books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, January 29, 2012

How to Get Out of Your Own Way: The Secret to Becoming a Successful Writer

First, we have a few announcements:

#1 Our blog has been nominated for the Top Writing Blog Award by ECollegeFinder. UPDATE: Votes are open again through February 3rd.

#2 Ruth’s thriller HOOKED which she wrote with her husband Michael Harris, has been zooming up the charts this month. It’s in the Kindle top 100, and made it to #3 on Movers and Shakers!

#3 Treeware lovers: Anne’s first Camilla Randall mystery THE BEST REVENGE is now available in paper ($9.95.) You can buy it at Popcorn Press or Amazon .

#4 NOOK Owners: Anne’s other two Camilla mysteries GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY ($.99) AND SHERWOOD, LTD ($2.99) are now available at B & N. And Ruth's romantic saga DECADES ($.99) is featured this week on the Nook Lovers blog.

#5 SLO folks: Judy Salamacha interviews me for her column in the Tribune on Monday, January 30th.

And now I’m going to get out of Ruth’s way and let her give you some very sound advice—a lot of which I could have used a few years back. I hate to admit it, but I spent almost a decade trying to “perfect” a book that wasn’t that bad to begin with—but got worse with every “please all of the people all of the time” revision. My perfectionism killed my own book. So listen to the lady. She knows what she’s talking about:

The secret to becoming a successful writer is not learning writing one perfect book. It’s learning to write as many good books as you can. So once you’ve got the nuts and bolts down, stop obsessing and write another book.


HOW TO GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY:  TOUGH LOVE, RULE BREAKERS & A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE GUY IN THE DELI

You know what I’m talking about. I know you do. Most of us recognize it as The Enemy Within, the devil with a thousand faces, the ugly, waxy build up of negative forces that stand between you and Writing The Book/Finishing The Book/Editing & Polishing The Book.

Science still hasn’t come up with a cure for the common cold but, as an editor, I’ve worked with lots of writers over the years and I’ve learned that writers, crafty creatures that we are, struggle with the lit version of the common cold.

I’m going to list a few of the symptoms and propose cures, but be warned: If you like to play it safe, don’t pay any attention to me.

 Are you a perfectionist?

Do you suffer the misery of unfinished drafts, half completed novels, computer files so ancient only Methuselah remembers the program that created them? Have you settled into an endless rut of rewriting, revising and second guessing yourself? You’re working hard but getting nowhere—and not fast?

Then, please, stop! Ask yourself what are you afraid of: failure? Or is it success? And what’s the worse thing that can happen if you upload a less-than-”perfect” book? Heavens gonna fall? Earth stop in its orbit?

So you think it’s a POS? Maybe you’re right—but maybe you’re wrong. Writers are notoriously lousy judges of their own work. So get over yourself. No one except you is going to give a bleep.

Who knows, maybe readers aren’t as picky as you are. Maybe no one will notice whatever it is that’s worrying you and maybe whatever’s bothering you is only the monster under the bed anyway. If people like your book and buy it, what’s the problem? Close your eyes, think of the money, and smile.

If they don’t like it, if they actually hate it, and your reviews absolutely, positively stink, take the book down. That’s what the “unpublish” button is for.

Give yourself a day to lick your wounds and shore up your ego, then look at the book with a fresh eye. Maybe you ought to hire an editor to offer some objective perspective, then fix what’s realistically wrong.

Give that sucker a new title, a new cover, maybe use a pseudonym (although I don’t think people remember writers’ names unless they’re Stephen King or William Shakespeare), write a brand-new, more come-hither blurb and re-upload.

Think: “Why, Miss Brown, you’re beautiful without your glasses!” Same deal, the magic of the makeover. 

Like shampoo, a book can be rinsed and repeated. Big 6 editors hate this but these days you’re not writing for an editor. You’re trying to reach thousands and maybe millions of readers. Huge, huge difference.

Heed Voltaire: The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Accentuate the positive.

In a tizzy about your alleged weaknesses? Your critique group sez your characters are stereotypes? That means readers will recognize them immediately. They’ll fill in the blanks themselves.

