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Author Biography: Sol Stein has edited the work of such major writers as James Baldwin, Jack Higgins, and Elia Kazan. He has taught creative writing at Columbia, Iowa, and the University of California at Irvine, which presented him with the Distinguished Instructor Award in 1993. He is the author of nine novels, including the million-copy seller The Magician, as well as the much-acclaimed Stein on Writing.
"Stein is a fascinating guide and teacher. This should be required reading [for] 90 percent of published authors . . . Wonderful."—The Daily Mail (London)
The Reader Is Looking
for an Experience
What in the world does writing fiction have to do with courtesy?
Lack of courtesy may be the chief fault that distinguishes unsuccessful writing from the most successful. Courtesy is often confused with etiquette, and shouldn't be. Etiquette is a code of behavior considered correct in a given society, do you or do you not keep your left hand in your lap while using a fork or a spoon with your right? Many of the "rules" of behavior are frivolous and deserve to be ignored. I am talking about courtesy, which is sometimes poorly defined in dictionaries as "polite behavior." Courtesy is one of the more important elements in human conduct. It calls for a consideration of the needs and wants of another person.
Etiquette is a man opening a door for a woman. Courtesy is a woman opening a door for a man carrying packages in both arms. The difference between etiquette and courtesy is enormous. For example, in love making, etiquette--that is, expected behavior under a given code--may be nice or irrelevant. Courtesy toward a lover, understanding and playing to the needs of one's partner, is essential. Courtesy is also essential to writing, and, sadly, much overlooked by writers who do not consciously consider what the reader may be feeling at any particular point in a story or novel. Here and elsewhere in this book I will be describing techniques of pleasing the writer's partner, the reader; for the pleasured reader will be grateful and loyal to the writer, buying each book and looking forward to the nextone.
What is it then that the reader wants?
The reader of fiction may welcome insight and information, yes, but is primarily seeking an experience different from mid greater than his or her everyday experiences in life. When a child claps its hands with joy at the promise of being read a story, the child is anticipating pleasure, an experience that excites its imagination and is unlike the child's daily routines. Children treasure their books. The sight of those books reflects the memory of experiences that were full of wonder. When a child segues through the shock of puberty into the teenage years, the wonder generated by stories doesn't cease. Teenagers are fascinated by tales of extraordinary experiences, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, by the good winning out against the bad only after horrendous obstacles have been overcome. When the teenager passes into adulthood, his expectations from fiction are greater. The new adult is less tolerant of coincidence, cartoonish characters, overly familiar plots, static descriptions, speechifying, boring passages, all of which get in the way of an experience so involving that the reader is not aware of turning pages and cannot leave until there are no more pages left to turn.
Fiction involves the creation of characters and events that originally resided only in the writer's mind. The writer creates a vehicle for transporting his characters to the reader's imagination, and does so with techniques that enable the reader to believe that the fiction is true. In the 1970s my wife and I used to visit a resort in Jamaica called Round Hill for a couple of weeks in the cold depth of New York's winter. Round Hill had a number of attractions besides the weather. It was once a watering hole for publishers, and as a relatively young publisher I could meet an occasional senior competitor under noncompetitive social circumstances. More important, the guests came not only from the States, but from Europe, and we always seemed to meet people who became friends whom we would continue to see on both sides of the Atlantic. I particularly liked a cottage that had a tree house the size of a living room, with tropical vines that visibly grew inches each day. Luckily, the titled Englishwoman who owned the cottage had read a novel of mine called The Magician, and this happy coincidence cleared the way for me to rent her cottage. Each two cottages shared a swimming pool. On one such trip, we arrived by air in a sweltering afternoon, and quickly put on swim clothes and headed for the pool.
As I was doing a few laps, I noticed the couple from the neighboring cottage sitting at the far end of the pool. The man was consuming books, by which I mean he was going at first one book and then another so voraciously that he seemed like a hungry man presented with his first food after a period of starvation. I recognized some of the covers. These were substantial books, not a summer's beach reading. A publisher of books who spies a voracious reader immediately has his antennae up. I stopped swimming at my neighbors' end of the pool and, neck deep in water, introduced myself. My neighbors proved to be from Glasgow, he Scottish, his wife English. I later learned that he was the third-generation, reluctant CEO of Goldberg's, Scotland's biggest department store chain, and also Chairman of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the author of plays. We chatted a bit and I asked, "Do you ever read fiction?"
