The Last Line. How to End a Story.
with Kathleen Kaska
AP: Give a brief explanation of how you know when the end is written? Is it instinct? Is it planned? Any advice to writers on ending a story?
KK: The murder’s been solved, loose ends have been tied up, but my protagonist, Sydney Lockhart’s life goes on, so I leave my readers with a bit of a cliff hanger for the next installment or a joke for them to contemplate.
It’s usually not planned. I let my characters lead me.
My advice to writers is to do what feels right, whether you’re a planner or a pantser.
AP: Give us the last line from one of your books, don't need to say which one, and a little about how you knew it was the last line?
KK: In my first mystery, Murder at the Arlington, Sydney encounters Ralph Dixon, a detective with the Hot Springs Police Department. There’s an instance attraction between them, but Sydney is determined to stay free and single. Also in the story, Sydney receives several annoying phone calls from her crazy parents. At the conclusion, Sydney is back home, working on her story (she’s a reporter). Here’s the ending.
The phone rang, jarring me out of my ruminations.
Mealworm’s [the cat] tail twitched. She shot an irritating look at the phone, then turned her attention back to the feeder. I looked down at Monroe, who was whimpering because of a doggy dream, which caused her to drool on my slipper.
The clock chimed ten.
“Who’d be calling at this hour?” I asked Mealworm. She knew the call wasn’t for her, so she ignored my question. It could be my mother calling to thank me for saving her marriage, or Red Newsome, inviting me to return to the Crooked J for an encore, or, maybe . . . Lieutenant Ralph Dixon. I wasn’t willing to take the chance.
Much to my cat’s annoyance, I just let the phone ring.
AP: Bonus: Tell us some of your favorite last lines in a book, include the title. And, maybe why it is a favorite.
KK: I’m hooked on Martha Grimes’ Emma Graham series. Here’s the ending of her first book, Cold Flat Junction:
I said, “I wish the past weren’t dead and gone; I wish things weren’t over.”
Dwayne smiles. “’The past ain’t dead; it ain’t even the past. Billy Faulkner.”
I thought for a moment, and then I smiled too. “This is my story, and it’s not over till I say it’s over. Emma Graham.”
I watched Dwayne’s real smoke and my pretend twine upward toward the gunmetal poacher’s moon.
It’s one of my favorites because there is something special going on between these two characters, Emma, age twelve and Dwayne, twenty-something. They are friends with future potential. I didn’t want the story to end.
Kathleen Kaska writes the award-winning Sydney Lockhart Mysteries set in the 1950s. Her first two books Murder at the Arlington and Murder at the Luther, were selected as bonus-books for the Pulpwood Queens Book Group, the largest book group in the country. The third book in the series, Murder at the Galvez, was released in 2012. She also writes the Classic Triviography Mystery Series, which includes The Agatha Christie Triviography and Quiz Book, The Alfred Hitchcock Triviography and Quiz Book, and The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book. The Alfred Hitchcock and the Sherlock Holmes trivia books are finalists for the 2013 EPIC award in nonfiction Her nonfiction book, The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story.
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The problem with story ideas is – sometimes there can be too damn many of them. Add to that, characters, each vying for your attention, screaming, "Pay attention to me."
I was writing the second part of the series of the young reluctant queen. The title, This Time Tomorrow. I was going gang buster on the story, about three quarters through the first draft, when suddenly a character, Lucy Donovan popped up and demanded, quite strongly, that I tell her story – A Shadow of Doubt.
I couldn't resist, so I left This Time Tomorrow for a journey into A Shadow of Doubt. Every once in a while a niggling plea from This Time Tomorrow would surface, asking me to return, but Lucy would just push them away. She was a very demanding and determined character.
I was weeding my way through a Shadow of Doubt, when an idea popped up for the Skagit Valley Writers League anthology. A Shadow of Doubt was shelved while I worked on The Cracked Cookie. Luckily The Cracked Cookie was a short story, so it didn't take long to tell.
I am now on Chapter 8 of A Shadow of Doubt. Sometime I ignore Lucy and work my way back into This Time Tomorrow, but I always return. Then last night happened, more specifically 5:30 this morning happened - A Dream. A dream so vivid that it woke me up and insisted I write it down. So, now I have to add He's A Prince to my story ideas.
