Tom

Your Habits

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I have a simple question for the writers of both fiction and non-fiction: What conditions do you require when you begin to write a project (of any size, poetry to novel, essay to book) so that you can write without break or interruption?

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I find that having certain habits to prepare for writing allows me to focus far more effectively.

For example, I almost always make tea before writing an editorial or an academic essay (and I hardly drink tea outside of some kind of working context).

I also set aside a certain place where I always go to work.

In addition, I find that if I am dressed more formally (i.e. in a suit rather than jeans and a t-shirt), it helps me to focus.

I don't claim any of these as necessary, but I think having certain habits one associates with writing can help one focus on the task.

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I have many habits. 1st and foremost is time. If I don't have 4 hours free and clear, I don't bother. Better to lay on the couch and daydream. Which, if you write fiction, I still consider part of the job.

Music. Depending on the job to be done, I always need some piece of music going including a "getting into the job" piece that motivates me.

I also clean any piece of clutter from my writing area before starting. It is in shambles everytime I finish.

No news on writing days. Distraction.

Finish any and all online activities before writing, and a half an hour before the start of writing.

I will also spend about twenty minutes or so "in meditation" to sink myself into the world I am working in.

That's about it. I write at the pace of a turtle, so I wouldn't adopt any of these!

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I have a simple question for the writers of both fiction and non-fiction: What conditions do you require when you begin to write a project (of any size, poetry to novel, essay to book) so that you can write without break or interruption?

Well, Tom, that's a very good question, and I'm glad you asked it. Because I need to ask it of myself!

As Thoyd said of himself, I, too, write at a turtle's pace; actually a snail's pace, since turtles are faster. All I can say is that those few times in the past fifteen years I have been able to write a few paragraphs smoothly, without feeling as if I am being "choked-off" are those times when I have given myself complete permission to "be me" in my writing. But most of the time, I am not willing to give myself that permission.

This is something I have to do something about.

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All I can say is that those few times in the past fifteen years I have been able to write a few paragraphs smoothly, without feeling as if I am being "choked-off" are those times when I have given myself complete permission to "be me" in my writing. But most of the time, I am not willing to give myself that permission.

This is something I have to do something about.

I don't have any problem writing at all. It comes out easily and in volume.

The way I do it is:

1) Prepare: This is the hard part where I decide in advance what I will say, why I want to say it, how much I will say, how I will say it, and who my target reader is.

2) Write: I just let it flow from my subconscious without censoring or editing anything.

3) Edit: This is the part where I clean up, tighten up, and clarify what I wrote in step 2. If necessary, I throw out whole sections that are wrong and/or don't fit and rewrite those parts by going back to step 1.

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Betsy, you have my most benevolent envy in this regard! :) Are you tallking about non-fiction? I ask this because I had always assumed that in fiction writing one's target audience is one's self. Of course I completely agree with the three general steps that you outlined.

Jim A.

I thought I was the only one that suffered from the "choking-off" problem. Although I don't think I have the same cause as you state. At least not now. I did for a while after I read Atlas Shrugged some years back. I, against my will(!), became a bad imitation where I had infused a bunch of rationalistic rules on what must be in a story. It took years to untangle that.

I may let everyone (that is, that cares to see it) on this board have access to my blog journal where I go over (and sometimes over and over) certain writing problems that I have or discover. Some of these can be a son of a bitch to expose to yourself. Sometimes it will only present itself as a fog when you get in front of a word processor, or anxiety, or a burning need to reread every e-mail in your inbox because there may be something important from your Aunt Gertrude. The worst is the solid wall of nothing where you think that if you were to speak in that instant nothing but incoherent babbling would come out. To crack through something so opaque to an actual premise that you are holding is a long and hard process.

I hesitate to make it avaliable, I am almost comically harsh on myself sometimes.

The first steps are always the hardest for me. You sit down with nothing. Come on ideas! Alright I have nothing at the moment. Do I start with a general principle? Some opinion of mine, a character, a time in history, what? That can get me in the fetal position for days.

