Learning from Children’s Literature

Although I have three degrees in English literature, I once spent about six months teaching second grade in an elementary school. That’s when I discovered the joys of books like Danny and the Dinosaur and Little Bear. Story time was always one of the highlights of the daily routine in my classroom.

But since then I haven’t had many encounters with books for children. So it was delightful to read a wonderful New Yorker article about Maurice Sendak (author of Where the Wild Things Are and illustrator of the Little Bear books).

I wasn’t surprised when Sendak – unmarried and childless – said that he tapped into his own early years in order to write his books for children. But what set me reeling was something else Sendak said:

“You see, I don’t believe, in a way, that the kid I was grew up into me. He still exists somewhere, in the most graphic, plastic, physical way. It’s as if he had moved somewhere. I have a tremendous concern for him and interest in him. I communicate with him—or try to—all the time. One of my worst fears is losing contact with him.”

I’d thought that only Jungian psychologists believed in that notion of multiple selves – but here was a children’s author sounding like my favorite psychologist, James Hillman!

I think Hillman (and Sendak) are right, and I know – for example – that I share my soul with a giggling eight-year-old who thinks Danny’s adventures with his dinosaur friend are absolutely hilarious. At other times I become my mother, my favorite high-school English teacher, a testy adolescent – you get the idea. They all jostle with one another for my attention, and things can get pretty crazy. Fascinating! (By the way – you, reading this, have your own cast of characters who enjoy disrupting your life.)

But right now I want to focus  on that giggling eight-year-old. What if you’re someone (like me) who doesn’t write for children? Is there any reason for me to keep in touch with that I-won’t-grow-up part of myself?

Yes – and to explain, I’m going to take a detour into postmodern language theory. People are complicated beings – there’s no such thing as “simplicity” when you’re describing human personalities and behavior. And language is just as complex. No matter how hard you try to stick to one idea when you’re writing, other elements, themes, and issues are going to find their way into your words. More than once I’ve written a piece that horrified me when it was published:  I’d given away some of my secrets without knowing what I was doing!

If you respect your own complex cast of characters, you can channel some of their vitality into your writing. I’m thinking of a book I loved reading three years ago: Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom. It’s a true story: Ken Ilungas longed to go to graduate school, but he’d already struggled to pay off a $32,000 student loan and didn’t want to go down that road again. His solution was to buy a beat-up van, park it on a side street near Duke University, and live there until he finished his graduate program.

I found myself thinking wistfully about Walden on Wheels just the other day. What an adventure he had! By contrast, here’s what my life has been like lately: I keep track of our condo fees and phone bills, get my teeth cleaned every three months, and make sure I return my library books on time. I watch TV on a schedule. I have such a reputation for punctuality that my dance teachers call my cell phone if I’m two minutes late for a lesson. (I am not making that up.)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wear jeans every day, wander into the college library any time I felt like it (even at 2 AM), and be so untethered that nobody knew – or cared -where I was or what I was doing?

Well, not really. To put it another way: The Grown-up Jean who’s in charge of my life most of the time wants marriage, healthy teeth, predictability, and financial stability.

But tucked away somewhere in my soul is a little girl who loved The Boxcar Children (last year I read it again!) and would have adored sharing the freedom and adventures of those four children – for a little while, anyway. (I should explain that The Boxcar Children is a classic book about four orphaned children who find out that they’re going to be placed in separate foster homes. They slip away at nightfall and find an abandoned boxcar where they can stay together.)

Gee whiz. Of course I loved Walden on Wheels! In a way it’s just The Boxcar Children all over again, rewritten for an adult audience.

I don’t care how smart and sophisticated you are. If you go back to reread one of your favorite books, I predict that you’re going to catch a whiff of another you. Maybe it’s a daredevil, a diva, a saint, or a would-be movie star – or someone else who’s both unknown to you and yet amazingly familiar.

Homework assignment: Make a list of the books you’ve loved. (They don’t have to be written for children, and don’t limit yourself to titles that are considered great literature!) Then go back over the list and think about the person within you who loved each book. Think of ways to connect with that person. Dive into that person’s energy, enthusiasms, yearnings, and fears. Then start thinking about ways to bring all that vitality into your writing.

