fitter, happier, more productive

Soooo…I’m a touch self-conscious here because I tend not to blog about writing itself. It’s such a subjective undertaking I have no idea what I could possibly say that could be useful or interesting to someone else. And on top of that I’m genuinely uncertain of the degree to which writers-burbling-on-about-writing is alienating to readers. I mean, for myself I kind of think books are like sausages: way easier to enjoy when you don’t know how they’re made. And say what you will about reviewing every Hugh Grant movie ever, at least it’s universally bizarre.

Anyway, this post isn’t precisely about writing. It’s more writing-adjacent. So, y’know, take it or leave it as the fancy takes you. But what it comes down to is this. On the 30th August 2018 I changed my life as a writer. Logistically, psychologically, totally. And the thing about writing is that you always think there are things that are going to change your life—awards, reviews, contracts, advances, whatever. But the truth is, unless you start your career with a seven figure book deal and shoot straight onto the NYT bestseller list, for most of us they don’t. I think it’s impossible to completely shake the sense that there is A Thing out there somewhere that will make a sudden and demonstrable difference to where you are and what you’re doing. But mostly (though admittedly not always successfully because I’m only human) I just try to concentrate on the bit I like best, which is the writing, make decisions that give me the most freedom to get on with that in my own way, and let the rest handle itself.

All of which meant I wasn’t really prepared—or indeed looking—for seismic, meaningful shifts in what writing could be like for me.

And then I bought a planner.

Best investment I ever made in my writing, I swear to God. Of course, I’ve long been aware that I need something in place to keep me organised, since writing involves at least as much administration as it does creativity. Besides, I have a demanding full time job and I also want to have things in my life like fun and a relationship and the option to leave the house occasionally. It’s just I’d never quite managed to crack the code of my own needs in this particular area. I worked my way through pretty much every digital solution out there before finally recognising that, for me at least, some shit just has to be on paper. Then I had a bullet journal for the best part of a year, which was the closest I got to something broadly functional.

Except.

There came a point when the very flexibility of bullet journaling—the reason I got into it in the first place—passed from advantage into disadvantage. Bullet journaling has a lot of unnecessarily complicated lingo around it but, honestly, you just draw your own planner: on an annual basis, you do a yearly overview, on a monthly basis you do a monthly overview, then you have a daily task list. And obviously you can make all of these elements look however you like. You can just write stuff down, you can draw boxes, you can be as arty and fabulous as you’re capable of and interested in being.

The thing is, though, I’m neither capable nor interested in being arty and fabulous.  Having to draw up a “monthly spread” every month pretty soon became a chore, and I stopped doing it, despite the fact that I do actually need an overview of my month so I know what the fuck is happening. My “daily log” became scrappy to-do lists that were either so long they were intimidating or so short they were unnecessary, and eventually I became less inclined to update them as well. I told myself that this was another positive feature of bullet journaling. After all, if I didn’t need a daily log that day, I didn’t have to do one. But this just meant I had no sense of progression through my tasks or my writing, and no sense of ever achieving of anything (regardless of whether I did or not). Everything felt very sporadic and half-hearted. Mainly, err, because it was.

I should also emphasise that this was a problem with me, not a problem with bullet journaling. Sort of the whole deal with bujo is—because it’s wholly customisable—any fuck ups are your own fuck ups. I suspect I could have come up with a workable system if I’d put a bit more effort into it, but by this point I’d run out of energy and enthusiasm. I wanted the workable system to be right there in front of me, rather than requiring monthly transcription from my head to a blank page. So I did what I sometimes do when a problem seems beyond the capacity of my spoons: I threw money at it.

And bought a damn planner.

Ironically, of course, planners require planning. There’s a tonne of them out there, all of them fashioned to meet a different set of priorities, which may or may not work for you. For me, the simplicity of my needs actually made it a fairly straightforward decision. My planner is for writing, and writing alone, although I do occasionally put things in it that I see as writing-relevant in the sense they cut into writing time (so, outings, social events, non-writing related appointments, and unavoidable tasks like dramatic acts of house cleaning). A lot of planners are targeted at people who want something more holistic but sections for daily goals, meal planning, gratitude logs and what-have-you are nothing but noise to me. So what that all comes down to is this: I need a planner that includes none of those things, while still having more structure than that offered by a bullet journal. The other relevant issue is where and how you use your planner geographically speaking. Mine sits squarely on my desk and doesn’t move, which means I don’t have to worry about its weight, its dimensions or its durability. I might have made different choices if I was intending to hoik the thing around with me on a regular basis. But as I’m not I could comfortably seek out the Latrice Royale of the planner world: chunky yet funky, large and in charge.

