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Lessons Learned

My Evil Day Job is in IT and we moved to Agile a few years ago. Part of our regular ceremonies now is a sprint review/retro every two weeks. We talk about what went well and what didn’t–so that we can improve and change things up for the next sprint.

I’ve been doing a “book” retro each time I finish. I do some word-count vs. sprint analysis and compare that average to other books. I take a look at my elapsed time and any other factors that I can apply to the next book that might help me write faster or improve my process.

Since I just finished Leprechauned this week, I took a look at my stats. It’s pretty eye opening.

My word-count-per-sprint average was way down and my elapsed time was way up. I took vacation days from the EDJ in both Jan and Feb to help push to completion–and the book still dragged into March. I even bumped the release date two weeks to give myself a little breathing room.

What gives?

The biggest lesson I can take from this is how much of a problem it is for me to pick up and put down a book midway.

I originally started Leprechauned 2/28/2021. Yes, that long ago. I worked on it a little over a week and had just over 10,000 words before I decided to set it aside. I’d had the harebrained idea to try and crash-write the book before St. Patrick’s Day 2021 for a surprise release, which meant I set aside Knocked Up to work on it. Then I had some EDJ stress that made it apparent that I wasn’t going to be in a position to write another 30k+ in a week. (Though my crazy brain really wanted to try.)

This is my greatest weakness as a writer. I get these harebrained ideas on the spur of the moment and let them derail me. In hindsight, I should have stuck to Knocked Up and just kept working on it. I’m sure that I damaged my momentum stopping to pick up a different book.

I did the same thing by putting down Queen Takes Darkness3 to write Carnal Magic last October. Did I have fun with that book? Absolutely. Was it smart to put down a book that I was already 50%+ into? Absolutely not. Because here it is months later and I haven’t been able to pick it up again. I’m going to have the same issues when I do get back to it.

For Leprechauned, I didn’t pick it back up until the beginning of Jan 2022. I really planned to have it finished by the end of Feb, and on paper, that should have been easy for me to do. I know what my “average” word count can be each day without pushing too hard and I should have been able to meet that date.

Should.

But again, there were several factors at play that made the book hard.

  • I was served mid February – the ex is taking me back to court AGAIN.
  • When I first wrote Shamrocked, I kept it fairly light and fun. I didn’t have super deep characterization on the guys since the book was only in Riann’s POV. I didn’t have detailed world building notes either.
  • To take a “light” novella and turn it into a meatier trilogy is work. I had to flesh out each of the guys better and give them deeper personalities. I had to make decisions on the world and overall arc that weren’t needed for a single book. I had to better define the magic.
  • My style has changed quite a lot since I first wrote Shamrocked in 2018. I had to keep referring back to the previous book and read sections so I got the tone and characterizations right. I kept forgetting little tidbits of the world or magic that I needed to go back and verify.

All that took time. A lot of time.

So what am I going to do about it?

First up, I’m going to keep right on pushing through on Evil Eyed. I’m not going to make the mistake of setting down this world and characters again. I’m going to finish up the trilogy and get that off my plate before I do anything else.

Secondly, I’m going to do my best not to hie off on these side trails of shiny new projects that would be so much fun to do, especially when I’ve got other books started. When I get back to Helayna, I’m going to have to hope I took good notes and I’m going to need to spend days re-reading and getting back into that world’s tone and voice.

2022 is the year of cleaning out all these incomplete series and spinoffs so I can get back to Shara and Xochitl. The longer it takes me to finish Darkness, Sunfires, and anything else I tackle, the longer it’ll be before I can get back to our vampire queen. Because once I do get back to her, I want to focus and stay there.

Which is why I’d LOVE to have A Killer Need done too. But it’s going to be so much work to revise two books and write a third — that I originally wrote way back in 2014-16 or so. I have the covers already lined up. It’s just a matter of deciding if I can commit months to brutal edits and getting back into Charlie’s head.

We’ll see what the rest of 2022 holds.

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The Vicious Quandary

I wrote “The Vicious” two or so years ago for an anthology. I’ve always loved New Orleans and anything related to voodoo. Absolutely hungry for any show or movie or story that combines those elements. I fully intended to write a trilogy after “The Vicious,” and even have 2 of the 3 additional covers purchased. I signed up for another anthology with the plan to write the next book (you may see a link to that anthology at the end of “The Vicious,” depending on when you downloaded it).

