Another Draft Finished and My Summer Writing Plans

It has been some time since I last updated this blog, and I feel I’m due for a new post. The last few months have been challenging on many levels, especially for writing and my dedication to this book. I’ll share some of those challenges and what I think the next few months will look like (hint: more editing!).

So, let’s move on to what I’ve been up to the past few months. For starters, I’ve done another draft of my book. It has some substantial changes, but I also kept a number of scenes and elements from the old version. I finished this draft May 3rd and sent it off to its next beta reader. I’m hoping to get their comments back at the end of this month. Getting to this point was not easy, though. There were some very busy weeks at work, meaning I had to work late and write less. I also went through a difficult time with my mental health in February/March, and only started to feel normal once mid-April rolled around. But I have a lot of optimism for the coming months. The sun is shining, my brain is perky, and I have a path forward.

First on that path is reading, specifically about writing and how to create a novel. I know, I know. I can hear you now: “Hannah, wouldn’t it have made sense to read those books BEFORE you started writing?” Well, ideally yes. However, I’m learning as I go. And these books really would only have been helpful to me once I gained a closer understanding of my characters, which is difficult to do without writing those characters a bit. Anyway, I’m going to go back to the fundamentals and learn about character arcs, plot structure, and building themes. I know that a lot of these crucial story elements have a presence in my book, but they are muddled and get lost. So the trick will be making them stand out.

After I finish a few of those books (one down already), I’ll re-do my story’s outline and re-apply it. At this point I should have my recent beta reader’s comments, and I’ll use those to help revise. I’m hoping to keep this round of revisions fairly concentrated. There will be a lot of work to do, but I don’t want to spend all summer doing it. I am considering taking a few days off in June to help facilitate this goal. We’ll see how that goes.

The next step after revising will be sending the manuscript to one last round (hopefully) of beta readers. I know I need to find someone of African-American origin to review at this point. If you’re curious why, I will note that both my characters are black and I am not. So, it is important to make sure I don’t include potentially harmful tropes or anything like that. For more info on this subject, I highly recommend stopping by Writing with Color on Tumblr. I think I will also want a beta reader to review the magic system I’ve created and see if they spot any issues or  logic holes. I

So, after this round of beta readers, I’ll do more revisions as needed (hopefully they will be pretty focused) and then I’ll start querying. The goal is for the novel to be its best possible form at this point, and I will definitely do a final copy-edit and proofread before sending it to any agents. But really, once I start querying I will likely step away from actively working on the project and will try to start something else while the rejection letters role in. This novel has been my main writing project for 5 years, and I think my skill as a writer will improve if I start working on something different. Also, working on something else might keep me from burning out, which may have been a contributor to my need to take breaks in the past.

So, that’s where things are at. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little update. My plan is to do these more often. I think this is slightly more likely than not because I’m back into a steady writing habit.

Cheers!

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Hello, there! I’m Back.

Hello, everyone. It’s been…. quite awhile. One year, four months, and nine days to be precise. Yikes.

What have I been doing over the past year? Not a lot, honestly. OK, that’s not true at all. I’ve been busy, I just haven’t been writing. That kind of sucks, but it’s also been good in some ways, I think. I’ve taken some time to re-invest in my physical, mental, and emotional health through travel and running; worked really hard and grown a lot at my job; and done some definite values reassessing. But let’s get to some specifics, yeah? And then I can share some exciting news with you all! Continue reading

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The Practicalities of Building a Magic System: What I’ve Learned So Far

When writing fantasy, the key to any good magic system lies in consistency. This is a lesson I’m learning now. It’s easy for me to get caught up in developing innovative forms of craft (incantations, wands, etc.) or cultural heritage. However, without consistency as a back bone, there’s really nothing to make a magic system believable, and even in fantasy, believability is very important. So, here are a few key areas of enforcing consistency within a magic system.

