Make ’Em Feel Something

A book I’ve been slowly going through these days is a writer’s craft book called The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. If you know anything about Donald Maass, you know that he’s a literary agent who has read thousands of manuscripts. He’s also written other craft books.

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Over the years I also have reviewed for publishers and other venues more manuscripts than I can count. But sometimes I found myself puzzling over why a manuscript didn’t work for me. Right off the bat, Maass’s book gave me insight with this quote:

When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it. (Maass 4)

Many times, I did not feel anything while reading a manuscript. Even stellar writing, Maass mentions, can be a turnoff if a reader does not feel anything while reading a story. So the point of Maass’s book is to help writers create the kind of stories that cause readers to experience the journey—not just read about it. In other words, the kind of stories that make readers feel something.

Part of that experience is fostered through helping to immerse a reader in a character’s emotional journey. Have you ever had a hard time writing an emotional scene? I have. Usually while drafting, I only scratch the surface, especially if a character feels a complex array of emotions. Consider how you felt on an extremely emotional day.

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So, writing emotional content does not come naturally to me. But Maass cautioned

While it’s fine to fill pages with what is natural and easy for you, it’s also critical to get comfortable writing what isn’t natural and easy. (74)

I want to get better at writing emotional scenes. This means I might have to rewrite a scene over and over until I break through the wall of resistance within myself.

Something else that inspired me to get better at writing emotional content is a quote from another book I’m reading. In one of the forewords to The LEGO® Batman Movie: The Making of the Movie, written by Tracey Miller-Zarneke, director Chris McKay and producers Dan Lin, Phil Lord, and Chris Miller wrote

When assembling these [LEGO] movies from the beginning, we always start with an emotional question to explore over the course of the story.

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They actually asked more than one question to shape their main character’s emotional arc. One of these questions was a what-if question. (I won’t share those questions, since doing so would involve a spoiler.) Sure, the filmmakers want to entertain people with their production. But also they want people to feel what the character feels along the way. This inspires me to carefully consider the what-if questions that are the basis for my character’s emotional journey.

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How do you feel when you have to write scenes with high emotional content? Is it easy for you? Hard? If the latter, what do you do to press onward?

If you don’t write stories, consider the last book you read that really moved you. Why do you think it did?

Maass, Donald. The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2016.

Miller-Zarneke, Tracey. The LEGO® Batman Movie: The Making of the Movie. New York: DK/Penguin-Random House, 2017.

The LEGO® Batman Movie poster from xemeston.ir. Emotions image from taringa.net.

What Is “Nothing”?

Image the following conversation. Perhaps you’ve participated in one just like it.

Mom (or Dad): How was school?
Son (or Daughter): It was okay.
Mom (or Dad): Just “okay”? What happened?
Son (or Daughter): Nothing.

As an astute parent, you know “something” had to have happened. After all, your child went to school and participated in classes. But for that child, “nothing” probably meant, “Nothing I was interested in” or “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

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Having given manuscripts to beta readers to evaluate from time to time, I have had a similar conversation with them.

Me: How was it [the manuscript]?
Beta reader: It was okay for the most part.
Me: Just “okay”? What happened?
Beta reader: Nothing.

Okay, maybe the conversation was not that curt. But over the years I’ve had beta readers mark certain scenes or chapters with the assessment nothing is happening here. Clearly, I hadn’t presented a bunch of blank pages to the readers. “Something” happened on those pages. But for the readers, nothing is happening here meant, “nothing out of the ordinary” or “nothing that helped develop the plot.”

Now, I ask you, when you read a book or watch a show, what would make you think, Nothing is happening here? Perhaps the following factors might resonate with you.

Tension and Pacing
The issue of “nothing” sometimes crops up when tension dissipates. Now, some breaks in tension are necessary. A while ago, I wrote a post on Ma space (you can find it here) which included a quote by famed animator Hayao Miyazaki on this subject. Ma space is an interval between two movements or sections. Miyazaki’s movies provide great examples of respites coupled with action scenes. However, some breaks in tension are detrimental to the story.

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For example, I wrote a young adult novel in which the heroine was accused of being a liar and had to vindicate herself by proving that she did indeed see what she claimed to have seen. (I hope someday you’ll get to read it.) One of my beta readers wrote nothing is happening here in a couple of the chapters. The issue was pacing. In one chapter, after being ridiculed by a crowd of people, the heroine declared that she was going off to find proof to back up her story—a scene of high tension. But instead of sending her on her way, I included two chapters in which she took a nap and then woke up to have a meal and overhear a conversation taking place between two characters. This conversation had nothing to do with the heroine’s plight. Nothing to see here, folks.

