Contesting the Competition

Writing Contests and Flashes of Genius

Guest Post by Andrea Downing

 

Love’em or hate ‘em, if you’re a writer, most likely you’ve entered a writing contest at some stage of your career.  You may have done it in the pure and simple hope of getting your work in front of an agent or publisher, or you may have just wanted more feedback on your work in order to know you were going in the right direction. Perhaps you were just hoping for a win to use as promotion for your book. Whatever your reason, the value of entering could well depend on where you placed and what the judges said about your writing.

A couple of years ago I entered a writing competition and, unfortunately, came in fourth where the first three places were the finalists.  Like anyone would be, I was disappointed that, by a mere two points in this case, I had been pipped at the post.  My personal reason for entering had been to get feedback on my writing since I had undertaken to write a western historical romance which no one, but no one, in New York reads.  Therefore, I obviously looked to the three judges of this contest for some useful critique.  Two of the judges scored me at 99 and 94 out of 100 respectively, and the third—whose marks happily didn’t count as the contest only took the two highest scores­­­­— scored me a whopping 56.  After I was able to stop catching flies with my mouth hanging open, I asked myself….WHY?  Where the first two judges raved about my dialogue and said they could hear the voices of my characters, No. 3 said they sounded like the 1960s instead of the 1860s.   Whereas Nos. 1 & 2 loved the story and claimed they wanted to read more, No. 3 told me it was over-plotted and maybe I should try writing something else.  In fact, No. 3 didn’t have a single good thing to say about my opus until at the end she conceded that I had “flashes of genius!”  Not even ‘some bits were ok,’ but actual genius! Hmmm.

So, was Judge 3 having the literary equivalent of a bad hair day?  Was she simply a hard marker? Can there be such a gap between critics as to explain my results?  I looked at the marks for all 20 contestants and the nearest gap to mine was a measly 20 point differential to my 40.  Did my critic just hate “westerns?”  Or did she see something the others hadn’t? And who was right?  Can one be subjective about good writing?

When sentences are grammatically correct can ideas, imagery, voices, story be thought ‘good’ by one person and ‘bad’ by another?  Obviously, they can or critics would be out of a job. There are books—stories—you may not like while knowing they are well-written. The existence of classics and bestsellers says that there is often a general consensus of opinion.  But why (and how and when) does a difference of opinion occur?  And what is the value of all this to the entrant?

Obviously, if you enter a competition purely in the hope of winning for promotional purposes, your chances are pretty slim that you are going to reach your goal, and the same might be said about hoping to get your work in front of an agent or publisher.  You might, of course, but it’s not something you can count on.  What you can count on is getting criticism, and what you do with that criticism is entirely up to you.  I had some very good advice from a fellow writer, and it’s guidance I followed in the contests I entered following that fateful one.  I take the criticism I believe in and ignore the censure with which I don’t agree.  I go back over the manuscript with the remarks to hand and look at my work and see whether I feel the judge was right or wrong.  And—I repeat!—I ignore the rest.

In time the above manuscript became my first book, Loveland, and it has, to date, received quite decent reviews.  In fact, it’s currently a finalist as Best American Historical for a RONE Award—a competition which I did not enter but with which inclusion is purely based on having received a 5* review. Whether entering previous contests paid off, it’s difficult to say.  Or maybe those flashes of genius just flashed enough at an editor to get me in print.

 About the Author

Andrea Downing likes to say that, when she decided to leave New York, the city of her birth, she made a wrong turn and went east instead of west.   She ended up spending most of her life in the UK where she received an M.A. from the University of Keele in Staffordshire.  She married and raised a beautiful daughter and  stayed on to teach and write, living in the Derbyshire Peak District, the English Lake District, Wales and the Chiltern Hills before finally moving into London. During this time, family vacations were often on guest ranches in the American West, where she and her daughter have clocked up some 17 ranches to date. In addition, she has traveled widely throughout Europe, South America, and Africa, living briefly in Nigeria. In 2008 she returned to the city of her birth, NYC, but frequently exchanges the canyons of city streets for the wide open spaces of the West.  Her love of horses, ranches, rodeo and just about anything else western is reflected in her writing.  Loveland, a western historical romance published by The Wild Rose Press, was her first book and is a finalist for the RONE Award of Best American Historical.  Lawless Love, a story, comes out as part of The Wild Rose Press Lawmen and Outlaws’ series on Sept. 4.  Andrea is a member of Romance Writers of America and Women Writing the West.