Culture
One hang-up my beta readers are catching in my current work in progress is cultural consistency: magic systems’ should be reflected in the cultures they inhabit. My husband gave me an example of this just yesterday. In The Kingkiller Chronicles, the main character encounters an inn that uses magical bells that are connected such that when one rings, the other rings as well, allowing bell hops in the hotel to provide quick service. The main character sees this as an extremely frivolous use of complex magic, but the point of the little episode is that magic interacts with the world outside the narrative. This helps enforce consistency with how magic connects to the story and invokes believability. Put it this way: If Harry Potter went to Hogwarts, but we never learned anything about the wizarding world outside the school, or the treatment of people without magic, would that fictional world and it’s magic have held such potency? Probably not.

HarryP_ScreenShot

Screenshot: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2001).

Logical Order of Operations
A magic system is far more believable if the audience can see or anticipate how the system actually works. Let’s return again to our two original examples: The Kingkiller Chronicles and Harry Potter. In The Kingkiller Chronicles, the author put a great deal of time in developing a detailed magic system: the laws of physics are kept in mind if not closely followed, and expert use of this magic is more about creatively using basic principles. By following fundamental laws, the magic system adheres to a logical order that the reader can understand and predict. The Harry Potter books lack a lot of this detail, but there is some logical consistency. A person must be magical (and not a muggle) to use magic. They also must have a channeling device (a wand or sometimes an umbrella) and they must know the right words and the correct movement of their wand. These are the “ingredients” of magic. In a good magic system, these elements don’t change, or, if they do, it’s explained in a way that makes sense.

KKC_ScreenShot

The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss. (DAW Books, Inc. 2008 and 2011).

Cost and Penalties
Even with cultural and logical consistency, a magic system is not complete without some sort of cost or penalty. If a magic system does not come with checks and balances, it loses its believability. In Harry Potter, wizards and witches have to learn and specialize in certain forms of magic, which takes years of training. In Kingkiller Chronicles, there are many magical students who go insane. The use of magic requires intense concentration and complex states of mind that, if done rashly, can cause serious mental damage. Without a believable deterrent, penalty, or obstacle for using magic, the system introduces logical inconsistencies: if everyone can do ANY kind of magic, why don’t they? If anyone can and does perform powerful magics, what is compelling about a character with talent and creativity?

It’s important to think about these things when planning a magic system. Do you guys have a favorite magic system, and if so, what book/tv show/movie is it from?

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3 Destructive Writing Habits

Most every writer has a few bad habits. I mean, when making a habit of writing, it’s fairly easy to add other habits into the mix of our process. Many bad habits are mostly harmless, like chewing pens or mumbling your characters’ lines out loud. However, sometimes our bad habits as writers can become downright destructive, and it’s a good idea to step back and take stock in them. I’ve seen a lot of benefit in my own writing practice from ending destructive habits. Here are a few I’ve battled with myself .

Only Writing When Inspired
I’ve written about this before: waiting for inspiration just leads to low productivity and self-deprecation. When we put off writing, our practice suffers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in front of my computer screen, only to get up two minutes later because I just wasn’t “feeling it”. The best solution is to find a schedule and stick to it. Right now, I’m only managing to find time to write in 15-minute increments. It’s not a lot, but I’m writing several times each week, and it’s keeping my practice going.

Eating Sweets While Writing

chocolate cake

Photo by rore (Flikr). Used under the terms of the Creative Commons.

In high school, my favorite way to start a writing project was with a fat piece of chocolate, tea, and good music. The combination was very stimulating, and somehow got me thinking that I wrote better when I had a bit of sugar inside my tummy. Unfortunately, when I integrated a food item as a mainstay in my writing practice, I started gaining weight and suffering in other health-related areas. I don’t mean to say there’s anything wrong with a cookie when diving into a new chapter or a bag of peanut M&Ms to celebrate finishing your latest project. However, as when we add junk food to our writing habit, it hurts our bodies more than any stimulation me may possibly get from the jolt of sugar. To help me drop the habit of eating sweets while writing, I tried upping my tea intake to keep me less hungry. I also tried to write on a full stomach, choosing my times right after a meal or a healthy snack. In combination with a lot of willpower, I managed to kick the habit.

