Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Margo Kelly On Deleting 10,000 Words

Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Margo Kelly, author of WHO R U REALLY? which was published by Merit Press in September 2014 and UNLOCKED which was published by Merit Press in October 2016. Margo welcomes opportunities to speak to youth groups, library groups, and book clubs.

Margo loves to be scared … when she’s reading a good book, watching a good movie, or suffering from the hiccups. She enjoys writing thrillers for young adults and hopes her stories give readers the goose bumps or the itchies or the desire to rethink everyday things. Margo is represented by the not-so-scary, but totally awesome, Brianne Johnson of Writers House.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

Writing the first draft of UNLOCKED is what converted me from a “pantster” (just see where the story takes me) to a “plotter” (detailing major plot points in an outline). I was having a blast writing that first draft of UNLOCKED until I wrote myself into a corner. I stopped and brainstormed for days, wondering where I’d gone wrong with the plot. Once I figured it out, I had to delete 10,000 words. TEN THOUSAND words. Deleted.

That turning point in the story happened when Plug and Hannah stopped to watch the firemen at Manny’s house. In the original draft, Hannah was arrested right there. In the final draft, she’s not. And that one change altered the entire outcome of the story. I will always be an outliner from now on. One of my favorite quotes from the story comes from that very scene in the book. Hannah said to Plug in the story: “We just fled the scene of a crime. … What does that make us?” Plug replied, “Determined.” Really, it was me, the author, feeling very determined in that moment to make the story work.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

I can spew out the initial draft of a story in as little as thirty days, however, it’s messy and unfinished. I never let anyone see that first draft. For me, the real magic happens during revisions, and it takes me nearly a year to revise and polish a story. Somedays I feel like the process takes forever, but I know the extra time makes the story better.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

I used to only work on one project at a time, because it was too hard to keep all the characters and stories straight in my head; however, recently, I’ve stepped away from one project, because I’ve become quite passionate about another. As soon as this new project is in my agent’s hands, I will go back to the unfinished project. Oh. But. I guess that means I can only work on one project at a time. Ha. 

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

No. The first time I sat down to write a novel, I had no fears because I was clueless. I had no idea there were so many things I did not know. 

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

One. And I still love that story. Maybe someday it will see the light of day. Maybe not.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I stepped away from my first manuscript, because I recognized after a gazillion rejections that I needed to start over with a new idea. I took everything I’d learned from the process of writing that first manuscript and everything I’d learned from studying the craft of writing and began again.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?  

Brianne Johnson of Writers House is my agent, and I connected with her through the traditional query process. I sent her a query letter along with the first ten pages of the manuscript. She requested the next fifty pages; then the whole manuscript; and then a phone call. During the phone call, we discussed revision options, and I loved her ideas. After working together on the revisions, she offered me a contract.

How long did you query before landing your agent?

I queried for over two years before signing a contract. That time period included querying my first manuscript and my second. My second manuscript, WHO R U REALLY?, is the one that got me an agent.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Don’t quit. Rejection is part of the publishing process, but dejection is a choice. Let yourself be disappointed sometimes, but put a time limit on it. Do a day of pajamas, Netflix, and ice cream (or whatever works for you). Then get back to work. Make sure your manuscript is as polished as possible and when you receive feedback from agents or editors, consider the advice carefully and improve your manuscript based on the feedback you’ve received. Then throw yourself back into the querying trenches and keep at it. It takes time to connect with the right agent.

How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?

Seeing my debut novel in a bookstore for the first time felt like I’d released a breath I’d been holding for years. Huge sigh. Then a fist pump. And then I rearranged the shelving so my book would sit at eye level for the customers. (At the time, I didn’t realize the books were arranged alphabetically, and I’m sure an employee corrected it after I left, but it felt great to see it at eye level.)

How much input do you have on cover art?

Zero. The fabulous Frank Rivera designed both of my book covers. I had final approval on both covers but zero input on their design.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

Writing can be such a solitary experience, and I was honestly surprised by the sense of community I found with other writers. Fellow writers can provide excellent moral support. One of the best things about the publishing industry is the people. Other writers are going through the same things I am, and being able to discuss issues with them has been a huge blessing in my life. Critique partners, agency siblings, and publishing siblings—these are some of the people with whom I’ve aligned myself. They bolster me up when I’m feeling dejected, and they cheer me on when I’ve received good news.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I have participated in online book blog tours, contests, giveaways, and local in-person events. The publisher has also done marketing efforts, including sending advance reading copies to industry reviewers and providing giveaways. You can also find me on my site, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads, or sign up for my email newsletter!