Your bff sez your plots are creaky? There are only 6 plots anyway….starting with the Bible and going up to Harry Potter. It’s what you do with the plot that counts. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl? What if the boy is Clark Kent and the girl is Lois Lane? What if the boy is a scruffy junkyard mongrel and the girl is a snooty Park Avenue poodle?

Do more of what comes easily and work on your strengths. 

Snappy dialogue? Scorching sex? Elegant descriptions?

Whatever you like to write will likely be a key to developing a style that is uniquely yours.

Whether your style is Tilda Swinton or Lady Gaga, George Clooney or Judd Apatow, work it. Robert M. Parker did. Elmore Leonard did. Style counts, style matters, style lasts.

Raymond Chandler nailed it: “Style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.”

Bottom line: Style is you being you on purpose so embrace it.

Make friends with your subconscious.

If you respect your subconscious and treat it right, your subconscious will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

That guy who works at the deli on page 3? You had to stick him in when your heroine stopped for coffee and needed change?  You put him in, didn’t spend two seconds thinking about him. You needed him so you typed something.

Maybe on page 106, he reappears. Maybe he’s the murderer. Maybe he’s an undercover cop. Maybe he’s a billionaire who wants to find out how the 99% live. Maybe he’s the long-lost sister who’s had a sex change op. Maybe that guy at the deli will turn out to be the key to a great plot twist.

That guy—the one you didn’t spend two seconds thinking about—was a creation of your subconscious. He appeared out of nowhere because you needed him while you were concentrating on your heroine.
But later?

Later, that character turns out to be gold.
********
Scriveners, have you ever had an experience like that with the deli guy--has a minor character reappeared to become a major player? Are you tired of the writing gurus who tell you rejections will stop if you do yet another edit of your Work-that-has-been-in-Progress for a decade? Are you working as hard to be YOU as you are at following directions and coloring inside the lines?

Indie Chick News: This is my week to post my essay from the Indie Chick Anthology: A KINKY ADVENTURE IN ANGLOPHILIA. Click here. Or click through the Indie Chicks link in the sidebar. You can read an interview with me on Cheryl Shireman’s blog later this week, and see the clothes I chose for Camilla to wear when she arrives at Sherwood Ltd. on Christine DeMaio-Rice’s blog , Fashion is Murder And there will be a giveaway of THE BEST REVENGE  on Lizzy Ford's blog on February 1st.

BOOK LUVIN' BABES Valentine Blog hop: Starting February 1, we are participating in an exciting contest. Sign up for our mailing list and you'll be entered to win a $75 gift certificate, a diamond neckalace and wonderful free books click here for our contest page, and for more on the  whole blog hop, click the (very) pink Valentine blog hop button in the sidebar. 

48 comments:

  1. Whatever I like to write will become my style - I can live with that!

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  2. Thanks for this. Great advice. The guy in the deli thing just happened in my story. Exactly as you described. I didn't know why he was mentioned in a tiny scene and then he walked into a party scene and became a pivotal character. Love it when that happens!

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  3. I love the guy in the deli. He's usually in all my books.

    Thanks for the wisdom, Ruth. I stopped listening to the guru's a while back. Sometimes you just have to let go of the rules and write what's in your heart. That's where you find your style. At least I did anyway.

    And not working with an editor is the bomb! My crit partners are exceedingly talented, better than anyone I could ever have imagined.

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  4. Anne, congrats on all your good news!! Voting will commense after this comment.

    Ruth, thanks for yet again a great post. You dig into the heart of what keeps so many on the brink of doing what they need. For the heart and soul and the plain good sense of it all ... you are an inspiration :)

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  5. Alex--We can all live with that. And it will make our lives a lot easier & happier. Why kill yourself trying to write sci-fi when romance is your natural genre?

    Christine--I love hearing that! Yep. The guy in the deli is the writer's best friend.

    Anne--It's hard to break the rules but when you do, it's incredibly liberating, isn't it? Finding your style is like finding a way to supercharge your work.

    Lucky you, to have such a talented crit group. ARA commented about that exact subject a little while ago. A good crit group is worth its weight in, oh, shall we say, white truffles?