Drinking While Writing

beer trio

Photo by Lindsey G (Flikr). Used under the terms of the Creative Commons.

There’s a myth that the best writers in history were heavy drinkers: Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Marguerite Duras.  For me, I thought a drink while writing during my first NaNoWriMo would help me get words on paper. However, it was not long before I had a drinking habit that interfered with my writing production. To be clear, I’m not talking about a “drinking problem” in the addiction sense, and if you have a drinking issue, I HIGHLY recommend you seek professional help. This is not so much about physical dependence as about having a habit of consuming a product that left my wits dull and my body lethargic, when I really should have been at my best. To drop the habit, I stopped drinking at all during any writing projects. As with sweets, with a little willpower and the encouraging realization that my writing improved with the clarity of my mind, I managed to kick the habit. Now, I may have a small glass of something while writing for my blog, but I don’t feel I need it to get through a long writing process.

So, have you guys ever struggled with any bad writing habits? If so, do you still struggle, or have you found a solution to get over your habit?

 

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What I’m Reading – July

There are few things as important to the writing process as a good reading lineup. I’ve discussed before how I like to build reading lists, and I’ve even shared a few recommendations in the past. I find that I can learn more about a person from what they’re reading or have read recently than a conversation on other topics. But maybe I’m biased.

Anyway, in case you’re curious, here are a few books that I’ve read recently, am reading now, or will read this month. Judge me as you will.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel – Finished
I first thought about reading Station Eleven after it was announced as a National Book Award finalist; however, I didn’t actually pick it up until my book club elected to read it together. I’m glad I did. I did sometimes find the actual writing to be a little lacking (among other things, the author ran into problems with verb tense agreement). However, I will always praise this book for seamlessly melding the perspectives of a host of different characters. Also, it’s a fairly unique take on the dystopian future genre that’s saturating the book market right now.

station eleven

New York City: A Short History, George J. Lankevich – Finished
Upon visiting New York City late last month, I was gripped with a powerful urge to understand this new place; I found what I was looking for in George Lankevich’s book. To be honest, I go through non-fiction phases (I’m in the middle of one now), and rarely seek it out unless I have the urge to learn a significant amount of information on a topic. The short history of New York, while compact, did give me this information. It starts from the city’s founding as an early Dutch settlement and continues on into the present age. While I can tell Mr. Lankevich has a few biases (he leans conservative), I appreciated his dry humor and sincere yet honest appreciation of this infamous city.

Let my People Go Surfing: The Education if a Reluctant Businessman, Yvon Chouinard – Stopped Reading
This book was recommended to me by a friend with an entrepreneurial spirit. While I’m not a burgeoning businessperson, I did appreciate the first section of this book, in which the author, Yvon Chouinard (founder and owner of Patagonia) discusses the birth of his company. It was interesting and made me appreciate the guts it takes to stand out in the world of sporting equipment. That being said, I didn’t see much benefit in reading the later chapters, which focused on Yvon’s business philosophies–I’m really not interested in business. I’m glad I read the parts that I did, though.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway – In Progress
I’ve owned this book for the better part of a decade, and this is first time I’ve actually decided to read it. A part of me is glad; it’s a renowned piece of American Literature. A part of me is also groaning; I have a distinct love-hate relationship with Hemingway going back to the first time I read The Sun Also Rises. I do appreciate the man’s simple prose, but sometimes I think he’s a little too obsessed with ideals of masculinity. In any case, I’m enjoying the few chapters I’ve read so far, and am doing my best to keep an open mind. There’s a reason this is part of literary canon, right?

belltolls

Prophecy, Ellen Oh – Next Up
I’ve been wanting to read this book for at least a year. It showed up on my Tumblr dash and I was intrigued by the cover, featuring a single red jewel over a churning blue background. According to the back summary, Prophecy is about a girl named Kira who serves as the body-guard to a prince. There’s political and demonic intrigue and all sorts of coming-of-age themes. Did I mention that this young adult fantasy book is based on ancient Korean lore and mythology? Yeah, I’m sold. I just have to buy it before I get distracted by my next book.

