Tag Archives: Fantasy Fiction

“Oi, buddy, you’re a writer, right? Where do you get your ideas from?”

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

I had no real idea what I was going to write this week then this turned  up on io9. Thank you, Mr Heinlein (and thank you io9 for sticking it where I could see it). Problem solved.

“Oi, buddy, you’re a writer, right? Where do you get your ideas from?”

I should imagine all writers get asked this question—a lot. You can cube that number for writers of Speculative Fiction, and you can cube it again for Science Fiction writers on their own. It’s understandable really.

Everybody, who isn’t a writer, is curious about where writers get their ideas. Writers are less curious and more envious when somebody comes up with a great idea (a ‘Bugger, wish I’d thought of that’ moment is something all writers will recognise (Check THIS out, so very envious).

With non-Speculative Fiction (excepting maybe Crime Fiction, where people back slowly away from the writer in case the scribe feels like doing a little hands-on research) people can kinda see where the idea might come from: a marriage break-up, an historical incident, a present-day incident, a conversation overheard in the street, and so on. Those sort of things make sense to readers, because everybody with an imagination will have had those moments of wondering.

With Fantasy, people can kinda see that the idea may derive from the 7000 odd years of mythology and legend that just sits there in the collective unconscious. Horror pretty much comes from the same place as Fantasy, but it does cross the line into Science Fiction (and Crime Fiction).

But pure SF?

Heinlein’s letter shows the answer. I don’t know if he trawled through his notebooks for his friend Theodore Sturgeon, or if he just started spilling ideas onto the page in a flood, it could have been either, but the important thing is that all the ideas actually built an entire world in very few words.

Even the ‘ghost cat’ idea creates a world in sixteen words.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a reason why Heinlein is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Science Fiction writers. This flood of ideas is part of the why and the world creation is a lot of the rest of it. Everything connects together in Heinlein’s work. He describes a world from the inside in a master class of how to do exposition. (Read the beginning of Starbeast if you don’t believe me). He takes an idea to its logical conclusion and that logical conclusion is the world building, then he lets his characters loose in that world.

Not many writers can do that. Really. It’s a rare gift.

However, the ideas bit is what all Science Fiction writers do automatically. We don’t even think about it. Some science journal or political journal has some article and we instantly think, ‘hmmm, I wonder?’

I wonder: if building bots that mimic human play in online games  will lead to them being used as NPC characters in new games, which will lead to Machine Intelligences being released onto the net; if sons leaving DNA in the mother will allow dead sons to be cloned from these tissues at some point in the future (it is probable that daughters leave the same DNA behind, but male DNA is easier to find in a woman); and so on. Instant extrapolation.

And this happens pretty much anytime I read anything scientific, or political, or sociological, or…okay pretty much anything I read about pretty much anything…because I’ve trained my brain over decades to do this. And all those stray thoughts stick somewhere in my memory. I only write down really cool ideas (or what I think are really cool ideas). I actually learn about stuff by writing stories about them. Sometimes the stories fail, but I’ve figured out sommat about the idea, then later that same idea will pop up in another story, which works because I understand the idea better now.

Don’t get me wrong here, a lot of writers will do the same thing, some will probably have looked at my two instant extrapolations above and gone “Is that all you saw? Sheesh, what about this…?”

But to answer the question ‘where do SF writers get their ideas from?’ is easy, from reading stuff and wondering how the hell it would affect the world. The “My God, what if” of Brian Aldiss.

If dead children can be cloned from DNA left behind in the mother, what about taking that same DNA and using it to create ‘spare-part’ clones for the children? What about using it to create a designer clone because the first (naturally born) version turned out a bit disappointing? What would happen if the ‘natural’ child was disinherited and the ‘designer’ child became the heir? What would it be like to have a younger, ‘suped-up’, version of you running around with all the money you should have inherited? What would a world that allowed this to happen be like?

That’s where we get our ideas from. But of course, Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, Anderson, Wyndham, Le Guin, Shelley, Wells, Aldiss, Verne, Gibson, Vinge, and all the rest of the greats, have been doing the same thing for centuries.

And doing it better.

But what can I do? My brain is trained now, so I’m stuck with it.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Fan Fiction and World Building

I’ve had a couple of revelations recently or the heading might have read: Fan Fiction. Why?

The first revelation came in the comments over on the Passive Voice blog. My standard ‘why’ question was being debated, and I was sticking to my standard ‘I don’t understand the impulse’ position, when  I remembered writing a Dr Who story in my teens. Bang goes my ‘not understanding the impulse’.

