3 Virtues of a Successful Writer

I’ve seen a number of articles discussing what not to do when it comes to writing, but when it comes to habits to emulate the advice seems to dry up.  After all, every writer is different – what works for some may not work for all.  So rather than habits, let’s talk about three virtues that all successful writers seem to have and how to translate those into success for yourself.

A Diligent Work Ethic

“I don’t like to write, but I love having written.”

It’s a common sentiment among writers to prefer accomplishment to the work that goes into actually writing something.  But if you’re ever going to be successful you have to learn how to finish what you start.  “Finishing” can mean any number of things from polishing a not-quite-there piece to actually sitting down to write in the first place.

It takes self-discipline to practice your craft, and not just the writing part.  You need to read your contemporaries as well as the classics.  You should have an idea of the history of your genre and be aware of where it’s headed with new publications.  You have to market yourself and engage in writing communities.  You have to research possible publishers and polish your work until it’s ready to submit.  Successful writers put in the work.

Humility

Successful writers acknowledge their flaws and want to improve their craft. You can’t do that without a dose of humility.  It can be tempting to write off publishers because they don’t understand your genius, but is it really helpful to tune out legitimate criticism?  When publishers tell you “No,” respect their decisions and use it as an opportunity to reflect and improve.  Listen to your editor, your beta readers, and anyone who is willing to read your work and offer helpful suggestions.  You don’t have to take every piece of advice you get, but humility means accepting that your work may not be perfect as it is.

In the same vein, humility can mean respect for fellow authors.  Sure, we’ve all read something we didn’t like and secretly wondered “How on earth did this get published?  My stuff’s better than that!” But with some humility you can take a long, hard look at what it is that made them successful and learn from it.  That will translate into success for yourself, rather than jealousy.   And as you get more experience, respect the up-and-coming authors who are trying to break into the market.  Successful writers pass on what they’ve learned to those who share their aspirations, rather than viewing everyone as competition.

A Resilient Spirit

This is sort of the opposite of humility.  It takes a lot of self-confidence to stare down a contest and say “Yeah, my story could win that.”  Submitting is an act of bravery, and perseverance in the face of rejection is the most important of all virtues.  Success does not come easy. As I said above, you have to put in the work.  You finish what you start.  You revise.  You take advice where you can get it.  Sometimes you do it all over again and the answer is still “No.”

Successful writers don’t give up, even after all that.  The great thing about writing is that you can do it for your entire life.  You never stop learning.  You never stop improving, so there’s no reason to get impatient with a lack of success.  The submission you send out today is bound to be better than the one yesterday because you’re always improving and evolving.  And if you put in the work and are humble enough to actively seek to improve yourself it’s really only a matter of time before that effort is rewarded.  But you can’t give up before that happens – not if you want to be successful.


What say you, readers?  Is there anything I’ve missed?  Anything you disagree with?  Leave your suggestions below in the comments so we can all learn from each other!

Publisher’s Spotlight: Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons is back!  After a brief hiatus, they are once again open for submissions weekly starting on Monday, and close when they reach their cap.  Details below:

  • In their own words: “We want good speculative fiction. If your story doesn’t have a speculative element, or strong speculative-fiction sensibilities, it’s probably not for us.   Some particular things we love, or are interested in:
    • Fiction from or about diverse perspectives and traditionally under-represented groups, settings, and cultures, written from a non-exoticizing and well-researched position.
    • Unusual yet readable styles and inventive structures and narratives.
    • Stories that address political issues in complex and nuanced ways, resisting oversimplification.
    • Hypertext fiction. If you have a work of hyperfiction you think might be a good fit for Strange Horizons, please query us to discuss how to submit it.
  • Genres they accept: Speculative Fiction.  (That’s the usual sci-fi, fantasy and various flavors of slipstream, etc.)
  • Word count limit: “We prefer stories under 5,000 words, but we consider stories up to 10,000 words. Note, however, that the longer the story is, the less likely we are to be interested…we have no minimum wordcount requirement; we consider short-short stories.”
  • Payment: We pay 8¢/word (USD), with a minimum payment of $60. SFWA officially considers us a professional market.
  • Simultaneous Submissions*: No
  • Multiple Submissions**: No
  • Schedule: Opens every Monday; “if and when the queue begins to significantly outstrip the reading, we’ll close for the week to give ourselves room to catch up.”

