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The Writer's Mailbag: Installment 299

Updated on March 9, 2020

In Awe of Excellence

I was listening to a song called “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. Now I’ve heard that song probably a couple hundred times over the years, but for whatever reason the following lyric jumped out at me the other day:

“They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness,

But it’s better than drinking alone.”

I don’t know about you, but I consider that lyric pure genius. That is the kind of writing I aspire towards. It is a gasp moment of writing, a slap-your-forehead, shout-from-the-mountaintops moment in writing, and I have to believe Joel felt pretty damned good after he wrote it.

I write for those moments. Every once in awhile I’ll write a sentence, or a phrase, and I’ll actually sit back and smile, saying to myself “Damn, Bill, that ain’t half-bad!”

Happy writing to all of you! Live for moments like that one.

Let’s do this Mailbag thing, shall we, as we rapidly approach the 300th installment of this series.

The Mail Room!
The Mail Room!

How to Inspire?

From Ann: “You are so good at inspiring and enthusing, bill. How do you do that? I think I know the answer but I want to see what you come up with.”

That is very kind of you to say, Ann. Thank you!

The answer is a combination of factors.

I was a lonely kid. I craved attention and recognition as a child. My parents were wonderful in that regard, but I think most children expect that from loving parents. I needed more, and I recognized, at an early age, how important it was for people to be noticed and encouraged.

That belief was reinforced when I became a teacher. I found many children who craved a pat on the head and a word of encouragement. I saw, firsthand, how children glowed when they received positive feedback.

And then, as a writer, I came to realize what a solitary and, at times, lonely profession writing truly is. Many writers toil in obscurity their entire lives. If I can, in some way, encourage writers to continue with their work, I feel I’ve done my part to promote the Art of Writing.

So, was I close to what you were thinking, Ann?

Inspiration for this writer
Inspiration for this writer

Petering Out

From Eric: “So seriously (for me that is) I got to the climax to fast. I had thought the story should be longer but it just petered out. How do you do that kind of bell curve deal with a story line -- I don't want the apex to close to beginning or end.”

Eric, what you mention is a common problem for many writers who are undertaking a novel for the first time. The natural inclination is to tell the story, just get to it and swiftly flow from beginning to end. Unfortunately, as you stated, most novels would be about ten-thousand words in length if every writer did that.

Filling in the gaps is a bit trickier, and that’s where scene descriptions, character development, and subplots come into play. My approach to a novel is this: my first draft is basically the bare-bones story; my second go-through then works on scenes and characters and subplots. I have to constantly remind myself that my job is to not only tell the story but to make it come alive for the reader. I am the eyes of the reader. I tell the sounds and smells of a story. All of that takes time, and all of that takes a fair amount of words to do properly.

I hope that helps. I can sum it up by saying this: don’t be in a big hurry to tell the story!

Famous Memoirs

From Flourish: “I like that you differentiated autobiography and memoir. Are there specific examples of famous people who have done a particularly good job writing their memoirs? (Feel free to save this for your column if you wish.)”

There sure are, Flourish. I think I mentioned one in that memoir article. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a wonderful memoir titled “Eat, Pray, Love.” You might also want to read “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, or “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, or “Marley & Me” by John Grogan. I could go on, but those should keep you busy. All are wonderful examples of a memoir.

And, of course, don’t forget mine, “And the Blind Shall See.” LOL Famous indeed!

Starting out With a Bang

From Maria: “Bill, you’ve mentioned often how important it is to begin a story or a novel with a bang, an attention-grabbing scene or event which will grab the reader and not let them go. That sounds easy, but how do you do it so effortlessly? Do I have to blow something up in the opening scene to accomplish that? Seems a bit drastic for a love story.”

That had me laughing, Maria!

No, you don’t have to blow anything up, but you do have to give the reader a reason to continue.

