The Habits of Writing

Planning to write is as important as planning to go to the gym. If you give yourself a set time to write everyday, you’re more likely to accomplish something. I know writers who can’t write until they feel compelled or inspired to write, but I’ve found in my experience that if you make yourself write — and sometimes (a lot of the times actually), you would really rather be doing something else and you’ll even invent excuses not to write that day — if you just sit down and at least write for fifteen minutes, you’ll feel better about yourself; even if what you wrote is horrible or you only wrote one sentence, at least you’ll be writing, and it’s practicing the craft that makes us better.

My set time to write is in the evening after supper. I usually come in from work, eat, watch thirty minutes to an hour of television, and then I make myself sit down and write. Seriously, there are days when I just feel like lying around and doing nothing, but then that unfinished novel is always lingering, beating in my head like the beating of the heart beneath the floorboards, and if I try to ignore it and push it aside, it just comes back stronger the next day. Writing takes a lot of self-discipline and motivation, and it is so easy to get out of the habit and so difficult to return to it. That’s why I’m afraid to break my routine. Perhaps, if I skipped writing for a week, I’d be okay, but what about after two weeks or three? Then, I might never want to pick my novel up again and continue writing, and it would remain unfinished. And to be so close to the end now; all that time wasted. Once you’ve written your first draft of your first novel, it’s much easier to write a second or a third one and to continue the habit of writing. I don’t think I could break the habit now without some sort of patch; it’s like an addiction; it’s ingrained within me to write.

Every writer is different, and it’s important to find what routine works best for you. Professional novelists have all day to dedicate to writing, but what about those of us who have other full-time jobs and obligations and families? It may be much more difficult to find an hour to steal or even thirty minutes to dedicate to writing. Stephen King in his memoir On Writing says he writes something like ten pages a day, and Nicholas Sparks, on his website, recommends writing 2,000 words a day. A tall order for many of us. On average, I probably write two pages an hour (approximately 650 words), so to reach 2,000 words a day, I would have to spend at least three hours a day writing, or maybe more, depending on how much planning I may have to do on plot or characters or historical research, so it would most likely take me five or six hours to hit 2,000 words. I just don’t have that kind of time every day, and I’m sure many of you don’t either. Ten pages would take me about eight hours.

Let’s be practical. Some authors recommend word limits, and others recommend time. I’m for the latter. I make it a goal to spend at least an hour every day writing, excluding weekends and sometimes excluding Fridays depending on my schedule. Weekends are just too hectic for me right now; I travel a lot on the weekends and it’s rare that I have much time to write then. Ideally, I would like to write for two hours every day, and some days that’s possible, but my goal is to at least block out one hour every day, no distractions, no interruptions, just me and my pen (or computer) and paper. Turn off your phone if you have to. If you’re married and have children — now granted I don’t fall in either of those categories at the moment — I still recommend blocking out an hour, maybe thirty minutes is more feasible, and telling your husband or wife that you really need this time without interruption, and I’m sure they’ll understand. They can handle the kids by themselves for an hour or half an hour; it’s not going to kill them.

While I would love more than anything to spend eight hours a day writing — if I had that kind of time, it would mean I was a full-time novelist, and I would have achieved my ultimate goal — unfortunately, the demands of life command the majority of our attention: children, husbands/wives, your full-time job, various life events (marriages, funerals, old friends come to visit), buying/selling a home, moving, vacations, etc., so find what time you do have, make a routine out of it, and follow that routine as often as you can. The important thing is to write and to write at least some each week. I think that’s a realistic goal for most of us: two or three days a week dedicated to writing.

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Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers

Each year Writer’s Digest magazine puts out a list of the 101 best websites for writers. Categories include: general writing resources, publishing, challenges/creativity, genre/niche, protecting your work, agent blogs, and a list of writing communities. I’ve looked at a lot of these sights before, and overall, I’ve found the list fairly helpful. I discovered a good writing community through this list: Critique Circle. If you want quality feedback on any of your fiction writings, I recommend this group.

