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Entrepreneur Of The Fortnight: Gemma Tanswell: Dancer Extraordinaire

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What shade of blue are your Sunday Blues and where do they take you? Turquoise oceans and stripey sun beds in the Caribbean with cocktails in hand? Or maybe you’re day dreaming of sunset skies across the River Thames as you stare out of your (make-believe) office window from home? Or are your escapist fantasies a darker shade of blue that see you wishing you could leave your daily grind more than anything in the world?

If any of these are you, this truly candid interview with Gemma Tanswell has your name on it. Creator of  Stage Plus School of Performing Arts, Gemma ignored the doubtors and stood firm to her dreams, creating an inspiring company that fufils her day in, day out.

So if you’ve ever wondered about jumping ship and creating your own business – your style – your way – read on. This is a lady with brains, beauty and business savvy in bucket loads…

Over to you, Gemma…

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Can You Tell Me A Bit About What You Do? 

I am the Owner and Principal of Stage Plus School of Performing Arts based in Princes Risborough, England. I’m a trained ISTD and RAD teacher and have also trained in Zumba and the Trinity Arts Award. When I’m not teaching, organising competitions, exams and shows, I’m trying to keep my school in the forefront through advertising, social media and all the general admin!

I’m also part of the creative team at Risborough Youth Theatre, work part time in a preschool (where I’ve taken my Levels 2 & 3 in CYPW) and have just started to write a family blog.

Aside from that, I’m a wife of 4 years and mummy to a gorgeous 2 year old boy!

What Was Your Previous Experience Before Starting Your Business?

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I started dance classes when I was 3 years old where I was a member of our local dance school, Sabatini School of Dance and Performance. I never took any exams – I just performed for fun and it certainly was that!

At 18 years old, I went onto North London Dance Studio where I spent 2 years training and graduated with a Diploma in Performing Arts, Intermediate and Advanced exams in Ballet, Tap, Modern and National. I then completed my teaching qualifications and updated others at the Linda Sweetzer Teacher Training College, taking advanced 2 Modern over the years, too!

In terms of work, I performed around the UK and worked in Tenerife as the dance captain on a new venture. I stayed out there for 2 years, where I performed as a singer and dancer as well as team leader and choreographer for a new version of the show. I returned home due to a death in the family in 2005 and shortly after the show closed down. On my return I taught for various schools in my local area while I decided what was next – which turned out to be meeting my husband!

What Inspired You To Start Your Business?

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A dream! When I returned from working abroad, I was freelancing at a few schools and covering maternity leave at Stage Plus when I was asked if I’d like to buy the school (the lady who had started it in 1983 was moving abroad). Although it was well established, there were definitely some obstacles – I would be losing the premises they were working in, for one. I paid a lot more money than I should have for the business but I was only 24 years old and it had been a dream of mine to own my own school. At that stage I didn’t think such an amazing opportunity would come up again.

I can’t believe I will have owned the school for 8 years in June!

How Did You Manage To Build Your Business?

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A few years after I took over the School I rebranded it with a new logo, new website and new branded wear. I also did a lot of research into what my students and their parents wanted (I think it’s important to do this regularly).

Then the recession hit and caused a major set-back on our student numbers so things had to change again.

That said, I think change in general – and keeping with the times – is really important. In that vein, we participate actively on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and try to keep people updated online as much as possible.

In terms of internal management, workshops help us to access different dance styles and teachers and shows and festivals showcase our choreography and fabulous students (as well as showing the younger children and parents what they can aspire to do).

I also believe in the good old power of word of mouth. I have some amazing students and I’m lucky their parents recommend us all the time. It’s such a lovely feeling and it makes you feel very supported!

What’s Been The Biggest Highlight?

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Seeing students go off to Professional Dance Colleges and pursue careers in the Performing Arts. I currently have students working on cruise ships, heading to the Royal Ballet to train, working in Disneyland, Paris and others who are performing in the West End. It’s lovely to have received so many goodbye cards and text messages full of gratitude for the part I’ve played in their achievements. One of the best moments was receiving a text message at 2am from an ex-student saying: “Sorry it’s so late but if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be having a drink and a chat with Matthew Bourne as we speak”.

