Officially Lovely: I Received the One Lovely Blog Award

I shed a tear upon seeing that I have been nominated for my very first WordPress award by the wickedly popular WordPress newcomer, Jamie at The Comic Vault. It was a manly, salty tear which fell like a rock, but it was a tear nonetheless. If you like comics, you have to check out Jamie’s blog. Despite being on WordPress for only a short time, he has made his position in the community clear: his blog is the place for comic musings and analyses. He hasn’t made that claim so boldly, but I’ll say it for him! Thank you, Jamie!

This whole thing is wild because if you take a gander at my posts you’ll see that I often begin by saying hello to you “lovely ladies and classy gents.” This is the One Lovely Blog Award! Coincidence? I think not! So, what does this award entail? Allow me to don my monocle and investigate the fine print. My instructions are as follows.

  • Thank the person who nominated you and link their blog
  • Add the One Lovely Blog Award to your post
  • Share 7 things about yourself
  • Pass this on to as many people as you like (max 15)
  • Include this set of rules
  • Inform your nominees

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It seems I’ve been tasked with sharing 7 things about myself. If that’s what it takes for this blog to be certified lovely, I won’t spare a moment!

Numbah One!

I firmly believe that there is one steak to rule them all: Ribeye is king. Yes, yes, Filet Mignon is perfect and well and fine, and I will certainly crown it king in my older age when I can no longer indulge in fat, but for now, Ribeye is my go-to. The steak’s thickness and trim of fat gives it potential which surpasses other cuts.

Numbah Two!

I am a college student with a double major. I am currently studying Political Science and Philosophy, gearing up for Law School. I can’t say I won’t change anything (I probably will), but this is the plan for now.

Numbah Three!

I’ve made three major moves. I was born and raised in New Jersey. I moved to California at the age of 12. I moved back to Jersey at the age of 16. The four year stint provided me with a world entirely different from Jersey. Three things you should know about California:

  1. Californians take it slow. It’s like they all take some kind of organic vegan environmentally friendly Jack Johnson pill every morning. They stand in stark contrast to New Jersians, who run exclusively on coffee and road rage.
  2. The traffic is brutal. You want to go somewhere? California laughs at your foolishness. Plan on sitting in your car for far longer than is reasonable by any standard.
  3. There is so much to do. I lived there for four years and did a ton of cool things, but the state is so vast I haven’t seen a fraction of it. If you can stand the unholy traffic, you can see a whole lot!

Numbah Four!

I rank the four seasons as follows:

4. Autumn. Autumn is the season that kind of just has to be there. Given that I’ve been a student all of my life, it has always signified a return to school, a place which pales in comparison to the beach and the pool. Leaves fall and pile up on the sides of the roads which further complicates my life. No thank you, autumn. Get outta here.

3. Spring. Here in Jersey, it gets humid during the spring. By humid, I mean you step outside and you immediately feel as if you’ve just emerged from the shower. But spring offers warm weather after the chilling cold that is winter, so I welcome it like Idina Menzel welcomes mispronunciations of her name.

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2. Winter. It’s all about Christmas time. Christmas time is my jam. The music, the food, the family, the time off, the vibes, the celebration of Christ’s birth and the New Year all come together to make one heck of an exciting time-of-year. I like Christmas so much, in fact, that I intend to write a book set in my western world that takes places during Christmas.

1. Summer. Summer provides me the opportunity to do my favorite things: swim, hang outside, go to the beach, hit amusement parks, run amok…Who doesn’t like summer? Please, identify yourself in the comments so we can fix you.

Numbah Five!

I am a member of a squad of five strapping lads. We are formally known as the Five Strapping Lads. Meet my cousins:

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From left to right we have Robby, yours truly, Justin, Jordan, and George.

How’s that for a team?

Numbah Six!

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My favorite book is Book Six of the Wheel of Time series, Lord of Chaos. It is a refreshing book of astronomical scale that is written expertly. Furthermore, it is full of moments which prompted me to leap out of my seat and run laps around my house.

Numbah Seven!

