Today Mars. Tomorrow the Galaxy

Sf is occasionally predictive and a driving force toward a future.

Believing it major force is a vanity authors and publishers like to engage in. It does sometimes ‘make straight the way’ by preparing the public to accept concepts that were simply outside their Overton window before (the idea of space travel, for example). But… well, viewed dispassionately, 99% of sf (or fantasy or murder mysteries) are more of a reflection of their society, than society is a reflection of them.

Yes, most of it is just entertainment. I know this is a bit lowering if you had delusions of grandeur, a belief in your sacred mission to make the future gender-fluid or whatever, but at least entertainment generally pays.

The interesting part – for the working writer trying to make a living out of this is that looking at the world and its interests can give you a remarkably good idea what could well be popular into the future. When the space program / moon-race was hot and front and center, the popular and well-selling sf had a hard-engineering interplanetary ‘realistic’ feel to it. For the last few years when manned space programs were far back on the US Admin’s agenda, which also slipped away. SF generally actually became more ‘space opera’ (in the sense that space/space ships/ other worlds was merely a convenient setting for the story – which really didn’t have space etc as a core plot requirement. There is nothing wrong with this, just as there is nothing wrong with Brazilian as compared to Kenyan coffee. It’s just the not same and to different people’s tastes.)

With President Trump now supporting and endorsing ideas like manned flights to Mars, I’m guessing the “THE MARTIAN” might be one of those books that paved the way – but we may have a lot more that follow that way. There was always a market, it may just be a bigger one.

Of course that’s not the way everyone sees it. I was fascinated to see a combination of sneers ‘He just wants to sell Martian Real Estate (and variations on this theme) from people I thought were sf fans eager for space travel, and ‘We should solve all the problems on earth first’.

Curious.

I wonder if these people will stay non-customers, and just how many of them there are?

I wonder if the latter group have any idea how much of scientific progress we owe to that space race, and how vastly that impacted on all of our lives in so many ways from Teflon to GPS navigation, and a few million stops between, that just couldn’t have come out of ‘solving all the problems on earth first.’? And a great many of them made solving those problems a lot more plausible. Not completely plausible, because the human capacity to invent stupid problems is vast, if not infinite.

I wonder about the former group too. Is a spade not a spade if someone you didn’t like made it? We had an amusing incident a few days back where in the hearing for a new Judge (I think for the US Supreme Court. Sorry, it’s not my country, and so I don’t pay all that much attention) had a Conservative – Senator Cruz IIRC ask the Judge for the answer to life, the universe, and everything. To which he got the answer ‘42’ – and the resultant melt-down from some snowflake that the Hitchhiker’s Guide was now tainted… because people not of her political persuasion had read it, remembered it, and were amused by it.

It had been sullied by their vile eyeballs, and would remain now forever unclean. She could never enjoy it again.

By now my vile eyeballs are rolling so hard and fast you could hook up a generator to them and power a small city. I was reminded of Orson Scott Card and John C. Wright – both considered brilliant writers by the Modern American Left… until they were cast out utterly for doctrinaire reasons in their personal lives and not their writing. Now, the same books, same writing style, has been miraculously transformed from pure gold into the basest of base metals. A spade is not a spade any more. Humans getting to Mars was good but is now bad. And logic has gone for lunch.

Oddly I consider someone with a different worldview reading and enjoying my work a huge win – even if what they get out is not what I meant. I can’t control what they think, and don’t want to. But I have communicated… possibly over a very wide and high barrier. That’s an achievement. And maybe I can make some points – as well as some money. I couldn’t do that if they didn’t sully it with their eyeballs.

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Information vs Infodumps

No two authors are alike, and no author is alike over time. This is excellent, as the audience isn’t a monolithic block either, and wants different things, too. And… then there’s infodumps.

All stories require a certain amount of information to be conveyed, and context for the story. In stage plays, there was once a convention to open the story with two characters, often the maid and butler, gossiping and giving us the backstory. Which led to the “Maid and Butler” dialogue, also called “As you know, Bob.” (Link is to TV tropes.)

