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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Don’t Worry, the Skeleton in the Chimney Isn’t Santa

It seems that Joseph Schexnider went missing in 1984. This wasn’t unusual since Joseph had a history of taking off, once apparently joining a traveling circus. So when he disappeared his family wasn’t overly alarmed and didn’t bother to search for him, assuming he would return in his own good time. Flash forward 27 years.

 

Construction workers were doing renovations on the red-brick Bank of Abbeville, Louisiana in July, 2011. As they worked on an old chimney they discovered a skeleton. It seems that someone had attempted to enter the bank by descending the chimney only to become stuck and die from dehydration and starvation. The skeletal remains turned out to be Joseph. Another bank job gone bad.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III

Jodie is back with the final post of her three-part series on writing killer thrillers.

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III
by Jodie Renner

 
More techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner.
In Part I of this series, I passed along some tips for creating a compelling opening, complex characters, and a tight point of view. In Part II, I discussed creating a riveting plot with lots of conflict and suspense and a tight, to-the-point writing style. This final post in this series covers tension, dialogue, pacing, passion, and crafting a satisfying ending.

 
Put tension on every page.

 
This applies to all fiction, but even more so for thrillers. As Jack Bickham says, “Virtually all the high points of most stories involve conflict. It’s the fuel that makes fiction go. Nothing is more exciting and involving.”

 

Bickham continues, “In fiction, the best times for the writer—and reader—are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies. Pour on all sorts of woes so your poor character is thoroughly miserable and in the deepest kind of trouble, and your story perks right up—along with your reader’s interest.

 

“The moral: Although most of us do everything we can to avoid trouble in real life, we must do the opposite as writers of fiction. We must seek out ways to add trouble to our characters’ lives, putting just as much pressure on them as we can. For it’s from plot trouble that reader interest comes.”

 

In his chapter called “Tension All the Time,” Donald Maass emphasizes giving your protagonist (and other characters) conflicting emotions and inner conflict.

 
All dialogue needs tension, too.

 
As Ingermanson and Economy say, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two of the characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story.” So definitely leave out the “How are you? I’m fine. And you?” blah-blah-blah, and cut to the chase. Unless of course you’re trying to show seething resentment or subtle tension boiling up from under surface politeness. As Donald Maass says, “Conflict in dialogue can be as polite as poison, or as messy as hatchets. The approach is up to you. The important thing is to get away from ambling chit-chat and get right to the desire of two speakers to defeat each other.” So follow James N. Frey’s advice: “Decide you will have fresh, snappy dialogue and not a single line of conversation.”

 

Vary the pacing.

 

Although thrillers are generally fast-paced, it’s important to slow down the pacing from time to time, to give your readers a break. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “because readers need to put down a book from time to time, and because pacing can’t be as relentless as a runaway train, you need to bring down the temperature and tension in a story at intervals. A win for your character, as well as a slower or interlude scene, provides the pauses and quieter moments needed.”

 
Give your scenes conflict, intensity and intrigue.

 
Start and end your chapters and scenes with questions and intrigue. James N. Frey’s advice is to end each scene or section of dramatic narrative with a bridge, a story question to carry the reader to the next one.

 

Every scene, according to James Scott Bell, needs a degree of intensity. A moving force in the scene is trying to make something happen. Opposition or obstacles are keeping the POV character from meeting his objective. And the outcome is often not entirely satisfactory. In fact, Bell advises us, “Design your scenes, for the most part, so the lead is in a worse position after the scene is over.” This will keep the reader reading to find out how the protagonist tackles the new challenges and survives her new predicament.

 

Put passion into your writing.

 
Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, feels that the key ingredient to a page-turner is passion. “What do I mean by passion? … A passionate author has us in her grip. Passionate fiction is not bogged down, wandering, low in tension, or beset by the many bugbears of by-the-numbers novel writing, like stereotypical characters, predictable plots, cliché-ridden prose, churning exposition, buried dialogue, and so on.[…] When the purpose of every word is urgent, the story crackles, connects, weaves, and falls together in wondrous ways.”

 

How to develop that passion as a writer? Maass believes in learning from others. “Everything we need in order to understand the techniques of passion lies within the covers of novels that you will currently find on the shelves.”

 

Create a thrilling, satisfying climax.

 
Frey points out, “In almost all damn good thrillers, the hero is nearly killed in the climax, but then manages to kill or capture the villain and to foil his evil plot. Audiences find this motif satisfying….” An effective, satisfying climax has a surprise or two, good prevails over evil, and often the hero discovers something about himself or gains insight into the human condition. Don’t disappoint your readers by having a nebulous, wishy-washy, or tragic ending. Leave that to literary fiction, not your killer thriller!

