Novel Exercise: Making Extreme Options Reasonable

Credit Sajan Mullappally/flickr

Credit Sajan Mullappally/flickr

If you’re writing a novel, one of the easiest ways to send your character on a worthwhile journey is to eliminate possible solutions to your protagonist’s problem until the only one that remains is the riskiest, most dangerous, or most extreme.

If your reader watches your protagonist fail to solve the problem with the easy, common-sense solutions before resorting to extreme measures, it’s more likely that the reader will identify with that protagonist. That feeling of identification goes a long way toward making the reader want to keep reading.

Recently, in one part of a three-part book-length narrative planning workshop in Burlington, I used the following episode of This American Life to illuminate the concept of eliminating the “simple” options.

In the first story in this hour-long radio show, a young couple is sailing across the Pacific Ocean in their houseboat. (If you have 20 minutes, listen to the story. It’s worth it.) This houseboat is their only home. While they’re on this journey, their baby becomes sick. To solve this problem, they have a range of options:

  1. Treat the baby while they’re at sea.
  2. Keep sailing until they reach a country with a good hospital system.
  3. Push a button on a device that will call in help but force them to sink their boat.

Spoiler alert: Number three is a life-changer, and the one they eventually chose. But they had to try the first two and fail at those before option three could be reasonable. (Imagine sinking the boat first! Insanity!)

In short, here’s what happened: The baby had some kind of ear infection and wasn’t responding to treatment. The baby’s illness was so upsetting that they didn’t feel it was wise to wait until they found a decent hospital. The boat sustained some damage, making the luxury of extended travel more risky. And their radio had died. They agonized, but ultimately decided that option three was the best one available.

If your characters make irrevocable choices with huge consequences, you may have a good story on your hands. This couple’s choice left them homeless, which was the consequence they anticipated. What they didn’t anticipate was that, back in the United States, the media had labeled them “bad parents” because they’d brought the baby out to sea (which, as host Ira Glass points out, is not unusual for people who live in houseboats). It’s hard not to sympathize with them. They had some bad luck, did what any reasonable person in their situation would have done, and faced miserable consequences.

As I listened to this piece, I kept wondering what a novelized version of this would look like. Their struggle to make the outside world understand what they had gone through—and perhaps how their relationship survives the stress of being homeless and persecuted by a judgmental world—would serve as the basis of such a novel.

In this workshop, I advised my fellow writers to try and figure out the “simple” steps toward solving the problem facing their protagonist. What’s the problem? What are the reasonable steps that ultimately fail? What extreme measure did they choose, and what are the consequences of that measure?

Granted, there a million ways to write novels, and this exercise won’t apply to all (or perhaps even most) novels. But it’s worth trying out to see if it works for you. While some writers shun any kind of planning (“It ruins my creativity!”), I argue that it’s worth putting careful thought into this essential part of your story before you start writing it. Identifying the problem and the steps your protagonist would have to take isn’t going to sap your creativity. It’s going to save you time, and if you’re like me—a person with a 40-50 hour-a-week job—you’re going to need to make every precious hour count.

BWW Member Fiction Published in Seven Days

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Author Michael Freed-Thall

Burlington Writers Workshop member Michael Freed-Thall’s piece, “Fort Stockton Blues,” appears in Seven Days this week. Many workshop members will remember earlier versions of this story, in which the main characters were male. Michael worked hard to get this story right, and as you can see, he nailed it.

Congratulations to Michael for a job well done!

 

The BWW on Vermont Public Radio

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Peter Biello at a BWW meeting on Wednesday, November 20, 2013. Credit: Colleen McLaughlin

Last week, VPR’s All Things Considered host Neal Charnoff stopped me as I was finishing up some work in one of VPR’s recording studios.

“VPR is probably the only news organization that hasn’t covered the Burlington Writers Workshop,” he said, and then he invited me to chat with him for his “Weekly Conversation on the Arts.” Listen to it here.

VPR is my job and I love it, and because I maintain a firm firewall between VPR and BWW, I had never pitched our Best of anthology or attempted to win any kind of free promotion. The fact that VPR has chosen to speak to me about this is an indication that what we’re doing is (1) newsworthy and (2) relevant to the whole state.

If you’re not from the Burlington area and would like to develop resources for a similar workshop in your city, contact me. I’m in the planning stages of building a statewide network of writing workshops, all of which would share the mission of the BWW: to provide free opportunities for writers to find and provide feedback to each other.

Publishing Your Work: Debrief and Podcast

From Left to Right: Peter Biello, Jon Clinch, Dede Cummings, Jessica Swift Eldridge, and Jan Elizabeth Watson.

From Left to Right: Peter Biello, Jon Clinch, Dede Cummings, Jessica Swift Eldridge, and Jan Elizabeth Watson.

Last Saturday’s panel discussion on publishing was a huge success. Authors Jon Clinch and Jan Elizabeth Watson, agent and publisher Dede Cummings, and editor Jessica Swift Eldridge gave fantastic advice to writers.

“I’ve attended others like this through my MFA program and at the AWP conference, but the one on Saturday was by far the best,” said Annemarie Lavalette, who studies at Goddard.

“Excellent choice of panelists,” said Cardy Raper. “I found my head nodding at much of which they had to say.”

In the podcast, you’ll hear every word that caused such head-nodding. Each panelist shared the story of her/his journey to publication, or the stories of some clients. You’ll also hear some helpful nuggets of information on finding, keeping, and firing agents; what not to say when querying publishers; and why you absolutely must keep trying to get your work out there.

Here’s the podcast for your listening pleasure.

You may also want to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes. Just open iTunes and search for “Burlington Writers Workshop.”

We had more questions than we could answer in a reasonable amount of time. Fortunately the panelists agreed to respond to all your questions, so I’ll send them questions soon and post their responses when they’re all available.

Thanks to VPR for providing space for this and Hotel Vermont for providing some rooms for folks traveling from far away.

We’re also taking suggestions on what our next panel discussion should cover. What’s your idea? Send it to us here.

Naming the Disease: A Conversation with Jim Gamble

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Burlington writer Jim Gamble at a Burlington Writers Workshop meeting in November 2013.

Let’s say you’re a fiction writer and your protagonist has a disease. How do you make sure your character is more than just a collection of symptoms? That’s the problem BWW writer Jim Gamble encountered as he wrote “Good Boy,” a story he’s had workshopped a few times.

Jim and I sat down to talk about creating a well-rounded, three-dimensional, believable character who is, to some extent, defined by his disability.

Listen to this episode.

Note: The Burlington Writers Workshop podcast is now on iTunes, so pop open iTunes on whatever device you may use, search for “Burlington Writers Workshop,” and you’ll find craft conversations and a recording of our reading in Essex last July. Enjoy!

More Guidelines for Good Workshop Discussions

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BWW writer Colleen McLaughlin (center) offers some wise advice to Paul Hobday (right).

A few months ago, I posted six guidelines for workshop discussions. Folks suggested more, which I think are worth mentioning here.

7.   Assume the writer meant every word. Writers are expected to make a piece as good as it can possibly be before workshop members read it. It’s not helpful to say, “I’m not sure the writer meant to do this, but…” The writer did it. It’s our job to explain what the writer did, not what we think the writer meant to do. The writer knows what s/he attempted to do and will correct later if corrections are needed.

8.   For nonfiction, treat the main character as a constructed character.  The character on the page is different from the one sitting in the room with us, even if this is “nonfiction” and therefore to a certain degree truthful in the literal sense. We should avoid using the word “you” (we shouldn’t be addressing the writer during discussions anyway; see Guideline #1). According to the person who commented on my original post, following this rule will help “keep the discussion focused on the narrator character on the page and not the personal life of the writer sitting across the table.” Well said!

9.   For fiction, never assume the writer is writing about her/his self. Just don’t go there. It’s irrelevant, anyway.

10.  Avoid tangents. It’s fine to bring up personal experience when it relates to something happening in a story, but it’s not helpful to launch into a long story.

I have a feeling that this list will continue to grow, so please do leave your comments and help us continue to improve our discussions.

How to Become a Young Writers Project Mentor

Some of you have asked for more information about how to be a mentor for kids and young adults involved with the Young Writers Project. Here’s a quick Q&A.

What does being a mentor involve?
All you have to do is sign up at youngwritersproject.org and wait for YWP staff to approve your account (see below for instructions). When that’s ready, start reading what kids have written and writing respectful, thoughtful responses in the section reserved for comments. That’s it. You can do this once a week, or once a month, or however many times you want to. I recommend once a week, but it’s really up to you.

Why do this?
These kids are smart. They need to be challenged by smart adults, including people who aren’t their parents or teachers. You’re a smart adult, so they need you. Like you, they want to improve their craft. They want to know what you think about what they’ve written. Nurture a kid’s talent now and you may enjoy her books someday.

What if I can’t find anything good to say about someone’s writing?
Then you aren’t looking closely enough. There’s always something good to be found. Start your comments the same way we start them in our BWW workshops: describe what works well and then, gently and respectfully, move onto what works less well.

How long should my response be?
A paragraph or two is sufficient. When I write these comments, I focus on one thing that works well and one thing that doesn’t. Too many comments can be overwhelming. One or two will really resonate.

I’m sold. How do I create an account?
Go to youngwritersproject.org and click on “LOGIN/REGISTER” (the green tab all the way to the right). Then you’ll see this screen. Click on “request invitation.”

ywp explainer 1

Once you’ve clicked on that, you’ll be taken to the screen pictured below. You’ve seen these before. Fill out the information. Where it says “school,” fill in “Burlington Writers Workshop.” We’re not a school, but this will indicate to the YWP staff that you came to YWP through the BWW.

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Once you’re done, click through the captcha and push the “Request Invitation” button. You’ll receive a confirmation email from Geoff Gevalt and they’ll review your information. When it’s confirmed, you’ll be ready to start mentoring some young writers.

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Vermont is consistently ranked among the best states in the country to raise kids. The Young Writers Project, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why. When you participate by becoming a mentor, you’re making our state an even better place to live, and the young writers will certainly be grateful.

Contact Geoff Gevalt (ggevalt [at] youngwritersproject [dot] org for more information.

We Have A Font!

Janson FontThe people have spoken, and the choice is clear: you want Janson.

With 14 votes, Janson beat Linux Libertine (12 votes) and High Tower (8 votes). Janson has a nice literary look to it. It’s more elegant than Times New Roman yet just as readable.

Janson’s also tighter than Book Antiqua, the font we used last year. I went back to the Adobe InDesign document from the 2013 anthology and applied Janson to all the stories, essays, and poems. This small change alone yielded eight black pages.

This font, with the addition of 16 extra pages, will allow the editors to select more deserving pieces of literature you’ve created in 2013. It’ll also allow us to accept more long pieces, which are often hard to publish because they require so much real estate in literary journals.

More space does not mean it’ll be easier to place a story or poem in the next book. The growth of the Burlington Writers Workshop means more people are eligible to submit. I’ve already received several submissions, so competition will be fierce, and we won’t publish things just to fill space. We could, for example:

  • Include longer author biographies and possibly include photos (not my preference, but certainly possible).
  • Ask authors to write something about what inspired them (as authors in the Best American series do).
  • Save more space for a long introduction.
  • Bring the book back down to 128 pages.

I doubt we’ll have to scale back down from 144, since we’re also adding photography/artwork. We will have to turn away good pieces of art. I’m looking forward to seeing what you will submit and which pieces the editors will choose.

The deadline for submissions is December 1, 2013. Send your work to: submissions@burlingtonwritersworkshop.com

Erika Nichols on Poetry, Prose, and Editing the Anthology

EN-launch-2Erika Nichols of Burlington has written and studied poetry for many years. Whenever a poem comes up for discussion in our workshops, she has something intelligent and helpful to say about it.

She’s also attended more meetings than any other workshop member (68), so it’s fitting that she is the first guest of what I hope will be a series of BWW podcasts featuring interviews with BWW members.

Erika writes both poetry and prose. “What I love about poetry is I think that you can really focus on the language,” Erika says. “That you don’t necessarily need to develop characters and develop an entire story. You can really just sit with a beautiful image.”

What about prose? Erika says that with prose you can “really expand upon one particular moment or image or scene and really develop that into more.”

A member of the BWW since 2011, Erika says she could never have anticipated what the workshop experience has done for her. “It’s really helped me develop my work and get it to where it is now.”

We also spoke about how she went about editing the poetry submissions for The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013. She gives some insight from an editor’s perspective, which I think you’ll find very encouraging, especially if you’ve been throwing your work out into the world.

Think you’d make a good interview subject? Don’t be shy. Contact me!

Open Letter Books Take Risks, Deliver Huge Rewards

Open Letter Books is publishing some of the best novels I’ve read in years.

While at AWP in Boston in March, I stopped by the Open Letter table, stunned by the most superficial of things: the covers of their books. Simply designed and featuring bold colors, the books seemed unpretentious, focused, and inviting. The way they felt in my hands, with their soft matte covers and crisp pages, made me want to hold them longer. Sappy, I know. But the descriptions of the stories seemed interesting, so I bought four of them. And I’m so glad I did.

Tirza coverTirza by Arnon Grunberg is the story of a man who slowly loses his mind. Jörgen Hofmeester has lost a fortune after the September 11th attacks, and now his daughter, Tirza, is dating a man who looks, to Jorgen, a lot like Mohammad Atta, one of the September 11th hijackers. Jörgen himself is seething, but he’s barely aware of his anger, or any of his feelings, which is why, when he goes crazy and commits a horrible crime, we’re barely aware of it until long after it happens. When I discovered what Jorgen had done, I had to read that passage twice, just to be sure I understood what had just been revealed.

From Tirza, I went to 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. In this novel, the protagonist, Zachary Karabashliev, is struggling to make sense of his life after his wife Stella walks out of it. He drives from the United States to Mexico for some self-destructive debauchery and, through a few strange twists, ends up with a huge bag of marijuana. Somehow he crosses back into the United States with the marijuana and decides to take it to New York City to sell. Along the way, he takes photographs of the people (18% gray is a photography reference).

Eighteen_Percent_Gray-web-194x30018% Gray is useful for writers because it uses what MFA programs typically advise you not to use: flashbacks. This whole novel depends on italicized flashbacks—conversations between Zachary and Stella as he takes pictures of her. As I read these flashbacks, I couldn’t help but remember the advice of a famous author I studied with: “Avoid flashbacks whenever possible.” Apparently it wasn’t possible to avoid them in 18% Gray, and thank goodness Karabashliev didn’t try to write around them, as I often do.

By the way, this novel has a twist at the end, too—but I won’t spoil it for you.

Finally, there’s Scars by Juan José Saer. This novel breaks the mold. It’s so far from the MFA model of storytelling that you may want to read it just to wash the repetitive three act structure out of your brain (although you could argue that this book has three acts, too). The story revolves around an event that we witness only in the fourth and final part of the book: a man shoots his wife in the face with a shotgun. The first part is the story of a young man who lives a troubled life with his mother and witnesses the murderer’s suicide. The second part features an attorney obsessed with baccarat. A judge creates a “superfluous” translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the third part. And then the murderer tells his story in the fourth.

scars_highresScars makes you work as a reader in ways that American novels today do not. I pushed through long passages in which the lawyer explains his baccarat strategy, searching wildly for the gleaming nugget of truth. I struggled to follow the judge as he drives to and from work, coldly describing people as “gorillas.” There is a reward for all this work—the sense that you have vicariously experienced life as another person. What else can you ask of a good novel?

I’ve yet to read the fourth and shortest of the novels I picked up at the Open Letter Books table: A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Did I mention that all these novels are translated from non-English languages? Tirza was written in Dutch; 18% Gray, Bulgarian; Scars, Spanish.

Perhaps I found these novels so refreshing because they came from so far away. These did not feel like American books. These books take risks. As writers, we gain so much by reading writers who remind us that risk-taking is more than just possible. Risk taking is desirable, because the rewards to readers, as these books demonstrate, are enormous.

The BWW Book-Length Narrative Workshop

We’ve come up with a way to workshop a whole book. If you have a novel or memoir and need someone to read the whole thing, you’re going to love this. Here are the details in Q&A form.

What are you doing, exactly? We will read one writer’s book length narrative over the course of three workshops.

How can I participate in these workshops? I’ll open the three workshops up to 10 participants. To ensure continuity, these ten participants must commit to attending all three workshops.

When will these take place? These workshops will be two weeks apart and take place sometime in October and/or November. I’ll schedule them this weekend, so watch your email box and RSVP at meetup.com when the notices arrive.

I want this workshop to discuss my book. How can I make that happen? Please send a synopsis of your book to submissions@burlingtonwritersworkshop.com. Your synopsis should be a one-page description of the events of Acts 1, 2, and 3. Because we can only choose one book, and because I don’t want to make that decision all by myself, the ten participants will decide, based on this synopsis, which book to read.

What’s the deadline to send the synopsis? September 1st

How long must my book be? There is no length limit for this book length narrative. It just needs to be something with the three act structure.

A comprehensive description of the Three-Act Narrative structure, courtesy of Kate Forsyth

A comprehensive description of the Three-Act Narrative structure, courtesy of Kate Forsyth

Does my work have to be neatly carved into three acts? In general, no. Your art takes whatever shape it needs to take. But for this workshop, we need to keep this three act structure firmly in place. If this pilot workshop runs smoothly, we can work with more experimental stuff in the future.

Does my book-length narrative have to be polished? It must be your best effort. We don’t want to waste time pointing out things that you could’ve found on your own, had you put in the effort.

Who is responsible for printing my book for the workshop? The ten participants will decide whether they want a printed copy of your pages. Some may want to read it electronically, but others may want a paper copy, and you’ll be in charge of printing a copy for them. This will require some investment, but the returns will be worth it. Ten people will read your book and provide feedback essentially for free. This is a rare service and worth the cost of printing.

When do I have to post my book or deliver a paper copy? Two weeks before the first meeting. You must post the whole thing.

My whole book has to be finished? Really? Yes. You must have a full draft with a beginning, middle, and end.

Can I at least single-space my manuscript to save paper? No way. Total rookie mistake.

Why are you doing this? We’ve seen lots of pieces of novels and memoirs in the Burlington Writers Workshop, and we’ve found that it’s difficult to talk about the middle sections of longer pieces. This new workshop will allow us to maintain continuity and provide more comprehensive feedback to folks working on longer pieces.

I’m excited that we’re finally branching out into this new territory. Please contact me if you have any questions or suggestions on how we could make this work well.

On the Value of Encouragement

After having my story discussed at the workshop on July 10th, I left the workshop with a stack of copies of my story, each one of them marked with helpful comments. I made it halfway up Church Street before sitting underneath a streetlight and reading what my fellow writers so generously wrote for me.

The consensus: The story needs work. All my stories usually do. But the nice thing about these comments was the balance readers struck between what worked well and what worked less well.

This is a critical point for me, and for other writers in the workshop (I suspect). Now’s the time to decide: Given what people have said, is it worth putting more time into this piece?

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Encouragement helps diminish the “self-loathing” part.

My desire to revise is a function of how good I’m feeling about myself and my abilities as a writer. If I think I’m capable, perhaps even a bit narcissistic, I’m more likely to revise a story until it actually does work. But if I’m stuck in one of my bouts of self-loathing and too busy hating myself for all the mistakes I made in the early drafts, I’d rather just clean my kitchen.

Right now, though, my kitchen’s a mess, and I’m writing.

That’s because I’ve received some very encouraging remarks on this new story. Lots of folks have told me it’s almost ready, it’s entertaining, it should end up in print. You have work to do, they said, but please do it, because the story inside this messy draft is worth cleaning up and sharing with the world.

I’m naturally skeptical of my own abilities—a classic imposter syndrome tendency—but because of the encouragement I’ve received, I feel inspired to revise this one.

For some of us, encouragement is the fuel that compels revisions. When self-doubt is all you have, one kind comment can be enough to keep you going.

I know that if the BWW writers who read my story had picked this apart without bringing up the strong parts, I would have given up on it. After all, if a workshop leads you to believe that what you’ve written is 100% garbage, then why continue? But if the workshop points out the 50% that works really well, then why not cut the half that doesn’t work and keep trying?

