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What Did You Say?

Today I’m struggling. I miss my dad and there is nothing I can do about it. He’s been gone four months now and I should be moving on with my life. I have, and mom is too, we all are. But sometimes someone will say something that he used to say and BAM! I miss him all over again. So today, I was listening to the radio and one of the announcers asked the other, “Did you hear what I said?” and man #2 says, “Yes, I heard you say something but I wasn’t listening.”

Photo courtesy of Ambro
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As a sassy eye-rolling teenager my dad would often ask if I were listening. I’d usually complain that yes, I heard him and he’d say, “I know you heard me, but were you listening?” See hearing is passive. If there’s noise, speaking, music, whatever you can’t help but hear it. It’s physiology – sound waves and vibrations in the ear. But listening is different. Listening is active. It involves deciphering the sounds. It means paying attention to the words. It means understanding the meaning. It means accepting the lesson and applying a reaction.

We tell toddlers “Don’t touch that, it’s hot.” And they hear us. They just don’t listen. Perhaps it’s the meaning of the words they don’t know. Perhaps those are new words all together. Inevitably, the toddler will touch and get burned and thus define “don’t” and “hot” for future understanding. And the next time you say, “Don’t touch that, it’s hot,” they probably will listen and not touch. Learning to listen is part of the growing process.

As people we want to be heard too. We want people to listen to us. But are we listening to each other? Are we listening for clue words so we can prepare our response while the other person continues talking? Or do you listen to them completely before digesting their words and then preparing a response? Do you jump in and interrupt thinking that you know what they are going to say? How can we expect to be listened to if we don’t listen first? How can we grow if we don’t hear other ideas and thoughts?

Writers are storytellers. And whether or not our storytelling is oral or written, we want the reader’s ear. We want them to pay attention, to listen. Whether we are writing a spellbinding mystery or an historical essay or an instruction manual, we must grab the reader. We do this with particular care in our words, imagery, structure, and tone which match the message of the writing. We want to hook the reader so they listen and absorb our words. And to do that, we must mean what we say. We must have meaning in our writing.

I wish Dad were here. I’d gladly listen to anything he wanted to say even if I’d heard it before.

We are accepting submissions to the May/June issue! The Theme is Conspiracy Theories. So, get out your foil hats and your debugging devices and send in your best stories or theories! Is there a space ship in Area 51? What is the government hiding in the Mariana Trench? What’s on the dark side of the moon? Does the government use fluoride in the drinking water for mind control? You tell us!

Blockage revisited

Hello again.  A week or so ago LeeAnn mentioned that I was suffering from writer’s block.  In fact, these are the first words I have written since before Christmas.

I’ve often read and been told that one has to write themselves out of writer’s block.  But that seems to pre-suppose that one still has the desire to write.  I didn’t, and, indeed, barely have any now.  It’s like a hole opened up in the well of desire and all of mine drained away in a great rush.  I can’t say that the hole has even been plugged, but I at least had enough desire to write this.  Which is a start, and maybe a pivotal point.

I’m not going to push it right now and try to go into an in-depth analysis of everything I’ve been thinking and doing while waiting for this block to go away.  For now it’s enough to have something flowing out.  Something real, if not terribly literary.  But this is the reality of writing for whatever reason you write.  Sometimes it’s more difficult than at other times, and at times it’s all but impossible.  I’ve been trusting in the maxim that writers write, and I’ve been assuming that at some time I’d start writing again, if I was really a writer.  Next I’m going to visit some of the stories I was working on and see if something sparks my interest.

Cliffhangers….

I am addicted to stories. I LOVE stories. I LOVE reading stories. What I love most is really good stories. When I lived in Florida it was not uncommon to have the occasional hurricane blow through. With the loss of power there’s no TV and nothing to do but ride out the storm, alone, in the dark. But wait! With a flashlight you can read! And red wine does not need to be refrigerated so… Yes, during a hurricane by the power of a flashlight (and a bottle of cab) I read an entire book. I wanted to go to sleep after the storm passed but the book was so darn good. What book? Airframe by Michael Crichton. The story itself is compelling enough but not overly remarkable. What made it an absolute page-turner I could not put down was two things. One, the chapters were really short. Like 1-2 pages short. And two, each chapter ended with a cliffhanger. I had to know what happened next. So I kept turning the pages and reading. And eventually the book was done, the flashlight batteries had died, and I could catch a few winks before the sun came up.

