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The Two Challenges of Writing Complex Characters

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Regardless of what you may imagine, we writers tend to subconsciously insert bits of our own psychology into our books. Whether it be the main character’s parents dying in almost every novel (guilty), or perhaps you imagine your jerk brother every time you write in a particularly sarcastic character’s point of view (guilty again). Because you will undoubtedly place bits of your own personality (as well as the people around you) into your novel, you should recognize this and surround yourself with these particular individuals as often as you find necessary. Is it a celebrity that has inspired you instead? Or perhaps a fictional character from another book or TV show? Watch that celebrity’s interviews, read that book again and again, or watch episodes of that same TV show a thousand times if you have to. In doing this, you are able to empathize and connect with the character in your mind, allowing you to think alternately to make the character come together in the unique way that you had imagined.

This isn’t always enough, however, and oftentimes we are faced with the trial of creating a character from scratch. As difficult as this can be, there are only two major obstacles that you will have to surpass. This will be the first time that I will use excerpts from the novel I’m currently writing, so forgive the length of this post, but I feel that it is important to give examples with your advice, and so I will show you exactly what I mean while I help you to give depth to your characters.

  1. Describing The Character

Giving a detailed description of any individual that you introduce to the reader is a must. Without this, the reader has very little to go off and, if their imagination isn’t as powerful as yours, they may not be able to put a face to the name. This leads to disinterest, as the reader cannot become fully engaged and connect with the characters, and a lack of interested readers means no demand for a sequel.

How to Do It:

First, don’t bring all of your goodies in one basket. In this sense, I simply mean that you shouldn’t give every detail of a character immediately as they are introduced. Space it out a little. If I were to type out an introduction for my main character, Enora, for example, I would not type all of her physical attributes in one paragraph. That would be boring. Instead, this is how I chose to introduce her as she made her first appearance in chapter 2:

            Enora dipped her scrubbing brush back into the bucket of soapy water before using it once more on the stain. Despite her vigilant scrubbing, the blood remained as dark as it was the night before, and Enora sighed, stopping for a moment to wipe her brow with the back of her arm. The wooden floors were old and a little rough, making the stain nearly impossible to remove. She could scrub and mop all she liked, but the color simply wouldn’t lift.

            “Try it with this.”

            Enora looked up to see her guardian and friend, Maggie, leaning over her and holding out a jar of cloudy liquid. Enora took it, removed the lid, and gave it a good whiff. Her nostrils and throat instantly burned and her blue eyes began to water. Coughing, she quickly moved it away from her face, holding it at arm’s length.

“What is it?” she wheezed.

            “That’s a concoction my mother taught me long ago,” Cleans up any stain, doesn’t matter how deep.” Maggie straightened her small back, but continued to look down at Enora. “You do a good job around here, Enora, and I appreciate the help.”

            “I’m glad to help, Maggie,” Enora said warmly, pushing damp and disheveled blonde bangs from her eyes, “I’ve been here for almost half my life, so I owe you quite a debt. If it weren’t for you, who knows where I’d be now?”

            “Well, you might be better off, you know,” Maggie replied gravely, “I could think of many things that would be better for a young girl than growing up in a brothel. Not every child cleans up after whores and finds herself to be frequently surrounded by dirty-minded old men.”

            Enora chuckled. “I could think of many worse fates,” she contradicted, “I earn my keep is all. And you’ve never asked me to lay with a man, Maggie, so the dirty-minded men are more like drunken uncles to me.”

            “Yeah, if drunken uncles pinch your ass.” Maggie laughed, her beautiful green eyes crinkling at the corners.

Not only did I give you a general depiction of Enora, but I also managed to slip in the description of another character while I was doing it (Maggie). This excerpt is stretched over a couple novel pages, and so the reader will not bogged down with details, nor are those details so spread out that the reader can’t put them together in his or her mind.

