Turning Interviews into Kids’ Books with Erica Swallow

15241180_1144296242344899_7164375719047770981_nThis month in the Inspiration and Perspiration series, I tracked down Erica Swallow, co-creator of a non-fiction picture book stemming from Erica’s real-life interview with kid entrepreneurs. I met Erica at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, where, in our first chat, she asked, “Is there anything I can do to help you with your project?” I was later shocked to find her on a panel discussing social media for writers. I had no idea she was a panelist instead of just an attendee! With a giving, humble spirit like that, I was thrilled to discover she’s also a powerhouse of creativity and innovation.

I talked to Erica about what inspired her project.

Tell us about your current project and how you got the idea for it?

I just finished my first picture book series. It’s called Entrepreneur Kid, and it’s a four-book series about real kids with real businesses, written by myself and illustrated by my good friend, Li Zeng, a very talented graphic designer and design professor I’ve known since moving back to my home state, Arkansas. We’re self-publishing the series on Kickstarter and just launched today. It was been an absolute whirlwind adventure learning how to be a publisher!

The whole premise behind the series is the idea that kids can do anything they set their minds through. The books feature the stories of four kid entrepreneurs from across the U.S., from sock designer Sebastian Martinez (CEO of Are You Kidding?) and barrette inventor Gabby Goodwin (CEO of GaBBY Bows) to lacrosse equipment maker Rachel Zietz (CEO of Gladiator Lacrosse) and electronics reseller and recycler Jason Li (CEO of iReTron). These kids have done amazing things… sold their goods all over the world, figured out manufacturing, partnered with non-profits, and achieved so much while so young.

I’ve been seeing more and more young Gabbyentrepreneurs popping up around the country, and I started researching what kids are achieving today. I couldn’t help but be inspired.

While I’ve been a journalist for a while now, I thought this was the appropriate set of stories to launch my career as a debut children’s author.

The illustrator Li and I have been collaborating on projects since early last year, mostly educational programs focused on inspiring the next generation of thinkers and innovators. She and I got serious about Entrepreneur Kid in September, and we’ve been rolling ever since.

What is it about entrepreneurship that you find inspiring? Is there a connection with your own life to that world?

Yes, 100% – there’s a huge connection. I’m a small business owner, and I’ve worked with countless entrepreneurs throughout my career in journalism and marketing. I started my career as a marketing consultant at The New York Times in 2009, right out of college. That’s where I developed a love for storytelling, as well as a love for entrepreneurship. After all, you can’t lead social media at the world’s paper of record without falling in love with brilliant storytelling.

Part of my job was to collaborate with startups like Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare, and I really loved how they believed in moving fast and breaking things. It was so exhilarating working on campaigns with people like Tristan Walker, this spunky business development all-star who led Foursquare partnerships at the time, while still pursuing his MBA at Stanford. He’s now the founder and CEO of Walker & Company Brands, which makes health and beauty products for people of color. It’s entrepreneurs like Tristan who make me excited to keep growing and learning. I want to work with people like him who are trying to build things that make the world a better place.

That’s what entrepreneurship is to me – it’s making the world a better place, through your creativity and ingenuity.

What’s been the hardest part for you as you’ve developed this series?

15000800_1113898918717965_3619267930297421633_oWriting for kids! It sounds odd, but I’ve been writing for adults for the past… forever!

My bookshelf is now full of picture books, because I had to learn how to structure the story. It wasn’t until this past December, though, that I realized writing picture books isn’t so different from writing a news article. I was at the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Winter Conference, and legendary picture book author Andrea Davis Pinkney – who has a background in journalism as well – said of how she uses her journalism experience in book writing: “Use a compelling lede.”

I was stunned, because for some reason, I had never considered my writing experience of relevance to children’s books. I went back to my manuscripts and did some tweaking. I’m definitely going to think journalistically for my next book, and the lede is going to be out of this world!

What’s been the biggest triumph so far?

Besides finishing the series and launching the Kickstarter, we’ve already received great feedback from the industry. We were a finalist in the Children’s Book category of the San Francisco Writers Conference writing contest, for “Sebastian Creates a Sock Company,” the first book we wrote in the series. Just prior to that, I was honored with a Highlights Foundation James Cross Giblin Scholarship to continue my writing in nonfiction children’s literature.

