Thursday, 6 December 2018

Ho! Ho! Ho! Writing Christmas Fiction with Julie Hodgson

Award-winning author and Whoosh client Julie Hodgson has written for adults and children across a range of genres, including everyone’s favourite – the Christmas book! Yes, who doesn’t love a good tale of families coming together and mean-spirited humbugs learning the true meaning of Christmas, both of which are central to her hilarious book The Gift, in which long-suffering Joe is forced to team up with the mother-in-law from hell to pass tests set by Santa himself and save his wife in time for Christmas. I caught up with Julie for a quick chat about the inspiration behind the book, what goes into writing a seasonal novel and how she’ll be spending the holidays.  

What inspired you to tackle a Christmas book?

Christmas is my absolute favourite time of the year. I have already written a few Christmas stories for small children and love the subject.

What was your inspiration when writing The Gift?

Again, my love for the Christmas spirit and season. It always brings out the very best in most people. I like that.

Christmas books are often about families coming together. Tell us about the relationship between Joe and his awful, flame-haired monster-in-law.

Joe tries his best but always feels he is never good enough for Madge. She picks fault all the time without rhyme or reason. But Madge does have her ways and Joe tries to please her, just to keep the peace for Beth. Of course, when two people are thrown together it can go either way. With Joe and Madge, the results are both funny and heart warming.

Who/what inspired the terrible mother-in-law character?

We can all guess pretty well about who the mother-in-law character was based on. I think many wives or husbands have this issue with not being liked by the spouse’s mother! A son’s mother never really accepts the new woman in their son’s life … at least not every one of them! There are exceptions.

What is the most important ingredient of a Christmas book?

It’s great to have comedy, heart-warming situations and, of course, the family involved.

What advice would you give to other writers tackling Christmas books?

It’s important to have some strong characters in the book, a main one who the reader can follow. It’s essential to have lots going on, excitement, even sad situations. This will keep the reader following the story.

How important is a happy ending in seasonal writing?

To me at least, it’s very important … Although I do know it is not always the case. But Christmas is for having dreams and happy endings, especially in books.

How has creating a book with a limited window for sales affected your marketing strategy?

I never think of any one particular marketing strategy for the Christmas books, as people love them anyway … I use postcards, which are easy to give to people or leave in libraries and shops. Xmas fayres are a great way to spread the news about your Christmas saga. The cover is important, I feel, too. I always look for a wonderful cover when I’m buying a book. And now I own a book shop, but I don’t tell customers I’m an author; it’s a buzz when they pick up one of my books.

What is your favourite Christmas book?

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens!

How will you be spending Christmas this year?

As I am in Portugal this year, I am flying to Sweden to be with my grown-up children and to have a crazy family Christmas, with board games, good food and plenty of laughter. Whereas Madge has issues with Joe, I adore my son- and daughter-in-law.

Buy The Gift by Julie Hodgson on Amazon
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Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Three Incredibly Easy Ways to Make Your Character Descriptions Pop

                                                            She had blue eyes, brown hair, a blue jumper and a look of boredom that had been there since she read this description of herself.

We've all been guilty of lazy writing like this before. So, what follows are three tips to avoid listing your characters' attributes and elevate your description to make it pop.


Select Meaningful Points of Focus

Think about what you are telling your readers with your physical description. Yes, you are telling us what your characters look like, but you could be showing us so much more. What would you like us to see about your characters that’s unique to them and builds on character development?

Think about that blue jumper. She wore a blue jumper. Anyone can wear a blue jumper, but ask yourself how your character is wearing it and what it says about them. Is it new or old? Tightfitting or loose and worn? Are the sleeves rolled up? This will give you a starting point, but take it further so this jumper could only belong to your character. Does it have stains down the front? Does she fiddle with the loose threads? Perhaps it’s not a jumper at all but a t-shirt with a slogan that shows your character’s unique perspective; a shirt that he sweats through within minutes of putting it on; a painters’ shirt with more paint on it than the canvas.

And those blue eyes? She had blue eyes. What are they telling us about the character? Seventeen percent of the world’s population has blue eyes (thank you, Google). What sets your character apart from the others? What are they expressing or looking at? Do they blink particularly slowly or quickly or linger, thirsty to drink in the world around him? Or maybe there is another focal point that will tell us more about this character? His/her hands, feet, necklace, tattoo, hat, teeth?

