Tag Archive for: Writing


In What Happened in Granite Creek, one of my characters — Jamie Briggs — is a quadruple amputee who lost his arms and legs while serving in Iraq. The novel is based on the short story “Support Our Troops,” which I wrote without having done much research beyond looking for some images online (so I could describe Jamie’s character accurately), mainly because the focus of the short story was on Koty, who is also one of the main characters in the novel.

But when I was writing the novel, I knew I’d need to do more research into amputees. In early 2010, I discovered there was only one surviving quad amputee (at the time) from these wars – that’s how extensive an injury it is (there are now two, I think, and maybe another in the UK). The first guy’s name is Brendan Marracco.

I went back and forth for a LONG time about whether I should reach out to him, but I decided against it because, deep down, I’m pretty shy and I hate bugging people (it’s one of the main reasons I couldn’t be a journalist…I was a stringer for a newspaper, and I hated calling people for interviews or comments). I also didn’t want him to feel I was exploiting his situation.

So I stuck with articles, videos, and images I could find online. As a result, I was somewhat vague with some of the technicalities in Jamie’s day-to-day life — on purpose, since I didn’t have the research to back it up. When I quizzed my beta readers on this, none said they were bothered by it. I gave just enough detail to let them fill in the blanks. Phew, I thought. I’m all set.

Not so fast, said the universe.

I revised and revised and handed in my manuscript to my copy editor on Friday, July 29. On Saturday, I was puttering around my apartment when I received an email. Subject line said “support our troops,” and my first reaction was, “Oh, crap. Either it’s someone who loves the short story or someone who hates it.” (Readers tend to only email us writers if they have a strong reaction.) Anyhow, I was feeling all vulnerable since I’d just sent off my baby — remember, the novel is based on the short story “Support Our Troops” — so I was worried that it was going to be someone who hated the story for whatever reason and that would send me into the wobbly world of self-doubt.

I opened up the email. It was a nice note from a woman. The “from” line said, “emma devotee.” And I was like, Interesting last name. I wonder if it’s French or something? Anyhow, Emma said she enjoyed the short story and appreciated the fact I had a disabled character in it. However, she felt some of my details weren’t quite accurate. She was married to a double-leg amputee, and she said that she would be happy to answer any questions if I had them.

Like I said: this was a gift from the universe. So I wrote right back to Emma with an enthusiastic “yes” and told her I’d turned “Support Our Troops” into a full blown novel and the manuscript was sitting with my editor, but I could still make changes, and would she be willing to review scenes from the manuscript in which Jamie, the quad amputee, appeared? She responded in the affirmative, so I packaged up everything and emailed it to her.

The next day, I got an email from another woman — Ruth — and the subject line said, “interview on Support Our Troops?” and I was like, “Okay, this is weird.” (And let me back up a moment – I’d also noticed since I had just checked my sales numbers for the first time that weekend that I’d sold a fairly large number of “Support Our Troops” in comparison to my other shorts…and I’d kinda wondered why since I hadn’t done any sort of promotion.)

So Ruth’s email says that she had been talking to a friend who had recommended my short story and the friend had also mentioned I was turning said story into a full blown book. Ruth asked me if she could interview me for her blog because it’s her mission for books to feature more disabled characters in them, so she likes to give props to writers who do this.

She sent me a link to a recent interview she’d done on her blog, and when I went over to look at it, I noticed the items in the site’s navigation, including a link on “Devoteeism.” Duh – it wasn’t a last name. A devotee is a term used to describe a person who is sexually attracted to disabled people. The disabilities can run the gamut from spinal cord injuries (SCI) to amputations to leg braces to blindness…the list goes on and on. What one devotee is attracted to might be different from what another devotee is attracted to…just like it is with folks who are non-devs (e.g. some people like BBW, some people like blondes, some people like men with hair on their chests while others do not).

You can read more about devotees here on Ruth’s website (I’m linking to my interview, but you’ll see the link on devoteeism to the left) and on Paradevo.net (EDITOR’S NOTE: I originally had a link to Wikipedia, but several of the folks commenting below said the info on Wiki isn’t the most accurate and pointed to this site instead). Just Google it, and you’ll find a ton of information. It seems like a fairly decent-sized sub culture, and some folks who find themselves attracted to disabled people don’t even realize there’s a name for what they have…many describe having felt this way since childhood and many describe having felt ashamed, like they were sick or perverted or something.

