Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Special Feature

Artist: Katie Stewart

Katie is a writer, illustrator and book cover designer. She lives in the Central Wheat belt of Western Australia.  Katie has illustrated many books and has authored four novels - all of a fantasy bent including The Dragon Box for children through to the wonderful Treespeaker series for adults. (I've read the latter and thoroughly enjoyed it.) Now Katie has embarked on a fun project for kids - the beautifully illustrated  Famous Animals series.  

What inspired you to create your Famous Animals series?

I was taking part in the 52-Week Illustration Challenge on Facebook and the theme was “Italy”. I couldn’t get past ‘opera’ when I thought of Italy, but I didn’t want to have to try to draw a real opera singer, so I drew a fat little mouse in tails singing his heart out. Looking at the finished piece, I decided it wasn’t a mouse, but a rat and then I thought, “It’s Pavaratti!” I couldn’t sleep that night, because my head was full of other animal puns of famous people…and so a book was born.

How did you choose which famous people / animals to include in the series?

For Volume 1, I did a general book of famous people from all walks of life, with no particular theme in mind. I just wanted to see how it would go really. I kept to people who were no longer living, because I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be from living people, but really I just kept going through the list I’d made until I had a good collection of both males and females. When I say ‘the list I’d made’, I should add that quite a few of the ideas came from people on the British ‘Kindle Users Forum’. Being British, they loved puns and came up with some really good ideas.
When I did the Famous Animal Leaders calendar that I’ve just put out (available from Redbubble – adaptable to any starting month so you can buy it all year round), I stuck to pre-twentieth century leaders. If I’d chosen modern leaders, people might have wondered why I chose one politician over another and I didn’t want to get into politics.

With Volume 2 of Famous Animals, I have done some modern characters as well as the historical ones. It has a musical theme and you can’t really cover music if you don’t include some modern musicians. So it covers composers, singers, instrumentalists and dancers from Mozart to Lady Gaga. I’m trying to get this one published by a mainstream publisher though, in the hope it might reach a wider audience.

What medium did you use to create the artwork? How do you go about commencing these drawings? Did you have a clear vision in your head of what you wanted each to look like once you’d decided on which character you were going to draw?

I work entirely on the computer, using a Wacom Cintiq 13HD tablet. They’re all done on a 12in x12in canvas, though in hindsight, I wish I’d used a different shape. I love the Cintiq because I can see what I’m drawing on the screen, or I can look up to my big computer monitor and see more detail. I start with the blank white canvas and a whole lot of reference photos/paintings around it (in Photoshop). I draw the basic idea in black on a transparent layer and then build the painting up in layers underneath that, until I don’t need it anymore and then I turn the drawing layer off. I generally decide on a background when I’ve finished and slip it underneath the character. That’s the joy of digital art. You don’t have to think in order. You can completely change your mind on something without ruining the painting, you can erase without damaging the canvas and you can experiment to see how things look and then go back to the original if you don’t like it.

I don’t always know what I’m going to do with a character before I start and sometimes I have to restart a few times before I’m happy. Often though, especially with the historical figures, there’s a painting that I can see as an animal straight away, so I use that as reference. Sometimes the image I come up with is a collage of ideas from different images I’ve found. 

Sometimes I finish a painting and I just don’t like it. I haven’t deleted any of them because I might later on see a way to fix it, but they don’t get used if I’m not entirely happy with them. 

Find Katie on:

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Thursday, 22 September 2016

Book Review

Yea Though I Walk

by J.P. Sloan

(Pub: Curiosity Quills Press, 2016)

Yea Though I Walk is genre blending fiction: it is a mix of the western, horror, and paranormal fantasy genres. From the opening sentences, “It’s the smell that hit me first. That sickly-sweet smell of greasy meat and burning hair puts a hook in my gut and drags me awake.” - I had a feeling I was onto a winner with this story.

The plot follows the path of Linthicum Odell, an Army deserter and would-be member of The God Pistols - a band of gun toting vigilantes who clear the west of demons, vampires and other hell spawn. Linthicum has been sent to a town known as Gold Vein to procure silver bullets from the smithy there. On his way he is waylaid and captured by a group of wendigo. His path is now inextricably woven with the complex problems of the ever diminishing citizens of Gold Vein. He finds himself faced with not only an army of cannibals in the hills, but also vampires (strigoi or striggers). It’s all fun from there onward.

