How to Stay Noticed

tree aloneI love bookstores. But some days, if I enter a bookstore at just the wrong time (i.e. when Ron is on duty), the mere sight of shelves and shelves of books fills me with despair and hopelessness.

Ron (the mean-voiced doubter who sits in the back of my head and whispers nasties in my ear) hisses, Silly little fool. Silly little Nobody Callender thinks she can write a book that will get noticed! Why would yours sell when no one’s buying the already-written ones?

Most days I can remember to tell Ron to go suck lemons, but he is right about one thing: there are millions of books out there, many great ones we will never read, many others we will never even notice. But I can’t stop writing any more than I can stop breathing or blinking or eating Seattle Chocolates’ Coconut Macaroon Truffle Bars. So I figure we should discuss how, in an age where many (myself included) have the attention span of a goldfish, we can write attractive stories that hold readers’ attention.

Of course, definitions of What is Attractive vary wildly. You think Bill Clinton or FDR is attractive; I prefer Abe Lincoln. But what attractive people do to us, I think, is pretty consistent from person to person. Same goes for fiction. What makes a story attractive is far less about what the story is, and much more about what it does to readers.

So what does attractive fiction do? I’ve thunk up three essentials.

Attractive fiction evokes. Sure, sadness and joy, but the more nuanced emotions too: concern, pity, frustration, loneliness, compassion, hope, resignation. We read because it feels good to feel.

Gone Girl had me feeling anger and disgust for the bad guy. Oh! And then for the other bad guy. The Snow Child tapped into the longing and the hope I felt before I became a parent. Reading The Orchardist, I felt frustration and loneliness as the characters failed to communicate that which most needed to be shared.

The most attractive fiction causes us (and allows us) to feel both pleasing and uncomfortable emotions. We humans love to feel stuff . . . unless the stuff we’re feeling is ennui and lethargy. We don’t enjoy feeling like a bored, over-baked potato when we’re reading a story.

Attractive fiction connects.  We long to be known. We long to be accepted even and especially after we are known. In reading fiction, we hope to discover that our human experience, our interests, fears and passions aren’t freaky-freakshow, that we’re not alone in our weirdness.

Liesel, the young burglar in The Book Thief, will risk her safety to read. She needs to read. Really? I’m not the only one? Sunny, in Shine Shine Shine, gets sick and tired of masking her and her family’s imperfections. Gosh, yes, I have felt that weariness. Bob, in The Burgess Boys, worries over his neighbor, a woman he hardly knows. I’m like that . . . I thought I was the only one!

Stories become attractive when they reveal quirky, layered, fallible characters. Why? Because we–all of us–are quirky, layered and fallible, and hanging out with characters who illuminate and mirror truths about our selves helps us feel less alone.

Attractive fiction surprises. You know how Cindy Crawford has a mole on her upper lip? A big, brown mole from which whiskers likely sprout? That mole, because it resides on the face of a supermodel, is a surprise. The surprise of that mole gives her a unique, fresh feel that only adds to her beauty.

Or take Lady Gaga. She’s attractive (i.e. interesting and intriguing) partly because she may appear clad in balloons or beef. We never know. Our brains think, Que interesante! But what’s even more interesante about Lady Gaga is the contrast between her bold fashion and the delicacy of her emotions. Her authenticity. Her sensitivity. Her exterior is bold, flamboyant and confident; that exterior belies the beauty of her very human frailty. I love the surprise of that contrast.

Of course, surprises can be too extreme. The other day, while I was walking to my daughter’s school, a crow attacked my head. Just rammed right into the back of my noggin and nearly scared the poop out of me. That was a bad surprise. That surprise made me grab my daughter at school, hurry back home via a different street, and take a 4:00 p.m. shower.

Attractive fiction gives us pleasant surprises, subtle surprises, surprises that do not make us need a shower. It takes a seasoned writer to create a story with just the right amount of surprise and freshness. In A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan surprises us with unique story structures and points of view. And PowerPoint. While some readers likely found those surprises irritating, many others (including Pulitzer Prize judges) embraced the novel’s freshness. In this Washington Post article, Ron Charles writes:

If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile. Her new novel, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” is a medley of voices — in first, second and third person — scrambled through time and across the globe with a 70-page PowerPoint presentation reproduced toward the end.

I know that sounds like the headache-inducing, aren’t-I-brilliant tedium that sends readers running to nonfiction, but Egan uses all these stylistic and formal shenanigans to produce a deeply humane story about growing up and growing old in a culture corroded by technology and marketing.

