Four on 400: June Feedback

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

Working Title: Patty Pat

Lower Middle Grade

Patty had nightmares about feeding the roosters, but the hens were sweet. She looked forward to their soothing cackles and bright eyes. They fluttered and jumped with excitement when she rounded the corner of the garage carrying a big bowl of carrot and potato peelings and leftover breakfast mush.

Patty tipped half the contents of the bowl onto the floor of the hen shed and watched the hens play with pieces of carrot and peck at the mush. The little brown hen hung back and then darted forward to get her share while the big speckled hens fought over a long piece of carrot peel.

Reluctantly Patty moved to the other side of the shed where the fighting roosters strutted and crowed in their cages. They were prettier than the hens, all reds and greens, shining purple-black feathers and swooping tails. They were also mean, beady-eyed, and sneakier than any villain the Lone Ranger thwarted on the radio. They stared hungrily at Patty and scratched up the dust in their cages with hard, curved claws.

Feeding the roosters made Patty wish she were one of the two big girls who helped Mother with the sewing and heavy housework. Or one of the two little girls with easy chores like feeding old sleepy Ming Chow, who had never nipped anybody. Ever. Patty felt stuffed between her sisters, and not just when they piled into the Buick, the little girls on the big girls’ laps, Patty squeezed between with the back of the front seat for a view.

Imitating the brown hen, Patty quickly opened each cage door and tossed food inside. Still she was pecked twice and nipped once. She had just darted in to check the latch on the last of the cages when she heard the Buick pull into the driveway. Dad was early. Maybe he was going to Three Lakes after dinner.

“Got the chickens fed, Patty Pat?” asked Dad. “Fed and watered,” Patty replied. Patty and Dad climbed the back steps together. Dad took off his hat inside the little screened porch and set it on the shelf.

Patty could see Joan and Connie already at the kitchen table swinging their feet as they waited for Mother to bring them stew and biscuits. There were only five places set. The big girls must be decorating for a dance. Or maybe they were at a movie.

 

Kristi: I love this setting. It’s reminiscent of CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, which I read and re-read as a kid. A few things will really tighten this up and get the story moving. Your first line is only okay to me. I’d love it to have more punch. The entire first paragraph can be condensed to really draw in your readers. I’d suggest something along these lines:

Patty had nightmares about feeding the roosters, but the hens were sweet. She looked forward to their soothing cackles and bright eyes. The hens fluttered and jumped with excitement when Patty rounded the corner of the garage carrying a big bowl of vegetable peelings and leftover breakfast mush.

In your 2nd paragraph you overuse the word “hen.” In fact, I’d cut it and move on to paragraph 3 because that’s where I feel like you’ve hit your stride. I like the mention of the Lone Ranger and the radio and the family car. All of these things really set up where we are and what her life is like. Also, I loved that you planted a few things like dad being home early and not sure where the sisters are– this works perfectly in making me wonder if somethings up.

Karin: I completely agree with Kristi’s comments. I really like how you manage to anchor us authentically in place and time.  I would suggest tightening a little more and perhaps giving us a little more sense of what Patty wants. All we know is she’d rather be sewing with the big girls than feeding the hens and roosters. I love the reference to the Lone Ranger but would would cut one of the three adjectives describing the roosters. In paragraph five, I was confused as to how Patty was imitating the brown hen. Also, I would add “rooster” in here to remind us that she’s feeding them now. Also, not sure what the difference is between pecked and nipped. The ending makes me want to read more so I can find out why the older sisters aren’t there. Well done and good luck!

Gabrielle: Your prose is lovely–simple and evocative. I’m right with Patty Pat in the hen house. I agree with Kristi about too much use of the word “hen”, and would add that you also repeat “mush” too frequently. I would keep the first sentence of your first paragraph, but move it to the end of that paragraph. It gives us some good tension, with her fear of the roosters, but you could flesh it out a little with some details of the nightmares. Does she just have to feed them again and again in her sleep, until she wakes in a cold sweat, or do they get huge and chase her, or something different? Your line about the radio is a very clever way to show us we’re not in today’s hen house.

