Category Archives: Writing

One Story Summer Writers Conference

I just got back from the One Story summer conference in Brooklyn and, despite being sick as a dog, I had a great week. I feel so lucky to have been able to do two wonderful (and very different) writing conferences this summer. Kenyon, as I blogged about, was emotionally and physically draining, but I learned a ton and left feeling energized and inspired. One Story was a cushier, more supportive environment, and I came home feeling confident and motivated (if a bit depleted by whatever mystery virus I contracted while in New York). The conference took place at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, a former factory converted into an art space (where One Story has its offices). The week consisted of workshop (critiquing each other’s manuscripts), craft lectures (from such awesome writers as Hannah Tinti, Ann Napolitano, and Patrick Ryan), meals, readings, and opportunities for industry mingling.

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The organizers of the One Story conference really made an effort to create a supportive, welcoming environment. The whole conference is made up of only twenty participants, which creates the feeling of a small, intimate community of writers. People in my workshop were incredibly kind, open, and generous. (And the staff gave us wine most nights, which helped.)

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One of the most valuable parts of the One Story conference, for me, was the industry component. One night, there was a panel and meet-and-greet with four editors from various publishing houses, and the next night, a panel and mixer with four literary agents. As a non-famous writer who works out of her home office, anything I can do to get my manuscript pulled from the dreaded slush pile is a bonus, so being able to pitch to four literary agents face-to-face is huge. (This also produced another positive: I was forced to come up with an elevator pitch for my novel, something I’d been putting off for six months or so).

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One night, we got to see Min Jin Lee, author of the wonderful family saga Pachinko, in conversation with Hannah Tinti at the Community Bookstore. Min Jin Lee was so down-to-Earth, funny, and frank; I loved hearing her perspective on the labor involved in researching and writing, on creating memorable characters, and on tapping into the emotional heart of the reader.

The week culminated with a participant reading, so I got up and read my fiction for the second time in my life. It was fun!

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I’m so glad I went to One Story and would gladly do it again. Also, being in Brooklyn gave me the opportunity to see my dear friend Claire and to meet, for the first time, one of my former editors at Previously.TV, Sarah Bunting. After working with Sarah off and on for over five years (and doing, among other things, the vaunted Andi Dorfman book club with her and my other former editor, Tara Ariano), I felt like I’d already met her, so it was cool to sit down IRL and have a drink.

Thanks for a great week, Brooklyn! It’s been real.

My week at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop

I spent the last week (Saturday-Saturday) at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop in Gambier, Ohio and boy, was it a week.

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The week held so much good: inspiration, knowledge, friendship, solitude. But the week was also tough. I cried every day, for a variety of reasons: I missed Al and my kids (and I found being away from them particularly wrenching given the horrors that are taking place at our country’s southern border), my six-year-old laptop stopped working on the second day of the workshop, and I received a barrage of brutally honest and challenging feedback from my workshop instructor. The first few days were especially hard. After my computer died (and I feared I had lost all of my ongoing manuscripts — turns out they’d been backed up; thank God for Backblaze), I laid on my bare dorm room bed and sobbed on the phone to Al that I thought I’d made a mistake by coming to Kenyon. He did his best to talk me off the ledge but I was totally ready to stand on the outskirts of Gambier with my thumb out and hitch a ride back to Virginia.

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As the week went on and I emotionally calibrated to my environment, things improved. (I still found myself weeping when reading the news, but I’m pretty sure that’s a normal human reaction, given the circumstances). I had to let go of certain ideas and embrace new ones. I had to stop taking things personally. And I had to accept that I was not going to get a good night’s sleep on a squishy, plastic-coated extra-long twin mattress in a sweaty, cinder-block dorm room. Once I’d accepted the things I couldn’t change and began to stretch myself in new ways, I realized what a rare and wonderful opportunity the KRWW was for me. I am so glad I went.

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On Friday, I stood in front of the entire workshop and read a short piece of fiction that I’d written during the week. I hadn’t read my fiction in front of so many people before, but, surprisingly, the experience was more empowering than scary, once I was up there.