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Nap taking and eavesdropping, while “something,” aren’t very interesting to a reader. I had to cut those chapters to ramp up the tension and make the reader want to continue reading.

Lack of Character Conflict or Development
This probably goes without saying, but if you’ve read this blog even once before, you know I usually state the obvious. Characters need to be more than interchangeable talking heads. They have to serve a purpose. Conflict is one way they serve a purpose. Having fully realized secondary characters in conflict with a main character is a great way to avoid the “nothing is happening” designation.

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In the young adult novel I mentioned above, my main character had a twin brother who was kind of goofy. I liked the dude. His antics made me smile. Well, an advisor of mine read the early chapters of the book and said, “He’s got to go. He serves no purpose.” I soon realized she was right. The twin brother was not in conflict with anyone. He was kind of like a chair in a room—useful for sitting on, sure, but just taking up space otherwise.

The advisor also mentioned that another character—one I had decided would not be mentioned beyond one chapter—had more potential. Like the main character, just about everyone in town had a conflict with him. Most importantly, he had a conflict with the main character. So I turned him into the sidekick of the heroine on her journey. The novel was all the better for it.

Have you ever said, or been told, that “nothing” is happening in a chapter or scene you’ve written or a book you’ve read? What did you have to do to change that dynamic?

Japanese character from Wikipedia. Nothing here sign from outwardfromnothingness.com. Sleeping person image from 1001freedownloads.com. Characters image from standoutbooks.com.

Guest Post by Phillippe Diederich: Writing from the Heart without Flinching

Today it is my privilege to present this guest post by by Phillippe Diederich, author of Playing for the Devil’s Fire, a young adult novel published by Cinco Puntos Press. This is part of an ongoing blog tour celebrating the release of Playing for the Devil’s Fire. Stayed tuned afterward for the giveaway news.

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I write from the heart. I fall in love with my characters and try and help them navigate the conflicts they encounter. I do not shy away from subject matter, whether it’s poverty, drugs, war or crime because this is reality. And I have something to say about it. That’s why I write.

The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for more than 14 years, but we don’t experience it the way Afghans do. Imagine having attacks like 9/11 happening every day in different parts of our country, year after year after year. That’s the reality of war.

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It’s the same with crime and drugs and poverty. In Mexico, the drug war has killed more than 100 thousand people in a little more than a decade. Most of the weapons used in this so-called war come from the U.S. And the market for the drugs is the U.S. Whether we like it or not, we are complicit in this war. And yet what we see and hear in the news is statistics, glorified prison escapes, arrests, and major drug busts. We never hear about the individuals who are suffering the consequences of government policies. We never hear about the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters who fight and suffer just to survive another day.

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In my novel, Playing for the Devil’s Fire, I wanted to address the problems in Mexico, more specifically, the violence and impunity that happens every day. When I wrote the story, I had to make it as real as I could without going overboard. I did not want to place the narcos as simple bad guys, but as individuals who have families just like their victims. I also didn’t want to glorify them or the violence or create unrealistic scenarios, because I would be doing a disservice to the victims of the violence many Mexicans are living every day.

I don’t believe writers should self-censor, and I don’t think we should hold back when trying to write for teens. I think teens are much smarter than we give them credit for. We shouldn’t sanitize the stories we want to tell.

When I was in the seventh grade I read an incredibly powerful memoir by and African-American. I want to say it was Nigger by Dick Gregory, but I’m not sure. It was a shocking book that dealt with a lot of tough issues. But it showed me a world I knew nothing about. It also showed me the power of the written word. I won’t say that book changed my life, but it did open my eyes to reality in a way no other media did.

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But I must make it clear that I don’t write to shock. I don’t think Playing for the Devil’s Fire is shocking in a gratuitous way. But I do think the reality that Boli, the main character, is living through is as real as what many Mexicans are experiencing. As a matter of fact, I think the horror of the victims of the drug war are going through—especially the people on the sidelines—is much worse.

When I first set out to write Playing for the Devil’s Fire, I had been reading a lot about the drug war and what was happening in Mexico. I love Mexico. I grew up there. So I was truly heartbroken as I lay down that first draft. I wanted to put a face to the statistics. I didn’t think of my audience for the book. Instead, I left it all to Boli. He guided me. Everything I wrote, I got from him—I saw it through his eyes. I was just hitting the keys on the typewriter.

If you read the book, you will find something to like in many of the characters, even in Zopilote and Ximena and Chato and Pepino. They’re only trying to survive as best they can. People are generally good, but greed and the glorification of violence on TV and popular culture can seduce even the best people.

