Interview with Mary Jumbelic, First Place Winner in Q2 2021 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest

Sunday, May 09, 2021
Mary Jumbelic is an author from Central New York, and the former chief medical examiner of Onondaga County. Performing thousands of autopsies in her career, she elaborates a strong voice for the deceased. She explores through creative non-fiction the imprint the dead have made on her humanity.

She has published with Rutgers University Press, Tortoise and Finch, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Vine Leaves Press, GFT Press, and Jelly Bucket. In 2014, her piece was selected for the top ten in the AARP/Huffington Post Memoir Writing Contest. In 2021, another was chosen in the top ten for the Tucson Literary Festival.

She is co-teaching an on-line course on memoir for the Downtown Writer’s Center of Syracuse, Spring 2021 and is Assistant Editor for Stone Canoe, Volume 15.

Stories can be read on her blog, Final Words, at www.maryjumbelic.com.

interview by Marcia Peterson

WOW: Congratulations on winning first place in our Q2 2021 Creative Nonfiction essay competition! What prompted you to enter the contest?

MJ: Thank you for the opportunity to provide insight into my story. I entered the contest because the focus on women writers resonated with me. It also shed light on the topic of domestic abuse. This piece had been rejected from other literary venues three times. I edited and re-edited. I knew it needed a home and didn’t want to give up on it.

WOW:  Glad that you continued to work on the piece, and have it be so well received! Your entry, “Watching Her” is a haunting essay told from a vantage point we don’t usually hear from with these kinds of tragic events. What inspired you to write this particular story?

MJ: I wrote this piece four to five years ago though the events date back longer than that. Having worked as a medical examiner for over 20 years, I am surrounded by memories of my patients. This essay as well as all of my others attempt to give the dead a voice. As I tell their stories, I am, at the heart of it, telling my own. Death has taught me much about life. There is a strong yang/yin to the whole experience.

WOW:  Is there a particular memoir you think everyone needs to read?

MJ: I read all genres and have learned much from fiction writers who create worlds that immerse the reader. We should do the same when we write memoir. The basics of the craft are captured in Stephen King’s “On Writing.” Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” is inspirational. Others have helped create scaffolding for memoirists, such as Beth Kephart and Judith Barrington. Writers love to talk and write about writing ­­–– I try to avail myself of as much as possible, sift through it and find the words that speak directly to me.

Oliver Sacks speaks personally to me as a physician and humanist. “His Own Life” essay is a beautiful piece on facing death and life. I have been inspired by the essays of F. Gonzalez-Crussi, Mary Roach, and Atul Gawande. All these writers are moved to tell the tales of the human body capturing its beauty, frailty, and resilience. They do so with honesty and humility.

WOW:  Can you tell us what projects are you currently working on? What can we plan on seeing from you in the future?

MJ:  I am gathering from among all of my work, the best pieces to collate into a collection for a book. The tenor is much like “Watching Her” and the lessons about life that each of my patients have taught me. It can be difficult to acknowledge its worth but moments such as winning this contest reaffirm the process.
 
WOW:  That sounds like an interesting project, keep us posted! Thanks so much for chatting with us today Mary. Before you go, do you have any tips for our readers who may be thinking about entering writing contests?

MJ:  I enjoy writing contests because they challenge me ­­­­­–– word count, theme, and deadlines. Some even offer feedback for the work submitted which can be a useful Beta review. I would encourage anyone who wants to take her writing to the next level to brave the waters of contest writing to provide structure and discipline and improve her craft.

***

For more information about our quarterly Flash Fiction and Creative Nonfiction Essay contests, visit our contest page here.
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Our Mother Stories

Saturday, May 08, 2021
Whenever Mother's Day draws near, I must admit I go into overdrive reminiscing about my late mother and thinking of ways to pay homage to her and all that she ever taught me, through my writing. I have my fill of so many memories that I try to slip into those stories. Whether it's a fiction story about a family matriarch, a nostalgic essay about my mother's life, or a children's picture book story where she is the adoring Grandma doling out love, wisdom and peppermints, she is there, her voice, her advice, her mannerisms, the way she dressed, the wigs she loved wearing, the songs she hummed, the television shows she watched, the delicious meals she prepared, the prayers she prayed, and so much more. 

