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I mentioned earlier in the week that I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately and I’ve already told you about the stories I’ve been enjoying.  This post will discuss some writing-related books I’ve consumed recently.

I’ve been wrestling with some plotting demons in A Thief & A Gentlewoman, which have stopped me moving on with the story.  Sometimes plot-doubts are simply us as insecure writers second-guessing ourselves … but sometimes there really is a flaw in our plotting.  The outline of AT&aGw has gone through a few changes, with a parallel plot added to increase complexity (and ensure it reached a fantasy-appropriate word count!), but coming back to the story after a break, I now feel that that addition has actually diluted what was a strong plot with an exciting climax.  So I’ve been focusing on books about plot to get some ideas for how to move forward.

I’ve already reviewed Write to be Published, which I loved, so I won’t go over that again, except to say get it!

I picked up The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing a couple of months ago as it has interviews with some interesting writers and articles on topics not covered by some of my more specialist writing books, and it seems like good value – a big chunky book for £10.

Plus, I’ll admit it, I like getting new writing books.

This is more of a dip-into book, rather than a read-straight-through (which is what I did with Write to be Published).  I’ve read or skimmed through a few articles and particularly the section on plot, since that’s what I’m working on at the moment.  It seems quite good so far, though not utterly amazing, however I’ve only looked at a few parts and I suspect it will become more useful as I dip into other areas.

I found Monica Wood and James N. Frey’s articles on plot fairly helpful, though in a broad way of getting myself thinking about plot and encouraging my subconscious to start working on the problem of what is and isn’t working in my plot.  There wasn’t necessarily anything in these articles that I hadn’t read elsewhere, but this book would be useful for someone looking to get a one-stop reference for different areas of novel writing.  Like Write to be Published, it gives a broad overview and is a handy resource for having information all in one place.  I do prefer Write to be Published, though, as I found it more readable and like Nicola Morgan’s voice and her take on different subjects.

A couple of years ago a friend gave me a copy of Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, as somehow he’d ended up with two copies (no, I don’t know how, either, but thanks, Darron!).  In light of my current issues with my WIP, I finally got around to reading it.  Again, I used a combination of skimming, dipping in and reading fully, since some sections were more useful to my current position than others.

Despite the horrible cover (sorry, I hate it!), I liked this one and have found it really useful.  It articulates a lot of things that we already know about plot and structure from being readers and consumers of narratives, which is helpful for clarifying that feeling of “I know this plot does/doesn’t work, but I’m not sure why!”

Bell does get a big obsessed with his own ‘systems’ (complete with acronyms – are you an OP or a NOP?) and it gets a little annoying reading repeatedly about “the LOCK system”.  He does also reference his own fiction fairly often, which I didn’t think was particularly great (sorry!) and in one instance was actually quite over the top when it was meant to be giving an example of downplaying emotion.  But if you can get past those minor niggles, then this is a very useful book for helping you think about plot, whether you’re coming up with one from scratch, or re-working a flagging one.

He includes plenty of exercises to try out and some handy appendices to help write your own back cover copy (a helpful part of the plotting process) and a checklist of key elements.  There are tips for generating ideas and fixing plot problems, as well as a great section on revising and rewriting, specifically focusing on plot.  I do recommend this as an excellent reference for your writing shelves.

Finally we come to a book I almost hesitate to admit to buying: Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt.

Why the hesitation? you might ask.  Well, something about this book just seems a bit gimicky.  Maybe it’s that the writer encourages you to buy a fresh book each time you want to write using her Book in a Month (BIAM) system (what’s with writing books and their ‘systems?), or maybe it’s the very idea of a ‘system’ of writing (nevermind that it’s advertised as ‘fool-proof’ in the tagline.

But there was something that appealed to me about this book – perhaps it’s all the forms to be filled in (which is why she suggests you get a fresh copy for each novel you write, personally, I’ll be using photocopies of the forms!), which must have some sort of appeal to the woman who played ‘office’ and ‘teacher’ games extensively as a child (Complete with made up paperwork.  Yes, sad, I know!).

