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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Script Frenzy Has Begun

At some point, most people have walked out of a movie thinking, "I could have written a better script than that" (this is especially true if you just finished hearing 2 hours of wooden dialogue written by George Lucas). If you are one of those people, then the maniacs who created National Novel Writing Month have just the antidote: Script Frenzy 2011.
 
Starting April 1st, the fifth annual Script Frenzy gives would-be screenwriters the jump-start they need to make the dream of writing a screenplay a reality. Script Frenzy is based on the same premise as National Novel Writing Month: write a rough draft of a script in 30 days. Two days into this year's competition, over 17,00 writers have signed up for this epic journey at the event's website, www.scriptfrenzy.org.
 
The 5 Basic Rules have remained the same as for past competitions:
 
1. To be crowned an official Script Frenzy winner, you must write a script of at least 100 pages and verify this total on ScriptFrenzy.org.
 
2. You may write individually or in teams of two. Writer teams will have a 100-page total goal for their single co-written script.
 
3. Script writing may begin no earlier than 12:00:01 AM on April 1 and must cease no later than 11:59:59 PM on April 30, local time.
 
4. You may write screenplays, stage plays, TV shows, short films, comic book scripts, adaptations of novels, or any other type of script your wish.
 
5. You must, at some point, have ridiculous amounts of fun.
 
While it sounds easy, the apparent simplicity is exactly what could trip up a number of participants, especially those who have completed National Novel Writing Month one or more times. The word-count requirement for NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words in 30 days, or 1,667 words per day. The 100 pages in 30 days required by Script Frenzy is less than half the normal page count for NaNoWriMo.
 
The difference (and it's a big one) is that novels and long articles allow for at least some meandering wordiness. Even the best of them may run off on the occasional rabbit-trail with no ill effect on the overall story. Not so with a screenplay. In a screenplay every word matters, whether it is dialogue or description or camera direction. Of course you can write a rambling, wordy script (the British do it all the time), but good luck getting anyone to take a serious look at it.
 
This is not meant to discourage anyone, but rather to caution would-be screenwriters to do a little prep work beforehand. There are literally hundreds of books that will give you the basics of screenwriting, but one that is particularly helpful is Writing Movies, from the acclaimed Gotham Writers' Workshop. It is the best one-volume book on screenwriting available, and is as informative about the screenwriting process as their Writing Fiction is for novels.
 
So if you want to write a screenplay, go to the Script Frenzy website and register now. It should be a great month of writing, and even if you want to write only novels or short stories, the brevity demanded by a screenplay can be a valuable exercise in how to tighten up your writing. If film is your main love, then the next 30 days could help start the process of making your goal of writing a screenplay more than just a dream.
 
(And just in case you were counting, this article ended up at two pages, even without camera directions).

Friday, April 1, 2011

Charlie Sheen to Star in Remake of "Interview With the Vampire"

In yet another twist in the ongoing train wreck that is Charlie Sheen, it was announced today that the former "Two and a Half Men" actor will star in a remake of the Anne Rice classic Interview With the Vampire. Initial reports are that Quentin Tarentino will direct.

"I think it's time the story got a fresh telling," Tarentino told Eye on Hollywood magazine. "It's been exactly 35 years since the book was first published, and almost 20 years since the original film came out, and that was way before vampires became cool. Of course, if you want a timeless vampire flick, you should check out From Dusk Till Dawn."

Sheen was even more direct, as usual.

"Let's face it," he said via video conference, "Tom Cruise is no vampire, at least not a manly, Adonis DNA-having vampire. Hell, the guy's a nut...he jumps on couches, worships L. Ron Hubbard, stuff like that. With me in the lead, everybody's winning. And the goddesses are going to play my vampire wives."

When asked about reports that he wanted to rename the film Interview With the Warlock, Sheen simply shrugged.

"I think it would be a better film if the character was a warlock. But vampires are cool, too. Not those Twilight vampires, but the real ones. The ones that move through the night like Vatican ninja assassins."

"Besides," he continued, "it's being directed and written by the genius Oliver Stone. We all know Oliver...it was his pen and his vision that exposed the truth that Gary Oldman killed JFK."

