Mean Comments: When Your Self-Esteem Is at Stake

Wise counsel about dealing with criticism of the sort that only wants to tear you down, not improve your work. Writers are less likely than singers to be face to face with our attackers, but this still applies.


mean-commentsThe Drive of Being Heard

Art and music usually intend of making an impression or a statement.  Other people are inclined to voice their opinion when they’ve seen a play or heard a musical number that has moved them, whether the response is negative or positive. This drive for being heard and voicing our impressions has created an entire career; critics are paid to write or voice their reviews of various forms of art, whether it is food, movies, music, or visual.

Constructive criticism can be a great thing because it allows the artist to receive feedback that could very well improve its project. Even negative feedback can allow a creator to learn from its shortcomings and create even better work.

The Internet has become a helpful resource for artists in term of exposure, especially musicians and songwriters, as they are able to expose their work to a much larger…

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Dead Air

I seem to have taken up semi-permanent residence in Revisionland. Not only am I working on draft 3 of Wolfie, my own novel in progress, my recent jobs have included two critiques of first novels and a line edit whose structure needs a little tweaking. Editor that I am, with a fair amount of reviewing experience under my belt, I love revising and rewriting and recommending what other writers might do to improve their current drafts.

Most mornings I begin my writing session by lighting a candle or two, then picking The Writer’s Chapbook* from the table on my right, opening it at random, and reading the first quote that catches my eye. This morning the book opened to the “On Films” section, and my eye fell on a lengthy quote by novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. After noting that in the novels of William Faulkner (“who frequently had his shit detector dialed down to zero”) “wonderful streaks” often alternate with “muddy bogs” that need to be slogged through, he continues:

Everyone agrees that Faulkner produced the greatest streaks in American literature from 1929 to 1935 but, depending on how you feel about this, you either admit that there’s a lot of dead air in his works or you don’t. After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

From the mid-1980s till the end of the 1990s, I was very involved in community theater, mostly as a stage manager, actor, or reviewer. (No, I did not review plays I was involved in. However, I often reviewed plays directed or acted in by people I knew. This taught me tact. Whole other subject. I’ve written about reviewing before — see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy” — and surely will again.) No surprise, then, that when I’m writing fiction, I often feel like I’m blocking scenes or directing them and that my characters are doing improv up on stage.

Both of the first-novel manuscripts I critiqued recently hold plenty of promise, but both are currently weighed down with loaded with dead air. In both cases, much of the dead air is dialogue. To both authors I suggested: “Imagine you’re watching these scenes on a stage. Read them out loud. How long before you start to doze off, fidget, or throw tomatoes?”

A novel might survive “twenty mediocre pages,” as McGuane suggests, but five pages of dead air might well be fatal, especially if they come near the beginning, and especially if you’re a first-novelist trying to get past one of the gatekeepers: agent, publisher, reviewer, or even readers willing to give unknown writers a chance.

Put your talking, puttering-about characters up on stage or on a movie screen. How long would you sit still?

* * * * *

*The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers, ed. George Plimpton (New York: Penguin, 1989). I’ve got the revised, expanded version of the first edition. A completely overhauled edition was published in 1999, including some of the original excerpts but also more quotes from more recent and more diverse writers. Both editions are out of print but used copies can be found. That’s how I got mine. Highly recommended.


You bet I’ve got revision on the brain. There are books and websites a-plenty that will tell you how to go about revising your novel, memoir, essay, or whatever, but here’s what I’m doing. I can’t tell you what to do, but maybe this will give you some ideas.

Scribbles on the printout

Scribbles on the printout

In my writing time each morning I’m reading through draft #2 of the novel in progress, making notes on the printout and also preparing a longhand synopsis. In the synopsis, I go chapter by chapter, describing what happens in each scene in black cherry ink (a rather disappointing color, by the way: I was hoping for something that was more cherry and less black), then in red I scribble whatever occurs to me about where something might lead, what it reminds me of, or whether it might be better off somewhere else.