We always say that once you’re part of the Stage Plus family, you never really leave.

What’s Been The Biggest Challenge?

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Money. I love the school and everyone involved but there have been some tough times. When the recession hit, I had just taken on a new studio full time which was a massive outgoing. Although I was determined that this would build the school further, as money faltered, numbers dropped. However, we made it through and although I have had to make some serious changes, we are still standing and have new students starting all the time. I’m certainly in this job for the love!

What’s Your Favourite Event / Product / Service? 

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I love to go to Move It at Olympia for the performances more than anything. It’s so lovely to see college students (some of whom are ex-students of mine) showing the world what they’ve got. It’s also a great opportunity to see what’s new in the dance world so I can take Stage Plus up a notch each year.

How Do You Build Your Client Base?

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A lot of it is word of mouth. I’ve done lots of different advertising over the years but my website and reputation are the best sellers. We also perform at local fetes and have been involved in a lot of charity shows which means more people hear about us.

What’s The Best Compliment You’ve Received?

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It was an insult and a compliment in one – which propelled my career 100%!!

My Principal at Dance College told me I’d never be a performer but I’d make a fantastic teacher.

Of course, this only strengthened my resolve to perform and sure enough, I was one of the only ones from my year who went on to perform and here I am now with a dance school of my own!

What Advice Would You Give To Budding Entrepreneurs?

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Take on board others’ advice but the best way to learn is by following your dreams. I’ve had many setbacks and many people telling me that I’m doing the wrong thing (including my parents and my husband) who, despite having really supported me, didn’t want to see me struggle at times.

Unfortunately, most of the time they ended up being right but the only way I learnt this was by doing it myself! I just knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try!

Although I definitely have an impulsive streak, nowadays I try to be more cautious by planning as much as possible!

What’s Next For You?

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Wow, now there’s a question! There are so many things going around in my head at the moment……

In terms of the school, I’d like to offer a wider range of classes, build our student numbers and get a fab show under our belt for 2016.

I’d also like to train as a nutritionist and to learn more about the anatomical and physiological side of dance (I was inspired by a course i went on a few weeks ago).

On a personal level we’d love to expand our family.

I think 2015 and 2016 are going to be busy!

How Can We Contact You?

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Website: www.stageplus.com

Email: stageplus@hotmail.com

Telephone: 07931 180 807

Social Media: Facebook and Twitter

Also: YouTube

What’s Your Favourite Quote?

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Tell Us Something We Didn’t Know About You….

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I’m pretty good at face painting (completely self taught!) and have been put in charge of this at many show runs (imagine the animals in The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe…) Safe to say the comic relief events, fetes and birthday parties I’ve been roped into have turned out to be pretty hands on!!

Entrepreneur Of The Fortnight: Cleaning Up A Storm

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Hey there, wee Gazer! Happy weekend to you :) Let’s kick it off with some seriously inspiring pearls of wisdom from London’s, Ed Jonkler, who shares incredibly useful insights about his path to success as CEO of Remora Cleaning.

If you’re ever dreamt of upping sticks from your 9-5 job if you only knew how to channel your skills into a fulfilling, money-making reality, this is for you. Or maybe you’ve wondered how much experience you need in a field before jumping ship and when you should make that jump. And then there’s that golden question – how do you ensure that you’re the leader of a company which makes £100k a year not £10k?

Ed answers all these questions and more with humour and heart, giving incredibly practical tips about his path to entrepreneurial success. And if you’re someone who isn’t sure about your passions and what area you could launch into, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Here’s a man who is making his living from running a highly successful cleaning business with first class flair and panache. A money-making Cinderella in male form, cleaning has never sounded so attractive…

Over to you, Ed…

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Can You Tell Us A Bit About What You Do?

I run a company called Remora Cleaning, which has teams doing deep cleaning during the day (end of tenancy, post works type stuff), cleaning offices at night (it’s open for 21.5 hours a day!) and housekeepers and domestic cleaners working independently, too.

I also do some consulting for other people who are starting businesses, usually in slightly more glamorous fields than mine!