Everything that happens in Playing for the Devil’s Fire, especially the end, it is not easy. But life is not easy.

I can only write about the reality that I know, the one that tugs at my heart. It’s not that I want people to feel the pain I feel, or about being sentimental. I just want people to join me in condemning the horror that is taking place all around us. If this is not the task of a writer, then what is?

Phillippe Diederich was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Mexico City and Miami. He is the author of Sofrito and Playing for the Devil’s Fire. He lives in Florida with his wife and three teenage children and their neurotic dog, Toby. Whenever he’s not writing, Diederich is helping with homework, cooking dinner, or fixing the plumbing in the house.

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One of you will win a copy of Playing for the Devil’s Fire simply by commenting below. Winner to be announced on September 19.

Next up on the Blog Tour: Check out an excerpt, review, and guest post at Mom Read It—https://momreadit.wordpress.com on September 13.

Author photo by Selina Roman. Book covers from Goodreads. Mexico map from ezilon.com. Dick Gregory photo from Wikipedia. War quote from geckandfly.com.

Saying No to Pokémon Go

Between finishing my middle grade fantasy novel (and by finishing, I mean getting it to the point where beta readers will read it), copy editing a book someone else wrote (still doing that), taking job-related tests, and attending various parties of the graduation and birthday variety, I have been a bit delayed in posting. And I had grand plans to approach authors for interviews. Sometimes life gives a “Ha ha ha” to plans made.

So instead of an author interview, you get this rambling post. (When life serves you lemons . . .)

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I’m sure I don’t have to ask you if you’ve heard of the Pokémon Go app, since that’s been all over the news. Maybe you’re already sick of hearing about it. I’ve played various Pokémon games since 1998. And I actually have the Pokémon Go app on my phone. But I clicked on it only once. I decided I didn’t need another obsession, especially with the schedule of the activities I described in the first paragraph. So Pokémon Go app, you’re about to go away.

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I have to hand it to the Nintendo Company for creating an app that has so many people discovering Pokémon and exercising while doing so. Click here to read an article on the popularity of this app. What a novel way of celebrating the game’s twentieth anniversary.

Yet I can’t help recalling some criticism I received when I played Pokémon a few years back. Some adults claimed that the game was for kids and, therefore, beneath their dignity. Now many adults around the world are playing the app version of the game. Interesting. But sadly, some players have sustained injuries while doing so. And predatory individuals are taking advantage of the game’s popularity to rob others. 😦 Click here or here for an article on other issues with the game. If you’re playing the game, a little bit of common sense goes a long way! The game might tell you where the Pokémon are, but won’t remind you that you could be hit by a car or fall into a ditch.

I’m a bit of a curmudgeon in that I can’t help turning away from items that become fads. Take Doctor Who on BBC America for example. I grew up watching the show. But when it became a fad that made entertainment magazine headlines, I wanted to give it up, especially when twenty people asked me the same question—“Have you seen Doctor Who?”—yet refused to acknowledge any of the incarnations of the Doctor before Matt Smith.

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So though I will definitely play a Pokémon game at some future point when a new one for the Nintendo 3DS/2DS is released, I will continue saying, “No go” to the app. At least for now.

What fads have grabbed your attention lately? While you think of that, here’s a random photo:

These flowers at my apartment complex are almost five feet tall.

These flowers at my apartment complex are almost five feet tall.

Pokémon Go app logo from forbes.com. Matt Smith from wallpaperup.com. Lemon image from pachd.com. Flower photo by L. Marie.

About a Boy: Crossing the Gender and Morality Lines

They say you should write what you know. Though I grew up with brothers, a father, and many uncles, and have had a number of guy friends over the years, I don’t pretend to know how guys think. Half the time I looked at my brothers as alien life forms when we were growing up. (Okay, yes. They felt the same way about me.) So whenever I have authored or coauthored a nonfiction book for boys or with boys as the main characters, I have had to do some research.

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I’ve mentioned before that I’m writing a middle grade novel. Framing the personality of one character, a boy who makes life miserable for my female main character, has proved challenging. I don’t want to strike the wrong note with this kid—i.e., making him a one-dimensional bully. We’ve seen plenty of those, haven’t we?

Some writers suggested using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to help shape a character’s personality. I took the test as if I were my character and gleaned the ESTP designation—“Extraverted Sensing Thinking Perceiving (Extraverted Sensing with Introverted Thinking)” according to the Personality Page website. If you follow this blog at all, you might remember that I wrote a post on how I felt about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator awhile ago. (Click here for that post.) So I don’t have to tell you that the ESTP designation didn’t really help me understand my character any better. (Well, I guess I just told you.) The results felt too much like an armature without clay or the blueprint for a robot. Please don’t take offense if you swear by Myers-Briggs. Using this personality scale simply didn’t work as a character builder for me.

