An update on Boyhood OR When Ethan Hawke locked eyes with me from across a room

I had blogged about Boyhood when I watched it a couple of years ago. In it, I had said

Boyhood makes me think of a larger point. The way we remember things doesn’t have to be coherent, neat sequences of events. But, at least in my head, the way I remember things is like a story ready to be narrated to someone else. So there’s this beginning and middle and end and I make them tie together. It might be because I blog and write a diary, it might be because that’s the only sort of narrative I come across. It makes me wonder how much of how we think is shaped by how we see others narrate stories. It is oddly freeing, after watching this movie, to know that patterns of my thoughts don’t have to have a point or a narrative.

Yesterday, I had the luck to attend this session at SFIFF which was a tribute to Ethan Hawke. There was a conversation with Ethan Hawke, before a screening of Maudie.

While I’ll write more about that in another post, I want to focus on the fact that I GOT TO ASK ETHAN HAWKE A QUESTION ABOUT THIS VERY THING, and that his response was inspiring and satisfying.

Towards the end of that conversation, Michael Almereyda (who had directed Hawke in Hamlet) said they would open it up to the audience for questions. Immediately, I knew what I wanted to ask. As I walked to the mic, and as I waited my turn, my heart was in my mouth.

I said, all stories seem to have a structure to their narrative. There’s a setup, a reveal, a twist, a conclusion tying it all up. There’s Chekov’s Gun. But Boyhood doesn’t do that. Like there’s an axe in a scene, and no one gets hurt. There isn’t a satisfying conclusion that ties it all up. The only callback to a past scene is the guy working on the yard running into them at the restaurant. Which is more like real life, a collection of memories and incidents and nothing necessarily tying it all up neatly. To me personally, it challenged my notions of how my own thoughts are organized. What was the thinking behind this choice, and do you think there’s other ways to challenge narrative structure?

Now, I don’t recall the response Mr. Hawke gave me exactly, but this is what I got from it.

“Plot is an adornment on which you display emotion. You need plot to keep people focused and not get bored. You need plot to get to the point where you get across to your audience the emotion you wished to convey. No one remembers whether Lawrence of Arabia lived or died at the end of the movie, but everyone remembers him atop the train, being cocky.

“It’s possible to use time as a structure – Boyhood does have a structure – it shows the life of a boy from first grade to twelfth grade (How did I never see that!). It’s possible to make the structure something less conventional, hence having the emotion and plot sneak up on the audience.

“Guys like Kerouac are responsible for a lot of bad art, because they make that look so easy. People read On the Road and think “I could do that, I can write a story about my friends”. People watch scenes all about burping, and think “I could do that”. But they can’t, because it isn’t about just your friends or burping. ”

Previously in the conversation, he also talked about how Linklater approached writing his scripts. While his life may be boring when compared to most movies, with dead bodies, chase scenes and choppers, he still thinks his life is interesting, and the most interesting parts involve the moments he connects with someone else.

Given all this, it seems like there’s a third approach to scripts. So far, I’ve seen screenplays and stories be plot-driven, or character-driven. These stories though, seem ’emotion-driven’. Hence, Linklater is okay with his actors coming up with their own three-dimensional characters, and operates on a wafer-thin plotline. Because the magic is in the connections, and it matters little how we get there.

That also puts in context this interview of Norah Jones where she talks about her experience filming My Blueberry Nights with Wong Kar-Wai. He was okay with changing the script to suit her. If she had difficulty with anything, he didn’t mind switching it over to something that came to her more naturally. The interviewer said “What if you had an accent issue, or you were bad at dialogue?”. She said “Then he would have made my character mute, or something”. At that point, I wondered what was up with that, and how did a renowned director want Norah Jones so much for a role, when she wasn’t even an actress, that he was willing to do whatever it took to have her do the role?

Now it makes sense. My Blueberry Nights wasn’t about the characters, or a plot. It, like all other movies of his, was about capturing a certain connection, or a certain emotion. So it didn’t matter what Norah could do or couldn’t. There was enough flexibility to be able to arrive at a certain moment or a certain connection.

