Tag Archives: criticism

Grounding Fantasy

Recently I was asked – by a long-time fan of one of my fanfics, which I am re-writing to be published as original fiction, as it was 97% original everything to begin with – how I manage to make the magic in my fantasy so realistic, subtle, and grounded. This had two results.

The first was that I had a moment of panic because the story they had been referring to is gaining some more …obvious and explosive magic in the re-write.

The second was the realisation that I didn’t actually know how I did it. So, I thought about it for a while and I realised the answer was goldfish. (No, I have not gone mad.)

You see, when I watch or read other works, I cannot turn off that part of be that acts like a belligerent toddler or a particularly sarcastic goldfish. Although I suppose I should specify that I mean a pop-cultural hypothetical goldfish, rather than a real one, as science has disproved the ‘fact’ that they only have three second memories. But I digress. Imagine that this stereotypical toddler is forever asking “Why?” and the stereotypical but snarky goldfish is always asking “How?” and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what goes through my head when I’m observing other fictions.

For example, back when the Lord of the Rings came out in film, I was watching the scenes in Moria and idly noticed that the characters must have superb balance to avoid falling off because there were no handrails in sight. That set the Sarky Goldfish off. Why are there no handrails? What kind of idiots make giants cities over ravines without handrails? Were they made of wood and simply disintegrated? NO dwarves wouldnt have used wood and if they were stone some of them should have remained. Do dwarves just have perfect balance? No elves are stated to have better balance and THE ELVEN CITIES HAVE FREAKING HANDRAILS. Besides, even if adult dwarves had epic balance skills and never, ever fell, dwarven children (you know, the ones who are always portrayed as rare and precious because ever since Tolkien did it dwarves do not reproduce quickly has been part of the Standard Fantasy Setting) would, because all children, in all species, are reckless idiots. Could it be a point of honour? Honour VS Practicality, City Planning Edition, Round One: TOTAL KNOCKOUT, PRACTICALITY WINS.

And on and on it goes. For every “it is this way” that does not match reality, the Sarky Goldfish in my head wants to know How and Why and won’t rest until it has a solid answer. For every “that can’t happen/be done” the Belligerent Toddler wants to know Why Not and will find a way if a suitably reasonable answer is not produced …or even if it is, because if it took too long the Belligerent Toddler will want to prove the answer-giver wrong. “It’s traditional”, by the way, is not a solid or reasonable answer. Nor are “Because” and “Just don’t think about it”. “Why Not”, on the other hand, is – so long as the question was “Why” and not “Why Not” or “How”.

So, you could say – if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like goldfish – that the answer is really just to think about it. Now, I’m sure some of you are shaking your heads and saying “But it’s fiction! It doesn’t have to be realistic! I shouldn’t have to think about it!” and I have one thing to say to that:

When you played with your blocks as a child you had to think about where to put them or they’d all come tumbling down on your head.  When you paint a picture you need to think about what you’re doing or you end up with a mess of squiggles and badly mixed brown. When you create new music – even if it’s jazz and improvised – you need to think about what you are doing so that you don’t make noises only deaf cicadas would love. And when you write fiction you have to think about the way the world you are creating works or it falls apart on you – but whereas child!You got a bruise when their blocks fell and some adult came to kiss it better, no one is going to tell you it’s okay and not your fault if your fiction falls apart because you didn’t construct it properly. Why? Because if you’re old enough to put it out in public, you’re old enough to take the heat for it.

Writing is hard, guys. Writing is WORK.


But I digress.

The reason fantasy authors like George R.R. Martin and Glen Cook (if you don’t know who that is LOOK HIM UP) can produce such high-quality writing, writing which is praised for being top-notch fantasy, is that the ground their fantasy in realism.

“Great,” you may say, “but not all of us have a goldfish living in their heads. What do we do?”.

Well, there are two things that work to ground fantasy – and all fiction, to be honest – in realism. The first is to treat the world you are writing as if it was real. But it’s just fiction? Not to the characters who live in it, I assure you. Not to the readers who want to be immersed in it, I assure you. It’s just fiction is an excuse that those who are too lazy, or too entitled, to put in effort hide behind when their half-assed attempts are not immediately hailed as the greatest thing ever. If you aren’t willing to put in the effort: you shouldn’t be writing. There’s enough crap on the market without you joining in.

