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MATT'S OCCASIONAL WRITING BLOG

Thinking About Music …

Play that funky music.

(*Updated re-post from 2023)

 

Ah, the understated joys of parenthood: like when one of your children lovingly mocks you in the form of a Pokémon card. 

 

I've been a piper for almost fifteen years and consider myself solidly mediocre (as the picture here evidences, I'm just good enough to play a tune or two for my church or lodge). There's actually not much music to bagpipes (there's only nine notes); mostly, it's an instrument of technique and physical stamina. Irish flautist, Sir James Galway, once remarked that the one time he tried playing the pipes was like blowing into an octopus. I assume that comparison was based on speculation, and it's probably not far off the mark. But I digress. 

 

Music often comes up in writing, especially in the fantasy genre. Perhaps it's because Tolkien wove so many songs into The Hobbit, or perhaps it's because music was one of the few forms of entertainment widely available in pre-industrial societies, or perhaps a lot of fantasy authors are simply frustrated bass guitarists (okay, so no one is ever a frustrated bass guitarist, but you get the idea). But having characters sing a song--and then writing out the song's verses--is very much a thing in fantasy fiction, almost a trope.

 

I was looking back over some of my stuff and realized I've done it a few times myself. My very first novel (a long, middle-grade animal fantasy) has about five different songs the characters sing at various points along their journey. The Mountain has one, too. Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock has a chapter that weaves in and out of a character singing a lament (the lyrics are very loosely based on an Oscar Wilde poem). It's not something I really set out to include, but it does seem to pop up from time to time in what I'm writing.

 

Music in prose can be a bit tricky, though. Sometimes the songs that come up in fantasy novels can come off a little flat (pardon the pun). To be honest (and, please Tolkien fans, this is meant as no disrespect, so hold on to your pitchforks and torches), I've always glazed over the songs Tolkien put in his books (I mean, I could kind of get a feel for the goblin songs in The Hobbit, but it was a little hard to catch the tune of "O! Tril-lil-lil-lolly the valley is jolly! ha! ha!"). In fact, I'll go so far as to say that fashioning music into prose more often ends up as a distraction than an enhancement of the story.

 

And yet ... music is an important part of life. For a lot of people, music resonates with something deeper, even something divine. So it's only natural that if a writer is crafting a fantasy world, she or he would want to weave music into it in some way. How does one pull it off so that readers are humming to themselves, and not just flipping past pages? 

 

Two things, I think, can help a song in a novel truly sing. First and foremost, the music has to serve the story, not the other way around. Is recounting twelve verses of metered rhyme doing anything to propel the narrative, a conflict, a character arc, in any way? Is it foreshadowing something? Does it serve any purpose in the novel? If the honest answer is not really, then it probably needs to stay out. Second (and perhaps more challenging), is it actually musical? Often what's described in a fantasy novel as a character or a group singing a song comes across as a character or a group reciting a poem. There is a different beat and meter for spoken poetry than sung music (the latter must generally be shorter and punchier than the former). One trick I've found that makes a song in a story more likely to work: sing what you've written. Yeah, that's right, author. You want your reader to read your song? Sing it to them. Whether it's a tune you've made up or one you've heard somewhere, it doesn't matter. Sing your song. What this trick does is it puts what you've written to the musical test--if it can't be sung, it's not a song.

 

If your story needs a song in it, and if what you've written fits the bill of a singable song, then your reader will be less tempted to breeze past the singing parts, and might just try to sing along with you.

 

- Matt

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Titling

What else would you call these?

Titles. They are perhaps the first thing a potential reader sees when scanning a bookshelf or scrolling through an online store. With font-sizes approaching triple-digits, a title is even more important than a cover. 