Now that I have the vocabulary to talk about, and think about movies in this way, I expect to be able to frame better stories, focus on the right things, and get less carried away by the vagaries of plot and character. A lot of what confuses me about writing fiction is how to decide what choice is fun, what parts don’t matter, and what parts do. If I fix on the emotion, then location, people, and other things end up mattering less, and there’s less to be confused about.


I returned to my seat grinning ear to ear, and looking back and smiling at Mr. Hawke. I couldn’t hear the next couple of questions, because my heart was beating so loud. I barely managed an intelligible response to the couple sitting next to me, who said “Good question”.

Heady stuff.

Maybe I’ll put that in a movie 😀


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Return of the Writing Bug

I stopped writing here nearly two years ago. That was around the same time as I’d moved to the Bay Area.

My life began revolving around work. And the rest of what constituted my life had little to do with music or art or movies, or even writing. There was little to no material to distill the emotions from.

At least, material that I wanted to share with everyone online.  I became overly concerned with privacy and didn’t anymore like sharing much of my activities or interests online. In college, I could talk about things my roommate did or events I went to, and it didn’t matter. I was just being a college student. As a grownup though, everything you do becomes imbued with meaning and becomes open to interpretation.

And interpretation not just from the small set of people who beg and plead to read your blogposts. From employers past present and future, colleagues who don’t necessarily share your view of the world, people you run into at events, people who don’t know you at all, but are curious about you, and people who are looking hard to find something wrong with you.

It didn’t seem worth it anymore to put a piece of myself out into the world. Especially since I went into a period of introspection and trying new things, and it isn’t always fun to share work in progress.

Over time though, I realized I had no avenue to express myself with words. It eventually began hurting my soul, not having an outlet. There is something cathartic about just putting out your feelings into the ether of the Internet and watching what it brings back. Because then, you don’t have to tailor your words for a certain audience.

I thought I could take refuge in fiction, but it doesn’t come as naturally to me as journaling this way, due to which I became more of a reluctant writer. Watching my way with words atrophy has been hard.

So. I’ll try maintaining a balance. I’ll try writing as much as I can here, without compromising on my need for privacy. Let’s see how that goes.

Posted in Blogging, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

I love writing.

I recently had the opportunity to spend whole blocks of time just writing. It was glorious. I’m quite annoyed I hadn’t tried that before at all.

It was too good to last though. I haven’t had the opportunity to do any writing over the past couple of months. But I’m rather glad I had the opportunity for at least a couple of months. I now know I can spend days writing, and it is actually good for me, and any fears I might have had about getting jaded or burning out, or growing to hate writing, are unfounded at this point… I think I’ll have to output a novel-sized body of writing to get there. And there’s no danger of that happening anytime soon.

I found I don’t like the kind of writing I originally aimed for – I am possibly not a novelist. Years of blogging has made me comfortable with the idea of writing memoirs, but I am by no means good at it right now. I like being given prompts that make me reminisce and write about things I’ve experienced and done. But coherence isn’t a defining trait of that writing, and if I actually decide to write a memoir, that’s something I’ll have to work hard on.

The other issue with writing memoirs is, I lack the ease with which several other bloggers rivet their readers. Their leaps of logic and faith and succinctness doesn’t come naturally to me. Most writers seem to jump to the kind of writing style that works for Hussain Zaidi, and I personally get rather annoyed with that kind of writing, and instead aim for an Agni Sridhar-ish style. I lack his erudition and am not a born raconteur as he was.

Novels are just not my thing. I don’t like the long gestation period, and stories of that size feel too heavy for me to think about. I don’t like how I have showing is much, much harder than telling in that medium. Novels don’t lend themselves to crispness and snappiness easily.

Besides, writing something of that size is incredibly lonely. It is easy to keep writing, but it’s hard to write on point. It feels like it’s a billion tiny pieces of an incredibly large jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t fit in my mind. And it’s hard to keep receiving feedback, if you don’t have an editor.

I do rather like coming up with short stories, but again, I dislike how hard it is to communicate mood while showing and not telling.

What I really like is screenplays and sketches. Some people do it so easily, especially those who are also performers. I don’t have the luxury of being part of a group of performers yet, so in the absence of the kind of environment where I can collaborate, discuss, perform and have it all feed into my writing, I like going for shorter length on those things, which can fit quite comfortably in my head. I like writing ads and other kinds of sketches that last under four minutes.

