Writing a World Building Style Guide

Bible_and_Key_Divination.jpgToday, I wanted to talk about style guides. No, not the Chicago Manual of Style.  I’m talking about self-generated style guides that serve as a bible for your universe(s). I’ve been working with the Human Legion recently, and I’ve spent some time organizing world building notes spanning multiple authors. Different authors, writing different series, but in the same universe.

The solution, for me, was apparent — compile the notes and make a style guide to ensure consistency. This was easier said than done. Let’s talk about how to make one, what it can do, and potential information to keep within it.

A style guide, for those of you unfamiliar, is a tool to create consistency throughout a story, world, or universe. It is tremendously helpful to an editor, because it will show them invented words, character information, and world background. We’ve talked about World Builder’s Disease before, a style guide is a great place to dump the info filling your brain.

World Builder's Disease MemeIt should be noted, some of this information is only useful if you are writing within a large world or universe. Depending on the scope of your work, you may not need an elaborate style guide. It would be useful to create a short style guide for an editor. This becomes more essential if you have created words or are utilizing an odd stylistic device.

Before I jump into what to include, I wanted to mention how a style guide will save you time. When I first started working with the Legion, they had tons of reference documents. These documents were contained within multiple folders, spread out between authors. I’m talking about more than thirty folders, and many individual documents within.

This became a battle of navigation for me. How many arms and fingers does this alien race have?  A simple question, really. So, I would open up the shared folders, begin navigation, move from one author to another, search differently labeled folders, and maybe I would find the info…or maybe not.

Waiting for an Email

You might be saying, “Why not just contact the author?” Good point! Unless they are on a completely different timezone or work schedule. For me, the more time I spend working the manuscript and not on the phone, the faster things get done.

Usually, the info was there, I just couldn’t locate it quickly among the massive archive of folders. Plus, I have proclivity to over-organize. There is nothing wrong with organizing your files however you want. If it works for you as the writer, don’t change anything.  But as the editor, I needed a more intuitive and rapid way to find information.

While the writers and fans of the Human Legion have done an outstanding job of creating infopedias (Official Infopedia, Fan Wiki), much of the information within the style guide is secretive in nature. Hidden motivations, planet histories, and tasty spoilers. It’s intel the writers understand, but the readers don’t need to know about…not yet. As one of the editors, I needed to reference these notes to help steer the ship.

moon footprint.jpgSo began the first step: compiling all of these pertinent documents into a universal source. One that would contain all of the information hyperlinked. Now, if I need to know how many arms and fingers an alien has, I click Alien Species in the table of contents (hyperlinked), scroll the alphabetized list, click the species in question (again, hyperlinked), and viola.

Format. Much like a webpage with clickable links, if you can add navigation within the style guide, you win the prize. I use Word, which allows for linking within the document. This might seem excessive, but after compiling the needed information into a living document (i.e. it will keep growing) the word count was around 15k for the style guide.  If I relied on scrolling to navigate, it would take forever.

What should you put in the style guide?

A Refined List

Character Name List. A listing of character names, properly spelled, makes the gods of writing smile. Especially, when you have tons of characters. Non-human species seem to generate the most inconsistency — a standard helps.

Once a character name list has been generated, you can begin hyperlinking supporting documents (characters sheets, sketches, etc). This made life really easy for me.

Corey question: the character’s eye color has changed from blue to green…what is the correct color?  Answer: Table of Contents -> Character List -> Click Character (confirm spelling) -> read character sheet.

Technology List. Holy bologna, this is a massive list for the Legion (and one I need to update). Depending on your genre, you may have invented technology. If it’s military sci-fi, then the technology probably has corresponding acronyms. Some of it might be written as a proper noun, some of it might not be. Whatever you decide as the writer, there needs to be consistency. Listing how these should appear is a step in the right direction.

Science_and_Invention_Nov_1928_Cover_2.jpgLocation List. Sweet mothers milk, another sprawling list. If your story spans cities, continents, planets, or farther, it might be wise to start compiling these locations and linking supporting documents. There will always be the handful of readers who say, “Wait a minute! Isn’t Planet D’s sun too intense without the aid of an exoskeleton?” If the reader has sunk into your world well enough to notice things like this, you owe it to them to be consistent.

