Marvel have given Mjolnir to a new, female Thor.

Is a Female Thor a Good Idea?

Here’s something new: Asgardian god and Chris Hemsworth lookalike Thor is being replaced by a woman.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is a first for comics. Not that Thor is getting replaced; when you go on holiday someone fills in for you and superheroes are no exception. Iron Man, Spider-man, even Superman. And Batman’s given up the cowl so many times the Batcave has a revolving door. But all of these temporary replacements have been of the same gender; no woman ever stepped into Batman’s shoes. I think this is a great story opportunity and I might have to pick up an issue. That said, I’m not convinced this is such a big step.

That sentiment wasn’t helped by another Marvel announcement, just a day later, that Sam Wilson, a black character, will also take over as Captain America. Another minority (as comics defines them, i.e. anything other than white male) gets a turn in the limelight. Two in as many days. It would be easy to accuse Marvel of tokenism, of shouting “look, we’ve got women and black guys in our comics!” until they’ve got our money. Then they can bring back the old white guys.

Because the status quo is king in comics. Man-Thor and Steve Rogers will come back sooner or later and these two characters will be relegated back to second string.

But here’s the thing: this is still a positive move.

I wrote a blog about what’s wrong with women in comics in which I said that comics are rightly called juvenile and backwards until they give women the respect they deserve. Since then we’ve heard David Goyer, the screenwriter behind The Dark Knight and Man of Steel, calling She-Hulk a porn star and a male power/sex fantasy. We’ve also seen the Internet pour vitriol on Janelle Asselin for criticising the hyper-sexualised teenager on the cover to Teen Titans #1. I was beginning to think there wasn’t much hope for comics.

But even if this is tokenism, and even if it only lasts, say, six months, two of the three core members of the Avengers aren’t white guys. That’s six months of representation, six months of diversity, six months of different perspectives for comics readers.

A lot of commentators have been saying it would have been better to create new heroes than hijack existing ones. That has to be a long-term goal, but let’s not overlook the power in a six-month gimmick. When it’s all over everything will look the same as it always did. But the publicity can draw in new readers that might have previously been put off by the white male spandex brigade. And, hopefully, Marvel will have shown existing readers that a female Thor is just as good as a male Thor.

And readers will have shown Marvel that there’s an appetite for “minority” superheroes that can be fed with new, permanent characters.

What do you think of the female Thor? Is it tokenism, a waste of time, or can’t you wait for the first issue? Let me know in the comments.

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6 Social Media Tools Every Writer Should Know About

This post is prompted by a conversation I was having with my dad, who runs Magic at Events. We were talking about whether it’s best to schedule Twitter updates or not and he pointed out that there’s no way of knowing when the best time for a tweet is. When I pointed out that there are some sites that can figure it out for you, he asked me “how do you know about this stuff?” And my answer was “someone told me”. And then I realised I’d been told about a lot of stuff and I should really pass on that knowledge. So here’s 6 Social Media Tools That I Think Are Cool And You Might Too.

Don’t get me wrong here. The purpose of this post is not to say “I use Twitter/Facebook/etc and so should you”. Some social media sites aren’t for everyone. This is strictly about tools; stuff you can use for a specific purpose other than networking.

Twitter

Put aside the networking aspect and Twitter becomes a fantastic search engine. It’s great for gauging mood, measuring conversation or getting real-time updates. Most of the time you’ll probably use Google, but I recommend making Twitter your secondary search engine. I’ve found links, blogs and people full of information on subjects where Google had let me down. Set up a dummy account and start searching!

Buffer

I’ve already written about whether or not scheduling social media posts is a good idea but, if you’re convinced, this is the tool to do it with. You can link it to Facebook, Twitter, Google+ Pages, LinkedIn and App.net. The advantage to Buffer is you don’t have to pick a time for each update. You pick your posting times in advance and drop updates into a queue. You can still specify a certain time for an individual update if you want to. Otherwise you can sit back and let Buffer post for you!

Tweriod

The service that sparked this post. Say you want to schedule your posts but you don’t know when to do so. Tweriod can help you out. It only works with Twitter at the moment but it will analyse your followers and tell you at what times your posts have the greatest potential for reaching them.

Google Alerts

Not quite social media, perhaps, but a good tool all the same. A Google Alert will send you an email when it indexes something matching a search term. Say you want to keep your ear to the ground regarding Branwell Bronte. Set up a Google Alert and, instead of having to search every day, Google will send you an email as and when something is posted.

Mention

The next level from Google Alerts, Mention can perform the same service but will trawl blogs, Facebook, Twitter and so on as well. It was suggested to me as a way of keeping track of people who post links to your website; that way you can thank them accordingly! That’s a great use for this tool but it’s a good way of keeping up to date on a certain topic, too.

