Settings: Fictional vs. Reality

My very first contest win was with an historical entitled Southern Belle, a post-Civil War story set in the fictional town of Belle Terre, Louisiana. This was before they told me post-Civil War stories didn’t sell, but not before I imagined an epic love story spanning the decades. Some of you might recognize Belle Terre as the setting for my new release, Sex and Insensibility.

Belle Terre was easy for me to create. It’s based on my Louisiana hometown, though I’ve taken liberties with some aspects of the geography and history. I also didn’t want to be restricted by the pesky facts that can limit the possibilities or anger readers when you don’t get it exactly right.

But how far can you take it? I figure if Hollywood can make Abe Lincoln a vampire-hunter, then pretty much anything goes. Magic schools, dragons, time travel, matriarchy rule, an honest president. Let’s say however you want to stay truer to history. You can’t have the Normans invading England in 1492. Of course, in your version of history, maybe you can.

The rule of thumb I use? Feasibility. If it’s possible in a logical way for my story, then I will do it. If you’re using historical figures, then the feasibility test is a little more important. You can’t have Abe Lincoln giving a speech 2 years after the Civil War ended, or have him hunting in Texas the day he gives the Gettysburg Address. But if history shows he’s in Virginia, you can reasonably have him run into your characters while traveling around Roanoke.

Unless they’re reading an autobiography, readers are prepared to suspend reality. But even that has its limits. You can’t ignore the laws of physics without the right set up but once you set the rules for your universe, be sure and follow them.

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Characters to Love

Would you still love the books you love if the characters developed differently? Would Harry Potter be just as great if Hermione was focused on fashion rather than magic and studying? Would Silence of the Lambs be as disturbing if Hannibal Lecter merely killed his victims rather than served them up with some fava beans and a nice Chianti? Would Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer, one of the romances on my keeper shelf, be as engaging if the two protagonists weren’t both wounded outsiders? Would we revel as much in their happily ever-after-ending?

No.

Why?

To me, it’s because they are the story, the reason we’re reading. The plot – that thing we, as writers, work so hard to keep moving forward – is what happens around them, to them, but they are what make us care, or what gets us up at night to check the locks on the doors and windows for the third time.

Readers connect with the characters. The plot may intrigue, the setting may inspire, the dialogue may make us laugh, the sex scenes may make us….well…let’s skip that part. Characters are why we turn the page. Readers want them to succeed or fail, grow or perish, reach the brass ring or fall into the fiery pit. And it’s their journey that readers crave.

Few character types intrigue me more than the bad boy or bad girl. Rebels without a pause button. Outsiders who don’t look in. We see in them the chances we never took, the road not taken or the road abandoned. They have been knocked around, perhaps, but not knocked out. They fight back by standing apart from the norm.

The bad boy/girl appeals to the part of us that wants to defy expectations. Because let’s face it, most of us do what’s expected. School. Job. Marriage. Children. Saving for retirement. We are the epitome of responsibility. The bad boy/girl challenges the expectation. They are usually ostracized for it and our bad boy/girl responds with strength and conviction to their own expectations rather than those of others. And whether or not they want it for themselves, readers want acceptance for them, even if it’s only with their soulmate. We want others to see how wonderful and special they are, even if they are “bad.”

The wounded soul. Will Parker and Eleanor Dinsmore of Morning Glory are two of my favorite fictional characters. Eleanor and Will are wounded on a deep level. When you learn their stories you can’t imagine anyone giving people – much less love – another chance. Desolate souls adrift without a compass or an oar, and there’s a hole in the boat. No, two holes. And sharks. They are so beat down by life they’d have to look up to see rock bottom. Theirs is a story of second chances, not just at love but at life. When the story opens, they are weakened by life experiences but don’t mistake me, they are not weak. They are strong. They just don’t know it. Every victory they take, every step, every newfound piece of confidence is Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas morning and New Year’s Eve rolled into one glittery package. While you want them to succeed, success is not the prize. For the wounded soul, the prize is a rediscovery of their self-worth. I don’t think Morning Glory would have worked if both characters had not been as wounded as the other. Their journeys complemented each other. They could cajole and tempt and even fight with each other because they had walked a similar path. They knew the risk to the heart and soul and they’re willing to take it for each other.