 

I got to thinking about titles lately with a stand-alone fantasy book I have that's now in editing with Montag Press. I had a working title that I've never been crazy about (neither was my editor); now we're batting around some alternatives. It's a tricky business coming up with a title that both captures your story and markets your book. Sometimes a title hits you and it just sounds ... right. For me, Look With Your Eyes and Yonder & Far were settled and set in stone pretty early on in the creative process and never changed. The Mountain was more of a challenge to name (and, truth is, if I could've come up with something better, I would have). As for the current book in editing ... well, let's just say it doesn't seem to like its name so far. We'll get it pinned down, though. :)

 

There are so many different approaches to titling a book. You can do the iconic, one-word grab. Dune. There's a title that, even apart from the story, seemed destined to invoke something timeless. Others carry a stray phrase, something that only gains context from the story--To Kill a Mockingbird, for example--which intrigues and invites a reader to pick up the book. A title might harken the salacious (there's a host of recent books out with "F*ck" wedged into the title). Umberto Eco titled his masterpiece historical fiction novel, The Name of the Rose, not from anything to do with the story, but because he liked how it sounded (the Name of the Rose movie directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud actually wove in an ending line that tied the title in quite smoothly). 

 

Next to writing the hated back-cover blurb for a novel, there may be no harder exercise of summation and marketing than titling one's story.

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Seeing One’s Book on a Strange Shelf

Check it out.

It's always a thrill when you see one of your books on a strange shelf. All the more so when that strange shelf is at your local public library. I was pleasantly surprised to see The Mountain available for public reading in South Tampa's Jan Kiminis Platt Library. It's keeping company with such luminary works as The Last Party and The Story of My Teeth. :)

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In Praise of the Oxford Comma

Commas do indeed save lives.

I am no grammarian (as my editors will attest). I didn't major in English. But I have always, and continue to have, strong feelings about the existential importance of the Oxford (serial) comma's use in the English language. In that spirit, enjoy ...

 

From O'Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, 851 F.3d 69, 75 n.5 (1st Cir. 2017):

 


Before leaving our discussion of serial commas, we would be remiss not to note the clarifying virtues of serial commas that other jurisdictions recognize. In fact, guidance on legislative drafting in most other states and in the Congress appears to differ from Maine's when it comes to serial commas. Some state legislative drafting manuals expressly warn that the absence of serial commas can create ambiguity concerning the last item in a list. One analysis notes that only seven states—including Maine—either do not require or expressly prohibit the use of the serial comma. See Amy Langenfeld, Capitol Drafting: Legislative Drafting Manuals in the Law School Classroom, 22 Perspectives: Teaching Legal Res. & Writing 141, 143-144 (2014); see also Grace E. Hart, Note, State Legislative Drafting Manuals and Statutory Interpretation, 126 Yale L.J. 438 (2016). Also, drafting conventions of both chambers of the federal Congress warn against omitting the serial comma for the same reason. See U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Legislative Counsel, House Legislative Counsel's Manual on Drafting Style, No. HLC 104-1, § 351 at 58 (1995) (requiring a serial comma to "prevent[ ] any misreading that the last item is part of the preceding one"); U.S. Senate Office of the Legislative Counsel, Legislative Drafting Manual § 321(c) at 79 (1997) (same language as House Manual).

 


From Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern English Usage, p. 982 (5th ed. 2022): " … including [the Oxford comma] never creates an ambiguity, whereas omitting it fairly often does."

 

And, last of all:

 

 

I love cooking my pets and my family

 

Don't be a serial killer

 

Use serial commas and love cooking, your pets, and your family

 

 

 

 

 

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Novels, novellas, novelettes

People have a tendency to classify things--animals get tagged and sorted by biologists, languages are divvied up in philogy, geologists spend their days stratifying the earth. Stories, it seems, are no exception.

 

In fiction, most folks have a ready understanding of what a novel is. On the surface, it might be a thick tome in leather binding or a pulp paperback sitting in a spinner rack, but everyone knows what's going to be inside the covers. A lengthy story with protagonists, antagonists, rising and falling action, a subplot or two, that's going to take the typical reader a few sittings to get through. 

 

But there's a range of shorter fiction writing out there, works that don't run the length of a novel. Over time, there has come to be a commonly recognized delineation between different kinds of shorter fiction based on word count. So we have the ... 