There’s also the prologue, wherein the information is presented as “So far in this series…” or “This story is set on a world with the following pronunciations, tribes, history, or deadly dangers not known on earth…” (Very popular in the 80’s)

Times and tastes change, and now the general standard is to work this information into the story instead of presenting it in a chunk of front. Otherwise know as, you can’t get the people to learn about the story unless they care about the characters.

Working in, though, has a range between Heinleining and Infodump. On the one end, Heinlein was famous for working the worldbuilding into small details and conversation. How do you know you’re on a space station in the future? Well, “the door dilated” instead of the door opening. On the other end is putting the information into huge chunks between dialogue or action. This can be done very well, though if you get known for it, you too may end up parodied by your fans, like “How David Weber Orders A Pizza.”

Most authors are usually somewhere inbetween. I personally don’t like infodumps; they make my eyes glaze over. Jim Curtis, over there leaning against the back wall, is laughing his head off because I beta-read for him… and he’s well-used to seeing anything over a line or two marked on the side of his draft as “infodump; skimmed this”, or “got bored here.” Fortunately, he 1.) doesn’t take it personally, and 2.) knows that most readers are not like me!

(And if you want a neat little story about dealing with an alien invasion while you’re trying to set up a contraband still, check out Rimworld: Stranded. He’s getting close to releasing the follow-up novel, so you won’t have to wait long for more great stories in that galaxy!)

When I put out my first story, I almost went with no infodumps at all. (There are a few worked in, because beta readers got confused.) And it shows: there are two running themes in the reviews. Some readers say that they liked how there were no infodumps, and that you got to have the world unfold as you read… and the other readers say that they got confused on a couple points, and would have had a better time if that info had been dumped in up front!

Clearly, this means you want to sneak information in earlier and better than I did. Where do you tend to end up on the imparting information scale? How do you prefer to do impart yours: dialogue, exposition, scene building, prologue, or bits of narrative summary?

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The Madness of Editing

I’ve reached that point in the construction of a novel where beta readers have kindly pored over my words, let me know what is wrong with my baby (nothing fatal, thank goodness) and now I have to pick out parts of the design and rework it. I tend to create metaphors for stories that akin them to tapestries, or needlework. It’s not like stone-carving, you can fix a mistake once it is made. Mind you, if you pick at one thereafter you might suddenly find yourself holding a whole lot of where-did-this-come-from and a plotline unravels before your eyes.

This book is a new experience for me. I started it as I always do, with a clear burst of story, a panoply of images in my head, i wrote feverishly… And that is where it went sideways. It took me two years to finish it. As an extreme pantser, keeping the story alive in my head that long was difficult. For one thing, when I first wrote what was then called Puppies in Space, I didn’t have any idea that I’d later write Jade Star, which turned out to not only be in the same universe, but a direct prequel (by a century, but a central character)  to the story in the re-titled Tanager’s Fledglings. Now, I am having to go over the beginning, which was intended to be a short story, and foreshadow the weight of the tale to come, the appearance (Midway through the book) of a very strong character, but not tie it so closely to Jade Star that TF won’t stand alone.

Editing is madness, I tell you. And it isn’t helped much by my starting work this week, slowing the editing to mere pages a day, and some of that conscious time spent re-reading what I did yesterday to get back into the story. It’s not that this job is tough, it’s demanding mentally and physically and I’m loving it, it’s just what I needed. It’s just… I’m a writer. I’ve spent the last few years either sitting in classes, or on my tuchis in front of a keyboard. My step-tracking app is telling me I’m doing between 4-6 miles a day. And on top of that, I’m learning new stuff daily, and this is Science (I really love this job, have I said that yet?) So if I screw it up, bad things will happen. So I’m focused on absorbing absolutely everything at once. That does not leave much room in the noggin for words.

Words are important when editing. I’m not the kind of writer who feels a need to massage her words into something elegant and refined. My characters aren’t that fancy and will give me funny looks. But I do feel the need to find the right word for the situation. Harder to do when you’re fog-brained.

On the other hand, editing is a process that requires you to read your own work, something I quite frankly am terrible at. I feel all self-concious and awkward. Like the first day at work when you are mostly trying to stay out of people’s way and not break something. Editing runs the risk of breaking the story. Keeping a light touch is just as important as finding all the necessary shadows to cast a faint outline of what is coming for your hero. Much of the story magic is made in the unconscious mind, and you have to trust that too.

