Intuitive Editing by Tiffany Yates Martin

INTUITIVE EDITING is a frustrating book. Yates has extensive experience as an editor, both freelance and working for big publishing houses. And she has excellent advice for authors who want to polish their novels before handing them over to a professional editor. However, everything is over-explained, every point belabored, and it’s all weighed down with so many examples that the good advice gets lost. Ironically, this book on editing could have used an editor.

I liked Yates’ approach a lot. She starts with the biggest issues and works her way to ever smaller ones. This is the way I edit, and when I teach classes on editing, this is what I teach. Start by making sure the characterization, plot, and stakes are all in place. Then come medium-sized issues like point of view consistency, pacing, and voice. The final stage is smaller things, for example, removing crutch words and streamlining descriptions.

However, Yates exhaustively explains even the most simple concepts. For example, she devotes many pages to the difference between first and third person stories. Every writer learned this in middle school, and we don’t need it taught again. Even while addressing more complex topics such as point of view or suspense, Yates throws in example after example until the original point is lost. It feels like someone nudging you in the ribs saying, “Get it? Get it?” Yates is on more solid ground when using examples from real novels rather than hypothetical ones she made up, but each time a point is made, she happily uses three or more examples when one would do.

Even worse, very little of INTUITIVE EDITING will be useful for an author with a completed manuscript. Yates seems to want to teach authors how to write a novel rather than how to revise one. She gives vague handwaving toward the difficult job of finding a novel’s problems. However, very few beginning authors have the objectivity to look at an example, figure out how it applies to her own work, and then go back and edit accordingly. And when an author does have the objectivity to do so, her skills have progressed to the point where she no longer needs this book.

And that’s what makes this book frustrating. There are many valuable lessons here. INTUITIVE EDITING is like a short writing course taught by a good professor. However, the time to apply these lessons is in the planning or first draft stage, because the lessons are too general to apply to a completed manuscript. An author would be better served by taking the very good writing lessons in INTUITIVE EDITING and applying them to her next book.

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INTUITIVE EDITING can be found here

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Rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or The Anatomy of Prose by Sacha Black or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

The Anatomy of Prose by Sacha Black

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You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them.

This is true in any field, including writing. It’s not about paying your dues. You don’t “earn” the right to break the rules. If anything, experience gives you new appreciation for those rules that you might have once chafed against.

However, once you understand the reason behind writing rules, you can break them for effect. And when you break the rules, you’ll know exactly what you gain and what you lose by doing so.

Black understands that writing rules don’t exist just for the sake of having rules. They aren’t put in place to please copyeditors or the grammar police. Writing rules are merely best practices for communication, and the better you understand them, the better you can apply them—or bend and break them when the time is right.

THE ANATOMY OF PROSE consists of short lessons that will tighten flabby sentences, tune up rambling paragraphs, and shine a spotlight on the most important parts of your novel. Black covers when to show and when to tell, how to find your voice, clean up your style, and put a finer point on all your description and exposition. She has tips for brighter dialogue, tighter pacing, and clearer transitions.

THE ANATOMY OF PROSE covers a lot of ground, meaning very short chapters. Black quickly tells you the rule, why it matters, and how to apply it. She illustrates each point with a single example, all but a few from her own work. The examples are good and they do the job, but it would have been nice to have examples from a range of other voices so authors could have some side-by-side comparisons.

You’d expect a book of do’s and don’ts to be stuffy but this one is not. THE ANATOMY OF PROSE is filled with punchy British slang and just the right amount of swear words (a lot of them). Black is having fun with writing. She wants you to understand the deep principles of prose so you can convey your exact meaning, and perhaps have some fun with your writing too.

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THE ANATOMY OF PROSE can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Resilience by Mark McGuinness

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I really need to stop picking up books by therapists who want to “help” artists. There is nothing wrong with creative people seeking therapy. The problem comes when the therapists then generalize to the population at large, thinking all artists are suffering, and that the pursuit of an art career itself is making these poor lambs suffer. But no worries, the therapist has written a book! It’s something you can hold up as a shield when you explain to others how “difficult” the writing life is and how “heroic” you are for enduring it.