After a couple of hours of this, Travvy — on whom Wolfie, the title character of this novel, is based — and I go for a long walk. While I walk, scenes and fragments are usually churning, swirling, composting in my head. Sometimes an idea or insight will swoop in out of nowhere — or maybe they’ve been there all along waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

Synopsis in progress, with commentary

Synopsis in progress, with commentary

Re-vision: To see again, to see with new eyes, to see new possibilities.

A few months ago I blogged “Simplify: A Key to Revision.” My later drafts are mostly about simplifying — pruning whatever doesn’t enhance the story in some way. I’ll be doing some of that in draft #3, but at this point “the story” is still expanding and deepening so it’s often not clear what’s essential and what’s extraneous. Some of the latter bits turn out to be hidden doorways or the glinting of sunlight off something that needs exploring.

At this point Wolfie is still evolving. It’s a will o’ the wisp, out of reach but still reachable. Revision brings me closer to it.

My response to anyone who asks what Wolfie is about has been “It’s about a girl and a dog who need rescuing and how they rescue each other.” The very first scene I wrote brings together Glory (the girl), Wolfie (the dog), and Shannon (the rescuer). That scene, currently chapter 3, has changed very little since I wrote it, and it’s not likely to change in draft #3.

In the course of draft #2, however, Glory, a smart, artistically gifted sixth-grader who loves dogs and hates her stepfather, has become more guarded, more calculating. Felicia, her mother, has evolved from a two-dimensional figure whom I didn’t much like into a more complex and much more interesting character who may hold the key to the whole book. Shannon, who as an advocate for women and children in crisis is an old hand at rescuing, is contacted by the one person she couldn’t rescue: her younger sister, long-estranged refugee from the same violent, alcoholic family, now sober and wanting to make contact.

Rereading the early chapters of draft #2, I’m surprised to see that much prep work and foreshadowing for these themes is already there. It just took me a while to figure out where it was going.

I still don’t know how the novel ends, by the way. Draft #1 didn’t tell me, and draft #2 hasn’t either. Each draft has come closer, though, so maybe by the time I get close to the end of draft #3 I’ll know.

How will I know? That’s the question. I’m always saying “Your writing will teach you what you need to know,” which can sound terribly glib when your writing is staring you in the face and not saying anything. Mine does that too. Sometimes you just need to walk away and ignore it for a while.

Other times — well, learning to listen to your writing is part of the process too. Since I’m an editor as well as a writer, it probably won’t surprise anybody that I like revising more than first-drafting. First-drafting is like breaking trail. Revising is working with something that’s already there — and that’s what I do for a living. I’ve come to expect each new manuscript, be it academic paper or memoir or novel, to tell me what it needs, and it nearly always does. Same goes for my own stuff.

Reviewing other people’s books can be useful too: It focuses your attention on the big picture and how the pieces fit together. Trouble is, really good books often seem inevitable, and you don’t see any of the drafts that got them to that point. With works in progress or less accomplished works, it’s easier to see the gaps and the missed opportunities. This is why I heartily recommend writers’ groups, if you can find or start one that works for you, and sharing work in progress informally with other writers. Reviewing, evaluating, and critiquing other writers’ work will make you better able to hear what your own writing is trying to tell you.

Revision as Improv

I’m in deep revision mode on Wolfie, the novel in progress, so ‘ve been thinking a lot about how I know what needs to be added or subtracted or completely rewritten.  The truth is, I don’t know. In an early Write Through It post, I write that editing was “Like Driving.” Revision is like that too.

Early this year, I started a second draft before I’d finished the first. As I blogged in “On to Draft 2!” a couple of plot threads had emerged in the writing. Those threads were going to affect the novel’s climax and conclusion, but until I developed them more fully I wouldn’t know how.

A sound foundation

A sound foundation

The same thing happened with my first novel, The Mud of the Place. I thought I was writing a tragedy. Then around page 300 of the first draft, a minor character said something that took me by surprise. Suddenly I could see a way out for a main character who was digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole. I tried to keep going — “I’ll fix the first 300 pages in the next draft,” I told myself — but I couldn’t. It was like building a house on a crumbling foundation.

