Tag Archives: Writing

Halloween Update

Hello!

So … a tiny little update to some exciting stuff I mentioned on Twitter a few weeks ago, plus some more recent news.

A little while ago, this became my pinned tweet:

two-contracts

So this was kind of exciting for me for a few reasons. One of the contracts is for a story already written, scheduled originally for publication in an anthology on Halloween this year, but scheduling of one sort or another has pushed that back to early 2017. The theme of the anthology is top-secret but brilliant, and I can’t wait to see the other authors’ spins on such a delicious idea.

The second contract … well, this one is scary, at least to me. It’s scary because it’s for five (yes, FIVE!) stories that haven’t been written yet (though the ideas are percolating), so it’s a different (and thrilling!) type of creative pressure for me. Another reason that it’s scary is that the other authors involved are all these incredible creative powerhouses of whom I’m a little in awe, so yes, I feel like I’ll have to raise my game to earn my place in those pages beside them.

It’s maybe a little too soon to reveal the theme of the anthology *Trademarked Cheeky Geeky Northern Boy Teasing Wink* but … Just. You. Wait.

The more recent stuff I mentioned was this:

booth

This was really exciting, especially given the wonderfully high standard of the competition entries published on the Storgy site over the last week, in the run-up to Halloween. The story in First Place is being announced on the 31st October itself, and I can’t wait to be utterly terrified by the winning entry.

Should you wish to read my story, the link is here, but even if you give mine a miss, I really hope you read the other, excellent tales. They’re perfect Halloween reading!

Anyway, if you made it this far, thanks for reading and Happy Halloween! I’ll be spending it in a bloodstained hockey mask and wielding a machete … nothing to do with Halloween, just what I do on a Monday 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 


My Writing Process – Updated

Another retooled post! Last year I was very kindly asked to participate in two blog hops, each of them inviting me to elaborate a little on my writing process. I’m currently doing a little housekeeping at The Ark Hive at the moment, and in reading those posts again I found areas where some of info was outdated. The works in progress or upcoming projects are sights in the rear-view now, so I wanted to post versions with those sections edited out, but if you’re of a mind to read the original posts (and I’d point you in that direction if only to introduce you to the awesome people who very kindly nominated me, and the equally awesome people I subsequently nominated) the originals are available here and here.

HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?

At first I thought this was quite a tricky question to answer, but ultimately it’s as simple as “It differs because it’s me writing it.”

To me, writing is like seeing shapes in the clouds. You and I might lay back on the warm grass, watching those little crystals of water or ice embrace tiny particles of dust in the blue sky, and, wondrously, this cold and unstoppable physical law will inspire you to see unicorns or angels, cats or dogs, the famous or the infamous, whatever your mind is wired to see.

If your mind is wired like mine, or if you’re meeting me halfway by reading the ink on a page or the pixels I’ve arranged on a screen, all I can hope to do is use my own experiences and emotional view of the world to convince you we’re seeing pretty much the same thing. That’s all any writer does. All our work differs from others in its genre.

WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?

As I say I’m wired to see what I see, and to imagine what I imagine. As a kid, my earliest stories were superficially science-fictional, cherry-picking concepts from my favourite films and TV shows and comic books and mashing them into tales that didn’t so much explore strange new worlds as recycle them … many is the story from that time that saw a Doctor Doom/Darth Vader hybrid commanding an army of “like Cybermen but not really Cybermen” against a brave band of Mutant mercenaries armed with laser swords (definitely NOT lightsabres). Incidentally, I used to draw fake movie posters for these stories, crazy, sprawling artwork crammed with all the elements I’d stolen from my influences. Thankfully, none of these drawings survive, but they tended to be a variation on this:

I have this album ... and it's brilliant!

I have this album … and it’s brilliant!

 

The thing is, if I was writing about a cyborg, say, I started to realise how much more I enjoyed writing about the seeping, decaying remains of his or her flesh than the sleek, mechanical aspects of the cybernetics. Eventually, I came to understand that my science-fiction efforts were Horror stories in disguise, and that if I was going to write, that was the territory in which I could have the most fun.

