Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Obituaries for Your Characters - A good way to keep the ensemble straight in your mind

How do you encapsulate the story of your character’s life in just a few words.? I found hints for this while exploring the topic of how to write an obituary. That led me to some intriguing (and sometimes heart-breaking) obituaries.  The best bring more than facts. They stick in you memory. They bring a part of the person back to life.

To me, that seemed like a good way to lodge my characters in  my mind in a different way. So I began writing obituaries of my characters. It was not a morbid exercise. It was a way to celebrate how real they were becoming for me. A way to share their travails, stumbling, successes, and happy endings. (Yes, I gave them ALL happy endings. Even the villains.) They were notes from my heart.

The payoff was that, even in an ensemble piece I was writing with eleven equally important people, I got hooks that helped with storytelling. My characters each have their own needs, perspectives, strategies, and voices. And I don’t need to look at references to keep them straight.

So here are the four elements of an obituary, as modified by my explorations into the best, most engaging ones. They provide a map you can follow (or digress from) for your own characters. And I’ve provided one I wrote for one story’s hero as an example.

Death Announcement
This includes the date (which sets the character in time), location (space), and cause of death (often skipped in real obituaries, but good to put into fictional ones).

Family
This orients the character in terms of relationships. It can provide a context that implies responsibilities (legal, financial, emotional), losses (predeceased) and choices (divorces). It can also be a place to include something about friends.

Biographical Details & Personal Observations
This is the big one. The goal is to illustrate who this person is in a few memorable words. There great thing is you always have a starting point, basic facts like where the character was born and something about employment. That can make it easier to come up with the observations, which are invaluable. I will write about 250 words and cut it down to 75-150. That’s brief enough to add clarity to the character.

When I get stuck, I give the job to another character — either one who would not want to offend the subject of the obituary or one who uses it for revenge. (The latter can have a lot of power.)

Funeral Arrangements
This can be dry, but this subject does point to beliefs, religion, and family obligations. The “in lieu of flowers” part may be the most revealing.

Sample (created to explore my character):

Bertolan Olah, 74, died of natural causes on Friday, May 6, 2022, at Reynards Assisted Living Center.

Though Bertolan often spoke of his brothers and other family members, no information about his relatives is available at this time.

Bertolan was born behind the Iron Curtain in Nádudvar, Hungary. Most of the men in his family fought in World War II. His uncle died in the unsuccessful Hungarian Revolution. His father emigrated at that time, and he and his brothers became adept at trading, ultimately founding an import-export firm that still exists today. He emigrated to Rockville, Maryland. to retire, having already made many US friends through his business endeavors. He was often seen at embassy functions, where he gravitated toward American politicians.

He said, “Accept favors when offered. Return them as you can." Having lost an arm during military service, Bertolan pushed himself to be independent when he could. He learned to type fifty words per minute with one hand. But he also found relying on others created lifelong bonds with others. While at Reynards, he became known as the one to talk to if you have a yen for fancy chocolate, herbal cigarettes, or hard-to-get publications.

His wake will be held on June 9 at Reynalds Funeral Home. His friends at Reynards Assisted Living plan to hold a memorial service later this year.


Note: It might be fun to try this first for a character from someone else’s work: Captain Ahab or Tom Sawyer or Molly Bloom. Also, while real obituaries are rigorously factual (used to train reporters), yours can be full of lies.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Characters in Action - Revealing the inner person

I’m a big believer in getting to know characters by seeing them in motion. Ideally, these actions are dramatic:

    •    kissing,
    •    punching,
    •    breaking into a building,
    •    rescuing a drowning puppy,
    •    dancing on a rooftop,
    •    confessing to murder,
    •    escaping a fire,
    •    flirting with a stranger,
    •    eulogizing a parent,
    •    calming a baby.

(Go ahead and imagine your characters doing those things. It’s fun and it might surprise you.)

A step up from this list is imagining your character doing something you did that was dramatic. We all have times in our lives when we did something that mattered. If we did something that made a positive difference, it may be a resume item or a story you inevitably tell someone you care about or a boast. If we failed in some way, it may be an action we took that embarrassed us or reveal a flaw like cowardice or caused someone distress or pain. It may have been a action that ended a relationship forever. Seeing your character do these consequential things, things we hold onto for years, can bring real gold to a story.

