Writer Beware: Speed Bumps Ahead

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You’re staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer’s Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Speed Bumps

You might not have heard of another writer condition, one similar to Writer’s Block, but it differs in a significant way. I call it Writer’s Speed Bump, and knowing how to treat it is critical. Continue reading

Being Slush Pile Reader & A Writer

Whenever people find out that I’m a slush pile reader, they usually have one of two reactions. The first is “I would love to get paid to read books all day” while sighing wistfully. What those people really mean is “I would love to get paid to read good books all day,” which would be nice, if that’s what I did. The truth is that most of what I read is stuff I wouldn’t read under normal circumstances, and much of it isn’t very good. There’s a reason we call it “the Slush Pile,” and not “the Super Happy Terrific Pile of Wonder and Goodness.”

It’s the second reaction I get from people that I want to talk about, because it usually involves a healthy mixture of distrust, anger, and abject horror. Their smile suddenly becomes much more forced, their eyes a bit more steely, and there is an edge to their voice as they say, “Oh, that’s . . . nice,” which translates roughly to “Oh, so YOU’RE the one who rejected my manuscript and dashed my dreams forever. Hope you sleep comfortably at night, you monster!” I might as well have admitted that I like to kick puppies in my spare time. These people have met the enemy, and he is me.

I understand where this reaction comes from. In the writing world, there are two distinct camps, the writers and the publishers, and never the twain shall meet. The writers toil daily in the salt mines of storytelling, laboring to appease their individual muses with appropriate sacrifices of time, energy, and tears in exchange for the least bits of inspiration. They attend classes and conferences at their own expense to improve their craft and hone their skills. They wake up early to squeeze in a few more words before the kids wake up, and then stay up late to review and revise. They endure the slings and arrows of tough-love criticism from their writing partners and groups, and make wholesale perspective changes from third to first person because it’s what the story wants. It’s about magic and love and creativity, and most writers do it all not just because they want to, but because they need to. Because in many cases, it would kill them not to. And in the end, after months or even years of literary gestation, the writers give birth to their story. It’s a brand new life all its own, and is cared for and loved by the writer with the fierce protective sensibilities of a Kodiak grizzly for her cubs.

And then the writer hands off their precious little story to the publishers, which feels like tossing their newborn into a woodchipper. Because to many writers, publishers are seen as giant, faceless corporate entities that only care about making money, and are devoted solely to the crushing of dreams. They imagine publishers lounging like the gods of Olympus, sipping ambrosia and not giving two thoughts about the lowly writers struggling beneath them. Or they see them as rabid, salivating beasts with glistening fangs and hunger in their otherwise dead eyes. Indeed, nothing tastes better to a publisher than a fresh manuscript served medium rare with a side of the artist’s soul.

Welcome to the machine.

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I sympathize with the writers, because I am one myself, and know firsthand what it takes to produce a completed book. I also have worked in the publishing world for a very long time, so I know something of what goes on behind the scenes there. With a foot firmly in both camps, I have to maintain an uneasy and delicate balance that, at times, feels like trying to navigate a no-man’s land of misconceptions.

Let’s just throw out some uncomfortable facts and stare at them for a moment, shall we? First fact: writing is a business. Publishers do, in fact, want to make money, and base many of their decisions on financial grounds. This fact upsets a lot of writers, but here’s another simple fact: writers want to make money too. The very act of submitting your story to a publisher means that you are hoping to sell your literary baby to the highest bidder. It’s okay to admit that, and it doesn’t cheapen or diminish the magic of writing one bit. (Just so we’re clear, I am not advocating the selling of actual babies to the highest bidder). Larry Correia frequently says that writers should have “get paid” as part of their personal mission statement, and I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t dream of being able to quit their day job and write full time.

