Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Lessons Learned

Life has a way of teaching us what we need to know if only we are paying attention. Some lessons are easy; some we learn have to learn the hard way.

Intriguing. Watson, take notes...

“Hey, little buddy! Let’s play!”

Today, Pixel learned about stinkbugs. Yo, fuzz-face! There’s a reason they’re called that!

UUUGH!

“Oh, $%#!”

It looks like she’s learned her lesson.

That was terrible! I wonder if they only smell bad on Wednesdays...

That was terrible! HORRIBLE!  They can’t always be that nasty.  Hmmm….I think maybe they only smell bad on Wednesdays.

But I wouldn’t count on it.

 

Hey, listen. If you entered my drawing for the ebook and grand prize back in November, be sure to check the email you used when you entered. We’re trying to get in touch with the winner. Beth B, are you out there?

 

How To Write a Blog So That People Will Read

This year, one very popular resolution  has been to either start a blog or to be more involved with an existing one. I think I can help you guys out!

No one asked me for advice, but I’ll pretend they did. I think I’m pretty qualified to make some suggestions, not because I’m a blogger, but because am a reader. I read blogs. A lot of them. Every, single day. A significant portion of my lunch break at work is devoted to catching up on my blog reading. I enjoy reading the work of old friends, and I adore discovering the next great voice.

So how do you make your blog stand out? I’m a WordPress user, so some of my suggestions are specific to this platform. If you use Blogger, you’ll need to check and see if your platform has similar features.

1) Decide your intended audience: Ultimately we should write for ourselves, of course, but most of us hope to have some readers.  Knowing your audience will help determine your approach to a given topic. Blogs intended to be read only by family, for example, will likely have a different focus than one that is meant for a wider readership. A back-to-school post meant only for grandma might consist of a snapshot of little Lulu and her giant backpack with a caption “Lulu on the first day of preschool. What a big girl!” A post with a bigger readership will need a bit more meat to it. Those related  to her actually care about Lulu. The average reader won’t. A back-to-school post may still be appropriate, but it will need to be handled a different way. A tortoise blog directed toward the scientific community is going to be much more technical than one aimed at the general public.

Word to the wise, cats make a poor intended audience. They tend to be snooty and judgmental about grammar.

Word to the wise, cats make a poor intended audience. They tend to be snooty and judgmental about grammar.

An aside here: for  parents who are new to blogging, decide from the get-go how and if you are going to present those kids in your blog. Will you use their first names? An initial? A nickname? It’s a personal decision, and it makes no nevermind to me as a reader, but I’ve talked to a number of parents who wished they had given more thought to using their kid’s name. Once that name is out there, it’s really tough to take back.

2) Post regularly. This bit of advice is on every how-to list you’ll find. There’s a reason for that. Posting regularly helps people get to know you. Writing regularly also helps to hone your skills. Posting daily is fine, especially at first, but don’t feel like you have to, and don’t expect all but your most loyal readers to read every day. I only follow a few daily blogs, including this one. I don’t have time to read a ton of dailies. You’ll find that certain days of the week get more traffic than others, anyway. No point in wasting your brilliance on a Saturday if all of your readers are at the beach.

3) Don’t post more than once a day. New bloggers are very excited and have lots to say. Publishing multiple posts in a day can be a hardship for readers, however. Assume that anyone following your blog also follows others. Be respectful of their time. Use WordPress’s  auto-post feature. Schedule posts out over the course of a few days, a few weeks, even a few months.

4) Use SEO to your advantage, but don’t abuse it. Search Engine Optimization simply means tagging your posts effectively. If all of your posts are uncategorized, it’s harder for a search engine to point readers your way. Use relevant tags.The important word here is “relevant.” I’ve seen a few bloggers try to boost their traffic by using tags for hot-topics that aren’t related to their post at all. Tagging a post about taking your cat to the vet with “Ferguson” or “Bill Cosby” may bring some traffic, but it will also land a blogger on WordPress’s naughty list and will turn off conscientious readers.

