Characterization in three steps

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As a manuscript assessor with over 200 full length assessments under my belt, I’ve seen the whole spectrum of fictional characters, from You’re so real I can almost smell you to Oh dear, he’s made of cardboard. Pity…

We all want our characters to step off the page as living breathing individuals, so I’d like to give you my three most cited reasons for characterization failure and how to correct it.

Use of cliches

The moment I read He was so angry, steam came out his ears, I want to put the book down. Seriously? Do you not realize that readers are highly visual? Unless this is a fantasy/children’s book, your character doesn’t actually have steam lifting their cap, or daggers shooting out of their eyes.

Instead of giving us a cliche (and turning your character into generic angry man) show us how your character is unique. We all experience and express anger in different ways. Some people get theatrical and throw things. Others (scary people) go really quiet and just stare at you. When you’re writing a scene, spend time thinking about your character and how they’re likely to feel anger (physical sensations and thoughts) and how they’re likely to express it (dialogue and action). Then let that flow into the scene.

Sloppy Viewpoint

For those of you who don’t understand viewpoint, it’s the perspective of the character whose eyes/sensations/feelings/thoughts you’re choosing to filter the story through. I’ve grabbed an image from Grand Theft Auto to show you what I mean: your character looking at the world of your story (or their phone as the case may be):

GTA V Online

It’s your job as the author to pick a character in a scene and show us the scene through their viewpoint, along with all their opinions about what’s happening and why and what they think of others etc. When you leave us inside their mind for extended periods of time (not head-hopping from one character to the next), we grow comfortable there and drop deeply into the story, coming to understand that character’s natural biases, interests, memories, desires and fears. This is how you build characterization via the Show don’t tell method, and it’s also the reason that you try to give your main characters the lion’s share of the viewpoint, so their characterization will be strong.

What I don’t want to see is you stepping in as narrator to “tell” me:

Mary was fat and ugly unhappy. No man ever asked her out. She often gorged on food instead of taking time to care for her appearance.

(Note: this is a workshop participant’s example that I used to create a ‘make this into a scene’ exercise in class, not my own work!)

I’d rather you sit me inside Mary’s head and “show” me:

Mary slumped onto the stained couch and wondered if there was a spring loose before she dug a half-eaten Toblerone out from under her butt-cheek. She tossed it into the ashtray and reached for the sticky remote control. Nothing decent on the box, as usual. Only dating shows and they gave her indigestion. Stupid women spending ten hours in hair and makeup just so they could get on tv.

Bitches. Mary reached past the sleeping cat into the opened pizza box and took out the last slice of a family-sized cheesy crust. “Any loser can marry a farmer”, she told Princess Jasmine, who slept on, blissfully unaware of the mozzarella dotting her fur. “If they want to live in the middle of woop woop.”

Not exactly deathless prose, but the difference between what you “tell” the reader (narrative summary) and what you “show” them via Mary’s viewpoint (in a scene with setting, dialogue and action) is the difference between a cookie-cutter character and one that’s starting to come to life. It’s still a little generic, but as the story progresses, you’d have ample opportunity to make Mary truly unique as you show us the world through her eyes so we can really empathize with her. If you’d like to have a shot at creating a scene with Mary in the comments below, that would be fun. Try to avoid the stereotypes I’ve put in (single woman and a cat, unhappy and over-eating, single and hates dating shows, etc). And that leads neatly to step three!

Stereotyping:

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read a character who’s so stereotypical they feel like they stepped out of a board game. You know the type: the sexy secretary, the big bad biker, the gruff boss, the dotty aunt, the feisty grandma, the cherub child, etc, ad nauseam.

I’m not saying kids can’t be cute, but no child is cute 24/7. Neither is every child ‘bouncing off the walls’ (see Cliches above) 24/7. Some secretaries are just good at their job and aren’t there to be lusted over or objectified. Ditto shirtless construction-workers.

Real people are never just one thing. Neither are good characters. For seat-of-the-pants writers, this can be a real problem because as they start the book they might not know their character very well. But by the end of writing a book in draft they should know their character inside-out, and that’s the time to go back and change anything that feels generic or stereotyped. If the secretary in your story is sexy, what if she’s also a math whiz or a kick-boxer or has a house full of adopted pets?

