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The First Five Pages…and the Red Line of Death

As Golden Heart entries are wrapping up and being sent in, GH hopefuls are naturally re-focusing onto the next step – querying and submitting. I wanted to zone in on the approach that changed my querying process for the better.

After getting form rejection after form rejection, I made this conclusion: Agents were not reading past the first page.

Ouch. That’s pretty harsh. They don’t call me the Ruby Dragon for nothing! In a way, you have to be harsh on yourself. Harsher than an agent or editor will ever be if you want to make it. That means working on the only thing you can control; your writing. For me, every rejection told me my writing wasn’t good enough yet.

I knew from judging contests that the game was pretty much won or lost in the first five pages. I had a sense from the beginning whether I was reading a contender or not. So I started trying to track and push that Red Line of Death – the imaginary line where the reader would have put the book down. I made it my goal to learn how to write the first five pages and get agents to read at least that far.

But the danger, of course, is editing the life out of those five pages. I needed to do something more than just send it out to readers and revise, polish, repeat. I looked at contest feedback and read craft books and re-read romance novels I loved and came up with some guidelines I thought I’d try.

Are these the only ways to make an opening work? Of course not! I know writers hate to be confined by rules, but I kind of like them. I find them more helpful than being told I can do whatever I want if it’s done right. What’s right? What I’m doing can’t be right because…count the form rejections! (I stopped counting, by the way.) I just had to start somewhere.

Opening Guidelines

Based on loose observations about what seemed to work. I hope these are at least good food for thought and give you some ideas to experiment with.

1. You have one paragraph to establish your POV character as someone unique, admirable, sympathetic or likable.

I extrapolated this principle from Michael Hague who discusses the opening of movies in his book, Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds. Movie openings tend to establish the main character as someone you want to cheer for. I figured I’d try to do that right away in my opening.

People always say to open with action, but if the action or drama is not tied in some way to a character that you can cheer for, I think you miss out on a lot of potential impact from the scene.

2. The first pages must read effortlessly

These pages need to ease the reader into this world and these characters. Awkward writing or any stumbling blocks can kill you right away.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is a good reference for mechanics. The book brings up some interesting things I hadn’t read before. It stresses the natural flow and rhythm to the writing. Reading out loud is the easiest way to catch this.

The book also pointed out the importance of white space. If you look at the page without reading, it should look spaced out. It’s just a quick, easy way to scan the page and see if there’s daunting chunks of info. Reading those huge paragraphs will tire a reader out. Paragraphs should be short, 3 to four sentences maximum.

Finally, the writing shouldn’t sound overwritten, like you’re trying too hard. Check for overuse of adverbs or adjectives and awkward or purple phrases. And I LOVE purplish, lyrical writing, so this was tough for me.

3. There must be strong goal, motivation, and conflict(GMC) and deep point of view (POV)

Don’t be vague about your character’s wants and needs. I learned that a character who is secretive or hiding something or unemotional on the outside, should exhibit strong emotions on the inside. And knowing a character’s goal doesn’t mean explaining the reasoning behind it. It means there should always be a sense of intention in everything the character does.

On top of opening up your character’s heart and mind, their thoughts should be distinctive. No one else should be able to think this way. Brand your character immediately. I’m actually bad at opening hooks, but I feel by inserting these very distinctive narrative elements, you can mini-hook and keep propelling the reader forward.

Some examples…I don’t know if they’re any good, but it’s to show this is the type of line I’m trying to put in regarding GMC for my character without laying out what the “big” conflict is.  If you do this right, you’ll find you don’t need to dump backstory about the characters as much. I believe Donald Maas calls this “mini-conflict” in The Fire in Fiction, but I confess I’ve only read excerpts.

Heroine:

“What she heard next was unmistakable…. Sword-strike, a sound she woke up to every morning.”

Hero:

“The only metal Ryam had touched in months was the steel of his sword. He was nearly hungry enough to eat that.”

