The Best Advice I Ever Got Was Never Take Advice

           Before giving me any advice my mentor, June Wilson Read, would lead with “Take it with a grain of salt”. As in “Take it with a grain of salt, but I, the reader, find chapter 7 to be full of useless information. I feel the entire novel could benefit from deleting it entirely.” My version of this is reminding my mentees (or anyone else who cares to hear me blather on) that “The best advice I ever got was never take advice.”

            I cannot stress that enough. Always think for yourself. “Never take advice” doesn’t just apply to your life as a writer. I’ve been writing these advice articles to writers but I feel the need to remind the audience that I only have the knowledge of one person.

            It’s not really a secret I don’t hold self-publishing companies in high regards. But I’ve known plenty of authors who found the right fit for them and their manuscripts with self-publishing companies. I admire them and I’ve enjoyed their books. I’ve read plenty of authors who will blow through every cliché and played out story line, yet have absolutely dazzled me with their brilliant storytelling. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars makes me angry because the author admits outright that although he did massive amounts of research, he ignored every bit of it and made up a type of cancer that didn’t exist for Augustus. His book is so wildly popular it was adapted into a film.

            There is not a person alive that knows everything there is to know about the writing world. When you submit work to a traditional publisher they’re taking an educated guess on how it’s going to do on the market and in front of their readers. Always trust your instincts but remember to keep your ego in your back pocket. Sometimes you can be your own worst enemy. Don’t forget that whoever is giving you advice cares enough about you and your cause enough to give it. Sometimes it doesn’t always ring out in a pleasant manner. All in all, just be choosy as to which advice you follow and weigh it in your mind before putting it to use.

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The Root of Your Writer’s Block May Be Insecurity

            In this blog post we’re going to talk about feelings. Run while you still can.

             In recent years around this time I get a serious case of the Christmas blues. I have lost a lot of close friends throughout the years, and not so much as sending them a Christmas card reminds me of their absence. Because those close relationships had to end I begin examining myself, asking myself what part of my behavior led to the breakdown of our friendship. Because I try to place the blame on myself I become insecure. When I feel like something within me doesn’t meet the measure I suddenly find myself unable to write.

            Sometimes you need to stop looking for what your characters are doing next and look inside yourself to see what’s holding you back. It’s not what you want to hear but sometimes it’s best to shove through, write some short stories (because giving up isn’t an option), ride out life’s storm’s, and write. Write even if your main character just happens to be intensely studying the wood grain of a table! You can always edit it out later!

            Sometimes it’s not the pen and page you need to look it. It’s the hand that’s holding it.

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Perfect Characters are Boring Characters

            Make them suffer. Embarrass them, let them trip in front of their crush, stutter while public speaking, fall and scrape their knees, say the wrong thing to their friend who’s grieving a loss. Make your main character suffer.

            Why? Because perfect characters are boring characters. Have you ever read a book where the main character knows exactly what to say, exactly what to do, and exactly when to do it? Even a supporting character! They’re boring!

            I spoke with an artist once. He told me people like to connect with art so he liked to paint his surroundings. People want to connect with books too. That’s why the entertainment industry is all abuzz with talk of representation in the media. It’s not only demographic matters people connect to. They want to find people going through the same struggles as them too. Take Smile for example! It’s a graphic novel of a young girl between the ages of 11 and 13 who knocks out her front teeth, has to have massive amounts of oral surgery, starts middle school, gets bullied, finds her first crush, fights with her siblings. Really, normal stuff. Kids about in middle school and about to start middle school really connect with that particular book in our library’s collection. And a perfect main character wouldn’t have her little sister running circles around her singing “All’s I want for Christmas is my two front teeth!”

            What drives a plot line is conflict. You need your beloved fictional friends to experience friction to keep them driven and keep them moving. There’s no such thing as perfect people. Imperfect people don’t want to read about perfect characters. Make them human (even if they’re technically elves, or dogs, or werewolves, or what have you!) and make them make mistakes.

