Five Quick Fixes To Make Your Essay Better Right Now

February 1, 2018 § 25 Comments

patent diagram of a roller skateNot “feeling it,” but need to get some writing in? Don’t have time for a long sit at the coffee shop, but you might have fifteen minutes before carpool? Technical fixes are the way to go.

1. Check for “was verb-ing” constructions. In Microsoft Word, do a wildcard search:

  1. Open Advanced Find and Replace
  2. Check the box for Wildcards On
  3. Put this in Find, including the <> part: <was [a-z]@ing>
  4. Repeat with <were [a-z]@ing>
  5. Each time a “being verb-ing” construction pops up, ask “Is my intention here to communicate an ongoing state that is still happening?” If the answer is no, switch tenses. Was running=ran. Were talking=talked.

2. Remove most of “that.” Many writers use “that” as a tic rather than for deliberate emphasis or grammatical need. “That” adds a slight stiltedness to your natural writing voice. Again, use your trusty Find and Replace. Keep only the “thats” you need for sense.

I never considered that he would run away

I never considered he would run away.

3. Start and finish sentences with strong words. When possible, restructure sentences to begin and end with nouns or verbs rather than prepositions or filler words.

Besides all that, he was mean, kind of.

Pat was also kind of mean.

When you’re comfortable putting strong words in the anchor positions, start paying attention to the sounds. Sharp consonant sounds (d, g, k, p, etc.) make good emphatic sentences:

Pat was also kind of a dick. On Wednesdays, he threw rocks at his dog. 

For more flow, choose sounds that slide into the next sentence, like m, n and s:

Pat was mean. Everyone knew about the poor dog, and what happened on Wednesdays.  

4. Count prepositional phrases. Long sentences can be great. But when a sentence feels clunky, sometimes that’s due to too many prepositional phrases.

We walked down the hall on that afternoon, the birds diving into the water beneath the windows, where we’d sat last week pledging our love for one another.

Prepositional phrases navigate time and space. Each new phrase relocates the reader: down the hall, on that afternoon, into the water, beneath the window, where we’d sat, last week, for one another. It’s not just that the sentence is long–it’s that the reader mentally visits seven different locations.

5. Use a word cloud. Using an online tool like Wordle, copy-paste your whole document to create a picture of all the words you use. The words are sized according to their frequency. For over-used words (often that, just, got, around, felt, looked, like) do a search, and each time the word pops up, ask if it’s needed and if it’s the right word in that location. Edit ruthlessly. The big exception is “said” in dialogue–usually, “said” becomes a neutral word like “the,” and it’s better to use “said” than get fancy with dialogue tags.

Bonus thinking time: If there’s a “bad guy” in your story, or someone opposed to your objective, imagine the story from their POV. How are they acting heroically within their own worldview? What do they believe in? How are you thwarting them? Next time you revise, keep in mind there’s another version of the story in which your opponent is the hero. Give the reader little hints of that story, too.

Happy writing–with or without inspiration.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

The Careful Craft of the Disability Essay

January 24, 2018 § 6 Comments

zz RachelHogeBy Rachel Hoge

Sometimes I have trouble knowing which came first: my writing or my speech disability. I began stuttering early in life, around four or five years old. Around this time, I wrote my first poem—one short stanza about ducks, but don’t judge, I was learning. One thing I never learned, though, was how to stop stuttering. Like 1% of the American population, stuttering was the neurological and genetic hand I had been dealt. I continued to write, mostly because it was a form of communication and self-expression that was inaccessible to me verbally. I never stopped writing and I never stopped stuttering, and both became significant and lifelong conditions.

In the beginning, I wrote poetry and fiction exclusively, but in my early 20s, once I began to write about my speech disability, I naturally gravitated towards creative nonfiction. I found creative nonfiction could best accentuate the complexity of being disabled: in this genre, I could be both candid and literary, perceptive and forthright. When it came to writing about disability, the personal essay proved to be a perfect fit.

I’ve written at least forty personal essays about my stutter, and have published about half of them. I’ve found there are three craft elements in creative nonfiction that are essential to the disability essay. Without them, I wrote many flawed and unfinished essays.