I would ideally like to write longer, layered sketches that have interlinked jokes and callbacks and that wrap themselves up better. That requires collaborators, because things like that won’t come easily without someone else to hash things out with.

I rather like the idea of screenplays. They feel like novels with more show than tell. I find it easier to write scenes with screenplay-like directions because I can just write it as I see it in my head. With a novel, there’s this translation of a scene playing out in your head to words, and there’s quite a bit that gets lost in transit. There are different challenges with a screenplay, but the format makes it so much easier to get started and go somewhere with a story than when you’re limited to just prose.

A good compromise seems to be a graphic novel. It’s much less effort to actually get things going, provided you have someone to illustrate your panel ideas. The format also comes intuitively given I’ve been raised on a diet of Tinkle anyway.

I also like writing standup bits. Desk jokes and one-liners come easily. I’d ideally like to write for Weekend Update or something like that, though that’s a little more boring than an action-packed sketch where things happen.

I really need to improve how I write dialogue. I try to listen to how people talk and I’m constantly surprised by how different it is from how people in movies talk.

So… yeah, I need to religiously spend time on writing, because I’ve kind of figured out what I want out of it. Now it’s all about gaining enough confidence to write longer and longer stuff. Hopefully something good will come out of it!

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Perfect Ten

It’s actually a month since my blog turned ten. That’s a huge milestone, and like the busy father who is off flying for meetings in London, Paris and Rome and doesn’t make it to his child’s tenth birthday, I’ve been moving cities, signing leases, starting new jobs, meeting family and friends, and had no Internet at home until yesterday. And thus kept putting off writing my anniversary blog post.

I don’t know, who do I keep writing here for, I wonder sometimes. The two-three people who read this space actually have better channels of communication with me elsewhere. Or am I just doing this like an old Brit, in the name of tradition?

The ten years I’ve been blogging here have coincidentally been the ten hardest years of my life. It kind of feels like the worst is over now, but what do I know about the next thirty. Still, it’s hard to imagine the rest of my life going worse than my late teens and twenties.

While I’ve experienced big wins, great joy and learnt a lot, it’s hard to deny that the past decade has been an exercise in uncertainty, powerlessness, and enough crazy to fulfill a lifetime’s quota. And through all this, one source of stability and strength has been to write here. Soapbox, pensieve, personal diary, editorial… this blog has been all of that and more.

I started blogging here shortly after I’d turned eighteen. At eighteen, I’d just about quit being cocky, was obsessed with English, August, was drifting around trying to find my niche, and was wondering if I’d made a big mistake choosing to study information technology. I knew I liked to write, but wasn’t sure if I really could. Now, I’m just back to being cocky, have given up on reading anything that doesn’t have action and snappy narrative, know enough to know that I can find my crowd anywhere I go. I’ve never been able to be thankful enough for my choice of major, because of the interesting directions it has led me into. I’ve just gotten done making major changes to how I think about my career. I’ve come to the realization that I do actually enjoy writing a real lot, and want to do it a lot more than I do now. Of course, what would surprise my eighteen year old self is that I don’t anymore like the idea of writing a novel, and sketches and screenplays seem more up my street.

I’ve recapped multiple times all the wonderful things this blog has led me into – people recognizing me on the street, celebrities commenting, several career and hobby opportunities, getting to meet a whole crowd of people I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and reconnecting with old friends in a completely new way. I however don’t think I’ve talked enough about the kind of confidence writing here has given me. I don’t hesitate to put pen to paper, and the kind of writer’s block that plagues too many people has kind of always managed a healthy distance from me. It’s a special kind of pleasure to know that when some art inspires you, you have a way of channeling that feeling.

As the years have passed, I’ve censured myself here more and more. Originally it felt like I overshared here. Now I’m way too circumspect, and don’t anymore treat this like my personal fiefdom where I can say and do as I please. It is freeing and constrictive at the same time. Freeing because it actually feels like I’m asserting to myself that this part of my life is private and important. Constrictive because it feels like I can’t spill in my own kitchen.

Which leads me to think about how online anonymity has been slowly and systematically killed on the Internet in the past decade. I don’t think you can anymore just rant randomly and have complete strangers stumble across and sympathize with you. You need that initial social network to get started. No strangers are going to read you unless you’ve written something they are explicitly looking for, or promote yourself to help people stumble upon your stuff. It feels quite sad, but I’m sure there are other ways people are getting heard, that I am not yet familiar with.