4. Build the tension immediately

This doesn’t necessarily mean starting with action, but that’s definitely one way to do it. I think that it’s more important to establish conflict and created a sense of immediacy right away than it is to have explosions and chases. The dilemma is already upon you and it’s time to start the struggle. Even if your character is doing something mundane, the sense of the dawning conflict and big things to come should be there.

Testing it out – Contests & Submissions

I tested out my pages through LOTS of contests. I’d already exhausted my readers and critique partners. Here’s some great ones that concentrate on the opening and the first two are even free.

Miss Snark’s First Victim contest – Secret Agent Contest

Chase the Dream Contest hosted by Rachelle Chase and Leigh Michaels

Hook, Line & Sinker Contest – by the Hudson Valley RWA

After vetting my opening, I started sending out to agents again and tracked the progress. I started getting my first requests off of sample pages which told me someone was reading past the first page. Victory! Of course, they were still rejecting so I had to look further now to the first 3 chapters and try to push the Red Line back a little more.

But something was still missing. The final straw was when I got a couple of contest entries back that specifically pointed out my weak opening. This was very confusing to me. The opening had taken 2nd in Hook, Line & Sinker, finaled in another chapter contest, and was getting a couple of requests. Yet several contest judges pointed out it was just “so-so” compared to the rest of the entry. One judge went so far as to take 1 point off of an otherwise perfect score to ding the opening.

I had to assume that since agents were still form rejecting, the majority were still not reading past the first five pages. It still wasn’t good enough. I went back and revamped the entire opening, still concentrating on the elements that I thought would work, but I also started with action. I put it in the heroine’s POV. I highlighted the immediacy and danger she was in. The response was phenomenal.

I immediately finaled in the Chase the Dream contest with 1000 words. The Secret Agent gave me great comments and a request off of 250 words. I entered five contests at the beginning of the year and finaled in four of them.  Queries with sample pages attached started getting requests for partials or fulls. All because I tacked on three additional pages to the manuscript.

It was a hard choice to make this leap because the overall feedback on my old opening was positive. Here’s a little secret…shhhh…The “old” opening was what ended up winning the GH! I still maintain that it wasn’t good enough. All the good comments in the world don’t matter if the Red Line of Death is still hovering around page 1.

When my agent offered representation, she told me that she read the first five pages and knew this was it. That’s the sort of emotional pull you need to get past that red line and draw readers in until they reach the end.

Really pay attention to how agents and editors are responding to your sample pages. If it’s with resounding silence, you may have to do the hard thing. Take a harsh look at your opening and see if you can not just polish, but elevate those first five pages. Sometimes, that’s all it needs for you to start getting picked out of the slush pile.

Have you ever had an epiphany that turned you around as a writer? What was it?

78 responses to “The First Five Pages…and the Red Line of Death”

  1. […] for the workshop in my post for Tuesday at the Ruby-Slippered Sisterhood blog which is titled, “The First Five Pages…and the Red Line of Death”. Hope you can come by! Maybe the comments from the post to help me prepare for the […]

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  2. Jeanie, there’s so much you need to achieve in those first five pages. It’s daunting! But I agree–opening with action immediately engages the reader. Good on you for recognising your opening pages needed to hit ’em between the eyes. You obviously succeeded in doing so!

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      It’s the hardest part of the whole book, isn’t it? I resisted opening with action for so long, but it seemed to do the trick. That’s not to say you have to have an action opening. As long as the beginning brings you into the conflict quickly, I think you can get the same effect.

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  3. What marvellous info, Jeannie. I’m going to go back and re-evaluate some of my openings. Maybe your post will be my epiphany!

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  4. Darynda Jones says:

    “I learned that a character who is secretive or hiding something or unemotional on the outside, should exhibit strong emotions on the inside.”

    I had never thought of it that way, but you are absolutely right, Jeannie. Great post! And Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages is one of my favs!

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      I like the First Five because I can open it up anywhere and just read one small section and it already helps me rethink my manuscripts. I like craft books, but like my huge TBR pile, I like having them around but can’t seem to finish them.

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      • Kim Law says:

        I’ve read most of The First Five, and that line apparently missed me. I love it, but I don’t recall thinking about characters that way before. It’s so accurate though.

