Advice for Beginning Writers: Writing in Pencil, Not Ink

It’s not often that I get to give advice for beginning writers, so I embrace the opportunity when it arises. The title refers to the idea of thinking of writing in permanent terms, versus being more flexible. The reference to pencil and ink is metaphorical, of course. You can write in whatever medium you want!

But I did have a very interesting consultation with a client the other day. He wanted to discuss an idea. Usually, when I sign someone up for a call, I want to see some pages, an outline, something… But this writer didn’t even have that. A total “blank slate,” he called himself. Maybe you recognize yourself in this description.

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Embrace the impermanent draft and let your ideas scatter to the wind.

Advice for Beginning Writers

This got me thinking. I rarely work with someone at the very, very beginning of an idea, though I’d love to do it more often! The consultation was really fun! As a person who has been in publishing for almost ten years, sometimes I take the simplest advice for granted because I’ve given it thirty thousand times. But perhaps this is a mistake.

As we wrapped up this particular call, I decided to pass along something that, to me, was beyond obvious. I said, “Remember, nobody is looking over your shoulder as you write. At this stage, you don’t know what you’re doing, and that’s totally fine. Write whatever you want. If it doesn’t work, open another draft and start over. Generate material without putting any pressure on yourself that these particular words, in this particular order, have to be ‘it.'”

My client loved the advice, and I was a little humbled. Maybe, I realized, this is something worth sharing on the blog, since it’s definitely not as obvious to a lot of writers as it is to me. (One of the pitfalls of giving advice for a living is you forget that everyone needs to hear something for the first time!)

Writing in Pencil

So, in a nutshell, remember that the draft you’re working on will likely not be the draft that will be immortalized in ink. Your word processing document will have a Save function, and a Delete function, and all of these tools that will help you make progress. But there is no Publish function. (Alas! I know, it’d be nice, huh.) So as you’re working on your draft, take some of that pressure off to make those words, in that particular order, perfect.

“Perfect” is such a damaging notion, and it stops a lot of writers in their tracks before they even begin.

Instead, open a document and sketch out a character outline. Open another document and write the first few sentences of an opening scene. Open another document and make a bullet list of what you’re envisioning for the climax of the story.

If you’re early in the writing process, play around. If what you’ve written sucks, and you’re sure it sucks (instead just being overly critical), delete the document. Or keep it. A basic Word doc is smaller than 100kb. That’s not going to take up much room on your hard drive.

And remember, nobody’s watching. Take the heat off yourself. It’s okay to struggle, and it’s okay to succeed. It’s okay to delete and it’s okay to add. The only thing that’s not okay is nipping yourself in the bud before you give yourself a chance.

Even if you’re very early in your project, I’d love to brainstorm with you and support your process. Hire me as your writing consultant, and let’s get you off the ground together.

Taking Questions

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I have so many publishing and writing questions, I haven’t even touched my sandwich!

So there’s a new look for the blog. And talk of videos. Helpful headings now break up the endless streams of text. Things are good in Kidlit land. But Kidlit wouldn’t exist without questions from dedicated blog readers. I have about 300 notes for blog post ideas that I’ve been sifting through, but I also want to be responsive to what you want to learn about.

So I’m Asking You…

What are your burning writing craft or publishing questions (or both)? I’m thinking of doing a video in the next few weeks of opening pages for novels. There are a lot of potential pitfalls in this area, and I know a lot of writers are endlessly curious about the topic.

So what might you want to know? I’ve put a blast out across social media and will answer my favorite three questions in an upcoming video post.

But don’t stop yourself there. What else do you want to know? What’s on your mind as you get into the swing of writing in 2017? How can I be of service and address some sizzling conundrums?

Leave your thoughts on first pages and/or any other questions in the comments. Click the handy bubble in the top right corner of this post. Thanks!

If you’re fine on the general front but have very specific questions about your WIP, I also offer private consulting services. Check out the link for my editorial website.

New Site, New Video Content!

Woohoo! I made a video, y’all! I was so inspired by my Facebook Live experience with WriteOnCon, which was super-duper fun, that I’m going to start shooting some of my blog posts out behind the woodshed… Just kidding! I’m going to start shooting some of them as videos. (The WriteOnCon video will be available to repost here in March, and I’m really excited to share it with you. It’s an hourlong Q&A about the craft of revision!)