RESILIENCE is material pulled from McGuinness’ blog, and perhaps in blog form the posts weren’t so irksome. They are, however, overly simplistic. McGuinness’ advice isn’t unreasonable. He explains why rejection and criticism hurt, why it isn’t personal, and he has some decent tips for sorting out useful feedback from useless attacks. He advises artists to find their tribe, find good mentors, and keep pushing.

But there isn’t anything new here, and dozens of other authors have said it better. Tone matters a lot with this kind of book. Telling a writer that writing and publishing are hard but achievable will inspire her. Telling a writer how pitiful she is, how terrible writing and publishing are, and expecting her to be miserable, will only hold her back.

Each chapter ends with exercises. These are also fine, although they basically boil down to remembering why you love your craft, knowing you’re not alone, and not taking it personally. This is basic common sense stuff that writers already know.

It is true that rejections sting and that bad reviews suck and that it’s hard to show your work to other people for the first time. It’s also true that we self-sabotage in numerous ways because we’re human beings and human beings do that. However, the love of writing and the desire to improve our craft is usually enough to get us over these hurdles. Moreover, these problems aren’t something we solve once and then we’re done with them forever. They are part and parcel of the writing life. Thinking about how to become more resilient in the face of rejection doesn’t work. Only by doing, by getting knocked down and getting up again, will an author become stronger.

The best how-to books are written by writers who practice their craft every day. We can learn a lot from authors who enjoy their work and want others to enjoy it too.

Therapists who want to share misery while giving shallow advice can’t teach us anything that we don’t already know.

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Resilience can be found here

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld or Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner instead of this book.

Cash Flow for Creators by Michael W. Lucas

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Writing full time is a dream for most writers. But how do we turn our hobby into a job? Writers are constantly told to treat our writing as a business, but most business books are not suitable for artists and very rarely address our unique concerns.

That’s where CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS comes in. It’s the most art-friendly business book you can imagine. Lucas pays his bills with his writing so this is where his focus is. He wants to teach you one thing: control your cash flow so you can make a living off your art.

Most advice for writers relies on knowing your income. One book will tell you not to quit your day job until your income from writing equals eighty percent or one hundred percent or two hundred percent of your day job salary. Another says not go full time until you have six months or eight months or twelve months of your day job salary saved. But looking at it from the income side does not work. The “experts” can’t agree on the right number, different writers need different amounts, and a writer’s income fluctuates.

Lucas has a different—and much better—approach. He knows a writer’s income is uncertain, but it’s the amount going out that will make or break a writer. It sounds simplistic to say that the amount coming in must exceed the amount going out, or the writer will go broke. However, CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS explains in detail how to calculate those numbers so that a writer always remains in the black. Using Lucas’ methods, even the most math-phobic author will have no trouble understanding the numbers she needs to decide if she can afford to go full time and if she can afford to stay there.

CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS covers every stage of a writer’s life, from pre-published to bestselling. Lucas breaks down the unique challenges of every phase, explaining what to spend money on, what to save for, and how to pay taxes. He has solid advice on hiring an accountant, dealing with banks, and taking on assistants. He knows what to do when things go really, really wrong—or really, really right.

Lucas gives lots of examples, some of them true-to-life, others fanciful. One moment, he’s giving serious consideration to the different cost of living in different regions, and how that will affect the amount a writer will need in savings. The next moment, he’s talking about making parachutes for capybaras. The better you can roll with his sense of humor, the more you’ll get out of CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS.

Because to Lucas, business—and life—are a game. It’s a game he has every intention of winning. And he wants to show you how to win it too.

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CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

 

 

 

A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld

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It’s only May, but I’m calling it now: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is going to be my favorite book of the year. Part of the reason is that it’s the right book at the right time. Persistence is hard to come by when the future is so uncertain, and every writer I know is struggling. But I’m sure this would be my new favorite book no matter when it came into my life. Rosenfeld has practical advice, an encouraging tone, and unique ways to help us all write more and write better.