Invented Word List. My favorite!  Nothing will blow Word’s circuits like a ton of invented words being thrown into the mix. Invented words, within reason, are one of the spices that make a universe unique. Just be sure to list those words. It might be wise to mention if only one person, species, or planet uses these words too.

Acronym List. Holy alphabet soup, Batman! This will probably only be useful to those of you who are writing in certain genres. An alphabetical listing of acronyms, backronyms, and initialisms makes me want to river dance. It becomes ten times more important when you are inventing these.

alienSpecies List.  Have you unleashed new races and species on your manuscript? Cool. You might want to compile a list and start linking reference documents. Remember the question above about how many arms and fingers an alien would have? This list solves those problems before they begin.

Basic Grammar and Punctuation Section. This is more of an editing thing, but if you find yourself working collaboratively with someone from another country, you might want to flush out the differences. British and American styles differ. The goal, especially if you are collaborating on the same book, is to achieve consistency of style.

question-markThat’s it for today! I’m curious about what methods you all use to compile and organize your universe notes. Do they exist in a jumble of folders, or have you found a way to compile them intuitively? I’d love to talk about it and pick up some pointers. Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always — stay sharp!

Non-Fiction Writing Books: Suggestions?

libraryMonday is the day I usually share a book about writing with all of you. You can find examples of this in my reads category.  While I still have plenty of books to talk about on the page, I recently finished reading the last one I have in my possession. Instead of trusting Amazon or Goodreads, I thought I would take a day to see if any of you would be kind enough to offer me some suggestions.

To avoid replication, a while back I posted the last twenty books I had read that examined some aspect of writing. Since then, I’ve added a few to the list:

Editors on Editing, by Gerald C. Gross
Cryptozoology A to Z, by Loren Coleman & Jerome Clark
Developmental Editing, by Scott Norton
Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker
Archetypal Patterns in Fairy Tales, by Marie-Louise von Franz

question-markSeeing all of this, what am I missing out on? I’d love to snag some more great books. If I’m not doing self-study in my limited downtime, I’m usually doing something less than productive. Help ol’ QE out! [Note: If you’ve suggested a book in a comment to me, I’ve likely ordered it already and am waiting for it arrive.] Until our quills clash again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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Checking Your Book Into the Library

LandscapeOne of my clients suggested a blog post about getting your self-published book onto the shelves of a library.  After a brief flashback to tiny drawers packed with musty index cards and the confusing Dewey Decimal System, I decided to look into it.  There is something magical about libraries for me. Thinking of someone walking out the door of their local library clutching a book with my name on it is pretty exciting.

Outside of being fun idea, it’s a smart move.  According to the American Library Association (ALA), more than 60 percent of American’s have a library card. (I’m not sure of the stats for my non-American friends). Contrary to popular opinion, people still frequent libraries for their book needs.  While there seems to be reduction in people using libraries for reference materials (thanks to the interwebs), many people still turn to those dusty shelves for their fiction needs.

library.jpgI think of libraries as a passive method to generate potential book reviews, as well as readership.  Now that most libraries have transitioned their paper records to digital, a person wouldn’t have to search a genre long to stumble across your book (at least I feel this method is simpler than using a gazillion index cards).  Sure, you won’t be making money for every read, but in my opinion, having people simply read your story is rewarding.

Additionally, depending on your genre, you might even be able to host book readings at the library at little to no cost.  I mention genre because the libraries are going to be more accommodating to certain ones.

library win.jpgThe first place I went to look for information was the ALA. I found a resource called, Marketing to Libraries. This is a long article embedded with a metric clickload of links to check out. They also offer some resources for donating books to needy libraries—what a great way to outsource some of those extra books you aren’t selling!

I was interested to see the criteria for submitting to libraries.  I was also surprised to learn not all libraries are the same.  Much like bookstores, each library’s needs will vary. Some will have more of one genre than another, and thus, only accept certain types.  There are also submission guidelines to consider, and these are not always standard.  The ALA link I offered above spells out some of this information.

