Just a Few Words

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By Cheryl Owen Wilson

Knowing the rules of a particular trade, and having applied them long enough to be confident in breaking them, seems to be of benefit mainly in the artistic realms of life. In the writing realm, I’m certain we can all come up with a best selling author who broke basic rules taught to us by our many English teachers. Cormac McCarthy and E.E. Cummings are the first two to come to my mind. One day I may be in a position to break rules, but first I must learn them.

I’m in the process, of what I hope are the final edits on my first novella. So rules, or tips on how to strengthen a story, are forefront in my mind these days. I’ve discovered books filled with rules so numerous a writer might never write a word if they took the time to read and apply them all. Thus, for the purpose of this blog I will touch on just a few I found helpful.

1st Rule— Did I need to use the word just in my last sentence? No. I discovered I use the word just along with its friend only way too often. My writing mentor Liz Engstrom, would say never to use the word just. She would also add the following to the banned list of words: very, causing, here, this, now, and today.

I write short stories. The idea of writing anything lengthier seemed absurd to me. I almost, nearly, didn’t write the book.

2nd Rule—Did my last sentence make you cringe just (I told you I really like this word) reading it? Yes. Investigate, or take out: almost, kind of, nearly, and sort of.

I recently had the pleasure of spending three days with my tribe, my writing pals. What did I do at this valuable retreat? I found the 641 times I used the word was, and reduced it to 226! A simple word, yet when removed, it transforms the sentence.

“She was crying uncontrollably.” vs “She cried uncontrollably.”

3rd Rule—Investigate every use of: is, was, are, be, being, am, and were.

I am currently searching out the simple, humble word—it.

4th Rule—There is generally a better word for it. Investigate your use of, it.

I celebrated finding my last was, and then explained to my pals it was now my quest. This elicited a most interesting discussion on the infamous often mocked and parodied phrase written in the novel Paul Clifford, by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. I’ve never read the book, but know the phrase from my favorite cartoon beagle: “It was a dark and stormy night.” It—the phrase—is a classic. It breaks all the rules, but sometimes rules are there to be broken. Just make certain you have a very good reason for doing it.

What rules do you break and why?

 

Writing in Black and White

 

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

When I write I see color. It is so important to me that my very first blog featured in ShadowSpinners was titled “Writing in Color”. As I create each scene paintings float through my mind. Vivid shades of red overlay scenes of anger or lust. Glossy vermilion sparks in my mind when writing about nature. Undulating blues flow over me when water is featured, and ribbons of yellow flit through happily ever after scenes. I could continue, but you get the idea.

If you follow my blog you know I’m also an artist. In the past six months I’ve been creating a series of paintings titled “Sounds of Southern Blues”.   Three of the paintings are complete and the last one will follow by the end of the month. The backdrops of each of the paintings have only shades of black and white and the accompanying grays they create. The only “color” in each one is the particular musical instrument featured. This style of painting is a first for me, and has been quite a learning experience.

Now is where you ask, what does this have to do with writing? Over the same span of time, the past six months, I’ve been knee deep in the final editing stages of completing a novella. This has been another first for me, since the only stories I’ve written in the past (at least for publication) have been short or flash fiction.

Here comes the black and white part of my blog. I’ve not written any new stories during this time. As a result, I came to a startling realization when I saw no color as I read a paragraph in my novella for what must’ve been the twentieth time. My familiar muse of seeing the words burst to life in Technicolor had abandoned me.  Both of my creative pursuits were seriously lacking in color!

Upon further investigation I came to the following conclusion. I’m only given the gift of writing in color during those giddy first stages of creating new worlds, meeting new people, and forming new ideas. Easily done when writing short stories. Not so easy when writing longer pieces. After this earth-shattering phenomenon sank in I began to wonder if I could actually complete my novella.

But never one to give up I found myself sitting the next day once again staring at the colorless paragraph. I was determined to complete the edits given to me by my publisher.

Have I mentioned I paint and write in the same studio? I looked away from my black and white story and over at the sax painting. Its shocking blue appeared to be visibly vibrating off its backdrop of black and white, and a thought began to form.

Yes, the sax spoke to me. Doesn’t the artwork in your home speak to you? It said I’d already created all the color my novella needed. What it now needed in these final edits were cohesive shades of black and white so the color could jump off the page just as it, the sax, was doing as it spoke to me. I looked back at my paragraph where ghost like glimpses of the color I’d created shone. They began to meld with the black and white creating a visible path. I followed the path through the paragraph I’d been struggling over, and as if by magic I found myself moving on to the next paragraph.

As I now work in finalizing the last few pages of edits, I’ve came to realize the color in my story would be nothing without what I now see as a black and white backdrop. It is what contains the filler, the mundane staging involved in writing something longer than a short story. Black and white are now the other colors I look for when writing.

