April 28th, 2017

Success in the Era of Overchoice

James Preston

Plus as a special bonus for the first zillion readers: two updates on an earlier essay! Now what would you pay?

So I’m sitting here thinking about writing. I don’t want to have to get up because I’ve got a cat on my lap, but it’s all right because I’ve got my iPad and cell phone within reach. And that means at my fingertips are the hundred or so iBooks I own, more channels on my tv than I can count, countless tweets, and web pages that sing and dance with kittens and baby pandas, buff guys and hot chicks, sometimes all on the same page, plus four remote controls that talk to a tv/computer, the cable box and I suspect to each other when I’m not around. In other words, there are many more entertainment choices than were available even a few years ago. 

So what does this plethora of choices mean to writers, the ink-stained wretches that pump out the trillions of words that fill our modern story-o-sphere? It means your readers have other places to go — lots of other places. Does that mean you should pack it in, say there’s no way to stand out from this immense crowd and take up the flugelhorn? Spoiler alert: the answer is no.

First, let’s assign some numbers to “overchoice,” so we know just how much competition there is; then let’s talk about every writer’s second-favorite topic (the first being their own work): audience, and then let’s make a few specific suggestions. After that we’ll get to the homework assignment, and finally provide a brief update on an essay I contributed in December. 

 Overchoice

It’s not a jungle out there, it’s a New York or Tokyo street at rush hour, — eight million stories in the naked city — with not thousands, but millions of stories, all of them throwing elbows and hip checks, jostling for position. The actual numbers are probably larger, but it is safe to say that Amazon has over six million books for sale. How many movies and tv shows are available on iTunes? Has anybody counted? Can anybody count, or does the number change so rapidly that the question becomes meaningless? And, of course, despite repeated reports of their imminent demise, brick-and-mortar bookstores are still out there with shelves crammed full of books and those stories are literally jostling for position on the shelves. 

All right, your potential audience has an inconceivable number of titles clamoring for attention. Overchoice, historically-unprecedented overchoice. Is that depressing? Don’t reach for the flugelhorn yet; there are people who want to read your story. You just have to find them. You need an audience. And to do that you need to —

Step One: Find your Audience

Word of mouth sells books. Take every opportunity to get in touch with readers. Increasingly, writers are finding their audience through personal contact. The same tidal wave of transistor-fueled change that has led to six million books on Amazon has also created multiple ways for you to find an audience. The jargon for this process is “building a platform” but for most of us it comes down to grabbing a potential reader and saying, “Hey, read my book!” Not literally, or at least save the grabbing for a fallback position. But you will find readers, and other essays in this blog will offer many ways to do that. Google “Finding an Audience” and you’ll see hundreds of sources. Look for Ken McArthur, “Top Ten Ways to Find your Audience” or Joanna Penn, “5 Tips.” After you find an audience, it’s vital to —

 Step Two: Treasure Your Audience

Once you find a reader, cultivate them! Learn about them. Respond to all their emails and tweets, try to find what people like about your work. In my case one facet is clearly the setting as character, local color that lets readers think, “Oh, so that’s what big wave surfing is like.” However, I firmly believe moderation is the key. Personally, I do not do a newsletter. I avoid flooding my readers with information, and the metrics on my emails show that it pays — my notices get read, not deleted from the subject line, I believe in part because there aren’t very many of them. Yes, the flip side to this is that you need to learn about things like metrics and measuring how well your promotion works, or you need to hire someone who has already learned. You can’t treasure your audience if they don’t read your emails. 

I guess the moral is treasure them but don’t drive them nuts. Remember the guy in Peggy Sue Got Married who spent the entire reunion handing out business cards? Don’t be him.

And, while it’s great that you are reading this essay (Thanks!), don’t overthink it.

“Don’t think so much.” Zucco to Kinicki in Grease.

