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The Last Seven Books You Bought

I wrote a post in January about how long it took me to decide to purchase the memoir, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. (It was 70 seconds.) I think it’s important to consider book-buying habits from time to time because what we all want to do is write books that readers will actually read. What this means is that, in addition to learning how to write better books, we also need to consider how readers decide to read the books they read– and why they make those decisions.
 
I have been thinking about this lately for a variety of reasons. One of the primary ones is that I bought a book that is an outlier in terms of my typical book-buying habit. It’s calledSeven Brief Lessons on Physics by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. When Breath Becomes Air was right in my wheelhouse – a memoir about death. I probably have more than twenty such books on my bookshelves. I love memoirs and I love books about death. But a book about physics? I have A Brief History of Time, which was published in 1988, but that’s about it. So why did I buy the book on physics?
 
The short answer is that I was drawn in by a review in The Wall Street Journal, and in particular by the well-crafted headline:
 
Carlo Rovelli’s Poetic Contemplation of Physics
 
A poetic contemplation of physics? What does that even mean? The subhead of the WSJ piece gave me a clue and piqued my curiosity even more:
 
How ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,’ an Italian professor’s short primer on seven key ideas in modern physics, became a best-seller
 
Here's what I then thought:  a.) how can a primer on key ideas in modern physics be SHORT and b.) how can a book on physics be a best seller and c.) why have I never heard of it? I was drawn into the article to answer those questions, and I knew I would buy the book the moment I read these lines:
 
His professional life, like his book, is closely linked to philosophy. “Science is about writing the fundamental equation, finding the big picture and being aware of what you’re doing,” says Mr. Rovelli, who teaches courses on the philosophy of science. “For all that, philosophy is essential.”
 
That intrigued me, because doesn’t that sound like what WE are doing in writing? Looking for the fundamental equation of a story, for the big picture, for the awareness of what any of us are doing? A scientist who thinks like that is a scientist who can speak to me.
 
When I read these lines of the article, I knew I would love this book:
 
Publishers attribute the book’s success in part to Mr. Rovelli’s knack for putting complicated things simply. Asked to describe gravitational waves in the space of a tweet, he pauses for a minute, looks out the window, then answers: “Space wiggles like the surface of a lake. Actually, it’s true!”
 
I actually purchased the book after my husband mentioned the same WSJ article to me, which he had stumbled upon the same day I did.
 
So I read about the book from a trusted source and I got confirmation from someone else I trust. It took two “events” for me to take action to buy the book (the WSJ piece and my husband’s mentioning it) and I also needed a strong personal connection to it. That’s what tipped me over the edge – the two events plus the personal connection. (A quick aside -- I have loved this book. I am only on Lesson #5 but it is changing the way I look at the world and increasing what I know and making me smarter. If you want a clue about what I mean, I urge you to go look at Rovelli’s website. It’s elegant and poetic and artful and fabulous in every way. )
 
Okay so what about other books?  Does it always take two events + a personal connection? I decided to do an analysis of the last seven book purchases I made to see if that equation holds. Here is a thumbnail of my grid.


You can download it here:
 
>>>> Download Jennie’s grid
 


What Did I Learn From Doing This? 

  • The personal motivation always has to be high for me. That is a given.
  • 5 out of the 7 books were purchased because of a recommendation from someone I know. I was surprised, because I would have thought that I buy most books based on reviews in the newspapers I read or on NPR. But people turn out to be a larger influence than I thought.
  • I bought 3 books based on the author’s reputation.
  • I bought two books based on their physical manifestation – one was a beautifully made gift book, one was just pretty.
  • I bought 3 books based on only one “event” but they seem to be books I did not feel as compelled to read, or did not enjoy as much, as the ones that had two.