Anyway, I’ve read the preparation part of the book (that is, up to the point where you begin the 30-day programme) and I’m not regretting my decision to buy it.  Schmidt discusses and encourages you to think about all the excuses you make not to write or not to finish a manuscript, and the possible reasons behind those excuses.  She takes a psychological approach, looking at the ways we sabotage ourselves, reasons for resistance and methods of motivation, which is no surprise when you consider she has a doctorate in psychology.  I’d suggest keeping a journal alongside this book, where you can write about the issues raised and the questions posed – this has already helped me to feel more motivated.

Alongside this, however, she does address the writing itself and how that can prevent you from continuing.  One of my favourite sections so far is how she addresses the idea of theme and what it is you want to say with your story, explaining that sometimes the theme conveyed in a plot that isn’t working for you is a theme you’re not passionate about.  She helps you uncover your ‘writerly identity’ and visualise what it is you want to be known for as a writer, which helps you focus on writing the things that motivate you or, even, how to make an assigned piece of writing (eg, something outside of your usual genre of interest) more appealing to your own interests and passions.

There are some down sides of this book – for instance, she encourages you to write your first draft without any subplots to get the novel written in a month.  I disagree with this strategy as a good subplot will often tie in with the main plot of the novel, perhaps even helping the protagonist find a solution to their problems.  Also, the psychology-talk does get in danger of straying into ‘psychobabble’ territory sometimes, but there’s nothing to stop you from skim-reading!

So far, I’m finding this and interesting and useful book, which I plan to use to finish AT&aGw, once I’ve worked out the plot problems.  I’ll give more feedback when I’ve finished that!

What about you, what non-fiction have you been reading?  Got any writing book recommendations (or ones to avoid!) you’d like to share?

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I’ve been rather quiet on both my blogs lately, but I’m glad to say that’s because I’ve been busy doing things, rather than blogging about thinking about doing things.

One of the main writing-related things I’ve been doing is reading.  Lots and lots of reading.  I find it so inspiring to lose myself in a story and often good books give me new perspective on my own writing.  I might have been writing since I was barely into double-digits and I might have studied the craft for four years of university, but I still learn from reading (be that what to do or what to avoid!).  So this post I’ll outline some of the fiction I’ve been reading, with another post to follow discussing the writing-related books I’ve been reading.

My recent reading escapades include …

Robin Hobb!  I’ve been reading through the Farseer Trilogy and then the Tawny Man Trilogy alternating between devouring them greedily and carefully avoiding them for fear of horrible things happening in the stories.  And I had a period of mourning when I finished the Tawny Man Trilogy because I knew that meant no more adventures with Fitz and the Fool.

I loved the Liveship Traders Trilogy, which I read a couple of years ago, but I love these two Fitzchivalry & Fool trilogies even more.  She is a seriously skilled writer and an excellent study in human nature – she’s not afraid to acknowledge those less pleasant thoughts we all have and she puts them there in her characters, giving them a realism you don’t see often in characters of any genre.  Seriously, if by some strange act of fate you’ve never read any Robin Hobb, you really, really must.  Must!

The Hunger Games Trilogy.  I quite enjoyed these and read through them very quickly, though I’ve definitely read better YA fiction and when I finished I was left wondering what the big fuss was about.  Ultimately, this story is Battle Royale meets 1984 and a couple of other stories.

I did find the themes interesting, particularly the idea of the poor essentially being slaves to benefit the rich, which read, for me, as a critique of capitalism: in the capitalist triangle, the majority of people are at the bottom, working to provide for the minority who live in luxury at the top, getting (or remaining) rich from the hard work of those below them.  In this series, the division is shown literally with the districts serving the Capitol.  This idea of unequal division of wealth is a huge part of AT&aGw, so it was interesting to see it done in a different way and it was inspiring to read someone else’s writing on this idea.

Besides, who doesn’t love a good bit of dystopia?

I did watch the film after reading the books and I am quite in adoration of Rue – the girl who played her is possibly the cutest person in existence and has the biggest eyes I ever saw.

I’m teaching The Great Gatsby this year, so I thought I really should read it …  And I actually found myself enjoying it.  I often dislike books considered to be ‘classics’ as they tend to be a bit, well, boring.  (Not all classics, but quite a few!  Don’t get me started on Dickens or Jane Eyre.  Really.  You’ll regret it!)

