Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thematic Rule of Two

Zestful Blog Post #225

I like to use twos in writing.

If you have a work in progress—fiction, that is—most likely you have a theme in there somewhere. Take a little time to think about it and look for ways to develop it. Does love conquer all? If so, throw in more hate and see if you can shake love’s foundations. Or, perhaps, is love meaningless—and noble action the only valuable thing for a human to dedicate himself to? Ramp up the romance and see if the dispassionate seeker can be swayed.

A good technique is to explore more than one theme; then they can carom off each other and build complexity. A tough guy with a drinking problem is a bit of a cliché; what if you have your addicted detective fighting for the right to adopt a five-year-old orphaned beauty queen? Whoa, dude, that is off the wall. It can become a main plot, or a strong subplot. You’ve got a man’s struggle with inner demons, and you’ve got a needy child in limbo. This opens up all kinds of possibilities: family, the circle of life, exploitation, vulnerability, love and sacrifice.

You can jolt some juice into your work in small ways, too. Instead of simply having two characters disagree, have one throw a chair. Or if you already have a fistfight going, make sure somebody ends up with life-changing injuries, instead of just a black eye. Let your characters abandon themselves to their fates—and hey, fate is another theme right there. How do your characters think about it, what do they do to try to beat it, cheat it, or meet it?

[Rocket and capsule, U.S. Project Gemini. Two guys were in there, all the way up and all the way down. Photo by ES.]
When you feel stuck, sit back and throw out some possibilities involving twos, or even threes.

Oh, my God, they’re twins! That’s how the alibi got past the D.A.!

Get out now! It’s not just a twister, it’s twisters plural, coming from opposite directions!

Success in love and achievement both! Wow, what could go wrong now?

I betrayed not only you; I betrayed myself as well.

We’ll use not one decoy, but two. It’s foolproof, I tell you!

You see how it works. The rule of two is an easy technique to visit any time your fiction needs a boost. 

Have you used the rule of two in writing fiction? Tell us about it. Or, if you simply have a good recipe for soft, warm cookies, let us know. We’re getting hungry. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mad Scientist's Guide to Fiction

Zestful Blog Post #224

This post is a meaty excerpt from my article, "Fiction Lab," in the September 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine.

For my 10th birthday, I requested and received a chemistry set. It came with all the cool stuff, but the experiments in the instruction book were feeble. You knew what was supposed to happen; nothing exploded, nothing grew over the top of the test tube. I started to think outside the kit. I took apart Christmas lights to create dollhouse lamps, but achieved only a blown fuse and some smoke. When my mother got hold of a fetal pig for me to dissect, I hooked it up to a dry cell in an attempt to trigger reflex motion. I succeeded in giving myself a shock.

Then a school chum told me he’d learned the recipe for gunpowder. It’s hard to fathom now, but children in the 1960s could and did obtain the raw materials for making explosives. The local pharmacist sold me as much potassium nitrate as I wanted, no questions asked, 15 cents an ounce. From there, life got a lot more interesting. (Surprisingly, I emerged from childhood with my eyesight, hearing, and all fingers and toes intact.)

My young mad-scientist days taught me some basic lessons in creativity. Now, as a writer of fiction, I create different sorts of things—equally incendiary and no less fun.

A mad scientist is passionate about a vision of something new. Perhaps because of that, she might seem somewhat unbalanced (hence mad). She’s eager to try anything to bring about success, and willing to endure sacrifice. A mad scientist’s spirit is indomitable and fearless. Most important of all, she’s ready to pick up after a failure and try a different formula. All qualities, as you’ve probably deduced, that would serve a writer just as well.

When your daily pages are looking stale, or your ideas aren’t flowing as fast, free and fun as you’d like—step into your fiction lab and try these approaches to tap into the mad-scientist spirit. 

Throw out the instructions.

We’re talking about a mad scientist, not an ignorant one. Textbooks serve a purpose—one must learn at least the rudiments of one’s craft before breaking new ground—but they can also become a crutch if we cling to them too tightly.

