It’s all about communication

There’s a very nice little mailbox standing at the end of our driveway. It meets all the requirements that Canada Post has for an individual rural mailbox … but our mail is not delivered there. Instead, we walk or drive the equivalent of about three city blocks to where a set of group, or community mailboxes are located.

Mailboxes

It’s not a huge problem for us to pick up our mail there. We’ve been doing it for almost twenty years. But recently Canada Post changed its services and began phasing out home delivery even in the cities, causing much indignation from those who have always enjoyed the convenience of door-to-door delivery. It’s an economic move for Canada Post.

I understand their rationale, but this business of raising postage costs while reducing services has been going on for many years, and I’ve never understood why they think charging us more but offering us less is going to make them more money. The more it costs me to mail a letter, the fewer letters I mail, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. This has the potential of being a constant downward spiral!

I like the personal touch of handwritten cards and letters, but as they become more expensive, I resort more to e-mail and telephone calls. When I look at the number of people I contact regularly through e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter, I recognize the convenience and immediacy of digital communication with them has many benefits. I probably wouldn’t handwrite long, newsy letters every few days if I needed to seal pages into envelopes, affix a costly stamp, and trundle them off to the post box, then wait a week for them to be delivered. Instead, I resort to a quick few paragraphs on the computer or iPhone, press ‘send’ … and my message is instantly in a friend’s home to be read at their convenience.

Is it a better way to communicate? I don’t think so, but as long as Canada Post continues to make it more expensive, more difficult and more time consuming to do it ‘the old fashioned way’, I won’t hesitate to follow the digital trend.

As a writer, I think communication is a big deal, but I seem to be in the minority when it comes to the personal version. Even cursive writing and penmanship are becoming a lost art as they are being phased out of the curriculum in many schools. I sometimes wonder if there is a correlation between the decline in personal communication and the breakdown of social standards — i.e., lack of respect for other people and for public property, ignorance of etiquette and common courtesies, etc.

That may be taking it a little too far, but it’s food for thought.

One dilemma that the decline in personal communication creates is in novel writing, where rapidly changing technologies outdate what would otherwise be timeless stories. Any mention of faxes, cell phones, thumb drives or CDs, for instance, will sandwich a story firmly in a particular decade, and possibly make it less relevant to potential readers.

We’ve come a long way from author Jack Whyte’s “cold stone slab and a chisel”* but I’m not sure every step has been in a desirable direction.

How do you address constantly changing methods of communication in your novel writing?

* Jack Whyte, Surrey International Writers’ Conference 2014

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When ‘gluing one’s butt in a chair’ takes on new significance

Chair

#amfinallygoingtohaveahappybutt

My post on Facebook yesterday was the truth: “Went to Staples for a glue stick this afternoon… and came home with a new office chair (… and yes, I remembered the glue stick, too.)”

There was this unfortunate combination of things – sore shoulders and a “$100 off” price sticker – that sidetracked me in the centre aisle. I was on my way to the cashier, honestly, I was, but…. With the glue stick clutched in my hand, I gingerly settled into a black leather chair and was still there when my hubby came looking for me.

I have a perfectly acceptable computer chair, one that’s comfortable by everyone’s standards but mine. It just doesn’t fit my backside. I know the fault is mine – my backside is generous, to say the least – but the coaxing voice in my head told me I was still entitled to some comfort as I work at creating my fictional worlds.

So yes, I now have a new  and very comfy chair in my office. (And where am I currently sitting with my laptop? Um, I don’t think I’ll answer that completely irrelevant question.)

OHI_0155-WriterHealthTipArmsThe point is, ergonomics is an important consideration for writers. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety defines ergonomics as “a process of matching furniture (including tools, workstation, equipment, and environment) to the workers and their work tasks to reduce the hazards for injury and discomfort without undermining productivity.”