I’ll keep this short today, because I’m rambling on. I’ll be at work today, but will check in when I get a lunch break, and again in the evening to answer comments. Play nice!

 

 

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Low Oxygen Environments and You

Here I am, again, and here you are, again. Welcome, welcome. I write to you, today, from the past. The not-to-distant past, but the past, nonetheless. From yesterday, as a matter of fact. And from somewhere above thirty thousand feet. (In the air, from the past, and on my hand brain? It’s practically a modern technological miracle!) Dave, dear readers, is getting a break. Mrs. Dave is taking some time off so I can go play, san pint-sized tyrants. I’m not hyperventilating, it’s just that the air up here is thinner than I’m used to, living at sea-level, more or less. It’s all right: soon I’ll have something slightly soporific at hand. It doesn’t matter that we went wheels up not long after noon. I’m time traveling, and that puts the usual rules in abeyance. And I’m not driving this thing.

I’m — honestly finding myself at a bit of a loss, up here, so high above the earth. I’m uncertain what to discuss with you all. My time this weekend is spoken for (hence the time-capsule-esque creationing), but without the pressure of a deadline, my mind isn’t ticking quite as quickly as I’d like (though that could be the reduced oxygen atmosphere in this tin can). In point of fact, all my usual fonts of inspiration are far, far below me, and I’m unwilling to cough up the exorbitant fee to access the wonders of the information superhighway from this far into the atmosphere. It’s practically Dave Unplugged, today. Untethered, wild, free! (Help me)

I’m doing a thing that (ahh, my beverage has arrived. The sheer genius behind putting ethanol in a caffeinated decoction is almost as blinding as the Sun with nearly seven fewer miles of atmosphere between us than usual) is significantly out of my ordinary. For the past almost three years, I’ve been The Guy for first Wee Dave, and somewhat later for Wee-er Than Wee Dave Dave, as well. On a daily basis. And for the next two weeks, I’ll just be Dave. Daddy is taking a back seat. I dunno. I feel weird. After a gathering of a chunk of my generation of Clan Dave (said weekend plans) I’ll be couch surfing at Chez Beautiful-but-Evil and just writing. A thing which has not happened in years. I’m somewhat trepidatious, to be honest. I’m concerned that I’m so far out of my routine that my creative gears are just going to grind. We shall see.

But what about routines? I’ve talked about them before. Mostly about how it’s good to form them around your writing, and about how much I wish I could make that happen in my own life (some experiments still in progress. You’ll find out results when I publish), but what about the breaking of routine? When should you step outside of your ordinary and do something different? Well, let me ask you this: how do you know when your routine has become a rut? No, I’m really asking. I chafe at the necessities of my daily activities. I generally want to be doing differently (with the added assumption that said differently would also be better, natch). I want more time available for the things I want to do. My children demand otherwise, usually, and so I grit and bear it, and keep feeding and changing them, etc. I’m looking forward to gradually realizing I’ve developed a routine in which I produce fiction more than I lament my general lackafiction situation. I’m given to understand parents stop being tired after a decade or so.

As something of an aside, I’ve been finding the semi-conscious state engendered by a teething infant useful for solving the conundra my characters create. Add a dash of sleep deprivation, and a decided lack of caffeination, and I may have resolved some long-standing blocks. We shall see. I’ll let you know next time.

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Prying A Closed Mind Open

First, take an ax… Okay, maybe not, but it’s certainly true that it’s very difficult to convince some folks that they might, just maybe, be a little bit less than correct. It is not, however, impossible.

This may be the appeal of fiction to the SocJus set: characters can be faced with situations that force them to re-evaluate their lives and yes, change their minds. The problem here being that life tends not to give a damn about social justice, and furthermore, is – by SocJus standards, anyway – horribly racist, sexist, and everything else-ist.

Life, after all, obeys the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and so forth, all of which lead to such terrible facts as women generally having different physiology than men, and this being the actual basis of societal sexual differentiation. You know, if it can grow babies it needs to be protected and so do the babies. And the physical adaptations that make it possible to grow a healthy baby and give birth to it also cause women to be shorter, weaker, slower, and to have different thought patterns. This is called sexual differentiation, and occurs throughout biology. We humans may be able to override our biology, but we are still very much creatures of it – and if you disagree, try not eating for a few days. Or even better, not using the bathroom for a few days.

