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December 9th, 2004
05:08 am
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NaNoWriMo feedback request
Alright ... so NaNoWriMo's been over for a little more than a week. Hopefully, everyone who has wanted to do so has had a chance to go check out johnstanton (which, yes, is my writing, despite my earlier sneakiness).

So: I'd love to get some feedback from my readers. Think of it this way -- you get a bright, shiny chance to improve my writing, so that my next work comes out (better|good)!*

Here's how you can help. I'm just going to ask a bunch of questions. These are all things where I feel like I'm too close to the story to accurately judge it myself -- or I've made a judgment, but want to know how readers saw it, because the reality check might surprise me. Answer one, or all, or as many as you feel like. I'll try to keep it short because I know I'll get more answers that way. :)

  1. Is John a likeable character? (n.b.: This was not necessarily the effect I was going for.) Is he a sympathetic character -- i.e. did you feel his pain as opposed to schadenfreude?

  2. Were the scenes where he gets torn an (emotional) new one overwrought?

  3. The initial format of the story -- the diary of an only-sorta-eloquent man unused to being introspective -- was highly experimental. There were tradeoffs. I think it set the tone fairly well, and helped define a realistic first-person on-the-fly voice for the story. But it also makes it unpolished and unpolishable for a great deal of the early book. (I figure this alone kills the novel's saleability; I'll stick with something a little more traditional for the first one I shop around.) How distracting was this effect, versus how much atmosphere it added? How painful was the complete lack of quote marks for the first 8,000 words? (And, did the transition throughout the story to a more eloquent, rhetorically confident narrator seem out of place?) Did the experiment "fail" or "succeed"?

  4. Dialogue's long been a bugaboo of mine. Are there any lines that stick in your mind, either for their painfulness or their eloquence? Did characters have unique enough voices; or can you think of easy ways they could be better distinguished?

  5. My impression as the writer is that the story's pacing is badly broken -- flat with occasional staggers throughout the first 35K words, then one huge frenzied rollercoaster through the end. Is it that bad?

  6. What gripe bugged you the most as you were reading? ("Bad characterization"? "Flat language"? "Unexciting plot"? Etc. This could steer me toward what can be most improved before Novel the Next.)


If you have any other writing criticisms that you'd like to state, bring 'em up. I won't bite. I don't usually, but this post is an especially bitey-free zone, and what's said in Vegas here stays in Vegas here. (All I ask is that if you think my novel sucks -- an opinion I'm totally fine with, as I kinda feel that way myself -- tell me what you most dislike. If you think it's such crap you can't even be bothered to help me fix it, why are you reading?)

Incidentally, random "Nothing to contribute, but I did read the novel and liked it" comments are also welcome -- hey, I spent a month on this thing, I deserve a little ego stroking. ]B=8)

* And, yes, there will be a next work. There's always next NaNoWriMo if necessary, but I also have some other ideas I'd like to get out on a more leisurely schedule allowing for better plotting and editing.

Current Mood: productiveproductive
Current Music: The Moody Blues, "Beyond"
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 9th, 2004 05:09 pm (UTC)

Book Review

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Howdy!

I’m just a guy who elected to read several of the stories entered into the NaNoWriMo contest. Yours was one of the ones I picked, and since you are asking for advice on what needs improving and what doesn’t, I figured I’d give you a low down of how I felt.

Please try not to take this personally (as many inexperienced writers often do). Take all of my advice per a grain of salt; I’ll try to give you as much background as I can with respect to why I feel the way I do about your questions.

Part I of II

First Question:

I’m afraid I found John Stanton to be an annoying, even frustrating character; suffice it to say, my answer is no. I did not like him. There are many reasons behind this, but I’ll briefly summarize them here.

First and foremost, I thought John was, well, boring…a fact that he even professes to the readers at the beginning of the story. The first rule (in my opinion) of making a good autobiography is that you’re life (or, in this case, John Stanton’s) must be interesting. Quite honestly, if its not, why should I read it?

But okay. So he’s a little boring. My biggest pet peeve wasn’t that. My real issues with his character were the following: he was unreasonable, and, how should I put it…unrealistic.

Here’s a bit on what I mean by unrealistic: I don’t imagine a student at a university in the most open-minded (and “smart”) city in the United States, Seattle Washington, to be so incredibly close-minded. I figured that someone like John would be plenty accepting of the changes in the world around him, and would be more prone to embrace the change rather than be so horribly afraid of it.

If he’s going to be afraid of it, that’s okay. But I (the reader) need a good reason as to WHY he should fear the change. Such a reason was never provided. Was his dog eaten by one of the dragons? Was he raped by a cat person at birth? Nope…he just lived a fairly normal boring life. So what’s his problem?