I just caught a new one the other day that has probably been the murderer of more stories than I can count. I had just started writing down a few sketches for a story I had been daydreaming about. I write fantasy. I had thought that I cannot think of a single fantasy story that happens at all at sea. It is always in forests at the castle etc. After a ghastly image of Han Solo in Johnny Depp's pirate costume was thrown aside, I started to think about a pirate at sea that was escorting a wizard through a terrible storm.

I worked on it for a couple hours. Answering some basic preliminary questions, and got basically a first act out of it. I told my wife about it. Then the next day I sat down to it again. I look at it, and I said something I have said a thousand times: "Well, this is useless, there is barely anything there. There's not even a theme yet! Throw it out!" I told this to my wife. She says: "But you just started it! Of course there's nothing there yet! You did that to the story of the girl arriving at the dark chapel, and I still want to know what happened to her!"

That hit me like a ton of bricks. I saw a pattern stretching back years unstated but acted on. A kind of Platonic ideal of story development. Or, even closer, I was holding myself up to the standard of Aquinas' angels. The story must be born whole and every implication grasped at the outset. I had gotten a clue to it in the previous weeks where I had noticed that I would swing from: starting from choosing a theme like Honesty and then try to come up with a story to fill this in, or, from concrete images and try to develop meaning from them. I would swing from a rationalistic mode, get frustrated, and swing into subjectivism. The whole thing was an attempt to get around this single premise and get my writing done.

I think I will make it avaliable. I have had almost every writing problem there is. Just try not to laugh too hard at my head smacking. It'll be at the bottom of my posts.

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Betsy, you have my most benevolent envy in this regard! :) Are you talking about non-fiction?

It applies to all kinds of writing.

I ask this because I had always assumed that in fiction writing one's target audience is one's self.

I don't think so because, in fiction, you have to assume that the reader does not know what you, the writer, know about the characters and events of your story and you want to motivate him, with curiosity, to keep turning the pages. To do that, you have to be selective and deliberate in giving out information and sensitive to the reader's context. This is especially true when writing mystery stories.

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The first steps are always the hardest for me. You sit down with nothing. Come on ideas! Alright I have nothing at the moment. Do I start with a general principle? Some opinion of mine, a character, a time in history, what? That can get me in the fetal position for days.

A cure for that, as well as other writing problems, is a terrific little book called Structuring Your Novel by Meredith and Fitzgerald (click here). It is a classic step-by-step, "What do I do now?" and "What do I do next" approach to fiction writing that shows you how.

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I don't think so because, in fiction, you have to assume that the reader does not know what you, the writer, know about the characters and events of your story and you want to motivate him, with curiosity, to keep turning the pages. To do that, you have to be selective and deliberate in giving out information and sensitive to the reader's context. This is especially true when writing mystery stories.

Oh, I misunderstood then. I agree with the above. But, from a certain angle I'd say these are one and the same. That is what I would want to read, so, in a sense, the target audience is still myself, albeit with the knowledge that I hold omniscience as the writer while the reader will not. But I think I am splitting a hair here that needn't be split.

A cure for that, as well as other writing problems, is a terrific little book called Structuring Your Novel by Meredith and Fitzgerald (click here). It is a classic step-by-step, "What do I do now?" and "What do I do next" approach to fiction writing that shows you how.

Thanks to you I already own it! I love it and find it indispensable. I don't know how it would solve my beginning problem, but it is only a few days of terror. A pittance really.

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I had a second question and hopefully those who have responded will come back. When you experience a break in the flow of your writing, what are the most common causes?

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I had a second question and hopefully those who have responded will come back. When you experience a break in the flow of your writing, what are the most common causes?

When I am writing, I am so single-tracked that I don't know there is anything else in the world. All the breaks tend to come from external sources (phone calls, interruptions) or physiological needs (sleepiness, hunger, etc.). I have a much easier time keeping the flow going than turning it off.