  1. Developing Character Personalities

Sometimes we have to make our characters suffer for the greater good. Sometimes they have to witness or take part in things that we would personally avoid like the plague. The reason for these sufferings (and even the joys) that the character experiences are paramount to creating their personality and bringing them closer to the reader. If you can’t think of any troubles for the character to experience that will pertain to the plot line, let me give you a tried and true method of my own: When in doubt, kill it with fire.

For this example, I will actually provide two different excerpts from my book (mainly because they are my favorite scenes that result in crispy critters):

A) He stood there, alone in front of the large mob, tied to a post and surrounded by branches and kindle for his own execution. Looking around him, he recognized several faces in the crowd with a wounded pang; the local butcher, the wise blacksmith, the woman who bought his mother’s magical poultices and herbs… all rallying now for his death. He trembled, beads of sweat and tears sliding down his face as he looked once more to his mother – needing her to comfort him this last time, despite his sins against her.

            But the crowd grew bored with his lack of response to the executioner’s question, and they once again began to shout and clamor for his demise. Before Mandil could react to the hatred that he heard in their voices, however, the executioner had picked up his torch and quickly lit the kindle with one sweeping motion.

The fire spread rapidly, consuming the kindle within seconds. It grew until it found the hem of Mandil’s cloth robe, and then it grew more, climbing up his legs and consuming him in its heat. Mandil screamed so loudly that his voice cracked, but the pain was more than he could bear, and so he screamed louder and louder still until his gasps for air drew in only oily black smoke and his tongue had boiled in his throat. His flesh bubbled and blackened as he wheezed out the garbled remains of his cries and, before the flames had died, Mandil was reduced to nothing more than a crumbling pile of scorched flesh and bone tied to a wooden post.

            His mother screamed then, a long and terrible cry of dismay. She dropped to her knees and sobbed loudly, reaching out to the air before her with both hands for her only son as he continued to smolder in the center of the clearing. The crowd soon began to dissipate, having lost interest once the execution had ended and the flames had died out. The knights, too, had left her to her anguish, having already had their amusement with her while the square had been prepared for her son’s execution.

Soon, she was alone in the clearing. She knelt there, in the dirt, for many hours, watching the smoke rise from her son’s corpse. She didn’t speak a word, but her eyes had hardened from her grief. Her bloodied face, no longer devoid of emotion, had taken on the countenance of one who no longer had anything to lose, but might have found something to gain.

While reading this, the reader may experience feelings of empathy or pity for the mother, as well as dismay and horror for Mandil, bringing them a larger sense of understanding as they watch his mother make her next moves in the novel. If that wasn’t enough to quench your blood thirst, however…

B) (chapters later, and far away from the brothel in my earlier example)

Enora slowly undressed and climbed between her sheets as her groggy mind recalled the niceties of the evening, and she gave a final sigh of contentment before drifting off into a peaceful slumber. Her dreams were nostalgic, and fond memories played through Enora’s mind as she slept, giving her a sense of ease that she hadn’t felt in many years.

            As she slept, however, Enora’s brows suddenly drew together in distress as loud shouting erupted from the courtyard outside her window. She opened her dreary eyes and saw bright orange and red lights dancing along her walls, casting dark shadows that flickered around the large room. The shouting continued as she pushed her blankets away and slowly rose from the bed. She walked to the window to investigate and, looking down onto the courtyard below, she felt her pulse quicken with a dreadful sense of shock.

            A great fire had claimed the better half of the large yard, engulfing the makeshift temple of the Old Religion in its entirety. Part of the structure’s roof had caved in, as well as the entrance, and Enora watched in horror as the building’s inhabitants broke the stained glass windows and began to claw their way over each other, desperately trying to escape the flames that consumed them.

            Men and women of both religions clamored in panic through the yard, desperately trying to make their way to the celebration hall to seek refuge. Guards and volunteers frantically stomped on the grass or threw buckets of water to extinguish the blaze, but the flames roared higher into the black sky, and the rest of the small temple’s roof caved in with a loud snap. Enora reeled away from the window, unable to watch as the shrieking victims were crushed by the impact.

