PHOTO: OPENING SESSION, YALLFEST 2015
This past weekend, I attended YALLWEST. It was an amazing young adult book festival in Santa Monica, California that hosted dozens of incredible and accomplished authors. It was AWESOME event and I'm so glad I decided to trek from NYC to California to enjoy it and to celebrate my love of books.
In case you wondered why a 40-something woman (I) went, here's why: 1) I am obsessed with books, primarily young adult books (with an occasional middle grade book or two mixed in); 2) I’m currently writing my first young adult novel and love learning about the craft of fiction writing and different elements of the fiction business; 3) I welcome any opportunity to mix and mingle not only with teens and book bloggers who love books, but with other writers, not to mention agents, editors, and filmmakers.
I attended several interesting sessions and can honestly say I enjoyed each and every one and learned a lot in the process.
In the Keynote, Ransom Riggs shared his ideas on how to become a writer. He said it’s possible to become a writer once you figure out what you’ll write about and where your ideas come from. He told the audience a great story about he took interest in old photographs with and without writing on them. He said all of them brought stories into his head. It’s clear it worked for him, because he’s the bestselling author of several books including Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
PHOTO: RANSOM RIGGS
In another session called My Name is _______ and I am a Basket Case, several authors, including one of my very favorites, Stephanie Perkins, shared their personal stories about dealing with ADHD, anxiety, and depression in the context of their creative and highly successful work. Each panelist, including Lauren Oliver, Margaret Stohl, Libba Bray, Rachel Cohn, Kami Garcia, and Richelle Mead, offered some thoughts and practical advice for teens:
- Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a loving friend;
- Practice positive self talk;
- Have compassion and empathy for yourself and for others;
- Keep a feelings journal;
- Just because you have _____ (fill I the blank with ADHD, depression, etc.) doesn’t mean that’s your whole story; it’s just one dimension of who you are.
PHOTO: LAUREN OLIVER & STEPHANIE PERKINS
I admire all of these incredibly accomplished women for being honest about their struggles and for showing teens that even if you’re successful—e.g. you’re a New York Times’ bestselling author and/or have had your books sold in dozens of languages—it doesn’t mean you’re immune to struggles or having doubts about yourself and your abilities. The authors also added ideas to help teens when they’re in a funk e.g. to do yoga, call a good friend, volunteer, run, make music, have a Downton Abby marathon, or, heck, even rescue kittens.
In another session called, So You Want to Be a Writer, several top agents and editors shared advice for aspiring authors. Here were some of their tips before querying an agent or editor:
*Try to craft one great sentence that distills the important ideas in your book;
*A query shouldn't include a ton about you; have it focus more on the main character and her conflict;
*You might want to rethink starting a query with a question; instead, include two or three sentences about the book;
*If you want to write a series of books, make the first one super strong; don't leave things over for the second or third books.
One of the highlights of my day was meeting (and crying in front of, but more on that later) Wyck Godfrey, producer of The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS) and the new film that I can’t wait to see, The Longest Ride. Seeing Godfrey on the agenda, I immediately found him on twitter and tweeted him to see if he’d be kind enough to do a short interview with me for my blog. He emailed me back right away (nice guy!) and a few hours later we met just after the session, The Hollywood Story, for which he was a panelist alongside Rob Minkoff (director, The Lion King) and several notable Hollywood storytellers.
PHOTO: YOURS TRULY & WYCK GODFREY
So why did I cry when I met Wyck Godfrey? I wanted to meet him not only because I loved TFIOS, but because I wanted him to thank him for making the movie and to let him know it quite literally changed the trajectory of my career and my life in so many ways. After my mother suffered from a significant brain bleed and a 5 week hospitalization (ICU/rehab), I lost some of my mojo, both professionally and personally. At the end of the movie, when the credits rolled, I pointed to the screen, turned to my husband, and said, “That is what I want to do.” I didn’t know if “That” meant I wanted to make a movie, write a screenplay, or write a novel. But I knew in that moment I needed to do something to help people feel in a way similar to how that movie made me feel. In the ten months since, I’ve been working on my young adult novel, have read a ton of young adult books (and an occasional middle grade book), have taken a few writing classes, have gone to a writing retreat (at the amazing Vermont College of Fine Arts), have attended several book signings, and will attend as many conferences as my schedule and my family permit.
