What I’ve Learned By Going On A Writers’ Retreat

I have been away for the past three nights at a lovely little retreat in Devon. This is the set-up: Everyone who comes here is a writer, some published, some not, some aiming for publication, some just doing it for fun. The place in run by a writer, who understands the difficulty posed by everyday distractions (like making lunch, feeling obliged to be social, etc) and works very hard to make it as easy as possible to get on with some writing. All meals are included in the price and you are actively discouraged from doing any clearing up. If you have laundry, someone can do that for you; if you get hungry mid-afternoon, there are flapjacks and banana bread in the kitchen for you to help yourself to; if you wake up with a headache, there is paracetamol in the bathroom cabinet. There’s no need to worry about bringing shampoo or anything like that because the bathroom is fully stocked with all sorts – from cleansing face masks right down to soothing foot cream. Each room has a single bed, a comfy chair for reading and a desk to work at. If you’re bored of your room, you can go and work by the warmth of the stove in the kitchen or by the huge open fire in the living room. There are plenty of lovely walks you can do from the door, and the sea is only half an hour’s drive away.

Now that I’ve made you sufficiently envious, let me tell you what I’ve learned from being here, and what I hope to take home with me from this experience.

1. If you allow yourself the space to do it, you can get a massive amount done in a day, but it won’t all be writing. I’m at the early stages of a new novel, so the amount of actual writing I’ve done is minimal – although I have done a fair amount – but I’ve been writing out character sketches, planning scenes and thinking about how to order them into a plot (writing each scene on a little card, which I’ve never done before and now I can’t believe I’ve never done it before – it’s so helpful). This all works brilliantly when you’ve nothing else to do in between, because you can see clearly how character fits into plot, fits into theme etc. But I see no reason why these things couldn’t work if they were spaced out a bit more at home. Sometimes you’re so strapped for time that anything other than getting on with the actual writing of the thing seems like a waste of time. It really isn’t. Which leads me on to my next point . . .

2. Even if you have all day and no distractions to dedicate to your writing, you inevitably need to split the day into sections, anyway. Any one of these sections can easily be fitted into your busy standard day at home. It takes half an hour to write a quick character sketch, which I’ve been doing before breakfast. This isn’t going to go into my novel, so I don’t need to get all jammed up with insecurity like I might if I was working on an actual scene. It’s easy, you can do that at home. If you later decide  it’s rubbish, or it doesn’t work for whatever reason, that’s fine – throw it away and do another one. It’s not wasted time; it’s all going towards making what you do end up with better. After breakfast, I might read for a bit – non-fiction research, or poetry or a short story by an author or on a subject close to that of my novel (but I don’t think it has to be). Again, this is something you could do in your lunch hour, or before bed. Then I’ll go for a walk with something to read and something to write on. Everyone walks somewhere during the course of a standard day, don’t they? Just make sure you have a notepad with you – boom! You’re on a writer’s retreat. An hour before lunch, I’ll flick through my plot notes and perhaps tweak them a little, or write out a card for a new scene. After lunch I’ll draft a scene, or begin to, if it’s a meaty one. I might read over some earlier scenes that I’ve written and edit them a tiny bit (not worth doing too much editing at such an early stage). I’ll dedicate a bit more time to this – and hour or two, perhaps, so it’s probably a job for the weekend, at home, or set aside a whole evening and do it instead of watching House of Cards. Then I’ll read a novel which is completely unrelated, but is something that I love. I might skip over parts of it, try to analyse the structure a bit, or the characterisation, or the dialogue. This is something you could spend ten minutes on if it’s a really familiar novel, or you could be at it for hours. My point with all this is that your brain will continue to think about whatever little task you’ve done until you sit down at your desk the next day to do the next thing. Most of the work for a novel is done when you’re away from your desk, but you must do a little bit every day. If you only have half an hour, that’s fine. Even if you had all day, you might not do more than half an hour at a time of any one thing, anyway.