What You’ll See Here

In this video, I’m talking about the recent changes to the website, the impetus behind those, and my passion for creating this content and sharing it with you, my lovely readers.

Why I Recorded This

I really want to get my old readers and new visitors excited about the site, which has been around since 2009. My hope is it’ll be around for many years to come. I can’t do it without you, though!

What’s Next?

Help me keep a good thing going. If you have any questions that you’d like me to answer, in a blog post, or a video, please post them in the comments below. Let me know if you like the new website format, too!

 

Pardon My Digital Dust!

Please excuse the slightly messy look of the blog that you might be seeing. After eight years (which is, like, forever in Internet time) with the same theme and design, I’ve decided to join my peers in the spiffy digital future.

My new blog theme is much more user-friendly and, best of all, mobile-friendly, very important these days, as people browse on all their various devices.

Website Frenzy

As you can probably tell if you saw my announcement about my freelance editorial site, MaryKole.com, I woke up this January on a mission: to revamp my online presence. But I’m a one-woman show. So there are going to be some bumps and hiccups and probably some things that look weird or don’t work. These are the growing pains of trying to be one’s own webmaster (with a little coding help behind the scenes).

Embrace this beautiful mess!  I’m sure I’ll have everything tuned up exactly the way I want it soon. In the meantime, enjoy the same great content you’ve come to trust from Kidlit.com as I work to make your experience even better!

Happy Holidays and a Joyful New Year

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It’s funny that this picture was taken in October and, already, it’s out of date. Theo is now 9 months old and about to walk. He’s babbling and getting into trouble and so big. There’s so much to be grateful for this holiday season. Theo is happy and healthy, pulling books off the shelf for me to read. My husband, Todd, has just opened a new restaurant, Red Rabbit, in downtown Minneapolis with a focus on fun, approachable, satisfying Italian food. Though I took some time off this year to get into the swing of motherhood, I continue to work with wonderful freelance editorial clients through my consultancy, Mary Kole Editorial.

Coming up in the new year, I have WriteOnCon (February 2-4, 2017). I’m involved doing critiques, and this is a great online writing conference. There are a few other things in the works for 2017 that I’m very excited about, but can’t really discuss at the moment.

Please share your 2017 writing resolutions in the comments to inspire your fellow blog readers, and me! I can’t wait for another wonderful year. Though a lot of people would rather see 2016 over and done, I have to say, it’s been a great one here at Kidlit! As always, I am so, so grateful for you, my wonderful readers. I can’t believe it’s been eight years of learning and discussing issues related to writing and publishing together. Here’s to many more!

What To Expect From An Agent

Having a literary agent is great. I’ve been one, and I hope it was a good experience for my clients. It was a wonderful, frustrating, humbling, and incredibly educational experience for me. The publishing game is not for the faint of heart! But thinking about agents always gets me thinking about expectations.

What will an agent do for you? What might an agent do for you if they have certain specialties? What is unreasonable to expect of an agent? First, I’d like to discuss what an agent won’t do.

What An Agent Won’t Do

It’s nice to want an agent you can get along with. Someone who answers your anxiety-riddled midnight emails. Finally, a publishing insider on your side! But is this reasonable to expect? I see a lot of writers wishing for a BFF relationship with their representative. And I understand this impulse. But you have to remember that your agent is your business representative. They are not really around to answer all of your anxiety-riddled midnight emails. In fact, if you make the mistake of treating an agent as a best writing friend, you may drop on their priority list. I’ve seen many agent/client relationships go south because the writer didn’t understand professional boundaries.

The best agent for you may not be the funniest agent on Twitter. Or the one with the best blog. At the end of the day, you want an agent who is going to sell your work and get you favorable terms for your primary contract and any subrights that get sold. Yes, this is a little less “love connection” than a lot of people are dreaming of. That’s okay.

Agents are also not editors. While some do heavy editorial work, it behooves you to approach an agent with a polished, professional manuscript. Agents do not get paid to polish up their clients’ work. They sometimes do it because polished work sells more frequently and (sometimes) for more money. So if they see it as a good investment of their time, they will work with you. But to expect it is unreasonable. If you want to submit with a rock solid manuscript, it’s often in your best interest to partner with an experienced critique partner or developmental editor. I’m not just saying that because I am one, but it’s important to note that even agented writers use me for help with manuscripts that their agents say aren’t quite ready yet.

