Monthly Archives: May 2012

Assorted writing tips #4 – how to take negative feedback

"Writing", 22 November 2008

“Writing”, 22 November 2008 (Photo credit: dr_ed_needs_a_bicycle)

 

Writing is subjective. There are no two ways about it. What one person loves, another will abhor. What one person thinks is good writing, another will criticise. The simple truth is that no matter how hard you try, you will never please everyone – and if you try to do just that, then the chances are that you won’t  please anyone.

Writers love reviews, and any other kinds of feedback. It could be a tweet from a stranger telling them how much they loved your latest story; it could be a formal, several-paragraph review on Amazon or Goodreads; it could be in the New York Review of Books; it could be from a prospective agent or publisher. Wherever it comes from, we all love to hear what people think of our work.

Or do we? Because for every positive review or person who loved what they read, chances are there’s a negative one waiting in the wings somewhere. It may never see the light of day (some people just don’t review if they don’t like something), but everyone will, at some stage, get some feedback that tells them their work is utter rubbish. And no one likes hearing that.

Sure, some people appear thick-skinned and just shrug it off, but you know what? I bet they’re just like the rest of us. I bet they get just as hurt as everyone else does – they just don’t show it. They’ve learned how to handle it. And how do I know this? Because I’m one of them.

I had someone ask me once how I managed to shake off the negative reviews and concentrate on the positive ones. This was when I wrote fanfiction, and while I had a good number of people saying “I love this story!” and other variants on that theme, there were always some who felt they had to ruin the party. “This is the fanfiction equivalent of a trashy, smutty beach novel,” one person wrote. Another told me that “your story = vomit in my mouth”. And then there were the more constructive ones … “Your characters are flat and lifeless”; “this story is going nowhere”; “the plot is laboured and predictable, the characterisation stereotyped and the narrative tries too hard”. Okay, I might have paraphrased as I don’t remember them  verbatim, but you get the idea.

My answers to these reviews, though, were always polite and respectful. Even those which offered no constructive criticism at all were dealt with in that way. Why? Not because I didn’t take them to heart, but because I sat on them for a while.

“How do you just shrug it all off?” my friend asked. The answer was, I didn’t (and still don’t). They stung. No matter how many people told me how much they loved the story and how it made them laugh and cry, and (in some cases) even how it had changed their lives, the negative ones were the ones that I thought about when I was going to sleep at night. Those were the ones that stuck.

What I did do, though, was wait at least 24 hours before responding. And in those 24 hours, I thought about what the person had said. No matter how much I didn’t want to hear it, perhaps they had a point. Perhaps my characters were flat and lifeless. Perhaps the plot was laboured and predictable. And I figured that, even if not all of it was warranted (I thought the ‘trashy, smutty beach novel’ line was a bit of a stretch, for example, as my story had next to no smut in it), the person who wrote it had taken the time to read the story and also had the courage to make their feelings known. If something is reasonably popular, it can be intimidating to go against the grain and say that you don’t like it, so I had to respect that. Besides, it was quite likely that these people knew more about writing than I did, so it would be worthwhile to take notice of their comments.

So my advice is this. Whenever you can, get your feedback in writing. This is of course easiest when it’s organised online, but even writing groups will provide written notes if you ask for them. If the feedback is also provided verbally, just nod and thank the person and say you’ll take it on board. Getting uptight in situations like this doesn’t help anyone. When it’s written, though, read it and then just sit on it for a while. A day, two days, a week, whatever works for you, but make sure you do it.

The reason, of course, is that any response written in the heat of the moment will come across as defensive and argumentative, because chances are you will initially think that the other person is wrong, no matter what. Once you’ve thought on it for a little while, though, you become more measured, and more likely to take it in.

And that’s how we become better writers.

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Guest post: Hiding, Naked, behind Ernest Hemingway, by Peyton Farquhar

“I spent a great deal of my early years trying to be Barbara Walters. I worked so hard at it and got nowhere. Then one day, I decided that I was just going to be me, and if people fell in love with that, then I knew I could repeat my performance because I was being honest and true.” – Oprah Winfrey

Before It Went Wrong

I started writing in high school. My parents insisted I take at least one college-level class, so I picked a writing course. I was hooked from the start. And even though writing was the only thing I took seriously in high school, I never really gave it much thought. I just…wrote.