We want a story told in a unique way, made vibrant by characters who are as real as the people in our real lives. Just how vibrant, just how experimental, is up to you, dear artist . . . I suggest something slightly less surprising than a crow attack.

What have I missed? What makes you pay attention to a book for more than eight seconds? What does a good story do to you? Do you have a crush on Abe Lincoln, too? Please share your ideas of universally attractive elements of fiction (or hot presidents). And for goodness sake, if you see a crow, do NOT make eye contact. I’m pretty sure my “friendly hello” and good eye contact precipitated the attack.

Photo courtesy of Flickr’s John ‘K.’

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About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.

Comments

    • says

      I just rearranged the books where I keep my All Time Faves. So much fun to touch them, flip through them, put them in a new order. They are like friends, aren’t they?

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Eden!

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  1. says

    It’s this line – “What makes a story attractive is far less about what the story is, and much more about what it does to readers.” – and those three essentials that explain the weird and wide variety of “keeper” books on my shelves. They’re all books I really like or love, but the reasons why are varied, and trying to explain it often left me tongue tied. Now I’ll just point to this post. :)

    Oh, and the crow attack made me think of that old “Seinfeld” episode where a bird flew into the back of Elaine’s head. But it also made me think of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” :)
    Madeline Mora-Summonte´s last blog post ..Sunny Days….

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    • says

      I Love your comment, Madeline. As for the Seinfeld reference, yes! I had forgotten all about that one.

      I have always had a hard time with crows (I wrote an anti-crow blog post a few months back, and when I was editing my WIP, I noticed that I had my protag on a anti-crow tirade. Apparently the crow that attacked me knows how to read. How Hitchcockian!

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    • says

      Yes, such a good point, Dan. If the author has done things well, we can skate over that which is mundane and unnecessary. If only we could do that in real life. I’d skate right over my messy kitchen and other household chores that are piling up.

      Thanks for this great addition.

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  2. says

    Beautiful sentiments, Sarah. I totally agree with all of your attractions. But since I’m a historical fantasy fan, I will add one. I want to be transported. Something about being taken to a world that is at once utterly foreign and comfortingly familiar is a big attraction for me. Historical settings do it for me.

    Maybe I can more easily don the skin of a protagonist that could’ve been me in another era, but could never be me now. Maybe it gives me the separation to know that it’s just a byproduct of our time for me to watch two hours of So You Think You Can Dance, but if I’d have lived in another era, I’d be out having meaningful conversations around a campfire, or listing to a singer sing an edda before a blazing longhouse hearth-fire.

    Speaking of historical fantasies, crow attacks, and subtlety of surprises, I couldn’t help but think of George RR Martin, who is know for his shocking surprises. They have kept me reading, but sometimes I have to take a shower afterward. It’s nice to have the extreme for guidelines. Great post, Sarah!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Life’s Too Short

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    • says

      1. SYTYCD is a really good show. The drama! The bare midriffs! The crazy flexibility!
      2. I am SO glad you brought up the idea of being transported. I’m not much of an “other worlds” reader (probably because I haven’t gotten to read yours yet; I am sure it will convert me). But yes, we read to be plunked down in another time or place. Brilliant. And I like that you said “to be transported” instead of “to escape.” To me there’s a big difference.
      3. Yes, sometimes it is a GOOD thing to need a post-story shower. :)

      Thanks, Vaughn!

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  3. says

    I started reading the Cloud Atlas and when I got to the end of the first part I had to check the pages three or four times to see what the deal was. It ends mid-senten…I almost put it down, but I figured if the first set of characters and writing was compelling, the new set would be too. I’m still in it, I have no idea where it’s headed, and that’s okay. But for a while there I considered throwing the book into the shower.
    Walt Fitzharris´s last blog post ..How to Stay Noticed

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    • says

      Such a great example, Walt! David Mitchell is skilled enough (and has enough street cred) to get away with ending a sentence mid-sentence. (Huh?) In that wildly creative novel, I never feel like this choices and techniques are gratuitous or showy. In less capable hands, that book would be a disaster!

