Character Flaws and Other Things


This post is because of an interesting discussion in my writing group.  Most of the time when discussing characters, writers will say:

“What’s your character’s flaw?”

It’s a question that’s always mystified me.  The first thing I imagine is a checklist with flaw as a to-do item.

My answer, by the way, is “Not a clue.  I trust it’s in there.”

At least in my thinking, identifying a flaw is probably like hammering a nail on top of another nail (which is about as useless as it sounds).  Human beings do not have a problem with not having flaws.  Something is going to filter into that character.  It just might a subtle flaw.

Just searching for character flaws, I found sites that collected them–one had over 100!

The reasoning behind it is that a flaw ensures a well-rounded character.  But I think some of it originates with English classes.  We study one of Shakespeare’s characters to identify the flaws.  Critical analysis, and important critical analysis (probably missing from schools today) to understanding human nature.  Though I’m sure the writers of the books studied were just telling a story and not thinking “I have to make this character flawed.”

The danger of identifying a flaw as a major part of the characterization is that it makes it really hard for the character to grow and change.  The example we used was the TV series House.  The title character is a guy who doesn’t get along with anyone, yet is a brilliant physician.  Since that flaw was the mainstay of the show, it couldn’t change so it caused things around it to change instead.  It felt like the show lost its way after the first few years and self-destructed in its final seasons.

On the other hand, NCIS started out focusing on the positive traits of the characters.  They were identified early on and the show the stuck to them.  The positive traits allowed the characters to evolve and change over the course of the series, and yet, remain the characters that the viewers want to see.  One of the best episodes was when DiNozzo left, and it was such a perfect fit to the character that it felt very satisfying.

At the same time, not sticking to the core positive traits can feel like a betrayal to the reader.  There’s a writer I very much enjoyed at one time.  Character had a very strong moral sense of right and wrong.  Even though the Catholic Church had excommunicated the character, she still worked at being a good Catholic, questioning when her job pushed those boundaries.  Those were positive traits that really made the character come to life for me.

Until one book where the character was up against a wall for a ticking time bomb.  The only way she thought she could get information from another character was torture, and it was a particularly violent torture.  It really ruined the character for me.

If I had Gibbs Rule, Rule #1 would be: Don’t disappoint the reader by screwing up the characters!

My wanderings on my mystery novel have lead me to start a reverse outline to identify what day the scenes happen on.  I discovered I blew past the weekend like it wasn’t there. Since the story is set in 1947, the characters would have definitely stopped for the weekend…church, Sunday dinner.  It also identified some holes I’m working through.  Most of my other stories are pretty compressed–a lot of action occurs in a few days. This one is going to be at a more leisurely pace for me.  Meanwhile, creative brain was going, “I need action scenes,” and critical brain was going, “It’s too slow!”  Sometimes they both need a Gibbs head slap!

5 Reasons Not to Use Movies for Research


I grew up reading about movies and TV.  The libraries were filled with books on the subject, and it was always fascinating reading.  I remember one TV producer saying “They’ll never notice!” 

Unfortunately because so much of this is part of our culture, a whole lot of writers think it’s a good idea to use movies for research instead of either hitting the books, asking an expert, or going out to experience a place.  Here are some the reasons why it’s such a bad idea.

Hollywood loves stereotypes and cliches

Every film and TV show has one problem going in: Time.  They have to make the movie fit within a certain amount of minutes.  So stereotypes become a quick shortcut.  A thug has a certain “look” so that when he walks on screen and the ominous music is cued, we know he’s a bad guy.

Cliches are another shortcut.  If a producer spots something cool and neat, every movie will repeat it as if it were TRUE for everyone.

Just about every TV show and film with a blind person has had the character touch the face of another character to “see” what he looks like.  I have no doubt that there was probably a newspaper article on a blind person who did this.  But Hollywood latched onto it and put it into nearly every film and show that followed.  A friend who is blind says that they don’t do all the touchy feely stuff.

Problems with accuracy

Films depicting actual events or historical events aren’t always accurate.  Many “biopics” have annoyed the original source because details were altered to tell the story.  Sometimes there isn’t a reason why they got changed.  Historical stories might be loosely told.  Heck, even the costuming may not be accurate. A friend checked the medals a military character wore.  It was obvious the prop guy grabbed a handful, since it was impossible for the character to be fifty years in the future and be in WWII (well, unless he was a time traveler).