I’ve written elsewhere about my love for the Horror genre, but the short version is that I honestly believe it’s the most flexible field I could ever work in. I can have my zombies and demons and killers (oh my!), but if I want I can also have comedy or erotica or teen angst or political drama or whatever I need. I don’t think it works the other way. Any of those genres can exist brilliantly on their own, but make the President a vampire or the angst-ridden teens serial killers and the story’s heart begins to blacken, to turn to the Dark Side.

For me, the genre remains honourable and undiluted no matter what other themes and elements it can comfortably incorporate. That’s why the Horror element always comes first when people talk about mashing it up with another genre. Zombie Western, Zombie Romance, never the other way around. Horror defines itself, and the stories it tells, and that’s why I love writing it.

HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?

Unfortunately, my day job doesn’t allow me the luxury of a fixed time to write, or indeed a great deal of free time at all, and so any creativity tends to be left to the end of the week for Friday Phrases, and as much novel-writing as I can manage to fit in over the weekend.

If I have a whole day, I’m at my most creative in the mornings. I’ll aim for around two thousand words of new stuff then, and spend the afternoon checking through what I’ve already written. I usually find this PM editing a relatively painless process, as I’m in the habit of editing the work as I write it. I know many writers might shake their heads at this, considering it a great sin against productivity and creativity. It’s far better, they might argue, to let the prose flow, to let one’s imagination spill unrestrained on to the page, and later to use craft and skill to shape the words into the best they can possibly be.

For the record, those writers are absolutely 100% correct, but generally speaking it’s not how it works for me. There is a reason for this, I think.

A few years ago, I tried my hand at a little stand-up comedy. I’d been writing a few jokes for radio shows and the like and thought it might be interesting to see how my material played to a live crowd. Believe me, though writing is a solitary, sometimes lonely endeavour, it can feel like a party compared to standing alone on stage in front of a cold audience daring you to make them laugh.

The material was a weird stream-of-consciousness thing which wondered what might happen if – and those of you of a sensitive disposition might want to look away now – an adult movie was created by the cast of Sesame Street.

It was strange. I fully suspect anyone still reading can guess the kind of things the beloved Count was so joyfully enumerating, and even deduce what appallingly inappropriate selection of letters and numbers my imagined episode was brought to you by. What role I speculated that the renamed Cookie Monster might play in these sordid events is perhaps best left consigned to history.

The material got a few laughs, but the guy behind the microphone was an idiot, so I stopped. The experience did leave me with a curious learning curve that informs my writing today, though. All those times when I stumbled over a line, or ducked a thrown beer bottle, or misplaced one of the events in my routine and had to backtrack in as naturalistically a fashion as possible … all those things meant that I learned to cut and paste my thoughts, and quickly. To edit and shape as I went along, rewriting “as live”, if you like. It’s one reason why the shoot-from-the-hip nature of writing the Friday Phrases really appeals to me. Many of mine share the same structure as a joke, I think, albeit a joke where the punchline involves a demon or a dismemberment.

So that’s about it for my Writing Process … thanks for reading!


Flash! Part One

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“Flash! Ah-aaah! Saviour of the Universe!”

If you’re not familiar with the 1980 Flash Gordon movie or indeed the Queen soundtrack that graces it, then that opening line may make me sound like a lunatic. Hell, even if you are familiar with the movie and music you may think I’ve lost it. The DVD occupies a proud place in my collection of movies based on comic books, and if you haven’t yet seen it, I ABSOLUTELY INSIST that you enrich your life with it as soon as possible. Max Von Sydow portrays Ming the Merciless, and he played chess with Death, for goodness’ sake! Flash and James Bond (sort of) duel with whips on a tilting disc that randomly sprouts deadly blades from its surface, in a floating city where Brian Blessed is Prince of the Birdmen! Beat that, Citizen Kane! For UK readers, it’s got Peter Duncan from Blue Peter in it! Peter Bloody Duncan! And then there’s the rocket cycle, and Prince Vultan’s joyous cry of “GORDON’S ALIVE!”, and the exquisitely wicked beauty of Ornella Muti’s Princess Aura, and … and …

I’m so sorry. I’m afraid I seem to have wandered off my point, somewhat.

