Writing

Literary Devices: Booze

Lunch!

Lunch!

In some of my writing, I have characters who use guns a lot, and every now and then I get some detail about guns wrong and I get flooded with notes from helpful people explaining my mistake. Which is fine and good. So, let’s turn the tables a little. I may not be an expert on firearms, but I am an expert in firewater (see what I did there? Me good professional word person).

I am in many ways, a walking cliché: The writer who enjoys his liquor a little too much. It’s certainly not my fault that my ancestors made alcohol both delicious, all-natural, vaguely healthy if you believe European doctors, and man’s best friend. I am the victim here, is what I’m saying. And my books often reflect this lifelong love affair with The Drink: In the Avery Cates books, in Lifers and Chum and We Are Not Good People my characters all drink heavily and while you might argue this also explains why the stories they find themselves in are so dark and awful (and yet, hilarious!) because getting shitfaced is itself dark and awful (but hilarious!) it remains a literary device I use a lot. Admittedly, I use the Booze Device mainly so my characters have something to do with their hands (see also: Cigarettes).

Still, if you’re imagining that I myself get all ginned up and plow through fifty pages of golden prose while my eyes are crossed (method writing, in other words), you’re wrong. I remember once Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane being interviewed and he was asked about playing live shows while high, and he dismissed it out of hand, saying something about how you can’t do that because the guitar strings would suddenly seem like they were as thick as firehoses and everything would go to hell (I’m paraphrasing). While a glass of the brown stuff has often been my companion when writing, it’s not like you can guzzle a fifth of bourbon and then write fifteen pages of really coherent prose.

Of course, characters actually in the book? Why not. From what I can tell no one wants verisimilitude when it comes to liquor in our stories.

(more…)

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Let’s Cut Out the Middle Man: Send Me $100

Stock photography gives us everything.

Stock photography gives us everything.

So, increasingly it’s popular for writers who have, shall we say, less than great book sales (hi there!) to go begging for pennies on sites like Kickstarter or Patreon. This isn’t a bad idea, as we’re basically already beggars when it comes to our book contracts:

Writer: I am hungry and my wife just left me for a homeless man to improve her lifestyle. Here’s a book I spent six years writing.

Publisher: I’ll give you six dollars and a vague promise of a sandwich sometime next week.

Writer: SOLD.

Publisher: Now, I never said *American* dollars.

Writer: <stuffs bills into mouth and eats them>

And: scene.

Now, naturally enough if I were to go the Kickstarter or Patreon route, I’d no doubt take in some very dark, very unfortunate directions. Because, if you think about it, these sorts of arrangements are already kind of weird. Take Patreon: You offer me $5 a month and I offer you some flash fiction. Sounds innocent enough, except it has the ring of an organ grinder and me in a cute little monkey-appropriate outfit. My flash fictions would almost certainly become epic exercises in passive aggression, ending, no doubt, in the sort of murder/suicide pact that future writers will turn into Pulitzer-winning True Crime novels.

Plus, I would likely just get lazier and lazier, ultimately creating $1 support tiers where you’d get an angry, drunken voicemail in the middle of the night, and one-penny support tiers where you’d get a voicemail in the middle of the night that was just me weeping inconsolably.

And Kickstarter would start off fine and dandy, but there are two scenarios I’m seeing: One where no one donates, and I wind up being cited on comedy websites as how not to do a kickstarter, and one where I am fully funded and manage to blow all of the money in one weekend via an increasingly unlikely series of coincidences involving liquor and an impaired ability to make decisions. Either way: Tears.

Plus, to be honest, all these alternative ways of raising money are a lot of work. If I wanted to work for a living I wouldn’t be a writer. I wouldn’t have these delicate, soft hands and this fragile, glass-like lower back. I wouldn’t have this debilitating fear of other people, leprechauns, and sweat.

So let’s keep it simple, shall we? Y’all send me $100 each and I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing. Deal?

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The Time I Got Taken

You're right - I don't *have* any dignity.

You’re right – I don’t *have* any dignity.

