Monthly Archives: October 2011

That’s the Last Time I Write About Weather

Last Saturday, I wrote about which seasons are the best ones for writers and the impact of weather on productivity. At the time, I had no idea my state would get slammed with the worst October snow storm in history. There are trees and wires down everywhere. Many streets in my town are impassable. Gas is scarce and power outages are widespread. A record of nearly one million people lost power in Connecticut. It will be awhile before we dig out of this one. Believe it or not, the post about weather and seasons was planned long before I knew about this freakish storm.

We are adapting to the conditions. I did manage to read 50 pages of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible by natural light on Sunday. We spent the evening huddled by the fire to stay warm. We heated up Ravioli on the fire and water for hot chocolate. What an adventure!

Stay tuned for more on the storm aftermath. My posts will be shorter and more infrequent for now. I was gearing up to begin my first NaNoWriMo entry, beginning tomorrow. I’m still planning to write my novel, but it won’t be on a laptop., at least not in the near future  I bought a notebook today so I can start my NaNoWriMo entry in pen. It feels like olden times. I will have more to report and some unbelievable pictures of what the roads looked like soon. It was something out of a horror movie–a perfect setting for Halloween.

That’s what I get for writing about weather. I should have stuck to safe topics like story arc, characterization, and theme.


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It’s the Time of the Season for Writing

Autumn in New England



The days shorten, the temperature drops. It’s turned colder in the Northeastern United States. Leaves are falling and winter will be here soon. It’s actually snowing as I write this post. It’s the time of the season for writing.

I don’t know about you, but I am at my most productive as a writer during the autumn and winter seasons. The days are shorter and it’s a great time to sit before the laptop and pound out a new story. I’m at my least productive during those bright summer months, when the beach beckons and there’s fun, fun, fun in the sun.

This post assumes that you are a writer with a full-time job. Full-time fiction writers often carve out four or five hours during the day to write and if I could afford to quit my day job, that’s what I would do.

I could not find any studies or articles on the impact of weather on fiction writing. There’s a certain logic to the theory that writers are more productive during periods of short days and inclement weather. If you can’t go outside, what better indoor activity is there than writing? Maybe that’s why Stieg Larssen was able to crank out the three books that comprise the best-selling millennium trilogy. There’s little sunlight during the dark winter months in his native Sweden.

I wrote 80 percent of the first draft of my first novel, Small Change, during the fall of 2007. It took me another six months to finish the first draft.

I’m also a more productive writer at night. Prime time for me is nine o’clock to midnight. A lot of writers say the only time they can get some uninterrupted peace to write is in the early morning. Some writers keep a faithful schedule of writing from four-thirty in the morning until whenever they have to get to work. I just can’t write in the early morning hours, probably because I’m barely awake. I don’t know about you, but
it takes a hot shower and a strong cup of coffee to get the old brain working in the morning.

Summer is a tough time for me to write. There are too many distractions and too much to do. It’s tough to pound away at the keyboard when the sun is shining and everybody’s outside enjoying themselves at the beach, pool, or the park. I did write a good portion of the first draft of my second novel, Color Him Father, from April through September, but I did most it late at night.

How about you? Is there any season when you are more productive as a writer? What about time of day? Are you a morning writer? An evening writer? Or does it matter?



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An Editing Checklist

Beginning writers tend to underestimate the time and effort required to edit and revise their novels. I know I did. When a writer finishes that first draft, he might think the finish line is within sight. In reality, he isn’t even close to finishing the race. With that in mind, here’s a handy checklist:

  • Write your book. Keep in mind it’s a first draft. You don’t need to strive for perfection. Get the story down.
  • Put it aside for four to six weeks and work on a new project.
  • Do a self-edit and make revisions. Pay attention to inconsistencies in the story, characters. Focus on the theme. How well have you developed the theme? Is it too obvious or does it come out through the story, setting and the characters?
  • Check your revisions. Do a read-through as a reader.
  • Give your work-in-progress to a trusted critic. Your critic should be someone who recognizes quality fiction and can offer an objective, independent critique. Better yet, give it to a couple of critics.
  • Make revisions based on the critiques, but remember, you are the final arbiter. You know your story and your characters better than anyone else. If every critic wants you to change something and it doesn’t feel right to you, the final decision is yours.
  • Hire a professional book editor and a proofreader, if resources allow.
  • Evaluate the recommendations of your editor and revise accordingly.
  • Do a final read-through with a hyper-critical eye.
  • Start on your query letter.

