Plot It Simple

From the time that I was a grasshopper sitting at the feet of my writing master, trying to learn the craft, I was given the same advice over and over:  Keep it simple.

But being someone with a Byzantine mind, an overactive imagination, and enough stubbornness to hold up a stone wall–I blew past such sage wisdom for a very long time.

Some things take me forever to learn. But here’s what I now know:

Make your characters complex.

Keep your plot simple.

Let’s consider these one at a time.

COMPLEX CHARACTERS

Complexity doesn’t stem from a vast heaping of detail. You can bury your protagonist in a variety of hobbies and interests, load her up with sixteen siblings and two step-moms, make her an ex-Marine CPA that plays a mean jazz saxophone, and let her be a rescuer of stray cats. None of that will make her compelling or complex.

A complex character is someone that appears to be one thing or behaves in a certain way, yet in reality is far different from what she seems on the surface.

Complexity comes from the clash of what seems to be and what actually is.

Therefore, let’s consider an elderly woman who lives with two cats, has crocheted doilies protecting her furniture, and embroiders homilies such as “A penny saved is a penny earned” that she then hangs on her walls. But in her youth, she ran one of the most successful brothels in the city and in her heart she remains a tough-as-nails madam and business owner.

Dean Koontz presented such a character in his novel Whispers.

Complexity comes from a person who is torn inside between conflicting responsibilities, or someone whose conscience is at war with his duty.

A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest is not complex.

A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be a cowardly, cheap, lying phony is complex.

SIMPLE PLOT

A simple plot is clear, direct, and easy to follow. In Holly Black’s children’s book, Doll Bones, a group of children decide that their antique bone china doll is haunted by the spirit of a dead child and they set out to take the doll back to where it was made and bury it in a cemetery.

This premise is certainly creepy, but it is easy to understand. It’s not convoluted, over-wrought, or burdened by an excessive load of subplots.

This isn’t to say that you must avoid complicated plots, but in the hands of an inexperienced writer, a plot woven with numerous plots, a huge cast of characters, multiple settings, and action, action, action may well be an indication of an uncertain writer unable as yet to adequately handle her material.

In fact, the simpler the plot the deeper a writer can delve into the characters.

Let’s take the example of the classic 1948 film, Key Largo, staring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, and Lionel Barrymore.

If you’ve seen this movie, good for you! If you haven’t, then spoiler alert! Go see it and then read the rest of this post.

The plot is very simple and straightforward. The characters are complex. The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is steamy. As writers, we can’t create the latter magic, but we can certainly reach for the rest.

In the story, a WWII veteran travels to Florida to visit the father and widow of a GI that served in his company. The dead soldier had talked often about his home in the Florida keys, his father, and his wife. As a courtesy, and from a wish to connect with these good people briefly, the protagonist Frank drops in to meet the family and talk to them about how their soldier died and where he’s buried in Italy.

The old man and his daughter-in-law Nora run a small hotel that’s closed for the season. But they’ve taken in a group of guests who offered more money than they can refuse. These guests include Rocco, a gangster so bad the U.S. deported him before the war, his alcoholic mistress, and his hoodlums. Rocco has sneaked back into the U.S. just long enough to make a deal for counterfeit money which he intends to launder in Cuba.

A hurricane blows in, trapping these people together in the hotel. Frank and Nora fall in love. Once the storm calms down, Rocco forces Frank to pilot the boat to Cuba, but Frank prevails and defeats the gangsters.

Because the plot is so clear and direct, the writer had ample room to develop this cast of characters. They are what powers this story.

Let’s consider them and what makes them complex:

Frank the hero seems to be a calm, competent, kind man who just wants to give comfort to an old man who’s lost his son. He’s courteous and mild-mannered. But Frank is also unable to settle back into civilian life. He’s rootless and restless. He has no family to return to after the war, and he’s held several jobs already, moving from city to city. He remembers the soldier in his company who was always talking about the keys and his family. Frank, needing somewhere to belong, finally turns up and becomes embroiled in the family’s problems. On the surface, Frank doesn’t seem to be a very successful civilian, but in a crisis he is the hero to have on your side. Perhaps the best display of his true nature is when he defies Rocco to give Gaye the drink she so desperately needs.