Most of all, don’t despair. Remember the line in Her, “I gave myself permission to find joy.” Do that! When you look back at a sentence you struggled with and finally got right, and think, “Hey, that works!” stop and allow yourself the joy.

Remember Don McLean says in “American Pie” that he could make them happy for a while. If you make some people happy for a while, maybe that’s enough. For me, it is. Wear success like a loose suit of clothes; define it so it works for you.

To sum up:

Work on finding an audience.

Once you find them, treasure them.

And give yourself permission to find joy in your work.

That’s Success in the Age of Overchoice.

Homework

What do you do, once you are armed with this knowledge of the hordes of titles out there, and, unafraid, you are still banging the keys?

Don’t just read this blog, research it. Study ways of contacting readers. I don’t care for the term “Building a platform” but it’s the best one around right now. 

Specifically, for a good place to start look at Writers in the Storm, April 19, 2017, Jenny Hansen’s essay called, “The Personalities of Social Media.” Ms. Hansen provides numbers — how many posts you should aim for — and she backs up her assertions with footnotes. 

 And Now for the Updates

In December we talked about artificial intelligence and a university program that teaches ethical behavior to machines by reading them stories. (Writers in the Storm December 19, 2016, “Believe in Your Work — Its More Important Than You Think.”) We were ahead of the curve.

See the May 2017 issue of Discover magazine for “Caring Computers,” a great article about stories and artificial intelligence. I won’t give away too much but machines learning ethical behavior from stories is becoming mainstream. Think what you do isn’t important? Think again.

Also, see the Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2017, for “How a Computer Program Can ‘Learn’ Human Bias” for a darker side to stories and machines: language itself makes subtle assumptions — like the term “doctor” is more likely to be associated with a male name — and those assumptions can be passed on to artificial intelligences. (Hmmm. On that one I’d like to see data on the average copyright date of the stories. The hopeful part of me wants to think that’s changing. And, sure, I liked Pollyanna. So sue me.) And Melissa Healy, the author, says computers don’t actually believe anything. (The italics are mine.) Oh, yeah? How do you know? Nevertheless, a really interesting article.

Thanks for reading. Now it’s your turn.

How do you connect? How do you cultivate readers? How do you define “success?”

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 Sailor Home from SeaJames R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. The most recent is Sailor Home From Sea. He is finishing the second of a projected trilogy of novellas set at Cal State Long Beach in the 1960s. The next Surf City Mystery is called Remains To Be Seen and will be available in 2017. His work has been selected for the UC Berkeley Special Collection, California Detective Fiction. And when he needs inspiration for a great opening, he looks at a Jayne Ann Krentz. 

April 26th, 2017

Are You Writing Out of Fear or Love?

Jamie Raintree

As the school year comes screeching toward a close (are there really only five more weeks left?), productivity has been a common topic amongst me and my writer-mom friends. There’s a lot of concern about how productive we’re going to be over the summer with the kids at home, and a lot of my friends have goals to finish their drafts before June. We all know the inevitability that we won’t be able to accomplish as much as we do during the school year.

But productivity is always a topic of concern, isn’t it? I don’t know a single writer who feels like they are regularly accomplishing as much as they’d like to. It’s like we live in a constant state of feeling like no matter what we do, it’s never enough. We’re never moving forward in our careers fast enough. We’re never churning out books fast enough. We’re never hearing back from agents and editors fast enough. No matter how much we write, or how much we accomplish, there’s always this elusive “more” that we can’t seem to grasp.

How the Drive to Do More Hurts Your Writing

I don’t think this struggle is exclusive to writers. This belief is deeply ingrained into our culture as a whole. But as writers, living in this constant state of fear is extra detrimental because it can wreak havoc on our creative process and our self-esteem, two things that are incredibly imperative in building a successful writing career. Maybe at an office job, we could crunch out numbers faster, or stay up later answering emails, but the writing process can’t be forced, and when it is, our work often falls painfully short of what we know we’re capable of.

