Critiquing myself

I grew up as a bookworm, constantly reading. My parents sometimes claimed that I spent my entire childhood with my nose in a book. But I didn’t learn how to read until I was five, so books had to have pictures in them before that time so I could make up the stories in my head. Essentially, I was withdrawing from the world and not learning how to deal with it. My parents did not mind if I read, just not all of my waking hours.

For me reading was entertaining and so was learning obscure facts from books. I recall hours spent reading our set of World Book encyclopedias. I checked out library books as often as I could. However, the real reading adventure occurred when we moved to another state. We leased the house of an education professor, and I found his personal library on an enclosed porch. The limerick book was amusing for a while. Gulliver’s Travels was a bit of a challenge. I thought that I understood most of that book, but did not discern the politics it portrayed.  

The time spent reading books was only as good as the books. My idea of a quality book changed over time. My choices morphed to more realism. I turned from the exciting, yet predictable adventures that I read as a young adolescent. I expected to learn more from reading and enjoyed a well written biography, or factual book as much as fiction. There are only so many fiction plots, and I have become more demanding of excellence in writing in the fictional realm.

The short stories I wrote in college were based on fables. However, the best one turned out to be very similar to my brief infatuation with a student who had promising ability as a great musician but would never become one. In my late twenties I started writing a novel based on my own experience in art school, and faltered for lack of a cohesive plot. My life simply did not have the exciting people and events that interesting books required. When my children were young I started writing short stories. I soon discovered that plots ripped straight from my own life were best and won contests.

Now I find myself at a crossroads. I hear people extol the popularity of mysteries, suspense and thrillers, or whatever one calls an action packed book where the hero tracks down a murderous villain, while dodging dangers. These are types of books I rarely read now, since I found myself repeating the same stories. I wish to take another direction in reading and also in writing. 

So, thirty years after I started writing, I realized the wonderful, imaginary things I wanted to put in the stories didn’t work as well as real life situations that took on my own perspective of the world. Character driven stories are time consuming and not easy to write, or easy to end. The only villain to conquer is the character’s drive to reach a worthy goal, one for which they are willing to sacrifice. Writing itself becomes a sacrifice, but still provides enough joy for me not to give up on it.

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Uncontrollable Characters

Some authors claim that characters live in the their head, sometimes ignore their directives and even argue with what the author has planned for them to do. The difficulty with capturing real characters is the finite number of words in a book. The reader has only a short period of time to become acquainted with the character before the action starts.

There is an easy way to do this. Describe the main character as a tall, muscular, fearless, and impatient man that speaks four different languages, has a preference for blonds and BMWs, and a severe allergy to peanuts. Then, there is the better way–write the narrative in a manner so the reader can observe the character, follow what he does, see how he reacts, hear what others say about him, and even listen to what he thinks about other characters.

The next challenge is embellishing all the other less important characters, which is necessary unless you are writing a new version of Robinson Caruso. You cannot create them all with the same detailed development reserved for the main characters unless you want to drive your readers up a wall. Simply naming each character is confusing. We only want to spend the mental energy to keep track of the names of a few major characters and their sidekicks. Each minor character who is seen repeatedly should still have a bit of individuality, like a quirk in behavior or a physical trait to make them distinguishable from the others.

So here are some usable shortcuts to creating characters:

Archetype–the embodiment of a collective set of characteristics for universal types of humans. Archetypes include the mentor, a wise old man or woman willing to share their wisdom with the hero, or the trickster, a lively character whose loyalty is always suspect.  Archetypes must be fleshed out with details to make them unique and different from other characters who are the same archetype, otherwise they are simply a stereotype.

Doppelganger–a character who looks identical to a main character. The doppelganger can be an empathetic companion or an evil twin. Technically the doppelganger is an archetype, but their traits may be the same or opposite of their spitting image. They don’t have the boundaries of other archetypes.

Foil–a character who is pretty much the opposite of another, usually the protagonist. For example, a clumsy, shy foil would make your protagonist seem suave and cosmopolitan.

Semi-round character–a partially developed character that has a contradictory trait or two to keep them from being flat and boring, such as an actor with stage fright.