Rocco the villain seems to be a cut above his thugs at first. On the surface, he acts confident, successful, and in control. But soon we learn that he’s a washed up has-been trying to make a comeback. He’s reunited a few of his gang and sought out his former mistress. He talks big, but in reality he’s a frightened, petty, cruel little man that’s afraid of storms.

Rocco’s mistress Gaye–brilliantly portrayed by Claire Trevor–seems at first to be simply empty-headed eye-candy with a bit too much to drink. Since Rocco’s deportation, she’s been unable to regain her singing career. She makes a half-hearted pretense at first to maintain appearances. But Rocco’s disgust with her, and his cruelty, gives her the strength to betray him. She may be an alcoholic on the skids, but she is no fool. Her conscience and inner decency as a person finally shine through despite the slurred voice and craving for a drink.

Even the minor characters–however stereotypical they may appear to modern audiences–exhibit some complexity in their genial talk and jokes that are masks for the violence they’re capable of.

Often, discussion of this film becomes limited to the romance and that famous Bogart and Bacall chemistry, but I suggest that you study the characters to see how the story’s plot is designed to make them shine–just as jewels are displayed on black velvet cloth.

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Plot Shopping

The other day I happened to be in a large hardware store. I was tagging after a friend, with no errand or list of my own. As I wandered down the aisles, I saw a wide variety of products, all of them useful, and each of them reminding me of chores I needed to tackle or projects I didn’t know until that very moment that I wanted to do.

The longer I lingered, the more items I wanted. Granite cleaner, sponges, epoxy glues, bird feeders, lovely rows of canned spray paint in hues I didn’t know spray paint came in, grilling accessories, Yeti ice chests that evoked a strong desire to go camping in Yellowstone Park, and an entire plethora of garden hoses and devices to organize my closets.

Had I not been possessed of an iron will and a dwindling amount of cash, I might have succumbed that day to the myriad temptations spread before me.

The point is that, just like me on the loose without a list in a hardware store, if you don’t have a plan when you’re pulling together your plot elements for a story, you’re going to be enticed by too many choices, alternatives, and possibilities.

When plotting fiction, the best approach is to follow my instructor Jack Bickham’s advice: “Keep it simple.”

I might add my own advice to that:  “Keep it on track.”

In other words, don’t thoughtlessly and heedlessly grab potential plot events, using anything that pops into your head, in an effort to make your story idea more exciting.

Just as you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry because you’re more likely to over-buy, it’s easy to over-plot when you lack a clear direction for what your characters will be doing.

For example:  let’s say I want to write a fantasy where a group of five friends embark on a quest to find a mountain oracle that tells the future.

Seems clear enough. But is it?

This scenario has a goal, which implies direction, but it’s much too vague to enable me to plot clearly, simply, cleanly, and effectively.

Why?

Well, what’s going to happen first after they set out on their journey?

Maybe I intend them to meet up with a caravan of travelers. They’ll get acquainted, walk together until they reach a fork in the road, and then they’ll part company.

Snore.

What’s next?

Well, aware that perhaps the traveler episode wasn’t all that lively, let’s say that I want my band to cross a river, encountering a swifter current than expected. They’ll lose their supplies, and maybe one of the group will be swept away. They won’t know if their friend is alive or drowned. This will cause much angst and drama. It will be exciting.

Check. And then what? Gotta top drowning, squelchy shoes, and shivering on the riverbank.

Maybe I have another event in mind, like — hmm — a forest fire or earthquake or an encounter with a stampeding herd of magical moose. Or maybe I’m starting to approach that fuzzy nebulous part of my premise. To fill the void, should I toss in any and every incident that comes to mind? Do I feel a touch of desperation, that niggling little worry that none of this stuff is good enough or exciting enough? Am I going to be reaching for clichés, random events, and over-complication?

Why not step back, pause, and think through a storyline first? In other words, do you have a shopping list – aka story plan – to follow instead of sheer impulse? A plot plan that will get your characters where they need to go and help them accomplish what they need to do from beginning through middle to end?

