Writing

October Events

I love October. Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I always enjoy making my house creepy with spooky decor. If I could get away with it, I’d probably leave it that way all year, but I doubt my family would be happy about it. I did manage to sneak a mercury glass skull onto one of our bookshelves last year, and nobody objected. Maybe they didn’t notice it was there for the whole year.

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October is a good time to be an author too, especially one who delves into horror. In fact, here are five spooky writing prompts to inspire you. Want more? On the 14th, at 3pm, I’ll be at the Astoria Public Library, teaching a workshop on writing scary and suspenseful scenes. Then, on October 21st, I’ll be taking the show on the road for the Northwest Author Festival at Klindt’s Booksellers from 2-5pm in The Dalles. It will be my third year attending the festival, and I’m excited to be back at Oregon’s oldest bookstore. Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky enough to see the bookstore’s resident ghost.

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© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017

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Writer’s Block

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Today I’m pleased to feature a post on writer’s block from friend and fellow author, Heather Douglas. Heather is a writer, illustrator, and educator based in Astoria, Oregon. She is the author of a book of poetry and was recently awarded Astoria Visual Art’s Writer in Residence. She also writes for Coast Weekend. More of her work can be found at OscarAstoria.com.

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“Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” –Charles Bukowski

Whether the phrase writers’ block conjures up an image of Jack Nicholson in The Shining obsessively typing the same phrase on his typewriter, or a romance novelist at their peaceful mountain retreat with a cup of tea waiting desperately for inspiration to come, the struggle is real for many writers.

Stephen King, a very prolific writer and America’s most famous of the horror genre once said “amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and go to work.” While King is absolutely correct, it doesn’t hurt to have a few strategies to employ from time to time.

My relationship with writing has reflected the ebb and flow of my own creative life. In elementary school, I was encouraged and rewarded by events like the Oregon Writing Festival at Portland State University where I could meld minds with kids like me. I loved creative writing and poetry and had some of my work published in the local paper and won some school wide writing contests. Along with other kids in my neighborhood, we created a newspaper called The Tapiola Times (named after the park I grew up next door to); we wrote movie reviews, comic strips and from time to time ‘investigative’ article and features. Putting pen to paper and writing was easy back then and was a blast—I was good at it, I liked it and I could say what I wanted and think hard about it without getting flustered in everyday conversations.

Middle school began what I would call the ‘essay and book report years.’ The formulaic pattern of essay writing was stifling. I was no longer expressing my own imagination and creativity, but writing analysis about the creative work of authors who were dead and gone. It’s not that I had no love for the classics. I spent half of one summer reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles in a tent I had set up in my parents’ backyard—but I didn’t get to choose what classics I wanted to write about—yet, there is value in pushing through work that is difficult.

Yet, I craved a balance between expressing my own creativity and following the rules in school. I no longer loved writing, but I never suffered from writer’s block because I adapted; I began to rely on my work ethic—something I had thankfully nurtured through sports—you push through the pain, get the job done and don’t complain. I begrudgingly became friends with the essay, the book report and the worksheet. I was rewarded and encouraged by my teachers for my efforts in writing.

In college, I majored in English and was required to write copiously in the standard essay format. I wrote very little, if any creative pieces. I realized that if I was going to write about more than just famous works, I would have to write on my own. It was a tumultuous time for me emotionally, and I began to lean on writing as a form of expression and therapy; I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of journal entries in great detail about what I was feeling at the time. I even earned a coveted compliment from a notoriously unrelentingly strict professor of James Joyce. He said I had talent and should consider getting a PhD to teach English. Although I was beyond flattered, I couldn’t imagine that the rest of my writing life would be spent centered around studying the works of a dead author—no matter how talented or epic.

While writing saved my life in a time of great existential loneliness during the college years, I went through a long phase of what I can only call tongue in cheek a phase of “creative constipation”—otherwise known as a decade of writer’s block. I stopped filling my journals and collapsed in exhaustion after my college graduation with the hopes of taking a huge break from essay writing and literary analysis.

