To tell a compelling story…

You know those t-shirts you can get online with the cutesy slogans, like “Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel” and “I hear imaginary people” or this one, my personal favorite, “Kicking adverbs and takin’ names”? I was exploring Cafe Press today and found this one: “Oh, this is SO going in my next novel” and BOOM!

Inspiration.

Sure, all these T-shirt and coffee mug slogans are fun because there’s some truth in them. Maybe they coax a little chuckle out of us. But this one… oh, this one just grabbed me by the heart and squeezed. What writer HASN’T looked to real life and *clears throat* adapted certain moments to further a plot or play 20 Rhetorical Questions?

What’s funny about this is I didn’t realize how often I do this, how deeply the habit is ingrained in me, until I saw the damn T-shirt. My first conscious recollection of using a real world situation in one of my stories goes back several years, when I was teaching software use. I worked with the world’s most obnoxious consultant. Arrogant. Disrespectful. I so despised this man, I made him a character and then killed him in a novel I never did finish.

But more often, it’s a half-conscious activity, something I do to pass the time while running errands, or waiting on lines. Here are some examples of where my mind goes.

Um. Consider yourselves warned:

A Tattoo on a Throat

While shopping at a Kohl’s department store, saw a college-aged girl with a tattoo on her throat, not her neck, but her throat – the part that’s horizontal when you hold your head level. I couldn’t quite make out the design, but that didn’t interest me. What interested me was why she placed it there. Why not a tramp stamp? Why not put a tattoo on the ankle? What, specifically, about the throat held so much meaning for her, she needed to forever mark it? I live on eastern Long Island and residents here are anxiously following breaking news as police unearthed eight bodies from a desolate stretch of beach. The suspected serial killer is now being called The Long Island Ripper. With the latest news on my mind and then seeing this tattoo on a young girl, my mind spun a back story for her. She was the one who got away. He chased her. He slashed her. But she refused to just lie down and die and fought back. Got away. She got a tattoo of a four-leaf clover to cover the scar his blade left, but also to remind herself how lucky she was.

I have no idea what the true story is. I suppose I could have asked her, but where’s the fun in that?

The Day Job – always a source of amusement

Working in a cubicle environment is kind of like marriage…  except without the benefits. Colleagues sit within ten feet of each other, subjected to whatever we are each enduring at the moment – a bad case of bronchitis, last night’s White Castle belly bombs, dubious taste in music we listen to sans headphones, and of course, our voices. Nothing makes me more homicidal than being forced to listen to a conference call THAT I DID NOT NEED TO.

On the plus side, shamelessly eavesdropping on coworkers’ conversations should keep my back story coffers quite full. Last week, one colleague went home to discover his wife bought a dog without telling him. That got me thinking about a hero who might be a total type A personality, a real workaholic, whose high profile job required so many late nights, his poor wife bought a dog, named it after him, and cuddled up with the dog at night, crying in frustration as the perfect life she’d envisioned with Mr. Type A evaporates.

Another coworker was telling me about an argument she’d had with her husband. He’d picked the children up from school and didn’t notice they had no coats. Monday morning comes and in the rush to get out the door on time, tempers flared when coats could not be found. That’s when the kids mentioned they’d left them in class. My coworker asked, “What kind of father does not notice his kids are coatless in the middle of March?”

This story led me down a whole meandering path. I started imagining a single dad, one trying to do the best he can, but so overwhelmed by the burden, he overlooks the details. I thought of a scene in which his little boy tries to make him breakfast. There are Cheerios and puddles of milk all over the floor. This dad has to be at work by 8, drop Junior off at day care but that doesn’t open until 7:30 and now he has to mop up enough cereal to feed a small country. He doesn’t notice the light go out in the little guy’s eyes… at least, not right away. When he does, he calls in sick and the two watch cartoons and build a tent out of blankets.

There are so many stories out there. What real-life situation is going in your next novel?

I have a confession to make…  I’m a bit of a practical joker. I like pranks, like unleashing my inner devil.

When I was a manager, I used to prank my staff and encourage them to get back at me. It was a great team-building exercise. One of my writers used to keep action figures on his desk. One night, I swiped every last one of them and then went on vacation for a week. When I returned, I discovered no license plates on my car.

Um. Yeah. Probably took that one a bit too far.

