Write, and Live Forever

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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Growing up in SoCal I was privileged to meet Ray Bradbury on a couple of occasions and hear him speak several times. He loved libraries, and one evening spoke at the local branch were I first learned to love books.

There he told his famous story about a meeting that changed his life. As he recounted:

One autumn weekend in 1932, when I was twelve years old, the Dill Brothers Combined Shows came to town. One of the performers was Mr. Electrico. He sat in an electric chair. A stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end….He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.

And Bradbury does live forever…through his books! His wonderful body of work will always be there to be discovered by new generations of readers. In junior high I read The Illustrated Man. It fired me up to think that perhaps someday I could write things this marvelous. In college that desire got knocked out of me by some who looked at my attempts and sniffed and told me you cannot learn to become a writer. You either have it or you don’t, and I didn’t.

Only many years later did that desire re-emerge, and I knew I had to try and keep trying.

Bradbury’s work was still pulsating inside me, like electricity. I picked up his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, and the current got hotter. I started living forever.

We have various reasons we write. Of course, we all want to make some dough, but there are other reasons, not the least of which is the pure joy of storytelling.

And for others (like Mr. Steve Hooley) there is the desire to leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren.

When I started to get published, I knew I wanted to write books that my kids could someday look at and not be embarrassed. Or think, Dad wrote THAT???

One of the joys of being an indie writer is that my forever books become available within 24 hours of completion (meaning done, edited, corrected, proofread and with a good cover).

But one of the challenges of being an indie writer, especially for the impatient, is putting out a book, as Orson Welles used to say about wine, “before its time.”

I recall reading a piece by an early indie pioneer who posited that maybe the idea is to be fast and not worry about top quality. To wit:

Why write longer? Why write better? What’s the benefit?…Now, I’m not talking about releasing a book with errors in it; plot problems, story problems, typos, formatting probs, and so on…I’m talking about releasing a book that would average 3.7 stars from readers, whereas if I spent an extra month on it, I could average 4.2. Seems like a gigantic waste of time.

Admittedly this was a thought experiment, and presented a rational argument. I thought about it for awhile. Then decided I couldn’t do it. For me, the extra time is worth it because…living forever!

It’s like the corpse of Sonny Corleone, shot up at the toll booth. Don Corleone has the body taken to the undertaker, Bonasera. As the Don looks at the body, he begins to weep. “Look how they massacred my boy.” He wants Bonasera to use all of his powers and skills to make the body look presentable for Sonny’s mother.

Now, this metaphor is not perfect. I don’t produce corpses upon first draft (at least I hope not!) But I do want to use all of my powers and skills to make my books the best they can be. They will be here long after I’ve gone to my Final Review.

Do you think about that when you write? What your books will mean to others—especially those close to you—after you’ve gone? Do you have legacy in mind? Perhaps not, which is okay. I’m not advocating any one position. Let’s talk about it.

How to Write a Mystery – A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Difference Engine, CC by SA 4.0

From the 1931 through 2018, Clifton’s Cafeteria was a venerable Los Angeles landmark. Starting a new restaurant in the depth of the Great Depression sounded like folly. Even crazier was the policy of Pay What You Wish at a time when many people were jobless, broke, and hungry. Yet founder Clifford Clinton’s Golden Rule guided the business through many successful decades, his vision shaped in part by his childhood in China as the son of missionaries who ministered to the poor.

Reportedly, at one point, Ray Bradbury was a starving writer who enjoyed a helping of Clinton’s generosity.

Clifton’s Cafeteria took up multiple floors of a downtown LA building and was a decorating mash-up of art deco neon, tiki bar, mountain resort, and cascading waterfalls.

Buffet lines were laden with acres of salads, soups, entrees, fruits, vegetables, colorful Jello creations, pies, cakes, and ice cream. Diners could pick and choose from more than 10,000 food items and no one ever left hungry.

Photo credit: kevinEats.com

What, you ask, does this have to do with writing mysteries?

Recently, I received a gift of the book How to Write a Mystery – A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, edited by Lee Child with Laurie R. King. With nearly 70 contributors, the book feels like the literary equivalent to Clifton’s Cafeteria. It offers a hugely varied smorgasbord of craft tips, along with insights into different genres, trends, and analyses on the state of the mystery.

Some authors write detailed essays that take as much digestion as multi-course banquets. Others deliver bite-size epigraphs that you can pop in your mouth like cocktail meatballs.

Moving along the buffet line of advice, if one chapter doesn’t resonate, you can skip to another by a different author. Each contribution is self-contained, allowing you to read sections in any order without worrying about continuity.

Feel like dessert before your entree? Head to that part of the buffet line.

Craving a particular menu item? Flip to the table of contents to find that topic.

Even famous authors don’t always agree with each other. Jeffrey Deaver writes a chapter entitled Always Outline,” followed by Lee Child’s chapter, Never Outline!”

This book offers nourishing food for thought that’s useful to every reader, no matter your genre, writing experience, or where you come down on the plotting vs. pantsing spectrum.

Subjects range from bleak noir as dark as bitter chocolate to cozies as sweet and fluffy as lemon meringue pie.

The following are some passages that struck me. They made me look at a subject in a fresh way while others reinforced well-worn but forgotten wisdom.

Neil Nyren neatly boils down an important distinction:

Mysteries are about a puzzle. Thrillers are about adrenaline.

Carolyn Hart asks:

Aren’t all mysteries about murder, guns and knives and poison, anger, jealousy and despair? Where is the good?

The good is in the never-quit protagonist who wants to live in a just world. Readers read mysteries and writers write mysteries because we live in an unjust world where evil often triumphs. In the traditional mystery, goodness will be admired and justice will prevail.

