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Five Reasons to Attend Writing Conferences, Conventions and Festivals

If you’ve been reading my blog recently, you’ll know that I recently went to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. (I wrote about it here, here and here.) So it probably comes as no surprise that I think Festivals like these are a great investment for writers of all levels: from the beginner who has just decided they’d like to find out how to put a creative pen to paper for the first time through to the seasoned professional with a couple of books under their belt, and everyone in between.

So, with no ado whatsoever, I give you my top five reasons to attend.

1. I’m an Individual, Just Like You and You and You

Writers, and artists in general, aren’t like everyone else. We’ve often grown up being told we’re dreamers, or we’ve got our heads in the clouds, or we need to start living in the real world. We think differently. We look at the world differently.We overhear a conversation on the bus about two girls visiting their sick grandfather and our first thought isn’t “Oh, how sad…” it’s “I wonder which one of them is poisoning him for his money. Maybe she’s not even his real granddaughter. Maybe she’s a fairy or a shape-shifter or a demon and she’s taken the form of his granddaughter because he owns an old building that was built on top of a portal to another world and— damn it, where’s my notebook?”

Writing can feel very isolating. Not just physically (although being trapped in a room with a recalcitrant WIP is an exhausting prospect), but also mentally. It’s very easy to start to feel like we’re all alone in our difference. Self-doubt creeps on to our shoulders and whispers its heady sweet nothings in our ear: “You’ll never be a real writer. Your writing sucks. No one likes you. And your clothes are at least ten years out of date.”

And then you go to a writing event, and suddenly you’re not alone. You’re surrounded by tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people who go through all the same stuff that you do. Every day. It feels exciting and heady and like you’ve finally found a place where you can be yourself and say the weird things in your head out loud and everyone accepts everyone else. Because they’re just as odd as you are. And some of their clothes are at least twenty years out of date. Because who cares about clothes when you can sit down over a selection of food and drink and talk about the real issues. Like: Is the sick grandfather really as helpless as he appears? 

2. It’s Dark and We’re Wearing Sunglasses

If you’ve got a day job (or small children) in addition to your writing, it’s almost guaranteed that your writing comes second on a daily basis. If writing is your day job, it’s almost guaranteed that you’re so busy churning out the words, you don’t have a lot of time to sit back and think about the hows and the whys and the wherefores of what you’re doing on a daily basis. But sometimes, that’s what you really need.

When you’re at a festival, you have the opportunity to put on your blinkers, lower the shades, and concentrate one hundred percent on the art, craft and business of writing. You don’t have to keep stopping and starting so you can prepare meals. You don’t need to limit yourself to an hour a day so you can maintain a relationship. You don’t have to focus on your daily word count or your deadline. You have permission to sit back, take a deep breath, and fully immerse yourself in the joy of writing. And isn’t that worth the price of admission alone?

3. Old News in a New Way

I’m going to be honest — I rarely learn anything entirely new at the BWF. That’s probably true for most people once they reach a certain level of understanding and knowledge of the craft. I’ve read enough “how to write” books and blogs to know the terminology and the current trends. I’ve read enough fiction to understand the way narrative flows, and what does and doesn’t work. I’ve written enough stories to recognise my own writing style and be comfortable in expressing my thoughts with squiggles on a page. I don’t go looking for brand new information — I go looking for old information expressed in a new way.

An example of that would be my sudden epiphany about Inciting Incidents last week. I’ve read about Inciting Incidents over and over and over (and, possibly, over). The fact that you need one as close to the beginning of a story as possible is not new. But hearing the same information delivered by a new person, in a new environment, with different words, at the right time… BANG! Instant epiphany about my WIP.  

And until you get there, you don’t know what old news is going to hit you in a new way and totally change the way you think about your writing.

4. Answer Me These Questions Three

In one of my posts about the recent Festival, I said:

Even if I did type out all 3000 words (roughly) of my notes, it still wouldn’t be” everything”. If it worked that way, we’d all just buy the book of the workshop rather than attend workshops at all. It’s as much the interaction between the participants and the teacher that makes a workshop great as it is the information presented.