Although I stopped writing, the ideas never stopped coming. Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic author, said about creativity, “possessing a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet; if you don’t give it a job to do, it will find a job to do—and you might not like the job it invents.”

In the past 5 years I have found my way back to writing through blogging, journalism, poetry and the occasional non-fiction story. I also teach high school students to find their voice through writing. I want them to feel inspired and empowered to try out different genres of writing. I don’t want them to experience the frustration of having no outlet for their feelings.

It has been a difficult journey, but these days I have a healthy balance between work ethic and inspiration. If I were to give advice to my young writing self about moving through creative blocks, this is what I would say now.

You are Free to Write Crap

In Natalie Goldberg’s book Wild Mind Living the Writer’s Life, one of her bedrock rules to writing is this: “you are free to write the worst crap in America.” You have to start somewhere, and keeping the pen moving whilst writing what you may think is the worst crap is better than not writing at all. Worst case scenario: it IS crap, but that’s what multiple, successive drafts are for. Best case scenario: it actually isn’t crap and you’re just too hard on yourself.

You Are a Writer if You Write

If you run, you are a runner. If you write, you are a writer. If you’ve always “wanted to write,” or you have a plan to “write someday,” or you have “a novel in your head,” you’re a dreamer, not a writer. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. One of the lessons you learn as you mature is that work ethic nearly always beats talent.

Writing is Work

Hemingway famously said “there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Writing can be scary, emotional and terrifying. But it’s work and it’s very worthwhile work.

Smack Down the Internal Editor

What Natalie Goldberg calls the “monkey mind” is the internal critic—the monkey that sits on your shoulder and peers down on what you do. It’s your ego and the one that constantly corrects you and forces you to doubt yourself.  It’s the perfectionist side that causes you to freeze like a deer in headlights.

There Are No Hard and Fast Rules for Writing

Work with the limitations of the day, but there are not hard and fast rules for writing. Some will say “write every day at the same time.” Some will say “make sure your desk is free from clutter.” Some will say “a messy desk is a mark of a creative mind.” Writing is amazing because there very few places where you can’t write. I have yet to think of a place where you can’t write—well, maybe…don’t write while you’re driving.

Talk To Other Writers

Chances are other writers feel exactly the same struggles. Find comfort in talking to them and rekindling the reasons you love writing.

Trust Yourself

Your narrative matters. Repeat: your narrative matters. Your unique perspective matters. What someone else thinks of your ability as a writer is none of your business. Write because your voice matters. Write because you have something to say. Write because although it may be hard work, you love it.

Thank you for joining us today, Heather! Check out Heather’s work at OscarAstoria.com.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


Writing Place

I can write anywhere—coffee shops, planes, waiting rooms, standing in line. I usually carry a journal with me in case I’m stuck somewhere, waiting, and then I type what I’ve written later. My preferred place to write, however, is my desk at home. It’s a minimalist, stainless-steel table with a pretty wooden box placed on top to hold office supplies. I’ve set out a few mementos to inspire me: a chunk of amethyst purchased at the gem and mineral show in Tucson, a ceramic owl to hold pens and pencils, a paperweight I created when I took an art glass class with my mom, a vase full of objects found along the seashore—shells, rocks, and a toy elephant. A special place—no, a sacred place—dedicated to creativity.

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Over the past year though, my sacred place to write became increasingly cluttered. Papers kept piling up and I kept putting off organizing them. In my defense, I’ve been busy: taking on a new job as a full-time academic advisor, teaching a writing class, completing nine editing projects (two of which were full-length novels), and releasing two books of my own. My place of inspiration became uninspired, which didn’t stoke the urge to create.

Finally, this weekend, I made time to go through the piles, tossing outdated and unnecessary documents and filing important ones. Why did I keep all this stuff? I guess I thought they were important at the time. It’s hard for me to be creative when I’ve got things hanging over my head, whether they are deadlines for other projects or piles of paper begging to be sorted. Purging was good for my soul, and my newly organized space is inspiring me once again.