I completely detest how we have all been forced into making our online personalities as bland as our offline ones, thanks to just about anyone being able to find different sides of you online. Back in the day, you came online to escape your classmates and colleagues. Now, they badger you to let them follow your presence on a variety of sites, so much that I’m actually contemplating having two profiles for everything.

In any case. Ten years is a significant duration to keep something going. I’m proud of this place, and hope to keep it going for as long as I can.

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How the new Internet usage paradigm has affected my mind.

It’s what we all used to laugh about. “I close a Facebook/Reddit/Twitter tab, and then open another”. “I can’t stop refreshing my GMail app”. “I open Reddit and all the links are purple”.

And then I thought I got over it. I wasn’t in grad school anymore. Social media had gotten a little old, and I didn’t really enjoy looking at people’s Facebook and I lurked more than I updated. I did tweet often, but my timeline wasn’t anymore some small tiny in-joke niche thing that each tweet merited importance. Google Reader had died, and though I love Prismatic, it didn’t quite replace it. I did Reddit more than I used to, but it wasn’t a big deal.

It came back though. In a form more insidious and hard to get away from than before.

See, frivolity on the Internet was more an escape from reality, kind of like Kimmy Schmidt chanting “I’m not really here”. So to disentangle from it, all you had to do was commit to work.

But now the Internet isn’t just for fun and games.

Sometimes you’re waiting for important updates to come in the email and you want to be alert to answer them immediately. Say, when you’re on a job hunt. Or when you have paperwork that needs processing. Or when you’re awaiting something to be shipped. Or your work email.

And then your serious hobbies go online. It takes only one time you miss responding to an email from your editor within an hour of receiving it for a news story to run cold and your viewpoint to get old, to be on tenterhooks the next time you send out an article for publishing. You can’t seem to get Tesseract to work, and post about it on StackOverflow. You keep checking back every few minutes to see if someone’s responded because you’d like to catch them online just in case you have follow up questions. You’re part-time activisting about some cause dear to you and trying to entice more people to join you. You post on some public forum about that. You keep refreshing your notifications relentlessly because you want to respond asap and keep the conversation going. You organize an improv meetup and want to make sure you don’t fail to respond to anyone who’s RSVPing with questions, because the location is tricky and you don’t want to be delayed because someone got lost.

And then the personal stuff. Your sister is in class and you can’t buy that blue jade necklace without her input, so you text her an image and wait. Your editor asked for a display picture to go with your article, so you text five of your friends ten different selfies and ask them to pick. Finalizing weekend plans with two different Whatsapp groups. Also you want to be prompt in case those Craigslist ads for vintage lamps you responded to get back to you.

Let’s not even get started on our contacts. Your friends understand if you don’t respond to their hilarious pun in a timely manner, but acquaintances just don’t. Especially not people you’re hoping to know better.

There’s just too many things that don’t have a schedule but demand our immediate attention. They all seem small and insignificant and doable in two minutes or less. Either that or important enough to merit an immediate response. Or kind of important but not so important that you’ll actually bother to respond later, so it’s better to respond now before you forget or stop caring or lose context. So it’s not even like we want to put off responding to them. It feels so easy to make the person on the other end happy, or to give yourself a feeling of accomplishment, by providing an immediate response. It doesn’t feel natural to restrict checking your notifications to very specific timeslots.

Unless the task at hand is pretty damn important, it doesn’t feel natural to switch off on all notifications. If you’re in an important meeting, or trying to get something done, or hanging out with someone, then yes, without question you don’t bother checking your phone. But when we’re doing things that don’t merit that much attention, we end up getting into waiting-for-notification mode.

Like doing a Coursera course. Or watching a movie on Netflix. Or when you’re unwinding after work. I suppose things get easier to compartmentalize once you have a spouse and children, but for the rest of us, there aren’t any clear demarcations. Especially if you access your hobbies and friends via the Internet.