When informed that Quentin Tarentino, not Oliver Stone, was set to write and direct, Sheen replied: "Whatever. If they want me in it, it's a smash. If they don't, it's a turd that opens on a tugboat." He then abruptly ended the interview.

A reporter from the Transylvania (PA) Examiner-Express saw fit to contact Interview With the Vampire author Anne Rice to get her take on this new film version of her classic novel. The former Wiccan turned born-again Christian author offered this terse response:

"Today is April 1st, right? So this has to be an April Fools' gag, doesn't it?"

And she's right of course, on both counts.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Tiger's Wife: A Review

By now it is likely that you have heard about The Tiger's Wife, the debut novel from Tea Obreht. The advance praise this book has received is just short of the "I have seen the future of rock and roll, and his name is Bruce Springsteen" hoopla that preceded the release of Born to Run. And while The Tiger's Wife is not the greatest rock album of all time, it is one hell of a book, and certainly deserving of all the attention it has received.


From The New York Times to The Christian Science Monitor to The Los Angeles Times and every possible publication in between, The Tiger's Wife has been touted as THE book of 2011. No doubt part of the reason lies with story of the author herself: at 25, Serbian-born and US-raised Obreht is the youngest member of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40," a group of young writers the magazine has subtly labeled "the future of American fiction." I don't know about the rest of the group, but if The Tiger's Wife is any indication, they are dead-on in Obreht's case.

The novel's narrator is a young physician named Natalia who is on her way to treat orphans in a neighboring Balkan country after years of civil war when she learns that her beloved grandfather has died. Her memories of him and her quest to discover the circumstances of his death are interwoven with the folktales he used to tell her on their trips to the zoo in "The City," an unnamed place that is obviously her stylized version of Belgrade. Two of these tales form the second and third plot lines of the book: the story of the deathless man and the story of the tiger's wife.

“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories,” Natalia says, “the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life — of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University.”

I won't go into any detail about the two tales here; part of the joy of this book is encountering them for the first time. Because one thing is clear from the first few pages: Obreht is a magician with language. Her prose is beautiful without being flowery, and the pacing of the novel changes slightly to fit each of the separate stories perfectly. Through this gift with language she shows us the importance of stories and storytelling in the lives of individuals and communities.

The Tiger's Wife is the kind of book you savor, get lost in, and are sad when it's over, wishing it had gone on for a hundred pages more. Hopefully we will see many more novels from this fine young writer, because (to paraphrase the line quoted above) I have seen the future of literature, and her name is Tea Obreht.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Borders Looks to Used Books for Help

As Borders Bookstores announced additional store closings today, Borders Group CEO Mike Edwards told the Wall Street Journal the troubled bookseller is considering a radical option: used books. During the interview with the WSJ, Edwards indicated that "Borders may also seek to add used books, an area that Mr. Edwards said is doing well online." While on the surface this may seem like a solid plan, there are just as many drawbacks for Borders as advantages.

It is hard to say just how well sales of used books are doing nationwide, simply because used books are not included in monthly and yearly sales figures reported by the Association of American Publishers. However, it is likely that used sales a doing well based on the number available online, the continued growth of mammoth used-book chain Half-Price Books, and the fact that in a down economy readers are looking for the cheapest deal they can find.

Borders would benefit from offering used titles in at least two ways. The first is the increased profit margin that used books enjoy over new titles (depending on how much Borders pays sellers for those titles when they acquire them). The second is that at least in the short-term, people looking to sell their used books would go to Borders first to see if they offer more than Half-Price or their local used bookstore. Half-Price Books, for example, has been offering less and less money to sellers over the past several years as their competition has essentially dwindled to garage sales. Borders' entry into the used-book market could help increase what sellers receive across the board as the stores compete for inventory.

But the downside for Borders of selling used books is daunting. Borders is a new book retailer with no experience in the used book market, and it is a very different market. Edwards said recently that it was "critical for Borders to be able to return (unsold) books to publishers consistent with our ordinary business practices." You can return unsold new books to the publisher for credit, but you can't return used books; you're stuck with them until they sell.

