My letter to Mrs. Bennet broadcast on national radio


It’s important to acknowledge successes as well as failures in writing. (There are enough of the latter, after all.) So I’m very happy to report that an extract from a piece of mine was broadcast last Saturday on ‘The Book Show’ on RTÉ radio, Ireland’s national broadcaster. rte radio 1 logo

Over the past few months, The Book Show ran a contest in which they invited listeners to write a letter to a character from a novel. Ireland’s Fiction Laureate, Anne Enright, picked a winner from the shortlist.

The entry that I submitted was a letter to Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. The show’s producer tells me that they received a huge number of letters to Pride and Prejudice characters so I am extra-pleased that mine was selected for reading. (See the end of this post to read my entry in full.)

A special episode of The Book Show was recorded in front of a live audience in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre on October 21st, and the recording was aired on October 28th. At this event – at which presenter Sinéad Gleeson also chatted to Anne Enright and fellow authors Lisa McInerney and Paul Howard – the shortlisted and winning entries were read by professional actors Derbhle Crotty and Dermot Magennis.

Mrs Bennet

Mrs Bennet, played by Alison Steadman in the BBC series ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1995).

The winning letter was written by Aoife Kavanagh, who wrote a letter to Holden Caulfield from JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Congratulations to her!

You can listen to the show here. My piece begins at 0:23:20 and the winning entry begins at 0:49:34 – but I urge you to listen to the whole show, there is some great work and super-interesting writerly discussion in there.

Lastly, here’s my written piece in full. Hope you enjoy it.

***

A letter to Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Dear Mrs Bennet

I see you standing at the breakfast room window. Your hand shades your eyes against the morning sunlight. A group of young women with cloaks billowing walk down the drive on their way into Meryton town. Their laughter reaches you across the crisp Hertfordshire air. Wrought-iron gates creak and your daughters disappear down the stony road.

Mrs Bennet, your husband’s surname is the only name we know you by.

You were once a slender-waisted Miss Gardiner, daughter of the town’s lawyer and celebrated beauty. You fell in love with a soldier. In your mind’s eye, you still see his red coat and brass buttons.

The redcoat left for the Napoleonic wars and you found love again. Mr Bennet was handsome, with a country estate could be inherited by sons only. Your mother’s satisfied nod on your engagement day assured you that those sons would come.

What your mother’s look did not say was that they might not stay.

The first pains came after a few months of marriage. You lay on your side in your bed, knees drawn up with cramps. Your maidservant, a girl of seventeen, wrung her hands in the doorway. You screamed and she ran for the housekeeper. Later, the maid carried away bundled-up sheets, the fabric pale against your scarlet blood.

It happened again, and again. You started to recognise the stabs in your abdomen. You had the housekeeper arrange a bedroom in the farthest corner of the house. More scarlet sheets.

When you reappeared downstairs after these absences, you could not bear the pain in your husband’s face. You began avoiding each other’s eye.

You grew nervous, agitated. What had they looked like, those ghost babies? Desperate, you bullied your maidservant into revealing that the sheets – too badly stained to wash – and what they contained were taken to a corner of the farm’s remotest field and burned. Thoughts crossed your mind of sneaking down there. But what would you look for?

You taught yourself not to think about the corner of the field.

The living children you finally bore brought you both joy, even though they were girls. In one way, the curse seemed to be broken. The wet-nurse looked askance as you took the babies from her, wanting to feed them yourself. You came to life again.

But you learned to dread the look on the midwife’s face. You would let your head fall back onto the pillows, willing her to say the word that would secure your family’s future prosperity. It never came.

By silent, mutual agreement, your husband stopped visiting your bedroom. Every night you passed by the dark panelled oak of his door, dulled with the passing of time. You hated the sound of the sharp click as it closed behind him.

I see you, Mrs Bennet. I wish I knew your first name.

Yours affectionately

Orla

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An evening with Claire Keegan, author of ‘Foster’


Last night, I attended a reading and Q&A with Irish author Claire Keegan. This event was part of the Well Festival of Arts and Wellbeing, which is in its fifth year here in Waterford city and county.

Claire Keegan

Author Claire Keegan

Claire is the author of two books of short stories and a novella called ‘Foster’. All her books have received prestigious awards, too numerous to mention, and ‘Foster’ is on the syllabus for Leaving Certificate English.

