Okay, I’m Done. Now What?

You’re “done” you say? That begs a few questions. Like:

  • Are you finished with the rough draft/first “complete” manuscript?
  • Are you finished with all the updates of your first draft?
  • Have you given up altogether?
  • Are you ready to start on another title?
  • What’s next?

First draft finish line reached!

Typing “The End” at the bottom of the last page can be extremely satisfying. It’s not as mind blowing as holding a copy of your first book in your hands, but it’s still pretty darn cool. And it deserves a celebration of some kind. Take your significant other out for dinner or go play golf with the gang you’ve been ignoring for the past several months. Play with your kids, if you have any, or try making some. <shrug> Walk the dog. Enjoy life away from the keyboard for a while.

If you’re really smart, you’ll ignore that manuscript for a couple weeks, maybe even a month, just to let it cool off. Even if you’re a big-time author–and if you are, I can’t imagine why you’re reading this–you need some objectivity. The cooling off period will let you be more objective about what needs fixing, and there’s always something.

I suggest reading the full manuscript out loud, with feeling. Seriously. It’ll slow your brain down long enough to allow you to spot some errors. You won’t get them all; no one does. But you’ll get a bunch. Many writers decide on a re-write at this point. Many, like me, don’t. Some writers fill out missing chunks, add setting, trim dialog, hunt down adverbs and pet phrases, or focus on tightening text. You’ll need to do some or all of this. (How much? That’s hard to say. I just finished my eleventh novel, and one of my readers found errors in the third revised manuscript.)

At some point, you’ll declare your brainchild ready for the world. It’s not. You still need to run it by your First Readers, that cadre of trusted souls who will crawl through your words in search of every niggling little booboo, every innocent tyop, and every literary faux pas they can find. When they do find them–and they will–praise them to the heavens. Treat them to chocolate and adult beverages, for they have done you an invaluable service; they’ve saved you from looking like an idiot, or worse.

Fix everything! Then, and only then, are you ready for the next step.

To hell with it! I’m done.

Sadly, quite a few writers give up before they reach the finish line. There’s no shame in that. Writing a novel is hard, and writing a good one is even harder. And just imagine how many people you know will be able to say “I told you so!” (They will, too, because they can; they’re not-so-secretly pleased that you failed at something they couldn’t even imagine doing.) But, if you’re still reading this, I suspect there’s a part of you that isn’t ready to abandon all the time and effort you’ve already spent on your project. Maybe you just need a break, a little time to get your head straight and your creative side re-energized. That’s okay, too.

While thus occupied, consider re-reading my thoughts on what to do when you’re stuck. You’ll find them here. You wouldn’t be the first writer to think about quitting just because the job turned out to be harder than you thought it would be. So give these possible fixes a shot. Who knows? You might find yourself moving forward again.

Ready to start on something new?

Cool! But before you jump headlong into the next project, give some thought to what you learned doing the last one. Were there mistakes you’d rather not repeat? Knowing what you know now, would you have approached your last book differently? How much of that will apply toward the new project? Why not write those thoughts down where you can review them as you move on. You’ve written a book and learned some valuable lessons. Don’t ignore ’em!

Okay, manuscript, it’s time. Make me famous. Or rich. Or something.

Much as I’d like to squeeze this in here, it really deserves its own spot. So, I’ll tackle that next time. For now, I’m curious to know how other people feel when they reach the finish line for a first draft. Relief? Exuberance? Disappointment? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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When Yay Becomes Yuck

There comes a point in the development of most novels, maybe even all ’em, when the writer throws up his hands, his pen, and maybe his beer, and says, “This is shit. It isn’t working. The characters aren’t talking to me. The muse is off to South Beach, and all I can think about is mowing the damned lawn.” Or something similar, suitably loaded with creative epithets and admonishments, perhaps something even more dramatic like breaking a pencil or barking at the dog. Or cat.

Some writers, many actually, can get themselves straightened out such that they’re able to finish the tale. Others may be so dejected they kiss it goodbye and never look back. It’s that second bunch I’d like to reach. They’re the ones who need a little extra help, maybe a pat on the back or a kick in the tail. Or, more likely, they need a strategy to get back on track.