To return to my quest example:  the friends want to seek the mountain oracle. But who or what is actively trying to prevent this? Is it an outside source, or a member within the group? The latter option would allow for events of sabotage, growing suspicion, and friction among the friends. Each action would have a consequence, which would lead to the next decision and next action. Thus, the events become progressive and logical instead of random. I could have arguments and conflict instead of moose stampedes. (And, yeah, maybe I could still drown a character, particularly if that drowning is due to betrayal from the evil member of the group.)

When you develop plot events sequentially, with one leading to the next, you can explore their ramifications instead of jumping impulsively from one disconnected activity to another. Your plot stops being frenetic and becomes engaging instead. And you the writer will be less easily distracted or lured away from the story you originally envisioned.

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Idea Files

Writers and their ideas. Whether they’re teeming in our heads, overflowing our imaginations, or being chiseled from what seems like bedrock, the question isn’t so much where do they come from as it is how do we preserve them until we’re ready for them?

In my amateur days I used to suffer sudden sweats of panic about losing the idea that would make me famous. Then, as I established my career, I figured that good ideas were like stray dogs you don’t want to adopt:  no matter how hard you ignore them, they stick around.

Even so, good ideas shouldn’t be wasted. They shouldn’t be lost. So how do we manage them? In other words, are you tidy, meticulous, and organized with all your ideas filed in the Cloud or some other nebulous, high-tech place? Or do you jot your ideas on your phone or tablet? Or do you dump them all into a Word document file? Or do you scribble them on fast-food napkins, the backs of envelopes, sticky notes, and any other scrap of paper that’s handy?

Several years ago, I worked in the rare books department of a university library. At the time, this library was not yet computerized, so a card catalog was still in use — you know, that tall wooden cabinet with every book in the collection filed alphabetically on a separate card in the catalog’s narrow drawers. One of the advantages of my lowly job was the availability of blank cards. If I needed to jot down a line of dialogue for a character, I had a stack of cards at hand. I would go home with all sorts of cryptic notes, bits of description, etc. scribbled on several cards. This haphazard approach worked fine for manuscripts in progress then, and still does.

But the focus of this post is on the ideas that come when you can’t drop everything and work on them immediately. The ideas that are going to be filed away for use later. How do you record them? What, exactly, do you record? What goes into those files? And how useful are they later when you get around to them?

I admit that I’m more of a piler than a filer. When I’m working on a manuscript, I don’t want to throw anything away, and I don’t want the piles of paper, notes, references, etc. on my desk disturbed until the manuscript is finished, edited, submitted, copy-edited, and safely in production. Only then do I clear the desk in preparation for the next project. Needless to say, this leads to some pretty horrendous stacks of all sorts of things. I’ll never forget the day that I was cleaning out my office, and came across one of those bits of paper that was so obviously a notation of an idea.

I knew it was important because a) I’d written it down and b) I’d kept it on my desk close at hand. At least, I could only presume that it had once been important. Because it only contained a single cryptic word that made no sense whatsoever. I think it might have been a character name, but who was he? I was writing three science fiction books a year at the time, and all sorts of names and terms were being invented daily.

So there I stood, holding a potentially vital clue in my hand … and I couldn’t use it.

I never did recall what it meant, what it was for, why I’d written it, or what I intended to do with it. Nothing sparked to life. Whatever the idea was, it was clearly without sufficient vitality to stick around. However, it taught me that when I took the trouble to record an idea, then I needed to write down more than a single mysterious word or phrase.

Here, then, are my suggestions for idea notations:

1) Determine whether you have a character, setting, or plot idea.

2) If a character, then write at least a paragraph of description or background. If a name comes to you or a handful of possible names, record those. Do you have any inkling of this character’s personality, or any quirks? Can you envision as yet how this character might dress or express herself? What does she want from life? What is troubling her? What about her intrigues you or appeals to you? How might you make her more vivid?

3) If you’ve got a setting in mind, whether it’s a world or a room, describe it as vividly and as specifically as you can. List all the details that occur to you. Don’t worry about gaps and missing information. Don’t even bother with putting the details into sentences. Just list what comes to mind. Afterwards, try to form a dominant impression of this setting. Can you sum up what you have so far into a short phrase? For example, you might use “blinding light” as a dominant impression for a desert setting featuring white, purely reflective sand beneath an intense sun.