And if we’re constantly attacking our self-esteem with beliefs that we’re falling short at every turn, how will we have the confidence to share our work?

From experience and front watching other writers progress in their careers, it’s clear that this feeling doesn’t go away. Once you’re published, there’s more pressure to write more books quicker. “Published” becomes a milestone of the past and is no longer enough. “Bestseller” becomes the new target and when that’s not enough, it’s about topping the sales of the last book, and so on, and so forth.

While having goals and wanting to grow is a beautiful thing–it’s the essence of life, truly–the shame we pour on ourselves when we fall short–and we ALWAYS fall short–is the problem.

The “Never Enough” Mentality

Lately, I’ve been pondering a lot about where this “never enough” mentality comes from. Do these expectations truly come from within us, or are they something we absorb from our environment? I sense that it’s a combination of both, but regardless of the origin, what it really boils down to is fear. Not fear that we aren’t accomplishing enough, but fear that WE, ourselves, are not enough. We convince ourselves that if we just finish this book, if we just get an agent, if we just get a book deal, if we just hit a bestseller’s list, THEN we will be enough.

We will be worthy.

We will be acknowledged.

We will be accepted.

We will be loved.

And the reason no accomplishment is ever enough is because none of these affirmations come from outside of ourselves. They come from within. I think we all know this on a conscious level but we’re just so darn busy all the time–we make sure of that, don’t we?–that we don’t stop to ask ourselves:

Why am I trying to accomplish this, really?

And is finishing this book, getting an agent, getting a book contract actually going to satisfy these needs? Is it going to soothe this fear inside of me that I am not enough?

Am I writing out of fear, or out of love?

Writing (And Living) From Love

So how do we turn this around? How do we begin to release the fear and write from a place of moving toward our purpose instead of away from our fear?

The first step, of course, is taking the time to ask yourself these questions. Like they say, the first step to recovering is acknowledging the problem. And this may be the hardest part, depending on how introspective you tend to be. I love journaling for this, because as we know, the act of putting pen to paper brings up understandings that might otherwise go untapped. In what ways are you creating out of fear?

The second step is to try to identify where these fears come from. Oftentimes these fears develop in childhood. They might be passed down from your parents. They might come from a misguided teacher. Maybe you’ll be able to identify the origin, maybe not. It’s okay if you can’t. You can still move forward, recognizing when those fears are speaking to you and not letting them drive your progress.

Third, counteract those fears by nurturing yourself in ways that aren’t necessarily related to writing (although, journaling, writing memoirs, and essays–like I’m doing now–certainly help!). Acts of self-love, in whatever form, boost your self-esteem so you don’t need to use productivity to patch up the holes. Meditate, walk, do yoga, take long baths, buy a new outfit that makes you feel like a queen (or king).

And most of all, be true to yourself. That is the biggest act of self-love you could ever gift yourself.

Last, have a strong vision and understanding of how your work contributes to the world–outside of yourself. This may take a while to home in on and cultivate, and that’s okay, as long as you’re working in that direction. You don’t have to have it all figured out to move forward. Again, journaling is great for working through your thoughts on this. As you become clear on what you can offer others with your art, you will start to be pulled to move forward in your writing career, rather than pushed.

Why do you, deep down in your gut, write? Do you feel like you’re writing from fear or love? With which acts of self-love do you nurture yourself and your artist?

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ABOUT JAMIE

Jamie Raintree is an author and a writing business teacher. She is also a mother of two girls, a wife, a businesswoman, a nature-lover, and a wannabe yogi. Her debut novel, PERFECTLY UNDONE, will be released on October 3, 2017 by Graydon House. Subscribe to her newsletter for more writing tips, workshops, and book news. To find out more, visit her website.

April 24th, 2017

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine Into Gold 

When thinking about what to sacrifice in order to earn a living, care for a family, and also write a novel, the first thing most of us take off the table is sleep. Unwilling to crimp anyone else’s schedule while we work hard to pursue our dream, we joke, “Sleep—who needs it?”

