Writing tip: It’s okay to let some of your darlings live

I have about 30,000 words worth of stuff I’ve taken out of my current manuscript — so far.

If you’re a writer, if you’ve been to even one writing conference, you’ve heard it: Kill your darlings.

The quote is from William Faulker, though sometimes it’s attributed to Stephen King, who was quoting Faulker. I once heard it attributed to Elmore Leonard, but he was quoting Faulkner, too. The point, if you’re the rare writer who has never heard it, is there may be things you really, really like in your manuscript that you’re going to have to get rid of.

The issue though is it’s frequently taken to mean that if you really, really like something, you have to get rid of it. Or if you really, really like something that someone else doesn’t like, you have to get rid of it.

Like a lot of pithy sayings that get tossed around, the deeper meaning frequently gets lost.

Here’s something to chew over: you don’t have to kill all of them, or even any of them. What you do have to do is harder.

Before killing the darling, see if passes these tests:

  • Can you make a case for allowing the darling to live?
    You’ve thought about what you’re writing. Thought deeply about what you wanted to say and how you’re going to say it. If you’ve done that, you should be able to make a case for the darling. If you can’t make a case after all that thinking, then kill it. If you haven’t done the thinking you need to do, go back to square one — I know! So hard! So much work! — and do that thinking, then see if the darling fits.
  • What does the darling add to the story?
    While your writing should be tight and the plot must steadily advance, you may have something bigger to say (again, you’ve thought about this bigger thing A LOT, right?). Does this darling advance understanding of character? Add to the theme? Is it consistent with your voice? If any of those apply, maybe it should be allowed to live.
  • What does the darling take away from the story?
    Does it drag the narrative down, confuse readers, feel out of place? Kill it! Or maybe rehabilitate it, if you feel it has a place in the book.
  • Does the blood-thirsty person urging you to kill understand what you’re doing?
    All of us have had times where someone reading our stuff has said we should kill a darling and we’ve argued for clemency and they’ve triumphantly come back with “Don’t forget, you have to kill your darlings!” They may be right, but killing just for the sake of killing — as mystery writers we know this — doesn’t work. Consider the source (I think Jim Bouton said that).
    It’s great to have people tell you how wonderful you are, but not if you want a good book. Conversely, it’s not great to have people not get what you’re doing. They’re not going to help much either. Pick manuscript readers who get your voice and genre, and who’ll be honest and offer constructive criticism.
    I understand that if your initial readers don’t get something, readers of the actual book won’t either. On the other hand, every single person in the world isn’t going to like or understand your book, your voice, or get what you’re saying. You need to, though, and the smart honest people who read for you ought to as well.
    It’s also important to remember that one person does not make a consensus — ask your other readers what they think. Yes, have more than one, and make sure they’re different enough so they have different approaches. (Keep it to three or four or you’ll never want to have anyone read your manuscript again.)
    It’s even more important that you, the writer, understand your voice and what you’re doing — I know I already said this, but I can’t say it enough — so you’ll know enough to know if someone simply doesn’t get it, or if they have a good point that you missed.
  • Talk it out.
    I’ve found the best way to rework things in my manuscripts that my initial readers don’t think works is to discuss it with them and figure out if there’s a way to make it work. All the above comes into play if you’re going to do this.
  • Understand criticism.
    Does what the person is saying make sense? Or do they just plain not like the darling because it’s not their personal taste, or it’s not the way they would write it, or it doesn’t conform to their reality? It’s important to know when someone who doesn’t like your darling doesn’t like it for reasons that don’t speak to the writing or the big picture.
    And that brings us to…
  • Knowledge is power (and confidence).
    It’s important to be confident enough in your voice and message that you can defend what you feel is important. But it has to be the kind of confidence that comes from  understanding the craft and what you are aiming for as you write.
    Yeah, I know I already said that in a bunch of different ways. But I can’t say it enough.