So, do you think you know more about me after getting a glimpse of my currents reads? What are your current reads? Do you find you reread more books than explore new books?

 

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So You Want a Steady Job in Writing: 4 Industries Seeking Writers that You Might Not Have Considered

I know from personal experience that many people feel writers have fairly limited career paths. After graduating with my English degree, I frequently was asked if I would teach, and after I responded in the negative, they asked what I could possibly do that was stable. The truth is there are many stable writing careers in a variety of fields, some of which require extra schooling, but many that don’t. So, in the interest of broader education and to support all those recent English grads out there, here are a few industries that offer jobs to writers.

People at work

Even in today’s technology-driven work environment, good writers with competent computer skills are desired. (Photo courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.)

Software
From how I understand it, coding well isn’t necessarily the most important skill for getting a job with software. The software industry also requires excellent writers to convey their product to the consumer. Software documentation has grown exponentially with the boom of the industry. Sometimes called technical writers, the people in charge of software documentation produce the writing that the consumer uses to understand the software’s system requirements and its uses. Positions in this field usually require applicants to have some experience working with code, but with free online coding courses available, this requirement is easily achieved.

Engineering/Architecture/Manufacturing
Often overlooked by many writers, the fields of engineering, architecture, and manufacturing are filled with positions. Called technical writers, technical editors, or project assistants, writers in these fields help write, edit, and format the technical documentation. This documentation can be a user manual for a tractor or a complicated report on the production of naphthalene. The subgroups within these industries are also varied. I happen to work in Environmental engineering, but in the past I’ve worked in Oil and Gas. Technical writing/editing for these industries is also a somewhat niche field, usually requiring some extra schooling or on-the-job training. However, it is by no means impossible, and if you find a field you’re interested in, it can be a very rewarding career.

Marketing
Career-wise, one of the marketing industry’s greatest strengths is its flexibility. Both of the previous industries I’ve mentioned rely heavily on marketers to sell their products. Many other industries also require marketing. A bigger plus is that the skills any good writer possesses are a natural fit for marketing: know your audience and know your medium. Marketing also allows for a great deal of creative expression, which many writers enjoy. Extra marketing classes in college can help get a job in this field, but it is by no means exclusive in that regard. Positions in marketing include copywriters, copy editors, bloggers, social-media gurus, and editors.

Non-profits
While not offering the pay benefits of the previous three industries, non-profits often provide very rewarding work for the dedicated. While positions may include marketing duties, often non-profits seek dedicated grant writers, who submit the applications for grants to federal and state agencies and philanthropic organizations. I’ve also seen positions with non-profits dedicated to social media campaigns.

Wherever the cross-section of your writing interest lies, there is almost certainly a career out there for you. The best thing to do is to research what you enjoy, find positions in that field that interest you, and see what qualifications they require. Of course, this requires some forward planning, but that might just pay off in the end.

Are there any writers out there in industries not often associated with writing? Or are there many publishers or journalists out there with an opinion on getting started in those industries?

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Creative Theft: 3 Great Writers Who Stole Their Best Ideas

It’s vital that all authors find their own voice and strive toward a creative approach to their story. However, it’s also a little ridiculous to believe that all works of fiction must be entirely new and original. For instance, I grew a little nervous when a friend compared the magic system in my book to alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist. But then, after considering historical precedent, I relaxed. After all, many of the great storytelling franchises relied heavily on past works. Here are three:

Screencapture - Fullmetal Alchemist (2003, directed by Seiji Mizushima

Screencapture – Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), directed by Seiji Mizushima

 

The Works of William Shakespeare
Assuming you believe Shakespeare existed (If you don’t, keep that opinion to yourself. This is a bard-friendly blog.), you are probably familiar with the fact that he did “borrow” the plots of most of his plays from other writers. One of those writers would be Geoffrey Chaucer. Like Shakespeare, Chaucer also borrowed many of his plots from other writers, including an Italian poet called Giovanni Boccaccio. A good example of this borrowing can be seen in Shakespeare’s play, Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare’s plot was heavily influenced by that of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, which itself was influenced by Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. So, even the great writers of history have stolen from each other from time to time.