On a trip to Chicago, a group of us bought a bike lock and chained the boss’s treasured Aeron chair to his desk. In return, he managed to get the entire team calling me Queen of Quality, which morphed into Two-Q. There was even a caricature. I thought it was funny. So, they kicked things up a notch. The trip to Chicago was to unveil a new business process. One of my writers decided not to follow it. I was almost apoplectic while editing his work and then he pulled out the ‘right’ book.

He got me good.

Last year, one of my coworkers called me Grandma and I was so upset by this, I tweeted about it. A twitter pal suggested I peruse a website of office pranks. I did and flipped the offender’s Windows desktop upside down when he left his desk for a second.

A second is all I needed. For anyone interested, hold down the Ctrl+Alt keys and press the arrow key.

It took four software professionals nearly thirty minutes to set it right.

He now fetches me chocolate like a good little minion.

So, in honor of April Fool’s Day, are you the prankster or victim? What classic pranks still make you laugh? I may want to.. .you know… test drive one…

… or six.

A tweet earlier this week about spending summer days reading, then pretending to be a favorite character zapped me back to my childhood when I used to play Nancy Drew.

My mom taught me to read when I was very little, perhaps four, and firmly planted the seed for a life-long love of reading. I remember coming home from the school library one day with my very first novel. My mother’s eyes lit up. It was Nancy Drew’s Secret of the Old Clock. She had to help me with some of the vocabulary but from that first one, I was hooked. From Nancy, I moved on to Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys, and even tried some non-fiction books like Karen by Marie Kililea

But Nancy and I, oh, we had a special connection. These were mysteries and I loved a good puzzle, felt smug when I figured out the answer before she did. I looked forward to the first week every month when a new Nancy Drew book arrived in the mail. I eventually collected the whole series, which my sister would later sell on eBay. (I never did get a share of those profits.)

Few of my friends shared my love of reading so no one really understood the lure books held for me, or why I idolized Nancy Drew. I was in elementary school and Nancy had A CAR. I’d never left my neighborhood and Nancy had adventures in places I hadn’t yet heard of. It would be many decades before I found kindred spirits in the form of my Twitter Book Club. Back then, it was just me and a very active imagination.

On Saturdays, my dad always took my sister and me to his parents’ house while my mom was at work. They lived at the bottom of a steep hill in College Point, a Queens, NY neighborhood right on the water, in the shadows of the Whitestone Bridge. My belly would flip like riding a roller coaster. When we felt our bellies rise, we knew the bottom of the hill was just seconds away and we were there.

Their’s was an old house with a tire swing in the front yard and a tall lilac bush in the back to which my grandfather would lift me up so I could get fresh blooms in time for Mother’s Day each year. The inside was creaky and full of doors with crystal faceted knobs that never latched unless you turned them just right. The house had three doors – the obvious front entrance, a side door at the top of a steep set of stairs leading to the basement and a basement door that opened to ground level.

The garage was detached and off-limits. My grandfather was a mechanic and his garage was filled with hydraulic jacks, pneumatic tools, and a bucket of gasoline he used to wash his hands. I used to think it was magic how greasy blackened hands emerged from the bucket entirely clean. I remember this because I love the smell of gasoline and would sneak into the off-limits garage as often as possible, imagining myself hot on the trail of a mysterious suspect escaped from River Heights. The satisfying crunch of gravel under feet walking the driveway always gave me plenty of warning to either hide or escape out the side door right where The Rock was planted.

In the center of the back yard, a large boulder poked up from the crabgrass. It was gray and glinted in the sun. It was good for sitting on or leaning against. I always wanted to dig it up but my grandparents only laughed and said I’d be digging a swimming pool if I tried. I used to imagine there was a treasure chest under the rock buried there from a pirate pillage centuries before.

On the desk just inside the front door of the creaky old house with the crystal faceted doorknobs that never quite closed properly, was an honest-to-God magnifying glass, just the same one Nancy herself would have owned. Even though I wasn’t supposed to, I’d swipe it and tip-toe down the steep basement stairs, through the cold stone cellar, looking for clues. I found a link to a silver chain once.  It further convinced me there was treasure under that rock. I found a shovel in the old cellar and started digging. I made it a few inches deep and all I found was more rock.