Let me give you an example. I just grabbed a book off of my bookshelf. It is titled “Locally Laid” by Lucie B. Amundsen, and it is a book about a husband and wife who started an egg farm from scratch with no background in chickens at all. Here is the opening paragraph from Chapter One:

“At dusk, hens seek their coop. So reliable is this, there’s even a saying, an adage: Chickens come home to roost. It’s for warmth. It’s for protection. It’s hardwired. But our first shipment of nine-hundred mature birds, just purchased from a commercial operation, stands on the field staring. They tilt and turn their heads to better align us with their side-placed eyes, as though awaiting instructions. Then, as darkness quiets the pasture, I get it. My hand on my lips, I mumble, “Oh God.” These hens are out of sync with the sunset because until today, they have NEVER SEEN THE SUN. While I’ve worried about many things going wrong with our unlikely egg startup, chickens not knowing how to be chickens was not one of them.”

No one died in that opening paragraph. Nothing was blown up. Still, it is interesting enough so that I want to continue reading the book. Just the idea that nine-hundred chickens had never seen the sun had me hooked.

It’s a very simple thing to do, and it is highly effective.

Let’s look at another one, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. Here are the opening two paragraphs of that classic:

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

“When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.”

Pure genius! Again, no one died. Not much of anything happened, truth be told, and yet I badly want to know why Jem’s arm was badly broken, and who the hell is Boo Radley?

Go for it, Maria! Practice may not make perfect, but it sure does improve your skills.

Find your inspiration!
Find your inspiration!

That’s All for This Week

Next week marks #300. Pretty amazing, if you ask me; I had no intention of making this a series. You guys, and gals, brought this to life and you continue to breathe life into it each week, and for that I thank you.

And now it’s time for you to go make your mark on the writing world. Dazzle us with your lyrics, your paragraphs, and your stanzas. The world is waiting to be amazed by you.

Remember, if you want some coaching, I’m available at a very reasonable cost. Email me at holland1145@yahoo.com and we’ll sharpen your skills.

2020 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      12 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Kari! You have good taste in music. Have a safe and productive week.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      13 days ago from Ohio

      I love that song, especially that line. You always have such good advice. I really enjoyed the "Starting out With a Bang" part. I will have to look at some of my opening paragraphs.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      You are far too kind, Denise, but thank you very much.

      Blessings always

      bill

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Lora, I sense a big heart behind your words. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You are a person I would enjoy having a cup of coffee with. :)

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      You and I will work on it, Mary. I promise you will improve.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Please, Becky, disagree with me. I do often during the day. lol Seriously,that's what the Mailbag is for, to share thoughts about writing,so thank you.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 

      2 weeks ago from Fresno CA

      I always love these mailbags and obviously I'm not the only one. Still, 300 is quite the milestone when each week you expect that will be the last and surely you have answered all the questions that could possibly come up. You do have a way with words and it is always a fun read. I personally don't think I could come up with an opening to compare with Harper Lee! Or you.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Lora Hollings profile image

      Lora Hollings 

      2 weeks ago

      I really enjoyed your introspection in this mailbag, Bill. I think we all crave a sense of approval from others and perhaps writers, as a lot, are more insecure than most people. And as far as I'm concerned, I think it can make for far more interesting writing! Your answers to these questions posed, really gets to the heart of great writing- on how to hook the read from the very beginning of the story to find the answers to what the characters have posed in the beginning chapter. I have read the "Diary of Anne Frank," and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Such wonderful examples on writing memoirs! I think memoirs can be difficult to write for some people but at the same time, I think it can be cathartic. And I love to read them, as I think that they can also assure us that there is a bright side even in our suffering, as we may gain greater wisdom about our true purpose in life. Thanks for the great info.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      2 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

      Hi Bill. You answered here some of the questions I have in mind and I also noticed there are writers who are just great at this. I repeat their description to myself hoping that some of it would rub off but am also aware that there's only one way: practice, practice, practice. I am aware of this lack and appreciate writers who can capture my imagination with their descriptions of people, places, and events.

