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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: common writing mistakes

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Whether you are new to writing or an old pro, brushing up on the basics is always helpful. Because no matter how GOOD the story is? If the reader is busy stumbling over this stuff, it ruins the fictive dream and she will never GET to the story. So today we are going to cover six ways to self-edit your fiction. Though this stuff might seem like a no-brainer, I see these blunders ALL the time.

….unfortunately even in (legacy) published books.

When I worked as an editor, I found it frustrating when I couldn’t even GET to the story because I was too distracted by these all too common oopses.

There are many editors who charge by the hour. If they’re spending their time fixing oopses you could’ve easily repaired yourself? You’re burning cash and time. Yet, correct these problems, and editors can more easily get to the MEAT of your novel. This means you will spend less money and get far higher value.

#1 The Brutal Truth about Adverbs, Metaphors and Similes

I have never met an adverb, simile, or metaphor I didn’t LOVE. I totally dig description, but it can present problems.

First of all, adverbs are not ALL evil. Redundant adverbs are evil. If someone shouts loudly? How else are they going to shout? Whispering quietly? Really? O_o Ah, but if they whisper seductively? The adverb seductively gives us a quality to the whisper that isn’t already implied by the verb.

Check your work for adverbs and kill the redundant ones. Kill them. Dead.

Metaphors and similes are awesome, but need to be used sparingly. Yes, in school, our teachers or professors didn’t ding us for using 42 metaphors in 5 pages, but their job was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor or simile, NOT prepare us for commercial publication as professional novelists.

When we use too much of this verbal glitter, we can create what’s called “purple prose.” This glitter, while sparkly, can pull the reader out of the story or even confuse the reader. A while back, I edited a winner’s 20 page entry. The story began on a whitewater river and the rafters were careening toward a “rock coffee table.”

Huh?

Oh, the boulder is squarish shaped!

Thing is, the metaphor made me stop to figure out what image the author was trying to create. If the rafters had merely been careening toward a giant flat rock? Not as pretty but I could have remained in the story without trying to figure out how the hell furniture ended up in the river.

I’ve read some great books, but as an editor, I might have cut some of the metaphors. Why? Because the author might have a metaphor SO GOOD I wanted to highlight it and commit it to memory…but it was bogged down by the other four metaphors and three similes on the same page. The other metaphors/similes added nothing…unless one counts distraction.

Go through your pages and highlight metaphors and similes. Pick THE BEST and CUT THE REST. Look for confusing metaphors, like rock furniture in the middle of a river.

#2 Stage Direction

She reached out her arm to open the door.

Okay, unless she has mind powers and telekinesis, do we need the direction?

He turned to go down the next street.

He picked up the oars and pulled a few more strokes, eager to get to his favorite fishing spot.

We “get” he’d have to pick up the oars to row his boat, or that is a seriously cool trick.

Be active. Characters can “brush hair out of their face” “open doors” and even slap people without you telling us they reached out an arm or hand to do this. We are smart. Really.

#3 Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts…

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow? The carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

#4 Too Much Physiology…

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.

Get a copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus to help you vary physiology. Also, if someone’s heart is pounding, that’s okay. We assume until they are out of danger it’s still pounding. No need to remind us.

Really.

#5 Backing Into the Sentence/Passive Voice

In an effort to break up and vary sentence structure, many writers will craft sentences like this:

With the months of stress pressing down on her head, Jessie started ironing the restaurant tablecloths with a fury.

Problem? Passive action. When we use the word “down” then “on” is redundant. Either she is ironing or not ironing. “Started” is overused and makes sloppy writing. That actually goes back to the whole “stage direction” thing.

Active:

Jessie ironed the restaurant tablecloths with a fury, months of stress pressing on her shoulders.

The door was kicked in by the police.

Police kicked in the door.

If you go through your pages and see WAS clusters? That’s a HUGE hint that passive voice has infected your story.

#6 Almost ALWAYS Use “Said” as a Tag

“You are such a jerk,” she laughed.

A character can’t “laugh” something. They can’t “snip” “spit” “snarl” “grouse” words. They can SAY and ever so often they can ASK. Said becomes white noise. Readers don’t “see” it. It keeps them in the story and cooking along. If we want to add things like laughing, griping, complaining, then fine. It just shouldn’t be the tag.

“You are such a jerk.” She laughed as she flicked brownie batter onto Fabio’s white shirt.

