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How the Written Universe Works: Theme #amwriting

Epic Fantasy is often dark in tone and always epic in scope. It usually explores the struggle against supernatural, evil forces.

how the universe works themeTad Williams’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn is a classic Epic Fantasy series. Many of the themes and tropes he explores are rooted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. However, Williams took those themes and tropes down a darker, more violent path, laying bare the evil and the good of which humanity is capable.

This trilogy revolves around a schism in the family of the late king, Prester John. That enmity drives the larger narrative. In this 3-book series, the underpinning theme is the circle of life represented through birth, growth, degeneration, and death. A prominent theme driving the action is the family dynamics, warped by lies and secrets kept across three generations.

The other fundamental themes are the hero’s journey and coming of age. Both Simon (the kitchen boy turned hero) and Miriamele (the princess turned hero) are driven by these themes, as are Jiriki and Binabik to a certain extent.

I’ve mentioned before that theme is the backbone of the story. It’s an idea, a thread that winds through a plot arc and connects events that would otherwise appear random.

Themes are often polarized, good vs. evil, faith vs. doubt, fate vs. free will, human vs. nature,

Epic fantasy novels, being longer in word count than other genres, leaves room in the plot for multiple themes to appear. This creates opportunities for the subplots to add depth, revealing the backstory without an info dump.

Polarity is a fundamental aspect of the inferential layer of a story.

The inferential layer is the unspoken, the knowledge a reader gains by extrapolation, interpretation, and reasoning. It is the layer that requires the reader to think. Polarity guides the reader as they make sense of the clues.

300px-The_Dragonbone_ChairWhen the story opens with the first novel, The Dragonbone Chair, events show the royal family is fraught with violent emotions, creating conflict. King Prester John’s sons, Elias and Josua, appear to be the center of a storm that will destroy Osten Ard.

In any story that explores the relationships within a family as part of the larger narrative, we begin with the circle of life.

Hubris is another theme that drives the plot and is expressed in the character of the apparent antagonist, Pryrates. Hubris refers to excessive self-confidence and the terrible decisions that arise from it.

This conflict allows Williams to employ the subtheme of chaos and stability. Evil is portrayed by taking this theme to an extreme: Pryrates enables Elias’s possession by the true antagonist, the Storm King.

Williams also riffs on the Hero’s Journey, the bonds of friendship, and the gray area between good and evil—moral ambiguity.

A crucial consideration in planning a fantasy novel is plot structure or how the story is arranged. As in all works, the central underlying theme is introduced in the early pages and supports the plot through to the end.

Subthemes are introduced and combined with the main theme to create a backbone for the story. Without that backbone, the narrative can wander all over the place, and readers will lose interest.

The hero’s journey is a theme that allows authors to employ the subthemes of brother/sisterhood and love of family. These concepts are heavily featured in the books that inspired me, so they find their way into my writing.

Tad Williams supported his themes by adding these layers to his narrative:

  • character studies
  • allegories
  • imagery

These three layers are driven by the central themes and advance the story arc.

Williams’s large cast of characters is portrayed as if they are real people. They are a mix of good and bad at the same time. Some lean more toward good, others toward bad. Either way, he has them act and react with good, logical intentions. Each desperately wants what they think they deserve.

Green_Angel_Tower_P1By the end of the third book, To Green Angel Tower, Williams has employed the theme of Truth vs. Falsehoods to completely corrupt the Circle of Life theme. All the characters – the antagonists and the protagonists – deceive themselves about their own motives.

Regardless of their race, they share some characteristics with humans. Each character hides the truths they can’t face behind other, more palatable truths.

I always think that inserting a whiff of human frailty into a character makes them more interesting, more relatable.

Memory Sorrow and Thorn is considered a cornerstone of modern epic fantasy. This is because in the early 1980s, when Tad Williams began writing this trilogy, he took traditional themes and tropes and applied his original angle to them, along with modern prose and phrasing. He took each of the themes binding his narrative together and went one step farther, adding a hint of horror.

The horror would have been gratuitous if he hadn’t supported his narrative so well with all the themes and subthemes. Williams was inspired by Tolkien, and in turn, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn has inspired countless authors.

Your assignment: on a new document, pick a theme from the following list, create a character or two, and write two paragraphs exploring that theme.

  • plot is the frame upon which the themes of a story are supportedFate vs. free will
  • Faith vs. doubt
  • Good vs. evil
  • Greed
  • Hubris
  • Humanity vs. nature
  • Justice
  • Lust for Power
  • Pursuit of Love
  • Revenge
  • Sacrificial Love
  • Survival against the odds
  • War

All genres are made specific by the tropes that define them. Epic fantasy shares some tropes with high fantasy.

It often includes elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.

My next post will discuss the tropes featured in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy and how the themes we’ve discussed support them.

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The Business Side of the Business – Choosing your Publishing Path

Authors just starting out, either Indie or traditionally published, rarely earn enough royalties to support their families. Regardless of the path you choose, if your spouse makes enough to support you in your early days, you can devote more time to advancing your career.

Its a BusinessBut not every author has that option.

Before you embark on either path, consider this: publishers, large and small, don’t waste budgets promoting work by unknown authors the way they do the few who have risen to the ranks of their guaranteed bestseller lists.

You will do the work of getting your name out there regardless of whether you choose the traditional route or not.

So, what are the perks of going traditional if you’re an unknown? Why go to the trouble of wooing an agent and trying to court a publisher? Even today, an air of ‘respectability’ clings to those who are traditionally published.

The traditional publishing industry does offer incentives to those who get their foot in the door. Once you are in their flock, you have an editor who works with you personally. Most of the time, you can forge a good working relationship with this editor.

Conversely, Indies must find an independent editor and pay them out of their own pocket.

While the traditional publisher may not treat a new author the way they do their highest sellers, they may dedicate a small budget to marketing your work with newspaper ads, or swag posters for bookstores to place as decoration. That small amount will be more money than you might be able to pay as an Indie.

Traditional publishers have contracts with markets like Target, Walmart, Costco, airports, and grocery store chains. That is a huge thing, assuming your publisher considers your work worthy of such a commitment on their part.

