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Posts Tagged Planning
Some writers plan to the ennnnnth degree. Before they write, they prepare a trunkload of ideas, route maps and background. Then we have the scribblers who travel light. Just the barest plot twist, perhaps a skinnily-honed last line or a little black denouement. (Actually, I’m warming to this wardrobe theme.)
So if you’re in the former category, what mustn’t you forget? And if the latter, what’s the bare minimum you can get away with?
Today I’m at a festival called Chapter Book Challenge, a month-long event that aims to galvanise writers to write a chapter book in just a month. I’m zoning in on the essentials for the drafting process – and as an added bonus, commenters on the post (THAT post, not this one!) will get entered into a draw to win a paperback copy of Nail Your Novel, original flavour, which is packed with essentials for getting you from first idea to final draft. Come on over to find out what every well-dressed novel is wearing...
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Do you need help to get your novel started or finished? Four of us experienced scribblers talk about how we stay creative through the tough times and reveal our secrets for drafting, fixing and finishing, not to mention keeping our confidence. Solutions include running, composing music, meditation and lying on the floor scribbling on sheets of A4 using the hand you don’t normally write with.
My co-conspirators are Orna Ross (who is the author of Go Creative, several literary novels and leader of the Alliance of Independent Authors), Kevin Booth (who’s a translator as well as an author and trained as an actor before he took up writing), and Jessica Bell (who runs the Vine Leaves Literary Journal as well as having a parallel career as a singer-songwriter, which you might well know already from her appearances on The Undercover Soundtrack).
We’re forming the creative posse at IndieReCon, a free online conference for writers at all stages of their publishing careers. Do come over – and check out the other terrific events in the line-up. There’s info from all kinds of experts in publishing, writing and marketing.
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As you saw last week, I’m plotting The Mountains Novel on cards. I know the big picture – how it begins, where the characters can go and what the final note is. I’m now shuffling the events to get the strongest order and viewing the results with a critical eye.
Here’s what I’m looking for.
1 Finding the logic gaps
Is a story beat missing? Should a character react to an event? Is there a consequence I should cover?
2 Characters fitting the plot
Am I forcing a character to do something to suit the plot instead of what comes naturally to them? Is anyone behaving for the plot’s convenience, instead of the truth of the story? For instance, is someone doing something dumb so that the plot can advance?
This isn’t always bad, by the way. Sometimes characters do things that aren’t in their best interests or that spoil things for themselves – and it’s part of their complexity. And if they do, I need to make a feature of it.
3 Is anything predictable?
Could I introduce more twists and surprises? While plotting step by step, it’s easy to follow an obvious pattern. Now I need to make sure everything happens in the most interesting way, and look for opportunities to misdirect the reader or reinforce my themes. I also need to watch out for convenient coincidences.
I’m wondering if I need comic relief? The Mountains Novel is quite elegaic, and too much might get monotonous or precious. I’m looking for opportunities to add lighter moments so that I don’t wear the reader out.
5 Other rethinks
I’ve realised I’ve called two characters by the wrong names. One of them started out as comic relief, a variation on a stereotype who would give the reader something familiar to follow in a bizarre situation. But he is now so much of an individual that the name seems crude. This is annoying, because when I invented it I was rather delighted. But funnily enough, it would suit another secondary character, whose role must change because of the character who has developed. Can I adjust my mental image of the name? Or should I (reluctantly) consign it to outtake history?
6 Reviewing my wrong turnings
While I was conceptualising The Mountains Novel, I wrote reams of notes for possible story directions. With each new exploration, I didn’t dare read the old material in case I lost my way. But now I’m confident in its direction, I can look back over those early conjurings and see if there is material that might be useful. Many of them won’t fit, but some will add richness.
You can find other tips on outlining and troubleshooting in Nail Your Novel, which writing teacher and literary agent Lisa Cron recently recommended as part of her shortlist of essential writing books (hooray!).
