Chicago Writing Workshop

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It’s not too late! There are still open spots for you to sign up and attend the Chicago Writing Workshop that’s happening on Saturday, June 23. If you’re looking for a conference that won’t break the bank (especially if you’re near Chi-town and don’t need a hotel), check this one out. Likewise, if the thought of spending two or more days with a bunch of strangers is terrifying, this is a one-day 9-5 workshop. You can do lunch all by yourself if you so desire.

Bonus: It’s held at the architecturally beautiful Congress Plaza hotel, which also happens to feature prominently (read: murder scene!) in my novel, The Devil Inside Me.

Registration is just $169. I thought that a fair price for what’s offered. Literary agents, editors, and authors deliver most of the workshop sessions. And for each of the five breakout blocks, there are three sessions to choose from. Some are applicable to everyone, such as “Pursuing a Small Press Publisher,” and some are geared to specific genres: “How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal,” “How to Write and Pitch Awesome Science Fiction and Fantasy,” “How to Get Your Young Adult and Middle Grade Novels Published,” “Tell Me True: Tips on Writing Memoir and Essay.”

I’m particularly looking forward to the “Query Letter Comprehensive” session since that is the next step on my list after these edits that seemingly never end.

For reasonable add-on fees, you can also pitch agents and editors of all genres ($29 per). Several are sold out of time slots, but to give you an idea of the caliber we’re talking about, here’s just a few on the list: Emily Clark Victorson, Marcy Posner, Tracy Brennan, Abby Saul…

Sound like a decent deal? I thought so. I’ll let you know how it went afterward–and if you’re attending, I’d love to meet!

How Many Rejections Can You Take?

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Comparison is the thief of joy. I’m positive Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t talking about writers when he said that, but for those of us still in the aspiring-to-be-published category, it most definitely rings true.

When you’re the person still wondering if you can ever complete your first draft, or considering stabbing your eyes out during your first round of edits, or questioning if it’s your query letter or manuscript that is the cause of multiple rejections, seeing others’ success stories can make you doubt yourself. Why haven’t you gotten that far? Why aren’t you published? Scratch that–why is it taking so long to finish the first draft?

These doubts can quickly shift to negative thoughts. You know, the I’m-not-really-a-writer thoughts. The I’m-not-good-enough thoughts. The why-is-it-so-easy-for-everyone-else thoughts. It’s like a disease that spreads in your brain, doubt. But fear not! There is an antidote.

At the end of April, Caitlin LaRue started a #authorstats Twitter thread asking published authors to share their stats: how long it took to get an agent or deal, how many rounds of revisions, how many manuscripts, etc. The responses were eye-opening and ranged from a year to a lifetime. In other words, there is no timeline. The path is sometimes circuitous. No two journeys are the same. And for the love of all that is holy in Writing Land, don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Don’t let all that comparing take your joy.

What if you need a boost? Something to give you some confidence?

Submit something–just don’t forget that your timeline is your own.

When I first sat down and seriously decided I was going to write The Devil Inside Me, I learned as much as I could about the industry. One recommendation suggested writing and submitting short stories (or articles for you non-fiction writers) to build your publishing resume. My initial response was why? I didn’t want to be a short story writer; I wanted to be a novelist. And then, as I mentioned in “Just Submit the Story Already,” @HollyWrites13 and @AvrinKelly tweeted about #52weeks52stories, and I relented–mostly because I thought it would be fun to write a few exploring the backgrounds of my novel’s characters. I had no real plan to submit them–I wanted them to be exploratory and add some back story.

So I wrote a few, and, to my surprise, I genuinely loved one of them. “What have you got to lose?” became my mantra, and I submitted it. Repeatedly. And the rejections came, and they did indeed sting, but I remembered Stephen King. As a kid, long before he was published (in anything, not just his novels), he put all of his rejection letters on a nail in the wall. In his book On Writing, he said, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” If repeated rejections were good enough for Stephen King, they’re good enough for me.