Bonus Feature: If you’ve never read Strange Horizon’s guide to tired tropes, give it a glance.  In addition to being hilarious it’ll hopefully make you rethink some of your trunk stories and challenge you to go beyond common slush problems.

The downside is that they don’t often explain why these tropes don’t work so it can be tempting to rationalize why your piece breaks the mold.  My advice?  Don’t.  Just don’t.  Find a different story to submit and in the meantime shop the other one out to trusted beta readers who can guide you away from the tropes.

*This means whether they will allow you to submit this story to another publisher at the same time or not.

**This means whether you can send them more than one story at at time.

Reminders when submitting:

Read the publication:  Their stories are freely accessible on the site.  You have no excuse not to do your research and see what kind of style gets their attention.  It will also give you an idea of what’s been done before so you don’t end up sending them something too similar to a recently published story.

Read the guidelines: I don’t post everything required for their submissions, just the basics.  Furthermore, this is a static post.  Publishers change their submission requirements at will so it’s always a good idea to read and re-read them, even if you’ve submitted to them before.

Follow the rules: Do I really need to say this?  Don’t send pieces over the word count.  Don’t send content they specifically warn against.  Don’t send weirdly formatted manuscripts if they give you specific instructions.  “But Liz, I–” Nope!  No, no, no.  If you do not follow the rules you risk being a pariah to that magazine – and worse, editors can exchange notes on who’s being a pain.

Happy submitting!

How To Research Publishers

Well, Flash Fiction has passed.  The comments are coming in and as you work on your revisions it hits you: you’ve really got something here!  You should publish this!  But where should you look?  Should you just google publishers and hope for the best?  (Short answer: no.)

I mentioned this briefly in my post about the Submission Checklist.  For a refresher, the first step in getting published is to research your market finish your story.  Sorry, got ahead of myself there.

What kind of story do you have?

This assumes that you have a finished story that you’re satisfied with, now you’re just looking to find it a good home.  Before you get started you need to categorize your story.

  • Genre
  • Style (is it literary? humorous? appropriate for young audiences?)
  • Word Count:
    • 0 – 300ish Micro Fiction
    • 300ish – 1,000 Flash Fiction
    • 1,000 – 5,000 Short Story  (Ok, some markets allow up to 10,000 or 12,000 for short stories but most I’ve seen top out around 6,000 max.)

For this example let’s say you’ve got a Mystery, in the style of a hard-boiled noir, approximately 2,500 words.  It has some gratuitous language, but at this point you’re not editing, just noting that could be an issue.

Searching for a Publisher

The next step is to search for markets by genre.  The Submission Grinder and Duotrope are both excellent sites for researching potential publishers and tracking your submissions. Why not Google?  Well, I’ve used it occasionally, but it’s not very useful.  You’ll occasionally find lists of publishers or sponsored content, but sometimes the information is out of date and a publisher may have closed.  You really need a dedicated site to find the best results.

I’ve used both and recommend either of those two sites above, but because The Submission Grinder is free to use, I’m going to use that one in this post.  Feel free to follow along.

To search you don’t need an account.  To log your submissions you do.  Let’s just worry about how to search for now.

sg_2

Ok.  So you click on the search field and then fill out the basics for your story.  Leave it as general as possible to pull the most results or use the filters to slim down.  I find that Story Subject and Story Style are best left blank – hardly any market uses those fields, even if they accept stories in that style.  The best thing is is fill in these three fields:

  • Genre
  • Story Length
  • Minimum Pay Scale
    • Pro: $0.06 per word or more
    • Semi-Pro: Usually between $0.01 and $0.05 per word
    • Token: Less than that.  Usually $5-$25 per story regardless of word count.

Applicable markets will fill in below, with Genres, Lengths, Payment Rates and Average Response Days listed on the side to help you pick what to find.  Once you find one that’s interesting click on the listing.

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Here’s a magazine that looks like a good fit for my example.  Since the piece is Noir in nature, their descriptive paragraph should catch your attention.  The other info seems to fit with the other criteria, so you should click on the Website and Guidelines links (in the red box) to read more about the publisher.