The second revelation came when talking my nephew, who does like his fan fiction. I understood the impulse now, but I still didn’t understand ‘why’ people chose to invest so much energy into something they can’t sell. He was adamant that some fan fiction was better than the original fiction. You still can’t sell them, was my response to which he agreed, albeit a tad reluctantly. [EDIT: Kindle Worlds seems to be allowing people to sell fan fiction now, not sure how that is going to work out. A watching brief seems to be in order.]

However, this blog post is more about an insidious problem for writers of fan fiction rather than the legal and ethical concerns. I’m just mentioning them to get them out of the way—and to nail apologists for plagiarists hides to the wall (see below).

The final revelation came from an argument on another blog—I’m not sure which one—where the whole ‘nothing is original and therefore I can plagiarise to my heart’s content’ argument came up. That argument is bogus, bullshit, and should be thrust back down whichever throat it issues from whenever it is spoken, typed, or in any other way preached to the hard-of-thinking.

Philosophical bullshit based on a grain of truth (no story is truly original, but all creative stories are unique to the author) is still bullshit. If you don’t have any ideas of your own then don’t go stealing mine and asserting your rights to do so with sophistry and pedantry.

So, taking all three revelations as read, that pretty much everybody who writes will at some point write some form of fan fiction, that some fan fiction is extremely well written, and that it is still technically plagiarism and expect to see the inside of a courthouse if you try to steal another writer’s work and sell it without their consent, why do I still have a bit of a problem with fan fiction?

It’s to do with the fan fiction writer themselves. The most common reason people give for writing fan fiction (in my experience) beyond sheer love of the world and characters, is that it allows the writer to explore character and plot without them having to explore world building at the same time. In short, it’s easier for the tyro writer to focus on these aspects of writing rather than have to deal with the whole thing.

So what’s the problem with this?

Well.

Characters and plots are intimately linked to setting. If a writer creates a character, that is not the main protagonist of the story they are fanning (is that a term?—it’s a good one, because fan fiction does fan the flames that can lift a story or a series to a higher level. I’m not against fan fiction, I’m just against people thinking they should be ‘paid’ for writing fan fiction and that the original author should not get a cut—a big cut) then that character is linked to that world. Even if you file off the serial numbers and publish that work as being set in a different world, it will still bear the imprimatur of the original world being fanned.

The world you are born into, that you grow into, defines who you are. If I wrote a novel based in the… um… yeah that’ll do… the Star Wars universe and the story went so well that I decided to file off the serial numbers and release it as an original work then no matter how deep I go with the cutting and the editing, no matter how hard I try to create a different world, the character will still bear the marks of being born into a Star Wars world. Otherwise, it won’t be the same character.

So the story will be lesser for that reason. It’ll be a copy of a world run through photoshop. Jedi becomes some other warrior monkish order, the Empire becomes some other overpowering enemy, droids become some other semblance of AI. But all have the creative DNA of Star Wars running through them like “bloody prequels” through a stick of Blackpool rock.

(And yes I am well aware that people will start yelping about how Star Wars took this from here and that from there and then mashed them all together to make this amalgam of stuff that they called a universe. I’ve got news for you, that’s called World Building. If you take a whole bunch of stuff from a whole bunch of sources and create a world that works without looking like any other world that some other writer created using the same sources then you have committed World Building. It’s a skill, a craft, and in the hands of a master like Frank Herbert or Iain M. Banks [EDIT: RIP. Damn, I hate writing that, one of the finest writers of his generation] or Terry Pratchett, it is an art form. And I’m not talking about the gross level of this is a Space Opera world, or this is a Medieval European Fantasy world, or this is a Cyberpunk world. Those are genres and tropes. Not excuses for plagiarism using the NIO—nothing is original—defence.)

Plots are slightly different, this is where the NIO bullshit comes from, because plots really can be grouped into strands of creation running back to the dawn of time. So much so that modern writers of original works have to takes this into account when storytelling. “Look look, it’s a love story, oh… she died… look, look it’s a revenge story… oh he died… look, look it’s a legal story…” And so on.

You don’t actually have to kill off your characters, but you do have to point one way (the way everybody expects the plot to go) and go another. Unless of course you are so good at this writing malarkey that you can keep the readers on board because they love the characters so much that the plot is just what needs to happen to show the characters off (that is my favoured approach by the way: it is the most fun and the most difficult to pull off, which are my prime motivations for writing stuff in the first place. Though you do still need a strong storyline for them to follow. You don’t get anywhere with characters just wafting around with nothing to do).

But plots are constrained by the world. The byzantine politicking of Dune is entirely different from the more direct politics of the Hyperion Age. And, just as with characters, you can grind off the serial numbers to your heart’s content, but the story will still bear the faded marks of the world it was originally set in.