The first element is scene writing. The use of scene is common in creative nonfiction, but is especially effective in the disability essay. Catherine Kudlick, for example, opens her essay, “The Price of ‘Disability Denial,’” with an immediate scene: the year is 1989, and Kudlick has a visual impairment called nystagmus; as a result, she avoids speaking to large audiences. Then a colleague suddenly reveals to her in-scene that her job security hinges around giving a lecture to 100 students. The reader is instantly panicked, and because this revelation is explored in-scene, the conflict of Kudlick’s disability becomes much more accessible.

Scenes are used to transport the able-bodied reader into an experience they’ve never previously felt or imagined. And because scenes differ from summary—reliving one specific moment in time —the singularity of such a scene allows the reader to fully inhabit an unknown circumstance. Readers can imagine themselves in place of the narrator, or at the very least, can sympathize and comprehend the situation better than before. Scene writing in the disability genre permits the narrator to reveal the uncommon nature of living with their condition. Through scenes, the able-bodied reader begins to understand how everyday activities or common interactions can become difficult or frightening when experienced through disability.

Next, we have research. The integration of facts in disability writing is natural and necessary.  It is, after all, writers of disability who must challenge misconceptions and social stigmas surrounding their very identities…while simultaneously crafting scenes, characterization, and assembling a narrative arc. If the disabled writer’s objective is to provide more than a surface-level understanding of disability—for example, if they wish to expand a reader’s understanding, or prevent the spread of misinformation—then the use of research becomes an essential tool in disability writing. Research can also be used to highlight an experience that able-bodied readers are unaware of, like Britney Wilson’s essay “On NYC’s Paratransit, Fighting for Safety, Respect, and Human Dignity,” which examines Access-a-Ride, New York City’s paratransit service that—as a native New Yorker with Cerebral Palsy—Wilson has used for decades.

It should also be mentioned that research provides disability writing with layers it desperately requires, such as context and credibility. Without an understanding of what disability is and how it’s perceived by others, the emotional arc laid out by the narrator would lose significant impact. It’s an unfortunate truth, but one worth relaying: a writer’s first-hand account of disability will always be challenged, but a first-hand account supported by evidence won’t be as easily silenced. Personal experience isn’t enough for most abled-bodied readers because they have their own unconscious portrait of disability—often inspirational or destitute, with no room for complexity or nuance—and that stereotyping needs dismantling. The inclusion of research allows writers of disability to develop a platform of authority, and once on that platform—they can finally share their story.

But perhaps the most powerful craft element of disability writing is reflection. Creative nonfiction writers must have a clear perspective in order to impart a tangible concept, meaning, or epiphany, to the readers. This is even more vital in the disability essay, as a narrator’s introspection on their condition must resonate beyond their own observations. Without commentary from an insightful narrator, the piece becomes a compilation of memory that offers little to no meaning. The retrospective thinking of the disabled narrator must include a larger context for the essay to maintain relevance, like a push against societal norms or expectations, an exploration of body image, or an internal search for self-acceptance.

To explain it another way: an incomplete essay simply reveals the life of a disabled person; a complete essay reveals the life of a disabled person, while offering a new viewpoint or meaningful context. Reflection can provide a more intricate understanding of disability, informing readers and offering wisdom through the narrator’s contemplations. Reflection can overt, like in Meredith Bland’s “All Bodies Count” where she writes about her complicated relationship with her disabled body. Reflection can also be subtle and reserved, like Rebecca Swanson’s contemplation of Tourette’s syndrome in “The Fine Lines of Twitching.” Both approaches show the private perceptions of people with disabilities, and how these perceptions challenge readers to consider a perspective unlike their own.

Still, you might ask: are these the only craft elements significant to the disability essay? Of course not. I encourage writers of disability to embrace the personal essay in whatever way they can. If a disability essay lacks scene writing, research, or reflection, does that mean it’s unaccomplished? Not necessarily.

But do keep in mind: without craft, readers will impose their own understanding of disability onto the essay, and that understanding may be incorrect. And even with craft, readers may misinterpret your meaning. But the danger of not applying—at least some—craft elements to the disability essay, is that society’s depiction of disability will likely go unaltered. Providing the reader with an authentic understanding of disability, and pushing beyond flat portrayals to deliver a more complicated portrait, allows those of us with disabilities to shed light on the misinterpretations of our identities.