Follow Andrea on her websiteTwitterFacebook, and purchase Lawless Love and Loveland on Amazon
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Oh, the Hats You Will Wear!

Living As a Reader, Writer, and Editor

Guest Post by Sandi Layne

reading writing and editing by sandi layne

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When I was in Middle School—we called it Junior High, back in my day—a friend of mine told me something that has stayed with me ever since. She said she didn’t want to be a penpal with me when she moved because she thought I’d red-pen her letters.

I kid you not.

For the record, I never red-pen correspondence. Editing has just been something I’ve done without thinking about it since I was quite young. For this, we can blame thank my mother. Not only did she send me to the dictionary when I didn’t understand one of her polysyllabic utterings, but she also corrected my grammar from my earliest spoken sentences.  When I began writing for school, she combed over my paragraphs and essays and short stories (written for extra credit or contests) until my work met her high standards.

I think the first paper I remember her really getting serious about was when I was in third grade and writing an essay about Jesus. (Not for a Christian school; he was just my chosen Famous Person.) From that time until I was in grad school (working on an advanced degree in Theology, yep) my work was often shared with my mother. And often, I did not come up to snuff in her estimation. Thankfully, my teachers loved my words.

Today, people even pay to read them. It’s kind of amazing.

The Green Hat:  Reader

I have been a voracious reader most of my life—just check my bio. When I started this peculiar journey, I began by writing what I read, in a lot of ways. The thing was, I found I didn’t want to read those books anymore, because I wanted to make sure my ideas were mine from that point onward. This severely curtailed my leisure reading and I had to expand my fictional horizons.

Still, I found myself reading hyper-critically once I began writing. On the flip-side, I was also paranoid lest I inadvertently borrow a phrase or idea from another author as I wrote my own romances. Most writers I know have said to themselves (or someone else!) “Oh, I would have said that like this…”

Come on, ‘fess up. You know you have!

But I also marvel when I see how a favorite author has managed to wrap me up in their world. I am just now re-reading Under the Dome, by Stephen King, and even if his style is familiar, it works for me. I lose myself in the tension while simultaneously keeping part of my brain back and taking notes.

“See how he did that?”

Maybe, someone will read my words and think something very similar.

The Blue Hat: Writer

Being critical of someone else’s words makes me feel guilty, as a writer. It really does. Because I know my own words aren’t always the best, either, but they are what I have in my head and so I use them, you know?  I use them fully aware that my readers are like unto me and that they will be saying, “Oh, I could have said this so much better!

Still, I have been known to gloat preen over a choice phrase or two… And I find that, when I do? The phrases are not the ones that stick with my editors or readers. This both depresses and encourages me. I remind myself that some of my favorite phrases might not have been the author’s chosen jewels, either.

As a writer, I find I am more deliberate as I craft some scenes. The scenes that require me to physically get up and work them out on my living room floor, or the moments that I have to push, word by stubborn word, from a crevice in my brain to the emptiness of the screen in front of me. I try to write in a way that will make my ideal reader lose themselves in what I give them.

And while I’m writing? I’m also reading. The green hat is always on my head. It has, after all, been there longest!

The Red Hat: Editor

In many ways, this is the easiest hat for me to wear. Perhaps because I am critical by nature. Perhaps because I’ve been doing it consciously for almost forty years. Perhaps it’s just because it is vastly easier to improve someone else’s writing than to improve my own. Or all of the above!

As I write a first draft, I remind myself it is a first draft. First, meaning there will be more. I am lenient with myself as I write, but I never forget the tips and notes my editors have given me on prior works, either. Be it something as mundane as a notation from the Chicago Manual of Style or something as complicated as separating internal monologue—a valid storytelling tool—from the “telling, not showing” that writers strive to avoid, I have so many things to sort through as I let a scene spill from my imagination to the keyboard and then to the screen in front of me. My internal editor pricks my writing-conscience with reminders that can sometimes get in the way of some serious “writing mojo.”