The kid’s lit community has certainly been welcoming. I don’t think I’ve ever pursued a project that’s been welcomed so overwhelmingly so early on. We’re really grateful for that.

What advice would you give to a budding entrepreneur or writer?

Do your thang. That’s all. Just keep going. 15241429_1145555655552291_2580009388373791058_nWriting is tough. Starting a business is tough. You just have to persist. Get it done. Keep going. End of story.

Tell us about your Kickstarter and where to find it!

Yes, yes, yes. We launched the Kickstarter this morning to fund the first print run of the Entrepreneur Kid book series. You can find the project easily from our website or directly on Kickstarter. You can back the project and choose from one of 11 rewards, which include getting a simple thank you on our website, a single book, the full book series (in print, digital, or both forms), multiple sets of the series, or an author or illustrator visit (U.S. or international). There’s something for everyone. Well, if you like stories about kid entrepreneurs!

We are so grateful for all of the people who helped make the project itself possible. From the entrepreneurs who we featured to our early readers, there have been so many helpful people along the way. Adding to the equation are our backers. Thank you to everyone who supports us over the next 30 days. The project closes on April 27th, at which point, we’ll put our order in for 2,000 books if the campaign is a success. Fingers crossed! 

If you had to describe what inspires you in one word, what would it be?

Humanity.

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Erica Swallow is a status quo wrecker, entrepreneur, journalist, and debut children’s book author. Her thoughts have been published in ForbesFortune, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. A first-generation college student, she was raised in Paragould, Arkansas and believes education is the key to opportunity. Erica holds degrees from New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the founder of Southern Swallow digital strategy consultancy.

Find behind-the-scenes photos and more at www.facebook.com/entrepreneurkid.

Check out and consider supporting this project by clicking here: Entrepreneur Kid Kickstarter.


Want more interviews that pick the brains of creative people? Check out Art Modeling and Creating Art with Krystal Becker or Travel Photography and Journalism with Megan Snedden. And keep an eye out for the next entry in the Inspiration and Perspiration series by following the blog! Just find the “Follow” feature at the top right of the page!

Online Resource Guide for Aspiring Authors

reading-stack-of-booksThis past week I spent four amazing days at the San Francisco Writers Conference. Everywhere, groups tucked into corners between panels to help each other get ready for the great and scary pitch sessions. Someone mentioned feeling intimidated to come to their first conference, ready for battle in the Hunger Games of aspiring authors. Instead, they found themselves wrapped in the comfy arms of the writing community. I’ve been wrapped in those arms for years. It’s nice in the arms!

For me, most of those arms have been virtual ones. And something I noticed at the conference was that many writers weren’t familiar with the online community and sources that make this whole writer-to-author process so much less frightening! Want your query package critiqued? Want to learn which agents will be good fits? Want to learn more about craft? The online writers community has got your back.

Here are some of the most helpful online resources for writers hoping to become authors that I’ve collected during my years of learning about writing and the publishing industry.

Writing Craft:

First up, K.M. Weiland’s “Helping Writers Become Authors.” Hold onto your hats, because there’s both a website AND a podcast! You not only get bite-sized tips on all sorts of topics, but K.M. Weiland’s guides on characters arcs and plot structure are fantastic. They’re a huge help at the editing stage, guiding you to examine key moments and deliver memorable moments to readers.

Like the idea of learning while brushing your teeth in the morning? Another podcast I faithfully subscribe to is the Writing Excuses Podcast, which delivers craft advice from a panel of published writers. Pro tip: their archives offer gold beyond what’s available on iTunes.

Former agent, now freelance editor and consultant, Mary Kole has an incredibly helpful blog, Kidlit.org, that tackles both the industry and editorial advice inspired by her experience working with writers. While the focus is supposedly on children’s and teen lit, I’d say 90% of the content can apply to any novel. Mary Kole walks you through common mistakes writers don’t even know they’re making. She also has a book called, “Writing Irresistible Kidlit,” that has a respected home on my bookshelf.

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My revision notecards. Learned this technique in “How to Revise Your Novel.”