Don’t forget to tag your images, too. Which brings us to…

5) Throw in an image or two. Pictures help break up walls of text. We humans are visual creatures. Gimme something  to look at. And you don’t have to be a great photographer or even own a camera. There are plenty of good quality images available under Creative Commons. Here’s a great article on where to find free images and how to properly credit the image owner. Pick smart. Don’t steal. Karma is a you-know-what.

I was hoping for a place to share this image. It's our Little People nativity illuminated by a leg lamp. I need people to know that I am classy.

I was hoping for a place to share this image. It’s our Little People nativity illuminated by the soft glow of a leg lamp. I need people to know that I am classy.

6) Use social media properly. Now that I follow a gazillion blogs, social media is my favorite way to follow new ones. Use the Publicize feature on WordPress to automatically publish links to your post on your favorite social media sites. Be aware that most of your Facebook friends will never see your post in their feed unless you cough up some cash. Twitter, however, directly publishes to all of your followers.  Be careful that your Twitter isn’t cross-posting to Facebook, which then cross-posts to Twitter, which then cross-posts to… This is a common mistake. Check your social media settings. Sometimes I’ll see six identical posts in a row from the same person because their all of their social media is set to cr0ss-post everything.

7) Be yourself. My favorite blogs have one thing in common – they are unique. Amy’s blog is very different from Nicole’s blog, which is nothing like Linda’s blog.  None of them are trying to be anybody else. Be who you are. Unless you’re mean. Then go right ahead and pretend to be something else.

8) Write what interests you. We talked about intended audience and all that, but your first reader is you. If you don’t like what you’re doing, no one else will, either. I write about tortoise belly buttons. Because it makes me happy.

9) If a reader leaves a comment, respond if you can. Answering comments helps to build a sense of community. Never, ever responding to comments completely is kind of rude. Sometimes we’re not available to respond immediately, or we find ourselves with 80 comments in the queue,  or an individual comment gets buried in the notifications. Readers get that. And sometimes a comment is antagonistic, so withholding an answer is actually taking the high road, but most readers are earnest in their comments. Answer when you can.

10) Read other blogs. Don’t just read them, engage with them. Leave a (meaningful) comment where appropriate.  Not in the hopes that they will return the favor, either. Engage with other bloggers. Build your own little blogging family.

What do you love in the blogs that you read? This post may morph into a mini-series, so additional tips are welcome!

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Pixel Gets a Job and a Winner

A couple of months ago I announced a giveaway for a remarkable debut novel. And then I took an unannounced break from blogging due to carpal tunnel. My bad. And then we adopted Pixel’s sister, Bellatrix, which brings the cat-count up to four. Cat food is expensive, so I decided it was time for Pixel to get a job. She decided she’d like to be a life-coach because she likes telling people what to do, so I said to myself “Self, why don’t you combine the giveaway with Pixel’s career aspirations and let HER pick the winner?” Good enough!

Now, Rafflecopter did its little job and picked three names for us. They are:

Very Bangled

Beth B.

Linda G.

Pixel’s assignment was to choose the grand prize winner. The name of each winner was written on the bottom of a different color Christmas bow – her favorite toy of all time. All she had to do was pick one up.

 

She looks ready, doesn't she?

She looks psychotic  ready, doesn’t she?

Sometimes I forget she has the work ethic if a cat.

Taking a break. Is it time for lunch?

Taking a break. Is it time for lunch?

 

10 minutes, a quart of catnip,  and endless attempts later, nothing doing. Pixel was summarily released from her contract. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t care. But wait! Who is that in the wings, ready to pounce? It’s BLOSSOM! 15 years old and ready to do the job! (click to enlarge)

Very Bangled and Linda, you guys win e-copies of Mixed Feelings. Beth, you win the grand prize pack! Congratulations!

Kate from Candlemark & Gleam will be in touch via the email address you guys used to enter the drawing. Thanks for playing! And worry about Pixel. She still gets to tell me what to do.

 

True Confession #657: I Don’t Like the New Year.

There. I said it. I hate the New Year. And not just this new year, either. I have nothing against 2015. It is the year of my 20th wedding anniversary, and it’s divisible by five; what’s not to like? The year itself looks pretty promising. It’s not the new year that intimidates me. It’s the New Year, the one with capital letters, the one that carries in one hand the high expectations of making a change; and in the other, failure.