Your readers will love you for it.

The Boxcar Children

            The Boxcar Children

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Copyright

How much do you know about copyright? Here’s a chance to find out. I’m going to recount a real-life experience I had with copyright a couple of weeks ago. How would you have handled it?

I’d just published an article called “Writing Clear, Effective Police Reports: No English Degree Required” for the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin. (You can read the article at this link: https://leb.fbi.gov/2017/may/perspective-writing-clear-effective-police-reports-no-english-degree-required.)

A few days later, a police chief emailed me to ask whether he could make copies for his officers. He didn’t want to violate the copyright. What did I tell him? Scroll down for the answer.

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The answer was that I no longer owned the copyright – I had signed a contract transferring it to the FBI. So even though I’d written the article myself, I didn’t have the right to make copies myself or allow anyone else to do it.

I suggested he write to my editor, and I gave him her email address. She, I’m happy to say, gave him the permission he needed.

Copyright is complicated, and it’s serious business! I just came across a terrific free resource that can help you understand how copyright works. It’s called How To Copyright A Book: A Comprehensive Guide. Here’s the link: https://blog.reedsy.com/how-to-copyright-a-book

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I’m going to add something to the excellent information you can find at the link. When you’re dealing with a professional publisher, you can be sure that you’ll get useful advice about dealing with copyright.

But you need to be wary when you’re publishing on your own. You may work with a rep who understands copyright – but maybe you won’t.

I’ve been shocked not once but twice lately by the shoddy research I found in two self-published books about Bernard Shaw. I hasten to add that I didn’t find any copyright problems. But the authors had no idea how academic publishing is done, and no one had helped them. I suspect that no one talked to them about copyright laws.

I’m not an attorney, of course, so I can’t give you any specific advice about copyright. But I can urge you to educate yourself about copyright…and to be careful. When in doubt, consult an attorney.

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Letting Go

Natalie Goldberg is the author of a bestselling book of advice for writers: Writing Down the Bones. I’ve always felt a special connection with her because she grew up in Farmingdale, on Long Island, at about the same time I was growing up in nearby Bethpage.

I didn’t discover Writing Down the Bones until after I had started publishing. My first encounter with Goldberg came through Common Boundary magazine, a New Age periodical that enriched my life in countless ways during its short publishing life.

Goldberg’s articles focused on her Zen practice, and a comment in one of her articles particularly fascinated me: students of Zen take a vow that they will be the last ones to accept enlightenment. It’s very different from our Western spiritual traditions, with their emphasis on goals and growth. I’ve known spiritual seekers who had no scruples about knocking over anyone who got in the way as they scrambled up the Mountain of Enlightenment.

I think Goldberg’s long immersion in Zen eventually found its way into her approach to writing. This morning I started thinking about a taped workshop she did some years ago. Goldberg gave participants a writing prompt and then invited them to read what they had written. One man clearly had a great deal of writing experience and came up with an impressive response to the prompt.

Goldberg told him to give up any idea of being a writer.

Gasp.

I’m thinking of how I would have responded early in my ballroom adventures if an expert had told me to give up any idea of being a dancer – and done it publicly.

For the record, the man at the workshop did not seem at all perturbed by Goldberg’s advice. Clearly she wasn’t saying he was a bad writer, and she wasn’t advising him to quit.

Somehow he immediately grasped what she was trying to tell him, which probably amounted to something like this: Your writing has to be messy – even dirty – before you clean it up. He’d gotten to the finish line too quickly and missed some promising detours on the way. In other words: Zen. The way to get there is to stop trying to get there.

To put it another way: your goal to write well can get in the way of other reasons for writing: awakening something in your audience – exploring an idea – digging into a feeling.

Here’s an example of what I think Goldberg was talking about: over the years I’ve found that journaling is a powerful way to dive into problems and start working out a way to solve them. But to make journaling work for me, I have to write without capital letters and punctuation. My editing habits are so deeply embedded in my writing practices that they block the stream of feelings and thoughts.

