Category Archives: Guest posts

Cara Lopez Lee’s Thoughtful Rules for Compassionate Critiques

I have a small, trusted circle of critique partners. I know I’m lucky, they’re hard to come by. I met two at Writers’ Studio at UCLA, a couple of years ago, and I count them dear friends. Two others, I met when I began volunteering for Field’s End, a non-profit literary event group. In all cases, I found my partners by magic, or universal synchronicity, or dumb luck–I really don’t what alchemy transforms strangers to trusted allies. All I can I say is it is extremely difficult to both find and BE a good critique partner. That’s why I’m sharing ideas from author and HGTV-writer Cara Lopez Lee’s excellent post, Feedback with Compassionate Detachment.

Here are excerpts:

“I’ve discovered that providing feedback with the goal of serving both writer and story can be fast and easy, if you know how…
Creative writing is always deeply personal, fiction or non, and I’ve learned that’s why it’s important for feedback to be both compassionate and detached.

I’ve since developed a reputation among coaching clients, writing colleagues, and students for giving feedback that encourages and motivates. Here are a few tips that have helped me:

1.  Take responsibility for your opinion by emphasizing “I” statements over “you” statements.
This helps writers take feedback as opinion, rather than personal blame or praise, encouraging them to decide whether their writing needs to change or just needs another audience. For example:

  • I’d like to know more about this character’s relationship with his father.
  • I’m confused here. Is it possible to clarify?
  • I find myself wondering how this character felt when she saw the body
    (Note: If you only adopt one technique, let this be it. You will win friends and influence writers! -RL)

2. Address what you observe in the writing rather than your opinion of the writer.

  • The opening effectively introduces the character’s motivation: her father betrayed her, and she has never trusted men since.
  • The dialogue in this section didn’t feel realistic to me. I had a hard time believing a three-year-old would talk that much about death.
    (Note: I love when readers tell me WHAT they think they just read. Often what we are trying to imply in a scene comes across differently to different people, and this technique helps me gauge whether I’ve nailed it–or not. -RL)

3. Spend less time making suggestions than asking questions.

  • What do these people really want in this relationship?
  • What’s at stake for the protagonist?
    (Note: This technique is also effective for blocked writers. -RL)

4. Clarify that your intention is to serve the story, not to prove you’re right. Try phrases like, “As a reader…” or “From an audience’s perspective…”

  • I like that she notices his cologne. As a reader, I’d be interested to know exactly what he smells like to her and how that scent affects her.”
  • From a female audience’s perspective, this kind of language might sound sexist, which might make it difficult to root for him.

5. Instead of pointing out what’s missing, ask for more information.

  • I don’t understand why he reacted that way. I’d like to know more.
  • How does meeting someone else who has lived with this kind of secret affect him?
    (Note: I have a habit of showing more action than emotion. Phrases like those above could help guide me to consider my character’s internal conflict. -RL)

6. Offer no more than three challenges the author faces to take the writing to the next level. It can be difficult to remember more, and the writer may shut down.

7. Try to spend as much time on strengths as challenges. It’s important for writers to recognize what’s working, so they can lean into that. What’s more, writers who regularly receive feedback want to know whether their changes are effective.

“By giving feedback with compassionate detachment, I’ve discovered something unexpected,” says Lee. “When I emphasize what’s working and simply ask questions about the rest, my students improve faster.”

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.

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10 Mother Figures in new novels – Great literary examples for writers

Writing a believable mother figure can prove, shall we say, “therapeutic” for some writers. Delving into the details of our first primary relationship can shed light on our sense of nurturing, and inspire ways to help our protagonist reach her goal. It can also uncover old hurts. Let’s look at how some new novels showcase memorable fictional mothers. From loving, supportive mothers to complex, trailblazing mothers to selfish, vindictive mothers, this list from Andrea Lochen, author of The Repeat Year (Berkley, 2013) and Imaginary Things (see below) has it all!