I am a fan of the Magnificent Seven, both the original and the remake. I have yet to see the original original, Seven Samurai, but I intend to. This tidbit is relevant because my writing takes place in the western genre, however different my take on the American West may be.

So that’s a bit about me! If there’s anything that stood out to you, feel free to drop your thoughts in the comments.

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I would like to pass the Lovely Blog Award along to the following blogs which are highly deserving of it. If this happens to be a repeat nomination for any of those named, my apologies. I nominate:

A.Z. Anthony

Eva Blaskovic

PencilNeckGeek

Aimee Davis

Thank you all for reading.

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

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Writers, Trust Your Readers

Hello, lovely ladies and classy gents!

Today, I want to dive into an issue which has been irking me for quite some time. The idea of trusting the audience is something that I once thought to be simple. As a young lad, my father and I went to the movies nearly every weekend. What I wanted was simple: I wanted for the director of whatever movie I was seeing to trust the audience. I did not want to be spoon fed, I wanted to figure things out for myself. I wanted to think. This is one of the reasons why Inception struck me so profoundly that I deemed it my favorite movie upon leaving the theater. It remains my favorite to this day even after over 20 viewings across the years (If you think DiCaprio was awake at the end, you are sorely mistaken and we can talk about that in the comments. Don’t worry, I’m a professional. It’ll be okay).

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Things have changed a bit for me. Now I’m in the creator’s position, except in my case, I’m writing a novel. The rules are different. When one commandeers a film, visual detail is obligatory. Shots must be framed and filled to portray moods and focus attentions. Yet when one wields a pen and tackles a blank page, the circumstances differ. Detail is no longer obligatory. The author must provide some detail, of course, enough to paint a living picture and a fluid understanding in the reader’s mind, but how much is too much? How little is not enough? This is what I’m wrestling with through the lens of trusting the reader. The issue is one of space: How much space should the author leave open for the reader to

1) create images?

2) unravel plots?

Let’s address the first point: When it comes to creating an image of a setting populated by characters, how much space should the author leave open for the reader to fill in himself/herself?

I have found that my writing is laden with an abundance of visual and sensory detail. (If you would like read a brief excerpt from my novel-in-the-works, you are welcome to do so here). Like any writer, I have a strong idea of what is populating my page at any given moment, and so I feel that, in order to convey the world to the reader, I have to write descriptively. Other writers prefer to write more concisely, offering key descriptions and leaving it at that. In many cases when I read, regardless of what the author describes a character as looking like, I tend to imagine whatever I want. So are my heavy descriptions futile? Perhaps for some readers. Nonetheless, I’m still seeking balance.

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In some cases, I will set a scene using extensive detail. In other cases, perhaps when the dialogue is meant to be quick or there is sudden action taking place, I’ll forego the details and cut to the chase. I figure this provides a cushion to the reader to piece together what is happening for himself/herself while it also serves as a pacing technique. I think Robert Jordan showcases the technique of forgoing detail expertly. Typically, Jordan describes everything in his world with hyperfocused detail. The exception? Swordfighting. Instead of describing movements of those engaged in combat, he attributes names to the moves exercised by blade-wielders, names like ‘Swan Rises Over the Lake’ and ‘Horse Trots Through the Field.’ Descriptions in that vein brilliantly entrust the writing to readers’ imaginations.

Ultimately, I want to approach trusting the reader with filling in visual blanks as follows: The first time I introduce a setting or character, I won’t restrain myself from describing what I feel needs to be described. Over time, the necessity of such description about the same characters/settings will become unnecessary. I will trust the readers, at the point, to understand the desert as it is portrayed in my story, as it is a frequent setting. I will trust the readers to understand the intonation of my characters’ speech and their novel expressions after a time. I will still describe the settings and expressions, but I will describe them for the sake of indicating them rather than re-explaining them.

Trust applies perhaps more readily to the story element of plot (point 2). My younger self demands that I not spoon-feed the plot to my readers-to-be, and I certainly don’t want to let the kid down. Linear, predictable plots are no fun, but writing Inception is no easy task. How can an author trust the reader to bear not knowing something? How can an author handle withholding information from the reader and trust that he or she won’t shut the book and stop reading? I think the answer is simple: give your reader bread crumbs with some peppered olive oil! So long as your reader is given morsels of delicious bread at every turn, they will stick around for the main course and leave full and happy. But if you throw a steak at your reader soon as they sit down and rush them out the door soon as they finish, they won’t be charmed, they’ll be annoyed and frankly unimpressed.