Another point in the WSJ article shows just how little Edwards understands what it takes, labor-wise, to handle used books:

Although Borders isn't looking to add to staff—it shed a number of key members earlier this year, Mr. Edwards said he might be willing to hire a senior online executive to work with Borders.com.

If Borders isn't looking to add staff, they should not even consider moving into the sale of used books, and here's why. I was recently in a Borders store (one that has escaped closure) and a Half-Price Books location. The Borders store is a roughly 25,000 square foot super-store, and there were four employees on duty. The Half-Price store is a little more than one-tenth that size (3,000 square feet), and had 7 employees on duty: two working the registers, two shelving and answering questions, and three working the counter where people sell their books to the store.

Why so many working the incoming books counter? Because buying used books from customers for your inventory is a time consuming and labor intensive process. You have to look through every box and at every book, look up current used-book prices, and consider how many of that title you already have on your shelves. You have to wade through piles of books with torn covers, mold, and water damage. For every current best-seller you examine, there will be multiple Readers Digest Condensed books, diet books, Jane Fonda workout books, Harlequin romances, and book club editions, all of which are worthless on the secondary market. Then you make the offer to the seller. If they accept then you have to price and shelve the good books and dispose of all the dreck; if they refuse the offer, they take their books home and you just wasted valuable time for no benefit.

At a time when Borders is both unwilling and unable to add staff, there is no way they could process the used books customers would bring in to sell; they simply don't have the manpower. They would have to reconfigure a sizable area of each store to receive and process these books, as well as using significant shelf space for a used-book section. These issues are not a problem for smaller, independent used bookstores with 1,500 square-foot stores (which need much smaller inventories) or for Half-Price Books (which has 40 years of experience in the used-book market). But for an established new-book chain struggling to get out of bankruptcy, adding used books would simply be another in the long line of critical business missteps that brought them to where they are today.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Buying Indie When You Can't Buy Local

I'm a big supporter of the "Buy Local" movement, having seen both through research studies and personal experience that supporting merchants within your own town and neighborhood benefits your community far more than buying from a big-box chain store. For obvious reasons, I am especially supportive of local booksellers. But what to do when there are no independent bookstores in your area?

I was faced with exactly this dilemma when searching for a signed copy of The Tiger's Wife, the debut novel by Tea Obreht. I have heard great things about this book (and will be starting it soon, so look for a review in the near future), but there was nowhere to find a signed copy in my area. The nearest independent bookstore is more than 60 miles away and had no signed copies.

Then I saw a post on Facebook from Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn saying that they had a few signed copies left (Obreht was there for a signing a few days ago). I immediately went to their website (http://www.greenlightbookstore.com/) and snapped up a copy. Within a few hours I received a nice e-mail telling me that my order had been filled and would ship soon. Imagine that: better customer service from two time zones away than I get at the Borders down the street.

While I was not able to buy the book locally, I was still able to support a local independent bookshop rather than a chain; it just happened to be the Fort Greene, Brooklyn neighborhood. And as strange as it may sound, I was even happy to pay the New York sales tax. I live in a state that is laying off teachers at the same time Amazon is fighting to keep from paying the $275 million in sales taxes they owe the State of Texas, so I'm a big believer in E-fairness when it comes to collecting sales tax.

So the next time you can't find a book at your local indie bookstore, or if you have no indie bookstore near you, try buying online from an independent bookstore like Greenlight (or Powell's in Portland or Murder By the Book in Houston or the Tattered Cover in Denver...you get the idea). It may not directly benefit your community, but it directly benefits someone's community, and the more local business that thrive the better off we'll all be.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Surprising Poll Result

Three weeks ago I posted a poll on this blog. The results are now in, and I must admit that I am a little surprised by the outcome. The question was about the ongoing debate over printed books vs. electronic books, and it was titled simply "Which Do You Prefer?" The results were:

Printed Books - 62%
E-Books - 8%
Both - 30%

As for those who chose "printed" or "e-book," the comments I received were the standard arguments we have all heard made for each option numerous times since e-readers became mainstream. What surprised me was the high number that answered "both," mainly because the media frenzy surrounding this issue rarely includes that option. Several people responded that they would be likely to continue to buy both because there were some times when they wanted to read on their e-reader (during the work commute, on vacation, etc) and other times when they wanted to hold a printed book in their hands (when curled up on the couch on a rainy day, when reading to their children, etc).