Creating complex characters for the protagonist, the antagonist and their cohorts is usually both more difficult and more satisfying for the writer and the reader. Of course, some readers would rather simply be told what each character is like and they actually enjoy major characters who are stereotypes. Flat main characters are predictable and do not require any close observation or deep thought while reading. As a writer you have to decide who you are writing for and if you can live with your decision.

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Twisted Wit

During my lifetime I have noticed a shift in the focus of humor–laughs are no longer based on situations but humorous conversations. Wise-cracking retorts are funnier than amusing events. In fact, often the events would be minimal. 

The sitcom Seinfeld became a standard in comedy TV programs. The creator admitted this program was based on the life of characters in which nothing much happened. Sometimes, the entire plot revolved around the character’s illusions, and was delivered with humor through clever conversations. At times the events actually struck a painful nerve. But, the audiences continued to laugh as the actors cut each other down a notch with witty retorts.

This is not the first time that ‘witty’ words have been prized over plot. Oscar Wilde, a 19th century Irish writer and poet wrote many poems, essays, short stories and plays. He achieved fame largely through his short novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his hit play, The Importance of Being Ernest. Oscar Wilde was known for his lectures on aesthetics and his epigrams, wry observations about life. An example of his wit is found in his article in the New York Tribune.

And, after all, what is a fashion? From the artistic point of view, it is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.

Epigrams are short, clever statements that have been recorded ever since Ancient Greece. Each culture has its own kind of humor but there are some basic devices:

Paradox, like Wilde’s quip about fashion,  states an apparent contradiction or incongruity that on second glance may actually be true. Wilde is also quoted as saying the following concerning one of his critics in The New-York Herald:

If it took Labouchere three columns to prove that I was forgotten, then there is no difference between fame and obscurity.

A litote is a rhetorical device that uses a negative to discreetly mention something that is not particularly pleasant without being too critical. As Oscar Wilde write one in The Birthday of the Infanta.

He is really not so ugly after all, provided, of course, that one shuts one’s eyes, and does not look at him.

Euphemisms are softened ways of describing what we fear, such as death, or discussing inappropriate matters, like sex and violence, in public. Similar to a litote, a euphemism underplays the impact and true meaning of words. Oscar Wilde created his own euphemism in The Nihilist.

Experience, the name men give to their mistakes.

Satire is a type of parody which ridicules the follies of society by seeming to imitate real things, but not quite. Satire can also be leveled against work of art and fiction and especially other writers. Familiarity with Shakespeare’s monologue from As You Like It makes the satirical restatement by Oscar Wilde more cutting.

 The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.

In each case there is a play on words where ordinary wisdom is twisted into a new meaning in a way that seems humorous, at least on the surface. But, the underlying meaning may end up being as bitter as Oscar Wilde’s own end.

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A Classic Error

What do we have to lose when we consume only recent novels that bring wealth and prestige to the authors? As authors, we may think that is the one way to learn the path to success as a writer. The works of prior centuries do not seem applicable to current audiences.  Also, they are a lot harder to read, as the majority of current best sellers are written around a six-grade reading level. So what do we lose by not reading older works that have withstood the test of time?

Perhaps we are robbing ourselves of the chance to increase empathy and social skills. Being able to grasp the mental state of other people is valuable for functioning in society. Researchers and scientists are eager to learn more about what contributes to this skill. Surprisingly, two recent studies show that reading literary fiction increases these abilities.

Kidd and Castano, researchers from the New School for Social Research (2013) discovered that reading literary fiction increase people’s ability to understand that others have differing beliefs, values, goals and desires. Individuals who choose to read this kind of fiction  were often more able to empathize with others and understand the world from their perspective. These researchers conducted experiments to test participant’s accuracy in identifying the emotions of others after they had been reading popular fiction, nonfiction, literary texts or nothing at all. They found those that had read literary texts were able to more accurately identify the emotions than those who had been reading popular fiction or nonfiction.

So what exactly is the difference between popular fiction and literature?