With only three books, she has become a giant in the world of literature in English, and deservedly so.

I last saw Claire at a seminar in Cork city in 2010. That was an event I have remembered ever since. She spoke then for hours, almost without a break, weaving a spell with her words, both spoken and read. I couldn’t help but take lots of notes as everything she said rang so true with me. I refer back to those notes to this day.

Last night, we were treated to a reading from ‘Foster’ – an extract in which the central character, a child, describes her first day with her new, ‘foster’ parents. The author’s musical voice and expressive face enhanced the reading. I didn’t want her to stop.

Then for the audience Q&A. Unmoderated Q&A sessions can veer dangerously into time-wasting territory. By that I mean both the other audience members’ and the author’s time. Claire handled questions on all stages of the spectrum with grace and calm. She is (in?)famous for not taking any shit and it is a deserved reputation. For this we, the audience, have to thank her because an author who can deal respectfully with time-wasters and move on quickly is creating time for useful discussion, which benefits us all.

Remarks by Claire that have stuck with me are as follows (this is based on memory – if there are inaccuracies or omissions, please post a comment below):

  • Claire writes slowly, going back to the start of the previous day’s work, dredging out extraneous material until she has a work she is happy with.
  • Characters are defined by how they spend their time. Claire reminded us that we  have limited, precious time on earth. What each of us does with that time says everything about who we are.
  • “A good middle” is the hardest and most crucial part of a work. Once you have a good middle, your ending will emerge.
  • Desire is another key driving force behind each character. What does he or she desire? Find out.
  • Echoing Tolstoy’s remark that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, Claire pointed out that happiness does not usually make for great fiction (this is my interpretation – Claire did not use this quote). She highlighted loss as a driving force in fiction.

The event ran to just over an hour, which gave the audience a short and very sweet distillation of Claire’s writing wisdom and a beautiful reading.

My thanks go to the organisers of the Well Festival of Arts and Wellbeing, and the staff of Tramore Library for the welcoming, professional manner in which they hosted the event.

‘Mental’ shortlisted for CAP Award 2017; shortlist


Some weeks just get off to a good start, don’t they?

I was going to bed last night and decided to check my email (bad habit – on this occasion, yielding good results). There was a message telling me that ‘Mental’ has been shortlisted for the Carousel Aware Prize (CAP) 2017!

carousel aware prize logo 2017

See the end of this post for the full shortlist.

The judges for the category in which ‘Mental’ is shortlisted (Best Anthology) were Tanya Farrelly and David Butler. I recently discovered Tanya Farrelly’s work after hearing her read at the Cork International Short Story Festival 2017 (see my previous post about that festival). Her reading and comments were hugely enjoyable and interesting, so I’m pretty chuffed that my book was one of those chosen by her, along with David Butler. He is a writer I’m not familiar with – I’ll have to check out his work.

Congratulations to all the other shortlisted authors! The only one I’m familiar with is Lorna Sixsmith, who is shortlisted for her book ‘An Ideal Farm Husband’. Her previous books about life as the wife of an Irish farmer have done really well. I’m looking forward to hunting down seeking out (!) the other authors and getting to know them on social media – and who knows, maybe in real life too.

The CAP award is run in association with Aware, a non-profit organisation that provides education, support and information on mental health, particularly depression, bipolar disorder, and positive mental health. All proceeds from the competition go to Aware.

The CAP website describes the awards thus: “The [CAP] Awards are committed to acknowledging and promoting excellence in Irish independent book publishing.” The awards are the brainchild of indie author Carolann Copland. Big kudos are due to her, her team of volunteers, and the judges – all of whom who give their time to the awards free of charge.