The reason I chose to employ that particular lyric as a rather clumsy opening gambit is because I wanted to talk a little about Flash Fiction, and how, while it may not be the Saviour of the Universe, it certainly is jolly good fun, both to read and to write. I wasn’t really aware of it until a couple of years ago, and while I certainly didn’t dismiss the form, it never occurred to me that it was something I might want to try, or if I’m honest something that I might want to read. A hundred or so words? What could anyone do with that? How could anyone fit a plot, mood, character etc in such a small space, and tie it all up with the shiny bow of a satisfying ending? At best, I probably thought that a writer might be able to fit one of those things in the piece, make it a snapshot of atmosphere or an illuminating character moment, nothing more than a breath of story, the merest taste.

I was, of course, an idiot.

I still may be an idiot, but not in terms of my hesitancy around flash fiction. My first step towards falling in love with the form was @FridayPhrases of course, where I found a community of exceptional writers of microfiction (which is just getting better and better by the way – many is the #FP that takes my breath away with its skill and beauty) and soon after that I began reading the flash posted on Twitter via the wonderful Storybandit. That led me to the blogs of other writers where I enjoyed, and still enjoy, an abundance of microfiction that happily makes me massively jealous with its genius. Alas, Storybandit is no more, but once upon a time it offered varying prompts – or Writing Dares – for flash fiction (a setting, five or six words to include in the piece, maybe an opening or closing line, a word count to work towards etc) and then it’s up, up and away.

I’d worked with prompts before, mostly for competitions and the like, where the word counts were bigger and the theme was maybe more general than the sometimes challengingly surgical prompts from Storybandit (my vocabulary has expanded thanks to having to Google some of El Bandito’s word choices!) but even so, the strain showed in those earlier efforts of mine – many was the story that cracked at the seams thanks to my ham-fisted crowbarring of a prompt that didn’t belong. So, I thought that prompts and I were perhaps something of an ill-fit, but along with #FP, the lure of Storybandit proved enticing, and everyone’s work was so brilliant, and I never could resist a dare, and so I dipped my toe into those creative waters, and absolutely loved it.

Adhering to the parameters of the Writing Dares led me to thinking in directions that I might not otherwise have gone in – A blossoming relationship where I might have written about the break-up, something joyous where I might have gone for tears, a (hopefully) amusing aside instead of a scare. It’s been fun.

Storybandit has gone, but there are many other prompt pages out there, and the most recent of which I’ve become aware is @200WordTuesdays, curated by the always-inspiring @ReeDwithaBee – the format is a little different to Storybandit, in that #200WT offers two prompts per month, the submission period running flexibly from the first day to the last, with a collection posted every Tuesday. Every prompt so far has been amazing, and again, stand by to have your breath stolen if and when you visit the site.

Below are some of my own flash fiction pieces – a few I owe to Storybandit, a couple inspired by the @200WordTuesdays prompts, and a handful of other sources. Where possible, I’ve prefixed the piece with the prompts that helped create them (not the ones in bold text), and hopefully, if you’ve never visited the sites or pages I’ve mentioned, you’ll take a look. Read some magnificent flash fiction and maybe write your own. I’d heartily recommend it, so drop in on them, grab yourself a prompt, get creative and get flashing!

She’d been uncomfortable with the price tag of the 3D printer, but her anger outweighed the cost. She already had the books, bequeathed by her grandmother, and with a sweet irony the lighter had been one that John had abandoned in the house when he left. She wasn’t sure the spell had worked until she saw the black clouds around his face, heard the noise of screaming onlookers sickened by her former boyfriend bursting into flames.

She walked away, tossing the lighter and the smouldering paper doll into the gutter.

Voodoo in the 21st century. Her grandmother would be proud.

* * *

(Prompt: 199 w. Include the words unsullied, bluebonnet, immigrant, action figure, peach)

I’d never seen the girl before tonight, but I imagined that she had never looked more beautiful. She craned her neck to look up at me, her breath a stutter of frosty, wordless speech bubbles, her wide eyes the same vibrant hue as the fields of bluebonnet in which I’d played as a boy. Her pale, peach soft skin looked perfect in the white dazzling glare of the headlights, unsullied by years or toil or heartbreak. The sight of her, of her stifled beauty, filled me with a kind of awed dread, as if everything she’d seen in those last moments was bleeding through the cracks in my eyes, as if everything she’d felt was stealing into my heart like a strange immigrant emotion that was here to stay. A heartbeat and a lifetime ago, she had appeared from nowhere it seemed, growing suddenly huge through the windscreen, but she looked so small now, her hand tiny in mine, like she was some action figure that a child her age might have dropped in the road where she lay and I sat waiting for her to die.
My tears fell into her eyes as the ambulance crested the hill.

