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Category: Masterpiece Monday

Masterpiece Monday: Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts (Parentheses)

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we had an installment in the series of Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts, and this week I’d like to continue with another addition.

When we read articles about writing online or attend writing groups and such, we’re often told NEVER to do certain things. Never tell always show, never use adverbs, never use ellipses, never use more than two adjectives at a time, etc. etc.

While many of those are usually good advice, they can be a real hindrance if stuck to all the time. I talked previously about how forcing myself to always show in my writing and never tell held me back.

This week I’d like to talk about parentheses. As writers we’re often told to never to use parentheses, unless we’re using it to cite a source in non-fiction writing.

Most of the time that makes sense. Parentheses are meant to insert extra information to the main text, so why would you use them when writing a story? If the information is relevant enough to be included, just put it in normally; if it’s not relevant enough, then just don’t include it. Right?

Not necessarily. Parentheses can do something special to fiction writing that other devices can’t: they can lift the text out of the story.

Here’s an example of what I mean, from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. We’ve looked at this passage before on Masterpiece Monday for a different reason, but now let’s take a look at its use of parentheses. This comes from the beginning of the book, where Hazel is describing her cancer and “depression:”

“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.)”

Those parentheses are doing a lot of work here. They feel like they’re separating part of the text, enhancing the idea like Hazel is talking just to us, like she’s pulling us aside for a private whisper.

Not only that, but because the more macabre thoughts are encased in parentheses, the parentheses make them hit the reader less intensely than they would have if they were part of the main text. Rather than making Hazel seem actually depressed, she comes off as self-depricating and humorously cynical instead.

A little bit later in the chapter, the same thing happens again, after she talks about how only kids who will die soon take the elevator:

“Michael was next. He was twelve. He had leukemia. He’d always had leukemia. He was okay. (Or so he said. He’d taken the elevator.)”

Again, without the parentheses, Hazel’s words would come off as cruel. But with the parentheses, it turns her thoughts into another private whisper that lets us see into her morbid coping mechanism.

Of course, it should be noted that after chapter one, the usage of parentheses is few and far between. That’s because after the first chapter we’ve become familiar enough with Hazel that we don’t need them anymore. Now we know who she is: she isn’t cruel, she’s just a teenage girl dealing with her crappy situation the only way she can, with humor.

The parentheses helped us get to that point of understanding her, but continuing to use them often throughout the rest of the book would probably bog down the reader. Information overload is all too easy, and it would become mentally exhausting having to pick through parenthesized and non-parenthesized text for page after page.

In the end, using parentheses is like using chocolate syrup – great in the right places in small amounts, but terrible everywhere else. A little bit on some ice cream is fantastic. A lot on ice cream and you have a bowl of regret. And even a little chocolate syrup on a steak is a disaster.

Parentheses, like chocolate syrup, is simply another option you have. Whether you’re writing or cooking, it’s important to never label any option as “off limits no matter what,” because sometimes even chocolate syrup is going to be the best tool to accomplish what you want.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts (Passive)

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we started the series Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts, and this week I’d like to continue with another addition.

When we read articles about writing online or attend writing groups and such, we’re often told NEVER to do certain things. Never tell always show, never use adverbs, never use ellipses, never use more than two adjectives at a time, etc. etc.

While many of those are usually good advice, they can be a real hindrance if stuck to all the time. I talked previously about how forcing myself to always show in my writing and never tell held me back.

This week I’d like to talk about the passive voice. As writers we’re often told to avoid the passive voice like the plague, opting for the active voice instead. For just a quick refresher, the passive voice is when something is done to the subject of the sentence, whereas the active voice is when the subject of the sentence does something.

Here’s some sentences to show the difference:

Passive Voice:
The pizza was eaten by the dog.
Voldemort was defeated by Harry Potter.
Laughter could be heard.

Active Voice:
The dog ate the pizza.
Harry Potter defeated Voldemort.
(I, you, someone) heard laughter.

The difference between passive and active voice can be striking. Even though the sentences are technically saying the same thing, the way they say it is completely different. The passive sentences are longer and feel detached and airy, whereas the active sentences are shorter and feel more concrete and solid.

But here’s the thing: sometime you want to sound detached and airy.

I just recently learned about Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy, and started reading Sabriel, the first book in the series. I loved the opening paragraph, which just so happened to use the passive voice quite a bit:

“It was little more than three miles from the Wall into the Old Kingdom, but that was enough. Noonday sunshine could be seen on the other side of the Wall in Ancelstierre, and not a cloud in sight. Here, there was a clouded sunset, and a steady rain had just begun to fall, coming faster than the tents could be raised.”