While the first two character types can apply to men and women equally, I think the next two are fairly exclusive to one gender, at least in fiction. There are always exceptions, and good ones at that, but for the most part, you’ll find these two stick are respective to a particular gender.

The alpha male characters are massively popular with romance readers. Navy Seal. High-powered exec. Fire fighter. Uber rich guys with six pack abs, a limitless American Express card and a private jet. They tend to be male because the vast majority of romance readers are female. For me, the alpha male appeals to that part of me I don’t talk about, the part that wants to be taken care of.

It’s not that I can’t take care of myself. I’m independent and self-sufficient and all those things Gloria Steinem and Gioia Gottini tell me I should be. But sometimes it’s just nice to give up the reins and let someone else drive. It’s tiresome to always be “on” and finding an honest, sexy, funny strong man to take that off the shoulders now and then is appealing. The alpha male’s take charge attitude and endless sex appeal make us feel soft and feminine. Like with Will and Eleanor, don’t mistake wanting that for weakness. I’m not promoting a cave-man mentality. These guys know the special qualities that make us strong also make us desirable. We appeal to them as much as they appeal to us. What’s not sexy about that?

For my female character, I love to take her and put her totally out of her element. Not just a fish out of water, but a genetically modified, one-finned speckled grouper in an alternate dimension of space and time who’s running out of oxygen (or water, she’s a fish after all) while the aliens converge on her spaceship.

I know this type is not isolated to women but because our audience is primarily women I find the appeal ignites the survival instinct in us. It’s more than an underdog with potential.  It’s “give me your worst and watch me overcome it.” (ROAR!!) We want to know we can tap into a hidden reserve or go all McGyver on a problem and if (when) we hit rock-bottom, we will pull ourselves up.

The great thing about the FOOW is she appeals to both alpha and beta males. Alpha males see her personality as a strong complement to their own. Beta males – more reserved and intellectual – love watching her solve the puzzles of life.

Regardless of the arc type, the arc is what is important. That progression to a new and better self. Much better writers than myself have given us the journeys that go along with this progression so I won’t go into that. But I see the journey as an inverted rainbow: start high, dip low, struggle and rise to the top again. And whether the pot of gold at the end of the upside down rainbow is love, magical supremacy or not being eaten by the monster, the character is the reason we go on the journey. They take us with them because we want to go. We are invested in their story with each page and the payout at the end makes it worth it.

Maggie Preston writes emotionally packed stories of second chances, with things that usually blow up along the way. Her first book, Sex and Insensibility, was released in June. Visit her at authormaggiepreston.com or follow her on Twitter @maggie_preston.

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Don’t roll your eyes at me!

I went to a liberal arts college, a place that’s supposedly deeply connected to the humanities. In my freshman lit class, we read Beowulf and were asked to re-write the story as part of a final exam. Imagine that! The professor (aka the evil professor) then encouraged me to take a creative writing class he offered and of course I jumped at the idea. But day one of class, he learned I wrote romance, did the eye roll we’ve all likely experienced and told me I was wasting my time. No one in the class read, or admitted to reading, romance. I got very little help in my writing other than to know I should keep this a secret. So I did.

Years later I was taking another class on writing and met evil professor’s evil twin, who looked upon romance writers with disdain and eye rolls.  However, I did meet a fellow romance writer who introduced me the local RWA chapter. Here I learned about critique groups, an interesting concept for someone who’d actively hidden the fact that I wrote romance (imagine appropriate eye roll here) and had not let anyone read my work since college.

But into the fray, as they say. I found a critique group and one very patient, very kind mentor. Now, this was before the advent of online collaboration and emailing documents so everything was done via hard copy. The first set of pages I got back was covered in purple as we were not allowed to use red ink because it looked like the pages were “bleeding.” I learned the phrase “purple prose monster” and was introduced to topics like POV and voice.