It’s also possible to think of moments of trauma or compassion. When others acted upon us with impact, it often shaped our views, including concepts of what was possible. Trust and a sense of community can be formed by these moments. These also can be used to test our stories’s  characters, but it’s a tricky choice. Putting moments of victimhood into stories carries the possibility of insight, but also the chance of self-indulgence or bids for sympathy or justification. Each of these is challenging to turn into art.

It’s best if the action you visualize for your character is one connected to the work in progress. From a practical standpoint, it can turn into a scene that writes itself. But even if it ends up being cut, it puts the character into a context. Characters are not real people (though I hope they feel that way to you). They exist in relation to the theme of the story as a way to personalize truths for your audience. Relevant actions reflect the selectivity that’s essential to every story. Discovering such actions help writers to focus and heighten moments in a story, and these are the building blocks that create beauty, insight, and passion for readers.

This action-based approach isn’t just for the protagonist or antagonist. For me, it helps in the development of every important character. I wouldn’t apply the ten actions above to a spear carrier, but they provide a quick and powerful approach to seeing secondary characters like best friends, partners in crime, confidants, and mentors.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Finding the Confidence to Draft Your Story — Believing you can fix it in revision

Filling blank pages is an act of hope. Even when you feel like the sentences are perfect, maybe its just the intoxication of enthusiasm. And, sad to say, some sentences that really are wonderful may be axed later on because they don’t belong in the story that finally emerges. “Kill all your darlings, etc.”

But when you draft, it’s more likely you’ll encounter doubt — if not in the moment by the next the day. The editor in your head will look askance at each sentence, questioning your word choice, and shouting when a “rule” is broken, a requirement isn’t met, or the work does not measure up to Shakespeare.

Whenever the emotion for the prose exceeds the emotion for the scene or your empathy for the character, remember these words:

It can always be fixed in the rewrite.

It can. It isn’t over ’til it’s over, and you get to decide when that is. But, no matter how much you believe in happily ever afters,  you may not think your story has a chance of rising above its humble beginnings. Having confidence in revisions, especially if it’s not your favorite part of the writing process (true for me) can undermine storytelling. So here are a few ways to fight back:

    1.    Recognize the stories you read and admire are rarely first drafts. Some of them have gone through many revisions. It’s not fair to compare your virgin pages with these highly processed works. That’s labor, and one reason why so many people quit writing (but not you). By the way, despite what the movie Amadeus contends, Mozart did revise his work.
    2.    Remember you’ve done this before. If you’ve had some success with your stories, you’ve fixed them up before sharing them. (If you haven’t done this before, start writing some flash fiction and getting it out there. Revised. Then you WILL have success to build on.)
    3.    Have a revision process. Document it. Then you’ll be assured that you know what your next steps will be. Finishing a draft won’t be stepping into a void.
    4.    Edit and critique other people’s stories. This takes your ego out of it and becomes proof that you know a lot about how to make stories better.
    5.    Write down what you think you’ll never be able to do in revision. Make it funny? Provide a hook that catches attention? Fix the point of view? Find the right starting point? Just saying it sometimes reduces the concerns. This is especially true if you have any evidence that you can do what’s needed. (And it’s good, if the same questions come up, to compile instances where you showed you have the chops to do what you’re afraid is beyond reach.) If you have no evidence (say, when you are experimenting with something new to you like a love scene), do two things. First, analyze three works by different authors who have done what you’re attempting. Figure out how they did it, so — in revision — you’ll have some options to emulate. Second, give yourself permission to fail and credit for trying something new.
    6.    Dictate. This won’t work for everyone, and I think you have to have confidence about dictating before this approach can overcome concerns about revision. But, if you can use the mic coming on as cue to start and the difficulty of making corrections as the encouragement to press forward, dictation can silence the editor in your head.
    7.    Trust in other people. If you can’t quite believe you’ll do a good job revising, lean on other people. They can ask good questions, call out problems with clarity, let you know where pacing is off, and contribute in dozens of other ways (including catching your typos). Editors, writing buddies, and beta readers are your friends.
    8.    One more thing — Sometimes there’s concern about missing mistakes in revision. It’s fine to make a habit of taking some notes after drafting to check later, during revision. Also, it’s helpful to know you have a checklist to review your common mistakes (including omissions) scene by scene.