Another resource I found comes from The Book Designer website.  If you’ve never cast your peepers on this page, I recommend it.  It’s listed as a Writer’s Digest Top 101 websites for writers.  The specific article I read is called, 9 Steps to Getting Your Self-Published Books into Libraries. It’s written by Amy Collins, and it’s very intuitive.

library poster.JPGAgain, I found many gems of information I was completely clueless about here. I didn’t know many libraries work with specific wholesalers and by getting your book listed by these wholesalers (both digital and physical versions) you can increase the odds of your book being accepted by a library.  This apparently is a way to streamline the process.

I also didn’t know the library would look at multiple reviews to determine whether your book can grace its shelves or not. According to Collins, priority is placed on certain review authorities (I won’t list them because the original link I provided has it all hyperlinked). It might be wise to send your books to some of these reviwers if you plan to approach libraries.

question-markThat’s it for today. This is a brand new concept for me, and one I’m very interested to learn more about.  I wanted to drop a line into the water and fish.  If you’ve had success conspiring with librarians and navigating this topic—please share your story or even whatever links you know of that are useful. I’ll copy your comment straight into this blog post and link people to your page if the information is solid.  Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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Self-Editing: Fighting Emotion with Logic

locked.jpgYou’ve written your book.  The masterpiece has been marinating in a drawer (or buried on a hard drive) for weeks.  Somehow, you managed to not tear into it early, despite it whispering into your ear at night.  Let’s face it, you both needed some time and space from one another.

The time has come.  You unlock the drawer, or click the icon, and staring you in the face is months worth (maybe more) of semicoherent words. The manuscript gazes back at you with worried eyes.  It knows.  You are about to tear it to pieces.  Now the question becomes—will you tear yourself to pieces in the process?

Many people think writing a book is the hardest thing you can do.  Then an editor comes along and breaks your heart.  As an editor, telling a writer to cut something from the work is akin to telling them to sacrifice a cute little fuzzy kitten to the writing gods.  Much of this heartbreak would be avoided if writers would practice more thorough self-editing prior to submission to an editing service.

The goal of this post is to give you some basic guidelines to sharpen your self-editing chops.  Go grab the garden sheers and put on a rubber apron…this might get messy.

chainsaw

Print first—word process later. I believe in this concept so much I wrote an entire blog post about it (located here). Because it’s linked, I won’t go into this.  I do encourage you to give the post a glance if you haven’t seen it before.

Work big first, then get small.  We typically write our first draft in a hurry, tired, and running on three gallons of caffeine.  There are going to be large chunks of exposition and rambling.  They served their purpose.  The purpose was to help you continue writing and bridge gaps in the story.  Additionally, when we are writing the first draft we make assumptions about what is going to be important later on.  We tend to over describe certain items, places, and people.  Now that you know all the punchlines, it’s time to gauge their worth.

editing.JPGRoy Peter Clark in his book, Writing Tools, recommends that you, “Cut any passage that does not support your focus.  Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes, and scenes to give greater power to the strongest.  Cut any passage you have written to satisfy a tough teacher or editor rather than the common reader” (p. 51).

It’s good advice, but it’s hard to follow.  The reason is emotion versus logic.

Here’s a real world example.  One of the people I edit for wrote a beautiful, page long description about a set of revolvers one his minor characters carries.  After reading it, I could picture every line and blemish on the them.  He told me he did extensive research to make them feel real, and it was truly great writing.  I bit my lip and recommended he cut it.

Why?  Well, it was placed in the middle of a heated interaction.  Everything was building, the action was coming, and boom—we interrupt this gunfight to bring you a dissertation on handguns in antiquity.  Worse even, the character wielding the pistols is only in the book for a handful of pages.

The takeaway here is this: no matter how slick the dialogue or description is, if it isn’t pushing the story forward, it’s got to go.  Your readers want to read your story, don’throw down roadblocks.

Redundant Meme

Get rid of all those redundancies.  I already wrote a post on redundant prose, so I won’t go into this too much.  The only additional piece of information I’ve found since then is an interesting rule.