To me, there’s nothing more important.
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Rachel Hoge is a freelance writer, essayist, and recent MFA graduate from the Arkansas Writers Program. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, the Rumpus, and many more. Lately, she’s been hard at work on her debut essay collection about the intersection of disability and gender. You can follow her on Twitter @hoge_rachel or view her full creative portfolio at https://www.rachelbhoge.com.

 

Making Memoir: Cut, Cut, Cut, and Find Connections

January 18, 2018 § 4 Comments

chelseydrysdalephoto-1In our latest issue, Chelsey Drysdale chronicles how expert advice from an outside editor-for-hire allowed her to find the cohesive, interconnected memoir hidden within a series of disconnected essays.

“Once I started making tough decisions about what was ‘earning its space,’” she writes, “it became obvious that four essays I had diligently crafted—one for seven years—were no longer needed. Meticulous dialogue, tornadoes, a sudden death, a doozy of a New Year’s Eve, an atrocious haircut that solidified my resolve to move, and the unlikely prophecy of an obnoxious stranger on a pier all got axed. Somewhere is a crowded cemetery replete with precious darlings I don’t miss.”

Drysdale details her slash and burn journey, which resulted ultimately in discovering new material where she hadn’t expected to find it, and recommends the journey to other writers:

“When I’ve heard authors say they’ve rewritten their books more than once, starting from page one, I’ve thought, ‘There’s no way I could do that.’ But I did, and I’m grateful. Now I relish the lengthy process and trust it.”

You can read more of what Drysdale learned in her full Craft Essay, and remember: never underestimate the usefulness of an intelligent, experienced, objective editor.

 

Cut to Bleed

January 8, 2018 § 48 Comments

priddy2635by Jan Priddy

Find the sentence where the essay turns glorious or cruel. Make that the beginning. Imagine running a race, that instant the starting gun cracks, the moment later when you reach full speed. Start your essay there, at a full sprint.

Sometimes the best line arrives at the end. Maybe start there. Maybe rearrange the furniture. Pick that powerful last paragraph up and move it to the start. You do not have to kill all your darlings. Sometimes they just need to be shifted to move us.

Find the word that says everything you mean. Mean it.

By the end, everything might be moving so fast, you fear you will fall. Take that. Fall. Collapse right into the reader.

If, at the end of your walk, you picked up a shell before turning for home, end with the shell, not the walk off the beach. Instead of ending on an idea, choose concrete. Give them the sky visible through the window of my mother’s hospital room. The way your father’s last breaths came so far apart that you looked up from rereading the same paragraph about Restoration ceilings and had to tell him it was okay to leave. The smell of wet wool. Pussy willows. The way your nose dripped until it ran into your open mouth.

Almost always what needs to be chopped from a personal essay is the abstract. The idea. What people warned us against: the telling. What you want is to plant a mote into the eye of your reader, something that will stick and nag. The iridescent nacre wafer held in your palm while the ocean clears her throat. The splinter of a scene.

Beautiful language can do that too. Metaphor wraps it up in concrete. The fact of tears is far less important than the impulse on the part of the reader to cry. Telling about emotion does not touch. What you do makes others feel. Make your reader gasp.

I like to call it “hack’n’slash.” For brevity’s sake, shorten each paragraph by a line; cut the weakest sentence in each paragraph; make a single sentence from two; annotate each paragraph & do a word search for repetition (that you can cut); cut all the abstract and focus on the concrete (yes, I said that before); cut the introduction, the conclusion, cut the weakest paragraph in your paper; cut them all.

Often the ending is mere summing up, because that is what we have learned to do in conclusion. Yes, that is correct, but also weak outside an academic essay. Since you must leave, leave readers something. The last line, the very end, should contain a sensory detail—the telling visual. As if you could rip readers’ hearts, or slap them, or kiss the corner of their mouth.

