Writing Gratitude Countdown (6): The Gift of a Professional Eye

A partially constructed ferris wheel against a blue sky with puffy white clouds.
Ferris Wheel In Progress. Dresden, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the sixth post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. As we gain more experience as writers, we learn to value different things.

Writing contests and pitching opportunities are adrenaline-driven chances to win the “Golden Ticket” of an agent or a publishing contract.

Friends, there are more writing adventures ahead!

A knowledgeable editor’s feedback can be life-changing in a completely different way. When you’ve been working on a project for a while and you just can’t get traction, there’s nothing better than skilled analysis delivered with tact. (Sometimes the tact isn’t absolutely necessary.)

I love reading books about the writing craft but it’s not always possible to see your own work clearly. Sometimes I’m feverishly fixing the subtext in a scene when the real problem is that I’ve mislaid my character motivations. That’s when I need a professional eye to help me out of the writing jungle.

That brings me to number six in my Writing Gratitude Countdown [sound the trumpets!]:

6. The Gift of a Professional Eye: the value of personalized expert advice.

Thank you to these generous editors who routinely offer prizes of the expert sort! Penniless writers everywhere call down blessings on you!

a) Kristine Asselin, a.k.a. the Query Godmother let me try out her query writing Mad-Libs-style template and critiqued my query. A fun way to get your query written!

She’s also the author of Any Way You Slice It, a YA novel with pizza, hockey, a determined heroine, and a cute boy. (Try it, you’ll like it.)

b. Ellen Brock, Professional Freelance Novel Editor has a series of videos on all aspects of novel-writing. She also gives away opening pages feedback during her Novel Boot Camp. The rest of the year, you can submit your first page and query for a critique.

c) Deborah Halverson gives away a free partial edit and a grand prize of a

Fully assembled ferris wheel against a blue sky.
Completed ferris wheel. Dresden, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

free full edit every year during Revision Week. (In 2016, Revision Week was in June.) At her website, DearEditor.com, she also answers writers’ questions year-round.


I won a partial edit and was blown away by her excellent, detailed, and entertaining feedback.

Thanks so much!


d) Sara Cypher, The Threepenny Editor gives away a free full edit every year in honor of the anniversary of her editing business. I didn’t win this prize, but she sent me a very encouraging e-mail. Maybe you’ll win this year’s: Enter by October 15, 2016.

I hope my editing contest experiences inspire you to take another step forward in your writing life.

Fully lit ferris wheel shining on a dark night. Reflections in the water.
Editors make your work shine. Ferris wheel at Dresden City Festival. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Thank you so much to these brilliant editors. You shined light in the darkness!

Kristine Asselin, Ellen Brock, Deborah Halverson, and Sara Cypher.

And that’s my sixth installment of gratitude for my writing journey.

(The earlier posts are: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, and 3. The Gift of Hospitality, and 4. The Gift of Feedback, 5. The Gift of a Deadline.) More to come!

Please share your stories of eagle eyes who’ve rescued your work from the deleted folder.

Happy Writing!


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Writing Gratitude Countdown (5): The Gift of a Deadline

lamp post with four feet and very knobby knees outside the Zwinger Museum in Dresden.
Need a leg to stand on? Try one of these contests to get a little more support for your writing. © Laurel Decher, 2016. Zwinger Museum, Dresden.

This is the fifth post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. I keep finding more things to appreciate about the writing life.

It’s sometimes easier to be gentler with other writers than with yourself. But being hard on yourself for too long dries up the words. Gratitude is a wonderful oasis from ambition.

Gratitude also seems to be a writerly re-set button. Remembering all the people who took time for me is humbling. Humility and gratitude make it easier to give myself time to grow as a writer.

(You can find earlier posts here: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, 3. The Gift of Hospitality, 4. The Gift of Feedback)

5. The Gift of a Deadline: the value of markers in the sand

Even after a manuscript has been re-written and polished, there are so many steps to work through before it can be sent out into the world. Gratitude helps my writing motivation and so does a solid deadline.