    • Becky Katz profile image

      Becky Katz 

      2 weeks ago from Hereford, AZ

      Bill, This was very interesting and wonderfully worded. I do not agree with your comment about giving a writer one chance and if they do not impress, dropping them. If I had stuck to that when Chris Mills wrote his first story, I would have missed a lot of wonderful stories. His first had a great idea to it. It was just very amateur. I praised the idea and story line. I made a few suggestions to help improve it. He kept writing and each additional story improved. Publishing a story to sell should be delayed until the story has been improved. Never publish the first one, until you have grown enough as a writer to improve it. He is a class writer now, and it took practice to learn to become the writer he could be. He rewrote the story eventually, and it was barely recognizable. I don't know if he remembers his first story on here, but I definitely do.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      That one word should be on my tombstone, Shaloo...consistent! Thank you, and thank you for the recommendation of that memoir.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      You are part of that support, Devika, so thank you as well.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Now that, Ann, is a great opening! lol I will be laughing about that the rest of the day. Thanks for the chuckle.

      Happy Tuesday my friend!

      bill

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm with you on that rant, Zulma. Been there, read that, will never read for that author again. Writers get one chance to impress me with their prowess and then I'm out the door of life, never to return. :)

      Cold here, my friend! 28 degrees ain't spring in this boy's view. Brrrrr!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I appreciate that, Venkatachari M. You have been a big part in the Mailbag success, so thank you.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      The same to you, Linda! Enjoy your week in British Columbia. Lovely area you live in!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Alyssa! I hope your week is filled with sunshine and goodness.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I totally agree, Heidi, and Happy Tuesday to you. Get out there and dazzle someone.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Bill! That "bang" idea works for all manner of writings.

      Happy March to you my friend.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Shannon, I totally agree with that musician you interviewed. The unique approach is the key. Story ideas are just recycled. A good writer finds a new way of telling the old classic storyline.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Eric, you are such a trouble-maker! lol

      So I'm helping to raise your son, eh? Very cool!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Great suggestion, Meg. I use a similar approach to my first draft. Thank you for mentioning that. Very helpful and one reason why this series is so helpful to all writers.

    • swalia profile image

      Shaloo Walia 

      2 weeks ago from India

      So 300th instalment coming up next week...wow! It's amazing how you have been so consistent with this series. Speaking of memoirs, I read 'Educated' by Tara Westover last month. A must, must read!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      We all learn from it, Ruby. It's our secret clubhouse and I love it. Thank you for always being here.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      You are very kind, Dora. Thank you for being so faithful in your following of it.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      That's the truth, Flourish. if only . . .

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Warm but soggy doesn't sound good to me, MizB. I have had more than enough soggy, thank you very much. Right now it is 29 and foggy, a nasty combination.

      Enjoy your week, my friend.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Sha, I think I'll just keep my mouth shut about goals.Obviously I have no clue what is happening with this series. I thought it would be done with one. :)

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      That is kind of you, Peggy! They have helped me as well. I love my HP family.

      Read that book. I know you'll love it.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      2 weeks ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Well done to you Bill and all who have supported you to make this possible. Your hubs are informative, and most helpful all forms.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      2 weeks ago from SW England

      Thanks bill. Yes pretty close. Your passion for writing and wish to help shines through too. I know what you mean about the eyes shining after praise.

      Talking of blowing something up, my favourite opening sentence is 'It was the day my grandmother exploded.' It's from 'The Crow Road' by Ian Banks.

      Have a happy week, bill!

      Ann

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 

      2 weeks ago from United Kingdom

      Hey, Bill.

      Right then, I understand about adding descriptive text to flesh out and add more layers to the characters and story. At what point does it become too much information?

      I'm currently reading a fanfic that started out promising enough but, as of late, seems to be writing for the sake of add words. It stands at 128 chapters, but I think it could lose 10-15% of that without affecting the story. Ex. the author first tells you what one character needs to tell another character, then when the characters meet, there is dialogue between them where the first character imparts the information we've already read about. Why did we need to be told this twice?

