Category Archives: writing

Random Trivia and Checking In

I’ve always wondered why there are so many reboots of super hero movies. Batman comes to mind, it seems like there’s a new origin movie for him every 5 years or so.

Yesterday I read that it’s because if studios don’t make a new super hero movie every so often, they’ll lose the rights to those characters. I guess they’d rather make the same movie over and over again than lose the rights.

I thought I’d pop in for a minute just to say I’m still around. So how is my writing goal going? It’s sort of changed directions. I’ve done a great job of writing every day, I’ve just been focused on working on this script. It’s been a really interesting challenge. I’m still not entirely sure I’m doing it right, but I love the process so far.

I’m attempting to write an R rated comedy. It seems like a natural choice for me. Of course, that puts a lot of pressure on me to have funny things happening. I read through the script for Bridesmaids and started breaking it down page by page. I realized that there is something funny on almost every single page. Either an action line that sets up a physical joke or a funny bit of dialogue. YMMV since some of the gags didn’t really tickle me, but I could see where it was something that someone would laugh at.

One thing that is bothering me is that my second scene, which is really a huge part of setting up the character’s first act life so it really has to exist in some form, takes place in a car as he and his best friend drive to work. It makes good sense logically since the next scene is of them at work. However, I don’t think it’s a good idea in a comedy. I noticed that Bridesmaids does pretty much that exact thing with the main character and her bff in a coffee shop, just sitting there talking. I’m honestly not even sure how that scene even got to stay. I would have figured someone would have rewritten it so that they were riding camel back while they chatted or something.

I’m starting to become quite the expert about raunchy comedies lately. I feel like I’ve watched pretty much all of them by now. As far as I’m concerned Revenge of the Nerds is the best of them. Although I’m pretty sure they’d all be in prison by the end for the crap they pull throughout the movie, it’s still such a great example of a fun movie. There’s not a single character or situation that feels like it doesn’t belong or that it could have been done in a better way. I can’t think of a single other movie that I feel that way about.

It pains me to say this because I am a huge fan of Stepbrothers, but there were a lot of scenes that just weren’t funny to me. The sleepwalking scenes, for example, were painful. The Christmas dinner tryst was just awkward.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to ramble. I’m hoping to finish up my first draft of my script on Monday. At that point I’m going to set it aside and work on another idea I have. So I’m excited about the idea of finishing an honest to god script. Or at least the first draft. That’s something else I never thought I’d do.

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God Bless 3 Act Story Structure

I started looking at 3 act story structure last year. I didn’t have the first inkling when I wrote I Wish… I made an outline sure, but it was just based on a story that occurred to me. I was blissfully unaware that there should be a midpoint or that the B story should reinforce the theme. I didn’t even have a theme in mind. I just went for it.

It was an amazing feeling. Words just poured out of me and onto the page. But was it flawed? Oh yeah. Most notably is the ending. It ends abruptly. I reworked it a couple of times and it still doesn’t flow quite right.

For this first experiment with script writing, I’m relying really heavily on the Save the Cat beat sheet, which is influenced by Syd Field. I’ve watched around 8 or 10 movies since I started this project and they all pretty much followed his formula within a minute or two. I did have some troubles pinpointing the beats in Little Miss Sunshine. They are probably there, but the emotional highs and lows are so mild that it’s really hard for me to spot. A character dies and the family is no worse off than they were. The emotional low point is color blindness? Really? Oh well, it’s something I’m not getting, I’m sure. It has to be because that movie is pretty much universally agreed to be a good one.

Anyway, as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve got my little digital cork board all set up with 40 index cards. I’ve got a story that’s sitting in my head in a fairly complete state. I’m still missing a few filler scenes, but pretty much every important scene is stewing away up there. Now I’m in the process of plugging those scenes into the framework. And incredibly they are starting to fit.

This isn’t going to be the script where I internalize the structure and neither will the next one or two, but I can see where there’s potential for it to happen. Before long I’m going to be able to write a script that hits the marks at all the right places without having to rack my brain and decide if what I’m thinking should go in the second act or the third.

This can only mean good things for the stories I will write in the future. I can already tell that my endings will be much better paced. In fact I’m going to take a look at my outline and make sure that there are clear cut beats for the midpoint and plot points. I think I had some idea of them when I laid it out before, but it’s definitely becoming clearer to me as I work with this concept more.