Obviously this was not a scientific poll, but it was one where (given the nature of this blog) the respondents are most likely actual readers. Many of the other polls of this type never take into account that a majority of those queried haven't read any type of book since high school.

The 8% result for e-books is intriguing for another reason. According to several publishers' statistics, in 2010 electronic books made up just a little over 8% of the total book sales in the United States. There is no doubt this number will increase in the coming years, but it is an interesting coincidence. I was personally gratified that printed books still won a clear majority in their own right, as I am both a traditionalist when it comes to books and a collector (try getting your favorite author to sign your Kindle).

The debate over printed books vs. electronic books will continue for the foreseeable future, but for today at least it appears that the printed book is both still very much alive and unlikely to meet its demise anytime soon.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Pondering Borders’ Impending Bankruptcy

Since the beginning of January, the news regarding the fate of Borders’ Books has grown increasingly dire. The nation’s second-largest bookseller is in a financial free-fall from which it is unlikely to recover. At the time of this writing, the company’s share price has fallen to 47 cents and a bankruptcy filing is widely expected to occur within weeks, with massive store closures to follow. This news elicits decidedly mixed feelings in me; I’m frankly not sure whether to cry or throw a party.
First, the complete demise of a bookseller with over 650 stores will put a very large number of people out of work; given the current unemployment situation this could not happen at a worse time. As with the closing of any large business, there will be collateral damage to ancillary businesses as well; the impact goes well beyond the book world. Lastly, for me there is nothing worse than seeing a bookstore, any bookstore, close.
With that said, Borders has done little to warrant the goodwill of independent booksellers or the reading public. Borders, which itself started as a single independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan showed no mercy in destroying independent bookstores across the nation by undercutting their prices, only to raise them again once the competition was gone.
Borders has consistently shown that, from a business standpoint, they have no idea what they are doing. While able to initially defeat the smaller indie stores because of mega-purchasing and discounting power, they have since been behind the curve on nearly every other decision. They expanded their CD section as everyone was turning to audio downloads, expanded their DVD section as everyone was moving to Netflix, and completely missed the explosion in e-books by producing an e-reader that was both inferior to other models and introduced later.
Worst of all for a bookseller, as time went on the number and variety of books they offered decreased. In a typical 25,000 square foot Borders store you will find a café, games, toys, calendars, stationery, and any number of other sideline items, but fewer and fewer books. The majority of the books leaned toward the best-seller list, exactly the titles that people could buy cheaper on Amazon or at big-box retailers like Wal-Mart or Target. The literature section got smaller (except for their own Borders Classics titles) and the vampire section got bigger.
There are some who think the loss of Borders will have a negative impact on the books that publishers bring out each year, especially from new or unknown authors. I don’t see how this is possible, given that they aren’t exactly on the cutting edge of new literature now. And as for publishers taking huge losses on inventory if Borders goes under, Borders stopped paying those bills back in December and have been essentially cut off by publishers since then.
Ultimately, while I won’t do a happy dance when Borders is gone, neither will I shed a tear. While giants like Amazon and Barnes & Noble will pick up some of their market share (what little is left by now) the void will also be filled by new, entrepreneurial, independent booksellers who are more knowledgeable, more customer-friendly, more able to adapt to changes in the publishing world, and more rooted in the community than Borders ever was. For me that’s a fair trade.   

2011 Reading Challenges Update

In late December I posted two different reading challenges for 2011, The International Book Challenge  and The 2011 Chunkster Challenge. With one month of the year gone I thought I would update my progress, and invite anyone who has also taken one of the above challenges to post their progress in the comments section. And before anyone asks, I do not consider it cheating to count single book for both challenges if it fits the criteria.

