Author Archives: Kate Paulk

Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Setting

I’m typing this in a hotel in Philadelphia, in lieu of actually prepping for the conference tomorrow. In about 30 minutes, I’ll be ambling over to the conference venue (literally next door) to go through the pre-conference checks. There may or may not be panic depending on just how well my Google slide presentation transferred to the (completely alien to me) Apple Keynote software the techie types for this thing prefer.

Not helped, I might add, by the fact that my travel system is a *nix laptop, my home machine is a Windows box which does not run the other “standard” for presentations (aka Microsoft Powerpoint) because I’m just fine working with either the big G’s stuff or Libre Office, and even more fine with the absence of big dollar signs when using it.

Yes, you should be taking note of these little frustrations and using them or something similar in your writing. It’s all part of getting the setting right. Which, without further ado, is today’s repost from the Extreme Pantser’s Guide.

The Pantser Body Of Knowledge: Setting – the mythical tribe of Fakawi

If you’re anything like me, setting isn’t something you, the extreme pantser, thinks about. It’s just there.

The problem with this is that without learning how to Heinlein the key setting information, there’s a tendency to either stop everything for a big fat infodumpus, or to wind up with talking head syndrome, where there’s simply not enough detail, and the reader ends up like the mythical tribe of Fakawi, which is known only for appearing in strange places and shouting “We’re the Fakawi!” (If you’re confused, try saying that out loud. Preferably where small children won’t hear you, and not at work).

Most of the pantsers I know – me included – have a tendency to include only the setting information that their characters notice. This isn’t enough. When you think about it, you mostly don’t pay much attention to familiar surroundings: it becomes background and not worthy of mention. I’d describe my workplace environment as “a cube”, for instance, and not think to mention the Demotivator poster I have on the wall, the way I use color coded highlighters on a large planner to give me a month-at-a-glance view of what’s happening, the assorted notes stuck to the cube wall. I certainly wouldn’t consider anything like the height of the cube walls and what they’re made of relevant, or the desk, or the chair. Everyone here has a pretty decent mental image of what my cube looks like, because we all know what cubicles are and how they work from movies, TV, or personal experience (or from Dilbert, which is sadly accurate).

Would someone from late Victorian times have any idea what I’m talking about? Not likely. And therein lies the fun of setting and why pantsers need to focus on it. We pantsers tend to be strongly character-driven, and not notice the things that our characters don’t notice. In any genre that doesn’t involve here-and-now-and-familiar, that means we’re likely to leave out things readers need to know. We know them, but they never leave the familiar confines of our skulls.

So, how to stop this happening? Usually the first step is to let something you’ve written sit for long enough that it’s moderately unfamiliar, although if you can bully… ahem… convince a friendly mentor to read it and tell you where you need more detail it does help. Then you go back and edit. A lot. Mostly Heinleining a detail here, another there. Instead of a ‘tree’, mention the pale barkless trunk, the lack of branches until twice your character’s height, and the narrow leaves the color of old ashes – preferably on separate occasions in the same scene rather than all at once. If you can weave it into what’s happening even better: the character’s clothes are the wrong color to blend in with the tree, he can’t climb it because it doesn’t start branching until way too high, and those damn leaves crackle underfoot and reek of eucalypt and he’s never going to avoid the pursuers unless he can get to someplace he can hide.

Going back and doing this to something antique of yours that you have no intention of publishing, just as an exercise, is also helpful.

What eventually happens – and yes, this does seem to be typical of pantsers – is that the more you do this kind of editing, the more you start remembering to add these details in when you’re writing your first draft. Eventually, putting in the right information happens automatically, although not usually before you’ve gone through a profoundly unnerving period when you’re doing it automatically but you’re not actually recognizing this and you have absolutely no ability to judge what’s going on.

Since extreme pantsers also tend to improve in leaps, this is pretty common, and terrifying – you know what your writing is different, qualitatively, than anything you’ve done before. But you don’t know if it’s good or not because your conscious mind hasn’t caught up yet. In my experience, the best thing to do with this is to ride the tsunami and trust the judgment of your first readers (you do have first readers who’ll tell you if you go off-track, right?).