The other problem is, there isn’t anything that prioritizes your notifications. Your phone makes the same sound when you get an email from some spammy entity, or from a prospective new employer (GMail Priority inbox doesn’t make things all that much better). Your sister could be texting you something important, like “I’m talking to Arundati Roy’s ex-boyfriend, anything you want me to ask him?” (sorta true story), or something like “Check out this transcript of my chat with our crazy third cousin twice removed”. So when there’s something important you’re waiting for, it’s easy to become a notification fiend.

Sometimes you aren’t even ‘waiting’ for anything. Your apartment complex texted you about a noxious fumes thing after which you were able to quickly make plans to stay out the rest of the evening. Or you got notified by local government alerts that warned of protests around your workplace getting violent after which you changed your commute plans quickly to a route not as plagued by protesters. You don’t want to miss out on these things.

If you end up doing this for a long enough period, it starts to feel weird to switch your mind off of notifications. For a while, I couldn’t watch even the most riveting flick on Netflix without doing something else, so to stop getting the heebie-jeebies, I began knitting, and I can say things like “This scarf lasted Kimmy Schmidt” or “That’s my Parks and Rec beret”.

Fear of Missing Out is bad enough already. But when you actually throw in real things you greatly fear missing out on, like job opportunities, short windows of time to book tickets in, free book deals that last only for a couple of hours, chances of publishing the next viral article, or important updates from your family seven oceans away, it becomes even harder to get away from or have rules about.

This kind of mentality ends up corroding other things unless you’re strict with yourself. If you’re fixated on a Whatsapp text from one sender, you might as well look at the notifications that are coming in by the minute from the Whatsapp group of your high school friends. If you’re refreshing Reddit anyway in hopes of getting good advice on whether or not you should attend the Ball Drop (short answer: don’t), it’s easy to get suckered into some insane back and forth that gets you riled up.

Sometimes it’s even crazier. During Hurricane Sandy, I couldn’t stop refreshing my Twitter because I wanted to know how bad things were (short answer: not so bad if you weren’t living in the Rockaways or below 42nd Street) and if I needed to act quickly. And I ended up not doing anything all day except knowing every single incident of damage Sandy had caused, and terrible jokes about hurricanes. Which doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but imagine every day being like that, only, instead of a hurricane, it’s some combination of plans with friends, professional development stuff and daily deals.

It feels often like I’d like a personal assistant who takes care of prioritizing my communication and notifications and interrupts me only when it is absolutely necessary. I just want to repose my trust in some entity that interrupts me only when I absolutely need it.

You know the problem? There’s an app for that. And it isn’t very good.

So instead of ten annoying things that might interrupt me, now there’s eleven annoying things that might interrupt me.

Posted in analysis, Rants | 2 Comments

Published in a real magazine!

Well, just the online version. But here it is: English Gave My Generation A Voice  in Swarajya Magazine. It’s where I respond to a piece in New York Times by Aatish Taseer, titled How English Ruined Indian Literature.

I like how it turned out, but I also felt 1500 words was too short for any real nuance on a very emotive topic, but heck, people get famous publishing things way less nuanced. At the very least, if the comments section is anything to go by, it’s started a conversation.

Finally I have gotten published of my own free will, and not as usual where two-bit newspapers lift my blogposts without my permission 🙂


Posted in analysis, Rants, Writing | 2 Comments

Wonderful Mr. Watterson

I write this post for no reason other than that I read this post about Calvin and Hobbes in Open Magazine  and was annoyed it was yet another summary of things we’ve only heard about a thousand times. When reading about personalities everyone writes about, I wish people brought in a more original, possibly more personal take.

I imagine it must be very annoying to be Bill Watterson. Probably something like Chubby Checker after he pioneered The Twist. Or like having an overachieving older sibling. No matter what you do, there’s this overarching standard everyone’s going to compare you against. It offers you little room to grow or make mistakes.

I have this friend who I imagine what Mr. Watterson is like. This friend happens to also look a little like a clean-shaven Mr. Watterson. My friend has an online persona where he is creative, funny, sarcastic, biting, and wildly original. However, in real life, he doesn’t engage as easily as far as I’ve known him. He is still all of those things, and if anything, even more talented, even more creative, and has a childlike honesty in emotion and behavior. But there’s this additional streak that makes him shy, quiet, careful to not say the wrong things, sensitive, and at the same time, wildly confident, somewhat lacking empathy, and militantly private. All those qualities in him you end up going ‘oh you poor thing for’ – the sensitivity, the childlike honesty, the kindness, the shyness, the quietness – they don’t come from a place of fear or want or defensiveness, they come from a position of strength.