THIS is why I write…to learn new stuff like this and to create stories that get people talking and thinking and feeling and debating. We’re all such imperfect little beings fighting the same battles, but we let stuff – often stuff we have no control over – create the chasm between our tender little souls and the rest of the world.

I ended up talking to Emma via phone – she was FABULOUS and so open and helpful (and luckily, I didn’t have to change too much in the novel). Ruth and I have corresponded as well, and I enjoyed reading one of her novels, (W)hole, which is about a seventeen-year-old woman grappling with the fact she’s attracted to guys in wheelchairs…and how her life changes when she starts dating a college guy who is in a wheelchair.

This was an awesome stroke of luck that made me feel even more confident when putting out the book.

As readers, have you ever put down a book because you didn’t find something plausible? Do you remember what the subject was? Share in the comments.

Oh, and if you decide to retweet this post, be sure to use my dedicated hash tag for all things related to What Happened in Granite Creek: #whigc (Thanks for spreading the word.)

Okay, so this isn’t an original concept. Many smart writers like Zoe Winters and Dean Wesley Smith came to this conclusion before I did.

But it’s true: writing is easy.

For many of you writers out there (and even you readers), you’re probably thinking I’m nuts, since it goes against everything we’ve been told. That’s the thing: we — well, I, at least — never questioned the statement “writing is hard,” a statement that I encountered sometime when I was a kid and bolstered in high school, college, and most certainly by many scribes and graduate school programs.

I started to question the statement when, over the last year or so, I began feeling that writing had gotten a whole lot easier. And then I started listening to some of the whisperings of some successful writers who were willing to come clean and reveal, “Yeah, writing isn’t hard.”

If you love doing it and you have any sort of talent for it, well, it will feel pretty easy and straight forward 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent goes like this: 5 percent is fear (usually unfounded) that you bring to the table. The other 5 percent involves actual legitimate challenges — a story that isn’t working, some research issue that’s turned into a pain in the ass, things like that.

I’m not saying there aren’t hard moments — there are — but I do believe that writing is easy. Even revising. Especially once you’ve gotten through a whole book and seen it to the very end. I’ll admit you might have a little extra dose of “hard stuff” during that first book, but I’d be willing to bet — simply because I’ve been there — that much of it you bring on yourself because you’re thinking “Gee, this is supposed to be hard.” So you make it hard. Forgotten April shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did, but I got caught up in the myth.

Think about many of the classic “greats.” Many — William Carlos Williams comes to mind for some reason — worked day jobs. The writing they did was in stolen moments here and there, yet they were able to create brilliant work. Brilliance doesn’t need weeks and months and years to occur. Sometimes our most brilliant ideas happen in the most unlikely places, like the shower (Einstein thought so). The brilliance happens easily, and it’s available to all of us.

I’m not saying writing doesn’t take work. Of course it does. Putting together a 100,000-word novel doesn’t happen overnight. It takes commitment and diligence. Now, those things may be hard, at first (although if you tell yourself commitment to a deadline is easy, I bet it will be). But the writing part isn’t hard. (If writers are being honest with themselves, they’d probably agree…once you sit down and you’re “in it,” it comes easily because that’s what you love to do.)

I know plenty of writers out there will read this and dismiss my theory right away. All I can say is this: before you do so, consider it. What if I’m right? What if writing is easy and we’d been told a lie all this time?

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Forgotten April, my debut novel, isn’t my first novel. Like so many writers, I have a bottom drawer dweller, or, in this case, a novel that lingers on my hard drive in a folder called “Bad First Novels.” The novel is called Lily’s Legs. Don’t ask me who Lily is — she’s not a character; she’s simply a thinly-veiled version of my twenty-something self. And the other characters are people from my life back then: the morning show host from the radio station I worked at in the 90s, family members, lovers.  I took the whole “write what you know” adage literally and forgot an important thing called imagination.

