Tag Archives: literature

#FlashFictionFriday: Talisman

Talisman

 

The evening sun lingers,

Red, golden,

Unwilling to set.

 

Time seems to stop.

This moment

Will be a talisman,

 

Hanging in my heart.

Warming me

When winter’s fist is closed.


Talisman, Copyright © 2017 Connie J Jasperson, All rights reserved

Puget Sound Sunset, By Vladimir Menkov (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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#amwriting: theme

ofmiceandmenTheme is the core of the plot, an idea-thread that runs through your story from the opening pages to the end, binding the elements of characters, conversations, actions, and reactions. Theme is independent of the setting or genre.

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, describes theme as:

The most common contemporary understanding of theme is an idea or point that is central to a story, which can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the theme loneliness in John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis—the text’s or author’s implied worldview.

Often we can visualize a complex theme but we can’t explain it. If we can’t can’t explain it, how do we show it? Consider the theme of “grief.” It is a common emotion that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi or reality based, where there are humans interacting on an emotional level.

Perhaps you have a story about a woman who has just lost her husband to a preventable accident. Her grief is the main theme. When you learn the accident that killed him was preventable, you know the subtheme: anger. The protagonist’s goal in this story is to prevent such accidents from happening again–perhaps she must battle a corporation or take on a government agency. Rage is the motivator that forces her to wake up each day and take on the Goliaths, but at the root of the story it is her grief that is the driving force behind her subsequent actions.

But the main theme of grief is an extremely complex experience, as anyone who has ever suffered the loss of a loved one will tell you. It is a fundamental emotion, chaotic and weighing heavy in the heart of one who grieves. It is experienced in many identifiable stages with elements of loneliness, anger, guilt, and deep suffering. It is sometimes accompanied by thoughts of suicide.

Everything your character sees and experiences in the opening pages underscores and represents her sense of loss and inspires the accompanying emotions of anger, futility, and depression. As her story progresses and she begins live despite her loss, she will still be affected on many levels and to a certain extent, driven by those complex emotions. While she is interacting with others who are happy and who believe she has gotten past her pain, you can employ allegories and symbolism to paint the deeper picture of her mental state to show how she is deeply depressed and possibly suicidal.

Once your protagonist has beaten the enemy, what is her reaction? Without the battle to sustain her rage, does she learn to accept her loss begin to find happiness? Or does she allow herself to spiral into ever worsening depression?

Perhaps you are writing a tale where a group of people faces terrible challenges in a war. On the surface, this looks like it is all about the action, but in reality, it is not. It is about relationships, the bonds of friendship, and the way the events of this war bind a group of soldiers together and also the way events test those bonds, perhaps breaking them. The theme of this tale is brotherhood: the way fighting a common enemy binds strangers from all walks of life together, creating brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

How do you identify your theme? Sometimes it’s difficult unless you start out with one in mind. Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape them. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.

Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective. These are in-depth character studies featuring interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the primary drivers of the story arc here. Instead, action and setting are carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective. Allegory is a featured motif in many literary fiction novels.

allegoryScience Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.

Fantasy: Often set in alternate Earths, medieval times, or ancient worlds, the common themes are good vs. evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

On the surface, these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These imaginary people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.

Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.


Credits:

Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (narrative),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(narrative)&oldid=765573400 (accessed February 22, 2017).

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#bookreview: The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena

the-couple-next-doorJust before Christmas, I finished reading a wonderful mystery/thriller, The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena. This was a book that was impossible to put down, but with one thing and another, I’m only now getting around to reviewing it.

But first, THE BLURB:

It all started at a dinner party. . .
A domestic suspense debut about a young couple and their apparently friendly neighbors—a twisty, rollercoaster ride of lies, betrayal, and the secrets between husbands and wives. . .

.Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all—a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately focuses on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story.

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Inside the curtained house, an unsettling account of what actually happened unfolds. Detective Rasbach knows that the panicked couple is hiding something. Both Anne and Marco  soon discover that the other is keeping secrets, secrets they’ve kept for years.

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What follows is the nerve-racking unraveling of a family—a chilling tale of  deception, duplicity, and unfaithfulness that will keep you breathless until the final shocking twist.

MY REVIEW:

The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena is a tale of love, fear, greed, and secrets. Nothing is what it seems, except for the central plot point: A baby is missing from her crib.

Anne and her husband, Marco Conti have gone to a dinner party in the house next door. The sitter has cancelled at the last minute, and the hostess has insisted on an adults only party, as she doesn’t like children. Since they share a wall with these neighbors, they have brought the baby monitor with them, leaving their baby home in the row house next door.

The baby, Cora, disappears during the dinner party.

No one is free of secrets.

Rasbach is the detective, Jennings is his assistant. As the case unfolds they discover that Anne Conti’s family is more than merely rich. They are old money, and secure in their sense of privilege, and her parents are quick to offer a ransom. At every step of the way, Anne’s parents are interfering, shielding Anne and Marco.

Little by little, evidence emerges about each character, none of it flattering. Anne herself is not without secrets.

Anne is a well-drawn character, with a mysterious history she has never fully told to her husband. She is portrayed realistically, flaws and all. Marco is also a flawed protagonist, which makes him intriguing.

I liked how well the story flows. With many twists and turns, it never stalls or halts. This is a gripping mystery, with an ending that took me by surprise, despite the fact the clues were there all along.