Perfect, of course she wasn't. What mother is. She was flawed, not as self-confident at times as she should have been, and she had her share of sorrows from childhood, but she was generous and kind, what the world and her family always needed a heavy dose of.  And although at times our relationship was complex, mainly during my teen years and when I became a newly minted woman thinking I knew it all, we got through that and she became my confident, my bestie, a mother who loved and supported me unconditionally, as she did my sister, and all of her loved ones especially her grandchildren.

As writers we all have unique mother stories and it is so important to tell them. The sweet ones, the bittersweet ones, the joyous ones, the sorrowful ones, and the unfortunate ones. The ones with mothers who were distant or cruel or who wounded us emotionally because they couldn't relinquish their own inner pain. It is important to tell those stories about mothers who birthed us, mothers who adopted us or we adopted them in our heart, even mother-in-laws who treated us like beloved daughters, or those we could never win over no matter how hard we tried. 

Writing about the mothers in our lives, being daring enough to not only speak about those memories or parts of our relationship that are/were good but also those that are/were painful or chaotic, are stories other women and mothers and even sons and husbands and other men need to read. These are stories that not only help us process our feelings about our mothers and heal so we can be at peace with the state of our relationship or lack of it, but are stories that can help our readers do the same, and perhaps  write down their own mother stories in a journal, book, or in a blog post. 

Our mothers impact our lives in innumerable ways. Writing about them, the beautiful parts and the not so beautiful parts is not easy to do but it is worth doing. Their stories are multifaceted, bursting with history about the era they grew up in. They showcase their perseverance, ingenuity, vulnerability, and other intriguing aspects of their life and why they charted the life path they did. 

So I hope you write them down. Write from a little girl's perspective about the mother you viewed as your full moon. Write about the mother who put other's needs before her own sometimes to a default. Write about the mother who struggled emotionally when you left her nest to fly on your own. Write about the rites of passage your mother passed on to you from her mother. Write about the the conversations you had with your mother when you talked woman to woman about love and life in which you saw her in a different light. And if you didn't know what the abiding love of a mother felt like either as a child or as an adult, create the mother you longed to have in one of your protagonists. That is the gift and freedom we as writers have, a latitude that allows us to use our imagination to create the literary world and characters we want and yes, sometimes need. 

Happy Mother's Day to you and to all of the mothers who are/were a part of our life story.

                                                                                                                ---Jeanine

Jeanine DeHoney is a freelance writer whose work has been published in several magazines, anthologies, and online. This is one of her treasured photos of her late mother Evelyn in one of her favorite wigs.  

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Friday Speak Out!: How I Got a Book Cover I Loved

Friday, May 07, 2021


by Nancy Hayes Kilgore

When I signed with Sunbury Press for my latest novel, BITTER MAGIC, I was given the option of using the publisher’s cover designer or choosing my own. Either way I could work with the artist to help shape the design.

This is one of the perks of working with an independent publisher, and I was pleased, since I, like most of us authors, have a real emotional investment in how my cover looks.

BITTER MAGIC is inspired by the story of Isobel Gowdie, whose witchcraft confession in 17th century Scotland, is one of the most famous of recorded confessions. The novel brings you into a world immersed in both religion and magic, a world where conflicting beliefs trigger wars and witch hunts. I wanted a cover that would evoke mystery, religion, enchantment, and a touch of danger.

I dug in, studying lots of covers, both my publisher’s and others online. I looked at my Pinterest pins for 17th century Scotland – misty landscapes, old castles, spooky antique woodcuts of witches and gallows and stakes. On Pinterest I also had a collection of photographs and illustrations of crows. In her historical confession, Isobel claimed she could shape shift and turn herself into a crow, and this was part of the story in BITTER MAGIC. Some of my pictures featured a perching crow holding a sprig of red rowan berries. The rowan tree, with its bright red berries, represents, in BITTER MAGIC, and in mythology, a place where the veil between the worlds is thin. In my book, this is where Isobel first meets her fairy guide.

While on Pinterest, I discovered a category for book covers. And here were some that I loved. They were on the website of Sara Oliver, an award-winning designer.