And – hooray #2! My Memories of A Future Life (nailed novel) has been given a Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction by Awesome Indies. This was a big surprise as they first assessed it two years ago and I never thought they’d even remember it. Thanks, guys!
Do you troubleshoot your outline? If so, what kinds of things have you changed that made a big difference?
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It’s planning time on The Mountains Novel. I have the scenes spread out on cards and the dining table is out of bounds (see Two authors in the house).
At the moment I’m taking a hard look at the set-up chapters. Of course I’ve got my own spider sense, but it’s rather fun to have a guide to remind me of what I might not be seeing. (And what I might be ignoring because, well, to change it would be inconvenient.) So I’m sharing the fun with KM Weiland’s rather useful new book Structuring Your Novel.
Today, she is reminding me what I need by the first plot point, roughly a quarter of the way through my story.
Introduce the setting and world
I need to establish where the story takes place, what era, what special things might be interesting or significant about the world. A setting isn’t just any old backdrop. It’s the perfect resonant environment for themes and the characters’ plights. I’m making sure my beginning gives inklings of this, while still seeming entirely natural.
Introduce the main characters
By the end of act one, I need to have the major characters established. The reader must know who they are, what makes them individuals (and distinct from each other), what their beliefs and dilemmas are, where the instabilities and disturbances might be in their lives. Even if I’m going to reveal more later, I have to give the reader enough to provoke their curiosity.
Make the reader care
Curiosity isn’t enough. The reader must feel emotionally bonded to my protagonists. Whether they’re Mr Average or someone extraordinary, I need to show their humanity. Indiana Jones has a fear of snakes; Winston Smith feels an urge to write a diary even though it’s against the rules. (In Winston’s case, his streak of humanity is going to draw him into danger. If I can combine any of these set-up steps, that will look very smart.)
Establish the need and the stakes
By the end of act one, the reader needs to understand what the main characters want. Perhaps they want to solve a crime or murder their uncle. Perhaps they want to stop their family finding out about their secret life. The reader must also understand why this is so personally important – and what failure will cost them. This is the other half of making the story matter.
Back story on a need-to-know basis
There’s quite a lot of background to establish, but it must be done – as much as possible – with scenes that advance the plot, rather than pages of explanation. Back story is important, of course, but we need to earn the space for it. Deploy back story only when the reader is hungry to know.
Add an element that makes sense of the ending
The story’s ending must resonate with the beginning. Perhaps it answers a question, solves a problem, resolves an imbalance. But if the seeds of the end aren’t in the opening, it will not be so satisfying.
The first big change at the quarter mark
Just as I have all that bubbling, I have to push the story over a point of no return. The characters make a choice, cross a Rubicon. Perhaps disaster strikes – and that dreaded event becomes reality. Why is this a quarter of the way through? As Katie points out, readers – and moviegoers – have an innate story clock. No matter how interested and enthralled they are, if you don’t shift the goalposts at a quarter through, they’ll feel the story is slow.
And now to work
Right. I’ve got some fine-tuning to do on the beginning of The Mountains Novel. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that KM Weiland is one of my favourite writing bloggers. Her book is as clear and wise as her blog posts and I recommend it – whether you’re writing beginnings, middles or ends.
In the meantime, tell me: what stage are you at with your WIP?
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I’ve had this very good question from Alison Strachan, who tweets as @Writingmytruth
What happens when you realise half way through writing that you needed to plan more?
There’s a story I tell in Nail Your Novel about how I learned the value of planning. Years ago, I embarked on a novel, ever so excited, wanting to explore a disturbing incident and see where I’d go. The first chapters galloped along nicely. I read it out to my writing group, who loved it. On I went, flinging ideas down. And soon I realised I didn’t know where the hell I was going. After 60,000 words I gave up. And I’m not a person who does that. It annoyed me intensely.
But I knew the characters were running in pointless circles. I simply couldn’t see a way out of the rut.
60,000 words. What do you do with all that?
I didn’t know then, but I do now. Here’s the cure.
1 Deep breath
It’s okay. You haven’t proved you’re unfit to write a novel. You haven’t ruined your idea.