For me, this is the Erin Condren LifePlanner TM, the most outrageously over-priced over-branded, and over-American planner on the market. But, dammit, it’s exactly what I need and I love it. And although rationally I think I should probably resent the $60 I forked over for it … in practice I do not. I mean, I use the thing literally every day and it covers about 16 months. So that’s approximately 480 days of planner-ness, which is about 12 cents per day. Not that I’m telling you to run out and buy a $60 planner. Just that it’s okay to do that if you want. And I’m not specifically recommending this planner over other planners. It just happens to be the planner that works for me.

Something I struggle with a lot in writing, and talking about writing especially, is the amount of what I perceive of as gatekeeping. It sometimes feels like wherever you look someone is telling you buy this computer programme, or read this book, or join this organisation, or else you’re doing it wrong. Whereas I strongly believe that writing is something anyone can theoretically do—I mean, whether you’re any good at it is a different issue, but that should be independent of being able to afford to go to workshops, or buy Scrivener, or enjoy a view of a sunset over the Adriatic while planning chapter 8. And while I’m pretty committed to this position, it does mean I sometimes go too far the other way, in that I’m so terrified of contributing to a culture which positions writing as inaccessibly special that I often don’t believe my own work is real.

For some reason, buying a planner changed everything. I’m not saying it magic bulleted all the usual author insecurities, or the raging imposture syndrome that dominates pretty much everything I do in a writing-related sphere, but for the first time in the five or six years that I’ve been doing this I’ve been able to stop treating my writing as a peculiar accident I’m somehow involved in. And accept it, far more comfortably than I ever imagined possible, as a job.

To be honest, the $60 helped with this. I continue to believe spending money on writing isn’t, and shouldn’t be, necessary. But sometimes it really helps to be able to say to yourself: this is important to me and, therefore, worth my investment. And there’s a difference between a totem and a tool, although there’s also some overlap. To put it another way, you don’t need to spend $9599.60 on a Nesmuk Jahrhundertmesser to chop up a carrot, but if you’re serious about cooking it’s sensible to own some decent kitchen knives.

The second thing my planner does for me is that makes what I do—which mostly boils down to staring at my screen in an empty room with a funny look on my face—less amorphous. It is incredibly easy, I think, for writing and writing-related tasks like keeping up with social media, emailing your agent or remembering to scan your proofs for your editor, to seem unreal because, when you get right down to it, they are completely abstract. If you work in an ice-cream parlour and someone asks you for an ice-cream and you give them an ice-cream and they give you some money it’s pretty damn clear what’s happening and what your role in it was. As far as books are concerned, you’ll spend months and years plugging away at something. Then, if you’re super lucky, six to eight months after that you might get a contract for it. And a year or two after that it might be available to the public. No wonder it often feels like you’re doing a nothing that takes ages and affects nobody. But my planner allows me to give writing, and all the things connected to writing, a concrete reality outside of my own head. And, yes, the concrete reality is just words on a page—a record of my word count, an appointment with my agent, a deadline by which proofs are due—but, hell’s bells, at the end of the day I am a writer. Words on pages mean something to me.

And, finally, my planner is an understanding colleague. I don’t know what it’s like to write full-time. I imagine, if I did, I would treat it like any other job and try to do writing, and writing-related tasks, from 9-5 and then stop. Although probably I would not actually do this. I would end up staying up til 3 and then sleep til 2 and then wander around being confused until 3 again. But because I’m a part-time writer, writing takes place always in the margins—in the hour before I go to bed, on a Saturday afternoon before friends come round for board games. I don’t resent this at all, but it does mean there’s never quite enough time, and there’s always a sense that I could, or should, be doing more. I can remember feeling very much the same way when I was at university. No matter how much I worked, which admittedly wasn’t nearly enough because I was eighteen years old with all the self-discipline of a fruitfly, there was always a persistent buzz at the back of my brain reminding me that there was always potentially time for more.  I could always have gone to one more lecture. Stayed in the library half an hour longer. Got out of bed half an hour earlier. It’s perilously easy for writing to slip into this space. For it to become something you flagellate yourself with instead of enjoy, no matter how much you love it.