In college, it was pretty much the same. I never thought about putting my work out there. It was just something I had to do. It was another release valve of creativity and it was so liberating. I just…wrote.

And then one day, it all changed. It was the day I considered showing my work to the general public and, God forbid, even selling it. From that point on, writing seemed to be less liberating. What had happened to me is something I’ve seen happen to a number of writers and (from reading the quote above) even happens to famously talented individuals – I began trying to be someone I wasn’t.

Being Ernest Hemingway

I have a mildly unhealthy infatuation with Ernest Hemingway – unhealthy in a way that once warped my own writing style into a nebulous, insincere mess.

The second I began to consider selling my work, I began to have doubts about my writing. So, surrounded by this cloud of doubt, I started studying all of the works of art that had connected with me. Of all the writers I’ve ever read, Hemingway rarely fails to speak directly to my soul. So, I convinced myself that if I could decode his style and find out what it was that I loved so much, I could use it in my own work. If I could do this, certainly that would mean that I could connect with my readers as well.

For a great deal of time, I attempted to write like Hemingway. And after that great deal of time had passed, I had a great deal of worthless work. It was okay, but it definitely wasn’t Hemingway and it wasn’t worth selling. And then one day, I too came to an important realization:

I’M NO ERNEST HEMINGWAY!

I realized that if somebody wanted to read a Hemingway-style book, they would just go read Hemingway. Why would anybody want to read a sawn-off, half-baked version of Hemingway? I also realized that Ernest Hemingway was likely the author he was because it was “his time”. The world was ready for him. The world needed his stories at that very moment. So, one might argue that Ernest Hemingway may not have become “Ernest Hemingway” if he were born today.

The Scary Stuff

In some of my recent conversations with new authors, I’ve heard statements like “I’m going to start writing YA books. They’re really hot right now.” and “I’m not into vampires, but I’d love to get a piece of that audience.”

It’s tough for me to criticize those authors. I’ve been there. I know exactly what it’s like to want people to accept your work. And when you see people around you being successful in a particular genre, it’s tempting to try to decode that genre or their particular style and assume you’ll get the same results. But you won’t. And I’ve got news for you, the acceptance you’re looking for is not the acceptance you really want. Do you really want to gain acceptance as a novelist who fakes interest in vampires? Or as a YA novelist who longs to write for an adult audience?

Writers are successful when they write from their honest heart. That doesn’t mean that writing from your heart is an automatic leap to success. But it’s the only true first step in that direction. And once you take that first step, you’re opening yourself up to chance. Suddenly, you’re standing on a hill, holding a metal rod and waiting for lightning to strike. Maybe it will strike, maybe it won’t…but you’ve definitely done everything you can to make it happen.

The fact is: most people are too scared to put the real them out there and say “take me for who I am.” Writing is so deeply personal. And when it’s done well, it’s basically the same as stripping your clothes off and running through the streets naked. There’s nothing to hide behind and there’s nothing fake about it. It’s the real, true you and it’s very, very scary.

When I was in high school and college, I didn’t care about what others thought about my writing. I just…wrote. But that was cowardly – basically the same as walking around naked in my apartment. But when I decided to step outside, I tried to hide behind something that wasn’t honest. I tried hiding, naked, behind Ernest Hemingway.

Freedom

Be brave. Step out from behind your Ernest Hemingway and write something true and honest. Write the way you want to write. Write about what you want to write about. If you do that and people fall in love with you, you can repeat that performance over and over. And you never know, the world might be ready for you. The world might need your stories at this very moment.

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Peyton Farquhar is the Nashville, Tennessee author of the fiction series A War Below. The first installment Run (currently available from iTunes, Amazon and Barnes & Noble) was released in February 2012. Hunt (the second book in the four book series) is set to be released in early June 2012. The series follows Moses Jones, a slave whose attempted escape to freedom triggers events that force him into an underground world of espionage, revenge and murder. The gritty action series is inspired by true stories from the Underground Railroad and its secret involvement behind the scenes of the American Civil War. You can follow Peyton on twitter @peytonfarquhar, and you can find out more about the series here.

