Books You Can’t Forget

woman-1323576_640What makes a novel memorable? Is it the plot or the action?

Or is it the characters?

I think, even in fantasy and action genres, that the characters are the aspect that stick in our minds and make us want to keep reading. It’s because of them that we want to enjoy more of their adventures, to re-enter the world in which they live.

And one way characters become memorable is the way they grow emotionally. Many people could endure the same horror, face the same trial, but only that character will respond and change in their own unique way.

To get an idea of how this works, I thought back to some of my favorite novels.

Lord Peter Wimsey comes to mind. He stars in entire series of detective novels. In the first one, he’s more concerned with his clothes and wine than anything else. He’s convinced that he can have anything he wants, simply by working for it.

By the end of the series, he’s learned to be more concerned with the feelings of others than simply his own. He gets over his past romantic pains and learns to not just commit to one woman, but to open up to her.

Jane Austen’s Emma is another character who assumed life would go her way. She was a bit more arrogant than Lord Peter, and even tried to manipulate many around her by playing match maker. By the end of the novel, she’s learned how badly she over-estimated her own powers and ability to read people.

In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam both grow emotionally. They learn that they have strength of their own. They also come to grips with the fact that doing the right thing may have very bad consequences. In the case of Frodo, it meant he would never be able to enjoy the way of life he labored so hard to preserve.

Then there are examples of what not to do.

I’ve read lot of young adult fantasy lately, and in the process, read a lot of stories about a headstrong, well-meaning young person. In trying to solve whatever crisis she is facing, her impulsive actions make everything worse. Or her thinking that she, and she acting alone, is the only person who can save the day. Both of these scenarios have been done so often, they feel like clichés.

So writing a flawed young person needs to go beyond their own unwillingness to listen to advice that causes problems. Maybe it’s because they did try to follow someone else’s counsel, and some unforeseen calamity occurred. Or maybe they tried their best and just weren’t good enough.

Either way, it creates lots of room for growth.

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Raising the Stakes

crocodile-594305_640As I slog through editing Raising Fear, I realize that there is a series of scenes where things happen, but not very much. There is tension, but it’s fairly level. A lot lurking under the surface, but it doesn’t rear up often enough.

While in real life, most of us would prefer to muddle along at a reasonably even keel, with a few ups. And we’d all prefer to skip the downs, thank you.

But that’s not what we look for in a novel. We want to get caught up in the adventures of someone we start to care about. Adventures, as the old saying goes, are bad things that happen to other people.

If the protagonist is put through all kinds of life-threatening perils, great. If emotionally she’s twisted and pummeled and otherwise beat up along the way, even better. We live vicariously through the characters we like, and keep turning the pages to see what happens to them and how they surmount whatever the author has thrown at them.

Sometimes, though, it seems that the writer doesn’t give his characters a minute to take a breath. Or at least a bathroom break. No sooner does his hero deal with one crisis, the next one is looming. Not just on the horizon, but knocking on the front door.

So back to Raising Fear. (Which, incidentally, could end being called something else altogether.) What can I do to raise the tension and mix it up so the reader doesn’t know if she can relax or brace herself for the next trial?

One thing is to make sure the stakes are clear. Early on I establish that people are punished by disappearing. One day they’re there, the next not. While that’s a vague threat that hangs over everyone’s head, I could make it clear that for my heroine, the threat is becoming more real.

Maybe I can have some kind of process, whereby someone is called in to see the Ephor, the official in charge of law and order. Or they receive a notice from the questor, the official in charge of the courts.

Or one morning a mark is put on their front door. This would have the advantage of letting all the neighbors know someone’s in trouble. On the other hand, this method would take away the element of surprise, at least as far as the neighbors are concerned.

The stakes could be raised by the threats extending to her mother, her friend’s mother, and some that couldn’t possibly be realized, but she doesn’t know that.

Another way to raise the tension is to make clear the or-else. If she doesn’t succeed, what will happen? My heroine’s major goal is to discover why her friend disappeared. As she tries to find out, she needs to realize that it could easily happen to her. All I need to do is drop some clues along the way so she understands this.