The poet Ezra Pound encouraged Ernest Hemingway to push beyond his journalism training to write short vignettes for The Little Review. Hemingway hadn’t written much fiction yet, but he penned a few vignettes of just a paragraph or so each, then he wrote more of them. It was bold to produce such short things and call them finished pieces; nobody else at the time was really doing that. But Hemingway wanted to write tight and true, and brought war and bullfighting to life with bluntness and cruel beauty in those brief but powerful portrayals.  Later he interspersed them with short stories to form his first collection, In Our Time, which brought him fame. Those vignettes that blew readers away in 1925 are no less effective today.

In 1980, Jean M. Auel broke new ground with the launch of her Earth’s Children series (The Clan of the Cave Bear, etc.), which endowed her preliterate primitive characters with emotion and powers of thought equivalent to those we associate with modern humans. I don’t know where she got the idea, but it sure wasn’t from any classroom I’ve ever heard of. Readers are still buying those rule-smashing stories today.

The point here is to not be constrained by convention. If you’re moved to try something different but a little voice says, “Wait, that’s not what we learned in the workshop!”—then stop and consider. Sometimes the “No!” and its attendant discomfort are really cues that you need to say, “Yes!”

What lies beyond the textbook is your own vision. To bring it into focus, find some stillness. Unplug from all the online crap and let your mind settle down. Contemplate your writing project, at whatever stage it’s in. Pay attention to any thoughts that come up about it, and write them down, whether they’re ideas about plot, or hunks of story, whatever. Even apparent junk tends to morph into original material if you stay open and give it enough time to move beyond stock advice and become wholly your own.

Stock the shelves with interesting supplies.

Of course, to remain perpetually in creation and experimentation mode, you do have to look beyond your own brain.

Dashiell Hammett read widely, seemingly without rhyme or reason: a Shakespeare play after a book on horology after a history of the Balkans after a memoir of a cowboy. This kind of reading was a sort of fertilizer for his brain. The Maltese Falcon didn’t have a clockmaking cowboy from Albania in it, but it did have tight time frames, wild action and international quarreling.

Consider anything and everything fodder for your fiction. Breakthroughs can happen when you draw information and inspiration from unlikely sources. Court transcripts, for instance, can yield amazing material. If your romance novel is lagging, why not look up the transcripts from some juicy, high-profile divorce cases? You won’t necessarily pluck from them word-for-word, but you could come across details that spark novelty.

Comb through belongings left over from your childhood. Remember what it was like to sneak around the neighborhood pretending to be a secret agent. Call up your most humiliating memory from the baseball diamond or Sunday school.

Learn to see possibilities in films, fiction, cereal boxes, weapons catalogs—anything! Throw things together in ways nobody else has dared to try; juxtapose wildly. Drop poison into a sculptor’s clay. Make a planet grow arms and legs. Impose no restrictions! Tinker to your heart’s content.

. . .

Make another one.

If you quit after one attempt, of course, you wouldn’t be much of a scientist—more like a curious visitor. There is tremendous power in setting to work anew, and seeing the next project through to the end. Make yourself at home in your lab. Construct it to suit your purposes not just for a wayward afternoon, but for countless days of discovery and wonder.

The world looks to artists to leave the general comfort zone, then report back. If you do that with intention and verve, again and again, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll look down at a creation and notice something different, something fabulous.

Your heart will race and your blood will pound and you will raise your fists and shout, “It’s alive!”

[For now, the whole article is available only in the current magazine.]

Did you ever blow anything up? Do you have any suggestions to share on this topic, or what the hell, any other? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by ES]
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Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Fun Of It

Zestful Blog Post #223

Some years back, in conversation with a flute player, I asked why she played in the local symphony. We didn’t get paid, yet everybody faithfully showed up at rehearsals and concerts. Some players put more effort into it, others less. This flute player was a committed player with excellent skills. I played percussion.

“I just love to play the flute,” she said, smiling, then repeated, “I just love to play the flute!” Fair enough. Then she asked, “Why do you come to symphony?”

No one had ever asked me that before. I said, without any conscious thought, “I come to serve the music.” I think about that from time to time, as I’ve segued into (amazingly) getting paid to play in semiprofessional ensembles. The music must be served; it needs good players to do it.