Although my brand, as you all well know, is “Genius Alcoholic” (my justification for this branding is my expectation that just as my liver explodes and claws its way from my body in a death struggle, science will have advanced to the point where I can print a new liver at home and hire someone from the Internet to transplant it – or possibly have a new liver and a surgeon delivered via drone, either way), the fact is, I am sometimes surprisingly stupid. Like, amazingly, incredibly, bone-shatteringly stupid.

My agent just appeared in a blaze of purple fire, laughed manically while pointing at me for five seconds, and then vanished.

I’ve been freelance writing for a few years now, and have reached a point where every day isn’t a soul-killing hustle for work reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson’s crack-dance in Jungle Fever, except instead of crack, I am dancing for writing jobs. These days I am quite fancy in my freelancing (I’ve considered wearing a monocle and top hat while working, yes, why do you ask?) but in the early going, of course, I was willing to entertain a lot of dubious writing jobs. Not subject matter, which continues to be something I’m more or less neutral on (I have written about some very, very horrible things and cashed the checks without a single regret) but dubious rather in the sense of basically dealing with shadowy figures from across the globe who regard paying writers to be a crazy idea.

Which, I know, I just described everyone. The world hates us writers, doesn’t it?

Anyways, back in those dark days I responded to some seriously red-flag waving job postings in the early goings. Most were merely frustrating: People who didn’t know what they wanted, people who thought telling you to write like some famously successful blog was enough instruction to go on, people who had no sense of humor at all.

Most of the time it was fine: I’d write a few pieces and we’d mutually wander off to other things. Not every business relationship can be perfect, after all. But twice – twice! – I got rooked, because I agreed to do an unpaid trial.

The Scam

It’s obvious, really: Always get paid for your work. Always. But, a little nervous about doing freelance, about not having a job, about testing this theory of mine that the only thing I am good at without reservation is writing, I made some bad decisions. So when an otherwise great-sounding job came along that required me to write one, single 500-word article for no money so the employer could determine that I had the writing chops came along, I agreed.

You can see where this is going.

Nope, never got hired, never got paid, and when I (belatedly) looked into it, I was one among dozens of writers who got rooked into it. In other words, we all collectively provided this guy like 15,000 words for free. In other, other words, he got his whole project written for him by suckers like me.

You might think I learned my lesson, and I did, but not well enough: A few weeks later I fell for it again. I initially turned down the job because of the free trial bullshit – but then the person came back and defended it, saying it was just a very short piece and they simply had to require it, and again it was otherwise so attractive (aren’t scams always?) I gave in. After all, I thought, if it was just a scam why would they bother emailing me? So I wrote about 300 words, and yup, never heard from anyone again.

So, now I’ve really learned my lesson. Really, really. Now, in the grand scheme of things I lost maybe $50 of my time, so it’s not like I’m going to scream KKKKHHHAAANNNNNN at the sky and rip off my shirt (ripping off shirts is super hard, anyway). But it does burn me that I got played. And reminds us all that we writers, we’re at the bottom of the ant hill, and we get kicked around a bit. But you know what? Your time is worth something, and you get to decide what that is. Everyone else then gets to decide if they agree, and pay for your services or not depending on that. It really is that simple.

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Phillip K. Marks

69448_7155Writing is a curious thing, sometimes. On the one hand it’s art and you have to respect the mysterious and largely amoral idea machine that lurks somewhere inside your head – mysterious and somewhat disturbing, most times. On the other hand, there’s artifice and artificiality to it as well – you take those ideas and you think about manipulating a plot, and the market you might sell it to, and how readers will react.

So, you sometimes develop crutches or tools – like, say, a character who exists mainly to star in a certain kind of story that you often return to. I’m a fan of detective novels, and I’m a fan of the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, and for some reason I keep coming up with gonzo supernatural stories that are presented and structured as mysteries. And so I’ve created a character named Philip K. Marks who often stars in these stories as an alcoholic former writer who investigates weird, strange situations.