All of this leads into the second big problem with setting that bedevils extreme pantsers. We tend to get a kind of core dump of what the world is, and tease out details as we go. Unfortunately, it’s usually real-world enough that it breaks the rules of story: it doesn’t make sense.

Everyone here knows that reality doesn’t have to make sense. It just is. Story is a different beast, and setting has to follow the rules of story, or it won’t satisfy readers. Hell, reality doesn’t satisfy most people, which is why conspiracy theories are so popular – they make more sense than stuff just happening.

We pantsers have to take what we have and figure out some kind of narrative history to attach to the setting to make it make sense. And yes, that history is its own story, which then needs to have enough bits Heinleined in to give the right feel and to make sense of what’s there. It’s the same basic process, except that most of this information won’t actually appear in the story, and may never show up anywhere except inside your skull, but without it your story is effectively rootless. I usually find I get this information through deconstruction of the “Okay, these people don’t like magic. What would make them so anti-magic? A magical disaster? Okay, so what would have caused that?” kind, going back through the world’s history until I’ve got something that works and feels right.

A final word here for the extreme pantser: don’t discount ‘feels right’. If you’ve done your research and have a decent idea of how people work, how stuff happens and the like, ‘feels right’ is a kind of thumbnail guide to ‘all the pieces are in place somewhere even if I can’t see them all consciously’. There are times when that’s all you’ll get until after the book is finished. Sometimes until after it’s published. And yes, that has happened to me.


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Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide – Plot

I’m still focused on that test conference (a week to go – eek!) so it’s a good thing I’m reposting the Pantser’s Guide for y’all to enjoy or whatever.

The next installment from the past is all about plotting – and avoiding kudzu subplots. This is a challenge for me, and I suspect I’m not the only pantser to have issues with it, so without further ado, here’s the repost.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Plot – or keeping the kudzu out of your pants

Okay, so discussing plot seems out of place in a series about pantsing, but trust me, it’s needed. Without it, you’ll get kudzu subplots (get me tired and ask me about the Epic with Everything one day), main characters who suddenly take a left turn to Neverland mid-book, or worse. As someone who’s managed to do practically everything you can do wrong plot-wise, all in the same book (with the exception of not actually having a plot), I have a good idea of what happens when the pants take you down the wrong trouser leg. And these are strange pants. They have an infinite number of trouser legs, some of them interconnecting, and not all of them will get you to the right ending (by which I mean the ending which feels like it’s the only way the book could have ended).

To stretch the pantser metaphor even further, your journey through the pants can have results you really don’t want to talk about.

So, how do you deal with this?

You study. You read well-plotted books (Terry Pratchett is a pantser, and his plotting is damn near flawless, especially in the later books), and good books about plotting. You also get to know the major plot structures and work out which ones apply to your vague notion of where you’re going. This builds up the ability to see the evolving plot as the pants permit, and make sure that external events keep your plot more or less on a viable leg of the pants.

The judgment of whether a clue-bat from left field is a good thing or a bad one is something that pantsers tend to learn by doing rather than from external sources. I find that if something belongs, once it hits me I literally can’t see the story working any other way. If I’m in doubt, chances are I’m wandering into a dangerous leg of the pants, one of the ones with the little signs that say “Here be dragons”.

Handling that judgment also means being willing to throw out a whole lot of wordage to get yourself back on a good leg.

My method – derived from my days scribbling in anything that came to hand and stealing time from everything I could – is to obsessively narrate the piece in my head, usually starting from where I currently am although I do get previews of later scenes. Each time I do this, it’s slightly different, and sometimes takes me into dangerous pants legs, but by the time I’ve sat down to write it I’ve got a fair idea what should be happening for that section.

