Hello, I Love You

So, I’m still working through the comments to that post where I asked you all for topics for “Writer University” lessons.

One of the things you guys asked me was how to start your book by creating sympathy and interest for your character.

One of you said that you can do this by putting your character in dire straits but for some reason that sometimes turns people off. This is true. So…

I’m going to explain my method to engage the reader with the character early on. It’s not actually my method, but Kris Rusch’s, or at least the impetus for it was.

Kris once told me that when you first meet your character it’s like someone ringing your doorbell. So if the character is screaming, crying and complaining about their life, you close the door in their face, because there REALLY is no point putting up with that from a stranger.

So, from the “Stranger at the door” method of getting people to bond with your character:

  • Have your character say something catchy to open the relationship. Like, you know, the guy at the door who instead of saying “have you heard the word of—” says “don’t you hate door to door evangelists?”
    Depending on the sub-genre having the character say or do something you don’t expect, is often “interesting.”
    Hence Athena Hera Sinistra introducing herself with “I never wanted to go to space” which is definitely interesting.
    You could have the main character of an urban fantasy open by saying something like “Vampires don’t exist, and I have reason to know.”
    Or the main character of an heroic fantasy open with “Only fools believe in magic.”
    Okay, it’s a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that often works.
  • Have the character in a horrible/tense situation. This one is hard to navigate, and you should look at the next point for another caveat. It’s hard to navigate PARTICULARLY first person, because if your character is describing how he’s up to his ass in alligators while sewage rains on him, he’s going to sound incredibly self-pitying.
    Self pitying puts people off. Imagine that stranger ringing your doorbell and going “I’m broke, and I lost my job, and my girlfriend hates me and…” You’re going to close the door, right?
    Imagine that Monster Hunter International opened with “I’d always had a lousy relationship with my father, which is probably why I ended up in this horrible job with an asshole boss. And then my boss turned into a werewolf.”
    It’s still sort of catchy, yeah, but not like getting to live the American dream by tossing your boss out the window. So, instead of whining, if your character is up in alligators and drowning in sewage, have him react in an active way. “I picked up the alligator biting my *ss and drowned him in sh*t” type of way. It might still shock us, but it won’t put us off. However, see the next point.
  • Dance the reader slowly into the weird side.
    PARTICULARLY while writing SF/F. What I mean is this – and this is a sin I’m prone to – say you’re writing in a parallel universe where dragons are real and elves were half of the American Civil War and…
    Such a universe would have a very different history, very different rules, etc.
    Don’t start by naming ten cities the reader never heard of and which have weird Sanskrit derived names, all supposedly big cities in the US, then describing a dragon attack, then parlaying with an elf, all in the first ten pages of the book. Or rather, don’t do that without some serious grounding.
    The weirder your book is, the more you should start with a familiar problem. Say, your character is looking for a place to buy lunch. At which point he gets attacked by a dragon. Afterwards, he has a business meeting with an elf. All of it grounded against a “familiarish” landscape of US big city or small town.
    You have to give the reader enough familiarity that they can sort of see why your character is in trouble and anticipate worse trouble for him. If you’re floating in a world where you don’t know any of the rules, you’re not going to be able to build tension by making the reader anticipate trouble. So make sure there’s some familiar stuff there. (Or you’ll need a pre-book glossary and history, and most people just DON’T read those, sorry.)
  • Don’t let your character cry. This is not an absolute rule. Your character might just hold off long enough that when he finally breaks down and bawls in the middle of the book, it’s a serious thing. Same for any other strong emotion, including love. Hold off just long enough that your reader gets there before the character.
    But in your opening scene, don’t have the character crying and lamenting her fate. Because people crying isn’t interesting.
  • Dress the character nicely. I.e. unless you’re either trying a mental Judo move and using your reader’s dislike of your character against your reader, do not start off with your character doing something horrible, or even having bad grooming or poor manners. Remember this is the stranger at the door. You want people to like him.
  • Mental Judo – in the first page you show the character drowning puppies. People follow him out of horrified shock. When in the second chapter you reveal he was drowning possessed hell hounds, people feel so bad for having misjudged your character that they love him DEFENSIVELY and he can do no wrong.
    This is a tricky move to pull off, as you need to make him first just repulsive enough to be fascinating, not off-putting and second SO justified the reader can do nothing but love him and feel bad.
  • The trouble your character is in doesn’t need to be the “trouble” in the book. Because the danger has to be understandable without knowing your world/dangers there/etc. it’s sometimes easier to start with a small incident that COULD be lethal or at least is bad. Like, say, your character is out at night hunting vampires and gets mugged by perfectly normal humans. (And then the vampires show up and eat the muggers, and then…)
  • Don’t write sadsacks.
    Under the “make your character vulnerable” part of making a character interesting, a lot of people view this as permission to make your character someone who’ll never survive by their wits alone.
    Listen, if your character always needs someone to rescue her/him, then write the rescuer. People who do things are more interesting than princesses in distress, even if the princesses are male.
  • Keep your character’s food obsessions, sexual kinks and other oddities off the page for ten pages or so. Unless the book is comedy or IS about the sexual kinks and food obsessions.
    “I was hacking a zombie to pieces and dying for chocolate ice-cream” is catchy, of course. But “I was hacking a zombie to pieces and dying for steak tartare” might just make the reader go “ew”. Of course, maybe that’s what you want if you’re writing horror. But still ew.
  • Americans love underdogs. Humans love gallant fighters. Handicap (and this doesn’t mean giving handicaps) your character just enough to make the fight interesting. And then never let him or her complain about fate. Ever, ever, ever. Have them take the lemons you gave them and make sweet, sweet lemonade. Or sour. Or spiky. But have them try to save themselves and if they go down, have them fall while fighting.
    Readers tend to like that.