Cut all the words that do not make you bleed as a writer. Carve so close your hands shake holding the knife. Then make it shorter. Do that again. Do it. Cut.
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Jan Priddy’s work has earned awards and publications, including three essays and four poems published in 2017. She always hopes to do better.

 

Still Listening to What My Practice Demands:  A Follow-up

December 27, 2017 § 7 Comments

franzby Beth Franz

One year ago, I wrote a piece, sent it off, and was happy to see it published here, on the Brevity Blog. Writing that piece — “The Power of Listening to What Your Practice Demands” — was motivated by the fact that I would be turning 60 in late 2017 and also the feeling that, given my birthday milestone, I really needed to start putting my writing “out there,” to be published or rejected, either way, but to take a step forward in my writing practice.

Well, it is one year later, and my practice is still making demands of me.  I have sent some pieces out for consideration, a couple of which I’m still waiting to hear the verdict on, but more important than that, I feel myself taking another “step forward in my writing practice,” one that I didn’t see coming.  Facilitating that “step forward” is a gift I received from my sister, who did not realize the magnitude of her gift when she sent it to me.

In the middle of the month I was due to turn 60, my sister, a UU (Unitarian Universalist) minister, happened to pick up a book she thought I might like.  Her email, to let me know that the book was on its way, read simply, “At work this week, I was in our lunchroom, and on a side area where there are often books that we’re free to take, I found a small pile of the books: http://www.uuabookstore.org/Living-Revision-P18216.aspx  So I took one, and I’ll mail it to you today, book-rate.  I haven’t read it and I have no idea if you’ll like it.  If so – excellent!  If not, I trust you’ll just pass it along …”

51-JUrLkMYL._SX445_BO1,204,203,200_The book’s full title is Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice.  It is by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, and its copyright date is actually 2018.  I recommend it to anyone who is “stuck” somewhere in the gray area between (a) having written pieces they think are important and worth sharing with readers and (b) actually being ready to send those pieces out.  (It is this gray area in which I have lived most of my life as a writer.  I know it well.  What I did not know until now is how to begin to find my way out of this gray area.)

I have been a teacher of writing my entire adult life.  When I was still in my twenties, trying to live my life as a writer, I ended up in graduate school.  Ironically, going back to school was a way for me to make financial ends meet.  A university was willing to pay me to go back to school and continue my work in the twin areas of reading and writing?  Okay, I said.  I had to teach a couple sections of basic composition to undergraduates each semester in order to earn my stipend?  Okay, I said again, not really thinking too much about it.

More than half a lifetime later, here I am, counting down the semesters until I can retire from full-time teaching and put my own creative writing back at the center of my life.  In the meantime, though, I find myself in this curious in-between time:  not actually retired yet, but feeling myself increasingly pulled in the direction I have wanted to go for a lifetime.

At first, I found this “in-between space” uncomfortable.  The longer I am here, though, the more I am discovering just how rich a space it is.  Looking around within this space this past year, I have discovered a lot of first drafts of stuff sitting around.  A year ago, I thought all I had to do was simply start sending some of these pieces out into the world.  My mantra a year ago was, “Ready or now, here it comes!”  After all, I’ve never really known how to help myself through the process of revision the way I know how to help my students through their process.

Fortunately, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew’s book arrived just when I needed it.  Andrew’s book is a cross between the two kinds of books I most like to spend time with:  books about writing as craft, and books about spirituality as practice.

While every chapter is a rich mix of inspiration and practical information, the chapter that resonates most deeply with me, given the gray area where I’ve been stuck most of my life, is her fourth chapter on “Becoming an Author.”  In this chapter, Andrew explains that writers earn the title “author” NOT when they get published but rather when “they’ve gained authority over their material.”  This is what happens over the course of the journey of revision.

According to Andrew, “The journey through drafts moves us from powerlessness to power—from being controlled by our stories to being active creators—from having an idea to being an author.”  But how exactly do we go about making this journey?

Andrew explains, “For writers of memoir and autobiographical fiction, claiming authority over one’s memories is the hardest part of revision.  We can flesh out scenes, add dialogue, pay attention to character development; we can fiddle with craft and make worthwhile changes.  But at some point, all autobiographical writers must seriously consider revising their content.”  And it is here that Andrew comes to the core message of her book.

