There's never been a better time to be a writer. We have so many different ways of finding readers and getting our work in front of them. You can self-publish a book, which is fantastic because you don't have to rely on gatekeepers.
But let's face it. Self-publishing takes a little bit of time, and you have to invest in a book cover. You've also got to spend money on advertising now, and so on.
But what if there's a different way? Enter serialization. Famous authors, from Charles Dickens to Agatha Christie, have all serialized their works. The good news is, it's easier than ever to do it today.
Perhaps, the best place to serialize your book is on Substack. I've interviewed several top Substack publication owners over the past few years. But this week's interview is a good one. It's with Sarah Fay, a creative writing professor at Northwestern in the United States. She's also an author at HarperCollins.
In this episode, we discuss:
Whatever stage your current writing project is at, serialization is a great way to practice your work in public and connect with your readers.
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Sarah: I've always written. I mean, that sounds like a cliche. But there was never a question of what I would do for a living. I did not know at the time how hard it is to make money. And I wish someone had alerted me to that. But I always knew that I wanted to write, and that was just my profession from the beginning.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Should you serialize your book, your novel, or your memoir? And if so, how? Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today channel. There's never been a better time to be a writer. We have so many different ways of finding readers and getting our work in front of them. You can self-publish a book, which is fantastic because you don't have to rely on gatekeepers. But let's face it. Self-publishing can take a little bit of time, and you got to invest in a book cover. And you've also got to now spend money on advertising, and so on.
But what if there's a different way? Enter serialization. Famous authors from Charles Dickens to Agatha Christie have all serialized their works. The good news is, it's easier than ever to do it today. Perhaps, the best place to serialize your book is on Substack. I've interviewed a number of top Substack publication owners over the past few years. But this week's interview is a good one. It's with Sarah Fay, who is a creative writing professor at Northwestern in the United States. She's also an author at HarperCollins. She runs not one, but two different Substack publications. One of them teaches authors and writers how to serialize their books, novels, or memoirs, and the other is a serialization of her novel.
In this week's interview, she goes into her exact process for serialization. She explains the key things you must do before you serialize your book or your work. Now, I have experimented with serialization in the past. In fact, I even serialized extracts from my book I Can't Believe I'm a Dad on my personal website, bryancollins.com. However, I do need to rethink what way to approach serialization in the future. Sarah gave me a number of takeaways and thinking points that I'm going to use. I may even return to Substack with my personal writing. That said, whatever stage your current writing project is at, serialization is a great way of practicing your work in public and also connecting with your readers.
I hope you enjoy this week's interview with Sarah Fay. If you do, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store. Because those reviews do help more writers find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. You can even go one step further and share the show with another writer or somebody who's interested in the process of serialization. Any help you can offer to grow the podcast is greatly appreciated.
Bryan: My guest today is Sarah Fay. She's an award-winning author, a creative writing teacher, and a keynote speaker. Her work has appeared on numerous publications, including NPR, Oprah, Forbes, and many more. Welcome to the show, Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.
Bryan: I'm excited to talk to you about your course, Serialize, which is for fiction and nonfiction authors. A big advocate in the principle that you teach. Before we cover that, how did you get into writing?
Sarah: I've always written. I mean, that sounds like a cliche. But there was never a question of what I would do for a living. I did not know at the time how hard it is to make money, and I wish someone had alerted me to that. But I always knew that I wanted to write, and that was just my profession from the beginning. So, it was a slow — I shouldn't say it was a slow entry. But I got into it in ways that I now teach my students to get into it.
The easiest way to get into writing is to start writing book reviews and interviewing authors. And that's what I did. I ended up really excelling at that and interviewing authors for The Paris Review, which in the United States is really the pinnacle of interviewing. Then that allowed me to move toward having the kind of bylines and the kind of clips that could get me into other magazines.
But I was always writing fiction. I don't think that's my zone of genius yet. But supposedly, fiction comes to writers very late in life. So, I'm excited to age. Hopefully, it'll work. Nonfiction has always been my love, and writing personal essays. Then I wrote my memoir, which was really incredible to write. It's called Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses. It's about my 25-year journey in the mental health system. I wrote it very quickly. It landed in a powerhouse agent who I love right away. I wrote it in five months. I got an agent, and we sold it in a month. That was incredible. And so, all those—
Bryan: Could you give listeners a timeline so they can understand how you went from interviewing authors to landing a big book deal?
