A Great One Passes–Farewell to Gabo

Well, I intended this post to be about something else, but as usual events intervened.

As I’ve noted on this blog before, I’ve enjoyed my trips down to South America. Last year I was in Peru and the year Gabobefore that, Argentina. I have to say the Argentina trip was partially motivated by my (unhealthy?) obsession with Jorge Luis Borges and other Argentine writers. But as I dove further into Borges and the Argentines I realized there were many talented writers in Latin America outside Argentina. And  that there was that whole Latin Boom thing, which my liberal arts degree somehow seemed to skip.

Anyway, we lost one of the great writers of the Boom, Gabriel García Márquez yesterday. First, a confession from this writer: I’ve never read one of his works. I have bought a couple, sure, but I never got around to reading them.

So, why write about a guy you’ve never read? That’s a good question. Because some writers—and I think Marquez qualifies—are such giants that even if you’ve never read them, they have an impact on literature and on anyone who is writing fiction. I feel the influence of Marquez and the other Latin Boom writers every day. I like the things they let loose in literature. They ventured into the depths and knocked on the giant assumptions of literature. Finding them hollow, they reemerged and started afresh. They knocked down linear narrative, packed their prose thick with style and even played with notions  of reality itself. It was a kick that literature needed and was based on certain precedents, but they took it all in new directions.

I’m still trying to learn and absorb all the stuff from Latin American writers, whether they’re from the Boom or not. It’s a huge and massive literary heritage that keeps growing every day as younger Latin American writers emerge. But that’s a post for another day.

Almost every daily newspaper in Latin America has Marquez, “Gabo” as they endearingly call him, on its cover today. Here’s El Comercio and La Republica in Peru, Clarin in Argentina, El Mercurio in Chile. And here’s El Tiempo and El Espactador (where he worked as a young journalist) in Colombia, Marquez’s birthplace. It’s nice to see a writer get some front page coverage, even if it is only after they pass. It’s hard to imagine any writer from the USA receiving such a homage and makes me a little wistfully jealous for the esteem in which writers are held throughout Latin America.

As for me, I’m going to finally crack open that old copy of 100 Years of Solitude on my shelf and get ready to learn. That’ll be my tribute to the passing of a great master of fiction. I hope you’ll join me.


On final thing. In the English-language press, I enjoyed the NY Times and Guardian tributes to Gabo the best.

Another Giveaway Weekend

For you blog readers who want to check out my writing—here’s your chance. I’m running a giveaway this weekend.

My historical novella, The Man Who Ran from God and my short story, “The Truck Stop” are free all weekend long (April 12 and 13) on the Kindle store.

Cover_1_kindle_1_5_12MWRFG_Kindle

And remember, you don’t need a Kindle to download and read the stories.

Enjoy!

Where I’m At—Works in Progress

It’s been awhile since I’ve given an update on my writing. So, today, instead of talking about the craft of writing I’m going to let you know what’s going on with my work.

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First thing: I keep on writing every weekend (after I escape from my day job) so the word counts keep adding up. Second, I’m going create a new sub page on the blog called, “Works in Progress.” You will be able to see that on the upper right from any page on the blog. It’s where I will keep a running update on the status of all my works in progress from from 1st draft through to final publication. That way, I won’t have to answer as many: So-how’s-the-writing-going questions. It’ll be all right here.

For you wondering where those works are right now, here’s a quick piece-by-piece breakdown.


The Ghul of Yazd
This is done and I keep submitting it. It’s an Orientalist horror novellete set in medieval Persia in the city of Yazd. I’m keeping a running tab on rejections in the UnRejectionable Ghul section on this blog. It has been rejected six times which is, believe it or not, not too bad. I’ll keep submitting it and let you know where it ends up.

“AFTA”
Excited about this one. It’s in the 2nd draft. It is a comedy horror (think Evil Dead) novella set in present-day Northern Virginia.  This is the main  focus of my work now and I can’t wait to wrestle  the manuscript into a final draft. I will have a formal announcement of the name here on the blog when it’s ready in the next couple of months.

WWBD? What would Bruce do?

