Craft

WORDS FOR WRITERS – How To Write a Synopsis

WORDS FOR WRITERS – How To Write a Synopsis

Having to write a synopsis is the single worst part of being a write. THE WORST.

I see you “tagged in a negative review on Twitter” and I raise you “having to condense 80k words worth of my beloved precious lyrical story baby into a summary.” Bad reviews happen, but they happen to you, they are not of your doing. But a synopsis? This is a torture you must visit upon yourself.

(Can you tell I love writing these things? Ha!)

Okay, seriously, a synopsis is hard. But you know what?

A synopsis is the most valuable tool in your pitch package.

I promise. Really.

Beyond being a really great intellectual exercise for you as a writer to use between drafts (“Does the book I actually wrote match the book I think I wrote?”), a synopsis is an invaluable tool by everyone else on your publishing and marketing teams too.

How?

  • If you are unagented, potential agents use them to assess the quality and content of your story, and of your ability to use writing as a medium to communicate. It helps them decide if this is a novel they want to try reading, or something they’d like to pass on.
  • If you have an agent, then the synopsis helps them have a blueprint of the story you’re trying to tell, so they can help guide you through revisions. It also becomes a valuable part of their own pitch packages for publishers.
  • Publishers review the quality of your writing and your stories to see if they’d like to read your book and / or sign it. Editors use it as when their pitching to their higher-ups in favor of signing you, and also to extrapolate potential series value. And like an agent, they use it as an outline for guiding revisions.
  • The marketing team at your publishing house uses it in their packages to entice reviewers, as the basis for blurbs and press releases, and to help craft back cover copy and ad copy.
  • Reviewers sometimes read the synopsis for the first book in a series if they’re asked to review the second, so they know what happened in advance. They may also refer to a synopsis after reading a book to help write their review.
  • The synopsis is sometimes given to moderators, speakers, and interviewers who won’t have the time to read the whole book before engaging with you for press.
  • Adaptations agents / entertainment agents / producers and screenwriters, and anyone else working on any sort of adaptation of your work may use it in their own pitch packages, or as a guide for what you the author consider the spine of the story, and all the same reasons literary agents do.

So, it’s really important.

It’s also important to know what we’re talking about when we say “synopsis” here. Sometimes the term ‘synopsis’ is mistakenly used interchangeably with Back Cover Copy or Pitch Copy or Hook Copy to mean the small paragraphs on the back of a book or in marketing materials.

A synopsis is actually a 1 to 5 page summary of all the major characters and events that happen in the book, including the ending (surprise your readers, not your agent.) This isn’t the ad copy you use to hook a reader, this is the full narrative laid out in easy to read language.

Sounds a lot simpler than it is, because it’s often difficult to figure out which parts of the narrative should be mentioned in the synopsis, and which shouldn’t.

Here are my biggest synopsis-writing pieces of advice:

  • Echo the voice of the book.
    • A synopsis is commonly written in third person present omniscient (“Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit of the Shire”), but can sometimes work in another tense and POV. 
    • Most importantly, use the same words, the same style of sentence structure, and the same idioms as your narrator or main POV character. The book should sound like the synopsis. 
      • Example – Book text: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
      • Example – Synopsis text: “Bilbo Baggins is a gentlehobit of good breeding, and he, like the rest of his kind, is very much not interested in Adventures, thank you very much. They are nasty things that make one late for dinner. So when the wizard Gandalf the Grey arrives at his doorstep with thirteen dwarves looking for help reclaiming their lost homeland, Bilbo is more than a little miffed.”
  • Create three different versions in three different sizes, and write the longest version first.
    • Write the 5 pager first. It’s much easier to trim down than pad a synopsis, so get it all in the big one first. Then trim to 3 pages, so you have that version on file. Then trim to 1 page. By then you’ll know what’s the really important stuff.
    • Start by writing a character/story introduction paragraph.
      • Basically, “this is who the character is, and where they are in the world and in their life, and why the following events will be welcomed/hated/a burden/etc.”
    • Then, ignoring the length of the synopsis for now, write one summary paragraph per chapter in the book.
      • Sometimes all the events in a chapter need three or four sentences, sometimes it needs just one.
      • Be clear about motivations. Not just “Bilbo doesn’t want to be seen with the dwarves,” but “Bilbo is embarrassed to be seen with raucous, rowdy dwarves while within the boarders of the Shire, where his reputation as a staid and reliable gentlehobbit is at risk.”
    • Then write a final conclusion paragraph that explains how the world and people in it have changed as a result of what they’ve experienced. 
    • If you go over 5 pages, go back and start tightening it up.
      • Decide if every event needs to be reported, and cut those that don’t.
      • A good rule of thumb for this is to only include events that directly effect the outcome of the climax, or directly effect the main character’s emotional arc.
  • Focus on Cause and Effect.
    • Lay it out as: THIS happens and as a result, THAT happens, and as a result THIS OTHER THING happens. Show the reader how the plot interlocks, one action after another, and how they all build to their inevitable climax.
  • Also focus on Character Growth.
    • Zero in on the lead, and maybe one or two side characters.
    • How have these events changed these people, their beliefs, and their perspectives. Tell us where the characters end up.