While I realize that a character is empty until I fill him or her with whatever personality I can provide, I needed my character to go “off the grid” a bit—to have less of a “ready-made” personality. In that way, he would feel more “alive” to me.

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Not this or this . . .

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. . . but this. Real. Alive.

I started by mining my memories for interactions with my brothers, male cousins, friends at school, enemies at school (like boys I’d fought in middle school), and boys in the neighborhood who were just acquaintances. Of course, back in the day, we didn’t have texting, social media, group videogame play, and other ways of communicating that kids today have. But our interactions had some similarities with those today: hanging out in parks; playing sports together; working on theatrical productions; serving on projects; being bullied.

That’s why I’m glad I have kids in my life: nephews; the children of friends; kids I’ve taught in Sunday school. They share their experiences with me even as we talk about videogames, movies, books, etc. For example, I once talked to a kid for over an hour about every Zelda game ever made. Because of that conversation, he felt he could trust me enough to tell me his worries about school.

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Other than the fact that they annoy their parents and siblings from time to time, the kids I talk to are basically nice kids who are not the bullying types. But in some ways, that suits my purpose. They help me to remember that sometimes people show different faces to different people. A kid who bullies others at school might not be thought of as a bully at home, especially if he’s nice to his grandparents and always takes out the trash.

As I continued to research, I cast my net wider: listening to kids in public places like malls, movie theaters, and museums. But you can see the limits of that tactic already. I run the risk of looking stalkerish. Yet watching them throw tantrums, laugh loudly and disruptively, and behave like, well, normal, has been helpful.

So imagination has to bridge the gap. (You knew I’d get to that eventually.) Imagination, free writing scenes that will never appear in the book, and soliciting feedback from beta readers all help to put clay on my character’s armature. The beta readers (which include some of the guys I mentioned in the first paragraph) are especially helpful, because they point out clichés and other blind spots.

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Not the betas I mean.

But in the end, it all comes down to spending time in the skin of my character, even when he behaves unpleasantly. I don’t have to agree with his actions. I just have to make them plausible. Going beyond the stereotype helps me remind readers that everyone is more than what he or she appears to be on the surface.

What’s the most challenging aspect for you about writing a character who is the total opposite of you?

Wooden art figure from polyvore.com. Robot from I, Robot found at irobot.wikia.com. Tween boys from howtoparentateen.wordpress.com, thehabarinetwork.com, and thelipkinsgroup.com. Bettas from worldofcutepets.blogspot.com and life.umd.edu. Scarecrow from commons.wikimedia.org. Link from dan-dare.org.

“Something” or “Nothing”: What Do You Mean?

Back when I first began writing curriculum—da Vinci was still at the sketch stage of the Mona Lisa at the time—supervisors told my fellow co-workers and me to make our lessons engaging and fun. Though we saw the merit in lessons fitting that description, this sort of feedback frustrated my coworkers and me, because both terms are subjective, rather than measurable. What’s fun or engaging to one person might not be the same to another. But I gave it a shot. Sometimes I reached the target. Sometimes I didn’t.

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That feedback returned to my mind as I read a recent review of a young adult novel. Sorry. I don’t plan to divulge the name of the book or the reviewer. (Hint: The book was not written by anyone I know nor reviewed by anyone I know.) Her review interested me, because she spent the whole post explaining why she did not finish the book. Her biggest complaint was that nothing happened.

How many times have you said the same thing about a book or a movie? I know I’ve said that phrase dozens of times. But now that I think about it, what does “nothing” really mean in this context? “Nothing that engaged me?” “A lack of good action and tension”? “I was bored”? It’s really subjective, isn’t it? I struggle with filling in the blanks.

Do you ever ask yourself, What is the “something” that should have happened? Depends on the story, right? We might define “something” as “an event that moves the plot forward”; “exciting action”; “a scene that made me laugh”; “realistic dialogue that made the characters come alive”; or in other ways.

I’m reminded of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Doerr spent three whole paragraphs talking about discoveries one of the main characters—Marie-Laure—made in the drawers of a cabinet. Drawers. In. A. Cabinet. Would you categorize that scene as “nothing happening”? Yet I was mesmerized by those paragraphs. Many other people probably felt the same way, because this book is a best-seller, a National Book Award finalist (click on the award to watch Doerr read a chapter of this book), and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

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We can credit Doerr’s magical prose. But some of the “zing” that makes this scene “something” as opposed to “nothing” is due to the imagination of the reader. Doerr invites us to come along on Marie-Laure’s journey of discovery. Oh, did I mention that this girl is blind? That’s not a spoiler. The book jacket tells you that much. We see what she can only “see” through touch.