Our Better Angels
Just finished this piece and sent if off to a couple of mags. It’s the first flash fiction piece I ever wrote. It’s a piece of historical fiction set in Virginia during the U.S. Civil War. It ends with a bit of a fantasy feel. I also blogged my experience of writing it.

“B”
This is a hard science fiction (to me that means no fantasy elements) short story. It’s in the first draft right now. I will edit it this weekend and next. Then, it’s off for some proofreading and time to submit.


A Pricing Update
Finally, a small housekeeping item. I’m going to update to a new pricing regime for my works on Kindle:
  • $2.99 for novels
  • $0.99 for novellas and short stories.

Why is that? Well, I’m trying to keep my works at low prices, because, frankly, I want to get my works out there. Thing is, Amazon gives me a 70% cut of royalties if I price my stuff at $2.99 and a 30% cut if I price it less. So, there’s an incentive to price it at $2.99. But, I feel $3 is too much to pay for a short story, but 99 cents seems about right. $2.99 also strikes me as imminently reasonable for a digital book. And besides, writing a novel is hard work, people. Just try it sometime. It seems only fair that the creator of such a piece gets to keep 70% of the revenue generated by their creation, instead of just 30%.

All right, that’s it. I’m out. Until next time…

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius

Note to Self: Don’t Think Too Much

You ever have one of those problems you just can’t solve? A riddle you just can’t work out?

Here’s a tip: stop thinking about it and do something physical to get your mind off it. Go for a walk, take a run or hit the treadmill.

Where the best ideas come from?

I’m suggesting this from experience. I’ve been thinking off and on about a flash fiction piece I want to write. I’ve really, really been struggling over what the title should be. Things have flashed before my mind, popped in there, but each time I was dissatisfied. So, I tried to attack the problem. That didn’t work either. Nothing seemed to feel right.

So, today, there I was on the bike at the gym. Not thinking about the title, not thinking about the flash fiction piece and Bam! It just popped in there. Out of nowhere, the perfect title came to me. The title that summarizes the piece and sets the tone at the same time. It’s all you could ever want in a title. 

I kept turning the title over and over in my head as I worked out. And, when I was done with the workout, I fired up the my cell phone and tapped down the title. Done.

So, next time you’re stuck with a thorny logical problem in writing (a need for a title, a plot problem, a scientific realism issue for you SciFi  writers), do these two things:

  • Stop thinking about it.
  • Do something physical.

Often times, your problem will suddenly and violently solve itself.

A favorite song of mine was also playing at the time the title suddenly popped into my head and this may have had something to do with it as well. I’m not sure, but I’m adding that point just in case it did. And who knows? Maybe that song helped push down the conscious mind even more, allowing the great idea to emerge.


Mendeleev's_1869_periodic_tablePerhaps the most famous account of a huge breakthrough that came while its creator  WAS NOT thinking about anything—in fact, wasn’t even conscious—is Dmitry Mendeleev‘s dream about the periodic table.

Having reached the highest level of nervous exhaustion, he was compelled to lie down for a while, and fell asleep at once. “I saw a table, where the elements were arranged in perfect order. I woke up and put it down at once on a piece of paper. Only later I revised one point.”

Apparently, there is some dispute as to whether this was true or something that Mendeleev made up. The book, The Elements: A Very Short Introduction by Philip Ball, also has an account of the dream. I highly recommend the book for that scene and as a good book overall.

I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth about that historical incident. We basically have only Mendeleev’s word to go on, so you can believe him or not. But with my latest experience, I have to say the unconscious can be a great help in solving the seemingly insoluble. Also, certain resonances between my experience (albeit on a much smaller stage) and Mendeleev’s—such as struggling day after day with a problem and then finally unplugging the conscious mind and having an answer that “just popped in there”…gives weight to his story. 

“It just popped in there.”