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One thing I learned years ago about writing is that when one is actually writing, one should never worry about how polished it is. In other words, while writing, don't edit yourself. I took this lesson to heart and in the past decade, I've found writing comes quite easily.

I also agree with Betsy that writing requires preparation. That preparation depends on the context, of course. If I were to undertake writing an historical mystery set in 16th century England, the preparation would be extensive, to say the least. If, on the other hand, I am writing a design document or instruction manual in my company's software that I know and use regularly, the preparation is the years of previous work I undertook learning the software and writing about it previously.

Customers and co-workers frequently tell me how composed I am and how fluently I can display my knowledge. I tell them it's the years of learning AND an orderly mind that have made it possible. That, to me, sums up my approach to writing, too.

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I had a second question and hopefully those who have responded will come back. When you experience a break in the flow of your writing, what are the most common causes?

The most basic cause (and here I have to recommend Ayn Rand's The Art of Fiction (and Non-Fiction / 2 different books)) is always a conflict between your conscious and subconscious. Preparation, as others have stated, is key, the key. That means being clear on the theme, the plot, characters, each scene and how they all relate.

The degree of preparation usually occurs on a continuum. Some "writers" like to just spew up some characters and then see what they will do, they just dive in and I guess don't really care what comes up. The books read like it too.

The other end is someone like myself. I look at writing like a director for a movie. Before I write I want to know everything. Now, in chapter 35, say, I know that there is going to be an argument in the dining hall, I don't know what color the rug is beneath the dining table. But, I will know before I get to executing that scene. Even if a rug is never mentioned, I'll know the color, I'll see it.

The times (and they are few!) that I have got to the point of being that prepared, it flows pretty smoothly. Sometimes there is an occasional bump due to a missing piece or scene, something that I thought I understood but did not.

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All I can say is that those few times in the past fifteen years I have been able to write a few paragraphs smoothly, without feeling as if I am being "choked-off" are those times when I have given myself complete permission to "be me" in my writing. But most of the time, I am not willing to give myself that permission.

This is something I have to do something about.

I don't have any problem writing at all. It comes out easily and in volume.

The way I do it is:

1) Prepare: This is the hard part where I decide in advance what I will say, why I want to say it, how much I will say, how I will say it, and who my target reader is.

2) Write: I just let it flow from my subconscious without censoring or editing anything.

3) Edit: This is the part where I clean up, tighten up, and clarify what I wrote in step 2. If necessary, I throw out whole sections that are wrong and/or don't fit and rewrite those parts by going back to step 1.

I agree entirely with these steps. Though I tend to make two steps out of step three. As a writing teacher, I often find it necessary to differentiate between the "revision" process and the "editing" process. These are two entirely different processes, which most professional writers inherently know. However, for beginners, it is important to understand that revision--the act of re-envisioning the work you've created in Betsy's steps 1 & 2--is both vital and at times painful, since it requires brutal honesty about your work on the part of the writer, as well as any readers who might view the work in its early stages. Editing, then, is the process of "cleaning up," so to speak, wherein you search for typos, flaws in logic or chronology, and grammar errors.

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I had a second question and hopefully those who have responded will come back. When you experience a break in the flow of your writing, what are the most common causes?

Unlike writers who are blessed enough to write for a living, those of us who have other means of earning a living are often struck with interuptions. This is the nature of writing in some respects. While there are those with the discipline to dedicate chunks of time in a day to writing, and actually adhere to that schedule, my own writing schedule is sporadic. In the summers, and during breaks in my teaching schedule, I tend to be able to write far more, and then it comes out in a flurry. When I'm too busy with instructing, grading, parenting, and my other pursuits in life, I like to think that I still write, as I keep a notebook handy at all times. In this notebook I jot down ideas that come to me (whether they be entirely new book ideas, character traits, plot developments, etc.), and I usually reference this if I ever hit a lag. But, I think one part of the writing process is to become aware that you're always writing, even if you're not physically stringing together a series of words. The acts of observing, of reading, of interacting with humanity, of watching movies, of gazing upon art, of reflecting upon one's personal experiences and history--all of these are elements of the craft of writing that come together when you finally do find (or make) the time to sit down and create.

