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Revision Hacks: Harnessing the Red Pen

Writing diaries

Once a month or so, my writing group gets together at Writer’s Ramble to share our individual experiences with the hope of inspiring other writers. This month’s topic focuses all on revision – specifically the tips and tricks we use to make the process less painful. I think every single person in my group has a different method, which is why it tickles me we’re sharing them all in one place. Even if you don’t find my Hacks helpful, you just might find your next revision epiphany in one of their posts. Just click the Writer’s Ramble link above and our world of revision will be at your fingertips…

Revision Hacks: Harnessing the Red Pen

Just as there are countless ways to write a book, so are there countless ways to revise it. There are so many different methods out there that it can be difficult for a writer to find the “best” ones. It’s all about trying as many as you can and developing your own hybrid technique for the ones that work best for you. I have had 3 major revision epiphanies within the last couple of years and I’d like to take a moment to share them with you. Who knows, maybe they will change your writing process dramatically, too. :-)

Hack #1: Prep-Work

I personally think good preparation takes out a big chunk of work in the revision process. I also think a major component of revision is cutting out the scenes that don’t either advance plot or develope character. To that end, it makes sense to have a good portion of your scenes mapped out before you begin writing. But how do you know how many scenes to plan for? Thanks to the LTUE writing conference I went to in February, I now have the answer, and it has been radically life-changing. John D. Brown and Larry Correia made it sound so simple that I almost feel stupid for not figuring it out for myself. Here’s their method:

1. Figure out how many words your novel’s genre usually requires (there are general standards in place that are pretty easy to find with a Google search).
2. Figure out the average length of your scenes (a great starting place is about 3000 words per scene).
3. Divide the genre standard by your average scene length:
65,000 ÷ 3000 = 21.6667 (approximately 22)

This means that my 65,000-words YA book should contain about 22 scenes.

Can you say EPIPHANY? I went home and played with this idea with a WIP that had at least 40 scenes, combined several of them and threw out others entirely, then brainstormed for about 10 minutes to get them into a working order (I wrote the name of each scene down on a flash card and rearrange them on the floor until I had something I liked – which is also a strategy that has worked well for me), and came away with the most concise plot structure of any book I’ve written so far. Now, I feel like it’s practically writing itself because I have such a strong guideline in place.

What’s cool about this approach is that takes away a bit of the intimidation factor. Instead of just writing endlessly until you feel like your book is finished, this structure gives you a finite number of scenes to fill. 22 scenes within which to tell a story is a lot less daunting to me than “however many scenes it takes.” There’s nothing saying you can’t either add or subtract from that number, but you’ll be able to make those decisions with more confidence because you’ll have a strong baseline.

Hack #2: Organizing

The other day I found myself in a disagreement with one of my scenes. No matter how many times I reworded it or changed what I said entirely, it just wasn’t sounding right. I had too many ideas in my head on how it could sound, but couldn’t figure out which ideas would work the best. So I typed them ALL into the document, got frustrated, and walked away. What’s worse, I picked up the latest Robin Hobb novel and was almost brought to tears over the injustice of how fricken beautiful her writing was and how easily it seemed to flow on paper… why can’t my stuff look like that? And why does it seem so much more difficult for me? After throwing a mini writer tantrum, I finally came to peace with the fact that, if I want my novels to be quality, I’m going to have to work at it until I figure out how to get it there my own way (which is, inevitably, the hard way).

So instead of tackling a writing project, I turned that scene into an organizing project:

1. I jotted down a few key things I wanted the scene to convey.
2. I highlighted key words from that list.
3. I went through the scene and highlighted only the passages that supported those keywords.
4. I cut everything else.

It gave me direction. It also gave me confidence that what was there was being kept for a definitive reason. The way I see it, there are two ways to implement this approach: write down everything you can think of first, like I’ve described above, then prioritize and organize it, OR you can start with identifying your keywords, brainstorm within each one of those, then go back and highlight the strongest bits. Either way, hopefully it will help give you clarity on the scene first or second time around. Of course, if the scene isn’t giving you trouble, then this method will probably make you overthink it. I recommend just using it for the ones that, for whatever reason, just aren’t flowing. Sometimes just being confident in what you want to say is all you need as a base to go back and make it sound pretty.

