometimes beginnings and middles as well—but if I’m patient and keep my mind open, the ideas come.

Where do they come from? Where does writing come from? As I write the words on the page right now, what intellectual or imaginative force is at work to create a sentence, to transmit an idea?

I don’t know. It must be magic.

WIP: Who’d a Thunk It?


When my kids were small, we lived in a constant state of clutter. Most moms can probably understand this. Not pigsty clutter, just three-little-kids-and-not-enough-time clutter. I was a full-time student, and to be honest, raising three little boys really is like nailing Jello to a tree. But over time, I came up with a couple of fabulous fixes for the perpetual problem of trying to keep the house clean.

One of them was Job Jar. I confess, the idea wasn’t my own—I found it in my beloved Mother’s Almanac (by Marguerite Kelly and Elia Parsons, 1975), which was, and in my opinion continues to be, the most useful parenting book in the history of publishing, though it’s unfortunately now out of print. The concept is simple: On Saturday morning (or whenever you feel like it), you make a list of all the household chores that need to be done. Write each job on a separate little slip of paper, fold them up, and put them in a jar (or fishbowl, hat, cereal bowl, whatever’s handy). Starting with the youngest family member, have each participant choose one slip at a time until the bowl is empty. Nobody can open their slips until they’ve all been handed out. After the hilarity dies down (“OMG, Tyler’s gonna mop the floor? He’s THREE!”), each person does whatever jobs are on the slips s/he has chosen.

Oh yes, that’s for real. I will never forget the time Tyler got to mop the floor.

There was something about Job Jar that made my kids almost enjoy it. It made work into a game.

It also resulted in quality family time instead of trauma and threats, and it taught the kids to do all kinds of things, and it lessened my own burden. I saw no reason why boys shouldn’t know how to do laundry, dust, vacuum, mop, wash dishes, clean grout, wash windows, scour sinks. All of it.

Of course I had to accept that not all of the jobs would be done perfectly. Most of them weren’t done perfectly, in fact. Expectations of perfection went out the window. But the time Tyler got to mop the floor, though it wasn’t perfect, he was pleased with himself, and it got done again the following week.

And the house always wound up cleaner than it started.

You are wondering, no doubt, what all of this has to do with writing. This is WIP Day, after all.

Here it is: I’ve mentioned before that I have Real Issues with Butt-in-Chair Syndrome. My WIP is a composite novel, aka a short story cycle. It’s comprised of eighteen stories, each told from a different protagonist’s point of view. Several stories are finished (or as finished as they’re going to get until I have a complete first draft); a couple are complete but in need of major revisions; several are started but stuck; and a few aren’t even started, though I do know the plot basics.

When I sit down to write, however good my intentions might be, I often don’t know where to begin or which story to work on. I often go back to my default (research is my default—one can never know too much) while I wait for inspiration to strike.

Waiting for inspiration to strike is a profoundly unprofessional way to write, I’m told. But on Saturday it stuck in a very unexpected way.

I remembered Job Jar.

And I thought, Well, why not?

First, I made a list of the characters whose stories are stuck or aren’t written yet. (I didn’t include those that are in any way complete.) I wrote each name on a separate slip of paper and folded them up, and then, lacking a jar, I put them in a Tupperware container. Then I asked my husband to pick one, so I couldn’t cheat.

Of course he asked what I was doing.

I explained my plan to him: I would set a timer for ten minutes, and focusing on that character’s story, I would write until the timer went off. No prep, no planning, no research. Just writing. Ten minutes at a time. Butt In Chair.

I thought it sounded great. But he saw a snag.

“You’re not going to like the one I pick,” he said. “You’ll just put it back and tell me to pick a different one.”

I promised I wouldn’t.

So he reached in and pulled one out.

The one he picked was one of the “stuck” stories. And he was right—I was tempted to tell him to pick again. But I’d made a promise, so I sat down and opened the file on my laptop, read it through, and started fiddling.

And forgot all about the timer. It never even made it out of the kitchen.

Which is just as well, because far from spending only ten minutes on it, I wound up writing into the wee hours of that night. And it was writing I was happy with. By the time I went to bed, the story had taken a direction I hadn’t expected, and it now has a purpose beyond what I had originally planned for it.

It’s still not done, but it’s no longer stuck—I know where it’s going, even if I don’t know yet exactly where it will end up. And I can’t wait to get back to it.

So yeah, Job Jar. Who’d a thunk it?

What do you do when you’re suffering from Butt-in-Chair Syndrome? Any ideas to share?

