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The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson

Many novelists enjoy writing about writing and writers. I can think of a few novels where the main character is a writer. I guess its what they know about. However the main character in The Crime Writer is not Jill Dawson, but Patricia Highsmith.

So why write a novel about a real writer? Well, it allows Jill Dawson to do what she does so well, write fiction about real characters and events, eg Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover (2009) and the mystery of the Penge murder in the 1920s in Fred and Edie (2000). Her subject matter allows her to mix fiction and fact in a way that the reader cannot quite penetrate. Writing fiction about a writer allows her to explore the processes of writing and challenge us as readers. And it’s fiction so the author’s imagination is not bound by inconvenient truth.

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Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith wrote 22 novels, mostly psychological thrillers, and eight volumes of short stories. She was the originator of the stories behind such movies as Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr Ripley and, most recently, Carol. This last was published as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

Her publisher described her as ‘mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving’, according to Wikipedia. These characteristics are evident in the main character in The Crime Writer.

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

Patricia Highsmith in 1962

The story

It’s the 1960s and Patricia Highsmith has come to a Suffolk village from Paris to escape a stalker, and to work on her novel and a book about writing thrillers. She is interested in what happens in the mind of someone who commits murder. This is what Jill Dawson examines in the novel.

Pat is distracted, first by a journalist, Ginny Smythson-Balby, and then by anticipating the arrival of her married lover, Sam. From time to time her reputation as a writer must be acknowledged. Ginny persuades her to do a radio interview with the cold and calculating Frances. She is awarded a Gold Dagger and must attend the award ceremony.

She mostly wants to be on her own, or with Sam. On her own she writes, draws, paints, and indulges her interest in snails. She also likes woodwork and keeps her tools to hand. One visitor she does welcome is the rather effete but steady Ronnie. He is a version of Ronald Blythe, who wrote Akenfield, portrait of an English village (1969), based on conversations he had with local people.

Patricia Highsmith has her demons. She is revisited by recollections of an unhappy and neglected childhood, and believes that she has been receiving letters from a stalker who may be her stepfather. She lives in fear of being discovered as a lesbian. She is alarmed to find that her stalker knows that she now lives in the village. She drinks and smokes excessively, and suffers something of a breakdown when Sam will no longer continue their affair.

These demons all come together in the climax, the crime at the novel’s centre is committed and hidden, the stalker is revealed, Pat drinks herself into a stupor, and her mother arrives. There is so much mess for Pat to clear up.

The story unsettled me, unnerved me. Perhaps things are not as they seem. Perhaps I just have an overactive imagination, living in a village as I do.

The writing

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

Jill Dawson by Timothy Allen

The writing deliberately unsettles the reader, I believe. Some of the text is narrated in the first person, the moments of high tension in particular. Other parts are in a more distant third person, but always from Patricia Highsmith‘s point of view.

The isolation and starkness of Suffolk, and especially of the shore at Aldeburgh at night is beautifully written.

Writing fiction in The Crime Writer

I have tried to be very careful in this review, to allow the fictional Patricia Highsmith to exist within the novel and not permit anything I read about her to intrude. And not to assume either that Jill Dawson is trying to speak through her fictional Patricia Highsmith.

There are some interesting discussions about writing fiction in this novel. Here Patricia Highsmith is rejecting the label ‘crime writer’, in a passage that also foreshadows the events of the novel.

She’d had to explain, for possibly the hundredth time in her career, that she didn’t write crime novels; she wasn’t a crime writer. The damn fool girl [Ginny] had protested by naming some of her best-known novels, as if Pat didn’t know her own work, to which she had patiently explained: ‘Would you call Dostoevsky a crime writer for writing Crime and Punishment? Edgar Allen Poe? Theodore Dreiser? I don’t happen to care for the label “crime writer”. There is not much detection in my novels. There’s rarely any police involvement at all . . .‘ (3)

She prefers to describe her work as suspense, ‘that is, stories where there is felt to be a threat of imminent danger’. (9)

And she is also adamant about the notion of messages in novels. Again she confronts Ginny:

‘Message? Holy crap, not really?’

Her bottom lip comes out then, a little stubbornly.

‘There clearly are messages in your work. You know, the ordinariness of evil lurking in domestic settings, the doppelganger theme, the bad guy and the good guy who change places, who are the same person. And there’s the murderer celebrated as ultimate rebel, an amoral or subversive hero, the forces of law and order as toothless against evil, the victim as repulsive or contemptible, or silly in some way and deserving of death …’

‘I wonder why reviewers and critics always put it like that? As if I’m writing in another language that they need to translate? Why should I go to the trouble to make up characters, plots and settings and all that? You talk as if a story is just a bottle to hide a message in. Ornamental words to hide a rational thought, which no doubt you think is the true thought.’ (134)

Again this works on different ways, as a provocation to those who speak of messages, as a description of the plot and suspense in the novel, and as a challenge to readers of fiction.