In the past couple of years I have discovered the “binge watch.” I will record an entire series and in a matter of a few weeks watch all of them. I did it with Downton Abbey, the first two seasons of Game of Thrones (caught up to where they were and now watch the seasons as they air), Black Sails, The Tudors, and The Borgias. I prefer to do it this way because of the cliffhangers. Patience is not one of my virtues and so waiting nine months for the season to begin again does not make me happy. When I binge-watch, I can go straight into the next season. Like tuning a page to the next chapter.

That’s the key really. Keeping the audience (readers or watchers) turning the page. And most readers will give the author a chance to hook them. About 40 pages is the average (from my experience). So, how do you hook them? Brian Klems’ blog, The Writer’s Dig, has a list of 10 things you should do and he uses examples from an essay he wrote. Here’s the list:

  1. Begin at a pivotal moment
  2. Add an unusual situation
  3. Add an intriguing character
  4. Conflict
  5. Add an antagonist
  6. Change emotion
  7. Irony and surprise
  8. Make People Wonder
  9. Dread Factor
  10. Keep narrative voice compelling

This is an excellent list for writers to keep in mind while writing and editing. It is also good to keep for outlining and structuring. Because to keep the pages turning, you really need to keep these ten items going in each chapter culminating in the cliffhanger, or dread factor, or wonder, or surprise, depending on the action of the storyline.

As a writer, I’m horrible. I’m a pantser. I sit and I type and I hope the story will have some sort of cohesive theme and direction. As an editor, I stress to my authors the need for structure (not just sentence and grammar) and pacing. I need to heed my own advice and I’m almost ready to change from a pantser to a plotter. Yes, we need to let the story take us where it will but the key is to keep the reader turning pages and we need to strategically place our cliffs.

We are accepting submissions to our May/June issue. The theme is Three Wishes. I wish for a… well, let me think about it. What do you wish for?

Discontinued

How many times it has happened to me and probably countless other people? You find the right lipstick, mascara, hair brush, shampoo, detergent, vacuum cleaner bag, pantyhose, pen, pencil, stationery, bra, socks, coffee maker, and so forth and when you need to refill and restock your particular item is no longer on the shelf. And when you ask the helpful clerk, “Where can I find the (insert item here)? You used to have them here.” the clerk answers with the dreaded shrug “We don’t carry them anymore. They’ve been… discontinued.” If you are like me, you race home and search frantically through Amazon, Ebay, Craigslist and various other sites searching for the last remaining item you MUST have. If you are like me, you discover that your item has been discontinued for several months already and the last remaining items have been stashed away already by someone else.

It’s not just things anymore is it? Technology has away of becoming obsolete too. We recently went to show a DVD to our Little Man. Pulled it out of its place, checked it for scratches and cleanliness, inserted it into the NEW DVD player. “You are going to love this movie, Little Man! We’ve been saving it all these years just for you!” And with the press of the magic “load” button the machine swallows the disc. The machine begins to whirr, the disc is spinning. Loading Disc appears on the display. Anticipation builds. Then…. “No Disc” appears. And yes, we tried it several times. A quick trip to the Geek Squad let us know immediately that the DVD player is new and the disc is old. The new player cannot read the old encoding. We need a new disc. Which can be found in stock on aisle 6 for $19.95!

If you tried to open our website this morning, you would have seen a blank grey screen. Our website was down. Apparently, one of the technological thingys was causing a problem. A quick call to the hosting company by A. Marie (she speaks techno speak better than I do) asking them to deactivate all the thingys brought our site back up but now comes the task of figuring out which thingy – this time – caused the crash. Apparently, a thingy can become out of date and what was once a compatible pleasant thingy is now a thingy of destruction and doom. Really getting on my nerves. Because why can’t things be left well enough alone? Why can’t my thingy work indefinitely? Why must I get a new disc? I didn’t change it, so, shouldn’t the person/entity making the changes be responsible for updating everything to make everything work? Or at least give me a new disc for free. I had already spent $19.95 on one, should I receive free upgrades? And free upgrades on thingys! By free I mean hassle free too.