        And I’m like you, Jeannie. Love craft books…never enough time to read them!

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  5. Oh, Jeannie, you’re so right. If the first pages don’t grab the reader by the throat the author hasn’t done her/he job. The reader is lost to another.

    I love THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. Opened my eyes and I refer to it often.

    I’m going to grab my red pen and start edit umphteen on my wip, starting with those first pages. Thanks for the reminder.

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      After agents were willing to read past those first pages, they tended to continue pretty far afterwards. I was really surprised. I guess you really only get one chance to make that first impression.

      Have “fun” on those revisions, AJ! I’m slogging through a draft just to have something to revise.

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  6. Elise Hayes says:

    A timely post for me, Jeannie–I’m going back and working on the first scene of my current wip. I started version #4 last night and am hopeful that this might be the one…

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Good luck! I always ignore the beginning until I’m really ready to submit since I know it’s going to take so much work. But when it starts to come together, it’s exciting isn’t it?

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  7. Jeannie,
    As always, great info! I’m fighting an opening page right now and banging my head against the keyboard. It’s so not fair that you have so much to accomplish in just a few graphs. Le sigh…

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Hi Kim!
      So little space, so much to do. That’s why I always envy people who can write killer hooks. That’s something I’m trying to figure out. Echoes sigh…

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  8. Kim Law says:

    Nice post, Jeannie. Those openings are SO hard. I struggled for a long time (and different manuscripts) with instantly showing too much of how my heroine “closed” herself off to keep from getting hurt. I always managed to make her come across really nasty instead of sympathetic. Contest feedback can be brutal with first-impression nasty heroines!

    It also took me until my third manuscript to be able to relax and write the first chapter as smoothly as all the others. There’s so much to get into the first chapter and especially the opening, that somehow I wrote my stress into my words. Weird, huh? I think it was just stilted because I was trying to put too much in w/out backstory dumps and it ended up not coming across as characters living on the pages, but me forcing characters on to be there.

    Anyway…sorry to ramble…loved the post 🙂

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      I totally know what you mean Kim! In my contest warpath, I can’t count the number of times I’d get something back and say to myself, “Well, that didn’t work.”

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  9. Great timing with the post, Jeannie – I’m just getting to that fine tooth edit section of the writing process. I’m paying a lot of attention to my pages, noting some of (and now all of the things) you’ve mentioned in your post. 😉 Thanks!

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  10. Katrina W says:

    Hi Jeannie! I LOVE rules and guidelines. I like what you say about “What is right?” I’ve been struggling with that lately, so I’m glad you posted some things for me to think about. I appreciate you showing us your journey. I need a daily reminder that just because one person doesn’t like your story, tomorrow, you may find someone who does – just the way it is.

    Thanks for the great post!

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Thanks for the wonderful comments Katrina!

      I’m a rules based person which is why I was always the math and science kid in school. Definitely play around and then come up with what seems to be working for you.

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  11. Two thumbs up on your blog, Jeannie. It takes me as long to write the first five pages as it does the rest of the first three chapters. The problem is those first five pages have to include so many elements to suck the reader into the story. It takes a lot of discernment to know what to keep and what to chuck.

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Great point Laurie! I think all the reading and studying only goes so far and the rest only comes with experience. Learning what to cut is the hard part. 🙂

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  12. Nice post! How to start a manuscript is like the never ending problem. If you can beat it in one story, it pops right back up in the next.

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  13. Elisa Beatty says:

    Fabulous post, Jeannie! This is one I’ll save.

    I love the phrase “Red Line of Death.” (Totally terrifying…totally accurate!)

    I’ve gotten some contest feedback on my current WIP which suggests I need to pick up the pace of my opening…. Your story makes me feel like I’ve got to suck it up and re-do: “not just polish, but elevate those first five pages.” Much thanks!

    Much thanks!!

