On Editing (Part One)

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First, it’s important to note that everyone is different. Your writing style, your reading habits, your opinions, and your technique- are all a part of what makes you, YOU. Editing is no different. Everyone either has a system they are comfortable with, or seeks one that offers them the least amount of anxiety. I am not here to tell you there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to approach your editing process. I am merely here to share what works for me, and hope it may be helpful to someone else.

Having said that, keep in mind, there are as many ‘types’ of editors, as there are writers. Some work line by line, some focus on grammar, others cut and slash piecemeal. I am a structural editor; that is to say, I edit for content and flow. As a writer, I am neither infallible, nor impervious to critique myself. I am not here to judge you, indeed, I sympathize. WE ALL MISS SOMETHING. No one is perfect, and we ALL need a little help sometimes. That sentiment does not exclude the most successful writers.

 Now that you know I’m not going to judge you, let’s get to it, shall we?

 

If you’re like me, you dread editing your own work. It’s frustrating, complicated, nerve-wracking, and time-consuming. You’ve already busted your hump writing an incredible story. You’ve spent months, years, decades even- crafting this world; its complex characters, snappy dialogue and pace. You’re already exhausted. You’ve put your heart and soul into this work. You feel like you have nothing left…then, you let someone else read it. They tell you it isn’t finished. They don’t understand your plot, your characters, or your timeline. They say your syntax and POV are confusing. They think you use too much exposition- or not enough. They tell you your dialogue is excessive, and you reuse words and phrases too often. They ask you to defend your overuse of ‘y’ ending adverbs. They want to know why every paragraph features a half-dozen unnecessary adjectives. They spit things at you, like ‘verb-agreement’, ‘tense’, ‘scene’, ‘purple’, and ‘redundant’.

Your heart breaks. Someone has just told you, your baby is ugly. You get angry, defensive. You deny these claims. Assure yourself that you know what you’re doing, and don’t need their nasty opinion anyway. You make a few light adjustments, and give your work to another reader. The process begins anew.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. We ALL must suffer these slings and arrows (shameless Shakespeare plug), my friend. I am not exempt. I’ve been through this countless times myself- and I AM AN EDITOR. For me, it is very easy to root out problems in another writer’s MS (manuscript). It’s another story entirely, when the work is mine. In fact, I’ve yet to meet any editor/writer who doesn’t feel the same way. Why? It’s simple. As a writer, you know the intent behind every word, every scene, every line of dialogue. You are operating from a front-row seat; where everything makes sense, is visual, vibrant, and immediate. Trouble is, no one else has that front row seat…you have to provide one for them. When the text is confusing, the reader is pulled away from your intent. They don’t know what you know. They can’t see what’s in your head, what you meant. You have to show them, and you need to make your intent clear, from the very first line.

Let me put it this way, when you write a screenplay, you can only write what the camera sees. In a book, you have a bit more room to elaborate on every scene, but the sentiment remains imperative. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but I’m going to repeat it now: SHOW, MORE THAN YOU TELL. From a reader’s perspective, we want to experience your story with your characters. We want to smell what they smell, see what they see, hear…you get the idea. You might have some gorgeous prose (I’m the guiltiest purple writer that ever purpled, btw) to add, but RESTRAIN yourself. It’s distracting for the reader, when overdone. Think sprinkle, rather than shower. Keeping this in mind, let’s move on.

Today, let’s focus on priming for editing. We’ll get into the meaty stuff; structure, POV, and exposition, in Part 2. For now, we’re going to talk about getting ready. 