I’m not telling you to go mental with quirks, but try to think past the characterization shorthand we all use when we’re looking at characters from the outside, and get inside them, under their skin, inside their heads. Even sub-characters who never have viewpoint in the story should still come across as unique individuals.

So, there you have it my friends. Three easy tips to make your fictional characters more realistic. If you’ve got questions or further tips, please pop them into the questions below. And if you’re looking for a good book to help with fiction writing, I can heartily recommend this one. My copy is dog-eared!

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Manuscript Assessment is open for business!

Just a quick note to let you know that I’m taking a break from writing to recharge and do some manuscript assessment over the next few months. If you know of anyone looking to have their manuscript professionally assessed, prior to submitting it to publishers, please feel free to direct them to my manuscript assessment webpage: https://ifyoumustwrite.com/manuscript-development/

Thanks!

Louise

Kindle Scout: Reader-powered publishing

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scoutpreview

If you’ve never heard of Kindle Scout, don’t feel bad. Until last week, I hadn’t heard of it either, but it’s shaping up to be a game changer for indie authors, as well as traditionally published authors who have a book they just can’t sell, like my unpublished novel SILK (above). SILK is book one of a fantasy romance series that I’ve been trying to sell for years, and I’d love to see it gain a wider readership than I can manage with self publishing, so I’m giving Scout a shot.

HOW SCOUT WORKS: Any Amazon customer can go to the Kindle Scout website (you can see my book on their website here: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/GDATHRYHT8YR) and without needing special logins beyond their normal Amazon account, they can scroll through lists of unpublished books that authors have uploaded and nominate any three. If a book that they nominate is selected by Amazon for publication, the reader receives a free copy as a bonus for supporting the author.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR AMAZON: Publishers are getting savvy about ‘author platform’ and a great book is often not enough to get you a publishing contract. In the Kindle Scout model,  Amazon is not only assessing the popularity of your book excerpt and cover, they’re assessing your social networks (which should equal new readers for them if they publish you). In the “campaign stats” for your book, you can see where the page traffic is coming from. Here are my stats at day 4 of my campaign:

campaignstats5dec2016

I’ve got over 1000 Facebook friends on my personal page, and I called in favours to get shares of my post about SILK there. I also have a Facebook Author page with 1200 Likes, so I’ve boosted that post on Facebook over the next few days to those followers who I hope will take the time to check out the book and nominate it. So my traffic from Facebook is looking good so far. I imagine that as my campaign progresses, the traffic from Kindle Scout will slow as all the habitual ‘scouts’ have looked at SILK and either chosen it or not. However, for all I know there could be hundreds of new ‘scouts’ turning up on the Kindle Scout website every day, so I look forward to assessing that as I go.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU: The end result of your 30 day campaign is that if your book is wildly popular, Amazon may offer you a 5 year contract with a $1,500 advance and 50% eBook royalty rate for worldwide publication rights for eBook and audio formats in all languages. (Authors retain all other rights, including print.) You’d also receive ‘featured Amazon marketing’ which I’m guessing will make your novel far more visible on the Amazon website!

HOW DO AMAZON DECIDE? No one’s quite sure at this stage, but is seems clear that the number of  nominations you receive and the breadth of your social networks play a role, as well as the feedback readers have given on your book when they nominate it (screenshot below):

telluswhatyouthought

HOW DO YOU SUBMIT? The website is simple and the upload is easy but read all the instructions before you start. You’ll need certain answers beyond the blurb and bio, so I found it easier to create a document to list all my answers so I could cut-and-paste them during the submission process. That helps ensure your answers don’t go over the character count limit because if they do, they’ll be cut.

You need to submit a proper book cover as well as the completed and proof-read manuscript in Word format (even though only the first 5000 words are shown to readers). My 5000 words ended 87 words short of a cliffhanger, so I emailed and asked if they could extend the sample that much and they did it immediately, which was great customer service.