But here’s the thing. I’ve been BLOCKED on that series since I wrote it.

That’s why you never got the continuation in that second anthology. I had to pull my story from it. I couldn’t even start it. I paid a consultant to help me plot out the rest of the series. We met several times and I worked on at least two more books’ worth of plot. I had the characters and the overall arc figured out.

But I still couldn’t write a word.

At the time, I blamed the divorce, and yeah, I’m sure that might have had something to do with it. But there’s more going on here than just all the stress.

I feel like continuing that series would be appropriation.

I’ve never lived in New Orleans, though I’ve visited a few times. No matter how much I love the culture, no matter how many books I read about Marie Laveau, no matter how many books I study about Vodou and the loa….

In the end, I am a (mostly) white author writing about a closed practice.

While I LOVE my covers–the characters used on the covers are also white. They’re white men dressed up in costumes. The heroine is clearly white.

Meanwhile, the magic system is based on a very real and personal religion to many people. People who were enslaved and killed and forbidden from practicing said religion.

And I want to write a book about it?

The sad thing is YES. I still do want to write it. I’ve agonized about it. I’ve tried to come up with excuses in my head. It’s “appreciation” not “appropriation.” I love it so much! I can give the heroine a biracial background. I could have the covers redone and put authentic people of color on the covers.

But again, in the end, I am still a white woman trying to write a fictional story based on Vodou, a closed religion.

As a writer, I’ve always pulled from mythology and other civilizations. I love everything about ancient history, folklore, and other religions. The Bloodgate series – based on Maya mythology! The twins, Xochitl, her father, Huitz…. based on Aztec mythology. I’m proud of the research I did for those series and still have numerous textbooks I bought. But in the end, they’re still only textbooks – probably written by white people.

I made Shara and queens of her world descended from goddesses around the globe.

Appropriation? Or appreciation? Though I’ve never described the color of Shara’s skin, the woman on the cover is definitely mostly white – and she’s supposed to be descended from Isis. Granted, I don’t think there are tons of people still worshipping Egyptian goddesses today, but I’ve tried to be careful and respectful in that series. I don’t use Hindu goddesses, for example. I try to be respectful and appreciative of the cultures I use. But is it enough?

Which circles right back to “The Vicious.” As much as I appreciate Vodou, it is a closed practice that is still practiced today. And I have no known ancestral ties to that culture or religion.

I can’t in good conscience write it as I originally envisioned it.

I’m trying to do better and be a better person. A better writer. Not just in craft but in what my stories say. What I pull from. Maybe it’s fine to take the Greek goddess Hekate and make a possibly bizarre connection to snakes! (Queen Takes Venom) I didn’t think that kind of streeeetch would offend too many people.

Though as I grow in my own spiritual journey, I try to question everything.

Anyway, that’s why I still don’t have a continuation for “The Vicious.”

I welcome thoughtful discussion.

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What am I working on this month?

Welcome to 2022! I’m going to try to keep my blog updated better this year.

My focus for the first half+ of the year will be finishing existing loose ends to make room for Shara to return. This includes the following series: Her Irish Treasures, Queen Takes Darkness, and Queen Takes Sunfires. I would also REALLY love to get A Killer Need wrapped up. However, that’s going to take so much work… I don’t know that I’ll be able and willing to hold off on Shara long enough to tackle Charlie. We’ll see.

First up, Her Irish Treasures. Leprechauned is set to release March 1st, though if I finish it earlier, I’ll probably release it sooner. I’ve struggled a bit to get back into the flow of this story, since I wrote Shamrocked back in 2018 or so. However, the audio rights are already lined up, so I’d really love to get this series finished and available. Once I do get into the Irish flow, I plan to stick there and finish the trilogy with Evil Eyed.

What really rocked my world with this series is how it ties into Shara’s Their Vampire Queen world, especially once I talked with Merlin in Queen Takes Camelot. Just another branch of the goddess tree…

I’m still Zooming with Molly about five times a week. We’ll continue our sessions as much as possible. I need to find time to get at least two more sprints in during the day to keep up with my goals. Four would be better. I’m slooooow but steady, until I can finally see the finish line. I’m almost to that point with Leprechauned, so it’d be great if I could finish it this month!