But that’s okay. It had to go like that. I think it was Stephen King who said in his memoir On Writing that you have to write a million words before you can call yourself a true writer, since a million words is what it takes to smooth out the rough edges, to rid yourself of the frogs in your throat and the endless ahs and ums that occur when you’re trying to explain something you don’t understand yet. That was me, anyway, when I was penning those 73,000+ words. (I was still using double spaces after periods, too. Sheesh!)

I spent some time today re-reading portions of it. I wrote a lot of it in Provincetown (pictured), one of my favorite places in the world, and I remember sitting on my hotel balcony that was a stone’s throw from the ocean and writing on my laptop. I was one of the only people I knew with a laptop then, and it made me feel all official-like, as if I were a “real” writer. (We’re talking circa 1995.)

Anyhow, today as I was re-reading it, I noted that 99.9 percent of it was crap, but I also remembered a scene I had written and quickly found it and discovered why I remembered it now…because there was a spark of “something” there, something I’d learn how to manage better over the next fifteen years and turn into “story.”

We all have to begin somewhere. And while I’d NEVER want this book to see the light of day, I’m still proud of it in the same way I imagine mothers are proud of the kindergarten artwork they hold onto from their now grown-up kids. The work shows faith and diligence and a little bit of chutzpah, which are all things “real” writers need even after they’re all grown up.

What’s in your “Bad Writing” files?

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I write even though…

…there are no guarantees.

…some people hate my writing.

…sometimes all I can think in is cliches and mixed metaphors.

…brilliant books humble me as much as they inspire.

…I’ve racked up rejections and I don’t have an agent.

…self-publishing is still the bastard step child of the publishing industry.

…character voices fill my head and I talk to myself — a lot.

…others who are more talented than I am quit or slow down.

…every publishing statistic suggests the odds are against me.

…sometimes I’m the only one who believes.

But let’s turn it around.

I write because…

…it’s when I’m happiest. Even on tough days, I’m still happy.

…I love telling stories.

…I love sharing stories…and hearing back from readers who are moved by them.

…I love learning new things.

…there’s a sense of soulful satisfaction that occurs when I get a story “right.”

…there’s nothing I’ve ever done before in my life that feels as right as this, like I’m home and where I’m meant to be.

…stories reveal truths that too many of us have a hard time articulating until we see ’em in print.

…stories connect me to people and to the larger world.

…stories connect me to my Higher Self and that place where soul resides.

…it’s simply what I must do.

Why do you write?

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My favorite type of writing subverts my expectations. It takes a twist that’s completely unexpected, yet so TRUE.

Here’s an example that shows what I mean:

Leave Me from Ryan Dunlap on Vimeo.

You can follow this very talented writer on Twitter.

So now you tell me: what’s your favorite type of writing? Share in the comments.

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Okay, so that title is misleading. Sure there are rules. I have rules. That ultra-particular person in your writers group definitely has rules, and rules for his rules. Your seventh grade English teacher had rules. Agents have rules. Publishers have rules. But here’s the funny thing about rules, at least in writing (and probably in anything): they’re fluid. They evolve.

Remember the “rule” that you had to use two spaces after a period? Not anymore.

Or how ’bout the rules that got your English papers covered in red ink, like ending a sentence with a preposition, verbifying nouns, or splitting infinitives? (See how I just broke one of ’em?)

Even things that have rules — like commas — grammarians and fusspots still debate about. (See that? I just broke another rule.)

So my point in saying there are no rules is just that: there aren’t really any rules. There are accepted ways of doing things. There are even “more correct” ways of doing things. But for every correct way you show me, there’s at least one writer out there breaking that rule — and breaking it well.

The problem with rules is they can be restrictive, especially in the wrong hands. For example, don’t change a sentence that reads and sounds right because you — gawd forbid — ended it in a preposition and you’re “not supposed to do that.”

Laura Matthews, a friend of mine in my writers group (and a fabulous editor as well), offered this bit of wisdom the other night: Be intentional with everything you write. So if you’re going to end that sentence with a preposition, and you have a good reason for doing so even though it violates a “rule,” do it. But it has to be intentional. Don’t break rules out of laziness. Or ignorance. Which brings me to another important point: you need to learn the rules first before you can break them with intention.