Sloan sets the scene wonderfully in first paragraph - I could visualise what was going on extremely well and this opening scene turns out to be an action packed one. In fact there are only a few places where the pacing lags a little in this novel, otherwise it rockets along and I really did have trouble putting it down. Those slower sections are the travelling to and from the homestead to the town; these become a little repetitive, but in hindsight I think there are some clues in there - however I missed them at the time.

The characters are diverse. Some of them typical of what you would expect within a western style novel, but they’re not one-dimensional. Their voices throughout are convincingly different - you'll understand what I mean by this when you read it. Sloan writes that stereotypical western drawl/slang that we expect to see from some of the characters and yet the dialogue for Folger who is from the east coast and Katerina who is from Eastern Europe also seemed to me to be well done.

Part of the way through the novel I thought the plot was going to twist in a particular direction, but discounted it because it simply didn’t seem feasible. There is also cute, but brief, section of dialogue dealing with existentialism and vampires. So when the plot twist, that I thought impossible happened, I was momentarily angry, thinking that the author had pulled an elephant out of his existential hat and was expecting us to ignore it. I was delighted when the plot took yet another twist, wholly unexpected, that left me smiling and saying to myself, “Thank you.” (Then, of course, I went back to the book trying to find the clues I had missed.)

I really did enjoy the blending of some of the classic vampire mythos into a new world / western environment. I thought this was not only different, but interesting. Yea Though I Walk rollicks along for the most part and is a highly enjoyable read.

4 Stars.

Reviews Published Challenge Participant Professional Reader

Friday, 16 September 2016


 Guest Post by Felicity Banks

Ever wondered what interactive fiction is? Felicity Banks, author of the recently released Heart of Brass - a steampunk adventure set in colonial Australia, and a swathe of interactive fiction stories, will fill us in & tell you how you can get started in interactive fiction.

What is interactive fiction?

Choice-based interactive fiction (as opposed to Parser interactive fiction, which has puzzles) is exactly like a normal story except the reader gets a say in where the story goes. That can be as minor as choosing how to feel about an event (does the hero panic? Do they worry about their friends? Do they wish they were stronger or smarter?), or as major as travelling to a completely different country for part or all or the story.

A lot of choice-based interactive fiction is similar to Choose Your Own Adventure novels, except modern interactive fiction is usually 100% digital and released as an app rather than an e-book. This has led to a culture in which a lot of IF lets the reader choose their own name, gender, and even sexuality. Suddenly every character is a strong female hero!

How is it different to writing straight novels?

It's all about choices, and there is an expectation that the reader has a lot of control. That means shorter, punchier scenes and often writing in second person and/or present tense. The more choice the reader has over the personality of the main character, the more the character feels like a blank slate at the beginning of the story. There's also an innate frustration for both the writer and the reader, because interactive fiction gives the illusion of total freedom... but the only true freedom is a blank page. An interactive fiction story should also be able to be "replayed" meaning that a reader should be able to get a completely different experience of the book by making different choices. That means that most or all of the possible endings leave the reader thinking, "But what if I'd done such-and-such? Was it really worth prioritising my marriage over my career?"

When did you realise you wanted to write interactive fiction?

January 2015. My health was declining and I realised I wasn't going to be able to go back to work in child care. A friend told me about Choice of Games offering a $10,000 advance based on an outline, so I sent them my writing CV. We sent my pitch and outline back and forth a few times before they rejected it—but by that time I'd already written most of the book!

I finished Attack of the Clockwork Army, and Choice of Games put it on their Hosted Games label, meaning that I'd get royalties only. No-one had heard of me and I'd never sold an interactive story before, but it earned me about $2000 anyway. I was stunned that there was such a market for interactive books, and I had an excuse to write more. I now work for Tin Man Games, which is a truly fantastic and internationally-famous Australian game company. They're also a lot of fun to work with.

Do you have a favourite author of interactive fiction?

I like Brendan Patrick Henessy (Birdland), Eric Moser (Community College Hero 1), Kevin Gold, (Choice of Robots), and anything by Emily Short (except for Galatea, which is probably her most famous work).

