2018 Writers’ League of Texas Conference

Earlier this month was the annual Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference in Austin, TX. Below is a picture of my badge as well as a nice little ribbon (which I will get to in the meat of this blogging remembrance)

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A little backstory first: I moved to Texas a couple of years ago when my lovely wife got a job offer she couldn’t turn down in the great city of Austin (seriously, it is a sweet ass city with lots to do, but good gracious, it is hot as sin down here, and being from Chicago, I was not prepared for this temperature change…). Anyway, I had started writing what would become a series called The Mistlands Tragedies many years ago (of which if you follow this blog, you’ve seen the many changes it has undergone), but it wasn’t until we moved to Texas that I really found the push I needed.

You see, up until I moved to Texas, I was a man alone with this writing thing, no fellow writers, no critique partners, no one but my brain and my fingers to work with. And then I found the WLT. Now the WLT is simply amazing for bringing writers together and creating that community. I won’t bore you with all the rah-rah-rah stuff or the bloody tears of joy (wait, what? jk!) but the best thing is, each year, the WLT has a conference where honest-to-goodness professional book industry peeps show up and listen to us writers ramble about their stories!!!

I went last year and, as my first ever writers’ conference experience, I would say it was a smashing success. I gained experience and knowledge I never would have on my own. I met a great writing friend, Amanda, and just had a great time overall.

This year, while still great, was a different experience for me, and most of that comes down to where I am as a writer this year as opposed to last.

First, the ribbon at the bottom of my badge. So each year, the WLT has a manuscript contest. You submit the first ten pages of your MS and a synopsis. Then the WLT has panels of judges based on the category you submit to (mine was Science Fiction/Fantasy, obvi). Then these judges will read each submission and then come up with a list of finalists and a winner. Then we all get recognized at the conference for our awesome work!

So I’ll be frank: I wasn’t expecting anything from the contest. Last year I submitted and obviously didn’t get anything. This year, I was in the midst of drastic rewrites/editing of what is now the first book in the Tragedies. I was still working through things, but my overall plot was plotted, the characters characterized and vibe the vibing (I don’t think that’s how it is spelled, but I’m going with it). I submitted the first ten pages, which I had polished so many times it shone like newly shined black Sunday Church shoes, and the synopsis like a good little follower of rules. And then sent it off to the Gods. Little did I expect I would be named a finalist. I mean, as a writer who has been rejected (rightly so) by many agents in the query trenches, this was like the world had opened anew for me. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes into this Valhalla of bliss. I couldn’t have been more happy or motivated to keep on writing.

But here is the thing, with growth as a writer, you tend to level up (I mean that is the nature of the world) and that also pertained to the WLT conference.

Last year, I learned a ton from the panels offered by the conference, this year, very little. I’m not here to say the panels this year were worthless, but more to say that I am past the 101 class level of the book industry, past the very basic overview of things, past the cursory ideas tossed out there. I’ve been querying for ages now. I know how to structure a query letter or synopsis (not saying I’m great at either, but I know what needs to go in them). I know the basics of what happens with an agent, with an editor, with a publisher. I’ve either been to those panels before, or have done extensive research on my own.

The panels this year were very similar (if not the exact same in some cases) to the ones last year. And for newbie writers, those things are great. But for me, I needed more detail, more in depth discussions on craft and business. I needed more knowledge from the agents/editors, and unfortunately, I didn’t get that very much this year. I’m at that point where I feel my story is so nearly polished (per my critique partners) that I’m nearing the point of no return with agents. If I do the query right, I should be getting some hits. So I need some 400 level courses and panels about the industry AFTER the query process. And the conference didn’t have those available (minus a good portion of the book contract panel, which was quite eye-opening).

One thing I also want to touch on is the agent pitch. I talked about the pitching in my post about the DFWCon I went to last month, and, at the WLT conference, I also had a pitch session. I had a glowing response to my pitches at DFWCon and the WLT was not as glowing to very nearly the same exact pitch. But here is the thing, all the agents said to query them (which is the great thing, better to get requests from a conference than to try the slushpile), but getting to that point of them telling me to submit was markedely different between them all. Now, that is no knock toward the agents from either conference, but I do think it adequately sums up the industry: THIS STUFF IS SUBJECTIVE AS HELL!!!! Not every agent (and more importantly, readers) will be interested in the same stuff, even in their preferred genre! And that is perfectly acceptable. Yes, it’s weird when it happens in person (in that microcosm of the 10 minute pitch session where you are trying to sell your story to a very important person), as opposed to anonymous email queries, but it is a great learning experience nonetheless.