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Unlike writers who are blessed enough to write for a living, those of us who have other means of earning a living are often struck with interruptions. This is the nature of writing in some respects. While there are those with the discipline to dedicate chunks of time in a day to writing, and actually adhere to that schedule, my own writing schedule is sporadic.

For some it is not only earning a living that is a source of interruption but anything that is not writing. Outside of reading and playing any musical instrument around everything is an interruption. Eating, grocery shopping, sleeping, bills, going to the bathroom, cleaning the house - all fantastic barriers malevolently slammed in front of me like pillars slamming into the Earth slashing off a certain course. Except for going to the bathroom, I sometimes thwart this entire litany of nay-sayers.

The best passage in anything I have ever read is the part in The Fountainhead where Roark and Cameron are working to complete a design for a building. Roark sends Cameron home, the next day Cameron comes into the office to find Roark lying on the floor in a pool of coffee - asleep, the plans on the drawing board completed. The most goddamn beautiful thing I ever experienced in art.

But, I think one part of the writing process is to become aware that you're always writing, even if you're not physically stringing together a series of words.

Exactly right. Although I immediately wonder if it is not the same for the other arts. I play all sorts of musical instruments but I am not a musician and I don't think like one. I'd be curious if the same principle applies.

But sticking to writing. If you are a writer, existing almost in itself is part of the process. Even if you spend a month loafing around your apartment in a fog, you have potential grist for the mill so to speak. That is, if you extricate yourself from the fog to make observations. Namely observations about why you spent a month loafing around in a fog.

There is no experience, thought, emotion, you name it, that isn't, not only potential material for writing, but also becomes part of what makes you the writer that you are.

I'm getting a little high thinking about how many ways this is true!

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But sticking to writing. If you are a writer, existing almost in itself is part of the process. Even if you spend a month loafing around your apartment in a fog, you have potential grist for the mill so to speak. That is, if you extricate yourself from the fog to make observations. Namely observations about why you spent a month loafing around in a fog.
I think this is true and a useful statement only for those who have established the writing habit and are actually practicing and producing their craft.

Speaking as a virtuoso procrastinator, I think the idea that one is writing if one is loafing around the apartment for a month is not productive for one who is not regularly practicing converting those thoughts into words on a page. By your operant definition, I am just a hairs breadth away from Rand, Shakespeare, Rowling, and Whedon, so intense is my dedication to my own loaf of fog. I would say that a writer should write every day, even if it's five minutes of drivel. And, if one is intending to write fiction, that should include something directed to that end, conceiving and setting down on paper ones imagined world. It takes practice to be a good writer. You don't get there by thinking about it.

That is how you instruct your mind in the direction of its subconscious roaming, by practicing writing itself, to become adept at converting that flow of thought into prose (or poetry), and by directing it toward the general direction of a story you want to tell.

...I immediately wonder if it is not the same for the other arts. I play all sorts of musical instruments but I am not a musician and I don't think like one. I'd be curious if the same principle applies.
I'm a musician. And, in a sense, this makes my point: To be able to express myself on an instrument or vocally, I need to practice. That is the conduit for expression and time away erodes the connection between my musical ideas and that conduit. For composition, you have to make the abstract real in order to avoid the dreaded crow. Ideas pile up in my head and I can think them through up to a point. Then, I have to nail them down on the keyboard or fretboard in order to move on.

It's the same for the visual arts. Even lithography isn't written in stone until it's written in stone.

I think this is important to stress -- as Writer's Bootcamp says, in their motto: "The secret to writing is writing."

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But sticking to writing. If you are a writer, existing almost in itself is part of the process. Even if you spend a month loafing around your apartment in a fog, you have potential grist for the mill so to speak. That is, if you extricate yourself from the fog to make observations. Namely observations about why you spent a month loafing around in a fog.
I think this is true and a useful statement only for those who have established the writing habit and are actually practicing and producing their craft.