Hack #3: Change-it-up

I don’t know about you, but I find it really difficult to make major revisions within a word document. I lose my place constantly and it’s hard to see more than just a small portion of my work at once. Also, if I have any ideas on how I could reword things, I hesitate to type them in because it just makes everything more cluttered. So I print it out and write my new ideas and possible fixes right over where I think they should go. Handwritten vs. printed means it’s easy to see what your edits are while still allowing you to see how the work used to sound (does anybody else have a difficult time deleting stuff? I’m almost always afraid the new way of saying it will be worse than the old way, but if I change it in the document then I’ve lost record of the first version… might be just me though). Anyway, if I’m still not happy with it, I will grab a notebook and poor new thoughts into that.

This may not seem like a “Hack,” necessarily because I’m basically describing a typical revision process. The reason it’s a Hack for me is that I have found myself staring at the computer screen for hours, not sure how to fix something, but the minute I print it out or start to work on it in a different medium, progression suddenly starts moving forward again. Nowadays, the minute I can’t figure a solution on the computer, I immediately switch formats and have not had a “revision-block” since.

I hope you found some of these Hacks helpful. :-)

Are there any that you use that have totally changed your life? Let me know in the comments, and let’s turn this into a #WritingHackFest.

by Niki Hawkes

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Weekly Writing Workshop: Finding Your Voice

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What is/How do You Find Your Voice as a Writer?

Floating in some cosmic space between our brains and the realm of the muses lies each of our voices. Like some basterdised Disney patronous, they dance in the void waiting for us to “discover” them.

As great as that might sound to some people, it is—of course—utter and complete crap. Still, this is how most of my writing teachers up until grad school made it seem. In the seven years that I spent teaching college writing courses, I often saw colleagues—intentionally or unintentionally—propagate this idea.

I’d hear things like “It will just come to you the more that you do it” and “open up and let your personality fall onto the page.” This leaves the serious student and/or aspiring writer with no clue how to go about finding their voice or even what a writer’s voice is.

In reality (a lovely place of vivid images and concrete details) a writer’s voice doesn’t just come to them. It takes study and work to develop your voice as a writer.

But, before you can hunt for something, you first have to know what it is (unless you’re hunting for the inner story in a piece of creative nonfiction, but that’s a different post altogether).

A writer’s voice, in its simplest form, is their diction and syntax. That is, the words they choose (diction) and the order they choose to put them in on the page (syntax). It’s worth noting that diction is not the same thing as vocabulary. One (vocabulary) is the pool of words from which you can draw, the other (diction) is the words you choose to pull out of that pool. Having a large vocabulary doesn’t guarantee good diction, and someone with a small vocabulary may still have strong diction.

This same basic formula (Diction + Syntax = Voice) can be applied to our metaphorical speaking voices. Think of three people you know. Now, imagine that you’ve asked each of them to a movie which they have no interest in seeing. How would they each turn you down? My wife, the ever radiant Obsessive Bookseller, would probably say “Well, I’d love to do something with you, just not that.” While my friend Jared might say, “Oh, hell yeah! Then you can bash rusty nails into my eyes!” At its core, they are both saying basically the same thing but through vastly different voices.

So, how can a writer find their voice (actually a sophisticated and skilled writer can have multiple voices, but, again, that’s a future post)? Besides praying to the spirts of Tolkien and Fitzgerald for it to spontaneously appear inside your skull, you can follow former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins‘ advice. Speaking at the Whitehouse’s poetry day event, Collins said, “Your voice has an external source…It is lying in other peoples’ [writing]. It is lying on the shelves of the library. To find your voice you need to read deeply…you have to look outside yourself. Read widely. Read all the [writing] you can get your hands on.” He went on to add, “In your reading, you’re searching for something…You’re searching for [writers] that make you jealous.” Here, Collins is speaking about finding your voice as a poet, but it applies to any form of writing. I would add that you should search for writing that disgusts you as well. Find what turns you on and off, literarily (not literally) speaking of course.