"No," he said. "I am only interested in what is true."
I have wasted a good portion of my life trying to reform people, but couldn't resist getting out of the pool, and returning within minutes with a paperback copy of Jerzy Kosinski's masterpiece, The Painted Bird, that I happened to have in my briefcase. Without much ado, I passed the book to him, and he politely put aside the book he was reading and started The Painted Bird. After a while, he came over with an urgent question: "Is this true?"
I swam over to his side of the pool and said, "Do you think it's true?"
He finished the book before dinnertime. I loaned him another novel, which he took gladly. I had made a convert who read only what is true.
The opposite of true is "made up." How disappointing it is when a writer presents the draft of a story to a friend, and the friend says, "It sounds made up." My objective in this book is to help novelists perfect their skill in making the reader turn pages, to forget that he is reading, to live among characters that once resided only in the writer's head and now seem true and memorable to strangers.
"Memorable" is not an idle word. Our brains register, record, and preserve the moments of books that have generated the most-intense experiences. When I was five or six years old, a doctor ordered me to bed with an illness I don't believe I had. While my mother had taught me to read at four, I was still being read to by her, and, when she was at work, by a sitter. At one point they took turns reading to me a book that contained a villainous Indian who had a third eye in the center of his forehead and could therefore watch his prisoner with that eye even when he slept. Being watched night and day was a terrifying thought long before George Orwell's 1984. The story of the Indian terrified me so much that I begged my mother to throw the book away. I was relieved when she told me that she had disposed of the offending volume.
Some months later, no longer confined to bed, I was walking down the hallway where my parents' books were shelved and noticed a familiar binding poking its nose out from behind other books. I plucked it from the shelf. It was the book about the three-eyed Indian! I was instantly overwhelmed by the terror I had felt when it was read to me. My mother had betrayed me. When she saw my reaction, this time she got rid of the book, in part at least to rebuild our bridge of trust.
A book that's been shelved after reading is like an object that is ready to come alive again when we notice it. A book that has provided a moving experience has taken on some magical property, much like a keepsake that reminds you of an out-of-the-ordinary experience long ago. A novel that has done its job will not be discarded because it has been used. That priestly alchemist, the writer, has turned words into memorable experience.
We attribute nonmaterial properties even to books we haven't read. There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when young people scorned property, things you would take with you if you moved. When it came to books, they preferred paperbacks to hardcovers not just because of price, but because you could leave them behind when you shifted elsewhere. In 1974 my publisher sent me on a twenty-one-city tour to publicize my new novel. In Los Angeles, UCLA assembled students from a number of writing classes in a lecture hall where I was to speak. The instructor finished introducing me by holding up a copy of my new novel. I took it from him gently, and with a practiced movement suddenly tore the hardcover book in half. Some students screamed. Why? The book was not a baby I was tearing limb from limb. It was a physical object made of paper, ink, and glue. No one in the audience had yet had a chance to read it. The response from that audience demonstrated that the students spontaneously felt I was destroying something special.
When a totalitarian state wants to attack the culture of a people, it makes a bonfire of its books, a source of pain even to people who have not read most of the volumes heaped onto the fire. Books are symbolic not only of the pleasures and insights derived from them, but also as the safe harbor of the knowledge that passes from one generation to the next. Burning books is an attempt to stop time, to cut short the progression from monks copying books important to their beliefs, to the end of the twentieth century, when tens of millions of people rely on books as providers of knowledge and extraordinary experience. Why else give twelve hours of life over to a book, which is what we're asking our readers to do?
When the baseball, football, or basketball season is at its height, a considerable portion of the American male population and a not insignificant number of females deploy hours away from work watching their sport on television. What the baseball fan, for instance, hopes for, consciously or not, are the moments of tension and suspense when a ball is hit but not yet caught, when a runner is headed for a base and has not yet reached it. The same applies to other sports as well. The spectator rooting for his hero experiences tension, suspense, anxiety, and pleasure, all the things readers hope for when they turn to a novel. The reader is enjoying the anticipation and excitement that are often worrying in life but a pleasure when they are happening on the ball field or in a book.