Opening Scene from He's A Prince:
She was waiting deep in the woods. He told her to wait here ,to stay hidden in the darkness, he would return for her shortly. Suddenly she heard the pounding hooves of a horse approaching her. In a blur, he was there. The horse was heaving heavily from the exertion and she noticed the panic on his face.
Before she had a chance to ask what the matter was, he reached down for hand and said, "Hurry get on." She didn't hesitate. He pulled her up behind him and held on as he clicked the reins, almost jarring her off her seat. Then she heard it, the thundering noise of men on horses closing in on them. They were being chased.
"What did you do?" she screamed to be heard over the pounding noise.
"I took something that belongs to me," he yelled back.
"What?" she asked.
"A crown," he answered.
"You stole the crown."
– And so it begins. Another story idea. Another character demanding I PAY ATTENTION to them.
Who’s Writing this Story, Anyway?
What Happens When Characters Take Over
by Kathleen Kaska
As writers we’ve been asked the question many times, and have answered with humor, wit, and candor, only to receive that unbelievable stare in response. You know the one that says, “you can’t be serious.” So, a few years ago, when I was asked to write a piece for my writers’ group about how authors develop or invent their characters, I turned my answer into the following short story.
I met the old woman on a back road in Arkansas. It was a bright, breezy Thanksgiving afternoon. My husband and I were taking in the fall colors north of Hot Springs when we made the wrong turn back to town and had gotten lost. As he fumbled with the map, I lowered the window and I gazed out at an algae-covered pond. The air was heavy with the scent of pine and the ease of the moment seemed to settle in. Then I caught a movement from the corner of my eye. I turned and look. And there she was, standing by the car and smiling at me.
“Let me do it,” she whispered. “Let me be the one.”
“Do what?” I said.
“Let me be the one to kill the goddamn bastard.”
Introductions were not necessary, I knew who she was, and I was glad to see her. I had been waiting for two months, but I did not expect her to show up here.
Eighty-two-year-old Ida Springfield was the most cantankerous old woman I had ever known. From Two Horse, Montana, Ida was no bigger than a stick. A stiff wind kicked up and I grabbed her hand for fear that she would fly away with the fallen foliage. She stared straight ahead, pulling at her lower lip the way she does when pondering a critical situation. I studied her profile. Pulled tight from her face, her hair formed a long, thick braid, which hung down her back. A few gray strands had come loose around her temples and with small, firm birdlike hands, Ida brushed the errant hair back.
Everything about her was petite. Her thimble-size nose and slightly pointed chin gave a rather simple face some dimension. Her wrinkles were even tiny, almost as if they had been drawn on her face with a fine-tipped pencil. From a distance, except for the gray hair, she could easily pass for a woman several decades younger. One had to get close to tell Ida’s age. I wondered how close I would have to get to understand what Ida was all about.
“It won’t be easy, you know,” I said.
“Nothing good ever is. I’ll put the body in his car and push it into a pond.” She nodded toward the property across the road. “Like the one you’ve been staring at.” The look on her face frightened me.
“But one murder usually leads to another,” I reminded her.
I glanced at my husband—his nose deep in the Rand McNally, sorting out his own immediate problem, he ignored us.
“I know, sweetie. You let me worry about that,” Ida said. “Do what you do best: take care of the details.”
We returned to the hotel, just as the buffet crowd had begun to thin. This was the fifth consecutive year that my husband and I have celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday at the historic Arlington Hotel. The day’s routine had us hiking across the backbone of Music Mountain in the morning and cruising the back roads for the rest of the afternoon waiting for the families to feed first. We changed out of our grubby shorts and T-shirts, showered, and dressed for dinner in jeans and clean T-shirts and sat down at our favorite table next to the Venetian fountain.
Although the once succulent turkey now competed for dryness with the sage dressing, we preferred the quiet dining room after the masses had left. Over a bottle of Merlot, my husband and I discussed the murder. I told him about Ida and he agreed that she was the best candidate thus far. No one would suspect an old lady of killing her good-for-nothing husband, and sixty-five years later, her hateful son.
Besides, Ida wouldn’t give me a moment’s peace until I gave her the assignment. Despite my reservations about her ability to carry it off, and the fact that she was a pain in the ass, I was growing quite fond of the old gal.
