Tag Archives: characters

Wonky Scenes

Let’s say you’re working on a scene in your story. It’s supposed to be a turning point. You know what’s at stake. You know which characters will be involved. You know what you want to have happen. You know how you want it to end.

But somehow when you write it, nothing goes as planned. Either your characters get bogged down and talk about nothing important, or things veer off course, or you can’t make the scene end, or it doesn’t achieve the resolution you intended.

Just about every writer has had this happen, so if you’re experiencing this quandary, be assured you’re not alone.

If your characters bog down … look for the point in their scene dialogue when the conflict jumps track. Consider the following primary reasons: 1) the antagonist deliberately changes the subject and both you, dear writer, and your protagonist lose sight of the scene goal; or, 2) your protagonist’s emotional stake in the scene’s outcome is too tepid; or, 3) you have too many characters in the scene, interrupting each other.

Reason #3 is the easiest to address. Eliminate everyone but the two characters in conflict. Send the sidekicks out of the room. Lose the cute tiger cub lying at the villain’s feet. Avoid text messages on the protagonist’s phone; shut down phone calls and anxious little secretarial tappings on the door. If there are onlookers that really do have to be present as a backdrop, keep them quiet until the scene is over.

Do some authors write scenes that feature multiple characters and interruptions? Yes. But until you’re adept at scenes, avoid this construction.

Reason #2 means you should re-examine your protagonist’s motivations. Why is it so important to borrow the boat keys at this moment, on this day? What will happen if the keys are withheld? In other words, what’s at stake in this scene for your protagonist and why does it matter? If your protagonist starts a scene with a meh attitude toward the scene goal, the scene will lose momentum quickly and stall.

Reason #1 may seem heinous to fix, but actually it means your villain is working very well. Now you just have to bring your protagonist up to speed.

While it’s tempting to rein in your antagonist, avoid doing so! The bad guy or girl is doing a good job here. Instead, pull your hero together, pump up his or her motivation, and keep the scene focused on the goal despite all the antagonist’s tricks.

If you can’t get the scene to end … it feels like you’re mired in quicksand, sinking fast, with no way out. The rescue rope is actually the scene goal. What happened to it? When was it forgotten? Focus your protagonist on that, and keep your character moving toward it.

Also, sometimes the conflict in scenes lapses into circular bickering that won’t end. This usually occurs because the character motivations are weak, and the scene goal is lost or lame. Are the scene’s stakes too low? What might happen if you raised them?

However, remember that not everything in your story has to be written in a scene. The story action may not be important enough to warrant dramatization. Reserve scenes for turning points, strong conflict, and high stakes.

If the scene outcome surprises you … that’s usually because you’ve lost control of your characters.

Who’s in charge, anyway?

When I was writing my first stories, I used to hope that my characters would seize control of the plot and do all the hard work for me. Usually those attempts flopped before completion. Then I learned that I had to be in charge, and that I shouldn’t let my characters take over. While you don’t have to keep a stranglehold on them, remember that your protagonist should propel the story action forward. And if you can’t reach the scene outcome you want, maybe you need to rethink it.

Have you intended your protagonist to achieve the scene goal with no problems? Then be aware that you will weaken your story and lose suspense and rising tension if you do that. Having your protagonist achieve only part of the scene’s objective–and at a high or unexpected cost–forces your lead character to take bigger risks in the next attempt.

Maybe your scene is heading toward a too-predictable outcome, and maybe your story sense is trying to help you by stalling the scene. Maybe you need a plot twist–something that will be logical to the story but entirely unexpected to your protagonist and reader.

When scenes go astray, train yourself to pay attention. Check these problem areas, and above all, listen to what your instincts are trying to tell you.

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Dialogue Don’ts

Another misstep that can jolt readers from suspension of disbelief occurs when a character’s dialogue sounds phony, contrived, or inconsistent.

Developing an ear for dialogue takes practice. It’s helpful to read aloud a character’s lines to make sure they flow well and make sense. However, dialogue should also work visually by being quick and easy to read. Divide it into small paragraphs, breaking to a new paragraph each time a different character speaks.

     “Are you happy now?” she asked. “Will chocolate ice cream satisfy you for just this once?”

     “Okay. Guess so. Black walnut mocha is better.”

     She sighed, tired of his whims, and slammed down the bowl in front of him. “Just eat.”

     “Tyrant.”

By contrast, consider this mash-up:

     “Are you happy now?” she asked. “Will chocolate ice cream satisfy you for just this once?”  “Okay. Guess so. Black walnut mocha is better.”  She sighed, tired of his whims, and slammed down the bowl in front of him. “Just eat.”  “Tyrant.”

