Just Like the Cool Kids

April 11, 2019 § 6 Comments

After our attempt to create viral cat videos ended in editorial lacerations…after trying to make “fetch” happen…after our unfortunate experience with twerking (Dinty’s back will heal soon!), Brevity has finally become cool.

We got on Instagram!

Brevity posts writing moments and thought-provoking images. We’ll also be seeking writers for short term Insta-takeovers of image series with accompanying text. (If you’re interested, slide into our DMs!)

Why Instagram? As Twitter becomes politically challenging and Facebook brings out the family racists, Instagram has remained relatively sane and relaxing. Creators are sharing meaningful images and carefully crafted words in a supportive community. Captions are becoming flash nonfiction. Writers are connecting with a lively community of readers and fellow wordsmiths. Celebrity book clubs share novels and memoirs with vast audiences who want to be part of a literary community. Instagram readers are becoming daily more sophisticated, more visually-attuned, and more willing to spend a moment with beautiful words.

We want to reach our readers where they are. Thank you for visiting the magazine and blog online, welcoming us into your inboxes, engaging with our tweets and participating in the Facebook group. Thank you for saying hi at writing conferences and reviewing Brevity authors’ books on Amazon and Goodreads.

Instagram is one more place to share a small part of your literary journey.

Won’t you join us?

PS – for Insta-takeover requests, please contact us on Instagram, that way we don’t lose your message!

Building Your Twitter Following

February 12, 2019 § 11 Comments

Does Twitter help sell books? Nobody knows. Barnes & Noble customers rarely announce “I came in because of this tweet!” But being visible in the online writing community can be a source of support and inspiration, and enough agents and publishers look at follower numbers to make it worth growing your presence on Twitter.

Twitter basics are just like showing up at an enormous pool party already in progress: Watch conversations before interacting, interact kindly and pleasantly and avoid “fighting words” unless you’re doing it on purpose. Just like that party, you get to swim when you like and stay dry when you want: Twitter rewards occasional involvement throughout the day or week rather than constant checking.

We talked last week about “what the heck to post on Twitter.” But the early days often feel like speaking timidly into the void (647 following! 12 followers! Augh!). How can you organically grow an online community who share your interests and want to hear what you have to say?

The best way to get followers is to follow people, but not randomly. Who will you enjoy reading and who will follow you back?

  • Use Twitter follow-frenzies. Search your Facebook writing group for a post asking members to comment with their Twitter handles. Follow them all, and post yours as a clickable link. If you can’t find a follow-thread within the last six months, post one: “Hey, let’s follow each other on Twitter” plus your link will do just fine. It is polite to follow back everyone who follows you unless you actively dislike their bio/feed.
  • Go to users’ actual profiles. Hit “follow” and wait for a moment—Twitter will suggest more people you might like. Follow them, too.
  • Visit your favorite literary magazine or author’s profile. Add their followers. Use the “followers” list, because the “following” list is likely more famous and less motivated to follow back.
  • Follow other writers with low follower counts. Someone with 367 followers is more likely to follow back than someone who already has 70K.
  • Follow people who liked a tweet you also liked, or whose response you liked.
  • Search hashtags like #amwriting #writingcommunity #writerscommunity #amediting and #cnf (those are clickable links to those searches). Follow people who use those hashtags in tweets and/or their bios.
  • Use Lists. To keep track of the people you want to read in that blur of new tweets, assign people you follow to lists. For example, I made a list of “Agents” so I can read only tweets from literary agents I follow. You can also look at someone else’s list: Click on a profile, click Lists, and click on a list. For example, here’s all the AWP presenters for this year’s conference. If you’re attending—or want the conference buzz—subscribe to see those tweets. Then click List Members and follow everyone who seems interesting.
  • Unfollow people who don’t follow back after a few weeks unless you are specifically interested in what they have to say. (Michelle Obama is probably not going to follow me back.) Most of my non-mutual followers are news, politics, public figures, literary agents and publishing houses. You can use a tool like Tweepi (start with the free plan to see if it’s for you) to sort your list and easily unfollow non-followers, or just scroll down your Following list on Twitter—it’s in chronological order.
  • Don’t bother to follow back travel bloggers and business coaches with huge follower and low following numbers unless you’re really interested. They are using bots that will unfollow you after you follow them (this also happens on Instagram). Dudes with two first names (like ‘Robert Walter,’ ‘James Joseph’), very all-American profiles, and jobs that are military or military-connected in Africa or the Middle East are bots or scammers.