Now I’ve got some direction for my editing. Can’t see what trials and tribulations I can come up with for my characters…and how they succeed or fail.

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Soft versus Hard Magic

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One thing that sets the fantasy genre apart from the others is its use of magic. Many reviewers say that the better thought out the system of magic in the story, the better the book.

This holds true for hard magic, others say, but what about soft magic?

 

 

I have to confess I was forced to do a little research to understand that one. I knew about high and epic fantasy, and various sub genres. Hard and soft magic were new ideas to me.

Here’s what I found out.

Probably the best known example of soft magic is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He never explains exactly how Gandalf, the other wizards, or Sauron himself uses their magic. They are just able to do things ordinary mortals cannot.

Hard magic is a system of magic with very clear rules that the reader knows about. One great example is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Certain individuals, given the right talent and training, can manipulate power that is released when they swallow certain metals. Each metal has a different property. One enables the wielder of the power to pull objects to himself, another, to push them away.

So which to use?

In my own novel, I haven’t come up with a concrete set of rules. But the soft magic will work as long as I don’t use the magic to come up with a contrived ending. The magic is there to add a sense of wonder. As Sanderson himself says:

Books that focus on this use of magic tend to want to indicate that men are a small, small part of the eternal and mystical workings of the universe. This gives the reader a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers—or wonders—the characters will encounter. Indeed, the characters themselves never truly know what can happen and what can’t.

He goes on to say that as long as the characters can’t use the magic to solve their problems (by which I mean the big story problems), soft magic works by creating a sense of uncertainty. The users of the magic aren’t always sure what’s going to happen when they try it, and it could create more problems for them.

What I have written is some kind of hybrid system. The magical amulets have certain properties, but it’s not always certain that the user will be able to tap into them. I don’t explain how they work, and the users aren’t sure themselves. I hadn’t thought of the idea of using an amulet and it causes more problems. That could add an interesting plot twist all its own.

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Hates, Loves and Fears

thunder-953118_640Creating characters who seem to leap off the page and think for themselves is no easy task. It’s far too easy to allow characters, especially minor ones, remain one dimensional and flat.

Thinking through the emotional make up of characters can fix this problem, and provide fodder for subplots and twists along the way. It also can help with foreshadowing and believability.

I’ve read too many books where a character suddenly does something for no other reason than to move the plot along. Certainly that character wouldn’t behave that way on their own.

So I’ve been thinking through the emotional make up of my cast of characters, especially some of the minor ones. This involves thinking about what they love, hate and fear, as well as their goals, obstacles in their way, and secrets.

Tarkio is one of my major characters. He’s a trader whose goal is to be successful in his marriage and his profession. At the beginning of the story, his only obstacles are bandits who threaten to rob him, and his borderline bi polar wife.

As the story unfolds, he wants to protect his friend Xico from a foolish marriage, and Iskra, the girl Xico’s in love with. They wouldn’t have become involved had Tarkio not thrown them together, and he feels responsible. Guilty, in fact, which leads him to handle the situation badly. He’s afraid of thunder and lightening, a fear that delays him from providing vital help to Xico and Iskra.

Then I thought about Tarkio’s trading buddies. They’re minor characters, not critical to the main story line. I hadn’t thought much about them before. But by giving them a secret, a love or a fear, they could become more than just sidekicks.

Poales, for example, had always been a bit of an intellectual, a problem solver. Then I thought to turn this into a love of tinkering, of inventing things, which he sells to the riskers. He gives a clever invention to Xico near the end of the story, one that helps Xico.

Waukomis, on the other hand, is an adventurer, always testing the limits and acting on impulse. What keeps him in line is his fear of losing his trading license and having to settle down in one place. Sometimes he fantasizes about running away to join the riskers, or even the pirates.

All this came from just a few moments of thought. But the story will be richer, and I hope, more satisfying, because of it.

 

 

 

 

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Mischief Part 2

Last week I shared Part 1 of “Mischief.” Read on for the conclusion:

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Karen’s roommate Judy was incensed over the way Jeff had treated Karen. He’d even been talking marriage, then came up with a lame reason to break things off. Judy felt Jeff needed to be taken down a peg or two.