But The Great Gatsby was an thought-provoking and intriguing read, with plenty of rumination to be done around the characters and themes.  I even did a mind map of the themes – I’m a geek like that, but in my defence, it will help me when teach the novel.  At least that’s my excuse.

I’m particularly excited at the prospect of a Baz Luhrmann adaptation coming out.  He is the perfect director to capture the bizarre, carnivalesque excess of Fitzgerald’s vision of the ‘roaring twenties’.  And the cast list is perfect.  The only downer on the release of this film is that it’s been pushed back to next summer.  Sad times.

I’m part-way through Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace.  I have mixed feelings about this one.  Mrs Robinson seems to have lived at an incredible time, crossing paths with some of her age’s most famous writers, scientists and philosophers and her story will leave you open-mouthed at the sheer injustice done to women of her age.  However, for various reasons, I was expecting an account that read more like a story, than a fairly blandly-told history.  My expectations aren’t the writer’s fault, they’re because of what someone told me before I started reading, but it is interesting to remember that the reader and their expectations and previous experiences are as big a part of the book as the writer and their intentions.  The bland writing though, well that could be down to me not being suited to reading history, or the author not being particularly suited to writing it!

Even so, an interesting story worth reading if you’re at all interested in the realities of life for Victorian women.

 What fiction have you been reading lately?  Anything exciting?  Have you read Robin Hobb?  What did you think?

I love to get book recommendations and rarely buy a book without one, so I’d love to hear if you have any!

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Good afternoon gentlefolk!  In my efforts to get back into writing, I’ve been thinking about constructive criticism and my experiences of critique groups …

I’ve been really lucky in the past as my critique partners have kind of just fallen into my lap (Not literally.  That would be weird and a bit inappropriate.).  When I did my MA, I became good friends with a small group of writers from the course and we continued to meet through the summer, reading scenes and chapters to each other, giving feedback, celebrating our successes and being there to shore up flagging confidence.  We’d email each other outside of uni and send our works in progress across the ether, often with messages discussing a sticking plot-point or a character motivation that just didn’t motivate.

So that group just appeared: it was a chance meeting of students, a small portion of whom just happened to work well together with respect and honesty.

But here I am now, almost three years after my MA finished, in a different city and without a writing course to hand me a group of like-minded people … And I’m wondering – how do people find their critique partners and groups?

Please, I’d love to hear about your experiences with critique groups and readers – how did you find yours?

(And before you go thinking my MA was all sweetness and light, I’ll tell you a story soon about when critiques go bad … but that’s for next time!)

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Rowenna of Rowenna, Writing has made a couple of interesting posts over the past week about that age-old writing adage of ‘writing what you know’.  She asks whether we should write what we know and get to know that thing if we don’t already and in her second post on the subject, she discusses how we can write out about something we simply cannot experience by, rather like in job applications, using our transferable knowledge and experience.

Go over and read her posts, they’re  interesting and she touches upon some ideas that are really important to writers, but which we don’t often stop to think about after the new writer initiation:

Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Write what you know.

New Writer: But I don’t know about aliens!

Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Well, what that really means is know what you write.

New Writer: Oh right, so I research the subject, then?

Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Er, yeah, pretty much.

New Writer: Cool, I’ll get going to the library, then.  Cheers!

Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Hmm … I was sure there was more to it than that …

So, Rowenna got me thinking and I wrote an unreasonably long comment on her post (sorry!), which I thought I’d expand into a proper blog post, since it’s so important for writing, particularly if you write fantasy, sci-fi or historical fiction.

Many, many years ago, I read that writers should ‘write what you know’, and felt confused and disappointed: did that mean I should only write about the life of a not-quite teenage girl?  Did that mean my only setting would be a boring little suburb of London?  Did that mean all my characters had to, essentially, be people I knew?  What about the elves and magic and saving the world that I wanted to write about?!  What about all those fantasy books I read – I was fairly sure no authors actually lived in rip-offs of Middle Earth…

And then, in another book on writing (I’m afraid I don’t remember which one, as I said, this was long ago, in the mists of history!) I saw a response to that adage that said you need to ‘know what you write’.  So, if you want to write about something you don’t know of through your life, you need to find out about it.  Hit the library (this was in the infancy of ‘teh interwebz’), take a course, pay attention in history class, and you, too, can ‘know what you write’ and are, thereafter, allowed by the writing Gods to write about life in a keep because you’ve read a book about their inner workings.