      I’m glad you spared that story a shower. Hey, have you read Mitchell’s Black Swan Green? It’s one of my all time favorites (and pretty simple when compared to Cloud Atlas).
      :)

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  4. says

    Hi Sarah,
    Loved your post and agree with you on the three essentials you listed. I’d say another essential of attractive fiction is that it “stays.” I’ve read many books and enjoyed them, but found the ones that keep coming back to me or that I keep thinking about, whether they were the best written or not, still have attracted me. Love your writing style, and look forward to your upcoming novel.
    Valerie Ormond´s last blog post ..Writing “Do’s” and “Don’ts”

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    • says

      Yes . . . great point Valerie. I love the idea that certain stories can wriggle their way into our being. Sometimes they wriggle because we read them at the exact perfect moment. Sometimes timing has nothing to do with how we absorb a story. But yes, the idea that shards of story and characters get lodged in us is pretty darn cool.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion!

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    • says

      Ooo, yes, Jessica. Great point. Or, we have to have the hope they a character can change.

      I’m thinking of Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, one of my most favorite shows ever. That guy! He drove me NUTS because he always came so close to changing (for the better) but then he’d just backslide. Yet I always kept rooting for him. I always kept believing that maybe this time he would actually change.

      Thanks so much for sharing.
      :)

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  5. says

    Sarah-

    I admire, but do not have a crush on, Abe Lincoln. Ditto Lady Gaga. I am fascinated by crows but do not make eye contact. They steal souls, you know.

    I think readers have a similar resistance to fiction. They know they will feel, connect and be surprised. You would think this would make folks rush to bookstores as if they were Wal-Marts the day before a hurricane.

    The opposite is true. Readers resist, precisely because they *will” feel, connect and be surprised. Look at it this way: If you walked through a certain door and you knew that on the other side you would be trapped for a dozen hours, cry and leave emotionally wrung out…would you walk through?

    Heck, psychotherapy sessions only last forty-five minutes. A novel is a much longer relationship. When you can have all the drama you want at the office, why would anyone volunteer for a book’s worth of emotional roller coaster?

    But of course people do. We call them readers, but if you watch them in bookstores they eye novels as warily as models avoiding men in a bar. It takes a lot to break the ice.

    That’s why openings are so critical. The promise to the reader in the opening lines (experienced in a hook, a voice, an image or an event that intrigues) is a reassuring handshake. It says, this story will be worth your time.

    Protagonists who show strength, humility or hope also are a pleasure to meet. I also advise adding warmth as soon as possible. It’s like baking cinnamon rolls before your real estate broker brings buyers to your open house. There’s comfort somewhere ahead.

    Once you’ve got your readers in your grip, they’ve walked through the door. They’re in for the experience. They may need some coaxing, though. Your job is to make them welcome, even if there is a murder of crows perched nearby on telephone wires.

    Uh…why is the doubting voice in your head named Ron? Wait, don’t tell me. Make me read to find out.

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    • Carmel says

      Completely agree with this. There’s enough drama in real life. But, if readers will just open to the first page and get hooked by the rhythm and the words and the people they’ve been wanting to meet their whole lives (like Sarah :o), how can they resist?

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    • says

      Don said:

      Readers resist, precisely because they *will” feel, connect and be surprised. Look at it this way: If you walked through a certain door and you knew that on the other side you would be trapped for a dozen hours, cry and leave emotionally wrung out…would you walk through?

      This is true for me. There have been times when I’ve picked up a book, read the first sentences, and then closed the cover. Not because those sentences were bad, but because they were too good; I couldn’t afford to give myself over to the novel utterly just then, and I knew that’s what reading it would mandate. I’m back with such a book right now — Brunonia Barry’s The Map of True Places.

      Wonderful post, Sarah, thank you. For me, author voice is at the top of the “why I keep reading” list.

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      • says

        Yes! Sometimes it’s just too painful or too beautiful or too emotional to read. Is there any better compliment to give a writer?

        I’m going to get my hands on Brunonia’s book. Thanks for the tip!

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    • says

      Where were you a week ago, Don, with the reminder not to make eye contact?!?!

      I thought I was just being friendly when I saw that sunnofacrow up on that streetlamp and gave him a cheery hello. Like maybe crows are always saying, “No one really looks at me. It’s like I’m invisible. People just look right through me.”

      Ha. Now I know. I wonder if maybe a little piece of my soul was stolen. That would be a huge bummer.

      As for those of us who worry about feeling too much, yes, you are right. I just forget about people like that because I’m a feeling junkie . . . most days I would barge through that door marked, “Feelings Inside. Enter at Your Own Risk.” It’s not always healthy, and there’s usually a mess to clean up, but I like feeling real stuff.