Biology and other things aside, it actually isn’t true that after a certain age it’s impossible to change someone’s world view. The clue here is that precisely what the certain age is varies depending on who you ask. Now sure, it’s harder, but it’s possible. And makes for a lot of the fun in fiction, throwing characters into a situation where they have to adjust their world view if they are to survive.

Like, for instance, a thirteenth-century knight, well educated for his time and station – he can read and write Latin and Germanic, and speaks a couple of other languages well enough to get by – faced with a collection of misplaced, formerly enslaved aliens and pagan humans he inadvertently freed from slavery (Yes, the setup is kind of complex. He thought he was killing demons, and figured people, even pagans, were redeemable. Demons, not so much. So he killed the demons – who are actually a different alien race. One that regards anything not of their race as talking animals at best. And food if they’re no use as slaves).

The poor man spent most of the story lurching from one crisis of conscience to another, trying to wrap what he’d always known was right and good and proper (namely, medieval Christian doctrine) around a reality that includes non-humans as well as humans from cultures that have never heard of Christianity and aren’t even as advanced (by his lights) as the pagans he’d been fighting before being abducted. He also wound up having to beat sense into some of his fellow knights – because he also understood a little of that tool of the patriarchy known as math and science, particularly the part that says if you have too small a population you die out, and there are only just enough people to make it possible to survive, so yes, we are going to have to make a few compromises and convince them to accept us.

This is, more or less, how minds get opened to new ideas. Not necessarily quite so dramatically, but the process is the same. First is being confronted with evidence that the current world view is not adequate for the reality (it might not actually be wrong, per se. Just not sufficiently right to work in whatever mess your character is in. Or you are in). This generates cognitive dissonance, which is a very uncomfortable sensation. Most people go to a lot of effort to avoid it, and when they can’t they react with anger.

Gosh. Explains a lot about modern headlines, doesn’t it?

Anyway, moving on. There’s two things you or your character needs for the world view to change: the cognitive dissonance is one of them. The other is to need something that you can’t get without accepting the thing the cognitive dissonance is about. In my character’s case, he had to accept that the aliens were also people and that he’d need treat the pagans and aliens as equals if he was going to survive. A rather more simple case is having to learn this shit to pass the exam.

Then you get an integration phase where the old and new play tag with each other and you’re never sure which one is going to be on top (at least, if you’re sufficiently self-aware and didn’t run screaming from the cognitive dissonance). Reality being what it is, people who make it this far generally wind up reaching the end of the process, where the integration has finished, and the new stuff is part of their world view.

Characters usually get that far because the technical term for a character who doesn’t learn from cognitive dissonance is “corpse”. Or in some cases “red shirt”.

Okay, it’s not as much fun as taking an ax and prying someone’s skull open to open their mind. But it’s not as messy, either, and if you want them to survive the experience you definitely don’t want to use the ax method.

And now I must go see what kind of disaster the berserker kitten is creating.

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Stretching Exercises

Both of the posts this week, Dave Freer’s and Amanda Green’s are about not fully being able to anticipate the future.  I thought about them both when we drove past our old neighborhood and I realized the college is expanding dorms massively, now within a block of our old house.

All well and good, and my kids’ college, which is different is doing the same.  Expanding the dorms, making them spiffier, adding to the on site facilities, etc.

At the same time, tech marches on, and as usual, marches in directions that makes these dorms and facilities a supremely stupid “investment.”

It reminds me of five years ago, when, in the first flush of selling ebooks, and frankly not accounting for them too well, all the NY publishers were expanding their quarters, and getting spiffier buildings.  Now they’re firing authors.

The truth is that Education might think it’s immune to the tech stick, because governmental loans have made them fat and sassy, and who will trust an internet educational certificate?

But you know, the change is already in the wind.  The same way that trad publishers made the indie revolution easier by having this idea they could push taste onto their readers, instead of treating them like customers to be wooed, the traditional educational system is cooperating in its own demise by pouring out totally useless graduates, or worse, those who have been actively poisoned against the culture that shelters them.