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I am coming away from the week at Kenyon with a whole new toolbox for writing craft, and a solid plan for revising my novel. It’s going to be a heck of a lot of work, but it’s also exciting to imagine how much my writing is going to improve. I hope to ride this wave of inspiration as long as I can. And now, off to revise.

Another small life (and writing) update

More good news in the realm of my writing career: this July I’ll be attending the One Story Summer Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn. When I decided I wanted to attend fiction workshops this summer, I wasn’t sure how many programs I’d get accepted to, which ones would work with my family’s schedule, etc., and I would have been happy to attend even one. In the end, I was lucky enough to have a number of options to choose from. I landed on Kenyon and One Story because they each offer something unique (and important).

Kenyon, as I understand it, is a generative conference, in which participants do not come in with manuscripts to workshop, but instead produce writing continuously during the week. The focus of the week is on craft, not the publishing industry. It’s exhilarating to think about having a full week to sit down and just WRITE. As it is, I have so little time to write — often my only writing time is while my kids nap — and getting an entire week just to learn and produce is a rare luxury.

One Story will be a different experience from Kenyon, in that I will show up with a manuscript to be workshopped during the week. The manuscript I’ve chosen to submit is the first 5000 words of my novel and I am almost paralyzed with anxiety at the prospect of allowing human eyes that are not mine to rest upon this thing. I’ve worked on this manuscript for well over two years and never have I let anyone read even a word  of it, so this conference in Brooklyn will be a (scary) departure for me. But I feel fairly certain that this is what needs to happen if I want to get my novel published, so I’m going to swallow my fear and just do it.

I’m excited about the potential this summer holds for advancing my future as a fiction writer. I’m also incredibly anxious about leaving the kids for a week at a time, twice. Al is a very capable parent and has a lot of support from our family, so I know everyone will be fine, but still — MY BABIES (*said in a shriek, with hand to forehead*). Wish me luck.

Paradigm shifting books, part 2: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

You won’t see many people talking about Cal Newport’s book Deep Work on Twitter or Facebook. That’s because Newport advocates giving up social media to focus more deeply on things that matter: work, in-person human relationships, fulfilling hobbies. Giving up social media is just one of many practical, albeit wrenchingly difficult, suggestions that Newport makes in his book, which purports the value of deep work, defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pus your cognitive capabilities to the limit.”

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I picked up Deep Work at the end of 2017. At that time, I been reflecting for months on my increasing discomfort with my relationship to my smartphone. I didn’t like the feeling that my phone was an appendage of my body, something that could not be left behind. I didn’t like catching myself mindlessly flipping through various social media and news apps, refreshing my email, reading articles on the phone’s tiny internet browser. I didn’t like being someone who couldn’t be alone without her phone. I had survived just fine for 27 years before getting my first smartphone; why had I become so dependent on it? Something needed to change.

I was immediately hooked by the premise of Deep Work: that uninterrupted, focused, challenging work is valuable in any sort of “knowledge work” profession. (As a writer, I think my profession qualifies). In other words, being able to work deeply will make you better at what you do. Most intriguingly, the book provides practical tips for cultivating the practice of deep work in one’s own professional life.

Personally, I didn’t need to be sold on the benefits of deep work. I know from experience that the kind of writing I produce when I am focused and quiet, with no distractions, is superior than the work I do when I indulge my tendency to click on a BuzzFeed listicle at the first whiff of boredom or difficulty. Nonetheless, I found the evidence Newport has compiled in favor of deep work to be compelling. In particular, in a section titled “A Neurological Argument for Depth,” Newport cites science writer Winifred Gallagher, who studied “the role that attention — that is, what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore — plays in defining the quality of our life.” Her conclusion? “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love — is the sum of what you focus on.” Newport applies this theory to deep work, noting that deep work itself is meaningful, so “if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.” Not only that, but if you’re concentrating on work that matters, you’ll pay less attention to the “many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives.” (There are so many of these little gnats in my own life, and I’ve found they’re much easier to ignore when I’m not, say, opening Twitter and letting them fly up my nose.)