But! I’m a professional, I remind myself. I focus, create, and then I look over what I’ve typed and tweak it with the recent editorial reminders still sharp in my head.

And then…? I move forward.  There’s a The End I’m trying to reach.

Balance or Personality Multitasking?

Picture me sitting here at my iMac at a tiny computer desk in a small room. Behind me, the Spousal Unit has a movie on the flatscreen. In other rooms, the Offspring Units are occupying themselves in that Summer Vacation, Responsibility-Free zone that occurs when duties have been completed, dinner has been eaten, and all there is left to do is relax.

(And they say they want to grow up. Ha!)

I have a novel in progress behind the window in which I am typing this post. The novel involves a real historical character and a cast of fictional folk whom I have grown to care about. I have wanted to write this book for a long time, truly.

On my Kindle, there is a list of books I am going to read as soon as The End has been achieved for this novel in progress. Due to my “No Reading Policy,” I haven’t wanted to read anything that might be remotely connected to what I’m writing. But when the first draft is done? I’m all over the novels that are waiting—I can even see the covers behind my eyes. Tempting…tempting.

I find myself writing a bit more slowly for this story. My head is full of conflicts. Not only are there the conflicts inherent in the plot, but also the way I am approaching this. My lead editor knows the series I’m writing has a certain style and I can’t really deviate from that, but I am thinking always of her comments as I write this final book in the series. How can I improve so that my manuscript will have fewer critiques from her? (If you’re reading this, E, know that this is a good thing, in my estimation. It just slows me down some!) As an editor myself (yep, people pay me to red-pen their words, too) I know how much work she puts into these comments. I’d like her not to have to work so hard on my account.

All of this is in my head with every sentence I write. The anticipation of completion, the attention to detail, the wish to improve as I go—it’s a balancing act.

I do it all joyfully. The challenge is invigorating, the results boost me with such a feeling of accomplishment that makes any effort worth it. I hope the end result is worth it for others, too.

About the Author

Sandi Layne lives in Maryland with her husband and two sons, but no pets. She writes historical fiction and contemporary inspirational romance and can be found on her website: http://sandyquill.com, twitter: http://twitter.com/sandyquill, and Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/sandi_layne  Look for her latest title, An Unexpected Woman, to be released by The Writer’s Coffee Shop on July 11, 2013. The date is also her 21st Wedding Anniversary, which she will celebrate by doing the marketing with her husband.

J to tha M: Music as Inspiration

Gettin’ Our Jam On

music as inspiration for writing

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M:  You use music to write quite a lot, don’t you?

J:  oh, yes

it’s my favorite

and it’s important to me

M:  we use music with writing so differently

J:  I think so, too

you’re usually a silence only

M:  I can’t have any distraction while I’m actually sitting in front of the computer writing

J:  exactly

and sometimes I can’t write that first word unless music is filling my head

M:  when I listen to songs, I get distracted by the music and the lyrics and tend to sing out loud and get into it too much

J:  for me, it becomes a setting, a mood

if I’m writing action, I like to have driving, hard, fast music going

and for romance, something lush and chill-inducing

M:  I use it before I sit down to write, but pretty much for the same things

I use it more during my mulling stages for a scene or a character

Listen to songs that fit my character, what they would like

or ones that fit a scene, or ones that inspire a scene

J:  I actually use it that way, too

but accidentally

sometimes I’ll hear a new song out somewhere, and a scene will come to me

maybe something I’ve been contemplating for a while but couldn’t get quite right

and all it took was that tiny door opening

whatever trigger that song tripped

M:  I love that inspiration

when a melody or lyric or combo of the two hits a nerve – an emotion

and I want to translate that into a story or scene

J:  music has always been so important to anything I do

it is my first love

I can’t imagine not including it in my daily activities

I’m listening to music right now

while I chat and work and train. I think I’d freeze up without it

M:  music has been a huge part of your life – more than just a basic appreciation

and it’s interesting how you integrate them in your creative processes

J:  I imagine most musicians would be the same–even when they’re not creating more music

like, I wonder if some of them need music in their head just to walk around

can’t function without it

M:  just like writers

finding constant inspiration, ideas, scenes and stories floating around in their heads

J:  what song inspired you most recently?