My characters have been chatty lately, and I’m ready to see where they want to take me as I transcribe their adventures. I’ve got at least two novels in my head that are ready to hatch, and several others are still incubating. Finishing a book is just a matter of writing every chance I get, chipping away until I’ve got 90K words or so—a novel. My goal for this summer is to complete a first draft of one of the books I want to write. We’ll see how far I get.

I’ll have to be stingy with my writing time. I may go on hiatus from the blog from time to time if I’m on a writing stint, but I’ll surface with news about upcoming projects and events. If you’re on the north coast of Oregon and want to talk writing, stop by Lucy’s Books in Astoria for the Second Saturday Art Walk on July 8. I’ll be there from 5-8pm talking about my recent releases. I’ll also be at the Book Warehouse in Seaside in August and Klindt’s Booksellers in The Dalles in October. More news to come about those events.

I hope you have a wonderful summer. Between work and writing, I’ll try to remember to make time for the beach. The ocean is calling, and it can’t hurt to have more inspiration—find some sand dollars, play in the waves with my boys, and build a driftwood fort or two.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


Monster in the Woods

On Saturday, March 4, at 4pm, I’ll be at the Astoria Library, offering a free writing workshop on character-driven fiction. I’ll be sharing tools I use in my own writing, and we’ll do several writing exercises on character, setting, and point of view. It’ll be fun. Then, at 6pm, I get to read from Sunset Empire, and I’ll be talking about how Astoria’s history and legends influenced my writing. I’m looking forward to it. As a sneak peek, here’s another excerpt from Sunset Empire. I hope you like it.

 

Greasy Jim hated the rain. Lucky for him, he’d traded his favorite alley for something drier. He wasn’t the overly friendly type (unless, of course, he happened upon a young woman walking alone down a dark alley—then he was much too friendly), but he’d managed to fall in with a group of squatters who were taking advantage of a recently foreclosed Victorian, butting up against the woods.

One benefit to squatting was the house provided shelter from the autumn storms ravaging the coast. It was also large enough that each of the five middle-aged alcoholics had room to spread out without becoming too much of an annoyance to the others. Two of them had prior arrests for shop-lifting, and Jim would have been nervous about this, had he owned anything worth stealing. As it was, they were pretty good at scoring liquor, so everyone was in good spirits.

The downside to the house was the power and water had been shut off, so Greasy Jim was forced to visit the backyard to take a leak. The house was quiet and dark as he stumbled from his sleeping bag and down the stairs. Glancing out the front window, he could see that the neighbors’ porch lights were out. Probably after midnight, if he had to guess the time.

He trudged through the overgrown grass in the yard and stood at the edge of the trees, peering into the darkness as he prepared to do his business. The older he got, the harder it was to pee. Someone at a bar once told him that drinking was healthy because it reduced the risk of prostate issues. He’d joked that with all he drank, he’d never have a problem. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. He sighed, and closed his eyes.

He heard a slight rustle in the brush in front of him, and suddenly smelled something foul. Skunk. His housemates wouldn’t be too happy if he startled the thing and got sprayed. But, they’d been even less happy if he didn’t deal with the problem and one of them encountered the critter later. His booze privileges could be revoked. He glanced over at the back door. There was a rusty shovel leaning against the wall. He wondered if skunk tasted better than it smelled. Desperate times, desperate measures, he decided.

He zipped up and crossed over to the back door, the tall grass pulling at his legs. Shovel in hand, he made his way back to where he’d smelled the skunk, scanning the undergrowth for a white stripe. He couldn’t see anything in the dark, but the stench was growing stronger. Now it smelled less musky and more like decay. He choked back bile and covered his nose with one hand, gripping the wooden handle of the shovel in the other.

Something massive erupted from the trees. It wrenched the shovel from him, snapping the handle in half. He barely registered the release of pressure in his bladder before something grabbed both his legs, jerking them out from under him. He felt the air leave his lungs as his back hit the ground. As he was dragged into the woods, he found he had just enough breath left to scream.