The second half of the book provides practical, actionable habits to build a practice of deep work. As I read, I turned down so many pages of the book that it would be difficult to summarize the tips that I found most groundbreaking. Let’s focus, then, on the most radical — and yet simplest — advice that Newport offers: quit social media. He suggests banning yourself from social media services for thirty days, without fanfare. Just quit cold turkey. Then, when the thirty days are up, ask yourself two questions: “1) Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?” and “2) Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?” If the answer is “no” to both questions, quit the service. If the answer is “yes,” go back to the service. Simple! Easy, though? No way.

I didn’t go the cold turkey route, as Newport advocates. Instead, I took Twitter and Facebook off my phone. This made a huge difference. I quickly realized that I don’t miss Facebook at all, although I really did miss Twitter. But I didn’t miss it enough to put it back on my phone, because I was checking it too often during the day and it was distracting me from more important things, such as giving my kids my full attention or digging into a tough revision of my manuscript. (My next challenge will be tackling my Instagram usage. Starting tomorrow (Ash Wednesday), I’ll be deleting Instagram off my phone. Something tells me I’ll be re-adding it first thing Easter morning, but we shall see!)

My biggest takeaway from Deep Work has been creating a work environment for myself that is as free from distraction as possible. When I sit down to write, I minimize the internet and do not allow myself to open it AT ALL (not even for research purposes) for at least an hour. I put my phone more than an arm’s length away, face-down. (I would put my phone into airplane mode, except that I am responsible for two tiny children and need to be available should my children’s caretakers need to get in touch with me while I’m working.) I do not get up for snacks or water or coffee. I just work. And it is really hard. The first day I sat down to do deep work, all jazzed from reading the book, I was shocked at how often I tried to open the internet while I should have been writing. I would work for five minutes or so, come to something challenging, and immediately seek to distract myself with the internet. I had no idea that I was so distractible! It was a rude awakening. The good news is, after about a month of practicing daily deep work, I no longer long to open the internet every five minutes. There is still an itch for distraction when the going gets tough, but I know to resist it. Overall, I’m working more efficiently and producing better results.

Everyone who feels even the slightest niggle of doubt about her ability to focus deeply should pick up this book. The advice is straightforward and practical, even though it can be difficult, at first, to execute. I have benefited immensely from focusing more on the things that matter and less on the crap that doesn’t, and I won’t be going back.

Latest true crime writings and ‘castings

Some quick updates on what I’ve been up to recently:

First, one of my editors at Previously.TV, the inimitable Sarah D. Bunting, has spun off from Extra Hot Great a new, true-crime-TV-focused podcast called The Blotter Presents. A few weeks ago, I was honored to be TBP’s first guest, wherein we discussed OJ: Made in America, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary June 17, 1994, and the current reboot of true crime classic Cold Case Files. You can listen here, or on iTunes, or wherever else you care to download podcasts. Tell your friends!

Speaking of true crime podcasts, there sure are a lot of them these days, aren’t there? If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the options, please allow me to direct you toward my latest true crime podcast round-up over at The Blotter. You can read my recommendations here!

In other news, we just sleep-trained Ewan and suddenly, sleep is a thing I can have again, so expect to see more writing coming your way soon(ish)!

Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open

I am proud to announce that my short story On the Road to the Volcano received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s March/April 2016 Fiction Open contest!

I have submitted work to Glimmer Train many times over the past couple of years, so it’s really gratifying to have gotten on their Honorable Mentions list. (It’s extremely difficult to actually get published in Glimmer Train; according to Wikipedia, they only publish .001 (1/10th of 1%) of the stories they receive, so I am super-psyched to have made it as far as having my name on their website!).

Just a little, encouraging update on my ongoing quest to get my fiction published. Stay tuned.