Critique Circle Writing Community

It’s a nice user-friendly, active, constructive writing critique group.

101 Best Websites for Writers

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Harry Potter in Troll

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket - Harry Potter - Fantasy - Fiction - NovelThe character Harry Potter apparently appeared in the 1986 film Troll starring Noah Hathaway and June Lockhart and directed by John Carl Buechler. Not the same Harry Potter, although both films do share a commonality in their use of magic.

Harry Potter (Noah Hathaway) and his family move into a new neighborhood, and Harry meets an old woman Eunice St. Clair (June Lockhart), who turns out to be a witch, and she and Harry enter the Troll’s fairy world to try and stop it from turning other people into plant pods. Compelling.

I’ve never actually seen the film, but I was reading about it on wikipedia and IMDb, and the entry on wikipedia says the Harry Potter in Troll is also a dark haired young boy about the same age as the Potter from J.K. Rowling’s novels, and he enters a world of magic and meets wizards and fights a troll.

Read about Troll on Wikipedia.

Supposedly, John Buechler is doing a remake of Troll, with the name Harry Potter still used for the main character.

More on the remake of Troll.

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HBO Series: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

I learned recently that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is going to be made into an HBO series. A Song of Ice and Fire includes four novels (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows), with a fifth one in the works (A Dance with Dragons) and plans for two more to round out the series at seven. For a while now, some friends and I have been talking about how we would like to see A Song of Ice and Fire on the big screen, though to do that would be challenging as each novel is nearly 1,000 pages, and so a TV series might work better for such a project. The plan is to write a season for each novel. I haven’t found any dates on when the first episode might air. Seems I am a little late to this news, as the article from Variety was published January of this year, but I thought I would go ahead and throw this out there, for those of you who weren’t aware.

Read the article from Variety.

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Good Writing is Simple

I came across this excerpt from an unpublished novel the other day.

“Through this mantic glass I watch Manayunk dissolve. Perhaps the rain’s pursuing mist inoculates its vision, or its pandect vantage from this garret dormer. Or perhaps no eyes can ever be so low to truly see from ground level. Still, how terribly odd the way this half-light is more colorless than darkness. The gloaming palette renders the neighborhood porous & achromatic-black & white yes, but mostly thumb-swept smudges of Quaker gray. Tonight the jumble of rooftops across Levering Street descend the abrupt hillside like a collapsing staircase, down into rubble upon Main Street & the cobbled towpath of the old canal. How with such languor the brick & stone walls of the nineteenth century mills flanking the boulevard below warm with the blush of neon patina, sad facades that rouge eerie & luminous as the cheeks of an aging whore. Is it not ironic such melancholy iris radiates from the garish scribbles pimping coffee houses, boutiques, & taverns? Plaited by the wharf’s stanchions, the Schuylkill shimmers in its own black light. Ganshowhanna in Lenapé, hidden river in Dutch, its sable braids flicker with the last few glimmering eels of twilight as they slither downstream toward Boathouse Row & center city.”

When I first read this, it reminded me of a time in high school when young creative writers discover the thesaurus, and they began to use as many big words as they can find, believing that is what makes a good writer. Strunk in the Elements of Style stresses simplicity in writing and eliminating unnecessary words. I couldn’t agree more. The best writing I have read is writing that is simple and easy to understand. If your reader cannot understand what you’re saying, then you need to re-think how you are saying it. Good writing means communicating your thoughts clearly and succinctly.

Notice the simplicity of style in this excerpt from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Think simple.

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Sarum: The Novel of England by Edward Rutherfurd

Sarum - Edward Rutherford - Historical Fiction - Ancient Medieval England Sarum is the sweeping epic of England, a rich history that blends the ancient and the modern, beginning with the Ice Age 10,000 years ago and transporting the reader through the worlds of Stonehenge, the Black Death, the Industrial Age, World War II, and ending in modern times. It follows the fortunes of five families: Wilson, Godfrey, Shockley, Mason, and Porteus. Witness how changes in political, social, and economic climates affect these families and witness how the landscape is transformed over time. From the unspoiled land of the five rivers to the ritual and spiritual centers of Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral to the bustling commercial and industrial centers of the modern age, Rutherfurd interweaves history with fiction to create a seamless tale that will endure across the ages.