It used to bug the hell out of me when a particular section mate would shrug off my attempts to help him play his part right or even come in at the right place. “Hey, I do this to have fun,” he would whine. I'd turn away in disgust and think, People buy tickets to come and hear us play, and they expect to hear and see everybody doing their best. (You lazy asshole.) The worst was, this guy had a degree in music and tutored young percussionists.

Fun isn’t whacking the drum carelessly and coming in whenever you guess is right. That is self-indulgence. Fun is keeping track of every measure, then playing the notes exactly as written on the page, with sensitivity, so that your playing melds with everyone else’s playing, as well as with the conductor’s baton, so that the whole becomes much more than the sum of its parts. That’s satisfaction. That’s fun. You’ll feel like smiling while you’re doing it, even silently laughing with pleasure.

The analogy with writing is real. A committed writer shows up on the page and puts it out there. You serve the words, you serve the writing. A quality result is far, far more than the sum of all those sentences and punctuation marks. And there’s everything right with fun! Having fun is the best way to do it: when it works, it’s fun, when it sings, it’s fun, when you’re in the zone, in the flow, it’s fun. A commitment to that kind of fun is sublime.

I might note that anthropologists and linguists believe human song almost certainly preceded language, which squares with the fact that paleolithic flutes predate—by far—the earliest known writing on clay tablets. As music developed, so did speech, writing, and literature. Literary forms got longer and more complex, and the novel emerged, arguably between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. The corresponding musical form, the symphony, also emerged around the end of that period. The Greek word 'symphonia' means agreement or concord of sound.

Part of the gorgeous game of life is being present and making the most of every situation. The percussion section of an orchestra doesn’t always have parts to play, as for instance in most violin concertos. (Cymbals and drums tend to overpower a small solo instrument such as a violin.) So you sit out those pieces. The tradition among professionals is to sit or stand quietly and pay attention to what’s going on, first because it’s respectful, second because it’s pleasant to listen and evaluate what everybody’s doing, and third because you often learn things. And sometimes, fourth, if you’ve moved to a seat in the rehearsal hall well beyond the edge of the stage, you’re asked by the conductor how the balance is, and you can helpfully report that the French horns are slightly obliterating the soloist during the coda.

I remember being appalled seeing a young percussion player listening to pop music on his headphones during a rehearsal featuring a good regional soloist. He ignored what was happening, live, in front of him, as well as the example the rest of us were setting.

You’re supposed to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way, and you’re supposed to understand that something that might not seem like an opportunity just might be one. And that is fun.

What do you think? You are heartily invited to post a comment. Just click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [photo by ES]

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Wear Doomed

Zestful Blog Post #222

I’ve become a lurker on Reddit, where I keep my finger on the pulse of the language of the Internet, the current usage and word spellings. If you’re unfurmiliar, Reddit is where you can post stuff on line.

They’re a lot of great stories on Reddit. I guess I could write one. For instants, I remember in junior high when I dawned a Start Trek uniform and lead my pals on a quest. Autumn had came, and we wanted to build a bond fire. We dragged over some old wood palettes from the back of the school. But when it came down to brass tax, we didn’t have any matches. My boyfriend, who had the face of a brauler—he had been in many brauls—decided to steal some from a party store. I was against stealing, exetera, but I chocked it up to his wanting to blead the system. Plus, I didn’t want to act like a Pre-Madonna.

Without further adieu, I hopped on my bike and rode to the pawn shop. I rode so fast I almost ran into a car, which had to slam on its breaks. At the shop, I hawked my class ring, which for all intensive purposes I didn’t need anymore. Not like I was at my boyfriend’s beckon call, but I did want to tow the line where the law was concerned, so I rode fast with my bran new ten dollars to the party store before he could choplift the matches.

However! Low and behold, this girl from marching band was their, hanging all over my guy. I saw the whole thing as soon as I stepped foot in the store. He saw me, and his face went beat red. The whole bond fire was a mute point now.

“Well, this is totally out of the blew,” I said. “Where did this retch come from?” I waited with baited breath to see what he would say.

He mumbled something I couldn’t here. I gave him a peace of my mind, then stormed off. Then I remembered I still had on my Start Trek shirt. I felt like an imbacel.

