A path lit by words

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Characters and Convertibles

First posted as a guest blogger for The Quotable Literary Magazine.


From time to time, a frustrated writer asks me where inspiration comes from.  I tell them anywhere and everywhere.  One of my favorite examples is a great character I discovered in an unlikely place—the Saturday “Wheels” section of The Island Packet, the local newspaper here on Hilton Head Island.

In a column by the Car Talk brothers, a 93-year-old woman sought advice about buying a convertible. She’s driven cross-country twice, and just last year she traveled 3,000 miles through the Southwest in her 2000 Subaru. The trip raised fond memories of her Dodge Dart convertible, stolen years ago from a Detroit service station where she had left it to have the top replaced. Now she wants “one more crack at a convertible.”

Her letter is wonderful because, in barely 100 words, I know who she is. She may not call herself a writer, but she follows the essential rule: She shows me. She doesn’t tell me. She doesn’t say, “I’m a feisty nonagenarian with a sense of adventure who refuses to let age get in the way.” She doesn’t boast that she’s healthy and that she watches her weight and her cholesterol. She doesn’t whine that owning a convertible is one of the few items left on her Bucket List and she’s running out of time. This woman is focused on living her life and to do that, she needs a car that’s “moderately priced, safe, serviceable, and FUN.”

I can’t stop myself from filling in the blanks to create her back-story—how she grew up in a small town in Ohio that she left at age eighteen to join a pre-World War II peace organization. She traveled through Europe and eventually made her home in San Francisco. She’s a retired educator, an administrator or a professor of languages who never married. Her name is Rita, her convertible is a yellow Mustang, and she’s driving home for the first time since her mother’s 1988 funeral, to mend fences with her younger brother.

Or her name is Josephine Hollister Rice and she’s the wealthy matriarch of a family from Boston’s Back Bay. She toed the line all her life, but lately she’s become a loose cannon. In fact, the Daughters of the American Revolution have banned her from meetings because she revealed a local Senator’s extramarital affairs. Only her first great-grandchild, born to her eldest granddaughter when she was just sixteen, thinks Grandmother—he calls her Jo—is the cat’s meow. They run away together in her brand-new red Porsche, in search of Jo’s first love, the black sheep she was forbidden to marry back in 1942.

Or she might be Clara, the wife of an Iowa farmer who died before he could fulfill his dream of driving a restored ’57 Chevy convertible east to see the ocean. Or … or…or…You see what I mean.

Where does inspiration come from? Anywhere and everywhere. All it takes is sharp eyes, an open mind, and the willingness to follow your imagination wherever it takes you.

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An “American” twist on “Show, don’t tell”

Every writer has heard the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It usually means conveying a feature of your character or setting by “evocative description” rather than “simple exposition.” Science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer uses these terms in an old but still relevant article, and offers several good examples. I thought I got it—until I watched an episode of The Americans last week.

If you don’t follow the show, the central characters are a pair of married KBG spies—Phillip and Elizabeth—living in a Washington, D.C suburb during the Cold War. They routinely commit acts of treachery and violence that I’ve considered gratuitous, designed to keep the show moving and to ensure that viewers don’t forget that these sympathetic characters are, after all, enemy agents. It’s a lot like Tony Soprano, whose entourage—kids in trouble, a mother with Alzheimer’s and terminal bitterness, a long-suffering wife, and a psychiatrist to help him cope with his anxiety—almost make us forget he’s a mob boss until one of his crew of psychopathic intimidators and assassins blows a man’s brains out or crushes a defiant shop owner against his car.

Last week’s episode of The Americans, called “Baggage,” included a scene that grabbed me by the throat and showed me how much may be lurking behind violence. An American diplomat’s wife, recruited by Phillip, is strangled while seducing a Pakistani intelligence agent. Phillip hears it all from the hotel room next door and rushes in to do damage control. The naked dead woman is laid out on the floor when Elizabeth rolls an enormous suitcase into the room. You’ve seen it before, you think. The scene will end there, because you know what’s coming. Body. Suitcase. The suggestion is enough.