PS: This week at work we had training which included a course called “Creativity and Innovation.” Oh, the irony hung thick. A creator sitting through a course on creativity…if they only knew! Anyway, the instructor asked the students how they came across good ideas in their everyday life. The top two answers were:

1. At the gym.

2. While sleeping.

Other answers included ‘running’ or other unrelated physical activities. I think the underlying theme is that you have to give your conscious mind a break, let the problem fall into the subconscious either by taking a nap or exercising—and let your subconscious take a whack at it. And according to the instructor, you should keep a notepad or cellphone handy to jot down your idea. I couldn’t agree more. There have been times when I’ve got a particularly strong idea and literally walked off the gym floor, opened my locker and grabbed by phone and wrote an idea down in my notes App. I almost always have my phone with me and I’m ready to capture any idea that comes up anytime. 

One final data point: I had been troubled by the main character for a long piece I’ve been thinking about for some time now. Earlier this week, I woke up extra early for a medical appointment (we’re talking 5 a.m.). I was sitting on the couch, munching my cereal like a zombie and suddenly I had it: that character’s main motivation, the thing that made him tick, that drove all his actions. It was perfect. Well, earlier today, I inputted that into my notes for the novel. Another anecdote that supports Mendeleev’s story that sleep or dreams can suddenly solve a problem your conscious mind has struggled with for months.

In a running tally, I count the score as 1 for sleep and 1 for exercise. Both are great sources for problem-solving.

That’s all for today. Until next time, don’t forget to stop thinking, hit the gym or take a nap. And don’t forget your notepad. There’s no telling when a good idea will  pop up.

The Craft: An Attempt at Flash Fiction

[This is part of a series on the art of writing fiction.]
It was only a matter of time before I tried it. Writing flash fiction, I mean. Me, the guy who always said he loved to “write long,” has just finished the first draft of his first flash fiction piece ever. Picacho Illumination Arizona © Jeff Smith 1988

So, how did it go?

Not too bad, actually. I have had this idea of a scene rolling around my head for the last few months and I always thought it might be a good fit for a flash piece. So, I started searching Duotrope, my submission tracker and I saw the list explode when I put in criteria for flash fiction. Lots of journals are hungry for pieces under 1,000 words these days, ranging from top-notch paid markets to magazines just starting out that can’t afford to pay their writers.

So, I thought, what the hell, let’s do this. I banged out the story. About 1,500 words. Way too long to reach the 1,000-word count I needed. But I cut out the entire first section, knocking out 250 words immediately. I ruthlessly honed and whittled the rest and got it down to…980 words. I was really proud of myself for cutting it down that far.

So how did the process go? Not that bad. I write articles about 500-600 words in length for my day job. More importantly, my average fiction writing days used to be about 1,000 words per day. I had some idea how far I should write in my mind. But I also had the temptation to let it wind out, let the writing dogs roam. But I resisted it and ended up at 1,500 words. Then, I agonized over cutting that first section. I hesitated, I grimaced, but I cut it. And you know what? The work is better for it. Then, it simply became a search-and-destroy mission. Rooting out the unnecessary sentences, adjectives, adverbs and duplications and deleting them. In the end, I hit the word count after about four drafts.

The piece is with me now for a final proofread and I’ll submit it this week, starting with the pro journals, working my way down the Duotrope search to semi-pro and other markets as needed. For now, the piece is called “OBA.” I will let you know the full title soon and post on where it ends up.

Finally, a few words of advice. After I wrote the piece I started searching for how-tos online (I should have done that first, I guess). But the interesting thing was that what I found backed up everything I learned writing the piece. As editor-in-chief of Flash Fiction Online and blogger Suzanne Vincent said in an excellent post on the subject: discipline is of upmost importance:

…flash fiction is one of the hardest fiction forms to write.
Why?
One word: Economy.
And discipline.

Ain’t that the truth? But what does that mean, exactly? Economy? Well, Vincent goes on:

Economy: An economical writer (IMO the most enjoyable type of writer to read) doesn’t waste words, doesn’t repeat what’s already been said, chooses the ‘less is more’ path to revealing information to the reader.

That means not only being liberal with deleting words, but making sure your descriptions of character, setting, action are terse, even spare.

A simple character is one who needs little description…A simple characters is one whose conflict can be resolved within the context of a very small arena of his life…

…The more complex a setting, the more description it will require. So, complex settings are not suitable for flash fiction.