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A-NaNo-ing we will go!

This week, I signed up for Camp NaNo.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Camp NaNo is an offshoot of NaNoWriMo, the (inter)National Novel Writing Month, which kicks off each November. The idea is that you write a novel in thirty days, with the target being 50,000 words.

Camp NaNo is much the same, only it’s in June and/or August. Again, they want you to write a novel from scratch during whichever month you choose to take part. As for me, well while I’m going to try my hardest to hit the 50K in June, I’ll be bending the rules somewhat. Instead of starting from scratch, I’ll be aiming to get 50,000 words written of my WIP. Currently my word count sits at about 62,000, so that will get me up above 110K, but then again with editing and the like I’m sure to drop that back to the 85K I’m aiming for for the final draft.

So, why am I doing it? The main reason is that my maternity leave is quickly running out, and my self-imposed deadline to get this story finished is when I go back to work at the start of August. I’m up for anything that will give me a boost in doing this (like the chapter-writing competition I spoke about the other week) so, when another writing buddy asked me if I was doing Camp NaNo, I said yes. I hadn’t even thought about it up to that point, but like I said, I might as well give it a go. I’ve had luck with NaNo in the two years I’ve done it, in that I’ve reached the 50K mark each time, so if I can get motivated each November to do that, then why not June?

NaNo works for me because there’s something really motivating about putting your word count in each day and seeing whether you’re on track or not, and I really strive to get above the red line and stay there. It’s the tracking process that I like. However, I’m aware that this doesn’t necessarily work for everyone so, on the off chance that I don’t get my word count up over June (and therefore get the novel so much closer to being finished), I’m asking what you do.

If you want to get inspired to do a lot of writing in a short time, how do you do it? Do you rely on external factors like I do (NaNo, writing contests with other writers), or are you able to find something from within? And how successful are you? I’d really love to know. :)

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Book review: The Mountain, by Drusilla Modjeska

The Mountain, by Drusilla Modjeska

This is a review of the book The Mountain, by Drusilla Modjeska.

Drusilla Modjeska is a highly respected Australian non-fiction author, and this is her first foray into fiction. I had read a few of her earlier works (Poppy, in particular, stands out, though I also enjoyed Stravinsky’s Lunch) so to be presented with this book was like a special treat.

The story is in two parts. The first, set in 1968 and the years following, tells the story of Dutch-born photographer Rika and her English anthropologist husband Leonard, as they come to Papua New Guinea to make a film about the indigenous population, in the process falling in with the locals, both indigenous and colonial, who are making lives for themselves in this Australian colony seeking independence. The second part, set in 2005, looks at the experiences of the next generation as they try to make sense of what their country has become.

I’m hesitant to say too much because most of what I say could be considered spoilers, but at the risk of ruining things for others I will make some comments. Modjeska is very good at hinting at things without saying them outright, therefore making exposition seem more natural, but there were times that I wished she would just come out and say what she meant. The second part of the book, for example, seeks to explore why the tight friendship between Rika, Australian expat Martha and local Laedi fell apart and why Rika felt betrayed by the others, yet even when the events were revealed I still wasn’t really sure what the issue was. I had trouble with some of the clan relationships, too; Jacob and Aaron were said to be brothers, yet were from rival clans. It’s possible that this was explained away and on both my read-throughs I just missed it, but I did feel that the occasional clear explanation would have been merited.

Furthermore, I felt that the experience would have been enriched if there was more description of what the bark-cloth paintings actually entailed; how the bark-cloth was made, its texture, and maybe even a photograph of similar art on the back cover to really give the reader a feel for it. I spent much of the story trying to work out what bark-cloth actually was, and while the illustrations on the inside front and back covers give an idea, they still don’t really indicate what a work of art the finished product is.

