Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cassandra's Curse Critique

CASSANDRA'S CURSE: First Page Critique

Cassandra picked her way across the roof and crouched beside the knee wall. She'd already mapped her escape route. The nylon bag slid off her shoulder and kissed the concrete with only a whisper. Salt water and car exhaust permeated the cool autumn air around her.
            Two blocks north, the KNWF news van pulled up to the curb beside the decrepit church. As the reporter climbed from the passenger seat, Cassie unzipped her bag and extracted the Henry rifle. Assembly took seconds.
            Her watch said 5:11 a.m. Perfect timing.
            Saint Beatrice's Catholic Monstrosity cast a shadow over half the neighborhood, but the cameraman set up to the southeast, taking advantage of the sunbeams just now clearing the mountains. Meredith Leighton, the blonde newswoman everyone trusted, patted her hair, smoothed her red dress, and glanced up at the building behind her.
            Stained-glass windows pocked with holes gave the building a toothless look. Sloughed paint and misspelled obscenities decorated the entire facade.
            And Meredith Leighton positioned herself so that all her faithful viewers would see the horrific site and jump on her “save this building” bandwagon.
            Cassie wanted to puke. She planted her elbow on the knee wall, slid her finger off the trigger guard, and peered through the scope. The crosshairs settled between Meredith's brilliant green eyes.

*****
Now for my comments. This excerpt has some unique images and great sensory details.  I like how the nylon bag “kisses” the pavement in the first paragraph. The “windows pocked with holes gave the building a toothless look.” Nice! And the use of five senses is done well: “salt water and car exhaust permeated the air”; “sloughed paint and misspelled obscenities decorated the entire fa├žade”. Nice imagery.

However… The first paragraph, while interesting, leaves me wondering who Cassandra is, what she’s doing there, and where “here” is. I have no idea what city we’re in. So I need a sense of place.

It’s autumn and 5:11 am. Does that mean it’s light out? How else can she see her target?

How does she feel about the impending assassination, if that’s what this is? I get no vibes about Cassie’s emotions whatsoever, except that Meredith’s pet cause disgusts her (i.e. “Cassie wanted to puke). Why does she feel this way? Does she have a  personal vendetta against the victim? Or is she a professional on assignment for someone else?

You could show her emotions when she’s assembling her weapon. Does she slide the parts together with a snap that shows her fury? Or do her hands tremble? Has she done this before? In other words, I can SEE this scene, but I can’t FEEL it.

It just so happens that my latest sci fi romance, Silver Serenade, starts with an assassination attempt, too.  Here it is, and while it may not be perfect, this excerpt does answer the five basic questions. We know Who (Silver Malloy), What (her first kill), Why (revenge), Where (on Al’ron), and How (rifle). We also know how she got there (a lucky tip). More importantly, we see how much this kill matters to Silver and that revenge is her motive. She’s also inexperienced, this being her first kill. She’s afraid she’ll lose her chance to get Bluth if she relaxes even for a second.

Despite the coolness of the woods, sweat dribbled down the back of Silver Malloy’s neck. Her muscles ached from hours spent in a crouched position, but stealth mattered more than comfort.  She’d waited for this opportunity for months--no, make that years--and wasn’t about to lose it due to a lapse in technique.  This first kill might be her last, but at least she’d complete her revenge.
Using her rifle scope, she scanned the dusty street that stretched below her hillside vantage point. The few scruffy inhabitants who trudged between the ramshackle buildings didn’t interest her. A lucky tip had brought her to Al’ron, a watering hole for space travelers. Those who visited here were not often welcome elsewhere. They came to buy arms, men, and equipment to carry out lawless raids against innocent victims, and Tyrone Bluth had earned the reputation as the cruelest bandit of all. 
Silver couldn’t wait to end his reign of terror.

Regarding your piece, I like your descriptions; they set the scene well. But I want to know why Cassie is aiming to kill this woman. I want to get inside her head and feel her pain.