As someone who’s edited a lot of fiction and read hundreds of self-published books as a judge for the Writers Digest Self-Published Contest (I no longer do this, BTW, so don’t hassle me if you’ve entered), there were consistent issues that got in the way of good writing. By consistent, I mean the huge majority of books I read as an editor and as a judge had these problems. (Also, by all that’s holy, pay for a professional editor. Please. But that’s a blog post for another day.)
If these are recognized more darlings will live:

  • Writers didn’t have a clear overall idea of what their book was about.
    I’m not talking about the elevator pitch, or the plot, or the genre or sub-genre. I mean, what are you trying to say? If you’re trying to say something, then what works and what doesn’t will be easier to figure out.
  • Writers didn’t get beyond the first draft or revise.
    The huge majority of books I saw both as an editor or judge were first drafts. (Another reason to have a professional editor who will tell you this if they’re worth the money you’ll pay them.)
    I find as a writer that I work a lot of things out in the first draft, then when I go back and revise, I can take background and tangent out. I had to write it in the first place to figure out where I was going, but as I honed the narrative, I could get rid of it.
    I have more than 30,000 words of the manuscript that I just completed in folders in my computer. (Most of my darlings aren’t cremated or buried, they’re cyrogenically preserved for reference or possible future use).

Kill your darlings if you must, but don’t let innocent ones die in vain simply because you didn’t know how to keep them alive.

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Weekend Update: July 14-15, 2018

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will posts by Maureen Milliken (Monday) Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Tuesday), Joe Souza (Wednesday), Vaughn Hardacker (Thursday), and Brenda Buchanan (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

It’s book festival season in Maine! This weekend many of us will be at Books in Boothbay and next Saturday, July 21, is the Beyond the Sea Book Festival in Lincolnville Beach, Maine, when Dorothy Cannell, Dick Cass, Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson, Barb Ross, and Lea Wait/Cornelia Kidd will be signing books and chatting with readers, as will many other Maine writers. For more details, click here.

If you can’t make it to Lincolnville Beach July 21, try the Belgrade Lakes Region, where Maureen Milliken will join other local authors in the Day’s Store 60th Birthday Party

Days Store in Belgrade Lakes, a Maine summer institution, is celebrating the owners’ 60th anniversary July 21.

The day, which celebrates 60 years of the current owners’ family owning the store, also includes Gifford’s Ice Cream, a dunk take, cool things to buy, food (of course!), music and much more. Authors, including Friend of Maine Crime Writers Kate Cone, with her guide to craft breweries, will be there from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the events continue until 9 p.m. The store is on beautiful Long Pond in Belgrades Lakes, and if you’ve never been there and are looking for an idyllic Maine summer destination, give it try.

 

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora

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Starting Over

William Andrews: It’s Friday the 13th, and in the spirit of bad luck said to occur on such Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 8.26.57 AMdays I offer this tale as my first MCW blog.  May this and all your days be lucky.

In early October of 2016 I was nearly 100 pages into a new mystery and feeling satisfied. I was in a different fictional world from that of my first three mysteries, trying something new in characters, setting, and point of view.  With the text up on my screen I took a break to check email. One from FedEx had just arrived, with an attachment.  I don’t open attachments unless I know the sender, but of course I knew FedEx and was in fact expecting a delivery from them.  So I hit on the attachment.  You guessed it:  an ominous message instantly popped up on my screen to inform me (I’ve repressed the exact wording) that my computer was frozen and that I could unfreeze it only by paying a ransom, in Bitcoins.  I told myself this couldn’t be, but as I moved application by application through the computer I found all my files were frozen.  The nightmare I had read about had come to me.

The next several days passed in a rush of fruitless activity as I consulted techie friends, local computer experts, even the sheriff’s office.  All agreed I was without a way out, including paying a ransom, which is universally considered useless.  But I calculated mine at around $39 (who would go to such trouble for that paltry sum?) and decided the odds favored at least trying that route.  Even that recently, Bitcoin was not a widely available form of exchange, and my most frustrating experiences over the next week were trying to buy some.  Using my back-up computer I shopped around and ultimately found a site deemed trustworthy. In some ways it was tootrustworthy because it required so many levels of security that I spent hours, literally, going through the requisite steps. Finally I secured the Bitcoins—or the code that verifies I owned them.  Following the instructions from the initial ransom statement I paid up. And then waited for the promised code that would unlock my machine.

Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 8.27.41 AMNeedless to say, it never came. The contents of my computer remained beyond my reach.  In addition to the text of the new mystery, I lost a year of financial records, many photos, and more emails than I can bear to think about. I had backed up some files to thumb drives, but the new mystery was simply gone.  How had I been so stupid?  Perhaps the pleasure of the new writing numbed me to the risk and I blithely plowed along.  I really don’t know why I hadn’t taken minimum precautions with the new prose, but there it was.  Friends of a literary turn were eager to remind me of famous examples of writers who lost manuscripts and had to start over.  Hadley Hemingway left a suitcase of Ernest’s early stories on a train. T.E. Lawrence left the manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdomin a café at a train station.  Perhaps most famously, Thomas Carlyle asked his friend John Stuart Mill to review the manuscript of his French Revolutionand then learned that Mill’s maid had mistaken it for waste and burned it.  Carlyle started over from scratch and eventually published his masterpiece. None of this was particularly comforting.

I felt violated, but mostly I felt stupid.  I couldn’t think about the lost work.  I had extensive notes (on paper!), and of course I remembered in a general way what I had written.  But I simply could not sit down to write it again.  I subscribed to a cloud service to do automatic back-ups and I bought and religiously used thumb drives to preserve other work.  But writing—nope, couldn’t do it.

Then seven or eight months ago, more than a year after the hack, I told myself it was now or never. I sat down at the computer and started to write.  I’m now through the point in the original when the hack occurred and more or less on my way to finish. I save it to the thumb drive hour by hour even though the cloud service claims to be doing so for me.  The experience was harrowing and made me even edgier and more paranoid than I normally am.  But at least I’m writing again.  Friends assure me the new work will be better than the original, something like a second draft guaranteed to be superior.  Maybe.  That’s to be determined.  But for now, I’m trying to learn from my mistake.  What’s the lesson?  Obviously: Back Up!  Everything!  All the time! Expect the worst to happen and you won’t be disappointed.  When you have no one to blame but yourself, it’s a bit hard to come to terms with failure. All you can do is emulate Carlyle—and start writing again.  And relentlessly backing up!

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Murder on the trail, mooned by a leprechaun, gems on the beach and other tales down east (with lots of pictures)

Beth and I started renting Seawall Cottage at Cobscook Bay Cottages (http://www.cobscookbaycottages.com/) ten years ago. We love staying there because it’s so easy to travel to all the places in Washington County we enjoy. Even after our fourth stay there, as well as other stays in Lubec and on Campobello, we’re far from running out of places to explore.

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(Nature can get hairy down east)

Of course we have favorites. At the top of that list would be a small beach on Campobello that’s always prime sea glass territory. In addition East Quoddy lighthouse, the boardwalks through the bogs, Herring Cove Beach and Roosevelt Campobello International Park are well worth visiting when on the island. Tea With Eleanor at the park house is as good an example of living history as one could ask for. Offered twice a day, ladies who work there serve tea, amazing cookies and bring Eleanor to life so well that even the most jaded tourist goes away excited.

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(when I was a kid, I used to eat the seed pods from these wildflowers)

Just north of Calais is Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge. We walked out on a long roadway to a small dam that regulates the water level for a large part of the marsh area. Birds, dragonflies and an endless array of wildflowers mitigated the heat and humidity. However, our walk along a woodland trail was abbreviated by these same factors, coupled with absolutely no breeze. the conditions kept most critters hidden away, but the wild strawberries were delicious.

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(Beth collected numerous feathers, but this one escaped her)

South of Calais, the Saint Croix International Historic Site is well worth a visit. The short walk through the trees on the point features sculptures and informational plaques that help tell the story of this part of Samuel De Champlain’s exploration of North America. The museum/shop is also interesting and we came away with books for Piper and some grand nieces/nephews.