Full list of shortlistees and judges for the CAP Award 2017

Best Junior Book
Judge: Benji Bennett

  • Alma Jordan & Martin Beckett: Tales from Riverside Farm
  • Emma-Jane Leeson & Kim Shaw: The Adventures of Johnny Magory
  • Kevin Doyle: The Worms That Saved The World
  • Helen C Burke: Billy’s Search for the Healing Well
  • Alan Murphy: Psychosilly
  • Dolores Keaveney & the Keaveney & Lennon children: Dilly the Camper & The Magic Fairy Garden

Best Young Adult Book
Judge: Claire Hennessy

  • Jaq Hazell: My Life As A Bench
  • J.S. Comiskey: Solstice… The Goddess Awakens

Best Anthologies
Judges: Tanya Farrelly and David Butler

  • Orla Shanaghy: Mental
  • Adrienne Vaughan: Fur Coat & No Knickers
  • Kathryn Crowley: Room for One More
  • Compiled by Helen Mc Mahon: Selfies and Portraits
  • Compiled by Eileen Casey: Circle & Square

Best Non Fiction
Judge: Tony Canavan

  • Linda Allen: See You in Two Minutes, Ma
  • John Kenny & Dolores Keaveny Kenny: The Hills Speak; History & Mystery
  • Lorna Sixsmith: An Ideal Farm Husband
  • Elizabeth Egan: Notes from Higher Grounds
  • Breifne Early: Pedal the Planet

Best Novel
Judge: Louise Phillips

  • Simon Bourke: And The Birds Kept on Singing
  • Caroline E Farrell: Lady Beth
  • Catherine Kullmann: The Murmur of Masks
  • Caimh McDonnell: A Man With One of Those Faces

Ooh and I’ll be posting more about this on a future date but for now: please remember independent authors when you do your Christmas book-buying!

I love my blockbusters and big-name authors as much as anyone (I’m currently in the middle of Marian Keyes’ latest). Those authors have the spending power and marketing departments of big publishers behind them – and good luck to them. Independent authors have none of that; we rely on ourselves, our friends and families, and the kindness of strangers, to get our works out there.

Cork International Short Story Festival 2017


I was in Cork city at the weekend for this year’s Cork International Short Story Festival. This festival started out as the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival has been running for 17 years.

One of the events that I attended was a panel discussion on ‘The short story – the state of the art’. Tania Hershmann chaired (standing in for Eimear Ryan) and the panel consisted of Nuala O’Connor, Danielle McLaughlin, Tom Morris and Rob Doyle.

I was very keen to hear this discussion as I chaired a panel – that also included Nuala and Tom – on the same topic for Waterford Writers’ Weekend in 2014.

L-r: Tania Hershmann, Danielle McLaughlin, Rob Doyle, Tom Morris, Nuala O’Connor.

As you would expect from a panel of this calibre, the discussion was hugely insightful and interesting. Tania Hershmann did an excellent job of chairing and making sure that the discussion was well balanced between positive and negative points. Highlights for me were as follows (note that these are my impressions, not a comprehensive account of the event):

Nuala pointed out that we are lucky in Ireland to have a thriving culture of both literary journals and small presses, both of which are good news for emerging and ‘non-mainstream’ writers. She also made that point that it is a positive that our literary critics are interested in the short story and give it column inches.

One thought-provoking observation by Nuala was how regrettable it is that women’s magazines no longer publish short stories. These magazines used to be an important outlet for short fiction. It is also a pity for the form that when short stories are published in mainstream magazines such as the RTÉ Guide (Ireland’s most popular TV publication, which reaches 80% of Irish homes), they tend to be written by authors who are not specialists in the form, such as novelists who have been asked to write a short story. The outcome can be that the short stories that reach a mainstream readership through these magazines are not necessarily of the best quality, not the best examples that the form has to offer.

Tom made some interesting points about the tone of discussions about the short story at writing festivals. The approach, he said, is often disappointingly basic, with questions like “What is a short story?” and “How long should the short story be?” The short story is sometimes spoken of as if it were the post-colonial ‘other’ to the novel, which tends to objectify and restrict the form.

One thing that particularly caught my attention was Tom’s point that short story collections can ‘lock up’ our work. In other words, once a story is published in a collection, it can be stuck there, with no other route to reach audiences. Tom cited his own initiatives of “Out of office stories” (where interested parties send an email to a special address that Tom has set up and in return they receive an out of office reply with a story attached) and “A small, good thing” (where subscribers receive a short story selected by Tom). He also mentioned Twitter as a medium that writers can use in a variety of ways to reach wider audiences.

