Thursday, August 22, 2013

First Page Critique – The Good Guys

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

A brave author/follower of TKZ has anonymously submitted the opener to a book entitled – The Good Guys. My critique will be on the flip side. Enjoy!

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Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane


I should’ve let the cops arrest me. After all, it was just a drug deal in a neighbourhood park. A much smaller crime than taking a hostage at gun-point. I’d have most likely just got a date with the Magi and been home in time for lunch.  A lot less trouble that I was in now.  But it was a stressful situation, and in the heat of the moment, I panicked. 

“Are you a fucking retard, Tay?” Si yells. “I told you to get the money, hand over the shit, return. How the fuck did you manage to come back with no money, no drugs and this son-of-a-bitch?” 

His fist strikes my jaw and I fly backward. A dull moan comes out before I can stop it. I’m fucked now. Even though I’m a chick, Si likes people to take their beatings ‘like men.’  Before I hit the floor he grabs my by the front of my jumper and pulls me back to my feet. Then he appears in my face, so close I can smell the sausage on his breath. 


“Say it.” 

“Say what?”

“Say: I’m a fucking retard.”

“I’m a fucking retard.” I speak slowly and clearly, holding his gaze.
               

He smiles. “Good.” 

I start to exhale, praying it’s over, but then he grabs my ponytail and the air whooshes past my face. The room blurs. At first, it feels like someone is attacking my scalp with a thousand tiny needles, then it’s more like half a dozen thick, sharp blades. White noise is all around, but in the background, the far, far, background, I hear a husky voice. 

“Leave her alone.” 

Suddenly released from Si’s grip, I slump to the floor and stare at my hostage. Did he just say that? Fuck me. He hold Si’s gaze, but I see fear in his eyes. Fear and something else. I can’t quite place it. There’s a scent of familiarity about him. Must have done a drop to him before. 

“Sorry, man, are you feeling left out? Don’t worry. It’s your turn now.”

Si cracks his huge, mangled knuckles then pulls a shiny, black handgun out of the back of his jeans.  He points it at my hostage. I now know what I saw in his eyes. Hope. I know, because now it has been extinguished.


My Critique:

A.) First thing I want to point out are the typos. I’ve bolded and colored the ones I found in red. There are 3. This is where reading your work aloud would’ve helped, but typos are a big NO NO, especially with such a short excerpt. An editor or agent would see these and think the rest of the book is riddled with them. Submitting work for publication or representation is competitive. Don’t give them a reason to turn you down. Beta readers checking your work might catch these too.

B.) The intro starts with a bit of back story set up that is written in past tense before it propels the reader into the present. It might’ve been more effective to keep the reader in the moment as the story unfolds, without the set up that doesn’t tell much anyway. I would almost rather have read THAT scene (of how the whole thing went wrong and how she was stuck with this hostage). Seeing the aftermath is less interesting to me.

C.) When Si first mentions that she “comes back with this son of a bitch,” it might be more effective to draw the reader’s attention to who he is referring to. Since this is in her POV, you could have her look at the guy and show the reader what she sees. Instead we have to wait until the end to realize who this guy might be and know he’s in trouble. The author has created a mystery at the beginning, but not capitalized on this hostage or teased the reader with who he is until after the fact.

D.) The use of profanity so heavy in the beginning can not only be a turn off to readers, but editors/agents too. Here the word fuck is used 4 times in such a short segment. There are times when this word can be effective and I’ve certainly used it before in my books, but I use it sparingly and in the body of the work. We’ve chatted about the use of profanity on TKZ before, but I wanted to point out that using it so heavily in this intro can be another red flag for an industry professional reading this as a writing sample.

E.) One of my editors asked me to change a word ‘spaz’ or spastic because it had the derogatory meaning of retarded in the UK and she didn’t want to risk using the word if it turned off that market. But in this intro, we see the word ‘retarded’ used several times, and coupled with profanity. I’m not sure how this would be received, but I wanted to point out what my editor found necessary to change.

F.) In the description of Si hitting her, it reads at a distance as if the author (or the character) is watching it from faraway. If I got hit in the face, I would not know what happened. I’d 'feel' more. My eyes would water, my jaw would throb, the pain would radiate through me, and I’d see stars and be dizzy. I’d feel embarrassed, hurt, and many other things, but the writing in first person has to come inside the character, using the senses.

