Writing: Mastering the Balance

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I received an e-mail the other day asking about how an author can balance having a voice, giving her novel a tone, and allowing her characters to have separate personalities. I’m pretty sure I read the question at least half a dozen times before I had any semblance of an answer.

Balance is one of those things in writing that takes a while to really get down—I’m still working on fine-tuning the balance in my writing myself. Our prose should have voice—but not so much that it drowns out our characters. We need to include detail—but don’t want to bombard our readers with too much. We need a good plot—but a well-formed plot means nothing if our characters are flat.


I don’t know about you guys, but my first drafts are rarely balanced. Thinking back to the first draft of my current WIP, I had a lot of plot and action and barely any voice. My love-interest was as cardboard as it gets and my antagonist… well he had potential, but some of his dialogue was embarrassing in retrospect and his motivations were shaky, at best.

Finding balance the first time around in your writing is really hard, and I don’t think most of us get it right immediately. And that’s ok.

Balance doesn’t often flow naturally—it takes some tweaking. Think about anything you’ve ever done that required balance—balancing a soda can on its edge, for example. Chances are, unless you have some ridiculous ninja-like balancing skills, you didn’t just set the can on its edge and walk away—you held onto it and tweaked it until it felt like it might stay, then you let go.

Writing is the same way. Nine out of ten times, the first thing you throw onto paper isn’t going to be perfectly balanced. It’ll take revisions—a round where you focus on getting the voice right, a round where you get the details pitch perfect, another where you focus on dialogue and so on and so forth. In my experience, anyway, balance doesn’t come right away—you tweak your manuscript in every which way until— aha!— you get it right.

It’s not an easy thing to master, but no one ever said writing was easy.

Have you had trouble finding balance in your WIP? Tell us your experience!

Do You Really Know Your Characters?

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So I posted the other day about inner beauty versus outer beauty and it got me thinking: if every one of your characters looked and sounded exactly the same, would you be able to tell them apart?

This could be a really good test of characterization. In a hypothetical world where we are all copies, how would you tell your character apart from everyone else? Does he shuffle instead of walking? Does he keep his eyes low and shoulders hunched or is he brimming with confidence? What about the way he talks? Does he curse a lot? Does he stutter? Does he speak in short, abrupt sentences or long, eloquent phrases?

Since I’ve been rather philosophical and haven’t posted any exercises in a while, try this one:

Take two of your characters and pretend they looked and sounded exactly the same. Ask yourself how you would tell them apart and write down every difference you can think of. The way they hold themselves, the way they walk, they way they talk, how they would react to different situations—anything goes. If you have trouble differentiating between the two, you might need to work on a little more characterization.

Since I love The Hunger Games, I’ll use two of the main characters as an example:

Makes unwavering eye contact
Stands with her shoulders back
Walks with her chin up
Blunt—doesn’t really care about eloquence
Fiery temper
Makes eye contact, then looks away
Slouches slightly
Soft-spoken, has a way with words

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

So lets see it, guys—how would you tell your characters apart? 

Are Your Characters Beautiful?

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Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like half of novels out there with any type of romance have a subplot that goes like this:

In a world, where a beautiful woman falls in love with a Greek-God-of-a-man, the future for their offspring looks freaking gorgeous.

You’d think the whole world was made up of Bradgelinas in these books.

I’ll admit I’m guilty of having physically attractive protagonists and love interests—which isn’t a bad thing (to a point). Readers like to imagine gorgeous protagonists just as much as writers like to write them—it just becomes noticeable when either a) everyone in your book is gorgeous or b) everyone good in your book is gorgeous and all of the bad guys (or less important people) are meh.

Let me clarify—I’m not saying you’re doing something wrong if your book falls into either one of those categories (I’ll readily admit more than a few of my WIPs certainly do), it’s just something I’ve started to think about lately and I’m going to address it in my future WIPs.

Because it turns out, just like in real life, what makes a character beautiful isn’t always a symmetrical face or toned body—it’s their personalities, their actions that make the readers fall in love with them.

