The Critical Importance of Crafting a Strong Opening

 By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I admit. I always have a hard time figuring out my openings.

Even with the manuscript I’m currently working on, I labored long and hard to figure out the best spot to start my story. In fact, I’ve struggled to pick the perfect opener with each book I’ve written. And even after all my agonizing, I still don’t always nail my openings.

Finding the right opening isn’t anything writers should leave to chance. Sometimes the first page, even the first paragraph, is all the time readers will give us.

If we don’t grip readers with our story from the start, they’re likely to move on to something that will grab them. This is especially true in the online age with the ease of previewing the first chapter before making a commitment to buy a book.

I almost always read the first couple of paragraphs online before deciding to buy a book. I figure if the first page doesn’t capture my attention, then the rest of the book probably won’t either. Maybe that’s not true. But that’s the way most of us operate.

Yes, the struggle to find the perfect opening is normal for writers. Dare I go so far as to say if we’re not struggling with our openings, then we’re likely not giving it enough effort?

So what can we do to help us in our quest to craft a gripping first scene?

Here are three things to consider:

1. Find a life-changing DISTURBANCE.

Look for an incident that will push your character out of her comfortable life into a new problem or situation that will ultimately change her life. The disturbance is the start of something that won't leave her the same so that by the end of the book she's a different person in some way.

It’s kind of like our character is walking along a normal everyday path. But then we step in, hit them, and knock them onto a path that they didn’t expect, want, or choose.

It’s not always easy for us to locate the moment of disturbance, especially if we want that spot to be unique and fresh and not clich├ęd. We may have dig deeper, think harder, and really push ourselves to brainstorm for an event or happening that moves our character out of the ordinary and at the same time hooks our readers.

2. Start with immediate TENSION and CONFLICT.

Once we have an initial disturbance, then we need to plunge our characters into the heart of the action. We can’t spend time setting up the story and filling our readers in on how our characters got to where they’re at.

Instead we need to drop our characters onto the page into the middle of immediate conflict and assume the reader will catch on to what’s going on eventually. We can always go back and weave in important story details later if we need to clarify setting or backstory. But usually the reader figures out what’s happening without us having to spell it all out for them.

3. Use a PROLOGUE sparingly.

When I was first querying my debut book, The Preacher’s Bride, I had a prologue. It was an exciting prologue (I thought!). But it wasn’t really necessary for the story. Truthfully, it wasn’t until I cut the prologue that industry professionals started showing an interest in the book.

The lesson I learned was that most readers (including agents and editors) don’t want to wade through a prologue (which is often just an excuse to fit in backstory).

So I don’t write prologues anymore. I’m not saying they’re bad or wrong or unnecessary. But I think we should closely evaluate if one is necessary by asking ourselves a few questions: Can the information in my prologue be woven into the story at a later point? Is it essential to understanding the story? Will it truly hook readers into wanting to keep reading? (Because remember, we only have a page or two to grab them before they make a decision to either read further or move on.)

If I have a scene that needs to happen before the big disturbance moment, then I usually label it as Chapter One and treat it just like a regular chapter, giving it a strong opening hook, immediate conflict, and the same page-turning quality I would with any other chapter.

My final thoughts: When I finish my first draft, I always go back and re-evaluate my opening. Sometimes I end up rewriting part or even all of it because the hindsight of finishing the story gives me new or better ideas for a stronger opening.

What about YOU? Do you judge a book by its opening? How long do you read before setting aside a book?

The Love-Hate Relationship Writers Have With Their Manuscripts

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Recently in a radio interview, the host made a comment about how hard it must be after a book is published to part ways with the characters and story that I've grown to love. He asked me how I handle that. The question made me pause for an instant.

Yes, I do fall in love with my book, but only while I'm writing the first draft. I usually get super excited about the way everything comes together. I put my heroine in deadly trouble and love when I'm able to figure out how to get her out of a deep dark black hole believably. I love when I develop those tricky character arcs so that my hero and heroine grow emotionally and spiritually, but are still imperfect. And I even love when I'm able use symbolism throughout, wrap up the romance sweetly, and find perfect metaphors and similes for descriptions.