A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is not a craft book. It’s about all those other skills a writer needs, like organization, time-management, boundary-setting, and the ability to deal with rejection, perfectionism, procrastination, and envy.

Beginners live off the high of discovery and the energy of newness, but that wears off quickly. Writers need a concrete plan to maintain a writing practice. Rosenfeld is here to help you navigate that long, long stretch between the first creative flush and eventual success. A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE has twenty-five meaty chapters filled with practical instruction. Rosenfeld gives lots of encouragement and inspiration, but each chapter has action steps designed to get you back to the page, right here and right now.

Even though she covers everything from setting up your desk to choosing a publishing path, Rosenfeld keeps coming back to three basic principles that will get writers through that sticky middle part of their careers: finding authenticity, connecting with the community, and moving your body. Every problem a writer has can be solved by one of these three things (or sometimes a combination of them).

Finding authenticity is key. It’s important to listen to that deep part of yourself that is driven to write and would continue to write regardless of publication or prestige. That unshakable foundation will carry a writer through hard times, and becomes a moral framework upon which to base writing and publishing decisions.

Rosenfeld repeatedly stresses the importance of connecting with the writing community. Your peers are crucial to your success and Rosenfeld urges writers to gather what she calls a Creative Support Team. In addition, writers need to be good literary citizens by championing other writers, attending literary events, buying books, and doing a lot of reading.

Finally, each chapter of A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE ends with a suggestion for movement. Every writer would benefit from more exercise, but Rosenfeld takes it a step further and tailors each exercise to a particular problem. Struggling with perfectionism? Try a silly dance party filled with imperfect moves. Feeling burnout? Try a walk in the woods to reconnect with nature. Feeling envy? Try weight-lifting, to remember ways that you’re already strong. Nervous about submitting work to a publisher? Try a new exercise class to remind yourself that you can try new things. No matter a writer’s problem, Rosenfeld has a way to move beyond it—literally.

A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is a few years old, but it feels like it was written for this time. Rosenfeld’s gentle encouragement, down-to-earth advice, and real solutions are exactly what writers need right now.

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A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars!

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

 

Seven Tips for Writing in Difficult Times

IMG_20200403_193951_369Hello Friends,

If you’re having trouble writing these days, you’re not alone. Every writer I know is having trouble producing new work—me included. But I’ve put together some strategies that have been helping me, and I think they will help you too. Here are seven ways to keep writing in difficult times.

  1. Write in Smaller Chunks

In ordinary times, we make big writing goals, and then we break them down into manageable steps. In difficult times, you can do the same thing, but make the steps even smaller. Nope, that’s not small enough. Make it smaller yet. Some of my friends are committing to writing 100 words a day. Others are writing fifteen minutes a day. That’s all they can do, and that’s all they need to do.

  1. Write to Prompts

If working on a novel or memoir seems too hard, try writing prompts. They are great writing practice, they will get you thinking differently, and there are no stakes. With a prompt, you can write well or write badly, as long as you’re writing.

  1. Try Editing

Sometimes, you can’t write new material, but you can edit old stuff. There can be great comfort in polishing your work. In times of stress, it’s calming to make order out of chaos.

  1. Don’t Forget to Read

If all else fails, and you can’t write a single thing, try reading. Turn off the news, stop scrolling social media, and just read. You could pick up a book about the craft of writing, or just read in your genre. Being familiar with books in your genre is an important part of a writer’s toolbox, so reading time is part of writing time.

  1. Take on This Identity

Do you call yourself a writer? Why not? If you truly take on that identity, and you know deep in your bones that you’re a writer, then the act of writing will become second nature. You take care of your children, right? Why? Because you’re a parent. You don’t think about it too much, or stress about it, you just do it. You walk your dog because you’re a dog owner. Maybe you cook because you’re a chef or you drive a bus because you’re a bus driver. In the same way, you write because you’re a writer. So take on that identity and allow yourself to write in a more matter-of-fact way.

  1. Find a Buddy

Even if we can’t meet face to face, we can still can still reach out for support. I like to have virtual write-ins with a friend. We’ll agree on a start time and then text each other to say, “Okay, go!” After an hour, we’ll text again, to congratulate each other for a good hour of writing. All you need is a little bit of time and one writing buddy.

