What Happens When You Embrace Your Writing Process (Spoiler: Magic)

Last week I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post about writing myths I used to believe in. As any self respecting procrastinator knows, one of the best ways to avoid writing is to read about writing. I love reading books by writers, books for writers, articles about writing, quotes about the writing life. Sometimes I find it very inspiring.


Other times it crushes my dreams. Because oftentimes reading about what has worked for other writers gives me false notions and expectations about what it means—and what it takes—to be a “real” writer. Real writers wake up at 4 a.m. and write for three hours in the dark. Real writers outline the entire story before they begin. No! Real writers should let the story unfold organically. Real writers focus on characters instead of plot. They churn out 5,000 words a day and write a novel every month, oh and also they gave a million dollars away to charity and are probably a better person than me, a “fake” writer.

People of the internet: I literally write for a living and I still find myself buying into this nonsense. It’s what kept me from finishing a novel for years. I felt like I was doing it wrong.


There’s one surefire way I’ve found to silence the “I’m not a real writer” voice in my head: accepting my process.

I outline as I go.

My writing is terrible until the third draft.

I write short.

I write best in the evenings and waking up early is something I will never willingly do

I write fast and bad. I revise slowly and thoroughly.

I use brainstorming and “research” as ways to avoid writing.

None of this is universal. It doesn’t all match up with what I’ve been told “real” writers do. That’s okay. It works for me.

I was avoiding writing by listening to the First Draft podcast the other day (10/10 would recommend) and Veronica Roth said something like “The only right way to write a book is the way that allows you to write a book.”

The things that help someone else write a book (or poem or screenplay or whatever) may not be the things that help you write a book. Writing is personal. We should not expect writing advice to be one size fits all. Accept what works for you and toss the rest.

When I gave myself freedom to write terribly, to go dark, to stop pretending I could form coherent sentences in the morning and to stop wasting time on outlines that would never go anywhere, I was finally able to finish a book.

Other writers probably love waking up early to get their word count in and find true inspiration from Pinterest and research. That is awesome.  For them. These are not helpful tools for my writing process, but just because their process is different from mine doesn’t make it any less real. The only “wrong” writing process is the one that keeps you from getting words on the page.

What about you? Have you broken free of writing advice you used to think was gospel? What faulty advice is keeping you from finishing your work?

And, as always, the best way to keep up with me is to sign up for my weekly newsletter.

And, also as always, here is a Lord of the Rings meme because what else am I going to do with my time?


How to Improve Your Writing Immediately: Write Scenes, Not Summaries

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I had so much fun making fun of my former baby writer self last week that I thought I’d continue the merriment with another post about things I’ve learned from working in the magazine industry. (You can read the first post, about how my obsession with pretty sentences was crushed like a bug, here).

One of the notes I used to see most often on my magazine stories was, SCENE? In other words: why isn’t this a scene what are you even doing with your life?

My tendency is to write summaries instead of scenes. Ex: “I went to Taco Bell and ordered two burritos.” This is fine for my journal entries, but it is not fine for publication.

So what’s the difference between a summary and a scene?

On the Purdue OWL website (a lifesaver if you are like me and find it impossible to remember grammar “rules”) they define summary as writing that:

moves quickly, giving the reader important highlights or reminders, and is used for background information. Bits of summary often occur within scenes.

Example: I went to Taco Bell and ordered two burritos.

(I have been going through a Taco Bell “phase” for about the past two decades so if that’s a problem you should just stop reading now.)


Screenwriting.io defines a scene, on the other hand as:

“a unit of story that takes place at a specific location and time. If one of these changes, you have a new scene.”

Example: The smell of cheap meat and hot sauce wafted from the air vents. The time had come. I stepped forward.

“I’ll have two bean and cheese burritos with no onions and extra sauce.”

You see the difference? The first version recaps something happening. The second version puts you in the heart of the action.

It’s easy to see the difference when compared side by side, but my first drafts are always chalk full of summary. “He went there. She remembered doing this. She felt this way.” It wasn’t until my top editors started pointing it out to me that I realized I was even doing it.

Most of my revising process is expanding summary into scenes. I like to think of scenes as the scaffolding holding my story up (see last week’s post for more of my extensive housing metaphors). Here’s the thing: every story contains some elements of summary. If every moment in a book were a scene, books would be twice as long.