So I went back to the beginning and started again. The rewriting wasn’t as hard as I’d feared. I didn’t have to throw everything out. That minor character’s words revealed new possibilities in the story that was already unfolding; they’d always been there, but I hadn’t noticed.

Since I can’t tell you how to revise, I’ll start by telling you how not to revise: Don’t return to page one and immediately start fiddling with punctuation and word choice. Revision starts with the big picture: structure, organization, plot and character development, that sort of thing. The little stuff is frosting on the cake. Mix the batter and bake the cake first.

To see the big picture, you have to step back — to approach your own work as if you’ve never seen it before. Of course you have seen it before, but if you let it sit for a while — a couple of weeks, maybe even a couple of months — you may be amazed how different it looks when you come back to it.

While you’re letting it sit, start a new project or wake up one that’s gestating in a notebook or computer file somewhere. If nothing tempts you, use your usual writing time to scribble whatever pops into your head. Chances are it’ll lead somewhere interesting.

If the work is far enough long, you might even draft a colleague or two to read and comment on it at this point. We all have different ideas of when the best time is to do this. I generally wait till I’ve gone as far as I can on my own.

When you’re ready, save your current draft with a new filename. The old draft is your safety net. Then start reading. Read like a reader or a reviewer — and not the kind of reader who pounces on every typo! Notice where you get impatient, or confused, or curious.  I’m always on the alert for clues that something interesting is happening offstage. This is like walking by a closet and suddenly there’s loud pounding and thumping coming from behind the closed door. Something is demanding to be let out. See “Free the Scene!” for more about this.

Word's Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I'm looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Word’s Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I’m looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Make notes as you’re working about scenes that need trimming, or expanding, or moving to somewhere else. If you know what needs doing, go ahead and do it. Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature enables you to make tentative additions and deletions, then revisit them later.

Look for “soft ice” — the words, sentences, and whole paragraphs that don’t carry their own weight. Look for the pathways that led you into a scene but that become less important once you know where you are. They’re like ladders and scaffolding: crucial to the construction process, but dispensable when the job is done.

You’ve heard the standard advice “Kill your darlings,” right? It means different things to different people, and I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I’ve got mixed feelings about most “standard advice.” Most of it’s useful on occasion, but none of it is one-size-fits-all. Take what you like and leave the rest.

But sooner or later when you’re revising you will come to a stretch of drop-dead perfect dialogue or a scintillating anecdote and realize that it just doesn’t belong in the manuscript. Maybe it’s too much of a digression. Maybe it calls too much attention to itself. Maybe it duplicates something better said earlier. It’s hard to let these things go. Track Changes comes in especially handy here. You can zap it provisionally and gradually get used to the idea that it really does have to go.

When you’re slash-and-burning and filling in gaps, don’t worry too much about the transitions between paragraphs and scenes. If the right segue comes to you, by all means go with it, but if it doesn’t, move on. You can smooth it out later.

If you can’t solve a problem while you’re staring at it, stop staring, make a note, and move on. My thorniest problems tend to solve themselves when I’m out walking or kneading bread, falling asleep or just waking up. Solutions sometimes appear for problems you haven’t come to yet. Writing is weird.

When I started draft #2, I swore I’d get to the end before I started draft #3, but now, at page 238, I’m pretty sure I won’t. At present I’ve got  two viewpoint characters. To develop an important but currently underdeveloped plot thread, I need to add a third. He’s already a player, but adding his point of view is going to change the book’s balance a lot.

There’s also an incident I need to stage near the beginning of the book: my central character, Shannon, listens to an answering-machine message from her long-estranged younger sister. Shannon never picks up or returns these calls because her sister is always drunk or strung out. This time, however, her sister sounds sober and lucid. Shannon doesn’t pick up this time either, but the call ripples through the narrative. The ripples were already there; I just didn’t know what had prompted them.

So I’ve got a little farther to go in draft #2, then it’s back to the beginning to start on draft #3.