  1. Remember This is Temporary

Do you remember the last time your writing was going really well? When you were in the zone, and the words flowed effortlessly? That was a temporary state. It was fun while it lasted, but it eventually ended and you got stuck. But the good news is, being stuck is temporary too! It won’t last forever. A writer is always bouncing back and forth between stuck and unstuck. That’s just the nature of the creative life. A lot of us are feeling stuck right now. None of us will be stuck forever.

I hope everyone is safe, healthy, and well-stocked, and that we’ll all be back to visiting our favorite bookstores and libraries again soon. I’ll post again on the 1st with my next scheduled book review.

 

Alex K.

 

Understanding Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy

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This is the second book on this topic I’ve reviewed this year, but while Sandra Gerth’s how-to book is excellent, and a must-buy, Janice Hardy’s book could be considered the follow-up to it. UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL is extremely in-depth and will be useful for writers who want to go beyond the basics to take a detailed look at showing and telling in fiction.

Hardy starts by explaining why telling happens in prose, and how to watch out for subtle problems like the author filtering the experience, improper narrative distance, and naming a character’s emotions. Hardy’s explanations are filled with examples that perfectly illustrate her points as she shows writers how to spot telling in their own work. She examines telling trouble spots like backstory, description, and infodumps, and gives a list of red-flag words such as decided, tried, felt, or seemed.

Hardy’s chapter on the uses of telling, however, is a scant three pages long. It probably should have been longer, since there are areas where telling comes in handy and Hardy could have expanded on that point. Showing and telling need to work hand-in-hand to make a novel complete.

But most novels could use more showing and less telling, and Hardy is an excellent guide for fixing told prose. For every problem, she has a solution, and is right there with writers as they identify telling and convert it to showing. By going through all the chapters of UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL writers will be able to fix point of view problems, and get out of the characters’ way to let them tell the story. (Or rather, show the story.)

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UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book

5 Secrets of Story Structure by K.M. Weiland

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Not every how-to book is for every writer. That’s why my blog exists. But even knowing that, I’ve never had such mixed feelings about a book before. Depending on how far you are on your writing journey, and what kind of writer you are, 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE could either be a rocket booster or blow up in your face.

5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is ideal for people who have read at least one other book on story structure but still want a deeper dive into the topic, filled with the most granular details. If you’re the kind of writer who loves to outline, wants to know exactly which scene goes where, and has a bottomless appetite for plot dissection, this book will grow your writing craft by leaps and bounds.

However, not every writer works that way. If you’re a pantser who hates outlines, thinks story structure is a “formula,” and relies on good instincts for your plotting needs, you’ll find this book overwhelming and/or baffling.

Personally, I’m a planner. I embrace the power of story structure and rely on it for my novels’ success. Save the Cat is my bible and nothing thrills me more than a well-ordered outline. I liked 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE a lot. This book gave me a deeper understanding of how and why stories work. It made me feel like I was building my own stories on a more solid framework.

Anyone who has read a single craft book knows about the big turning points that happen at every quarter, but Weiland goes beyond them to show what goes between those big plot points, and why. For example, Weiland introduces the concept of pinch points, which are exciting scenes in the middle of each act that serve as a reminder of what’s at stake. Weiland also shows how character change and growth are integrated into plot structure, and she explains it better than anyone else.  Too many books about plot ignore character change and vice-versa. Weiland knows the importance of both.

However, I was frustrated by the fact that all of Weiland’s examples were from movies. Not even books that had been turned into movies, but actual original screenplays like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Ice Age. She quotes the great screenwriting teachers Syd Field and Robert McKee, and includes an exhaustive breakdown of one of the most overused and cliché examples possible: Star Wars. Weiland even tells writers to watch the facial expression of actors in movies for clues about story pacing. 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is a book about writing novels, not screenplays. The mediums are very different, so using all movie examples and zero novel examples made no sense.