So, my #authorstats? In April, my short story “Downright Devilish” was published in Fourth & Sycamore’s online literary journal. I wrote it in a couple of days but revised it over a couple of weeks. I submitted it to nine different places via Submittable and received four rejections and four non-responses (typically equated with rejections in the publishing world).

I was so excited that someone liked it that I submitted another. My short story “Fiendish” will be published in a traditional print anthology (I can announce where later in May!). I wrote it in a couple of days and revised over a couple of weeks. I submitted that short story to twenty-three different places and contests via Submittable. This garnered ten rejections and four non-response/rejections. (The remainder are still in-process.)

I am far from what I would consider a published author. For me, that will be a published full-length novel with some respectable sales. And I haven’t won a Glimmer Train contest nor am I published in Strand. (Yet.) BUT, my writerly friends, I can not tell you how indescribable it is to see a YES! We love your work! email.

And now I get it. Those emails, those glorious people who read your work and say hey, I like what you’ve done here–they don’t just add to your publishing bio. They bolster your esteem. They’re a reminder that it’s not a race, that it’s ok to be on your own path. And that, writers, makes you want to write more. The more you write, the better you’ll get. 

Just Submit the Story Already!

pexels-photo-862115.jpegOn Twitter, I began participating in the #52stories52weeks challenge, which is just as it sounds: write a short story/flash fiction piece every week for a year. Now, let’s be honest– I stopped working on short stories to focus on finishing my WIP, The Devil Inside Me, but that challenge helped me in so many ways. In addition to connecting with fellow writers, I also explored my WIP’s characters through these short pieces. Each one had a background story to tell, from the protagonist to the murder victims to the H.H. Holmes tour guide.

The legend of H.H. Holmes, as you may know, is what prompted me to begin The Devil Inside Me. One of my short stories, “Downright Devilish,” is part of a series that re-imagines the childhood of Holmes, based partly on historical fact. I was hesitant to submit it anywhere because, well, I’m not a published author. But everyone has to start somewhere in order to become that published author, right? So I submitted. And submitted. And submitted. And got rejection. And rejection. And rejection. And…a yes!

Please enjoy “Downright Devilish” as it appears on Fourth and Sycamore’s online literary journal.

Writers, if you have a short story lying around, or some poetry tucked away in a notebook, submit it. That one “yes” will be worth the stack of rejections, I promise.

PS–If you want to read more of The Devil Inside Me, sign up HERE today!

Bootcamp for Writers!

A few people inquired about the bootcamp I mentioned in a previous post, so here are a few details!

Once I decided to treat this writing endeavor seriously, I knew I would have to push myself outside of my comfort zone. Way outside of my comfort zone. I would have to do the unthinkable: share my writing. Gasp! The horror! I would have to seek advice from professionals. I would have to give myself permission to try, to fail, to succeed.

When I was first brave enough to share my writing, I chose with intention: our librarian, who is a former English teacher. My first comment was “be gentle.” Then I turned around and said, “Scratch that. Be brutal.” She was both–and I’m grateful.

Back when the idea for The Devil Inside Me arrived in my head, I genuinely thought I had a good premise that people would enjoy to read and publishers would see as potentially profitable–but, I wanted some type of acknowledgement of that. One day while perusing the blogs on Writer’s Digest, I stumbled across this gem: Agent One-on-One Bootcamp–Your First Ten Pages. Yes, it cost money. No, Writer’s Digest is not paying me for this commentary. Yes, it was worth every penny. (Please note they do not have an active version of this bootcamp at the moment, but I included a link for the description.)

Here’s how it was shaped: You watch a couple of webinars. You edit your first ten pages of your manuscript according to those general-but-detailed how-to-write-a-novel videos. You submit those ten pages to a participating agent. The agent provides you with detailed revision notes. You revise and resubmit. The agent provides you with a last commentary on your revisions.

Why is this valuable? First, I was able to get the confirmation that, yes, I had a sale-able concept. Yes, I have some writing skill–and perhaps more importantly, I was able to revise according to the agent’s suggestions. No one was knocking down my door asking me to send them more, but it did give me the confidence I needed to make sure that I wasn’t on some crazy train to deluded-land.