Goldberg’s advice about writing in all her books generally boils down to one principle: Let yourself go, at least in the beginning. Of course you want to impress readers with what you have to say. But when you take that path, you may be cutting yourself off from the energy flow needed for good writing.

I’m going to take a detour for a moment into ballroom dancing. I’m realizing that I took Natalie Goldberg’s advice before I ever stepped into a studio for my first lesson, and it’s stood me in good stead.

Of course I’ve always wanted to be a good dancer (hell – I’m going to be honest: a great dancer!), and that desire has driven me to invest huge quantities of time and energy  (and considerable sums of money) into lessons, gowns, shoes, and everything else that makes a ballroom dancer.

But what I’ve told myself again and again over the years is that what I really want to know is how it feels to be a dancer. What do dancers think about? How do they respond to a piece of music? Where does choreography come from? How do dancers solve problems? What do dancers do with their feet – hands – eyes? How does it feel to dance with a great partner? And so on.

Even on the baddest of bad days (and there have been many of them!), I can say that I’ve taken another step or two towards my goal of knowing what dancing is all about.

Back to writing. If you embark on a writing project and then decide that it’s never going to work (something that’s happened to me many times), you have two choices. You can berate yourself because you spent time and effort on a project that didn’t work for you. Or you can congratulate yourself for having achieved your goal of investing time and energy in writing.

Think about it for a moment: how many people have you known who talk wistfully about wanting to write – and never do a damn thing about it?

Like Natalie Goldberg, who set a goal to be the last person to accept enlightenment, I will probably be the last person to master the foxtrot. But the climb up the mountain has been a glorious one, and no – I don’t think I’ve knocked anyone to the ground on my journey to that unattainable peak.

       Natalie Goldberg

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Commas with “And”

I hear more questions about and than any other word! Commas – when to use one, and when to leave it out – are probably the biggest issue. So in today’s post I’m going to give you a simple tool for getting that comma right every time you use and.

(I need to add that there’s some wiggle room here. I’m still going to recommend my system because it completely eliminates the guesswork. I also need to tell you that I’m not talking about using commas in a list – the Oxford comma – today.)

Here’s a partial sentence about a picnic for you to think about:

We roasted marshmallows and a squirrel

Pretty nasty picnic! Now read this version:

We roasted marshmallows, and a squirrel

You knew right away that the squirrel came to no harm..even though the only difference is a comma! Amazing, isn’t it?

Many people swear that they’re hopelessly confused about commas…but anyone who reads these two squirrel examples can instantly tell you that the squirrel in the second version is safe. Here’s how you might finish the sentence:

We roasted marshmallows, and a squirrel grabbed one.

Ah, the power of the comma! You already know how to use it. Yet many students are never exposed to the simple rule behind today’s examples: Use a comma when you join two sentences with and. (But works the same way, incidentally.)

Let’s look at another example. The only difference between the partial sentences below is a comma. Which sentence tells you that Betty was invited to the party?

We invited everyone to the party but Betty

We invited everyone to the party, but Betty

I’m willing to bet the farm that you knew right away that poor Betty was not invited in the first example. In the second example, she received an invitation but couldn’t come.

In traditional grammatical terms, you should use a comma whenever you use a coordinating conjunction to join two sentences. (Those are the FANBOYS words: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.) 

In simpler terms, use a comma when you join two sentences with and or but. (The other FANBOYS words don’t come up very often.)

One more tip: Never put a comma after and or but. Notice the comma placement:

We invited everyone to the party, but Betty had to work Friday night.

You can download and print a free handout about commas at http://bit.ly/EasyCommas.

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Writing for an Audience

Here’s some advice that English instructors repeat all the time: “Write for your audience.” I heard it from my my own instructors many times over the years, and I always nodded and tried to look as if I understood what it meant.

The truth is that I didn’t fully understand – and I think many writers are as befuddled about writing for an audience as I was. Audience is a big, heavy, static word…what do you do with it? Of course you should state your ideas clearly, and edit your sentences carefully, and make sure your ideas are strong and coherent. But you don’t need the concept of an audience to do those things.