If you’re working on a novel and you feel like something is missing, it might be the underlying structure isn’t quite right. I’d strongly recommend that you read up on 3 act story structure and see how well your story works. It sure can’t hurt. And in my case, I think it’s going to be the best thing I’ve done to improve my writing yet.

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Scene-storming Redux

I’m getting closer to my self imposed, January 1st deadline to start working on my new novel. The other day I talked about the way I’ve been approaching this outline. I’ve been tweaking it and getting it closer to the final version. One of the main things I’ve done is to color code each bubble of my mind map by POV. I decided early on that I needed about 60 scenes to make my word count. I estimated about how many scenes I wanted to give to each of my POV characters.

As I broke my scenes down by POV it was easy to decide on some scenes as they can only be told from a certain perspective, but I also found that a rather large handful of them could be told equally well by at least 2 different characters. Something I will do for the next day or two is brainstorm how the scenes would go as told from each POV and see which one provides more conflict. Each scene should start with a character wanting something and end with something having been changed. My goal is to figure out which character has the most to lose or gain and then make sure that the change is something that makes their goals even harder to achieve.

The other thing I’m working through now is arranging the scenes into the most probably order. My first 10 scenes or so are plotted out entirely right now. After that point I started just writing down pretty much anything that seemed like it might make an interesting scene or that I knew I needed to establish somehow. I have a rebellious teenage girl character, but I know that I need to show that she’s not a lost cause so that her character arc is believable so I know that I want to have a scene showing her bond with her younger siblings. So one of my scene bubbles just says something along the lines of “Gen has a tender scene with her siblings”.

I’ve only come up with around 50 of my projected 60 scenes. I’m going to start arranging the ones I have into an order that I think will tell the best story. Once I’ve done that, I’ll start to fill in the blanks. How do we get from point A to point B? This is my first attempt to use a formal story structure to arrange my story. I don’t know if it will help or hurt me during this stage, but I’m trying to be open since I do feel like there’s real value to keeping that in mind as I write.

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Choosing a setting- real or not?

When I wrote I Wish… I set it in a totally fictional town called Desire. I wanted to be able to create a town that lived up to my idea of what a town populated with a bunch of witches would look like. There wouldn’t be a “bad part” of town since every family would be incredibly wealthy due to the powers they have access to. I also wanted it to be filed with elegant old Victorian houses that have been around for years and will continue to be there for generations to come.

No real town would live up to the picture I had in my mind’s eye. So I went crazy building a town. I have maps of who lives where and different street names, even though I haven’t needed that information in the story. It’s just nice to know. Nobody can take offense to anything that happens in this town because it’s a totally made up place.

So now as I’m planning this new story, I’m considering setting it in Savannah, GA. Savannah has quite a reputation as a haunted place. It’s full of atmosphere and awesome old buildings. And from a world building perspective, it’s a lot less work since you can just use existing maps and names.

The downfall is that if I use a real place and take certain liberties with it, I risk upsetting people who have actually visited that town. I remember reading Stephen King’s The Stand when I was younger. He wrote a note somewhere, possibly in the foreword, but it might have been somewhere completely outside of the book, saying that he made a lot of mistakes such as turning a ticket booth or something similar in a New York subway into a toilet. I’m heavily paraphrasing here, obviously, but the point is that everyone makes mistakes, even the wildly successful people.

I have an extremely limited knowledge of Savannah. To write about it is to risk making a lot of mistakes. I’m thinking about going for it anyway because the setting is perfect for the story I want to tell.

I know another option that some people use is to create an alternative place where all the magic happens in a real place. A hidden street, a pocket dimension, or something else along those lines. But that route won’t work for this story so for now it’s not on the table as an option.

Anybody have any opinions one way or another?

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Dealing with writer’s block

I’ve never really thought of myself as having writer’s block. For as long as I’ve been writing, which has been since I was a kid, any time I’ve sat down to write, there have always been words. I’ve never felt blocked in a traditional sense. I’ve been reconsidering my views on writer’s block recently.

When I wrote I Wish, I was excited to move onto the sequel immediately. Until I tried to start plotting it out. Suddenly I wasn’t excited anymore. Even though I knew before writing I Wish the overall plot of Your Word Is My Bond, when I sat down to finish outlining the details I kept getting stymied.