Meg Gardiner’s simple definition of plot: “Obstruct desire.”

She also discusses the difference between suspense and tension. “Suspense can be sustained over an entire novel. Tension spikes like a Geiger counter at a meltdown.”

And one more gem: “The theater of the mind is more powerful than a bucket of blood.”

My favorite item on Lindsey Davis’s list of advice to aspiring writers: “A synopsis—write it, then ignore it.”

Alex Segura defines noir as:

When we can have some feelings of remorse for a character’s terrible, murderous actions, because deep down, we fear that in the same situation, we’d probably make similar choices.

Hank Phillippi Ryan’s editing suggestions:

Try this random walk method of editing. Pick a page of your manuscript. Any page at all. Remember, even though you’re writing a whole book, each page must be a perfect part of your perfect whole, and that means each individual page must work. Page by page…Is something happening?…[Consider] intent and motivation. Why is this scene here? What work does it do? Does it advance the plot or reveal a secret or develop the character’s conflict?

I always know when I’m finished, because I forget I’m editing, and realize I’m simply reading the story. It’s not my story anymore, it’s its own story.

Jacqueline Winspear talks about historical mystery: “Your job is to render the reader a curious, attentive, excited, and emotionally involved time-traveler.”

Suzanne Chazin says: “When I sit down to write, my fun comes not from looking into a mirror, but from peeking into someone else’s window.”

Medical thriller author and physician Tess Gerritsen makes a penetrating observation from a sales standpoint:

Thrillers about cancer or HIV or Alzheimer’s seem to have a tough time on the genre market. Perhaps because these subjects are just too close and too painful for us to contemplate, and readers shy away from confronting them in fiction.

Gayle Lynds believes research is more to benefit the writer than the reader:

In the end, we novelists use perhaps a tenth of a percent of the research we’ve done for any one book…only a tiny fraction of the details will make it into your book.

C.M. Surrisi sums up writing mysteries for kids: “Remember your protagonist can’t drive and has a curfew, and no one will believe them or let them be involved.”

Also on children’s mysteries, Chris Grabenstein says:

Here is one of the many beauties about writing for this audience: there is a new group of fifth graders every year. Your mystery has a chance to live a very long shelf life if kids, teachers, and librarians fall in love with it.

Avoid the broccoli books. The ones that are ‘good for children.’

For many adults, the books we read when we were eight to twelve are the ones we remember all our lives.

Art Taylor discusses the mystery short story:

In general, it’s a solid rule to try to do more with less—and to trust your reader to fill in the rest. Suggest instead of describe; imply instead of explain.

Charles Salzberg offers a response to the tired old saw of “write what you know.”

I’ve never been arrested; I have no cops in my family; I’ve only been in a police station once; I’ve never handled a pistol; I’ve never robbed a bank, knocked over a 7-Eleven, or mugged an old lady. I’ve only been in one fight and that was when I was eleven. I’ve never murdered anyone, much less my family, and I’ve never chased halfway around the world to bring a killer to justice. I’ve never searched for a missing person and I’ve never forged a rare book. Yet somehow I find myself as a crime writer who’s written about all those things.

How, if I am supposed to write only what I know, is this possible? Easy. It’s because I have an imagination, possess a fair amount of empathy, have easy access to Google, and like asking questions. If I were limited to writing what I know, I’d be in big trouble because the truth is, I don’t know all that much.

Lyndsay Faye observes: “The school of human culture is much cheaper than a graduate degree. Make use of it.”

She also talks about humor in the writer’s voice:

You needn’t be Janet Evanovich to incorporate jokes into your manuscript, and they needn’t even be jokes. Wry observations, sarcasm, creative insult—humor can be as heavy or as light as you choose. But writers who take their voice too seriously, without that crucial hint of self-deprecation or clever viciousness, will rarely wind up with a memorable result.

Steve Hockensmith covered the “Dos and Don’ts for Wannabe Writers.”

DO write.

DON’T spend more than three months ‘researching’ or ‘brainstorming’ or ‘outlining’ or ‘creating character bios.’ All this might—might—count as work on your book, but it’s not writing.

DON’T spend too much time reading about how to write.

DO keep reading this book. I didn’t mean for you to stop reading our writing advice.

Laurie R. King shares her method of rewriting:

Personally I prefer to make all my notes, corrections, and queries on a physical printout. In part, that’s because I’m old school, but it also forces me to consider any changes twice—once when I mark the page, then again when I return to put it into the manuscript. This guarantees that if I added something on page 34, then realized a better way to do it when I hit page 119, I’ve had the delay for reflection, gaining perspective as to which is better for the overall story.

Leslie Budewitz (a familiar guest on TKZ) talks about problem solving:

The same brain that created the problem can create the solution—but not if you keep thinking the same way.

So do something different. Write the next scene from the antagonist’s POV, even if you don’t intend to use it. Write longhand with a pen…instead of at your keyboard.

If you write in first person, try third. If you write in third, let your character rip in a diary only she—and you—will ever see.

Your brain, your beautiful creative brain, will find another way, if you give it a chance.

Frankie Y. Bailey explores diversity in crime fiction from the starting point every writer faces: “We have characters, setting, and a plot. We need to weave aspects of diversity through all these elements of our stories.”

TKZ’s own Elaine Viets offers this no-nonsense message: “When I spoke at a high school, a student asked, ‘What do you do about writer’s block?’ ‘Writer’s block doesn’t exist,’ I said. ‘It’s an indulgence.’”

Talking about protagonists, Allison Brennan shares “two particular qualities that leave a lasting impression on readers: forgiveness and self-sacrifice.”

