Category Archives: Freelance Writing

My HuffPo: Five ways Parents can Help Prevent Cyberbullying

Please read my latest article on Huffington Post:

Five ways Parents can Help Prevent Cyberbullying

barkIt’s difficult for parents to know if their teen is a victim of cyberbullying. Many teens choose not to tell, worried their device will be taken away. Instead, your daughter might complain of “drama at school.” Or maybe your son feels embarrassed or ashamed. Bullying makes most people feel weak and powerless.

Cyberbullying refers to internet bullying, an act of bullying through electronic devices such as smartphones and computers. Cyberbullying may take the form of sending aggressive or mean messages, or posting embarrassing photos or information about another person. Common platforms used for cyberbullying include text messages, social media and messaging apps.

According to Bark, an algorithm that scans for indications of cyberbullying, sexting, drug-related content and signs of depression, one in three children have experienced cyberbullying.

BullyingStatistics.org reports that cyberbullying affects many adolescents and teens on a daily basis. The Cyberbullying Research Center emphasizes that cyberbullying affects all races, and can be very damaging to adolescents and teens. Chad Rose, an assistant professor of special education in the MU College of Education found that bullying rates for teens with disabilities remained consistently higher than those without disabilities.

Worse, once an image or post is circulated on the internet, it may never disappear, resurfacing at later times to renew the victim’s suffering, or affect college or work applications. Cyberbullying can lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide.

 

Did you like this? Read my piece about how music lessons can help get your teen into college here!

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My HuffPo: Teens, Music & The Sober Curious Movement

Please read my latest article on Huffington Post:

Is the Sober Curious Movement the End of Teen Binge Drinking?

Created by JAVI_INDY – Freepik.com

For many teens, social activities never stop. With a smart device in hand, texts, posts, likes and shares are vital components of modern peer interaction. Parents often complain of adolescents glued to their screens, maintaining friendships, ironically, in a state of isolation.

When teens turn off their screens to join friends and peers for get-togethers and parties on weekends, many parents worry about the possibility of underage drinking – and for good reason. Social media has been linked to binge drinking, according to several new studies. On social media, young people can get unrealistic ideas about their peers’ seemingly “fabulous” lives, and posting of photos depicting drunken revelry serves to increase of the appeal of alcohol consumption.

Is underage binge drinking a problem? Let’s look at the statistics:

  • 1 in 6 teens binge drink
  • 90% of alcohol consumed by teens involves binge drinking
  • 4,300 underage deaths are caused by excessive drinking each year
  • Binge drinkers don’t drink alone. It generally requires peer pressure

“With neuroscience now showing that the human brain develops well into the mid 20’s, we can deduct that the introduction of alcohol into a teenage brain can cause permanent changes to its growth and function,” said Kristin Wilson, National Director of Clinical Outreach at Newport Academy, a teen treatment center. “Because of underdeveloped executive functioning, teens are often very easily influenced by peer pressure and are more willing to engage in high-risk behaviors.”

Dance Raves, Drinking and Drugs

The need to belong and experience social connections is a fundamental human characteristic, and while raves and teen parties have a long-held reputation for underage drinking, young people assert that the fundamental rewards of attending these events include meeting new friends and sharing one of the most highly valued aspects of teen life: music.

Fortunately, a shift toward a healthy lifestyle is trending. Over the last few years, there has been a decline in alcohol consumption for teens. Teens are experimenting with remaining sober while engaging in social activities that once highlighted alcohol use. The Sober Curious Movement includes day rave dances and juice bar crawls infused with the increased dopamine levels caused by up-tempo music and positive social interaction.

“If you’re used to hiding or escaping with alcohol, and then you discover that you can have genuine fun and make meaningful connections without it, that’s really empowering,” explained Annie Fabricant, coproducer of Morning Gloryville, a series of sober rave parties.

The Sober Curious Movement’s Impact on Teens

It’s all about building authentic relationships. “The Sober Curious Movement is a great step toward healthy living and overall wellness for teens. At fun, wellness-focused, sober events, teens can feel free to create face-to-face, authentic connections with one another, without the pressure to drink,” continued Kristin Wilson. “The relationships that are established within the Sober Curious community are based on mindfulness and a shared passion for healthy lifestyles.” The trend is proving universal among teens and millennials, building momentum across the US and around the world.