2 It’s never too late to make a plan
Some novices feel they must write it all perfectly in one go. But seasoned writers might stop, start and re-start many times before the book is finally ready.
Once the manuscript is finished and handed to an editor or an agent, it’s likely that their critique will suggest extensive changes – especially if you’re learning the ropes. Some of these mean you have to re-plan on a fundamental scale, including character arcs, plot, structure and pacing. Welcome to rewriting.
So that means … even if you’re a chunk of the way into the book, it’s not too late to make drastic changes. Heck, it’s not even unusual.
3 You haven’t even wasted your time
All that stuff you wrote isn’t junk. It’s browsing. Some of the scenes you’ll be able to use as they are. Others will need to be rewritten, deleted or replaced. Relabel the file as ‘development notes’ and you’ll feel more comfortable about changing it.
4 Take control
Now you need to understand the material you’ve already got. My favourite tool is the beat sheet – a summary of the purpose of each scene as it is at the moment. Don’t judge whether they’re good or bad; that comes later. For the time being, you’re making a map of what you’ve already written. Another way to do this is by summarising each plot event on cards or a spreadsheet. Once you can see the book at a glance, you can figure out how to use this material or whether to delete it. You can also plan more events and scenes to the end of the book.
5 Restore your faith
The chances are you’re not as keen on the idea as you used to be. To rescue a book, you need to reconnect with the initial spark, see its potential once more. You might have some early notes you made right at the start – see if these rekindle your excitement to make a story. If you haven’t got any, start a new file and write yourself a note about the qualities of the idea that first inspired you.
Perhaps you’ve moved on from the original idea. If you’ve learned there are different depths to mine, that’s good. Write a new mission statement.
Or is it time to move on?
I never actually returned to that 60k draft, and sometimes our early attempts are not fit to be developed further. What they teach us is more important than the content. I still think there’s mileage in those characters and their situation, but they need a bigger spark to get them working properly. I’m not taking them on again until I’ve found it.
When I think about it, a good half of writing is rescue and salvage. Sorting out muddles and solving problems. If you’re writing and you suspect you should have made a plan, your instinct has just told you something important. Do whatever helps you get control of your material. There’s no wrong time to realise this. Except when you’ve hit ‘publish’…
You can, as you’ve probably guessed, find plenty of tips like this in Nail Your Novel, original flavour.
Thanks for a great question, Alison. Guys, what would you tell her? Share in the comments!
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You know a project is going to be long, serious and brow-furrowing if the illustration is a scribbled-on notebook and coffee. My third piece for the Writers & Artists website is up today. The web editor saw Nail Your Novel and asked me to write a run-down of points to help first-time writers get started on a magnum opus.
Readers of Nail Your Novel will be familiar with it all – notes, plans, splurging first drafts, confidence-building (and coffee), but if you haven’t been here long you might find it useful. Follow your nose…
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I have such conversations all the time, but never in that place. I was freelancing on the magazine where once upon a time I was a full-time sub-editor. It was a day of facts, punctuation, page proofs, libel-watching, house style, hard news and deadlines.
Then one of the desk editors told me he’d started a novel and we jumped universes.
First he told me he’d had a story idea. An idle ‘what if’ moment; an entertaining daydream. Then, purely to keep track, it became necessary to write it down.
One day he discovered a book that seemed made for this situation (not Nail Your Novel; we need to have words about that). Before then, he hadn’t known that author manuals existed. He hadn’t done writing exercises since his journalism training, but now he found himself drawing up character sheets and developing back stories.
Ideas continued to ambush him, raining out of the sky like the pieces from random jigsaws. He saw an outlandish person on the train. Big hat, fur coat and tarantula-tight jeans: exactly what his character would wear. Once transplanted into the manuscript, the character disobeyed the story plan and did something else. It’s now a crime novel, which my colleague didn’t intend, but the characters made him do it.