There you go, SIX easy tips for self-editing. We all make these mistakes and that’s why God invented revision (that and to punish the unfaithful). If you can get rid of these common offenders on your own, then good editors can focus on the deeper aspects of your fiction.

Have you had to ruthlessly slay your favorite metaphors? Are you a recovering adverb-addict? What are some other self-editing guidelines you use to keep your prose clean and effective?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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Most of the time, I try to use great writing as examples of what TO DO. But, some writing fails so epically, the best use of it is as a cautionary tale for other writers. We can use it to study what NOT to do.

True Detective Season Two does just that. I hate writing this because Season One was a masterpiece, and all I can think of is that maybe Nic Pizzolatto was a victim of his own success. It would be very daunting to top Season One. Scratch that. It would probably put most writers in a padded cell from nerves.

So what the heck went wrong?

This entire blog is nothing but a spoiler alert, but trust me. I am saving you ten hours of your life you can never get back. Before we talk about some of the basic writing issues that derailed the series, I believe there is one core reason this post fizzled faster than a bottle of New Coke.

Pizzolatto forgot the audience and remembered the critics.

Despite resounding praise for Season One, a handful of critics did take shots at Pizzolatto because they are critics and it is what they do. I wish Pizzolatto would have appreciated that most T.V. critics are being paid to watch the show and paid to have an opinion. They weren’t really his audience. The audience LOVED Season One. They bought t-shirts and quoted lines and tweeted and those were the people who mattered because it is basic math.

Fans waaaayyyy outnumber professional television critics. More fans means fans matter more.

This reminds me of the trouble we can get into as writers. This is actually one of the big dangers of attending a critique group.

Thing is, everyone at the table actually could love your pages, but I promise you that there will be ONE dude who will say something negative even if he doesn’t believe his own critique because he is like that jerk teacher who never gave an A because, “No one is perfect.”

Then, instead of the poor writer listening to twenty freaking people who thought the story was written with long-sought-after unicorn tears dripping from the quill made from a feather of a phoenix? Writer tries to appease Jerk Critic who just wanted to have something to criticize because he simply cannot stand the fact that someone in the group might have more talent.

Same with reviews on books. Unless an overwhelming percentage of people are complaining about the same things?

DO NOT WRITE FOR CRITICS.

I feel this is what happened to Season Two of True Detective.

Instead of appreciating the glowing feedback from fans and basking in the knowledge that his series fundamentally changed television…he listened to the critics and changed Season Two to suit them. Maybe not consciously, but yeah. And since I don’t want to spend too much time here, check out this Ben Travers’ fantastic article about it; How Nic Pizzolatto’s Temper Tantrum Toward Critics Ruined ‘True Detective” Season 2.

When we write for critics, more times than not, we end up with Franken-Novel, which I wrote about in my post Franken-Novel, Perfectionism & The Dark Side of Critique Groups.

So, About the Writing…

Every time I write about the “rules” of writing, inevitably, I get at least ONE commenter who wants to toss out the rule book, which is fine. But, I will reiterate that we can break rules but we do so at our own risk. Rules exist largely for readers (the audience) which I hope will become clear as we go through this.

Limit the Number of Characters

O…M…G. I lost count of how many named characters were in this series. I felt like I was trapped at family reunion, smiling at people and pretending I knew them and that I actually recalled that they were the second grandchild of my third-cousin-by-marriage.

Even in the finale, I had to pause because I had NO IDEA who the hell was killing off one of the main characters.

Is it the Russians? Who IS that? Honey, does he look Mexican to you or Armenian? I thought he was cool with the Armenians. Wait…nope, those are Mexicans. What the hell are THEY doing there?

Really, I was Being Serious…Limit the FREAKING Characters

Especially POV characters. I’ve run into this before with my writing classes. Some new writer who wants to get all “literary” demands she has seven POV characters. Oh-kay.

I used to argue. Now?

Have fun storming the castle *waves*.

Thing is, like meeting every person on the planet who is alive and who happens to share our DNA at ONE TIME (family reunion again) we cannot care about that many people. Not at ONE time.

Season 2 had four POV characters and only eight episodes. Basic math tells us this is a bad plan. When we try to cram too many POV characters into a story, we end up with extra parts that don’t matter because we simply don’t have time (and audiences lack the cranial bandwidth) to explore these characters.

