How I got a book deal

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I got a book deal. It still feels a bit surreal but I’m slowly getting my head around the idea that the characters that I’ve been carrying around my head for so long are finally going to go out into the big wide world.

I wrote about the long gestation of this novel in a previous post. (Click here if you’re interested.) But now I’d like to write about how the deal actually came about as I always love reading about other authors’ road to publication.

My first big break was sending my opening to Simon and Schuster’s Books and the City ‘One Day’ open submission call. They don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts except on this one day where they ask for the first chapter, a synopsis and a short bio. I was still a few months from finishing my book, but I took a chance and sent it off and was amazed when a few weeks later I had a request for the full manuscript from Sara-Jade Virtue and Emma Capron.

With trembling fingers I emailed back to say my book wasn’t yet ready, fully expecting to be told I’d blown my chance. However, they replied telling me to take my time and to send in it when it was ready.

It was all the spur I needed to buckle down and get the book finished.

I always knew that I wanted to get an agent so as I was polishing my manuscript I also focused on researching agents to find the right one for me.

I came up with an initial list of eight suitable agents. They were my A-list and even though I hadn’t actually finished my book, I nervously sent out the first three chapters and one-page synopsis.

Within a month, I had three requests for the full manuscript. I was overjoyed! Having previously queried agents I knew how rare it was to get even one call-in, so to get three out of eight was thrilling! By now I’d finished my book, and even though I wanted to keep fiddling with it, I sent it out.

Sadly, although one agent requested a meeting, all three eventually turned down the book. It was January now and a gentle reminder from Emma Capron pinged into my inbox. Too scared to keep her hanging any longer, I crossed my fingers and emailed it to her.

Then, even though I hadn’t yet heard back from all eight original agents, (three had yet to reply) I rolled up my sleeves and sent out the opening to about fifteen more. It might sound like a lot, but now that a real life editor was reading the book, I knew that should Emma reply favourably, I’d want an agent ASAP. I mentioned in my covering letters that I had vague publisher interest, and this seemed to help. Of the new batch of agents, four requested to read the full manuscript. And oddly, one of the original eight got back to me saying it wasn’t for her, but that she’d passed the submission on to another agent at the same agency. Because I’d had full requests, I cheekily sent the full off to her too, not expecting much…

It was February now, my birthday month, and that year, the big day landed on a Sunday. So, when I opened up my email on that Sunday birthday morning, and saw a message from an agent, my heart started to race.

Alas, it was a ‘no’. But props to this hard-working agent who read her submissions on a Sunday morning!

A few weeks later I got an email from Emma Capron telling me the book was going to a meeting. I wasn’t sure exactly what this meant, but had an inkling this was A Good Thing. The London Book Fair was coming up, and she asked me to be patient till after that. It was great news, but terrible timing to be emailing agents to let them know my book was going an acquisitions meeting at a major publisher… But I emailed those who had the full to let them know.

Astonishingly, three agents wanted to meet to discuss!

I knew from my previous round of submissions that meetings didn’t necessarily result in offers of representation, but allowed myself to feel a sliver of hope. I met the agents and found myself in the enviable position of having three offers of representation.

More astonishing news was to follow when Emma emailed to also ask to meet. A couple of days later, I found myself in the offices of S&S and had an amazing meeting with Emma Capron and Sara-Jade Virtue. They said they were going to make me an offer – once I’d decided on an agent. It was a huge moment – one I’d been working towards for years.

In the end, I went with Jemima Forrester at David Higham Associates, who had been one of my original eight agencies. It felt right and she’d been so enthusiastic when we met. She is also the master of brilliant emails. I was in a second-hand car showroom on the day (again, a weekend!) when she emailed to say she loved my book, and she expressed herself so eloquently and said so many amazing things about the book that I started to cry. Poor Graham who was trying to sell us a Volvo didn’t quite know what to say…

We finally signed a deal on my birthday. Yes, another whole year had passed. (Publishing can sometimes move at a glacial pace!) Sadly, I was to be Emma’s last acquisition at S&S. She subsequently left, but the gods were smiling on me because my new editor, Rebecca Farrell, has been a powerhouse of enthusiasm and brilliant ideas and I couldn’t be happier to be in her capable hands.