Some people will read it as a suspense novel, and I think they will find it works well. But the title, subject matter and the plot all require the reader to consider the art and skill of writing a novel.

The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2016. 242 pp

Over to you

I have been unable to find any reviews of this book on-line that add to my understanding or appreciation. Any thoughts?

 

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A little rant about … writers’ work-life balance

Work-life balance is claimed to be essential for a good life, in the well-being movement. I reject the idea, for writers at any rate. In fact it annoys me so much that I am writing another in my occasional series of little rants. I reject the idea that balance is necessarily a good thing, in diet, expressing a view and in relation to life or work. This is why.

Separating work and life

The idea of balance, like a seesaw, or the scales of justice seems to be good like mother and apple pie. But balance implies that two things are separate and in opposition. This is clearly illogical: my life includes work; I can’t have work outside of my life.

Seesaw: 1860s Jongensspelen (Dutch) via WikiCommons

Seesaw: 1860s Jongensspelen (Dutch) via WikiCommons

Okay, so life, in the context of balance, means some kind of different thing from work – enjoyment, socialising, family, hobbies, interests, sleep, chores. But for many, many people the separation is not possible. Many people need to work long and exhausting hours to support themselves and their families. (I might do a rant about Cameron’s favourite phrase hard-working families if May resurrects it). Women in particular work both outside and inside the home, doing more of the housework and domestic chores. Life in the sense of not-work means so little to people who struggle to survive economically.

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Not only women, of course. It’s one of the most moving themes of Sunjeev Sahota’s Man Booker shortlisted novel The Year of the Runaways. Our eyes are opened to the sheer amount of work that the young men from India had to undertake in order to pay off the debts incurred in their project of coming to Britain. Frequently their families were in danger if they failed to make the repayments. Frequently there was no work. Or they had to take two or even more jobs. Life for them was working long hours in poorly paid illegal jobs or chasing badly paid illegal jobs. It’s a recommended but hard read.

Is balance a good thing?

It may be that by balance we really mean a more complex concept, integration, a sense that different aspects of our lives have connection and relevance, come together in wholeness.

It is possible to argue that unbalance in our lives, or parts of our lives, is a good thing. I argue this in relation to learning and to writing. The idea of cognitive dissonance, as a necessary precursor for learning, is one I find attractive. Cognitive dissonance means having or encountering inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes and this forces a person into rethinking preconceived ideas or understandings. It’s not balance but tension that is the dynamic force here. Being unbalanced is a good thing in this context.

I have been heard to argue at times that the purpose of writing is to create unbalance, uncertainty, requestioning.

Writing and living

As a writer I use my experiences, that is my life, to inform my work. There is no division between my writing and my life. I draw on my childhood, my years of regular employment, my previous writing, and what I read, see, overhear, experience …

What others say

295-cover-3-marriagesI am a great fan of Maria Popova and her Brainpickings. In one post in March 2015, linked here, she picks over the idea of balance in life by drawing on a book by David Whyte, the English poet and philosopher. The book is called The Three Marriages: reimagining work, self and relationship. It’s one I intend to read. She takes ideas of balance to a deeper level than I have, and as always says wise things. Her blog is a gem of thoughtfulness.

Over to you

Can you see any value in the idea of work-life balance for a writer? How is it for you?

 

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Writer’s Treats

Treats for writers? What can they be and why do writers need treats? The answer is quite simple really. Writers spend so much time on their own, involved in their own worlds and preoccupations that they need to replenish their energies with enjoyment from time to time. When I am in need my solution is a writer’s treat. Let me explain.

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You have heard of Morning Pages, I am sure. Morning Pages were popularised by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. Many writers and other artists use Morning Pages to begin their day. It’s a form of free writing and is known to help people get the splurging over with, generate ideas, think through problems, record ideas and passing thoughts, and, for writers, it oils the pen for the day.

Less well known is the companion activity of the Artist Date. My version of this is the Writer’s Treat.

The Artist Date (aka Writer’s Treat)

Like Morning Pages the Artist Date is a ‘basic tool,’ of creativity, according to Julia Cameron – although she warns that you might think it is a nontool or a diversion, a distraction from the artistic endeavour. So what is it, this artist date?

