Practice (Part 2)

If you’d like to catch-up with the story, Part 1 is here.

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Skyla caught up to Mara, the mage’s soft grey eyes bright with the excitement. “We did it. Just like you said.”

Mara nodded once.

“You really think this’ll work?”

Mara shrugged. “Where I’m from it would.”

Skyla chewed her lower lip as she avoided Mara’s gaze.

“You’re sure you’re okay with this?”

“Yes.” A beautiful blush reddened her checks. “Only way I’ll know. And I’m curious.”

“Haven’t met a mage that wasn’t.”

Skyla stared at her for too long. “Are you okay?”

“It’s Keenan you should be worried about.”

A blush colored the mage’s cheeks, and she followed Mara the rest of the way to Ndrek’s bar in silence.

Mara nodded to Ndrek than took a table in the back corner. She sprawled into the rearmost chair, keeping her back to the wall as she surveyed the bar. A few regulars were already there, and a steady trickle of customers was slowly filling the rest of the tables.

The floor was tacky from spilled ale, but the tables were clean enough and the chairs comfortable after a day toying with Knights. Mara would have had more fun if she didn’t know what the Knights would face on in the eastern provinces.

They were kids, most of them who hadn’t faced anything more threatening than a pack of wolves or a couple petty thieves. Nothing compared to the horrors beyond Tamryn’s borders. And it was beyond those traditional boards that most of those Knights would be stationed. And where they’d die.

She didn’t share that with Skyla.

Instead, Mara leaned back and listened to Skyla’s stories and anecdotes as she waited for Keenan to join them. He was a Knight. He wouldn’t go back on his word.

Ndrek stopped over and gave Skyla a grin that showed his perfect white teeth. “To what do I owe the pleasure of having one of the most promising students from the University of Arcane Arts in my humble establishment?”

Skyla blushed and mumbled something.

“Three hellfires,” Mara said. “Knight Keenan will be picking up the tab when he arrives.”

“I will have to charge him double to make up for having a Knight in my bar.”

“Or you could double his drink.”

Ndrek grinned, bowed, and disappeared back behind the bar.

As Ndrek returned with the smoking drinks, Keenan entered the bar. Uncertainty pinched his brow as he walked into the darkened taproom, but he spotted Mara and worked his way toward her.

The Knight eyed the deep red drinks that still emitted a trail of smoke, but Keenan paid Ndrek and took the seat opposite Mara.

“I’ll buy you one of these awful things every day if you’ll help me whip the new Knights into shape.”

Mara took a long drink of her hellfire. “Tell me about their training program.”

She listened as Keenan talked.

When he paused, Mara nodded to Skyla. “If you’re really sending those kids outside of Tamryn, you need to teach them how to fight magic. And you need to put more than Dracor’s light on their side.”

“Work with the University of Arcane Arts?”

“What other mages do you have?”

“They’re not warriors. Can’t wear armor.”

“Skyla wasn’t wearing armor, and she lit up your cadets.”

Keenan glanced at the mage, and Mara could see his discomfort. Skyla had told her the history between her and Keenan, but it looked like there was a lot more interest on the Knight’s part than Skyla had imagined.

Kennan lifted his half-empty glass. “These things are terrible.”

Mara downed the rest of hers. “Didn’t come here for the drinks.”

“But you won the bet.”

Mara leaned across the table and dropped a key in front of him.

Keenan’s eyes saucered as he looked at the key and then up at Mara. “Are you propositioning me?”

Mara smiled. “No. We are.”

Playing in the Sandbox (Practice Part 1)

No, not my children’s sandbox. Too messy. We turned it into a water table for very good reasons.

I mean taking my characters for a spin in the sandbox of my imagination.

I have a character that has been knocking around in my head for sometime. You see her as an ancillary character in a few stories, but she’s never the love interest. I wanted to change that and write a story about her, but she’s very different from other characters I’ve written.

Having been allowed very little free will of her own for most of her existence, her morality is different. Her wants and desires are different. Her worldview is different. Not sure I’ll ever be able to write her as the heroine, but I want to try.