However, your first book most likely won’t see the inside of a Walmart right away. The publisher’s confidence must be earned. You can expect to find your work on the slow track for a while as the publisher tests the water and sees how well your work sells through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

These are all valid reasons for attempting to go the traditional route.

However, there are equally valid reasons for going Indie. Your book will be published. If you seek a book contract, you must pass a gauntlet of gatekeepers: literary agents, acquisition editors, editorial committees, and publishing-house CEOs.

These people must answer to the international conglomerates that actually own most American publishing companies. This is why you are most likely to be stopped by a rejection letter.

It’s not the quality of your work. It’s the publishers’ perception of what the reading market will purchase and what it means to the accountants, who in turn must answer to their shareholders.

As an Indie, you may not be a bestseller, but you’ll make more money on what you do sell.

McLaine_Pond_In_July_©_2018_ConnieJJapsersonIn most standard book contracts, royalty terms for authors are terrible, and this is especially true for eBook sales. Most eBooks are sold through online retailers like Amazon. If you’re a traditionally published author and your publisher priced your eBook at $9.99, this is how the Amazon numbers break out. No matter what you think of Amazon, it is still the Big Fish in the Publishing and Bookselling Pond:

  1. Amazon takes 30% of the list price, leaving about $7.00 for the publisher, agent, and you to split.
  2. The publisher will keep 75% of that $7.00, or $5.25.
  3. The publisher will pay you 25% of that $7.00—just $1.75.
  4. You then must pay your agent her 15% commission—or 26 cents.
  5. You net just $1.49 on each $9.99 eBook sale. This is assuming your publisher honestly reports your sales and royalties, and in my personal experience, a few small publishers do not.

Unfortunately, traditional publishers usually charge far more than $9.99 for eBooks, charging more than they do for paperbacks in their effort to keep eBook sales down and drive paper sales.

If you self-publish your eBook at that same price, for each sale of your $9.99 eBook, Amazon takes its 30%, leaving you $7.00. I don’t recommend such a high eBook price, but at  $4.99 or even $2.99, you stand to sell books and make a decent profit.

You’ll receive royalties sooner. When a publisher accepts your book, he offers you an advance against sales. These are often paid in installments stretched out over long periods and are tied directly to how well or how poorly your book is doing in real market time. Publishers report sales and pay royalties slowly, as royalty statements are usually issued semiannually. Your royalty checks arrive later, so you can’t rely on this income until you have become an established author in their world.

Conversely, most eBook distributors like Draft2Digital, Barnes & Noble, and print-on-demand services such as Amazon KDP, report your sales virtually. Best of all, they pay your royalties monthly, with just a sixty-day lag from the day sales began.

Finally, and from my point of view, most importantly: You retain all rights to your work.

Legacy book contracts are a terrible danger zone for the author. The sheer complexity of negotiating a contract can be confusing and intimidating. I recommend you hire a lawyer specializing in literary contracts or risk unwittingly signing away secondary and subsidiary rights to your work forever.

Please, read this article, A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever, published on the Authors Guild website on July 28, 2015. It is an eye-opening look at the industry and its practices.

Now we arrive at marketing. As I said before, you must do the work of getting your name out there regardless of whether you choose the traditional route or not. You must still work your day job to feed your family.

Being an indie author or being published by a small press means you are on your own as far as getting the word out about your books. Even some traditionally published authors find that if they want their books seen at a convention, they must pay for the table, find their own hotel accommodations, and pay their own way there.

You pay upfront for your book stocks if you are an indie.

If you are traditionally published, the costs of your stock are deducted from future royalties. Publishing houses are not charities, so you will pay for stocking and restocking your inventory either way you choose.

If you choose the indie path, you pay for editing, beta reading, and proofreading. You will also need a graphic designer for book covers and should seek professional formatting services to create the files for your paperback book.

lute-clip-artHowever, to be considered for a traditional contract, you should hire an editor, beta reader, and proofreader to ensure the manuscript you submit to an agent or editor demonstrates your ability to turn out a good, professional product.

Either way, it’s a business, and you must factor these costs into your budget.

Both paths are reasonable in today’s market. There are positive rationales for choosing either direction, as well as negatives. You will have to work hard no matter which path you choose.

The publishing path is a critical choice for an author to make and is one we shouldn’t make lightly. A decision that affects your career as strongly as this deserves deep consideration of the many pros and cons.

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The Business Side of the Business: conferences and conventions #amwriting

If you are a regular here at Life in the Realm of Fantasy, you may have seen my two-part series on the business side of being an author. If not, and if you are interested, I will put the links to those articles at the bottom of this post.

Its a BusinessRegardless of your publishing path, you must budget for certain things. You can’t expect your royalties to pay for them early in your career – and many award-winning authors must still work at their day jobs to pay their bills.

But conferences and conventions are one way to meet agents and editors. Also, if you have a table at sci-fi and fantasy fan conventions (or whatever your genre), you will meet readers and create a fanbase for your work.

No author, indie or traditionally published, can live on their royalties at first, so attending conferences requires planning, possibly up to a year in advance. I suggest you work with your budget and set aside the money for conventions and seminars.

I do have some ways to keep your costs down.

First: Join the association offering the conference, as members get reduced conference fees and many other perks all year long. Take advantage of the early-bird discount if you can. I belong to three writers’ associations, and each one offers something I can use all year long.

Second: Does your library system offer occasional seminars by local authors? If it is a public library, these will likely be free.

Third: Use the internet – google “writers’ conferences in my area.” If you can find a local one, you can eat food that fits your dietary needs and sleep at home, which means you only pay for the conference itself.

Fourth: If you are planning to attend a large convention or conference where you will need to stay in a hotel, take simple foods that can be prepared without a stove, and which are filling. Being vegan, I tend to be an accomplished hotel-room chef, as most coffee bars don’t offer many plant-based options. While that bias is changing, I still go prepared.

road tripConferences are an extension of the self-education process. I have discovered so much about the craft of writing, the genres I write in, and the publishing industry as a whole—things I could only learn from other authors. I gained an extended professional network by joining The Pacific Northwest Writers Association in 2011 and going to their annual conferences.