Even if the panels were a bit lower level than I would have liked, and my pitch session was not as strong as I would have wanted it to be, the conference on the whole was still a good experience. I got to spend time with others like me, introverts working on stories that are near and dear to their hearts (although, I seriously got tired of hearing people say they are writing memoir – but that is just not my particular brand of whiskey). I got to spend the entire weekend talking/plotting/idea generating/shooting the shit with my good buddy (and critique partner) Dewey.

And I think that is the most important thing to take away from conferences: it is all about the writing journey, and take those with you that are also on the same quest!

Meeting a Role Model

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Good God, yes that is me meeting the great Terry Brooks! (squuuuuuueeeeeeee)

Let me explain this total fanboy behavior. When I was twelve years old, my preteen brain was just getting into reading for enjoyment. My parents are huge readers (I mean like a book or two a week) and I’m a product of nurture. My middle school also had a program called Accelerated Reader where if you read books, you got points based on the reading level, and those points added up to buy useless toys and knick-knacks (you know, useless shit that kids want – Pogs were big back then and we could buy frickin’ Pogs!!!), not to mention we got pizza parties too from it! But for someone like me, addicted to books via the reading blood coursing through my veins, my reading level was much higher than someone of my age normally would be and this is where I was introduced to two authors that forever changed my life: Richard Adams’ Watership Down & Terry Brooks The Sword of Shannara.

I’ve always been drawn to science fiction and fantasy movies and tv shows (shit, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adorned everything in my room that wasn’t Ghostbusters…), so naturally I preferred this type of story. I hadn’t yet read Lord of the Rings (only read The Hobbit at that point), but I latched onto Shannara with the deathlike grip of the Skull Bearers. I devoured his books (he had just finished the Heritage of Shannara series and about to launch the impeccable Voyage of Jerle Shannara series) and this led me to find LotR and others as I aged into high school. His books were the launching pad of my love for fantasy stories.

But not only was Mr. Brooks responsible for my reading genre love, he also gave me the nudge of writing. I hate math, I won’t lie. I suck at math like there is no tomorrow. Hell, even though I’m good at science (and studied archaeology) and actually work in the scientific field, I really didn’t enjoy it like I did with English and Literature. I remember in my senior year English class, we had to write our own Canterbury Tale. I remember diving headlong into it with such gusto that I loved it.

So how does all this relate to Mr. Brooks you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. That Tale I wrote (mimicking the poetic style of the actual Tales) about a knight going on a journey to an unknown land (um hello Druid of Shannara and the Voyage series).

And then when I got to college, I began to craft the basis of what would become my Mistlands world. I began to write more than just a few words (thanks Anthro/Classics majors for making me write 30 page papers like it was life-sustaining…) all while trying to live to the magic Mr. Brooks instilled in me.

I have never gone to a book signing before, but when I heard Mr. Brooks was coming to Austin (at the amazing local Book People!) with his latest book dropping, I knew I had to go. I’ve literally read all his books multiple times and he is just a pure genius in this genre.

But the best part of the night (aside from him being wildly funny and divulging his upcoming plans in terms of his projects, not to mention reading a passage from a new Word & Void novel – more squuuuuueeeeee!) I actually got to spend a few minutes talking about writing with him! He genuinely seemed interested in listening to me ramble. He offered me some sage-like advice of keep going and work with writing partners. As well as mentioning that even though we might never make it, to always stay positive and enjoy what you write. And I think that’s the key. This year has got me excited for writing because I’m stoked where my story is, but in the end, I absolutely love this story, and that’s the biggest thing – love what you write! He even said he hoped to see me on a bookshelf one day!

Even though I’m just one of his millions of fans worldwide, he has inspired me from a young age to just enjoy the magic that is in literature!