To help me better understand her, I wrote a short story from her point of view. The steamy scenes are very different than any of my other work, but I think it’s because she’s so much different than my other heroines.

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Practice

Mara swept the first young Knight’s feet out from beneath him and shoved him hard with her shield. He crashed to the ground, and before he could roll away, she hit his breastplate with her sword.

A second Knight charged her, but she pivoted, letting his momentum in full armor carry him past her. As he tripped over the first Knight, Mara hit his back with the flat of her sword.

Two kill shots. Both Mara’s. Anything but a training exercise, and the two Knights of Valor would be dead.

There was laughter and teasing from the sidelines, but a quick look from Mara silenced the other Knights. “How long will you survive in the eastern provinces?”

Knight Keenan helped the two younger men back to their feet. “We’re practicing. They’ll get better.”

“But not good enough.”

“Not all of us can be Sir Marcus,” the Knight Mara had tripped said.

Mara pierced the boy with her hard stare. “Sir Marcus spent his life training to fight a lich. You spent yours training to protect the safe streets of Tamryn.”

Knight Keenan cleared his throat. “We’ll practice again tomorrow.”

Mara looked over the assembled Knights, her gaze resting on each man in turn. “Anything you face in the eastern provinces will be alive because it’s survived worse than whatever haunts your nightmares. Do you think your enemies get knocked down during practice then toddle off to say a few prayers?”

The Knights stared back at her, and several of them were clenching their fists at their sides.

“Good. Get angry at me. Better angry than dead. Next lesson.” Mara motioned to a figure dressed in a plain brown cloak.

The woman walked over to Mara and bowed, then turned toward the Knights.

“Skyla,” Keenan said. “What are you doing here?”

“She’s going to help me demonstrate a lesson,” Mara said. “Are your healers out here?”

Keenan nodded toward Knight Matthias, but concern mirrored in his pale green eyes. “Is this safe?”

“Less dangerous than sending out half-trained men.”

Knight Keenan glanced at Skyla then stepped back. “Be careful.”

Mara looked at the woman in the robes. Her rich brown hair was tied in a simple ponytail, and her large grey eyes seemed too big for her face. She was easy to underestimate as so many mages were.

“Just like we practiced,” Mara said.

Skyla nodded and moved several sword lengths behind Mara.

“Do you think your Knights can beat Skyla and me?” Mara raised a challenging brow at Keenan. “Or are you going to send them to their prayer vigil and hope Dracor gives them fighting skills?”

“I don’t want her to get hurt.”

“Not what I asked.” Mara smiled at the gathered Knights, a taunting expression meant to rile them. “Pick your best seven. If they can get three points in before I get a killing blow, you win and I will come back and help you train them until the new moon.”

Keenan glanced at the recruits and then back at Mara. “You called for a healer. What do you have in mind?”

“Don’t think seven of your Knights can get in three hits?”

“And if they can’t?”

“You owe Skyla and me a hellfire at Ndrek’s bar.”

“Seven against you and Skyla?”

Mara nodded.

“Until the new moon?”

Mara nodded again.

“They could really use the practice against someone with your skills. You’re sure Skyla won’t be hurt?”

“It’s not her you should be worrying about.”

Mara fell into her battle stance, and she felt Skyla already building the first spell as seven young Knights took their positions opposite her.

Keenan signaled the start of combat, and Skyla let loose with her first spell.

A wall of flames scorched the ground and rose up between Mara and the Knights. Mara ignored the fire, ducking her head as she charged through them and tapped the chest plate of one of the Knights. Pivoting, she tapped the chest plate of a second before any of them had recovered their wits enough to close their mouths.

The remaining five backed away from the fire and Mara’s blade. Just as she’d anticipated.

Skyla loosed her second spell, and the ground under the remaining Knight’s feet turned to mud.

Mara charged.

Slamming her shield into the first Knight’s sword, she shoved hard and sent him stumbling back then barreled into the second. Surprise widened his eyes, and when he tried to turn, he slipped in the mud.

Mara slammed his chest plate with her sword, and if it hadn’t been a practice blade, she’d have killed the Knight. Instead, she sent him into the mud with the first, who’s chest plate she tapped.

