JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

My First Promo Video

Feb
24

If you missed the video (because you haven’t signed up for my newsletter), here it is for the rest of you.

Tell me what you think and feel free to leave comments here or on the YouTube page.

~JM

In Memoriam–3LineTales

Feb
19

The display was a secret code, a hidden lamentation right there at the corner of his desk. Two books representing two camps, three roses for three like-hearted comrades. And the spools of thread…those were for the prisoners he had failed to save.

*Written as a response to the Three Lines Tales Week 107 photo prompt.

The Problems with Quirky Dialogue Tags

Feb
17
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This is just bad advice. Said will never be dead, because said is better writing.

I saw this image come across my Facebook feed the other day and felt it would make a good little writing post. There were a lot of comments on the post, and even the ones that argued against fancy dialogue tags didn’t seem to understand why that was an important rule.

While it is important to know the rules of writing (or any other activity), it is equally important to know why the rules are important. If you don’t understand the why, you might get duped into following a bad rule (such as “said is dead”). Also if you don’t understand the rule, you won’t know when it is appropriate to break the rule.

I have worked with writers and editors who have learned the rules, but did not understand them. One editor called me out for my use of adverbs in a flash story (there were only 7 in the whole piece!) without considering and recognizing that there was no alternative language to be used in their stead (how else would you describe an animal “slowly rising to its feet”?). In order to use our words at their best, we have to understand the reasoning behind the writing rules we follow.

In this case, some of the commenters mentioned one of the reasons why complex dialogue tags should be avoided: it can be jarring, can draw the reader out of the POV. Often times the use of “said” becomes invisible, the reader only noticing the who and not the how.

But there is a more fundamental problem with these dialogue tags, one that I have often seen in writing I have edited and reviews. It is the same fundamental problem with adverbs behind the rule to avoid them as well, especially -ly adverbs and especially in conjunction with dialogue tags. The problem is they are usually unnecessary.

Good writing is that which examines each and every word, forcing each to earn its place in the prose. Redundancy and over explanation should be avoided when at all possible. There are two ways that dialogue tags become unnecessary and unwanted: 1) they are redundant, 2) they tell rather than show.

In the first case, complex dialogue tags are often unnecessary, or should be unnecessary. There is no need to use the word “shouted” if the dialogue is “Get off my lawn!”–the exclamation point and what is being said tells the reader this is being shouted. So any extra dialogue tag is unwarranted. The best way to convey a sense of how something is being said, is to write the dialogue in a manner that will show this. Instead of “stuttered,” you can write it into the dialogue–“I-I D-don’t n-n-know.” Same with things like “huffed” or “stammered”–try “I…didn’t…see…where he went,” she said, struggling to catch her breath. Good writing should convey the meaning inherent in the tag in the dialogue itself, rendering it redundant.

Which leads to the second issue, telling instead of showing. Telling the reader that the character “fumed” doesn’t actually show anything. You are telling the reader, “this character feels angry,” and generally speaking, it is better to show emotion. Instead of “I hate this!” he fumed, try “I hate this!” he said, throwing the book hard into the ground. Give your reader a tangible action to witness, if it is important to call any attention to emotions or  behavior. (It typically isn’t, as the dialogue should carry the tone mostly without actions. Nothing is worse than having an action after every line of dialogue.)

Lastly, some of these are simply not dialogue tags. A person cannot physically laugh, giggle, or grunt out words. That is contrary to what these words mean.  If you want to show a character laughing in conjunction with a statement, that requires a separate sentence. Not “You look like you’ve been having quite a day,” he laughed–but rather “You look like you’ve been having quite a day.” He laughed. That is the only logical way to use such verbs, based on their very definitions. Also, thinking tags such as thought, wondered, or pondered are not speaking and thus cannot replace said, as this chart seems to suggest. That’s just silly.

I think there are a lot of writers out there who are hell-bent on doing things their way, rules be damned. Indeed some of the comments on the Facebook post were along the lines of “Even famous writers break the rules, so what do they matter, and who are these academics to tell me what to do.” That’s a fine attitude to have, if you don’t care whether you’ll be published or not.