M:  oh boy

the oddest things inspire me from songs. A line, a thought, an emotion

One of my all time favorites is “The pleasure, the feast, and the memory, the soar of kissing her lips”

just yes

from Bobby Long’s “Being a Mockingbird”

and Foo Fighters’ “These Days” was a big inspiration for our hockey hero Brody. The song itself, and as something he’d listen to.

It’s so great to have a song trigger a visceral response – happy, sad, romantic, tragic – and then try to interpret and take that feeling, that response, and put it into a story and character. I love that tug right in your heart or belly

That’s the response I think we all aspire to, no matter what you write in any discipline

J:  I have a playlist for every story

like a soundtrack of sorts. And an unofficial/official song for each. Like “Do Not Hang Your Head” by Elizabeth and the Catapult for Side Effects, and “Visions Part II” by The Ugly Club for Oracles.

M:  a lot of people do, and a lot of readers really enjoy them

I just am not that organized

J:  I think it helps me keep the mood consistent throughout the story

but I often add to the list as I find new music

M:  Inspiration is great no matter where you get it

J:  Getting some right now

brb

Current Calls for Submission

Just Do It

calls for submission

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The pain and anguish of writing a book is topped only by the sheer torture of writing cover letters, synopses, and blurbs. Then, it’s time to submit.

Yikes.

Still, submitting is easier if you know the publishers in question are seeking books just like the masterpiece you just finished. To help you find these gems, we’ve rounded up a small collection of small presses who’ve announced calls for submissions within the last few weeks.

After all, your dreams won’t come to you. It’s up to you to chase them.

Entangled Publishing – Scandalous

Samhain Publishing – Gothic Horror Anthology

Noble Romance – Dare to Be Different

Harlequin Mills & Boon – Rapid Response Unit

Bloomsbury – Spark (a new imprint)

Sirens Call Publications – Flowers are Overrated

Check the due dates and start preparing! We’ll try to bring you more calls for submission as we learn of them, but this should get you off to a great start.

Good luck!

On Writing: Defining Your Conflict

Conflict 101: Survival

Guest post by Stacy Teitel

developing conflict in writing

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When I was in middle school, we had an assignment in our English class to read a book and give a ten-minute speech about it at the front of the classroom. *gulp*

I absolutely hated talking in front of groups of people, even small groups. I was not only socially awkward, but an extreme introvert with a side of nervousness—the kind of nervousness that makes me lightheaded. I used to think that if I stood very still, like using a reptilian defense mechanism, people’s attention would pass over me (and I could slowly back out of the room).

Sadly not. I went through with my speech because I was too afraid to ask the teacher to give me a break. So there I stood, timidly describing a teen werewolf horror and things that happened in it.

Abruptly the teacher told me my time was up.

I realized I hadn’t even gotten to the juicy parts of the book! I’d barely shaved away at the surface! As the nervous haze that caused millions of dots to appear around my vision started to clear, I asked myself “where did I go wrong?”

If you’re in a writing critique group, maybe you’ve experienced a similar situation.

You get asked, “What’s your story about?”

Well, there’s this guy and he comes home to find a group of robbers in his house and before he can call the cops, they make off with a valuable antique that has magical powers to… BAM. TIME IS UP.

Well, there’s this woman and she bumps into a handsome stranger who yells at her for being so clumsy, only to find out that he’s her boss at her new job she’s starting today… BAM. TIME IS UP.

But what is the story about? You could’ve sworn you said it somewhere. After all, you’ve been writing this book for months.

If we as writers can’t answer this question, then we can bet something is structurally wrong with our story. Even if we have an interesting protagonist, a plot with great potential, and months of research under our belts, all of those elements won’t hold together without the beating heart: conflict.

Conflict is a struggle between opposing forces. I won’t paste a dictionary definition and insult you. But that’s what it is in simple terms. When we try to apply this bare-boned definition to our stories, sometimes things get muddled. We get wrapped up in all the exciting things our characters are going to do, the obstacles they will face.

Whether you’re a pantser or plotter, just getting down the conflict in a line or two will keep you on track as you draft up your scenes.

Here’s a formula I use when I edit and analyze manuscripts. (If the author has nailed down her conflict, everything will plug in to this formula and it’s a beautiful thing.)

If [the protagonist] doesn’t [get something], [the antagonist] will [kill him].