What is amazing is the fact that so many writers with a novel in the planning stage give little or no conscious thought to the reader's experience. They need look no further than sports to understand that the spectator seeks the excitement that does not usually occur in daily life. The joy of winning, even through surrogates, is real. And the displeasure of losing through surrogates is also real. Spectators cheer their favorites and boo their antagonists, as they do, figuratively, in fiction. And if a favored character is trounced, the reader feels the same sadness felt by a sports enthusiast whose team has just lost. But let us remember that when a team--even the team we are rooting for--is winning too easily, our enjoyment of the game decreases. What the sports spectator and the reader enjoy the most is a contest of two strong teams, a game whose outcome hangs in the balance as long as possible.
The reader is the "customer" of fiction, a notion that can easily be disparaged when it is misconstrued. The need to give pleasure to a reader is not a license to produce hackwork. Kingsley Amis once said that he didn't think he'd ever written anything designed purely as a sop to the reader. "But," he added, "I always bear him in mind, and try to visualize him and watch for any signs of boredom or impatience to flit across the face of this rather shadowy being, the Reader."
True, a large public exists for trash, does that mean writers must or should write transient works? Most writers of so-called popular fiction (the term is wrong; some literary fiction is quite popular) are content to use stock characters, words that are not quite right, cliches, awkward rhythms, phony plot twists, and melodramatic coincidences. A minority of the authors of transient fiction bring some literary values into their popular work, and are rewarded with a wider audience. Every kind of fiction is enhanced by the author's use of precision and nuance in his choice of words. Readers value and remember extraordinary characters long after tricky plots are forgotten. At the same time, it serves us to recognize that certain elements common to transient works are necessary for all fiction, of whatever reach. For instance, the tension and conflict that readers of suspense fiction enjoy have been essentials in theater and fiction since the first storytellers addressed their audiences across a fire.
There's the rub. The original storytellers could see the reactions of their audiences. If these listeners were not held in thrall by what they were hearing, they would doze off right in front of the storyteller, or worse, kill him. Today, the playwright has a sense of his audience's reaction. He knows what holds it silent and spellbound, and also what lapses in the writing or performance cause the coughing and restlessness that signal a drop in attention. But writers of novels and films do not see their audiences. The audience must therefore be imagined. And we bring to that image what we have learned about audiences, they enjoy in fiction what they often deplore in life: anxiety, tension, suspense, and conflict. We ignore those needs of the audience at our peril.
There is an additional benefit to understanding the reader's need for high experience. The more involving that experience is for the reader, the more likely the reader is to tell others, thus beginning the valuable chain reaction called "word of mouth," which is responsible in large measure for the creation of bestsellers as well as the evolution of long-term publication of books that we have come to call "classics."
It is an astonishing fact that many experienced as well as inexperienced writers with whom I have worked have not given much thought to what the reader is experiencing in each scene of a novel. Perhaps it is because courtesy--considering the experience of the reader--is often ignored in dry schooling, where literature is examined for structure and technique more than effect. Consider also that many newcomers to writing want to get something off their chests, which leads them to imagine the audience as passive receptors rather than active enjoyers of a heightened experience fashioned for them by the writer.
How and when can writers deal with the reader's experience? Those writers who attempt to consider the reader's experience while writing usually fail. The time to think about the effect of each sequence is when planning a scene or revising it. It is obviously more efficient to plan the reader's experience of a scene before writing it. If one has failed to do that, the experience of the reader needs to be considered when examining the first and subsequent drafts. How does the writer know if the reader will have an experience when reading a given section? If some time has gone by, if the writing has been allowed to cool, when the writer rereads that scene he will experience some level of the emotion that will be felt by the reader coming upon the scene for the first time. If the writer experiences ennui or nothing, he cannot expect the reader to feel more. That sequence--paying attention to the reader's needs after the scene is written--is wasteful compared to giving thought to the reader's needs before the scene is drafted. To that end, let us consider a number of possibilities.
Writers are sometimes encouraged to write a synopsis of a planned novel for a prospective agent or publisher to interest them in reading the manuscript. This précis is usually a summary of the plot with minimal characterization, and does not allow for conveying the texture of the writing in the book to come. A synopsis works better for transient fiction, thrillers and the like, where the plot counts most, though it seldom conveys how well the book will be written.