Ready for some more uncomfortable facts? It’s not easy to do all that. Very, very few writers will ever reach the upper echelons of financial security. I know plenty of writers who do very well, and even a couple who can do it full time. But most can’t. It’s like playing sports—not many basketball or football players will make it to the big leagues, and it’s not just about skill or talent. There’s also a fair amount of luck (or karma, or serendipity, or whatever you want to call it) that has to break in your favor, and over which you have no control. The same is true in publishing. You can’t control what the market is doing, or what has already been submitted to a publisher before your story, or what the Next Big Thing will be. And what’s more, it’s impossible to predict what the Next Big Thing will be, because every Current Big Thing is almost always a surprise. I’ve seen books do really well that nobody expected, and I’ve seen books that were supposed to be the Next Big Thing fizzle and fade. No one can say exactly why Harry Potter, or Hunger Games, or even Twilight became the successes they did. Books like those are phenomenons, not business models. And yes, every writer wants to be the next JK Rowling, and every publisher wants to publish the next Harry Potter series, but no one knows exactly how to duplicate it. If they did, publishers would only need to put out four titles a year.

That sound I can hear are laptops being thrown across rooms everywhere in despair. Okay, so now that I’ve ruined your day, allow me to try and lift you back up again. Here’s a far more comfortable fact: I’m on your side here. I’m always hoping that every story I read will be a winner, and I’m always thrilled when I find one.

Here’s another: You should definitely keep writing. I believe that the ability to tell a good story is a divine gift, and the very worst thing we could do is to let that gift languish and die. So don’t give up. Keep at it. Try different genres and styles. Submit everywhere you can. Take no prisoners. I can’t promise you a publisher will knock down your door with the standard Rich and Famous Contract for you to sign. But I can say that publishers are always looking for everything, always. There will always be a need for a good story that is well written. And if you keep improving as a writer and artist, you can find your confidence as a person, and you can be happy.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta get back to the slush pile. I think I see a manuscript with your name on it.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Imagination vs Observation

“It doesn’t really matter who said it, it’s so obviously true. Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.” — JOHN IRVING

“Write from what you know into what you don’t know.” — GRACE PALEY

As a person who has taught more university writing courses than I care to mention, I regularly hear some version of the following: “Creative writing? Isn’t all writing creative?” That question used to really get my goat, but I’m starting to feel like it’s actually a pretty important one, especially when it triggers thinking about whether the writing is supposed to be about something that happened or if the writing is supposed to be about something that did not.

I am a firm believer in the notion that there is no ex nihilo creation. It’s a very Law of Conservation of Mass kind of perspective, but I don’t think the imagination runs without some kind of fuel, and I think that fuel is experiences. In my life even events that feel a lot like inspiration are more about the miraculous connection of disparate ideas than they are about an idea coming to me out of nowhere.

Imagination is described as the ability to form new ideas, images, or concepts that aren’t present to the senses. Observation is process of perceiving something or someone carefully or in order to gain information or understanding. So, in a lot of ways these are opposite activities. Imagination traffics in what’s not there, while observation deals with what is.

So, to my thinking, writers have to start with an observation, with some kind of phenomena that has been either observed or taken in. Words are always referential, and even though I have experienced the sorcery of having ideas emerge from the act of writing, I have found it impossible to go from zero to words, or to have the words precipitate out of nothing. And still, even though writing begins with an observation in the world, the act of observing things in the world changes them.

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This concept is common in the scientific world. The physicist Neils Bohr has a marvelous little book from 1934 entitled Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature. In his introduction, Bohr discusses the similarities between problems found in the theory of relativity and those found in quantum theory, arguing that in “both cases we are concerned with the recognition of physical laws which lie outside the domain of our ordinary experience and which present difficulties to our accustomed forms of perception.” According to Bohr, these difficulties of perception can be challenging but we can “by no means dispense with those forms of perception which color our whole language and in terms of which all experience must ultimately be expressed.” (5)

Basically we have trouble with perceiving things outside our normal experience and yet we can’t just write off the problems because our language as well as our ability to express anything are affected by perception. In a film class in college I heard this another way. John Greirson, the man who started the National Film Board of Canada once said, “Art isn’t a mirror, it’s a hammer.”

Quantum theory suggests all kinds of problems with observation. We know that observation changes the thing observed. This is a matter for physicists and psychologists. It’s also what made scientific understanding of exactly how a cat purrs to understand. The minute you hook sensors up to cat, it’s done purring. To make matters more complicated, Einstein has famously said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s difficult to divide out which matter more to the writer, the observation that must come first, or the imagination that shapes and forms the observation.

