Posts Tagged ‘The Writer At Work


I’m beginning to see a pattern

So I spent about 30 minutes fiddling with this post trying to make it sound less like whining. But, that’s what it is, and there’s only so much dress up we can play. If you can stomach it, please bear with me. I promise to be brief.

I’ve started work on my third contracted book, and on paper, things look good. I’ve got more plot than I usually do at the starting point, I know my characters and my world pretty well, and I’m riding high after my editor’s love of book 2 (still grinning about that). So…


I keep thinking that, if I write enough books, it’ll get easier. I mean, practice makes perfect, right? This is the third book in a series, what’s left to mess up? Why am I having such trouble?

I was bemoaning the above to my husband who, without even looking up from his computer, said “don’t worry, you’ll get it. You do this every time.”

I wanted to scream that I most certainly did not, that this was NOTHING like all those other times! I had it so easy then, he doesn’t UNDERSTAND… except he’s totally right. Looking back at various blog posts from days of yore, horrible, unbreakable, hatefilled writer’s block at the start of a novel seems to be my standard operating procedure, a fact that I somehow forget every time I start something new (probably some ancient survival mechanism, like how laboring women forget the worst of the pain so that the human race can continue).

The good part is that, though this happens every time, my husband is right, I do always get over it, the book gets written, life goes on. It feels so stupid to go through this same song and dance with every new novel, but apparently something deep in my brain needs this to move forward.

Anyone else have a stupid writing roadblock?


my stones have a 2 bird minimum

I love efficiency. Love it. When I play video games or clean my house or go shopping or cook or move or do CSS or anything, efficiency is the watch word.  Everything must be done in the most time and resource conserving way. There are few happinesses as great as finished off a day’s work an hour ahead of when you were scheduled to thanks to efficient use of materials and time.

This love of efficiency has served me well in many areas of my life, especially in my professional career. In writing, however, it is a constant source of frustration. Writing, you see, is not an efficient art. Oh, there are efficiencies in storytelling, like making sure every scene is serving as many purposes as possible, or using a conversation to shed light on several secrets at once (As the title says, for my scenes, my stones have a 2 bird minimum). But writing, the act in itself, is not and can not be efficient. This is because the act of writing a novel is what programmers call a wicked problem; you don’t know how to solve until you’ve solved it.

I plan my novels out pretty thoroughly, but anyone who’s ever gotten through a book will tell you that a plan rarely survives the first encounter with the enemy. Writing is idea based, and the author, as a human, has no control over when the best ideas will come. More often than not, I think of a better way to write a scene right after I’ve written it, or right in the middle of writing it, or when I’m writing an entirely different scene 50 pages later. Sometimes I’ll write a scene just as planned only to realize that, thanks to this brilliant idea I had two weeks ago, the scene is now irrelevant or redundant or plain stupid. Often I only realize this when I’m knee deep in the scene, when it’s far too late for even the pretense of efficiency.

If I were being really efficient with writing, I would have those brilliant ideas at the beginning and plan all the little fallouts ahead of time. You can see how this is impossible. Writing, at least for me, is as chaotic as the creative bursts that inspire it, and yet, I feel it is infinitely improved by that chaos. At the same time I’m ripping out my hair over the week I’ve lost writing a chapter that I’ve just realized is irrelevant, I’m happy, because the book is better without that chapter. Some of the best scenes in my books are the ones I never planned, never even knew existed until I was neck deep in an unsolvable problem and then, there, rising from the murky depths of the subconscious, was the perfect, shining solution, and all it would take to implement is going back and rewriting three chapters at the beginning… again.

After three books, I’m still struggling to let the efficiency go, and just accept that any novel I undertake will not be an efficient process. It will be messy and broken and I’ll have to redo about 120% of it, and these things are not failures, they’re just the nature of the beast. I don’t think I’ll ever embrace this completely. There’s a nasty little part of me that thinks this time, this novel, it will be different, and maybe someday it will be, but probably not today.


Stupid Writer Tricks

Since I’m up against a deadline today, I thought I’d take a break from heavy writer stuff and talk about some of the stupid tricks I use on a day to day basis.