However, I know the love I’m feeling for my story won’t last. After writing the first draft, I'll edit the book at least four times if (of varying levels of editing) if not more. During all of those edits, I’ll grow increasingly more critical. My love for the manuscript will continue to diminish. Then finally I'll turn the book in to my publisher for the very last time. At that point, I’ll loathe the book. And seriously consider ripping it up and throwing it away.

Yes. This happens every time. I fall madly in love with my book and think it’s the best thing I ever wrote, but then I gradually fall out of love and think it’s the worst thing in the world. As much as I wish I could avoid the painful swing of emotions, I’m coming to realize it’s normal, even helpful.

Writers need to fall in love with their stories during the first draft.

Our creativity needs freedom during the first draft. Sure, I carefully plot out my book. I’m intentional with themes, character development, and story pacing. I even challenge myself with each new book to focus on growing in a particular area.

But . . . during the writing process, I delve deeply into my imaginary world. I ignore my internal editor. I give the story the freedom to grow and become its own entity. I give my characters permission to change and develop. And I don’t allow myself to be critical of my book in any way, shape, or form. I don’t compare myself to others.

I focus on my story. I let myself only see the good and the positive. I relish in it. I rarely experience writer's block because during the first draft, I keep the mental red pen locked away. I write uninhibited, letting the words flow without stopping to critique anything.

But after the first draft, writers need to fall out of love with their books.

That initial blindness to our story’s faults and problems serves us well during first draft creativity. But when we reach the editing stage, it’s time to pull out the guns and start shooting holes in our work.

We need to open our eyes wide to our faults, the areas where we’re weak, the many problems our stories will have. At this stage, we need to take off the protective, rose-colored glasses and see our work in all its nakedness.

We’ll do ourselves a favor to put our work under the intense scrutiny of our own self-editing, the eagle-eyes of a critique partners, and any other outside help we can get (contest feedback, freelance editors, beta readers, etc.).

We should begin to feel the pain of having our work ripped apart. And if we don’t feel pain, we’re probably not being honest enough with the quality of our work. At this point, it’s perfectly normal to grow so critical that we loathe our work. It’s then, when we ache that we can use the negative energy to push us to work harder to get our stories even better.

Problems arise when we get the love-hate relationship in the wrong order.

During the first draft, if we fail to fall in love and instead turn on the inner critic, we’ll risk a number of problems: writer’s block, word flow issues, slower speed of writing, lack of motivation, etc. We could even risk losing out on the joy of the writing process itself.

During the editing, if we fail to fall out of love and instead see our work too highly, we’ll risk a number of problems: we won’t be able to evaluate our work critically enough, we might reject hard feedback from others, we could even become embittered by a writing industry that we deem as “unfair” or too “limited.”

My Summary: Allow ourselves to fall madly in love with our first drafts. That’s important to the creative flow. But then make sure we put an end to the love-affair during the editing. That’s equally important to the process of writing.

What do you think? Have you ever gone through the love-hate relationship with one of your books? Have you ever gotten the love-hate relationship in the wrong order?

5 Traits That Foster Publishing Success

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

There are 101 different ways to define success among the writing community. Some of us might put high priority on making friendships, others in completing a difficult manuscript, and still others in seeing their book in print regardless of how many people buy it.

However, in the writing industry, whether we like it or not, professional success is usually determined by our numbers—our sales figures, how many times we make a best seller list, how many prizes our book wins, etc.

In traditional publication numbers are critically important for published authors. Without stable or growing sales figures, a publisher will often have to let an author go. In indie publishing, an author who consistently spends more on covers, editing, etc, than she makes would have to seriously consider whether to keep putting herself in the red.

Regardless of how we define success personally, I think at some level most of us want to reach a level of professional success as well. Of course, it goes without saying that we need to have compelling books. But there are plenty of great writers with well-told stories who stall in their careers.

What can help us forge ahead? What qualities are important in reaching for success?

As I brainstormed the character traits that have helped me achieve a modicum of success in the publishing industry, here are five qualities that have helped me enormously:

1. Maintain a vision.

I believe in myself and my abilities. Throughout the ups and downs of the writing journey, I’ve clung to the dream of being published. Sure, occasionally I hit depressing dips that have made me feel like giving up. But I always crawl through them and make it to the other side. I brush off the gravel, ignore the bruises, and plod steadily onward toward my goals.