I also said hello to New York Times best selling authors, E. Lockhart and Danielle Paige, after their enjoyable panel on retelling fairytales. I also saw two other lovely authors: Jennifer Niven (All the Bright Places--see Part One and Part Two of my interviews with her) and Holly Goldberg Sloan, author of the wonderful middle grade book, Counting By 7s (stay tuned for my upcoming interview with her). Last but not least, I met the terrific John "Corey" Whaley, author of Where Things Come Back and Noggin. (Incidentally, I just ordered both of his books on Amazon and plan to interview him for my blog VERY soon).
Stay tuned for my Day Two of YALLWEST blog post.
For more about YALLWEST, click here.
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I recently had the privilege of interviewing Densie (not Denise) Webb. I first met her more than a dozen years ago when she was an editor and I a writer for the award winning nutrition newsletter, Environmental Nutrition Newsletter.
Webb has spent a long career as a freelance nonfiction writer and editor, specializing in health and nutrition, and has published several books and tons of articles on the topic over the years. A member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and SheWrites, her debut novel titled, “You’ll Be Thinking of Me,” was released as an ebook this past January by Soul Mate Publishing. A paperback and an audiobook will be released later this year.
A member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and SheWrites, Webb grew up in Louisiana, spent 13 years in New York, and settled in Austin, Texas, where it’s summer nine months out of the year.
Webb describes herself as an avid walker (not of the dead variety, though she loves anything to do with zombies, vampires or post-apocalyptic worlds), and as someone who drinks too much coffee. She also has a small “devil dog” that keeps her on her toes and has arrested development in musical tastes (her two children provide her with musical recommendations on a regular basis).
When I learned Webb had written a novel, I jumped at the chance to pick her brain about it and about making the switch from writing about health and nutrition to writing fiction (something I’m now pursing as well). Webb was kind enough to indulge me. Here are some highlights from our recent email interview.
EZ: What inspired you to even think about writing an adult novel, especially after being a writer and editor for so long?
DW: I can’t say that there was any one trigger. It just really appealed to me. I love to read and go crazy over lovely passages and well put together similes, metaphors and analogies. Basically, I love words. I just had a real need to do it myself.
EZ: What were the first steps you took to learn about fiction writing? Did you learn on your own, take any classes, or do a combination of things to get started?
DW: With my novel, “You’ll Be Thinking of Me,” it was a 5-year process with a very steep learning curve. I have a completed novel in the drawer that came before. It’s embarrassing to read now, but I have been thinking about pulling it out and seeing if I can make it better.
EZ: How did you come up with the idea for your novel?
DW: I’ve long been fascinated by celebrities’ lives. Not in a Kim Kardashian sort of way, but in a horrifying how-can-they-live-like-that sort of way. It’s like rubbernecking to view a car wreck. I can’t turn away. Anyway, I saw this interview with a young actor several years ago. He was incredibly popular and everywhere he went there were hoards of screaming girls and women. The interviewer asked him where did he think it would all go from here. He chuckled and made a blithe comment about someone jumping out of the crowd and stabbing him, ending it all. It just really struck me how vulnerable celebrities are and it was the seed of an idea for the story.
EZ: Did you do any special kind of research for your book?
DW: I knew nothing about stalking, other than what I had seen in movies, so I started researching. I Googled it, of course, and found textbooks, articles, memoirs of victims, and court records on stalking. Some were specifically about celebrity stalkers. I interviewed a psychologist who had worked on celebrity stalking cases, testified in court and had interviewed the stalker in a well-known case. He was gracious enough to speak with me for 45 minutes. I read a couple of his textbooks in advance and he provided some terrific insight.
EZ: What has been the easiest thing about writing fiction for you so far?
DW: I remember when I first considered writing fiction, I complained to a friend that I knew absolutely nothing about writing dialogue and I wondered how I could possibly do it. It turns out that dialogue is my strong point. It seems to come fairly easily to me without sounding stiff or unnatural—at least that what my critiquers say.
EZ: What has been the most challenging thing about writing fiction for you so far?
