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One of the most satisfying (ideally) aspects of reading fantasy or science fiction is good world building. Where you are immersed in a world by an author who knows what they’re doing. World building, at its heart, is just establishing a set of rules for what does and doesn’t happen in your world.

When I’m reading a manuscript and a cat starts talking to the main character on page three (this is probably the inciting incident), I need to know a few things before we ever get to Fluffy. Do cats talk in this world? What role do animals play in terms of animal/human relations? When Fluffy opens his maw, I should know immediately: this is or isn’t normal according to the world building.

The more rules we’ve established, the clearer the world comes across. There’s logic and order imposed. Which becomes all the more important when you decide to break one of your own rules. This is what I want to get into here.

I talked a bit about this stuff in a much earlier post. Basically, when you’re dealing with magic powers, you want them to be well-defined, so that your character isn’t getting out of trouble by pulling never-before-seen tricks out of her hat. That’s lame, and it betrays your world building. Why bother creating any rules when you circumvent them at every turn?

You might think that, since I’m advocating for rules, I am against breaking the rules. Not true. Breaking well-crafted rules in world building is exciting. It raises stakes and tension. Let’s stick with magical world building. What happens when someone tries a spell that nobody has tried before? The answer to this question lies in more rules, not fewer. The better your reader knows the world and the parameters of the magic, the more they will start to anticipate what might happen when the character goes “off the grid,” so to speak.

“Will it be like using Power X or Spell Y? Will the outcome be A or B, like that one time the character did something like this?” This anticipation builds because the reader knows what to expect in the world of your story, and it’s only after this familiarity is established that we start to truly engage. And when flirting with breaking the rules starts to become fun and interesting.

If your world has no limits or rules, everything is a free-for-all. How can you build anticipation when literally anything can happen? The best stories become their own worlds, constantly referring back to what has come before as the action moves forward. Without strong world building rules, none of the stuff you’ve done so far in the book matters, because it’s not precedent for anything.

If there’s magic, we need to know the limits, how it works, etc. If there are different races/classes of people or creatures in your fantasy hierarchy, we need to know what each does, means, and how they relate to one another. If you’ve established that the dragons hate the polar bears and will do anything to start a war, once a dragon shows up, it better not be a low stakes event. And if it is, it’ll be that much more surprising, and you’ll get a reaction out of the reader. This is conscious rule-breaking.

Set yourself up to succeed in world building by nailing down all of your key elements, and only then can you start to mess with them.




I’ve been doing a lot of editing recently and have noticed a quirk that I’m totally guilty of. Instead of choosing one very strong image that says it all, writers don’t quite trust their readers to get it (a very common problem) and are dogpiling several related ideas into one sentence of description.

For example:

Looking at the buffet, she was so famished that she could swallow it all in one gulp, leaving nothing left, licking even the grease trap of the giant rotisserie oven clean.

Girl is hungry, we get it! (Side note: Don’t try and write examples on an empty stomach.) Here we have three images, one weak (leaving nothing left), one medium (swallow it all in one gulp) and one very strong and specific (the grease trap thing).

The reason I went a bit off the deep end with the final image is that it is unusual, descriptive, and teaches us a little bit about character while conveying the same information as the other two–not only is she hungry, but she’s a little grungy, and knows her way around a kitchen. There are people who just want the tenderloin steak, and then there are people who want the gristle and bones to gnaw clean. The strange way her mind goes to the drippy, fat-caked grease trap puts her firmly in the latter camp.

So pick one strong, specific image with potential emotional or characterizing undertones to it. Your aim isn’t to give a reader information as many times as possible, it’s to do it once, and ideally in a memorable way. Less is more. In fact, in writing, piling imagery onto one idea actually dilutes the effect instead of concentrating it.

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I Hate Nice

I know what you’re probably thinking, “But, Mary, I’m nice and you’re nice and nice is so…nice! Why do you hate it, especially now that you live in the state of ‘Minnesota nice’?” Don’t worry, I think you’re perfectly nice, and this isn’t a veiled complaint about moving to Minnesota. As for me being nice, sure, I have my moments. Thanks for falling for my Internet persona. :)

What I really hate, though, is when a manuscript has a lot of nice in it. The character is succeeding. Things are going their way. We end a chapter on a cozy moment when they curl into their reading nook and all is right with the world.

How nice. How abysmally nice for them.