This looks dramatic, but let me explain…

Death can be anything from basic survival, losing a job, to a broken heart. It’s whatever is at stake for the protagonist. He’s trying either to get something or to get away from something, and achieve a goal. I’m going to plug examples into this formula.

If [John] doesn’t [escape the island], [mega crocodile] will [eat him]. <– Physical death.

If [Sarah] doesn’t [earn good grades for the rest of the school year], [her parents] will [forbid her to date Kevin]. <– Emotional death.

If [Harry] doesn’t [destroy all the horcruxes], [Voldemort] will [commit genocide]. <– Genocide to magical and muggle races! 

Some of these examples are silly, but it doesn’t matter. Silly reasons are important if they’re important to your character.

But what about emotional conflict?

If [Marcy] doesn’t [confront her drug addiction], [Marcy] will [lose her husband]. <– Emotional death, with possible physical death if she doesn’t quit that crack. 

In this last example, Marcy is both the protagonist and antagonist. She is her own worst enemy and the conflict comes from within her.

So, next time someone asks us what our stories are about, we will have the conflict nailed down in our summary.

After Holly Brand saves her friend from a serial killer werewolf that’s been terrorizing her small town, Holly becomes the most popular girl in school and a local hero. But another killer is out there—the once-popular Gina, who’s going through a few howling transformations of her own. Holly tries to stop Gina’s pursuit for revenge (and bloodthirsty appetite) so she won’t become a werewolf’s next meal.

Perfect!

Now, if I could go back in time to my middle school English class…

About the Author

developmental editor apoideaeditorial.comStacy Teitel is a book editor at Apoidea Editorial, a developmental editing service to help fiction writers strengthen their manuscripts. When she’s not working with authors, you can find her copyediting and managing content for eMarketingVS. Some of her favorite things to do are watching political and crime shows, drinking good-quality coffee, and snuggling up with her Kindle. @ApoideaEdits www.apoideaeditorial.com

On Writing: Advice from an Agent That Changed My Life

You Cannot Write in a Vacuum

Guest Post by Renee Charles

advice from writing agents

Image credit: stock.xchg/gerard79

You know the drill; write, revise, repeat. We all do it, we sweat over each word till it’s perfect and then the next, and then the next, building sentences into characters and worlds that breath all their own. Tedious labor of love, and once its finished we are so proud …for about 5 minutes.

Then begins the arduous task of querying. And when the publishers and agents don’t respond, or worse respond with a form letter, our high sense of accomplishment wanes. Why is this? If I have studied Strunk and White, and read the greats, and subscribed to the newsletters and magazines that teach and mold, why am I not hearing back? What key component am I missing? I was determined to see it through. I figured if I throw enough spaghetti at the wall eventually something would stick.

Then it happened an agent answered the phone when I called to get the name to send my query. He actually answered his own phone. I stuttered then managed to give him enough info about my WIP that he actually asked me to send him my book. Woo hoo! I just knew I was in. When I got his no thank you letter I was devastated. So after the five stages of grief, I summoned the courage to call him again. And yes he answered his own phone again. He remembered both our previous conversation and my submission. Then he told me the thing that changed my writing life.

“You cannot write in a vacuum.” He told me to find other writers, to critique and be critiqued. To network and become part of the writing community.  At first I didn’t understand the value of his statement. By nature writers write alone. Community? But I knew I was at a standstill and desperate to break out of the stagnate pond that I had been swimming circles in. So, I did what he told me. With my first critique I understood. Think of it as the difference between studying medicine from a book and cutting into a cadaver with a scalpel.

Within six months I had a writing contract. I have writer, agent and publisher friends on Twitter, Yahoo groups, and Facebook, all from whom I learn at least one new thing each and every day that pushes me ever forward toward my dreams (supporting myself and my family with my craft). It all started with one timid request to join an online critique group. They were patient and kind. Although I am still a loner by nature, the connections I have made are invaluable. The great thing about technology is you can try a group and if you don’t click, find another. Have coffee tweeting with writers across the nation and learn from them. You will be a better story teller in the end.

“You cannot write in a vacuum.” I will never forget those words, or the man who took a moment to change my life and my craft.

What words changed how you write? Who has impacted your craft so deeply that things will never be the same?