Trust is born of two parents: Good intentions and competence. We trust those who have our best interests at heart and who know what they’re doing. To believe in revision as you draft, you need to know you are on your own side (I hope that’s a given) and that you are a skilled editor (hence creating evidence of this and referring to it, as stated above).

Add one thing. Boldness. It takes courage to explore your own confidence and to develop it if it’s not up to supporting you in drafts. Be brave.
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In case you missed it, I wrote a bonus blog entry to promote my SavvyAuthors class...

Story Whispers – An odd sort of exaggeration writers can put to work



Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Drafting a Story's First Sentence - Slipping into the world of imagination

When it comes to getting started on a new story, lots of people get stuck on the first sentence. There's a lot of pressure to get it right. Should I set the scene? How can I include a hook? Oh, I have to remember to give it just the right tone.

Agents, editors, and readers do you need to be drawn in by a story's initial sentence, but not the draft version. The draft version just has to get you, as a writer, started. I think of it as the tool that cracks the door open so you can enter a new world. Now, if you already have a starting point and the words are flowing as soon as you sit down, go ahead and use a battering ram. Don't worry about the suggestions below. Just write.

But if bits of the story are floating around in your brain and it's just getting started that's the problem, getting a good enough sentence – for you – is fine. Objectively, you're even allowed to write a bad sentence. You have my permission. It can be fixed in the rewrite.

I actually went through the first sentence exercise recently for a story I'm writing about people in an assisted living facility who have computer access taken away after one of them falls for an Internet scam. I'll use the sentences that came up (and sometimes the words that followed right away) as examples here.

    ⁃    What your character sees and why it matters. If you can see something that catches a character’s interest and bring meaning to it, the is likely to lead to more… Coins and dollar signs floated across Gus’s iPad screen. They twisted and danced to the clink of coins tuned to one enticing song: greed.
    ⁃    Some piece in your head is already creating a strong emotion (for the character or for you). This is often a reaction to something that just happened but isn’t described, a response that is deep and visceral. For instance, it may be a moment of wonder or of sense of injustice… It was an amputation: His phone and iPad and the computer power cord seized as he sat helplessly looking on.
    ⁃    A telling quote (and note that it does not need to have subtext). When characters speak, they do so for a reason. Usually, it’s to get something or to change someone’s behavior. That’s powerful. While on-the-nose dialogue probably shouldn’t appear in the final version, it is acceptable (even valuable) here in a draft… “From now on, we can’t permit unsupervised computer time.”
    ⁃    A character doing something visual. Characters in action define themselves and usually create images that include setting. Other characters might show themselves, too, giving you a lot to work with… As Gus clung to his iPad, struggling to stop Nurse Daniels from seizing it, Betsy rolled her wheelchair behind them — to the cart, to her phone, to the only connection she had with Nina.
    ⁃    A character’s deep realization. If you already have a strong reason for writing the story or the theme is vivid, this can be great. If not, this might challenge your muse to provide real treasure… With her phone locked away, Betsy knew she would not be there when Nina called, perhaps for the last time, crying, cursing, and gasping for breath.
    ⁃    Reader orientation. This is classic, establishing the time and space. And including the props needed to play out the scene. And all of these can help you get immersed in your story, bit by bit… The recreation room, its four round worktables set with paper and crayons and flooded with afternoon sunshine, was filling up with high-end carbon fiber wheelchairs pressed forward by the elders who rolled them in.
    ⁃    A sentence that raises a key question. This can be something that needs further explanation, sucking you further into the story. Or it can be a statement of principles or ideas that imply more… If a man who had served his country, buried his wife, raised four children and gotten them through college, and put aside enough for retirement could not buy a mint,1936 buffalo nickel was he still a free man — or just waiting to die?
    ⁃    A reversal of expectations. I like this one a lot. When cold facts or a familiar experience  suggest a conclusion, and the opposite closes the sentence, interest is created. It’s a great way to flow into more explanation or illustration… Elderly people lose three billion dollars a year to scam artists because they are confused or scared… or having the time of their lives.
    ⁃    A description of a striking image. This can be poetic, and usually is. Something is rendered, usually visually, in a specific way. When done well, it gives readers confidence that they are in good hands. And, in a draft, a halfway decent image can give you as a writer the feeling that this story is going to work… Uncle Henry tossed little Gus a shiny buffalo nickel — Liberty, 1936, with a D from the Denver mint.