 

1. Prepare

 

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The first step in preparing to edit, is to accept that you need to edit. YOU NEED TO EDIT. I’m sorry to break it to you, but none of us, no matter how brilliant we think our story is, or how good a writer we know we are; none of us are immune. If you’re a writer, you need to be an editor. Yes, yes…let the hate flow through you…

Personally, I think I’m a pretty dandy writer. Been at it for years. I know my craft; I can hold my own in any cafe reading, can write complex plots without much effort, my dialogue is pretty crisp, my characters are interesting, and did I mention my prose? My adjectives, slay. Know what else? MY FIRST THREE DRAFTS, ALWAYS SUCK! Did I say suck? I’m sorry, what I meant to say was, they are abysmal, abominable, atrocious, and arrogant. That crisp dialogue? A hot mess. My complex plot? Like reading stereo instructions. My prose? Let me put it this way, there are only so many times any writer should dare to place ‘glimmering’ in a paragraph. Paint me purple, ye mighty editing gods…

My point is, I need to edit, you need to edit, and everyone writing anything longer than a tweet (even then), needs to edit. I am not perfect, and neither are you. You know what? THAT’S TOTALLY OKAY. Stop telling yourself you’re a bad writer because you didn’t nail it in your first draft. I know some pretty famous authors, and I promise you, they feel the same way you do, most of the time. That’s what editing is FOR. It’s polish, plain and simple. You wouldn’t try to sell someone a half-darned sweater, would you?

Revisions are a necessary part of the process. The faster you accept your fate, the easier it’ll be to finish.

The second step in preparing to edit, is to get organized. Gather all your notes, your outline (refer to my previous post- Outlining, A How-To), your chapter logs, supplementary materials, and your ugly, infuriating draft. Read through them once or twice, to make sure you’re on track. Then read through them all again. Take more notes. Then read them one more time- ALOUD.

The fastest way to root out fixable issues in your text, is to hear them aloud. This is how your reader is going to experience your work, as if it’s being spoken to them. Remember that, and take notes when you find something distracting. Done? Okay. Let’s move on.

 

2. Compare

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Now that you’ve read through your draft a few times, and have taken notes, it’s time to compare them. What worked? What didn’t work? When you read that first chapter aloud, what made you stutter or stumble? Did you have to read a phrase more than once? This is all pertinent information, you are going to need. If YOU have a hard time reading your story out loud, your reader is going to have a hard time making it through your text.

Notes at hand, write a list:

  1. Is this scene clear? (Setting, Timeline, Exposition)
  2. Who is talking? (POV, Characterization, Dialogue)
  3. What’s happening? (Action, Pace, Event)
  4. Does it flow naturally? (Tense, Structure, Syntax)
  5. Immediate or redundant? (Repetition, Alliteration, Attribution)

 

Every scene you write, needs to be experienced, not read. Avoid unnecessary explanations, clogging backstory, plodding dialogue, and repetitive words and phrases. Remember to keep your tense tight (who is narrating this thing, and how much they should reveal to the reader. Unless specified in your story as an ability- your characters CAN’T READ EACH OTHERS MINDS, nor should your narrator, if they are observing the scene from ‘above’). Prose is important for style to a point, but never forget that every ‘telling’ scene (setting- the where, what, and who), gives the reader pause.

 

3. Start Fresh

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Now, everyone has their own approach to a second-draft. I’m not going to tell you how to rewrite your book, but I am going to tell you what I hope you already know; take it from the top. Never edit from the end, or the middle. Your reader isn’t starting in the middle, are they? No. They start from the beginning, and that’s where you should start your rewrite.

You have your notes. You’ve identified problems in your text. Now, do something about it.

Personally, once I have my BME (Beginning, Middle, and End) completely nailed down; that is, I know where I’m going, every character is accounted for, their backstories and motivations are all hammered out, and the structure of each chapter is relatively solid. Now, I edit, line by line. Starting with the first paragraph, I read every word aloud for the twentieth time, and make changes that read as naturally as possible.

This is not a speedy process, but it works. Every. Single. Time.

That horrid jumble of nonsense I thought was so brilliant in my first draft; actually reads like fiction. By the time I make it to the end, it’s starting to look like a real book! Hell, someone is going to LOVE this! It’s a fun read! I did it! I really did it!

Then, in pure masochistic fashion…I take it from the top, all over again.

 

Editing, like writing, takes practice. Don’t let it discourage you. Let it help you become the writer you want to be.

 

4. Done? Nope.

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You’ve revised, and revised, until your eyes feel like they might spill out of your nose. You’ve done all you can do. Your MS reads more clearly, more concisely, and more naturally than your draft, by a thousand watts. That’s great. Congratulations.