He’s a journalist. He finds the facts, gets the quotes and rattles out the words. This novel, though, is not playing ball. Although it follows him like a mental entourage, it only speaks and moves when he’s not at the keyboard or can’t grab a pen. Strap-hanging on the train, interviewing an expert. Even in the shower. He declared this with some outrage, as though the characters had snuck in and swiped the curtain. Which is pretty much how he regards the whole surprising business.
Writing has been my habit for so long that I’d forgotten what it was like when it was new. Of course we never stop honing our craft but these days my zone of discovery has shifted to marketing, finding where I fit and what new platform I need to learn. Although these tools and possibilities are fresh and exciting, it’s nice to be reminded how I got here and what it all comes back to.
Tell me: how did you get here?
Thanks for the drawing, Freya Hartas, used with permission
NEWS If you’re at the London Book Fair on Wednesday this week, drop by the Kobo stand where I’ll be Writer In Residence! This is a rather astonishing development and I’m still pinching myself, but I’ll write a roundup post afterwards where I can indulge the ‘wow’ moment and hopefully say something useful too. Navigate your way to stand Y505 in the digital zone between 2.30 and 3pm on Wednesday 17th April (or instruct your nose to find coffee because it’s near the cafe).
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How exact do story milestones have to be? I did a lot of planning and put them in the ‘right’ points in the story (25% for the first turning point, half way for the midpoint, 75% for the second turning point). But they’re off by 1-2k words. Will the story feel unbalanced? Or should I keep trimming and adding?
The short answer: Stop! There is much to discuss…
What are we talking about?
Let’s backtrack. Stories have natural turning points, where the plot increases the pressure on the characters. When you build a story from beats (episodes where something changes) you’ll find they often fall into a pattern (usually used in movies).
Act 1, the first quarter, is the set-up with the event that begins all the trouble – the inciting incident. Act 2 is the second two quarters, where the problem is being actively tackled and confronted. Act 3, the last quarter, is the resolution. In each of these phases, the stakes change, and the protagonists’ goals and feelings change.
Why do they divide like this? The audience seems to have an internal clock, and feels the story needs these emotional shifts. They also find it most satisfying when played out in these phases. (BTW, some people call it the three-act structure, some decide there must be four acts because act 2 has two parts. Both terms mean the same thing. Another name for these shifts is plot points. Clear?)
How exact do these act points have to be?
If you’re writing for TV they matter to the minute. Movies could be more fluid, but commercial studio executives are so used to formulae and paradigms that they only commission stories that fit it. And they go to expensive conferences that reinforce this so it becomes holy writ.
Although stories fit a natural structure, the divisions aren’t exact, as Jen is discovering. Here’s another part of her letter to me:
Once we start writing the scenes out, they take on a life of their own, and no matter how careful we are in planning, things will shift around
They do indeed. And that’s good.
Stories are organic. You can’t rush certain sections to get them to a plot point or you might race ahead of the reader. Curiously, when that happens, they might tell you you’re going too slowly. In fact, you might need to slow even more, make sure the reader understands why the scene’s events are important.
Remember, these plot points are emotional crescendos. They are times of greatest tension, pressure and surprise. And they work because of how you’ve primed the reader.
Equal but not equal
Here’s an example in action. My Memories of a Future Life is 102k words. When I released it in episodes, I aimed for roughly 25k words each. I actually got 26k, 31k, 19k and 28k.
I have to admit, I’d forgotten the proportions varied that much (although they obviously worked as readers said they were gripped). I realise this tells us something about the different flavours of each act. (So thanks, Jen, for making me consider it.)
Act 1 contains set-up, which has to be balanced with momentum. That’s tricky and it’s why beginnings are often too slow. The reader needs enough back story to understand what matters, but must also feel they’re seeing characters reaching a point of no return. (I wrote a while ago about a scene that I cut from Act 1 because of the pace – Carol’s performance dress. Not because of wordcount, but because it repeated an emotional point. If I’d left it in, the reader would have felt the story was circling over the same ground.)