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Much the same, the bread will help you to make your dramatic reveals all the more impactful. “Oh, that was hinted at in Chapter 2! And in Chapter 5!” I learned this lesson after failing to leave bread for the reader.

Many months ago, I sent a very early draft of my novel-in-the-works’ first chapter to my cousin Alex Azar, author of Nightmare Noir. He gave me the following criticism about the passage below:

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“This carpet, where did you get it?” the stranger demanded. His silver-green eyes frantically tore across every inch of the carpet’s ornate design. The question wasn’t particularly directed to either of the couple, and so both hesitated, unable to comprehend why the man could possibly be interested in a soiled rug.

Lynn-Holly shook her head profusely as if to rid herself of her confusion. “A client gave it to me. It was a gift.”

What does she do that she has a client? If this does take place in the 1800’s she wouldn’t really have a job unless she’s a hooker and her client is a john. – Alex Azar

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I got a good laugh out of his criticism, but after I laughed, I searched for the earlier bit where I explained that Lynn-Holly was a seamstress to show him that he must have skipped over that part. Alas, I couldn’t find the part because I hadn’t written it! I know that Lynn-Holly is a seamstress, it’s no secret, but I forgot to tell the audience! Thus, this passage made no sense. This instance provided me an important lesson that if I want something to be so within the pages of my novel, there must be breadcrumbs. There must be context. If you give your reader bread, and the bread is good, and you refill the bread basket frequently, you can rest easy knowing that they will probably enjoy their steak when it comes.

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So that’s all. What do you think? How do you go about trusting the reader? How do you balance detail with imagination? Mystery with reveal? Let’s talk!

Thank you for reading. As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

J.J. Azar is Back with a Vengeance

LOVELY ladies, CLASSY gents, HELLO!

As some have noticed, I’ve been gone for a while.

“Why did you leave us, J.J?”

Fear not, disembodied voice! I will tell you. There have been some new developments in the unusual and often moist thing that is my life. For starters, I’ve begun a new semester of college. My new class schedule paired with my newfound workout plan have launched me into an exploratory phase where I’ve been figuring out how I can best fall back into the writing process (I’ve been going to the gym, as I said I would in my Missed Deadline post. So sore, so worth it).

To lighten my workload, I spent the weekend getting ahead in a couple of classes with the sole purpose of freeing up writing time. I return to the novel-in-the-works tonight! Additionally, I’m back in the working world! I’m enjoying the time I’m spending helping out the family business and earning some $$. I’m also seeing a lovely lady who is classy enough to satisfy even the highest of standards we hold over here. All-in-all, all is well! I’ve just taken a week to prepare myself for writing, is all. I’ve made a fair effort to keep up with my WordPress Reader, but if you think I’ve missed a post of yours that you think I’d enjoy, please do share a link in the comments!

With that, I will be making a change to the blog. In the interest of focusing on my novel-in-the-works, I will be posting a minimum of once a week as opposed to twice. I may accumulate views and followers more slowly by posting once a week, but a) I’m here to interact with y’all, not track statistics! b) the novel takes priority until I complete its first draft, as I’m sure you understand. As promised, I will provide you with my new first-draft deadline by the end of the month.

What’s nice about this is I can put more effort into each post and spend more time reading your posts. Some posts to look out for in the coming weeks include:

  • On Trusting the Reader
  • Writers, What’s Your Style?
  • Writing the Five Senses
  • You Want to Write? Write!
  • One Lovely Blog Award Reception

Thank you for your continued support. I don’t intend to take another leave of absence this long (12 days!) without informing you first.

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

Why I Value Character Over Plot

I saw a movie a while back about a bunch of hit-men trapped in a warehouse after a botched robbery. The hit-men are trying to figure out who ratted them out. The whole movie takes place in a warehouse! The whole thing! We don’t even see the robbery, we only see a guy running from the robbery. There is one random scene at the beginning which took place at a restaurant, and another in a car, I think, but for the most part, the movie has one setting. By the end of it, we know who the rat is, but over all…nothing happens!

