Archive for ‘Writing’

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Writing Writing

I’m Ready for my Singularity now, Mr. DeMille

September 11th, 2015
I'm well-suited for the post-biological era.

I was reading an interview that Marc, one of the Kansas Bunch, endorsed. I was almost immediately annoyed by the phenomenal sucking-up-and-interjecting-self job the interviewer pulled, but the dialog had barely started when Ben Marcus called a story “something we consume”.

Immediately I connected stories to food, and I liked what I found there. What would a world be like where stories sustained people — physically? Bing-bang, the article was forgotten and I realized that an economy based on storytelling is not so far-fetched. Stripped of the biological imperatives of survival, what’s going to keep us going?

When we overcome the frailties of these meat bodies, stories will be our food. I’m sharpening my pencil.

Writing Writing

Inspiration is All Around Us

August 28th, 2015
You just have to open your eyes and see!

lrgGRA214747220_MLP_twilight_sparkles_twinkling_balloon_3_1000Riding from home to work along a well-worn groove, I get to know some of the debris that builds up along the side of the road. For the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed a My Little Pony doll in the gutter — underneath a layer of road grime its plastic body is in that pink-going-on-purple range of hues, while the nylon fibers of the tail are more aggressively purple, and still shimmery-sparkly.

This particular little pony has been decapitated; it lies mutilated and forgotten, waiting for the street sweeper. When I see it I can’t help but think of a sketch you might see on Robot Chicken: A mash-up of The Godfather, My Little Pony, and this slightly disturbing story by Kij Johnson. In my “research” for this episode I see that at least some MLP’s even have unicorn horns, making Kij’s Nebula-winner even more appropriate.

The sun rises to find BITCH PUDDIN’ waking from her slumber. She doesn’t look so good; last night’s hard partying has taken its toll. The camera pulls back and… MY LITTLE PONY’S head is in the bed next to her, bleeding sparkly rainbow-blood into Bitch Puddin’s satin sheets…

Practically writes itself.

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Writing Writing

What Next, Billy?

May 8th, 2015
Bill Simmons is getting the ol' heave-ho. Maybe that's good.

I just read that Bill Simmons and ESPN are parting ways. Grantland, the property Bill built with ESPN’s money, stays with ESPN.

I don’t expect that many of the regular readers here much care about this event, and that’s probably healthy. But Simmons is a talented writer, good enough that he created a space for himself and built an audience that trusts him. He simply loves sports, and every word he writes reinforces that. He is so good he even makes pro basketball sound interesting.

He writes as a fan, not as a journalist. He talks about those terrible gut-punch losses that fans of a team remember for generations, and when you read his words you remember your own gut-punch moments and you feel connected to something larger. He writes about the love of the guys wearing the right uniforms. He writes about being a father and about beloved dogs. He’ll take his daughter to a hockey game, but the scene in the stands at an NFL game… no way.

After a few years at ESPN he created Grantland, self-described as a sports and pop-culture site. He assembled a range of writers and critics unified by talent, and pretty much nothing else. Television, perhaps, is the one thing that binds them, with a gambling outlier. And music. And movies. And cetera.

As a fan, Bill called the commissioner of the NFL a lying sack of shit. ESPN gives the NFL a lot of money each year for the right to broadcast some of the games. This creates tension. ESPN has to choose: Do they give voice to the knee-jerk fan, or do they respect the hand that feeds them? I was not in the room, and I could be totally wrong, but I suspect money was secondary in the negotiations for the new contract between Simmons and ESPN. Simmons wants tenure. He wants an immunity from the consequences of what he says that ESPN simply cannot give.

No doubt Simmons will create a new megaphone to shout through. No doubt he will attract some of the best young writers out there to balance his histrionics. I’ll be tuning in. But he’ll also be more exposed to the consequences of his fan-jerks than he has been in a long time. It’s going to be interesting to see how this pans out. But he’s a passionate and eloquent writer, so on principle alone I’m behind him.

2
Writing Writing

The Hugo Kerfuffle

April 17th, 2015
Trolls, assholes, and a literary inferiority complex.

The most important award in Science Fiction has been reduced to the level of a Facebook popularity contest. Let’s stop wringing our hands and recognize the truth: It’s dead.