Are you done now?

Hahahahaha. No.

There is a such thing as ‘over-editing’, right? Right?

You’re cute.

This is the part of the editing process, where really, really good writers tend to get stuck. Why? Remember when I said no one is perfect? You’re going to miss things. We all do. You’re tired of reading. You’re bored of hitting the back-spacer. I get it. It’s hard work. Now, here’s where a developmental edit comes in (not the copy-edit, we’ll get to that VERY LAST step, in a final post on this topic).

You do have some options, but you’re not going to love them all.

  1. Hire A Developmental Editor. 

This is not a ‘cheap’, easy fix, mind you. Most developmental editors will run you up to 3k, for a MS running over 75k words. For those of us who aren’t rolling in piles of cash every night that figure stings. The good news is, it’s almost always money well-spent. A good structural editor will quickly and succinctly, identify and remedy problems in your text, any agent or publisher is sure to notice. The bad news? It’s expensive, and if you’re a first-time author, likely you can’t afford one. That’s okay. The best option, isn’t the ONLY option you have.

2.  Find Beta Readers. 

This isn’t easy either. You don’t want to trust your hard work, and original ideas to just any shmoe online, do you? You need someone who will read your work, and give you polite, helpful feedback. The best betas, will even help you edit a bit, for free, so long as you’re willing to return the favor.

Most betas, are authors themselves. Expect to barter. If you don’t have time to read and critique someone else’s work, make sure you let them know in advance. I wouldn’t expect a plethora of return emails when you do, but be fair. Betas are wonderful help in the developmental stage, but don’t abuse them. Remember, nothing is truly ‘free’, and these nice folks are doing you a favor. Also consider, they are your first readers, and likely, your first fans.

3.  Join A Community

The internet is filled with writer’s groups, pages, clubs, and communities. You don’t even need to leave your house anymore, if you don’t want to. These communities can be a SERIOUS boon, at the developmental stage. The feedback is largely constructive, well-intentioned, and you can reach a lot of readers and fellow writers.

There are some drawbacks, however. A word of caution, though most writing communities are very strict about plagiarism, it can still happen from time to time. Be aware when you post something, there are tons of people there eager to help…and there are tons of people there struggling with their own work. This is the exception, of course, but be on your guard, nonetheless.

If you find a great writer’s niche (I like Goodreads, and many of Twitter’s writing tags), be courteous, be kind…well, you know. Be nice! Say hello. Post snippets of your work, and thank people when they comment. You might be surprised how quickly you find folks to bond with. Make some friends, and build a solid foundation for your work.

Not everyone is going to be on your level in these groups. Some will be baby writers, learning their craft, and others may be professional authors. The point is, what do you have to lose? Helpful critique is never a bad thing, and it’s important to get the hang of it early on. A community of peers, can certainly help you get there.

4.  Revise, Revise, Revise

I bet you thought I was kidding about this, didn’t you. Nope.

The best thing you can do for your work, short of hiring a professional, or finding the perfect saintly beta– is READ AND REWRITE your MS, constantly. In my next post, I’m going to help you get through this time-chewing process the best I can, but for now…get reading. Read your work until you’ve memorized nearly every line.

Know how many times I’ve read The Sons Of Mil? Dozens. Scores. Hundreds…and the damn thing STILL needs work. How do I know? Because I catch something each time I reread it. Until I catch nothing, it’s not ready. That’s all there is to it.

Don’t let it get you down. You can’t, if you’re going to make it in this business. What you miss, a publisher won’t. This doesn’t make you a bad writer. I can’t stress this enough. It just makes you a BETTER writer. It makes you a STRONGER writer, and it gives you an EDGE over the thousands of writers out there, who don’t take the time, and pay for it later.

Don’t give up! Your work is fantastic, and like any baby, needs pampering.

 

For more in-depth editing tips, stay tuned for Part Two in this series; On Editing- coming soon!

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Sunday Writing Motivation…

Don’t let that cursor beat you! I find nothing helps to defeat the evil ole writer’sblock quite like nature. Get outdoors; take a walk, strap on all of your snow-gear and go sledding, drive out of town and watch the sun set somewhere beautiful. Unwinding in the great outdoors is my go-to motivation.