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  6. fOIS--Thanks so much for the kind words. I've been at this for a long time & have listened to the advice of lots of great editors & writers. It is a privilege to be able to pass along their wisdom (Even tho I can sometimes be snarky about it! But tough love is better than no love, right?) :-)

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  7. Bravo Ruth!
    I am a huge fan of The Guy at the Deli. That moment he walks onto the page unexpected is one of the reasons I write. The moment it comes clear he's the millionaire, the detective, them murderer, the gal who had the operation is another reason I write. Thanks for acknowledging that magic.

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  8. Fantastic post! As an over-obsessive perfectionist myself, this is a wonderful post Ruth. Love what you say abour writing what you're good at - more battles and descriptions, less useless wafts at romance for me!

    Totally agree on the Guy at the Deli front. I have so many characters like that xD

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  9. Hello,

    Finding ones style can be simple or difficult. I usually just follow the beat of my own drum. I currently have a site with a co-writer so we obtain a balance. I enjoyed your blog and will be returning to read you work.

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  10. CS--TGITD is magic. That moment when you slap your head & think OMG!, when suddenly the plot point that's been eluding you becomes clear IS magic. And, to think, you didn't even have to work at it...TGITD has been there all along, just waiting for you!

    Charley--yes, battles & descriptions. Struggling to write something outside your talent is a miserable, time-sucking, soul-sucking enterprise of the highest order of masochism.

    Truedessa--Thank you for the kind words. Anne & I looking forward to seeing you again!

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  11. Anne: Congratulations on your nomination. You already got my vote on it.

    Ruth: Your talk on writing several good books versus that one perfect masterpiece reminds me of an old Mickey Spillane quote.

    "I'm a commercial writer, not an author. Margaret Mitchell was an author. She wrote one book."

    And the guy (or gal) at the deli is my favorite part when writing the first draft. They seem to come out from nowhere and completely change the story. It's what makes writing fun. Otherwise it's simply predictable.

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  12. You know what? This is one of the few blogs I am getting something out of that's worthwhile for my writing. "To focus on what I do well and develop a style by doing that" - now that's genius. I've never thought that doing what I do well would do anything but make that one aspect of my book good. I've always tried to perfect every single nuance of my book before I thought it was worthwhile. It's been hard to "find" my "style" but now I think I get it.
    THANK YOU.
    Patti

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  13. Congratulations! I've gone over to vote right now :)

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  14. Andrew--Thanks for your vote! I've known & worked with lots of very prolific authors. They always come back to one thing: write the damn book. It has to be good. Not perfect!

    Patricia--So glad you're finding something worthwhile here. Anne & I try to cut thru the usual bullbleep to focus on real writers, real problems, real solutions.

    Thanks so much for your comment. It's truly very encouraging!

    Emily--thank you for your vote! We very much appreciate your help.

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  15. Boy have I had a couple "guys in the deli"... there was no deli, but there was a general in the woods that I'd only thought of as a nasty guy - who turned into a major villain - the man is evil... to balance him out my second 'deli' boy was the youngest kid of eight. And even at age 4/5 he became really crucial to taking down Mr. evil above (along with my heroine and hero). :}

    Anyway. I love this post. Lots of good advice.
    (And Charley doesn't do half as bad as she thinks she does with romance. she is uber with battle scenes though.)

    :} Cathryn

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  16. Going over there right now to vote.
    The whole 'vote as many times as you want' thing is a bit of a set-up though ... will do my bit however!

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  17. Great post. I think many writers would be better off embracing their own style and work than allowing themselves to be stuck in an endless cycle of self-doubt and revisions.

    I voted for this blog, by the way. :)

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  18. There's so much in this post my head is spinning. I'm one of those who edits the heart out of her writing. Afraid of success or failure? Good question.

    I voted for your blog. I'm up too but the fact that every man and his dog can vote multiple times means the whole thing lacks truth. One way to visit others' blogs I guess.

    Denise

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  19. Super advice. Perfectionism is walking down the beach at sunset with subjective critiques. A little bit of both can sharpen us up, but too much can stall out a creative engine.

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  20. Thanks for posting this wonderful advice. I voted for your blog. I hope you win. Liz

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  21. Voted! Hope you win; you sooo deserve it! And this latest post hits me right where I need it. Every single point is me to a tee. Thanks for the kindly boot in the butt.
    Both you ladies rock!

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  22. I'll put in my vote.