Go Set a Watchman

Plenty of people have reviewed or written about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, but my friend and mystery writer Cynthia Riggs pinpoints what I think is the most important issue raised by the contrast between Watchman and the classic that grew from it, To Kill a Mockingbird: the importance of editing. Not just copy and line editing, but the kind of editing that sees the potential in a manuscript that isn’t “there” yet and then coaxes, browbeats, and otherwise persuades the writer to make it real.

It’s rare these days that a publisher will invest this kind of time and expertise in a book, especially a first novel. Writers have to do much of the work ourselves, with the help of workshops and writers’  groups and, if we’ve got the money and can find the right person, an editor. But it’s always possible to improve even the drafts that we’re sure are done.

Martha's Vineyard Mysteries

To All Who Plan to Read or Have Read “Go Set a Watchman”:

Cynthia and Howie comparing copies of Cynthia and Howie compare “Go Set a Watchman” with “To Kill a Mockingbird”
photo by Lynn Christoffers

“Go Set a Watchman” was Harper Lee’s first book, and first books are usually unpublishable, as was “Watchman.”  While it has brilliant writing in patches, it has inconsistencies, improbable passages, repetitions, unnecessary divergences, too much back story, ramblings, boring passages, too much overwriting, and almost every error a new writer can make.

Tay Hohoff, an editor at Lippincott, saw promise in the work, saying the “spark of the true writer flashed in every line.”  She urged Harper Lee to scrap “Watchman” and start all over, write a new book with an entirely different story.  Hohoff saw Scout’s young voice, one of several back stories in “Watchman,” as the potential for a great book once it was rewritten, and, of course…

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Why Structure Matters

This is a review I just wrote of Martha’s Vineyard Basketball (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Even if you have zero interest in Martha’s Vineyard or basketball, the comments on structural editing might be useful, especially to nonfiction writers. Moral of story: Your research may be impeccable and your sentences reasonably well crafted, but if your book isn’t sensibly organized your readers are going to have a hard time getting through it.

From the Seasonally Occupied Territories . . .

Slightly adapted from the review I just posted on Goodreads . . .

MV Basketball coverNo, I’m not a sports fan, but my fascination with the Vineyard and anything related to race and class is insatiable, so I had such hopes for this book. Class is a shifty thing on Martha’s Vineyard. It doesn’t look like what one reads about in textbooks or sees in urban areas. Here, as elsewhere in the U.S., we bend over backwards to avoid seeing it. It’s complicated by the distinction between the year-round population and the “summer people”; by the ethnic groups with deep roots here (especially Wampanoag, Anglo, Portuguese, and Cape Verdean); and by the long history of African Americans on the island.

What a great idea, I thought: to explore “notions of race and class” by focusing on basketball, specifically the summer basketball program that started in 1970. Basketball does bring together people from…

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Reviewing Isn’t Easy

Most of my writing time over last weekend went into an 1,800-word review of a nonfiction book. Monday was the deadline, and Monday I emailed it in to my editor. Editors love it when writers deliver their stuff on time. Trust me on this. They also love it when writers turn in copy that’s well organized and properly punctuated. Trust me on that too.

I’ve done plenty of reviewing over the years, mostly of books but also of local theater performances and the occasional concert or album. Reviewing is hands-down the hardest writing I ever do, which is why I don’t do much of it these days. My other writing has pushed it to the side. I regret this because I think reviewing is important and because I’m pretty good at it.

Reviewing is important. An author or performer puts the work out there, and the reviewer enters into conversation with it — a conversation that includes not only the work and its creator(s) but also the potential audience for that work.

Perhaps most important, reviews let prospective readers know that a book is out there and whether they might be interested in it.

So a review is like PR — free publicity for the book?

In some ways yes, but in other ways very much no. What reviewers write can persuade people to buy the book, but we aren’t part of the production team. Our job is not to persuade people to buy the book or put it on their to-read lists. Our job is to help them make up their minds.

What distinguishes reviews from back-cover blurbs and other promotional copy is that reviewers come to the work from outside. We haven’t been involved in the writing, editing, publishing, or promoting of the book we’re reviewing.

So what’s a review anyway?