DW: Where do I start? For me, writing is easier than storytelling and you have to learn to be a teller of stories that hang together from beginning to end, to write a novel. Before this, I seldom wrote things that were longer than maybe 5,000 words. My novel is 95,200 words. Big difference.
EZ: How did you go about getting an agent/publisher for your novel?
DW: I queried and queried and queried. And I got what have been called “rave rejections.” Complimentary and encouraging, but in the end it was a “no.” One agent said something to the effect that she was sure I would find representation elsewhere, “elsewhere” being the operative word. In the end I found a small publisher without an agent. The publisher thought my story was “compelling” and I was and am a happy camper.
EZ: Do you write at specific times or in specific places or does it change depending on the day/how do you arrange your writing schedule—and how do you divide fiction writing time with the other writing/editing projects?
DW: I don’t have specific times. I’m afraid I’m not that disciplined. And my day job often gets in the way or drains my brainpower so that there’s not much left for fiction writing. Because I work at home, I prefer a change of scenery, so a couple of times a week I go to a coffee shop and write. Right now, I’m thinking of taking a couple of days off, going to a small town about 45 minutes from here and having a one-woman writing retreat.
EZ: What advice/suggestions would you give to anyone who is considering writing a book/fiction, especially if they aren’t writers or work in a completely different field that doesn’t require much writing/creative writing?
DW: I don’t have any original advice, but read as much as you can, especially in the genre you’re interested in writing in. Read and absorb everything you can on the craft of writing and editing fiction. There are tons of books out there, but among the best are anything by Donald Maass, Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Also, attend conferences and workshops if you can. If traveling and expensive registration fees are not an option, there are some good ones online that are much more affordable. And look for local critique groups to get unbiased feedback.
EZ: Any advice for writers like us who want to try their hand at a completely different kind of writing?
DW: It’s a tall order, but you have to sort of shed most of what you’ve learned about sentence structure and order. Science writing, like I do for my day job, is devoid of emotion, an unbiased representation of the facts. Fiction writing is the total opposite. Your job as a writer is have readers see the world from the characters’ totally biased point of view and even understand and empathize with, all the while creating your own writing “voice.”
EZ: How can people find your book (which I will read as soon as the hardcover/softcover is available; I can’t do digital)?
DW: Right now it’s available as an ebook on amazon (Barnes & Noble to follow) with a paperback due out later this year. An audiobook is also in production and should be available in April.
You can learn more about Webb and all her terrific work by visiting her website.
Image of book cover courtesy of Fiona Jayde.click to comment
I recently shared with you a Q and A about All the Bright Places and its fantastic author, Jennifer Niven. You can read it in its entirety right here.
Here's Part Two to help you learn more about Jennifer, whether you're a fan, an aspiring writer, or both.
Favorite color: Purple—especially lavender and, of course, violet!
Favorite book(s) and/or authors: My favorite book is probably In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, though I also love To Kill a Mockingbird. My favorite author of all was my mother, Penelope Niven, but I’m wild about Flannery O’Connor. I also adore Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, the Brontë sisters, David Levithan, Laurie Halse Anderson, and I have a particiular fondness and admiration for British YA authors—Phil Earle, Louise Rennison, Melvin Burgess, and a slew of others.
The last movie you saw and loved: This is the End, which I recently rewatched for the millionth time with friends. I think it’s genius, and it makes me laugh from beginning to end.
What you would do for a living if you didn’t write: I’d be an international rock star detective (the thing I dreamed about being when I was little), a Broadway actress/dancer, a forensic anthropologist, or an archaeologist.
Where you’ll be professionally and personally in 5 years: I want to write many, many more YA books, another nonfiction book for adults, and, down the line, another adult novel or two, including an idea my mom intended on writing but never got the chance to. I’d like to write it for her. I’d like to see my books turned into movies. I’d also love it if one of them was turned into a Broadway musical a la Wicked. If that ever happens, I want a really juicy cameo (one that doesn’t require me to sing). In terms of where I’d like to be personally, I’d love to own a lovely house in LA but also split my time with London or Paris as long as my fiancé and three literary cats can come with me. Oh, and I want to realize my childhood dream of owning an animal rescue organization where all the homeless animals in the world can come live.
