Tim Ward is a Hugo Nominee, former Producer / Editor at Adventures in SciFi Publishing, and the author of several popular futuristic thrillers. His latest novel  Godsknife: Revolt, is an apocalyptic fantasy set in the rift between Iowa and the Abyss. Tim joins us today to contribute to our ongoing discussion about integrating a biblical worldview into our fiction.

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godsknife-timothy-ward-204x300I’m about to publish my first novel that uses faith as a major theme. It also includes characters who sometimes swear and deal with other temptations like booze and sex. As a Christian, I am not ashamed, because I am not my characters. The dark moments in their lives are shown as tragic, without needing to point any fingers. Godsknife: Revolt is about loving people who suffer.

The first and best lesson that I learned about writing stories about non-Christians from a biblical worldview is that I don’t have to have a Savior to illustrate the trials of their heart. The closer my made-up worlds got to the Biblical view of Salvation, the harder it was not to have a literal Jesus. In The Magic of Discovering Empathy, I suggest that the way we create empathetic characters is by showing character’s trials. People want others to know how hard it has been to be them. You can write about characters who deal with issues without those issues having to be about salvation. If you don’t think this is Christian enough, think of it as showing characters who just want to be loved, and are doing what they can, but failing. We’re all that way, and we all have taken different paths.

For example, Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King has the most sympathetic serial killer I’ve ever read. I teared up at the incremental revelations about his family life. I came away from that book thinking, what if someone had shown him genuine love somewhere along the way? So thank you Stephen King for writing a powerfully Christian novel. Ha! Just kidding. But a Christian could have written that story. King wrote a book where the reader was driven to love; and if he can do it, why can’t people who have the Holy Spirit living in them?

Okay, so what if you want to do more than just write characters that readers should love? You can create new religions that represent the foundations of the religions we have—and stop there. For example, in Godsknife: Revolt, the world is ours, but with a totally different history—religion has been outlawed since the 8th century—and because it’s my world, we’ve also had World War III and don’t own North America, to name a few differences. The religions are broken into three categories, Makists, Chaosers and Ordites.

  • Makists put faith outside of themselves by following the Maker through trials.
  • Chaosers pursue Chaos as a means of personal evolution.
  • Ordites gain strength by fixing the damage Chaos has done on a world left abandoned by the Maker.

It’s fantasy, so Makists who pursue the Maker in faith (not in Jesus, or Jemus, or the 12 commandments—because 10 would be too close to the Bible). Makists have differing powers, from being able to use wind and a supernatural lung capacity, to healing, to just plain perseverance in the trials, and more as I show them.

The tagline is: An apocalyptic battle for godhood in the rift between Iowa and the Abyss. The Abyss is an idea that stems from Genesis 1, where before God the world was without form and void. In my book, beings from the Abyss found a way through the Void into our world. They were born of a race “without form” and thus are not comfortable in structure and certainly not under the thumb of anyone. Do you know anyone like that?

I also have a Chaos doctor who is like a father to my main female character. He’s an alcoholic who chooses the bottle one last time and loses his fiancé, another pov character, and part of his ability is to transport things from our realm into the Abyss. He uses this to whisk the alcohol from his system so that he thinks he can conquer his addiction’s downsides, but always fails under its influence. Sound like a real person with real, spiritual issues? Did I have to use Scripture to show that? No, I just showed him being someone who wants to be loved even if he doesn’t say it in so many words. I showed his justification for his failures, then when he fell on his face, showed him turning it around, and then showed him failing again, and so on.

So, in my books, I have characters who pursue resolution to the issues of their hearts in the ways that they’ve been taught. My female lead, Caroline, lost both of her parents, who were Makists. Caroline resents their faith because her mother was taken before Caroline was eighteen—how could the Maker do that?—and her father spent too much time on the road, even after that, evangelizing—how could the Maker motivate him to leave her alone so much?

