Fiction and Natural Disasters

Catastrophic natural disasters happen all the time.

Hurricane Harvey has dominated the news over the last week, but it is only one of several natural disasters affecting and displacing people around the world. As terrible as Harvey has been for Texas (now accounting for 44 deaths and dozens still missing at last count), the monsoon that hit Napal, India, and Bangladesh last week killed over 1,200 and made millions homeless.

Currently, fires scorch the western U.S. and Canada, threatening thousands of homes while smoking up several states. Our small town at the foot of the Oregon Cascades sits in a valley where smoke accumulates and has made life miserable the last month—we are surrounded by several fires burning the forested canyons where biking and hiking are normally the call-of-the-day.

Disasters magnify the human condition in the suffering and peoples’ response to events beyond their control. Over the next days and weeks stories of bravery and tragedy will underscore the disasters—those instances are fiction’s ripe fruit.

Fiction is all about people in conflict, whether with themselves, other people, circumstances, or nature; disasters and a character’s reaction can include and embody all simultaneously.

Uncountable movies and books use disasters as their catalyst, and in some cases the events comprise the entire plot. Contemplating the disasters inundating us on the daily news, I realized I have never used a natural disaster in my own writing.

Perhaps character “motivation” is so deeply ingrained in my plot development—the how’s and why’s they react—is why I have never used an “act of nature” in my stories; I’m not sure.

The world impacts my characters (my MC hurtling over a waterfall, for example), but the cause of such action was another character’s betrayal and a bit of bad luck. Weather has certainly affected my characters, and the climate hints at a character’s mental state or the perception I want my reader to experience.

The magnitude of natural disasters and the lives affected are often lost on us as we have become complacent due to the sheer volume we read and hear about. But when writing, we leave our aerial view of the world and swoop down onto the shoulder and into the minds of our characters and their reactions to the world around (and within) them.

This is how it should be.

Writing about a natural disaster can be a doorway into a deeper understanding of a character’s motivations and reactions. Think of a macho-man cowering and polarized by fear during an earthquake, or a young female store clerk who risks her life to save a drowning puppy: each instance speaks to who these people really are beyond the persona they exhibit under normal situations.

I remember in the Kevin Costner movie, The Guardian, where as a Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician, he drops from a helicopter into a raging sea to save a drowning couple. During the ordeal the husband is only interested in his own survival: the Costner character has to punch the man to calm him, and after the rescue, the wife’s reaction to her husband’s cowardice is classic.

People act differently during duress than they think (or hope) they would. My dad always said, “No matter how you think you would react, you don’t know what you’ll do until a person puts a gun to your head.” He was right.

As a writer, you need to know how your character will react. Even if you don’t plan a natural disaster in a story, knowing a character’s reaction to all sorts of stimuli will give you—and, thereby, your reader—a better understanding of a character’s many facets.

Fiction is about people and how they respond to calamity.

As an exercise, put one of your favorite characters into a natural disaster and see how they react. Add that to your Character Sketch. Even if you do not use what you write, it will give you a better understanding and will help “round out” your understanding of the character.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Writer’s Garden, or 4 Lessons Learned From Tolkien

My wife, Linda, loves to garden. Many days I’ll glance up from my computer and see her love-labor: watering (daily), pulling weeds (often), trimming branches (Spring and Fall), or starting a new planting project. Our yard is her passion, a passion slowly realized over a course of many years.

Writing is the same.

We’ve lived in our house nestled at the base of the Oregon Cascades for eleven years. The other day Linda and I discovered—separately—that one of the trees lining the front yard is a fruit-bearing plum.

Eleven years and it finally bore fruit. Eleven years. We shook our heads in amazement.

I thought of Tolkien: The Hobbit was published in 1937 to a moderate response, thankfully enough so that he was asked to write a sequel. He published Lord of the Rings in 1954-55: again, a good but not great response. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the Professor’s popularity sky-rocketed, thanks in part to the hippy generation and their attraction to the peculiar.

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are now considered the standard for fantasy literature, and J.R.R. Tolkien the pinnacle of the genre. I would hazard to say most fantasy writers have read the wondrous tales of Middle Earth (as well as millions of others). The making of the movies by Peter Jackson further solidified Tolkien’s standing.