Writing and motherhood, eleven months out

As the mother of a baby, I spend a lot of time — I mean, a LOT of time — thinking about the balance between motherhood and my would-be career as a writer. Unlike women who work outside of the home or women who embrace the Stay At Home Mom designation, I feel as if I’m caught in a murky limbo wherein I do stay at home with my child, but I also work at home — or, at least, I try to work at home. I’ve heard women in my situation referred to as Work At Home Moms, but that doesn’t quite capture what it is to be a mother as well as a struggling writer or other creative professional whose job is largely unstructured. The problem with having an unstructured — or, rather, self-structured — work life when you have a baby is that the demands of your work — which are often self-imposed — are quickly crowded out by the demands of your child. Eleven months into this motherhood thing, I am still trying to figure out how I can succeed and feel satisfied both as a professional writer and as a mother. Here are some thoughts I’ve been turning over lately.

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Life as a writer, before and after baby

Before I had Lucia, my work life was blissfully predictable. I rarely worried about whether I’d have enough time each day to get everything done. I’d set high word-count or revision goals for myself every day and I’d almost always meet them. Every morning, I would get up, make coffee and breakfast, sit down at my computer, and write for several hours. If I were working on a manuscript, I’d bang out 1500-2000 words, minimum. Then I’d go to the gym, eat lunch, run errands, and finish up any loose ends in the afternoon (freelancing work, short fiction, blogging, etc.) before calling it quits for the day. It was awesome.

But now, my work schedule, such as it is, must bend to Lucia’s schedule. This makes sense; the baby thrives on a predictable routine of feedings, changings, play, and naps. In the morning, my first priorities are getting Lucia changed and fed, and pumping milk for the bottle that she will have before bedtime. After L has had breakfast and the pumping is done, I play with her until it’s time for her nap, two hours after she gets up. When she goes down for her morning nap around 9 am, I have my first sliver of free time. Hooray! But, as it turns out, by 9 am, there’s always a bunch of crap around the house that needs doing: laundry, dishes, picking bits of discarded food off the floor and walls, stashing toys, answering emails, paying bills, returning phone calls, etc. And now that L is almost a year old, her morning nap is rarely longer than an hour, which means by the time I’ve done all of my annoying chores, I’m looking at maybe a half-hour window in which to get work done. I’m a fast writer, and a half hour is sometimes a feasible timeframe for me to crank out a freelancing piece, but for my fiction work, I need longer stretches of time to get any quality work done. It’s a real dilemma. At the moment, my freelancing work is chugging along (yay for deadlines), but my manuscript is languishing. Those halcyon days of cranking out 2000 words in a sitting are behind me, and I constantly struggle to feel productive or like I’m making any progress on my fiction work at all.

Breastfeeding and babysitting

The obvious solution to the problems I’ve just laid out would be reliable childcare, right? Well, yes, except there’s a wrinkle: breastfeeding. It’s true that things on the work-life balance front have gotten much better since I’ve hired a babysitter, who comes three days a week and watches L for three to four hours at a time. Having the babysitter come allows me to leave the house to work (and go to the gym and grocery store and do other adult human activities, sans baby), and it’s great! I’ve gotten more writing done on my manuscript in the past five months of having a babysitter than I did in the preceding six months of no babysitter. But this is complicated by the constraints of breastfeeding. The thing is, I can’t leave for much longer than three or four hours or I will miss several feedings and have to pump to make up for them. I already pump twice a day as it is (in the morning and at night), and the idea of adding a third or even fourth pumping session into the day strikes dread into my heart. When I set the goal for myself to breastfeed L until she was a year old, I didn’t anticipate the crimp it would put on my work life. And now I’m wondering how anyone makes breastfeeding and working work.

I don’t really see this precise issue written or talked about much online or in my group of mom friends. I think this is because most moms who work outside the home stop breastfeeding and/or pumping soon after going back to work because it’s such a giant pain in the ass to try to pump at work, clean and wash all the bottles and pump parts, and then transport the milk home every day. Moms who stay at home (and who don’t need uninterrupted stretches of the day for work) and want to breastfeed can continue to breastfeed (and maybe don’t need to pump much at all) because they’re always near their babies. But what about those of us who want to keep breastfeeding but also need to be out of the house to get work done? The options aren’t great.