How long does the editing process take? It depends on a number of factors, including the availability and willingness of outside critics to review various drafts. And they must be willing to adhere to some sort of timetable. This is where it gets dicey—asking others to sacrifice their time to serve your interests.

The writer must be willing to invest his own time and resources during the editing process. I did seven line edits of my first novel. Each round of line editing took six to eight hours. It can be exhausting, especially when you’ve edited your book four or five times already. The writer must be willing to put in the effort.

I actually enjoy editing almost as much as writing, but I’m weird that way.

If you don’t have access to a writers’ group or a trusted critic, there are online critique sites. Most require the writer to edit the work of others before the writer is able to submit his own work. If you have the resources, you can take your work directly to a book editor, but make sure you have thoroughly edited it first. Book editors charge by the hour and writers shouldn’t spend their money paying someone else to catch errors they should have caught.

Some writers who have the resources hire both an editor and a proofreader. It’s difficult for an editor to concentrate on story and characters and on proofreading at the same time. It’s a good investment if you can afford it.

With the growing popularity of self-publishing, it’s incumbent on authors to make every effort to make sure their novel is as polished as it can be before publishing it.

What is your editing process? Do you use a book editor? What are the qualities of a good book editor?

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What Is Your Point-of-View?

Selecting a point-of-view (POV) for your novel and a POV character for individual scenes in you novel are decisions that require careful thought. Before we get into what considerations you should weigh, let’s cover the basic  point-of-view options:

First person. This is the “I” POV. It has both advantages and disadvantages. The major advantage is that it lends an intimacy and immediacy to each scene. It also provides a consistent voice in the narration. It’s easier for the writer to write from one character’s perspective, rather than writing from the POV of multiple characters. The disadvantage is that the writer is limited to what the main character knows and sees. This restricts the author from developing subplots because the main character must be involved in all scenes.

Second person. This is the “You” POV. It is extremely rare in fiction. A scene written in the second person would go like this:

You woke up in a cold sweat. You knew something was wrong, even before you noticed your wife wasn’t in the bed next to you.

Among the problems with second person is that if the reader doesn’t identify with “you,” it takes her right out of the story.

Third person/objective: The writer is not in any of the characters’ heads. This POV requires the writer to write in precise detail. The writer must show and not tell. The disadvantage of this style is that it lacks intimacy.

Third person/omniscient. This is the “he” or “she” POV. The writer knows everything and can describe a scene from any character’s POV. The writer can even shift POV in the middle of a scene, something I don’t recommend. This is most effective when a writer seeks an authoritative voice.

Third person/limited omniscient. This similar to the omniscient POV with one important difference: each scene is told from a particular character’s POV. This is the most popular POV technique in fiction and the one with which most writers (myself included) feel the most
comfortable. The writer can place the reader in all of the characters’ heads.  The reader knows more than any of the characters.

Those are the basics. Here are some POV tips.

