Revisions: Transforming Sand into Castles

For authors, this is one of the most encouraging quotes around, along with all the ones that remind us our first draft is supposed to be imperfect. Rough. Bird-cage worthy. As professional authors know, you can’t edit a blank page.

Then comes the “later” part, where we get to start building castles. But as we build, we have to utilize some of our more aggressive writer tools: axes, guns, garrotes—whatever your weapon of choice to cut the dross, kill useless scenes, choke out pointless characters.

Or, as a euphemism for those of a more sensitive nature, we make frequent,  judicious use of the delete key.

Newer writers believe that editing involves nothing more than smoothing sentence structure, switching things around to make better sense, maybe adding a thing or two. But there is so much more to it. Every aspect of story crafting needs to be scrutinized during the revision process: structure, plot, characterization, plot and character arcs, dialogue, text and sub-text, theme, setting and description.

One of the best books I’ve found to help guide the newbie writer through the editing and revision process is James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for PublicationI’ve found some self-editing checklists online, but the ones I found would be more effective after the revision stage. They all tend to be about copy or line editing—feeding into the newbie’s ideas that this is all that’s involved in turning a first draft into a publishable book. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ve seen me, in my capacity as a professional freelance editor, preach about the proper order of edits: content edit first, which leads to revisions, then copy (line) edits, then proofreading.

And for content edits, which include every aspect of the craft of writing, Bell’s book is one of the best resources.

As in Maass’s and Weiland’s booksRevision & Self-Editing for Publication has a series of exercises and questions to help you focus on ways to make your manuscript better. I’ve read the first edition cover to cover, but I still pull it from the shelf when I have a problem child in my manuscript. For instance, if I’m having dialogue problems, I go to that chapter and read “12 Tools for Great Dialogue.” Sparks my imagination every time.

There are a lot of good books out there about self-editing. In the early stages of editing—content edits or revision—look for one that hits on the craft of writing. Something that will not only identify problems, but provide ideas of how to fix them. Then dive in. A good attitude helps.


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Especially for Writers

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Writer’s Block Busting

What stage are you in with your writing—getting the first draft written, or revising the mess you made of your first draft? Either way, there may come a time when you’re stumped and unable to go forward. Best thing to do? Keep writing. Here are some resources that can help.

Stuck while you’re writing?

Wherever you are in the process of writing your first draft, and regardless of whether you’re an outliner, K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel and its companion workbook are perfect tools when you’re stuck. Why? Because Katie asks questions that make you think.

When I’m having trouble, I always reach for the workbook. Her contents cover the premise, general sketches (scene lists) character backstories and interviews, setting, story elements, voice, POV–virtually everything.

Reaching for this book never fails. Even if I’m not having trouble with, for instance, characterization, going through those worksheets always gives me ideas. And that’s what you’re waiting for, the epiphany that kicks you back into gear. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing a scene between your characters that is totally unrelated to your work in progress. Sometimes it’s as specific as, “Which character has the most at stake?”—which may trigger the idea that if you change the POV in the scene you’ll get over your hump.

The point is to find those triggers. To take a step back from your work, yet keep the creative side of your brain engaged. In Katie’s workbook, you could find something specific to your problem or you could trigger an idea while you work on something entirely different. It’s all because she knows the right questions to ask to kick you into gear.

Stuck while you’re revising?

If you’ve been reading my blog during the past couple of weeks, you’re probably tired of seeing Donald Maass’s  Writing 21st Century Fiction. I’ve been leaning on it quite heavily these days.

Like Katie, Maass asks questions designed to kick your brain into gear. Unlike Katie’s books on outlining, this one is best if you already have something written. This shows you how to make what you’ve written better. Working on his questions helps you answer your own questions: Why doesn’t this scene pop? Why are my characters flat? How can I crank up the tension?

I wrote earlier about how this book helped me figure out my pair of plots. Since then I’ve learned how to take the challenges each character faces and make them universal so that their journeys become the road map for readers on similar journeys. Doing so makes a book more than just a good story. It makes the story memorable. When the readers can relate to the characters and their plights, their reading experience is elevated—and that’s our goal, right?