74 thoughts on “Hello, I Love You

  1. From the current WIP:

    Marleena Patterson stared at the certified letter, shaking her head, hands starting to shake. “How dare you do this to me, Dad?”

    In black print on white paper, real paper, under the seal of the Bureau of Nomen and Cognomen, she saw the words, “To the daughter of the former Andrew T. Patterson” and his personal identification number, “Greetings. Be here advised that from this day forth, you will be knows as Marleena Sylvestra Drakulovna. In recognition of this, your documentary records have been updated with all governments and appropriate sub-level agencies,” and so on. Marleena stared at the new name and wanted to swear. But that wouldn’t be wise, not with her coworkers peering over her shoulder to see the real, official paper letter.

    “Wow! Your father dragoned. That’s amazing. I wish my parents would do something that brave,” Pete said.

    1. Have you thought about switching the first and third paragraphs?

      Reading that first paragraph, you’re left with “what did her dad do to her?”

      The third paragraph leaves you with “what is dragoning? how does one do it? what are ramifications? is it as cool as it sounds?”

      1. Hmm. I’ll have to think about that. The story started out as focusing on the Change and its ramifications for other people. But it shifted into a novelette about Marleena’s relationship with her father and the New Founders’ Wars.

      2. Hmm – worked for me. A little tension, then just one para with clues about what Dad dared to do (so reader can have fun trying to figure it out,) then all (enough, anyway) was explained. Slightly spicier than a straight linear explanation.

        1. Find something specific to replace “and so on” (e.g. “the [specific to your world adjective] legalese continued for the another five paragraphs”)

          You never want those except as placeholders when you’re in the white hot heat of creation.

      1. er, “frightening” probably sounds better, doesn’t it?

        Besides, making that correction gives me an excuse for making another comment in order to check the notify box this time.

  2. It’s hard to have patience with angst, probably because we were all teenagers once and are glad to be DONE with it.

  3. I might summarize these as:

    1. Have a strong hook. And here are some examples…

    2. Don’t undermine your hook. And here are some ways you can unintentionally so that…

    3. Follow through on your hook. A hook is a promise, and if the readers think you’re not delivering on your promise, they’ll give up.

  4. On the unlikable character: I’ve had surprising (to me) success with an unlikable protagonist by making him NOT the POV character. We see him through the eyes of other characters who are often infuriated by him yet still find reasons to like or at least respect him. Because those POV characters are themselves likable, readers seem to want to see what they see in him.

  5. I knew this one author who spent the first page and a half describing the main character’s fancy dress ball gown, then bang dumped her into a reasonable facsimile of the French Revolution.
    Strangely enough, it worked.

      1. No, this was one of my occasional snarks at our dear blogger du jure, Sarah. Trust me, y’all will love it.

  6. One of my favorite character introductions was from Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast
    “He’s the mad scientist and I’m his beautiful daughter.”