* * *

(Prompt: 99w. Use the opening line, “These blueprints are wrong,” she said.)

“These blueprints are wrong,” she said.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. It had been a long night. “How so?”
She pointed at the unrolled parchment. Everywhere, the clamour of the workshop went on. They were running out of time.
“There’s a broken circuit, here.” She said. “That’s why we have the flickering red light.”
He peered at the plans, frowning. He loved her, but hated it when she spotted his mistakes.
“I’ll fix it tomorrow,” he muttered, shrugging on his scarlet overcoat. Behind him, the robo-reindeer stamped impatient hooves.
“Rudolph can live with it for one night.”

* * *

(Prompt: 199w. Use the opening line, “Oh! You scared me. I didn’t hear you. Did you sneak up on me?”)

“Oh! You scared me. I didn’t hear you. Did you sneak up on me?”
I laughed gently at her surprised eyes. “Sorry.” I glanced at the TV, a screen full of police cars in the rain. “What are you watching?”
“They think they’ve got him,” she said. “The Actor. I thought you’d be interested, seeing how you’re his biggest fan.”
“Serial killers don’t have fans.” I raised the volume. “I’m just intrigued.”
The news report recounted the case. He’d gained the nickname of The Actor because each of his strangled victims had been the leading lady in on play or another, athough tonight it seemed as though his luck had run out. One of his leading ladies had blown his brains out.
I started towards my room.
“You’re not watching it?” she said. “I thought -”
“I’ll catch it later,” I said. “I have to go to work.”
Alone, I flicked through the scrapbook of newspaper cuttings, the glowing reviews of his many murders. The Actor wouldn’t be on stage tonight, but that was okay, I thought as I removed the rope from beneath my bed.
I knew the script by heart, and was more than ready to understudy.

* * *

(Prompt: 99w. Include the words peter, custom, incense, abdication, malicious)

She watched the tiny flame of the incense peter out, inhaling the curl of aromatic smoke as it smouldered. He’d be here soon. She’d open the door and they’d kiss, something that had become more of a custom than a pleasure of late. It wasn’t his fault. He’d always treated her like a Queen, and tonight would be no malicious abdication. She would be kind.
The doorbell rang. She didn’t hurry, in case he should misinterpret her eagerness to see him, but when she opened the door and saw the two solemn faced policemen, she wished she’d moved faster.

* * *

They said it was an accident, and I believed them, although that wasn’t going to help me unravel my poor dog from beneath the wheels of their car.
‘We haven’t been drinking, I swear!’ the girl kept saying, her words floating towards me on a tide of stale beer. The driver said nothing for a few minutes. He just stood with his face slack in the headlights, his glassy gaze flicking between the bloody, dented grille of his vehicle and the tangle of black fur and exposed meat hugging the road beneath it.
‘I tried to brake,’ he said finally. ‘But I just … froze. I’ve never seen anything like it.’ He turned his bloodshot eyes to me. ‘What was that thing?’
‘My dog.’ I told him, reaching inside my jacket for the knife tucked into my belt. ‘You broke him, and now you have to help fix him.’
I remember how their eyes widened when they saw the blade.
My dog is on the mend now, even though I had to amputate some of him to get him out from under the wheels. The man and the girl helped to fix him up, though. He’s kind of clumsy with the hand instead of his paw, and he’s only got one of his own heads left, but I can see him getting used to seeing through their eyes, and barking through their mouths.
‘Good boy, Cerberus,’ I like to say to him. ‘Good dog.’

* * *

(Prompt: 99w. Use the opening line, “The baby was screaming again.”)

The baby was screaming again.
There had been clamour all around him, the rustle of scrubs, the clatter of slick instruments returned to metal trays. The voices of the medical staff, calm and reassuring to him and Sophie, low and urgent to each other. Sophie’s breath, frayed and wheezing, muffled by the misted plastic of the oxygen mask.
Yes, there had been clamour, but in all of that it was the missing sound that terrified them both. The cry that had stopped. Sophie’s damp, shaking hand squeezed his fingers into a bloodless bundle.
Then the baby was screaming again.