Sara’s designs, many of them for books about magic or fairy tales, were striking. They combined a delicacy of color and style and evoked enchantment and mystery. I immediately wrote to her, and we started working together.

Sara went to work, and we emailed back and forth. I sent her my pictures and ideas, and she came up with a few renderings. She created her own rendering of a crow clasping a sprig of rowan berries. She tried it with the crow on a Celtic cross, from an image I’d sent, but that put the crow at the top of the design instead of the center where I wanted it, so she went back to the drawing board.

She sent me another rendering, this time with the crow perched on a sheaf of wheat. This one had a vivid dark green background, the sinister-looking crow perched in the center, and the blood-red rowan berries in its beak. I loved Sara’s filigree gold border and the title’s font, Birion. It conjured the image of legend and myth I was looking for along with a hint of bloodshed. I thought it was perfect, and now everyone I show it to, including my publisher, agrees.

* * *
Nancy Hayes Kilgore, winner of the Vermont Writers Prize, is the author of two other novels, Wild Mountain (Green Writers Press, 2017,) and Sea Level (RCWMS, 2011,) a ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year. Her new novel, Bitter Magic, comes from Milford House in August. She has published in a She Writes Press anthology, in Bloodroot Literary Magazine, Vermont Magazine, The Bottle Imp, and on Vermont Public Radio. Nancy is a graduate of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars and holds a Master of Divinity degree and a Doctorate in Pastoral Counseling. She is a former parish pastor, a psychotherapist, a writing coach, and leads workshops on creative writing and spirituality. Find her online at nancykilgore.com.
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Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!
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Picture Book Writing: A Different Kind of Dos and Don'ts List

Thursday, May 06, 2021
There are a lot of posts and articles, conference talks and YouTube videos and classes, that tell you the dos and don'ts of picture book writing. (Click the link for one by our very own Sue Bradford Edwards!) There are a lot of rules and best practices for picture book writers, and so when I said a couple of weeks ago that I was writing about the dos and don'ts of picture book writing--you probably rolled your eyes. 

But bear with me. I want to present a different kind of dos and don'ts list--one that reaches into your writer's soul and grabs on. One that allows you to write the best book you can for our youngest readers. 

The only "rule" I'll mention before I go on to the Dos and Don'ts is this: a picture book is a story that we should be telling with pictures and words--it's so different than any of the other books we can write because we have to think about the illustrations as we write. What part of the story can the illustrations tell? 

For example, in Maggie Mae, Detective Extraordinaire: The Case of the Missing Cookies, I didn't have to describe what Maggie or Grandma look like or the kitchen or even the detective's notebook. Jack Foster did it brillantly for me with his super cute illustrations. And that's just one example of thousands I could share with you. 

Study picture books--from the bestseller lists to the new, independently-published ones, from books published fifty years ago to one published yesterday. How did the artist and the writer work together to tell the story? Figure that out. Look for patterns. Work these into your own stories.

DO
 

The biggest thing I think you can do for your young readers is to work even harder than you would on a novel for adults when writing picture book text. Kids are TOUGH critics. I've talked about this before. When my daughter said that she wanted to read Finding My Place, I was terrified. (And she liked it--whew!) But besides children being tough critics and brutally honest, they deserve good literature read to them and to read themselves. As a writer for this audience, read a lot of picture books--good and bad--and get a feel for the way the words work and flow and are begging to be read aloud. Make your manuscript sing and dance. I know picture book writers who take a year to write a book (under 1000 words) because they want to get the perfect word into each and every sentence.

DON'T

Don't think you're "less" of a writer because you're a picture book writer. Don't think everyone can do it because they can't. You have 1000 words or less with some illustrations to tell a complete story with action rising to a climax, with characters whom kids can relate to, with a situation that is "picture book material," with a resolution and satisfying ending. What I like to do when I'm writing picture books is to have my young reader front and center in my mind--don't picture the parents and grandparents buying the books or the teachers reading it to their classes. While you're writing, think of a child you know who is picture book age, and write the book for her or him.