What I find especially interesting is that books with characters that aren’t described as gorgeous often end up with readers who fall in love with them anyway and think the characters are hot. (Beth Revis talked about this in a very interesting blog post you should all check out).

Why does that happen?

Books allow us to do something that movies don’t—while movies show us what everyone looks like and paint a picture that we can’t ignore, books allow us to create our own images. Maybe the future love interest isn’t gorgeous…but as he does things that show his inner beauty, readers start to amend their mental image of him (or her, for that matter). A character that started off as ok physically, may end up looking straight-out beautiful by the end of the book in a reader’s mind.

Inner beauty trumps a less-than-perfect physical description.

I’m not saying you should stop writing beautiful characters—I just think we need to consider more about what makes a character beautiful. What does that word “beauty” mean anyway? I don’t think it always has to apply to something physical, in fact, I think it’s even more powerful when it doesn’t.

We live in a world where physical beauty is coveted—but to create a world in our books where there are no imperfections is unrealistic and shallow. Most of us agree, I think, that inner beauty is the more important of the two, so why not show our readers that it’s possible to fall in love with someone who isn’t physically perfect?

That kind of love story may be the greatest of them all.

So that’s my opinion, but what do you think? Am I underplaying the importance of physical beauty, or does inner beauty really trump all?  

On Underestimating Your Readers

I thought I knew about this rule, but it was really only recently that I fully grasped it.

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You see, I’m a little obsessed with eyes (turns out, much of the female population is—go figure). In my art, for example, if I don’t like the way the eyes turn out, chances are I’ll dump the whole thing. I didn’t think this obsession translated into my writing until someone pointed out to me that my very male, very distressed protagonist probably wasn’t going to be noticing everyone’s eye color in the opening scene. A quick scan through my manuscript showed that I’d mentioned pretty much everyone’s eye color—including minor show-up-once characters.


Turns out, that pretty much applied to hair color too. Apparently my knee-jerk descriptions rely on the two.

As the author of our stories, we know what everyone looks like. We have a mental image of every character, every face, and our instinct is to try to paint in our readers the exact same image as the one in our minds.

Yeah, not gonna happen—nor should it.

We all have imaginations—and that includes our readers. Even if you go through the trouble of describing the way your love interest’s blonde hair never looks neat and the tint of his brown eyes and how he’s just shy of six foot and athletic and loves Levi jeans and Etnies and wears the same blue t-shirt every day, your readers will each have a different mental image of your character.

So if they’re going to imagine their own version anyway, should you really take the time to describe every character in every scene down to hair and eye color?

The short answer is no.

Guess what? Readers don’t want to know about every detail—they want to know the important details. Don’t tell us your character has black hair, blue eyes, stands at 5’9” and has a runner’s body—tell us about his crooked smile and the dimple on his cheek and the way his eyes completely pass you up when he walks past you. That’s much more powerful—agreed?

Truth is, if you leave out that your love interest’s dark hair is actually dark brown (not black) like Veronica Roth did, your readers aren’t going to feel cheated, nor will they be unable to picture your character. Whatever you don’t tell them, they’ll fill in for themselves.

It seems that sometimes we forget that readers have imaginations, too. Don’t underestimate them—they can fill in the blanks.

Leave out the general details and strive for the specific, important ones and your readers will love you for it. 

Do your favorite descriptions fully describe the character or setting, or do they choose specific details?

A Guaranteed Way to Fail

“I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”—Bill Cosby
Most of us like to make people happy. We want to be liked and accepted and when it comes to our writing, we want people to enjoy it. As many people as possible—ideally, everyone.

I mean really, how great would it be if everyone loved your writing?

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Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Truth be told, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like your style, or your characters, or your pacing or sentence structure or the way you throw virtual confetti around like it’s nobody’s business.

You can’t please everyone—there will always be bad reviews or people who unsubscribe to your blog or a stack of rejection letters.  That’s just the way the world works and it’s not a bad thing. Let’s face it—the world would be a boring place if everyone liked the same thing.

So what’s my point?