What about me?

But that’s still not the whole story.  What about those elves?  I can’t find out about them in a history book!  And that’s where the bane of fantasy and sci-fi writers comes in: maps!  Or, rather, own world research.  You might be inspired by mythology, you can find out about that with book learning, but your elves might be different.  What’s your world like?  Look at real world examples, think about your cultures, write notes to keep it all straight in your head.

Yep, we all know this stuff, and yet that’s still not it.

We also need experiential research: reading a book on 18th century homes won’t necessarily tell you what they smell like, that sort of detail often comes with experience.  Then there are, as Rowenna covers in one of her posts, transferable experiences.

Having said that, I think you can ‘blag it’ and write without experience to an extent, but I wager that the scene won’t be as gripping and real as it would have been if you had found some way to ‘know’ that experience.  If it is, then I suspect you’ve drawn upon some transferable experience without even realising.

For example, I’ve never been in any sort of battle, yet I’ve received a lot of praise for a battle scene in A Thief & A Gentlewoman. Sounds a bit bonkers, but bear with me – it involves an enraged elephant attacking, while our heroine, Quin, must battle it riding a sabre tooth cat. Needless to say, I definitely don’t have experience of (a) being attacked by an elephant or (b) riding a sabre cat! I don’t even have experience of being in a real fight.

So how the heck did I write a scene that’s apparently so vivid and gripping? Reflecting upon it, I must have drawn upon various experiences:

  • I’ve ridden horses so I know how it feels to move so quickly on the back of another creature.
  • I’ve been in big crowds in the rush of London and the buffeting of gigs and nightclubs, so I’ve experienced that chaos.
  • I’ve sparred in karate and wrestled with my dad when I was younger, so I know what it’s like to react and rely on instinct and reflexes.  When I’ve not done so well, I’ve also experienced tumbling across the floor, not knowing which way is up!
  • And, a skill I think a lot of avid readers and writers have, is to be able to read or watch a scene and vividly imagine it, placing themselves in the place of that character, feeling every tumble and strain of the fight in some swashbuckling adventure.  Novels and films can inform us and, if we have that imagination and empathy, can vicariously give us experience to some extent.

So, I think all of those things must have informed my writing of that scene, and I think it’s exactly this sort of approach that enables us as writers to write what we don’t know while knowing what we write.

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Have you ever read a great book, or even a series, and loved the characters, but then found the ending, well, lacking?  As writers, we have to work really hard to not leave our readers feeling that way.  Sometimes it’s because the reader simply didn’t like how you chose to end the story and that’s their right, but if your tale makes sense, that’s no failing on your part, it’s simply a difference in the expectations and desires of the writer and reader.  But there are times that a story just doesn’t work and it’s understandable that the reader feels disappointed – the ending felt rushed or was ‘all a dream’, or perhaps it left awkward plot holes wide open without reason or explanation.

Well, the Mass Effect franchise has been a great feat of interactive storytelling.  The stories and characters are what I love most about these games, and the third game of the trilogy didn’t disappoint … that is, right up until the last 10 minutes.  So while I generally talk about novel-writing, I think storytellers can all learn from each other, whatever their medium of choice, and that’s where the ending of ME3 falls short – it breaks the accepted rules and expectations of storytelling.

Warning, here be spoilers!  This is intended to be a post for people who have played ME3 to the end, so please don’t read on if you haven’t!  And apologies if this doesn’t mean much to any of my non-gaming readers!

Here be Monsters! Or spoilers, anyway.