Working in magazines has taught me that the ratio of scene to summary should be 80/20, and to think carefully about what I choose to summarize.

But before I learned to do any of that, I had to learn to identify summaries in my writing.

How to Distinguish Between a Summary and a Scene:

  1. Ask yourself what happens in this chunk of writing. If the answer is long and meandering “Jamie is walking to school while reflecting on a fight with her mom she had the night before…” you’ve probably written a summary. If you can summarize (LOL wordplay always intended) the action in a sentence “Jamie is fighting with her mom” you’ve probably written a scene.
  2. Is the primary focus of the writing action or imagery? If it’s imagery, you’re wrong.
  3. Determine when the chunk of writing takes place. If it covers a span of time (the fight last night to the walk to school this morning), it’s a summary. Remember: a scene takes place in a specific time and place. Scenes don’t time travel.

So what if you realize what you thought was one beautiful scene full of pretty sentences is actually a summary? How can you fix it? Never fear, this is literally what I do at my job all day and I have lots of ideas about how to kill summary.

How to Change a Summary into a Scene

  • Start with action.

Ditch any beginnings that require reflection, remembering, or exposition. Scenes should throw the reader into something that is already happening. Re-read what you’ve written and identify when the action (the meat of a scene) begins. Cut everything that comes before.

  • Externalize feelings

Description and imagery are vital to scene building, but they should be experiential not observed. One way I fix summaries in my writing is to do a find and replace for anytime I used the words “I/She felt.” This is lazy, bloodless writing. It’s fine for a first draft, but my aim is to root it out in revisions. Instead of writing “I felt hungry so I went to Taco Bell” I will write something like “My stomach was churning. I checked my watch. I hadn’t eaten in a whole thirty minutes. I walked past the open doors of a Taco Bell and the smell made my stomach clench.”

  • Plan ahead

I’ve discovered that one of the easiest ways to skip the summary stage of my writing is to plan ahead. I work out all my summary impulses during the outline process.

One super simple way to do this is with a Pre-Writing Worksheet. Before each writing session (at work and for my novels) I make a quick list. If I’m working on a short story for work I’ll note:

  • Scenes (shocker, I know)

  • Conflict

  • Resolution

Making a list of scenes I imagine taking place in the story helps keep me on track when I actually start writing.

If I’m working on a chapter in a novel, I’ll get more specific.

Here are the five questions I answer before I begin a writing session:

  1. What happens in this scene?

This is where I figure out the action. Writing this down first prevents me from summarizing.

  1. What is my goal with this scene?

This question is about why this scene needs to be written in the first place. What is my goal as the storyteller? If I’m writing a fun scene, my goal might be to establish a friendship between two characters. If I’m writing a fight scene, my goal might be to make one character angry enough to do something stupid (which I know needs to happen in the next chapter). If I don’t have a good answer to this question, it probably means I’m writing an unnecessary scene.

  1. What is the conflict?

Every scene needs conflict. Period. Whether it’s between a character and nature, two characters, or a supposedly adult woman fighting the urge to eat Taco Bell 24/7, there needs to be a struggle. In answering this question I try to set my characters in opposition with each other or with something else (an adult, a force of nature).

  1. What is the story outcome?

The action and conflict of a scene should change slightly alter the direction of the story. This question builds on question 2. How is my protagonist’s goal different at the end of the scene? What is her natural course of action after this scene?

  1. What’s happening off the page?

I use this question primarily for writing mysteries. In each chapter I make note of what the reader is not seeing: what’s the villain doing? Is someone dying and/or being kidnapped? Who’s at the local Taco Bell? Keeping track of what’s happening in the world of my story helps me avoid stupid mistakes like killing someone twice (whoops) or writing a character in two places at once (not that I’ve ever done that).

Want more info on scenes v. summaries? Here are some helpful links:

Technique: Scene vs. Summary

Scene and Summary: What’s the Difference?

The Fundamentals of Writing a Scene

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How Not to Write a Novel (In 22 Super Easy Steps)

Hi, friends. I don’t know if you heard, but I wrote, like, one whole book. So yeah. I’m basically an expert and thought it was high time I broke down how to do it for you peasant, unwriterly folk. See below for a foolproof writing process. Patent pending.