My planner forgives me for the days I scrawl “too tired” over the word count space or cover it with a “lazy day” sticker because I somehow managed 2000 words yesterday. If I look down and see a substantial list of administrative tasks, I don’t worry too much if my word count is only 500 words or 200 or none. Last week my word count was zero. But my planner was filled with pre-holiday stuff and preparations for Venice. And this week I blocked out two full days with stickers that said “recover from Venice” – and let myself do nothing. If I start to get angsty I simply turn back the pages and see the days I spent proofing. The afternoon I wrote a synopsis. The Sunday where I answered ten emails. The week where I somehow got down 14k words.

In short, my planner gives me permission both to write and to not write. Something I never realised I desperately needed until I got it. And probably what has been this wild revelation to me is searingly obvious to everyone else. But I guess I just thought I’d share it anyway. I’m not really comfortable trying to offer advice, at least not on these sort of subjects. I mean, if you want to know which Arkham Horror LCG expansion to start with or what Hugh Grant movie to avoid I’m totally here for you. But writing-wise, whether you’re published or not, I think what I’m trying to say is: it’s okay to help yourself believe in what you’re doing. For me that looks like a planner. Maybe it could look like a planner for you too. Or maybe not. Either way, it’s all good.

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38 Responses to fitter, happier, more productive

  1. Lina says:

    What a great blog!j so need a planner,i like having to look and check off or scratch out things to do

  2. Kamala says:

    THIS MAKES SO MUCH SENSE!

    It’s a (relatively simple) way to alleviate that ever present, niggling sense of guilt for not working (enough) on amorphous (nice word) tasks.

    I had one planner once that I absolutely loved the feel of. I saw it recently (within the last year or two) somewhere and thought I’d dig it out and ogle it agin. That is if I can find it.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Yes, it’s insanely simple isn’t it? And yet it took me five or six years to discover it!

      Good luck finding (and ogling) your planner. The advantage of my current wildly over-priced one is that it has really high production values so the paper is really thick and the cover really strokeable.

  3. Robyn says:

    I’m so happy the planner is working for you and that it’s put you in a better place overall. Happiness is key, so yay for planners and seeing all the work you’re putting in!

  4. Jeanne Hurley says:

    I’m so glad you found something that works for you!

    I’m old. I’ve read a lot. I’ve even written a lot (technical work stuff) and tried very briefly (lacked talent) to help a writer friend write.

    You write so well and vividly that I’m usually distressed by your minimizing your writing work (your little hobby, sigh). So thanks for this blog. I actually like reading about talented persons’ writing processes so found this interesting, illuminating, and reassuring.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Ah, thank you so much. And I’m sorry if my words about self-minimisation upset you. To be honest, I think most writers are likely to think that way about what they’re doing at some point so it’s more just something you internally grapple with and develop strategies for than anything more psychologically serious.

  5. ML says:

    Thanks for sharing. I really enjoy learning how the sausage is made. I recently discovered your writing and have enjoyed your writing style. I’ve listened to many of the audio books and the narrators and your writing make my bus rides and many flights for my work go by faster as I get lost in the stories.
    Looking forward to reading more!

  6. Sophie says:

    I’m so happy for you that you had this “wild revelation”. Like Jeanne, it distresses me that you feel the need the minimize your writing and that you don’t seem to know how amazingly talented you are. I totally relate to the university feeling that you should always be doing more, but I’m really glad that you’ve been able to find more enjoyment and less self-flagellation with writing recently.