One of the things you don’t get when you’re reading a book or blog about the craft of writing, is the chance to ask questions. Not just the “what does that mean” type questions (which, let’s face it, you can probably ask Google) but the “how does this apply to me” type questions.  In a class or workshop, you can ask questions. You can ask about using modern slang in YA (try to avoid it), or about changing from past to present tense in the middle of the book (make sure there’s a good reason), or about how much bad language is too much (depends on your genre/market). You can ask for clarification or examples. You can interact — not just with the presenter, but also with the other participants. And you’d be amazed what you can learn.

5. It’s Not What You Know…

We all know the old quip. And we also all know that there’s a certain amount of truth in it. A writing festival, convention, conference, etc is a great place to connect with people at your own level as well as meet people more advanced in their careers. Plus, of course, there are plenty of stories of people meeting their agents, publishers, editors, etc at writing events. So take your business cards, talk to the people sitting next to you if you’re too shy to approach random strangers, and give yourself the opportunity to meet like-minded people.

Have you been to a Writing Event? Did you enjoy it? What reasons did I miss?

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BWF: Building Castles in the Air

Last weekend I was thrilled to attend the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. I attended four workshops over three days, talked to established authors, beginning writers and everyone in between,  and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to immerse myself fully in the art and craft of writing.

The second workshop I attended was Building Castles in the Air with Kate Forsyth. The write-up on the BWF page talked about “creating believable worlds” and the like, and my understanding was that this would be a world about… well, creating believable worlds. World-Building, if you like. As it turns out, that wasn’t the focus at all. The focus was on the broader topic of Writing Fantasy. But I’m not complaining — the actual session was even more amazing than I expected.

Here are my Top 3 take-aways.

1. What do you need to ADD?

In a very broad sense, a story can be broken down to three elements, each with a distinct purpose.

  • ACTION is the engine that drives the plot.
  • DESCRIPTION conjures the world.
  • DIALOGUE adds sparkle, wit and personality.

Kate’s advice was for every page of the story to have at least some of each element. Without action, a scene doesn’t drive the plot forward. Without description, you end up with “talking heads” in nowheresville. And without dialogue, you have no character to your story. So if something doesn’t seem to be working, look over each page and see if there’s anything you need to ADD.

2. What role do your characters play?

Every story has a cast of characters. You can’t even have a story without at least two characters. (Keeping in mind that a “character” doesn’t necessarily need to be human.) While you don’t need to have a character fulfill every potential role, I found it incredibly useful to think about which role my minor characters play and how I can use them to their full potential within that role. Perhaps you will, too.

Potential Cast of Characters:

  • Hero: The protagonist; the most important person in the story.
  • Villain: The antagonist; the second most important person in the story.
  • Sidekick: Often acts as a foil to the hero; may sacrifice himself for the hero.
  • Mentor
  • Friends & Allies
  • Enemies & Cohorts
  • Complication: Someone with no malicious intent who inadvertently makes things harder on the hero.
  • Animal Friend: A “lesser being” who offers unconditional comfort; may sacrifice himself for the hero.
  • Secret Friend: Someone you suspect of working against the hero, who is secretly a friend.
  • Hidden Enemy: Someone you think is a friend, who is secretly working against the hero.

3. What’s your ideal pace?

Amongst all the other great information, Kate talked briefly about pacing. One of the tricks to effectively control the story’s pacing is sentence length.

A full stop (aka: a period, for all you North Americans) = a breath. Back in the early years of learning to read, that’s what we were taught. When you see a full stop/period, you pause in your reading and take a breath. It’s such an ingrained part of our reading that we instinctively do it, even when we’re not reading out loud.

And that is why we’re told to use short sentences during dramatic and action-packed times in our story. Lots of short sentences means lots of full stops. Lots of full stops means faster breathing. Faster breathing means a faster heart rate. Simply by changing the sentence structure, it’s possible to make the reader feel like they’re in a dangerous or high-risk situation.

Alternately, of course, lots of long, slow sentences will slow the reader’s breathing rate and heart rate and lull them into a sense of peace and comfort. 

About Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth is the author of 25 books for children, young adults and adults, most of them either Fantasy or Historical Fiction. Her books have been sold in 13 different countries around the world, including the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Russia, Japan and Italy, and regularly feature in the fantasy bestselling lists. She is best known for her Witches of Eileanan books, The Gypsy Crown series for children and her time travel adventure, The Puzzle Ring. Her most recent novel for adults is Bitter Greens, a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, interwoven with the dramatic, true life story of the woman who first told the tale, 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force.

In real life, Kate is was funny, down-to-earth, pragmatic, and as genuine as it’s possible to get. If you ever have the chance to take a class or workshop with Kate, I urge you to do so. You won’t regret it.

Did you already know these things? Or are they are interesting to you as they are to me?

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BWF: The Unpredictable Plotter

Last weekend I was thrilled to attend the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. I attended four workshops over three days, talked to established authors, beginning writers and everyone in between,  and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to immerse myself fully in the art and craft of writing.

The first workshop I attended was The Unpredictable Plotter with Toni Jordan. This workshop was definitely a highlight of the Festival for me. I’d been a little concerned that a six hour workshop would drag, but I needn’t have worried. Toni was engaging, enthusiastic, and interesting throughout the session. By the time it finished, I was ready to sign on for another six hours.

I’d love to share everything I learned from Toni during those six hours. I really, really would. But sadly that’s impossible. Because even if I did type out all 3000 words (roughly) of my notes, it still wouldn’t be” everything”. If it worked that way, we’d all just buy the book of the workshop rather than attend workshops at all. It’s as much the interaction between the participants and the teacher that makes a workshop great as it is the information presented.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to share anything. Here are my Top 5 learnings from Toni Jordan’s The Unpredictable Plotter.

1. Everybody Plots

I’ve talked before and Plotters and Pantsers. If you’re not sure what the difference is, it’s fairly simple. A Plotter is someone who plots the entirety of their novel before they start writing their manuscript. A Pantser is someone who prefers to write by the seat of their pants and see where the story and the characters take them.

The question I’ve always had is: So, how does a Pantser (like me) make sure to hit all the important parts of a plot? And Toni had an answer. One that is simple and elegant.

Everybody plots. The difference is not in the process, but in the timing.

  • Plotters do their plotting first, and have limited rewrites after their first draft is done.
  • Pantsers write their first draft, and then do their plotting and rearrange/change the draft as necessary. (This means they may need more rewrites, and will need to develop the ability to be honest and objective about their own work.)

2. Conflict Makes Interesting Characters

When we started talking about characters, Toni said something that really resonated with me:

The biggest problem people face with designing a plot is that they’ve got a protagonist that’s so boring you can’t make anything interesting happen to them.

We’ve all heard a million times that conflict makes interesting stories, but this is the first time that I’ve ever really considered that conflict is also what makes interesting characters. And not just a superficial conflict, either. The greatest protagonists have three levels of conflict:

  • Internal Conflict
  • Interpersonal Conflict
  • Physical Conflict

While the options for each of these are endless, you’ll often find that they conform to a number of styles of conflict. These include, but aren’t limted to:

  • Internal Conflict: Self-doubt, Feelings of inferiority, Fear, Guilt, etc.
  • Interpersonal Conflict: Sidekick, Friends, Family members, Romantic interest, etc.
  • Physical Conflict: Villains and enemies, Nature, Disease, Social Custom, Weather, etc.

3. The Pebble That Starts the Avalanche

Anyone who has read a book on the craft of writing will understand what is meant by the term ‘Inciting Incident’. The Inciting Incident is usually described as the dynamic event that starts the story rolling. For example: In crime fiction, the Inciting Incident is often the moment where the body is discovered — without that event, the story wouldn’t take place. We’re always told to put the Inciting Incident as close to the beginning of the story as possible and Toni actually expressed this in a way that finally (finally!) made sense to me:

The Inciting Incident should be as close to the beginning of the story as possible, where the reader has enough information to understand it.

The other point that really struck me is that the Inciting Incident doesn’t need to be a dramatic event. It doesn’t even need to be something that stands out. The Inciting Incident is simply the pebble that starts the avalanche. It is the first thing that happens to start the story, after which point there is no backing out. And that first pebble may be much more subtle than you’d expect.

