rediscovering joy in solitude + current reads

I feel like the world entered 2021 with cautious (if a little beleaguered) hope. With more vaccines being developed and distributed around the world, a certain orange man on his way out, and businesses starting to rehire again, it seemed like things might be starting to pick up.

Then the 7 Jan Capitol Hill insurgence happened (seriously, what the actual fuck – the audacity and lawlessness and injustice is unbelievable) and we’re seeing a couple of Covid-19 cases in the local community again (after months of zero community cases) and it feels like 2021 is just 2020 part two. I had to take a break from the news for a bit and find my inner peace again.

And really, that’s the goal these days. Just inner peace. Trying not to let external things, events and people upset the balance. Keeping the optimism alive.

On a personal note, it’s been a good first week of the year for me. Projects lined up that I’m genuinely excited about, daily progress being made, new plans and collaborations with people, spending time with friends and family. I feel like I’m coming home to myself again, slowly but surely sliding back into equilibrium. Silence doesn’t feel daunting or empty; it just feels peaceful now, and my head is no longer preoccupied with anxious thoughts. There’s a quiet power that comes with being comfortable and happy in your own company, when you don’t feel like you’re lacking anything and you’ve got everything you need to keep you fulfilled, busy, and happy. I’m learning to enjoy that again.

Most notably, I’ve been getting a lot more reading and writing done. I’m currently working on four books (three novels and one book of poetry and prose. I know some of you want me to disclose more about my current works-in-progress, but I generally prefer not to divulge too much or make it public before I’m at least done with the first draft. I like my projects to belong completely to me until I at least have a semblance of a thing to show. So this is all I’ll share for now), and I’m reading three books concurrently (more on that in a bit), on top of juggling assignments, painting, working out, and dreaming up new scenes for my novels and new tales to tell.

So when people ask me what I’ve been up to and I say “keeping busy”, that’s the long answer.

Currently Reading:

  1. Magic for Liars, by Sarah Gailey
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There’s murder, a school for teenage mages (think Hogwarts as an American high school), and a private investigator struggling to take on a task too big for her to handle. I do enjoy the voice and the premise, but I also wish the pace would pick up a bit. There’s a lot to uncover here, and so far (133 pages in), the protagonist has just been wrestling with her insecurity issues, rekindling her relationship with her estranged sister, and wandering around the school observing people. I’ll keep going, though, just to see if things build up.

2. By All the Saints and Stars, by my incredible friend and critique partner Meredith Crosbie

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When Meredith first told Nicole (another fantastic writer and fellow Tolkien lover) and I that she was writing a book set in ancient Venice, I was immediately stoked. And it did not disappoint. I practically flew through the first four chapters in one sitting, and am consistently impressed by the world-building and characterisation. You guys, this book will definitely be on the shelves one day, and I’m so honoured to be one of the first few people to read it.

3. Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor

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I knowww. I started reading this book in 2019 and I’m still not done with it. Similarly, I took more than a year to finish King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo, so the fact that I take ages to finish a book is in no way a testament to the quality of the book. Laini and Leigh are stellar writers – I just have terrible a attention span these days (again, I blame social media). But Strange the Dreamer is a hefty book, and there’s a lot of world-building involved so it takes a while to fully immerse in the book.

4. I’ve also been seeking out more poetry.

It’s funny – I never used to be into poetry very much, but maybe that was because I’d never really found poems that resonated with me. My last (cringe-inducing) attempt at poetry was when I was 17: I went everywhere with a black notebook and pen, and sat in dark corners scribbling away in it. I don’t dare to promise that the poems I’m attempting to write now are cringe-free, but I like to think they’re marginally less awful than the ones I wrote as a teenager.

Anyway, here are some much, much better poems others have written that I absolutely adore:

mary oliver
I met Marla back in 2016, when we sat on the same panel at a writers conference, and discovered what an amazing poet she is. Been trying to get my hands on her poetry anthologies but they seem to be out of stock everywhere 😦

Hope you’re having a good start to 2021 (and if not, that you hold faith that things WILL get better)!

