Archive for Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

Character Attrition

By | October 23, 2014 | 8 Comments
I must be dealt with.

I must be dealt with.

Few people think of me as an expert in anything. Well, booze, yes, I suppose there’s that. But in general I am regarded in social settings as a mildly alarming Wild Card (or, more accurately, I go around demanding that everyone call me by the nickname “Wild Card” so I can use my self-made catchphrase, “I have to be dealt with! BECAUSE I’M A WILD CARD, BABY!”)

<crickets>

Maybe I’m an expert in novel writing, as I have published nine of them. Though technically that makes me an expert in selling novels, not necessarily writing them. Which leads me, with the drunken grace of a shore leave sailor, to my point.

 

There is a rule in fiction writing called the Law of Conservation of Characters. Is there? I may have made that up. Actually, after Googling it’s something Roger Ebert said about movies, but it still applies. It has to, or this blog post is a waste of everyone’s time.

Basically, what this boils down to is the idea that an author doesn’t waste time on characters who have no purpose in a story, so if you’re, say, trying to figure out who the killer is in a mystery novel you know it has to be a character you’ve spent some time with – and any character who so far hasn’t had much reason to be there is the most likely suspect.

There’s a flip side to this rule that doesn’t get talked about much, and that’s because it’s a rule you should apply while writing the damn story in the first place. This is the Rule of Character Attrition, and it might be a Somers-Only Rule, who knows, but it goes like this: If you’re struggling in your novel, consider cutting characters out and combining their role and attributes into another character. It’s often a tonic for an ailing novel, in my experience.

For example, I’ve got a WIP. As is my wont, I started this book off by throwing everything I could think of – exposition everywhere like a slow flood of molasses, details that just drop like anvils here and there just so I wouldn’t forget them later – and every character I could think of that might be useful. I do this. If I think there might be a scene later that would benefit from a unicorn, I will create a unicorn character.

End result? My protagonist has a very large posse of people following him around, and the story gets bogged down. And then I realize that character #5 hasn’t said or done anything in 50 pages.

That’s when it’s time for a culling.

I start over. I boil down my characters: Who can be combined? Who is unlikely to ever get a Big Moment or a reason to exist? Who have I completely forgotten was even in this book? Burn them off, and what you’re left with are the characters that actually matter.

It really just goes to show that we novelists really have no idea what we’re doing. We just make it up as we go along. It’s actually kind of surprising that any of us manage to feed and clothe ourselves – and yes, I know that in my case the definition of “clothe” is very loose. DAMN YOUR EYES.

Poorly Scheduled Film Analysis: PROMETHEUS

By | October 20, 2014 | 5 Comments
THERON WILL DESTROY YOU

THERON WILL DESTROY YOU

As I like to inject my “brand” (incompetence and intellectual laziness) into everything I do, here’s the second in my series of essays discussing films that came out a couple of years ago, when people might have been interested in such things. This time around, we’re going to consider Prometheus, which is really just a gorgeous blob of WTF.

Let’s start with a simple question: Why is Charlize Theron in this film? Her character is completely and totally unnecessary. I’ll give you a moment to ponder this.

There are two possible answers to the question of Theron’s character’s inclusion:

1. The less charitable possibility involves two producers discussing the film over a pile of cocaine the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. Producer One suddenly says, wait a second, there’s only one chick in this movie and she’s played by the scary-looking actress from Girl with Dragon Tattoo who doesn’t speak English? We need a hotter chick in this movie. And Producer Two thumbs his phone for a moment and announces they can get Charlize Theron and make her do pushups in her underwear, and Producer One writes a check for one billion dollars.

2. The more charitable view is that Theron’s character exists solely to embody two of the film’s themes. She’s a walking, breathing symbol.

Theron’s character is just a visual metaphor – which is, essentially, the whole problem with the movie in a nutshell. It has some great ideas, some clever stuff, but it smothers under the weight of its pretensions. Theron is there to do two basic things (aside from those aforementioned push-ups): To represent mortality and how awful it is to try to avoid it (her father refuses to die, and thus she’s literally living on a lifeboat), and to represent death without purpose.