There’s nothing wrong with using a pad of paper or laptop balanced on our knees to write as we’re propped up in bed, but as a continuous practice over the long term our backs, necks and productivity are bound to suffer. I know most of us aren’t going to spend big bucks on equipping our writing spaces – at least, not until we’ve signed a publishing contract that will offer us a little expendable income – but it’s not a bad thing to keep sound ergonomic criteria in mind if we happen to run across a particularly good sale.

The ideal list:

  • a workspace designed to minimize distractions (including comfort, noise and temperature)
  • good lighting (a mixture of direct lighting (60%) and indirect lighting (40%), plus desktop task lighting in a 20:1 ratio with the surrounding light)
  • windows with glare control (adjustable blinds or shades)
  • a fully adjustable chair with height-adjustable armrests (and the knowledge of how to set it for our needs)
  • an adjustable desk, or one of an appropriate height for us (Dr. David Brandenburg, a UCLA certified ergonomist, says, “The standard 29 to 30 inch desk is way too high for women.”)
  • a foot rest
  • convenient accessories such as a copyholder, plus, if we use one, a computer placed at the correct height and distance, and a mouse that fits our hands and doesn’t require a stretch to reach

If you had your “druthers” (and no cost restrictions), what would be your first move towards a more ergonomic-friendly writing environment?

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Cartoon used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com 

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In writing and in life, “caveat emptor”

Recently I’ve come across a number of Facebook and blog posts sharing information of questionable accuracy. Some of it was definitely erroneous while other bits were extrapolated from a shaky premise. Those who shared, unknowingly believed they were doing others a favour. I’m not sure why I let it bother me, but it makes me gnash my teeth at how gullible people can be.

Since childhood we’re cautioned not to believe everything we read. Television news and advertisements warn of scam artists and e-mail phishing schemes. Yet false claims continue to circulate and people continue to be fooled.

One thing the internet has done is allow every ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ to have their say, instantly, and in a very public way, on a blog, in Twitter or Facebook posts, advertisements or e-mail messages. Because a person promotes himself as an expert doesn’t make him one. Because someone states something with apparent conviction, doesn’t make it true.

Stellers Looking

“What? You don’t believe I’m a crow? I just need a haircut and my roots touched up a bit. Of course I’m a crow!”

I think we tend to be lazy consumers, whether it’s of information or products. We trust government agencies to test the safety of almost everything; we assume the CRTC filters out misleading TV commercials; we believe everything on Wikipedia is accurate; we think everyone in cyberspace has our best interests at heart. It just isn’t so!

The “caveat emptor”* admonition applies to more than purchasing items. I look at my shelves of books on the craft of writing, realize how different some of the advice is, and wonder what I should believe. Which ‘expert’ should be followed? There are templates for how a story should unfold, tips for making characters come alive, suggestions for fleshing out settings or cutting down on description, advocates both for and against using prologues and epilogues. Who’s right?

In critique groups we say that any suggestion for a manuscript change is the opinion of the critic. If only one person in the group makes the suggestion, it can be evaluated and discarded if desired. However, if several people make the same observation or suggestion, weight is added to its importance and it shouldn’t be disregarded without a valid reason. I believe the same criteria can be applied to more general writing advice.

If a certain method of writing produces a bestseller for one author, there is no guarantee it will do the same for another. We each bring our individuality and unique abilities to our writing along with our own slant on plot, characters and setting and our own style. Focusing on the work and advice of other successfully published authors is valuable, but still needs to be done while filtering the material through the lens of our common sense. On the other hand, if the person offering advice is a self-made expert, perhaps we need to put some effort into researching its validity.

How do you determine the usefulness of available advice and information?

* Let the buyer beware

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This BC writer’s rant…

RemingtonTypewriter

Beware! This is a rant!

For the past two years the Federation of British Columbia Writers’ website has been in constant upheaval as its executive seeks to make it relevant and accessible to writers.  Their Fall/Winter 2010 magazine, WordWorks, carried the announcement that their soon-to-be-launched upgraded site was “a new [virtual] front door to the Federation of BC Writers, a renewed… rejuvenated web site”, and that the plan for the new site was “now live online.” It was the first of many similar announcements, with each attempted site revision becoming more complex.