Lastly, I can’t talk about craft without mentioning one of the most significant impacts on my writing, Holly Lisle, who offers both articles and courses. Her articles are refreshingly practical. Instead of, “Have high stakes!” Holly breaks down how to actually accomplish those overly-general writing tips. During a revise/resubmit where I was completely overwhelmed, I splurged on her course, “How to Revise Your Novel.” It changed everything about how I approach revision. I jumped right into, “How to Think Sideways” after that. If you’re ever getting frustrated with reading things like, “Give your characters voice,” “Fulfill your promises,” or “Start with a strong premise,” and are screaming, “But how?!” I recommend Holly.  

Query Package:

First mandatory reading assignment: the Query Shark Blog. Aspiring authors send their query letters to The Shark (literary agent, Janet Reid) for public critique. It’s…brutal, Game of Thrones-esque entertainment, with a high dose of snark, but oh so educational. Read from the beginning. Yes, the beginning. And enjoy the chum bucket as you get whipped into querying shape.

At the same time, make your way through Nathan Bransford’s thorough guide to querying. It answers questions about what agents want to see, a mad lib guide to get you started, even strategies for how many to send at a time.

Then, when you’ve a solid grounding in what makes a good query, head on over to the QueryTracker Forums, where you can critique and get critiques for query letters, pitches, first pages, and synopses. While there are other writer communities online that do similar things, after spending time in a few, I’ve found QT to be the most supportive and welcoming of the bunch. It’s also a great place to do arrange page swaps and feel out potential for critique partners in your genre.

Finding the Right Agent

Now it’s time to take the plunge and approach agents. I highly recommend QueryTracker.net. Wait, didn’t we just cover that one? Nope. While they’re run by the same crew, they are separate sites with distinct purposes. QueryTracker.net is an amazing, beautiful, magnificent tool for exploring agents and keeping track of the queries you’re sending out (hence, the site name). You can search for agents by genre, but also see data like how long they take to respond and whether they’re more or less likely to request pages. You can easily see who you queried, whether you’ve sent out pages, and how long you’ve been waiting. If you get to the point where you’re querying in large batches and maybe have partials out, this is a great way to avoid embarrassing confusion.

Agentquery.com is another agent data base. It’s very basic, information only, but has the benefit of collecting information on preferences beyond stated genres. Instead of just, “Mystery” listed as a genre accepted, they’ll post information gleaned from interviews or provided by agents themselves like, “Not interested in mysteries unless it’s chicklit.” This is great in helping you figure out if your project is up an agent’s alley.

My ultimate secret weapon in the agent search is the Literary Rambles Blog, though it’s only geared toward picture book through YA. While not as exhaustive as an agent database, the depth is incredible. The blog hosts pick an agent to feature, then scour the internet for any information, from preferences to reputation. The picture you get of agents here is likely to be more complete than what you’ll find elsewhere, and there’s often a ton of links provided to interviews and sources to explore.

So there we are—the resources that have been warm shelters along this shadowy path toward publication. It’s certainly not the only resources I’ve tried, and I’ve also read tons of books on all of these subjects, so if you have any questions about the process or want peeks into my writing bookshelf, just ask! You can comment below (you don’t need to be a WordPress member to comment!) or shoot me an email at brandilyn_gilbert@yahoo.com.

In the online community, we love to help, and we have cookies.

(Okay, not real cookies, but we love saying we have cookies and offering each other cookies. It’s a thing. Don’t worry, you’ll learn.)


 

Want more posts about writing? Check out Why I Write for Kids and TeensWhere do ideas come from?, or NaNoWriMo: Your 50,000-Word Writing Challenge.

Tune in Monday, for the next Inspiration and Perspiration interview! I talk to Megan Snedden—photojournalist for BBC, National Geographic, USA Today, and more—about what it takes to turn a creative passion into a career.

Want more stories, writing adventures, and interviews with creative folks? Check the top right of the page, to follow the blog! And post any questions you have below!

Why I Write for Kids and Teens

Sometimes, when I tell people that I write for kids and teens, they respond with something along the lines of, “Oh that sounds fun! Do you think one day you’ll be good enough/serious enough to write for adults?”