The Hollywood Action Scene

Let’s be realistic here—Hollywood action scenes are designed to be eye candy.  Sometimes some scenes may even be designed to be put in a trailer to get audiences to see the movie.

Those scenes are done with wires and harnesses and stunt men.  To show Wonder Woman (the Lynda Carter version) jumping up into a window, the stunt woman had to jump out of the window backwards.  Then the film was reversed so it looked like she was jumping up to the window.

For those sword fighting scenes where the hero is attacked by multiple bad guys, it’s a one second delay before each man attacks. You wouldn’t think that second would make a lot of difference, but it does.  I saw a demo with the delay and then the real thing from re-enactors.  With the delay, the lone man could defend himself against all the attackers.  With no delay, he got overwhelmed alarmingly fast.

Shooting a criminal in the leg

You know the scene.  Bad guy runs away.  Good guy pulls out his gun, takes careful aim, and shoots bad guy in the leg.

Right.  Looks great.  Makes the audience think the detective is a good guy for not letting the bad guy live.  And very hard to do.

I was taught in the military to aim at center mass.  That’s biggest part of the body.  The basic reason? You’ll likely to hit it.

A leg’s a really small target.  Add moving in a running motion, and it’s even harder target.

Why do what Hollywood is doing?

Hollywood is very unoriginal.  Why be unoriginal?

Coming up with ideas: An exercise in trust


I was thinking of this post when I wrote the comment over on Harvey Stanbrough’s blog on cycling during the first draft.  Both techniques very much require a lot of trust.

Ideas are squirrely things.

Partially because we’re taught that being creative isn’t a good thing.  Kids come up with all kinds of wacky flights of fantasy.

There’s a point where it scares the heck out of the adults.  They try to be well meaning, but they have an adult filter on it.  So when a kid  comes up with a wild idea, it tends to get discouraged.

One time—I don’t remember how old I was—I was messing around with a story.  The character was pregnant.  I don’t recall what inspired me, but no doubt some of it was all marketing to women at that time.  It was all about getting married and having kids.

But I had written part of story with “pregnant” in it.  Lines of dialogue and narrative.  It was kind of obvious it was a story. But my mother saw it and freaked.  She didn’t ask if it was a story.  Instead it was a very stern, “Are you pregnant?” Yikes!

Suddenly ideas become scary things that we’re not supposed to do.  That we should restrain ourselves.

As an adult, I started a mystery novel.  At the time, it was the only idea I had that I thought could fit a novel.  I got other ones, but these either turned into genre-less short stories (which is why I think a lot of people land in literary.  It’s a catchall when the writer allows the idea to control the direction of the story).

And I got these “flash in the pan” ideas.

I kept notebooks to record those ideas, like everyone said to do.  They were pocket notebooks I could carry around.  The ideas flashed bright, and I had to write them down right now so I wouldn’t forget.  Some demanded to be written. RIGHT NOW.

Those always ran about a page or two and then died.  Which is why I call them flash in the pan.  They sounded exciting until I tried to execute them and then they weren’t so exciting.

So I got stuck on the first novel, revising it so much it no longer resembled anything that I’d started with.  I revised because I kept getting stuck and I didn’t have any other book length ideas.

Enter co-writer.

He provided the idea.  We wrote the book.  I felt confident enough to come up with some ideas for the next book.  We were having problems by then (co-writer had fear of finishing, bad).  So he shot down my ideas.

It started out with, “That idea will never be a best seller.  We can’t do it.”

So I wound up back on my own and it was still a struggle to come up with ideas.  Then I took Dean Wesley Smith’s Ideas workshop.  It was really eye opening.  I’d been approaching ideas wrong.  Looking back, I think all those flash in the pan ideas were because my creative brain did not trust me to treat the ideas right.

I was passing on things as not good enough and expecting that an idea was supposed to be the full blown story.

What I use now has evolved from that workshop.  I just did a short story called Magic Tidyings.  It was inspired by a prompt about spring cleaning:

You’re a professional cleaner and the beginning of spring is always your busiest time.