5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is going to be a love-it-or-hate-it book. For a certain kind of writer, this will feel like being given the Rosetta Stone. For a different kind of writer, this is going to feel like  a warped party game where everyone pretends to be in the writer’s room on a film set while playing pin the tail on the donkey.

If you think this book is for you, you’re probably correct. If you think it’s not for you, you’re probably also correct. 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is very short and the ebook is currently free, so if you’re not sure, this is an ideal time to check it out for yourself.

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5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is available here

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Rating: ??

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book or Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Valentine Giveaway!

It’s almost Valentine’s Day! Time to celebrate people we love, people we like, and people we feel warm affection for.

You know who my favorite person is? YOU. I like everyone who reads this blog and I wish I could buy each of you a present. I can’t buy everyone a present, but I did put together two gift boxes that I will be mailing to two blog readers.

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This year, I’m once again highlighting a how-to book from my favorite writing teacher of all time. THE LIAR’S COMPANION by Lawrence Block is one of his more personal how-to books, detailing his own struggles and triumphs in the era before he was a household name. You’re going to love this book!

This gift box also includes…
•  A blank notebook
•  “You are a badass” sticky notes
•  A coaster
•  And a stand-up pencil holder

But wait! There’s more! It’s Valentine’s Day, when things come in pairs, so of course there are two gift boxes.

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The second gift box features CREATING CHARACTER ARCS by K.M. Weiland. More than any other recent book, this one helped me get super clear on the way that plot and character go hand-in-hand. This book will supercharge your writing craft!

I’m also including the most fun blank notebook I’ve seen lately. That gemstone on the cover has LED lights in it and when you push a button on the cover, the gem lights up. I wish I could explain to you how cool it is, but you will have to see it for yourself.

This gift box also includes…
•  A set of cute erasers
•  A fridge magnet
•  And a list pad to track goals

Want to win one of these gift boxes? Just leave a comment below telling me two things: what is the most recent how-to book you’ve read, and a place I can contact you. (Email, website, or Twitter.)

I’ll draw two random names from the comments to this blog post on February 14, 2020 at 22:00 EST so be sure to comment before then!

And of course I have not one, but two notes.

First note: You don’t have to subscribe to my blog or follow me on social media to enter, but I’d be pleased if you did. (I’m @ AlexKourvo on insta and the twitterz)

Second note: This giveaway is open to everyone but I can only mail stuff to US addresses. If you live outside the US and I draw your name, I’ll send you a $10 Amazon ecard so you can buy Lawrence Block’s book or K.M. Weiland’s book yourself.

Leave me a comment with a book recommendation, and I’ll announce the winners on Valentine’s Day.

xxoo,
Alex K.
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Update: the winner of the Lawrence Block book is Bridget McKenna and the winner of the KM Weiland book is Catherine Stein. Congratulations to the winners!

On Cussing by Katherine Dunn

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I adore creative swearing. I love when someone drops a curse word in just the right place, or wields forbidden language like a dagger, or goes poetic with a long string of swear words. I love naughty language used for humor, because I’m secretly twelve and I think a well-deployed f-bomb is funny.

Dunn thinks so too. ON CUSSING is a celebration of taboo language, covering the history and neuroscience of swearing while also giving plenty of examples of how to do it well. At a short 70 pages, ON CUSSING is like good cussing itself—it makes its point without any wasted words.

At their core, curse words are emotional. Some scientists think they’re even processed in a different part of our brain. Their connotations are blasphemous or sexual or just plain filthy. These words don’t add much grammatically to a sentence. Most sentences would make just as much sense without them. But boy, do they pack a punch. And therefore, Dunn argues, these words need to be used carefully.

Curse words can be used to complain, to threaten, to solidify an oath, to lay on a curse, to insult, and to emphasize. Dunn gives examples of each, along with instruction on how to make it your own. Cussing needs to fit the character, the tone of the book, and the time period. Different eras had different curse words. Something we think of as mild would shock our ancestors, and vice-versa.

Dunn includes excerpts from classic books, although I didn’t find these very helpful. She also cautions against using curse words carelessly. There is, after all, a time and place, even for a well-deployed f-bomb.

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ON CUSSING can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book