Everything, it seems, gets discontinued sooner or later. Even books become out-of-print (which should be a crime, thank you very much). Out-of-print can mean that the copyright expired and the book no longer is in the hands of the original publisher, or perhaps the sales were not good and only the scheduled print run was produced and no more printings have been scheduled. In the digital age, it’s difficult to know what “out-of-print” or “no longer available” will mean. There are many pieces of literature which have never fallen out-of-print. Obviously, religious texts and Shakespeare’s plays have been printed continuously. The Iliad and Odyssey and Beowulf and the Aeneid and the like have been in continuous print or at lease retelling. In fiction there are a number of books, Robinson Crusoe, The Fountainhead, Dracula to name but a few. One in particular began as a serialized novel and has been a quiet but fantastic story for 150 years. One of my personal favorites. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Check it out. And ask yourself, is what I write today strong enough to remain in print? Or will I be discontinued?

We are accepting submissions to out May/June issue. The theme is 3 wishes. What would you wish for? To be in continuous print? Immortality? A super power? Let us know!

Blockage

Blockage is a bad word. It conjures up all sorts of unpleasant mental images – blockage of the arteries, bowel obstructions, sink drain blocked up, toilets stopped up, traffic jams. The word blockage is both exhausting and filthy at the same time. Can’t decide if I need a shower or a nap when I hear the word. Yet, blockages happen. They are inevitable in all aspects of life.

Our dear friend Daniel LeBoeuf was lamenting just a couple of weeks ago that he has been suffering from writer’s block and has been unable to write for a while now. A. Marie was complaining of the same thing just a couple of days ago. Perhaps, it is soul-sucking day jobs that get in the way. Perhaps it is a time crunch that leaves us with no break and no personal space. Perhaps it’s the kids, laundry, spouses, errands, jobs, classes, pets, responsibilities, that drain our energy and diminish our focus. It happens.

And there is nothing worse than some know-it-all who will say, “you have to make time to write” like that makes the kids or responsibilities go away. Or, “get up early” or “wait until everyone else is asleep” like you don’t want to sleep too. Sure, in a perfect world we’d all go into our creative space, shut the door, and be in our happy places writing, painting, sculpting, reading, making jewelry, and so on and there would be no distractions and we’d revive our energy and all live happily ever after in a motivational poster. That’s not reality.

So, how do you remove a blockage? Good question. The answer is – drum roll please – whatever works for you. I don’t know. I do know what works for me. Words. I LOVE words. I love using words so exploring a new or unusual word and using it in a sentence or two helps get my brain working. AND I can suit the word to my mood or task at hand. For example, we are renovating the kitchen (yes still) and the word for the man who put our tile in is artist. He was fantastic and the floor is beautiful! The word for the business who hasn’t refunded the charge for items we never received is swindler. It’s a game. It’s fun. It’s what works for me. Does it mean I can then go write 2000 words of beautifully crafted prose? No, but my brain is in “word” mode and I’m making sentences. Perhaps taking a walk would work for you. Or a nap. Or drawing a picture. Or building something. 

Anyway, the point is that blockage happens and you have to find your plunger – what works for you to get past it. And no, the same thing won’t work every time; that would be too easy. Try a few things – throw out some words, throw out some old clothes, throw out motivational posters. Be patient, this too shall pass.

BUT don’t let the deadline for submitting to the May/June issue pass! The theme is 3 wishes. If it passes, you’ll wish you’d written something. What would you wish for? 

OMG Doesn’t She Have A Mirror?

I have seen – more frequently than I thought would be possible – memes on social media encouraging women to lift each other up, stop demeaning each other, and so forth and in the very same day, the very same women commenting on how another woman looked.

Lady in Dress
Courtesy of AlexisDC
www.freedigitalphotos.net

“OMG! Did you see what Margie wore to the baby shower?”

“I Knoooow! Doesn’t she have a mirror?”

“Right? She’s way too big/small/tall/short/old/young to wear that!”

Now, aside from the hypocritical nature of the observers – you cannot lift someone up and tear them down at the same time or on the same day or in the same lifetime without being a hypocrite – it begs the question on whether or not “Margie” views herself the same way that the hypocrites do. What I mean is, does she have a mirror and what does she see when she looks into it?