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How to Approach Libraries for a Book Signing

            I asked one of my Facebook writer groups if they had suggestions for topics on our writing advice blog. One of them asked “How does one approach a library for a book signing?” I thought it was a perfect topic! So first thing’s first, I went to my boss, Joan Brinkley, the director of Goshen County Library and we put our heads together to bring you this article.

            That’s the first thing you as an author want to do. Figure out the name of the director of the library you’re going to query. The director of a library is the head librarian. You’ll sound a lot savvier if you use their name and job title rather than calling the library and asking “May I speak to the head librarian?”

            Joan prefers phone calls (I prefer emails but no one cares because I’m not the director). When you call a library, after you know the name and job title of the person you want to talk to, the next thing you need to be ready with is your elevator pitch. All bosses are busy. You need to be able to make someone want to read your book in the time it takes to ride in an elevator with them. If they want more information, great! Just keep it concise. Joan admitted one of the most annoying things an author can do is keep her on the phone for too long. We’re all very excited you got your book published! Truly! But keeping the director on the line for an hour and a half will not buy you brownie points.

            Just after I tell you to simmer down here’s another thing Joan stressed: BE CONFIDENT. To quote Joan herself “You’ve already spent years putting it together. Since it’s published it’s already gone through a lot of editing and criticism. Be excited about your book so we can be excited too.”

            If you’re like me and you hate phone calls with all that is within your soul emails are also acceptable. Just make sure that your email has a hyperlink to your website, your contact information, a summary about your book, and any other information you want us to know about you or your book. One of the most annoying ways to contact a library is just messaging their social media with a link to your book on Amazon and nothing else. Don’t do that but with an email! But do an email. You don’t want to just message the Facebook page (or whatever platform you’re on) because you never know who’s actually going to get it. It’s probably not going to be the director. (In our establishment it comes to me, the web manager.) But again: Make sure your email has a hyperlink to your website, your contact information, a summary about your book, and any other information you want us to know about you or your book.  

            Joan and I agree it’s best to do book tours. You schedule two or three book signings in a row in towns near each other. For instance, you have one in Scottsbluff, then you come here, then Niobrara County Library. Sometimes, no matter what you do people just won’t come out. It’s okay. That’s why it’s nice to have the next one ready to go so you can just have better luck in the next town.

            Once you’ve got the book signing the next thing is to prepare a presentation. At the very least a spiel! I’ve had— I’m not saying it to sound cool, I’ve literally lost track— over 10 book signings. Every library and every event is different. Some want you to do an entire presentation, some want you to sit in the corner and look pretty, and some want to involve you in some bigger project. (In Rapid City the local teens and I got to play with typewriters for NaNoWriMo!) I carried around a folding poster board for a year. There were a lot of places where bringing it out just wasn’t useful or helpful. So from that I learned, always have a backup plan! You can always be cooler than me too and have a power point presentation. Just be prepared to carry a laptop and a projector, and know how to use it. The only thing with tech is that it glitches. So, again. Have that backup plan.

            All in all, if you never ask the answer is always “no”. Be polite, and personable, make us love your book as much as you love it, and have a plan.

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The Recipe for a Successful Book Signing

            Take 12 ounces of published book
            100-300 pounds of enthusiastic author
            Add a venue
            and some curious bookworms

            Yield one book signing

            If only it were that simple! At the heart of it it is but from being on both sides of a book signing— the venue host and the author, it’s also not. Last month Joan and I discussed how authors should approach libraries to ask about having a book signing. We came up with so much helpful information I felt the need to split it into two articles. Once you’ve landed the book signing, and hopefully several in a row from several different libraries so you can do a book tour, then comes the hard part. The execution!

            You’ve got your presentation planned, right? No? Fret not. It’s not as terrible as it sounds. Public speaking frightens everyone. The trick is to be confident but not conceded, and humble but not shy. One of my favorite quotes is “Writing is show business for the shy.” From Lee Child. That’s why I treat book signings like concert nights. (I also sing and play the trumpet. I don’t make time for either now.) For any performance you dress up, show up early, and have a well-rehearsed plan for what you’re going to do once you have a room full of people’s eyes on you. I even do my preshow rituals in my car. Think of going through your presentation like putting on a show. Not public speaking. (Public speaking burns!)