That’s important – sites like The Submission Grinder are primarily a search engine/database.  It’s up to you to continue researching the publication by going through the website and reading the stories available.  If you still think you can see your story fitting in with them go ahead and check out their submission guidelines to polish your piece.

If your story is a little over their word limit (10-20%) you can probably trim down enough to fit it to their limits without major revisions.  If the language is a little coarse/content is a little too grim you can do an edit to tone things down.

Which Publisher is right for me?

So how do you pick who to submit to?  Determine what your priorities are.  Pro-paying markets are always going to be more competitive.  Maybe you want to submit it to several places at once, so you only pick publishers who accept simultaneous submissions.  Maybe you want ones with the quickest turn-around because you hate waiting for an answer.  (Note: you may be in the wrong field if patience isn’t your thing.)

I personally like to pick magazines that I enjoy reading, whose stories I admire, and whose content seems to gel well with my own voice.  I feel like those magazines are the ones that have the highest chance of accepting me, even if the money isn’t as good.  If you’re getting a lot of rejections and you know that the work is good try shopping out your story to a lesser known market in a different pay bracket.  Smaller publishers are hungry for good stories – don’t overlook them.

Have a publisher you love that needs a little attention?  Want to ask about one you’ve found?  Leave a note in the comments!

Ebb and Flow

Celia sat in the little rowboat, the rhythmic sound of wooden planks slapping the waves all to keep her company as she floated further from the bank of the river.

The current took the boat westward away from the looming plantation, white as bone, its windows full of soft yellow light.  She felt as thought it was watching her and took only shallow breaths until it passed from sight.

The forged papers were carefully stashed in her satchel along with a small sum of money she hoped would quiet whoever might ask too many questions regarding where she came from, where she was going.

Ahead was a lone woman with a rifle slung over her shoulder, waving her on.  Soon they’d be running, but for now she let the ebb and flow carry her onward to days when she could breathe easy once more.

Publisher’s Spotlight: Deadline Round-Up

Have you been keeping track of all the publishing deadlines coming up this summer?  No?  Well, let’s see if I can make that a touch easier for you.  Below is a list of all the Publishers featured on our Publisher’s Spotlight with links to the original posts AND the deadlines for their current calls.

Also, here’s a link to all publishers with rolling submissions, meaning they do not have a deadline (but they might close for the holidays; check individual pages for details.)

Freeze Frame Fiction is currently CLOSED for submissions.

As always, don’t forget to check out their individual sites as it will have all updated info.

Happy Submitting!

Traditions Across Time

Clara felt déjà vu wash over her as she became caught in the folds of time.  Her skin, wrinkled with age, became taught and smooth, liver spots shrinking into freckled birthmarks on the back of her sun-kissed hands.  Her small fingers twisted blonde hair over and under while her sister fidgeted below her.

“Sit still, Hannah!”

“I’m trying!  Are you done yet?”

“Almost.”  Clara reached down to pick another dandelion from the field.  She wove the golden strands around the flower, trying her best to hold tight as they slipped through her slender fingers and stuck out at odd ends.

“Grandma?”

Clara snapped back to the present, her wrinkled hands still grasping her granddaughter’s golden hair.  They sat facing the ornate dressing room mirror, white from head to toe.

“Are you done?”

“Almost.”  She fished a white rose from the wedding bouquet and slipped it gracefully into Hannah’s hair.  Perfect.

Publisher’s Spotlight: Haunted Waters Press

It’s time for another three-for-one special on this week’s Publisher’s Spotlight!  Haunted Waters Press is a small, independent publisher that offers several opportunities to submit, including the following open calls below.

From the Depths 2016: Outsiders Theme
  • In their own words: “From the Depths is the annual literary journal of Haunted Waters Press. Featuring works of prose and poetry, the journal is released in the fall of each year. Described as “one of the most compelling and beautifully illustrated literary journals,” From the Depths was created to showcase and celebrate the writing of new, emerging, and established authors.

    Inspired by the Grand Prize Winning Entry and Runners Up in the 2016 Haunted Waters Press Fiction & Poetry Open, the theme for the 2016 issue is Outsiders. We seek fiction and poetry highlighting the unique struggles, circumstances, and journeys that set individuals apart from others. We look forward to reading your work!