Andrew writes, “Revision is not simply about evaluating and changing the form of our writing; it’s also about adding layers of understanding to the content.  And when the content is our lives, this means undertaking serious emotional work.”

This, then, is the focus of Andrew’s book:  the process of tackling the early drafts of our work with an eye toward growing as writers and, more importantly, as human beings.  I highly recommend Living Revision: A Writer’s Spiritual Practice as a book you might just want to buy for yourself, as a writer, this holiday season.  Your writing—and your life—will be the richer for the experience.
_____

Beth Franz is a practicing writer and sculptor, who just turned 60 a few weeks ago.  Her sculpting work can be seen at www.mountainaircreations.com.  As for her writing, she’s still working on revising it and getting it out there.

All’s Well That Ends Well

December 5, 2017 § 26 Comments

Your ending should be one singular sensation

Flash memoir is much more difficult than “only 750 words” suggests. As readers, we see finished pieces. Work that’s had a writing buddy or teacher or group say, “I don’t understand that bit,” or “There’s a problem there. Fix it.” But as writers, we’re wading through the murky middle, trying to believe in the Santa Claus of “All the professional writers you love write terrible first drafts! So terrible they will never show you!”

Without seeing, it’s hard to believe.

That’s where reading for a literary magazine (if we can) or reading fellow writers’ work in a group or class serves us. We get to see the pages that need another draft. As a freelance editor, I see similarities in short nonfiction-in-progress. Often, pieces don’t resolve, or don’t have the key story moments of beginning, middle and end. Sometimes the narrator tells what they experienced instead of making the reader feel what they felt. But the most common challenge in flash essays is the very last line.

About half the essays I see could cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper, tighter, cleaner “button” to make even a short piece feel satisfyingly finished.

Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps as writers we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we’re so used to slogging forward it’s hard to stop that inertia at word 739. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have felt a need to work on that element of our craft.

This example is mine, for the purpose of this post—but I’m copying the structure of the issues I see most often.

[Imagine this finishes an essay about a couple visiting India, trying to get on a blocked-off beach to watch the sunset. They’ve irritated each other throughout the story in small ways; he wants to protect/insulate her, she wants to be a little dangerous/culturally insensitive.]

The policeman tried to stop us, but I’d yammered at him in English I knew he didn’t understand and ducked under the plastic tape. “He won’t shoot us, we’re tourists,” I said, and Mark ducked under, too, his face twisting into sorry at the cop and exasperated with me. We sat on piled broken concrete on the dirty beach while the sun vanished behind an oil tanker.

How can we wrap this sucker up, in a way that says something emotionally meaningful happened here, and it was a big enough deal that we bothered to write about it?

Some things to avoid:

  • Don’t summarize.

The rest of our trip had been terrible, too—if only I could have made this evening work, maybe I could have made our marriage work.

That’s when I knew I had to leave him if I was ever going to enjoy my life.

  • Don’t explain.

I hated that he wasn’t ready for the adventure I wanted my life to be.

Even in India, we were destined to clash, our different backgrounds never letting us truly understand each other.

  • Don’t justify.

As the sun set, I realized I couldn’t stay with him—I needed a partner who didn’t judge me.

If he didn’t want to travel wild, he shouldn’t have gone with me, and I wasn’t taking him any further.

  • Don’t excuse.

I wish I’d been nicer, but I was twenty, still unaware of privilege easing my way, unappreciative of what Mark meant by “relax honey, just relax.”

Thank goodness I outgrew that stage, even if it did take until our 40th wedding anniversary.

Summarizing and explaining are subconscious manifestations of our fear of not writing well enough. They tell the reader, I’d better spell it out for you in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.

Instead, use the last line to either gently enfold the reader in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. You could:

  • Take one step further than the reader thought you’d go. Go to a higher/deeper emotional level.

I wished one of us would fill our pockets with ragged cement shards and step into the waves.

[NB one line too many is a challenge for every single writer no matter what level, because I originally added It would be easier than breaking up, then realized that was one too many.]

  • Twist. Show us the opposite of everything the narrator has felt or done so far.