When things change, they will change rapidly and terribly, as they did for publishing.

Six years ago I thought I was too late to the indie revolution.  And nowadays I live in fear of not catching up to change fast enough.  Other indies and I discuss options all the time.  And sometimes things still blindside us.

In this environment it doesn’t do to be too confident, or to get set in a rut.  And not JUST on how to market.  How to write too.  It helps to scope out the competition and “spontaneous hits.”  (That means those that don’t have push and money behind them.)

Not that you should write what other people write, but you should be aware what is selling, and what style it is, so you know what to do.

One of the things that is important to do, as it’s been borne upon me in the course of my (argh) starting to be long career is to have what Kris Rusch called “as many tools in your toolbox as possible.”

All of us have restrictions, and some of them are internal.  Currently, for various reasons, I’m writing a book I’d never write on my own.  Its structure is not something I would ever conceive of on my own, though I’ve read and enjoyed books like it.  I think I can do it, and hope so, since other people are depending on me, but it’s so new that everything feels “odd”.

Because your first time at everything will feel odd, better to try everything before it’s crucial.  Er… everything in writing.  Step down from the ledge. You only die once.

A lot of your internal stopping points are false ones.  There was a time I couldn’t write female characters.  This wasn’t exactly true but I couldn’t write female characters that made sense to Americans.  (I could write other ethnicities fine.)  However, I wrote Athena, and then I figured out how to write other people.  Kyrie didn’t even feel hard to write.

I’m still working on writing action, but I can see the time coming when it’s natural.

A lot of our stopping points are lack of practice.  Others will always stop us cold.  For instance, I can’t write sex.  Not because I’m prudish, but because I’m not a voyeur.  Described sex holds me out and bores me, whether I’m reading it or writing it.

So, include some writing stretching exercises in your routine.  Take a day a week, say, to write something that “doesn’t count” like, say, a short story, or a chapter of a story you’re not sure you’ll ever write.

Try a pov you’ve never written.  Try a genre you’ve never written.  Try a style you’ve never written.

Give it a whirl.  You might discover it’s not your thing.  Or you might add it to your core competency and enlarge your toolbox, the better to face the future with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Watch where you step

Yesterday, I went browsing through sites like Publishers Weekly and The Passive Voice, looking for inspiration for today’s post. I’m not too proud to admit my brain is still in that post-publication funk, a funk aided by the fact my work computer (a really nice Asus ROG less than 7 months old) had to be sent back to ASUS for warranty work. That’s meant making sure all files were backed up,the laptop reset to factory settings and then setting up the secondary laptop as the current work machine. So, with all that going on, I felt sure I’d read the article wrong when I saw something about Cory Doctorow setting up a “store” to sell e-books traditionally published.

Okay, that sentence was a bit awkward, so let me try again.

Cory Doctorow, long a supporter of Creative Commons, is setting up an online bookstore to see e-books that were traditionally published.

I’ll give you a moment to consider that statement.

From the start, it is clear Doctorow has fallen victim to the Amazon Derangement Syndrome.

Buying an e-book from a website and sideloading it onto your Kindle will never be as easy as buying it from the Kindle store (though if the world’s governments would take the eminently sensible step of legalizing jailbreaking, someone could develop a product that let Kindles easily access third-party stores on the obvious grounds that if you buy a Kindle, you still have the right to decide whose books you’ll read on it, otherwise you don’t really own that Kindle).

Hmm, so he has an issue with Kindles because you can’t buy directly from other stores. Guess he hasn’t tried using e-readers from other stores or had to deal with some of the problems i-Pad owners have had in the past when Apple decided you couldn’t buy from in-app or you had to sideload. Or let’s not forget about the issues Nook owners have faced either. But Amazon is the big evil. And what do you mean “you don’t really own that Kindle”? Just because a tablet might not do what you want it to, it doesn’t follow that you don’t own it. His logic fails him.