Well, you do.

Why do we—particularly women—choose to hurt ourselves rather than ask for the support we need? Our writing goals may not be sure-fire income producers, but pursuing them sure does take a lot of preparation and time investment. The very fact that it is an uncertain endeavor requires that we regularly replenish emotional and physical energy resources. This is especially true if we expect there to be anything left for our families when we’re done with our daily obligations to self.

Nothing batters our ability to surmount life’s obstacles more than the lack of good night’s rest. Our inner parent knows this—when our children face tough trials, such as a test or performance, who among us has said, “Why don’t you stay up half the night and tackle it in full sleep-deprivation mode”? It’s time for we adults to afford ourselves the luxury of our own sound parenting practices.

We mistakenly tend to think of sleep as the least productive part of our day; a time when the mind and body shut down. But this is not the case. Sleep is an active period of processing, restoration, and strengthening, says the National Sleep Foundation.

From your writing activities alone, think of all the data your brain takes in on any given day. Research, setting detail, character motivation, plot twists. Add writing business details. Car pools. Queries, application deadlines, medical appointments—whatever else that’s flying at you. While you sleep, all those bits and pieces of information are transferred from our tentative short-term memory to stronger long-term memory—a process called “consolidation.” One reason you wake up refreshed after a full night’s sleep is that your inner office has been uncluttered and important information filed, freeing you to move on. Without that sleep, those same bits just keep flying at you along with all the new ones.

According to the American Psychological Association, consolidation happens during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase—which usually takes place toward the end of the night, between the sixth and eighth hours of sleep, when people are most likely to dream. So if you only had four hours of sleep, you never had a REM phase.

That’s a shame for writers, many of whom credit their dreams for some of their most creative ideas.

Good sleep—yes, seven to nine hours of it—is so important to good decision making it may just save your life. Did you know that according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers who sleep only five or six hours in a 24-hour period are twice as likely to crash as drivers who get seven hours of sleep or more? Drivers with only four or five hours of sleep had four times the crash rate—close to what’s seen among drunken drivers.

Turns out, solving your problems by sleeping less isn’t problem “solving” after all.

Falling asleep can be a real problem for people whose brains are putting out fires most of the day. Anxiety loves the attention it gets when singing its cyclical chants solo in the middle of the night. But which came first: the anxiety or the inability to sleep? According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America, it’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Anxiety causes sleeping problems, and new research suggests sleep deprivation can cause an anxiety disorder.

In addition to anxiety and mood disorders and a generalized inability to solve problems, those who don’t get enough sleep are at risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and obesity—conditions which our chosen occupation, played out during long hours in a seated position in front of a computer monitor, has already put us at increased risk.

Despite such statistics, our “productivity at all costs” society continues to give shut-eye short shrift. More than one in three Americans don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis, according to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. My guess is that’s even higher among writers.

Let’s support one another in true WITS community spirit here and brainstorm some solutions. Has lack of sleep ever bitten you in the rear end? How do you handle the burden of your multiple responsibilities without sacrificing sleep? If you conquered an inability to fall asleep, what tips can you pass along? Let’s hear about your meditation, yoga, and Epsom Salts baths. Let’s hear about your meal planning and co-parenting arrangements. How do you fit writing into your life? Believe me: we have exhausted, inquiring minds who want to know!

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ABOUT KATHRYN

Kathryn CraftKathryn Craft  is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writingboth from Writer’s Digest Books.

April 21st, 2017

How to Write a Great Last Line

Don’t you just love it when a line in a book so good, that you just have to stop reading to appreciate it for a few minutes? Me too.  I think that’s part of the reason I began writing – to, just once – write one of those sentences. 

You can find them scattered throughout books, of course (Jodi Picoult…sigh) But I think they’re most often at the very beginning, or the very end of a book. (I wrote a blog on first sentences. You can read it here.) Why? Well, I have to admit, as an author, I spend more time thinking/editing/writing/crafting those words than any other in the book. Are you the same?