I kept circling back to it and came up with:

Spring Cleaning + Tidying (Marie Kondo) + Magic

Then: Pirates + Ghosts.

I don’t get much flash in the pan ideas any more.  Creative brain trusts that I’m going to write the stories.  Maybe not today, but when it’s time.  And creative brain is really good about letting me know when it’s time.

By the time way, I plan to do a future GALCOM book with one of the ideas co-writer shot down:  Most Dangerous Game with a woman character.  No one’s really done it before, though Criminal Minds came close.  Why not?

And it is fun thinking about what I’m going to do.

Why I Write the Way I Write


This is topic is inspired by a bunch of posts over on the Professional Writer’s Blog.  The blog, if you’re interested, is very different than the more standard blogs.  So far, it’s not for beginners…anyone seeking quick tips or a list to check off would probably be disappointed.  But it does get into discussions for more advanced writing.

I’m what’s called a pantser.  Or a gardener. Or a discovery writer. Or a NOP (No Outline Person).  Or I write into the dark.

I don’t outline or plan out my stories before I write them.

Frankly, I don’t particularly like any of those terms.  Everyone seems to want to put us into these different categories like they’re trying to check a box.

And it’s always versus, like we’re at war against each other.  Plotter versus pantsers is particularly silly.  The implication is that because someone doesn’t outline, they don’t do plot.  Plot is a series of events—“and this happened, and this happened, and this happened”—in the story.  You’d have to work awfully hard not to have any plot in a story, even a bad one.

I started writing when I was eight years old.  A friend was writing plays for class, and I thought it was cool.  I started writing stories.  All the time.  Sometimes in class.  Mostly mysteries because I was reading Nancy Drew and wanted girl detective fiction.

Pretty much, I came up with an idea and started writing.

So I wrote like I read a story.  I wrote the next word, sentence, and paragraph in and the story was unveiled to me.

Somewhere along the way, that became not good enough.

It’s a problem for children as they get older, and adults.  We start seeing the flaws in the ideas, and in our creativity.  We start trying to perfect.

Some of this is encouraged by teachers and other well-meaning people.  The creativity can lead us to some really wild places.  Places that make adults frown and try to steer the creative kid in a different direction.  In high school, I write a serial killer short story. One of the teachers steered me to “more appropriate” topics.

Outlining is another way of steering the young writer to contain the outlandishness of creativity.  Instead of wandering all over like Billy in Family Circus and discovering interesting things, you go in a straight line with planned stops.

Other writers have told me that outlining enhances creativity and does not stifle it.  Not true!  Not true!

The greatest thing about creativity is being unconstrained.  Being willing to take the left fork on the path to see what’s there.

Being unafraid to take a step forward and trust the creative side will work like it’s supposed to.  Like Indiana Jones when he steps off into the abyss and the path appears.

Faith.

In ourselves.

And everything we get taught as we get older is that we cannot trust ourselves to do any of this right.  We second guess the ideas.  Is it good enough? Irrelevant)  Is it going to sell? (Unknown) Has it been done before? (Always)

But writing without an outline is the ultimate way of trusting yourself.  You don’t know where the story is going to go until you get there.

It’s exhilarating and exciting!

At times, it’s also terrifying.  For all of the same reasons.

As I write the story, I play with all the possibilities I can do.  Sometimes I wander down a rabbit hole and it doesn’t work.  Or turns out not to be right.

The people who outline will tell me that planning the story out will fix that kind of problem.  That it’ll help me not waste time.

And they have no understanding that the joy of the creating of the story is going down those rabbit holes to see what’s there.  It’s fun!

Especially when one of the rabbit holes triggers something else that takes the story in a different direction that I’d never thought of.  A direction I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d done the outline. Everything counts when it comes to creativity.

Everything.

I’d never write any other way.  It’s just too much fun discovering the story.

World Building (Part IV)


Back on tap for the final part of Kevin J. Anderson’s World Building workshop.  For anyone interested in attending Superstars next February, you can use my coupon code LADAMS for $100 off.  Very important to book early though because the price does go up.  But the payment plan is very flexible, especially when you register early.