Two instances of passive voice in two sentences in a row?! I can see the monocles popping out of its detractor’s eyes.

But yes, the passive voice works great here. The author is describing the scenery in a detached, airy way, as if we’re seeing it through foggy rain. That’s the feeling he’s going for, and it works perfectly by using the passive.

Plus the passive works great in contrast to the active voice in the very next paragraph:

“The midwife shrugged her cloak higher up against her neck and bent over the woman again, raindrops spilling from her nose onto the upturned face below. The midwife’s breath blew out in a cloud of white, but there was no answering billow of air from her patient.”

Suddenly we go from a zoomed-out description of the setting into a zoomed-in description of inside a specific tent. The passive voice worked great to keep us far away for the first paragraph, and the active voice worked great to bring us in close for the second paragraph.

It’s a bit of a subtle thing, but it almost feels like we’re zooming in from the sky to right inside a tent, as if we’re watching a movie camera zoom in, or as if we’re starting off hearing someone tell us a story and then we go into seeing it for ourselves. That effect would not have been achieved as well if the author had simply used the active voice in both paragraphs.

Of course using the passive voice too much or in the wrong places can be detrimental. But it shouldn’t be thought of as wrong to use all the time. Sometimes, as an artist, you have to use finger paints to achieve what you want – and sometimes, as a writer, you have to use the passive voice to achieve what you want.

It can be a little messy, sure, but it shouldn’t be thought of as inherently bad – it’s just another tool in your writing toolbox.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts (Adverbs)

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we looked at a great example of not needing to spice up the word “said.” This week I’d like to start a series that I call Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts.

When we read articles about writing online or attend writing groups and such, we’re often told NEVER to do certain things. Never tell always show, never use the passive voice, never use ellipses, never use more than two adjectives at a time, etc. etc.

While many of those are usually good advice, they can be a real hindrance if stuck to all the time. I talked previously about how forcing myself to always show in my writing and never tell held me back.

Sometimes, you do need to tell. You do need to use the passive. And you do need to… wait for it… use an adverb.

I know, blasphemy right? Even just last week we talked about how using adverbs in dialogue (“he said happily” etc.) can turn your writing from snappy to slow as molasses in seconds.

But that’s just it – sometimes you do want to slow down your writing. Or sometimes you need to convey exactly how a character is saying something in order to get across the hidden meaning behind their words. And adverbs can be perfect for that.

One of the books that really showed me the power of adverbs is Harry Potter. Here’s an abbreviated version of one excellently-written scene that uses adverbs to convey the tense mood perfectly. It’s right at the beginning of the book, when Mr. Dursley attempts to ask his wife if all the crazy stuff he’s seen all day might in any way be connected to her sister (adverbs underlined):

He cleared his throat nervously. “Er – Petunia, dear – you haven’t heard from your sister lately, have you?

“No,” she said sharply. “Why?”

He said, as causally as he could, “Their son – he’d be about Dudley’s age now, wouldn’t he?”

“I suppose so,” said Mrs. Dursley stiffly.

“What’s his name again? Howard, isn’t he?”

“Harry. Nasty, common name, if you ask me.”

“Oh, yes” said Mr. Dursley, his heart sinking horribly. “Yes, I quite agree.”

That’s almost an adverb per sentence! If J.K. Rowling had brought her manuscript to a writer’s group, chances are all of them would’ve been crossed out in red ink and she would’ve gotten a lecture about how good writers NEVER use adverbs.

Except that’s not true. The dialogue here isn’t supposed to be quick and snappy, it’s supposed to be slow and painful, so we can feel the torture that Mr. Dursley is going through. Using adverbs to slow it down a bit, while adding some juicy description as well, is the perfect way to accomplish that.

When it comes to writing DON’Ts, it’s not about never using them, but knowing WHEN to use them. Just like we shouldn’t use adverbs in every single sentence, we shouldn’t eat chocolate cake for every single meal either. But sometimes a little bit of chocolate cake is awesome, even necessary – if you show up to an elementary birthday party with celery sticks instead of cake, then you’d better be prepared to be whacked like a pinata.

So, I guess that metaphor makes sense? I don’t know, but I suddenly having a incredibly unbelievable craving for some freshly-baked adverbs chocolate cake.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: Do You Need to Spice up “Said?”

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we saw how inside jokes between the reader and narrator can be effective at drawing us in. This week I’d like pull back and show off some examples of something that I know is hard for me to do: spice up the word “said.”

Whenever I’m writing, I want to get across in my reader’s head exactly how I’m visualizing the scene. So when two characters are having a conversation, I love to throw in “spiced-up versions” of the word “said.” Things like this:

“Oh you’re too much!” he laughed.
“Get down here right now!” she yelled.
“I hate you,” she spat.