Fortunately for writers, the publishing community has a generous selection of contests that help great stories come to light. Here are a few of the ones that have helped me:

a. Get your pitch** ready. When I first heard about Twitter pitch contests, I didn’t get it. How could it help to describe your manuscript in 140 characters?

But Twitter pitches aren’t just a catchy sales technique to find an agent or editor. Writing a Twitter pitch for #PitMad helped me identify my story’s core.

**Read all about pitches and find dates for upcoming contests at The Winged Pen.

Thanks to Authoress for organizing all the moving parts of so many pitch contests! I’m very grateful for the deadlines! Check out all of her contests here.

b. Get your query ready.

Michelle Hauck offers several contests that require a query letter: Query Kombat, Nightmare on Query Street, Sun versus Snow, Picture Book Party, and New Agent. I got great feedback in the New Agent contest.

Thanks Michelle Hauck for organizing these great opportunities!

Thanks Wade Albert White for your excellent feedback on my query and first 250 words and a even a synopsis! (Talk about over and above!) His middle grade book is available for pre-order on Amazon: THE ADVENTURER’S GUIDE TO SUCCESSFUL ESCAPES. You can add it to your GoodReads list here.

c. Get your first page(s) ready.

  • Secret Agent Contest Submit the first 250 words of a completed manuscript. Monthly except June and December. While you’re at Authoress’s website, Miss Snark’s First Victim, check out her other contests.

The other contestants weigh in on the entries, so you’ll get lots of feedback even if the Secret Agent doesn’t comment on yours. And the feedback I got from superagent Linda Epstein made me say: “Oh, that’s what they mean by tension!” Invaluable.

Thanks again, Authoress!

Thanks Secret Agent Linda Epstein!

Kathy Temean’s contest lets you submit 250 words to a different agent each month. If your entry is chosen, you get specific agent feedback on your page.

Thanks Kathy Temean for organizing this monthly contest and for interviewing new agents every month! Sign up for her excellent newsletter here.

Thanks to YA author and literary agent, Marie Lamba, for her insightful feedback!

d. Get a once-over for you first 50 pages. Or your whole manuscript.

Believe it–writers are generous people. #PitchWars is a contest where over 100 authors volunteer to read submitted manuscripts and fight over the privilege of working with their favorite over the next three months. For a taste of what these generous writers are like, check out my fellow Winged Pen mentors here.

Some mentors even offer feedback to manuscripts they didn’t take on. I really appreciated hints I got back from my almost-mentors that my story was starting too late. It’s easy to write a few more chapters for the beginning once you have feedback like that.

Thanks for organizing this amazing event every year Brenda Drake! I don’t know how you do what you do. You’re always thinking up new ways to fish writers work out of obscurity.

Add these books published by #pitchwars authors to your reading list.

If, like me, you didn’t get into PitchWars or you missed the deadlines for these contests, there’s no need to despair. There’s more generosity going on all the time. I’ve seen a number of charity auctions offering great writerly prizes to raise money for colleagues, help refugees, or to celebrate a writing anniversary.

For example, here’s one that was organized by middle grade author, Shannon Hale. Auctions are often announced on Twitter.

I was fortunate to win a 50-page critique from Jackson Eflin in honor of Ava Jae’s Blogoversary.

Thanks Ava Jae!

Thanks Jackson!

This post is getting too long again now, so I have to stop. But there are always more opportunities to help and be helped as a writer. If the contests above aren’t quite the kind of deadline you’re looking for, the Sub it Club does a contest round-up every month.

Feel free to mention your favorite writing contest below in the comments. I’d love to hear about your experiences of generosity.

Happy writing! Happy submitting!

So that’s my fifth installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (The earlier posts are: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, and 3. The Gift of Hospitality, and 4. The Gift of Feedback.) More to come!

If you’d like to share about people who helped you see your own work clearly, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear about it!


If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.