“But Allison,” you ask, “How can I engage meaningfully with the thousands of followers I’d like to have?”

You don’t have to. You’re not on Twitter to talk to anyone, you’re on Twitter to talk to everyone. It’s not like letting your best friend sit next to you at lunch—be part of a great conversation this minute, then move on. Support the people you know well or in person. Retweet writers and cool things to read. Post things you find funny, interesting or cool. Step back and engage meaningfully with the community as a whole, rather than focusing on individuals. Let Twitter wash over you like a wave—and get out of the pool when you need a break.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. See you at AWP!

Will You Social Media Today?

February 5, 2019 § 8 Comments

Antique engraving of a white male writer thinking, an inkwell in front of him and pen in handYes, yes, we know. Build a platform big enough and the agents will beat a path to our door. What we really want to do—what we should actually do more than anything else—is write. Yet as memoirists, agents and publishers want to know: How many people can you reach with the news your book is out? How many of them are in the demographic likely to buy your book? How many will leave a glowing review, either because your book is great or because they love you and you write about what’s important to them?

Platform-building is a long haul, and it’s hard to know how to spend our time and focus day to day. What the heck are we supposed to put on social media anyway?

Try:

  • A new book you think is great.
  • Something you overheard that makes interesting dialogue.
  • An article you wrote or were involved in publishing: link the article and quote a couple of sentences that seem mildly inflammatory or counter-intuitive.
  • An article you liked about writing: link plus a quote and/or your opinion or contribution to the advice.
  • A writing meme
  • Encouragement to someone else
  • A fun poll
  • A serious poll
  • A retweet of someone else’s opinion with a comment agreeing or disagreeing or adding to the conversation.
  • A cartoon or quote that inspires you.

Most of us won’t ever get big enough that platform alone gets us published, but plenty of us have stories compelling enough that a nudge from platform might tip us over the edge from unpublished to published. Take a few moments, and build a little of yours today.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Putting your Best Face Forward

January 29, 2019 § 8 Comments

Blue sky, green wheat field, and a redheaded woman in a blue jacket and a wheelchair, sitting chest-deep in the wheat.My friend Erin Clark is Instagram-savvy, writes great blogs, and illustrates them with amazing photographs, most often of herself. I’m always astonished at just how terrific she looks—the photos are interestingly composed, she’s usually wearing something sexy or adventurous or high fashion, and her face and body look great. I figured it was due to great shopping/scavenging skills and nature’s gift of fabulous cheekbones.

When Erin visited me in Dubai, my husband and I took her to dinner at a restaurant in the Marina, a waterfront area with wide sidewalks and beautiful city lights. Erin wanted a photo, so we walked and wheeled along until we found a good background. My husband offered to take the shot. “Thanks but I’m good,” Erin said. I thought she’d get a couple of selfies, maybe a couple more of the two of us. Instead, she took more than fifty shots, posing like a model, tossing her hair, angling her face. A woman walked by and asked about Erin’s Instagram—clearly, there was Instagram involved—and they swapped names and posed together.

Back at my house, Erin sorted through nearly a hundred pictures, edited and filtered the best few, and posted one photo to her feed. And I realized, that’s why she looks great in every photo. She could pick the one with the best combination of light, background, facial expression, hair and body, because she had a lot to pick from. Smile not great in that one? Toss it. Hair’s good but eyes are closed? Delete.

I see a lot of author photos, in conference programs and on book jackets and here on the Brevity blog. Many of them aren’t doing justice to the writer’s personality, looks, or writing. Am I judging what you look like? In life, I try not to. But the author photo is part of the whole package. A good headshot helps writers sell their work the same way 1-inch margins and 12-point Times New Roman do. It’s one more way to look professional.