  • In selecting a POV for a novel, a writer must consider who can bring the most to the story and who the reader feels most strongly about. Sometimes it’s a bystander. I blogged about this recently, using the examples of Stingo in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” and Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
  • The POV character should deliver the greatest emotional power and maximize the inner and outer conflicts of the story.
  • In writing a scene, my rule of thumb is to select a POV character based on who is most affected by the scene. A useful technique if you’re stuck is to write the same scene from multiple POVs and see which one works best. Or, maybe you want to keep them all. Tom Wolfe did this with one scene in The Bonfire of the Vanities, when the detective interviews Sherman. The scene is told first from Sherman’s POV and then from the detective’s POV. Why? I believe Wolfe was making the point about the disconnect between Sherman’s world of opulence and
    the way it was perceived by the common man (the detective).
  • One way to maintain the intimacy of first person POV, while avoiding some of its limitations is to use multiple first person POV characters. This is a difficult technique for the author, who still must keep straight what each character
    knows. It can also be confusing for the reader. The writer should clearly demarcate each scene or chapter to make it clear who is the first person POV character.
  • The third person/limited omniscient POV offers enormous flexibility to the writer. That’s why so many writers use it.

Steve Almond, writing in Writer’s Digest, cited several works using different POVs and posed this question: “In each of these works, the authors have used the same essential criterion: Does the chosen POV bring us closer to the turmoil of the fictional world in question? That’s really the only question that matters.

“Let me go a step further. What matters when it comes to POV isn’t what pronouns are being used, but what emotional posture the author has taken toward his characters, and what sort of narrative latitude the author desires,” Almond wrote.

He continued: “The trick to finding the right POV is striking this balance between intimacy and perspective. You want readers to care about your characters and understand how they experience the world. At the same time, authors have to present their own insights, either through direct exposition, ironic revelation or by shaping the story in such a way that the protagonist is forced to confront the truth as the world imposes it.”

It is a challenge for every writer, but the right POV can make the difference between a riveting story and a snoozer.

What is your favorite point-of-view? Do you use different POVs for each novel?


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Thoughts on Theme

Developing a theme is one of the most crucial aspects of fiction writing. It’s not enough to write a story that grabs the reader, moves at a brisk pace, features rising action, and ends with a bang. Readers expect a story to do more. Readers remember stories that tackle larger issues: good and evil, love and hate, justice and injustice. Novels must be about something. That something is called the “theme.”

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass puts it this way, “When [readers] run across a novel that has nothing to say, they snap it closed and slap it down—or perhaps hurl it across the room.”

Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, acknowledged that writing classes can become preoccupied by theme. “If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and ask yourself why you bothered—why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important. In other words, what’s it all about, Alfie?”

King went on to make an important point. “Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know) but it seems to me that every book—at least every one worth reading—is about something. Your job in the first draft is to decide
what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft—one of them, anyway—is to make that something even more clear.”

Larry Brooks of put it this way: “Theme is what your story means. What it’s about. It’s the story’s real-life relevance and its commentary on the human experience…Theme is love and hate, crime and punishment, good and evil, chaos versus order, natural versus synthetic, old versus new. Theme is the pursuit of something good, the consequences of something bad, and how the results come to pass in the lives of the characters in the story.”

I stumbled upon Holly Lisle’s blog post on theme and she wrote eloquently about it: “When you’re creating fiction, at heart you are searching for ways to create order in the universe…You are digging into your core beliefs on how the world works, and running imaginary people through
a trial universe built on these believes to see how the people and the beliefs stand under pressure.”

So how does a writer go about developing a theme?

  • Ask yourself: what are the larger issues your story is about? Some writers identify a theme before they begin writing a novel. Others figure it out as they go along.
  • When your theme becomes apparent, every element of the story—setting, characters, action—should work in support of your theme.
  • Themes are about moral issues or larger truths about the human condition.
  • The main character should buttress and embody your theme.
  • The action should re-enforce and advance the theme.
  • The resolution of the main character’s dilemma should validate your theme.
  • Your theme should emerge organically and grow out of the story. Writers should not have to get preachy to make the theme
    apparent to the reader.
  • Develop and hone your theme during the revision process.

How do you develop themes in your novel? Do you start with the theme or does it emerge as you write?


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The Narrator as Observer

The principal narrator of a novel is usually the main character. That goes without saying, right? However, some stories call for a different strategy: the narrator as observer. A popular example was William Styron’s classic 1979 novel, “Sophie’s Choice.” The story focuses on two young lovers, Nathan Landau and Sophie Zawistowski. The narrator is a young writer from Virginia named Stingo. He is a boarder at a rooming house in Brooklyn, New York, where Nathan and Sophie live together.