3. If the expectation is that you write, you tend to get on and write. One thing about coming on a retreat that is more tricky to take home is the feeling of purpose. There is something very powerful about knowing that the person in the next room is working on their second novel and writing to a deadline, and that the person across the landing is busy editing their memoir. Surrounded by so much productivity, it’s easy to feel like I’d better get on with writing my novel; that’s what I’ve told all the other guests I’m here to do, after all. One way of taking this feeling home is to give yourself a specific time to write and to let everyone know that that is what you’re doing at that time – make it sacred, make people have expectations of you. You could also cultivate a circle of writer friends to keep you on your toes. Knowing other people are also dedicating themselves to this often thankless pursuit can be tremendously heartening.

4. When you’re paying for space and time to write, you’re much less likely to faff about on the internet. There is pretty good wifi at the retreat in Devon, but despite that I managed to resist updating my Facebook status to gloat about being on a writers’ retreat in Devon (which, let’s face is, would have looked pretty sad – what’s the point in being there if you’re going to boast about it rather than actually get on with some writing. Save the boasting for once you’ve done the writing). I also only checked my emails at specific times, rather than keeping them open all the time to distract me with their dinging. I don’t know how to take this home, other than in the form of extreme self-discipline.

5. Most writers are not snobs about writing. In fact, your strongest critic is probably you. Spending time with other writers doing all sorts of different things is a powerful way to calm your fears about people judging you and your work. Of course, your writing is not going to be to everyone’s taste and it can be a cruel world out there, but fellow writers are probably your biggest supporters. There’s a strong feeling that what we’re doing is something worthwhile; we all know it’s hard, but we all know it’s rewarding, too, so we encourage each other to keep at it.

I was bought my stay at the retreat as a gift and, if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have bought it for myself. I would have viewed it as extravagant and unnecessary. But, having experienced it and seen how much I have benefitted, just from the clarity with which it’s enabled me to see my foetal novel, I have changed my mind. Of course it’s possible to write a novel without staying at a retreat, but I think we writers can be quite cruel to ourselves sometimes and being looked after (so well looked after, too – a glass of wine was brought to my room every evening at six, and when I returned to my bed after dinner, there was a hot water bottle there warming it up) for the specific purpose of allowing us time to write is so wonderfully liberating that I’ve come to think that a stay of a few nights in this retreat is more than worth the money. I recommend it, and I certainly hope to be back soon.

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On friends getting published

I am very lucky to be in a position where I have a lot of writer friends. I’ve accumulated this creative network over time. Some are friends I made when we both worked in-house at a publisher; most are people I met while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa; and a few are friends of friends that have become closer because of the writing we have in common. Having writer friends is a big part of what I love about being a writer and it helps me to keep going when my writing stalls – because writing is not always pleasurable. One of my writer friends even went so far as to say he hated writing – hated the writing process and all the frustration of it, how slow it is, how painful – but he loved having written. The feeling of having put into words an idea, a story, and having pulled together all those strands, that feeling was worth all the torture of getting there, and it was that feeling that made him go back in and put himself through it all again. Hearing another writer say this is encouraging because it lets you know that you are not alone in this most lonely of pursuits. 

When I started writing, no one I knew personally had been published. Then an old colleague got a book deal. It was for something that was very different to anything I would ever write, but it still felt exciting. It seemed to make what I was doing more real, as if publication was a solid goal that had just become visible through the mist. The advance my friend earned enabled him to begin working part time so that he could dedicate more time to writing; he was inching towards making it his ‘proper’ job.

In the following years, other friends began to pick up book deals. Some months after completing the Creative Writing course, I was speaking to one of the other students I had become friends with and I remember him saying that, of each year of students that have completed the MA, it averages that about half a dozen get publishing deals. There are not too many people in each year, so this is not a bad success rate. However, my friend went on to say that, every time someone from our year got published, he felt his chances went down a little bit. He immediately followed this up by saying he knew that it was ridiculous and that of course those students getting published could never affect any other individual student’s chances, it just didn’t work like that, but still… he couldn’t help feeling a little bit like it did. 

I think this insecurity and defeatist attitude is very typical of unpublished writers (and, I’m beginning to realise, of published writers, too). In a way, it is inevitable. We dedicate a massive amount of time and effort to something, often working in total isolation, and there is no guarantee it will ever bring us any kind of monetary reward or creative recognition. It is no wonder self-doubt creeps in.