That said, though, it was certainly a haunting book. Rika’s experiences with Aaron, her estrangement from his clan (whether real or imagined initially, it was obviously there at the end) and I could feel Jericho’s frustration in the second part as no one seemed to be able (or perhaps willing) to explain things to him. Milton’s story, for a while seeming to be there almost as comic relief, became much more poignant as the book went on, and the progress of not only Laedi and Jacob during the years of independence, but also Bili (and, across the seas, Jericho) felt only fitting to how they had been depicted in the first part. There was a real sense of place; Port Moresby, the Mountain of the title, the fjords and Collingwood Bay – I could picture them all, and almost felt I had been there. The setting, and the characters within, are nothing if not evocative. The clans, too, were real and very human, from the subjects of Leonard’s film on the Mountain, to Aaron’s family in the fjords. All had strong characters and easily understood motivations, even if their cultures were unfamiliar. In that, she did an incredible job.

Equally, the politics of the time was captured incredibly well,with the reluctance of some of the indigenous population to accept a relationship between a black man and a white woman, the violence, the move towards independence and the struggles some of those living outside the capital had in making sense of what was happening. Modjeska truly captured the feel of a country torn in two as it tries to establish itself.

All in all, The Mountain is a very well-written and researched book, and I have certainly learned much about Papua New Guinea and its history from reading it. There was something missing, however – whatever it is that makes you want to read on at any cost, that need to know more. I appreciated this book and I respect it. I only wish I could have enjoyed it more.

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The Mountain, by Drusilla Modjeska
Published by Random House Australia
432 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon.com as ebook, or Booktopia (Australia) as paperback

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The Beautiful Blogger Award!

Wow. I’ve been nominated for the Beautiful Blogger Award!! An ENORMOUS thank you to Emi from Four Leaves for the nomination. Honestly, I’m so touched.  :) *hugs*

As a result, I’ve got a bit of a change in theme today. No writing tips or experiences, just sharing the blogging love. Here’s what it’s all about. The Beautiful Blogger Award is for creativity, originality, and contribution to the blogging community.

The guidelines are to list seven random facts about yourself; post a link to the blog of the person who nominated you (done that!!); link to seven other bloggers who are deserving of the award; and let those bloggers know that you’ve nominated them. Pretty simple, right? So here goes.  :)

Seven random facts about me:

  1. I’m right handed in everything I do, except playing (ice) hockey. I hold a hockey stick left handed for some reason; it feels more comfortable that way. My husband is right handed too, but the kids (even the baby) are left-handed. Not sure where that came from!
  2. I changed my surname legally when I was sixteen years old. There was no family split or crisis or anything; I just wanted a different name.
  3. I was also sixteen when I finished school – and I don’t mean left, but finished year 12. I then took a year off to do a student exchange because I figured sixteen was just a little bit young to start university.
  4. My favourite movie is Kenneth Branagh‘s version of Henry V, though the Lord of the Rings movies are a close second. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings in its entirety every year since I was eighteen.
  5. I don’t wear make-up, or do my hair in any special way beyond brushing it. The face-paint and hair dryer come out for weddings, funerals and job interviews. And that’s it. :)
  6. At twenty-one I had my jaw broken and re-set in order to correct a chronic and severe overbite. I now only have about 40% feeling in my chin due to the severing of a nerve, but at least I have a chin.
  7. I learned to play the piano as a child, and apparently got quite good, but the fact that I am absolutely tone deaf meant that I lost interest when I couldn’t tell when I was doing something wrong.

Right. Did that bore the pants off you? It’s amazing how hard it can be to think of seven random things about yourself that others might find even vaguely interesting.

Now for my seven nominations. I admit I initially struggled to find seven, mostly because many of my initial thoughts had already been nominated. I have, however, come up with some absolute beauties that I hope you check out. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Confessions of a Stuffed Olive, by Holly Kench. Holly did my guest post last Friday so this might seem like just additional promotion, but you really must check out her blog. I follow a lot of people, but she’s one of the few that I read every single time.
  2. Colleen Moore. Another writer working on a first novel, I can really relate to her experiences and struggles – and she puts them so well!
  3. Amelia Curzon. Not only does she have some great insights on the writing process, but her guest posts are amazing. (Not including mine, of course. That would just be conceited.)
  4. The Monster’s Ink, by Alyson Miers. Social commentary with bite, this is a great read, even if you’re not American.
  5. Anne Chaconas. I can’t help but just agree with her!
  6. Justin O’Leary at Write21. An amazing resource for writers. My only complaint is that he doesn’t post often enough.
  7. Ingrid Gascoigne at Destination: denouement. Can I just say …  I can relate!!