 
Conclusions

  • Readers buy books when people they trust recommend them. So it's up to writers to do something to inspire people to talk about the books we write.
  • Readers usually need to hear about a book at least twice before they buy it. So it's up to writers to talk about our own books, or write about them, in places where our ideal readers are likely to hear about them.
  • An author’s reputation matters. So it's up to us to write and keep writing and to nurture how our readers feel about our work.
  • Sometimes the physical reality of the book matters. So we need to support our bookstores.

Do the Same Things Hold for You?

If you want to use my template to do this little exercise, you can!
 
>>>> Download the grid template HERE and SAVE AS your own
 

  1. Write down the last seven books you bought. (If you can’t remember – i.e. if it’s been many, many months -- think about that. If you’re not buying other writers’ books, how can you expect people to materialize to buy yours?)
  2. Next to each title, write down how you became aware of the book. How did you go from having no clue to wanting to buy it?
  3. Write down what motivated your purchase. Why did you buy it?
  4. Determine how many “events” it took you to decide to make the purchase.
  5. Can you see any patterns? Draw any conclusions?
  6. Share them below!

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How to End a Chapter

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How to End a Chapter

I was working on a client’s manuscript this week (a novel) and noticed a recurring pattern: at the end of every chapter, she stopped abruptly, sometimes even in the middle of a conversation. One character would ask a question and the other would simply not reply. I kept turning the pages thinking that there must be extra line spaces inadvertently added in, but no – that was where the chapter ended.

I asked the writer what was going on, and she said, “I did that to create tension, so the reader would want to know what was going to happen next.”

While that impulse is excellent, the execution wasn’t there. It’s not random curiosity that you want to engender in the reader. It’s story-specific curiosity.

You want a chapter to bring the main character to a decision or a crossroad or some moment where something specific at stake, so that the reader wonders what that character will do. The decision or action has to have meaning to them and their internal reality – the truth of what they want and why they can’t seem to get it.

Writing a novel is building what Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, calls a “cause and effect trajectory.” One thing leads to another thing, which leads inexorably to the final moment when the main character has to face the thing we have come to watch her struggle with.

There is a fabulous explanation of this truth from the writers of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They talk about a test: if you can say, “and so” to link together the element of your story, you have missed the boat. “And so” means you have a collection of things that happen—probably random, probably not leading to anything, probably not capable of capturing a reader’s attention. What you want instead is to link things with “because of that…” 

One thing happens and because of that another thing happens and because of that the next thing happens.

Cause and effect. It means everything is linked. It means everything has to be there in order for the whole to make sense.

You can watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about their “because of this” theory HERE.

It’s the fundamental lesson of story, and one that you can stop and measure at the end of every chapter.

Ask yourself:

 

·      What’s the thing that has happened in this chapter?  

·      What, then, is the thing that happens because of that?

 

That’s what the reader will turn the page to find out.  If you can’t answer, you’re not finished with that chapter.

And if you have to stop in the middle of a conversation or invent some drama to urge the reader forward, think again.

For memoir, you have the advantage of being able to look back on your life and see the connections that led from one thing to another. You can see the dominoes lined up. And your bigger task is to take OUT some of the pieces that don’t apply to the one trajectory we are tracking.

In how-to and self-help, the “because of that” test will help you to build a solid argument that draws your reader through a series of steps and decisions to become something new – smarter, skinnier, divorced, or whatever state you are guiding them towards.

Crafting better chapter endings is a powerful way to become a better writer. Pay attention to the flow of one chapter to another and you will be on your way to a story your reader can’t put down.

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Leveraging Curiosity

I was working with a writer this week whom I shall call Steve. Steve is writing a novel and we were working on a bit of dialogue that, in my mind, stopped the story cold. 

The scene was between two old friends. Character B was prodding Character A (the protagonist) about a situation that will later explode in Character A’s life. Character B sees clearly the train wreck that is coming, and tries to call her friend out on it,  but Character A deflects the prod from her old friend in this way:

 “I said nothing in reply. I was not going to get into that conversation. Instead, I changed the subject.”