So, keep those two (character and setting) simple, but don’t forgot your plot, your conflict.

What is conflict? In a nutshell, conflict is the impetus for action. It is the thing that causes your main character to want to do something to change what’s wrong with his world (resolution).

And keep that conflict simple.

Will it take much to resolve the conflict? It could, I suppose. But the simplicity of the setting and the characters combine with this simple conflict to hint to the reader that the resolution will be a fairly simple one as well.

That, in a nutshell, bears out what I learned in writing my first flash fiction piece. The only thing I think I could have greatly improved was the plot. There is a temptation to just present a scene without action or conflict. But that’s not the point of most fiction, readers want tension, conflict and resolution. Oh well. There’s always next time. I will count it as a rookie mistake.

Until then, I suggest you read Vincent’s full article and maybe give flash fiction a shot yourself. Good luck.

The Craft: Henry James’s Turn of the Power Drill

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot details from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.]James

As I delve into writing more short stories, I’m finding it tough going. I like to write long, let the dogs roam, give the prose time and space to branch out, go down every unexplored alley. Sticking to less than 7500 words is tough.

But two things I’ve gleaned from master short story writers are helping me to walk the line. Poe’s Unity of Effect and Chekhov’s gun help keep things focused when I’d rather stray. But there’s another tool I’ve been thinking about lately. I wanted to call it Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. But just to modernize it a bit, I’m going to call it Henry James’s Turn of the Power Drill.


This year, I’m purposefully hunting down modern short stories to read. I read James’s The Turn of the Screw last year before I added that “modern” word to my reading requirements. What drew me to it was the rumored excellent plotting in the piece(apparently, Borges said this somewhere, but I haven’t been able to track down the quote).Hand drill Anyway, I read the novella and despite the dated language, I really enjoyed it. There are many layers to the story, but I focused on the plot. James doesn’t use the metaphor, “turn of the screw,” in reference to plot, but you can feel with each chapter, he turns the screw just a little, he ratchets up the tension just so. The closest he gets to revealing this explicitly is at  the beginning of the novella where a character mentions the first appearance of the ghost in the book.

“I quite agree—in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to TWO children—?”

He’s talking about introducing characters here, but it draws us in. What if not only one child saw the ghost, but two? Wouldn’t that make it more real? And with each chapter the governess responsible for the children witnesses clearer and clearer hints of the ghosts that visit the children. The screw turns slowly, bit by bit.

It was interesting to see how James does this, but I knew as I read it, that that approach wouldn’t work today. First, you’d have to have more direct language. Second, audiences today are so used to immediate gratification from movies, video games and flash fiction that the slow burn, the turning of the screw, just doesn’t seem to work. Don’t believe me? Just look at this trailer from an internationally successful Movie franchise.

Turn of the Screw? Not so much.

Not a lot of slack there. It’s action, action, action. No subtle hints, slowly rising tension.

Now, I’m not one to cave easily. I don’t believe in dumbing down what I write just to appeal to contemporary tastes. But a part of me also has to acknowledge it’s not 1898 any more. People don’t wait for the next newspaper with a new chapter from Tolstoy, James or Twain in it. People consume a lot more than just books now—they have movies, TV, video games, social media. And all that new media has to affect what we do as writers. But it doesn’t mean throwing away the old things, it means adapting them to new realities. 

And so it goes with Poe’s Unity of Effect, Chekhov’s Gun or Henry James’s Turn of the Screw…ahem…Henry James’s Turn of the Power Drill. These days, the turn of the screw simply isn’t enough to do the trick. Not with audiences raised on all these different types of media. You need to bring your power drill. And as I sit down to write this weekend, that’s something I’m going to use to keep the audience engaged and reading. Cause in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Mardi Gras Giveaway

It’s Fat Tuesday and it’s time to indulge.

My historical novella, The Man Who Ran from God  and my short story, “The Truck Stop” are both free today (March 4) on the Kindle store. That’s 25,000 free words.

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So, whichever Krewe you support, be it Proteus, Orpheus or Zeus, grab the two works before you head out to the parade. You’ll be glad you did when Lent rolls around.