I’ve also realized how important it is to have people beside me who support and believe in me. They’re there to cheer me on, remind me why I’m doing this, and inspire me to stay on the course.

2. Work extraordinarily hard.

From a young age, my parents taught me how to work. And I’m not talking about just making my bed. I mean real, sweat-inducing work. First, they modeled hard work. Then they expected it without exception. Because of their training, I’m not afraid to demand much of myself, put in long hours, and stick to a job until completion.

Sometimes I don’t think people realize how hard I’ve worked to reach this point in my writing career. I’ve sacrificed a lot, dedicated endless hours, and labored with both diligence and determination.

I haven’t had magical fairy dust sprinkled over me. My relatives aren’t in high places pulling strings for me. And my luck hasn’t been above average. Instead, I’m just an ordinary person who’s worked extraordinarily hard.

3. Facilitate humility.

Yes, we have to believe in our abilities and that we have what it takes. But we also need an attitude of “I always have room for improvement.” It’s that ever-present feeling of needing to do better that motivates us to try harder, to accept difficult feedback, to push ourselves to rise to the next level.

Without humility we risk becoming complacent and stagnant. Our books will follow suit.

4. Cultivate professional savvy.

If we hope to achieve professional success, then at some point we’ll need to emerse ourselves in the publishing industry and learn how everything works. I see far too many writers jump into publication without doing their homework. Ignorance can be the kiss of death in this competitive and enormous industry.

As I moved closer to publication, I studied everything I could get my hands on to learn about the current state of publishing and all that it entailed. Then I began to act on all that I was learning, taking risks but being wise about it.

5. Embrace inner passion.

When we’re passionate about something, that usually comes through in our actions and words. We live in such a way as to let our passion pour out into our stories, into our relationships, and yes even into social medai.

When we live genuinely, openly, and passionately, people are drawn to us, our posts, and our books. They crave a piece of that passion for themselves. Hopefully we can inspire them to reach for their own success.

There’s my short list! Now I’d love to hear yours!

What qualities have helped you? What trait do you think is THE most important in helping writers reach a level of professional success?

8 Tips For Picking Meaningful Character Names

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

How important are character names? Does it really matter what we choose? Or how we go about deciding?

Should we draw names out of hat? Or should we wait until exact names are revealed to us in a dream?

I’m slightly hesitant to give advice on how to pick character names. I can’t tell you how to name your characters anymore than I can tell you how to name your real-life children. I truly believe the naming process will be unique for each of us.

But . . . I do think there are some general principles we can employ when deciding on character names. Here are eight things I keep in mind when naming my characters:

1. Develop our character before finalizing the name.

I get to know as much about my character as possible before finalizing the name. As I develop the character’s personality, ethnicity, quirks, life-experiences, etc., I’m able to narrow down names that might match that person. For example, in The Doctor’s Lady, my heroine is a well-educated, pious lady from a wealthy family. I chose the name Priscilla because it has a more refined and elegant ring than a name like Mary or Betty.

2. Find names that match our setting and fit with the plot.

Once my character is starting to come to life, I also evaluate how that character fits within the plot and setting. In Unending Devotion, which is set in the lumber communities of central Michigan, I sorted through rural names, as well as logging era names. And I tried to think which ones would fit within the tone of the plot.

3. Use time-period appropriate names.

This is especially critical for historical writers. I generally pull up the list of the most popular names for the year or decade in which my character was born. I also look at lists of names in biographies and research books for the particular time period of my book. In the 1600’s, 29% of men were named John (that’s about 1 out of 3 men!) and 15% of women were named Elizabeth. Thus, in The Preacher’s Bride I felt almost obligated to name my main characters John and Elizabeth. Not really! But you get my point.

4. Use symbolism if possible.

While we can’t always attach symbolism to names, we can look for ways to give special meaning to some of the names we choose. In my WIP, I looked at the meaning of hero names before choosing one. Whether the reader ever realizes it or not, part of my hero’s character arc is about him learning to live up to his name—which means “strong as a wolf.”

5. Avoid picking names that readers will have a difficult time saying.

I get annoyed when I read character names I can’t pronounce—oddly-spelled or too-long names. This is even more frustrating when the name belongs to the main character and I have to read the “weird” name ten times per page. I suggest avoiding names (as fun and nice as they might be) that might trip up our readers. We should also limit the number of foreign names for the same reason.