“Conscious clubbing” parties are popping up in cities all over the globe, encouraging dance fans to rave without alcohol, drugs or judgment. Parties are held in industrial clubs featuring mega sound systems and hipster DJs, and bars are stocked with raw coconut juice, water and green smoothies only. While many young people traditionally turn to alcohol to break the ice in social situations, today more teens are choosing to bust a move instead. The most common benefit cited by Sober Curious devotees: when sober friendships are formed, people remember making them.

Generation Z music fan Alexsys Chesnut has been in the Seattle rave scene since age sixteen. “A lot of my friends and I participate soberly. It’s about the music and losing yourself in dancing in an environment where you can be yourself, and dress like you want. It’s about all the new friends you make.”

Matthew Brimer and Radha Agrawal, creators of Daybreaker raves welcoming an average of 400 to 500 attendees said, “We want to take out all the bad stuff associated with raving – the drinking and self-destructive behavior – and just bring people together.” Healthy, sober fun translates into honesty at home. “There’s no guilt whatsoever here,” they added. “You can tell your grandmother about Daybreaker.”

Ready to Party Sober?

Here are Newport Academy’s tips for teens interested in creating positive social experiences without alcohol:

1. Surround yourself with friends who are living a healthy lifestyle, and like you sober.

2. Get outside. Plan a beach day, go on a hike, or try a juice bar crawl. Just being in the daylight helps increase serotonin levels, a brain chemical that boosts mood and creates feelings of overall happiness.

3. Listen to music. Music not only creates connection but can help you relax. Listening to music you love has also been shown to increase dopamine levels, a neurotransmitter that allows us to feel pleasure.

The more time young people use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed, according to new research from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In fact, “engaging in activities of little meaning on social media gives many teens a feeling of ‘time wasted’ that negatively influences mood,” reported researcher Lui yi Lin. Music allows isolated teens to establish real friendships, crush the dangers involved with binge drinking and be their authentic themselves.

Did you like this? Read my piece about how music lessons can help get your teen into college here!

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My latest on Huff Post: Worried About Your Teen Getting Into College? Consider Music Lessons

The following is an excerpt from my article, Worried About Your Teen Getting Into College? Consider Music Lessons, published on HuffingtonPost.com on February 2, 2017:

pedrosimao

Courtesy: Pedro Simao

Gaining mastery over any challenge your teen may face – sports, travel abroad, or acing AP Math – results in feelings of being ready to take on the challenge of post-secondary education. But many high school students aren’t able to compete, or don’t have access to classes and experiences that improve their chances for getting into and succeeding in college.

However, music training begun as late as high school may help improve the teenage brain’s responses to sound and sharpen hearing and language skills, suggests a new study from Northwestern University.

Nina Kraus, senior study author and director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at the School of Communication recruited 40 Chicago-area high school freshmen in a study that began shortly before school started. They followed these children longitudinally until their senior year. The stable processing of sound details, important for language skills, is known to be diminished in children raised in poverty, raising the possibility that music education may offset this negative influence on sound processing.

“While music programs are often the first to be cut when the school budget is tight, these results highlight music’s place in the high school curriculum,” said Kraus.

Can Music Lessons Make a Difference?

The U.S. Department of Education recommends at least one year of visual and performing arts for college-bound high school students asserting, “Many colleges view participation in the arts and music as valuable experience that broadens students’ understanding and appreciation of the world around them.” In addition, music education plays a part in improving “children’s intellectual development.”

According to the Children’s Music Workshop, a Los Angeles-area music education company specializing in school-site music instruction, music education advocacy, and custom-designed band and orchestra books. “Students taking courses in music performance and music appreciation scored higher in the SAT than students with no arts participation. Music performance students scored 53 points higher on the verbal and 39 points higher on the math. Music appreciation students scored 61 points higher on the verbal and 42 points higher on the math…

I invite you to continue reading the entire article on HuffPo, including resources for parents and teachers. Click here to continue.

If you have ideas for supporting music programs in American high schools, please comment below!

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My HuffPost: Teens can Improve Creativity, Relieve Anxiety by Meditating

Please read my latest contribution to Huffington Post!