So how do you write for an audience? You keep real people in mind – your readers – as you’re writing. It’s not easy to do when you’re already juggling a multitude of writing skills and principles as you work on your piece.

But help is on the way. Here are some tricks that professional writers use to forge a connection with their audience. Despite their simplicity, these strategies really work!

  1. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes.
  2. Think about your readers before you start writing.
  3. Decide what experiences you want your writers to have: surprised? touched? motivated? angry? impressed?
  4. Think about a living person you know who’s similar to your imaginary audience. Write for that person.
  5. Figure out what your audience already knows about your topic. Be prepared to fill in the rest of the background they’ll need, and do it early.
  6. When you get to the editing stage, reread your piece slowly, looking for any words your readers might not understand. Delete them (or insert clues to their meaning).
  7. Ask a friend or family member outside your field to read your piece and give you feedback.

If you’re sitting there smugly and congratulating yourself that you already do these things, beware. I’m pretty smart, and I have years of experience with professional writing – and yet I’ve botched up #5 numerous times.

It’s always a good idea to go over the strategies again just to make sure you’re reaching your audience effectively!

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Death in Paradise

Charlie and I are huge fans of Death in Paradise, a British mystery series set on a beautiful Caribbean island. Now that I’m not working full-time, I’ve discovered that Charlie has a knack for discovering terrific shows we enjoy watching together. Lately I’ve been analyzing some of them to see if I can pass on some hints to writers who read my blog. More about that in a moment.

One of the rare shows that he likes but I don’t is Midsomer Murders. I have lots of complaints about it. There are too many characters, and most of them aren’t likable. The detective in the episodes I’ve watched – Tom Barnaby – is a nice-enough guy, but there’s nothing special about the way he solves the crimes. Worst of all – and here comes a confession – the plots are too complicated for me.

It gets worse. Charlie and I have been watching Death in Paradise for years, and of course we’ve seen every episode. We started watching them a second time and discovered that we often couldn’t remember who the murderer was. And then – sigh – we started watching the show for the third time, and I still almost never get the murderer right. (Charlie remembers about half the time.)

In a feeble attempt at defending myself, I’m going to point out that Death in Paradise  – like all good mystery shows – follows a formula – one that was a favorite with Agatha Christie. She used to populate her books with multiple suspects who seemed equally smarmy until the true killer was finally revealed.

Oddly enough, I don’t like Agatha Christie’s mysteries either. (I guess I’m hard to please!) But the mysteries that happen in Death in Paradise are different from Christie’s – and better, I think. The ensemble is wonderful – every person is likable and fun. The settings are gorgeous. The music and local culture give every show a party atmosphere. There’s a lot of humor in the show.

And there are two other formula elements that I think work very well. Always, as the show draws to a close, there’s an ordinary happening that triggers an aha! experience and solves the crime. One time it was ants on a windowsill. In another episode it was a bottle of ketchup.

The other formula element is one found in every one of Rex Stout’s mysteries about detective Nero Wolfe. (I’m assuming Death in Paradise stole it.) Nero Wolfe always assembles everyone connected to the murder and dramatically reveals the guilty party. Each episode of Death in Paradise ends exactly the same way. (Funny how a show – or book – can be so predictable and yet so entertaining!)

But what I really want to talk about today is my own idiocy in not remembering who the murderer is, even on the third go-round. Here’s what’s really strange. Charlie and I just started watching a new series, The Coroner, that we’re also having fun watching. But about a third of the time, I can identify the murderer just five minutes into the show.

Did I suddenly acquire a brain? Sadly, no. The Coroner is built from a different formula, and it happens to be much easier for me to figure out. (Perhaps that’s why the show was canceled after only two series.)

If you’re writing a short story, novel, or memoir, some of the points I’ve made in today’s post may be helpful to you: Have a recurring set of likable characters. Create an inviting and engaging atmosphere. Don’t overcomplicate your story (Midsomer Murders). Don’t oversimplify your story (The Coroner).