For the International Book Challenge, my goal is 10 books by authors not born in my country (the US). To date I have finished two: The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse (England) and The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Spain).

For the Chunkster Challenge, I have completed one of the eight books I hope to finish that are more than 450 pages in length: The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (531 pages).

And for anyone who wonders how my struggle with Ulysses is going, it is still a struggle. But if I can slog my way though it I get a 768-page whale for the Chunkster Challenge and can check Ireland off my list of countries visited for the International Challenge.

Good luck, stay warm, and keep on reading.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Winter Reading List

Most of the United States continues to be rocked by harsh winter weather, which makes it the perfect time to stay inside with a good book. Here are a few suggestions to carry you through the spring thaw, and up to the annual Summer Reading List post. I have left off current best-sellers for the simple reason that those are not yet out in paperback (for those of us on limited budgets who are still resisting the e-book revolution). In addition, most are more suited to cold winter nights than sunny days at the beach.
 
1. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. If I continue these lists for the next 50 years, this book will still be first out of the gate. It has moved into a tie with The Razor's Edge as my all time favorite. It touches on such diverse topics as forbidden love, the Spanish Civil War, and the innate need we have for books. It layers all of these things on the mystery of why a disfigured man is burning all of the copies of books by Julian Carax, an obscure author whose novel, The Shadow of the Wind, was discovered by main character Daniel Sempere when he was 10. But be sure you have a lot of free time when you start this one; I stayed up all night reading the last 250 pages.

2. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. This is one of those novels that literally has everything you could want jammed into its 416 pages, and yet it all works. There is mystery and history and ghosts and danger and romance and books and feral twins and even two heroines, and all of it weaves together perfectly. Maybe best of all, you won't guess the ending midway through (I thought I had...wrong). And yes, in that list of things a few sentences ago I included "feral twins." This is the kind of book that deserves to be read in front of a crackling fireplace in a comfy chair over a long weekend; but make sure there are no pressing items on your calendar, because you won't get to them once you start this book. It is a literary escape of the very best kind.

3. Booked to Die by John Dunning. The first novel in Dunning's "Bookman" series is a minor classic, especially if you're a fan of the biblio-mystery genre or a book collector. It's the story of a Denver cop-turned-rare book dealer Cliff Janeway, and it will teach you a lot about the book trade while taking you on a mystery thrill-ride at the same time. Best of all, it has one of the best surprise endings of any mystery I've ever read.
 
4. The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl. The story of young Baltimore attorney who makes it his personal cause to defend the recently-deceased Poe's reputation from the rumors that he drank himself to death. Pearl weaves a gripping fictional story around historical fact, much of it newly discovered as he was researching this book. Anything to do with Poe is perfect for a stormy winter night.
 
5. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Forget all of the movies you've seen; if this is your first time reading the novel, you are in for a treat. The mix of fiction with French history takes you back to another place and time, and D'Artagnan, Porthos, Athos, and Aramis provide more rollicking adventure than Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy combined.
 
6. The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. There really aren't any sub-par Lincoln/Child books, especially ones that feature FBI Special Agent Pendergast, but for whatever reason I liked this one the best. This is a great novel on its own, and a crucial introduction before starting the Brimstone trilogy.
 
7. Ex-Libris by Ross King. In seventeenth-century London an antiquarian bookseller named Isaac Inchbold is called upon to restore a private library destroyed during the English Civil War. This seemingly simple task pulls Inchbold into a deadly search for a lost manuscript amid the political and religious upheaval of 1600s Europe. 
 
8. The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Zafon's semi-prequel to The Shadow of the Wind. The Angel's Game is the story of David Martín, a young Barcelona author with a troubled past who writes crime novels under a pseudonym. As he struggles with his love for a woman he cannot have, he also realizes that his talent has been sold to the highest (in fact only) bidder, and despair overtakes him. Then he receives a surprising and lucrative offer from a mysterious French publisher to write a book that will change people's lives forever. He accepts the offer, only to learn that his new situation is far more deadly than the first. This novel is the perfect way to end a winter of great reading.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Winter Ghosts: A Review

Author Kate Mosse is well-known for her best-selling novels Labyrinth and Sepulchre. Next week marks the release of her latest novel, The Winter Ghosts, but it is unlikely to add to the acclaim she has received for her previous works.