The story revolves around the relationship between Sophie, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and Nathan, who poses as a Harvard graduate and a biologist. Nathan and Sophie befriend young Stingo. The reader finds out later that Nathan has invented his background and he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Nathan is at times generous and at other times abusive. Stingo finds out from Nathan’s brother that Nathan is schizophrenic and he has made up his career as a cellular biologist working on important medical research. Stingo and Sophie leave Brooklyn when Nathan, believing they are having an affair, threatens to kill Stingo. Sophie shares with Stingo her harrowing past as a concentration
camp survivor.

Without revealing any further plot details, Sophie’s “choice” refers to the dilemma when an individual must choose between two equally horrible alternatives. So why did Styron choose a character other than Nathan or Sophie as the main character?

As the narrator, Stingo described the events of the story years later when he was an older, successful novelist. He tied in his own family’s past history as slave owners in the South, which Stingo abhorred. I suspect Styron selected Stingo as the narrator because he is the only character who could view the relationship between Nathan and Sophie with some measure of objectivity. Stingo as narrator also underscored the theme of the universality of cruelty and racism. Nathan, as a Jew, is obsessed with and haunted by the holocaust. Sophie, as a Polish-Catholic, lost her family and suffered as a result of the tyranny of the Nazis. Stingo’s family also took part in the racist system of slavery.

Author Philip Roth has published eight novels where the character Nathan Zuckerman appears. In “American Pastoral,” Zuckerman is not a major character but is an observer/narrator. Swede Levov is the main character. Another famous example is Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Great Gatsby.”

The narrator-observer technique creates distance between the reader and the main characters. Stingo cannot possibly know Nathan Landau’s true state of mind. What Stingo brings to the story is a greater degree of reliability. The reader trusts him. He can present the complex relationship between Nathan and Sophie in a way that neither of them can. Styron presents Stingo as an earnest and honest young man. He has an avid curiosity and he uncovers details about their relationship as he becomes a confidante, especially to Sophie.

The narrator-observer is an unusual narrative technique. It’s rarely used, but it can be an effective tool in a story where the main characters are too biased to reveal all of the dimensions of a novel.

Have you ever used the narrator-observer point-of-view? Can you think of other examples of this technique  in literature?


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Ripped from the Headlines?

Agents and publishers caution writers against selecting story ideas based on breaking news events. Why? As my journalism professors used to say, news is a perishable commodity. News stories have a short shelf life, especially in today’s 24/7 cable-and-internet fueled world, where the demand for fresh content is relentless. The timeline from inception to publication of a novel is generally three to five years. What’s hot news at
the moment will be long forgotten by the time a book is written and published.

Another reason not to draw inspiration from topical news events is that other writers are doing the same thing. Look at all the books published in the last five to eight years that used the 9-11 terrorist attacks either as part of the main plot, a subplot or a character’s back story. This may not be an adequate analogy because 9-11 was such a monumental event that it deserved to be explored and written about in all its dimensions, much like the Civil War and World Wars I and II continue to be the subject of books, even today. The point is, though, unless you are confident you can write the definitive, breakout book on the subject, your story will be lost among the sheer number of novels dealing in some fashion with the terrorist attacks.

I have mixed feelings about using news stories as the inspiration for novels. I understand the wisdom of staying away from major events that tend to grab writers as grist for novels. Yet, I come across news stories all the time that fascinate me and make me wonder, “what if?” I’m not
talking about a story where a writer can change a few names and circumstances and call a news story an original work. I’m talking about stories with a captivating premise a writer can use as a jumping off point for a fresh, original story.

A lot of people were riveted by the Amanda Knox story and I’m sure there’s more than one writer out there trying to figure out how to rearrange the events into a novel. That’s obvious fodder for a novel.