            For the content of a presentation: Think of some questions your friends ask about writing when they take you out to lunch. Write those down, then answer them confidently in a projected tone that the entire room can hear. Honestly, it helps to pretend you are either friends with or becoming friends with the audience. When CJ Box was here the crowd spoke to him like they all knew him, and he spoke back in the same manner. They were a crowd of people who had been following his work for years, who had been hearing his voice in their minds for years. They did know him well because it was like they had been one sided pen pals with him for years. And he knew them because they had been the ones breathing life into his career. The audience is either your friends or people who want to be your new friends. Tell them about what inspired you to write the thing, what kept you going, which publisher did you use and why, what drives the plot. All of it! They’re all very curious book worms who are very excited to see you.

            One of the things that phased me the most for my first book signing(s) was “Omigosh, what am I going to wear?” What does “dress nice” and “business casual” even mean? At the time I published my first book I was a dewy eyed 20 year old with crazy hair. I had no idea. So a lot like I did for job interviews, I had a book signing shirt. It was white and I paired it with black slacks. A lot like I did for concert nights as a kid. Having one thing I’d wear for book signings made it easier because it was one less thing to think about during the event but the downside was that, unlike job interviews, pictures of you show up on social media. Everyone knows you’re wearing the same shirt. No one’s called me out on it so I haven’t ever changed my evil ways. Really, wear whatever it is you’d wear if you worked in an office (I didn’t at the time so that was unexplored territory). Either way, the goal with your look is to look like you want to be there and meant to be there.

            Another tip: Buy a cash box and keep $50 of $1’s and $5’s. It helps to have someone run the cash box so you can schmooze. It works even better if the person running it isn’t your identical twin. That way people who saw your picture before the event won’t ask your cash-man questions about writing books.

            Don’t do exactly what I do before every event we host at the library. Don’t get stressed up! Go with the mindset that you’re there to have a good time. That’s what the audience wants to have too. They left the comfort of their homes to be entertained, meet this cool person who wrote a book, and have a good time. Go make some new friends!

            All you need to remember is have a plan, have another plan, be a showman, the audience wants to be your friends if they’re not already, show up early, dress nicely, watch the cash box, and act like you want to be there.

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You Don't Have to be Accessible All the Time

            Once upon a time I made a new writer friend. He needed an editor and I had a friend who might have liked to help him. Writer Friend gave me his email address and I said “May I share your contact information with my editing friend?”
            “Of course!”
            “Okay. Great! I just always like to make that verbal confirmation. I am super touchy about other people sharing my contact information.”
            “Oh I don’t mind having mine shared at all! That’s just my writer mentality. Anyone and everyone can contact me.”

            I looked at him like he was crazy. I couldn’t help myself. You do not have to be accessible all of the time. And I actually had to have a good friend tell me that before I believed it.

            Having a relationship with your fans is great! Absolutely do it! But as with every healthy relationship, you need to have boundaries. For instance, anyone and everyone can message me on my War and Chess Facebook page. Anyone and everyone can “like” that page. Anyone and everyone can interact with me and other people who like my writing on that page. It’s when they send my personal page a friend request that I have to say “no”. And believe me, I’ve had to have that heart breaking conversation with a new friend I’ve been chatting with every night for a month on the War and Chess inbox, that “No, I’m not comfortable with adding you as a friend on Facebook yet. Yes, we are still friends.” Because really, the things I post on my personal Facebook page are for my distant relations to keep up with me.

            It’s going to come off as a complaint but someone needs to tell you sooner in your career than later in your career. When you’re an entertainer (you write. You are!) people feel entitled to information about you. There are some people who you tell them “I would accept your friend request but I keep this account for my family.” They say “Great! I would love to meet your family!” and you’re left like “Bro, my boyfriend hasn’t even met my family!” For instance, I had a pair of young boys on Twitter try to harass me into telling them my real name “Helen M. Pugsley is too elegant! It’s obviously a pen name! Tell us your real name!” Back then I had a lot more patience, so after an hour of back and forth I finally blocked them both. One of them made a new account, apologized to me, and then asked again “But seriously, what is your real name?”