    Style - and a powerful story. Especially a powerful story. These are the main ingredients. Then, it's getting it written. I think at this point I'm most afraid of not coming up to the level of my first published book. But I like your comment: If you end up with a less than "perfect" book, will the earth stop spinning? I don't think so!

    Excellent post, as always.
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror & Other Memoirs

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  23. Cathryn—Yes! The guy in the deli = the general in the woods = the kid of 8—they are the engines of creativity. Thanks so much for your lovely words. It's nice to know someone appreciates my advice! ;-)

    Widdershine—Thank you for doing your bit...we do appreciate it even as we share your feelings.

    Ranae—Thank you for your vote. I didn't address self-doubt in the blog but confidence is just soooo important! Truly, you can't write without confidence and if that means ego, then it means just the right amount of realistic ego.

    Denise—You're so right: "too much" editing can be the kiss of death & probably related to the futile quest for "perfection."
    Thank you for your vote. Anne & I appreciate it.

    Leslie—Excellent point. If you think "excellent" instead of "perfect," your perspective might come into balance.

    Liz—What a lovely compliment! Thank you.

    Alicia—Thank you for your vote. You can count on us for the well-placed but kindly kick in the butt. Even when we need one or two ourselves!

    Ann—To address your fear: it's crucial not to feel as if you are competing with anyone. Including yourself. Every book is different; each one has its plusses & minusses. Just write your story in your own way and you will have something unique & valuable.

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  24. Major congrats on all your success this week! Toast to you!! LOVE IT, and I voted.

    Thanks for the sound advice, Ruth!

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  25. Ruth, you really hit it out of the park with this post. So many people need to hear this kind of positive wisdom instead of all the doom and gloom. The people who make it do it because of what makes them unique, not because of their ability to toe somebody's line. Nice the post got featured by the Passive Guy today!

    Denise Covey "L'Aussie" and Alex Cavanaugh--congrats on being fellow Top Blog nominees. You've got great blogs. But the voting does seem to have been taken over by bots for a couple of sites. We won't win, but I've learned about some fantastic new blogs and it was an honor to be nominated in such great company.

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  26. Love this.

    A 'guy in the deli' (or should I say 'gal in the deli') ended up as a key character in a novel I'm editing - she literally stepped in front of my protag's car and gave her a new purpose in life.

    My latest 'guy in the deli' ended up with his own novella series...

    Great post, and thanks for the encouraging words.

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  27. Cathryn—Yes! The guy in the deli = the general in the woods = the kid of 8—they are the engines of creativity. Thanks so much for your lovely words. It's nice to know someone appreciates my advice! ;-)

    Widdershine—Thank you for doing your bit...we do appreciate it even as we share your feelings.

    Ranae—Thank you for your vote. I didn't address self-doubt in the blog but confidence is just soooo important! Truly, you can't write without confidence and if that means ego, then it means just the right amount of realistic ego.

    Denise—You're so right: "too much" editing can be the kiss of death & probably related to the futile quest for "perfection."
    Thank you for your vote. Anne & I appreciate it.

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  28. Leslie—Excellent point. If you think "excellent" instead of "perfect," your perspective might come into balance.

    Liz—What a lovely compliment! Thank you.

    Alicia—Thank you for your vote. You can count on us for the well-placed but kindly kick in the butt. Even when we need one or two ourselves!

    Ann—To address your fear: it's crucial not to feel as if you are competing with anyone. Including yourself. Every book is different; each one has its plusses & minusses. Just write your story in your own way and you will have something unique & valuable.

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  29. Tonya—Much appreciate your vote—and your vote of confidence!

    Roh—It's so interesting, isn't it, that so many of us have TGITD to thank. That guy/gal who turns up & does such amazing things.

    Vive TGITD!

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  30. Great Post. Will definitely go and vote, I enjoy this blog very much (although I'm more of a lurker than a commenter). Congrats on the nomination.

    Loved the guy in the deli. Or in my case, a dwarf that guards a portal. It's so true! I wrote a paragraph in book 2. Wasn't sure where it came from, but was so grateful because the whole story of book 3 revolves around that one paragraph in book 2.

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  31. Great post! It's amazing when you let the characters take over a bit -- and they do the most unexpected things.

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  32. Alison Pensy—Wow! The guy in the deli turns out to be even hotter than George Clooney! (at least for writers)

    Anne & I appreciate the vote. Thank you.