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

It’s important to connect with fellow writers and readers, but it’s also important to focus on the act of writing your novel. So make sure you balance your time appropriately. Of course, if you’re writing nonfiction, you must build your platform before trying to get an agent. With fiction, the size of your platform is not as essential to getting an agent or a publishing deal.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Maybe. Coming from the business world, I know statistics show that typically someone needs to see something seven times before finally saying yes to it. So if potential readers see me or my books online because of social media, then theoretically, it should increase readership. Maybe.

Monday, October 16, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: WILD ONES


My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.

Query:

WILD ONES is a YA fantasy novel in the same vein as Legend of Korra and Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Complete at 83,000 words, it features an #ownvoices protagonist who is queer and chronically ill. Normally I say to put this at the end of the query, b/c everyone has a title and word count. But I like your #OwnVoices angle so I would say this is an exception.

Ror flees the cracked earth and yellow grass of home, traveling to forbidden territories to hunt for food. But in the forest, Ror meets a monster, sunken within folds of strange, wrinkly skin, and hears more crashing through the forest. A hunting party, and she is the prey. Right now you're using your query more as a narrative, not as a query. It's reading like fiction, in other words, which is the wrong setup for a query.

Ror turns to run, but her body is wracked by a transformation. Limbs lengthen, knees bend backwards. Pale hands grow like bony spiders tethered to her arms.

She has become one of the monsters. She has become… human.

She’s brought to a city- an infestation of humans. Everyone seems to think she’s someone else, Why would they think this? Who do they think she is? and she’s imprisoned by the priests who control the city.

Humans are complicated, and their dark religion terrifies her. A few of them seem capable of kindness, but they all have their own agendas. As Ror struggles to escape, she discovers secrets that shatter her identity and threaten the priest’s iron grip on the populace. Ror must discover who she is, and decide whether to return to the forest, or stay and join the revolution. This is the first paragraph where you have it phrased the way a query should be, but it's coming way too late.

WILD ONES is told from three P.O.V. – Ror, the reluctantly human, Vega, a tech genius, and Leo, a young soldier invited to join a military coup against gods. So there are three POVs which I assume all get equal page time, but the entire focus of the query is only on one? That's not a good angle. 

WILD ONES is written as a stand alone, with the option of being the first of a trilogy.

This is the first novel to escape my “work in progress” drawer. I’m a member of multiple writing groups through SCBWI and attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in 2015. When I’m not writing or reading, I’m grilling my high school students for YA book recommendations.

Right now this query isn't working. We don't have a sense of why Ror was being hunted in the first place, what happened that made her turn human, why she would continue to be hunted as a human, why the priests would keep some humans prisoners but not others, what the secrets are that she discovers, what the revolution is, who is leading it and why, and we know virtually nothing about the other two POVs. Also, you say that it's #OwnVoices b/c of chronic pain and queerness, but there is nothing about pain or attraction in the query. 

My advice is to go back through some of the queries I've reviewed here on the blog using the #PitchWars tag and see how others have setup their queries. Look at them as a model and answer the questions I asked above, as well as get your other two POV's in there.

1st Page:

Ror looked at the cliff in front of her. You definitely need a better opening sentence, something that will get attention rather than show us something that could start just about any novel.        

"Remember that time mom found us right before we jumped from the high rock?" Orion asked, glancing over.

She was trying to avoid thinking about their parents. She and her brother had slipped off two days ago, claiming they were going hunting. They had barely stopped moving since. They ran away? Why? 

Orion nudged her. "Do you remember?"

Ror turned. "Grandfather said that broken bones heal stronger. We had this idea that if we broke all of our bones, we'd get super strength." I like this line.

Orion grinned. "So if we fall on the way down, let's just hope our theory was right." So they are at the top of the cliff, not the bottom? Opening line is ambiguous.

Ror squinted, trying to find a path. "Is this the stupidest thing we've ever done?"

"Your idea as usual."        

She paused to gaze at the ocean glittering beyond the isle. Then a few pebbles slid underneath her, and she half slipped, half ran down the mountain.

Her muscles sang with joy. For so many years she had silenced their cries of “Further! Faster!” At night when she slept her legs mimed freedom. Her body dreamed of wandering.

Now her muscles shouted, hoarse with happiness. She couldn’t quench her thirst to see what was just around the bend, just over the hill. It burned her to know she would eventually reach the edge of the isle. Maybe she could learn how to swim and continue forever, chasing the sun.