She seized her opportunity by inviting Jeff and his buddy Bill over for lunch one day after church, along with four or five others. She and Karen made a good old southern brunch, with waffles and egg casserole and hash browns. Judy made sure she was in constant motion, first in the kitchen, then the dining room, or living room, or balcony, wafting in and out of the rooms as easily as the smell of sizzling bacon. With so many people squashed into the small apartment, it was hard to keep track of who was where.

I was helping them clean up after everyone had left. Both Karen and Judy had smug smiles on their faces. “We sure got them,” said Judy.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, wiping grease from the stove.

They looked from one to the other. “You have to promise not to tell.”

“OK. What?”

They told me. The guys had left their suit coat jackets in the bedroom. Judy had slipped in and placed certain objects in the inside breast pocket of both their coats.

“You didn’t.” I was horrified.

“Oh, yes. We did.” The two of them were so pleased with themselves you’d think they’d won the Nobel Prize. Then they came close to me, one on either side, with narrowed eyes and eyebrows pulled together. “Don’t tell them.”

I agreed. After all, I thought, they’ll probably notice there’s something in the pocket that shouldn’t be there. Or they’ll take their coats to the dry cleaner. Or something. No one will see but them.

I was wrong.

Monday morning, Bill was making his rounds as a sales rep for an agricultural supply company. He drove south into rural Missouri, stopping by small town hardware stores. He’d been working with one store for weeks, and they’d just made a deal for a large order. Bill produced the contract for the store’s owner to sign and reached into his suit coat pocket for a pen.

When he touched it, he noticed what he thought was his pen was covered with paper. “What’s this?” he asked as he pulled it out. He looked at the thin white object, eyes popping and gasped, dropping it on the floor.

His face flaming, he picked the slender Kotex tampon before it rolled under a display of garden tools. The store manager chuckled. “That doesn’t belong to you, son?”

Jeff fared not much better. He was a financial executive for a large Catholic health system. Monday morning he had a meeting with some of the nuns who ran the system. Needing a pen, he reached into his pocket. He pulled it out, saw what it was, and immediately replaced it and felt for another object he was sure was a pen. Feeling his face burning, he looked out of the corners of his eyes, hoping none of the nuns had noticed. All but one wore the serious looks of someone participating in an intense finance meeting. Sister Ruth’s face, however, wore a smirk that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the balance sheet her eyes were fixed on.

Within an hour, Jeff and Bill were on the phone to each other, comparing notes. “We know who it was,” said Jeff. “Who else would do such a thing?” They began to plot revenge.

Their chance came soon enough. Karen’s company transferred her to North Carolina. She threw a big party the night before the movers were to show up. Knowing that Jeff and Bill were most likely up to no good, she met them at the door and made them turn out their pockets.

They pretended to be hurt that she would even think such a thing.

She didn’t take into account the fact that those guys had other friends. One of them had stopped at the drugstore on the way to the party.

A few days later, when Karen unpacked, she found the little gifts Jeff and Bill had left her in retaliation. Hundreds of condoms, stashed all over. Some in the dishes. Some in the coffee. A few slipped between the tea bags. Tucked into books and in bags of clothes. Piles under the cushions of the couch. Handfuls stuffed into dresser drawers. Months later, she was still finding them.

I never did find out exactly what broke up Jeff and Karen. In some ways they seemed like a perfect match, both fun loving energetic people.

But one thing I did know. I was never going to get on Karen’s wrong side. Who knows what mischief she’d dream up at my expense?

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Mischief Part 1

When challenged to write a story on the theme of “mischief,” I didn’t have to think too hard. Here’s part 1.

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Jeff dumped Karen, or so they told me. She, of course, was devastated. After all, she was pushing 26 and felt it was high time she got married.

This all happened in the 1980s, but memories of the events that followed Karen’s ill-fated romance have stuck with me like caramel between your teeth.