I learned a tremendous amount about the craft of writing from my CPs. I also learned how to be a valuable critique partner. Here are my take-aways on a good CP relationship:

  • Find a critique partner at a similar point in the road to publication. Being a good CP means being able to share your knowledge, struggle, success, etc. with your partner and the best way to do that is working with someone who shares similar knowledge, struggles, and successes. It doesn’t mean you have to be in the exact same place, or even write the same genre. When the two CPs are at vastly differently places, however, one can always feel like the teacher which means they aren’t learning as much. And if one always feels like the student, they can start to feel like they aren’t contributing valuable suggestions. Critiquing must be a give-and-take.
  • Don’t just tell them the story is wonderful. Everyone wants to know what they do well so tell them often, and highlight it in big, bold colors. Include smiley faces if the mood strikes. But in truth, we go into a critique situation to learn what we can improve. They’re not called Happy Partners, after all. What doesn’t resonate with you as a reader? What reads awkwardly? Where does the story fail to connect the dots or jumps the shark? My favorite question is “why does the character do this action” if the motivation is not clear. These are things a new set of eyes can give a writer, so give it. Give it kindly, of course. Diplomacy is never wasted, IMO.
  • You can’t teach someone everything there is to know about a particular craft topic, so don’t try. Give a general idea about what you think needs to be improved. Show them an example in the text on what you mean, explain your thoughts about why it doesn’t work, and maybe point out other examples without going into elaborate detail. You don’t need to point out every incident of this particular foible. The writer has to learn to spot these things on their own, after all. Then suggest places to find more information. A book or article or class. As a CP, you’ve done your job. Now let the writer do their job.
  • Not every suggestion has to be incorporated into the work. This was the hardest for me personally. Anytime I got back a critique from a contest or a CP I did everything they suggested. Soon I didn’t recognize the story as mine. And when a fellow CP didn’t take my advice, I wondered if I was wasting my time. How could they not listen to such sage words of wisdom? Ahhh….see the comment about not recognizing the story as mine. It’s not an insult to ignore or be ignored about a piece of advice. Advice is subjective. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be considered. If multiple people give you the same advice, maybe it should be taken more seriously. Take what works for you and your story.
  • Let your CP relationship grow and change. As you get to know the other people in your CP circle, your relationship with them will evolve. Sometimes that means it will go extinct. Hopefully it means what you give and get – knowledge, encouragement, inspiration – will broaden over time. It takes work to maintain any relationship and a CP connection is no different. Even when a CP relationship fails, knowing why means you hopefully won’t make that same mistake again. Communication is key.

I’m sure I could add another few points to ponder and if you talked to other people they would have a different take on the CP relationship. The bottom line is find someone who complements your strengths and weaknesses and can be honest and supportive.

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Planning for Success

I’m a touch anal retentive. I like rules. In fact, it’s how I make my living. I like knowing what’s going to happen so I plan things out, even for contingencies that won’t likely happen. I’m very well prepared for the zombie apocalypse, btw. But by planning, I take away some of the fear and uncertainty that surrounds a new adventure and I’m able to focus on what’s important. Whether that new adventure is moving to Korea (which I did in June 2015) or publishing my first book (also June 2015), you can bet there’s a schedule and a list of things to do.

As my first book’s publication loomed on the horizon, what’s important became promotion. Publishers these days do very little for new authors, so it’s up to us to get our name out there, build a brand, get readers to first notice us in a sea of new names and new books, then to get them to click on the buy links. It doesn’t do me any good to publish a book if no one is buy it. I quickly learned that if writing is a full time job, promotion is another full time job.

Part of the danger with surfing the web for reviewers or playing on Twitter to generate interest, is getting off track. We all know that the internet is a pit of quick sand of time. And that can eat into the precious hours we have to write. I still work full-time, so my writing time is doubly precious. So time is a major component in determining your schedule. Determine how much you have – whether by the day or by the week. The next thing you have to do is set your goal or goals and the time frame for them. I had two goals with my schedule. One, maximize my daily writing time. Second, promote.

The first goal is pretty self-explanatory. With my second goal, I had two sub-goals. I wanted people to buy my book, obviously, but I also wanted to generate a following. That not only could lead to sales, but it would make my blog a destination for writers. I write under multiple names so getting people to the website was a way to make the most of every promotion opportunity. Once I could show a steady stream of visitors, I could connect to more and bigger authors for spotlight interview, thus connecting with a broader audience. I was trying to snowball everything because again, time was not plentiful.