Overall not a bad opening, but you need a stronger first line and also to explain why they are out, away from home. And... judging by the query Ror is not a human at this time, right? You definitely need to get that out there. Readers are going to assume that your narrator is a human if you don't say otherwise.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

Carla Dubrov has taken the lives of many immortals, but the one that will forever haunt her was given. Maybe insert "willingly" here?

Bad blood has always run between the Dubrovs and D’Carteys. The Dubrovs and their kind, the Shadows, feed on human misery. They can manipulate a human’s mind, forcing him use "them" assuming that they can also manipulate females to kill, or hurt himself themselves and others. The D’Carteys, and their kind, the Luminaries, have the power to soothe humans, heal their suffering, and it is their responsibility to make sure no innocent dies at the whims of their enemy. Is the Shadow power something that is specifically of use to the plot? Right now humans don't come into this story at all, according to the query. Do their powers matter in terms of the query? Right now, they don't - which means you can trim everything after "human misery."

Despite the feud between their families, Carla falls in love with Anthony D’Cartey. When their love is discovered, her father condemns her to death, but Anthony gives his life to save her. His murder turns the smoldering feud into the war Carla’s father has long yearned for. Shattered by Anthony’s brutal execution, Carla’s grief turns her into the very killer her father wishes her to be; a killer he molds into his most lethal weapon. Great para here.

Carla barely escapes from under her father’s control, and manages to stay hidden for two hundred years. Okay, so that's a really long time and it raises the question of how that's handled in the plot in terms of pacing. Is it necessary for her to be gone that long? Are you just using a scene break and then saying Two Hundred Years Later.... But when she learns Anthony has a brother, Jason, she must resurface. Why? Her father wants nothing more than to bring D’Cartey to his knees by killing his second son as well. Now, Carla can finally honor Anthony’s sacrifice by saving his brother. But a sense of duty isn’t her only motivation. His kind, strong heart reminds her of Anthony, and no matter how hard she fights against it, Carla starts falling in love with Jason. Her feelings for him fill her with guilt of betraying Anthony’s memory, but even so, they are impossible to stop. Honestly I'd slice a lot of this extra verbiage as obvious. You can simply say, she finds herself "struggling with her feelings."
 
As her father’s assassins close in, Carla realizes she is the ultimate target. Her father used Jason to lure her out of her hiding and into his trap. If he kills Jason, her heart will be shredded again, and her grief will push her back into the darkness controlled by her father. He will use her against the very ones she's trying to protect. Humans? Or D'Carteys?

But before facing her father, Carla must find a way to silence the dark voice inside her head. The voice that craves the same things as her father: death and destruction. Her Shadow’s voice. This is the first indication that she isn't entirely against everything that her father stands for, the first indication of an internal struggle. If this is pervasive throughout the ms, it needs to be so in the query as well.

SHADES OF DARKNESS: THE LIGHT is a fantasy novel with series potential, complete at 83,000 words.

So, you're calling it a fantasy but it sounds more like urban fantasy. You mention humans, but I have no feel for setting. Is this on Earth? Is this high fantasy, but there are regular humans present? You'll need to clarify the genre and setting.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Book Talk & ARC Giveaway: THE SPEAKER by Traci Chee

Having barely escaped the clutches of the Guard, Sefia and Archer are back on the run, slipping into the safety of the forest to tend to their wounds and plan their next move. Haunted by painful memories, Archer struggles to overcome the trauma of his past with the impressors, whose cruelty plagues him whenever he closes his eyes. But when Sefia and Archer happen upon a crew of impressors in the wilderness, Archer finally finds a way to combat his nightmares: by hunting impressors and freeing the boys they hold captive.

With Sefia’s help, Archer travels across the kingdom of Deliene rescuing boys while she continues to investigate the mysterious Book and secrets it contains. But the more battles they fight, the more fights Archer craves, until his thirst for violence threatens to transform him from the gentle boy Sefia knows to a grim warrior with a cruel destiny. As Sefia begins to unravel the threads that connect Archer’s fate to her parents’ betrayal of the Guard so long ago, she and Archer must figure out a way to subvert the Guard’s plans before they are ensnared in a war that will pit kingdom against kingdom, leaving their future and the safety of the entire world hanging in the balance.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mira Bartok: Write The Most Extraordinary & Beautiful Thing Possible

Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Mia Bartok, author of THE WONDERLING. Winner of the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, Mira Bartok is an artist and writer living in Massachusetts. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been noted in The Best American Essays 1999 and other anthologies. She is the author of over 28 books for children and author/illustrator of the New York Times bestselling memoir and ALA Notable book, THE MEMORY PALACE, published by Free Press/Simon & Schuster.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

A little bit of both! I’m a planner, but am always open to sudden change. 