T. Jefferson Parker sees “two types of villain: the private and the public.”

The private ones seek no acknowledgement for their deeds…they shun the spotlight and avoid detection. The public ones proclaim themselves, trumpet their wickedness, and revel in the calamity.

He also touches on the crime author’s moral dilemma:

My literary amigos and I go back and forth on this. We know we traffic in violence and heartless behavior. We ride and write on the backs of victims. We suspect that our fictional appropriations of the world’s pain do little to assuage it. Worse, we wonder if we might just be feeding the worst in human nature by putting it center stage. Do we inspire heartless violence by portraying it?

Stephen Ross demonstrates the use of subtext (unspoken meaning) in his example of a shopping list:

Milk

Bread

Eggs

Hammer

Shovel

Quicklime

Champagne

 

I highlighted many more passages but I’ll stop now because this post is running almost as long as the book itself.

How to Write a Mystery is a book that you can read whether you need a substantial dinner or a quick snack.

It might not offer the 10,000 items that Clifton’s Cafeteria did but it comes close.

 

 

~~~

TKZers: Did any of the above quotes especially hit you? Do you have a favorite craft handbook you refer to over and over?

The How and Why of Epigraphs

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I love a good epigraph. That’s the quotation some authors put on a standalone page right before the novel begins. It is not to be confused with an epigram, which is a pithy and witty statement. However, if placed at the front of a book, an epigram becomes an epigraph, thus epitomizing epiphenomena (secondary effects).

This is the epigraph from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather:

Behind every great fortune there is a crime. — Balzac

The purpose of an epigraph is one or more of the following:

  1. Hint at the theme of the novel.
  2. Help set the tone.
  3. Create curiosity about the content.
  4. Put a wry smile on the reader’s face.

Stephen King is positively giddy about epigraphs. He usually has two or more. Like in Cell, a novel about an electronic signal sent out over a global cell phone network. The signal turns those who hear it into mindless, zombie-like killers. Why? Perhaps by removing all psychological restraints, resulting in animalistic behavior. Here are King’s epigraphs:

The id will not stand for a delay in gratification. It always feels the tension of the unfulfilled urge. – Sigmund Freud

Human aggression is instinctual. Humans have not evolved any ritualized aggression-inhibiting mechanisms to ensure the survival of the species. For this reason man is considered a very dangerous animal. – Konrad Lorenz

Can you hear me now? – Verizon

That last one gave me a wry smile indeed. Here a few more examples:

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

Lawyers, I suppose, were children once. — Charles Lamb

FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

If they give you ruled paper, write the other way. — Juan Ramón Jiménez

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn

Love is the world’s infinite mutability; lies, hatred, murder even, are all knit up in it; it is the inevitable blossoming of its opposites, a magnificent rose smelling faintly of blood. — Tony Kushner, THE ILLUSION

For my Mike Romeo thrillers, I use two epigraphs. Because Romeo is both classically educated and trained in cage fighting, I choose a quote from classic lit and something more contemporary. For example, here are the epigraphs for Romeo’s Way:

Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles … – Homer, The Iliad

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. – Mike Tyson

How do I find a good epigraph?

First, brainstorm some of the topics and themes that apply to your novel, e.g.,

  • Drug use among kids
  • Criminal enterprises, darkness of
  • Fighting to balance the scales of justice
  • Chaos in the streets
  • Hope in hopeless situations
  • Is true love possible?

Next, think of your lead character’s strengths and weaknesses, such as:

  • Will kick your butt if provoked
  • Hard to trust other people
  • Has an anger issue
  • Has compassion for the weak
  • Can’t stand injustice anywhere

With those in mind, you can being your search. I have big library of quote books, led by the venerable Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I also have “off the wall” collections that provide funny or ironic possibilities. Two of my faves are The Portable Curmudgeon by Jon Wikonur and 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne.

There are online resources, of course, like The Quotations Page, which allows you to search by keyword and author.

So you look around and find several possibilities. Later, choose the best one. Save the others in a file for possible use in the future.

Can I make up an epigraph?

Well, some have. Dean Koontz made up many of his, and even a fictional source, The Book of Counted Sorrows. Readers and booksellers all over the world were stymied trying to find a copy of this rare tome. Koontz eventually copped to it, and even issued a short-term ebook version of it via Barnes & Noble. (If you want to read the epigraphs, you can do so here.)

I don’t advise this tactic, however. A reader may become frustrated trying to track down the quote on the internet. And who do you think you are anyway? Shakespeare?

Do I need permission to quote?

You do not need permission from a copyright holder to use a line or two from a published source. An epigraph is the very essence of fair use.

The one possible exception to this is song lyrics. Careful lawyers and nervous publishers will tell you to get permission. That is a long, laborious process that could end up costing you a fee. I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores of the fair use doctrine, which you can find online (as here). I think an argument can be made for the fair use of a line from a song. See, e.g., this well-reasoned opinion. (Note: I dispense no legal advice in this post. Talk about being careful!) The risk-reward ratio may not be favorable for most writers.

Where do I place an epigraph?

On the page just before Page 1 of your novel. And note: an epigraph is not a dedication. If you use a dedication, the epigraph should follow, not precede it.

How many epigraphs can I use?

My rule of thumb is one or two. At most, three. More than that risks overburdening the reader and diluting the purpose.

With a book broken up into parts, you can put an epigraph before each part. If you’re feeling frisky you can use an epigraph for every chapter (!) as Stephen King does in one of his Bachman novels, The Long Walk.

Do I put quote marks around the epigraph?

No.

Do I italicize an epigraph?

It’s up to you. Either choice is fine. Just never italicize the source. E.g.,

The free-lance writer is one who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps. — Robert Benchley

What if I can’t find a good one?

When in doubt go to Shakespeare, the Bible, or Mark Twain.

Do readers really read epigraphs?

The true answer is that most probably don’t. Or else they just skim right past them on the way to the story. Which raises the question, is it worth the author’s time to hunt them down?