Next up on the list…

Religion

This is something that stretches across all cultures and connects with the categories below.  During the Desert Storm briefings, we were told the religion controlled the Saudi Arabian government.  We found that a very strange concept, but it’s obviously shown up throughout history.

Think about what kinds of gods the world has.  Are they real beings who show up or a concept?

What kind of impact do they have on the world?

Intellectual/Science

This one starts to get into the deep end of the world building, or least my feel of that.  If you look at our history, it’s also closely tied with religion.  Galileo was a scientist who said the earth was round, not flat, and moved around the sun.  That was too much for the churches of the time and they made him recant.

Most of the fantasy books I’ve seen have had universities for mages to attend to become learned in their skills.  Harry Potter was the only one where I’ve seen actual classes for a bunch of students (not a one on one), and in a variety of subjects.  This is an easy one for all of us, because we’ve been in school.  Can you imagine a class where handwriting is taught because it’s very important to be able to read a spell properly? And a potions class would be like a chemistry class.  Lots of ways to make something like this work in a story.

Some questions to think about:

What’s the general education level of everyone?  Can they all read? (And I confess, when I’ve written fantasy, I’ve never never thought of this).

Is education control by a cabal?

Do they have free libraries, or is it controlled?

Arts

I thought this was one of the more interesting parts of the session because it made me think about something I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Wealthy societies have arts.  Poor ones don’t.

So if they have art, does it show in the building architecture?  There are fabulous examples of this just on TV stations like Smithsonian.

History

Every world has a history.  It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. History is why things happen today.  In past times, it was often conveyed in folktales and legends, an interesting fact I didn’t know.  Because I don’t outline, a lot of the history comes into the story organically (usually when I need it for a story).  But it prompts all kinds of questions.  Not just like the things Kevin mentioned—who wrote it (which influences what gets recorded) and the stories aren’t always accurate.  Sometimes they get forgotten because of time.  When I was growing up, every year on December 7, we had newspaper HEADLINES about remembering Pearl Harbor.  Now people don’t even know what that is.

And what about history that people want to keep a secret?  That’s fodder for many thrillers.

One of the things that’s struck me at the more advanced levels of writing is that you get the information in a different way.  It’s craft-based, rather than process-based.  As someone who doesn’t outline, I’ve seen process-based taught as if it were craft.  Because the instructor doesn’t know that there’s a difference.

“Get a three ring binder and tabs and then answer questions” is a specific writer’s process.  A list of categories and questions to think about is something that can filter in as the story is being written.

Next week Part IV of World Building


I’m sorry for the delay, but the final part of the world building workshop will be next Tuesday.

World Building (Part III)


This is part III of Kevin J. Anderson’s world building workshop at Superstars.  All the parts are connected together, so order is important.  As I mentioned earlier, these are just categories to think about what you need for the story.  Not everything might be needed, depending on the story.

Politics

Pretty much, this one is starting with thinking about what the government of your fictional place is.  If it’s a fantasy, is it a monarchy?  How does the succession work?  We always think the son or daughter would be next in line.  But if it wasn’t?

In a series I read, the church of elemental mages was the government.  They had a council, though it seemed that the most powerful got on the council.  The most powerful aren’t always who should be in charge.  There can be a lot of interesting conflict with this!

Economics

What do people do for a living?  Some of that will be influenced by geography  Like Alexandria, Virginia sits on the Potomac River.  So there are ships coming in, which means that men make money crewing on a ship.  There might be a shipyard nearby, building more ships.  Horse-drawn wagons would make deliveries, so people to care for the horses and blacksmiths for horse shoes.  And, of course, a tavern nearby to eat a meal and spend the night.

Climate is also an influence on the economics.  Virginia has a good climate for growing tobacco, which adds to the economy.  (Really helpful is to base the world on a real place and its history.  Then you can just use that knowledge without as much research.  But better still, the research might be visiting historical sites).

Another question to ask is valuable to the society?  In the book department, the spice in Dune.

Economics drives the characters and the story.

Societies

This one goes into how people are treated in the society.  How are the people treated?  Is there a class system?  Are there slaves?  Some slaves might be prisoners of war.  They work until someone buys their freedom.

What about family size?  Large? One child per family?  When I was researching for Rogue God, I thought it was fascinating that the Hawaiians of the past would have a large family party to honor the birth of a baby.