This last weekend, I attended the first of three conferences I have budgeted for 2022. The Science-fiction & Fantasy Author’s Association held the 2022 Nebula Conference this last weekend. It was a virtual conference again this year, so my only cost was the conference fee itself. That cost was quite reasonable because I took advantage of both my membership discount and the early bird discount.

The Nebula Conference is normally held in Southern California, and I am not a happy flyer, so a virtual conference was optimal for me. I may not attend in person again. However, since SFWA is a global association of professional science fiction and fantasy authors, their conferences will also be available in virtual form from here on out.

The following two conferences I have scheduled will be in September and are in-person events. The first, Southwest Washington Writers Conference (SWWC), is local enough that I can commute from my home. The last one for this year is Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) in the Seattle area. It’s a 70-mile commute, so I will stay in the hotel. September is the start of virus season, so I expect many people (like me) will wear masks at both events.

Me working in a starbucks, through the fishbowl, copyright Dan Riffero 2013

Me writing in a Seattle Starbucks, taken through a fish tank. I was the big fish in that tank! Photo by Dan Riffero.

As a small fish in a very big ocean, attending these two local conferences puts me in contact with other authors and industry professionals. The attending authors are people I don’t usually come into contact with as they hail from all over Washington State, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia.

I always attend as many panels and workshops as I can fit into my schedule. I do this because the seminars offered at each of the three conferences have taught me as much about the craft as about the business of writing.

This weekend at the Nebula Conference, I attended many outstanding panel discussions by famous authors. All the authors on the panels were people who have achieved success, and they shared their insights on current trends in the publishing industry.

My favorite seminar out of all those stellar panels was the one discussing Speculative Fiction Poetry, which was held on Sunday morning. I have always written poetry and love reading it. Many spec fic poets are experimenting with sestinas, which (thanks to the pandemic) became my new favorite poetic form to write in during lockdown. Trying to adhere to a strict structural form challenges my creativity and forces me to grow in all areas of writing craft.

ICountMyself-FriendsSometimes I am invited to participate in panels or offer a workshop, and I can share my experiences with others. Either way, I learn things. In September, I will be on a panel with Lee French, Johanna Flynn, and Ellen King Rice at SWWC, talking about what we wished we had known when we first began writing professionally.

I feel honored (and a bit intimidated) to be a part of this group as they are award-winning writers. But more than that, they are women whose work I enjoy and respect. But facing your fear of public speaking is part of what growing your career entails – putting yourself out there, learning what you can, and sharing what you know.


Two previous posts on the Business side of the Business:

The Business Sequence for Writers, guest post by Ellen King Rice #writerlife | Life in the Realm of Fantasy (conniejjasperson.com)

The Business Side of the Business, part 2: Inventory #writerlife | Life in the Realm of Fantasy (conniejjasperson.com)

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How the Written Universe Works – Warping Time #amwriting

In cosmology, the concept of space-time combines space and time into a single abstract universe. Apparently, we all move through time. Here on earth, time either passes us, or we pass the time. It’s all relative (Einstein humor) to how fast you are going and a lot of sub-atomic particle stuff I can’t really take the time to explain here, and you aren’t interested in anyway.

How the written universe works - warping time.Time interests me because I mostly write fantasy, although I write contemporary short fiction and poetry. Fantasy, and all speculative fiction, relies heavily on worldbuilding, and managing time is a facet of that skill.

But all genres, including contemporary and literary, require worldbuilding. Every story, true or fiction, is set SOMEWHERE, either in this world we are familiar with or in an alternate fantasy universe.

When I begin writing a book, I create a stylesheet in a spreadsheet program like Google Sheets or Excel for the universe, a workbook that has a page devoted to a glossary for that world, and a page for the calendar of events. A calendar is an essential tool that helps you with pacing and consistency.

  • Calendars are good for pacing, as they keep the events moving along the story arc.
  • They ensure you allow enough time to reasonably accomplish large tasks, enabling a reader to suspend their disbelief.
  • They ensure you don’t inadvertently jump from season to season in your visuals surrounding the characters.

So, for me, the calendar is a device that keeps the events happening logically.

Picture2HERE is where I confess my great regret: in 2008, a lunar calendar seemed like a good thing while creating my first world.

  • Thirteen months, twenty-eight days each,
  • one extra day at the end of the year,
  • a Holy Day on the winter solstice. They have two Holy Days and a big party every four years.

That arrangement of thirteen months is actually quite easy to work with. Where it becomes difficult is in the choices we made in naming things. You know how planning meetings are–ideas tossed at the wall like spaghetti and seeing what sticks.

We were just beginning to design the game, and while I had the plot and the synopsis, I didn’t have some details of the universe and the world figured out. So, in a burst of creative predictability, I went astrological in naming the months, to give the player a feeling of familiarity.

  • Caprica, Aquas, Piscus, (winter).
  • Arese, Taura, Geminis (spring)
  • Lunne, Leonid, Virga (summer)
  • Libre, Scorpius, Saggitus (harvest)
  • Holy Month (begins winter). Holy Day falls at the end of this thirteenth month, occurring on the winter solstice. The premise of the game was the War of the Gods, so religion is central.

strange thoughts 2In an even worse bout of predictability, I went with the names we currently use when I named the days, only I twisted them a bit and gave them the actual Norse god’s name. (The gods and goddesses of Neveyah are not Norse.)

That choice is an example of how what seems like a good idea at the time, may not be.

  1. Lunaday
  2. Tyrsday
  3. Odensday
  4. Torsday
  5. Frosday
  6. Sunnaday – this is the confusing day, as it falls where Saturday is in our normal calendar.
  7. Restday

One thing I did right was sticking to a twenty-four-hour day. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep things simple when we are worldbuilding. Simple things are less likely to add to the chaos when the plot gets complicated.

That game was never built for several reasons, but I retained the rights to my work. I took my maps and the storyline and wrote Mountains of the Moon, an epic portal fantasy. That story was the genesis of an entire series set at various points along the timeline of that universe.