Let me take a step back and analyze these areas of Caroline’s struggle. The focus is not on how closely I tie the Maker to the Biblical God. I expand a little more than just that He is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient—again, of course I don’t want the reader’s Christian meter to alarm, so I don’t use those terms, but you don’t have to. Just show it. Get to the foundation of faith. People either trust in the Maker or they trust in themselves, and if they trust in themselves, they can do so either pursing Order or Chaos. Thus, my book examines these pursuits without needing the details of Scripture.

So, this story has Caroline encountering trials with backstory knowledge of people who chose faith in the Maker. She will examine why her parents had faith. She will examine if she can, too, if that would make them proud—which goes back to a base instinct and draws the reader in with empathy—and then when the crap hits the fan, she will need to decide what she believes, not based on what makes her parents proud, but what she sees as real, as powerful and as trustworthy.

This story illustrates a biblical worldview without pointing to the Bible because all I’m doing with Caroline’s character is seeing if she’ll chose faith. For me, “faith” has an iceberg depth of meaning and syntax, which readers can share if they believe as I do, or if they hold to the cursive gold necklace “Faith” that is grounded in nothing but cheap jewelry. The former and the later can read my story and root for Caroline to be happy, for her to find success, and for the support system she chooses to hold her up.

One reason why non-believers don’t read the Bible is because they know how it ends. I wrote Godsknife: Revolt with enough twists and floor drops that readers will have no clue who will win.
What if her non-Makist support system fails her? What if she chooses the Maker and things don’t work out for her? Do either one make this book more or less “Christian?” Go back to my point about God’s promises to those whom He has called. Nothing can separate us from His love, but there is no promise that between justification and glorification we won’t have moments that look to outsiders as though God isn’t in control.

*Side note: In Godsknife, people who touch special sigils can leap through time and place blindly, under the power of Justification, so that if one trip takes them to a better time or place, the next could be much worse.

Finally, Christians, or characters like them, don’t have to win. I firmly believe that I can maintain the interest of non-Christian readers and their empathy for my “Christian” characters by proving to them in an equal try-fail cycle for all of my characters that anyone could ultimately land on the X that means their death or suffering. So instead of worrying about proving one side right, show your characters strengths and weaknesses. Show them trying and in doing so you show them why the character should be loved. Then show them failing, and don’t be obvious on which side you’re choosing by keeping the levels of high and low within a median range for each character. Do this, and you can have someone meet Jesus and I believe it’ll still be read with interest by believers and non-believers alike.

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Godsknife: Revolt is now available. You can also subscribe to Tim’s newsletter and email him at tim@timothycward.com.

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St.Death3DGiving away three autographed copies of “Saint Death” at Goodreads. Enter HERE.

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Reagan Moon didn’t plan on being an earth guardian.

He was your average paranormal reporter…until 1,000 volts of raw electricity fused an ancient relic into his sternum. It left him with Powers and lets him do things most humans can’t. There’s others like him, seven of them to be exact. They call themselves the Imperia and are charged with keeping earth from going down the toilet. This usually involves fighting monsters, tweaking the laws of physics, and keeping lots of booze and bandages on hand.

But when Saint Death comes knocking, no amount of holy water and hand grenades can slow her roll.

She’s the queenpin of the Santa Muerte pantheon. The folk religion’s central deity often appeared as a Virgin or a bride. Some called her the Grim Reapress. But mostly she was known as Saint Death. Now she’s got a companion. With the help of the Summu Nura, a Neuro priestess has rediscovered the Grimoire of Azrael, the Archangel of Death. And the Tenth Plague is about to be unleashed upon Los Angeles. Apparently, only Moon and his weathered compatriots can prevent the angel’s arrival. Yet earth guardians aren’t indestructible…as Saint Death is about to prove.

Myth and history collide in the second installment of what Publishers Weekly called “one of the best indie novels of 2015.

