On Being Stuck

The subtitle of this post should be: thoughts on how to regain forward motion.

Here’s the thing. In the last year, I’ve finished two books with my co-writer Irene Preston and a novella set in that same world. Before I edited this paragraph, the line read “I’ve only finished…” but I took the “only” out, because a novel and two novellas are definite accomplishments. In fact, you’re probably thinking I should be happy with three completed projects, and I am.

It’s just that I could have done more.

 

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In between the finished novel/novellas, I sliced and diced an old project, trying to make it work better, and began two other stories, only to stall out every time.

That’s a lot of crap, lemme check Facebook to see if I can shake something loose.

Those stories I fizzled out on? One is almost 200 pages long, and the other is just over 100 pages. (That’s double spaced, 12-font TNR, ~ 300 words a page.) The old project I fiddled with is even longer. My point is, I’ve invested a fair amount of time, creativity, and emotion into each of these and I don’t want to see all that energy go to waste.

Any time you’re doing something creative, false starts are part of the game. I’ll get an idea, slap it down on the page, and see what comes of it. I’ve got several of those; two or three thousand words sketching out a main character along with some bullet points regarding the plot, the kind of thing I can throw together in an afternoon, then set aside to see if anything roots.

But you figure if – at best – I write 5000 words a week, it probably took me 3 months to get to 200 pages. That’s too much for me to toss aside, and while I’m one of those writers who loves the process of editing, I can’t fix what isn’t on the page.

So now you know a couple of my dirty secrets. I give up too easily and then whine about it.

Oh, and to complicate matters, I’m doing Camp NaNo this month, the abbreviated spring version of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. I committed to writing 20,000 words in the month of April. I’m at 17,600 words with three days left, which means I need to get one of these projects moving again.

 

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Basically I made this post in the hopes I’d find a way out of this pickle.  I did a google search for “how to get unstuck fiction writing”, and in the interest of helping others in the same situation, I want to share some of what I learned.

The author of an article on The Center for Fiction website said her blocks usually come from not knowing the characters well enough. She recommended doing some free writing from the main character’s point of view, asking them why they’re so pissed off. (That’s not as crazy as it might sound. Jump HERE for the full post.)

An article on the website thinkitcreative.com also recommended focusing on the characters to move the plot forward. The author here suggested working on the backstory to get insights into what could happen next. One of their ideas involved going to an online dating site to get a list of questions for the characters to answer, which kind of cracks me up, but just might work. (Jump HERE for the complete post.)

I also liked an article on the Writers Digest website, because it recommended brainstorming “what could happen next”, then choosing the option the reader is least likely to expect. The article’s second bullet point was even more succinct:

Kill someone.

Heh. Yeah. That’d definitely shake things up.

Finally, they suggested meditation, to let your mind go quiet and see what ideas wander in.  “Stillness is the native language of creativity, yet it’s astonishing how we try to avoid silence.” (Jump HERE for the full article.)

So yeah, maybe I’m not really stuck. Maybe I’m just giving my ideas more time to blossom.

Or maybe I should spend less time on Facebook, and more time exploring. I’m going to go walk the dogs and see what I can come up with. If you’ve got ideas for how to move through a block, share them in the comments. Would love to learn from you!

 

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Write With Your Nose

A fellow writer recently shared a pretty hilarious online word generator, called “What Does Your Hero Smell Like?” When you enter the name of a protagonist or love interest, it automatically generates a unique smell just for them. Some gems for my characters included Sunder, who smelled like “meat and luck” (ewwww), and Rogan, “clean sheets and wreckage” (I…kind of…like that one). The generator is obviously supposed to be humorous, but it got me thinking a little more critically about how I use the sense of smell in my writing.

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If you’ve been writing for long, you’ve probably heard advice about how to write with all five senses. But in my experience, not all senses get top billing. Sight is the obvious leader, with hearing, touch, taste and smell trailing somewhere behind. Every sense deserves to be explored to fully paint a picture of whatever story you’re trying to tell, but in my opinion, the olfactory senses hold a special place in a writer’s arsenal.