About the Author

Author, Renee Charles believes all love is legendary. Being the only female in a house full of giants (husband and two teenage boys) she tends to lean toward the macabre, but inevitably the softer side shines through.

Whether life leads her to a snow covered mountain top, sun dappled forest, or the bottom of a ravine (yes, ditches happen) she always has a pen and note pad ready so wherever the next adventure takes her, she can take notes.

Her own romance began in an insane asylum. Luckily, both she and her husband only worked there. But it makes sense her romance novels have strange beginnings that lead to passionate endings. Romance with a twist.

In the face of zombies, werewolves, and big foot she always seems to find a happily ever after to leave you with a sigh at the end.

On Writing: Keeping the Faith

What to Expect When You’re Reading Christian Fiction

Guest post by TC Slonaker

writing christian fiction

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I am a Christian. What does that mean to me?

Here’s the main point of what I believe – I have sinned. Even though I couldn’t help it, I still deserve to be punished for my wrong. Why? Because when I die, there are only two possible outcomes: being with God forever (in heaven) or not being with God forever (eventually in hell). There was only one way to erase all sin. God had to cast away His perfect Son, Jesus, as the  sacrifice for sins.

Christianity is not my religion; it is my way of life. From the time I first discovered Jesus, God, the Bible, and church – when I was seven years old – until now, there has been one thought always in the corner of my mind:

“Is God pleased with the life I am living for Him?”

My theology in a nutshell. I believe a lot of other details, but that’s the crux of it.

Back to the original question: What does that have to do with my life?

God has put more in my life than just worshipping Him in church. While my regular job is in my church, I also have kids and talk to their friends’ parents. I play softball. I dawdle on Facebook and Goodreads. I have an extended family. All the while, trying to make sure I am giving the best Christian example I can.

I am also a writer. How do I incorporate the above into my writing?

Well, the Bible has already been written. And we are encouraged in the good book not to add one iota to it for dire consequences. So what’s left to write?

Writing about people.

Here’s the problem. Remember how I said that all people have sinned? That actually works pretty well to make for interesting books. But wouldn’t God frown on reveling that sin?

As a Christian, shouldn’t I be writing about how to do it right? What being a Christian looks like?

The truth would be more honest, wouldn’t it?

For example, there is a situation in my first novel, Amity of the Angelmen, where a young priest (Father Mackenzie Abel) falls in love – and perhaps takes it a step too far – with a 17-year-old girl. Especially in light of all the bad press the Catholic church has received recently about abuse among priests, I was extremely nervous about putting this in.

Here’s the deal. Mackenzie is not perfect, even though he is a priest. He makes mistakes. When you read the book, you will probably like the character. (The most frequent question I receive about the book is, “What happens to Mackenzie?”) So, if I have done my job as an author correctly, you will feel his pain in knowing he did what he shouldn’t have done. Some of you will think, “Good for him!” Others of you will think, “What are you doing?” But you will all know that he knows he has sinned.

I’m not condoning it. I’m simply saying it happens.

A book I have slated to come out possibly next year gets even darker with the life of the suicidal child of an alcoholic. I really struggled writing it, because I have no experience with a life like that. But I know it’s out there. And this is a story of how God can use even someone with no self-worth to become the commander of His army.

My books aren’t about perfect people. (Amity is afraid to do as she’s told. Asher is prideful and uses his popularity in using girls to fill his loneliness, Malachi is an angry delinquent with plenty of blood on his hands, and Caedmon could be responsible for the death of his parents.) None of that is new to God. There is hope for these four. When the Israelites needed to get through Jericho, they used the help of a prostitute. That prostitute wound up being in the bloodline of Jesus Christ.

Maybe you don’t necessarily write Christian fiction, but you are struggling because a book you are writing is going to a place that scares you. What do you do when you have to write something you don’t believe?

Take a deep breath. Remember you are writing fiction, not a Guide Book to Life. No one should be reading your book for advice on how to live their lives. If they do – just blame your character. (And be sure to escape your character’s mind after he does the dirty deed.  You don’t want to get any ideas of your own!)

So, I am a Christian writer. What does that mean?

I tell it like it is, and God gets the glory for any good that comes of it. So read on, and be comforted that you are not alone.