DO

Share your stories with the world. Once you've perfected it, once you've worked hard on it, once you've workshopped it or had it critiqued or professionally edited, don't let illustrations or fear (or any of the other million excuses) stop you from getting the book out there. If you can't find an agent or a publisher, then do it yourself. The publishing world is wide open right now, waiting for your well-crafted, funny or lovely, sassy or witty, cute or serious picture book. 

If you have questions about picture book writing, I'm happy to answer them in the comments below!  Or leave a couple titles of some of your favorite picture books for us to check out. And I'll be back with post 3 of this 4 post series in a few weeks. 

Until then...happy writing! 


Margo L. Dill is a published author of two picture books, Maggie Mae, Detective Extraordinaire: The Case of the Missing Cookies, and That's the Way It Always Happened (which is a story that takes place during Red Ribbon Week). She offers a picture book editing package on her editor website here. To find out more about Margo and her writing, check out her website here
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Things No Writer Should Do

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

 Bracelets used to be super popular that said WWJD (What would Jesus Do?). I'm more prone to looking for a WWSD bracelet--What would Sioux do?... and then advising everyone to do the opposite.


You name the wrong fork in the road, and I've not only taken it, I've dilly-dallied along the way, I've backtracked to go along the wrong fork several times, I've bought houses situated on the wrong fork,  I've set out a lunch on a blanket on the ground and gazed at the sights along the wrong fork in the road, I've... well, you get the picture. 


                                                                          image by Pixabay


Don't get me wrong. I've fallen into some incredible luck lately. A novel--one that I spent five years on--debuted in April. My publisher is an author's dream come true. I have a wonderful teaching job. But still, I've made countless mistakes along the way, and hopefully, you can learn from my screw-ups.


Here are the bad choices I've made recently:


1. Allow my field to lie fallow. I've been coasting along--writing-wise--for the last six months or so. There's a newish manuscript I should be working on. I'm not. I need to sow the seeds and nurture the new growth, while simultaneously tending to the harvest at hand.


2. Give up too early. I've been trying to set up book events in Tulsa for the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, hit some roadblocks, but just last night, I contacted an event coordinator, and I'm hopeful things will work out. (I might even get to go to a brunch with Alfre Woodard in the same room. Alfre Woodard! I'm gonna have to pack my drool bucket.) 


3. Miss out on photo opps. The Amazon guy delivered 7 boxes of books. My books. Too late, I thought of getting a selfie with him, my book and me. Too late, I thought of running after the truck. (Okay, stalking the deliveryman would have been one of those WWSD things). Get a picture of you and your favorite teacher. You and the grandmother who always sang your praises. For goodness sake, you and your delivery guy. 


4. Check Amazon for new reviews 942 times a day. Hoping for new reviews of my book won't make them magically appear. 


5. Hesitate in approaching a publisher. Or anybody. This was a wrong fork I almost took. However, I made an inquiry, held my breath, and received this unbelievable email: "I would love to publish your book." What is the worst she could have said? She could have said "No... I'm not interested... Thanks, but no thanks." It's not she was going to hit me upside my head. Likewise, the friends I sent emails to, letting them know about my book. The ones who wanted to buy it, would. 


I'll be back in a moment. It's time to check Amazon again.


Uh oh. No new reviews.


How about you ? What little side-trips have you taken, due to choosing the wrong fork in the road? Meandering minds want to know.

Sioux Roslawski is a middle-school teacher, a dog rescuer, and the author of Greenwood Gone: Henry's Story.

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Interview with Deborah Tomkins: Fall 2020 Flash Fiction Runner Up

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Deborah Tomkins lives in the historic city of Bristol, UK, with her family. She gained an Honours degree in French & Linguistics, then became a dictionary writer, before educating her children at home for 15 years. She’s passionate about the natural world, and now works for a UK environmental charity. 

As a child Deborah loved reading, and secretly harboured the idea of writing fiction, but didn’t begin until her late forties. She writes novels, novellas and short stories, in inconsistent bursts of activity. Now We Are Seven is the first story in a science fiction novella-in-flash set in an alternate universe. A contemporary climate fiction novel has reached long and short lists in competitions, but has yet to find a publisher. 