Carefully selecting focus points is a great approach to take when describing all other aspects of your book. Think beyond literal description and about what you would like to show readers. Think about the perspective of the character viewing the room or the dog or the sky; does it affect the way you describe it? Think about who the garden or car or phone belong to; what does your description tell us about them? Use description to your advantage to reveal and develop character and plot.


Show Your Description in Action

I have touched on this in the first tip, when the character fiddles with the loose strand on the blue jumper or his blue eyes linger on the world around him. Adding movement/interaction will paint a stronger picture of your characters beyond 2D descriptions, and you are killing two birds with one stone: avoiding directly telling readers how a character feels (the greatest writing sin!) and creating more dynamic description. So, 'The nervous woman in the blue jumper' becomes 'The fidgety woman fiddling with the loose strands on her worn jumper'. 'The miserable-looking man at the bar with the blue eyes' becomes 'The man at the bar who hasn’t looked up from the glass of warm beer in his hand for the last hour nor taken a sip of it'.

Even when you are not particularly saying much of anything about a character with your description and you really do just want a character to have blonde hair and blue eyes, it will be more powerfully shown dynamically rather than in list form. So, ‘She had blonde hair’ becomes ‘I hadn’t noticed just how blonde her hair was until we were out in the light’. ‘He had blue eyes’ becomes ‘Those blue eyes got me every time. How could I say no?’.
Again, use dynamic description throughout the book, beyond character description, to elevate your writing.


Use all the Senses

So far, we have only looked at visual description, but there are five senses to play with, and the other four are quite often forgotten. What sounds does a person make and what do they tell us about the character? Perhaps they are so softly spoken that it’s almost as if they don’t want to be heard. Perhaps they crack their knuckles so loudly that it makes her jump every time. Perhaps the suit was so cheap that it squeaked. What about smell? Everyone has a unique smell and every smell tells a story. There are obvious smells, like BO and perfume, but it’s the unusual smells that get the cogs turning: ‘It was an odd combination of cinnamon and WD40; don’t ask me what she had spent the day doing.’

The more intimate senses are useful when characters are up close and personal, but touch also has a place in general character descriptions. Think of a simple handshake and what this could tell us about a character. Is it firm or soft? Hot or cold? Rough or soft?

If this was helpful, feel free to share it with others.

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Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Why are Agents and Publishers Rejecting Your Novel?

There are many reasons that agents and publishers reject manuscripts. These reasons fall into two categories: variables controlled by them and variables controlled by you. Anything from budgets and a full list could fall into the first category, to something as trivial as an agent looking at your sample after an argument with his/her husband/wife and barely reading it. That’s publishing for you – it was never meant to be easy!

Thick skin and persistence are obviously key here. Even the spotty, awkward, greasy teenager gets a date if he asks every single girl in the whole school. Every ‘no’ brings him closer to a ‘yes’, and it’s the same principal with finding a home for your book. Knock on enough doors and you eventually find an agent or publisher. Right? Well, partly, but, sticking with the metaphor, wouldn’t it be better to have a wash, reach for the Clearasil and get some dating advice?

This is where the second set of variables become important. What can you do to attract attention and impress potential backers? More importantly, what might you be doing to ruin your chances of finding representation?

Not researching the agent or publisher thoroughly

It’s tempting to send samples out in all directions to see what sticks, but wouldn’t it be better to take the time to find the best match for your work? No poetry, children’s book, sci-fi, etc. means just that. No publisher ever is going to be so dazzled by your work that they will change their ethos to work around you. Don’t waste their time. Instead, show them respect and tell them why you have chosen them specifically in your cover letter. If you can’t think of a reason, they might not be the agent or publisher for you.

Not presenting your work to their specifications

Agents and publishers each have their own specifications governing submissions. Read them! Some things are generally similar – 12pt font, Times New Roman, double-spaced, one side of A4 – however, there are variables in their content requirements – email/snail mail, long/short synopsis, one/three chapters/whole manuscript. They may ask for a reading fee, a reference, a CV. The only way to find out is to check their website or The Artists’ and Writers’ Yearbook.

