Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who said that? Dialogue Tags.

Whether you know them as tag lines, dialogue tags, or identifiers, the “he said”s and the “she said”s are the necessary evils of writing dialogue. Overused, and they sound weird and repetitive. Underused, and things get very confusing. The last thing you want is for your readers to lose track of who is talking. Unless that’s the point of the scene.

This is from Jasper Fforde’s brilliant Thursday Next series. It’s the second book in the series, Lost in a Good Book

     ‘So one of you is fictional,’ I announced, looking at them both.
     ‘And we have to find out who it is,” remarked Tweed, levelling his pistol in their direction.
     “Might be Yorrick Kaine-’ I added, staring at Kaine who glared back at me, wondering what we were up to.
     ‘-failed right wing politician-’
     ‘-with a cheery enthusiasm for war-’
     ‘-and putting a lid on civil liberties.’
     Tweed and I bantered lines back and forth for as long as we dared, faster and faster, the blows from the Beast outside matching the blows from Raffles’ hammer within.
     ‘Or perhaps it is Volescamper-’
     ‘-Lord of the old realm who wants-’
     ‘-to try and get-’
     ‘-back into power with the help-’
     ‘-of his friends in the Whig party?’
     ‘But the important thing is, in all this dialogue-’
     ‘-that has pitched back and forth between-’
     ‘-the two of us, a fictional person-’
     ‘-might have lost track of which one of us is talking.”
     “And do you know, in all the excitement, I kind of forgot myself!
     There was another crash against the door. A splinter of steel flew off and zipped past my ear. The doors were almost breached; the next blow would bring the abomination within the room.
     ‘So you’re going to have to ask yourselves one simple question: Which one of us is speaking now?

Buy Lost in a Good Book at Amazon

There is a way around using direct dialogue tags, and that’s by interspersing action with the dialogue. I do this a lot. Too much, probably. There are only so many times a character can play with their hair, or stare at the floor, or sigh, before you realise they’re so full of themselves that you want to punch them in the head.

As in all things, it’s about the balance. Because if you forget whose turn it is to talk, things just get confusing. And hilarious:

And maybe I wrote a whole post about dialogue just to share that video with you. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Scenes I hate writing: Sex Scenes

At the moment it's a real relief for me to be working on YA. My YA might be gritty and violent and nasty, but nobody is having sex. Nobody in my main character's tiny circle of friends anyway, because they've got more to worry about than hormones. Bless 'em, because I hate writing sex scenes.

Wanna know something scary? I think I'm good at writing sex scenes. Those of you who have followed my blog for a while know my awful secret -- I've got a book published under a pen name that is (clears throat and checks my mum isn't watching) naughty. Hell, let's be honest, it's erotica. And it was probably a weird thing for me to attempt because I don't like writing sex scenes. 

Now, after having written what feels like a gazillion sex scenes -- people in naughty books are insatiable -- I like them even less. I've realised there are three reasons why I hate them.

1. There are only so many times you can describe a sex scene in new and creative ways without relying on euphemisms. And I hate euphemisms.

2. The choreography. Just like in fights scenes, you have to remember where every part of every person is at every time. And I thank my editor for pointing out to me in one of my earlier drafts that if that couple was doing what I said they were doing, there was no way they could be looking one another in the eye. Whoops. For my next book, this guy: 

3. The Shame Factor. If I write about torture or war or bloodthirst and violence, I do it safe in the knowledge that my family and friends can read it without thinking that I'm a bloodthirty, violent war-mongering torturer. However, when I write about sex, and let's say it's particularly inventive sex, I'm frightened that the the first thing they'll wonder is How does Jen know that? And this is why I have a pseudonym, and why I can never tell my mother what it is.

How do you feel about sex scenes? Do you avoid them like the plague, or do you dive in headfirst? So to speak.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Scenes I hate writing: Battle Scenes

Battle scenes. I can't write 'em. Particularly not big ones. There's way too much choreography going on in those. I cheat when I need to, by bringing it back to one single, skittish POV. And that guy will probably get knocked face down in a heartbeat, because the concussion that makes him vague and confused makes my job easier.

See this guy on the ground? Sure, he might look dead, but in actual fact he's my POV guy. All he can see is mud and smoke, so that's all you'll get to see as well.