Sarah: Yeah, so, I interviewed authors and wrote book reviews in my 20s. And so, I was living in New York City. Very expensive. I was teaching writing in the New York City public schools in really rough neighborhoods. So, always supplementing my writing with teaching. I love teaching. So, that has always been the second passion that I have.
Then in my 30s, I got an MFA, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing — which many writers in the U.S. do, and that, as many writers will tell you, used to get you a teaching job at a university. A tenure track job that can be very comfortable financially. When I came out of my MFA program in my 30s, that was ending. Basically, there became a glut in the market of people with MFAs who wanted to teach.
So, I went and I got a PhD in literature, which most writers don't do. That was six years of my life. I missed the entire Obama administration because I was in the stacks, in the library, when people used to still go to libraries. I was doing really rarefied studies of literature and writing my dissertation. That, I thought, would definitely get me a tenure track job. When I graduated from my PhD program, there was also a glut in the market of PhDs.
So, I ended up basically piecing together adjunct teaching here and there. Then that put pressure on my writing. I knew that I had to be publishing more. By that point, I was pretty much only writing essays, personal essays. Then I started my memoir. So, I had been writing novels all along. They are in a drawer where they should stay. And so, that was how I got there. By the time I did write my novel or my memoir that quickly, I've been writing for 20 years. So, I had all of that practice and education behind me.
Bryan: That's quite a lot of practice. Just to go back to The Paris Review, because I used to read The Paris Review when we studied some of their personal essays, when I was taking some creative writing courses. Did you interview any famous authors? Because they pretty much have the who's who, the best authors of all time.
Sarah: I did. It was an incredible experience. They sent me to Japan. I interviewed the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe. That was amazing. They sent me to Spain. I got to interview Javier Marias, who is like a rock star in Spain. Authors don't get that kind of fame here. I interviewed Marilynne Robinson, the novelist who wrote Housekeeping and also the Gilead trilogy. I interviewed Kay Ryan, the poet, and Jack Gilbert, who's one of my favorite poets. I think I don't know if you had this experience. But really, The Paris Review is the greatest writing education. Those interviews are just incredible. I just read every single one, and really learned so much about writing from those interviews.
Bryan: Yeah, I still reference some interviews. I recommend the listeners to check it out. So, you did a Ph.D. in creative writing. Not many writers take it that far. Is that something aspiring writers need? Do they need that level of education to write?
Sarah: I actually did a Ph.D. in literature which is different. That's the kind of hardcore literature people go into. That six years, it's a big commitment. That is really writing about literature, the MFA in Creative Writing, which is most common here. Most people stop there. There is a Ph.D. in creative writing now. It's kind of looked at as silly. You don't need a Ph.D. in creative writing. You have to write. That's how you become a better writer. So, that is how most people view it. There's nothing wrong with getting a Ph.D. in creative writing, especially if you get funding, and it can support you for three years or two years, which is how long they last. But it's absolutely not necessary.
Bryan: Yeah, I looked at a few MFA programs in Ireland at one point. I felt like what they do is give you a group to give your writing to get feedback from, and some space to write as part of a structured program. That's something that you can probably do anyway without going further in your education.
Sarah: Exactly. That is what drew me to start teaching also on Substack. Now I'm lucky because I teach at one of the most prestigious universities in the country. I love teaching in the classroom. But what Substack gives an opportunity for — and this is something that short story writer George Saunders has done. I took his lead. So, he won the Booker Prize and is one of the US' preeminent short story writers. He teaches. He's tenured. Meaning, he's sort of the highest-level professor at Syracuse. He started teaching on Substack. I thought, "Why don't I do that?" He teaches the short story. I knew that I wanted to take my teaching out of the classroom and be able to give it to more people. I love teaching. I'm really good at it. I know that I inspire people to write. So, why limit it to a few thousand people when I could give it to tens of thousands of people, who maybe can't afford an MFA, who maybe don't have the time to give to that? And I agree. I don't think it's necessary anymore. The world has changed so much. It's such an exciting time to be a writer.