    Larry’s “American Dream” was another good one.

    Mad Mike does it well in Freehold. Kendra is immediately put in a seriously threatening situation and takes decisive action to preserve her safety and freedom.

    Jack Holloway’s fondness for big booms in the opening of Little Fuzzy.

    1. My second favorite after the Heinlein is “Hello, I’m the Doctor. Run for your life.” from the Dr. Who series intro.

  7. Slicing sleet driving through the wall was my first real clue. Not a window, nor some defect due to age or construction in the wall itself. That portion of the wall was the central stone chimney.

    I could see little-to-nothing of where the rain was actually coming. Gaps in the rain allowed me to see past where the back of the chimney should have been–but that was still just more poorly lit storm clouds and a fierce, shifting downpour. Far more than fifty shades of grey were present, although they start at “Pitch Black” and wander up through colors with names containing “Midnight” to, perhaps, “Twilight”.

    Needless to say, I found this quite odd–and intriguing. I was in my neighbor Frank’s house looking for him as we had planned to go hiking, yet I find no Frank and what looked like a Door into Summer in his chimney. Well, Door into Winter was probably more accurate.

    1. So, I fail ‘say something catchy’, though I have a hook.
      Situation odd-with-motion. ‘Something is happening and there’s no explanation!’
      The ‘hole in the universe’ is the only only odd thing for awhile, the other side is ‘Hey mountains, oh crud grab something!’
      No crying.
      No dressing. Er, no description thus far. He’s ‘going hiking’ though.
      Mental Judo. He thinks like a curmudgeon, but actions will will have him assisting extended family by ch 2.
      Very stoic character.
      Food obsessions – later.
      Underdogs. The main character has a laundry list of problems – a hole in the universe can only be an improvement.

      One sentence totally defective on re-reading. Hum.


    The door slammed in my face. Well, that hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped. Then again, my line of work rarely does. I left a card though. She’d be back in touch once she calmed down and realized that she needed the benefits that her husband had so wisely paid for. And in the meantime, at least I was out of the line of fire while my leg grew back. The warriors of the Staternian Empire had lopped it off at the knee in the same battle that had killed my buddy Eddie, husband to the woman who had just slammed a door in my face.

  9. I slipped on the wet leaves on the steps,and fell back into the wall, ending up flat on my back on the brick wall. I never even got to ring the doorbell, but an old lady opened the door anyway.
    “Can I help you?” she asked, a note of concern in her voice.
    “You can pray for me” I replied.
    “Yes, I can do that” she said, and closed the door.

  10. Going completely the opposite direction on one of my current WIPs. I open with one of the “bad guys”, a character you’re expressly not supposed to like:

    Jovan Crncevic typed the last few characters into the computer and waited while the spreadsheet crunched the numbers. Modern computers sped the calculations but he and his minions still had to enter the data they compiled from many sources.
    He folded his hands in his lap and affected a serene smile while the computer completed the calculations.
    Had the time come? The Order knew it would be soon, but “soon”, as measured by the slow march of stars across the heavens could be millenia. New measurements, made by Astronomers all unknowing, refined the predictions. Members of the Order tabulated news events. Analysts compared those lists with prophesy. Those results too refined the predictions. And Jovan had just entered the latest refinements.
    The computer beeped and displayed the results. A simple line of text, to herald the doom of mankind.
    Dread Shev’kha was returning.

  11. Finally read the rest of this (New Class Traitor distracted me).

    How about the character that is intelligent, charming, witty, etc. – but the reader just *knows* that he’s actually rather shallow? I’m thinking of the kind of character that Dirk Benedict played so well… (Starbucks, Face, etc.).

    Yep, that’s the guy I’m dealing with as one of the MCs in the work that is finally gelling. He does grow, but it takes quite a while…

      1. ‘Twas afraid of that… The followup is obviously how to whip them back into line. That, however, appears to be really circumstantial – and getting close to asking for an uncredited coauthor. Back to trying to get him to behave (wonder if he’ll respond to taking his chocolate away…)

      2. IMO the best “shallow characters” are the ones who “play shallow” but have hidden depths. Of course, a writer would have the problem of both showing his outward “appearance” and showing bits of his hidden depths.