31 comments:

  1. At first pass, this generally reads okay in that there's a sense of pace and impending danger, but after rereading it, I find issues. The first paragraph jumps in a choppy fashion from her positioning herself, to her egress, to the weather. It's like the sentences are out of order or disjointed, lacking a consistent flow of action.

    The time of 5:11am bothered me given the sun was coming up over the mountains and already had "sunbeams" (not a great word choice). And the behemoth of a church was casting a shadow too. That all seemed inconsistent with light available at that hour in fall with a chill in the air. I would think it would be dark.

    Not sure why a reporter would do a report like this at that hour either. A live feed? Why? And if it's not live, why not do it later when the light would be better for TV viewers?

    I'd also expect an explanation for how Cassie knew the reporter would be there, enough to get set up before the TV crew arrived, or even knew where they'd set up for her to have a clear shot.

    And there's a POV switch from Cassie to the reporter, when the reporter looks up at the church and the description follows. That description and the "save this building bandwagon" line seem to be through the eyes of the reporter like a head hop, but then the author takes us back into Cassandra's head again when she wants to puke.

    And that's some scope on that rifle to zoom in close enough in morning darkness to see her "brilliant green eyes".

    In order to establish Cassandra as a credible sniper, the author must make her appear to be an expert. And that's missing at a key time, when the character is first introduced.

    But with editing and a sharper focus on the key action, I would read more from this author. This isn't a bad first pass.

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  2. Those are great points, Jordan. I, too, was thrown off by the early morning time and the daylight factor. With the logistics worked out, more emotional depth from Cassie's viewpoint, and a few additional setting details, this could be a fast-paced action opening.

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  3. I liked all your points too, Nancy. And I wondered why 5:11 am was perfect timing, but maybe that's reserved for page 2.

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  4. This one shows some promise. There’s a decent, if not shaky, sense of place and a well-blended use of the senses. In addition to Nancy’s excellent points, here are some of my assumptions and impressions.

    “Salt water and car exhausted . . .” I assume we are very close to the ocean and downwind from a busy expressway or Interstate.

    “. . . extracted the Henry rifle. Assembly took seconds.” I looked up Henry rifle and found that it is a lever-action, breech-loading rifle first developed in the 1850s. Replicas are produced today, mostly for collectors. Miller, correct me here, but I can’t imagine that this would need to be assembled much less be a good choice as a long-range sniper rifle. Even with a scope, could the shooter hit someone between the eyes two blocks away?

    “Saint Beatrice’s Catholic Monstrosity . . .” Why is Monstrosity capitalized? Wouldn’t monstrosity be an adjective describing the church? Or is this a swipe at Catholics and their style of architecture?

    “. . . the blonde newswoman everyone trusted . . .” Blonde is a noun. Drop the “e” and it can then be used to modify newswoman. “. . . the blond-haired newswoman everyone trusted . . .”

    We don’t know what happens next so it’s hard to predict if Cassie is a professional assassin (doubtful) or an activist taking her viewpoint to the extreme. Right now, I don’t like her, nor can I relate to her rejection of the newswoman’s “save the building” stand. Murdering someone because they are trying to raise awareness of city blight is hard to swallow. Or maybe Cassie is just jealous of Meredith’s brilliant green eyes.

    I suggest this writer consider who I need to take sides with and pull me in that direction from the get-go.

    BTW, nice opening scene to your SILVER SERENADE, Nancy.

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  5. I'm going to stand up for the author a bit here. Perhaps it's a different (I won't say male) perspective, but as a writer and lover of lean and hard boiled prose, this opening fits into that category nicely. While Nancy's opening works for her purposes, this one works for other reasons.

    It shows us a character in motion, a female assassin (in itself somewhat unique). There is a huge mystery here, too. WHY? We get a hint of it because of the word Monstrosity which I found to be a perfect way of getting us inside Cassandra's head without a lot of narrative.

    I'm hooked. I want to know the reasons this is happening, and the author's making me wait is a good move, IMO. It's a choice.