Bryan: Substack is a fantastic platform. But when you were considering it, did you ever look at, for example, a traditional blog, or a website, or YouTube, or some other means of delivering your teachings?
Sarah: I didn't, only because I fell in love with Substack. I started writing on it about a year and a half ago. I just loved it. I loved being able to build my email list. I loved having this community of people reading my work. I loved being able to really reach out in a way that felt like I had a magazine. I don't even think of it as a newsletter. It's a way to offer my readers so much more than that. So, I was writing on it. I still have a Substack called Sarah Fay. I'm actually serializing my new book on there, my new memoir. It's called Cured. It's my story of recovery from mental illness. That's Sarah Fay. That's separate. I chose to do that with the guidance of my agent and my editor at HarperCollins. So, they are also—
Bryan: They were okay with you? They didn't mind you serializing on Substack as well?
Sarah: They actually encouraged it. And what's so interesting is, I was having a conversation with my editor the other day, and she was telling me that publishers are nervous. They're losing writers to Substack. Why would you wait two years for a book to come out when you can publish it now, and really have more agency over your income? I was really lucky in that I got a very generous advance for my book Pathological. But I wanted to see what can happen with serializing a memoir. Because I'm teaching it now. So, I want to be able to guide writers and sort of make the mistakes for them so they don't have to do it.
Again, I want to be teaching not just writers how to serialize, but how to become better writers by serializing. So, it's much more than just emailing a bunch of chapters. That's not what serializing has ever been throughout the history of serialization in literature.
Bryan: It's quite easy to set up a publication on Substack. But often, the challenge is discovery. That is finding email subscribers and readers. So, how did you go about growing your newsletter in the early days?
Sarah: I didn't really, in earnest, start publicity for my newsletter. I wanted it to be a sandbox at first. I was just publishing personal essays. It was the kind of guiding principle which is really important to have on Substack, something that defines you. It was called "start with a question." I would always just start with a question about our mental and emotional lives. Then I would write an essay. It was kind of like a prompt for myself. I liked seeing the open rate for certain emails, which posts were guiding people. A lot of people are doing that with Substack and using it more for figuring out their own work. That's something I really encourage people to do in terms of serialization as well. You can set Substack up to be private. You can have it be just a workshop space, which I think is so cool. Some writers want to do that.
But in terms of publicity, I've really done it more for Serialize. One thing that's tricky about Substack is, newsletters have to offer a service. When you're an author and you're writing fiction or creative nonfiction — novels or memoirs — it's not as clear what that service is. What are you giving people in return for their time, in return for their money?
And so, what I'm doing is helping writers write books. What we do, our service as writers is to not just entertain people — which is a big part of it — but to make them think. Sometimes novels can create social change. There are so many ways to approach it. And so, I'm trying to help writers really see what their gifts are and what they offer readers that's really exceptional. But then, I'm also doing the nuts and bolts. How does SEO work? How do you capitalize on that? How do you create relationships with other writers on Substack? Because those recommendations are really important and can really, really help. And what do you do? I mean, in the sense of some writers do like to offer, they're serializing their novels, so publishing a chapter once a week. They aren't chapters. They're installments. But publishing an installment once a week, and then something else that they want to give writers once a week. I'm not crazy about that model. But that's a possibility. So, you're offering tips or insights once a week, and then giving an installment of your novel once a week.
Bryan: Did you ever consider having one Substack for your book and for what you're teaching on Serialize? Or was it always your choice to go with two separate books like newsletters?
Sarah: Yeah, I don't recommend that. It's too confusing for people. You really want to devote. I mean, what I talk about is, you really want to serve readers. Not get them to do what you want, which is read your book. You want to be very respectful of their time. You want to be respectful of how much you're emailing them. Our inboxes are full. So, when are you going to approach your readers is really important to think about. I didn't want to be just sort of pummeling people with emails three times a week. I publish twice on Serialize, and then I'm publishing once on Sarah Fay. That's three emails a week. That's a lot.
