Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Online writing communities for picture book writers: inspirational or distracting? A look at some gems including PiBoIdMo, 12 x 12 in '12 and online critique groups that really work. By Juliet Clare Bell

Me with one of my books that was brought to life by an online writing community. No really.

The romantic notion of the lone wolf writer, hidden away in some shed (or tucked up under a warm duvet in bed), scribbling away without distraction, may be true for some of us some of the time, but for many of us, the reality is that we’re usually sat at a computer (and often with lots of other things going on around us).

(Unfortunately, the 'other things' as I write tonight include a small child and a sick bowl.)

Are we writing our stories with the internet switched off? How often do we switch between our manuscript and email or FaceBook (just for five minutes. If I were at work, I’d talk to someone every so often, wouldn’t I?)

Well, there are loads of things to distract us online. But just in case you’re not quite distracted enough, I thought I’d share some more with you. Only these ones are so valuable to me as a picture book writer that I’m sharing them not so we can all be distracted together and share the guilt, but because if you haven’t already discovered these online writing communities and you also write picture books, then you might find them helpful too…

I love November. I really do. And a growing number of children’s picture book writers –published and working-towards-being-published- are also finding the cold, dark and wet month of November inspirational. But why…?

(or HoItNoAg -Hooray, it’s November again! –but don’t remember this acronym. I just made it up)

I appear to be a fan of groups with acronyms that no one is quite sure how to pronounce. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an amazing organisation with almost as many ways of pronouncing the acronym as members (ok, well perhaps not –there are well over 20000 members worldwide, but it’s called, Scooby or Scwibby or Scibwee with such confidence by various members, that I can’t side with any of them and spend twice as long pronouncing it ESS-CEE-BEE-DOUBLEYOU-EYE). PiBoIdMo is Picture Book Ideas Month. I’ve always pronounced it Pie-Bow-Id-Moe. It turns out others call it something else. But actually, who cares? It’s an online thing and although you may end up writing it loads online, you’ll probably rarely say the word out loud to anyone other than yourself.

This is not another NaNoWriMo where you’re expected to write a novel in a month (and there are many opinions on the merits or otherwise of NaNoWriMo). Picture Book Ideas Month works very differently. It simply encourages every person who signs up to it to attempt to come up with thirty ideas for picture books in thirty days during November. It sounds simple, right? And something you don’t need an online community for –any writer can set himself or herself that task alone, do it and have plenty of ideas to pick and choose from for the coming year… Except PiBoIdMo is so much more than that –because of the online community that it has become. I asked creator, Tara Lazar (author of The Monstore) about it.

Incredibly, she managed to get back to me in spite of being caught up and powerless in Hurricaine Sandy:

I had no idea PiBoIdMo would grow this popular--we have almost 700 participants this year. When it began in 2009, I thought I'd maybe get 10 people to try it with me. The enthusiasm that writers have for the event has blown me away. Plus I keep hearing about success stories--PiBoIdMo ideas that have gone on to win contests, grants and publishing contracts. I'm truly amazed by the creativity of our community and grateful to the guest bloggers and participants for their contributions to picture books.

If you write or illustrate picture books, I would highly recommend checking it out (and looking back over previous years’ posts, too). We’re six days into it and I’ve already got seventeen picture book ideas. Well, ideas may be a grand way of describing them, but they're seeds, and I'll keep reading through them and adding bits as the weeks go on. Not all of them will end up as picture book manuscripts. If I find five or six ideas to work on out of forty or so I've come up with by the end of November, then I’ll be very happy.

Of my 2011 ideas, a couple, which I worked into stories, are under consideration with a publisher; a couple I can safely say I’m unlikely to pursue (Day 8 and Day 27 spring to mind…). And about fifteen of them I still like and am waiting for the right time for them to develop into something more than an idea. It could take weeks, or it could take years. But they’re there and waiting for me.
Penny Morrison, one of the commenters on today’s PiBoIdMo post, said something similar:

…writing picture books seems to be about waiting. A bit of planting and watering, but mostly waiting.

PiBoIdMo has guest blog posts every day throughout the month, from authors, illustrators, editors and agents. Some are great for generating ideas; some inspire; some provide that all-important introduction to an editor or agent (and there are giveaway critiques with some of the editors and agents for those who are signed up).
I love the posts where I'm encouraged to generate ideas in certain ways, which in previous posts has included going through photos...


Any ideas, anyone?


Or children's drawings (try looking at them first and then ask the child what it's actually about. It can be illuminating)...