Other characters are either purely Redshirts or their deaths are heroic sacrifices, or they are transformed into monsters. The Engineer at the beginning of the film sacrifices himself for a greater good. Holloway sacrifices himself heroically when it dawns on him what’s happened. The captain and the crew sacrifice themselves to save the distant earth, following clear motivations that were deeply lodged inside Ridley Scott’s head, because they sure weren’t on the screen.

Theron? Theron’s character tries to save herself. She doesn’t want to sacrifice herself, but she doesn’t want to die. So she flees, and winds up crushed under an alien spaceship because she apparently forgets how to run at ninety degree angles – her death is completely meaningless.

As is her character – if you removed Theron from this story, nothing would change at all. Except Idris Elba wouldn’t get laid. Although I doubt Idris Elba has much trouble in that department. But the point is not that Idris Elba is a damn fine good-looking man; the point is that Theron’s character is just a walking, talking metaphor. If you were wondering what that pebble in your brain driving you crazy while watching this gorgeous blob of WTF, it was probably Theron and her ghost of a character.

 

Jeff’s Guide to Reading Good

By | October 13, 2014 | 2 Comments
Jeff at Noir at the Bar NYC 10-5-14

Jeff Struggling Not to Faint at Noir @ the Bar 10-5-14

So, in support of my new novel We Are Not Good People (you may have heard me mention it one billion times so far), I’ve been doing more public appearances than usual. Which is to say: More than none public appearances. I like meeting people who like my books, and enjoy conversations about books and such (especially if the conversation skews towards how awesome I am), but I also fear people and often feel very awkward with my fellow humans, so I don’t do a lot of public stuff.

But, when you have a novel you need to sell, you get out there and shake your awkward, slightly hairy ass (slightly?). I trooped to the Brooklyn Book Festival, I did a reading at Shade in Manhattan with some MWA peeps, I did a very short radio reading that I assume will go live at some point soon … I went to New York Comic Con this year as a guest speaker. All the public speaking got me thinking about it, and about book readings in general.

Jeff’s Guide to Reading in Public

I’ve done my share of book readings at this point. I’ve read in bars, in bookstores, to crowds and (literally) to no one. I’ve done my work. And so I have a few simple guidelines that I think work well for me. And, since I’ve also been an audience member at all these readings, I also think these rules of thumb would work for other writers as well.

The disclaimer is, your mileage may vary, and my limitations are not necessarily your limitations. So feel free to ignore my advice here. These are my general impressions after having been involved in a ton of readings over the years – take my advice or leave it.

  1. Don’t read dialogue. A section where two (or, god help us, more) characters are speaking can be really, really confusing to the audience. Your ability to do voices is probably not nearly as good as you think, and reading each line in the same nervous monotone makes figuring out which character is speaking really tough.
  2. Don’t read for more than 5-10 minutes. And lord, skewing closer to 5 is better. Time yourself at home. Trust me when I say no one wants to hear you drone on for 20 minutes, and if you’re sharing the night with other writers going long is just rude.
  3. Practice. I am always amazed when an accomplished writer with a lot of success publishing their work gets up, flips to a page in their book, and staggers through a section like they only recently learned to read, much less like they themselves actually wrote the words. You may think that because it’s your prose you’re golden, but trust me: Read it out loud a few times before the event rolls around.
  4. Edit. When you’re reading, you’ll probably hit a few moments when you stumble because reading out loud is different from reading in your head. Don’t be afraid to edit slightly to make it easier on yourself and easier for your audience to follow.
  5. Have fun. You’ll trip over words anyway, or mispronounce things, or trip over sound wires or something. Don’t worry. Just have fun, and remember this: Very few people will leap up from their chairs and rush out to buy your book based on a 5-minute reading. You’re there for the camaraderie and the exposure, not to start a cult.

Finally, try to choose a scene in your book that captures tone, but doesn’t require everyone know the plot – stopping to explain things just drags everything down.

Those are my thoughts. You are, of course, free to completely ignore me or even show up at my next reading and heckle me until I cry. At which point my wife will beat you up, so be careful.

Poorly Scheduled Film Analysis: TED

By | September 29, 2014 | 0 Comments
Ted Actually Happened

Ted Actually Happened

So, this essay is going to be about the film Ted, directed by Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame and co-written by him as well, starring Marky Mark and Mila Kunis. You may have seen it two years ago when this essay might have had some cultural relevance.