Tired from all that sleuthing, my grandparents would make us lunch. Cold cut sandwiches or homemade pizza my grandmother cut into slices with a pair of scissors. And then the ancient refrigerator squealed as my grandfather tugged open the door and grabbed dessert.  The house was not air-conditioned so we’d sit out front on the porch swing. They’d watch the world go by and I’d open the book I always brought with me and read, happily savoring my ice cold Hershey bar for dessert.

My grandmother died in 1996 and my grandfather passed in 2003. I bought a Hershey bar and slipped into the casket with him before it was closed.

Of my two sons, only one is a reader, but instead of The Hardy Boys, he leans to Harry Potter and Eragon.  As he grows, I’ve proudly noticed his tastes mirror my own. He’s read my YA selections. I’ve gotten him hooked on The Hunger Games trilogy. He’s devouring Book 2 now. But as much as he enjoys reading and discussing these stories, I’ve never noticed him playing with them, acting them out, as I did when I was young.

I wonder why? I’m sad that he won’t have the kind of warm and comforting memories I do of my early reading adventures – for adventures is just what they were.

This weekend, I had the incredible privilege of meeting author Eloisa James at my local RWA chapter meeting. As she spoke, my mind wandered – not in an Oh-not-another-boring-meeting way- but in a synapses-firing-at-warp-speed way. Eloisa admits she is a pantser not a plotter but likes to truly know her characters before she starts a story. Listening to her as well as the members sitting near me reminded me of a blog post (forgive me, I can’t remember whose) where we’d discussed ways to know your characters. I’d posted a comment about one technique I use to get to know my characters: I take them shopping.

Shopping tells you a lot about a person. Does your hero favor designer labels over knock-offs or simply doesn’t care if his clothes come from Armani or Costco? Does your heroine scour the clearance racks or spend outside her budget on whims? How do they manage long lines and crowded parking lots? Are they rude to store employees?

My two teenage sons would prefer to peel the skin off their bodies with a butter knife than go shopping with me. They’re content with any pair of jeans as long as they’re not Rap brands. (Since I twitch and shake when I see a guy with droopy-drawer jeans on, this makes me very happy.) They don’t care much for status labels, either. In many ways, this makes my life easy but since I frequently have to shop alone and return stuff later, it can also be inconvenient.

I jotted down all the ideas I had:

Put him on stage

Is your character comfortable in the spotlight or would he prefer to borrow the butter knife from my sons? Perhaps it’s not a stage but a business presentation. Does your heroine avoid public speaking, practice in front of a mirror for days, or just wing her presentation? Maybe it’s a swanky cocktail party. Does your hero hold up the walls or mingle? Does he work the room or is he busy plotting his early exit? Maybe it’s a speech at school for your YA characters. Gah!

Send them to therapy

What are the deep, dark secrets that haunt your characters? You know, the things that would come up in therapy, like parents that never understood her or expected too much. Did he witness a crime when he was a toddler that still causes flashbacks? Does she have any phobias like Triskaidekaphobia?

Work these into your plot.

Run the numbers

During a break in Eloisa’s speech, one of our members suggested numerology. Take your character’s name and visit a website like this. It may interest you to know that my full name, Patricia Ann Blount, totals 73 and that my soul urge number is 3. Here’s what the site has to say about that:

Word skills may be your thing; speaking, writing, (Hello!) acting, singing. In a positive sense, the 3 energy is friendly, outgoing and always very social.

Most of it is true for me, except the singing part. Dogs howl when I sing. Ears bleed. It’s …not pretty. Use numerology or astrology to gather traits for your characters. You could even use the meanings of names to guide you. I did this in SEND when my MC had to change his name. He chose Daniel because it means God is my judge.

Suffer the bureaucracy

How would your hero fare in line at your local motor vehicles department? What about navigating one of those automated phone systems that have him pressing 1 incessantly? Even the most patient people I know are frustrated by these experiences.

Load up the straws

Ever have a week or month where things go horribly, insanely awry? Not just a bad day, but a continuous string of bad, unexpected and bizarre things? Brakes go one fire on one car just as your spouse takes the other car for the day. Imagine the last time you experienced a period of extended bad luck and put your characters in the same situation. What’s the melt down like? My melt downs involve tears and chocolate. My husband’s involve colorful language and flying objects and credit card bills to replace the things that broke as he flung them across a room. My mother’s were rants accompanied by slamming doors.