Thanksgiving was the only time of year that I splurged on desserts. A sliver of pecan pie, and this year’s new addition to the dessert ensemble, a mocha-caramel cheesecake sat on my dessert plate. As I sliced a piece of apple torte in half, my eye caught a movement behind the fichus tree at the entrance to the Jockey's Bar. She stood there, head down, lips silently moving. I sat my plate down on the dessert table and rushed over.
“Ida, what happened? Are you okay?”
She pulled away putting more waxy leaves between us as if she needed protection from me. A throaty crackle behind me made me turn. I did a double take.
“She’s shy until she gets to know you, and then it’s Jenny-bar-the-door. You can’t shut her up,” Ida chortled. “Veda, come out from behind that bush and meet your boss.”
“My twin—she’s one special lady and she’s your motive, or my motive, that is. You see, Colter beating up on me is one thing, but the day he laid a hand on my retarded sister, I had to draw the line.”
“I get it now.” I licked apple torte crumbs from my thumb.
“Right. You thought I’d kill those two assholes because of my ranch, and you are right. I’d do anything to save it, but the real reason is because Colter comes home drunk and I catch him raping Veda.”
“Oh, Ida . . . I’m so sorry.” I turned around to reach out to Veda, but she had disappeared.
“She dies too, honey.”
“Pneumonia. With all the shit going on, Veda’s health starts to wear down.”
“I see—it might just work.”
“You gonna eat all that dessert, honey?”
I looked down at my plate, embarrassed by my indulgence and that Ida should know my weakness for sweets. Then she disappeared also, leaving me standing alone at the fichus tree.
This always happens in Hot Springs—the place must be my Muse. One year I met long, tall Sydney Lockhart, the protagonist in my second mystery series. As I was unpacking, she walked out of the bathroom and asked me why there was a dead body lying in the bathtub, the very bathtub where she had been conceived thirty years ago. Before I could think of a reasonable answer, she then asked if I had room for her and her two animals, a cat named Mealworm, and a poodle name Monroe. Regardless of the no pet rule, I welcomed them with open arms, and by the week’s end, we had the plot lined out for the first Sydney Lockhart mystery, Murder at the Arlington.
One of the miracles of writing is when my characters present themselves when I least expect it. What’s even more amazing is they often take over and tell the story for me. It’s almost like a seed had been planted a long time ago, and suddenly the conditions turn ideal, and the seed germinates—and for a moment, writing is simple and a heck of a lot of fun.
After two and a half years of searching and tracking down Curly Beeler and his gang, for shooting him and leaving him for dead, then raping and killing his wife and unborn child, along with stealing his stock and burning his ranch to the ground; Clay is checking out a small town before going in. Through a pair of binoculars, Clay Brentwood spots the man he's been searching for, standing in front of a cantina in a small town in southern New Mexico. Clay takes over the scene..
Pushing away from the boulder he'd been leaning against, Clay walked over and patted his horse on the neck.
"Should I ride in and try to enlist the sheriffs help, or inquire about some men to hire to help me round up Curly and his gang, or should I go in alone.?"
The horse gave him a knowing look.
"You're right. I should go it alone. After all it's not their fight, it's mine and mine alone. How many men did he have with him, was it nine or was it ten?"
The black stallion shook his head.
"You're right again. It was nine - nine, hardened gunslingers against just one man, me, with only surprise on my side. Think I should ride in with guns blazin', or just ride in and play it by ear?"
The big horse shook his head and pawed the ground. Clay scratched him behind the ears.
"First thing in the mornin', we'll just ride into town and see what happens."
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Where Do My Stories Start?
This is such an interesting question for me, because there are several answers. Even though I write fairly chronologically, the story ideas often come through a variety of means.
I may overhear a phrase or sentence in a restaurant or grocery store that intrigues me, and get’s me to thinking about a story. This can attach itself to a character right away or a scene, or just an event. Once I get that sentence in my head, other things become attracted to it, perhaps a beginning or an ending, if the sentence feels like it’s mid-story. Or other people might have to be included if the sentence was part of a conversation and I wanted to keep it that way.