Headshots used to be a hassle. You had to book a photographer (not the JCPenney photo studio), do the shoot, wait for contact sheets, wait for prints, duplicate the photos expensively and mail them in an envelope.

Now, anyone can have a good headshot for basically free. Some tips:

  • Use the best phone camera in your vicinity. Borrow the latest model if you can. (But your phone is probably good enough.)
  • Pick a background with texture but not distraction. Brick walls, abstract wallpaper, tree trunks. There’s a reason a bookshelf is an author-background cliché.
  • Wear solid-colored clothes that contrast with your skin. The old adage about don’t wear white on camera applies mostly to white people. If you have darker skin, pick a color that contrasts rather than blending in. Black tops are usually not great for anyone, so if you love dark clothes go for a jewel tone or another deep, rich color.
  • Natural light. Stand near a window. If you’re outside, go for soft morning or evening light. Try a few where your head blocks the sun and you get a beautiful hair-halo.
  • Make sure the phone camera is in focus. Seriously, touch the screen and let it do that thing where it sharpens on you.
  • Take. 100. Photos. Smile and frown. Laugh and look serious. Take your glasses on and off. Move your hands. Do that fun thing where you turn away from the camera and then turn back fast so your hair flies around. Get silly. Having fun between shots makes a more natural photo, even with a serious expression. You’re not paying for film, and the more shots you take the more you’re likely to feel good about one of them. Generally, you should have 1-2 great photos for every 40-50 frames. (That ratio holds true for professional models and photographers, too!)
  • When choosing the photos you like, ask friends for input. Often, others see the photo as a whole when we’re focused on an imperfection no-one else is looking for.
  • If something’s weird in your background, or there’s one hair across your face in an otherwise perfect shot, use an app like Touch Retouch. (It’ll also remove telephone wires and no-swimming signs from your vacation photos.) Backgrounds can be fixed with a faux-depth-mode app like Portrait.
  • When you save your photos, do so in high, medium and low resolution. You’ll need that 72kb file for Twitter, but a blog or journal needs one around 1.5mb, and a printed program or poster will turn out better with a TIFF or JPG of 5mb or more.
  • Don’t put photos you don’t like into the world. I’ve heard authors complain, “Why’d they pick that awful photo of me?” (1, it was on your website so they assumed you liked it, and/or 2, you didn’t provide a photo so they googled and picked the first decent shot they found.) Even “this one or that one?” posts on FB should be about fine distinctions between a few great shots.

It’s OK to hate being in photos. But sharing your work with the world means sharing part of yourself—so make your author photo something you’re happy to share, too.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Can’t Means Won’t

January 22, 2019 § 8 Comments

The first day of a new circus workshop, there’s always one. Leading warmup, my fellow coach announces to a room full of high school students, already groaning in a leg stretch, “We’re gonna go for gold! Slide that front leg toward the splits!”

Near the side of the room, a kid bails out onto his butt, muttering, “No way, I can’t do that.”

Our coaching ears perk up. I call across the mats, “There’s one word we don’t want to hear in rehearsals. That’s ‘can’t.’ Because can’t means won’t—”

The students who’ve worked with us before chorus along. “—And won’t means push-ups!”

I explain. “When you say ‘I can’t,’ you’re telling your own body, ‘I quit.’ We can’t help with ‘I quit.’ Instead, try to identify the problem—I’m losing my balance! My knee hurts! My partner keeps dropping me!—and we can help you figure that out.”

My coaching partner adds, “If we hear you say ‘can’t,’ you owe us five push-ups. And then you’ll be stronger!”

Splits are hard, and for every high school dancer who wants me to lift her front leg to increase the stretch, there’s another ten students grimacing with their legs at a 90-degree angle. Not every circus move needs the splits, but lengthening their hamstrings helps these students achieve more in rehearsal, and the long-term benefits of enduring unpleasantness to achieve greatness will serve them far beyond next weekend’s show.

The ‘can’t’ whine I most often hear from writers is about platform. I hear it as misery:

I don’t understand Twitter. I’m too old.

I hear it as snobbery:

For one thing, I don’t do social media, and don’t intend to…until I retire: Whatever rewards may come from being an author, it’s not worth my privacy or putting my current (quite nice) paycheck at risk.

