Are You a Good Literary Citizen?

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Are you a good literary citizen?

I’ll never forget it. I was probably eight or nine years old, and my family had gotten up early to get a spot in the front for the Blossom Time Parade in a neighboring town.

This was a big deal. Every year, thousands of people from Southwest Michigan gathered, anticipating a show of marching bands, fire trucks, homecoming queens, and buckets of candy thrown out to kids scurrying in retrieval around the pavement like ants.

The year I recall was an extra-big, super duper deal, because “Samantha”–the youngest child from the quasi popular 1980 sitcom Gimme a Break!–was scheduled to appear.

Now, I wasn’t a big fan of Gimme a Break!, nor did I think Samantha was the best child-actor of my youth, but she was going to be there, in my small town parade, and I loved to act in school, and every time I thought about meeting a real life star, a firecracker lit and crackled in my gut. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd at the parade, armed with a glittery pink pen and my diary.

Samantha waved and smiled as she sat on top of a cherry red Corvette. And then it happened. The car paused in line, waiting for the parade to continue, and a swarm of preteen girls crowded around Samantha, holding out pictures and paper for her to sign. My legs took off, and before I knew it, I was there too, in the swarm, buzzing, waiting for my turn to ask for an autograph.

Once most of the girls got their autographs, the car started to move. Panicked, I held out my diary to Samantha as her handler winked at me and said, “Surely we have time for one more.”

My heartbeat skipped.

“No! We don’t have time for any more,” Samantha hissed, pushing my diary towards my chest. Her eyes met mine coldly. “I’m done.”

The driver switched from the brake to the gas. I watched Samantha creep forward in the parade, once again smiling and waving to her adoring fans.

Who knows what was going on with Samantha. Everyone has bad days. But I have to admit, I was one disappointed, disenchanted little girl.

I decided that if I were ever fortunate enough to do well at something I loved, I’d be sure to be kind.

Fast forward more years than I care to admit, and I’m pleased to announce that time and again, as a new author, I’ve encountered kindness and generosity in the literary world.

What is a good literary citizen?

This is my definition: a person who supports creativity, who esteems work, and helps others grow in their craft. It’s a person who buys books (and lots of them!) and networks on behalf of authors and writers she or he admires.

I think about Samantha when authors share their knowledge of writing and publishing with me. I think about Samantha when I witness someone farther down the publishing road give a nod and a hello to another starting out.

I hold out my diary and these kind souls take my glittery pen and jot me a note. “Congratulations! Keep going! Try this agent. Sure, I’ll review your work.” Or even this: “I can’t help you now, but all the best to you!”

I don’t take it for granted. People in the publishing world are busy. There is no reason why some should respond to my letters or emails with such goodwill, but they do. And I learn that sure, there are Samanthas in the world. But that’s okay. There are also authors and writers who do their best to help strong work rise to the surface for all to enjoy.

There are people who value being good literary citizens.

Not every author or writer can help. Not everyone will care to help. But of course, everyone can pass on a measure of goodwill as another pursues her dreams.

And we can do it with kindness for the sake of our literary world.

*In an effort to pay it forward in the literary world, I am doing a daily author interview and book giveaway (from writers who happen to be mothers and write about it) the week of May 6th, leading up to Mother’s Day. Drop by to hear from great authors such as Shauna Niequist, Jennifer Grant, Kate Hopper, Claire Bidwell Smith and one more (waiting on a confirmation :)). Find out more at www.gillianmarchenko.com.

When Your Book Doesn’t Sell: Separating the Writer From the Wannabe

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“I’m so glad it is our first year here so that the pressure’s off to win an award. I heard you have to be returning to be in the running,” my friend Kim leaned over and whispered as we sat in the back of Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference’s auditorium last April.

“Seriously, right?” I said, slouching down in the pew and sighing. We were settled in for the final night of programming; awards, music, and a message from the great Liz Curtis Higgs, who, if I am being honest, seemed so inviting and encouraging that it took all I could muster not to walk over and crawl up in her lap.

The week in California had been a dream for this mother of four, prone to piles of laundry, homework with kids, housework, and therapy and doctor appointments for my two daughters with Down syndrome. One week by myself, ensconced with like-minded people, authors, agents, publishers, and writers with dreams of their own, in one of the prettiest parts of God’s creation.

So you can imagine my surprise when my bio was read and my name was called. I won the Ethel Herr 2012 Most Promising New Writer Award for submitting 25 pages of my memoir about giving birth to my daughter Polly, and her diagnosis of Down syndrome, while serving as a missionary in Ukraine. My friend and I jumped up and down, and I ambled to the stage. The bright lights made me dizzy. Liz Curtis Higgs gave me a huge smile. “Wonderful!” Ethel Herr (Ethel Herr!) gave me a hug. The award thrilled me, and embarrassed me. After all, I was just a mom, trying my hand at this writing thing.

I naively left the conference sure that I would secure an agent and a publisher for my book within minutes of walking in the door back home.

Yeah. That didn’t happen. I secured an agent, but months later, through a different writing venue. The manuscript garnered interest from publishing houses that even resulted in two frightening, sweat-producing face to face meetings.

But so far, my book hasn’t sold.

Here are three things I’ve learned from this experience so far:

1. Keep writing

Someone offered me sage advice once I completed my manuscript. “Start another one.” Diving right back into another book length project has been one of the best things I’ve done as a writer. I’m a writer, not a wannabe, because I want, no, I need to write, not just to be published. I am growing in my craft, and I am still having fun doing it.

2. Grow your platform

I’ll admit it, there have been days that I’ve wanted to curl up in a ball over my memoir not finding a publishing home. OK, there have been days I have curled up in a ball because my memoir has not found a publishing home. But I’m a writer, not a wannabe, because I get back up and keep trying. I am building my platform and brand through articles, speaking, social media, and blogging.

3. Trust God’s timing

As a person of faith, although my carnality wants what I want in my timing, this experience has been a great exercise in trusting God and his timing. I am called to write. And by God’s grace, he uses my words in other people’s lives, and in my personal pursuit to become more like Jesus. So I practice trusting him. If it is God’s will for my memoir to be in print, it will happen. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing.

I may not be a published author, but I am a writer, not a wannabe.

And today, that’s enough to get back to this crazy, exciting, challenging work of putting pen to paper.

3 Top Tips to Gain Facebook Fans on Your Author Page

3 Top Tips to Gain Facebook Fans on your Author Page

As a modern day writer, I aspire to hone my craft and make the words sing on the page  as much as the greats did, people like Hemingway, Dickens, and the Brontë Sisters.

Okay, that’s a bit of a haughty statement.

Let me just say I work hard at writing better.

But in 2013, writers have the added stress of social media. We write, yes. But we also build, and gather, and hunt. We structure writing platforms. We gather tribes of readers. We hunt for excellent literary agents, and publishing houses that will not only get our work in print, but shine a light on it for the world to see.

It can be exhausting, this business of modern day writing. So I am throwing out three of my best tips about Facebook. My author fan page has proved to be a great tool to interact with potential readers.

Here are three of my top tips to gain Facebook fans on your author page.

1) Make sure your personal page connects to your fan page on the header to allow for cross promotion. Especially now that Facebook wants fan pages to utilize paid promotion, it is vital that your personal page easily and prominently connects friends with your fan page.

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If you aren’t sure how to do this, here’s a step by step tutorial from Amy Lynn Andrews from Blogging With Amy.   

Likewise, on your fan page, ensure that your author website appears in the “about” section at the top.

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2) Provide pictures with text through sites like PicMonkey. When I promote a blog post on my fan page with an uploaded photo, I get more likes and shares. Make sure your website is noted in the corner of the picture. Here are a couple examples:

maya angelou

evie loves her life

struggle right grammar

Check out this post if you’d like a simple tutorial to walk you through PicMonkey. You can use the site for free, or pay a small monthly fee for more options.

3) Know Facebook protocol. For example, it is against the rules to advertise on your cover photo (like a website address). So if you have a header with your website, change it, before Facebook shuts down your page. Also, it is considered bad manners on Facebook to post a blog or an article more than once on your page, whereas on Twitter, you can post three to five times a day. Want to find out more? Read this post from Author Media.

Do you have Facebook tips you’d like to share with us? How do you think Earnest Hemingway would do with social media? Yeah, me too. Happy Facebooking!

5 Ways to Break Up a Writing Iceberg: The Book Proposal

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I remember the day well.

After four years, hours and hours of writing, time away from my kids, countless books read on craft, writing classes Spring TX, and two professional edits, I finally finished my 260 page memoir.

“Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed around the world.”- Tom Clancy

Mr. Clancy’s quote, once my eyes stumbled upon it, coaxed a satisfied sigh from my gut. I closed my eyes, imagining myself at the helm of a ship, arms stretched out like Rose and Jack from The Titanic.

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But seriously, like the next day, my excitement and feelings of great accomplishment hit an iceberg when I forced myself to pay attention to two words that had floated around my mind throughout the project:

BOOK PROPOSAL.

If my manuscript is the Titanic, then the book proposal is the iceberg.

A book proposal is a thorough description of a manuscript, the market it would serve, and a sample of the story, usually the first two or three chapters.

And something I had no idea about until my manuscript was nearly completed.

Once my manuscript was finished, I assumed I could change the sail on my writing ship, pound out a quick proposal, and venture into new waters of querying agents.

Not so.

I had no idea about the painstaking amount of work a thorough, well-written, well-representing book proposal entailed. It took time and several confusing revisions to write an acceptable book proposal.

So here’s some advice, sailor to sailor:

1) Discern the genre. Book proposals, and when to submit them, are different depending on fiction or non-fiction. Fiction and memoir manuscripts should be completed before the proposal is submitted to an agent or a publisher. Non-fiction books can and do sell on proposal with a couple of chapters to provide the flavor and quality of the writing.

2) Work on your proposal while you are writing your manuscript. I should have started researching book proposals right away. Writing the proposal while working on the manuscript would have provided needed focus. A proposal can be a great map of where you are in your project, and where you need to go.

3) Write well. Your book proposal is probably the first writing sample a prospective agent or editor will see from you. Don’t rush. Let the voice rendered in your manuscript seep onto the proposal page. Agents and editors see many proposals. Take the time and attention required to make your proposal flawless and flavorful.

4) Stick to the basic elements of a proposal. Some include a cover page, an overview of the story, the hook, a biography of the author, marketing strategies, chapter summaries, and sample chapters.

I purchased a template from a famous author. It was a great way to get me started, but once an agent was landed, she preferred I use her agency’s template. Though similar, it wasn’t quite the same. Realize that an agent or editor will probably want you to tweak your proposal.

5) A successful book proposal requires research. Learn from the best. Check out:

Terry Whalin’s Book Proposals That Sell: 21 SECRETS TO SPEED YOUR SUCCESS

Have you written a book proposal? Are you in the process of writing a book proposal? Any advice? What’s been the most challenging part of the process? Please share with your fellow sojourners.

5 Starter Tips On Writing A Memoir

Two weeks ago I was invited to speak to my daughter Zoya’s fifth grade class about writing memoir.

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Tip #1: Don’t do it!

If you want to write a memoir, be forewarned: readers love them but publishing houses are hard pressed to sign them. Of course, that doesn’t mean that memoirs don’t sell, but it does mean that memoir writers must work on platform building, and strengthening tribe readership, as they write. It can be daunting but it is essential. When you get to the book proposal part of your journey, you need to prove to publishers that your story will sell.

Tip #2: Don’t lie!

Possibly one of the reasons why publishers don’t want to buy and publish more memoirs is because several books deemed “memoir” in the past few years have been found out to be more fictional. Lying to create a good memoir taints the whole industry. You may not be able to remember your life’s story verbatim. That’s OK. Feel free to take some creative allowance building scenes and retelling conversations at pivotal points in the book. Just make sure everything you write about actually happened.

Tip # 3: Don’t rush!

Memoir books and teachers concur that in order to write a good memoir one must have perspective. In order to gain perspective, especially when writing about our lives, we need time and distance from the events which we hope to convey in a way that resonates with the reader. If a person hasn’t allotted enough time in her life to reach some sort of understanding or conclusion regarding the events of the memoir, she will be hard pressed to point and prod readers to universal truths that will apply to their lives.

Tip #4: Don’t assume!

Don’t assume your story will carry the writing. As was mentioned in Tip #3, a memoir, although about your life, is really about/for the reader. C.S. Lewis said that we read to know we are not alone. The memoir must connect with the reader. There needs to be a mingling of worlds, where a person reading your words stops and wonders how you knew so much about him.

Tip #5: Don’t wait!

If you want to write a memoir, don’t wait to learn all you can about memoir writing. My two best pieces of advice to the young memoirists in the fifth grade were: 1) write, even a little bit, every day, and 2) if you want to write and be good at it, be a voracious reader.

What are your thoughts about memoir writing? What’s been a favorite memoir that you’ve read?

10 Kooky Tips On How To Write A Book

My writing nook at home. Don’t be fooled, it looks Pier One, but really, it’s a hodgepodge of thrift store and Craigslist.

I receive emails from people asking how to write a book.

I have written a book but I haven’t actually published it (yet, God give me patience and faith).

So when I am asked, it feels a bit like someone asking a person coloring a picture in a Strawberry Shortcake coloring book how to paint a still life.

Here are 10 kooky tips that popped into my head about writing a book if you absolutely don’t know how to start:

1) Start with a dangerously low self-esteem

This is vital. If you don’t, you may not be able to handle getting knocked off the height of your perch daily from rejection. It’s much easier to begin writing from the depths of despair.

2) If you have kids, get a lock for your bedroom door

My reasoning is two-fold: 1) my bedroom is where I write, and 2) my bedroom is where I cry when I am convinced that I cannot write, and it seems to upset the children when I cry uncontrollably.

3) YOU PROBABLY NEED TO ACTUALLY ENJOY WRITING

Or at least be able to stomach it, if you want to embark on a long project. Seriously, in order to write a book, you have to spend countless hours writing, which may stop you right there. Luckily for me, I love to write and see where it takes me. I also love to sit!

4) Make sure your writing desk has an economy size box of Kleenex.

I cry when I write. I cry over a beautiful sentence (both other people’s and my own). I cry over the fact that I can’t spell. I cry about God’s work in my life rendered on the page.

5) Listen to Papa Hemingway

I talk about Hemingway often, but I believe the goal is one true sentence.

Sometimes sentences string together perfectly and send shivers up my spine. One true sentence is the payback for locking yourself in your room to write.

6) Read books

Readers usually make good writers. Some of my favorite books include “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo, “Traveling Mercies” by Anne Lamott, and “Twilight” by Stephanie Meyer. (I’m just kidding about Twilight. Sorry, not a teen vampire fan.)

Read books on craft. For memoir, I love Vivian Gornick’s “The Situation and the Story” and Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.”

7) Join a writing class

Most writing classes will require submissions and offer critique. This forces you to write. For years, I attended a memoir workshop in Chicago.

8) Buy business cards on-line and slap “writer” under your name

Call yourself a writer.

Even if you don’t have anything published, if you write, you are a writer. You may not be an author until you are published, but by golly, you are a writer. Put it out there! (And if you buy 250 business cards and have no one to give them to, the kids love to make up card games with them.)

9) Call or text or email people who love you, often

Writing is solitary. You show up and put words on paper and wonder if you actually have anything of value to offer the world. Call your mom, or your best friend, or Joe, the creepy guy at Starbucks who saw you writing one day and gave you his business card. Call anyone who loves you (OK, maybe not Joe) and ask for encouragement. You need cheerleaders. Buy pompoms and pass them out to friends.

10) Don’t write for attention

Believe me, an easier route for attention would be to hold up a Seven Eleven.

What’s your advice about writing a book?

 

5 Benefits of Collaborative Writing

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Franz Kafka, the famous author of “The Metamorphosis,” once wrote that writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.

Although Mr. Kafka sounds a bit creepy, I get it.

As a mother to four kids, I relish hours alone with clicking fingers and thoughts. It’s just me and my laptop, or a pen and a piece of paper, and I’m hurled into a different time, place, or life. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” said the great E. M. Forster.