Once you’ve uploaded all your bits and pieces, Amazon takes up to 2 days to decide if your work is of sufficient quality to be accepted. If it is, they email you with details and a link to a preview of your campaign page so you can let them know if there are any details you’d like changed (as I did with my excerpt).  Your 30 day campaign usually starts within 48 hours of that acceptance email, so that gives you time to get your “Please nominate me” emails and Facebook posts ready to go. Once your book is live on the Kindle Scout website, you can go to town, calling in all favours and trying to get your book into “Hot and Trending” for as many hours a day as you can manage! Here’s how mine went in the opening days:hottrending5dec2016

Pretty good so far, but 30 days is a sustained effort, and I’ll be away from my computer over Christmas, so I’m giving it my best over the next fortnight and hoping momentum will sustain it after that.

So, that’s where I’m at with it so far. If you’d like more info on Kindle Scout or how I’m going, please feel free to email me mail@louisecusack.com or pop a comment in below about your experiences with Scout if you’ve already tried it. If you’ve got a book in the bottom drawer gathering dust, it could be a good option for moving it forward!

 

A self publishing adventure

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DigitalPublishingTalkFeb2012Most of you will know me through this website as a writing mentor and teacher, but I’m also a writer. I began my career with fantasy twenty years ago, being published in a Harper Collins anthology, then with a fantasy series published by Simon & Schuster. Since then I’ve been published by the Pan Macmillan imprint Momentum Books, and I’ve dabbled in self publishing backlist titles. But my main focus as an author has always been traditional publishing.

For the last 2 years, however, I’ve been writing books in a romantic comedy series and trying (unsuccessfully) to crack the US market with the opening novel. I quite understand why it’s a hard sell. It involves infidelity which isn’t common in romance novels, and the combination of erotica and romantic comedy is also relatively new. Unfortunately, even well published authors can become demoralized, and when my rejections hit double digits, I found my enjoyment in the work and my motivation were slipping. All my reader feedback on the series, however, was positive, so at the start of the year I took the plunge and decided to self publish these books, and since then I’ve been excited, bewildered at times, but ultimately optimistic.

My reason for blogging this is that I’d like you along for the ride. I’d like to share my experiences with you if you think they’ll help your own writing career. There will be highs and lows, tips and tricks, pitfalls. Hopefully you’ll work out whether self publishing is a road you want to go down, and which path you want to take!

Here are the opening 4 books of my Husband Series (along with a quote I was kindly given by Romance Writers of Australia mate Amy Andrews who’s already a big seller in this genre):

HusbandSeriesAmyQuote

To begin, I’m releasing book one Husband Sit exclusively on Amazon Kindle (where 80% of romance novels are purchased) so I can access their pre-order function, and I’ve set the book at .99c US until its release date of Feb 17, at which point it will revert to $3.99. That’s my incentive for people to BUY NOW! My goal is to see a shirtload of sales go through on release day, which should bump the book up the charts. If a book reaches the Amazon best seller lists in the top #100 it develops a momentum of its own. So if you’ve got .99c US to spare, feel free to pre-order. I won’t complain about you being part of the experiment!

I’m also part of a few Valentine’s Day book hops (promotional opportunities where readers win prizes) and you’re welcome to join them as guests to see how they work. I’ve never done them before so I’m looking forward to finding out myself. Just click on either of the links below and join:

PageCurlValentineBookHop   KindleBookReviewValentine

To complete my promos, I’ve got my own Facebook Release Day Blitz party organized for Feb 17 which you’re most welcome to join. My beta readers are coming and they’ve invited friends. It’s on Facebook so you can wear pajamas! Just click on the picture below and then when you’re on the Facebook event page, select GOING. Facebook will remind you when it’s on.

ReleaseBlitzForHusbandSitFacebook

If you’ve got ideas for me, please share. I’m busily finishing book two so I can upload it in draft form on Amazon before book one goes on sale. That will allow me to set book two on pre-order. I want people to be able to finish Husband Sit and love it so much that they immediately click on the link in the back of the book to pre-order Husband Stay.

My longterm goal is to have twenty books in this series, and the first four will be released this year. Wish me luck!

Procrastination. Don’t go there.