Agents get paid when they sell books and subrights. That’s it and that’s all. If I was looking for an agent for myself, I’d rather have one who is sitting at their desk right now, selling and negotiating and reviewing contracts, than one who is slogging through draft three of someone’s picture book essentially on spec (because the book hasn’t sold yet and there’s no guarantee it will). The more an agent sells, the more experienced they are at their core competency, and the more they may go on to sell–for all of their clients.

It may come as a surprise to some but not all that an agent is not, for the most part, paid to read the slush, full requests, or even client submissions. Most agents do this outside of their workday, which is spent meeting with editors, pitching things, traveling to conferences, and negotiating deals.

What An Agent Might Do

All this being said, an agent will probably ask you to make editorial tweaks because they have a clearer sense of what the marketplace is buying and what kind of pitch will work. Dystopian manuscripts, for example, are pretty heavily trafficked. So they might ask you to tone down on the dystopian element and bring up the volume on the romance. This is the sort of editorial work that is reasonable to expect. Some agents go above and beyond, offering very detailed notes, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Writers also ask if an agent will help them market their work. This, apparently, is a rather controversial topic. I was surprised to hear that people expect agents to do their marketing for them, but I suppose this way of thinking makes sense. An agent will very likely shout about your sale and/or release from the rooftops, but this is a matter of personal promotion as much as it is a matter of helping you out. If you have an agent who is proactively doing some marketing on your behalf, you are lucky. But it is not really their job to do so. They’re likely doing it because they want to promote their deal-making prowess and sell some subrights.

Finally, many writers are surprised to learn that they’re probably not going to get flown out to NYC to have lunch with their agent as soon as the ink is dry on their representation agreement. In fact, some people never meet their agent in person. Only if the agent comes out to their city for a conference, or they happen to be in the agent’s city, will a meeting happily take place. Otherwise, most business is done over email and, occasionally, the phone.

What An Agent Will Do

By this point, I think you’re starting to realize what an agent’s job really is. It’s not to be your buddy. It’s not to be your therapist. It’s not to be your developmental editor. It’s not to be your PR person. It’s not to take you out to lunch. It’s to sell your rights on your behalf in a way that’s most advantageous to you.

In this regard, an agent is extremely valuable. They’ve likely negotiated deals (or their agency has) with every publisher and they’ve developed top notch contracts at each house. They likely have leverage. They likely know what they’re doing with that 30-page document that, to you, will read like legalese gobletygook. They’ll be able to help you navigate crucial business decisions that could impact your career for years.

This, in and of itself, is a whole lot of work. In my opinion, anything else you get is delicious gravy.

Awaiting Baby

Thank you to everyone for the amazing response about the baby news! (See the original announcement here, I posted about it in December.) In addition to the glorious books that rained down on Baby Macdonald, which I will speak to in a moment, I also heard from a lot of people who have walked their own complicated paths toward their family goals. This is exactly why I have no problem talking about the IVF process. Too often, people who struggle can’t help but feel alone, whether it’s because they feel ashamed about their problems, or others have made them feel that way. This is horrible. We all have our crosses to bear, and yet there’s great strength in community. None of us are truly alone if we choose not to be, and I’m really glad I decided to speak up.

Human connection is one of the great joys of life, and it was a real honor to hear from my blog readers who have done fertility treatments, who’ve adopted, who’ve lost pregnancies and children, or who still haven’t reached their desired destinations. It was incredibly touching to share in such intimate stories with my readers.

As for the books, oh the books! My husband, Todd, and I were moved to tears by the generosity and love pouring in from you blog readers. We stuffed Baby’s bookshelf twice over! My favorite part, however, was hearing from readers. One sent me something that I’d originally seen as part of a Writer’s Digest webinar critique. That little manuscript went on to sell at auction, and a few years later, there it was on my doorstep as a published book, complete with an inscription to Baby. Talk about coming full circle! Another package arrived from a very well-established author who I have long, long, long admired, with an incredibly touching note. I had no idea this author was one of my readers!