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Eastport is always hopping during the Fourth of July holiday. I like unique jewelry, but hadn’t purchased any in several years. Seaside Stones (https://www.facebook.com/SeasideStonesEastport/) changed that and, while there were at least five pieces I wanted, I restrained myself and came away with a necklace of purple plume agate from Indonesia. The pier was populated by food vendors and while we were strolling down the main street, the USS McFaul docked to be part of the festivities. We got to see the crew assemble on deck to greet the citizens and visitors right after it made port. There are several art venues on or near the waterfront and we enjoyed some eye-popping photographs at a shop just down from Peavey Library. It’s always a treat to shop their July 4th book sale and chat with old friend Dana Chevalier the librarian. For more on what’s available in Eastport, check their Chamber of Commerce website. (https://eastportchamber.net/).

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(Eastport, like everywhere else in Washington County, has flowers galore.)

Book lovers will also find plenty of treasures at the Lubec Library’s 4th of July book sale. While you might think such a sale wouldn’t have much to offer, the opposite is true. Many summer and year round residents are well read and donate amazing items. I always come away with a bag of treasures. Then it was time for lunch at Frank’s Dockside restaurant where we always sit on the deck in hopes of seeing a seal, but not this time. Beth picked up special treats for our dog, Bernie at Wags & Wool. No matter how often we visit West Quoddy State Park, we never tire of walking the trails and admiring the cliffs on Grand Manaan Island. I happened to look down at the right moment and spotted a June Bug being ambushed by a horde of ants. It was too late for a rescue, but made for quite a photo. We also noticed that someone had created small stone walkways leading to numerous openings along the path leading to the bog boardwalk, creating natural fairy houses.

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We hadn’t been to Reversing Falls since the girls were in grammar school. It’s at the end of a point in Pembroke, with not much in the way of signage, but it’s well worth the trek. When we arrived, we found a group of graduate students from UNE, University of New Brunswick and University of Toronto engaged in an archaeological dig. They were looking for pottery shards, bones and other items from Native Americans who camped and fished there hundreds of years ago. I admired their dedication, particularly in the 90+ degree heat. In addition to eagles, seals are often seen here, but the main attraction is the way the high tides make the water flow backwards over a big ledge. I found that listening to it with my eyes closed was hypnotic as the sound changed and strengthened almost from second to second. There are nice trails along the inlet as well.

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(That’s some serious sifting right there)

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(The root structure over thing soil and granite is amazing.)

Our final hike this year was on the trails in the Sipp Bay Preserve (https://mcht.org/preserves/sipp-bay). There are several nice trails along the twisty coves here with numerous places to go onto the shore and look for shells. I was doing just that when I made my best find of the trip, a rock with several pieces of tourmaline, something I never expected to see on a beach in Washington County. A few moments later, I found the moss patches you see here and I couldn’t help but think of them as a leprechaun’s butt. If you haven’t discovered this part of Maine, treat yourself to some great new adventures.

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A Fourth of July Weekend in Boothbay Harbor

by Barb enjoying a fabulous run of Maine weather

Our family gathered in our house in Boothbay Harbor over the Fourth of July. Because the fourth was on a Wednesday this year, we started arriving on Tuesday, with more arrivals on Wednesday and Thursday, and then leave-takings from Saturday through Monday. But for forty-eight glorious hours we were all together.

I loved reading Sandra Neily’s post about things to do in the Boothbay region, because, weird, I know, but I have done almost none of them.

One reason is we have a lot of trouble getting off our porch.

Because of the view.

When my granddaughter saw this version of the view, she asked, “Where did all the water go?” A teachable moment.

Also, on the evening of the Fourth, this from the porch.

When we finally do get off the porch, one of our favorite places is Barrett Park, because it’s a quick hit, right around the corner. The perfect place to relax and cool off at the end of the day.

On Friday we all went to the Cabbage Island Clambake. You can read about that here.

And on Saturday to the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden.