Overall, I think this is a great beginning, and it reminds me some of A YEAR DOWN YONDER by Richard Peck, though I do wonder a little about what’s going to be at stake. Hopefully, there will be an upping of the tension fast. You’ve got a good set-up with her being smashed between her sisters, but I want to see her decide to do something about it, or for there to be hints of something huge coming toward her that will throw a wrench in her life–soon. For example, In A YEAR DOWN YONDER, the heroine is leaving her mother and the life she knew behind, thrown into her crazy Grandmother’s life to make her way. She’s miserable, and we see every moment of her longing for home. As an aside, the scene you paint is easy to see, but I think you could also squeeze in a detail or two about Patty’s physical appearance that would help us see her better. Also, please mention what kind of creature Ming Chow is, so we can see her too! Nice work.

Rebecca: I like this start! We definitely see Patty is stuck in the middle of a large family and get a good sense for her life on the farm. Like the other’s, I’d like to know what the story’s about. Is Patty’s goal to be seen as one of the “big girls?” But this is only 400 words and I like your writing, so I’d keep reading.

 

4 on 400: May Feedback

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

Biting Secrets

YA Paranormal Romance

It happened the day the world went dark. Meteorologists still have no explanation. Experts blame the lining of the planets–others propose NASA blocked the sun’s rays with some experimental exposition. In my opinion, the Earth stopped rotating that day. At least, it did for me.

I’m scrubbing my surfboard for the third time tonight. It’s gleaming, ensnaring me with hopeful operation, but I won’t bend to its will. Not now, not ever again.

“Abigail,” his voice calls over the two-way radio.

I scrub harder, stripping it of the lies, its betrayal, of its vivid bloody warranty.

“Abigail, it’s going to disintegrate.”

I glance over my shoulder, sighing. Lucas leans against his balcony, smirking at me. His wild ringlets are sculpted to the base of his head, indicating fatigue.

I groan and grab my radio. “What do you want, Lucas?”

“You can’t scare me away, ice queen. It’s a full moon.”

I sigh, standing to face him. Lucas and I have been toying with walkie talkies since we were ten years old. We only live a few feet from each other, our balconies peering over the water at proportionate levels. On a serene night, our voices even stretch within reach. But tonight, the waves crash with ferocious intentions, snapping and snarling in an undulating captivity.

I hold the receiver to my lips. “Is this our new normal? Every time the moon is full, you bother me?”

“It depends,” he says. “Are you going to rub your board raw with every full moon?”

I glare at him–his gut-wrenching grin caked on a chiseled platter–and I can’t help but smile.

“Well, you know how I see it.”

I laugh, shaking my head. “Right, I have two options.”

“One, you run away with me. We can even go to the desert for all I care.”

“Or two, I surf again,” I mock him.

We linger in tarried silence under the loud moon. I’m weary with its volume, but I remember it clearly the night I was attacked: massive, scarring, morbid. I sigh as the waves crash in the distance–thunder orchestrating between the swells–and I try to ignore my synapses as they fire off salty images.

“Seeing as we’re only sixteen,” I finally break the silence, “I don’t think option one is on the roster.”

“Which leads to option two–my favorite option.”

Rebecca: You have an intriguing first paragraph. I like that it sets the stage for a paranormal story. I’d love more clarity on is what the night was like, other than dark. What does it feel like to have the planet stop rotating? How long has it been dark? The characters do not seem to be acting like something out of the ordinary is going on and if they did, that would act as a bridge between the opening and the intro to your characters.

The relationship between Abigail and Lucas sounds promising, but here were also some things that didn’t come across clearly. The surfboard “ensnaring me with hopeful operation,” the loud moon and “his gut-wrenching grin caked on a chiseled platter.” You need a bit more for the meaning to be clear to the reader.

Best of luck with this project!