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How Not to Write a Novel

  1. Decide you want to make a million dollars and realize the easiest way to get there is becoming an author. Because duh writing books is super profitable (ever heard of a little fellow named Harry Potter?


2. Go with the first story idea you ever had. Who cares if there’s no logline, hook, or plot? How hard can it be to string together 70,000ish words?

3. Dream about book signings and brunches with your imaginary editor. Write nothing.


4. Do some research and learn you need an author “platform.” Begin tweeting in earnest. Stalk agents on Twitter. Decide to write about writing on your blog even though you’ve never finished a book because HEY EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT. Avoid writing book at all costs.


5. Decide outlining is for people who aren’t TRUE artists (aka: not you). Besides, you know the beginning and the end, how difficult could the middle be?


6. Very, very difficult as it turns out.

7. Despair


8. Repeat step 7

9. Repeat step 7

10. Repeat step 7

11. Delete second half of book with one stroke of the key.

12. Repeat step 7

13. Give up all dreams of being a TRUE artist and outline the dang thing

14. Rewrite second half of book (sprinkle in a healthy dose of step 7 along the way)

15. Re-read draft immediately after typing THE END. Decide it’s brilliant. Query immediately.


16. Repeat step 7. Add red wine and obsessive email refreshing, waiting for the inevitable multiple agent offers because obviously every agent in the biz should be able to see that your novel will change literary history as we know it.


17. Stop. Collaborate. Listen.

18. Start over. Write an actual book with an actual plot and believable characters.

19. Revise aforementioned book until you hate it more than the Grinch hates Christmas.


20. Let it sit for a while and then revise some more.

21. Query in a healthy, realistic manner.


22. HA! Jokes. That’s not a thing. Repeat step 7 for all time and eternity.

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The Absolutely True Story of How I Got A Literary Agent

In case you missed my obnoxious postings on every social media platform: I signed with an agent last week!

Cue all the celebratory GIFS.



I first shared the long version of the story in my weekly newsletter (sign up here for more GIFS than your heart can handle).

Last year, I had one goal: write a book. I was so focused on this goal that I called 2017 “The Year of the Book” (I know, super lame and uncreative, but whatever).

Everything I wanted out of the year boiled down to this one desire.

I took a writing class. I went to writing meetups. Eventually, I started a critique group. Mostly, though, I wrote.

I churned out 60 pages in three months and then fell stagnant. Sometime in the summer, I picked back up the writing torch and by August I had written my way to a first draft.

Of course, it only got worse from there. I went through the manuscript with a critique partner. I revised until my fingers cramped. I added entire characters and scenes. I became so engrossed in a world of twisted friendships and vicious lies that it started poisoning my own relationships. I was a mess.

And then someone told me I had written a murder mystery, which was not at all what I had intended, but was, in fact, exactly what I had done. So I ripped out the second half and wrote it from scratch.

That was super fun. (JOKES)

And then I had what I jokingly referred to as a Book-Like Thing.

I started researching next steps in October and learned that the first—and arguably most important—step to publishing a book is to get an agent. As an author, you don’t pitch a book directly to a publishing house, you pitch to agents, who, if you are very very lucky, will sign you as client, and then try to sell your book to a publisher and also represent you and all of your literary works until you die (and even after! Morbid, but true).

I decided that 2018 would be The Year of the Agent. I made it my mission to convince someone to represent me by my birthday.

How do you get an agent? Well, you Google it, like I did and then you write a query letter.

A query letter is the Holy Grail of publishing. It is an elusive, page-long, magical piece of writing that sums up your book and convinces an agent that they want to read it and work with you for eternity. I made a list of agents I thought might like my book. Basically, I was looking for anyone who liked “unlikeable” (more on that later) girls and dark mysteries.

I agonized over my letter, rewrote it approximately 39 times, and in January decided I was too tired to care anymore, so I started sending it to people on the aforementioned list.

I sent three queries a day. Twenty four people in total, which meant 24 personalized greetings, different variations on first ten pages, first three chapters, three page synopsis, 200 word synopsis, and so many other random pieces of writing that I started to go just a little bit mad.