      It's gotten so predictable that I'm skipping over loads of text because I just know it's not relevant to the story. I will allow that the writer may not be that experienced, but I won't waste my time reading filler. It pains me because the pacing could have been so much better and I wouldn't get so frustrated reading it.

      Okay. Rant's over.

      You have a good day, Bill.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      2 weeks ago from Hyderabad, India

      Hi, Bill. It's awesome to see you come up with the 300th mailbag next week. Bravo and Congrats.

      This mailbag is very interesting with those four questions and especially your replies to those from Ann and Maria. You are always a wonderful personality and an inspiring soul.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for another interesting edition of the Mailbag, Bill. I enjoyed reading the information that you shared and the book excerpts. I hope you have a good week.

    • Alyssa Nichol profile image

      Alyssa 

      2 weeks ago from Ohio

      300 installments? What an accomplishment! Piano Man is one of my favorite songs. Writing is an art, and I often find inspiration listening to music. Thank you for another great mailbag, Bill. I'm looking forward to next week's mailbag. Until then, have a wonderful week!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      2 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      Billy Joel is a lyric genius. That is all.

      Happy Monday and make it a great week!

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      2 weeks ago from Massachusetts

      Number 300 next week. Wow, we’ve been here for a long time. The mailbag has certainly become a much-anticipated fixture here on HubPages. Excellent questions and answers this week. I especially liked your ”starting out with a bang” reply.

    • shanmarie profile image

      Shannon Henry 

      2 weeks ago from Texas

      Excellent questions with excellent answers. I'd like to think that, in story form, I am decent enough at grabbing attention. I could still improve on that with general information writing, though. Well, I guess, there's always room for improvement on anything. LOL. But anyway, I agree with your sentiments about how certain lines seem to stand out. I had a musician once tell me that when writing a song, you have to look for a unique way to say the same thing. That stuck with me because it's true that those are the kinds of lyrics that stand out as great writing. It's also true of the kind of writing that stands out in a novel. That and overall great story-telling.

      Congratulations on number 300 coming up! Talk about inspiring. :)

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      2 weeks ago from Southern Illinois

      We all look forward to your Monday's mailbag. Even if we don't ask a question, we learn. 300 is a lot of helping us to be better writers, and I thank you.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      2 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      CONGRATULATIONS in advance on your long-standing successful Mailbag. Every episode teaches lessons to the writer. I especially love when you reveal your heart as you do here in response to how to inspire. Best to you, Buddy!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      2 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Ho hum just another mail bag. So many and too long and boring of a series. Get a new schtick. And the pomposity of all your tutelage and spreading their wings to fly crappola. Now I think we are talking from like about 2014, hell old man they did not even have light-bulbs back in them old days. How could you still be relevant today. You are so old that old(est) has your picture in Wiki.

      Got to go to brighten someone else's day, or find a dog to snarl at.

      ///OTOH my youngest started reading with me some of this when he was about 5 and he is ten/// Hmm, teaching a generation to fly?

    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 

      2 weeks ago from Northern Ireland

      Don't know if this would help the writer who wants to spin out the story to make it longer before reaching the climax? It applies to academic writing and writers who are having difficulty getting their academic articles written but there's no reason it couldn't apply to fiction too. The suggestion is to write a list of bullet points that you want to include in your story as a whole. Then you take each of those bullet points and expand them into points you want to include in each chapter. Only then, you take each bullet point and start writing it out as a paragraph. My preferred way of writing is to use Peter Elbow's suggestion of free writing, where you just write (or type) without looking at the screen (easy for me as I am not a touch typist), not worrying about spelling or grammar, etc. Just let it all flow out, no editing. Once you have stopped freewriting, THEN you can edit. This one works for me.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      2 weeks ago from USA

      I really liked those opening paragraphs. Those are examples to aspire to meet.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      2 weeks ago from Beautiful South

      Mailbag no. 300, well, my friend, I remember when you were about to write no. 100 and call it quits. Aren't you glad you didn't? I sure am.

