writing technique

How do you do it?

Manuscript of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

I don’t mean creatively – we had some excellent advice on that a few weeks back. But I’m curious about the logistics. How does it get from your brain to the final text? For what it’s worth, here’s what I do myself.

Pen and paper. Many people type directly, I know, but I can’t do that. Any pen will do (though I have my favourites), any notebook too (but a preference for spiral, as it’s easy to rip out the pages). I’ve tried to keep separate notebooks for different ideas, but despite my best intentions, they always end up full of disparate notes, with arrows going back and forth from one section to the next. At some point it all gets too confusing and I type everything up. (How on earth did Flaubert and others manage without a word processor?)

For that I dictate into Google Docs. It gets a lot of words wrong, makes a hash of punctuation, and puts unwanted capitals all over the place. But it does a reasonable job, and certainly saves me time compared to typing. It’s far less accurate than Dragon, but has the advantage of being free. Here’s a comprehensive comparison of some different tools available.

Several years ago I bought Scrivener. I wrote a post comparing it to a Heath Robinson machine – an ingenious, complicated device that doesn’t do very much. Certainly I was put off by the frustrating attempts to master it. Who wades through a manual of 360 pages? Not me. Nor did I want to pay $200 for a course explaining it all. But I stuck at it enough to revise my opinion somewhat, and I use it now to organise the typed manuscript as it evolves. There are lots of buttons and bells I don’t bother with, but the basic arrangement into easily navigable chapters is a boon. I can also add notes about characters, setting etc, which I previously put in a separate Word document. So yes, even if I only use a fraction of it, it’s well worth the $40 I paid.

When a draft is finished in Scrivener, I export it to Word and print it out. Then I revise, and the arrows go all over the place again. Rinse and repeat till I’m satisfied – or rather till I decide that at some point I have to consider it’s finished.

Curiosity, as I say. I’m happy enough with the procedure as is, but I dare say there are gains of efficiency I could make. Time-saving tricks, better software options – any suggestions? How do you do it yourself?

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About Writers, world-building, writing technique

How much world?

Alex’s Sci-Fi World by Matt Schaefer

I don’t write, or even read, much sci-fi, but I do have a trilogy planned that takes place on another planet. I don’t know if it qualifies as sci-fi since the inhabitants are as human-like as hobbits and face very human problems. Really it’s just an excuse for me to give free rein to my imagination by writing a story about humans without the constraint of respecting earthly reality.

But of course they inhabit a world which has other constraints, so I’ll have to decide how much of that world to describe. In other words, the world-building issue. We always have it, but a story set on earth can rely on shared assumptions about how the world operates. Not so on another planet, where we can make the world as we want, but then we have to replace those unwritten assumptions with explicit information. What will my inhabitants eat? How will they dress? Travel? Communicate? What are their towns and cities like? The list is almost endless.

Here are a few thoughts on the matter from some proper sci-fi writers:

Alastair Reynolds. My approach to world-building is a bit smoke and mirrors – there’s only as much as you need to carry the story. I think of it as one of those sets they used to have for cowboy films: the facades look good, but if you walk around the back, it’s all props and plywood. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I want to do as little as possible. I don’t need to know how the sewage system works to tell a story about someone on another planet.

Nnedi Okorafor. My stories tend to start with the characters. Then I look through their eyes (or however they “see”), minds, perspectives to observe the world. Typically this happens the moment the character exists. So I know the world not long after I know the characters. I walk through it, I smell the air, listen to the gossip, observe its insect world, hear its history through various perspectives, and so on … I experience it.

AnnLeckie. I try to choose details that are real – the whole of human history and culture is fantastically varied – and that seem to fit together. In real life, cultures and histories are full of things that contradict each other. There will be one common narrative of how things happen, how people live and eat and so on, but people won’t actually always do things that way. I try to include such moments, because it makes my world more three-dimensional. I also leave some things unexplained or just referred to, as though the world is much bigger than just this one story and won’t all fit in the pages.

