Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What makes for a great thriller?

We have an open slot in the AuthorCulture schedule today, so I thought I'd give y'all some insight into a specific form of genre writing—the thriller. Jessica Strawser posted an interview with David Morrell and Ken Follett. Follett is a legendary thriller author whose break-out novel was the 1978 book Eye of the Needle. David Morrell’s first book in 1972, First Blood, introduced the character of John Rambo. (Both books were made into iconic movies.)

In this snip from the article, Ken and David talk a little about what makes a thriller.

What do both of you think are the really essential elements to a thriller? When you’re developing that outline, what has to be in there?

KF: Well, I always say thrillers are about people in danger. And while it’s easy enough to think up a dangerous situation to put the people in, the challenge then is to draw that out for 100,000 words in such a way that the danger is constantly present, that the story is still developing internally. There’s a rule of thumb that says every four to six pages the story should turn. If you leave it longer than that, people start to get bored. If it’s shorter than that, it’s too frenetic. And a story turn is anything that changes the situation for the characters, so it could be quite minor—somebody telling a little lie—but it’s a story turn. And so the challenge for me is not thinking of dangerous situations to put the people in—that’s easy. The challenge is then drawing out that suspense, their responses to it, their interactions with one another, their interactions with the bad guys, and making that into a consistent drama that lasts 100,000 words.

DM: Reversal and recognition, Aristotle said. You know, that a twist causes the character to understand something about him- or herself that wasn’t there before. Aristotle in some ways had it all—I discovered if you change the words that are in the translations, it sounds like a modern writing book. And reversal and recognition is a pretty cool thing.

In Ken’s work, particularly Eye of the Needle—what makes that a place in thriller literature, and I like to think First Blood is the same way—neither book feels like a genre book. It has umpteen action scenes and all of that, but we believe that this story is happening to actual people. The element of believability.

Anybody who sits down to write and they think thriller maybe shouldn’t be thinking that way. Maybe we should be thinking novel, maybe thriller way in the background, but that these are real people to whom things are happening. It just happens to be a hell of an exciting story.

I highly recommend reading the rest of the article. It's a long, luxurious, in-depth peek into how these authors write. Morrell is more of a classic pantser while Follett's devotion to the outline is stunning. (He says he typically spend between six months and a year on the outline before he begins writing, and explains his process in some detail.) The entire post is fascinating and well worth the read even if you don't write thriller stories.
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Monday, July 25, 2011

Resource Roundup - Lots of Little Things Today

Most of these links will be helpful if you write historical fiction of any type. But there are other genres that would find a couple of these links helpful, too.

Need to know about vintage hats, anyone?

Or how about the parts of furniture? When you need that illusive synonym this site can be very handy. Don't forget to check out the categories on the side.

Struggling with how to describe your heroine's purple dress from 1862? Or simply need a dress to throw on her? Check out this site:

This is a LONG list of internet sites that do reviews of books. Great promotion opportunities here!

I love the food timeline found at:

And here are a few links for design elements. Whether you need a background for your website, book cover, or whatever.

I played for way too long with this tartan creator.

Here is a reflection maker:

A Stripe Generator:

And a navigation tab generator:

If you are designing your own website GRSites.Com has a ton of helpful backgrounds and other nifty stuff. This link goes to their huge database of background textures, but don't forget to explore the other offerings on their site - there's LOTS there.

And that's it for today, folks. Have a super week. And if you have some other nifty websites to share along these lines, feel free to do so in the comments.
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Friday, July 22, 2011

Luke Sees A Therapist

What do you do when your favorite genre hero has issues?

Link courtesy of Blastr.
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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lessons From the Prose - The Great Gatsby

I'm taking liberties with this edition of Lessons From The Pros to point you to Roger Ebert's recent post about reading literacy, the power of prose, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's mastery of literary style with his classic novel, The Great Gatsby. There's something to be said here about what makes a good story into a great novel. Ebert introduces his piece with a bit of compare / contrast:

I noticed the particular beauty of its conclusion. After the whole doomed scenario has played out, Nick looks once again across the waters of the Sound:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an ├Žsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Evocative. Poetic. Perfect. Too good, in fact, for the "intermediate level" readers of the Macmillan Reader edition of the novel, as "retold by Margaret Tarner."*

Read her closing words:

Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.

Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.

Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?
About the novel - that work is widely considered to be one of the quintessential examples of the Great American Novel, and is ranked second in a list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. Fitzgerald was a master stylist, and crafted his tales in a unique fashion. "Literary opinion makers were reluctant to accord Fitzgerald full marks as a serious craftsman. His reputation as a drinker inspired the myth that he was an irresponsible writer; yet he was a painstaking reviser whose fiction went through layers of drafts. Fitzgerald’s clear, lyrical, colorful, witty style evoked the emotions associated with time and place."