    Nancy's choice to give us emotion and a bit of exposition is another perfectly legitimate one. But I wouldn't necessarily impose it upon this author.

    I don't need to know the exact city yet, either. The author has done well in indicating a city, most likely inner city, with just a few details.

    And that's the key to a good hard boiled, lean prose opening. Choosing just the right descriptions to carry a lot of image. Here, the "toothless" church with "misspelled obscenities" works for me.

    The POV switch Jordan mentioned is, I think, supposed to be from Cassandra's POV, seeing both the reporter glance and the church. But by giving us the reporter glancing and then the description, it could be construed as a "switch." The simple way to fix this would be to put the church description before the reporter is mentioned.

    I also appreciated the use of the sense of smell, often overlooked.

    The author does give us a "lean" sense of Cassie's inner life with Cassie wanted to puke. Again, this is a choice to hit hard and quick and then get back to the action.

    It worked for me. I would clean up the passive Assembly took seconds. I might also move the second sentence (escape route) to after "Perfect timing." This emphasizes the action in the first paragraph.

    Well done.

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  6. "And I wondered why 5:11 am was perfect timing, but maybe that's reserved for page 2."

    Jordan, as you and I both know so well, an agent or editor may never get to page 2.

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  7. I liked this piece, and agree with the previous comments. As a former broadcaster, I think they'd have to use a camera-mounted light or portable lights at that hour, since there isn't much natural light. That would highlight the reporter in a brilliant pool of light, making her a better target. I stumbled over the name Saint Beatrice's Catholic Monstrosity, perhaps because the capitalization of 'Monstrosity' makes it seem like part of the name, so I had to reread it. You never want to make the reader double back for understanding. You could get around that by establishing the church visually first, then call it by its name including Monstrosity, to give us a sense of how Cassie views it. I'd also like to get a sense of how high up that roof is that she's on, to give us a sense of her angle. But overall I like the section--it seems like a promising beginning!

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  8. Oh yes, and I liked your SILVER SERENADE, Nancy!

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  9. That's true for an editor or agent, Joe, but I might want to flip the page.:)

    And after Jim pointed out the differences in Nancy's writing, I see the emotional layers of Nancy's intro and it appeals to me. That's the romance genre. And perhaps since the reader is in the head of a woman filled with emotional turmoil, that's a great fit too.

    I also have a fondness for hardboiled crime fiction with its sparse prose, but action without the personal stake of the character and a good conflict, doesn't have as much appeal to me. It would be like watching a Bruce Willis movie minus his personal stake of the safety of his family.

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  10. I have to say I agree w/James in being hooked by this first page. While I know nothing about guns (Joe, you point out how imperative good research is!!), and might even be pleased to discover this assassin is not a pro but a first time killer who is gut-motivated to do something awful, I'm intrigued to know who she is and why she's looking to shoot a darling of the media over a dilapidated church.

    As a Catholic, I took no offense to the "monstrosity" statement. It actually makes me want to know why this character feels such animosity towards something so comfortable and familiar to me.

    Agree, the technicalities and fractures in delivery should be smoothed over, but I have to say, from reading the first page, I'd buy the book. I'm sure the rest of the who/what/where would be delivered shortly. This character is edgy and the writing reflects this. I like that. A lot.

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  11. I don't agree with the critique or any of the previous comments, save Mr. Bells. This was obviously written with a hardboiled, sarcastic tone, e.g. the mocking name "Saint Catherine's Catholic Monstrosity."

    Getting inside a character's head is fine, a page or two in. But opening with an action sequence like this doesn't call for it. The reader gets what's going on and just enough of a hint as to how Cassandra feels about it to turn the page and find out why.

    I notice that the authors of this blog focus a lot on emotion, which is great. But, wouldn't you all agree that, at certain points in a story, it's better to just get on with it, then to languish on, pardon my french, "bullshit" that just slows the action down?