Note: Nine approaches are listed, but there's nothing canonical about these. You can add to this list as much as you want. And, if you come to this post as an exercise, don't feel like you need to create first sentences to match each example. In all probability, by the time you get to your third or fourth sentence, the door will be cracked open, and you can get down to the business of storytelling.

Of course, first sentences don't need to just be first sentences for the whole work. They can be first sentences for chapters or scenes. Also, my experience in creating a lot of first sentences using different approaches is that the exploration itself tells me more than I knew about the story and its characters. I did this for one story, and I found myself using what I've learned to put together a complete outline in about an hour. That was a nice additional pay off for the work I've done.

Once you're well into storytelling, it won't matter which sentence opened the door. Once you see what you have, some of the ways to make it work better in revision will be obvious. One of these, may be cutting the sentence or even the first pages. Beginning a draft with a perfect first sentence really, really, really isn't necessary. So don't let that get in your way.

I think one reason people get stuck on first sentences – and in other parts of the stories, such as ending scenes – is because of a lack of confidence in in their rewriting skills. So next week, I'll explore building confidence in revision.

This week, a bonus blog entry to promote my SavvyAuthors class...

Story Whispers – An odd sort of exaggeration writers can put to work




Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Courage That Stands Out — Thrilling your readers

Courage may be David facing Goliath, a mountain of a man, just one sword length away. Or a shy man asking for a date. Or an honest judge choosing to dismiss charges against the most hated man in town. When courage is part of your story, and you presented this with skill and heart, your readers will be moved.

I was taught that courage was morally optional but socially essential. Since writing is a social activity (providing you care about readers), courage isn’t optional for authors. This means stories need to have someone who faces a test of courage that matters to readers and that test must get the attention it deserves.

Courage must be a challenge.

For the hero or heroine (an apt way to designate such a protagonist), the choice and the action involved must be difficult. The more difficult it is, the more courage is required. Superman, facing a hail of bullets that will bounce off him, has it easy. For someone to stand at the wrong end of a firing range (as Gen. Patton purportedly did to overcome his fear) with no shield or superpowers, would be a challenge. Someone who has slipped through life telling lies may face an insurmountable obstacle if he has to confess to serious wrongdoing. He certainly would need to be highly motivated. So there can be physical courage or it could be more personal. Readers may need to know a lot about the character to understand how brave his or her choices and actions are.

Courage occurs in context.

In most stories, the character must expect to pay a price for a courageous act. The bigger the price is, the more courage is required… And the more readers will worry about the character. The level of risk must be clear and this tangible as possible. For clarity, repetition or an explicit warning is often necessary. "If we take on the enemy, most of us will be dead by morning." "If you disclose the true earnings in the meeting, the boss will fire you."

Often, the context is demonstrated. It may be that the protagonist did something similar earlier in the story and failed miserably, suffering a substantial loss. Or there may be an immediate example, where another character attempts to do what must be done and faces a horrible fate.

There are ways to heighten the risk and increase reader worry. In The Karate Kid, Daniel faces a formidable opponent… After having received a severe injury. In Jerry Maguire, Jerry must declare his love not privately, but in the midst of a hostile crowd.

The hero or heroine cannot act secretly or in an altered state in most circumstances. The courageous act must be attributable and performed soberly with consideration. Having someone get drunk and blurt out critical information, even if it's a great risk, does not demonstrate agency and ownership.

Normally, the consequences of the courageous act should be presented. There are times when the loss that will be suffered is so obvious that it works (and perhaps works better given the cruelty of imagination) when it is implied. But there should be no doubts about whether a character pays a price.

Of course, it's fine to have anticipated a disastrous turn (fairly), so that the courageous act is rewarded. There even can be bittersweet circumstances where the act is both punished and rewarded.

A word about failure. Not all courageous acts lead to success. It's okay to have things take a tragic turn. In addition, the mission might succeed, and the results might still be horrible. Intentions matter, but they don't guarantee happy endings. It's a chancy thing to show readers an act of courage that fails or leads to painful results. They may the story or hate you. But if the emotional response is genuine, the work may succeed artistically.