Anyone like to guess what this story is about? (OK -first, the doorbell rings -DING DONG- then the boy answers the door. He sees that it's a witch (who looks very cute and smiley in the picture but it's obviously an act) and thinks about his toaster. Then he thinks 'I can put the witch in the toaster!' and all is ok once more...)

Now this one looks more straightforward...
But perhaps it's not...

PiBoIdMo participants include those with lots of books under their belts and those writers who are just starting out.

Corey Rosen Schwartz, author of The Three Ninja Pigs, wrote up her idea number 28 and it was bought by Putnam (I quite like my no. 28 from last year, too. I might still write that into a story. But my no. 27? Now that's unlikely to have been quite as successful…).

I love PiBoIdMo. I always get 30 ideas (at the very least) in 30 days and I feel like I'm part of something at the same time. And it gets me back into good habits about being present and receptive to any hints of a story in my surroundings. But where do you turn to next online, once you've got your creative juices flowing and have all those picture book ideas...?


I came up with the idea for 12 x 12 as a way to increase my own PB-writing output using all of the great ideas I was mining in PiBoIdMo. I figured if I needed the motivation of a challenge, maybe others did too. So I sent out the notice and let people sign up. I expected maybe 50 people to join me.

Well, 400 signups later, 12 x 12 has become much more than a writing challenge. It has become a genuine community where participants learn from each other, help one another and offer support and encouragement… We keep each other going.

Julie Foster Hedlund

And what do other writers say about it? Susanna Leonard Hill, author of April Fool, Phyllis! and Can't Sleep Without Sheep:

There are always things I can do better and ways I can improve my craft. So I joined … PiBoIdMo partly for all the excellent author interviews and tips on writing. But the main reason I joined both [PiBoIdMo and 12 x 12 in ’12] was for the community, the camaraderie, and the inspiration. Writing can be a lonely business sometimes, and it's nice to feel like you're part of a group who understands all the joys and frustrations.

There are plenty of people in the group who will end the year with twelve manuscripts.

Yay!

I won’t be one of them
Oh no. Really?

–I should end up with nine. But that doesn’t matter. I’ll still have written more than I would have done without it.

Hooray!

–as will Deb Lund

With marketing books, revising a middle-grade novel and doing school visits and conference presentations, it's not always easy to find time to write. With PiBoIdMo pestering—um, encouraging—me to keep up with new ideas, and the 12x12 deadline—um, encouragement again—I wouldn't be writing as many new pieces or getting to know the wonderful creators and participants. I'm looking forward to writing a post on the PiBoIdMo blog later this month, and to having thirty more picture book ideas than I would have had if not for also being a participant.

For Lori Degman, author of the award-winning 1 Zany Zoo:

the most valuable thing about both PiBoIdMo and 12X12 - the people! I have learned so much from the creative and generous authors and illustrators in this group and I feel I've made a lot of friends, though we may never meet in person.

You can sign up for 2013's 12 x 12 here.

Is it any coincidence that these writing communities have sprung up in the US? With so many people spread over such a huge area, belonging to online communities may be much more realistic than in-person ones. Penny Klosterman (Barbara Karlin 2012 runner up) says of the online 12x12 community:

This is extremely beneficial to a gal who would have to drive 3 hours one way to meet a regional chapter of SCBWI.

And this brings me onto my third online writing community (since Penny is a member of this group, too): my online critique group.

In an online critique group where you don't ever meet in person (with the majority of the group, at least) it's (almost) all about the books...

I probably spend an hour and a half a week on this group, and it’s a very important part of my life. And yet I’ve only met two of the other members (there are eight of us). In fact, I wouldn’t even recognise five of them if they past me on the street (which is unlikely since they live in the States and I’m in the UK) and yet I have a really special bond with them. It’s taken a while to find the perfect online group, but it’s absolutely worth it.

But what makes it work? Rebecca Colby, Winner of Barbara Karlin, 2011:

While we're spread out over two continents and divided by an ocean, we are united in our love of picture books and our confidence in and support of each other's work. We may not be on each other's doorsteps, but we communicate more often than most in-person friendships… Every success is celebrated and every rejection is commiserated amongst friends that can truly empathise. I'd be lost without my critique group… I'm sure I could embrace an in-person picture book critique group, but it is rare to find so many people writing for the same age group in one area and at the same stage of their writing career.

And that’s crucial: no one feels like they’re putting more into it than they’re getting back. It works because we’re all at a similar level and everyone knows how we can help each other progress.