Due to the anatomy of the human brain, smell is actually closely linked to memory, more so than any other sense. (Here’s an interesting article in Psychology Today about the effect, if you’re interested to know more!) Smells are basically encoded onto our memories, so that revisiting certain smells can directly trigger those precise memories. “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences,” author, poet, and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes in her book, A Natural History of the Senses. And, for better or for worse, odors also elicit the emotions buried within those specific memories. A smell can just as easily bring back a happy memory as it can trigger something traumatic.

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So, how can you use this in your writing? The possibilities are endless, so be creative! On a  basic level–and in conjunction with the other four senses–observing ambient smells in a story can flesh out the setting. But go a little deeper. Smells can be a fantastic way to introduce flashbacks for character development–anything from the whiff of an old lover’s cologne to the scent of wood-smoke on the air to a grandmother’s dryer sheets can bring back important memories. Smells can also evoke different places and different times for POV characters, introducing the possibility of foreshadowing and/or parallel structure. When employing the objective correlative, the odors noticed by a character in a certain situation can reflect how they themselves are perceiving the world around them.

And finally, although most of us modern humans go out of our way to cover up our natural scents with deodorant, perfume, and cologne, individuals do have individual physical scents. And whatever that odor might be–nasty or nice, pungent or pleasant–finding a way to describe your fictional character’s personal smell can go a long way towards accentuating their personality, and defining their place in the world.

Please, just don’t let it be “meat and luck!”

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My Muse: New Orleans

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Last week we had an adventure. (“We” meaning me and the family.) We spent the week in New Orleans, and I’ll tell you what, I love that city. I love the history. I love the people. I love that there are so many layers and nooks and crannies and things to play with – especially when it comes to writing.

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Urn at Lafayette No. 1

Plot bunnies are easy, you know? I pretty regularly stumble over ideas that could make a decent story. Some you’ll get to read, but most never get off the dream list. The tricky part is figuring out the right setting, the one place that’ll make the story pop.

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Paddle wheeler on the Mighty Mississippi

I have to really know a place before I can write about it. (Ask me how much fun I had writing the swamp scenes in Bonfire since I’ve never spent any time in a swamp. Or maybe ask Irene how much fun she had *correcting* my misapprehensions in those scenes. There are no hills, or rocks, apparently.) I have to be able to capture the truth of a place, or some facet of that truth, to make the story believable. To do that, I tend to set my stories in one of three cities: Seattle, Los Angeles, or New Orleans.

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This house in the Garden District inspired Thaddeus Dupont’s First St. house.

Seattle’s a no-brainer because I’ve lived here for most of my life. Maybe because of that, I take the romance of the place for granted. That said, I have an upcoming super-secret project that’s set here. (More about that later!)

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Ready for a parade on St. Charles Avenue last week!

I choose Los Angles for stories because, like New Orleans, it has all kinds of angles I can work with. I don’t think anyone could capture all of L.A. in a single sentence, or even a single book. Because of that, it’s unfortunately possible to set a story there and turn it into Anytown, Anywhere, USA. It’s just so much better if you drop in a few details to bring the place alive.

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Staircase to choir loft at St. Mary’s Church – Ursuline Convent – NOLA. Imagine climbing those steps in a nun’s habit…

My sister lives in L.A., so when I need some nitty gritty factoid to get to the truth of a story, I’ll try and plan a visit. And if I don’t have the time or money for travel, she’s awesome about brainstorming-by-text. She works in The Industry, so she’s very understanding about my creative craziness.

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French Quarter courtyard.

FWIW, I didn’t have the same kind of connection with New Orleans when I started setting stories there. I’d never visited, didn’t know anyone who lived there, and tbh most of my experience with the place came via Ann Rice’s novels. That’s changed now! Last week was our second visit, and “subletting a French Quarter condo for six months” is now on my bucket list.

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You meet all kinds of people during Carnival!

Thank you for exploring NOLA with me. We had a blast last week, and if you’ve never been to New Orleans, you really must visit someday! Or, you know, you could check out my newest release, Change of Heart. It’s a historical romance set in the French Quarter in 1933, a distant prequel to the two Hours of the Night novels I co-wrote with Irene Preston. I’ll put the blurb and buy links below, just in case. Happy travels!!