 

My favourite romantic novels – part 2: One For The Money

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Janet Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum’s novel from 1994 is probably an odd choice for ‘romantic novel’ because it most definitely sits on the crime shelf in book shops. It won a Crime Writers’ Association award for best debut, and the sequel, Two For the Show, won a CWA award for best comic novel. Janet Evanovich is a triple threat: she can write romance, comedy, and also intricately plot a crime caper.

But Evanovich’s first career was writing romantic fiction, and she can’t seem to resist suffusing her crime series with oodles of angsty love stuff.  For me, and I suspect for a lot of Evanovich fans, the book is a gorgeously romantic read, with plenty of love/hate flirting between bounty hunter Stephanie Plum and drop-dead gorgeous cop Joe Morelli.

Evanovich could have started the novel with a crime being committed or with an introduction to our heroine, but instead she chooses to put Joe Morelli front and centre.

There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me – not forever, but periodically.

In fact, when we do learn about the heroine, it’s in relation to Morelli. The two were childhood neighbours in a Jersey suburb where the ‘Houses were attached and narrow. Yards were small. Cars were American’.

When I was a kid I didn’t ordinarily play with Joe Morelli. He lived two blocks over and was two years older. ‘Stay away from those Morelli boys,’ my mother had warned me. ‘They’re wild. I hear things about what they do to girls when they get them alone.’

‘What kinds of things?’ I’d asked eagerly.

That ‘eagerly’ tells you a lot about Stephanie.

We then learn that she and Morelli had a short-lived fling as teenagers and that she never really forgave him when he dumped her to join the navy. Morelli had seduced her behind the counter of the bakery she worked in, a fact that she tries to hide when someone asks if she knows him.

I nodded. ‘I sold him a cannoli when I was in high school.’

Connie grunted. ‘Honey, half of all the women in New Jersey sold him their cannoli.”

We meet grown-up Stephanie newly laid-off from a discount lingerie store and behind on her car re-payments. She’s desperate for cash so she accepts a job as a bail bond agent (read: bounty hunter) for her scummy cousin Vinnie.

And one of the first fugitives she has to apprehend is Joe Morelli who, although having had an exemplary record as a vice cop, has now gone missing after being accused of murder. The idea of bringing him in is dangerously appealing; a way to pay him back for breaking her heart, although she tries to tell herself otherwise.

Finding Morelli had nothing to do with revenge. Finding Morelli had to do with the rent money. Yeah, right. That’s why I suddenly had this knot in my stomach.

It’s soon clear to us and Stephanie that the charges against Morelli have been trumped up. And while she’s got sympathy for him, what Stephanie cares most about is staying off the breadline and for that she needs the paycheck she’ll receive once she brings him in.

Her biggest asset is her desperation, but she hides this with plenty of chutzpah. After she finds Morelli holed up in a cousin’s apartment, she’s shocked that he simply laughs off the idea that she’ll be able to ever force him into custody. Stephanie, however, refuses to be outwardly cowed.

‘I may be new at this apprehension stuff but I’m not stupid and I’m not a quitter. I told Vinnie I’d bring you in and that’s exactly what I intend to do. You can run if you want, but I’ll find you, and I’ll do whatever is necessary to apprehend you.’

What a load of bull! I couldn’t believe I was saying it. I’d been lucky to find him this first time, and the only way I was ever going to apprehend him was if I stumbled upon him already bound, gagged, and knocked unconscious. Even then, I wasn’t sure how far I could drag him.

The beauty of this book is that the crime plot and the romance strands are neatly intertwined. While pursuing leads to find Morelli, Stephanie gets embroiled in the plot to frame Morelli and pisses off some very bad guys. Morelli then has to dive in and help her escape and the pair end up working together to clear his name.

But, and this is what makes Stephanie such an admirable character, she never lets her attraction for Morelli interfere with her professional aim of bringing him in. They end up finding the evidence they need to clear him, but just at the point where, if this were a traditional romance they might finally kiss, she ends up locking him in the back of a van and driving him into custody and claiming that long-cherished bounty cheque.

Evanonovich amps up the fun by adding a second possible romantic hero in the form of Ranger, who’s also a bounty hunter and quite the badass. And as the series progresses readers get to choose whether they’re #TeamMorelli or #TeamRanger.

