Characters with… character. Part 3 of 3

We’re moving into the final lap of this character creation exercise. In case you missed the first two parts you can find them here and here. If you’ve been scribbling stuff down about your character, then this process will have been useful. If not, shame on you! Go quiver in the dark somewhere as the dreaded writing demons will surely be visiting you soon.

Eternity face CUYou’re scaring me!  Of course, because fright is good. It’s an amazingly effective element that can lay on your desk like a cattle prod, ready for use whenever you need to make life hell for your character. And never forget, that’s your job! What am I talking about? The one thing your player fears the most; the one thing they want to avoid at all costs: Disease. Pain. Loneliness. Sharks. Being trapped in an elevator. Crying babies. Anything! It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s yours; you can trot it out whenever you feel like it, or whenever things are just going too well for your protagonist. That’s the best time to administer a dose of pure, awful, meanness. [Cue evil laughter.] Don’t forget to add that fear to your notes!

What’s next? It’s time for a sketch (not a portrait).  When it comes to character descriptions, I’m firmly in the less-is-more camp. More often than not, physical characteristics aren’t important, and can even be distancing since many readers enjoy seeing themselves in the role of the folks they’re reading about. Unless you’re writing porn (hopefully under a pseudonym), there’s no need to go overboard detailing hair and eye color, height, weight, bra size or genital proportions.

Instead, write a description under 100 words. Remember the logline we started with: 140 characters or less. Don’t try to paint a word portrait; go for a quick sensory sketch. He’s 20785837_ml-txtthat dumpy poser who thinks he’s Swiss but smells like Limburger, or, she’s that emaciated teen who equates vamp with glam.

What you’re striving for is a short, evocative word blitz. Your best bet is to ignore the tired and typical and go for the bizarre and unusual. Those are the characters readers remember. Make them interesting to look at — and think about. Give them aspects, visual and otherwise, that others would find strange, dangerous, or even off-putting. Therein lies the fun. Don’t put it off; do it now. (Don’t fool around. There’s still time for me to dispatch the demons. I’m not kidding.)

Wphew. Now that you’ve got a tentative hold on your shiny new character, it’s time to see if he or she is really what you’re looking for. It’s time for a screen-test.

So, right now, sit down and write some flash fiction starring your newly revamped player. Get inside their soft and squishy gray matter. Run ’em through the grinder; force them into tough situations; toss in odd characters and expose them to their fears. See how they react, but more importantly, see how YOU react. Did they reveal something new? Do they live up to your expectations? Too bold? Too bland? Do you need to shape that wad of clay a little more? Here’s where you can find out, and possibly generate useable new material, too. Save what you write, it could come in handy later.

building-the-great-pyramid-txtBack to the top. Now it’s time to go back and rewrite the logline. Why? Because more than likely this process has changed something about your character, and updating the logline now will help you lock in the updates. Just as important, the logline rewrite is good exercise. If you’re writing a novel, you’ll have to do a great deal of revision, shaping, clarifying, modifying, motivating and improving every aspect of your work. Better start getting used to it now.

If you’re feeling really motivated, post your updated logline in the comment section below. I’d love to see what you come up with.


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Characters with… character. part 2 of 3

Last time (click here if you missed it) we covered character loglines, the character’s problem, and his or her initial plan to solve it. But there’s much more to character building. Read on.

Next up is Conflict–the great provider. All that wonderful, malleable space between a character’s problem and solution is your natural, God-given playground. It’s yours to do with as you please. You can populate it with dragons, armies, space ships, or a seemingly endless stretch of nothing. It can harbor pitfalls, dead drops, mistakes, oversights, threats, attempts, triumphs, and disasters. It’s the land of the Try/Fail, the great and glorious Middle.

16456502 - two men break the rope hands competing. on a white background.You could find this section ridiculously easy to populate. Story stuff could spew out of you as the by-product of the Problem/Solution line up. In “Scorpion,” Walter can’t bring himself to ask Paige out on a date. But, when she’s threatened by something that happens as a result of a Scorpion project, Walter will always be the one to risk himself to save her.

Alas, that doesn’t always happen. What if the Problem/Solution combo fails to provide the sort of conflict needed for your epic? Then it’s time to add external conflict. In “Scorpion,” it comes as a result of the new challenge the team faces in each episode.