There have been some well-documented examples of literary back-biting amongst published authors (not least of all Virginia Woolf’s damning comments of James Joyce’s Ulysses), so it is hardly surprising that an unpublished author might be critical of a published author, particularly if they feel their own work is more deserving of publication. When the published author is someone known personally to the unpublished author, an even greater resentment can set in because that sense of ‘It could / should have been me’ is felt more keenly, particularly if the book is of a similar genre. 

It has been a little surprising to me that I don’t feel more like this when another friend tells me that such-and-such a literary agent has agreed to represent him or he’s just sold his book to such-and-such a publisher. I can’t deny there’s a little pang of ‘When is it going to be my turn?’ but it is only momentary, and I think this is because I’ve developed a staunch belief that half of the battle with writing is having a thick skin and keeping on plugging away. I try to remain philosophical about it; it will be my turn eventually, and whenever that is will be the right time for me.

I’ve worked in publishing for more than ten years now, and I know that there are lots of books that get published – and some which do very well – which I don’t think are particularly well written or deserving. There is no point in feeling resentful about this. The reasons why these books find publishers and why people buy them are varied and numerous and – most importantly – completely out of my control. I also know that writing is a craft and, as a general rule, the more someone writes, the better they become at it. Some writers who get published at the very first try find that they are learning their craft in full view of their readers and – more painfully – their critics, who will not hold back when the writer slips up (particularly now, when everyone can be a critic on Goodreads or Amazon, including those resentful unpublished writers).

I was talking to another writer friend yesterday, and she was saying that she knows of a writing-workshop group who met on a Creative Writing MA and have been workshopping together ever since – for about the past seven or eight years. One of them was published very soon after they completed their course, but now almost all of them have publishing deals, and the one who has only very recently found a deal secured a six-figure advance (which the others all feel slightly resentful about). So, it just goes to show, sometimes waiting a bit longer really can pay off. 

I love that so many of my friends are writers. I love talking about writing, about our ideas, and about the problems we all face. I know that I have been a useful source of information because of my job as an editor for writer friends less familiar with that mysterious side of the publishing process, and I find it really useful that friends of mine have gone down the getting-published route before me so that I can be more prepared if and when I find myself on the same road. I suppose, ultimately, what keeps me pleased for my published friends, and what keeps resentment at bay, is my belief that good writing is good writing, whether or not it’s published, and if it is good, it will be published sooner or later, so long as you keep sending it out to agents and publishers. Most importantly, good writers need to stick together, whether or not they are published, because the support we offer each other helps to keep quality literature alive.

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Five Tips for New Writers

I rarely edit anything that hasn’t already been re-read and re-drafted by the author, read and critiqued by the agent and then re-drafted again, and finally read and given a structural edit and possibly a line edit by an in-house editor at the publisher before it lands on my desk. And I still find stuff that is inconsistent, awkwardly phrased, inaccurate and unbelievable. I am currently editing something that hasn’t been seen by anyone apart from the author and me, and it is very interesting to note what it is the professionals do that do not necessarily come naturally to someone who is new to writing a novel, even someone, like this author, who is clearly not a bad writer. Saying that, some of the tips below would also have improved the writing of a number of the professional authors whose work I’ve edited, too. Anyway, here are five tips for (new) writers, which might be helpful when getting your novel picked up by an agent or publisher, and will certainly make an editor’s life easier. They are in no particular order, and are in no way exhaustive – just five things I’ve noticed in my most recent edits.

Tip 1: Don’t introduce characters who are irrelevant to the plot.

This is frustrating to readers because, basically, you are wasting their time. If you’re going to give us a name and a physical description and fill us in on the character’s background to allow insight into her psychology, then that character had better appear in more than one scene. It doesn’t matter if she has a function – to show the protagonist helping someone out of the kindness of his heart, or to demonstrate how utterly, devastatingly attractive the protagonist is that someone so unattainable would fall for him – if that character disappears after only one scene, readers will be resentful that they invested so much in the character in the first place. Solution: Use a character who already exists to fulfil the necessary function (as well as being key to the main plot) or show us the trait you’re trying to highlight in the protagonist by working it into scenes that you already have (which drive your plot forward).

Tip 2: Don’t give background information only as it becomes relevant.