    As to the henry rifle comment, Joe, you're wrong. As a former military officer, I can tell you that Henry makes modern day sniper rifles that are very capable of doing this type of job. Please go to the company website and check out the ACU-Bolt, a scoped sniper rifle, if you have further questions.

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  12. Jordan's mentioning "emotional stakes" and Bruce Willis put me in mind of great action flicks. One of my favorites is Lethal Weapon. If you recall the intro to Riggs, it's pure action. And he's nuts. Which is what makes him a great cop, BTW. But we know nothing of his "personal" reasons until later, when the emotions come in (his wife's murder).

    To have reversed this would have ruined the vibe of the movie, which is just right for the genre.

    Again, it's a choice. The author here has made a good one, and page 2 or 3 is a great place to drop in a little more.

    Which is another point overall. I wouldn't stop for longer exposition, but dribble it in along the action pathway.

    A historical novel, or a romance novel, might call for a different feel. Though not necessarily. The "act first, explain later" rationale works for any genre.

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  13. Joe--when I read the Henry rifle, that struck me as an odd choice for assembly too. I don't claim to be a weapons expert. That's why I have a weapons guy who beta reads for me. And I have a weapons email loop I can ask questions.

    But like you I looked it up on the Henry website and found their AR-7 can be broken down for portability. And depending on how technical this character is with her weapon of choice, the author may want to clarify.

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  14. Having had my previous comment removed. I only comment on the weapon again.

    Jordan, you're still wrong. It wouldn't be an AR-7, although those are typically assembled. It would be an Acu-Bolt with a specialty scope, most likely 8x32 or something more powerful. Henry rifles are easy to break down and reassemble, though most owners don't do it.

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  15. Yeah, Jim. I see your point. It's all in the timing of the "reveal" isn't it? Peeling back the layers in an intriguing fashion can draw the reader in.

    I have a stickie on my computer that states STICK WITH THE ACTION. A constant reminder.

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  16. Anon, your comment was deleted by Blogger's new spam filtering system which I think sucks. But it was not deleted by anyone on this blog. I have gone into the recently deleted "spam" files and republished your comment. So far, I cannot find a way to turn this "feature" off. Sorry for the inconvenience. We welcome your comments.

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  17. Thanks for the weapons info, anonymous. Good to know. Sounds like you're from my weapons loop.

    In my own writing, I usually spend time looking for the right weapon and usually include more detail when introducing it.

    But depending on the expertise of this character, it might be a good idea to clarify the weapon to avoid pulling the reader out of the flow and to establish she is a pro. If she's not a pro, why bring a rifle requiring assembly?

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  18. I really like this piece. It feels professionally written to me, and evokes in me a very strong sense of both place and character. At this point in the story, I don't need to know which city we're in, only that there's an assassin on a rooftop, and a victim who's about to get blasted, live and in color.

    I like the Saint Beatrice's Catholic Monstrosity, first because I figured it is a play on Monastery, and second because it tells us something important about Cassie's character. I don't know what that important thing is yet, but I don't think I need to when I'm only a hundred words into a story.

    I echo all the positive things said by my colleagues. Nylont bags do in fact kiss concrete. I do take exception to the phrase "horrific site," though. To me, horrific sets a standard for awfulness that can't apply to inanimate objects. But that's just me.

    I, too, found the reference to the Henry rifle a little startling. Yes, they make outstanding modern-day hunting rifles, but the Henry rifle was such a history-making icon in the late 19th century that it's hard not to be taken to that period when confronted with the phrase "Henry rifle." These days, they're most famous, I think, for their .22 caliber weapons, which wouldn't necessarily make them the first choice for most assassins, but maybe that plays to the point the author is trying to make. This point is rendered moot simply by including a model description, i.e., "Henry Acu-Bolt" or "Henry U.S. Survival AR-7." One word of caution, though: having just visited the Henry website, it's not clear to me how many of their models are scope-friendly. Also, having just visted their site, I want to get me one of their new .17caliber Varmint Express rifles. Muzzle velocity of 2550 fps. Yikes!