If you try to please everyone, you will fail. I usually say there are exceptions, but there really aren’t any here. You can’t please everyone, period.

It doesn’t matter if everyone else likes your work, what matters is that you are happy with it. Are you proud of your writing? Do you love your characters, your story? If the answer is no, then it probably needs more work.

If the answer is yes, then don’t worry about everyone else. Write until you know you’ve done your best and you smile when you read the words you put on the page. That’s when you know you’ve succeeded.

And chances are someone else will like it too.

Have you ever fallen victim to trying to please everyone? 

Writing--What's Your Favorite Part?

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We all know writing isn't an easy thing—finding the time, getting ideas, discovering voice, editing and rewriting and editing and rewriting again—it’s a lot of work, and quite frankly, sometimes it’s frustrating.

But what about the moments that make it all worth it? I don’t think we talk enough about them.  

So, let’s talk: what’s your favorite part of writing?

For me, there are two parts that I can’t get enough of:

  1. The discovery—the moment when a character comes alive—really comes to life for the first time on the page—when they do something unexpected or say something that makes you grin every time you read over it, that moment when you can say, “Wow, I really found you.” Discovery can be in the characters, in a world you’ve created that finally clicks, in that plot point that you’ve needed for days that suddenly hits you…the discovery is easily one of my favorite parts of writing.

  2. Wow…I wrote this?—This part I suppose is more of my favorite part of rewriting, since it tends to come up much more often after a bajillion drafts, but when you read over something for the umpteenth time and it hits you that it’s right, that it sounds finished, that you wrote it…that’s something really special.

Let’s take a moment to focus on the parts that make everything worth it. Tell me guys, what’s your favorite part of writing? 

Time is on Your Side

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At the beginning of my writing career, I was racing against the clock.

I read about authors like Christopher Paolini who wrote the first draft of Eragon when he was 15 and had it published traditionally five years later at the age of 20. I devoured books and read so-called “instant” best-sellers and wondered what they were doing that I wasn't.

I worried that I was taking too long.

It wasn’t until much later, after rounds of rejections and trunking novel after novel that I realized that time wasn’t working against me—it was working for me.

The fact of the matter is it takes time to hone your craft. It takes years of practice and writing and reading and getting feedback and writing and reading until your skill level matches your passion. Stop running and take the time to enjoy the ride.

Don’t rush the writing—the process of discovery, of improving, of falling in love with your characters and the world you’ve created is beautiful. Take the time to marvel at what you’ve created.

Don’t rush the editing—as they say, writing is rewriting and there is just as much to be learned from the editing as there is from the writing.

Don’t rush the submissions—take the time to make sure your book is the best that it can be before you send it out. Research agents and guidelines and take the time to personalize your queries—it makes a difference.

Don’t rush the publication—I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: please don’t publish for the sake of publishing. Go indie if you think it’s the right choice for you, but don’t slap your book up on Amazon just because you can.

Slow down and remember that time is on your side—the more time you take to improve your craft, the better prepared you’ll be when your time to shine comes.

Have you ever been tempted to rush through part of the process? Share you experience in the comments! 

When Your Novel Isn't the One

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There comes a time in every writer’s journey, where you have to accept that the book you just wrote isn't ready—and may never be.

Sometimes you know right away, so it’s not quite as difficult to put it away, but sometimes the realization doesn’t come until months of writing and editing and rewriting and submissions. And it’s hard. It’s hard having to accept that maybe this book you’ve spent so much time on, this book with characters you love and a plot you thought could actually work is in fact not working.

It happens to everyone, guys. And it’s ok.

I know I’ve mentioned this before in my post about why gatekeepers aren't evil, but I want to talk about the writer side of it. I want to tell you that I know it’s not easy to shelf a novel, but it doesn’t make you a bad writer. It doesn’t mean you’ll never write the one.

It just means you need more practice.

Don’t be discouraged if the book you thought would be the one, isn’t the one after all. Don’t give up just because you’ve written two or three (or however many) novels and you had to shelf them all.

And please don’t self-publish just to avoid putting your book in the trunk. That is absolutely not the reason to self-publish and you’ll be glad you didn’t later. 

The fact of the matter is, at first anyway, your passion will not be equal to your skill. Your story might be great, your characters might even be fantastic, but your skill level won’t be there yet and that’s ok. These things take time and practice and practice and more practice.

And eventually, as long as you keep pushing, you will write the one. And it’ll be amazing—the best thing you’ve ever written—not perfect, but really good and you’ll feel it and you’ll know that the time is right. You’ve paid your dues.

The point isn’t how long it takes you to get there or how many books you write before the one is born—the point is that you keep going until you reach it. The point is that you accept every book you write brings you one book closer to the one.

Then, once your skill level is equal to your passion, you might find that you’re ready to go back and salvage the good from those stepping stone novels. You never know—with a little extra work, they might be the next one after all.

Have you ever had to shelf a novel? Are you glad you moved on? Tell me about it in the comments! 

Book Review: Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Picture credit: Mine!

So I’m going to change the way I do book reviews.

Turns out, at least this year, my choices of what to read have been pretty stupendous, because ever since I’ve started writing reviews I’ve read books that I thought deserved five stars. Call me soft or just really good at choosing good books, but it doesn’t help you guys if I rate every book the same way.

So! Rather than rating every book on a number of stars, I’m just going to tell you guys what I did and didn’t like about it and whether or not I recommend it. Fair? I thought so. To sweeten the pot, if you still want a numeric rating, you can friend me on Goodreads, where I will still be handing out the sparkly golden stars.

Onto the review!

I’ll start off by saying that I don’t normally read sci-fi, so if you’re not a hard-core sci-fi lover, don’t give up on this one yet—in fact, Across the Universe is the first sci-fi-ish book I’ve read in years.

So if I don’t read sci-fi, why did I pick up this book? Truth be told, the cover had a lot to do with it—it caught my eye on the shelf and I picked it up and liked the summary, and the first chapter. Not only that, but I read Beth Revis’ blog and she seemed like a pretty cool author. Plus she interacts on both Twitter and tumblr which is a pretty nice bonus if you ask me.

So what’s the book about, you ask?

From Goodreads:

“Seventeen-year-old Amy joins her parents as frozen cargo aboard the vast spaceship Godspeed and expects to awaken on a new planet, three hundred years in the future. Never could she have known that her frozen slumber would come to an end fifty years too soon and that she would be thrust into the brave new world of a spaceship that lives by its own rules.

Amy quickly realizes that her awakening was no mere computer malfunction. Someone - one of the few thousand inhabitants of the spaceship - tried to kill her. And if Amy doesn't do something soon, her parents will be next.

Now, Amy must race to unlock Godspeed's hidden secrets. But out of her list of murder suspects, there's only one who matters: Elder, the future leader of the ship and the love she could never have seen coming.”

I really enjoyed this book. I was worried that it might be too spacey for my tastes (since, as I said, I don’t often read sci-fi), but Across the Universe had me hooked. There’s a murder mystery, romance that isn’t overdone (which, I have to say, is pretty refreshing) and some memorable characters. The only thing that bothered me was the dual-POV—the book is told both from Amy and Elder’s alternating first person POV, which was a little difficult to adjust to at first, but I actually enjoyed it later on. In fact, the dual POV really made the ending particularly fantastic stylistically, in my opinion.

Oh, and have I mentioned the twists? There aren’t many books that have surprised me like Across the Universe did, and I can count on one hand how many book surprised me more than once (Across the Universe, of course, being one of them).

Mystery. Romance. Twists. I highly recommend this one. It’s a great read and I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel.

So I’ve got to ask—what are you guys reading right now? 

Your Greatest Asset is You

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The blogosphere is overloaded with advice about how to write--whether it's blogging, writing a novel, poetry or screenplays, if you Google it, you'll find it. And advice is great--sometimes we need tips to help us get over certain obstacles, whether it's character development or voice or growing your blog.

