Three Tips For Writing Miserable Stories (That People Will Actually Want To Read)

Well, I thought that I’d talk about the topic of bleak, miserable and/or depressing fiction today. This is mostly because the novel I started reading a while before I wrote this article (“The Ice Queen” by Alice Hoffman) is, on paper at least, an incredibly depressing book. The first thirty pages or so are pretty much an unending stream of woe and misery. Yet, rather than abandoning the book and reading something a bit more cheerful, I’m eager to read more of it. Needless to say, this caught me by surprise.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to write bleak, miserable and/or depressing fiction that people will actually want to read.

1) Writing style: One of the main reasons why Alice Hoffman’s “The Ice Queen” is still so incredibly readable, despite the incredibly tragic and bleak opening chapter, is because of the sheer quality of Hoffman’s writing style.

The novel’s first person narration is written in this incredibly beautiful and poetic style that makes you want to read more, even if the story itself is kind of miserable. Here’s a quote to show you what I mean: ‘Wishes are brutal, unforgiving things. They burn your tongue the moment they’re spoken and you can never take them back. They bruise and bake and come back to haunt you.’

The narration in this quote is informal enough to flow quickly, but it also contains lots of little poetic moments too – such as the alliterative use of the letter “B” in the last sentence or some of the vivid imagery used to describe wishes. Not only that, it also uses mystery to create an ominous sense of foreboding too. If this novel was written in a more “ordinary” kind of way, then it wouldn’t be half as compelling to read.

So, one way to make depressing stories more readable is to use a really compelling writing style. A writing style that adds an element of beauty, poetry, suspense and/or dark humour to the bleak events of your story.

2) Genre elements: One of the best ways to leaven the depressing elements of a bleak story is to include elements more fantastical genres too. This gives the reader a very slight level of emotional distance from the events of the story, which means that they can still enjoy the story even if it is really bleak.

For example, Joe Haldeman’s “Old Twentieth” is a fairly grim and bleak tale, but the inclusion of lots of futuristic science fiction elements means that the story comes across as slightly more of an intelligent thought-provoking fantastical story about the future than a depressing story.

Likewise, Jonathan Maberry’s “Fall Of Night” is a really grim and downbeat novel, but the story’s zombie apocalypse premise places it firmly into the horror genre and makes the story just about “unrealistic” enough for it not to be too overwhelmingly bleak.

Plus, even though Alice Hoffman’s “The Ice Queen” is set in a fairly realistic version of America, there are enough subtle fantasy elements and fairytale-like descriptions to distance the story just enough from reality for it to remain readable. So, this sort of thing can work in more subtle ways too.

Even so, including at least some fantastical elements can be a way of telling a rather bleak and depressing story without making the reader feel so miserable that they stop reading your story.

3) Give the reader something: Finally, one of the best ways to make a depressing story compelling is to give the reader something. In other words, there should be some practical truth, emotional truth or hidden uplifting message which means that your readers come away from your story feeling richer than they did before they read it.

In other words, there should be a reason for the depressing elements of your story. If the goal of your story is just to make your readers feel miserable, then write something else.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Narrative Styles And Emotional Tone – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d look at how the narrative style of your fiction can affect your story’s emotional tone. This is mostly because I’ve seen some really interesting examples of this in some of the novels that I’ve been reading recently.

The most striking example is probably in the novel I’m reading at the time of writing this article. This is an Alice Hoffman novel from 1992 called “Turtle Moon” and, on paper at least, it should be an incredibly bleak and depressing story.

Literally none of the characters seem to have cheerful backstories and virtually nothing good or happy has happened within the first hundred pages or so. Yet, despite this, I’ve kept reading it eagerly and thankfully haven’t been overwhelmed by misery and sadness. But, why?

Simply put, the writing in this novel is beautiful. All of the story’s grimness, sorrow and bleakness is expertly contrasted with a lush, poetic, magical and hyper-vivid writing style that is an absolutely joy to read. Seriously, the sheer beauty of the writing means that the depressing elements of the story are kept at a slightly safe distance from the reader. We still see all of these bleak, gut-wrenching, depressing things happening, but it’s like looking at a beautiful painting rather than at a grim photograph.