G.) This is a nit pick, but the name of Si forced me out of the writing for a bit. It seemed like a typo. I’m Hispanic and the word “Si” with an accent mark means YES in Spanish. I thought it might be a typo for the word SO as well. If you have a nickname for your character, I would make sure it is more distinctive and not too similar to another word that would trip up the reader.

H.) The use of the word MAGI (for magistrate) sets this book possibly in the UK, but definitely not the US (not that it has to be). The spelling of ‘neighbourhood’ gives a hint of this too. If this story takes place in a specific country, I would be tempted to use a tag line to establish that with the reader right away.

I.) In addition, and my biggest point, the writing of this author is very sparse. It is quick snippets into the mind of our girl, Tay, but little else. I would like to get a feel of the setting and put the reader into the scene using the reader’s senses. Writing in a sparse style can move pace, but it shouldn’t at the expense of a richer character voice. That’s what would make this piece more memorable. So what would add color and 'voice' to this work? Try answering these questions and incorporate those thoughts into this intro to add flavor.

Questions to build what we know about Tay:
  1. What has driven Tay to be a mule for a drug dealer? Does she have a roof over her head? Where did she sleep last night? Is she doing criminal acts for money to survive or is she desperate to take care of someone else? Or are her motives a secret?
  2. What is she wearing? Is she cold? Hungry? Needing a shower?
  3. How does she feel about other people she sees at the park where the drug deal goes down? Is she an outsider to the normal people who are there for other reasons? Does the scene remind her of her past? How so?
  4. When she’s at the park, what does she smell? Does the hot dog vendor make her hungry? Does she see people with money, paying for things, and resent it?
  5. Who is the hostage and why does she take him? She knows she’s in trouble with Si, but bringing a hostage will put him in harm’s way too. Why does she do it?

These are just a few questions—and you certainly don’t have to answer them in the intro—but if you back up where you start and take it from where things start to go wrong for Tay at the drug deal, you could incorporate some of her feelings with a touch of her motivation and what she sees, hears, tastes, etc to make her more sympathetic by the time Si punches her for screwing things up. 

The author could have a big mystery going as to why this out of place street kid is in the park in the first place--the furtive glances, the tension--until the drug deals goes down and everything unravels. She would come off as a criminal, take a hostage, but the reader might be compelled to read on if she comes across as vaguely sympathetic with hints of her motivation (without giving too much away).

Writing in first person present tense is a great way to bring the reader into the heart of the character, to really know what is in her head, but that doesn’t happen in this sample.

To make Tay more interesting, the author must give her opinions of her surroundings and her situation, and enough insight that will allow the reader to know why Tay deserves a starring role in this book. I want to care more about her and her hostage, but I’m not vested in them yet. Back up the time frame of this intro, and make us care about Tay and the poor guy who gets drawn into her mess, and you would have a more compelling start.

What do you think TKZers? Anything to add that might help this brave author?

Jordan Dane's BLOOD SCORE now available in ebook at Amazon for the discounted price of $2.99 - Buy at this LINK.

A dangerous liaison ignites the bloodlust of a merciless killer

39 comments:

  1. If you don't like to read your story out loud to yourself, there's a great free program to read out loud for you. NaturalReader free 3 is a great editing tool. Always, always read your manuscript out loud. It will help catch spelling errors, tense errors, misused words, forced sentences, choppy sounding sentences (it would have definitely made your ears catch the my/me, hold/held errors). Be careful using the word 'that', if you can take 'that' out and the sentence still works, get rid of it. 'That' is one of those words way overused. Great first attempt!

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    1. Thanks for the tip on the free program, Dottie. Even though I love to read (and interpret) my own writing, I can see how this kind of program can be very valuable. It would distance me from the words I used, so I don't "see" words I expect to be there but really aren't.

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  2. I'm glad you mentioned the 'retard' issue. I understand that, in the name of realism, it *is* going to be used in fiction. And for most people, it probably isn't an issue at all. But as a person with a cognitive disability who has been on the receiving end of that slur in real life, I've no desire to see it bandied around in my reading-for-fun material as well. It's a much bigger turn off than the swears, and finding it in the opening pars of a book would put me right off reading further.

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    1. Definitely, Jodie. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. I really liked this. I know the language is harsh, but people do use it. The type of people who push drugs and take hostages. Would probably cut down on the number of people willing to buy the book but depends on your target market.

    Explanations are necessary, and soon, but this is only the first page so I'd keep reading and hopefully the author would fill me in on page two. I don't need a lot of setting, the action gives me an idea and I let my own imagination fill in the picture.

    I would use Simon instead of Si, though, again, people would say "Si".