But there’s one exceptionally useful piece of advice that too many writers are slow to discover and employ. Here it is: Develop a watchful brain. Notice your own reactions – positive and negative – and dig into them for lessons you can apply to your own writing. In Death in Paradise, Detective Inspector Humphrey Goodman used a bottle of ketchup to solve a murder. Surely your brain can be equally innovative!

 

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Is Amazon Good or Bad for Authors?

Online superstore Amazon.com is under attack. The Huffington Post just published an article about Amazon’s gradual takeover of the publishing industry. And this is certainly not the first alarm bell we’ve heard: in 2014 the New Yorker published a similar article.

Amazon has been pressuring publishers to change their pricing practices (to Amazon’s advantage, of course). In digital publishing, Amazon has been pushing prices downward, so that many ebooks sell for only a dollar or two. As its influence keeps growing, some industry watchers are warning that Amazon could become a monopoly that controls the content we read as well as the prices we pay.

But there’s another way to look at this picture: Amazon makes money when writers sell books. Therefore it’s to Amazon’s advantage to make books cheap and inviting to readers. And that’s good news for writers who self-publish (something I keep urging visitors to this blog to do).

The times, they are a-changing!

I was startled recently by a news item in the world of scholarly publishing. A friend of mine is one of the world’s most prominent authorities on Bernard Shaw. He recently self-published a collection of Shaw’s letters. In the past, that kind of book would have gone to an academic publisher because that’s where the prestige lies.

But my friend already has a sterling reputation and plenty of friends to write endorsements. Self-publishing is easier and faster, and – here’s the big advantage – royalties are more generous.

The catch, of course, will be to spread the news about his book. Big publishers distribute catalogs that feature new books. I’ll be heading for a Shaw conference in July, and you can be sure I’ll ask my friend how he’s promoting his book – and I’ll pass on his answers in this blog.

I was startled a second time when I began seeing online advertisements for my own book about police reports. I’m 100% sure that I haven’t paid for them. (I rely on a blog and a newsletter to get the word out about that book.)

So who’s financing those ads?

Amazon.

It makes sense when you think about it. When authors make money, Amazon does too. If sales of a book reach a certain threshold (the exact numbers are a well-kept secret, of course), Amazon realizes that readers are buying. It then will give the book an additional boost with some free advertising. (I’ll have more to say about partnering with Amazon in a future post.)

Because I’ve had experience with both do-it-yourself and commercial publishing, I have my own take on the “Amazon is bad – Amazon is good” controversy. Some writers – and some books – do very well with commercial publishing. Others don’t. Sometimes you – the writer tapping away at your home computer – can do a better job with various tasks than your publisher will do for you.

It’s all about empowerment, commitment, and savvy. Stay tuned! (I’ve provided some resources at this link.)

 

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You Don’t Need Formal Grammar to Teach Commas

In a post last week I argued that lessons in formal grammar aren’t helpful to students who need to sharpen their writing skills. In my opinion, usage is the way to go.

A good friend emailed me to say that she generally agreed with me, with one exception: You need grammatical theory and terminology to teach commas.

I say she’s wrong, and I’m going to use the topic of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses to make my point.

Any English teacher will tell you that these terms are a nightmare to teach. (I used to struggle with them myself until I found an easier way.)

Here’s the thing, though: you hear these sentences done correctly in conversation all the time – and the people constructing them aren’t whizzes at grammar. Read these three sentences aloud as you listen to what your voice is doing:

  1. Uncle Gary, who was a baseball star in college, can give you some tips about pitching.
  2. Cars that are parked overnight may be ticketed and towed.
  3. This assignment, which seemed impossible at first, turned out to be easy and fun.

Your voice automatically went down when you came to “who” in Sentence 1 and “which” in  Sentence 3 – and then back up near the end of the sentence. But your voice didn’t change in Sentence 2. (Amazing, isn’t it? You learned to do that as a child!)

So (radical idea!) – couldn’t students in a writing class learn to insert those commas the same way? Say the sentence aloud, listen to your voice, and insert the punctuation.

But can teachers really do that?