But here’s the thing – most of the time, you don’t need to spice up the word “said.” Good writers, unlike myself, are able to convey how the characters speak without needing to resort to long verbs that could slow down the prose.

Here’s an example from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It takes place just after Hazel and her mother arrive in Amsterdam and they flag down a taxi.

After getting our bags and clearing customs, we all piled into a taxi driven by this doughy bald guy who spoke perfect English—like better English than I do. “The Hotel Filosoof?” I said.
And he said, “You are Americans?”
“Yes,” Mom said. “We’re from Indiana.”
“Indiana,” he said. “They steal the land from the Indians and leave the name, yes?”
“Something like that,” Mom said.

Did you notice while you were reading? Just that one scene uses the word “said” five times… in a row!

Many editors would slice through most of them with their red pen, but I’m not sure they’d be correct in doing so. Yes, the author technically repeats the same word over and over, but it flows so well. If the author had instead used different verbs like “mumbled” or “guffawed,” or decided to commit the ultimate literary sin and use adverbs like “Mom said quickly,” then the scene would’ve been bogged down by needless words and syllables.

But it’s just one syllable/word, right? How much of a difference can it make? Subconsciously, quite a bit. The scene is supposed to be fast-paced, and any excess letters on the page will slow it down. We saw before how a longer action scene can take something fast and fun and make it boring, and the same goes for snappy dialogue as well.

I know that I’m tempted all the time to use other words besides “said” in my writing. And while sometimes it can be correct to do so, a lot of the time I use fancier “said” verbs as a crutch. The words the characters use and their personalities should dictate how they say things, not unnecessary description.

So the next time you’re scratching your head wondering what word to use in place of “said,” just try using “said.” If the same emotion you’re aiming for isn’t coming through, then maybe it’d be better to change the words coming out of the character’s mouth instead.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: Inside Jokes between Reader and Narrator

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we saw examples of good action scenes that build tension by subtracting things. This week I’d like to show off an awesome example of something more subtle: callbacks.

Callbacks happen when a detail in your story refers to something that happened earlier. They’re cool because they make the reader feel like they’re rewarded just for reading. It’s like a little inside joke between reader and narrator.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has some excellent callbacks in it. Here’s one of my favorite ones from the very beginning, when the narrator Hazel talks about her cancer, her “depression,” and her support group:

“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.)”

Then just a few paragraphs later we get this:

“This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.”

The repeated “side effect of dying” bit is super effective here. It not only emphasizes how all-encompassing thinking about dying is for Hazel, but also her cynical and slightly macabre sense of humor.

The same kind of callback happens soon afterward:

“I didn’t want to take the elevator because taking the elevator is a Last Days kind of activity at Support Group, so I took the stairs.”

Then a little later:

“Michael was next. He was twelve. He had leukemia. He’d always had leukemia. He was okay. (Or so he said. He’d taken the elevator.)”

If you hadn’t read the part earlier about the elevator being for kids on their “last days,” then that final bit wouldn’t have made sense. But with that proper setup, we get a chilling reminder of Hazel’s reality and another peek into how she emotionally deals with it.

Though there are more callbacks through the rest of the book, I really like these ones in the first chapter for another reason: they help to establish a bond between the reader and Hazel. Right away it’s like we’re part of little (albeit grim) inside jokes with her. Such a powerful bond between reader and main character helps ensure that we care about them quickly and want to keep reading to see what happens to them.

Having trouble getting readers to relate to/care about your main character? Try adding in some callbacks in chapter one and see what happens. We can’t all write like John Green, but we can at least try to learn from the pieces that make his characters so awesome.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

 

Masterpiece Monday: Writing Action by Subtraction

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we looked at a character with a sexy voice (even though we never actually hear her say a word). This week I’d like to show off a great example of something that I find difficult to pull off well: writing action scenes.

Writing an action scene is tough. You have to keep tension high and fast-paced, but at the same time you need to provide enough details so your reader can follow what’s going on. But if you provide too many details, it just falls flat. It’s the writing equivalent of walking a tightrope… on a unicycle… taped to each foot.

One book that does action scenes very well is (unsurprisingly!) Harry Potter. Let’s take a look at one particularly great passage. It’s during Harry’s first broomstick-flying lesson, when Malfoy steals Neville’s Rememberall and is taunts Harry up in the air with it. Suddenly he throws it as far as he can, and we get this scene:

“Harry saw, as though in slow motion, the ball rise up in the air and then start to fall. He leaned forward and pointed his broom handle down – next second he was gathering speed in a steep dive, racing the ball – wind whistled in his ears, mingled with the screams of people watching – he stretched out his hand – a foot from the ground her caught hit, just in time to pull his broom straight, and he toppled gently onto the grass with the Rememberall clutched safely in his fist.”