An RSS Reader

Instead of visiting a dozen different sites to keep up with news on those things you like, download one RSS reader and read all those blogs in one place. Personally I recommend Flipboard but there’s plenty of choice out there.

Do you agree that these are handy tools? Do you disagree? Have I missed any out? Let me know in the comments!

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Writing Lessons from Short Stories

Anyone who has met me or frequented this site has probably guessed that brevity is not my greatest strength. I have a habit of over-thinking things, which means I like to dig down deep into ideas and places and people, clawing beyond the foundations into the bitter, dark, twisted, glowing dirt in the underbelly of their existence…

I forget where I was going with this.

So, I prefer writing novels, where I can dig down deep. Not many of my short pieces survive. That said, being forced to write something outside of my comfort zone always improves my writing, and I suspect you could use it to improve yours too.

Try to Cut Everything

You Are Just A Guest used to weigh in at 8,000 words. A critical eye reduced that down to 5,000 by cutting redundant scenes and extraneous description that slowed down the narrative. Now I couldn’t tell you what I cut because I can’t remember it; it wasn’t pulling it’s weight.

But every character, scene, even sentence needs to have a good reason two good reasons three good reasons for being there. If it can’t, then it’s got to go.

Giving Clues to the Reader

You’ve not got a lot of room for deep and exhaustive characterisation, description or backstory. But skipping that will leave you with two faceless dialogue puppets in a white room; who cares about that? But you can do a lot with a little.

For instance, the narrator for The Homeless Hero had a falling out with her mother over something that happened in their past. Most readers probably know all about it except I never once explained it. I used a few lines scattered throughout the story and let the reader put it together. They fill in all the blanks, giving me room in my word count for the story.

It’s a Great Place to Experiment

Before writing The Homeless Hero I had never written from a female perspective before. The notion scared me a little bit. I was worried I’d end up writing a man in a woman’s body or, perhaps worse, a stereotype or a cliche; something nobody would believe in.

But a short story is a much smaller environment and so it’s ideally suited to experimentation. Trying my hand at a female perspective boosted my confidence and helped me explore places and thoughts I can use again in the future.

You can get my short stories from Amazon now, as well as all other major ebook stores.

What have you learnt from short stories?

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5 Blogs Every Indie Writer Should Read

So you’ve picked your RSS reader (maybe off the back of my recommendation). What do you fill it with? It’s true that us writerly types like to have lots to read, but the truth is there are so many blogs out there it’s hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. Well here are five blogs that I think can help a writer of any stripe.

Lindsay Buroker

If you’re planning to self-publish your work, Lindsay’s blog is required reading. She writes unflinchingly about her experiences of self-publishing: what’s worked for her and why, what didn’t work, and what lessons she’s learned. Start reading now.

The Passive Voice

If you’re looking for news about books and publishing you can’t go wrong here. This blog is a great aggregator of other stories and a great way of keeping your ear to the ground. There’s a strong pro-Amazon bias though, so watch out for that; it can be a bit over the top sometimes.

Buffer

This probably seems like an odd one, but the Buffer team blogs about things like time management, life hacks and online marketing; all things a modern writer needs to know about.

Writing Excuses

This one’s actually a podcast but since they’re basically audio blogs it counts, right? Hosted by four writers of different stripes, they discuss an aspect of writing each week from their unique perspectives. Both entertaining and illuminating, I’m an avid listener and I’m sure you will be too.

Good E-Reader

While this blog has a terrible anti-indie bias, I can’t fault it for being an excellent resource of news surrounding ebooks and ereaders. As this is the foundation of income for the majority of indies, it’s good to know what’s happening in that world.

Update: Michael Kozlowski, the primary writer for Good E-Reader, has been uploading posts that express sexist and inflammatory viewpoints. I don’t know whether this is deliberate controversy to increase visits or whether he truly holds these disappointing beliefs. Either way, it’s not behaviour I can condone. I have removed the link to the site and will endeavour to find a suitable replacement.

I’m always looking for new blogs to read, so please do let me know what your recommendations are in the comments!

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Writing Lessons from Calvin & Hobbes

I love Calvin & Hobbes. I was introduced to it at, I believe, the age of 11. Up until that point I’d read strips like Garfield and, to a lesser extent, Peanuts. Calvin & Hobbes was a revelation. Funny and thoughtful and with a beauty that never faded over time, it stands as one of my favourite pieces of both writing and art. Where else can you be thinking about the nature of existence one moment and Tyrannosaurs in F-16s the next? Bill Watterson was a master of the page and there are so many lessons to be gleaned from the strip it’s tough to fit them all in.