Teens can Improve Creativity, Relieve Anxiety by Meditating

todaycreative thinking with our neocortex, the part of the brain that is concerned with problem solving, visioning, hypothesizing, and strategizing. Meditation can have profound effects on the neocortex.

Blogger Branain Radcliffe shows how meditation boosts your creativity and focus in seven specific ways. Meditation will:

Increase self-confidence. Teens who lack self-confidence often hold back from using talents. Gaining self-assurance means embracing your best qualities and skills

Ease anxiety. Being creative is a risky enterprise. By creating a safe space within, meditation provides a platform from which to take risks.

Allow you to be yourself. Meditation puts you in touch with your true and authentic self, which is what makes each person unique. Knowing your true self makes it possible to express yourself in creative ways.

Make you less vulnerable. Teens often face criticism from peers. Because meditation puts you in touch with what matters to you as an individual, you can become less vulnerable to other people’s comments, whether positive or negative.

Foster kindness to yourself. Sometimes the creative juices flow and sometimes they don’t. Being hard on yourself makes it even harder to connect with your creativity. Meditation makes you kinder to yourself (and others).

Change brain activity. Studies show that meditation increases brain activity in the areas of the brain that are associated with creativity, and focus.

Keep the world at bay. By learning to focus on the present moment, meditation increases concentration and makes you less distracted.

Doron Libshtein is a wellness mentor and author who’s worked closely with the world’s top creative luminaries, including Deepak Chopra, spiritual mentor Byron Katie, and Marcia Weider, founder of Dream University. He believes that “everyone should meditate and, oftentimes, creative people are the best meditators. Meditation can help you get ‘the quiet’ you need to help reduce stress.”

Libshtein says the number one benefit of meditation is “a state of stillness and calm. When you alleviate stress through meditation, it makes space for creative thoughts and inspiration.” Libshtein explains that meditation greatly improves attention disorders, and provides clarity. When anxiety and lack of focus dissolve, there’s more room for inspiring ideas. “Creative ideas can come from meditation,” Libshtein says, “and connection to the source of your inner voice and thoughts.”

Good-bye, fear. Hello, focus.

Twenty-One Pilots’ song Stressed Out speaks to the teen reality. Meditation is a way to get calm, and focused. It trains your mind to relax, turning anxious energy into inspired thought.

…Read the rest of my story on Huffington Post here to learn how to meditate, and find out how meditation compares to using prescription antidepressants.

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Stepping into the spotlight – Interview with Victoria Theodore

I’m excited to announce that Mixtape Methodology published my interview with musician Victoria Theodore, featured in 20 Feet from Stardom. Here is an excerpt:

When Victoria Theodore began taking piano lessons just before her twelfth birthday, one of the first songs she learned was “Overjoyed,” the 1985 R&B single by Stevie Wonder. The song came naturally to her—as natural as the environmental percussion track in the hit’s background, layers of sound emanating from crickets and birds, ocean waves, and pebbles dropping into a pond. “I had just started studying piano,” Theodore recalls, “and since I’m a strong reader, I bought the sheet music and the album.”

They say those who wish to sing always find a song, but Theodore’s choice led the chanteuse to find her mentor. In 2007, Theodore joined Stevie Wonder’s world tour as keyboardist and background singer. She accompanied Wonder and other musical icons around the world, and performed for President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth.

“Whenever I perform ‘Overjoyed’ with Stevie, I experience pure euphoria and magic. I think to myself, ‘I’m playing one of the most beautiful songs ever, with the man who composed it. Pretty amazing.’” The song is her personal anthem—her inspiration for creating music, and helping others to find their voice. As Ella Fitzgerald said, “I sing like I feel.”

Theodore’s debut album of original music, Grateful, was released on…

Continue reading at Mixtape Methodology.

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Critiquing Other People’s Writing: 7 Tips for Making Manuscripts Better

“Just shoot me now.”

A good critique may begin with this response, but soon the scolding red marks reveal overlooked obstacles to your work’s potential.

When you make friends with the red pen pointing out weak story points, redundancy or grammar errors, you give yourself the opportunity to grow as a writer and refine your final product. But is the job of the red pen wielder easier than that of the writer?