Maass also presents techniques for providing twists, turns, surprises; for best utilizing secondary and minor characters; for deepening scenes to provide an intense emotional reaction from the reader. Great goals, but he encourages us to elevate our writing as we go along:

“Pick a scene. What do you want the reader to feel here? Evoke that emotion through actions alone. Delete all exposition.”

That’s challenging. And while taking the challenge, you discover ways to jump over the obstacles hindering your revision, the same way Katie’s workbook does in the writing stage. You keep the creative side of your brain active. Maass’s book covers a lot of territory, and you’re likely to find the answer to whatever is holding you back as you revise. But even if you don’t find anything specific, just going through the exercises is likely to bring you over the hump.

In the dumps about writing in general?

Recently, a friend confided that she’s just about had it with writing. The spark was gone. She no longer had an interest. Didn’t care anymore.

The fact she was agonizing over it told me otherwise.

Sometimes, the best way to get over this is to get inspired again, and what works for me is . . . Maass. Goodness. You’d think I was his personal cheerleader.

The Fire in Fiction never fails to inspire me. This isn’t a typical “how-to” book, illustrating the basics of plot, character, dialogue, and setting. This is how to do it better.

Fans of Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel swear by it, and I’m good with that. I haven’t read it yet, but if Maass wrote it, I’m certain it’s great.

But The Fire in Fiction covers a wide range of story-telling techniques and shows us, as I said, how to do them better. How to make our characters more memorable, our stories more compelling. It lights a fire under authors who want to do more than just tell a story, and it inspires those who have been overcome with the writer blues.

These three books work great for whatever writing stage you’re in. But I bet you have your own secrets. How do you overcome writer’s block?

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The Revision Stage

I read my manuscript for Ride to the Altar all the way through, and it’s as bad as I thought. Oy vey.

In “2 Tips for Genre Mash-up,” I explained that working two entirely different genres in one book can be difficult and mentioned that Donald Maass wrote the perfect book to help you do it: Writing in the 21st Century. One of the things Maass says to do is to work each genre separately, then blend them together by finding the tangents between the two.

I usually write Women’s Fiction and Romance, so the Mystery element is new to me (though there are traces of mystery in The Cat Lady’s Secret), and I did all the newbie mystery writer things: I was too heavy-handed with the clues, and I telegraphed “who done it” and why, so the ending didn’t come as a surprise at all. But even my WF element is off in this. The major conflict between Patricia and her mother doesn’t work because it’s too easily resolved.

I will have to totally revise the scenes between Patricia and Natalie. Totally. When the readers can look at the conflict and think, “Why doesn’t she just [fill in the blank]?” then you’ve lost them. If they finish the book at all, they do it with an eye-roll as they watch the character try to resolve something by page 300 that could’ve been resolved on page 15.

The difference between revising and just plain editing is that revising means taking something out entirely. As the meme says, “rethink, revise, reinvent,” then weave it in again with the rest of the novel. Sometimes it means rewriting the entire novel. Fortunately, since mine is a genre mash-up, I only have to rip out the Women’s Fiction element and rework it.

Here’s the rub: I’m limited by the information provided in the two previous novels. Patricia rarely talks to her mother, Natalie. Natalie disapproves of Patricia’s decision to live in Texas instead of New York, and she disapproves of Patricia’s fiancé, a bull rider/ranch foreman. Patricia is a widow whose late husband fit Natalie’s image of a suitable mate for one of her “station,” for lack of a better term for the contemporary equivalent. Patricia has totally turned her back on her previous life and has exchanged business suits and party dresses for denim and flannel. Natalie sent her sister, Adele, to Texas to try to lure Patricia back home (the conflict for book 2 of the series, The Final Ride).

All this sounds like enough to create a great conflict—and it is. But something has to underlie it all. Something intense enough to keep a daughter from speaking to her mother. Whatever problems there are on the surface, there’s always something deeper, and the best of novels illustrate those deeper emotions so the resolution resonates with the readers and, in Christian fiction at least, uplifts them, enlightens them, gives them hope.

So having a scene of simple apology between the two women simply won’t cut it.

Once I figure out what the root of their problem is I have to totally revise those scenes, then blend the revisions with the rest of the novel.