Eight episodes is NOT enough time to fully develop a sympathetic mob boss with a barren wife, a hardboiled detective who is the daughter of a hippie guru who allowed her to be sexually abused as a child, a raging alcoholic dirty cop with guilt issues and child custody problems, and a disgraced CHP with a shady past in Afghanistan, mommy issues, and who is struggling with his sexuality.

Have mommy issues. Feel free to have daddy issues. Go for BOTH at your own risk. Every single POV character trying to reconcile extensive and complex child abuse?

Mob Boss Frank Seymon—abandoned and verbally, physically and emotionally abused.

Detective Bezzideres—emotionally abused by guru father, abandonment issues, was abducted and sexually abused (we think, because she never *really* remembers or if she did I forgot it)

Detective Ray Velcoro—emotionally and verbally abused by his father (in convenient flashback-dream-sequence-hallucination thingy)

Officer Paul Woodrugh—extreme verbal abuse by mother and hinted at sexual abuse by mom who is a bitter dancer pissed off that she gave birth to Paul and it cost her her dance career.

*head explodes*

What becomes problematic (other than the sheer NUMBER of POV characters) is that rather than the characters simply being deep (I.e. we can “get” they were abused in their past without the deets) the series teased out details of each character’s past as if these details were salient to unraveling the plot mystery.

We are given all kinds of details in a way that “suggests” we need to pay attention. Instead of Chekhov’s Gun? We got Osama Bin Laden’s gift-weapons-cache from the CIA circa the 80s.

If you show us a gun plot trail in Act One Episode One, use it by Act Three Episode EIGHT.

The same went for the problems these characters were facing in the present. Not only was the audience saddled with unraveling the past mysteries, but we had the characters’ present-drama dumped in our laps as if THIS stuff was salient to unraveling the plot mystery.

Hint: No. No it was not.

I waited SEVEN episodes for that Hollywood bi*&% who tarnished Woodrugh’s reputation to get her comeuppance.

*rails at the heavens*

Nope. They kill him off and just…stop his story.

AAAHHHHHHH!!!!

What happens when we try to develop everyone, is we develop no one. By the end, most of the characters were forced, contrived paper dolls. In fact, Officer Paul Woodrugh was a third-wheel. We could have cut his character and his storyline with zero negative impact to the overall kind-of-sort-of-plot.

Limit the Plot Layers

Some speculate that Pizzolatto was being reactionary to critics who claimed Season One wasn’t deep enough or complex enough. Here’s the deal. There is a difference between complex and complicated.

Lord of the Rings—> COMPLEX

Star Wars Prequels—> COMPLICATED

Complexity is birthed from simplicity. Complication is the child of confusion.

As we see when we try to create a log-line for each.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

A naive race who has never left home must travel vast distances and fight innumerable dangers to drop an evil ring in a special volcano located in the heart of enemy territory before darkness consumes the world.

Star Wars Prequels

A snarky slave kid who works on robots and races pods and who does something, then leaves home, maybe because Mom dies then something about Metachlorians and kid’s INFESTED with them. Then a dude with a painted face and Jedi and clones and much whining and more whining and then kid-now-whiny-adult-Jedi has no other choice but to slaughter a bunch of kids to save preggo wife and hell… I got nothing.

When it comes to the end of Season Two of True Detective, I haven’t been so confused since I forced myself to finish the Star Wars prequels.

Bluntly, I still really don’t understand the plot and don’t get who killed Casper. There were too many layers and subplots and hints and players in action. Maybe I am simply not smart or savvy enough for this series because…

I cannot unravel the Russian mob, the Mexican Mob, the Armenian underground, crooked cops, crooked politicians, crooked U.S. soldiers, crooked shrinks moonlighting as crooked plastic surgeons, crooked Hassidic Jews (NO, I AM NOT KIDDING), a land grab, toxic waste and environmental crimes, prostitution rings, secret sex parties, a missing five million dollars, sex trafficking, multiple coverups, several missing persons, blackmail, government fraud, gender issues, a missing hard drive, diamond theft, trafficking illegals, real estate fraud, and two orphaned kids with multiple identities out for the-most-complicated-revenge-plot-in-history in EIGHT EPISODES.

All we were missing in Season Two was the plot tangent about jaywalking. And some abused clowns juggling secretly gay ferrets.

And I hate picking on Pizzolatto because he is still my hero and is breathtakingly talented. ANY of these Season Two characters on his or her own could have been vastly complex and interesting and remarkable. But ALL at ONE time? That was the mistake.