So your protagonist is desperately short of cash and has to sell her most treasured possession in order to make ends meet. Only, your readers haven’t heard anything about this treasured possession up until now. If you suddenly spring something like this on them, readers will see it as a weak and rather-too-convenient device to keep the plot going. And no amount of background information at the time when the thing becomes relevant will make it seem plausible. Solution: You will pack a much stronger emotional punch if we hear about this treasured possession earlier. Readers need to see how much it means to the protagonist in advance to make them care when it is finally taken away.

Tip 3: If an important conversation happens, give us dialogue.

This comes down to the oldest rule in the book: show, don’t tell. Some writers are great at dialogue, and some seem to fear it. There is often a tendency in early drafts to over explain what is being said and what it means and how it is interpreted by the characters, with the worst cases shunning dialogue completely and simply reporting what happened in one big paragraph. The only explanation I can give for this is that the author thinks the conversation is so important that it needs to be explained to the reader. It doesn’t. Solution: You can tell readers a massive amount by leaving a load of stuff out. Give us a gesture or a movement instead of telling us how someone was feeling when they said something. Readers want to imagine the scenes themselves. Give them the words that were spoken first and then add a few necessary details.

Tip 4: Watch what your first-person narrator tells us.

So, in first-person narration (or even close third-person), you need to remain acutely aware of your narrator’s state of mind. If they are drunk, or massively traumatised by something they’ve just seen, or if they’ve been knocked on the head and can’t see straight, they probably won’t be able to give us a lucid paragraph about exactly how they’re feeling or what the experience means to them. Equally, a first-person narrator should not, usually, say something like, ‘He was so concerned about me that he did everything he could to make my life easier.’ Unless, of course, your narrator is trying to convince themselves of this. A first-person narrator does not have access to other characters’ thoughts, so cannot tell readers what other characters are thinking or feeling. Solution: Use language to demonstrate drunkenness etc. Incomplete sentences, odd juxtapositions, etc. can help in speech, and you might get away with being slightly more lucid inside someone’s head, but their thoughts will still be affected and jumbled. Save any really profound thoughts for when your narrator is just getting back to normal. On the point of reading other characters’ minds, a first-person narrator can tell us what that character said (‘He told me how concerned he was about me’), or show us how they looked (‘I could see the concern in his expression’), or even have another character report back on what they have heard about that character (‘He’s really concerned about you, you know’). Any of these techniques works better than trespassing inside someone else’s head.

Tip 5: Avoid clichés.

It’s very easy to write in clichés, because we hear them so much in everyday speech. It is also horrible to hear that your writing is clichéd. The only way to avoid this is to read it back with an eagle eye (that’ll be a cliché, right there), and get rid of the blighters. The exception to this is where they appear in speech or ‘in voice’ (where you’re writing first person, or very close third person), but even then I’d recommend caution. Solution: It’s great if you can spot them as you’re writing, but this is often easier said than done (cliché alert!). Be sure to have a thorough check through once you’ve finished your first draft and sift any remaining ones out. You’re looking for things like ‘my heart skipped a beat’, ‘I felt sick to my stomach’, ‘it was a cold and rainy night’. You know the stuff – anything that you’ve heard a million times before.

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Non-Sexist Children’s Books – recommendations

It has been a very long time since my last post, for which I apologise, but I thought it was time I recommended some children’s books I’ve discovered that are not sexist in the way I was complaining about. I’ve not found as many as I would have hoped, but here are a few you should definitely check out:

The Baby That Roared by Simon Puttock

I love Simon Puttock. There are a couple by him on this list, and I imagine there could be more, but I haven’t come across any others yet. And he’s a man, writing well about female characters, which fills me with hope. The Baby That Roared is a lovely tale along the lines of a childless couple, wishing for a baby and then getting more than they bargained for when their wish comes true. What is great about this is that it is both Mr and Mrs Deer who take an interest in childcare and the characters they go to for advice are both male and female. Apart from all that, it’s a very enjoyable read, both charming and funny.

Stella to Earth by Simon Puttock

Another favourite in our house. In this story a girl takes an interest in space travel and explores new galaxies and planets, and it is her father who is looking after her at home. Brilliant.

How to Hide a Lion by Helen Stephens

Basically a modern take on The Tiger Who Came to Tea (which gets a mention in this story). The central character, Iris, isn’t scared of lions. Also, both her mum and dad are seen looking after the baby, and both her mum and dad read the newspaper. Now, that’s more like the world I know. Oh, and the illustrations are fabulous.