My New Year tends to go something like this:

January 1 – Get drunk on the possibility of changing every aspect of my life.

January 2 – “Holding strong. Look at me! I’ll do it this time!”

January 3 – “What was so wrong with the old me? NOTHING!”

January 4 – “Screw it. I’m going to watch Malcolm In the Middle and eat MoonPies until my eyeballs fall out.”

Later, rinse, repeat.

It’s a nice idea, really.  A new year is a blank slate with endless potential. We don’t yet know what the coming year will hold, so just for a second we stand weightless on the precipice of the future. For one shiny minute it feels like nothing is impossible. And therein lies the trouble. Each new year becomes New Year; it becomes THE year, the one in which we will finally lose weight, exercise more, succeed at a hobby, stick to a budget, drop a bad habit, pick up a good one. This is the year I WILL FINALLY BE PERFECT!

It never happens. Fear of failure creates failure. By February, the budgeting software lies collecting dust in the back of the closet, the new treadmill is a coat rack, and failure takes its place at the dinner table like an old friend.

It’s lose/lose game, and I’m not going to play anymore. I’ve done my reflecting on the old year. I know what didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, and I know where I went wrong. They’re my mistakes. I own them. Will I change them? I’d like to. But I have to find a new way to do it. Making a blanket promise to the New Year hasn’t worked for me. This time I’m starting small. My new motto is this: “Just for today.”

It’s not just mine. I borrowed it from my 12-step friends. It works for me. I need that reminder that I don’t have to change my entire life, I just have to change my right now. I don’t have to do anything forever or even tomorrow. Just for today. Tomorrow can take care of itself.

I do have goals. Not for the year, but for the near future. They’re general ones, things I have some control over. I want to blog more and create enough of a focus that it doesn’t devolve into the ramblings of a crazy cat lady. I want to edit/rewrite a book I wrote last year, one I have been too afraid to look at since April. I’ve made a good start, working on it four consecutive days already. And I’ll do it again today. Even if it’s just today.

One foot in front of the other. That’s how these journeys go.

"And you may wanna take another look at that cat-lady goal, Mom..."

“And you may wanna re-evaluate that cat-lady thing, Mom, because it looks like you’re heading in that direction.”

What are some of your goals?

 

An Open Letter On My First Day Back To Work

Hey, Sweetie,

Today’s the day. I’m so sorry. I’ve been home with you for over a week now, and it has been so great. I’ve had a good time being with you. You surprise and amaze me all the time. You make me laugh.

I hate to leave you. I love my job so much, and I’m not sorry that it’s there waiting for me, but it breaks my heart that going to work means I have to leave you behind.

Don’t give me that look. There’s nothing I can do about it. Nothing lasts forever, vacations chief among them. Besides, Dad will be here all day. All day! You guys can play. He loves to play! You just have to remind him when it’s time to eat. He’s skinny and sometimes he forgets.

You’ll have fun. You’ll see. The time will go so fast, and I’ll be home before you know it. You won’t even have time to miss me. When I get home, I’ll give you a big hug, and it’ll be our turn to play!

Cheer up, dear one. I’ll see you soon.

Love, Mom

Who did you think I was talking to? Squish did a dance when I was leaving this morning.

Who did you think I was talking to? Squish did a dance when I was leaving this morning.

 

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What Pixel Wanted For Christmas

Dear Santa,

I have been very good this year. I am very sorry that I pooped in Mommy’s lap when she trimmed my nails. Nobody’s perfect. I was just as surprised as she was. And I’m sorry for climbing the Christmas tree. It didn’t fall over, so it’s all good, right? And I’m sorry I ate your MoonPie on Christmas eve.  I didn’t know it was for you. It was good, though, so this family must really like you. I did leave you the milk. I might have sneezed in it. I don’t remember.

I made a wish for Christmas, Santa. I believe in magic.

Love, Pixel

Pixel

Not up to no good. Not at all. Nothing naughty to see here.

Dearest Pixel,

You’ve been a good kitten this year. As you said, nobody’s perfect. Your wish is a big one. Let me make some phone calls and see what I can do.