    I'd love to know how Tay gets out of this.

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    1. Thanks for your input, Amanda. Sometimes an author might choose to balance reality with what will give the editor or agent something more universal to sell. It's an individual's choice and not an easy one, especially if an author's voice strongly screams to break the norm.

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  4. The author came up with a great opening line – "I should have let the police arrest me." It hooks you. But as you point out, it doesn't go anywhere. Instead of looking at what happened when Tay *didn't* let the police arrest her, he'she shows the result of that decision. I presume we'll get back to that incident later. but as you suggest, it might have made a better opening to see what happened. The author was so focused on that line that he/she showed the result of that decision – the "why" it would have been better, that the "what" - what happened. As a reader, I like to know what first, then find out why.

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    1. That's a great point you make about sticking with an opening line and being blinded to another way to tell the story. I loved that as an opener too, but the rest has to hang together to draw the reader in.

      I am actually dying to know what happened before Tay got punched, so Kudos to the author for leaving me vexed.

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  5. I'm of two minds on this opening. I like the spare voice and the withholding of information. It sounds right for this piece. And I stress that readers will wait a long time for explanations if the action is happening up front.

    I don't like F bombs myself, but that's just me. If an author chooses to do so, just realize there may be a cost for using it too freely. Publishing professionals know it's a turn off to a large segment of the reading audience. The writer therefore needs to weigh personal preference with commercial viability, etc.

    I will say that the two times the F word is used outside of dialogue the lines could be cut because they TELL what is already being SHOWN. Don't gild the lily, as they say. Or RUE: "Resist the urge to explain."

    As Jordan notes, there may be too much backstory in the opening paragraph. I think you could get away with just the first three lines:

    I should’ve let the cops arrest me. After all, it was just a drug deal in a neighbourhood park. A much smaller crime than taking a hostage at gun-point.

    "Are you...


    And speaking of Si's first lines, there is a bit too much exposition going on there. It sounds like he's giving information to the READER rather than just the character.

    I liked the second half of the page. It moves and has menace.

    I will note, however, with a degree of reverence for the late, great Elmore Leonard and his "rules" of fiction, that the word "Suddenly" almost always should be eliminated.

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    1. Nice break down, Jim. Thanks. Si "telling" the reader what went on feels like back story, even with the action and dialogue. I am more curious about backing up the start to the park and the drug deal.

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  6. Jordan, I don't think this brave writer could have paid for a more thorough critique. You've covered all the issues. Like Jim, I've used the F bomb in my thrillers, but sparingly is the key. I quickly pulled back from this story after the barrage of vulgarity. I realize there's a time and place for everything including the F word. My advice is to choose wisely when to use it. Settings and characters may need it to strengthen the scene, and I know that that's how many people talk today, but remember that the writer and the reader are sharing an intimate exchange through the reading process. Don't serve up a delicious meal only to have the reader bite into a red hot pepper before it's justification is established. I've found that if I use the F bomb in a first draft and later I or my co-author deletes it, the meaning rarely if ever changes. Leave out the hot peppers unless your story is set in Tijuana.

    One last thing: I never got a clear idea in my mind of who the target audience is. Good luck to the author, and thanks for having the courage to submit this first page.

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    1. Like Jim, I've used the F bomb in my thrillers...

      LOL, grammar is everything. Lest there be any confusion, I never use the F word, or any of those words George Carlin said you couldn't say on TV. But again, that's a choice I've made.

      I'm trying to think if Coben, Connelly or Grisham ever use the word. It doesn't seem so to me, which either means they don't or they do so sparingly.

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    2. In the words of Rick Perry, ". . . oops."

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    3. I may put them in, sparingly at first, but tend to dilute them later unless the character really calls for it. Each book is different, but I wanted to point out the strong feelings on marketability. With the competition and the industry changing, I tend to write for a broader audience, even though I'm not opposed to breaking a few perceived "rules."

      BTW Joe, there are three things I would change about Rick Perry. Wish I could remember them.

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  7. The vulgarity made me wince as well, but what really turns me off in a book is the use of present tense. If I were reading this page in a bookstore, I would have stopped as soon as she switched to present tense.

    Present tense, to me, is just an irritating fad. Someone writes a best seller with it and everyone else has to try it.

    It is unnatural to me, and takes me so far out of the story I cant enjoy it.

    I refuse to read anything in present tense. I know, it is just me, but that's how I am.

    Sorry.