As an author, being my own e-book retailer gets me a lot. It gets me money: once I take the normal 30 percent retail share off the top, and the customary 25 percent royalty from my publisher on the back-end, my royalty is effectively doubled. It gives me a simple, fair way to cut all the other parts of the value-chain in on my success: because this is a regular retail sale, my publishers get their regular share, likewise my agents. And, it gets me up-to-the-second data about who’s buying my books and where.

He’s right here but this is also where his reasoning hits me as being “off”. Yes, if he owns his own bookstore, he gets all this. But he also gets the headaches of operating it, the costs of operating it, etc. Now, I hear you saying he’s been doing this for years already. Yes, but that’s been for his indie books. Now he is talking about selling for trad publishers. That means he is giving them money and doing for them what they should be doing for him.

Remember, writers, the money is supposed to flow to you and not the other way around.

Ah, then you read on a bit further and remember the political diatribe he went on at the beginning of the article and realize that’s what is behind it. Politics. He hates Trump. He wants to reach out to markets ignored by Amazon and others.

Whatever.

The Digital Reader has an excellent post about Doctorow’s announcement. “I want to point out Doctorow’s blind spot: the unwarranted assumption that authors need or even should be doing business with publishers. . . But like many pioneers, Doctorow advanced only so far. He never managed to shed his original assumptions and keep up with the times.”

That last statement hit home with me. One of the things I, as well as the rest of us here at MGC, strive to do on an almost daily basis is see what is going on with the industry, both trad and indie. We are constantly looking for new ways to promote our work, newer and easier ways to put our books together and make them more appealing in look and content. Some of us have been doing this long enough to remember hand-coding the html for e-books. At least one of us has had to show traditional publishers how to make text in an e-book look more like what you get in a printed book (effects, etc.). In other words, we haven’t sat back and rested on what we first learned while the indie industry passed us by.

So, what is it Doctorow wants us to do? He wants us to act as shills for traditional publishers. You know, those folks who, before they sign an author to a contract want us to do our own marketing, have a blog, be active on social media and already have a platform and built-on audience. And, before you say anything, unless you are King or Patterson or the “new big thing”, any marketing the publisher is going to do for you is basically nil beyond getting your book into the catalog sent to booksellers. So, you have to do the job of marketing your book, something they used to do.

Now Doctorow wants us to add to that by selling e-books for traditional publishers, accept and handle all payments (and that will include returns and making sure all tax laws are followed and tax reporting done) and then remit money to the publisher.

My only comment is “WTF?!?”

The Passive Voice says it best, “PG delayed posting about Doctorow’s plan because he was waiting for someone to propose a theory about why an intelligent trad-pubbed author would try to sell books directly from some strange organization for side-loading onto a Kindle. What kind of service is that for an author’s readers? Who do those readers call for tech support when the ebook file won’t load?”

Above and beyond the fact that selling e-books on your site for publishers (when they should be the ones selling your books) makes my head hurt, there’s something else Doctorow didn’t take into account. As I write this, my 85-year-old mother sits across the room from me reading on her Kindle Fire. She gets her Kindle. She gets the books downloaded directly there after I buy them either from the Amazon site or through the app on my tablet. If she had to sideload a book, she wouldn’t do it. For one, it is a hassle. For another, she isn’t anywhere near geeky enough to understand the process.

Then there are those who don’t have computers. Yes, yes, there really are folks like that. Some are older, like my mom. Others spent their working lives dealing with computers and never want to see another ever again. They might compromise with a smart phone but that’s about it. So, Mr. Docotorow, how are they supposed to sideload?

Doctorow has clearly fallen victim to Amazon Derangement Syndrome and forgot to look where he stepped.

***

Now for my bit of marketing.

Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2)

Plots form, betrayals are planned and war nears.

Cait Hawkener has come to accept she might never remember her life before that terrible morning almost two years ago when she woke in the slavers’ camp. That life is now behind her, thanks to Fallon Mevarel and the Order of Arelion. Now a member of the Order, Cait has pledged her life to making sure no one else falls victim as she did.

But danger once more grows, not only for Cait but to those she calls friends. Evil no longer hides in the shadows and conspirators grow bold as they move against the Order and those who look to it for protection. When Cait accepts the call to go to the aid of one of the Order’s allies, she does not know she is walking into the middle of conspiracy and betrayal, the roots of which might help answer some of the questions about her own past.

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