Halli: I’m intrigued from the first paragraph. What happened that day? Why did the world go dark? It must be something huge if NASA can’t figure out what happened. I second what Rebecca said about wanting more information on this. You can still introduce the characters, but a suggestion would be to do so in relation to the dark event. By diving into the characters in an event like that, readers would be able to see and feel another side of them. One filled with deep emotion like fear. One more thought as I read this, I feel there are too many adjectives. It slowed down the reading for me and did not highlight those that were most important. Thanks so much for sharing! I love YA paranormal. Good luck!

Richelle: You’ve set up a super interesting premise, with a lot of interesting questions — how do they know when it’s day and when it’s night if it’s dark all the time? How are they coping on the other side of the world where it’s always day? What’s happening with food/crops? How has it impacted the animals and the weather? Fascinating! Because that was so intriguing, I found the conversation not holding my attention as much as it should. Can you feather in the information in that first paragraph as you go through the story, rather than dropping it up front? I also agree with Rebecca and Halli that you might consider using clearer language and fewer descriptors, especially up front. I love your creativity, but a few times, it took me right out of your story. Thanks for sharing and best of luck!

Gita: The world went dark? Count me in! I love the idea that something is happening on a cosmic level right at the beginning of your story and that it somehow may mirror what’s happening with these two teenagers. So yes, I’m intrigued. In that first paragraph, though, I’m a little unclear about what your narrator says when she notes, “At least it did for me”—does that mean the world didn’t go dark for others? Or is this a comment on something else? I’d clarify that. You’ve received so much good feedback above I don’t have much to add beyond a couple of suggestions for how to tame your metaphors, which as my fellow Pennies have said, confuse/distract rather than deepen our understanding of what’s happening. One, because you’re telling the story in first person POV, all these metaphors are ones Abigail is creating, since she’s the one telling the story. Is she really thinking of Lucas’s grin as “gut-wrenching” and “caked on a chiseled platter”? Two, you might consider honing the metaphors so they belong to one family of metaphors at a time (about the moon, or waves, for example) and simplify each metaphor says only one thing at a time, like “gut-wrenching.” Three—which is connected to my first point—these metaphors are a chance for you to show us who Abigail is and how she thinks. You’ve got a flair for words—now make those words work double-time for you. Happy writing!

Gabrielle: My favorite part starts with the dialogue, “Abigail, it’s going to disintegrate.” and ends with “within reach.”  In that section you’re revealing a relationship by having one character react to the actions of another. More importantly, he reacts to what those actions tell him. It’s got depth. You’re also painting the scene really well, without distracting us with some of the too-heavy prose that my fellow Pennies have pointed out above. Sometimes it’s the simplest language that is the most poignant, because it serves the characters.  It will be the people and what makes them special that will draw us in and keep us. Paint them first, and make us love them. Thank you for sharing your writing with us, and good luck!

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How To Give Good Critique

We’ve talked before about the need for critique partners to help you create your best work. (Jessica Vitalis had some great suggestions about how to find the right critique partners.)

But finding critique partners is only half the battle. If you want to have an ongoing, productive critique relationship – and write your best novel! – you also need to know how to be a good critique partner.

So, now that you’re exchanging on the reg, how can you make sure that you and your new critique partner can go the distance?

Unfortunately, sometimes even the best critique partnerships fade. Changing genres, differing schedules and mismatched priorities can all derail you and your CPs.

But you can help ensure a lasting and nurturing CP relationship by using some of these techniques for giving (and receiving!) good critique:

  • Use the compliment sandwich. Nobody likes to hear a litany of their mistakes. It’s demoralizing, and it doesn’t make you want to ever let that critical eye near your work again. The critique sandwich is a great way to soften the bad news and help valid criticism land. The formula: Compliment->needs improvement->compliment.

EXAMPLE: I love the way you describe this scene using so many sensory details. I really felt like I was there! Can you use some of those details to heighten the emotions of the characters? The dialogue felt flat compared to the lush scene-setting. It’s so, so close!

  • Ask questions. Questions are a great, neutral way to draw out anything you want to see more of or challenge a writer to new heights. Ask questions about anything that’s not clear, sure, but also consider asking questions when you think there might be more to a moment than is currently on the page.