  • Genres they accept:  Any. “We are interested in stories that entertain us, stories that captivate us, but most of all, stories that haunt us.”
  • Word count limit: 7,500 or less for fiction and flash fiction; poetry any length.
  • Payment: $0.01 to $0.04 per word for fiction and $20 for poetry.
  • Reading Fee: $3-$10 donation for their Expedited Decision.
  • Simultaneous Submissions*: No Simultaneous Submissions unless submitted via Expedited Decision.  Expedited Decision submissions are reviewed within seven days.
    • Note: Expedited Decision is the only option currently open, so Yes, they do.
  • Multiple Submissions**: One active submission per contributor. Please wait until a decision has been reached prior to submitting additional work.
  • Previously Published Submissions: Yes, but “entries must not have appeared in print. Please be certain there are no known copyright restrictions.”
  • Schedule: March 1, 2016 – September 20th via Expedited Decision.

So what is “Expedited Decision?”  Essentially it’s a reading fee – you send them a contribution between $3 – $10 and they’ll fast-track your submission so you get it back within a week.  They do have a free reading period, but the deadline for 2016 has passed.

“Hey Liz, I’m strapped for cash.  Any chance of a free submission?”  Why, yes!  Check out…

Penny Fiction Competition 2016
  • In their own words: “Tell us story in exactly 16 words—no more, no less.  Extra points will be awarded for those writers who adhere to the rules. Not really. There are no points. Just read the contest rules below and impress Penny with your ability to follow instructions.”
  • Genres they accept:  Any, but “no poetry, tag lines, or jokes.”
  • Word count limit: 16.  No, really.  But on the plus side, “One entry per author, per round. (Contributors are encouraged to submit multiple stories in a single entry, but may only transmit one submission per round.) One story is fine. Four is cool. Twenty is borderline obnoxious. We like obnoxious! Just remember: a single entry with multiple stories!”
  • Payment: Grand Prize: $25 and publication in the 2016 issue of From the Depths.  Selected Runners Up will also receive publication.
  • Simultaneous Submissions*: No.
  • Multiple Submissions**: See above.
  • Previously Published Submissions: No.
  • Schedule: Round Three – June 1, 2016 – July 31, 2016

“I mean, that’s great and all, but $25 won’t go far.  You got anything with a bigger pay out?”

Yes, increasingly particular imaginary construct!  I do!

Short Shorts: A Summer 2016 Flash Fiction Contest
  • In their own words: “We seek flash fiction of 500 words or less.  Winning entries will contribute to our upcoming “Outsiders” theme highlighting the unique struggles, circumstances, and journeys that set individuals apart from others.”
  • Genres they accept:  Any.
  • Word count limit: 500 or less. Up to three works may be included in each entry.
  • Payment:
    • Grand Prize
      • $250
      • Publication in the 2016 issue of From the Depths

      • Featured Author Interview to accompany published work in print.

    • Runners Up
      • All entries eligible for publication in the 2016 issue of From the Depths.

      • Contributors to be paid $20 for each published story

      • Online Featured Author Interview.

  • Reading Fee: $10
  • Simultaneous Submissions*: Yes (see Submission page for details and limits.)
  • Multiple Submissions**: Yes (see Submission page for details and limits.)
  • Previously Published Submissions: Yes, but “entries must not have appeared in print. Please be certain there are no known copyright restrictions.”
  • Schedule: May 5, 2016 – September 20, 2016

Keep this in mind in case there’s a Short Fiction you want to submit to From the Depths.  Since it’ll cost you either way, it’s probably worth it to pay your $10 here in case you’re selected for a Runner Up slot.

Ok guys, I think that’s plenty of info for now.  Don’t forget to refresh your memory with the reminders below and check out the links for more info on these opportunities!

*This means whether they will allow you to submit this story to another publisher at the same time or not.

**This means whether you can send them more than one story at at time.

Reminders when submitting:

Read the publication:  Flash is short and their stories are freely accessible on the site.  You have no excuse not to do your research and see what kind of style gets their attention.  It will also give you an idea of what’s been done before so you don’t end up sending them something too similar to a recently published story.

Read the guidelines: I don’t post everything required for their submissions, just the basics.  Furthermore, this is a static post.  Publishers change their submission requirements at will so it’s always a good idea to read and re-read them, even if you’ve submitted to them before.