6. Avoid having names that start with the same letter or sound.

I keep a running list of every character that crops up in my book—a sheet I can easily scan. I do my best to start each name with a different letter. I don’t want to have a John, Joseph, and Jacob all in the same book. Or a Polly and Molly. When names are too similar, we have to make our readers work harder to remember our characters. And our job as writers is to make the reading experience as smooth and pleasant as possible.

7. Remember, unique doesn’t always mean better.

Sometimes when names are too unique they can distract a reader from the story. I like unique last names, especially when they’re real (like Goodenough or Covenant). But often those kinds of names have a ring of disbelief. When I get too carried away, my editors send me back to the drawing board for a simpler name. I've noticed that middle grade and YA books can push the limits. For example, I'm reading The Water Horse by Dick King-Smith with my kids. The grouchy, complaining grandfather is aptly named Grumble.

8. Make sure our minor character names don’t overshadow our main characters.

It’s fun to find especially dark and sinister names for our antagonists. In The Doctor's Lady, one of the antagonists is named the Black Squire. He's rough trapper that wears a black eye patch. In Rebellious Heart, the bad guy is Lieutenant Wolfe. Yes, he's predatory like a wolf. He's hunting for smugglers and enjoys it just a tad too much. As we have fun shaping our minor characters, we have to make sure their names and personalities don't become more vibrant and alive than the main characters.

What about YOU? What annoys you most about character names? Do you have any advice or method for how to come up with the perfect name?

How to Drive Yourself Crazy as a Writer

 By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Here are four simple ways to drive yourself crazy (or to drive other writers & readers crazy!):

1. Think the very first book you’ve ever written is ready for publication.

This is a very hard truth for beginning writers to swallow. No one wants to believe they’ve gone to all the hard work of writing a book for nothing. But if you ask most published authors how many books it took them before they were ready for publication, likely you’d get a range from 4 to 6. Sure there are exceptions. But the large majority of authors have to write multiple books before really honing their skills.

It took me five books (not to mention a couple of books that I started but never finished). Those five books are stuck in a closet and will never see the light of day.

Fortunately, all the work isn’t for nothing. In fact, those first unpublishable books are incredibly important. Without mine, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. The practice books—combined with studying fiction techniques—are the building blocks for a successful career.

We’ll only drive ourselves crazy with potential rejections, poor sales, and crushing feedback if we attempt to put our books out there too soon.

2. Think you don’t need time to grow.

I save my kids’ writing assignments. They date the papers and put them in their writing folders. Every year when they add new paragraphs, essays, and stories, they invariably go back and read what they’ve written in previous years. Now in fifth grade, my daughter giggles over what she wrote in second grade.

But, boy, in second grade she thought those stories were wonderful. And they were—for a second grader. However, the time, distance, and growth has helped her to look back and see how much deeper, richer, and more complex they’ve become. She can objectively see just how shallow and simplistic her earlier writing was.

Even though there’s no set number of years someone needs to write before being ready for publication, there’s something to be said for giving ourselves plenty of growing room. If we’re studying hard, over time we’ll begin to see improvements in our writing skill. And someday we’ll even look back at our earliest attempts and giggle (at least I do!).

3. Think you can catch all your own mistakes.

No one can edit his or her own manuscript perfectly. That’s a little bit like trying to give yourself counseling. Usually we can’t see our own issues and faults (or we’re prideful or in denial!). We need friends, family, and therapists to help us see the issues.

And the same is true in our writing. No matter how many times we read our manuscript, we can’t view it as objectively as someone who is reading with a fresh perspective.

Even with twenty plus years of writing experience, I still can’t catch all my own mistakes. I absolutely need editors who can give me their honest, careful, and detailed critiques (of both big and small problems).

4. Think you can make a go of the writing journey alone.

In this modern age, it’s pretty tough to go solo. Although writing a first draft of a book is a solitary endeavor, the road beyond that is not.

The longer I’m in the industry, the more I’ve come to realize just what a team effort the process of publication is—everything from the editing to the marketing. Yes, it takes a team effort to take a book in its somewhat rough state and to polish it up so that it can really resonate and shine.