* * *

(Prompt: 200w. “Broken Worlds”)

The world felt broken without her, like he was experiencing everything through a television that, like his hopes, had seen better days. The images rolled, ghostly and forever flickering, the contrast dialled down so that everything in sight was bled of its colour, its vibrancy, its life.

The speakers were muted, crackling into activity only when there was a song he didn’t want to hear again, or a nearby voice that reminded him of hers. Even the static seemed to whisper her name.

Sometimes, he would try to think of other things, try to change the channel to something he liked, but the TV had a mind and a mission of its own, it seemed, and always sifted through the frequencies of his memory to show him something he didn’t want to see, a happy time that would make him sad. The pictures were blurred and lo-res, but the hurt was unquestionable High Definition, until one day, he came to a decision.

The pills spilled out onto the table in front of him, a boxful of brightly coloured Off buttons. He swallowed all of them one by one and closed his eyes, waiting for the screen to fade to black.

* * *

(Prompt: 200w. “Inky-Red”)

She knew the other kids wondered about the red pen she always kept with her, but she’d never tell. They wondered about the long sleeves in summer, but she’d never tell about them either. No-one had ever seen her write with it, and anyway, students weren’t allowed to use felt-pens in their notebooks, lest the ink bleed through to the other side of the page.

Because they’d never seen her use it, people presumed that it was the same pen throughout the term, and she’d never tell them that it was a different one maybe every two weeks. Her brother had bought them for her, or more accurately he’d bought as many packs of felt-pens as he could find and afford, and extracted all of the red ones to give to her. The other colours were left to gather dust beneath his bed.

A Distraction Technique, the counsellor called it. Sensory or visual input to drive away the urges to hurt herself. She’d never tell the other kids about how, beneath those long sleeves, red ink stained the places between old scars, and she’d never tell them about how, as secrets went, she thought it the best she’d ever had.

* * *

(Prompt: 99w. Use the ending, “We would need to burn that couch.”)

The screams died with the flames, but black smoke still curled from the lip of the metal trashcan.
It was all Bert’s fault, him and his terrible handwriting. But I’d misread the last word, and I’d poured the petrol and I’d lit the match, so of course he wouldn’t see it that way.
Yes, I’d screwed up, but Bert and I still had a job to do. The apartment was infested, and, Oscar’s incineration aside, we had to torch Big Bird’s furniture before the whole of Sesame Street was overrun with bugs.
We would need to burn that couch.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading!


A DIY Autopsy

“There are no experiences too dreadful to cannibalise.” – Stephen King

It’s a curious word, cannibalise. I suspect for most people, it conjures up images of spiders consuming their mates, or serial killers, or sticky-pawed “tribesmen” dining on the longpig in fuzzy, fourth-generation copies of Video Nasties. But that’s not where we’re going here.

Where we’re going is the other, perhaps more colloquial use of the word, as in to utilise the spare parts of one machine to make another machine work. To take something old and make something new.

Where to find the parts, though?

“Memory is the greatest gallery in the world, and I can play an endless archive of images.” – JG Ballard

Obviously, imagination doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s anchored, if even by the thinnest of threads, to our physical and emotional lives. I’d venture that every writer, no matter how fantastical the tale, could show you the scene, or the line, or even the lone word that quite deliberately evokes or reflects some real life incident or reaction. Imagination and history hand in hand.

The history that makes us smile, the walk in the park with a loved one, the childhood joy of fresh snow, they’re imprinted on our brains in High Definition, every recalled sense engaged and accessible. Honed and controlled, those memories are a pleasure to translate to the page.

Other things … maybe not so much.

The choices we made, the obstacles we faced, the conflict we won against or lost to, these are all often difficult to revisit, at least with the relaxed openness with which we can transcribe the good times. But plots are made of choices, and obstacles, and conflict to whatever degree the story demands, and so my own view is that a writer should use whatever internal resource he or she can to lend those elements weight.