        One thought is have your Main Character seeing the other character as “shallow” at first glance but is offered assistance in such a way that shows he’s not so shallow.

        1. Unfortunately, he *is* an MC (one of two, yes, I know, but they’re both equally loud in my head).

          Although, come to think of it, he seems to be more the “Starbucks” kind – the incident is nothing like the scene in the original BG, but the part where he’s on the Rising Star and how he reacts to the conditions there “saves” him for the auditor in much the same way – I hope.

    1. OH! Um, Starlord uh… Chris Pratt… dang it, I just completely lost his name…

      Yes, his mom dies, but they establish real sympathy with him because he’d gotten in a fight with some boys who were killing a frog. It established him as having an innate human decency, care about fairness, and need to protect the weak. Then they go on to show he’s completely *shallow*… he doesn’t even remember the girl is in his ship, he steals from people, he’s most interested in his own comfort, etc., he (quite hysterically) tries to take advantage of having been a hero (which he really was) when he saved the green chick… he’s like, hey, this can work for me…

      1. And his very first scene as an adult has him kicking frog-like aliens, casually killing them in pretty callous fashion when they really were no threat to him. And the audience laughed! I wondered if they were in the same theater as me. I could see it as tragedy (the little idealistic boy loses his way, grows up to be exactly what he once fought, and has to rediscover his idealism), but comedy?

  12. The first two paragraphs from my current WIP:

    I joined the Navy in order to avoid war.

    Stop laughing, there was a good reason at the time. See, I was told by my Grampa that if I joined voluntarily instead of waiting for my number to come up in the draft, then I would be able to have a lot more choice in where I went. And he would know. Grampa was in the navy back in the 2010’s, but he wasn’t a typical seaman. He was a journalist. He got to see everything.

      1. Secret sort of publishing and formatting thing … I finish up ruthlessly deleting extraneous verbiage when I am formatting a MS. Yes, if I can cut a couple of hundred words out of a chapter to make it all end cleanly on or close to the bottom of the page … victory!

        1. Don’t think that would work for me; probably a YMMV thing.

          I’ll fiddle with the word processor margins to make clean page breaks for my test readers – after I’ve cleaned up (which is a process I still struggle with). If and when I actually publish – all of those page breaks are going to disappear in the reformat, and will almost certainly be different on every platform and among users of different devices. Some may get nice clean “last” pages – while others will see one poor orphaned line (possibly even just one last word).

          1. When I’m reading, I actually prefer to have last page of the chapter end with about 1/3 to 2/3 of a page, so that I know it’s the last page of the chapter, and I can put the book down more easily than I can if I turned the page to see the beginning of the next chapter.

            Yes, yes, I know that you want to keep people reading, but if I lose my job due to lack of sleep, I can’t buy more books.

  13. “We do what we must,” Mother always said, back when we were skulking around the wharves and warehouses at the bottom end of Port Alkarief. She said she’d do anything to protect me and keep me safe.

    Which is why she sold me into slavery to an evil wizard.

    1. Well, I’d guess it would be depend on who the evil wizard is and what was the other choice. [Wink]

      Oh, I’d read this story to find out. [Grin]

      1. That’s the opening of my Baen Fantasy Contest entry, “Necessity”, as I’ve rejiggered it for turning it into a novel, “Necessary Evil.” I’ve been a bit stuck on it for a while though.

  14. Your MC has to have a goal. He can dither over how to accomplish it, but he can’t dither over it being his goal.

  15. uh, some of the characters i have enjoyed most have handicaps, ranging from minor to major. of course, many of them are comic characters with odd handicaps, but anyway…

  16. Here’s my latest (currently in rewrite):

    “What a stupid place to die.”
    I hadn’t meant to say that out loud—not that it matters. It’s not like anyone was around to hear me. I’ve been told that talking to yourself is the first sign of insanity. Looking around the remains of my dying starfighter, I decided sanity was the least of my worries.
    There was just enough light seeping through the debris from the space battle for me to see the Fringer gunship that got me. Watching oxygen venting from all of the holes I’d blown in it, I had to smile. A ship that size carries a crew of ten to fifteen and they were all going to die, too. If there really is such a place as Valhalla, I am going to have one hell of an honor guard leading me into the great hall of warriors.
    So, yeah, dying sucks. But if you’ve got to die — and we all do eventually — and if some Fringer bastards are responsible for your death, do your best to take them out, too. With that cheerful thought in mind, I got in one last laugh before passing out from lack of oxygen.