And remember, however difficult it may be to distill your baby down into so few pages, it will totally be worth it in the end. Polish, refine, get beta readers, and work your synopsis just as diligently as  you do your book, and I promise you won’t regret it.

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Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS here or ASK ME HERE.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS – How To Write a Synopsis
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Granny Le Guin

Granny Le Guin

Image result for ursula k le guin

I know I’ve said it before, but I didn’t really grow up in a family of readers. Mom is constantly reading books passed to her by relatives and neighbors, and she passes them on after that –  mostly thrillers and dramas, though, not the sort of thing that interested me at an impressionable age.

At no point that I recall did someone hand me a book and say “Here, I want to share this with you.” Aside from some minimal librarian guidance when women manning the school counters saw me gravitating to this or that genre, I mostly found my favorite reads and authors by devouring everything on a shelf or through online fan forums.

This means I somehow utterly missed Ursula K. Le Guin. I don’t know how, or why. You’d think schools would have a thousand copies of The Left Hand of Darkness on the shelf. Or that at some point I’d be forced to read it for class. (The only sci-fi books I directly recall reading for class was The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughs for a grade seven project on worldbuilding, where I deliberately chose the one book no one else did so I wouldn’t have to be in a group.)

It wasn’t until the after-school programing block on YTV introduced me to anime (Sailor Moon! Inu Yasha! Escaflowne! Gundam Wing! Dragonball Z!) that I ever heard of Le Guin, and that was only because in 2006 Ghibli Studios announced “Tales from Earthsea.”  I was living in Japan at the time, and the English section of the local bookstore was quite slim. But they did have the Earthsea series in an omnibus volume, and I took that home and consumed it in a weekend to prepare for the release of the film.

(I was disappointed, of course. I don’t know why Ghibli has a habit of taking a great story and turning it incomprehensible. They did the same to Howl’s Moving Castle, too, another series and author I discovered because they announced the adaptation).

I can honestly tell you that the Earthsea books – aside from the multitude of Stargate: Atlantis fan fiction I was consuming at the time – was the only story to directly influence my debut novel Triptych.  I began writing the original incarnation of the novel, a novella titled (Back), in January 2006, or thereabouts.

Reading the Earthsea books made me think a lot about the standard Fantasy Narrative, Hero, & Land that I’d consumed via Piers Anthony and Anne Rice novels up until then. It was the first time I had been confronted by my own inherent racism – why was I surprised to realize that Ged wasn’t white? – and by the privileges I had enjoyed as a reader until now.

It made me think a lot about what kinds of stories weren’t being told, by which kinds of characters, from which kinds of POVs. While I didn’t go as far as retroactively would have liked in making the cast and locations more diverse, or the discussions and displays of sexuality more complicated, I certainly would not have been thinking about these things at all were it not for Earthsea.

Many people have compared Triptych to Stranger in a Strange Land, or Canticle for Leibowitz, or The Left Hand of Darkness. None of which I read before I wrote the book (the first two of which I still haven’t read since), for which I’m glad. Because I might not have dared to write Triptych if I had read The Left Hand of Darkness first.