In short, I micro-plot. I work out what should be happening in the scene I’m currently writing and maybe the scene after that, but no further. I still know the general shape of where I’m going and sometimes know what the basic plot type is (the current piece falls into a rather perverse hero’s journey, more or less. Possibly a subverted hero’s journey).

Looking for this kind of structure helps to deal with the kudzu subplots – which will otherwise infest and possibly strangle your story. If you can’t tell which of your characters is the protagonist, you’ve got this problem. Even cast-of-thousands novels have exactly one character who is the core of the piece. At least, if they’re written by someone capable of plotting, they do. Someone who can’t carry a plot in a bucket (not naming names here, but some quite prominent Names suffer from this) will have multiple character threads that don’t support each other and don’t focus around a single core.

I’ve found that there’s actually a sneaky way to work around this, and even better, so long as you’re not trapped in the damp crotch of the pants, it can happen at any point including after you’ve finished the draft.

First, ask yourself what the big problem that’s biting your characters actually is. This is important, because it might not be what it looks like on the surface, and you need to identify the big problem (this, incidentally, is probably pretty close to what your book is about – and you might not know what it is until you’ve got a fair way into the piece, because you’ve been busy working with the surface manifestations of the big problem).

Now, once you’ve got that, the next part is a bit easier. Who is the single person the problem bites hardest? It may not – read Snuff for a good example – be the person most hurt by it, but will often be the one person whose personal ethics are so utterly incompatible with the big problem they can’t do anything except try their hardest to kill the problem. It can also be the person who stands to lose most if the problem isn’t resolved. Found them? Good. That’s your protagonist.

With your big problem and your protagonist identified, you can prune any kudzu that doesn’t do anything to either move the story or shed light on your protagonist. Or you can tweak it so that it does do something in that direction.

What often happens with pantsers is that once you recognize the need for this and know what you need to do for it, the hooks are already there. They just need to be polished a bit and have the appropriate bit of window dressing hung on them. Occasionally, you’ll need to add in the big arrows pointing to the clue, and the flashing neon lights saying “Here! This is important!”

After you’ve been at this for a while, you’ll find that something you didn’t foresee fits perfectly with the odd bit you added in ten chapters back because it felt right even though you had no idea why it should be there. This, fellow pantsers, is a Good Thing. It’s a sign that you’ve internalized plot structure enough that your subconscious is guiding you through the pants in a way that won’t get you stranded anywhere.


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Return of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: What Happens Next

I’m in the last couple of weeks before my first time as a professional presenter in a testing conference (TestBash Philadelphia for those who are wondering) so what passes for my ability to focus is split between that and – as ever – the day job. Which is suitably Lovecraftian, or at least the code is.

So, without further ado, another instalment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide and yes, I’ll probably be on mostly-hiatus until after the conference. I may not fully surface until Thanksgiving, just because it usually takes me a bit to let go after I’ve been wound tight for a while.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: What Happens Next

As an extreme pantser, I work in fits and starts. There’ll be a lot of words going down fast, followed by dry spells while I try to figure out what’s supposed to happen next, then another splat. Often, I’ll take notes that end up at the bottom of the story file, as reminders of things that need to happen at some stage. Depending on the story, I’ll have a lot of these, or next to nothing.

Impaler had very few notes, mostly on things like the date of Easter that year, the date of Passover, and various other major dates and festivals that would impact the plot. Easter also presented a challenge – Vlad had to conquer Constantinople before Easter because otherwise the pivotal scene that I knew happened in the Hagia Sophia couldn’t happen. Mostly, though, Impaler’s outline was “what is in Vlad’s campaign”. The actual events around that happened as I wrote them, quite literally in more than a few cases.

In that book, my dry spells happened because I needed to do more research – I’d know what needed to happen next, but not have enough information to describe it properly. So there’d be a flurry of web searches, reading assorted odd snippets, looking at reproductions of very old maps, and so forth, until the next set of scenes had its ‘clothes’.

