Tag Archives: This is Not Advice

(Not actually) Finished

I’m pleased to have as my topic for this week’s blog that I finished a complete draft of Heretic Blood today. I’ve been working away at it, at varying rates and to varying degrees of success, for what feels like a very long time. There have been numerous challenges (many moaned about here on the blog) and I think this book may well be the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.

It changed, or at least my impression of what it needed to be changed, at least twice as I was writing, requiring some extensive rejigging of things both already done and yet to be created. There are also some challenging things in it (that I’m not entirely ready to spoil just yet) that go beyond what I’ve tried to grapple with in my fiction before. In the end I have something that (even reasonably deep in the Statler and Waldorf process) I think is reasonably good and should only get better as I begin the next phase of the job, editing and revising.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that I wrote this book just as I pleased. I picked the words I wanted to pick, wrote each sentence the way I wanted it, and gave more or less zero thought to any of the rules of writing that you’ll encounter on any typical cruise around the internet. As I’ve said before, I’m not sure there really are rules, or at least (as one writer put it on Twitter recently) not in the sense that there are rules for how to assemble an engine. There are, of course, principles that will work somewhat more often than they won’t, and approaches that have succeeded for a great many writers. When it comes down to it, though, what you’re left with is you, the page, and getting words on it. You have to do what works for you, and you’ve got to make it your story. That’s what I think I’ve done with Heretic Blood, which may or may not be an unreadable mess, but it’s my unreadable mess, and I like that.

Editing will probably demand a lot of this changes, and that’s good. My hope is that I’m starting from a place that has a strong voice and tells a story the way I would like it told. I’m sure it won’t be for everyone; with luck it will resonate with some audience, of whatever size. I really do look forward to hearing what my Eager Volunteers think of it, and then hopefully what more of you think of it when and if the book gets to you.

I hadn’t expected to finish today. I knew I was reasonably close, but then this morning I was working on rewriting a scene, took a look to see how much more work there was to do it total, and realized that I could just do all of it today. I changed the plan for my afternoon a little bit, pushed on, and got it finished. It was somewhat like that feeling towards the end of a race when you see the finish line and realize you can sprint to the end. Just: wow, yes, we can get this done!

I made a lot of progress in the last couple of weeks. I think a lot of it was having a stretch of days to devote to writing, and really focus on it, to kind of get my legs under me. I hate to continue the running analogy, but there are things I don’t properly realize until I’m doing them. When I’m running, I need to be able to feel the right stride for me to use – the one that feels slower-paced, but with bigger strides that digest the kilometers, not the quicker, shorter one that burns my cardio and ends up a more frantic, slower movement. It really is similar with my writing; I need that block of days to feel myself settle into a good steady rhythm, and then the pages fill themselves.

I think I hit that over the past week, in particular, and now this job (or a phase of it, anyway) is done. I need to carry this momentum on to another project, and I have a couple of ideas.

Finishing is a lovely feeling.

Now to start something new.

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The Wire

In my bid to keep the finger of this blog firmly on the pulse of about 15 years ago, I recently finally started watching The Wire. (Quiet, you.) The writing is, as very widely reported, very good, and (insofar as I am qualified to judge these things) the performances by the actors are excellent. It is also (as no doubt very nearly all of you will be aware) extremely bleak and not easy to watch.

And yet, I’m really entertained, and very much enjoying it, and this despite the decreasing enthusiasm for ‘shades of grey’ stories that I have mentioned here on more than one occasion. In general, right now I like a story that has some kind of positive resolution, and I tend to like there to be unambiguously ‘good’ characters. The Wire – although I am only one season in – is very clearly not going to provide either of those things. And yet, I’m liking it.

This has gotten me to thinking about why, and in a larger sense, what can make shades of grey stories work, when they do. Part of it, I think, is that even if you’re going to make all your characters various shades of terrible, you still need to make at least some of them individuals that your audience is going to want to spend some time with.