But that’s not all. As I said, I flubbed the Mystery side of the novel. But with that, it’s more of an edit.

The thing about editing is that the changes are comparatively easy to make. The process is the same: identify the problem and figure out how to fix it, but the “fix it” doesn’t have to be quite so intense.

Again, I’m limited to the facts that are provided in the previous two books (Give the Lady a Ride and The Final Ride).

The mystery is introduced in the first novel, and I never intended to solve it. As I’ve said numerous times, Give the Lady a Ride was supposed to be a stand-alone. Then I started getting comments and notes from readers wanting to know what happened to the hero, Talon Carlson’s first fiancée. All I know about Janet Parson is that she was murdered almost nine years ago on the night before their wedding, Talon was the initial suspect, and, once he was cleared, the case was never solved.

Oh, joy. I really left myself a road map, didn’t I?

As I wrote Ride to the Altar, I told myself the story of what happened to Janet and why—which is the problem. In doing so as I wrote, I also telegraphed everything for the reader.

This is where I take Maass’s advice of working backward. Now that I know who did it and why,  I can go back and drop clues instead of provide conclusions. Nothing really changes except how I present it, which is different from how I have to approach Patricia’s side of the story in which the primary conflict changes and everything involved with it.

Here’s the deal: both genres are involved in one novel. So the idea that part of it may look like a simple edit bites the dust in the fact that the genres intertwine in the novel—meaning I’m in for a major revision all the way around.

This is new to me. Usually, my stories are pretty straight forward, and I can make adjustments as I go. I’ve heard that revisions are the fun part. We’ll see.

We’re told not to edit or revise as we go, just get the story written. This is the first time I’ve done it this way. What do you think? Do you write first and revise later? How do you feel about revisions? Fun or frustrating?


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Especially for Writers

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2 Tips for Genre Mash-ups

I’m starting the new year with two truths about my writing: (1) I finished the first draft Ride to the Altar in late December 2017, and (2) it’s a mess. A colossal mess.

One of the reasons it’s so messy is that it’s two unlikely genres mixed together, Women’s Fiction with a hint of Mystery. I know, I know. I was supposed to dump the “mystery” label, but I can’t. It’s still there. Once I got things set up and moving, elements of the traditional mystery became inescapably evident.

We’ve heard of Mystery Romance (or romantic mystery), and thanks to Anne Perry and others, we’ve heard of Historical Mystery. Science Fiction mixes well with Mystery—so does Fantasy. In fact, we’ve heard of mash-ups of a variety of genres, so why not Women’s Fiction and Mystery?

But it seems like I have two plots—not a plot and subplot—but two plots running through my novel, so it seems like more than just a blended story. It seems like a mess.

Enter Donald Maass.

In his book, Chapter Two, “The Death of Genre,” directly addresses the trouble I’ve been having, and, even better, shows me how to fix it. But best of all, Maass gives me permission to write my unlikely mash-up. As long as I do it right, that is.

This book is worth reading in general, as are all the manuals Donald Maass writes, but this one really works best during revision. Write your novel first (or your outline or however you want to do it), then go through Writing 21st Century Fiction and do the exercises. Maass’s theme throughout his book is “work backward,” so it’s best if you have something to work backward from. He suggests you find something in you manuscript where a particular technique he illustrates would be effective, then work backward to build up to it.

For me, the “work backward” is a bit broader. I’m not going to rehash the entire second chapter, but in the exercises, I found two keys that opened my eyes as to how to work backward and turn my mish-mash mash-up into a mash-up masterpiece.

  • “Take each story element and outline it, as if that were the entire novel. Work on it until it could be an entire novel” (page 18).

Doing this will make me focus on the elements that make up both genres, Mystery and Women’s Fiction, so that both are fully developed in the novel. It will also help me discover tangents where the two can blend. I can enhance those points so the readers can understand how the two genres work together, or—even better—it will seem seamless, and the readers won’t even notice (dare I hope?!).

  • “Each [genre] says the same thing in a different way . . . what is it? Work until the parallel feels (to you) ridiculously obvious” (page 18).