Characters Should Stay in Character

Should characters be predictable? No. Can characters do unexpected things? Yes. Should characters do unexpected or stupid things simply because we (the writer) need them to? NO.

A ruthless mob boss who has survived into adulthood by being a master tactician and who GLORIOUSLY takes out the Russian mob in one showdown should NOT die because of rookie mistake/decision. He would give up the suit and then kill them all another day. He’d kill them, get back his diamonds and take all THEIR money, too.

When he refuses to give up the suit and some spear-carrying Mexican gang member not even important enough to warrant a NAME kills him?

We call foul and it ticks us off.

Characters Can’t BE Something They Aren’t

The whole sow’s ear/silk purse thing. Ray Delcoro’s son was as interesting as tax law no matter how many lines of Ray’s dialogue tried to tell us otherwise. The fact that Delcoro died (pointlessly) still trying to reach out to the World’s Most Uninteresting Kid still kind of ticks me off.

Someone NEEDS to Arc

Personally, I am with Blake Snyder. Everyone arcs! In True Detective Season 2? Other than Ray Delcoro being sober, every protagonist was the same in the end as in the beginning. No one was inherently changed by the crucible of plot.

The Plot Problem MUST Be Resolved

After gutting it through seven episodes, I was hoping that the season finale would finally tie up all these loose ends and that I would finally understand. Finally, there would be justice.

Nope.

Almost everyone dies for no good reason and the bad guys win. Casper’s murder becomes an afterthought and I can’t even tell you the names of his killers only that his murder is never officially solved. All the shady politicians get what they want and the dirty cops go on being dirty cops.

The season ends with Ani (one of the investigating detectives) in Belize (I think) talking to ANOTHER CHARACTER. A NEW CHARACTER. A reporter. She hands off all the evidence she collected for an expose (????) and is still uncertain anyone will see justice probably because she is as lost as the rest of us and hopes the reporter can figure it all out.

If we want to end our story like a French film and everyone dies? Ohhhh-kaaaaay, but we should give the audience a bone. The bad guys then should be punished. If we want the bad guys to win? I’m not fond of that kind of ending, but all right. It happens. But then we need to give the audience a personal WIN for the characters. Our protagonists cannot all die AND all fail. They cannot all die and fail the plot arc and the character arc.

If they do, the audience will want to stab our story IN THE FACE.

Why all of this is (to me) a shame is because there was so much rich material in this series to work with and it went to waste. I actually enjoyed Vince Vaughn as a bad guy and loved his character (cheesy lines and all).

But there IS some good news to this. When I watched True Detective Season One, it was so good I actually questioned if I could even write. After Season Two? I realize even geniuses like Pizzolatto make mistakes too 😉 .

What are your thoughts? Did you watch both seasons? Were you just as confused by Season 2? Were the dudes with the bakery who forged the passports Armenian? I never could quite figure that out.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Before we go, some upcoming classes. It’s BACK TO SCHOOL!:

Remember! Due to popular demand I am running my Your Story in a Sentence class THIS SATURDAY and participants have their log lines shredded and rebuilt and made agent-ready. Log-lines are crucial because if we don’t know what our book is about? How are we going to finish it? Revise it? Pitch it? Sell it?

This class can help ensure your story is COMPLEX, not COMPLICATED.

I am also running my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of August. Beginnings are crucial. As a long-time editor, I can tell almost every bad habit and story flaw in five pages. I never need over 20. This class helps you learn to see what agents and editors see and learn how to correct most common writing mistakes. I am offering additional levels if you want me to shred your first 5 or even 20 pages.

I am STOKED about Back to School and am here to help! The first ten signups for Gold or Platinum get double pages (10 for Gold and 40 for Platinum).

In September, I’m teaching my Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist. This class is critical for PLOT whether we are plotters or pantsers. This class will teach you how to have a solid plot that captivates and satisfies audiences, whether for one title or a series.

All classes are recorded and the recording is provided FREE with purchase.

Can’t wait to see you in class and read your writing!

Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins
Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

There are a lot of hurdles to writing great fiction, which is why it’s always important to keep reading and writing. We only get better by DOING. Today we’re going to talk about some self-editing tips to help you clean up your book before you hire an editor.

When I worked as an editor, I found it frustrating when I couldn’t even GET to the story because I was too distracted by these all too common oopses.