That is why I included the keyword "potential" in the third sentence, and the first phrase of the second sentence: "If you are a writer...". If someone did not practice nor produce in a certain field, I would find it rather foolish to include them in that class. I still put some kind of conditioning modifier on my being a "writer", that limits me to a sort of anteroom to the full class of writer. I do not have a fully functioning "habit", and my production level is a little meager.

Your problem of procrastination (which I am able to fully sympathize with btw) may make my designation threatening, but doesn't alter its facts.

By your operant definition, I am just a hairs breadth away from Rand, Shakespeare, Rowling, and Whedon, so intense is my dedication to my own loaf of fog.

Or away from Jackie Collins or Nora Roberts - I mean come on! I don't even know you and you expect that great a compliment...sheesh. I don't know what a loaf of fog is, and I don't know how you can dedicate yourself to it outside of a marriage ceremony. The only thing that my sentence meant (and that you focused on and blew out of context) was that even a writer's not writing can be "potential" material for writing. This requires that one has at least some recurring experiences in actually writing, and remains just such a "potential" (like everything else) until he takes action.

I'm a musician. And, in a sense, this makes my point: To be able to express myself on an instrument or vocally, I need to practice.

As should be clear now, you so missed my distiction that this quote isn't even on the same subject. How the be-boppin' Jesus did you get the idea that I was making a case for effortless wish-fulfillment? Is my writing unclear? I'd hate to have to add the modifyier "unclear" to writer!

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The only thing that my sentence meant (and that you focused on and blew out of context).

[...]

How the be-boppin' Jesus did you get the idea that I was making a case for effortless wish-fulfillment?

I don't see that the post you are referring to included any personal criticism at all, but I have a suggestion if you or any other FORUM member feels personally insulted or demeaned by another member's post.

If that happens, instead of posting about it, send a PM about it to me and to the other member. Odds are, he meant no offense and will make his position clear in a follow-up post. Also, I can mediate any real disputes and delete offending posts if necessary.

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That is why I included the keyword "potential" in the third sentence, and the first phrase of the second sentence: "If you are a writer...". If someone did not practice nor produce in a certain field, I would find it rather foolish to include them in that class. I still put some kind of conditioning modifier on my being a "writer", that limits me to a sort of anteroom to the full class of writer. I do not have a fully functioning "habit", and my production level is a little meager.

...The only thing that my sentence meant (and that you focused on and blew out of context) was that even a writer's not writing can be "potential" material for writing. This requires that one has at least some recurring experiences in actually writing, and remains just such a "potential" (like everything else) until he takes action.

[snip]

As should be clear now, you so missed my distiction that this quote isn't even on the same subject. How the be-boppin' Jesus did you get the idea that I was making a case for effortless wish-fulfillment? Is my writing unclear? I'd hate to have to add the modifyier "unclear" to writer!

Ok. I guess I walked into an ongoing conversation without giving you the respect of reviewing the full context. My apologies.

You are right that, as a writer, anything you do can be grist for the mill. Of course that's true. If you are writing and you are stymied and you are brainstorming, that doesn't have to look like productive work. Even if it seems you're getting nowhere and floating in a fog, or doing housework, once you've given your subconscious the a problem to solve, it will work for you. It appears that this is what you were talking about. The problem comes when you don't give clear instructions; you get no clear answer, you end up with month of loafing under your belt and nothing accomplished. That's all I meant.

There's often nothing more productive than letting your subconscious work on the problem while taking a walk or just let it sit for awhile while you take care of other things.

If you were actually talking about the experience itself of loafing around the apartment being an experience that can add to the store of experiences that can make their way into the lives of your characters, that is true, too, although I wouldn't set about to live that experience for that express purpose. :)

I wasn't assuming that you were "making a case for effortless wish-fulfillment." I've just done my share of not writing and the only thing that got me past the block was the physical act of writing, even if it was instant landfill. It focuses my mind and effort toward converting thoughts to the written word and gets my mind working in that way. I won't make the claim that this works for everyone, just that it does for me.