On the other hand, Shaun Hutson’s 2009 horror novel “Last Rites” contains a lot of similar themes to “Turtle Moon” (eg: broken relationships, bereavement, delinquent youth etc…) and also contains lots of characters with miserable backstories too. Yet, this horror novel feels about ten times more grim and depressing than “Turtle Moon”. But, why?

Ok, there are reasons like temporal and geographic distance (eg: early 1990s America vs. late 2000s Britain) too. But, the most important reason is the different writing styles that these authors use in the two novels.

Whilst Hoffman is able to give the reader a safe level of emotional distance through beautiful, magical, poetic writing – Hutson takes the opposite approach. Hutson’s writing style is a lot more “matter of fact”. This makes the story seem a lot more realistic, which emphasises the grim and bleak elements of the story a lot more. If reading Hoffman’s narration is like looking at a beautiful painting, reading Hutson’s narration is like looking at stark CCTV footage.

This, incidentally, is why traditional 1980s splatterpunk horror novels are so morbidly fascinating. When writers like Clive Barker or Shaun Hutson were telling horror stories during the 1980s, their narration would become (or, in Barker’s case, remain) very beautiful, vivid, detailed and poetic whenever they described something grisly, grotesque or disgusting. This contrast between the beautiful and the grotesque lends these scenes a unique quality which is both intensely horrific and intensely fascinating at the same time. It’s a really weird emotional tone that is difficult to describe (and has to be read in order to be understood properly).

Of course, writers can use the narrative style to affect the emotional tone of their stories in lots of other interesting ways too. A great example of this is a time travel-themed sci-fi novel from 2013 called “Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor that I read recently. This novel uses informal, punk-like first-person narration which is fairly “matter of fact”, whilst also emphasising the narrator’s irreverent, eccentric and practical personality.

This style is really interesting because it makes the novel’s many comedic moments even funnier by, for example, showing the narrator’s irreverent attitude towards serious things (eg: rules, history etc..) and also showing how different her perspective is to a typical sci-fi thriller protagonist. It also lends the story’s comedic scenes a jaunty and chaotic punk-like atmosphere too.

Yet, at the same time, this “matter of fact” narration also means that when bleak, nasty and depressing things happen to the main character, they’re considerably more intense and depressing. The same “down to earth” narration that makes things like the narrator getting wasted the night before a crucial research mission so hilarious also makes the novel’s grim moments about ten times bleaker, more intense, more “realistic” and/or more shocking too.

So, yes, your choice of narrative style can have a huge effect on the emotional tone of a story. A vivid, poetic, artistic narrative style that can lend beauty to joyous things will also moderate the effect of grimmer or more depressing things. By contrast, a more “matter of fact” style will add intensity to anything from comedy to bleak sorrow.

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Anyway, I hope that this is useful 🙂

Want More Originality? Try Some Emotional Variation – A Ramble

Although this is an article about writing fiction, making comics and/or making art, I’m going to have to start by talking about music for quite a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

Shortly before writing this article, I found myself listening to a song called “Land Of The Free” by Gamma Ray for the hundredth time and I realised something about my own musical tastes – I prefer optimistic heavy metal music. And, yes, contrary to popular belief, optimistic heavy metal actually exists. And it feels great to listen to!

Not only does it encompass pretty much everything within the Power Metal sub-genre, but optimism also can be found in individual songs by bands in many other sub-genres of metal. I mean, there are even optimistic death metal songs out there (like this one [WARNING: The video contains FLICKERING LIGHTS] ).

Yet, when you think of heavy metal, “optimism” isn’t usually the first word that springs to mind. And, yet, this is what makes these songs so intriguing and appealing. They do something slightly different with a familiar genre, leveraging the strengths of the genre in order to achieve a slightly different emotional effect. They take the intense emotional catharsis that the genre is famous for and imbue it with a sense of joy, fun and/or hope that is often missing from more traditional heavy metal. And it is really something to listen to!