The world you are creating may technically be just fiction, but good writing – and good authors – transcend that. Writers are often referred to as the God of their stories’ universe. What kind of evil, stupid god would you be if you created a real world but treated it like it wasn’t real enough to matter? Treat your fictional world as if it was a real one. Imagine you really are a god and you are creating the world. That means that, beyond the scope of the Adventure or Romance or whatever the story you are writing is, your world needs to make sense. It shows when worlds are invented to suit the whims of the plot and add tension. It shows in a bad way. People notice when you, say, don’t add handrails to a place where handrails ought to be in order to add Tension. So, what do you have to do? You have to think about the mechanics.

That’s the first thing. The second thing, which you have to do at the same time as the first thing, is to apply Logic.

I know. I know. It’s a scary Maths thing and it doesn’t seem fair to drag it into the world of Arts where you ran to get away from it, but it does need to be here.

In order to build you own Sarky Head-Goldfish and start grounding your fantasy in realism, you’ll want to apply three specific types of logic: Induction, Deduction, and Abduction (no! Not that kind! Don’t run off with that!). If it makes you feel better about adding something as icky as logic to your creative endeavours, put on a deerstalker cap and try not to think about the fact that, no matter what the original illustrations implied, Sherlock Holmes did not wear one of those.

Got your cap on? Great, let’s go.

Deduction is the logic system in which you reason out the definite specific from the definite general – i.e. Dwarves never build handrails. Moria was built by dwarves. Therefore, Moria does not have any handrails. Deductive reasoning – when used correctly, which Holmes did not because he said deductive when he meant a different sort of logic – always comes to a logically valid conclusion. Use this type of logic to determine what parts of your world must be like (conclusions), based on your previous statements of fact (premises). If they don’t line up, you’ll need to change either the facts (“dwarves never build handrails”) or the result (remove the dwarvish handrails from wherever you had included them).

Induction is the logic system in which you reason out a hypothetical general from the definite specifics. The conclusion reached by properly applied induction is a probable, but not a fact and not a mere possible. The evidence given by the specifics supports the likelihood of the conclusion being correct – i.e. Handrails keep people from falling off high things. Dwarves think the risk of falling off high things is a matter of honour. Therefore, dwarven cities probably don’t include handrails in dangerous places. Again, if these things do not stack up when you look at your work, you need to change something. Or, given that induction is about probability, to show in detail what element logically accounts for the gap left by whatever components failed to pass this reasoning test.

Abduction is the logic system in which your reason out a hypothetical specific from the definite general. It’s basically deduction, but questionable. It is also known as “inference to the best explanation” and is the form of logic we are all most familiar with. Why? Because if it looks like a duck, and it waddles like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. This, incidentally, is the kind of logic that Sherlock Holmes used – as the conclusions he reached were highly probable but not definite. The sheer complexity of human behaviour meant that Holmes was always speaking as certain (a lady of obviously middling means with callouses on her hands from typing is a professional typist) what was merely probable (she could also be a writer or a journalist, you know). This might not seem like a useful form of logic to apply to your fiction, but it’s actually one of the most important, because it allows you to play out the hypotheticals as you try to explain matters to a realistic conclusion – i.e. Dwarves do not build handrails. Dwarves are facing extinction because their children are few and often fail to survive. Therefore, dwarves are probably going extinct because their children keep falling to their deaths.

Then you apply the realism test to your conclusion. In this case: Would an intelligent species – which dwarves have to be if they’re building cities – really wait until they’re nearly extinct to add handrails? Probably not. All it would take would be one human child falling and, honour be damned, a human city council would be under immense pressure to add safety features. If dwarves are building cities they are probably sufficiently similar in psychology to assume that a similar reaction would occur (see that? That’s abduction again).