It was a very small moment, but my notes in the margin were strong: “Wait WHAT? Why wouldn't’ she go there? The reader is DYING to find out! Why are you keeping it from us? This is going to piss off your reader…”

Steve’s answer to me: “Because if I explain it there, it will give everything away. I’m saving that reveal for later.”

Steve, in other words, had a secret he wanted to keep from the reader and he wanted to keep it because he felt that the opposite -- holding his cards really close to his vest -- would pique the reader’s curiosity.

This is a very commonly held belief, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that like. In fact, it works precisely the opposite way. That’s the secret about keeping secrets in writing.  They usually only work if you let the reader in on it. Otherwise, the reader will be feeling left out, dismissed, disregarded.

If Steve had instead told us something of the secret, we would have been curious in the way Steve really wanted. If he had written this….    

“I said nothing in reply. I was not going to let memories of my mother’s death influence my career choices, and didn’t even like suggestion of such a thing on the table. Who did Sally think she was to question my integrity in that way? She of all people should have known better. Instead, I changed the subject.”

…the reader  would have thought, Oh NO I don’t have a good feeling about this, I think this is going to come back to bite Character A, I wonder when that will happen and what she will do and what the consequences of that will be. I’m going to keep reading to see if I’m right and to watch this drama unfold.

We read, in other words, for the WHY of the story – why people do things, what they make of it, what it MEANS to them. We don’t read for the what – for what happens. We talked about this last week on a bigger picture scale, but I wanted to drill down this week to show you exactly how this works.

You can give away what happens all day long as long as you let us know there IS a why and that it’s coming.

A fantastic example of this truth is in the memoir When Breath Becomes Air, which I am currently reading. This book is the story of Paul Kalanithi, a 36 year old man who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer when he was a chief resident in neurosurgery at Stanford Medical School. It’s a tale about life and death – but mostly death. Kalanithi dies in the end. And the reader knows that the moment they read the book jacket copy:

Kalanithi himself reinforces that truth in the very first sentences of the book, in the prologue:

“I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurological resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

So is not a secret to the reader what happens in this story – not in the slightest. We know everything about what happens.

What we read for is how he makes meaning of his reality – in other words, the why of it. In particular in this case, we have the following questions in our head:

  • Why did he decide to write about his own death?
  • Why did he decide to have a child when he knew he was going to die?
  • Why did his wife agree to that?
  • What did it feel like to make that decision?
  • What does it feel like to chronicle your own death?
  • What does someone who knows so much about what sustains life bring to the task of dying?

I just read a passage last night in which, having gone back in time to Kalanithi’s decision to go to med school and having followed his journey through it, we arrive again at the day of diagnosis.  This is now the second time he has written about this day – first in those sentences from the prologue I quoted above and now on this page – page 119. Only moments have passed between the two instances and we are right back with a man reading his CT scans.

He writes:

“Lying next to Lucy in the hospital bed, both of us crying, the CT scan images still glowing on the computer screen, that identity as a physician – my identity – no longer mattered….”

The only difference to the reader is that this second time, we know even more about why this moment matters to this man in particular. We know that Kalanithi has witnessed many deaths, has wrestled with the meaning of life, has made professional choices based on his beliefs about life and death, and has just suffered the loss of a colleague who took his own life. We know even more acutely what death means to him and we know with more assuredness that death is coming for him.

But again, no one in their right might would stop reading just because we know what’s going to happen. It’s not the WHAT we care about it. We KNOW what. It’s the why we continue to read forward to find out.

In your own work, look for places where you are holding back information from the reader.

  • It might be in dialogue like it was with Steve. Make sure you are not being coy with information, that you are not holding back things on purpose. It almost never works – because if the good thing happens on page 100 and your reader never makes it there, who cares?
  • It might be when conclusions are being drawn from a scene or situation – it’s easy to assume the reader knows what the conclusion is (Isn’t it obvious? the writer thinks), but we usually don’t. We need to be told. Every time your character thinks a thought or makes a decision or takes some action, we want to know the conclusions the protagonist is drawing from it. Why does it matter, why are we being asked to pay attention?
  • It might be in how you are structuring your entire story – giving us far too much what before you let us have any why. We want why

Odds are good that you can add in the why in small and large ways throughout your work. My advice is to err on the side of saying too much. You will do more damage holding back than you do in spilling your secrets.