We bounce ideas off each other, push each other to think beyond the first few solutions that come to mind. We are quick to encourage but also brutally honest.
Kristin Gray

They are my support system. They continue to push me to become a better writer... Sherry Dargert

There are a great many more online writing communities, including joint blogs like PictureBookDen, which I love being a part of. And I’m a huge advocate of SCBWI (hmmn, did I ever mention that before?). But fortunately, for me, with the UK being small, I do see lots of SCBWI members throughout the course of a year (and especially at the annual conference -the other reason I love November). Our online communications, through a Yahoo group (for which you have to be a member) and the FaceBook group (for which you don’t –anyone can join) are really important and form a regular part of my day to day working environment but PiBoIdMo, 12 x 12 in ’12 and my critique group are truly online in that I’m unlikely ever to meet the vast majority of these people I spend so much virtual time with.

Online writing communities don’t always work. I know I spend too much time on Facebook for example, even though the majority of my FaceBook friends are writers, and I am guilty of kidding myself into thinking things are work that actually aren’t… And there have been upsetting stories about internet trolls recently, one where much loved picture book author and illustrator, Debi Gliori, has been bullied as a result of a complete misunderstanding of the nature of ideas and copyright.

One of my all-time favourite picture books: Debi Gliori's No Matter What. And for any of you over in the States reading this blog, I urge you to get hold of the original UK version which deals with death in a beautiful way (but which had to be changed for the US edition).

But it can work brilliantly and help us to be more creative and feel less isolated.

What are your experiences of online writing communities? Have you got any favourites you’d like to share? And in the spirit of helping out other picture book writers as happens so much in online writing communities such as PiBoIdMo and 12 x 12 in 12, do you have any discarded PiBoIdMo ideas that you’re happy for others to use? Let's see if anyone can get a decent idea for a story (you don't have to share the idea, just whether you've got one) from other people's discarded ideas... you're welcome to my 2011 ideas no. 8 and 27, though they're not the best: 'underwater pants' [8], and ‘I wish I was made out of recycled paper’ [27]). Do you have any success stories from virtual groups you belong to? How do you get the balance right between checking things like blogs and groups online and actually writing?

I’d love to hear from you.

Juliet Clare Bell is the author of Don't Panic, Annika! (illustrated by Jennifer E Morris; Piccadilly Press); Pirate Picnic (Franklin Watts) and The Kite Princess (illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman and narrated by Imelda Staunton; Barefoot Books).
Click on the links for tips on how (not) to write a rhyming picture book; editing your manuscript and making the most of feedback. www.julietclarebell.com

40 comments:

  1. Such a wonderful post, Clare! I'm honored to be part of the amazing community that's come together through these two challenges!!

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    1. Thanks, Julie. And thank you for all your incredibly hard work keeping 12 x 12 going. It's going to be really exciting seeing 12 x 12 manuscripts being picked up by publishers. There'll be lots of virtual celebrating.
      Thanks again, Clare.

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  2. I'm one of those people who writes for an hour a day. One hour. That leaves me 23 more hours to blog, read blogs (obsessively), Facebook, play Words With Friends, supervise a couple of student teachers, volunteer with my therapy dog, Cupcake, and think. It's my first time doing PiBoIdMo and everybody's first 12x12. I love them both and am staying right on schedule. They're not a distraction at all. Everybody is lots of fun, filled with insight, and even though many of them are out of my league on so many levels, they're so down to earth, I feel like we're all in the same boat.

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    1. I agree with you, Genevieve. Whether you're a beginner or have published many books, it really does feel like we're all in the same boat -we all want to write the absolute best stories we can.

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  3. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm for PiBoIdMo. (Yes, I say it "Pee-Bow" but I think I'm the only one, LOL.)

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    1. Thanks, Tara. You're responsible for helping loads of us get into much better writing habits. PiBoIdMo (and I'll try to call it PEEBo... now. Since you made it up, that's what it is) doesn't only happen in November for me; its promotion of good habits keeps me going well beyond, with some great posts. I love Tammi Sauer's post today and accept her challenge! Thanks again, Clare.

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    1. Thank you, Kim. I don't know whether you're a PiBoIdMoer yourself but it is great...

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  5. Great post, Clare! I love all of these online communities and like you, look forward to November. And I am so taking your 'underwater pants' idea if you don't intend to use it. :) You or anyone else can have the following: 'Ogre Opera' and 'The Toe Jam Fairy'.