Of those 24 people, seven requested either the full or partial manuscript. Thirteen rejected me. Five never responded. Four rejected me after reading the partial or the full.

One asked me to revise and resubmit.

Which I did not want to do (see above about hating this book more than life itself by this point). But I did it anyway. I spent a month going through the book line by line, word by word and revising until it was where I wanted it to be.

Psych! I revised it and then when I hated it so much I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore I sent it off while yelling profanities at the FBI agents I assuming are listening in on my computer.

And then this amazing thing happened where an agent offered to represent me. This
was quickly followed by another thing happening which is that I burst into tears, ran around in circles, and then cried some more.

Because writing this book hurt me. It was freaking hard, you guys. Like, imagine sticking a hand down your throat and un-rooting an organ and then jamming it into a computer and calling it a book. That’s the kind of hard it was. And to think that this thing I’d labored over actually had value to someone else made me weep and feel all the feelings.

On a practical level, it meant I had to let all the other agents I’d queried know so they could counteroffer if they so desired. And the crazy thing is that some of them did.

I ended up receiving several offers which was maybe the most stressful thing that’s ever happened to me. I made charts. I made pro/con lists. I stalked them on message boards and talked to their authors. In short, I got real creepy.

It was a tough decision, impossible really, because they were all awesome. In the end I did the same thing I do every time I get hungry and went with my gut. And to make a long email newsletter short, I’m now represented by Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis.

Why Christa? Well, she said my book reminded her of The Heathers which is not only my favorite 80s movie, but also the best movie to musical adaptation of all time. More importantly, flattery will get you everywhere with me. Also, she had great editorial notes and vision for where the book should go. She’s also a career agent—she’s not just looking to sell books, she’s looking to support someone in every aspect of their career, which really appealed to me because I kind of plan on churning out books until I die.

There was also a serendipitous coincidence that pushed me in her direction. My Book-Like-Thing references several literary masterpieces, one being Of Mice and Men. I quoted John Steinbeck a few times and there’s even a scene involving hamsters and Lenny and I won’t say anything more because SPOILERS (although I don’t think it’s in any way a spoiler to say that not all the hamsters in this book make it out alive). When Christa told me McIntosh & Otis represented John Steinbeck and still handled his estate I got that goose bumpey, cold-fist-in your-gut-feeling.

Anyways, I signed a contract thing and promised to give Christa all my children if she sold my book (not really, but honestly I’m not opposed), and now she is my agent.

What comes next? Wouldn’t you like to know! Just kidding. What comes next is that Christa gives me notes and then I have to revise the entire book again (which sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me, but oh well) and then she’ll take it to publishers and do her thing.

I’ll write more about what it means to have an agent, what the submission process looks like, and other things that are a bit more in the Motivational Monday wheelhouse, but for today, I’m celebrating the fact that I’ve not accomplished my goal for 2018 and imagining bigger, more terrifying dreams to wrestle in the future.

If you have any questions, thoughts, or concerns about hamsters, shoot me an email. I’d love to chat with you. I hope you invest time in the dream that sets your soul on fire this week. Nothing could be more worth doing.

And if you want to stay up to date on my book journey or want a weekly reminder to DO THE DANG THING subscribe to my newsletter. I hope to see you there.


How I Wrote 50,000 Words In Two Months (While Working Full Time)

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In January I set a short term writing goal for myself: write 50,000 words of my manuscript by March 1. Last Wednesday, February 28, I typed my 50,092 word.

During this time period I had 42 writing sessions averaging 30 minutes each. I was working full time and also happened to be revising my first novel for an agent simultaneously (that’s a story for another time). When I hit my wordcount goal no one was more shocked than me.

I’m a perpetual goal setter, but I almost never accomplish the tasks I set out for myself. That’s fine. I still get farther with goals than I would without them. But I wanted to figure out why this time was different. What did I do more effectively? How could I duplicate it for future goals?

First drafts are the hardest part of the writing process for me. I am terrible first drafter. I know everyone says that in a really cute “aw shucks” kind of way, but I really mean it. My first drafts rarely even contain complete sentences. I’m lucky if they contain discernible words.