            She snatched her dress up from the floor and hastily pulled it over her head with shaking hands. Not bothering to find her slippers, she ran from her room and took the spiraling steps two at a time before sprinting down the long hallway that led to the main corridors of the temple. She tore around a corner, her bare feet slipping on the carpet, and ran down another hallway. She had nearly reached the doors to the courtyard, eager to help those who fought the fire, but a hand quickly shot out and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her to a sudden stop and almost causing her to fall backwards.

            “There you are.” It was Galain, and Enora was instantly shocked and frightened by the fear that she saw on the warrior’s typically impassive face. “You need to come with me,” he quickly added, keeping a tight grip on her arm. He didn’t wait for her response, but began to walk quickly in the opposite direction, dragging her along behind him.

As you can see, there are multiple ways to experience the same horror. You’ve just mentally watched a man burn in front of his mother, and you also witnessed hundreds of people die in a burning building. Near the end of the book, you will experience the same horror, but through the eyes of the victim, rather than an observer (people seem to love burning other people when religion gets involved, but don’t worry about repetition; these don’t even scratch the surface of the many deaths that take place in this novel, and I assure you that I have been quite creative). The more detail you use, the more of a personal experience the reader will get, and the more they will connect with the characters that are directly involved and/or affected.

So there you have it: how to add depth to your characters’ personality growth, inevitably creating very complex individuals that the reader can love, hate, and understand. I hope that these examples have been helpful and, if you’re writing something of your own, feel free to leave a comment with any questions or advice that you need to help you on your way.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The Bare Necessities of Writing

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No matter the hobby or project we decide to spend our precious time and effort on, we always make sure to give it our all in order to achieve the best results. However, despite popular belief, you don’t always have to do it alone. Here is a short list of resources that every fantasy author should have while creating their fictional masterpiece, and hopefully more than a few of them can help you on your way to greatness.

1. Music.
You would be surprised by how much something as simple as having background noise can help you clear your mind and find your groove. Music has been a tried and true method used by students across the globe to aid with studying and retaining information, but it is also a great way to keep you focused on a long writing project as well! Many theorize that this is due to music being one of the only things that activate almost every part of the human brain at the same time, allowing information to flow or collect more easily. Pretty cool, right?

The common cliché’ of using music as a focusing tool is forcing yourself to listen to the prancing tones and mournful melodies of classical music, but recent studies have actually found that almost all music (even heavy metal) has found a place in our carefully crafted toolbox. If it’s late, however, I’d suggest keeping the AC/DC to a dull roar, as your neighbors may be focusing on the backs of their eyelids and won’t appreciate the late-night type session.

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2. Have A Good Editor.
Finding someone you trust to go over your work and find flaws or fix grammar issues is not always an easy thing to do, but I would highly recommend engaging in the search. A good friend (or even a hired expert, if you prefer to keep things professional) will more than come in handy when going over your precious pages, as another set of eyes is more likely to find mistakes that you’ve either grown accustomed to or didn’t even notice. Little phrasings that are second-nature to us may stand out to your editor, helping you realize that describing a character’s temper as *half-cocked* may not fit in so well with your Medieval-themed novel. Some editors (like mine) can be a little more opinionated than others… (example below from my current book’s partially-completed manuscript)

editor

3. A Fan.
Always have at least one fan to push you along and encourage your work. There is nothing better than sitting down and launching into your next plot point (which is genius, by the way!) to someone who is genuinely interested and excited to hear about it. As with therapy, speaking your thoughts out loud can help you discover new ideas or theories, and that can make all the difference in an intricate plot.

This fan can be the typical mother waving the #1 FAN foam finger over her head, or it could be a spouse or good friend – it doesn’t matter. As long as you have someone telling you that “you can do eet”, that’s what counts.