I hear it as despair.

Nobody pays attention to me online anyway.

Can’t means won’t. Won’t means working much harder to sell not only your book, but your query, concept, and voice to agents, publishers, and readers.

This ‘can’t’ includes two fundamental misunderstandings:

  1. Platform=Twitter, Facebook and blogging
  2. Engaging in building platform means revealing everything about your personal life online.

Platform is the number of people you can reach who might buy your book. Twitter and Facebook aren’t actually that effective, but they’re good for constant low-level engagement with your readers and other writers who will champion your work.

The best platforms are public speaking, mass media, and newsletters. Can you speak about the topic of your memoir to people with the same problem or challenge? Can you publish an essay about it, or send press releases to line up interviews? Can you build a list, one email at a time, of people who’d like to be updated once or twice a month on your work, and share something cool, funny or useful?

Privacy is relative. Creative nonfiction writers are often very self-revelatory about one particular story. But spilling your alcoholism or distance hike on the page doesn’t mean having to reveal your current marriage issues. Social media works for you: you do not work for social media. You are under no obligation to be more or less private about any particular issue. You can engage in politics publicly or not. You can post pictures of your face or not. What matters to your readers is whether you have something interesting to say, and that they’d like to pay (eventually) to hear more.

Sure, you can sell a book without any platform at all. If what you have to say is incredible enough, you can sell it written in crayon on a burlap bag.

Most of us are not that good.

Most of us depend on a mix of excellent-but-not-earthshaking writing, intriguing story, reasonable platform, and literary citizenship. More of one compensates for less of another: someone with millions of Instagram followers and a fascinating story don’t have to write as well as a writer’s-conference veteran telling their unique spin on the recovery memoir. Incredible writers can have a smaller platform. Literary citizens known for sharing others’ work will find promotion opportunities for themselves come more easily.

Don’t say you ‘can’t’ do social media, because that’s not helping you. Instead, identify the problem:

I’m shy. Promote your subject expertise rather than your own life.

My family is super nosy and easily offended/I work for the government. Establish your online/promotional presence under a pen name. By the time you publish, that persona will fully exist.

I despise social media. Build that public-speaking career—local clubs like Lions and Kiwanis are a great low-stakes audience. Get everyone’s email and start your newsletter.

Embrace platform-building as a challenge. What you have to say is meaningful, so why not start sharing it now? Why not reach toward the people who need your words even before your book is out?

Later in the circus workshop, I heard ‘can’t’ again, from the bar of the triple trapeze. I called out, “McKay, you owe me two!”

McKay smiled. “Only two? I thought it was five.”

“It’s been a long day and you’re working hard,” I said.

McKay popped out two tight, sharp push-ups, hands under his shoulders, his body perfectly aligned, then got back in line for his next turn on the trapeze—a tiny bit stronger than before.

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When she’s not blogging here, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams teaches Starfish Circus, a school residency & camp program in which 50-150 students grades K-12 put up a full circus show in two weeks. It’s pretty cool.

Troll Pox

December 3, 2018 § 48 Comments

gritzBy Ona Gritz

When I was four years old I caught a case of chickenpox that had been making the rounds in my neighborhood. My mother’s reaction to those first telltale spots was to say, “Uh-oh…” but I felt delighted. My big sister had just gotten over the virus, and a few of my older friends—kids already in school!—had had it too. I was, of course, unfamiliar with the phrase rite of passage, but I recognized one when it spread across my skin in a connect-the-ots rash.

“I can’t come out to play,” I yelled from my window when my recently recovered upstairs neighbor happened by, pushing a doll carriage. “I’ve got chicken box now.”

One morning, fifty years later, I checked my email and discovered I’d been contacted by a troll. He had read an essay of mine about marriage and disability that I’d had the good fortune of publishing in a national newspaper—a first for me. “I think your article got way more praise than it deserved,” he wrote, “so I critiqued it here.”

Staring at the link he’d provided, I felt only the slightest temptation to click on it. I’d received lovely responses to that essay from good friends, strangers, and even a few writers I admired. Did I really need to know what this one disgruntled reader thought? I moved his message to the trash.