As is often the case, the truth is that you have to knuckle down and do some hard work. Read a lot. Read diversely. Read like a writer, and by that I mean that you should analyze the writing as you read it. When you find something you like, something Collins would say makes you jealous, try to figure out why you like it. When you read a scene that blows you away, mark it, reread it, analyze why it blew you away. How is the writer doing that? What tools are they using and how are they using them?

That’s the way it seems to work across mediums. Your favorite musician went through it. It’s how they discovered their influences. Great visual artists in every age have gone through it. All of these people understood the importance of respecting the craft. They understood what it means to be a student of their art.

Because writing is second nature for most people today, aspiring writers often take craft for granted. Or, worse, they feel that studying how other writers did it well will rob them of their authenticity, of their voice (stop and think about how counterproductive that reasoning is). I’ve actually had, on multiple occasions, students sit across from me and claim that they want to be a writer because they read King or Rowling and thought “Gee that seems easy, I bet I can do that.”

So, here is your prompt for this week. Make a list of your five favorite scenes/moments from whatever you’ve read recently. Then, go reread those passages. Take notes! Figure out what the author has done to make those moments so powerful.

I’d love to hear how this prompt goes for you! Leave a comment letting me know.

Best,
Darren

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Introducing the Weekly Writing Workshop!

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Some of you may know that I am an aspiring writer, but what you may not know is that I am also married to an accomplished one. We have been wanting to team up for a couple years now to combine his vast experience with writing and teaching with my love of learning and improving my craft. It is my pleasure to share my blog space with this amazingly talented person (I wouldn’t share it with just anyone – this blog is my pride and joy), and I can say that with only a little biasedness because his work speaks for itself. The Weekly Writing Workshop will be featured here for the next several weeks, and our hope is that all of you aspiring authors out there find it helpful. -Niki

An Introduction to Your Host

Welcome to the first instalment of the Obsessive Bookseller’s Weekly Writing Workshop! My name is Darren M. Edwards, and I’m excited for this opportunity to discuss the craft of writing.

In about ten minutes anybody could create a writing blog and offer you their opinion as “expert” advice. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I have had a lot of experience writing and studying the craft of writing which I’d like to share with you.

I published my first essay in 2007 and have since published poetry and essays in dozens of places ranging from trade publications to University literary journals. In 2009 I received a master’s degree in literature and writing from Utah State University where I wrote a spiritual memoir for my master’s thesis. Between my time as an editorial assistant at Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing and serving as the editor in chief of both New Graffiti Publishing and The Creative magazine, I have over six years of publishing experience. For seven years, I taught college courses in composition, world literature, creative writing, and publication production. I’m currently writing a space opera, Rogue Noble, which I hope to start pitching in the fall, and I’m excited to announce that my first book, a creative nonfiction exploration of Utah’s sport climbing history, will be published by Arcadia Publishing & The History Press sometime in 2016.

Our world is full of great writing: Literary fiction, speculative fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction. You can spend a sunny afternoon sitting under a tree reading Annie Dillard’s beautifully reflective writing. A dark and stormy night could be the perfect time to delve into some H.P. Lovecraft or curl up in a blanket and drift off to J.K. Rowling’s vast world of witchcraft and wizardry. And, whether you’re watching a performance poem by Patricia Smith on YouTube or losing yourself in the imagery of T.S. Elliot, poetry is very much alive.

There is a false notion floating around that these genres have little to nothing to do with each other. Why would a novelist ever read or study poetry? Why read Pratchett if your genre of choice is creative nonfiction? Other than becoming a more well-rounded person, this kind of literary cross training can do a great deal to strengthen your writing in your genre of choice.

For example, if the characters in your space opera feel flat, studying the way Montaigne or Dody weave reflection into their imagery could help you fix that. Regardless of genre, it’s a good idea to visit Hemingway if your writing is too complex or Faulkner if it’s overly simple.

So, once a week, we’re going to dig into one element of writing to explore what these other genres can add to your speculative fiction. We’ll see how basic concepts like voice or setting can hold new insights when you come at them from another angle.

As you comment and ask questions at the end of each post, I hope that this column can serve as the introduction to a discussion on the craft of writing. And, while I have many topics which I look forward to covering, I’m always open to suggestions and look forward to hearing what elements of your writing you’d like to improve.