Hold Tight–Blog Will Be Right Back

Another week, another day. The week was full of drama, familial and otherwise. The upshot? No blog post this week, instead I’m doing what I should being doing today: writing fiction…and enjoying life a little.

I will push out another post, circumstances willing, next Friday. In the meantime, I hope my fellow writers out there will join me in writing fiction, even if you only have 30 minutes to sneak in on the sly. Hey, if not today, when?

Good luck and see you soon,

Darius

The Craft: Chekhov’s Gun

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Lately on the blog, I have been delving into the concepts that will help you write better short stories. Last time, we delved into Poe’s Unity of Effect. Today, we’ll look at how you can use another tool, “Chekhov’s Gun,” to sharpen your stories.

Chekhov_1898_by_Osip_Braz

Chekhov’s gun
Chekhov is one of the great short story writers ever. But don’t take my word for it. Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, E. L. Doctorow and many others have admired his stories.

One of the chief complaints about Chekhov’s stories and plays is that “nothing ever happens.” The protagonists often seem listless and the plots are slow or non-existent. Tom Clancy he’s not. But if you can get past that aspect of his stories, the style, tone and atmosphere are entrancing and he seems to carry it all off without you really noticing. It’s a style of no-style. Unlike writers like James Joyce or Cormac McCarthy there is a distinct style, but you’re not being hit over the head with it. It’s something I deeply admire and, to some extent, hope to emulate. 

But I digress. What is Chekhov’s Gun? Put simply, it’s the principle that in a short story you don’t have time or words, to waste. So, if you mention a gun in an early scene, you damn well better make sure it gets fired later. In Chekov’s own words from a letter dated Nov. 1, 1889:

Нельзя ставить на сцене заряженное ружье, если никто не имеет в виду выстрелить из него. Нельзя обещать.

Or, in English:

You must not put a loaded gun on stage, if no one intends to shoot it. You must not make any promises [you don’t intend to keep]!

Apparently, this was one of his favorite dictums, and there are many people who recall him saying it.

Good advice. So, what does that mean for me in practical terms? Lately, in my writing, I’ve been really focused on trimming the fat. Long-winded descriptions—something I’ve indulged in in the past—are out. Long descriptions of what characters look like physically are out and short descriptions—one paragraph long—are in. Instead, I let the dialogue and actions flesh out that 1-paragraph description, letting the reader’s imagination fill in the details, the fine lines, of that character’s face. And also out are “Chekhov’s guns.” Editing my latest story, “The Ghul of Yazd” and my new horror novella, I’ve been cutting out sentences, paragraphs, chapters and things that don’t propel the plot, develop characters or serve some other necessary purpose. I’m not making any promises I can’t keep.

Did Chekhov own a gun?
Apparently, yes. I wondered about this because Russian gun laws seem fairly strict.

I figure with all his stories about hunting, he probably did. And after a little research, I found some letters describing his interaction with guns. Interestingly, none of them describe him actually shooting the guns himself. First, a letter to his sister on May 14, 1890.

No one speaks of spring but the ducks. Ah, what masses of ducks! Never in my life have I seen such abundance. They fly over one’s head, they fly up close to the chaise, swim on the lakes and in the pools—in short, with the poorest sort of gun I could have shot a thousand in one day.

And from another letter to his friend Alexey Suvorin on April 8, 1892, there’s a very Chekhovian moment on a hunting trip:

The artist Levitan is staying with me. Yesterday evening I went out with him shooting. He shot at a snipe; the bird, shot in the wing, fell into a pool. I picked it up: a long beak, big black eyes, and beautiful plumage. It looked at me with surprise. What was I to do with it? Levitan scowled, shut his eyes, and begged me, with a quiver in his voice: “My dear fellow, hit him on the head with the butt-end of your gun.” I said: “I can’t.” He went on nervously, shrugging his shoulders, twitching his head and begging me to; and the snipe went on looking at me in wonder. I had to obey Levitan and kill it. One beautiful creature in love the less, while two fools went home and sat down to supper.

So, apparently, he knew what he was talking about when it came to guns.