There was a time in the life cycle of the story when its author could barely contain her excitement over telling it. The characters enchanted her, the setting offered exciting opportunities, and the plot seemed fresh and fragrant. But somewhere along the way the whole thing got bogged down, and the story’s appeal drifted away like smoke in the wind.

A number of things could account for this, but it’s likely a combination of issues. These are the most common:

  • The characters have become predictable
  • There’s no end in sight
  • The plot twists aren’t twisty enough
  • There’s too little conflict
  • There’s not enough tension
  • There’s no way out of the latest predicament
  • Everybody’s talking and nobody’s doing anything

Predictability — Any character can become stale. The way to prevent it is to constantly put obstacles in their way. Big ones, little ones, loud ones, annoying ones, whatever. If your character isn’t doing anything, it’s because you haven’t been hard enough on them. So get mean! Hurt them. Abandon them in a storm. Lock them in a room. Feed them time-released poison. Kill off a loved one. Have the phone ring smack in the middle of the scene you’re working on, and deliver the news: “Opie, I’m so glad you’re home. Better sit down, son. I’ve got some hard news for ya. Sheriff Taylor was just shot and killed by Deputy Fife.”

Is it done yet? — Not without a climax and a denouement. Stories that just trail off and die because the author lost interest are rarely published. If the writer didn’t care enough to work out a good ending, no one else will care enough to see how far they got. If all else fails, kill off your protagonist. What have you got to lose? If you can’t finish this volume, you sure won’t be turning it into a series. Maybe you just need to give someone a change of heart; turn a player from bad to good or vice versa. If you’ve been outlining as you go (see my thoughts on that here), you should be able to figure out where your tale wandered into the wilderness; cut it back to there and start in again.

The plots aren’t sufficiently twisty — Start looking in left field. It’s where the really bizarre, gonzo goofy shit comes from. Try dipping into that well. Turn good guys into psychotics; turn relatives into robots; let ’em get hit by an invasion (any kind: animal, vegetable, political). Lift your story, metaphorically of course, by one corner and flip it upside-down. OR: Imagine the most unexpected outcome, one that’s beyond the scope of anything you’ve done before. Maybe your crazy Aunt Emma is elected President. Maybe your innocent little brother is arrested on suspicion of planning to kill someone important. Maybe your hero’s dog finds a body in the front yard (or the back seat of the car).

Not enough conflict? — Seriously? You’ve read this blog more than once, and you haven’t figured out that conflict is the lifeblood of storytelling? If your happily unchallenged character isn’t married, arrange a wedding, otherwise arrange conditions that’ll lead to divorce. Add a child. Lose a pet. Adopt an orphan with a penchant for mayhem. Fire her!

You’re short on tension — Threaten someone, either physically, emotionally or psychologically. A physical threat might be: “Do what I ask or I’ll stab you.” A more emotional threat would be: “Do what I ask or I’ll stab your girlfriend.” A psychological threat would be: “Do what I ask or I’ll stab your girlfriend but make it look like you did it. Film at eleven.” The thing to remember is that no matter what sort of threat scenario you devise, the effected character must be left hanging for at least one scene, preferably more. And while you’re waiting to show how character A will escape his problem, character B should be wading hip-deep into her next conundrum.

There’s no way out; the hero’s gonna die — Well, how big a deal is that? Where could you take the story if a main character died prematurely? Can you back up and change the threat? Have the horrible happening happen to someone else? (Oops, sorry dude. You’re gonna die.) Maybe he’s only unconscious. Maybe he can be brought back from the dead? Almost any solution is better than resorting to deus ex machina (wherein God reaches down from the heavens and saves the poor schlub). C’mon! If you were crafty enough to get your guy into such a pickle, surely you can think of a way to extricate him. There’s always the weather, war, and/or knocking down the walls.

Yackity yack, no attack — This is no time to bemoan your decision to write so-called minimalist fiction. If there’s nothing going on because you failed to provide some conflict, then maybe you should just toss this one in the pooper. Next time, give your players something to do and someone to do it to.


By the way:

If you hurry, you can snap up a free download of my new book, Oh, Bits! Click here. Just know that it’ll only be free for a couple more days. Best of all, you could be the very first reader to post a review! Here’s your chance to see what all this book-writing verbiage can lead to. See it put into practice. Read the book; tell your friends; have some fun!

And, thank you.