They’d hurt, but the bruises would bring home a lesson they wouldn’t forget.

The remaining three Knights extricated themselves from the mud as Mara circled around them. She smiled as one tried to flank her while the other two came at her. Sprinting towards one, she used her shield as a battering ram and knocked him to the ground as the second scored a glancing blow against her arm.

She pivoted and knocked his feet out from underneath him them hit his chest plate with her sword. Leaping over him, she tapped the Knight she’d steamrolled to the ground.

One Knight remained.

As he stood watching her, black vines shot out of the ground and encased his feet, rooting him there.

Mara circled around him, but he couldn’t turn to face her. She came up behind him and tapped the middle of his back.

There were growing whispers that the battle hadn’t been fair. That they hadn’t been warned.

Mara only smiled. “Combat isn’t about fair. Or justice. Or right and wrong. It’s about winning. In real combat, Skyla would’ve been using fireballs, flame clouds, and ice storms. Never under estimate a mage.”

“Good lesson,” Sir Leopold said. “Well done, both of you.”

Mara felt the High-Knight’s faded blue eyes fix on her. She met his stare, her face impassive even as her stomach clenched. Tall and broad, the only thing that belied his age was the silver in his hair and the rank insignia on his uniform.

She wondered again what he’d feel like beneath her and how hard he’d fight her for top. How much she’d relish that fight. The thought made her belly tighten.

Stabbing the thought and leaving it to bleed to death, Mara handed her practice sword back to Keenan.

She picked up her sword and wiped the soot from her cheeks. “One hit to seven kills. See you at Ndrek’s.”

Keenan only nodded as he checked on his men.

 

Soul Mates?

Soul mates. The person that completes you, that is your other half. This person is more than true love. This is the person that literally shares a piece of your soul.

You’re drawn together even if you hate each other. Your souls will find a way to reunite…

Sorry, I don’t buy it.

If, for some chance you do have one true soul mate, how are you going to find them among the over seven billion people in this world?

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I suppose you could say the halves of the soul are somehow attracted to each other, but what are the chances you’ll speak the same language? Have been brought up in the same culture?

I’m a romance writer, and I read a lot of the genre. While I’ve seen soul mates used a lot, it almost never explained how it works. Was a soul ripped in half so each character only has half a soul (might explain a few people I know)? Are they like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle? Or maybe mirror images of each other?

I can’t think of a single time an author used soul mates and I didn’t think they were mailing it in by relying on this to bring togtether characters that had no other reason to be together.

It’s like the author chased the characters up a tree, and then along came a handy-dandy zeppelin to get them down.

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Hi!  I just happened to be in the area.

Given my preferences, if I read that the main characters are soul mates in the book blurb, I don’t buy it. If I find it out they’re soul mates later in the story itself, I tend not to finish the book as I usually can’t stop rolling my eyes. After the eighth or ninth eye roll, I’m worried they’re going to get stuck in my skull and decide it’s time to put away the offending book.

Yes, I love romance, and I love happily ever afters, but the characters have to earn it. It’s part of what makes the endings so delicious.

If the story has enemies become lovers, I can buy that. Seen it often enough in real life.

But if the story wants enemies to fall in love with each other? That’s tougher, but put them through a strong enough crucible in the story, and I can buy it. I want to buy it. I like reading romances. I want the characters to get together. But I also want to believe it.

Tell me they overcome their hate for each other because they’re soul mates? I’ll smile politely and slide that book over to the “don’t waste my precious reading time” pile.

Authors can bring together difficult characters, even characters that might strongly dislike each other at first. We believe the change in how they feel about each other through repeated interactions between the characters, with them learning through these interactions that they’d misjudged the other.

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If they haven’t misjudged the other, than we need the characters to change and realize why their preconceived notion was wrong. And it has to more than, “oh, but I love this person, so clearly I was wrong all this time.”

The more you want the change, the more the plot has to challenge them.

Social Identity Theory tells me it’s not going to happen easily. The bigger the change, the harder it’s going to be to make it happen.

You see the enemies (or at least adversaries) become lovers a lot in television, especially when the writers have multiple seasons to build the romance.