Novella: 17,500 – 40,000 words
Novelette: 7,700 – 17,500 words
Short Story: Less than 7,500 words

 

(* You could add to this list, "flash fiction," which is a short story under 1,000 words)

 

Most people have a pretty good intuitive idea of what a short story is. It's a piece of fiction that you can sit down and read in one sitting. Usually it will entail no more than 3 or 4 scenes. Rarely will a short story venture far from a primary character (it's a hard trick switching point of view between multiple characters with only a 7,500-word runway). But novellas and novelettes aren't terms that are frequently used outside of writing circles.

 

Here is what Jericho Writers says about the novella and novelette:

 

 

Novellas tend to follow a linear structure with the main action centred on the protagonist's development. This could be an inner conflict that is resolved or simply explored, rather than a series of events. Due to brevity, there isn't the scope for several sub-plots or settings although some elements of the novel may have some complexity.

 

***

 

If the novella is the younger sibling of the novel, then the novelette falls somewhere in between a short story and a novella.  

 

With a word count of around 7,500-19,000 words, the novelette borders both the top end of a short story and the length usually acceptable for a novella. As with the short story and the novella, writers may be constricted in terms of the number of characters they can use and the amount of plot development they can include.  

 

The plot will probably be linear and uncomplicated with few, or no, sub-plots. One or two characters will feature – not a cast of hundreds. It will have a defined focus and will be complete as a story. The novelette enables writers to give more flesh to the bones of their short story, though the writing still needs to be concise. 

 

 

I've found novelettes and novellas an enjoyable pastime for fiction writing. In fact, that's been my focus lately. Look With Your Eyes was my first published novella. I've had a couple of novelettes included in short story mags. True, these kind of stories don't enjoy the popularity they used to (although trends can always change), but they're so much fun to write. You can experiment, work with off-the-wall ideas you'd never sink into a full-blown novel, because there's not nearly the same time commitment. The focused attention these forms demand is good for me (you can't chase rabbits down holes when you're limited to 50 or 60 manuscript pages).

 

 

Stories have always come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Today we have some handy labels to keep track of them.

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The Joy of Mad Libs

Because they never get old ...

Our younger son has gone on a Mad Lib tear lately, where he and I are doing 3 or 4 a day. I had forgotten how much fun these can be. It's not just the liberal replacement of bodily functions for ordinary verbs. It's the whole ridiculous, co-creative process. There's an art to picking Mad Lib words for maximum absurd comedy. You want randomness, of course. But the more specific your words can be, the funnier the result. If you pick "foot" when you're asked for a noun, you might get something funny. But if you pick "my brother's big toe knuckle" for that noun, I can almost guarantee a laugh.

 

Just for fun (and because we were running out of Mad Libs), I decided to try my hand at authoring a Mad Lib. It's really just an exercise in flash fiction scene writing. You get an idea for a quick scene that will be told almost entirely as exposition; then just remove certain key words. You don't want to overdue the number of blank words or else the underlying story concept will get lost. But you also want to give plenty of opportunities for hillarity. Since our younger son has also been getting into Dungeons & Dragons lately, I decided I'd meld the two interests into the first (of hopefully several) Mad Libs centered around a fantasy roleplaying adventure game that sort-of-kind-of parodies the classic D&D. 

 

He had a ball when I read the responses! So in the interest of spreading the fun, here, good reader, is the D&D-ish Mad Lib yours truly created. Try it out with a friend or family member and enjoy!

 

CASTLES & CARNIVORES

a Role-playing Game Fill-in-the-Blank

that has nothing whatsoever to do with Dungeons & Dragons or Mad Libs

by Matthew C. Lucas

 

 

It's Friday ____________________ [time of day], which means it's time for your favorite weekly ____________________ [noun], Castles & Carnivores. You and three of your ________________________ [adjective] friends have gathered at the Castle Master's, ____________________ [someone's name], house to start a new C&C adventure! There's plenty of ________________________ [food] and ______________________ [drink]. Everyone's got their dice, their character sheets, and their ____________________ [plural noun].  Your three friends already have their characters, a warrior, a wizard, and a thief. Now it's your turn to _________________________ [verb] a character of your own.