Kim Stanley Robinson. I don’t like the term world-building. I’d say there’s no such thing – it’s a term out of a vocabulary that grew in writing workshops to help writers talk about the craft of fiction. But the writer should remember that these diagnostic terms are not what the reader feels while reading: the reader reads in a kind of dreamlike state in which the events of a story really happen. So the writer should focus on somehow forwarding the story. That’s the only imperative: make that “willing suspension of disbelief” go into action, and take the reader away.

These are just excerpts – the full article is here. It’s given me some useful pointers on how to set about it. But I’m sure you have others – whether you write sci-fi or not, how do you build your worlds?

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About Writers

It’s fun, right?

Sarah Waters: When you approach your desk in the morning, do you ever find yourself wanting to run screaming in the opposite direction? If so, how do you get yourself to sit down and start writing? (I’m asking for a friend.)
Hilary Mantel: I haven’t the energy for running and screaming but often I want to lie and groan under a tarpaulin.

Many years ago I went to a writers’ round table conference at the Edinburgh Literary Festival. I only recall two of the participants now: Gore Vidal (because he was Gore Vidal), and the late, great Beryl Bainbridge, on account of her reply to a question from a member of the audience.

‘How,’ she was asked, ‘do you overcome the urge to stay away from your desk and do all the other things that need to be done, such as the housework?’ For a moment, Bainbridge was flummoxed, as if trying to get her head round such a bizarre question. Then she explained that she’d never had that urge; her urge was to write, which was what she did while the house descended into chaos and grime around her.

I’m fully with Bainbridge here. (Not, I hasten to add, because Mrs B does the housework – she’s kept busy by her own projects, so it’s only when a certain threshold is reached that we tackle the chaos and grime.) It might even be said that searching for an excuse not to write means that you’re not really a writer. Significantly, in her question to Mantel, Sarah Waters added that she was asking for a friend; I’m sure that she, indubitably a writer, approaches her desk very differently.

Up to a point, though, I can see where Mantel is coming from when she says that being a novelist is no fun. The frustration when a paragraph won’t come right, the anxiety when the plot won’t hold together, the dreadful uncertainty about where the whole thing is heading. John Banville puts it more strikingly: ‘Writing a novel is like wading through wet sand, at night, in a storm, with no lantern to guide one’s steps and no lighthouse to warn of the submerged reefs and wrecks that lie ahead.’

But none of this deters me enough to keep me away from my desk. I love the challenge of solving the problems as I go, I love seeing each draft get successively richer, more detailed, and I love the satisfaction that comes with knowing when I’ve got something right. Sure, the end result always falls short of the vision, but that’s what spurs me on to write the next one. No one’s denying it’s an effort, there’s always a struggle involved. But surely that’s where the pleasure lies, isn’t it? A vaccuum cleaner? What’s that?

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reading, writing technique

Reading Matters

One piece of advice often given to writers is to read. It might seem obvious: you can’t learn to write unless you’ve been exposed to many, many examples of other people’s writing. But looking closer it isn’t very clear how this works, and there aren’t many activities where the same advice applies. Teaching perhaps: if you want to teach it helps to observe other teachers. But you won’t learn to play the piano by listening to Chopin, nor learn to drive by sitting in a car with Lewis Hamilton.

I think there are two ways the reading-writing relationship can operate, explicit and implicit. In my student days we used to engage in literary analysis, dissecting a text to see how such and such an effect was achieved. A writer could then consciously apply a similar technique to their own writing. But such deliberate imitation will surely be sterile. I went through a Kerouac phase in my youth, but his influence was more on my outlook than on my writing; the only time I tried to imitate the breathlessness of his style, the result was rubbish. Or rather, it might have been fine if Kerouac hadn’t already done it, but to a reader it would come across only as what it was: imitation. Writing is all about finding your own voice.

Which is where the implicit learning comes in, the cumulative effect of the millions of sentences we’ve read. Here we pick up not just the obvious points of vocabulary and syntax, but the more subtle matter of style. But every writer’s style is different so what is the result of reading 100 different writers? Is our writing then a mishmash of them all? More likely, we’ll be receptive to the style of writers we enjoy, the others having only a minimal effect. But if, out of those 100 writers, there are 20 we enjoy, we still have to find a style of our own, so how does reading those 20 writers help us?