This passage has a couple of great things going for it. First, it’s only two sentences long. The first sentence sets up Harry’s broomstick dive, and the second one carries us from his initial descent down to the very end.

Even though it’s a long sentence, it doesn’t feel long. The dashes break it up into easily readable pieces, and the lack of any full-stop periods makes us not slow down until the very end – just like Harry.

PROHARRYTIP #1: To keep the pace up in an action scene,
try subtracting the number of sentences.

Of course not every action scene can be just one long sentence; readers would get tired of it pretty quickly. However this passage does one other thing very well: verb usage.

Just a few excess words here and there can add up, quickly turning an intense scene into a molasses-y mess. But I love the snappy one-word verbs used in the above passage: pointed his broom handle, racing the ball, wind whistled, toppled gently, clutched safely, and more.

Imagine if the beginning were written like this instead:

“Harry saw, as though in slow motion, the ball rise up in the air and then start to fall. He shifted his body weight forward abruptly and gripped the point of his broom tightly to steer it downward – next second he was building up lots of increasing speed in a steep dive, at first following right behind the ball but then getting closer and closer until finally he was next to it….”

Yikes, that’s almost twice as long as the original. It’s more words, but it’s not any clearer for having used them. Condensing the long phrases into single verbs make for much faster reading, bringing us readers into the fast-moving scene more easily and effectively.

PROHARRYTIP #2: To keep the pace up in an action scene,
try subtracting long phrases/adverbs and replacing with single verbs.

Writing good action is tough. I know I struggle with it, but hopefully by looking at some good examples we can all try to imagine what doing exciting things must be like!

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: A Sexy Voice

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we saw sound effects making a splash in some scenes. This week I’d like to show off a great example of something that I struggle with: voice.

Giving your writing its own distinct personality is tough. It’s not something you can easily fix or add in like grammar rules or putting in more details. In order to get a good, sexy voice, every sentence – every word – has to feel like it’s coming from an actual human being with a unique personality. The second one syllable feels forced or out of place, it all comes crumbling down.

I recently read John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars. I don’t know why or how I’ve managed to go this long without reading it, but thankfully I managed to fix that. I was blown away by the narrator’s voice starting on the very first page.

Here’s a sample from page one where the narrator (Hazel) describes her discussion session at a local church with other kids fighting cancer:

So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story—how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.

AND YOU TOO MIGHT BE SO LUCKY!

Now that’s one hell of a voice! You immediately get a sense of exactly what kind of person Hazel is just by her description of a church meeting. Cynical, sarcastic, brutally honest, but not in a pretentious way – it all feels very natural.

One of the ways that Hazel’s voice is so strong is through her word usage. She doesn’t let herself be limited to the mere vocabulary of any dictionary. She uses multiple words at once (“walked/wheeled”), odd-sounding words for emphasis (“lo those many years ago”), and even makes up words when necessary (“cancertastic”).

But you can’t just have one fantastic paragraph and hope that carries the voice for the rest of the story. Hazel’s voice is just as clear for the rest of the book.

Here’s just three examples I particularly liked:

(1) I woke up and soon got into one of those experimental trials that are famous in the Republic of Cancervania for Not Working.

(2) I liked that he was a tenured professor in the Department of Slightly Crooked Smiles with a dual appointment in the Department of Having a Voice That Made My Skin Feel More Like Skin.

(3) “It must be some book,” she said as she knelt down next to the bed and unscrewed me from my large, rectangular oxygen concentrator, which I called Philip, because it just kind of looked like a Philip.

From the very first word to the last, author John Green does an amazing job of bringing Hazel to life as a distinct human being. Never once as a reader did I think “This sounds like a thirty-something man wearing the mask of a sixteen-year-old girl.”

That’s something I know I have trouble with when writing; my characters often feel like they’re just Scott Wilsons wearing masks instead of their own unique beings. Hopefully by learning from great authors like John Green we can all try to turn our novels from awkward mask-wearing parties into just actual parties instead.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: A Drop in the Universe

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we looked at how Harry Potter is so good that it outright tells us. This week I’d like to change gears from sentences and scenes and look at the effect that a single word can have – specifically the “sound” it can have.

One thing I miss about Japanese when I’m writing in English is the lack of sound effects. For those unaware, Japanese is ripe with onomatopoeia words like sara sara for the rustling of leaves, or gotan goton for the sound of trains on tracks. There’s oven sound effect words for things we’d never imagine having sound effects, like bata bata for the sound of being busy or ira ira for the sound of being frustrated.