    Hint: my main character doesn’t die here.

  17. First Paragraph of a WIP:

    The world changed at 0614 Eastern Standard Time, and Nick was the only one who noticed it. It was not happy with Nick. Nick wasn’t paying that much attention, for he had been waiting for the 0615 subway to take him to Wall Street and his job, when the world flipped up at a 45 degree angle and spun a full 360 before settling back to its normal angle and bearing. While he was blinking and wondering how he had managed not to fall out of his chair, the 0615 subway was on time for the first time in recorded history. He boarded the train slightly dazed and nearly jumped back as he narrowly avoided a hairy man that looked more like a gorilla than a human, though neither gorillas nor humans had tusks like that. The creature was talking to a girl in a bright blue pixie bob, not too odd in New York, until you got to the delicate set of gossamer wings. And the other apparently normal passengers of the train didn’t seem to see anything wrong with this. Nick shook himself and took a seat, trying to ignore the blue skinned denizen next to him, or the one two chairs down that was covered in scales. He was sincerely glad that the 0615 was almost never full.

    1. “It was not happy with Nick.”? What wasn’t happy with Nick?

      Oh, it’s still an interesting start. [Smile]

    2. Waiting for a subway in a chair?? Sorry, but the general impression I have of subway stations is folks standing…

      Also Nick seems a bit to blase.

  18. From another of my active WIPs (I’ve got three I’m actively pushing forward at the moment):

    Five hundred years was a long life, even for a wizard. Shillond did not know how many more years he had left but with more than five hundred behind him, he was content.
    He approached the camp of Ekbert, one of the two pretenders to the throne of Merona. The setting sun cast long shadows over the camp, containing most, if not all, of the men sworn to Ekbert’s service. A pathetic army even if made up of skilled men at arms, but the poor discipline and lax security told a different tale. These would be no skilled men at arms but rabble, taking advantage of the destruction left in the wake of the Changeling War to call themselves nobles and knights.
    He wondered if he should have first approached Ruthven, the other claimant to the throne. No doubt Ruthven’s army was no better. If King Keven hoped to make allies of either of these men, he must take a long view indeed.
    At the outskirts of the camp proper stood the small hovels of various camp followers and other hangers on. Shillond directed his horse to a rickety wooden bridge across a small brook. Next to the bridge a drudge squatted, scrubbing a pan with a handful of sand.
    “Pardon me,” Shillond said, his voice soft.
    The drudge looked up. A woman, Shillond thought, although it was hard to tell under all the dirt. Grime streaked her face. Her hair hung in matter tangles. She wore a shapeless sack of a tunic and trowsers that had been patched so many times that Shillond could not tell where trousers ended and patches began.
    “You be speakin’ to me, M’lord?”
    Shillond nodded. “I seek Ekbert, who styles himself King of Merona.”
    “The king, aye.” The drudge pointed. “His tent be atop yonder hill. Biggest tent there, as fittin’ a king.”
    “My thanks.” Shillond dug a finger into a pouch at his belt and drew forth a coin. He tossed it in the direction of the drudge who snatched it from the air.

  19. And from the third:

    The most dangerous post in the fleet was military liaison for the Terran Embassy to the Eres. Humans use food and drink to smooth negotiations. The Eres use hunting. The more important the topic, the more dangerous the prey and the more primitive the arms they would use to take that prey.
    Sweat tickled the end of Commander Nobuta Tanaka’s nose. He would much rather discuss the proposed treaty over tea and pastries, or in deference to the Eres, tea and steak. But they had to do it the Eres way. At his side, Sheshak, Tanaka’s host, stooped to examine the pile of dung left in the trail beaten down in the waist high pseudo-grass.
    A kashek, Sheshak had called the beast they sought, an herbivore, to be sure, but an herbivore the size of a Terran white rhino combining the worst elements of wild boar and Cape buffalo. To slay the beast, Tanaka carried a spear with a fifteen centimeter crosspiece bound to the shaft with sinew half a meter behind the chipped obsidian point. As protection, he wore nothing but sandals, a pair of neocotton shorts, and a light coating of sunscreen.
    At least in the war he had a destroyer surrounding him when he faced an Eres hunter-killer fleet.