J.R.R. never thought The Hobbit and Middle Earth would gain the popularity they enjoy today, and would not have if The Hobbit did not find its way into the right hands at the right time, quite by accident. We are forever grateful it did.

He wrote The Hobbit for his children. In 1936 the incomplete book came to the attention of Susan Dagnall, an employee of the London publisher, George Allen & Unwin. She persuaded Tolkien to finish and submit the manuscript for publication, the book was published a year later, and surprisingly (to J.R.R, at least) attracted as many adult readers as his intended audience, children.

What if Susan Dagnall—now only a historical footnote—had not encouraged the Professor to submit The Hobbit?

Between the times The Hobbit was published and Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings, his garden flourished as he made additional seed-notes about a wide variety of characters, languages, Middle Earth histories, plots and sub-plots totaling thousands of pages.

Not all his work bore fruit before his death, but his son, Christopher, tended the fields of his father’s garden, giving us The Silmarillion as well as other Middle Earth stories his father created.

I learned four valuable lessons reading about J.R.R. Tolkien and his success.

Think long about your topic
Write for your audience (and you may be surprised who that encompasses)
Submit your work
Be Patient

Think Long About Your Topic (Plan Your Garden)

When planning and planting a garden, one needs to ascertain many variables—soil components, distance between plantings, growing season, time of year, etc.—and the same is true of writing.

Planning a story or novel includes extensive notes, character sketches, time-lines, plots and subplots, and a host of other intricacies. When writing fantasy, world-building and magic need to be consistent in addition to all else that entails story-writing. All these and more are your seeds when planning a story or novel.

Write For Your Audience (Tend the Garden)

Daily garden maintenance parallels daily writing needs—editing reminds me of removing encroaching weeds that do damage and strangle otherwise healthy plants.

Read voraciously within your chosen genre to understand what has been done before, then twist the idea into your own worldview. If, as with fantasy fiction where there are numerous sub-genres, read in the one you enjoy, but don’t ignore the others. Whether Epic or Heroic or Urban Fantasy, you will see similarities between genres as well as specialties within each sub-group.

Once you grasp the leanings of your choice genre, create a unique story for that audience, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Like Tolkien, you might be surprised of the true readership and the expansive market potential.

Submit Your Work (Plant the Garden)

No matter how much you think about planting a garden, the ground remains barren if you don’t get your hands dirty and actually put the seeds or starter plants in the ground.

The same is true when it comes to writing.

As I wrote in a previous post: Writers Write: Authors Submit.

Your career remains barren if you do not submit your work, your writing forever lost to readers everywhere.

If just beginning your career, seek out by-lines rather than dollars. Unpaid published work is still published. Use the by-lines to promote your skills, like heirloom plants whose seeds give birth to future generations (ie., paid-for writing).

Which brings up the fourth item I learned from Tolkien:

Patience (Wait For Harvest)

It’s exciting to watch the fruits and vegetables ripen, plucking succulent tomatoes or golden raspberries when they reach maturity, and it requires patience.

Likewise, the writing craft embodies patience, which begins by waiting for a seed-idea to germinate before bursting forth to blossom into a fully realized story.

Once a story is completed and submitted to the first potential publisher on your list, it is time to get to work on the next project (similar to rotating crops).

Great writers get rejected, masterpieces hidden from the world until a courageous, far-sighted editor takes a chance on an unknown—You.

Plant the garden, tend the seedlings, wait, and you, too, shall reap the harvest.

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

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Writing Time and Character Death

Our lives are rubber bands pulled taut, each day threatening to snap with the next unplanned event.

Some days spiral out of control.

Even without catastrophic events pounding our lives, the daily requirements are daunting: work to pay the bills (for me, 9 hours a day, including lunch), sleep (I’m old; I need at least 8 hours), then there’s spending time with family and friends, caring for one’s animals, preparing meals and eating, showering, staring blankly at the walls, and dozens of other “events” that require our attention.