What Was Your Previous Experience Before Starting Your Business?

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When I was 16, I set up my first company from home, Dialaslave (it’s still on companies house, embarrassingly)! I was renting my friends out to do odd jobs for local people and charging a percentage of the cost for arranging everything. I had a huge desk in one corner of my bedroom, with a leather blotter and my own landline that I mainly used to prank call the neighbours – I felt like a proper mini-CEO.

Later on, I started working in the financial world and helped some experienced guys open their own investment fund in London. I did a bit of everything from plugging in monitors, negotiating contracts with banks, trading and making a lot of tea!

I basically had to wing it at first and was very lucky not to make any serious mistakes but the ability to tackle constantly varying tasks is one of the key attributes for going into business. You have to wear many a hat – part lawyer – part accountant – part salesman and part HR manager!

What Inspired You To Start Your Business?

I was a useless employee! That and working 15 hours a day at a computer seemed to lose its shine after a couple of years.

A different sort of pressure comes with running your own business, though – but the upshot is having the freedom to shape things how you choose and to carve a life exactly how you want to. For me, that’s unbeatable.

The only problem is that now I’m so used to the benefits of no longer being an employee, I couldn’t go back to a regular job!

As for my other motivations to start my own business, I come from an entrepreneurial family so I guess it’s a blue-print I’ve grown up with. My grandpa was patenting all sorts of things and my dad went into business at quite a young age so I guess part of that has rubbed off on me!

How Did You Manage To Build Your Business?

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Early on, massive personal involvement with clients is a must. I started by hand writing hundreds of letters and sticking them through people’s doors for 12 hours a day. It can be demoralising but you have to keep going and keep morale up. Eventually being the face of the company isn’t sustainable as things grow but your passion for your business can be passed on to others.

What Has Been The Biggest Highlight?

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Definitely when the business started covering it’s costs after a long slog to get things off the ground and a lot of stress, anxiety and hard work. It felt so exhilarating – something out of nothing!

What’s Been The Biggest Challenge?

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That is an easy one – managing people. As everything has expanded and headcount has grown, I have had to learn how to manage employees. Not just day to day, but keeping people motivated and happy in the workplace and identifying people that should be offered greater opportunities. It has taken a couple of years and is still very much a work in progress but I’m getting there.

The pressure that comes with more people, more fixed costs and increased growth really changes the nature of things – from a fun project that makes a bit of money to managing a larger entity where you are dealing with staff problems, paying suppliers, managing cash-flow, client relationships, stock levels and maintaining a fleet of vehicles constantly, round the clock. It can still be just as rewarding but you certainly feel a heavy burden of responsibility.

What’s Your Favourite Product / Service?

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Technology has been really essential in helping me manage everything. I use an accounting/invoicing program called Freeagent that connects to my bank account, chases overdue invoices, and shows me where we are financially – without that I would be done for!

How Do You Build Your Client Base?

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Entertaining and networking is great early on. You can have a great website, spend a fortune on Search Engine Optimisation and have a ‘sexy’ app, too. But ultimately, just being quick to respond, efficient and doing a better job than your rivals is the secret to long-term sustainable growth. If you get that right, you really don’t need to do much else – there’s no substitute for first class service.

What’s The Best Compliment You’ve Ever Received?

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We get a lot of good feedback but one client sent an obscenely big bottle of champagne to our offices after we worked on his house in Knightsbridge post-refurbishment. That definitely went down very well..

What Advice Would You Give To Budding Entrepreneurs?

1. Take The First Step

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Plan carefully, but also remember that there is a point where nothing will be gained from further research. You have to push ahead and just start trading. So many really smart people I know haven’t taken the first step, probably because they are too smart!

2. Learn To Delegate

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I mentioned this one earlier but it’s worth a repeat. To expand and scale things, you need to be able to give other people responsibility and control, freeing you up to take things forward. This is completely terrifying sometimes! Mastering the balance between divesting control and staying in touch with what’s happening is the main difference between a company with a turnover of £100,000, and £100,000,000. It’s going to be my main challenge from here on out.