So learn them. Learn the conventional and accepted ways to use a semicolon. Learn what a comma splice is and how to fix it. Learn how to remove that preposition from the end of the sentence. If you’re taking a class with a fussbudget for a teacher and he or she is set on some (in your opinion) inane or arcane rule, follow it in that world, knowing that you can break it in yours.

Agree or disagree? I know writers on both sides of the aisle on this one, so weigh in. (Just keep it civil.)

On a separate note, I’m happy I got to use the words fusspot and fussbudget in the same post. Like the word hogwash, these are great words that I don’t use nearly enough in my day-to-day life. I’m trying to remedy that. (Hey, it’s the little things, people.)

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Just discovered this dude who is trying to write one novel per month for 12 months. He just finished January. You can follow his progress here.

Here’s his reasoning, and I quote:

“Great authors such as Stephen King have assured the world that we all need to write 1,000,000 words of drivel before we can actually begin writing things of note, and thus I have set about in a slightly ludicrous fashion to do just that. At 2,740 words per day, I should hit my first million word mark come December 31st.”

King talks about this in his writing memoir, On Writing (highly recommend). And I think I agree that one million words is probably about right. But to get them out all at once? That’s a lot of writing diarrhea. We’ll see how he does, though. Let’s check in on him in June and see where he’s at…and how sane he is. I give him a lot of credit.

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In Wednesday’s post about my MFA reading list, I mentioned that I was on the nonfiction track when I entered Lesley University’s creative writing program in 2006. I graduated with a multi-genre thesis (nonfiction and fiction) because I ended up being able to work on my fiction as well (during semesters two, three, and four).

Fiction is my first love. It’s pretty much all I write these days (although one of the titles I’m releasing next year will be nonfiction). So why didn’t I declare fiction as my focus when I entered Lesley? Simple. I was afraid. Fear, of course, is seldom logical. Here’s my mostly illogical reasoning for choosing nonfiction (in no particular order):

What I thought going in: Nonfiction felt safer, which might sound crazy since nonfiction is supposed to be about real life, real people, real names. But nonfiction felt safer for me in that the “story” was already set. I wasn’t making up a story for people to judge. I was simply talking about a story that had happened or was happening.

What I learned: stories of “truth” come with their own restrictions and can still be judged. There’s nothing safe about it, if you’re going to do it right.

What I thought going in: The nonfiction program was smaller in terms of the number of students.  I can be a shy person and easily spooked when I’m in situations where I don’t feel confident. I thought it would be easier to get naked (which is what essentially happens when you share your writing in a workshop) with a smaller group of people.

What I learned: smaller groups meant there was more time for everyone to focus on a particular work, including mine. Think nakedness under microscopes.

What I thought going in: I didn’t feel as well read as I should have been in literary fiction. I thought this would affect my ability to workshop pieces and take part in class discussions.

What I learned: One of the most important things I learned in school is to stop making excuses or feeling bad about what you don’t know and, instead, go learn it or go read it. Most of us have gaps in our educations somewhere. It’s okay. You can remedy the situation.

What I thought going in: At the time, I did not have enough confidence in my fiction. At least, not the type of fiction I thought creative writing programs wanted. In my mind, creative writing programs wanted literary writing. Mine was way more commercial, and I was okay with that. (I still am.) I think I feared that my commercial writing would be mocked and that I’d be encouraged to write in a more literary fashion. I guess you could call me stubborn in this case — I didn’t want to become a literary writer just because that’s what was expected in grad school. (Note: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with literary writing; it’s just not my style.)

What I learned: during our one-week residencies, we often attended classes that were led by people outside of our chosen genre. So I got familiar with the fiction faculty, and I think that the majority would have been okay with my more commercial voice. During my second semester, I worked on my novel with someone outside of Lesley whom I had chosen. During my third and fourth semesters, my nonfiction mentor also worked with me in fiction because she wrote in both genres. This worked out great for me because I felt more in control, and, thus, more confident about my work and the process.

It’s because of this last reason that I wouldn’t do anything differently if I had to do it all over again. I really lucked out and got the best of both worlds with almost equal time in both fiction and nonfiction.