Before we talk about how to do that – lets indulge ourselves (okay, we’ll wallow) in some amazing last lines, shall we?

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.” Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me. “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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“Then starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.”
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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 “Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Animal Farm, George Orwell

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April 19th, 2017

The Personalities of Social Media

Last month I did a post on how to build a strong online brand and the two most popular questions surprised me. The most common was: “What do I talk about?” Remember, that’s what your 100 word cloud is for. (Click that link in the first line if you don’t know what I’m talking about. We’ll wait.) And the other big question was “Which platform do I use?” 

I’m dividing that last question into the why and the what. There is a learning curve for every new program you use, but that learning curve is shortened if you know WHY you are putting yourself through this learning curve. It’s also vital to know “which platform does WHAT.”

Yes, they all allow you to be social – they’re pretty equal that way – but each platform has distinct audiences and personalities. I’m going to just cover the giants on the social media scene: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Pinterest and Snapchat. Hopefully six social platforms be enough for y’all. *snickers*  

The goal is NOT to make you tired, and I can already see all my introverts inching out the door. It’s okay, introverts, there are ways to do social media without feeling like this guy.

via GIPHY

The key is to know which platforms best fit YOU and your personality.

What you should know before starting down the social media path:

What kind of communication do you want?

Back when I worked in the early mobile phone world, we talked a lot about half-duplex and full-duplex communication. Half-duplex is basically “push to talk, release to listen.” You couldn’t talk and listen at the same time. (Think of a walkie-talkie.) Full-duplex meant you could do both at the same time. Social media follows this model too: some platforms are half-duplex, and some are full-duplex. Some have the capability to be either. 

What makes social media fun and what makes it tiring?

The key to answering this question is knowing your own personality, and which platforms will suit it best. 

Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat all work really well in that half-duplex mode. You put out content, respond to comments and like or re-pin other peoples’ cool stuff. These are platforms where you get to hang out by yourself, but with other people. You don’t have to interact in real time if you don’t want to. People will still like and follow your stuff, even if you are more peripheral about responding.

But…you must have REALLY cool stuff, and a regular sharing schedule, to get noticed. There is more brainshare and organization that goes into these platforms because people follow you almost exclusively based on your content, rather than on your witty interaction. Your updates have to include well thought out hashtags and stand alone photos or engaging video.

Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are much more full-duplex platforms. People are talking back and forth in real time and you have to respond. If you don’t respond to people on these platforms in the form of shares, Likes, retweets, +1’s and conversation, eventually they will go away because these platforms demand interaction.

Facebook has everyone talking and responding to one another, in fairly real time. Ditto with Twitter, if you use hashtags to follow communications. You can do this with Google+ as well. There’s Facebook Live, Twitter Chats and Google Hangouts. These three platforms reward people who interact regularly and often.


The Social Media Giants

Yes, if you are looking for a job or a business contact, you need to be on LinkedIn, but readers tend to hang out at Goodreads and in the six programs mentioned below.

Facebook

Facebook has more than 1 billion active users each month. Those kinds of numbers mean you have to at least have a toehold there so you can connect with readers. Plus there are groups. Groups are like Christmas to an author. While your page might not reach many people at all, an update posted in a group goes to everyone in the group. That’s powerful.

That being said, I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. It’s hard to give up the coffee memes and cat videos but Facebook is a time-sucking vacuum. You stop in for five minutes and two hours later…*POOF* You just lost your morning.

I recommend a timer to keep you under control. Or here is an article on 9 Apps to Shut Up the Internet and Get Back to Work.

If you want some quick how-to info on topics like “profile vs page,” what type of page, and how to set up Facebook, click here. We’ve also done some really great Facebook posts here at WITS.

Twitter

From the moment I participated in a Twitter chat with Margaret Atwood, and got to ask her a question directly, I’ve been hooked. You gain access to people you would never get near in real life. And it’s fast – I can catch up in 10-15 minute increments.