Boccaccio

Engraved portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) by Raffaello Sanzio Morghen (1758-1833) after Vincenzo Gozzini and dated 1822 (Source: Wikipedia)

 

The Lord of the Rings
Sometimes seen as the father of high fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien is much loved and respected by readers the world over. I, too, love Tolkien; The Hobbit was one of the very first chapter books I ever read. It’s also well known that Tolkien based much of his world building on pre-existing cultures on Earth. Mythology too played a huge influence on Tolkien’s writing, a good example of which is displayed in Tolkien’s favorite plot device, The One Ring. Tolkien based his ring heavily off of Plato’s Ring of Gyges, a mythical artifact that turned the wearer invisible. Furthermore, the Ring of Gyges sparks a debate in Plato’s works between Socrates and another; they argue over whether that power would always be taken advantage of by the wearer, or if a just person could withstand it and resist his base desires. It’s pretty easy to see the link between the corruption of the Ring of Gyges and that of The One Ring; the biggest difference is that no one can resist The One Ring forever.

Plato

The School of Athens (detail of Plato). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Source: Wikipedia)

Star Wars
A cultural touchstone in its own right, many modern works owe a great deal to the Star Wars franchise. However, like the previously mentioned franchises, Star Wars owes much to other works. What resonates most with many fans of the original films was the blending of familiar elements (plots structures, character types) with futuristic settings. George Lucas pulled those familiar elements from mythology from around the world. For Luke’s journey in particular, Lucas relied heavily on the works of Joseph Campbell. And, lest I forget, I feel I should also mention the Japanese film The Hidden Fortress, directed by Akira Kurosawa. This film is told primarily from the perspective of two bickering peasants (not so different from C-3P0 and R2-D2), and also features a battle-hardened warrior (like Obi Wan Kenobi) and a rebellion-leading princess (like Princess Leia).

While I want my books to feel fresh and original, I also have to be aware that borrowing from other works is not a sin. I do feel, though, that I should be aware of my influences. One thing I do admire about George Lucas is that he has never shied away from giving credit to his influences. If nothing else, it’s a good way to introduce younger audiences to time-tested works.

How do you guys feel about borrowing from works? Should it be frowned on, or celebrated? Is there a line between the two, and when have you seen it crossed?

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3 Book Adaptations that Actually Rock

I’m sure I’m not the only reader who has felt betrayed by a bad movie or TV adaptation of a favorite book (The SyFy Earthsea miniseries comes to mind). However, there are many adaptations of books that actually do a stand-up job. For me, there are three that come to mind immediately. They work for me because they feel loyal to the spirit of the books they seek to portray, even if they take a few liberties with the text.

Sense and Sensibility (1995), Ang Lee, Columbia Pictures

Elinor. Sense and Sensibility (1995), Columbia Pictures

Elinor. Sense and Sensibility (1995), Columbia Pictures

This adaptation is a winner because of the strong focus on the relationship between sisters Marianne and Elinor (played by Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, respectively). The love these two have for each other, even in the midst of fairly dire circumstances for their time period, is really moving. One scene in particular, where Marianne lies in an unconscious stupor on her sick-bed and Elinor begs her to live, is particularly moving. It’s not in the book, but I think it’s a natural fit for the story’s tone and these two characters. That’s not to say the adaptation is perfect. Hugh Grant does a pretty poor job as Edward Ferrars. Also, there are a few notable changes from the text (as mentioned above). But, as I said, the filmmakers (particularly Ang Lee and Emma Thompson) seemed to understand the spirit of the text.

Jane Eyre (2006), Susanna White, BBC One

Jane Eyre

Jane, Jane Eyre (2006), BBC One

An adaptation of Jane Eyre has been made at least every decade for the last fifty years. For the most part, I feel most of these adaptations fall short of the story’s complex themes and characters. In truth, it’s not an easy story to adapt for a wide audience: A teenage girl goes to live in the house of a dark broody man, falls in love with said man, and drama ensues. However, for me, the BBC One mini series does a really good job of embracing this complex story. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that this relationship, at least at the story’s start, is problematic. And it does a very good job of conveying the passion and sensuality of this Victorian romance that today’s audience might miss. Overall, when I want to watch one of my favorite stories, I turn to this adaptation.