I’d like to argue that writers often blend imagination and observation together. I’ve noticed that my writing loops back and forth between imagination and observation. I start with some idea for a scene, chapter, or moment in my fiction, and I do my best to imagine it. Even when I feel like I’m making something up from scratch, I’m not. There are always ingredients, and they are always being changed and shaped by what I’m planning to do with them. Nothing is ever neutral.

The process is never linear, and now that I’m this far into my writing life, I can’t recall that distant first observation. In my memory, it has blended to become one thing.

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Works Cited

Bohr, Niels. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature: Four Essays with an Introductory Survey. Cambridge UP (1934).

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Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

The Truth About Writer’s Block

I’ve heard people say that claiming you have writer’s block is akin to a plumber saying he’s got plumber’s block. To me, that comparison is ridiculous.

Plumber's Block - 2
A plumber has the exact same wrenches and other tools he uses every day on the job. He has a clear-cut list of skills he needs and issues he’ll face, and he’ll use the same tools to fix them. Chances are he’d better make use the same fitting he did on a similar job yesterday, or the connection will leak.  Continue reading

Books to Help Writers Get Better

I have a weakness.

I mean, besides books. That’s obvious.

My other weakness is craft books. I love them. I love learning how people think about story, seeing how I can think differently or better about my writing, to be inspired by how others engage in the creative process. If you know me in real life, it won’t surprise you to know that analysis makes me super happy.

Which is why I have a shelf that looks like this:

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And amid the great novels loaded on my kindle are the following:

  • Creativity Inc.
  • A Writer’s Guide Story Structure and Beyond
  • The War of Art
  • John Gardner’s Collection on Writing
  • The Art of Work
  • The Anatomy of Story
  • The Right to Write
  • All of the Emotional Thesaurus books
  • Crafting Unforgettable Characters
  • Getting Published in the 21st Century
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
  • Million Dollar Outlines
  • Save the Cat

But still, I found myself wondering what books people went to when they wanted to study their craft more. Below are some of the dozens of suggestions I received (several I’ve never heard of!):

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New Craft Books:

  • Author In Progress: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published Paperback by Therese Walsh
  • The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface by Donald Maass
  • Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Books to Improve Overall Writing:

  • The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
  • How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them by Sol Stein
  • Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass
  • Scene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Jack M. Bickham
  • Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them–A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark
  • Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
  • Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry

Books to Nurture the Writer:

  • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Fierce on the Page by Sage Cohen
  • A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller
  • The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Books to Help with Editing:

  • The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
  • Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques by Sol Stein
  • 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected Paperback by Mike Nappa

Even MORE Great Writing Books:

These are new to me, so if you know more about them, please share! 

  • The Crosswicks Journals by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art Paperback by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Forest for the Trees (Revised and Updated): An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
  • This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
  • If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
  • Reflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones

Lifetime Achievement Awards:

Face it: these books are so good, we still need to talk about them.

  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
  • Elements of Style by by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

Did I miss any? Do you have some favorites? 

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profileTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Perfectly Imperfect

We are thrilled to welcome Kimberly VanderHorst to the Thinking Through Our Fingers family.

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I’m going to make a possibly radical statement:


Technically perfect writing is not always the most compelling writing.


That’s a claim one could easily pick apart, but I think it holds a kernel of truth worthy of exploration.


Are you familiar with 
spoon theory? It’s a concept applied to those with chronic energy deficits due to physical or mental health issues. The idea is that you only get so many “spoons” every day, and that every action you take costs you precious spoons.

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The same can be applied to writing. You only have so many writing spoons per day. You can spend your spoons on pouring new words onto the blank page, revising (which costs more spoons for some and less for others). You can spend a spoon trying to deepen your prose or strengthen characterization, or you could spend that same spoon (and a couple more besides) fussing over every, single, word, on every, single, page. 


I’m not saying meticulous revisions aren’t spoon-worthy. Line-by-line editing is my happy place. But I’m putting forward the hopefully-not-too-crazy notion that in striving to spread a shiny veneer of “perfect” over our writing, we sometimes pass up the opportunity to make our writing BETTER. 


It can be easier to tinker till everything is technically perfect, than to push deeper into our characters’ points of view and wring raw, wrecking prose from those depths. Leveling up our writing is hard, soul-wearying work, but personally, I prefer technically imperfect LEVEL 73 writing to polished-till-it-glows LEVEL 14 writing. 