So, in this image…is it warm or cold, wet or dry, what does the air taste like, can you feel the wind on your face or at your back, do the waves sluice gently over pebbles, or rock lightly against the girder? Can you smell the ice, or the sun baking into the sand? How would you describe this blue?- turquoise or cerulean? Teal, or aquamarine? Is it brilliant and multifaceted like a gem, or polished like stone? Can you hear gulls calling, or just the crush of your boots in the sand?

Now go! Write what you feel!

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Sunday Inspiration (Writing Prompt)

 

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Nothing inspires me quite like a vivid landscape. It’s definitely the reason I was drawn to photography in the first place. Every scene I shoot, has a story. The smell of the wind, the shadows reaching between the trees, the slap of a wave against a sandy shore, or the swirl of colors in sunset. There are emotions in those images. Thoughts, and impressions. Nothing helps cure a bout of writer’s block better, for me, than immersing myself in a vibrant landscape.

If you’re stuck on a scene, a chapter, or perhaps even your first paragraph…put it down, stand up, and walk outside. Is it winter, or summer? Is the sun shining? If it is, how warm is it? Do clouds race overhead, or do they hang fat and idle in a blue sky? What does the grass smell like? Is it damp or dry? Do your toes squish in mud, or scrape against hard-packed earth?

Sometimes all it takes to unblock oneself, is to move. Whether it be with your physical body, or in your mind. Struggling with your setting? In my opinion, photography is a fantastic writing aid. There are literally thousands of gifted landscape photographers online, sharing gorgeous landscapes from all over the world. If you are unable to travel to your locations, that doesn’t mean you can’t experience them. I consider writer’s block a clog in the proverbial creative drain. Sometimes all it takes to dislodge it, is a shift in perspective.

Give it a try! Pinterest, Google, Instagram and 500PX are all great places to search for landscape photography. Here in my blog, I will share one of my own landscapes with you every Sunday. Use it as a tool! What quality is the light; dense or bright? Can you feel motion in the scene? Are there sounds? Scents? What do you feel?

Write any impressions you have down! Then in your own manuscript, apply the same logic. Where are your characters now? Describe their environment, as you would explain how you would feel in that scene. Relax, and have fun!

Hope this helps! Happy Writing, fellow Writers!

Image copyright: Yellow Dog Falls

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Outlining, A How-To

 

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Hello everyone! In a previous post, we discussed the overall process required to start and finish a plausible draft. There are many ways to get from point A to B, but it always helps to explore your options a bit. I’ve been writing for almost a quarter century now, and I’m still learning! I lurk the interwebs for inspiration, like anyone else. Sometimes, I’ll stare at my computer screen for hours on end, writing and deleting sentences like some manic coder. The point is, writing is never easy! Even best-selling authors struggle with their concepts and narrative from time-to-time. Don’t believe me? Check out your favorite author’s twitter feed. They suffer from the same doubts, nerves and fears we all do. Does my story flow? Are my ideas original? Does my prose make any sense? How can I make my characters likable? Where should my story go from here? This is what I lovingly (hatefully) dub the ‘story pit’. We’ve all been there, and we all know how hard it can be to climb back out.

If that paragraph stressed you out at all, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. No worries. Grab a notepad, a pen, a cup of coffee and pull up a chair. We’re gonna get through this together.

How do I personally combat the ‘story pit’? Outlining. It’s a necessary evil for me. The first thing I’m going to pitch to you, is the importance of list-making. Lists are life. They help you form cohesive, cogent plots from random ideas. More on this in a bit.

In ‘The Process’, I sketched out a few brief examples of where to get started, and how to organize your ideas so they might be translated into text. Essentially, every story starts somewhere. For some writers, it’s their main character they imagine first. Others, it’s the world they wish to create. Some even begin from the ending, and work their way backward through the plot to flesh out their scenarios. However your imagination works, the way you transcribe those ideas can be the difference between the ‘novel I want to write’ and the ‘novel I’m editing’. To get there, you must have a functional outline. Yes, it’s true that there are a lot of writers out there who can organize a stellar plot from the get-go. Bravo to them. For the sake of this article, we’ll pretend those mutants don’t exist.