The problem with “nice,” though, is that it doesn’t keep our attention. You know how people sometimes say, when they’re being dismissive of something, “Oh, that’s nice, dear”? Nice doesn’t really force us to sit up and take notice, and nice certainly doesn’t create tension within us, pulling us to the edge of our seats.

Sure, we don’t want a character to be dragged through the wringer. Nice things do have to happen on occasion. But last week I was preparing for a workshop that I gave on Saturday at the Loft, and I was going over a story theory that I cover extensively in my book, which I call the Emotional Plot.

emotional plot

The gist is a little hard to explain in one blog post (thought I try to do it here, in a 2009 blog post that contains the seeds of what I would extrapolate on in the 2012 book). Basically, what we’re looking at above is the standard three-act structure but instead of tracking how the plot rises and then falls, we are tracking how the character feels during each step of the process.

And if you’re seeing this graph, you’ll notice that the “Fall” is a HUGE part of it. And it ends in something called the “Rock Bottom.” That doesn’t exactly sound too nice, now does it. Basically, for the majority of your story, your job is to put your character through internally or externally uncomfortable or dangerous situations to get the most possible tension out of your work.

The “Fall” shouldn’t be a complete slide into misery. Like a good snow tubing hill (Am I from Minnesota now or what?!), it should have a few bumps to keep things exciting before plunging again. Allow your character small victories and moments of contentment, then yank the rug out from under them again.

If your plot seems thick, or your story is lacking momentum, or you feel like wandering away for a nap when reading your revision for the Xth time, think, “Am I being too nice? Are too many nice things happening to this character?” Take an especially close look at your chapter endings. Do they mostly end at the resolution of a scene or problem? If so, there’s too much “nice” and not enough tension to carry the reader across the vast expanse of the white at the end of the page and past the mountain of your next chapter heading.

Not everything can be life-or-death in your story, that’s not sustainable, and your reader will learn to ignore that level of tension like the body ignores a dull pain. But if you find that you’re running into a lot of “more tension, please!” comments, think of the nicest, coziest moments in your story, and really focus on a way to either cut them down or insert an especially shocking twist after then that turns “nice” on its ear.

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I am back from Europe and ready to rumble. And by rumble, I mean edit manuscripts. When I work with my editorial clients, I work a lot with interiority, which I define as thoughts, feelings, reactions. Emotions are a big part of getting to know a character. Often, a protagonist’s (or other POV character’s) emotions are the reader’s guide for their own feelings. If Chris is getting anxious about X, we will also feel that tension mounting. If Amy can’t wait for Y, the audience will (ideally) sit a little straighter in anticipation of it.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is this idea of anticipation. Tension rises best when it builds gradually, in my opinion. Think about it. The most (wonderfully) painful horror movies are the ones where the doomed character searches the entire house for the murderer who we know is there. The first few opened closets (complete with musical crescendo) are painful. The part where they peek into the attic is worse. But by the time they’ve searched every room and they’re about to open the final door, I’m on the very edge of sanity, eyes half-closed, rocking in my seat. It’s an altogether different thrill when the first door they open is the one hiding the killer. It works, and it’s shocking, but the build-up is missing. After all, a lot of ink is spilled in dating advice columns reminding readers that seduction starts long before you reach the bedroom.

Tension and anticipation.

The same principles apply, I think, when working with character emotions. Imagine that your character is nervous about an event that’s a big part of your plot. You would be squandering the chance to develop emotion by hiding that from readers until the minute before the event. Instead, build tension. And layers of it. Not just “I’m nervous” but “I’m nervous that… (insert specific fear here)” and “If X doesn’t happen, then I’m afraid of Y” or “I can’t imagine my life without a successful outcome here.”

“Nervous” is a blunt instrument. Specific manifestations of how someone is nervous, why, and with what consequences, now that’s a more human and personal interpretation of the emotion. And it doesn’t come online right before the event, either.

Personally, I hate flying. I do it all the time, and I love the adventure that awaits me once I land, but I hate the act itself. There’s certainly the acute fear of flying that takes over once we’re roaring down the runway (take-off is my least favorite part). That’s definitely a nervous feeling. But there are many different shades to my fear of flying. Every time I book a plane ticket, for example, I get a little twinge in my gut of, “I can’t wait for my trip but, ugh, I have to fly.” A few weeks before the trip, I’m invariably hit with, “Ugh, maybe I can just call the whole thing off and stay home. Besides, it’s unfair to leave the dogs for so long.” As I’m packing my toiletries in the TSA-required zip bag, “Should I write a living will?” (Yes, I really am this irrational.) At the airport, “Uuuuughhhhh, dread dread dread dread dread.” And on and on. And on. Trust me when I say that I’m really no fun to travel with until that double bell goes off signalling that we’ve reached 10,000 feet.