1. The Perfect Son by Barbara Claypole White (Lake Union, July 2015)

cpwElla Fitzwilliam, the mom in The Perfect Son, quit a successful career in jewelry design to be full-time parent, mental health coach, and advocate for her son, Harry, who has a soup of issues that include Tourette syndrome. She has devoted 17 years of her life to his therapy, to educating teachers, to being Harry’s emotional rock and giving him the confidence he needs to be Harry. Thanks to her, Harry is comfortable in his own skin, even when people stare. After Ella has a major heart attack in the opening chapter, her love for Harry tethers her to life. But as she recovers, she discovers the hardest parenting lesson of all: to let go.

2. Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb (Plume, January 2015)

HWIn Rodin’s Lover: A Novel, Camille’s mother, Louise Claudel, is spiteful, jealous, and disapproving of Camille’s pursuit to become a female sculptor in the 1880s. She also shows signs of mental illness. Because of this relationship, Camille struggles with all of her female relationships the rest of her life, and ultimately, to prove to her mother that she’s truly talented.

 

 

 

3. Imaginary Things by Andrea Lochen (Astor + Blue Editions, April 2015)

ALIn Imaginary Things, young single mother Anna Jennings has a unique power that most parents only dream of—the ability to see her four-year-old son’s imagination come to life.  But when David’s imaginary friends turn dark and threatening, Anna must learn the rules of this bizarre phenomenon, what his friends truly represent, and how best to protect him.

 

 

 

4. The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister (Sourcebooks, January 2015)

GMCAIn The Magician’s Lie, Arden’s mother is remarkable both for what she does and what she doesn’t do. As a young woman, she bears a child out of wedlock and runs away with her music teacher, never fearing the consequences. But later in life, her nerve fails her—just when her daughter needs her most.

 

 

 

 

5. Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer (Putnam, 2014)

JLT In Five Days Left, Mara Nichols is, in some ways, a typical mother: she loves her daughter fiercely, thinks about her constantly and goes to great lengths to balance her high-stress legal career with her daughter’s needs. But there are two ways in which Mara isn’t typical at all. First, she adopted her daughter from India, making good on a lifelong promise to rescue a baby from the same orphanage where Mara herself lived decades ago. And second, when Mara is diagnosed with a fatal, incurable illness that will render her unable to walk, talk or even feed herself, she has to make the kind of parenting choice none of us wants to consider—would my child be better off if I were no longer alive?

6. House Broken by Sonja Yoerg (Penguin/NAL, January 2015)

SYIn House Broken, Helen Riley has a habit of leaving her grown children to cope with her vodka-fueled disasters. She has her reasons, but they’re buried deep, and stem from secrets too painful to remember and, perhaps, too terrible to forgive.

 

 

 

 

 

7. You Were Meant for Me by Yona Zeldis McDonough (Penguin/NAL, 2014)

YZMIn You Were Meant For Me, having a baby is the furthest thing from Miranda Berenzweig’s mind.  She’s newly single after a bad break up, and focused on her promotion at work, her friends and getting her life back on track.  Then one frigid March night she finds a newborn infant in a NYC subway and even after taking the baby to the police, can’t get the baby out of her mind.  At the suggestion of the family court judge assigned to the case, Miranda begins adoption proceedings.  But her plans—as well as her hopes and dreams—are derailed when the baby’s biological father surfaces, wanting to claim his child.  The way she handles this unforeseen turn of events is what makes Miranda a truly memorable mother.

8. The Far End of Happy by Kathryn Craft (Sourcebooks Landmark, May 2015)

KCIn The Far End of Happy, Ronnie has hung in there as long as she can during her husband’s decline into depression, spending issues, and alcoholism and he will not accept her attempts to get him professional help. She is not a leaver, but can’t bear for her sons to witness the further deterioration of the marriage. She determines to divorce—and on the day he has promised to move out, he instead arms himself, holes up inside a building on the property, and stands off against police. When late in the day the police ask Ronnie if she’ll appeal to him one last time over the bullhorn, she must decide: with the stakes so high, will she try one last time to save her husband’s life? Or will her need to protect her sons and her own growing sense of self win out?