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Preacher always said New Orleans was a den of sin, but of course Clarabelle had to see for herself…

A body reaps what they sow, and Clarabelle’s planted the seeds of trouble. The year is 1933, and not much else is growing in the Oklahoma dirt. Clarabelle’s gone and fallen in love with her best friend, so she figures it’s time to go out and see the world.

If she’s lucky, she’ll find the kind of girl who’ll kiss her back.

Clarabelle heads for New Orleans, and that’s where she meets Vaughn. Now, Vaughn’s as pretty as can be, but she’s hiding something. When she gets jumped by a pair of hoodlums, Clarabelle comes to her rescue and accidentally discovers her secret. She has to decide whether Vaughn is really the kind of girl for her, and though Clarabelle started out a dirt-farming Okie, Vaughn teaches her just what it means to be a lady.

Change of Heart is an Hours of the Night story, an early prequel to Vespers and Bonfire. It’s not a paranormal, but a certain vampire may have a role…

Find Change of Heart on Goodreads HERE

Available for a special pre-order price of $0.99!!

Amazon  /  Barnes & Noble  /  Kobo  /  iTunes  /  More Stores

AND, make sure you enter the giveaway to celebrate Change of Heart’s release!

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like a First Draft?

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

You’ve reached the “end” of your manuscript’s first draft. You look back over your shoulder at the smoldering wreckage of your plot, malformed narratives writhing about in a primordial soup of creativity. It’s a formless maelstrom of scenes and moments, but somewhere in all the chaos you can see the pieces for a coherent story coming together.

You smile wistfully, ready to take hold of those few shimmering pieces of plot stability and staring pulling this thing together.

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Now you’re ready to bring order to this book!

That’s about where I am right now, sifting through the first draft of my latest manuscript, THE BREWMANCER. I’m trying to find the best pieces of plot foundation to start laying down and building up the brick and mortar, wood and plaster to make a structurally sound story.

I don’t know about all of you, but I’m a pantser when I write. I basically just go with a barebones outline of the major plot points and kinda fill it in from there. That tactic, for me at least, leads to somewhat barebones first drafts that need to be beefed up in future drafts. For THE BREWMANCER, I envision the final product being about 90,000 words, and the first draft ended up at about 80,000.

That’s quite a bit more beef.

In the first draft, I did leave some scenes and chapters completely unwritten, either because they required some significant research or were difficult to write for some other reason. Fight scenes are tough for me, so on the first go I just sketch out a quick blow-by-blow of how the fight would go, then fill in the details later. A bunch of characters, places and fantastical things were left with just placeholder names, too.

Details.

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In first drafts, I usually keep details to a minimum. Details of what things looks like, details of what the characters are doing. I pretty much lay down basic settings and actions to move the plot along. I consider dialogue one of my strong points, so I try to get most of that stuff written in the first draft. I do worry too much of the plot is conveyed through dialogue, so I’ll pare some of the back in subsequent drafts and replace it with more descriptions or backstory. At the same time, I try to keep the info dumps to a minimum in each draft, but sometimes in the second or third drafts I’ll feel pressured to hit the final word count, go overboard with with backstory.

So basically first draft with too little stuff, second and third drafts with too much stuff.

The hope is to find that special sweet spot in drafts four and five.

I like to keep my drafts under five before sending it off to beta readers, and then a draft or two will come of out that feedback.

I feel like this is a strange way to draft, most people have a large and unwieldy first drafts, then pare it back – cutting scenes, side plot, or even full character POVs (I’ve done that once and it was BRUTAL)  But I’ve done my first drafts this way for my last couple of manuscripts to reasonable success. Like I said, I have the fear when I’m finished with one of these skeleton drafts I won’t be able to find enough words to get to the optimal word count, but I usually end up getting there without any superfluous plot additions and weird tangents.

Part of the reason I opt for the small structural first draft is because my first manuscript was so bloated. 180,000 words that wasn’t even really a complete story, even with that many words. I also edited each chapter as I finished it, which is something I’ll never do again. Cutting that book back by 60,000 words and still having it a gigantic mess, trying to make that first book into something remotely publishable took months just wasn’t worth it. It was good lesson because I obviously didn’t know what the hell I was doing when writing that first draft, but it also put the fear of overdrafting into me.