Yes, established writers do break the rules. But often it is because they know how to break the rules because they understand the reasoning behind the rules. And of course, any writer or editor cannot catch every mistake. This is not the same as it not being a mistake. And this does not mean an amateur writer can get away with the same behavior.

A new writer is under much greater scrutiny than a veteran. All you are doing, by using flamboyant dialogue tags in your writing, is throwing up red flags and giving editors an excuse to reject you. Don’t do it.

Of course, like any rule, there are times when this one should be broken. Maybe you’re short on space, or the dialogue just can’t convey the exact meaning you want. There are times when a more meaningful alternative might be appropriate (but never quaked, belted, requested, or numerous other bad examples in this list). Like with adverbs, you should consider carefully each and every violation of the rule, ensuring it is justified (you should, in fact, be doing this with every single word in your prose, but we are all only human).

Well, those are my thoughts. I hope they help you improve your writing. I know thinking about these sorts of things helps mine!

Thanks for reading.

~JM

When Your Description is Meaningless

Feb
10
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Describe me, I dare you.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King offers many tips on how to write good description. But in doing so, he reveals a fundamental problem with his style of writing–using words that have no inherent meaning.

King does this a lot in IT. He references pop culture without describing the referents. He’ll drop a song title without lyrics, or casually mention a film or an actor. To a reader who does not already have specific knowledge of these referents (which in the case of IT, means knowledge of the 1950s), it will simply be “that one song” or “that one guy who starred in that one movie one time”–meaningless.

This can also be seen in a oft-quoted passage from On Writing where King describes how to describe. He suggests avoiding long descriptions about physical characteristics or clothes and suggests instead:

“If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us.”

If you think about his example description for a while, you realize it means very little on its own (besides the “bad complexion” part, but that is ambiguous without context–a bad complexion could be acne, it could be age, it could be sun damage, or countless other things). King’s description is all referential. It depends completely on the cultural knowledge and experience of the reader.

King expects his reader to have the very same life experience as he did. He says here “We all remember one or more high school losers, after all”. What if you didn’t go to high school? What if you were home-schooled? What if you aren’t even American?

The latter question is key for us as modern writers. King started writing when it was not expected to break out beyond your country, or even your local region. It was all print, and logistics were a pain. Now, thanks to Amazon and ebooks, every writer is a global writer. I have English readers from the UK, Australia, Singapore, South Africa. They are not going to get descriptions that rely solely on cultural knowledge.

We Americans think it is good description because we understand the reference, but I actually think this is very poor description in the long run.

What if someone picks the book up after 100 years, when there is no more high school because knowledge is digitally injected into our brains? Oh, and everyone wears the same Star Trek-style unitards, so fashion is no longer a thing. Then the description he offers says nothing to the reader. I think it is much better to actually describe the girl’s face and clothes, rather than rely on references that are not going to endure, or may not even be understood by some modern readers.

And yet he does it again when he moves on to location description. After providing a sample passage that relies on cultural references such as “maitre d” and “twenties speakeasy,” he asks how it could be improved by saying:

“There are plenty of details I could have added–the narrowness of the room, Tony Bennett on the sound system, the Yankees bumper-sticker on the cash register–but what would be the point?”

Only one of these three details has inherent meaning. I certainly couldn’t bring a Tonny Bennet song to mind when asked. The Yankees reference might have more global reach, but is still limited. Not everyone is going to get that this detail is placing the location in New York.

Regarding description, King states:

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

This is, indeed, absolutely true. Writer’s have an idea in their head and good writing is that which coveys the idea to the reader. The trouble is that I have different tools in my head–a different culture, life experience, and lexicon–and I must be sure that the words I use to describe my scene are not dependent on those things that are exclusive to my own mind.

If you don’t pay attention to this, you are setting yourself up for failure somewhere down the line, even if it’s a century from now. I imagine that is one reason why the classics still endure. I don’t remember Dickens citing popular culture in his descriptions. And when things do come up that are expected to be strange for the reader–such as everything about whaling in Melville–they are explained in detail. King takes shortcuts, but sometimes shortcuts are a trap.