They have a new butterfly house.

Selling Uncle Luke a cup of coffee

And of course, there were numerous trips to town.

One of the problems is the grownups want to make sure to go to all their favorite places and eat all their favorite foods and then they talk and talk.

But when your cousin works at the candy store, sometimes patience is rewarded.

But somehow we always end up back on the porch.

I hope you had a marvelous Fourth, too.

Posted in Barb's Posts | 12 Comments

For Freedom Alone: A Story of the Scottish Highland Clearances

Lea Wait, here. If you were told you only had a limited amount of time get your life in order, what would you do?

One thing I’ve decided to do is publish two books that readers, librarians and teachers have asked for, but that, for an assortment of reasons, have not been published before this. One of these (available soon, but not this week) is an historical set in 1848 Scotland.

Why did I write it? Because although today between nine and twenty million Americans claim Scottish descent, a surprisingly small number of them know the combination of circumstances that led their  ancestors to leave their homelands in the Highlands of Scotland. FOR FREEDOM ALONE is the story of one such family. Here’s where title comes from:

“It is not for glory we fight, for riches or for honours, but for freedom alone, which no good man loses but with his life.” — Declaration of Arbroath, 1324. A  Letter from lords and bishops of Scotland to Pope John XXI, insisting on recognition of Scotland’s independence and on the sovereignty of their king, Robert I

And here’s the prequel. It sets that stage for one family’s struggle to survive in the slums of an Edinburgh full of displaced Highlanders, those escaping the Irish potato famines, and others whose skills are no longer necessary because of the industrial revolution.

“Faither, tell us again. Tell us about mother and how brave she was.” Every night after the sun had set Faither told Meggie, Rab and Kirstie a tale. His stories were of Scotland’s proud history, or of Faither’s own life, or legends whose origin no one knew, and whose truth no one could vouch for. But this story was Rab’s favorite, because it was true, and it was about his own mother.

Faither lifted three-year-old Kirstie onto his knee, and began. “It was the spring of 1843. Green sprouts of heather were pushing their way up between the rocks on the steep hills overlooking the glen through which our Calvie River ran, clear and fine. The men were in the hills looking after the few Highland cattle that were yet ours, but the women were to home when a lad from a neighboring glen brought word Sheriff Taylor was coming to order us all to leave our lands.

“Lands we Rosses had farmed fer more than five hundred long years. Land we paid rent fer every month, as the laws said, to an Englishman, Major Charles Robertson, himself stationed with his regiment in Australia.” Faither looked at each of his three children proudly as he added. “Yer two grandfaithers served in the British Army. My own dear faither died in service in India, and your mother’s faither was in the Royal Regiment.”

“We know, Faither,” said Rab, leaning in. “Tell the part about Mother.”

“We’d feared it would happen. English called us savages. They wanted us gone from our cottages so they could fill Highland hills and glens with fancy Cheviot sheep, and with red deer fer English gentlemen to hunt. So when word came, the women of Glencalvie, one or more from each of its eighteen families, went to meet Sheriff Taylor. Yer mother, the brave Kirsten, my own dear wife, was one of those women, despite being heavy with you, Kirstie.”

“I was with them, too, Faither,” put in Meggie, as she always did when he got to this part of the story. “I was twelve, and I went with the women. Mother said I’d see what the world was truly like. I saw it all.”

“Indeed ye did, lassie; indeed ye did. Ye all walked the path toward the east end of the valley; a path so steep cattle sometimes stumbled along it. And ye women confronted Sheriff Taylor and three of his men just beyond the boundary of Glencalvie.

“`Ye shall not enter our valley,’ said yer mother, firmly and truly. And despite the men’s strength, our brave women held them back and forced up the hand that held the eviction notice. Young Mary Mathieson, not much older than ye are now, Meggie, set fire to that notice with a live coal she’d carried up from the valley in a leather pouch. And once the papers were burned and the men let go the women turned and headed down the slope to their homes. Until one of those cowardly men looked after them and fired a gun, and Mary Mathieson fell to the ground, shot in the ba

Meggie nodded, remembering, as Faither reached over and touched her arm under the heavy red and green plaid tartan she’d wrapped around herself. He looked at Rab and then down at Kirstie, in his lap. “Meggie and yer mother helped carry Mary to her home to die, a heroine of Glencalvie, and then returned to our own cottage, where yer mother gave birth to you that very night, my dear little Kirstie.”