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I then launch in to all the reasons I love writing for young people. The challenge of creating a layered story that can appeal to different types and ages of readers. Characters learning their places in the world, moving from relying on adults to trusting in themselves and their friends. The room for genre-blending and experimenting with style since the books are primarily sorted by age group instead of genre!

Then I take a breath and realize they’re gone.

Having to defend the merits of writing for this age group makes me think a lot about why I’m drawn toward it. In last week’s interview, Krystal Becker talked about getting into art modeling because she wanted to go beyond admiring pictures to living in them.

I wanted to hug her. Because, that’s just it, isn’t it? Kids don’t just read stories. They live stories.

When I was a kid, there were a few series I was obnoxiously obsessed with particularly engaged in. Early on, it was The Baby-Sitters’ Club by Ann M. Martin. I still have a letter I wrote to my friend, disappointed that my dad had said we couldn’t start our own baby-sitting club until we were 13 (you know, the age when you’re totally mature enough to take charge of young children’s safety). Despite this set-back, I laid out my plans for making my favorite fictional club come to life.

When I was in fourth grade, it was Spooksville by Christopher Pike. While I did my chores, I pretended that I was climbing a mountain to the beautiful witch’s castle or wiggling into the magic tree that ate children. I also was into the X-Files at a perhaps inappropriately young age and my sister and I slung on my parents’ trench coats and made files for alien abductee and monster victim cases.

I then grew up and grew out of playing in the fictional universes I loved.

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Um, ignore this.
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And this.

I remember my fourth-grade self thinking that one day, if one kid out there in the world was daydreaming of being part of one of my stories while in class, or running around the neighborhood, or while they were doing the dishes, I would have all the success I’d ever want.

Today, as I write my middle grade novels in particular, I go back to young-Brandi’s goal. I ask myself what elements could make the story easier to play in. Maybe it’s adding something to a character’s appearance that would make a Halloween costume recognizable. Maybe it’s including props that could be duplicated at home. Maybe it’s a magic system with rhyming spells. The richer the world, the easier it is to jump in deep.

So why do I write for young people? Kids and teens tend to live in stories, share them socially, push the canon worlds created into new territory. And when they do, they give those books life beyond the confines it’s pages. I, for one, would be thrilled to provide the starting material and see what they build.

What do you consider when thinking about the audience or consumer of your work? I’d love to hear from you—comment below!


Haven’t yet read the interview with Krystal Becker, art model and artist, mentioned above? Find it here: Art Modeling and Creating Art with Krystal Becker

Similar posts: 

Collecting and Connecting – Two Years of Interviews

Create the World You Want to See

Where do ideas come from?

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Where do ideas come from?

books-floating-hair-flip“Where do you get your ideas?”

I’ve noticed that fiction writers tend to answer this question in a tone I’ll call…cutsey sarcastic. “A unicorn brings them to me every full moon.” Cool, cool. The wisdoms of the masters—always super helpful…

Don’t get me wrong, I get it. It’s a weird question for fiction writers to answer. If you’re writing non-fiction, sure, you can say, “Well, I was volunteering in a war zone and someone said I should write a book about it.” But if someone asks me where I got my story idea, I can’t exactly say, “Well, this one time, when I was a young boy in Louisiana being cursed by witches…”

So the idea unicorn is a nice, cute answer for something that, in reality, would take a very long time to clumsily explain. That’s probably why the Greeks came up with the Muses. But it’s also not really helpful to the writers who are banging their head against their desk, tossing away another scrap that reads, “Terminator 2 but with vampires????”

excited-reader
Bad example. Terminator 2 but with vampires sounds AWESOME.

When I was a kid, I read my way through the entire young adult section at the library (granted, this was the 90s and the heyday of R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, so YA books were about 150 pages). Reading that much, something started to happen—I found books that should have been awesome but weren’t. My brain started comparing those to all the great books I’d read and came up with ways I thought the disappointing books would have been better.

That was my mind’s first step into creating story ideas. And of course there were tons of bad ones and half-baked ones and ones that fell apart as soon as I told them to someone else. But there were good bits too. For me, ideas formed from rummaging through a scrap pile of other stories, my own experiences, facts, art, news stories, always asking, “What if? What if?” until something would grab my attention.