 

Thanks for reading!

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© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


Finished

This week I’m thrilled to feature a guest post on writing by friend and fellow author, Diana Kirk. She is the author of Licking Flames: Tales of a Half-Assed Hussy. Her smart, thought-provoking essays can be found in Nailed, Thought Catalog, and Five 2 One Lit Mag. She lives on the coast of Oregon with her husband and three boys where she trades real estate and stories at tiny coffee shops.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Finishing. The word itself and the act itself. To finish means you need to start and in between you need to work hard and persevere. Persevere is a word I’m thinking of tattooing on my wrist, but I’m also considering simply writing “Finished.”

Because I love projects that are finished projects. The feeling of completion is so satisfying to me that if it’s a success almost doesn’t matter. Every trip I’ve taken abroad has been a project, every business I’ve started, a project, my marriage, my kids, my writing…all projects with outcomes. Some obviously not so definable as raising a human and whether they are successful. I think if my kids are confident and laugh at themselves heartily, they will be successful adults. But when are you finished? I don’t know. I’m in the work hard and persevere section of parenting these days.

Children’s writer Margaret Dilloway shared a post this week on Facebook stating Meyers Briggs personality tests are bunk. My letters describe me to perfection. An ENTP is The Visionary, extraverted intuition with introverted thinking.

“ENTPs are fluent conversationalists, mentally quick, and enjoy verbal sparring with others. They love to debate issues, and may even switch sides sometimes just for the love of the debate. When they express their underlying principles, however, they may feel awkward and speak abruptly and intensely.”

The article might be correct about Meyers Briggs being bunk because The Visionary is not known for finishing. The Visionary is known for having ideas. Triangulating information into possibilities. My friends and family have all received these late-night texts from me…

“We should buy a sailboat to share. We’ll sail to the tip of Baja, you sail back.”

I can only imagine my cousin sitting on her couch, watching a vampire show and rolling her eyes at my weird texts rolling through.

Visionaries are not known for finishing. They’re delegators, they’re farmers planting their ideas in the minds of different people to see if they’ll sprout up or become something interesting. They’re not ones to finish a thing.

I have a lot more ideas than I actually follow through on. I guess you’d say that’s not finishing. I once started a business grey importing RVs to Canada. I only did it once then bailed from stress. I had a knitting business, I used to sell soup at campgrounds to American Snowbirds in Mexico, I’ve brokered real estate deals for percentages, pitched movie scripts to agents, tour guided through Detroit. I simply like doing stuff, trying to do stuff. Finding the interesting quadrants in life.

Which is why I’ve been thinking about the word Finished this week. The more I look at books from an author standpoint, after formatting a manuscript, editing, book covers, distribution, publicity…I see that really, a book Is a lot about finishing. It’s not always about the best writing, or the best cover or the best anything. It’s about finishing a damn project from inception to completion.

This entire idea came to me from a question posted on a writer’s forum I follow. A woman asked the question about writing her mother or her family in a memoir. How would they take it? How do writers do this? I wanted to answer her but I just couldn’t because what I’ve seen is that if you worry so early on in your project, whatever it is, if you worry about your friends and family, you’ll never finish a thing. Because after you write that beautiful piece you’re so proud of, you’ll submit it to reviewers and one of them will take offense. Then your editors will argue about the validity of a different part. Whether it should be put in your book. Then one of your reviewers for this golden book will not understand your book. They’ll tell you to rewrite sections you don’t want to re-write. Then publicists will take your finished book and twist it into something you don’t feel deep in your guts. But maybe you actually are the person they’re pitching. You tell yourself it’s just a part of who you are. They’ll sell you as something more interesting than you feel. Then strangers will read your book and some of them will not understand your chapter two. They’ll tweet about it and you’ll just sit there with a vodka tonic…not really worrying about your mom anymore. By the end, you’ll just need a mom.