When we develop a character, we know how they look, what they think, why they think that way and so on. But are your characters self-aware? Do they know that they like the color blue because the sweater their mother wore when then they were little was blue and the color makes them feel warm and safe? Probably not. When they look in a mirror do the see that they are too big/small/tall/short/old/young to wear those clothes, or that hair style, those shoes, that jewelry, that make-up? Probably not. Or maybe…

So, when does a character need to be self-aware? What if Margie doesn’t know that a mini skirt is just not the most flattering article of clothing for her to wear. Would she be hurt by the comments whispered behind her back and/or posted by her “friends” on social media? Why doesn’t she know – what’s her self-perception? Doesn’t she see her chicken legs/elephant legs/varicose veins/whatever? What if she does know? Does she not care? Is she so self-confident that she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks? Is she wearing it on purpose to call out the hypocrites?

Self-awareness can be tricky with characters but it is something we have to determine when we develop our characters. Are they aware of their triggers and tells? If not, are they victims or aggressors? If so, are they manipulators or fragile and clinging to self control? Each time we can look into the depths of our characters from our point of view, we can make a richer character. But, if we can turn it around and see our character from her point of view, we can make a more sympathetic character.

P.S. This isn’t just for women.

 

In the meantime, we are accepting submissions for our May/June Issue. The theme is “Three Wishes.” What wishes would you grant if you could? What wishes would you never grant if asked? Would you relinquish the control of your wishes to someone else? To whom? What would you wish for? Send in your stories, nonfiction, essays, poems, recipes, artwork soon! Deadline is April 16th.

Fear – It’s Not Just For Sissies

Today, I want to talk about fear. I have fears. Practical ones too like a fear of heights, peanuts (I’m allergic), snakes, and tucking my skirt into my underwear. With our kitchen renovation I’ve become fearful of what I’ll see when we take down drywall – mouse droppings, mouse carcasses, or more frightening, improper structure. I am also fearful of the estimates from the trades people called in to fix the improper structure and clean up the mouse carcasses. Everyone has fears. Fear can be a huge motivator or inhibitor for us.

Having fears is different from being afraid. Fears we carry with us all the time. I know with absolute certainty that I will never ride on the High Roller on top of the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas. I know this for several reasons:

  1. I fear heights so I wouldn’t go up there in the first place.
  2. It was dismantled in 2005.
  3. It’s just stupid.

Fear is something we have. Being afraid is a state of being and usually causes us to do something about being afraid. Little Man is afraid in the dark so he’ll turn on his lamp. I am afraid of being on a ladder so I get down. I am afraid of snakes and will run away (screaming like a little girl). Fear can paralyze us from doing something but being afraid can motivate us to do something.

How we become fearful of something is important because maybe you aren’t fearful of that thing but an associated thing. I am fearful of heights. Because it would hurt to fall from a height. A lot. It would hurt a lot. So, maybe it’s not heights but pain I’m fearful of. I am fearful of snakes. Because they can bite and some are poisonous. I’m fearful of being bitten (pain) and of being poisoned. I am fearful of peanuts. Because I have an allergy that makes me die. I have experienced the anaphylaxis and don’t want to do it again. I don’t go near them if I have control so I’m fearful of not having control over the food that is offered to me. I am fearful of other people’s carelessness and stupidity. When put in a position where the fear becomes a reality, that’s when we become afraid and act. I’m up high – I get down (carefully). I see a snake – I run. When people are offering me food – I ask what’s in it, possibly decline, never trust, and always have my EpiPen handy.

When developing your characters think about what they fear. How does that paralyze them? How does that make them act or react? What if your character is afraid of themselves or what they could be capable of doing? A. Marie Silver wrote a wonderful series on Fiction & Phobias that you can revisit here. In the series you will find a list of phobias that can be used in your character development or destruction. Just remember to analyze why your character might have a particular fear, what the fear really is, and what action does it cause them to do (or not).

We are now taking submissions for the May/June Issue of Pilcrow & Dagger. The theme is Three Wishes. If you had three wishes, what would you wish for? A fancy car? A big house? Lots of money? Children? No children? A vacation? How did you gain these three wishes? What are the consequences of them? If you could grant three wishes what would you grant? To whom? Don’t be afraid, write your story, poem, essay, recipe, flash, what-have-you and send it in! Deadline is April 16th and there’s no wishing for that extension.