Good question! “Review” covers the vast territory between a blurb and the kind of literary criticism that appears in academic journals. A review can be short, long, or somewhere in-between. It can be written down or delivered orally. Usually it describes what the book is about, provides some context — for instance, mentioning the author’s previous works, if any, or recent publications in the same field — and offers some clues as to whether the book is worth your while or not.

Beyond that, it depends — on the reviewer, the review medium (radio, blog, webzine, newspaper, Goodreads, Amazon, etc.), and the intended audience.

My writer friend wants me to review her book. Should I do it?

No. A thousand times no.

Personally I think your writer friend shouldn’t even have asked you. She’s putting you in a terrible position.

Since you’re in that terrible position, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I tell prospective readers what they deserve to know about this book before they buy it?
  • If I give my honest opinion about my writer friend’s book, will we still be friends?

Of course, if you decline to review the book, the friendship may hit the skids anyway — see what I mean about terrible positions?

If you’re the writer with a forthcoming book, don’t do this to your friends. If your friends write well and want to help out, enlist them to write jacket copy, press releases, and brief synopses for your website. If they’re published authors themselves or have other useful credentials, they can write one of those signed blurbs that appear on the back cover of a print book or in the opening pages of an ebook. No one expects these things to be written by an impartial reviewer.

So what’s “impartial”? When is it OK to review someone’s book?

Good reviewers think about this a lot. We discuss it with other reviewers. In many fields and genres, authors, editors, publishers, and reviewers mingle on a regular basis, in person and/or online. Many of us wear more than one hat. We know each other by reputation even if we haven’t actually met.

Smart authors and publishers, including self-publishers, keep an eye out for reviewers who would be a good match for their books. Authors, especially self-publishing authors, may contact prospective reviewers directly. It’s up to the reviewer to say yes or no, and saying no to someone you know is not always easy, especially when they press you to come up with a reason. (Note to writers: Please don’t do this. It’s OK to take no for an answer. Last month I reblogged this excellent post: “Author Etiquette for Contacting Book Bloggers.” Read it and pass it on.)

How close is too close to write an impartial review? Here are some recommendations. You’re too close —

  • If you’ve seen any draft of the manuscript before it was published. If the author is in your writers’ group or workshop or writing class, you’re too close. If you were a second or third reader, you’re too close. If you critiqued or edited the ms., you’re too close. Possible exception: If you heard the author read from the novel in progress and had no prior relationship with the author, you might not be too close.
  • If you have any professional connection with the publisher, paid or unpaid, staff or freelance. This goes mainly for small presses, independents, and self-publishers. With huge trade-publishing conglomerates and even mid-sized university presses, it’s easy to be several arm’s-lengths away from any particular book.
  • If you’re more concerned with the author’s feelings than with telling prospective readers what they deserve to know.

What about when a book you’re asked to review really sucks?

Forgive my bluntness here, but this is the elephant in the booksellers’ marketplace so let’s not pretend it isn’t there. Some books really do suck, and some of those sucky books are written by people we know and like. You shouldn’t be reviewing books by your friends even if those books are stupendously good and in the running for major awards, but what if you get roped in to reviewing a book that’s really bad — as in, you really don’t think anyone should be wasting their time and money on it?

If you’re working on assignment from a book blog or other review medium, and whoever made the assignment has no personal connection to the author, this usually isn’t too hard. Explain that you don’t think the book is worth reviewing. Ask for another assignment.

If you do know the author, it’s a lot more difficult. You can try procrastinating. Some authors will catch on: Endless procrastination translates into “I really don’t want to do this.” Others won’t. In such cases, if you don’t say something, one of those elephants is going to take up residence in your relationship with the author. Saying something is hard. This is why those elephants aren’t on the endangered species list.

There is almost no good reason to review a really, really bad book, especially when that book is a first novel or a self-published book. If it doesn’t get reviewed, the book will probably sink with nary a trace. This is the best scenario for all concerned, though they probably won’t see it that way. The big exception is when the bad book is written and/or published by someone from whom we’ve got good reason to expect better things. In these cases, readers deserve to be warned off.

Slashing a bad book to ribbons can be fun, but it can — and should — leave a very unpleasant aftertaste. Don’t do it.