But then once we have it sparkling, it also takes a team to help us market our books. With over one million other books vying for the reader’s attention, we have so much more of a chance of getting our books to stand out when our friends and online connections help us spread the word.

Plus, we need writing friends to help us through the difficult times. Yes, our non-writing friends and family can support us too. But other writers can get it in a way that others often can’t.

We can drive ourselves crazy, sometimes even to the point of wanting to quit when we fall prey to any of the above.

How about you? Do you agree or disagree with my points? Are there exceptions to the above that you’ve seen?

How to Learn Fiction-Writing Techniques With Less Pain & Frustration

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

If you’ve been reading my blog long enough then you know I feel very strongly that writers need to grow in their writing ability by reading fiction how-to books.

Back in the days when I was first writing seriously (about twenty years ago), I devoured every how-to book I could get my hands on. I filled notecards with all of the things I was learning. And as I wrote, I’d flip through my notecards to help me remember everything.

Incidentally, I still have that stack of notecards and occasionally still read them. And I still regularly read writing craft books (usually when I’m between projects so that I can refresh myself and find new inspiration).

Now I realize not everyone agrees that writing craft books are helpful. Some people become overwhelmed by all of the information. Others feel stifled. Some even get discouraged to the point of quitting because they can’t seem to do things “by the book.”

Then there are those writers who don’t want anyone else telling them what to do. They feel that writing is an individualistic, subjective expression of our creativity (just like all of the other art forms).

Some may even say they can learn all they need by reading well-written novels, and that the rhythm of story and structure is picked up through saturating themselves with a variety of genres and stories (including the classics). Such writers might say things like, “Story trumps technique.”

The fact is, writers can come up with any number of excuses for why they don’t want to learn the basics of fiction-writing. And sometimes those excuses may even be valid, because after all, most excuses usually have a hint of truth to them, don’t they?

The truth is yes, sometimes we can try too hard to follow the rules and in the process get discouraged or end up with sterile writing. Sometimes we’re at risk of losing our individuality and creativity when we try to make ourselves fit into a prescribed structure. And yes, those of us who are avid readers may have a leg-up on how to tell a good story. Indeed, the story itself is critically important.

But the other truth is this—very few people are born as writing geniuses. I certainly wasn’t. Most of us have to learn how to write fiction similar to any other subject like typing, reading or algebra. And while there are many ways to learn how to write, one of the best ways to learn anything is to STUDY and then PRACTICE.

Here are few suggestions that might make the process of learning about writing fiction less painful and frustrating:

1. Wait to read a how-to book until after completing a first manuscript. Often we don’t know what we need to work on until after we’ve had some firsthand experience. Besides, there’s something about giving ourselves freedom with the first book to explore, be creative, and to nurture our imagination.

2. Check out several fiction how-to books from the library. When I’m able to browse through a book first, I’m able to see whether it contains information that will help me. Different books will speak to us more or less depending upon where we’re at in our writing journey. If we’re not selective, we might give up on how-to books too easily instead of continuing to search until we find one that meets our needs.

3. When reading, take notes on specific things to work on in the next novel. I usually read a how-to book when I’m in the pre-writing plotting phase, which helps inspire ideas and reminds me of what I need to incorporate.

4. Don’t try to work on everything all at once. That’s a bit like having too many cooks in the kitchen—a recipe for disaster (or at the very least discouragement). Trying to do everything perfectly or too much to soon can zap the joy out of writing and lead to writer’s block.

5. Look at writing techniques as guidelines not rules. I examine the “why” behind particular guidelines. What is the point of a technique? For example, plenty of books advocate against using adverbs. Why? Because the modern reader doesn’t want to be slowed down by wordiness. They want a succinct, tight read. But does that mean we can’t use any adverbs? No, if I’m doing my job at keeping the story moving, then if I drop in an adverb here and there, it won’t bother the reader or slow my story.

6. Find a balance. We shouldn't focus too much on technique at the expense of the story or it will end up lifeless. But we can't ignore the building blocks of good fiction because we think we have an awesome best-selling story. We might shoot our chance with an agent, publisher, or reader simply because they can't see past our mediocre or even poor writing techniques.

How about you? Are you taking enough time to work on your fiction techniques? What writing book has helped you the most from a practical standpoint?