At this stage you’d do one of three things. Firstly, you could add handrails to nullify the Plot’s Hole’s cousin: Setting Hole (the adventures just happened to pass through the one place where the handrails have been destroyed and note that in text). Secondly you could make it a point that the dwarves cannot add handrails (or do but they keep being mysteriously destroyed) and are trying to keep their children safely away but they tragically keep slipping away and, er, slipping away anyway – in which case you’ve suddenly developed a new and interesting plot which you can write a story around. Lastly, you can nullify the premise which you find most problematic (for example: dwarves are actually facing an overpopulation crisis and breed like rabbits, so the lack of handrails is a deliberate population curbing method).



And after all of this you are probably wondering “But what about MAGIC? You said you were going to talk about MAGIC!”.

I did, and I did. Whatever rules you give your system of magic – if it even has a system the characters can understand, given that magic is a liminal force that exists in fiction to make us question what we are incapable of understanding and how to cope with the unknowable – you need to treat magic as if it is just as real in your world as practical things like handrails.

Ultimately, the way to ground magic – the way to make it seem like it actually exists – is to treat it like it actually exists.

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Posted by on March 21, 2017 in On Writing


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Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Needs No “Secretly Sci-Fi” Justification

I’ve been thinking for a while about how better to explain what I talked about (the difference between meaning and interpretation and why saying “the author meant” is not acceptable when the author has said otherwise) in the Death of the Author post without causing myself further blood pressure problems. It occurred to me that I had a very good example of how the Death of the Author has come to be misused in the rant on the worth of fantasy which I had been planning to do for a while.

What example? Well, there are an alarming number of Game of Thrones fan theorists (and even some of the actors!) who said that ASOIAF/GoT isn’t “really” fantasy and that it is really historical fiction/drama/sci-fi because it’s good quality and fantasy can’t be good. This is despite the fact (actual fact, not supposition) of what the author describes it as, what the publishers identified it as, and the fact that it contains fucking MAGIC.

Certain theorists even went so far, in pushing their “GoT is REALLY sci-fi” theory, to say that because GRRM wrote a lot of sci-fi before GoT must be sci-fi. The fallacious logic in that reasoning seems to have been that writers are only capable of writing in one genre and anything that disproves that must secretly be that genre anyway.

Here’s some actual proof that such reasoning and Fantasy-denial is absurd:

“Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true? … We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La. … They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.”

That’s a quote from George R.R. Martin. It’s from an essay of his called On Fantasy and it can be found on his website.

Now, if I was too daft to understand the difference between meaning and interpretation I might say that this is proof that what these people really mean is that they are too cowardly to admit that they may have been wrong to dismiss fantasy as “not quality” in the past and that they are therefore desperately clinging to the idea that it “can’t really be fantasy” in order to avoid admitting, even just to themselves, that they were wrong.

But unlike far too many literary critics, English teachers and fan theorists, I DO understand the difference between meaning and interpretation (and understand what the word proof actually means). So instead I will say: dear people who insist that A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones cannot be fantasy because it’s good; all you are doing is making it sound like you once looked down on fantasy and are now too pathetically afraid to admit that you might have to change your opinion.

See the difference? I’m not telling you what you meant. I’m telling you what it seems like you may have meant. And that’s how does all of this ties into what I was saying last time about the misuse of the Death of the Author and why it needs to stop. It’s not okay that they’re saying (because they don’t like fantasy) the fantasy book is in fact a [insert genre of choice]. It’s not. It can also be interpreted as [other genre] but it is still a fantasy. The only fact about a book’s genre comes from which genre the author and publishers place it within. Everything else (from fan theorists, actors, literary critics, and English teachers) is interpretation, not fact, and should not be presented in the language of facts (“is” “meant/meaning” “really meant/is”, etc).

Here: have a comparison. If you go out cloud gazing you will see clouds. That is a fact. They are clouds. There is nothing to debate on that and no ‘one true theory’ to prove. They’re clouds. The beauty of cloud gazing is that you can look up at those clouds and ALSO see ships and castles, dragons and ice cream cones. But your interpretation of that cloud as an ice cream cone does not make it an ice cream cone instead of a cloud. It’s still a fucking cloud. Your friend might see a chainsaw wielding clown instead of an ice cream cone. Neither of you is right and neither of you is wrong. Each of you has a valid interpretation – because all interpretations are valid ways of looking at something – but no matter how valid your way of looking at the cloud (as an ice cream cone or otherwise) is, that does not make the cloud any less a cloud. Nor does it actually turn the cloud into an ice cream cone.