Mark Nichol of the Daily Writing Tips blog advises you make clear whether you’ve offered to evaluate a brief sample as a guide to help the person extrapolate what they should look for when they revise their draft. (If you’re asked to critique an entire book in-depth, Nichol says, you should do so only for pay or as part of a bartering arrangement, because you’re being asked to devote dozens of hours of your time.)

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear before we go any further: Critiquing is not the same as editing.  If your critique partner is “editing drastically,” the result is no longer a critique but a rewrite.

According to Nichol, the chief purpose of a fiction critique is to enable the writer to improve a manuscript by getting rid of:

  • unnecessary exposition
  • character inconsistencies
  • pointless dialogue

Thoughtful critiques from other writers can help the writer focus on essentials.

  • What exactly is the writer’s purpose?
  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What does the protagonist want?
  • Does each chapter advance the plot?

Here are seven tips for a positive, productive critiquing experience:

1. Tolerate the Task
When you write, you don’t have to be an aficionado or expert to produce an article or a story on a given topic. Editors don’t need these qualifications, either, and they don’t have to be enamored of the writer’s voice or technique. The same goes for someone conducting a critique: Don’t turn down a request for feedback just because you’re not interested in the subject or you don’t like the writing style. Help the writer succeed in reaching the audience they are writing for. (But don’t hesitate to express your opinion if you think the approach is flawed.)

2. General House-keeping
The manuscript sample you receive should appear exactly as it would look when it’s ready for submission to a publishing professional. Hard copy should be double spaced and must be free of handwritten annotations or emendations. An electronic document should be professionally formatted and at least mostly devoid of the writer’s notes to self.

  • If you’re reviewing an electronic copy, activate change tracking and edit it. Insert notes using the comment feature or by entering them in brackets, highlighted in boldface or with colored type or background, so they are easily located and distinguished from the content.
  •  If you’re working on hard copy, use a pen or a colored pencil for brief notes, and write or type your detailed queries and comments on a separate sheet of paper or in a computer document.

3. Evaluate the Writing, Not the Writer
Compliments and complaints alike should focus on the product, not the producer. Refer to the sentence or the section, the character or their actions, the narrative flow or the exchange of dialogue rather than to the person who requested your help.

4. Start — and Stop — with the Positive
Begin by lauding the strengths of the sample, and reiterate your positive feedback when you summarize your critique. Refer to strengths, not weaknesses, and use positive language: “stronger,” “more interesting,” “a better approach.” Be frank but diplomatic: Even people who can take criticism need to hear that they’re doing something right, and that’s what you should start (and end) with.

5. Craft Your Critiques
Be specific, not vague. Be active, not passive. Point out problems, but suggest solutions. Your goal is to clearly communicate to the writer about how they can more clearly communicate to their readers.

6. Invite Questions
Set up a time to go over your critique after the writer has had a chance to review it. Welcome the writer’s requests for clarification and discussion. If the writer becomes defensive, mention that you have offered your perspective, and that they are free to act on your critique as they see fit.

7. Know Your Limits
It’s reasonable for a writer to ask you for a second light look at the piece after they have made changes in response to your comments, or to request that you provide a general impression about a revision based on your in-depth critique. But establish boundaries about how much time and effort you intend to offer on the writer’s work.

Check in with the writer. No matter how careful you are about being diplomatic, the writer may feel a bit battered, and part of your unwritten contract should include a clause requiring you to keep in touch about the project.

Want to read more? Check out this article  at DailyWritingTips.com: “Critiquing” is not “Editing”. Mark Nichol is a freelance editor and writer and a former editing instructor for UC Berkeley’s Extension program, edits trade and academic books for various publishers and publishes occasional articles about the Golden Age of Hollywood at Yahoo!’s Associated Content.

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The Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Querying Literary Agents

Generally, I try to spare you overly lengthy blog posts. Most writers work from home and already have enough temptation to procrastinate from our craft with lame excuses such as folding laundry or taking the cat to the vet. This post is worth a sit-down. That is, if you’re serious about writing an excellent query letter for your manuscript.

Written by upcoming author JM Tohlin–whose novel The Great Lenore will be in stores Summer 2011–interviewed 50 agents about mistakes writers make when pitching a book.