3. Know Your Numbers

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Lastly, know where your business is financially, at all times. It’s not exciting, but finances will make or break you, especially early on. More companies go bust in the UK for having too much work, than a lack of work – it’s cash-flow squeezes that usually finish off companies in their infancy. Understand what you can risk, use debt carefully and know what your break-even is at all times.

What’s Next For You?

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I’m expanding the business, increasing management as a precursor to increasing head-count aggressively through the summer. We have been lucky to double turnover every year, for the last three years, but it’s getting harder and needs some innovative thinking to continue.

We are talking to a small rival about buying and assimilating them, so that will also be a new challenge for the company if that goes ahead.

And lastly, we are building an app/booking system that will be ready in the winter, enabling people to book cleans in real time in the same way you can book a hotel or a restaurant. I know there are some apps that do this already but we want to do it with our own dedicated employees rather than subcontracting the jobs out to freelancers (who I don’t think are as accountable in the work they do).

How Can We Contact You?

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Give me a call in the office anytime on 02078218852 or drop me a line via the website.

What’s Your Favourite Quote?

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And if in doubt, wee Gazer, remember..

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Entrepreneur Of The Fortnight: Abi Elphinstone, Children’s Author

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Ever dreamt of leaving your 9-5 job if you only knew how to channel your passions into a money-making reality? Ever marvelled at creatives like Danielle Steele and JK Rowling who have made millions writing best-sellers published in languages the wide world over? Ever wondered how the heck you turn these kinds of dreams into a reality? How good a writer do you have to be to indulge your literary fantasies and hop across to a career in writing? How do you know if you’re wasting your time or if you’re investing in the life you’ve always wanted? And how much experience do you need in a field before jumping ship and pursuing a competitive venture from scratch?

As with most things entrepreneurial, Abi Elphinstone challenges the norms we’re accustomed to believing, giving incredibly helpful insight and advice about her path to literary success.

So if you’ve ever found yourself sitting at your desk wondering how to make your passions your reality, read on and be inspired…. This is a lady who is beautiful inside and out – with brains, honesty and imagination in bucket loads…

Over to you, Abi…

Abi Elphinstone

Can You Tell Me A Bit About What You Do?

I’m a children’s author and my debut for 8-12 years, The Dreamsnatcher, was published by Simon & Schuster in February this year. Really excitingly, it has been named a Top 10 Children’s Book Not To Miss in 2015 by The Bookseller and was reviewed as ‘thrilling for 9+ readers’ in The Sunday Times.

The sequel, Soul Splinter, will follow in 2016 and I’m currently mapping out the third book in the trilogy and a brand new series set in the Arctic.

I also host creative writing workshops for children, volunteer at Kidsco which provides practical, emotional and educational support to vulnerable children, young people and families and blog about children’s books at www.moontrug.com.

What Was Your Previous Experience Before Becoming A Published Author?

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In 2006, I left Bristol University with an English degree. After two unfulfilling years in PR, I booked a one-way ticket to Africa. There I taught English and half way up a baobab tree, I wrote my first children’s book. 

After four months I came back to the UK and went into secondary school teaching, first in Berkshire and then in London. I submitted my children’s book to thirty literary agents – and it was rejected by every single one.

So I continued to teach English and in the evenings and holidays, I wrote another book. I sent it to thirty literary agents – and it was rejected by them all. Again. A few agents said they saw ‘glimpses of brilliance’ and ‘raw talent’ in my work but they also said that my plots were unoriginal and my writing style was amateur.

So I wrote a third book. You can guess where this is going… it was rejected by every agent I sent it to. By this point I had racked up 96 rejections from agents. But something inside me refused to give up.

I kept every positive comment any of the agents gave in their rejection letters and took every bit of advice they offered. I went to literary festivals, I read more children’s books, I attended writing courses, I started blogging and I re-worked my writing until it was the very best it could be. Perhaps most importantly, I stopped putting my focus on getting a book deal and starting thinking about writing a story that really mattered to me. I wrote The Dreamsnatcher over the course of a year and I literally threw everything at it because it was finally a story I wanted to tell. I watched wildcats prowl in the New Forest, carved wooden flowers with a Romany gypsy and spent every spare second writing until it felt like there were no words left inside me. Then I sent off the book to one agent. She signed me and within two months I had a two book deal with a major UK publishing house! 