I’m talking about finding a method of raising the stakes, of (hopefully) making the characters feel as real as possible. It’s a technique that every writer employs, of course, but what I’m advocating here is the courage and self-belief to consider going further with it than you otherwise might. I’m talking about a DIY Autopsy.

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Imagine yourself in a cool, tiled room. It’s well-lit, but it feels like there are shadows everywhere. In front of you, on a wheeled steel trolley, a crisp white sheet is draped like folds and dunes of snow over a shape you recognise.

Yes, you know that shape. You know its contours and contusions, its secrets and its scars. This is your real timeline, with it’s Favorited moments and RT’d remembrances of the good times and the bad. This is the cadaver of long-ago, and though it’s dead and gone, destined to be buried by the present and have it’s unmarked grave trampled upon by the future, there’s always time to scavenge it for parts, to recycle it into something vital and alive, to resurrect it as a body of work.

Draw back the sheet, though, and you might find yourself surprised. The past looks … different, somehow. The good times, they look the same, little slices of HD contentment, but the bad times, the break-ups and the deaths and the quarrels, they’re blunted now, their edges smoothed by the mercy of distance. “She was never right for you, anyway.” or “At least he’s not suffering now” or, damningly, “We argued, but I won.” are phrases stitched into the wounds like tattoos, while other needles have pumped numbness into the surrounding flesh. Those cracks in your heart? They’ve been papered over.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – LP Hartley

In its Proverbial sense, a quote perhaps most often interpreted as being about regret. Here, in this room, with the past on a trolley in front of you, I would retool the meaning to be about mis-remembering, about singing yourself to sleep with mondegreen lyrics. Time heals all wounds, but perhaps, for writers, sometimes it heals them too well, closing a breach that looks on to a world of possibility for the people on your pages.

If the disagreeable has been terraformed, made more palatable, it may seem like unfamiliar territory, but you have a map should you dare to use it, and there’s endless veins of writerly gold at your fingertips, just waiting to be mined. Your memory may resist, may tell you that you don’t want to go there again, may even try to make you afraid.

Ignore it.

Win this one. Bring a little swagger to the page with you, a little gunslinger flair. When the lungs are starved of oxygen, the body claws every last molecule of breath from every cell it can, even those in the fingernails. That’s the resourcefulness we’re striving for, that will to succeed even if means a cyanosed manicure.

Take a look at the wounds that haven’t quite healed, the sunsets of bruises that have yet to fade. Hell, take a scalpel to the old scars if you have to, but the point is to dig deep, to remember the missed chances and the lost loves and the comforting hands that have crumbled now to dust.

Touch the bruises, press on them until they start to twinge again. Push your fingers into the wounds. What you find there may feel cold, and alien, but give it time and you’ll feel it bubbling against the heat of your skin.

The memory is often merciful, half-closing the mind’s eye so as to obscure some of the finer emotional details of an unpleasant experience. It means well; to recall plainly the pain of a bruised jaw or a bruised ego, to remember at every moment and with absolute clarity the agony of a broken limb or a broken heart, would be to mark out the seconds of your life with torture. The mind’s eye closes, or turns away when it can, so as to allow us to relive our hurt in a more remote, survivable fashion.

But what I’m suggesting here, is that we pry open that eye, force apart the lids with surgical skill and courage, and remember an old piece of Gypsy lore, that the human eye retains the last image seen before death. Peel away the retina and hold it up to the light. See what you saw, feel what you felt, and paint it in pixels or ink.

When I was thinking about this piece I recalled a fine post by @DrewChial called “Keeping My Memoir Out Of My Fiction”, in which he elegantly discusses the perils of installing yourself to too great a degree in your work. It’s a post well worth reading, and I think that the perils he mentions can be comfortably applied here as well.

Yes, writing from the very personal level I’m talking about can be cathartic, but it doesn’t have to be an emotional anti-coagulant. You don’t have to bleed all over the page. It doesn’t have to be everything, and most likely shouldn’t be. Everybody has their own personal Privacy Settings. The important thing is to be able to access the resource when you need to.

One line of truth and a scene can come alive with not a Tesla coil in sight, a birth as opposed to a re-animation. One line plucked from your own personal hell can give your characters a wondrously flawed humanity, make their breath flutter from between the pages, and make the readers heart beat in time with theirs.

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