The tips he has collected are invaluable. As Tohline comments, “You’ve (presumably) spent hundreds of hours planning, writing, editing and perfecting your manuscript. Now, it is time to treat your query with the same respect.”

He also recommends visits to Janet Reid’s Query Shark page, and to Rachelle Gardner. “Google agents and read every bit of advice they are willing to share. Study, learn, and practice! You already know that writing is an art. Now, it’s time to learn that query-writing is an art as well.”

Ready to be impressed? Here are the superb agents who contributed to this post:

Alice Martell * Amy Boggs * Amy Tipton * Annie Hawkins * Bree Ogden * Brian Defiore * Cameron McClure * Caren Estesen * Daniel Lazar * Danielle Svetcov * Don Maass * Elizabeth Pomada * Farley Chase * Gina Panettieri * Heather Mitchell * Helen Breitwieser * Helen Zimmermann * Janet Kobobel Grant * Jeff Gerecke * Joyce Hart * Kate McKean * Kimberley Cameron * Laney Becker * Liv Blumer * Lucinda Blumenfeld * Lucy Carson * Marietta Zacker * Maura Teitelbaum * Michael Murphy * Michelle Wolfson * Mollie Glick * Pam Ahearn * Rachel Dowen * Richard Curtis * Russell Galen * Sally van Haitsma * Sam Stoloff * Sean McCarthy * Sheree Bykofsky * Stephany Evans * and those who requested to remain anonymous.

In JM Tohline’s words, here are the mistakes these agents mentioned most often:

Mentioned 3x
“Go to my website for a sample of my work…”
“Find my query attached…”
Querying before your manuscript is ready

Note: “Before your manuscript is ready” does not mean “before the first draft is finished.” It means querying before you have written the first draft, allowed the manuscript sit undisturbed for a month, edited it multiple times – during which time you have begun to bleed from the head, due to the number of times you have pounded it against the wall in your pursuit of perfection – and handed it out to people to read, edited it some more, removed about half the manuscript and been tempted to throw the whole thing away, taken another break from it, come back feeling rejuvenated and edited it some more, had some more people read it…and edited it some more. After all this, your manuscript might be ready for querying.

As Donald Maass put it: “Granted, it’s difficult for newer writers to judge when their novels are in final form but I can say this: for first time novelists, 99.99% of the time when they begin querying agents they’re not really done.

Cameron McClure (of the Donald Maass Agency) added this: “Most writers query too soon – either before the book is really ready to be read by an industry professional, or with a book that is a learning book, or a starter book, where the writer is working through the themes that will come out in later books with more clarity, getting things out of their system, making mistakes that most beginners make, finding their voice.

Mentioned 4x
Talking about the book’s sequel, or…
…pitching more than one book at a time
Writing a query that lacks confidence

Mentioned 5x
Writing a query that is overconfident or pompous
Sending a query that has clearly not been proofread

Mentioned 9x
Queries addressed to “Dear Agent” (or anything similar!

Mentioned 10x
Vague query letters!

Mentioned 11x
Queries with more than one agent listed in the “To” field

Mentioned 14x
Queries that have no clue what the agent represents, or…
…that have no clue what the agent’s submission guidelines are

And there you have the basic breakdown. But your pot of coffee is still mostly full. Remember, your query letter is the first (and possibly only) impression you’ll ever make on an agent. Don’t slam the door on yourself – learn everything you can about writing a good query letter.

Jeff Gerecke – who mentioned both writers who send letters to him with a “Dear Agent” salutation and who query him regarding areas he does not represent – told me about a service that generates mass queries to agents. Let’s be honest – if you have not taken the time to find out what an agent represents (let alone to find out anything about them and address them directly!), why would they assume you took the time to write a worthwhile novel? As Jeff said in his email,I do expect writers to submit to lots of agents, but not blindly, so putting my name in the query doesn’t seem too much to ask.” Sally van Haitsma echoed with similar sentiments: “We assume you are sending out queries to multiple agents, and even encourage authors to do so since this is such a subjective business, but as a first impression it’s important to customize queries so they address us by name.