And so, knowing all that about this singular writer and his incomparable novel, who would try to rewrite Gatsby? A novel is more than just the journalistic recording of a story, it is about the craft and artistry and singular voice by which the novel is rendered.

"I learn that the Margaret Tarner "retelling" employs an Intermediate Level vocabulary of "about 1,600 basic words." Upper Level students can feast on 2,200 basic words.

There are so many things I want to say about this that even an Upper Level vocabulary may prove inadequate.

The first is: There is no purpose in "reading" The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald's novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby's lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald's style--in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.
There is a place for style, for artistry. I love looking at how novels are started. Consider the difference between "I am a lonely sailor" and "Call me Ishmael." Contrast "It was a cold, hard winter" versus "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." Literary prose is more than just the telling of a story, it is also how that story is told.

We were talking about this among ourselves recently, noting that readers are smart and don't need nearly as much hand-holding to understand a story as you might think. Part of the brilliance of the original Star Wars novel (which we now know as Episode Four, A New Hope) was how George Lucas plopped us right in the middle of a much larger story without explaining all the back story. Lucas (and his ghost writer for that novel, Alan Dean Foster) introduced the desert planet of Tatooine and its binary stars. It was not necessary to detail all the history leading up to that moment. Without prologue, Lucas started right off with a fleeing cruiser being attacked by a pursuing Imperial Star Destroyer. In the first five pages, he introduces the two droids, the massive Dark Lord of the Sith, and the mysterious Princess.

It is enough. We're hooked. And if you can cultivate the unique voice of an F. Scott Fitzgerald, you not only have the events of the story, but also the artisty of the author and his prose. Tell your own story. Develop your own voice.

* I'm as quick as any to point out the need to be aware of one's audience, and context is important. Roger amended his post to reflect that Tarner's book was written for students of English as a second language. He adds "If it is, my question would be: Why not have ESL learners begin with Young Adult novels? Why not write books with a simplified vocabulary? Why eviscerate Fitzgerald? Why give a false impression of Jay Gatsby?" Fair question.
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Friday, July 15, 2011

Fabulously Fun Friday: Poor Pronouns

This one comes compliments of Lorna G. Poston. Click on the image for a larger view.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review of The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference

Any book claiming to be a “complete reference” guide is setting itself a mighty high bar to reach. The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference doesn’t come anywhere close to offering a complete view of such a vast subject as fantasy fiction, but, for readers willing to accept its limitations, it still presents a handy reference manual and more than few sparks of inspiration.

But, first, its faults: The subject matter is aimed almost entirely at writers of high fantasy. Urban, contemporary, and steampunk authors (among others) won’t find much of use here. Even just a cursory glance through the book shows that it focuses on the history, weaponry, and clothing of the Middle Ages. (And, in fact, the book could almost have been written for authors of medieval historical fiction as much as for authors of fantasy.)

The entries, each written by a different author, come together in an uneven whole. The book opens with a few chapters on cultures (including what I felt was the most eye-opening chapter of the book, which focused on little-known and -used cultures, which authors could use to step away from the typical fantasy stereotypes of medieval western Europe), then dives into two heavyweight chapters on magic and follows up with relatively brief (and, in my opinion, as someone who’s studied medieval history, incomplete) chapters on commerce, costumes, warfare, and castles. Chapters on fantasy races—both classic and lesser known—were interesting, but didn’t offer much new information or much inspiration for creating original creatures.

Despite its limitations, however, I did feel the book offered a decent overview of fantasy standards and stereotypes, which should prove useful to beginning authors. Even better, its glossaries of fantasy and medieval terms are a handy addition to the resource shelf, if you plan to write anything that will feature castles and swords. This is certainly isn’t a must-read for fantasy authors, but if you can pick up a copy cheap somewhere, you may find it has its uses.
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Monday, July 11, 2011

Why Your Reader Is Your Co-Writer

Authors would save themselves a lot of work if they would just remember they have a partner in this storytelling game. Their readers. Literature, more than any other art form, is a collaboration between writer and reader. The writer provides the building materials—the plot, characters, dialogue, and details—which the reader then uses to construct a visual and auditory story in his imagination.