Now, I have a lot of people that are on my email list for both, and they don't unsubscribe. Those are the people who want to be there for both and want to see it. So, I never thought of that. Because I think of serialization as a form. It is, if we're going to have a blockbuster serialization, which hasn't happened yet and I'm determined to make it happen. Meaning, a kind of best-selling serialization of a novel. If we're going to do that, we have to treat it as a form. And we have to learn the craft of that form. There's a long history of serialized novels, and we have to learn from them.
Bryan: That's something you touched on on your about page. You described some examples. I wasn't familiar that these authors have all serialized. You mentioned Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, Truman Capote, Agatha Christie, and many more.
Sarah: Yeah, and what I want to do — this is what we do in creative writing programs. This is why people want to go to an MFA. Because you're taught how to read the masters and learn from them. That's the best thing you can give a writer because that's lifelong. What I do that's different is, for instance, I just posted today. It's about cliffhangers and learning from Agatha Christie's the serialization of And Then There Were None to look at how cliffhangers work. What's really fascinating, and this is why serializers have to think in terms of installments and not chapters. And Then There Were None has 16 chapters and an epilogue. But the serialization of it was only seven issues. So, the editor changed the book, which is so cool to look at. I went into the archives, and I showed readers the serialization, the photos in The Saturday Evening Post, and looked at how editors knew how to keep readers reading from one issue to the next. It's very different. It's a totally different experience for the reader. Because with a book, we commit. We say, in some ways, yes, I'm going to read you. But in a serialization, there's no commitment. So, you really have to know how to keep readers reading.
Novelists aren't that great at it naturally. Some are. You have the Stephen Kings, or you have Dan Brown, more popular writers. But what I'm teaching people to do is, okay, how are you going to attract readers? Then how are you going to keep them reading from one post to the next? How are you also going to draw readers in when you're in installment number five so that the novel is well underway? But it was really cool to look at where the editor of The Saturday Evening Post chose to divide up And Then There Were None. What's wonderful is, he was a much better writer than Agatha Christie.
Bryan: And Then There Were None was the installment version different to the final version of the book.
Sarah: Yeah, exactly. But what's interesting is, actually, the book was written first. Serializers can do two different — there are two different methods of serializing your novel. One is to do what — everyone always cites Charles Dickens. But he was hardly the only person to do this. But he did map out his novels. I actually studied the serialization as a form in my doctoral program. I give my subscribers a way to map their serial novel, and it's based on Charles Dickens' method. So, he would map it out. Not quite an outline, because it was more flexible than that. Then he would write one week to the next. What's really great is when readership would flag, he just changed the plot. So, he was really reacting.
Bryan: Nice. In a way, he's using like the analytics and data to change his stories.
Sarah: Totally. But the other way to do it, which has happened often as well, which is the book is written. It's written as a book. It's thought of as a book with chapters. But that's very different than serializing. So, then, it would go to the editor, and it would go to the magazine. The editor would divide it up differently to suit the serialized form. And so, Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None is very different in the book than in The Saturday Evening Post. That's what I talked about in today's post, just trying to look at, specifically, how do writers get better at cliffhangers? Those are tricky to do and do well. But we can learn from actually the editor of The Saturday Evening Post, more so than the queen of mystery. Because he did a better job with cliffhangers.
Bryan: It sounds like if I were to serialize, I do not need to have my entire book finished. Just like I can have a general outline of what, where to plot our story is going to go.
Sarah: Yeah, and what I call it is an event ladder. It's better to think in terms of events. Outlining, it's different, right? Serializing really depends on action and movement. When you write a book, especially if you are writing literary fiction, you can have a character-driven novel.
If we look at Elizabeth Strout — the American writer, she's a Pulitzer Prize winner — and her Lucy Barton novels, those are just beautiful. You immerse yourself, and they're just completely quiet character-driven novels. That's not going to work on a serialization. Really, when you are creating that event ladder, you have to think in terms of events. An outline can get you into trouble, in that you might choose to introduce a character for a chapter. That's a chapter that can go in the book. In installment, things have to happen. Characters have to change. And that's what I teach people.