To all of you who sent books, I have done my best to send a handwritten Thank You card. Some Amazon deliveries would only let me send a digital Thank You where I couldn’t find a return address (ugh, so impersonal!). There were also a few packages where I accidentally discarded the return label before I had a chance to note who was responsible for what. If the wonderful readers who sent me IVAN THE TERRIER, ALL THE WORLD, and LITTLE GREEN would please email me, I’d love your address so I can send a proper note of gratitude. If you sent something and also haven’t heard back with a card, please let me know.

Now I’m in the home stretch, only a week away from our due date. I have no idea when the baby will start the eviction process. It could be today (!!!). It could be three weeks from now. (Oh, how I hope it’s not three weeks from now, though.) All this is to say that the blog will go a little silent for the next two weeks. But I’ll be back with an update once there’s something to share. Coming back to this blog after taking a hiatus in 2015 has been one of my great joys, so don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging for too long!

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Building a Library

Over the years, I have shared a lot of personal stuff with you, my dear writer-readers. Pets, tattoos, moves to Brooklyn, moves from Brooklyn, moves back to Brooklyn, and finally from Brooklyn for good (oy!). I mean, I still have people ask me about Sushi, a beloved cat I lost in 2011. It’s really been an honor to show up at the keyboard and share a bit of myself, a bit of my ideas, and a lot of my heart with you every week or so.

Now it’s time for me to reveal a very exciting personal development. Don’t worry, I’m still writing here. (They can wrench this domain name from my shriveled hands in 50 years!) I’m still working with my stable of amazing freelance editorial clients, and I couldn’t be happier. But in 2016, my family is finally growing with the addition of a baby in March! The gender will be a surprise.

announcementThis news is incredible for my husband and I, because of the road we took to get here. Everyone has struggles, and this was, unfortunately, one of ours. I have wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember. Growing up an immigrant only child in a single-parent household was very lonely, and I always imagined that I’d one day fill my home with children, the more the merrier! But then we wandered into what I can only call hell: infertility.

I have made many lifestyle changes over the years to put my health first. I’m pretty young. I’m motivated. Every single time we failed to conceive, it felt like an incredible failure of body and spirit. When infertility is suspected, the burden usually falls on the woman because a whole lot more can go “wrong” in our systems as far as reproduction is concerned. There’s basically one test for men, while women sometimes spend years investigating the equipment. Every month, I sunk into a despair that words can’t exactly describe. This went on for two and a half years. That may seem like a blip. But when a child is what you want most in the world, and deep in your heart is the fear that you may never get to have that irreplaceable human experience, time almost seems to move backward. And since all of our tests came back perfectly normal, we didn’t even have a good explanation, which was maddening.

After cycling through half a dozen doctors (“You’re young! Just keep trying! Are you sure you’re doing it right?”), tens of thousands of dollars of tests, kits, and procedures (insurance becomes real scarce as soon as they hear “infertility”), acupuncture, therapy, yoga, even chakra-alignment (I’m from San Francisco, guys, and I was desperate…), we finally washed like ragged castaways on the shores of a fertility clinic. There, they administered an easy $300 test that nobody else would do because failing it was so unlikely. And we finally had our answer: my husband has a fluke sperm issue, so rare it doesn’t have a name, and so significant that we literally have a 0.0% chance of conceiving naturally. What are the odds!

That was the best/worst appointment of my life. The best, because we finally had closure, and a game plan. Luckily, IVF and a related procedure (ICSI) are made for exactly this scenario. The worst, because don’t nobody tell me I have a 0.0% chance at anything! Unfortunately, this one was bigger than my stubbornness. And it turned out that we tried for those two and a half years completely in vain. This was a tough pill to swallow. On the bright side, we ended up doing IVF in June, had a brilliant response, and I got a positive pregnancy test on my birthday in July!

Now, as I near the third trimester, we feel so lucky. I mean, infertility was basically the worst thing I’ve ever been through, and I’m still grieving the fact that, whenever we want to have a child, we have to roll up to a clinic with our wallets open instead of doing it the old-fashioned way. In fact, because I’ve had such stunningly bad results, I no longer believe that babies happen after unprotected sex! 🙂 But there are those who have much more complex issues, who struggle for much longer. Our one IVF cycle (costing as much as a new car out of pocket), believe it or not, was pretty much the best case scenario in the advanced reproductive technology big leagues. (Most insurance counts infertility treatments as non-essential, sort of like a boob job, unless you have a great plan. But my husband is a small business owner and I’m a freelancer, so we pay handsomely for our minimal coverage.)