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Deconstructing Cinderella

Here’s a handy way to review the 7-Point Plotting approach. We’re going to take apart an old and well-loved tale and completely rebuild it. In the process, we’ll experiment with Point of View as well as the plotting formula. And, if that’s not enough, we’re going to take a run at writing to a Theme as well.

Disclaimer: There are many different versions of the Cinderella story. The oldest dates back to a Chinese tale recorded in 860AD. Wikipedia has a fascinating history of the tale (Click HERE for more information). We’ll focus on variations one might employ using the Disney version as our starting point. The actual location, or place, for all these is wide open. Call it “Fairyland” for now.

 Possible Openings (Person, Place, and Problem):

  • Cinderella at work while the wicked step-sisters taunt her.
  • Step-sister One feels sorry for Cinderella, but the Step-sister Two prevents her from doing anything.
  • The stepmother, under orders from royalty, is forced to treat Cinderella badly or her own daughters will be at risk.

Notice that the point of view character (POVC) in each of the three options is different. We experience the world through that one character’s senses. Note also there’s a unique theme for each potential story line:

  • Salvation through hard work by Cinderella (with maybe a little luck).
  • Tragedy despite perseverance by the step-sister.
  • Mistrust — just because the Prince is a prince it doesn’t make him charming.

Try/Fail options:

  • No matter what Cinderella does, she can’t satisfy her stepmother or step-sisters. She grows more despondent and her only friends are birds and rodents.
  • Step-sister One tries to do nice things for Cinderella, but Step-sister Two always thwarts her, and the threats to Step-sister One grow worse.
  • The Prince tries to lure Cinderella into an unwholesome act, but she resists him. He only grows more enamored even though she’s a commoner, and they have no future.
  • Step-sister One recognizes how despicable the prince is and tries to get him interested in Step-sister Two, thus taking the pressure off Step-sister One and Cinderella.

Climax options:

  • Salvation for Cinderella. Her furred and feathered friends come to the rescue. She goes to the ball, charms the prince, and dashes home, leaving her glass slipper behind.
  • Tragedy for Step-sister One. Step Mom sides with Step Two, and they turn Step One over to the Prince as an indentured servant. Tough nuggies, Step-One!
  • Mistrust: Cinderella and Step-One convince the Prince that Step-Two is the girl of his dreams. They even fake a slipper-fitting to convince him.

Denouement options:

  • Cinderella is happy, even if she leaves all her little friends behind. (We could even tweak that sadness into anger so the critters make life miserable for everyone.)
  • Recognizing Step-One’s attempts to help her, Cinderella poisons Step-Two and frames step-Mom for the murder.
  • Step-One and Cinderella, now romantically connected, take the house away from step-Mom and kick her to the curb. Step-Two, now serving as the prince’s live-in SM plaything, hires step-Mom as a maid.

The best thing about writing to a theme is that it’s much easier to keep your players in character. You know what their story is about, and everything they do ought to relate to it. You should never have to wonder if one of your characters has strayed from his or her natural role.

This deconstruction example provides only a tiny fraction of the possibilities one could choose from in creating an alternate version of the original story. “Fractured” fairy tales have been done for ages, and their popularity hasn’t stopped growing. If you’re looking for a new story, or a break from something you’re already working on, give some thought to finding a well-known tale you can tune up. You might end up driving a fictional hot rod.


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Dialog Ain’t Just Talk

The things that make dialog great are the same things that make plots and characters great–imagination. Dialog should present surprises. The unexpected makes stories not only more interesting, but more challenging. At it’s heart, dialog is action, and its value comes from the variety of ways in which it can advance story lines. Ho-hum dialog will drag down the most fascinating characters and clog up the most intriguing plots. Why in the world would any writer do that?

If a reader can anticipate what a character says, what’s the point of having them say it? This is why boredom descends like a cloud of poison gas on scenes in which characters introduce each other. Whenever the action in a scene downshifts into mundane, everyday issues, like ordering from a menu or reading a bus schedule, the smart writer will pile it all into a single paragraph, if not a single sentence. And yet, my students give me manuscripts all the time which feature such discussions as if they’re meaningful.

“I’m having turkey salad and water,” Wanda said.

“I’ll have the big steak,” announced Clyde.

“That much meat would make me sick.”

Clyde laughed. “And I’m gonna have some pie.”