            Really and truly, I’m telling you, you do not have to be accessible to everyone at all times of the day. Bottom line. You’re absolutely allowed to say “No.”, mean it, and most importantly stick with it. In next month’s blog we’ll talk about how accessible you should be. You need to establish boundaries but you don’t have to be J.D. Salinger. (Salinger is the author of Catcher in the Rye. He was an extremely private man. In his career as an author he did a maximum of three interviews and lived in a cabin, in the woods, high up on a mountain.) Keep your private stuff private and keep your public stuff public!

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Do you have a burning question for Helen? Feel free to email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Just How Accessible Should You Be?

            In last month’s blog post, You don’t have to be Accessible All the Time, we talked about our rights to privacy as entertainers. What feels like, in the same breath, we’re going to talk about people actually being able to find you and your glorious books you poured gallons of blood, sweat, and tears, into to be able to share with the world.

            Once upon a time I was lucky enough to be able to write full time. I was told the number one thing that kills indie authors (like you and I) is remaining unknown. So I’d spend my day marketing on social media, establishing connects within the industry, and figuring out where the people who liked to read young adult fantasy novels hung out. Publishing a book is not one of those “if you build it they will come” type deals. You need to market. You need to put yourself, and more importantly, your book out there. Or else your gallons of blood, sweat, and tears are for nothing.

            So! For starters, one thing I didn’t think about until I went to that Wyoming Writers Conference is having a website. I started with a Facebook page and assumed that everyone would be able to find me that way. Now this is going to blow your mind… Not everyone likes using Facebook! It completely blew me away. Honestly. I met a very successful author who built her own publishing press. During a presentation she said “Most of you will be daunted by being told you need a web page.” The room nodded. “But you need a web page.” The room was daunted. “You don’t have to update it once a week. You can do what’s called a business card page.” Which is what I have. A business card website is exactly what it sounds like. This is the author, these are their books, here’s some links to every book seller ever, and every social media site the author is active on. Really, bare minimum you just need something so everyone can find you. At least the author part of your life.

            I don’t suggest having any sort of feed or blog on your website unless you’re actually going to generate enough content to update it at least once a month. It really turns people off when they come to your website, saying “Wow, the book I read by this author was really good. When are they due to put out the next one?” and they find a happy Thanksgiving message from 2017 first thing. I find people will get just as invested in your career as you are. Invest in your career.

            And when I say “invest” I don’t necessarily mean financially. When I was writing full time, selling my book was my main source of income. My secondary income was my Etsy store. All in all, I didn’t have much money to invest. So I found every free venue I could use to put my message out in front of the public. You know what that often is? Social media. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Goodreads, Tumblr, and many more. Wherever the people you want to reach are, and whatever you’re comfortable using. No matter what venue you use the goal is to reach the people who would be interested in your book, and start a relationship with them. Yes, a relationship.

            What I mean by “relationship” is that you actually check in with them like you do your distant family. I used to make videos on my Facebook page once a month-ish. (I am so awkward on video. It’s painful.) Post pictures of you working, your work, or quotes from your work in progress. As you use your platform more and more you’ll get those five guys who like everything you post and laugh at all of your memes. When one goes on vacation you’ll find yourself inboxing them to say “You still okay, over there?” I often compare success on social media to growing a garden. Let it grow. It’s an investment of time.

            It is also wise to set up an email account that is exclusively for business. These days you can usually butt-up your email accounts into one inbox. Dig around your email provider, so that way you don’t have to remember 50 passwords. Either way, no one wants to do business with someone whose email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. It makes people uncomfortable. I’m glad your friends have cute nicknames for you but keep those among your friends. Unless you want the guy you’re negotiating a contract with to slip up and call you “Grandma Blipsy Bunny”. The fail safe formula for a professional looking email handle is first initial, last name, like This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. (Go John Smith! Live your dreams of being a famous author!)