Now, I still have have a bunch of work to do after a first draft, but by adding in stuff I skipped over, I still feel like I’m making progress, instead of going backward. Sure, I’ll end up cutting a bunch of scenes and subplots and I’ve already had to rewrite the first few chapters because they no longer match up with the direction the story ultimately took, but it feels like progress.

It’s going to be another few more months of editing, but I think I’m in a good place with it right now.

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Welp. Better get back to work.

But before I go – how do all of you create your first drafts? Over or under draft? Edit as you go? Let me know!

 

Crutch words – Self editing

Crutch words, or phrases, plague all writers. It doesn’t matter how many books you write, you will always have words or phrases you abuse.The key to being a good writer is not being perfect, but recognizing your weaknesses and trying to fix them. And always remember, that is what editing is for.

I have published some 20+ titles between my two names and I’m still falling into the trap of crutches, so, I thought I would share a few with you. Maybe you’ll recognize some of these issues in your own writing and they’ll help.

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There are a couple that new writers will always fall into. One that’s very popular with beginner writers is having your characters releasing breaths they didn’t know they were holding. Yeah, we all hold our breath in a tense moment but it’s amazing how many fictional characters aren’t aware they’re doing it. I mean, you’d think a few would faint once in a while. An easy fix? “I released the breath I was holding.” Boom. No need to pretend you didn’t know that you weren’t breathing.

Another common crutch for new writers is “suddenly.” Suddenly often becomes redundant. “She suddenly screamed.” Right, as opposed to gradually screaming? “He suddenly burst into the room.” When is bursting ever not sudden? See how you can eliminate the word without hurting the action? Slice and dice that word from your MS.

Now, here are a few from my current WIP that I, and a few of my writing friends, all admit to using.

  • Just.

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This is an actual note from my editor after she line-edited this book. 350+ uses of “just”?! DUDE. The book isn’t even 350 pages in Word. Let’s just put one here, and just there. Okay, just one more. No, not just one more because I just need another. BAH! You pretty much never need this damn word. Slice and dice!

  • Stating the obvious, especially when describing actions.

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Yes, my character crumpled the paper in her hand. As opposed to crumpling it in her feet? You’ll find yourself “nodding heads” or “waving hands”. We know how the body works and how actions work. You can just nod. Or just wave. Look for these, again, it’s being redundant with action.

  • Still and not being concise.

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Here is a double-whammy edit. “Still” is another one of those “just” words. You very often don’t need it. See how the sentence works as well as it does with or without “still” in there? And the end of the sentence, see my editor’s change? Obviously they both work, but you do need to be aware of the economy of words, especially when writing an action scene. If you’re building tension you want to make sure you’re not dragging things out.

  • Adverbs.

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New or old-hat, we all love adverbs. Again, they are almost never helpful. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but if you have an abundance of adverbs you’ll need to take a critical eye to them and really decide which ones help and which ones are fluff. This one? Quickly? It’s fluff.

  • That.

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Oh, that. Just, still, that. That is a tough word because we do need it a lot in the English language but you’d be amazed how often we use it. When you’re editing, be mindful of “that”. If you’re not sure if you should slice and dice, read the sentence out loud, does it work with or without “that”? Then delete.

There are so many more crutches we need to be aware of, but sometimes they’re very specific to the writer. One that was mentioned to me was relying on metaphors. I remember the first time I wrote “his cheekbones were so sharp, I could cut my wrists on them.” Oof, I loved that line. I loved it so much I used it three or four more times in different books with different characters. Yep. Crutch. If you use the same metaphor more than once that first awesome impact gets muddied and loses its impact. Don’t fall victim to this.

Don’t fall victim to any of these!

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Have you come to recognize your crutches? Share them in the comments, you might just help out your fellow writers who are still looking for crutches to kill like ants on the page.

Revising, editing, and all the rough drafts.