It also prompts all sorts of other interesting creative flourishes too. For example, the theme of optimism means that these songs have something in common with songs from other genres – which is why, for example, a metal band like Alestorm can make an awesome cover version of a (not entirely radio-friendly) rap song called “Hangover” by Taio Cruz. Many of Alestorm’s songs are about drinking, partying and having fun. Taio Cruz’s song is about this too. So, the cover is absolutely perfect.

Likewise, it can also lead to some unexpected thematic matter too. For example, although I’m not a Christian, I was quite surprised to realise that the “epic fantasy” story told in a heavy metal song called “Keeper Of The Seven Keys” by Helloween is, thematically at least, surprisingly Christian. It’s this story about someone who goes on an epic quest to defeat Satan by destroying things related to seveal negative qualities (eg: hate, fear, senselessness, greed and ignorance).

So, why have I spent several paragraphs talking about heavy metal music?

Well, simply put, one of the easiest ways to make something “orignal” within a familiar genre (aside from taking influence from things outside of the genre) is simply to look at the general emotional tone of the genre and then try to create something that evokes a slightly different emotional tone.

For example, one of the things that I’ve noticed whenever I’ve made cyberpunk art is that I’ll sometimes try to make it bright and cheerful, rather than gloomy and dystopian. Although this was initially because I absolutely love this genre and want to celebrate it, it does result in a slightly different “style” of cyberpunk to many things in the genre.

“Market Seven” By C. A. Brown

“Architecture” By C. A. Brown

Adding a different emotional tone to a familiar genre not only makes your creative works more original, but it also allows you to explore themes that you might not be able to if you stuck to a more traditional version of the genre. I mean, part of the creative process behind some of my “optimistic” cyberpunk paintings was just curiosity about what everyday life in a 1980s-style cyberpunk future would actually look like. And, well, it’s probably not all doom and gloom.

So, yes, adding a different emotional tone to a familiar genre can be a really interesting thing to do.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One Basic Way To Make Up For The Lack Of Background Music In Art, Comics And Fiction

I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this subject before, but I’ll be talking about background music (or, rather, the lack of it) today. This was mostly because I ended up watching this absolutely fascinating video about the soundtrack to the classic 1982 sci-fi masterpiece “Blade Runner“.

As the video explains, the soundtrack to this film is an integral part of the film for all sorts of interesting reasons. Naturally, this made me think about making art, making comics and writing fiction.

After all, in their traditional form, these mediums can’t include background music. In purely practical terms, this is probably a blessing (given the money and/or stress involved in licencing background music or hiring a composer), but it also means that comics, traditional art and prose fiction can’t really do the same things that films, TV shows and computer/video games can.

So, I thought that I’d take a quick look at one of the most basic ways that you can make up for the lack of background music in art, comics and/or prose fiction.

One of the most important features of background music in films, television and games is that it helps to set the tone of what is happening. If you hear ominous and suspenseful music during part of a horror movie, you know that something frightening is going to happen. But, of course, you can’t do this in art, comics or fiction.

So, what do you do instead? Simple, you use the background elements to do the same thing. Whether this is carefully choosing the lighting you use in a painting or using a slightly faster-paced narrative style with slightly less complex language during a thrilling scene in your novel, changing some of the background elements slightly can really help to set an emotional tone in a smilar way to how this is done through background music.

To show you what I mean, here is the example painting that I used in yesterday’s article. It’s a piece of gloomy 1980s/90s-style sci-fi horror art that I made a few months before writing this article. It relies heavily on gloomy lighting, a slightly limited colour palette etc… to create a slightly ominous atmosphere which compliments the events of the painting:

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

Now, here’s a digitally-altered version of the same picture which changes a lot of things (eg: the background, the colour saturation etc..), whilst keeping the events of the painting the same. As you can see, it loses a lot of the ominous tone of the original version:

This is the same painting, but with some digital changes to the background, colours and colour saturation levels. The events happening in the picture are the same, although they look less dramatic due to the brighter tone of the rest of the painting.

To give you an example of this kind of thing in prose fiction, here’s a lush, vivid description from the first page of “Lost Souls” By Poppy Z. Brite: ‘The sky is purple, the flare of a match behind a cupped hand is gold; the liquor is bright green, made from a thousand herbs, made from altars.