And this, I think, is something which gets forgotten all too often – by fan theorists who can’t bring themselves to admit that fantasy can be quality literature, by English teachers and literary critics who cannot accept that they should be saying “it can be interpreted as” rather than “it is” …all of these people who are seeking to find “the truth” about a book or “prove” their theory about what something “meant”. (Note: meant is an intention word: if you are saying the book meant something you are saying that the author meant something. Do not put words in people’s mouths. It’s rude and insulting.) In other words: these people are treating art as if it is science. It’s not. There is no “one true interpretation” of a work. There is no prize for figuring out the “truth” about what something “means”.  There is what the artist meant (their intentions) and what other people see in it. There is just the one cloud and people imagining ice cream cones and castles in it. But those ice cream cones and castles are under no obligation to actually be there. Art isn’t science. Science is the realm of single correct answers and definite truths. Art is the realm of one creator’s meaning (“Look, a cloud!”) and all the ways the audience can say “that cloud looks like an ice cream to me”.

That IS the beauty and glory of art.


(This is getting a bit too long for me to say everything else I want to say, so tune in at some point in the – hopefully – near future for Fantasy Is Fantastic, Thanks, part two.)

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Posted by on June 14, 2016 in On Writing


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The It’s Easy and It’s Hard Fallacies

I called this blog L.C. Morgenstern’s Fantasy, Fiction and Folklore Rants and today it’s earning its name.


In my experience people who are not writers tend to fall into two groups – the ones who want to be writers and the ones who don’t – and each of those groups has a typical fallacy they fall into when they think about what it means to be a writer. Worse, they tend to overlap – people who decide they want to be writers often get a harsh slap in the face from reality and thus fall straight from the It’s Easy Fallacy into the It’s Hard Fallacy.

THE IT’S EASY FALLACY: Don’t get me wrong: anyone who can make a living off writing is extremely lucky to be able to work in an industry that they love. But people tend to forget the two key words in there: WORK and INDUSTRY. Writing is a job. It can be a job you love and which come easier to you than, say, lifting heavy boxes all day, but it’s still work and work takes effort. Moreover, writing is part of the entertainment industry. People can cry about how writing is an art all they want, but ultimately art is an industry and industry is about working to earn a living. All work requires effort. Physical work requires physical effort. Creative work requires mental effort. Most of the work may take place inside your head, but that doesn’t mean it’s not work or that the only effort required is in the finger muscles. No one would say that an accountant, for instance, doesn’t have to put in effort and work to do their job, even though it’s mostly mental (and calculators). No one would say that a businessman thinking through what deals to make and how to keep their business running doesn’t work because there’s no physical effort involved. Yet people feel free to say that writers have it “easy” because they get to do something they love and it “doesn’t take effort” because it’s not physical. That’s bullshit. Firstly because writing does take effort – if you don’t put the effort in you get at best cliché-filled, cardboard trash copied directly off the work (and effort!) of those who have come before and at worst tlty epc fanfics liek plz R&R cuz liek its no a marysue dontliek dontread mean!!!1!. (For the record, it physically hurt to write that.) All creative work takes effort. Secondly, however, it’s bullshit because there are plenty of non-artistic jobs which the employees can count themselves lucky to have because they love the work. Sure, there are huge numbers of people who hate their jobs, but I’ve known plenty of business people, doctors, scientists, teachers, accountants and others with “not creative therefore not fun” jobs who loved their work – the challenges of it, especially – and who would have been utterly miserable as a writer because that wasn’t what gave them joy.

