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My Favorite Science Fiction Book of 2015

If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you know I don’t tend to “endorse” books very often. I see so many books, both through my work as an editor and through my own personal reading, that it takes something special to be good enough for me to talk about it. But as you might have guessed from the title of this post, today I am going to tell you about one of my favorite books from this year. I’m also going to share a guest post from the author where he tells a bit more about his inspiration for the story. 

(Disclaimer: I worked as the developmental editor on this book. This didn’t sway my recommendation, and even though I worked on it, I’ll be buying a copy now that it’s available for sale because I want to have this book to read again.)

I’m predisposed to like a book where people are fighting against long odds to save humanity. The high pressure, ticking clock, and gutsy underdog elements of those types of stories have always drawn me in. The Farthest City has all that, but I also invested immediately in the character of Sheemi. Her grief and her struggle to figure out what kind of person she wanted to be made her real to me.  

Dan Swenson also has a beautiful writing voice and an uncanny ability with chapter endings. He ends each chapter in such a way that you can’t bear to not turn to the next chapter. The situations all the characters face are full of devastating choices and discoveries.

It was the kind of science fiction story that felt believable without bogging down in a lot of dry technical information.

And so now, without further delay, I’ll turn this blog over to Dan to tell you more about The Farthest City.

*********************************************************************************************************

The Farthest City by Dan SwensonIn the far future, intelligent machines resurrected the human race then disappeared. Now humanity wages a losing war against the alien Hexi.

One soldier, Sergeant Sheemi Tanamal, experiencing unbearable loss, possessed by her anger, wants as much revenge as she can get before she dies in battle. An unexpected mission changes everything.

Citizen Kellen Beaudin, is a shy, sensitive artist with a different, but equally troubling past. Kellen’s origin is deeply intertwined with the machines, although he doesn’t understand how or why. He learns who he really is when his machine obsession takes him on an incredible journey.

Neither Kellen or Sheemi will ever be the same.

Sound interesting? I hope so!

I wrote The Farthest City over a four year period, including a critiquing process with folks at Critters.org, and ending with an intensive editing phase (developmental editor: Marcy Kennedy, copy editor: Chris Saylor). The result is, I hope, a compelling story with some thought provoking aspects and characters readers can root for.

I conceived the idea for The Farthest City by using the trusty “what if?” process. I often use that prompt to brainstorm story ideas. In this case, I was mulling over the trope of machines becoming sentient followed by a machine uprising. That theme has been repeated in books and film: I, Robot, the Terminator, the Matrix, and Battlestar Galactica to name a few. In these stories, machines represent our collective nightmare, a fear reinforced by technological and scientific authorities such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking.

Put simply, the machines get smart and kill us. Usually. But what if they saved us instead? The setting of The Farthest City is based on this unique premise: humanity destroyed itself in a third world war. Our species was resurrected by intelligent machines who raised a new generation of humans from frozen embryos using artificial wombs. Then the machines (“chines” in the book) depart into space, ceding Earth back to us. When aliens invade threatening a second human extinction, we need the machines’ help once again.

I also explore the concept of what machines might be like if they did become sentient in the future (don’t worry- I don’t think it will happen anytime soon). The challenge was how to make the machines as different and non-human as they would probably be, while still making them relatable as characters that can interact with humans in meaningful ways. Would they merge into a single near-omniscient, soulless entity, or develop as individuals with personalities, goals, and ideals?

I chose the latter concept, and from there, more questions arose. How would they live—in virtual worlds or using interchangeable bodies in the real world? How would they evolve? How would they live differently from biological beings? What would their vehicles and buildings look like? Would they even need buildings? Would they form friendships? Become depressed? All these questions are developed further in the book and lead to some interesting story developments I hope will entertain readers as much as they fascinated me.

Bio: Daniel P. Swenson lives in southern California with his wife, two children and two furry aliens with claws and whiskers. He does most of his writing on the train or in other odd, in-between moments. Comments and questions are welcome. He can be reached at danielpswenson@gmail.com.

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Becoming Your Point-of-View Character

Becoming Your Viewpoint CharacterBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Point of view frustrates a lot of writers–new and old alike. Today I’m over at Writers in the Storm sharing one of my best tricks for how to avoid point-of-view errors. I’ll give you the secret here: You have to become your viewpoint character.

For an explanation of what the means and tips on how to do it, please join me at Writers in the Storm for “Becoming Your Point-of-View Character.