ConVent went slightly differently because it started as pure piss-take and acquired a loose mystery plot as I went on. For it, I had a murderer, and a list of corpses that had to happen. Some people volunteered to be corpses, for which I’m grateful, and the ones who gave me bizarrely detailed death scene wish-lists really made life interesting (Hello, Basset, anyone?). ConVent also acquired a list of characters, mostly pastiche of observed behavior from several sources with a healthy dose of warped imagination, a few special request tuckerizations (Hello the Hoyts), and of course the main characters. The list was written more as a way of keeping the requests in check, including who to cast as corpses and how they wanted to die, but got added to so I didn’t lose track of the details.

The piece I’m working on at the moment, which may or may not finish, has no notes, no planning, and I’ve only recently worked out how it ends. What it’s got is a character with a strong voice and a determination to be heard. This is extreme pantsing at the pointy end. There are already (at a smidge over 10k words), several subplots making their presence known, and I’ve got a fair idea where the main stages of the plot fall. Beyond that? Nada. This character operates on a “need to know” basis, and I don’t need to know. Like everything I write, it’s advancing in intermittent spurts as I work out what the next bit needs to be.

Essentially, the extreme pantser is on a journey. The next part of the path might be clear, and maybe the distant goal, but the rest of the journey is still something of a mystery and only the subconscious has the map.


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Return of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

The long-running social media hiatus continues with another repost – the second part of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide – and yes, I do read the comments, I just don’t stay online long enough to answer them all. Or any of them, some weeks. Y’all do a lovely job of carrying on the conversation without me, though, so I’m not fussing.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

So, you’ve got the typical pantser problem of a neat scenario that’s grabbed you and won’t let go. How do you know when to start writing it and commit to a story?

I’m going to get really authoritative here and say “it depends”. Really, it does. I’ve started stories with nothing more than the scenario and had them build to a finish. I’ve had others I couldn’t start until I’d worked out how it ended. I’ve also had – not so often – cases where the starting scenario isn’t where the book actually starts, but I’ve got to write the bloody thing to work this out. On occasion, I have to know exactly where it starts before I can write it. This is one of those things that you learn by judgment, and by trial and error.

Yes, that does mean that the more extreme the pantser the more likely there’ll be a large collection of false starts, whether story ideas that didn’t have the pull they needed or weren’t quite right in some other, hard to define way, or ideas that simply weren’t big enough to sustain a book. Don’t throw them out. If your subconscious works anything like mine, unresolved story ideas will hang around like last week’s chili until you figure out where they belong and resolve them. That or they were never really “alive” in the first place.

Most of the pantsers I know operate on a principle of “Start story. Continue until the end.” It’s pretty typical for a pantser not to be able to write out of sequence, simply because if you can’t do the detailed outlining (or the detailed outlining ends up bearing no resemblance to your finished story) there’s no way the ‘good bit’ halfway through is going to end up being the same as what you thought it would be at the beginning – if you even know what that good bit is.

Given all of this, my advice to all you pantsers out there is to get something down as soon as you think there’s enough to carry it. It doesn’t have to be right, it just has to be there. What nailing something down early does is give you a feel for how the piece is going to evolve on you, and this being a primarily subconscious exercise that’s rather important.

While you’re playing with the idea, listen to a lot of different music. I’ve found that certain music acts to ‘set’ my subconscious for writing a piece. I’d also recommend prayer, if you’re the praying sort. I haven’t had this happen to me – yet – but I know people who’ve found themselves stuck with endlessly looping Abba’s Greatest Hits to write something. I gather this gives the conscious mind a pretty powerful incentive to get the thing finished, too. At any rate, the broader your listening, the more likely you’ll find something that works for your story.

For most pantsers I know (and if you’re an exception to this, feel free to ignore it), I’ve found the best way to start is to park butt in chair and start where you think it starts. Sometimes it will take off and you’ve written several chapters without realizing the passage of time. Other times you’ll need more before you can get moving. In either case, you’ve started. No amount of playing with an idea can reify it the way writing it down does.