For the longest time I’ve just chalked that up to an overall lack of excitement towards writing. I turned my energy to writing other things that paid the bills and just stopped writing the fiction for me. Every so often I’d sit down again, determined this time to write that sequel, only to give up after a day or two of half hearted attempts to come up with an outline.

I miss writing fun, just for me, fiction. So this time when I sat down to write I decided to scrap my plans of working on YWIMB for right now. I’ve been really digging American Horror Story lately. It’s got a gothic, dark vibe to it that I really enjoy. It inspired me to pick up an idea I had earlier this year to write a ghost story about a young woman who was murdered years ago and has finally pulled herself together in ghost form only to find that the world has moved on without her. Her toddler has grown up to be a rebellious teenager, everyone believes that she abandoned her family when she disappeared, and the only living person who can see her is her ex husband who may have been the one who killed her.

I love the premise, but originally my plan was to execute it as a 1st person POV as told by the ghost and play it more as a comedy. After watching AHS, I started thinking about what would happen if I tried to get that same eerie tone and made it a 3rd person POV instead, with several viewpoint characters. Suddenly the concept took off. I’ve recaptured the excitement that I originally felt when I was working on I Wish.

My tips for dealing with writer’s block:

Learn to recognize it:

I chalked up my lack of progress to changes in my life. Within a short period I moved halfway across the country, joined the local roller derby team, and switched from a Windows machine to a Mac- which included steep learning curves as I struggled to find alternatives to all my favorite writing and planning software.

If I had realized what was going on sooner, I could have taken steps to break out of the cycle.

Figure out what’s causing your block:

For me, it wasn’t all writing that was an issue, it was one particular project. I got a lot of positive feedback on I Wish, including the very flattering, “When can we expect the sequel”. I was optimistic and thought that it was just a matter of putting in the time and it would roll out as easily as I Wish had. I didn’t have a plan B. The idea of working on anything else before I finished YWIMB made me feel guilty. I dealt with the guilt and lack of excitement for the project by focusing on other aspects of my life and just abandoning writing altogether.

It’s a really counterintuitive way to deal with the issue. Not only did the sequel not get written, but neither did anything else, wasting all that time.

Work on something else:

Of course I want to deliver the sequel to the people who have invested themselves in my series. Since that isn’t working for me right now, I’m giving myself permission to write something else that I do feel passionate about. Writing anything is beneficial to me as a writer and to my career. Not only does it grow my body of work and thus my “shelf space” at sites like Amazon, but it teaches me more about writing than reading any number of books or articles about the craft. And I think my fans would rather read an unrelated novel that I’ve written than have nothing from me until the sequel is released.

Look at ideas from new angles:

When I originally came up with the idea for the ghost story, I liked it a lot. I could see how it would play out. I think it would have been fun to write and fun to read. Now I’m convinced that with this new approach it’s going to be a stronger story than it would have been before. It also had the added benefit of renewing my interest in the project. Now I can’t wait to start getting words on paper.

Set goals:

I sat down yesterday and spent several hours creating a production schedule based on a personal goal I’ve created for myself to write 4k words a day (2k for my fun stuff and 2k for my other projects). This is a very doable goal for me, challenging, but nowhere near unachievable. It hinges on treating my writing like it’s a full time job, which is something I should have started doing earlier this year when I decided this is what I want to do with myself.

My production schedule hinges on having several projects going on at a time, including writing one novel while simultaneously editing the last one. I have mapped out a projected 6 novels that I expect to have written by the end of the year. By planning them in advance, I can start the outlining and prewriting process for later books right now, which will give me almost an entire year to plot out the last book, which should take off a lot of the pressure to come up with something workable right now. It also gives me the ability to direct my attention to just a handful of projects instead of wanting to run with every new idea that pops into my head.

Start a “daily 5” list:

Speaking of ideas… one thing I swear by is having a daily 5 list where you write down ideas you can use in your writing. Anything is game for these lists as long as you find it inspiring. When I’m asked to contribute to an anthology, the first thing I do is scan my idea lists to see if I have anything that could be worked into a short story. Since I write down everything from character sketches, to lyrics and quotes, to entire plot summaries, I can usually find something that gives me a jumping off point. Your lists are also helpful when you get stuck in your writing. It’s almost like playing with a random generator except every idea you come across is going to be something that spoke to you at one point, which is guaranteed to make it more interesting.