Wanda groaned. “You’ll get indigestion.”

“Nah. I’m gettin’ the bacon-cheese fries, too.”

Is there hope for this exchange? Maybe. The problem with the exchange now is that it’s boring. If anything, it’s too much like what we see in everyday life. Yes, there’s a tiny bit of conflict over good nutrition, but it’s not enough to raise the conversation to a level of interest. But, if we amplify the characterization via better speech and action tags and tweak their word choices a little, we might actually hold a reader’s interest. To wit:

“I’m having the turkey salad and water,” Wanda said, laying the menu aside.

“Not me,” said Clyde, his eyes never straying from a photo of the restaurant’s signature steak, a 24 ounce slab of Porterhouse perfection.

That’s enough for me. I’m content knowing Wanda is watching her diet and Clyde isn’t. But why stop now?

Wanda twisted her lips in disapproval. “That much protein would make me barf.”

Clyde just laughed and turned to the dessert section. “You gonna get the pie?”

Would most folks read on? Possibly. There is some characterization. Wanda has expressive lips, and Clyde is narrowly focused. Can we squeeze out a bit more mileage even if there’s no new plot point?

“You have the diet of a dinosaur. Your arteries are going to clog up like a gas station toilet.”

Clyde didn’t respond. Instead, he flagged down a waiter and asked, “Can I get a double order of bacon-cheese fries with this?”

At this point, I presume poor Wanda is ready to deposit the evening’s appetizer on the table, and if I were writing this, that’s likely what I’d have her do. I’d also couple it with some sort of plot point. If Clyde as an omnivore is important to the story, then we’ve already achieved our goal, but only in the second version. The first is still too vanilla. The second effort has been fluffed out and enough story stuff added to make it worthwhile.

The main take-away here is simply this: in your on-going efforts to surprise your reader, remember that dialog provides fertile ground for doing just that, even if the general discussion isn’t very exciting. You can make it relevant, but it takes effort.

Your dialog bag ‘o tricks has some very flexible tools, like speech and action tags, but they work best when combined with spoken words that startle and amuse. If your dialog feels tired and slow, it probably is. Try injecting one of two things: conflict or humor. And if you can manage both, you’ll do yourself and your readers a service.



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A Conversation About Dialog

What is it that makes one novel better than another? What facets of the craft elevate a story from pro forma to profound? The first two are absurdly easy to pinpoint: great characters and intriguing plots. In addition to clear narrative, I believe good dialog is the element which makes both great plots and great players possible.

The downside is that bad dialog will do the opposite. It’ll wreck story lines and mangle characters. Stories can be conveyed in a variety of ways: movies, audios, illustrations, pantomime. Storytellers can act out certain parts and dramatize others. But the world of the novelist is confined to the strength of the writer’s words. Authors, in the traditional sense, are limited to narrative and dialog.

So, if the dialog you write sucks, you’ve lost half of your tool set. Imagine building a house with a hammer but no saw, or a screwdriver but no screws.

What’s so hard about writing good dialog?

The short answer: creating verisimilitude–the appearance of reality.

The only way writers get to practice dialog is by writing it. The dialog we use in everyday life is usually too boring, banal or vapid to include in a story. We prattle on and on, exchanging bromides and clichès, and only rarely do we actually communicate. “Real” dialog isn’t what we want. We only want our story dialog to mimic reality. Can you imagine the following exchange in a book that you’d keep reading:

“Hi, Marge! Gosh I haven’t seen you since, gee, I dunno, last summer. Wha’cha been up to?”

“Not much, really. The kids keep me busy, and then I have my clubs. I’m in so many. Just can’t learn to say ‘No,’ I guess. How ’bout you? Anything new in your life?”

“Nah. My job sucks, mostly because my boss hates me. Never gives me any time off. I can’t remember the last time I went shopping. Speaking of which, there’s an amazing sale going on at Barfberg’s. It’s awful! The store’s closing. I just hate it. Back when I had time to shop, that’s where I always went. They’ve got so many cute things in my size, and you know how much trouble I have finding things to fit.”

Assuming you’re neither an employee nor a stockholder at Barfberg’s, your life will go on unchanged, as if nothing happened. Why? Because nothing did happen. And that’s the problem with “real” dialog.