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2022 Plan

First up, I’ll be working on Her Irish Treasures with Leprechauned slated for March 2022. My plan is to go ahead and write the third book, Evil Eyed, while I’m in the Irish groove. These are shorter books, planning 40-50k, so I should be able to get both done early 2022. Then I’ll get Darkness3 finished, followed by Sunfires3.

The real gray area for me is in between Sunfires3 and Blizzard Bound, which I’ve slated for a December release. I have a long list that I’d like to get through…. But I have to be realistic too. Just these projects will be about 290,000 words, which is roughly where I finished in 2021.

If real life cooperates and I can keep up my energy pennies, my ideal projects will be:

  • re-release One Cut Deeper
  • re-release Two Cuts Darker
  • Three Cuts Deader
  • Begin Shara’s return

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2021 Year in Review

2021 was a comeback year for me.

I’m not completely out of the Divorce Direwoods yet. Please send good vibes that things will resolve without further court appearances.

However, I have enough closure that I was finally able to get some decent momentum this year. The game changer for me was to start meeting my Beloved Sister almost nightly via Zoom. We may only get 1-2 sprints in, but the consistency has helped us both complete numerous books this year. I’m still disappointed that I didn’t manage to finish Queen Takes Darkness3 and Queen Takes Sunfires3, but I’ll tackle them early in 2022.

My word count for 2021 was 271,980. Words definitely took a hit in April-June, which was expected. I had to get the house ready to list, and then sell and move to a new house by June 1st. Word counts stayed a little low for me through the rest of the year, but I was fairly consistent given two traveling trips in August and November.

All of these books were released this year (The House Isador ones were hardcover versions) except for Leprechauned, which will release early 2022.

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Writing by Zoom

Excuse me while I get a little emotional.

Since Molly and I have started our Zoom sessions almost every night, each of us has completed FIVE books. I’ve also written two short stories. We’ve edited and published those stories too in that time.

This is especially amazing for Molly, since she has been blocked for 12 years.

While we are “sprinting,” we don’t race. If we did race, I’d lose every night! I’m pretty slow in that regard, but you don’t have to be fast when you’re consistent. That’s what Zoom has been doing for us.

We always talk awhile. How was your day? What’s going on at work or the kids or our parents? At first, yes, we did talk a LOT. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year thanks to the pandemic. Now, though, we usually talk 15 mins or so and then we get to work.

I set a 25 minute timer. Usually I have to mute once we start, because I write in the downstairs dining room and the kids are always in and out to the kitchen making racket. I put on my headphones with my book’s playlist, and we go. Once the timer goes off, I unmute and tell her. We chat a bit about the scene, or what was fun or hard. I may agonize about the never-ending sex scene, or she may laugh and tell me about a killer line. Then we go again.

Most nights, we can get in 2 sprints without even trying. Some nights we can get 3, especially if we start a little earlier. On Friday nights, if we’re on a roll, we can hit 4. The books finish themselves.

One night this week, we were talking about writing in general and we came back to the car metaphor. Sometimes when you’re in the zone, it’s like driving at night. Flying down the road with reckless abandon. You don’t even need your headlights – because you see it all so clearly. It’s glorious and exhilarating. Just you and the road and the roaring hum of the engine rumbling beneath you.

I personally love to hit that zone near the end of a book. I need the pressure of a deadline breathing down my neck to help me finish. In that impending doom, I want to hit the gas and fly the last few miles to my destination.

People say don’t burn yourself out. You’re pushing too hard…

But that’s not what my engine wants to hear. It was built for that reckless race down the dark road, going faster, harder, until we hit “the end.”

Or so I thought. During the divorce these past two years…

Sometimes I hit the gas, ready to accelerate through to the finish line, and my engine sputtered. The car actually died in the middle of the road, and I could only stare in horror as a semi-truck barreled down a hill straight at me. I missed my deadline. I pulled a pre-order. And I’ve not been the same since.

Once that happened, I’ve been a little scared to hit the gas. I don’t want my car to die. But I miss that glorious, reckless speed toward the finish line, adrenaline pumping as I soar through the night.