There are many editors who charge by the hour. If they’re spending their time fixing blunders you could’ve easily repaired yourself? You’re burning cash and time. Yet, correct these problems, and editors can more easily get to the MEAT of your novel. This means you will spend less money and get far higher value.

#1 The Brutal Truth about Adverbs, Metaphors and Similes

I have never met an adverb, simile, or metaphor I didn’t LOVE. I totally dig description, but it can present problems.

First of all, adverbs are not ALL evil. Redundant adverbs are evil. If someone shouts loudly? How else are they going to shout? Whispering quietly? Really? O_o Ah, but if they whisper seductively? The adverb seductively gives us a quality to the whisper that isn’t already implied by the verb.

Check your work for adverbs and kill the redundant ones. Kill them. Dead.

Metaphors and similes are awesome, but need to be used sparingly. Yes, in school, our teachers or professors didn’t ding us for using 42 metaphors in 5 pages, but their job was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor or simile, NOT prepare us for commercial publication as professional novelists.

When we use too much of this verbal glitter, we can create what’s called “purple prose.” This glitter, while sparkly, can pull the reader out of the story or even confuse the reader. A while back, I edited a winner’s 20 page entry. The story began on a whitewater river and the rafters were careening toward a “rock coffee table.”

Huh?

Oh, the boulder is squarish shaped!

Thing is, the metaphor made me stop to figure out what image the author was trying to create. If the rafters had merely been careening toward a giant flat rock? Not as pretty but I could have remained in the story without trying to figure out how the hell furniture ended up in the river.

I’ve read some great books, but as an editor, I might have cut some of the metaphors. Why? Because the author might have a metaphor SO GOOD I wanted to highlight it and commit it to memory…but it was bogged down by the other four metaphors and three similes on the same page. The other metaphors/similes added nothing…unless one counts distraction.

Go through your pages and highlight metaphors and similes. Pick THE BEST and CUT THE REST. Look for confusing metaphors, like rock furniture in the middle of a river.

#2 Stage Direction

She reached out her arm to open the door.

Okay, unless she has mind powers and telekinesis, do we need the direction?

He turned to go down the next street.

He picked up the oars and pulled a few more strokes, eager to get to his favorite fishing spot.

We “get” he’d have to pick up the oars to row his boat, or that is a seriously cool trick.

Be active. Characters can “brush hair out of their face” “open doors” and even slap people without you telling us they reached out an arm or hand to do this. We are smart. Really.

#3 Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts…

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow? The carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

#4 Too much Physiology…

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.

Get a copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus to help you vary physiology. Also, if someone’s heart is pounding, that’s okay. We assume until they are out of danger it’s still pounding. No need to remind us.

Really.

#5 Backing Into the Sentence/Passive Voice

In an effort to break up and vary sentence structure, many writers will craft sentences like this:

With the months of stress pressing down on her head, Jessie started ironing the restaurant tablecloths with a fury.

Problem? Passive action. When we use the word “down” then “on” is redundant. Either she is ironing or not ironing. “Started” is overused and makes sloppy writing. That actually goes back to the whole “stage direction” thing.

Active:

Jessie ironed the restaurant tablecloths with a fury, months of stress pressing on her shoulders.

The door was kicked in by the police.

Police kicked in the door.

If you go through your pages and see WAS clusters? That’s a HUGE hint that passive voice has infected your story.

#6 Almost ALWAYS Use “Said” as a Tag

“You are such a jerk,” she laughed.

A character can’t “laugh” something. They can’t “snip” “spit” “snarl” “grouse” words. They can SAY and ever so often they can ASK. Said becomes white noise. Readers don’t “see” it. It keeps them in the story and cooking along. If we want to add things like laughing, griping, complaining, then fine. It just shouldn’t be the tag.

“You are such a jerk.” She laughed as she flicked brownie batter onto Fabio’s white shirt.

There you go, SIX easy tips for self-editing. We all make these mistakes and that’s why God invented revision (that and to punish the unfaithful). If you can get rid of these common offenders on your own, then good editors can focus on the deeper aspects of your fiction.

Have you had to ruthlessly slay your favorite metaphors? Are you a recovering adverb-addict? What are some other self-editing guidelines you use to keep your prose clean and effective?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

My new social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU. If you REGISTER NOW, you get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE (and all recordings) for $119 (regularly $149). Sign up today, because this special won’t last and seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.