But I’ve seen far, far too many fools who believe that the world is divided into black and white – and therefore that either you have a job you enjoy (meaning you cannot complain about the bits which you don’t like or even admit that it’s not so easy that you don’t really have to do anything) or that you don’t have a job doing art what you love (which must be hard and complaint-worthy). Artistic jobs, writing included, are not akin to ordering a slice of cake in a five star restaurant and then complaining about how much effort lifting the silver spoon is. Artistic jobs are arriving at nine in the morning at that five star restaurant, using your employee ID to get into the kitchen for your shift and working – baking, washing, scrubbing, cooking, cutting, icing, stirring, etc – until midnight, only occasionally getting to pause to glance out at the dinner rush where other people are eating the slices of cakes you made (and rolling your eyes as they complain about how they would have iced it differently and it takes effort to raise their silver spoons) …and, if you love your job – if you love creating art – then watching other people enjoy what you made is worth the effort. Reading is getting to eat cake. Reading and then complaining about the effort is like buying cake and then complaining that you have to eat it. Writing is baking the cake, while rushing to keep up with other orders and keep the kitchen from being set on fire, and then not getting to eat it because you didn’t make it for you. You made it for the ungrateful twats who think digesting is a huge effort on their parts. You have to love the act of making, rather than the product.

Sadly, the It’s Easy Fallacy is extremely prevalent and – like a customer in a restaurant who can’t understand that no the customer is not always right – many, many people then assume that the cooks/artists don’t have to put in any effort and that anyone can do it because it’s easy. Kind of like the customers who berate their servers for being “idiots” and then go on to say that they could totally have made that five star meal at home cheaper and better …and then try it. Sometimes by storming into the restaurant kitchen to show everyone that they obviously can make a better five star meal because being a chef takes no effort. It’s Easy. Anyone can do it.

These people tend to get one hell of a whack in the face from reality when they step into the kitchen and realise they have no idea what the recipe includes or what all the strange items (i.e. the oven) actually are. Sometimes they leave the kitchen wailing about how it’s not fair because it’s supposed to be Easy. Sometimes, far FAR less often, they roll up their sleeves, wash their hands and admit that maybe they could use a cookbook. The second type take a few tries to produce something that’s even marginally edible and many will never make it to being five star chefs, but they do make something because they’ve accepted that it’s not easy and it takes effort – but they also enjoy the work and that makes it all worth it. The first type, however, run away the moment they hit…


THE IT’S HARD FALLACY: (Or should that be “But it’s haaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrd!!!1!”) The modern generation has grown up being told that they could be anything they wanted when they grew up (proven bullshit – evidence: I’m not a turtle), that art is “easy” (primarily because school teachers don’t give honest critiques of art by students due to pressure to not be negative and therefore being overly-praising of everything), and that writing isn’t “work” so it should be cheap or free (fuck you for that, by the way, Amazon, printing the books was NOT the highest costing part of making them and you didn’t need to shoot the industry in the kneecaps with 0.99-2.99 sales ranges for things which could easily cost 15-20 to make given how many hours writers spend, the editors and illustrators wages, etc, way to destroy the industry with your eBooks). In other, less aggressive, words, people have been taught that writing is easy and that they should get riches and praise for stringing so much as two words together while simultaneously insisting that they shouldn’t have to pay for it just like they don’t pay for roads and other government funded things which improve their lives (which would be just fine and dandy if the government was giving artists a living wage out of the readers’ taxes, but they AREN’T). 99% of writing on the market (and in fanfiction) is trash at the moment because society has recently decided that it’s wrong to tell someone, no matter how gently, that they’re crap at something even when they are extremely crap at it. Instead we are expected to lie and tell them that it’s really good – and that’s not fair on either party.

What all of this means is that when someone who is not a writer by nature tries writing, on the assumption that “Everyone has a book in them” and “writing is easy” they quickly discover that actually …they don’t and it’s not. Unfortunately, the idea that writing a book is a cool thing to do means that many, many of these people refuse to accept that writing is just not their thing and keep going. Note that I don’t say “persevere”. Persevere implies some level of dignity. Someone who persevered in writing I could respect. But not these people. These people proudly call themselves “Writers” while bewailing that they have no ideas, that writing is haaaaaaaaaaaaaard and that they have writer’s block – when they do manage to string words together the character’s are flatter than cardboard, the setting and plot are both wholly unoriginal and filled with more plot holes and inconsistencies than things which make sense, and the technical side of the writing (grammar and word use) could have been done better by a bright five year old! News flash, people, it doesn’t matter what genre you write in – be it paranormal romance or dystopian or erotica or drama or genre busting things with penguins – if you are a writer you have ideas, you enjoy the hard work of finding the perfect word and editing the damn grammar (even as you curse it), you take the time to understand human psychology so that you can write 3D characters, you put some damn effort into making the plot and setting work and more often than not you can’t not-write because your head will explode from all the ideas if you don’t!