As I sit down to work on yet another rough draft, I thought it might be interesting to read about how I revise and edit a new book. Because I also offer manuscript critique services, I see a lot of books before they’re ready from new writers. It’s always hard to know when a book is done and it’s time to let it go out into the world and flourish or die by its own merit, but you do need to spend a significant amount of time on it before that happens.

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First, I outline the story. I like to do this long hand, with a pen and a legal pad. I use the longer legal pads and, usually, one page = one chapter. It’s lame and mundane and in a bullet point list, just so I know what’s happening and how in each chapter. The magic happens when I’m actually writing. When I was a new writer, I didn’t outline because I lost the urgency to tell the story, so if you’re not an outliner, don’t freak out; everyone is different and things change from book to book.

Once the outline is done, I fast draft the book. This means I write daily, usually taking 1-2 days off a week so I don’t burn out, until it’s done. There are some days where I might just get 500 words or 1,000 words, but my goal is 2-4k words a day. But, again, every book is different. As long as I make some progress, I’m happy.

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Then, when that first draft is done, I back up my work in 2-3 different places. I like to email myself the document every day so I don’t ever lose any work. But when I finish, I email myself again the completed document. I also save it to a memory stick. This way, if something happens to my computer, my book is safely stored in two places that can’t also be damaged by whatever killed my computer. When I was writing my fourth book, Fire, my hard-drive crashed and I lost about 20k words because I wasn’t in the habit of emailing myself on the daily, just at the end of a draft. It was devastating. Never again!

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Then I walk away. I close the file on the computer and I don’t look at it again for at least a week, sometimes as much as six months. Again, it depends on the book (and deadlines). But I get away from it and do other things. I clean the house, I read other people’s books, I relax. I do things that have nothing to do with the book I was writing. I may even start writing (and finish) another book before I ever come back to it. There’s a few reasons for this but the main reason is so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes.

You just spent a couple of months to the better part of a year focused on this one story, it’s been loud in your head, the characters alive and and controlling. If you come back too soon, you’ll remember everything and you won’t see mistakes, you won’t find the plot holes, you won’t pick up on the weaknesses or the thin characters. You need to read your rough draft as though you weren’t the one who wrote it.

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I like to print out a copy of the MS to go over it the first time. This way I’m not working on it in the same medium that I wrote it. I am familiar with it on the computer screen, so my eyes and mind might trick me into reading it the way I wanted it to be, not the way it is. By printing it, it becomes a new book and I can take a bright red pen to it and make corrections and notes to transcribe back on the computer. That’s the second draft.

Now, depending on the book, this is the right time to give it to beta readers to go over. I like to have at least two readers, but three is ideal. You want readers who will give it back to you in 2-4 weeks. This gives you another break away from the book, but also ensures your readers focus on your book so they don’t forget what they read in the first half because they took so long to finish it.

Wait to make any changes to your MS until you hear back from all betas. This gives you the chance to see if critiques are just personal preference or if you really missed something because they all mentioned the same thing(s).

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Now I go over the book again, this time on the computer, comparing beta notes, seeing if I agree or not. If I agree with a change, I have to make sure I thread it through the whole book. That’s the third draft.

Now I put it on a tablet to read it as an ebook. You may need another break or you may be ready to just dive in. So, again, I’m reading it in a different medium and more like any reader who bought it would read it. I use the highlight and note function to keep track of issues and changes I want to make. Once I make those changes, I’ve got a fourth draft.

Only on the 3rd or 4th draft does my editor get the book. Because I self-publish, I pay my editor for her services, so why in the world would I send her a book before it’s ready? I wouldn’t, and neither should you. I often get MSs that are not ready and people are paying me a fee to go over the book and 90% of the time, most of my notes could have been caught by the author or by a beta reader to be addressed for free.

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Once I get my MS back from my editor and implement the line-edits and content-edits, I am up to the fifth draft. Guess what? It goes back for a proof-reader to comb to make sure we didn’t miss any tiny mistakes.

So, in the end, I’m publishing the 5th or 6th draft. I don’t always use beta readers because sometimes I’m up to the 5th, 6th, or 7th book in a series and I can’t expect friends to do that much work for me. But the first book in a series? A stand alone? A trilogy? Yes, I use beta readers for all of those.