That said, if I have a choice between LEVEL 73 riddled with typos and grammatical errors and technically perfect LEVEL 52 . . . Well, that gets a little tricky, doesn’t it? Just keep in mind that readers are looking for stories to live in, not frame behind glass. Strive to writer better, deeper, stronger. Don’t fuss with your semi-colons and em-dashes when you have a one-dimensional villain to develop. It’s worth the spoons. Promise.


Technical perfection is the icing on the cake, and man oh man do I LOVE icing. But make sure that cake has more than one layer and plenty of filling before you frost it.


And if you have a spoon left over, use it to eat your cake.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

(Almost) Everything I Learned About Writing, I Learned from Parenting

Last week, some of the Cedar City members of Thinking Through Our Fingers met at our local library for a writer’s panel discussion (which was wonderful). The first thing our lovely panel moderator asked us was to share our most important piece of writing advice. Mine was along the lines of every project being different and how it therefore becomes necessary to temper our expectations along the way (i.e., just because book three was a relative breeze doesn’t guarantee that book five won’t be a beast with horns). Each work has its own personality, and I began to think about how in some ways, tending to our “book babies” is a lot like parenting. Not a parent? No worries. These analogies apply to other crazily difficult if not impossible tasks as well. Like domesticating wild zebras. Or learning how to sky-dive into volcanoes.

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READING ABOUT IT IS FINE, BUT TO REALLY LEARN HOW TO DO IT, YOU HAVE TO JUST DO IT.doit

  • Prior to becoming a parent, maybe you stocked up on those “What to Expect” or other parenting books (Goodness knows I did). While useful for some technical things (like how to get that dirty diaper off and the clean one on before the baby pees or poops EVERYWHERE), nothing can better make you a better parent except for rolling up your sleeves and actually tackling parenting. Seriously. Despite the best books, you will have those days, weeks, months (or more) where you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, but take comfort in the fact that you are learning more every day (especially from your mistakes), and that you’re doing the best that you can. Because you’re doing it.
  • Similarly, you might have a favorite stack of craft books and podcasts and go-to blogs about writing. You may attend writing conferences and workshops to learn about your craft. Yes. DO THOSE THINGS. But in addition to getting ideas, inspiration, and technical details, nothing will teach you more about writing than rolling up your sleeves, sitting your butt in that chair, and writing. And yes, you will have those days, weeks, months (or more) where you feel doubtful about your writing and maybe even question your entire writing career, but take comfort in the knowledge that by actually writing, you are learning more about writing every single day (especially from your mistakes), and that you’re doing the very best that you can. Because you’re doing it.

MAINTAIN REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS.expectations.gif

  • Even before I became a parent, I had plans. I planned to go the route of natural childbirth for my first child. I read up on it, spoke to my physician and other professionals, and attended classes to prepare myself and my husband for what would hopefully be a memorable experience. Well. What wound up happening was a total of 28+ hours of difficult labor, two separate epidurals, and an emergency C-section that saved both my and my son’s life (talk about the opposite of “natural”)! And the important and special bonding process between mother and baby that’s supposed to happen immediately after birth? I didn’t get to even see him until two days after he was born because we were both recovering from those 28+ hours of trauma. That little guy is now almost ten years old, and I’ve learned to chill out (a little) about my expectations. If he remembers to brush his teeth and comes home from school with a smile on his face, then this is a good day! If he also does his homework and helps around the house and doesn’t argue with me and doesn’t torture his younger brother too much and practices piano without me nagging him 194 times, then that’s an amazing day. The point is not to set low expectations, but maybe it would be better to set realistic ones and understand there are lots (and lots) of things in life that out of your control.
  • Oh boy. We expect so much from ourselves as writers, don’t we? We go to conferences, connect with other writers, read about others’ experiences, and educate ourselves as best as we can about what it takes to get published. We hope that people (critique partners, beta readers, agents, editors, and eventually EVERYONE) will read and enjoy and possibly even connect with our stories. Once our book babies are out there in the world, we hope and hope and hope they will do well. I made the emotionally draining mistake with my third published book of having unrealistic expectations. This was the first contemporary story I’d written, it had gotten great pre-release buzz, and so many people worked hard to promote it on release day. Well. This book never did too well, and at first, I let that bring me down. However, I still dearly love that book baby, am currently working on another contemporary story that shall be published later this year, and I’m being careful to not unrealistically inflate my expectations. Since I’ve published my first book, I’ve chilled out (a lot) about expectations. Honestly, as long as I’m still writing, I’m good :). If people read my book and connect with it, that’s amazing. I don’t stress about charts and rankings so much anymore, especially because things like hitting bestseller charts are not in your control and therefore aren’t realistic goals.