Follow the rules: Do I really need to say this?  Don’t send pieces over the word count.  Don’t send content they specifically warn against.  Don’t send weirdly formatted manuscripts if they give you specific instructions.

Happy submitting!

God Given Talents

Moses stood by the side of the highway, his staff in one hand, a construction sign in the other.  He twisted it to “Slow” and the cars sped by, one by one past the towering waters of the sea.  The traffic in the other direction piled up behind the “Stop” portion of his sign, waiting for their turn.

A pick-up truck slowed as it approached, the headlights reflecting off of Moses’ orange construction vest.

“Hey, Moe!”  The driver gave him a wave from the inside of his vehicle.

“Evening, Phil.”

“Looks like it’s gonna be another late night tonight.  The boss is calling for overtime to finish up this section of the tunnel construction.”

The old man groaned.

“Hey, at least it’s more money.  Once this project’s finished you’ll be out of a job.”

“Doubt it.  Are you out of a job every time you finish a tunnel?”

“S’pose not.”  He spat a thick glob of chewing tobacco onto the gravel.  “Guess that’s how it is with all contract work.  You do your job until they’re done with you, then you got to move on and find someplace else that’s looking for a skilled pair of hands.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

Moses watched Phil drive away and turned the sign so the other line of traffic could pass through the parted waters.  He sighed.  It’s a living.

Publisher’s Spotlight: Phobos

Let’s get back into the swing of things and get back to a typical Publisher’s Spotlight.  This week we’re looking at the Deep Black Sea theme for Phobos magazine.

  • In their own words: “For our fourth issue, Deep Black Sea, we want short stories, flash, and poetry hauled from the brine of oceans both real and fantastic: the shipwrecked rocket bobbing in the black ocean waves of a starless planet, its bloodied crew and their flashlights at the hatch that opens into the perfect dark, and the heavy thump against the hull; the work song of a dozen sailors, and the lilting mezzo-soprano that begins to harmonize from the empty crow’s nest; the fleeing galleon’s dreadful captive gnawing the last rivet from its iron box; the granddaughter that chucks a sharpened stick and spears a skull-sized opal blob galloping across the sand on its little wet fingers.”
  • Genres they accept: Any, but especially the weird stuff.  “We publish macabre, astounding, unsettling, thrilling, baffling, and terrifying stories in the tradition of Shirley Jackson, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.”
  • Word count limit: 2,500 words for short stories and poetry, up to 1,000 words for flash fiction.  “Flash stories under 1,000 words have a much greater chance of being accepted.”
  • Payment: $0.05 per word or $20 minimum for poetry.
  • Simultaneous Submissions*: Unknown
  • Multiple Submissions**: Unknown
  • Schedule: Reading from May 1st to July 31st, 2016

*This means whether they will allow you to submit this story to another publisher at the same time or not.

**This means whether you can send them more than one story at at time.

Reminders when submitting:

Read the publication:  Past issues can be found here.  You have no excuse not to do your research and see what kind of style gets their attention.  It will also give you an idea of what’s been done before so you don’t end up sending them something too similar to a recently published story.

Read the guidelines: I don’t post everything required for their submissions, just the basics.  Furthermore, this is a static post.  Publishers change their submission requirements at will so it’s always a good idea to read and re-read them, even if you’ve submitted to them before.  They also have an FAQ page for anything not covered in the guidelines.

Follow the rules: Do I really need to say this?  Don’t send pieces over the word count.  Don’t send content they specifically warn against.  Don’t send weirdly formatted manuscripts if they give you specific instructions.  “But Liz, I–” Nope!  No, no, no.  If you do not follow the rules you risk being a pariah to that magazine – and worse, editors can exchange notes on who’s being a pain.

Happy submitting!

Twist Endings Part Two: What Makes a Twist Work

Last week  A bit ago we got in-depth on what kind of twists are best to avoid.  So, if not all twist endings are bad, what are the good ones?  Why do they work and how can you write one to wow your readers?

“[The surprise ending] depends on a writerly balancing act, in that to be successful a twist must be an ending the reader did not see coming, but also logical and plausible once it happens.” – Nancy Cress

Ok, so, surprising but logical.