So what’s my problem with this?

When you are learning to write (particularly in the field of SF&F). You are essentially learning to balance character against plot against setting against idea and/or theme (I throw that last in because some people seem to think it’s important. It is, but I never think about it myself. To my mind, theme is a critic’s bread and butter. I’m a writer not a critic…snobby? Yup, you betcha, after all ‘snobby’ should be part of the definition of the word critic, so sod ’em.)

So you are only learning to balance character against plot when writing fan fiction. The world is already there, it’s set in stone, if you’re writing fan fiction then you have probably read it so many times that it is more real to you than the world you actually live in. You are not learning how to balance the character and plot against the setting (the theme/idea really will just take care of itself—really, stop thinking about that nonsense right now. Unless of course you like writer’s block because you get a lie in).

And you only have so many stories inside you. There are only so many characters and plots you can utilise. As time wears on you may find more, but they will still—essentially—derive from your earliest work. That’s just a fact of creative life. The thread of your thematic concerns, your characters, the plots you develop, can be traced all the way back to the first thing you wrote.

A fan fiction writer chooses to constrain those formative writing experiences in another writer’s world.

I’m just not sure that is very wise at all.

[EDIT: Since writing this, I have become aware of Mash-Ups… they do sound like fun :grin:]

 

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Filed under Character, Character Dynamics, and Character Interactions., Fan Fiction, Storytelling, Art, and Craft, World Building

A Brand Is For Life?

This is about fiction writing not non-fiction.

We all know that publishers are not really the brand that readers worry about, though that might change in the future—if subscriptions take over from wholesale.

We all know that the author is the brand. The reader looks for the author’s name and then buys the book because they have enjoyed other stories by the same author.

But.

Is the actual brand the author, or the writing?

The writing is what the reader reads, not the author’s life-story. Does it matter who the author is, what they have done, how they view the world, so long as the story does its job?

I worry about being called a brand. I find this whole ‘writer as brand’ nonsense. I have two pen-names, Stephen Godden and T F Grant. One for Fantasy (Stephen Godden) and one for Science Fiction (T F Grant) because readers of Fantasy may not be readers of Science Fiction and I think it’s only fair to let them know what they are buying before they open the cover and look inside. Though, to be honest Speculative Fiction is a continuum, so there is a large chunk of either/or stuff in the middle. I suspect T F Grant will be the truly weird stuff, because ‘truly weird’ is pretty much the preserve of SF. Fantasy can be weird of course, but SF is weird based on science, that is usually mind-smackingly out there, when you come right down to it.

But even then, with pseudonyms, is the author the brand or is it the writing?

See, if you say the author is the brand then anything the author does affects the brand. There is a danger that the author’s personality becomes fixed, that they keep churning out the same stuff, because they are seen as a brand.

My personality is not a fixed point, my tastes are not fixed, and I reserve the right to change my mind about just about any thing at any time for no more reason than I feel like doing so.

But if ‘I’ am a brand then changing my tastes, my opinions, the way I interact with the world becomes part of that brand. Changing any part of it can lead to accusations of hypocrisy or—that old favourite of the ‘we-so-special’ classes—selling out.

That’s the problem with making your personality, whatever flavour it reeks of, part of your marketing process, part of your platform. You are telling people, ‘This is me. If you agree with my political views, my philosophical views, my lifestyle choices, then please buy my stories’. You are asking people to join your tribe and fight all-comers on your behalf.

Then you write something that is an exploration of some facet of the world that goes directly against what you have told your tribe you believe in, and maybe your viewpoint shifts because of the writing of that work. Because at heart that is what I—as a writer—do; I write about stuff that interests me, in a way that gets my juices going, all the while learning something new about how I see the world. Without that interest, without that excitement born of trying something I have never tried before, without that exploration, then I get bored and churn out monkey-chum.

But what happens is you write something that says the exact opposite to what you said in your last novel? What happens then? Your ‘tribe’ loses all faith in you because you told them that you were one of them. There is no room for flexibility if your brand is a fixed point. There’s a falseness to a brand, if it is built from artifice.

So my advice is to make the writing the brand. Write the best you can. Range far and wide across all the genres and sub-genres you want to explore, don’t be fixed spot, remain a moving target. Who you are is inherently part of the writing process, but don’t make it part of the branding process. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep without slumping into tedium.

Essentially, get the hell out of the way. Let the writing do the talking.

Brands are fragile. They are a shared delusion (like cyberspace: *tips hat* to Gibson). I’m a real person. I’m robust. And I reserve the right to change whenever I feel the need.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Why Her World Shouldn’t Fall Apart

What makes Speculative Fiction (SF) — Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, or any of the many sub-genres — different from other forms of fiction?