Bryan: I can see how it would work quite well for fiction writers. I work or I write a lot of nonfiction. How can I apply the event ladder to my nonfiction?
Sarah: Do you write narrative nonfiction?
Bryan: That's probably the last long form that I've written. I wrote a type of memoir about becoming a dad unexpectedly. How do I serialize something like that, apart from putting the chapters in individual emails, which is what I did with some takeaways at the end.
Sarah: It's the same thing. So, the same premises apply. But I have two different courses, kind of quick courses that I offer on Serialize. One is prep your novel, and one is prep your memoir. So, they are slightly different. What I take you through, right now, I'm just addressing narrative nonfiction, personal essays that have a narrative. So, short form, which you could do and collect as a story cycle or essay cycle. But I'm really looking at memoir. And so, that follows the same narrative demands or has the same narrative demands as a novel. It's just a true novel.
But there are two ways to do that. There's a great appeal to serializing your memoir instead of publishing it traditionally. You can serialize your whole memoir and your whole novel. As I discussed with my agent and my editor, you can then sell it to a major house. You just take it down from Substack. No big deal. That is an amazing prospect. So, you've had this run of not just writing in your room, in the attic. But you've actually been interacting with your readers. You've been building your email list.
But back to your question about memoir. Teaching the same kind of things. But how are you going to end a memoir chapter on a cliffhanger? How are you going to do that? That's something I talk about. It doesn't work the same way. It's a little more heavy handed in a memoir because you've got that first person. And so, you have to do it a little more gingerly. You could have someone. I mean, when we think about cliffhangers, it's named for a Thomas Hardy serialization. It's endemic to serializing. This is kind of literary lore. But supposedly, it's named for a chapter in Hardy's novel where a character literally ends up hanging off a cliff by his hands. So, that's a cliffhanger. And so, it's that literal. But it can be physical danger. It can be ending on a question that hasn't been answered yet. Those are all ways of using the cliffhanger, not just in a novel but in a memoir too. And so, it's a little bit different than how we normally think of memoir, which is to close a chapter in some ways, more so even than a novel.
But there's another way to do it. Truman Capotes' In Cold Blood was serialized. I mean, that is the first supposedly true novel. But that's a different way of thinking about narrative nonfiction and serializing it. You could do something that is about other people that is sort of reportage as well, that tells this long story. You could serialize that, but the same rules or effective craft tools still apply, which are, you've got to know plot. You have to know narrative arc. You have to no character change. Those are just absolutely key.
Bryan: Yeah, that's good advice. I actually did serialize my memoir but not on Substack. You just reminded me that the last chapter went out last week. So, I need to consider on what to send to readers next. That's on my personal site, not on Become a Writer Today. If somebody's doing this on Substack, what do they do when they reached the end of their current memoir or novel? Do they set up a new Substack for a new project or continue with the existing one? What's the best way to think about it?
Sarah: I say, continue with the existing one. And if you have one, you can launch if you choose to. On my site, Sarah Fay, I am serializing Cured, my new memoir. I'm just launching. I mean, I'm not just launching into it. So, I have an announcement date. I've set it up. It's all of 2023. I'm actually doing different pricing for 2023. I think that is a way that hasn't been talked about in terms of drawing new readers and keeping readers, which is I'm pricing it at the same price as a hardcover book. So, I'm basically saying, "Join me, and you can pay $30 for the year," which is about the equivalent of a hardcover in the United States.
That's very different than asking someone to pay $50, which is what the norm, the annual price on Substack for what is essentially a book. Then what I'll do is, at the end of the year, I will announce that I'm going to my next project, and I may change the pricing. So, that's something that a really amazing flexibility that Substack provides, that, to my knowledge, no other platform does, except maybe Patreon.
Bryan: Yeah, well, Ghost was the platform that I use. But Substack does it very well. So, I'm curious. You're lecturing. You have two Substacks. I'm sure you have similar projects and commitments as well. So, do you find it a lot to think about serializing or managing two Substack publications rather than one? Because there's only, I guess, to work, you need to send out the installments regularly or weekly.