A good twist needs to have a set up and a payoff.  It’s best to have your twist in mind before you sit down to write your story.  That way you can leave a trail of clues that hopefully the reader won’t notice on first read, but will be glaringly obvious the second time around.  When you get to the reveal, you want the reader to think “Of course!” not “What just happened?”

How to hide your clues:

1.)  Use people’s assumptions against them.

If you set up a story where a knight has to rescue a princess in a tower from a dragon, we automatically have assumptions that the knight is good, the princess is sweet, and the dragon is evil.  That’s the way tropes work; we rely on them for shorthand to fill in the details in a reader’s mind so we don’t have to describe every desk in the classroom, every evil deed a mobster has done, etc.  You get the point.

So a good twist will lie by omission.  The knight kills the dragon because he assumes the dragon is bad, after all, it captured a princess didn’t it?  It didn’t?  The princess is actually a horrid monster and the dragon has locked her in the tower to protect the surrounding villages?  Now that’s a twist.

2.)  Use ambiguous language.

Let’s say that when you’re writing the dragon story you start with the king sending the knight on his quest.

“Far away from this kingdom is a ferocious monster who has terrorized the countryside.  We’ve contained it to the island but we won’t truly be safe until the beast is dead.  Go forth and get rid of it once and for all!”

Because the dragon is never mentioned by name, the reader will assume (as the knight did) that the dragon is the beast.

Pronouns can also be used to your advantage, if you use them sparingly.  Girl on the Train has scenes where the narrator addresses a character solely as ‘he’ thus using your assumptions about who it is to hide his true identity.  Unfortunately, this is also a tell-tale giveaway that something is amiss, so try not to do this too often if you’re writing a mystery, or other genres where twist endings are expected.

3.) Use unreliable narrators.

The way your narrator sees the world colors the reader’s expectation.  We root for first-person narrators because we’re in their head.

So if your knight says the dragon was ferocious or the princess was sweet or the king was a doddering old fool that he was only sort-of listening to, we’ll assume that he was correct until proven otherwise.

Another way to make your narrator unreliable is to hide something from the character, therefore obscuring it from the the  audience.

4.) Make sure the story makes sense both with and without the twist.

If your twist is too obvious it won’t be an enjoyable ending, so you have to make sure it works with the reader’s assumptions.  But when you read it through a second time, knowing the twist, it has to make sense.  The best twists work both ways, and get your reader to read it all over again, looking for the clues you left, leading to an appreciation of your writing skills and a great recommendation.

For that reason, please, please reconsider including a double-bluff (i.e. the agent was really a double agent was really a triple agent!)  Most of the time it makes no logical sense unless you really, truly know what you’re doing.  You can get away with a shocking ending once but after that it’s a game of diminishing returns.

5.) Use twists sparingly.

This goes with the double-agent point above.  Sometimes the genre will require a bit of a twist (mysteries for example) but for the most part, twists are supposed to be unexpected.  I think that’s one of the reasons why M. Night Shyamalan’s movies seemed to decrease in quality: if you go into a work expecting a twist you won’t be able to enjoy the ride.  I personally know that if something has a twist ending I’ll be too focused on looking for the clues (which are sometimes obvious) that it’ll kill my suspension of disbelief.

Great Twists I Recommend:

The Twilight Zone – Probably the best short stories ever put to film (stand alone 30 minute episodes famous for their twists.  But let’s be honest, the first 25 minutes still hold up, even if you know how it’s going to end.)  They’re all worth watching, but I do like “Spur of the Moment” for a great piece that keeps you guessing.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – Don’t laugh.  It’s a great mystery novel, and one of the tightest examples of storytelling with hints and clues scattered throughout the book as to what’s really been going on.  I love how there are absolutely no loose ends by the end of the book – something the movie didn’t have time to include.  If you haven’t read it in awhile it deserves a second look, particularly from a “twist” perspective.

Over the Garden Wall – Episode 7: The Ringing of the Bell – You might need a Hulu paid account to view this one.  It’s part of a 10 episode animated mini-series (10-20 minute shorts) that deserves a full viewing, but if you only have time for one, check this out.  It is by far the best example of a twist I have ever seen, and I will rewatch it again and again and again just to take notes on the excellent storytelling.

For follow up reading I recommend:

(This goes without saying, but beware of spoilers.)

Got any recommendations of your own?  Leave them in the comments!