Are the people happy or fearful?  That’s likely influenced by the politics.  There’s always a fantasy story with a corrupt lord or duke taking all the money and goods as taxes.

How does communication work?  Telepathy?  Magic? Courier pigeon? King’s messenger?

Is the military volunteer or.   draft?

What do people do for leisure?  Do they gamble?  What kind of games do they play?  Do they do drugs?  Play sports?  The first thing I thought of was Battlestar: Galactica (the original).  The characters play a game like basketball only more violent.  But a book example: Harry Potter and Quidich.  Again, basing this on a real place is a great way to pick up details without having to make a lot of stuff up from scratch.  Maryland was big with horse racing (in recent years, it seems to be fading as a sport).

More for next week: Religion, Intellectual/Science.Arts, and History.

And I highly recommend Dean Wesley Smith’s Research workshop. It makes the prospect of world building far less intimidating.

World Building (Part II)


This is the next part in Kevin J. Anderson’s world building masterclass.  The different parts are supposed to be figured out in order.  So Geography, or setting, is first, and easily the most important.  Next up–

Climate

The discussion on climate was pretty interesting.  I didn’t have any idea how much climate influenced elements of culture.  I grew up in Los Angeles, and the weather was always one season.  What I called winter hardly matched what I encountered outside of Los Angeles.  I didn’t even see snow until I was 25 (and in another state).

For example, in a hotter climate, people would be more laid back because they’re drained from the heat.  Yup, remember that in Los Angeles.  Got that when I went to New Orleans last August.  Got that when I went to Mexico a few years back–and I went in winter.  I can only imagine how hot it would be in the summer!

That influences clothing.  Most notably, I’m in Virginia.  It was very cold yesterday and I was in shorrt sleeves.  I have a lot of trouble wearing long sleeves.  I constantly want to roll them up.  Because I never wore long sleeves in L.A.   In Hawaii, the weather is so nice all year round that the islanders originally wore very little, which horrified the very buttoned up missionaries.  Now they have loose-fitting Hawaiian shirts and mu-mus.

Climate also influences houses.  The houses in Los Angeles are built with stucco, which is cool in summer (had no idea).  Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, this house was built for both the cold winters and the humid summers.  The walls are stone and double walled, much like a submarine.  There are many fireplaces.  We had those in L.A, too, but not as many (more common to see swimming tools in backyards from airplanes landing).  The porches are made so they can let snow in during the winter, and not let bugs in during the summer.  The interior has one long hallway, with a door at each end for natural air conditioning.  George Mason’s house in Virginia has that same feature.

Picture of Victorian house with one tower

Food is also influenced by climate.  Just take Hawaii–they have all the beautiful fruits that grow in that sunshine.  They have a thriving coffee industry (because of geography, as in volcanic rock).  In Los Angeles, the heat brings hot spices, because that was used to hide the fact the meat might be going bad.  I had my character Hope Delgado in Cursed Planet come from Lower California (in the future, the state breaks into two at the North and South line).  So she likes spicy food because that’s what she grew up with.

The characters not only interact with their setting, but also with the weather.  It’s also a great opportunity for the five senses, which build character.

Next up: Politics, Economics, and Societies.

 

World Building (Part I)


I had a request on my Superstars post to talk about the workshop I took from Kevin J. Anderson on world building.  I’d stayed away from fantasy for a long time because every time the topic came up, it was along the lines of “Get a three ring binder and some tabs” and then answer a ton of questions.  I didn’t even know what the story was until I wrote it.  How was I was supposed to come up with all of the answers?

I sort of pantsed my way into world building–some of of it kicking and screaming.  I read so much writing advice that dissed the building block of world building at it’s very basic level.  In fact, there was a post by a former NY editor that pretty much said description is a waste of time.

No description = no world.

And that applies even to a modern day mystery set in Los Angeles, not just a fantasy.

Just read Michael Connelly’s Bosch books. Seriously.  It is steeped in Los Angeles.  And it adds another level of enjoyment to the story.

Kevin learned how to do world building through gaming.  He was hired to write up the world for the games.  The person who hired him gave him a list of categories and told him to come up with information for the games.  He also noted that you might not need all the categories, depending on the story.