The series is still going strong (Book 25!) but my allegiances have never wavered. Team Morelli all the way.

PS: Don’t you adore the original cover? Later editions have girlier covers, but I love how this image reflects Stephanie’s hard-boiled side. And look at how beautifully Book 2 fits:IMG_3922

 

Writing advice to my younger self: just crack on!

Hands breaking pencil. Creative process business concept

Getting a book published is a hard slog. And I don’t mean the nuts and bolts of publication – involving cover designs and copy edits or the weeks of contract negotiations – because all that heavy lifting is mostly done by other people. I’m talking about how difficult it is to start with a blank page and end up with a finished book.

It’s like climbing a mountain, never sure whether the next rocky outcrop will take you to the blue-skied summit. (Spoiler alert: there’s always another peak to crest.)

My writing journey started 15 years ago. I was a journalist and I decided to try my hand at fiction thinking it would be easy. Writing is writing, right? Wrong. It’s one thing to knock out a 300-word news item in 15 minutes, or a 1500-word feature in an afternoon; a 90k-word novel is a different thing entirely. In many ways, my journalist brain was a hindrance. I’d got used to delivering my copy fast and publishable first time. It took me years to realise that I was holding my fiction writing to impossible standards. Better to get it out – warts and all – and clean it up afterwards, than to stare at a screen trying to compose the perfect sentence. After I’d re-written the first 40k for the 3258th time, I finally realised that I was never going to move forward till I lowered my expectations and just powered through to the end.

Another hindrance was being one of those kids who got good grades at school without having to try very much. I took success for granted, but when you’ve never experienced knock-backs, the first time you’re shoved flat on your face by rejection it’s a shock. How the hell did I get here? And, more importantly, how the hell do I get up again?

The answer, I’ve learned, is you just have to tough it out. Again and again and again. Luckily, the road to publication is generously paved with opportunities to develop a thick skin to deal with rejection. Yay! (Not).

I wrote my first book within two years. I polished it, sent it to freelance editors, re-tooled it, then starting sending to agents. The first agent I wrote to asked to see the full manuscript. I was thrilled! But although she sent me some positive feedback, she eventually passed on the book. As did the two dozen other agents I approached. I still have a shoebox full of the rejection letters. (This was before the days of email submissions.)

One agent like the book enough to send it out to three publishers. It was an odd situation. I had no idea he was doing this; and bizarrely he didn’t sign me before he sent my manuscript out. Once he’d accrued three rejections he wrote to tell me he wasn’t going to try any longer. It’s only with the experience I have now that I realise this is a bloody strange way to go about things. But still, I was happy at the time.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that this book was never going to go anywhere. Someone had pointed out that although it was ‘chick lit’ the protagonist was a man, so it didn’t quite fit into the right box. Looking back, that was the least of its problems. But I took the kernel of the idea and re-imagined it with a female lead and started again from word one.

This time, it took a lot longer than two years to get it finished. A lot of it was my fault – I could go months without looking at it. A bunch of life stuff was happening – including meeting my future husband, moving house twice and getting married abroad.

In 2012, on a whim, I applied to the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course. Telling no one, I sat in my bedroom on my laptop and hurriedly sent my submission the night before the deadline, realising a moment too late there was a typo in the first line. Argh!! (Getting better at proof-reading would be a new year’s resolution.)

The course was a crucial turning point. It was an amazing three months; I learned not only about writing, but about the business and how to approach agents and publishers. Best of all, it provided me with a group of like-minded writers who’ve since become my writing buddies, all willing to offer feedback. A group of us still meet up to this day. (See my blog post here.)

Early readers are invaluable. You need to get feedback on what you write, otherwise you have no idea if you’re on the right track or not. It’s no use dismissing others’ opinions if they don’t match your own. (Believe me, I lied to myself a long time, saying that I knew my characters better than anyone.) What you can’t judge is whether what you intend to communicate is what you actually communicate. So, a scene that had been in my book from the beginning, one that I thought was a cute, flirty food fight between my two leads,  stayed in the book until a professional editor told me the scene made her want to vomit. If she’d sugar-coated it, I’d never have taken it out. But it was such a shocking reaction, I realised I’d better listen to it! And in hindsight, one of the reasons why that scene wasn’t working was because I’d written it so long ago that by the time I’d completed the draft, my characters and voice had subtly changed. And sometimes it’s only other people who can see this.