Not Presenting your work professionally

Are your sample chapters, cover letter and synopsis printed on good quality paper, well-aligned, free from thumbprints? Have you put them in an A4 envelope and neither stapled nor folded them? Are you proud to send this first impression to the people that hold your future in their hands? If not, bypass the postbox and head straight to the bin.

Not checking for errors

When you have solved cosmetic problems, the next step is confronting the text. Is your manuscript full of errors? This is an interesting and difficult question; if your manuscript is full of error, you have made them and might not be aware of them. A better question would be to ask if you are the best person to judge if there are errors in your sample. I suggest getting as many eyes on deck as possible. A professional proofread is never a waste of money.         

Not reworking your manuscript sufficiently

I’m sure there is no need for me to say this, but you shouldn’t be sending anyone your first draft. The first draft is merely the clay that you can then rework into your masterpiece. It is a springboard to greater work. There are no hard and fast rules about how many times you need to edit a book, but the more work you put in, the better the result, so allow yourself to be driven by your own high standards. Again, get as many people to read it as possible. A professional manuscript assessment is a great way of looking at the novel with fresh eyes and discovering strengths and weaknesses in both the project and your writing skills.

Underestimating the role of a writer

It takes hard work, determination, practise, sacrifice and devotion to be a writer. Many authors fail to find representation until they have written a number of books, developing skills with each project. Others find success later in life, again building and honing their skills over time. If you have chosen writing because of £million book deals and overnight success stories, you may be approaching this from the wrong angle. There are no shortcuts and no replacement for a lifetime of development. Take a course, join a writing group, get as many people to read you as possible so you can gain a sense of where you are in terms of your abilities. Seeking publication is applying for the Olympics. Are you ready for that?

Underestimating the additional role of a writer

Agents and publishers are primarily looking for great, well-written books. They are also concerned with who is writing them. In the 21st century ‘who you are’ in this context means ‘who you are online’. Do you have a blog? Have you been published online or in magazines? Have you self-published? What do your Facebook and Twitter accounts look like? Are you presenting yourself as someone who is capable of building hype and publicising your own book? Do you have any significant contacts that you can share in your cover letter?      

Finally, sadly, flogging a dead horse

Your book just might not be good enough. It’s blunt, I know, but this is a reality that we all have to face at some point in our careers. We have devoted six months or a year or fifteen years to a book, we have put our souls into it, and we’ve accidentally produced a stinker. You can try to mend it, seek advice, edit hard, but some books were never meant to be. I have seen writers crushed beneath the weight of their magnum opuses for decades, unwilling to let them go because they have devoted themselves to them for so long. This is no way to live. Sometimes, it’s okay to simply let go, take what you have learned to your next project and keep moving forwards.

Hayley Sherman has been helping writers move towards publication for ten years.
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Friday, 24 November 2017

Show Don’t Tell - The Writer’s Mantra! But When is it Okay to Tell?

‘Show don’t tell’ is the single most valuable piece of advice a writer can receive. Don’t tell the reader what’s going on, get out your box of paints and create a world that readers can disappear into. Don’t explain what’s happening, stay in the moment and allow the events to unravel, detail by detail. The closer you get to the action or drama, the more immersed your readers will become in your fantasy.

We all know the Chekhov quote now – ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’­ – and it’s a great illustration of the point.

Every time I assess or edit a fresh manuscript for a client, the words ‘show don’t tell’ will always pop up at least once in my notes, whether it’s simply a need to show the heat and tension on a character’s face rather than simply writing, ‘She was angry’, or a greater sin of completely lapsing into distant overview and summarising whole scenes when what we really need is to stay in the moment.

However, there is definitely a time and a place for telling. You just need to make sure you know when and where that is.

I am rereading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler and rediscovering what a masterclass it is on the subject. It’s hard to talk about the book without spoilers, so I will simply say that Rosemary’s story is unravelled throughout the early decades of her life, which Fowler achieves through a balance of scene-building and overview, showing and telling, both of which are necessary because of the scope of the story. The genius of this narrative is Fowler’s instinct for when to zoom in for a closeup of the moments of Rosemary’s life and when to pull away to show readers the bigger picture. She does so with a deft hand that allows her to skip from the past to the present, and uses the distinct first-person voice to colour her ‘telling’ with the opinions and character of her narrator that make the book so unique. I highly recommend taking a look.