 

Resources:

James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller

Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction

David Morrell, The Successful Novelist

Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us

 

 

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in crime fiction. Check out her website at: http://www.jodierennerediting.com.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II

Jodie is back with Part II of her three-part series on writing killer thrillers.

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II

Some key techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner.

In Part I of this series, I offered some tips for creating a killer opening; staging intriguing, complex characters; and engaging your reader in your hero’s story through a tight, riveting point of view. Those techniques, used well, will set the stage and grab your readers early on, making them bond quickly with your hero, and start worrying about his plight.

How to keep your readers involved right through to the end of the book? Plan for conflict, tension and suspense on every page, and deliver it with a tight, to-the-point writing style. Don’t allow your reader’s attention to wander for a moment!

“Once the inciting incident threatens the protagonist, the writer’s job is to prolong the trepidation for as long as possible.” (J.P. Morrell)

Plan a riveting plot, with lots of conflict and tension.

Conflict drives all fiction. And more conflict and higher stakes are of course necessary for a successful thriller. Put your protagonist in hot water right away. Then up the stakes and create more problems for him. Then more.

As James N Frey says, “Have your characters in terrible trouble right from the beginning, and never let them get free of terrible trouble until the climax. Keep the clock ticking and the excitement mounting right to the climactic moment.”
Unlike some other genres, in a thriller, you need high stakes and an urgent mission, and you need to keep the plot moving along briskly. Don’t bog it down with explanations and digressions and backstory. Add those in in small doses, marbling them into your story only when needed. And color any exposition (internal monologue) with plenty of tension, anxiety, inner conflict, questions, all expressed with a distinctive voice and lots of attitude.

Jessica Page Morrell, in Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, has this advice for creating effective conflict:

Give characters opposing goals, agendas, and strong motivations.
Make sure the stakes for each character are high.
Stage confrontations as if they’re happening/unfolding in real time.
Embed dialogue with tension, subtext, and power exchanges.
Know your protagonist’s deepest fears.

Stir in lots of suspense.

As Morrell says, “Suspense forces a reader to stay engaged and is part anxiety, part curiosity. Suspense unsettles the reader, plunges him into nail-biting angst. … Suspense builds and satisfies when the reader desperately wants something to happen and it isn’t happening.”

Suspense is usually caused by threats, when the protagonist whose head we’re in is in danger, his life is about to become a living nightmare, and we have to keep reading to find out how it all turns out.

Some techniques to use to increase the suspense are subtle foreshadowing, delaying information, subterfuge, threats to the protagonist, time running out, inner conflicts, surprise twists, and cliff-hangers. All of these techniques involve delaying the resolution of the hero’s problems, piling on new challenges, and hinting of even worse dangers to come.

Use a tight writing style. Make every word count.

In a suspense-thriller (or any compelling fiction), it’s important to write economically. As Steve Berry says: “Shorter is always better. Write tight. It makes you use the best words in the right way.” Succinct, to-the-point writing produces the predominantly fast pace demanded by thrillers.

Don’t meander or ramble. Don’t wax eloquent. Don’t use highfalutin words that sound pompous and will send your readers to the dictionary. Direct, sensory, evocative words are much more powerful. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood.” Avoid the convoluted, erudite sentence structure popular in previous centuries. And don’t say the same thing three or four times in different ways – we got it the first time! Also, stay away from those stale clichés.

As Harlan Coben says about writing his thrillers, “I want it to be compulsive reading. So on every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word, I ask myself, ‘Is this compelling? Is this gripping? Is this moving the story forward?’ And if it’s not, I have to find a way to change it…. No word really should be wasted.”

For more details on effective writing styles for fiction, see my article titled “Style Blunders in Fiction.”

In Part III of this series, I’ll discuss effective dialogue, varied pacing, scene structure, and a satisfying climax and conclusion.

Resources:

Steve Berry’s 8 Rules of Writing, Writer’s Digest, September 05, 2008

Harlan Coben, in an interview by Jessica Strawser published in Writer’s Digest, “Straight Talk with Harlan Coben,” November 29, 2010.

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller – A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters.

Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. For more info on Jodie’s her editing services, visit her website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I

To inspire you to do a little holiday writing, let’s welcome back Jodie Renner. She will post a three-part series on writing killer thrillers.

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I

by Jodie Renner

Some key techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner.