The Hugo awards are (well, were) the Oscars of Science Fiction. Except where the Oscars are sure to give lots of love to the commercial successes of the year, the Hugos seem rather disconnected from the commercial world. You can argue that’s good, recognizing talent that the marketplace has not (yet) discovered, and you can argue that it’s bad, showing that the judges are out of touch with reality.

This year, the Hugo awards will miss on both counts. The winner will suck by any measure. It’s a sad, sad story.

The sad story starts with the Sad Puppies, a group who asks, “whatever happened to good ol’ science fiction where dudes shot things with blasters?” They began an effort to promote GOSF to Hugo voters. (Anyone can be a Hugo voter. It costs $40. A friend of mine once gave me a priceless gift — he paid the bucks to nominate me. Alas, it took more than one nomination vote that year to win a place on the ballot.) At the edge of the Sad Puppies sat another, smaller group (well, a couple of guys), who said, more or less, “the liberal gay agenda is ruining our genre, and that’s why fine upstanding woman-haters like us don’t get the awards.” (I’m paraphrasing.) They took the Sad Puppies list, extremified it (by adding themselves over and over) and launched a grass-roots campaign to get their readers to vote for them.

It only took a couple hundred faithful to totally trash the ballot. The Hugo system was devised in a world before Internet trolls. Had I realized how easy it was, I would have bagged myself a Hugo long ago. I figure a cost of $100 per vote; $20K and I’m in!

But allow me to take a moment to consider the Sad Puppies’ initial complaint, and the objective fact that the awards are diverging from what the mainstream wants.

I think SF is still secretly annoyed that people think of it as pulp fiction. Not capital-A Art. For all the “fie on you, world, we all know that literary fiction is just another genre,” there’s still a little defensiveness. The insiders, the ones who usually vote for these awards, are well-read, lit-leaning, and (secretly) self-conscious. They want to sit at the table with the lit-fic guys, and get the nod of respect in the hallowed hallways. So they vote for more literary-leaning stories.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Eric Flint, a commercial success but not an awards darling, has some interesting thoughts that diverge from what I just wrote. We agree on this, however: the divide between commercial success and awards recognition is not about politics. In the comments for that post someone suggested that maybe SF should emulate the recording industry and give out awards based purely on sales. I kinda like that. (“Munchies goes platinum!” I hear in my head. That novel will not be winning any literary awards.)

So, what now? With the Hugo being torpedoed, and other major awards losing relevance, will the marketplace be the only measure of success? What will become of beautiful prose that is challenging to read, without the ivory-tower league to raise it on a pedestal? There is capital-A Art in Science Fiction, dammit, and it should be recognized.

My humble suggestion: The Sad Puppies handing out beanie baby trophies for the best stories with white guys saving scantily-clad helpless space princesses, the ivory tower crowd awarding elegant chess sets (with rooks made of ivory) to the most beautiful prose of the year, the geek crowd awarding the golden propeller beanie to the best representation of cybernetics, and so forth. Let the fragmentation happen. It’s healthy. It’s good. It’s time to surrender the One Award that Rules Them All to the trolls.

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Writing Writing

Honorable Mention!

December 22nd, 2014
It's good to be mentioned, especially honorably.

Writers of the Future is a big-ass writing competition, and it’s pretty prestigious to win. I did not win. It’s also cool to almost win, as you still get your work published in a book that people actually read.

I also was not a runner up.

But I did get an honorable mention. Honestly I don’t know how difficult that is; I’ve entered twice and been honored both times. My guess is that it means “good enough to encourage the writer to enter again.” I will be doing so. Several of my eligible stories fit the WotF style pretty well. My careful reading of the rules tells me that stories published over at Piker Press are eligible, so if you remember a favorite from back in the days when I was a regular there, let me know!

On a side note, I think I’m going to play with a short story during my company’s holiday shutdown.

Writing Writing

Here Comes November Again

October 22nd, 2014
Trying to find the right vehicle to get me out of my rut.

It’s that time of year again; NaNoWriMo is fast approaching and as usual I really don’t know what I’m going to write. I’d better write something, though, because I really, really need to get back in the habit of punching out words every day.