1. Lists Are Life– If you thought I was joking here, you were wrong. Write EVERYTHING down! Keep a notepad in your pocket, your purse, your briefcase, beside your desk, on your calendar, next to your coffee maker, in the bathroom…well, maybe you don’t have to take it that far, but you feel me. If you’re not keeping track of your ideas, no one will. Keep that in mind. You have that random 3 a.m. spark of inspiration? A possible ending? The perfect antagonist? Love-interest? If you don’t record those thoughts, you will forget them (we’ve already agreed to ignore the inhuman writers with steel-trap memories, RIGHT? They don’t really exist…trallalalalala). For the sake of my argument here, the first list you should be making, is your core story. Your Theme (Main Idea). What do you want to say and how do you want to say it (Plot)?  Where is it being said (Setting)? Now make that list…make it! Make another one for the characters you imagine will be making these points for you. All those random thoughts you have had during the day, move them to your lists and leave them there. Add to them as more occur. If you can keep this up for a month, I guarantee you, you’ll have quite a lot of ideas to get started with. Lists work!

*If you work better on your computer and aren’t all old-school like me, here’s a website I’ve used before. Most Macs and PC’s come standard with ‘Notes’ and ‘Stickies software, but if you’d rather try a different format, click here: Download Stickies

2. Make Your Web– Now that you have all these notes, and your house looks like an obsessed detective’s office- what do you do with them? Remember when you were in seventh-grade English class, and your teacher drew a bunch of bubbles filled with random gibberish on the chalkboard? In the middle of that mess of bubbles and squiggly lines, ‘THEME’ was dead center. Well, your English teacher was on to something there. The Story Web doesn’t just work for studying, or discussing ‘The Scarlet Letter’; it can help your fiction too. As I mentioned in ‘The Process’, go to Michael’s or Target, and buy 3 extra-large, white poster-boards (or buy your own dry-erase board- whatever works for you); a pack of mechanical pencils/markers, and wall-safe tape. Now, gather all your notes; the stickies, the journal entries, the chicken-scratch napkins you lugged home from that cafe or bar. I think you can see where I’m going with this?

Handy Free Story Map PDF- Click to Download

Your Theme (Main Idea- what you want to say) goes dead-center in your first bubble, on your first poster-board. Draw lines above and below it, then two more bubbles/boxes. One should say ‘Plot/Setting’, and the other ‘Subplot/Conflict’. Draw another line…then another bubble, writing  Characters; ‘Protagonist’ on one side, ‘Antagonist’ on the other. See what I mean? Now your notes are coming together, aren’t they? Your story is taking shape…a weird shape, but a shape nonetheless. On your second  poster-board, draw a bubble labeled Setting– here is where you will add the backstory bubbles you need to flesh out the ideas discussed in your theme. When you’re done with both, hang them on the wall next to your workspace. You’ve just established Theme, Plot, Setting, Conflict, Characters and their agendas. In the second, Timeline and Context. Now go have a cup of coffee and admire your handiwork. You, my friend, have a story.

3. Know Your Ending– Here is where I’m going to get a bit controversial. I covered this in ‘The Process’, but I can’t stress it enough. Now that you know what you want to say, the world in which you want to say it, the characters who are going to say it for you, the conflicts and antagonists that will try to hamper those characters from achieving their goals, and the backstory you need to flesh out those characters and their world; YOU SHOULD KNOW EXACTLY WHERE YOU WANT TO END THAT STORY BEFORE YOU WRITE IT.  There are lots of authors who won’t agree with this, because they’re into zeitgeist, free-writing, poetry and chaos. Well, bully for them. They’re not wrong, per say, but I contend that most of them will not publish anytime in the near future. If they have, their work does not appeal to the majority of traditional-leaning readers (know your audience folks). While many of them offer great advice in lieu of flow, style and creative inspiration…what they do not offer, generally (I SAID generally!) … are cogent plot-lines. Now, before the pitchforks and torches come out, I’d like to say that I happen to enjoy the writing style myself. Sometimes it is very liberating. Stream of Consciousness can be an excellent cure for writer’s block. You’ll never hear me say it isn’t worthy. However, it’s not going to help you write a complicated plot…and it’s not going to help your story make sense to the average reader.