According to the literary theory put forward by Roland Barthe, fictional text is divided into two types. He describes “readerly” text as that in which the reader is mostly passive, and does not have to make much effort to understand the text. This type of text is largely entertaining and the author tells you what you are experiencing. On the other hand “writerly” text requires the reader to engage with the writer. This text means are greater effort is necessary to read and comprehend the meaning.

You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.

Emanuele Castano

We tend to see ‘readerly’ more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way.

David Comer Kidd

Of course, there is not a rigid line between popular fiction and literature. However, literature is usually marked by an in depth focus on characters’ inner feelings and thoughts. Also, characters tend not to remain static so the reader has to make an effort, and construct their own frame of reference to understand them. This is work that we may not want to do all of the time, but we should be willing to make this effort more often if we also want to produce writing that helps people understand the feelings of others and share their own deepest desire for humanity.

[1] Kidd, D.C. and Emanuele C., “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” Science 18 October 2013 Vol. 342 no. 6156 pp. 377-380, Published Online October 3 2013
[2] Barthe, R. The Pleasure of the Text. Straus and Giroux, Inc. Originally published in French as Le Plaisir du texte 1973 by Editions du Seuil, Paris
[3] Greenfieldboyce, N. “Want To Read Others’ Thoughts? Try Reading Literary Fiction” NPR. October 04, 2013 4:24 PM ET
[4] Bury, L.  “Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds”  The Guardian. Tuesday 8 October 2013 03.00 EDT
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Breaking the speed limit

A thrilling fast-paced first chapter that pulls the reader into the story does not have the power to create tension for the entire story. A dramatic, edge-of-the-seat beginning might even decrease the tension. After the first thrill is over, the following chapter drags as it introduces the reader to the necessary details about the protagonist’s life. Exciting events carry more tension if the reader cares about this character. Then, any hints at a rising problem increases a perceived threat. First, get readers invested in the main character before full-blown action starts.

The next skill to master is plotting the increasing waves of problems. They need to hit like waves hitting the shore as the tide rises. Each successive wave comes in further, but there’s a lull between each. Tension should build in a similar manner. Variation also helps to build dramatic excitement. The destination of a trap door or the conclusion to a car chase may be in question the first time this device is used. A similar situation may even carry the story forward a second time. But, after that readers start yawning if they see it again.

The way we string together words and the type of words we use contribute to the “pace” of writing. Longer sentences full of subordinate clauses make the reader work harder to understand the story. Short sentences with direct verbs are the antidote. However, few readers can stomach an entire work of short choppy bursts. Pace-changing requires knowing when the writing can be improved by putting on the brakes–to let the reader savor the experience–or by speeding up the dramatic pace. A good exercise to show how this works is to take a paragraph out of academic writing and rewrite it. Eliminate all unnecessary words and change verbs to their simplest form. For good measure, reduce all the lengthy vocabulary to the easily understood words that mean basically the same thing. The passage will move faster because the reader can actually read it at a higher speed.

Changing pace in writing can alter the level of perceived politeness. For example, use of passive verbs (regarded with disdain by many professional writers) can slow down the pace. But, this is often because it creates a style that is gentler and less accusatory than its active counterpart. “The door was left open, again,” takes no more words than “You left the door open, again.” But, it sounds less demanding. And, the more demands that are placed on the protagonist, the faster the pace.

Repetition creates poetry but doesn’t have to be confined to poems. Using the same sentence structure makes reading easier and picks up the pace. Overusing this technique marks writing as the work of an amateur. So, repetition can either move the story along or bring it to a screeching halt. If you want to add a striking cadence to prose, incorporate both repetition and changes to sentence lengths to break the monotony.

When you drive a car, alternating rapidly between the gas and brake jerks the car uncomfortably. However, a sudden change in the pace of writing does not have the same effect as a lead-foot driver. Inserting a five word sentence in the middle two long ones creates an interesting contrast. So, the best advice on the speed of writing is to not keep it the same.

