Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Beginnings

So, if ending a book is, as Barbara Hambly says, like coaxing a dragon to land on the point of a pencil, what’s a good metaphor for beginnings?

I think we all agree that the beginning of a book is very important. I’d say, “And very difficult,” only it’s not actually difficult to begin a book — at least, for me, the beginning, including the all-important first line, writes itself. I hardly ever change a beginning very much at all. (There are exceptions.) (Middles are the hard part.)

But difficult or not, the beginning is definitely crucial. Raise your hand if you read the first page of a book before you buy it! At least if you’re in a bookstore with the book actually in your reach. Any hands not go up? Right.

So, beginnings.

I think we can assume that the World Fantasy Award nominees this year must have appealed to a lot of people. I have five of the six nominees, so let’s take a look at how each of them begins:

1: Zoo City (Beukes)

Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears thorugh my window. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I really need to get curtains.

Shielding my eyes — morning has broken and there’s no picking up the pieces — I yank back the sheet and peel out of bed. Benoit doesn’t so much as stir, with only his calloused feet sticing out from under the duvet like knots of driftwood. feet like that, they tell a story. They say he walked all the way from Kinshasa with his Mongoose strapped to his chest.

The Mongoose in question is curled up like a furry comma on my laptop, the glow of the LED throbing under his nose. Like he doesn’t know that my computer is out of bounds. Let’s just say I’m precious about my work. Let’s just say it’s not entirely legal.

Okay, how about that? We get a vivid use of language and imagery, a noir feel, a clear indication of the setting — Johannesburg, maybe near future. Immediately we wonder why ‘Mongoose’ is capitalized. And there’s the intriguing question of what kind of work the narrator does that isn’t entirely legal. Even though I read a lot more fantasy than SF and even though a noir cyberpunky kind of feel isn’t necessarily my favorite, I’d turn the page.

2) Redemption in Indigo (Lord)

A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily. I am willing to admit to many faults, but I will not burden my conscience with that one. All my tales are true, drawn from life, and a life story is not a tidy thing. It is a half-tamed horse that you seize on the run and ride with knees and teeth clenched, and then you regretfully slip off as gently and safely as you can, always wondering if you could have gone a few metres more.

Thus I seize this tale, starting with a hot afternoon in the town of Erria, a dusty side street near the financial quarter. But I will make one concession to tradition . . .

. . . Once upon a time — but whether a time that was, or a time that is, or a time that is to come, I may not tell — there was a man, a tracker by occupation, called Kwame. He had been born in a certain country in a certain year when history had reached that grey twilight in which fables of true love, the power of princes, and deeds of honour are told only to children. He regretted this oversight on the part of Fate, but he managed to curb his restless imagination and do the daily work that brought in the daily bread.

Today’s work will test his self-restraint.

Quite a different tone, isn’t it? A narrator, but this time omniscient and outside the action, totally different from the close first-person pov in the first example. This is the one that starts off with a Senegalese folk tale and goes on from there. And, of course, it sounds exactly like a folk tale — or like a story which is going to start with a folk tale. I really like that first sentence. And how do you like that bit about history reaching a grey twilight? Nice, huh?

3) The Silent Land (Joyce)

It was snowing again. Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve. The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin. Zoe pulled the air into her lungs, feeling the cracking cold of it before letting go. And when the mountain peak seemed to nod and sigh back at her, she almost thought she could die in that place, and happily.

If there are a few moments in life that come as clear and as pure as ice, when the mountain breathed back at her Zoe knew she had trapped one such moment and it could never be taken away. Everywhere was snow and silence. Snow and silence; the complete arrest of life; a rehearsal for and a pre-echo of death.

But her breath was warm and it said no to any premature thought of death. She pointed her skis down the hill. The tips of her skis looked like weird talons of brilliant red and gold in the powder snow as she waited, ready to swoop. I am alive. I am an eagle.

Fantasy grades into horror on the far side, right? All that about life and death, does that signal that this story is really horror, or did I just get that idea from the jacket copy and the (very artistic) cover? Actually, it’s simplistic to say that this novel is horror; it sort of is, and sort of isn’t. The language is very clean and creates a very clear scene, doesn’t it? Did you notice that the second sentence is a fragment? That contributes to the sense of stillness the author is creating in this opening scene. I read the first few paragraphs here and immediately feel like I can relax into the story — I trust the author’s skill, though I’m nervous about what he might do to his protagonist.

And isn’t it interesting that we might have chosen these three books to exemplify point-of-view options? Limited first person, omniscient first person, close third person. I didn’t even notice that until now. Okay, onward!

4) Under Heaven (Kay)

Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.

They would listen to flute or pipa music and declaim poetry, test each other with jibes and quotes, sometimes find a private room with a scented, silken woman, before weaving unsteadily home after the dawn drums sounded curfew’s end, to sleep away the day instead of studying.

Here in the mountains, alone in hard, clear air by the waters of Kuala Nor, far to the west of the imperial city, beyond the borders of the empire, even, Tai was in a narrow bed by darkfall, under the first brilliant stars, and awake at sunrise.

In spring and summer the birds woke him. This was a place where thousands upon thousands nested noisily: fishhawks and cormorants, wild geese and cranes. The geese made him think of friends far away. Wild geese were a symbol of absence: in poetry, in life. Cranes were fidelity, another matter.

In winter the cold was savage, it could take the breath away. The north wind when it blew was an assault, outdoors, and even through the cabin walls. He slept under layers of fur and sheepskin, and no birds woke him at dawn from the icebound nesting grounds on the far side of the lake.

The ghosts were outside in all seasons, moonlit nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down.

Okay, I read once that you should be wary of letting any sentence stand by itself in a paragraph. I started paying attention after that and I think that’s basically true. But it sure isn’t a universal rule. I didn’t realize until now that Kay wrote his first three paragraphs as one sentence each. How ’bout that?

Kay writes beautiful prose and this is certainly a good example of that, isn’t it? Lovely prose, and we instantly know so much about the setting and the protagonist. And then there’s the thing about the ghosts. Even if I didn’t already love Kay’s writing, I’d be hooked.

5) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin)

I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.

My mother was an heiress of the Arameri. There was a ball for the lesser nobility — the sort of thing that happens once a decade as a backhanded sop to their self-esteem. My father dared ask my mother to dance; she deigned to consent. I have often wondered what he said and did that night to make her fall in love with him so powerfully, for she eventually abdicated her position to be with him. It is the stuff of great tales, yes? Very romantic. In the tales, such a couple lives happily ever after. The tales do not say what happens when the most powerful family in the world is offended in the process.

Oookay. so much going on here, it’s hard to know where to start. Can you think of another opening where the reader is challenged so immediately and directly with such big questions? And that fairy-tale feel in the third paragraph, that’s intriguing, too; it catches me immediately.

I’ve read (somewhere, don’t ask me where, I don’t remember) a review of this book which basically said, It’s a nice fantasy, but nothing new or striking. I totally disagree. I think this narrative voice is really unusual and striking, I think that comes through right from this very powerful beginning, and I think Jemisin did an amazing job with this book (and its sequel, btw). In fact, let me just add here, I nominated this one for every possible award and voted for it where I could, I was glad to see it on the ballot for the Nebula and Hugo, and I think it deserves to win the World Fantasy Award — though I’m not quite through reading Zoo City, but I don’t think I’ll change my mind!

Any conclusions?

I’ll throw out a few:

First, though you hear a lot about first sentences, I’d say it’s clear you have several paragraphs to grab the reader. I’d say one of these, maybe two, have boring first sentences, but that’s not relevant because the first sentence doesn’t stand alone.

Do you have to start with action? You hear that a lot: you have to start in the middle of action. I’d say that’s clearly an overstatement at best and maybe just wrong. At Archon last week I participated in the writer’s workshops and one of my workshops was on beginnings, and I said that at least in fantasy, you often start with the setting, not with action — but the setting is not objective; it is seen from your protagonist’s perspective. Well, I rest my case.

The truth is, you have to start with something that will make your reader want to turn the page. That may mean you open your book by dropping your protagonist off a cliff, but obviously it doesn’t have to mean that at all. Though it’s true that someplace in the first few pages you usually show how your main character has reached a turning point where his life is going to change forever. But I don’t think even that is always true.

And, last, about point of view? Write it how you want to or how it wants to be written. I expect I’ll maintain till my dying day that a limited third person pov is easier and more straightforward than any other option, but hey! These books could constitute a workshop in different ways to handle pov.

It’s books like these that make me maintain that you learn to write by reading.

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Here’s a nice little simile

That I noticed on Barbara Hambly’s livejournal.

“As far as I’m concerned, the most important part of the books is how it ends: like a dragon landing on the point of a pencil. It’s got to be right. The whole book is about the ending – and the beginning. It’s what defines the story: how does it start, and where does it end?”

Don’t you love that? Like a dragon landing on the point of a pencil. What an image!

That’s especially apropos because, as you may remember, I specifically mentioned just the other day how much I liked the ending lines from Hambly’s most recent Benjamen January novel, THE SHIRT OFF HIS BACK.

Other great ending?

My vote for best ever is the ending line from Patricia McKillip’s THE BOOK OF ATRIX WOLFE.

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Recent Reading

So, just finished the most recent Barbara Hambly mysteries:

Dead and Buried
and

The Shirt Off His Back

And they were both excellent! These are part of the Benjamen January series, of course, which is set in the 1800s and is my favorite mystery series ever.

Both of these had exactly the same minor flaw: lots of characters that were, in the beginning, hard to keep track of. Eventually you remember who’s who and after that it’s fine.

The former of these two focuses more on Hannibal Sefton and we finally learn something about his past life, so that was interesting. I guess it was starting to feel strange that we didn’t know anything about him, come to think of it. I won’t say the ‘revelation’ at the end came as a shock; it’s hard to imagine any reader being surprised by it, but I didn’t feel that that was a problem. In fact, I sort of thought it added depth to the events of the story to strongly suspect the truth about . . . well, don’t want to give it away; read the book.

Biggest surprise / Biggest disappointment: Augustus Myerling makes an appearance, but there’s NO REFERENCE to his secret (revealed in the first book of the series — A FREE MAN OF COLOR). I was surprised Hambly resisted the urge to add at least an aside to clue the reader in about Myerling! I’ve always liked Augustus Myerling and would have loved to see him get more screen time in this book. In particular, when Ben had to go cross country and Hannibal couldn’t go with him, why not ask Myerling? I’d have liked to see HIM deal with those guys who gave Ben so much trouble on the journey.

Oh, well.

The latter book focuses more on Abishag Shaw and we learn more about HIS past life, against a background of fur trapping and Indians and obsessive vengeance-seeking bad guys. Some unexpected plot twists ensue. I really liked the last line of the book (don’t flip ahead; as always that line will lose its impact unless it comes as it’s supposed to: at the end).

So glad this series is still going strong. My vote for the next book: I want to see the underground railroad stuff become important, and I would particularly appreciate more than a cameo for Myerling. But I get that there are so many neat characters in this series by now that it’s hard to give ’em all the time they deserve.

Before I take another book of the TBR pile, gotta go re-read bits of A FREE MAN OF COLOR.

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Negativity —

So I followed a link from Janet Reid’s site to here and found this great post on negativity.

You know the glass-is-half empty folks who can spin from “that editorial letter was kinda harsh” to “I hate my life and want to die” in 5.7 seconds? Being around that sort of energy sucks every ounce of joy and creativity out of my brain and spits it out in a dirty napkin. . . . The funny thing about negative people is that they’re seldom happy to wallow alone. They’re generous enough to want to share their misery with others.

Yes! I thought. These are the people who drain all the positive energy from the room the moment they walk in. I remember this one person I knew in grad school . . . eventually I realized she was NEVER going to have a good day. Now I seriously suggest to my students that they avoid people like that and cut off friendships if necessary. You so do not need to surround yourself with a cloud of negativity that’s going to drag you back down every time you succeed at something.