But it isn’t—not for this show. While the horror-struck killer looks on, Phillip and Elizabeth force the woman’s body into the suitcase. They don’t pretend she is made of rubber; while we watch—and listen—they systematically break her arms and legs at every joint, accompanied by crunching and popping sounds. The characters do not speak; they grunt, wince, and grimace with the effort. They are grim, but not squeamish, as thorough and efficient as if they are packing a moving box with kitchen items or fitting the family luggage in an overfull car trunk. At one point, Elizabeth yields her place to the killer—and snaps a photo of him with the dead woman’s leg in both hands. The look on her face is chilling. It says, better than words, “What? I’m just doing my job.”

The sequence was both unbearable and riveting. I tried to look away, but I kept looking back because there was so much to see. Characters were developing right before my eyes, transforming in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The glances exchanged by Phillip and Elizabeth made it clear they would never again think of themselves—or each other—in the same way. The writing was brilliant and ruthless, a stunning example of “show, don’t tell.” Yes, it was TV, which by definition, shows, but there is much to be learned from it, even though we put words on the page, not images on screen.

The first thing I plan to do is watch that episode again, as many times as necessary to understand every nuance, so I can write it as if it was happening in a story or a book. And then I will scour my novel to discover where I’ve disadvantaged my characters and my story by masking a change—by being coy or squeamish, showing too little rather than too much.

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The devil is in the details

fishing boat at sunset

You’d think a guy like Robert Redford—actor, director, founder of the Sundance Film Festival, a guy who gave us Butch Cassidy, The Way We Were, and The Sting, not to mention Ordinary People—would know how to make a great movie. It turns out he made a rookie mistake in his last film, All Is Lost. The sailors who read Soundings magazine got all riled up, and one wrote an article titled, All That’s Wrong with All Is Lost.

It seems that Redford neglected to hire a technical consultant who could have educated him about bilge pumps, EPIRBs, and oh, yeah—the proper use of a life jacket. Let’s say the result was not something you’d display on your book jacket or movie review:

I spent the entire movie picking apart the implausible details, and I’m sure I missed many. “All is Lost” will have one positive value: It will provide endless fodder for discussion and laughter at dockside bars.

Ouch. But I married a sailor, and I know that community. They are fanatical about chart plotters, life rafts, gel coat, bottom paint, davits, and even electric heads (aka toilets). They attend boat shows in Miami and Annapolis, subscribe to Passage Maker and Sail, and debate—online or over a beer in the flybridge—life and death decisions like diesel versus gasoline, Cetol or varnish on their teak, and which brand of polish is best for their hulls. They care about all things boating, especially safety, and Redford and company insulted them: They failed to do their research.

That is sad, and so unnecessary. There really is no excuse—except laziness, arrogance, or cluelessness—for writers not to learn everything they can about the details that matter to their audience. These days, in particular, you can become an armchair expert by trolling the Internet. Even better, you can find  a real expert. They’re everywhere, and they’re surprisingly generous with their time and knowledge.

Here’s an example: When I was writing a mystery set on the South Carolina coast, the inciting incident was a murder. A hospital CFO went fishing to unwind after a disastrous public meeting. My villain was waiting to kill him and dispose of the body. Clueless how to write that scene, I reached out to a fishing guide service in Georgetown, South Carolina—Delta Guide Service, Gene Dickson, if memory serves—and asked for help.

Thanks to Gene, my CFO was fly-fishing on a creek, for speckled trout (it was June), in a seventeen-foot Boston Whaler, at dusk, when my villain, a diver, sneaked up on him. He hovered under the Whaler’s overhang (one finger in the bow eye), and yanked his victim overboard when he reached down to net his catch. The killer drowned him by holding him upside down in shallow water and drove his boat to a marker buoy. He sank the body with his weight belt and an anchor and followed it down to the bottom, stabbing it multiple times to release the gases that would have made it float. He tied the body to the buoy, where the “crabs and other creatures that lived in the weeds and debris that clung to the anchor and chain would make a fast meal of the corpse.”

Neat, eh? Plenty of details for a 1,600 word prologue.

Never forget, the devil is in the details. It makes sense to take time to learn them.