EXAMPLE: For a scene where a couple is having an argument at a diner: How does he react to what she is saying? Is he mad? Sad? Surprised? What is happening around them during this fight? Do people notice? Or are they trying to keep their voices down? Are they having any physical reactions to the argument? 

  • Point out what they’re doing right. If you notice you’ve gone several pages without commenting, it may be time to pause to tell the author why you’re not. A simple “Amazing tension here” or “Heartbreaking, raw and real!” lets them know when they’ve knocked it out of the park. And sometimes that information is as helpful as knowing where you’re going wrong.
  • Brainstorm, but not prescriptively. It’s inevitable you’re going to have some great ideas about your CP’s story, and you’re going to want to share them. Try to avoid using language like “You should…” or “I would…” Instead of pushing them to embrace your ideas (which may not take the story in the direction they want to go), say, “What if…” Make it clear the idea is theirs to run with, not you imposing your own ideas/aesthetic on their story.
  • Avoid vague, unactionable comments, such as “not sellable” or “too quiet”. Instead aim for more empowering statements, like, “How can you make this scene pop more?” “I wonder if there’s more energy you can inject into this opening.” Or “What do you think could make this story really jump off the shelves?”
  • Know your CP’s goals. Some writers really just want to write for themselves and don’t care about getting published. Others are determined to get an agent who brokers a major deal. And still others would be satisfied with something in between. Sometimes, a writer has been working on a story too long and just doesn’t have the energy or the passion to do what needs to be done to take it from good to great – and that’s totally valid! Critique to motivate them to higher heights, but not against their own goals.
  • Receive critiques with grace. When it’s your turn to have your work critiqued, try to take your ego out of the equation. When you work so hard on something, it can be wrenching to hear that someone doesn’t understand or appreciate it as much as you do. But if you can put your ego in the backseat and view the critique with gratitude, you’ll have what you need to make your story the best it can be. And if it really is a bad critique…let it go and move on. Just because you didn’t reach one person, doesn’t mean you won’t reach many others. (Caveat: If multiple people are pointing out the same problem, take that seriously. You probably need to do some work on that.)

Critiquing – especially with new partners – can be nerve-wracking. But if you approach it with a service mindset, reminding yourself that you are there to help another author achieve his or her goals, then that will lead to kinder, more effective critiques…and hopefully, long-lasting and productive critiquing relationships!

 

Tame Your Revision: 7 Tips to Finish Your Novel Before Your Battery Dies

Revising a novel is a form of bookkeeping. So many moving parts!! How do you keep from losing your mind?

Never fear, writer friends!

The Winged Pen is here!

Ta daaaa!

Give your revision Wings: Download the Tame Your Revision Infographic here.

INVENTORY

  1. Make a scene list.
  2. Timeline
  3. Map of Major Scenes
  4. Draw, Doodle, Diagram, Index Card, Cut up Manuscript, Synopsis, Query Letter, Colored Markers.

SLICE AND LABEL

  1. Duplicate all the scenes you want to revise. (#protip: Scrivener)
  2. Cut up into topics and label in Scrivener’s Binder. (“castle burns down” “tea party” “transition to vineyard”)
  3. Put like things together.
  4. Draft connections.

THROW STUFF OUT

  1. Duplicate all the files you want to revise. (If you didn’t already.)
  2. Delete everything that isn’t true.
  3. Cut stuff you don’t want. (Darlings, throat clearing, engine starting, letting characters off the hook.)
  4. Can you see?

FEEDBACK FOLDER

  1. Create feedback folders. (synopsis, draft, query, pitch) (#protip: Scrivener)
  2. Label files (reader/chapters/date. Paste in comments from e-mails.
  3. Add a status in Scrivener for “send to crit partners”, “to do”, “done”.

SORT BY SIZE

  1. Read Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K: How to write faster, write better, and write more of what you love.
  2. Make a list ranked by size of mess.
  3. Do the big stuff first.

CYCLE

  1. Go back a chapter. What did you promise the reader?
  2. Deliver it.
  3. Go forward a chapter. What did you deliver that needs to be set-up?
  4. Set it up.