Here’s a bit on what I mean by unreasonable: John seems to mother his roommates, demanding details and control of their lives that a normal person wouldn’t. For example: the situation with Marco, trying to ‘protect him from himself’, or telling his roommates that he doesn’t want them to do something in HIS house (a house which isn’t his to begin with). Personally, if I were one of his roommates, I would have told him to f&%k off. Why does he feel he has to regulate the normalcy of the household?

Next, and this goes back to the unrealistic part, I can’t tell why he’s so bloody afraid of the changes going on around him. Whenever information on the changes appeared on the news, he would turn it off. Whenever someone started talking about it, he would shut them down. He would avoid news of the outside world simply because he was “tired” of hearing about it. But again: I ask why. Why is he tired of hearing about it if he’s willing to hear so LITTLE on it?

Okay, on to question 2:

I think the scenes were a bit overwrought, but there are more serious problems to deal with. Such would be the following: The role of Zaiah was predictable. Almost from the moment John laid eyes on her, I knew what would happen (she would be a shape-changer). Also, this ties in with question one, above: WHY does John hate the shape-shifters so badly? When she changes in front of him, his brain takes a walk off the map, but I have no idea why. Again, all I can tell is that he hates these creatures, though for what reason I do not understand. He doesn’t watch the news. He doesn’t read the news. He doesn’t let other people tell him about it. So what’s he afraid of?

The emotional scenes would have more impact if Zaiah and John were together longer (rather than a week). This is mainly my opinion: how can anyone fall so in love after barely meeting the other person and hanging with them for a couple of days? The emotions would mean a lot more if there were more at stake (i.e.: they’ve known each other for a long time, and they have invested a lot more of themselves into a serious relationship). Why would Zaiah be so affected by John’s nastiness (which lasted all of a few minutes) when she believed she was a cat her ENTIRE life?

(Continued on Part II)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 9th, 2004 05:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Book Review

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Part II:

Response to Question 3:

I think you have a good point: the story comes off sounding as if a young, inexperienced, and ineloquent kid were speaking. This sort of tone is okay IF it’s appropriate, but I just didn’t see the point of it here. Again, I found myself asking: why would I care what some college kid has to say? What relevance does his abrupt life-story, or the life story of his friend Paul, have? It sounds like a fairly average (with the exception of the cat-morph thing) teenage love story.

Response to Question 4:

This is a part I think you did good on. The characters had unique voices…especially Marco. Definitely John—though I never found out what he even looked like. The other characters seemed like nice kids, average, decent open-minded people. I’d like to have heard stoner Paul sound like an actual stoner, though (rather than a decently eloquent college student).

Response to Question 5:

I thought the story was very boring in the beginning. It started with an intriguing catch: ‘a dragon appeared on the news last night’. But went downhill from there, simply because the story (at least for the first half to two-thirds) had nothing to do with the Changes or the creatures involved in them.

Towards the end, the story picked up, both with respect to emotion and action. I thought there were some excellent theories presented by the people John interacted with at the end (the religious group most especially). But frankly, I would like to have been presented with these concepts more towards the beginning, then told more of the aftermath on what happened to the shape shifters at the end.

Okay, now for the biggest of my gripes. This can be tied into all of the above.

Miraculous changes are taking place to certain members of society. No one knows why, no one knows how. Magic has appeared, and the worlds of fantasy and reality are beginning to mesh and evolve. This changes everything, and everyone in the world is dealing with it a little different.

Put simply: The above sounds fascinating. I want to hear about that. Personally, I could care less what John is going through. I could care less about John. To use the words of the great Bogart: the problems of one person don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world. I want to hear about what that Redwing fellow is saying, or the theories on why this magical change is happening or how it’s happening. Hell, I’d like him to meet one of the other shape-shifters. Maybe even a dragon. Something. ANYTHING (besides Zaiah).

Do we get that? Nope. Due to John’s frustrating reclusiveness, all we get are vague references and his nasty (unwarranted) attitude about the whole thing.

Why can’t the story be told from someone who’s caught in the middle of this amazing world event? Maybe even someone undergoing the changes? That, honestly, sounds way more appealing than a story told by some pissed off kid.

Additionally, I would eliminate, or at least modify, the references to the Odyssey. Speaking as someone who has read and studied it several times, I can tell you that many of the ‘parallels’ you sited in your story didn’t make much sense (ex: you claim towards the end that Odysseus traveled the imaginary world only to return to Ithaca—to find that it too was imaginary. Not true. Ithaca was the only real place Odysseus cared about. That’s where his wife, son, estate and friends were. That’s what kept him going all those twenty years of hardship. Also, Odysseus was a man that embraced hardship, and embraced pain (that’s what his name means: son of pain). I see no similarities between him and John, if that’s what you’re trying to get at. But hey, that’s just me.)