On the surface, she seemed to rebound quickly. It wasn’t like she was sitting around doing nothing. When she wasn’t working, she played on a volleyball team and volunteered with her church’s junior high youth group. High energy and full of jokes, she was a hit with the kids.

Kind of picky of Jeff, I thought. On top of her outgoing personality, she had a great career as a food service manager for a large corporation. She was full of stories of her employees, which she loved to retell for the entertainment of all her friends. I supposed he felt he was too good for a girl with an athletic build, brown eyes and wavy hair. In my opinion, which no one asked for, he didn’t wear a face that girls would dream about. But what did I know.

Anyway, one day one of Karen’s cafeteria workers, a rather large farm girl named Towanda walked into her office and dumped an item on Karen’s desk that caused her heart to skip a beat. She stared at it, eyes wide open, hand covering her mouth. It was a square object covered with blue fur, with a doll’s face pasted on the side. Out of the top, a piece of Kleenex stood up, like white brains spurting from the doll’s head.

“I make these Kleenex box dolls,” said Towanda, “fer extra cash. Kin we sell them on the tray line in the cafeteria?”

Karen, having recovered from her shock, was now attempting not to fall into hysterical laughter. “I’ll check the policy manual and let you know.”

She told me the story over some carryout Chinese we shared at her apartment a few days later. “I didn’t want to offend her, you know. She’s got a temper and I didn’t want her to come at me in the parking lot.”

“So what did you say?”

“That it’s against company policy to sell home crafts on the tray line.” We both had a good laugh over that one.

She reached behind her sofa and plopped the doll on her wicker coffee table. I dropped my chopsticks on top of my General Tso’s chicken and blinked. “That’s it?” There was something creepy about the doll’s smile, something that reminded me of Chucky from the Child’s Play movies.

“It is,” Karen said. “Ugliest thing I ever saw.” She took a bite of Moo Goo Gai Pan and tipped her head to the side. “But I was thinking. We could have a lot of fun with these. Wouldn’t they make great gag gifts?”

I picked up the doll to get a closer look. The smiling face coupled with the Kleenex brains was hideous, almost scary looking. I had to admire Karen that she didn’t shriek when Towanda put it on her desk.

I gingerly set it on the coffee table, as if it some zombie was about to jump out of it. “We’d have to pick carefully,” I said. “We wouldn’t want to give someone a heart attack.” We talked about who would be the best person to receive such a thing. It took us awhile, but we hit on the perfect victim.

At that time I worked for a consulting firm that liked to consider itself prestigious but in my opinion, snooty was a better word. One of my colleagues, newly graduated from Harvard’s MBA school took himself a bit too seriously. Karen agreed. Parker would soon be the proud owner of a Kleenex doll.

So we placed an order with Towanda for twelve of her best creations: any color fur or doll’s face would do. Variety was great, Karen told her. We wanted to be able to pick the perfect offering for Parker.

I waited for my opportunity. One day, Parker was fighting a cold. I gave him a Kleenex, offering sympathy for his illness. He thanked me, commenting that it sure would be handy to have a box of Kleenex in his cubicle.

So as not to be too obvious, I waited until the next day when he went to lunch. Then I jumped into action. I grabbed the Kleenex doll Karen and I had selected, a dark-skinned, dark-haired doll’s face with shocking pink fur covering the Kleenex box and set in the overhead cabinet of his cubicle, carefully closing the door. Then I left for a meeting.

Others who were in the office that day told me what happened. Parker returned from lunch and settled down to work. His manager came by and asked about a certain client’s file. Parker jumped up, opened his cubicle cabinet and screamed. His manager screamed as well. “What the (expletive deleted) is that?” the manager said.

“I can’t say I know,” Parker said. He then started to interrogate everyone in the office about who could have left him such a dreadful item.

When I returned from my meeting, he started on me. “Did you put a Kleenex box in my cubical?”

“What Kleenex box?”

He glared at me, daring me to lie to him.

“A Kleenex box? What does it look like?”

He stared at me, puzzled. “If you don’t know, that you must not have done it.” He scowled. “Tim said it wasn’t him, but I’m sure it was.”