9. Your Perfect Life by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke (Washington Square Press, 2014)

LF&In Your Perfect Life, long-time friends, Rachel and Casey wake up the morning after their twenty year high school reunion to discover they’ve switched bodies. Casey is single with no children before becoming an instant mom to Rachel’s two teenagers and baby. Despite her lack of experience as a parent, and her often comedic missteps with the baby in particular (think: diaper blow outs and sudden sleep deprivation) Casey’s fresh perspective on her new role helps her connect with each of the children in a very different way than Rachel. And when the oldest, Audrey, is almost date raped at her prom, it is Casey’s strength that she draws from an experience in her own past that ultimately pulls Audrey through. Although it is hard for Rachel to watch her best friend take care of Audrey when she so desperately wants to, she realizes that Casey can help her daughter in a way she can’t. And Casey discovers she might have what it takes to be a mom to her own children someday.

10. The Life List by Lori Nelson Spielman (Bantam, 2013)

EBElizabeth Bohlinger, the mother in The Life List, is actually deceased. But she still has a big presence in her daughter’s life—some may say too big! With heartfelt letters, Elizabeth guides her daughter, Brett, on a journey to complete the life list of wishes Brett made when she was just a teen. Like many mothers, Elizabeth has an uncanny ability to see into her daughter’s heart, exposing buried desires Brett has long forgotten.

 Do you have any book recommendations for stories with memorable moms? Comment below, or tweet me at @TheRJLacko!

Andrea Lochen is a University of Michigan MFA graduate. Her first novel, The Repeat Year (Berkley, 2013), won a Hopwood Award for the Novel prior to its publication. She currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, where she was recently awarded UW Colleges Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Andrea lives in Madison with her husband and daughter and is at work on her third novel. For more information visit www.andrealochen.com

Book Links for Imaginary Things:
Publisher:  http://bit.ly/1HJ3VW9
Amazon:  http://amzn.to/1FOikjL
B&N:  http://bit.ly/1DXghMZ

 

 

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Finally, a Simple Solution to Handling Backstory

cslakinbookI spend a lot of time thinking about my character’s motivation. If you don’t believe me, you should see some (unpublished) stories I wrote a few years back, where character origins and backstory flood the pages where plot and emotional reaction ought to be. I’ve learned much about when and how to reveal the past, and have reined myself in considerably–but apparently not enough. The other night at my critique group, I was reading Chapter One of my new book aloud and felt my cheeks warm as I realized what I was reading was straight-up backstory–in my opening pages! Ugh. Como dices, “info dump?”

Author and editor C.S. Lakin solved my problem with her post, How the Rule of Three Can Help Writers Avoid Backstory Slumps

Here are Lakin’s ideas:

Rule of Three “For every three sentences (or in some cases, paragraphs) of backstory, go back to the present scene at least briefly, to remind readers where the character is actually on stage,” she says. Don’t leave the present action to go on a long tangent. Keep the present action active, even when indulging in a flashback.

First Chapter Backstory Rule “My colleagues all agree that first chapter backstory, if used at all, needs to be short and woven in and around the present action,” she points out. I will be examining my first chapter to see what I can cut or streamline. “For every detail but the most crucial, save the backstory for after readers are committed to your character.” I think this is incredibly important. In my case, I think I was trying to build sympathy for my character for what he’s been through in the past. If I dig deeper and write with subtlety and compassion, I ought to be able to win my readers’ “commitment” without playing that victim card. Lastly, Lakin recommends we, “Use the past perfect (had) only at the beginning and the end of a backstory bit.”

Double Backstory Have you ever read a story within a story, and became confused or read it twice? A word about backstory within backstory: don’t do it. C.S. Lakin has a great approach to handling this dilemma. She calls it her Cold Mashed Potatoes Rule. Read about it in her full post.

C.S. Lakin is the author of several books (contemporary fiction, fantasy, and YA SciFi). She’s  a copyeditor, a writing coach, a mom, a backpacker, and a pygmy goat expert. She teaches workshops on the writing craft at writers’ conferences and retreats. If your writers’ group would like to invite her to facilitate a workshop, contact her here.