In 2017 Deborah founded the Bristol-based writing network, Bristol Climate Writers. She is also an author at ClimateCultures.

If you haven't read "Now We Are Seven" click through and then return to learn more about her work and climate writing. 

--Interview by Sue Bradford Edwards

WOW:  What was the inspiration behind “Now We Are Seven”? 

Deborah: In my longer fiction I like to explore someone’s life over several decades. This little story is the first in a novella-in-flash, “First, Do No Harm,” which takes my protagonist Magnus through 50 years of his life. I decided to begin on his seventh birthday, and try to weave in as much of his world as possible while still keeping the story a story. I thought I might make a flash about each of his birthdays, but abandoned that after a while as that form didn’t suit what I wanted the novella to do. 

We meet Magnus in this tremendously difficult position, stuck at the top of a tree as night falls, and there are hints of both the physical and emotional worlds he has to learn to negotiate as he grows up, which become more apparent as the novella progresses. The tricky thing is making the flash a complete story, while at the same time allowing it to be part of a bigger whole. I’m still learning how to do that. 

WOW: Rewriting is such a big part of the writing process. How did this story evolve through revision? 

Deborah: It changed completely several times! The basic elements were always there but in different orders. It started off almost as long as it is now, then I cut it massively (to about half the length), but that felt too bare and spare. Other times there were more details that never made the final cut as they weren’t as relevant. I think often in early drafts you are writing for yourself, rather than a reader. 

I also learned over the past couple of years to get closer to my characters, avoiding phrases such as “he wishes”, “he thinks”, so that also altered the style. I have to confess I have revised it since this contest too! 

WOW: What advice do you have for writers who are new to writing flash? 

Deborah: Just give it a go! I still feel I’m very much a beginner at writing flash. It’s a different skill set from what we normally think of when writing. In flash we need to learn about compressing the story, using fewer words (but the right words), leaving things out and maybe just hinting at them, working out what needs to be said and what doesn’t. This can apply at word, phrase, and sentence level, and even at paragraph level. 

And stories do need a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order… 

I will add that my longer writing has improved hugely since beginning to write flash, both fiction and non-fiction. It’s like a workout! 

WOW:  I'm very much a chronological writer and am still learning to experiment. Tell us about the novella that “Now We Are Seven” begins. 

Deborah: In a class at the Flash Fiction Festival about 3 years ago – this is a wonderful weekend in the UK which I attended because I knew nothing about flash and wanted to learn – we had to write the beginning of a story. I can’t remember the exercise, but I do remember the image which popped into my head, an astronaut who still keeps things in his pockets as he did as a child. 

I felt I had to do something with this slightly surreal image, and it seemed there might be more to discover. Over a few months it became clearer. The novella is set in an alternate universe, with Earth heading towards an ice age. Life is a hard scrabble for survival, despite many idyllic aspects of the planet, and Magnus wants something different. He trains as an astronaut and travels to Earth’s twin, Aerth, the other side of the Sun, the opposite in so many ways of his home planet. Here he becomes trapped. 

I found myself formulating and exploring a different kind of society. In the story, Earth has a dark and destructive history, which the reader – and Magnus – only discovers bit by bit. Earth’s response has been to create a pacifist society with five principles for living, which successfully wards off recreating the mistakes and excesses of the past. But visiting Aerth is a shock and Magnus has to adapt fast. 

The novella reached the longlist of the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in 2019, which was very exciting, but I knew it needed more work to fill in some plot holes and suggest more about the two worlds. So I crafted more stories and slipped them in. It was only after revising it this past winter I realised how much I’ve been unconsciously influenced by the great writer Ursula le Guin, as well as consciously influenced by my faith. 

WOW:  Congratulations on making the longlist.  That's quite an achievement. How do your passions, such as nature and the natural world, fuel your writing? 

Deborah: I think my passion for the natural world is always there as a kind of foundation. Most children are fascinated by nature, and many adults love experiencing nature too, whether through gardening, travel, or hobbies such as photography or art. It’s been scientifically proven that time spent in the natural world not only measurably lowers human stress hormones, such as cortisol, but helps in creating feelings of wellbeing as well as reducing heartrate and anxiety. Yet our fast-moving technological society both separates us from nature and damages it. 