 

First, of course, you have to come up with a name for your ____________________ [adjective] adventurer. After ____________________ [verb ending in -ing] long and hard about it, you settle on ______________________________ [ridiculous, made-up name].

 

Next, you need to roll __________ [number], __________ [different number]-sided dice to determine your character's traits. You roll the dice and write down the scores on your character sheet. Your strength score is pretty good; but your intelligence score is downright __________________________ [adjective]. Your dexterity, constitution, and charisma scores are all __________________________ [adjective]. What a/an __________________________ [adjective] combination of traits! 

 

Now you have to decide your character's class. What do you want to be? A gallivanting bard who sings magic into being, a holy cleric who can summon the gods? Or perhaps a _________________________ [adjective] ____________________________ [job or occupation] who can _______________________________ [verb]?  After talking it over with the CM and your fellow adventurers, you decide that _____________________________ [same ridiculous, made-up name] will be a _____________________________ [job or occupation]. That's just what your party needs to explore the ___________________________________ [adjective] dangers and discover the hidden __________________________________ [plural noun] of the world of C&C.

 

Last of all, you need to outfit __________________________________ [same ridiculous, made-up name] with some ___________________________________ [adjective] adventuring gear for your first C&C adventure. After rolling a single, __________ [number]-sided die, your CM informs you that you have _____________ [number] pieces of _________________________________ [kind of metal] to buy gear with. You study the list of what's available and buy your character a cloak and a set of boots, __________ [number] feet of rope, a dagger, some torches, a/an ___________________________ [noun], a/an ________________________ [noun], and, most important of all, a polished steel _______________________________ [weapon].  Now you and your party are ready for your first C&C adventure!

 

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Review of a Review (How Has Big Publishing Changed American Fiction)

How Has Big Publishing Changed American Fiction (reviewing Dan Sinykin's "Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature.")

By: Kevin Lozano (Nov. 1, 2023, The New Yorker)

 
An interesting review in The New Yorker of a recent book about "big publishing." As always, I don't endorse the views of the article's author (or, for that matter, the book he's reviewing). But the conglomeration of the book publishing industry is an interesting—and, recently, a hotly litigated—topic.


From the piece: 


Today's publishing house is closer to a hedge fund than a tastemaker. Every book that it acquires is a bet on profitability. The financialization of the acquisition process functions like an index of risk, creating a "system in which homogeneity . . . is encouraged" to minimize bad bets. This system affects all houses, no matter their size. Every season, Big Five publishers are incentivized to pursue best-sellers, authors whose works can scale into a franchise or a movie. Meanwhile, independent publishers and nonprofits such as W. W. Norton and Graywolf Press seek to carve out their own niche in this ecosystem by focussing on books with small but ardent audiences (poetry, the literature of marginalized voices). Sinykin sidesteps the question of whether this system has made books worse. He wants to demonstrate something trickier: how the process of authoring a book has become subsumed by a larger and larger network of interests, changing what it meant to be an author. . . .

 
In casting a spotlight on the many players—editors, publishers, agents, booksellers—whose coördinated labor is required to create a book, Sinykin makes a compelling case that books are not produced by a single author but through a collective effort. But does that mean that the corporation itself should be thought of as an "author," as Sinykin suggests? At times, he seems to overstate the "systematic intelligence," the machinelike efficiency, of the publishing houses under whose imprints books appear. As a parade of industry executives testified in the course of the P.R.H. antitrust trial last year, a certain amount of randomness defines everything about literary success. No one ultimately knows which books will make money, let alone make it onto the classics shelf. The editor Daniel Menaker once compared the acquisition process to a bad night at a casino, saying, "You put your money down and most of the time you lose." In this respect, at least, nothing about the math of publishing has changed in the conglomerate era.

 
The subject of the review is obviously blinkered toward the large (frequently international) corporate entities who operate the "Big Five" publishing houses (Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Hachette): "Before conglomeration, Sinykin asserts, writing a book 'was a completely different experience.' Once, a would-be novelist's chances of being published depended on 'how easily you could get your book in the right editor's hands.'"