But you know what? The next day he comes over to my house with a big bokay of flowers. I was like????? He goes, “You’re a shoe-in to be my date for the prom.” So, he wanted to barry the hatchet.

You could knit-pick this story to death, and you probably will, but I feel like I got it out of my system and am back on an even keal. That’s my story—Reddit style.

[And yes, I’ve seen every one of those on Reddit. I keep a log. This is where literacy is headed, friends…]

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Summer 2017 Newschat

Zestful Blog Post #221

If you also follow my Newschats, this will be a duplication, unavoidable. I’m posting it here first, so if you see the Newschat come in later to your inbox, you can disregard.

Oh, so much to tell! Got a giveaway going, an invitation to be a beta, and more. Gonna be quick on each of these:

In honor of the dead of summer, get the third in the Rita Farmer mystery series, On Location, free through this weekend here. The rain and cold of the Pacific Northwest in storm season—apart from Rita’s mad adventures—should take you away from whatever swelter-zone you might be inhabiting. Like south Florida. So sweltering…

A new Lillian Byrd is waiting in the wings, and I need beta readers! No don’t get horribly worked up; it’s not the sixth in the series, it’s a shortie. But it’s Lillian! Here’s the brief:

When Lillian Byrd’s friend Billie calls for help liquidating her beloved vinyl record collection to get her car out of the police pound, Lillian hustles right over. Trouble is, getting rid of great music’s hard to do! This short novelette (about 30 pages) gets Lillian out of her upper flat and, once again, into the lower regions of subterfuge.

A solution beckons when another of Lillian’s pals, auto-biz heiress Flora Pomeroy, calls with an offer: If Lillian can help her win a thousand-dollar bet with another Detroit blueblood, she’ll be richly rewarded. With the money, she can help Billie get her car and preserve her record collection!

However, the bet involves climbing aboard a sailboat with a hard-drinking, vulgar businessman and an assortment of other, perhaps more refined, passengers. Deep water leads to deep trouble—and a lot of grief for Lillian if she can’t pull this one out.

[Sneak peek.]

If you’re interested in joining my Special Team of Advance Readers (S.T.A.R.), just shoot me an email (esims at elizabethsims dot com) and say, “Add me!” You’ll get a link to your choice of e-reader file and my sincere thanks. You’ll also get a link for a free copy once the novelette is released, with my request for a fair and honest rating or review. Please join! The world needs more good fiction, and you can be part of the glorious process of creation by being a STAR.

I’ll be giving the luxury version of my workshop “How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that Sells” deep in the heart of Texas, and you can be there. It’s the Permian Basin Writers’ Workshop, September 15-17, 2017. I’ll be doing my two-parter on Saturday the 16th. We’re talking Midland, Texas; we’re talking cowboy boots; we’re talking beef for dinner, I hope. Am thinking of a guy I overheard at a restaurant in Amarillo who, when asked how he wanted his steak, said, “Jes drahve it in and awl bite it off.”

And here’s the main link. To see registration options, click the ‘Seminar Selections’ rotating thing in the right-side bar of stuff.

On the same subject, I’ll be joining the adjunct faculty at Ringling College of Art + Design in Sarasota to teach the fall term Short Story Workshop. Have not been around that many young people at once since I was experimenting with herbal and pharmaceutical remedies for ennui in my own college days. To answer a question that’s already come up, nonstudents may not audit the class, sorry. But I hope to have some new experiences to add to my inner compost pile of material…

If you’re a Novelists, Inc. author too, we can eddy out for coffee at the conference in St. Petersburg, Florida the first weekend in October. (Yeah, Neil, I’m going!)

I contributed an essay about being a Midwestern writer to Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Readers Journal, Spring 2017 issue. My piece is called “The Lake Effect,” and it’s about—what else?—the Great Lakes and their mysterious power. I know I don’t live in the Mitten these days…but sure am thinking fondly of it as the heat index here climbs daily into the hundreds. This magazine’s not free, so if you buy one, consider it support for the arts.

Here’s a (free) link to a nice interview you might have missed from ManyBooks, during a springtime promo for The Actress.