Zooming in and out is a great way of addressing the showing and telling issue. For the most part, we obviously need to be zoomed in. This is where readers are flies on walls that you are creating, eavesdropping on the dialogue, absorbing interactions moment by moment, interpreting nuanced behaviour into character and plot (with no ‘telling’ from you). The telling comes in when you need to convey something that cannot be shown … and I mean really cannot be shown; this does not include explanations of what a character is feeling, unnecessary chapter introduction and summaries of what’s generally going on (which often show a lack of confidence in your ability and underestimate the intelligence of your readers).

So, when can you tell?

‘Telling’ often becomes necessary when there are gaps that need to be filled; either the past needs to be explained or time has moved on and your readers need to know what’s happened in their absence. This is where I encourage you to get creative and ask questions of your project. Do you need to tell as much as you think in the exposition? Would you be creating a more challenging read if background was implied rather than directly revealed? And when used, what can you do to create ‘telling’ that is as absorbing and compelling as the ‘showing’? Fowler and others zoom in and out even within exposition, often throwing in fragments of scenes and dialogue alongside summary to illustrate their ‘telling’; what can you do in this way to dissolve the distance that ‘telling’ creates?

This is especially challenging with first-person narratives, where you are firmly positioned inside your main character’s head and it is tempting to explain what they are thinking and experiencing rather than showing it, which is why it is so important to consider how you are going to approach this kind of commentary before beginning. Even if you have created a character whose thought processes, worldview and personal voice are so dynamic and captivating that we are hanging off every thought they have, we will still get closer to them if we are allowed to see out of their eyes and experience the world the way they see it, rather than simply being told about it.

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Sunday, 5 March 2017

Staying Motivated When You’re Skint, Pissed Off and Your Protagonists are Stalking Your Nightmares

You’re skint! You’ve been working on the same soul-hungry, ink-draining, end-dodging novel/screenplay/collection for so long that its characters have started to lurk around the corners of your nightmares and jump out at you with their demonic hair and crazy weapons of doom. When you wake up they’re still there, demanding your attention even though it’s a sunny day and you’ve been told there are actually real people in the world. You’ve starting to compare yourself to people your age, from your best mate to J.K. Rowling, both of whom have achievements that far outweigh your own. You’ve started to hide from your laptop because it’s looking at you all the time and you’re sure you can hear it calling you. Why aren’t you writing? You can’t run from me forever! You walk into the library and your heart sinks at the sheer volume of books confronting you. What could you possibly have to say that hasn’t already been said? And no one’s reading them anyway. You’re battling to produce a masterpiece that will end up in this large-print, pensioner-fingered graveyard before it’s even lived a life. All is lost!

But you know deep down that this is what you signed up for. You know that you can make a killing but not a living with a pen, so you drag yourself through the lean years. You know that there will be days when your characters salute you when the sun goes down and you can snuggle under your duvet as a hero of the craft, so you tolerate the struggle. You know that the majority of writers find success later in life and you’re in no hurry, but how can you keep your sanity in the meantime, when your self-confidence has buggered off in a taxi with your talent and you’re sitting on the floor thinking the unthinkable – of getting a proper job? Maybe this will help …

Read Something Awesome
This could be the book that you’ve been waiting to hit the shelves, a biography by an author who has been through what you’re going through, or your favourite book, which you’ve already read one hundred times. There is a danger of falling out of love with books when your own has had you in a headlock for so long, so be good to yourself and get into bed with a classic.

Do something Awesome
I waste a lot of time when I should be writing and I end up doing nothing. I think I’m fooling myself, but I’ve got my number. Watching ‘just one episode’ on Netflix, cleaning the house from top to bottom, alphabetising my shoes; this is not writing and I am fooling nobody. If writing just isn’t going to happen then better to be honest about it and go out into the world than spend a day wracked with guilt and zero productivity. Go have a good time and feel good. Go and do something awesome and inspiring and your creative world will reap the benefits anyway.