Further reading
Haven’t read Chekhov’s short stories? Here’s a great place to start:

For more on his thoughts on writing and daily life, nothing beats the letters from the man himself:

  • A Life in Letters from Penguin Classics.
  • And The New York Times has a great article on Melikhovo, Russia, where Chekhov had a country estate.

The Craft: Poe’s Unity of Effect

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot details from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”]

My commitment to shorter pieces is pulling me in new directions, whether I like it or not. You see, I love to write long. If you can say it in 1,000 words why not say it in 10,000? My short stories become novellas. My novellas tend to become novels. I love to write, to create and my first drafts tend to grow and grow and grow. bruckmann-poe-portrait

It’s something I have to change, if I want to honor my commitment to write more short stories. It’s a totally different medium than the novel, and expertise in one doesn’t automatically translate to the other. I’m learning piecemeal how to write better shorts. I was happy this week to ax 600 words from my latest “short” story. But it’s also got me to thinking about what tools I bring to a short piece that I wouldn’t bring to a novel.

So, I thought about it. And thought about it some more. I don’t read many short pieces, but I have my favorites in shorts: Edgar Allen Poe for horror and mystery and Chekhov for literary fiction. I also recently read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Thinking about those three guys made me realize they all had principles that could help in writing shorter pieces.

Today, I’m going to take on the first one: old Edgar Allan and his “unity of effect.” I’ll come to the other two later.

Poe’s Unity of Effect
I had a great talk with my writing friend, Daniel (of the birdhouse post) over the weekend. He’s serving as what I call an “Alpha” reader, someone who reads my first drafts. As a fellow writer, he can get the raw nature of what’s on a page in the first page and critique it.

Long story short, he read my comedy-horror novella, “AFTA” [I will reveal the full title once I have a final draft.] And the very first thing he said was that I need to think about what I want the piece to be: comedy or horror. He said that it came across as a horror story at the start and end, but that it had comedy (he used the word “slapstick”) elements in the middle. 

In other words, the piece lacks a consistent tone. It’s part of what Poe called “the unity of effect.” The Poe Museum’s excellent website puts it best:

Poe’s primary concern was “unity of effect,” which means that every element of a story should help create a single emotional impact.

The website uses the tale, “The Cask of Amontillado” to illustrate this. The tone, for one, is the same from start to finish. For example, here’s the opening section:

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.

And a random section from the middle:

I took from their sconces two flambeaux, and giving one to Fortunato, bowed him through several suites of rooms to the archway that led into the vaults.

And near the end:

I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so.

There you have it: a consistent tone, throughout. And this all came about because Poe thought about the effect he wanted to create, BEFORE he started to write. Here’s the Poe Museum again:

In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe explained that he was attempting to create a melancholy mood with his poem “The Raven.”  He believed the long “o” sound in the word “nevermore” had a very sad sound, so he repeated that sound at the end of each stanza.  Poe also noted that the saddest subject in the world was the death of a beautiful young woman, so he chose that as the subject of his poem.

You get the idea. My biggest problem is that I started writing this piece before I thought about the unity of effect, what I wanted people to feel and how I wanted them to react.

So, what to do?

Well, I thought about and thought about it again. But not too much. It’s best not to do too much navel-gazing in this business. I decided that I would drive the piece toward being more straight-up horror and suspense. That doesn’t mean that all the humorous elements are being taken out. It just means that my approach to the more-humorous middle section will be to drive the tone toward the suspenseful, with humor woven in. My intent is to have a horror piece with comedy episodes, or breathers, spaced throughout.

Will it work? I’m not sure. But that’s where I’m headed. I hope to have draft two done soon and will start circulating that version to my small team of beta (2nd draft) readers. I’ll gather some feedback and strike out on 3rd draft from there.


Others Works In Progress
In addition to my work on Draft 2 of “AFTA,” my horror novella, I’m shopping around a horror story called “The Ghul of Yazd.” No bites yet from magazines, but it has collected 4 rejections! Yeah!!! You can follow the progress here, where I’ve created a submission tracker for the story.

Other than that, I have about a thousand ideas for short speculative pieces. I will keep you posted on any writing and submission progress here on the blog. Until next time…

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius