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So You Want to Write a Serial…

Since I first contracted to write a Kindle Serial for Montlake, I’ve taken many questions about the process. I can understand. I asked a lot of questions myself before I ever agreed to do one. And then I learned a whole heck of a lot more as I wrote my first one. I’ve just agreed to write a second (Hot Buttered Yum, to start releasing October 8th), so I thought I’d share a bit of my insight into the process for those who might be interested.

Please note, this is strictly about the Amazon Kindle serial program. There are other publishers doing serials and some self-pubbed authors doing serials. I have zero experience with those. Therefore, I’ll be addressing these questions from the Amazon/Kindle point of view. I’m sure a lot of it is the same or very similar across the board, but just keep in mind that I have no direct knowledge of anything but the Amazon program.

Kindle Serial FAQs (from the eyes of Kim):

1)      What is a serial?

A serial is a full book, released in episodes over a regular schedule. It can be weekly, every other week, etc, but what I learned with Ex on the Beach (and this lesson was not too surprising) was that romance readers REALLY don’t like to wait two weeks for the next installment! Heck, they don’t like to wait one week, but that was much easier to take than how we originally started at the two-week interval.

Additionally, serials may start releasing before the full book is written. Yep, that means you can’t go back and change what’s already out there. Ouch! And yes, there are a few things I would have liked to go back and tweak just to layer in a bit more detail (that I figured out a couple episodes down the road), but all-in-all, I somehow managed to do this without a big OOPS! that I couldn’t fix.

2)      How long is each episode?

I did my first serial between 9K and 11K each. Except for the last one that came in at a whopping 16K!!! After a few rounds of serials and lots of reader feedback, right now Amazon is asking for each to be about 10-11K. I’ll be shooting for 11K for each episode this time.

3)      Do you know in advance how many episodes the story will run?

As I wrote the first one I did not. However, before it started releasing, I had to give them a final number. So…yes, you must know. You can likely wait until you turn in the first 3 or 4 episodes, though, to give them a final number, but it’s best (IMO) to try to figure this out up front.

4)      What about the editing? How is it different than editing a whole book?

O…M…G!!! It was something to get used to. You must turn in episodes before the whole book is finished, and the editor will begin editing at this time. So, you may not know every detail about the book. The editor certainly doesn’t know every detail about the book. Therefore it’s not just different for the author, but for the editor. With my first serial, my editor would put in some questions/comments such as: What about…??? This doesn’t seem to make sense here??? I would remind her that I would get to explaining that, but just not yet. 🙂 So it was a bit of a learning experience for both of us. We had to simply take it one episode at a time, with keeping an eye toward where the book might be going. For instance, episode one, we had to make sure to get the characters set up right. Also, show the conflict. All that stuff we’ve always heard to make sure we do. Then that’s what we had to concentrate on.

It was really interesting doing them one episode at a time when doing the early ones before I had everything set up, but I think in a way it helped. It helped both of us to focus on just what was important in those 30-35 pages.

Also, with the editing…and this is what about drove me crazy and the only thing I don’t really look forward to…I might be writing episode 6, but editing episode 5, and copy editing episode 4. Things began to get a bit jumbled up in my mind as to what happened when. That was the hardest to handle. You want to make sure everything is flowing right and the character arcs are progressing at the right speed and such, but it became difficult when jumping back and forth between episodes.

Not the part I look forward to, for sure.

5)      How do you go about constructing the book? Do you write it all and then cut it up, or do you write it one episode at a time, with an eye toward a cliffhanger ending of each episode?

This is something that I learned a lot about. I could not just write a whole book and then cut it up. I had to think of the ending of each episode, every single time. The whole basis of the serial is to end on a cliffhanger! Therefore, as I outlined, I outlined in episodes. Granted, some of them changed because as I was writing, I got more words than intended and found a really good stopping point, but yes, I had to write to the episodes (with an eye on the whole book.) Easy peasy, right? *eyeroll*

6)      What kinds of things constitute cliffhangers? How big do they have to be?

This worried me a lot. I write straight contemporary. I don’t kill people, I don’t have crazy action, but I was told I needed a “big cliffhanger.” And I now firmly believe that you do! (It ticks people off when you do this to them, but it also makes them come back the next week, anxiously awaiting that next episode! 🙂 )Therefore, with “big cliffhanger” in mind, I then struggled to wrap my head around what would constitute a big cliffhanger in a straight contemporary romance.

In the end, I decided it simply needed to be something that made the reader WANT to turn that page. Only they couldn’t. *insert evil Kim laugh* (And yes, I took great pleasure when readers complained about how they didn’t want to stop reading. Sometimes loudly. It was my job to do this. Make them want more. So evil Kim got to enjoy herself a bit.)

Now, we all know that we’re supposed to end every chapter making the reader want to turn the page, right? So it seems like a no brainer. But you all know that some chapters are ramping up to goodness and some are letting the reader take a bit of a break. I made sure not to end any episodes where I was letting the reader take a break.

Sometimes it was merely a question that I knew the reader would want the answer to. Sometimes it was the beginning of a love scene, or the start of the first kiss. Sometimes it was learning something that I knew the reader would want to know more about right that very minute!

Of course, if you write suspense, you have many more options. Put them in danger, kill people, don’t forget the first kiss and the middle of the love scene, etc. I can’t really speak for paranormal or historical concerning specifics, but just remember that the key is to make sure the reader wants to turn that page!

7)      Do you feel like each section needs to have certain elements such as a mini-story arc in and of itself?

I thought this was a terrific question, but it also scared me! Oh no…I didn’t do this…did I do it wrong? But in the end, I think no. It’s a whole book in itself. You can’t force little mini books inside a whole book, I don’t think. Well, maybe you can. I can’t. But possibly this would work for others. But my answer to this is to not stress yourself out over it. Just keep the full book in mind at all times, and make sure you are working something in every 10K words or so that’ll irritate people when they can’t turn that next page. 🙂

8)      What about erotic serials? Do you need to have a sex scene in every episode? And is there a soft requirement in straight contemporaries, or do I just write what the plot dictates?

Hmmm…I don’t know about erotic serials. I’m pretty sure Amazon doesn’t publish erotic romance. They publish super sexy, but I don’t think they do erotic. As for doing these somewhere else, I would say that no, I don’t think there needs to be a love scene in each episode. If there is, I fear it would feel forced and take away from the story. Also, the reader might begin to feel like they know what’s coming in each episode, and you don’t ever want that!

For my book, it was a sexy contemporary, so I did try to make sure I had several love scenes in there, all spaced out a bit. Sometimes I wrote a whole one in the middle of the episode, and sometimes I ended the episode at the beginning of a love scene and made the reader wait. But in the end, it’s whatever the story dictates.

Oh…and given it was a sexy contemporary, I (hopefully) tried to set that sexual tension as soon as possible, and then made sure there was building tension in the relationship in every episode. I tried to balance it out so that it ebbed and flowed instead of just constantly building higher and higher and higher.

Toward the later episodes, I brought in more external pieces of the story because the couple was set up pretty good at this point. I still kept them (and their tension) heavily involved, but I allowed the external story to have more impact.

9)      How detailed are your outlines? And does this differ when writing a non-serialized book?

I’m a pretty big outliner anyway (which is the ONLY reason I agreed to that first serial starting to release as I was still writing the story), but I actually learned quite a bit more about how to plot out books by breaking it up into episodes. I struggle to not put in too many plot threads and then my stories get way too long, but in learning what it takes to write about 10K for me, I outlined my next book (Sweet Nothings, the Sugar Springs book releasing in September) by doing it in episodes. I didn’t stress over cliffhanger endings with that one, though. But I learned much better how to look at the 10K chunks and realize when I needed to cut some of the story threads.

But as far as how detailed, I think you need to know your main story points, and you need to know the basis of each episode. I would say the more you know the better, but that’s probably because I’m a plotter anyway. But since you turn in episodes as you finish them and they are edited individually, it would be wisest to know what you plan to put in each one!

10)   If the book is releasing as you are writing it, how far ahead are you in the writing?

I had, I think, just turned in episode 5 (of 10) as the first episode released.  That’s probably about the norm, but I’ve known others to have a little less done before episode one comes out. With this next book, since it won’t be coming out until October, I plan to have all of that sucker written before it starts releasing! 🙂

11)   What about readers’ feedback? What’s it been like? Do you take anything they say into account as you are writing the remainder of the book? Do you interact with them as episodes come out, teasing them with what’s coming up, or do you keep a discreet silence?

I thoroughly enjoyed the reader feedback as it was releasing. Amazon has discussion forums on their site and puts a new one up with each episode. I wasn’t required to interact, but I tried to. Sometimes I was too busy, but I did try to pop in a few times between episodes and answer questions, chat, or just thank them for reading. Also, someone made a random comment concerning something I hadn’t thought about, so I made sure that was handled later in the book. It was better because of it.

One thing Amazon does is have people in place to also monitor the discussions, therefore taking the feedback into account as they continue forward with the serial program. As I mentioned, Ex on the Beach, started coming out every two weeks at first. Some readers were so NOT pleased with this schedule that the production team bumped it up to every week in the middle of releasing it. Of course, the comments were then…now we want it every day! *sigh* 🙂

Oh, and yes, I occasionally teased them (both in the discussions and on Facebook) with upcoming episodes. Can’t help it. That was evil Kim at work again.

12)   Is it fun?

Very much so! I actually think that having the book releasing before it was finished ramped up my adrenaline and made the whole process much more fun! Though I plan to write this next book fully before it comes out, I wouldn’t be opposed to writing as one is releasing again. It’s a crazy kind of fun. But then, I’m a girl who apparently gets off on crazy challenges! It just added a lot of fun, and the back and forth with my editor also brought more enjoyment to it. Of course, she did have to talk me off the cliff as I got to the ending and didn’t know how to end it. But hey, she only had to talk me down once! I call that a win. 🙂

13)   Would you do it again?

Clearly yes. 🙂 I loved it, and I love the program as a whole. It’s obviously not for everyone—both authors and readers, as I got more than one one-star review simply because someone didn’t like the serial format—but some people really love it. I guess I’m one of them. 🙂

Now…what questions do you have? Have you written one? Ever thought about it? I’ve considered doing a novella and releasing it as a serial for free through my newsletter, or even on Facebook, but just haven’t had time to get to it yet. I think it would be fun, though. Or maybe that’s just evil Kim trying to come out and play again…

54 responses to “So You Want to Write a Serial…”

  1. Hope Ramsay says:

    Hi Kim,

    I don’t mean to pry, and if you don’t want to answer this question I completely understand. But do you get an advance for writing a serial like this, or is it based on sales alone? Can you share percent of the price that the author typically receives of something like this. And how much do the serials cost readers?

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    • Kim Law says:

      Oh, I meant to mention the price and I forgot! That’s one of the best things. They are priced at only $1.99 (at least, that’s the price I’ve seen so far) for the duration of the episodes (which really kicks up sales), and then goes to full price once the final episode has released. For me, that means it went to $3.99.

      And I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to discuss my contract at all. 🙂

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      • Kim Law says:

        I just realized that I need to clarify the cost a bit. I got A LOT of questions about this, both from authors and readers. That is $1.99, paid once, and then you get all the remaining episodes automatically. NOT $1.99 per episode. I have seen others charge per episode (self-pub or other publishers), but that is not how the Kindle Serial program works. $1.99 for a whole book. Great deal!

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  2. Oberon Wonch says:

    So interesting, Kim! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

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  3. This is such an interesting storytelling format. It sounds like a challenging way to write, but one that definitely builds writer muscles (the writing kind, not the real kind) and can be fun. Thanks for sharing your insight.
    Rae Ann

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    • Kim Law says:

      Oh yes, definitely a challenge, and yeah, I felt like it stretched those muscles some! I had to learn to trust myself just a bit more (since I couldn’t go back and change things!!) and my editor had to trust me as well 😉

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  4. How popular are serials? How do they compare in sales compared to full-length novels? I don’t know if that’s a question you can answer, but that’s the first thing that popped in my mind when reading this excellent post. Thanks for all the wonderful insight!

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    • Kim Law says:

      Hmmm…I think I can answer that. I hope so!!! For me, it has definitely compared in sales. Now keep in mind that while it is releasing, it’s coming out at half price. So it would reason that I might make less per book sold, at least for those weeks that the episodes are releasing. And when book two comes out, I hope it’ll kick this one into selling more!

      Though I did get a lot of reader complaints on not liking the format, I also got a lot saying they loved the format. I’m pretty sure I found a good number of new readers this way (several told me so) since some people who like serials gave it a try, even having never heard from me.

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  5. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Kim. I’ve just signed on to do one of these for Amazon, so I’m eager to hear tips from those who have some experience with this new format. I’m excited but a little nervous, for all the reasons you mentioned!

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    • Kim Law says:

      Yay Colleen!!! Actually, I saw that mentioned somewhere and I meant to contact you and say yay and congrats! 🙂

      Excitement and nervousness. Yep, that’s about right! I hope you have a really great experience with it. I just found it loads of fun. I like to try new things, so this was right up my alley!

      Good luck!!!

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  6. Rita Henuber says:

    Madame Awesomeness you are amazing. I have no questions because I would never attempt this. (I’m not a professional) It makes me tired reading the process. I cannot congratulate you enough on your success.