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#MerryChristmas: Thoughts on “A Christmas Carol”

achristmascarol1999coverCharles Dickens was a master at creating marvelous hooks and using heavy foreshadowing. Let’s take the first line of my favorite Christmas story of all time,  A Christmas Carol. I love each and every version of it, will watch any movie version I can get my hands on:

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

I hear a great deal of argument about how modern 21st century genre-fiction is nothing but sixty-second soundbites and bursts of action jammed together in dumbed-down prose.  I hate to say this, but that has been true of popular fiction for centuries–and if you look at this tale, you will see what I mean. The popular prose, at the time it was written, was more descriptive and leisurely than we enjoy nowadays, but even so, the really popular tales leaped straight to the action.

In that first paragraph, Dickens tosses out the bait, sinking the hook, and landing the fish (the reader) by foreshadowing the first plot point of the story–the visitation by Marley’s ghost. We want to know why Marley’s definite state of decay was so important that the conversation between you the reader, and Dickens, the author, was launched with that topic.

He picks it up and does it again several pages later, with the little scene involving the door-knocker: “Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large.  It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London, even including — which is a bold word — the corporation, aldermen, and livery.  Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven years’ dead partner that afternoon.  And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change — not a knocker, but Marley’s face. 

Faux Marley Door Knocker“Marley’s face.  It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.  It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead.  The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless.  That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part or its own expression.

“As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.”

You have to admit, it’s a huge thing for a man of as limited an imagination as Scrooge was known to have, to suddenly see his dead friend staring back at him.

This is also the second foreshadowing of the events that will follow and makes the reader want to know what will happen next.

At this point, we’ve followed Scrooge through several scenes introducing the subplots. We have met the man who, as yet, is named only as ‘the clerk’ in the original manuscript, but whom we will later know to be Bob Cratchit, and we’ve met Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. These subplots are critical, as our man Scrooge’s redemption revolves around the ultimate resolution of these two separate mini-stories–he must witness the joy and love in Cratchit’s family, who are suffering but happy in the midst of grinding poverty for which Scrooge bears responsibility.

We see that his nephew, Fred, though orphaned is well enough off in his own right, but craves a relationship with his uncle with no thought or care of what he might gain from it financially.

All the characters are in place. We’ve seen the city, cold and dark, with danger lurking in the shadows. We’ve observed the way Scrooge interacts with everyone around him, strangers and acquaintances alike.

Now we come to the first plot point–Marley’s visitation. This is where the set-up ends and the story takes off.

Dickens raises the tension. The bells begin ringing for no apparent reason and “The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.

Scrooge, of course, is dismayed and tries to deny the strange happenings. He desperately clings to his view of reality.”It’s humbug still!” said Scrooge.  “I won’t believe it.”

However, he can’t deny this phenomenon forever and refusing to recognize it won’t make it go away. “Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before: he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.

“How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”

1999-xmas-present Desmond BarritThis is the turning point, the place where Ebenezer Scrooge is faced with a situation in which he will either succeed or fail and what will happen to him, the reader can’t guess. A deep sense of mystery now surrounds this miserly old man–what could possibly be so important about him that a man he cared so little for in life would go to such trouble as to return from the grave to save him?

In 1843 Charles Dickens showed us how to write a compelling tale that would last for generations. We start with the hook, use foreshadowing, introduce the subplots that ultimately support the structure of the tale, and arrive at the first plot point–these are the things that make up the first quarter of this timeless tale. Get these properly in line, and your story will intrigue the reader, involving them to the point they don’t want to set the book down.


Thoughts on “A Christmas Carol” was first published by Connie J. Jasperson here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy, Dec. 15, 2014 under the title, A Christmas Carol–what I’ve learned from Charles Dickens. It was true then, and it’s true today!

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#amwriting: trust your readers

Stardust, Neil GaimanSome hard-core fantasy qualifies as literary fiction because of the way in which the story is delivered. Because of the style in which they’re written, these books appeal to a broader fan base than work pigeonholed into either the “genre fantasy category” or the “literary fiction category.”

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust qualifies as a novel that is a “literary fantasy.” This is because it is a fairy tale told with beautiful prose in an unhurried fashion.

Among the burgeoning population of authors who are just learning the craft, opinions regarding style and voice run high and loud.

According to those critique groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge, in the very first sentence of chapter one, Gaiman commits the most heinous crime an author can: he tells the story with leisurely, poetic prose.

Quote: There once was a young man who wished to gain his heart’s desire. 

OMG!  He did he really write “There once was” in a genre fantasy novel?  Passive Voice! Passive Voice!

Well, guess what? Neil Gaiman knows what he is doing when he sits down to tell a story, and his rabid fans and best-selling novels are a testament to that.

Those megalomaniacal gurus armed with tattered copies of Strunk and White, limited talent of their own, and who believe themselves the fount of writerly knowledge really lose their minds over what he does after that first sentence:

  1. He sets the scene: In a style reminiscent of traditional fairy-tales, he explains how our hero, Tristam, lives in the village of Wall. It’s a tiny town about a night’s drive from London. A giant wall stands next to the town, giving the place its name.
  2. He goes on to explain that there’s only one spot to pass through this huge grey rock wall, and it’s always guarded by two villagers at a time, and they are vigilant at their task.
  3. Gaiman comments that this guarding of the gap is peculiar because all one can see through the break in the wall is meadows and trees. It looks as if nothing frightening or strange could be happening there, and yet no one is allowed to go through the break in the wall.
  4. Only then does he bring us to the point: Once every nine years, always on May Day, a unique, traveling fair comes to the meadow. That is the only day the guards ever take a break from their posts on the gap in the wall.

I can hear the group’s de facto emperor pontificating now. What was Gaiman thinking, starting a fantasy novel with a TELLING, PASSIVE sentence followed by an info dump? Why, everyone knows real authors only use active prose and never, ever, offer information up front.