Sneak Peek: I’m blog traveling the next couple of weeks with guest posts on other sites, but I’ll also soon be starting a new series here about handling time and transitions in our writing. I’m really excited about this because I see a lot of writers I work with stumble over how to manage the passage of time. It’s a crucial element for pacing our fiction and writing scenes that work hard in our plot. If you have a specific question that you think would tie in to this topic, please send it to me through my contact page

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Image Credit: Hannah Gleghorn/freeimages.com

How to Hunt Down Sneaky Point-of-View Errors

Sneaky POV ErrorsBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

One of my favorite writing craft topics is point of view because, when we master point of view, it solves so many other writing problems. Properly executing point of view immediately strengthens our writing, makes it more immersive, and gives lightbulb moments for many other writing elements. (If you want to know about other benefits of a consistent point of view, you might want to take a look at my post on 7 Reasons Understanding Point of View Is Essential to Writing Great Fiction.)   

So I was very excited when Jami Gold asked if I’d write a post for her about clues for catching out-of-POV phrases. These POV errors happen any time we’re in a limited point of view—where we’re supposed to stay inside one viewpoint character at a time—and we write something that our viewpoint character couldn’t know, wouldn’t have experienced, or wouldn’t be thinking about. Out-of-POV phrases are sneaky POV errors. They’re less obvious than something like head-hopping, but they’re more damaging to our writing.

Please join me over at Jami Gold’s blog where I’m giving practical tips for hunting down and eliminating sneaky out-of-POV phrases.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Image Credit: Gregory Hoyl Jr./freeimages.com

How to Find and Select a Cover Designer

FreeImages.com/Bill Davenport

FreeImages.com/Bill Davenport

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Making sure my books had covers that would attract readers rather than turn them away has been one of the scariest parts of independent publishing for me. Readers do judge books by their covers. An ugly or unprofessional cover can make a reader pass on our book regardless of how great our content is.

Most of us are writers, not artists or graphic designers. We can’t design our own covers. (Or, at least, most of us shouldn’t.)So how do we find a cover designer who can create the perfect cover for our books—one that’s visually appealing and also accurately represents the content inside?

Well, that’s the topic of my most recent guest post over at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. I hope you’ll join me for How to Find and Select a Cover Designer.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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How to Win More Fans Through Storytelling

I’m excited to welcome a special guest poster today–Bryan Cohen. I originally “met” Bryan through a request to guest post on my blog a couple of years ago, and since then I’ve been privileged to take part in three March to a Bestseller events with him. Today, he’s back on my blog again to share some great insights on how we can connect with our newsletter subscribers through stories.

So take it away Bryan!

How to Win More Fans Through Storytelling

Guest Post by Bryan Cohen

FreeImages.com/Johan van den Berg

FreeImages.com/Johan van den Berg

I once competed on the show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. After the obvious question (did you win any money?), the second question people normally ask me about my appearance is, “How did you get on the show?” Each participant must take a difficult multiple choice test and score relatively high on it before moving onto the real challenge. You need to sit one-on-one with a producer from the show and make them think you’re interesting enough for TV.

Sure, they don’t come right out and say that, but when they’re asking you basic questions about you and your life, they’re not looking for one-word answers. They want to know your story, so you better have one to tell.

While connecting with new readers through your email list may not be as nerve-wracking as attempting to get on a game show, the same rules still apply. When you get a new email subscriber, it’s your job to turn that person from a casual reader into someone who wants to buy and review all your future books. To create a fan, you need to get that person excited about you. It all starts with your story.

When you share your journey, your writing process, and your personal struggles, you form a deeper connection with your readers. As you drip out bits of your story over the course of a few emails, your readers will feel like they know you. And it’s a lot easier to sell a book to a fan who wants to be your friend then it is to sell to a complete stranger.

Here are five different types of stories you can share with your readers to forge a stronger bond:

How I Did It

You may not feel like you’ve achieved much in your career, but readers are more impressed than you give them credit for. If you’ve written one or multiple books, then you’ll earn their respect and praise. By telling the story of how you got to this point of your writing journey, you’ll give readers context whenever they considering buying one of your future books.

Treat this story like your own personal Wikipedia page. Write about where you came from and how it influenced your efforts to write your awesome books.

Why I Became a Writer

In addition to sharing how you wrote your books, you can also explain why you decided to become a writer in the first place. This is an opportunity to really tap into the passion behind your writing. Explain why you had to write above all other callings (or why you write despite working a 40-hour-a-week job and taking care of your kids). These kinds of stories can really provoke emotion from your readers, and an emotional connection is one of the most important precursors to selling your books.

If you don’t have some momentous event that called you to writing, then simply share why writing has become so important to you.