This is perhaps a bad example because all of this tension and anticipation has been leading up to an event that, I hope, is perfectly anticlimactic. In fiction, the emotional groundwork you’re building should lead to things that are a big deal. Plot points. Turning points. Shifts in relationship dynamics. Etc.

Imagine an on-topic example, then. Eileen is angry. Her best friend blew her off because of a “bad cold,” only to post pictures on Instagram from a mall outing that includes new, more popular people. People who, Eileen thinks, are trying to steal her best friend from the second grade. Eileen feels betrayed. She has a sick, anxious feeling in her gut that she’s about to be replaced. Or worse, that the switch has already happened. Now who will she turn to? Self-pity enters the mix, making the existing anger boil. Maybe uncertainty: perhaps the picture was from before, and she’s blowing this whole thing out of proportion. Self-doubt flexes its muscles.

When should we hear about this toxic cocktail of emotion? When Eileen explodes at her best friend, maybe thrusting a phone open to the damning pics in her face? That’s just part of a much bigger story that’s been unfolding inside Eileen since she was hurt. All of this is to explain a very simple concept that I hope more writers take to heart:

Especially when you’re writing a scene that calls for big emotions, focus less on the scene itself, and more on peppering in the lead-up to it, which usually happens in interiority. Tension and anticipation. The power you have to build something up shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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There’s a book that I recommend over and over called SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. One of the central ideas is that you can never start building character sympathy too early. And you can’t do it by telling, either, or sharing what the character thinks about himself, or even what other characters think about him. Two of the biggest vehicles for showing (read my perennial post on “Show, don’t tell” here) are choices and actions.

To create a character who the reader will relate to, even if it’s an unreliable narrator, unlikeable protagonist, secondary character or villain, put them in the situation to choose or act as early and as often as possible. This opens up a whole world of potential for you. Do they say one thing and do another? Do they want one thing but choose a path away from getting it? Are they always consistent with thought, speech, and action? All of these things teach the reader about your characters.

Choice and action are very powerful because they show about character, but they also move the plot forward. While it’s possible to take a choice or action back, most will have ramifications. The best choices and actions will be clear dividing lines between a “before” and “after” in your story, whether it’s with a plot, a relationship, a feeling, your character’s self-knowledge, etc. The bigger the choice or action, the more significant it will seem to the reader.

For example, your character is a princess who threatens to run away all the time to escape her responsibilities. Rather than talking about it, or holding it over the heads of those around her (the more often a threat is made without follow-through, the less effect it has over time, per the Law of Diminishing Returns), get her to a place where she has to choose/act. What does it tell us about her if she runs away? What does it tell us about her if she stays?

A type of plot I’ve run into a lot recently has been the “hands tied” or “crash test dummy.” These are passive plots in which the character either can’t do anything because of their circumstances, or gets dragged through the plot by fellow characters or circumstances without contributing much. If your character is in jail, they obviously can’t really choose or act much. That’s a very difficult situation to render in an effective way. Their choices and actions will most likely deal with their inner life (choices reflecting who they are) and relationships (if there are any to be had in the dungeon). At a certain point, though, if your character can’t make any choices or take any action, you need to look at your premise as a whole and decide, honestly, if maybe it’s too limiting to create the sort of dynamic fiction today’s market demands. Sometimes writers back themselves into a corner with a story that’s self-limiting. A “crash test dummy” plot has the opportunity for choice, but the character doesn’t take a stand or act with agency, for whatever reason. It may run into some of the same problems as the “hands tied” type of story unless the character can begin to take the wheel.

Think about whether your character can be described as active or passive. How much do they move the story forward through their will and actions? What plot points has your character spearheaded? Can you call much of what they do or say binding or consequential? If not, you may be underestimating these very powerful tools in crafting character and plot.