That movie is called Reservoir Dogs. It’s one of my favorites of all time. *cue Kanye*

“JJ, what is this sorcery? You just switched like a light switch.”

Allow me to explain, disembodied voice.

Reservoir Dogs is a story of such small scale, of such little consequence, yet it’s stellar. How? How can a story that largely takes place in one ugly-looking room be stellar? Lovely ladies and classy gents, the answer is character.

Character, for me, is the most important aspect of every story.

I understand why others disagree. I understand why others value plot over characters. Some want to read for what happens while others want to read for who it happens to. I fall into the latter category. Note, I understand that many may tilt their heads and ask, “Why would I have to decide? I like both.” I like both too, but there has been a long debate between the two, and so I’m weighing in on it.

Imagine this: a Mexican musician living in Detroit releases a couple of records in the early 1970s. His sales are pitiful. Then, in 1997, he wakes up to find that he’s actually sold more records than Elvis Presley…in South Africa. Little does he know that his politically charged, poetic lyrics have become rallying cries against apartheid. He doesn’t know about his explosion of fame because he isn’t receiving royalties. Word of mouth doesn’t reach him because people assume he had killed himself on stage while performing. Well, this man is known as Sixto Rodriguez, and he’s a real dude. A real, living dude. With a style often compared to that of Bob Dylan and a particularly remarkable first album (Cold Fact), he’s a man worth knowing. Rodriguez’ story is shared in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

Check out the first lyrics to his song, “Rich Folks Hoax.”

The moon is hanging in the purple sky
The baby’s sleeping while its mother sighs
Talking ’bout the rich folks
Rich folks have the same jokes
And they park in basic places.

The priest is preaching from a shallow grave
He counts his money, then he paints you saved
Talking to the young folks
Young folks share the same jokes
But they meet in older places.

So don’t tell me about your success
Nor your recipes for my happiness
Smoke in bed
I never could digest
Those illusions you claim to have going.

~Sixto Rodriguez, “Rich Folks Hoax”

Rodriguez’ story is undoubtedly a fascinating one. I mean, does anyone find his story to be underwhelming? I wouldn’t think so. This man’s life’s plot has merits of its own, but I wouldn’t be sharing it with you if Rodriguez wasn’t who he was. Even after touring South Africa and Australia and the US and a host of other places where he eventually gained fame and fortune, he still, to this day, lives in his little apartment in Detroit. He’s soft spoken. He’s humble. He hardly seems fazed by his own staggering, unlikely story. It’s because of Rodriguez, the man, the character, that I chose to share his story. If the guy was an egotistical dufus, I wouldn’t give him the time of day.

If the most remarkable story ever told is written about the least remarkable of people, I simply won’t care. Think about it this way: if somebody you do not care for shares a crazy story about how he scaled Mount Everest in seven minutes or had a conversation with a gorilla, you might be mildly intrigued. Mildly. On the other hand, if your closest friend shares a remarkable story, you will be far more invested and interested in what your friend experienced. Why? Because your care about your friend! I would much rather a story be character-driven than plot-driven.

Reservoir Dogs is founded upon the strength of its characters and the dialogue between them, not its plot. Sure, the movie has a sound plot, but the movie’s heart lies with Mr. Orange, Mr. Yellow, Mr. Pink, and all the rest of ’em.

I figure I’ve made my point. I want to hear from you. Which do you prefer? Character-driven stories or plot-driven stories? Let’s talk in the comments below.

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

A Missed Deadline, A Hard Look

I drafted this post one week ago. One week ago, I conceded that I would not be able to complete the first draft of my novel-in-the-works by January 1st. Originally, the tone of this post was somber and slow. I wrote it late at night and it read like a bummer. So I scrapped it entirely and rewrote it in light of reflection. Here’s what I’ve got.