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4. A Critic.
Let’s face it – nobody likes a critic. These people can be mean and ruthless, and they can pick your whole book apart with the tug of a single thread. Intimidating, right? Absolutely. So let’s stay away from the professional critics for awhile and focus more on finding a friend that doesn’t mind looking for plot holes or time-line confusions. This person should hopefully enjoy reading, and especially reading fantasy, or their opinions are going to be a little bit harsher than usual. If listening to this person’s assessment causes you to feel as though you need to change everything, or even give up and start over because there’s simply too much to fix, you have found the wrong critic. Simply thank your friend and find another person to look over your work. Good constructive criticism is handed out with a detailed reason why the writer’s idea doesn’t fit, and it usually comes with other ideas for the writer to think about. Even if you don’t take these ideas, they will kick-start your mind into finding solutions much faster and more effectively than a simple, “this story sucks, brah.”

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5. A Clean Working Environment.
Numerous studies have found that depression, mental fatigue, and even a hindrance to creativity can result from having a dirty environment. People, by instinct, have a deep desire to control the things around them. If your bedroom or office has gotten out of control, it begins to affect you in many different ways, and can even lead to poor health and a lowered immune system. If you intend to finish that book in a timely manner (and you don’t want it to be tainted by a sour mood), I would highly suggest that you finally pick up that pile of dirty laundry and take out the trash.

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(On a side note, I’ll be very impressed if you can recognize all of the movie-related pictures!)

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Fantasy Novels and Writer’s Block – 5 Steps to Getting Back On Track

calvinWriting isn’t something that comes easily to everyone and, in fact, it can even be considered a super-power in many cultures and societies. However, as any avid Marvel or Capcom fan will tell you, every super-power has its weakness. Superman has his Kryptonite, the Human Torch can’t stand asbestos, and even the Hulk struggles with his uncontrollable rage. For authors, our weakness is strong, but simple: Writer’s Block.

Although there are many tips and tricks out there designed to help budding authors get over this impenetrable wall of doom, I have gone and made a list of my own; one more dedicated to those who have taken on the challenge of writing in my own particular genre – Fantasy.

  1. Have a creative friend to bounce ideas off of.

This is perhaps the most important of all my writing tips, and it is a very big key to any successful author. After all, let’s face it – writing is a lonely profession. We spend hours upon hours hunched over our laptops or computer monitors, tip-tapping away on our keyboards while drinking copious amounts of caffeine. Sometimes we hide away for days at a time, and rarely do we find people who are as interested in our book projects as we are. However, without the opportunity to openly discuss your novel and ideas with other people, you are limiting yourself to just one mind. This means one path for your imagination to follow and one person to catch any flaws, holes, or errors in your book’s plot. So, pick a supportive friend that you trust and make sure they have creativity of their own (writing, painting, acting, etc.). This friend will listen to even your worst ideas, while hopefully presenting a few ideas of their own and, even if you don’t take any of their suggestions, this will give you a broader scope of things to play around with in your mind.

  1. Play Dungeons & Dragons.

Having also been the center focus of an earlier post, I firmly believe that Dungeons & Dragons is a major stepping stone to creating any fine fantasy novel. This nerdy little game is jam-packed with enough awesomeness to kick-start any author’s imagination, and I have found it to be a tried and true method of banishing mental fatigue and Writer’s Block.

  1. Perform a Daily Fantasy Warm-Up.

There are many articles out there that advise young or new authors to write a little bit every day, even if it’s just a sentence. It could be about anything at all, and this will help you get over your writing obstacles. However, this isn’t always the case, and sometimes we just need things to be a little more specific. So, if you’re struggling with Writer’s Block, instead of writing something random every day (some blah-blah sentence about the weather or a description of that blanket Grandma’s making), write one sentence every day that eventually tells a small story. For example, if I were struggling with my current novel, I would wake up today and, on a separate piece of paper, I would write something simple: “Once upon a time, in the small city of Linford, a young boy came across a golden coin while sitting on a park bench.” The next day, I would add one more sentence that related to the first: “As he plucked the coin up off of the ground, the boy felt a small tingling sensation begin to course through his finger tips and up along his arms.” The sentences are simple but they get your mind revving, and the story doesn’t have to be related to your novel.