Favorite place/way to write: My favorite place to write is my office. It is stuffed with bookshelves and books and souvenirs I’ve collected throughout my career and my travels (not to mention my three literary cats and my computer, which is what I almost always compose on). I call it the nerve center of our home. It’s where magic happens. But when I’m deep into a project, I tend to write everywhere—I get ideas while driving or working out or spending time with friends or doing errands. I record them on my phone or write them down on any piece of scrap paper I can find. My mind is always writing, long after I’ve left my desk.
Hardest part about writing for you: Plotting/outlining and the middles of books. I hate the middles and mine are always too long and meandering. (EZ note: I disagree. All the Bright Places is brilliant from start to finish!)
Anything else you want to share about yourself with readers: I’ve lost so many people in my life—my father, my beloved grandparents, cousins, friends, mentors, cats, and, most recently, my mom, who was my very best friend. So much loss. But through it, I try to focus on something Violet realizes in the book: it’s not what you take, it’s what you leave. Every person I’ve lost has left me so much, and I like to think I carry them with me. I’ve also learned the importance of wandering the world, making it lovely, and leaving something behind. Additionally, I know the words to every ABBA song and I’m a huge Supernatural fangirl.
Anything else you want to share about yourself with aspiring writers: When I was first starting out, the actress Madge Sinclair told me, “Writing, like any art form, takes soul stamina. You have to be prepared to commit to it, want it more than anything, honor your gifts, and stick it out through thick and thin.” I was lucky enough to grow up with a writer mom, so I saw firsthand how demanding and stressful and unpredictable the business is. I also saw the commitment it takes. I’m grateful for that because I think so many people go into the business of writing with unrealistic expectations—not realizing that it is, in fact, a business, and that you have to be ready and willing to do it in spite of everything else. My other advice is to write what inspires you. Write the thing you’re burning to write. Write what you love. Write the kind of book you’d like to read.
If I didn’t love Jennifer Niven’s words before (which I did), I love them even more now (which I do). How lucky am I to have had the opportunity to interview one of my writing heroes and share it with you?
To learn more about Jennifer Niven, All the Bright Places, and all of her great work, check out her website.
Image of Jennifer Niven courtesy of Louis Kapeleris.
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I recently came across an article in which an accomplished author said he tries not to read a great novel when he’s trying to write one himself.
Too late for me to follow that advice. Since July, I've been working on my very first young adult novel. As part of my research, I've read close to 30 books. And I love love loved (did I mention I loved?) Jennifer Niven’s latest title, her first for young adults, called All the Bright Places.
This book about a boy named Finch and a girl named Violet made me laugh, cry, and feel joy and pain all at the same time. With her story, told from alternating perspectives of Finch and Violet, Niven paints a beautiful picture of love, loss, hope, and despair. Probably every human emotion is covered so beautifully in its pages, and it was one of those books I didn’t want to put down and that I finished in a couple of days.
I don’t want to give away too much about the book, but from the first pages I was wrapped up in Finch and Violet’s story, which I felt was one of love, loss, and hope. I grew to care deeply for these characters. Of course the mother in me wanted to nurture and take care of them and guide their decisions. But like any parent will tell you, teenagers ultimately need to make many of their own decisions and find their own way in the world. So while reading All the Bright Places, instead of trying in my mind to steer the characters toward the light, I instead surrendered to being a mere passenger and bystander on their journey. It wasn’t always pleasant, but it was necessary.
In All the Bright Places, Niven has crafted a rich, beautiful, and deeply moving book that wrecked me—but in the best way possible. I am honored to have had the pleasure to interview her about the book and about writing in general via email. Here are highlights from our exchange:
EZ: How did you come up with the title, All the Bright Places? When I read it, I immediately thought of the song, Looking for Love and its lyrics, “Looking for love in all the right places” and thought that made sense since at the heart of this book is an amazing love story.