And here’s a quote from a later part of the book during a more fast-paced moment. The sentences are shorter and the descriptions are considerably less complex: ‘He edged around the front end of the car and pulled his door open. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ghost do the same. They threw themselves in and both doors slammed at once. Steve thumbed the lock button. Ghost was ranting at him.

Although neither scene includes any background music, you can probably imagine the first one having a much deeper, more complex and more ambient soundtrack. Likewise, the second quote would probably have a much more muted and fast-paced soundtrack. Yet, the changes in atmosphere and tone are achieved by the way that each scene is written.

As for comics, there are all sorts of ways that these techniques can be used. As well as changing the “look” and detail level of the art to reflect the mood that you want to get across the audience, you can also do things like having dialogue-free segments during fast-paced or suspenseful moments etc.. Likewise, changes to the panel layout can also affect the tone of your comic.

For example, the second panel of this comic update of mine is a long, flowing thing that seems to consist of four panels blended together. Since there are no obvious panel borders in this scene, it creates a slightly dreamy and ethereal atmosphere which might make you think of a similar type of background music.

“Damania Reflection – Attention Span” By C. A. Brown

So, yes, novels, art, comics etc… can’t include background music, but they can do a lot of the same things that background music in a film does.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How Important Is The Art Style In Comics? – A Ramble

Before I got into making art regularly, there was something that I’d see in comics occasionally that often used to bewilder and annoy me. This was when the comic would have a guest artist who used a radically different style to the more familiar one that was used in the rest of the series.

Notable examples of this include one of the old “Simpsons” comics from the 1990s/early ’00s (it was one of the “Treehouse Of Horror” comics about the giant statue in the Simpsons’ basement) and in the “The Kindly Ones” graphic novel from Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series.

Plus, there’s Jill Thompson’s “Death: At Death’s Door” which re-tells the events of the fourth “Sandman” graphic novel from the perspective of another character, whilst using a manga art style. Then, there are also some of the other artists (especially Ashley Wood) who have worked on Alan C. Martin & Jamie Hewlett’s “Tank Girl” comics.

Of course, now that I make art regularly, this sort of thing absolutely fascinates me.

But, why? In addition to being a great example of comic artists actually being able to do their own thing rather than being forced to rigidly adhere to some kind of uniform “house style” (like in *ugh* many traditional superhero comics), it also raises questions about how important the art style is in comics.

When I make occasional webcomics, I handle both the writing and the art. I can’t imagine doing this any other way and, yet, thinking about the art and the writing as separate things helps me to understand a lot about my comics.

One of the things that used to annoy me was the fact that I couldn’t seem to make “serious” comics. I’d tried to do this in the past (in 2013 especially) and it always seemed to fall flat. My comics only seem to “work” when they include humour of some kind or another, even if the humour is fairly cynical:

“Damania Resized – Virtually Banned” By C. A. Brown

So, why is this? Well, it probably has to do with the fact that my art style is very much on the cartoonish side of things. Yes, even though gloomy and dramatic lighting is an essential part of my style these days, my art still has a fairly vivid and “cartoonish” look to it. Part of this is because I’m still learning and part of it is because I kind of like art styles that are cartoonish, but not too cartoonish.

But, in comics, this kind of art tends to work best when paired with comedy of some kind or another. It’s an art style that looks “unrealistic” and “silly”, and – as such- it tends to go better with comedy and/or dark comedy. So, yes, not only can the art style have a surprising impact on how the audience thinks about the events of a comic, it can also affect the type of stories that a comic can tell.

A good example of this can be seen in animation. Although I’m not a major anime fan, I absolutely love sci-fi/cyberpunk anime. Yet, virtually every great anime in this genre (like “Cowboy Bebop“, “Ghost In The Shell”/ “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex“, “Akira” and “Paprika) tends to use a slightly more realistic and detailed version of the classic anime/manga art style. The characters don’t usually have gigantic hair or stylised elements like that. The backgrounds are usually highly-detailed drawings and/or paintings, rather than more typical cartoon backgrounds too.