I couldn’t get that story out of my head and onto paper fast enough—it obsessed me. As I wrote, the calendar I had invented for the RPG was incorporated into the world of Neveyah, and now it is canon.

Time can be an abstract thing when we are writing the first draft of a story where many events must occur. Things are accomplished in too short a period to be logical, or we take too long.

Calendars are maps of time. They turn the abstract concept into an image we can understand.

Even though I regret how I named the days in Mountains of the Moon, my characters progress through their space-time continuum at a rate I can comprehend. I can move events forward or back in time by looking at and updating their calendar. The sequence of events forming the plot arc remains believable.

calendarI LEARNED from my mistakes – the timeline for the Billy’s Revenge 3-book series, Huw the Bard, Billy Ninefingers, and Julian Lackland, uses the familiar calendar we use today.

I heartily suggest you stick to a simple calendar. That is the advice I would give any new writer—stick to something close to the calendar we’re familiar with and don’t get too fancy.

Next up: Time and Distance – how calendars and rudimentary maps work together to keep the plot moving and believable.

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How the Written Universe Works: Structure of the Cosmos part 2 – expanding into a series #amwriting

Monday’s post opened the discussion of the multi-book series. Readers of fantasy and sci-fi enjoy reading multiple-book series. They don’t want to let go of the story when they are invested in a character.

How the written universe works - multibook series1Thus, it makes sense to consider whether your story is complex enough to hold up well across a series.

Today, we’re going deeper into planning. A series takes two forms.

  1. The infinite series of standalone stories. Some feature a particular group of characters, but others might feature a different protagonist. They are all set in a particular world, whether they follow one protagonist or several. The installments may feature different characters and often jump around in that universe’s historical timeline. Think Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series or L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Recluce
  2. The finite series – a multi-volume series of books covering one group’s efforts to achieve a single epic goal. Think Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time

I ended up with my current multi-book series when I was at the 60,000-word point of my first draft. That is the point where I realized the story wouldn’t fit into one 90,000-word book. In fact, it will likely top out at 250,000 words after editing.

Because I am an indie, I need to keep my production costs in mind. The pandemic will end someday and purchasing stock for a book that runs 250,000 words will be excruciating once I begin going to book fairs or signings again. Not only that, the cost of formatting a book that size and having a cover made will break the bank here at Casa del Jasperson.

How do I know this? Experience.

A book that is 135,000 words long costs me $6.80 in its paper form. Purchasing stock for book fairs or signings becomes a worry. Not only that, in its paper form, it must sell through Amazon for not less than $17.99. They set the minimum price based on the options you choose at the time of publication.

So, I panic. It’s tough enough to squeeze all the costs of publishing a book of 90,000 words in length, when you are working with a normal family budget. This is an expensive business.

The best option for me is to write the whole thing and then break the book in half or thirds, creating a series that I will publish a month apart. The costs are the same in the long run, but the size of each book is far more manageable for a reader and spreads production costs over a longer period.

When I arrive at the 50,000-word mark, I go to my outline and see where I am in the projected story arc and timeline. Can I tell this tale in one book? If not, will it work in two?

Then, once I know how many books it will take, I decide what event will be the first finale, a satisfying stopping point for a reader. Even though several threads are left dangling at the end of each installment, the final event of each book must be a real, satisfying finish, or the reader will feel cheated.

dylan moran quote TIMEIf you are done with your first draft and are just now realizing your novel could be the beginning of a saga, you should consider making notes as to what the future holds for your crew beyond the end. Otherwise, you may find yourself writing a continuation of book one, but with no goal, no purpose.

I follow several fantasy and sci-fi authors who write sagas, where the story of that world is told from multiple characters’ points of view. Each protagonist lives at different points in time, and each one is unique, detailing watershed events in the history of that world.

I also follow several mystery series featuring the cases solved by one detective. The Richard Jury series by Martha Grimes encompasses 25 books, each one different. Recurring characters in the series include his neighbors in his Islington flat, personnel at his New Scotland Yard office, and friends of his sidekick, Melrose Plant, in the Northamptonshire village of (fictional) Long Piddleton.

If you decide more than one book will be set in that universe, you should consider creating a page in your storyboard that notes the timeline and events for each book. Specifically, note what order each novel takes place in the history of that world. You don’t have to go nuts. Just write a brief description for your use.

projected series Aelfrid FireswordSo, for a saga you might want to draw up an overall story arc for the entire series. For a standalone book featuring a recurring character, you likely won’t need to have an all-encompassing projected arc.

However, you would be wise to storyboard each book and note the dates of certain events, so you don’t contradict yourself, and so that a protagonist born in 1981 in book one doesn’t accidentally get younger as time goes on.

Next week we will look at creating a calendar for stories set a fictional world. We will look at some of my failures and see why simpler usually is better.

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How the Written Universe Works: Structure of the Cosmos – Designing a Series #amwriting

The universe is vast, but the further we look toward the outermost edges, the more we see the overall structure, the way patterns are repeated across the enormity.

How the written universe works - multibook series1Think about it – the universe contains all we can measure and know, all of space and time and their contents, including planets, stars, galaxies, and all forms of matter and energy. It likes balls and spirals and has a structure that repeats itself. This is reflected in the shape and behavior of the smallest particles to the largest quasars.

The universe began.

We don’t exactly know how it began, but we are here, so it must have started somehow. The universe emerged from somewhere as an infinitely small singularity, so named because it is singularly unexplainable.

From that unfathomable beginning, a mysterious dark energy pushes things apart, expanding the cosmos to what we see as the observable universe. And on the sub-galactic level, we who live on this rocky island in the center of that vast sea of space and time go about our lives, having no effect whatsoever on the universe at large.

WilliamBlakeInfinityAndEternityLIRF05072022First off, no matter our conscious thoughts regarding the universe and God, writers don’t exist in reality. We exist in what we think reality is, and collectively, we create it as we go along, for good or ill.

No matter the genre, whether it is fiction, non-fiction, a textbook, or a technical manual – books are universes, static and frozen at a finite point for us to read and ponder their meanings.