Note: many of these points may be reversed in a comedy. In fact, considering these and turning them upside down can be a great way to add humor, often humorous that has an underlying point.



The courageous act must draw attention.

If you have all the elements, it's important to make sure that the writing is clear and whatever matters gets attention. Repetition, including examples, was mentioned above. It’s also valuable to look for the possibility of contrasts. Sharp contrasts tend to be noticed. Physical differences (Laurel and Hardy), differences in attitude (The Odd Couple), differences in power (master and slave), etc.

All eyes are on the protagonist, so a courageous act by a secondary character may be wasted. In addition, it's good to consider how far they hero or heroine might fall if he or she fails. One reason so much classical literature is populated by royalty, aristocrats, and military leaders is because their disasters have major ramifications. If Hamlet had been a shepherd instead of a prince, much of the impact of his story would have been reduced.

One more thing about courage… It comes across with more power if the writing of it requires something of the author. Giving readers exactly what they hope for and expect, when it sacrifices truth and authenticity, may be easier. It may please editors and fans. It can be more lucrative. But, if the more courageous choice is made by the author, something wonderful might be possible. Potentially, real human insight might reach people in ways that can support them when they are discouraged, inspire them when they see new possibilities, or even bring more meaning into their lives.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Casting Your Stories 8: A test of characters

I’ve been told that the best way to remember what someone looks like is to think of them in action, doing something. This may be completely unnecessary for others, but, as someone who is very bad at names and faces, this advice has been invaluable to me.

Similarly, while writers I admire do fine with what might be termed characterization by resume, those kinds of questions (eye color, family place, economic background, education, religion, etc.), even answered well, can’t lock a character in my head. That’s explains a lot of what I’ve been doing in this series.

This entry is designed to make the process more accessible for you by taking the 6,000 words that came before and reducing the lessons to a short list you can use over and over again. (Of course, you may need to reread some of the earlier posts from time to time to get full value, but this will be a quick prompt even for those who master the rest.)

In planning
  • Find the right character for your premise.
  • Include a character who knows things or experiences life in ways you don’t. (Write what you don’t want to know.)
  • Base your character on someone real, with an emphasis on the contrary. Hitler painted roses.
  • Put a character in context (including community) - conflict, contrast, cooperation, perspective.
  • Interview characters.
  • Give each character a secret… and someone who knows it.
  • Write to “I am” statements from each key character. Make sure one of them is painfully true and the other one is a lie (possibly a lie the character tells him/herself).
  • Give each key character traits that can’t be missed or forgotten. (Will be repeated. May be changed to show growth or changed in rewrite to highlight theme.)
  • Have each character answer an important (probably rude) question. Attach a question to each you can’t answer and hope to answer by the end of the story.
  • Create at least one character who is inspired by a real person.
  • Create at least one reach character. Someone who feels strange to you or makes you uncomfortable or is outside your experience.
  • Do a quick check for contrasts between characters.
  • For key characters, write down a 70% component that rules behavior and an unexpected 30% component that points to hidden skills or needs.
As you write
  • Honor each character with how they are introduced to the reader (through action, reputation, statements, choices, traits, and/or descriptions).
  • Withhold something about each character until the right moment comes. Don’t fully expose them right away.
  • Keep track of who is in the scene and what they want. Include scenes where characters contrast. See if the identity of one can be challenged.
  • Play with variations on the traits you’ve created for the characters.
  • Be open to “aha” moments that answer questions suggested by your planning or invite probing or further scrutiny.
  • Include scenes where the 30% component is displayed.
  • Reveal the secrets you assigned to characters early for irony, late for plot turns, and/or at the worst possible moment for the character.
  • Motivate characters to form alliances or betray allies.
  • Make pursuit of goals so obsessive they invite parody.
  • Allow the characters to surprise you (even if it screws up your plans).
  • Explore something (difficult) that’s revealing (family, relationships, secrets).
  • Allow characters to hesitate. Don’t make them respond immediately to provocations and challenges.
  • Keep all your characters in view (perhaps by collecting pictures or making sketches of them). Make full use of them.
  • Never make things easy for your characters (unless you’re making it easy for them to make a blunder).
  • For tomorrow’s first scene, review the planning notes and write down what they might suggest.
When you rewrite
  • See if you can answer unanswered questions about your characters.
  • List out, character by character, the questions they ask. Note who they go to for answers.
  • Note, character by character, any identity statements (I am… ) or other expressions of who they are (or think they are).
  • Note moments when characters surprised you.
  • See if you can map your characters against archetypes and/or pantheons. Explore how do your characters fit in with relationships found in genres and myths.
  • Note your pivot scenes and see if the right characters are included. Also, determine how vulnerabilities, growth, and flaws are illuminated.
  • Make sure you have included at least one character who still makes you uneasy.
  • Describe the relationships between characters. Who are their allies? Who are their antagonists? How do they depend on each other? Do any of these relationships change?
  • Brainstorm how you might test your characters in different ways? In more extreme ways?
  • Review tags and traits and think about better alternatives.
  • Make sure tests — of the characters, of the relationships of the team — are included during or around scenes of major plot points.
That’s it. Most of what’s in the previous entries in this series is included, and I hope this provides you with a practical (and slightly different) approach to characters and their relationships.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Twenty 20-Minute Projects for Writers