So the next time you get bogged down in layers of edits, understand it’s just the much-needed black and white backdrop. Without it your readers will not be able to experience the vibrant, colorful, unique world you’ve created.

How do you psych yourself up to read your works in progress for the umpteenth time and get through edits?

 

“Saxophone in Blue” Original Painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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For the love of…

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I thought it appropriate to discuss the topic of love in this month of February, a month where you can’t escape the concept of it, no matter how hard you might try.

I have yet to meet a writer who hasn’t used a writing prompt. Thus my title—For the love of…and is it any wonder that the topic of love, is written about and published more than any other genre given its many variations?

Let’s look at a few—For the love of…a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend, the job, money, yourself, a worthy humanitarian cause; anger (yes one can fall in love with one’s anger). For this particular writing prompt the list is literally endless. We have at our fingertips a menagerie of topics to explore and write about.

However, as I shared in an earlier blog, when I personally attempt to write about romantic love, someone always has to die. Yes, no matter how many times I’ve tried there is never a happily ever after for my lovelorn characters. I must insert here, for those who don’t know me personally, this is not the case in my own life. In my own life, I’ve been happily married for 28 years. Okay, there were rocky times, how could there not be with eight children (big surprise—this is the love I mainly focus on in my fictional and memoir writing—a mother’s love, or lack there of), two parents working full time, and no “Alice” to have meals prepared at the end of the day (for you youngsters Google “The Brady Bunch”)? But isn’t that what true love is? In going through the gauntlet, aren’t you supposed to find the “Holy Grail” at the end?  Well, at any rate, the happy survival of a long-term marriage is just one of the many scenarios of this thing called, love.

I also use prompts when looking for new painting ideas. Here are the results of the, For the Love of…paintings. One of them even elicited a poem.

 

For the Love of a Cold Heart

“Ice Heart” and Original Painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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For the Love of the Universe

“Cosmic Heart” and Original Painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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For the Love of Clouds

“Heart Sylphs” and Original Painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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For the Love of a Music Continue reading

To Purge or Not to Purge

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

To purge, or not to purge, that is the question.  Whether ‘tis nobler to allow our minds to wallow in misery,  hoarding our past misfortunes, and sorrows.  Or to purge, to purge all from our being, so creativity may blossom and flourish in its wake.

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To Purge—The act of ridding one’s self of unwanted feelings, memories and conditions. In doing so, one hopes to experience a sense of cathartic release.

It’s a New Year, and along with the New Year many make resolutions for change. In order to do so, they look back at the past 365 days and resolve to make the new ones better. Some examples of mine would be—writing that novel, losing those pounds, taking that trip, and on, and on. However, I’ve discovered the old year will follow me into the new one unless I—purge. For me it was never a question, to purge or not to purge. What was my question for years was—how? I stumbled upon my answer over 10 years ago, when I wrote my first, end of year, Christmas Letter. Yes, I’m one of those people. But once again, through the power of the written word, a great mental purge was discovered.

I utilize the craft of fiction, poetry, and memoir in my annual Christmas Letter, and since I write about my husband, our seven children, five grandchildren, and myself you can only imagine the length of said letter. Our children have taken to calling it, Our Mother’s Annual, Award Winning, Best in Fiction, Family News Paper. I call it my, End of Year Purge, because, we’re a very large family, with many personalities, and lives, and my aging brain can’t possibly remember it all, no matter how hard I try.

So while the children’s title is all in jest, as I can attest that every word I write in the letter is the absolute truth, how do I accomplish this without giving away family secrets? I’ve found a collision of fiction, mystery, and memoir accomplishes my goal quite nicely.  It is all in the arrangement of words you see—such as saying—Betty (names have been changed to protect the innocent) spent a year exploring the many avenues available to a young woman in her 20’s. This would be my way of saying, without actually saying it—Betty, spent the year either jumping from job to job, or boyfriend, to boyfriend—you choose, as I’ve used similar phrases for both scenarios. There have also been a multitude of boyfriends, girlfriends and even the occasional husband, who’ve been featured in the letter and shown in photos only to be completely absent the next year, or replaced by another name and face entirely. This is where mystery comes in—are they buried in the back yard or been abducted by aliens? No one ever asks, and we never say. However, even with my creative narrative, the magic of the letter is that year after year it captures a chronological story of our family’s lives. Through the letter, I am able to celebrate the sweet memories and accomplishments of each and every family member, while also purging the nasty bits that occur with humor and cleaver word choices.

The second half of the Christmas letter is a poem. The poem is my way of embracing the positive world events of the past year, while purging the negative, and also remembering those whom we’ve lost. This year’s poem is shared below.