I’ll also throw out a prompt related to what we’ve discussed each week. So, here is your first prompt. Pick up something you might not usually read. You don’t have to read the whole thing (though that’s not a bad idea) but what you do read, read it like a writer. Then try to mimic that style for a paragraph or a page. Let me know about your experience in the comments.

Best,
Darren

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Top Twelve Authors Who Inspire the Aspiring Author in Me!

top ten tuesday

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

Today’s topic supposed to be Top Ten Inspiring Bookish Quotes, or some such, but I am yet again going my own route because, as much as I read, I’ve never been one to collect words of inspiration. In fact, I am far more likely to find inspiration out of the book as a whole and have said many times throughout the last couple years how much I admire certain authors for their ability to do certain things well. This week has ironically inspired me to compile all of those well-crafted books in one place.

Top Ten Twelve Authors Who Inspire the Aspiring Author in Me!

World-Building

These three authors are definitely my favorite world-builders! Each story they create has a different setting, magic system, and atmosphere and each time I am in awe at their creativity. Honorable mentions for this category include Julie E. Czerneda and Ann Aguirre.

Character

A lot of others do a good job the characterization, but these three authors stand out to me as exceptional because their characters are so rich and lifelike you feel like you’re reading about real people. They are often flawed and don’t always make the best decisions, which is probably why they always feel so human.

Voice

I will be the first to admit that I don’t read books to specifically appreciate how authors weave words together, but these three authors crafted their tales in such a way that I couldn’t help but pay attention. The language was beautiful and poetic without being pompous or over-the-top. Simply lovely!

Story

How someone crafts a story together so brilliantly always blows my mind, and these three authors dazzled me with how well their stories were composed. I’m sure you’re all not surprised to see Harry Potter on the list, and I think story is what I’ve always appreciated the most about it.

***

I have plans to go back and reread all of these authors to help me improve my own craft. There are so many examples of  brilliant writing within each one – if I could absorb the skills from each I would be totally set! I would like to point out that many of these books could easily fit in all the categories, I just placed them the one I thought they represented the best.

What books inspire you? Any from my list?

by Niki Hawkes

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Top Ten Bookish Goals for 2015!

top ten tuesday Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish 

I’ve always been a person who enjoys setting and achieving goals, but have never bought in to the new year resolution thing. After all, if you want to change something about yourself, why wait until the new year? I realize there’s the whole symbolism of “new year, new you,” but I have found that if I implement the changes I want to make in small increments throughout the entire year, I always get the results I want without the added pressure of trying to do them all at once. That said, last year was the first year I declared ten bookish resolutions, and I thought it was kind of fun. Looking back I am tickled to say that I achieved five out of my ten goals from last year:

 2014 Goals Achieved:

1. Stick to my new “Read 4, Buy 1″ rule to A. Save more money and B. Enjoy the thousands of books I already own and C. Make me more selective of what I bring home.

Because of this reward system strategy, I am now incredibly conscious of what books I’m bringing home, have managed to make a sizable dent in my collection, and have reduced my book buying considerably. I love the system, but it is slightly skewed when you compare the average teen book to the average high fantasy. Basically, there’s no incentive to read anything but teen books. Going forward, I’m implementing the change Read 1500 (pages), Buy 1 instead. It’s not as catchy, but I believe in the long run it more accurately reflects effort versus reward. For the record, I ended the year having purchased just six books more than I earned – all of which were acquired this month with gift cards… Not bad!

2. Read only the books I’m most excited about, rather than the ones I feel obligated to read.

I had this epiphany in early 2013, and my life has never been the same since. Reading is so much fun without obligations, and I firmly believe that life is too short to push through books I’m not enjoying.

3. Continue streamlining my book collection, getting rid of everything I won’t read within the next ten years.

I have gotten rid of so many books that I truly feel like I achieved this goal, even though I know I still have some work left to do. I truly was getting tired of staring at books I know I’ll never read. The biggest bummer is that many of them I still need to part with are personalized… doh!

 4. Limit my Netgalley and Edelweiss requests to only the special ones, thereby furthering the intent of goal #1.

I’ve finally done it! I have weaned myself off of that terribly addicting request button and am now only requesting things occasionally. Like, one every couple of months. Throughout the beginning of the year, reading felt like a chore. Now, however, reading has never been so much fun!