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I’m obsessed with writing group posts this month. The good news? Many of the topics — like how to comment on someone’s writing and the reality of the green-eyed monster — also apply to the larger topic of writing in general. And so, I continue.

Today’s topic? How to receive feedback on your writing. The whole “thick skin” recommendation is a crock of you-know-what. We’re not lizards or alligators. Our skin bruises. Easily. I think what writers need to develop is Bounce Back. Feedback, even the best intentioned, will *likely* sting, bruise, hurt, and, in some cases, completely shatter your soul. (Notice I use the word “likely” a lot when I’m making these generalizations. There are always exceptions to the rule. I’m sure there’s a Teflon Writer out there who doesn’t feel a thing when receiving feedback. I haven’t met this person. But, like Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster, I’ve heard about rare sightings.)

What is “Bounce Back”? It’s not some fancy-schmancy SEO term or a warning on your checking account. Basically, it’s the term I use to describe how quickly you bounce back from receiving feedback. Bounce Back manifests itself in how you respond over time to the feedback. Forget your immediate response, which might involve expletives running through your head and thoughts of “You don’t know what you’re talking about” rants that you’d like to deliver to your fellow writing group members. Or your editor. Or that reviewer. Or that customer comment on Amazon. Bounce Back is what happens after you’ve had a chance to digest the criticism, constructive or otherwise.

At the end of the day, it’s your writing. You get to decide what feedback to reject and what to accept. You know you’ve hit your Bounce Back groove when you find yourself doing both. If all you’re doing is rejecting everything everyone says, well, you have very low Bounce Back. Same if you accept everything everyone says (thus turning the piece of writing into what I often call a platypus). Bounce Back is kinda like the Golden Mean of feedback. It balances what makes sense to you with what doesn’t feel right…and it allows you to go back and look at your piece with an objective eye.

Achieving Bounce Back takes practice. Here are some strategies:

  • Take notes. Listening to feedback can be painful (even if it’s good overall, your mind will home in on that one comment that wasn’t). Learning to really hear what people are saying is not always easy to decipher as you’re listening. That’s why it’s important to take notes, I think. Write down everything everyone says, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. Why? Two reasons. First, it gives you something to do while people are delivering their feedback. Second, it gives you something to go back to after your mind has had a chance to process.
  • Put the notes aside for awhile. How long will depend upon your personality and/or it might depend on the piece. I’ll often go through my notes and marked-up drafts within a couple of days and accept all the obvious things (e.g. typos) and whatever feels instantly “right” in my gut. Then I put it aside, knowing that my subconscious is working through the more controversial recommendations and feedback. As for how long it takes before I come back to that specific feedback? It really depends. Sometimes days, sometimes years (for novels).
  • Look at the craziest idea and try it. Is someone suggesting you ditch third person and try writing it in first? Try it. Open a fresh Word doc and try writing one scene or one chapter in first person. Is someone saying they want more description? Open a new page, and try describing a room, a character, whatever in great detail. Go with it. You may or may not end up using the text, but it will flex your brain muscle in a new way. And that’s a good thing.
  • Keep it in perspective – one person’s opinions is one person’s opinions. You will never, ever get everyone to like your piece. Don’t aim to please everyone. Aim to make the writing and the story (memoir, poem, etc.) as strong as you can make it. (How do you know when you’ve achieved this? When the thought of your own death and having people find your writing when they’re cleaning out your stuff doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of you.)
  • Consider the source. Everyone’s opinion is valid; this is true. But some feedback is going to be more informed than others. In my writing group, we have some members who write sci-fi. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi, so I always preface my feedback with that disclaimer. That particular genre has certain “rules,” and I always defer to the writer and the members in the group who are voracious readers of the genre. That doesn’t mean I don’t have any relevant feedback to provide; I often do. But I think it’s important for everyone to realize they have their strengths. (Agents often specialize in certain genres for this reason — same concept applies.)
  • Receive feedback graciously (even the yucky stuff). Feedback is a one-way process: from one person to you. You should not debate with someone that he or she is wrong or missed the point. Why? Because you’re not going to be sitting next to every reader who picks up your short story, novel, poem, etc. and offering explanations when he or she misinterprets something or misses a point. Your job is to ensure that you’re conveying on the page what your mind thinks it’s conveying — the two often don’t match up.
  • Don’t exact revenge on others. If you get torn apart in a workshop session, do not seek revenge by becoming a monster when it’s your turn to give feedback.
  • Don’t give up. A tough workshop session (I’m thinking MFA programs now rather than writing groups) can leave you questioning whether you should be doing this at all. It’s a normal reaction to have in certain moments, as long as you don’t let the notion consume you and cloud your judgment.