The more involved our readers, the more vivid their reading experience will become—and the better our stories will be. The trick for authors is figuring out how to get out of the reader’s way and let him personify our stories in a way that brings the action and emotion to unforgettable life. In his writing craft book Unless It Moves the Human Heart, Roger Rosenblatt compares this partnership to the one we see every time we go to the movies:

…great movie actors leave the work to the audience. …They just say their pieces and the moviegoers fill in the emotions. A good writer does the same thing. If you have something worthwhile to say and you just say it, plainly and clearly, your reader will add in his or her life and feel it personally. Your reader will think it was you who gave him the depth of feeling that’s unearthed. But all you did was hint at it. It was he who dredged up the great heartbreak, or delirium, or outrage at injustice. You merely created the sparking words.

Have you read a book or watched a movie that connected you to the characters in such a way that you could almost hear their unspoken thoughts? The Bourne trilogy, Black Hawk Down, While You Were Sleeping, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and The Kid are just a handful of movies with the ability to accomplish this for me—and, naturally, they’re all perennial favorites as a result.

Good actors make this kind of understatement an art. What the likes of Matt Damon, Russell Crowe, and Bruce Willis can accomplish with a facial quirk and a moment of silence requires more effort and thought from a novelist, since descriptions of character expressions don’t usually carry the same weight as their visual equivalents. Below are a few tricks you can utilize to leave room for your reader to fill in the blanks in a powerful and personal way.

1. Speak plainly. Don’t confuse understatement with ambiguity. Readers shouldn’t be left to wonder what you mean. If your character is angry/ecstatic/terrified/guilt-ridden, spell it out.

2. Don’t over-explain. Don’t feel you need to explain every little thought and emotion that pops into your character’s heads. Once you’ve shown the reader what’s going on inside the character’s mind, move on.

3. Don’t under-explain. Internal narrative is our gift to our readers. Unless you’re going for a Hemingway-esque style (which isn’t recommended, unless you’re Hemingway), don’t skimp on internal narrative. Balance—just the right amount, no more, no less—is the key to effective narrative.

4. Rely on unique and evocative action beats. Authors aren’t able to achieve the same nuance of personality and emotion as actors on the screen (saying your character stared moodily or quirked an eyebrow really won’t convey all that much to your reader). But we can utilize physical responses unique to our characters and their situations to help readers see our cast as realistic and unique human beings.

5. Rely on dialogue. The subtext offered by dialogue—subtext that often says something entirely different from the words themselves—gives us a marvelous opportunity for understatement. Ideally, your dialogue should be so crisp and original that readers will have no difficulty hearing the character’s voice and all its many shades of meaning.

6. Show, don’t tell. Finally, this oft-repeated bit of advice bears sharing once more. If you have a choice between saying your character is angry, having him think Oh, I’m so angry, or showing him heaving a raw chicken at someone’s head in a fit of temper—always opt for the latter.

The art of bringing the reader in as a co-writer is ultimately the entire art of fiction. But these few tips will give you a head-start as you seek to deepen your stories and bring your characters to life.
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Friday, July 8, 2011

Fabulously Fun Friday ~ Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers are an author's worst nightmare. Oh, but the chuckle they bring when we know what the author meant but the literal meaning of the sentence is just, well, hilarious. I've been all over the internet collecting these gems just for your enjoyment. Happy Friday, everyone!

  • The baby was delivered, the cord clamped and cut, and handed to the pediatrician, who breathed and cried immediately.
  • The patient lives at home with his mother, father, and pet turtle, who is presently enrolled in day care three times a week.
  • Running quickly in the winter air, my nose got cold.
  • At the beginning of the novel, Tom Joad comes across a turtle on his way home from spending four years in prison.
  • Only people with cars that live in dorms should be allowed to park in those lots.
  • My cousin went on and on, describing the details of her wedding in the elevator.
  • We saw dinosaurs on a field trip to the natural history museum.
  • I found my missing baseball glove cleaning my room.
  • Don't try to pat the dog on the porch that is growling.
  • Blaring from the stereo, I didn't recognize the strange music.
  • The guest speaker had dedicated his new book to his dog who was an archaeologist.
  • The smoke alarm went off while cooking my dinner.
  • We saw the trapeze artist swinging dangerously through our binoculars.
  • The library has several books about dinosaurs in our school.
  • I sent a poster to Mom rolled in a tube.
  • Sitting on the telephone wire, he saw a meadowlark.
  • While scuba diving in the ocean, a jellyfish stung me.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Some Traditional Publishing Statistics w/ a Focus on the Broad Christian Fiction Genre

About a month ago I created a survey with SurveyMonkey and put the word out to all my traditionally published author friends on several networks asking them to anonymously answer the questions. The parameters of the survey were this: 1. Their book had to have been out for at least 6 months, and 2. They had to be published with a traditional, royalty paying house. (I was actually surprised at the number of people who didn't know their terms or the number of copies they'd sold. There were also a few people who answered the survey who didn't fall into the above two parameters, I'm sure.)