But sometimes we get too caught up in the small stuff. Because yes, it's true that you need to work to improve your craft and yes, writing tips are absolutely useful when you're working to improve your writing, but guys, your greatest asset isn't in sentence structure or paragraph length or even your ability to drive traffic to your blog--it's you.

You are unique. No one sees the world the way you do. No one can think or dream or write the same way you do. And that's what makes you special. That's what makes you you

You're not always going to have original content, and that's ok. Truth be told, everything under the sun has been done in one way or another. But your worldview, your personality infused into your writing is what makes it memorable. 

Only you can match the perfect cadence of your words. Only you can write the way you do and that is what will draw readers to you. The other stuff is important, yes, but this one thing you must remember.  

You are your greatest asset--never forget it.

Guest Post: How to Make Any Good Blog Great

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So! I'm really excited because my guest post on ProBlogger is now officially live. Amazing, right? It's pretty amazing.

I wrote about how to make any good blog great, so if you blog, or are thinking about blogging, or just want to see how cool it is to have a blog post up on ProBlogger, you should check it out.

Also, I used this picture of pretty lights to let you know how excited I am.

Have a great weekend!

Do What You Love

“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for work, as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” –Steve Jobs
After Apple’s announcement Wednesday night, I watched Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address, and it really struck a chord. If you haven’t taken the fifteen minutes to watch it yet, I highly recommend it—it’s inspirational.

That being said, one of the (many) things that stuck out to me was the quote I gave to you guys above. You’ve got to find what you love.

Life is short and every day is a gift. You only have one life to live, so why not spend it doing something that you love?If you’re not passionate about your work, maybe you should be doing something else. Maybe you should consider making a change and doing that thing that you really want to do.

I remember when I was in high school and I would ask my peers what they wanted to do and I’d get answers like “I want to be a doctor” or “I want to be a lawyer”—and that was great for some of them. Some of them really loved the medical field and were fascinated with law and that’s fantastic.

But some of them were motivated by money, or just going along the path their well-intentioned parents pushed them onto. They worked hard to get the grades and went to ivy league schools to study a profession that could make them money not because it was what they wanted to do, not because they loved it, but because it was what was expected of them.

It’s hardly an uncommon story and looking back, I wish I had said something. Because guys, money means nothing if you’re not happy. And all those expectations from your friends, your family, they’re real and it’s hard to disappoint them, but sometimes they don’t line up with your dreams. Sometimes they don’t line up with who you are. And sometimes when that happens you need to take a stand and do what makes you happy.

And no, they may not understand you. They may think you foolish for stepping off the secure path to do that risky thing that you really enjoy doing.

But in the end it comes down to you. Your happiness. Your life.

I leave you with another gem from Mr. Jobs:

“…for the past 33 years, I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”  

And the video, in case you haven’t watched the address yet:

Are you doing what you love? 

What is Success to You?

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It’s no secret that a war is waging over the impossible question of which is better: indie or traditional publishing?

After laying out the pros and cons, I still didn’t really give you guys a straight answer about where I stand, and the truth is, it’s because I don’t have a stance. Not the kind that backs one side, anyway.

Hear me out. It’s not that I’m indecisive (ok, maybe it’s a little that) or that I’m dodging the question (although I’m good at that, too), it’s that I truly don’t believe that a one-size-fits-all answer exists.

So now you’re wondering what in the sugary, confetti-laden blazes this has to do with the title, and the answer is everything.  

I want you to stop and think for a moment about how you define success. Maybe success to you is just to be read. To get your work out there in the hands of some readers and see where it goes. Maybe you don’t care about having an agent or speaking at book conventions or having author signings or any of that. If that’s the case, then going indie might be right for you.

Or maybe success to you is walking into a bookstore and seeing your book on the shelves. Being able to hold a copy in your hands or see others reading your book out in public. If that’s the case, then maybe you want to go traditional.

Maybe your version of success something else entirely—maybe it’s when you make x-amount of dollars or sell x-amount of copies or write x-amount of books. Maybe success to you is having an agent or a publishing contract or going out and doing it alone and knowing that you’ve achieved something incredible on your own.