Make Contact with Awesome People
Write a letter (yes, a letter) to your favourite author. Why? Because they might actually write back to you with words of encouragement. Because it will make you feel good to reach out. Join writing forums and get Tweeting, join a real-life writing group to meet other writers who have pulled half their hair out over questions of point of view and characterisation. Get support.

Try an Awesome New Medium
If you’re a novelist, have a go at writing a screenplay; if you’re a screenwriter, try your hand at poetry; if you’re a poet, see what it feels like to develop a play; if you write comedy, get serious; if you are a literary author, lighten up; if you tend to write long, sprawling sentences, see what short bursts are like. Go further still; if you usually tell a story with words, try doing it with music or art, film or dance. There are many ways to tell a story and so many creative spaces in which to park your beautiful mind.

Write to Your Awesome Self
I read this tip in a book many years ago and it’s such a charming idea. Quite simply, write an emergency letter to be opened in times of deep dejection and distress. Write it when you’re feeling great. You’re the best writer ever. George Orwell and Virginia Woolf had a love affair and you were the result. There has never been a writer quite like you. Write it all down and go into specifics, remind yourself of what inspired you to write in the first place and what you would like to achieve with this project. Be kind to yourself.

Need help? Hayley Sherman has been supporting independent writers for nearly ten years as an editor, creative consultant and ghost-writer. Visit for more details.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Writing as Improvisation

I recently read Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson with my book group and found one of the bravest and most inspiring writer-based lines I have ever read:

Every day I went to work, without a plan, without a plot, to see what I had to say.

She was falling apart by this stage, fighting a battle with the fog, and, as it had throughout her life, writing pulled her through her despair. She was so broken and crushed by the weight of her experiences that she could barely vocalise her thoughts or bring food to her lips, but she had this place of words and stories in which to immerse herself and from it came great healing. The restorative power of artistic endeavour is beyond inspiring, but I was particularly astounded by her courageous faith in the unknown, to simply see what she had to say each day, improvising a world in which to insert herself with no thought for the end result. And this time of improvisation yielded not only the return of sanity but also The Battle of the Sun, a book for children.

For the rest of us, just how easy is it to write to see what we have to say? Personally, I have found the experience incredibly overwhelming, but with surprising and compelling results. It’s also a little frightening. Writing in this way is a direct route to the subconscious – why kick that hornet’s nest? – but it is highly recommended for just that reason, because you never know what you’re going to manifest – on the page and in your world.

As writers, we already know the power of ‘free writing’, because to a lesser extent, writing is always improvisation. We never know what a character is going to say or how we will express their movements, even if we are working to a strict plan. We are often swept off into fantastical new directions that we simply couldn’t have imagined without the act of writing them. I don’t know how it works, but it does, so why not try to harness this with a 100% improvisation practice, even if it’s just for ten minutes a day, just to see what you have to say? You can start by plucking a first line or subject out of the air, or from a newspaper/the internet, use a photograph or work of art to inspire you, or bravely simply commit to keeping your pen moving for ten minutes with absolutely no preconceptions. I promise you won’t regret it.

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Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Top Ten Words I Found Down the Back of the Sofa

 I love a good top ten list and more importantly, search engines love a good top ten list, so I have compiled my own catchy countdown to draw the masses away from the mainstream Top Ten Movies, TV Shows and Celebrity Arse Cracks and back to the mothership that is the English language. This is Action 159 (Clause 12) of my cunning manifesto to take over the world with a dictionary in one hand a mug of peppermint tea in the other.
But first let me take you back a bit …

To my shame, as a child when reading, I was a skipper rather than a looker-upper, because who has the time to pull out a dictionary for every unfamiliar word when you’re a) immersed in a great book and b) more than capable of inventing a definition for the word using its sound and context? But this is where I had been going wrong; this is where mistakes are made from which one might never recover. For example, who knew the words demotic and demonstrative had absolutely nothing to do with demons? Who knew ‘bucolic’ was neither a disease nor a vegetable? Who knew a ‘sibilant’ wasn’t a robotic, mutant brother?

So, in recent times, I have treated mystery words with a little more respect, especially as it is impossible to skip words in conversations with learned colleagues who have never missed a dictionary call in their lives, and making up my own definitions leads only to embarrassment – a despot is not served for pudding, Dada is not mama’s partner, a filigree is not an accommodating horse.