Anyway, on the brighter side: the idea of the Changes was an intriguing one; I’d just like to have heard more on it. Also, the morals taught by Marco and his religious fellows were interesting and meaningful. You could do a lot on how different social groups read into these amazing changes, and how they deal with them in a changing world.

Here’s to a job well done!
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From:baxil
Date:December 9th, 2004 05:31 pm (UTC)

Re: Book Review

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Thank you for the feedback! If you would like, I can go through your comments more individually and open up a dialogue on your points, but the important thing is your comments have been read and appreciated.

One immediate comment I would like to make, and one further question.

First, the story (although I never actually say so anywhere in the novel) is set in the Tomorrowlands Universe -- I expected the vast majority of my readers to realize that going in, since I've been mostly writing in TTU for years. It's interesting to see how someone is reacting for whom this story is the first introduction to that world!

This story was very experimental in another important way that I simply never thought to mention: it's my first major story arc in TTU in which the focus is on how "ordinary" people reacted to the Changes. Those who have no personal connection to the craziness that happens and are simply trying to make sense of it all. (Well, except for Zaiah.) So, to answer your complaint that you'd like to see more of the Changes than a background to a pointless personal drama -- plenty of that already exists, and believe me, far more will be written!

And my question: May I ask how you found this post? I never claim ownership on johnstanton, my NaNo profile links to the story journal rather than my personal journal ... did you know me going in?
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From:baxil
Date:December 9th, 2004 05:45 pm (UTC)

Re: Book Review

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Okay, one more immediate question and one more immediate comment, because the constructive criticism high is kicking in. (And the criticism is far outweighed by how constructive you're being, by the way. Thank you!)

The question: Are you (as you imply) a fellow NaNo'er; and if so, would you like me to reciprocate with a similar read through your novel? To have a stranger swing through and help out with useful feedback is a wonderful gift, and the least I can do is offer to respond in kind.

The comment: Re the Odyssey specifically -- I didn't claim that the wily one returned to an imaginary world. John did, in an effort to describe his mental state. I know that's not how the Odyssey goes. My unreliable and poorly-read narrator (remember his sister smacking him down on Ulysses' run-in with the sirens?) either doesn't, or doesn't care. Does the additional context mitigate that specific concern for you?
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 9th, 2004 09:03 pm (UTC)

Re: Book Review

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Baxil,

I certainly appreciate your offer and willingness to critique a fellow writer's work. However, I'm afraid I have none to offer at the moment (I was unable to participate in NaNo, though I think its a wonderful idea).

As for how I found this: honestly, it was by luck I found your personal journal. I stumbled onto what few posts you made with regards to the scenes in John Stanton's work. After surfing a few links, I found myself here.

A whole universe developed around this concept? Sounds interesting. Like I said: there are a multitude of fascinating moral and social questions you could explore with such a 'Change'. Speaking as a layperson who has no idea what the Tomorrowlands Universe is, I think hitting on some of those bigger, more dramatic issues/changes would catch the eye better. For example: perhaps a story from the point of view of a changed dragon (who is dealing with the challenges of being thought of as an incarnated demon by religious fanatics). Or, perhaps a bigger question: How would the president of the United States react? Maybe a senator…or anyone who has to make an important decision on how to deal with the situation on a grand scale.

Most of what I’m concerned with in writing is the following question: does it catch the eye for someone who knows nothing about the subject at hand? Generally a good rule is to write with the assumption that your readers know nothing about the subject you are discussing. Always ask the question: what makes this particular story unique or involving? I love involving stories and involving characters; especially those by undiscovered writers.

This one has potential, though it does need some work. Keep working at it; you’ll do fine.

As for the Odyssey parallels, while you are certainly correct about your character’s inconsistencies and flaws towards quoting the Odyssey, it unfortunately doesn’t come across that way when reading it. Unless a story flaw has been ‘doctored up’ to look purposely intentional, often those kinds of meager inconsistencies just look bad; as if the writer—in this case, the REAL writer—hasn’t done his homework. Most people won’t notice; but those that do are often the people you want to notice your work.

Anyway, that’s just my two cents worth. If you don’t particularly agree with something I said, by all means, don’t change it. The story is entirely yours. I’m just a passenger along for the ride.
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From:gchpaco
Date:December 9th, 2004 06:14 pm (UTC)
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Well, let's see... Putting on my critic hat:

The ending was potent--while it may have gone a little over the top, it was done in a graceful manner and so becomes powerful rather than negative.