1) Backing up my work – mailing things to myself

As someone who has lost 2 computers now, I have a horrible and well earned phobia of losing work to technical failures. My solution? Gmail. Every morning when I’ve done my writing/edits for the day, I mail my latest version to myself at my gmail address. Gmail lets me assign behaviors to incoming mail, so I have it set up that all mail from myself with an attachment and the subject “backup” is automatically marked as opened and shoved into its own folder, so they don’t clutter my inbox. Not only does this let me use Google’s billions of dollars in infrastructure and backup to store years (about 4 now) of daily versions of my novels, but they’re available from anywhere and I can search for the name of the attachment, thus finding any novel I’ve mailed to myself in the past. This is AMAZINGLY handy. Gmail, it’s free, smart, and easy, I can not recommend it enough as a backup system or as a mail client.

(Also, if you’re worried about your mail getting hacked, you can just do what I also do and keep a secret gmail address only used for backing up work. Hey, they’re free, get tons.)

2) Writing by event, not wordcount

I used to be a word count fanatic. Video games have taught me that there is no greater pleasure in life than watching my numbers go higher and higher.  Shooting for a high, round number was a great motivation for me, but then I started hitting numbers over and over again, and the shine wore off. Also, I was no longer thinking of my novels in terms of numbers, I was thinking about them in terms of events. So that’s how I started writing. Every morning I’d sit down and say “I will write until x happens” or “I will write until y is complete,” and then I’d do it, or not. Sometimes the story would change and I’d have to pick a new goal, or sometimes I’d just quit in frustration. Still, writing until you finish a scene can be a more organic approach and encourage you to use only the words you need. I switch between word count and scene as I need to, whatever motivates me most at the time (sometimes it just feels awesome to call it a day when you hit 50k).

3) Remembering that writing is not a performance art

I have a post card above my desk with the following: “Writing is Not A Performance Art,” and I try to look at it at least once a day. I tend to get caught up in details when I write, like, did I word this scene correctly? Would Character A really be such a jerk to Character B? Have I been spelling “waved”  as “waived” for the last 80,000 words? (Yes)  When sticks like these occur, I pull back, break away, and remind myself again: writing is not a performance art. No one is watching me, no one is reading over my shoulders. No one ever has to see anything I don’t want them to see. It doesn’t matter if this scene is stupid, unless I tell someone, no one ever has to know it existed. If I can’t get it now, I’ll make a note to fix it later and move on. Who knows, I might not even use it. I might find a better way later in the book. On the first draft, grammar, spelling, even coherency are not as important as getting the thing down. You can always fix it later, or trash it. Any worrying over details at this point will probably be wasted work.

Writing is not live action performace, it’s all post production editing and special effects.


Editing is serious business!

I’m getting very, very close to typing those coveted final words on the most embattled, stubborn novel I’ve ever written. I am almost light-headed with joy at the thought of finally, FINALLY being done…

But, of course, I’m not done. The day after I type “The End,” it’ll be edit time. Worse, like all battle fields, this novel isn’t a pretty place. There are bits of abandoned plots, twists I totally forgot I was hinting at. All of this has to be fixed fast, and right. More right than fast, but still fast, because deadlines are closing in, and I’ve got another novel to get busy on. In short, it is time for SERIOUS BUSINESS editing.

Serious Business editing isn’t like my usual, in-novel editorial process, where I sit around and rewrite sections this way, maybe that way, until I’m happy.  We’re talking hardhat and waders, a bulldozer to bury the corpses of bad or abandoned ideas, and industrial superglue to stick the threads back together after I hack things to pieces. Since it’s on my mind a lot right now, I thought I’d lay out my novel boot-camp for you. Hopefully it’ll at least be entertaining in a schadenfreude kind of way:

First, I print out the whole book. On the cover page, I write my goals for this book. The short list of themes, elements, and plot twists I’m out to accomplish. Then, pens in hand and fresh notebook at my side, I start reading. I don’t do any rewriting here. I don’t mess with word choice or style. I’m looking for large scale problems – pacing, story, plot holes, dropped threads. Each of these is noted in the margin, and then in the notebook. I read it once as fast as possible, marking all the problems. This usually takes about 2 days. Once I’m done with read #1, my notebook is usually pretty full. My next task is to go through all these problems and try to solve them as elegantly and efficiently as possible. I also look at what areas are giving me fits and ask the tough questions, like do I need this section at all? Am I just writing to hear myself talk?