What Inspired You To Write The Dreamsnatcher?

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The Dreamsnatcher is, in many ways, like an extension of my childhood (minus the witchdoctors and the tree ghouls). I grew up in the wilds of Scotland where weekends were spent scrambling over the moors, building dens in the woods and jumping into icy rivers. I didn’t have to create Moll’s outdoor world; it grew out of my own. And before long it was filled with a cast of invented characters – a headstrong gypsy girl, a wildcat, a fortune-teller, a witchdoctor, tree ghouls and vapours. Once I’d written the words of the ancient Bone Murmur, Moll’s adventure had begun…

How Did You Manage To Build Towards Your Dream?

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Before I got my book deal, I was already immersed in the children’s book world. I was on Twitter (@Moontrug) where I met an abundance of fabulous booksellers, bloggers, librarians and teachers. I was reviewing children’s books on www.moontrug.com and I was running writing workshops at my house and in schools so there was a network of pupils and teachers interested in my book when it launched.

What’s Been The Biggest Highlight?

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Holding my book for the first time was an extraordinary feeling. Here was a story with my name on – and it was going into the best bookshops across the country. Being surrounded by my family and friends at my launch party was also incredible and meeting readers in schools and at signings and festivals is such fun.

What’s Been The Biggest Challenge?

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Being rejected for six years was tough. Some days I wished I’d never even told anyone I was writing a book because it was so embarrassing to have to tell them about all the rejections.

I went through stages – initially I felt cross that so many agents were rejecting my work (even though deep down I knew why), then I got critical of all the authors who had already made it (even though deep down I knew their work was totally brilliant), then I just felt really upset because of all the rejections. Then, and only then, I was left with the smallest amount of hope, or maybe it was just grit, and I knew that I’d do everything I possibly could to make my book happen, regardless of what other people might be thinking.

What’s The Best Compliment You’ve Received?

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One of my favourite children’s authors, Katherine Rundell, wrote this about my book and my publishers were so pleased they put it on the back cover: ‘An outstanding debut, packed with suspense, adventure and heart’. That was a very nice thing to hear before the book went out ‘into the wild.’

What Advice Would You Give To Budding Entrepreneurs?

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The above quote by Leonardo da Vinci is one of my favourites. 

There are a million excuses you can come up with to put off your plans but ultimately, if you want to start a business, or in my case write, then you’ve got to get on and start – regardless of what’s happening around you. There’s never a good time – start before you’re ready.

And I’d tell entrepreneurs that they’ve got to be humble enough to take criticism but determined enough to bounce back from it – as my Mum said to me through alongside my 96 rejections, ‘If you don’t fail, you’re just not trying hard enough.’ 

What’s Next For You?

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I’ve finished writing the sequel, Soul Splinter (the gypsies are outlawed to caves by the sea where they encounter sinister mer creatures and smugglers) and I hope there will be a third book in the Dreamsnatcher series as I’ve mapped that out too. Think abandoned castles, remote lochs, goblins and GIANTS.

I’ve also just started world-building for an Arctic series. Yesterday I wrote an snow spell and today I drew out the kingdom of Erkenwald… So there are lots more stories to come! 

How Can We Contact You?

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Through the ‘Contact Abi’ tab on my website. You can also check me out on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

What’s Your Favourite Quote?

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It’s a conversation between Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings that my little brother sent me while he was travelling the world. He couldn’t be there for the launch of The Dreamsnatcher so instead, he wrote me a letter with the following conversation in it, telling me to be brave no matter how scary it might feel to have my first book tiptoe out into the world. It was the loveliest letter I have ever been sent and reminded me of Sam and Frodo’s powerful and moving friendship:

Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.

Tell us something we didn’t know about you….

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I once arm-wrestled best-selling children’s author, Piers Torday – and won.

And Finally…

Check out the trailer for The Dreamsnatcher below, a magical tale replete with cobs, wildcats and witchdoctors which will grip you from start to end.

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And one last thing…

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