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Writing Dislikeable Characters

Recently I was following a thread of writers discussing how to find names that make characters memorable. Honestly, I believe that writers should be looking at the reverse situation. It is the skillful creation of a character whose strengths and weaknesses  strike a chord of truth in the reader that make the character’s name memorable. Names like Scarlet, Sherlock, and Romeo invoke images of their fictional counterparts.

People seek out empathetic protagonists when they read. These characters are constructed so that people can relate to them and even feel an emotional connection with them. One critical thing to remember is not everybody will identify with the same kind of character, which is fortunate because I would hate to be reading about the same person over and over again. It’s fairly clear that the ideal fictional character is a mix of strengths and weaknesses—neither perfect or perfectly rotten—but it’s not as clear how to create a mix that enables people to empathize with a character.

If your characters care about no one else, readers probably will not care about them. In a recent study done at Princeton University loyalty and dependability were high on the positive characteristics that both men and women should exhibit. But, not surprisingly most of the desirable traits for males and females differed. When I compared the lists I found the following items high in both studies done with the general population and college students:

Desirable male traits

  • high self-esteem
  • strong personality
  • athletic
  • self-reliant
  • ambitious

Desirable female traits                                                                                                  

  • friendly
  • cheerful 
  • attention to appearance/attractive
  • warm/kind 
  • sensitive                                                                    

Most people in the study were fairly tolerant of people showing a trait associated with the opposite gender as long as it was positive. But, the male traits that were less acceptable were seen as downright objectionable in a female, and vice versa. So, be careful with the faults that round out your hero and/or heroine to make them more real. Readers are more likely to reject a male character that has negative traits considered feminine and more likely to condemn a female exhibiting typically male faults. So what did the researchers find as the most undesirable traits?

Most undesirable male traits  

  • shy
  • moody
  • naïve
  • melodramatic                                                                 
  • weak 
  • gullible

                                                                                                                                                                       Most undesirable female traits   

  • stubborn                                                      
  • controlling                                                          
  • cynical
  • promiscuous  
  • self-righteous
  • arrogant

Now, flip these around and apply them to the other gender. When we read about a shy, naïve, melodramatic, gullible or weak female we often don’t even think of these as faults, just minor weaknesses. You will find many male protagonists in the annals of literature that are stubborn, controlling, cynical and arrogant. Sometimes this is falsely attributed as evidence of strength. There are also a large number of men romantic leads with a checkered background of promiscuity, but only a sprinkling of female protagonists with that trait.

The challenge remains in making characters with these faults appeal to a wider audience. The key is to have the protagonist become aware of the fault and willing change, unless you want a tragic ending (like that of the moody Heathcliff) or intend to show satire (as with the naïve Candide). So, be very careful when assigning the faults listed above, because you are inviting your readers to judge your characters harshly.

Prentice, D.A, and Carranza, E. (2002) What Women and Men Should Be, Shouldn’t Be, Are Allowed to Be and Don’t Have to Be: The Contents of Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 269-281. Blackwell Publishing, USA

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Writing Imagery

What is the difference between describing details and creating imagery? Perhaps I should ask what is the difference in describing details that are exquisite and those full of boring minutia. The concept is difficult to explain because it does depend on how much that readers desire to immerse themselves in the scene. I may want my readers to see, feel, smell, hear and even taste the locale of the story. However, a passage written for all five senses can make a person dizzy. Although a sense of equilibrium is a sensation, too, I may not want that effect.

So, I decided to research what some experts in the fields of communication had to say about imagery.

Noam Chomsky, a linguist and cognitive scientist, who is known for his political involvement has examined how the public perceives advertisements. According to Chomsky:

Everyone knows that when you look at a television ad, you do not expect to get information. You expect to see delusion and imagery.

Noam Chomsky

Marshall McLuhan, was known for his communication and media theories, and particularly the application of his theories. His most famous quote is “the medium is the message.”  He wrote extensively on how marketing and advertising appeals to people. He made the following comment on the realm of politics:

Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.

Marshall McLuhan

There is a similar theme running through both of these quotes, the idea that imagery provides more than actually exists in the object or person being described.  The literary device of imagery can be defined as using words to create a mental picture. However, the mental picture is not simply what exists, but more than what exists. It is an amped up description that provides a greater intensity.