Now you build you schedule with these goals in mind. I knew social media was the way to go but there’s so much out there. I started spending 3-4 hours a night just trying to keep up with email, Twitter, the blog, Goodreads, Facebook, review requests, yahoo groups…it became endless. Plus I wasn’t writing as much as I wanted, if at all. I picked three areas of focus: contact (email), promotion (Facebook, Twitter and my web blog) and writing. It was all I could handle. In June, my second month on my schedule, my website data tells me I had 2500 visitors. I don’t know how accurate it is, but it feels good to see that number get bigger each month. I’ve also done a Twitter campaign and a Facebook push through a social media company.

Once you’ve established your time parameter and set your goal, the rest is just fill in the blanks. Building the schedule involves picking a tool – a spreadsheet or a calendar – to help you manage your time and your plan. You can see mine on my website at www.awritershouse.com/craft. I picked a calendar template from Excel. It’s easy to update. I can make notes on it to keep me on track or when things change. I even schedule nights off from the whole job of writing. I printed six months’ worth and keep it by my computer.

Voila. You have a schedule. Making the schedule, however, is the easy part. Sticking to it is another matter. Like with any big challenges – exercise, diet, changing the course of history – start small and slow.

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Characters+Conflict = Plot

When I think of writing, I think of a recipe. I know some writers are loathe to think of a formula for a book, but for me – scientist, plotter, chart maker extraordinaire – I hope that by following even a basic recipe I will produce a good product. The recipe is pretty simple: Characters + Conflict + Romance = Sparkle. But there’s enough pantser in me, and enough of my paternal grandmother who never met a recipe she couldn’t improve with a little improvisation, that I also know a recipe is just a place to begin.

To overcome the anal side of my character and bring her to terms with the creative side, I write in layers. It’s like mixing my wet ingredients and my dry ingredients in separate bowls then combining judiciously until smooth.

The Dry Ingredients

The dry ingredients are things that are not going to change significantly in the story, or at least not according to my well-laid-out-but-always-up-for-negotiation inner voice. “This is a romantic suspense about a skeptical cop and a disgraced psychic investigating a murder.” The dry ingredients are your high level plot points and for me, are things I know in advance of writing the first word.

I know my characters first, and their basic GMC. Something new I’m working on is called Lessons Learned (coming soon to a blog near you). It’s not just the details of their GMC, but what they need to learn in order to move from their beginning GMC to the ending GMC where they each find a HEA ending. This helps me guide later layers in building the arc of the story and the characters.

From there I start with the rough draft, typing furiously as long as the muse allows and carve out the basic actions needed to get my story going. I’m not worried about eye color or what kind of car they drive, whose POV I’m in or even if something is logical in their world. I can figure out that stuff later. This is bare bones, Point A to Point B. Of course, there are sprinkles of the other layers in here. It can’t be helped and when inspiration hits, I won’t push it aside but what I want to avoid is being lost in the detail.

I tend to be a narrative heavy writer, so I then go in and covert narrative to dialogue where possible. This is especially good for those long passages of backstory, where I can make them active rather than passive.

The Wet Ingredients

Now that I have the dry ingredients measured and sifted, I move on to the wet. I call these the wet ingredients because to me they are more fluid. As much as I want to tell you that I know everything that happens in a book before I put the words on the paper, I think you know me well enough to know that’s a joke. Because even a well-planned book can change, I use these wet ingredients to fine tune the story and characters as needed. If my character started off the book wanting to redeem her reputation but figures out she’d rather be useful even if the world doesn’t know it, I can tweak the story where needed so it’s a logical progression.

One of the toughest things for me to do as a writer is delete words. ACK! These are my babies! I’ve poked my fingers with daggers to bleed each word! But alas, the dreaded backstory purge is a necessary evil. Even though one of my earlier layers involves converting narrative to dialogue, I still find I have long passages of backstory hiding throughout the book. So off it goes until I’m left with little golden nuggets of backstory. If I’ve done my job then my character’s backstory is explained through dialogue and action rather than narrative.

And now that I’ve deleted all sorts of words, I get to add again using the narrative to make sure the actions are supported by the internalization of my characters’ voices. This is the inner dialogue of my character but it can’t be long drawn out paragraphs. These are brief glimpses into the mind meant to drive home a point shown through dialogue and action.