I’ll leave you with one last moving passage from Kalanithi’s book, where he employs this tactic with masterful precision. He and his wife Lucy are having a discussion about whether or not to have a child, given Kalanithi’s diagnosis. She begins the conversation:

“Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

That last line – that add on – is what gives that passage such depth and nuance and power. Kalanithi doesn’t leave us to wonder what the conversation means or why it matters. He doesn't leave his question unanswered. He answers it himself, right on the page, and thereby invites us into the heart of his devastating experience.

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The Secret Writing Sauce

I often hear things of interest to writing and the writing life when I am driving around in my car. I hear them on the pop rock station my radio is still tuned to, even though I no longer have teenagers in the house. I hear them on the station that on Thursdays plays three songs in a row by the same artist and tells stories about the making of the music. And I hear them constantly on my local NPR station, which is why I write a check to them every year in support. (The plea that always gets me is the one where they say, “How many times have you stayed in your car in the driveway listening to the end of a story?” The answer is, “So often, I think my neighbors are worried about me.”)

The other day I heard a teaser for a piece on NPR’s Science Friday on how telling stories to robots makes them smarter. I was like, “Whoa, WHAT?”  I thought it was going to be a story about how robots could be taught emotion from stories. Later I went to the NPR website to listen to that podcast and it turned out to be a fascinating discussion about using stories to teach a robot manners and morals. All good stuff – but not what I had hoped for. What I had hoped for, however, was contained in a story that was linked to it – a story from 2015 about a guy who was actually teaching computers to tell stories.    

The work featured was from Mark Riedl’s Scheherazade. Riedl is the director of the Entertainment Intelligence Lab – “the premiere venue for emerging, high-quality research on the role of intelligent systems in creating, understanding, and interactive management of narratives.”

Posted on the NPR site was this example of a story written by Scheherazade, the computer:

With sweaty palms and heart racing, John drove to Sally’s house for their first date. Sally, her pretty white dress flowing in the wind, carefully entered John’s car. John and Sally drove to the movie theatre. John and Sally parked the car in the parking lot. Wanting to feel prepared, John had already bought tickets to the movie in advance. A pale-faced usher stood before the door; John showed the tickets and the couple entered. Sally was thirsty so John hurried to buy drinks before the movie started. John and Sally found two good seats near the back. John sat down and raised the arm rest so that he and Sally could snuggle. John paid more attention to Sally while the movie rolled and nervously sipped his drink. Finally working up the courage to do so, John extended his arm to embrace Sally. He was relieved and ecstatic to feel her move closer to him in response. Sally stood up to use the restroom during the movie, smiling coyly at John before that exit. John and Sally also held hands throughout the movie, even though John’s hands were sweaty. John and Sally slowly got up from their seats. Still holding hands, John walked Sally back to his car through the maze of people all scurrying out of the theatre. The bright sunshine temporarily blinded John as he opened the doors and held them for Sally as they left the dark theatre and stepped back out onto the street. John let go of Sally’s hand and opened the passenger side door of his car for her but instead of entering the car, she stepped forward, embraced him, and gave him a large kiss. John drove Sally back to her home.

 

We can all read that story and recognize it as a narrative, but we can also agree that it is flat and dull, wholly lacking in the secret sauce that we come to story for.

The question, of course, is then, well what IS that missing thing? What IS that secret writing sauce that holds our attention and rivets us to the page and makes us feel something deep and essential?