When Dr. Mike Perschon invited me to speak at the Grant MacEwan English Student Conference in February 2017 to speak in his English course “Topics in Race and Gender” – where he was teaching my sophomore novel The Untold Tale he mentioned the names of some of the other books on the syllabus. And I realized that I was about to step in front of a classroom filled with people who were expecting me to know at least one of the other authors I was being taught alongside and panicked.

Oh crap.

I read it on the plane to Edmonton and whoa nelly was I glad I did. Those students were way more prepared for my weekend than I was. And again, I was so, so happy that I had not read Left Hand before Triptych, because there were choices that Le Guin had made in the novel that would have made me want to veer opposite in response. Because I would have wanted to explore the areas her narrative hadn’t. In being unaware, I got to explore some of the same fees, but in a different, parallel light.

I always thought Ursula Le Guin would get a kick out of that. Though, of course, I don’t think my work was as thoughtful as hers, so I would have been terrified to even consider to put it into her hands. She was, by all accounts, the kind of woman to call out cowardice and shallowness when she saw it. And in reading Left Hand, she made me wish I had been a braver storyteller when I’d put Triptych on the page.

Luckily, I had not yet finished edits on The Silenced Tale when I read Left Hand. And I think I did make the harder, bolder choices with that novel. And I know for a fact that I went back into some of my notes for future novels and changed up the ideas in there, too.

Ursula K. Le Guin made me a stronger writer, not once, but twice.  I wanted to one day thank her for that. This is the closest I’ll ever get, now.

 

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On the day Anne McCaffrey passed away, her son Todd emailed a group of people, me among them, and told us that the announcement was going to go out that day and to prepare ourselves. I’d only met Todd the once, when he decided to crash the launch party for Triptych, and he’d given me a beautiful blurb for my debut novel as a result.

Todd barely knew me from Eve, but I appreciated the heads-up all the same.  Because it gave me time to excuse myself from my dayjob desk and go have a private sob in the ladies’. I took an extralong lunch that day, and went to the book store, and purchased myself a copy of the very first Dragonriders of Pern book. I’d read McCaffrey before, but never the Pern books. I don’t know what I had been waiting for.

I only knew that now was finally the time, to connect to McCaffrey through her most famous work by buy a book that I would never be able to get her to sign for me. In reading the novel  I was reminded that she was one of the great founders of not only modern fantasy and science fiction, but one of the pantheon of women who I have nicknamed “Gran” in my head, because they were the ones whose work were a direct influence on my own, the way they have directly or indirectly influenced so many writers who have come after them.

Grannie McCaffrey was gone.

In the last few years, I’ve lost another of my Grans – Diana Wynne Jones, author of the Howl’s Moving Castle books. That left Gran Lois Lowry, Gran Jennifer Roberson, and Gran Ursula K. Le Guin

And now I’ve lost another of the great beloved women of my literary genesis and the dreams of my childhood heart.

She was never mine, not really. Not in the way she was her family’s, or her publisher’s or her agents. But she was mine in my heart, in my imagination, in what she taught me as a feminist, as a storyteller, as a teacher. I looked to her and her work the way a child looks to their grandparent for advice, and a kind word, and good stories.

I hoped one day to shake her hand. To maybe even call her Gran to her face, though I would have to explain why. To thank her.

Part of the reason I started pushing my own work for Hugos and Nebulas was because I wanted to get the chance to sit beside her, to look her in the eye in the middle of the acceptance speech and say “This is yours, in part.”

 

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There’s a joke, in The Accidental Turn series, that my character Elgar Reed is a literary magpie. He’s the author of  “The Tales of Kintyre Turn”, a 1980s style sword-and-sorcery epic of either novels about a lord’s son who rejects his pampered upbringing to go swing an enchanted sword on the front lines of an inter-racial magical war.  I imagined Reed as the kind of writer who figures the best way to get famous is to do exactly what everyone else before him did – his work is a Lord of the Rings knockoff, with elements he’s grabbed from everyone who came after the Professor. To the point where there are moments where

He’s the kind of self-important author who thinks that he’s cleverer than his readers, and that he can pull the wool over their eyes, instead of realizing that a reader and a writer are a team that tell the story together. See, he thinks we won’t notice.