There are times when I’m walking in the woods and I’ll just get the whole idea for a story all at once. Of course, during the writing it changes, but the original idea could have been whole. Then there is rewriting. During rewriting, I might add or subtract information, scenes, details, anywhere in the book. So, even if I wrote the book chronologically, there are still events, problems, conversations, being inserted well after the novel is finished.
I teach a class where I discuss place, idea, character, and event, and go on to suggest that a book can be “primarily” about any one of these. A writer can start with anything, but eventually has to populate the novel with each of these. Things have to happen to someone, and they have to happen somewhere. Whether I start out in the middle or the end, I know I’ll have to include everything I can to make it a good story, so I’ll reenter the story again and again, just to be sure it’s right.
Terry Persun holds a Bachelor’s of Science as well as an MA in Creative Writing. He has worked as an engineer, has been the Editor-in-Chief of several technology journals, and is now marketing consultant for technical and manufacturing companies. Seven of his novels have been published. His science fiction novel Cathedral of Dreams won a ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Finalist Award, and his historical novel, Sweet Song won a Silver IPPY Award. His latest science fiction space opera is Hear No Evil.
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I have enjoyed reading romances for over twenty five years. When I reached the love scenes (some of which were quite steamy), I had to wonder - What was it like for the author to write this? How did they feel? Didn't they feel a bit strange sharing this with the world?
I finally wrote my first romance and yes there are love scenes. I found that writing the love scenes were actually the easiest parts of the book to write. They just poured onto the screen. I went into the 'writing zone' and just wrote.
Later, when I went back to reread them, I thought, wow I wrote that.
When I read the scenes out loud to my husband, his response was, "Who did you copy those from?"
I took this as a compliment.
But, when it came time to share it with my critique group and a friend, who edited it for me, I was nervous. I felt like I was sharing a very intimate part of myself. Even though it was fiction, I wrote it. And, I will admit I was a bit embarrassed. I know - so what! It turned out fine and they were real troopers about it, but still.
I am a beginning writer and I still have much to learn. Dream Obsession was a great learning experience for me, including the writing of love scenes. Did you know that there were websites dedicated to 'how' to write love scenes, complete with terminology and very descriptive words? The research along is steamier than most books.
I will admit - I am quite proud of this short story.
My loves scenes, though pretty mild compared to others, do have a touch of STEAMY…
An interview with Nicole Persun
As you write your first draft you may fumble through it, but when you revise/rewrite your work:
1. Do you have a play-by-play method for revising/polishing your work in order to reach the goal line?
2. Or, do instincts kick in and tell you when you have made a touchdown? In other words, how do you know when it's just right?
Well, my first draft is always fairly rough. Think of it like the first day of practice. I know the game and how it works, but there’s still polishing to do. That’s where the editing comes in. It’s where I refine my form and practice the more difficult plays. As I get better, I get closer and closer to game day—the finish date.
When I start in on the editing, I usually have a handful of notes from the first draft. These can be as simple as “Make sure such-and-such a character’s eyes are the same color all throughout the book,” to as complicated as adding and cutting chapters and redefining character motivations. Normally, when I’m done with the first draft, I organize my notes chronologically. That way, I can read the book from the beginning and edit as I go. I suppose that’s my play-by-play method, simple as it is. I also look to the coach—my editor—for guidance as well. He always has suggestions to help me better my game.
The rest of it is instinct. I listen to my teammates—the characters—and figure out where the storyline feels unnatural. Then I make changes as I go. It’s a pretty organic process, but that’s what I love most about the game. You never know what’s going to happen when you get started, you just try your hardest to make sure that you’re prepared for even the most unexpected plays, so that when it comes time for game day, you’ve got it down.
Where did the idea for My Undoing come from? Believe it or not, it started with a dream. Heavily installed into dreamland, something woke me at 1:00 am. The dream, still vivid in my mind, intrigued me. It was the young girl and the dialogue that captivated me. Too tired to do anything about it then, I went back to sleep forcing my mind to replay the dream over and over and over.
When I woke the next morning, I quickly scribbled down all that I could remember. It felt like the beginning of a story, the birth of a character and a idea for a series.
The dream started with a young girl chasing a man, dressed in a yellow hazmat-looking suit, through an old abandoned military base building. He disappears. She then encounters a man who turns out to be a not-so-good guy. While running away from this not-so-good guy, she runs smack dab into another man, Thuron, who saves her life. But it was the dialogue in the dream that intrigued me, most of which ended up in the beginning of the story.