Traditional Publishing

When people talk about being “traditionally published” They are most often talking about getting signed on to one of the “BIG FIVE” publishers located in New York. (There used to be the “BIG SIX” but two, Penguin and Random Houses, merged. I will say that there are still SIX because for some reason many discount Scholastic. We’ll get there.) These big publishing houses carry the weight of history, name recognition, and most importantly – money – in their names. Who wouldn’t want to say “My publisher is HarperCollins”?

To get on with these BIG guys you have to have  the “it” factor. And maybe even then they won’t pick you up. And these guys typically don’t take unsolicited manuscripts.

You will need an agent. Not just any agent, or a new agent. You will need a BIG agent with a client list that reads from the stacks of Barnes & Nobel. You will need an agent who is connected, whose name gets the publisher to answer the phone, who has a rapport with these big publishers. These agents don’t typically take unsolicited manuscripts.

So, how do you get one of the BIG FIVE to notice you? How to you get a BIG AGENT to notice you? Perseverance. Watch these agents’ companies. Many times they will hire a new agent and that new agent will need to start their own slush pile and will make and open call for manuscripts. If yours is accepted, and if it is read, and if it is deemed worthy, your work might be moved up the ladder to the BIG AGENT. Or not. Regardless, keep sending the synopsis out to anyone accepting them.

The thing about the BIG FIVE (or SIX) is that they are very big. They have several smaller subsidiaries which in turn have several smaller imprints. Take Macmillan for example. Macmillan owns Henry Holt which in turn owns Holt Paperbacks. Each imprint and small press operate independently so you can solicit your manuscript to Holt Paperbacks, Kingfisher, and Griffin. They are all part of the Macmillan family. So, if your manuscript is picked up by Griffin, you are sort of published by Macmillan. Perhaps someday, your work will move up the ladder to St. Martin’s Press and upward to Macmillan. There is a chart of the BIG FIVE US Trade Book Publishers that is beautifully done. You can see it here.

The one that did not make the list is Scholastic. To me, Scholastic should be counted as one of the BIG names in publishing. They are the largest publisher of children’s literature and with six corporate divisions and almost 2 dozen imprints, Scholastic has some muscle. Let’s not disregard some of the titles Scholastic has published: The Baby-sitters Club, Freak the Mighty (series), Harry Potter (American version), Captain Underpants, and The Hunger Games (series). I believe that if you write children’s literature or young adult literature, you may want to investigate Scholastic as an option for publication.

With BIG FIVE publishing, you have resources for marketing – book trailers, blog tours, book signings, interviews, press releases, book store shelf placement, promotions, and so on.

If you are fortunate enough to get on with one of the BIG PUBLISHERS, just remember to read the contract very carefully. Rather, have your attorney read your contract very carefully. I promise the goodies are nice but the publisher’s contract was drawn up to their benefit. For that matter, have your attorney read your agent’s contract too. The bigger the agent and the bigger the publisher, the bigger the percentage you won’t see. 

 

Just a reminder, March 1st closes the door on the Dirty Little Secrets theme! So hurry and confess your sin or tattle tale on someone else. Do you have a secret ingredient in you famous chili you omit whenever you give out the recipe? Did you roll back the odometer before you sold your car?  Did you hide the hole in the wall behind an armoir when selling your house? Did you exaggerate on your resume? Do tell! Be quick!

 

Diverse Reading Lists = Fresh, Original Writing

I read a blog recently that touched on how important reading is for writers. The main lesson was that successful writers are also avid readers. I couldn’t agree more. Writing experts often advise new writers to read books in within the genre they want to write. If you want to write Young Adult, you should read as many books in this genre as you can. This is good advice, but I fear that too many writers take this piece of advice to an extreme.  

The worst thing any writer can do is limit their reading lists to only their preferred genre.  Doing so is not going to provide the fresh, original writing that so many avid readers crave. If anything, you may find yourself in a hole recreating someone else’s work without realizing it.

For example, shortly after the Twilight Series came out, it seemed as if every YA book on the market ran with themes that paralleled the Twilight books. Not all of them were paranormal romance books but more than one centered on a female protagonist who fell in love with a mysterious boy. Soon enough, she started to blow off her own family to spend time with his, becoming BFFs with his sister. Then drama ensued: someone was killed or maimed, bad people moved into town, etc., etc.  By the end of the book, the young couple were happy together but maybe preparing for a new battle in the second or third book. So many of these books flooded the market, I wondered if it was because new writers were reading too many of one genre. 