      I remember reading a book review, I forget which book, but the review said something to the effect that this book hit the ground running and didn't stop until the end. Sure enough, the author delivered on that promise, and I haven't forgotten that.

      Our experience with chickens is that they don't know how to be chickens. Sad, isn't it?

      Have a good rest of the week and keep yourself and your family safe from that virus that's running amok. We are facing a warm, but soggy week.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      2 weeks ago from Central Florida

      Bill, this series has helped so many writers with motivation, inspiration, and flat out honesty. Approaching #300 is a milestone to say the least! At this point do you have a goal for the Mailbag? Six hundred? One thousand?

      HP should consider an award for the longest running series. You'd win, hands down!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      That opening paragraph in the book titled "Locally Laid," was an excellent example of how to hook a reader in wanting to read more. My initial thought was how very sad that the chickens did not know how to be chickens. I would want to know more.

      Your next mailbag will have to be a celebration! 300 mailbag posts makes a sizable record! Just think of the people you have helped along the way!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Melissa, it's actually a hilarious book. You should check it out if you want a laugh or three. :) Thanks for your kind words and for always being here. Spring is almost here!!!!!

    • mpropp profile image

      Melissa Propp 

      2 weeks ago from Minnesota

      Happy Monday Bill! I don't think I would ever pick up a book about an egg farm, but I love the title (as long as it isn't for a romance novel,lol) and I agree it was an interesting opening. Thanks for sharing your expertise each week and for always being willing to take time from your own busy schedule to help other writers. You are appreciated!

      Have a great and productive week!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Penultimate, Manatita! First time for that word in the Mail Room. Congratulations my brother! :)

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      2 weeks ago from london

      Great penultimate Mailbag! Nearly there, Bro, then … we shall see. Well done!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Good morning Verlie! I hope your Monday is shaping into a good one. A bit chilly here in Washington. Time for another log on the fire. Pressure? I barely know how to spell the word. lol Happy Monday my talented friend.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Pamela! The "hook" often confuses people. I"m happy that helped you.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Linda, I can't imagine a novel by Eric, but I sure would like to read it. As for our birthday celebration, it will have to be online cake, and you're in charge of the baking. :)

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I got lucky on that one, John, but thank you. As for Joel, that line is amazingly complex and speaks of the human condition. Brilliant!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      You are an old soul, Janine. You were raised on the right kind of music, my friend.

      Happy Monday! Spring is almost here! Hooray!

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 

      2 weeks ago from Canada

      Morning Bill, I enjoyed the question, and your examples of opening lines in a story or a novel. Enjoyed all the questions. Always look forward to your Monday mailbag. Great resource! Keep em coming. I wonder how the 300th installment is shaping up? Any pressure?

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      2 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Taht Piano Man verse was genius. I also enjoyed reading the first couple paragraphs in two different alwbooks and it halped me understand what you are talking about when you mention the "hook".

      I always learn something from the Monday morning Mailbag. Have a good week, Bill.

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 

      2 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, I agree with your assessment of Billy Joel. and Piano Man is one of his best. Lyrics are just another form of poetry and he's a darned good poet.

      #300, does that mean there'll be cake and ice cream? Seriously, that's a pretty amazing number for a series that was never intended to be.

      Perhaps with your encouragement Eric will write that novel. Now THAT will be something to look forward to.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      2 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

      The line from Piano man makes me realise how great a lyricist Billy Joel was /is. Yes, I sometimes get that same feeling of satisfaction when something I write just feels like I hit the mark.

      Wow, 300, that is really an amazing milestone, Bill. Who would have thought any series on HP could endure that long and still be going strong. You should be proud.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      2 weeks ago from New York, New York

      Yay for next week being #300 and how can you go wrong quoting Billy Joel's Piano Man? Seriously, the man is still genius and what a great way to start my Monday off here. thanks Bill and wishing you a great Monday ahead now :)

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