  20. First paragraph of the most ready WIP (it even has a cover!):

    Decanting a human was not the same as decanting a bottle of wine. The doctor swore at the condition of the man and the machinery in front of him. If the word ‘modern’ had had any meaning for him anymore, he might have called the resuscitation chamber de-orbited from the starship long centuries ago modern, but the keep that led to it, and the cavern that housed it were anything but modern. Instead, they replicated a history of mankind long lost on its planet of origin.

  21. Heck, I’ll give it a shot (and before anyone points it out, yes, this and the last one happen in a school setting, but I swear that’s not all I write):

    /I saw a dragon last night.
    Meet me by the vending machines after class.
    Pass it on.

    I glanced at the contents of the tiny slip of paper I’d just seen Sharon discreetly fold before handing to me, then gave her a questioning look. Her attention, however, was on the professor, who had finished organizing his materials and was writing something on the whiteboard. I read the note again, but aside from the short list of mutual friends to get it to, there was nothing else written. I sighed, then folded the paper back up.

  22. This is the start of Chapter 2 of Dr. Mauser: Red on Red (Since the Preface was a story I’d put out earlier, as well as chapter 1, this was the first part original to the new book):

    Paul Mauser ducked just in time as the bullet embedded itself in the masonry wall of the alley, right where his temple had been a moment earlier. The flying shards of brick and mortar pelted him to far less lethal effect. In any other narrative, Paul might have taken a moment to wonder how things had gone so horribly wrong, but not getting killed took precedence. What he really needed was a gun of his own so that he could defend himself. In fact, he had been on his way to meet with a man who could provide him with one when this latest attempt on his life started. He was almost there. Perhaps he could still make it.

    There was a space between two buildings he could scramble through, and a few oil drums stacked conveniently next to it. Just as he made his break, another shot rang out, and almost as if in slow motion, Paul could swear he saw the bullet graze past his left ear, strike the barrel obliquely, and ricochet in front of his face. Almost getting hit twice with the same bullet was more than enough. He reached up and grabbed to top of the barrel and pulled it in behind him as he ducked into the crevice. It jammed between the buildings quite satisfyingly as he made his escape.

    It wouldn’t be much of an escape. Surely the hired thugs after him knew the area better than he did, and could rejoin the chase in a moment, but the moment was his, and he had to make the most of it. Glancing left and right, he spotted where the major road should be and ran for it, and by sheer chance, the restaurant he was looking for was half a block away. He quickly made for the door and slipped inside. If he was lucky, the crowded public venue would discourage his pursuers. Taking a second to catch his breath, he pushed through the second set of doors.

    The restaurant was empty.

  23. Just to go along with the crowd and toss out the first few paragraphs of a current WIP (pending cover and a little editing for publishing):

    I’m sure real magick exists, because I’ve seen things done I’ve never been able to figure out the trick of, but as many times as I’ve attempted it, I’ve never been able to do it.

    With the tall flames of the tavern’s central firepit reflecting in my eyes, I finished describing the giant Omnis, “At least two reeds tall, the sound of his lone footsteps on the hard-packed dirt frightened the drummer boys of King Karmour’s headquarters. Omnis stood in gleaming bone armor and raised a sheep’s head on his staff to declare his deathly silent army’s challenge to the King.”

    A pair of men, one stout and the other rich, sat in the back of the audience. Their quiet whispers worried me. The stout man had the grizzled look of a retired drill sergeant about him and didn’t appear to be buying my description of King Karmour’s army. The rich man wore a common tunic and trousers, but his dull looking boots cost more than a real working man earned in a year. Some disguise. Perhaps he was slumming, as had become the fashion among the nobility ever since the Prince spent a week disguised as a commoner in order to win his bride, but even if he wasn’t an official spy for the local Mage Guards, he could just as easily turn me in as a fake if he saw through my descriptions of using magick as a mercenary mage for hire.

      1. Thanks, Laura. As I’m sure you know, sometimes ‘real life’ intrudes on the best plans of mice and men. When the friction gets to the point it takes a year+ to arrange for a cover for something so you can publish it, you just hope other priorities (family, better paying regular work) will settle down again soon.

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