I’ve had a few vague thoughts of possible novel ideas, but none has taken root. On the science fiction front, I have a time travel idea that’s intriguing, but falls short of qualifying as a plot. I could combine it with some ideas that are set in the asteroid belt, and maybe get things rolling. But there’s a reason those ideas have been bouncing around in my skull for a few years now — there’s not a real story attached to them.

I could always write a sequel to The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy, which would start immediately following Bixby recovering the Important Thing and discovering that the Evil Guy is not his father after all (much to the Evil Guy’s surprise). Perhaps it could be called The Quest for the Operating Instructions for the Important Thing.

Sometimes I wonder if the Tincaniverse is a good place to set a novel. My last few attempts at short stories in that world haven’t had the same vignetty yumminess as the successful ones of days gone by; maybe it’s time to use a novel to get deeper inside the spacer psyche. Once again, I’m not sure what the conflict would be.

There’s another short story I’ve never quite got right, that maybe I could succeed with in a different format. It’s a deal-with-the-devil thing, that has our main guy installing air conditioning in Hell, and using the heat of Hell to run a power plant to solve humanity’s energy woes. The story could include many chances for humor as the main dude has to convince people to do things that make no sense at all. It’s the only idea I have so far that includes a story arc and a try-fail cycle that can steadily increase the pressure on the good guy. One false step and his soul is forfeit.

But maybe it’s another story entirely. None of those ideas have really taken fire in my heart.

But I gotta write something, dammit. Maybe I’ll just have a guy walk into a bar and see what happens. Any suggestions from y’all are certainly welcome.

Writing Writing

Coming Home

July 11th, 2014
Lebron takes his talents to Northeast Ohio

I’ve often stated that the NBA is more like Championship Wrestling than an actual sport. It’s more about the personalities than the actual games. And today, the NBA script writers earned their Emmy. Lebron James is returning to Cleveland.

Cleveland management had to scurry to take down the comical comic-sans screed posted by ownership when Lebron left town four years ago. In that manifesto, ownership guaranteed a championship for their slighted city before Lebron got one in Miami. Two championships later, on his return Lebron is saying he’s not guaranteeing anything, but that there’s nothing he wants more than to bring a trophy home to the place he grew up.

His letter to Sports Illustrated has been carefully crafted, vetted by lawyers, agents, PR experts, sycophants, and Lebron’s mom, but you know what? I actually believe it. I think that’s where he wants to raise his kids. I think it’s where he wants to end his career. It doesn’t hurt that no major sports team from Cleveland has won a championship in 50 years; he brings them a title, he’s God in that town. By my reckoning, he has four years.

Meanwhile, in Miami, the Heat will be determined to prove that they can be good without Lebron, that the other highly-paid superstars can carry the team, that Lebron was just a cog in the machine. They will fail. This past year management put the team on Lebron’s shoulders through the grind of the season to rest their other stars, and then in the finals the well-rested other stars vanished and Lebron ran out of gas. I’m no expert on sports, and certainly not on sorta-sports like professional basketball, but I won’t be putting any money on the boys from South Beach this year.

But as a fellow writer, I have to tip my hat to the NBA. Here’s a story that even non-fans in the offseason are talking about. That’s a good script.

Writing Writing

Different Planet, Same Sky

November 26th, 2013

As I try desperately (and occasionally despairingly) to cross the 50,000-word mark for the thirteenth year, I’ve been pondering the world my story takes place in, and the following question: Is this our Earth or some other Earth? How many stories have you read that take place on a world with completely different geography, but the same moon as ours? Is it Earth or not?

My story takes place on a world that has been blasted to ruin. The civilization before the cataclysm was very different from our own (at least on the surface), but there’s that big ol’ moon lighting the way for Wolf and Joe as they cross the wasteland. Is that riverbed the former course of the Rio Grande? The Vltava? The Nile? Or is this some otherworld that just happens to have a big, fat moon like ours?

Or maybe I should just stop thinking so much and get to typing. I have a lot of words to go.

1
Writing Writing

NaNoWriMo Coming! (Your help needed)

October 9th, 2013
A little help, anyone?

Yep, November is barreling down upon us, and it’s time to write another crappy novel in 30 days. I don’t think I’ve ever needed it more. I’ve also never felt less inspired. Those two facts are, of course, related.