    I’m also glad you found an organizing method that works for you. Honestly, I just throw my daily and weekly to-do lists into one sprawling Word doc, but I think I need a better system. XD

    Also, for me personally, I love hearing how the sausage gets made. It adds even more layers to my enjoyment of books. So if you would like to write posts about writing, I would definitely be interested in reading them.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Ack, you’re so kind and I’m sorry if I sounded whiny. As for a tendency towards self-denigration I think partially just Britishness but also partially a … natural feature of writing? I mean, I’m not super familiar with how other writers work but I can’t really imagine any of this sitting around being like, YES THIS IS GENIUS THAT I AM DOING NOW. In fact, I sort of see figuring out how to work round your own crushing sense of inadequacy as a part of the job 😉 In terms of thinking about one’s own abilities, I try to be at least competent at what I’m doing, and aware enough of that competence to take pleasure in it, but I don’t know else you could regard your own work. Given you, well, created it and your own view, either towards celebration or criticism, is likely to be horrendously biased.

      I used to keep digital to-do lists as well but I found them too abstract and ephemeral in the end. If they’re working for you, though, there’s absolutely no need to change the system – but if you’re inclined to enjoy tactility there can be something satisfying in a physical planner.

      • Sophie says:

        I’m sure there are writers who sit around meditating on the greatness of their own genius—whether that’s deserved or not. Probably they’re few and far between though. And for everyone else with a less developed ego, working around the fact that writing is an abstract type of labor with often only long-term visible gains, as you said, is probably just part of the job.

        And you didn’t sound whiny! I think we’re all just very sensitive to you being less enthusiastic about the work of one of our favorite authors than we are.

        Anyway, it’s Christmas Eve for you already, right? Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year! And I’m so glad you had a great time in Venice.

  7. Kelly from Houston says:

    Happy for you that you’ve found something that works for you. I’m going to share this with my youngest adult kid who is a budding writer.

    I agree with Jeanne, it saddens me to hear you minimize yourself about your talent. I’m sure I’m old enough to be your mother and I would be proud of your writing if I was, just as I’m proud of my own two girls for their own accomplishments. I’m sure I speak for all your readers when I say, we wish you were able to write full time, if that’s something you’d want. The world could use more beautiful stories like yours.

    Hope the trip to Venice was strictly R&R. Merry Christmas , Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I hope they find it useful 🙂

      Also, I should just apologise again for sound overly whiny with regard to my own writing – I promise I am not living in a slough of despond, I just think navigating these sort of insecurities is inevitably a writer’s lot (after all, if we were well balanced, emotional healthy people we probably wouldn’t be writers) and my planner helps me a lot.

      And thank you for the kind words about my writing. I think in practice I would not necessarily write *more* if I was full-time. I would probably just sit around more. Besides, I would prefer not to leave my day job, which I like very much.

      Happy holidays to you and yours – and Venice was wonderful, thank you 🙂

      • Kelly fro Houston says:

        In no way do I think you’re coming across as whiney. I know I’m harder on myself than anyone else and unfortunately have passed that fun trait on to my girls. We’re all some level of type A personality and are all on some drug combo because of it. Again

        I think of you as humble and that comes across in your writing (at least to me). Of course, if you claimed humility yourself, you wouldn’t be very humble, now would you?

        Thanks for all the hard work it takes to get your works out to the world❤️

  8. J.R. says:

    Basically, your planner is giving you permission to do what needs to be done each day to be happy. So if you slack, it’s okay, if your are super productive, that’s good, if you are inbetween, then it’s all good. I learned that in therapy years ago, it goes a long way toward less stress, and a contentment with your life. Thanks for reminding me.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Ah, thank you. I also learned that something like that in therapy. It’s just hard to put it into practice, emotionally speaking, so I find the planner helps a lot with that. Or at least reminding me of that.

  9. Anne says:

    It’s wonderful that you’ve found a tool that helps give some structure to something as that’s as abstract as writing. And, from a purely selfish standpoint…I’m all in favor of anything that could help get your amazing books done faster…

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Hahaha, thank you. I mean, I can’t promise it’s making me write faster but it’s definitely making me feel happier about the process of writing (or, err, occasionally not writing).