I shrugged and slid into my seat and pulled some files out of my briefcase. “Maybe it was.” I smiled apologetically. “I’ve got to get this done today…”

He nodded and let me return to work.

Only years later did I confess. Then he had to apologize to Tim, who he’d blamed for years.

That was my idea of a prank. Harmless, funny, no violations of good taste.

Others of my friends had different ideas.

Come back next week for the rest of the story!

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Imagining Tlefas

CliffI’m all about setting and detail these days, trying to flesh out the land of Tlefas where all the action takes place.

To help me along, I’ve been looking for some images that fit different scenes.

This is the cliff Iskra climbs when she’s fleeing the bandits.

Next are what Iskra is told the riskers’ huts look like.

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The truth is more like this:

risker house 2

The riskers live better than the villagers, whose homes aren’t much better than what they think the riskers live in. The riskers build their homes of wood to avoid being burnt out by bandits who might attack at any time. Their roofs are slate for the same reason.

 

They also have started using some technology to save labor, like harnessing the power of water to mill grain.

risker house 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The rulers, like Kaberco the Ephor, live on a grander scale. Although in the interests of preserving the myth that everyone is the same, they have to hide it a bit. Kaberco’s house is more like this one, but three stories in height.

Kaberco house

The lower floors (and the basement) are used for official business. These are plain and austere. What Kaberco has done with the upper floor where no one but his indentured servants and close friends venture, well, that remains to be seen..

Finally, here’s a look at the mountains where Iskra and Xico hide from their pursuers.

southern mountain

 

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Some Fashions I Just Don’t Get

queen-62969_640Amazing what you can learn just skimming your Facebook news feed. Someone posted an article about tuberculosis on its effect on fashions in the nineteenth century. It seems that the elaborate cravats popular among men had another purpose. They hid the unsightly diseased neck glands common to those with TB.

That got my imagination going. What other odd fashions are out there? A quick search told me there are lots, and some I could barely believe.

Black Teeth

Here’s a perverse one. Only the rich in Queen Elizabeth I’s day could buy sugar. So the rich tended to have worse teeth, due to their ability to indulge in sweets. For a short time, English women blackened their teeth to show they had the cash to buy sugar.

Bombasting

Also from the Elizabethan era comes the practice of bombasting. Men didn’t diet or worry about beer bellies (or ale bellies.) A large tummy meant you were wealthy, so many men stuffed their doublets to create the effect.

Powdered Wigs

White powdered wigs are another trend that came to us because of a disease. This time syphilis was the culprit. Among the symptoms of the disease were nasty smells and baldness. To kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, wigs came into favor. The white powders used were scents like lavender and orange.

Facekini

Concerned about the effects of the sun’s rays on the skin of their faces, Chinese women head for the beach wearing facekinis. That’s right, a facekini is a mask that covers the face, neck and upper chest.  Gives bathing beauty a whole different meaning.

Eye Tattoos

Not on the eyelid, on the white portion of the eye itself. Apparently this was popular thousands of years ago and is again popular in Canada. You can pick colors, like green, or even have designs. This is another style that needs to go away.

Bubble fingernails

Instead of just getting your nails painted, you can get bubblenails. The nail technician will place a ball of acrylic on your nail, then build around it layer by layer, creating the bubble effect. Then they’ll paint them whatever color the client wants.

Meggings

Meggings are a modern trend that I, for one, hope is short lived. You guessed it, meggings are leggings for men. I have nothing to say but no.

These are just a handful of ways I found for people to alter their appearance, for whatever reason. Most of them I just don’t get.

But now my imagination is in overdrive, wondering how to incorporate some odd fashions in my writing. What a great way to show a character quirk, like independence, or a disease they are trying to hide.

Anyone know of any other weird fashion trends?

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Bring Setting into the Action

forest-696838_640As I edit Raising Fear, I struggle with my settings. I loath books that deviate from the story and detail every item in a room or describe someone’s clothing to the last button.

So I go too far in the other direction, often leaving my characters acting on a blank white stage.