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To blog is human


I’ve been writing a novel for a while now, which means that people keep asking, “Got that book published yet?” As if it’s easy. As if I could be published if I wasn’t so lazy, dumb, and distracted. With that kind of pressure, it’s hard to think about anything but what you can do to make your book better. To draw the attention of an agent. To get a contract and be published.

A few months ago, after a request for a full manuscript ended in disappointment, I put my book aside. I didn’t write anything, and with time on my hands, I started reading about the business of writing. Want to get published? You need a website, a Facebook presence, and a blog. Writers really need to blog.

Oh, man. Really? Bloggers are narcissists. They are relentless self-promoters. The world already has too many bloggers. And so on.

I’ll spare you the details of my conversion journey, but I rolled up my sleeves and built a website on WordPress. I’ve been blogging since November 2013 and I highly recommend it. Here’s why:

  • A blog demands a commitment. Unlike the essays, short stories, and books that languish in forgotten Word files, “in progress” doesn’t work for blog posts. They must be completed and posted, on a schedule—once a week, or ten days, or two weeks. Finishing a piece of writing feels good.  I’ve written on deadline—usually someone else’s—so setting my own deadlines and sticking to them was a discipline I needed to learn.
  • A blog teaches you to be concise. Like any writing, a blog is a story—in 500 words or less. Beginning, middle, end. Tell the story. Notice what you had to cut to reach the right length, and apply the same principles to your other writing. Try it on short-short stories.
  • A blog gives you objective feedback. When you’re writing a book, your only readers are people you know, people you ask—too often,  because they’re friendly and safe. With a blog, your fans (and your critics) self-select. They tell you what they think. Whether you like it or not.
  • A  blog makes you human. It shows who you are as a person. Imagine an agent reading your dozen or so posts and saying, “Hmm. How interesting. I’d like to get to know her.” The same is true for any business person. Blogging puts you out there and makes you approachable.
  • A blog connects you. Writing is lonely, even if you love it. Writers need isolation, but we also need companionship to feed our minds and our hearts. Following others’ blogs helps you make a different sort of friend, one who shares your interests—and often your concerns.

Blogging will make you a better writer. It will expand your confidence, and if you let it, your self-knowledge. Sometimes what you learn will make you cringe; other times it will make you smile. All of it will help you move through life—as a writer and as a person.

So yes, I admit it: I love blogging.

But I still hate Twitter!

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Just the facts, Ma’am!


Recently I (re)learned an important lesson in journalism. It’s about checking your facts—no matter how reliable your source appears to be. An old lesson? You bet, but one overlooked by several well-known academics with best-selling books.

Researching a white paper on change management, I uncovered a shocking statistic: Seventy percent of large-scale transformative initiatives fail. Seventy percent! These are mergers and acquisitions, technology/systems overhauls, culture reinventions, and a host of other strategic undertakings—multi-million dollar change projects, intended to improve business results by leaps and bounds. Apparently, they don’t.

The infamous “70% failure rate” first appeared when Michael Hammer and James Champy wrote Reengineering the Corporation in 1993. Hailed as “the most successful business book of the last decade,” it set off a movement the authors called “business revolution.” A consultant then, I witnessed the competition among professional services firms to be crowned the one that could guarantee transformative, enduring business process redesign.

Through the years, other change experts—among them Beer and Nohria (Breaking the Code of Change) and John P. Kotter (Leading Change, Heart of Change)—picked up the 70% failure rate in some form or fashion. It became entrenched in the management consulting literature—until recently, when (I surmise; no empirical studies have confirmed it) some change management proponents got mad.

In 2011, Dr. Mark Hughes, of the Brighton Business School, decided to debunk the myth. He traced its evolution from Hammer and Champy, source by source, quote by quote, and concluded, “Whilst the existence of a popular narrative of 70 per cent organizational-change failure is acknowledged, there is no valid and reliable empirical evidence to support such a narrative.” In other words, it was not derived from a controlled, scientific study. It was someone’s opinion or worse, someone’s guess. (Hughes added a few words about “opportunistic business consultants” who may have deliberately promoted an exaggerated figure to sell their consulting services.)