            At any rate, it’s important that you’re accessible. It is also important to your mental health and well-being that you establish boundaries. There is nothing wrong with having a public life and a private life. Keeping the two separate works best when you have two accounts for everything. There is a balance. Your fans love you and want to interact with you, but you still have to be the one to decide what you want out there.

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Do you have a burning question for Helen? Feel free to email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Picking a Title Clickbait Style

            It was actually my cover artist who suggested to me I might need to reconsider my titles to catch new reader’s attention. “Think like clickbait!”

            “What do you mean? ‘Will this random teenage girl save her country? The answer may shock you!’”

            He sent me a bunch of laughing emoji’s. Being in England we only communicate through text. “No! Not like that! You need to make people curious about what the book’s about! Kind of like clickbait.”

            So I pondered it for a while, while drinking coffee and cleaning my house, and then one of my WIPs (work in progress, plural) went from being named Emerald, First Queen of Gishlan to To Craft a Country. “Whoa.” Richard, the cover artist said “That’s much cooler.”

            “I blame you! Thank you!!!”

            That’s the trouble though. You have to tell people what the book is about with five words! Titles are not easy! Somedays I feel like I haven’t come up with a good title since War and Chess! However, once Richard told me to think of a book like clickbait it got me thinking “What kind of question do you want to invoke?”

            Just scrolling through my Facebook feed now I see titles like “Where Nebraska Stands in the Flood Fight” this makes me ask “Are my friends and relatives in Nebraska okay? What’s going on over there?” Now I want to stop writing this blog post and read it. And “Wife Reads out Husband’s Affair Texts Instead of Vows at Wedding”, “Boy Scouts Welcome First Girls Joining Local Troop with Brand New Uniforms”, “The Animal You See First Reveals the Essence of Your Soul.” All of these raise a question. Like a game of jeopardy. So I ask again, what kind of question do you want to invoke?

            I did a poll on Twitter. “Would you read a book called Emerald, First Queen of Gishlan?” I only got one vote and it was “No”. Frankly, no one knows who Emerald is, no one knows why they should care, a lot of people aren’t sure what a Gishlan is, even the people reading my work probably forget the name of the country because sometimes I forget the names of people I’ve known all my life. That’s just how humans are. However! With the title To Craft a Country everyone knows what a country is. We live in one. Craft means make. Is this book going to teach us how to make a country? That sounds neat. Oh, it’s fiction? Helen’s writing another warrior princess type deal? Neat. This reader is down.

            Someone told me (probably Richard) that “no matter how good a book is if it’s got a crappy title it’s not going to get picked up and read. Good cover art can only go so far” (and trust me, it goes far! If you’re self-publishing invest in good art!) an intriguing title will make people pick it up and read the back, add it to their To Be Read on Goodreads, Google it, write it down, actually bother to look in to buying your book. Which leads to getting read, which leads to building a fandom, which leads to your work gaining popularity, which leads to having the phrase “New York Times Best Selling Author” in front of your name. That way you don’t have to sell your soul to Satan for a mere 10 years of achieving your dreams. Work hard on your book’s first impressions!

            Your book’s title should invoke a question in your potential reader’s mind. You want the question to demand an answer! It’s your books first impression. Try to spark people’s curiosity! Tell us what it’s about in five words or less. And if you need inspiration you’re welcome to come shelf read for us here at your local library! ;)

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A Little Humility Goes a Long Way

            Picture this. You just spent three years building an imaginary world, your imaginary friends are doing well, and someone finally cares. You’re a published author! Finally. Now you’ve got people treating you like you’re smart, like you’re worth something. It’s hard not to let it go to your head. You have a place where the sun rises and sets at your command. However, getting high off your own greatness is an addiction in itself.

            One of the most brilliant things one of my friends said to me was “You can’t learn with a full cup.” And she was right! If you know everything there’s not going to be room for you to learn anything. And whether you’ve published 12 books or just 1 you’ve still got room to grow. My mentor, who used to grill me about my short stories so hard I’d break a sweat, after I published my first book I started showing her all the online resources she could use to promote her books! (And don’t worry about the grilling! It was for my good. That’s why by the time you read this blog post it’ll be only the second or third draft!) Never approach a situation like you know everything.