      I’m weird like that, though. Thank you so much for that reminder!

      As for “Ron,” I wish there were a good story behind it, but nope. I just have always felt that the name was connected to a deeply insecure, sniveling mean-guy. When “Ron” introduces himself, he always says his name with a nasally Minnesota accent. Snivelly.

      Now of course, I know two Rons and they are both the NICEST men ever! Also, some of my favorite people are from Minnesohhhta.

      Have you tried the Corn Salsa yet? ;)

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  6. says

    Sarah, you write so well (ever try non-fiction?). But you don’t get to the idea of story until the end and that, to me at least, is what attracts people to books. We can go around and around the story vs. character question for hours but while characters bring a story to life, it’s the story that pulls readers in. Maybe there’s a dimension of literary fiction vs. popular fiction here with character playing a larger role in one and plot being predominant in the other, but when you mention a book to someone, isn’t the question people always ask is: “What’s it about?” And you answer by telling the story to them. Over and out.
    Tony Vanderwarker´s last blog post ..John Grisham – Tony Introduces His Friend & Mentor

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    • says

      Such kind words, Tony. Thank you! And you are right . . . that’s always the question . . . what is the story about? That is why Donald Maass and Lisa Cron’s “story” craft books are so invaluable. They focus on the elements of story.

      Happy writing to you!

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  7. says

    I agree with the three essentials.
    Abe wasn’t too bad on the eyes, but I would have given “Teddy Rose” the three second stare.
    Save the cows; eat more chicken.

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  8. says

    Interesting variety of responses to a provocative post, which demonstrates to me that there are many reasons people read. Some read to feel, but some read to escape their emotions. Some want to be transported but others seek to understand their own world and time. Drama at the office might be soothed with a Regency romance or exorcised with dark urban fantasy…or ignored with a night spent watching reruns.

    I think a writer’s surest hope is to find the story that stirs their personal passions, then write what they want to read and enjoy doing it. What would be the point, otherwise?

    Cheryl

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    • says

      Yay, Cheryl!

      “What would be the point, otherwise?” Such a good reminder of why we write. It’s hard work; it’s not lucrative; it’s not consistent; it’s lonely-making. BUT yes, we tell stories because we’re passionate and we want to write that which we want to read.

      Thank you!

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      • says

        I like what you said about writing what I want. I’m a rather eclectic reader. I’ll read a vampire novel, but it’s not my favorite genre. I like some fantasy and sci-fi, but not if it’s too far out. I prefer the mystery/romance or plain mystery. Most importantly, it has to hold my attention.
        Everything I’ve read about deciding what to write, said to look at the market. Vampires suddenly caught craze and everyone started writing vampire novels. How much is there to write about?
        I’d like to think that even though vampires are all the rage, readers will still want a well-written, hold-your-attention book with interesting and fun characters.
        I started out writing murder/romance, but it soon included a Christian series and children’s fantasy. (I have to write really fast to get them all done.) Is it wrong for an author to want to write in different genres?
        Connie Terpack´s last blog post ..New on WordPress for Android: Notifications

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        • says

          I loved your comment, Connie. You are an eclectic reader; it makes perfect sense that you are an eclectic writer. Is it wrong? Absolutely not. Look at David Mitchell. His books are so wildly different from one another. I so admire that . . . though I bet some readers are frustrated because when a new book of his comes out, we don’t know what it’s going to be, genre-wise.

          Agents and editors, however, would say that it’s not a good business move to genre-bounce. But I don’t know . . . doesn’t the story choose us? I know some writers can control their story or genre, but many others of us are compelled to write the story that finds us . . . that’s often where the passion is, at least.
          :)

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    • says

      Yes, to each his own. I think Abe Lincoln’s sexy; my friends think he’s just a tall skinny guy with weird hair and a scraggly tuft of facial hair.

      Lady Gaga’s music is hard for me, but I LOVE the surprise of the contrast between her appearance and what she shares about her past.

      I do get what you are saying though, Daniel!
      :)

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  9. says

    Never crushed on Abe, but Carl Sagan, on the other hand…

    As for what draws us to good fiction, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and believe you’ve covered the biggies. One additional thing I’m drawn to is really smart prose, the kind that makes you wish you’d thought of that metaphor or turn of phrase. But if the evoking/connecting/surprises aren’t there, no amount of clever prose will keep me reading.