In the case of Gone With the Wind, the conflict appears in the guise of Ashley Wilkes, whom Scarlett adores. But he’s betrothed to Melanie, and this pushes a variety of Scarlett’s buttons, forcing her to make decisions and take actions that provide even more conflict.

24763825_ml-coverIn “Star Wars,” Luke Skywalker dreams of becoming a great Jedi warrior, but his tutor is a little green guy with big ears and an annoying set of speech mannerisms. There wouldn’t have been much of a movie if all Luke had to do was buy a copy of Jedi for Dummies.

The great thing about external conflicts is that they provide endless opportunities to develop the character and his/her abilities and/or shortcomings. Walter uses his stratospheric IQ to turn household objects into defensive weaponry. His mind is his principle asset, and the external conflict allows us to see it in action.

We all have LIMITS? Of course! A limitation is generally internal, something within the character as part of their nature. This limitation hobbles them in some way, altering their plans to solve the problem, also known as the “mission.”

In the case of Walter O’Brien, he doesn’t know how to deal with emotion, either his own or someone else’s. This constantly results in clumsy efforts at interaction with the woman he loves. Not only that, it constricts his ability to deal with others as anything but the alpha nerd. This limitation is a constant source of tension-generators and new plot twists.

Not all limitations are flaws or frailties. Instead, they could be positive traits that generate edges and angles, be it in plot or character.

  • 45840872_ml-txtScarlett O’Hara, while outwardly flighty and superficial, actually has a steely resolve. Her unyielding determination, whether focused on romance, appearance, or survival, forces her into situations other characters would never face.
  • Han Solo is an honorable guy when it comes to his friends, if not his business partners. His tough guy persona dissolves when someone he cares about is in trouble.
  • Imagine a character based on Joan of Arc. She can’t lie or be deceitful, even if those who depend on her need her to take the low road from time to time. She just can’t do it.

It’s complicated.  Complications tend to be external. They are entanglements outside the character that complicate their lives. These can be either character-based or plot-based depending on the aspect of the story you’re developing. In Gone With The Wind, for example, a major complication for Scarlett (to say nothing of the rest of the country) is the Civil War. Scarlett’s story isn’t about the war, it’s about how she copes, and the war provides a significant, and recurring, set of problems. Coming full circle, it turns out Scarlett’s unyielding determination proves to be the one thing which allows her to succeed, or at least persevere.

As in Scarlett’s case, the best outcomes — from a plot standpoint — occur when a player’s limitations and complications turn out to be the very issues which help them achieve their goals, even as they generate new and unusual difficulties.

Now, track down your notes from part one, and add to them some potential complications for your character to face. Then figure out at least one serious complication. Can you see where this is headed? There’s only one phase to go.


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Characters with… character. part 1 of 3

For most readers, novels are judged by the degree to which readers care for the players in the story. Character-driven stories haven’t just evolved; they’re as old as storytelling itself. 36612546_mlAnd yet, far too many novice novelists concentrate more on plots than players. The truth is, good novels must excel at both. A further truth is that the complexity of the characters often generates complexities in the story line. They ought to be inextricably linked. If you think in terms of DNA strands, you’ll begin to get the picture.

So, how does one go about creating characters that matter? It takes time and patience. And maybe a few suggestions. Here’s one way that’s guaranteed to work, provided you follow all the steps.

A Character Logline? At the outset, most of us already have a character in mind, so let’s start with what we’ve got and use it to write a character logline. Sometimes called an “elevator pitch,” a logline is just a one-liner that sums up a character and his/her role in the story. Keep it to 140 characters or less. Like these:

  • “The Big Bad Wolf, an aging loner with an insatiable taste for pork, seeks survival in the form of three pigs living nearby.” (122 characters)
  • “Han Solo is a devil-may-care space jock with a hot rocket ship and too many enemies, who falls in with a princess and a wannabe hero.” (133 chars)
  • “Scarlett O’hara is a pampered Southern belle whose goals in life suddenly change from finding a proper husband to surviving the Civil War.” (138 chars)

If you’re struggling with your own character, try doing loglines for well-known players in existing books and movies.