JN: The book was originally titled You Make Me Lovely, but Random House worried that the word “lovely” might not appeal to male readers. When they asked me to change it, I began searching for a new title in lines of poetry—I read everyone from Lord Byron to E.E. Cummings. I kept a very long list of possibilities, and was taking a break from my search when I spied Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! on my shelf. As I read through it, I came across these lines: “Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing.” And I thought about how that stanza related to Finch and, particularly, Violet. So my thought process went something like, “Bright Places… Find the Bright Places… The Bright Places… All the Bright Places.” It really grew on me, and I added it to my list, which I forwarded to my editor. Random House conducted an in-house poll, and that was the overwhelming favorite. In retrospect, I’m so happy we changed it!
EZ: You have an amazing body of work to your credit (including American Blonde, Becoming Clementine, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and Velva Jean Learns to Drive as well as several nonfiction titles). How different an experience for you was writing All the Bright Places in terms of developing the voice and the characters? And did you do anything special to create what come across as authentic and strong voices for Finch, Violet and the other characters?
JN: I began writing the book the summer of 2013, and it only took six weeks to write. A lot of that had to do with the deadline I gave myself and also the fact that I once knew a boy much like Theodore Finch. When I first started writing, I didn’t let anyone know what I was working on, in case it didn’t go anywhere. I thought, I’ll just try to write a chapter and see what happens. And then I heard the first line of the book: Is today a good day to die? And I saw Finch standing on the ledge of his high school bell tower looking down at the ground and contemplating jumping. And suddenly there was a girl up there with him… Finch’s voice came out pretty much fully formed, as if he’d been waiting for me to write him. Violet took a bit more work, but for the most part, the writing of the story just flowed. I like to say it’s the book I’ve been carrying around inside of me for some time, but didn’t put on paper until 2013. As for writing the other teens in the book, I think it helps that part of me is and always will be fifteen. My best friend from high school is still my best friend, and when we’re together we’re teenagers again. J
EZ: How challenging and important was it for you to write Finch’s character with regards to his emotional state/challenges? Did you consult with any mental health experts e.g. psychologists or psychiatrists as part of your research?
JN: While I did do some research into mental illness/depression—which included speaking with experts—it was the experience of knowing and loving this boy I mentioned that informed my writing the most. In so many ways, I really just wrote the story I knew. Years ago, I knew and loved a boy, and that boy was bipolar. I witnessed up-close the highs and lows, the Awake and the Asleep, and I saw his daily struggle with the world and with himself. The experience was life changing. Back then, I didn’t talk about it, but it’s important to talk about. I experienced firsthand the stigma associated with mental disorders—both from his perspective and from mine—and I realized that we need to make people feel safe enough to come forward and say, “I have a problem. I need help.” If we don’t talk about suicide or depression or mental illness, how can we expect anyone to reach out for help when they need it most? A young writer asked me recently, “How did you write All the Bright Places without crying over it?” The answer is that I did cry while writing it, but I also knew that it was okay to cry because that meant I was tapping into all of the emotion that was going to help me write what I needed to write. As for Violet, she is struggling with loss, and that is something I know too well. I’ve lost both my parents, all four grandparents, and numerous other family members and friends, so loss is something I know inside and out.
EZ: What made you decide to tell the story from both Finch and Violet’s perspectives? Did you know you’d do that from the beginning and did you write their stories separately and merge them together or write them chronologically or some other way?
JN: So many times I read a novel from one character’s perspective, and I find myself wondering about one of the other characters—what it’s like in this person’s head or that person’s head. It’s almost as if I’m being told the story in mono, when I want to hear it in stereo. When I sat down to write All the Bright Places, I heard Finch’s voice right away, and out came the first chapter. But I knew I wanted to write from Violet’s POV too, especially because she has to carry the story through to the end. As for the writing, I wrote the book chronologically, alternating between their voices as I went.
EZ: You’re getting incredible feedback and accolades about this book. It’s absolutely one of my favorites and you and it deserve high praise. I won’t give away the ending of the book, but I will say it tore my heart. Did you ever question how the book would end or play with alternative endings, though I do feel that the way it ended was very true to both characters.
JN: Thank you so much! That means a lot to me. I never questioned how All the Bright Places would end. I knew in my bones that the only ending could be the one I wrote, not just because too many stories about teen mental health are tied up in neat little packages with bows on top, but because it’s the ending I lived with the real-life Finch. Once again, it was the story I knew.