One of the best things that happened to me from my time with Pilcrow & Dagger is that LeeAnn and I began interviewing self-published authors. We try to make sure that each author has published books that fits the theme of our issues. This has forced me to read books in genres I wouldn’t normally read. And while I haven’t liked every book I’ve read, I’ve learned something about myself and my writing from each book.

But, writing isn’t my only interest.  I’m also interested in cooking collecting recipes, crocheting, and I’ve developed a recent interest in computer science – specifically malware. My reading list has now expanded from novels within a wider range of genres to reading blogs about book reviews, writing advice, and technical manuals – each of which has inspired an idea I’ve used to help my stories grow.

Original story ideas can come from the most unusual places. Step outside of your comfort zone and take a look at how other reading materials can help you develop your craft.

Pilcrow & Dagger is now accepting submissions for the April issue. The theme is “Dirty Little Secrets.” Have you ever killed someone? Had problems hiding the body? Cheated on your taxes? Cheated on your boyfriend? Cheated on your boyfriend with his sister’s boyfriend’s boss? It’s time to empty out the skeletons in your closet! Get your short stories, poems and essays in today! The deadline for this issue is March 1, 2017.

 

 

Publish Independently?

Photo courtesy of nuchylee
www.freedigitalphotos.net

If you don’t want to navigate the deep, swirling waters of self-publishing and you are’t too sure about using a vanity press, you still have a number of options that are available to you. At this point you will be looking for a more traditional way to publish your book. There are a bazillion reasons why this is a good option. Presses, or publishers, cover costs such as editing, artists, blurb writing, reviews, printing, distribution, ISBN, and the big expense (in time and money) in marketing. This alone would make anyone squeal with delight. Squeeee!

But rather than search out publication from one of the BIG publishing houses, you may want to give a small press, or an independent press a look. Small or Independent presses publish a few, probably less than 100, titles per year. They will occasionally accept unsolicited manuscripts. (Unsolicited means they didn’t ask you for a manuscript nor did they ask an agent to find one for them.) Small presses typically focus on a particular genre such as children’s literature, picture or board books, young adult literature, general fiction, poetry, romance, horror, and so forth.  Where can you find these gems? Poets & Writers has a fantastic database of small presses. You will be able to narrow down your search based on genre and book type. You can check it out here.

But there’s a caveat. The dreaded contract. Yes, you will be legally bound to this press. You may lose your copyright for a number of months or years in exchange for an advance (hopefully) and royalties during the lifetime of the contract. Then there are all sorts of fine print you need to watch out for such as royalties don’t start until the expenses associated with the publishing of the book are met, sliding scales of royalties (10% until the first 10,000 are sold then 15% to the next 10,000, etc.), whether you get to keep the cover art, yada, yada, yada. What? You’re a writer not an attorney? That’s unusual these days but it could happen. You, the non-attorney author, will need to seek out a literary attorney to read, review, and advise you on the contract deal. Guess what – you pay that fee.

Photo courtesy of stockimages
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There is another option. Locating a literary agent. She can help you locate an appropriate press for your work and even help you with translating the contract. Keep in mind that she will need to be paid for her services. Sometimes they take a percentage of your advance and retainers. Maybe she wants an upfront fee. Depends on the agent. You will have a contract with her too so don’t throw away that attorney’s phone number just yet. Writer’s Digest has excellent resources to locate a literary agent. One such article is here.

But don’t forget, that if you haven’t written a good first draft, and done your preliminary editing and revisions so that it’s a really, really good draft, the odds of an agent taking you on are slim and the odds of a press taking a raw unsolicited manuscript are slim. Write your story and clean it up so that it sparkles. Don’t forget to write your synopsis too!

 

And while you are writing, don’t forget to type up you story for the April issue of Pilcrow & Dagger. The theme is Dirty Little Secrets. What are you itching to tell? Did you put itching powder in your camp counselor’s cot? Did you give poison ivy to someone? Did you give something else itchy to someone? Eww. Do you want to kiss and tell? Did you kiss the bride? The groom? Write it down and sent it in!