Once I’ve got a battle plan for solving my problems, I go back to the text and start making insert marks where the problem-solving changes will fit in. I cross out sections that get the ax, and make short, clear notes about what’s going to go there instead. I used to actually do these notes in the margins, but they tend to get very messy, and messy notes quickly become indecipherable notes. (After losing a good chunk of my notes on my first book, I switched to the notebook, which works better, but still isn’t perfect.)

So, short notes and another read through to try out the solutions in my mind. After this, I usually have a pretty good idea of what needs to change and how I’m going to change it, so it’s time to go back to the text, rename it as an edit file, and get to work actually making the changes.

This usually goes pretty fast when I know what my goals are, and soon I’ll have a new draft. By this point, I’m ready to hand it out to my most trusted readers (the people I can trust not to laugh at the awful word choices that proliferate on a first draft.) I used to slave away to make the manuscript read perfectly before this point, but that always turned out to be a waste of time. I’d work 2 days on one section only to have a reader point out I didn’t need it at all. Now I solve problems from the top down, largest first. Style and grammar are the very last things I worry about. After all, why fret over what may just get axed?

After I get my copies back from my readers, I look at the problems they marked and decide if they’re problems I need to fix. Sometimes I’m just not explaining things well enough, and the problem is more of a misunderstanding than a real plot issue. Other times, they catch me red handed in an act of pure idiocy. This is when first readers are truly worth their weight in rainbows. Once I’ve identified the problems, I decide how to fix them in the notebook, as before. Problem solving in the text only makes messy text and frustrating writing for me, notebooks are where it’s at!

Finally, now its time to edit in the traditional sense. As I’m going through and adding solutions to reader problems, I look at my text, fret with style, do checks for words I use too much, all that good stuff. This is the part of the edit that takes the most time because it’s the most nitpicky. When I finish this part, the manuscript is officially a final draft, ready for viewing by publishing people. This doesn’t mean it’s DONE. It just means I’ve got something that won’t embarrass me to tears when my agent/editor reads it. After all, my first readers already know I’m an idiot who can’t write, but my agent and editor are still fooled. I don’t want to blow my cover.

So, that’s pretty much how I edit a novel. It’s an evolving process, and I never edit any two novels the same way. Tell me, how do you edit your work? Do you have a process? I’m always eager to learn a new trick!


nerding out

I make no secret of my nerd nature (not that I could, really, but whatever). Part of the awesome combination of being a huge nerd and being an author is that you get to steal from everywhere, including things that don’t have anything to do novels. Case in point: the other day my husband (who makes and runs role playing games and is thus an even larger nerd than myself) was talking to me about the theory behind how a good GM decides what kind of threat to throw at players.

According to him, there are 4 types of challenges players face:

1 – Easy

This is a problem the characters can face without stretching at all. Think small scale bandit attack. The characters have to act and address the problem, but they’re not really threatened.

2 – Challenging

This problem forces characters to actually dig into their resources. It’s a serious fight where the characters are threatened and may be wounded, but if they don’t botch, there’s no real risk to their lives and they don’t have to do anything particularly clever to triumph.

3 – Difficult

This is a fight where the characters are outmatched. Their lives are really threatened, and they won’t be able to win unless they use their powers in new and interesting ways. Screw ups, bad decisions, and/or sloppy planning have real consequences in a difficult challenge. Think boss fight.

4 – Overwhelming

The characters are too short for this ride. Overwhelming challenges are large scale plot events the players aren’t meant to be able to face, and are often used by the GM to railroad wandering characters back into the plot. These world-sized roadblocks can only be conquered with help from the GM through deus ex machina or a powerful NPC taking pity on them. 


Generally my eyes glaze over when my husband starts talking about game theory, but every now and then, he comes out with something brilliant. This was one of those times. While all of these are framed in terms of players and a game, it doesn’t take much rearranging to see how diving challenges up into these categories can help with pacing a novel.

For example, an easy challenge at the beginning of the novel is a quick way to give characters instant cool factor. You simply set up a challenge that looks hard, but is actually something the character can do with ease. Stopping an assassin, say, or slaying a demon, it’s rough stuff for us normal people, but all in a day’s work for our heroes. However, this sort of thing can’t be used exclusively. A novel where the challenge level never gets above 2 (challenging) has no teeth. If the characters are never truly pushed, they’ll never grow, and you’re left with dull, static people. Plus, no one likes a main villain who goes out like a punk.