Danielle McLaughlin is a writer that I was not familiar with, though I had heard of her book Dinosaurs on other planets, which has been making waves recently. Danielle founded and runs a monthly writers’ event in Cork city called ‘Fiction at the friary’. She made the point that the practice of reading fiction aloud in embryonic forms – first drafts, second drafts and so on – can be refreshing and inspirational for both writers and listeners. Danielle also touched on the subject of the tone of discussions about the short story. As an example, she quoted the phrase “The traditional Irish short story”. Whose tradition, she asked, is being referred to here? She emphasised the importance of challenging clichés about the form.

Rob Doyle took up the point about ‘iconic’ short stories and their influence on writers. While he admires Chekovian examples of the form, he said, he finds inspiration in more experimental short fiction. He cited Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Jhumpa Lahiri and June Caldwell (whom I spotted outside having a cigarette; her new book Room little darker (see picture at the end) is getting brilliant reviews). The name George Saunders came up – I think Nuala mentioned him – as a popular writer whose work is more in the experimental vein, as did Lucia Berlin, a short story writer who has been called “one of America’s best-kept secrets”, and Arlene Heyman, who has a new book out about sexuality among older people called Scary old sex.

There was also an interesting question from the audience about the fact that short stories are read and studied in Irish schools. People who went through the Irish education system in the 1970s and 80s will remember the textbooks Exploring English and Soundings, which contained gems of short stories like ‘My First Confession’ by Frank O’Connor and ‘The Widow’s Son’ by Mary Lavin. Some panelists agreed that their love of the form was influenced by their exposure to stories like these in school, although as I said above, Rob expressed a preference for more experimental examples of the form.

I always try at festivals to get to know the work of (to me) new writers. Rob Doyle chaired a reading and discussion with two writers whose work I was unfamiliar with: Tanya Farrelly and Sean O’Reilly. Tanya is the author of two books: When the Black Dogs Sing and The Girl Behind the Lens. Her reading was really entertaining and a pleasure to listen to.

Tanya Farrelly reading. Seated: Rob Doyle, Sean O’Reilly.

She read at a good, slow pace and did justice to the large amount of dialogue in the extract. I am always struck at readings by how important it is to emerging writers to be good public speakers. We don’t write our work for it to be read aloud, but we are often called upon to do exactly that. Like any skill, some are more gifted with it than others. Sean was also entertaining to listen to, but he read too quickly. This, combined with the seemingly large number of different characters in his extract, made his reading hard to follow.

Sean O’Reilly reading. Seated: Tanya Farrelly, Rob Doyle.

Despite this, my interest in his work was piqued. His most recent book, Levitation, is published by Stinging Fly.

I came out of these two events feeling really pleased that I had attended. And what brilliant value for money at €5 per event! Kudos to the festival organizers, the Munster Literature Centre (represented at both events above by its administrator, Jennifer Matthews).

My post-event happiness was tempered only by the discovery that I had only €35 with me and so I had to restrict my purchases at the sales table in the foyer to only three of the many books on offer: Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor (which she signed for me), the Summer 2017 issue of The Stinging Fly and Room Little Darker by June Caldwell (I looked for her to sign it but she had gone).

My book haul from the festival.

Where to buy ‘Mental’; the importance of positive reviews


‘Mental’ has been out for over a month now. So far, the reception has been very positive and sales have been good. I even got my first royalties! (Miniscule, but still.)

Here’s where you can buy the book online:

As for bricks and mortar, the book is currently on sale in the following places:

  • The Book Centre, John Roberts Square, Waterford
  • Ardkeen Quality Food Store, Dunmore Road, Waterford
  • The Book Centre, 5 South Main Street, Wexford
  • The Book Centre, 10 High Street, Kilkenny
  • Barker and Jones, 2 Poplar Square, Naas, County Kildare

If you have read the book and enjoyed it, I would be delighted if you would post a review of it on Amazon. Your review can be as short as you like – one sentence is perfectly acceptable.

There are already some lovely reviews, like this one:

Screenshot 2017-05-09 11.16.32

Have a look at the full list of reviews so far and do consider writing one yourself. The book needs to reach ten reviews in order to qualify for inclusion in Amazon’s “Also bought” listings, as well as the “You might like” recommendations. Being included in these promotions gains the book more exposure and, hopefully, more sales.