5. Finish the first draft of my new novel.

Seriously – I did it! I have a long road of revision ahead of me, but I wrote this baby from start to finish. The cool thing is, I actually think I’m getting better at it. :-)

Overall, 50% isn’t bad. I’m even including a couple of last year’s goals into this year’s plan.

 Top Ten Bookish Goals for 2015!

 1. Continue my 1500 for 1 reading challenge.

 Or as I like to call it, a lifestyle choice. The only thing extra I would like to add this year is an additional goal to not get behind in my reading requirements. At one point I cashed in several cards before actually reading the books required… I blame all those Barnes & Noble coupons. Anyway, although I was able to catch back up, it did take a little of the fun out of the challenge. I highly recommend this method for anyone who wants to moderate their spending, work through the books in their personal library, and reward themselves for reading. It’s a win-win-win! 

2. Stop worrying about how many unread books are sitting on my shelves and just enjoy whatever has caught my interest at the moment.

In my 7 Deadly Book Sins post, I explained that I am a “Glutton” when it comes to books. No matter how much I’m enjoying my current read, I always have one eye on my shelves, wishing I could be reading those books too. If I could forget for just a little while how many books I want to read and focus on the amazing books that I am reading, life would be good.

3. Get rid of all the books I didn’t like.

In contrast to last year’s goal of doing away with books I won’t read within the next ten years, this goal revolves around letting go of some of my less-appealing titles. This is going to be tough, as every read book on my shelf represents a mini badge of accomplishment. It’s kind of hard to let them go, you know? I’ll never read them again, so I just can’t justify keeping them as prominently displayed alongside the awesome ones. Maybe I could sell them online and use the proceeds to buy more books…

4. Only review the books I feel strongly about. 

After all, I read enough of them to pick and choose which make it to the blog. I think I currently have somewhere around twenty unreviewed titles from last year to pick from. I used to blog on a schedule, with two reviews allocated per week, but over the last six months have taken a more casual approach. At first, it really stressed me out because I was getting further and further behind with reviews. It occurred to me the other day, however, that just because I read a book doesn’t mean it has to make it to the blog. Maybe I’ll do a couple of mini-review posts for the “meh” titles and call it a day. For the record, I’m pretty sure book reviews are the least popular posts I do… kind of ironic when you think about it.

5. Add a few more buttons to my social media task bar.

 Because it has been bugging me. Not to mention that Tumblr is where I’m seeing my biggest follower growth and I don’t have a link to it anywhere on my website. I also am way too proud of my Pinterest page to not have it represented here. I’ve been stalling for months because it’s a pain in the ass.

6. Stop being a phantom follower.

 There are at least half a dozen blogs I visit on a daily basis, but no one would ever know because I rarely leave comments. If I have commented on your blog within the last three months, there is a chance you’re one of the websites I’m stalking. Keep up the good work, and I love your content, lol.

  7. Find my voice.

 While I feel like my blogging voice is only getting stronger, my literary one is having an identity crisis. It’s hard enough to compose an entire novel (knowing what to say) without also struggling with voice (knowing how to say it). I’m on the verge, which is why I’m so serious about the writing goals I’ve set for myself this year.

 8. Write and submit a short story to WOTF.

 This was an un-achieved goal last year. I am determined to change that in 2015, and even started working on my first attempt yesterday… wish me luck!

 9. Work on a writing project every single day – even if it only a ten minute Writing Prompt.

  This is another carryover from last year, it coincides perfectly with a project I started independently of the new year resolutions – my Writing Prompt page. Inspired by a Christmas gift from my best friend, these prompts are already encouraging me to write more often.

10. Revise both of my WIP novels at least once.

 While I am finally honing in on my personal writing process, I have yet to master the art of revision. Mostly because I don’t do it very often. In any case, I’d like to practice on the novels I’ve already written and maybe even see if I can get them publish-ready.