But what if we import some of the characteristics of that real dialog and apply them to a manufactured encounter, one where we need to convey a plot point or develop a character:

“Hi, Marge. I haven’t see you since–“

“Forever, I know. We’ve been tied up in court.”


“Jeff was arrested for embezzlement. He swears he didn’t do it, but after the stunt he pulled last summer with that girl he hired to clean the pool, I wouldn’t put anything past him, the lech.”

“I thought he worked for the government. Oh my God! He embezzled from Uncle Sam?”

“Indeed, and you won’t believe what he spent it on.”

“Not you and the kids?”

“Kids, yes, but not ours. Turns out he’s part owner of a gentlemen’s club.”

“You don’t mean a–“

“Strip club. Yep. Ol’ Jeffie runs a nudie bar. I can’t wait to hear him explain why he’s not loading our 12-year-old into the car on ‘Take Your Child to Work Day.'”

If I’d been really serious about this stretch of dialog, I’d have identified the speakers and described their physical responses. Real people react to things said, and so should fictional people. They can be suspicious of things, or agree wholeheartedly, or disagree vehemently, or respond in any of a thousand other ways. Just as plots and narrative can drag, so can dialog. The easiest way to fix it is to inject action and/or conflict.

But wait! Isn’t that also one of the primary fixes for a weak plot–too little conflict? Too little action?

Yep. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Next time we’ll take a closer look at speech and action tags, the supporting timber of good dialog.


By the way, my new novel Oh, Bits! is still competing for a publishing contract with Kindle Press. You can help me by nominating it for publication at Kindle Scout. It’s free and only takes a few seconds. Best of all, if they publish the book, they’ll send you a free copy. Everybody wins! Here’s the link:


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A Word About Mechanics

I’m talking about writing mechanics, not the folks who keep our cars running. (That’s a whole different breed of magic about which I’m not qualified to comment.)

Of all the many things a novice writer can do to improve his or her writing mechanics, the following handful of basics will do more than all the rest combined. I promise!

First: vary the basics–sentence lengths, paragraph lengths, dialects, and word choices. Imagine reading only six word sentences. Before long they just drone on. The words get lost in fog. Over, and over, and over again. They will put you to sleep.

But mix them up and they take on shape and texture. Some short, some long. And some that just seem to mosey on, taking their time to reach a much anticipated goal. Paragraph lengths operate much the same way. Mix ’em up. Long, short, medium, whatever. You’re writing for the eye, too, remember.

Why vary dialects? Because if everyone sounds the same, even if they all come from the same place and time, sameness generates monotony. So give someone a lisp; give someone else a slight brogue, or a cough, or something else to distinguish their voice from all the others.

And then there’s the word choice thing. Look for instances of the same word used more than once in the same paragraph. It often occurs in the same sentence, and the result isn’t pleasant: Joe’s car was pretty cool. The car had four doors and a convertible top, but unlike other cars, it had a secret: this car was jet-powered. Please, someone, gag me with a car. And then, if you have time, re-write this mess without the two instances of “was” and three of the four instances of “car.” (Post it in the comments, and I’ll do something nice, like send you a free copy of my new book, Oh, Bits!)

Second: get rid of  “was” and “-ly” words. I can hear the chorus of squeals already: “What’s wrong with ‘was?'” Nothing, except it’s the crappiest verb known to man. It squats in the middle of sentences taking up space that smart writers fill with “real” verbs, the kind that paint pictures in a reader’s brain. To wit:

  • Was version: Bobbi Sue was fast. I mean, really fast. She was the fastest gal in town.
  • Was version–1: Bobbi Sue had blinding speed; she could outrun everyone in town.
  • Was version-2: When Bobbi Sue raced, the soles of her shoes caught fire.

Close your eyes. See any pictures?

In most cases, recasting a sentence to remove “was” will result in a better sentence. Yes, there will be times when the effort isn’t worth it, especially in dialog. But keep was in mind; it’s sneaky. You’ll do your writing a tremendous service by expelling it.

Something similar can be said for adverbs. In fact, you’d do well just to focus on words ending in “ly.” There’s nothing wrong with them grammatically, and if you prefer to issue stage directions instead of writing action scenes, then keep using ’em. The problem is this: adverbs tell “how” something is accomplished: Joe ran quickly; Debbie danced gracefully; Archibald spoke harshly, etc. [Yawn]  The emphasis is on the modifier, not the verb, and this dilutes the action to the point of banality. Blah.