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    1. Being a student of author craft, I have become more sensitive to present tense, but one of my favorite crime fiction books had it back when I was only an avid reader (and didn't have becoming an author on my bucket list) and I loved it. I went back to reading it later and had trouble with the present tense, but it made me realize we can taint our view by reading as an author and not with the joy of a pure reader.

      Present view in YA is a big deal and after writing it, I can see why. Kids are put into the here and now, as if the story is taking place as they turn the pages. I am writing an adult thriller now and have to fight my instinct to write it in present tense, simply because first person seems to call for it. But I am resisting the force, Dave.

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  8. Ditto on the F-word. Si would be more interesting if he didn't use street language. I like the first line.

    Also, I get the feeling I've seen this scene in one form or another in a lot of movies. Although, the hostage is an original twist. Si might have been introduced too early. He would be more menacing off stage and expressed as a fear in Tay's mind. Like Mr. Bell reminds us, drag out the tension.

    This may be unfair because it is only a short piece, but I didn't like the main character. She's a crook, a victim, and has poor judgement.

    Please give me a reason to like her. Let me see the interesting part of her personality right away. As a reader, I'm going to have to be with this person for a lot of pages.

    I don't need much, maybe a plucky response to being hit by Si. By the way, I could see the great British actor Bob Hoskins playing the part of Si.

    Thank you for submitting your work. Having people like me tell you that your baby is ugly is hard. The good news is that the baby can get prettier with every rewrite.

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    1. Thanks for kissing the baby, Brian. Yes, we need to know more about Tay to truly like her, but the author has achieved me wanting to like her. That's a good thing. Somewhere in this is a pretty baby trying to get out.

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  9. I have the impression that the author (in the first-person POV) knows from what she speaks. Either she's been-there-done-that or she's been close enough. Subsequently, she sees this story from the inside out, which is good. As a reader, I want to be inside and up close.

    But who is going to be the reader? Is it someone also in the know? Somebody who's hip? Is someone from the hood going to buy this book? Is that your reader?

    If so, that's cool. But the writer needs to know that much up front. Okay, so this is a book for my peeps. Nice. But consider if your peeps will really want to read this story.

    On the other hand, if the reader is someone from the straight world--someone who's definitely NOT hip--then you gotta write it for them. Which means bringing them into YOUR world. Luring them into YOUR world. Sure. Everyone likes to hang with the bad boyz and the bad girlz from time to time. Take a break from the white-bread world and get down. And I think that's the reader's hook. The writer needs to take the reader away--in this case--to a dark and stormy place.

    But don't just blow 'em out of the water up front with F-bombs and other effrontery. Wait until you've got 'em. Then go to work.

    That's my advice. I like the edgy quality and the writer's voice. Just be aware that first-person POV's a bear.

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    1. There are some great first person adult crime fiction books that I've fallen in love with, Jim. Linda Castillo's Amish series (that has been made into a TV movie series) - her debut book in that series got a starred review by Publishers Weekly. Also Steven James The Pawn, I'm reading it now and it got a starred PW review too. I'm loving the voice of this character. It's not easy to write in first, but sometimes it gives great insight into the head of your character.

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  10. Funny, the use of "the F word" didn't bother me at all. It told me who these people were in a way that saying, "Si was a psychoticly violent low-life hood" never could have. I was in a play once where my character used the word rather a lot. One night my son, then 10, had to go to rehearsal with me. I told him beforehand what would he'd hear and we discussed why it was wrong. But, I told him, if I said "Poop" or "darn" instead of "fuck," no one would believe me. He got it and the experience didn't scar him. If Si had said "shoot," or "For God's sake," I wouldn't have believed him, and I'd probably have quit reading right there. We may not like it, but we live in a coarser world where the word fuck is used all too commonly, especially by people like Si and Tay. To pretend otherwise leaves our work as unrealistic as if Huck Finn had called Jim "an African American indentured servant."

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    1. What a great idea! That's what Mark Twain should have used! "African American indentured servant" rolls off the tongue so much easier than the N word. And it would have give the book much more power.

      Seriously, though, good point (and you made me laugh).

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    2. I think that's why I wanted to see the story unfold more from Tay as the deal became unraveled. I'm drawn to her character. Being invested in her more would make Si more tolerable and a foil for the conflict to come. Good points, John.

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  11. Great comments. In general, I liked the piece on my first read-through. It has conflict, establishes a relationship quickly, and presents a mystery. All good points to keep a reader reading. I also prefer to use my cussing minimally, but the author sets a strong tone, both for the setting of the book and the readership. My great-aunt Martha wouldn't read this book, but my green-haired teenage cousin probably would.