Now that I have that off my chest, I really waffled about writing this next part of the post. I’ve always seen my role in your lives as a guide and friend. It feels wrong to ask for anything in return because of the rich personal rewards that my work brings me every day. But I’m humbly reaching out to you now with a request:

Books are why we’re all here. And I would love to welcome our baby with a library of classic and contemporary children’s books that builds on what I’ve collected over my career. With IVF and my husband’s dream of opening a restaurant coming true this year, we simply can’t feather our literary nest. I want to flood this child’s life with love and beauty and letters. I want to greet them with good vibes (and good books) from the community I’ve created. This baby has been the dream of my heart for as long as I can remember, and now he or she is finally coming. If you have any new or pre-loved books, for any childhood stage, that you’re compelled to send along to us, it would mean the absolute world. I would personally be so grateful. Please write a note inside so that you can become a part of our story.

(I’ve removed the address here because it was for a temporary mailbox. If you are still interested in sending something, please email me at mary@kidlit.com. Thank you!)

If material things, well, aren’t your thing, I was recently reminded by a freelance editorial client of my passion for the work of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, where I used to volunteer while living in San Francisco. I just started training as a volunteer for the Minnesota chapter. Already, this baby has inspired so much positive change and hope in our lives. In the same spirit, maybe he or she will inspire you as we head into the holiday season, to share some joy with a few extra hearts. You can find Make-A-Wish volunteer information and links to your local chapter here.

ETA: Because somebody asked, you can find our baby registry here.

Also, I feel obligated to add that, while many options for growing a family exist, I felt very strongly, being an immigrant with only three living blood relatives in this or any other country, that I wanted to try for biological children. It’s a deeply sacred, personal choice that every aspiring parent makes differently. For example, newborn adoption costs about as much as a round of IVF (or more) and there’s a lengthy approval process that could’ve added years to our journey.

Getting Into a Pattern

Back in college, I did a few freelance articles for a photography trade magazine. Mostly wedding photographer profiles. A woman I’d become close friends with in a creative writing course happened to be an editor for this publication, and she gave me some assignments for fun. By about the third piece I turned in, she sent me a very friendly email that haunts me to this day. She basically said, “Hey Mary, I’m noticing that all of your articles follow the same pattern. You start with the photographer’s youth and then the event that made them fall in love with photography, then you cover their education and development as a photographer, and their you end with their current work. Maybe you could, yanno, mix it up a little bit.”

She was right. Of course she was. I’m no journalist and I had no idea what I was doing or how to organize a compelling non-fiction article, so I picked the easiest possible organizational strategy when talking about a person: the resume, or, in other words, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” And by golly, I was going to drive it into the ground until somebody stopped me because I didn’t know what else to do. And, to my *ahem* credit, I thanked her profusely for the feedback…and was so mortified that I stopped writing for the photography magazine shortly thereafter. A writer’s ego is a strange creature.

But I figured out the lesson in her wise words eventually. Yes, a decade, give or take, counts as “eventually,” guys. There are patterns in writing. Some are good patterns, some are individual patterns that maybe keep us from growing in the craft.

An example of a good pattern is a larger organizing principle or story theory, for example, Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle. While this is an oldie, it’s very much a goodie, since its wisdom applies to any number of stories, in any number of ways. Chronological order is also an old standard that can’t be beat when writing a novel. Sure, you want to jump back in time to fill in some backstory and context every once in a while, but moving from point A to point B as the character grows and time marches forward is an idea that will never go away.

The reason I like these two is that they’ve vague and versatile. They dictate a general idea and then it’s up to you to apply it in your own style. You’ll notice that I talk about story theory in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. But I try to leave much of it up to the writer. I recently ordered a slipcover for my sectional because the upholstery we originally got clings to pet hair like it’s pirate treasure. The slipcover fabric is so stretchy that it was able to fit my couch and look custom-made without any measurement. I was dubious until it arrived, since it purported to fit couches from 66″ to 96″ and that seems like a pretty big spread. But it’s really quite amazing, fits perfectly, and now the dogs can drool and shed on it with abandon. All this is to say that I try to give writing guidelines as if I were that slipcover (stay with me here, folks, this is getting weird…). Your story is the couch. You pick its overall shape and dimensions. The organizing principle’s job is to cover it and mold to what you want to do, all while giving it a cohesive look and function.