  10. Ros says:

    Oh wow. I am well jeal of you finding your Holy Grail of organisation, having been on that quest for many years. And I love the little photos we get of the pages (Finish Ardy and ‘You’re *not* doing this’ spring to mind). I know I do better with written lists/ goals rather than typed ones. But have never found a way of pulling together all the different plate spinning contexts of my life which need to intermingle (interjuggle?) succesfully without the hideous sound of breaking china being a regular feature of my life. So I use a colourful calendar in my iPad, which travels everywhere with me and doesn’t need an elephant to carry it, unlike my previous analogue diary/ planner solutions. But it doesn’t motivate me to do home based tasks, or, in fact, get over my own raging imposter syndrome to start the blog I’ve been meaning to do most of this year. So maybe I should bite the bullet and accept I can’t have everything I need in one solution, use this post to try a different approach, buy a pretty notebook or expenive planner, keep it at home and just get the fuck on with it. Also, I have a weird stationery fetish, so looking for pretty diary type things will always make me very happy. Merry Christmas x

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Ah, thank you. Yes, from reading about planners and watching a metric fucktonne of planner videos I’m aware ‘planner peace’ is a supposed to be a bit more hard won. But I think, in some ways, I have it easier as my needs are both very limited and very specific: since it’s all about writing, and I’m not trying to juggle multiple life strands the way you are.

      You can definitely get small/lighter planners than mine – although I should say that mine is not *actually* that heavy. It’s about the weight of a paperback, although a bit larger. But I think Happy Planner and Plum Paper both do smaller sized planners. Erin Condren only does my size and then one even larger, but she does sort of … mini-planners? For specific goals that accompany the main planner. I don’t know, I haven’t looking into it so thoroughly because I only need one planner. But I’ve seen some bloggers use one main planner and then smaller planners for specific aspects of their life – again these are people who need a planner to do more than just track one particular thing. I’ve also heard semi-good things about the Kiki K medium (https://www.kikki-k.com/uk/planners/) but I haven’t done much research.

      Sorry, you accidentally pressed the “talk forever about planners” button that now exists in my head. But it sounds like you could sort of combine your iPad calendar with a larger, home-based planner. Not that I am being paid to make people buy planners. And, of course, the disadvantage of buying a planner, especially an expensive one, is that if you don’t use it (much like a gym membership) it’s a total waste of money. However, I personally found having spent the money I was then strongly motivated to integrate the thing into my life – and now it has really helped with everything.

      Also I’m sorry to hear your impostor syndrome is getting in the way of your starting a blog. I mean, obviously I think you should do your post to ignore it and blog anyway <3

      • Ros says:

        Omg. Thanks for the links- I ended up on a 2 day internet fugue. Yikes. Paper ones have come on so much since I last checked them out. There is a whole world of planner porn out there! I’m really specific about what I want- preferably B5, pretty cover, lies flat, if it has rings they must be small (so as not to stop me writing on half of the left hand page), no inspirational quotes and definitely NO commands- I can get into a whole authority issue if I feel my planner is being controlly with me. (Like with my car when it tells me I’m tired…) I’m currently torn between the PassionPlanner (genius name) https://passionplanner.com/2019-dated-atrium-red/ and a Tools4Wisdom Just Breathe one which is much prettier, but A4 so a bit bigger than I’d like. Oops. Apparently I have a ‘talk obssessively about planners’ button as well.
        Also, my Amazon basket is now sitting with £150 worth of planners, stickers and washi tape in it. Thank God I managed to stop myself from 1-clicking…

  11. Bev Sutherland says:

    Whatever works to help you make the most of yourself as a writer is absolutely fine by me. You have such a wonderful way with words that I’m sometimes humbled by how beautifully creative your written language is. You are also a writer who seems to have an instinctive knack of knowing which adjective, adverb or semi-colon to use where…unlike a lot of authors out there in the marketplace I might add . Please ‘instruct’ your expensive planner to do it’s job and assist you in any way possible.

    I hold my hands up and admit to enjoying sausages regardless of their origin, and have never been to Venice…even though I imagine it’s quite romantic [and probably even a little smelly cos of the canals]. Now Brugge is a different matter…canals AND a cooler climate so not as smelly but still awfully romantic [sighs dramatically].

    May I wish you dear Author all the compliments of the Season, and a very Happy and Healthy 2019!! Brexit…here we come!! ❄⛄❄

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Urgh, I’m still holding out for a Brexit miracle where someone says “look, this is a terrible idea and will fuck up the country, let’s just not do it” and we … don’t do it.

      But thank you so much for your kind words about my writing. And for your holiday wishes. I hope you are having a wonderful holiday season too.