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

Since this is my first one, I guess there’s nothing typical about it! It took me about 2 ½ years from start to finish, including all the illustrations and rewrites. Long days of writing and intense nights of drawing! 

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

If a project is huge, like The Wonderling, I go full steam ahead on that project. However, I always have other things going on in different stages for the times when I have breaks. Right now, I have several things in the queue: a book of stories for adults, the start of a collaborative illustrated novel with a friend, a YA trilogy that’s part graphic novel, and several picture books that are half finished. And then…there’s that poetry book that’s in the drawer….and the series of collages with strange monsters….a couple podcasts and…and…now I’m nervous I won’t live long enough to finish them all!

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time? 

I wrote the first draft of nonfiction book on the history of wonder (called The Book of Wonder) right after my memoir, The Memory Palace and before I began The Wonderling. I felt a lot of pressure to write another nonfiction book and so I gave it a rather unenthusiastic try. I knew it was time to stop when my agent left me this message, after reading some of my short stories: “Mira, I get it now. You’ve been trying to write about wonder— but these stories are wonder. You should do what’s in your heart, and it seems like what’s in your heart is fiction right now.”

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?  

My agent is Jennifer Gates from Aevitas Creative Management in NYC. I knew her a little before she was my agent because her ex-husband and my husband used to play in a band together. I never thought to ask her about representation because I didn’t want to seem opportunistic. (I know. That was stupid!) I called her up after I finished my first draft of The Memory Palace because I needed advice on how to gently and kindly fire my first agent who was lovely, but just not right for me. Jen gave me great advice and then immediately asked to see my manuscript. I thought she was just being nice. She wasn’t. ☺ She read it overnight and the rest is history. I simply adore her!  

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell? 

Although I never had to query agents, I would say, knowing the business like I now do, writers really need to do their homework. They need to know what kind of work the agent represents, and also, send the most polished sample they have. There are so many great websites and books out there on this process. It’s worth taking one’s time and researching the info. Also, I know a lot of writers meet great agents at writing conferences, like Bread Loaf or other places. If you take a long time to write a book, your book deserves the same care to find the right person to represent it.

How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale? 

I had four books come out simultaneously, all nonfiction books on ancient and living cultures for middle grade children from a series I created from 1990-98. Suddenly, I saw them in every bookstore window in Chicago, my home town. I just couldn’t believe it! I had never intended to write books, so it felt like a very strange surprise. I also had another feeling, which was: who am I now? I had always been a working artist in the avant-garde gallery world and now suddenly I am writing children’s books? So I suppose I had mixed feelings. Happy, confused, concerned…but mostly happy.

How much input do you have on cover art? 

I’ve had a lot of input on every single cover. Lucky me! 

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you? 

I learned that illustrating one’s own book is one of the hardest things on this planet! 

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I used to have a blog but don’t anymore. I’m on Facebook and Twitter. I do as much as I am able to handle while living with a brain injury. I get overwhelmed by too much input, especially online. But before a book comes out, I do do a lot on Facebook and Twitter, and also send out emails. 

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before? 

I have always approached making books not from building a platform or having a brand (I kind of cringe when I hear those words—sorry!) but from the belief that one should write the most extraordinary and beautiful thing possible. That is the most important thing of all. A strong, lyrical voice and a story full of heart come first. The rest is secondary. 

Do you think social media helps build your readership? 

I don’t really know. I know I’ve connected with some people on social media, but most of my deeper connections have happened in person—at book events, conferences, bookstores, and through friends of friends. Most of the people I connect with on twitter are medievalists, climate change scientists, folklorists, and mapmakers—all things I’m interested in. I don’t know if a single one would read my books. As for Facebook, it’s a huge mix, and probably I have many more readers there. But my favorite way to connect with readers is through the ancient art of telling someone a story, face to face. Now, that’s magic!

#PitchWars Critique: LINKS AND LIES


My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.

Query:

I am submitting for your consideration LINKS AND LIES, a 95,000-word YA science fiction novel suited for fans of Lauren Oliver’s DELIRIUM and Beth Revis’ ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. It is a standalone novel with series potential. You've got good comp titles here, but I always say to put this info at the bottom of the query. Anyone querying has a title, a word count, and comparisons. Put what makes you YOU first.