The other benefit to keeping a daily 5 is that you never have to worry about forgetting an idea. You can write it down in as much detail as you care to and mark it so that you can find it again easily later. It’s really helped to curb my impulses to drop everything and run with a new idea. I know it’ll be there waiting for me when I have time to address it.

Outlining is your friend:

The one thing I can say is that once I start writing, I have never gotten hung up. Because I’ve already worked out the plot in advance through an outline, I always know exactly what needs to happen in a scene. I also don’t do any editing during the first draft, even if I’m convinced a scene is painful to read. My first draft is 100% putting words on a page. A finished novel can be reworked, one that hasn’t been finished isn’t doing anybody any good, even if the 4 chapters you have finished are solid gold. Turn off the inner critic, follow your outline, and finish that first draft.

Butt to chair, everyday:

The last thing I’d recommend making writing a priority. You’ll never write anything if you aren’t putting in the time. That’s something I keep saying, but not practicing. I haven’t been treating my writing like a job and it shows… I could be a prolific writer due to the time I have available to focus on it and the ease with which the words come to me. Instead, I have 1 rather short novel and a handful of short stories to show for an entire year. This is unacceptable to me and, sadly, totally avoidable. This is the one thing that every writer can control. If you aren’t writing, you’re missing out on the opportunity to improve your craft and your income stream.

I did some math the other day. This is something I’ve seen other places, Dean Wesley Smith preaches it regularly on his blog. There are two ways to make money as a writer: have one blockbuster release or have a large body of mildly successful titles. Clearly the second option is the more realistic option for the majority of us.

I think almost everyone can assume that they’ll sell at least 10 books per title a month. The more titles you have, the more they’ll all sell overall as it increases your shelf space, but even my lowest selling titles will move at least 10 copies per month. If you do the math based on 10 copies a month times the amount you know you could have been writing if you’d only put in the time, it becomes really eye opening. Even if all you have time for is one title a year, that’s still 120*$3.50 (the payout on a $4.99 novel)= ~$420. The next year if you write a second novel that’s another $420. After a few years you can start paying for a nice vacation with the money you earn for work you did years ago. I think most people can push themselves harder than that though and a lot will sell significantly higher than 120 copies a year.

I sort of went off on a tangent for a minute there, but the point is that it’s all moot if you aren’t writing. You can’t sell something that doesn’t exist. I think that making writing a habit will do more to cure yourself of writer’s block than anything else. If you aren’t letting yourself off easy, “Well, looks like I can’t think of anything to write. Oh well, I’ll go watch that Law and Order SVU marathon instead.”, I believe you’ll find a way to work through it because it becomes a habit. The human brain is constantly seeking ways to entertain itself. If you sit there staring at a blank page long enough, your mind is finally going to come up with something to say because it can’t stand it any longer.

The one good thing to come out of my brush with writer’s block is that it taught me things about myself as a writer that I didn’t know before. I feel more prepared to deal with this situation in the future now that I can more easily recognize what’s going on with myself the next time I start getting all cagey.

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Long time no see!

This is the first in what I hope will be a long string of regular blog posts. Of course I thought that a few months ago too and then didn’t have much (if anything) to say for the last 4 or 5 months. So no promises.

One of the main reasons for a lack of blogging has been dissatisfaction with my blogging software. To briefly recap, my old laptop was a Dell. It wasn’t good for much but typing my stories and when it started randomly pressing the control button while I was typing, it wasn’t any good for that anymore either. I replaced it with a lovely Mac machine, which I was extremely leery of at first. These days I’m happy to report I’m actually quite smitten with it and spend hours of every day doing pretty much everything on it.

One of the downfalls to switching OS was that I needed to replace Windows specific software, including the Windows Live Writer software I used for blogging. It’s free and intuitive and I love it. But how hard could it be to find something similar for Mac? Well, I wouldn’t know because I more or less gave up on it. I tried Qumana, but it didn’t click with me. Now I’m working with Ecto. So far so good.