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    1. Thanks Rebecca, you are welcome to 'underwater pants'. I can't wait to see what you do with it. And thanks for offering up your discarded ones, too. I may yet have a go with Ogre Opera. I love that one person's discarded idea can bear fruit for someone else. Happy PiBoIdMo-ing.

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  6. I've joined in with PiBoIdMo and am really enjoying the experience. I'll check out 12 x 12 when November is over. I don't think I can handle any more at the moment.

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    1. Glad you're enjoying PiBoIdMo, Lynne. What I like about 12x12 is that I'm not disappointed at not getting all twelve (as I have to concentrate on edits for already written manuscripts for an interested editor). I still know I've done more than I would have done for being in the group. And it's nice being part of something Stateside too. It's been really interesting.

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  7. I signed up for PiBoIdMo, too and am loving spending a hour or so a day generating ideas. A week in, I have over twenty new half-baked ideas, most of which popped into my head as I read the posts. By the end of this, I'll need to join 12x12 to make myself work out which ideas have legs and write up one a month! Thanks for bringing this to everyone's attention, Clare

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    1. Hey, we're fellow PiBoIdMoers -I didn't know! Fantastic. I love being given permission to indulge in generating ideas. And yes, the 12x12 was set up to do just that. I've got well over twenty ideas too, now -I've been much more productive on the ideas front this year, but if 80% of them are of no use (and some might initially feel like that and then spark something else off anyway), it'll still be great to have those 20%. Good luck!

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  8. I'm doing PiBoIdMo too, but have somehow named it Piebald month in my head. Funnily enough, it never really occurred to me that it was about community - I've been dreaming up ideas all on my own, with only a vague realisation that there were 700 people doing likewise. Which is probably a good thing, as if I were to start chatting about it I'd never have time for writing! Talking of which...

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    1. Thank you Elli. I think that 12x12 is more of a community as people need more encouragement to keep writing over the course of a year, whereas you can keep up with an idea per day alone more easily. But there's a lot of community behind the scenes with children's authors giving up time and expertise in order to provide daily posts to help people along. I do feel like I do a lot of taking from PiBoIdMo without giving much back. With 12x12 I put more in by responding to queries etc. Now back to your writing! Good luck, Clare.

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  9. Great post! I'm doing PiBoIdMo and will also be doing 12 x 12 for the first time in 2013. These fun challenges really do help with motivation and get the creative juices flowing. I've met some awesome people through PiBoIdMo already too :)

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    1. Thanks, Jo. Glad you're enjoying PiBoIdMo. I'm going to try and get 12 done in '13 but even if I don't I still know I'll have done more for being part of the group.
      Good luck, Clare.

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  10. Fabulous post, Clare, and in fact I mentioned much of this yesterday in my post on Julie's blog. You go into lovely detail here and I love all the quotes from participants in the different groups.

    I now plan on getting NO MATTER WHAT from the UK!

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    1. Thanks, Joanna. What's the link to your post? Could you leave it here? Thanks.

      As for No Matter What... it's just great, but it's a very different book if you read the US version where the publishers were scared about the whole dealing with death thing, which is so sad as that's such a central part of it. All the best, Clare.

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  11. Great post, Clare! I've really enjoyed doing PiBoIdMo and 12x12 and will definitely continue with those. Those two challenges together have brought me light years ahead of where I was at this time last year. And like you, I have found my online critique groups to be such a valuable part of my writing life -- I don't know where I'd be without them.

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    1. Thank you, Carrie. I'm so pleased you get loads out of them too. Finding a really great critique group is like finding gold. I can imagine our group largely unchanged (apart from lots of published books between us!) in ten years' time.

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  12. Oh, one more writing community that I've learned SO much from is Verla Kay's Blueboards -- in fact I would not have found my poetry crit group without it. So if anyone hasn't been over there -- GO!

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    1. http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php

      Thank you, Carrie. I've never checked it out before. It's something that I've heard lots of US writers talk about. Thanks. I've posted a link for anyone who'd like to check it out.

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  13. Stumbling upon you Claire, and then being 'cyber-introduced' to such a thriving, active, welcoming community has helped me to breathe again. How thrilling to find that there are other people 'out there' who live and breathe PBs as much as I do. I've battled to find communities like this in my city, Cape Town, and so this has been truly refreshing.