So maybe “Finished” is a heavily undervalued and yet beautiful word. I’m obviously not finished with life so perhaps tattooing it onto my wrist isn’t the best idea but maybe…it is. Because the word isn’t weighed down with a numerical scale of success, it isn’t populated on Twitter, it doesn’t reek with anxiety. If you did the stuffs and you never gave up, and there’s a set moment in time of finishing, then you’ve succeeded. Maybe finished means success. Maybe it should be the sexiest word ever. If anything, it’s definitely a check mark in that life resume.

I finished a book.

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Connect with Diana Kirk on her blog, dianakirk.wordpress.com, on Facebook, on Twitter, or on Goodreads. Her book is available at Amazon, IndiePress, and Powell’s.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


Words of Wisdom

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I got to spend last evening with some lovely, lovely writers at a book event at the Blue Scorcher Bakery. (I highly recommend the Scorcher’s hot chocolate, by the way. So rich and creamy. Their shortbread and pizza are also amazing.) We had a great group of authors, offering something for every reader: Matt Crichton, Heather Douglas, Kestrel Gates, Andrea Larson Perez, Angela Sidlo, Deb Vanasse, and me. That’s one of the best things about attending these kinds of events—besides talking with readers—hearing from other writers about their lives and writing process.

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fullsizeoutput_1fbAs I went around saying hello, a couple of conversations stood out. Angela Sidlo, coauthor of the bestselling anthology, The Silver Linings Storybook: Successful Leaders Share Inspiring Stories of Overcoming Stormy Days in Personal and Professional Life, had this sage advice for aspiring writers: “Write every day, even if it’s just a series of random thoughts, and never give up!” Angela and I also talked about developing characters, and how sometimes, when you are immersed in writing, trying to see the world of the story through your character’s eyes, they almost seem to come alive. You start to visualize their universe and hear their words. That probably sounds crazy to non-writers, but in my experience, it’s true. I’ve learned to let go of my preconceived notions about how a scene should go, and let the characters drive the dialogue and action. The story is always stronger and more authentic for doing that.

16357415_10208950072444646_1062175023_oAnother piece of advice that struck me was from Diana Kirk, author of Licking Flames: Tales of a Half-Assed Hussy. Diana’s book is a series of essays about feminism, family, travel, owning a business, and embracing sexuality. It is raw, honest, and at times inspiring, heart-breaking, and laugh out loud funny. One thing I love about Diana is she is fearless. Fortune favors the bold, and that is certainly true for her. I’ve seen her take risks in seeking out opportunities, and her courage and confidence have paid off. That’s why I love her advice for would-be authors. “Don’t be afraid of rejection,” she said. You have to put yourself out there and be vulnerable if you want to progress in your writing career. Rejection is part of the job, whether it’s submitting your manuscript to agents and publishers, asking another author to blurb your book, having your book critiqued in a review, or sitting at an event and trying to convince readers to purchase your book. It’s not easy to push fear and self-doubt aside, but you have to do it if you want to keep moving forward. Seize the day, writers.

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Kestrel Gates and Heather Douglas

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Angela Sidlo and Andrea Larson Perez

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Deb Vanasse signing a book for a reader.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


How I Found My Publisher

A few people have been curious about how I found a publisher for my suspense novel, Pitcher Plant, which will be released this spring. I thought I’d take some time and answer the question.

I connected with Filles Vertes Publishing through #PitMad (short for Pitch Madness), a pitch party on Twitter. The event was created by young adult author Brenda Drake, and I encourage you to check out her blog to learn more about her work and the details on #PitMad. She collects success stories from authors who have found agents and publishers through the event, so that’s a great resource for learning about what has worked for other people.