What’s the PROBLEM? Remember, the character must have a problem. It’s why he/she exists, and it helps to generate plot(s). Figure out what the problem is, and spell it out as briefly as you can. If you’ve already included it in your logline, you’re ahead of the game. Use anything that stands in the way of the character reaching their goal. You want examples? We’ve got ’em. These are all perfectly valid fiction issues:

  • 63722024_ml-plusA girl can’t find a date.
  • A guy is pursued by a soul-eating monster escaped from Hades.
  • A woman deals in used souls but has lost her own.
  • A man longs to hear the symphony but is going deaf.

Consider poor, brilliant Walter O’Brien from the CBS TV show “Scorpion.” His problem isn’t the bad guys he encounters; it’s his inability to interact with “normal” people, primarily his love interest, Paige. Whatever gets in the way of their eventual connection is mere plot complication. The real driving force for Walter is his inability to connect with her.

In general terms, the problem is the immediate issue–why we’re here, watching this character, right now.

What good is a problem without a solution? Your character must think he has a solution to the problem. (No, not you, the writer; it must come from the character.) He or she must have a potential solution in mind, and it is precisely that which launches the tale.

  • 52010147_ml-txtThe gal who can’t find a date may decide her best bet is to rent a permanent booth in the trendiest singles bar in town.
  • The character who can’t duck the soul-eater from Hades may opt to join the space program in order to put some serious distance between himself and the boojum.
  • The dealer in dead souls may join a Buddhist order to find sanctuary in some remote mountain temple.
  • The guy who’s losing his hearing might seek out a faith healer or a witch doctor if he can’t afford traditional medical remedies.

If you haven’t been taking notes and/or writing down your responses to the questions, go back and do it now. You’ll need the answers when we get to part 2 next time around.


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Outlines for those who hate outlining

Note: the same poor shlub is riding all three horses. Dying once isn't enough?

Note: the same poor shlub is riding all three horses. Dying once isn’t enough?

There’s one thing we always hear about outlines and writers, and we hear it over and over: writers are either “plotters” or “pantsers.” But there are some, me f’rinstance, who do both. Like many who write by the seat of their pants, I often charge into a story as if I’m in the Light Brigade. But I typically have to slow down when my regrets pile up like the bodies of Tennyson’s famed 600 in the valley of Death. (Who sez I’m not smart enough to look up classics on the interweb?)

I may have a few plot lines wandering around in search of conclusions, if not climaxes; I usually have a character or three whose role at first seemed vital but which has rapidly diminished in value; I may have had a gonzo crazy idea for a finale that I just couldn’t wait to write until I realized — oh shit! — it won’t work. So, what do I do? Scrap the whole thing and start on something else? Stick it in a drawer and pray the writing elves will execute a daring midnight rescue? Go on a bender, expressing my sorrow to anyone unlucky enough to stumble by?

Probably not. At least, not until I’ve done a little post-crisis evaluation. If the idea really and truly sucks, then a deep, dark drawer or a handy trash can would be a good place for it. On the other hand, if I’ve already spent a significant amount of time and energy on it, a better course might be to salvage some of it. I know I’m a good writer, so the content surely can’t be one hundred percent irredeemable crap. Fifty percent, maybe. <shrug> But how does one determine what can be saved and what needs to go down the ol’ flusheroo?

My method, derived from an almost countless number of misbegotten beginnings, is to go back and outline what’s already been written. Call it a reverse outline, a trail map of where characters have been and when/how events occurred.

outln-scrn-shotI break these down in a simple chart, by chapter and scene, noting point of view character (because I usually employ way too many), plot element, and word count. I also add a fat column for remarks. This one comes in handy for recording random thoughts that pop into my head (kill off this moron, add something to show we’re in the 6th century AD, make Babs a short redhead to balance the tall brunette in chapter 3/scene 2, etc.). The order of the columns isn’t important unless you’ve got obsessive compulsive issues, but that’s a topic I’d rather not schlep around in just now. [Note: The screen capture above is from my current work in progress. See? Some of this stuff I don’t just make up, some of it I actually use!]