My Biggest Struggle

Struggling is awesome. Not in the moment, of course, but one of the best things about a difficult challenge is getting to share your story about it later. Personally, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of my stories about the troubles I had attempting to write my first novel. You might have had a difficult past to overcome or a trying incident that delayed you from becoming a writer. Readers love to hear this stuff because it humanizes you. You’re not some mythical author, you’re a regular person who deals with the same struggles that they do.

Make sure to share what lessons you learned from your ordeals as part of the story.

Where My Book Came From

Book origin stories are always fan favorites. Readers love to ask about what inspired you to write a certain character or tell a particular story. In many industries, it’s a harrowing experience to learn how the “sausage was made,” but fans are always interested in the building blocks of your well-crafted tales.

There are many different directions you can go with this. You can talk about the research that led to the book, the other authors who you read leading up to the idea’s germination, the people from your life who you modeled your characters after, and even the moment in the shower when your best idea came to you. Pull the curtain back with this tale to reveal the backstory to your backstory.

Fan Encounters & Appreciation

There really is nothing quite like meeting fans. It’s an incredible feeling, and your readers would love to hear how much those encounters have meant to you. You can share certain incidents or just the general sensation you get when you actually meet a person who loves reading your stuff.

If you haven’t had any in-person fan meetups, then share how you felt when you got your greatest compliment via email or through a customer review on Amazon. When you share stories about fans, don’t be surprised if you get even more praiseworthy messages from readers who want to join in the fun.

I went into my Millionaire audition with a story ready to tell. It touched on struggle and love and a happy ending with a dash of humor. I made it onto the show and earned enough money to pay off my credit card debt.

What do you think you’ll win when you tell your story?

Byran CohenBryan Cohen is an author, a podcaster, and a copywriter. If you’d like to learn more about writing better book descriptions and emails for readers, then check out his free cheat sheet and free mini course. Click the link and enter your email on the next page to get instant access: http://www.sellingforauthors.com

 

 

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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The Inevitable Truth of Life–Things Go Wrong

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

How do you face the difficult times in life?

Over the weekend, my husband and I went to see The Martian, and this is the question I walked away with.

In The Martian, Mark Watney is part of the team of astronauts who went on a Mars mission. Due to a storm, they had to leave the surface of Mars before their allotted time was over. During preparation for lift off, Watney was injured and lost in the storm. The team thought he was dead and had to launch without him–leaving him stranded on Mars, a planet where nothing grows, with no breathable atmosphere, and extreme weather conditions.

I don’t want to spoil too many of the story details for you, but Watney doggedly manages to survive on Mars until he’s able to be rescued, years later.

Once back on earth, Watney becomes an instructor, teaching astronaut candidates. In his first class, he tells them the one inevitable truth of space travel.

At some point, everything will go wrong.

That’s not an if. It’s a when. And when everything goes wrong, there’s really only one thing you can do if you want to survive.

You have to focus on one problem at a time.

The movie was talking about space and what you face there, but it’s also the one inevitable truth about life.

At some point in your life, everything will go wrong. Horribly, heart-breakingly, hope-crushingly wrong.

And there’s only one thing you can do if you want to survive. You focus on one problem at a time.

The big picture—that’s going to be more than we can handle when life blows up in our face. Because if we look at the big picture, it’ll seem impossible to overcome. We’ll feel too weak, too unprepared, too alone. Too everything.

But one problem at a time…well, we can find the strength for that one small thing. Just that thing. Only that thing.

And then the next one.

And the next one.

And one day, we’ll look up, and we’ll have made it out the other side. We’ll have survived.

And if we’re really brave, one day we’ll do what Mark Watney did. We’ll take what we’ve learned and use it to help teach others how to survive. Because at some point in their lives, everything will go wrong.

And what will matter most if they want to survive is knowing how to face it without giving up.

Have you faced a time in your life when everything seemed to go wrong? What helped you through?

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March to a Bestseller 3 – Great Writing Resources

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

March to a Bestseller III

I’m honored to once again be participating in the semi-annual March to a Bestseller event run by Bryan Cohen. I love this event because it brings writers a bunch of high-quality books about writing and publishing for an affordable price (99 cents each).

And to make it even better, on the day of the sale, the authors involved staff the Facebook group for giveaways and Q&As. If you have a writing-related question, this is the place to bring it. I’ll be manning the “table” from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm Eastern.

Here are the books involved this time!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple iBooks. (You also might want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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7 Reasons Understanding Point of View is Essential to Writing Great Fiction

Point of View in FictionBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

When we talk about point of view, we basically mean the perspective from which the story is told. Who are we listening to when we read the story? Whose head are we in? Whose eyes are we watching the story through?