Love, Santa

 

Dear Santa,

Thank you. Thank you.

Love, Pixel

Welcome home, Bellatrix

Welcome home, Bellatrix

 

Dreaming, The Second One

When we last met our heroine, she was all giggles and happy sighs because two fantastic things had happened – one, she had a piece published in Writer’s Digest, and two, she found a galley that not only did not make her want to gouge her eyes out with a blunt instrument, she loved so much she wanted to promote it. And give it away. All caught up now?

So here, you get part 2 of my interview with Olivia R. Burton, author of the decidedly awesome Mixed Feelings.

Me: If you could have a super-power, what would it be? What power would you NOT want to have?

Olivia: I’m always torn on this question when it’s not multiple choice! I would love something that lets me be more efficient at life, like stopping time or the ability to teleport, but I’d also adore a fun power like being able to talk to and understand animals. My cat Martin and I already have long conversations, but they’d definitely be more interesting if he could meow words other than, “NO!”

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Having Rogue’s life-draining superpower would be pretty unfortunate, as it would make sex all but impossible. Having a superpower like Gwen’s wouldn’t be that great, either, if you didn’t know how to control it. In one of my other series set in the same world, we meet an empath who knows how to utilize the power and it’s quite a boon. Gwen is pretty passive in her empathy at the start of the series, however, and it uses her more than she uses it.

Me: What advice would you give to readers who hope to publish their own books one day?

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Olivia: Take criticism, but know your audience. I’ve had a lot of writer friends who want lots of people to read and give input on their books, but I think they overextend. I don’t like high fantasy, so having me read your epic Tolkein-esque adventure tome isn’t going to do either of us any good. If you write technical sci-fi, find your friends who like that sort of thing and get their thoughts. Listen to their input, and evaluate your work honestly, but don’t lose confidence in what you’ve written if they have a lot of criticism. A few mistakes don’t mean your work is crap, it just means it could be better.

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Always be willing to give back, too. Don’t just expect others to read your stuff if you’re not willing to help them better their craft as well.

Me: Gwen likes sweets of all kinds, and yet I am not sure she has ever had a MoonPie. Do you have something against them, or have you not gotten around to writing them yet?

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Olivia: I’ve heard of MoonPies, but I wonder if they’re regional, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen one here on the West Coast. I have nothing against them, I just haven’t gotten the chance to feed them to Gwen. From my light and recent research into what they are, I can promise you Gwen would be all too eager to stuff them into her face.

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Rest assured, were she real, she would fight you for the last one in a bin. Whether she wins or not would depend on if you have fighting experience and if you are smart enough to distract her with another sugary treat. You could probably just chuck a Tootstie Roll and go, “Fetch!” and the MoonPie would be yours.

***

Now, who wants to win their own copy of Mixed Feelings? Just click here to visit Candlemark&Gleam where the lovely Rafflecopter is set up just for you! The only reason you log in with your email is so that we know how to contact you if you win! So easy! No salesmen come calling.  Would you rather buy it? No problem! It’s only $5 right there on Candlemark&Gleam’s site!

Batman says enter to win! Look into his startling blue eyes and feel the fear dissipate. Enter to win. Enter to wiiiiinnnnn!

Batman says enter to win! Look into his startling blue eyes and feel the fear dissipate. Enter to win. Enter to wiiiiinnnnn!

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***I do apologize for the formatting this morning. Word and WordPress don’t play nicely together.

The One In Which I Live My Dream

Sometimes dreams come true. Last week, I was lucky enough to see one of my wishes come to fruition. No, I can’t fly, I am sorry to say. Still working on that one. I think I went overboard on the eye of newt. Anyway, last week, I got the opportunity to interview The Next Big Thing. Ever wish you had the chance the meet Paul McCartney or Ernest Hemingway before they were who they were? Me. I did that. Not Paul McCartney, of course. How old do you think I am? Last week, I got to interview Olivia R. Burton. Remember her from this post?

So we sat down over a soy latte (or email, because modern times), and I got to know her a little better.

 

Me: At what point did you know you wanted to be a writer?