Goodbye, 2020

Yes, I know time is a social construct and exists independently of humans, so the concept of New Year is just our way of creating some semblance of linearity so we can bring some order into the chaos etc., but I like the idea of beginning anew, moving inexorably from this moment to the next, and discovering what lies ahead. I like the idea of leaving the past behind us even as we hold close the lessons that hindsight brings us. I like the definitive delineation that the New Year offers, like chapter breaks that let us get up for a drink of water and some space to clear our minds. I like the clarity that the stillness brings after the relentless motion of the entire year.

The pocket of space between this year and the next is a time to breathe, reclaim ourselves, and plan our next step. To remind ourselves of how far we’ve come and how we each have the strength to go further. To smile. To dream. To grief. To hurt. To achieve. To discover. To love again.

So thank you, 2020. You’ve been strange, surreal, chaotic, intense, heartbreaking and beautiful all at once. Here’s to serendipitous discoveries, unwavering inner peace, and the courage to pursue what sets our souls on fire in 2021 as we make our way through the inherent chaos of life.

Is it too early for a year-in-review post?

So I deadass left this blog languishing for a whole year. *slow claps for self*

What can I say, 2020 has been a whirlwind of a year, with so many new experiences and encounters and invaluable lessons learned along the way. People came and left, connections sparked and died, and some old ones reignited. So many changes, so many emotions – they all came at breakneck speed, and sometimes I barely had time to take a moment to just sit and think (or maybe I did too much of that in the wrong way – I’m learning to catch myself when I start to overthink these days), or just take a breather.

Aside from the global catastrophes that I’m sure no one wants to be reminded of yet again (we’re still living our way through it, after all), on the personal front, 2020 came with extremities of laughter and tears, and I’m truly thankful for everything, the good and the bad.

This year, I experienced immense joy, little moments of sublime happiness that seem surreal now when I look back on them. Despite the physical lockdowns and restrictions, my soul had tasted a bit of freedom. This was the year I let go and let myself live – albeit just a little – instead of sticking to my usual austere routine. I opened up to people, much more than I ever allowed myself to, and strayed out of my comfort zone, my safe little bubble of one.

This year, I was also forced to look my insecurities in the figurative eye and contend with old wounds that I had left buried for so long I thought they no longer existed. (News flash: your subconscious doesn’t forget. Anything that is not worked through will come back to bite you in the ass twice as hard.)

This year, corny as it might sound, I learned a huge lesson in self-love. The importance of it. Why we need to be our own best friend, cheerleader, and even lover. How I want to be loved. How my soul needs to be cared for. How to listen to my own needs instead of constantly taking on other people’s problems and making sure they’re happy and appeased. How to set boundaries and not accept less than what I deserve. It really does all begin with the self. Only when we mend what is broken within us will we be able to love others the way they need to be loved. Only when we give ourselves the love and joy we seek can we in turn pour that love and joy into others, instead of expecting them to fill us up. Only when we know what we want will we not settle for less. (That’s a mouthful of alliteration, I apologise.)

I can’t say that I’m a hundred percent satisfied with all my decisions this year. There are many things I wish I had handled differently, better, with more grace and understanding. Being more honest and communicative about my thoughts/needs is also something I continue to struggle with, because of my inherent people-pleasing nature and knee-jerk response to brush off everything and act like they don’t affect me one bit. But I guess we all just have to live with the choices we made, the things we said or did.

Perhaps the key is to just keep moving forward. We already know what happened in the past and there’s nothing we can do to change it, so only the future holds the answer. And the only way to know what happens next is to live from this moment to the next, and the next after that.

I’ve been doing much better at living in the present these days. For the better part of the year, I’d been gripped by relentless anxiety and the desperate need for control, for things to turn out the way I want them to, not realising that nothing is ever in my control, and that there’s no point in trying to direct the course. These days, I’m water, steadily moving forward. Tackling the to-do list, getting started on new projects, hopping back on track with the goals and plans, focusing on the things within my control and tuning out the rest (or trying my best to).