What advice would you give beginners to interactive fiction?
If you've written a few novels and you want to earn money, start by sending your writing credits to Choice of Games. If you're fascinated by the form, jump into Twine and have a play (Birdland was written in Twine). It's free and takes about ten minutes to get started. If you'd like to test the waters, try entering a contest: The Windhammer Prize entries have to be both short and printable rather than digital. Introcomp is specifically designed for unfinished games. The Spring Thing welcomes beginners (they even have a "Back Garden" so critics know to mind their manners and be gentle with new people). The IF Comp is so huge a large number of reviewing blogs organise their year around it.

Be warned that the IF Community has an extremely deep (sometimes bruising) tradition of reviewing. It's normal for even the best games to draw both praise and criticism, and for some games to be roundly condemned (especially in the IF Comp). On the other hand, I placed 7th in the IF Comp in 2015, and was offered three different paid jobs as a result!

If you want to learn about the world of IF, then read blogs and games (most of the competitions above are publicly judged, so go play!)

Could you tell us a bit about your latest book?

Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten is a serialised story that releases a new section each week (the first week is free, and continuing the story costs a few dollars). Readers can choose to turn the music and sounds on or off. If they have an apple watch, it can play a crucial role in the story (spoilers!) or they can switch off that function.

The main character has the magical ability to carry the souls of the deceased (a form of magical last rites). They have a duty to face dangerous training, which they've avoided for some years. The story begins when the main character is on the cusp of adulthood. A powerful woman guesses they have magical talent, and demands their help. At the same time, an immortal white bear is stalking them. One way or another, they have to face their fears. Their life changes forever as a result.

They're soon swept up in an international war between the living and the dead.

It's a steampunk story set in the same magical steampunk universe as my novel Heart of Brass, but without any overlapping characters or plot (so no spoilers). Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten is set in a steampunk 1830s Europe, when Queen Victoria was a teenage princess and the power of steam was changing everyday life forever.

Is it a deliberate marketing strategy to have a novel and an interactive fiction app that use the same fantasy steampunk world?

Yes and no! People usually stick to what they like best—people who like novels are often bewildered by interactive fiction, and people who like interactive fiction often have a specific style or platform they're addicted to. So technically, writing in the same universe on different platforms is a terrible idea.

At the same time, it amuses me—and I think I'm doing the interactive fiction world and the world of novel readers a favour by spreading the world about interactive fiction.

In fact, I have five different stories set in my magical steampunk world, and all of them are on wildly different platforms! 

In chronological order by setting:

Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten - subscription story app on itunes or android.

Heart of Brass - novel

After the Flag Fell - short interactive story (a printable document)

Stuff and Nonsense - currently a Live Action Role Play; will be converted and entered in the 2016 IF Comp.

Attack of the Clockwork Army - interactive novel that has an option to play as a character from the novel

Click here to Find Felicity's interactive fiction

Friday, 9 September 2016


Author: Chris McMahon

Chris McMahon is an Australian writer of fantasy and science fiction (You can check out my review of his book The Calvanni (The Jakirian Cycle, Book 1) here)

Tell us a little about yourself

I am a Speculative Fiction writer based in sunny Brisbane, Australia. I have a lovely wife, Sandra, and three children, Aedan, Declan and Brigit.

Being able to escape into the realm of the imagination was handy growing up as the youngest in a family of eleven, and that grew into a love of fantasy and science fiction, storytelling, and the written word.

There is a special satisfaction in being able to share the worlds I create with my readers and have them enjoy the journey. For me, as a writer, that's the ultimate destination.

To have people allow you that special place in their minds is truly a privilege.

Also an engineer, I am lucky to be able to apply this specialist knowledge and mindset to my writing. When it comes to technology and the mechanics of world building, I can bring an obsessive thoroughness that pays dividends in the depth and texture of the worlds I create, and in the scientific credibility of the concepts integral to my science fiction.
What I create definitely has an edge of unique inventiveness.

What did you read as a child?

Everything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much. For most of my childhood — apart from what I read at school — it was television movies that were the storytelling medium I absorbed.