Finally, all those little details I avoided in the rough draft? Here they come. I track body movements (especially important during sex scenes), character descriptions, secondary characters, sensory input, subtext, setting, POV, attitudes, mannerisms, etc. Anything that adds texture to the story.

My last layer, the final edit, is the smoothing out process. Everything should be mixed at this point but to check I will write down the highlights from each scene to include setting , GMC of the character and scene, conflict introduced or resolved and a what’s next summary. This let’s me know if the story tracks on paper as I think it does in my head.

I wish I were the advanced kind of writer that could do all of this simultaneously but I’m not (yet). Maybe I never will be and that’s ok. It’s the destination (completed story) not the journey.

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Spotlight on…Sara Dobie Bauer!

SaraDobieBauer (1)A Writer’s House is pleased to welcome Sara Dobie Bauer, a writer, model, and mental health advocate with a creative writing degree from Ohio University. Her short story, “Don’t Ball the Boss,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, inspired by her shameless crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. She lives with her hottie husband and two precious pups in Northeast Ohio, although she’d really like to live in a Tim Burton film. She is a member of RWA and author of the paranormal rom-com Bite Somebody, among other ridiculously entertaining things.

Welcome Sara! Tell us about your current release, Bite Somebody Else.

Bite Somebody Else is Book 2 in the Bite Somebody series.

Imogene helped her newbie vampire friend Celia hook up with an adorable human, but now Celia has dropped an atomic bomb of surprise: she has a possibly blood-sucking baby on the way. Imogene is not pleased, especially when a mysterious, ancient, and annoyingly gorgeous vampire historian shows up to monitor Celia’s unprecedented pregnancy.

Lord Nicholas Christopher Cuthbert III is everything Imogene hates: posh, mannerly, and totally uninterested in her. Plus, she thinks he’s hiding something. So what if he smells like a fresh garden and looks like a rich boarding school kid just begging to be debauched? Imogene has self-control. Or something.

As Celia’s pregnancy progresses at a freakishly fast pace, Imogene and Nicholas play an ever-escalating game of will they or won’t they, until his sexy maker shows up on Admiral Key, forcing Nicholas to reveal his true intentions toward Celia’s soon-to-arrive infant.

I love how you take the basis for your story and twist it. Was there a particular inspiration for your story?

Longboat Key, Florida. Every year, I make a pilgrimage to the weird, wacky area that is the Gulf Coast. A couple years back, I remember drinking a rum punch and thinking, “This would be a very silly place for vampires to live.” Obviously, I had to write a book about it. I’ve always loved vampires, ever since I discovered Anne Rice when I was a kid. My series is a bit different, though, because these vampires don’t take themselves seriously. They’re not mysterious, and they don’t glitter in the sun. They cuss a lot, swim in the ocean, and get into some ridiculous shenanigans … while falling in love, of course.

But of course! I have to say, you have one of the most interesting author photos I’ve ever seen! Have you always been…ah….different? What would your 12 year-old self think about where you are now?

Since I was a black-haired, Rocky Horror Picture Show-loving, goth kid, my 12-year-old self would probably be disappointed in how I haven’t changed at all. That said, she would be excited to be An Author Person, since I always dreamt of being a writer. She’d also be super excited about the hotness level of my husband.

Woo hoo!! Hot husbands are definitely a plus with being a grown up. I guess there are many perks of being a grown up. Your favorite quote seems to embrace that as well. Tell me about it. 

Robert Downey, Jr. once said, “Listen, smile, agree, and then do whatever the f*** you were gonna do anyway.” It’s so true for writing and for life. Sometimes, all the advice in the world doesn’t mean anything if it sends you down the wrong path. Take advice, but be conscious of who’s giving said advice. Sometimes, you just gotta go by your gut.

Trusting yourself. That’s good advice for any writer. Are there authors that help you remember that? What books sit on your keeper shelf?

Pretty much anything by Christopher Buehlman, Rainbow Rowell, CS Pacat, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I’m a sucker for vampire books. (Did I just make a joke?) Seriously, I love vampire books, and I’ve been on a huge M/M romance kick lately. Currently, author KJ Charles is my spirit animal.