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Petes-dragonA while back, I posited that traditional archetypes should be fair game for religious authors to tinker with, subvert, and even transform. Like vampires. In my article, The Good Vampire, one commenter expressed the misgivings of the evangelical community in general when she wrote:

“My biggest nit with reclaiming vampires is that traditionally, they have stood with witches, black dwarves, orcs, dragons, etc. Vampires as sympathetic figures is a 21st century twist. Its presence in children’s lit (and it’s BIG) means setting common morality on its head–screws knight vs. dragon for knight and dragon BFF. This leaves huge marks on kids’ ever-evolving moral education. Subtly and by implication only, they’re taught that ‘bad’ and ‘good’ have permanent quotation marks.”

If you know anything about evangelical readers, this opinion should not surprise you. Certain tropes must remain symbols for evil. Vampires are obviously one of them.

As are dragons.

According to the writer above, if we suddenly go making dragons “good,” then we go about “setting common morality on its head,” which in turn “leaves huge marks on kids’ ever-evolving moral education.”

This is one reason why the early praise for Pete’s Dragon among Christian reviewers has been… surprising. Christianity Today calls the film “an uplifting tearjerker, [which is] deserving of your box-office dollars.” Focus on the Family’s Plugged In gives it 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars. Apparently, they did not get the memo that creating “good dragons” turns “common morality on its head.” Either that, or the views expressed by the commenter above are indeed waning.

So does that mean evangelical readers are now ready for good vampires, good Klingon, good goblin, or good ghost?

Part of discerning good from evil is separating stereotypes from actual actions or intent. Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, which flipped a common stereotype on its noodle. You see, to the people whom Jesus spoke, “Samaritan” meant one thing — bad guy. So obviously, part of His point was to challenge stereotypes and strip them of their inherent evil-ness. It’s worth asking, as I have elsewhere, whether or not the truth of the Good Samaritan can be retained while swapping out the stereotype. In this sense, the Good Samaritan might as well be a vehicle for flipping all kinds of images and models. Including, in a sense, dragons. After all, if the “good” part of the Good Samaritan is in his actions, rather than his reputation, then the most important part of “moral education” is not in simply rattling off a list of evil archetypes, but in discerning actions and intent. In other words, bad guys don’t always wear black hats and good guys don’t always wear white hats. Teaching children (or anyone) to look for “black hats” rather than “black hearts” is to ignore the nature of good and evil.

Which is why we need discernment rather than archetypal placeholders.

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Santa-Muerte-1I received a nice review of Saint Death over at the Black Gate (HERE). The reviewer mentioned something that I thought worth addressing — my depiction of Santa Muerte in the novel.

Some might find Mike Duran’s handling of the Santa Muerte folk religion troubling. Since in his book it’s used as a front for summoning the archangel of death, he tends to play up the darker aspects, such as its association with drug dealers and criminals. This is not at all an even-handed approach, or an attempt to treat the religion fairly. But focusing on the darker aspects of religion has long been a useful tool for horror writers.

The reviewer is correct in that I used the religion “as a front,” fictionally speaking. But did I not offer “an even-handed approach” or “attempt to treat the religion fairly”?

Here’s my intro to Santa Muerte in the first chapter, spoken through the POV of Reagan Moon:

I’d seen them before, shrines like this. Usually they were accompanied by murder and mayhem. The Santa Muerte religion had been migrating from Mexico into the southland for the last half century bringing with it a toxic mix of old world esoterica, spiritualism, and crime. Its central deity was sometimes displayed as a Virgin, a bride, or a queen. Some called her the Grim Reapress, others the Bony Lady.

But mostly she was known as Saint Death.

Over time, she’d become the patron saint of drug lords and hit men; the Mexican cartel had adopted her as their own, splaying untold victims upon her altars. Saint Death’s protection and blessings were routinely sought, as was her vengeance. Whether one was seeking to guarantee safe passage of a drug shipment, smite a foe with the necrotizing fasciitis, or be protected from such curses, Saint Death was all ears.