Kirstie hugged Faither and he buried his face in her tangled brown curls.

“And then mother died,” ended Meggie. “And we lived one year more in Glencalvie before the English came again. In 1844 there were more of them, and they were fiercer. They burned our homes and drove us out of Glencalvie forever.”

“They did,” Faither said grimly. “And since then these many months we have been traveling to find a place that will welcome us.”

“A place where we will be free to have a home,” said Meggie.

“And jobs,” said Faither.

“And food,” said Rab, thinking of his stomach, which had been empty so long.

“Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland,” said Faither. “We are Scots. We are going to Edinburgh.”

For more about FOR FREEDOM ALONE, stay tuned!

 

 

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Everything’s a Threat If You Look at it Right

First off, many many thanks to MWPA for selecting In Solo Time as winner of the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction for 2018.

I’m both honored and humbled, knowing the caliber of the writers we have here in Maine.

Second, a reminder of two bookish events in July. The fourteenth annual Books in Boothbay takes place on July 14 from 9 AM to 1 PM at the Boothbay Railway Museum, where you can meet more than 35 of Maine’s best writers of all kinds. Admission is free—love to see you there.

And this year for the first time, I will be taking part in the Beyond the Sea Book Festival in Lincolnville Beach on July 21, 10:30 AM to 3:30 PM, just up the road from Camden. Check out the list for many familiar names.

And thus, to this month’s musing:

Taking a long walk along the harbor out to Bug Light on a hot Sunday morning and Anne and I walk past a backyard with a tall yellow sign with the legend Crude Oil Pipeline Runs Through Here.

“Not growing any tomatoes in there,” I say as we power-walk past.

“Why not?” my good wife asks politely, used to my spiraling flights of fancy.

“Pipelines? Oil? I suppose unless you wanted to grow tiki torch tomatoes.”

“It’s not going to bother your hypothetical tomatoes. The oil is inside the pipe.”

“Exxon Valdez? Keystone XL. Pipeline bursts in the Dakotas? Environmental disasters? The seepage would poison the soil. You couldn’t grow anything healthy.”

“You are such a negative person.”

Thus endeth that conversation.

But later, holding tight to my sweating can of Veridian and half-watching a Red Sox blowout of the hapless Nats, I ponder her accusation in the context of how I spend most of my time, putting characters in ugly and criminal situations, and decide that, no, it’s not negativity but a firm understanding of the threat in every little thing.

Because that’s what we crime writers need, isn’t it? When we settle down to tell our stories of people and worlds devastated by illegal and immoral activities, then try to set those worlds right? In pursuit of keeping our readers engaged, we turn every possible thing into a threat, an opposition for our characters to overcome.

I’m reminded of a throwaway paragraph in an Annie Proulx story about how the farmer used to mix arsenic and corn in a pan to keep the raccoons out of his garden and his wife didn’t wash out the roaster before cooking the Christmas turkey. And what happened after.

Some threats may be overt and some may not, but often we have to find the most surprising threat in something fairly innocent-looking, just to hold our readers’ interest. We want you to say “I never thought of that.”

For if we didn’t see the possible threats in everyday situations, how could we, dear reader, scare the pants off you? And if we couldn’t scare you, how on earth would we keep you tied up long enough to tell our story, then put the world back together when we’re done? So in a sense? It’s on you.

Because if the pipeline doesn’t crack, then the tomatoes wouldn’t grow full of carcinogens, and the gift of summer produce to the neighbor with the noisy Chihuahua wouldn’t kill him (the neighbor or the vegetable-loving dog?) undetectably. And what fun would that be?

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