The Winter Ghosts is a perplexing book. The language is often beautifully lyrical and Mosse is excellent at both describing locations and capturing the atmosphere of a locale. I have not read her previous books, but it is likely that her skill with words is part of the reason for their success.

The Winter Ghosts even has a captivating plot idea (note the word idea). The jacket blurb summarizes the novel this way:

In the winter of 1928, still seeking some kind of resolution to the horrors of World War I, Freddie is traveling through the beautiful but forbidding French Pyrenees. During a snowstorm, his car spins off the mountain road. Dazed, he stumbles through the woods, emerging in a tiny village, where he finds an inn to wait out the blizzard. There he meets Fabrissa, a lovely young woman also mourning a lost generation.

Over the course of one night, Fabrissa and Freddie share their stories. By the time dawn breaks, Freddie will have unearthed a tragic, centuries-old mystery, and discovered his own role in the life of this remote town.

So far it seems like this should be a really good novel; unfortunately, it is not. Mosse may have a great story idea, and may have a way with words, but both the ultimate plot and the characters that move through it are as wooden and predictable as a daytime soap opera. The narrative plods along for at least the first 100 pages, then accelerates to a conclusion that any reader saw coming from at least the midpoint of the book.

Perhaps the worst thing about the predictability of the second half of the story and its ultimate resolution is that the one person who seems to never figures out the clues is the protagonist, Freddy. There have been many novels where the reader had information the characters did not, but never has there been a main character so obtuse as to not recognize the answers to questions when they are right in front of his face. In fact, Freddy may be the single dumbest fictional character I have read in decades.

If you’re are a die hard Kate Mosse fan, you will either blindly love this book or be tremendously disappointed. If you are not a die hard fan, simply don’t spend your money on The Winter Ghosts. There are too many good books that deserve your attention for you to waste time with this one.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hemingway, Faulkner….Snooki?


In one of the more disturbing literary developments in recent memory, today marks the release date for A Shore Thing, the debut novel by "Jersey Shore" star Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi. It is fortunate that I am typing this post, because every time I try to say the previous sentence out loud, all that comes out is a stream of obscenities.

I realize that nothing should shock or surprise me anymore, even in the book world. But this…this is an abomination not seen since Leonard Nimoy was recording albums that featured him playing a Pan Flute. And while celebrities often get books deals, they are usually confined to autobiographical fluff or diet/workout books. This is a NOVEL.

Courtesy of the intrepid journalists at The New York Post, here are a few snippets from Snooki’s magnum opus:

  • "Yum. Johnny Hulk tasted like fresh gorilla."
  • "Gia danced around a little, shaking her peaches for show. She shook it hard. Too hard. In the middle of a shimmy, her stomach cramped. A fart slipped out. A loud one. And stinky."
  • "He had an okay body. Not fat at all. And naturally toned abs. She could pour a shot of tequila down his belly and slurp it out of his navel without getting splashed in the face."

Wow. Those literary gems rank right up there with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Move over Charles Dickens.

I realize I should just ignore this atrocity and hope it goes away, and probably should not add to the attention it’s already getting. But right now I’m too angry for rational thought. As Peter Finch screamed in the film Network: "I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!"

Ms. Polizzi (who has apparently admitted in past interviews that the only two books she has ever read are Twilight and Dear John) has received a publishing deal while the manuscripts of unknown but talented writers lie buried in the slush pile of some literary agent’s office. They could be the next Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling, but their books will never see the light of day because both agents and publishers are too busy churning out crappy vampire books and touting the merits of the latest reality show moron.

Novels often say more about a culture, generation, or point in time than all of the histories and biographies combined. The mid-1800s had Dickens and Dumas, the 1920s and 1930s had Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and we have Stephenie Meyer and Snooki. It would almost be funny, if it wasn’t so damn sad.