Books begin with an idea, the singularity that bursts into existence. As it grows, the universe that is that proto-book takes on a recognizable shape.

A projected series featuring the lives of people set in a unique world is a cosmos unto itself. It is the story of that universe, told over the course of several books.

Many people are blinded by the quasars of inspiration, can’t conceive of that universe’s structure, and can’t imagine how the molecules of inspiration can become a universe. The brilliance of that first revelation blinds them to how attainable it is.

intellegent_designLIRF05072022But if you make a map of what you can see, your own intelligent design, you can create your series of books with less struggle.

First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This takes a little time and is relaxing, a matter of sitting in a tranquil place with a pen and pad of paper and visualizing the singular idea of the story.

As I ponder that idea, finite events will come to me. I write them down, and they become major plot points. By the time I have to go back to other household tasks, my notes will have the rough shape of the story, in only five to ten handwritten lines.

A current work in progress takes place in a world I began writing in in 2008. This subseries began on a sunny day, while sitting on my back porch, watching the scrub jays, and laughing at their avian marital squabbles.

Out of nowhere, an idea went nova, and I wrote it down. These are my very first notes for the first book in that subseries, copied word for word from my yellow notepad:

  • A shaman. A person with a life like everyone else. They make mistakes, but they learn from them.

That led to another thought:

  • Divorced, single parent, struggles to be a good father to his son. What is his line of work?

  • A blacksmith who creates a magic sword. Who cares for his son while he works?

And that last thought led to my contemplating his family. “Who is his support group?”

  • His grandfather, father, and brother.

  • How do they come into the story?

My protagonist starts page one as divorced. I asked myself, “Does romance wait in the wings?”

  • Why this woman, and who is she in her own right? Where is she, and why does he have to go there?

  • She is highly respected, a woman with some power. Healing? He’s a shaman, so his reason for going there must be something spiritual.

  • Vision quest at someplace dangerous and difficult. Atop a mountain?

I contemplated those few notes for several days, during which I began creating a stylesheet/storyboard. I noted each random idea, which eventually became scenes I could visualize.

That’s when my imagination took over. The God-view zoomed in until I could see the story at the atomic level, and the words flowed.

WilliamBlakeImaginationLIRF05072022As I wrote, the outline for that first book took its shape. The written universe is in constant flux, and the storyboard records the changes and keeps the fabric of time from warping.

First, I decided how many words I intended for the novel’s length and divided that into fourths. I took those fourths and turned them into acts. I wanted to keep it at about 90,000 words, so this is how I planned the arc to go:

Act 1: 10,000 words, the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.

Acts 2 and 3: 60,000 words. Two major hiccups, combined to form the novel’s center, starting at the first plot point or the inciting incident. The tension grows to a mid-point confrontation. We show the hero’s dire condition and how they deal with it. By act 4, there is no going back, no changing course.

Act 4: 20,000 words: Resolution. We try to end the misery in a way that feels good and rewards the reader for staying with the story. It must end as if it were a standalone novel, but a minor sub-thread will be left unfinished. That sub-thread is the real core of the two-book series.

storyArcLIRF10032021Once I have decided the proposed length, I know where the turning points are and what should happen at each. The outline ensures an arc to both the overall story and the characters’ personal growth.

This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.

I have mentioned before that I use a spreadsheet program to outline my projects, but you can use a notebook or anything that works for you. You can do this by drawing columns on paper by hand or using post-it notes on a whiteboard or sticking them to the wall. Some people use a dedicated writer’s program like Scrivener.

Everyone thinks differently, so there is no one perfect way to create that fits everyone.

A storyboard/stylesheet should have a separate page for the glossary to ensure consistency. I wrote a post on creating a stylesheet, a.k.a. storyboard, for little or no cost, and the link is here: Designing the Story.

The workbook shown below is the stylesheet for the Tower of Bones series and has been evolving since 2009.

Excerpt from World of Neveyah Storyboard Glossary,

As we add to it, the written universe is constantly expanding. Sometimes, we have to adjust our ideas of how many words we will end up with, in total. The cosmos is a violent place. Even if we begin with a plan, we never really know how a story will go until we have written it. The outline keeps us mindful of the story arc and ensures the action doesn’t stall.

Try to get into the habit of writing new words every day. When you write every day, you develop strengths and knowledge of the craft. Give yourself the gift of half an hour of private writing time every day.

You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you try.

Again, the post discussing making a cost-free storyboard/stylesheet is Designing the Story.

I think you’ll find a storyboard is a valuable tool.

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How the Written Universe Works – the Physics of Magic part 1 #amwriting

In all my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels, the enemy has access to equal or better science or magic. The story is about how the characters overcome the limitations of their science, magic, or superpower and succeed in their quest.

How the written universe works magic and superpowers1Magic should exist as an underlying, invisible layer of your written universe, the way gravity exists in reality. We know gravity works and accept it as a part of daily life.

Magic should operate with the same limitations that, say, light photons have. Photons can do some things, and they cannot do others.

Your story won’t contradict itself if you establish the known physics of magic before you begin using and abusing it.

As a confirmed lover of all things fantasy, I read a great deal of both indie and traditionally published work. Both sides of the publishing industry are guilty of publishing novels that aren’t well thought out.

Inconsistencies in the magic system are usually only one aspect of a poorly planned world. It’s easy to tell when an author doesn’t consider the possible contradictions that might emerge as the story progresses.

When the magic is mushy, the rest of the setting reads as if they just wrote whatever came into their head and didn’t check for logic or do much revising.

If all the typos are edited out of the manuscript, and the characters are brilliant and engaging, the author might be able to carry it off. Unfortunately, mushy magic or science usually results in a book I can’t recommend.

We have several things to consider in designing a story where magic and superpowers are fundamental plot elements.

magicFirst, the ability to use magic is either learned through spells, an inherent gift, or both. Your world should establish which kind of path you are taking at the outset.

  • Magic is not science as we know it but should be logical and rooted in solid theories.