Usually by this time I have ideas fighting in my head to become The One. This year, cue the crickets chirping. I have never felt so empty of ideas.

Which brings me to any readers who might happen by here. (Yeah, I know I haven’t given people a reason to be regulars lately.) Leave a suggestion in the comments. Don’t be afraid to be outrageous, or silly, or deep and heavy if you want. If anyone posts a suggestion, I WILL WRITE IT. Just like that. If more than one person leaves a suggestion we can have a quick vote, or I’ll let an impartial third party decide, or maybe I’ll just mash them together if the result would be amusing.

I’ll let the person with the winning suggestion read the result, though it’s NaNoWriMo — that may not be much of a prize.

Writing Writing

Breakfast in Kansas

June 16th, 2013

Twenty-four hours now I’ve been in the artificial world of the Repeat Offenders writing workshop in Lawrence, Kansas. Time is funny here, though; when I lay down to sleep last night it seemed strange — how could this still only be my first night here?

Technically, the workshop hasn’t started yet; the weekend is devoted to a conference and awards ceremony celebrating Science Fiction. The Saturday night reception is one of my favorite events, in which a mix of interesting people is stirred with alcohol. The last couple of years the reception has been at a nice venue with a cash bar, rather than in a university dorm with smuggled-in booze. While this leads to far less stress (and fewer laws broken), people are much more restrained when they have to buy their own beer.

Still, a good time. I spent a lot more time listening than talking. People now think either that I’m wise or that I’m boring.

I missed the event that preceded that; a premier of Destination: Planet Negro!, a sci-fi film by some local guys that, I’m told, does not pull its punches, yet remains fun. I was napping instead. You snooze, you lose.

Now it’s morning, and I’ve walked over to downtown Lawrence to break my fast. The air has a scent that reminds me of visits to Grandma’s in Arkansas many years gone by. A heavy scent, earthy, with a tang of something I can’t pinpoint but I know is there.

I passed by the completely mediocre Fuzzy’s Cantina, which was sure to have the cheesy gooey food I craved, but it’s, well, completely mediocre. On Fuzzy’s patio, patrons were settling in with their first pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon to celebrate Sunday morning.

The obviously-breakfasty places are filed with (I assume) the after-church crowd, but I found a sandwich shop called Pickelman’s that was just opening. While a vegetarian sandwich on whole wheat is far from the cheesy home fries I was craving, it will sustain me, with the help of some tomato bisque. It was adequate, but I won’t be dragging my fellow writers here.

Now it’s time to take a breath and dive back into the Workshop Artificial Universe.

Writing Writing

Time to Let Hunter Run Free

May 27th, 2013
Because it's better to die out there than to never live at all.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing a novel called The Monster Within. If you ask me, the thing’s pretty damn good. While I may not be the most unbiased judge of the story’s merit, I have to say that even after spending countless hours honing it, I still enjoy sitting back and reading it.

The thing is, I suck at selling stuff. I sent the novel off to some of the top agents in the biz, and got kind rejections. Almost universally the rejections actually contained specific commentary, which is unusual. The main message: We like the writing but way too many pages. The length is a problem because a) there are a lot of 300-page stories trapped in 700-page manuscripts out there, and b) the book would have taken too much physical space in a rack (can’t fit in as many copies), and would cost more to print.

As to a) above, I had completely failed to convey the complexity of the story. I kept trimming the message to the agents, smallifying the synopsis to fit submission requirements, but in the process losing so many elements of the story that of course the agent would say, “125k words for this little story? *Yawn*” The navel-gazing preamble did nothing to reassure the reader that a tight story was to follow.

Regarding b), Monster is a fantasy novel, and readers these days expect them to run fat. That doesn’t change the economics of cutting down extra trees for a guy no one has ever heard of before.

In the end, my poor sales skills and lack of perseverance led to my failure to form a partnership with someone trained in exactly those qualities, and Monster rests idle.

Since those failures, the Kindle came out, and Amazon stabbed the already-wounded bookstore chains in the soul. Nook and iBookstore followed. Books aren’t necessarily made of paper anymore. A fat novel costs the same to distribute as a pamphlet. (Well, almost.) I could publish Monster myself. Charge a lot less yet put more money per book into my own pocket.