I've heard writers and writing teachers argue against synopses on the grounds that making an outline of the events in a book can stifle the writer's imagination, that sometimes the unknown is more productive, that a developed character may "tell" the writer what happens next. I agree to the extent that I would find a detailed synopsis of my plot restrictive. What then do I propose?
My interest is in helping the writer fashion the novel efficiently. Therefore, my recommendation is that the novelist make an outline of scenes only. This is for the writer's use, and invaluable if used correctly. In the chapter on suspense in Stein on Writing I show the usefulness of the scene outline. With a view toward providing more-detailed guidance, here are some questions to review for each scene.
Which character in the scene do you have the most affection for? How can you make the reader feel affection or compassion for that character in this scene? There are, of course, many ways of doing this. Here is a simple example: The woman who is your protagonist hears a scratching at her door. It is the dog she put out of the room because her unfriendly guest was annoyed by the dog's barking. The guest may have some power over the protagonist. It could be anything--an unpaid debt, a secret discovered. Your protagonist is momentarily torn between the potential annoyance to her guest and the scratching and whining of the dog that wants back in. At that moment in time, the reader doesn't like the guest. When the protagonist goes to the door, lets the dog in, and swoops it up into her arms, the reader is glad and warms to your protagonist for what she did. The goal is to involve the reader's emotion, in this case a feeling of warmth for the central character. Caution: Compassion toward an animal has to be handled gingerly lest it come across as sentimental.
Let's look at a slightly more complex situation. On some flimsy excuse, a daughter is trying to dissuade her mother from attending her high-school graduation because her mother doesn't dress well or speak well. The reader will have empathy for the mother. At the graduation other parents stare at the mother, who is wearing an outrageous hat and whose cheeks are conspicuously rouged. After the ceremony, the mother wants to meet some of her daughter's classmates and their parents, but the daughter, embarrassed by how her mother looks and talks, tries to spirit her away. The mother, glancing over her shoulder at the crowd that includes the people she will now never know, trips and breaks off the heel of one shoe. She now has to hobble along, holding on to her daughter's arm, with her broken shoe in her other hand. The reader will feel for the mother, but may also experience the daughter's embarrassment. It is those feelings of the reader that the writer is trying to influence by the characterization and events he is creating.
Is there a character in this scene who threatens the protagonist subtly or openly, psychologically or physically? For the reader's interest, whenever possible characters should have an adversarial relationship. Every character has his own "script" in every situation. No two distinct characters are likely to have the same scripts, not a mother and her child, not a husband and wife, not an employer and employee, not even two close friends. To the extent that the writer uses their differences, the scene will come across as dramatic. In the first example cited above, it's easy. The guest is already unfriendly. The guest does not like dogs. The protagonist seems to prefer to calm the dog than to please the guest. An adversarial relationship between protagonist and guest is heightened by the protagonist's choice in favor of the dog. In the second example, the adversarial relationship of mother and daughter is based on class differences, which are at the heart of so much fiction. The point to remember is that if the characters in a scene have different scripts, their actions and dialogue will be adversarial. It is that adversity that heightens the reader's experience.
Is the point of view of the scene that of the character who is most affected by what happens in the scene? You may need to override this question if it doesn't suit the point of view necessary to your story. I put the question to remind you that the reader is most affected when the character whose point of view you are using is the one most affected by what happens in the scene.
Is the scene described in terms of the action that takes place? If there is no action, there is no scene. Action connotes something happening. That is not necessarily physical movement. An argument on an ascending curve is an action. In the hands of a skilled writer, a disagreement over something important, handled subtly, is an action. Remember that the reader is not moved by the writer or a narrator telling him what one or another character feels. The reader is moved by seeing what happens to the characters engaged with each other. If the only action is minor, the scene will be minor. That should lead you to think whether the scene should have a stronger action, or perhaps be merged with a scene that does. The bit about the dog scratching at the door is not a scene. The real action of the scene is what happens between the protagonist and the unwelcome visitor. In the second example, the tension between mother and daughter at the graduation, done with detail, can be a scene.