When volunteers were sought, I was one of three who worked on transitioning data from the original site to the new one during the spring of 2010. Before our work was complete I returned to the site after my summer vacation to find everything we’d done had been altered, and there had been a change in personnel and the executive.

Web gurus took a turn at trying to get everything reorganized and functioning. Then it became mostly a members-only site, with passwords that didn’t always work, and material dependent upon member input that rarely occurred except by a handful of insiders.

I know I sound cranky and critical, but my inner voice has been shrieking, “It’s a WordPress template, for goodness’ sake. How difficult can it be to have an introductory front page and links to pages of appropriate info, with a blog page for easily added news?” “And why do we need detailed bios for hundreds of members – “profile [to] include a list of publications, awards and workshop skills… and a professional quality head shot” — when our achievements will constantly change, requiring regular updating?”

The website has been ‘in transition’ for over two years. I often wonder if anyone bothers to access it anymore, except perhaps new visitors who must wonder at its state, and the occasional curious member like me who despairs of it ever again being a useful site for the writers of BC who the BCFW purports to represent.

Be clear about one thing: I am not criticizing the efforts of our executive. Past President George Opacic and current President Ben Nuttall-Smith are also remarkable, but the workload they undertook has been overwhelming. It’s my personal belief that what the executive wants the website to become is both unrealistic and unnecessary.  Efforts would be better directed at maintaining it at a basic level and continuing the present forms of communication – the VOX monthly newsletter, the Facebook page and the members’ WordWorks magazine. That would leave the exhausted executive free to focus on its many other services to the membership.

An announcement on FB July 21st said, “Physical transition from the old to the new site will take place Thursday, August 1 from 10pm to 8am.” On August 2 a further announcement said, “We’re well on our way to launching our improved webpage. The grand launching will be on August 16, 2013 so in the interim, please bear with us. What you see right now if you go to the page is simply the scaffolding for its creation in its new form; places to build our new creation. Mark the launch date in your day planners. Its going to be a great page.”[sic] I’ll believe it when (and if) I see it.

FBCWThe photo I’ve used above is one of my own. Except for these Fed initials, I have no idea what our logo is anymore – the header gracing the website and FB pages changes every time I visit. The website’s current front page carries a changing photo banner, followed by an equally large section devoted to three advertisements for  ‘cyberchimps.com’. I have to say, that made me giggle.

In a letter, FBCW President Ben Nuttall-Smith recently asked, “How can the Federation regain its relevance for BC Writers?” I think the bigger question is how can it regain its credibility among the membership?

There you go. Rant over.

If you are a FBCW member, what do you think the website should accomplish? If you are a writer or a reader what would your one suggestion be for writers who are creating a new website or blog?

 

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Saved, Backed Up and Lost… aka, when precious files go missing

Contrary to what some readers might think, a writer’s life is not a bed of roses. (Okay, I know that’s a cliché, but I wanted to use this photo I took at our church picnic yesterday, so humour me.)

ClimbingRoses

My daughter is going to think this post is directed at her, but it isn’t. Not really. It could have happened to anyone. Losing an important file is devastating. Losing a manuscript is every writer’s worst nightmare. To get a couple different perspectives on what I’m talking about, check out literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s post, “Never, never, never lose your work.” Then perhaps slip over to read DD Shari’s post, “Une petite freak-out.”

We all save our documents. I guess the question becomes HOW do we save them? Shari’s manuscript was duly deposited in Dropbox and regularly saved, and yet a month worth of ‘saves’ after May 7th were apparently ineffective. She’s lost her last month’s work. My important files are also in Dropbox, so now I’m nervous.

How do we back files up to avoid freak-out situations? I thought I was being thorough by also having Time Machine automatically backing up our computers on a Time Capsule… until the Time Capsule died. I also have significant files on a flash drive but I learned of a writer who inserted her flash drive one day, only to find it had been damaged and wasn’t recognized by her computer, so she couldn’t access any of its files.