The first and most important category….

Geography

This is your basic setting the story and the character exist in.  I remember going to a con a few years back, and they said that every city has a reason for being where it is.

Like Alexandria, Virginia.  I went there on Saturday for the Farmer’s Market.  Alexandria is also called Old Town because it’s a historic city.  George Washington slept there–literally.  He actually had a townhouse.

The town sits on the Potomac River.  You wouldn’t know it from the photo below, but it was a major shipping port.

Potomac River

Now people anchor their pleasure boats at the docks and the river floods the lower half of the street at high tide.  But during the 1700s, it was place where merchants shipped a big Virginia product, tobacco.

Rivers draw merchants and ships, and by both those, towns.

Additionally, the Potomac is such a big river that there are tributaries all over the area…Doctor’s Run, Four Mile Run, Gulf Run, etc.  A place near me on Four Mile Run used to have a mill in George Washington’s time.  Not much to look at now, since the remains of the mill is a pile of rubble and there’s a road bridge over the top of it.

The terrain also consists of a lot of hills.  Water runs downhill to the rivers and tributaries.  Characters might have to walk up or down a hill.

A writer annoyed me because she set a story in a place I’d been to frequently Morro Bay, California.  There’s some distinct land features there, including a giant rock that you can see from a long ways off.

Morro Rock from the docks

Morro Rock (that’s the photo on my computer desktop)

The harbor is the most dangerous in the world.  It was also used by the Navy in World War II.  All the streets are on a mountainside and roll down toward the harbor.  My grandparents house was downhill in two different directions.

And did the writer mention any of this?  Heck, she didn’t even mention the town sat by the Pacific Ocean.  Which is why her books annoyed me.

So this category is thinking about what geographic elements the setting has.  Doesn’t necessarily have to be written down, or a list of questions.  But some ideas for the story can come right out of these details.

But in thinking this through, I’ll add a piece of this that a lot of writers tend to ignore: How character navigates through the geography. 

I’ve seen many fantasy books where the character gets on some variation of the King’s Highway and gets to where they’re going.  If a character doesn’t have a GPS, or even a map, they are going to have other ways to navigate.   I’ve been researching this for my fifth GALCOM book, Giant Robots.  Lots of interesting stuff.

Geography can provide a lot of different elements to a story.

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Action Tales I

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River Flight

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Private Penelope Prescott wants respect. One of the women recruited to fill war losses, she gets no respect from her fellow soldiers. But now her regiment is fleeing enemy forces and a booby-trap lays in their path.  The regiment’s survival rests on her. She faces insurmountable obstacles to save the regiment in this chilling tale of adventure.

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With the fog comes death. Ilya smells it coming.  The last time?  Her mother, a clown, died. Now the circus arrives, hunting what lurks in the fog.  Ilya must embrace her mother’s legacy before death takes her. A chilling fantasy short story that keeps you turning pages.

Honorable mention recipient in the Writers of the Future contest.

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Cursed Planet: GALCOM Universe Book 3

Who knew ghosts could exist in heavy gravity? Hope Delgado, the galaxy’s only alien ghost expert, confronts her toughest challenge on S.C. Kangjun’s latest mission.

The local aliens, 49ers, blame the humans for a ghost.  And they hide a deadly secret.  A secret they will kill to protect.

Hope must make a desperate last stand against the aliens and the ghosts—if she fails, her friends will die.

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Next up in the series is Last Stand.

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Here Be Merfolk

The call of the deep rings ever in our ears, from myth and legend to crime and mystery. Sea-people, mer and monster, immortals and reluctant heroes feature in this sea-worthy bundle.

This a bundle featuring novels and short stories by such writers as Alan Dean Foster, Debbie Mumford, and of course me.  My story is Dark, From the Sea.

Available from your favorite booksellers.

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Digital Minimalism: Reduce Clutter  on Your Computer Now

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Between a full time day job with mounds of paperwork every day and indie publishing, I was drowning in files.  Not only couldn’t I find files  I’d saved, it was like walking into a cluttered room.  I was miserable and stressed out.

There had to be a better way!

I’m not a productivity expert.  But in this book, I’m going to share with you what I did to get my files in order and stop being overwhelmed.

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