I then sat down one day and her story unfolded as I typed. She took us both on a journey, one that I think neither she, nor I, was expecting. Her voice, her character, took over as she told me more about herself. At first, I tried to tell the story in third person but it didn't feel right. The story, needed to be told from her point of view.
She told me her name, Janee (spelled like Jane but with an extra e and pronounced JAH-NEE). She introduced me to Mr. Wong, her life-long friend and teacher. It was when she bumped into Thuron, and he saved her life, that the story took a turn and added a twist, for both of us. What he unveiled shocked us both, neither of us expected the story to go in that direction.
I envisioned how the story would end, but that was not how it ended. I typed a line of dialogue, from Janee, and knew that we had reached the end of My UNDOING. But, no worry, her story continues in short story #2 - This Time Tomorrow, hopefully it will be out by November.
Why is he running? How can such an old guy run so fast. And what’s with the yellow hazmat-looking suit?
I rounded the corner and came to a screeching halt. Stretched out before me was a long depressing gray hall with only one door at the far end. And Mr. Wong had disappeared. The building, located on an old military base outside of old Las Vegas, like everything else after the war, was abandoned. The only inhabitants now were small creatures that scurried into hidden corners afraid of their own shadow.
“How’d he do that?” my voice ricocheted off the walls, startling me.
I crept down the hall, hesitating before turning the knob. My instincts warning me to use caution. I slowly opened the door to a cavernous room, a graveyard of standard issued, gun-metal gray old desks, chairs and file cabinets, long forgotten. The room smelled of dust and mold, making my nose twitch. Small windows, high up on the exterior cement wall, allowed enough daylight into the room so I didn’t bump into things. A grunting sound, followed by a clanging metal noise in the far corner, caught my attention.
A man dressed in old army fatigues was tossing a large metal case onto a cart. He stopped and turned towards me, his menacing look caused me to take a step back.
“Sorry, I must have taken a wrong turn,” I said as I slowly backed out of the room. Not wanting to stick around, I scurried back down the hall, which now seemed like the length of a football field.
Behind me the door opened and I turned around to look. The army-fatigue man stood just outside the door, tense and alert. The closing of the door behind him echoed down the hall like thunder, making me flinch.
“You didn’t happen to see a yellow guy?” I asked, wanting to break some of the tension.
He started towards me with what appeared to be a weapon in his hand, apparently not interested in a friendly chat, I turned to run. The sound of his boots pounding on the concrete floor drowned out the sound of my beating heart. I glanced around to see him gaining on me and thought of those side-view mirrors, which warned, “Objects are closer than they appear.”
I slammed into a solid wall, a wall which sprouted arms and reached out and slung me behind it. As I peeked around the corner, a loud noise went off and the army-fatigue guy exploded, green gel-like gunk splattered all over the walls and floor.
“Wow,” I yelled. “That was so cool! There really are green guys. Well, technically he was green on the inside, but still.”
“Let’s go,” he ordered.
I took one last glance before I turned to follow.
“Where are we going?” The wall, my savior, was actually a man. He stood a good foot taller than me, making him a little over six feet. And man was he packing - not just muscles, he was loaded with a mini armory, some weapons I didn’t recognize.
“Somewhere trouble doesn’t follow you.”
“Trouble doesn’t follow me.”
He stopped and gave me one of those raised eyebrow looks. “Really?”
“Ok. Well yeah. But only sometimes. Sometimes the trouble is already there, so it isn’t always technically following me.” I tried to explain, at the same time wondering why I was following a complete stranger. Was it because he just saved my life?
Shaking his head he continued on.
“What was that green guy?” I asked.
“A Mela what?”
“What was he doing in that room?” he asked, not answering my question.
“Stacking large metal cases on a cart. Do you suppose he was stealing them?”
“That means he is not alone. We should hurry.” His long strides made it difficult to keep up.
“But, I am looking for someone. I can’t leave without him.”
“A guy, he is wearing a yellow suit.” I started to giggle like a little school girl.
“What’s so funny?”