You will get to the point where you start to hate your book because you’ve read it so many times, but that’s what it takes to polish it, to develop those characters, to make the plot compelling. This is the work that goes into a book. Getting that first draft is the easy part, making it a book is where the hard work really is.

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Writing is re-writing. This is the rule you should be living by.

And, speaking of working on a new, revised, and edited book, I just published one this week! If you’re a fan of witches and magic set in modern day, might I recommend my Matilda Kavangh Novels series. I just published the seventh book!

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Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl… And Writers!

What a fortuitous occasion!

Not only do I have a post on the ‘ol Spellbound Scribes today and also a new episode of our podcast is dropping today as well! This week on the Pod fellow Scribe Kristin McFarland and I discuss Season One of Steven Universe, and let me tell you, that show is a DELIGHT and we had a DELIGHTFUL time talking about it. So, I thought today I would discuss three lessons of Steven Universe that can be applied to writing as well.

CROSS PROMOTION Y’ALL

Also, there’s probably some minor spoilers for Steven Universe throughout this post in case you’re concerned about that sort of thing.

LESSON THE FIRST – TEAMWORK WORKS!

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The main characters of Steven Universe are the eponymous Steven and his protectors / matriarchal figures the Crystal Gems – Amethyst, Garnet and Pearl. In each episode they’re beset by some terrible trouble or perilous problem that must be defeated or solved. And of course, those trials cannot be solved without the power of teamwork! The Crystal Gems can even fuse together to become bigger and more powerful version of themselves.

What does this have to do with writing? I’ve written posts in the past about the importance of beta readers you can trust and friends in the community that will pick you up when things go wrong. Your friends in the Writing Community are your Crystal Gems, ready to defend you when the chips are down. Your beta readers are your fusion – with all the skills and life experiences of the people you’ve entrusted combined in your manuscript. The merging of their imput will make your book stronger than before. And if you’re me, it won’t be bigger like the Fusion Gems because Shauna will have slashed the crap out of it with the Red Pen of Doom.

LESSON THE SECOND – BE INCLUSIVE!

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Steven Universe has some of the best queer representation of any show on TV, animated or otherwise. Especially important and awesome because even though there’s a lot in in-jokes old people like me will appreciate, it’s made mostly for kids. The show explores gender roles, breaks down the boundaries of gender binary and celebrates general queerness in a way that most “adult” shows can’t or won’t.

We should strive to write inclusively as well. I’ve tried to write diverse characters that are “outside of my lane” with varying degrees of success. I messed up on a whole bunch of things in OVERDARK, that I luckily had great beta readers to help point out. I fixed them the best I could. But I think it’s still important to try. The characters in our book worlds, even the fantastical ones, should be reflective of reality.  Everyone should have the opportunity to see themselves as the hero of the story. This goes back to the first Lesson. Do you best and hopefully your friend and beta readers will call you out on problematic stuff they find. Reach out to Sensitivity Readers too. Teamwork can go a long way to snuff out harmful and hurtful representation.

LESSON THE THIRD – NEVER GIVE UP!

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By the end of the first season, Steven and the Crystal Gems face seemingly insurmountable odds. Captured and standing off against enemies more powerful than they are, all looks lost and still they refuse to back down. There’s an amazing song called “Stronger Than You” that plays during the climactic fight scene which is all about the strength of bonds of love and friendship and together we can overcome anything. Even against the most threatening of foes, Steven and the Gems won’t give up as long as they have each other.   

I’ve beat this drum in almost every post on this blog.

Writing is hard.

Publishing is brutal.

Rejection is unrelenting.

But you shouldn’t give up! There’s been days that I’ve been hammered with rejections or failed to write a single word with any coherence or value and just wanted to hang it up. Without the support and inspiration of friends in the writing community, I probably would have.

The challenge of the publishing industry might not be quite as dire as invading Gem warriors from another world, but to a writer, especially one at the beginning of their career, they can be just as intimidating. Luckily, like Steven and the Crystal Gems, we have strong and supportive community to stand with us when we need them. 

Thanks for reading as always, friends. Do give Steven Universe a look if you have a chance, it’s a wonderful little show with a great message and representation.