Add your ideas and experiences with feedback in the comments.

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Some people hate the term workshop. I don’t have a problem with the word, and we use the term in my writing group, so I’m going with it.

In this recent post, I talked about how to start a writing group (in honor of National Writing Group Month, which I made up). So let’s talk about how to workshop.

These thoughts are based on my six years of experience with The Nobscot Niblets, on my experience teaching a first-semester writing course at Mass School of Law, and on my experience in being part of MFA workshops.

  • Lead with something positive. Yes, writing is hard. Yes, we writers need to develop thick skins. Yes, we can’t improve unless we hear all feedback: the good, the bad, and the ugly. But it’s much easier to swallow the yucky stuff if you lead with something sweet. Trust me.
  • Be specific. Don’t say, “I liked it.” This is a running joke now with the Nibs since one of our long-term members often starts out his comments with this line — on purpose now — but then he follows up with something specific. Try not to use the word “like” at all since that word often leads to general sentences — “I like your dialogue” — instead of something specific: “Your use of dialogue in this scene was effective because it revealed how much was at stake for Character X.” The same goes for pointing out what’s not working. Don’t say, “I didn’t like this.” Again, be specific, “The exposition here didn’t work for me because it took me out of the story. I think I felt that way because it seemed like a lot of background info was being put into a small space.”
  • Remember, you’re one reader with one very subjective opinion. Almost everything in writing is debatable. Almost. Share your thoughts honestly and respectfully. And acknowledge that your recommendations are just that.
  • Conversation or one-by-one? I tend to like having conversations about a piece of writing, like people do in book groups. I feel it can lead to better critiques because it involves conversation that can naturally lead to debates. The problem? Comment hogs. A good facilitator can help reign in the hogs and give the floor over to those who might be a little quieter. If you go one-by-one around the room, you ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak, but it can get a little boring. If you choose this way, make sure you mix up who goes first and last. And a facilitator is still needed to cut off that person who decides to rattle off a laundry list of issues.
  • Mark up the drafts. Your “public” critiques should highlight the most pressing questions you have or bring to light the issues. Save line edits for the hard copy. And remember to provide positive comments in the marked-up copy as well since no one wants to see only a marked-up draft of everything he or she did “wrong.”
  • Red pen alert! I know some people who think using a red pen is psychologically damaging — and in some schools, it’s actually forbidden. You’ll need to decide among yourselves what to do. Lots of red ink can be overwhelming. Is it less so if you use green or blue? I dunno.
  • For memoirs and personal essays, sometimes it’s more comfortable to refer to “the narrator” instead of the author’s name. I actually like this approach, even though it might come across as odd to talk about “the narrator” in the third person when the first-person subject is sitting right next to you. It depends on the content, I think, and on the writer’s comfort with it. If it’s heavy content (like incest, for example), it might be more comfortable for everyone to approach the discussion in a more neutral way by discussing “the narrator’s” actions, dialogue etc.
  • Workshopping poetry follows the basics outlined above, but there are other things to consider. If you have a group of poets, you know what to do. But if your group is a mix of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, you should probably provide some guidelines on how to workshop poetry.
  • Writers should be seen and not heard. Some workshops require the writer whose piece is under discussion to keep quiet during the critique and simply listen. At the end, he or she can then ask questions, provide clarification, or take part in the discussion. Overall, I like this approach since the writer should listen, which can be extremely hard to do; often our natural inclination is to defend what we wrote. But, again, this rule should be flexible, I think.

I welcome other ideas, especially any “big ones” I’ve overlooked. Leave your thoughts in the comments

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