Anyhoo, I was thinking about this movie again for reasons impossible to explain. It’s not a terrible movie. Like all of MacFarlane’s work, it has flashes of quick wit and even brilliance muddied up with poop jokes and a frenetic over-reliance on the flashback. Still, all in all I enjoyed it. Except something has always bugged me about Ted. Something’s always been a bit off. Can you put your finger on it?

The titular Ted in this movie is an enchanted teddy bear who magically comes to life. But he completely, totally, absolutely does not need to be.

The Courage of Your (Writing) Convictions

Let’s consider this. No, seriously, let’s. There is absolutely no story reason that Ted has to be a magical teddy bear. None. Let’s play a thought experiment: Imagine watching this movie, and Ted is replaced by a CGI Benny Hill. Everything except some minor dialog would be exactly the same: Marky Mark and Ted become friends as children, Ted has some brief fame (for a reason other than being a magical teddy bear, of course – stay with me here), and Marky Mark’s girlfriend is fed up with their immaturity and lack of focus.

Every single plot point and scene still works with Benny Hill instead of a teddy bear. Every. Single. Plot point. Even the kidnapping at the end makes sense if we assume that Giovanni Ribisi’s character is just insane. Which, since he’s being played by the always-disturbing Giovanni Ribisi, we assume he is. Heck, even the one liners and jokes generally wouldn’t have to change, or not change much.

So why is Ted a teddy bear? Why bother when the movie’s really a buddy film about two friends finally taking the plunge into independent adulthood? I can only speculate, but I think he maybe didn’t trust his material.

I’ve done that: Dressed up a story as something else because I didn’t think I had anything funny or exciting to say. Turned a detective story into a SF story, a love story into a horror story, all because I thought I needed a lot of scares and flashing lights to keep people’s attention. I can’t say that Seth MacFarlane did that. Maybe he had a meeting with your typical Hollywood Producer:

MacFarlane: I have this idea for a coming-of-age comedy starring Marky Mark.

Producer: I am so stoned right now you appear to be a magical talking teddy bear.

MacFarlane: Okay … uh, it’s really warm and witty with my trademark –

Producer: This briefcase is filled with cocaine and cash. You can have it all if you make a movie about a talking toy bear. Otherwise I will dedicate my life to destroying you professionally.

MacFarlane: … SOLD!

You know it’s possible. In fact, I am now 100% certain this is exactly how Ted – and several other recent Hollywood films – came to be. My only question is, why won’t someone with a suitcase filled with cocaine and cash show up and force me to make films from my books?

Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

By | September 8, 2014 | 6 Comments
Damn You Book Meddlers!

Damn You Book Meddlers!

Friends, we all need a Literary Meddler in our lives. The Literary Meddler is that person who foists unwanted books on us and demands we read them, and is unperturbed when you hate 90% of the books they force you to read.

Of course, I’m kind of disagreeable: A smug know-it-all who deprecates anything he didn’t discover himself. You know the type. If I wasn’t so devastatingly handsome and effortlessly charming, I’d be kind of an asshole. This is why having a Literary Meddler has been so important to me.

Early on, my Literary Meddler, as with many folks, was school: School was constantly popping up at unwanted moments, dancing around my knees like an over-excited puppy, and demanding to know if I’d read those books yet. Had I? Had I? Had I? What did I think? What about that one part, huh? And then when I finally did read them and wrote up a paper on it School was a dick and gave me a B- on it and then handed me a pile of new books to read, many of which I would never have read in a million years on my own.

Today, my Literary Meddler is my wife, The Duchess, who gets incredibly excited about books I would walk right past in the book store and then hectors me to read them incessantly until I do and then is very sadfaced and irritated when I (usually) don’t like them nearly as much as she does.We’ve even had real-life, bitter fights when I didn’t like a character she loved. But the effect is the same: I am forced to read outside my comfort zone, and this is generally a very good thing. Because I have a disease that’s very common in my family (it might be genetic) which causes me to become increasingly cynical and convinced that something is crap the more popular it gets. This is one reason The Duchess and I fight: She assumes I am pre-disposed to dislike things, and when I dislike things it means I never gave them a chance.

Which, to be fair, is often true.