So my current novel wasn’t born fully-realized in a cabbage patch or on a train or in a dream. It had been a half-idea sitting in the “Ideas!” document on my computer for several months, about a sickly, sullen outcast finding out his brother is stealing all his strengths to become more popular. I liked the idea, but I didn’t see the spark that would turn it into a meaningful story.

Months later, I’d decided to shelve my first manuscript. My mom had been telling me about a woman back in Hawaii who gave her an honorary Hawaiian name that meant, “brightest star in the heavens.” I was thinking that if the woman turned to me, my Hawaiian name would certainly not be the brightest star in the heavens. I laughed.

Then froze. That idea and my half-idea for a story smacked together and I stumbled from the shower, soap still in my hair, and started scribbling in my notebook as fast as my hand would go.  I’d found my theme. I’d found my spark. I’d found my ending.

happy-dance

How do people get ideas? How do they go from that exciting spark of inspiration to creating something meaningful? How do they make it through that point when fun becomes work and inspiration seems out of reach?

I’ll be exploring this question in a number of ways over the next year, in a series of posts I’ll be calling, “Inspiration and Perspiration.” Because it rhymes and I like that.

I’ll be interviewing different types of artists and creatives about these themes and no one will get away with crediting the “idea unicorn” for their hard work. I’ll also bring tales from my own experiences, from how a band’s show gave me an idea for a novel, seeing my writing performed on stage, and the experience of trying to get my first novel published. I even have a secret tale of online writing success I had under a pen name that will delight the nerds among you. And I mean the nerds. (*Fist bumps to the nerds*)

In the meantime, give that ever difficult question a shot. Creatives, innovators—where do your ideas come from? Comment below! 


Like this post? Try these!

Create the World You Want to See

Collecting and Connecting – Two Years of Interviews

NaNoWriMo: Your 50,000-Word Writing Challenge

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NaNoWriMo: Your 50,000-Word Writing Challenge

Guest post by ERICA ROOTmachine-writing-1035292_1280

Writing a book is an overwhelming endeavor. Writing your FIRST novel, even more so.

So what’s an aspiring author to do? What’s the best way to overcome that insurmountable hurdle?

My answer: Sign up for NaNoWriMo.  

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, is exactly what it sounds like. A one-month period dedicated to intensive writing. If you keep up with the daily word count — 1,667 WORDS A DAY, to be exact – you will have a 50,000-word novel at the end of the month.

It’s exactly that little push needed to put pen to paper, or more likely fingers to keyboard, and get writing.

If you have dabbled with the idea of writing a book, NaNoWriMo might be a good option to jumpstart the process.

Here are a few things you should know:

  • NaNoWriMo values quantity over quality. I’ve done NaNoWriMo four times, and only once hit that 50,000-word mark. My first two failed attempts I spent a significant time going back and rereading what I had already written. If you are writing every day, you should know where you’ve left off. Rereading is a time suck. Get to the writing, get those words in. The time for editing is not now.
  • There is a community of authors and other writers to support you. Writing is an isolating endeavor. Knowing that there is a community of friends, neighbors, and strangers all working toward a common goal is a powerful motivator. When you go to the website you have a wealth of information and inspiration at your fingertips. While you might have a lot of enthusiasm on day one, you might hit a slump come day 10.  Utilize these resources and figure out a way to build them into your writing time. Are you going to spend 5 minutes readying the latest email from a popular author and then dive into your daily writing? Will you post your accomplishments on a community board? Will you be a lurker? Reading and not partaking in the discussion boards? Because that’s OK too. Figure out how to make the site work for you.
  • Getting ahead is easier than catching up. If you have a two-day conference in LA scheduled during November then you have a few options available to you: you could say you will make the time to write while you are at the conference (but we ALL know you won’t), you could get ahead and write more in the days leading up to the conference, or you could play catch up once you are safe and sound when you get back home. I recommend getting ahead, because feeling like you need to play catch up is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to staying on track during NaNoWriMo. Suddenly 1,667 words a day turns into 3,334 words you need to write to be on track. As that number grows, your confidence in getting the project done plummets. So, stay ahead, stay above water, because you are treading ALL month long.