It’s like with cake. If you find that measuring all the ingredients, exerting yourself mixing them and having the patience to wait while it cooks is “too haaard” admit you’re not a fucking baker and go by one someone else made.


No matter how easy you find the creation process (assuming you’ve even tried it, which most of the It’s Easy Fallaciers have not) you don’t have the right to equate easy with effortless and then tell people who are talking about the exertion that they have no place to complain. Likewise, no matter how hard you find something, you have no business wailing that you are a “writer” and “love writing” but find the entire process “too haaard” (in that case you’re a liar on both counts).


Please consider the following: three people are set to climb Mount Everest.

Climber 1 reaches base camp and wails “But it’s soooooo haaaaaaaard. It’s supposed to be easy! Everyone says it’s easy! I thought there was an elevator to take me uuuuup! CARRY ME!”

Climber 2 turns to Climber 1 and says “If you don’t like mountain climbing, why don’t you go home and do something you’ll enjoy?”

Climber 1 replies “But I’m a Mountain Climbeeeer!” Climber 1 then sits down at base camp and refuses to climb the mountain, insisting that Climber 2 and Climber 3 will have to carry them and that they should be nice about their criticism.

Climber 3, meanwhile, puts on the minimum of climbing gear, gets into their hired helicopter and is flown to the top of the mountain – having never actually climbed the mountain – and waits for the others at the top, mentally congratulating themselves for having climbed a mountain and reiterating that mountain climbing is easy and effortless because they love it.

Climber 2 scales the mountain alone, weighted down by their equipment. Their arms, fingers and legs ache, they experience utter dread as they fight with the cold and the thinning air and eventually, eventually, with much blood and sweat, they make it to the top. Climber 2 looks down exhausted and, while Climber 3 watches, hoots. “That was so much effort!” Climber 2 exclaims in exhilaration. “What a challenge! …Damn that last crevasse did a number on my gloves.”

Climber 3 watches this in disgust and sneers, “You said you love mountain climbing. How dare you imply that it takes effort to climb a mountain – I didn’t put in any effort and here I am! You shouldn’t complain about hard bits in something you love, as if that can exist! Bah, humbug.”

At this point Climber 2 pushes Climber 3 off the top of the mountain because they don’t get that loving something doesn’t make it perfect and the challenge – the effort – is the point, and Climber 3 wails “it’s easyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” as they fall to their deaths in the valley of bright-jacketed corpses of climbers who didn’t make it.


I’m sure this is going to piss some people off. I don’t really care. ALL WORK TAKES EFFORT. THAT’S WHY IT’S CALLED WORK. No matter how much you love something there will be things you don’t enjoy tied up in it. It’s never wrong to grouse about those things. It is wrong to claim you love something when all you do is whine (not grouse) about the bits you don’t like and don’t like any of it. There is a difference. Learn it. And don’t go about claiming that writing doesn’t take work because that’s the sort of bullshit which encourages the selfish and over-privileged to demand that writers do their job for free. Would you ask a businessman to run their company for free? Of course you fucking wouldn’t: it’s their JOB.

Art isn’t easy. No kind of art is. It’s never perfect either, and while someone who gets to do something they love for a living has less to complain about, it doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to complain – but if all you do is complain, instead of complaining about certain bits only and enjoying the effort, why are you writing? Writing isn’t just one thing. It’s the art of putting lots of things together – all arts are; and a whole extra truck load of other parts come into play once you’re trying to make it a profession.

The art of making art …is putting it together. The good and the bad. The ease and the effort – not one or the other – both easy and hard. That’s the state of the art.



Flame war in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

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Posted by on February 1, 2016 in On Writing


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