When imagery is used to describe a simple cookie dipped in tea it takes on a taste, texture and color that make it magically memorable. An  ordinary machine can become  a frightening monstrosity because imagery can be description on steroids.

Some of the techniques that move imagery to this level are comparisons known as similes and metaphors.  Similes typically deal with more superficial appearances.  For example, the sky  was filled with clouds, dark gray as slate. Metaphors typically deal with deeper structural similarities as in the sky is a vast, turbulent ocean of air.  This similarity can be stretched into complex extended metaphors. However in each case the writer is adding nuances to the description that are beyond simply what is observed. Imagery adds connotations which builds another level of perception and results in something being more appealing or distasteful than it actually is.

In the end what the reader desires is not simply to feel like they are present with the author but to be able to see the intangibles: the feelings, desires and very beliefs that drive the words on the written page. Remember the imagery in commercials: the man standing stalwart in front of the flapping flag sells stability not the candidate, and the car rushing down the open road sells freedom, rather than a brand of automobile. People do  not want to read books to show them reality, but something beyond it.

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Writing Sarcasm

The difference between satire and sarcasm makes the first one easier to express in writing. I can take a well-known trope and push it to an unreasonable extreme to create a satirical story. However, delivery of sarcastic lines often requires a tone of voice, something with an edge to it, so the recipient realizes what I am saying in a serious voice is not at all what I mean. A specific tone of voice is hard to replicate in writing.

I recall sitting with a group of women who chatted around a table. Their topic concerned what it took to be a “Southern Lady.” They based most of their storytelling yarns on their mother’s instructions while competing with each to relate the most outlandish piece of advice. Their conversation gave me some insights into writing sarcasm.

One of the women sweetly drawled, “I never could understand my mother’s bit about making sure I had on clean underwear before going on a car trip in case I was in an accident.”

Another woman added, “Me neither. If I were in a car crash and bleeding to death, I doubt anyone would be worried about how clean my underwear was.”

The first woman continued with a honeyed giggle bound to draw attention to her. “Still she would remind me every time we got in the car. Sometimes, she simply would insist that I go back in the house and put on another pair, but I would have none of that.”

“My mother would insist that I put on clean underwear, too,” a third woman chimed in. “I simply refuse to do it.”

“Intentionally wearing dirty underwear—what a great way to stand up to your mothers.” I commented.

At first, they looked confused because my tone of voice was completely dry. Finally, the third woman shot me a nasty look.

That is the difficulty with using sarcasm as humor in writing. It is a biting way of bringing attention to a lack of logic. It is a backward manner of saying what I really don’t mean. Unlike satire, a type of buffoonery used to ridicule a subject that is often not there, sarcasm almost always requires the presence of the person caught in the mistake to make sense. The inflection of a sarcastic comment is subtle. It is not accompanied with “Let me tell you about…” or the guffaws that often mark brazen attempts at humor.

Without these cues some people are unsure how to respond. Psychologist Penny Pexman from University of Calgary confirmed in her study that people are more likely to use sarcasm with their friends than strangers. She also found that children as young as five can be adept at picking up the real meaning behind facetious comments, which they evidently learn from their parents. But using sarcasm does make others think and even helps them solve problems according to research. [1]

However, studies have uncovered significant differences in use of sarcasm by country and even between regions in the United States. A whopping 20% more Northerners in the U.S. found sarcasm funnier than people from the South did. So, I suppose I shouldn’t look too harshly on the trio of “Southern” women not knowing the appropriate way to respond to sarcasm. They only needed to reply with an even more witty barb.

[1] Richard Chin, “The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right”, November 14, 2011

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Nothing New under the Sun

There have been authors for many millennia and the tools that they use have changed—from painting on stones, to drawing on animal skin, to writing with ink on paper, to using block prints and printing presses and we have electronic reproductions. The tools that remain the same are the ones in the author’s mind.