That was the end of it. Except it wasn’t. I wondered about this stranger who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to tear me down. It was disturbing but also oddly flattering. The next morning, I posted about it on the wall of an online writers’ support group. Even as I clicked the share button, I recognized my four-year-old self, calling proudly out the window about my chickenpox. I’d gotten trolled just like writers in the big league do. I wanted people to know.

Members of the group quickly jumped to my defense, as I knew they would.

Gross. Delete and move on!!!

How wonderful that your piece made him think?

Love your haters. They’re your biggest fans.

Later, I tried to recall the first time I’d read an online essay and noticed a rash of vitriol in the comments section. Five years before? Ten? I remembered feeling shocked and also queasy. What was it, I’d wondered, about this author’s writing that made people want to hurt her? The answer, I now knew, was quite likely nothing in particular. Anonymity together with access to a very public platform is a potent combination. Hating had become a thing.

Is this really who we are, I’ve asked myself since then, whenever I make the mistake of browsing the comments section of nearly any online essay. Are most people fuming, jealous, and condemnatory at their core? Inevitably, I had to ask an even tougher question. Am I?

The answer is no, but unfortunately it is also yes.

I’m almost unfailingly kind to people. As a writer, I have no trouble genuinely celebrating the successes of my peers. Where I falter is in the private recesses of my brain. A city dweller, I’ve spend many hours of my life on public transportation, and that’s usually where I hear it—the bitchy, judgy nattering that passes for idle thought.

Do you think we’re in your living room? I silently ask the woman fighting with the person on the other end of her cell phone.

How many times can you use the word like in one sentence? I imagine saying to the teenager chatting with friends in the seat behind mine.

Perhaps worst of all, I catch myself thinking something along the lines of, Are you really wearing those shoes with that outfit? As though I’m some kind of fashionista, which, believe me, I’m not

I don’t know why I have such a vocal inner troll, though I suspect it mostly points to my own insecurities. Whatever the cause, once I noticed the tendency, I worked to counter it by consciously making positive observations as I passed through crowds in my travels. Such soulful eyes. What an infectious laugh. And, yes, Nice shoes!

Not unsurprisingly, I got waylaid on my road to recovery during the 2016 election season. When, along with pollsters and nearly everyone I knew, I felt confident Hillary would win, I took pleasure in watching her opponent prove himself to be a bumbling, lying, hate-filled, scandal-ridden, racist, ablest, xenophobic, sexist buffoon. (Truth be told, I’ve taken genuine pleasure in lining up those adjectives just now.) “We’re so much better than this,” I scoffed, even as I relished the taste of disgust like a SweeTart on my tongue.

Certain his presence on our airwaves and in our consciousness had an expiration date, I allowed myself this relapse. But now that this bombastic hater actually holds the most venerated office in our nation, I’ve come to see kindness as a crucial act of resistance.

Meanness, after all, really is a virus. Once airborne, it quickly spreads. And if the Troll-in-Chief can be said to have any genius at all, it’s that he knows just how to spread that particular germ. We either rage along with him or rage at him. This may fuel us, but it in no way nourishes us. Compassion does that, as does community, as does sharing our stories. This, of course, is where we writers come in.

These days, there’s a vaccine for chickenpox, which is to say we can put a little of the illness into our bodies and it will protect us. Not so with hate. But what we can do—particularly those of us whose work involves sharing our experiences, ideas, and discoveries on the page—is make sure hate never has the last word.

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Ona Gritz’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, and elsewhere. “It’s Time,” which appeared in The Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Her books include the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, and the poetry collections Geode and Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, written with my husband, Daniel Simpson.

Twitter for the Distractible and Retiring

October 30, 2018 § 13 Comments

black and white headshot of a white woman with shoulder-length light hair, a striped scarf and a black scoop-neck topBy Kirsten Voris

Disclaimer: This is not a Twitter primer. It’s a look at how one writer began to get over herself and hammered the first nail into her media platform.

I have two domain names and no website. A poorly curated LinkedIn. Otherwise, I have shunned social media. When I hear the word platform I close up like a Venus flytrap at mealtime. I hate the idea of spending time on it. My words, I decided, will sell themselves. Magically.