My top 3 tips for hitting your goal:

  • Create a network of accountability. You are more likely to succeed in an endeavor if you have a plan and share that plan with others. Me, writing this article, will give me a much better chance of success this November. The first and only time I completed NaNoWriMo I actually emailed my daily writing to a few trusted people. This tactic worked great for me. People expected the writing, gave positive feedback (that’s the only kind of feedback allowed at this stage), and placed the requisite amount of pressure on me to get those 1,667 words down. 
  • Create a Space to Write. A few years ago, I bought this beautiful tiffany-blue desk from Cost Plus World Market. This is my writing space. I only use the desk to get work done and writing a novel in a month is – obviously – a whole lot of work. But I know when I go to the desk that I need to focus on the task at hand and not get distracted by shiny objects or squirrels. A sound track is helpful in creating your space as well. I’m partial to the Pride and Prejudice soundtrack, the Kiera Knightly version, which is available on YouTube. Yes, I listen to music on YouTube, but that’s a discussion for another day.
  • Plan What You Are Going to Write. You don’t need to have the whole story map written out before you get started on this journey. In fact, that’s not really recommended. However, spending the first 5-10 minutes of the day mapping out what you are going to write about THAT DAY is immensely helpful. Of course, you can always begin the planning process in October or earlier.

Things that don’t work:

  • Editing instead of reading. Didn’t I tell you not to edit? See above.
  • Saying you will just “browse the internet for a few minutes” before you start writing. The internet is a tempting siren, desperately trying to lure you away from writing. So turn off your internet access, go to your designated writing space, or a coffee shop without free Wi-Fi, and get to work.
  • Maintaining a Social Life. Maintaining a social life is hard to do if you take on this challenge. If you really want to be successfully and hit the target 50,000 words, you have two options: become a recluse or surround yourself with friends who are also participating in NaNoWriMo. The latter works really well for me.

Whether you are a professional writer or are just curious about what it would be like to write a book, this month-long challenge is great option to kick start those creative juices.

Compressing the book writing process into a one-month period suddenly makes it feel much more manageable.

So, if you are serious about taking on NaNoWriMo, do yourself a favor, figure out how you are going to build it into your life and make it happen.

Write on.

erica-root
Photo by Eleakis and Elder Photography

Erica Root is a Sacramento-based public affairs professional who spends her free time reading, writing and chasing her perpetually energetic puppy, Teddy. You can read more about Erica’s thoughts on travel, reading, and her worldly stuffed panda at: asquarerootinaroundworld.com

“If you are a dreamer, come in…” -Shel Silverstein

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I am a risk-taker. In college, when there wasn’t a book club on campus, I signed the papers to create one. When I couldn’t afford to join an amazing-looking writers retreat, I gathered together a group of local creatives and planned one from scratch. In my job as an academic advisor, when a panel of students said they were too scared to ask for help, I typed up a proposal for an outreach program, and I didn’t take the initial “no” as a final answer.

But the week before the Central Coast Writers Conference found my fingers frozen over the registration form. I spent hours jumping up, pacing, convincing myself I shouldn’t go. Convincing myself I should.

All those other things I mentioned, I cared about a lot. But writing? Writing I care about from a deep, longing place. From the 2nd grade Show and Tell when I told a story about my brother getting eaten by a shark on vacation and a boy rose a trembling hand and asked if it was real. From my teen years when I took night classes at the community college so I could get a free period to write. From the time I watched an actor perform a monologue I’d written and the audience laughed at all the right parts.

Caring apparently turns me into a great big coward.

Submitting the registration made me feel sick. Whether from nerves or relief, I still have no idea.

The conference, of course, didn’t end up being scary at all. I met all kinds of writers and took so many notes from experts like writer Mary Weber and agent Laurie McClean that my hand cramped.

The main thing I took away from the weekend was this—I’m missing a piece in my prospective career as a writer that I should have noticed. I’m missing my community. I’m missing my tribe of nerds, idea-lovers, and writers pacing around their living room, staring at their computer screen, and trying to be bold. To gather this tribe, the experts said, you have to tell people about the person behind the writing.

Well, I’ve always been taught to show, not tell.

And so, community of friends, strangers, adventure-seekers, anxious artists, world-changers, fandom nerds, adventurers, belly-laughers, lovers of creepy tales, and those who might also have moments of cowardice before taking a big leap, here, I suppose, we go…