Stick to Your Vision

Calvin & Hobbes has a purity I haven’t seen anywhere else. It’s got one true, singular voice that never seems to deviate. That isn’t to say that it hits only one note, tells only one joke or explores only one idea. But it never deviates from its heart. There are a hundred different pressures to make changes to our art, be it pressures of marketability, pressures from fans or even pressures from ourselves. But sticking to our singular vision will produce a purer, better piece of art than trying to make something that is everything.

Dictate Your Medium

When Watterson felt constricted by his medium, he changed it. Papers could cut panels out of his Sunday strips if they so chose, forcing him to waste them on throwaway jokes. So he made changes. Papers could no longer cut up his strip. They were free to stop running his strip (and some did), but he wasn’t willing to let his art suffer because of artificial limitations.

The advent of ereaders, tablets and print-on-demand means writers have greater control over their medium than ever before. Whether the writer wants to create a very traditional work or wants something that incorporates video, audio, even toy with the nature of the page itself (perhaps in the vein of House of Leaves), we can manipulate the medium to fit the art, rather than the other way around.

Create Your Own Rules

The nature of Hobbes reality was a constant question for many readers; is he a stuffed toy that comes to life when no-one but Calvin is looking or is it all in Calvin’s head? Watterson refused to provide a solid answer. He decided the world he created had room for both a stuffed Hobbes and a “real” Hobbes.

As with any industry there are certain rules that writers have to follow. But there are plenty of “rules” that we can ignore. Many felt that the ambiguous nature of Hobbes could confuse and potentially alienate readers; as a rule, one should avoid confusing the reader. But the strip’s popularity goes to show that Watterson was right to ignore that rule.

Leave Them Wanting More

Calvin & Hobbes ran from 1985 to 1995 and when Bill Watterson finished the last strip some people thought he was mad. Calvin & Hobbes were still riding a wave of popularity and there were no signs of that wave crashing against a shore any time soon. But Watterson decided it was time. He knew that running the strip too long would leave it tired and that fans would lose interest eventually. Better to finish on a high. Better to leave the audience wanting more.

It’s always tempting to revisit characters and settings, both for our own pleasure and to satisfy reader demand. There’s a fine line to tread between exploring more creative opportunities in a creative property and milking it dry.

Contrast Your Characters

Perhaps the most important reason that Calvin & Hobbes worked was the central relationship between the two main characters. Calvin and Hobbes are different in many fundamental ways, which offers great opportunity for discussion, disagreement and dynamism. Conflict is the heart of any story, which can’t exist if all the characters think the same.

That said, Calvin and Hobbes had a solid foundation of love and trust despite their differences. Conflict creates a story, but their friendship allowed people to bring the characters into their hearts and made the strip beloved to millions of people.

And, to end, here’s my favourite Calvin & Hobbes strip. I laughed so hard I nearly passed out.

The funniest Calvin & Hobbes strip. Ever.

What’s your favourite strip?

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Is Scheduling Social Media Posts a Bad Idea?

Ever had three updates to post to your social media account but you don’t want to post them all at once? Or got an update for a specific date or time in the future? You’re not the only one, judging by the army of scheduling services like Buffer, Hootsuite and SocialOomph. These are services, often free, where you can set a post to publish at a specific time on a specific date. Handy, right? But wait; there’s a few things to bear in mind before you start scheduling.

You’re Not Online to Engage With Your Audience

If you’re posting good content, people will respond to it. Only you’re not there for the conversation. While your Friends, Fans and Followers (FFFs) are trying to talk to you, you’re off doing something else, leaving their responses going ignored.

Some People Don’t Like Scheduled Posts

There’s an argument that if a piece of software is posting the content then your profile isn’t too far removed from a bot. Whether or not you agree with this is irrelevant; the fact is that some people believe it and scheduling your posts may mean they stop being an FFF.

Scheduling Can Run Afoul of Current Events

Worse than ignoring your FFFs is a scheduled post hitting the Internet at a bad time. Take the example of Kim Kardashian, who posted condolences to the victims of the Boston marathon bomb but obviously forgot to switch off her scheduled posts. 24 minutes after get best wishes, she sent a tweet promoting her mother’s appearance on TV. The backlash got nasty.

Looks grim, huh? Maybe this scheduling lark isn’t the best idea. But there’s two sides to every coin, and plenty of good things about scheduling.

Catch Your Followers When They’re Online

If someone tweets and no-one’s online to see it, does it still make a noise? No. Posting something when none of your FFFs are online is completely pointless. Scheduling it for when they are means you don’t have to remember it for hours only to get distracted and forget what time you were going to post and damn is that the time shoot I’ve totally missed it and now I’ll have to wait some more and so on and so on.