Usborne Farmyard Tales (series) by Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright

The publisher, Usborne, has put out loads of these in various formats and some are much better than others, but – and I can’t quite describe how excited I was when I first read this – Mrs Boot is the farmer! The stories are all about the Boot family, and Mr Boot appears from time to time, too, and the son and daughter are always around, but Mrs Boot is clearly described as one who is the farmer. Okay, she’s also ‘Mrs Boot’ and is therefore only identified by her married status and her husband’s name, but it’s a start.

And that’s the lot for now. I will update as and when I find more, and please do let me know if you have anything that could be added to this list. In the meantime, my search goes on…

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Sexist Children’s Books

Pre-motherhood, my experience of children’s books (since being read them or reading them myself as a child) was limited. I worked as a temp for a couple of weeks at Macmillan Children’s Books – my first ever job in publishing – and then much later I worked on Disney books at Parragon for almost a year, so you could say I’ve covered the two ends of the market. Since going freelance, I’ve worked on teen fiction, but nothing for younger kids, and it’s come as something of a shock. Don’t get me wrong, there are some lovely, lovely picture books out there, but it is boldly apparent that a massive proportion of them perpetuate sexist stereotypes and favour male characters over female.

Let’s take The Gruffalo as our first example. All of the characters are male. Why? There is no necessity in the story for the characters to be male. The drawings wouldn’t even need to change – we have a fox, an owl, a snake, a mouse and a fictional creature. All the first three of these characters are doing is behaving like predators, and female owls hunt as much as male owls, as far as I’m aware.

Don’t get me wrong, The Gruffalo is a brilliant book. It’s clever and witty and has a very satisfying conclusion. But I find myself changing the sex of half the characters when I read it to my daughter, because I don’t want her to feel excluded. Because the reason all of these characters are male is because the default in our society is male. Still. The female only tends to exist in relation to the male. If there is no absolute necessity for a character to be female, then generally it isn’t.

What is particularly infuriating is when all logic would suggest the character should be female. This is the case when dealing with farm animals. Look at Duck in the Truck. The characters here are a duck, a sheep, a goat and a frog. Now, ask any farmer (and, if you read children’s books, you’ll know that farmers are always male), and he’ll tell you that ducks are kept, in the most part, for their eggs. You’d have trouble getting eggs out of a drake. And, as a friend of mine pointed out, the book is not titled Drake in the Truck, anyway. ‘This is the drake driving home in his…’ Hmm… Stumbled at the first hurdle, there. And why, Mr Farmer, do you keep goats? For their milk, you say…? Well, isn’t that funny…? You see my point.

I was at Windmill Hill City Farm with my daughter yesterday morning, and we were looking at the pigs. There was a woman and her toddler standing next to us, and she was talking to her son about what the pigs were doing: ‘How many pigs can you see? Look at him! What colour is the patch over his eye? He’s having his breakfast, isn’t he? Can you see him eating that straw?’ etc etc. The pig in question had two very prominent rows of nipples on her underbelly. So to talk about animals as male all the time is not only perpetuating the default as male norm, but it is actually misleading. It’s just wrong.

And so, Dear Zoo gets the sex-change treatment, as does The Three Little Pigs, as do many Dr Seuss books; Hansel and Gretal find their roles being reversed and don’t get me started on dinosaurs… If you were to read children’s books about dinosaurs, you’d be forgiven for believing that they didn’t come with female versions. If you can think of examples to prove me wrong, please let me know – I want to buy them for my daughter. And if you can think of examples where female animals are not shown to be such by either a) wearing a skirt or dress or having a bow of some kind in their hair or b) having prominent eyelashes that the male version doesn’t have then I promise I will send you a prize of some sort.

In the meantime, I’m going to set about writing a story about a female farmer. And then I’m going to write about the female dinosaurs and where they have all been hiding for so long.

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Work, work, work, rest and … breathe…

It’s been a hectic couple of months, which goes some way to explaining my silence in the blogosphere. I can’t complain – I love having this much work in, and I’ve been editing some really good books lately – but, as I’ve bemoaned to Jon numerous times, why couldn’t I have had this much work in when I actually had time to do it? And, with this much editing, when am I going to have a chance to do my own writing?