Seems like all I’ve been reading for the past few years are thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction, as they provide just the escape I’m looking for after a long day of … editing crime fiction! Here are some tips I’ve gleaned from writing gurus and my own editing experience on writing a suspense-thriller—or any other story—that will keep your readers up until the wee hours.

First, what’s a thriller, anyway? See my article on Thrillers vs. Mysteries. In a nutshell, as James N. Frey says, “the main ingredient of a thriller is pulse-pounding suspense.” The time-honored formula for successful thrillers is, according to Frey: “A clever hero has an ‘impossible’ mission to foil evil. The hero is brave; he or she is in terrible trouble; the mission is urgent; the stakes are high; and it’s best if the hero is self-sacrificing for others.”

So what makes a compelling suspense-thriller, the kind you can’t put down? Most thriller writers and readers would agree that some of the essential ingredients for a thriller that sizzles are:
An opening that grabs you by the collar and drags you in
A likeable, resourceful hero
A ruthless, cunning villain (or more than one)
A riveting plot with a powerful story question and lots of intrigue
Plenty of tension and conflict
Fast pacing, with tight, to-the-point writing
An unexpected, satisfying conclusion

But how do we achieve all that and more? In this post and two more to follow, we’ll discuss some techniques that can help you create a page-turning, adrenalin-inducing thriller.

To start with, As Frey, says, “To write a damn good thriller, you need a killer attitude.”  For Part I, we’ll just touch on your opening (first page), characters, and point of view.

Write an opening that hooks ‘em in.

Put your protagonist on stage right away, in media res – in the middle of things. As James Scott Bell says, “Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.” Start with a powerful story question, and get that inciting incident, the first threat, in there quickly. Don’t open with a description of the setting or weather, or with interior monologue. A dialogue with tension and some action is much more dynamic. But don’t stress over getting the perfect opening for your first draft – just get your story down, then come back at a later date to revise and spice up your first paragraph and page. For more on writing compelling openings, click on my article “Act First, Explain Later.”

Create complex, compelling characters.
Your lead character, according to James Scott Bell, needs “grit, wit and it,” so make him or her gutsy, smart, witty and charismatic. Your hero should be strong, resourceful and likeable, but not perfect. As Bell says, “Leads, to be realistic, must also have flaws and foibles.”
According to Jessica Page Morrell, “Your characters can be neurotic or despicable, vain or shallow, but they must always be vivid, fascinating, and believable, and their actions, decisions, and motives must propel the story to an inevitable conclusion.”

James N. Frey takes it a step further: “All damn good dramatic characters are larger than life, theatrical, determined to overcome the obstacles that are put in their path. They are an extreme of type, larger than life, and they have a ruling passion that defines who they are.” This applies to both the hero and the villain.

Frey advises us to create characters that, “in addition to being multifaceted, are interesting in the way real people are interesting. They’ve done things, they’ve been places, and they have unusual views. In other words, they’ve ‘lived.’ Such characters have an individuality that stamps them as fresh.” And give your characters internal conflict, moral dilemmas, and tough decisions and choices to make, as these help develop and define them.

And make your antagonist a nasty but believable villain, powerful, cunning, relentless, unpredictable, selfish, immoral, and cold-hearted. But not 100% evil – give him depth and complexity by showing us how he explains and justifies his actions.

For more on this topic, check out my blog post, “Creating Compelling Characters.”

Zoom in on your hero.
Limited viewpoint, where we experience the story from the point of view of the protagonist(s),  gets us “up close and personal” with the main character, so we start to identify with him right away, and get emotionally engaged fast, which is critical for effective fiction.

As Maass says, when discussing the weaker manuscripts his agency rejects, “Too many manuscripts begin at a distance from their protagonists, as if opening with a long shot like a movie. That’s a shame. Why keep readers at arm’s length?

“Novels are unique among art forms in their intimacy. They can take us inside a character’s heart and mind right away. And that is where your readers want to be. Go there immediately. And when you do, show us what your hero is made of. If you accomplish that, then the job of winning us over is done.”

And as David Morrell points out, “Modern readers have a mania about credibility. To the extent that the omniscient narrator intrudes with godlike information, the illusion of actuality is broken.” Steve Berry says, “Don’t let you, the author, enter the story.”

So for more impact and to draw your reader in more to your story world, get us into the head and heart of your protagonist right away. Then express each scene, including the setting, from your viewpoint character’s point of view. Colour the description with their feelings, attitude, reactions, etc., rather than stepping back and describing the scene from a more impartial, distant, descriptive authorial stance.