I think The Wire has that. But honestly, I think the larger factor is just that the whole thing is supremely well made. I am consistently, thoroughly impressed with the quality and craft of the writing. The dialogue is consistently entertaining and plausible – sounding enough like things people would actually say – and the plot lines are clever. There are more subtle touches, too, that leave me very impressed. One example: at one point there’s a young kid who had been involved in selling drugs who gets taken out to his grandparents’ house in the country as a kind of protective custody so he can later provide testimony the police need to make their case.

When he arrives, he gets out of the car, and asks what all the noise is. The cop with him has to think about it for a second before replying: ‘crickets’. And that’s the scene. It communicates perfectly how out of his element this kid is and foreshadows that this is not an environment or a situation he’s going to settle into. You could convey those things with a lot longer dialogue or with a bunch more ‘fish out of water’ scenes, but the writers here figured out how to do a lot with a little, and then had the confidence to leave it at that and trust that their audience gets it.

So the story they’re telling is really dark, most if not all of the characters are some degree of terrible people, and just as Season 1 did not have a positive resolution, I feel confident we won’t get one at any point along the way. And yet, despite the fact this is nearly the exact opposite of the kind of story I’m inclined to look for these days, I’ve still entirely bought into this one. Because it is so very well done.

What I think we end up with is yet more proof that you can tell almost any kind of story and get your audience to buy into it and really dig it. You’ve just got to tell it well. There’s a lot of advice for writers out there about which stories are done to death and which genres are dead and even which formats are simply not workable. I gotta say, at this point I don’t buy it. I think people will read just about any story, if that story is told well enough.

When I was first getting The King in Darkness ready to come out, there were many words of wisdom about how dead the novella was. Then some really well done SFF novellas came out, and now novellas are fine again.

It is both a wonderful thing and a horrifying thing that ultimately there is no magic formula for the story that everyone will love, other than: a really well told one. I am increasingly convinced that you can spend as much time as you want chasing the hot genre and the stories on wish lists and none of it matters unless you tell that story really well, and if you can do that, you can find an audience for the story you wanted to tell anyway.

It is both liberating and terrifying, because ultimately, you just gotta write.

Which reminds me that I should indeed be doing that thing.

Thank you for reading.

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The Negative Review

So, as I mentioned on Twitter, if you’re looking for a good way to maintain momentum while trying to finish a novel, it turns out that reading negative reviews of your previous work is a pretty bad idea. I did this to myself recently, and on some level deserve it, because I was procrastinating doing something else. Around the same time, an author friend of mine was wondering on Facebook about when you should listen to someone’s critique of your work, and when you should say ‘no, the way I’ve done it is right, even if they don’t like it.’ So I’ve been thinking about critique and criticism, the last couple days.

There’s no denying that it stings, a little, when someone says your stuff is bad or that there’s a part of it that they don’t like. Ideally, everyone who read my stories would love them, and it’s always going to be at least a little bit of a drag to have someone say that this thing you created, that has so much of yourself in it, didn’t work for them. I think that’s also where the impulse to get defensive over criticism comes from – essentially, we’d like to convince everyone that no, they really did like our work after all.

Obviously that’s not a useful response, and I basically agree with Neil Gaiman that it’s best never to respond to one’s critics. In part because you can tear yourself to pieces in fruitless arguments, and also because people are entitled to their response and their opinion.

This is one of the hard things: not everyone is going to like what you wrote, not ever. Name any book, movie, TV show, no matter how critically acclaimed and beloved, and if we spent a little time digging around we’d easily find some people who don’t like it for various reasons. Just the same as nearly any book, movie, or TV show you care to name is someone’s favourite. People like different things, they often do so for intensely personal and intrinsic reasons, and you can’t change it. I can acknowledge that the objective quality of Breaking Bad appears to have been very high, but I just didn’t like it. (I could explain why, but it’s not important) So, part of being an artist and putting your work out there is that some people won’t like it. They’re neither right nor wrong, except in the sense that they like what they like and your stuff was not it, this time.

So you have to learn not to listen, a little, or (especially in person) to listen politely, and then to let it roll off. It’s ok to disagree about what works or doesn’t work in something as subjective as art, and sometimes a writer and reader are just not suited for each other. You move on. A big part of it, I think, is developing confidence in your work and in yourself as a writer, that yes, you’re good at this, and yes, your stuff is good, having that belief in what you created and how you wanted to write it. Not everyone will like it, but that doesn’t make what you did wrong. It’s good the way you did it, and more importantly, it’s the way you want it to be, and that’s important. Developing that confidence is hard. I’m still very much ‘work in progress’ on that one.