Most romance novels don’t have multiple seasons, but it’s still doable in a single book. After all, in a romance novel, the whole point of the plot is to get the characters together. Yes, it’s possible, and most of us can think of some characters that we loved seeing get together even though they were ready to kill each other at the beginning of their relationship.

Done right, it makes an amazing an unforgettable romance. Done wrong, and an author has to tell me the characters get together because they’re soul mates and just can’t live without each other.

*eye roll*

 

How about you? Do you believe in soul mates? If so, why? I’m open to changing my mind! Have you ever read a soul mates story that was very well done? What made it good?

Going Home

Well, not home. Not really.

It was my grandmother’s 90th birthday, and we drove almost seven hours to rural Ohio to celebrate with her.
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It’s strange coming back to see her. And, if I’m totally honest, depressing.
Almost all of my mom’s family lives in this area, and when I was a kid, I desperately wished we lived there, too. All my aunts and uncles lived there. My cousins. My grandparents. They saw each other all the time, whereas I got to seem them a couple of times a year. I was sad and jealous.
I didn’t understand that my mother had joined the military to escape. She had a lot of very good reasons to leave, reasons that eventually included daughters of her own.
When I go back now, nothing seems like the world I wanted to join. Yes, my kids are drinking out of the same cups I used when I was a kid. My grandmother has the same rose-printed plates. Even the same wood paneling is in her house. But that’s where it ends.
When I was a kid, manufacturing was strong where she lives. Everyone had jobs, nice houses, and newer cars. We used to walk downtown for ice cream or to visit the Five and Ten.
Now, most of the store fronts are empty. Many of the beautiful old homes have been sub-divided into apartments. Others are in a sad state of repair. Piles of junk sit in yards further outside of the small town, especially old cars and boats. Paint is peeling. Front steps rotting. Out buildings collapsed.
Then there are the trailer parks. Unless you’ve seen rural poverty, you don’t know what I’m talking about. Think about a 1950s RV set-up on blocks. Old. Rusted. Windows boarded in places. Cinder blocks for steps. Now imagine twenty of them clustered together. A few miles away, another trailer “park”. Now imagine watching a little six-year-old boy with light blonde hair and a navy jacket struggling to open the rickety door as he balances on a part of the steps still intact.
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Why are things so bad now?
It’s a story told all over the Midwest. Factories that once employed entire towns are gone, and there are no new manufacturing jobs to replace them. Whenever we visit, another of my cousins have been laid off and is trying to find a job. The next job they get always pay less than the one they had before.
The jobs still remaining that pay more than minimum wage all seem to be in the medical field or other services needed by the elderly and retired. Especially in-home nursing. Few out there can afford assisted living even if they are no longer completely self-sufficient.
But those jobs tend to require degrees, and the ones that don’t require degrees pay even less than the few remaining factory jobs.
Doctors in the area live in mansions situated on sprawling lands. Even nurses do well. But I learned from my cousin that being a pharmacy tech pays less than working for Whirlpool. I can understand the growing fear and resentment as they scrape together to get by while a newcomer to the area is building a heated outbuilding larger than their homes to store his three boats.
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Even the skilled aren’t immune.
My uncle recently closed his business after it had been around for over fifty years. He used to sell and repair appliances like washers and dryers. He started as an apprentice when he was a teenager, and when the owner retired, he sold the business to my uncle.
My uncle did great at first. But then Lowes and Home Depot moved into the area, and he simply couldn’t compete with them on price. Eventually, he closed the Main Street shop and focused on repair.
But with how cheap appliances were becoming, more people just replaced broken ones rather than repairing them. So, he had to start letting the technicians that worked for him go. Then his secretary.
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Finally, he closed his business and took a job as an electrical inspector for the county. It sucks. After more than thirty years of working for himself, he couldn’t make a living at it anymore. Thank goodness he’s a master electrician and was able to get other work.
Yeah, they’re my family and I’m biased, but these aren’t dumb people. Or lazy people. Most them work damn hard. They simply have no way forward. They’re trying to eek out a living without giving up family, friends, and community. They’re trying to find a way forward after manufacturing was gutted from the Rust Belt.
And there is no safety net for them. No retraining for them. No real hope for things to ever improve.
College is a dream. Something rich kids do. Something they wish they could give their kids. But when most families of four earn less than $40k a year, even state school is out of reach.
Some young men and women join the military. It’s a way out, a job, and it promises to teach them real skills. Two of my cousins tried to join, but one failed the physical and the other hurt his knee to the point it required surgery two weeks before boot camp.
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Still, I’m amazed how many of them have friends that joined the military, and how many of them know someone that gave their life. You see pro-veteran signs, slogans, and even graffiti everywhere. Makes me wonder if this is why.
It’s people like this that voted for our current president. They’re the ones that propelled him to victory. People who felt lost and left behind. People who want the family and community my grandfather had. Or, what they think he had. They want the jobs back. They want hope.
If you haven’t driven through rural Ohio, it’s hard to understand. If you have, you may still not agree with their choices, but you can understand them. I hope our president doesn’t disappoint them.
How about you? Does your family live near you? Or are they far away? Did you grow up with a large family and love it, or maybe you had a small family and loved that? Ever been through rural Ohio?