Regular Zoom sessions with Molly have helped me trust that when I press the pedal, my car will respond. I’ve got enough gas in the tank. My engine is a well-oiled beast. Fine-tuned, transformed, with more horses than ever beneath the hood.

I’m ready to floor it and drive through the night. Again and again and again.

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The Plan’s Kiss of Death

One of the most annoying things about my personality is my inability to stick to The Plan once I decide on The Plan.

Like seriously, it’s a joke. I sketch out a beautiful, aggressive, challenging plan to suit my need for pressure and deadlines. I’ll even put it into my bujo writing notebook.

Which is immediately the kiss of death. If I write it down in my journal, I suddenly become allergic to The Plan and everything changes. Butterfly flaps its wings etc etc and suddenly I’m doing exactly the opposite of what I thought I was going to do.

In my defense, usually something from real life throws me off my game. I count on momentum to build as I work on a project. I start slow, and I build to a crashing crescendo to finish a book. So when something knocks me out of that momentum, my brain gets… bored. Short circuited. Or maybe in that moment of silence, I hear something that makes me start to think and question and wonder.

Squirrel! Look over there. Isn’t that a nice shiny thing that I could do instead? I mean, The Plan is already out the window. Might as well mix things up now, right?

So I had The Plan to get either Queen Takes Darkness3 or Sunfires3 done before I head to Vegas Nov. 8th for 20BooksTo50K and Sherri (I wanted both, but that would have been challenging even for this idiot who loves a challenge). I was making pretty good headway. But then I got into a sex scene and it just went on and on. And on. And on.

Not the sex itself, just the scene. The set up. The character interactions. The tiny little reveals that happen when a person is vulnerable. All good stuff but it was just an absolute crawl. Then my Dad had a procedure in Kansas City a few weeks ago. I was his designated driver. We ended up staying in the city two days while he recovered.

Of course I’d built that into The Plan. I took my laptop, my bujo, and even my Traveler in case I needed to write at the hospital. And I did write. But I couldn’t bring myself to focus on that never-ending sex scene.

My momentum was broken. In that silence, that moment of opportunity, my brain said hey, wouldn’t it be cool to have a Halloween story out by the end of the month? Like that would be crazy, right? You do have that witch story you wrote for LLS’s anthology.

Sure. Carnal Magic. It was a cute little 5k witch story. Not a novella.

But you could make it a novella. With a little work. You love a challenge.

*curses* Yes, I do love a challenge. But I don’t have a lot of time…

Even better, right?

And so here I am working on the witch story instead of what I’d planned to do. Even though I have a pre-order next month for Sharan Daire that I haven’t even started.

I don’t even know that I can finish the novella in time. Because once I read the short story and plotted out what I wanted to do, I immediately tore the original 5k to shreds and shifted elements around to make it work for a longer story. I find that level of edits much harder to do. Once I “tell” a story, my brain is happy with it and doesn’t want to see it in a different light. But it’s a challenge.

And I love a fucking challenge.

So I may or may not have a longer Carnal Magic out next week if I can pull off a miracle.

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WTFIJWN

I haven’t done one of these “WTF is Joely Writing Now?” posts in a while. As always, I’ll warn that as soon as I write this down, it’ll probably change… But I’ll do my best to keep up with my plan, though Gregar may have other ideas.

Now that Queen Takes Darkness2 is out, I decided to move directly into Queen Takes Darkness3 and Sunfires3. These two side trilogies have unfortunately dragged out over the last two years (thanks to divorce), and I had to cancel the original pre-order for Sunfires2. The cancellation not only really hurt my momentum, but also damaged reader trust. I suspect a lot of you may be reluctant to pick them up until the trilogies are finished, so that’s my #1 priority.

This does put Four Men & A Baby (Sharan Daire) at risk with a projected 11/30 release date. I will most likely need to bump it to 12/30 instead, but I’m going to leave it alone for now. It really depends on how long the third and final books for Karmen and Helayna end up going (expecting 50-60K but not sure).

After that, I’ll move to Leprechauned, another series that has dragged out far too long. If I can finish it up early, I’ll release it earlier in 2022 (currently set for 3/1).

