The Three Elements Writing Exercise

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane



Lately I’ve become a fan of crazy unrelated ideas being woven into the fabric of a story. The farther apart the elements are, the bigger the challenge to make a cohesive story out of them, but I think this can be a good exercise for writers to “think/plot” out of any proverbial corner. If you can train your brain to free associate, without filtering your thought process through common sense or your inner naysayer, this could be a good way to jump start your creativity and brainstorm into something fun to write. Who knows. You might come up with a real story you’d like to develop and feel like this guy on the top of a mountain.

The idea is that plots can come from a myriad of inspirations. Recently I was asked to join a group of authors for an anthology of stories themed in an area I’d never written. I loved the authors so much that I said yes, but the crazy part came when I liked the plot so much, that I developed it into a series with a bigger scope. Keep an open mind to ideas, almost especially when they push you out of your comfort zone, because you never know where your next big inspiration can come from.

Bear with me and try this exercise. Pick one of these “3 Elements” and tell us your story. (This would be similar to pinning crazy notions on a dartboard and letting the dart decide what your next story will be.) Try the exercise below and enter as many times as you’d like (by posting your story in a comment) or pick a different “3 Elements” and go for it again. 

Pick any of these THREE ELEMENTS and tell us a story: 

1.) A priest, a skin rash, and a cell phone GPS mistake
2.) A singing competition, a family ring, and an over protective grandmother
3.) An abandoned farm house, breast augmentation, and a lumpy mattress
4.) A malfunctioning elevator, a pickpocket, and a mother’s Last Will
5.) A stolen lap top, a favorite love song, and a wager
6.) Pink eye, a get well card, and a run in with someone famous
7.) A funeral, a missing cat, and a promise


Our little family here at TKZ is very creative. Give this exercise a go and have fun. Make us laugh or share a poignant idea.

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What novelists can learn from song writers

Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Last Friday, a giant in country music passed away. George Jones was not only considered by many to be the greatest country singer of all time, but also one of the most self-destructive. His string of hits was fueled by a private life of booze that was nothing short of gj-1devastating. Once when his wife hid the car keys so he couldn’t go buy alcohol, he hopped on a riding lawn mower and rode it into town to the liquor store. He later parodied the story in a music video.

But despite the long chain of events that few mortals could survive, George Jones climbed to the top of the mountain and made a place for himself that will forever be the gold standard in country music.

His life was a soap opera that was mirrored in the songs he sang. His struggles with the demons of alcoholism are reflected in some of his album titles: “The Battle”, “Bartender’s Blues”, and the defiant “I Am What I Am”. But out of this self-inflicted carnage of a tragic life, one song emerged as arguably the greatest country song ever written: “He Stopped Loving Her Today”.

The song is performed with the singer telling the story of his "friend" who has never given up on his love. He keeps old letters and photos, and hangs on to hope that she would "come back again." The song reaches its peak with the chorus, telling us that he indeed stopped loving her – when he finally died.

It’s poignant, sad, and paints a heart-wrenching portrait of absolute love and devotion, as well as never-ending hope. Not only does it drill to the core of emotion, but it delivers the story with the few words.

So what does this have to do with writing books? Everything.

It’s called the economy of words—telling the most story with the least amount of text. It is an art form that songwriters must master, and novelists must study. There is no better example of the economy of words than in a song like ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’. Not one word is wasted. No filler. No fluff. Remove or change a word from the song and the mental picture starts to deflate. The story is told in the most simplistic manner and the result is a masterpiece. Every word is chosen for its optimal emotional impact. Nothing is there that shouldn’t be. It is a grand study in how to write anything.

I’m not suggesting that your 100K-word novel be written with the intensity of George Jones’ song. In fact, if it were, it would probably be too overwhelming to comprehend. But my point is that no matter who you are—New York Times bestseller or wannabe author, your book contains too many unnecessary words. If you can say it in 5 instead of 10, do it. Get rid of the filler and fluff. Respect the economy of words. Less is more.

For those that love George Jones, enjoy this video. For those that have not heard “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, click the link, listen and learn.

He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones

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The End Game

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

I enjoy taking about the mechanics of writing, particularly the basics—Writing 101. The reason is that it’s where most new writers stumble and fall. It’s why so many manuscripts fail to get published or even get considered for publication. And a lack of appreciation for the basics is a huge source of frustration later on when things aren’t clicking. There are no magic beans or silver bullets in dealing with the basics. And despite some urban legends, you won’t be initiated into a secret society of published authors with a special handshake. The basics are just that: basic concepts on which to build your story without letting anything block the flow of your creativity.

It’s obvious that a strong ending is as important as a strong beginning. Your reader should never finish your book with a feeling that something was left hanging or unanswered that should have been completed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is expected or unpredictable, it shouldn’t leave the reader with unanswered questions. You don’t want to play the end game and lose.

Oftentimes, beginning writers don’t successfully bring all the elements of a story together in a satisfying conclusion. There’s no real feeling of accomplishment at the end. Your readers have taken part in a journey, and they should feel that they have arrived at a fulfilling destination. This is not to say that every conflict should be resolved. Sometimes an open-ended conflict can cause the reader to ponder a deeper concept, perhaps an internal one. Or a more obvious reason to have an unresolved conflict is to suggest a sequel or series. But something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time.

There are a number of methods you can use to make sure your ending works. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual.

Another technique is to set a series of goals for your protagonist to work toward and, in the end, they are achieved. Naturally, the harder the goals, the more satisfying the ending will be for the protag and the reader.

The opposite of this technique is to have the protagonist fail to overcome the main obstacle or goal in the story. The ending may not be a happy one for the character, but he can still experience an insight that is fulfilling for the reader. An example of this would be a character who truly believes that riches bring happiness only to find that true fulfillment comes with the loss of material wealth. In the end, the goals of becoming rich are never met, but he is a better person for it.

You might choose to end your story with irony. This usually occurs when the character sets out to accomplish a goal and expects a certain result only to find in the end the result is exactly the opposite. A con artist tries to pull off a big scam only to be conned and scammed by the victim. There’s an old saying that the easiest sell in the world is to a salesman. Watch The Sting.

How about a surprise ending? There’s probably never been a bigger surprise ending than the movie The Sixth Sense. A kid keeps telling a guy that he can “see dead people”. Well guess what? He sees the guy because the guy is dead. There were audible gasps in the theater at the ending of that one.

As you decide on an ending and begin to write it, think of the summation an attorney makes right before the jury goes into deliberation. The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing. Present a convincing argument, review all your evidence, and walk away knowing you’ve done all you can to get the verdict you want.

So how are you guys at playing the End Game. Any additional tips? What about telling us your favorite ending to a movie or book?

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Magic words

By Joe Moore

WARNING: This post is not about self-publishing or gatekeeping or Amazon or e-books or all the other stuff we’ve been thrashing about over the last week or so.

It’s about magic.

Recently I was invited to speak during career week to third and fifth graders at a local elementary school on what it’s like to be a writer. Frankly, I expected only a handful of kids to show any interest while most would probably react with boredom. After all, how could I compete with the fireman and his Dalmatian that were the previous guests? I was pleasantly surprised to find classroom after classroom packed with genuinely interested kids who paid attention, asked great questions, and promised to go home and start writing their stories. I found out a few days later that some actually did.

I began my presentation by telling them that at the end I would reveal the two magic words every great writer uses to create great stories. This was my hook that kept them listening, and it worked.

The two magic words are: What if?

I’ve used them to create the premise of 6 novels, my two current works-in-progress and many short stories. Here’s a sample:

What if someone used the DNA found in the Holy Grail to clone Christ? THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY

What if a 5000-year-old relic revealed the secret to surviving Armageddon? THE LAST SECRET

What if a quantum computer could bring down all the resources of the world and throw nations into chaos? THE HADES PROJECT

What if a group of state-sponsored terrorists could deliver a lethal virus with something as innocent as a cough or sneeze? THE 731 LEGACY

What if someone was stealing the burial remains of the most infamous mass murderers in history in order to genetically regenerate them into an army of killers? THE PHOENIX APOSTLES

What if the search for an Old Testament artifact uncovered a plot to destroy a major U.S. city with a nuclear device built by the Nazis at the end of WWII? THE BLADE

magicAs far as I’m concerned, those two words are magical. Repeating them is like an incantation that launches a spell and sets the imagination afire. They form a seed that can start growing from the moment the question is asked: What if? The two most powerful words in the craft of writing.

I keep a list of “what if” questions and ideas that I’ve accumulated over the years. They come from everywhere; the newspaper, TV, movies, books, articles. And I’ll be a lot of you guys have a similar list.

So why am I even talking about this? After all, writers already know the magic words. What I want to suggest is that you use them like I did to ignite the imagination of future writers of all ages. If revealing those two words sends a kid home with the fire to write a story, and they do, then there’s truly something magical going on. Pass on the magic words to others as often as you can. You just might be responsible for the next future New York Times bestseller. And wouldn’t that be magic!

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Setting the Stage: A Writing Exercise

by Michelle Gagnon

For a change of pace today, I thought we could tackle a writing exercise. One of the things that’s struck me during our critiques lately is that I’m not alone in sometimes neglecting to include enough descriptive prose to set the stage for my stories. In fact it’s such a weakness of mine, I rarely add much detail in first drafts. I get the plot and dialogue in place, then go back during the editing process to flesh everything out. In all honesty, scenery description is my least favorite part of the craft of writing. 

For one, remembering to include all five senses is always a struggle; I have a terrible sense of smell, and have to remind myself that my characters might not. Also, describing anything from a basic room to a crowd scene is rife with pitfalls; there isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t caught themselves typing out a trite cliche about the shape of the moon, or something similar.


So when my book is set somewhere specific, I rely heavily on photographs. The corkboard behind my desk is always layered with photos representing nearly every scene in the manuscript. I find that looking at them triggers sense memories, especially if I’m writing about somewhere I’ve been. I remember how streets in Paris are always wet in the morning, having been freshly washed by maintenance crews just before dawn. Or how the light in Central Park shifts dramatically season by season, or how the air in South America just tastes different (maybe my sense of taste is stronger, to compensate for that lack of smell).


Below I’ve pasted three photos. Pick any one and describe it in a paragraph, or use it as the jumping off point for a scene. Take care to avoid overused metaphors: “The sea was dark as slate,” for example, or, “The sky was as blue as a robin’s egg.” 


Bonne chance!

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Tricks to Creating a Page-Turner

By Joe Moore

If you write mysteries or thrillers (or any genre, for that matter), there’s nothing more rewarding than to have someone say your book is a real “page-turner”—that they couldn’t put it down. And there’s nothing more fulfilling for a reader than to find a book so captivating that they can’t stop reading. Naturally, the writer has to develop a compelling story populated with three-dimensional characters and enough conflict and tension to keep a reader’s interest. Those things are givens, and it’s the writer’s job to craft those elements into the manuscript.

But did you know that there are some simple formatting tricks that anyone can do to improve the readability of a manuscript and keep the reader turning pages. And what’s really cool is that you don’t have to change your story at all to benefit from them. Not a word.

Trick #1. Write short chapters.

Whenever a reader gets to the end of a chapter, they must make a decision to read the next chapter or put the book down and go do something else. It’s a natural stopping point or a launching point to the next part of the story. If it’s late in the evening, many times that decision involves continuing to read or going to bed. What you don’t want them to do is put down the book. When a reader finishes a chapter and comes to that late night decision to stop or read on, they usually check to see if the next chapter is short or long. If it’s only a few pages, there’s a really good chance they will read one more chapter. If they get to the end of that next short chapter and repeat the checking process again, they won’t go to bed. They’ll keep reading. And you will have setup a format that they’ll come to expect and rely on.

This tip does not mean that every chapter must be short. What I’m suggesting is to examine each chapter and see if you can split it into two. Or even three. After all, the same information is going to be imparted. It’s just going to happen in multiple segments.

There’s always going to be a need for longer chapters. Just ask yourself if that 6k-word chapter you just finished writing could be broken into multiple chunks. Remember that you want to entice the reader to keep reading.

Now I know that some writers will react by saying, “Well, my chapters end when they end. Short, long or in between, I write until the chapter naturally ends itself.” Fine. Do whatever you’ve got to do to write a great story. This trick may not be something that fits your writing style. But from a physical standpoint, readers tend to keep reading if they feel the next chapter will take just a few minutes to finish.

From a personal perspective, my co-writer and I try to bring our chapters in at around 1000 words. I know, some of you will think that’s way too short. But one of the most frequent comments we get from our fans is that in addition to enjoying the story, the short chapters kept them up late. We’ve had more than a few readers blame us for them not getting enough sleep because they decided to read “just one more chapter”.

Trick #2. Write (or format) short paragraphs and sentences.

This trick is closely related to trick #1, but it involves the visual experience of your book for the reader. It also involves setting up a distinctive and comfortable rhythm and tempo to your writing.

As you read, your eyes not only move along the sentence but your peripheral vision picks up the “weight” of the next sentence and paragraph. You’re reading a single sentence, but you visually take in the whole page. As your mind plays out the story from one word to the next, it also calculates what is coming up next, and  causes you to be subtly energized or marginally fatigued. It’s like driving across the desert—if the road stretches in an endless ribbon to the horizon, you become tired just knowing you have a long way to go to get to the next break, or in the case of the book, the end of the sentence or paragraph. But if the road is only a city block or two long before you start down the next stretch of highway, you feel less overwhelmed by its mass (paragraph) or length (sentence). Shorter paragraphs and sentences keep the eye from getting fatigued. They allow the reader take a mental “breather” more frequently thus keeping their attention longer. And it’s also a tool for controlling reading speed.

Shorter sentences move the story along at a faster rhythm and tempo because the eyes moves quicker and your peripheral vision sees less bulk and weight on the printed page ahead.

Trick #3. Eliminate dialog tags whenever possible.

If there are only two characters in a scene, eliminate as many dialog tags as you can without confusing the reader. The dialog itself should help to identify the character as should their actions. Even with more than two characters present, staging can help to reduce dialog tags. Staging and actions also help to build characters. Dialog tags don’t. If the reader knows who is speaking because of their actions, the number of tags can often be reduced or even eliminated.

Trick #4. Title your chapters.

Your book has a title for a reason. It sets the mood or intrigue of the whole story. Consider titling your chapters for the same reason. Like the book title, a chapter title is a teaser. When a reader ends a chapter and turns the page, nothing is more boring than to be greeted with the totally original title: Chapter 23. Or worse, just 23. Why not give the reader a hint of what’s to come with a short title. Don’t give anything away, just use the chapter title as an enticement—a promise of things to be delivered or revealed. Use it to set the stage or create a mood just like the book title. I believe that each chapter should be considered a mini book. Chapters should have beginnings, middles and endings. And one way to tempt the reader to keep reading is with a compelling title.

Tricks like these are never to be considered a substitute for solid, clean, professional writing. They are only tricks. But they work if used in the mix with all the other elements of a great story. And the only way for you to know for sure is to give them a try.

Beyond these formatting tricks, does anyone recommend others that can enhance the reader’s experience?

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Not For Us!

By Joe Moore

We’ve all gotten them. Some are personalized and contain constructive criticism. Others are form letters addressed to “author”. Some have been photocopied so many times that the cryptologists at the NSA couldn’t even decipher rejecttheir original message. Or they might arrive as a brief thanks-but-no-thanks email. They all say the same thing: your manuscript is not for us.

Rejected.

There are numerous ways to deal with literary rejection. We can all imagine the negative methods. But today, I want to discuss the positive ways to deal with the not-for-us letter.

After you’ve amassed an impressive stack of rejection letters, start by asking yourself if your query letter or synopsis might be the issue. You might have written the next Great American Novel, but if your sales pitch—your query letter—doesn’t do the job, the editor won’t want to move to the next step of requesting a sample. One method of improving your query and synopsis is to get help from an impartial third party such as a published author, writer’s forum or critique group. If you know someone who’s already published, ask if they can read your letter and give you advice on where you might be going wrong. Many online forums such as AbsoluteWrite, Writing Forums, and others have specific sections on query evaluation and feedback. Use them.

Next, you want to determine if you’re really targeting the appropriate publishers or agents. This is where you need to study the market. Go to the local bookstore and find novels that are similar to your manuscript. Make a note of the publishers. Many novelists include the name of their editor or agent on the acknowledgements page. Note those names. Then go online and visit the publisher’s websites. Read the descriptions of the plot on Amazon and B&N, and compare to yours. Google the agents names. Look at their list of clients. Are those writers some of your favorites? Do they write books similar to yours? Do your homework and focus on specific publishers and agents that deal with your kind of book.

Another question you need to ask yourself is if your book is as good as it can be. Of course, you’ll probably answer yes. Then take a moment to really consider the question. Are you being rejected repeatedly because the manuscript is just not ready for publication? Chances are, it probably isn’t.

So what should you do? Again, get outside help. One of the best ways to improve a manuscript is to join a local critique group. Most towns and communities have a library. Ask the local librarian if there are any groups that meet in the area. Check with the local bookstore. They usually know of critique groups or have bulletin boards that might list them. Critique groups that are made up of serious writers can be a huge benefit to helping you improve your work. Just remember that critiquing is a two-ways street. You want honest and sincere feedback, and you need to be prepared to give it back to your fellow members. There’s a very good chance that a group of fellow writers can help you get your story in shape so you can start submitting again.

Finally, don’t shoot the messenger. Agents and editors are in business to make money. If they don’t sell books, they go broke. If they don’t discover new books from new authors, they eventually go out of business. Their rejection of your work is nothing personal. Chances are, they don’t even know you. All they know is what they read in your query or sample. And the reasons for rejecting a manuscript can be as numerous as the number of submissions they received that day. Don’t blame them.

Forget about the lame excuses like: publishers only publish big established names and famous people. Or your book was rejected because it’s “different”, experimental, too unique for mainstream. Or you can’t believe they rejected your book when there’s so many bad books published. Go to The New York Times bestseller list. Look at all the writer’s names. Each and every author on that list was once an amateur struggling to get someone to read their manuscript and dreaming of making money as a published author. Every one of them fantasized about seeing their name on that list. What did they do? They realized that rejection really doesn’t mean “not for us”. It means “not ready for us yet”. Now go fix your book.

Any rejection stories to share? How many rejection letters did you get before that first book was published? If you’re published, do you still use a critique group or beta readers?

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Not For Us!

By Joe Moore

We’ve all gotten them. Some are personalized and contain constructive criticism. Others are form letters addressed to “author”. Some have been photocopied so many times that the cryptologists at the NSA couldn’t even decipher rejecttheir original message. Or they might arrive as a brief thanks-but-no-thanks email. They all say the same thing: your manuscript is not for us.

Rejected.

There are numerous ways to deal with literary rejection. We can all imagine the negative methods. But today, I want to discuss the positive ways to deal with the not-for-us letter.

After you’ve amassed an impressive stack of rejection letters, start by asking yourself if your query letter or synopsis might be the issue. You might have written the next Great American Novel, but if your sales pitch—your query letter—doesn’t do the job, the editor won’t want to move to the next step of requesting a sample. One method of improving your query and synopsis is to get help from an impartial third party such as a published author, writer’s forum or critique group. If you know someone who’s already published, ask if they can read your letter and give you advice on where you might be going wrong. Many online forums such as AbsoluteWrite, Writing Forums, and others have specific sections on query evaluation and feedback. Use them.

Next, you want to determine if you’re really targeting the appropriate publishers or agents. This is where you need to study the market. Go to the local bookstore and find novels that are similar to your manuscript. Make a note of the publishers. Many novelists include the name of their editor or agent on the acknowledgements page. Note those names. Then go online and visit the publisher’s websites. Read the descriptions of the plot on Amazon and B&N, and compare to yours. Google the agents names. Look at their list of clients. Are those writers some of your favorites? Do they write books similar to yours? Do your homework and focus on specific publishers and agents that deal with your kind of book.

Another question you need to ask yourself is if your book is as good as it can be. Of course, you’ll probably answer yes. Then take a moment to really consider the question. Are you being rejected repeatedly because the manuscript is just not ready for publication? Chances are, it probably isn’t.

So what should you do? Again, get outside help. One of the best ways to improve a manuscript is to join a local critique group. Most towns and communities have a library. Ask the local librarian if there are any groups that meet in the area. Check with the local bookstore. They usually know of critique groups or have bulletin boards that might list them. Critique groups that are made up of serious writers can be a huge benefit to helping you improve your work. Just remember that critiquing is a two-ways street. You want honest and sincere feedback, and you need to be prepared to give it back to your fellow members. There’s a very good chance that a group of fellow writers can help you get your story in shape so you can start submitting again.

Finally, don’t shoot the messenger. Agents and editors are in business to make money. If they don’t sell books, they go broke. If they don’t discover new books from new authors, they eventually go out of business. Their rejection of your work is nothing personal. Chances are, they don’t even know you. All they know is what they read in your query or sample. And the reasons for rejecting a manuscript can be as numerous as the number of submissions they received that day. Don’t blame them.

Forget about the lame excuses like: publishers only publish big established names and famous people. Or your book was rejected because it’s “different”, experimental, too unique for mainstream. Or you can’t believe they rejected your book when there’s so many bad books published. Go to The New York Times bestseller list. Look at all the writer’s names. Each and every author on that list was once an amateur struggling to get someone to read their manuscript and dreaming of making money as a published author. Every one of them fantasized about seeing their name on that list. What did they do? They realized that rejection really doesn’t mean “not for us”. It means “not ready for us yet”. Now go fix your book.

Any rejection stories to share? How many rejection letters did you get before that first book was published? If you’re published, do you still use a critique group or beta readers?

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Writing Exercise: Six Word Memoir

by Michelle Gagnon

Hemingway was once famously challenged to write a short story in six words or less, and he came up with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Kind of the perfect story- so much there, yet so much left unsaid. It leaves you wondering and wanting more.

Smith Magazine launched a six word memoir contest awhile back, inviting people to submit the story of their life with extreme brevity. It was so successful that they produced a book with submissions from a wide variety of authors both famous and obscure, including Amy Sedaris (Mushrooms. Clowns. Wands. Five. Wig. Thatched), Sebastian Junger (I asked. They answered. I wrote), and Po Bronson (Stole wife. Lost friends. Now happy).

Today, I challenge you to do the same. Here are some of my favorites, culled from their ongoing blog:

  • “More fun since moral compass broke.”
  • “Write about sex, learn about love.”
  • “I thought that I’d be taller.”
  • “Committed voluntarily, until tried to leave.”
  • “Asked to quiet down. Spoke louder.”

And here’s mine, always a work in progress:

“Loved and lost and loved again.”

So what’s your life been like, in a sextuplet?

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Writing Exercise: Six Word Memoir

by Michelle Gagnon

Hemingway was once famously challenged to write a short story in six words or less, and he came up with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Kind of the perfect story- so much there, yet so much left unsaid. It leaves you wondering and wanting more.

Smith Magazine launched a six word memoir contest awhile back, inviting people to submit the story of their life with extreme brevity. It was so successful that they produced a book with submissions from a wide variety of authors both famous and obscure, including Amy Sedaris (Mushrooms. Clowns. Wands. Five. Wig. Thatched), Sebastian Junger (I asked. They answered. I wrote), and Po Bronson (Stole wife. Lost friends. Now happy).

Today, I challenge you to do the same. Here are some of my favorites, culled from their ongoing blog:

  • “More fun since moral compass broke.”
  • “Write about sex, learn about love.”
  • “I thought that I’d be taller.”
  • “Committed voluntarily, until tried to leave.”
  • “Asked to quiet down. Spoke louder.”

And here’s mine, always a work in progress:

“Loved and lost and loved again.”

So what’s your life been like, in a sextuplet?

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