An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers. You do not take anyone on this artist date but you, and your inner artist aka your creative child. That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children, – no taggers-on of any stripe. (18)

And the purpose and form of the date?

Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to. … A visit to a great junk store, a solo trip to the beach, an old movie, seen alone together, a visit to an aquarium or art gallery. (19)

More examples: a long country walk, a solitary expedition to the beach for a sunrise or sunset, a sortie out to a strange church to hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighbourhood to taste foreign sights and sounds.

Writing and the Artist Date

Like many people I have read The Artist’s Way, and continue with a form of Morning Pages. I have also adopted the Artist Date, but over the years I have left behind the rules and I call it Writer’s Treats.

The rules for Julia Cameron were

  • Set aside time
  • Set aside time every week
  • Plan
  • Keep it to yourself: no lovers etc.
  • Commit to the date

I don’t have any rules for my writer’s treats. I just do them.

I do them when I feel like it, and especially when my writing is getting a little cramped, rusty, wayward.

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I don’t always plan my treat. If something is bothering me I’ll change my shoes and set out on my favourite short walk, up through the woods on the local common, and out to a bench, where I can sit and look at Dartmoor and the weather. Sometimes I take my notebook. Sometimes my camera. Sometimes I just sits and thinks and …

Some treats I do plan, especially as I no longer live in easy reach of museums and art galleries. In London I could more easily go to a concert or the opera, or drop in on an exhibition, and just look at one picture or object. For example, I am always moved by the display in the British Museum of two people’s diet of tablets throughout their lives (see photo).

British Museum, tablet display

British Museum, tablet display

I am usually alone. Since my teenage years I have gone to the cinema, concerts, theatre, travelling abroad on my own. Not always, but often. A creative focus can do without social distractions, but I also enjoy social interactions like any one else.

Examples of Writer’s Treats

Treats can be small, like a coffee in a local café, with my notebook out and ears open. A short walk by the sea. They can be large, like a trip to Amsterdam, spending a whole day in the Rijksmuseum. Here’s a model that inspired a short story.

Rijksmuseum, March 2014

Rijksmuseum, March 2014

Nowadays they are often associated with visits to London, like the weekend during which I went to the Freedom From Torture Write to Life Group’s production of Lost and Found at the Roundhouse. I spent a morning at Cornelia Parker’s Found exhibition at The Foundling Museum. I used to sing in a community choir at the Foundling Museum, so I also enjoyed some nostalgia amongst the Hogarth paintings. And Georgia O’Keeffe’s show at the Tate Modern. And as I was away from home and on my own I was reading, reading, reading.

Gari Melchers Woman Reading by a Window 1895

Gari Melchers Woman Reading by a Window 1895

Concerts are always a treat, and this year the Dartington Summer School in August featured some talks as well: Jo Shapcott reading her poems, Alfred Brendel talking about Beethoven’s last three sonatas. I noted at the time that I was entranced by the combination of his accent, his intellectualism and how he used words to unpick music.

In September I had a treat with my grandson, a trip out of Plymouth Royal William Dock in a boat to demonstrate marine biology hydrophonic equipment on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning.

I have heard people call this feeding the soul, and they’ve got a point. It also, I reflect as I write, looks like the most enormous self-indulgence. Perhaps it is both. But it is about not getting rusty, enjoying the creativity of others, being exposed to new things. As a result of my treats I often see things in new ways, see and hear things I haven’t experienced before. I can react without worrying about my companions, or any task, such as writing a review. It rests my mind from struggles with writing.

The Artist’s Way: a spiritual path to higher creativity by Julia Cameron, published in the UK by Pan books: first published in 1993.

Related posts

I wrote about Morning Pages on this blog in April 2013 in a post called Do writers really need a routine?

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Walking in Four Novels

Writing and walking work together very well. I explored some connections for writers in a recent blogpost: Steps to Improve Your Writing. Here I explore four novels to consider how walking features in them.

Few characters walk in novels to get from A to B or for the good of their health. These aspects of walking do not contribute to interesting plots. Instead, some characters walk to escape, such as the woman in white, Rosaleen along the Green Road, or Harold Fry. Some characters need to walk to be connected to other people, the history in their surroundings, or their memories. Frequently by walking, characters assert their independence, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

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Who can forget the first meeting with the woman in white? The narrator has visited his mother in Hampstead and is returning on foot at night to London. He is, indeed, walking from A (Hampstead) to B (back to London). The stage is set: dark, isolated and already a bit weird.