Fellow Mensans, my latest novel, Crimes in a Second Language is rumored to be reviewed in next month’s Mensa Bulletin. Just a heads-up.

And last but way not least, here’s a link to a super nice interview in Sarasota’s SCENE magazine, by my special bud Ryan Van Cleave, a talented writer in his own right—and, as head of the creative writing program at Ringling, my new boss there!

And now we’re caught up. I’ve got lots more stuff in the pipeline, so best keep your finger on this pulse.


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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Close Listening for Writers

Zestful Blog Post #220
If you’re a faithful reader of this blog, you’ve seen my posts on ‘close reading’ for improving as a writer. (Posts 163, 171, 177, and 203.)  Thanks to my friend Jay, whom some of you met in post 209 a couple of months ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘close listening,’ and how it can enrich a writer’s life and work.

Jay was born with empty sockets instead of eyes, so naturally much of his interaction with the world is through sound. He’s a talented musician, piano tuner, change ringer (church steeple bells), typewriter restorer, and composer.

 [Here’s Jay with his dog Willow, who leads him on daily walks that include impromptu cross-country segments. Unlike a trained guide dog who waits for voice commands, Willow takes charge when they go out. As backup, Jay carries his collapsible white cane and phone, but has never had to resort to them. Willow always gets everybody home safely—though sometimes muddily. Note super secure leash hold.]

We correspond via email and the occasional phone call. (We live in different states.) Lately we’ve been sharing audio files back and forth, and talking about them.

I realize that blind people not only develop more acute hearing than the rest of us; they develop a greater ability to distinguish multiple sounds, or multiple auditory events, at once. A soundscape really does unfold in layers, or more like a 3-D texture, and they can perceive it so well:

A slamming car door isn’t just a slamming car door. It’s either nearby or farther away. It’s a big car—or maybe, come to think of it, it’s not a door slam after all, but the deeper and more final sound of a trunk slam, like maybe that Cadillac we rode in once. The clarity of the slam indicates the car’s position near the curb, because if it’s clear, it’s directly out front here. But if it’s muffled slightly, it’s parked a little bit over that way, because there’s that thicket of chokecherry in between, which, because it’s October, has lost many of its leaves, but maybe only about fifty percent, as of today. But if it rains, as it smells like it’s going to, well then a lot more leaves will drop and blow around and we’ll feel them on the sidewalk tomorrow when we go out. We can pick up a few and explore their structure and texture. Meanwhile, the FedEx truck has driven by, the three young girls who always walk home from school together have gone past, and some kind of hawk is making a kill nearby because, tiny little squirky death sounds.

With just this example, do we begin to understand the richness?

Jay talks about “reading” voices to detect their basic temperaments. He talks about timbre, modulation, complexity. He can characterize any voice, which can be a little unnerving when you realize he’s reading you.

I got this from him the other day:
“The guy that recently got my attention is Elliot Rodger, who went on that killing spree in California. He left a potload of videos on youtube and, if I had no idea of who he was, I would say that he sounds like an unimaginative actor trying to do his best with a very poor script. He will start by describing a scene such as a park that he’s near and he sounds rather cheerful and that’s the best part of the “script.” Then he starts his usual whine about how, no matter how he spruces himself up, the girls still flock to average dudes. A wee trickle of emotion creeps in when, just once, he puts some diaphragm into ‘It’s not fair!’ Otherwise, he has a gentle, tenor voice and even when he says that this is the ‘day of retribution’ he sounds hollow.”

Isn’t all this so goddam magical? I happen to think Jay is an extraordinary person, eyes or no eyes. I’m lucky to know him, and just wanted to share a little bit of our friendship with you. He’s cool with it.

Here’s something to try. Think about a scene you’re writing. Momentarily visualize it, then close your eyes and chillax. Consider sounds. Consider little bits of the scene one at a time, as they overlap and appear and disappear, not the scene as a whole. There will be sounds from things visible and not immediately visible. A jet overhead. Some guy banging with a hammer, trying to tear out the rusted muffler on his car. Softer sounds mixed with louder ones. Someone setting up a tent, someone sorting cards, drawing with a steel pen, gossiping quietly, sighing, laughing nastily, striking a match, making change, loading ammo, turning on the air conditioner.