DESPERATE MEASURES

  1. Find the question first. (See INVENTORY)
  2. Let subconscious work.
    (walks, water, sleep, music, whatever* works!)

*Dark chocolate Lindt truffles.

Happy revising! May your batteries and your Scrivener project targets always shine green!

Need that infographic link again? Here it is:

Give your revision Wings: Download the Tame Your Revision Infographic here.

photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.

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8 on Eight Feedback for November Winner: Jill Andrew’s INDIGO WAVES

eight on eight 2Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s 8 on Eight contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

If your name wasn’t drawn from the Triwizard cup this time around, keep an eye out for when our next contest window opens at 8 PM on November 30th. Below, we’ve posted the first 8 lines from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least eight of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

p1050665 INDIGO WAVES by Jill Andrews

Genre: Young Adult (Contemporary Sci-fi)

 

Freedom, I decided, tastes like salt water. Using a plastic beach shovel for a paddle, I stroked away from my island prison, toward the Gulf Coast in my tiny boat, although calling my contraption a boat may have been a stretch. Twelve detergent bottles, acquired from the school laundry department, were strung together to form a loose circle. A large rainslicker, attached to the ropes with bungees, offered a kind of floating nest in the center.

I paddled until my arms shook and my muscles burned from the effort. The gentle swells that had lapped against the beach were just high enough to make seeing me from the shore difficult. As I paddled further away from the island and the storm clouds moved in, the swells intensified to a relentless four-to-six-foot ascent, followed each time by a stomach churning plunge.

Gripping the plastic shovel against my chest with one hand, I clung to the flimsy rope with the other.

Julie Artz: I love that first line! You’ve provided some great details about the MC’s home-made escape boat, which draws the reader right in to this adventure story. That said, I want a little bit more in this opening about the stakes–what is MC fleeing, and what will happen if s/he is caught by the people she’s trying to escape? That sense of fear/danger will up the tension in the opening and, when combined with the great details you already have, will make this story shine.

Michelle Leonard: Fantastic opening that pulls me in immediately. You’ve included many lovely details, but I’d like just another word or two here and there so I can understand how worried I should be for the MC and how bad the MC’s experience has been in the prison (no long backstory, just a few well-placed adjectives). A few more questions that came up as I read: Is the rainslicker truly a nest or a shade? Is this most likely going to be a short journey. Again, a few simple words will make this all clear and help us understand the stakes. Nice work! I’m very intrigued. Best of luck and stay in touch with us to let us know how it goes.

Gita: Your opening really drew me in—I would certainly keep reading to find out what’s happening and why! I second (third?) what Julie and Michelle said: I’d love some emotional underpinning for the main character here. It doesn’t need to be wordy, but it needs to be there. Also, I’m wondering if could make some of your words count even more. For example, the third sentence is a passive construction. By choosing that construction you miss opportunities to reveal some backstory and show us something about the main character. Who tied the detergent bottles together? Was it the MC? If so, “I’d tied the detergent bottles together” shows us more than “were tied.” Likewise, “acquired” doesn’t tell us much. Were the bottles “stolen,” “snitched,” “scavenged,” “pawned,” “liberated” or something else entirely?

A minor formatting suggestion: your first line is so terrific I’d think about setting it off apart from the rest of the paragraph. Good luck with your writing!

Jessica: This is a very intriguing opening! By way of feedback, I’ll say that I was slightly confused in the opening paragraph. When I read that the MC was paddling away from an island prison, I took this quite literally. But then when I read about the school laundry department, I wasn’t sure if the MC was really in some type of prison or perhaps at some type of remote boarding school that made the MC feel imprisoned (I’m inclined to think the latter since I’m not sure if there would be a school in a prison, but I’m not certain). Good luck with this story!