I concur.

Solitude is a treasured gift in my writing life.

But as I’ve delved into my career, the importance and benefits of collaborative writing have become undeniable. I’ve realized, with time, that my writing can get blurry. My business plan can be smudged. Enter collaborative writing.

When I say collaborative writing, I mean sharing my work with others, helping fellow writers along the way, and receiving criticism and suggestions regarding my work. I need people. I need editors, and proofreaders, and cheerleaders. I need instruction, shared experience, correction.

Col·lab·o·ra·tion: The action of working with someone to produce or create something.

Letting people into my solitary writing life has been a great experience. I create more. I create better. How? In what ways?

I’m glad you asked.

Here are 5 benefits of collaborative writing:

1. Collaboration strengthens writing skills

After I committed to writing my personal story about having a child with Down syndrome in the former Soviet Union, I looked into taking a writing class. God hooked me up with a great group. We read and discuss memoir, submit pages, and critique each other’s work. This sort of collaboration with other writers has strengthened my writing muscles and encouraged me greatly. Plus, I made writer friends!

2. Collaboration helps keep the green monster at bay

Let’s face it. All writers struggle with jealousy. I surely do.

When I collaborate with others, whether I’m reading or editing someone’s work, promoting Facebook fan pages, or having a friend guest post on my blog, it’s more difficult to for me to be jealous. Instead of racing for the win, I become a fellow sojourner along the path. If you find yourself repeatedly jealous over another writer’s success, I suggest you attempt to collaborate with him/her. It will change your attitude.

3. Collaboration builds platform

Nine times out of ten, when I’ve helped another writer, he or she ended up helping me too. Like someone’s post, share a fan page, host a blog parade. People will notice your generosity. And maybe next time, they will promote you.

4. Collaboration pushes deadlines

Whether you are submitting new pages to a group, or working with an editor on a freelance project, or in the final stages of line editing with your publishing house, deadlines push you. In order to write more, often, and better, collaborate with others. You will be forced to meet deadlines, which, in turn, will force you to write more.

5. Collaboration makes me an upstanding literary citizen

I’m convinced that as writers, we need to contribute to the literary society to which we belong. Read. Buy books. Share articles. Subscribe to magazines. And I would add collaborate with other authors.

Collaboration is a win for all involved.

George Orwell said that good writing is like a windowpane. I’m convinced that in order to write well, I need others around me holding the Windex bottle, spraying, and wiping my purpose, productivity, and prose clean with wadded up old newspaper.

What about you? How have you/do you collaborate with other writers?

Standing as a Writer, a Lesson Learned from My Daughter with Down Syndrome

My four children are blessings.

But they also make it challenging for me as a writer to, well, write.

After reading Heather St. James’ hilarious post last week about writing with kids in tow, a thought occurred to me. Yes, it is challenging to write with kids, but they also are life-sized object lessons to spur on my pursuit of publication.

Here’s an example.

Our third daughter, Polly, who was born with Down syndrome, has low muscle tone. When she was two and a half years old she wasn’t close to walking, so her therapist suggested a stander; a wooden contraption with Velcro and steel to buckle your child into. The hope was that Polly would bear weight on her legs, build muscle, and start to tolerate the sensation of standing.

She was to stand for three hours. Every. Day. Did I mention she was two?

The first few days Polly was ambivalent. “Polly, time to stand,” I’d sign and say (sign language at the time being her primary form of communication), and she’d shrug her shoulders as I strapped her in.

Soon, though, she grew combative. She learned a few tricks, like to hike her rear up over the thick leather strap to make a seat to rest on, or to pull the Velcro strap apart one-handed, thus freeing herself from her therapeutic shackles.

I’d raise my eyebrow, and she’d look at me like, “What? I’m standing?”

The season of the stander was a difficult time for our family. But the strength my daughter acquired was undeniable. After two months, she pulled to stand on her own, with a triumphant, cheeky grin plastered on her face.

How does this relate to writing?