DFWCon 2018

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On Saturday June 9th I went to the first writer’s conference of the summer – DFWCon in Dallas, TX with my good friend and fellow writer Dewey Conway. Now, as many writers might know, these sort of conferences do a wide range of things for would-be authors – panels by published writers/agents, classes on craft/business, as well as the opportunity to pitch a polished work to an actual agent. This was only my second ever writer’s con, but I’d say this one was a far different experience than my first, and dare I say it, a much better one.

Let’s start simple, this time I actually had a polished work (of which I’ll post future blogs on the many changes Summonborn has gone through in the last six months) that I was feeling positive about being good enough to actually pitch agents. Pitching agents is not an easy task for a fairly introverted person like myself, you know it means talking to another person about something near and dear to your heart. This damned story (ripped tenderly via blood magic from a greater trilogy as a lead-in novel) has gone through so much change, that somewhere along the various rewrites, I realized I had something worth sharing. Now, pitching that same story, regardless of my confidence levels going in, was nothing short of mental pants shitting. I think I did good of keeping it all internal, but it was still nerves going up and down the spine.

But here’s the thing I also learned over many rejections during querying, agents are just looking for the next good story, and they want to listen to your pitch. And if you have a good one, they will be interested. Not so hard.

Luckily, I had an excellent pitch prepared, it was so awesome that when I sat down to pitch, I literally didn’t use it at all… yet somehow I was able to stumble through and form cohesive thoughts long enough to passably get my story across to this lovely agent. And will you believe it, she was interested and wanted me to submit to her. Well Savior’s cock (my main character’s favorite swear word and now in my own lexicon) I knew I had a good story, I just had to make sure I would get it across, and apparently I did. So, that, my dear friends, is a huge win in my book.

It was such a big win for me that I barely cared about the panels/classes. Yeah I went to some, but I really don’t remember a whole lot from them. Cloud Nine is a real feeling I had not been to in a long time. I even decided to try my hand at pitching another agent. It went just as well since she told me to query her agency.

That’s two wins in my book.

And then, to top it off, Dewey pitched his wonderful story and got a full manuscript request! I felt like a proud papa bear because I’ve spent a ton of time with his story as a critique partner, helping him (and vice versa). It felt like I also got  another full request.

Met some other cool writers and heard their pitches. Went to those panels. And then the keynote speak, Mr. Scott Westerfeld, gave an awesome lunchtime speech on Young Adult, teenagers, and art. I really didn’t understand how he was going to tie it all together, but damn was he great. Funny and smart. Oh, and I had some super rich double chocolate cake (which I never eat sweets, but hot damn that was good!)

All in all, it was a great way to kick off the summer! Nothing beats a good roadtrip talking about books. And that is the kicker, for an introverted writer, talking about books IS the easiest way to crack open that shell, I just had to find that first crack.

2017 in Review

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With 2017 ready to bow out and 2018 coming to invade, I think I can honestly say that this past year was a good one.

Personally, and I’ll keep it short since this blog is mostly about my hobbies, was pretty good. The wife and I bought a big dumb house (hooray mortgage) that we pretty much redid (painting really blows). The big dog ended up having heartworms, so yeah, that was fun. While the little one had to get gnarly teeth pulled. Other than spending a metric shit ton of money this year, all in all, it went swimmingly. Oh, and I added to my anime-inspired tattoo sleeve – added Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke to my Cowboy Bebop. Next up: Neon Genesis Evangelion.

I’ll leave my writing for the last since that’ll be the longest. In terms of my other hobbies I tend to blog about – I’ve seen/read some badass things this year. From movies to TV shows to books, I can say with aplomb this year was excellent. Now I know that I should have done some more blogs this year about all of the things aforementioned, but sometimes I didn’t want to spoil things (aka The Last Jedi, Stranger Things 2). So I might do a post about them this coming year.

I have a new favorite show: The 100. I seriously don’t know how I missed it until this year, probably the whole YA/CW stigma. But damn, this show is amazing and gets better with each season. One of my other favorite shows, Halt and Catch Fire, ended this year and I am super sadface. I will say that this season was stunning and one character’s death was probably the most well done TV death I have ever seen. Just beautiful. Emotional.

I’d have to say IT was probably the single best movie I saw all year. It (pun intended) was just perfect. It had everything – tension, drama, scares, humor, teenage angst. I just flat out loved it from start to finish. I’ll stand by it, but I loved The Last Jedi (come fight me bro). TLJ really flipped the Star Wars world on its collective head and I loved every minute of it. OK not every minute because that one scene with that one character (we all know what I’m talking about) was very cheesy. And I don’t care if people hate it, I loved it. It’s no Empire, but definitely up there with the best of them. Some of my other top films seen this year were VVitch, Thor: Ragnarok, and Blade Runner 2049.

This year, my goal was to read 30 books. While I didn’t reach that goal, I did finish with a respectable 27.5 (still reading that other half but won’t finish prior to year end). A few of those books were rereads (Elantris, Watership Down, Voyage of Jerle Shannara) but most were brand new. Majority of them were fantasy, but I did dip my toe into YA this year (more on that later). A couple of them are beta reads for critique partners, but I’m counting those because they are full manuscripts. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t been published because someone took the great effort to write them (both were excellent btw). I’d say Blood Song and Nevernight were the top two new books read this year. I will admit, I had to put down three others due to first person POV, I just have such a hard time with 1st person. So hard.

Now to the meat of this year end review – my own writing.

2017 was illuminating for a multitude of reasons. I know I don’t know shit, but I feel like this year really helped clean the muck off so to speak. At the tail end of 2016, I worked with an agent/editor on my passion project. After he lovingly tore it apart, I truly came to understand what the story needed to become – albeit to a point. I spent years writing this thing and in one fell swoop, I learned my story was trite and boring. Overdone. It was disheartening to hear it. But ever the optimist (hey I’m a Chicago Cubs fan so back off) I set my mind to fixing this story of Brynn and Hunter, vengeance v. duty of faith. Long story short, I thought I fixed this story. But I was wrong.

Something just didn’t feel right about it. I changed many things: the setting, the religion, the magic system, points of view. But it still didn’t feel complete. And then I went to my first writer’s conference. Though I grew up in the shadow of Chicago, there really wasn’t a huge writing fellowship, a group of fellow writers. Twitter has really helped grow my world in that manner, but the big thing was moving to Texas. The Writers League of Texas is amazing. I won’t stroke the ego anymore than this, but joining the WLT has been a boon. And their annual conference really helped a ton. I met some great writer friends and had some interesting ideas pop into my head.

You know how they always say you should listen to your wife, well in this case, I should have. Even though she hasn’t read much of my writing (waiting until I’m satisfied with the story) she has always said my style is very YA. So after hearing this and talking about my story at the conference, I came to the revelation it should be YA. I did the edits, toned things down, de-aged the characters, all the fun YA stuff. The story really did pop more. But, I still wasn’t comfortable with it.

I know YA is trending toward more adult themes like sex and violence, but even with toning the story down, it didn’t feel right. I have a creepy sick villain and he had to be taken out in the YA version. That didn’t sit well with me. My main character, Brynn, likes to swear (same with a sky pirate). I didn’t want to lose all of that. But I tried. So I ended up taking the darker parts/characters/plots out and went to put that into a separate book. Nearly finished with that book. But always in the back of my noggin was the original plan for my trilogy. I couldn’t shake it.

And then came the true enlightenment. And it came while playing Final Fantasy IX (of all things).

If you’ve never had the pleasure of playing that game, I highly suggest it. The reason that game inspired me was the whole package it contains – humor, tragedy, tension, rage, friendship, love, idea of self, fast pacing, darkness. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is my story contains all of that. Yes, I tend to write more YA, but the story has to have that darkness to it, that grimness. It has to be dense, fully fleshed out, the world-building has to be adult level. But that doesn’t mean my YA writing can’t fit into that mold. They can co-exist. And then I remembered something that agent/editor said to me – I can write different characters or scenes using different genres. For example, my main characters of Brynn and Hunter can stay more YA style. It fits them. It always has. Minus the swearing by Brynn. My soldier character is definitely grimdark. He sees so much violence, commits violence and has a bleak outlook on life, wavering confidence in his honor. My villain was written to be more like a horror character, especially because he deals with the supernatural. Top it off, I changed the setting again, took the premise of my magic system from a separate WIP, changed some POVs, took out a YA character and gave her a complete separate story. Now I think I’m finally satisfied on where the story sits.

To put all that into perspective, none of this would have come about if I didn’t open myself up to other writers. I have 4 excellent CPs. One (Amanda) I met at the conference, and the other 3 (Claire, Lana, Dewey) via Twitter. What has really helped me the most is by reading their stories. Amanda writes YA fantasy about mermaids and Atlantis. Lana about Slavic mythology and witches (in YA first person no less). Dewey writes Middle Grade adventure/fantasy. And Claire does YA fantasy/sci-fi. Out of all four of them, Claire’s stories are the ones I would veer toward normally. And that is the beauty of having CPs. I’m getting a chance to broaden my horizons, read different types of stories and viewing them in a different mindset than just plan ole reading them. Working with CPs gives the opportunity to read someone else’s story, but also provide constructive feedback, in addition to receiving it. Seeing these other genres/stories has opened my eyes to what my own story is missing. The ideas just won’t stop. I even bring a critical eye to published authors works, see what they did, how it works. It has been amazing to have this transformation and it has really set me up for success that I didn’t have in the past.

Also, even if they don’t read this, I really just wanted to give a massive shout-out to Amanda, Claire, Lana, and Dewey! Thank you all!

Even though my goal for 2017 was to get on the path to publication, I think I can say I achieved it. Sure I haven’t scored an agent, but damn, they would’ve had a shitty story. I know that what I learned this year has set me up for success this coming year. My goal for 2018 is to land that agent. Without all the growth this year, I know it never would have happened.

Bring on 2018!

Writing Thoughts: On Creator’s Block…

So, where do I stand with my writing? That is a tricky question to say the least. And I’m not sure where I want to start (literally and figuratively)

I say this because my head is being torn in three (maybe even four places).

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After I went to the writer’s conference a few weeks ago, I was deadset on changing my passion project trilogy to Young Adult. Young Adult is hot right now and my writing of my main character tended to fit that mold well. So, I jumped in and edited it to YA. It wasn’t all that difficult to do.

However, that edit caused me grief. I had to cut points of view characters that I truly loved. The story was about one character with five other main POV in book one alone. I had to cut 3 of those POV and one of them hurt my soul. I have always loved dark, anti-heroes and this one character was a sick bastard that was fun to write, but he didn’t fit my new audience (he was super creepy and sick, so not so good for teenagers!)

But that also meant three other characters in later books that I loved, one of them being a totally not reliable sky pirate. This character was so ridiculous, vain and swear-happy that I was totally bummed to have to cut. Add in two others that were so different as well, and I had the makings of a separate work.

And throw in working with a critique partner on my just finished completely separate novel and the very early stages of plotting the next one.

And that is where I am in my scatterbrained world…

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I really don’t know which to focus on. Changing to YA isn’t going to take me that long, but it isn’t going to take all that much to tie together my cut characters into a new story, just a few changes and few chapters to tie it all up. But which to do first?

I have a couple of critique partners and one is super hyped about the sky pirate work, but she is also working on my YA story (while I work on hers) and I don’t want to overwhelm her.

I guess my problem is that I think both books would work well separately. The YA book is obviously toward YA audience and the sky pirate toward adult. But the YA is, like I said, my passion project for years. However, I think the sky pirate one will pick up easily enough since its arc is interesting and the main POV is so enjoyable. I also obviously want all my books to ultimately succeed, I just need to find a way to make them all soar.

Which is why my head is near exploding with how to organize it all, good thing I do project management professionally…

The Writing Process: Querying & Rejection

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Since this subject is of recent interest to me, I wanted to dive deeper into what I think is the most difficult part of the publishing industry – Querying.

So the manuscript is done – at least as far as you can take it – and you want to move onto the next step, which is finding an agent or publisher. The next step is to write a query. The dreaded query letter is something that I don’t enjoy, or enjoy doing.

But let me step back a for a few here. Using my own experiences (limited as they are) a writer who is ready to query is only ready when the story is done. But that isn’t always true. You see, when you finish the story, you probably have to go back and re-edit the crap out of it. Most completed stories are nothing but a first draft. It needs polish, it needs substance. So it is important to remember that the time for querying is when the story is as good as you can make it.