Richelle: Great opening line! I was immediately intrigued. I’m with Jessica in being a bit confused about whether the prison was literal or metaphorical, and details like the plastic beach shovel and the mention of the school made me lean to the metaphorical. I also agree that some notion of the stakes would be helpful — even when the storm rolled in, I didn’t get a sense of urgency. It seemed more like an inconvenience than a life-or-death adversary. Had your MC been tracking the storm before he/she left? What about pursuers? Are there any? Are there sharks or other threats from the water? Has she left anything or anyone behind that colors her journey with regret? Or is she just anxious to get away? That first line is so evocative of what she’s feeling, but the rest of the opening takes us out of her state of mind and into her physical state. I wonder if you could pin the description of the raft and the journey more closely to her emotional journey, if that might make everything else pop as much as the first line does?

Halli:  I agree with everyone about your first line. It is definitely one of my favorites! Your writing is very nice, it flows well, and your descriptions are well done. I could see enhancing it with word choices, as I think Gita mentioned. I am on the same page with everyone above when they say that they are missing who your character is. Just a few words or sentences about who he/she is fleeing, a brief hint as to why, and then the emotions that go along with those revelations. Should we be afraid for the character? Cheer he/she on? And as the journey goes on, is there terror/anxiety about the approaching storm and swells? Your opening is intriguing! Good luck with this.

Rebecca: This sounds like the start to an intriguing story. I love the first line. It grounds us in your character’s motivation. I can also see from the way you’ve described the raft that she’s no limp protagonist, ready to take on the sea and a storm for what she wants, freedom.

I might like more emotion in the beginning. How does she feel about being aboard the makeshift raft? I get that she’s tired, but wouldn’t she be nervous if not outright frightened to be on the sea with this dodgy raft? I also feel like a tighter focus on her perspective would make the situation even more tense. You mention the view of her from shore. But what about her view? She’s not on shore so I’m not sure I buy that they can’t see her. I’d buy something along the lines of, “I couldn’t see the shoreline over the swells. Hopefully that meant they couldn’t see me.” Also, as the waves start reaching four feet…that’s really big in the type of raft she’s in. Can you “zoom in?” I like the “stomach churning plunge” and I’d like even more. What’s the situation of the raft – e.g. is it holding together or looking like the next wave might pull it apart? And how does she feel going up the swell, then crashing back down. It’s such a great visual, I’d really like to see it. It would naturally lead into more thoughts from her on why freedom is so important to her that it’s worth this risk. Of course all that would take you more than 8 lines. *face palm* But would hook the reader even more, I think.

Thinking bigger picture, I wonder if this is the right place to start. From reading this bit, I’d love to see our protagonist sneaking around to steal the Clorox bottles or other supplies. Or getting a glimpse of how she’s treated in her island prison–what it is that makes her desperate to escape. It might show us even more of your character’s strength and determination, and we’d be more invested in  her success by the time she was facing those 4 foot waves at sea.

Note: I didn’t read the prior comments to make my read “distinct.” Hope I didn’t just contradict everyone. Best of luck with your story!

Laurel: That’s an exciting opening to a story! Talk about setting your main character loose at sea in an unseaworthy craft! So, is the first line hinting at disaster? Drinking saltwater is a good way to go into convulsions, so I wasn’t sure if the narrator doesn’t know (yet) that drinking saltwater would be a bad idea. (If I’ve gone off on an unintended tangent, maybe it would better to have freedom’s scent like saltwater?) The boat is brilliant and vivid in my mind. The contrast of nest and the wobbly-ness of the whole construction makes me properly nervous. I’m trying to reconcile the school laundry with prison and getting a bit puzzled. Is prison metaphorical for school or is there a school in the prison? I’m wondering about the level of danger for the narrator. Also the swells “were just high enough to make seeing me from the shore difficult.” lowers the tension. Why not keep the tension up and make the narrator worry about that too? 🙂 Nice strong verbs and spare language. The tone is almost clinically detached in this opening. If it’s concealing a deeper emotional turmoil, maybe that could be hinted at a bit more. If the MC reminds him/herself that this isn’t the time to think about X,Y, and Z concerns, that would work too. Now I wonder what’s going to happen next. . .a sure sign that your first eight lines are doing their work.

Thanks for sharing your story with The Winged Pen!

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