Rachelle recommends using a remote (off site) backup with a system of automatic saves. She mentions Carbonite, Mozy, iCloud (for Mac users) and Dropbox, but her readers offered several other suggestions as well.

Shari says we shouldn’t get obsessive about it, but one of the people commenting on Rachelle’s post says,
“I have both Dropbox and Carbonite. I also periodically copy files to a flash drive. But just so you know, if you have an interruption to the internet or your computer hangs without crashing…you will lose everything until a reboot restores everything to normal. Lost half a day’s work because I think a power surge froze the computer but it looked like I was still being able to work. I merrily worked but the automatic save didn’t save, and finally after a system crash the whole system went back to an earlier time…So even those aren’t total fail safes. Murphy works around your best-laid plans. Best you can do is mitigate damage and move on.”

I don’t like dancing with Murphy. That’s always risky. After reading other people’s horror stories, I’m thinking I need to take another look at how effective my system would be in various worst-case-scenarios.

What’s your idea of a dependable way to ensure the safekeeping of your manuscripts or other important files?

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Tiptoeing into technology

We aren’t a technology-ignorant family. There are computers and DVD players in our household, a programmable coffee maker and assorted other electronics whose buttons we push with some measure of confidence. My hubby, however, has never had a good word to say about such things as iPods, Blackberries, tablets or smart phones. He prefers alternatives that don’t require dependence on rechargeable batteries and won’t lose his list of addresses and phone numbers by fatally crashing.

So when he suddenly announced last week that an eReader appealed to him, we were shocked. He had taken a hardcover library book to the hospital but found holding it up to focus on the fine print took more energy than he possessed. The advantages of his visiting daughter’s 6”/6 oz. eReader with its adjustable font sizes became apparent. After two days of researching eReader features, he had his new Kobo.

His doctor had suggested he ought to be carrying a cell phone with him when walking alone out here in the countryside, and the same day as the Kobo was acquired, our son produced a new cell phone – at least, newer than my failing twelve year old basic one. He transferred our coverage and data, gave a tutorial, provided a manual and handed it over.

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Now my hubby not only has a renewed lease on life but has also stepped willingly into the digital age… at least, he’s tiptoed a few paces in.  It hasn’t been entirely seamless. There’s a learning curve as he figures out such things as how to download books and assign quick keys to new phone numbers. The benefits of this technology for him are already obvious although I don’t expect he’ll be investing in an iPod or iPad anytime soon.

It has me re-evaluating certain attitudes – notably my reluctance to embrace aspects of social media. I’ve been one step behind everyone else, creating a blog and joining Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Google+ slowly and one at a time, only when every writer, agent and publisher I encountered insisted they were valuable tools for an aspiring author. I’ve resisted Pinterest, LinkedIn, StumbleUpon, YouTube, forums, cyber games and any number of other activities designed to keep me online and away from my writing.

Their time may come, but for now I have other priorities. I’m trying to be selective in where I choose to spend my time and energy, because otherwise the really important things will get squeezed right out of my schedule. If I’m establishing a platform at the expense of not getting my writing completed, I’m hardly accomplishing anything worthwhile.

Like my hubby, I’m willing to take on new challenges but only when I recognize their value. Here’s my current checklist:

  • Know when a need exists
  • Do the appropriate research
  • Make wise and timely choices
  • Add one new venture at a time

You obviously spend some time reading blogs or you wouldn’t be here. What other ways do you participate in social media? Did you jump into several types at once, or which one(s) did you undertake first and why?

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A worthwhile challenge: can we do it?

Yes, I know I said I was taking a blogging hiatus, but this is worth breaking it for.

Every so often I come across a very worthwhile cause. This time it was on Facebook, where I discovered singer/songwriter Jimmy Rankin had decided to do a Christmas giveaway — a personally signed guitar. He plans to give it to someone who comments on the offer, and whose comment garners the most number of “likes” before December 31st. Simple. No strings attached.