      Venice was gorgeous and there’s pictures all over Facebook if you’re interested – but, of course, that’s entirely optional 🙂

      • Bev Sutherland says:

        I never wanted to leave in the first place…just get a much fairer deal, but hey ho, the voters have spoken and out we go..that’s democracy for you. It has to be said it’s been handled abysmally, but completely clueless just doesn’t seem to cover it anymore :-(.

  12. Afke says:

    Love reading your ramblings, thanks for this, definitely not alienating 😉

    I’m moving to a regular planner next year from a bullet journal as well. What I do dread is not using it enough and the empty pages staring at me; you don’t get that with a bullet journal.

    However, I’ve become much better at planning over the last couple of years, so who knows? Let’s see where the experiment takes me!

    Being a huge fountain pen nerd (can recommend, though not good for your wallet), I have bought a Hobonichi Techo with really nice paper.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Oh thank you – I’m so glad.

      I tend not to have blank pages in my planner because I use a lot of stickers (which helps enormously) but also because when I do have a blank section, it’s usually either because something stressful is happening (and I make a note of that so I’m aware when I look back) or I’ve actively given myself the time off so the physical space is a reminder of that permission.

      I was a terrible bullet journalling, but I’m a good (insomuch as the concept is good is relevant to planning) planner. I think they’re slightly different systems with very different priorities and you may very well find that a planner is a formalisation of what you were doing with bujo or you’ll miss the flexibility and go back. Either way, have fun on your planner journey!

  13. Cleo says:

    This is timely. I’ve been thinking about getting a planner recently. The thought kind of came to me out of nowhere – I really had no idea that there’s this whole subculture of planner users. So it’s nice to read about how you navigated the hype and found something that works for you.

    And fwiw, I really enjoy reading about the writing process. I’m a designer and artist and I find the creative process really interesting but I definitely prefer to read about it in other creative fields. Reading about other visual artists/ designers tends to trigger all of my ridiculous anxieties / fuel imposter syndrome feelings – but reading about how a writer or choreographer creates is just really interesting and if it relates to or gives me ideas about my process, that’s great and if it doesn’t, that’s fine because I’m not a writer or a choreographer or whatever.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Yes, the planner community is … quite something. I’ve spent a lot of time poking about on YouTube, watching planner videos, which have been simultaneously really useful and really alienating. It’s one of those communities (much like *cough* another not a million miles from us now) where the default assumption is that anybody using a planner, or interested in planners, is exactly the same, and has exactly the same values, as everyone else. Though, to be honest, having a very specific idea of what I needed (a planner explicitly for writing) helped me tease out what was relevant to me pretty quickly.

      That’s an interesting point at engaging with creators of a different type – I might try that. Because, much like you, I find other people in my own field extraordinarily intimidating.

  14. Eboni says:

    Love this sentiment. It’s not about the amount of funds invested but that you invested that makes everything feel more real and serious and right. I get that 1000%

  15. Jody says:

    If there was a ‘like’ button to this post I would have pressed it. Love your writing style. Whether books, blogs…
    all good. I worked for a bank for about 20 years, then they got SIEBEL,. My performance Appraisals became how I was not putting things into the Siebel. I had an A4 diary, 1 day per page, broken up into hours. Best thing for me. They wanted that in the Siebel Calendar..I did nortdo that well. I am visual, i need to SEE it, not toggle to find it.. Go the planner. PS, love your work.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Oh thank you, that’s so kind. I’m delighted to hear you enjoy my writing (in books, or random blog posts).

      That sounds incredibly frustrating about SIEBEL – it’s so frustrating when organisations try to standardise an approach to a particular aspect of the work which is extremely personal. That’s kind of the equivalent of management training if they told you that you had to manage every single person the same way. Gah!

  16. Alice Everafter says:

    Aaaand now i’ve bought a planner. I even bought washi tape 😉 (whattheheckdoidowithwashitape??!!)
    NB you’re intimidating and inspiring as heck. Keep doing … all the things 🙂

  17. Hedvig says:

    I spent my holiday rereading these favorites by Elizabeth Kingston:

    The King’s Man and
    Fair, Bright and Terrible

    I would Love to hear that others in this forum have read these. Truly beautiful character development.

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