Writing Gratitude Countdown (4): The Gift of Feedback

Worker in orange vest squeegees windshield of ICE train in Dresden Train Station.
Who helps you see your work clearly? © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the fourth post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. It’s a series about people who’ve helped me on my writing journey so far. I’m taking a moment to say a heartfelt thank you!

(You can find earlier posts here: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, 3. The Gift of Hospitality.)

4. The Gift of Feedback: the value of clear sight

a. How critique works: The earliest critique group I can remember was in high school, in my Creative Writing class. I think my beloved and brilliant writer friend Zina got me to sign up. Mrs. Chloe Vroman and her Creative Writing class at Provo High School. This is where I learned that it’s easier to see inside someone else’s story than inside your own. And that the right critique can open up the story for the writer. I wish I’d said thank you before it was too late! 🙁

b. How a group works: Smart and funny Colin Ryan led me to my first critique group in Vermont, led by lovely, hospitable Margie Sims. As well as sharing her writing expertise, she modelled simple organization, communication, snacks, structure. Later, the group became a collaboration between me and the industrious and highly capable JoAnn Carter. All of them taught me how to make a safe space for writers.

c. How writers can sabotage their own success and how critique partners (CP’s) can save them: At the Ockenga Writers Publishing Workshop, I found another group of thoughtful, generous readers. (I wrote more about the Workshop here. My dear friend Eileen first invited me there and it changed my life.) My patient CP’s put up with my unconscious but annoying thrashing* until I finally learned to stop it.

We encouraged each other to keep on going and believe in each others’ work. A vote of confidence is so valuable! Thanks a million million Girard and Jeanne Doyon and Lisa Morrison!

*thrashing–the neverending revision of a single piece of work, generally prompted by waiting for someone else to tell you what your story should be about.

d. How critique groups raise the bar: I’ve written about how I became a part of The Winged Pen here. This group of power writers is the epitome of “set your sights high.”

I call this the calculus factor after the feeling I had when the girl next to me in calculus class asked questions until she understood everything on the chalkboard. It opened my eyes: “Oh, we’re actually supposed to know this so we can use it.”

Gratitude is an interesting lens. The more I look through it, the more I see how I’ve been helped. When writing is a wall that blocks the way forward, it’s useful to remember what kinds of help are possible.

Another unexpected benefit: it’s fun to reconnect to people I’ve lost track of. I’m enjoying the successes of my long-lost friends and mentors! Well done, all of you! It’s an honor to know you.

Happy writing!

So that’s my fourth installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (The earlier posts are: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, and 3. The Gift of Hospitality.) More to come!

If you’d like to share about people who helped you see your own work clearly, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear about it!


If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.




Writing Gratitude Countdown: (3) People who Rocked my Worlds

Is this enough cake for all the people who’ve already helped my writing along? Café Profittlich in Rhöndorf, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the third post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. I’m noticing that gratitude is like a pair of sunglasses. My writing journey takes on a whole color.

(You can find the earlier posts here: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission.)

3. The Gift of Hospitality: the value of an invitation into another world

A surprising thing about writing fiction is how much information you need to do it. Send a character to film school and you’ll have to go there yourself. Set a novel in the Middle Ages and spend an afternoon figuring out how to get your characters dressed and out of the room.

Your job as a writer is to find a way to inhabit an unfamiliar world so your imagination can fill in the gaps. This is what I’ve learned about working with hosts of unfamiliar worlds:

  • Someone knows all about your story world, no matter how obscure you think it is. You have to find them. My husband is a curator at a natural history museum so I know that research collections exist to be used.

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, has a collection of 1,000 year old manuscripts. Feeling like an imposter, I called up the very distinguished Dr. Martina Bagnoli listed on their website, and shyly described my middle grade manuscript. She graciously listened to me and gave me permission to visit the collection.

At my appointment, the classically-trained Dr. Kathryn Gerry showed me spectacular 1000-year-old manuscripts from all over the Mediterranean. She also generously answered my questions about all the ways manuscripts could be wounded. See their beautiful work in The Medieval World: The Walters Art Museum by Martina Bagnoli and Kathryn Gerry.