Using just the right onomatopoeia word in Japanese feels similar to finding just that right verb in English. Like when you write “he clambered into the car” instead of the generic “he got into the car.”

So when an author uses onomatopoeia in English, I immediately take notice.

I was inspired to read Beth Revis’s YA science-fiction novel Across the Universe after watching her video about failure that was featured on Operation Awesome. Right at the very beginning chapter, I was hit with a line that “sounded” amazing

“Daddy and I stepped back, but not so far that Mom would think we’d left her in that icy coffin alone. Ed pulled Mom’s eyes open. His fingers were big, calloused, and they looked like rough-hewn logs spreading apart my mom’s paper-thin eyelids. A drop of yellow liquid fell on each green eye. Ed did it quickly—drop, drop—then he sort of pushed her eyes shut. She didn’t open them again.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read that “drop, drop” part, I couldn’t help but smile with delight. Using the sound effect is much more effective here than just writing something instead like “Ed quickly dropped them in.”

Not only does the sound effect give us a sense of just how quickly he did it – drop, drop and then it’s over! – but it brings us as close to the scene as possible. When we can hear the physical sound the drop makes, it’s like we’re actually there with the narrator, watching – and hearing! – it happen.

Using sound effects in English can often come across as childish, and even when used well it can read awkwardly if it’s overdone. But when used sparingly and in key places like the above, it can make writing come alive far more than any verb or adjective ever could.

As always, thanks for reading. Join us next week on Masterpiece Monday when we take a look at a character with a sexy voice. See you then!

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: Harry Potter Show and Tell

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we looked at the magic of one really well-written line, but this week we’re back to the actual magic with Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone.

Showing vs. telling. Ah, the term we all love to use. As writers we’re supposed to show show show and never tell. Just like a good documentary, we’re supposed to give the reader all of the information visually and let them decide for themselves what it all means.

Except that’s not entirely true. Unlike a video documentary, writing relies on the reader following along with the writer pulling words out of their imagination. If there’s a confusing sentence or section, then we have to go back and reread – or even worse just stay confused – taking us out of the story.

That’s why “telling” can be a powerful tool. Sometimes the reader just needs a little push in the right direction to ensure they don’t get lost or confused. Showing vs. telling shouldn’t be thought of as “always show and never tell,” rather it should be more like “showing is fries and telling is ketchup.” A little bit goes a long way and can make the final product even better.

Here’s an example from Harry Potter of how “telling” can help make a scene even better:

Masterpiece Monday: Oh For “The Love of God”

As you do when you’re a struggling writer, every week I write and submit short stories by the barrel to any online magazine that doesn’t shut its virtual door in my face. And when you’re checking out the online magazines to see if they cater to your kind of genre (I like to dabble in the lesser-known genres of Horribly-Written and Needs-Improvement), you get to read a lot of stories – some of which are pretty good.

This week I’d like to share a short excerpt from a story I read while peeking around the magazine Nimrod International Journal for Prose and Poetry. The story is from the current (Summer/Spring 2016) volume, and the title is “The Love of God” by Laura Jok.

It’s about two teenage girls who go to a summer Catholic retreat, one less willingly than the other. The two girls are going off to college together as roommates when summer is over, and here’s the conversation they have after the narrator failed to wake up her friend when she overslept:

“You sleep like a dead person,” I told her in the afternoon. “She is risen!”
“Is this how it’s going to be in the fall? Are you going to let me sleep through my college exams and stuff?”
“Exams, yes. Stuff, no.”
“I mean it. Can I count on you to wake me in the future?”
“Sista, iamb yore roommate knot chore keeper.”

That last sentence put a huge smile on my face when I read it. It’s a rare feat to express sarcasm and mockery in writing without it coming off as awkward or forced, but Laura Jok pulls it off perfectly here. The intentionally misspellings – which conveniently double as “fancy-sounding” words – let you hear the narrator’s mocking, fake-polite tone in your head as clearly as if she were making fun of you to your face.

It would’ve been so much more boring if the author had simply gone instead with “Sister, I am your roommate not your keeper.” Sure it would get the point across, but there would be no spice or life to it, and it certainly wouldn’t help create a memorable scene. This is a great example of taking a generic interaction, and then cracking it open like an egg with added detail to reveal the colorful (and delicious!) insides.

Click here to read the rest of “The Love of God,” and here to see more of Nimrod magazine. We’ll be back to looking at Harry Potter next Monday with a section that’s so good, it tells you. See you then!

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)