The separate paragraphs seem like such a small, obvious detail, and yet inexperienced or careless writers tend to overlook this element of readability flow. Certainly it makes following the conversation difficult for readers.

Phony Dialogue

When a character speaks in a stilted, unnatural way or delivers what is known as dialogue of information, it comes across as false and implausible.

For example, consider this:

     “Darling, darling, darling, I just LOVE your hair. It’s so brown today, catching all those delicious little highlights in the sunlight. And it curls so prettily. Do you wear colored contacts? I think you must because your eyes exactly match that pale streak of color at your temples. And never let anyone tell you to wear pastels, my dear, because they would wash out your skin tones. Leopard prints are what you need. Leopard and jewel tones, always.”

Gushing and flamboyant? Yes.

Over-the-top? Yes.

Dialogue of information? Unfortunately, yes.

Viable? Possibly, if the speaker is a gushing, insincere, middle-aged babbler.

However, sometimes dialogue seems phony because the cadence and vocabulary of the speaker just don’t match his or her design. Let’s say we have a character who is shy, reserved, highly educated, and cultured.

She’s probably not going to say lines such as these:

“So, uh, like I was there, but it was seriously lame. So I bounced, and I wasn’t at the club when the fight broke out.”

Or these:

     “Yeah, I saw the fight. What about it? I hated being a witness. I didn’t notice anything. So why don’t you go pester somebody else?”

Or these:

     “I most certainly did witness the altercation. Unfortunately I had just happened to stop briefly in that den of iniquity to say hello to my dearest friend, a sorority sister if you must know. However, I left promptly since I had no desire to be jostled by the hoi polloi or have cheap beer sloshed across my Armani skirt.”

What’s best is to let the character’s personality shine through without beating readers over the head with it. Therefore, a shy, reserved character would probably answer without mugging or embellishing. Her level of education would come through the use of correct, albeit casual, grammar and an absence of slang:

     “Yes, officer, I went there. I don’t normally go to clubs, but a friend urged me to go with her. I said I would for a short while. But I was needed at home, so I left after about twenty minutes. I didn’t see a fight.”

Contrived Dialogue

I am a fan of the classic THIN MAN series of films featuring Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. But near the end of the third film, ANOTHER THIN MAN, [SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!] the murdered man’s adopted daughter Lois suddenly switches her dialogue and manner in a way that is jarring and entirely implausible. Up to this point in the movie, she has been cultured and refined, an entirely gracious and charming person. In the climax [SPOILER!!!!], her vocabulary and tone become harsh and lower-class.

It’s an extremely crude and awkward transformation that gets the director’s point across, but with such contrivance that I dislike the entire movie.

Inconsistent Dialogue

This can happen when a writer is using dialect, habitual phrases, or a distinct speech pattern to tag a character and make him or her stand out from the rest of the cast. At some point in the story, especially in a novel, said writer is prone to forget those speech tags and allow the character to start talking like some of the others. Somewhere in the swampy middle of a book, writer fatigue sets in. And if multiple viewpoints are being used, or if some of the secondary characters disappear for a while and return after the midpoint, it’s easy to lose track of their individual voices and speaking styles.

So, for example, let’s say that on pages 12-30, Ezra Honeycutt has been cutting a vivid swath across the storyline like this:

     “Now see here, son! I ain’t standing for no foolery when it comes to property lines. I know how much land I own, and that dratted skunk Jones can take me to court all day long and it won’t make no difference. What’s right is right, and I’m darned sure right!”

As you can see, Ezra is testy. He’s not too concerned with proper grammar, through his usage of “ain’t” and double negatives, yet although he’s angry he’s avoiding the curse word “damned.” These are little clues to his personality and upbringing, or even his personal code. He prefaces many of his remarks with “now see here.”

However, Ezra is a minor character. He vanishes from the story for a while, and when he returns on, say, pages 96-117, he speaks this way:

     “Now see here, you! I thought I made myself clear when I took Mr. Jones to court last month, but it would appear that I need to explain this property squabble once more.”

Although one of his phrases remains, the rest of his speaking pattern–the rhythm of it, if you will–has changed. He is no longer consistent. He has become less vivid. He doesn’t appear to be quite the same as he was before. Depending on how remarkable, feisty, and bold he was the previous times he appeared, he may not break the bubble of suspension of disbelief, but he’ll affect it.

If needed, take the trouble to create a speech tag chart for each of your characters and keep it near your computer–or even in a computer file–for a handy reference.

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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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Bring on the Sidekick

Which character role is your favorite to create and write about?

The protagonist?

The villain?

The mentor?

I love sidekicks. Something about them just makes me happy when I write. I don’t care if they’re good, evil, or somewhere in between. They are so useful in advancing plots.