“I asked the green guy if he saw my yellow guy. Do you think he noticed and thought that was ironic?” My giggling turned a bit hysterical.
“Get a hold of yourself,” he ordered. “Let’s go.”
“Go where?” I hiccupped.
“To find this yellow-suit man so we can get out of here.”
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For almost thirty years, I have wanted to write stories. The desire started after reading the tenth, or maybe thirtieth, romance book. I procrastinated using life as an excuse - children, husband, jobs, the publishing industry.
Then I joined a writers group this year. I joined after speaking to them about Armchair ePublishing and how we help writers get their stories ready for self-publishing. I couldn't resist them. They beckoned me into their world and in I went. Attending the meetings, hanging out with them, reading their stories, all started to rub off and pushed the need to write back up to the surface. No longer buried, it screamed at me to try. Another factor pushing me to start - the ability to self-publish. The fear of rejection, of having to wait for years to find out if you would be published or not, was no longer a deterrent, nor an excuse.
I took a writing class from a local published author, Kathleen Kaska. In class, she had us do a writing exercise. The exercise - write a quirky character's name and something about that character. At first I was stumped. I just sat there like a dead log. Then a name popped into my head and off the pen went. I could no longer control it, words flowed from the ink to the paper. Before I knew it, a character was born. She had friends, family, a boyfriend and a career. What? Where did she come from? I was stunned by the whole experience. Kathleen encouraged me to continue writing about her. I started to, but writer's block hit. Where to go? What to do? HUH?
That's when we started our writing critique group. The encouragement, feedback and constant push forced me to stop procrastinating. Kathleen, our group leader, a retired teacher, has the knack and the skills, to keep us marching forward. The experience - a return to grade school. Memories I thought long faded, surfaced. When we started I dreaded the RED PENCIL. I would laugh when I would see pages filled with RED markings. What I found though, the red marks were actually one of the best parts of the experience. An 'educational' experience, teaching me to do better as the story progressed.
As my writing improved, as well as the story, I started to receive stars next to lines on the paper, then the word 'good' and 'excellent' started showing up on pages, the appearance of the dreaded RED PENCIL less frequent now. And just like in grade school, whenever the teacher gave you a gold star or wrote "GOOD" on your paper, the sense of pride bubbled up and made me want to achieve even more.
To Kathleen Kaska, and Denise Morrow - Thank you! Wishing you gold stars and "GOOD" always.
So, join a writing critique group, they are worth their weight in GOLD stars...
PS - I am still 'working' on my writing. It will always be a Work In Progress. Disclaimer: If you find any errors in this post (and you most likely will), they are all my own. The writing critique group had no say, or red pencil, in regards to this post. :-)
You can't do it all, so why try. A writer's job is to - WRITE! And to market their writing. So, why try to do it all? Why try to learn to be an editor? Why try to learn how to format for all of the different types of self-publishing venues? Why design your own cover?
That's the problem, especially with new writers, they think they can just figure it out and do it themselves, even if it is just good enough. Traditional publishers use to do all of this for authors - they did the editing, the formatting, the cover, but now it's up to the Indie Authors to do it all, but where and how to start?
For some, the different stages of a book may come easy, for others they struggle and it takes time away from what they need to do - WRITE! Then there are the handful that think - THIS IS GOOD ENOUGH! Instead of writing, authors now spend hours, or days, doing everything the publisher use to do. But at what cost? Time? Money? Poor Quality?
Small businesses learned this lesson a long time ago - DELEGATE! There is a reason small business owners do not do everything. When you try to do it all the business suffers. The products, or the service, becomes sub-standard, the business owner suffers from major burn-out and the customers leave that business with a sour taste in their mouth. But when they DELEGATE, hire others to do what they don't know how to do, or don't have the time to do, the business grows and expands. The owner spends time doing what they love to do and what they were meant to do. Everyone is happy!
Bottom Line - DON'T DO IT ALL. Hire the professionals to do it. What you will have is a finished product/book that you can be proud of. A book that will be enjoyed by your readers. Other small businesses will thrive because you hired them to do what they do best. This will leave you more time to WRITE and to market. This is where your true success will come from.
The Author in all of us
There is a story inside. One that needs out and to be read by others. It's there and now it's time for it to flow from author to the reader. Join us as we celebrate Indie authors.