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I kicked ass this month. From December 1st to December 21st, I was getting 4-5 hours of sleep because I was writing into the early hours of the night. Through these 21 days, I was ill and amidst Finals season. Nonetheless, in face of the phlegm, the sleep deprivation, and the Latin (blast you, Latin!), I was happy, driven, and willing to work into the early hours. I made bounds. Picture an artist splattering paint onto a canvas with a stupid grin on his face. That kind of progress. “Oui oui. Zees is amour!” (Do I have any followers from France? I know I have Canadians and Aussies and Brits and Turks, but where are the Frenchmen at?!)

On December 22nd, I boarded a plane for California. (I don’t believe I’ve yet mentioned that I lived in the Golden State for four years. To quote Dave Matthews, “I got people here.”) This may sound familiar to you because I wrote a post the following day about how I wrote five hours on the plane.

Upon arriving, I gave my situation some thought. I hadn’t reached the home stretch of the story. I hadn’t set myself up for a knockout on January 1st. Thus, I decided that it would make the most sense to put the writing aside so I could fully enjoy my time with friends and family. I’ve made some writing progress in spare moments, but I’ve largely put the novel-in-the-works to the side for the duration of the trip. My efforts have been focused on one chapter, which begins, “It was a horse-faced lady wearing a housewife’s apron who pointed the boys to Carmengrove.” 

So I’m here in Cali for a couple more days before I fly back to Jersey (where we say cawfee and wahta). Once I return, I’ll be back into writing mode. But things need to change. I made a strong effort to write consistently for the better part of December, but I hadn’t exercised that level of resolve prior. I wrote, no doubt about it, but I didn’t make it a point to write every day with such ferocity. I’ve taken this week to reflect and evaluate what I can do moving forward to blaze the trails of ink. It’s taken a hearty dose of honesty to reach some of these determinations, but I’m a believer that honesty is better than any alternative. Here goes.

For the sake of organization, I’ve pinpointed changes that need to be made in terms of both addition and omission.

Addition

Let’s start with addition. I asked myself, what am I lacking that I need?

  • A Writing Environment

My buddy Aurelius has been a huge supporter of my writing journey. He’s given me a book on publishing, talked shop with me, and asked for updates as to my progress. When I recently told him I didn’t expect to meet my deadline, he presented me with the “environment over effort argument,” something articulated by James Clear. Aurelius summed it up as follows:

It’s this idea that personal willpower is an imperfect basis for important habits. It’s better to construct an environment that facilitates the habit and to immerse yourself in it. Stephen King writes in a barn that just has a desk and a window in it.

Aurelius has a point. I am driven. (Sure, I talk, but I talk because I’m sharing my journey with you. There’s work to show for the talk. You can see my progress updated weekly on my Projects page and I dedicate a post a month to my progress alone.)

Still, my drive is not infallible (My Latin grade is evidence of that. Blast you, Latin!). I need an environment which facilitates the drive. In other words, I need to make my life easier. When I return to Jersey, I’m going to scout my house and find the best area where I can write with minimal external distraction and maximum convenience. I’ll need an outlet nearby for my laptop charger and a nice chair. Of course, I can scrap all that if I build a writing barn. If anybody would like to loan me money for a writing barn, you can email me at jjazarauthor@gmail.com.

So that’s the first thing: I’ll need a writing spot. If floating around helped me to write, I would float around, but it doesn’t. Thanks, Aurelius.

  • A Set Writing Time

My status as a student prevents me from designating an hour-based time block to my writing. I can’t declare 8 PM a writing time because sudden assignments and due dates prevent me from operating that way. It just won’t happen. Still, I recognize that I need structure. I need a routine to facilitate and focus my drive.

I’ve determined that I write best at night, when there are no longer any non-writing obligations for me to fulfill. Therefore, I will make it a point to work in the nighttime in my to-be-determined writing environment. Sometimes I’m beat by the time I take care of everything I have to do, but if I wrote 21 days straight in the early hours while sick and after preparing for finals, I think I can manage to implement this dynamic of a set time and place.

  • Exercise

For years, I’ve been on and off with working out. Recently, I’ve been off. I’m healthy, thank God, but I’m not where I want to be. Working out boosts the mood and keeps me sharp. If I want to write this first draft and beyond, I’m going to need to be in top shape.