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Return to the Past: Extreme Pantser’s Guide

Yes, I’m still on internet hiatus and minimal interaction with the rest of the universe. Since I’m also on limited brainpower while some hidden part of my mind (which I’m sure is off in the tropics somewhere with the drinks with the umbrellas and the attractive scenery) recuperates from whatever the heck is bothering it, I figured this would be a good time to start reposting a series I did rather more years back than I’d realized (seriously, 2011? I’d have sworn I haven’t been doing this for that long). So, herewith is the first part of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide, complete with link to the original (at least, presuming WordPress doesn’t do its usual job of messing things up).

Oh, and apologies for being slack on responding to comments. Those are also falling into the “social media vacation” as far as what passes for my mind is concerned.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: One – You Are Not Insane


Today I’m starting a blog series of indeterminate length: this one about writing techniques and tips from the perspective on an extreme pantser. It will get weird: life does, when you write by the seat of your pants and assorted other parts of your anatomy (some of them without physical existence).  So, without further preambling, enjoy part 1 of the extreme pantser’s guide.

The fiction writing world splits between plotters and pantsers – that is, those who plan it out before they start, and those who write by the seat of their pants as it were. Since just about every piece of advice on plotting, character building and the like assumes it’s talking to a plotter, that leaves the pantsers wondering what’s wrong with them when they simply can’t do this.

Worse, when a pantser tries to work with the detailed outlines and so forth, the result is ‘dead’ – there’s no life there.

Of course, there’s a pretty broad spectrum from the detailed spreadsheet and hundreds of pages of notes of the extreme plotter to the neat idea of the extreme pantser, and everything in between. The thing is, as an extreme pantser myself, I get almost no value out of the usual advice. The most it does is help me to fix things on occasions when I’ve written myself into a corner – and when that happens what I’m actually doing is reverse engineering the plot/characters/etc to work out what I missed and where I went wrong.

So, if that’s the way you work, take comfort. You aren’t alone. If it’s not, feel free to read and snicker at the apparently needless suffering we extreme pantsers endure.

Here’s the important bit: if you write well enough, no-one will know how you did it, and no-one will care.

Well, agents and editors do if you have to deal with proposal hell, since you’ve got to be someone like Terry Pratchett or Stephen King to be able to write what hits you and know your publisher will take it and push it (and even then it’s not a guarantee). Unfortunately, “I’m an extreme pantser. Can’t I just tell you my great idea?” doesn’t go terribly well in the mainstream publishing world.

This is why the opening of online publishing and the indie presses is such a wonderful thing for extreme pantsers. We can write it and publish it, and not have to try to get it past gatekeepers who don’t understand that not everyone can turn in a nice summary of their book before they’ve written it. Heck, I have trouble putting together a nice summary of it after I’ve written it – because I’m not necessarily aware of what the book is about.

Anyone who’s looking for the snuggly hug-me coats can stop right now: what a book is about is not the same as the plot. Anyone who doubts that should read Thud!, Unseen Academicals, and Snuff and then reflect on the plot and what those books are about. Only then can you come and bitch at me for not knowing what my own books are about.

This, ladies, gentlemen, and beings of indeterminate gender or species, is the difference between plotting and pantsing. The plotter is working with the conscious mind. The pantser is being worked by the subconscious – which is usually smarter and faster than the conscious, but doesn’t make nearly as much sense until you’ve got enough of the pieces in place to see the larger picture. Sometimes it takes longer than that, if your subconscious does the Pratchett trick of layering multiple levels of story and “about” in there.

The other big drawback to having your subconscious run the show is that it doesn’t pay attention to things like deadlines, real life, the need to have an income, or pretty much anything else mundane. It meanders on doing its own thing, then pipes up and tells you “Write this. Now” and doesn’t give you any peace until you do it.

Now, it’s not magic. It’s not anything exotic, really. What it is, is the part of you that dreams taking in all sorts of things from everything you experience, making notes somewhere inaccessible to the rest of you, and presenting you with the results. It’s not that different from looking at a situation and feeling like there’s something badly wrong: your subconscious has taken in all the cues and made the call to get out.