I had now arrived at that particular point on my walk where four roads met – the road to Hampstead, along which I returned; the road to Finchley; the road to West End; and the road back to London. I had mechanically tuned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road – idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like – when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my young body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.

I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening around the handle of my stick.

There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her. (23-4)

It is dramatic and weird. Who would not read on to find out the mystery of the pointing Woman in white?

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, (1860), I used the Penguin Classic edition.

The Green Road by Anne Enright

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In the second novel, Rosaleen also takes a night walk. This walk shapes a dramatic scene, towards the end of the novel, as if it will lead to a reconciliation or final departure. It is late on Christmas Day, in west Ireland near the Flaggy Shore. Rosaleen, an older woman, leaves her disconnected family for a solitary walk she has taken many times along the Green Road. It is cold and dark and she is plagued first by the wind and then by reflections on her life.

She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer. (259)

Like many walkers, she responds to the elemental atmosphere.

Rosaleen spread her arms wide and flung her face up.

‘Hah!’ she said.

In the middle of nowhere, on Christmas Day, when no one was out, not one person was walking the roads.

‘Hah!’

Old women were not given to shouting. Rosaleen did not know if she still could, or if your voice went slack like the rest of you, when you got old.

‘Oh, don’t mind me!’ she said. She roared it. She stuck her fists down straight by her sides. ‘Don’t mind me!’ (260)

She is walking along the Green Road in response to her fractured family, the loss of her husband, her advancing years.

This is why Rosaleen had come up here, to this wild place. She had come to cleanse herself of forgetfulness and of fury. To shout it loud and leave it behind. To fling it away from herself. (265)

Rosaleen gets into trouble in the dark and the cold and her family must find her. It should lead to reconciliation. This novel is highly recommended, by the way, for many other qualities too.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015), published by Vintage and winner of several prizes including the Man Booker Prize. My full review can be read here.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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Elizabeth Bennet is a walker, energetic and undeterred by poor weather. Her walks are associated with key plot moments in Pride and Prejudice. She walks to Netherfield Park to take care of her sick sister, Jane. The reactions of those in residence reveal a great deal about each of them, as well as about Elizabeth. Mrs Hurst, Bingley’s sister, makes the following comment.

‘To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.’

‘It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing,’ said Bingley.

‘I am afraid, Mr Darcy,’ observed Miss Bingley, in half a whisper, ‘that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.’

‘Not at all,’ he replied; ‘they were brightened by the exercise.’ (82)

Elizabeth walks a great deal in the grounds of Rosings and here is met by Darcy the day following his disastrous proposal and he must give her a letter. She next meets Darcy accidentally when she is walking in the grounds of his great house, Pemberley. And finally Darcy and Elizabeth ‘get it together’ on another walk near her own home. As Willoughby says, in his cheerful way, ‘Mr Bennet, have you no more lanes in which Lizzy may lose her way again today?’ (383)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813. Edition used: Penguin English Library.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

279 Harold Fry

The fourth novel is structured by Harold Fry’s walk, He is an older man, retired, who has lost his energy, emotionally and physically. Harold receives a message to say that an old friend he lost touch with is dying. He sets off from his home in Kingsbridge, Devon to post a letter to her, but just keeps on walking, and after 87 days arrives in Berwick-upon-Tweed. He walks 624 miles and along the way, as is the case with pilgrimages, he meets other people and has adventures which help him understand his life and other people. He is reconciled with his wife and learns a great deal about himself including his own resilience.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce published by Black Swan in 2012.

Some other novels that feature walking

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, compared to her short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The Long Walk by Stephen King

Over to You …

Can you recommend other novels that feature walking?

 

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Getting feedback to improve our writing

Not all feedback helps to improve writing. Have you ever-experienced killer feedback? It’s the kind of feedback that makes you feel ashamed, humiliated and as if you wanted to put away the writing for ever. Everyone I know has received it at some stage. I remember the reviewer’s comment on an article I’d submitted to an academic journal. This was the sentence that did it: If the author aspires to an academic position they should learn how to reference. It was doubly killing as a) I was already a university lecturer and b) there was nothing wrong with the referencing. Nevertheless I abandoned the article on the spot.

Yet feedback can be very helpful. The three authors of The New Age of Ageing sought out readers to provide different types of feedback, and to learn from and improve our writing by taking their comments into account. Here are our reflections on our learning from this process.

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Marianne Coleman says

We have asked for and received feedback throughout the writing of the book: right at the start on the proposal; on individual chapters and on the full draft.