Do you have your own formula for where or when backstory should appear? What methods of revealing backstory do you use? Comment below or chat with me on Twitter at @TheRJLacko.

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Using Dream Analysis to Develop Your Fictional Characters

Have you ever been chased by someone in your dreams? Been naked in public? Flown like a bird around a city? Or just felt utterly lost in a maze-like building? There are twelve basic dream patterns that all of us dream, regardless of who we are, what we do or where we live.

Olessia Kantor of EnigmaLife.com

Olessia Kantor of EnigmaLife.com

An in-depth knowledge of our characters enriches every story we write. Most writers begin with a detailed Character Traits worksheet. Whether you use every item on your worksheet in your story isn’t as important as getting to know the heart of your fictional characters. Once you have a firm connection with and understanding of WHO they are, it makes the labor or drafting your story easier: you know how they will react to event or obstacles, you’ll know what they might retort and what they’d never say. You know what they’ll eat in a restaurant, or why the color chartreuse makes them crimson with fury. Even better, when you’re stuck, looking for ways to add tension or motivation, looking deeply into your characters’  hearts and minds helps uncover possible plot turns, arcs, and revelations.

Dream interpretation guru Olessia Kantor, founder of EnigmaLife.com explains, “Universal dreams are shaped by local forces in your life.” Your character s dream could be influenced by four things:

  • His/her biological heritage
  • His/her general cultural heritage
  • His/her local subculture
  • His/her personal experience

There are 12 universal dream patterns that all of us dream:

1. Being chased and attacked/Being in love or embraced: Often these dreams occur when you are trying to understand circumstances that you cannot overcome.

2. Getting injured or dying/Getting healed or reborn: Reflect the dreamer passing from one stage of life to another.

3. Having vehicle trouble: These dreams indicate you may be overspending energy on a situation

4. Damaged or lost property or on fire/Property improvements: Reflections on personal changes

5. Poor performance/Outstanding performance: To pass or fail at something important to you

6. Being naked or inappropriately dressed/Looking great: You feel concerned about other people s judgment or opinions.

7. Missing transportation/Happily traveling: This dream denotes your life s journey

8. Machine malfunctions/No malfunctions: Points to a passive approach to life, giving others your power

9. Natural disasters/Natural beauty: Reflect an appreciation for the world and happiness

10. Being lost or trapped/Finding new places: Indicates you are struggling to find a sense of direction or are losing your internal compass

11. Haunted by the dead/Guided by the dead: There is unfinished business with a loved one

12. Falling or drowning/Flying or swimming: The dream is facing a major choice they must make that defines personal failure or success

Olessia provides free personalized dream analysis via her website, EnigmaLife.com. Former journalist Olessia Kantor went on to become an art historian, a gemologist, an entrepreneur, and always a storyteller. “I have a passion for the unknown, for mysteries, for the enigmas in our world.” Follow Olessia on Twitter @EnigmaLifeWorld, or email her at OK@enigmalife.com.

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Revise Your Novel in One Month with PlotWriMo

plotwrimo

Congratulations on completing the draft of your novel! That messy hunk of love is ready for polishing. Literary agent Jill Corcoran and Plot Whisperer goddess Martha Alderson have joined forces to help you maintain the swift progress of NaNoWriMo as you edit, revise and sweat your way to a book you can be proud of!

Want to know how to get started? Jill and Martha offer two video series with more in production

1. PlotWriMo: Revise Your Novel in a Month

8 videos, 5.5 hours + 3- hands-on exercises

Congratulations! You have written a draft of a novel. You’ve accomplished what many writers merely talk about and dream of doing – you have written an entire story from beginning to end.

When you finish celebrating, it is time to revise: to re-envision and rewrite what you’ve written into a novel that agents, editors and readers will devour. Writing a great plot involves craft and skill and know-how. Before you undertake a major rewrite, first consider your story from all angles with the help of step-by-step instruction and daily exercises. You know you’re ready to rewrite when you’ve checked all the essentials elements for creating an exciting story with compelling characters and a meaningful plot.