You have to answer that for yourself. My answer is yes. I like epigraphs and I’m happy to spend the extra time for the readers who like them as well.

Plus, after finishing a novel, my search for the perfect epigraph is like my gift to the book. The book has been with me since the idea phase, whispering sweet nothings in my ear, fighting me sometimes but always with its heart in the right place. I figure I owe the book a little something and a good epigraph is it.

Over to you now. Are you an epigraph fan? Have you used them yourself?

Inspired Every Morning

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” – Peter De Vries

Anyone who’s written for any length of time knows there are times when the writing flows like the Colorado rapids. You whoop it up and enjoy the ride.

Sisyphus, Franz Stuck (1920)

Then there are times when it feels like you’re Sisyphus halfway up the mountain. You grunt and groan. But you keep pushing that boulder, because you know that writing as a vocation or career requires the consistent production of words.

What’s helped me in the Sisyphus times are writing quotes I’ve gathered over the years. I go to my file and read a few until I’m ready, as it were, to roll.

I’ve even contributed a couple of quotes that have found some purchase in cyberspace. The one that seems most widespread is this:

“Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.”

There are, however, some writing quotes that are oft shared but were never said…or are misattributed. Two of them have been hung on Ernest Hemingway.

“Write drunk. Edit sober.” Nope, he never said that. Indeed, it would have horrified him. Hemingway was one of the most careful stylists who ever lived. He did his drinking after hours (and too much of it, as it turned out).

The other one is, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

It’s a great quote, but should be attributed to the legendary sports writer, Red Smith. Smith probably got the idea from the novelist Paul Gallico (author most famously of The Poseidon Adventure). This is from Gallico’s 1946 book Confessions of a Story Writer:

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.

(If you want to deep dive on the various attributions of the quote, go here.)

So how did this blood quote get attributed to Hemingway? I know the answer, for I am a skilled detective!

Actually, I am a Hemingway fan, so one day I decided to watch a TV movie about Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. The film, imaginatively titled Hemingway & Gellhorn, starred Clive Owen as Hemingway and Nicole Kidman as Gellhorn. As I recall, the movie is okay. But I do remember Owen delivering this line: “There’s nothing to writing, Gellhorn. All you do is sit at your typewriter and bleed.”

And there you have it. The script writers thought this quote, which they got from Red Smith, would be a perfect line for their rendition of Papa. And really, it might have been a line for him to utter, but for the fact that Hemingway did virtually all of his drafts in longhand.

Speaking of renditions of Hemingway on film, my favorite is Corey Stoll’s performance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Allen and Stoll managed to capture Hemingway’s bluster without turning him into a cartoon. I especially love this exchange with Owen Wilson, who is a laid-back writer from our time transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, where Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and others were all tossed together.

Now, back to business. Here are five of my favorite writing quotes:

Remember, almost no writer had it easy when starting out. If they did, everyone would be a bestselling author. The ones who make it are the stubborn, persistent people who develop a thick skin, defy the rejection, and keep the material out there. – Barnaby Conrad

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. – Ray Bradbury

In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness. – Dean Koontz

Keep working. Keep trying. Keep believing. You still might not make it, but at least you gave it your best shot. If you don’t have calluses on your soul, this isn’t for you. Take up knitting instead. – David Eddings

The first page of a book sells that book. The last page sells your next book. – Mickey Spillane

Your turn! Let’s get inspired. Share a favorite writing quote and why it speaks to you.

Writing to Escape

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Some weeks ago we talked about reading for escapism.

What about writing to escape?

In 2020 we had a slew of blog posts about how hard it was to write in 2020. With political, cultural, and pandemic bedlam hitting us all like an unending Oklahoma dust storm, that was no surprise. I added to that conversation here.

Welp, the dust storm is still blowing, and writers need escape just like everyone else. That’s where the magic of story comes to our aid.

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury famously said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

Yet for those of us who write for a living, and those who hope to make some decent dough from writing (which is 99.76% of all writers) there is the sober part of us that keeps one eye on the market. That’s a necessity. We have to try to figure out what readers out there might spend their discretionary income on. In the traditional world of publishing, that calculus is filtered through agents and editors and the sales department.

Indies fly solo, but still must figure all these things out, too. Writing for money is a business. And business can often be frustrating, heartbreaking, even downright depressing.

But through it all, the writer who is a real writer keeps tapping that keyboard. Sometimes just to escape.

That’s why I love writing short stories and flash fiction. Flash fiction is 1k words or less; short stories are usually tagged at 1k – 7.5k. After that you get into the realm of the novelette (up to 20k words) and the novella (up to 49k words).

The beauty of short stories and flash fiction is that you can write them in a beautiful state called “The Zone.” When they’re finished, maybe they work, maybe they don’t. But that is beside the point. First, you have escaped in those hours. And second, nothing is wasted, for you have flexed your writing muscles, always a good thing.

You are not bound by conventions when you flash (er, maybe I should rephrase that). And you can try out different genres with your shorts (maybe I should rephrase that, too).

I’ll even throw in a bonus escape: poetry. Yes, poetry, which Bradbury also read each day and sometimes wrote himself. My personal preference is the whimsical, as in the poetry of Ogden Nash. He didn’t restrict himself to strict meter or schemes, and even made up words to suit his purposes. Thus I give you my Nash-inspired poem “Love in the Age of the Virus.”

This virus, we are told, is unlike anything that came before it—

Not the flu or a cold or pneumonia or a bad headache, so different it is that you darn well better not ignore it.

The answer, they say, is a mask and social distancing,

And should you shirk those things be sure of this: you’ll get plenty of angry insistancing.

Adjust, they say, for this is the normal that is new,