Yes. I did it with students for years. I had students practice speaking these sentences in groups and pairs. Then I passed out strips of paper (I always carried plenty of them with me to class) and had students work together to write and punctuate their sentences. 

It helped that I always made a point of using lots of these sentences myself as I was teaching (with an exaggerated voice change). For example: “Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to complete Exercise 2 on page 15.”

Doesn’t it make sense to build on what students already know about language? None of this is new to them, folks. Why make writing so @#$%! difficult? Life is hard enough!

(I always used a clip from the old Superman show to teach these commas. Click here to learn more. Go to http://bit.ly/EasyCommas to download a free handout that explains commas – without grammatical jargon.)

 

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Help Them Find You!

A few years ago, I met a remarkable woman with an amazing life story. I was delighted to learn that she was writing a book, and so were several of my friends who knew her.

Last week I had some great news: she’d published her book! But when I went online to buy a copy, I came up empty. It isn’t listed on Amazon, and she doesn’t have a blog.

LinkedIn was another dead end. I know she’s a member, but I couldn’t find anything about her book – not even the title. In fact it looked as if she hadn’t been active on LinkedIn for a long time.

My guess is that she had her book privately printed and hopes to sell it at book signing events…which means that she’ll probably make very little money for all her hard work.

This ambitious but unwise friend is one of many writers I’ve known who failed to heed the most basic (and most important) principle in book marketing: Make sure readers can find you.

How do you accomplish that? Every writer should follow these steps:

  • Have a headshot done by a professional photographer, and ask someone (it doesn’t have to be a celebrity) to write a brief endorsement of your book
  • Create a free sales page on Amazon that includes a description of your book, the endorsement and headshot, and a bio
  • Join LinkedIn.com, and use the resources there to showcase yourself and make yourself look busy

Of course these are only the first steps in marketing your book! You can find many more suggestions by clicking here.

                   Make Sure They Can Find You!

 

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For and Against Discipline

It’s taken me more than three weeks to get back to normal after my trip to New York for my 50th college reunion. It never takes me that long to bounce back after a trip, and I started to think that maybe I should make an appointment with my doctor.

And then I realized what was really going on: I was grieving for my college years. I can only hope that you, reading this, have had – at some point in your life – as much fun as I did in college.

Which brings me to the subject of discipline. I was not disciplined in college. (Talk about understatement!) I spent big chunks of time mooning over Richard Burton, listening to the Beatles, watching ballet, reading Hamlet criticism, and hanging out with my friends. (I’m listening to “Let It Be” as I type this right now.)

Decades later my doctoral program finally convinced me that it was time to set some priorities and stick to them. Peter Pan grew up! Those habits have stuck.

Yesterday morning – more precisely, at six yesterday morning – I suddenly felt like myself again. First thought: Priorities! What was I going to do with the surging energy that hauled me out of bed before sunrise?

My writing philosophy is to tackle the hard jobs first and then reward myself with the fun stuff. So there I was, in my pajamas, with our cat in my lap, trying to rev myself up to tackle the book on Shaw that I’m writing.

What I really wanted to play with, though, was a neat idea I’d come across for article about police reports. (I know, I know. Doesn’t sound like fun! But it was.) I was sure I could get it finished in a couple of hours. But that would set my little writing train on the wrong track. What to do?

Of course I wrote the article – in fact I’d finished a complete draft by the time Charlie was ready for our morning walk. Sometimes discipline is not the way to go! I would have lost that momentum and the ideas that were lined up in my head.

And I’ll tell you what else I did yesterday that took me off course: I vacuumed. (Most of the time I use housework as a reward for slogging away at a difficult writing project.)

Charlie talked me into buying an electric broom when our vacuum cleaner gave up the ghost a few months ago. I could weep when I think of all the hours I used to spend hauling that heavy machine around. The electric broom is so light and versatile that I can vacuum our whole condo in less than 15 minutes. (It helps that we don’t have carpets.)

Sometimes it’s nice to reward yourself before you tackle a gosh-awful task.

Advice to writers: Get rid of your carpets and buy an electric broom.

Better advice to writers: Be a friend to yourself, your energy, and your momentum.

 

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