In the spirit of tying up loose ends, the next thing I’m going to focus on is One Cut Deeper, Two Cuts Darker, and Three Cuts Deader. I got my rights back to this series, and so the first two books are getting new covers and a facelift. Since I want this series to do really well, I’m going to hold them until I finish Three Cuts. I know a few of you have been waiting a LONG time for the rest of Charlie and Ranay’s story! I think the series overall will just do so much better if it’s completely ready to go for a rapid (re)release.

Now for the bad news. Or not really bad, I guess, but things that are dropping OFF my schedule. I had planned to do a trilogy for Belladonna (Queen Takes Venom) and (or possibly combined with) a Hades twist with Queen Takes Death. However, I know you’re all anxious to get more of Shara’s and Xochitl’s stories. I even suspect I may have a bit of a riot on my hands if I take the time to write other side queens, even if I think they’d be a blast to explore. Belladonna will be important, but I can figure out what I need without writing a trilogy for her. Other people have done Hades rewrites, so I’m not sure how much new material I would add anyway.

So… if you’re still reading this far, all of this clearing and planning is for one big reason. Watch for Shara to return on 10/17/2022, the five-year anniversary of Queen Takes Knights.

Long live House Isador!

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On Writing, Part 1000

Continuing the discussion from yesterday’s post (shocker, I know – two posts back to back!), I leaned hard on something I’ve already blogged about here, here, here, and here. A writing bujo, story keeper, bullet journal for my books.

I went back to all the notebooks detailing the love I have for Shara. How excited I was for her world. I flipped through page after page of sprints and notes I had made about the story and discoveries I made over time.

See, it’s easy to forget the good times when you’re stuck in the bad times. It’s easy to forget how you got out of a mess before. My stuck list (again, thanks Becca) included brainstorming and using good pens and paper. Now I can add actually READING those notes again. Drooling over the sparks of inspiration and joy that ooze on those pages.

Even more importantly, I saw that when I kept track of my word counts and sprints, there were definite patterns.

Let me stop here and explain what I mean about “sprint” because I don’t use it the way most writers probably do. I don’t race. I don’t like to race other writers. The truth is that I’m too competitive (#5 achiever) but I’m also slow (#1 intellection). I want to be the fastest person in the room and if I’m not, I’m uncomfortable. I feel dumb and slow, which only makes me slower. I put too much stress on getting words – and not serving the story. Which results in tossing out garbage that I’m not happy with.

So for me, “sprint” means “dedicated focus time.” I have an app on my phone (Flora) that allows me to set a timer (usually 25 mins). If I hit my goal, I get to grow a plant in my garden. If I grow enough plants, they actually plant a REAL tree for me. Pretty awesome!

Back to looking over my previous bujos. There was a definite trend over time when I was consistently using the word count stickers. (I use a different color highlighter for each sprint, so it’s easy to see how many words I got at a glance.)

I’ve said before that I’m an exponential writer. If you give me a deadline of one year to write a book, I’ll still write 75% of it the week before it’s due. A lot of that is my INFP personality. I need that pressure of a deadline. I thrive when the going gets tough. I need that deadline breathing down my neck to do my best work. (Another reason 2020 was so lackluster – I had to cancel the Sunfires2 release and that really took the wind out of my sails.)

That means that when I first start tracking word counts on a new project (or a “start over” writing moment), I can definitely see low days. 200 words. 250 words. Maybe 700, then back down to 200 the next day. It’s easy to get discouraged when I KNOW I’m fully capable of writing 70K in a month when I’m in the zone. It’s easy to listen to the negative voice that says something must be wrong with the book if it’s this slow. It’s stupid. No one’s going to want to read this stilted garbage.

But if I keep at it, and slowly work up the number of sprints I do, one very easy to see trend emerges. The more sprints I do, the more my word count goes up. If I can get at least 2 sprints in during a day, my average begins to stabilize around 500 words in 25 mins. If I can get up to 4-6 sprints a day, that number goes up again. I start to see some sprints with 700, 800 words.

So the biggest takeaway for me personally: it’s not about the word count in the sprint. At all. It’s about how many sprints I do. If I put the time in. If I sit down and open the file, and get through those miserable 200 word days. If I keep at it….

Eventually the magic is there. It just needs some time to emerge.