The obvious solution is to include only those details that are important to the story. This could be something like the scar on an arm that later identifies the murder victim.

But how to make this work for setting? And are there ways to use setting details to ramp up conflict and tension?

As I was puzzling over this question, I came across this excellent blog post over at Writers Helping Writers. I’ve used their Emotion Thesaurus before (a very helpful resource that I highly recommend), and am excited that they are soon to release the Setting Thesaurus. This is a tool I need!

But back to the blog post. The author offers tips for making the setting play a role other than just as background scenery. Instead, the idea is to use the setting to deepen characters, add meaning to the story, and intensify the conflict.

My favorite of their tips is this one, to use the little things.

If every challenge and obstacle was some catastrophic event, we’d be tangoing with melodrama in no time. Luckily, little obstacles can be just as effective and remind readers of the real world. After all, who hasn’t spilled coffee on their slacks right before an interview, taken the wrong bus on route to an important doctor’s appointment, or discovered a broken tent pole only after completing a four hour hike into the mountains?  The little things are like midges biting at the skin, and how gracefully (or not) your protagonist bears the pain as things pile up will humanize him to readers and teach him resilience, something he’ll need if he’s in it for the long haul.

If you find your scene is flagging, try planting an obstacle or two in your character’s path.  Besides, whatever it is your protagonist wants most is something they need to fight for. Winning becomes so much more of a rush for readers when the protagonist has really worked for it.

Just this tip alone has opened up all kinds of possibilities. Who hasn’t dumped coffee in their lap when they’re facing a crisis? And we all know, how we react in those situations shows volumes about who we are as people. One scene like that, and there’s no need to tell readers that the character is patient or high-strung. They’ll know.

Stop by Writers Helping Writers for the full post.

 

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Confessions of a Multi-tasker

business-19156_640Winter passed, spring is well underway and I wonder.

What have I accomplished? I’m at least two months behind on most of my major goals.

Sure, a lot can be explained by unplanned travel for family reasons. Assisting a handicapped relative relocate to residential program, helping another with a new baby, and other life events popped up and claimed my attention.

But I may have another problem.

Ready for a confession?

I am a die-hard multi-tasker.

 

All my working life, I’ve loved to have multiple projects going. My rationale was that:

1. It was more interesting to have a lot going on than just one thing
2. When I got stuck on one project, I could shift to another. In the meantime, my subconscious would figure out what to do next on the first project.
3. Working on different projects helped me be more creative on all of them

There’s some truth to those reasons. But there’s also a fourth unspoken justification:

I could switch projects if I was bored with one, or just didn’t feel like tackling it.

So now I look at my writing projects and the other projects I’ve committed to, and have to ask myself the question. Why am I having such a hard time getting things done?

A quick google search for “productivity” gave me an answer.

Focus.

Or lack of it.

It seems many of the productivity experts are now saying that multi-tasking is evil (my summary with a touch of paraphrasing thrown in).

To go into a little more detail, the experts seem to agree that our brains can only handle one task at a time. When we multi-task, we expend effort switching gears from one task to another. That’s energy that could have been spent producing.

I (reluctantly) have to admit they may have a point. Frustrated and stressed (not to mention fighting a sinus infection), earlier this week I decided to forget everything else and just concentrate on doing the accounting for my brother’s estate. The deadline is at the end of June, and I don’t want to miss it. (Never mess with the courts.)

I had started a few weeks ago, putting in an hour here or there, thinking I’d just chip away at the mammoth task. That way I could keep pushing on with writing projects.

That approach got me nowhere fast. And each time I started, I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what I had been doing when I stopped.

This week, the whole picture changed.

I made significant progress, amazing myself. Sure, there were setbacks and I had to do some work over (probably due to the sinus infection impairing my ability to do simple math).

But the point is, by focusing on one project, I got it done.

As much as I hate to admit, I may have to give up my multi-tasking ways.

Maybe what I need to do is pick a project and make it my main project, and work on it all day or until I get totally stuck. Then and only then will I switch to something else.

Or maybe not. I’m not so sure I can quit the multi-tasking habit.

Any suggestions?

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