Yet, if someone tried to make a sci-fi/cyberpunk anime using a more “cartoonish” manga art style, it probably wouldn’t work. Unless it was a comedy.

So, yes, the art style is an incredibly important part of a comic. Yes, your art style might limit the types of comics that you make but – if you can make a type of comic that goes really well with your art style – then it will be significantly better as a result.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Possible Reasons For Emotional Tone Shifts In Comics (Plus, A Comic Preview)

2017 Artwork Emotional Tone changes in comics

If you’ve been reading a comic (or even watching a TV show) for a while, it can be somewhat disconcerting when the emotional tone changes in some way. This is something that I’d tried to avoid in my own comics, but it happened with some of the webcomic updates I plan to post here this month and early next month.

Yes, they’re still very much comedy comics, but the humour is a lot darker and somewhat more cynical than before. This actually caught me by surprise, since it happened gradually over the course of the 30 comic updates (spread over three mini series) that I’ll be posting.

So, why do tone shifts happen in comics? Here are a few possible reasons:

1) Something else has changed: Making a comics series is a bit like time travel. If you change something, then it’s going to have knock-on effects on other things too.

For example, if you change the format or the setting slightly, then this is going to have an effect on the type of stories and/or jokes you can tell. This, in turn, will have an effect on the emotional tone of the comic.

For example, the four-panel comics that I’d been making last year were 100% self-contained comics set in the present day. This format is perfect for light-hearted comedy and/or mildly cynical humour.

However, when I was making the three webcomic mini series that I’ll be posting in the near future, they not only ended up all revolving around the theme of time travel, but they also ended up having something of a continuous storyline too (although hopefully most of the updates can be read on their own).

Because I now had the option to include slightly more complex storytelling and because I could use both historical and futuristic settings for inspiration, this had an effect on the types of humour I could use. Since my sense of humour is at least slightly dark and cynical anyway, this allowed it to flourish in a way that surprised even me.

So, yes, if something else about a comic changes, then this can affect the emotional tone of the comic.

2) Context: As regular readers of this site probably know, I tend to make comic updates ridiculously far in advance of publication. As such, I started the first of these three upcoming comic series literally the day before the results of the UK’s EU membership referendum was announced in June.

When I heard the news, I was in shock. I felt angry, disappointed, betrayed, extremely miserable and fearful about the future. I needed something to distract myself from this apocalyptic mood!

Luckily, I had a comedic comics project on the go! I needed something to lighten the mood, after all. But, given that I was extremely worried about our future outside the EU at the time- the humour ended up being significantly darker and more cynical.

It really wouldn't surprise me if we end up going back to this kind of thing once we leave the EU. Anyway, this is a preview of a comic that will appear here in early March.

It really wouldn’t surprise me if we end up going back to this kind of thing once we leave the EU. Anyway, this is a preview of a comic that will appear here in early March.

Making these comics – especially the third mini series- was extremely cathartic and it helped me to work out some of my stresses about the EU referendum in a constructive way. This was especially important since, in the days afterwards, I couldn’t bring myself to write or make art about it directly.

So, yes, real life context can have an effect on the emotional tone of a comic. This can sometimes (but not always!) explain seemingly random tone shifts, since if something stressful has happened in a comic creator’s life, they may well not feel like talking about it. Changing the tone of the comic might be their way to deal with any emotional stresses. So, yes, this is one possible reason for sudden emotional tone shifts.

3) Inspirations: Following on from the first point on this list, if the inspirations behind a comic have changed – then this may cause the emotional tone to change too.

When I was making my three time travel-themed webcomic mini series, each one had different inspirations. Most of these inspirations were “serious” things, which meant that any humour I derived from them was going to be slightly darker in tone.

For example, the sci-fi mini series that will be starting in a couple of days’ time was inspired by “serious” films, novels and computer games like “Blade Runner“, “Deus Ex“, “Neuromancer” etc.. This affected the type of humour that I could use in the comic.