Other change practitioners continue to challenge the 70 percent figure. “Change Whisperer” Gail Severini, Jennifer Frahm, founder of the Australian group Conversations of Change, and others continue to attack the claim as totally lacking in evidence. “Nothing to support it,” Frahm sums up. “No mention of where this fact has come from.”

My point in all this? I don’t think it matters whether 40%, 50%, or 70% of change projects fail. It’s too many, and I would wager that any of those figures would have earned the business world’s attention, back in the day. What does matter is accuracy, and as a freelancer, I’m finding that more and more difficult to guarantee. With the Internet, so much information poses as truth. There are no barriers to entry, no certification required. The potential for many-layers-removed misquoting has increased exponentially.

All I can do is rely on trusted sources; double, triple, and quadruple check my facts; and make sure I document them. What do you do? I’d like to know!

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Start at the beginning

the beginning

So it turns out that the editors at The Quotable nominated my story, “Dementia,” for the Pushcart Prize. I’d already “lost” by the time I found out, but I’m thrilled with the nomination and grateful for the reminder that, in addition to my carefully laid plans, there is action going on behind the scenes that I don’t control. Knowing that there are forces at work on my behalf, keeps me working on my behalf.

Lately I’ve turned to books about writing to help me improve my novel. I’ve focused on the beginning, based on the unassailable truth that you’re toast if you don’t get that right. Agents don’t keep reading your book until they get to the good part. They move on to the next one.

Of course, I’ve read tons of books since I started writing. In fact, I read so many that a frustrated friend begged me to stop reading and just write, for God’s sake. Back then, I was imagining the day my first novel would emerge, whole and perfect, just because I’d read Ron Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Fascinating, illuminating, and invaluable; I go back to them–and the other twenty-five books on my writer’s shelf–from time to time.

But it’s a whole different ball game when you’ve completed a manuscript you think is pretty good, and you’re trying to figure out why agents don’t agree. Two books I’d recommend, thanks to my writer friend Martha, are Jeff Gerke’s The First 50 Pages and Les Edgerton’s Hooked. Next up is Bickham’s Scene & Structure. I’m reading my opening scene, checking for the ten core components. I’m pruning backstory best saved for later. I’m raising the stakes and I’m strengthening my villain.

Now I know that when my old friend, Bill, said, “Stop reading and write,” it was only one stage in the process. I did what he asked; I wrote. Now I’m reading again, to make my book better. I’m  “going to school” on my scenes, my structure, my words, and my characters, and it’s helped me learn in a deeper way than the excellent examples included in the books above. Not to mention the fact that when I get the next request for pages, I’ll be that much farther ahead!

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Ghost-blogging–don’t tell!

ImageI’ve discovered another type of freelancing that’s a lot of fun–ghost-blogging. Although many people struggle for content, it’s easy for me to riff on a topic after doing some quick research. I’ll admit that I’m torn: It’s good work, but seeing someone else’s name on my work bothers me.

But we’re writers. That’s what we get paid for, and we’re fortunate to find people who appreciate our skills. When I first started freelancing, I was appalled at the meager rates clients offered to writers. I’ve come to believe that more often than not, we writers are to blame. We don’t value our time and talent. It’s taken some time, but I’ve finally learned that writing–usually fun and always absorbing for me–is excruciating for most people. That’s good news for us, especially with the internet and the proliferation of websites. The demand for content–and for writers–will only grow, giving us an ideal opportunity to combine our writing talent with whatever content expertise we’ve amassed through the years.

Mine is in Human Resources, and it’s proving quite useful. Trusting that my audience and my client’s audience are unlikely to cross, here’s a blog we recently posted.

The Future of Agile HR

Last week I checked in with Marie, the Vice President, Human Resources of a mid-size energy firm. We’ve known each other for more than ten years, so I was surprised when she said she couldn’t talk long—she had to go find more hours in her day. It turns out she had just read Accenture’s report on agile organizations and, by extension, agile HR. If you haven’t seen it, have a look. It’s a well-researched, comprehensive, and sobering forecast of what organizations of the future must do to succeed—and the daunting new roles HR will be called on to play.

“I already work sixty hours a week,” my colleague moaned, “and it looks like I’m not doing anything right.”