Though several chapters seem to drag with the story and characters, you can still learn a lot about the history of England — many parts of the novel actually read like a history book — and you will learn how the country arrived at its modern state. You will understand how the social climate changed dramatically with the coming of the Black Death and how the legislative system developed over time to make England unique. I particularly enjoyed the earlier chapters, those dealing with the Stone Age, the Roman occupation, the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, and the medieval period, which included the construction of the famous Salisbury Cathedral. I felt the stories and characters were much more entertaining than those in part two of the book, “New Sarum.” Despite the slow going of some of the chapters, Rutherford’s impressive storytelling ability does not get lost in all the history.

Definitely worth the read. Rutherfurd seems to have done his research well, though as with all historical books, I’m sure there will be debate concerning the accuracies of various parts. It’s a book you will want to read more than once, as much for the entertainment as for the history.

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What’s It About?

If you tell someone you’re writing a novel, one of the first questions most people will ask you is “What’s it about?” Such a tough question to answer, especially when I was writing the first draft. It seems like the author should be able to easily describe what his/her novel is about, but it’s really not that simple. At the time, you may have many ideas floating around in your head you want to try out or characters that haven’t been introduced yet, and if you’re not an outliner, like me, then you may not know exactly where the story is going until you get there; though I’ve learned from my first two drafts that it’s probably wise to do some planning first, because you may get to page 300 and not remember what you wrote on page 100, and if you don’t have the story planned out well, you may realize at that moment that you should have taken the story in a different direction, and after all, that is the direction you really wanted to go, and so you begin to change things and inconsistencies occur that you will then have to fix, but that means re-writing those first 300 pages again, because the slightest change in storyline can change much more than you realize at the time.

This is exactly what happened to me from my first to second drafts. That is why my first draft is in some trash compacter somewhere, or in a landfill, or being recycled and used again by some fourth grader. I did realize this problem after going back and reading my first draft; there was so much I wanted to change, and the writing was so bad that, looking back on it now, makes me want to vomit. But even the most genius of writers have lousy first drafts. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, has a great chapter on how bad first drafts can, and are supposed to be.

But mine was horrendous, and I realized I needed to do something. So I wrote back-story. Fifteen pages of back-story: characters, places, setting, timeline, symbolism, plot summary. All that stuff that makes a novel what it is. I thought this would help guide me as I wrote the second draft for a while, which it did, but then I got in too big of a rush and didn’t bother to go back and read what I had previously written on a character after switching back to his or her viewpoint, and I created even more inconsistencies. So, I didn’t follow the plan all that well.

When I re-read it a second time, most of my writing was still pretty bad, and though I kept some of it, I ended up re-writing a lot of scenes or adding new scenes, and this is what has taken me the most time. The third draft has been the longest, in terms of time investment, because I have been much more careful to edit slowly and meticulously, and then go back and re-read scenes when I switch from viewpoint to viewpoint. I have also pared down the viewpoints to three main characters this time. Much easier to keep track of three for a first time novelist. Highly recommended to keep your viewpoints as limited as possible for your first novel.