EZ: As a former major in psychology, I appreciate your extensive resource lists at the end of the book for suicide prevention, diagnosing mental health in teens, survivors, bullying, and abuse. Any you’d like to share with my readers?
JN: There are so many terrific resources, both national and international, a number of which are listed on my website and on the Germ Magazine links page. But I also want to mention Too Damn Young and Lauren’s Place, both of which are attempting to raise awareness and build community for young people in need.
EZ: Thanks so much for answering all my questions. In closing, can you describe in one sentence how you felt when you finished writing and editing the book?
JN: I felt spent, elated, depleted, full, proud, grateful, and deeply, wonderfully peaceful.
Image of Jennifer Niven courtesy of Louis Kapeleris.
You can learn more about Jennifer Niven, All the Bright Places (which will be made into a movie starring Elle Fanning, woot!) and all her other great work on her website. You can also follow her on twitter (@jenniferniven), on Instagram (JenniferNiven), and on Facebook (Jennifer Niven).
Stay tuned for Part Two of my interview with Jennifer Niven coming soon.
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Do you avoid certain foods when trying to lose weight or get healthy? Check out this list of some foods I and a few RD experts eat daily on EatThis.com. Some may surprise you!click to comment
Think 'processed' means bad for you? Processed foods can help you meet your food group quotas and nutrient needs. Check out nine processed foods that I and other RD experts recommend on EatThis.com.click to comment
Can you eat just one cookie? I know I can. This is something I taught myself to do. It wasn't easy at first, but once I gave myself permission to eat what I like and really taste and savor it, it made it that much easier to stop at just one.
Eat this, Not That asked me to weigh in on this question. Check out my response here.click to comment
According to the latest Stress in America Survey conducted annually by the America Psychological Association, average stress levels have decreased since 2007. Despite this downward trend, many Americans say they continue to struggle to achieve their healthy living goals and that stress adversely affects their eating and sleeping habits.
The survey also finds that money is a tremendous cause of stress in America. Nearly one third of adults report that their finances or lack of money prevent them from living a healthy lifestyle.
Among women, those who have high stress related to money are more likely to report sedentary or unhealthy behaviors than women with low stress about money. Compared with women with low money-related stress, those with high money-related stress report watching television/movies for more than two hours per day (55 percent vs. 38 percent), surfing the Internet (57 percent vs. 34 percent), napping/sleeping (41 percent vs. 23 percent), eating (40 percent vs. 19 percent), drinking alcohol (21 percent vs. 9 percent) or smoking (19 percent vs. 7 percent).
Women who say their stress about money is high also are significantly more likely than women who say they have low stress about money to rate their health as fair or poor (34 percent vs. 13 percent).
Among all adults, about one third report eating too much or eating unhealthy foods over the last month in response to stress.
Can you relate to any or all of the above?
Stress is an inevitable part of all our lives. Finding ways to cope with stress in a healthful way is essential to preserve both health and sanity. Easier said than done, I know, but critical if you want to look and feel your best and optimize your overall health.
While there’s no one size fits all approach to managing stress, my book, Younger Next Week (Harlequin Nonfiction) is a tool you can use to move towards more balance in your life, especially in the face of stress. The book has an anti-aging twist, but really it’s about promoting vitality and managing stress among women. (Even some men have said that the book has helped them establish more healthful food and fitness habits).
In the book, I describe several ways stress affects our habits—e.g. it makes us overeat, eat late at night, over-caffeinate, or even drink too much alcohol); then I provide solutions including Stressipes® (remedies to help you overcome the negative effects stress has on your food, fitness, and lifestyle behaviors).
Younger Next Week also includes a Vitality Plan complete with food lists, easy-to-follow menus, and delicious recipes created by Robyn Webb. The book has been honored with three awards (Winner, 2014 USA Best Book Award, and two National Health Information Awards of Merit) and I hope it will help you and the women in your life learn to nurture and care for yourselves, especially in the face or wake of stress, and to not just survive it but thrive in spite of it.
To learn more about Younger Next Week, click here.
For more on stress management, check out some great resources by the American Psychological Association here.
How do you handle stress in a positive and productive way?click to comment