  • Take courage. Throw yourself (politely, of course) on their mercy.
    For my first novel-length manuscript, a professor at the film department of Burlington College gave me an insider tour of the facilities and answered my hundreds of questions.

I went to an open house for prospective students and the organizer gave me the professor’s name. He told me his roommate was a novelist and gave me an inside view of a film student’s world. A wonderful example of paying it forward. To my shame (!), I can’t find where I wrote down his name, but I won’t forget his hospitality or the way the tiny room full of colorful film-editing keyboards felt.

  • Get as prepared as you can. Do whatever work you can before you bother the experts. Richard Nelson Bolles said it best in WHAT COLOR IS YOUR PARACHUTE: “Ask me what I alone know.”

Librarians are the obvious first choice. Google and Wikipedia can lead to great materials, but the research librarians at your local university can point you towards research archives and collections you’ll never find on your own. They also have contacts.

Original sources give the five senses details writers need to create a fictional experience. The University of Vermont’s Bailey/Howe library pointed me towards reference books for medieval costumes.

Before I visited Washington, D.C. for a work trip, reference librarian Robert Resnik, at the Fletcher Free Library, sent a request to the Smithsonian for me to find out what medieval manuscripts could be seen. The Smithsonian suggested The Walters Art Museum.

There are other, imaginative kinds of prep. Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power suggests using personal experiences to bring dry writing to life. Camping to remember what it feels like to live out of doors. Drafting also helps you find out what you need to know and makes you feel less of an imposter when you ask experts questions.

Unexpected bonus: The amazing children’s librarians–Hoorah!–at my local library, Beth Wright, Christine Webb, and Rebecca Goldberg, also helped me find comparative titles and suggested ways to pitch my story that fit the current market: “Go for the spunky girl narrator.”

  • Bring gifts and pay it forward where you can. My eldest child patiently looked at medieval coins in The British Museum with me when we visited London. We went to tea and a play, but that didn’t really cover the debt. Gifts never do. They are only a physical token of our gratitude. I’ve written about other ways my family helped me here.

A calendar, a coffee date, or a thank-you card are reminders that someone went out of their way for me. A link to their newest book is no hardship either.

Maybe the truest way to show gratitude is to keep on keeping on. Doing my best work is another way of paying off debts to people who went out of their way to help. They invested in me and I’m cultivating that gift to the best of my ability. When fruit finally appears, it will be because so many people took time to share their worlds with me.

Happy writing!

So that’s my third installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (The earlier posts are: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission.) More to come!

If you’d like to share about people who invited you into their worlds, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear your story!


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Writing Gratitude Countdown (2) The Gift of Permission

A stone face with a water spout mouth. Pink flowers behind.
Give yourself permission to spout off. Get writing! Rhöndorf, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the second post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. It’s my way of re-discovering the richness of the creative life. You can find the first post here: The Gift of Attention.

2. The Gift of Permission: the value of allowing yourself to create

Giving yourself permission to write is a way to counteract the doubts that come when we face a blank page:

Is it good? Am I a writer? Should I write more? Have I got a story here?

Permission is a cycle. It starts and ends with you, the writer, and in the middle are all kinds of readers.

a. You: Giving yourself permission to take time to learn, create, and revise.

The people who helped me most with permission are the ones closest to me. My husband takes on childcare so I can go to writing conferences or local writing groups. My children patiently traipse through research museums with me, take photos of settings, listen to garbled explanations, and put up with slapdash meals because the creativity was all used up by the time we got to food.

When other people make sacrifices for your dream, it’s the most tangible kind of permission there is. Thank you darling family!

b. Readers: Friends who read books agree that what you’ve written sounds like a “real” story.

At the beginning of the writing life, it’s hard to find other writers. The closest you can come are people who read a lot of books. They have taste and experience.

Sometimes the most encouraging people won’t be your “target audience” that is, they don’t read the kinds of books you’re trying to write. Don’t forget to value them.