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Thanks Elisa. The Red Line of Death pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

      What you said about pacing made me think. When the Red Line of Death got extended and I first started getting agent feedback, the comments I got were about pacing. Maybe once you have the essentials down, then pacing becomes the next roadblock. Sorry, got off on a tangent! Pacing figures big into the workshop I’m preparing, so this is interesting. Good luck with the revisions.

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  14. Bria Quinlan says:

    Jeannie – You’re brilliant at boiling things down. I can’t wait till everyone reads your stuff and can really see how amazingly you’ve done these things!

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Bria! *blushes* It’s not that. I just can’t remember more than 3 or 4 rules.

      Can’t wait till everyone reads yours either. Watch out world. 😉

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  15. Pamela Cayne says:

    Great post, Jeannie! And I love Michael Hauge, too (along with Blake Snyder), though I have to say the best opening advice I ever got (or that really took) was from Jenny Crusie–start where the action starts. That’s my keeper, and gets me going on the right foot.

    We’ll see–I just entered the Hook, Line and Sinker contest, so I’ll have a good idea come January!

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Good luck with the contest! Is it still just 3 pages? Wow, talk about packing a punch real quick.

      I had heard “start where the action starts” over and over and STILL it took me forever to really get it. Oh….yeah. I have a thick skull sometimes.

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      • Pamela Cayne says:

        Yeah, Hook, Line & Sinker is still 3 pages. I liked it because it was such an instant contest–winners announced in January. No muss, no fuss.

        And as far as thick skulls go, we must have been separated at birth! And, I’m an Aries, so I’ve got double stubborn going for me, but, all the better to get published with, right? 😉

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  16. Maya Doyle says:

    Great article, Jeannie.

    I’m working on the opening of a story (or 3) right now and the first 5 pages are kicking my butt. I’ll try to keep your list in mind as I work on them!

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      I admire people who can work on more than one project at once. I have such a one track mind.

      I resign myself to writing what Anne DeStefano calls the “ugly draft”. I know my opening is going to be rough and I’ll just fix it later…I hope. Happy Writing!

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  17. Wow, Jeannie. I’d forgotten that you’d been picked for Chase the Dream! Congratulations on all your successes. I’m truly eager for Butterfly Swords to come out — do you have a date yet?

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Chase the Dream is an awesome opportunity. You get eight weeks to resubmit the same entry if you want. And by finaling, you already win. The panel was about six or seven editors and agents, all who left comments.

      Still no date on the Butterfly…but hoping, hoping…

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  18. Liz Talley says:

    Excellent post, Jeannie!

    I am horrible with first pages. I write and get to know my characters as I go which means I usually have to scrap the first pages of my story. This is a great reminder for me and something I hope to focus on as I go back through edits.

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      I am totally the same way. Anytime there’s a little box on a scoresheet for “hook”, I get clobbered. I have some CPs who are awesome at writing compelling openings right off the bat. I love and hate them.

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  19. Diana Layne says:

    I almost always start too early in a story and have had to cut up to two chapters in the past. Even now, I’m faced with cutting another opening and rewriting, sigh.

    On the epiphany thing, I entered a first lines contest that Karin Tabke had on her blog and I learned to write much tighter through that experience. I think, for me, the trick is saying a lot in as few words possible.

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Oh, I totally forgot about Karin’s contest. Maybe because I got knocked out in the very first round and had to lick my wounds. LOL. That’s a really great contest to follow as the first paragraph unfolds.

      I think you’re right on about tight writing being so important for getting a lot in with so little space. A challenge for us purple prosers!

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    • Diana, I was just thinking: maybe it’s OK if you start too early in a book, as long as you know you’re going to be cutting early chapters out in the revision stage. That’s just how you get your motor running before the main event! If you go into a new book with the knowledge that your first several days of work are pre-writing, then maybe it’ll be less frustrating.

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  20. Awesome advice, Jeannie! Openings are one of those things that I seem to instictively do well (and they come easy to me, too) but it took me awhile to learn that just because they’re good doesn’t mean they couldn’t be better. I’m working on applying that to my entire manuscript this time around.