Thank you for sharing a bit of yourself with us today, Sara. Your book is getting some great reviews. Look what others are saying.

“Raunchy and irreverent, BITE SOMEBODY ELSE is a vampire romp oozing with sexual tension and laugh-out-loud surprises.” – Beth Cato, author of the Clockwork Dagger series

“Funny, sexy, and whip-smart, BITE SOMEBODY ELSE is a hilarious ride through the trials of vampire romance and what it means to be your own hero … and still fall for the swoony British guy.” – The Novel Novice

“In BITE SOMEBODY ELSE, Bauer concocts a devilish brew that’s one part What We Do In the Shadows and one part She’s Having a Baby. If you loved the charm and wit of Bite Somebody, its sequel is sure to intoxicate!” – E. Catherine Tobler, author of the Folley & Mallory series

“Chock full of unparalleled wit, the most unexpected and stupidly adorable love connection ever, and Imogene’s signature miniskirts, BITE SOMEBODY ELSE will have you laughing from cover to cover!” – Tiffany Michelle Brown, author of Give It Back

Now let’s get on to the real reason our readers are joining us. Read on for an exciting excerpt from Sara’s newest release. Available now. Links below the excerpt.

BiteSomebodyElse_final (1)

 

Excerpt

Then, behind her, the scuff of a shoe on tile caught her attention. Imogene turned in time to see a shadow disappear down another hall. Jesus, was the place a maze? She raced around the corner and ran smack into Nicholas’s chest.

She took a big breath of shocked air and her eyes vibrated in her head, because with that breath, she took a deep breath of him. For a guy who had no scent a couple days before, he now vibrated with mouth-watering echoes of fresh-picked basil, black pepper, and maybe a touch of peppermint. She latched onto the lapels of his suit and shoved her nose against his neck, which made him tense and try to step away. She held on and took steps with him.

“What is that?”

He shoved at her hands. “Miss… Imogene. I must ask you to desist.”

She opened her mouth and slopped an oval of saliva onto his neck. “Why do you smell like this?” she muttered against his skin.

He wrestled her hands off his suit and held her at arm’s length. “It’s the way I smell after I’ve fed.”

She kept trying to claw for more, but his hands around her wrists were like stone. “But you didn’t smell like anything at Celia’s house.” She stopped talking when she noticed her fangs were out. She was much too old to suffer premature efangulation.

“I hadn’t eaten in a few weeks.”

“A few weeks?”

“Age adds endurance.” He pushed her away with more force than was really necessary, but Imogene was well practiced in heels and didn’t falter. She did, however, casually cover her mouth. “Kindly never get that close to me again,” Nicholas said. He adjusted his suit.

His attitude made her fangs pop back into her head. She pointed her finger. “Don’t blame me. I didn’t know what I was walking into.” She spun around and strutted back into the main foyer. She flipped off the naked painting of Dr. Savage as she passed, the taste of Nicholas’s skin still haunting her mouth.

Thank you so much for being with us today at A Writer’s House, Sara. We’re really excited to have you share your latest release here and wish you all the best.

Be sure and visit Sara through her website or one of these links.

Facebook             Twitter             Instagram

Or see her book on World Weaver Press or  Amazon

 

 

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Initial attraction

In most romance stories, the first meeting sets the tone for the relationship. But many authors rely on looks to bring the hero and heroine together. The sexy way she looks in a dress or bikini. The way his tux fits his shoulders or jeans hug his butt. What are some other ways to pique the interest of another?

  1. At the stuffy cotillion or fundraiser with the upper crust of society, he’s the one wearing a big red rubber nose entertaining a toddler who is bored to tears.
  2. She knows the Klingon words for “bite me.”
  3. They meet at a tattoo parlor that specializes in covering up tattoos gone wrong.
  4. He can say the alphabet backwards.
  5. She can multiply any combination of numbers in her head.
  6. He meets her in the women’s department where she’s buying 7 of the same shirt in different colors.
  7. They meet on a honeymoon cruise as the only two singles mistakenly booked on the wrong ship.

 

What’s a unique way you bring your two characters together?

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