The writers of ME3 did a brilliant job of tying up so many plotlines in this final game in a way that reflected your previous decisions and allowed you to make new ones to ultimately let you decide the course of the galaxy (ie, the fate of the Rachni, the Krogan Question and the Quarians vs the Geth).  And it wasn’t just the big questions, the futures of races, that Bioware brought to the fold of ME3, there were also those great little touches like the conclusion of the Conrad Verner fan-boy story; these were small moments that were a nice nod to the long-time players and their choices across the trilogy.

So, yes, I loved the game – it was engaging, emotional and tough, both in terms of game-play (bloody banshees!) and the cut-scene decisions.  The fall of Thessia left me feeling genuinely gutted that I/Shepard had failed.  There were plenty of moments that brought a tear to my eye (Thane!).  And by the end, I truly hated Kai Leng.  Oh, and I won’t even go in to the date with Kaidan – I’ll just say that it left me very happy for my Shep!

The writers went to so much effort to draw us in, to get us feeling something, to make us care about the characters and the future of the galaxy and that takes some skill, nevermind that they also had to allow for so many permutations of player-choice.  So I doff my hat to them – I’m not sure if I could do that (though I’d bloody well love to try, so Bioware if you want any writers, you know where I am!  Hey, I can dream!).

And all that skilful wrapping up is exactly why the end didn’t make sense.  There are continuity discrepancies.  There are things that just don’t make sense.  There are omissions that, if you’ve ever played a Bioware game, just aren’t Bioware.  Hell, I just wrote “played a Bioware story” the first time I typed that – these are developers who care so much about creating not just games, but stories, that they employ dedicated writers and pride and market their games on that very quality.

So, continuity.  First off, two of your squadmates are with you at the final battle and apparently everyone running at the beam to the Citadel is killed.  Now, I can understand that the ‘everyone’s dead, Jim’ over the radio might be that the observer was mistaken and didn’t see Shepard staggering for the beam.  Fine, I can accept that.  But if Shep and Anderson made it through the beam and everyone else was dead, then how in the galaxy did my two crewmates make it back to the Normandy to appear in that final crash landing scene?  In fact, it was rather conspicuous that the two members of crew that step out of the Normandy with Joker were the two I took with me on that last mission and no one else.

And why was the Normandy no longer in the assault upon the reapers and instead fleeing the scene?  If they turned tail and ran, I want to know why.  If my two squadmates survived and were picked up by Joker, I want to know why and how.  It simply doesn’t make sense.

Neither does the fact that Anderson claimed to follow Shep into the beam, and yet he conveniently ends up being dumped in another part of the Citadel, and somehow manages to get ahead of Shep to the control panel (in a room with only one apparent entrance) without being seen.  How does that work?

It doesn’t.

If you got a high enough EMS rating in the game, you also see what’s apparently Shep’s charred body breathing in the rubble of London.  But if she (I play a femShep, of course!) was in an explosion on the Citadel, why is her body in a pile of concrete and very Earthly debris and not floating around in space, or at least lying in the mangled metal remains of the Citadel?  Again, it doesn’t make sense.  The writing after Shep is hit by Harbinger reads like a rushed first draft, you know, the bit before you edit your work and realise you missed out a key point or that it’s impossible for that character to be in this place.

So the continuity and the logic aren’t there, and neither is the classic closure that Bioware devotees know and love about their games.  OK, so we know that the Warden of DA:O went on to do ‘other things’ that we’re not necessarily told about in great detail, but if we romanced Alistair, then we know he was never far from the Warden, and we have a nice summary to read about how the Kingdom of Ferelden does in the aftermath of our decisions.  Most importantly, though, we get a little epilogue of what happens to the characters we’ve adventured with.  The same in DA2.  Mass Effect is arguably Bioware’s biggest story, its space opera of epic proportions and yet … we’re left with a weird lack of consistency and a short, vague scene about the aftermath of our actions (reapers destroyed/flew away) and the lives of those characters we’ve come to care about (Joker and some combination of the crew crash land on an unknown, leafy planet and step out to smile at the sun.

Yes, fine, I understand about open endings, but if this is meant to be the ending to end all endings, which is kind of what it’s been set up as, then we need a bit more closure than that.  Whenever we enjoy a story and follow it through to the end, however bitter that ending may be, we need some sense of reward, and that just wasn’t there with ME3.  Even if it was a funeral for Shepard (missing, presumed dead), just that epilogue scene showing goodbyes so we get some closure and can find out who survived the war and who didn’t.