So, what’s it about? Ah, the interminable question. If I had to classify it, I would consider it a blend of historical fiction and fantasy. Historical fiction in the sense that it is based on an actual time period: late 12th, early 13th England and France, and I’ve done my best to stay true to the many facets of that culture that makes it so interesting. There are two main kingdoms in my novel, one of them an island kingdom to the north, and the other, a continental kingdom to the south across the channel. As befitting of the medieval time period, war and chaos seem to rule; the nobles (kings, earls, counts, barons, lords) war against one another, but there is one man who emerges as the ruler of the continental kingdom, and he is the antagonist. A man with the mentality of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, his desire is for one thing, and that is to rule the entire continental lands, eradicate any claimants to the throne, and also bring the island kingdom under his control. It is a story of deception and vengeance and betrayal, for throughout the medieval world, this was common among nobles who wished to increase their status and wealth by allying with the side they believed stood the greater chance of victory. Wealth was in land, and the easiest way to increase your wealth was to go to war and take over your neighbors’ lands. This was common practice in medieval France, a decentralized nation with a figurehead king, a monarch in truth who had very little power over his subjects, who held duchies and counties of their own and had their own small armies. So you had a lot of infighting among the barons trying to conquer each other’s principalities. Duke William of Normandy, also known as William the Conqueror or William the Bastard, was a great example of a man who, in reality, arguably had more power than the King of France, as William controlled the duchy of Normandy and the entire Kingdom of England at one time, though medieval England was seen by France as insignificant, an outpost on the edge of the world. France was the heart of the civilized world, the greatest nation to rise since the fall of the Roman Empire, forged by great leaders such as Clovis and Charlemagne.

This is the backdrop of my novel. The two kingdoms, the island kingdom and the continental kingdom, have a dislike for one another, and so when the antagonist, a noble without royal blood and without rightful claim to the throne, begins to take over the divided principalities of the continental kingdom, many of the nobles switch allegiances to him, and some try and form a weak alliance with one another, while others remain neutral, so there is a great divide among the many lords and barons, dukes and counts. While across the channel, the island kingdom waits and watches.

Medieval England was not nearly as divided as medieval France. William the Conqueror, after defeating Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, began a campaign of castle construction throughout the kingdom, and he set up Norman rulers (his friends and relatives) to govern and administer these many estates, and thus brought the people under his control, and due to these efforts, England became more of a central monarchy, though it was still divided into many shires and could not avoid the inevitable fighting that came on the heels of a king’s death, such as the with the death of King Henry I and the subsequent battle for the throne between Stephen of Blois and Matilda.

The church at that time was very powerful, and you cannot study the medieval period without noticing the incredible influence it had on Western Europe. I’ve tried to include this element in my novel as well, a corrupt church run by corrupt leaders, who will do anything they can to protect and increase their power and impose their will on the people. Even kings would bend at the knee of the pope, and if they didn’t, they were excommunicated, though in truth, that meant very little to some kings. Religion plays an important part in my novel, for without religion, characters are not very human.

The novel not only has outwardly religious characters but also contains spiritually symbolic elements that will be noticeable to the astute observers. I like how C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien use spiritual elements in their writings, and I wanted to use that style in my own writing, though I wanted to be a little more subtle than Lewis, such as with his use of Aslan as a representative of Christ. Nothing that is quite that obvious.

I suppose my novel can be classified as fantasy as well, because all of my kingdoms, characters, places, etc. are completely fictional. There is no historical person or event that my novel centers around, and so technically, I suppose, it is not historical fiction. I wanted my story to be real and dark and gritty, so there are no magical elements in it as you find with almost all fantasy, but the theme of good versus evil set to the backdrop of a sweeping, epic war is very much a common theme in fantasy novels.

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The Worst Sentence of the Year

This was forwarded to me in an email this morning:

For the past 25 years, San Jose State University’s English department has been asking writers to do their worst. That is, to submit the worst opening sentence of the worst imaginary novel they can, well, imagine. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has been updated for the Internet world, with the motto, “Where WWW means ‘Wretched Writers Welcome.'”

Just announced, the 2007 grand-prize winner: “Gerald began–but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them “permanently” meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash–to pee.” This eruption of prose comes from the volcanic mind of Jim Gleeson, a 47-year-old media technician from Madison, Wis.