Recently a couple of not-so-obvious news stories intrigued me. The Boston Globe is running a series on Whitey Bulger, a notorious criminal who was recently captured after nearly two decades of hiding in California. Here was a man whom the FBI claimed was responsible for more than a dozen brutal murders, a man who allegedly ran a far-flung criminal enterprise. What’s so unique about that? you may ask. Think about it. Bulger was living a seemingly ordinary life in plain sight with his mistress in southern California, where a neighbor might have mistaken him for a kindly old gentleman.

So what’s the premise here for a novel? You could take this story in any number of directions. Here’s one: the main character is a criminal who flees from the law and over the course of time, repents, and turns his back on crime. He is guilt-ridden and wants to pay his debt to society. So he does anonymous good deeds. He builds up enormous good will. Perhaps he is a lay leader in his church. All the while, he is hiding a brutal
past. Then someone finds out about his past.

The second story that caught my eye was a Chicago Tribune piece on Steve Bartman, the poor young man who was vilified by Cubs fans when he caught a foul ball, which kept alive a rally by the Florida Marlins. The Marlins overcame a three-games-to-two deficit to defeat the luckless Cubs and eventually win the 2003 World Series. I always felt sorry for Bartman. All he did was what any fan would do: he brought a glove to a game and caught a foul ball. The Tribune tried to reach Bartman for the story. He refused to be interviewed. He kept a low profile since the
incident. He never talked about it publically. Friends said he had moved on. He had a good job and he was content. He had turned down large sums from companies who wanted him to do commercials to capitalize on his notoriety.

So how is Bartman’s story a novel? Similar to the Whitey Bulger story, here’s the premise. A young man makes an innocent mistake which is so egregious he is ostracized. He has to leave the community he loves and make a new start. He makes a good life for himself, but he is haunted by
his past. He cannot live with himself unless he returns to his hometown and redeems himself. Or perhaps he anonymously helps people in his hometown in the condition that they never reveal his identity. Again, he is found out. It’s not exactly Bartman’s story, but still a winning premise.

Neither the Whitey Bulger nor the Bartman story was a huge national story (the Bulger story was big news for about a day), but they stuck with me in a way the major headlines of the day did not. I’m not sure if either story will inspire a novel, but both are in my idea file for later reference.

It shows sometimes you can find gold nuggets at the bottom of your prospecting pan.

What news story has captivated you and sparked your interest as inspiration for a novel?


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Put Your Ideas to the Test

It’s one of the topics you see most often on writers’ blogs and online forums: where do story ideas come from? Generating ideas that have the right stuff is one of the most vital aspects of fiction writing. I would submit, however, that this is the wrong question to ask. The bigger question is: does your story idea pass the test? Does your idea have enough substance and depth to generate a successful novel?

How do you find out? Put your idea to the test. When you come up with an idea, ask yourself:

  • How specific and original is the idea? “Boy meets girl” isn’t very original or specific. How about this: blind boy with a gift for music meets mute girl with a love for music. Their parents are very controlling and do not want to see them get into a relationship. In the right hands, there’s a good story there.
  • Does your idea lend itself to the development of an interesting cast of characters that grow organically out of the plot? Man trapped on a deserted island is a riveting (if over-used) idea, but you can’t create a cast of characters (at least human ones) if most of the action takes place on the island. Unless of course you have Tom Hanks to play the main character in the movie.
  • Does your idea pass the “who cares” test? Write down your idea and the outline for a few opening scenes and then ask, Can I get someone else to care about this story? How?
  • Can you take your idea and identify at least a dozen key scenes or turning points? Does the idea have the potential for rising action?
  • Is there enough (or any) inherent conflict and tension to sustain the story? Do you have characters with competing goals?
  • Does your idea lend itself to an interesting setting, or multiple settings?
  • Does your idea touch on larger themes?

Sometimes an idea can arise from something as seemingly minor as an emotional reaction to an event or a news story. My current work in progress was inspired by my disappointment over Christine O’Donnell’s victory over Mike Castle in the primary election for the Republican Senate nomination in Delaware in 2010. The story has nothing to do with those events. It’s not a story that espouses a Democratic or Republican philosophy. It’s my take on the rise of celebrity candidates, our broken political environment and what it means for our country.