I worked every hour available, apart from a couple of days off at Christmas, right up until new year. And then we went to Lanzarote for ten days. The sudden break was much needed, and the perfect opportunity to unwind. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get some writing done, too, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. My brain was in the wrong place and so I read instead. I read a whole book. Which – apart from for work – I haven’t done so quickly for longer than I care to remember.

And now we’re home, and this is the strange part: I don’t have any work lined up until the end of the month, and Jon is off for another month yet, so he’s Chief in Charge of Childcare, which means I have acres and acres of time to write. Just what I have been craving. And I’ve made a start (it is only day two, after all), but it feels strange. Almost frightening. It is a lot of time – a luxurious amount of time compared to what I’ve had lately – but I also know that it’s still not going to be enough. Not to do everything I want to do.

Writing is a slow, slow process. We rush around in our normal lives, and we can achieve so much in so little time – send emails, make calls, have meetings, read books, write reports – but writing, if it is to be good writing, writing of any literary merit, takes longer. It needs to be considered. It needs to be mulled over, read back and fiddled with, read again and – but wait! If that bit’s changed in that subtle way then the later bit which refers to it needs to change too, and that character wouldn’t know that that happened if the earlier scene has been shifted, etc, etc, as if the whole thing is coming unravelled like a piece of knitting with a dropped stitch.

And that’s the point at which I find myself with my novel. In a word, it’s messy. But it must be done, so I’d better get on with it.

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My Feminist Leanings

I’ve had a feeling for some time now that there is a shift in mood about feminism, equality and gender discrimination but, over the past couple of months, voices are rising and – I hope – being heard. I have been banging on about this stuff since I was a teenager, so I am both relieved and excited to discover that other people feel the same way.

Rather than going on here about my own thoughts and ideas here, which could turn into a rather long post, I just want to mention two campaigns that I have been following recently. The first is No More Page Three, organised by Lucy Holmes (#nomorepage3 / you can sign the petition here: http://tinyurl.com/9mt5j89), which is petitioning the Sun to drop the topless photos of young women that it features five days a week. It’s just plain bizarre that page three still exists in a daily, family newspaper, and the Sun‘s response to this polite request to put a, frankly, outdated and inappropriate practice to bed (so to speak) just highlights the fundamental sexism and misogyny that exists within the tabloid press. (You can read more about that at http://inadifferentvoice.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/wimmin-know-your-place). Apparently, when asked for a response on the campaign, the Sun said that there are more important things to be concerned about in the world. Yes, there are. So why don’t they put an article about these more important things on page three? Perhaps it could even be written by a woman.

The other campaign I want to mention is the Everyday Sexism Project (http://www.everydaysexism.com), which I have been following on Twitter (#everydaysexism). This is basically a simple forum for women to document examples of sexism that they encounter, whether that be something apparently minor or more serious examples, such as rape or assault. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking and reading it makes me physically shake with anger. So many of the examples are familiar and most women will recognise at least some the situations from personal experience and – as is so often the case – will also have brushed such experiences off as one of those things, or not worth complaining about, or will have felt themselves somehow to blame, or – if they did say something – will have been told (sometimes by their own friends and family) not to make a fuss.

The links between these two campaigns need little explanation. It is the mentality that says women’s bodies are there for the titillation and entertainment of the public – even when you don’t ask for it; even at eight in the morning with your coffee when you just want to read the headlines – that leads to the assumption that it’s okay to grope a woman you don’t know in a bar or in the street or on the Tube. It is this mentality that makes people say a woman is ‘letting herself go’ if she chooses not to wear make-up because she likes to have an extra ten minutes in bed or prefers comfortable shoes that don’t shorten her tendons and crush her toes. It is a subtle, creeping mentality that seeps into the consciousness, to a greater or lesser degree, of anyone who is not vigilant against it.

Campaigns such as No More Page Three and the Everyday Sexism Project are important and vital if we are ever to live in a fair and balanced society. These campaigns are good for women, but they are also good for men who, let’s not forget, also suffer from the inequalities that exist between the sexes. I encourage anyone reading this to show their support. It’s time for us all to show our feminist leanings.

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