    I stumbled in two places as I read the piece. Jordan describes the first in her F point: "His fist strikes my jaw and I fly backward." That takes me right out of the story and makes me pay attention to the writing. I tried to imagine myself in that situation. Would I be saying those words to myself? Nope.

    The second place was when Si grabs Tay by the hair. At first I thought he was spinning her around while holding her by the hair. But when he lets go, she simply slumps to the floor, she doesn't go skidding or flying. So, I stopped reading the story and tried to figure out what was going on. I still haven't figured it out. Clarity in actions is important so that you don't lose some readers to confusion.

    Have fun with the rewrite. You've got a lot to work with!

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    1. Thanks, Troy. I had an author friend who put a lot into her research. She once invited a male friend over for dinner so she could reenact a guy breaking into the home of her character so she could see how difficult it would be to fight him off, run to her bathroom, and climb out the window. She actually did all this and squirted out her tiny bath window, looking more like sausage being made. I soooo wanted to be her neighbor.

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    2. That's dedication! Hope her friend didn't get arrested!

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  12. I liked this piece. The author managed to surprise me and hook my interest. The terse style actually fits with the lack of sentimentality in the storyline. I'm kind of wondering if English is the author's first language. If not, use the usage errors in the dialogue, not the prose. I also like the interaction between the hostage and POV. This has some rough edges to it, but it hooked my interest, I liked the writer's voice, and I don't want the author to think she/he is totally on the wrong track. You've done what many writers don't accomplish on the first page, revealed an actual storyline. The rest is merely technique that can be fixed.

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    1. Thanks for your input, A. I agree there is a story I want to read more of here. Starts are big challenges for me and probably most authors.

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  13. I like this. I think it's one of the stronger entries we've had here. It's pretty clean and clear (except for some small things, I get what's happening). It's visceral and gets my interest. I would read more.

    I like the opening. I like that the writer chose to get into this scene so "late" in the action, meaning the drug deal is "backstory" dispensed in the opening graph. But I would stop the lead graph after the first two sentences so the mini-backstory doesn't intrude.

    I agree with the profanity thing. I recognize we are dealing with dirtbags here, but profanity should be used with the same care as you use dialect; you can get the FEEL of street talk without clobbering readers over the head.

    As a reader, I am really put off by present tense. Just can't do it. It irritates me, almost like the writer is beating me over the head -- you're going to feel the immediacy of the moment, damn it! But that could just go to taste. I think present tense is a harder sell to agents and eds, though.

    As others have said, the POV could be firmer in the protag's consciousness. For someone's who's been punched in the jaw, she's awfully cognizant.

    I don't get this line: Must have done a drop to him before. (drug deal?)

    And I had a hiccup when I got to "magi" (first thought was the wise men!) and "jumper." (it's a pinafore to Americans. I had to go look it up to find out it's a sweater to Brits.)

    But a good effort, I say! "Ta" for sending it along. :)

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    1. Ha! Yeah, I got a different take on magi too. My catholic upbringing.

      Nice encouraging words for our author. Thanks,Kris.

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  14. Good start, brave author, and TKZ has covered the major points. The typos are a deal killer for editors, and the F-bomb and "retard" are over-used. While I realize few dirtbags will say, "Pardon me, ma'am, while I kick the living daylights out of you," you might want to find another word besides "retard" this early in the book. It hurts people and turns off readers and it's on the first page before they get to know you.

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    1. Thanks for chiming in, Elaine. Your input is always appreciated.

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  15. The profanity doesn't bother me, nor does the 'retard' issue - only because that's what would probably be said not something more mild-mannered. I agree, however, that this could be a red flag for some editors...The 'Magi' also got me thinking of the wise men so perhaps use another short-hand term. Given the language and spelling, this could be set in either Australia or the UK so at little sense of specific place would be helpful. Other than that I liked the piece and would have definitely kept reading.

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  16. I pretty much folded after the use of profanity. I think it's lazy writing, and I dislike it so much that if a writer uses quite a bit of it, I just walk away.

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  18. Hrm...I might keep reading, but maybe not...hard to say... Regardless, that chick in the picture reminds me of my High School Prom Date...kinda hot...kinda psychotic...saw her wearing nothing but a towel once and always wondered...I panicked...we were just friends but what might've happened...or might I have been dead...again hard to say...

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    1. Sounds like a story you should write, Basil. Hmmm

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