Is this a fair summary? I think so. You see, the “darker aspects” of Santa Muerte are some of its primary attractions. For example, this Time photo essay is subtitled Mexico’s Cult of Holy Death. The folk religion is viewed as a “cult” for several reasons. As this National Geographic article notes, before its more recent mainstream appeal, Santa Muerte was “initially popular among people living in the underworld or on the fringes of society.” The religion’s connection to “underworld” elements, namely drug cartels, fueled Santa Muerte’s popularity. Finally, there was a “saint” for the marginalized, one that could both take vengeance and protect against vengeance-seekers. This Huffington Post article notes that “the very origins of the cult are tied to crime.” An article entitled Folk Saint Santa Muerte is Alive and Well in L.A. — Death, Devotion, and the DEA cites the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in describing Santa Muerte as a “new age Grim Reaper-type goddess, a bad-girl counterpart to the Virgin of Guadalupe.” Though the religion’s devotees are particularly growing among disenfranchised and/or disillusioned Catholics, it is narcocultura that fuels its spread.

Still, the strongest contributing factor to the stigma against the folk saint is her constant association with drug traffickers and the dark spirituality of narcocultura, or drug culture. With the high stakes of the drug trade, the offerings by cartel members to Santa Muerte can surpass the normal tokens of food and drink, and dip into the realm of human sacrifice.

Santa-Muerte-4It was this reality that sparked my interest in the religion. For one thing, this was happening next door to me! Stories about Santa Muerte related crimes began showing up. Like the discovery of human remains inside a residential altar in Pasadena, which immediately solicited question about Santa Muerte. Or in Oxnard where authorities discovered a human skull and jawbone, along with a discarded Santa Muerte altar. Then there were incidents of actual human sacrifice to the Saint of Death. It was reported that more L.A. prison inmates were sporting Santa Muerte tattoos and that Santa Muerte was gaining a following among major criminal organizations. It’s even led to L.A.’s DEA division creating a number of continuing education classes which focus upon the religion.

“Here in L.A. you become very much aware of it as soon as you start working in investigations,” says Sarah Pullen, Public Information Officer for the Los Angeles DEA division. “Investigators know about it, and it’s covered in a number of continuing education classes.”

Despite the growth and popularity of the folk religion, the Catholic Church has officially not recognized Santa Muerte with legitimacy. On May 8, a high-ranking Vatican official made what amounts to the Catholic Church’s first public statement regarding the cult.

“It’s not religion just because it’s dressed up like religion; it’s a blasphemy against religion,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.

It isn’t the Vatican’s habit to give its opinion on every passing cult that flashes across the horizon, but the Santa Muerte is special.Santa-Muerte-5

Of course, there are many who embrace the religion with less nefarious intent. Which is why the Catholic Church has tread lightly on harsh denunciations. Nevertheless, it is the darker side which remains the draw for many. This blending of religious devotion and malignant intent is what drew my attention to the religion. It also led me to visit the Holy Death Temple in Los Angeles, and several botanicas which cater to devotees. (The pictures in this post are mine, and were taken from our visit in early 2016.) It was a fascinating, if not chilling, immersion into a bizarre culture where spells and candles could be purchased and set at the feet of the Bony Lady. Creepy.

So while the reviewer is correct that I used the religion “as a front,” a springboard, it is the realworld weirdness that brought this to life. Which is why in my synop I describe the tale as a collision of “myth and history.” But ultimately, it the words of my antagonist in the story, Etherea, that summarize much of my thinking about religion in general.

“It’s just a conduit, you know. Santa Muerte. Just about any religion will do. Only this one has already blazed a trail into the dark. Human sacrifices. Canticles of vengeance. Yeah, they ain’t fooling around, are they? Not perfect, but it’ll do. Most religions are like that—flimsy vessels for something much more pure. And primal. Besides, I have a thing for skulls and glitter.”

So, yeah, maybe it’s not an “even-handed approach, or an attempt to treat the religion fairly.” It’s sensationalized. It’s squeezed. It’s fiction. But in the case of Santa Muerte, you have to wonder if the truth isn’t stranger than fiction.