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STORY STRUCTURE is probably the second-most important item you’ll need to master, after organizing your plot. Every story has a Beginning, A Middle and an End. Even your chapters, should be organized this way. Why? Because it makes sense. Because it gives your story depth, credibility and flow. It keeps your readers engaged. Simply put, it is crucial to creating a constructive plot. There are many ways to go about this, but I’m here to offer mine, so here goes…

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You have your notes. You have your Story Web. You know what you want to say. You know your characters, from your protagonist to your supporting cast. You have explored the world you’ve created, and given it and your characters a backstory. Now what? The ENDING, is what. Remember that third piece of poster-board I mentioned? Well, here’s what it’s for. Make three bubbles/boxes. In the first, write Beginning. In the second, write Middle and the third, write End. Fill the THIRD box in first.

I do things this way, because it’s easy to wander around your plot without a purpose, unless you know where you intend to take it. Your ending is the climax of your story. It’s where your world, your characters and their conflicts are all going to come to a head. It’s what your beginning and middle are leading to. Hence, you should really know where that journey is going to end, before you pack up and leave. You’ll spend more time trying to figure out where to get started, if you don’t have an end-goal already in mind. Once you know where you want to go, it’s much easier to plan the journey.

4. Chapter Log– Now your outline should be just about ready to go! You have all of your notes and supplementary materials written down. Your characters are starting to look like real people. Your world is cohesive and easy to understand. Your conflicts are well thought out and urgent. And most importantly, you know where you want to take your characters…and HOW you want them to travel. On that last bit of poster-board, where you’ve written down your Beginning, Middle and End. Draw lines descending from each. Consider each of your chapters, their own short stories. They too, should possess the basic story structure, which leads you to the next scene in your story.

Normally, I like to sketch out a brief idea of how many chapters I’d like to have in each section of my BME, so I have a better idea how long it’s going to take my characters to get drawn into each event. You don’t have to do things this way, but it helps. Like my free-writing brethren- I tend to ramble, if I haven’t set up some fool-proof checks. Prose is fantastic, when it has a direct purpose in your plot, but never mistake a beautiful description for plot- I’ll get into ‘purple’ writing in another post.

To put the Chapter Log to the test, write another brief Story Web; label it Chapter One. Where does the chapter begin? What happens to the character that draws them to a shocking, mysterious or intriguing conclusion? How does that relate to your ending? Repeat the process for Chapter Two, Three, and so on. Sometimes, it can help to divide your book into Parts, so you can visualize your own BME. If you’ve taken my advice and have pre-ordained the amount of chapters you’re going to include, by the end of this exercise, the story should be pretty much finished! All you need to do after this, is fill in the blanks. Get creative. Now is the time to invite your readers to see, hear, taste, touch and feel this world the way you want them to. SHOW them your world!

 

Outlining is a crucial part of the creative writing process. You don’t have to do things my way, but you will have to get organized one way or the other, if you intend to finish a book this century. I have personally tried to escape these time-consuming, admittedly tedious steps in about a hundred different ways. In my experience, NOTHING works as well. Without this process, my writing is a scatter-brained, unreadable mess. Or worse- I’ll just keep starting stories over and over again, and never finish them. If I don’t nail down every point in my story’s structure, I will wander aimlessly through various unrelated plots, give birth to random, unimportant characters that lead the plot nowhere, and change my mind a hundred times in every scene. If the story you have burning in your gut needs to be told; Make sure you DO IT JUSTICE.

I hope this article has helped you in some way, even if you don’t follow my advice to the letter! Please feel free to comment or message me to discuss your own process, ask questions or just to say hi! I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Writing, fellow writers!

-L.M. Riviere

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*Image Copyright: Alder Falls by L.M. Riviere.