Then, in August, I attended a Memoir Proposal Workshop at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference. I have no proposal-ready memoir, but I like to over-prepare. As it turns out, I needed to be on-hand to receive a message from the cosmos via Brevity’s Social Media Editor, Allison K Williams.

NEWSFLASH: I don’t need Instagram and Facebook and Twitter to have a platform. It’s more effective to do one well.

Only one!

My all-or-nothing thinking was still coming to grips when Allison described her Twitter tending.

Once a day, during the morning bathroom visit. Then, fini.

Limits! Here was an example of someone who could set them. Could I?

My butt-in-chair writing lifestyle is fragile. I rely on the Pomodoro technique. My writing partner. I need scaffolding. Accountability. Do I want to add platform grooming to the list of things I am compelled to do to sell the writing I have only just begun producing?

Or was it another task I’d abuse to avoid my date with @tomatotimer?

Seated among the motivated and the proposal-ready, I gave in to the ambient vibe. Writing memoir? Platforms are just part of the deal.

I chose Twitter.

Because: character limit. And I could manage it during my morning toilette.

But I needed more limits.

Limit One: There is a Time for Tweeting and a Time for Writing and it’s Not the Same Time.
Recently, I went on silent retreat. No phone no computer no talking. For three days, I did one thing at a time. When I came home and began unpacking, sorting, emailing, eating—simultaneously—it felt icky. Multi-tasking confuses me.

Limit Two: Hit Send and Let It Go.
As of this writing, I have tweeted 9 times. With each tweet, I fret: I’m unoriginal, un-writerly, dull. Oh, and self-absorbed. But tweeting is like writing an essay. At some point, I have to decide I’m done.

Limit Three: Keep it Writing Related
Twitter is a distraction minefield. My no-go list: Cats. Celebrities. Celebrity cats. Old boyfriends. People who suddenly stopped talking to me. Politics. I make an exception for Turkish politics written in Turkish by former neighbor @aykan_sever. Otherwise, Twitter is for my writing life, not @RealGrumpyCat.

Limit Four: No Late-Night Tweeting
The night I set up Twitter I could not sleep. I kept thinking about the profile I’d posted. In haste. Really? Why those seven words? It was well past midnight when I got up and dosed myself with homeopathic nerve tonic. Eventually, I slept. But I didn’t get on my phone. The phone amplifies ruminating. It’s a bright light. If I don’t sleep I can’t write.

Limit Five: Tweet to Give Love Not to Get It
Writers and editors have read my essays. Journals have published and rejected them. What have I done for these folks lately?

I’m part of a community. Tweeting, retweeting, liking and commenting on blog posts, essays and insights that inspire me is a way to support the community. Plus, I feel good when I do it. Plus it’s better than imagining everyone in Platform Land is ignoring me out of spite because my credits are 3 essays and an (unpublishable) 600-page manuscript.

Having established limits, I come to the heart of the problem. I still don’t want to draw attention to myself. Without a platform, I have heard, I’m as good as invisible.

Yes. I think. Right on.

However, few will see my work. And I claim to want that kind of attention.

I write because can’t think of a more gratifying way to spend my precious life energy. I dread writing and feel amazing when I’ve written. By joining Twitter I put myself on notice. I take my writing seriously. Twitter is part of my job, which is writing. This is my mantra.

But I need more than a mantra. Twitter requires stickers. I paste them in my journal, a visual reminder of each fearsome task I complete.

I have a vast sticker stockpile. I love to sticker shop. And take coffee breaks and watch cat videos. During writing time. Even without social media, I am distractible. So why not tweet? And commit to tweeting well? In support of my job. Which is writing.

I gave myself a frog sticker for writing this blog post. I will earn a dragon for sending it out. I celebrate patient improvement. I can learn to shill. Who better to shill for me, than me?
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Kirsten Voris tweets @bubbleate and gardens in Tucson, Arizona. You can find her #CNF @SuperstitionRev, @theknicknackery, @hippocampusmag and in two forthcoming anthologies. She is currently reworking the biography of a stage mentalist and planting her winter garden #amwriting #gardening.

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