There’s no rule that says you can’t fill in one of these charts as you go, and lately that’s exactly what I’ve been doing: write a scene, add a line to the outline. Rinse and repeat. It’s a handy way to keep track of all kinds of things, not just word count or how often one particular point of view character (POVC) shows up. The remarks column can serve to record anything that might qualify for future consideration. If it matters that a character is left-handed, or is a Polish national, or was a great athlete, jot it down there. The same goes for any minute detail you might need to recall later. (What was the name of the cop’s poodle that got squished by the mafia don’s girlfriend in chapter 3?)

11370453_ml-txtLike many writers I know, I get antsy dealing with the same character for too long. This causes me to create extra POVCs, and their very existence almost always generates additional plot lines. These all have to intersect or at least inter-relate somehow, somewhere. Having a chart like the one above makes it much easier to see who’s getting the most page-time, whose plot needs to be advanced next, and how much to speed up or slow down the pace of a given storyline. And, if the worst happens and I discover a character who isn’t pulling his or her own weight, the chart makes it much easier to decide if I should chop ’em out, kill ’em off, or fluff ’em up.

So, you see? There’s hope for those of us who don’t like to outline in advance. We’re okay with having little more than a dim idea of where our stories are headed. When it’s time to do an outline, we’ll be ready. Eventually.


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Let’s take a step back

Normally, when I’m working on a new story, I’m all about forging ahead, full steam if possible. But I realize that may not be the proper approach for everyone, especially if what they’re attempting to do isn’t what they’re ready to do. If, for instance, you decide you want to build a house, it might be a good idea to tackle something a little less involved first. The same is true of novel writing.

21896791_ml-txt58835978_ml-txtWhat you may truly want to write could be the literary equivalent of the Taj Mahal, and that’s certainly a noble goal. If, however, you’ve never actually written anything, I’d urge you to consider scaling back a bit and do the verbal edition of a deck, or maybe a doghouse — just as a warm-up, of course. It’s all about your skill set and knowing when you’re ready to attempt something as difficult as a novel.

Yes, there have been some incredibly successful one-hit wonders, but their fame is tied closely to their rarity. In all likelihood, you won’t pen the next To Kill A Mockingbird. I don’t say that to crush your spirit, but merely to help you manage your expectations.

So, how does one build a novel writer’s skill set? Trial and error may work well for lots of things, but neither writing nor brain surgery is among them. If you want to write a novel you need to do at least three things:

  1. Study the craft
  2. Write shorter pieces and put them on the market
  3. Connect with other writers

16306482_mlVery few things in life require little or no instruction, much of which is gained via observation and emulation. We see how friends and family operate in certain situations, and we learn from it. Some learn better than others. Parenting is a good example.

Writing, however, is a craft. It can’t be learned by watching someone else do it, and only the essential elements of it are taught in school — sentence structure, spelling, grammar, etc. Some emphasis is placed on theme and essay writing, but that’s about it. If you want to write something people will pay to read, you need to dive in deep and find out what works and what doesn’t. Take some classes, practice what you studied, and then do some reading, but not for entertainment. Do it for enlightenment. Study the writers whose work you most admire, and see how they put the pieces together.

The next step involves practice. And lots of it. Write short stories, essays, poetry, limericks, flash fiction, character sketches, experimental openings and anything else you can think reject-slipof. All of it will help you build the skill set you need to produce good novels. But just writing them isn’t enough. If you’re serious, you need to take the extra step and submit them for publication.

Why would I suggest such a thing when I know only a minuscule fraction of fiction submissions are ever purchased? Aside from learning a solid lesson in humility, there’s a chance you’ll get feedback from editors, and that can have an extraordinary effect on your work. At one point in my early writing career, I maintained at least a dozen short stories in circulation. Of course, I developed a huge pile of rejection slips in the process, and it seemed like forever before I finally garnered my first sale. But during that time, I also received hand-written comments on some of the rejection slips, and as a result, I concentrated on those markets. And when my writing had improved enough, I sold to them.

The third thing I urge nascent novelists to do is to find other writers with whom they can share their work, their worries, their failures, and ultimately their successes. An active debatewriters group can make a huge difference in one’s work. If you’re able to stifle your ego long enough to exchange honest critiques with your fellow writers, you’ll enhance your knowledge of the craft ten-fold.