This comes from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, written by Renni Browne and Dave King.  The rule is  1+1=1/2.  They explain that, “When you try to accomplish the same effect twice, the weaker attempt is likely to undermine the power of the stronger one” (p. 178). It’s a great tip and something to look for when you are going through with the hatchet.

Syllables—check those big words.  If you really want to wear your reader down, use words with a ton of syllables.  Conspiratorially.  Automatically.  Conversationally.  Many of these big beasts tend to be adverbs, but not always.  Look for those five-dollar words and ask yourself, Will the average reader know what it means?  Will something shorter work in it’s place?  Am I using this for effect?

Regarding effect.  I’ve heard this rationale used before,  “My character is a smarty pants so he/she uses big words in a condescending sort of way.”  Cool!  I’m all for it.  Just know there is only so much the reader can take.  Also, if this is the only tool you use to enforce this character trait, the character can feel one-dimensional.

measure twice cut once.jpgMeasure twice, cut once. Anyone who has done construction, or is a DIY weekend warrior, has likely heard this advice.  The concept is simple.  Ensure you know where to cut before you drop the blade.  I encourage you to do the same when you are self-editing.

William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, offers a brilliant bit of advice he developed while teaching his students at Yale.  “I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work” (p. 15).

Writers who edit onscreen (using a word processor) have a tendency to prolong editing time because they are constantly doing the, backspace, rewrite, backspace, rewrite, tap dance.  A way to defeat this is to utilize the tool Zinsser is describing.

Print out the pages then read through them silently, and then aloud.  Go slowly through the words and decide what is doing work and what isn’t.  Be realistic.  Throw those words, phrases, and pieces of dialogue into brackets.  Once you are done, read the copy and omit the bracketed words.  Did it flow faster?  Was it smoother?

copy editing_2

[Editor’s Note]

This is a timely re-post for me as I recently reopened the first draft of my book up and started rewrites.  I can tell stepping away for more than a month (as painful as it was) has really opened my eyes to some major issues.  It’s a good feeling catching those mistakes now and knowing readers will never see them. I’m also glad to be back with Drake and playing in the wasteland.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for stopping by and reading.  As usual, I only scratched the surface.  Do you have advice or ideas you use during self-editing?  Please share them.  I’m always looking to toss more pencils into my writing toolbox.  Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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The Golden Hour: For Writers

golden hour.jpg

Take a basic course in photography and you will likely learn about the Golden Hour.  It’s a special time right after sunrise, or before sunset, when the angle of the sun casts brilliant reddish hues over everything.

I remember my photography instructor gushing about the amazing possibilities this little window of time would provide.  I was attending the Defense Information School at the time learning how to be a Navy journalist.  I recall thinking, “I came to learn how to write, not take pictures of random nonsense!”  My younger self didn’t realize how much photography would grow on me, and it became more than just a part of the job—it was something to fill my free time.

camera-1240219_960_720.jpgSo when people ask me when the best time to write is, I always think of the Golden Hour. While writing is different than photography, they are both art, and they both require the artist to show up.

The thing with the Golden Hour is you can charge your batteries, pack multiple lenses and filters, strap a tripod to your back, and lug it all out to the perfect location, but there is no guarantee you will get a single usable image.  Maybe clouds roll in.  Maybe you just have a bad day and don’t get an interesting angle or inspired shot.  Maybe you just sit there and get lost in the moment and don’t take a single photograph.  But every now and then, as long as you keep trying, you will get that one photo that takes your breath away when you open it up to edit.

Writing is the same way.  While you don’t need to wait for sunrise or sun fall (or lug heavy gear), you still have to be present.  On any given day, you may find inspiration or you may flounder.  Those mental clouds can roll in and ruin even the most perfectly planned day of writing.  If you stay consistent and keep hitting those keys, eventually “it” will happen.  You will have a moment of perfect clarity.  A moment of pristine mental light.  In this Golden Writing Hour (or maybe multiple hours if you’re lucky), all those rough days will be worth it.  The result, well, it might just amaze you more than any photograph could.