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    • Kim Law says:

      Rita, you always make me giggle. Of course you are a professional! I think you just aren’t as insane as me, that’s all 😉

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  7. June Love says:

    Kim, this has been a great post. Thank you for sharing the information with us. The writing process sounds challenging, crazy stressful, and yes, maybe just a little fun. Of course, I can say that because I’ve never written one. At any rate, writing straight contemporary as we both do, I loved how you worked through the process of leaving the reader wanting more at the end of each episode. That’s not an easy thing to do with straight contemporary.

    Good luck with your second one!

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    • Kim Law says:

      Yeah, I stressed over the episode endings, but then I had a lot of fun with it. It doesn’t always take a killer in a story to make someone want to turn the page, right? 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Maybe you should give one a try!! 🙂

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  8. Terrific answers, Kim. I really appreciate this post. I love what you said about building in an ebb and flow to the story as a whole so that the episodes will break better. I hadn’t thought about that aspect.

    I was also intrigued to hear that you aim for 10K per episode. The indie writers I’ve read discussing this seem to go for 20K per, which feels long to me. 10K just feels more intuitively appropriate. Then again, I have to go check what price point they’re using. If it’s $2.99 each, maybe that’s why. (You probably know this, but Amazon Serials are the only ones where a single payment covers the entire set of episodes — indie and other publishers sell each individual episode separately.)

    Again, thanks for this! Much to chew on.

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    • Kim Law says:

      Yeah, thanks! I meant to mention that about the price in the post. I added it to a comment earlier, but totally forgot to put that in the post. As a reader, I would be irritated to pay for each episode, but they seem to be doing well for some people.

      Concerning the length, I do think some readers would like them longer than 10K. But then, those same readers probably also heavily prefer a full book to a serialized book. My feeling is that Amazon shoots for that amount because it’s kind of a lunch-time read sort of length. I’ve no idea if that’s what’s really behind their thinking, but 20K over lunch would be a bit much for me. These are bite-sized reads that keep people coming back for more!

      Good luck if you go for one!

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  9. Nathan Wrann says:

    Thanks for the great insight into the process. How long is the final book? (Or another way to rephrase the question: how many 10k episodes are there?)

    Also, when I hear them referred to as episodes I begin to think TV and in TV shows there are always a lot of different subplots and each TV episode covers a tiny bit of each subplot until most of them wrap up at the end of the season. My books tend to concern a core group of characters and there isn’t much in terms of sub-plots away from the main action. Which types of stories (multi-plot or single-plot) do you feel works best for serials?

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    • Nathan Wrann says:

      p.s. I didn’t even know about the Amazon Kindle Serials program before reading this. I’m going to take a good long look at my WIP, I think it would fit the Serial format perfectly.

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    • Kim Law says:

      Hi Nathan. Thanks for the questions. My first one was a little over 100k+ by the time I was done. I had 10 episodes. This next one, I’m aiming for 90K with 8 episodes. So I’m shooting for 11K (or just a bit more) each.

      And I think they are like tv shows, however, I did not do little mini subplots within each episode. When you think of a tv drama, think of the romantic relationship that gets carried across the episodes. That’s what I focused on. On tv, they might have ups and downs in their romance in each episode, but it’s what happens at the end of that makes you want to come back next week! (And that’s over-simplified a bit, but I tried to look at just the romance side of it.)

      I do have different subplots running through my stories, but I didn’t try to make sure anything specific was in each episode. Just what would naturally fall into place in the story when looking at it as a full book.

      Honestly, the only realy different between these and a full book was making sure that I stopped each one at a really good point.

      But no, I don’t think you have to have a lot of subplots running in your story. (If you do, then yes, make sure they wrap up at the end like a tv season.) It all depends on the story. I’m actually trying to have less subplots with this second serial because I want it to come in at 90K, so that means I can’t do as much “other” stuff.

      Good luck with your WIP!!

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  10. Taking on a serial sounds like quite the writing challenge. I don’t think I could do it unless I had it written ahead of time…or unless I had no kids, husband, or external life, distracting me. Yep, I’d need to write in a bubble. That much uncertainty would make me insane. LOL

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    • Kim Law says:

      Awww…what’s wrong with a little insane? 🙂 And yeah, it made me a bit crazy, but I had so much fun with it that it totally made it worth it! It was very interesting watching reactions to my book as it was being read.

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  11. Terri Osburn says:

    I did consider doing one of these, but I can’t write two books at the same time, so bowed out. Still, I haven’t ruled it out for the future. Problem is, I have a day job, so cranking out that many good words at such a fast clip would put me in the loony bin.

    More power to you, though. I have the full book of Ex On The Beach and I’m looking forward to a Christmas story. Are you having any trouble writing that one while it’s hot outside?