That means more writing, less worrying. Doing more of the things that light up my soul and stressing less over external things/people/issues. It means retreating to my cave and working quietly while staying open to new experiences/people/opportunities that come knocking. It means not getting attached to any particular outcome, and letting both my head and my heart lead me forward, instead of getting carried away by either. It means listening to my intuition and seeing the red flags for what they are, but also keeping on the rose-tinted glasses that help me move through the world with a healthy dose of optimism and good faith. It means less talk, more action. Less expectation, more persistence and discipline.

It means sticking to the game plan in 2021. Rolling up the sleeves and getting back to work. Manifesting. Staying hopeful, excited, and grateful.

So thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to everyone who’s played a part in shaping 2020 for me. 2021. I’m ready for you.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

PS. My new website is finally up! Have a peep and watch that space for more updates!

Happy 4th Anniversary, Muses!

The short story blog is now a wild toddler!

*blows dust off blog*

I know, I know. It’s been almost a full year since I last blogged. I don’t know how time passed so quickly, but this year has been … eventful, to say the least.

From forest fires to a certain deadly pandemic making its rounds around the world to the fight against racism to rising unemployment rate and global economic standstill (I could go on, but I’m already out of breath), there’s barely been time to sit down and properly lay down my thoughts this year.

It feels like everything’s been culminating in this whirlwind of a year, and I’ve been working double time to keep my spirits up and the hope alive. 2020 hasn’t been a complete washout of a year, though, and it’s not over yet so we still have time to make up for the past few months.

Anyway, this post was meant to be quick because I have a bunch of work to finish (more on that in an upcoming post, if I ever get around to it!) and the focus wasn’t supposed to be on 2020, but on THE MUSES BLOG! We turned four recently and surpassed 500 followers!

*throws confetti*

When I first proposed the idea of a short story blog to my wonderful co-founders, Meredith and Nicole, I didn’t expect it to be a whole undertaking on its own. I figured it would just be a safe space for us to explore and experiment with different genres, forms, voices, etc. We would follow our curiosity, write stories that we’d never expected ourselves to write, make friends with other writers along the way. Now we’ve developed a writing community, gained a social media following on Twitter and Instagram, and even had guest writers on board.

It’s been an amazing ride, and I shall save the sappy words for my fellow Muses in private. But thank you to all of you who have followed, supported, given us a shout-out, liked our posts, and continued to keep the flame alive. We can’t wait to see where the next four years take us! ❤️

Bring it on, 2020.

Things to leave behind in 2019:

1. Negative self-talk
2. Self-doubt
3. The feeling of not being enough
4. The fear of making the first move
5. The need to be busy constantly
6. The desire to please everyone.

Things to embrace in 2020:

  1. Serendipitous encounters
  2. Heart-to-heart talks
  3. Letting go of structure and routine, following my mood and curiosity
  4. Saying what’s on my mind
  5. Listening to my body
  6. Reading more books, watching more films, putting the phone down

Sometimes, the thought of how finite our time is terrifies me. It sends me into a desperate frenzy to do everything all at once. Pick up a new skill. Enroll in a new course. Pack my social schedule back-to-back. Work on several side hustles. Complete my work ahead of time. Read multiple books at once. Write multiple books at once. No rest for the weary.

I had this insane thought that I needed to achieve everything I set out to in my twenties, otherwise I would have wasted all my youth. We only have that many decades to live, after all.

But it was in my relentless pursuit in the race against time that I had, ironically, lost time. Time to live instead of merely carve out a life.

Maybe we’re not meant to do everything all at once. Maybe I’ve been sprinting all this time with the audacious hope that I could be the one to defy the odds, unwilling to accept my fallibility. Maybe instead of constantly trying to push our limits, we need to understand why they exist to begin with. Maybe that’s when we can finally grow beyond our past selves.

So as this decade begins, I’m staring the present right in the figurative eye before it, too, becomes another memory. Not every moment has been perfect, but I’m thankful for every step of the way – the tears and laughter, the sleepless nights and hazy days, the moments of crippling despair and the moments of unadulterated happiness.

May we all enter the new decade with the same audacity and hope, but also more kindness for ourselves. After all, we only have that many decades to live.