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I’m working on a lot of freelance editing client manuscripts these days and loving it. (Maybe working a little too hard, hence the blog neglect!) Every time I make a note that I think will be a good post, or that can apply to more than just the moment in question, I flag it for potential follow-up on the blog. I’ve now stockpiled so many that I have material for weeks. All I need to do is figure out the most engaging way to illuminate all of these craft issues that I’m feeling so passionate about for a wider audience. (Easier said than done, ha!)

Today, I want to talk about “blah” words as they pertain to your objectives and motivations. This is a topic I’m super intense about. I’m writing my annual article for the Children’s Writers’ and Illustrators’ Market about it, in fact. (Which reminds me, I should really get on that…) My theory is that it’s more difficult to engage with character if we, as readers, don’t know what they’re doing (in the small and large sense over the course of your story), or, very importantly, why. And if you’ve followed me for a while, you probably know what I mean by “blah” words. If you have no idea, check out this post. To summarize, they’re generic words that have shallow emotions attached to them because they can mean many different things to many different people.

I encountered a character recently who made plenty of statements about motivation. This is great. I was excited. Hearts popped out of my eyeballs, anime-style. But something was wrong. Instead of being specific about motivation/objective, the character resorted to “blah” words. What does this look like? Example time:

I’m seeking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
He won’t stop until justice is served.
Her highest goal is peace.
If I could only get proof.

These are not from client work, or any work. They’re merely samples. Do you see a connecting thread, though? They all rely on “blah” words (truth, justice, peace, proof) that are connected with positive, wholesome emotions, but don’t really tell me much of anything about the character or the plot at hand.

A character will ideally have many small pieces of objective (what they want) and motivation (why) throughout a story. These elements exist from scene to scene and overall, for the entire arc. These “blah” words tend to work themselves into the larger objective/motivation that drives the character throughout the story.

You’ve long heard me say that generalization or the generic are the enemies in fiction. Specificity is where it’s at. Instead of having a character walk around talking about achieving justice or getting proof, break it down further so that it applies to the character where they are in the story and the plot as it’s progressing. For example:

If I could only get proof that Sadie stole the parade float, I’d feel so much more at peace. The Girl Scouts have been framed, I just know it. Nobody will listen to them, and that’s an injustice. And, worse, nobody seems to want to know the truth. Hmm, I wonder if the gas station across from the high school has any video footage from last night…

Here, we have tons of “blah” words (proof, peace, justice, truth), but they have taken on a concrete meaning in context. Not only do we get a sense that morality and “the right thing” are important to the character (this is likely applicable story-wide), but we get a sense of what’s going on now, what’s driving the character now, and what they plan to do in order to achieve their specific objective in this section of the story. The vague has become the specific, and now it applies directly to the events at hand. Establish and reinforce objectives/motivations through, on a scene-by-scene level, and for the larger arc of your manuscript. Don’t rely on some “blah” words and principles to stand in for specificity.

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The Blurt

No, I’m not talking about blurbs, the juicy quotes you try and get as a soon-to-be author that (may or may not) help sell your book. Though I probably should at some point, because it’s a pretty hot topic in the publishing world and ahuge source of anxiety for new authors. This post is actually about the action of blurting. No, I haven’t run out of things to talk about. I have about 100 ideas in the “soapbox file” on my computer. (Lucky you!) I know this sounds very specific, but, as usual, I have a larger point to make by delving into something small.

You know those times when you open your mouth and…the worst possible thing just seems to fall out, as if on its own. I know I’ve had this happen. A few times. Usually during fights with my mother. And I hear about it for the rest of my natural life. Ha! Well, in addition to this happening a lot to me, I’ve noticed that it happens quite a bit with fictional characters. A lot of big events in manuscripts I’ve seen seem to spin on characters blurting. The big secret. That they love the guy. That they’re not who they say they are.

I understand the urge to throw one’s arms up and hinge an important scene on a blurt. It’s easy. Your character would never do something so silly until, she just does it! You know how that goes, Reader. Sometimes ya just run your mouth! But here lies the problem. It’s careless and unintentional and often feels like a cheat. Especially if blurting is out of character for your blurter (new word). It tells me that the writer needed certain information to emerge but didn’t know how to go about it. This technique is especially disappointing when the character has, elsewhere, been in control of themselves with interiority and being present and vulnerable with the reader. A blurt under those circumstances just feels wrong and a little too convenient.