North and South (2004), Brian Percival, BBC One

North and South_Capture

Margaret, North and South (2004), BBC One

An immense saga of a story, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is a Victorian novel most students tend to miss. It’s far too long to be covered well in most undergraduate courses, let alone high school. However, it’s a truly lovely book filled with complex, fleshed-out characters and themes. It’s also a great picture of England during the Industrial Revolution. With a book such as this, it would seem hard to create a satisfying adaptation. However, the 2004 BBC One miniseries did a great job. Yes, like the book, it’s long. But the extra time is needed to give credit to this lush story of a woman attaining her adulthood. Also, it superbly casted; Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage steam up the screen with fantastic chemistry. If you watch one of the adaptations I mention in this post, watch this one.

No doubt you’ve noticed that all of the adaptations on this list are period dramas. Well, I happen to think the makers of period dramas do a superior job in the adaptations category. However, I might come back to this topic and do a second post, possibly focusing on another genre.

So, what do you guys think? Do you have any favored adaptations? Or do you shy away from them altogether?

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3 Tips for Building Your Reading List

Hi everyone! I’m back. At last we’re moved in and I’ve made it through my first week at my new job. It’s a very exciting time for me and my husband. It’s also a very busy time; with all the new happenings, I’ve barely had any time to read! I’ve decided that this cannot stand, so I’m starting a new reading list to help me stay organized. Reading lists aren’t inherently difficult or complicated. But, thanks to trial and error and the suggestions of a few friends, I’ve come up with a few tips that make my list so much more useful.

Reading List

My current work-in-progress reading list

 

List Title and Author
One of the many reasons I keep a reading list is to help me find the books I want in stores, particularly used book stores. Many times I’ve walked in with a book title in my head only to find myself lost because I can’t remember the author’s name. Occasionally, I’ve been recommended an author by a friend, don’t have the book title on hand, and have to guess on a whim what title I will read. Of course, sometimes solving these conundrums is as easy as finding a knowledgeable store clerk with a computer. However, book stores can be busy (I’m looking at you, Powell’s), and sometimes a knowledgeable clerk is hard to find. For me, it’s best to save myself trouble later on and make sure I keep both author name and book title on my list.

Organize by Category
I owe this tip to my friend Anne. There are many ways to organize a reading list, some more helpful than others. I’m organizing mine by genres and subgenres, starting off with a split between fiction, non-fiction, and YA, and working down from there. But, as long as your categories work for you, organize in whatever way that you please. Organizing by category is helpful for a few reasons: 1) it helps you decide what to read next (e.g., your last book was a fantasy novel, so maybe you want a non-fiction memoir), 2) it helps you locate the book in a bookstore, 3) you get to impress all your friends with how organized your reading list is.

Keep a Copy with You
If you’re going to go to all this trouble to make a nice reading list, it makes sense to use it to help you locate your next reading adventure. In this age of smart phones and tablets, it’s not even that difficult. Just make sure you keep a copy in your email, cloud drive, or on whatever notes feature your phone/tablet uses. If you’re old school and prefer using a hard copy list, I suggest typing your list in columns in a Word document or spreadsheet. That way, after you print it, you can fold it in such a way to fit in your wallet while still allowing you read the book title and author. Also, you’ll want to keep a pen or pencil handy so you can put a check mark next to books you find or are finished reading. Then, periodically update your electronic list and print off a fresh page.

Do you guys make reading lists? If so, do you have any useful tips to share?

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Brief Hiatus

Hi all! It’s been super busy lately. My husband and I are moving and I’m starting a new job in two weeks. That being said, I wanted to let you guys know I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from the blog for a couple of weeks. My goal is to start back up May 18, after moving and I’ve had sometime at my new job.

I hope you’re all well. See you in a few weeks!

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