4. Mirror, Mirror

Have you ever considered the relationship between the Inciting Incident and the story Climax? Yeah, me neither. At least, not until it was mentioned in this workshop. But if you take note in books and movies that resonate with you — those stories that feel complete and encapsulated — you’ll notice that there is a relationship.

One way to create that effect is to mirror an aspect of the Inciting Incident in the Climax. The aspect you choose will be unique to your story, but find something. Perhaps the same characters are present, or the scenes take place in the same location or the same time of day, or there’s a recurring symbol or item.

5. Being Unpredictable

The way to create an unputdownable novel is to make sure that one scene leads inexorably to the next, while simultaneously creating unexpected twists and turns. As an author, the first thing that occurs to you when you’re writing is probably going to be the first thing that occurs to the reader at the same point. So it’s a good idea to mix it up with something different.

Toni asked us to think of a particular scene in our WIP and then write a list of 20 different things that could happen in the very next scene. Admittedly, many of those 20 things were silly, but scattered amongst them were some really interesting ideas. I can definitely envision myself using this technique next time I’m stuck with what to do next.

About Toni Jordan:

Toni Jordan’s debut novel, Addition, was shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferies Award and longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009, and has been published in sixteen countries. It is currently being adapted for film. Her new novel, Nine Days, is an ambitious and triumphantly realised piece of historical fiction about family, sacrifice, and love. Set in the working class suburb of Richmond, Melbourne, one the eve of war in 1939, Toni has harnessed all the spiky wit, compassion and lust for life that drew readers in droves to Addition and Fall Girl.

In real life, Toni is warm, friendly, and a great teacher. I highly encourage you to sign up for one of her classes or workshops if you have the chance.

Have you ever done a workshop on plotting? Do these points resonate with you?

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Shhhh… Writing Ahead

The Brisbane Writer’s Festival, or the BWF as the cool kids call it, is Queensland’s annual literary event, celebrating Australian and international authors. It’s five days of panels, conversations, workshops, masterclasses, promotions, book signings, and other exciting book-related things. And it’s happening right now.

This year I’m fortunate enough to be able to attend three days of the Festival, encompassing four individual workshops/masterclasses. Choosing which ones to attend was a huge task, and one that I agonised over for days. And now that the time has finally come to attend, I’m incredibly happy with my choices. What are they? Well, since you asked…

  • Friday: The Unpredictably Plotter —  A look at crafting unpredictable but realistic plots, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser.
  • Saturday am: Building Castles in the Air — Worldbuilding 101.
  • Saturday pm: Are Characters People? — Creating effective and authentic characters.
  • Sunday: Finding Your Voice — A look at developing a unique voice in your writing.

I was at the BWF all day today, and came away feeling enthusiastic, inspired, and exhausted. I can’t wait for the next two days.

My current plan is to celebrate attending the BWF by making next week “Writing Week” on The Happy Logophile and writing in more detail about each of these workshops. I’ve already had a couple of great epiphanies about my WIP and would love to share some of my learnings with you all as well. What do you think?

Would you be interested in reading more detail about these workshops? Are there any other questions you’d like to ask about the BWF or my experiences there?

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BWF: Global Publishing Trends

Session: Australian Writer’s Marketplace Industry Masterclass – Part 2: Global Publishing Trends

Panelists: Melanie Ostell (Australian Publisher) and Christine Jordis (Senior Editor, Gallimard France)

This session seemed to drag a bit, and I’m not really sure what it was supposed to be about. Rather, I believe it was supposed to be about how global trends in publishing affects Australian publishing and authors in general. But really, it was two ladies talking about how to write a book that will sell.

Both Melanie and Christine were very interesting. They each had some good advice. But the session didn’t really touch on anything to do with global publishing trends.

Nonetheless, Christine Jordis had a very interesting perspective on what publishers are looking for, and how to provide it. (This is as close to a word-for-word quote as I could get with a notebook and pen, so my apologies if anyone reading was at the session and doesn’t think I got it exactly right.)