For those who have never breastfed or used a breast pump, you might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? Just pump the milk and quit your whining.” The thing is, pumping suuuucccckkkks, literally and figuratively. I’ve been doing it for six months now (since L started taking a bottle at 5 months old) and it’s still the most annoying part of my day. You have to get out your pump, put on a special pumping bra, wash and assemble your pump parts and bottles, hook up the parts and bottles to the machine and your bra, and sit down with a giant bottle of water for ten uncomfortable minutes wherein you can’t move more than a foot away from the pump. Then, once you’ve pumped the milk, you have to pour it into a new bottle, store it, wash and disassemble the pump parts, take off the pumping bra and get re-dressed, and put away the pump. The entire process takes a good 20-30 minutes and it’s just the worst. I really don’t know how any woman does this at an office, since even doing it at home is such a time-suck. (Moms who pump at work: I salute you.). As Hanna Rosin said in her piece in The Atlantic, “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” “[Breastfeeding is] only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.”

Weaning and writing

The other option, of course, is to just stop breastfeeding and pumping altogether and put L on formula. The thing is, she’s only three weeks away from being a year old (i.e., weaning age), and dammit, I’ve come this far, and I’m not going to quit now! I guess I’m hoping things will get easier once she’s weaned, because I can leave her for longer stretches (say, five to six hours) without having to worry about pumping. In my fantasies about my post-weaning work life, I return to getting real work done on my manuscript every day. I have enjoyed breastfeeding my child and I will certainly miss the sweet, bonding moments I’ve shared with her, but damn, I can’t wait to be free of that damned pump and its terrible accoutrements.

All of this makes me wonder how I’ll handle breastfeeding with my next baby. Right now, at the peak of my frustration with pumping, I’m thinking I won’t breastfeed for as long, or I will do a combo of formula and breastmilk to allow myself some more freedom. Who knows what my writing career will look like by then, anyway. Only time will tell.

Do you have any thoughts about balancing work and baby? I’d love to hear them.

Book review: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, by Dinty W. Moore

The back cover copy for Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals promises that this book is a “unique writing guide” to creating personal essays. As someone who likes to write the odd personal essay, I was interested. I was also intrigued by the format: a series of questions asked by “top contemporary essayists” (including Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay) and answered by Dinty W. Moore, an actual person and essayist and not, as I had imagined, an animated can of beef stew.

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I first opened Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy expecting, if not inspiration, then at least some solid ideas for kickstarting my next personal essay. But I got bogged down in the book’s preciousness and soon closed it again. What do I mean by “preciousness?” Well, the introduction is written in the second person (eesh) and includes this sentence: “You are a good-looking person whose minor flaws seem to only accentuate your considerable charm.” This winking tone continues throughout the book, much to my chagrin. For example, there is a question answered entirely in a series of cocktail napkin drawings. Some might find this adorable, but for me, the humor wasn’t strong enough to overcome the cutesiness. I’m afraid I’m just not the target audience for this kind of thing.

I reopened the book and tried to read it straight through. The first question, from essayist Phillip Lopate, is about how to write about ex-girlfriends without coming off as a “chauvinist pig.” Putting aside my own question about whether Lopate’s letter was sent via time portal from the mid-1990s, I found Moore’s response pat (“don’t be a chauvinist pig”) and the accompanying essay boring. Perhaps the problem here is that I am not familiar with Dinty W. Moore’s essay writing, and that to fully appreciate this book, one must be a fan of his work. I’m not sure. But I found myself skimming, and skimming some more, through the rest of the questions and answers.