I happened to be working this week on a webinar I am going to be giving today about the memoir H is for Hawk – a webinar about why this memoir by Helen Macdonald has taken the world by storm and what we can learn about our own work from it.  (You can still sign up and either join me live at 9 am PST  for the webinar or get the recording.)  So I have been immersed in writing that was the opposite of flat and dull -- writing that is imbued with that secret thing. You can feel it almost any random lines from the book. For example:

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

 

And this:

 

 “Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all affliction,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’ Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own conscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other humans to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

 

No computer would ever put the words “tense, shining dullness” together in a sentence, or grasp the sorrow in the passage of time the way that first paragraph does.

And the writer seeing Muir’s words as a “beguiling but dangerous lie” and being furious at herself for her “conscious certainty” just takes too much self awareness and introspection and layered understanding for a computer to grasp.

Even the line “hands are for humans to hold” is so simple and straightforward – and yes, maybe a computer could come up with that line -- but the way it is used is packed with so much meaning and emotion, and it’s hard to imagine a computer ever grasping those layers. This writing is the product of a human in touch with her own humanity.

Just for fun, I went back to the computer’s story and edited it so that we could see precisely what was missing, and where the writer (if a computer actually had volition) could go back to try to repair it. I wasn’t paying attention to the grammar and the structure of the computer’s story (where there are a lot of problems) but just to the emotion and meaning.

Take a peek at what I did HERE and you will see how often I am asking, “Why?” and also “And so?”

Because that’s what we come to writing for. That’s what we are desperate to experience and feel – the why of it, the meaning of it, the sense of what things mean to another living soul.

Next time you sit down to work on your own writing, think of the souls on the other end of the exchange who will one day read your work, , hoping to make a connection. They’re cheering for you! 

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What Wild Success Looks Like

"The Ninth Circle" by my friend  Doug Thielscher

"The Ninth Circle" by my friend Doug Thielscher

I ask this question – What does wild success look like? – of every writer I coach and every writer who comes into my AuthorAccelerator program, because I think it’s a critically important thing for us all to understand. If you’re going to spend at least a year pouring your heart and soul into something, you should have a clear idea of why you are doing it, and a clear idea of what you are aiming to achieve.

In the last year, I have probably read more 250 answers to this question, and I recently realized that almost everyone gives some permutation of the exact same two answers. No matter WHY they are drawn to writing a book, their vision of success usually includes some version of the following:

1. Wild success means being plucked from obscurity. This may take the form of being on Oprah, selling rights to a Hollywood movie studio, winning a Pulitzer Prize or getting on the New York Times bestseller list. Whatever the exact vision, it has to do with being recognized as being worthy. It’s not just ME standing here saying, “I can write! I have something important to say! I am good at this!” It’s some clear authority who has singled me out and said, “She can write! She has something important to say! She is good at this!”  Big, big difference, and it’s the thing we all want. To be validated. To be made legitimate. To have the inner vision of who we are, writer-wise, match who the vision of who the world believes we are.

2. Wild success means getting to keep writing. This often takes the form of people wanting to do well enough to quit their day job. Sometimes people cite getting a three-book deal, or a big advance, but the root desire is the same: you get to keep doing the thing you love and you don’t have to do all the other hard stuff you have been doing all your life. You get a free pass.

I bring up this up because the vast majority of us are never going to get the things we dream about. We’re just not. And I think it’s critical to look at this truth from time to time, because what writers often experience once they finish or publish their first book is despair and heartbreak.

I hate to break that news to you, but it’s just the way it is.

A teeny tiny fraction of writers get plucked from obscurity in a way that is life changing. Yes, you may land a great agent, secure a solid book deal, and score a review on the cover of the Sunday Times, but odds are still really, really good that you are not going to become Elizabeth Gilbert or J.K. Rowling.

That means that you still have to explain to people what your book is about and what you do and why it matters. You still have to fight for readers and money and airtime. You still have to think about what you are going to write next and find the time to write it amidst all the other hard things you have to do. You still probably have to keep your day job.

And as for getting to keep writing? To be invited back to do it again? And paid for the privilege? A very few number of writers win that prize. It usually has to do directly with how many books you sell, and most books don’t sell enough to warrant the writer getting ongoing support.