I’m tempted to quote lines from that scene. But I won’t. I’m not trying to be obstinate, honest. As I mentioned, I was mesmerized. You might not feel that way, however. Some of the people who commented on an article I read recently on Doerr’s prose had a negative view of his work. But if you are curious about which scene I mean and want to decide for yourself whether or not it has that certain “something,” you can find it on pages 29-30 in the hardback.

Engaging. Fun. Nothing. Some aspects are purely subjective. But when offering feedback, the more specific and measurable one is, the better.

Why measurable? Well, I have to go back to curriculum writing for that. My colleagues and I were always told to make lesson objectives measurable. I found a quote on the subject in the Web article, “Writing Measurable Learning Objectives”:

When you begin creating a course, you want to design with the end in mind. The best way to approach this is to start by writing measurable, learning objectives. Effective learning objectives use action verbs to describe what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the course or unit.

“What you want your students to be able to do.” So, measurable feedback at the manuscript stage helps an author know what it is you want him or her to “be able to do”; in other words, to effectively fix his/her manuscript. Yeah, I know. Telling someone, “Nothing is happening,” is easier than saying, “This scene feels static to me, because Angela is passive, rather than active” or “This scene does not advance the plot. Perhaps you could take the character to the next threshold quicker.” But such feedback gives the author a more specific idea of the “something” you have in mind.

Some people are better able to gauge what nothing happened means. Not me. I need people to spell out what they mean. And I hope I can make the effort to provide clarity for someone else too.

Smith, Tracy. “Writing Measurable Learning Objectives.” TeachOnline. Arizona State University, 02 July 2012. Web. 13 June 2015.

Mona Lisa from en.wikipedia.org.

Does Passion Always Lead to Success?

You’re probably familiar with this scenario: Person A gives her all to pursue her passion—practicing; researching; talking to individuals who share her passion—whatever is necessary. Person B stumbles upon this particular passion and decides, Maybe I’ll give this a shot. On her first try, Person B achieves a level of success Person A only dreamed about.

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When I was an undergraduate, I roomed with someone majoring in performance studies. She seemed very passionate about the craft, often walking around singing loudly and quoting from well-known plays. But over the years, I’ve never seen her name in lights anywhere. Yet a guy in my graduating class who never seemed to care one way or the other about the performing arts (he had an entirely different major actually) went on to gain recurring roles in television shows and in movies.

Life has its twists and turns, huh? My life has taken some strange ones. A few years ago, a publisher asked me to write curriculum for kids 3—8. “Why me?” I asked. “I don’t know anything about kids this age! I never studied early childhood development. I don’t even read books or watch TV shows geared toward kids this age!”

Don’t worry. I wasn’t silly enough to say those words out loud. Instead I said, “Okay,” thinking that project was a fluke, surely. Yet last year someone at another publisher said, “I saw on your resume that you’ve written preschool curriculum. We’d like you to write preschool and kindergarten curriculum.” Again, I thought, What?! I still don’t know why I was asked to write for this age level before!

In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell mentioned opportunity as a factor that has led to success for some. He said

Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them. Page 267

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Whether or not you agree with this book, my experiences above show the beckoning fingers of opportunity. Yet when I analyze the years I spent writing preschool curriculum—yes, years—I have to say that passion did indeed have a part. I have a passion for producing a quality product. I’m willing to work hard to produce that product, even if I’m asked to write for an age level about which I know very little.

Am I always successful at that? Nope. I’ve been fired from projects. “Here’s a kill fee,” one editor at a magazine told me after reading (and disliking) an article I had written. Also, over a decade ago, I was passionate about a four-book series I had written for a publisher. Yet that passion did not keep it from going out of print within two years. But I learned something in both cases: to persevere through utter failure. So in a way, both projects were a success though not in the way that I had envisioned.

Does a lack of opportunity or opportunities that seem to lead to dead-ends mean that our passions are misplaced? Not necessarily. Sometimes failure can point you in a direction you wouldn’t have considered had you succeeded right away.

Opportunity may give us wings, but passion makes us soar.

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A good article on passion is “Unleash Your Passion to Unlock Your Leadership.” Find it here at Forbes.com.

What do you think? Does passion or opportunity lead to success? A combination of both? Neither?

Passion image from lifebites.com. Malcolm Gladwell from nbforum.fi. Outliers cover from Goodreads. Flying people from rock.genius.com.