Reading was not encouraged by my parents, and I was given no books as a child. It was only when I was old enough to get myself to a local council library that this world opened up to me, and I found myself drawn to speculative fiction and adventure novels, including historical fiction. So I guess I am a late starter to literature, not to storytelling though. I absorbed the elements of storytelling quite early through film, and my imagination leapt to fill the gap. As a young child, I was always in some adventure in my own mind, filled with rich variety of creatures, characters and challenges of my own invention.

What writers or films would you say have influenced you the most?

My favourite writer is David Gemmell - a British Heroic Fantasy author that unfortunately died way too young in 2007. I love Gemmell's books, and continue to return to them again and again.

Last year I read through all of David Gemmell's novels in publication order (around thirty books), then ended by reading White Knight Black Swan - the only one I had never read before. 

Getting hold of White Knight Black Swan has been a personal quest for me. Over the years, I have spent many hours hunting through second hand book stores here in Brisbane hoping to come across a copy. Eventually I realised this was pretty much nigh on impossible, since WKBS had such a low publication run (and only in the UK I believe). So I bit the bullet and purchased a copy from a rare book dealer, then put it away until my birthday. It was not cheap, but it was worth it. Waiting each year for his new book used to be one of my greatest pleasures, and I knew this would be the last time I read a new David Gemmell book. The time came, and I read it as slowly as I possibly could. It was a bittersweet pleasure.

Tell us a little about The Jakirian Cycle.  How did the idea for the Jakirian Cycle come about?

The Jakirian Cycle is a three-book fantasy series – The Calvanni, Scytheman and Sorcerer. It’s Heroic Fantasy set on the world of Yos, with unique ecology and twin suns, where all metal is magical and control of magic is the basis for power. The series follows Cedrin and Ellen as they face deeper and more hidden threats. Pursuing them is Raziin, a vicious renegade who seeks to claim the ultimate power of the Spear of Carris for himself. Eventually they must face a final challenge as the most ancient secrets that bind their three bloodlines are revealed.

In The Calvanni, first of the epic Jakirian Cycle, the cavern-dwelling Eathal have emerged to wreak their vengeance on mankind. The fate of innocent thousands rests on finding the Scion – lost heir to the fallen Empire. The Temple has outlawed the ancient practice of Sorcery. Its Druids dominate religious and secular power, but are ill-equipped to resist an unknown evil once contained by the Emperors.

The Jakirian Cycle has gritty, fast-paced action with strong themes of Heroic Fantasy. The setting includes fantastical magical artefacts such as glowmetals; ceramic weapons and an array of new creatures. The characters travel through both urban and rural landscapes, with both a depth of history and a layering of cultures.

The Calvanni starts during Storm Season on the world of Yos, when the twin suns eclipse and the planet is plunged into bitter cold. It is usually a time of quiet, when the wise lock their doors, praying for the demons of the red sun-Goddess Uros to pass them by. Yet deep in the Caverns of Maht, Hukum, the Sorcerer-Lord of cavern-dwelling Eathal, plots his vengeance.

Cedrin, a street-wise calvanni (knife-fighter), is summoned to the secret underground tunnels of the Brotherhood of the Night. There, Cedrin is forced to join in a rebellion against the rulers of his native Athria. Caught between the threat of death and his suspicions that all is not what it seems, he must try to keep his friends alive and escape.

Ellen, daughter of the assassinated Athrian Sarlord, is named as heir before his death. She struggles to assert herself as the new ruler, little suspecting the civil war that will be unleashed on Athria within days.

Ellen’s father warned her never to reveal her hidden powers of Sorcery, but as Hukum’s minions close in, it seems she has little choice.

How much time did you spend planning The Calvanni / The Jakirian Cycle?

This is a difficult question to answer. The project has been boiling away in various forms for decades. My work on it has been sandwiched in between study and my engineering career, so it’s difficult to pin it down. I’ve also given the books a number of major rewrites. But if I added it all up, end to end, and included the time I spend imagining the world and the story? Probably at least a year of solid work in planning, if not years. Scary really.

Was there a particular inspiration for the magic system you devised within the novels? How much of this aspect did you plan before writing and how much evolved as you wrote?

Not really. I wanted to create something different, and I spend a lot of time staring into space imagining all the possibilities. In the end, I came up with a system that had three branches of magic, each with its own core magical essence.