WIP: Bending the Rules

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Aristotle, in his Poetics, argued for what are frequently referred to as the Unities. There are three:

• The unity of Action, which argues, in essence, that a work should trace the development of a single central action or purpose. It’s like the argument that an essay should stay focused on its thesis: Every part of a work should contribute to the development of its central idea, and there should be no subplots that are not directly relevant to the central action.

• The unity of Place, which decrees that a work’s action will occupy a single geographical location.

• And the unity of Time, which decrees that all of a work’s action will take place within a 24-hour period.

Eighteen Crossroads defies all of these “rules.” For starters, there are eighteen protagonists. Not one. Eighteen. Nearly all of the stories are written in the first person, and they all involve a variety of subplots that are not always clearly relevant—in fact, are quite often, and quite intentionally, not clearly relevant—to the novel’s central theme. That’s Strike One.

Strike Two: There is no apparent Unity of Place. The stories are set not just in New Jersey, Michigan, Florida, and California, but also in Poland. The “Unity of Place” in this novel is not a geographical location.

And as for Strike Three, there is also no Unity of Time, as the novel’s action (or rather, actions, since there are many) take place over a span, not of twenty-four hours, but of a hundred years. To make things worse, third-generation characters are quite often older than first-generation characters, and the youngest person in the book, so far, is a second-generation character.

All of this seeming confusion is intentional, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t spent some little time worrying about my work’s failure to adhere to Aristotle’s Unities.

I console myself with the reminder that Aristotle also said, “the structural union of the parts [must be] such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed” (http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ari/poe/poe09.htm).

None of the parts of the book can be displaced or removed without disjointing and disturbing the whole. Each story matters, as each member of any family matters to that family. In that sense, it adheres to all of the unities–and so it is from this position that I justify the existence of this novel in its present seemingly dis-unified form. I’m not actually breaking the rules–just bending them a little.

I always was a bit of a rebel.

WIP: The Dilemma of Arrangement

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I’ve spent part of the past several days putting all of the Eighteen Crossroads stories into a single document. WIP-ing it into shape, you know. Seems like a simple enough task, right?


First, it took me two days to find and collect all of the most recent versions of the stories. I’m an inveterate reviser, so there are multiple versions of each story, and I’m obsessive about saving them all. Fortunately, I do date each one, but this leads to a second problem: Having had to completely re-image my computer not once but twice in the past year and a half, I’m downright phobic about losing content. I don’t ever want to be one of those people sitting with her head in her hands in front of a computer screen blinking “Novel not found.” So I back up my backups, and then I back those up just to be sure. In addition to two different computers’ hard drives, my work is also saved to four different flash drives.

Did I say obsessed? Yes.

And the most recent version of a particular story is not necessarily on the same flash drive as the most recent version of another story. Backing things up, I’m good at. Logical systems of organization, not so much.

Backups can create havoc. I really need a better system.

But I did eventually find everything. I’ve always kept the stories in a folder that orders them by generation: Each document is titled Gen 1, Gen 2, or Gen 3, followed by the character’s name and/or the title of the story (if it has one yet), plus the date of the revision, like this: GEN 1 Aniela 6-15-13. The computer alphabetizes the stories by document name, of course, but I’ve always vaguely planned to order them by birth year, Gen 1 first, then Gen 2, then Gen 3, in the final version.

Key word: VAGUELY.

But the plan seemed logical enough, so I’ve never questioned it. However, in putting the MS together this weekend, I discovered it won’t work. There are spoilers in some of the earlier stories that would ruin the later ones long before my readers got to them.

So OK, let’s try Plan B.

I decided to put the stories in chronological order according to the year in which each one takes place. Again, this seemed logical. But this plan revealed problems of its own, since it will mix up the generations, and it also creates some organizational nightmares. For instance, one story occurs in 2006, but the bulk of its content is a flashback set in 1941. So does it belong chronologically in 2006, or 1941?


On to Plan C: Pull a Louise Erdrich. Place the stories in whatever order is most logical to me personally, and let the reader figure out who’s who and what’s what. (But for me, Love Medicine is what author Holly Lisle calls a “throw-across-the-room” book. It’s not that I hate it—it’s brilliantly written—but I still struggle to figure out the relationships and the time lines in that book, and I don’t want my readers having the same reaction to mine!)

Ultimately, I left the document in its Plan B stage, but I know it won’t stay that way.

I realize that no one who hasn’t read all of the MS (and so far, nobody has, because the first draft isn’t complete) can give me advice on how to order the stories, but I am REALLY FRUSTRATED right now and I just needed to get this off my chest.

Nothing worth doing is ever easy, right?

What problems have you run into as you write? How do you solve them?

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