As a reader, I can suspend my disbelief if magic is only possible when certain conditions have been met. The most believable magic occurs when the author creates a system that regulates what the characters can do.

Magic is believable if the number of people who can use it is restricted, how it can be used is limited, and most mages are constrained to one or two kinds of magic. It becomes more believable if only certain mages can use every type of magic.

Why restrict your beloved main character’s abilities? No one has all the skills in real life, no matter how good they are at their job.

lute-clip-artConsider musicians. A person who wins international piano competitions most likely won’t be a virtuoso at brass instruments.

This is because virtuosity requires hours of practice on one thing, working on the most minor details of technique and tone. That kind of intense focus doesn’t leave room for branching into other areas of music.

Magicians and wizards should develop skills and abilities the way musicians do. Virtuosity requires complete dedication and focus. Some are naturally talented but without practice they never rise to the top.

Magic becomes believable if the physics of magic define what each kind of magic can do.

Those rules should define the conditions under which magic works. The same physics should explain why it won’t work if those conditions are not met.

Are you writing a book that features magic? I have a few questions that you may want to consider:

Are there some conditions under which the magic will not work? Is the damage magic can do as a weapon, or is the healing it can perform somehow limited?

Does the mage or healer pay a physical/emotional price for using or abusing magic? Is the learning curve steep and sometimes lethal?

When you answer the above questions, you create the Science of Magic.

So, what about superpowers? Aren’t they magic?

Superpowers are both science and something that may seem like magic, but they are not. Think Spiderman. His abilities are conferred on him by a scientific experiment that goes wrong.

scienceLike science and magic, superpowers are believable when they are limited in what they can do.

If you haven’t considered the challenges your characters must overcome when learning to wield their magic/superpower, now is a good time to do it.

  • Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
  • If so, why?
  • How does their inability affect their companions?
  • How is their self-confidence affected by this inability?
  • Do the companions face learning curves too?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize their abilities?

These limits are the roadblocks to success, and overcoming those roadblocks is what the story is all about. The struggle forces the characters out of their comfortable environment.

The roadblocks you put up force them to be creative, and through that creativity, your characters become more than they believe they are. The reader becomes invested in the outcome of the story.

The next post in this series will delve into powers that are familiar tropes of fantasy: healing and telepathy.

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Exploring Theme part 1: Henry James #amwriting

A late 19th– early 20th-century writer whom many have heard of but never read, Henry James, has a great deal to tell us about using a story’s themes to create memorable characters. You may be familiar with some of his works, such as The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl. His novels are still being made into movies and adapted as plays.

2WritingCraft_themeMany of James’s books feature one common theme—lust.

Lust for sex. Lust for money. Lust for control.

Lust for power.

The Golden Bowl is the story of deception, manipulation, lust for money, and lust for control. Many of James’s novels feature people in his contemporary world going through their lives. But he takes his characters down to their fundamental emotional components, peels back the veneer of civilization, and exposes their motives for you, the reader.

James understood the potential of a strong theme. He threaded his themes through every conversation and scene as if the theme was background music, an orchestra playing a musical score. Like a Roger Williams film score, James’s themes subtly, insidiously, propel the plot, reinforce emotions, and support the dramas as they are played out. This is why his novels are still considered among the most powerful works of modern fiction.

512px-The-Turn-of-the-Screw-Collier's-1AHenry James is famous for his novels and short stories laying bare the deepest motives and manipulations of the society he knew. However, he wrote one of the most famous novellas ever published, The Turn of the Screw.

On the surface, The Turn of the Screw is different from his other forays into Victorian society, a Gothic horror story. The four main themes are the corruption of the innocent, the destructiveness of heroism, the struggle between good and evil, the difference between reality and fantasy. A fifth theme is the perception of ghosts. Are the ghosts real or the projection of the governess’s madness?

However, there are several subthemes interwoven into the fabric of the narrative.

Secrecy.

Deception.

The lust for control.

Obsession

Via Wikipedia:

The Turn of the Screw is an 1898 horror novella by Henry James which first appeared in serial format in Collier’s Weekly (January 27 – April 16, 1898). In October 1898, it was collected in The Two Magics, published by Macmillan in New York City and Heinemann in London. The novella follows a governess who, caring for two children at a remote estate, becomes convinced that the grounds are haunted. The Turn of the Screw is considered a work of both Gothic and horror fiction.

On Christmas Eve, an unnamed narrator and some of their friends are gathered around a fire. One of them, Douglas, reads a manuscript written by his sister’s late governess. The manuscript tells the story of her hiring by a man who has become responsible for his young niece and nephew following the deaths of their parents. He lives mainly in London but also has a country house in Bly, Essex. The boy, Miles, is attending a boarding school, while his younger sister, Flora, is living in Bly, where she is cared for by Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Flora’s uncle, the governess’s new employer, is uninterested in raising the children and gives her full charge, explicitly stating that she is not to bother him with communications of any sort. The governess travels to Bly and begins her duties.

Miles returns from school for the summer just after a letter arrives from the headmaster, stating that he has been expelled. Miles never speaks of the matter, and the governess is hesitant to raise the issue. She fears there is some horrible secret behind the boy’s expulsion, but is too charmed by him to want to press the issue. Soon after, around the grounds of the estate, the governess begins to see the figures of a man and woman whom she does not recognize. The figures come and go at will without being seen or challenged by other members of the household, and they seem to the governess to be supernatural. She learns from Mrs. Grose that the governess’s predecessor, Miss Jessel, and another employee, Peter Quint, had had a close relationship. Before their deaths, Jessel and Quint spent much of their time with Flora and Miles, and the governess becomes convinced that the two children are aware of the ghosts’ presence. [1]

Lust for control—whether real or imagined, the ghosts refuse to move on, refuse to relinquish control of the children.

All these themes are woven around the delicate subject of the governess’s unhealthy romantic attachment to the boy.