I only tell that long and ultimately uninteresting story to segue into the real point of my post. Almost a year ago now, I posted about my go to software programs for my Windows set up. I’m still 100% supportive of those choices, by the way. It was hard to find replacements for them, especially Onenote. That one was tricky, but I’m so inspired by the replacement that I found that I overcame my aversion to finding a new blogging tool to just to be able to share with you.

Scrivener– This could very well be a one stop program because it has some pretty robust planning tools built into it, but I personally just use the word processing capabilities because I don’t care for Open Office (free). There’s a lot of positive things to be said for Scrivener that have been mentioned at length in the many reviews out there so I won’t restate them all. It’s worth checking out.

Curio– This is the only other program I use for writing these days. I tried several note taking/organizational programs before I settled on this one. It combines the mind mapping features I loved in Xmind (free) with the free form note taking capabilities of Onenote. It does have a pretty steep price tag. I bought my copy on “Cyber Monday” at 25% off and still ended up paying over $100 for the mid-grade version, but I feel good about it. I’ve posted before about my need for extensive outlining and prewriting so I get a lot of use out of the program.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, Curio does all the same things I used Onenote for and then some. It’s got all the flexibility to arrange text, images, and other media around on the page that I enjoyed with ON. In a writing context, I used that feature to arrange several pictures per page (I use pictures I find online as inspiration for characters or settings) and I like to write summaries in one column with annotations running beside it. I’ve tried other programs, but that’s a fairly unique feature, but one I really wanted.

Another improvement is that Curio supports more levels of hierarchal organization than ON. ON is committed to a notebook analogy, which is fine. I actually find it very attractive. But that seems to preclude very many levels of organization. Curio uses a combination of sections, folders, and workspaces to organize everything and allows folders within folders. I haven’t found a boundary to that yet, although I haven’t tried to go deeper than 4 or 5 levels at this point.

The visual tools in Curio are what really sets it apart in my mind. You can make mind maps and lists using several preinstalled templates and you can then further customize them with color swatches you can download from different online sites. That’s such an unnecessary feature, but one that I love anyway.

Here are a few screenshots of Curio in action with the story I’m working on currently.

Screen Shot 2011-12-13 at 12.23.32 PM.png

This is an example of one of my character’s mind maps. I have a blank template that I have saved and I just copy and paste it onto each workspace I create for a character. I customize the colors as desired, but otherwise the style information carries over from the original. This is also a look at the interface itself.

Screen Shot 2011-12-13 at 12.25.02 PM.png

This is just an example of how I drop a photo onto the workspace to use as visual inspiration. I either search Google for photos or look at stock photo sites. I don’t pay for the images since they are for my own personal use. I just ignore the watermarks. Sometimes I’ll add a paragraph of notes underneath if there’s more to say than what I can easily put into a mind map. Curio supports voice recording and other kinds of media, including handwriting using a tablet, so there’s a lot of room for building some truly epic notes.

Screen Shot 2011-12-13 at 12.27.17 PM.png

This is a grab of the list tool. It also supports color customization. These are just some notes I took while reading a book (“Story Engineering” (Larry Brooks) good book, btw. I’m enjoying it a lot.) the other day. **

Curio also makes tables and notecards, although I haven’t used those features at this point. You should truly take the time to look at their samples. If you aren’t totally impressed then I want to know what note taking program you use because I think I want to buy a copy.

That concludes my little essay on the reasons why Curio is a writer’s best friend and a viable substitute for ON. As far as the Ecto experiment, I haven’t tried to publish yet, but everything else has worked as good, if not better than, hoped. It even has an “Amazon Helper” tool that let me look up the link for the book I mentioned without having to leave the editor. Very cool. I think you guys might be seeing more of me around these parts real soon.

**Edit: I took new screen shots for this post since the old ones were too small to be useful due to my inexperience with Ecto at that time. The list is actually from “Story Structure Architect: A Writer’s Guide to Building Dramatic Situations and Compelling Characters” (Victoria Lynn Schmidt) which is another helpful book that I’d recommend.

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A real look at how I outline

I’ve described my outlining process before on the blog, but this time I’m going to show you guys real pictures of my notes. I can not stress strongly enough that these are my actual notes from the book I Wish. If you haven’t read it yet and want to, there WILL be spoilers. Avoid this post at all costs if that will ruin the experience for you.