ORB: I don’t know the exact point, but I know I used to hole up in a little TV cabinet as a teenager and write (awful) fanfiction for Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. For the record, I hope every handmade notebook I wrote in has since been burned and scattered to the four corners of the earth. My first foray into original writing was in middle school when I read Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire. I say “original” loosely, since the story I wrote was very derivative and basically just self-insert fanfic of the book.

Me: The idea of a self-centered empath is so outside the proverbial box. How did you come up with it?

ORB: The short answer is that I wanted her to be awful. I’ve read so much Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy where the main character is a dippy, selfish brat, but the side characters refuse to acknowledge it. That made me so frustrated! I think a story is much more interesting when the main character has a lot stopping him or her from sailing through the plot with ease.

I took my customer service experience into account as I looked at how her empathy would affect the person she is. Sure, there are sad people in the world and a good person who felt that sadness as their own would want to help, but sadness and happiness aren’t the only emotions in the world. Think about how irate you get sitting in traffic. Now think how Gwen feels sitting crammed on a stopped freeway within empathic range of a dozen or so grumpy drivers who don’t want to go to work or who can’t wait to get home. Think how she feels standing in a long bathroom line. Consider how her empathy would function at the mall around the holidays.

Is it any wonder she’s chosen to be a recluses who wants nothing more than to sit at home self-soothing with cupcakes and soda that turns her tongue purple?

I wanted Gwen to be her own worst enemy and for everyone around her to see her for what she is. She does go through a fair amount of character development and, while she remains a greedy coward at heart, she learns through the main arc of her series how to overcome her own shortcomings enough to help when problems arise. She never becomes as useful as Chloe or Mel, but Book Six is the absolute last time she hides under her desk because she doesn’t want to take a client meeting, I promise.

Stay tuned for part II of this fun interview in an upcoming post. And stay tuned to win. Wait a minute! Hold the phones! Did I say stay tuned to win?

I have right here a little Rafflecopter, put together and managed by the illustrious Kate Sullivan at Candlemark&Gleam. She’s offering cool prizes ( and she’s even in charge of sending them out. No waiting for the weather to change for me to get them out by owl post. We’re talking, QUICK RETURN! There are so many ways to enter – 17 in all. What are you waiting for?

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This link takes you to Candlemark&Gleam’s wonderful website where the actual Rafflecopter entry is waiting for you. Click it, log in with your email, and go! Enter! The giveaway will run until November 18. Let’s get the word out about this up-and-comer fast!

Print copies are only available to those in the continental US, but the ebooks are for everyone, anywhere in the world! You know you want it!

And want to know something totally rocking? Another dream of mine came true last week. I had a guest post over at Writer’s Digest!

Sometimes You Win

I read a lot of galleys. A lot of them. My dream is to discover the next big thing before they’re actually, you know, the next big thing. Everybody loves to have a good “I knew them when” story. Sometimes it doesn’t work out.  I’ve been in a reading slump for longer than I care to think about. For weeks, book after book has failed to live up to the promise of its blurb, prompting a policy to never read another book that compares itself to Indiana Jones and this email to a friend:

My literary pet peeves:

Overuse of passive voice

First-person present POV

Telling, telling, telling. More telling.

Totally unnecessary details

Endless exposition before finally starting the story.

Trying to emulate another author

Boring, pointless plot
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Then I got an email from Candlemark & Gleam. I love this publisher. C&G is responsible for bringing Justin Robinson into my life. I trust these folks with my reading time. It wasn’t just any email, either. It was the announcement of an upcoming book. From a new author.  With a link to the galley. A debut novel backed by Candlemark & Gleam? Yes, please.

How delicious is this cover? And the book is just as good!

How delicious is this cover? And the book is just as good!

I work two jobs, six days a week. It’s safe to say that when I began reading Olivia R. Burton’s Mixed Feelings, I didn’t have a lot of  free time. I made the time. I read in the car line at Squish’s school, in bed at night far later than I should have. On one occasion, I nearly maimed a co-worker because he wouldn’t stop talking while I was trying to read the last fifteen pages on my lunch hour.

From the moment I began reading, I was charmed. Gwen, the protagonist, is so far from perfect that she could be me. She’s an empath like no other – she’s self-centered, and more than a little lazy. She’s a therapist by trade, but more because it’s the easy route  than because she cares  about people. She’s so real I think I may have gone to high school with her.