To finish Sunfires2, I estimated that I had about 30K left from where I’d stumbled and fallen into a pit of despair. Rather than shooting for a daily word count goal – which does not work for me since I’m exponential! – I sat down and drew a grid in a brand new cool black journal I got from Archer & Olive. If I had 30,000 left, and I generally get an average of 500 words per sprint (my low end), then I needed 60 sprints to finish the book, plus some extras to balance out the grid and give myself the space if I needed it. I set a goal of getting at least 2 sprints done on weekdays, ideally 4 on a good day that the Evil Day Job didn’t blow up in my face, and 6 on the weekend or days off.

And you can see what happened (pics below). Toward the end, my word count was soaring, from 700-900 a day to 3500 at the end. I was hitting the sprints. I found my pace. I finished the book. And it didn’t take all 60 sprints either, because once I kept up, I could get more words in each session. (To keep track of which sprints ended up in the black journal, I used a blue highlighter to mark through the time spot. Ha, you can see a little wine droplet too. Yeah, there was definitely some wine happening toward the end!)

I’ve already started a sprint grid for Broke Down’s epilogue and will continue to use this new journal tool going forward. (In the sprint journal, I used a different fill symbol for each day, so it was easy to see how many I managed to do each day.)

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On Writing, Part 999

Seriously, I think my process has changed a thousand times now.

That’s not a bad thing. Far from it. To survive as a writer since 2003, I’ve had to make several leaps. Successes, followed by failures or dry spells. It’s the nature of the game.

Last year (2020), was hard for a multitude of reasons. The biggest for me personally was divorce. I couldn’t publish anything “big” that might complicate an already complicated situation. But I also had to survive. Readers needed to remember who I was even if I didn’t have a big book. I had to keep my income up as much as possible, so I could continue to pay for my kids’ college, without any major releases.

I learned. A lot. I learned how to work that backlist like nobody’s business. And honestly, I’ve still got a long ways to go there. I am working on getting some of my less KU-friendly series out wide to get some stability outside of the Amazon basket. But that takes time and it’s definitely a learning process. I learned I REALLY did not need to buy all the pretty covers in all the lovely design groups. I’ve been dipping into my stash for individual anthology covers, and I also gave four to my daughter, who dipped her toe into writing as Bobbie Jo Hart.

With all the divorce stress, combined with pandemic nightmares, I really didn’t write a lot of new words. I did write new short stories. I kept up with the promo stuff. Continued to do giveaways, etc. But I just didn’t feel very creative. When I did write, it was a torturously slow process and it was easy to get discouraged.

I didn’t know if I’d ever feel like “me” again. If I’d ever find that black highway at night, roaring down the road with no headlights but seeing everything so perfectly clear.

Instead, I was hunched over the steering wheel barely in a crawl, peeking out a tiny hole in a frosted-up windshield with blowing blizzard winds hiding the road completely.

In desperation, I started looking for new ways to inspire myself. New ways to get some energy pennies back on my plate (thanks, Becca). I was intrigued with her idea of “office hours,” where writers got together on Zoom for quiet sprints, with very regulated and limited convo times in between. But I was too shy to jump into an existing group of people who already were working together seamlessly.

It took some trial and error to figure out what could work for me. Ultimately, my beloved sister proved why she’s so beloved. She too was looking for a way to get back into writing. To sit every day with the words and find a way to complete something. Plus, bonus, we got to see and talk to each other! (Molly has health issues so we’ve not seen each other in over a year to keep her as safe as possible during the pandemic.)

Since Feb. 1st, Molly and I have met via Zoom for “office hours” daily. Some days we talk a lot and only write a little – but we write EVERY DAY. We’re evolving too so that we can write 2-4 sprints in a session, and still talk in between. It’s casual and fun – not regimented. It’s a REWARD to zoom in and get some words, rather than a chore. She’s about twice as fast as me, so I’m hoping that she’ll inspire me to slowly inch my word counts up, but she’s already written around 40K (she actually stopped counting words so it may be much more) this month, and I’ve written 30K.

That’s a huge reason why I’ve already been able to finish two books this year. (Broke Down, though it was finished before Molly and I started zooming, and Queen Takes Sunfires2.)

I have another post on a different thing I’ve starting doing too – I’ll post that tomorrow.