The even harder thing, though, is that sometimes you do want to listen, at least a little. You have to try to be honest enough about your own work (even as you’re confident in its quality) to be open to the idea that there are flaws in it that maybe someone else saw better than you were able to, and that there are ways you could either do that particular piece better or to do the next one better. Because it’s good, and you know that, but it’s not perfect. With some assistance, it can be improved.

That kind of usefully critical opinion is invaluable, which is why readers who will look at your stuff and tell you the truth about it in a useful way are such a precious resource. It is why I am so grateful to the Eager Volunteers who have helped me with my writing. I know they’ve found problems where I thought there weren’t any and my writing has been better because of it. I imagine I got to the point where I have things published because of it. So yes, sometimes you do need to listen.

Which brings us to the very hardest part, which is distinguishing between those times. Knowing when to let a particular opinion slide away and when to pick it up and try to work with it. I think some of that is knowing and trusting where the opinion comes from, and some of it is probably just another of those things we continually have to work on, as artists. I’m not really great at it, yet, which is part of why I can read a negative review and get a bit dragged by it, for a while, although I’m at least at the point where I can talk myself out of it relatively quickly.

Anyway, this is all dangerously close to advice, but honestly this is mostly me talking myself through this thought process again. Which I guess is what a blog is for. Thank you, as ever, for reading.

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The Wave

It’s finally somewhat approaching spring here (although as I write this, snow is falling outside, again) and so I got in my first outdoor run of the season on the weekend. (Yes, friends, another running blog. I know you’re delighted.) It’s much more enjoyable than indoors on the treadmill, of course. There’s much more to look at – I’m fortunate here in Ottawa to get to run through mostly very beautiful surroundings, there’s wildlife to enjoy – and the terrain is naturally varied. It’s also just outside, with the fresh air and the breeze. And, as I was reminded this weekend, there is also what I call The Wave.

It’s a little thing that runners do when we pass in opposite directions on the pathway. Nothing big. Just a little wave to the other person. No-one ever told me to do it or talked to me about it – I just noticed, when I was out running, that most of the other runners I met would do a little wave. So I started doing it as well. You don’t do The Wave to cyclists, and not to people walking. It’s just for runners.

I get a nice little kick out of it, every time. It’s a little bit encouragement – good job, out here – and a little bit acknowledgement, understanding that we are both meeting basically the same challenge, even if we’re going at different paces or over different distances. We’re all on the road. To me it always feels like a little understanding that only another runner, who also gets up early and out on the road, or spends part of a holiday weekend putting in the miles, can really provide. Someone who doesn’t think you’re crazy to be out there, or if they do, at least understands this particular species of crazy.

I think it works somewhat the same for writers, although obviously we never pass each other in the same way. But we tell each other about our WIPs and our word counts and there’s an reinforcement from the ‘well done’s or what have you that comes from a fellow messer-around with words that is especially valuable because it comes from someone who knows the same challenge of sitting down on the days when the words don’t want to come or you’re already tired or would really just have liked to sleep in but – gotta write.

I have found few things more helpful to me trying to grow as an artist than having a community of writers who both challenge me to do better but can also, essentially, give me The Wave. For that I’m very grateful.

And thank you for reading.

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Blank Pages

It’s been a(nother) busy week amid midterm season, but I’m still moving the WIP forward, at least somewhat. I was struggling to come up with a topic for this week’s blog, but then yesterday I was listening to a podcast I enjoy (My Favorite Murder) and one of the hosts (Karen Kilgariff) talked about her experience writing (in this case for television) – that you’ve got a blank page, and you’re just flat out making something up, and you’ve got to believe that people will like it.

That struck me as perhaps the best description of the difficulty of writing that I have heard. It’s certainly true for writing fiction. You’re pulling something out of nothing, and aside from your own satisfaction in messing with words, the only thing you’ve got keeping you going is a belief that there is someone out there who wants to hear this story, so you should keep writing it. I’ve started many projects where that belief collapsed before I finished it, and I couldn’t write them any more.