 
I have no reason to doubt that's an accurate historical summary. But a couple of points come to mind. First, aside from the wonderful advent and subsequent ubiquity of word processing programs, writing a book is pretty much the same experience as it's ever been. You sit down at a desk or table, you have thoughts, you put them in order, and then you put them down on paper. To be sure, how you go about publishing that book (so that an audience will find it and read it) has changed dramatically.

 
Which leads me to my second point. The publishing process has indeed undergone dramatic changes—some of which have nothing to do with the "systematic intelligence" of the Big Five Publishers. There has been a great democratization in publication. Independent publishing (whether self-publishing or through small and micro-presses) has grown tremendously from its pejorative "vanity press" beginnings. Need proof? Exhibit A: what you're doing right now. This blog is a form of publication. And you, dear reader whoever you are, are reading it. There's more content available for anyone to freely read than at any point in human history. If your authorial goals revolve around good old fashioned financial remuneration, there's all sorts of new trails being blazed in this new landscape of independent publishing. Exhibit B: fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson's completely independent publication of four novels, a project that yielded over $20M in the first 72 hours it was launched and broke the record for the most successful Kickstarter launch ever.

 
Mr. Lozano's review never broaches this technological upheaval in publishing. But in his defense, the subject was probably never mentioned, or, at most, briefly glossed over, in the book he was reviewing. If so, that's a shame. Because publishing books is indeed changing, and not all the changes are for the worse…

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Editing …

It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure

I've written several posts on editing (usually when I happen to be stuck doing it). Which, for the foreseeable future, is what I'm stuck doing. I'm in full-time editing mode this month and next. With two books under contract with two different publishers and a recently finished manuscript, I've got over a quarter million words to edit. Yay.

 

Though it really is a slog, it's such an important slog. Especially for discovery writers, like me. I've got characters whose story lines and arcs end up doing 180's, subplots that go by the wayside or pop up out of nowhere, people's names changing ... It all has to get smoothed out. I read a post in a writer's forum where another writer described the first draft as a "bum rush" just to get the words down. Others have called it "The Incredibly Sh**ty First Draft." I'm somewhere between those two. But because I figure out the story as I write, editing takes up a lot more bandwidth and time than for those who take the time to plot out their stories ahead of time.

 

So how does play out practically? Multiple reads, multiple goals.

 

After I've finished "The End" I have to wait a few weeks. Then I do the first pass. The first pass is a read-through/rewrite from beginning to end. The only goal here is to get the plot lines smoothed out and the plot holes filled in. So in McJustice, my current work in progress, a character who started out as a short, shrewd redneck of a man turned into a tall, no-nonsense woman; a love interest that became critical in the last third of the book now has to get developed in the first two thirds; a whole bunch of names have been changed; etc., etc. This pass takes the longest. I'm not even through chapter 6 out of 32. It'll probably take me through the end of the year.

 

Then, the second pass. The second pass is where I'm (hopefully) happy with the plot. I might move some scenes around, might flesh some parts out a bit or cut others back. Mostly, though, I'm looking to make the prose and the flow of the story better.

 

Finally, the third pass. This is the final read-through. By this time I'm pretty tired of the story. In fact, I'm usually sick of it. But now I've got to look for grammar, misspellings, inconsistencies (did a character who had a pistol at the beginning of the scene somehow find himself unarmed by the end? Could so-and-so really run from one end of town to the other in the time it took for such-and-such to perform a certain act or deliver a certain line?). All three passes are vitally important and can't be short-changed.

 

But, judging from the photo above, I'm in esteemed company.

 

-Matt

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Another One Done

Fin.

I've finally--at long last--finished my current WIP, an idea I'd been half-heartedly poking and prodding and trying out from different angles for over ten years. This last February, the pieces finally fell into place, and I got the story into a rhythm. And now, eight months and 87,000 words later, I've typed "The End" on a really, really rough first draft of what, I like to think, is going to shape up to be a pretty cool novel.

 

In something of a first for me, this one's a mix of legal thriller and dark, weird Florida. Tentative title is "McJustice." It's what you might get if John Grisham, Carl Hiassen, and Stephen King teamed up together. 