The question could be, and often is, put another way: who are the writers that have influenced you? Here again, I think there are two ways of looking at it. There are writers who have revealed to me the many forms a novel can take, extended the boundaries of what I saw as possible. Virginia Woolf, for example, showed me how a character’s inner life can be portrayed; Gabriel Garcia Márquez showed me that reality can be bent in different ways according to our purpose. These are general lessons that stay with us all our lives, to be tapped into at will. But there’s also the more transient influence of the books we read while we’re working on our own. Some writers, I know, don’t read while they’re writing, precisely in order to escape that influence. And I can understand that – we don’t want the call of another’s voice to deflect the one we’ve been honing for so long. And it’s insidious. I recently read Bleak House, thinking that I couldn’t be influenced by such outmoded prose, but 700 pages of Dickens gets into your mind and I found my sentences becoming a little bit more elaborate, more ornate. So there’s a lot to be said for not reading at all while writing, or at most reading non-fiction. But I find it hard to back off completely, and now I trust my own judgement to tell me if I’m straying too far in one direction or another.

For example, I’ve just finished Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which, with its scrupulously detailed dissection of the central character’s emotions, is far removed from what I’m writing myself. But it so happens that I’d chosen anyway to grant more prominence to my own character’s state of mind, and I’m ready to be receptive to the ways it can be done. What’s important is to be vigilant, rein back if I’ve gone too far, not lose sight of the overall blend of character and plot. I have no doubt that in the revision process, I’ll need to delete or attenuate certain passages, because after all, it’s a mystery novel, not an exploration of a person’s character. But there’s no reason why a mystery novel can’t do that as well – it’s simply a matter of how the two are dosed.

Perfecting our own unique voice, developing it to accommodate the overall purpose of our novel, all the while drawing upon what we read – writing is decidedly a complex and mysterious affair .

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Stories, Writers Co-op Anthology

Rabbit Hole pre-order

Volume 3 of The Rabbit Hole (ebook) is now available for pre-order.

Romantically weird, weirdly romantic: 27 stories that take you down the rabbit hole to love. But if love never did run smooth, here it goes wild – this is love that twists and torments, plunges and prowls, love that crosses boundaries unknown. Oysters and aliens, ghost and gods, stalkers and stars – there’s no limit to the forms that love can take. Why, that toaster – be honest now – are you sure it doesn’t arouse a burning desire?

Tragedy, humour, mystery, drama, hope – Volume 3 of The Rabbit Hole brings you love in its most mischievous guises, from cunning and cruel to cloud nine bliss. Confirmation, if any were needed, that love is a weird, but many-splendoured thing.

Anyone who pre-orders now (at the special launch price of $0.99) will have it delivered to their reading device on 9th October. On that date the paperback will also be available for puchase.

Pre-order links:

Amazon Apple Barnes&Noble Kobo

And in another great deal Volume 0 will be free on Amazon from 1st to 5th October.

Weirdness awaits you!

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Uncategorized

Thirsty? Have a taste of this.

In my youth I wrote poems, as I suspect many of us did. Bad poems. At some point, thankfully, I realised this and stopped. These days I write lines that always rhyme, occasionally scan, and for the most part are silly. I don’t grace them with the term ‘poetry’. Doggerel would be more accurate.

The thing about poetry is that it’s incredibly difficult to write. And the apparent ease of free verse is illusory because “no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job” (T.S.Eliot). Which is why, on the whole, I stick these days to prose.

But I still have a taste for good poems and an admiration for those who write them. Several volumes are dotted around my random, unorganised book shelves, but I know where each one is and every so often, I dip into them. Poem are sips of a special brew that slakes a special thirst.