Every day is a package waiting to be unwrapped. I wake at 5:30 AM and begin  peeling back the paper that is plot and characters before I delve into the package of my life. Much of the package’s interior consists of routine and monotony, the kind that sucks creativity like a vacuum—exactly why the first hours are so precious, alone-time when everything is fresh and full of hope.

I am also acutely aware that we only have so many packages to unwrap.

The day before the last post, I learned a friend of Linda and mine died weeks earlier. A car accident took his life, a sudden, spontaneous tragedy caused by an unlicensed driver smoking crack—the pipe was found still between his legs when emergency crews arrived. The young man spent a week or two in the hospital with a punctured lung, and upon release from the care of nurses and doctors, his cushy surroundings were replaced by a wafer-thin cot and bars. He will likely spend a portion of his life in prison. As for our friend, he is no more . . . . his rubber band snapped, and unbeknownst to him, he opened his final package when he climbed in his car that fateful day.

Richard was a year and few days older than me when he died. At the scene, he asked the emergency crews to make sure the other driver was okay—that was Richard, kind and gentle, and speaks to his character.

Death causes reflection, followed by questions, and adds an urgency to how best spend what days we have left. Whether religious, philosophical, or just from a human standpoint, death’s awareness is unique to our species. Keep that in mind when writing.

The same is true of your characters. Death shapes your character’s psyche—their fears and how they cope with the inevitability. Nothing ramps up a story’s tension like a character’s view of their impending death.

Death haunts each character. Some writers shy away from killing off beloved characters, others derive satisfaction in the emotion evoked when a highly-thought-of character succumbs.

J.K. Rowling killed off several popular characters, as did George R.R. Martin, only more so. Tolkien, on the other hand, kept his main characters intact for the most part. Each instance is different, but it is a decision we writers need to contemplate.

Whether they are to die or not, the probability the character will should take center stage, a veiled unknown huddling on the horizon, just like for each one of us.

How do you feel about death? Dig deep. I’m not saying perceive the end of life as a gloomy cloud, but as a reality. Ask others how they feel about death, and you will see a cacophony of perspectives, some riddled with fear, others brightened by hope.

One’s feelings on death impacts their life. Realize that each day Death’s Door opens a bit wider: how do your characters feel about that?

Often a character’s feelings manifest when one close to them, including a beloved pet, dies. Shock, sadness, helplessness, a dull mind haze: all are symptoms of grief. Reactions change, ebb through stages, heartbreak to anger, regret and joy (at having known them), laughter blended with tears of pain. Yes, we know these feelings, these sensations, and your characters need to as well. Make your characters hurt, and thereby show the reader their humanity and their passion. To cause readers to cry is a great gift, perhaps more so than making them laugh.

In all things, use life’s joys and pains as the lifeblood of your stories, and readers will be grateful.

Take those feelings about death, appreciate the day you have before you, and write a story to draw the reader’s emotions—their fear of what might happen to their favorite character—into your story.

Live the life you wish, and write what you feel. Don’t shy away from the topic of death as all readers face the same questions; it’s an excellent way to garner their attention and hold it throughout your tale.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Monday is October 18th of my Cosmic Calendar Life

Writing is one of the few professions where staring off into space is part of the job description.

My mind invariably wanders to strange places, asks patently odd-ball questions, and searches for even odder answers. The “What if” game is one of my favorites, and is often the springboard to quirky offerings.

A writer’s mind journeys to places others do not often travel. How many people do you know contemplate what motivates a person to act the way they do, the myriad of possible reactions to a single action, act through a scene to clear up a character’s performance, or study the why’s of how things are and their origins?

These wanderings are a writer’s playground.

The other day my “staring into space” followed an unexpected path:

I thought of the Cosmic Calendar I heard about years ago. Like many tendrils slithering through my mind, I didn’t remember exactly what it was, only the name.

Research followed (as it invariably does), and I found that famed writer and scientist Carl Sagan popularized the Cosmic Calendar in his book, The Dragons of Eden, published in 1977, and on his TV series of the time, Cosmos.

It seems that some scientists also contemplate weird thoughts.

So, what is the Cosmic Calendar?