In Act 2 we’ve settled down. We’re involved with the characters enough to be curious about their back story and lives. (I could have added the black dress scene here, but the moment for it was gone.) At the same time, the complications are thickening.
In Act 3, we’ve turned a corner. Situations get worse, problems are more desperate. There won’t be much new material because this is a phase of consequences. Bad choices come back to bite. Fuses burn up. We’re building to a crisis.
Act 4 is the climax, and the reader will be turning pages fast. But it has a lot to pack in. The denouement will be intense and pressured. There will be reversals where it doesn’t go as planned, and moments when all seems lost. There will be revelations. Each of these story beats will need immense space, as if time has slowed down, to do justice to their impact and to allow the characters to react and adjust. There will be many ends to tie. After the final action, you don’t just tip the reader into the street, blinking. You need a leave-taking, to send the characters on into new lives. The reader knows they’ll be leaving them behind, so will savour the chance for a few less-pressured, appreciative moments before parting for good.
Here we can see there are good, organic reasons why each act may not hit the same wordcount, even though it will feel near enough to the reader.
Novels aren’t movies
Although there’s a lot that novel-writers can learn from movie storytelling, the media are not the same. The popular prophets of the three (or four)-act structure – Robert McKee, Syd Field and Blake Snyder – are script doctors. They’re not talking about novels and they probably don’t read them. Indeed movies and TV have to fudge the plot points with fillers – extra miles in a chase, a scene where the character polishes his revolver and stares into a glass of whisky. There’s usually music or a montage to divert the audience’s attention from a scene that’s spinning its wheels. In novels you can’t use fillers; they don’t work. And what’s more, you don’t have to.
So Jen, you’ve already done enough. You’re writing in a medium that allows you different act lengths. Enjoy it!
What would you say to Jen?
Little bit of news
My Memories of a Future Life is now on Kobo and Smashwords. I’d put it off because it would look unconvincing without reviews and also because I expected formatting migraines. But it was easy, and I’m an idiot for not doing it sooner like any other go-getting indie. Also, you can now port Goodreads reviews to Kobo – here’s a post by Eric Edstrom explaining how. Even so, I only braved it because of a request from The Alliance of Independent Authors, who are teaming up with Kobo for the London Book Fair and wanted to put my books on a shortlist to be featured. My work is a tiny proportion of the books they’re submitting, so the chance of making the cut is small, but it’s terrific to be asked! Do you put off uploading your books on all platforms? Tell me why (or tell me off) in the comments!
Also, I’m well into edits on Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life. It’s due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.
And third: GIVEAWAY! Over on the Red Blog Dave Malone is giving away copies of his new poetic noir crime novelet Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten. Leave a comment and you might grab one!
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I’m at Chila Woychik’s Beyondaries ezine today, musing about what it might have been like to take ABBA’s back catalogue and try to write the plot of Mamma Mia. Those of you who’ve followed this blog since its first days might recognise the post. It was one of my very earliest, but evapourated when I moved from self-hosting. So here it is again with hand-waving. (If you remember it from – gulp – 2009, wave back in the comments.)
As before, I’m in stimulating company at Beyondaries. Dan Holloway writes about fusing perfume and poetry. Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick talks about tackling the blank page. Grace Bridges talks about stories as ‘the thin places where realities merge’. Small press editor Gray Rinehart describes life as gatekeeper of a slush pile. And proprietrix Chila talks about creativity in the very atoms of the air.
In the meantime, I’m taking a blogging break this weekend while I plough on with the next book. Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life is due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.
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Once upon a time, an idea caught your eye. You wanted to spend tens of thousands of words exploring it. Maybe you now can’t remember that, or the work you’ve done has left you weary and muddled.
If we’re talking about an idea that hasn’t been written yet, the first thing I’d do is make it new again. Recreate the gut ‘wow’.
OMG I must write this
I forget everything I’ve tried to do with the idea so far. I identify what grabbed me when the idea was fresh and new.
I also forget what anyone else has done with it, if they have. It’s easy to end up intimidated by other treatments, especially if I’m frustrated. I disregard all that and find what originally demanded I work with the idea.