    Tracy—Yes. Characters will do a lot of the work for you—if you get out of the way and let them!

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  33. Great points here! I'm happy to say I've made VERY good friends with my subconscious haha :) Characters are always appearing that I don't think much of and then they turn out to be the most essential characters to the entire plot. I love it.

    Thanks for the post!

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  34. Tiffany—Writing is hard enough. How nice to let our sub-c do some of the heavy lifting for us! You'll do great with that approach!

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  35. Lots of information here. I'm glad I came by. I've been driving myself nuts editing this book for what feels like forever. I know it's more than decent, been told that by different people, but I'm still nitpicking. Sometimes, we do get in our own way. I tell myself one more read and I'm done.

    One point struck me hard. It isn't deep, but I didn't think about the 'unpublish' button on Amazon. That's an easy fix, just in case.

    Thanks for these tips. You've save me another six months worth of work. ;)

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  36. JL—Driving yourself nuts—& we all do it now & then—is NOT the way to be a successful writer. It's a way to drive yourself nuts!

    The unpublish button is a writer's best friend. Get a better idea for the ending? Just unpublish, rewrite & reupload. Easy as that!

    Use the 6 months you saved to write another book!

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  37. Thank you, Ruth, for the advice - good for all of us to remember - not to pit ourselves against anyone, including ourselves. I think this is what Harper Lee did after she wrote that one stunning and perfect book. I will remember your feedback, and start thinking more positively, and just write, not letting some inner "critic" get me off track. :-)

    And re: your last great comment above to JL: I did just that with the novella I self-published. I unpublished several times to fix problems and then re-uploaded. So easy to do!
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror & Other Memoirs

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  38. Love this! My guy in the deli was a jogger in the park, and he gave my endless rewrite of my upcoming book, The K Street Affair, that missing twist.

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  39. Ann—Very good point about Harper Lee. Comparisons—whether to someone else's books or your own books—are toxic. You can't compare apples to oranges & you can't compare one book to another. Period.

    As to the unpublish button, the internet has given writers a freedom they never had before. It's up to us to take advantage of it.
    Good for you!

    Mari—Apparently TGITD is universal. Actually, I surprised so many recognize the importance of the incidental character who turns out not to be so incidental after all.

    Endless rewrites are poison! Like tap dancing on sand: lots of effort but you don't get anywhere. Glad your deli guy-jogger came along to bail you out.

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  40. I love this post. It is too easy thinking about lacking. Much more helpful to think about what works. Leaves less room for doubt.

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  41. Great advice Ruth. I do have trouble getting out of my own way.

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  42. Rebecca—Thanks. Now that I think about it, it's the celebrities' secret: they emphasize what works and subordinate the rest.

    Lee—We all have trouble getting out of our own way. How do you think I got the idea for this post? lol

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  43. Thanks, Ruth and Anne for this great advice. Hey wait - that has a ring to it "Ruth and Anne" - maybe you guys should open a restaurant together. Or a bar. A jazz bar? "Ruth and Anne's"?

    My biggest problem with writing is making the time to do it and not fill every moment of my day up with social media, editing, teaching, and taking care of kids. I haven't done any real writing since November. I'm ashamed to admit that :(

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  44. Thanks Ruth for the sound advice. Sometimes you just have to get on with it.

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  45. Meghan—The Ruth & Anne Honky-Tonk? But don't quote me cuz I haven't cleared it with Anne yet.

    The questions are: How much do you want to write? Are you ready to write? The answers will take you to the next step.

    LK—Yes. Sometimes, it's just shut up, sit down, & write.

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  46. Ruth and Meghan--The Ruth & Anne Honky-Tonk it is!

    I like Ruth's self-questioning there: "Are you ready?" I think sometimes when we "don't have time" to write, something can be gestating. Suddenly you will make the time, and what comes out will be more fully formed than you anticipated. That's why I'm against the "write every day, push out the word-count" type of writing. It can often produce uninspired dreck. Our muses sometimes need to go on a little vacation.

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  47. Great post, I absolutely agree, If you love it and you believe in it then don't obsess, just write it down and get out of the way.

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  48. Crystal—very well said. Short & sweet & to the point. Thank you.

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