Sagan superimposed the chronology of the universe (beginning at 13.8 billion years ago) on a one year calendar; the graphic above shows a few main events. Interesting epochs were revealed—here’s a sampling of when events occurred according to Sagan’s calendar:

Jan. 1 –Big Bang (or creation, if you choose)
Mar. 16–Milky Way Galaxy formed
Sept. 2–Formation of solar system
Sept. 6–Oldest rocks known on earth
Dec. 25–Dinosaurs
Dec. 30–Dinosaur extinction; mammals take over.
Dec 31 (at 22:34 / 10:34 PM) — Primitive humans and stone tools (barely made it, eh?)
1.2 seconds ago–Columbus arrives in America.

Here comes my What if:

I determined a person’s life at 80 years (as a starting point). Dividing a 365 day year (I eliminated the ¼ day for simplicity) by 80 years (average lifespan), I found each “year” of one’s life equaled 4.5625 days on a person’s Cosmic Calendar.

Weird, huh?

Using this mathematical formula, I realized that my birthday (which I share with JK Rowling and Harry Potter) this year will be the October 18th of my Cosmic Life Calendar. Damn . . . or as some people would have said back in the 1970’s, “That’s cosmic, man.”

We are all born, we all die, and in between we live our Cosmic Calendar. Of course there is no guarantee any of us will see 80 years (both my parents passed at 72), but it’s a place to start, like a first draft ready to be edited or an outline forming the foundation of a novel idea.

Recently I perused a few of my writing folders (snippets, short story ideas, etc.) and saw decent entries I jotted down with the plan to return to and expand them into a complete idea. I sat back, stunned—some which I thought were penned a few months ago range back 3 years—12+ days on my Cosmic Calendar!

Understanding that I’m currently in the middle of October (nights are getting colder, old joints creaking a bit more), I again remind myself the importance of prioritizing not only my writing, but my life . . . which brings me to the conclusion of this post.

My daughter, Janiene, and son-in-law, Abraham, are visiting from out of town. Linda and I will be spending time with them today, utilizing a portion of our Cosmic Calendar with the all-important family. As a side note, today is June 22nd of Janiene’s Cosmic Calendar—Abraham is a few days further into the summer.

What is the date on your Calendar, and how will you spend it?

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Daring Do’s and Dangerous Dont’s

As writers, we must stretch beyond our comfort zones, learn new aspects of the craft, implement the new knowledge, and rework sentences until they serenade our inner ear.

We must be Daring

Write something completely different from your norm: try dialogue using dialect without changin’ and wranglin’ the language; if you write macho-man sword-and-sandal pulp fiction, craft a tender romance where vulnerabilities keep a destined couple apart; romance writers can learn a great deal developing relationships in deep space.

Take sentences, the building blocks of prose, and twist them this way or that: beginning a sentence with a gerund can brighten necessary focus; articulating something in a sentence by setting it off with commas, like this, changes the entire tempo in the reader’s mind; experiment with colons and semi-colons, ellipsis . . . dashes even—each changes the pace and sentence focal point.

Have fun—it will prove profitable and time well spent.

Writing fantasy, many of my sentences flow long, use descriptive modifiers and parenthetical phrases, so I decided to write a story lacking those attributes—instead, short and pithy. The flash fiction story, “Boys ‘N Berries,” is now making the rounds. I learned a great many things during the process, some of which I will weave into future writings.

Beware the Dangerous Don’ts

All writers have reached a certain skill level. It’s impossible to know on what rung of the publishing ladder you now reside, or the untold number of rungs that lay before you.

Gee, Rick, thanks; that really helps (sigh).

There is a mystery to the writing craft no one can solve, a question all writers ask themselves, their agents (if lucky enough to have one), and their writing partners: How talented am I? Put another way, “Do I have what it takes?” The problem is the question itself.

Talent is weighed and diced into a million different pieces, and it depends on the audience, whether one or a thousand.

Talent and skill perception are arbitrary, and in the end, only an opinion.

The first Dangerous Don’t is asking the question in the first place. One could call it mental masturbation: editors and readers will determine your skill and the value of your stories. Your job is to write.

Write and your skill level improves, and thereby, you climb the talent ladder. How could it be any other way? The more you do something, the better you become—this is a natural progression.