The intimidation factor of the blank page is no great revelation to anyone who has ever sat down to write. I think we all feel it, to varying degrees, from time to time. I suppose it gets a little better once you’ve written a few things that people have read and have said they liked – I’m slightly more confident in my writing with the two novels published – but the question never goes away, entirely. Is this thing any good? And, of course, it is probably human nature that our failures and rejections (I had a short story turned down recently) weigh a bit heavier in our psychic balances than the successes.

There are two things that I, at least, try to come back to when the blank page is doing its number on me. One is that there is also an astonishing, wonderful freedom in just being able to flat out make stuff up, to make up whatever the heck you want and bring it into being. That’s the special treat of creative writing. The other thing, that Ms. Kilgariff mentioned herself, is the shot of joy you get when someone takes in what you wrote and you know they liked it. And there’s only one way to get there: gotta keep filling in those blank pages.

Nothing particularly ground-breaking there, but it’s what is on my rather fatigued mind this week. It is most resolutely not advice. I shall try to have something a little more daring for you next week, but in the meantime thanks for reading.

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Fog and Rain

It was a rainy, misty, foggy day here today and that feels pretty appropriate for writing this blog entry as I have no idea what to write about. That, in turn, is in keeping with how writing has been going the last while for me – it has been a struggle. This book is now, I feel quite certain, the most difficult thing I have ever written. Some of that is because I know I’m challenging myself in what I’m trying to pull off with it, some of it is just … things not coming easily.

I know my energy is very divided between trying to write fiction and trying to do a good job at the day job and trying to make sure I do other things beyond those two. It’s still easy to get down when the time goes by and the words won’t come.

Yesterday I did reach a bit of a milestone in that I believe I have written all the major scenes for the book I’m working on, and now “all” that needs to be done is to shuffle them into the right order and patch over all the transitions. Experience tells me that’s a fair piece of work to go, but it’s still good to have all the main pieces blocked out.

So I have been making progress, it’s just that every time I sit down to write, even when I know exactly what it is I want to do, it has been really very difficult. Every word I’ve written has been a struggle, and I’ve only hit those stretches where things start to really flow and come easily for very brief times.

I’m not writing this to complain or to fish for encouragement. The reason I decided to write about this today (barring, of course, the lack of another good idea) is that a lot of times when I look around on social media I see posts from writers about how they wrote 4,000 words this morning or just finished the third editing pass on their book and meanwhile I’ve just written and deleted the same sentence for the eighth time.

It often seems, I think, and we are often told, that creation is effortless and easy, and so it’s easy to feel discouraged in those moments when it’s not. Must be doing something wrong. Must not be a real writer. The thing is, that as far as I can tell, everyone has these times when creation is, in fact, super hard. It’s just as important (although less fun) to be forthright about that as it is to talk about the times when things are going very well. Difficulty is part of the process. It’s neither a surprise nor a sign that something has gone wrong, near as I can see.

The thing that I am trying very hard to teach myself is that the most important thing is not to abandon the project at times like this, but keep plugging away, scratch out 113 words in an afternoon if that’s the best you can do, and eventually, things ease up.

This is all dangerously close to advice, so I’ll stop for this week. I trust I’ll have something a touch more engaging for you next time. Thanks for reading.

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Fireplace

I’ve kind of revised my life goals downwards as I’ve gotten older. When I was in Grade One I predicted being in charge of Earth Defense Command by age 21. By about 17 or so I thought I would be a world-renowned journalist. Turned out I took to journalism like a duck to lava. These days, my aim is to one day own a house with a wood-burning fireplace.

These things happen.

I’ve just gotten back from a weekend at a cabin in the Laurentians where I spent a good bit of the time burning about a cord of wood in the fireplace. It was pretty awesome. Aside from making the place warm, I find the whole experience of a wood fire very peaceful. The light from the flames, the sounds from the hearth, the smell of woodsmoke – I find it all very soothing. There’s something satisfyingly basic about it, as well – making a fire is part of how humans have been making a place ours for a very long time. Maintaining the fire feels like taking on a genuinely ancient task. That feeling of timelessness is sort of heightened by the cycle of watching the fire burn down at night, and then starting the next morning’s new one with the embers of the old.