Happy New Year to one and all!

Do we have hope or do we have expectations? (Yes, there’s a difference.)

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Hope is the thing with feathers.

So said Emily Dickinson in her beautiful, timeless poem.

Hope is great. Hope is fuel. Hope keeps us warm in a frigid wasteland where dreams go to die. Hope keeps us going even though everything before us seems bleak.

And when you’re a millennial writer trying to achieve your publishing dreams, pay the bills and accumulate some savings, have a social (and romantic) life, get enough sleep, take care of your body, and spend adequate quality time with your loved ones, hope is the only thing you can cling to in order not to drown.

A friend and I were having a chat recently where she voiced her very familiar anxieties.

“I wish we can at least have a glimpse of what the future holds, or at least have an inkling,” she said. “If we know there is a bit of reward there, we can still hold out and survive to see our fruits of labour. How do we know this is the right way we are going? What if in the end, everything was a fruitless attempt?”

Which is true. We can never know. Maybe life is just one big anxiety trip, and we’ll just have to live with that discomfort of not knowing or kill ourselves wondering about the outcome.

I think all we can hope for is that at the end of it all, we have lived a life we can be proud of. Instead of one where we are trapped in a dead-end job we don’t love and that doesn’t fill our soul, one where we went out and did the things we wanted and loved, things that made us grow in the direction we wanted to grow.

Hope is a double-edged sword.

There’s a danger in conflating hope with expectation.

Hope is the belief that you are headed towards something good. Expectation is the belief that your sacrifices entitle you to something good.

You feel like there is a huge gap between what you want and what you have, where you want to be and where you actually are, and that gap is what keeps you craning your neck for what’s on the other side, always dissatisfied with what you have and where you are.

I used to feel like after all the time and effort I’ve put in, after years of writing and honing my craft and studying the publishing industry, that I deserved to get what I want. To get multiple book deals, to be a successful author, to go on book tours and sit on author panels and have lines of readers at my book signing.

But just because we put in the effort doesn’t necessarily guarantee that we get our desired outcome. I expected to get what I want because I put in the effort, and it made me really miserable because I kept asking myself what i was doing wrong or not enough of.

That, according to British philosopher Alain de Botton, is the problem with meritocracy. Because we celebrate the belief that those who work hard and are good enough achieve success, we also believe that the reverse is true – that if we fail or aren’t successful, that must mean we aren’t good enough or didn’t work hard enough.

New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks agrees. “The evil of meritocracy is that people who’ve achieved a little more than others are worth a little more than others,” he said in his TED talk.

Looking back, I was a pretty entitled little shit. I expected too much, and set myself up for massive disappointment as a result.

Hope is the light we need to turn on.

These days, I’m trying to focus on what I have instead of what I don’t, to find happiness where I am instead of expecting it to be round the corner, just out of my reach.

These days, I’m not aiming for happiness. Happiness is what we feel when we get what we want. It’s when we receive our paychecks, or when we score that promotion, that book deal, or tickets to the concert that sold out in minutes.

These days, I’m aiming for joy. Joy is when we feel gladness in our heart because we fully enjoy what we’re doing in the moment. Joy is when I discover a story after pursuing the thing that ignites my curiosity. Joy is when I’m so immersed in writing a scene I lose track of time. Joy is when I read a book that moves me to tears or makes me miss my stop. Joy is when I watch The Mummy for the eight millionth time and it still doesn’t disappoint (look, campy or not, it’s a fun cinematic adventure and justifiably a cult classic).

Sometimes we get so caught up chasing happiness that we lose sight of what brings us joy.

Hope and joy seem to go hand-in-hand. Because we have hope, we find joy. If we start trying to reach for happiness, we come to expect too much of what life can give us at any given moment.

Maybe it can be as simple as being present, doing more of the things that bring us joy and shutting out the voices that tell us we need more than that.

Maybe with hope, that’s how we can reclaim that piece of ourselves that has been worn down over the years by life and all its practicalities and demands.