2. How to Write and Sell a Picture Book with a Plot

7 videos explain how to plot, write and sell picture books + provide exercises how to immediately integrate the concepts into your own unique story. Learn about all the different kinds of picture books, examples of character-driven and action-driven picture books, how to develop winning picture book concepts, what are the major turning points in every great picture book with a plot, writing, voice, character goals and motivation, how to revise, testing your theme and take-away, who to submit to and so much more…

Here’s How the Video Series Work

Each video includes an in-depth look at the specific elements promised and how to consider these essential story principles as you write, revise, rewrite, sell your story. Writing assignment(s) guide you with step-by-step instruction. Whether you decide to watch all the videos in a row and then go back and do the exercises or jump right in to the 1st video’s exercise, work at your own pace and take more or less time on the step-by-step exercises. The series are designed to fit into even the busiest of schedules. Sign-in and watch video lectures, complete homework assignments, and ask questions in a public forum on a timetable that fits your needs.

Reviews of the series

“The amount of time, heartache, frustration, and hell that these videos are saving me from is immeasurable.”

“Don’t wait until you have a first draft to get the video series. If you have an inkling of a concept, get the video series. The videos will show you how to define your energetic markers. You’ll learn the difference between crisis and climax. The 8 videos constitute a ‘top to toe’ writing course.

Jill Corcoran & Martha Alderson, thank you for giving me the opportunity to call myself a writer with pride.” Dolly D Napal

“I have been writing, writing, writing, and reading about writing, but I knew I was still missing the mark. How I write and rewrite books will be forever changed for the better. ” Wendy McLeon MacKnight

“I felt overwhelmed with my latest revision. I feel like a weight has been lifted and I’m just on day one.”

Your wrote your first draft. Now revise your story from every angle.

Jill Corcoran is the founder of Jill Corcoran Literary Agency and co-founder of A Path A Publishing

Martha Alderson, author of The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, is known as “The Plot Whisperer” for the help she offers writers worldwide. She is the founder of PlotWriMo: Revise Your Novel in a Month and the award-winning blog The Plot Whisperer

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How to Sell More Books – 10 Question Checklist for Authors

 

How to Market a Book, by Joanna Penn

How to Market a Book, by Joanna Penn

It’s time to get the party started, an author friend of mine quipped. She was referring to the independent publishing party, the one where our lovingly written and agonized-over manuscripts become honest-to-goodness books for sale.

I couldn’t agree more.

Joanna Penn, author of several best-selling thrillers and book marketing expert (see Penn’s book, How To Market A Book) at The Creative Penn offers some of the best advice on the web for publishing and marketing your books.

Penn says she is asked on a nearly daily basis: How do I sell more books? “There are 10 questions I think you need to answer,” she explains. Note there is nothing on Penn’s checklist of questions about blogging or platform building on Facebook. These are the fundamentals critical to setting the stage for sales.

Here are the first 5 questions an author must ask:

1) Is your book available as an ebook? Penn uses Scrivener for formatting in Kindle, ePub and Word formats and publishes on Amazon KDP, Kobo Writing Life and Smashwords, BookBaby and B&N Nook PubIt.

2) Has your cover been professionally designed? Penn believes this is non-negotiable if you want to stand out in the crowded market. Check out the ebook cover design awards at TheBookDesigner.com to see some great covers and some truly awful ones. Then hire a professional cover designer, give them that information and work with them to create a professional cover.

“If you don’t have a budget for this, then work extra hard until you have that extra money,” she says.

3) Has your book been professionally edited? According to Penn, “You should edit your books until you can’t stand them any longer, and then you should consider hiring a professional editor to help you take it further, because you cannot see your own words after a point because you know the story so well.”

You need other eyes, preferably professional eyes who will critique you honestly and tell you where the problems are. “Here’s some more articles on editing and my recommended editors,” says Penn.

 4) Have you submitted your book to the right categories on the ebook stores? Sorry, but not everyone will like your book. The category/genre reader has expectations and if you don’t ‘fit’ they will be disappointed. Match your readers’ expectations and the promise of what your book delivers with what your book is actually about. A great book on categories and Amazon algorithms is David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Visible.