My point is that it’s different for everyone, so whatever decision you make should be based on your vision of success. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says or thinks, it’s your responsibility to decide what’s best for you.

But how can you tell? Well first, answer the question: What is your version of success?

Have an idea? Good.  Now ask yourself: How can I get there? The answer may not be clear, but eventually one (or a combination of the two) will emerge. Eventually you will know what you want to do—what is best for you, and that’s when you can act.

Instead of arguing over who has a better publishing model, we need to support each other and realize that the right answer for you isn’t necessarily the right answer for everyone else. In the end, what does it matter which side you choose? We’re all writers with different ideas of success and the petty fighting needs to end.

So let’s hear it, guys: what is success to you? 

Why Gatekeepers Aren't Evil

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Not every book you write is meant to get published. I know it sounds harsh, but the hard truth is that not every book you put your heart and soul into is destined for the limelight.

And that’s ok.

It doesn’t sound like a good thing and it’s far from encouraging, but guys, this is why gatekeepers are a good thing.

Because when you’re writing—whether it’s your first novel or your fifth—it feels like the one. The book that’s going to break out and be a success. The one that people will talk about—the one that will finally get published. But the truth is, although every book feels like the one, not every novel will live up to that expectation.

No one is born ready to write fantastic books. It takes time to learn your craft, to figure out what works in a novel and what doesn’t, to discover how to write a voice different from your own, how to pace, write great dialogue and edit. Those things don’t come naturally. It takes hard work and practice and practice and more practice.

But how do you practice? You write. You go through the months or years or however long it takes to write a novel and create characters who haunt your every thought and build a world you’ll never forget because it’s a part of you. You write and you rewrite and you dream and when you finish you celebrate because you’ve done something incredible—you’ve created a story that is uniquely you. A story that only you could have written.

And that’s amazing. You’re amazing.

But that first novel you write? It’s not always going to be ready. And maybe neither will your second, or your third or fourth or sixth. And maybe it will, but that’s not the point—the point is that you practice and you keep going and you write even after you realize the time has come to put down that WIP and start again.

And it’s hard. It’s hard to shelf a manuscript you put months—even years—of your life into. It’s hard to put it away and give up on those dreams of seeing it flourish. But it’s necessary. It’s part of the process. It brings you one step closer to writing the one, the real one that will be ready for the spotlight.
But until then, we need gatekeepers.

Guys, I’m glad self-publishing wasn’t around the way it is today five years ago. Frankly, I’m relieved. Because the novels that I wrote then—they felt like the one. And I loved them—I still do—but I loved them so much I might have uploaded them long before they were ready.

Because honestly, they weren’t ready. I wasn’t ready. I thought I was ready—I convinced myself that my books were ready—but looking back at them now I can clearly see that I had a long way to go. And the only thing that stopped me from releasing them way before it’s time were gatekeepers. You know, agents.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying if you can’t find an agent for your work it’s definitely not ready. There are countless books out there that were rejected time and time again only to go on and become a bestseller. I get that. Agents can’t tell the future, and they aren’t always right.

But sometimes they are. Sometimes those rejection letters are really a blessing in disguise—sometimes they stop you from launching before you’ve had the time to really develop your craft.

Things are different now. We don’t need to use the gatekeepers like we did. We have the option to self-publish whenever we want and for some of us, it’s the right thing to do. But it’s not right for everyone, because not everyone is ready.

Don’t publish your book just because you can. Publish it because you’ve really thought about it, because you’ve lost count of how many times you’ve rewritten it and you’ve had others look at it, then you rewrote it again, then you gave it some time and when you came back to it, it still felt ready. Publishing should never be a spur-of-the-moment decision. Never.

Because sometimes we need the gatekeepers. Sometimes we need someone to tell us to hold off, to say you’re not quite there yet, keep going.

And as long as you keep going, as long as you don’t give up, I promise you the one will come. Then you’ll be glad you waited as long as you did.

So those are my thoughts. What do you think—are gatekeepers evil?  
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