    Next time you go into a bookstore and feel overwhelmed by all those books, find the section where your book would be shelved and visualize it there. Yes, it sounds woo-woo, but somehow I found it empowering and inspiring to do so, sometimes the only optimistic writerly moment on days of being rejected.

    BTW, Your blog posts consistently evoke, connect and surprise.

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    • says

      Jeanne! So fun to see you here. And I love your advice; brilliant, really!

      I also loved Nerve. Can’t wait to read your next! Carl Sagan . . . hubba hubba.
      :)

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  10. says

    First I want to know where I can get some of those Seattle Chocolates’ Coconut Macaroon Truffle Bars because they sound yummy & I hope they are available outside of Seattle. Next I want to know how you came up with the name “Ron” for your bad cop voice because I usually call mine whoever the last mean person was who criticized anything I did & yes that means I talk to people not there. So I guess I agree with Donald Maass, the hook is what gets me to read & the sooner I find the hook, the better. I will put down a murder mystery, no matter how lush the setting, wonderful the prose or cunning the characters, if that dead body doesn’t show up soon. Finally, I have had that moment in the bookstore and its awful and its exactly like having a crow land in your hair.
    Diana Cachey´s last blog post ..Anger & Other Sins

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  11. says

    You’re so right. In the end, no matter the genre, it’s about the human connection. Perhaps in the distant future robots will read stories for the robotic connections, but until then it’s about humans. Even if your characters are talking bears it’s still about their human-like personas. That’s why your attraction to Lincoln is an interesting one and one I agree with completely. There was in him a humanity that still reaches across the decades. His handy wit, understated intellect, subtle compassion, and compelling inner-strength are attributes that make him both compelling and attractive. Even the stiff portraits of the day couldn’t hide that which was within. The Gettysburg Address makes me tingle inside. How I’d love an evening with the man who penned those words.
    Christina´s last blog post ..Beneath the Sun

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  12. says

    What a great, quirky post, Sarah! Lol at the “go suck some lemons.” I haven’t said that to anyone yet, but now that I think about it the thought is quite unpleasant. I’ll be sure to save it for a special occasion. I certainly hope you’re okay after that crow attack too! Part of me wants to laugh and part of me wants to hug you for it. I think those are the basic emotions you were talking about in the post ;) Got em covered!

    If I may ask a question, out of curiosity: what if a writer chose not to write about emotions that made you feel bad? Like sadness and anger. Could they still write an effective novel? Could love and compassion be enough or do we always have to torment our reader like The Fault in Our Stars? Some books are definitely sadder than others, but I wonder if it’s possible to be a writer who sticks to one side of the spectrum only, the positive side, kind of like Elizabeth Gilbert with Eat, Pray, Love.
    Margaret Alexander´s last blog post ..Excerpt Contest Runner Up Guest Post: On Writing

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    • says

      I LOVED this question, and I’d love to hear what others think. One book comes to mind: Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time.

      I loved this book because it’s just a sweet and compelling story without major tear-jerking tragedy or pain.

      Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You is a raunchy but hysterical novel . . . lke Colwin’s books, it is poignant, but not tragic like The Fault in Our Stars (I read the end of that on an airplane and was SOBBING!).

      So no, a great story doesn’t have to be devastating. In fact, it’s rather lovely when they aren’t. :)

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  13. says

    Sarah, I always love your posts. I agree with the 3 things. There are characters that drew me in and never let me go. Emma Hart and Blackie – Barbara Taylor Bradford told their story so well I still feel like they are real people. My heart hurt when I finished the story. If she wrote a new story for them, I’d be first in line.

    Abe? Nah, I’ll take Bad Boy Bill. He is such a rogue, but he’s so darned cute it’s okay. Story of my life. Love those bad boys! If anyone has any idea why some of us are attracted to that which is not good for us, please share. LOL

    Crows? Yuck! Yesterday, I was feeling very Midwesternly, homebody, little miss healthy – stopped and bought fresh food from a produce stand for Mom and me. I turned around to go back to my car and saw a gray bird hanging from the car’s grille. Fortunately, a clerk at the stand took pity on me and removed the poor thing. If I had been attacked by your crow, I would have passed out!

    Great post!!
    Marilyn Slagel´s last blog post ..Mercy

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  14. says

    I am regularly terrified that a bird on the street will fly into my head; thanks for letting me know this may actually happen one day. At least it sounds like you both survived.

    Wonderful piece! Will share it with all and sundry.

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