The second (and nearly as important) Dangerous Don’t is attempting more than your capabilities.

I know, this post began by encouraging you to stretch and attempt writing in ways and types unfamiliar, and I stand by that.

Let me explain the concept of avoiding projects you are not yet capable of undertaking:

Most fiction writers begin writing short stories. The reason short stories are the first choice is because one can dash off a short story first draft in a few hours or a day compared to months (even years) it takes to create a 70,000 to 100,000 word novel.

A short story follows a single character (normally) and a pretty straight-line plot path. Even the simplest novel involves numerous characters, perhaps multiple POV’s, and a central plot underscored by any number of sub-plots depending on the complexity determined by the writer’s wishes.

This is daunting. My advice: don’t plunge into a fully developed novel until you have written a dozen or more short stories.

Writing short stories teaches brevity as every word must have a bearing on the character, plot, or theme—there is no space to meander from the chosen path like a novel can allow. (Some would say you should not “meander” in a novel either, but there is more room to take a side trail and make it pertinent to one of the novel’s plot paths).

Third Dangerous Don’t: don’t plunge into an idea without determining the costs

I have a novel idea deemed viable (see my post on determining writing projects) that is currently beyond both my skill and time requirements.

The story is a YA fantasy novel set in the ancient Mayan culture that thrived (and mysteriously disappeared) in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

Having started the preliminary research, and despite a semi-complete outline, I realize at this time, the project is beyond my means.

Working full-time, I do not have the resources required to immerse myself into the research and writing necessary to complete such a project. An excuse? No, a reality.

That does not mean I ignore the idea; the idea simmers in my subconscious, and on occasion I scratch the research surface and jot notes toward a future when I will delve into such a complex and research-heavy project. Understanding that now is not the time is as important as knowing when a story has percolated long enough so the idea can be successful.

The Fourth Dangerous Don’t

Banish the critic that resides in all of us. The critic is a tempter, brow-beater, and thug. My friend, Richard Weir, wrote a terrific post dealing with the problems writers face when allowing the critic a foothold that quickly metamorphoses into a stranglehold. You can find the post here.

Why are the four Don’ts dangerous?

Time is every writer’s adversary: each of the four Don’ts involve wasting precious time.

Calculate your strengths, your weaknesses, use your abilities in the best way possible, and write. Experimentation conjures its own reward, but don’t undertake a project that is beyond your current capabilities or time allowance; only heartache will follow.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Fear and Loathing of the Writer Self

The writer “me” wrestles with fear and loathing. The analytical “me” tells the writer “me” he’s an idiot and shut up. Both have valid points; I ignore them and write. One word after another, “enter” button to the next paragraph, there we go . . . .

The accumulative “we” are plagued with doubts, thrashed by rejection, and harried by the many duties required to be writers in the modern world: write, edit, post, respond, research, follow, send, wait, research some more, wait some more, all the while writing every day and dripping sweat onto our keyboards.

Writing is a wonderful thing.

One person appreciates what you agonized over, so who cares that no-good editor sent you a form rejection? Place that rejection in your collection-of-rejection file, send the story to the next market on your list—that reader might be the one to give your life’s work credence. Hope: Keep it, Embrace it.

Write

Only you can tell the stories you have to tell. Oh, sure, learn the craft, study published authors, every day add new knowledge to your masterpiece. That’s how it should be.

Write

It’s as simple as that. Not quite, eh? What’s the problem? Time and responsibilities got you down? Does “What do I Write About” haunt you? Vow to never grow stagnant. Create something outside your field of interest, your genre, and experiment.

You see, it does not matter what you write, only that you do. Writing is what matters, and the prose can be anything other than a grocery list.  Butt in the seat, fingers on the keyboard, thoughts transcribed in front of you. The crux of writing is writing. Can I be any clearer?

I understand it’s infinitely easier to sit on the porch sipping lemon aide, dreaming of being a writer and going to book signings, being lauded as the next great novelist.

I once dreamed of playing guitar. I never owned one, didn’t practice, took no courses to learn music.

At one point I wanted to be an artist, but I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. I never practiced other than scratching out one-dimensional stick men.