I’ll leave this post with a bit of a positive. I’m not suggesting that On Writing is a bad book. It’s actually a very good, if basic, writing guide–excepting the above issue, of course. Another passage from the pages surrounding he ones quoted above states:

“I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story
of mine looked like–I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well.”

I think this is the ultimate truth, at least in regards to character description. The reader is going to end up generating their own image of the character. So yes, keep the description short since there is only so much the reader will heed, but at the same time make sure your words are meaningful and not just empty references.

Thanks for reading.

~JM

Buy me a drink, beautiful?

Feb
09

I’ve added a new widget to my website. It looks like this:

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What this thing does is link to my Ko-Fi page.

If you haven’t yet heard of Ko-Fi, it’s a donation platform for small businesses and artists where each donation is roughly equal to the price of a coffee. Thus most buttons say “Buy me a coffee.” But to me, coffee is more than just a drink; it’s essential fuel to keep the writing engine burning. I’d use coal, but it makes me cough up black smoke.

If you’d like to support me as a writer, you could donate on my Ko-Fi page. Or you could just buy the book, too. But I know fantasy is not for everyone. I can’t promise I will use the money to buy coffee, though. $3 is more than enough for a bottle of soju, and sometimes that’s a requirement of the writing process, too.

If you haven’t already, I suggest you make a Ko-Fi account. If you need help adding a button to your webpage, just ask and I’ll show you how.

~JM

Sunshine Blogger Award

Feb
08

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Thanks to Douglas William Thurstan Smith  (that’s a mouthful!), aka DWTSmith, for compelling me to respond by nominating me for an award. 😀

I’m not a big fan of award chains on WordPress. They feel just like the post chains on Facebook that I avoid like the bitter cold outside my window. Seriously, why is it so damn cold out there? I also think the meaning is a bit lost when each round has 11 nominations. If Douglas had to pick only the best 5, or even 3, would I have made the cut?

But I do feel honored that Douglas gave me this little shout out. We’ve had many good debates on writing here and there, mostly on his blog where he does a Tuesday Discussion.

The rules for this Award chain are as follows:

1.) Thank the person who nominated you in a blog post and link back to their blog.
2.) Answer the 11 questions sent by the person who nominated you.
3.) Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
4.) List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post and/or on your blog.

And here are Douglas’s questions for me:

Do You Keep a Diary or Journal?

No. I’m more of a brooder. Everything is in my head, until I really start going on a project.

Why Do You Write?

I’m a storyteller at heart. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always had countless stories in my head, begging to come out. I think I would be equally satisfied as a TV producer/creator, but until that happens, I will write.

What Challenges Have You Set for Yourself?

I probably say this too much, but my current goal is to sell a short story to a professional science fiction magazine. Also, I want to win the Writer’s of the Future Contest. Easy peasy, right?

What would be your ideal working environment?

A quiet, clean study with a comfortable chair and a powerful desktop. I don’t need much beyond the computer, but currently mine is a bit slow. Also, my “computer room” currently doubles as the cat bathroom, so I’m not working in there.

What Places in Your Past Do You Appreciate More Now, From a Distance?

I miss the places where I grew up, especially the elementary school I attended from 4th-6th grade, when I started writing. I was never part of the popular crowd in school, so I didn’t have much appreciation for the experience at the time, but I now see how much it shaped who I am today.

What Will You Remember Most From 2017?

Writing The Nightingale. It was my first novella, and now I have a deeper appreciation for the format. I definitely intend to write more. Also, I had a muse driving my the whole time and got the first draft done in only a few weeks. It was a thrilling experience.

What’s On Your Reading List?

I don’t really keep a reading list. I have many books in my Kindle at the moment, and many audiobooks waiting to be heard. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the science fiction side of the yard, so I think it’s time to move back over to fantasy. To that end, I will probably start with The Lies of Locke Lamora, and maybe reread The Mists of Avalon. Well, relisten. Those are both audiobooks.

Do You Have a Job, if so what is it?

I used to be an English language teacher, and still do that from time to time. I am also a paralegal in the army reserves, and have spent a good amount of time in the past year on active duty.

Does it relate to where you want to be in the future?

After 20 years the Army will owe me a pension, so yes, it does relate in a way.