  1. Read.

Reading is a very popular method for ridding yourself of Writer’s Block, and it is also a favorite way to find inspiration for new plot ideas. This is not a method that works for me, however, but I thought it worthy of a mention just in case it could help one of my readers. If this method does not work for you, don’t worry. Some of us are very critical of our own work – more critical than others, perhaps. Because of this, reading a great book may only intimidate us or make us question the value of our own work. If this is the case for you, just as it has always been for me, then I would suggest watching a fantasy television series, such as Game of Thrones, to get that brain bubbling.

  1. Always bring a notepad!

I cannot stress this enough, and so I’m going to try harder: Always, ALWAYS scribble down your ideas. Good ideas, bad ideas, ideas that strike in the middle of the night or when you have soap in your eyes, it doesn’t matter; they are all ideas and an idea is the first step to making a decision. Just because something doesn’t fit in your plot now doesn’t mean it won’t later, and you’ll be glad you kept it within arm’s reach when inspiration strikes as suddenly as it tends to do with our kind. The primary downfall to any author’s successful novel would be thinking the words, “That’s a good idea, but I’ll remember it later.” It doesn’t matter how many times you go over that idea in your head, trying to make it stick like glue, it’s still going to float out of your head like a butterfly the next time you get distracted. A large contributor to Writer’s Block is a lack of content, but you HAD content… you just forgot it. Now your notebook is empty and you have nothing to add to your new novel.

So that is my own personal list of successful tips to get over that pesky Writer’s Block, and even a couple ideas to help you find further inspiration for that epic fantasy novel of yours. Let me know which ones worked best for you and feel free to leave a couple ideas of your own!

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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How Dungeons & Dragons Will Make You a Better Writer

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For those of you who don’t know, Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy game that is mostly played via word of mouth – with nothing more than the use of your imagination. Sounds lame, right? Well, it isn’t. In fact, if you ever decide to give it a try, you just may find that it’s the best, most addictive game you’ve ever played. The best part about D&D is that it’s almost completely free to play! All you need is a set of dice (yep, the weird-looking ones with all the sides), a piece of paper (or the real character sheets if your Dungeon Master is feeling fancy), a  love for fantasy, a few friends, and an experienced nerd.

Once you have what you need, your Dungeon Master (who was hopefully awesome enough to make his own campaign story) will now lead you on an epic journey of twists, turns, monstrous creatures and moral choices, all tied nicely together with a healthy dose of controlled chaos. Your job as an adventurer is to decide all the actions and dialogue that your character makes in response to everything and everyone that crosses your path and, depending on your luck with dice, this will shape your character’s destiny either miraculously or terribly. You’ll never again feel the same joy as when you rolled that 20 while shooting an ogre with your bow, killing him with one hit! But you’ll also never know shame like that time you rolled a 1 and shot your healer in the eye (or whatever other terrible punishment your sadistic DM can think of). So, now that I’ve explained Dungeons & Dragons to you, my dear readers, let me explain how this game has shaped my own own perspective and how it will help you achieve greatness in writing.

The first time I ever heard of Dungeons & Dragons, I was nothing more than a young teenage girl. I had already developed quite the imagination and was often found tucked away in a corner with my nose in a book, but I had yet to dabble in the fine art of playing any kind of game that wasn’t presented on a TV screen (Super Mario Bros. anyone?). However, due to my teenage obsession with being accepted, coupled with the negative attention that was given to those who played the game (mostly from school bullies), I didn’t have the nerve to try it for many years. After finally leaving home as a fresh adult, I eventually met a few friendly people in my new apartment building and, after several months of good friendship, it was finally brought to my attention that my new friends were… well, nerds! Among many things, these wonderful people taught me how to fix my own computer, how to program certain software and, you guessed it, how to play Dungeons & Dragons.

From the first several minutes of playing this game with my friends, I was hooked. Not only did I get to create my own character essentially from scratch, but through this character I was able to experience virtually anything that the DM could throw at me. My friends and I fought dragons, found treasures, made friends along the road that later betrayed us, and even paid for a prostitute or two in a brothel (always use protection!). The adventures were long, usually lasting months, and eventually my character (if he/she survived very long) became so bad-ass that I couldn’t help but feel like I’d officially reached pro-status.