Why not let Joe tear through the field? Make Debbie pirouette across the stage, and have Archibald scream until his lungs ache? Science has proven that writers deal in words while readers deal in pictures. Logic dictates that the best writers paint the best word pictures. Why don’t they tell us this stuff in school? I suspect it’s because they (whoever in hell “they” are) don’t have a clue. They may be too busy diagramming sentences. [Is anyone still doing that?]

Third: ditch clichés and pet phrases. This may be the toughest one to master. Clichés have become such a part of everyday speech that we don’t realize we’re using them. They’ve become a sort of shorthand, an easy method to get an idea across without bothering to fire up an extra synapse. This failure to be creative in our spoken language causes our written language to deteriorate, too.

If you can’t find these exhausted, empty expressions on your own, find someone else who can. Have them highlight every one so you can go back and purge the damned things. Drive them away like that bloody spot in “MacBeth.” Replace them with something fresh from your own little nest of brain cells. You can do it! It takes practice, but it can be done. (And it sure beats doing push-ups.)

Identifying pet phrases can often be just as hard as finding clichés. But we all know they’re there. We just can’t see ’em. Here’s another situation that can benefit from the sharp-eyed among your friends. If you have to, pay them to find your pets. At the very least, buy them a drink and introduce them to your rich uncle. But not until you’ve gone back through your manuscript and nuked 90% of your pet words and phrases. Trust me on this, you don’t want your work to go out in the world until you’ve cleaned it up.

So, there you have it, the mainline approach to upping your writing mechanics game.


PS: Thanks to everyone who took the time to nominate my new book, Oh, Bits! for publication in the Kindle Scout competition. It has been in the top 20 for nine days in a row now and will be available for nomination for 18 more days. If you haven’t already, click the link below if you’d like to read the opening chapter and consider supporting the book. If Kindle Press picks it up, everyone who nominated it will receive a free copy! Here’s the link: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/13XS5GFXGR9WH

Thank you!

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The Scoop on the Scouts

Sorry, this isn’t about kid scouting. It’s about horn-blowing. My own, actually. And something called Kindle Scout. And my new book. More about that anon.

One of the hardest things for independent authors to do is self-promote. Doing it well is even harder. Most of us get into this business thinking that writing the book will be our biggest challenge. But for the many who meet that challenge, an even bigger one awaits: selling the book!

To do that, one has to be noticed, and with so many new titles appearing every single day, getting noticed is damned difficult unless you’ve got the kind of name recognition that comes with an NFL contract, election to national office, or maybe a conviction for the crime of the decade. It’s safe to say most of us won’t be able to rely on anything like that.

So we’re left with options like constantly flogging our titles on Facebook, or sending out flyers, or buying lists of names and doing mass e-mailings to people who don’t know us and couldn’t care less. Marketing “services” abound, each promising to push our books to fantastic heights and stratospheric profits. I don’t know about you, but the older I get the more adept I’ve become at smelling snake oil when I step in it.

Then along comes Amazon with an alternative: Kindle Scout. They accept previously unpublished books, which meet their editing standards, and make the first 5,000 words available for free. Readers can thus sample a wide range of new titles which they can then nominate, or not, for publication by Kindle Press.

Kindle Press will pay the author a modest advance against e-book sales and evaluate the manuscript for potential audio book conversion and foreign language translations. The author will receive a generous portion of any proceeds from such sales. The author also retains all other rights, including the option to print and market printed copies.

But the biggest advantage of all is having Amazon’s marketing juggernaut behind the title. That will likely stimulate sales of all the other books by the same author. At least, that’s the hope.

Which brings me to my latest book, Oh, Bits! which entered the 30-day long Kindle Scout gauntlet last week. If you follow this blog, I’ve already sent you an e-mail begging your support. Consider this a gentle reminder in case you didn’t get around to doing anything earlier.

It takes a good deal of time and effort to maintain this blog, and the aim is to provide useful information on a regular basis for writers, especially those on the front side of their careers. I will be profoundly grateful if you return the favor and nominate Oh, Bits! for publication by Kindle Press. It really is one helluva story.

And… here’s the link: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/13XS5GFXGR9WH

Feel free to share it!


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