BUY ME

BUY ME

In fact, he’s not that different in some ways from Lem Vonnegan, the main character in We Are Not Good People. He’s a bit run-down, has made bold, moral choices in his life that have cost him, and he’s oppressed by forces often – regularly – beyond his control or sometimes even his comprehension. Whereas in the earlier stories I wrote about him he was well-known and somewhat prosperous, over time he’s had adventures that went horrifyingly wrong, and there’s continuity in the stories themselves, so in the more recent ones he’s lost his memory and some of his focus and energy, and he’s fallen pretty far in social and economic turns, too. Although he’s not a mage or a gunner, he’d get along well with Lem and Avery Cates, I think, and his adventures always involve magic, horror, and science fiction elements.

I like almost all of the stories I’ve written about Marks, and I’ve actually sold a few. “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the MWA Anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris, in 2010, and “A Meek and Thankful Heart” appeared in Buzzy Mag in 2013. And I recently sold a third story, titled “Howling on for More” which should be appearing over at Black Denim Lit in April (or so I’m told).

Three stories ain’t exactly an anthology, but I have a bunch of others, and it’s been surprisingly successful for me to sell three stories with the same character, especially one so different from Avery Cates and Lem Vonnegan (or perhaps not so different). And since I have several other stories starring the amnesic and world-weary Mr. Marks, I guess I have a long-term project now to start sending out more of those stories so I can someday collect them into one anthology that no one will publish.

At my current apparent rate of selling one story every 2-3 years, I’ll manage this by the time I’m 157. Which is fine. I plan to live that long anyway through a careful application of booze, lack of exercise, and positive thinking.

In the mean time, Marks will remain a sponge character for all the ideas I have that need a bit of structure to hold them up. Even though Marks started off as a catch-all tool of sorts, he’s developed quite the backstory and personality. In fact, it might be time to write a Marks novel one of these days, if I can think of the right idea for it. All writers have tools they use to hide the gears from y’all, and sometimes it’s nice when those tools ascend a bit and become characters.

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Prompting the Question

Just a story.

Just a story.

So, as noted in this great review from Matt Handle, many people are assuming/hoping that the new Avery Cates story The Shattered Gears is a teaser for a new Cates novel. I’ve had a lot of emails along those lines, asking if this is leading to something and if I have a clear storyline for a new Cates book, and whether The Shattered Gears is part of that.

The answer is yes and no. Yes, I have a very clear idea of what Cates gets up to and a lot of notes for a new novel. And yes, The Shattered Gears is directly connected, so it’s canon, baby. In fact, Gears started off as a way of organizing some thoughts for a new Cates book. But no, I have no plans to write that book right now. It will remain just a collection of ideas for now.

The same goes for We Are Not Good People and the Ustari universe. Do I have ideas for another novel or fifteen with Lem and Mags? Sure! Am I working on them right now? No! Reasons include:

  • It’s the holidays and I am incapacitated by drink more or less continuously
  • No one has paid me an enormous amount of money to write those novels (yet)
  • My work writing and composing the world’s worst rock songs in my home office takes too much of my time
  • I’m far too busy perfecting my Irish accent
  • I’m actually in the middle of writing a novel now that not only has nothing to do with Cates or Lem Vonnegan, it has nothing to do with cyborgs or magic at all.

Anyways, I’m delighted people seem to enjoy The Shattered Gears so much. If it sells well I might make releasing Cates stories a more or less regular event, though not all of those potential stories would be directly related to a new storyline, some might be flashbacks. Who knows? It might be fun.

Anyways, you know the best way to guarantee sequels? Buy the existing books and then emotionally manipulate everyone you know to follow suit.

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The Short Story Report

Know what I got paid to write this blog post? NOTHING.

Know what I got paid to write this blog post? NOTHING.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I write a lot of short stories – at minimum one a month. Not many of these are good, of course, but I like the exercise of having to come up with an idea and a structure and characters and 2,000 words every month on the regular. Too many writers endlessly discuss and plan their works but never actually write them, you know?