Simple really: in SF the normal everyday experience of the reader and writer need not apply — the position’s already been taken by ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone. Weird stuff happens and as a writer you have to make sure that only the weird stuff you mean to happen…um…happens. You don’t want to add an entire other level of inadvertent weirdness through sloppy phrasing. Keep your weird under control with accuracy. And a bullwhip.  And maybe some cream puffs, because ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone are notoriously lactose intolerant.

Other genres (OG) have their own sweet irritations, but in SF you have to be precise, very precise.

In the OG the line, Her world fell apart, is a little melodramatic, maybe a little clichéd, possibly a little meh. Soap opera stuff, not a deal breaker with the reader, just a shrug of the shoulders and a “Come on, pal, entertain me since you can’t write a decent sentence. Full plot-speed ahead and damn the conjugations.”

But in SF you have to allow for the margin (as Samuel R Delaney put it) that her world might literally fall apart. Poof, Earth gone, everybody floating in space, wondering whose turn it is to put the cat out, where the cat is, and why exactly can they still breathe if the world is in tiny pebbles all around them?

Another classic example of this sort of line.

He threw his eyes down the road, remember Tom Cruise doing this in Minority Report?

Well, to be accurate, he dropped his old eyes down a concrete corridor, chased them as they bounced and skidded and squirted out of his clumsy hands until finally he just managed to catch one of them as it tumbled down a drain. Carefully scooping it up and then merrily using that very same eye to open a biometric lock. He must have corneas made of diamond — well, I suppose he is Tom Cruise after all.

You throw your *gaze* down the road (and that is still a dodgy line in any genre (AG)) not your eyes. And if you have delicate organs covered with a material, which can be scratched by a SPLINTER, and then proceed to play football with it, it is entirely possible that an extremely sensitive device that has to look through that self-same material to see either the iris (or worse the retina) might, just might, throw up a false negative, don’t you think?

Don’t write her fingers pierced his bicep, because they might if she has talons.

Don’t write he was overcome with the fragrance of the flowers unless you mean he passed out.

Don’t be sloppy.

Think about what you are saying, take each word literally and make sure they say precisely what you mean them to say.

This is of course good advice in OGs as well as in SF, but it is right up there with adverbs and said bookisms in the world of the weird. Getting this stuff wrong makes you look like an amateur, it means you haven’t thought it through.

Now, maybe editors don’t care these days, maybe this is considered pedantic, maybe the X-Factor is the finest TV programme ever produced.

But do you really want to take the chance of an editor sighing, hitting delete, and then the “Thank you…but…” lands in your inbox, just because you couldn’t be bothered to rephrase an already sloppy line?

Just saying.

Take it or leave it,

So sue me (no, please don’t do that, that’s not what I meant at all).

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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If the Story Requires It

As  a writer I have no real problem with heading straight for the dark-side. I’ll write a torture scene or a bloody fight scene or some nasty vicious bit of political chicanery without a qualm if the story requires it. But that’s the important bit, If the story requires it. I do not write torture porn because I don’t really see the point. A story with the single purpose of showing people being treated abominably is a story I really don’t want to read.

It’s writers missing the point. The point of blood and gore is not the blood and gore, it’s the story and the story can’t just be, ‘Here’s some blood and gore, aren’t my characters nasty pieces of work?’ It’s like they read Elric and identified with Stormbringer.

SF&F is my bailiwick, but you see it in thrillers and other genres too.

The important thing about brutality in a story is consequences. It’s always about the consequences. If something bad happens then it reverberates, it throws out ripples of cause and effect. Should bad guys always get their comeuppance? Not always. That sort of morality play is also boring because it takes away the tension. Should they lose something because of their vicious behaviour? Yes.

This isn’t the real world. This is fiction. If, as a writer, somebody decides (and it is a decision) that a brutal character should be written as somebody to admire, then I wonder about that writer’s morality. Not religious morality, not philosophical morality, but their common decency. There is nothing admirable about rape, or torture, or mass-murder. Characters who do this are not anti-heroes, they are villains.

And don’t tell me (in the case of fantasy) that this was the way it was back in the Middle-Ages, because you ain’t writing about the Middle-Ages. You’re writing about a world that you made-up; this is your world, your rules, your choice.

Besides, the strong-men of history, the nobles who went on Crusades and slaughtered entire cities, the Mongols who gave cities a choice, surrender or die, the Spartans who created a society based completely on war, and all others of that ilk. Yeah, they were the bad guys. They were not heroes.