Now, there are writing teachers out there who like to dictate patterns in much more specific terms. I’ve had many writers, believe it or not, come to me and ask, “Well, in So and So’s Story Theory, he says I have to include the inciting incident by the 5% mark, then the first conflict by 10%, then the first major loss by 25%. The cousin dies, but it’s at 27% and I don’t know what to do.” This kind of teaching-writing-with-an-iron-fist always baffles me. I like the broader, sweeping guidelines, not micromanaging a manuscript down to the nth percentile. In my world, a rigid story theory is great for people who have never written a novel before. It gives them valuable scaffolding to cling to. But once you’ve written one, and internalized some basic principles, I think most guidelines can take a backseat to how you want to tell the story.

So, basically, I like the big writing patterns. Like chronological order for a novel. Or the pattern of emotional development that I outline in my book.

But every writer has other patterns. And before you know what you should do about your patterns, if they’re helpful or hampering, you should at least become aware of them. (Hopefully without becoming mortified and quitting.) This post was inspired by a client of mine who starts many chapters in exactly the same way: scene-setting and talk of the weather. I applaud the scene-setting. Many writers who simply leap into a scene with dialogue or a plot point fail to ground the reader in time and place. But this pattern for this writer was almost formulaic. Weather. Scene. Then the chapter starts. Over and over.

What happens when a reader detects an underlying pattern in your work is they become less engaged. By the fifth weather/scene/start chapter, I’m going to check out at the beginning a little bit. Unless the descriptions of the weather are building up to something massive (it’s a book about a big storm, or a person with weather-related superpowers), there needs to be variety. The pattern cannot take over the narrative.

This reminds me of picture book writers who are working in rhyme. Sometimes I see writers twisting their syntax into crazy sentence pretzels just so they can make a line rhyme. This begs the question: Is the story in the service of the rhyme, or the other way around? You always want to be putting the story first. If you find that writing in rhyme warps your natural voice, makes you write like a Victorian schoolmarm, and leads to all sorts of other problems, then it’s the pattern that needs to go, and you need to free yourself up to tell the story the best way you can. Patterns. They’re all around. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re hindrances.

What are your specific writing patterns? Are you trying to break them or are you working with them? Discuss.

Hello, World!

Coming back to a blog after an unexplained absence is like opening up the doors to your childhood home after a few decades. It’s so familiar, and yet a little eerie, since it’s oddly unmarked by the passage of time. So instead of some big comeback post, I just wanted to say the following:

  • I’m not dead! (Thank goodness!)
  • I have taken the last six months or so to help my husband open up a restaurant in my adopted hometown of Minneapolis, MN.
  • There are new editorial services on my freelance website, namely the option for a synopsis overhaul (feedback on your idea before you sit down to write it all out) and a reader report (my eyes on your entire manuscript, but more condensed feedback, which renders the service more budget-friendly).
  • Look for more writing and publishing posts here soon.

Maybe it’s the leaves turning golden outside my window, but I feel like change and progress are in the air. I’m excited to think more deeply about craft, as I’m always inspired to when composing posts for the blog. The publishing world has changed since I left agenting in 2013, but really, it hasn’t. There have been trends that come and go, and the usual mergers/acquisitions, and whispers about the viability of this genre or that, but the soul is still intact, no matter how much everyone cried “Doomsday” about ebooks and the recession and shrinking advances and dwindling attention spans.

The reality remains that there’s always room for good stories, and there is an entire industry of people who are hungry to acquire them and bring them to readers.

The world at large has changed, there’s more conflict and suffering, more joy and hope, and I think that our stories are reflecting a more authentic reality that’s compelling to young readers. More now than ever, it’s important to honor our collective humanity and reality, even as we’re wrapping it in a blanket of fiction.

What does it mean to write children’s and young adult books in 2015? 2016? Beyond? Let’s figure it out together. I was gone for a while, and now I’m back.