Dreams, mists, nothing more.

Is that what writing is to you? I will be blunt: if that is your attitude, if washing your hair takes priority over ironing out a plot problem or further developing a character, you are not a fiction writer.

It’s okay to not be a writer, just as it’s okay to not be a chef.

For me, writing satisfies a yearning and passion—it nurtures my soul. It may not be for you, and that’s okay.

But if the passion boils in you, simmers in a constant stew of writing thoughts, discard the negative as you would an old toothbrush—no regrets. Then please, please reach out to the keyboard or pad of paper and write. Create your dreams, and then share them with the rest of us.

The fear and loathing may huddle in the shadows, but at least your dreams will be a tangible reality—nobody can take that away from you, and perhaps the next editor on your list will hoist your by-line for the world to see.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Writer’s Block is a Myth

(To celebrate Knights of Writ’s 100th blog post, I offer this lie-buster)

Every week of every year writers compose articles and blogs about how to defeat the dreaded Writers Block. Each is a lie—Writer’s Block does not exist.

“Wait,” you cry out, “I’ve stared at the blank page for hours, paced the room, succumbed to a shot of Jack Daniels to loosen the thoughts. Nothing works.”

Before you scoff and click away—jettisoned to the next article entitled “Defeating Writer’s Block the Last Time,”—realize this: claiming Writer’s Block is only an excuse to not write.

You have bought the lie, and the price is a heavy burden indeed . . . inactivity.

Writer’s Block has grown to legendary status among writers (and by those composing articles to perpetrate the lie) and is a fodder field of articles entitled, “8 Ways to Guarantee You Don’t Get Writer’s Block,” or “10 Ways to Avoid Writer’s Block.” A recent Writer’s Digest Magazine published three articles under the umbrella heading, “Beating Writer’s Block.”

Although many articles about Writer’s Block contain nifty exercises or prompts to help creativity, their assumption is misplaced.

Why? Because writers have bought into the existence of the dragon.

The reason you feel gripped by Writer’s Block is simple—you have limited your options.

A well-known anecdote about Isaac Asimov explains how he had several typewriters in his office—this is in the 1940’s and 50’s before computers—each with a different writing project. When one did not shake his world, he went to another and worked. He explained the mind needs excitement and becomes weary when working day after day on the same subject.

Professional writers create whether or not they are “in the mood.” Does a doctor only operate when he’s in-the-mood, a lawyer defend when the mood suits them? Have you ever heard of a plumber’s block, or a longshoreman’s block, or a bartender’s block (heaven forbid!)? None exist; neither does Writer’s Block.

Writer’s Block is an imaginary entity we give credence. Perhaps it is our way of dealing with terror or maybe a self-worth issue. Although that may be the case, I usually find writers bemoan the “Block” when their work encompasses too few options.

So entranced and focused on a minimum of choices, a writer rolls over and over the same information, trying to fix the same problem, come up with the right idea, when all that’s needed is to let the subconscious sort it all out.

Writer’s Block is caused by an over-simplified expectation: you are ready to work on this particular project right now. Sorry, it doesn’t always work that way.

Often it does, and that’s when you stream through the story, fingers a blur, white spaced fill with squiggly black letters. Other times you have to take a deep breath, open a new folder, and work on a different project.

I have 5 books (3 fiction and 2 non-fiction) in varied degrees of completion, 5 times that many short stories, a dozen article ideas, 18 blog topics I wish to pursue—when I’m not tuned with a particular one, I find another.

I have a couple projects I work on most every day, but if I run into a wall for some reason, I have others to fall back to until I’m ready to re-tackle the primary item.

The point is this: writing every day is a given, and we must be ready to improvise and juggle when something goes awry, ie., when a specific piece of writing needs more simmer time.

This is a natural process, not a Block, writer or otherwise.

We must not give the Myth wings and let it carry away our sensibilities. It’s time to refuse to go along for the ride; instead, open another folder and work on a different project. In the end you will find you complete more, and in the process, improve your skills.

As a last word on the subject, I turn to Stephen King: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just sit down and get to work.”

See you on the next page,

Rick

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