Four Things You Can Learn from Romance Novels Even If You Hate Them

Sadly, I’ve seen  a lot of people say they hate romance novels since joining social media. Some even proclaiming romance has no place in movies or television. When pressed for the reason why, it tends to come back to “I never get the guy/girl, so I don’t want to see someone who’s got everything get him/her.”

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A part of me says welcome to Hollywood. I can’t think of the last movie I saw where the heroine wasn’t amazingly beautiful, thin, and with perfect hair.

This is why I love romance novels. There the heroines come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. The heroes, too. Depending one what you read, cowboys, bikers, and billionaires are all there. So are teachers, dragons, and knights. seriously, whatever you particular interest is, there is someone out there writing it. But, you have to look.

Here’s something I’m not sure the people saying they hate romance because it doesn’t work for them realize. Their very words are a red flag for anyone they may be interested in having a relationship with. Why? Because this hints at the fact they think they’re owed a relationship, owed love, and probably owed sex. These might not be their real thoughts, but in a world where one out of five women are victims of sexually assault, I’d wary.

Think about that for one moment. One out of five. Think of five women you know, and statistically, one of them has been hurt this way. I have no idea what a comparable situation is for a man, so I won’t try. But yeah, it’s a lotta women’s worst nightmare. I often wonder how many men walk to their car after dark with their keys between their fingers “just in case”.

The reasons are not part of this post, but it does give an insight into the world we live in today. But, it’s not the world women want. Hence, romance novels. It’s an escape. An idealization. A way to explore love and sexuality in a non-threatening way. A way for the reader to know things are going to turn out okay in the end for the heroine, even if they don’t always in real life.

Believe it or not, there’s a lot of things that can be learned from romance novels. Here are a few.

1.Get past the Trappings – this is probably harder for men who are more visually stimulated than women. Yes, the guys in the stories are usually attractive. Just like the women in the movies and on TV. But the women aren’t always, or at least not in the current accepted fashion. Either way, most romance novels don’t dwell on it. Sometimes, neither the hero or heroine is attractive in the traditional way. In one of my favorite contemporary romance novels, the hero was a somewhat dorky Princeton professor.

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2. Common Interests – Most of the characters in a story have some sort of common interest that brings them together. Horses. International spy rings. Vampire hunters. Customizing motorcycles. Pick your reason. In most novels, they don’t sort of bump into each other at a nightclub and just hit it off. This is playing to fantasy, and there are as many kinds of heroes and their interests as can be imagined. Some of the people I’ve heard complain about romance novels make me wonder if trolling in their interest. Probably not the best interest if you want to meet a significant other, but I bet there’s a romance novel out there somewhere with that in it. In the story about the Princeton professor, the thing the hero and heroine shared was a love of books. In a romance novel. Go figure.