This is all in my head right now because I had a lot of writers this week feeling a lot of despair. These are writers who are just starting to take themselves seriously, as well as writers who have worked really hard to finish and don’t seem to be getting anywhere with agents or publishers or readers.

And it hurts to have to face that truth. It hurts a lot. Because it’s so easy to think that if you don’t win wild success, you have lost.

I heard a quote this week on the radio during a discussion about the NFL.  The guests were talking about what a successful football season is. Is it ONLY winning the SuperBowl? Do we believe that there is literally ONE team that is successful and 57 others that lose? The conclusion was that this kind of thinking is, of course, absurd. There a many, many ways to have a successful sports season – including being good sports, doing better than last year, building towards future success, being moral leaders to the legion of young people watching, breaking records, making money, and enjoying playing the sport.

The same is true with writers. It’s not just the people who win big and win publicly who succeed.

I think it would help all of us to reframe our notions about what it means to succeed.

  • Actually finishing, for example. Actually doing it and not just talking about it. THAT is a huge success and for many people, that is enough.
  • Learning the craft. Really understanding how books are made, how readers are hooked, what magic creates emotion on the page. It feels good to master something that other people don’t know how to do, to become good at it.
  •  Touching a reader. I know from experience that touching just one reader in a truly deep and impactful way can be enormously satisfying. Yes, of course, we would all like to touch thousands, perhaps even millions, but one is good. One is a good start.
  •  Not taking no for an answer. Not letting someone else dictate what you are going to do with your time and your talent. This can mean, in some cases, deciding to go ahead and publish your book yourself when everyone else says no. Is that as good as being plucked from obscurity? Of course not. But it’s also sometimes the difference between reality and fantasy. We live in a time where we don’t HAVE to wait for an agent to choose us or a traditional publisher to invest in us. We can bring our own books into the world. And perhaps sometimes that makes good sense.

I did an interview a few weeks ago with a writer who stopped waiting for an agent and self published her book. It made good sense for her.

Today at 9 am PST I’ll be doing a live Q&A with another such writer, who refused to take no for an answer and is making good things happen for herself. We’re going to talk about how you do that, and what it feels like and what the risks and rewards are. (If you want to join us or get the recording, sign up HERE.)

What I love about these stories is that the writers didn’t roll over and play dead just because they didn’t get the big juicy book deal. They re-calibrated their ideas about what wild success can really mean and looked at it a little more realistically.  They took control of their writing destiny. They looked despair in the face and said, “No thank you.”

Believe me, I’m the first to raise my hand and say I want to be plucked from obscurity and handed a three-book deal with a crack traditional publishing team that would mean I never have to do anything ever again except write whatever comes into my head.

The yearning for that never ends…. unless you realize how rarely that Big Win happens. And unless you realize that the Big Win is not really why any of us are writing.

As Madeline L’Engle said, “What matters is the book itself.  If it is as good a book as you can write at this moment in time, that is what counts.  Success is pleasant; of course you want it; but it isn’t what makes you write.”

We all know L’Engle as the author of the classic, A Wrinkle in Time. But before she wrote that book, she was a frustrated housewife trying to be a writer and wracking up rejection after rejection.

On her fortieth birthday, upon receiving one more rejection, she wrote this:  “I uncovered the typewriter.  In my journal I recorded this moment of decision, for that’s what it was.  I had to write.  I had no choice in the matter.  It was not up to me to say I would stop, because I could not.  It didn’t matter how small or inadequate my talent.  If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing.”

If you are feeling any sort of despair around your work today (or this week or this year), take a step back from that agony and take a deep breath and try answering that question – What would wild success look like? – in a way that is a little less grandiose.

And think about why you are writing.

Do you have to go on writing, no matter what the world offers you in terms of success??

Good, then do it, and do it with joy.

If you don’t have to go on writing? Also good. Now you know, and you have time for other interesting pursuits.

 

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