I also submit a fair amount, though in recent years submission turnarounds and contraction of markets has reduced those numbers a great deal. Here’s how it’s shaken out in past years:

2011: 33 submissions, 0 sales

2012: 18 submissions, 1 sale

2013: 22 submissions, 1 sale

This year is continuing this recent trend – I’ll probably end the year with 20 submissions and, unless something exciting happens all last-minute, 1 sale (which just happened). Since 1986, when I started writing and submitting short stories to anyone who would publish them, I’ve managed 1,279 submissions and sold 30 for a sell rate of 2.35%. Obviously I have no dignity. Also I have a fascination with collecting data on my own existence. Yes, I’m that guy who counts things and I am one tiny sliver of sanity away from keeping my piss in mason jars.

Old age will be fun, trust me. Inhibitions lost, sanity frayed, piss in mason jars.

Ahem. Back to the ever-elusive point: For me, the pay scale on short stories is chaos. Since deciding to only submit to markets that at least pay a token, I’ve made more than $1,200 on a single short story, and I’ve made $5. So I’m obviously not going to be making a living on short stories any time soon. But they’re so much fun to write – you can go from idea to THE END in a few days, sometimes. Short stories are the crack of writing.

And, once written, I want them read, and read widely. So, I submit them so I can point to that as some sort of legitimizing serum. You know, because otherwise it’s just me SPAM emailing short story PDFs to everyone who has ever sent me an email, including large corporations, offshore customer service bots, and imprisoned politicians (I’m writing this in New Jersey, so let’s just call them politicians). At least when someone pays me money for a story I can claim that I have a good reason for thinking it’s worth, you know, money. Or your time. Which is generally the same damn thing anyway.

As a reminder, I just released a new short story set in the Avery Cates universe called The Shattered Gears and it’s available on Amazon, Kobo, B&N Nook, and Google Play for just 99 cents.

Also, every now and then I post a free short story on this blog, so if you’re curious check ‘em out.

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Writing: Leave Yourself Hanging

Typical Writer's Retirement Plan

Typical Writer’s Retirement Plan

Writing advice is one of those things that a lot of people want from you but are then almost always disappointed by. I’ve seen it plenty of times: Someone says, oh hey, you’ve completed/sold novels, what kind of advice do you have for the aspiring writer? And they are clearly expecting me to say something like drink heavily all the time and the magic booze faeries will dictate stories to you or jot down this ancient Sumerian magic spell and you can summon magic booze faeries to dictate stories to you or possibly sit down and let me buy you expensive cocktails on my dime.

When I offer instead some chestnut about craft or reading widely or avoiding Tom Swifty constructions in your dialogue, their disappointment is obvious, and their eyes always say something akin to you sir are a fraud and I despise you.

So I’ve been trying to think of a piece of writing advice I can offer that is actually practical and useful but also concise and simple, the sort of immediate benefit I think many folks want. They don’t want to hear something that if you apply diligently for the next thirty years might offer some insight. They want something they can go home and do immediately. And in my role as professional bloviator, this is a tool I must have. And after much thought, I have it: Leave yourself hanging.

This is something I’ve done my whole life without actually thinking of it consciously, and it really does work. The concept is simple: When writing a story, always stop for the day at a point where you know what the next thing will be. In other words, never write until you’re unsure of the next step in your story. Whenever I’ve written until I had no idea what came next, when I sat down the next day I was stumped. If I leave even the slightest bit unwritten, I can swing into it easily the next day.

Simple? Yes, but surprisingly not obvious to many. So there you go: A bit of easily marketed writing advice I can apply my unique brand to. Said brand summed up with the phrase Cranky Inebriated Incompetence.

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The Cynicism Fail

blackmirrorSO, approximately three years too late, I finally caught the first episode of Black Mirror now that it’s on Netflix. I’ve been hearing about the show for years, especially that first episode – “National Anthem” – and was very interested in it. I’m too lazy to chase things down, so I just thought of it every now and then and finally my weak magical field worked its wonders and the show popped up on Netflix.

And it’s good – very well done, creepy, and the premise of “National Anthem” – a hugely popular member of the royal family is kidnapped, and the sole demand for her release is that the Prime Minister fuck a pig on live television – is inspired in both its creepiness and hilarity. I enjoyed it as a piece of black comedy and theater. It does, however, fail in a big way that often hurts supposedly audacious satires like this – it revels far too much in a cynicism about the world that’s supposed to feel edgy but is actually just really, really lazy writing.