The Druids, who follow the suns and moons, gather essence from the heavenly bodies, so their power varies by time. Each different druidic essence has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, Moon Druids are good healers, but have no power during the day. Uros Druids, who follow the red sun, are very powerful during the time of Storm Season when the red sun, Uros, eclipses the yellow sun, Larus, but their powers are tuned to destruction. The talent to draw on druidic essence is fairly common, and pretty even to both men and women, although the Druidic Temple is male-dominated.

The Priestess’ (and Priests’)  use Earth essence, which is drawn from sacred sites. They can be awesomely powerful, but only within the precincts of their own temples, or in special places. The talent to draw on Earth essence is almost exclusively feminine, with some exceptions.

Then there are the Sorcerers, the most powerful and most feared of them all. They have innate power they draw from the realm of Fire. Their power does not depend on time or place, and they are almost always stronger than either a Druids or Priestess’. The power of a Sorcerer though, is granted through bloodlines, so it is a recessive, inherited trait, and quite rare.

At the time of the Jakirian Cycle, the world of Yos is coming out of a period of a magical Purge, during which the Druidic Temple came to dominance by hunting down and destroying those with the power of Sorcery.

I pretty much worked out the whole magic system before I started writing, but then again that’s what I do. I tend to plan the story before I write.

What was your inspiration for the variety of exotic creatures in The Calvanni?

From the outset, I wanted to create something different with the world of Yos, something unique. Not just another neo-European fantasy world of swords and sorcery — not that there’s anything wrong with that, I love reading those novels — I just wanted to make my world stand out as unique.

When I was putting the world of Yos together, I happened to be reading David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. That book really opened my eyes up to evolutionary influences. So I began to think how the environmental forces of my new world might shape and direct the evolution of its life.

The world of Yos has two suns and two moons. The planet itself orbits the two suns (or more correctly the centre of mass of the binary pair). Because they are all on the same orbital plane, it means that the two suns will regularly eclipse. When they do, the amount of solar radiation hitting the planet decreases dramatically, causing a regular cooling period. How life on the planet deals with that is the major driving force for evolution on Yos. Basically there have been two approaching to surviving the sudden cold, either taking shelter and getting out of the weather, or an adapted acceleration of metabolism that is designed to counteract the cold. The humans on Yos evolved with the second approach, having a mechanism called the Heat, which burns reserves to counter the cold. Whereas humanity’s cousins, the Eathal, took the first approach. The Eathal, like many other creatures, took to the vast caverns beneath Yos’ mountain ranges (carved out by drakons over long time periods), where an entire ecosystem took hold.

I also played around with the idea of a whole branch of evolution descended from six-legged creatures, leading to birds with arms and wings, as well as an intelligent avian species.

I spend a lot of time of the worldbuilding of Yos, and the setting just grew and grew. I think it helps to have that depth of background, as it adds to the texture of the story.

Can you tell us about your next project?

My SF novel, The Tau Ceti Diversion, has pretty much been my labour of love for the last two years, and I’m excited to say that it’s just been released through Severed Press! The launch will be here in Brisbane on 22nd September.
The Tau Ceti Diversion is an action-driven mystery in a science fiction setting.

The first interstellar exploration vessel Starburst sets out from Earth in 2157, but this is no NASA science mission, it’s funded by the mega-corporation ExploreCorp. A planet suitable for colonisation means not only massive profits, but a chance for Commander Janzen to restore his family’s exulted position. But is the executive turned space-explorer, Janzen,  equipped to deal with a real crisis?

On approach to the planet Cru, the Starburst is hit with a surge of deadly radiation that kills most of the crew and disables the ship. It’s a fight for survival as sub-Commander Karic struggles to get control of the fusion drive before the ship turns into a giant hydrogen bomb.

Karic rises to the challenge as he takes command and leads the survivors to the planet Cru. The thirst for exploration and the quest for alien first contact soon go head-to-head with corporate greed and the need for profit at any cost, as Janzen and Karic clash.

As if surviving on an alien planet wasn’t hard enough, they soon discover that Cru is already occupied . . . and its once vast civilisation is on the threshold of a momentous change.

The story has been with me for a long time, so I’m really excited that this novel will set sail into the big wide world later this year.