Give them the flu

If you have children, think about how they behave when they’re sick. My sons only wanted to be held when they were little. All day. By me and nobody else. Now that they’re teens, they just stay in bed and sleep. There’s a commercial currently on TV that pokes fun at the “man cold” but my point is, you never really know someone until you have to care for them when they’re sick.

Live together

You know the old adage you never know someone until you have to live with them? Imagine your MCs as room mates. Does he leave the toilet seat up and toothpaste globs in the sink? Does she hang panties and bras on the shower rod and spend all her spare money on tabloids? Perhaps she NEVER eats at the table, but only in front of the TV? Does she get up early or stay up late? Does he hog the covers in bed? Can he operate the lawn mower or does he hire someone to keep the grass mowed?

Take a peek inside the bathroom. Does she keep her cosmetics and feminine products scattered on every available surface or hide them neatly away? Is his toe fungus cream sitting on the toilet tank lid?

Armed with a list of traits and characteristics, look for places where conflict can be introduced. Perhaps you’ve discovered your MC is like my sons – he ABHORS shopping, but falls for a woman who is a buyer for a major designer, or owns an antique shop. Or, make the conflict internal – the character who hates to shop must now do so regularly for an ill parent.

Use Eloisa’s Character Bible suggestion to keep it all straight. And then, get to work.

Beaver tail, ho! This month, my Bookhungry team reviews Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

Romantic comedies typically open with a stock ‘meet-cute’ scene in which hero and heroine exchange their first words. The meet-cute scene is always full of animosity and ends with one or both characters vowing “Not if you were the last (wo)man standing.”  Also typical in the meet-cute scene is that one character is shown in the worst light possible so that the attraction both hero and heroine are so busy denying grows more potent when that character gets his or her shit together.

Bad day doesn’t come close to describing SEP’s meet-cute scene. Dean Robillard, QB for a pro football team, king of endorsements and owner of the title moniker, drives past a headless beaver on a country road. Not a real beaver. A girl dressed as a beaver. Enter Blue Bailey, free spirit extraordinaire.  Hero gives heroine a lift back to her place where the beaver attacks her two-timing ex-boyfriend while the hero watches, completely bemused.

As meet-cutes go, this one was uniquely funny. I was hooked. Dean offers to take the dumped-and-now-broke Blue to Tennessee with him.  We spend the next several chapters learning how badly suited these characters are for each other. Dean is perfect – handsome, athletic, rich, and smart. The whole package! Blue is a nightmare of bad fashion sense, bad hair, bad attitude, no makeup, no money. The only thing she’s got going for her is a smart mouth. The dialogue between them is the best part of this book. During the meet-cute scene, Dean assures Blue he’s gay and she’s perfectly safe with him. This becomes a running joke throughout the book with some of the zingers inducing belly laughs in me. At the end, there is a line that Blue says to Dean that aligns so perfectly with this joke, I laughed hard enough to cry: “This is the [spoiler removed] you’ve dreamed about since you were a little girl.”

The title and the meet-cute set readers up to believe this book is pure mind-candy but nothing could be further from the truth. Blue, we soon learn, was raised and then abandoned by a series of care-givers while her activist mother bounced from one global crisis to the next. Blue’s mother is also the reason she’s now broke. Dean’s mother was a drug-addicted rock & roll groupie who ignored and mistreated him for most of his life. His father, a famous rock star, was completely absent. To say Dean and Blue have issues is a gross understatement. So, when Dean finally arrives at his new Tennessee farmhouse only to find out the housekeeper he’d hired via email is really is now-sober mother, Blue gets a glimpse into Dean’s scarred past.

Here’s where my problems with the story begin. I love that Dean is given the opportunity to fix his relationships with his parents. But I think Blue should have been given the same opportunity with her mother. Sadly, her mother remained “off camera” throughout the book.  We’re told over and over again how Blue is totally unsuitable for Dean but yet, he’s attracted. WHY he’s attracted was a mystery to me. In Chapter 1, as Dean helps Blue out of her beaver costume, we’re told how badly it smells and that her hair is plastered to her head. So… Dean’s erection at this moment seems a bit um, creepy. As the story progresses and their banter gets sharper, it becomes clear that seducing Blue is just the sort of competition this pro athlete thrives on. But it never really explains why he falls in love with her.