“Relax,” I consoled her. “It’s thought leadership. It’s supposed to be provocative. It’s meant to be aspirational.”

But Marie’s reaction troubled me. She’s smart and committed, not easily discouraged. I hate that she felt demoralized, yet her timing was perfect because she reminded me of an important truth: thought leadership is relative. One company’s aspirational goal is another’s impossible dream. It’s much like “best” practices: no practice is best unless it’s best for you. I knew that, but Marie reminded me at a critical time—the early months of my new consulting firm.

So here’s what I promise you: I won’t beat my chest. I won’t play to the highest common denominator, the most sophisticated HR organizations, the Fortune 100. I’ll do my best to meet you where you are and to help you determine where you can and should go. You’ll get my honest take on the world of HR, experienced through my clients and my interactions with others in the field. I promise to be practical and thoughtful, focused on advice you can use. And rest assured, I won’t sugarcoat the facts.

To that end, here’s my short take on agile HR. Too often HR is seen as an obstacle, dragging its feet when the business urgently needs an answer, a resource, or a new approach. It’s tempting to cave in to the demand to do “what they want” faster. But agility is much more than speed. It means thinking on your feet, so that rather than cutting corners or improving your time in the same old race, you’re blazing a trail to an extraordinary solution. You must have the vision to last for the long run.

Watch for a paper we’re drafting right now, expanding on this view of agility and offering advice on how to determine the changes you must make—the changes that are right for you.

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Scanning for Gators

If you asked me what makes Hilton Head an imperfect paradise, I’d have to say it’s the alligators. They lurk in our ponds and lagoons, and some of them are huge–as much as eight feet long, big enough that my Cocker Spaniel would make a nice snack. And Toby is sociable. He’d walk up and sniff one if I let him.

I’ve never seen an alligator run on dry land, but I hear they sprint like Usain Bolt. That makes me protective. I cross to the other side of the road, even if the gator is half a football field away. Call me over-cautious, but I don’t take chances with carnivorous animals. Shoot, I pick Toby up when a too-big dog barrels toward him full-tilt, on the beach. Two weeks ago, that happened with three dogs, each one harmless on its own, scary in a pack. Snarling and snapping ensued. No one was hurt, but I was angry and shaken, afraid we would have to give up our beach walks.

When I complained to a colleague who moonlights as a dog-whisperer, he wasn’t sympathetic. “You’re the problem,” he said. “You’re making your dog a weenie. You have to let him stand on his own or other dogs won’t like him, let alone respect him.”

Ding! went the bell in my head. His words took me back to a lesson I learned from a wise editor when I wrote my first book. She said I protected my heroine and she was right—I loved Ali St. John too much to put her in danger. I kept her leashed and in sight, so I could whisk her away when the going got tough–making her a weak character few readers would care about.

Ali was facing a home-grown terrorist, a man she thought was her friend, and not once did he hurt her or threaten her life. Whenever she faced the slightest risk, I swooped in and rescued her. In the end, she saved the day—a hollow victory because I never made my readers worry that Ali might fail, let alone die.

Here’s what I learned: You don’t have to torture your characters. You do have to test them and disappoint them and make them sweat. You have to let them be wrong and lose—more than once, even badly— so they and your fans can rejoice when they win. As the author, you can “scan for gators,” but you can’t kill them off or chase them away. That’s your protagonist’s job.

It’s still not easy to put my characters in jeopardy. I do it, though, and I trust them to pull through. Left on their own, they often surprise me with their wit and their resilience. My writing is richer and my characters are more engaging, now that they run free.

My dog not so much—weenie or not, he’ll be staying on his leash!

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Ready for change

beach sign

On Sunday we went for a walk on the beach. Because both Sea Pines beach clubs are undergoing renovation, we parked in a temporary lot—and used a different access  than we usually do. This path ends with a sign that outlines rules for beach goers. Similar signs appear at intervals on the beach. They’ve been there forever, so I was shocked to see the sign had changed.