As a writer, this also means I am exposed to a lot of tricks and deceptions I’m not aware of, or have never thought in using in certain ways. Having a Literary Meddler is an essential part of an ongoing education. While their constant insistence that you read things often results in horrifying journeys into fictional worlds you’d rather not visit followed by vicious arguments over whether or not you’re a closed-off poopyhead who wouldn’t know a great story if it hit them on the head much the same way your wife is hitting you in the head with a sock full of quarters right now, it also sometimes broadens your world just a tiny bit.

The take-away? If you don’t have a Literary Meddler, get one. Even if it has to be that weird guy on the subway who always smells like Salmon and is always trying to hand you a handwritten novel in a box.

Cocksucker Blues: Profanity When Reading in Public

By | September 2, 2014 | 5 Comments

This initially appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 16, Issue 1/2 Summer 2010.

The glamorous life of a writer.

The glamorous life of a writer.

FRIENDS, I occasionally read from my fiction in public, which is surprising, since I am frequently drunk, pantsless, and belligerent. Since I am not a BIG STAR in the literary world, I almost never get to read all by myself, which is good because when I’m sharing a stage I can imagine that the audience hates the other readers and not, as would be my natural assumption otherwise, me.

Sharing the bill with other readers does however present me with another problem: Invariably, I am teamed up with writers who read beautiful, lyrical pieces of prose involving elves or Grey Aliens who contemplate the universe and seek enlightenment, and then I stand up and read a piece that is is 84% the words fuck and cocksucker.

COCKSUCKER BLUES

There is, simply, a lot of cursing in the Avery Cates books. Well, in all my fiction, actually, because, frankly, people curse in real life. I’ve been peppering my speech with cuss words since I was about nine years old, and I was a late bloomer in my neighborhood. I worry about it when I read in public, though; not because my audiences are filled with blue-haired old ladies who will die from shock—the people who actually attend any reading I do are quite prepared for a little cursing—but because I am the blue-haired lady in this scenario. Somehow I become all guilt-ridden and Catholic when I find myself having to shout cocksucker at the top of my voice in a room filled with strangers.

There are three approaches to this situation:

BOWDLERIZE

One, I can bowdlerize my own writing and replace every curse word with its prime-time equivalent, frick for fuck and all that jazz. This has the unfortunate side effect of making me resemble the berries and cream lad.

THE CURSE WHISPERER

Two, I can read the text as is but keep the volume low so I don’t feel like a nun is going to time travel from my past, rap my knuckles, and steal my pants.

GUSTO, MOTHERFUCKER!

Finally, I can read the text as is but emphasize every curse word with something that can only be described as gusto, delighting in the sudden freedom of being able to shout curses at a crowd and not be arrested. Generally I choose the latter as it promises the least humiliation, and everyone seems to enjoy themselves.

####

This hangup only exists when I’m reading out loud to people; when I’m writing I have no problem dropping language so foul it would make your nose hairs burn. In my everyday life I generally go around cloaked in what I have dubbed White Boy Politeness, which is a way of behaving towards people that generally makes folks want to rub your head and call you a good lad, even thirteen-year-old kids who would otherwise be knifing you for meth money.

curses2This sometimes causes a minor bout of mental dissonance when people meet me for the first time just prior to a reading. I am all, shucks, nice to meet you, did you know I was an Eagle Scout? And then I am all fuck you, cocksucker.

curses3Of course, this is nothing compared to my other public reading foible, which is spontaneous and inexplicable pantslessness. So if all you ever experience during one of my readings is some rough language, consider yourself: lucky.

Just Because Some Watery Tart Threw a Sword at You

By | August 28, 2014 | 3 Comments

I’ve had Enough of The One for a Lifetime

Hi there. I'm He-Man. Won't Someone Love Me?

Hi there. I’m He-Man. Won’t Someone Love Me?

Let us discuss He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, because it is a subject that has been sorely ignored by the media old and new for too long. When I was a kid He-Man was on TV all the time, protecting Castle Grayskull for some reason and fighting his eternal battle against Skeletor, who wanted in to Castle Grayskull for some reason. It’s all a bit fuzzy, because I was ten years old, and because I barely remember anything from all that time ago. I remember almost nothing from yesterday, in fact, so thirty years ago? We’ll need Leo DiCaprio and his totem to drill in that deeply.