The pacing in the front could use tightening up. I think the format worked well for you here, although it seemed a little too forced initially. I'm not sure how to qualify that assertion, but it seemed to me that too much was made of the structure initially, and then as your narrator got more comfortable this of course went away.

I found that I cared enough about John to be affected by the ending, but it took a while and initially he's somewhat unsympathetic, at least to me. The dialogue didn't jump out at me in any particular way. Perhaps the characters could be more distinct, but I didn't have any trouble following it (on the other hand I can read David Eddings just fine, and that man has all of three character voices that he uses interchangeably, if he has even that many).

However, many of your characters, as presented, are more of a collection of idiosyncrasies than people. This is hard to avoid for tangential characters, but Marco, for example, didn't seem very real to me; the bum came off as more rounded. I should note that I can forgive even the most absurd plot if the characters are good, but poor characterization is something I'm very sensitive to.

As examples in published authors, Mercedes Lackey creates these wonderful characters, and then destroys most of my goodwill halfway through the book; she seems to decide "okay, all the major characters are introduced, now, it's time for some PLOT!" and then succumbs to the most absurdly ham handed plotting. One of the reasons why Eddings keeps pissing me off is that, despite this convoluted plot and a rich setting, almost every character in the books are one dimensional (not even two). Tolkien had a magnificent setting, a serviceable plot (the One Ring is a Plot Device of the first order, but its effects on Frodo make it interesting besides that), masterful use of language, and then flat characters (really, never mind what he says about Aragorn, what do you actually see in the books?). One of the reasons I was so happy with the movies was that they fleshed out the characters.

You do a better job than Eddings or Tolkien in characterization but not so good as Lackey; your plot was fine, your setting was nicely thought through and the way the little details are presented is very attractive. You are aware of the trouble with pacing, and that's your #1 problem here, but after that I would appreciate additional characterization.

Now, that all said, I did like the work and the way you arranged the ending and the ending's contents and in particular John's inability to correct his error was very powerful.

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From:baxil
Date:December 14th, 2004 01:31 am (UTC)
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Let me just start out by saying that being compared to published authors is a heck of a way to advance constructive criticism. :-D Down, ego, down!

Can I ask you to clarify your remark on making characters into people? Specifically, what is it about the bum that makes him seem more multidimensional to you? It's odd that you use him as an example, because I never bothered to flesh him out beyond his interactions with John! (The same is true of Marco, because I didn't have the time for it over the course of the month :P, but one of them worked and one of them didn't, and learning what it was that "faked" the depth of personality might help me improve the characterization of my minor and/or major characters.
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From:gchpaco
Date:December 18th, 2004 12:02 pm (UTC)
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Sorry about the delay on this. The reason the bum came across as more multidimensional was that he appeared only briefly and had this interesting fixation on literature; Marco appeared constantly, and John was worrying about him a great deal, but most of the actual interaction was the same. I think the reason the bum worked was that during virtually the entire time he was "on set" as it were, he was interacting with John in an interesting manner. If John had revisited the bum and he was continuing to yammer on about Greek literature without doing anything different, the effect would be weaker. Does this help?
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From:elynne
Date:December 10th, 2004 03:18 am (UTC)
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There's also a bunch of folks in the lower stories, but I don't know anything about them. The house has been subdivided so that we get in and out through the side stairway and they use the porch. They're probably students too.

Heyyyy... ;D *goes back to reading*
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From:elynne
Date:December 10th, 2004 03:24 am (UTC)
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From:elynne
Date:December 10th, 2004 09:48 am (UTC)
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Okay, I've stopped laughing, and read the whole thing, and ouch, dammit. Fucking ow. I think I can see (based on what I know of the Tomorrowlands universe) why Chad and Ziah (sp?) ended up the way they did... yeah, this is all spoileriffic, oh well. ;) John's disbelief and enraged negativity sucked the power out of them, as it were.

I like to think there's a "something later" to the story... maybe not that John nessecarily works things out with Z., but that... I don't know. I want a happy ending. :] Oh, and you never did tell Stoner Paul's story about New York.