Sometimes we’re in danger of forgetting how much we depend on nature’s gifts of food, fresh air and clean water, as well as forests and oceans. 

So I tend to weave this love in as much as possible in my writing. In my novella everyone on Earth loves nature, but Magnus only appreciates what he’s lost when he’s trapped on the other planet. It’s a big metaphor, really, about not taking what we have for granted. 

I’ve also written extensively about climate grief and eco-anxiety, both in fiction and non-fiction. My contemporary novel is about a woman who discovers the appalling destruction being done to the natural world, and that much of this destruction cannot be undone. The novel explores her emotional journey from shock and denial through to acceptance and a measure of peace as she builds a new kind of life. She’s an everywoman, with many flaws as well as gifts, and makes some brave choices about changing her lifestyle, with a lot of opposition from her family. 

I was keen to meet other writers exploring nature and climate, which is why I founded the network Bristol Climate Writers in 2017. Most of us also write about other things, but it’s great to have that dedicated space to explore these really important issues together.

WOW:  Your passion definitely comes through in your writing.  I hope some of our readers use the links above to check out more of your work.  Thank you for taking time to chat with us!
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My Newfound Love of Post-It Notes

Sunday, May 02, 2021


 

I’ve always considered myself a pantser when it comes to writing, whether I’m working on a long or short work of fiction. With non-fiction articles, I tend to be a little more structured, fleshing out a rough outline with subheads and then filling in the sections with details. But lately, I found myself growing frustrated with my notebooks and lists of topics for my true crime podcast and for my blog. None of my ideas were in one central location and I needed to put some sort of plan in place, especially for the podcast content. 
 
Begrudingly, I went to my husband and asked him for his kit of Post-It Notes. He has them in every shape and color because he uses journey mapping and storyboarding as part of his job in banking. My teenage daughter also discovered a love of planning out her story ideas on a wall in her bedroom so I’ve been the lone holdout. 

I got to work with a black Sharpie one recent Saturday. It took a few false starts, but I organized my notes this way: 
Green Post-It Notes held main ideas. 
Blue Post-It Notes were subcategories.  

For my blog, where my goal is to post three times a week, I rotate among true crime articles, lifestyle pieces and pop culture/book reviews. I started out by writing blue notes for every piece of content I’ve already created that I can repurpose for my blog, such as articles I write for magazines that I can simply copy and paste, along with a note about where they appeared. Then I wrote each book I’ve been meaning to review on separate notes. And finally, I got out my “true crime” notebook and pulled topic ideas from there onto blue notes. Once I was finished. I had about 10 blog post ideas ready to go. I was able to get four of them formatted and scheduled this week from my organization. 

Next, I tackled my podcast topics. First, I wrote a names of missing people (along with their ages and locations) from North and South Carolina from my notebook of ideas and slapped those on the wall in blue Post-It Notes. Then I stepped back and examined the names to see if I could find patterns, because I like to organize my episodes in groups, such as “Missing Runners in North Carolina,” or “Missing After a Night Out.” While staring at the notes, I began seeing main categories materialize, so I wrote those out in green Post-Its and started moving the blue notes underneath where they fit. This is how I discovered several of the people missing were moms, so I created a new episode titled “Missing Moms in North Carolina” for this week’s episode. By the time I was finished, I had ideas for at least three or four new episodes, which was helpful for me in planning. This week was so much easier. As I wrote or scheduled a blog post that list, I took the corresponding note off the wall. (I also may have gotten a little carried away and convinced myself a missing person on my list was tied to a convicted serial killer in North Carolina. I don’t think she actually was, but I did have a bit of a “Criminal Minds” moment with my notes.) 

I have a laminated map of the United States on the main empty wall of my home office, so unfortunately I had to do my brainstorming on top of the map, which my husband teased me about because of all the contrasting colors. But it works for me because I don’t have time to do the paint patching job that will be necessary if I take the map off the wall so I’ll keep it for now. 

Do you use this type of brainstorming in your writing or content creation? I’d love to hear how you get your work organized. 

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer, freelance magazine editor and podcaster. Learn more at FinishedPages.com.
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