And I sure hope my friend never reads this. He doesn’t like to think so much about things. Everything to him is simple. If it isn’t, he fills in the gaps with the simplest possible explanations and moves on, because he is confident that’ll work well enough.

Somehow, to me, this model explains all of Mr. Watterson’s actions. The badass quitting a job to become a cartoonist. The battle to work on his own terms only. The extremely few interviews given. The quitting C&H when it was at its peak. The slipping in autographs into his books at a local bookstore. Stopping it when he found people were selling it as merchandise. The media-shy behavior. Suddenly resurfacing to do a bunch of comics with Pearls Before Swine. Carefully guarding his privacy even then.

It seems to me like Mr. Watterson shuns attention not because he’s afraid of consequences or the wrong sort of attention, but because he doesn’t see the need for it, or wants to be spared the trouble of having to learn to deal with it. He seems to be among that rare breed of people who are content with what they have and don’t desire for more, not because they feel like any more will be too much to handle, or because they want their life to stay just so, or because they have achieved what they’ve aimed for, but because they aren’t the sort to have shifting goalposts, or who live their life by external metrics and goals.

And if you venerate or judge him for that, he’ll probably smile an amused smile. Because he knows there isn’t anything inherently good or bad in his choices, he picked them not out of principle, but because that’s what works well for him. Or maybe it doesn’t work as he thought, but he sticks with those things anyway, because it works acceptably enough.

I can see how he would have come up with his cartoons. He did something that gave him joy, and its giving joy to so many others was a very welcome side-effect. When he suspected it was close to not giving him joy anymore, he decided to move on.

Oh and his work. People have written reams about what makes Calvin and Hobbes tick, so I won’t go into its broad appeal. Why I like Calvin and Hobbes is, the setups and jokes bring out things about human interactions and relationships so much more organically, so much more easily. And, of course, the fabulous Sunday art. It makes me laugh when people try to find clues about if Calvin says age-appropriate things, or if Hobbes is real or imaginary. Those things don’t matter. Calvin acts like a kid when Mr. Watterson thinks that would be a fun choice for this cartoon idea, and Calvin can just easily be the voice of the cartoonist when Mr. Watterson wants him to be. Hobbes is a stuffed toy when the idea makes sense in the context of the cartoon Mr. Watterson wants to draw. Hobbes is a real tiger when Mr. Watterson thinks that’d be a more appropriate choice. I don’t suppose those things are set in stone, and it feels like a pointless argument, much like about which Hogwarts house you belong to.

Continuing to rave about Calvin and Hobbes feels much like holding on to high school memories, to me. Reading the comics all at once at nineteen blew my mind, but revisiting it or talking about it or sharing the comics more than once in a blue moon feels like you have very little else going on. Besides, what I took away from Calvin and Hobbes feels incredibly personal. I suppose everyone who anthropomorphized their toys as a child feels that.

It feels a little wrong to own any Calvin and Hobbes memorabilia. I actually thought long and hard before deciding not to adorn my walls with a Calvin and Hobbes poster. It feels like an affront to Mr. Watterson.

I occasionally wonder what would be appropriate to say to Mr. Watterson, should I run into him somewhere. I should probably like to say something like ‘Hey, so you know that thing you used to do? It kinda changed my life and touched me a whole lot. Thanks, and I won’t bother you anymore’.

I also occasionally wonder what kind of an interview of Mr. Watterson would feel least like an affront. Or, more specifically, if I got a chance to talk with him for an hour, what I’d talk about. Two or three years ago, I would have probably bombarded him with leading questions and try real hard to pick his brain. Now though, I’d just like to chill with the man. Ask him about how his days go. If he plays with his grandkids, if he has any. What he watches on TV. If he thinks much at all about politics. What he thinks about college costs going insane.

Or, I don’t know, maybe I give Mr. Watterson’s privacy and RonSwanson-ness way more importance than Mr. Watterson himself does, and maybe in a decade or less, he’ll start blogging about landscapes or woodworking or Cleveland politics. Or maybe become a champion of DRM and self-publish on Amazon.

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