Several discoveries have emerged from my rehabilitation from crimes against language; the first is a realisation that there are literally words for everything. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but now I am committed to learning the meaning of every single word in the English language, I am convinced that many words are surplus to requirement. Interlocutor: a person having a conversation. Do we really need that one? Sonorous? I have given this word so many different meanings over the years and now I discover that all it means is deep and full. Call me old fashioned, but we already have two words for that: one is deep and the other is full. Lubricious (nothing to do with the joy of Durex Play): the simple definition of this is lewd. What I’m realising is that I should be in charge of giving words their definitions. I would be so much better at it than the joker who decided that a wonderful word like nebulous, a jewel of the OED – neberendingfabulousness – should simply mean vague.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, or cataclysm and monochrome (which actually means disaster and black and white, but let’s not Serra (Greek dance) with semantics). I love words; of course I love words. I have always loved words; I work with words; I would eat them for dinner if I could. So you won’t be surprised to find that as I worked through my blind spots I uncovered more than the odd word that made me smile. And so was born my top ten words found down the back of the sofa. I suppose I only figurative found them down the back of the sofa (or I literally found them down the back of the sofa if you’re a young person gamely determined to use the word ‘literally’ in literally every sentence and hang the consequences – I literally salute you). Enjoy …

I include this on my list not for its meaning but because I don’t think I have ever heard it spoken, although fiction writers seem to love it. Desires and unpleasant feelings are always being assuaged, but I’m still not sure I know how the word would feel in my mouth should I need to get my assuage on.

We’re just warming up, so another fairly straightforward word, but this one seemed to appear from nowhere one day. I simply hadn’t heard of it, but then it was in every single book I read. Isn’t it strange when you learn something and then it’s suddenly everywhere although you’ve never heard of it before? It’s as if the world gave birth to it at the exact moment I discovered it. Patina: the green film found on bronze.

Now we’re cooking with gas! A student of butterflies and moths.

What can I say? I’m a childish girl-woman. This word isn’t an adjective relating to a popular coffee house chain, or a projection you would find on an accountant’s spreadsheet; it simply refers to something that causes constipation. Ha! It’s such a benign- and innocuous-looking word … and I thought I had heard of all the toilet-related words that existed.

Just look at it! It’s ugly but beautiful at the same time; awkward but self-contained; harsh, almost violent and then peaceful in the last few syllables. The shape of this word tells a thousand stories and takes the tongue on journeys previously untraveled. And its meaning? Fruit-eating.

This is included because I previously only knew the words xenon, xenophobia, Xerox, Xmas, X-ray and xylophone beginning with X. But X has far more to deliver than this: xenogamy, xenoglossia, xenopus, etc., etc. I feel as if I have never lived when I look at these words. My number five simply describes a person with light hair and a fair complexion.

If assuage was chosen because I didn’t quite know how it would feel in my mouth, I have chosen fecundity for the exact opposite reason. I know how it feels and it’s positively filthy. Say it out loud, savour the syllables – fe-cun-di-ty. How isn’t this a sexually explicit swear word? Disappointingly, it simply means fertility (for which we already have a word, which is fertility!)

This is a physical object or design which is made to resemble another material. That sounded quite complicated when I looked it up, but it’s really simple. For example, when you use an app that’s designed to look like something that exists in the real world (a computer keypad, a bookshelf, pages of a notepad), this is skeuomorphic. I’m not sure why this word appeals. It just does; perhaps because I only discovered it a few nights ago and it still has that fresh and exciting glow.

Proving conclusively that there is a word for absolutely everything, this simply means to throw someone or something out of a window. I love that it is clean, succinct and specific. This word can do no wrong in my eyes.      

And at Number One
This word absolutely stole the show for me for its awkward and unusual positioning in the sentence; the very knowledge that this word exists makes me smile most days. It is an adjective meaning ‘at the point of death’. So, for example, a slaughterhouse din might be a cacophony of moribund squeals. A man with his head in a guillotine might have moribund thoughts of a better life where his head hasn’t ended up in a guillotine. Love it!

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