To that breathless expert, I say “not true, my less-than-widely-read friend.” Lean prose can be leisurely and poetic, and still pack a punch. That is what true writing is all about, conveying a story in a style that is crafted and has a voice that is uniquely that of the author.

In Stardust, each character is given a certain amount of importance, and even minor players are clearly drawn. The circumstances and events gradually pick up speed, and in the end, the reader is left pondering what might have happened after the final words on the last page.

stardust_promo_posterIf you saw the movie that is loosely based on the book, you might be surprised at how different the book is from the movie. There are no cross-dressing sky pirates in the book, although Robert De Niro was awesome in that role in the movie. The movie is excellent but bears little resemblance to the book, and, like The Hobbit movie, should be looked at as a different entity entirely.

Neil Gaiman trusts his readers. That is something we all need to do. Sometimes a story needs to emerge slowly and be told with beautiful, immersive prose, and we need to trust that our readers will enjoy it if we craft it well.

There is room in the bookstore for books with a less urgent story to tell as well as those that ambush the reader and beat them bloody with non-stop action.

When we write, we are writing because we have a story to tell. (Yes, I said tell.) To that end, every word must count, every idea must be conveyed with meaningful words, and sometimes you can just have a little fun with it.

In the opening lines of Gaiman’s Stardust, nothing unimportant is mentioned although the prose meanders in a literary way. Yes, he takes the long way, but the attitudes, mores, and personalities of Tristam’s village are conveyed with humor, and the journey is the best part of this fairy tale. He never devolves into florid, overblown purple prose, yet it has a poetic feel.

True authors are driven to learn the craft of writing, and it is a quest that can take a lifetime. It is a journey that involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Those are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.

You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. When you come across authors whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes you, study how they crafted the sentences that moved you.

Let their works show you how to use words to form the moods and emotions that drive the plot.

Learn from the masters how to show the true character of a protagonist, or the smell of an alley by the wharves, painting pictures with words.

Read widely, and then apply what you’ve learned to your own work.

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#amwriting:  therapy to get you writing through the block

We’ve all had moments where our creativity failed us. We had an idea, but couldn’t make it real—the words wouldn’t come, or when they did they felt stilted, awful. We felt incredibly alone and isolated in this because we are writers; the words are supposed to fall from our fingers like water down Niagara Falls.

I have learned to write my way through the block. Yes, the work I produce at that moment is awful, and no, I wouldn’t show it to the dog. But the act of writing every day keeps you fit and in the habit of writing. This job requires us to practice, as if it were dancing or ice-skating. And, just like any sport, doing well at it requires discipline. When we stop writing for any reason, we lose our momentum and our purpose.

We lose our passion.

When you have come to a place where you believe you can’t write, save the file, close it, and walk away from that manuscript. Delete nothing. You will come back to this later and will be able to use some or all of it, so file it properly.

Sometimes, the problem is that your mind has seen a shiny thing, a different project that wants to be written. If that is the case, my advice is this: work on the project that is on your mind. Let that creative energy flow, and you will eventually be able to become reconnected with the first project.

writers-block-smallBut what about those times when you need to write, you have to write, but the words won’t come? I think of it like having a sports injury: Dr. Jasperson has diagnosed you with a sprained-brain. (Did she really write that? Insert groans here.)

Seriously, I have some physical therapy for your bruised writing-muscles.

First, we have the fear factor to overcome. You need to be able to prove to yourself that you can write. This is a small exercise, very short, and I got the idea for this while in a seminar on the craft of writing essays offered by the bestselling author of Blackbird, Jennifer Lauck. As I was sitting in her class and embarking on the writing drills for structuring your essay, I had one of those bolt-of-lightning moments, a tangent to nowhere, as it didn’t pertain to essays, but it seemed important so I wrote it down.

What had happened was, Jennifer gave us prompts and asked us to write to them. I have never been good at writing to someone else’s prompts. My ideas don’t flow that way. To make it worse, we were going to have to share them with someone else in the class.

I never share work that hasn’t been revised. it might not seem as perfect to you as believe it is, but it has been revised and is the best I could offer. I felt panicky, terrified I wouldn’t be able to write, and would embarrass myself. My mind was blank.

But then, I saw what Jennifer’s prompt was, and it occurred to me that I could do that.

When I read the prompt and had that “I can do this” moment, I realized that most of the time, writer’s block is a result of not being able to visualize what you want to write about, and if you can’t visualize it, you can’t describe it. Once you have experienced that moment of complete inability, fear of not being able to write magnifies the problem until it paralyzes us.

So, I am offering you the same writing prompt Jennifer Lauck used as the first exercise in her class:

  1. Open a new document. At the top of this document type: Where I Am Today:

This is going to be a literal interpretation and description of your surroundings. Look around you, and see the place where you are. Briefly describe the environment you are sitting in, what you see, and then describe how you feel sitting in that place. Just give it two or three paragraphs.

For me, sitting here at this moment on a Sunday morning and writing this post, it runs like this:

I sit in the small, third bedroom of my home. It’s technically my office, but is, in reality, a cluttered storeroom, known here as the Room of Shame. A glass of water sits beside my elbow, as does my cell phone. My desk holds numerous books on the craft of writing and my computer.  

Two clear plastic bins containing books and paraphernalia organized to take to book signings are stacked beside the door. I prop my feet on a large bookshelf stuffed with books, so full the shelves have bowed. Stacks of cardboard boxes filled with things that were, at one time, deemed important to keep, surround me. Filing cabinets full of legal papers, tax forms, and research also take up space, all stuffed with the debris of our business life.