More specific thoughts on this topic came from Sam Stoloff:It might be a silly prejudice on my part, but I automatically discount queries that aren’t addressed to me personally. If the writer hasn’t taken the time to find out a little about me, to make sure that I’d be an appropriate agent for their work, and to put my name at the top of their query as a gesture of professional courtesy, then I am simply less likely to take the query seriously.

Are you starting to get the picture? As Mollie Glick said in regards to the “multiple agents in the subject line” problem:We like to feel special!

Sean McCarthy even took this one step further:I think the biggest mistake that writers make when querying me is not letting me know why I – specifically – would be a great match for their project. I know that it can be time-consuming to customize query letters, but even a simple sentence that references my taste, my background or projects that I’ve worked on will go a long way towards getting your pitch more attention.

After all, writing your novel was time-consuming, right? Editing your novel was time-consuming. Think twice before you send an anonymous query letter; the extra time is worth it.

Incredibly, this generalized sort of approach some writers take stretches itself even thinner than the basic “Dear Agent” letter.

Bree Ogden’s email gave an example of this that was embarrassing even to read (Point 1), and she proceeded to give two more suggestions (Points 2 & 3) that are very important to keep in mind! Her email looked like this:

1. If a writer isn’t going to research the right agents for their project, that’s really mainly hurting them, but at least don’t publicize it to the agent they are querying. For example: When I was a brand new agent, I would get queries that would say, “I am impressed with your sales and recent projects…” It was clear they had no idea who I was. So if you’re not going to do your research (which you absolutely should) at least try to make it look like you did.

2. This may be way more of a personal preference, but I do not like getting queries in which the author bio is the first thing on the page. In my opinion it should be last. I need to be hooked by the premise of the book in order to want to continue reading the query. And frankly, author bios can get a bit insipid. Instant query turn-off.

3. Loooooooong queries. There is an art to writing a query letter. And because the letter is an author’s key to the publishing world, learn that art. Writing extremely lengthy queries is a no-no and I usually stop midway through because I either lose interest or forget where the author was going. Agents have so much going on….an author needs to grab them with a concise, punchy, hard-boiled query.

One of my favorite agents, Michael Murphy (from one of my favorite agencies, Max & Co.) put it like this:
The answer to your question is an easy one.
The single biggest mistake writers make when querying me is sending manuscripts for areas I do not represent. On my website, in all my interviews, and I believe in most websites that list areas of interest for each agent, it is quite clearly stated that I do not represent YA, prescription (How To) nonfiction, nor genre fiction (SF, fantasy, romance, thrillers). Yet almost half the queries I receive are for these very categories.

I am dumbfounded by this. If I were applying for a job as a dental hygienist, I don’t think I’d apply to Jiffy Lube. Writers need to do a bit of research before spewing their query letters to every Tom, Dick, & Harry calling themselves a literary agent.

Normally, I reply with a simple note that I do not represent their kind of work. However, as these queries pile up, I am considering just hitting DELETE. Their lack of effort is wasting my time and their own.

Sorry to come off as a miserly bastard, but in this one area I feel like a miserly bastard.

In other words: If you are going to approach an agent – as Amy Tipton said – quite simply, “Do your homework!

Furthermore, send the query to the agents! Don’t post it on your website and send them the link. Gina Panettieri said,Don’t try to cut corners by simply referring agents to your website rather than writing a well-prepared query. It’s great to let us know about your website and we can check it out to get more info about you and your book, but we’ll only do that IF you’ve intrigued us with your knock-out query!” On this subject, Alice Martell put it like this: “If you’re asking someone to do something for you that they do not have to do, but you really want them to, you should make it as easy as possible for them.

Remember, agents do not have to read your query! In fact, most of them are not especially looking to add new clients. Don’t act like you’re doing them a favor by allowing them a shot at your work – put the query right there where they can read it, and give yourself a chance!

Several of the most in-depth insights came from Helen Zimmermann, who emailed a copy of the “What Not To Do In A Query” section of the lecture she gives at writers’ conferences…. Continue to read this post in its entirety for more excellent, thought-provoking advice, including nine less-obvious mistakes contributed by agent Liv Blumer.

You can  find Mr. Tohline on Twitter @JMTohline. Learn more about him and his new book The Great Lenore here.

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