They may have done heroic things on times, but they did that stuff by accident. If you have a society based on might is right, death before dishonour, and unthinking obedience to a leader, every so often you are going to find yourself doing something seemingly heroic because you can’t back down. Does that make you a hero? Well, if the rest of the time you are raping, pillaging, and slaughtering people by the gross, not so much.

This holds true at smaller scales too.

Bullies are weaklings. Always. If somebody has to damage somebody else either physically or emotionally to make themselves feel stronger, then they are by definition not strong. Unless of course they are psychopaths, who do things simply because they can, because they have no empathy. Psychopaths aren’t strong either, they are sick and lacking in humanity.

Therefore, there are consequences for bullies. They are weak and will break easily. And there are consequences for psychopaths. They will never know the simple joy of a smile reciprocated.

If a character is neither a bully or a psychopath, but are damaged by their upbringing, then they’re damaged. That’s a pretty big consequence and something worth exploring.

As far as I am concerned, morality is not about how you fight but why you fight. Once the gloves come off there are no rules, but there are rules about why the gloves come off. A character who uses violence simply to get their own way is weak.

There are of course a lot of nuances here. Is a soldier ordered into an immoral war, immoral? Is a law-keeper upholding an immoral law, immoral?  Is somebody raised in an immoral society, immoral? And so on. These are the juicy bits that every writer should want to sink their teeth into. And please remember when I talk about morality, I’m not talking about religious morality, but the morality of decency, fairness, and doing the right thing.

The nuances are the tension in a story and there should always be consequences.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

 

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Mainstream Fantasy: There’s Craft in Them There Words.

There are so many sub-genres of Fantasy Fiction now that it is sometimes difficult to know where to place a particular work. So let’s look at just one major sub-genre.

Mainstream Fantasy, at least to me, is straight Fantasy. It may be epic or it may be heroic, but it isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or trying to capture the lightning of somebody else’s ideas; it’s just straightforward fantasy.

Set in a secondary, or alternate, world, which has its own history and geography and ethnicities, it does not impinged upon our world in any way, shape, or form. It may have impossibly tall mountains, incredibly wide seas, impassable deserts or impenetrable jungles. It may have creatures that strike fear into your heart or wonder into your gaze. It may have other races of humans or other species that are definitely not human. It may have politics and intrigue, dark deeds and brave acts, love and hate and everything in between.

But it will always have magic.

The magic may be filled with rules that make it a system akin to science, with checks and balances, and experiments that always give the same result when repeated, or the magic may be as wild and fickle as the wind, or the sea, or the earth, or the flame, or the world, or the universe itself, impossible to fully comprehend and dangerous to misuse.

There may be gods and monsters and wizards and witches, powerful beings who can interact with the stuff of magic in ways that no mere mortal can. There may be immortal beings or beings who stretched out their lives with magic. There may be wise herbalists and generous healers, wild warlocks and dangerous enchantresses. There may be strange necromancers and stranger spirits: ghosts, and ghouls, and things that stalk the night.

Lands of kings and queens, warriors and poets, harlots and matriarchs. Men and women of worth to be respected or worthless people to be avoided at all costs — and it is not always easy to tell the difference. Magic and humanity, prophesy and fate, weirds and geasa will spill over this land and make it different from ours.

The connection between a secondary world and the world in which we live is a fragile thing for it is based on the willing suspension of disbelief. We, the readers, will believe that a dragon can breathe fire and covert gold, that a ghost can creep through the night and steal your soul, that a wizard can change the weather or make a flower bloom out of season, these things are easy to believe because they are fantastical.

But have a man or a woman with no training pick up a sword and fight off an attack from seasoned warriors, or get up on a horse and jump the high fences, or simply fix a leaky roof first time out, and we will start to doubt. Have people talking like a yokel one moment and a king the next and we will frown. Have a peasant disrespect a king and not lose his head and we will wonder.

All these things can work: if the sword does the fighting instead of the man or the woman wielding it, if the horse is sentient and keeps the rider in the saddle, if the novice roofer is being taught by some sort of telepathy, if the man whose accent changes is a spy about his business, and if the culture is created so that a peasant can disrespect a king: then we will be ready for such things to happen.

If it is part of the magic or the difference of the world, and makes sense, then we will happily believe it, but if it is just sloppy writing then the story will fail.

There are those that disparage Fantasy. They think it is simply fairytales where anything can happen. They are wrong. Only things that work within that world can happen and when you are dealing with the fantastical then the normal has to be pitch-perfect or it will throw the reader out of the story and they will probably never return.

Mainstream Fantasy is Fantasy without any bells and whistles, which makes it the hardest form of Fantasy to do well. There’s craft in them there words.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

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