I also enjoy the whole process of building and maintaining a fire. I was surprised, a few summers ago, to discover that my father has only the vaguest idea of how to do this. A lot of his fire-building technique involves ‘soak log with gas’ and ‘light repeatedly’. This is not very effective. I’m not sure where I learned how to get a fire going properly and keep it crackling away all day long but there’s a bit of a thing to it. How exactly I learned this is a little unclear, given that I obviously didn’t get it from Dad. I guess we’ll blame the Boy Scouts.

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You have to plan things out a bit before you start – your fire needs some structure before you’re ready to light it, with kindling and small pieces of wood. Once that’s going, you can think about adding bigger chunks of wood. If you try to start with the enormous logs, the whole thing dies before you get going, and if you try and add too much too fast you’ll kill it similarly. Once burning, the fire requires attention – you gotta keep adjusting things so that there’s a flow of air and adding more wood. If you don’t keep working at it, before long it will die down and go out. Once you get things burning properly, it’s easier to keep the fire lit than let it go out, and start again. A nice hot fire will quickly get its teeth into whatever new fuel you add in, but a mostly dead one takes time to build back up again. However, if your fire does go out, if you dig around in the ash a little bit, you’ll be surprised how long you can find embers still glowing down in there. So you’re not beginning entirely from scratch. Be patient, and start again.

That was, I swear, not a big pile of writing advice.

Thanks for reading.

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I guess it’s 2018

So we’re here at the start of 2018, and I see a lot of people are either doing ‘year in retrospective’ or ‘plans for the year ahead’ blogs. This is not going to be one of those, not really.

I was never big into New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t do them at all, anymore. Lots of people are – we set up lists and make declarations and then sometimes grade ourselves on our performance. I guess I’m not convinced it’s helpful. A lot of times these things just turn into ways for us to persuade ourselves that we’re unworthy, and I think most of use get enough of that.

I think there’s value in planning ahead, of course, but it’s important to recognize that we can’t always control all the things that are going to happen and therefore not necessarily what we’ll be able to get done. Waubgeshig Rice’s New Years’ comment on Twitter was that 2018 will be a grind, just like 2017 was a grind, and he’s absolutely right.

That sounds super negative, but I don’t think it was intended that way. Life always has obstacles for us and demands our best effort at times. It’s not really useful to imagine that it will be any other way – thinking the year ahead is just gonna be smooth sailing is setting up for disappointment. But, it’s also nothing we aren’t used to. Not only nothing we can’t handle, but nothing we aren’t already handling.

There will be challenges, of course. Knowing that doesn’t have to be intimidating. It means we can get ready. We can be strong, we can be prepared to weather everything the year is gonna chuck at us.

What was my 2017 like? I did the best I could with it. I didn’t accomplish all the things I might have liked to, but I handled everything as best I was able, did what was possible within my limits, and in the end I’m all right with that. What kind of year was it? It was the best year I could make.

What do I have planned for 2018? There are things I want to do, sure. But ultimately, I’m gonna do the best I can with it, what I’m capable of, and what I have the strength and energy to do. We’ll see how it ends up. But however that works out, it’ll be the best year I can make.

It’ll be a grind. It always is. That’s ok. We’re strong enough for it.

Go forth and make the year.

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Characters, Still

Yet again I struggled to know what to write for this week’s blog. The last while I have been tired and ill and feeling generally uninspired. I don’t write this fishing for sympathy, but more as a reminder for myself that these things happen. Everyone goes through down periods where they’re not their best and don’t accomplish all that they might like to. Some people are just better at concealing that shit than others.

However that may be – what I decided to write a little about was that I created a new character this week. I always have a lot of fun doing that, and this time it is a little different because this one is for a role-playing game. I wrote a bit a while back about the Star Wars game I’ve been running, and that’s still going. Now, one of my friends is starting up a D&D game and I get to be a player (something I haven’t done in a long long while) this time, so instead of creating the whole setting, I get to concentrate on one imaginary person.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, although the process of making an RPG character is a little different than my usual writing process, because my natural impulse is to start making this new person the star of the story. However, with an RPG, they really won’t be. My character won’t be any more (or less) important than any of the other players’ imaginary people, so what I have to do is create more of a supporting cast member – someone who can fit easily in with a bunch of other narratives and the overall tale our DM has for us.