No matter how badly you wish it to be the abnormal that is through.

The way you socialize and eat and even worship in church, or mosque, or synagogue,

Is overseen and shadowed by a huge, regulatory fog.

Thus, they tell us, the best answer to the gloom

Is Zoom.

Ah, methinks, however, that the greatest challenge of all is in the dance of the sexes,

Be it with dates, or schoolmates, or husbands, wives or exes.

And speaking as I must, as a man, I can only say it adds immeasurably to our romantic task

To have to lean over and whisper, deep-voiced and confident, “Hey baby, how about taking off your mask?”

Now, that took me about half an hour to write, and for that half hour I was fully into the joy of creation.

So I work on my full-length fiction—which butters my bread—writing to a quota each day. But when I need pure escape, which is often these days, I’ll give myself fully to a short story or a flash. And when I write something that works the way I want it to, I’ll publish it for my Patreon community, so they can enjoy some escapism, too.

I always come out of these sessions feeling like a better writer. I’ve gained strength. I do believe it shows up in my full-length fiction.

So try this, writing friend, the next time you’re feeling the burdens of the day crushing your creative spirit. Write something short. Take a prompt from Gabriela Pereira’s Writer Igniter and start a flash story. Maybe it will expand into a short story. It might even sow the seeds of a novel. But write it just for yourself. Tell your inner editor to go sit in the corner with your market analyst, and tell them both “No talking.”

I went to Writer Igniter a couple of days ago, and this came up:

I immediately started a story called “Lucky Penny” and wrote the first 800 words. It was pure joy. For half an hour I had escaped. I now have the ending in mind, and a complete story to finish.

I can’t wait.

Do you ever write just to escape?

More Escapism, Please

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Erle Stanley Gardner

Say, just wondering, but have any of you awakened lately and felt like you’re not in your own bed, but rather inside the trash compacter from Star Wars?

That’s what I thought. Thus the word escape comes to mind. And isn’t that what good, solid, entertaining fiction is about? I believe in escapism. It’s as necessary for human flourishing as good food, good sleep, and good company.

Erle Stanley Gardner, said:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

Dean Koontz said:

“In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.”

And this from our own Brother Gilstrap:

“I want to make their hearts beat a little faster and I want to make them laugh and sometimes cry. I want to earn those occasional emails I get from readers who share that my stories have been welcome diversions from the problems stacked up by real life.”

That can be said of all of us here at TKZ. Nothing pleases us more than transporting readers into a fictive dream.

And yet, it isn’t always easy to escape into fiction these days. When was the last time you “got lost” in a book? So much so that all considerations of time and other pursuits went completely away?

It was a lot easier in the days before computers, smart phones, social media, cable and satellite TV with a gazillion channels, endless content streams, 24/7 news cycles and on and on.

In spite of all that—nay, because of it—we all have a craving for regular escape.

So here’s what I’ve done. I have a special chair in my family room, set by a window, which is my reading chair. Having the same physical location for my reading sets off a Pavlovian response in my mind, i.e., that here is where I don’t have to check my phone, scan the internet, or worry about anything. The only concession to technology is putting on smooth jazz via the Pandora app on my phone.

Also, in this chair I prefer to read a physical book. I like that old-school feeling of having pages in my hands and a to-be-read stack on the table. (When I’m not in my chair, but in bed or waiting in an office, I do utilize my Kindle, with its 99¢ collection of the complete works of Dickens, and so on. I’m no Luddite.)

Next comes the “getting lost” part. There’s a certain mental practice required here, I believe. For example, when I start a novel I give the author the benefit of all doubt. I am pulling for them to pull me in. When they do, it’s magic. If the opening chapters aren’t stellar, I still give the author some space, hoping things will change for the better. This space is limited, however; I am more prone to setting aside a book that doesn’t hold me than I used to be.

What if you don’t have a lot of time to escape? Or you’re in the midst of a pressing day and you need to snatch some relief?

The answer is the short story. In the bookshelf near my reading chair are several collections of short stories. Everything from Hemingway (who I consider the undisputed master of the form) and Irwin Shaw, to collections of classic pulp, such as The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (ed. Otto Penzler).

I can always grab one of these and go for a satisfying ride. When I return to “real life,” I feel refreshed.

In that regard, please indulge me in a short commercial. I’ve got a project for escapism over at Patreon. My product is short stories. I write stand-alone suspense, stories that tug the heart, and on occasion something speculative, a la Ray Bradbury. I also have a series character who is a troubleshooter for a movie studio in post WWII Los Angeles (written in classic pulp style). These stories are exclusively for patrons, and cost less than a Starbucks drip. (I also do flash fiction—under 1k words—for ten-minute escapes.)

And for the price of a fancy-dancy frothy drink, you get the stories plus advance review copies (ARCs) of my full-length fiction.

All the details can be found here. I would be most grateful for your support.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program, with some questions from our host:

When was the last time you got lost in a book? Is finding time to read more difficult for you these days? Do you have a preferred place to read? Are you a “physical” or “ebook” or “doesn’t matter” reader?

 

Why You Don’t Feel Like Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

As Yogi Berra once observed, “90% of the game is half mental.” That’s why I wrote a book called The Mental Game of Writing. We have to master the space between in our ears in order to produce our best work on the page.

I’ve noticed many blog posts over the last five months talking about what a struggle it is to write in Virus World. These writers talk about a lack of energy, spark, interest, creativity. The feeling is described in a post by Peter Olson: “A frustrating sense of ‘molasses’ clogging your thoughts. A fatigue you just can’t seem to shake. Feeling ‘tired’ or ‘worn-out’ as you … journey through normal days that simply don’t feel as normal as they should.”

Every now and then a scribe wonders if there’s something wrong with them. Do they really want to do this anymore? Is the joy gone for good?

Turns out there’s an understandable, biological reason you feel this way. Your brain is experiencing “culture shock.” From the above article:

When someone moves to a completely new culture, many of the ‘autopilots’ your brain uses for thousands of small decisions every day become ineffective. In a similar way, your current environment has likely changed sufficiently enough that many of your own ‘autopilots’ are no longer working. When this happens, the next remaining option for your brain is to use a second decision-making process that requires far more effort and energy (glucose) to operate. Your body can only supply glucose to your brain at a certain rate – a rate far below what would be required to use this kind of thinking continually. Thus, additional thinking about routine matters has likely left you with a chronically depleted level of glucose in your brain. All to say: You are experiencing “culture shock”.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, explains how our brains work in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Here is a summary:

  1. Your brain is a great decision-making engine.
  2. Your brain has two distinct processes it uses to make decisions.
  3. One of these systems operates quickly and automatically and does not require much energy.
  4. One of these systems operates slowly and deliberately and requires a lot more energy.

Kahneman gave names to the two processes your brain uses. He called one the “fast” system. This kind of thinking has also been called the “subconscious” system. The other he called our “slow” system. “Slow” thinking is what you are doing when you say that you are “thinking” about something.

What’s happening is that our brains have to do a lot more “slow” thinking these days. We used to just run out to the store for groceries with a simple routine: Park the car, get out (without fiddling with a mask), grab a cart, stroll around, thump a cantaloupe, look over the meats, etc. But now we have to think about masks, distance, touching, not touching, hand sanitizing, keeping an eye on that guy coming down the aisle and keeping our feet on the floor stickers in the checkout line. Thus, even this once innocuous little slice of your life drains your brain.

Think of “slow thinking” a bit like ‘turbo’ from the old video games. You need it to power through some parts of life. But use it all and you’ll need to wait for it to come back again. This is why you have perhaps said that your brain feels ‘tired’ after a long meeting, an intense discussion, or after much studying. That ‘tired’ feeling is your brain calling for a break so it can replenish the sugar it just used up.

***

Hundreds of times every day we are now facing moments where fast & cheap was handling your decisions for you … but can’t anymore. Last year greeting a friend didn’t require us to use the limited capacity of slow thinking. But now it may. With many of our autopilots disabled, we are facing a world where we are being forced to think in ways we are not accustomed to. And it’s draining your brain of capacity you used to have for other – more meaningful – things.

Meaningful things like writing!

Or maybe somewhere in your tired brain there’s a voice whispering that fiction is really not all that meaningful.

Shut that voice down! People need stories more than ever. We are the ones to lighten the load of our fellow citizens dealing with the stark, often irrational, and sometimes violent nature of current reality.

As Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Share that dram with your readers!

To avoid slow-brain sluggishness, let me suggest the following:

  1. Prioritize morning writing

Awaken, get your morning beverage, then write something. I know some of you claim not be “morning people,” but it’s morning and you’re a person, right? Instead of immediately hopping onto Facebook or Instagram, play with words.

I don’t care what words. Maybe it’s a scene in your WIP, but not always. Try jotting in a journal, or starting a short story based on whatever is in your mind at the moment (the Ray Bradbury Method). Don’t judge the words, just produce them.

I like writing flash fiction (under 1,000 words) and often use early mornings to start stories…some of which I may not finish. But that’s okay. It gets me in the writing mood.

  1. Quarantine the news and social media 

Decide when and for how long you’ll glance at the news and social media. The news can get you sad, mad or both within seconds. Social media is, in the words of Cal Newport, “digital fast food.” The instant Dopamine rush you get leads to a crash later, which may result in a massive case of the blues.

Really. Set a timer. Do anything to limit the input of these two stimuli.

  1. Get together with real people

This is a bit difficult in the California compound, where I often feel like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. In L.A. you can’t have some people over to enjoy a backyard barbecue, but you can have 6 people at your table at a restaurant with outdoor dining. Go figure.

So do what you can under the rules of your locality to get real with real people. We need flesh and blood interactions more than  Zoom and Skype.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to look for wire cutters and a motorcycle.

So how is your energy to write these days? Any tips on staying motivated?

My Last Pre-Pandemic Novel

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Ventura, CA, May 24, 2020

It was oh so nice to be out on the beach last weekend with my wife and daughter, strolling the shoreline, listening to the waves, taking in lots of fresh ocean air. We were in our favorite beach community, Ventura, and everybody was in a good mood—including law enforcement. Our first encounter as we walked toward the water was with a deputy sheriff on a dune buggy. She said, “How you all doing?” I raised my hands in a victory gesture. “I feel the same way!” she replied.

There were kids and babies and hipsters and oldsters. Everyone was respectful of distance, and smiles and nods were plentiful (face coverings outdoors are not mandated in Ventura County). Still, there were restrictions. No sitting on blankets, no lollygagging on dry sand.

Which leads one to wonder what form the post-pandemic society will take. That thought is ever on my mind as I hereby announce my last pre-pandemic novel.*

My fifth Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Stand, has just been published. If this is your first foray into Romeo territory, know that you can read the books in any order, so now’s as good a time as any to jump in.

Yes, this is the last time I write a contemporary setting without reflecting the beliefs and practices that will emerge after lockdowns cease. Some weeks ago I wrote about how fiction will change in the coming years. This is especially true in my town, Los Angeles. Our heads are spinning out here over new rules and regs regarding churches and beaches and dining inside once again. (I’ve really missed Musso & Frank Grill, a Los Angeles institution since 1919, and a favorite spot of famous movie stars and L.A. writers ever since. Ditto Langer’s Deli and their #19, the best hot pastrami sandwich in the world—which includes New York—since 1947).