When I first started writing, I don’t think I actually wanted to write. I wanted to be known as a writer. I wanted to see my name in print. I craved the imagined silence of hours ticking away at a computer somewhere, alone, without my kids hanging on my legs.

But I lacked writing muscle. When it actually came to “butt on the chair” time (to quote Mary DeMuth in her book 11 Secrets to Getting Published), I waxed and waned between ambivalence and combativeness. I wanted to write the next great American story in one sitting. I didn’t want to have to work at it.

I discovered that good writing demanded writing muscles: write consistently, set deadlines, read about the craft of writing, learn from others living a writing life. Also, growing muscle required humility. I needed to ‘fess up’ when I, like Polly, tampered with the shackles of a literary life and attempted to squirm free.

If I let myself get out of hard work consistently, I will never learn to stand as a writer.

Sometimes when I write, the vision of Polly in her stander pops up in my mind. There are several other things besides writing, too numerous and embarrassing to list, that I try to sabotage in my life. I kick. I undo. I push.

My daughter–patient, diligent, and courageous in her daily attempts to do things I take for granted–teaches me a valuable lesson.

If I want to publish a book, or even as Papa Hemingway says, “write one true sentence,” I need to put in the time, effort, humility, and courage to grow strong enough to stand on my own as a writer.

P.S. An update on Polly. She is now six years old. She walks, runs, climbs stairs and in fact, we can’t get her to slow down.

Marketing with Integrity: 5 Tips On What Not To Do

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Most writers prefer to focus on craft instead of marketing. But let’s face it. These days, authors need a platform to jump from in the publishing world. Without flexing the mammoth muscle of the internet, our publishing goals may not materialize.

Humph.

I’m new in the business. I’ve written a memoir about having a baby with Down syndrome while living as a missionary in Ukraine. I’ve landed an agent. I now participate in the shaky step of pitching my project to editors.

And I’ve already committed marketing blunders.

Here are 5 tips on WHAT NOT TO DO in marketing.  

1. Don’t use your kids to get ‘likes.’ 

After my amazing agent Sarah Joy Freese encouraged me to attract more likes on my Facebook Fan page, I went a little nuts. I hosted a giveaway on my blog in exchange for Facebook likes and Twitter followers. I then convinced my four children to write and perform a “likes rap” video. They were cute. It was fun. It killed an afternoon at our house.

Giveaways and videos are great marketing tools. But I went overboard. I posted the video, and re-posted, and re-posted until my kids were even tired of watching themselves perform. My idea morphed into a “look at me” festival until a friend sent me a gentle message saying, “Really, Gillian? This isn’t you.”

2. Don’t spam.

Spam is no longer just canned pork.

According to About.com, “Spam is any unsolicited commercial advertisement distributed online.” If you post links repeatedly on social media without engaging in community and conversation, you may be considered a spammer and people are going to find you annoying.

3. Don’t just ask. Give.

It is better to give than to receive. Let’s face it. People don’t care about us. Readers want a takeaway. They want perspective, a lighter mood, encouragement, escape.

In marketing, it is essential to give. Share links. Retweet. Interview people on your blog. Ask questions on your Facebook page. My writing tribe is best formed through reciprocal interaction and authentic interest.

4. Don’t market without a plan.

My marketing blunders have stemmed from too much excitement and lack of preparation. At first, I had no marketing plan. It’s difficult to have integrity at high-speed. Now, I try to step back and see the big picture. What marketing strategies will best utilize my schedule, gifts, and goals? I am no longer allowed to dream up an idea and run with it before a time of reflection, planning, and prayer.

5. Don’t forget to write.

Marketing pursuits easily swallow work hours. When my time is not structured, I blog, tweet, update statuses, and read about marketing. But I might not write.

Thus enters the need for limits. Some writers allow a half hour in the morning and again at night. Others (insert ME!) require a little extra help. Turning off the internet is a great tip. Author Media, a website dedicated to help writers build their platforms, has a post providing seven apps that assist a writer’s occasional lack of self-control.

What’s your marketing strategy? Do you have a blunder you’d like to share? Where are your boundaries when it comes to marketing integrity?

And would you like to use my children in a rap video? If so, contact me. (God’s still working on me.)

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