Furthermore, the agents available were reputable and well-known. Writer’s Digest made it clear who they were in advance, so I was able to research the agency and the agents themselves. I was also able to select which agent I wanted to submit to–who happens to represent (and write) in the mystery genre. 

Clicking send was simultaneously nightmarish and euphoric. Receiving her revision notes was simultaneously defeating and anti-climactic. I must have read the email fourteen times and went through something that felt like the stages of grief in a matter of hours. (Apparently I am not alone: Check out Janelle Drumwright’s Carve post on the very topic.)

You know, denial: She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m the next William Shakespeare. Anger: But that point-of-view is an absolute must-have! See denial. Bargaining: Well, maybe if I had… Depression: She’s right. She knows what she’s talking about. I will never be a writer. Acceptance: Hey, she had some positive comments–maybe I should just try revising according to what she wants.

I got over myself. I made the revisions (though I especially despised the point-of-view change) and murdered my darlings. And what do you know? Praise and a comment of “you have a good chance of selling this once you’ve polished” was worth my warp-speed grieving process.

What did I learn?

INVEST A LITTLE

I balked a little at spending the money. I’ve read that you need to invest in yourself and your endeavors, no matter what they are, if you want to move forward and improve. This was well worth the money to give me the boost of confidence that I wasn’t completely out of left field.

I have since invested in paid memberships for several groups that will provide me with networking and conferencing opportunities: The Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Chicago Writers Association, Indiana Writers’ Consortium, and Writers Guild of Indiana. I’ve also invested serious time in prepping this website and blog in the hopes that it will help me spread the word of my endeavors and help others who are on the same path. 

LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS

I also balked a little at the agent’s suggestions. Couldn’t she see my vision? Once I got to the stage where I believed there was no harm in trying, I did just that–and as I made those revisions, I could see what she meant. Furthermore, after the bootcamp, I read my manuscript (still a WIP) from start to finish and was able to revise more problem areas.

DO YOUR RESEARCH–ON EVERYTHING

One of the most important take-aways from this experience was to make yourself as knowledgeable as possible. The internet is a magnificent beast–use it. From creating a website to what to include on blog posts to how to utilize social media to finding an agent to novel length to how to self-publish without getting taken…it’s all out there. I had read reviews on other bootcamps where the agents weren’t known, or they weren’t responsive, or their advice was canned. I dug around until I felt confident that the agents at this particular bootcamp would be what I needed. The more information you can arm yourself with, the better. Just don’t research so much you stop writing!

Writers, what types of classes, bootcamps, or conferences have you attended? What value did they provide you?

Readers, every time we edit and revise, we are doing it with you in mind. What are the most important features of a story for you? Is it the characters? The plot? The writing style? Why?

Sign up for my mailing list HERE to receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me. I’d love to hear your comments!

Writing in 2018

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Expert’s Opinion

Now that January is over and we can forget about all of those goals we made…just kidding! If one of your goals is to further your own knowledge in an area of writing, check out Jane Friedman’s thoughts on what 2018 is going to look like for writers.

Her recent post, “What Does 2018 Hold for Writers?” covers trends in freelancing, including paid email newsletters and Medium; book manufacturing; what’s trending in kids’ books; a round-up of indie authors’ opinions; and a link for Joanna Penn’s round-up on self-publishing. 

Whether you’re starting out in the writing world or you are a seasoned freelancer, Jane Friedman–and her twenty years of experience in the publishing biz–is an endless source of timely information. (I used her blog post about author websites to create mine.) You can’t get a much better curated list than one from her. Enjoy!

I signed up for a writing conference…what was I thinking?

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When I participated in Writer’s Digest’s First Ten Pages Boot Camp, one of the features was a lengthy, very open Q&A with our critiquing agent. One question posed in my group was this: What, aside from a polished manuscript and a stand-out query letter, can writers do to get published?

Paula Munier of Talcott Notch Literary Services suggested writing conferences. Why wouldn’t you want to meet like-minded people, network with agents and editors, attend mini-classes on everything from finding an agent to reworking point-of-view? 