Many theories abound regarding the governess and the ghosts:

Inquiries Journal says:

projection definitionProjection may explain what role the ghosts play in “Turn of the Screw,” but it does not explain why the governess feels she needs to use projection as a defense. The governess appears to be experiencing an inner battle that is affecting her perception of reality. She has fallen in love with a boy much younger than herself. Society sees this pedophilic behavior as corrupting the child. The governess’s conscience tells her that she must reform her ways. Her id tells her that she is right in pursuing what she desires. In “The Turn of the Screw,” the governess is using an unconscious means of defense, projection, to protect herself from her superego, while continuing to hold onto her sexual desires. [2]

James leaves several loose ends still hanging when we reach the final page of the novella. This asks the reader to reach their own conclusions about how these themes affect the characters as they go forward in their lives. Regardless of whether the ghosts are real or imagined, the story takes us on a dark journey.

What I take home from Henry James’s intense focus on his themes and the inner workings of his characters is this: find a strong theme and use it to underscore and support our characters’ motives.

Our characters are people. People are a mix of good and bad at the same time. Some lean more to good, others to bad. Either way, they act with good, logical intentions, believe themselves unselfish, and desperately want what they think they deserve.

Most importantly, they lie to themselves about their own motives and obscure the truth behind other, more palatable truths.

I always think that inserting a whiff of human frailty into a character makes them more interesting, more relatable.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “The Turn of the Screw,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Turn_of_the_Screw&oldid=1073476225  (accessed March 13, 2022).

[2] Literary Analysis: Turn of the Screw – Inquiries Journal www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/65/literary-analysis-turn-of-the-screw  © 2022 Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse LLC. All rights reserved. ISSN: 2153-5760. (Accessed March 13, 2022).

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The author’s website #blogging #amwriting

January is a good time to think about your career as an author, even if you must still hold down a full-time job. Authors who want to find readers should have a website and perhaps a little blog. The website is more than just a pain in the neck that you haven’t figured out yet.

blogging memeIt’s a platform where you can advertise your books and discuss your interests, and most importantly, talk about what you are writing.

If cost is a problem, don’t sweat it. WordPress offers free blogs and free theme templates, so with a small amount of effort and a little self-education, you can have a nice-looking website. I began in 2011 with no website skills whatsoever, but I can hold my own now.

I have made a personal commitment to post three times a week on this blog. This allows me to rant about the craft of writing and gives me a place to talk about my growing love of fine art.

My first blog failed in 2010 because writing about current affairs has never interested me. Journalism is not my strength, but my unlamented first publisher wanted me to write about politics, etc.

Meh.

What I learned from that otherwise-negative blogging experience is important. When I stopped trying to fit into a mold someone else had designed for me and began writing about my interests, I learned to love blogging. When I made that connection and commitment to writing about what I enjoy, I began to grow as a writer.

This blog never fails to provide me with a sharp dose of reality. I proofread my own work, run it through Grammarly, have the Read-Aloud function of my word-processing program read it back to me, and then publish it.

Still, I drop words, phrase things incomprehensibly, and misspell things.

Nothing bursts your bubble of self-importance like discovering gross errors and bloopers several days after you published the post.

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Writing blogposts requires me to become a thinking author, as well as a pantser. I can write using the “stream-of-consciousness” method or from an outline of whatever interests me at the time. I do the research, and the post begins to write itself.

Readers like short articles. I have found that a reasonable post length varies from about 500 words to not much more than 1,000. Having that limit forces me to keep my area of discussion narrow. Also, topics that try to sidetrack me in the writing process often become posts in their own right.

This constraint helps me when writing flash fiction. Most publishers of flash fiction only want stories that top out at no more than 1,000 words in length. When I first began writing flash fiction, telling the entire story in so few words was often an issue. Writing blog posts really helped me learn that skill.

For me, writing blog posts isn’t that difficult per se. If I’m fired up about the subject, I can knock one out in less than an hour.

Finding new and interesting content can be a challenge. Sometimes, I consider cutting back to publishing only on Mondays and Fridays. I have written posts on nearly every aspect of the craft and worry about repeating myself.

But then, a complex subject is raised and can’t be dealt with in only 500 – 1,000 words, and I get fired up again.

strange thoughts 2I love to see what questions people might want to have answered. Sometimes topics crop up at my writing group that no one has an answer to, and then I get to do a little research—my favorite thing. Other times I find interesting questions in the writers’ forums that I frequent.

During the week, I make notes as I come across topics that might make a good blog post. The only day I write blog posts is Sunday. Usually, writing the posts for the week only involves the morning.

If you are a blogger who only posts once a week or once a month, writing your blog post should only take an hour (or less).

I spell-check and self-edit my posts as well as possible. Then I go to my website and preschedule them.

You can do this too. Use the tools that WordPress or whatever platform hosts your website offers to schedule your posts in advance. They will post without your having to babysit them.

Prescheduling allows me to work on my real job the rest of the week. (Writing novels, baking bread, cooking, and doing laundry.)

If you are an author, you might consider having a little blog as part of your website. You don’t have to blog as frequently as I do.

Your website is your store, your voice, and your public presence. We write novels and want people to find and read our work. Readers will find you and your books on your website. It’s your job to give them a reason to come and look at your books.

Authors regularly complain that it’s hard to gain readers when you first begin to blog. That is true but if you keep at it, you gain readers. If you write it, readers will come.

When we have a limited audience, gaining readers can feel like climbing Mount Everest.

In the world of blogging, as in everything else, we start out small and gain readers as we go along—but we gain them more quickly if we keep the content updated at least bi-monthly.

My advice is to write short posts, schedule them for a particular day and time and not worry about how many hits, likes, or comments you get. That’s a stress you don’t need. Instead, write your posts as if every person on the planet is going to read them. Just post them and forget about them until it’s time to post the next one. Don’t even look at the stats.

Once you’ve been at it for six months, you have a history of stats to look at. THAT is when you gauge what topics do best, and make sure the time the blog goes live is a good slot. You want to post it when people are looking for something short to read, like when they’re riding the bus/train to or from work.

Readers will find you, and you will be doing one positive thing to advance your career during this pandemic.