There is no shortage of ideas. Keeping a list of story ideas is a sound practice. Not all of the ideas you come up with will have the potential for a full-blown novel. That’s why it’s helpful to put your ideas to the test.

How do you know when your idea for a novel has potential?


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What Are You Reading Now?

Writers benefit when they read widely, not only in the genre in which they write, but across all genres, and non-fiction as well as fiction. In addition to the inherent pleasure of reading a good book, writers gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for the craft of writing: how to structure a story, character development, use of dialogue, balancing narrative, dialogue and action, creating rising action, and much more.

Each year I set a goal to read 25 books. I just finished reading Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder. I’ve always been a big fan of Ann Patchett’s work and her new novel does not disappoint. Here are some books I’ve read recently:

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Innocent, by Scott Turow

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Where do I find out about books? I choose books mainly based on reviews in The New York Times, Goodreads, fiction writers’ blogs, or recommendations of friends.

I gravitate toward family sagas, because that’s the genre in which I write, but I also enjoy murder/mysteries, women’s literature, biographies and even the occasional sci-fi thriller. I read mostly for pleasure. Sometimes I am drawn to a  book because of similarities to what I am currently writing. At other times, I select books for research. I read Decoded because I am working on a novella where one of the major characters is a
rapper and I didn’t have a clue about how to write that kind of character. I like Jay-Z’s music and the book gave me some great insights into the psychology and sociology of rap music.

What are you reading now? How do you decide on a book you’re going to read?



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Should We Give Away Our Work?

The New York Times published an interview recently with Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, who pirated his own work by giving away free translations of his books until he was caught by his publisher. Radiohead achieved notoriety when they released their 2007 CD, In Rainbows, online and let fans name their own price. Author JA Konrath at one point was reportedly posting PDF copies of his novels on his website for readers to download for free on the theory they would pay the nominal fee for the convenience of reading his books on an e-reading device. What’s going on here?

Why would authors or artists give away their work for free? There are three reasons: to build an audience, to gain feedback for a work-in-progress, or out of a principled belief that artistic works and ideas should be accessible to all.

While this is great for consumers, I’m not a fan of the idea that artists or authors should give away their work. Artistic works are worth something. Although many authors toil for years writing novels with no expectation of being published or making money, we would like to think there is a financial reward for our achievements.

From a consumer’s perspective, it comes down to the “perception of value.” If you give away your work, the public perceives it as worth nothing. Wait a minute, you say. What about Amanda Hocking and John Locke, who amassed huge sales of their 99-cent e-books? They were practically giving them away. Correct, but there’s a big difference between 99 cents and zero.

Hocking and Locke made conscious decisions on pricing. They bet that interesting, well-written books priced ridiculously low would sell, and they were right. First-time authors who publish on generally choose one of two price points: 99 cents (on the theory they can sell
more books, even though the royalty rate is just 35 percent) or $2.99 (the price point at which the higher royalty rate of 70 percent kicks in). It’s a
calculated decision. Self-published authors know they won’t sell many books unless they price them between 99 cents and $2.99.

I plan to publish my first novel, Small Change, through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. I plan to set the price initially at $2.99. Why? I put
three years of my life into writing and editing this book. I believe it’s worth the price of a coffee and a donut, but that will ultimately be up to the reader to decide.

And what about well-known authors who elect to make their work available at little or no cost? According to the Times story, Coelho “continues to give his work away free by linking to Web sites that have posted his books, asking only that if readers like the book, they buy a copy, ‘so we can tell to the industry that sharing contents is not life threatening to the book business,’ as he wrote in one post.”

One could criticize Coelho’s methods, but he must be doing something right. Coelho has sold 140 million copies of his books and he has actively engaged readers through social media. According to media reports, he has more Facebook followers than Madonna.

Should artists give away their work?


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