Publishers are looking for something different. We are looking for novelty; for something unique.

You need something new to offer. But often, the only thing that’s different is your voice. You are different to other writers. Always include yourself.

The best novelty in a book is you: the unique person you are. Don’t hesitate to be yourself.

But be yourself after ten drafts.

What great sentiments, don’t you think?

Overall, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy this session, but I also didn’t get a lot out of it. I would have loved to get a better idea of global trends and so forth, and was disappointed not to learn anything along those lines.

Rating: 3/5

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BWF: The Journey of the Book

Session: Australian Writer’s Marketplace Industry Masterclass – Part 1: The Journey of the Book

Panelists: Linda Jaivin (Author), Gaby Naher (Agent), and Shona Martyn (Publishing Director of Harper Collins Australia)

The idea of this session was to look at the process of producing and publishing a book from three viewpoints – how the author writes the book, how it gets to the agent and what she does with it, and then what happens from the publisher’s perspective. It was a fascinating session, and one of my favourite of the Festival.

The first thing that struck me when this session began was, in fact, not what was being said. Instead, it was the overall appearance of the panelists. I’m not someone who generally judges on appearance, so please don’t judge me in return. BUT… Let me describe the scene.

I’m in an auditorium looking at three ladies seated behind a long table. There are no name-cards to indicate who is sitting where, and introductions haven’t yet been made. I don’t know any of the three ladies by name or reputation, and although I’m sure I looked at pictures of them online when I booked the session, I certainly don’t remember who is who. But it takes me about 3.5 seconds to make an educated guess.

The panelist on the left is wearing a knee-length, black dress with stockings and sensible shoes. She’s wearing minimal jewelry (only her watch was obvious from a distance), and no ornamentation in her hair. Her make-up is subdued and professional, and her nails look neatly manicured.

The panelist in the centre is wearing a very stylish grey pant-suit with heels. She’s got a cream-coloured silk scarf around her neck, a long, eye-catching necklace, and a sophisticated hairstyle.

The panelist on the right has bright orange hair which is pinned on top of her head in a messy bun, flamboyant make-up, and dangly earrings. Every item of clothing she’s wearing is a different colour, including purple, orange, green, blue, and pink.

Not surprisingly, panelist #3 is our author, #2 is our agent, and #1 is our publisher. I found the fact that I picked this so easily interesting because I’d never really considered whether I needed to have a “look” as an author. If I’m asked to chair a panel one day (fingers crossed!), what am I supposed to wear? Should I have a style worked out in advance? If I don’t look particularly flamboyant, will people assume I’m a business-oriented publisher rather than a creative author?

What do you think? Is it something you’ve considered?

Moving on to the actual talking bit…

Linda Jaivin got the session started, talking about herself, her books, how she got into the business of writing for a living, and so on. And I can honestly say that she was the most vibrant, enthusiastic and fascinating person I’ve ever heard speak. She was so full of life, I was fairly certain that extra bits were spilling on to the floor around her. (I hoped some would magically find its way to me, but that so far doesn’t seem to be the case.)

She told the story of how she read a book when she was a teenager, and had the sudden revelation that “books are more than just stories”. Words are magical things that can take you away from yourself, put you some place new, let you have an adventure and learn from it, and then take you home again. A novel is a gateway to something greater.

Linda hadn’t really considered being a writer initially. She went to work in a library because “she loved books”, and then decided to study Chinese history and Chinese language. Back then, China’s border were still closed and there was absolutely no point in studying about a closed country. So, why did she pick those subjects? “It was just one of those crazy things you do because it’s really interesting,” she said.

She wound up working in Taiwan, writing book reviews for a newspaper through a series of really unlikely events that could only happen in real life, because no-one would believe them if it was fiction. And from there she started to write.

Her advice to new writers included:

  • There are a lot of places that teach creative writing. Don’t do it. Don’t study creative writing. You can learn how to write on your own. Go and study something real. Study something you’re interested in. You’ll have more to write about and, if you’re lucky, what you study can also get you a job to pay the bills while you’re writing.
  • You have to be serious about every aspect of your career. That includes the boring parts like keeping track of what you’ve spent on writing-related things for tax purposes.
  • It’s the spirit of play that keeps us going. Don’t do a job that eats your brain.