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Writers want to write. Our heads explode if we don’t (or other messy things happen, trust me). But for some reason, when we get time to devote to our passion, this often happens:

WRiteTheBookWhat’s the answer?

Set an appointment.

Every day at an appointed time, work on your novel. If you’re writing draft and are suddenly not sure what to actually write, go back to your plot and character notes and do some What If-ing with a notepad to get back on track.

Half an hour a day can accomplish one page of 300 words. If you can do that five days a week for 50 weeks of the year (take a fortnight’s holiday on me!) you can write a 250 page manuscript of 75,000 words.

Most people fail to finish a novel because they waste time editing the opening. If I had a dollar for every time I’d heard an unpublished writer say “I can’t go on unless the beginning is perfect!” I’d be holidaying in the Seychelles right now! Published writers keep writing until they get to The End, and then they edit.

So, my “take homes” for today are:

  1. Write every day
  2. Don’t start editing until you’ve finished the book in draft

Arguments, insights, tweaks? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

How do you build characterization?

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I taught a workshop on characterization over the weekend at the beautiful Gold Coast, and was thrilled to be able to meet the local writers and share some of the craft lessons I’ve learned through assessing over 200 manuscripts. At the end of the workshop, one piece of feedback I heard over and over was, “Thanks for giving us specifics to work on.”

On the drive home, I couldn’t help remembering the first time I’d had feedback on a story I’d written. The competition judge told me that my characterization was “thin”, and I remember feeling really confused, because to me, those characters were very real. I clearly had to do something, but I had no practical method of making my characterization stronger.

If only I could go back in time and tell that young writer what I know now!

Of course I can’t. But I can share my hard-earned craft tips with you: so the first and foremost (with both characterization and plotting) has to be Goal Motivation Conflict (or GMC as we call it in the trade).

gmc

Write this out for every main character in the story. I keep mine on a file card next to my computer so I can pull it out each time a character is about to step into a scene. I want to remind myself about what’s important to this character and why. Here are a few tips for filling it in:

1. Clarify in your own mind who your main CHARACTER is and give them the lion’s share of viewpoint in the novel (if it’s a two-hander, say a romance novel, give them equal share of the viewpoint). The more viewpoint a character has, the more their characterization develops through the Show Don’t Tell method.

2. Clarify early in the story what GOAL the character is trying to achieve, and ensure there are serious consequences (either physically or emotionally) if they are unsuccessful. This creates a high-stakes novel with a clear thread for the reader to follow through the story (NOTE: ensure all subplots either help or hinder the main character achieve their goal. If they don’t, the plot can feel loose and unfocused).

3. Create strong MOTIVATION for the character to pursue their goal. You’ll want to put obstacles in their path to create tension and reader empathy, but that will only work if readers believe in the character’s motivation to stick with the goal. The last thing you want is readers wondering “Why don’t they just go home?”

4. Create a balance of Internal (emotional) and External (physical) conflicts for your character to overcome on their way to the goal. The genre of your novel will dictate some of this balance. At one end of the spectrum, Romance novels are usually heavy on Internal Conflict, while Action Adventure tales tend to have much more External Conflicts and less emotional angsting.

My next tip is that CHARACTER TRAITS MUST SERVE A PURPOSE:

AidenTurnerToplessYes, well, of course I’d prefer it if this picture actually had anything to do with the topic, but I suspect it’s simply a good looking man with no shirt on. The things you find while you’re looking for content…

Anyway. Character traits. Don’t invent virtues and flaws for your characters unless they’re going to serve a plot purpose. If you do, your novel will feel loose and unfocused. If a character’s virtue is honesty, put them in a situation where they’re forced to steal or lie (for some greater purpose, of course). The take home here is: A strong plotline tests the character’s virtues and highlights their flaws. Try not to forget that.

And my final tip on characterization is on VIEWPOINT, sometimes called Point of View. The more you are in a character’s viewpoint, the more readers will learn about the way they perceive the world (what they actually notice of the world around them), what their biases and preferences are, what emotional baggage they’re carrying, etc. When you are delivering the story from inside a character’s viewpoint, the character’s internal life becomes obvious via their internalizations (thoughts) which Show Don’t Tell us why they’re doing what they’re doing and saying what they’re saying.