But what I was really looking for was this post on dropping commas, because by an amazing coincidence someone gave me this cartoon:

last week, and I instantly put it up on my office door.

Hilarious!

But I kinda disagree with Tawna, though, when she says commas are a detail you shouldn’t really worry about too much. Commas are important, and putting them in the right places by feel is important. If you are a writer, grammar is your tool — language is your tool, and grammar is part of that — and if you can’t use your tools effectively, you can’t write as well as you ought to.

Not that I mean to be negative or anything.

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Yesterday —

I spent all day talking to class after class of students at Francis Howell High School, west of St Louis. It was fun! Hopefully at least some of the kids thought so at least some of the time! There were sure a lot of ’em! My high school was roughly a quarter the size of FH.

I did not lose my voice, but I don’t know why, because I’m not used to lecturing five hours almost straight anymore. And it was like lecturing, because you know what? Most of the time, when you ask a large group of high school kids: “Any thoughts about that? Questions? Comments?” there is no answer, so you have to just go on. I guess come to think of it that that is pretty typical of a college classroom, too.

I’m sure this is not news to any teachers out there.

So luckily I can keep talking anyway even without too much feedback, but if you’re one of the kids who asked a question? Or nodded? Or looked interested? Thanks! That makes it significantly easier.

Questions I can answer:

Where do you get your ideas? (long and involved, but I can answer this!)

How long does it take you to write a book? (2 to 6 months depending on whether I have a deadline or get interrupted or whatever, then another 2 to 6 weeks to revise and cut)

Do you often use your own experiences from your own life to write a book? (no)

Questions I can’t answer:

What will the publishing process look like five years from now?

Wish I knew!

Do people want to hear about the writing process or the publishing process? The latter, mostly. (This is true for every group I’ve ever spoken to.) And here we are with no idea how the publishing process is going to change, except it will be a Very Big Change and probably happen really soon.

In some ways it’s almost as hard to talk about the writing process, though, because that’s so very different for different writers. Like, Angie Fox says she writes all the dialogue first and fills in the description mostly later, which is SO WEIRD. When you are talking to other writers about the writing process, you have that reaction (You do what? That is SO WEIRD!) all the time. So when you’re talking to a group about writing, it’s important to constantly say: “Now, for ME, it’s like this . . .” You don’t want to imply that it should be like that for them or else they’re doing it wrong.

I can sum up the universal truth about how to write a book pretty easily, though:

a) Read a lot of books.
b) Learn to tell the good ones from the bad ones.
c) Sit down and put words in a row until you have not only started but also finished a book. Preferably a good one.
d) Revise.

Random observation:

Man, that high school library had a LOT of great YA books that I would love to read! Wish I had access to a library like that!

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Nathan says —

About internet jerks:

If you mock and belittle someone who has done something wrong you’re not helping them learn from their mistakes, you’re being a jerk.
If you’re knocking someone down to make yourself feel better you are absolutely being a jerk.
If you’re knocking someone down period you’re being a jerk.

Yeah, what he said.

I’ve also seen this as “We need to be nicer to children who do stupid things on the internet” and at the time I thought, WELL ACTUALLY we need to be nicer to everybody who does something stupid on the internet.

Actually Nathan is especially talking about people who, for example, call a book a piece of trash. Not nice, says Nathan. Well, of course that’s true, but I don’t care if one or two reviews of my books are negative. (Well actually, I probably care a little). But you know what I hate? I and some other authors were talking about this at Archon and you know what we REALLY hate?

Somebody who gives our books a one-star review because the publisher says it’s 400 pages long and really it’s only 384 not counting the “extras” at the back. Really? And for this you go to the trouble to write a bad review that gets averaged with real reviews?

Somebody who gives our books a one-star review because they don’t like the cover.

Somebody who gives our books a one-star review because they think the back cover copy was misleading.

I mean, hello? The back cover copy is
a) hard to write
b) often not written by me
c) sometimes written before the book was finished
d) sometimes written before the book was started (seriously)
e) NOT RELATED TO THE QUALITY OF THE BOOK

So I hereby declare that if you write and post a negative review based on anything but the actual quality of the book, you’re being a jerk.

But I mean that in a nice way.

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Archon

Okay, sorry, I didn’t take a camera, but the most fun costume at the masquerade?

The MC (Vic Milan, who did an awesome job) announced “The grouchiest pirate on the seven seas!” — who turned out to be Oscar the Grouch in a pirate outfit. Great costume, great performance, it was unexpected and hilarious and the audience (including me) roared for at least five minutes before Vic could continue his narration.

The performance wound up with the announcement: “Brought to you by the letter “P”, without which a pirate would be merely irate.”

Ha ha ha ha ha!

Seriously! Loved it!

I thought Oscar would win! But he didn’t, though I’m sure that costume won an award. (I hear the winner was a much quieter but very impressive Senator Padme from Star Wars.)

Most interesting comment during a panel . . . we were doing a panel on YA and YA audiences, and of course the subject of do-boys-read-YA came up and we were talking about how if a cover looks like a romance, then even if the main character is a boy, what boy would ever be caught dead reading it?

And a member of the audience pointed out that with e-readers, no one can see the cover.

Well, of course that’s perfectly true. That’s a potential advantage of e-readers that never occurred to me. Though I hope e-readers never cause readers to devalue the artwork of the cover, because I do love a beautiful cover.

Oh! Something else! Check this out:

This is one of two new Benjamen January novels!

I didn’t know Barbara Hambly had those out. The original publisher dropped the January series, which horrified me because I LOVE that series! So I am very pleased Severn House picked it up. I should mention that though DEAD AND BURIED got a starred review from Pub Weekly, it’s very very short, like 250 pages, and the next one is not much longer. Just so you know. I’m about halfway through it now, though, and really enjoying it, and it was certainly worth plonking down the ten bucks or whatever even though I hardly think it’s a real novel if it doesn’t reach at least 300 pages.

And! Patricia Wrede’s old book, THE SEVEN TOWERS? Out as a nice new hardcover with a very pretty cover:

But I already have a perfectly serviceable paperback, so I didn’t buy it. Glad it’s out again, though, it’s a charming book and deserves to be brought again to readers’ attention.

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How apropos —

A post I stumbled on today in the INTERN’s archives:

The 14 Stages of Critique Acceptance

I found this the very day I sent my newest just-finished twice-revised (so far) WIP to a handful of readers.

Here they are (summarized — go read the real thing because it’s funny!):

Stage 1: Anticipation — the critique is back from the readers! Oh yes!

Stage 2: Dread — Wait, what if my critiquers thought my ms was a “cheesy overwritten trainwreck?”

Stage 3: Elation — The first paragraph of the critique contains words like “brilliant”! Yay!

Stage 4: Dread — whoops! The rest of the critique contains words like “confusing”.

Stage 5: Panic
Stage 6: Paralysis
Stage 7: Avoidance
Stage 8: Re-dedication
Stage 9: Grim determination

Stage 10: Surprise — When you realize your ms is actually getting better!

Stage 11: Second guessing — Is this feeling of “great betterness” all in your head?
Maybe you’re actually making things worse?

Stage 12: Wonder — You realize the feeling of betterness is based on reality after all

Stage 13: Dread — send ms out again, wonder if it really is no kidding better.

Stage 14: Elation — get it back again and LO! EVERYONE AGREES IT IS GREAT!

I’d say this is actually pretty darn accurate. With luck there are relatively few words like “confusing” and the stage of grim determination is relatively short, but yep. The INTERN pegged it.

BTW, I think agents and editors take a special class in letting authors down gently. Because that first paragraph of their critiques does indeed always contain words like “brilliant” and “loved it” and “love your writing” and “such a beautiful job” and “only a few tiny changes”. Which, yes, I do re-read those paragraphs multiple times and I believe every word, too. Praise is indeed an excellent motivator.