4) If it’s a plot that’s unfurling in your mind, then go ahead and try to really capture it. At least try to sketch out the bare bones of the situation, a catalytic event of change, a potential protagonist, a possible antagonist, their individual goals, and the disaster they’re possibly headed toward.

In other words, instead of filing the notation “sinking ship” in your plot file, write up a plot sketch in which you determine who’s aboard her, what’s causing her to go down, are there sufficient lifeboats, are the officers able to control the panic, who among the crew and passengers has the most to lose, which individual with a lot at stake stands out or interests you most, and what does this individual want to accomplish. The more you can record, the more likely your plot will continue to bubble in the back of your mind, alive and possibly growing.

You will have gaps, of course. These are, after all, ideas rather than fully developed premises. You needn’t push yourself for answers or expect to have them all at once. Just make sure you ask the questions. And then, secure those ideas so they don’t become lost!

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Roaming Writer

As a writer, I’m always seeking a new, fresh experience — which can be as simple as leaving my house, my home office, and getting away from my computer. Routines, while effective, can tend to become ruts. It’s important to borrow a bit from Taylor Swift and “shake it off.” In this context, however, shake off the staid and mundane things once in a while. You don’t have to invest in a trip to Paris — although what an inspiration! Just get out and see with a different perspective — even if it’s only taking an alternate route home.

I spent Memorial Day 2015 returning from the land of cotton to the open prairies. I was driving a vintage pickup and pulling a trailer along miles and miles of lowest-bid built interstate highways, listening to whatever tolerable music I could tune up on the FM, non-satellite radio. Give me pop; give me bluegrass; give me R&B; give me funk, or give me Mozart, but I can’t abide most rap, and that seemed to be my choice other than modern country music or classic country. I chose the classic, because it was featuring a lot of boot-scooting and/or patriotic songs, and it reminded me of my childhood when I learned to listen to George Jones whether I wanted to or not.

My favorite tune of the day was Elvis belting out “Dixie.” It’s wonderful, but it also seemed right while I was driving along the top of a levee road and gazing across flooded fields, out-of-bounds rivers, and swampy woods that only ticks and chiggers could love.

Now I haven’t pulled a trailer since my teenage days of showing horses on the itty-bitty local saddle club circuit, so I was definitely rusty and taking extreme care with a twelve-foot U-Haul filling my rear-view mirror. I wasn’t sure how Ole Red would handle a big trailer either. Back in the day, this Ford could pull anything, but the pickup is four years shy of becoming an official automotive antique and hasn’t towed since its operation (emergency installation of a new engine). It did fine, especially once I crossed the state line and could buy real gasoline instead of ethanol. Since I was trying to scoot into central Oklahoma before the late-afternoon boil of severe thunderstorms, heavy rainfall, and/or tornado activity — the delays caused by wimpy fuel due to poor acceleration, struggling wallows over hills, and more frequent stops to refill — proved exasperating. Still, with real gas finally in the tank, Ole Red was able to zip out of range of a tornado roaming the east side of the state, and then there was only a severe thunderstorm to hunker through on the roadside shoulder before cruising on home.

In between these modest highlights of my day-long road trip, I had plenty of time to think about plot and characters.

Bing! I have a new protagonist for a new spin-off science fiction series.

Bing! I figured out how to simplify and shorten the storyline for my current fantasy project, in case I don’t want to write yet another trilogy.

Bing! In my head, I wrote a new scene to be inserted into my WIP.

So although it’s easy to pull my introverted-writer card and shy away from anything that might draw me from the comfort zone of my computer and imagination, I took on a physical challenge and vanquished it. I managed to thread my trailer through the hazards of fast-food parking. I met a delightful couple by sharing a table at a super-busy Braum’s where there weren’t enough tables for the crowd of holiday travelers. I even chatted with these folks and learned that there are no summer mosquitoes in Mount Nebo, Arkansas, which was where they were planning to spend a few days in a lake cabin. Who knew there were any mosquito-free zones in Dixie?

Now how could a day be more productive than that? I just wish I’d thought to attach a US flag on the truck to honor America’s fallen warriors.

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Plotting Plots

You can have story concepts and ideas all day long, and not have a plot.