The Editor[Editor’s Note]

This is one of the first posts I generated here on QE.  Since then, I’ve taken a book with a handful of chapters and finished it (and edited a couple others).  During that time, there were more cloudy days than golden ones.  The lesson I learned is bounce back.  For me, that’s the ability to forget about a lackluster day and treat a new one with an open mind.

With that being said, when those golden days shined, they changed my book in big ways.  On some of those golden days, I didn’t write within the manuscript at all but simply remapped and re-outlined sections to enhance the story.  I saw additions and concepts that weren’t fully formed solidify.  Honestly, I attribute this to simply being present.

This is why I encourage those I collaborate with to at least take a small amount of time each day and write.  Even if it isn’t to tackle the ever-looming word count, progress comes in different ways.  Sometimes, all it takes is for us to be present and willing.

question-markThat’s it for today!  It’s fun for me to re-read and give some of these older posts a second life, and it’s also interesting to think about where and what past-Corey was doing back then.  Do you have a Golden Hour in your writing life?  Do you have a method you use to help you bounce back from a rough day?  I’d love to talk about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Feature Friday #5 (Bloggers & Books)

feature-friday

What a great week of blogging.  I discovered new bloggers, read awesome posts, and learned new aspects about the craft.  This week, I’m going to be highlighting a couple of science fiction/fact writers and a blogger who was one of my very first followers.

spotlight-facing-rightThe first spotlight shines for P.A. Kramer: Writer and Scientist.  Philip has a wealth of interesting content on his page.  The page itself is glorious, and honestly, I’m a little jealous of the layout and design.  The minimalist design is elegant, fun, and very easy to navigate.  Design aside, there are a lot of gems to be found on his page.

Philip has a doctorate in the biomedical sciences and uses this knowledge and training to analyze science fiction. He also breaks down scientific jargon and makes it more accessible to us mere mortals.  Two awesome posts are The Science of Gravity, and The Science of Killing Your Characters. In regards to the latter, plenty of bloggers talk about killing characters, but Philip explains the science behind it. Need to poison a character and leave no evidence for the authorities? Philips got you covered.

Also, Philip’s Billy and Ruben comics are brilliant.  Those two are always getting into trouble and the results are often hilarious.  Seriously, you should check them out.

spotlight-facing-rightNext, I wanted to highlight Tim C. Taylor, over at The Human Legion. Tim is a military science fiction author who can often be found at ale houses in England plugging away on his manuscripts.  Tim has been generating momentum with his upcoming books and also writing some really interesting blog posts.

The two I wanted to focus on are Starship Troopers and Military SF, and (prepare yourselves, this is a long title) Why writers pull apart owl pellets to inspect the bones within. The first article is an interesting discussion about reader expectations for realism in regards to military tactics and science.  The second post talks about how writers can generate ideas from almost any source.

I really enjoyed this article because it highlights the importance of being curious as a writer.  I think to hone our craft we must take the time to observe the world and gather new information and experiences (even if it means we have to tear apart owl crap).

Tim is a client of mine, and as such, I always feel the need to plug for their books (because I wouldn’t edit them if I didn’t believe in them).  If military science fiction is your bread and butter, you should give his books a glance.  The Human Legion is always looking for a new Legionary to populate the ranks.

spotlight-facing-right

The last blogger I wanted to mention today is Angelina Kerner over at Where Dragons Reside. Angelina is one of the very first bloggers who ever followed my page, and four months later, she still takes the time to stop by and leave her thoughts.  Angelina is a prolific reader and is constantly posting book reviews on her page (which are not rated by stars, but by dragon prints!). She also posts writing tips, and that’s where I will focus the spotlight today.