Author Etiquette for Contacting Book Bloggers

Having been at various times a reviewer, an anthology editor, a newspaper features editor, and a few other things, I think this is excellent advice for any writer who is trying to get another writer to do something for free. Online, offline, anywhere!

Creative State of Mind

Hello, everyone! It’s me again with another author advice post. Warning: This post isn’t for everyone. If you’re an author who finds etiquette posts tiresome, this post isn’t for you. If you’re already an expert on book marketing, this post will probably seem pretty basic, but I hope you’ll read on and add your advice in the comment section. This post is for people like me – people who came into the writing world with limited social media knowledge. It’s for people who didn’t realize book bloggers existed until they were told to go out and promote their book. If you’re intimidated or overwhelmed by the idea of contacting reviewers and bloggers, or if you’ve sent requests to bloggers and only received a lukewarm response, this post is for you.

  1. DO read the blogger’s FAQs, Policies, or Submission Guidelines. Each blogger is different. Some bloggers want you to contact them by email. Others have…

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Who Do You Write For?

I’ve been struggling with this one. “Who do you write for?” keeps getting tangled up with “who’s your audience?” They’re related, but they’re not the same. Who are you writing for before you have an audience out there? Let’s leave the out there audience aside for now. We’ll come back to it soon, I promise.

Aside: Yes, I do know that purists will insist on “Whom do you write for?” or “For whom do you write?” At the moment I’m not writing primarily for purists. Be warned.

So the other morning, while procrastinating warming up, I went over to Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and found “When Words Stop” by Beth Taylor. Beth Taylor was writing for me, whether she knew it or not, so I had to write back:

Been there . . . For me writing is a conversation. If no one’s listening and (maybe more important) if no one’s speaking back and otherwise responding, the words dry up. Any actor can tell you that monologues are hard to pull off. One-person shows are even harder. In a one-person show, the actor is rarely talking just to her- or himself. Sometimes she’s talking to the audience, or a particular person in the audience. Other times she’s addressing a character that only she can see at first, but in doing so she makes that character visible to the audience. Writers can do that — we’re often doing it without knowing it.

When I write, I write alone -- but there's always someone there.

When I write, I write alone — but there’s always someone there.

Aha. That’s who I’m writing for: someone that only I can see but that I’m in continual conversation with when I write. That someone has evolved over the years. She wasn’t always there.

At first I wrote to keep from cracking up. I also wrote to turn myself on — remember the desert fantasies? This was back in the day when writing on paper was the only option. Most of the paper I wrote on got burned in my parents’ fireplace or, later, ripped to shreds and put out with the trash. This was a big clue that I wasn’t writing for anyone else. I destroyed most of what I wrote because I was afraid someone else would find it and think I was crazy.

The time came — and it came pretty quickly — when writing for myself wasn’t enough. I wanted people to read at least some of what I wrote. I thought it was worth reading. In college I reviewed books and the occasional concert. I wrote regular op-ed columns, mostly political commentary. Most of my published writing since then has consisted of reviews and commentary, with significant forays into poetry, journalism, theater, and, most recently, fiction.

But that doesn’t explain why I sometimes hesitate over a phrase and think: No, that’s not right or That’s going too far. Or why I make choices that I know bloody well aren’t commercial: they limit my publication options, which weren’t all that great to start with. Who do I write for?

Turns out that the choices I make are clues to the identity of this mysterious entity, the reader who makes writing worthwhile.

I’m writing for the person who’s willing to read about and even identify with characters who aren’t like them in some ways.

I’m writing for the person who’s willing to be momentarily perplexed or even pissed off but doesn’t want to be hoodwinked for no reason.

I’m writing for the person who once in a while will be struck by a turn of phrase and think, That’s exactly right. Who might even toy with possible alternatives and finally conclude, Yeah, you made the right choice.

All of which, come to think of it, describes the sort of reader I’d like to be, and try to be: one who’s brave enough to venture into unfamiliar territory as long as she trusts her guide, and one who appreciates the effort that goes into the writing.

Let's see where the road goes, huh?

Let’s see where the road goes, huh?