 

For those who are interested in the writing process, the next step after you've finished your first draft is the first round of self-edits. Because I'm a discovery writer, that means plot points and characters that got changed midway through (and on this one, there were more than a couple) have to become synthesized. Plot holes need to be filled. Slow parts have to be cut or sped up. It's tedious. And I've learned from past run-throughs, you have to wait at least a couple of weeks before starting. Which is hard when you're excited about finally being done.

 

But until then, I'll pop a cork on a bottle and turn to something else for a couple of weeks. Then it's back to work on McJustice to start the long slog of self-editing ...

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Laugh and the World Laughs with You (Unless You’re not Funny)

At least he gets it.

I've been thinking about humor in novels. Or more specifically, humorous novels. By which I mean, a novel that attempts to make humor its central driving animus. There's a number out there; I've tried a few. And I've only ever found one that worked: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

 
It's ludicrous, and very British, and was unlike anything else at the time it was published in 1979 (perhaps because it was based on a series of radio episodes). The novel's plot is tissue thin. The world gets blown up, but Arthur Dent (a kind of everyman/fish-out-of-water) and his friend, Ford Prefect (an alien in disguise) are saved when Prefect "hitches a ride" on a passing space ship. A merry band of misfits come together, gallivant about the galaxy, and in between philosophical musings, and ridiculous asides, the story kind-of-sort-of bumps around through time and space. The only thing that holds the book together, besides its binding, is that it's really, really funny (if you like British humor). Again, there's basically no plot, no rising and falling action, no resolution to any conflict. The characters are wooden props, with no interior lives, and not one of them have anything remotely approaching an arc. They're just vessels for absurdity.

 
And yet it works. Because, again, it's a very funny book.

 
A lot of writers have tried to replicate this approach, and I haven't found one who's pulled it off. I think I know why.

 
I try to infuse a little humor into some of my works (Yonder & Far once had a reviewer who said he wasn't sure if I meant my writing to be funny, but he found some of the scenes absolutely hilarious—which I'll take as high praise). Misunderstandings, misdirections, a little absurdity, they can help break tension and an otherwise slow part of a story keep pace with the rest. But I couldn't pull off a whole book around gags and one-liners. Very few authors can.

 
Why? In my view, it's a challenge inherent in the medium. A stand-up comedian only has to entertain you for about an hour. A comedic movie, a little over an hour and a half. And in the span of that time, some jokes might hit the audience as gut-bustingly hilarious, some might fall a little flat, a few might bomb. But it's okay, the audience is indulgent because their time investment is small—and, perhaps more importantly, it's understood that, by and large, each "bit" is meant to stand on its own. A comedian can transition set-ups quickly, change the scenery, so to speak, in a matter of seconds to turn to the next piece of funniness. To a lesser degree, the same holds true for comedy movies. We'll indulge a loose-hanging plot line if the gags are good enough. Take Caddy Shack for example. The "plot" can be summed up as follows: a gauche condo developer shows up at a country club, rubs the blue-bloods the wrong way, and settles matters with a golf game; some characters come along for the ride (albeit for different reasons); hilarity ensues. Sure, there's a story in there, but that's not why the movie remains in syndication decades after its release. It's Bill Murray trying to kill a gopher. It's Rodney Dangerfield's bevy of one-liners. It's Ted Knight's pompous laugh. It's classic Chevy Chase being classic Chevy Chase. The comic strands are more than capable of holding together the movie.

 
You don't have that luxury as an author. To hold an entire novel together with humor, you have to pack humor into all 70,000-odd words. You have to keep the reader entertained for days, not just a couple of hours. If comedy is the only strand, it's going to have to be made of steel, which means the jokes have to be really funny. Not just enough to make the reader smile or giggle; the laughs have to keep the reader coming back day in and day out for days. And none of them can land flat.

 
That doesn't mean a book should eschew humor. If you're an author and that's your "voice," speak in your voice. But I do think writers need to approach humor in stories the way a chef approaches seasoning. Sprinkle in the right amount and you can make a good dish extra special. But if you try to make a meal around cumin, or pepper, or, God forbid, thyme, most people are going to politely decline and move on to something else.

 

- Matt

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