I'm a bit sleepy for coherent criticisms, but there is one thing I noticed several times: it was very hard to keep all the characters straight for the first part of the story, without any kind of - *handwave* visual bookmarks to refer to them, y'know? I don't know if that's just me and my visual memory, but I really wanted to know, fr'ex, if Ellie had short hair, or if Marco had dark hair, or anything at all about how John looked. Keeping the main character deliberately vague-looking is an accepted literary technique, though, especially for first-person narratives, so that worked okay. But I really wanted to see Jenny's long, mousy brown hair, Chad's short jelled-up hipster haircut (and maybe sideburns?), Stoner Paul's shaggy mop and Grateful Dead t-shirts, y'know? Just a few words to sketch them out, like you did with Shify Paul, would really have helped.

I liked it very much. Damn you and your story-writing! Now I want to go write mine! ;)
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From:baxil
Date:December 14th, 2004 01:46 am (UTC)

From back to front

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Thank you! And funny you should blame me for kicking your inspiration meter up a notch; after all, it was a certain someone's NaNo that gave me the inspiration to try it in the first place ... :)

The lack of visual bookmarks was a flaw of the narrative style. People don't tend to journal that way. I actually did try to figure out a few times if I could work some descriptions in, but I just couldn't get it to wedge in naturally. Keep me honest in other stories, though, because it's something I *do* occasionally forget.

(It occurs to me that the lack of description might be a factor in the "personalization" question Graham asked above ..)

The New York story was my "safety valve" if I finished and had words left to go. ;) But I did, at least, hint around its edges, especially in the final scenes. And there is an epilogue inside my head, but I'm not sure it'll come out in any reasonable time frame. Perhaps I'll just have to write Zaiah into one of my other stories; she and John won't get a mutual happy ending, but (spoiler) she -does- get fixed, finally, somehow.

And that's my perfectly good nickel's worth of back sass. ;)
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From:draque
Date:December 12th, 2004 10:40 pm (UTC)
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Ok, just found the time to read your NaNoWriMo entry today (a final is tomorrow, and it provided excellent distraction material for study breaks) and I really enjoyed it. It was a noteworthy departure from the other stories that I've read set in the Tomorrowlands universe in that the changes themselves too a back seat. It was the effects of them that we got to really see in detail. I've read so many change and transformation stories over the years that something like this seems much more interesting. Anyhow, before I give of a critique of something that's beyond my ability to write, I feel guilty if I don't include some undeterred flattery for the author. ^^

The biggest issue here is the main character. You do something that first person authors rarely do with him, and I liked that. You made him less analytical able than the reader is in their retrospective view of the story, or the author does in his knowledge of everything that will happen. But. You take it to an extreme. His pig headedness becomes a little bit predictable and annoying by the end. The story would be lessened if it were removed altogether, but it seemed a bit much as it is now. (As a note, I disagree with Anonymous' opinion that he was too boring; this was the main conflict of the story.)

The second point is the journal entry format. It's very jarring. I know that it is presented as a journal, and they tend to be jarring, but if there were just something that would connect the entries a bit better, it would be a nicer read. Even something innocuous would be good, I'm not saying that the entry format itself is bad.

The last criticism was an aspect of the ending. I liked the openness of it, and I liked that they didn't necessarily get back together. There have to be consequences for actions, or there isn't suspense in a story. What kind of got me was Zaiah's refusal to forgive John. If she had simply said that she couldn't continue the relationship and that seeing him at all was too painful, it would have been very understandable. If she had been unable to say that she forgave him, it would have been fine. When she said outright that what he did was beyond her forgiveness though, it seemed to me as if it diminished her character. Also, it felt kind of like "kicked puppy syndrome" to have John be right when he said that he understood that she wouldn't forgive him.

I'm left being hugely curious about the New York story... but I get the feeling that you intended that. Loose ends left for a sequel, perhaps?

Anyhow, just my two cents on the story. If it seems like an overly negative comment, remember that you asked for criticisms... but overall, it was really a good read. The distance you've come since you wrote the stories that I've read on Tomorrowlands (mostly the Ash ones) is really huge.

PS. The special effects in the fight scene sucked.
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From:draque
Date:December 12th, 2004 10:48 pm (UTC)
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Wow... I wrote all that wihout realizing that you had made out specific questions... hopefully I'll read the questions no my test tomorrow a bit more carefully. ^^()

1. I listed my qualms with him in the above post. Other than that, he was likable enough.

2. The last one was. Again, I covered that.

3. Wow... again, I answered it before... I'm doing pretty well for someone who hasn't read the assignment.

4. If you're going to do dialogue, do it in a more third party environment first. I assumed that all quotes in the the story were colored by John's perception of the situation and personal ideology.

5. Yes. But it's not bad enough to scrap the story because of. I covered this before...

6. Wow. 5/6. And I assume that I would get partial credit for number 4. If I assume that the class is curved, and that half of the people didn't read the story in the first place, That's easily an A. I rock.
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