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Showing vs Overshowing

Zestful Blog Post #219

A comment on my post ‘Extrapolation for Writers’ asked about sharing enough versus oversharing—a question of detail. What’s the perfect amount of detail to give your reader? You want enough so that he feels fully anchored in the scene, yet not too much that he gets bored or restless. (Thanks for prompting this post, Liz B.)

Of course, readers’ tastes and preferences vary, so Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with its surpassing level of detail, is one reader’s heaven, another’s hell. Gregory McDonald’s Fletch books, with their paucity of description (yet fast action and plentiful dialogue), might represent the reverse. So, we are left with subjectivity.

I’ve thought and thought about this issue, and have come to realize that to get it right, an author needs experience writing and reading, especially close reading. And while there’s no master formula, I’ve come up with a couple of guidelines. Stick with me.

First, experience. A professional author must read not only for pleasure, but for self-education. That might seem obvious, but I’m always a little surprised when I’m discussing books with an aspiring author who says, “Oh, I didn’t like that book. Couldn’t get into it. Why? I don’t know why.” Or, “I just love all her novels!! Always have. Why? I guess—well, I can’t really say.”

Bear down when you read. Intuition is good, but don’t stop there. Drill into what makes a passage work or not work. Very often, you respond to the details of a scene, whether in description or dialogue. (Examples to follow.) There’s no right or wrong here—just what seems right or wrong to you. In this way, close reading helps you get to know your own style. I keep recommending the practice of copying passages of good books, longhand or on the keyboard. I call it ‘Writing with the Masters,’ though I’m not the first to ever think of it. And keep writing, and keep showing your work to readers you respect. Listen to what they say.

Going, now, beyond those general admonitions, which really apply to any aspect of writing, and into the showing of details. I’m a believer in learning from examples, so here are some:

Which of the following three do you prefer?:

“Consider it a loan, then,” I said. “Let’s be real.”
She said OK.

“Consider it a loan, then,” I said. “Let’s be real.”
She blew a strand of her dyed-red hair out of her eyes and poured some brandy into my coffee cup. “All right, then.”

“Consider it a loan, then,” I said. “Let’s be real.”
She got up and went to the cabinet above the sink on the left-hand side. She opened the cupboard door with her right hand, took out a bottle of brandy with her left, and returned to the table. She took the cap off the bottle and tipped it so that some brandy ran into my coffee cup. After that, she set the bottle down on the table and sat down. The chairs had blue vinyl coverings. Blowing a strand of her dyed-red hair out of her eyes, she said, “All right, then.”

We agree. Number two, right?

The key I’ve used for so long that it’s become almost unconscious, is to give at least one, and rarely more than two details, per chunk of story. The first example above gives zero details. The second gives two: the dyed-red hair and the pouring of the brandy, which bring that portion of the scene to life. The third gives like a thousand, and the preponderance makes the passage heavy and boring. (The second passage is from a long short story I’m finishing up, involving Lillian Byrd and some deep trouble…)

Furthermore, I’ve found that pace is an important regulator for making decisions about detail. If you need to pick up the pace, just show us the punch to the jaw and get on with it. But if things are moving along nicely, you might have the punchee see the fist coming as if in slow motion, before knuckles contact lower mandible. If the punch is going to be an important one, and the action has already been fast, you might wish to decelerate further by having the punchee also realize his back is already against the wall, and it’s going to be impossible to roll with this one—just gonna have to brace for it and keep looking for a way out. And then the impact, and you might want to describe the feeling of that.

So, in sum:

Give at least one or two details per chunk of story (and of course you are the one to decide what makes a chunk);
When in doubt, limit yourself to one or two details per chunk; and
Permit pace to help with decisions of detail.

And that’s enough for today. Is there anything you’d like to share about this topic? We’re all keen to learn!

Lastly, a note from one of us. Faithful reader and commenter BJ Phillips has a new novel out called
SNOWBIRD SEASON. We think it could appeal to the romantic side of women-lovin' women!

If you’d like me to mention your new book, just shoot me an email with a link. And if I’ve overlooked posting your link, please nudge me again. It was inadvertent.

To post a comment or question, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [photo by ES]

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