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I don't see that the post you are referring to included any personal criticism at all, but I have a suggestion if you or any other FORUM member feels personally insulted or demeaned by another member's post.

I didn't think his post contained any personal criticism either. I think he misunderstood (or I wasn't clear enough) a subtlety in my argument, but there wasn't anything at all personal in his response.

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Hmmm....old topic but it struck a cord with me as I had just been thinking about this very thing a few hours ago. So as I'm in a rambling mood, and haven't been on here in a while...I feel compelled to write.

The only thing I absolutely require in order to write is...happiness. There have only been a handful of occasions in my life during which I actually felt inspired to write, and those were times when I was exceptionally, extraordinarily happy with my life. Something about being in a constantly buoyant mood, unable to stop smiling 24/7 -- whatever the reason -- brings my muse out of hibernation.

This has happened to me recently, and I'm discovering other habits of writing in the meantime...

Let me back up a bit.

A few weeks ago, I suddenly felt that sense of extraordinary happiness. Don't know where it came from....but BAM! It was there. And I started writing a novel, partially based on some dreams I'd had and partially based on my own life. It started coming out as the story of a young woman who hates men, and meets a perfect gentleman, but she doesn't trust him at first. She has to learn to do so...

One day when I was in the middle of writing this, I threw my pen down in frustration because I wanted the story to be real, and it wasn't. And then it dawned on me what I was doing: I was trying to consciously deal with my own issues.

Three years ago I was raped by the boyfriend I thought I was going to end up marrying. Ever since then, I've shunned human contact, especially that of men. But I never allowed myself to deal with the rape; I buried it under other issues. And suddenly it was back at the forefront of my mind, now that all the other issues had been resolved and (I guess this is really the only way to put this) I had enough room in my brain to finally think about it.

I finally admitted it was real, and the weight of it was suddenly gone. It didn't torment me anymore. The nightmares have all but stopped. And it took me several days, but I picked my pen back up, and haven't been able to put it down. I'm writing constantly, at home, at work, while driving (in my head, obviously).

So...sorry...very long aside to get around to my habits. Typically, whenever a story has presented itself to me in the past, it was when I was lying in bed at night, wide awake, not distracted by anything else (such as work or telephones and whatnot), and I have plenty of time to think. Thus, most of my past stories have had several scenes that took place at night, in a house, in a bedroom (no, I'm not talking sexual here, unless it involved rape, which has wound up in almost every story I've ever written, even before it happened to me...no, mostly it winds up being long boring conversations or a long train of thought that someone has while lying in bed; i.e. exactly what I was doing). I was finding myself very influenced by my surroundings. So now when I write, I have to be constantly moving around: a different room in my house, at work, at school, outdoors, in the car. And all those different surroundings help me brainstorm different scenarios: what would the main characters do in this place? this situation? in this weather? in the dining room as opposed to the living room? in the classroom as opposed to the cafeteria?

Thus, this story I'm currently working on...is very me. The main character is a belly dancer (go figure), who works for the family auto repair business (uh, duh), and is learning to deal with having been raped and learning to trust other people (and herself) again...very me.

I also find that it helps for me to hand-write rather than type. If I type my story -- sensitive as it is, and as fast as I type -- I find it tumbles out a little too overwhelmingly; the drama is a little too overdone, the pain and emotions a little too much to bear...and it comes out with the wrong feeling, and goes in a different direction than I was intending (stream of consciousness, as my therapist put it). Instead, I prefer to hand-write, but not only that: I write in code. I made up a phonetic code for myself, so I can write without anyone being able to read it (not only because it's sensitive but also because my first drafts embarrass me to no end until I get a chance to edit them), not to mention having to focus on "translating" while writing forces me to slow down and really focus on the wording, the feeling, the plot. It helps me keep my stories on the track I intended.

And on that note...back to the book...and somewhere else (been sitting here in my home office too long).

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