Here’s a great summary from Mashable: “Tweets are, essentially, the same as status updates or links on Facebook; they’re just limited to 140 characters. You can follow anyone and anyone can follow you, and you don’t have to do anything to make this happen (unlike Facebook, where making “friends” requires approval from both sides).”

Twitter caveat: information comes at you in a wave until you learn to manage it. Use Twitter lists or a program like Hootsuite so you can visit and get the information you want quickly. 

We have lots of perspectives on Twitter right here at WITS. Take a peek at these.

Instagram

Instagram is about visual storytelling. It’s primarily a mobile app, meant to let you share photos and video while you’re on the go. It’s not about links – you can only put active links in your bio – its about visual content and engagement with fans. Instagram is also one of the fastest growing social networks and it can pay off big for writers.

Great Instagram articles:

Google+

Google is an underappreciated social platform for several reasons. Number one, it’s owned by Google. “Likes,” called “+1’s” in Google+, will help your search rankings. A lot. Your social media posts on this platform act like rocket fuel when someone Googles you: the Google Plus results leap to the top. 

Translation: if you are aiming to spend as little time as possible on social media, while still getting a big bang for your time, you should add G+ to your repertoire.

Plus, Google+ integrates with GoogleDrive and has Google Hangouts. That makes it a great place for you if you are holding online seminars or interacting with small businesses. Google Hangouts beat Skype hands down because you can easily screen share and switch back and forth between your computer and your mobile devices without ending the video chat.

Some articles that break down the “why” of Google+ in more detail:

Pinterest

Pinterest is great for you and your followers. While you are organizing your own ideas, photos, and research into various Pinterest boards, you are also giving this valuable (organized!) content to others. Many writers swear their Pinterest boards have revolutionized their research. Dont forget, you can make private boards if you need to keep something on the down low!

Also, as visual content becomes more and more essential to any social media strategy, Pinterest is an important tool. This virtual bulletin board is a huge driver in getting people to your website and increasing visibility that leads to book sales.

Think of Pinterest as an online catalog, but with way more opportunities for interaction.

Snapchat

Do you need to cater to a younger demographic? Are you comfortable producing graphics and visual content? (Remember Laura Drake’s Canva post?!) Snapchat might be the tool that helps you engage your audience in a new and creative way. With Snapchat, you can create images and short videos for your audience and customize your message with text and graphics. It also gives you the ability to monitor which users are viewing your messages.

Snapchat content only lasts 24 hours. Some people see Snapchat’s “24 hour” shelf life as a disadvantage, but it can be a bonus opportunity to repurpose your content.

You can get really creative. Save your Snapchat story as individual videos, or photos and share it on your other platforms to lure people over to  your Snapchat account. Snapchat allows you to click on your “ghost icon” at the top and get a Snapcode that you can share to your newsletter list or your Twitter following.

Here’s a link on 7 Creative Ways to Use Snapchat to Market. (Or you can just send video chats to your pals like the rest of us.)

Bonus Links:

Moz.com has a wonderful Beginner’s Guide to Social Media. I’m not a beginner and I still picked up tips. Plus, the infographics are excellent and you can download the guide as a PDF.

Contently.com has gathered 10 Great Tips for Small Businesses Just Getting Started on Social Media. These tips were practically and extremely clear. For example, this gem about the “minimum amount of posting” for your platforms:

Here’s a quick guide to the bare minimum you should be posting for each network:

  • Blogging once per week
  • Posting on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn three times per week
  • Tweeting ten times per week
  • Pinning 20 times per week

See what I mean? That’s a golden common sense article. All the tips are that clear.

What are you favorite places to hang out online? Which platforms would you rather never see again? Do you need more information on something I mentioned? If so, let me know down in the comments and I’ll flesh out another post!

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About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or here at Writers In The Storm.