So there are my Beautiful Bloggers. All that’s left for me to to is tell them they’ve been nominated …. which I will get to just as soon as I’ve taken the baby to his swimming lesson.  Thanks again to Emi for the nomination, and next week I’ll return to normal scheduling.  :)

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Guest post: Why Writers should Blog, by Holly Kench

Why Writers Should Blog

Image of me blogging was created by today’s guest poster, Holly Kench

When I first decided to start writing seriously, I desperately sought advice wherever I could get it. Everyone I spoke to made a lot of good suggestions: write every day, write what you’re passionate about, find your niche, create a writing routine, enjoy your writing, etc. Yet, there was one recommendation that I hadn’t expected and that kept popping up:

Write a blog.

A what? I would ask, scratching my technologically malnourished brain. At the time, the only blog I frequented was that of Ricky Gervais, and I remained unconvinced that ‘blog’ could actually be a real word.

However, it wasn’t long before I was following many MANY blogs and writing my own. I haven’t looked back since.

But just why is blogging such a positive endeavour for writers?

Let’s start with the basic reasons that blogging is beneficial for writers. The most essential of these would have to be in creating a home for yourself on the net. People need to be able to look you up online; just as you need a place to direct readers. In this increasingly virtual world (yes, it’s a cliché because it’s true), home is where the link is. For writers, this is your blog. It’s your online centre, and from your blog you can direct readers to your other social media (ie. Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads), to other relevant sites, and, most importantly, to where they can read/purchase your work.

Your blog is so much more than a Yellow Pages entry, though. It’s also a place where you can advertise your writing skills and generate an audience. You can promote yourself as an author, as well as specifically promoting your available work. Even more exciting, you can write to an interactive audience. This is a luxury that the traditional world of books doesn’t have. By writing a blog you become part of a developing community in which readers can respond and contribute to texts directly. On a blog, writers and readers communicate, discuss and consider writing as part of an ongoing conversation. I find the possibilities of this terribly exciting.

In terms of your writing itself, blogging is also a wonderful exercise. Blogging gives you the opportunity to write without restraint. You can write for the joy of it, at those times when you know your brain will burst if you don’t get those words down, or when you really need to write out problems and explore questions about your primary writing. And you have a waiting audience ready to read and contribute to your thoughts. Of course, the topic of your blog affects this to a certain extent – though I don’t really let that bother me too much. While my blog mostly consists of humorous short stories, I’ve discovered that my readers are more than willing to read and comment on my concerns about fiction and pop culture, and, for that matter, anything else I feel like blogging about at the time.

There’s a freedom in blogging that you don’t always experience from other types of writing. You don’t have to prove anything to a publisher or agent when you’re blogging. All you have to do is write for you and your wonderful followers, who are just waiting to give you their two cents worth (and that’s worth so much more).

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Thanks Holly! If you’d like to know more about this week’s guest blogger, she identifies herself as a Tasmanian (Australian) writer and feminist, with a classics degree and a fear of spiders.  She enjoys writing fantasy and humour for adults, as well as young adult and children’s fiction, and is currently writing her first novel, a young adult paranormal fantasy. Oh yeah, and she also likes writing stories about herself and drawing pictures of herself as a stuffed olive. To see more of her work, you can check out her website.

Holly as a stuffed olive :)

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The long and winding road

Winding road

Winding road (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the weekend, I had an email from a writing buddy.  One of a number of people I met on another website under another name, she is part of a small group who have decided to hold their own writing contest. The idea is to write as many chapters as possible, in the month from 7 May to 7 June. No new projects, just WIPs, are eligible, as the idea is to get a move on with things we have already started. Each participant would offer some kind of prize to the winner, and encouragement of fellow competitors is mandatory. Would I, she asked, be interested?

Would I what! With the school holidays recently I’ve dropped back my writing output of late, though that was remedied a little by the rush of inspiration (and frantic scribbling) I had last week.  The only trouble was, I wasn’t sure I would be able to meet their criteria. The thing is, you see, that I don’t write in chapters.