Win a signed guitar Epiphone DR 100 from me for the holidays! Just comment below and tell me why you’d like to win. Have your friends like your comment and the person with the most likes will win! Good luck everyone! 🙂 Happy Holidays! – Jimmy
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What made it worthwhile to me, however, was that one of the people who commented was Kelly Yeats, the sister of author and blogging friend Laura Best, and the reason she would like to win the guitar is so she can give it to her nephew who is recovering from a devastating car accident in which his back was broken.
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There are hundreds of comments on Jimmy Rankin’s post, but only two are really close to winning, with Kelly Yeats in second place barely a dozen votes behind. Lots of people would love to have this prize, but as I read through the comments last week I realized that most just “wanted” it, either for themselves or to give to someone else who would like to have it. I couldn’t see anyone else who would benefit by being physically and emotionally encouraged in his long road to recovery like Kelly’s nephew. So, I’ve taken up the cause, too. With only three days left, the two top comments are staying pretty much neck-‘n-neck in number of votes. I’d love to help rally more votes for Kelly’s comment.
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This is a Facebook thing, so you have to have a Facebook account if you’d also like to help.
  • Sign into your Facebook account.
  • Go to Jimmy’s page.
  • Once there, find Kelly’s comment (you’ll have to click several times on “view previous comments”, then scroll down to find hers. It was made on December 14th at 2:37 a.m. my time (PST), 6:37 a.m. if you’re farther east where Kelly lives.)
  • Click “like” on her specific comment for the vote to count (adding your own comment in support of her doesn’t count as a vote). (There are over 1100 “likes” on it now, but she’s still running in second place.)
I hope you’ll agree this is worth the effort and, if you have a Facebook account, will click on over and vote by “liking” Kelly’s comment. I’ll let you know in my Monday post how it works out. Whoever wins, I wish her nephew a speedy and complete recovery from his injuries.
Carol
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JANUARY 1 UPDATE
Although Kelly didn’t win the contest, she maintained second place by about 20 votes. This morning Jimmy Rankin posted the following notice:

“You guys rock! The response to the Epiphone guitar contest was fantastic – so many great comments – wow! Congratulations to Colleen Ingraham on winning the contest! It was neck and neck right down to the wire. Kelly – if you can hang tight, I’m going to get a signed guitar to you for your nephew. Happy new year to all and here’s to your dreams becoming reality in 2012! Cheers… – Jimmy
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Meanwhile, Kelly has created a separate Facebook page to collect well-wishes for her nephew, Robin Varner. What a lot of ‘coming together’ this contest has created!
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Only a week until NaNoWriMo!

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Eep! November is only a week away and everyone’s talking about NaNoWriMo – the thirty-day writing marathon that I’m trying desperately to ignore. If you’re out of the loop, it’s NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth, and it involves writing a complete 50,000-word novel during the month of November.

It began as a lark in 1999 with twenty-one “overcaffeinated yahoos” in the San Francisco Bay area, and year by year has exploded into a worldwide online event that in 2010 involved 200,500 participants. The story of how it happened is found here.

It’s a tortuous, and exhilarating run of madness, and it works. If your writing needs a kick-start and you’re willing to make a commitment to write at least 1,667 words a day, without editing (because there’s no time to edit – you do that when November is over), it’s great motivation.

I’ve participated four of the past five years, but this year my enthusiasm has waned before November even arrives. I have other writing on the go and want to stay focused on it. There may be 1,667 words written in a day, or there may not be. There may be more on some days, but at the moment I don’t want to be conscious of having to log in and report the numbers. If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.

How about you? Will you be taking part in NaNoWriMo? What would be its advantages or disadvantages for you?

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Desk Deliberations

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Computers have not only changed how we write, they’ve changed where we write. No, this photo wasn’t taken recently, but it shows one of the places my laptop and I can go to write on warm summery days. (That’s assuming we’re eventually going to get summer this year.)