Waterloo. My guy is wishing he took the day off.

I like to think I'm bringing a personal touch to a battle scene -- a sense of immediacy -- but really it's because I get confused if there are too many pieces on the board. Also, I hate the idea of historians scoffing at me. Well, really, I imagine them sneering over their port and cigars, even a child could tell you the wind was blowing from the northeast so the Prussian banners can't possibly have been streaming out behind them, what!

It's true what they say. War is hell.

Are there any battle scenes you've read that were brilliant? What about god-awful?

Are there any scenes you hate writing?

(And in a few days we're talking about the biggie - sex scenes!)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Who is coming on the Campaign? Also, my blog is on fire.

Who is going Rachael Harrie's Platform Building Campaign? I am! I'm hoping to meet some great new people and learn lots of stuff!

Check out the guidelines on Rachael's blog  Rach Writes.

Also, my blog is on fire... not really, but the lovely Miss Cole at Miss Cole Seeks Publisher has given me an award!

Here are the questions I have to answer:

1. Are you a rutabaga?

I had to look this up to discover that I am not, and I have never been, a member of the rutabaga party.

2. Who is your current crush?

Is it weird that I say Moss from The IT Crowd? That's weird, right? Here is Moss in court: 

3. Upload a heartwarming picture that makes you smile.

This is my very messy bed on a very cold night. I had to go to work, and these two couldn't even summon up enough energy to look up. But they're kinda cute. 

4. When was the last time you ate a vine-ripened tomato?

I cannot remember. That means it’s been too long, right?

5. Name one habit that causes other people to plot your demise.

My ability to maintain eye contact and nod as though I’m listening to what you’re telling me, when in fact I drifted off with my imagination about ten minutes ago and am currently wondering about what sort of environmental disaster would turn the sky orange and how awesome it would look on a book cover. What do you mean I’m fired?

6. What’s the weirdest, most disgusting job you’ve ever had to do?

When I was in high school I did a week’s work experience with a vet. At the time I lived in a small country town. It was calving season, and I was hoping to be lucky enough to see a calf being born. When the call came in at last the vet, two university students and I piled into the jeep and headed out to the property. It had rained the night before, and when we got there it was muddy and smelled of wet dung. The unhappy cow was waiting for us in a paddock. It didn’t take the vet and the famer long to agree that the calf was dead and had been for some time. The way its weirdly slimy greenish leg was sticking out the back of the cow was kind of a giveaway. And it was stuck in there. Even when the vet got a chain around the leg and the farmer hooked it up to the tractor, it wasn’t going anywhere.  So, caesarean.  Mud, blood, and a grotesquely deformed dead calf that was eventually manipulated out of the gaping hole in the side of the cow. I can still remember helping hold the cow together while the vet stitched her back up and blood drizzled down onto my Dunlop Volleys. Then, when we were all covered in mud and blood and bits of stuff that belonged inside the cow, the grossest thing of all happened -- the farmer’s wife brought out steaming bowls of homemade pea and ham soup. Ugh. I hate pea and ham soup, but I ate it anyway to be polite.

7. Where da muffin top at?

Um, is it above the muffin bottom? 

8. What author introduced you to your genre?

I don't know! I don't think I have decided on a genre yet because I like too many different things.  

9. Describe yourself using obscure Latin words. 

Nunquam dormio - I never sleep. Damn nightwork. 

I would like to pass this award on to some awesome bloggers who always have insightful things to say about writing: 

Margo from Urban Psychopomp
Claudie from Claudie A  and
Sommer Leigh from Tell Great Stories

Together these four bloggers make up the truly awesome Wicked and Tricksy. 
If you haven't been over there yet, check it out!  

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Battle of the Sexes - who won?

Today the Australian Governor General Quentin Bryce may or may not have put her foot in it when she said in a speech that woman have communication skills and emotional intelligence that men cannot match.

Now I like Quentin Bryce. If we have to have a representative of the monarchy to open parliament and shopping centres and warships and whatever else the GG does, I’m glad we’ve got her. She speaks well and scrubs up nicely. However, some media commentators -- possibly those with bitter divorces and child support payments -- are now positively outraged: But if I said women were less logical and more emotional and can’t parallel park, I’d be crucified by feminists!