Avoid Spamming Your Followers’ Feeds

You’re scrolling through your feed and suddenly it’s taken over by one user who’s posted thirty-seven updates all at once. How annoying. Let’s skip all those. Not good, right? You don’t want to be that guy. Spreading updates over the day avoids flooding your FFFs’ feeds.

Increase Your Exposure

The flip side of that coin is that if you’re dumping all your updates at, say, 6pm, anyone who checks in at 5pm won’t see them. Spreading your updates over the day increases exposure.

Do you schedule your social media posts? Or do you think it’s a terrible idea? Let me know in the comments.

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The Greatest Opening Lines in Fiction

I was recently directed to this story about the best opening lines in fiction. And they all sucked. Every single one. Well, except Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. And Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Okay, so it’s possible I was exaggerating slightly when I said they all sucked. But I wasn’t a fan of a lot of them. Don’t get me wrong, novels like Wuthering Heights, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Jane Eyre are all excellent. But “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” does not a great first line make.

So I rummaged through my library to dig out my own list of 15 fantastic examples of opening lines in fiction:

1. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happen to say that it was the only cast he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.

2. Buddha Da, Anne Donovan

Ma Da’s a nutter.

3. The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.

4. Madame Doubtfire, Anne Fine

All the way up the stairs, the children fought not to carry the envelope.

5. Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie

All children, except one, grow up.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

7. Dune, Frank Herbert

In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

8. Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.

9. State of Fear, Michael Crichton

In the darkness, he touched her arm and said, “Stay here.”

10. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.

11. Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.

12. Neuromancer, William Gibson

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

13. Singularity Sky, Charles Stross

The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.

14. I am Legend, Richard Matheson

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

15. The Hobbit, J R R Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Pretty good, aren’t they? Now I dare you to do better. Find a better opening line. I bet you can’t.

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Writing Lessons from Empire Strikes Back

I loved Empire Strikes Back as a kid so much that I wore out the tape. Don’t get me wrong, I love all three films of the original trilogy, but ESB always had a special place in my heart. Sadly my wife is a philistine who prefers Revenge of the Sith so I don’t get many chances to watch Empire anymore. So when I wasn’t feeling well last week I pulled out my blu-ray set (and boy does it look good on blu-ray) and watched it again. And, as ever, I found a few tips that can help a writer of any stripe.

It’s All About The Characters

I believe that Empire is the strongest of the Star Wars films for one reason: it focuses on character. Star Wars is really all about the plot and whilst Return of the Jedi has Luke’s battle with Vader, the rest of the film is pretty plot-heavy. But almost every plot thread in Empire has character at it’s core: Luke’s desire to become a Jedi; Han and Leia’s desire for each other; even Vader’s hunt for his son. The stakes aren’t as high as saving the galaxy but it’s easier for an audience to relate to more personal goals and so they care about these stories more as a result.

Give Your Villain Agency

Darth Vader gets his bad-assery kicked up a notch in Empire Strikes Back, and it’s not because he has more Force powers or anything like that. It’s because he’s got the power to do anything he likes. Unlike in Star Wars, there’s no-one giving him orders; he storms about the galaxy, killing his own men, stopping laser bolts with his hands, taking over cities and dictating the terms to everyone around him. It makes him more threatening to the heroes, because there doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t or won’t do.

Stay True to the Character

When Princess Leia tells Han Solo that she loves him, he doesn’t say “I love you too”. He was meant to; that was his line in the script. But they tried it and the director, Irvin Kershner, didn’t like it. It didn’t feel right. So they experimented with different lines until they came up with “I know.” Because that was right for the character, despite what the script said.

The Hero Does The Right Thing

When Darth Vader tortures Han, Leia and Chewbacca, Luke wants to rush to their rescue. Yoda tells him not to, that it’s a trap, that he must stay and complete his training. And when Luke says, “And sacrifice Han and Leia?”, Yoda says yes. Luke is too important. Reason dictates that he must stay.

But he goes. Because the hero has to do the right thing, even if it means doing the wrong thing.

Don’t Be Afraid To Change Anything and Everything

Despite what George Lucas would have you believe, Darth Vader wasn’t always going to be Luke’s father. That little twist didn’t appear until the second draft of the script. In the story treatment and the first draft, Anakin appears as a Force ghost and teaches Luke about the Force and about his twin sister. Changing Luke’s father into Darth Vader required some retcon work (making the Jedi out to be well-meaning liars, for a start) and completely alters the shape of the trilogy, but who can argue it wasn’t for the better?