For example, he’s a man with deep and understandable abandonment issues yet can’t resist a girl so ready to bolt, he actually takes all the money from her wallet in one scene just to keep her tied to him.  I also had some difficulty accepting their first love scene. After a particularly bad moment with his parents, Dean wakes up a sleeping Blue and orders her, “Give it up.” Astonishingly, she does. This felt like the total opposite of what Blue, given what we know about her to this point, would do.

On the other hand, it was also a selfless move on Blue’s part. Dean was hurting, she knew it; readers knew it. So instead of fighting with him, she decides to love him. I would have bought that had she not run away in the very next scene.

Overall, it was a bittersweet story with a lot of surprises, laughs and even a few tears. I enjoyed the quirky characters, each with their own back story, but found it a bit intrusive switching among them all. I’d give it 4 out of 5 beaver tails –  er, I mean, stars. But don’t take my word on it. Please read the rest of the Bookhungry reviews. Just follow the links on your right.

While waiting for my mother, who was undergoing oral surgery, I spent forty minutes observing the oral surgeon’s office staff working it, if you know what I mean.

The staff, all women in their twenties, and probably all intelligent women under usual circumstances, completely dissolved into four giggling, tittering morons in the presence of a good-looking patient. I sat in the waiting room, hoping the floor would swallow me whole, while the group turned periodontal care into a flirtation. Apparently, the word ‘spit’ is sexy. Who knew?

But I digress. The girls’ antics reminded me of a book I’d just finished in which the heroine couldn’t string together two words in front of her boyfriend’s rockstar dad. This got me thinking… why are women reduced to a bowl of Jello around male coolness? Are we really hard-wired for dumbness or are we just perpetuating the stereotype?

I considered this for a few minutes. Hell, anything to prevent gagging over the floor show. I’m smart. My IQ is higher than my shoe size. I win at Jeopardy often. I have never feigned ignorance of a subject in which I excelled just to please a guy.  While sitting there, patting myself on the back, it dawned on me with all the horror of checking my reflection on a date only to discover I’d spent the whole night with a big ol’ spot of lettuce in my teeth that I’d permitted a character to behave in just this way.

I should be publicly flogged and I hang my head in shame.

The lead character in my current WIP wants desperately to be judged on her aptitude, not her looks. Kind of hard to do when she keeps forgetting how to speak in front of the hero.  Watching the office assistants trip over their own tongues in front of Hot Dental Patient, I vowed to go straight home and revise the entire meet-cute scene.

Phew. That was close.

Where do you find cliches and stereotypes sneaking into your writing? Discuss. I promise not to gag.

My Google Reader contained a cool link on Monday afternoon. Sean Ferrell, a brilliant author and Twitter pal, posted an essay about the many desks in his life. Sean notes he has a desk at work, a desk at home, but writes his fiction on his lap while riding the subway. I thoroughly enjoyed his post because except for one detail, our stories are pretty much the same. I told him this in an email and he said I should put this on my blog, so now you know who to blame (wide grin).

Like Sean, I have a desk at work. Mine is standard cubicle furniture. An L-shaped counter with a bank of drawers at each end, an overhead shelf with a light under it, and in the corner, a slide-out tray for my keyboard. I have two monitors: a flat panel and the laptop’s built-in display. I have an adjustable chair with a Velcro lumbar cushion that I constantly adjust throughout my day. I love this cushion. It helps me focus on the technical writing work I must do at this desk instead of on the pain in my back that results from too many hours spent at it.

The walls are covered in tack surface. In addition to the few dozen pictures of my sons, these walls are covered with company awards and memos, a heart-shaped love note from my youngest that says “Brown-eyed girl” in shaky, kindergarten printing, a sign that says, “This technical writer is powered by chocolate”, and a treasured print-out from the blog of author Jeff Somers, an author I greatly admire and whose books I thoroughly enjoy, because he replied to a comment I’d posted with “Patty-that’s genius!” Beside that is a print-out of a screen shot I took one day after returning to my desk to see several of my Twitter pals discussing someone in glowing terms. “Triple-threat,” one said. “Talent, brains, beauty,” said another.

They’d been talking about ME.