Resources:

James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing – Techniques for transforming your first draft into a finished novel

Steve Berry’s 8 Rules of Writing, Writer’s Digest, September 05, 2008

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller – A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters

Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction

David Morrell, The Successful Novelist

Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected.

 

Jodie Renner is an independent editor specializing in crime fiction. Check out her website at: http://www.jodierennerediting.com/.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Stupid Criminals: The Fake Doctor’s Note

It seems that Michelle Elaine Astumian enjoyed writing fake prescriptions to obtain various drugs. Her scam was discovered, she pleaded no contest to kiting the fake scripts, and found herself facing up to five years in prison. When she arrived at the San Luis Obispo County, California courtroom for sentencing, Michelle handed the judge a doctor’s note designed to delay the hearing. You guessed it. The doctor’s note was apparently also forged. She is nothing if not consistent.

When the judge immediately revoked her bail and remanded her to custody, she collapsed to the floor. Medics were called and she was taken to a nearby hospital. Every ER doctor will tell you that such antics by arrestees are not uncommon. Hospitals are better places to hang out than are jails. In what could only be described as an understatement, Deputy District Attorney Dave Pomeroy said that he approached “her reaction with understandable skepticism.”

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2011 in Stupid Criminals

 

Q and A: What Drugs Might Cause Side Effects in My Character With Alice in Wonderland Syndrome?

Q: I have a question about Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (AIWS) My character is in his mid-30s. From what I’ve gathered from reading this syndrome, it is fairly common with children and with migraine sufferers and it is controllable. However, I want my character to have side-effects. In other words, even though the AIWS and his migraines are under control, he is increasingly erratic. Insomnia, impotence, and irritability would all be a bonus. Could he be dosing himself with some type of herb that he doesn’t realize would have these side-effects when combined with the medication prescribed for AIWS. Or is there a medication for AIWS that might cause these kind of side-effects but be subtle enough in the beginning that the person becomes mentally unstable before he realizes something is wrong?

FY Bailey

A:    Alice in Wonderland Syndrome is also known as Todd’s Syndrome. It is a neurologic condition that leads to disorientation and visual and size perception disturbances (micropsia and macropsia). This means that their perception of size and distance is distorted. Much like Alice after she descended into the rabbit hole and consumed the food and drink she was offered.

 

AIWS is associated with migraines, tumors, and some psychoactive drugs. It is treated in a similar fashion to standard migraines with various combinations of anticonvulsants, antidepressants, beta blockers, and calcium channel blockers. Both anticonvulsants (Dilantin, the benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax, and others) and antidepressants (the SSRIs like Lexpro and Prozac, the MAOIs like Marplan and Nardil,, and the tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil and Tofranil, and others) have significant psychological side effects. Side effects such as insomnia, irritability, impotence, confusion, disorientation, delusions, hallucinations, and bizarre behaviors of all types–some aggressive and others depressive. Beta blockers can cause fatigue, sleepiness, and impotence. The calcium channel blockers in general have fewer side effects at least on a psychiatric level.
As for herbs almost anything that would cause psychiatric affects could have detrimental outcomes in your character. Cannabis, mushrooms, LSD, ecstasy, and other hallucinogens could easily make his symptoms worse and his behavior unpredictable.

 
Your sufferer could easily be placed on one of the anticonvulsants, one of the antidepressants, or a combination of two of these drugs and develop almost any of the above side effects, in any degree, and in any combination that you want. This should give you a great deal to work with.

 

Interview: Dr. Richard Wenzel Discusses Labyrinth of Terror

Today I welcome Dr. Richard Wenzel to The Writer’s Forensics Blog to answer a few questions about his new medical thriller Labyrinth of Terror. Dr. Wenzel is the former Chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Dr. Wenzel, welcome.

Q: What inspired you to write Labyrinth of Terror?

A: I’ve always loved writing – and it has been a gift in academic medicine where publishing has been critical to success. But I wanted to reach out to a large audience, and fiction – especially a thriller – offers that opportunity. 

Labyrinth of Terror allowed me to combine an interest in three themes – the bio-terror threat in the 21st century, my love of Greek mythology, and my fascination for the city of London, where I lived for one year during a sabbatical. Of course, international politics forms a background for the story.

 

Q: What first sparked your interest in the field of infectious disease research?

A: I had three experiences that sparked my interest in infectious diseases: at age eight, as a climber of big trees, I fell twenty feet the day school had recessed for the summer and fractured the femur, the large bone in the thigh. I spent an extra 3 weeks in the hospital after a hospital- acquired infection developed at the entrance to the pin holding my bone in place. It was a Staph infection in my leg. That experience opened my eyes to medicine and helping people in general.