So dear readers I say purge.  Write it all down, and burn it if you must, but purge none-the-less. My purging not only frees my mind of clutter, it also creates a recorded history of both family and world events for my grandchildren to look back upon and read, many moons from now. I would love to hear what rituals you use to purge in order to clear the clutter, and begin anew.

Let Hearts Grow and Bells Ring Out                              

Let bells ring out while snowflakes fly, and let tinsel and glitter fall from the sky.

Let mystical enchantment surround us, one and all, while peace, love and happiness, hold us tightly in its thrall.

Once again our home has been transformed into a storybook, fantasy world, where even tiny, Grinch-like trees can bring magic, when unfurled.

For the Holiday Season, is upon us once again dear friend.  So let us take a moment over a hot chocolate, or perhaps a hot toddy laced with gin.

As we look back at the event filled year of Two-Thousand and Seventeen, where future historians, I am certain, will proclaim, “How could they’ve not seen?”

There’s a reality star twittering rants from within the hallowed halls of our highest house.  Facts have become “fake news”, while with nuclear weapons, he plays cat, and mouse.

But within the red and blue swath of these our United States, there is still much to be applauded; fueled by our many debates.

We marched by the millions, pink hats in hand, and from that momentous occasion, the #metoo movement began.

Thus, all now know, we do have a choice, as we stand speaking loudly in one, strong, united voice.

Then on to a lighter note, for the perfect stocking stuffer, we have a winner, but do we really, truly need, that double, fidget spinner?

I much prefer the momentary craze dedicated to the Unicorn’s vibrant rainbow hue. As it has given us, color-laden Frappuccino’s, bagels, and of course, Unicorn dip poo!

While here in Eugene, for those of us “Ducks” who bleed yellow and green, this years “civil war game” was an orange and black defeated, scene.

And Mother Nature chose this year to give us quite a display.  We watched in throngs—as day became night—what more can I say?

Other than, let us not forget the YouTube sensation, followed faithfully online, when April the Giraffe, gave birth live before millions, for the very first time.

Alas, many new beings entered this realm throughout the past year, but there were also those who left us. So, let’s give them a final, good cheer.

For Mr. Tom Petty, I know he now has wings, and has Learned to Fly, and is Free Fallin’ though a starlit night sky.

And Mr. Monty Hall is making heavenly deals, while listening to Fat’s Domino serenade him with Blueberry Hills.

Then Gentle on My Mind is a Rhinestone Cowboy riding through the clouds, heralded by the applause of adoring, heavenly crowds.

Finally, I throw my hat to the sky in memory of Ms. Mary Tyler Moore, and to Jerry Lewis, I hope funds for MDA continue to ever pour.

I now gaze out my kitchen window at our newly planted, crooked Dr. Seuss Tree, and it reminds me that by allowing your heart to grow, you can begin to see.

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So like the infamous Grinch of old, let all our hearts begin to grow, and grow, then perhaps through this great expansion of human compassion, seeds will sow, and begin mending not only fences, but also the divided borders across this earth. For isn’t that the true reason for this season, of renewal, and rebirth?

Love, conquers all they say, so let’s, let bells ring out, and let’s let love, have its way!

Reading Like a Writer, By Cheryl Owen Wilson

There is an intricate connection between being an insatiable reader and the desire to be a writer. I severed that connection for a time. Following is my cautionary tale.

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Once the writing bug wrapped its tentacles firmly around my mind, heart and soul I knew it would change some aspects of my day-to-day life, such as the minor examples listed below:

  • I eavesdrop on the intimate conversations of strangers. Then using anything at my disposal, I write down catch phrases, interesting quirks, etc. By the way you can actually write on toilet paper—carefully and with the right pen, but it can be done.
  • I wake in the middle of the night with a phrase whispering in my ear and it won’t shut up until written down.
  • My dreams are no longer just random threads of my life and psyche. They are now messages from beyond sent specifically to give me a story to write.
  • The food I eat is not longer just a good meal. No, now it must be described down the last morsel eaten—“Consuming the juices of the glistening, red, apple was akin to savoring honey dipped in Mayan gold.”

These are simply a few ways writing altered my life.  I had no idea just how it would change the one thing I’ve always turned to when in need of escaping my day-to-day reality—my reading life—that mental immersion of temporarily entering another world entirely.

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I’ve learned all writers come to understand the twin mirrors of being an avid reader, and the ravenous desire to write. However, as mentioned, in the beginning of this blog, I had no idea the two were so intertwined.