You may also want to consider whether every substantial portion of a scene is a necessary part of the main action. Does it contribute to the story? Does it help lead into the main action? Does it raise an unresolved issue and thereby heighten suspense? If it does not do any of these, you might be endangering the tension of the chapter by the inclusion of material that is not germane to your story. For example, the reader does not need to see the mother and daughter coming to the graduation, or the entire graduation ceremony, to experience the friction of the daughter-mother relationship, which is the core of this story. The mother wants to be a celebrant, but the celebration is spoiled for both. The frequent fault of new fiction writers is that they unravel the thread of the story instead of keeping it taut like the gut strings of a tennis racket. To help detect such faults, scene descriptions should be brief. Most writers are tempted to spin out scene descriptions, possibly because their urge is to get on with the writing of the novel. The value of the scene outline is dependent in part on the simplicity with which the action is stated. The writer's self-discipline should be engaged to keep the description of each scene brief, even terse. "Harriet comes home to find Chuck isn't there, the baby isn't there, half of Chuck's closet is empty of clothes, and the baby's things are gone." That's the scene outline. It would have no effect on the reader's emotions. It is a synoptic telling of the action. In writing the scene itself, the writer's aim is to quicken the reader's pulse by showing the action bit by tense bit as Harriet goes through the house and slowly realizes her husband has fled with the child. The reader feels Stop looking as if you expect to find them in another room, they're gone! At the end of the scene, the reader is desperate to know what Harriet will do. That is the writer's clue. Leave the reader in suspense. It is courteous because that's what the reader wants. Start the next chapter in another place, or with another character. If you want to stay in that house, a friend or a neighbor could be at the door, someone on familiar terms with the family. Though in life Harriet would be likely to tell the friend what's happened immediately, you don't want to do that in your story, you want to keep the reader's need to know high. Harriet is trying to keep her personal disaster a secret. The friend is determined to help, to find out what's wrong.
Is each scene visible throughout so that the reader can see what's happening before his eyes? This is important because if action is not visible, you are probably sliding into narrative summary of past events or offstage events, which can lower the reader's experience.
Does the ending thrust the reader into the next scene? Does the reader long to find out what happens next? When you review the order of your proposed (or existing) scenes, your focus should be on what will keep the reader reading from scene to scene. Shelly Lowenkopf, a tough and excellent teacher of writers and conductor of the famed Pirate Workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, reports that he is forever quoting a terse sentence of mine that I don't remember originating: Never take the reader where the reader wants to go. Your job as a manipulator of the reader's emotions is to start the next chapter somewhere else or with a different character, leaving the reader hanging. You are not a nice guy, you are a writer. You are consciously manipulating what the reader feels. Never take the reader where the reader wants to go. The essence of book-length suspense is to keep the reader curious, especially at the end of each chapter, and to frustrate the reader's expectation by the way you start the next chapter. There are many variations to this technique. One I've used from time to time is to end a chapter with a tense, unresolved happening, and then to start the next chapter quietly. Think of it as the calm before the next storm. That calm at the beginning of a chapter (after the first, of course) increases the tension in the reader.
The points to remember:
The ideal arrangement is to have scene after scene with nothing in between. If you build to a scene, don't let the reader's emotions rest. Salt your buildup with ominous detail. At the end of each chapter, be sure you are thrusting the reader forward to the next chapter, then don't take the reader where the reader wants to go.
When fashioning a scene outline, you are not engraving stone. You can always modify the outline as you work--and you will. You can change the order of scenes to increase suspense, you can eliminate scenes in which there is no tension, and you can introduce new scenes prompted by the way your story is developing. Your scene outline is meant to be changed much as a jazz musician will toy with a score. If you've got a lot of changing or transposing to do, you might find it convenient to put each scene description on a 3"x 5" card, number the scenes, and test new locations by moving the cards about. One of the useful by-products of this is that when you are finished, you will know that you have absolutely the best order you can come up with for your story.
When you prepare an outline of scenes, each delineating at least one action, examine that list to see if any scene seems far weaker than the rest. Often it will be a scene written for the convenience of the writer, usually to get some information across, instead of for the experience of the reader. That's a cue to cut that scene from your plan and look for an action in another scene that will enable you to get that information across, perhaps in adversarial dialogue. You may need to divide the information between two or more places, but I have yet to find a manuscript where necessary information can't be worked into an active scene in a way that won't seem expository.