What I really wanted to know was approximately how many copies of traditionally published books sell, because I wanted to compare the number of self-published books I would have to sell to make as much money as I would selling an average number of traditionally published books. (You make approximately 5-6 times more money per copy selling a self published book, as you do a traditionally published one. There are a lot of factors to consider, so that number is just an average.)

We are in such a segment of upheaval in the publishing business that I'm beginning to wonder if it might not be more beneficial to an author to simply launch out with self publishing, instead of going with a traditional house. But I wanted to do due diligence and look at some stats first. (Also, inquiring minds want to know... that kind of thing.)

So first, here is the file with each person's answers - 56 people took the survey. If there is a "?" in a box, it it because that particular person did not answer that question. You will see that most of the people who took the survey are published in Christian Fiction of some sort - mostly a type of romance. The questions on the survey were: 1. What genre are you published in? 2. What year did the book you are reporting on come out? 3. Does your publisher have distribution to Brick and Mortar stores? 4. What was the amount of your advance? 5. How many copies have sold? 6. What is the retail price of your book? and 7. What are the terms of your contract?

(Sorry about the quality of the document - some of the lines between cells converted differently than others.)

TraditionalPublishingQuestionaireResponses (2)

I found these stats quite interesting - and I'm not even a numbers person. I was a little surprised to see that, if you average out the sales, it came to almost 26K copies sold. Honestly, I thought it would be lower than that. However, a few of the highest selling books were priced at only $5.99 - so that is a big factor to consider and makes me wonder if some of those weren't romance club books with a huge built in audience - if so, that could be throwing the numbers off - but is still a factor to consider. 

So, if you choose to go the self publishing route, that would mean you would need to sell just over 5,000 copies to make as much as the average traditionally published author does.

Advances were another interesting factor, to me. You'll notice that most of the advances were under $10,000. Even if they got right at 10K, after taxes and paying an agent if they have one, that puts the author getting just over $5,000 for themselves - and they are supposed to live on that until their first royalty check, which they won't see for at least a year and a half after they get their advance. (Probably longer than that, for most.) Looking at that you can see why most authors also have a dreaded "day job."

Anyhow, I hope these stats might be helpful to you all in some way! What surprises you about these? Anything you arent' surprised about? Does this make you want to self publish, or stick with traditional houses? And if you have links to any other stats, feel free to link to them in the comments.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Marketing: What's Working for Me

Unless you're fortunate enough to have a publicist--and in some cases, even if you are--you're like the rest of us: trying to muddle through the marketing maze. Many of you are wise enough, and have time enough, to dig through the ever-growing mountain of marketing blogs, books, sites, and tips. If you're like me and life threw you several consecutive curve balls, you didn't have time to tackle the mountain. "Muddle through" is the correct phrase for the business end of your marketing and promotions.

My novel, Give the Lady a Ride, debuted in March, and while I haven't been as meticulous as I would've liked about charting sales-to-efforts ratios, I do have an inkling of what's working for me. One caveat here: What works for me may not work for others. I excel at grabbing and/or creating personal opportunities. Most every other writer I know excels at marketing on the Internet. But the Internet is a fickle lover, and it moves on quickly when you're not attentive, proving the "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" maxim. If my life hadn't been in such turmoil over the bulk of this year, the sales results may have been different.

So far, the most sales I make is through physical interaction with the readers. Coming in at number two are the early blog tours I scheduled. (But for those blog tours to work, or for any cyber-event to work, you have to start building your platform long before you're published.) I tried other tools, aside from socializing on the Internet and writing blog posts on all my sites. I'll enumerate some of these for you here:

March through June marketing and promotion activities:
  • A debut tour of at least twenty-seven blogs, which included reviews, interviews, guest posts, and giveaways
  • A cyber-party
  • Newspaper ads
  • A local debut party/book signing
  • A hosted book signing at a local festival
  • A sale booth at a festival out of town (I love these festivals. They'll be a permanent part of my marketing efforts from now on)
  • Ad campaigns on Goodreads and Facebook
  • Stocking my books in offbeat stores (at first, just a pharmacy and a hair salon, each of which sold out twice) as well as local bookstores
  • Individual efforts of myself, family, and friends (included in this is the time my mother sold two books while receiving a blood transfusion, and three more after surgery the following month. Where else could you find this kind of dedication?)
The only way I can measure how my efforts in cyberspace do is through my sales info page on Amazon. Amazon sales were just a small percentage of my overall sales. In fact, over the four months, Amazon sales made up just over one-fifth of my total sales. Is this an accurate measure? I doubt it--especially since Barnes & Noble wouldn't allow me an author page, so I have no clue how many sold there. If the number is comparable to Amazon, it would bring Internet sales up to almost half of my overall sales.