Despite all of the laughter, fun, and even occasional outrage, the one thing I picked up on while playing this game was its complete and total flexibility… almost as if the boundaries of the game were meant to be manipulated. You could literally do anything! If you were clever enough to make it sound legit, and if you were mildly lucky with your dice, there wasn’t a thing that couldn’t be done. Cornered on the edge of a cliff by a giant ogre? Well, remember that time your friends laughed at you for choosing the ability to create a gallon of water anywhere? You thought you’d need it in case your character got stranded in a thirsty desert, but who’s to say that gallon wouldn’t best be located inside the skull of that giant ogre? Roll a good number and enjoy your Dungeon Master’s fury when his precious goblin’s head explodes without even swinging his over-sized club.

The first thing a game like Dungeons & Dragons will teach you is how to always think outside the box. For example, a well-placed Mage Fist to an enemy’s unfortunate testicles can give you a much needed advantage and end a battle much quicker than regular attacks that simply drain health points. The craftier you become, the more you challenge your DM to keep your character in check and, in the end, the campaign may simply turn into several adventuring friends trying to drive their diligent Dungeon Master clinically insane. Because of this, the game can get quite competitive, but if your DM isn’t clever enough to explain why you can’t flood his ogre’s brains with water, at least without creating new rules or worldly guidelines, then you have free reign!

In writing, this concept is often the same. I have had many people approach me with a constant concern: “There’s a huge hole in my plot and I can’t make it work without starting over.” Here’s my advice: Play a few hours of D&D with your friends. If you don’t feel clever enough to stretch or manipulate your plot to make something work, then you aren’t exercising your imagination, which is almost a muscle in itself. Just as writing regularly will actually improve your grammar and literacy (without even taking a class), so, too, will your imagination improve when forcing it to think outside the box. As with all things, practice, practice, practice, and watch the plot of that epic novel start to wrap itself together nicely without you even breaking a sweat.

However, I must warn you: don’t think you can take a shortcut and play a video game instead, as it’s highly unlikely that you will achieve the same result. With video games, there is too much structure and, therefore, less options. If your character in Assassin’s Creed is in a tight spot against a big boss, you can’t think to yourself, “I’ll just throw dirt in his eyes! That will distract him while I take out his minions.” Instead, you are stuck with the abilities your character has and the small map around you. No room for imagination, and no DM to piss off when you thwart his best attempts to kill you.

An added bonus to playing this game is that, because you’re playing with actual people, you learn what other adventurers would think and worry about along the way. Your sister is playing the healer? How sweet. But she’s getting real sick of you meandering away from the group and getting yourself caught in traps – probably because she has to use her vital resources to keep you alive after she finds you bleeding out on some spikes. The lesson: the healer in your novel probably feels the same way, and this may give you a small idea for something to add to your chapter, or even a bit of personality depth to give to that character. That’s right! If you want to have true insight into your characters, you have to listen to your buddies rant and rave while you journey through the amazing world of Dungeons & Dragons. Observe the roles they’re playing and how those characters interact with each other – this is literally your free ticket into the minds of real people while they journey through a fantasy world! Sounds like a good cheat sheet to keep nearby if you want the characters in your novel to be more realistic! Take inspiration from the different personalities around you and flex that imagination by getting yourself out of tough situations (or into them, if you’re hungry for adventure!). Unless your dice are cursed (and we know this happens), there should be no reason you can’t have an amazing experience. Not to mention, if you have a good Dungeon Master, you just may learn a thing or two about creating breathtaking worlds, giving life to various villains and heroes, and even discovering and using loopholes to your advantage. With the game of Dungeons & Dragons, and especially with your writing, the only limits you have are the ones you place on your own mind.

So go and find that dusty basement full of nerds, throw on that Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and make sure you brought your best set of dice (yes, the sparkly ones!) because you’ve got adventures to go on and that book’s not going to write itself!

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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