I’m an Editor by trade and writing doesn’t click for me until I have words to work with. I hate writing every word of first drafts and so I made it my goal with this project to get the first draft over with as soon as possible. Getting these bad words on the page quickly is crucial because the important work of shaping and coloring in the novel will take much longer.

So I launched an investigation to figure out how I wrote 50,000 words in two months while working fulltime. I identified five key factors that set my writing approach aprt:

Five Tools That Helped Me Write 50,000 Words In Two Months

1. Set a goal in the Sweet Spot

The first thing I did that helped me accomplish my goal was setting a reasonable goal in the first place. I found the Sweet Spot.

The Sweet Spot is a target difficult enough to be a challenge, but reasonable enough to keep you motivated. For me, writing 25,000 words would have been too easy, but writing 75,000 would have been so difficult I wouldn’t have bothered to start. Fifty thousand words was the Sweet Spot. A stretch, but within reach.

To find the Sweet Spot first list your Unattainable and Too Easy goals.

So for example:

Unattainable: 75,000

Too Easy: 25,000

Sweet Spot = Unattainable Goal – Too Easy Goal

The Sweet Spot is the difference between these two goals. In my case, 50,000 words.

2. Quantify your goal

If you are a creative, quantifying your goal might seem counterintuitive. After all, how do you quantify art? (Insert smug mustache twirl thing here). But if you want to improve and set measurable goals than you have to choose a way to track what you are doing and how it’s working.

Measuring quantitavely in this sense, is not about measuring quality, it’s about measuring output.

Everything is quantifiable. If you are a painter, you might track how many days it takes you to finish a painting and how many hours per day you spent working on that painting on average. If you are a runner, you might track your time and mileage. If you are an actor, you might track how much time you spent practicing and how many auditions you attended.

By keeping track of my creative output, I was able to see what on earth I was actually doing. Because I kept detailed records of when and how much I wrote, I know that the most I wrote in one day was 3,000 and the least was 560, and that my average was somewhere around 1,200.

It also helped me to identify patterns. I write much faster and sustain energy for longer periods of time, later in the day. Most writing advice says you should write in the morning. I can do that, but it’s not the most efficient way for me to write. Tracking my writing made me realize I need to plan my writing sessions later in the day.

The only way to know what works best for you is to keep track of it. Lots of random internet advice told me I needed to get more sleep, but when I Heatmapped I discovered that I was actually happier with less sleep. Don’t take other people’s advice on what will work for you. Find out for yourself.

PS: If you’re not sure how to start keeping track of your time, I wrote an entire post on Heatmapping—the best tool I’ve found for quantifying personal goals.

3. Outline outline outline

As with many things in life, planning for success makes success more attainable. I’ve always outlined my projects, but normally I ditch the outline 1/3 of the way through. This is fine, but it meant I would start each writing session with, at best, a vague notion of what I needed to write. Over the last two months, I ended my writing sessions by jotting out a detailed outline of what I would write the next day.

This doesn’t just apply to writing. If you are a runner, make a running schedule. If you are a painter, sketch out what you want the finished product to look like. Start each day knowing exactly what you need to do on that particular day to reach your goal.

4. By law you get a lunch break. USE IT.

This one only applies to people who have goals outside of their bill-paying jobs. I have a fulltime job and consider myself very lucky to be employed. But my job means I have to think carefully about when I can write and need to make use of the free time I have.

I work all day, but I do get a lunch break. I outfitted my iPad with a mini keyboard. Now I have a lightweight writing device I can use to write during my lunchbreak. That’s a solid hour of writing every day.

One thing I’ve noticed about my friends who work office jobs is that they rarely take lunch breaks. Your company is legally obligated to give you a break during the workday. Don’t be a martyr. Take it.

5. Do NOT revise as you go. Ever.

The final thing I did that made a huge difference was not reviewing my work. I didn’t read a single word of what I had written. I just kept going.

Why is this important? Because starting a project is fun, but it’s easy for me to get so bogged down in perfecting the beginning that I never reach the ending. Perfectionism prevents completion.

Most dreams die in progress. Lots of people have first chapters of novels that they’ve edited to death. Few people have finished manuscripts. The first chapter, first sketch, first rehearsal, isn’t important. Finishing is important. And to finish you need to look forward, not backward.