#PitMad occurs quarterly—the next event is March 23. If you have a completed, polished, unpublished manuscript, you pitch it to agents and publishers with a tweet on the day of the event. You have to be brief and focus on the main concept or conflict of the book. You include the book’s title and use hashtags so publishing professionals can sort by genre. For example, #YA would be used for a young adult book (there’s a genre list on Brenda’s blog). You include the hashtag #PitMad so your tweet shows up in the event feed. You can pitch three times on the day of the event, and it’s good to vary the times (think breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Professionals may view the feed at different times during the day, though I’ve noticed many of them check in early in the day. You can use the same pitch each time, or try different versions.

The key advantage to #PitMad is it’s a way to get out of the slush pile. If an agent or publisher favorites your tweet, that’s an invitation to send your query to them. You’ll want to follow their submission instructions (usually this means including #PitMad in the subject line of your email so they can easily spot your query). You’ll likely get a response more quickly than if you query without an invitation. You should research where you submit, because you want to tailor your query and make sure it’s a fit for that professional’s manuscript wish list, and also because anyone can say they are an agent or a publisher, and you want to be certain they’re legit.

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A few tips on writing your query letter. First, always be courteous and professional (say thank you). You’re applying for a job, so don’t assume you’ll get a contract. If possible, let the agent or publisher know why you’ve chosen to query them—in this case, because they liked your pitch. Include critical information: the title, word count, genre, and if requested via the submission guidelines, whether or not the query is exclusive. Follow that with a brief description of the book, and then a short bio. With your bio, you want to focus on relevant experience: other books you’ve written, notable accomplishments like awards or bestselling lists, and other experience related to writing. You don’t need to include much else, although if you wanted one sentence on your other interests, just to show your personality, that would probably be okay. Publishing professionals are more interested in the content of your book and whether or not it has the potential to sell than your hobbies.

As an example, here’s the query letter I sent to Filles Vertes Publishing after #PitMad:

 

Dear FVP Team,

Thank you for your invitation to share more about my novel at this week’s PitMad event. Here is the pitch you favorited: Buying a seaside fixer-upper seemed like a great idea until Tawny unearthed a murder victim. Now she’s next.

Set in a beachside town in the Pacific Northwest, PITCHER PLANT is a suspense novel with romance and elements of horror. It is complete at 85,500 words.

When thirty-year-old Tawny Ellis spots a weathered fixer-upper for sale in Seaside, Oregon, she jumps at the chance to own a house near the beach. She and her husband Mark are tired of sinking money into a high-priced rental, and hope by investing in the house, they can supplement their income by opening a bed and breakfast. Their marriage begins to unravel as repairs cost more than expected, budget cuts threaten Mark’s job, and Mark grows jealous over Tawny’s budding friendship with an attractive handyman. Tensions rise as Nicholas Stroud, the house’s former owner, begins stalking Tawny and her two young daughters. Tawny learns that Stroud lost his childhood home through foreclosure, and believes he may still be angry over the loss.

Then one of Tawny’s daughters starts talking about a new friend, one who might be imaginary. This friend bears a striking resemblance to a former resident, a little girl who squatted in the house with her drug-addicted mother during the foreclosure. Now the girl and her mother are missing, and Tawny suspects Stroud may be responsible for their disappearances. After finding evidence of foul play in the house, Tawny fears she and her daughters may become Stroud’s next victims.

I am an award-winning author living near Seaside with twin boys, a neurotic dog, and a piranha. Sign of the Throne, my debut young adult novel published by an independent press, won a 2014 Reader’s Favorite International Book Award and a 2014 Eric Hoffer Book Award. My third book, The Sower Comes, won a 2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award. My fourth book, Sunset Empire, was released this week in the Secrets and Shadows YA box set. Today I was excited to learn that the collection is a #1 Amazon Bestseller in the UK.

Besides my weekly blog on MelissaEskueOusley.com, I contribute monthly articles about writing, editing, and marketing to BookDaily.com and I have edited for Barking Rain Press and Lorincz Literary.

Thank you for your time and for considering my submission. The first 25 pages are included below.

Sincerely,

Melissa Eskue Ousley

 

I hope this is helpful. Comment if you have questions, and best of luck with your submissions!

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017