I think it’s going ok.

Of course I’ve written some bits and pieces of story to go along with this character – because, honestly, what else would I do? – and this also got me thinking about all the characters I’ve created in and for unfinished stories that float around the nooks and crannies of my hard drive, their worlds partially created and their tales only somewhat told. I am just odd enough to feel a little bad about these stranded creations of mine, and also to wonder what it must be like to live in a partly-written world.

There’s probably a story in that, as well, and if Neil Gaiman hasn’t already done it, maybe I’ll write it one of these days.

——

There was a bit of a kerfuffle on Writing Twitter yesterday when an almost-certainly-well-meaning literary agent offered up a fairly broad brush piece of Writing Advice that drew a digital hailstorm of criticism. I was going to write about that a little, but I don’t really have anything to say that I haven’t already – I don’t put a lot of stock in Writing Advice, and certainly not in there being one or more Rules that are the path to Good Writing.

Good writing is, fortunately or unfortunately, something that isn’t about what rules you did or didn’t follow, it’s about whether or not you can write your ideas down and make it work. Different things will work for different people, and for different applications. Ultimately, the wonderful and terrifying truth is that you just gotta write well, and there’s no magic trick and no step-by-step for that.

That’s it for this week. Next week I hope to be a bit more out of my doldrums.

(But Brandon, these entries are getting shorter, huh?)

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Characters

I really didn’t know what I was going to write for this week either (I blame end of term occupying most of my mind these days) but then it occurred to me that I was reading a book where there was not a lot going on in terms of plot, but I was still really enjoying it, and wondered why. Surely this should be disappointing, or at least boring. But it wasn’t (and isn’t) – the book is an absolute pleasure to read. The reason: the characters are wonderful, and even though not that much is happening event-wise, it is just such a joy watching them interact that I don’t mind even a little.

(I’m not sure if I should say what book this is, and I’m pretty sure I won’t. Suffice it to say that despite what I said above, at about 3/4 of the way through it is a wonderful story from one of my very favourite writers, who is about a thousand times better than me both in terms of success and ability. I’m not looking down on the work in any way, just thinking about where its strengths are.)

As I think about it some more, that maybe isn’t the biggest surprise. At a writers’ event a few weeks ago, I got asked about the most important part of the stories I write, and my answer was that when you strip everything else away from my stuff, they are all stories about people. I like to write about people and the things they do, and basically I like to read stories that are, fundamentally, about people and their interactions as well.

In the same way, the kind of fiction that doesn’t work as well for me tends to be not as character-based. Some ‘hard’ science fiction, for example, is basically about technology, or a scientific idea, and the characters are almost peripheral to exploring those things. Sometimes the characters seem to be there just to dialog out pieces of exposition and describe things at each other, rather than speaking and reacting like real human beings. When I think about stories (which again I think I won’t name) that I liked when I was younger but haven’t liked as much on a reread more recently, a lot of times it’s because the characters are shallow and artificial-seeming.

(Now I know a lot of hard SF fans will vigorously dispute the above, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean all hard SF is like this. Just some of it, that I have read. A lot of this is also personal taste, because I know people who couldn’t really care less about the characterizations as long as the concept and the plot is cool.)

I’m not sure if this means I’m exactly very good at writing characters. I think they’re important, and I would sure like to be good at creating them. For the kind of stories I like to read, you need it to be about people before it’s about anything else. So they need to be fully thought out characters who react and speak like real people do, and they need to have concerns and motivations that are the sorts of things that real people are really motivated by.

Which is what the author of this book I’m reading has gotten very, very, right.

Something I’m going to keep in mind, anyway.


Fresh off last week’s post, and clearly lacking any ideas of his own, my friend Brandon Crilly has written up his own Top 5 TV shows list.  It is obviously misconceived, but you should find your way to his blog anyway.  It is here.

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