And yes, I know: Me carping about lazy writing is like Charlie Sheen carping about drug addicts. Let it drift.

In “National Anthem,” the Cynicism Fail occurs when the story suddenly needs to give us a reason why any reasonable man, a Prime Minister no less, would actually agree to fuck a pig on live television. Yes, yes it’s satire and thus not beholden to normal rules of storytelling, but plot mechanics are plot mechanics. And Black Mirror falls back on the rickety old structure of “public opinion has shifted,” which is possibly the laziest writing crutch in the universe. In the story, at first the public is reasonably shocked by this ridiculous demand and supports the Prime Minister against it. Then the government makes the mistake of trying to fake a pig-fucking via CGI, and a raid on a spot where the princess might be held goes haywire and a reporter is shot. When the public finds out about these debacles, polling shifts, and suddenly the whole country insists the Prime Minister fuck the pig already. His party informs him that not only can they not longer support him if he doesn’t fuck the pig, they cannot even guarantee his or his family’s safety.

In other words, we are to believe that in the space of an hour or so the country goes from mild shock at this turn of events to rabid, primitive grunting.

And I call bullshit. The trope of “people are really the worst and will show their true colors when pushed” has been done. And people are the worst, I’ll stipulate. But bad polling as a reason you cannot possibly avoid fucking a pig on live television is perhaps some of the worst plot mechanics I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed the episode in spite of this bullshit, trust me. This is the sort of stuff a writer who has become completely divorced from real people trots out, imagining that everyone who is not him or people directly in his line of sight must be awful, ignorant, evil people.

I haven’t watched the other episodes, but likely will, and likely will also have drunken, belligerent things to say about them, as well. In the meantime it’s nice to know that even highly-paid folks with shows on TV can screw up their stories this badly. There’s hope for us all yet!

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Retread: The Journey

BUY ME

BUY ME

(NOTE: I posted this back in February 2013, reposting here slightly altered)

We Are Not Good People: I started writing this book in 2010. It’s amazing sometimes how you start with a germ of an idea and then end up somewhere far away from that. Here’s the first ~850 words I wrote for this book. I trashed this (and several versions afterwards) before settling on the final approach in October 2010; much of this is still in the final version, though in a different form, and spread over many sections.

WANGP Draft Zero, August 2010

WHEN I was nine years old, my father picked me up after one of my Cub Scout meetings at the old church, which was strange because my father had left us the year before and I hadn’t seen him since. He drove an old boat of a car, cracked seats and broken radio. I remember climbing around the front and back seats, so much room it was like a little portable house on wheels. He let me; he just sat behind the wheel with a pint bottle of brandy between his legs, humming old songs as he drove.

We merged onto an empty highway, amber lights driving away the darkness but creating a weird Marscape of road, like we’d left the real world behind and were driving in the Ghost World. I didn’t know where we were going. Dad took regular sips from his bottle and answered all my questions with grunts and monosyllables. I had a lot of questions. I remember being really excited, after all this time Dad had come to take me on a trip, and after I got tired of not getting answers to my questions I settled into the back seat with my Webelos handbook and tried to figure out where we were going—amusement parks, zoos, the beach all seemed likely candidates. Eventually I remember falling asleep, liking the sensation of rocking back and forth in the big back seat, the smell of cigarettes and the sound of the wind.

Dad shook me awake and we were out in the middle of nowhere in the parking lot of a small square tavern with a huge red neon sign that said, simply, BEER. I followed him sleepily inside, where a handful of people who all seemed to be wearing flannel shirts and baseball caps were scattered around the tiny, gloomy room. Dad lifted me onto a stool and I remember slouching there, still asleep, looking owlishly around.

“Bourbon,” Dad said. It was the first time he’d spoken since he’d picked me up. “Neat. A coke for the kid.”

This was magic. The man behind the bar, who was fat and red in the face, his gray-white hair greasy and pasted flat against his round head, put a glass in front of me with a grin and used a gun on the end of a rubber hose to fill the glass with soda. Soda from a hose! It was magic, and I immediately schemed to have one installed at Mom’s house, because she always forgot to do the shopping and there was never anything to eat or drink.