Authors want to gain readers, so we must use every opportunity to get the word out. Updating your website twice a month to discuss what you’re writing and how life treats you is interesting to readers.

softwarewordcloudIf you feel that it’s too much work, consider how you update your other social media. Try posting a haiku, a tweet-length post, or an Instagram-style post once or twice a week. Any social media platform post can be converted to serve as a blog post.

It’s your opportunity to connect with people who want to read your work. But beyond that, I’ve met wonderful people from all over the world through this platform!

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Identifying Tropes and Subgenres part 2 – Crime, Thrillers, Historical, and Westerns #amwriting

Last week, we began discussing how to identify tropes and subgenres when you are trying to sell a short story (or novel). We need to know what our product is if we want to find a buyer. Identifying the Tropes of Genre and Subgenre #amwriting

Tropes-writing-craft-seriesToday, we continue that discussion with four more genres, each with many subgenres. First up is westerns. This is a popular genre with several common tropes and can be tricky to write respectfully and find a publisher for.

I grew up reading my grandmother’s Louis L’Amour novels, so westerns are in my blood. The common topes of the classic western are evolving, but they still follow this pattern:

The setting will be the frontier of the old American West, set in the years after the Civil War and before WWI.

Our protagonist is likely to be the lone cowboy – who doesn’t love the handsome loner who rides into town and saves the day? In many stories, his trusty steed is also a character, as a good pony is critical to the hero’s ability to go places. At times, the horse is his only companion.

the-woman-who-built-a-bridgeHowever, more and more, we are finding stories with female protagonists. An excellent example of this is the novel, The Woman who Built a Bridge by C.K. Crigger. I found this novel on the Wolfpack website and loved it. Wolfpack Publishing offers a great article on the tropes that have historically characterized the genre of classic westerns.

The conflict between cowboys and Indians. This particular trope must be handled with care and an awareness of stereotyping and glorifying cultural oppression. Westerns are historical, so accuracy and research are required.

Also, one must avoid committing cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc., of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or culture. Talk to the tribes in your area if possible. They will help you find ways to portray your indigenous people with respect.

Romance – enter the beautiful woman/handsome ranch hand. Often these characters will have a mysterious and tragic past.

Revenge – the redressing of wrongs is often a significant plot driver. The need to avenge a wrong becomes a character’s obsession, and murder frequently ensues.

A Sheriff becomes involved when a murder happens, and this lawman/woman is frequently the protagonist or love interest.

And finally, when the law catches up to the criminals, a shootout ensues.

Two subgenres of Westerns are Alternate World Westerns and Sci-fi Westerns. The setting may be a different kind of Old West, but just as in a classic Western, there is always a moral for the reader to take away. The action and mystery are sometimes accompanied by a star-crossed romance. The emotional stakes make these stories popular.

Next up, we will look at the genres of Crime Fiction and Thrillers.

The Crime genre is comprised of two main categories, true crime and fictional crime. Crime fiction has several subgenres, but I’m going to talk about only a few of them here.

The Crime Noir is set in dark, gritty urban environments. It often features hardboiled men with anger issues and alcohol problems who work as private detectives. Women are often portrayed as repressed sex objects. The protagonists are usually divorced ex-cops with a nasty reputation. Female protagonists have been making inroads in this genre, with some success.

A modern subgenre is a cyber-punk crime noir. These stories are set in a dystopian high-tech society but with all the tropes of a traditional crime noir.

True Crime sheds light on the sensational crimes that made headlines in real life. These are meticulously researched, and the authors work closely with law enforcement as they detail the events and personalities of the people involved.

nemesis agatha christieThe Agatha Christie / Sherlock Holmes style of novel is the classic whodunnit. They feature a private detective with close ties to law enforcement but who is still an outsider. The detective sometimes has a sidekick who chronicles their cases. At times, the detectives butt heads with the police as resentment of the protagonist’s stepping on their turf crops up. This jealousy hinders the investigation. Clues are always inserted so that the reader doesn’t notice them until the denouement, and the sidekick never guesses right either.

An excellent analysis of Agatha Christie’s writing style and work can be found here: Analysis of Agatha Christie’s Novels.

Thrillers are a complex group of subgenres. Wikipedia says:

Thrillers generally keep the audience on the “edge of their seats” as the plot builds towards a climax. The cover-up of important information is a common element. Literary devices such as red herrings, plot twistsunreliable narrators, and cliffhangers are used extensively. A thriller is often a villain-driven plot, whereby they present obstacles that the protagonist must overcome. [1]

  • Political thrillers
  • Legal thrillers
  • Medical Thrillers

Then, there are Supernatural Mysteries, stories dealing with the paranormal. They may be gothic and dark.

One of my favorite genres is Romantic Mystery. I love a good mystery and a happy ending.

All crime novels and mysteries have common tropes: they involve a puzzle that the protagonist must solve, usually placing themselves in great danger in the process. Good mysteries have small clues embedded along the way for the reader. They also include many false clues that keep the reader on the wrong track. Mystery readers want to solve the puzzle—that’s why they buy these books.

Finally, we must look at Historical Fiction, which I don’t write. However, I can quote from the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia:

An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other details of the depicted period. Authors also frequently choose to explore notable historical figures in these settings, allowing readers to better understand how these individuals might have responded to their environments. Some subgenres such as alternate history and historical fantasy insert speculative or ahistorical elements into a novel.

440px-Brock_Pride_and_PrejudiceDefinitions differ as to what constitutes a historical novel. On the one hand, the Historical Novel Society defines the genre as works “written at least fifty years after the events described,” while critic Sarah Johnson delineates such novels as “set before the middle of the last [20th] century … in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.” Then again, Lynda Adamson, in her preface to the bibliographic reference work World Historical Fiction, states that while a “generally accepted definition” for the historical novel is a novel “about a time period at least 25 years before it was written,” she also suggests that some people read novels written in the past, like those of Jane Austen (1775–1817), as if they were historical novels. [2]

When you know your story’s genre, you know what publication might be interested in it.

More importantly, you know where NOT to submit it.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Thriller (genre),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thriller_(genre)&oldid=1061575069 (accessed January 4, 2022).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Historical fiction,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Historical_fiction&oldid=1063618945 (accessed January 5, 2022).

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