Our dear neighbor Rebecca told me once that she didn’t like novels because she didn’t enjoy reading about the conflict between good and evil. But because she was a reader and valued books of all kinds, she still encouraged me to write. I still miss her.

Other friends have promised me that they will read or buy my book when it comes out even though their personal and professional interests are in totally different areas. It’s a special vote of confidence.

Librarians and teachers are a special category of experienced readers. I hope you have many special ones in your writing life!

c. Writers: Other people who write make it all seem normal.

My husband’s cousin is a talented furniture maker. He knows all kinds of people who makes things with their hands. (He put in our kitchen–Thanks, Matthias! We enjoy it!)

I’ve been writing for a while and I have so many writer friends I can’t list you all! It’s natural and wonderful. Thank you writer friends!

It’s fun to “talk shop” when you’re learning a new skill. Comparing tools, asking for opinions, and practicing getting the words down together can be a blast. An afternoon of writing prompts at a local coffee-shop, a day-long local workshop, or book festival can re-charge the writer batteries.

Watch your local newspaper and library bulletin boards to see what writers in your neighborhood are up to. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

If you’re still looking for your own set of writers, you might enjoy: Six Tips to Find Your Online Writing Community and my round-up of middle grade writing communities: Writers Working Together: 8 Things We Can Do Better Together.

(More about my current critique partners is coming in a later post, so stay tuned!)

d. Authors: Published writers (or any writers ahead of us on the path) share insight into the whole writing and publishing path. Secret handshakes are also a kind of permission.

It’s always an honor when someone who does something well treats your early attempts with respect. Susan Gilbert-Collins is a published novelist (Starting from Scratch) and much more experienced writer than I am. I’m so very grateful for her generosity. She read my “trunk novel” graciously and I’ve lost count of the number of times she has read and praised my middle grade work-in-progress. Thanks a million, Susan! I’m looking forward to your next novel!!

Tracy Barrett is the author of 22 books, including Anna of Byzantium. and a brand-new The Song of Orpheus: the Greatest Greek Myths You’ve Never Heard. She’s also an active and generous member of SCBWI. (If you write children’s books and want to find like-minded people, visit the SCBWI website and extensive discussion forums.) Tracy gave me a personal critique at an SCBWI Germany & Austria workshop and I’m still referring to her notes. Thanks, Tracy!

PitchWars is a classic example of authors giving back to the writing community. Author mentors coach mentees through an extensive 3-month revision and then help them connect to a stunning list of literary agents. The generous Brenda Drake (Thief of Lies) has been organizing this amazing growth opportunity for writers since 2012. Thank you Brenda Drake!

Author Michelle Hauck (Grudging) runs several contests, including the New Agent Contest. I won the chance for a mentor to get my query and first 250 words in good shape. My mentor was the wickedly smart and amazingly tactful author, Wade Albert White (The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes). Thanks Michelle Hauck! Thanks Wade White!

e. Agents and Editors: People who can assess writing for its qualities and marketability.

The first time a real live agent or editor seriously listens to your pitch or reads your query while you’re sitting there is amazing. I’ll never forget watching the classy Meredith Bernstein consider my written pitch at a conference years ago or her hand-written comment on my manuscript: “You deserve time and attention.” Now maybe she writes that on other people’s manuscripts–I have no idea. She gave me written permission to write and to persevere. Thank you Meredith Bernstein!

f. Reviewers: People who assess published work for its qualities and marketability.

Here we’re back to experienced readers. I don’t have any reviewers (Yet ;)) but I review books I enjoy and try to nudge them towards friends who’ll also enjoy them.

g. Readers: People who want to read the next thing we write.

Seth Godin coined the term permission marketing and explains it better than I can. People who voluntarily give their e-mail addresses in exchange for finding out when your next book is coming out give you the ultimate permission.

They want to read things you haven’t even written yet. They are inviting you to write something new. Thank you so much to all my e-mail subscribers! It’s an honor to have each and every one of you!

h. You: Giving yourself permission to try something new.

And that brings you back to the blank page where you need to give yourself permission all over again.

Happy writing!

So that’s my second installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (You can find the first post here: The Gift of Attention.) More to come! If you’d like to share about people who gave you permission to write, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear your story!


If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.





Writing Gratitude Count-down: (1) The Gift of Attention

Asphalt with a hole in the middle full of pink flower petals
Pothole in the road full of cherry blossom petals. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Maybe it’s the #Pitchwars season, but lately I’ve been realizing how many people have generously encouraged my writing. It’s so easy to send out queries and focus on the–sometimes deafening–silence, but when I look back on my writing journey, I see so many people who have gone out of their way to help.

I’m sure I’m going to miss important people because I’ve been doing this writing thing too long and haven’t been expressing my gratitude enough.

I want to thank you, my generous mentors, and I want to point new writers (and readers!) in their direction. The writing life would be a desert without these generous people. Best wishes as you find your own!

  1. The Gift of Attention: The value of embarrassing yourself in public places

The first gift I’m grateful for is attention from people listening to or reading my work. At the most basic level, this is encouragement to get the words down. Let me encourage you to take a risk and share your work. It can have life-changing results.

a. Writing Retreat or Conference with an Opportunity to Share Your Work. The Church at the Well Artist Retreat gave me a wrap-around porch with outlets and a beautiful setting to work for a weekend. When I was there, artists and writers shared their work around the campfire. It’s intimidating to read your work in front of people you respect. And tremendously validating. Thank you Church at the Well for making this possible!

A spontaneous Coffeehouse and Open Mike for writers, stand-up comedians, and musicians at InterVarsity’s Toah Nipi camp in New Hampshire left me with lasting memories. The participants were all graduate students at various Ivy League schools in the Northeast and the energy level was unbelieveable. Thank you Toah Nipi!

b. A Writing Conference or Workshop with the Opportunity for a Personal Critique. This high-energy experience was so addictive and inspiring that I suggested we host a Coffeehouse and Open Mike at the Ockenga Writer’s Publishing Workshop. It was easy to motivate other writers to participate because I had seen a Coffeehouse in action. Try it, you’ll like it!

I found wonderful critique partners and inspiring mentors at this Workshop including the awe-inspiringly brilliant and gentle editor, Judith Markham, the warm and funny David Manuel, the brilliantly detail-oriented Linda Triemstra, and my friend and first writing mentor, Susan X. Graham. They all paid my work the compliment of attention and encouraged me when I really needed it. Unfortunately, the Workshop no longer exists, but the Ockenga Institute now hosts the New England Christian Writers Retreat.

One of the critique partners I met at the Workshop, the lovely Jeanne Doyon, told me about Toastmasters International. (She tactfully suggested I visit a club after she heard my rambling introduction and I wondered aloud how to improve. *cough* Thanks, Jeanne!)

c. Visit a World-Class Conference in person or online. The Festival of Faith & Writing is a knock-your-socks-off conference for readers and writers. We’re talking world-class, prize-winning writers and speakers of all genres, so the adrenaline level is high. After I heard Joan Bauer and Gary D. Schmidt speak, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer of children’s books who can move an audience like they did. (Impossible dreams are good for the soul.)

d. A Writers’ Group that Happens in the Air. I joined Toastmasters of Greater Burlington club in Vermont and gained an amazing group of friends who cheered me on. Thank you, Toastmasters!

The focus is on speaking and evaluation so it’s like a writing group that happens in the air. It’s amazing how much you can learn about your writing when you speak it aloud in a room full of supportive people. You just know.

I was inspired by my club members’ speeches and pumped by all the enthusiasm. If you’re at all interested, visit a Toastmasters club in your area. (I sound like a commercial, but I promise they’re not paying me.)

So that’s my first installment of gratitude for my writing journey. More to come! If you’d like to share about people who gave your work attention, please feel free to share in the comments.



If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.