And this sort of meta storytelling gave me the opportunity to use his selfish magpieshness to fill the my books with my own tributes to my Grans. A pub that Bevel and Kintyre frequent is called The Pern. And the land in which they venture is called Hain.

I so wanted to be able to share that little wink and nod with her. And the gratitude.

She reached through her prose and made me braver – not just as a writer, but as a feminist, as an activist, as a bi woman with a disability, as a human over all.  I’m sure I’m not the only one, too.

So I guess the only thing I can say now is:

Thanks, Gran. They’re all yours, in part.

 

JM FreyGranny Le Guin
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Editing Thoughts, and Angst About Character Description

I am doing edits on The Forgotten Tale (The Accidental Turn Series novel #2).

These are feminist, meta-fantasy novels about what fantasy teaches its readers, and the messages that fantasy readers – men, women, readers of all faiths and ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, and sexualities.

And thus, these stories are set in a very stereotypical “Western Concept of Sword and Sorcery Fantasy World”.  It’s meant to be Middle Earthian, and like every other white-centric fantasy realm that has been inspired by Middle Earth.

This is the point, because when my MC arrives, an Asian-Canadian from Vancouver, she looks around her and goes. “Oh FFS. Are you kidding me? You can have a half dryad in the taproom, but not a black dude? Not a brown girl? Jeeze.”

It is deliberately meant to be a commentary on white=goodness in these sorts of narratives. Which of course goes with black=badness.

It’s pointed out, it’s referred to, it’s actually discussed, within the narrative itself.

I, as a white woman, have been cautious and I have tried really, really hard to be respectful, and careful about how I construct the exposure and subversion of these tropes.  I have second-guessed the crap out of every choice I’ve made, and discussed it from here to kingdom come with lots of author-types.

After getting ripped to tiny, quivering chunky bloody pieces by Requires Only That You Hate for Triptych, I can tell you I’m nervous AF about this. I want to talk about it. I want to. I want to be a good ally. I want to do this right.

So, part of the subversion is that I’m slowly populating the Hero’s Party with PoCs who are genuinely good people. The Hero, of course, is white. He’s power-fantasy jock type who sleeps with everyone he can. But by the end of the series, I’m aiming to have him outnumbered by PoC.

And it makes me squirmy-yucky cringy, but I’ve decided to make the pirates black. Because in these sorts of books and films, black=badness. I hate doing it. I hate reinforcing this stereotype, even consciously and for the exact point of inverting it. So there’s this pirate character who is a Good Guy, and that’s the point. He’s black, but he’s not evil because he’s black. He’s just a dude. Who just happens to not be white.

Speaking to my beta reader last night, she said that she didn’t understand that one of the characters, who I introduce in the middle of the first act of the book, was black. That I hadn’t been obvious enough about it and …

uuuhg.

The thing that always bothers me is that characters are Assumed White Until Proven Otherwise. And then the PoCs are described as food-coloured which… no. PoCs are not consumables, and do not exist to be some sort of sensual sensory experience. I try very hard not to describe any character’s skin colour as a consumable, unless I’m doing it for all the characters.

So I try to avoid describing my PoC characters any differently than I would my white characters. I talk about facial structure, eye and hair colour, the tone of their skin if they’re blushing, or ill, or sunburned, etc. or the way their colouring is set off by an outfit.  (Something that ROTYH missed when she lambasted me for Triptych. She said there were only two PoC characters in the book. She’s wrong. And then, in my next book, where the Book Boyfriend character was black – as they so rarely are depicted – she accused me of Exotifying The Other. Like, jeeze, lady. Make up your damn mind. Which is it? Do you want PoC leads or not?)

Only it appears that I’ve been too subtle in my description of the black fellow in The Forgotten Tale. And now I am feeling all squirmy. Because I could easily go back in and add more descriptors to make it clear that he’s black, but then … that feels like unfairly singling him out and Othering him. I don’t say, “BTW, Kintyre’s white.” Why should I have to say “BTW, Wyndam is black”?