At our regular workshops, I make sure we talk about “what works well” before we talk about “what works less well.” When that guideline comes back around to help me, I’m reminded of how important it really is.

Seven Days: “The BWW Has Ballooned, and Published”

Lizzy Fox, performing her poetry on July 10, 2013.

Lizzy Fox, performing her poetry on July 10, 2013.

Seven Days has published a wonderful article about what The Burlington Writers Workshop has been doing. On the night of the interview, reporter Margot Harrison had originally planned to leave before 8 o’clock, but ended up staying beyond that time. If I had to guess why she decided to stay late, I’d say it’s because you’re all so awesome. Who wouldn’t want to stay late and chat with you?

To prepare for the buzz that this article will likely create, I’m launching some new meetings, which you can join for free at meetup.com. I want to make sure that if you want to attend a meeting, you can.

To that end, if you have suggestions on how I should go about scheduling meetings, please let me know: peter@burlingtonwritersworkshop.com. In fact, suggestions on ANYTHING are welcome! This is your workshop, so help me make it work better for you.

I’ve also got an idea for a three-part book-length workshop for folks who have finished manuscripts ready for review. This will probably be in October or November. More on that later.

And finally, one quick update on last night’s reading at the Essex Library. Success! I’ll post the audio and photos in the next few days. Stay tuned, and thank you for your continued dedication to reviewing each other’s work.

Chekhov’s Six Short Story Principles

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Anton Chekhov’s six aspects of fiction make for good revision guidelines.

I’ve been working on short stories lately, and every time I sit down to revise one, I’m reminded of how difficult they are. In my MFA workshops, my short stories were shot so full of holes that revising them seemed pointless. Once a teacher told me, “This story, in my view, can’t be fixed.” When you get a comment like that, you remember it well enough to put it in firm quotes.

Still, even with stories that “can’t be fixed,” I revise for a couple of months, then take my lessons from the failed story and start a newer, better story. Progress on my overall skill level was (and is) like watching an enormous file download very slowly.

In my novel and memoir workshops at UNCW, however, the feedback was much better, which makes me wonder why I’m even trying to write short stories when I should be playing to my strengths.

Because short stories are damned awesome, that’s why. I’ve read quite a few good ones lately and have a few well-reviewed collections on my shortlist now, including Tenth of December by George Saunders and Bobcat by Rebecca Lee (who was on my thesis committee at UNCW).

When I’m wrestling with a new short story, I tend to pick up my copy of Anton Chekhov’s stories (the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation). The stories seem so pure that I can’t help but find myself going back to basics, scanning my own stories once for character, once for plot, once for dialogue, once for setting, etc. But perhaps the most helpful part of this book is the introduction, in which Chekhov’s writing advice is quoted.

According to Chekhov, there are six aspects of a good story: “1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality: flee the stereotype; 6. compassion.”

These are helpful guidelines for revision. Perhaps my favorite of these is the last, “compassion.” That’s because it’s the most complex rule here. It asks us to avoid needlessly heaping pain and suffering on our characters. We can make them suffer, sure, but there’s got to be a clear reason for it. So I ask: Are my characters victims of my imagination? Or are they heroic in their suffering?

I’ll have one of my own stories reviewed by the BWW on Wednesday. I will admit that it’s an odd story, but after hearing so many good things about “Break and Enter” at the Book Launch Party last April, I’m wondering if I’ve turned the corner on short stories, or if I’m still writing stuff that “can’t be fixed.” Either way, I’ll wrestle with it for a few months, take my lessons, and move on.

For July, It’s 99 Cents!

bww2013coversmallThe whole point of publishing The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013 is to launch BWW stories, essays, and poems into the world.

To that end, I’ve made it even more accessible by lowering the price of the Amazon ebook to $0.99!

I’ll boost the price again at the end of July, so take advantage of this deal now. In addition to acquiring these powerful pieces of locally-made literature, you’ll also help us produce next year’s edition. All proceeds are put back into The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2014.

Don’t have a Kindle? Fear not! You can download the Kindle app to your desktop computer, iPhone, or Android.

Check it out here. And thanks!