Goodreads and Facebook Ads

Whether you want to call these "effective" depends on what you're trying to achieve. Have I wasted my money? I don't know. Let me break them down for you:


The ad was far less expensive than the Facebook ad, which is one thing going for it. It's also less confusing and easier to design and purchase. With both Goodreads and Facebook, you get a report illustrating how many times your ad was visible on the site and how many times someone "clicked" on it. With Goodreads, the result you're hoping for is "Book Added," meaning someone clicked on the ad, then put the book on their "wish" list, which, of course, you hope will translate into sales.

I ran four campaigns through two months, which resulted in having my book added thirteen times. However, between the ads and the two giveaways I've held on the site, I have a total of 175 "book added" clicks and 146 folks holding it on their "to read" list. That means 163 people added the book as a result of the two giveaways.

Will this result in actual sales? Hasn't yet. As for the ads, the months I ran them were the worst Amazon months I recorded. Still, we'll see.


Facebook gave me plenty of exposure, and when you consider how many folks are on the site, that's not too surprising. Facebook charges more per click than Goodreads does, which can eat through your daily budget pretty quickly. But both sites allow you to design your ad campaigns around your budget, and the amount you spend is totally up to you.

As with Goodreads, the months I ran the Facebook ads were my worst months on Amazon; however, the number of people on my fan page tripled. (I'm small-fry, so if you go to the Give the Lady a Ride fan page, you won't see an impressive number. But hey, since you're there, hit "like" for me, will ya?--oh, and that brings out another point. Don't do what I did and have a fan page for your book. Make it an author page. I'm still smacking my head over that gaffe.)

From what I can tell, most of my fans have already read the book, so I don't expect this to turn into sales, but . . . you never know. Fans have friends.

At this point, I want to go back and reiterate some of the things I said at the beginning of this post. Between the illnesses and deaths in my family--the curve balls I mentioned--I haven't been able to dedicate as much time to marketing as I should. The fact that I procrastinated in my marketing studies, and subsequently didn't have time for them after all the crises hit, doesn't help anything. I'm certain there are far more effective tools out there than what I'm using, and people who are far more effective using them. And I'd bet they got that way by studying early. Free advice: don't procrastinate.

For me, my best marketing tool is physical contact. I'm looking forward to my speaking engagements and late fall festivals. Interacting with people, shaking hands, swapping stories, allowing my picture to be taken with them--these work best for me. It'll take much longer for me to become a nationwide "name," but in the meantime, I'm enjoying it.

Marketing guru/author Jim Rubart impressed me at the ACFW conference last year. He gave those of us in attendance of his course the easiest and least expensive marketing gimick around. Paraphrasing, he said, "Whenever you go somewhere, someone will ask, 'how are you?' The perfect response for an author is 'Great! I have a new book out!' That's the best conversation starter there is."

Let me add to his advice: Have a supply of books in your car. You'll be surprised how many spontaneous sales you'll make.
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Friday, July 1, 2011

The Writing Clock

My writing is at the 8 o'clock mark, which means I'm at the pathetic stage. You know how the writing clock goes, don't you?

1:00 = I am off to a fabulous start. Darn, I'm good.

2:00 = I love the way my beginning scenes are coming together. There's fire in my veins.

3:00 = I can write! My readers will love this. I'm even keeping my office neat and tidy.

4:00 = I don't feel like writing today. Help me, Lord.

5:00 = I'm in a dry spell, but I will write because I AM A WRITER!

6:00 = Where was I going with this story? Gotta reread the entire STUPID thing!

7:00 = This stinks so bad I have to put a clothespin on my nose while I write.

8:00 = I cannot write. My readers will hate this. My office is starting to smell like dirty socks.

9:00 = Yow! I have to start winding this down! This is worse than the underside of a bad quilt.

10:00 = Where did all these loose ends come from? God, I need SUPER DIVINE WISDOM!

11:00 = I see it! I see it! It's coming together. Thank you, Lord!

12:00 = The End! I can't imagine putting myself through this again, but, alas, another story is brewing.
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