Quentin Bryce - a woman
Well, they didn’t really say that, but it seems to be the point they’re going for. But what would I know? I’m running on illogical emotion here, people.

I believe the GG is right when she says women have better communication skills and higher emotional intelligence than men. I also believe that men are better at anything involving spatial relationships and cold, hard maths. But only generally speaking, of course, because Ada Lovelace could run rings around most men, and, when you get down to it, what the hell is gender anyway?

What I believe is that way back in the olden days when we were all sitting around the cave listening to the sonorous mating call of the woolly mammoth at night, men and woman had very different jobs. Men hunted, and women gathered.

What matters when you’re hunting? Distance, speed, spatial relationships, and silence, because if you don’t do it right you’ll end up in the wrong place on the food chain.

And when you’re gathering? Verbal communication. Zogina, I remember there were berries growing by those rocks last year. Let’s go and check there.

Evolution wired men and women for different tasks, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s actually meaningless. Because if generalisations have taught us anything, it’s that there is always an exception to the rule and people should be judged on their personal abilities regardless of gender, or ethnicity, or any other box they tick.

What’s annoying is that it’s apparently still a hot button issue in Australian politics in this day and age. 

What's annoying you today? 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Having a real job (or two)

People talk about work/life balance all the time, and how difficult it is to maintain one. It's even more difficult if you are slaving away at something that you consider work, but nobody else does. Because I might work eight hours at my day job, then come home and write for six or seven. And no, this is not the same as doing nothing even if I don't have a lot to show for it at the end. Just because I go to bed at 3 o'clock in the morning doesn't mean I've been up watching TV and stuffing around on the internet. I wish it did, but it doesn't. 

The problem with writing as work is that we writers know that it's work, but family and friends often don't. Because, to be totally fair, a lot of the time it looks exactly the same as eating chocolate and staring into space. Sometimes it looks the same as looking at fan videos on Youtube for Captain Jack Harkness and Ianto, but really, I'm working, I promise. 

Jack & Ianto from Torchwood and yes, I'm still traumatised. 

So when I'm acting like a weirdo rushing from one job to another, from one computer screen to another, it's not just that I've turned into an anti-social cow. (I've always been one of those.) It's that if I want to be a professional writer, I need to treat this as a real profession. I need to put in a lot of hours and a lot of practice, and in order to do that I need to make sacrifices. If I was working double shifts at my day job you'd understand. But because it's 10 a.m. and I'm still in my pyjamas, you think it's not a job. 

It is. It just happens that the uniform is fuzzy pink flannel with bunnies on it. 

Any tips for explaining to the important people in your life that writing is an actual job? 

(On a side note, is anyone watching Torchwood? How are we feeling about the new series? I'm loving it, in a cranky sort of way. You all know why. I'm still upset about Children of the Earth.)  

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Check this out! It is awesome!

I was over on Deana Barnhart's blog today, and she has a link to a really fun little tool.

It is called I Write Like, and you paste some of your WIP into the magic window, and it tells you which famous author you write like.

I put in the except of my WIP from the hatefest a few days ago, and got this:

I write like
J. D. Salinger
I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

And don't I wish that was true!

Check it out, it's good fun!

Monday, August 15, 2011

What is Voice?

Voice is tone.

Voice is personality - if not yours, then your narrator’s or your POV character’s.

Voice can’t be learned, but it can be refined. The more you write, the clearer it will become.

Voice is filled with bias and nuance.

Voice is colourful.

Voice is what makes your story different from mine when we are describing the same incident.

Write until you find it, because voice is what makes you unique.

And speaking of voices, here is one I could listen to all day:

Go forth and be gorgeous and high and true and fine and fluffy and moist and sticky and lovely! 

Friday, August 12, 2011

I hate you! (Blogfest, not hurtful declaration...)

Today I am taking part in the Hatefest, because I am tired of sharing the love. 

To jump on board or to check out the other entries, go to Tessa's Blurb.

My entry comes courtesy of my current WIP*. It's a first draft, and still a bit shy. It hasn't been outside in the world before, so it may scream and panic. Please, no flash photography.