I can’t imagine a contemporary American novel published in 1946 or ’47 that didn’t even mention things like returning GIs and the post-war economy. We don’t have to make post-pandemia the centerpiece of our novels, but our scenes, to be authentic, will have to include little details like the waitstaff at a restaurant wearing masks and gloves…and perhaps mannequins made up to look like customers! Distancing rules will be enforced at large gatherings, at least for the foreseeable future (speaking of which, I miss a packed Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium).

So what about this latest Romeo, published in the midst of our herky-jerky re-emergence? Your clever author has taken care of that with this opening:

We were an hour from Las Vegas when the plane began to shake.

It was a few weeks before the word pandemic became ubiquitous on our collective lips and America closed up shop with a massive case of the heebie-jeebies. The people on the plane were blithely breathing each other’s air and coughing into their fists. The tourists and players in Vegas were bumping shoulders and sharing dice at the craps tables, unaware that their favorite playground would soon be as empty as a politician’s promise.

We move on to an emergency landing in the desert, a small town with secrets and a nasty sheriff. Then things turn ugly. Which is the wrong way to turn things on Mike Romeo.

You can pre-order the Kindle ebook here. (I sometimes get emails from sad Nook and Kobo readers, and remind them that they can download a free Kindle app for their phone or tablet.) A print version will soon follow.

*However, I reserve the right to write historical fiction—perhaps adding to my Kit Shannon series. I may even try something speculative. One thing I’ve found during this lockdown is that, for short and flash fiction at least, my inner Ray Bradbury/Rod Serling keeps wanting to come out and play. One of the formative books on my writerly journey was The Illustrated Man, which I read in junior high school. And one of my favorite TV shows growing up was The Twilight Zone.

[Rod Serling voice] “Picture if you will a writer, confined to his hovel and wondering what to write next. In a moment he will decide to try something unlike anything he’s written before. But when he submits the book he won’t be hearing from an editor. He’ll be getting a long and detailed message directly from … The Twilight Zone.”

So let’s make this the question for today: Have you thought about writing in a different genre? If so, which one?

Your Imagination Needs Regular Play Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Children are not meant to be cooped up. They need sunlight and play and jungle gyms and interaction with other kids. They need dirt and sticks (that are really swords, you see), so their bodies can begin to develop the immunities they need for a healthy life.

In the same way, a writer’s imagination needs to get out and play and mess around. It needs to occasionally skin a knee or fall out of a tree. Risk is part of life. It’s also integral to growing as a writer.

I was thinking about this the other day in yet another lockdown moment that usually begins with the thought When in the Sam Hill is this going to end? I pondered the many writers who have expressed, via blog or social media, that they are struggling with their WIPs, or with getting started on a new project, or even with the desire to type another sentence.

This creative ennui, if it goes on too long, can atrophy the imagination. Your imagination will, if allowed, kick back on an old sofa in your brain, eating Funyuns and watching episodes of Gilligan’s Island on an endless loop.

Then, when you finally do call on it to get to work, it may belch and tell you just what you can do with your WIP.

Don’t let that happen.

Especially when, due to circumstances beyond your control, you’ve lost the cheer and the joy of writing. You can overcome this by giving your imagination some daily play time. Just ten minutes a day will make all the difference.

So let me give you three exercises for your creativity muscles. In the comments, feel free to add suggestions of your own.

  1. Morning Bites

In the introduction to his collection of short stories, Ray Bradbury writes, “But, you see, my stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg — I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.”

In the first groggy moments of wakefulness, pay attention to what’s going on in your mind. It will most likely have no discernable pattern. That’s okay. Get your first cup of coffee and before you do anything else (e.g., email, Facebook) take a couple of minutes to write down whatever it is you see happening in your mind. Just the act of writing and following those bites gets the imagination chugging away.

It’s very close to what Julia Cameron describes as “morning pages” in her book, The Artist’s Way.

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages–they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.

As a fiction writer, keep watching your morning words for story ideas or suggestions for your WIP. Ask your imagination to be intentional about it.

  1. Flash Fiction

One step up from Morning Bites is Flash Fiction. That’s a story under 1,000 words. It is the ultimate pantser’s paradise, for you get an idea and start writing and go wherever you please. Will you end up with a story that works? Probably not. You’ll most likely be painted into a corner or lost in a dark forest.

But that’s okay! The benefit of flash fiction is that it’s a workout for your story muscles, and they’ll grow stronger even if the story itself doesn’t pan out.

Every now and then, of course, you will come up with something solid, and that will bring you tremendous joy.

Heck, there are even places you can submit your flash fiction. You could publish it yourself on your blog. Or you could make it part of an alternative market for your work, as I’ve done with my Patreon page.

Where do you get flash fiction ideas? If your sodden imagination doesn’t have one (it’s been on the sofa, remember?) hop over to the Writer Igniter and get one.

  1. Creative Lifting

You lift weights to strengthen your body. To do it right, you alternate the exercises—curls for the biceps, bench press for the chest and shoulders, squats for the glutes and hamstrings, and so on.

So how about strengthening your style by lifting fiction from great writers? And by lifting I mean copying. The idea is not to try to imitate these masters, but to “feel” what they do, ingest their palette of literary colors so you can expand your own.

One of the great stylists of all time was Ray Bradbury. You simply can’t go wrong copying a page from his work. Here’s a clip from Dandelion Wine that I typed out:

Douglas Spaulding, twelve, freshly wakened, let summer idle him on its early-morning stream. Lying in his third-story cupola bedroom, he felt the tall power it gave him, riding high in the June wind, the grandest tower in town. At night, when the trees washed together, he flashed his gaze like a beacon from this lighthouse in all directions over swarming seas of elm and oak and maple. Now . . .

“Boy,” whispered Douglas.

A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.

Love it.

Don’t limit yourself to one author or genre, or even to fiction. Indeed, the finest opening of any book I’ve ever read is in William Manchester’s The Last Lion. Here it is as I copied it:

The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a little fishing village whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.

Behind them lay the sea.

It was England’s greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip II’s Spanish Armada, Louis the XIV’s triumphant armies, or Napoleon’s invasion barges. This time Britain stood alone. If the Germans crossed the Channel and established uncontested beachheads, all would be lost, for it is a peculiarity of England’s island that its southern region is indefensible against disciplined troops. . . .

Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around like souls in purgatory, awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI had been told they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for “hard and heavy tidings.”

Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, smacks and coasters, the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s cup challenger Endeavor; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw–all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted and bleeding sons.

Even today what followed seems miraculous. Not only were Britain’s soldiers delivered; so were French support troops: a total of 338,000 men.

But wars are not won by fleeing from the enemy. And British morale was still unequal to the imminent challenge. These were the same people who, less than a year earlier, had rejoiced in the fake peace brought by the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich. Most of their leaders and most of the press remained afraid. It had been over a thousand years since Alfred the Great had made himself and his countrymen one and sent them into battle transformed. Now in this new crisis, confronted by the mightiest conqueror Europe had ever known, England looked for another Alfred, a figure cast in a mold which, by the time of the Dunkirk deliverance, seemed to have been forever lost.

England’s new leader, were he to prevail, would have to stand for everything England’s civilized Establishment had rejected. They viewed Adolf Hitler as the product of complex social and political forces. Their successor would have to be a passionate Manichean who saw the world as a medieval struggle to the death between the powers of good and the powers of evil, who held that individuals are responsible for their actions and that the German dictator was, therefore, wicked.

An embodiment of fading Victorian standards was wanted: a tribune for honor, loyalty, duty and the supreme virtue of action. One who would never compromise with iniquity, who could create a sublime mood and thus give men heroic visions of what they were and what they might become….He would have to be a leader of intuitive genius, a believer in the supremacy of his people and his national destiny, an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and refract it to his ends, a man of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people—a believer in military glory was required, one who could rally a nation to brave the coming German fury.

Such a man, if he existed, would be England’s last chance.

In London there was such a man.

Now…go play.

Stretch Your Style

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Not every writer is interested in style. If they can write lean, mean plots that move, with interesting characters and a satisfying ending, that’s enough. They’d rather write fast and turn out more work than spend extra time trying to find the “right” words.

Isaac Asimov was such a writer. He purposely developed a stripped-down style so he could churn out the books. He was once asked what he would do if he found out he had just six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Other writers do seek to enhance their prose. One such was John D. MacDonald, considered one of the great crime writers of the 20th century. He wrote a string of paperback classics in the 1950s, and then invented an enduring series character for the 60s and beyond—Travis McGee.

He was a great plotter, but a careful stylist as well. As he himself once put it: “I want a bit of magic in the prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

While “unobtrusive poetry” is not necessary for a well-plotted novel, it is an elevation. It’s a fine thing to consider stretching your prose. The main proviso is that you never let the style overplay its hand. Serve the story first.

One place where prose style is most fitting is when there is a high emotional moment. Nothing is higher than a young writer dying, in the aptly titled and justifiably famous short story that made William Saroyan’s reputation, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.

Go ahead and stretch your prose in the safety of your own writing room. Three ideas:

  1. Read poetry

Ray Bradbury, one of our greatest unobtrusive poet-writers, read some poetry every day. “Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough,” Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing. “Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.”

  1. Write page-long sentences

As an exercise from time to time, write a run-on sentence of 250 words or so. Don’t edit yourself. Let the words take you wherever they roam!

This is a good way to add emotional depth to a scene. When you get to a point where you describe emotion, start a fresh document and write a page-long sentence of inner description. Don’t judge it; just write it.

When you’re done, look it over. Maybe you’ll use most of it in your novel. Maybe only one line. But what you’ll have is fresh and stylistically pleasing. I’m certain this is how Jack Kerouac came up with that famous passage in his novel On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

  1. Play with metaphors

Dow Mossman, author of The Stones of Summer (the subject of a documentary, The Stone Reader) says he considered each page of his massive novel to be its own poem. Naturally it is filled with metaphors and similes.

He stood, leaning against the wooden jamb of the double glass doorway, looking back, and his eyes seemed almost dull, flatter than last year, muted somehow like reptiles not swimming in open water anymore.

Dull eyes like reptiles not swimming surprises in a pleasing way, but also fits the overall tone of the novel. The best similes and metaphors do both.

So how do you find these images?

Make a list. At the top, write the subject. In the above example, it would be dull eyes. Dull like what?

List as many images as you can, absurd and farfetched as they may be. Push past your comfort zone. Force yourself to come up with twenty possibilities. One of them will surely work.

Robert Newton Peck uses nouns in place of adjectives to plant the unexpected in his novel A Day No Pigs Would Die:

She was getting bigger than August.

The whole sky was pink and peaches.

Like Peck, you should occasionally step outside the normal, grammatical box. You’ll find some pleasant surprises when you do!

How important is style to you, when you write and when you read? We all agree that story comes first, but are you also an “unobtrusive poetry” fan? Do you think about it as you write or revise? 

NOTE: This post is adapted from PLOTMAN TO THE RESCUE: A TROUBLESHOOTING GUIDE TO FIXING YOUR TOUGHEST PLOT PROBLEMS.

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