Maybe hope is our steadfast friend, our only ally, one that will see us through till the end without, like Emily Dickinson said, asking a crumb of us.

Day 407 – Write Where You Are.

Faith and Creativity

There are two points here.

The first is, literally, write where you are.

You don’t need a magic desk, or a sea view, or the sound of migrating Elk – to be honest I don’t even know if Elk migrate, but you get the point I’m sure.

Write in a notebook, write on your phone, write on your arm.

Keep your brain on its creative channel and don’t switch over to see what is on the other side.

I’m still learning this lesson.

The second point is, write where you are. Write from your thoughts, your experiences, the voices of the characters standing next to you.

Sometimes the people reading you will love it. Sometimes they won’t.

It’s like your favourite band. You don’t like every album they’ve ever made. Well not the same anyway.

You have preferred albums. This one blew your mind. That one made you wonder is…

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So much new Asian-lit in my TBR, I’m loving it

I am SO behind on my reading list.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m the most easily distracted gnat you can find. Gone are the days when I could write 3k words a day without fail (seriously, how did I do that?). These days, I pat myself on the back just for reading an entire chapter without going on Instagram or Tumblr.

Still, that doesn’t mean I have to stop adding books to my To-Be-Read pile. It currently stands at 567 books, but you know, I’ll get through them all … some day. (I can read from my grave, right?)

And seeing so many new Asian literature – particularly in YA – makes me very happy indeed. (Book recs below!)

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Confession: When I was a teenage writer still trying to find my voice, I tried to mimic the way Western – mostly American – authors wrote. I adopted their voice, their narrative style and characters’ mannerisms and speech.

But those didn’t sit right. The stories I wrote weren’t rooted in my reality, my country or my neighbourhood. They didn’t feature the people I interacted with daily. They were textbook characters created in the likeness of those from my favourite authors’ books. They even had Western last names. They went to high school (not secondary school, as we call it here), and they talked like the American teenagers I saw in movies.

Why?

Because I thought that if I wrote a story from my perspective, no one would be able to relate to it, much less want to read it. I thought that if I created a world based on my reality, my narrow slice of life in this little corner of the world, I would isolate readers from the rest of the world. I thought the Western reality was the only relevant one. 

Obviously, I no longer subscribe to that notion. It’s kind of sad and embarrassing, in fact, to admit this. To admit that I thought my culture was not relevant or significant enough to be written about in books. That I had to alter my reality to fit what I saw in mainstream culture, be it in movies or books.

And this is exactly why we need more diverse representation in literature, and why I’m excited about the increase in diverse lit in recent years. It shows young, impressionable readers (like myself back then) that there can be more than one culture other than the one typically seen in Hollywood movies or books. That other cultures are not in any way lesser than the one seen in mainstream media and pop culture. That everyone can have a voice, and those voices deserve to be heard. That all cultures and communities have a place in pop culture, and we don’t have to all subscribe to one “correct” or “common” culture.

I also used to think that fantasy could only feature boys, or Caucasian characters because the sort of fantasy books I could find involved Medieval settings, swords and stallions, taverns and corsets. But the surge of diverse YA fantasy in recent years (shoutout to Sabaa Tahir, Renee Ahdieh, Marie Lu, Julie C. Dao, Tomi Adeyemi, Roshani Chokshi, Alwyn Hamilton and more!) has made me see that diversity is – and should be – celebrated now more than ever before. And rightly so. Be it African, Middle Eastern, Russian, Indian, Japanese, Korean or Chinese, literature becomes much richer when many more cultures join the party, bringing to the table different stories, perspectives, values, folklore, beliefs.

Leigh Bardugo says it best here (timestamp 6:00 – 7:40):

(I recommend watching ALL her interviews, by the way. She is so eloquent and is never shy about putting things into stark perspective, calling out the bullshit in the system – misrepresentation, whitewashing, misogyny, etc., yet she’s always humble and jovial and relatable. If you read her books, you’ll also find that her characters are a diverse mix – in terms of race and sexual orientation – and she takes great pains to ensure they all properly represent the marginalised communities. She’s just THE BEST OKAY I LOVE HER.)