For my last project, it wasn’t until the final draft that I started the story in the right place. The first chapter that I slaved over for months didn’t even make the cut. It wasn’t necessary. You will save yourself tons of time and energy if you commit to seeing a project through without trying to fix it as you go.

So there you have it. Five easy things that made it possible for me to write more efficiently and to have more fun while doing it. What about you? How do you reach challenging goals while meeting other life obligations? Comment below so I can steal your ideas!

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Four Nugget Friday

Four Gems From This Week

What  I Watched: Order of the Phoenix

It’s no secret that I harbor a deep dislike of J.K. Rowling. However, this week I did re-watch Order of the Phoenix with some friends (who are more fun than me and going to Harry Potter World this weekend as I cry alone in my closet of an NYC apartment) and I have to hand it to her, J.K. knows story. She may be a franchise monster who will eat the dreams of children (including her own characters!) for money, but her imagination is brilliant. Sinking back into the world of HP reminded me how important atmosphere is to the creation of any world. It’s the number one reason I enjoy most movies, restaurants and books. I added that to my scene revision checklist to make sure I’m thinking about the mood of my work and not just the action.

What I Wrote: So. Freaking. Much.

I revised 24,000 words this week. And that was outside of my day job, which is…to revise words. Specifically, I focused on breaking up chapters that felt like they were dragging. I’ve also

I’ve also started a list of “weave-ins”—themes, ideas and characterizations I want to make sure are woven throughout the manuscript. Before each revision session I review the weave-ins and see if any of them need to be worked in to the chapter at hand.

I’m planning on finishing the rest of my revisions next week and sending it out for critique. Speaking of critique, if you know of anyone who likes destroying dreams for fun (besides J.K. Rowling, I already contacted her and she’s “not available”), I am in desperate need of some more critique partners.

At this point, I’m not even scared about other people reading and potentially hating my work. I imagine this is how parents feel when they send their children to college: they birthed this human being and are very invested in its success, but by that point, they don’t really what happens to it, they just want it out of the house.

What I Learned: Be Brave Enough to Want

The other day I was talking to a friend about work, and how I don’t feel like I’ve ever had to give 100% of myself to something. I’ve done hard things before—I wrote a 100 page thesis in college, I talked my way into jobs way above my skill level—but nothing that required all of me.

It’s easy to accept this because it makes things, well, easy. I can get through life by giving average effort. Things can be stress-free and without pressure. Only, as I was telling my friend this, I thought of a quote that I tacked to my wall in high school:

“The real Tragedy is the tragedy of the man who never in his life braced himself for his one supreme effort—he never stretches to his full capacity, never stands up to his full stature.” – Arnold Bennett

Why did I post this on the mirror of my vanity so I would see it every day when I got ready? Well because I was an extremely angsty teenager (duh). But also because when I was younger, I was brave enough to want things and to bear the burden of wanting them.

That quote has been echoing around my head ever since that conversation. I keep thinking about stature, and how I can’t know how tall I am unless I stand up straight. So I’m challenging myself to straighten my spine, extend my grasp, to give 100% to what I’m doing now and pursue the things that require the most of me instead of the least. I am trying to be brave enough to want things.

What I’m Working On: An Elevator Pitch

I have never called myself a writer. Even when I entered a profession where my job is writing, I still don’t use the word in relation to myself. And I definitely didn’t tell many people I was working on a book. I didn’t want to be the person at the party who tells you they’re a writer and then when you ask them what they’ve written has nothing to say.

Once I finished the book-like thing, though, I started sharing. I think I was so exhausted and the carpal tunnel from typing so much had set in and I just didn’t have the energy to project my force field of non-writerliness.

Because most people are annoyingly kind, whenever I mention I wrote a book, they ask me what it’s about. My only response so far has been, “I really need to work on my elevator pitch.”

An elevator pitch is the brief summary of your work that you’d pitch if you happened to run into your dream agent in—wait for it—an elevator.* I’m reading Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, which is supposedly a book about screenwriting, but is actually about how to tell good stories, and Snyder calls this the log line.

My project for next week is to come up with this line. So next time someone politely asks me what my book is about I can sound like someone who actual has a basic grasp of the English language instead of vomiting something up about high school girls in a persistent vegetative state.

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