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    • Kim Law says:

      That was a bit if an issue for me, too, Terri! I need to write one book at a time. I would have to do things in chunks. It got really interesting when I got edtis for my Sept book in the middle of writing EX. I had to get a little ahead with EX and then switch over to Sweet Nothings and finish those edits before coming back to write new words for EX. I found that I could do edits for EX in the middle of the other book, but not new words. However, right at the end of episode six I did have a big panic moment when I realized that in final edits of that episode, I put the Sweet Nothing’s hero’s name in place of Ex’s hero’s name! I forgot about that little panic. I found it the next week and went a bit crazy! My editor chased it down and made sure it got changed back, though 🙂

      And yeah…a Christmas story in 90 weather is tough, but I’m countering that by refusing to go outside 🙂

      I still think you should do one!!!

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  12. Vivi Andrews says:

    Sounds like quite an adventure, Kim! I’d be curious to try it, but for now I’m happy with my plain vanilla method. 😉 Great post.

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  13. Elisa Beatty says:

    Wow…you’re a beast, Kim!! (In the best way, of course.) What a crazy, scary, awesome thing to do. And it sounds like you learned big things about story structure and tension and keeping people turning pages. I’m uber-impressed!!

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    • Kim Law says:

      Yes, yes, I learned lots about all that stuff! And it was funny how looking at it in episodes lowered my stress about having to write a whole big book. All I had to do was write 10K. Easy! *snort* But really, it was amazing how it changed things for me. I could write 10K then take a little breather. Instead of 90-100K, go, go, go, write, write, write, without ever taking a breather. Of course, the breathers were tiny because there was always edits or copy edits waiting, but the hard part for me is new words. So breathers that involve edits are like a little treat for me.

      And funny…beast! LOL! I maintain I’m just the right amount of insane 😉

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  14. Thanks for sharing this, Kim. I’m in awe that you could do these. I feel stressed just reading about it. Good luck to Colleen and others who are taking this on too. It also shows a great deal of trust from Amazon so big congrats!

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    • Kim Law says:

      Thanks, Bev. I’m guessing you aren’t a real heavy plotter??? The ones that aren’t are the ones that seem to get the most stressed about this idea 🙂 It’s certainly not for everyone! And I certainly wouldn’t want to do everyone like this! It stressing me to let anyone see parts of my book before it’s done, and with these I have to start turning in pieces way before the whole thing is done!

      Oh…now you’ve stressed me… 🙂

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  15. Liz Talley says:

    Such a great glimpse into how to write one of these – very interesting and I actually think I’d like doing this. I did write a short online read that I had to give about a 2-3 page scene each day for a month. I liked constructing the scenes that way, but because the story had to be under 11K, I found it hard to write. There wasn’t room to showcase my voice and fully flesh out a story. I think I would like it for a full story though. Good post!

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    • Kim Law says:

      I never did read that one of yours! I need to go find it because I want to learn how to write JUST a 10-11K story. I can’t wrap my head around what a story that short would contain.

      And you know I think you should do a serial!!! Come on…go for it! 😉

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  16. Marni Folsom says:

    Thank you so much for covering these questions, Kim.

    I’m in awe, actually, because I finish a manuscript and HAVE to go back through the first half to rewrite & tie everything together, even when I do a great foundation plot. I’m thinking how flabbergastingly amazing you are to make a story “deposit” to your readers never touch it again! *bows down to Kim*

    Can’t wait to read Hot Buttered Yum (which is a fabulous title, by the way!).

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    • Kim Law says:

      I *love* the phrase flabbergastingly amazing! I’m sure it doesn’t really fit me, but that’s so cool!!! 🙂

      It’s just my process, I guess. I used to go back and make big changes to the opening after I got finished with the whole thing. I did that a lot. But I’d noticed the need for that had really started to dimish (which made me a bit more confident about doing the serial.) Now I just spend HUGE amounts of time up front until it really feels right. Then usually I only go back and make small tweaks to add in a bit more detail here and there.

      Thanks about the title 🙂 It was my idea!!! I love it. Every single time I say it out loud I smile like an idea. I think I giggle, too.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  17. Kate Parker says:

    Wow, Kim, that would be nail-biting excitement for me. Probably because I’m a pantster. I have to go back and change things on my fourth draft. It’s a good thing you do excellent outlines.

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  18. I think its fantastic you can do this, Kim. I think it would be too stressful for me.

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    • Kim Law says:

      Thanks Laurie. But don’t think I could do this with every story! I think that matters. And something about these beach reads just works for me. 🙂

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