    I say great job!

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  19. I thought this was pretty good. I think everyone has made excellent points here in the comments section but I tend to agree with Mr. Bell's assesment. Also, I don't need to know every single little detail at this point (i.e. what city she is in)--I like the teasers for now. Although I agree that we would like to know a little about her motivation in this opening scene as well as how she knew the reporter was going to be there. I too thought the Monstrosity was a play on words and actually I thought it was hilarious. I loved that--that particular detail really hooked me and instantly put an image in my head. But I'm a recovering Catholic so that's probably just me. I realize I'm not an agent or an editor but if I had picked this up off the shelf at my local bookstore, I would certainly keep reading, especially after the Monstrosity thing because now I have a sense that the writer is witty and has a sense of humor I can relate to--but again, I am only a reader.

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  20. These are all great comments. It's wonderful how much we can learn from each other. Some of the details you guys mentioned (like capitalizing Monstrosity) passed right by me. You see why we need more than one pair of eyes to view our work?

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  21. I'm with Jim & John on this one, I liked it. The toothless monstrosity was a vivid image to me. Is the story set in the Sub-Arctic? That's the only place I can think of where sunbeams are coming over the mountains at 5 am in autumn (I see it from my window in Anchorage AK where autumn starts in August). Hazy grey dawn maybe, but not sunbeams, of course I could be mistaken.

    On the Henry Rifle:

    AR-7 is what we term a "Pack Rifle", broken down it easily fits into or on the side of a back-pack. I employ it for my character Marcus Johnson in 65 Below as a trapper's rifle for killing fur animals still alive in their traps. Of course when he comes upon terrorists in the backwoods the .22 is mostly useless against thick winter clothing or at distances over 50 metres for the .22LR or 100 metres for the .22mag.

    The same limitation would stand for the Acu-Bolt. While the scope would make it more accurate at longer ranges it is still only a .22. That round is great for killing small creatures at fair distance, or humans at close distance but there is a reason why the smallest sniper rifle used by the military is a 7.62x39.

    All that being said, the Chechen rebels in Georgia (the one by Russia, not the one by Alabama) did frequently use .22 rifles as silenced sniper weapons against Russian troops. In a built up area with few if any ranges of longer than 100 metres it would work, but required a headshot for a kill. On a side note, you can silence a .22 with a plastic soda bottle and a little duct tape, pretty cheap assassin weapon.

    So, if Cassie is a professional hitter with the above knowledge and the skill to place a headshot at a hundred metres it is doable. I would not recommend a 'between the eyes' or forehead shot though, depending on the charge in the bullet and the distance it might not even penetrate, 20 yards and under no worries, longer than that though and it might get lodged in the forehead or sinus cavity. While that is no doubt painful it may not be lethal. A side of the head shot would work though and neither will mess up the pretty reporter's face except for the trickle of blood from the entry, whereas a larger calibre would make pudding out of her head.

    Now, the .17hmr caliber in the Acu-Bolt would extend all those ranges by 30-50 yards with slightly better penetration because of the pointed tip of the bullet, but she'd have to be a good shot as the drop at that distance is about 8 inches.

    Regardless, I would keep reading.

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  22. LISA R - You being a reader means you are a VIP here.

    And I think all the comments gives this promising author lots to consider. These sessions have taught me a lot too.

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  23. By the way...I need to make a correction before someone slaps me.

    I said the smallest caliber used by military snipers is 7.62x.39, that is not correct.

    There are several .22 caliber sniper weapons used by the military, but they are typically deployed as "limited lethality" weapons used for crowd control and seldom as specifically killing weapons.

    ...sheesh....too many facts to keep straight. Maybe I should switch to SciFi so I can just make stuff up.

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  24. jeez who even cares about first pages anymore? Don't you guys get bored of this?


    It's like watching the opening scene to a hundred different movies but never getting to see the whole film.