Positive Amazon reviews are valuable to writers also because they help the book move higher up in Amazon’s rankings. And this creates – yes you guessed it – more exposure and more sales.

Book launch of ‘Mental’ with pictures


Relief is the main feeling I’m experiencing at the moment!

I’m delighted to report that the launch of my book Mental went really well. It took place in The Book Centre, Waterford, in the evening of Friday March 24th. All books sold out!

Not only that but there was standing room only by the time the event kicked off. I couldn’t ask for a more encouraging result.

Photos are below. The video is split into two parts: Part 1 contains poet Mark Roper’s launch speech and and Part 2 contains my speech and my reading from the story ‘Ask Jessica’ in Mental.

Thank you to everyone who attended and bought the book (and those who were left empty-handed after it sold out!), Maeve Cooke and The Book Centre staff for having us, and Mark Roper for giving a lovely, thoughtful speech to launch the book.

You can buy the book as an ebook or paperback now from The Book Depository (free delivery worldwide) and Amazon. As of next week, it will be back in stock in The Book Centre bricks-and-mortar store and on their website.

mtb22

Maeve Cooke, manager of The Book Centre, opens the launch.

attendees mental book launch 2017mental launch book centre crowdorla signing books mental book launch 2017mtb16

orla mark roper mental book launch 2017-3

Poet Mark Roper launching the book.

Tumbleweed, crickets and other launch day terrors


Back in the heady days of early 2017, when March 24th was months away, I had no nerves at all about my launch day. I was breezily looking forward to a nice relaxed evening, chatting to friends and family, in a place that I love.

Now that launch day is the day after tomorrow, all breeziness is gone and I am a bundle of fears and self-doubt. The following thoughts are on an ever-repeating reel in my head:

  • What if only a handful of people turn up? (Cue images of tumbleweed rolling through and the sound of crickets in the background.)
  • What if a reasonable number of people turn up but hardly anyone buys the book? (Cue image of stacks of unsold books on the floor of my bedroom forever more.)
  • What if lots of people buy the book but hate it and demand their money back? (Image: me crying while handing back bank notes to an angry mob.)
  • What if online trolls get wind of the book and flame me on Twitter to the degree that I have to quit social media and become a hermit?

I’ll stop there before the fantasies get even more ludicrous. I’m sure Twitter trolls have better things to be doing with their time than picking on a virtually unknown self-published author. Right?!

To switch back to positive mode, a window display for ‘Mental’ and a poster advertising the launch are currently in situ in the window of The Book Centre, Waterford, where the launch takes place on Friday evening.

To my surprise, I had to set up the display myself. My surprise was not that a self-published author would do their own window display (who else would do it?), but that The Book Centre were willing to let me loose on their window. I have zero experience of doing displays of any kind. Here is the result of my attempt:

mental book centre window display

‘Mental’ in the window of The Book Centre independent book store, Waterford, Ireland.

Lesson learned: window dressing is a lot more difficult than it looks. Kind friends have assured me that it looks ‘minimalist’ and fitting to the theme of the book (rather than ‘bare’ and ‘bland’ as I (still) suspect).

My next post will be a report on the launch itself. Fingers crossed for no tumbleweed or crickets.

Book launch news


I seem to be in a constant state of excitement these days.

The latest reason is that I have confirmed the person who will launch my book. It is none other than Mark Roper. Mark is a nationally renowned poet and creative writing educator with a lengthy list of publications, credits and accolades to his name. (For details of these see Mark’s website.) I had the pleasure of having a piece of mine included alongside one of his in The Sunday Miscellany Anthology in 2011.

mark roper head shot

Poet Mark Roper

Even more significantly for me on a personal level, Mark was a writing mentor of mine back in 2003 and 2004 when I returned home to Ireland from my travels abroad. He encouraged and supported my writing as part of his Writer in Residency year at Waterford Regional Hospital (now University Waterford Hospital) and kindly included a piece of mine in an anthology of writing from people in the hospital. He has continued to provide support and encouragement ever since.

Mark’s kind and gentle manner is famous among those who know him. That temperament was in evidence when I attended his workshops in the hospital with a small, sometimes noisy baby in tow. He did not bat an eyelid at the presence of my daughter and made us feel nothing but welcome. It is seemingly little things like these that are true indicators of a person’s character.