Gaby Naher was next up. She was really interesting, and I found myself falling in love with the idea of an agent all over again. She was passionate, articulate, and talked to and about Linda as a business partner. She clearly loved the creative side of writing, but was very practical and realistic when it came to talking about the business side.

“Anyone who works in the arts community is always wondering where their next paycheck is coming from,” she said, and she clearly meant it. She left a position as a successful editor at a publishing house to work as an agent, and took a pay cut in the process. But she loves the freedom, the flexibility, and the chance to spend time with authors.

Like many agents. her message about self-publishing and indy publishing was a simple “don’t believe all the hype about what they seem to say. It’s too early to tell what the future really holds.” But when talking about traditional publishing, she said, “It’s still no picnic.”

The final statement Gaby made was one that has stayed with me. She was asked about how she chooses the clients she’ll take on, seeing as she doesn’t get paid unless their book sells. Gaby talked briefly about needing to feel passionate about a project, and then said, “But it’s always a risk. I gamble for a living. That’s just what I do.”

Lastly, Shona Martyn, publishing director of Harper Collins, had her chance to talk. She talked about how, with limited budgets that publishers have these days, the marketing department often has a bigger say in whether a book will be published than the acquisitions team. If marketing doesn’t think they can sell the book, the publisher won’t offer a contract. Her point was that, from the moment a book is written to the moment it’s published, “It’s a long process of persuasion.”

In saying that, Shona made it clear that the books that really break out and make a lot of money are always the ones that no one expects. So don’t try to write for a market. Write something you really care about.

Shona’s parting words were also quite interesting from a business point of view, and something that I (and probably a lot of other authors) hadn’t really considered. She said, “If we give an opportunity to a book we don’t think will work, it means we’re turning down another book that might.”

Overall, this session was a fascinating insight into three different perspectives on the publishing industry, and a great introduction to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival.

Rated: 5/5

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BWF: An Overview of the Brisbane Writer’s Festival

The 2011 Brisbane Writer’s Festival was the first real writing event that I’d ever attended, and I really had no idea what to expect. I’d booked my tickets, highlighted a copy of the program, and studied the venue map, but none of that really prepares you for the atmosphere of a writing festival. Authors, publishers, writers, readers, agents, organisers, volunteers, venue staff, and confused people who’d stumbled in off the street mingled in the lobby and foyer of the Brisbane State Library and the Gallery of Modern Art. The makeshift bookshop was packed with people browsing, buying, and lining up to have their new books signed by their favourite authors.

I’d like to say the atmosphere was electric, but that doesn’t quite encapsulate the feeling of:

  • Standing in line for 40 minutes (with at least 30 other people) for a cup of coffee, and then being told that you’re not allowed to take coffee into the venue.
  • Initiating a conversation with a random person in line at the cafe, chatting for 15 minutes about your writing, and then discovering that she’s a publisher.
  • Coming face to face with one of your favourite authors, and then… not… knowing… what… to… say…
  • Exchanging contact information with all sorts of random people you’ve just met, so that you can “definitely keep in touch” after the shared excitement of having a writing epiphany.
  • Listening to authors read excerpts of their books, and being so amazed that they can keep it together and sound so calm in front of an audience of hundreds of people… and then wondering if other people will think the same about you one day.
  • Being amidst a whole sea of writers who understand and get it and really believe  and think it’s not only okay, but good to spend time dreaming, and writing, and believing in the art of storytelling.

The organisation of the festival was fantastic, especially considering the number of different rooms and venues being used for sessions, and the staff and volunteers were amazing. (Especially considering they were put through their paces on Saturday evening when the fire alarm went off. But more about that in another post.)

The one statement that really stays with me from the whole festival is something that Meg Vann, Manager of the Australian Writer’s Marketplace, said:

Writing is like a long, winding bus trip. No matter what else you do, the most important thing is to stay on the bus.

This was the first writing event I’ve attended, but it certainly won’t be the last. Bring on BWF 2012!

(Read more about my BWF adventures here.)

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