What do you think writers can learn from Empire Strikes Back? Or are there better lessons to be learnt from one of the other films? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Why I Need to Stop Buying Books (Again)

I blame Ryan Colucci.

I’ve had a terrible weekend. In anticipation of a potential move, we’ve dedicated ourselves to a clear-out. And, as the only thing I really own is my book collection, that’s where I focused my efforts. But that wasn’t the terrible part.

Whilst rooting through my books I found Harbor Moon by Ryan Colucci et al. It was on the bottom shelf, out of sight and out of mind, and I’d forgotten about it. I didn’t want to put it back. It was about time I read it.

“I know,” says I. “I’ll put all my unread books on one shelf. That way there’ll all be in one place. They won’t get forgotten that way.” Except it wasn’t one shelf. Or two. I’m embarrassed to say it was five. Five shelves of unread books.

I’ve always known there are two types of book-buyers: readers and collectors. I always thought I was the former, but seeing almost an entire bookcase full of books I hadn’t read made me doubt myself. The sight of them was something of an accusation. All these books were made to be read and here I was keeping them prisoner, able only to show their spines. To be honest, the sight of them depressed me a little.

So it is that I’m resurrecting No More Books for 2014.

The idea is as simple as it was in 2012: to stop acquiring any new books until you’ve read some of the books you already own. There are only three golden rules to No More Books:

No buying.

No borrowing.

No rereading.

And only two exceptions:

Gifts – It’s rude to turn down a gift so this is okay. But no asking for books or getting a friend to buy one for you and calling it a gift. That’s cheating.

Research – If a book is absolutely needed for research purposes then a temporary pass may be granted by your personal NMB2014 committee. This committee is usually a somewhat patient and exasperated individual; family, friends, spouse, etc.

The only difference from 2012 is that, this time, you get to decide when it ends. You can take control of my life using the widget below. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work; you can head over to my Facebook page to cast your vote there!

If you’re suffering a similar plight, I’d love to hear from you. Are you a reader or a collector? Do you have too many unread books? And would you suggest joining me in Book-Buying Rehab? I wouldn’t say no to some company. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

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Writing Lessons From Gravity

I often say that Avatar was the first film I saw in 3D but that’s not true. It was a space documentary narrated by Tom Cruise in the London IMAX. So it’s quite fitting that when I finally saw Gravity it was in 3D; I’ve come full circle.

Gravity, of course, looked a lot better, but in a way it was very similar to the Cruise-narrated documentary; much was made of its looks (and the 3D) to the detriment of the story behind it. And don’t get me wrong, Gravity is a beautiful film. But the script has a few good lessons worth highlighting for a writer of any genre.

Don’t Let Reality Interfere

Gravity is careful to be scientifically accurate. But when science gets in the way of the story, the Cuaróns weren’t afraid to ignore it. In practice there’s no real possibility of an astronaut just hopping from space shuttle to space station to space station. But that would have severely limited the story opportunities, and so the writers ignored reality in favour of the plot.

Make a Character’s Death Mean Something

Gravity kills on two occasions. The first kills a bunch of nameless characters to illustrate the danger of the situation and to leave astronauts Stone and Kowalski stranded.

The second kills Kowalski. This is a character you care about. Sure it could be Clooney’s rugged charm. But the writers also took time to show us his stories, his little dreams, and how much he tries to help Stone.

Kowalski’s death is working overtime. It reminds the audience that no one is safe, not even characters they like. It removes Stone’s last source of aid and comfort. And it further complicates her relationship with death.

No Place to Hide

Gravity is a perfect, if extreme, example of motivating characters to move on. At no point can your characters find a place, in the world or in their head, where they can find any permanent peace. Sure it’s good for them to catch their breath, as Stone does when she reaches the ISS. But if the ISS was too safe, the story would have ended. Stone would have waited for rescue or she would have hopped in a Soyuz and cruised back home.

Each point Stone reached was either perilous before she got there or became so shortly afterwards. This prompted her to keep moving and the story moved with her.

The Importance of Death and Rebirth

Gravity offers a very clear and literal interpretation of this stage of the Hero’s Journey. Stone settles down to die only to receive a heavenly visitation from the dead Kowalski. She then regains consciousness with the knowledge necessary to save herself and she makes her peace with the death of her daughter.

Ultimately your character has to be flawed at the beginning of your story. They don’t have to be a broken mess. But they cannot be the hero, not yet. It’s only when they go through the death and rebirth stage that they gain the quality necessary to defeat the antagonist.

Did you learn anything from Gravity? Or do you disagree with any of what I’ve said? Leave a comment!