I know I’m more efficient when I work at my desk, but a change of locale is refreshing. It occurs to me that there are a surprising number of desk options in the house besides the one in my office. That one is exclusively my own… the office and desk leftover from my days of running a business from home.

My husband has a desk of his own, too. After forty years in ministry with an office in the church du jour, he needed a spot at home after he retired, and a corner of the guest room became his sanctuary.

My bedside table in our master bedroom is another desk, one that belonged to my husband’s parents. Its finish is crackled and marred but that only adds to its value as a family heirloom. The accompanying chair with its petit point cushion somehow disappeared into a stepmother’s household, but the desk has followed us through seven moves. I keep a pen and notepad in it for nighttime eurekas but without a chair I’ve never used it as an official writing place.

There’s a built-in desk in the kitchen/family room, too, but I don’t think of it as a real desk since it’s an extension of the matching kitchen cabinets and countertop.  When it hasn’t been cleared for the sake of a photo, it collects spillover debris from the other counters… right now, in addition to the phone, it holds a box of tissues, a jar of 20-20-20 fertilizer (my houseplants need help), a notice from the vet that our dog is due for his booster shots, and a pottery jar of peppermints.

Upstairs, in what use to be our youngest daughter’s room before she married, there is a tabletop desk in front of the window. It was chosen to provide lots of writing space for my writing buddy when she comes to visit. Often as not, though, she comes downstairs to work at the kitchen table where more of our ‘Wildwood Acres’ is visible. (She doesn’t come often enough now, but at one time there were week-long visits when we spent hours discussing our writing projects.)

Five desks in one home! I know I’m blessed with all these options. I could take my laptop computer and work on any one of them, and yet most often you’ll still find me in a recliner in the family room with my feet up and the laptop perched on my knees. There’s something to be said for being surrounded by the comfortable informality of the working household, even when that includes the distractions of the refrigerator, the television and my husband’s comings and goings.

Please excuse me now… I’ve made a cup of chai tea and it’s time I got back to writing.

How about you? Do you have a desk? What are your favourite writing spots? Do you cope well with distractions or do you need privacy to write productively?

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What I learned about writing from a crochet pattern.

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Until it was finished, I couldn’t envision how the design was meant to look. It was a crocheted afghan pattern a friend gave me many years ago. I read it through several times but it still didn’t make a lot of sense. Starting with the first line of instruction I chained the specified number of stitches, and carried on, one row at a time, until a pattern began to emerge.

Computer software manuals are a little like that, too. I can read them repeatedly, but until I finally sit down at the computer with instructions in hand to work my way through the various steps one at a time, I’m boggled.

Without a pattern to guide me I could crochet a large rectangular bedcover using the one or two stitches I know and various colours of yarn. The result might provide a cozy cover but it would lack a pleasing design. I couldn’t hope to win any prizes in the Fall Fair or sell it and expect it to become someone’s heirloom. And without a manual I could probably figure out the basics of the software by trial and error, too, although many of its sophisticated features would remain undiscovered. I’d never be able to use it well enough for a business application.

“Anyone can write a book!” True enough, but few books that are written without the knowledge of good plot and structure concepts, character development and effective dialogue have any hope of finding success in today’s highly competitive publishing market.

I’ve often read that we should write our first novel from the heart, allowing creativity free rein. Then take time away from writing to read and research about the craft before undertaking future projects. We can expect to improve as we continue to learn and practice.

When I consider the future of my afghan, I realize the quality of the finished product depends not only on learning how to follow the pattern, but also on first practicing until the stitches are correct and the tension is even. I will undoubtedly be proud of my accomplishment when it’s finished, but any person experienced in crocheting would quickly recognize the piece as being made by a beginner. It takes specialized knowledge, much patience and a lot of practice to become proficient at creating any art form.

How much practising have you done to reach where you are today? As a writer do you consider yourself a novice, intermediate or expert? (Throw humility to the wind and be as honest as you like.)

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