The book underwent another massive change – characters changed jobs, names, a murder-suicide plot that I’d struggled with got binned, the romance got bigger, I de-fluffed the book. (I hated reading clumsy/ditzy heroines, so how on earth had I ended up writing one?) But I still couldn’t get to the end. Eventually, my husband bought me the James Patterson masterclass and something he said spurred me to get to the end. He emphasised the importance of outlining the whole novel to give yourself a road-map. Before this, I’d been a bit of a ‘pantster’ – writing by the seat of my pants. Armed with a 10-page outline of the major plot points, I started at the half-way point (leaving a 10-000-word gap) and ploughed through to until I got the end.

And something amazing happened. Whereas before I’d have to force myself to sit and write, now I found that I didn’t want to do anything other than write. The last four weeks were a blur of near 24-hour absorption in my book. Even a weekend in Paris and my first visit to the Louvre as an adult couldn’t keep me grounded in the moment. Half of me was always in my own head, thinking of my characters and what they were up to.

At the end of November 2017 I finished the draft. It was an amazing feeling – a moment of pure joy  unhampered by any inner critic or niggling voice comparing myself to other writers. This was my story, fully realised in 80,000 words.

Of course, there was still the little matter of a re-write and finding an agent and publisher but I will save those things for another post. Nothing beats the feeling of finishing a work you can be proud of. So, for anyone out there who’s struggling to fulfill a long-cherished ambition of writing a book. Do yourself a favour: glue yourself to your seat and get cracking.

My Writing Group

Writing is a lonely job. Sure, you can go on research trips, or let plot points bubble in your subconscious while you’re sorting your sock drawer, but a book won’t get written unless you sit at your desk and churn out words till you’ve got at least 80,000 of them. (In more or less the right order.)

Spending so much time alone means you can never really be sure if what you’re writing is any good. So, there comes a point where you have to take a deep breath and dip your delicate writerly toe into the icy waters of beta readers.

But finding the right readers isn’t easy. Your close friends and family might mean well but if they aren’t writers themselves, it can be hard for them to provide meaningful feedback beyond saying they (hopefully) love it!

That’s where a writing group comes in. The best people to advise you on your work-in-progress are usually other writers who are also working on their own books. I feel very lucky because I’m part of a brilliant writing group, and have been since 2012. We met on the Curtis Brown Creative 3-month writing course, and a few of us have continued to meet up every fortnight ever since. Six years on, we’re down to about five regular members – all talented, enthusiastic and generous writers. We take it in turns to submit 3000-word chunks of our novels and then provide written notes which we discuss over coffee/tea/cocktails in Waterstones, Piccadilly.

There were times during the long gestation of my novel, that hitting 3000-words each fortnight was the only thing keeping me going. Without my writing group, I might have gone weeks without looking at my WIP. And getting specific feedback is invaluable – how else can you ascertain whether your jokes raise a smile? Or that your cultural references aren’t sailing over readers’ heads?

I’d been writing and re-writing the first half of my book for years before I stumbled on a way through to the end: a new title and new backstory for my two main characters. It was a little daunting to open a new document and start the story again, but my writing group confirmed the new ideas worked and this helped me find the courage to keep going and get to the end. It was my group who helped shape the sub-plot that had rendered me inert for months. And one very inspired member also provided a neat twist that unlocked the ending of the book. And when I realised I needed to change the title yet again, it was a brilliant one-hour emergency session that produced the current title of my now finished book.

And outside our meetings, my writing friends – and friends we certainly now are – were there at the end of the phone to help with last-minute submission nerves and providing lightning fast proof-reading on new sections that needed writing ASAP.

What we didn’t realise when we started the group was that we’d coach each other not only through the writing process, but also through the labyrinthine path to publication. Being a published author doesn’t mean we might need each other less. If anything, we rely on each other even more, having developed a short-hand that’s impossible to recreate without the hours we’ve put in nurturing each other’s creative endeavours. The fun part is that our support of each other now extends to cheer-leading at book launches and banging the social media drum.