In my third year in medical school, my microbiology professor at Jefferson arranged a three month visit to the Philippines where I helped treat 100 new patients a day with cholera – a deadly diarrheal disease. I felt useful during that epidemic and thoroughly enjoyed the international aspect of this field.

In the second year of my internal medicine training at the University of Maryland, my chair of medicine arranged a 3 month visit to Bangladesh during a cholera epidemic there, and now I could take charge of patient care. During that same time I saw patients with leprosy, tetanus and smallpox. I knew that the field of infectious diseases was important to me!

Q: Describe some of the experiences you’ve had as a physician that awoke you to the reality of bio-terror and germ warfare.

A: After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, I began to read of that country’s many clandestine bio-terror laboratories scattered throughout the nation in different cities. Unknown to the rest of the world, the Soviets had been working for twenty years on deadly strains of anthrax, smallpox, tularemia and other pathogens.

Later on, I met Ken Alibek, the number two scientist in the Soviet Union’s secret bio-terror program. He had defected to the U.S. And very coldly told me that he and his colleagues thought that they were doing something important for science and for their country. I was struck by his apparent lack of global perspective or a consideration of consequences or ethics while he worked in the Soviet Union. 

Terror arrived in the U.S. on 9-11, and at that time no one was initially sure that a release of bio-weapons had been a part of the plot. Soon afterwards, true bioterrorism came to the United States when the anthrax-laced letters began to arrive in post offices, the offices of journalists, and members of congress. 

Surely a large scale bioterrorist attack is possible.

Q: Labyrinth of Terror takes place in some exotic locales. Describe some of your more memorable travels, and how they figure in your writing process.

A: I mentioned my early experiences in the Philippines and Bangladesh. Since then I have traveled widely in continental Europe, Asia and South America. During a year in London in 1985-86, the Achille Lauro incident occurred when a group of terrorists attacked a pleasure cruise; several airline hijackings occurred, an airline office in London was blown up, and our children’s school was boarded up because of anti- American sentiment – especially after Reagan bombed Gaddafi. 

My family and I lived for six weeks in Taiwan, and my wife and I have spent weeks in Australia, New Zealand and Tanzania, and the Middle East.

Travel exposes people to the rich histories and cultures of people who look and live differently from you. Their own views, family stories and myths are fascinating, mysterious and sometimes challenging to the views one had before the visits. As a result a person has to reexamine strongly held concepts, especially when listening to the stories that foreigners tell you about their beliefs, struggles, concerns and views of America?

Q: How much research did you do for Labyrinth of Terror, and how much of the book did you write from imagination?

A: Although I eventually had the key concepts of the book in my mind, I did a great deal of research to be sure that I had the facts down correctly. Especially the history of Palestine after 1948 and various attempts to resolve issues between Israel and Palestine. I also wanted to be sure I had details about Greek mythology and various histories. I looked outside of London for details that were important in the book, and even some details about London itself.

Q: What sets Labyrinth of Terror apart from other medical thrillers?

A: One of the key differences in Labyrinth of Terror is the critical role of both an epidemiologist and a microbiologist in solving the “who done it.” Usually the standard sleuths are detectives. Furthermore, the use of mythology in the book informs the motivation for the bio-terror. And without trying to overstate so, my own experiences and expertise in both infectious diseases and epidemiology makes the book knowledgeable and credible.

Q: Should people be afraid of impending bio-terror attacks? What can the average person do to be prepared for that possibility?

A: People should be aware of the possibility and even likelihood of bio-terror attacks, not necessarily be afraid. With luck and the dedication of curious clinicians, the expertise at CDC and early response teams, we will prevent or minimize their impact.

Q: Greek mythology plays an important role in the plot. What led you to incorporate myth into a primarily scientific narrative?

A: Myths are a part of every culture, and Greek mythology is rich with interesting stories. Myths provide people with hope, especially if they are poor or weak, or unattractive or victims of fate. Myths orient us to how we view life and the world around us and through which we interpret day to day challenges. I purposely used myth to help explain the motivation behind the bio-terror plot in the story. In the title of the book, the word labyrinth reflects the importance of Greek mythology.

Q: What plans do you have for future novels?

A: I have just begun to outline a few ideas for a sequel to Labyrinth of Terror. Of course I will have many of the characters meet up again but in a totally new location, facing totally new greats. I am very excited!

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2011 in Interviews

 
 
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