The launch itself takes place in The Book Centre, Waterford on March 24th. There will be details in my next post; in the meantime, check out the event page on Facebook.

‘Mental’ front cover reveal


One of the most fun tasks in this self-publishing voyage so far has been working with my graphic designer to create a front cover image. And here it finally is:

mental-cover-3d

To say I’m excited to finally release the cover is an understatement. After all, it is the front cover, more than any other part, that we visualise when we plan to publish a book.

To create the cover, I worked with book designer and illustrator Jana Vuković. Jana came recommended by a writer friend who had used her services. Jana and I have never met; in fact, I don’t even know where she lives! We communicate solely by email.

Jana started off the process by asking me for examples of existing book covers that I liked, to give her an idea of the direction we needed to head in. I sent her links to three or four. Then, she got me to complete a questionnaire in order to help me to express exactly what I wanted to achieve with my book cover. I was a bit taken aback by how vague my thoughts had been up to that point! We pinned down the key words, my preferred colours and the most important part of the book to be reflected in the cover image.

The one thing I was specific about from the start was that I wanted the cover to be an illustration, and symbolic rather than depicting an instantly recognisable ‘thing’. I felt this was appropriate for a book that focusses on the mind, thoughts and mental turmoil but also hope and possibility.

I found Jana to be utterly professional and always quick to respond. Her prices are reasonable and her ‘after-sale service’ is great. (Being the rookie that I am, I temporarily forgot that my book needed a back cover! She stepped in at a moment’s notice to provide me with one.)

The current step in my self-publishing process is waiting for the proof copy to arrive from CreateSpace. I may just about explode with excitement to hold an actual physical copy of my book for the very first time! I will post here as soon as it arrives.

The author head shot dilemma: professional or DIY?


This is something I was undecided on for a long time: do I need a professional author head shot?

All the self-publishing experts I know say yes, you do. They say it’s an investment in your work. They say it reflects a professional ethos. They say that a cropped image of you squinting in the sun on holiday with a disembodied arm around your shoulders may not send the right message about your work.

Then there’s our old friend, self-doubt. I’m ‘only’ self-publishing, after all. I’m trying to keep my costs down. The cropped holiday snap will do fine, won’t it? Who do I think I am?

I found that my decision was made even harder by the fact that I already had a very nice author photo, taken by a friend who does photography in his spare time and is excellent at it. The snags were: 1) The picture is several years old. Hands up, I (sadly) don’t look much like that any more. 2) My friend had very kindly taken the picture free of charge. I value the friendship and didn’t want to ask him for more free work, nor I did I want to cause him awkwardness or embarrassment by trying to insist on paying him.

After agonising over the decision a little longer (I can be indecisive!), I decided to grab the bull by the horns. I would go professional.

I found a local, female photographer. This was important to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love my big, established brands when it suits me, but when it comes to bespoke work, especially anything artistic, I try to support my local economy and women who are setting up in business on their own.

Enter Bara Alich, whose work I had seen and loved in a local charity calendar. Bara works from a pop-up studio in a room in her home. She tears down the studio after each shoot because the room is used by the family the rest of the time. She brings in a local make-up artist to prep subjects before shoots. She’s incredibly nice (I had a cold at the time, and she made me fresh honey, lemon and ginger tea!), professional and ambitious. That’s the kind of set-up I like.

Here we are getting ready for the shoot:

orla-and-bara-sept-2016

Bara took huge pains to find out from me what I was aiming for with the photo. She made me think about what I really wanted the photo to ‘say’. My book is about mental health issues so, together, we worked out that we wanted the result to show friendliness, kindness and understanding, yet strength and reliability as well.

Bara helped me pick outfits that would fit in with those key words, and her make-up artist did a very professional job (and managed to cover up the rotten cold!). Here’s the result:

Portrait by Bara Alich Photography

It is always cringe-inducing to look at pictures of yourself, but I am happy with this one. It fulfils my expectations and hopefully, it does something to persuade people that my book is worth a look.

You do have to grin and bear it when you’re handing over money for a self-financed project – and that little voice saying “You could have just done it yourself” never quite goes away. I’m happy with my decision and with the result.

PS. My next post will be the book cover reveal! Stay tuned!

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