The story is done, what next? Well this is where the suck comes in, it is time to research for agents. This isn’t all that difficult if you follow websites such as Writer’s Digest or QueryTracker. These sites give all sorts of good advice for searching for agents. No that isn’t the fun part, the fun part is actually going to the agent sites and seeing what they are looking for. And this is tedious if you are writing in a specific genre. It takes a ton of time to find a list of agents.

Yet, that isn’t the true suck – which is the art of writing the query itself. A query is the one page pitch to an agent discussing your work. You are so suped up by your work you can’t wait to tell everyone in the world about it, but then you have to sit down and write it out into three or four paragraphs without spoiling everything. What in the name of everything good is that? It is so hard to boil down a story, especially when you have so much to share with it. The same goes with the damn synopsis page.

All that said, it does take time and it can suck to do. But when your are done, you feel great. You feel enthusiastic, you feel excited that you are finally going to get that agent. It is a strange catharsis you feel when you press that send button. All that hard work, all that effort.

It all hinges on that SEND button.

Then reality comes to bite you in the backside. This industry is so subjective that 99 out of 100 agents are going to reject your story. Hell, those numbers are probably too low as it is. You get that gut-punch email in your inbox saying the agent is not the right one for it. And you feel nothing but pain, anger and devastation. You start to hate your writing, you want to burn everything around you, feel so defeated that you want to give it up and stop writing. Become something else.

But then the emotions all fade and you realize what the Hell were you thinking. It will happen some day, just gotta keep up with the process and move on. This rejection is the form of feedback you need to make your story better. To strengthen those first pages, to fix the voice of the story, alter the audience group. Makes you realize you still have work to do.

In the end, you will have that better story, but you will have to query all over again…

This is why the hardest part of becoming a published author is the Query Letter. Everything balances atop it like a trapeze artist, danger on all sides, but if you make it to the end, the audience will applaud like mad. The key is to remember that not every person has the makeup to be a trapeze artist, or the wherewithal to write a completed book.

A Conference RE-cap

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This past weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the 2017 Writer’s League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference held in Austin, TX. Let’s just say up front that my first writer’s conference was something – completely lacking a good set of words to describe it.

I went into the weekend not exactly knowing what to expect. And my expectations turned out to be true, both good and bad. Let me be frank, I didn’t think there wasn’t anything bad about the conference, but there were things that didn’t work for me.

The first day was all about focusing on our pitch. For those not in the writing world, a pitch is a way to describe our story to agents & editors. Humans do it everyday, we talk to friends about shows we watched, movies we saw, stories we read, food we ate. All of those are pitches. The basics are simple, or so we should think…

But pitching is not easy when you want someone to truly like your story enough to get it to a publisher. The first day was all about working on those pitches with members of the writing community and “experts.” I will say this, and this rings true about the industry as a whole, the advice given in these sessions are too broad and don’t work for everyone. For example, I chose to pitch my standalone story that I just finished as opposed to my trilogy. Why, I don’t really know, but it was the choice I made. And because I write in fantasy, these “experts” told us to build the setting into our pitches. Well that was counter to what I planned. So on day 2 when I had a one-on-one consultation with an agent, I took their advice. Well that backfired. The agent told me I should have led with the characters first. LIKE I ORIGINALLY PLANNED………

After being annoyed and let down that morning, the rest of the weekend went great. Saturday and Sunday were full of panels and short courses. Some of the panels had writers & agents discussing subjects. Personally, I felt these were not as strong as the short course classes. Those classes I actually learned something useful as opposed to how someone else got their dues.

Let me ask a question. How do you make hundreds of introverts even more uncomfortable? You have a mixer.

I jest with that, but it does have some truth to it. Most writers, I have found along my journey, tend to be a bit more introverted than extroverted. We live in our own worlds most of the time and aren’t always socially acceptable. So I thought it funny at this mixer because you can see all the wallflowers looking lost like the nerds at prom that don’t have dates.

I’d say the most important thing that happened this weekend was meeting a few fellow writers that I connected with. I even found a critique friend that is locale writing in the same genre as me. I think that makes the weekend a success overall.

Now that I have one of these in the bag, I have my work cut out for me if I want my stories to get published. This next coming year is going to be fun.