Everyone, meet Danny. Usually he's an angry little bunny, but he's kind of on the back foot in this scene. Also, the weird liney things are not a typo. They are shorthand for whenever Danny looks at his watch. He does that a lot. This is lifted from the middle of a scene where Danny has been watching TV and daydreaming. Also, I'll apologise now for Danny's language, because he won't.

     “Sutton! Heads up!”
     For a second I might have been standing in the sunlight with Lillian Bartlett, but just a second. Now I’m back in the rec room, and some arsehole just threw a boot at my head. A fucking boot.
     And it hits me right in the temple, because he only yelled out so I’d look up. It wasn’t a warning, it was just because he wanted to see the look on my face and get a clear shot. I see a flash of white pain before I even know what’s happened. Then I’m holding my head and looking through stinging tears in the direction it came from.
     It’s Carroll. He’s sitting two tables away from me, and he’s laughing.
     “Fucking arsehole,” I tell him. My head is throbbing.
     “Come here and say that, faggot,” he dares me.
     And maybe I would, except he’s got a table full of his mates with him. I hate Carroll, I hate his mates, and anger opens my mouth for me.
     “Why? Is the walk over here too much for you, gimp?”
     His lip turns up in a snarl, and my heartbeat races.
       Too much. Idiot.
     Carroll hates me as well. I was at the top of the wall that day. I unclipped his safety rope. I’d do it again too, any day of the week. I’d let him get all of the way up as well, so it was a thirty-foot drop back down onto the mats when he lost his footing and his ropes didn’t catch him.
     Little bastard, he screamed at me when they were carrying him off to the med bay. His mates beat the hell out of me for it, but it was worth it. I’m not the one with the permanent limp.
     There are maybe ten other guys in the rec room, and none of them are from my barracks. None of them are obligated to step in. So shit, at least I can outrun him, right?
     I look at the boot on the floor and remember that dumb joke: You should always try to walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes. That way, you’re a mile away and you have his shoes. Or something like that. I’m not good with jokes.
     I look at my watch
which is pointless. Should be moving, not counting down the seconds until Carroll and his mates beat the living shit out of me.
     In 5…
     I’ve left it too late to run.
     Carroll’s mates are out of their chairs and circling in around behind me, blocking my escape route. They’re like a pack of dingoes. They’ll snap at your heels and dodge away again until exhaustion brings you down.
     I know this.
     Some guys smoke and drink and gamble to pass the time.
     Some guys play paintball and hit the wall.
     Some guys cut their wrists and have to wear blue armbands.
     Some guys play the guitar and dream about solwata.
     Some guys stare at the stuttering second hand on their watch: |||
     And some guys are just arseholes to break up the monotony. 

*When I say my WIP, I mean mine and my sister Kath's, but since she doesn't have a blog I'm the only one currently exploiting it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

TMI: The Underwear Meme

I have been caught by the Too Much Information: The Underwear Meme, thanks to Margo at Urban Psychopomp.

This may be pornography, I can't tell.
So now I get to answer all these strange questions about underwear! I’d like you to imagine that I’m in a dark room, and someone from the secret police has just shone a spotlight right into my face. It's okay, I can tough out even the hardest questions, like:
Vot do you call your drawers?
What do you call your drawers?

Underpants. Why, what have you heard?

Do you have any commonly used nicknames for them?

Undies. Or, given that I’m Australian, I may occasionally use the rhyming slang "grundies".

Reg Grundy was a television producer. Almost every show produced in Australia from 1960 - 1985 ended with the voiceover “This has been a Grundy Production". You kind of had to be there.

Have you ever had that supposedly common dream of being in a crowded place in only your bloomers?

Not in the anxiety-inducing way you’re thinking. I might even wake up smiling.

What is the worst thing you can think of to make long johns out of?

Several short johns stapled together. It's just not the same.

If you were a pair of small clothes, what color would you be, and WHY?

I would be green. With polka dots. And just because.

Have you ever thrown your bloomers at a rock star or other celebrity? If so, which one(s)? If not, which one(s) WOULD you throw your bloomers at, given the opportunity?

No. Undies are expensive. I’m not made of money. My god, I just paid over a hundred bucks for concert tickets, and it costs like $50 for crappy t-shirts, and can you believe I just stood in line for half an hour just to get charged $10 for a can of bourbon and non-branded cola? These people have already got the shirt off my back. They’re not getting my undies as well.