So how do you get around the blurt cliché? If you think I’m going to say, “interiority,” you would be correct! You’re writing compelling MG and YA fiction with great access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, yes? Great. Since you have spent time making your character mindful and aware, they must know that what they’re blurting will have ramifications. They will know the risks of confessing their love to their crush. They will know what awful things might happen if they let their true identity slip. They will think about it. And instead of blurting it once their author has painted himself in a corner, which is passive, they will make the choice to say it with intention, which is very much active.

Make the moment of your blurt a conscious turning point! Get in their heads when you feel tempted to blurt and have them make the decision to say the Big Deal thing instead. Anyone can blurt anything. But we will learn so much more about your character if they take the risk and do the stupid thing with full agency. If blurting is careless, then knowing the risks and going for the reveal full-bore is ballsy. And that’s the kind of action that gets me more invested in your character.

Are there any blurts in your manuscript? Can you make it work as a choice instead? How will that reel your reader in or reveal a new shade of your character?

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This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

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Two quick-and-dirty nuts-and-bolts things. First, if you are addressing a character by name, the standard formatting includes a comma before and the capitalization of the name. An example:

“Would you like this disgusting tennis ball, Gertie?” (My dog’s favorite question.)

Second, if the character happens to be the parent in your story, you need to make an important distinction. Are you addressing them as Mom or Dad (as if it is their name), or are you referring to them as a noun? I see this all the time in manuscripts. Here’s an example that makes the distinction clear:

“Do you have a mom, too, Mom?”

Here, you can talk about “a mom” or “her dad” or “his mommy” all you want, but it is lowercase. The second you use it to address a character, just as you would a name, it becomes capitalized. A quick proofread will tell you if you’re on the right track. If not, commit this simple rule of thumb to memory.


Great books write their own dictionaries and lexicons, in a way. This is pretty commonplace in fantasy, where you rack up terms, place names, slang, and other words that are part of complex world building. Many fantasy series, in fact, have their own affiliated or “unofficial” encyclopedias published once the series runs out and a publisher senses that there is still money in ‘dem dere hills to be made from fans. Having special words, repeating images, inside jokes and the like serves to bring readers further into your world because they feel like a member of an exclusive club.

But non-fantasy novels can have this inclusive, world building effect, too. One of the best examples I can think of has been stuck in my head because we’ve randomly named our GPS voice “Patty.” Relevant? Hardly. Stick with me for a minute, though, because it’s about to get more random. The only thing I can think of when I hear the name “Patty” is Tina Fey. I have her and her book BOSSYPANTS on the brain often, actually, because I have played the excellent audiobook of her reading it on no less than three road trips. If you’ve read BOSSYPANTS, you may remember an episode from her summer theatre days where her melodramatic friend throws himself a coming-out party, a “gay-but.” To the apparent surprise of his girlfriend. Whose name is Patty, and who has a face that resembles a scone. That’s a funny enough detail in and of itself. But what does Tina Fey, an expert at turns of phrase and building inside jokes, if you’ve seen 30 Rock, do next? She keeps elaborating on Patty’s sconelike face shape in several iterations throughout the story. My favorite is when she calls her “Sconeface Patty.” Each time it’s mentioned, not only do we laugh harder, because it’s always an unexpected riff on what we’re already expecting, but we feel closer to the story because we get it. We’re right there in it.

Creating a lexicon is especially important when you’re working on two elements: a sense of place, and a sense of voice. If your novel’s setting has a quarry in it where everyone goes to make out, you can invent your own shorthand, just like you would in real life. “We drove past Makeout Mountain to hit up the Dairy Queen” will become familiar to your readers as they try to picture your small town. Keep mentioning it to make those streets and country roads feel intimate. You’re creating a place out of thin air, after all. You need to give it some grip. And once something is established, think of ways to refer to it that bring the reader into the fold.

In terms of voice, different characters should have distinct ways of talking. That involves turns of phrase, images, words, etc. that will create their own lexicons for each character. Don’t take this to a caricature place, though. Just like you’d never want a dialect to completely take over what the character is saying, don’t layer on catch-phrases and weird slang too thick. But think about rhythm, word choice, way of describing something. I don’t think Tina Fey would’ve settled for “Sconeface Patty” if she’d genuinely liked the girl, for example. Think of how your characters describe good things, bad things, things when they’re in a good mood, things when they’re feeling annoyed, on and on and on.

Your goal with a book is to draw in your reader. One way of doing that is to get them in on the joke of your very own lexicon.


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