The minute I read that, I knew what connected the two story lines. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before, but now—to me, at least—it is ridiculously obvious. I’m willing to bet I can show the connection to the readers too.

Sometimes it takes an outside source to help shoo the clouds from your vision so you can see what to do with the mess you’ve made. The more I read, the more encouraged I am that the final in the Circle Bar Ranch series will be as 5-star worthy as the other two. I’m not dreading revisions anymore. I can’t wait to get started!

What about you? Where are you in your revision process? What do you need help with most?

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Favorite Titles from 2017

Sometimes I wish I could just quit everything and read, don’t you? I wish I could earn a living simply by reading. Well, I do read a lot of manuscripts, but that’s a different job.

I read 24 books in 2017, not a lot, but as many as I could handle. Here are some that stuck in my mind as exceptional.

Nonfiction, devotional:

Copyrighted in 1993 and apparently out of print now, this book had been sitting on my Bible shelf untouched for quite some time. My “Bible shelf” is where I keep my resources, study guides, devotionals, etc. I apparently read this one sometime in the past, but pulled it out again thinking that I hadn’t.

In this, Kay Arthur addresses a multitude of emotional issues we as Christians face: “When God is Silent,” “When Your Joy is Shaken,” “When Your Heart Aches,” “When You’ve Failed” are just a few of the chapter titles, and the responses to all the titles are no-nonsense and scripture based. Kay doesn’t skirt issues. The book played a special role in the writing of Ice Melts in Spring (to release in November in the Southern Seasons Collection), so I’ll tell you more about it then, but suffice it now to say this ranks as one of my all-time favorite devotional books.

Nonfiction, business:

I wrote about this one before. It filled me with ideas for little brand-related extras to sell at events–one of which is the coloring book for the Circle Bar Ranch series (find it on the sidebar).

This gives a ton of ideas for authors to create and sell along with their books. My coloring book is just one of them. Devotionals, cookbooks, calendars—a host of other things that you can market or have as giveaways and promotional tools. This really filled my head with ideas, many of which are still in the works, but I’m looking forward to them.

Top Three Fiction—no particular order:

I’ve read Max’s devotions and heard him preach, but this is the first time I’ve read one of his novels, and it was well worth it.

Putting Christian principles into action, Max deals with estrangement in this novel and illustrates the effects of unforgiveness on those other than the actual parties involved–like the main characters’ children.

Along with the help of a totally charming angel, Chelsea Chambers faces some hard truths and learns that not all is what it seems. Terrific story.

Connilynn Cossette’s mastery at weaving in setting descriptions keeps this one forefront in my mind. Historical accuracy along with realistic human drama and emotion put this Biblical historical on the top shelf of novels I love.

The Hebrews have been brought out of Egypt and are now restless. It’s hard to understand an invisible God none of them seem to remember. But aside from the Biblical tale of the desert years, Connilyn reminds us of the humanity who lived in that era through the story of a simple, reluctant midwife—her work, her insecurities, and her secret love. One of the best Biblical historicals I’ve read in quite some time.

Sandra Orchard’s Serena Jones character is just fun. Real. As human and complex as any other person on the street, complete with a complicated love life, an overly concerned mother, and an underly concerned aunt who gets into everything and causes some amusing complications.

This is the first in a series of equally entertaining titles written by a woman who knows how to blend mystery with fun. Her art-crime investigator follows white collar crimes into blue line territory for gripping good-guy-versus-bad-guy tales.

Starting on a whole new list for 2018, as I’m sure you are. What are you reading now?

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Especially for Writers

I finished the first draft of Ride to the Altar just before 2017 slipped away. Now, on to the next phase!

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New Christian Releases for January 2018

More in-depth descriptions of these books can be found on the ACFW Fiction Finder website.