The addition in this case is straightforward: my university has a decked-out gym. I’ve resolved to use it as soon as I return from break. This semester, I have classes four days a week. I will make it a point to go to the gym every day before I leave campus.

A healthy writer is a happy writer.

  • Focus on Demand

Writers know the joyous feeling of flow. Sometimes, we are able to reach a happy place and write without stopping, without hesitation. It’s a beautiful thing. When the ocean of bliss subsides, we notice the clock and sit dumbfounded. “I was writing for that long?” I want to reach that sweet spot as often as possible.

Tam al’Thor of the Wheel of Time series taught his son Rand al’Thor how to enter “the Void,” a state of extreme focus. I long for the Void, yet I don’t know how to grasp it. As of now, the Void falls into my lap whenever it pleases. I want the Void to fall into my lap whenever please. Well, the Void or a leggy lady. One of the two.

If anybody has any insight into focus and concentration methods, particularly as they pertain to writing, I would be delighted if you would share them.

Omission

I asked myself, what do I have which I do not need?

  • YouTube

80% of my YouTube consumption is related to politics (didn’t you hear that the U.S. is having quite an interesting time with politics and things?). I’ve always been one to keep informed, but YouTube is a time-drain.

Solution: My dad will keep me in the loop. He has a knack for picking out the truth through all of the smoke and mirrors. I’ll still be reading news for my Politics classes, but aside from that, I haven’t the time to bother with fiction peddled by the nightly news. I have fiction of my own to peddle.

  • BioShock

I know, I’m essentially broadcasting my age. I get it, I’m a young lad. But one cannot deny that BioShock Infinite is a freakin’ fantastic Xbox One game. To my credit, I haven’t touched the console this entire month, and I hardly play as it is. Still, it has to be declared: I cannot play BioShock Infinite until a more opportune time. The game is remarkable, but now is not the time.

  • Music Indecision

Before I settle into writing, I like to get music going. The problem is, it often takes me ages to search for the first song to play even though I have an extensive, nearly exclusively instrumental playlist. It needs to stop. This may sound like a small thing, but it’s a tiresome focus leech. I used to write to a loop of a couple of songs. Now I’m back to the basics!

  • Snapchat

My sisters give me crap for this on a daily basis. I just recently returned to Snapchat after a short, frankly pitiful stint years ago during which I actively bored myself using the app. The thing is, this time around, I’m having fun. Yeah, I raise the phone in front of my face to take stupid pictures that will be seen for 10 seconds or less. It’s stupid. I get it. It interrupts my writing. I get it. But keep in mind, I’m not conversing with the Snapchat ghost, I’m conversing with people. A couple of people, to be more specific. As I see it, that’s not a waste of time.

So, maybe I should excommunicate Snapshat from my life, but I’m not quite ready to do that. Depending on how the tides ebb and flow, I may or may not keep on with it. Time will tell.

  • Blogging

“*gasp* JJ, you’re leaving WordPress?!?!”

No, disembodied voice. I will do nothing of the sort. I’m here to stay.

“Darn.”

I appreciate that, disembodied voice. You always have my back.

I’m still going to post twice a week. I’m still going to read your blogs and respond to your comments. I’m still going to compulsively check my stats. The difference is, I won’t do any of this when it’s time to write. It’s always tempting to change tabs and check into the blog when writing gets tough, but I’m just going to have to fight it like how teenage indie-punk artists fight their parents: that is, with passionate angst.

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In my first blog post, I acknowledged that there would be stumbles. I wrote, “As I brave the Road of Authorship, stumbling over every rock on the way, I invite you to walk alongside me so you can point and laugh and cheer as I fall on my ass and get back up again.”

Yeah, I fell on my ass, but much to my surprise, I haven’t disappointed myself. Rather, I’m optimistic. I have a sober plan and method ready to be implemented. I hope I haven’t disappointed any of you. Your encouragement, advice, and immensely kind words fueled me through this entire month. I cannot express my thanks adequately enough. Thank you. I hope you decide to stick with me as I continue this grand, exciting journey.

I promise to share a new, reasonable deadline by the end of this month.

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar