Writing Is Weird

It’s a Friday afternoon, and I’ve had the day off from work. Ahem, a day off from the office job. It’s allowed me to put in some writing work. I knocked out just over 2,000 words today, interspersed with some family responsibilities. As satisfying as the day has been, that’s not my purpose for this post.

I’ll just say it aloud: Writing is weird. It really is. You sit, you think, you write out thoughts. Some day, not today, they make sense. Hopefully, to others besides yourself.

I planned to write something of a scene today, and as I consider the labyrinthine journey I took as I worked, I’m surprised – and pleased – with the results. For those of you interested in the writing process, I whipped up a quick post to shed some light on my own methods and madness. Be advised, Dear Reader, this will be a strange walk through one writer’s mind and his storytelling process. Consider yourself well-warned.

* * * * *

In my second novel, my protagonist has been raised without any knowledge of his past life. Like his sister Tildy in the first book, the world thinks Samor dead. But as the children of a Queen and King, their worlds are filled with paintings, books, people, and other references that provide insight into their family and their early lives. The children do not realize this, but assuming I do a proper job, the Reader will.

As I was getting ready for the day, I started debating what I might write about. My mind followed Samor’s book journey and decided I would have him discover the painting of his parents. Tildy does a similar thing in her book, and neither of them recognize the experience for what it is: the first time either of them have beheld their parents – or the infant images of themselves.

Parallel scenes like this are one of the reasons I wanted to tell their stories in separate books. It also allows a fair amount of compare and contrast, which is a handy way to derive inspiration: Oh, Tildy handled the experience this way? How would her brother handle it differently? And what are their shared reactions?

OK, so I’ve set a goal, a destination, for my scene. How do I get there? (For spoiler-y reasons that I won’t explain here, the portraits have been hidden. The why isn’t important to the scene.) I now needed a beginning and a middle.

Earlier in the book, I’ve established that a character close to Samor – his primary teacher – has seen the paintings before. Their artistry moved him profoundly. If you’re like me, and you experience such a thing, you want other people to share in it. And so does this teacher. He thinks, perhaps over-optimistically so, that this would be a welcome present for Samor’s birthday. Yeah, yeah, I know. But I also recognize that gifts are often as much about the person giving them as the recipient.

Anyway, the teacher is vaguely aware of this, too, and knows he must make another connection for his young charge. He’s a teacher, so this will be a learning experience. His true purpose for showing Samor the portraits of the Queen and King has suddenly become to help the boy understand the weight of his responsibility. He is the heir of the Steward. When his father dies, he will be entrusted with the future of the kingdom.

Well, how does this teacher know where the hidden paintings are, I asked myself. To which I responded: Someone with secret knowledge, of course, has confided in an untrustworthy friend of the teacher. Whether the details of this are more salacious….well, we’ll see.

Alright, I’ve got the destination, some of the motivation, but I need to set the scene rolling. Portraiture often hangs in a gallery, which – POOF! – this fortress suddenly has. I won’t bore the Reader with fifty descriptions of other rulers and dignitaries as they pass through the gallery, but I need to convey that this fortress does have a rich history. (It occurs to me as I write this post that it’s a perfect set-up for the teacher’s plan of showing Samor his place in the world! Ah, serendipity.)

Our two characters travel the gallery and pass the important people. They come to a spot where two portraits have been removed – the King’s and Queen’s. The teacher has made the journey to this spot instructional and he has created a segue to his true purpose.

So far, that’s a lot of stuff about the teacher’s motivation. But what about our hero, who might be forgiven for not enjoying this particular aspect of his birthday. I mean, come on, we’ve got a long journey with a humdrum destination. But wait, what if this is exactly something Samor needs? He’s an overprotected child who cannot leave the castle. He’s also living a life of privilege where things go his way. These are the motivations that lead him to run away in the book, which sets up the primary story. Et voila! We now have a way to convey this need, and perhaps, this allows us to strengthen his desire to the point where he will feel compelled to go!

Therefore, this trip to the room – no, secret room – no, secret hidden room with a magic lock – NO, secret hidden room with a magic lock at the heart of a spiral pathway beneath a fortress of ice – must be a trek that scratches Samor’s need for adventure. Samor enjoys this, despite himself, and the teacher accidentally spurs him toward running away.

Whoops. Best laid plans and all that.

Wrapped within this instruction by the teacher, and all the way to the portraits in the secret room, is some helpful exposition and backstory. Every book needs some of this. Sometimes it’s well disguised; other times, it’s simply a chapter that should be entitled “How the bad guy did it”. So, I’m grateful for what appears to be an unobtrusive way to handle it.

So, where were we? Gallery, strange journey to secret destination to a door with a magic lock. The more impressive the security, the more valuable the treasure, right? BTW, this suddenly became a similar lock to one that will play an important role near the climax of the book (forcing the author to jump to later chapters to create this connection).

In a way that I will rewrite to make it less deus ex machina-y, the teacher happens to have a special key. In fact, it’s the key he’s used to unlock every door on their journey (the author writes, going back to those scenes to ensure congruence). The door is open! Now Samor must cross the threshold into a darker place, much like his journey into adulthood, the teacher explains.

Using a wisdom and words that convey to the Reader that this teacher cares deeply for Samor’s learning (as most teachers do), the teacher helps Samor understand the importance of what he is seeing, even if neither of them knows that Samor is the lost prince that everyone thinks dead. Sweet Moses, that was a gross sentence, but such is the chaos that first drafts invoke!

But…this teacher is pretty damn smart. He’s a collector of information. He connects seemingly unrelated dots. As he and Samor are looking at the infant with the sugar-blonde hair, who would be Samor’s age if he had lived…the teacher is nearly knocked over by the idea that Samor is the lost prince. Now, it will take him a lot of time to confirm this, and we’ve got a few books to do that, but the first crack has appeared in the wall that guards Samor’s true identity.

I swear, sometimes the way this stuff comes together, it’s like my fingers are being guided by someone who wants to use me to tell a story.

After they depart and this heavy scene ends, the teacher gives Samor a second present. In hindsight, this puzzle box might be too much for now. It could reveal something special or drive Samor toward something, but I’ve got a few other scenes of birthday presents. While Samor lives a privileged life, I can’t bore the Reader with scene after scene of marvelous presents.

* * * * *

It’s a first draft, of course, but it’s gotten the job done. As I mentioned in the introduction, I wanted to take you on a winding journey, give you a peek behind the curtains. Much like a stage production, there’s a lot of messy backstage stuff you never see: nails and braces, stitches in costumes, and so on. Similarly in this post, I’ve got italics, parentheticals, and asides; odd sentence structure; and it rambles at times. It’s a messy style and one I would not typically keep, but it’s reflective of the way my mind works when I’m moving full speed. This is what editors are for.

You might have also noticed that the pieces above were not recounted in linear fashion. I slipped forward and backwards through the scene, making changes to better set up the climax. A few things were planned. Many were not. Problems were solved as I went. New ones were created – gifts to my future self, and not unwelcome ones.

Most importantly, I accomplished some things. There’s some context, some history. Some new famous people to possibly explore later. A magic key for an unbreakable lock. Foreshadowing and other setups for future storylines. We explore another dimension for a character, the teacher whose description started as “inspired by Severus Snape, but not as tragic”. We start to understand what motivates Samor, or how others inspire him to change. All in all, not a bad bit of work for a few hours’ time. And for that, I am always grateful. I wish you similar luck with your writing.

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, November 2020

Oh, You Just Sat Down and Wrote?

It’s 7:30 on a Sunday night. Beside me sits a glass of whisky and ice. I’ve poisoned it, some might say, with Coca-Cola. And that’s fine for this ending to a long day because I’m desirous of the effects, if not so much the taste.

Much of these first three paragraphs was written, and re-written in the car this evening, while listening to Neil Gaiman’s The View From The Cheap Seats (It’s one of three books I’m currently enjoying. The softcover Brimstone by Preston & Child sits beside the whisky glass and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone awaits my ears when I get to bed, whenever that might be.).

The Gaiman writing is good, as he usually is, but I think there’s more than that pleasure contained in this particular work. It also contains some unspoken encouragement for writers, and I wonder if other people realize that when they read it.

I’ve hardly been writing since the pandemic was declared in March. The Gaiman book, and another huge relief that occurred this week, have served to remove some of the weight that’s been crushing me. Today, some pent up energy was released.

I’ve already mentioned that I began writing this post ahead of time, and that’s much like the new story I sat down to type this morning. Similarly, it formed in my head before I knew I was going to do any writing. As I showered today, two distinct lines popped into my head, as though I had discovered a thing that existed or was remembering something whispered to me in my sleep.

The first was a title: The Time Travel Tinkerer.

The second was the opening: Putter was a tinkerer, a time traveler, and a bastard. At least, that’s how people would have viewed him, if they’d known what he’d done. Or would do, depending on their places in time.

Neither was going to win me a literary award, though perhaps I’d get points for alliteration. I write about things that intrigue me, inspire me, or burn in my mind like an ember that refuses to die. And that’s what I had today.

In the next hour, I wrote two thousand words, practically without stopping. It was pure writing, though I wouldn’t call it stream-of-consciousness because there was order to it, as though I were dictating a story someone had once told me.

There were few of my usual shortcuts in the work (line breaks that represented details to fill later; bullets that marked the beats; or ideas demarcated with parentheses). Those are the devices I employ when I fear I’ll forget a detail when I can’t type quickly enough.

It reminded me of the times I’d taken a piece of my novel that I knew well and just re-typed it from memory: unnecessary details are eroded and the writing is just, well, tighter, for lack of a better word.

I stopped just before the ending because I think I need to dwell on it a bit. The story is high-concept, both filled with science-y stuff, yet devoid of the specific detail that some might desire in science fiction. The story’s goal isn’t to convince you that time travel could be real; I just need you to follow Putter into his conveyance and enjoy the ride.

As I feverishly described this writing hour to my wife, she humored me. I suspect her encouragement was more about my return to writing than the story itself (a high-concept sci-fi piece isn’t her style), and that was all I needed today. As is often the case with these snippets of story idea, I don’t know whether I will finish it. I’d like to, but I have other priorities in my writing and in my life. I predict this will be little more than a short story, perhaps something I’d submit to a sci-fi magazine or website. But we’ll see.

Until then, Putter will hang in the void, staring down at the continuum of time, wondering whether he should try to fix the mess he created or satisfy his scientific curiosity for what happens next.

I hope you are able to find something equally inspiring in the coming weeks. This year of 2020 is going to end with a number of high notes, I think. Good luck!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, November 2020

Here’s that encouragement you need

I’ve got a friend who’s been fighting depression, the kind of battle that needs all the encouragement we can muster. You can imagine my disappointment and anger when he posted that some people had sh** on his creative project, which was one of his outlets for dealing with his affliction.

I’m tired of reading awful comments that go unchallenged, so I’m going to stand up for others when I can. The creative process is hard enough without people trolling for the sake of trolling. Here’s what I wrote for him, which I’m sharing in the hope it helps others, too.

I’m going to take one sentence to call out people who would sh** on a person’s creative project: Do something better with your life and look at this person as an example of someone who is succeeding at that.

Now, on to more important things. I’ve spent years trying to create worthwhile content for people, and I know it’s hard to set aside a project. But take heart: all the creatives we love have unfinished projects, whether they’re musicians, writers, or painters.

I’m encouraging you to keep that creative door open a crack. Then walk away and take a break. Don’t look at it. Don’t try to force it open. Don’t dwell on it. Just let the door remain ajar. You’ll likely find that when you’re waiting for coffee, playing with a kid, or waiting for sleep’s embrace, that a light will shine through that narrow opening. That light is an idea. It could be a title, snippets of lyric, or simply a feeling you want to convey. Capture whatever it is. Even if it sucks. Then capture the next one. Occasionally, pull out that growing list and read through it. Maybe something will spark; often nothing will. When you’re ready, and it will probably be sooner than you think, you’ll realize you have something that forces you to pull that door handle to let a little more light into the room. Let me give you two personal examples:

1. I started my list in high school, well, a couple lists actually. One would eventually be named ‘Titles Without Stories’, which is exactly what it sounds like: catchy or intriguing names that might spark to life someday. Sixteen years later, I pitched ‘The Demon and Mrs. Chang’ to Marvel Comics. I received a very nice boilerplate rejection letter in response.

2. I’ve spent four years writing a novel, capturing ideas like I described above. Now, I’m pitching to agents and working on a follow-up. I’m currently 0-3-1 with agents, btw.

Will either of these make me money or see life in print? Dunno, but that’s not the point of this comment. As your friend wisely said, it’s a learning process. Every project teaches you something about your craft. Each one makes you better: artistically, spiritually, and mentally. And that’s what is really important.

Ars gratia artis

There’s enough darkness in the world that we shouldn’t be eager to snuff a struggling light. As a society, we have given too much power to trolls, and I want to take it back.

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, June 2020

Prince Playlist 4U

Prince Funko Pops

I recently took comfort as I recalled how Minnesotans came together a few years ago after the death of Prince. I spent days listening to stories, happy and sad, of how his music touched them. I shared one or two of my own. It occurs to me that in uncertain times there often are no words, but there is always music.

If there were a playlist I’d like Prince to play for us, it would look something like this: a mix of his hits, his messages, and his thoughts on getting us through this thing called life.

Uptown
Raspberry Beret
17 Days
Starfish and Coffee
Sign ‘O’ the Times
Calhoun Square
Alphabet St.
Christopher Tracy’s Parade
We March
Money Don’t Matter Tonight
Beautiful, Loved and Blessed
The Breakdown
Take Me With U
7
When You Were Mine
Little Red Corvette
Love…Thy Will Be Done
It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night
Purple Rain

Take care of UR loved ones.

–Mike

Click for more Prince


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© Michael Wallevand, June 2020

Squeezing in writing time

As I mentioned in Whatcha writing during isolation?, I hadn’t been doing much writing. Thinking, yes; time at the keyboard, no. I also stated that I was taking a break.

I think that means different things to writers than many other people. You see, much like the famous Ross and Rachel argument on Friends, whether I was on a break could be debated.

We. Were. On. A. Break!

Since it’s Fathers’ Day, and I’m writing, I think you know the winner in my particular debate.

I was putting a lot of thought into the future of the series, and I don’t mean whether I’d get published or whether I should shelve the project. I was contemplating the ongoing storyline and the eventual intersection of Tildy and her lost brother, Samor (for a little preliminary info on him, go here: the Prince).

Much needs to happen to create the dynamic between them when they meet. Without being too spoiler-y, they are both heirs to the throne. Due to the patriarchy of their society, many will favor him; however, as the first-born, Tildy will also have a legitimate claim, as far a many are concerned.

Before I digress too far, there are beats in the story that must be hit and I need to determine the best books for them to occur. When does Tildy realize this? Book 2. When does Samor achieve that? Book 3. And so on.

So, I’ve been taking notes. Lots of ’em.

Yesterday, I found myself with a little free time. I pulled up Evernote and started popping notes into the appropriate manuscripts. After an hour or two, I’d added maybe 30 total notes into nine manuscripts. You can verify that here: Progress Tracker.

That’s….an ambitious project.

Yeah, which is why I need to understand where the overall story is headed. Otherwise, the – let’s call it writing math – isn’t going to add up at the end.

Equally important, it was a telling thing because I wasn’t “in the writing mood” and the house was hardly free of distractions. The perfect writing environment isn’t sustainable for a married guy working through a pandemic as Summer arrives with two dogs and two kids. I’ve changed my approach to ensure I’m spending my time working, not waiting. Fortunately, I started that transformation years ago.

For me, writing has never been limited to words appearing on a page. Having a similar philosophy will help you spend more time working and less time waiting. Good luck!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, June 2020

Privilege in a time of chaos and injustice

I live in a Minneapolis suburb, though I am far enough away that I cannot see the smoke. I cannot hear the protests. My sleep is not disturbed by the sounds of gunfire and sirens. While the murder of George Floyd has angered me, I have been separated from the cacophony of a world aflame.

I have felt helpless and rooted in place, and it has forced some introspection. I know I do not truly understand the emotions or thoughts of the communities affected by this murder. So I have been listening. As I hear the anguish, the powerlessness, the frustration, and as I read what it’s like to fear a similar fate as George Floyd, I have been reminded that I have lived a privilege life compared to many people in my country.

A decision lay before me: to live within the comfort and protection of my privilege or to use it for something positive. I chose the latter.

I took what I heard and wrote this.

***********************

I am not black.

I am not of eastern Asian descent, nor Slavic or Middle Eastern, nor a member of most of the other wonderful ancestries that humans are blessed to have.

I am not Muslim, nor a member of any of the non-Christian religions that bring people comfort across the world.

I am not female, nor any of the other genders we are discovering in our DNA.

I am not gay, and I do not fit into any of the sexual orientations that close-minded people refuse to acknowledge.

I am not missing any of my five senses or four limbs. My brain doesn’t process the world in a way that requires additional interpretation.

I’ve never been impoverished or homeless.

I am a straight white male living in America and there are very few words that we use to modify that description. We live in a country that must label people to remind them they are different than a particular type of person – that they are other. That they do not have my privilege.

I recognize that in the United States, I have more privilege than all of these wonderfully different ways to be human.

Continue reading

Whatcha writing during isolation?

Nothing.

I should be writing something. I always should be. But I’m not.

At least, I hadn’t been.

When Covid-19 started to get serious back in March, but before a pandemic was declared, I’d been working on agent submissions. That carried me into early April.

I don’t know whether this is the worst time or the best to query. I guess we’ll see. At the very least, maybe it will provide some interesting insight into the industry. If you’re wondering, I’m 0-2-1 right now. When the agent just stopped repping my genre, I’m counting that as a tie. Glass half-full, people!

But the stresses of two parents working from home with a special needs child began to mount. Additionally, I no longer had those simple moments where I just worked on the story in my head: the daily commute, waiting in line for lunch, boxing class, pumping gas, and so on.

I tend to be a creature of habit. I’ve created a number of different ways to get my brain ready for writing. I’ve described them here:

Unfortunately, stress, frustration, and exhaustion have been deadly foes these last eight weeks. Something had to give – or break – and it certainly wasn’t going to be me. As Clint Eastwood said in Magnum Force:

“A man’s got to know his limitations.”

So, I created a new tip. I took a break. In hindsight, it was 50% conscious and 50% deliberate in the way that a person stumbles down the stairs but stays on their feet.

Physically and mentally, some pressure was relieved. I didn’t attempt to write. I didn’t blog. I even paused my agent submissions. I’ve written through some tough situations – insomnia, unemployment, hangovers, work stress, death – but I knew this situation was different.

However, that small voice between my ears kept reminding me that something was missing. I listened, but knew I’d get back to it once we’d sorted out life in isolation.

And so, here and there, I’ve started working in my head again. Rolling over in bed, half asleep, to jot something down (note: that’s how the reptilian slither-withers came to life). Giving myself permission to chase a character down an unfamiliar path. Write this post. It feels good – natural. I’m not surprised, but the reassurance that your skills haven’t dulled, well, that’s a nice feeling.

A loss of momentum for writers is inevitable. Some call it writer’s block. Others, the vengeance of an angry muse. Regaining your momentum is no guarantee of success; however, giving up is certainly a guarantee of failure.

Don’t give up on your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, May 2020

Word Casualties #4

Our latest light-hearted look at typos and the definitions they’d have if they were real words. (actual words at the bottom)

Teehee fly – a pesky little laughing insect.

Arknowledge – the wisdom needed to build a deluge-escaping watercraft.

Desolatastness – The delicious feeling of being isolated.

Arthuretum – A piece of land on which many different Arthurs are grown.

Anfractcously – The measurement of the fractal space along the surface indentations of couscous.

Malaware – Software that is not only malicious, but dangerously self-conscious.

Fantsy – Used to describe the intricate scrollwork and special fonts used in Tolkien books.

Misfurtones – The dissonance that occurs while singing poorly about fur coats.

Delicktable – Something that looks good enough to be licked.

Tsetse fly, acknowledge, desolateness, arboretum, ???, malware, fantasy, misfortunes, and delectable.