What are your 2015 resolutions? Are any of them bookish?

by Niki Hawkes

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Chronicles of an Obsessive Bookblogger: The Book Review Conundrum

chronicles of an obsessive bookblogger

The Book Review Conundrum:

Today I’d like to discuss book reviews: specifically 1) my reviewing process and how it has changed over the last two years 2) my alternating problem with having either too many or too few books to review, and 3) my battle with publishing impatience. I know these sound like they could be individual topics, but they’re all things I struggle with whenever I try to improve my blogging experience (and that of my readers).

The Book Review Evolutionary Process

When I started this blog two years ago, I was posting a book review every other day. When I finished a book, it got written about immediately. Even I can’t read THAT fast (unless I’m exclusively reading YA), so I supplemented the reviews with my book review journal – which contained a hefty arsenal of books read before I started the blog. It’s how I kept track of books before I discovered blogging. I’d even go as far as to print out little pictures of the covers to tape inside. Anyway, when I ran out of current titles, I just pulled out that journal and transcribed the pages into posts.

Even while “cheating” with older reviews, posting every other day was a lot of work… perhaps too much. I was also at risk of overwhelming my audience. So to avoid burnout and unnecessarily inundating my readers, I took a chill pill and switched over to reviewing two times per week rather than three or four.

Too Far Ahead of the Game

Now, reviewing feels more free and easy – I write them when I feel like it. The downside to this newfound freedom is that sometimes the posts just don’t happen. I went from posting around fifteen reviews a month to seven or less. This is a change I think both my readers and I are happy with, but it did create a problem I never thought I’d have: too many books to review and not enough time… and it’s only getting worse.

I can remember several week stints in which I had trouble reading enough books to sustain my goal of two fresh reviews per week (as opposed to ones taken from the pre-blog journal). But now I’m reading more per week than ever before and am getting completely buried under TBReviewed titles. I can think of worse blogging catastrophes, for sure, but seriously, I now have have seventeen, I repeat SEVENTEEN unreviewed books from this year alone. If I don’t get inspired and post a review right after I’ve read a book, there’s a good chance the review is from a book read in February or March… It’s July. #fail.

At least I don’t feel at risk of forgetting how I felt about the book – I take thorough notes, and I have decent recall of everything I’ve read (within the last ten years, anyway). Every once in a while, I struggle with regaining my emotional reaction to a book, but a quick skim through usually brings it all back. Furthermore, not all reviews have to wait in line. I usually post reviews for 5-star books soon after reading them because, frankly, I just can’t wait to talk about them (has anybody who has followed me for a while wondered why I’ve reviewed so many 5-star books lately? Granted, I’ve been really good at picking titles, but I haven’t been that good, haha). In a way, this method has served me well because my excited “just finished the book” feelings gets poured into those reviews – usually making them better. I should also mention that I always post right away for “obligation” books (ARCs) and ones I REALLY didn’t like (which are few and far between). It’s the middle of the road titles that I find difficult to make time for.

All Is Not Lost!

So you ask, why don’t you just write reviews when you have the time then schedule them for a later date? I think it’s a great idea, but haven’t been able to do it. I don’t know if I’m the only one who’s like this, but once I write a review, I want to share it… immediately. It’s this crazy impulse to hit “publish” even if it means sharing two, possibly even three posts a day. If I don’t publish it right away, it hangs over my head and actually stresses me out more than if I’d just waited until the last minute to write it (this is the only place in my life where that sentiment is true – I’m usually a very “get it done now so you can play later” type of person).

I guess my point in all this is that I am fighting annoyance with how far behind in reviews I am while simultaneously trying not to set myself up for blogging burnout. I have yet to experience burnout of any kind, thankfully, and I think that has a lot to do with stress-reducing adjustments I’ve made along the way. Although I have occasionally felt a mite stressed to get something out on time, I haven’t ever felt like I need a break longer than just a couple of days. It’s essential for me to keep blogging fun because it’s something I’m truly passionate about. Avoiding burnout will be even more important going forward as I am working on several self-motivated projects that require me to sit in front of the computer screen all day (writing a book while starting a magazine… i.e. topics for another post). On the bright side, I can stop reading for several months and still have material to blog about (yeah, like that will ever happen). :)

Am I Alone?

How often per week do you write book reviews? Has it changed since you started blogging? Do you find yourself behind in your reviews or constantly struggling to finish books to write about?

by Niki Hawkes