Anyway, Asian-lit reading list:

Descendant of the Crane

Descendant of the Crane, by Joan He: a Chinese-inspired fantasy involving magic, a brave princess, vengeance and deception. DROOL. Also, that cover. DOUBLE DROOL.

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Spin the Dawn, (The Blood of Stars #1), by Elizabeth Lim: Billed as Project Runway meets Mulan, it’s about a girl who poses as a boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor and embarks on a journey to sew three magic dresses. Yup, I’m on board.

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I Love You So Mochi, by Sarah Kuhn: Coming-of-age story about an art student rediscovering her roots in Kyoto. Reminds me of The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan.

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Wicked Fox, (Gumiho #1), by Kat Cho: a fantasy-romance set in modern-day Seoul about a girl who’s a gumiho (the legendary nine-tailed fox from Korean folklore) who falls for a human boy. IT FEELS LIKE A KOREAN DRAMA. BUT IN BOOK FORM. I’ve always wondered what Korean dramas would read like as novels, and now I shall find out.

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Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, by Roselle Lim: a contemporary tale of a girl who goes home and reconnects with her estranged family after her mother’s death. Love me some family drama and low-key sobriety. Also, how cute is this cover? It’s giving me Love Fortunes and Other Disasters vibe, and it has a similar small-town charm.

tl;dr Yay for #ownvoices and diverse books!

If you’re a reader or writer of colour, what has your experience been like seeking diversity in fiction? How has that influenced your worldview or you as a writer? What are your thoughts on the rise of diverse literature? I’d love to hear from you!

The 5 Stages of Finishing a Novel

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

I’m finally done with not just the shitty Draft 0 of LAND OF SAND AND SONG, but the first round of edits too (i.e. Draft 1), before I send it out to critique partners and beta readers WHO MIGHT POTENTIALLY JUDGE ME FOR THE WORD VOMIT THAT COMES OUT OF MY HEAD.

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This whole journey been far too long (from planning in late Oct 2016 to completing the first draft on 28 Feb 2019) with far too many starts and stops along the way, topped with a lethal mix of self-doubt and despair at ever finishing, and more rewrites than I bothered to count….

But hey, IT’S FINALLY DONE. I can finally dust my hands off this manuscript (at least for a while) and go work on something else.

bye sucker

And by something else I mean the 3428945076 other stories, including old manuscripts and half-baked new ideas, I’ve got brewing in the pot.

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But then I kinda miss this world. Part of me wants to linger on. IS THIS WHY PEOPLE WRITE SERIES? Because they can’t leave that world they created behind? I’m convinced that has to be part of the reason. There is comfort in that mad little world we’ve created.

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Then again, it’s time for me to resurface to the world and be a normal human being again instead of a writer burrito in my hermit cave.

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*squints into sunlight*

But when I’m out in public, I can’t stop thinking about writing and what I’m going to write next. I’m scrolling through Tumblr for writing tips and prompts, I’m taking notes and creating story and character arcs in my notebook, I’m daydreaming about different lives.

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So I guess it’s back to the writing cave for me. Have fun out there!

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Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a short story or two to devour, we’ve got some for you over at Muse in Pocket, Pen in Hand! 🙂

Best of Blog: Round Up!

Too valuable a resource not to share. How’s the writing going, everyone? 🙂

Carly Watters, Literary Agent

IMG_5222.JPGI spent 5+ years on this blog and I haven’t posted in awhile, but I wanted to share a great round up of some of my top posts throughout the years.

I think I’ve made this place a good launch pad for authors’ careers answering questions about all aspects of the writing and publishing arenas.

Let me know which articles were most helpful to you!

THE CRAFT

Top Tips for Writing / Editing:

On characters 30 questions to ask your main character.

On comparison to other writers 6 Tips on why writers shouldn’t (but might) compare themselves to others, and why they shouldn’t (what they should do).

On category and genre. Infographic: Do You Know The Difference Between Literary, Upmarket and Commercial Fiction? Helping writers understand the difference between these three categories so that they can market and sell (or query) their book better.

On writing page one: Tips To…

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