Many writers waste the spare change of time. They can’t see blocs smaller than an hour, and that’s a loss.

In the classes I’ve taught, I’ve found that almost everyone can get about 200 words drafted in 15 minutes, provided they have an idea (usually describing a scene in one sentence the day before). In that spirit, let’s get the new year started right with twenty 20-minute projects.

    1.    Set a timer, turn off the editor in your head, and write a page. If my students can do it, so can you. (Or create a prep sentence for tomorrow.)
    2.    Challenge yourself with a prompt. Look for a writing prompt online and get to work. (There are many sites providing these. Here’s a fun one.)
    3.    Read something that does not appeal to you. Search engines and online suggestions are geared toward providing more of the same, so break free. Read a local story from another state or an article from a different decade. Find an obituary in a major newspaper for someone you never heard of. Go to the library and look at the books next to the one you want to take out.
    4.    Ask a character three questions. It can be a rude question or one your intuition tells you will be revealing. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions, but keep at it for the full twenty minutes.
    5.    Describe someone you know in motion, either in memory or in real time. Attempt to include a fresh observation.
    6.    Create a list of story titles. Strive for twenty or more. If you get stuck, come up with a title to replace that of a favorite book or movie.
    7.    Make detailed observations of something in nature. Include as many senses as you can. If there is movement or change during the time period, note it.
    8.    Choose a strong emotion and write a letter to someone who you’d like to share it with. Have a purpose to the letter — e.g., changing behavior, wanting to be heard, engendering guilt feelings, or drawing closer.
    9.    Write five first sentences. These can be for a title you created, a scene you are about to write, or a story you are beginning. But choose only one of these so you’re forced to take a variety of approaches.
    10.    Write a poem.
    11.    Steal a style. Create a page of prose in someone else’s voice. This can be a short speech for a well-known person or a pastiche of an author you know well. Feel free to write Hemingway’s version of “This Little Piggy.”
    12.    List five new endings in full sentences. These can be for something you’re working on, a story that disappointed you, or just a story you know nearly by heart.
    13.    Write a list of twenty different ways to accomplish something you do almost every day. Novelty counts.
    14.    If you can see a large space, outside (a tall building) or inside (a cathedral), imagine how you might climb as high as possible without using available stairs or ladders.
    15.    Brainstorm how you would explore the relationship between two people through questions, challenges, tests, or surprises.
    16.    Imagine the space you are in from the perspective of a two-year-old or your pet.
    17.    Write a sentence about each strength you have as a writer.
    18.    Write out your strategy for convincing someone you know well to do something they’d never volunteer to do. You may express this as a monologue.
    19.    Create a compelling excuse (or list of excuses) for arriving late for (or missing) an important event (like a wedding) in which you were expected to play a key role.
    20.    Write your own obituary, from the perspective of someone who wants revenge on you.

The expectation of these projects is that will get you involved and learning. It is not that something definite or practical will be accomplished. Don't expect you'll create high art in twenty minutes. Instead, you'll take a small step toward being a better writer. And spend twenty minutes having more fun that you would scanning through social network posts.


Do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of. 
-- Benjamin Franklin