On the other hand, though, you almost never want to use an overwhelming challenge, and certainly never multiple ones. When you give your people a hurdle they can’t possibly jump on their own, you’re taking the power of the story out of your character’s hands, turning them into passengers on their own plot. While taking power away from a normally powerful character can create great tension, powerless characters are boring over the long term, and no one likes to see their favorite heroine get the shaft at the very end.

Yet I’m constantly amazed at how many novels, especially fantasy adventures (my favorites!), start at level 1 and end at level 4, but skip everything in the middle. Or, they start at 3 and never let up, so the characters are constantly in over their heads, and we as readers never really get a feel for them as competent people (which isn’t to say there haven’t been novels that have pulled this off, but it’s not an easy trick to have your character constantly on the losing side and not get beaten down or, even worse, unbelievable).

My ideal story (assuming a fresh book, not #2 in a series) starts at 1 or 2 and then slowly builds up (through a series of 2s and 3s) to a 3.5. This is a difficult challenge that looks like an overwhelming one until the characters apply some new trick and cut it down to size, tipping the situation on its head to come out on top. Those are the best! I love seeing characters start at the top of their game, and then get in more and more over their heads as things get tougher until they’re using every weapon in their arsenal, plus a few they had to make up along the way, to get out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into.

Again, this is stuff I always kind of knew, and I’m sure none of this is new to any readers of this blog. However, for me, the act of organizing challenge into set levels gives a degree of control over what is otherwise an abstract concept (which is the whole point of role playing games – assigning numbers to concepts). This system of levels allows me, as the architect of the story, to think about the challenges my characters face in a measurable way so as to preserve tension without working my into an impossible scenario I’m going to have to hand of god (or as I call it, WRITER SMASH!) my way out of. When writers smash, books get broken.

Anyway, just another one of those unexpected story paradigms I love and wanted to share, and I hope you found it useful, or at least interesting. For those of you who write, how do you approach conflict and challenge for your characters? Also, do any of you game, and does that experience have any influence on how you approach your stories? Inquiring minds want to know!


Beating back blocks with knowledge!

Thanks to my unscientific poll last week, I learned that lots of you are of a writerly persuasion. That’s awesome, because now, I don’t have to fret about boring you to death by sharing some of my incredibly nerdy nerd tools!

When I’m writing, one of the things I do over and over again is answer character questions. You know, all those online “10 Character Creation Questions” quizzes that proliferate on writing sites. I do this because 1) they’re fun, and 2)  when I get stuck writing, it’s almost always because I don’t know something I need to know. Sometimes it’s a plot point or world building thing that I haven’t thought through, but, 9 times out of 10, I’m stumped because I don’t know my character well enough, and as a result I’m accidentally trying to make them do something they either wouldn’t do at all, or wouldn’t do in that way. Through trial and error, I’ve found that the fastest way to combat this problem is to ask them questions. Preferably on the subject at hand, but, if I’m really stuck, anything will do. I just ask questions until I stumble onto the solution to my problem. 

I get stuck a lot, so I’ve done a lot of character creation question sheets. Lately, however, it’s been frustrating, because most character sheets are set up as if this is the first time you’ve ever thought about your characters. They ask you basic things like “what’s you name?” or “who were your parents?”  But I’m on my second book with these people. I need something meatier, something that reaches a little further than “what was your most traumatic experience?”

Fortunately, I’m married to a super awesome man. My husband makes and runs role playing games for our circle of friends, and he’s constantly creating tools for them. A while ago, when I was lying on the floor bemoaning my book (a weekly occurance), he gave me a list of questions he’d written up for his players in an attempt to get deeper characters out of them. I loved it, and I’ve used it as a staple for all my characters ever since.

So, for your edification and enjoyment, I’m posting it here. Think of it as a short supplement to other character creation sheets.  I hope you find it useful, and if you think of any awesome questions to add, please let me know!!