Some of the questions struck me as so esoteric as to be useless (e.g., what is “the connection between Buddhism and writing?”), at least to my own writing, but others were somewhat more helpful. I enjoyed Moore’s response to Cheryl Strayed’s question about the distinction among the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. I also liked Moore’s “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster Book Deal,” in response to a question from Michael Martone about whether to use one or two spaces after a period. Incidentally, Moore never answers Martone’s question about spacing, but he does discuss the concept of telling the truth and fictionalizing in memoir.

I’m sure that fans of Moore’s work will find this volume entertaining and perhaps even inspiring. But for me, earnest seeker of writing advice, it fell flat.

Writing and mothering and the waiting game

My baby was born 15 weeks ago today, and I am still not back to writing.

I guess that’s not totally true: I am writing a bit, like right now, for instance, and I do one freelancing piece a week for Previously.TV (and will soon be resuming my duties as their resident Bachelor(ette) maven). So, it’s not that I’m not writing at all. But I’m not writing full-time, the way I used to, B.L. (Before Lucia). How could I? Taking care of this baby consumes my whole day, even when she’s napping, which is when I try to clear the mountains of laundry and dishes that accumulate while I am actively taking care of her. In the rare moments when I have free time — when the laundry is put away, the dishes are done, the errands are run, and the baby is actually asleep — all I want to do is sit on my butt and watch Shahs of Sunset. I’ve been so exhausted — mentally, physically, emotionally — for the last 15 weeks, I haven’t even been knitting much. Horrors! It’s only in the last week or so that I’ve picked up the baby sweater I was working on before Lucia was born, and even working on that single, simple project takes a concerted effort. I have to reach for my knitting needles and get out my measuring tape and look at my pattern, and boy, was it always this much work to relax?

Obviously, if my leisure activities have fallen to the wayside, you can imagine the hit that my work life has taken over these past three months. Before I had the baby, I had fuzzy visions of working on my novel while she napped, getting shorter projects done piecemeal over the day, and writing on the weekends while Al took care of her. These rosy-hued visions have proved to be entirely unrealistic, given the way that actual babies work, and the amount of intellectual energy and focus it takes for me to write productively. Long story short, I can’t write while I’m in the same house as this baby.

The decision I’ve come to is that I’ll resume my real writing when my parents move here in a month. I can’t wait for them to move close for a number of reasons, but having built-in, loving childcare for Lucia is a BIG one. My plan, as it stands now, is to drop Lucia with Grandma and Grandpa for a few hours each day while I get some writing done. We’ll have to see how it works in practice, but that’s the goal. In the meantime, I feel surprisingly okay with not working on anything day to day other than taking care of my little squid. Being a mother, turns out, is a tremendous amount of work. Yes, taking care of an infant can be stultifying and frustrating and crazy-making at times, but it’s also temporary. Lucia won’t be this small and dependent forever. This too shall pass, and when it does, my writing shall resume.

Until then, the baby is napping, and I need to see how Reza’s bachelor party drama shakes out.

What I’ve been working on

It’s about time for a little update/mea culpa about why I haven’t been blogging much lately. It’s because I’ve been revising a manuscript and I JUST finished! Hooray! I’ve been working on this thing since November, which feels like an incredibly long time, since I can usually bust out a complete and revised manuscript in a couple of months. This time was different, because I wrote a MYSTERY NOVEL.

Turns out, I’ve learned over the past eight months, mystery novels are tough to write. You have to think about things like clues, and foreshadowing, and fairness to the reader, plus all the things you normally have to think about, like pacing, and structure, and character development. To prepare, I read quite a few mystery novels, including Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder and Murder on the Orient Express. (That woman was a genius; if I can craft a mystery half as well structured as one of hers, I’ll consider myself an unqualified success). Anyway, now I have a manuscript, ready to be perused by my beta readers (namely, my husband and a friend who gives great editing feedback).

Other than that, I’ve been working on the usual stuff: freelancing (for Previously.TV and TimeOut) and some short fiction. But mostly, it’s been the manuscript. Now that I have more free time, maybe I’ll blog more — but no promises.

Happy July!