It was really important to get feedback on the proposal. The publisher asked us to suggest suitable people to read our initial proposal so that they got a view on the viability of the book. That feedback was positive and constructive, and we took it into account when finalising the proposal, which was the initial skeleton of the book.

Throughout the course of the writing we were getting feedback from each other. For me the best thing about having co-authors has been the process of shaping the individual chapters and the book through the wonderful discussions we had each time we met. We also gave feedback to each other on draft chapters and that was incredibly useful. Obviously this can only work when you trust each other and can be honest, open and respectful of each other’s work and feelings.

In a wide-ranging book like ours, we covered areas where we were not necessarily fully expert and it was vital that we checked our facts with people who were. Their invaluable feedback enabled us to have confidence in what we were saying, but we found that we had to use our judgment about how much of their advice and how many of their suggestions to incorporate. Sometimes the sophistication and detail of their arguments were too much for the general nature of the book and more suitable for a thorough exploration of their particular area of expertise. This meant that sometimes after incorporating expert suggestions, they were trimmed back for the final draft.

A particularly useful feedback came from one of our readers at the point where we had a nearly complete draft. She came back with some vital over-arching comments including that we had not really established the standpoint from which we were speaking. This feedback made us think hard and helped us sharpen our thoughts and message for the final version.

The most recent feedback came in the form of editor’s queries. Although these tended to be mainly about consistency of spelling, punctuation and missing references, sometimes the editor has picked up a badly expressed thought that can be refined and improved for meaning.

But that is not the final feedback. That will come from our readers!

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Eileen Carnell writes

What we know for sure is that feedback can help authors become much better writers. But asking for, writing and getting feedback can be a tricky business. The process can be emotional and needs to be done with care. Here are 7 important points about feedback.

  1. You have to trust the readers of your work.

You need to have a good relationship and be prepared for the experience to be reciprocal. You are asking people to be generous with their time and be encouraging while providing authentic critique. Providing effective feedback is a highly skilled process. It’s about providing information, not about giving advice.

  1. All information about your writing can be useful.

Information can vary from seemingly small technical suggestions to comments about the overarching themes, consistency of arguments, important missing elements and the value of the project.

  1. Information provided is for the writer to work with.

As one reader said: ‘… just things which would have made my own reading of it easier – for you to take or leave as you feel fit,’ indicating that he knew that the writers are decision makers, not passive recipients of the comments.

  1. It can be helpful to ask readers for specific information.

We were particularly keen to know whether the voices of the three different authors were knitted together across the book and were keen to know if male readers would feel included.

  1. Getting feedback can be an emotional process.

Constructive criticism from others may feel like a criticism of the person rather than a critique of the writing as Caroline suggests when talking about ‘killer’ feedback. This may be even more the case when writing fiction.

  1. It can be helpful to get feedback from people who don’t know much about the themes or who are not experienced writers themselves.

Non-experts may ask questions that indicate that further explanation is needed, whether the writing is clear and if the argument is consistent.

  1. There are different ways of relaying information about others’ writing.

Everyday use of the term feedback (the dominant view) suggests the reader presents information to the writer – a one-way process. We describe this feedback as Gifts (see note). In other situations the nature of feedback has a social dimension, rather like Ping-Pong, where ideas are tossed back and forth and involve making connections. There are shared insights and new meanings established. Feedback here is a two-way process. The third example, our favoured kind, is what we define as Loops. Here there is an equal power dynamic in which new knowledge and concepts are created through dialogue.

255 Fbk for L cover

Caroline adds

On a writing course once, I was reminded that you cannot stand alongside everything you write and explain to the reader what they have not understood. In fact it is rare to receive comments directly about your writing. So when you get the chance, listen to the comments, take them into account and learn from them. You don’t have to agree or act on all of it. I try to remember this.

We would like to thanks the readers of the whole book who took on a huge, time-consuming task. We are very grateful for their generosity and expertise. We are also indebted to the many readers of individual chapters who made really helpful observations. Even though there were three of us writing this book getting feedback breaks the isolation of writing and it is really good to get a range of different perspectives.

Note: Askew, S & Lodge, C (2000). Gifts, Ping-Pong and Loops – linking feedback and learning, in Askew, S. (Ed) Feedback for Learning. London: Routledge.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September.

Related posts

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing a book. Earlier posts have included

First Catch Your Publisher (April 2016)

One Book, Three Authors (March 2016)

Writers’ Residential (February 2016)

A post focussing on relationships in the feedback process is Critique Etiquette: the Ultimate Guide for Giving and Receiving Feedback by Angela Ackerman on Writers in the Storm blog in March 2015

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