When unimportant characters come into the story, don’t give them viewpoint unless you absolutely have to (they have a piece of information to deliver that we can’t find out from inside the main character’s viewpoint). The more you hand out viewpoint in a story, the more you dilute characterization. You can’t bond us to everyone, so make damn sure you use viewpoint to bond us to the main character/s!

If you don’t understand what Viewpoint is or how to do it, please learn! Viewpoint is the most important tool in a writer’s toolbox. Learn it and use it carefully to craft your story.

I hope this is helps you develop your characterization. Naturally it doesn’t cover all the details I’d get across in a 2hr or a day workshop, but it should give you a few ideas to work with. If you have any questions, please feel free to pop them into the comments below. Cheers!

 

A short dream workshop with Sophie Masson

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I’m excited to be inviting Aussie fantasy author Sophie Masson to share some writing tips with us today. But first a little about Sophie:

Sophie portrait blue and redBorn in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in Australia and France, Sophie Masson is the award-winning author of more than 50 novels for readers of all ages, published in Australia and many other countries. Her adult novels include the popular historical fantasy trilogy, Forest of Dreams (Random House Australia). Sophie has always had a great interest in Russian myth and history, an interest reflected in several of her books for younger readers. Her latest Fiction novel is TRINITY: The Koldun Code (Book One)

Sophie is also a teacher of writing, and her book By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers is full of practical and entertaining tips on the craft, business and inspirations of writing. From using your dreams to craft great fiction, to writing dream outlines to attract the attention of publishers, from knowing how to make the most of literary festivals to understanding how magical characters tick, from coping with reviews to being inspired by fairy tales, By the Book is bursting with practical, entertaining and illuminating tips on the writing life. Written by an author whose career spans more than twenty years and more than fifty books published, this book offers advice for writers both new, and not so new.

Sophie has very kindly offered to share an extract from the book:

A short dream workshop by Sophie Masson

From time immemorial, human beings have dreamed–every night we go into what one of my sons’ friends once referred to as ‘those brilliant eight hours of free entertainment.’ And from time immemorial, writers have used images or scenes from dreams, or entire dreams, to enrich and expand their creative work in waking life. I’m certainly no exception. My night-imagination has always enriched my day-imagination. Several of my short stories have started directly as dreams, for example, ‘Restless’, a chilling ghost story I wrote not long ago, began as a really creepy and unforgettable nightmare. Another disturbing story, ‘The Spanish Wife’, a vampire story set in the 1930’s, started as a dream in which someone said, very clearly, ‘No-one took any notice of him till he brought home a Spanish wife,’ and that turned into the very first sentence of the short story. Images and scenes from dreams have also gone into my novels, and in one case, a very vivid and intriguing dream inspired an entire six-book children’s fantasy series of mine, the Thomas Trew series. It’s not always fantasy or supernatural stories that have sprung out of dream-compost for me, though; everything from family stories to thrillers to historical novels has benefited from it.

Over the years, I’ve learned quite a few techniques on how to best use vivid, scary, tantalising or intriguing dream sequences in my writing, and how to investigate them for best effects. Here’s a short workshop based on some of the techniques I’ve developed over the years:

*Think of a dream you’ve had. Any dream. It doesn’t have to be anything exciting or unusual. Go back over the dream-scenes, as if you were a police witness being asked to remember an event. Who was in it? What did they look like? What were they wearing?

Were they people you knew or strangers? Were there any animals in it? What sort? What was the setting like? Indoors, outdoors? What could you see? Smell? Touch? Hear? Taste even? What were you in it—a participant, a helpless observer, a godlike figure?

*If you did something supernatural, like flying, what did it feel like, physically? (I’ve often had flying dreams and in them I feel a strong pull in the chest, arms stretching. Once I even woke up with what felt like an actual slight ache in the arm muscles—very spooky indeed!)

*Were there any machines in your dream? If so, what sort?