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So much great conversation has ensued following Realm Makers 2016. One person I’ve really enjoyed chatting with about RM, the Christian speculative community, and related publishing trends, is author and founder of Uncommon Universes Press, Janeen Ippolito. Janeen had some interesting (and I think, important) observations about the conference and where the Christian spec community could be headed.  So I invited her to share some of her thoughts…

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RM-logoI’m honored that Mike opted to share his platform so I could do a little brainstorming on a topic close to my heart: growth. I’m all about the growth, whether it be in faith, in education, in understanding, or in profit (dare to dream). As an entrepreneur married to an entrepreneur, growth is a buzzword in our conversations about new ventures.

  • Is this project growing?
  • Has that endeavor increased in reach and marketability?
  • What about this venture? Is it moving forward or stagnating?

I’m not here to talk deep theology. While I have a degree from a Christian college, my specialty was informational writing, anthropology, communication, and education. Basically, learning about people/cultures and how to communicate with and educate them. Needless to say, as I’ve dived into studying business/marketing over the years, I’ve found quite a few overlaps and connections.

Crossover appeal is what I’m here to talk about. Specifically, the future of a unique conference like Realm Makers when sandwiched between two major markets: CBA and ABA.

First off, major applause to the organizers and supporters of Realm Makers who have given their all to see this tiny but mighty conference grow over the years. They have the guts and drive to do the impossible, and that deserves a ton of respect and commendation. Every year, the conference improves, and every year, the masterminds behind the conference express their willingness and openness to see this niche market of Christian speculative fiction grow and expand.

Bravo for all the hard work!

Now for the less fun part: how is this thing, this peculiar bunch of faith-based speculative fiction fans (or junkies, as Mike says) going to grow? The conference is a flourishing plant, breaking through some hard soil, but it’s about to hit two big rocks:

  • The larger Christian market, which will still require a lot of education to understand the place of speculative fiction in their worldview
  • The general market, which is hit or miss at best for indies and already has plenty of their own conferences and conventions to attend anyway

post-1There are people who declare that the up and coming geeky generation of Christians will push the tide of Christian fiction towards the speculative. That each year, the market is growing, regardless of what the CBA says. This could be true. Certainly the general trend towards speculative fiction in culture hasn’t died off the way people said it would. But with this understanding, Realm Makers will continue to serve an exclusively Christian speculative fiction market, perhaps creating its own prosperous bubble right next to ACFW. Speculative fiction by Christians and for Christians.

Is this the endgame? To became the newest, strongest flavor of fiction on the Christian shelf of the bookstore or in the Christian category online?

Another view promotes ‘crossover writing’ with Christians writing for the general market. This is where things get complicated. First of all, my personal opinion is that many Christians aren’t comfortable enough to write for the general market, where story trumps theological ‘rightness.’ There are underlying tropes, concepts, and ideas within that subculture that people from a Christian subculture won’t necessarily get or even understand how to include.

Realm Makers included sessions on the Crossover Novelist, which brings up whether the conference is considering this market as well. Are attendees from other faith or lack-of-faith backgrounds considered part of the target market? Should they be? Or is Realm Makers trying to be a sort of training ground for Christians seeking to reach a general market audience? Should the purpose of this conference be two-fold? Can it be?

A Realm Makers crossover market appeal could follow a couple of schemes:

  • Making a Christian conference so good everyone will want a taste. The thing is, people in the general market come from a lot of backgrounds and are rather sensitive to being preached at, and it seems that many people treasure the strong faith aspect of Realm Makers. Could a ‘taste and see’ method work? Possibly. I’m never going to say never. But it would require a lot of focus in terms of building relationships as well as continuing to pursue excellence and quality in conference presentation.
  • Creating Realm Makers as a more theologically neutral safe space with buzzwords like ‘clean.’ Again, I’m not sure how viable this is. A lot of people know ‘clean’ is a buzzword for ‘a certain kind of morality’ which is fair since worldview will come through in writing no matter what. In trying to go ‘clean’ Realm Makers might just end up in a lukewarm place with zero audience.
  • Making Realm Makers an educational powerhouse where people are taught how to do excellent writing. Period. There would be the faith aspect, but there would also be a high level of faculty and content so that people might come, even a la carte, just to get solid instruction. This goal is harder than people think, because it has nothing to do with hitting every major point of whatever favorite theology someone holds to and nothing to do with long discussions about whether we really need magic. Instead, this type of track would have everything to do with teaching writers of all levels how to nail down an excellent speculative story. Not a “clean version of this author/genre” book that puts cleanliness up there with good editing, but a well-written story with great plotting, characterization, themes, and editing that is tight and genre-appropriate and reaches the target audience in a fresh and memorable way.Janeen

Do I have any answers for the Realm Makers conundrum? Not particularly. Ultimately, all of these decisions rely in the hands of the fearless, driven entrepreneurs who dared to ask ‘what if’ and then went ahead and did. And kept doing, sacrificing time, money, and sleep (ohhhh, sleep) in pursuit of making this Realm Makers thing happen. I applaud their efforts. And as someone whose eyes are always on the growth and who wants to see awesome endeavors leveled up, I’m hoping and praying the fearless leaders make wise decisions regarding the future of this quite particular little conference that could.

What about you? Any brainstorms about the place of Realm Makers?

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Janeen Ippolito is an idea-charged teacher, reader, author, and the Fearless Leader of Uncommon Universes Press. She writes nonfiction reference, including World-Building From the Inside Out and speculative fiction laced with everyday humor, horror, and cultural tensions. Her co-written illustrated novella, Thicker Than Water, releases on October 29th. Find her online at JaneenIppolito.com.

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Christian Fiction & Biblical Worldview Stories are NOT Synonomous

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One of the points I’d hoped to develop in my Realm Makers 2016 class, “A Theology of Speculative Fiction,” was the difference between biblical worldview stories and contemporary CBA Christian Fiction. Like much of that study, I didn’t have the time I hoped (my fault, not the organizers’) to address some important concepts. This was […]

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Christian Speculative Fiction v. 2.0

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I spent this weekend in Villanova, PA, at Realm Makers 2016, and had a total blast! So much to process. And as I arrived home less than 24 hours (and multiple time zones) ago, I doubt that my thoughts here will have the needed distance to be able to accurately address the subject I’m about […]

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Writer’s Conference 101 — Don’t Over-Prepare!

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This is a repost of something I wrote last year before attending Realm Makers. And as I’m swamped with preparations for this year’s conference in Philadelphia (as I know some of my writer friends are), I thought this would be an important reminder. Enjoy! *** This week I’m flying to Saint Louis for the Realm Makers Writer’s Conference. […]

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Saint Death is Live!

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The second installment of my Reagan Moon novels is now available in print and digital. Saint Death follows our intrepid paranormal reporter into the bowels of the City of Angels — literally — where an ancient altar has been unearthed, the final component necessary for the conjuring of the Tenth Plague and the summoning of […]

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The Problem with Spiritual Rating Systems

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The inherent danger in spiritual rating systems is that they impose a set of expectations and theological specificity upon our stories which reduces discernment to the level of a doctrinal checklist.

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Are Superheroes Proof That Jesus was a Myth?

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The forthcoming documentary Batman & Jesus suggests as much — that Jesus Christ was little more than Superman or Captain America cloaked in historical garb. Blurb: Batman & Jesus seeks to introduce the evidence both for and against a historical Jesus of Nazareth to wider audience using contemporary examples in pop culture to draw comparisons   […]

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The Myth of Writer’s Block

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On a podcast recently, I was asked how I deal with writer’s block. I felt a bit sniffy admitting I never have it. I felt even worse suggesting that for most writers, it’s a bit of a myth. Of course, there’s lot of angles one could take on the topic. But, for me, it seems […]

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