THEN they tell you which bits are confusing, repetitive, slow, etc. Which, with luck, really ARE pretty tiny. Though I guess that’s not actually a matter of luck.

Least amount of time it’s ever taken me to do a revision: about four days.

Greatest? About two months (I wasn’t feeling enthusiastic and there wasn’t a looming deadline and it was a pretty extensive revision.)

Number of times the editor thought the book was perfect and made such trivial suggestions they all got dealt with at the copy-editing stage: one. So it does happen! But this was after revising according to my agent’s suggestions.

Most appreciated suggestions: those tiny picky very specific changes the editor suggests after you have already revised? I always like those. I really appreciate a perfectionist attitude in my editor!

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Archon —

Is not the biggest convention, but it is always well-run, and a pleasure to attend from the pro’s side, and I always enjoy it. And for a change it’s only a little over an hour from my house, which is very nice.

Archon is an interesting convention in other ways because it’s really meant to draw in prospective writers. They’ve really emphasized that side of things for several years. Lots of panel topics and workshops meant to appeal to that audience. I like being on panels and I don’t mind participating in workshops, so I like this.

Since I don’t mind taking off a day from work, I volunteered for Friday morning panels. I’m on three or four panels this time (total, not just on Friday) and I’ll be helping with at least one four-hour workshop, but I like to keep busy so that’s all good. Plus I’m free most of Saturday, so that’s my time to hit the art show and check out the venders and all that stuff. I’m always looking to buy something at the art show, so I hope I see something I really love that’s in my price range.

The part I’ll give a miss to? The late-night movies and filksinging and parties. I see on the schedule that various things keep running till 2:30 in the morning! I’d be in a coma by then!

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From the comments —

So, Mary Beth comments —

Your book-reading break seems like an excellent way to celebrate (and, assuming it’s proceeded by a period of book-abstinence, to keep your work on your manuscript free of other authors’ influence.)

And this is a good point! And psychologically interesting! And worth discussion!

Do you want to prevent yourself from absorbing another writer’s voice while working on a manuscript of your own?

Yes! No! Sort of! It depends!

At least in my case.

I don’t know how it works for other people, but suppose I’m writing a story and I want it to have a fairy-tale feel to it, like CITY. (I would indeed like to write another story with that kind of feel, though not in the same world.) In this case, I would definitely read a lot of Patricia McKillip and also I would re-read Sharon Shinn’s THE SHAPECHANGER’S WIFE and maybe some Robin McKinley and anything other books I could think of where the prose has that lyrical fairy-tale shimmer to it. I have no problem absorbing their voices! It is a plus! The more the better! I just don’t think it’s possible (for me, at least) to go too far and fall into a copy-cat voice. “Strongly reminiscent of” is possible and is exactly what I do want.

The problem would be purely one of distraction: if I start a McKillip book, I’m going to finish it, and if I’m reading that book, I’m not working on one of my own. So I would read a lot of the “right” style of book before I started working on mine and then (more or less) give up fiction for the duration.

But, if I am trying to write this particular kind of story? I would avoid CJ Cherryh like the plague, both while writing my own book and immediately before starting. I once bought four books by her as they came out and owned them all for at least a year before I read them. For me, her voice is VERY invasive, and since it does not suit a lyrical story, I have to put her books in a lead-lined casket and bury them eight feet deep in the garden while working on that kind of story. (Barely exaggerating).

Can I read fiction at all while working? Yes, sometimes. I just re-read all my Ngaio Marsh’s in the past few months. Ngaio Marsh was a great stylist, but for me her voice is not the least bit invasive and also I have read her books many times so they are not too terribly distracting. I can pick one of hers up to read for an hour and then actually put it down again. Usually. Well, frequently.

Nonfiction is always safer. I usually add to my cookbook collection while writing. Or a fairly dry treatise on the Ottoman Empire is, for example, perfect.

And letting myself loose on my increasingly huge TBR pile in between working on projects of my own is indeed VERY celebratory. Even without the chocolate.

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