Actually, I don’t think I would ever throw my undies at a celebrity. My hotel room key maybe -- but what the hell would they want with my undies?

You’re out of clean drawers. What do you do?

Stay in bed in my pyjamas. It’s the solution to all life’s problems.
Eventually someone will call to see how I am. When they do, I will ask them to bring me new undies.

Are you old enough to remember Underoos? If so, did you have any? Which ones?

I have never heard of Underoos. Are they spy kangaroos? If not, why not?

If you could have any message printed on your long johns, what would it be?

Abandon all hope ye who enter here…

(You know, I was going to rethink that, but then I thought, “No, go with your first instinct.” Also, once I’d thought of that I couldn’t think of anything better.)

How many bloggers does it take to put small clothes on a goat?

I suspect it would take as many as we could find, and then some. Goats are not renowned for their compliant natures.
Now, since I'm late to the underwear meme, I can't be sure if these bloggers have done this yet. But, if they haven't, maybe they will!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A neighbourhood mystery I am too tired to solve

My next door neighbour is building something in his carport.

I don’t know what he is building. Whenever I sneak a look over the fence I can just see a wooden wall in the carport. I like to imagine all sorts of things behind that newly constructed wooden wall. Is it a sauna? A tool shed? A meth lab? I guess I won’t know until the whole thing explodes.

I could just ask my neighbour, but our relationship has been strained ever since one of my trees fell on his roof during the cyclone. The way he looks at me now, you’d think I pushed it.

Usually I wouldn’t care what he’s building, but he’s been building it for about four weeks now. Really. He’s building something in his tiny carport that has taken four weeks.  I know this because four weeks ago I was on night work, and spent most of the time lying awake listening to my neighbour’s power saw.

Which would have been okay…but four weeks? I would have expected something more than a wooden wall after four weeks. I don’t know, something impressive like this: 

This awesome house no longer exists, by the way. It was the Sutyagin House in Arkhangelsk, Russia. The local council demolished it because it was all built without a permit. Shows, doesn't it? 

But my neighbour doesn't have much to show for his labours. I was curious at the beginning -- curious enough to wish that Nancy Drew lived in the neighbourhood and would investigate -- but now I'm just tired of it. 

Tonight I am back on night work, and he's still building. Now, the spooky thing about my neighbour is that he seems to know exactly when I am going to lie down for a nap. He'll give me no more than five minutes, and then the hammering starts. Like clockwork. Normally I'd be disturbed by the possibility that this is some sort of Truman Show/evil psychological experiment, or intrigued by the possibility that I somehow have the ability to control the universe, but I'm too tired. Instead, I'll hunt down my earplugs, have a sleep, and think back to those happy days when my tree landed on his roof. 

Three months until next cyclone season. Bring it.

(Meanwhile, how fantastic is that house? I kind of want to live in it. My roommates would be hobbits, alchemists, and possibly the Weasley family.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I'm looking in a mirror. Now I'm describing myself. I'm annoying.

First person point of view is great. It enables the narrator to get inside one character’s head and stay there. The POV character is the lens through which the reader views your world, and it can be as warped or shadowed as you like. First person is the most personal of all points of view. One character, one voice, one focus. 

But what does my character look like? In the thirty-odd-thousand words of my current WIP, I’ve mentioned very little about my character’s appearance. He sees it everyday, right? It’s not noteworthy to him. He’s got more to worry about.  

Unless your character’s appearance is somehow crucial to the plot -- the serial killer only likes redheads (sorry, Miss Cole!) -- or if your character hangs around with the sort of people where looks matter (hello, high school cliques!), chances are he/she won't spend too much time detailing his/her own physical attributes in his/her mind.  

Because readers still want to know what your character looks like, way too many POV characters gaze into mirrors and contemplate their own reflections. And holy crap, that is so annoying. For me, it’s an immediate turn off. It’s so contrived, and so blatant that I can feel my lip curling just thinking about it. Don't get me wrong: it can be done well. Just, usually, it isn't.  