Still, the problem of motivation: Why was He-Man He-Man? In other words, aside from Mattel’s desperate need to sell kids like me plastic action figures and advertising on the cartoon, why was He-Man chosen to be super strong and manly by The Sorceress (Note: There was also a Sorceress)? Aside from the fact that he’s one of about two men in reasonable physical shape on Eternia, his buddy Man At Arms would have been a better choice. Man At Arms is not only in pretty buff shape to begin with, he’s also a technical genius inventor of weapons. If you’re handing out He-Man-ness to random people, why not him?

An argument could be made that giving Man At Arms super powers in addition to his super-genius at creating awesome death-dealing weapons would have made him too powerful. I reject this argument because it requires a depth of thought impossible in the He-Man universe. He-Man is chosen to be He-Man simply because – and that is awful storytelling.

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Ancient Book Reviews Part Two

By | August 21, 2014 | 1 Comments
Darrell K. Sweet WAS the 1980s As Far As I was Concerned

Darrell K. Sweet WAS the 1980s as Far as I Was Concerned

Not too long ago I wrote about Lyndon Hardy’s “Five Magics” series with the intention of regularly returning to my ancient bookshelves to contemplate treasured cheap paperbacks from my youth. And then of course forgot all about it. Until today! Today for reasons beyond my ken I was moved to consider one of the most obscure books I’ve ever read, and one that I will frankly admit I do not remember at all: Dennis McCarty’s Flight to Thlassa Mey, published by Del Rey in 1986 and on my shelves ever since.

I remember nothing about this book, or the two sequels I also own.

This is what fascinates me about my book collection, these books I can’t remember. Dennis McCarty sold this book, no doubt promoted it, and published sequels and at least one other book I can identify – and yet no one remembers him or this book. Sure, someone does, but collectively he’s been burned out of the pattern. Since I always worry this will be my own fate, I’m drawn back to these obscure books.

And yet, nothing, literally nothing remains in my memory about this book. Sure, I read it 30 years ago and never again since – but you’d think something would remain, right? There are books on my shelves with similar stories – bought three decades ago by a younger man, read once, carted around the country ever since – but I recall at least a few slivers of detail and plot from them.

Flight to Thlassa Mey: Nothing.

The scant information on the Internet doesn’t help much; the book was a fairly standard fantasy from the 1980s (one glance at the cover tells you as much) and it was a time in my life when I was reading three books a week, just burning through cheap paperbacks like there was no tomorrow. I probably read this in three days and was on to the next thing immediately afterwards, all of its story elements lost in a swirl of swords and wizards and (based on the cover) princesses wearing ridiculous head gear.

But it is precisely this lack of information and memory that now fascinates me. Sure, I could read this again and maybe I should, but what really grabs me about this is the complete obscurity of it all. Try to find out something about the author or his books: I dare you. And that of course drives me to pour approximately six fingers of whiskey into a paper cup and slam it down, forgetting that I had just done that a few moments ago, and now here I am finishing this post from the hospital. Again.

Certainly the odds are good that I’ll be this guy in 20 years. While I’ve sold a few books and made a little money (and published more novels – 9 in October than most), I haven’t made any lasting cultural impact and don’t pretend that I have. If I stopped writing today, slowly I’d just sink beneath the waves of history, which will likely happen even if I continue to publish – there are books and authors that were best sellers in their day that are now totally forgotten, after all.

So, for a book review, this was shit. I can’t remember a thing about the book. You have learned nothing concerning whether or not you should read this book aside from the fact that no one remembers it which I guess is actually a pretty useful piece of data so this was, in fact, a great review and you are welcome.

The Real Reason “Halt & Catch Fire” Sucked

By | August 15, 2014 | 1 Comments
This poster is much better than the actual show.

This poster is much better than the actual show.

So, if you were one of the very small number of people who watched Halt and Catch Fire on AMC this summer (possible reasons for your interest include being fascinated by 1980s-era computer technology and hacking [that would be my excuse] or possibly a fascination with bad television [also, strangely, me]), you likely share my reaction to the Season One Finale: A disgusted shrug. Put succinctly: This show was awful.

Also, the Whitest Show Ever Produced (and I watch Mad Men, y’all). But mainly: Awful.