It’s all rather strange.  In fact, that whole end sequence is rather dream-like, with slow motion, Shep accepting weird dream-logic (where you believe what you’re told in a dream without questioning it, even though it makes no sense at all to the waking mind) and the return of scenery and characters from the past (the Child and TIM).  So some fans have come up with The Indoctrination Theory.  While I’d like it to be true (it would be very clever and fit with what has happened in the previous games, as well as this weird ending), I’m trying not to hold out hope – does it seem like the logical answer because we so badly don’t want that ending to be ‘it’?

I kind of always thought the trilogy would end with Shepard sacrificing herself for the galaxy, which is fine and can be part of great storytelling, but for it to be done in such an emotionless and poorly written way, well that just doesn’t give any sort of reward.  And frankly, the 16 different endings are not different enough to reflect my decisions throughout the series, to justify my hours played over all three games or to do justice to the emotions the games stirred up until that point.  The main differences are:

  • Do the reapers leave or are they destroyed?
  • Can I still go and see Big Ben on my next sightseeing tour of London?
  • What colour is the wave that spreads across the galaxy and destroys the mass relays?
  • Does joker have slightly glowy techno skin?

The only significant one is whether you see Shepard’s breath in the debris at that very last moment, other than that, the other differences feel like window dressing.

Never mind the player’s decisions, that isn’t an ending that does justice to the achievement of the writers who have come up with such great and difficult decisions for us to make.  And this is why I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but trying not to get my hopes up, that the Bioware rethink of the ending will do something to improve what has been such a disappointment for so many people.

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A de-motivational poster, but it could be a motivation for your character.

I love a good bit of synchronicity …  I’ve been reading Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy recently, having already read and loved The Liveship Traders.  One of the things I love most about her work is how damn real the characters are.  They make the wrong, slightly illogical choices because of their emotions; they hurt others because of their own flaws; they don’t have an easy time because they know what they want, but they don’t always know what they need.  Robin Hobb doesn’t let them off easily.

So I’ve been thinking about character flaws, when what should appear on my blog feed, but a short’n’sweet article by Rachelle Garner on Why Your Novel Characters Need Real Flaws.

As writers, we love our characters, even the villains, but especially the heroes.  Which means it’s hard, sometimes, to give them a hard time or to let them hurt each other.  In particular, it’s difficult to find that balance between the likeability of the character and the realism of giving them actual flaws that have a negative effect on those around them – their friends, families, lovers …

Rachelle briefly discusses the difference between the real flaw and the cosmetic flaw … but fear not if you suddenly realise your characters have cosmetic flaws, because often the cosmetic flaw is but a watered down, victimless version of the real flaw and all we need to do is look at the darker side of their perfectionism or insecurity and how it makes victims of others.

Check out her article, and I’d love to know if you have any other tips or articles!

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Oh wow.  Negative reviews, eh?  In case you haven’t seen it yet, I am writing this post to link you to the perfect of example of how not to respond to a negative review of your writing.  (It’s not even that negative a review, to be honest, but hey.)  (Link via How Publishing Really Works – if you don’t already read, subscribe!) 

Not only is the author’s* response utterly astonishing, but she doesn’t see her mistake (both in response and in the original book).

This made me think about the value of receiving negative reviews and constructive criticism.  I can only see that this reiterates the importance of having an honest writing group or buddy who will get their red pen out as readily as their words of encouragement. 

As writers, it is our duty to hone our craft and knowledge of the English language and to shape our novels to be the best that they can be.  If this involves paying/befriending/kidnapping someone who knows their ‘there’ from their ‘their’ or an apostrophe from a semi-colon, then so be it. 

OK, so I was joking about the kidnapping, but not the rest. 

And beyond any philosophical writerly duty, just be a decent human being who has the good grace and professionalism to leave reviewers alone.

Good grief, what is the world coming to!

* though I hesitate to call her an author considering her disgusting behaviour and low level of pride in her novel to ‘release’ it into the world in that state.

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