I discovered the dark side of this connection when I joined my first book club:

  • It seems not everyone goes through a book to discover what minute spark caused the author to write the book in the first place. Or in the case of historical fiction, not every book club member prints page after page of the actual history for show and tell at the book club meeting. I did. However, these two revelations and others didn’t alter my previous pleasure in reading. What did, was finding that I began to see the flaws in timelines, plot development, etc. This changed my reading escapism and I was not happy about this development.
  • On the flip side of noting the flaws in some of the books chosen I began to recognize the glaring genius created through the written word in other books. These authors made me question my own ability to create a well-written story.

Thus, I severed the connection and stopped reading entirely.

As you can well image it didn’t last very long, as this is when the realization struck—how closely they were related—reading and writing. So I began my journey to marry the two, so I might once again have the magic of being lost for days in another author’s sea of words.

This is when I discovered, a local writing organization Wordcrafters in Eugene’s life-altering monthly gathering–Reading Like a Writer—Part book club, part craft talk and part communing with your literature loving tribe.

  • Each month, a professional writer discusses a book that’s meaningful to them both as a reader and a writer. They share their favorite character moments and passages and all the things they love or find challenging. Then they tease apart elements of craft that inspire them, whether it’s the witty dialogue, how place serves to push characters to the brink, or the masterful interweave of plot and theme. There is then discussion for everyone to share at the end. You can read the book, so you can share what you loved, or didn’t love. Or you can just come to enjoy the talk and discover great new books and writers!

If there is not such a group in your area, I highly recommend you start one or find one online. My revelation in learning to read like a writer is this:

  • I find I can first enjoy the book as a reader, knowing I will possibly go back and re-read portions of the book as a writer. This allows me the escapism I so relish, while also giving me the invaluable lessons other writers have to offer.

I would enjoy hearing about your own experiences with reading and writing. Have you too had issues? When in the middle of a WIP do you read others works as well, or do you abstain until you’ve completed your project?

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

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The Sound of Writing

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I recently attended a writer’s retreat where each morning after breakfast we’d sit around a large table, laptops open writing. The unique sound of many fingers hitting keys surrounded me. At some point in the morning, my coffee fueled brain kicked in and the end of a chapter began to unfold. In that moment I realized there was a specific rhythm to the tapping of my fingers against the keys. Is there anything more satisfying to a writer, than that very distinct sound when words naturally flow, revealing story, like the petals of a perfect flower opening?

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On the flip side, when all around me was silent and my own fingers lay frozen on the keys I yearned for the sound to return. Many things have been written about famous author’s choices of writing tools. But while sitting in the silence of that room I wondered if the actual sound created by the tool itself, if that sound might have aided in the words created.

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I recalled reading how Ernest Hemingway wrote on a typewriter while standing. What a visual it creates. But can’t you also hear the sound the keys made while striking the page to form each and every letter? Those old typewriters had a most distinct reverberation when the keys were struck. Could it have contributed to the intensity in his novels?

I wrote my first short story on an electric typewriter. To this day I can hear its soothing whir as it helped my words come forth.

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Then there are writers who compose with a ballpoint pen. I’m always in awe of them. I’ve tried it. For every page I filled to the margins, I salvaged maybe five useable sentences. The remainder, were rendered as blobs of ink marked through again and again. I realize now, it was the scratch of the pen on paper. The sound. To me, it is nails on a chalkboard. And yet, when writing a quick note to work through an anger issue I might have, a pen, is my perfect instrument of choice —oh, wait—I get it.

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Now let’s go back in time a little, to say, Shakespeare.   When I read his plays I know I will be immersed in the—to my ear—lyrical cadence of his words. They easily bring to my mind the visuals of his time; cobbled streets, thatched roofs, etc. But the other visual, I always have, is of a solitary man bent over a desk, quill in hand scratching words onto papyrus by the flickering of candlelight. Scratching, the scratching of the quills point against the porous page, seeing him having to stop and dip it into the inkpot again, and again. Could it have aided in the cadence of the words written? Would the same sentences have come forth, if perhaps he had at his disposal a graphite pencil? Heaven forbid he would have used it to erase, or replace, even one word of his poetic prose.

Now let’s go back even further to when words were carved into rock or stone. How precise must the writer have had to be before taking chisel in hand? Can you not hear the pounding as stone gave way to create a simple idea, word or visual of what the writer intended to convey? The crude instrument along with the sound it created. How could it not have shaped what was being written?

What sound does your chosen writing instrument make? If you changed it, would your writing change? If your writing could have the impact of Hemingway’s would you not gladly pound away on old typewriter keys?

Now I’m not suggestion you go out, with chisel in hand and find some stone. But then again—maybe I am. After all it does feel some days like that is exactly what we are doing, doesn’t it? Chiseling words from our brain and placing them carefully into our story. Now, I like the sound of that.

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