Contemporary Romance:

Her Handyman Hero by Lorraine Beatty — Reid Blackthorn arrives in Dover on a personal mission—to make sure his terminally ill brother gets a chance to meet his daughter. Deceiving little Lily’s guardian isn’t his intention. Yet once Tori Montgomery mistakes Reid for her new handyman, he knows it’s the only way to be close to his niece. Tori is honoring her friend’s last wish by keeping Lily away from her father’s family. And once she learns who Reid truly is, she realizes there’s too much at stake—including custody of Lily—for her to fall for the former DEA agent. But in keeping a promise, is she losing out on her chance for a happily-ever-after? (Contemporary Romance from Love Inspired [Harlequin])

Beneath the Summer Sun by Kelly Irvin — It’s been four years since Jennie’s husband died in a farming accident. Long enough that the elders in her Amish community think it’s time to marry again for the sake of her seven children. What they don’t know is that grief isn’t holding her back from a new relationship. Fear is. A terrible secret in her past keeps her from moving forward. Meanwhile, Leo Graber nurtures a decades-long love for Jennie, but guilt plagues him—guilt for letting Jennie marry someone else and guilt for his father’s death on a hunting trip many years ago. How could anyone love him again—and how could he ever take a chance to love in return? (Contemporary Romance from HarperCollins Christian Publishing)

Ain’t Misbehaving by Marji Laine — True, Annalee’s crime amounted to very little, but not in terms of community service hours. Her probation officer encouraged her with a promise of an easy job in an air-conditioned downtown environment. She didn’t expect her role to be little better than a janitor at an after-school daycare in the worst area of town. Carlton Whelen hides behind the nickname of CJ so people won’t treat him like the wealthy son of the Whelen Foundation director. Working at the foundation’s after-school program delights him and annoys his business-oriented father. When a gorgeous prima donna is assigned to his team, he not only cringes at her mistakes but also has to avoid the attraction that builds from the first time he sees her. (Contemporary Romance from Write Integrity Press)

Finding Grace by Melanie D. Snitker — Single dad Tyler Martin can’t be more grateful to the woman who finds his missing daughter. Even though he feels a spark between them, falling in love is a risk he shouldn’t take. Too bad chance encounters and his stubborn heart keep trying to convince him otherwise. After escaping a nightmarish relationship, Beth Davenport is content with her safe and blessedly normal life. Yet something about Tyler and his adorable daughter makes her wish for more. With the walls around her heart finally starting to crumble, she’s afraid of a future she can’t predict. Can they let go of their fear and trust God to lead them to the love they desperately need? (Contemporary Romance, Independently Published)

Marrying Mandy by Melanie D. Snitker — Mandy Hudson swore she’d never marry. Abandoned by her parents and raised by her grandparents, she has a hard time trusting that real love will last. When her grandmother dies, Mandy’s shocked to discover a stipulation in the will. Considering marriage to her best friend may be the only way to keep her family’s beloved bed-and-breakfast. The loss of his job threatens Preston Yarrow’s shaky financial stability. Besides, he can’t watch his best friend give up the only real home she’s ever known. Frustrated by Mandy’s stubborn refusal to let him help, he’s certain they are stronger together than they are apart. A marriage of convenience might be crazy… or an answer to both their prayers. (Contemporary Romance, Independently Published)


Son of Promise by Caryl McAdoo — Can a wife find the grace to forgive when her husband’s withheld the truth? Travis Buckmeyer has a secret son, and the morning’s come to tell his sweet wife. He hates breaking Emma Lee’s heart. She promised him one ten years ago, but hasn’t been blessed to carry a baby to term. Every miscarriage made the telling harder, but now his clock’s run out. He’s going for his son, praying he won’t lose her.
Cody knows who his mother claims his father is, but he’s only interested in getting sprung from reform school then boosting enough from the do-gooder to bust out on his own.
Can Travis find redemption, Emma Lee forgiveness, or Cody the love he’s been longing for? (Historical, Independently Published)

Historical Romance:

Hearts Entwined by Mary Connealy, Melissa Jagears, Regina Jennings, and Karen Witemeyer — Four top historical romance novelists team up in this new collection to offer stories of love and romance with a twist of humor. In Karen Witemeyer’s “The Love Knot,” Claire Nevin gets the surprise of her life awaiting her sister’s arrival by train. Mary Connealy’s “The Tangled Ties That Bind” offers the story of two former best friends who are reunited while escaping a stampede. Regina Jennings offers “Bound and Determined,” where a most unusual trip across barren Oklahoma plains is filled with adventure, romance, and . . . camels? And Melissa Jagears’ “Tied and True” entertains with a tale of two hearts from different social classes who become entwined at a cotton thread factory. (Historical Romance from Bethany House [Baker])