What creative projects are you working on?

I am prepping The Nightingale for an April release. I also have one or two projects with Fiction Vortex that should be released in the coming months. The first is my serial Call of the Guardian, of which I am currently drafting episode 8 of 10. The second project is my first book In the Valley of Magic, the one that started this whole thing, which FV has shown great interest in publishing. I am just waiting on a contract.

What do you find the most frustrating aspect of blogging?

The time investment. And so far I have not seen much return for the time which has already been invested. But it is a requirement for an author these days, which is another frustration.


Well, that’s my response to Douglas’s nomination, and now here are my nominations. As I mentioned, I feel like 11 is too many. It lessens the significance of nomination. Also, with Douglas tagging so of the main blogs I read, I might not be able to come up with 11! So I’m going to pick 5.

My nominations are:

A Writing Life, a great place for discussions of writing and life.

A-Scribe to Describe, a reader and writer of spec-fic that has many interesting things to say on the genre.

Shawn Writes Stuff, a good place for funny, satirical stories.

Where Landsquid Fear to Tred, a great blog on the process of writing, with nice discussions.

Planetary Defense Command, a blogger who has much more experience with the Science Fiction genre than I do.

And here are my questions:

  1. When did you start writing?
  2. Which genre do you prefer to write? To read?
  3. Which genre do you actually write most often?
  4. What is your favorite piece of work and why?
  5. Where is the most interesting place you came up with a story idea?
  6. If you could win any writing award, which would it be?
  7. Do you associate with other writers? Are they at the same level as you?
  8. What’s one of your writing goals for 2018?
  9. Are you a plodder or a plotter?
  10. Where do you currently live, where are you originally from, and have you ever lived in a foreign country?
  11. If you could travel anywhere in the Universe, where would it be and why?

Well, that’s it. I’m looking forward to seeing what my nominees have to say.

Thank you for reading. Please check out the blogs I have nominated.

~JM

 

Slowing Blog Growth

Feb
02
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Why don’t you work?!

I’ve been noticing that the number of followers for my blog has been slow ever since moving to my new website. I’ve done some reading and have figured out a couple issues that have been causing the problem–one I can change and one I cannot.

First, I realized that my blog no longer had a basic follow button. This is a basic option for a WordPress.com hosted site, but not part of the general self-hosted WordPress.org package. I didn’t even realize it wasn’t there. Of course, I had the subscribe via email widget, but I’m sure there are a lot of people that don’t want to hand out their email address willy-nilly (despite the fact that I cannot see the email addresses of blog followers, only my RABBLE). But with a little Google-fu, I was able to add the button with an HTML widget.

So if you haven’t followed yet because you didn’t want to use your email, now you can follow directly.

The second issue is one I cannot change, and that’s the WordPress.com reader. Because my site is not hosted on WordPress.com, my posts do not appear in the reader. I did not realize just how important that is for visibility. It seems that many of my previous followers came via the reader. I don’t know what I am going to do about that. People who follow my blog, either by manually entering the URL in the reader or by using the new follow button, should see the posts in the reader. But not strangers.

I guess the best way is to just be more active in the blogosphere. I can still get folks to visit my site by commenting and following other blogs.

To my followers, can you confirm if you see my posts in your reader or not?

~JM

Newsletter Delays

Feb
02

If you’ve been following this blog as of late, you’ll know that I’ve been saying for a couple weeks (few weeks?) that I will soon send out my next newsletter. This will conveniently hit about a three month mark, establishing it as a quarterly, which I think is a good fit for me.

If you’re wondering what’s taking so long, the reason is that I still need to shoot the video. But there is good reason why this part is delayed. I will be making my little video at a special location! Just a little something to reveal a bit about myself and where I live. It’ll be fun, I promise. But I needed a free weekend to do it. Luckily tomorrow is free!

I also want to show you how the print copies of The Adventures of Iric came out. SPOILER ALERT, they came out really nice. I will explain why, and how I did it.

If I shoot the video this weekend, I should have the newsletter out sometime next week. But the only way you’re going to see it, is if you join my little RABBLE! The sign-up is on the right side of the page, or on the pop-up.