We’ve managed five published books between us. And none of plan on stopping any time soon. Thank you, guys. Until I have my own acknowledgement page, this post is for you.

The Romantic Novelists’ Association summer party 2018

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Picture credit: RNA

Last month, I went to my first RNA Summer Party. The night also marked another debut – it was the first time the event was held at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford.

The Romantic Novelists’ Association is a rather lovely organisation, championing romantic fiction and its writers. And how lovely it was to be in a room full of romance writers sharing the space with classical statues that one or two of us might have glanced at and thought: hmm, maybe the next hero I write ought to have calves like that…

It was lovely to meet so many fellow writers and hear wonderful stories about published writers who’d come through the New Writers’ Scheme. The highlight of the night was the presentation of the Joan Hessayon award which is given to a debut writer whose novel has been through the NWS. This year, there were 17 contenders – by all accounts a bumper year. Congratulations to all those nominated. The award went to Hannah Begbie for her novel ‘Mother’. She gave very a moving speech as did last year’s winner, Kate Field, who presented the prize. Both writers overcame considerable personal odds to finish their novels, and I’m not ashamed to admit their stories brought a tear to my eye.

The NWS has played a big role in so many writers’ path to publication, and it’s a scheme I’m fully behind – I first joined in 2013. You get become a member of the RNA – so can go to their events – but the main reason to join is the opportunity to submit your manuscript to a professional reader who then gives you a detailed report. The first year I submitted I was pleasantly shocked by the positive feedback. It was an incomplete manuscript, but my reader urged me to finish as she saw potential. It took me until 2017 to submit a finished manuscript. So, for any budding romantic fiction writers, do take a look at what the Romantic Novelists’ Association can do for you.

My favourite romantic novels – part 1

HLAYI read all sorts of novels. I love a good murder mystery, a clever crime caper, anything that makes me laugh, and of course, a great love story. Romantic fiction is the one genre that I go back to again and again. When I look at the books I’ve re-read the most, it’s always the ones with a great love story at their heart. The same goes for other forms of story telling. The TV shows that have captured my imagination, and have kept pulling me back – even when the show goes dangerously off the rails (Hello, X-Files!) – are those that give us a proper relationship to get behind. Buffy & Angel, John & Aeryn, Stuart & Vince, and Mulder & Scully. (Don’t try and tell me our favourite FBI agents weren’t romantically involved.)

So, in no particular order, I decided to look at my favourite romantic novels and try to work out why they continue to tempt me back into their well-thumbed pages.

First up is:

Here’s Looking at You, by Mhairi McFarlane

I love all of Mhari McFarlane’s novels but Here’s Looking at You, her second, is my favourite. The book is told from two points-of-view – heroine Anna Alessi and hero James Fraser. Anna is hugely relatable which is no mean feat, considering she is drop-dead gorgeous and has a kick-ass job as a university lecturer in Byzantine history. But Anna’s life hasn’t always been easy. And the prologue zooms in on a humiliating incident at school where, while standing alone on stage at a talent show, she’s hit by ‘a confectionery tornado’.

It was a green Praline Triangle that got her first, glancing off her cheek and arcing onto the stage floor. She felt a small pain in her stomach as another missile hit its target, like a rubber band being snapped against her body. A purple one with the hazelnut sailed past her head and she ducked out of the way, only to catch a toffee penny on the chin.

And then came a hurricane of Quality Street, as the air filled with a blizzard of shiny,  multi-coloured shrapnel.

We feel for poor, friendless Anna (or rather Aureliana as she was back then), her bullies laughing backstage, including her secret crush James. Your heart breaks as the scene ends leaving her alone and helpless:

She had long ago steeled herself not to cry under pressure. Not only did she not want to give her tormentors the satisfaction, she’d figured out the less reaction you gave bullies, the faster they lost interest. She saw no reason to break that rule now and start weeping in front of a vast and hostile audience.

Unfortunately, at that moment of dignified resolve she was hit by a Coconut Éclair in the left eye, and they both started streaming anyway.