I began researching (while the introvert inside of me shrieked, “Strangers! Small talk!”) and discovered the Indiana Writing Workshop–not terribly far from me, with a reasonable cost and a featured agent on my dream-agent list. 

In the one day conference, there are opportunities to pitch multiple agents. You can also have Chuck Sambuchino critique your query letter. (I will share the results, no matter how embarrassing.) Classes cover publishing options, finding an agent, a first chapter critique-fest, revising, and marketing.

All of these pieces fit my needs perfectly, so I signed up last month. And now that it’s getting closer, I’m starting to question what the heck I was thinking!

Lucky for me, just like with Lauren Sapala’s serendipitous post last week that fanned the writing flame inside me, a little bit of kismet came my way when I saw this older post from The Muse Crew. (Thank you to D. A. Henneman for sharing the blog link!) Four of the blog’s contributors attended the same conference and reported back for their readers. Here is a sampling of their advice:

“Pitch to an agent in your genre. Research your genre to find out what is currently being sought after, then consider how your story matches. Think of it like a job interview – find out what they want, then share what you have to offer and how you can meet their needs.”

“You have less than 15 minutes to shine, so put your best foot forward.”

“Consider what other popular authors in your genre have a similar writing style to your own. Often agents will ask you about your favorite author or if your writing is similar to any well known author. Agents also like to know if you have published anything else, if you are working on anything else and whether your story is more plot driven or character driven. Be prepared to answer these questions.”

“I highly recommend doing this! It forces you to practice describing your work in a concise way, it gives you an idea if your story ideas are interesting to those who market them…”

While I’m still a little nervous, The Muse Crew’s advice reminded me why I’m doing this. If I want people to read this story, then I have to–gulp–let people read this story.

What kind of experiences have you had at writing conferences? I’d love to hear about them–the good, the bad, and the horrific!

What Harriet the Spy Taught Me

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A couple of posts back, I flippantly said that if Harriet the Spy was my favorite book in fourth grade, why would I ever deviate from that genre when writing?  To my surprise, a few of you messaged and said that you, too, loved Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet, and before I knew it, I was taking a trip back to where my love of mystery and thrillers began. 

My earliest screen-viewing memories include Clue, Macgyver, The Twilight Zone, and perhaps my favorite as a kid: Murder, She Wrote. When I had to write about the merits of The Scarlet Letter in high school, I focused almost entirely on the who-REALLY-is-the-father mystery and the psychology behind choices made. A good foundation built for my future self as a Law and Order junkie.

And then I discovered Agatha Christie. Maybe it was my Harriet the Spy training (I did run around my grandma’s neighborhood one summer with a spy notebook), but my thirteen year old self had gotten pretty good at solving those Murder, She Wrote episodes. When I picked up Hallowe’en Party, I was blown away. I didn’t have Angela Lansbury’s knowing glances to help me along, you know, and it was Christie’s writing that taught me what close reading really was. I also thoroughly blame her for my initial feelings of inadequacy when contemplating penning a mystery. My feelings were such that my first true attempt at a novel was in a completely different genre. We know where that landed.

When I was doing a bit of research for this post, I found a Writer’s Digest guest column by Jennifer McMahon, author of The Night Sister and The Winter People, in which she says to “think about the books you love, the ones you really lose yourself in. If those are mysteries, don’t try to write an historical romance or a quiet literary novel…Write what you love.” I only wish I’d found this post a couple of years ago. My current work-in-progress is mystery/crime fiction with a historical twist. I agree with Ms. McMahon: if it’s in your gut, if it’s in your heart, write it. Don’t try to write what you aren’t. Or, as Harriet the Spy’s nanny, Ole Golly said, “Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”

Readers and writers, what books have been instrumental in making you who you are? I know there are as many varied responses as there are personalities out there! (And if you’d like to know more about Harriet the Spy, check out School Library Journal’s commentary. If you have kiddos, it’s a wonderful book to share.

Sign up HERE today and receive a snippet of my current project that I am super excited about: The Devil Inside Me.

Murder Your Darlings

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Earlier this week, I focused on the argument of editing while writing versus writing without stopping. Part of that struggle includes editing out pieces that you love but just don’t fit.