    If I read another first page I think I might throw up.


    Good stories don't get good until your further into the thing anyways.


    It's about the whole story. You can only do this exercise for so long before it isn't that helpful.

    Am I right or am I right?

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  25. I disagree, each author is getting feedback in a public forum that helps a bunch of others and sometimes, like today, we might even get to talk specifics that all of us can use (like firearms or sun cycles or squishy octupus like creatures trained by Jacque Cousteau's evil undersea henchmen to sing something like whale songs and draw NatGeo divers close to them then swallow them whole, cameras and all to shush the competition)

    okay...that last bit wasn't part of the initial post...it just came to my mind out of where ever that stuff comes from... but I hadn't thought of it until I read the post so it must have been insinuated in there somewhere...don't you think?

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  26. I disagree, too. I'm learning quite a bit from the variety of openings that have been sent in. I think different issues arise naturally through this approach, rather than the traditional blog-post method that isolates certain skills and write in-depth about only one approach (although I find those posts valuable, too, for different reasons.)

    I appreciate what Kill Zone is doing. I think it helps both seasoned authors refresh their skills, and unpublished writers get into the heads of those who have already traveled the path we're trying to follow.

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  27. Taylor:

    I respectfully disagree. Sometimes having a good critique on a small portion of your work teaches you tools that you can use to improve the rest of your work. For example, if a writer routinely uses an excessive number of adverbs or has long run-on sentences throughout their work or does the passive-doubling-up on verbs thing (started running as opposed to just ran) this will probably be apparent in a first page. If a writer understands what needs work in that first page, then they can apply it to the rest of their writing. I think a writer can learn a lot from a good critique of a small sample. Also, of course the whole point of this exercise is to have a first page that will wow an agent or editor so they will keep reading.

    Also, Jordan--Thanks!

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  28. I prefer a mixture of regular blogs and these first person critiques. Today, for example, our varying viewpoints on the first page critique were something I found interesting. While I like an emotional hook to draw me inside a story, not everyone finds that necessary. For some folks, action alone suffices along with a hint of attitude on the protag's part. And that's what these critique sessions are all about: us learning from each other and respecting different views.

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  29. Taylor, you asked why we do these first-page critiques. You also asked if we get bored with it. Let me answer the second question first. We spend about a month each year offering to give our thoughts and impressions on the first 300 or so words of a book in hopes that any knowledge and experience we’ve gained as professional authors will help those who have submitted their work to make it the best it can be. When I first started writing fiction, I would have given just about anything to have 11 published writers willing to take a look at and comment on my work. So, no, this is anything but boring. It's called "giving back".

    Now I’ll answer your first question with a question: Do you believe in love at first sight? Whether you do or not, you understand the concept. Love at first sight is basically what all writers want to happen when an agent reads the first few pages of their manuscript. If it doesn’t happen, for whatever reason, the book AS A WHOLE is rejected. Agents don’t have time to keep reading in hopes that the good stuff might come later. That’s because there are hundreds of other manuscripts waiting to be considered. And the one that they fall in love with wins.

    At this stage of the game, we are not focused on the potential reader. Instead, we are aiming at the most important human being on the planet, the one that must fall in love at first sight with the manuscript: the agent. If we can help an author polish those first few words so they are worth falling in love with, then we have done our job.

    Thanks for stopping by TKZ and posting your feelings

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  30. Okay well I suppose you are helping the individual authors a ton but all I'm saying is to the public at large it can get repetitive.

    How many assassins or snipers or girls strapped to beds in pitch black rooms can we read about before it starts getting a little dull?

    Ha I guess if anything, this month of blog posts has instilled me with sympathy for agents.

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  31. I've owned a Henry. Browning made a lever in a breakdown. There are literally hundreds of rifles and calibers that would be able for even a non-pro to make a head shot using an appropriate scope at two blocks. It isn't easy, killing. Instead of going for something like a Henry, just type sniper rifle into Google and the world of long-range killing opens up to everyone.

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