That’s great, right? Stick it to the man! Who needs all those editors in their New York offices?

Actually, the reading public owes those guys quite a lot. The stuff the big publishers put out falls into two categories: good writing and crap that will sell anyway. In the Kindle bookstore, there is a frothing cauldron of sewage with a few choice works bubbling to the top. When you pick up a book made of paper, at least someone somewhere thought it was worth cutting down a tree. If that book has a name on it and it turns out to be a worthless piece of shit, you know to avoid that name (and perhaps that publisher), and to disregard all the glowing reviews by people who don’t actually read the books. Eventually you will find those you do trust, and by letting them screen the novels before they reach you, they protect you from a lot of crap.

Unless you get caught in a spiraling disaster like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which doesn’t fall so much into the ‘crap that will sell anyway’ category as it does in the “remember the good old days at the start of this series when Bob had an editor?” bin. I suspect the publisher would have loved to help him tighten his story, only Jordan, as a self-proclaimed genius (I heard him proclaim it), would have none of it. The only people reading the series by then were the people with so much invested in the roughly ten bazillion pages that had already gone by that they were willing to tough it out just to get to the end.

Um… I’m drifting off-point here. I started to say that editors helped readers with a major signal-to-noise problem and then I provided two concrete counterexamples. I think in debate class this was a frowned-upon tactic.

But, signal-to-noise. That’s the key here. Editors and agents are filters, reducing but not eliminating the noise. If I self-publish Monster, I will be living in the realm of pure noise. As bad as it is in the dead-tree publishing world, it’s far, far worse in the self-publish world. There’s a lot of really bad fiction out there.

So how does one float to the top of the cesspool? How do I separate myself from the blather and unmitigated horribleness? How do I convince people who have never heard my name to spend a couple of bucks on my book?

There are two things I must do:

  • Have a great cover.
  • Make a lot of noise.

Yep, to overcome the signal-to-noise problem, I have to make more noise. It’s like being at one of those parties where everyone is talking really loudly and you realize that nobody would have to shout if everyone would just stop shouting. But to sell this book, I’ll be calling on all of you to amplify my voice. I will be resuming my podcasts. I’ll probably fire up a Web site for the book. And I will relentlessly bug everyone I know to buy the damn thing, and if they liked it to leave reviews on Amazon and iBookstore. I’ll be emptying out my address book on this one. Just tellin’ you now, so you can be ready for the awkward conversation later.

First, however, is the cover. I’ve had the cover in my mind for a long time, and one thing about self-publishing is that no joker who’s never read the story is going to put some generic “insert standard hero here” shot on the cover. (Hunter is a non-standard hero.) The biggest problem with my vision is that it will be both difficult to pull off and not especially powerful when viewed as wee icon in the bookstore. So you all have a reprieve while I get that into place.

Writing Writing

Reading some Grimm

April 19th, 2013
Times have changed, all right.

Most mornings, I spend my first waking half-hour slogging on an exercise machine. For the first two-thirds of the workout I’m able to read, as long as the story does not require intense concentration. I’m also a cheap bastard, so I gravitate toward e-publications that are free.

Lately as I’ve slaved over the machine, I’ve been reading stories translated from the original texts of the Brothers Grimm. Honestly, they’re not that compelling. They’re like pop songs; each story has a hook and some are more successful than others. If there’s one thing the stories do well, it’s repetition. Escalating cycles. Humility and standing up to your word are paramount.

As I was pumping the exercise machine the other day, appreciating the closure of a particularly contrived parable, I asked myself, “Is this how short stories worked back then?”

In fact, that is how short stories worked back then. The whole idea of ‘short story’ as we think of it today had not been defined. And while we credit Poe and Doyle with inventing the short story, we have to give a respectful nod to Wilhelm Grimm as a progenitor of the form.

I’m smiling as I picture poor Wilhelm in a modern writers’ workshop. “So,” the perceptive critic starts, “the cat has sleeves.” The critic raises exactly one eyebrow as she pins her gaze on the writer. Wilhelm smiles sheepishly. “When you have sleeves it changes you,” he says. He’s right, but the helpful critic never buys it. The problem isn’t really the sleeves, it’s the structure.