Gone was the word “NO” in red capital letters, eight inches high. You could see it a hundred yards away, and what followed was a list of prohibitions: No glass or alcoholic beverages; no horseback riding, shark fishing, or littering; no nudity, disorderly conduct, or sleeping on the beach between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The sign’s final line always made me shiver: Caution! Extreme currents and shifting sands. Swim at your own risk.

That sign held special significance for me. Shifting Sands is the title of my as-yet unpublished novel, and the words on that sign were burned into my protagonist’s brain. He saw them as he came out of a faint, yards away from the peaceful beach where his father had just died in a bizarre accident. The words became a metaphor that ruled his entire fearful life.

Imagine my chagrin when, instead of high drama, the new beach sign proclaimed, “Welcome to our beach. Enjoy your visit and please follow our beach rules.” Welcome? There’s nothing ominous about that! What happened to the danger? This sign is muted and tactful. The third bullet under “For your information,” says, “Use caution—strong currents, jellyfish, stingrays, etc. may be present.”

May be! Huh. I’m not much of a swimmer, so the old beach sign suited me. Now the Town of Hilton Head is nudging me toward a new way of thinking—from panicky vigilance to awareness of my surroundings, approached with caution, not fear.

What intrigues me most is the timing of the change, or at least my noticing it. Like the beach signs, I’m due for a change, having spent a couple of years writing my book. I’ve had a great run: I’ve recharged, built creative muscle, improved my writing skills, and met a vibrant, generous community of writers who have helped me reconnect, re-prioritize, and put my goals in perspective.

For a while, writing has been my exclusive occupation, but it can’t always be like that. We writers have jobs and friends and well-rounded lives. We meet new people and experience new things, and that’s where our ideas come from.

I can’t say I’m unafraid, but I’m ‘raring to go,” eyes open, alert, and ready for change.

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This morning I scrubbed my driveway with an eight-inch brush. I’ve done this before—not the driveway, precisely, but I recognize the signs. Restlessness turns to full-blown nervous energy and the next thing I know, I’m digging a drainage ditch two feet deep and 100 feet long. Once I built a three-foot high, dry-stack stone wall around my patio with leftover flagstones and common sense. It turned out great.

People don’t get it. They think I’m insane. Back in Atlanta, where I washed my own car, a sympathetic neighbor explained that the Auto Spa down the street only charged twenty bucks. Somehow sitting on a plastic chair in a dusty reception area, reading about Brangelina in last year’s People magazine, doesn’t have the same effect as sudsing and rinsing my car until it shines.

I’m reseeding the fallow fields.

I don’t live in a cave. I know about pressure washers, both the mechanical and the human varieties, but it suits me to attack this monstrous, pock-marked driveway and its ground-in debris with a bucket of soap, a stiff brush, a hose, and what my mother would have called “elbow grease.” My approach is pure and it’s quiet—the same qualities that make me forsake the gas-powered leaf-blowers that landscapers use to blast a single leaf from one side of the yard to the other instead of stooping to pick the darn thing up. Call me old-fashioned, but I opt for a rake, a dustpan, and a wheelbarrow. It keeps me healthy, fit, and sane. By the time I’m done, I’ll know what comes next. Maybe not the outcome, but at least the next step.

Call it creative recharging. I’m a novelist seeking publication, and there is nothing more crazy-making than the post-novel process, as if it wasn’t hard enough just writing a book. First, there’s  the query letter, then the dreaded synopsis, then the conferences with their pitch sessions and manuscript critiques. Before an “agents and editors” conference last spring, two wonderful writer friends and I spent endless hours preparing the tools that would sell our books. Our weekly sessions, and the prep work before them, were agonizing, but so instructive. Let’s just say we wished we had known more about story goals and character arcs and plot points when we sat down to write our books. Never mind. Our next books will be easier. So that’s what we do while we wait—we work on the next book.

Still in the driveway, I caught myself thinking that a toothbrush would get the dirt out of the tiniest holes. Good grief! Would I really consider scrubbing my driveway with a toothbrush? Thank God I’m a writer and I know when to quit. It’s a skill I just learned with my novel.

My driveway—painted concrete at least thirty years old—isn’t flawless. Neither is my book, but it’s pretty damn good. And until an agent acquires it, I’ll consider it done.