How to Balance Showing Versus Telling

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

One thing I’ve noticed through critiquing and judging contests (and from personal experience), is that writers have a difficult time finding balance when it comes to showing versus telling. In fact, I’ve noticed two phases: over-telling and under-telling.

1. The over-telling phase:

In our first books, we usually over-explain just about everything in the story. We take an entire paragraph to describe our main character’s physical description in precise detail. We spend a page telling about her past and the events leading up to the current problem. We toss in lots of flowers and birds and rainbows and sunsets.

We think we’re eloquent and that our prose is other-worldly. We believe we’re creating complex characters and well-plotted novels with all the explaining we’re doing.

But then (either through feedback or personal growth) we realize how wordy we are.

Eventually, as we brush up on our writing skills, we begin to learn how to write by scenes. Thanks to television and movies, readers prefer to see a story as a series of immediate scenes. They no longer have a tolerance for the exhausting pages of description and explanation that characterizes so many books of the past.

So we as writers try to imitate what’s done on the big screen. In fact, many of us may even read screen-writing books (like Save the Cat) to help us tighten and hone our writing skills, until we trim and eliminate every unnecessary word possible. Eventually, we learn to show not tell.

And that’s when some writers enter the next phase:

2. The under-telling phase:

In our passion to avoid excess, we end up going to the opposite extreme with our stories, putting them under the microscope and eliminating every extra jot and tiddle.

Everyone seems to be instructing us to cut out or go lean on things like:

NARRATIVE SUMMARY: The narrator (usually the POV character) tells or summarizes events, the passing of time, or the getting from one setting to another.

EXPOSITION: Information that helps explain something about the plot, a character, or the story. This includes:

*Backstory: All of the story that happened prior to the opening of the book

*Background: The technical details that are important to the story

*Physical descriptions: Of characters, setting, emotions, and sensory details

INTERNAL MONOLOGUE: Going inside a character’s head and getting a glimpse of their thoughts and feelings.

EXTRA WORDAGE: Passive tense verbs, adverbs, “as” and “-ing” constructions, exclamation points, italics, etc.

Yes, we’re encouraged practically everywhere to ruthlessly delete the excess.

But in the process of eliminating we’re left with a dry, often emotionless story that is unable to engage the senses and emotions of the reader.

Renni Browne and Dave King in Self-Editing For Fiction Writers said this: "We have noticed since the first edition of this book came out that a lot of writers have taken our advice about showing and telling too much to heart. The result has sometimes been sterile writing, consisting mostly of bare-bones descriptions and dialogue.” (p. 133 Emphasis mine)

Essentially we under-tell (and mostly show) our stories. We’ve cut too much. We’ve made them too much like a television show.

And somewhere along the line we have to find a middle ground.

Learn to balance showing versus telling:

One of the beauties of fiction is that it can give us more depth than a movie. We can get inside the characters’ heads to experience what they're feeling and thinking in a way that’s just not possible on the screen.

So while the modern reader doesn’t want to be bogged down with too much detail, they do want a book, not a movie. We need to find ways to seamlessly weave in all of the summaries, exposition, and internal monologue, rather than leaving them out. We need to learn the right amount of each that works for us and our stories—not over-doing it, but getting enough into our stories in all the right spots.

As we grow as writers, we begin to learn more about ourselves, and we eventually come upon our unique VOICE (the story-telling cadence, sounds, and tone) and STYLE (a writer’s particular way of putting the story together).

When we get dressed, we all put on the basics—pants, shirt, shoes, socks, etc. But it’s amazing all of the unique combinations we can make when we add our own flare—colors, cuts, jewelry, belts, purses, etc.

Our stories are the same way. We need the basic structures of story-telling (the bare-bones), but we can’t stop there. We need to learn to dress up our stories with our own unique voice and style. Maybe we’ll add a bit more description than someone else, or more transitions, or whatever it is we like most about story-telling. When we add our own personal flare to our stories, they can begin to come to life.

Summary: Find a balance. Don't fall into the mistake of over-telling. But also, don't go to the opposite extreme of under-telling. Look for ways to make your book a book (not a movie), but a book that modern readers will enjoy.

How about YOU? Have you gone through either the over-telling or under-telling phase? What are some ways you've found a balance?
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