Dad didn’t pay any attention to me, just sat there staring at the silent TV mounted up on the wall and sipped from his glass. Any time I finished a soda the man behind the bar waddled over, smiling, and refilled my glass. Free soda from a hose. After a while I eased off my stool and wandered over to where a trio of ancient electronic games sat blinking dully. Dad watched me for a moment, then shrugged and called the bartender over, fishing out a five dollar bill and holding it up.

“Give the kid some quarters,” he said.

I drank soda until I had to pee so badly my legs ached, and played fifteen games of bowling before finally giving in to the realities of the situation and heading for the bathroom. It was a scary bathroom. It had a door that didn’t close right and was dark, everything in it cold and slimy. To get there I had to pass by an old man of at least my Dad’s age sitting at the end of the bar. He wore a white suit with no tie or socks, just white pants and jacket that seemed too light for the weather and a white shirt. He was a mass of wrinkles. His hair was long and slightly curly, and his nose dominated his face, making him resemble a squirrel. I didn’t want to push past him to get to the bathroom, and hesitated for a second or two while my kidneys swam up behind my eyes, bulging them out. Finally I screwed up my courage and hustled past. He just grinned at me.

###

I got bored after a while. The games were old and creaky and not fun and after my seventh or eighth soda the impossible happened and I didn’t want any more of them. Dad just sat and drank and stared. I was afraid to make much noise or bother him, remembering how terrifying he was when angered, and tried to find other ways to amuse myself. I looked around and found the man in the white suit staring at me. He smiled and waved, and I looked away. When I stole a glance back at him, he waved again, and I realized with a start that his fingertips were on fire. As he moved them back and forth through the air they flickered and smoked.

The flames were blue-green. As I stared the man winked at me.

I looked around, but no one else seemed to have noticed. Everyone else might as well have been asleep. Not me. My heart was pounding

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Salvage

This is the face of doom.

This is the face of doom.

I don’t know about y’all, but I have a problem with leaving things unfinished. Since turning in We Are Not Good People to my publisher, I’ve completed one novel (which I showed around to folks who all shrugged and evinced zero enthusiasm for) and since then I’ve started about four projects that more or less went nowhere, if you consider significant amounts of words to be “nowhere.” I’m not a big one for word counts, but it is a useful stat when discussing incomplete novels, so let’s say I have about 4 projects that got to be about 25,000 words or so and then petered out.

Usually this is because they lose that indescribable “buzz” that a living, breathing book has, at least for me. When a story is thriving, working on it is like picking up a live wire. I can feel that buzzing energy every time I put words to paper or screen. When that buzz is lost, I usually tinker for a while and eventually give up trying to make it move again. It’s like riding an elephant that suddenly keels over. For a while you’re bounding along going whoooooo and filled with adrenaline. Then you’re trapped under a ton of dead elephant and nothing you do, including stuffing dynamite under it and lighting a fuse, gets it moving again.

But, I hate to waste all those words. That means turning that dead elephant into a Frankenstein-monster via one of the following strategies:

  1. The Capper: Writing a brief ending of sorts that ties up your loose ends without much revision (“… and then the plane crashed. The end.”) and calling it a job … done.
  2. The Extraction: Taking some portion of the work that can stand alone as a short story with minimal revision and discarding the rest.
  3. The Combo: Realizing that some other unfinished monstrosity is similar in theme and combining the two into one much longer, less satisfying, but in some sense “finished” work.

None of these are ideal, but I will admit that #2 has worked pretty well from time to time. The thing is, I hate unfinished projects. I hate the waste, and sometimes in those 25,000 words there are 10,000 I think are pretty good, so I want them out there someday. So I’m often willing to roll up my sleeves, do some meatball surgery, and call what I end up with a success. Which, sometimes, it is.

Now I’m working on a new idea and I’m getting towards that point where the elephant either suddenly and quite surprisingly spread its Dumbo ears and takes flight, or staggers over dead, trapping me beneath its rotting carcass. I’ll keep you posted.

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