She learns from two terrifying faeries about the abduction of several children, and isn’t overly concerned. That these faeries also mistake her for the emissary of some powerful and mysterious mistress doesn’t bug her much, either. When someone steals her birthday cupcakes, however,  Gwen is finally stirred to action.

Burton is a wonderful storyteller. The pacing is pitch-perfect. The book is neither so fast-paced that it’s confusing nor so cliched that it’s predictable. It’s a fun ride. The characters are believable, and there’s no end of surprises in store. No spoilers or anything, but Go, Chloe!  Like, seriously. And the author avoids the info-dumps so common in the genre. Her world and back story unfold very organically.

The book is not perfect. Gwen’s appetite for sweets and Mel’s appetite for the ladies (I do so want to learn in future books that he’s a virgin!) are a little over-the-top. But the writing is so solid that the flaws are forgivable. In a world of authors who take themselves and their stories way too seriously, Mixed Feelings is a fun read. I give it a solid four stars. I visited the author’s website and learned she has many books planned and even written that take place in this same world. That is a whole lot of happy in one place.

The release date for Mixed Feelings is fast approaching. November 11, friends. That’s next week! Yippee! I love this book so much, I’m going to buy it. Friends, there is no higher praise.

Sound like a book you’d like to read? I encourage you to give it a whirl. In a couple of days, I just might make that really easy for someone. Stay tuned! Get in on the ground floor, here. You’ll be able to say you knew Olivia R. Burton when. This girl is going places!

 

The Art of Negotiation

It’s almost November, and you know what that means? It’s almost time for National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo! For those not familiar with the program, it means writing a novel of at least 50 thousand words between November 1-30.  I could not be more excited. I’ve got my plot lined out, my characters in development, and I’m looking for some writing pals. Anyone? Anyone?

Writing can be an all-consuming process under even normal circumstances. Add to that  the high word-count, combined with a tight deadline and family life can really suffer without some forethought. As a three year veteran of the event, my family and I have spent the last few weeks in deep discussion to assure that my needs will be in balance with theirs. In hopes that our work can be of benefit to others, I will share our negotiations here.

Writing time. This is the trickiest balancing act. While I may want to write every waking moment, my family still needs me. Or they say they do. Whatever. We have talked the most extensively on this subject and have implemented an important policy:

Unless your pants are on fire, leave Mom alone. If your pants ARE on fire, go see Dad. In the event your pants are on fire and you ARE Dad, go drag your bum down the hallway like the dog does. It works a treat.”

Personal hygiene. While my once-a-week shower schedule worked just fine for me the last three years, my family tended to disagree. In addition, I have a full-time job this year, and I work with some large tortoises who are in the habit of covering me with their feces. Our agreement is that this year, if I will clean myself daily, my husband stand by while I’m in the shower and scribble all my great ideas in the steam on the bathroom mirror. And leg-shaving is out the window for a month, even if it means that come December I chirp like a cricket when my calves rub together.

I can play Christmas carols. And then Santa can put razors in my stocking. Photo credit:fcps.edu

I can play Christmas carols. And then Santa can put razors in my stocking. Photo credit:fcps.edu

Laundry. This task is truly a time-suck. Between gathering, sorting, washing, drying, folding, hanging, hours a day can be lost. To facilitate reaching my word-goal, this year I will wear my clothes in the shower. So much time and water saved!

Cooking. The kids have been told they will love Annie’s mac and cheese and peanut butter sandwiches or learn to cook for themselves.

Participation in family life. It’s important to stay involved in the kids’ lives. So they don’t forget what I look like, I have glued a picture of my face to my life-size cut out of Severus Snape. This solution works well for us, as the cut out is lightweight and very portable. It can be set up anywhere from the dinner table to a 6th grade band concert, and no one is likely to look close enough to know the difference.

Work. During the month of November, I’m calling in dead.

 

How do you balance family life and NaNo?

And for something totally different, be sure to visit my guest post over at Below the Salt News. Weird things happen at the fair. Things we don’t talk about in polite company.