But on the other, other hand, Representation Matters, and I want it to be clear to all readers that this character is a PoC. That, yes, there is a black guy in this epic fantasy book, and he is a thoughtful, good, intelligent young man with a big heart and good intentions. I want there to be no mistake.

And now I am sitting here, staring at the blinking cursor, feeling all kinds of uncomfortable, uncertain how to approach this. Do I leave it as is? Or do I try to find a way to indicate Wyndam’s blackness without being offensively obvious?

JM FreyEditing Thoughts, and Angst About Character Description
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Words for Writers: Tag, You’re It! – Writing Process Blog Tour

Yay, you found me! Here is my post on the dreaded “P” word – PROCESS. How, how, how do you write? I get asked this a lot.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how you should write. Every person’s process is different, and forms out of years of habit and the situation in which they live and work. What I can tell you is how I write, and that might help you figure out your process.

1) What am I working on?

I have two novels on submission right now (one steampunk YA action/adventure; one high fantasy). I’m also working on a TV series backdoor pilot/ tv film with a co-writer (I’m just doing the dialogue pass now). I just handed in about a hundred short stories to various people, and at some point I’m hoping to get around to starting to draft out a radio drama. I also have a shortish novel out with the beta readers; once it’s back I will be into revisions for that.

Currently, I’m writing a pitch package for a new novel (synopsis, long pitch, short pitch, first three chapters); once that has been through revisions and is off to my agent, will return to a beloved novel project that I had to set aside after an emergency trip to the hospital a few years ago. I’m really excited to be coming home to that one.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m told that I write the thinking person’s sci-fi/fantasy. No matter what the story is, I always try to be honest and thorough about the issues inherent in the narrative. I don’t write “issue books”, as in, narratives whose sole focus is an after-school-special broad spectrum ‘issue’; but I don’t shy away from discussing or including realistic issues that people in these situations may encounter. I do try to be realistic in how I portray grief, non-neuroptypical characters, microaggressions and the misogyny that women encounter daily, etc.

And of course, I do my best to try to steer clear of writing white, heterosexual, able-bodid and neurotypical cismen. Not because I hate them, but because the market is already saturated with characters like that. I can do something different, reflect the variation of world around me more accurately. I try to be very respectful when I write from the POV of someone unlike myself – I talk to many people like that, read articles and blogs, etc. Of course, I don’t always get it right.  But I do my very best to be as accurate to their lived experiences as possible, and to be respectful of the problematics inherent in writing from a POV which I don’t live.

And of course, I like to do that all with aliens and dragons and magic and vampires. That’s part of the joy of writing SF/F work; you can speak in metaphors and similes or you can use fantasy creatures to speak about current issues, or any combination.

I very much enjoy telling the story from the non-traditional point of view, too. When I think of a story, I try to think of who the protagonist would traditionally be, and then try to figure out a way to tell the story from the POV of someone who isn’t the traditional protagonist of that kind of narrative. Sometimes that doesn’t work for the story, and I can’t be tricksy with it, but generally that’s where I start when I’m trying to determine who is narrating my tale.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Because I was sick of SF/F filled with people who weren’t like me, didn’t deal with the kind of struggles that I deal with daily, didn’t have any concept of what it was like to live in my situation, and my body.

I also began as a fanfiction writer, so a lot of the tropes, sentence structures, imagery, and my desire to engage in elastic-play with narratives comes from that community.

4) How does my writing process work?

Asdfghjkl. Good question!

Normally I begin a story with a thesis phrase or idea. I do a lot of thinking, and a lot of noodling about writing little dialogue scenes or character sketches, until I feel like I’ve hit on something that works. Then I usually try to write the pitch/back-cover copy for the idea. If I can encapsulate it in 200 words, really make it pop in nearly no space, then I know I’ve hit on something worth pursuing.