Actually, I don’t write in order at all. Well, sure, for short stories (up to 7000 or so words) I do, but anything longer than that I’m all over the shop. I write scenes as they occur to me, then put them in order for the story I have vaguely in the back of my mind, and then fill in the blanks. Sure, this means that a lot of what I write eventually gets scrapped, as many scenes either turn out differently than I originally envisioned them, or end up not being included at all, but it’s the way my mind words. Key events first, filler later.

The result of this is that I usually have to write the whole novel, and then split it into chapters. There are some natural chapter breaks, of course, but if I want any consistency of chapter length then I occasionally have to move scenes around in order to get them at the end of the chapter. (And I like consistent chapter lengths. One of my foibles, I think.)

I know that I’m not alone in this – I’m told that Stephen King, no less, writes in much the same way – but I also know that there are a lot of writers who start at the beginning and go right through to the end. To me, this is a completely alien way of writing, but I can’t help but admire it. I know that some of these people are “pantsers”, who don’t know where their story will end up until they get there, but others have planned so meticulously that they can tell you exactly what will happen in any given chapter, and could even write it if you asked them to, even if they’re nowhere near that in the story as yet. The sheer weight of planning involved in that makes my head spin.

I’ve told myself that one day, I’ll try to write a story that way. I’ll fill notebooks not with actual scenes, but notes about scenes, what they’ll involve, with meticulous details about story order. I’m not sure that I’ll do a very good job at it, but I want to see what it’s like.

In the meantime, though, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. It’s worked for me so far, and it’s the way I feel most comfortable as a writer. And the writing competition my friend suggested? Well, I’ve come up with a compromise. I’ll nominate a set number of words per chapter – say 2500 – and I’ll write as many blocks of 2500 words as I can. It’s better than nothing, right?

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Novel excerpt: Morning Star (Ethos), by Desiree Finkbeiner

Ethos: Morning Star, by Desiree Finkbeiner

Today I’m privileged to host an excerpt from Morning Star, first novel in the Ethos series by Desiree Finkbeiner. It was released on March 28 and already has 70 reviews on Amazon, 68 of which are five stars.

Here’s a taste of this very highly rated book:

Life goes on as it normally does… work, school, recreation, taxes… and for the ignorant, life is bliss. But when a mysterious stranger enters Brianna’s mundane routine, her eyes are opened to the dark underbelly of reality. She’s thrust into a race for her life when Kalen, a warrior from Ethos, discovers that she is harboring a secret… a secret that he’d give his life to protect.

There’s just one little problem… they are tempted by a forbidden romance, which threatens to compromise a divinely appointed mission. They are faced with a choice… love eternal, or the end of the world…

Sound intriguing? Well, the news gets better. Up till midnight US time, the book is FREE on Amazon.com. Actually, there are ten books that Hydra Publications are offering free till midnight, so if you get in quick you can load up your kindle with some great titles for absolutely nothing. So what are you waiting for?

The books can be found here:
Morning Star (Ethos) by Desiree Finkbeiner
Andraste by Marisa Mills
Bridgeworld by Travis McBee
Gnosis  by Tom Wallace
Heart of the Hunter  by Linda Anne Wulf
Secret  by Morinda Montgomery
The Heart Denied  by Linda Anne Wulf
The Universal Mirror by Gwen Perkins
Ukishima by Nigel Sellars

About the author:

Desiree Finkbeiner attained a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design from Missouri Southern State University (2006) with a heavy background in business, marketing, music and fine art– She was heavily involved in campus affairs and served actively in several committees focusing on campus entertainment and events.

Desiree Finkbeiner

She had a scholarship for acting in college though she was not a theater major. Although she no longer performs or focuses on musical/performing arts, she has chosen to shift her talents to other areas that are more conducive to raising a family.

Continuing education is a constant adventure for Desiree with topics of interest ranging from civil and corporate law, history, political conspiracy, homeopathic medicine and spiritual healing. She prefers to read non-fiction, especially on topics that educate and broaden her perspectives on controversial issues.

With thousands of completed art works in her archives, most of which appear in private collections worldwide, Desiree hopes to focus more on publishing, marketing and licensing her work so she can leave a legacy behind.

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Thanks, Desiree! It looks like an awesome book and I can’t wait to read it. I hope that everyone who sees this post makes the most of the free offer at Amazon while it lasts – get in quickly!

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