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  21. Addison Fox says:

    Jeannie;

    What a great post! I think you’re spot on with everything you’ve got here, but I think the real gem is the paragraph length and what that means to pacing.

    If you’re writing mass market fiction, the reader is looking to dive in and really get into the story and the only way to give them that is to make it move.

    Happy Tuesday! 🙂

    Addison

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  22. Felicia Holt says:

    Oh, this was a great post! I saved it for reference – this will be really useful for when I’m redrafting/editing. It was just what I needed because my current first five pages… Not so wonderful. Yet!

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  23. Shea Berkley says:

    Wonderful post, Jeannie!

    First pages have to do so much, it’s amazing we can find the space. I’m a craft book person, too. One of my favorites is James Scott Bell. If you’ve never gotten one of his books, do. He’s a fantastic, down-to-earth teacher, and a really nice man.

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  24. Kate Pearce says:

    Great advice Jeannie! Sometimes its hard to take a long hard look at your own manuscript and work out what is stopping you from succeeding, but kudos to you for doing it so well and explaining it so well 🙂

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  25. Ami Weaver says:

    I printed this out. I’m not good at openings at all–my current ms is a total fluke, LOL–so this is a huge help. OTOH, I don’t have any problems with end-of-chapter hooks. Weird.

    When I judge I can tell within a page or two, too, but in my own work it’s so much harder!

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  26. jbrayweber says:

    Awesome post, Jeannie. Great advice for a writer at any stage of her career.
    Thanks!
    Jenn!

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  27. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Great post, Jeannie. As a lover of prologues in a world that seems to despise them, dumping that springboard and figuring out how to meld that info into the story without extensive flashbacks has been the bane of my existance. But, at long last (I can almost hear Laurie sobbing with relief!), I’ve accepted the wisdom of chopping and lopping—although my heart is a wrinkled prune of anguish.

    Sometimes I long for the days when the only one my writing had to please was ME!

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      I just wrote a prologue and I’m struggling with whether to keep it or not. I’ve come to peace with the fact that the reason prologues are a gamble is because they tend to break a couple of the “rules” about openings. They have a whole other set of guiding principles. Maybe a Ruby Sister can tackle the prologue question? That’s something I definitely need to read up on.

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  28. Dara says:

    I think I’m still looking for that writer’s epiphany…:) Someday though it will come.

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  29. Elisa Beatty says:

    On contests that focus on openings: the GOTCHA has a Nov 7 deadline, I believe.

    There’s also a great little book by Les Edgerton called HOOKED, and it’s all about fast grabber openings–I think the subtitle is something like “How to grab your reader on page one, and never let go.” (Also, for those of you who love books as physical objects, the cover’s a wonderful bright swimming-pool blue with a big goldfish on it, and the book itself is a wonderful small, squarish size. Sorry…geek moment, but I just want to hug that cute little thing.)

    Anyhow, Edgerton has some great things to say about how FAST books need to open to catch contemporary readers.

    Ever since I’ve read HOOKED, I’ve been very conscious of the difference in pacing between the books, movies, and TV shows I consumed as a kid and what’s being put out now. What seemed normal to me then seems EXCRUCIATINGLY SLOW to me now. (We watched a classic Star Trek marathon the other day…oy vay!! I always thought that show was very exciting, but I kept thinking, “Get ON with it, already!”)

    Patience as a cultural value apparently expired sometime in the mid-1970s, and video games / music videos/ the internet / Twitter are only shortening attention spans. Romance novelists, beware.

    (Gwynlyn: I love prologues, too. But then again, I love reading Moby Dick. The times they are a’changin’).

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      That’s a wonderful comparison. Today’s books are competing against movies, TV, and the internet. What used to work may not be as effective anymore. That’s probably why Hague’s movie references resonated with me. Thanks Elisa!

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  30. Laurie DeSalvo says:

    Jeannie, what a great post! I so agree that in order to get to the next level, whatever it is for the individual, we must learn to take a harsh eye to our work. Personally, I never take an ‘atta girl as the final word from a reader unless I feel that I’ve put my best effort on the page, and even then, at some point I ma revisit it if it’s not working for the market I am targeting. I know that in the end, a CP is going to shape my story into the best it can be. They can offer great objective observations and feedback, but I’m the one that has to do the hard part and possible make some hard calls.