I first stumbled across that concept in Stephen King’s book On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

That phrase has been attributed to numerous writers over the years, from Eudora Welty to William Faulkner and, of course, Stephen King, but the true credit goes to one Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, an editor and writer, who presented a series of lectures in 1913-1914 at Cambridge University about writing (which Bartleby has lovingly preserved here). He said, “To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament.”

In other words, just because something sounds fancy does not mean it’s good writing (or good reading). He continued with this snarky gem: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

I’d heard the concept, but I really hadn’t been forced to put it into practice until I signed up for a writing bootcamp. One of the comments from a published author and reputed agent on my writing:? “Too dense.” Dense as in too thick with those $5 words and crafted phrases. My darlings. I was immediately transported back to my sophomore year in college when my novels professor gave me my first (but not last) B on an essay. One word sat in red ink next to the offensive letter: “Wordy.” I had never received that kind of feedback, and the sting was palpable. My bootcamp mentor and novel prof were effectively saying what Mr. Quiller-Couch had: Write it how you want to write it, but then murder those darlings. Or, as legend Elmore Leonard put it, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”

Don’t despair! You can always resurrect those murdered darlings. Cut and paste them all into one place so that, if you find you wished you hadn’t murdered one after all, you can bring it to life again. Mine now reside in a folder punnily named The Dead Files. That file made it so much easier to let go–because I wasn’t really letting go. Resurrection is right around the corner thanks to technology. (Doesn’t that just beg for a post about Battlestar Galactica?) 

Need some help on how to do away with those darlings? Ruthanne Reid shares lovely advice on The Write Practice.  (You should also read her post about Neil Gaiman’s rules of writing.)

Writers, is this your process too, or do you do something altogether different with those darlings when you cut swaths of your work? Comment and let me know!

Readers, have you ever wondered if a piece was cut from your favorite novel? Would you want to read those cut pieces? I’m toying with the idea of releasing some of mine here on the blog. Please comment if that’s something you’d like to see!

To get a free sneak-preview of my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me, please sign up for my mailing list here. Email subscribers will receive extras along the way! 

Should I Edit While Writing?

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First, can I give a shout out to my first followers? Thank you so much for taking the time to read my thoughts and for your kind words. I’d love to hear your comments here on the blog! If you’d like to read snippets of my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me, please sign up for my mailing list here. It’s not the same as subscribing to the blog itself–and you’ll get extra freebies along the way in addition to pieces of my novel!

On my last post, I spoke of giving ourselves permission to write–to try, to fail, to shelve that 60,000 words of a novel you faltered on. I also discussed giving ourselves permission to write in the genre that gets our blood pumping. That’s mystery for me–I mean, when your favorite book as a fourth-grader was Harriet the Spy, why would you deviate?

There was something else I had to give myself permission for. As an English teacher, wanting to proof and polish after every 500 words or so is in my nature, but not always conducive to getting my story on paper (or computer screen). Sometimes you just need to get those words down and worry about the grammar perfection and beautiful turns-of-phrase later. In my shelved novel, I would bold the items that needed more detail, or even write research questions right into my text. This resulted in some strange re-reads: Elena and Robert waited for a table at what restaurants are on the San Antonio riverwalk?

Sometimes, though, I felt that this created more work in the long run AND left me with holes in my storyline. (That certainly was not because I wasn’t sure where my storyline was headed…right?) Blogger and podcaster Ryan Pelton acknowledges that others may call him a “heretic” but editing as he goes is his go-to form of writing. In one post, he explains that not editing until the end meant his “motivation to edit went out the window.”

Of course, it’s different for everyone, and, while we’re at it, who wants to define editing? For me, if, when typing out a sentence, one of the resident voices-in-head screamed, “No! Use ELUCIDATE!” I listened. Sometimes the voices-in-head were having a philosophical conversation that was one part Mark Twain saying, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent one will do” and one part high school English teacher asking “What would Strunk and White say?” In those cases, I tried to highlight or bold the problem area and return to it later. Grammarian Liz Bureman says, “If you’re on a four-day creative bender, stopping to edit will slow your momentum and may leave you struggling to pick up where you left off.” Excellent advice for those days we are bogged down by perfection.