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Sitting down, getting it done

I’m not much of a procrastinator when it come to writing anymore (god, at the beginning it was a miracle I got anything done). This doesn’t mean I don’t have my glitches, though. It often goes like this: I’ll finish a day’s worth of writing, completing a scene I was really excited to write. I feel accomplished! Look at how much I did! The next morning, I get up and sit down at the computer and… check my email. Check my websites. Check websites I haven’t been to in a while. Pick up beloved book from the shelf beside my desk and read a few pages. Watch videos people have sent me. Next think I know, it’s 9:30 and I’ve just wasted my entire writing morning doing… I can’t even remember what. Frustrated and angry, I go to work. Next morning, sit down, repeat procrastination process, catch myself half way through and force myself to focus Rachel, focus! Maybe write a little, then go to work feeling depressed. And to think I got so much done two days ago!

This is/was my cycle of productivity/inactivity, and it’s been killing my ability to write on deadline. Lately, however, I’ve picked up a new trick. I didn’t invent this trick, but I can’t remember what productivity book or list or article I skimmed it off of. Basically, it goes like this:

When I sit down at my desk to write, I open my novel in progress and look at the last scene I wrote, or the scene I stopped half way through. With that clear in my mind, I ask myself “What happens next?” I sit perfectly still and focus on that question until I have an answer I’m happy with.

The answer has to be small, simple. Vague things like “climatic battle” are useless for this. I’m looking for “character A has to convince character B to join him.” A single, simple action. Then, I write until that action is complete. After that, I stop again. What happens after this? What’s next? Then I write that. Rinse and repeat as needed until word goal has been reached.

During this process, I never let myself think too far ahead. Vagaries and broad pictures have too much wiggle room, too many gaps and crinkles to get mired in. Right now, all that matters is getting to the next point on the chain, the next action. By focusing on the small, manageable steps, I keep my focus and dive. Even better, with goals this small, this manageable, procrastination feels silly and unnecessary. I become, in short, a writing machine of city destroying proportions.

Of course, by keeping the focus this narrow, sometimes I don’t make the best decisions. But, writing is not a performance art. If I mess it up, I can fix it later, no big deal. So long as something gets written, the day was not wasted. So I go step by step, action by action, scene by scene, until, sooner or later, a novel comes out. Then, once I have it, I can worry about making it good.

And that’s how I beat procrastination!



second book syndrome

I stumbled over this quote the other day:

“No one is waiting for you to write your first book. No one cares if you finish it. But after your first, if it goes well, everyone seems to be waiting. You’re suddenly considered to be a professional writer, a fiction machine, but you know very well that you’re just getting going. You go from having nothing to lose to having everything to lose, and that’s what creates the panic.”

It’s from an interesting article, but the rest of it didn’t stick with me as much as this paragraph. This is me, right now. I’ve got the dreaded second book syndrome. 

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Wikis. Awesome.

So I’ve mentioned wikis a few times here, more than enough to establish my love for them, I’m sure. And since Margaret gave me an excuse, (BLAME HER) I’m going to tell you why they are made of awesomesauce

So, what is a wiki?

You’re all probably familiar with wikis. Who hasn’t gone to Wikipedia to win an argument with some obscure bit of knowledge? But online encyclopedia is only one use of a wiki. A wiki is simply a medium for storing and organizing information online through a series of interlinking, categorized, editable web pages. You can use wikis to store pretty much anything you need to, even worldbuilding.

Why Worldbuild on a Wiki? 

Like pretty much ever author ever, I love to worldbuild. When I was in highschool, I filled notebook after notebook with sprawling, amazingly detailed histories of places that didn’t exist, relationship for characters who didn’t have worlds, all kinds of neat stuff. But information written on notebooks is hardly safe. They get damaged, they were hard to search through should I ever actually want to use any of the information I’d written down, and they got lost constantly. In fact, only two survive at this point. Almost as soon as I got serious about writing, I knew I needed something better.

So I moved all my paper rambling to word documents. Here, at least, things wouldn’t get lost barring catastrophic hard drive failure. But while the medium was technically different, the problems were still the same. My worlds were broken up on hundreds of tiny, cryptically named files spread over two computers and a laptop. Things I jotted down when inspiration hit me, then saved and forgot about. I tried dumping everything in one file, but that quickly dissolved into an unmanageable mess of words piled on top of each other.