A few poems are scattered throughout the Rabbit Hole volumes. I would have liked more but we didn’t get that many poetry submissions, and when we did, they didn’t correspond to our (admittedly subjective) taste. Volume 0 has one by David Rogers (who also has an excellent story in Volume 2) and a couple by Mitchell Grabois, whose Arrest of Mr. Kissy Face vividly highlights the oddness of everyday moments; Boris Glikman’s clever and playful PS (In Memory Of) aptly appears at the end of the forthcoming (October 9th) Volume 3; Kelsey Dean’s Rabbit Hole Poems (one of which is below) are a delight in Volume 1.

Too often in my view, what’s put forward as a poem is a piece of prose with unconventional line breaks. These poems bring something more – a startling way with words, or an original insight, or a juxtaposition that reveals a hidden truth. When I started blogging, I discovered Robert Okaji. His poems don’t, as a rule, fall into the category of ‘weird’, and he never submitted to The Rabbit Hole, they have the subtle ingredient which slakes that special thirst. Don’t ask me what it is. If I knew, I might do it myself. As it is, I stick to doggerel.

Tea Party by Kelsey Dean

The sugar cubes cascaded down the tablecloth,

And “One lump or two?” asked the hatter –

but actually there were three

that lived and lumbered in the tissue.

“The doctors took them out with knives

and fixed her with needles,” I said.

“And there were tubes and tests tangled in her breasts.”

“How curious!” replied the hare.

I nodded and stacked the cubes neatly in my mouth

while the sparrows nested in my hair;

we sipped and slurped

and the violets twinkled at our toes.

“Another cup?” asked the hatter,

but it was quite the opposite, and I told him:

“No, a less cup actually, or two.”

“Curiouser and curiouser!” sang the hare.

Stone by David Rogers

No leaf left on any tree you can see from here.

It is good to have one’s darkest

suspicions confirmed.

You may keep secrets but you are not allowed

to choose which ones.

Some will be written on your tombstone

whispered over and over

by fallen leaves.

The thing you wanted everyone to know

will be forgotten.

Carve your own stone to say whatever you like

but beware survivors who may revise.

I’d rather trust the leaves:

the other day I met Ambrose Bierce walking

through the woods. I don’t mean his ghost.

The last thing he said to me was

“. . . before it’s too late.”

I’ve been trying

hard to remember the first part of the sentence.

That night I dreamed everyone I knew

wore masks that looked just like themselves.

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About Writers, writing technique

Sterne plans

030718-09-Laurence-Sterne-Literature-History

There has been a couple of mentions of Tristram Shandy on this blog, which led me to have another look at this ‘most modern of 18th century novels’. That’s from the blurb on the back of the Norton Critical edition, which also comes with a number of essays commenting on the work. One of these essays, by Wayne Booth, is called Did Sterne Complete Tristram Shandy?

It’s a good question. Sterne wrote his book in nine volumes released over eight years, the last one a few months before his death. The full title was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, but the narrator, Tristram himself, doesn’t make a physical appearance till almost half way through. For the good reason that he isn’t yet born: the first volumes deal with the circumstances and consequences of his conception.

Sterne is a master of the digression and so bewitchingly precise is his portrayal of his father and his uncle that the reader willingly follows; but at times it does seem that the book is, as E.M. Forster called it, a muddle. Stern was surely the original pantser – someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

 

Nonetheless, Wayne Booth argues that Sterne in fact was a planner. And he points out several examples of foreshadowing that come together in the final volume. I don’t know. It’s not a question I’ve ever asked myself. To me the muddle is entertaining. But in Booth’s prose, it sounds plausible.

These days, foreshadowing is easy, if only retroactively. We can zip back and forth within a text to add the details which give it more cohesion. If I discover late in the book that my character needs a scarf, I can go back and add it to an earlier scene. That wasn’t available in Sterne’s day, at least not to a writer of his spontaneity. The manuscript shows few traces of revision.

As time goes on, I’m drawn increasingly to planning. That might be because I once wrote a long, complex novel, largely unplanned, which took me 20 years. Alas, it didn’t enjoy the popularity of Tristram Shandy, so I turned to crime (well, not literally). Obviously, foreshadowing is vital there: that scarf could well be the murder weapon, so you can’t have it appear from nowhere.