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    1. Hi Kerry, I'm so pleased that you're feeling less isolated. These communities can be life changing. I think we don't realise how lucky we are in the UK sometimes. And here in Birmingham, we've just had a critique meeting with about 25 people. And I regularly meet with a great in person critique group. I feel incredibly lucky. But even if I didn't have them, I'd feel well nourished by my online writing communities. Any chance you could make it over for our annual conference in the UK next November?

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  14. Although I feel less creative, and more distracted this year, I am so grateful for the community of children's writers/illustrators I interface with every day...they are inspiring, and bring a ray of sunshine into a cloudy day.
    Your post was an inspiration as well, Juliet!

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  15. Thank you, Jarm. May you be more creative and less distracted in 2013. Glad you feel supported. All the best, Clare.

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  16. Thanks, Juliet for this truly helpful (and meaty) post. This is my first time at PiBoIdMo, and I must say, it's been a charged 7 days for me, and that's largely because of all the useful communications that keeps flowing from all sides with the focus firmly on picture books. Goes without saying that I'll be signing up for 12x12 right away!
    How does one go about finding an online critique group? For me, living as I am in Lagos now (and for most other parts, In India), my chances of ever meeting up with any of you in the US or the UK are slim. But I am keen on joining an online group. There are a number of works-in-progress and I have no way of getting a feedback on any. It does get frustrating at times! I'll check out Carrie's Verla Kay's Blueboard recommendation, of course.

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    1. Hello Richa, I'm so pleased you're enjoying PiBoIdMo. When you sign up for 12x12 for next year (which you can do from 1st December using the link above), you can let people know you're interested in joining a group or setting a new one up. Several have formed from 12x12 so you may find something there. I'd also highly recommend SCBWI and there are online critique groups within that. If you join our Facebook British SCBWI group (which is free and you don't have to be either British OR in SCBWI) you could post up and ask if anyone would like to be in a group. Really good luck with it all, Clare.

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  17. Thanks, Clare. What a lovely, inspiring post. (and how exciting that I made an unexpected cameo :)

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    1. Thanks for being part of it -even though you didn't know! (I assumed you wouldn't mind given that it's all in the public domain). It's just great to have success stories and yours is a fun one. Here's hoping we'll get lots more success stories from 2011 and soon, 2012...

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  19. Great post, Clare. I wouldn't know you if we passed on the street, but I'm lucky enough to know you all around the PiBos and the 12x12s and our honest to goodness working on-line critique group...if only the rest of you can be so lucky!

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    1. It's such a strange thing to think we wouldn't recognise each other and yet we spend so much time in communication. I think it probably helps focus you on what you really want from it and use the time as productively as possible. For me, the difference between our crit group now and others I've been involved in is that we always do tracking changes on each person's manuscript and then it's put up for everyone else to see, too, so you get a really thorough crit AND other people comment on each other's comments, too. And because it works in rotation, everyone posts and crits the same, rather than having some people posting new work more often than others etc. Thanks again, Mona.

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    2. Yes, yes. Lovely post, Clare. And Mona, I'd never thought of it that way. I'm not sure I'd know you on the street either! Ha.

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  20. Thanks, Kristin. It's funny to be in a group where you know lots about certain aspects of a person (their writing, the way they critique, their enthusiasm for words, life, their generosity in responding) and yet have no clue what they look like! But it's great. Long may it continue (the group, not the not knowing what you look like!)

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  21. Clare,
    I'm going through Picture Book Den posts for the last few weeks and see that I didn't comment here! I thought I had! I absolutely loved this post!
    For me, the online communities have proved invaluable. They have pushed me and have brought out creativity that was under the surface waiting to be tapped. They have been unbelievably educational!
    The bond I have with you and the others in our critique group truly is special!!! I love that we post all the critiques with "track changes". It has been a real learning tool for me.
    As for PiBoIdMo and 12 x 12...In PiBoIdMo, I got my idea for the manuscript that landed me Barabara Karlin Grant Runner-up. I took that idea and completed the manuscript as one of my 12 x 12 monthly drafts. I am over-the-top thankful for these online communities!
    In addition to the ones your post highlighted, I did an A to Z poetry challenge last April at Rena Traxel's blog and ended the month with 26 poems. 26 poems I would've NEVER written. Some are real junk and wouldn't even make sense out of the context of the challenge. Others have been revised. Out of the 26, I turned one into a picture book that is out on submission. It is one of my favorite manuscripts I've written to date. Another one is headed toward a picture book. Others I will submit to magazines.
    As you can see, I am a cheerleader for online communities.
    Thanks for this wonderful and comprehensive post!

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