When NaNoWriMo time arrived last year–where the goal is to get down 50,000 in one month–I revisited Ms. Bureman’s advice and realized that some days I was just going to need to write for writing’s sake. For some of us, we must force the grammarian in us to allow the creative self to just be. Allow for stream-of-consciousness writing. Allow for mistakes. Allow for imperfections. Allow our creative selves to go where they want to go. The grammar minutiae can wait. And on the days when it can’t, edit as you go. Find what works for you–and that may be different on the daily.

Writers, how do you deal with your inner grammarian whilst writing? Comment (and sign up for my mailing list here) and receive my newest editing helper: The Punctuation Primer in addition to a snippet of The Devil Inside Me.

Readers, what are some things you wish writers would edit out? What do you consider “too much” when you’re reading? Is it dialog? Description? Comment (and sign up for my mailing list here) and receive my newest editing helper: The Punctuation Primer. Even if you aren’t writing a novel, my Punctuation Primer will help you look like grammar nobility in your emails and posts! You’ll also receive a snippet of The Devil Inside Me!

Yes! You Can Be a Writer!

Who can be a writer? YOU can be a writer!

The first thing I learned from that half-done, now-shelved novel I mentioned earlier this week? 

WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE–and don’t be afraid to do it. Stop asking yourself “am I good enough to be a writer?” You’ll never know until you try, and, chances are, you’re already exhibiting signs. Not sure? Scott Kuttner discusses 12 of them. 

Everyone has probably heard the write-what-you-know mantra, but I’m talking about what books you love. Not just the relatable characters or the author’s unique voice, but the genre. From my ancient, well-loved Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory by J.A. Cuddon, genre is “a kind, a literary type, or class. The major classical genres were epic, tragedy, lyric, comedy and satire, to which would now be added novel and short story.”

Today, we can further break “novel” down: horror, upmarket women’s fiction, dystopian, steampunk, psychological thriller, historical fiction, urban fantasy, mystery, cozy mystery…I could go on and on and on…  

I was terrified to start writing in the genre that has always fascinated me: mystery. Why? I didn’t think I’d be good enough. I mean, when your favorite authors are P.D. James, Dennis Lehane, and Agatha Christie–those are some serious, red-herring-throwing heavy hitters. I’m lucky if I can beat my husband at a game of Clue. I love Sherlock Holmes, but could I even begin to think like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

And then it happened. The stars aligned and the concept for my current project nestled in my brain. I couldn’t dislodge it. I wished that Dennis Lehane would cross my path, so I could pitch him the idea and beg him to run with it.

Alas, Mr. Lehane never showed up in my rural Midwestern town. So I gave myself permission. Permission to try. Permission to acknowledge that while I may never be Agatha Christie, what harm could there by in trying to write a mystery?

What happened next was mind-blowing. I was much more invested in this idea than I ever was with my last project. I started plotting and researching and pantsing (more on this later) on some days. I was excited to write or research in some fashion every single day, despite having a demanding full-time job. It inspired me to finish my author website, to begin this blog, to reach out to others who are not yet published so that we can share our successes and our challenges, to reach out to future readers who would (gulp!) give me feedback.

Essentially, I gave myself permission to believe in myself.

Incredibly successful blogger and writer Jeff Goins pointed out that our hesitations may actually be because “we’re insecure, we don’t believe we have anything to offer, we think we’ll fail.” He also added that “no one’s going to give you permission to be yourself.”

And that’s the point: Give yourself permission. Permission to try. Permission to fail. Permission to succeed. (Need an extra kick in the pants? Read Elissa Altman’s guest post at Krista Tippett’s site, On Being.) 

Readers AND writers, have you ever had to go through this permission-giving process with yourselves, whether about writing or general life-events? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

Sign up HERE to get my blog posts delivered to your mailbox. You can always read them here, but email subscribers will receive extras along the way! Sign up today and receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me.