But planning is more than joining the dots. It’s placing the dots in the first place. The number of chapters, the character arcs, the plot beats, the pace. How detailed the plan is depends on each author, but at some point the chapter by chapter outline mutates into the first draft.

My planning has recently become more ambitious. From a single novel to start with, it now stretches over a series of four. It’s the same principle, but dealing with six main characters who feature throughout, so each character’s arc needs to be thought through to the end. I love the challenge of that. But the plan evolves from the idea, not the other way round. I sometimes read about a book’s ‘ideal structure’, but in my opinion, to push an idea into a plan like the one below leaves little room for the organic growth of the story.

book recipe

If you’re thinking of planning a series, here are some useful tips. J.K. Rowling planned the whole of her seven-book series at the start; Emile Zola wrote 20 novels about the Rougon-Macquart family. Me? Four is the limit. I’ve got too many other things to write.

 

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book promotion

90 seconds to convince

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Do you need a book trailer? A short, arresting burst of colour and sound that advertises your book, like they do for Ocean’s Eleven or Mission Impossible? In the arsenal of book promotion tools, it’s one more to consider. You could live without one and be none the worse, but on the other hand, it can’t do any harm (unless it’s atrocious).

I was inspired to experiment when a composer friend asked me to write the lyrics for a song and then sent me the video he’d made to go with it. Though I knew book trailers existed, I’d never given them much thought till then, but I set to work immediately. Now I’ve finished the first, the second is almost done, and I’ve started on the third. My main conclusion so far? Don’t expect any spike in sales, but putting one together is a real blast.

So how does one set about it? Well, the simplest way is to pay someone to do it. But you’re then looking at a budget of anything between $300 (for basically nothing more than an entertaining slide show) to $15000 (for a scripted film shot on location with actors). If you’ve got money to burn, fine. But since I haven’t, I did it myself, and the result cost me hardly anything – except a lot of time. So if the do-it-yourself route appeals, here – gleaned from my limited experience so far – are a few tips.

Start with a rough idea of the content and progression. Keep it simple – go for mood and atmosphere rather than try and tell a story. It’s not a synopsis but a teaser.

Search for the content – pictures, clips and sound. This is the most time-consuming part, and depending on what you find, your rough idea may need to be adapted. The particular image you had in mind may not exist, so you have to go with what does. Here is a list of sites providing videos and photos, many of them free. The ones I use most are Pixabay and Pexels, while Videvo also has sound effects, as does the YouTube audio library.  A wider variety of sound effects can be found at soundsnap, but at a cost – $29 for 20 downloads or $15 for 5. For music, again YouTube has a reasonable selection, though so far I’ve stuck with Purple Planet.

When you put it all together, aim for a clip of 90 seconds maximum, with an opening that grabs the attention within the first few seconds. The editing stage is where my only cost came in, since I used Adobe Premiere Pro, part of a subscription Creative Cloud I share with a graphic designer. But there are free alternatives, listed here. Depending on the software, there can be quite a learning curve involved.

And Bob’s your uncle! Or will be once you’ve uploaded the clip, not just to YouTube but to Amazon (note that certain specific conditions apply), and your own website. So far, those are the only places I’ve put it, but there are others, listed at the end of this article, which also details the various types of trailer that exist.

 

Like everything else, of course, the trailer will only be effective if people see it, so we’re back to the problem of promoting the promotional item itself. But I’m not too bothered about that – I just enjoyed doing it, and if a few people come across it, so much the better. I’m still finding my way around the software, and I’m not happy with a couple of points, but for a first effort, I’m reasonably satisfied. And now, of course, you’re dying to see it – and I’m dying to know what you think – so here it is as it appears on my website. Comments welcome!

 

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Stories, Writers Co-op Anthology

Rabbit Hole 0 pre-order

The Rabbit Hole Vol 0_2-web

It’s here, folks! Well, not fully until the official launch date on July 17th, but you can pre-order now at the special launch discount price of $0.99. That’s for the ebook – there’s no pre-order for the paperback.