Point of view isn’t merely another writing craft technique. Point of view is the foundation upon which great fiction rests.

Why do I say point of view is so essential to writing a good book?

Reason #1 – Well executed point of view allows the reader to experience (and participate in) a situation that they could never have been part of, or might never want to be part of, in real life. Consistent and skilled use of POV not only allows us to live vicariously, but also gives us the opportunity to examine ourselves and think about whether we would have made the same choices as the characters. In other words, we become participants in two senses of the word. It engages our emotions and our minds.

Reason #2 – Well executed point of view builds subtext, as we’re able to contrast what’s happening around the character with what they think about it. We can sort through the difference between reality and perception, the difference between the objective and subjective.

Reason #3 – Well executed point of view sets each character apart, as we see how they uniquely interpret the world around them. Put another way, point of view is the tool we use to create three-dimensional characters. When we don’t understand point of view and when we don’t execute it correctly, we’re very likely to end up with flat, uninteresting characters. Beyond this, as novelists and short story writers, we have an advantage in that we can give our audience that filtered perspective. They can’t receive that from television or movies or plays.

Reason #4 – Well executed point of view controls the flow of information to either create suspense or forward the plot. As authors, how we choose to handle POV determines what we must and can’t show to the reader. As readers, it creates the page-turning excitement as we discover things along with the POV character.

Reason #5 – Well executed point of view encourages showing rather than telling. “Showing” in fiction rather than “telling” is one of the most common pieces of writing advice and also one that a majority of writers struggle to execute. Understanding and writing from a close point of view makes this concept easier because we’re experiencing the story through the eyes of a particular character.

Reason #6 – Well executed point of view helps us decide what description belongs in the story. Many writers buy into the fallacy that description slows a story down. Description doesn’t slow a story down—bad description or description placed where it doesn’t belong slows a story down. When we write with a clear point of view, we’ll know what details are important to include and when is the appropriate time to include them.

Reason #7 – Well executed point of view shows us when to include backstory and when to explain details about our world and setting or about the way something works. How much or how little to explain these elements to readers becomes a stumbling block for many writers. When we have a clear POV, we’ll know to include it only when the POV character would naturally be thinking about it or noticing it.

Point of View in Fiction: A Busy Writer’s Guide Is Now Available!

In Point of View in Fiction: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you’ll learn

  • the strengths and weaknesses of the four different points of view you can choose for your story (first person, second person, limited third person, and omniscient),
  • how to select the right point of view for your story,
  • how to maintain a consistent point of view throughout your story,
  • practical techniques for identifying and fixing head-hopping and other point-of-view errors,
  • the criteria to consider when choosing the viewpoint character for each individual scene or chapter,
  • and much more!

Each book in the Busy Writer’s Guide series is intended to give you enough theory so that you can understand why things work and why they don’t, but also enough examples to see how that theory looks in practice. In addition, they provide tips and exercises to help you take it to the pages of your own story, with an editor’s-eye view. Most importantly, they cut the fluff so that you have more time to write and to live your life.

You can grab a copy of Point of View in Fiction from Amazon, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. It’s also available in print.

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Top 10 Dialogue Mistakes that Kill Your Story

Top 10 Dialogue Mistakes that Kill Your StoryBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Awkward or boring dialogue can make readers cringe and toss our books aside to find something better.

A few months ago, I wrote a post called 10 Writing Mistakes that Kill Your First Chapter. Because of how much everyone liked that post, I decided to do a follow up. So today I’m sharing the top 10 dialogue mistakes that kill your story (in no particular order).

#1 – Too Much Direct Address

Direct address is where we call a person by their name or title (e.g., Mother, Doc).

“Bob, would you pass the peas?”
“Of course, Mary.” He turned to look at Frank. “Frank, I heard you got a new job.”
“Yes, Bob. I’m liking it a lot.”

Almost no one talks this way, and the people who do are considered strange. You can use a name or title once in a while in your dialogue, but make sure you’re doing it strategically (for example, people will often use names during an argument).

#2 – Allowing a Character to Speak Uninterrupted for Paragraphs (or Pages!)

How much do you enjoy being around a person who talks for five or ten or fifteen minutes (or more) without letting anyone else get a word in? Probably not that much.

Since this is a short list, I’ll give you just four reasons why allowing a character to talk uninterrupted is a problem. The first is that the reader usually ends up feeling preached to. The second is that you lose all sense of setting. The third is that it stops the action dead. The forth is that it can hurt the likeability and believability of your windbag character.