Sarah: Yeah, I have the finished manuscript of Cured. So, that's really alive. Still reshaping it every time I post an installment, because I wrote it as chapters for a book. And so, it does have to change when I'm putting it up on my Substack. But that's very different to have if the book is done. That allows me to have more time. I'm not just scrambling every week. And I don't recommend scrambling every week. I really recommend trying to be at least three to six weeks ahead, so you've just got that cushion in case anything happens.
But with Serialize, I'm just in love with it. I mean, it's just really been so successful. It's drawing so many writers who see this as an opportunity to improve their craft, to become better writers, and get their work out there and perhaps not just to attract readers but attract agents and editors, which is so cool.
Bryan: Do you find many readers visit you through the Substack app organically? Because what I've noticed with Substack publication around for different project is, now people are beginning to find publications within the app itself rather than through me promoting it elsewhere or through Twitter or so on.
Sarah: Yeah, it's been a huge change. I don't know if it was when they changed it. But most recently, they changed the SEO structure. So, I find so many — I mean, I have an amazing number of people just finding me through Substack. I get a lot of people finding me direct. But that's where serializing a novel or memoir is a little bit trickier. You want to be able to understand SEO and have the keywords in there that will draw readers to your work. Acknowledging, for instance, writing every week fantasy novel. You can do that in the text. But you can have a little blurb on top. You have a caption asking people to subscribe. Subscribe to my fantasy novel, and then the title rather than just the title. Those little things can influence SEO and draw people.
Bryan: Have you mapped out your Serialize newsletters for the next few weeks or months? Or is that something you do on a more short-term basis?
Sarah: No, I'm a professor. It's all got to be mapped out for the whole quarter, the whole semester.
Bryan: It's like a curriculum.
Sarah: Yeah, I love it. The only thing I haven't had happen yet, but I really want to interview writers and be able to highlight people in the Serialize community who are serializing. So, we can become aware. Again, just promoting them within our community and get people aware of all these people who are writing serialized novels and memoirs. So, I want that to really start up in earnest. Then I'm also trying to interview people who have a lot of experience with serialization, to get insights from others. So, it's not just me.
Bryan: I feel like there's a lot more opportunities for writers online today. So, the challenge isn't what to do. It's just focusing on one of them to do the work.
Sarah: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I say to my students, my university students, my MFA students all the time, it has never been a better time to be a writer. I wish this had been around when I was just starting. Because before, you had gatekeepers. Yes, I got in the New York Times. I was lucky in that respect, in some ways. I mean, I worked really hard. And getting associated with The Paris Review where I ended up becoming an advisory editor, all of that, there were gatekeepers. And now there aren't any. You don't have to wait for an acceptance. You can just put your work up there.
The one thing I do tell people, though, is that it's an amazing opportunity. At the same time, you won't draw readers to your work if you aren't good at your craft. You just won't. I mean, I will read anyone who's good, who's writing is — again, you don't have to go to an MFA program. But what I'm doing on Serialize is, like I said, making people better writers as they learn to serialize. I think it's just a great opportunity.
Bryan: Yeah, what better way to improve them by practicing in public, especially when you start to see people joining your email list, which solves the other problem writers have which is marketing. A lot of writers don't like marketing. If Substack is automatically sending out your newsletters, then, in a way, it's taking care of it for you. So, Sarah, where can people go if they want to read your newsletters or your book?
Sarah: It's serialize.substack.com. I invite everyone to visit it. A lot of the content is free. So, I want to be able to be also giving some of my best stuff to people who just are there, maybe aren't quite as serious yet, and they're just playing with the idea of serializing. So, please do go there and take advantage of all of that. Then I'm sarahfay.org. So, www.sarahfay.org. You can always find me there. Then my personal Substack, where you can find Cured and other writings that I do personally, is sarahfay.substack.com. I don't know if I said that, but serialize.substack.com. And I'm sarahfay.org.
Bryan: Well, I'll be sure to put the Serialize and what you said as well. I'll be sure to put the links in the show notes. But I definitely encourage the listeners to check it out because it's a fantastic model for writers. Thanks for your time.
Sarah: Thank you so much.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books, discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.