On an unrelated note, this morning has been interesting. I’ve got some encouraging news about In the Valley of Magic, that I am just waiting for confirmation for. The book might have finally found a home.

I also read an interesting article by Chuck Wendig about book turn-offs. I am not a fan of Wendig–I tried reading his Star Wars novel and was immediately put off by the narrative voice. But the advice here is good.

Here’s one of my take away quotes:

“If it’s sci-fi, it’s loaded for bear with bewildering sciencey stuff, or if it’s fantasy it’s all funky names with magical apostrophes, or if it’s horror it’s more interested in soaking the pages in raw, red gore and horror tropes. Context is king, yet again. Character is everything. Root me in the character. Make me care. Then layer in the genre elements. It’s like a cake — it’s easy to make icing taste good, but too much of it is gross.” – Chuck Wendig

I’ve peer review a lot of SF/F work that is like this, obsessed with its genre-nature rather than the story and characters. And nothing turns me off from a fantasy story faster than apostrophes everywhere, particularly in the names of main characters and locations. I think a lot of people don’t realize that those things actually have a specific function in Tolkien. The old man was a linguist; he created entire languages from scratch. All those marks have rules. They aren’t just thrown about arbitrarily.

Well, that’s my writing tip for the day. Time to get back to work. Thanks for dropping by!

~JM

Stephen King’s IT — I Just Can’t

Feb
01

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Failure sucks. When you set a goal for yourself, it can be disheartening to not reach it, no matter the circumstances. I have mentioned on this blog for several months now, I think, that I was working my way through Stephen King’s IT, one of the favorite stories of my childhood. But I just can’t do it. I can’t go on.

Fourty hours in and I’ve still got three hours left in the audiobook, but I can’t. I know what you’re saying. Only three hours! Just get it done! That’s what I thought two weeks ago when there was only four hours left, and see how that went. Part of me wonders what the hell can be in those last three hours, as the lead characters have already confronted the monster in its lair. What is there that is left to say? Tangents, tangents and more tangents–the most recent one a potty-humor digression about exploding toilets that was as humorous as it was relevant. Meaning not at all. Which is why I am giving up.

IT was my favorite King story since I saw the old TV miniseries starring Tim Curry. I loved the idea of outcast kids banding together to fight a powerful monster, and returning as adults–returning to their childhood in a way–to kill it for good. After being very impressed by King’s writing manual and memoir, On Writing, I decided to dive in. Little could I have know that IT was written well before King learned how to write.

There are too many problems with the text to go into detail here. I was planning to do a thorough review, but I no longer have the patience or desire. Here are just a few of the issues:

  1. In On Writing, King tells us to avoid adverbs as much as possible, particularly in conjunction with dialogue tags. In IT, I would guess a good quarter of all the dialogue tags have adverbs.
  2. The POV and narrative voice is horrible. This book clearly wants to be in limited third-person POV, but King throws in a lot of unnecessary omniscient bits for no clear reason. He also makes some horrible choices of which character’s POV to be in, such as the long-winded section in the beginning from Stan’s wife’s POV, describing this irrelevant woman’s life background when the only important bit of the section is Stan’s suicide. King shows in places a competency to do POV well, using narrative voice to color his villains. However, he is not consistent, and the voice for the protagonists is bland by comparison. Then there is the section from It’s POV which is complete nonsense, since there is no way to relay the point-of-view of an omnipotent evil.
  3. The narration is problematic in many other ways, such as tense. The story has two different threads, one in past tense and one in present. Until suddenly, and without reason, the present tense thread starts being told in past tense. Not only is this incredibly confusing as the narrative begins to jump quickly between past and present, it is also totally illogical, since present time events at the end of the book told in past tense actually occur after earlier events told in present tense. You can’t have past tense events come after present tense events in time, that’s just absurd.
  4. Another, equally problematic issue with the narration is the tendency to go off on tangents that have no real bearing on the immediate story. There are entire chapters that can be removed, without affecting the story at all. The whole second chapter, that deals with characters entirely unrelated to the protagonists, and which comes before we even meet the protagonists, is one example. Another is the entire Patrick Hogsteadder chapter, which only slows down the narrative as it is reaching it’s crisis.
  5. The villains are boring. The places in the narrative where we either get the monster’s POV, or have the monster speak to us, do not help make the creature more interesting. In fact, the opposite is true. The more we know about It, the less terrifying it is. There is something about an unknowable horror that is compelling. On the flip side, the secondary villain, Henry, is boring because he is given no depth. By simply making him crazy, the character falls flat. Much more interesting would be a Henry who feels justified in tormenting the kids, and hunting the adults for payback, due to what he learned from his father as a child. Psychopathy is not necessary, and is rather a hindrance.
  6. The book is blatantly sexist. The treatment of the only female lead in the book is horrible. Despite attempting to show a liberalness to things like racism and sexism, the work falls flat on the latter end. Everything about Beverly is presented, in some way, as related to men, whether it be her father or her husband or her friends. She is given no real agency of her own. Also she is the only character who is sexualized in the book, whether by appearance or description or the situations she finds her self in (such as watching the bully boys masturbate–part of that completely unnecessary Patrick chapter). Another example of the overt sexualization of Beverly is when the adults are in It’s lair, holding hands to send their power to Mike who is under threat in the hospital, it is Beverly who is described as “rolling her head in ecstasy.” This is followed by a comment about orgasms. She is also routinely seen with her shirt open, with numerous comments made about her breasts. When describing her as an eleven or twelve year old. No other character’s sex life is described, but Bev’s is scrutinized. It all becomes clear during the “love scene” between Bill and Bev. Here you realize that she is just a sexual object for King’s own fantasies, acted out through his stand-in Bill, the successful horror writer who critics hate. The comparison could not be more obvious.

Much more could be said, but I just want to be done with it. Maybe someday in the future, I will finish those last hours, so that I can say that I did it, I battled through, but not now.

This whole experience has only gone to show just how much better at storytelling the filmmakers of both versions of IT on video were than King himself. They understood the need to cut all the needless fat (which in the case of the book, I would say is around a third of it), to stick to the main plot, to have a coherent POV and timeline, to not over explain the monster, to not make Henry just a crazy guy, and to respect the female cast, among other things.

Stephen King routinely rants about the criticism he received early in his career, but I see now that it was well deserved. He was not a great writer, not even very good. But he managed to rope an agent or editor in with his first novel Carrie, and from that point on, he was in the club. Merit was no longer required.

This feels horribly unfair, as modern writers will usually only get an agent contract for a single book, and will have to submit again and be subject to the same scrutiny as the first time. And modern writers have to know how to write well, from the very beginning. We have to study and practice. We have to know all that stuff in On Writing, and be able to implement it, before our first noteworthy publication. King didn’t. That sucks.

At it’s core, IT is a great story about childhood, and the power of having an open, inquisitive, childish mind. But the execution fails. For anyone looking for the best version of the story, the 1990 miniseries is the way to go. It is more true to the original concept than the new films, but without all the troubles of the original text.

Well, that’s it. I’ve said my peace and now it’s time to move on. I think I need to jump back into the Discworld for a little while, to recover my sanity.

Thanks for reading!

~JM

I’m getting ready to send out my next newsletter in the coming weeks. I will be including an exclusive video of myself, talking Iric and future projects, as well as the usual publication highlight and writing tips. If you’d like to see all that, and be part of the “cool” crowd, you can sign up to join the RABBLE on the right side of the page!

The Furthest Star – 3LineTales

Jan
25

She looks to a sky filled with stars, searching for the one that holds for her the most meaning. It is a distant place, her home, further than she can ever imagine, for she knows not how she ended up here, on this quaint little planet in a backward part of the galaxy–likely an experiment gone wrong, as they tended to go these days. She is lonely, beyond words, to be so far from her children.

*Written as a response for the Three Line Tales Week 104 photo prompt.

Thanks for reading!

~JM

I’m getting ready to send out my next newsletter in the coming weeks. I will be including an exclusive video of myself, talking Iric and future projects, as well as the usual publication highlight and writing tips. If you’d like to see all that, and be part of the “cool” crowd, you can sign up to join the RABBLE on the right side of the page!