I wanted the cop to say no, I wanted Mark to say no, I wanted someone—anyone—to stop me, send me home, tell me where that was.

[I don’t love the “that” in the last line, so I’d wrestle more with that in a real essay.]

  • Admit guilt/fault/complicity.

“See, it’s fine,” I said, and we both knew it wasn’t—it wouldn’t ever be.

Mark’s shadow slumped on the sand, and I missed the man I’d ruined.

  • Undercut/empathize.

I reached for Mark’s hand, and we squeezed hard, each hoping we were doing something right.

Sure, there are other ways to end a flash piece strong (feel free to share examples in the comments!) But these are some techniques to get started. Once the emotion is on the page, sharpen your pencil and ask of your last line, what purpose do you serve? Let the sentence tell you if it belongs.

_______________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She just returned from scouting locations in India for a May 2018 writing workshop, hence this example.

 

Writer as Sculptor

November 22, 2017 § 22 Comments

Jennifer Lang small head shotBy Jennifer Lang

After “So,” my 100-word story about a spontaneous moment when I hugged a stranger in a department store, appeared on Thread literary journal, I emailed the editor to thank her, explaining that I’d written it years ago, in a much longer version, but always found the story flat and uninspiring. For months, I’d worked on it with my writing group, seven CNF’ers who urged me to dig deeper, to reflect, to describe what had motivated me to open my arms to an inconnu. I edited, revised, tweaked: two pages turned into three then four and finally five. Initially, I titled it “Nothing to Lose,” reminiscent of my mother’s motto encouraging me to take chances. Eventually, I rewrote it in second person and called it “How to Hug a Stranger.” Regardless of how many times I described the scene or strengthened verbs, the heart of the story remained the same: lost.

Recently, a fellow writer shared her 100-word story, “Eighty,” on Thread. Her sparse prose sizzled with words like sweaty torso, toenails, lovemaking. I had a rare writerly epiphany, opened my stranger story, copied it into a new document, and went to work.

Like a stone carver, I began to chisel at my words using new and unfamiliar tools. With a point in hand, I removed the primary bulk material, the excess about my mother’s maxim, about the steamy summer weather, about another woman who had addressed the stranger and me during our embrace. I removed all the forced reflection, the blah blah blah behind my boldness. Next, I aimed the rake—a flat, straight chisel with slightly beveled teeth—at the setting to scrape away unnecessary words, leaving the basics: the base of a Macy’s denim display. I repeated the same raking movement with the stranger, describing her minimally: head bowed, sunglasses shielding her eyes, crouched, dark circles, disheveled hair, hospital visitor sticker, rumpled t-shirt. Then, I wielded the flat straight chisel, the finishing tool with a slight bevel, to rasp and sand the action: I open my arms. She steps into my embrace, and we are like awkward teenagers, slow dancing. I scraped and scraped at dialogue, deleting what I said as I approached her—that she looked like she needed a hug that I couldn’t leave the store without knowing if she was okay that she could squeeze me harder that I wouldn’t break. I scraped more, deleting what she said repeatedly: “You’re so sweet.” By the end, I was left with the six words the stranger said in my arms: “My mom’s dying. I’m so sad.”

After each phase, I counted words and watched them dwindle from 1236 to 484 to 255 to 139. I started anew—carve, chisel, scrape, finish, rasp, sand—until I reached my word-count goal. Each one depended on the next. Each one carried its own weight. Each one mattered. Together, they surprised me in a way most of my longer prose doesn’t.

This month, while aspiring novelists participate in NaNoWriMo, I’m participating in a unique flash forum: an exercise in accountability with a small group of English-speaking writers of all genres around Israel. I didn’t initiate it; I don’t even know the other writers. Every day, we email with the date and under 1000 words. There is no obligation to read or respond, simply to show up and share. For thirty days, I will put forth my best flash with no expectation except of myself: to sculpt my prose once, twice, probably a few more times until the heart story sparkles.
____

Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Full Grown People. Honors include Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominations and finalist in 2017 Crab Orchard Review’s Literary Nonfiction Contest. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com and follow her @JenLangWrites as she writes her first memoir.

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