    Epiphanies… I had an epiphany when I realized that the reason I wasn’t getting anywhere with my GH manuscript was because it didn’t fit the market I was targeting. It sat in the middle of category and single title. I realized that all my writing up until that point sat in the middle. Mainly because I was trying to write big external conflicts with big casts of characters but not doing them justice or developing them enough. I believe that’s why I made it to quite a few partial and full requests but never quite made the cut. That was when I decided to revise it into a category novel. And that was when I made the cut for the GH and got some serious, personalized editor interest. Whether it will sell or not has yet to be determined ;o)

    But what I know now is that if I want to write single title I need to take my conflicts and the complexity to a whole new level. For category, I need to bring the lens in close focus.

    LD

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      That’s a great story Laurie. I think they hard thing about making these judgment calls is you have to go through all the work and you have no idea whether this is the right path or just another goose chase. It’s great to hear what it’s done for you.

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  31. Ronempress says:

    Sigh. I had checked out the First Five and it just didn’t speak to me. That probably means I wasn’t ready for it yet. I’ll check it out again. Too many books and no friggin time.

    Thanks for the post, Jeannie! This is exactly where I am with my ms and too blind to what I’ve got to see what needs to stay and what needs to go. Hopefully First Five can help remove the blinders. ;D

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      The First Five Pages may not be the book for you. I troll through craft books hoping one of them will give me “The Answer”, but it’s never that easy, is it?

      Sometimes it will be some little remark that will get your wheels spinning the right way. For me, it was looking at 99 out of 100 on a scoresheet. I had lower scores in that contest, but this one judge loved my entry except for one thing. It spoke to me for some reason and then all of the feedback and reflection just came together and made me think, it’s time to try something completely different.

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      I’ll put in another plug for Les Edgerton’s HOOKED (in case you didn’t see my over-long comment above).

      Personally, it worked much better for me than First Five. The examples resonated much more clearly.

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  32. rita says:

    Thank you for this. For a week I’ve been fighting this WIP so much I go to bed bruised at night. I’d already made a decision to ditch a few things. A few things you said really brought home what more I needed to do.not so much with the first pages but farther in. It’s funny how you understand all of this and someone will say or write something that suddenly makes it click. I know your workshop will be a great success. I do hope you will get the chance to present at Nationals also.

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Glad the post was a catalyst for you. Sometimes when I’m stuck, I try to read and, even though the topic is seemingly unrelated, it helps me unravel all the knots in my mind.

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  33. Anne Barton says:

    Jeannie, as I read your post I was nodding my head the whole time . . . and thinking about how could make my openings stronger. Wow. This will be a great workshop, and I hope I can hear you present the whole thing (in person) some day! Thanks for all your wonderful insights.

    Your first point, “You have one paragraph to establish your POV character as someone unique, admirable, sympathetic or likable” is my favorite. I need to go back and rewrite the first few pages after I’ve written the whole story. In that pass, I focus on making the POV as deep as possible and the heroine as likeable as possible.

    Another bit of advice would be not to hold anything back in those first pages. If you’ve got a witty line or a unique description you love, don’t save it for the later chapters . . . work it into those first few pages.

    A weird side effect of rereading and reworking the first five pages of each of my mss so many times is I can recite them by heart. Am I the only one afflicted that way? 🙂

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  34. Tina Joyce says:

    Great post Jeannie. I think the epiphany for me was when I started judging contests and saw for myself how important those first pages are. Those entries with really great openings, tended to hold my interest the entire way through. It was such a valuable lesson, but oh so hard to put into practice. I now agonize over my openings more than any other portion of my manuscripts.

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  35. Christine says:

    great post–printing it–and ordering two more craft books–sigh–always something to learn!

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  36. […] The First Five Pages…and the Red Line of Death by Jeannie Lin […]

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