Back then, she was unpopular and teased for being overweight, but now we fast forward to present-day Anna, who’s gone from ugly duckling to swan. But the physical transformation hasn’t magically erased her insecurities and that’s what makes Anna such an engaging protagonist. We’ve all believed that if only that one physical imperfection was instantly corrected we’d be happy and confident. But Anna proves what we all secretly know: that’s not the case. If anything, her outer beauty makes her even more vulnerable – as her best friend Michelle tells her, she’s ‘gorgeous and insecure, the chauvinist’s dream’.

So, Anna is a fabulous character – what’s James like? Well, although guilty by association with the bullies at school, James seems to have turned out OK as an adult. He’s on a steep learning curve though, as he’s going through a divorce after finding out his beautiful art-teacher wife was having an affair. James starts to slowly realise that Eva’s skin-deep beauty is not enough. Maybe that’s an obvious realisation for a lot of people, but having arm candy gave James confidence. At one point he thinks that his work colleagues would automatically like Eva, and possibly admire him, just because she’s pretty. When he finds out that not many people liked her, he’s shocked.

So, as a reader you’re tuning into the fact that James is rather wary of good looks and it creates a barrier between him and Anna. He’s convinced he doesn’t fancy her anyway, although we both know that he is slowly falling for her. There’s a wonderful scene when they go bowling and the physical chemistry between them surprises them both. They were BOWLING, people. That nerdiest of pastimes. Yet in Mhari McFarlane’s hands knocking over ten pins turns into something sizzling hot.

Anna has convinced herself she’s over her crush on James and is half-heartedly dating other guys during the book, and the opening scene offers a window into just how disastrous Anna’s dating experiences are. Suffice to say that Mhairi McFarlane once described her book as ‘Pride and Prejudice with added piss-play.’ Luckily, Anna has good friends who help her laugh off her unfortunate encounters.

I read somewhere once that the it’s an individual scene that cements a work as a firm favourite and that’s definitely the case with HLAY. Something has happened in Anna’s past. It’s only hinted at, but the reader is aware of it right from the beginning. Well, the scene where we finally find out hit me in the solar plexus. I had to stop reading to give my blurry eyes a chance to recover. That scene is everything.

I’m not ruining anything by revealing that Anna and James eventually get together. The ending is kinda swoonsome; they’re in a restaurant and the subject of marriage comes up. Mhairi McFarlane gives us a perfect, romantic and funny version that in lesser hands would be cloying. And she does it with napkins. If that isn’t a sign of writing genius, I don’t know what is.

If you haven’t already read it, go and get it right now.

You can thank me later.

 

The London Book Fair

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Last week, I went to the London Book Fair for the first time. It’s a trade event, aimed squarely at publishers, but I was impressed with the number of seminars pitched at writers. There were even dedicated stands – ‘Authors HQ’, and the neatly named ‘Writers’ Block.’

The most anticipated event was ‘The Write Stuff’ where six brave authors pitched their books to a panel of five agents – in front of an audience. It was billed as a dragon’s den for writers and rightly so. Authors had three minutes to cover the ‘hook’, the plot,  characters, and a little about themselves. Oh, and what other books yours is similar to. A lot to pack into three minutes. But the advice from the agents was invaluable: hone that all-important ‘elevator pitch’; give us characters we can root for (or at least be fascinated enough to follow for the better part of 100,000 words) and of course, make sure the plot is killer.

Simple, really.

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Afterwards, I wandered around, admiring Olympia’s fabulous roof but slightly in awe of the scale of the show. All the big publishers were there: with editors installed at little white tables taking back-to-back meetings. They had it easy compared to the literary agents, however, who were crammed into a windowless hall with as much leg-room as a low-cost airline seat. (And the queues for coffee were decidedly long-haul.)

The fair is a three-day sales pitch, and the prize for most eye-catching stunt goes to Penguin who enlisted a Donald Trump-lookalike in a mocked-up Oval office to promote the new James Patterson thriller – co-authored by former president Bill Clinton.

I was hoping to score some swag – a tote bag here, and pen there. And there were even promises of free books, (at least, according to Twitter) but alas I didn’t manage to nab any. It was still worthwhile event though, and would definitely recommend it to other authors but with the following advice: wear comfy shoes, stay hydrated, and steer clear of orange-skinned men in red baseball caps.

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