SORRY, BUT IT DOESN’T GET ANY EASIER.screams

  • Okay, yes, some parenting things do get easier with experience. With my second child, I figured out how to multitask a bit better (because simultaneously juggling nursing, helping my son with his homework, cooking dinner, and proofreading a manuscript was necessary). However, I had to give up naps because life became much busier, and that was hard. Most importantly, I quickly learned that my kids’ personalities are not the same, and so I’ve had to adjust my parenting style to fit each child — in a way that’s a bit different for each child but hopefully still fair (unless you ask them directly, then nothing in life is fair). But I haven’t even gotten to the teenage years with them yet, so I know it’s going to get harder and harder and that I might not completely survive adolescent boys. Just kidding. We will be great, and when I get more gray hair, it means that I get to color it even more fun colors. But to say parenting becomes magically easier with each kid — just, no.
  • Likewise, every writing project is different, and prior experience will make some things easier, but not all. For instance, I don’t cry (nearly as much) when my editor comments that something major in my story needs to be changed. On the other hand, drafting is still that untamed beast with horns that gores me and leaves me bleeding on the ground. Each book has its own personality and its own challenges, and I find that these challenges continually surprise me. Book two was a challenge because it was the first one I wrote from dual POV (one male and one female). Book three was actually a relatively easier and pleasant one for me to write, but it was different because it was contemporary and not fantasy. Book four was a huge challenge because I had to balance two stories that were 500 years apart, but I felt pretty good throughout the process. And here I am writing book five, and it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever written and I want to pull out my hair because of ALL the things. GAH. What a problem child my fifth book has been. But I don’t hate it, and I just have to keep reminding myself that this story has its own personality and challenges. But to say that writing becomes magically easier with each project — just, no.

IT’S WORTH IT. (ALSO, DON’T BE TOO HARD ON YOURSELF!)worthit

  • At the end of the day, I might be hoarse from yelling and my house might be in danger of being classified a Federal Disaster Area, but being the mom of my two creative, hilarious, energetic, and sweet boys is so worth it. Some days I feel like I still know pretty much nothing about parenting, but I know a lot more than I did before I held my first baby.
  • Similarly, writing may make me frustrated, sleep-deprived, feel like a failure, give me anxiety or at the very least, Imposter Syndrome, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it. I know a lot more about writing than I did when I was slogging through my first manuscript.
  • Writing books and being a parent are two of the most challenging things I’ve ever done (and my former graduate school advisor is still mad at me because I told him that getting my Ph.D paled in comparison in difficulty to either of these things). Whether we choose to become parents and/or writers, zebra domesticators and/or volcano skydivers, these difficult tasks that we take on require us to continually build up our abilities with experience. But as long as we acknowledge and embrace that there’s always more to learn, I think we will all be okay.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST: HOPE

Even though there have been many, many moments in recent days when it has been a struggle, the last lesson I want to share is this: HOPE. Raising my children requires that I maintain hope, for their happiness, for their lives, for their education and future prospects, and for the world that I leave behind for them. My children are my ultimate inspiration to keep fighting for a better future, and I will continue teaching them about important things such as inclusion, diversity, and how we should speak up and act when we see the need for change. Similarly, as writers, we have the power to write meaningful stories that touch lives and provide connections for those who feel lost. We have the power to share stories that reflect inclusion, unity, diversity, and betterment of the human condition. We have the power to tackle tough topics, heal people and their wounds and empower them. We can create better worlds and give people the power to speak up, and we can give them hope.

Because we always need hope in our world. We really do.

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. Mom of two and author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (<– coming as soon as she can tame that wild beast of a book baby). You can find out more about her writing at www.helenboswell.com.