*Did anyone speak, and if so what did they say? Many dreams in my experience are like silent movies, with thought-subtitles and maybe some music, but a few have dialogue, even if it’s often minimalistic and quite enigmatic.

* Knowledge: Do you know why you were in that particular place, at that time? If you had some supernatural ability, did you know why? If there are interesting objects or gadgets in the setting of your dream, do you know what they can do, and why, and who made or used them? Backstory is very often missing in dreams, but is very important in a story, even if you only spend a few lines on it.

*Now, once you’ve written down as many descriptive details as you can about what was there in the dream, think about what wasn’t there, and write that down. While you were dreaming, did you know for instance why you or other people were doing things(even if it was a kind of weird dream-logic?) Did you understand the sequence of events? Was there a sense the dream was moving towards some conclusion, or just randomly jumping about? Motive, continuity and plot—all very important in actual stories—are often missing from dreams.

*Think of your own self in the dream, however you appeared in it: did you recognise yourself? Did you feel it was fully you or something that was only partly you, or a stranger? Did characters behave randomly? Character development is usually absent in dreams too though it very much needs to be present in a story.

*What about the setting? Were there things missing: for instance, if you were in a house, were there doors? Windows? Furniture? If you were outside, was anything odd: for instance trees growing upside down, or a wall of water appearing out of nowhere?

*Now put those two things together—the things that were there, the ones that weren’t—and you have the beginnings of a real story framework, where the wild imagination of the night and the more disciplined one of the day cross-fertilise and turn into something amazing and wonderful.

bythebookcoversmall_1Thanks Sophie! I’m so looking forward to putting these tips into action. If you’d like to buy a copy of By the Book by Sophie Masson, you can source it here:

Australian Society of Authors or via Amazon if you have a kindle eReader.

You can find Sophie Masson here: Website  Facebook  Twitter

And if you’ve every turned a dream into a story (as I know Stephenie Meyer did with Twilight) I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Happy writing!

Prioritizing your Passions

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As a writing mentor, I’ve heard plenty of clients say they “just can’t find time” to fulfill their creative dreams and write a book or even finish a short story. In the real world, aspiring writers might need to work a forty hour week to pay the bills, or fill their day caring for their family. That doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy to invest in what really lights them up.

If this sounds like you, and you’re wondering how you can carve out time for your own dreams when everyone else wants a piece of you, grab a coffee and watch this 5 minute video from the fabulously inspiring and vivacious Marie Forleo, on how to prioritize what’s really important to you:

Do you have a favorite way to prioritize your dreams and ambitions? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below:

Coping with rejection

LOUISE CUSACK

Business woman crying head in handsWriters submit manuscripts and get knock backs. It’s a fact of life that even multi-published authors have to deal with. Unless you’re Stephen King or JK Rowling (which I’m not) there’s a chance that your latest offering won’t be adored by the first publisher who looks at it. Intellectually I know that. But the heart and the head don’t always agree. When I started off in this business twenty years ago, rejection felt like this to me:

What? My precious baby isn’t what you’re looking for? How could you say that? I slaved over that manuscript. I poured my life-blood into it. I just offered you my heart on a platter and you stabbed it. Several times. Soon to be followed by: Does this mean I’m a crap writer? Maybe I should just stop kidding myself. Publishers know what they’re talking about. I’m just a woman sitting in her pajamas…

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The Color Thesaurus

This Color Thesaurus is a fabulous resource for writers. I was inspired with fantasy ideas just looking at it!

Ingrid's Notes

I love to collect words. Making word lists can help to find the voice of my story, dig into the emotion of a scene, or create variety.

One of my on-going word collections is of colors. I love to stop in the paint section of a hardware store and find new names for red or white or yellow.  Having a variety of color names at my fingertips helps me to create specificity in my writing. I can paint a more evocative image in my reader’s mind if I describe a character’s hair as the color of rust or carrot-squash, rather than red.

So for fun, I created this color thesaurus for your reference. Of course, there are plenty more color names  in the world, so, this is just to get you started.

Fill your stories with a rainbow of images!

white

Tan

yellow

Orange

Red

pink

Purple

Blue

Green

brown

Grey

black

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