Jeune femme au Miroir, by Jean Raoux. 
I’m not completely blameless. In my current WIP my character does actually catch his reflection at one point, but he doesn’t see the details. He sees this: a pale face with big, scared eyes and a bad haircut. A quick glimpse and it's back to the action. 

A different option is to use another character to describe your POV character, but you can’t afford to be too blatant about it. In my WIP another character calls my POV character a “skinny white boy” but that’s it so far. I’m drawing it out. No info-dumps for me, because they don't belong in dialogue. 

"Well, John, as you know it's a Tuesday, and I always collect my mail from the post office on a Tuesday. I have been in this habit since 1963, when, as you also know, I worked as a bank clerk next door to a post office. Ah, I see you have noticed my brown hair, grey eyes, and the dimple in my chin." 

By far the best option for describing the physical characteristics of a POV character is to sneak it in: 

Paul prefers blondes with hourglass figures, but you don’t always get what you want. In a perfect world he wouldn’t be coming home to a stocky brunette with freckles and frown lines. In a perfect world I wouldn’t be coming home to him either -- his jaw clicks when he chews his food and he has more hair on his back than on his head -- but I still said yes when he proposed. 

Now, if I've done that right, you're thinking more about why I've agreed to marry a man I really don't like, instead of being smacked around the head by my description. 

How do you slide a physical description of your First Person character into the narrative?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A dozen posts about possums; or, Closure?

I am hoping that this will be the last post I ever have to write about possums.

I think they've moved on now... I think. I still hear Sid and Nancy cavorting across my roof occasionally -- when you wake up to that crashing sound several times a night for over a year, you can recognise them by their footsteps. Those are my possums, you'll think, and then hate yourself.  At least they're now rampaging around above the roof instead of below it, and I can live with that.

It's been a while since any bread went missing from my kitchen bench. Sure, I've been keeping it hidden in the microwave -- possums can open cupboards, but not microwaves apparently, so I am hopeful that young Johnny Rotten is no longer squeezing in through the shutters to steal food. I haven't noticed any footprints on the bench in a while. 

In fact, it's been so long since any food went missing that today my dog tried to fill the void by stealing an entire bag of chocolates off the kitchen bench. She's a ten year old arthritic Labrador who sometimes can't get up the stairs, but give her the right incentive and she's a contortionist. And I know chocolate is poisonous for dogs, but she seems to be processing it just fine. Also, I'm mostly angry because that was my chocolate. If she wants chocolate she can buy her own, dammit. I am not a charity. 

And just to cheer myself up, here is a picture of a possum's bum disappearing out of the window of my spare room:

May this be the last I see of them!

Monday, August 1, 2011


Slang is wonderful. The right piece of slang can do the work of an entire paragraph of backstory. Often a few well-chosen slang words paint a large picture for the reader in just a few strokes. They can show a character's age, socio-economic background, ethnicity, cultural background, and more. Slang can be the shorthand of character exposition. Often, it’s not what we say but how we say it that tells people who we are.

Used sparingly, slang can make your voice unique. The key is sparingly. We’re not all writing A Clockwork Orange. Which brings me to the question: Should you make up your own slang?

On the plus side, invented slang wouldn’t date. And all the groovy chicks and happening cats know that nothing dates faster than real slang. You dig? Far out.

On the down side, is wholly invented slang too contrived? Like I said, we’re not all writing A Clockwork Orange. I’m fairly sure that if I tried to make up an entire slang language, it wouldn’t sound anywhere near as horrorshow. Horrorshow was good, right? It’s been a while.

Of course, there’s always local slang. I love local slang. These examples aren’t popular Aussie slang  -- no she'll be right, bonzer, cobber maaaate here (You know, the stuff from postcards that real people never say...) My examples are particularly North Queensland and I've never heard them used outside the region. Sadly, they just doesn’t work as well without the accent in your head.  

 “Early part” meaning “earlier”.
He was around here early part.

“True god”. 
Did this really happen?
True god!

“Gammin”. Lying, or kidding. Or sucks to be you. 
True god?
Nah, just gammin.

My shout -- just gammin!

I have fallen down a well.
Ouch. That’s gammin.

Do you use real slang in your writing? Do you use well-known slang or obscure slang? Or do you make it up as you go along? What awesome local slang do you use that nobody else has ever heard of? 


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