They can be lazy creatures or as perennially busy as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. They can bumble and stumble, as comic relief. They can be smarter than the hero. (Think of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves.) They can think they’re smarter than the hero. (Think of Baldric and his “cunning plans” in the British TV series BLACKADDER.) They can be as loyal as Marshal Dillon’s deputy Festus. Or they can be shifty and unreliable, like the dognappers hired by Cruella de Ville. And, just as Darth Vader proves to his boss the emperor in RETURN OF THE JEDI, they are capable of changing their allegiance in a crisis.

Generally, sidekicks serve stories as the workerbees of the story. They possess skills and knowledge. Others gather intel or solve problems. If they are injured, kidnapped, killed, or incapacitated, the plot stakes go up because things become worse for the beleaguered hero.

The story role of sidekick can work for either the hero or the villain, because even the bad guys (and gals) need minions, too.

As a writer, I favor the sidekicks because I can relax with them and give my imagination free rein. So I like to assign quirks to the sidekick that might not be appropriate for a protagonist. Or make them grumblers, who argue, mutter, and disapprove of whatever the hero is about to do — while still pitching in and helping to make it possible. With that kind of personality, another — albeit mild — level of conflict can be injected into the story.

As a reader, I suppose I like best the sidekicks who are buddies. They have a history with the protagonist that reaches into the backstory. Maybe the characters grew up together. Maybe they forged a bond of friendship through a work crisis or in war’s dangers. But their relationship is stronger than a common cause or an employer/employee situation. They are not equals, but they are firm friends.

In the mysteries by Dorothy Sayers, the manservant Bunter works for Lord Peter Wimsey, but he’s more than a servant, more than an investigative assistant capable of taking photographs or carrying fingerprint powder. He served in the army with Lord Peter during WWI, and he best understands and knows how to cope with Lord Peter’s difficulties with shellshock. Although the two men live in two very different social levels, their bond is strong.

In Dashiell Hammett’s novel, THE GLASS KEY, Paul and Al have been friends since boyhood. Paul is a rough-around-the edges political boss, and Al is his trusty right arm. Even when the men’s friendship is threatened, Al goes to heroic lengths to save Paul’s neck.

Now, in the books you’ve read and the movies you’ve seen, who are your favorite sidekicks? Can you name the ones you’ve found most memorable? Why? What about them has appealed to you most?

Do they play only the sidekick role? Or do you prefer secondary characters who combine roles, such as sidekick and romantic interest or sidekick and confidant?

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Read 100

There is light at the end of my tunnel. I can look ahead past the stacks of student manuscripts and deadlines to a summer where my time is my own.

My imagination is presently staggering, malnourished and underfed. It craves vitamins and nutrients. It craves fun, creativity, good story, fast pacing, involving characters — all the elements it hasn’t been receiving in sufficient quantities lately.

Therefore, I plan to feed it by reading at least 100 books this summer. I hope the number will far exceed that, but we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve never been a bean counter. Any past attempts to document my reading through listing the titles and plot summaries in some kind of diary have usually fallen by the wayside. I know I read a lot, but I never know how much. As long as I’m getting through at least one or two novels a week, I’m happy.

However, I want to be better organized than this, so I propose to go through my house and gather up 100 novels that I haven’t read as yet. All those to-be stacks of books spilling off the tops of overloaded bookshelves and stacked beneath chairs … time to pull them out, dust them off, and crack them open.

I think I’ll corral them in a large plastic tub and park it in the living room. If I start a book and dislike it enough to toss it aside after the first few pages, then it won’t count toward my quota. If I should empty the tub before the end of summer, then I’ll refill it with another 100 books and keep going.

Too ambitious?

I have no idea. I keep thinking back to my childhood, when I spent most summer days reading one to two books daily. I don’t intend to shoot for THAT, but the well needs filling and I aim to do it the best way I know how.

Meanwhile, there are new books to be chased down and captured as well. John Sandford’s new Prey title was released today. And the latest Miss Julia offering from Ann B. Ross came out earlier this month. My fingers are itching to order heaps of tomes. I visited bookstores three times this past weekend, racing up and down aisles with a sense of joy and abandon, surrounded by books on all sides.

During the past few months, I have been restricted on book purchases. Nothing like paying off the bills for eye surgery to dent one’s bank balance. But although this weekend I meant to buy only one book because payday cometh soon, I couldn’t quite achieve such self-discipline. Let’s just say I managed to get out of the store with only two sacks full of reading material, my credit card groaning all the way. How I wanted more!

What are your reading plans for the summer? Right now, I’m heading for the bookstore with maybe a detour past the library.

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