It was, however, awful in a curious way. Yes, the writing was slipshod, the show reached for ridiculous dramatic moments far too often and failed to pull them off, and for some reason thought simply giving a character a “mysterious backstory” and then immediately revealing it to be a shallow and poorly conceived …. non-moment was somehow deconstructive or brilliant. Sure, stipulated.

The real reason this show sucked? It was too real. Halt and Catch Fire was the realest fucking show on television.

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“Dollhouse” and The Problem with U.S.-Style TV

By | August 6, 2014 | 4 Comments

DollhouseIf you fear spoilers on 5-year old TV shows, boy are you in the wrong place.

About five years late to the party, I started watching Dollhouse on Netflix recently out of curiosity. I remember the show, vaguely, from it’s run on broadcast TV, recalled the slight buzz about the unaired season 1 finale, so I tuned in. I often watch stuff out of morbid curiosity: Canceled shows, films with record low Tomatometer rankings, that sort of thing.

Dollhouse, for those who don’t share my morbid curiosity about failed pop culture, is a Joss Whedon show developed around the concept of “imprinting” personalities on people. The titular “dolls” are volunteers (mostly) who sign a 5-year contract, have their own personalities removed, and spend their time being imprinted with whatever the clients need them to be. Sometimes it’s a security expert. Sometimes a secret agent. Usually, the show implies very heavily, it’s a sex toy.

The show starts off a little rough with some really, really bad stories involving reasons to get Eliza Dushku into skimpy outfits. Slowly, the over-arching story arc asserts itself: The “doll” technology is getting out of hand, and that unaired final episode of season 1 makes it very clear: The “doll” technology is going to end the world as we know it.

Dollhouse as it ended up – 26 episodes – is a hot mess. But there’s a really, really great story in there that would have worked incredibly well in a British-style short-run of maybe 10-12 episodes.

The American Model  = Doom

To be fair, you can almost see (and Whedon has said as much) how Dollhouse got sold: Eliza Dushku in hot outfits, engaged in a new Charlie’s Angel-esque adventure every week, but with a Sci-Fi glamour about it. The first few episodes are pretty much this, and they’re awful. Whedon actually started to say publicly that people should stick around for episode 6 of the first season because that’s where he thought he began to assert the type of show he really wanted to make – and it shows.

A lot of Dollhouse is this awful filler, with the “dolls” instantly transformed into spies, backup dancers, fancy prostitutes, and other fairly dull ideas. The true joy of this series is in the back story and the arc, which details how the technology became mobile and broadcastable – meaning you could “imprint” someone over the phone, essentially – and how that basically allowed the rich and powerful to live forever by snatching other bodies, and how that basically led to the total breakdown of society and the end of civilization.

That story is pretty damn good.

The other aspects of the show that work are where the basic premise of imprinting someone is explored in more interesting ways. When a Doll is imprinted with a recently murdered woman who then investigates her own murder. When a major character on the show is revealed to have been a Doll who wasn’t aware of her status – who thought she was real, and her reaction to this knowledge is explored.

But mainly, it’s the end-of-the-world stuff that grabbed me. Cut away about 50% of the episodes, and you’d have a pretty tight British-style show that told an interesting Sci-Fi story. And you’d still have plenty of opportunities to put Dushku into miniskirts and have her shake her ass a little.

That’s the problem with American-style TV: The goal is always infinite episodes, or at least 100 episodes and syndication. This automatically lends itself to padding, filler, and awful plot decisions. In fact, I’d say that the fact that Dollhouse was pretty much always in danger of being cancelled at any time is likely why so much of it actually works – because Whedon was forced to always be thinking hard about getting his story goals accomplished. I can picture him madly typing away in some smoke-filled office, trying desperately to get to a denouement before FOX canceled his ass.

Is Dollhouse great TV? Not really. But it might have been, if they weren’t shooting for infinite episodes. Now that we’re moving into an era when a show like Dollhouse, with its traditionally puny 26 episodes – along with popular British fare like Sherlock, Luther, and The Fall – can be successful on Netflix, or Amazon, or Hulu, maybe we’ll see more experimentation this way, and more shows modeled on a shorter run, with less filler. And that would be awesome.

 

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