So, yes, if the inspirations behind something change, then the emotional tone will probably change slightly too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Finding The Emotional Tone Of Your Webcomic – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Emotional tone in webcomics article

One of the many important parts of making a webcomic is working out what it’s emotional tone will be. This is the general emotional impression that the average reader will get after reading several of your webcomic updates and it’s one of the central parts of what can make your webcomic so distinctive.

Occasionally, this will probably be something that you won’t think about too consciously. After all, if you’re genuinely a optimistic happy-go-lucky kind of person, then it’s pretty obvious that your webcomic may well be more on the light-hearted side of things.

Still, although webcomics are about self-expression, they’re also designed to be read by other people. As such, it can sometimes be worth thinking more consciously about what kind of emotional tone you want your webcomic to have.

The first thing to remember is that it can take a while to work out what the emotional tone of your webcomic will be. It will probably change over time as you get to know your comic and your characters. Still, it’s worth choosing an emotional tone to start with, even though it will inevitably change.

One of the best ways to work out what the emotional tone of your comic is to look at lots of other webcomics (and traditional comics). This will help you to define the emotional tone of your webcomics in both positive and negative ways.

In other words, look at what emotional qualities appear in the webcomics that you love and try to include them in your own comics. You might have to alter or adapt these qualities slightly in order to turn them into something that feels “right” to use in your webcomic (eg: find your own “version” of this emotional quality), but looking at lots of other comics will help you to define the emotional tone of your own webcomic.

For example, one of the many inspirations for my occasional webcomics are “rebellious” comics. I love punk comics like “Tank Girl“, satirical cyberpunk comics like “Transmetropolitan“, subtly subversive webcomics like “Subnormality” and rebelliously gothic newspaper cartoons like “Nemi“.

However, I often seem to be something of a coward when it comes to including actual rebelliousness in my comics. So, a lot of the exaggerated horror movie marathons, controversial pyromania, chain-smoking, drug use, political rants, nudity, “anti-social behaviour”, four-letter words, punkish contempt for authority, “binge drinking” etc… that I want to include in the comics usually tends to either happen “off screen”, or in a toned-down form. I could go on, but I guess that even wimpy “PG-13” rebelliousness is a step in the right direction:

"Damania Reappears - Punk Night (Censored Version)" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Reappears – Punk Night (Censored Version)” By C. A. Brown

"Damania Regrown - Burlesques" By C, A. Brown

“Damania Regrown – Burlesques” By C, A. Brown

"Damania Reappears - Logical World" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Reappears – Logical World” By C. A. Brown

So, yes, if you like an emotional quality from another comic or webcomic, then be sure to find your own “version” of it rather than just trying to make a second-rate imitation of another comic.

You can also look at lots of other webcomics and to find qualities that you don’t want to include in your webcomic.

For example, although I like some webcomics that could be considered “depressing”, I certainly don’t want this quality appearing in my own webcomics. So, if I include something gloomy in my comics, I usually try to temper it with some humour. Or, failing this, some cool-looking artwork:

"Damania Revived - The More Things Change..." By C. A. Brown

“Damania Revived – The More Things Change…” By C. A. Brown

Likewise, although I like a few comics that try to be “realistic” and which discuss everyday life and everyday thoughts, I’m firmly of the opinion that comics should be an escape from reality, rather than a dreary reflection of it.

As such, my comics tend to have more of a “cartoonish” kind of tone to them, where strange and unusual things are more likely to happen and where the main characters are a bit more like sitcom characters than real people.

"Damania Resurgence - Debunked (Censored Version)" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Resurgence – Debunked (Censored Version)” By C. A. Brown

As I said earlier, the emotional tone of your webcomic can change over time. For example, my long-running occasional webcomics have become mildly more opinionated and cynical over time, but are hopefully still humourous. My aim is to make the comics cynical, but without being depressing.

This mostly happened because I’d prepared a short series of cynical comics about Christmas which will appear here shortly before Christmas and – at the time of writing – I’d just got started on the New Year’s mini series and naturally had a lot to be cynical about (eg: resolutions, the adverts that appear on TV at new year etc…). So, yes, webcomics can change their emotional tone organically over time. That reminds me, I must make a cynical comic about “organic” food sometime…

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