There’s a very good reason why this is so. When it comes to our own work, most of us wear blinders. We can’t see our mistakes; our brains are hard-wired to overlook them if not to mentally correct them. Your fellow writers won’t have that problem. When they see that you’ve strayed, it’s their job to call you on it. Just as you will for them. Do this long enough, and eventually you will be able to see the boo-boos in your own work. More than likely, however, you’ll catch that stuff and fix it on the fly.

And that’s when you’ll really be ready to write a novel.


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Ya gotta have heart

Though clichéd, it’s true that the building blocks of a good novel are the scenes. I imagine if one looked hard enough it would be possible to find a novel with neither scene nor chapter breaks, but it would definitely be an oddity. Most readers like having a convenient dreamstime_m_17293986-crpdplace to pause, should nature call, for instance. But, if you approach your job as a novelist with the right frame of mind, you’ll be able to force that reader to haul your book along with them when they trot off to take care of business.

Therein lies the power of the scene, and the real reason for its primacy. Scenes offer a grand opportunity for storytellers to leave audiences hanging. In the oral tradition, because of time constraints and other issues not directly tied to the story, tales are typically single point-of-view affairs. They’re generally told in a linear fashion, too. Novelists, on the other hand, have an unlimited number of scenes at their disposal along with a potential horde of characters to supply a point of view. The opportunities for leaving a reader drooling to find out what happens next are endless. That’s power!

Does every scene need to be an old-time cliffhanger? No, of course not, but an occasional threat to life and limb rarely hurts. At least, not in the realms of fiction. At the most basic level, a scene should offer a bit of information that’s relevant to the plot or a sub-plot. Keeping that in mind will help a writer focus on moving the story forward. Scenes that don’t advance the plot, don’t belong. Go ahead and cut them now before you get too attached. This is more than just killing your darlings, which is pretty good advice. This is more like killing your darlings and their families.

I’ve written wonderful scenes which I felt sure would drive my story, only to realize they only added length, not depth. They contained nothing new, plot-wise, and the story worked just as well without them. But these were really, really good scenes! So, rather than consign them to the digital dustbin, I squirreled them away for later use. Two, in particular, drove short stories I wrote much later, adding the very depth they couldn’t provide when initially written. (Full disclosure: I had to change names and settings in both. In one case, I even changed the genre. Point is, they weren’t wasted.)

One particular element can make a scene truly worthwhile: suspense.

And how does one do that? Simply by asking a question that isn’t answered. Hopefully, you’ll be able to avoid the temptation to have the narrator (that’s you, Bubba, no matter what you choose to call yourself) ask the question in some blatantly meat-axed, melodramatic fashion: “Will the gigantic boulder break loose and crush the girl scouts camped below?”

Instead, you want the reader to pose the question. Your job is to set the scene: happy little campers frolic in the shadow of “Ol’ Man Mose,” an enormous be-prepared-compositeboulder so named because of its peculiar head-like shape. The rain has stopped, and the kiddies are preparing to spend the night, unrolling their sleeping bags amidst giggles and laughter, blissfully unaware of the danger they’re in. Meanwhile, a steady drip of runoff from countless storms has eroded one too many pebbles from beneath the hoary, moon-sized rock they pressed into service for shelter. It shifts a fraction of an inch, a movement which goes completely unnoticed.

At this point, the smart writer will end the scene and move on to some other character or characters in some other situation. The reader, much like the boulder, is left hanging. Will it shift some more? Will the girls be crushed? Can’t they see the danger they’re in?

There’s only one way to find out, and thus the page-turner is born.

So, should you infer from this example that the primary story is about girl scouts and camping? Hell no! It’s about a park ranger, or the scout leader, or a politician in Washington, DC, some 2,000 miles away. Or, more likely, it’s about all three. Is the scene necessary? Yes, provided it gives the reader a tidbit of information which advances the story. Maybe the scout leader has always camped near Ol’ Mose, despite repeated warnings that the rock is unstable. Perhaps the ranger has a history of chasing campers away from that spot, or [cue evil laughter] luring them to it. Perhaps the politician has blocked the funding that would have allowed the DNR to secure the big, bad boulder. Any or all of these things could be in play. Maybe there’s something hidden under the rock. Maybe….