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Thursday, 1 September 2016


Author: Daniel P. Swenson

Daniel is a Californian writer of science fiction, with many published short stories to his name and his novel The Farthest City is a great sci-fi read. (You can check out my review of it here)

Had you always want to be a writer? 
I never thought of becoming a writer until my mid-30’s. At some point, after finishing graduate school, not having any more productive way to use my time, and after reading one too many less-than-stellar science fiction novels, I decided I too, could write one. After all, it couldn’t be that hard, could it? My very first short story was a whopping 14,000 words. After writing many more short stories (and publishing a few), two unfinished novels, and one completed novel (The Farthest City), I can attest writing of any kind, but writing well, IS hard (at least for mere mortals such as myself). That being said, I can’t seem to stop at this point. I get to go on all kinds of adventures, visit places no one has yet explored, and meet the most interesting people. And the fact that it’s all happening in my own head makes it rather affordable, as far as adventures and vacations go.

Do you feel particular writers have influenced or inspired you?)
Influential writers for me include William Gibson (his writing’s gritty realism really struck me) and Ursula K. Le Guin (especially for the poetic flow of her language).

How did you conceive the idea for The Farthest City?
I conceived the idea for The Farthest City while mulling over books and films where robots get smart and try to kill off the human race (I, Robot, the Terminator, the Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, and Robopocalypse to name a few).
In these stories, machines represent our collective nightmare. 

I thought—what if they saved us instead? The setting of The Farthest City is based on this unique premise: humanity destroyed itself in a third world war. When the dust settled, our species was resurrected by intelligent machines raising a new generation of humans from frozen embryos using artificial wombs. Then the machines depart into space, ceding Earth back to us. The book opens with an alien invasion threatening a second human extinction and the machines’ help is needed once again.

I also tried to imagine what machines might be like if they did become sentient. The challenge was making them as different and non-human as they would probably be, while still making them relatable as characters. Would they merge into a single near-omniscient, soulless entity, or develop as individuals with personalities, goals, and ideals? How would they live—in virtual worlds or using interchangeable bodies in the real world? How would they evolve? How would they live differently from us? How would they relate to their bodies, if parts are replaceable and souls programmable? All these questions are explored further in the book and lead to some interesting story developments I hope will entertain readers as much as they fascinated me.

What, if anything, influenced the style of Chine world?
I spend considerable time on-line perusing science fiction and fantasy art, especially on sites like When it comes to robots, you tend to see more humanoid robots with two legs, two arms, and a head than other designs. I also have a biology background. I assumed if machines began to self-evolve, they would not try to follow the human design, but would create their own designs based on whatever options are possible and best-suited for their purpose. Towards that end, I considered all the various, non-humanoid designs for locomotion nature and technology have arrived at. I went through the same process thinking about machine architecture—what would they need and desire from the structures they build? Shelter, yes, but probably not with the same parameters for air composition, temperature, etc. Would they need/want privacy? What’s possible if you lack the human fear of heights or confined spaces? With their various body types and means of locomotion, how would they access structures, move within cities, etc? Oddly enough, I found fractal art an inspiration for some of my machine architecture ideas. The result is the City of the Six Suns where buildings are adjustable, and machines travel straight up or through buildings, however it best suits them.

How much planning did you do prior to writing this novel?
At the time, I felt I had sufficient notes to get started— a profusion of ideas, a rough plot outline, some barely sketched-out scenes, and bits of dialogue. In retrospect, I think I winged it. I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go and the themes I wanted to explore, and I cobbled the story together as I went along. Getting it critiqued at and then professionally edited (by Marcy Kennedy, my developmental editor, and Chris Saylor, my copy editor) really helped strengthen the story and polish it. 

Can you tell us about your next project?
After brainstorming ideas, assembling notes, and doing world-building research for several months, I’m about to begin writing the first in a series of novels. At this point, I don’t even have a working title. The story is much larger in scale, populated by several alien species, and with humanity scattered among the stars. The Milky Way Galaxy is also inhabited by hyper-evolved, almost god-like beings who are millions of years old and drive the plot in various ways. One thing I’m doing differently this time around is spending considerable time developing characters (seventeen so far). These people have already taken on a life of their own—they keep popping into my thoughts telling me what they want to do. I better get started soon!

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