Some people say that doing pre-orders on Amazon isn’t a good idea because unlike the other online retailers, Amazon doesn’t wait till the launch date but calculate the sales rank using pre-order figures. This means that on the launch date itself, you’re less likely to hit a top spot in the sales rank because the pre-orders have already been counted. But nice as it would be to be up with the bestsellers, I’m not that concerned about our sales rank spike on launch date. I’d rather see a steady number of sales spread over a longer period.

So go for it! A bunch of great stories for $0.99 – what’s not to like?

Amazon            Apple              Barnes & Noble              Kobo

Later in the year, Rabbit Hole 3 will come out. At that point we’ll organise a Facebook event – games, quizzes, and a bundle of stuff to win. Stay tuned for more Rabbit Hole news!

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About Writers, writing technique

The Weight of Fiction

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‘The two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’. (David Hare, playwright).

Hare doesn’t elaborate, but it isn’t hard to see what he means. ‘Literary fiction’ is where anything that isn’t obviously in any other genre gets shoved. Literary fiction is perceived as more profound, harder to read, but ultimately more rewarding than genre fiction. As the Dactyl Foundation puts it, ‘The subject of the work is engaged with something that might be called weighty, questioning how we think, how we make meaning, why things happen the way they do, how we decide what’s right or wrong, or musing over what might have been.’ The consequence of such weightiness is that literary fiction sells less well than genre fiction and even fewer writers make any money out of it. To label a book ‘literary’ will have many a reader running in the opposite direction, because what can a ‘weighty’ book be but heavy going?

When I started out writing, I had literary aspirations. I still do in fact, if by that you mean books that don’t fit into other marketing categories. I have several such WIPs on the back burner, but in the meantime, having decided a while back to write books which would, I hoped, be more commercial, I’ve opted for crime.

Why not romance or science fiction? I don’t remember giving the matter any thought – the choice was almost instinctive. If I look for a reason now, I’d say it was Ten Little Niggers (published in the US, for obvious reasons, as And Then There Were None, but I read the UK’s 1963 Fontana edition, and still see the cover in my mind – the UK title wasn’t changed till 1986). Christie’s novel had it all: claustrophobic setting, relentless succession of deaths, gradual elimination of suspects until, utterly bamboozled, I cried out, ‘So who was it? It’s not possible!’ – only to discover that not only was it possible, but the murderer (and Agatha) had fooled me all along. Inevitably, having read that book, it would never occur to me to write a novel called Leonora in Love or Glitch in the Galaxy.

I take issue, however, with the Dactyl Foundation’s pronouncement. There’s no reason why genre fiction, whether crime or any other, shouldn’t also question how we think or decide what’s right or wrong. Consider these excerpts from top crime writers’ analyses of their favourite crime novels:

Val McDermid on Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Heights: ‘Although Hill’s roots were firmly in the traditional English detective novel, he brought to it an ambivalence and ambiguity that allowed him to display the complexities of contemporary life.’

Sophie Hannah on Agatha Christie’s The Hollow: ‘As well as being a perfectly constructed mystery, it’s a gripping, acutely observed story about a group of people, their ambitions, loves and regrets.’

SJ Watson on Daphné du Maurier’s Rebecca: ‘A dark, brooding psychological thriller, hauntingly beautiful, […] but more importantly, this is an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who don’t, and the secrets told to preserve it.’

Susie Steiner on Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution: ‘What stays in the mind is the Peak District community of Scarsdale, the investigator as outsider trying to permeate its secrets. And the sheer quality of the writing.’

Jacob Ross on Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park: ‘A crime novel – like any story – succeeds or fails on the basis of character. Renko confirms this for me every time. It is an incredible feat of character portrayal.’

Other choices in the list speak for themselves: Crime and Punishment, Bleak House, The Moonstone… What is striking is the stress on factors other than plot, such as character, mood, and setting. Proof, surely, that a good crime novel is about a lot more than a detective solving a murder.

The same is true, I’m sure, of any genre. Literariness and weightiness are two different things, and for all the supposed profundity it implies, the label ‘literary’ is more of a burden than an accolade. David Hare is right to be depressed.

 

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