Knowing when to end a scene is critical. Fortunately, the more scenes you write, the easier finding that sweet spot becomes. Eventually, you’ll be able to feel it. For now, just work toward it, secure in the knowledge that all you need to do is paint enough of the picture to leave the reader wondering. And if possible, worried.

There’s obviously more to writing a novel than this, and we’ll examine another major aspect of the craft next time. So stay tuned!

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Remakes are fine for Hollyweed

makin-copiesDo you really and truly want to write something that’s not only been done before, but done to death? Ick. And suddenly, an imagined protest from one of my students pops into my head: “Gimme a break! I’m no genius. How d’ya expect me to come up with something totally new and different? It’s all been done already!”

Though tempted, I won’t merely lean on the alleged quote from Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office in 1899 to then President McKinley, urging that his department be closed down since “…everything that can be invented, has been invented.” (The quote is almost certainly apocryphal, by the way. Sorry, Chuck. Sucks to have been you.)

Instead, I’ll quote the inestimable Martin Varsavsky: “What we need is not just intelligence, it’s mutant intelligence, mutant thinking, mutant thoughts. We need to combine the ability to reason with the ability to ‘morph’ a thought into a whole new 17249743_ml-txtproposal.” And lo, the words were spoken, and they bore the imprimatur of truth. I should have set the word mutant in italics. Mutant. (I feel better now.)

If we hope to create something new, we must attempt a bit of mutant thinking, perhaps even use some mutant logic. When a stereotypical option rears its ugly head, we need to divert our thinking onto a different path, one that’s so less traveled as to be pristine — new. So, how the hell does one do that?

Simple. One fractures the paradigm.

Instead of “boy meets girl,” “boy meets boy,” or even “human meets non-human,” we need to stretch still further. How ’bout “boy meets god?” (Note lower case “G.”) What form(s) might god take in such an instance? What if god lived in the boy’s sock drawer? (“Can ya hear me, God? It’s me, Doober.”)

What if god were another kind of animal? What if god was a parrot? Or an insect of some kind? (Watch where you step!) Before we wander too far into Kafka-land, let’s stop and consider the concept of mutant thinking. Go somewhere unexpected; do something unplanned; experience something that shouldn’t happen. This is how you morph the commonplace into the creative, how to re-make something obvious and overdone into something original.

31075440 - woman cyborg of steel and white plastic

Like… I dunno. Robot sex!

Okay, I admit, that’s creepy. And I’m not sure where one would go with it. But then, what might someone do with it? If there are robotic consorts, why couldn’t two of them meet and, who knows, fall in love? Imagine the conversations they might have, comparing notes on all the wretched humans with whom they’ve had to deal. What if someone recorded their conversations? What if…

And there it is: “What if?” The fiction writer’s raison d’etre. What if the hero is really a schmuck? Nah; everyone owns that t-shirt. Maybe the hero’s girl isn’t true blue? Again, nah. The problem here is that Hollywood has been digging in this dirt for so long, that all the easy role reversals have already been reversed. Think “Star Wars.”

So where does one go from there? Options abound, believe me. Leave the good guy/bad guy roles in their traditional forms and find your mayhem elsewhere. How ’bout the stock market? Consider an IPO (initial public offering) for shares in a company that grants wishes, or overturns dictators, or resurrects extinct species? Hm. I think I hear the theme music from “Jurassic Park.”

Here are a few What Ifs off the top of my head:

  • How ’bout a history book that allows readers to actually see into the past as if they’re watching events in real time?
  • 40898049 - cartoon rat looking through binoculars vector illustrationHow ’bout a highly trained rodent that can conduct espionage?
  • How ’bout an athlete (actor, politician, teacher, cop) who’s really an alien from the seventh planet? (No Clinton/Trump jokes, please.)
  • How ’bout a pair of shoes that’ll take you anywhere you want to go, instantly?
  • How ’bout a pair of earmuffs that allows the wearer to eavesdrop on any conversation anywhere?

The point is, you don’t have to rely on old tropes and tired themes. You just have to dig around a bit to find some turf that hasn’t already been plowed a gazillion times. And, if you can’t think of something, there’s still hope. Tell the old story better than it’s been done before. Hollywood’s been doing it for years.

 Now, go thou, and be fruitful. Or write. That’d be even better.

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