Even if your character is giving a speech of some kind, you need to interrupt them with body language, actions by other characters, or internal dialogue from the point-of-view character.

#3 – Dialogue That’s Too Formal

This could be someone who uses multisyllabic words when a simple word will do, it could be a character who always uses perfect grammar or doesn’t use contractions, or it could be a character who always speaks in complete sentences and never uses a sentence fragment.

You might have a good reason for wanting to do one of these things, but most readers will find it awkward. We don’t talk this way in real life, and the rare people who do are considered stuck up.

#4 – Dialogue That Repeats What’s Also in Action or Internal Dialogue

This is also known as redundancy. It can happen on a small scale.

He shook his head. “No.”

Or it can also happen big-picture. If, for example, we’re going to have a character cracking a safe, we don’t need to have them explain the whole process to another character before it happens. That makes it boring for the reader to then have to sit through the description of our character actually cracking the safe (even if something goes wrong).

#5 – Creative Dialogue Tags

A creative dialogue tag looks like this:

“I’m going to kill you,” she hissed.

When you have a character hiss, growl, beg, demand, or (insert another descriptor here) their sentence, you’re violating the show, don’t tell principle. It’s usually a sign of weak dialogue. And if they’re used indiscriminately, they can give your writing a cartoonish feel.

They’re also impossible. Go ahead—try to hiss or growl an entire sentence. Or try to laugh or snarl an entire sentence.

#6 – Not Making It Clear Who’s Speaking

Do not make your reader guess who’s speaking or count back through your lines of dialogue to figure out who said what.

If we have more than three lines of unattributed dialogue in a row (dialogue without a tag like said or an action beat), we can risk the reader losing track of who’s speaking. If we have a scene with multiple speakers, we need to be certain it’s clear who each line of dialogue belongs to. An unattributed line of dialogue could belong to anyone present.

But the sneakiest of all is when we write about two characters in the same paragraph and then tack on a line of dialogue at the end.

Ellen waved her arm above her head, and Frank sprinted towards her. “I’ve missed you.”

Who said “I’ve missed you”? It could be Frank or it could be Ellen, and the reader has no way to tell which one it really is.

#7 – Too Much Filler Dialogue

We don’t need to hear our characters say hello, ask each other how they’ve been, and all the other small talk we make on a daily basis because it’s the polite thing to do. Those don’t forward the story, and they’re boring to read.

We also shouldn’t fill our dialogue with a lot of umms, ers, and ahs. Every word needs to count.

#8 – As-You-Know-Bob Dialogue

As-You-Know-Bob dialogue is when one character tells another character something they already know. It’s done purely for the reader’s benefit (because we’re trying to give the reader some information we think they need to know), and it’s unnatural.

If it’s common knowledge, it won’t come up in conversation, and real people won’t say something that isn’t relevant to the conversation.

#9 – Dialogue That Sounds the Same No Matter Who’s Speaking

If you’ve been told your characters seem flat, sometimes the problem isn’t that you haven’t fully developed your characters. Sometimes it’s the way you’re writing their dialogue. They might all sound like you or like each other.

#10 – Dialogue That Requires a Rosetta Stone to Decode

“S’pose we must be resigned; but oh Lord! how ken I? If I know’d anything whar you’s goin’, or how they’d sarve you! Missis says she’ll try and ’deem ye, in a year or two; but Lor! nobody never comes up that goes down thar! They kills ’em! I’ve hearn ’em tell how dey works ’em up on dem ar plantations.” (From Chapter 10 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe)

Dialect written out phonetically like this is a bad idea for many reasons. It’s frustrating to your reader. You don’t want anyone to have to work that hard just to understand what your characters are saying. It pulls them out of the fictional dream. Beyond this, dialect used in this way sounds forced and can even border on demeaning to whatever group you’re trying to imitate.

Do you have any other common dialogue problems you’d like to add to the list? Which of these causes you the most headaches in your own writing? Or when you’re reading?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide. (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Image Credit: FreeImages.com/Samuel Alves Rosa

Creating an Author Business Plan: Professional Development

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Janice Hardy Fiction UniversityThis week marks the final installment in the series I’ve been running at Fiction University about writing our author business plan. I think this final section is one of the most important for independent authors.

Self-published books still have a bad reputation among many because too many independent authors put out their books before those books are “ready.” The professional development section of our business plan helps make sure we’re less likely to be one of those authors. It’s where we set improvement goals both in the writing craft and in the business side.

I hope you’ll join me today for Creating an Author Business Plan: Professional Development

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.. (You also might want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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