I create a mood board. I write down random phrases, images, dialogue snatches that the idea suggests to me. As a shorthand I might note moments from other novels or movies, or snatches of music. Anything to capture the excitement I first felt.
Make it fun
The chances are, I’m disappointed with the pointless work I’ve done so far. Ideas will flow better if I’m not reproaching myself. After all, the original idea came unbidden.
As much as possible, I make this process feel like play. Instead of typing on a computer, I write by hand. I often use the gaps in expired appointments diaries, scribbling notes in a different-coloured pen, or using the pages upside down. This lets me brainstorm without judging the results. Or I go somewhere I don’t usually write – cafes, a bench overlooking a view, a Tube train.
If you use Pinterest you could also start a board for your idea, but I’m not disciplined enough and will probably get lost on a browsing spree.
Where to take the idea?
Once I’ve made the idea feel new again, I start thinking about where it can go.
I start new lists for
- characters and what they want
- dramatic events that fit with the idea.
Batteries recharged, I can now face looking at what others have done. I search on Amazon for books tagged with keywords. LibraryThing has even better tags – here’s the page for My Memories of a Future Life and its tags, which I can click on to find other books that tackle the same subjects. (I would do the same on Goodreads but haven’t been able to work out how.) I also use the website TV Tropes (here’s how I use it to fill gaps in my story outline). All these resources will suggest the kinds of events, characters, conflicts and quests I could have.
Importantly, they’ll also help me discard some possibilities. In the novel I’m working on at the moment, I get a heartsink feeling whenever I look over some of my notes. Clearly I’m not interested in that aspect of the characters’ world, even though other writers have tackled it. So I’ll play it down.
When is the idea strong enough?
Ultimately the idea is strong enough when I know:
- who the hero is and who or what might oppose them
- what people are trying to do
- how it will get worse
- what the setting is
- why it will take a long time to reach a resolution
- a rough structure – what kicks off the drama and various twists that will form the turning points. Sometimes I decide the end beforehand, or I let it find itself once I’m writing.
You might have covered all these bases but the story still seems limp. In that case, beef up the material you have -
- increase the stakes so that the goal matters more to the characters
- make it more difficult for them to get what they want
- turn up the conflict between the characters.
You don’t have to get it all instantly
This is important. Some ideas need to be shut away and wiped from your fretting brain. If the idea looks feeble, don’t junk it. Give it a sabbatical. The Venice Novel, which I talked about in the TV Tropes post, has worn out my ingenuity for now so I’ve put it in the deep compost department. Meanwhile another novel I thought I’d worried to shreds has – to my surprise – woken up with real substance. I’m working on the detailed outline. For now I’m calling it The Mountain Novel.
Partner it with another idea
Sometimes an idea doesn’t have enough juice on its own. But it’s still worth working it as far as you can. A few key elements in My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form 3 began as separate story ideas. Negligible on their own, they harmonised perfectly in a bigger work.
Don’t be afraid to restart
Sometimes we go wrong with an idea or get lost. If I’m in the early stages, trying to work out what to do with an idea, I return to the pure inspiration and look for a stronger angle. If I’ve already drafted and the story doesn’t seem to matter enough, I look at ways to turn up the heat. (Speaking of which, thanks for the distillation pic Brankomaster.)
Have you had to strengthen a story idea? What did you do? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. Book 2 is now under construction – sign up for my newsletter for details as soon as they become available. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- Reading revolutions: serialising a novel – interview at the Malaysia Star March 6, 2014
- ‘This song says it’s time to get serious’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rebecca Cantrell March 5, 2014
- Planning your story – a checklist for success: and win Nail Your Novel in print! March 4, 2014
- Publish or selfpublish? Advice for the 2014 writer March 3, 2014
- ‘Music that flows into the marrow of the soul’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Birgitte Rasine February 26, 2014
- 7 stages of writing a book – video discussion at IndieReCon February 25, 2014
- A conversation about story structure – and writing rules February 23, 2014
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