The program I use is Onenote by Microsoft. I swear by it. It’s about the most amazing notetaking software ever invented. Do yourself a huge favor and get a copy.

The first thing I do is a brain dump on paper. These are some actual crappy cell phone pictures of my actual crappy written notes. Seriously. Nobody can read my handwriting. It’s like a blind gorilla wrote them with his stupid foot. But it’s just an example anyway.

paper notes 1

paper notes 2

I love bullet points. Some of the notes made it to the final version, some were changed until they didn’t resemble the original note at all, and some I just scrapped completely. I can’t stress enough how important it is to just let yourself go during this part. Sometimes if I piece of information or dialog occurs to me, I’ll write right up the margin or further down the page. I use a lot of arrows and underlines or boxes to link ideas together or emphasize some. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s just what makes sense to you later on when you’re reading over it. I’ve also been known to go over sections with a highlighter.

paper notes 3

A lot of times I’ll use Xmind for mind mapping (ooh, I’ll take a picture of that too!), but sometimes it’s just faster to grab a sheet of paper and make a quick diagram. This is one I made when I was brainstorming some new scenes to add length to the book. I think really well in this manner. That whole chart took me about 10 minutes to come up with and I had ideas for an extra 6 scenes.

It’s totally unrelated to anything, but don’t my fingertips look fat in that picture? I just got sized for our wedding bands and my ring finger is a size 4, which is pretty small. I had no ideas that fingertips could even look fat, but there we are. Ahem. Done now.

mind map 

mind map 2

So here are a couple of samples of different mind maps I made to get some ideas onto paper. Again, some were used in the stories, some weren’t. The process of brainstorming this way really unlocks a ton of potential ideas in my mind and inspires lines of thinking that I personally feel enrich my writing.

At this point I start plugging the ideas into Onenote.

onenote

This is an example of the summary I write before I start breaking my ideas into individual scenes. I write the summary as if I were telling it to a 3rd party. This is where I find out if I’m missing important information. It breaks down roughly to each paragraph = a scene. I leave myself notes on the side to remind myself to add more information to a a section when it becomes a scene or to make sure I don’t forget something that’s coming up. Also if you’re actually reading my notes, you’ll see that this was before I determined that Katie is an overused name and changed her to Krista.

ywriter

The last thing I do is write out a scene description. For I Wish… I used yWriter. It made formatting a bitch when I added new scenes though so I don’t think I’ll be using it this time around. But you get the idea. I wrote a couple of paragraphs of what was supposed to happen in that scene and then turned it into a 3000 word passage. Not a bad conversion, right?

I filled out each scene in the book before I wrote a word of it. Some descriptions are a lot more detailed than this one is. I included any ideas for dialogue or other phrases I liked and wanted to include. You can’t do yourself any disservice by being really wordy on this part. When I was ready to write every day, I knew exactly what I was planning to work on. I never had to spend any time trying to think of what came next because I already knew before I started writing what happened in what order.

There was one pitfall to the whole thing. My outline was TIGHT. I had every day accounted for, even if it wasn’t specified in the story exactly what day it was. It doesn’t matter if the reader knows as long as I do so that I don’t have my character in two places at one time. So when it came time to add more scenes it was like crap, where the hell can I fit that in? It took a lot of wiggling and a few serious rewrites at the beginning or end of the scene to fight them all in.

But that’s a minor problem and if I had a better handle on how long my average scene length was it wouldn’t have happened. The nice part about yWriter is that it tracks how long each scene is for you so it’s easy to do the math. Now I know that my average scene length is almost exactly 1500 words and I can plan enough scenes in advance to come out to where I need to be by the end.

Hopefully, this clarifies my process for anyone who was confused. Xmind and yWriter are both free programs and a lot of people have Onenote on their computers and don’t even realize it. If you have any questions you can leave it in the comments or hit me up on twitter @wrenem. I’ll be happy to help you out as much as I can.

Edit: Wow guys, totally didn’t expect this to go viral like this. It’s awesome, thanks for stopping by my fine little piece of web real estate. I’d love to have you visit again in the future. If you are interested to see what this outline and 2 weeks of 1st draft writing will net you, please consider buying a copy of I Wish… for only $.99. I’d sure appreciate it. Smile

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