            Honest to goodness, Gene Gagliano, CJ Box, John Nesbitt, Zack Pullen, and Craig Johnson have been some of my favorite authors to work with in my career as a librarian. These fellows have all “made it”, but that is not what made them my favorites. Their kindness, their gentleness, their humility are what struck me. None of them swaggered into the library¾ or into my email’s inbox¾ acting like, well, the bestselling authors that they are! Even the ones who couldn’t make it to Goshen County Library were still polite enough to make a good impression with me.

            Publishing a book can make you feel like you’re sitting on top of the world. At least it did for me! But whether you’ve published, one, none, or 76 you’ve still got room to learn and to grow. This is coming from someone who’s writing blog posts on how to run your writing career. I still have a lot to learn. Being humble and polite will get you a lot farther than stuffy and full of yourself, and people will actually enjoy working with you.

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Do you have a burning question for Helen? Feel free to email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Take Some Time To Write Your Book

            My first book took me five years. By the time I had gotten it published it had eaten a quarter of my life. I still can’t picture my life without writing. Some of my absolute favorite indie books (meaning they’re not mainstream) took ten or more years to find their publishing house. They’re the kind of books I’ve mutilated with dog ears, and sticky tabs, and then rather than lending them out to my friends I buy them copies for Christmas.

            As a reader, you can tell when an author just blew through the making of a book just to add another to their list of publications. I’ve even seen best sellers do it. I’ll pick on one of my favorite series, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. The first book was amazing. I loved it! I lent it out to all of my friends and then my buddy and I, being the broke 20-somethings we were, started trading off buying the books in the series. I don’t think reading past the third book is worth it. I watched my favorite series slowly deteriorate into a pile of nothing-really-interesting-is-happening-but-hey-we-got-600-pages-of-it. When that happens in a series I love I blame a combination of pressure from fans, pressure from the publishing houses, and most of all, a lack of time to deliver.

            I have one simple rule with writing: It needs to at least age overnight before I set it free to the public. Even these blog posts! Way back in Elementary school, our teacher Mrs. Felton, had us write short stories. One day, when we went to edit, I remember her saying “Now look at these stories with fresh eyes… My teacher always told us that. I always wondered, ‘What does it mean? You want me to get some visine?’” She blinked her eyes twice for dramatic affect to make us laugh. “No! No it does not! It means read your own story like you’ve never see your own story before!”

            Of course a chorus of “Who wrote this pile of malarkey?” rang out from her students as they made fun of themselves.

            To help myself see my own work with fresh eyes I let it sit at least overnight. If I didn’t sleep then it’s 24 hours!

            As for novels, I personally cannot write one of those in an hour or two. I write the first draft by hand because notebooks are easy to carry, worthless if stolen, have no distractions, and are all around less cumbersome. After I finish one I spend some time in that odd in-between. No works in progress, and no editing. (It feels wrong!) The first round of editing is typing it up on a computer. Then over the course of a few months I edit it, and edit it, and edit it. My coffee table is the chest that holds various editions of my manuscripts. It kind of makes home home to a writer.

            Once upon a time my career goals were one book, per year, until I die. Much to my displeasure it’s been three years since I published my first and last book. I’m still trying to find the right publisher! I’ve had a few offers but I didn’t take them. Instead of hitting the shelves my manuscript, Tales from the Gishlan Wood has found its way into the hands of a capable editor. I’m always excited to have someone with better English skills than I have to look over my work! By the time it’s finished going through the ringer I’m sure it will be the best version of itself it possibly can be!

            So take some time to write your book! Enjoy making it! Edit it until you can’t stand it! Pass it around to your friends who would edit it for you in exchange for lunch! Don’t just throw it out there to say you threw it out there. Make sure your book is the best version of your book it possibly can be.

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Do you have a burning question for Helen? Feel free to email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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