 5) Have you optimized your Amazon sales page with a hook, quotes from reviews and other material? Treat the product description like a sales page. “People will not buy your book if your description is badly written or hard to understand because it’s an indication of the quality of your book,” explains Penn.

Read the other 5 questions you need to answer and find out how you can action them here. Number Ten is especially important, so please do read on!

As you can see, there is a significant investment the writer must make beyond writing the book itself. A professionally-produced book will earn a loyal readership, and excite the reader to explore your backlist.

Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers on the edge, as well as non-fiction for authors. I’m also a professional speaker and entrepreneur, voted as one of The Guardian UK Top 100 creative professionals 2013. Follow her on Twitter at @thecreativepenn.

Interested in more tips on selling books? Check out Sell More Books with Calls To Action at the End of Story

Let’s connect on Twitter! @TheRJLacko

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How to Use an Unreliable Narrator in Your Story

The character who is an unreliable narrator can be one of the most powerful tools available to a writer, telling the readers a story that the reader cannot take at face value. In this post, Now Novel, an excellent resource for writers, explains: “The unreliability may be obvious to the reader throughout the novel, may be revealed gradually or may come as a single revelation that results in a major plot twist. This may be because the point of view character is insane, lying, deluded or for any number of other reasons.”

In my novel, Radio Head, protagonist Shelby has undiagnosed schizophrenia. From her point of view, everyone has a song inside–and she can hear it. The reader is drawn into what may prove to be magical realism, or possibly the delusions of a mentally ill young woman.

illusions

What does the writer stand to gain from using an unreliable narrator to tell a story?
What is the purpose of the unreliable narrator in fiction? How can the writer ensure that the reader understands that the narrator is unreliable?

Here are highlights from the post:

The narrator is unreliable by the very nature of who that character is. Some stories are related by narrators by who are such terrible people that they cannot tell their stories objectively. In general, even people who commit the worst crimes do not go around thinking of themselves as monsters; they justify their actions to themselves. In Lolita, Vladimir Nabakov signals Humbert Humbert’s unreliability to the reader in a number of ways such as his outrageous claims, his endless justifications for shocking acts and his contempt for others. Alex from A Clockwork Orange is another example of a reprehensible character sharing his unreliable narrative of violence and mayhem with the reader.

The unreliable narrator can also be used to great effect in stories of crime and mystery. Both Agatha Christie’s classic novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and the recent Gillian Flynn best seller Gone Girl employ unreliable narrators whose lack of reliability is crucial to the construction of the mysteries at the hearts of both novels. In these types of books, the reader starts out trusting the narrator and it is only as the story goes on that something begins to seem amiss.

The unreliable narrator is not always deliberately deceptive. Sometimes, a narrator is unreliable due to youth or naïveté. The young autistic narrator of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon or the five-year-old narrator of Emma Donoghue’s Room are simply reporting the world as they understand it. These books rely on the readers to make inferences based on clues from the narrators and an assumption from the outset that due to the ages and circumstances of these characters, they are not always accurately interpreting what is happening around them.

The unreliable narrator can be of particular use to the writer of horror and supernatural fiction or fiction in which the writer wants the reader to question the line between fantasy and reality. A  recent example is Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi in which the reader may increasingly wonder about the reality of events as described by the narrator.

A narrator can be unreliable due to having incomplete or incorrect information although initially neither the narrator nor the readers is aware that this is the case. The narrator of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier initially misunderstands nearly everything she learns about her new husband’s dead wife, and therefore, the reader does as well.

Read the remainder of the post to learn how Lionel Shriver combined several of the above types in We Need to Talk About Kevin. The post also outlines the dangers of using an unreliable narrator and how to avoid them.

How have you used the unreliable narrator in your own writing?

Now Novel  is an organized, easy to use novel writing method. We help motivate and structure your writing process. Follow Now Novel on Twitter @nownovel.

Follow me on Twitter! @TheRJLacko

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