A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Mary Davis, Kathleen E. Kovach, Paula Moldenhauer, Suzanne Norquist, Donita Kathleen Paul, Donna Schlachter, and Pegg Thomas — For seven bachelors, this bouquet of brides means a happily ever after. Meet seven American women who were named for various flowers but struggle to bloom where God planted them. Can love help them grow to their full potential? (Historical Romance from Barbour Publishing)

A Mother For His Family by Susanne Dietze
Lady Helena Stanhope’s reputation is in tatters…and she’s lost any hope for a “respectable” ton marriage. An arranged union is the only solution. But once Helena weds formidable Scottish widower John Gordon, Lord Ardoch, and encounters his four mischievous children, she’s determined to help her new, ever-surprising family. Even if she’s sure love is too much to ask for.
All John needs is someone to mother his admittedly unruly brood. He never imagined that beautiful Lady Helena would be a woman of irresistible spirit, caring and warmth. Or that facing down their pasts would give them so much in common. Now, as danger threatens, John will do whatever it takes to convince Helena their future together—and his love—are for always. (Historical Romance from Love Inspired [Harlequin])

His Forgotten Fiancee by Evelyn M. Hill — Liza Fitzpatrick is stunned when her fiancé finally arrives in Oregon City — with amnesia. Matthew Dean refuses to honor a marriage proposal he doesn’t recall making, but Liza needs his help now to bring in the harvest, and maybe she can help him remember… Matthew is attracted to the spirited Liza, and as she tries to help him regain his old memories, the new ones they’re creating together start to make him feel whole. Even as he falls for her again, though, someone’s determined to keep them apart. Will his memory return in time to save their future? (Historical Romance from Love Inspired [Harlequin])

A Song Unheard by Roseanna M. White — Willa Forsythe is both a violin prodigy and top-notch thief, which makes her the perfect choice for a critical task at the outset of World War I–to secure a crucial cypher key from a famous violinist currently in Wales. Lukas De Wilde has enjoyed the life of fame he’s won–until now, when being recognized nearly gets him killed. Everyone wants the key to his father’s work as a cryptologist. And Lukas fears that his mother and sister, who have vanished in the wake of the German invasion of Belgium, will pay the price. The only distraction he finds from his worry is in meeting the intriguing and talented Willa Forsythe. But danger presses in from every side, and Willa knows what Lukas doesn’t–that she must betray him and find that key, or her own family could pay the same price his surely has. (Historical Romance from Bethany House [Baker])


Surgeon’s Choice by Richard L. Mabry, MD — Dr. Ben Merrick thought his biggest problem was getting his fiancé’s divorced parents into the same room for the wedding–and then, people started dying. (Mystery, Independently Published through White Glove)

Romantic Suspense:

Innocent Lies by Robin Patchen — Desperate to be safe from the man who held her captive and ruined her life, Kelsey must ensure her child is protected before she can take her enemy on. But a string of bad luck gets her arrested and lands her face-to-face with the only man she’s ever loved—the only man who can destroy all her plans. (Romantic Suspense, Independently Published)

Cold Truth by Susan Sleeman — When research chemist Kiera Underwood receives the cryptic phone call about her twin brother, she tries to contact him to no avail. Her twin sense tingles, warning her that something is wrong. Kiera’s not prepared when an attempt is made on her life and Blackwell Tactical operative Cooper Ashcroft delivers her second shock of the day. Someone killed the supervisor at the research lab where her brother works and stole a deadly biotoxin. The main suspect? Her brother, and Blackwell Tactical has been hired to bring him in. If that wasn’t shocking enough, she’s suspected of colluding with him. Setting out to prove herself and her brother is innocent, she is almost abducted before Ashcroft rescues her. He’s faced with the reality that she’s telling the truth and someone has likely abducted her brother—perhaps killed him—and now Kiera’s very life is in danger, too. (Romantic Suspense, Independently Published)

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O Holy Night


Merry Christmas, everyone!

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