The desk is not my friend. The sliding keyboard shelf is broken on the left side, hanging at a slight angle. I work with a broken desk, despite the large box which contains my new desk, which leans against the closet behind me. That dusty box has been there for six months or more, unopened.

I could easily clean this space, and set up my desk. It would take no time at all, perhaps a day at most. It’s a mountain I put off climbing.

See? At the end of this exercise, you have written a drabble, a small short story. But, more importantly, you have written the setting for a scene. Those paragraphs are around 216 words and are nothing special. Nor were the words I wrote in the seminar, but I felt good about writing them because I had been given a task that had at first left me feeling helpless and unable to do it: writing to a prompt. However, in that class, because it was a simple, non-threatening thing, I was able to accomplish it, and I felt empowered.

So, now we are going to gently rebuild our damaged writing muscles.

  1. For your next exercise, go somewhere else and take your notebook. Write three more paragraphs detailing what you are looking at, and how you fit into it, and how it makes you feel.

You could do this at the mall, sitting in a coffee shop, or the parking lot at the supermarket.  Or you can do what I am doing: sit on your porch and write a few paragraphs about the space you are in, what you see, and what you sense.

My back porch is quiet, and the day is gray. Rain is falling softly. Just beyond the auto repair shop’s parking lot, and the coffee stand, glimpsed between the conical cypress trees, the sounds of the highway are muted. One of the neighbors has let their dog out without a leash, and the free-range cats are disturbed by it. The scent of sodden vegetation is fresh and speaks of autumn.

The third exercise is more abstract:

  1. Where do you want to be? Visualize it, and describe it the same way as you described the places you could see. For me, that runs like this:

I want to be on a foggy beach, walking along the high-tide mark. I want to hear the gulls and sh-shing of the waves. I want to feel at peace again.

gear-brain-clip-art-smallIf you do these three exercises at the same time every day, describing the environments and your perceptions in a different space each time, even when you have nothing to say that is worth reading, you are writing. With perseverance, you will be writing your other work again. The important thing is to write even if it is only a few paragraphs. This is the physical therapy I recommend for overcoming writer’s block.

Just like an athlete recovering from an injury, you must gradually rebuild your confidence, strengthen your writing muscles, and regain your writing work ethic.  You need to empower your creativity for it to flow.

As I said, this how my mind works. If you are suffering a dry spell, give these exercises try, as you have nothing to lose. I hope that when these exercises are no longer painful, you will be able to write again.

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#amwriting: Interview with author Stephen Swartz

Today is the final installment in my series of interviews with working authors who are also teaching writing craft. This has been a wonderful series, as each approaches the craft from a different angle, and my final guest has a great deal to offer.

stephen-swartzA little background on today’s guest, author Stephen Swartz. He is a Professor of English at a major Midwestern university, and is a world traveler, often spending his summers teaching in Beijing, China at the University of International Business and Economics. Also, he is the author of numerous short stories and novels, and is a fellow founding author of Myrddin Publishing. He has also published poetry and written for scholarly journals on the subject of composition and identity, linguistics, and psychology.

CJJ: What do you enjoy the most about teaching?  Conversely, what would you change about your job if you were able?

SS: I’m rather parental when it comes to teaching. I like seeing my students become excited about writing and push themselves to explore their potential. I enjoy seeing their writing improve paper by paper, not only technically but also in showing their deeper thought processes. As it is, there are constraints on what I think would be best when it comes to writing instruction. Partly, it is a matter of budgeting, enrollment, and accreditation requirements. It is also a matter of what students are interested in career-wise; many do not think they will need to write in their careers. So I have limitations I must work within. And, of course, each semester brings a new mix of students so I must constantly adapt the lessons to accommodate them; it really is like reinventing the wheel. Writing fiction keeps me balanced.

CJJ: As you know, many authors are writing for children, preteens (middle-grade), and YA. In a comment on this blog recently, you said, “Meanwhile, the style (I think) should match the nature of the story and especially the mindset and education level of the narrator.” Can you expand on that idea a little?

SS: What I think I meant was in reference to the sophistication of the language the narrator of a story uses. That’s the author’s responsibility. If the narrator of a story is well-educated (for example, see my vampire novel A Dry Patch of Skin), he would speak in a well-educated manner, with sophisticated style and a large vocabulary. A less educated character (or a child) would speak differently, using simpler vocabulary and often incorrect sentence constructions. A foreign character speaking English would have similar language limitations; the dialog should show those limitations. However, we cannot let the language be too authentic if doing so would cause the reader difficulty. I once wrote a character who was supposed to speak with a Scottish accent; the result was rather bad. Having just enough (a particular repeating word or phrase) to hint at the accent would have been enough. I’ve been fortunate to have both studied linguistics and foreign languages as well as listened to speakers of varying ages and accents. I lived in Japan for five years and teaching English there taught me how non-native speakers “butcher” the language. I think I captured that effect well in my novel Aiko, set in Japan. Besides formal training, I also think I have a good ear for speech and so I do my best to replicate the character’s way of speaking based on the real speaking I’ve heard.

aikoCJJ: You have published eight books, in a variety of genres, and are now finishing up an epic fantasy novel (of EPIC proportions!). Yet, none of your characters have a sameness to them. How do you visualize your characters when you begin to place them in their story?

SS: Excellent question. My answer must, however, be simple. I’m schizophrenic. My mental defect allows me to grab pieces of other people’s lives, behavior, speech, and motivations which I then craft into plausible, even realistic, fictionalized personas. I recognize I have a few stock-in-trade character I use over and over with names changed and perhaps a quirk switched for a different quirk. I suppose I take one of my stock characters and customize him/her for the role I need him/her to play.

The hardest character to write is the protagonist because that character usually starts as a version of myself. The challenge is to let the hero act as the hero would naturally act (following his/her motivations and typical behavior) and not as I, the real me, would likely act. When I wrote out the story of a friend of mine who grew up in Greenland, I was writing a female protagonist—and using the first-person point of view. That novel was based on her life so I could imitate her way of speaking from interviews with her. The challenge for me in writing that novel was to make her language style change from her childhood to her teenage years to her adulthood.

For my current work-in-progress, the epic fantasy, I returned to a basic male protagonist, a hunky dragonslayer, and cobbled together a bit of a movie star, a little of me, and a pieces of other people I know to create the singular hero.

CJJ: In your upcoming novel, EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS, you portray a variety of races in a fantasy environment, each with unique cultures. What tips can you give in regard to keeping fantasy cultures diverse, and yet not devolving into too much backstory?

 SS: Not truly different races, not in the sense that Tolkien has them with dwarves and hobbits. I tried to keep the ethnicity in my story more subtle. Given the setting (no spoilers here), there is a wide variety of “types” among the cast members, not just to make a politically correct checklist but because they mix well in interesting ways. One famous author (I think it was Dostoevsky but it may be a more modern writer) liked to think up unique people and ponder how they might interact if put in a room together. I did the same with my epic fantasy only on the larger stage of the story world.

Regarding the world-building, I cheated a bit in this novel by setting it in a familiar setting (again, no spoilers here). Readers may recognize it eventually but it is not explicitly “given away” in the text. Even so, as I traced the path my hero would take on his quest, I marked certain locations on the map as being “different” societies with unusual customs—not different races or ethnicities. Like all good epic fantasy tales based on a quest, there is a series of episodes—self-contained mini-story arcs, strung together, one adventure after another—so the structure is easy to arrange. Following the geographical layout of the setting, what “can happen” to our hero necessarily changes from location to location.

A better example of world-building may be my science-fiction trilogy The Dream Land, which involves a pair of nerdy teens who discover a doorway to another world—which I created as a fully realized planet with continents, oceans, history and culture, and several different races, as well as unique flora and fauna. The world-building was half the fun of writing those novels; pushing my hero and heroine into this new world and watching them figure things out was the other fun part.

I think the key to “keeping fantasy cultures diverse, and yet not devolving into too much backstory” is to remember that, to the characters in the story, it is all known and common (usually) so they should speak and act toward everything there as though it was all common to them. You have to find creative ways of introducing ideas and details without them coming out as a “Let’s go meet Bill, your cousin, who, as you know, is also my long-lost brother” kind of writing. In my current epic fantasy novel, I can get away with some of that “messaging” because my hero is on a quest and does not know about the places he visits, so having a local character explain things is quite natural. People like to talk, so I let these “local yokels” ramble on and the history and customs of the place come out in a more natural way.

CJJ: In all of your novels, there is a certain amount of world building, even the novels set in contemporary environments. What advice can you give regarding making the settings feel real to the reader while keeping the backstory minimal?

SS: Research, if it is a real place. Read other books about the location, fiction or non-fiction. As I wrote A Girl Called Wolf, which is set in Greenland, I also read a very evocative book on the travels of early explorers written by a woman undertaking her own contemporary travels there. Her writing and descriptions painted such vivid pictures for me that I could describe the locations both accurately and passionately.

The most realistic setting I’ve ever used was my own city in the set in the same year I was writing it. I’m referring to my vampire novel, set in Oklahoma City with places named, set in 2014, when I was actually writing it so what happened in real time happened in the book. That was a fun exercise. But then our hero goes to Europe so I went back to researching.

For make-believe worlds, I think it’s simply a matter of transposing what we know of real locations to an imaginary location. For example, in The Dream Land Trilogy, I would think of an Earth animal and reinvent it as something more exotic: the common mount, a horse, became a 3-toed donkey with a dewlap, stripes on half its body, long rabbit ears, and a rat tail. Similarly, I’m more science-focused so even in a fantasy story I remain concerned with such things as the distance of the planet from its sun and the ratio of land to ocean, and so on. Even in my epic fantasy, a genre where magic is required, I have magic operating on scientific principles but it is explained in highly metaphorical language—but it still looks like magic!

CJJ: Thank you for indulging my curiosity, Stephen. I love talking craft with you around the virtual water cooler at Myrddin, and enjoy your blog, The DeConstruction of the of the Sekuatean Empire.

>>><<<

You can find Stephen Swartz at any of these places:

Stephen Swartz Amazon Author Page

Website: The DeConstruction of the Sekuatean Empire

Stephen Swartz  Myrddin Publishing page

Twitter: @StephenSwartz1

Stephen Swartz’s FB Author Page

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#amwriting: Interview with Scott Driscoll

As part of my lead up to #NaNoWriMo2016 and November’s month of literary madness, I am continuing my series of guest interviews. Today, we are speaking with the always intriguing Scott Driscoll.

Scott is an award-winning writing instructor at UW Continuing and Professional Education, is a well-known journalist and editor, and is the author of Better You Go Home, a literary novel which takes the reader to Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution. (My review can be read here.)

I have attended several seminars offered by Scott through PNWA, and have always come away feeling inspired.

CJJ: What books influenced you most as young reader?

SD: Like most children, I liked any story that fueled my imagination, such as Aesop’s Fables, Grimm Fairy Tales, and the like. Somewhere in middle school I discovered a preference for realism and actually read, and was fascinated by, Moby Dick. I distinctly remember going to class and sniffing the palms of my hands, convinced I’d somehow got ambergris, which never really washes off, on my hands. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men also impressed me greatly at that age. I found American social realism (aka naturalism), such as anything by Drieser, dreary beyond belief.

CJJ: How did these books influence your early writing?

SD: The dreary books I was forced to read in adolescence and as a young teen led me to conclude that you had to be pedantic and stuffy to be a writer and that turned me off to writing fiction altogether. The exceptions would be Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and E. A. Poe stories. Those were exciting. What I didn’t realize until later is that I was looking for a voice that spoke to me. I really didn’t hear that voice until I encountered French existential novelists like Camus and Jean Genet (especially in The Thief’s Journal, a fictionalized memoir). Compared with potted stories like de Maupassant’s, these took me into what felt like a word wilderness, where you could easily get off trail and run into danger and I loved that feeling. I also discovered and loved Dostoevsky and Kafka. There was a darkness and urgency and psychological depth in that writing that I could not find in American authors, until, in college, I discovered the novels of Norman Mailer and Edward Abbey and now I had a voice that was raw and stories that were more about the psychological life of the characters and less about managing a plot. Not that I had anything against plot. It was the raw power of the words I needed to fall in love with first.

CJJ: You have said elsewhere that “Writing for me is about applying form to the mysteries we suffer.” Can you expand a little on this idea?

SD: I borrowed that phrase from Wright Morris. On my blog site I wrote about the first time, as an adult, I tried to write fiction. I was 21 years old, taking a break from college, living in Darwin, Australia and working warehouse and restaurant jobs to save money so I could travel on. With time on my hands, and a depressing lack of anything better to do, I essentially locked myself in my boarding house room, sat under the paddle fan, and spent several hours writing nothing. What I lacked, I realized, was not the ability to write, but knowledge of form. Without an understanding of story structure, I would churn out a stream of words that was nothing more than a verbal outpouring of my inner angst, the kind of sophomoric, I realized that day, drivel that excites only high school English teachers, who are grateful for any grammatical verbal pyrotechnics. Without an understanding of form, I could not begin to solve the mysteries I knew were locked up inside me.

CJJ: You have also said “Any story that involves a quest – and that is most stories – starts with a disturbing event known to writers and film-makers as the “inciting incident.” What is the most important thing for an author to consider when creating this event?

SD: It took me a long time to accept that any story with any kind of plot must start with a disturbance. But once you accept that, what does it really mean? A disturbance, as in, someone gets mugged, a bank gets robbed, aliens land, a shark throws a vacation resort town into chaos? If it’s just event for event’s sake, anything is possible and nothing is particularly meaningful. Rather, an inciting incident must disturb a balance that pertains in the hero’s world, and must do so by working against a deeply held value, so that the hero, we can be sure, will not shrug it off as simply bad news but rather will be forced to react in a way that will further endanger the balance in that familiar world.

Better You Go Home Scott DriscollCJJ: When did you first have the idea to write “Better You Go Home,” and how long did it take to complete it?

SD: In 1994, three and a half years after the Velvet Revolution, I went to the Czech Republic to track down family that my Czech relatives in Iowa had stopped communicating with. I found the village, the farmhouse, met some people, but had been too cheap to hire a translator and didn’t get beyond discovering that there was some unspeakable mystery, some “inciting incident,” that had created a rift in the family. In 1999, armed with better information sent to me by a cousin who’d followed my lead to that village, and armed this time with a translator, my father and I went back to this village and heard stories, and reviewed records, and I learned enough that I felt I could write a novel with this family mystery at its heart. At the time I had quit writing fiction (needing to make money) and started instead writing for magazines, and between that and teaching and being divorced and raising a child, I really didn’t have time to write a novel (but stayed up late virtually every night reading everything I could get my hands on related to the topic). A couple years later, needing to get back to fiction, I started in pretending I was writing chapters, but really just produced fluff based on my research. From the time I began writing chapters that could stick, and publication, ten years went by.  I had told my wife—we married just before the time I got serious with this novel—I’d have it done in two years. Our son likes to remind me that he was ten when it was published. I remind him that I was busy. But, really, honestly, it took so long because my early understanding of the story lacked the form that would allow me to finally tell the story. Much of my groping in the early years could have been circumvented had I discovered that form early in the process.

CJJ: Once a new work is in progress, what are the main hurdles you have to overcome in laying down the first draft?

SD: That depends. If it’s a short story, I will usually allow myself to have a crude idea based on a situation that sets forth from a known inciting incident with a disturbed character but without a known outcome, just set forth and go, knowing the real story will emerge in the re-writes anyway. With a novel, it’s worth doing more planning.  Once you have your premise, the first hurdle you have to overcome is finding a basic story structure that will naturally lead to a surprising but inevitable outcome. Then you work on your characters, that is, you start with characters in mind, but now you have to imagine how the events required by the story structure you have imagined will be causally connected to the characters’ needs and wants and fears and expressed and hidden desires. Without causal connections you just have meaningless events. Once causal connections are asserted, you encounter another hurdle. The characters begin to morph according the logical requirements of the causal connections you have asserted. Without a strong sense of the story structure, things can quickly morph into an ugly, hydra-headed monster, ie, chapters screaming to be thrown away.

CJJ: What are you working on now?

SD:  Two things. First, a collection of connected stories that show a young couple starting off careers and family and that show how that trajectory unfolds over the years. For my raw material, I am using stories published years ago, but that I felt never broke through to their bigger potential. Will I achieve that now? Let’s just say, I know a whole lot more about writing now than I did then. I only hope that I can recapture the immediacy that can easily get lost behind a command of technique. My second project, still in the planning stages, is a sci-fi time travel novel. This will be my first attempt at a popular fiction genre. I was put up to it by an editor friend. My wife was intrigued by the idea of me writing a novel that had the potential to make some money. Having handed over an 18,000 word treatise, that covers my idea for the story nearly chapter by chapter, I am now excited to get to work.

CJJ: What books can you recommend for new writers who are just beginning to learn the craft?

SD: The best book on craft, generally, is Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, now in its ninth edition. That said, Story by Robert McKee, though written for screenplay writers, contains the best craft talks, with illustrations from films, on plot and character and scene that I have ever come across. I would definitely start with those two, then add Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham, as an enhancement to what McKee has to say. Then, they should all get their hands on What If, the third edition, edited by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. (Do not let Amazon trick you into buying the inadequate first edition.) This book is full of mini-lessons and exercises for writers who know about craft but need practice.

CJJ: Where can people find your classes and seminars this fall?

SD: In fall 2016, starting the first week of October, I am teaching one section of Literary Fiction I, the introductory course, and one section of Advanced Fiction Writing, a course intended for writers of both literary and popular fiction who’ve had experience with taking writing classes or who have extensive writing experience. Both classes are offered through the University of Washington in the Professional and Continuing Education department. If interested, folks should go to www.keeplearning.uw.edu and look for these courses, or, if they have questions, seek more details at www.pce.uw.edu. They can also email me at sdriscol@uw.edu. I also teach a summer workshop class and that is posted on my blog site. http://www.scottdriscollblogs.wordpress.com.

  • In the meantime, I am a guest editor reviewing manuscripts at the fall 2016 Write On The Sound conference and will be at the Edmonds, WA site on Saturday Oct 1 and Sunday Oct 2. On Nov. 10, I will be a guest workshop leader at the November meeting of the Skagit Valley Writer’s League, held in Mt. Vernon, WA. Those interested can peruse their web site for more information. In May, 2017, I will be a workshop leader, lecturer etc. at the Write On The River conference held in Wenatchee, WA

 

Scott, thank you so much, for being a part of this little series on the craft of writing. As always, you are a joy to talk to!


scott-driscoll1 Scott Driscoll can be found 

 

 

 

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#amwriting: Sturm und Drang

hp-touchsmart-320-1030-full-setMy main, desktop computer died on Saturday. It’s been limping along for a while. We had into the shop about six months ago, and should have known then it was terminal. The thing is, while I love Sturm und Drang in my literature, I prefer my electronic life to be stress-free.

Limping along on my ancient, half-functional laptop, I can get by well enough to write the odd blogpost or work on my own work. But the screen is too small for me to use to edit for a client. Also, I can’t do any work requiring Photoshop, as that program is on my dead dinosaur.

I have my headphones on and the laptop strategically positioned, so it blocks the 50-inch technological disaster that is our TV and which seems to take up an entire wall. It also needs replacing as a series of vertical lines obscures the view on part of the screen but I doubt that will happen this year–TV is not that important. Music is mostly my form of entertainment.

Greg’s laptop is older than this one, although he is keeping it alive. All our technology is older than dirt. So, after I finish writing this blogpost, we are going shopping and two new machines will come to our house.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s talk about Sturm und Drang. The English translation is literally, Storm and stress.

Google defines it as: a literary and artistic movement in Germany in the late 18th century, influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and characterized by the expression of emotional unrest and a rejection of neoclassical literary norms.

What does this mean in simpler terms?

Sturm und Drang as a literary form evolved during the time of the American Revolutionary War, which a period of global unrest and great hardship, especially in Europe. The main feature is the expression of high emotions, strong reactions to events, and often, rebellion against rationalism. It is characterized by violent individualism and complex emotions. Literature and music written in this style were aimed at shocking the audience and infusing them with extremes of emotion.

Classical literature in this style began in 1772 with “Prometheus,” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which the character of the mythic Prometheus addresses God (as Zeus) in misotheistic accusation and defiance. Misotheism is the hatred of God, or the Gods, in literature described as stemming from a moment in a person’s life where one feels the gods have abused and abandoned him. Misotheism requires a firm belief in a God or Gods.

Again, Wikipedia tells us this: Prometheus is the creative and rebellious spirit which, rejected by God, angrily defies him and asserts itself; Ganymede is the boyish self which is adored and seduced by God. One is the lone defiant, the other the yielding acolyte. As the humanist poet, Goethe presents both identities as aspects or forms of the human condition.

Modern genre and indie literature using this style can be found as an underlying trope in Cyberpunk.

Wikipedia defines Cyberpunk as: a subgenre of science fiction in a future setting that tends to focus on the society of the proverbial “high tech low life[1][2] featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as information technology and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.[3]

DoAndroidsDreamIt is exemplified by post-industrial dystopias that tend to feature wide divisions in the social order and extreme chaos in society. Protagonists acquire and make use of technology in ways never anticipated by its original inventors (“the street finds its own uses for things”).  Much of the genre’s atmosphere is heavily film noir, and  employs techniques and style reminiscent of detective fiction.

The difference between classical Sturm und Drang and modern Cyberpunk is Technology and Industry are the Gods whose knowledge the mortals desire, and whom they seek to replace. All aspects of Sturm und Drang can be found in Cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk began as a niche rebellion by authors like Phillip K. Dick, and is now mainstreamed and growing in popularity.

Authors writing in the early days of speculative fiction were Indies who were finding success getting short stories published in popular sci-fi magazines, and who were fortunate enough to have some farsighted editors take chances with publishing their longer work. They formed publishing companies and became giants. That opportunity will always be out there.

Indie authors have a great deal of latitude in their choice of what to write, as we can write and publish edgy work that would be deemed too chancy by traditional publishers. Authors always engage in artistic rebellion, and society always appreciates it—years afterward.

And tonight, I will continue my artistic rebellion while getting my new computing thing, whatever it shall be, up and running.

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#amreading: the genesis of an author

Nymphenburg, View From the Seaside painting by Joseph Wenglein 1883

Nymphenburg, View From the Seaside painting by Joseph Wenglein 1883

I find the process of creativity as experienced by others intriguing, and am always curious about how they became authors.

My own journey to this place in my life was pretty tame. But some people  become authors via more adventurous, alternative paths.

This notion is explored in Elizabeth McKenzie’s frank, autobiographical post published on January 26, 2016, for LitHub.

Max Ernst, The Elephant Celebes 1921, Tate, London via WikipediaAppropriately titled “Surrealism and Decomposition. Or How I Wrote My Novel,”  McKenzie takes us on a journey through both her personal quest for enlightenment and creativity and the authors whose works colored her writing life. The quote that hooked me into reading this piece: “I read Rimbaud and Breton and Lautreamont and started according my dreams the respect I felt towards art. I wanted to have visions, I wanted, as Rimbaud put it, to take part in the systematic disordering of the senses.”

Her honest account of her sometimes psychedelic journey through alternate forms of consciousness and literary greatness is quite intriguing and took me back to my college days when many of my friends also chose that path for enlightenment.

Psychedelics were never an option for me, although in that way I was the odd one in my circle. The notion of them frightened me. Life in the early 1970s was surreal enough in its cold reality. My form of mind-expansion came in books.

The authors whose works influenced me as a young adult might surprise those who know me.

In my twenties, sci-fi and fantasy books were expensive and hard to get. The libraries stocked a few, but not as many as I required, as fast as I read.

When I was young, my parents were prolific readers and were members of both Doubleday Book Club and Science Fiction Book Club. They also purchased two to four paperbacks a week at the drugstore and subscribed to Analog and several other magazines.

samuel pepys diaryThere was always something new and wonderful to read around our house, and most of it was speculative fiction, although we had the entire 54 volume leather-bound set of the Great Books of the Western World, and our father insisted we attempt to read and discuss what we could.

Some were mostly understandable, such as William Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys.

Plato, not so much, and yet his work did influence me.

At the age of 14 I didn’t understand Pepys, but I read him, and while we were bass fishing on a Saturday morning, Dad would talk about the differences between life and morality in Pepys’ London and our life in suburban America in 1969. His thought was that I should learn about the 17th century and the Great Fire in London from an eye witness, just as I had learned about the war in the Pacific from John F. Kennedy‘s autobiographical novel,  PT 109.

But Pepys’ London of 1666 was so different from the ‘Mod’ subculture of the London of 1966 (and the Beatles) that I was familiar with thanks to Life magazine. To me, it was almost like speculative fiction. In many ways it was more difficult  for me to believe in historical London than Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

When I married and left home, I still read every sci-fi or fantasy novel that came out in paperback, budgeting for books the way others of my acquaintance budgeted for beer. I read the classics for my irregular college classes, and learned to love Chaucer and James Joyce. For a variety of reasons I never earned a college degree, but I’ve never stopped reading and researching great literature.

But reading for entertainment was still my “drug.” I jonesed for new books by the great ones, Anne McCaffrey, Jack Chalker, and Roger Zelazny, reading and rereading them until they were shreds held together with duct tape.

As a married student attending college in Bellingham Washington, purchasing books for pleasure became a luxury. I found a secondhand bookstore where I could get a brown paper shopping bag full of novels in too poor a condition to sell on their shelves for $2.00 a bag if you had a bag of books to trade in.

As a college drop-out I went through a bag of books every week, and within a year, I had read every book they had.

Devils Cub Georgette HeyerThus, out of desperation, I discovered a whole new (to me) genre: regency romances written by Georgette Heyer, and other romance writers of that generation. Those books, along with beat up copies of bestsellers by Jack Kerouac, James Michener, and Jacqueline Susann began to show up in the pile beside my bed.

So at least some of my literary influences can be traced back to dragons, booze, morality, and England’s romantic Regency—lived vicariously through these authors’ eyes.

Always when the budget permitted, I returned to Tolkien, Zelazny, McCaffrey, Asimov, Bradbury, and as time passed, Piers Anthony, David Eddings, Tad Williams, L.E. Modesitt Jr., and Robert Jordan to name only a few.

And there were so many, many others whose works I enjoyed. By the 1990s, the genres of fantasy and sci-fi were growing authors like a field grows weeds, and I loved it.

All of the books I read as a child and young adult have influenced my writing. They still inspire me.

Nowadays I rarely am able to read more than a chapter or two before falling asleep. My Kindle is full of books, and I haven’t got the time to read them because I have to write my own story. Having the luxury to spend a day wallowing in a book is a treat to be treasured.

Old booksBut it is because of the uncountable authors whose works I have been privileged to read that I was inspired to think that my own scribblings might be worth pursuing.

Writing has always been necessary to me, as natural as breathing. In the beginning, my writing was unformed and was a reflection of whoever I was reading at the moment. As I matured and gained confidence, I found my own ideas and stories, and they took over my life.

Once that happened, I became a keyboard-wielding writing junkie.

Some days I write well, and others not so much, but every day I write something.

And every day I find myself looking for the new book that will rock my universe, a new “drug” to satisfy my craving, even if I know I won’t have time to read it.

I’m addicted to dreams and the people who write about them. Reading is my form of mind expanding inspiration. Without the authors whose books formed my world, I would never have dared to write.

Life would be so boring.

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