Willy Grimm wrote stories, and they are short, but they are by no approximation short stories as we understand the form today. Mostly they are shaggy dog stories. There’s a cadence to the stories, complete with rhymes, as folks who do the right thing are rewarded, as long as they don’t get uppity afterward. But lacking is the development of an idea. Short stories today are the retroviruses of ideas. Somehow what you read injects itself into who you are.

The ideas in Bros. Grimm’s tales are pretty simple, if you can call them ideas at all. “You shouldn’t be greedy because greed is bad, m-kay?”

There are some points of interest. Many of the stories as we know them have been pretty seriously watered down from the original. The princess and the frog? Not the story I was given as a kid. The bitch makes a promise to a frog just to get her ball back, with no intention whatsoever of honoring her word. Later the frog shows up on her doorstep and her dad the king forced her to live up to her word. She resists the frog and makes a liar of herself all the way, until he turns into a handsome prince of some sort. Then she’s all over him. If I’m the prince getting my body back after all those years, I’m saying, “seeya, gold digger, you lied and whined and now suddenly you’re my friend? Methinks not.” and finding my own happy pond. Probably a reflection of the times, but women in these stories are rewards. Do right, you get yourself a hot princess. Her opinion doesn’t matter much, because obviously to get to that position where you deserve the reward you are a virtuous prince, and she’s not going to argue with that.

OK, so modern ideas of sexual roles in society can’t be used to indict Msrs. Grimm. How were they to know that women were relevant unto themselves? But still, the stories come off as clumsy. Not really stories at all, but anecdotes which sometimes have a conclusion but just as often don’t. The characters go through a series of events and at the end, they are finished with those events, and life goes on.

Which makes these fantastic tales surprisingly realistic.

Writing Writing

Munchies Update

February 20th, 2013

So there’s this novel I’m working on, called Munchies. It’s about a weed-smoking, mom’s-basement-dwelling, motivationally-deficient young man named Deek who finds himself dealing with immortal humanoid monsters that hunt and eat people. (They are not vampires. Just ask them.)

It’s a comedy, with dismemberment, cannibalism, and hot vamposters of every gender.

One of the key things about this story, a facet that will likely lead a small few to love it while others use it as a shining example of the decline of western civilization is that, every once in a while, I go there. I cross the line. (The line, it seems, is the border between “here” and “there”.) I know I’ve got the scene right when a reader laughs with a hand over her mouth.

So I was tightening up the first act, getting things shipshape for my final assault on the end, when I got an Idea. Yep, a big ol’ capital-I Idea. A you-can’t-even-see-the-line-in-the-rearview-mirror idea. It turns out we’re not done with Bill’s penis yet. Oh, no. It has work to do.

This sequence must be in the story. Simply no choice. The only problem is, it’s a major change to act two. There’s the big everyone-in-the-room scene that puts the good guys on the run. After discussion with my wise and noble friends in the Kansas Bunch, I concluded that the good guys could not return to the scene. I wrote the novel accordingly. Now Advika and Deek will go back to the basement. It’s a pretty big change.

I thought I was on the home stretch with this adventure. I’ve been planning what next I might inflict on the Kansas Bunch when it comes time for summer camp, but now I’m not nearly as close to done with this draft as I thought. But damn, it’s going to be funny when I get it right.

Writing Writing

Oh, Yeah, that NaNoWriMo Thing

December 3rd, 2012
Another win, but success is measured differently.

Welp, it’s December, and that means another NaNoWriMo under my belt. It was pretty obvious early on that my goal was simply getting my butt into a chair and writing every day, rather than entertain any hope of creating something worth reading. I thought it might also be a chance to interact with some like-minded folk here in the South Bay, and I did a little of that, but not much.

There might be a writing group coming out of it, however. I got a few people worked up on the local message board before I vanished from sight. I need to follow up on that.

I averaged 2500 words a day while I vomited up my November novel. The paragraph that took me over 50K was one in which Cliff Brooks fell from an improbable height, bounced once, and lay still. Killing Cliff Brooks is a local tradition. Before his body was even cold I had turned my attention back to Munchies, and a 600-word-per-day productivity.

Last few days, I haven’t been executing on that. Tonight I’m dedicating my hours to the written word, and I’m still not making progress. But as soon as I’m done with this episode, I’m on it. Really.


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