The scene outline also provides a means of seeing which scenes--on a comparative basis--seem strongest. Sometimes that will suggest that the strongest scene be moved forward to help captivate the reader earlier. Or if that is not suitable, the strong scene may suggest how to strengthen an existing scene earlier in the book.
A scene outline provides the same opportunity for examining what's most wrong in the story and fixing it before spending months of wasteful writing on chapters that were conceived badly and needed to be excised or changed. The scene-by-scene examination of a proposed novel is a major step in the right direction. When this scene outline has been refined and, if necessary, the order changed, ask yourself about each scene, "What is this scene doing to the reader's emotions?" Write your answer next to each scene description. Keep it in mind before you begin to write that scene. Part of becoming a professional writer is awareness of what you are trying to do each step of the way as well as mastering the techniques necessary to achieve your intentions.
At a discussion among playwrights one night in 1998, I jotted down one phrase I heard several times. You must reward your audience. As you review your scene list, ask yourself which of those scenes will be so strong, so good, so memorable that your audience will be rewarded. Think of your fiction as a gift for a stranger, the unseen reader you hope to please. The reader is waiting to be exhilarated by what you do, and to fall in love with your characters. How you help the reader fall in love is the subject of another chapter, but in keeping with what I've taught, not the next one. I'm not going to take you where you want to go ... just yet.
|Preface: For the Reader Who Is Also a Writer||xi|
|The Responsibilities of the Writer|
|1.||The Reader Is Looking for an Experience||3|
|2.||Is Conflict a Necessity?||19|
|3.||Capturing the Reader||29|
|4.||Success Lies in Seeing the Details||54|
|5.||Characters Who Are Characters||66|
|6.||Backstage: Where Writers Get Their Plots||77|
|7.||Our Native Language Is Not Dialogue||90|
|8.||Getting Intimate with the Reader: Advanced Point of View||108|
|9.||Do You Promise to Tell the Truth, So Help You?||123|
|10.||Where Writers Go Wrong||127|
|11.||How to Pilot Words Precisely||139|
|12.||You Have All the Time You Need||148|
|13.||Revision as Opportunity--and Danger||150|
|14.||Some Fundamentals for Emigrants from Nonfiction||162|
|15.||A Few Guidelines for Living Forever||172|
|The Responsibilities of the Publisher|
|16.||The Prospect Before Us||179|
|17.||Putting Out to the World||187|
|18.||Midlist, and Other Fictions of Publishing||193|
|19.||Welcome to the 21st Century||205|
|20.||Appendix One: The Little Things That Damage the Writer's Authority||215|
|21.||Appendix Two: Where Writers Get Help||224|
Posted February 10, 2004
How to grow a novel by Sol Stein is a book full of priceless information for the skill of writing. If you are thinking of purchasing this book you might want to consider buying and reading his first book on the subject ¿stein on writing¿. In how to grow a novel, Mr. Stein continually refers to the information in his first book. Both books are must haves.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 4, 2003
Writers of every type will find Sol Stein¿s 'How To Grow A Novel' to be an invaluable resource in the eternal quest to hone and refine their skills. As the former editor of numerous best-selling books, and the author of best-selling books himself, Sol Stein is more than qualified to offer his advice, and his readers would do well to heed that advice. Whether a beginning novelist or a New York Time¿s best-selling author, 'How To Grow A Novel' has much to offer. Readers will learn of the necessity of conflict, how to compose effective dialogue, proper point-of-view, and most importantly ¿ how to capture the reader (so as not to commit the cardinal sin of boring one¿s audience). Stein also gives his thoughts on common mistakes made by writers, including those made during the revision process. But the true value of this book stems from its emphasis on the fundamentals. Certain elements pertain to all good writing, such as the effort to use no unnecessary words. Stein stresses those elements, and if applied, they will make fair writers good and good writers great. Like Webster¿s Dictionary and a thesaurus, 'How To Grow A Novel' should be a handy reference on every serious writer¿s desktop. I¿ve personally benefited from its guidance, and I highly recommend it to other aspiring authors. >>>> Britt Gillette, Author of 'Conquest of Paradise: An End-Times Nano-Thriller'Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 22, 2010
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