The two posts I wanted to spotlight are A ‘How To’ Guide to Writing a Novel, and How To Prepare To Write Chapter Summaries.  The first article is very intuitive.  It’s no small task to try to chronicle all the steps in producing a novel, but Angelina does a great job of breaking it down and offering some useful bits of advice.  The second article posted at a time when I was researching the subject.  For those of you who like to outline, you should absolutely give it a read.

thanksI wanted to take a moment to thank all three of these folks for (1) reaching out to me, (2) being a source of inspiration, and (3) consistently encouraging enjoyable discussion about both fiction and non-fiction.  It’s people like you who make me happy to spend a chunk of my time here in the blogoverse.

hourglassThat’s it for today!  If you would like to be featured next Friday, contact me.  It always helps if you let me know what specific post you would like to be featured.  My goal with Feature Friday is to connect like-minded individuals with one another.  The blogoverse is a giant place, and it’s nice to be able to provide some navigation. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing: A Report vs a Story

DINFOS_Seal.pngThe core of my training and experience comes from my time as a military journalist.  At the Defense Information School, we were taught the “Five Ws and H,” way of approaching a news story. We were also taught something called the “Inverted Pyramid” style of structuring our stories. I now often find myself applying these methodologies to my fiction, and sometimes encourage writers I collaborate with to do the same.

First, let’s break it down a bit.  The five Ws and the H are broken down into: who, what, where, when, why, and how.  In journalism—especially military journalism—the focus seemed to be mostly on the first four.  If you could add the why and how, and still remain objective, you win the prize (M.L.S. Weech can correct me here as he teaches this stuff).

This way of thinking ensures the journalist, before they ever leave to cover the story, would remember to gather all the elements they needed to write a complete piece.  If the journalist could gather quotes from people talking about the why and how, even better.  This way of thinking organizes the journalists way of thinking.  Unlike fiction, the journalist may never get a second chance to ask the right questions to clarify their story.

Inverted Pyramid.jpgThe inverted pyramid is a means of organizing a story in order of importance.  I attached an image to illustrate this concept.  This does two things.  First, it ensures the most vital elements of the story are written first.  Secondly, it allows whoever is placing the news article into a newspaper, magazine, or periodical to have the flexibility to chop parts of the article away to fit it into the layout.  In essence, if they chop off the back-end of the news story it still delivers all of the pertinent information.

Transitioning this way of thinking to fiction isn’t too far-fetched.  Let’s start with the first concept.  We have to think of the “Five Ws and H,” in a different way.  Roy Peter Clark, in his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writerwrote about this concept in an intuitive way.  The following excerpt is from this book on page 125.

Who becomes Character.
What becomes Action. (What happened.)
Where becomes Setting.
When become Chronology.
Why becomes Cause or Motive.
How becomes Process. (How it happened.)

Seeing it written out in this manner reveals the parallels in process between news and fiction writing.  Just like the journalist, the fiction writer must organize their piece and ensure they address most of the elements on this list.  When I do my first pass of a new manuscript, I mentally make notes of these elements as I see them.  If one element is missing, then the scene, chapter, or book will likely need some slight revision (not always).

newsboy

A newsboy circa 1912. Pulled from the NY Digital Libraries.

The inverted pyramid, transitioned to fiction, is a way of quickly organizing the content of a chapter in order of importance.  Yes, some of the information is specific to news, but it can be easily adapted to fiction. Each chapter should be written, not just as a bridge to advance the story, but as a means of revealing information about the characters, conflicts, and world.  Horizon gazing (focusing on the end) in fiction betrays one of the most important elements to the reader: the journey.

I like that background information is listed at the bottom of the pyramid.  Over reliance on background information (information dumping) and world building (when it becomes a disease and not a tool) can cause readers to feel disconnected from the characters.  If this tool is used as a plotting device, the writer can pull elements of background and world building up and into the chapter and sprinkle them in as beats.  Seeing the chapter outlined in this way ensures the author hits all of the major points.

For those of you who are meticulous outliners, this is yet another tool for you to track and plot out your story.  For those renegade maverick, seat-of-the-pants types, you will save yourselves hours of revision by simply ensuring you are covering the Five Ws and H chapter by chapter (when applicable).  Sometimes pantsers hit the wall and all it takes is for them to quickly plot a chapter for them to regain momentum.  This method of plotting may be a solution.

question-markThat’s it for today!  I hope you found some useful information here.  What method of plotting do you all use?  Do you have a pregenerated template you work from, or do you simply scribble notes? I know many of you will be taking part in NaNoWriMo here in Novemeber; have you all started the process of outlining?  I’d love to talk about it.  Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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