Maybe you’ve been living with a character or a setting for years, ever since inspiration struck you, but have you ever gotten your story off the ground? Has the storyline ever completely come together? Or are you still mulling over the story world and never managing to figure out what should happen to your protagonist once he or she actually sets out on the great quest?

It’s not easy to make the leap from concept, dream, idea, or spark to an actual plotted storyline that spans beginning, middle, and end, but there are certain techniques in the writer’s toolkit that will make it possible.

Firstly, determine the moment of change for your protagonist. Yes, I know you’ve been designing the history, back story, and mythology of your story world, but what catalytic event does it all boil down to?

Consider the opening of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune. Herbert has obviously thought through a complex political situation, the world Paul and his family are leaving, the world they are moving to, the factions, the intrigues, etc. but instead of a massive info-dump he chooses instead to open his story with the last-moment preparations for the move off-world. This is the actual change in Paul’s circumstances, and it causes a visit from the Bene Gesserit witch that sets Paul on his path of destiny.

Secondly, examine the character you’ve selected to be your protagonist. Is this character truly suitable to play the lead role of your story? Or is this character a bystander, watching others engaging in conflict and adventures? How can you tell if you’ve chosen the best character to star?

By honestly assessing whether this character’s goal drives the story action and whether this character has the most at stake.

Too often, I watch students of mine contort their stories into Gordian knots in an effort to preserve the wrong character. They will cling stubbornly to a weak, vapid, reactive, passive bystander while ignoring the so-called secondary character that possesses drive, determination, stamina, and a defined goal.

Thirdly, what is the protagonist’s goal in light of the story situation, the stakes, and the catalytic event? Until you know it, you have no plot no matter how much world-building you may do.

Fourthly, who is the antagonist? Don’t shove forward some contrived dastardly no-good without any thought. Instead, take time to sort through your characters for the individual that most directly opposes your protagonist’s objective.

For example, I can cook up some mighty, evil super-wizard living in a remote tower as he plots the annihilation of all living things. But what has Super-wizard got to do with Young Farmboy living three kingdoms away in the dell?

Please don’t start rambling about how Young Farmboy has a destiny and someday, after Young Farmboy has gone on a thirty-year quest, he will meet Super-wizard in a cataclysmic battle to the death.

Go back instead to Young Farmboy’s goal. What, specifically, does he want? To go on a quest? To what purpose? Okay, sure, to find the Golden Casket of Treasures Untold. And what does that goal have to do with Super-wizard three kingdoms and thousands of leagues away?

Are you going to remind me that Super-wizard is evil and wants to annihilate everything? But is that intention directly opposed to Young Farmboy’s goal of seeking the Golden Casket?

No, it’s not. Beware the temptation to sweep past this glitch. Ignore it at your peril. For it will unravel your plot and leave you stalled.

There are three approaches to use in solving this plotting problem. Super-wizard’s purpose can be altered so that he has the Golden Casket in his possession and would rather see all living things annihilated than surrender it. Or Young Farmboy’s goal needs to change so that he’s seeking to stop the threatened annihilation of all living things, specifically his village and the sweet maiden he loves. Or Super-wizard can sit in his remote tower and you can devise a more immediate antagonist that can constantly oppose and trouble Young Farmboy as he seeks his goal.

Lastly, once you’ve solved the problem of goals that are actually directly opposed, think about the climax you intend. How will you wrap up this clash of opposition? How will the conflict be resolved? How will the protagonist prevail even when all the odds are stacked against him and his antagonist seems to have the upper hand?

Solve these problems and answer these questions, and you’ll have a plot. It may not be exactly what you originally intended, but what does that matter? You’ve made progress in moving from a concept – nebulous and not quite coming together – to a storyline that jumps into action from the beginning, holds together in the middle, and delivers a rousing good finish.

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Creativity Beyond Words

This past weekend, I took a break away from my newest fiction project and attended a vintage market show. I didn’t go to buy. I went to walk around and see what imaginative and creative people who aren’t writers are doing.

Now, I go to antiques shows a few times a year, but this was different. I expected to see painted furniture, but aside from that I found vintage doll heads stuck atop lamp bases with tiny crowns made of marbles. I found wreaths made of cotton bolls. I found handmade primitive dolls. I found rusty tractor parts, chairs with ripped seats, salvaged hardware bits and bobs, and light fixtures made from old galvanized roof turbines.