From there I open my Scrivener, copy all the notes I’ve made into the appropriate sections and … well, just write. I write whatever pops into my head, whatever scenes or arguments, or cool ideas I have. If I get a different or new cool idea, I write that down too. Sometimes I end up writing hundreds of pages of just STUFF. Some of it gets moved to different book projects. Some of it gets shoved into the morgue. (Sometimes I pull things out of the morgue and add it).

As I’m writing all these big chunks of awesome stuff, I slowly develop the characters. I find out who they are through all these scenes, and make notes in my files. Sometimes, if I really need to figure out something about a character (who they are, what they love, what they fear), I’ll do some of the character-building improvisation exercises I learned in acting school.

I’ll wash the dishes and talk aloud to myself as the character. I’ll hold a conversation between a character and myself, forcing them to answer. Sometimes I even record it, so I can use the dialogue later.  When I’m driving, I’ll turn off the radio and engage in friendly daily chit-chat with the character. If I write myself into a corner I’ll sit back and ask my characters why they just did or said what they did.

This all sounds a bit kooky, but in engaging with characters in this manner, I find I can hone in on their speech patterns, voices, and traits much better than if I just sat in my desk chair and thought about it. I’m a very physical, verbal, tactile person. If you were to ever meet me, you’d know that I speak in essays, driving always to a thesis. (Some people find it cute; some find it super annoying. I have to work hard to be conscious of my tendency to ramble and lecture during a conversation).

So, once I have a solid grasp of character (and through them, usually a world and culture), ad a big old pile of scenes, then I usually start to do something I call “Laying the Garden Path”.  I figure out where the ending has to be, first, and if one of the scenes I’ve written already can be the ending or if I need to write something else. From there I figure out what the climax must be, and then where the story starts.

Sometimes at this point I end up abandoning the project, because I realize that while the moments are cool, there’s no novel here. The writing that I did gets shuffled into the morgue to be used for another project, if the opportunity arises.

Once I have the path of the novel projected, I can start to lay the scenes out like flagstones in the garden. I turn and twist, flip, invert, rearrange, break up, smash together, or straight up reject all the strangely shaped elements of the book, and otherwise determine how they all fit together. Once I’ve finished that, if any more cool scenes/flagstones have occurred or popped out at me, I write those next.

Once the stones are laid, then I generally go back and start straight from the beginning and do all the mortar work – that is, the storytelling that stitches together those pivitol moments. If more flagstones want to be written, I jump ahead and add them, and then just return straight to where I left off with the gravel and mortar.

Once the whole book/path is put together, I usually let it rest for a bit before giving it a full re-read to make sure it all works as one smooth narrative. From there it goes to my beta readers, back to me for edits/revisions, off to my agent, back to me for edits/revisions, and then from my agent to the editors.

And then I start it all over again!

(And to further the analogy, I feel like fanfiction is the flowers that grow up between the paving stones – organic, engaging, and proof that someone’s passion can never harm and only beautify your own creation).

This process has taken me as long as ten years for some books, and as little as three months for others. It all depends on my free time, availability, the amount of research I need to do, and how urgently the book wants to be written.

 I tag GABRIELLE HARBOWY and LEAH PETERSEN. Go check out their answers to these questions about process.

Gabrielle Habrowy – Editor, writer, and anthologist. Gabrielle edits and proofreads for publishers including Pyr, Circlet Press, Paizo, and Seven Realms Publishing; she is Managing and Acquisitions Editor at Dragon Moon Press, a Canadian independent publisher of fantasy and science fiction; and is available for hire independently by publishers. She is also a staff proofreader and columnist for Lambda Literary and an Affiliate member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She’s worked with first-time authors and aspiring authors, as well as New York Times Bestsellers and Hugo Award winners.

Leah PetersenLeah Petersen lives in North Carolina. She does the day-job, wife, and mother thing, much like everyone else. She prides herself on being able to hold a book with her feet so she can knit while reading. She’s still working on knitting while writing. She is the author of the Physics of Falling YA SF series.

And please check out the REST of the blog-tour and enjoy the Choose-Your-Own Adventure of finding everyone who was tagged. I was tagged by Ruthanne Reid!

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Tag, You’re It! – Writing Process Blog Tour
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