Seventeen-year-old Brynn anticipates being cryogenically frozen for her future spouse, Why would she have to be frozen for her spouse? Is the spouse not born yet? but after watching the brutal freezing of her best friend, she is desperate to avoid the same fate. The government’s match-making program, the Linking System, no longer seems as wonderful as she once thought. I think you'll need to explain how the Linking System does, in order for us to understand why you'd have to be frozen in the first place.

Instead of being frozen, she’s accidentally How does she know it's an accident? linked to Matthew: the first boy ever frozen, the son of the man who created the Linking System, and the poster boy for the Romantics, the rebel group fighting against the system. When he’s thawed, they commit to exposing the four-hundred-year-old mystery behind the system’s creation — the mystery Matthew’s father kept secret by cryonically silencing his own son.

When Matthew assists in a massive thawing orchestrated by the Romantics, he’s arrested for treason. With war looming between the Romantics and the government, Brynn must uncover the proof that reveals the flaws in the Linking System before the boy she’s grown to love is hanged and she’s frozen. But secrets that stay hidden for four hundred years aren’t easy to find.

This sounds really cool. I like it! But I think we need to know what the secret is in order to understand what Matthew and Brynn are fighting against. You've got a good setup here, but a query isn't meant to be coy. Let us know what the major issue / flaw with the Linking System is, so that the agent can get behind the plot.

1st Page:

I avert my gaze as Jack removes his clothing. My eyes fall on my dad, or what I can see of him beneath his cryo suit. I shiver from the cold and pull my cardigan tighter around my waist. Jack doesn’t have the same luxury inside the lab. So they're separated? She's watching through glass? Or a camera? Give us a little more of a visual on the setting.

I can’t decide if I’m glad Dad’s the one performing Jack’s freezing or if I hate that he’s bringing about Jack’s greatest fear. My side of the observation glass ok cool, but I think put this up in the first para is just as pristine as Jack’s tomb-like quarters, but it feels more spacious without the cryo chamber and monitors. If I feel boxed in, his claustrophobia must have already triggered.

Jack whimpers and I squeeze my eyes shut. He had a four in five chance of being frozen. We all do. But it’s still not fair. I force my eyes open again because he’ll need to see me calm. I place a palm on the glass and will myself to take in every detail, knowing it’s the last time I’ll see him. Ever.

Dad taps codes in the computer, ignoring the shivering boy next to him even though they’ve been neighbors for seventeen years. The newest model cryo chamber rests horizontally on an exam table, and Jack sits in its chamber, visible from his waist up.

So far, so good.  I would say make sure in the next few paragraphs that you are clarifying why Jack is being frozen - b/c of the Linking System and what it is for.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

THIS DARKNESS MINE Release Day Giveaway!

It's release week for my sixth novel! Every book I write has an alternate title in my head, usually something pithy and funny that I can throw at people to get a giggle out of them. THIS DARKNESS MINE has always been - to me - Fight Club In the Band Room. It makes sense if you read it.

And now YOU CAN because it's releasing TODAY! Check out the trailer below, and make sure to enter to win a signed copy along with bookmarks of all my previous titles and some bookish swag like a George Orwell pin and some literary tattoos.

Want to see me in person because I'm a ton of fun? Cool. Check out my appearances below and, if I'm near you, come say hi!



Sasha Stone knows her place—first-chair clarinet, top of her class, and at the side of her oxford-wearing boyfriend. She’s worked her entire life to ensure that her path to Oberlin Conservatory as a star musician is perfectly paved.

But suddenly there’s a fork in the road, in the shape of Isaac Harver. Her body shifts toward him when he walks by, her skin misses his touch even though she’s never known it, and she relishes the smell of him—smoke, beer, and trouble—all the things she’s avoided to get where she is. Even worse, every time he’s near Sasha, her heart stops, literally. Why does he know her so well—too well—and she doesn’t know him at all?

Sasha discovers that her by-the-book life began by ending another’s: the twin sister she absorbed in the womb. But that doesn’t explain the gaps of missing time in her practice schedule or the memories she has of things she certainly never did with Isaac. As Sasha loses her much-cherished control, her life—and heart—become more entangled with Isaac. Armed with the knowledge that her heart might not be hers alone, Sasha must decide what she’s willing to do—and who she’s willing to hurt—to take it back.

Edgar Award–winning author Mindy McGinnis delivers a dark and gripping psychological thriller about a girl at war with herself, and what it really means to be good or bad.





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