I’m not ashamed to tell you I shed tears that day. I hung up the screen-shot so I’d never forget the emotions those few tweets stirred in me, or forget to thank the kind people who posted them.

On the left side of the L, I have a pair of Slinky toys, the glasses I never wear, a corporate version of a Magic 8 Ball, and a stress ball. When I write technical instruction, much happens inside my head before I put fingers to keyboard. I find playing with toys helps me to focus on these mental tasks. On the other side of the L is an empty candy dish. I ate all the candy that was once inside it and can’t bring myself to discard it… or refill it. Beside my phone is a dainty cup with my name on it. Patricia – Enchanting spirit, full of grace and honor. Hmm. They must have forgotten the chocolate.

Unlike Sean, I do write fiction at this desk, but it’s technical fiction, which is often what the first draft of any user guide really is… until we work the kinks out of a new software product. By the time the software is released, my technical fiction is now technical instruction.

At home, I never had a desk of my own. I wrote on the dining room table, in my bed, on the sofa, on the deck, wherever I needed to be (praise the wonder of the wireless internet connection!). I lust after Twitter pal Tawna Fenske’s desk and love planning where I might, someday (when finances and the planets align) install a dream desk but those are long-term plans. To suit my immediate needs, I spent a wonderful weekend cleaning up my college-bound son’s room to take it over as my private writing office. It has a fairly large Ikea desk that was suitable for the kind of spreading out I like to do when I have a few hours of time to devote to a writing project. Tools like my “master the craft” books, my enormous newsprint pad on which I outline, Post-it notes of scene ideas and dialogue I want to use, cut-outs of celebrities and models who resemble my main characters to “get me in the mood.” It was perfect!

I used it once.

My dad, after a tiff with his fiancé, found himself temporarily homeless. He moved into my son’s room not three days after my cleaning spree and there went my dedicated writing space. As the weeks went by, Dad steadily cleared out a self-storage unit of various furnishings and brought me a desk. It’s gorgeous. An antique French writing desk with a drop-leaf and half a dozen little cubbies to hold Post-its, pens, maybe an emergency pack of M&Ms. I love that, finally, after all these years, I have my very own desk, but you know what? It was never built for a computer, so I find using it for writing marathons to be uncomfortable. Alas, I am still writing on the dining room table, the sofa, my bed, the deck when Mother Nature cooperates, even the kitchen counter while dinner simmers.

Unlike Sean, I don’t have a subway commute. But I do understand the point he makes about making the most of the writing time you have. I wrote my first novel at my son’s hockey games. It began because I’m not a typical sports parent. I hate when the tempers flare and the passion blinds people to the fact that these are KIDS. So, I began sitting outside in the snack bar area instead of in the stands. The rink is around the block from my office, and I used to meet the boys there after work. Since the laptop belongs to my employer, I could not leave it in my car and risk having it stolen, so it came inside with me. Out of boredom, I wrote PENALTY KILLER, a novel about a man found murdered in the parking lot of the local ice rink, after a very loud and public argument with another player’s dad gets him bounced from the game.

Coincidence?

Like most parents, I spend a lot of time driving one or both of my sons to various engagements. I drag the laptop with me because you never know when you’ll have fifteen minutes to wait. I’ve written entire chapters in these chunks of time. In fact, when I do sit down to write for an hour or two, I find myself unable to focus. I think the pressure of a deadline – whether it’s a subway stop or the end of a hockey game – provided that impetus.

Your turn! What’s on your desk?

I’m moving! Bookmark the new URL.

I'm in the process of transferring To Tell a Compelling Story over to my new website: www.pattyblount.com
Bookmark the new link in case I never learn how to redirect.

Hi! Welcome to my blog. I’m Patty.

I'm a writer represented by Denise Little, The Ethan Ellenberg Agency. I love to tell stories, to boast about my sons, to indulge in a serious chocolate obsession. (I often combine these passions.)


During the day, I write software user guides, but at night, I let my hair down... and write whatever I want. (I know. You expected something else. Sorry.) I'm currently working on a YA story about sexting gone horribly bad called SEND. I use this blog to explore my passions.


Contact me at pattyblount3 at gmail dot com.



You're also welcome to link to, quote, or cite anything you find here. You're NOT welcome to copy it outright for your own use. 'Cause that's plagiarism, no matter what you heard on the internet.

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