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© Michael Wallevand, March 2020

Enticed by Pepper – Writing Exercise

I was going to shut myself away in a quiet room, but my wife’s making homemade chicken noodle soup and the enticing smell is irresistible. It’s the smell of home, but a nostalgic kind. A place where hungry people come in from a wintry outdoors and suddenly find themselves ravenous in a warm, aromatic kitchen.

And so, with no preparation, I sat down and wrote a little about it. I don’t know what this is. Just stream-of-consciousness stuff. I provide it as an unedited example of how easy it is to get writing momentum some days, especially when you’re not overly concerned with structure or other grammatical rules.

I’m writing at the kitchen table

with headphones in.

It keeps out the distractions of home life

Yet allows me to stay within my family’s presence.

I sit here so I can smell my wife’s homemade chicken noodle soup.

As it bubbles on the stove

Its pepper enticing, the rich broth,

the concoction of ingredients that dance merrily in a savory swirl

“Pepper makes me sneeze,” I said as a kid.

It no longer has the effect I pretended it had back then.

Now, it’s an enticement, I want to bask in its aroma

and be inspired by cauldron thoughts

and salivating mouths,

of cooking herbs found near the camp

fresh-picked and green,

their earth nourished by a nearby brook that delights in its passage.

I cannot hear the roiling water as it swirls upon the stove.

It waits for noodles, thick and grand, pleasures each to taste.

And so I type, I write.

I take white pages and darken them with hope.

With no planning save that which can be done in preparation to sit

and bask within a kitchen breeze

its peppered breath a kiss,

A promise,

An inspiration.

Perhaps it will be worth editing later, or pieces will be borrowed for something else. At the very least, it got my mind ready for the other writing I intended to complete. And it got me hungrier.

It’s time for a luncheon interruption.

Homemade chicken noodle soup with carrots, onions, celery, and big thick noodles.

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© Michael Wallevand, March 2020

I Did That Thing I Hate #1

Yeah, this is likely be the first of several posts in this category because I keep falling into traps of my own devising.

movie poster

Before Christmas I did that thing I hate. I’ve heard from several unpublished authors who do the same thing, and they hate it, too.

A note of preface. I’m going to overuse air quotes throughout this piece so you can see how ridiculous one “writer’s” brain is.

So, at an event in December, someone introduced me as an “author”. Gasp!

Because many of us are hardwired to distinguish ourselves from authors who have been “actually” published, I said something self-deprecating to ensure these people knew I wasn’t a “real” author. I needed to forestall the inevitable questions about my “book”.

It didn’t work.

The awkwardness probably didn’t phase them and I’m certain neither of them is writing about the exchange two months later.

To many of us writing a book, “author” is a title of veneration which we cannot “earn” until our work appears on the shelf of a “real bookstore”.

Now, I’ll pause here for a moment so you can say something like, “Man, writers are weird/dumb/insecure gumble-goos.”

Yes! Thank you! Sigh.

While you’re SMDH’ing, I’ll mention that it took more than a decade before I’d even accept being called a writer. Seriously. I say this as a person who’s been paid for copywriting, editing, proofreading, and (lord, help me) straight up creative writing. I even had the title ‘Letter Correspondent’, but I wasn’t a writer because that wasn’t “real” writing.

Tired of the quotes yet? I am, and I fricking wrote this.

Ralphie from a Christmas story

Anyway, I knew I was doing that thing I hate exactly as I was saying it. Much like Ralphie in A Christmas Story as he drops the F-bomb, except things worked out a smidge better for me in December.

You see, I was secretly pleased that the subject had been broached, though I’d never say it aloud. I was pleased because there are a few days a year where writers do want to talk about their craft. As a result, we had a nice conversation during which I explained the plot, my protagonist, Tildy, and my motivations for writing a book with a thirteen-year-old heroine.

Not only did it help break me from my shell, it helped me practice my pitch, which for many writers is harder than completing an entire book.

And so, WRITERS (you see I abandoned the air quotes several paragraphs ago), be proud and unafraid, even if it requires you to rewire your brain a smidge.

Good luck with your non-air-quoted writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, February 2020