Also worth noting, in this season of Harry Potter, is the winner in the children’s-literature division, Dave McKenzie of Federal Way, Wash. He wrote: “Danny, the little Grizzly cub, frolicked in the tall grass on this sunny Spring morning, his mother keeping a watchful eye as she chewed on a piece of a hiker they had encountered the day before.” The competition is named after (“in honor of” is not quite the right sentiment) the Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, who penned a novel with the immortal opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” And you thought Snoopy came up with that one on his own. — Josh Fischman

I clicked through to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest site and perused the list of writing contest winners. I found the winner of the fantasy fiction category quite amusing:

Lady Guinevere heard it distinctly, a sharp slap, as if a gauntlet had been thrown, and yet it was hardly plausible that she, perched delicately on the back of her cantering steed, should be challenged to ride faster, since protocol determined that Arthur should ride in front, then she, then Lancelot, for that was the order prescribed by Merlin, ever since he invented the carousel. — Celine Shinbutsu

And the runner-up and dishonorable mention in the fantasy category were not bad either:

Runner-Up Fantasy Fiction category:

Hiram had been a three-toed dragon, well on his way to a promotion to Imperial five-toed dragon, when he accidentally choked on the pink chiffon scarf of Princess Chloe’s hat, and his coughing set the new oaken parapet, on the old stone bulwark, ablaze, thereby earning a demotion to Troll 3 — now his only responsibility was to keep billy goats off the bridge. — Michael L. VanBlaricum

Dishonorable Mention Fantasy Fiction category:

At Elvenheim there was great joy, in that the legendary Ring of the Nordlings had been retrieved from the evil Sudlings by the hero Bill Baggydrawers, who it must be said looked nothing like a hero, at least none I’ve ever seen, and the Ring had once again been placed on the middle finger of the left hand of the Elvenking, who did rather resemble a king, even if his buck teeth made him look for all the world like a great rabbit. — Wayne McCoy

I didn’t find the historical fiction winner all that impressive, however.

Samson looked in the mirror and, when he saw what a fantastic haircut Delilah had given him, he went weak at the knees. — Neil Prowd

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Chapter 1: How I Got Started

Storytelling in written form goes back as far as Virgil and Homer and even the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and Indian narratives such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, though the oral tradition of passing down stories dates far beyond that, before recorded time. Stories enrich our lives and increase our knowledge; they free us from our ordinary lives and transport us to a certain period in history, a certain place in the world, into certain people’s lives, and through stories, we live another life. I look back at my own life, and feel, even at age 27, that I have lived more than one life already. The memories of childhood are faded and old, and I wonder sometimes if it was actually me who lived them. There are moments when I wish I could go back and spend a day in summer, the last of daylight spreading across the sky, no obligations, no responsibilities, only the slow movement of time and the buzzing of the cicadas in the trees and the tumbling of water over rocks and my imagination.

When you’re a child, your imagination is boundless. I used to spend most of my time outdoors, and my friends and I created our own kingdom in the woods and called it Altonia. That is why I loved the book Bridge to Taribithia so much; it reminded me a lot of what I used to do when I was young. So even then, I was a storyteller.

In elementary school, I wrote a lot of stories. I found them not too long ago in a dusty box in my parents’ attic. They were written on wrinkled pieces of paper in notebooks, and it was fun to read them again. Most of the stories dealt with American history — even then, I loved history — and the expansion of the American colonists into the west. My stories had a lot of battle scenes, which is interesting, because I still have a great interest in military history, though instead of American history, I now focus on the study of medieval history, namely medieval England and France during the High Middle Ages.

When I decided I was going to write a novel, I was a senior in college. Throughout middle school and high school, I took creative writing courses and wrote a good many short stories, though in college, I got out of writing that for the first few years and focused more on advertising copy, and I even then had an interest in magazine writing. I don’t know what happened to many of the short stories I wrote in high school, though if I probably looked hard enough I could find them somewhere in another dusty box in my parents’ attic or on the hard drive of their still functioning 486 computer. Even if I found them, I would not want anyone to read them. You don’t want anyone, not even your parents (though your mom will read them anyway), to read anything you’ve written before your 18th, or 19th, or 20th birthday. Granted, I probably don’t want anyone reading much of what I’ve written after that, though some of it is respectable. Who knows how many short stories I’ve written in my life. It doesn’t matter; out of all of them, I maybe only like three.