(Did I take any pictures? Alas, no. The crowds were thick, and frankly I was too busy ogling and goggling to remember to snap pictures.)

I wanted to observe what people bought and what they might use their purchases for. After all, I keep hearing about the trend of repurposing from blogs and television. So what exactly, I wondered, were people doing and with what?

I saw customers gravitating toward antique typewriters and wooden shipping crates. I saw them caressing rusty lamps, murmuring over whether they could find someone to do rewiring. I saw them pondering the selection of chalk-type paints in one booth. I saw them deliberating over whether to buy signage.

But mainly I saw folks fingering random pieces of hardware, playing pieces salvaged from games, odd forks in tarnished silver, clock faces, old apothecary bottles, and rusty industrial springs. They were curious and obviously fascinated, but booth after booth seemed to offer more items to make things with than pieces reflecting actual imaginative re-use.

Mainly, it seemed to be less a venue of artistry and craftsmanship, and more a supply source.

As I was picking out some outdoor faucet handles — things that used to be in every garage sale and have now practically vanished — the vendor was asking me what I would use them for. Surely, I thought, you should be showing new uses to me.

But perhaps my expectations were off-base. All I know is that the place quivered with possibility. On every shelf, and at every turn, I saw the capacity for inventiveness just waiting to be seized. Table legs and wooden spindles … what can be made from them? What might be done with them?

The feet salvaged from an old clawfoot bath tub … could they be turned upside down to become bookends?

Looking at things from different angles and new perspectives, what a terrific exercise in imagination! Can an empty clock cabinet become a display case? Can a bed be re-carpentered into a bench? Can a battered piece of industrial iron become a work of art?

It’s so refreshing to move away from the abstraction of words from time to time and consider other means of self-expression. Besides, you never know what might spark a new story idea.

For example, I collect old nineteenth-century photos, also known as cabinet cards. I particularly like wedding photos.

These are what I purchased:

couple 1

couple 2

couple 3

On one level, the clothes fascinate me. Who is the most stylish couple? Only one bride is wearing the type of wedding dress and veil our modern perceptions might expect to see. couple 1The other young women are attired in finery, but not what we would consider bridal gowns. Look at the grooms with their well-cut suits and fine cravats.

On another level, I like to study their faces. Body language is difficult to decipher because of the stiff poses required by photographic methods of the day. But one couple is holding hands.couple 2

One couple has linked arms.couple 3

And one couple is standing stiffly side by side with only their elbows touching.couple 1

Fashionable poses? Or can we surmise stories about them and their relationships?

My other treasure (besides faucet handles) is this green glass doorknob.green door knob Is it authentically vintage or a reproduction? I’ve seen clear glass knobs and those sun-turned a delicate lavender tint, but I have never encountered an emerald green one before. Real or phony, it’s beautiful. I have no idea of what I’ll do with it, but I love it anyway.

green door knob

Who knows? Perhaps one day it will inspire a story about the fabled emeralds of some magical kingdom.

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Read and Unread

Just as a quick update about my declared intention of reading 100 books this summer, the organizational idea of stacking the tomes in a tub isn’t going to work. I can’t find a tub or basket large enough, and even if I could I don’t want the behemoth taking up that much real estate in my living room.

So far, I’ve managed to fill a box and two smallish tubs, which are now stacked atop each other, and that represents a gathering of less than twenty volumes. As I set about pulling titles off a bookshelf the other day, it occurred to me that it was foolish to shift books around this way.

So, although I’m not fond of clerical work, I suppose I’ll just have to write the titles down on a list as I finish them. Now, record-keeping ranks right up there on my yuck list along with accounting, checkbook balancing, diary entries, and filing bills, but I can’t think of any other way to avoid fudging on my resolution.

Meanwhile, I’ve already gone through three good novels — stories by Brandon Sanderson, Marta Perry, and Emma Newman — and enjoyed them very much. I’m working on Holly Black at the moment.

And like the cottontail bunny currently living in the briar patch that’s overtaken the northeast corner of my backyard, I’m happy, happy, happy!

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