3. Listening – It’s such a  tired cliché that men don’t listen, but it’s become cliché for a reason. In romance novels, the hero listens to the heroine. Learns she’s scared of vampires because they ate her little brother or whatever. This can have a huge impact in the story when later he later understands why she’s frozen with fear when the normally heroic vampire hunter sees a vampire about to gobble a child. If he hadn’t listened? No chance to understand. Same thing in the real world. My husband listened to me and knows I’m terrified of spiders because a brown recluse bit my sister and it necrotized the skin on her leg. (I won’t post a picture here, but here’s a link to what it looks like). So killing spiders without question and without making me feel bad has helped our relationship. In the book I referenced above, the professor listened and understood the heroine’s issues with her controlling mother. This helped bring them together.

4. If you listen in the living room, you’re more likely to listen in the bedroom – There’s a lot of research out there that says women are just as sexual as men when the woman thinks she’s also going to get an orgasm. I have yet to read a romance novel where the woman wasn’t brought to orgasm. The path to her fulfilled desire may seem unrealistic to me, but it’s always the end result. In some novels, there will even be scenes where the hero holds off on his own pleasure to make sure she gets hers. In the real world, I know women do it for men. So, I’m not surprised in a romance novel, roles change. Shouldn’t be too surprising that women want pleasure, too.

 

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Are all romance novels good? That’s like asking are all action movies good. Are all science fiction books good. Are all TV shows good. Different people like different things, and some clearly just suck. Mystery Science 3000 made a show out of how bad some movies can be.

Also, romance novels change along with society. What sold to repressed women in the 1950s is not what sold in the 1980s or what sells now. More recent ones show more current fantasies. And as with everything, quality varies dramatically from author to author. Sometimes book to book.

But the good is out there.

 

What do you think? Think you can learn something from romance novels or am I full of bunk? Me being wrong is always an option. Is there something I’m missing? Something you’d add?

It Really Works

Application of bottom to chair, that is.

I’ve been having a rough patch of late. My last two works-in-progress, I managed to complete in six weeks or less. My current work-in-progress, however, stalled, and I am feeling neither passion nor fire for it. Combine that with some pretty nasty headaches and a dash of laziness, and you have a recipe for accomplishing nothing.

While my muse is very real, I also know I need to write whether she’s sitting on my shoulder, jumping on the keyboard and cursing because I can’t type faster, or off flitting around wherever muses go when they’re basically telling you to f-off.

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After getting my headaches mostly under control, I made a bargain with myself. I would banish myself to the living room with my computer for at least thirty minutes a night. My goal was to produce 1,000 words. They didn’t have to be good words, they just had to be words. I told myself I’d rely on the editing stage to make them good words. Which, if I’m honest with myself, my first draft tends to suck anyway.

If I could do this, I’d prove to myself I was serious about writing. If I’m really serious about it, I would consider shelling out for an editing service once I’m “done” with Crowned Prince.

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Guessing it’s about this expensive.

I’ve kept this promise for some time now, trying to do mini sprints of 15, 20 or 30 minutes and then recording my progress. Some nights, I can get my 1,000 words in about 45 minutes. Other nights, I’m at 800 and I’ve been in the chair for 90 minutes. But here’s the thing. I’m still 800 words closer to the end.

I pushed past the part I was struggling with in the WIP. Was what I wrote any good? I’m not sure. Just because it was hard to write now, doesn’t mean it completely sucked. Either way, I’m not going to dwell on it. I’ll deal with it in editing. This may be why it takes me three times longer to edit a book than to write it . . .

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I’ve pushed past the 40,000 word mark and am now racing towards the climactic ending. Yeah, my first drafts are only 50-60k. I write a skeletal first draft and go back and add a lot of description, a few extra scenes to better explain things, and a few more steamy scenes. I know this about myself, and I work with it.

I have now also learned I need to be sequestered to write. I know sprints make me more productive.

I know it’s not going to be easy to maintain the momentum and finish the book, but if I keep at it, I’ll get there. Once the words are on the page, I can make them better. First, the words have to get there.

 

How about you? Anything you’ve ever had to push through to complete? Do you reward yourself for doing things you’d rather not? Or maybe your muse is far better behaved than mine, and if so, how do you keep her so happy?