Creating a plot that has never been used before is an ultimate if not impossible challenge. That is one of the problems with being well-read. I have learned to simply surrender to using plots that have been done before. All the good ideas have been used in the past. But, some are good enough that reusing them will not hurt the story. So, I choose an old favorite design for my story and change it using details from my own life. The characters, the time frame, and the setting are current, and I even put in a twist or two that doesn’t occur in the original story, or at least the version that I know. If I keep on reading, I’ll find someone who took the same detour as I did.

We recognize writing from different periods because of the style of language and writing, not the plot. Or, do styles also get reused, too? Choose a new technique that is the latest rage in fiction, and you might find that it has been done before. Since the super lean writing that became popular (again) in the 1950’s and 60’s there has been a hunger for text that is juicier, with a little more fat on it. The third-person subjective, also known as deep POV, is designed to give the readers insights into the thoughts of the characters.

Most examples of the third-person subjective show it used during conversations. The idea is that a character cannot be trusted to say what they really mean. But, neither can the reader be trusted to figure out this covert meaning. The deep POV is an interior view, much like a first person narrator. However it differs in that events can be seen through the eyes of more than one person. Authors are advised not to “head-hop” while doing this but what exactly does this mean. I am allowing people to see into the head of more than one person . Can I only use one person’s deep POV per chapter, per page or per paragraph?

I liked the way that Virginia Woolf handled this technique in Mrs. Dalloway. I viewed the world from the inside of one character’s head for a while, at least until another character approached. After the two conversed and I gained some familiarity with the second character, the author entered their head. She passed the revelation of interior thoughts like one might pass a ball when playing a game. However, during the time that Virginia Woolf wrote, this technique was known as “stream of consciousness.”

Are we looping around to pick up techniques from the past? Is this signaling a return to the philosophizing characters of Fyodor Dostoevsky or the internal monologues of William Shakespeare?  Who knows? There really is nothing new under the sun.

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The First Steps of an Endless Journey

At times I become frustrated with aspiring young authors. They may ask questions such as ”I have this cool idea about a boy that can fly; how do I write the story?” Or they beg for even more help. “I want to be a writer; do you have any good ideas for books?” My immediate response is, “If you want to write, you have to be driven to do it.” Still, every author has to start at a less than proficient level. Just as athletes don’t walk onto the field knowing how to play their sport without years of practice, writers have to train.

Most athletes begin their career as children getting instruction from parents and school coaches. Even when the young person has lost a competition, this aspiring athlete receives feedback as a basis for their improvement. Does watching baseball a lot make you better at baseball? It does a little bit. Baseball players can mimic move by move what a professional athlete does. However, they must get onto the field and practice these moves in realistic situations to improve their game.

As a writer you are not allowed to copy exactly what somebody else does because that is known as plagiarism. So, the first step in writing is often to produce work that may follow a prompt but is based on your own idea. These early steps tend to be harder than many ever suspected. But take heart, over ninety percent of authors felt the same struggle when they first started. Even if you cannot copy another author’s work verbatim, reading it will help you learn how to write. The gist of how to write, taking the ideas in your head and reproducing them as words on a page, is learned by the act of writing. You can read a lot, but it will not help nearly as much as writing a lot.

Any creative skill does not spring completely from your imagination. It needs to be developed. Each author has their ideas on how to create a character, setting, and plot. You do not want to duplicate what they have done, but you can use their work as a springboard for coming up with your own ideas. It doesn’t really help much if you ask other authors for assistance until you have something written for them to review. Every writer must also develop techniques to maintain the discipline to keep going.

So where does a person, who really wants to write a book but doesn’t know how, go for help? The first obvious place is an institution that offers classes on writing. The instructions received there can often be deduced from books on writing. However, classes offer structure and deadlines. This second part is important for those that rely on external motivation. Also, visit the local homes of books–libraries and bookstores. They may provide books and magazines on writing with varying usefulness. These are also good places to find out about community writer’s groups. Being around other writers  may help you learn the ropes about publishing (which is constantly changing) and find a place to receive feedback on your work before you decide it is ready for publication.

All of this advice doesn’t negate the fact that writing a book still requires being driven to do so. It simply makes the first steps of an endless journey easier.

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