By the time I’d finished my first novel, I was done with random disorganization. I needed structure, order, and I needed it to be always accessible so stupid things like not having the right file wouldn’t slam the breaks on writing that was hard enough already.

Enter the wiki. Wikis don’t demand order, but they encourage and inspire it because it’s just so easy to be organized. I’ll start on the front page with a few large categories: characters, geography, politics, timeline, and often a category for random cool scenes I think up but don’t know where to put yet, because hey, plot is still a million miles away. Each of these categories becomes a link, an empty link that I can follow and create a new page. Now my one page wiki has six pages, and each of those six pages can spider off. Characters, for example, would have three lists right off the bat: protagonists, antagonists, and others. Each of these names becomes a link that I can click and fill in and, the best part, link to other characters. If I have a brother and sister pair, each of their pages links to the other. Same with a romantically involved couple, or a pair of moral enemies. Wikis show relationships, and for writers, that means relationships between people, organizations, places, political groups, magical schools, everything. By the time I’ve copy-pasted all my random worldbuilding from my files (because I still use word for little things, and by the time I’m ready for a wiki, I’ve often got tons of little documents in desperate need of order), I’ve got a sprawling net of interconnected pages showing the same information, only now it’s all interrelated, allowing me to trace a character’s influence through the wiki. Better still, a wiki will show you where your worldbuilding is thin. If your protagonist has a million links going off her page, but your antagonist (or worse, the love interest) only has two, then you know right there who needs a little love and thought.

Perhaps the best of all is that wikis support those random flashes of intuition. If I wake up in the middle of the night KNOWING how this guy waaaaaaay over there is somehow vital to the climax of the plot, I can fire up my laptop, log in to my wiki, and start making connections. Maybe he’s involved in the shadowy conspiracy? (Link to shadowy conspiracy) Maybe he uses this little known school of magic? (Link to school of magic). And best of all, the links don’t even have to GO anywhere! Maybe you haven’t even invented the little know school of magic, so what? Leave the link blank and fill it in later. But the wiki still shows the connection, and that’s where a wiki truly shines. It lets you connect all those disparate thoughts into an online network of easily accessible, easily editable pages. Plus (since you’re the only one using it), your wiki can be as spoiler-happy, messy, and incomplete as you want. And it doesn’t stop at text. I can add pictures, upload scans of maps, links to outside sources, anything I want. And it’s all there, all the time, accessible from anywhere that has internet, and safer than I could ever make it (the guys who run my commercial server certainly back up more than I do).

If your eyes glazed over during that wall of text, let me sum up: WIKIS: THERE IS NO LOSE!

Ok ok, Rachel, you can stop foaming at the mouth, it’s gross and disturbing. Anyway, all that sounds pretty cool, so how do I get a wiki?

Getting a wiki set up is very simple. There are tons of free ones out there, ranging from the simple to the robust, and almost all are open source. If you’re shopping around, Wikipedia provides a comprehensive list (complete with features, requirements, and links) of currently available wiki programs.

Since freeware wikis are generally made by geeks in their spare time, quality varies wildly. Personally, I like Dokuwiki because it’s easy, light, well documented, well supported, reasonably pretty, and doesn’t require any kind of database support to run. Almost all wikis require a server, because a wiki is a webpage at its heart, but some are made to run locally on your machine, meaning all you need is a computer. Of course, a local wiki wouldn’t be available online, so you’d lose some awesomeness, but it would be completely free, so there’s a bonus. Still, if you’re already paying for webspace, throwing up a wiki won’t cost you anything. The software is free and tiny, and even fully filled in, your wiki file is likely to be one of the smallest on your server. I have fifteen wikis hosted on my silly little cheap domain right now, and all together they take up less room then one of the portfolio downloads for my graphic arts day job.

Once you’ve found your wiki, simply follow the instructions in the readme file and you’re good to go.

If all this convinced you to at least give a wiki a try, especially if you were considering one of those overpriced writer software packages, then my work here is done. Let me know how it works out for you, and happy worldbuilding!


Writing Retreats

I’m a lucky, lucky girl. I’m in a phenomenal writing group — I’ll talk about writing groups some other time — and just last week we finished up our annual writing retreat. It was a fantastic experience and I wish I didn’t have to wait a whole year to do it again.

Writing retreat, you say? What do you mean?
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