So my senior year, I signed up for a creative writing course. My teacher was more focused on poetry, but I still learned a lot from him, and I credit the course with getting me back into writing fiction. One interesting note about my teacher: he studied poetry under Stephen Dunn, and Stephen Dunn studied under Robert Frost. I feel fortunate because Robert Frost has always been my favorite poet.

The summer of my senior year, after my creative writing class ended, I began writing my first novel. I thought I would try and expand from short fiction into a longer, epic work, and seeing as how I never felt like I could tell a complete story in such a small amount of space, I thought it would be a good challenge. My first attempt was an expansion of a short story I had already written, but it didn’t turn out well. I wrote for eighteen pages, decided I couldn’t write in that genre — it was more of a love story — and trashed it. Then I asked myself what my interests really were. I have always loved history, and since I had a fascination with the medieval period, I decided to make that my setting. So I began reading all I could get my hands on about medieval history, and at the same time, started writing. I had no idea what the story was going to be; I just started writing and let the story unfold by itself. That is one of the things I really enjoy about writing now: you never quite know how the story is going to go, so it often feels like you’re reading a story for the first time.

I had also recently read Lord of the Rings and had re-read Timeline by Michael Crichton, so those had a good deal of influence on my writing at that time. My story became kind of a blend of fantasy and history, without the magical elements often found in fantasies, but keeping with the traditional idea of epic battles of good vs. evil, light vs. dark. Putting the magical elements aside, I wanted to make my story real, gritty, and dark, with the details focused on historical accuracy to the medieval period: political and social and military structures, castle construction and their purposes, clothing, food, activities, sports, the church, etc. I also enjoy spiritual elements, in particular spiritual symbolism that is deep and not obvious, so I used that as an undercurrent to my novel. The spiritual elements are hopefully quite subtle, and something you will have to really look for to understand. I like C.S Lewis’ Narnia, but I didn’t want to make my spiritual connections so obvious.

I finished the first draft of my novel in a little over a year, and when I went back and read it, I hated it. So, I took the 350 pages and trashed it and started over. Since then, I had read a lot of other authors, in particular Bernard Cornwell and George R.R. Martin, and they greatly influenced the second draft and are still my main influences in my style to this day. I had also learned a great deal more about the medieval period, and I had many historical corrections to make. I still have some corrections to make and details to add, but that will have to wait until the third draft.

I finished the second draft in about a year and a half. It took me longer because the novel itself was longer, 500 pages up from 350. I had changed the plot significantly, though the basic idea of keeping with the setting and an epic clash between good vs. evil remained the same. I have actually kept the main character to this day from the first draft; his name is actually the same and his motivation is the same — many of the characters’ names and place names have been revised, and there are some I still hate that I want to change in the fourth revision — though I still can’t decide if I like the protagonist all that much. There are times when I like him and times when he is a little too dark and depressed, and I won’t know, I suppose, what I really think of him until I go back and re-read it a fourth time in its entirety.

Most of the third draft is written out on the back of printed out computer paper, with the second draft on the front, with ink marks scratching through entire pages and the re-writes on the back. My goal is to finish the third draft before years end. I only have some 160 pages left to edit, and sometimes I can edit several pages in a day, while other days I read what I have written and decide it needs to be re-written or that I need a new scene entirely. There is pain and frustration in writing, but also great satisfaction to know you’ve accomplished something even if no one ever reads it. Write because you love to write, not because you expect to make a living at it, though it is very much a real goal of mine to read my name in print, to walk in a bookstore and see it on the shelf, to see it listed on the New York Times Bestseller list. Such is the stuff of dreams, a child’s imagination as the last of the summer light fades from the sky.

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