We do most things through this method – all those thousands of snap judgments you make when you’re driving, whether you stay well back from that vehicle or start braking shortly before the traffic blockage ahead registers consciously, they’re all handled at a subconscious level once you’ve done enough driving to be able to make the snap judgments. I don’t know what the actual numbers are, but a large part of the average person’s day isn’t lived in the conscious mind.

It’s not surprising that writing would happen that way too.

So, you, the extreme pantser, are not crazy. At least, not because you’re an extreme pantser. I’m not making guarantees about any other kind of crazy.


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Another one down

By which I mean another evening mostly vanished in unwinding after work with nothing productive done. I’ve been on a kind of informal social media vacation for a while now, and don’t see that changing for a while yet. It’s… nice.

See, I’m realizing more and more that my tolerance for stupid is fast approaching negative levels. I really do not suffer fools gladly, but being about as conflict-averse as you can get and still be breathing, my usual method of dealing with them is to get the heck out. The absence of migraine-inducing levels of idiocy draping across my feeds is good for me.

Unfortunately, my definition of idiocy doesn’t match with the rest of the world, so if I was allowed to be the arbiter of too stupid to live, global population would be reduced by something like 90%. I’m aware this is not a good thing, so I avoid those impulses.

This does give me something of a handicap when it comes to writing. I can’t write dumb. I just can’t. Ignorant, yes, even willfully ignorant. Plain stupid, not so much. It’s something I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t work for me. Sadly, this also means that when someone else writes stupid characters – whether they meant it that way or not – I get irritated with the characters and the books.

Seriously, being a bear of excess brain is as much if not more of a handicap sometimes than being a bear of very little brain. The bear of very little brain is at least cute and friendly where I’m rather more prickly with a tendency to weird people out.

Anyway. It’s a lot like being almost good enough a musician to play in professional ensembles. What you learn to get there means that you have a much harder time enjoying amateur performances because you can hear all the things that aren’t right. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that artists have similar issues because they can see where less skilled artists didn’t quite get what they were trying for where someone like me who just likes the pretty things wouldn’t notice or care.

And of course when you know enough about writing crappy storytelling starts to bother you (we won’t go into the movies where I’ve sat there going “please don’t have this thing happen: it’s far too cliché. Please don’t do it.” Of course they do the thing every time). And when you have a brain and you’re willing to use it (the latter isn’t a given – in fact in my experience it’s a whole lot more rare than having the ability to use one’s brain in an intelligent fashion) it gets really, painfully obvious when you read the results of an author who isn’t using whatever reasoning abilities he or she was given and has inflicted a stupid plot on readers (most of the authors I’ve encountered do have the ability to avoid gross stupidity. They choose not to for whatever the reason). Actual stupid people are… well… not at all like the kind of stupid that usually shows up in characters.

With of course some brilliant exceptions, many of whom came from the pen, typewriter, and computer of Sir Pterry – who, frankly, was one of the greatest observers of character in centuries.

For those who are wondering, this is what happens when I start stream of consciousness-ish writing. Things meander. What started with “oh, yeah it’s nice I’m not subjecting myself to oodles of social media dumb” turns into discussing the portrayal of stupid people ahem characters in fiction.

Those who’ve met me face to face will know my actual conversations do this too. I have a conversational topic deficit disorder. Enjoy the ride with its crazy detours, and I shall return after what’s likely to be another week without migraine-inducing idiots on social media.


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Who Stole My Time?

As I write (as usual, the evening before the post goes live) it’s approaching the end of my 50th birthday, leaving me wondering where the hell the time went, and who stole it.

Inside, I’m definitely not getting old, despite the odd bit of silver in my hair and the aches and pains that come with the combination of too much me, not enough exercise (I’m trying to improve that), and my issues with resisting the pleas of delicious bad-for-me food sitting right there and crying out “Eat me! I’m wonderful! You’ll love it!”. Metaphorically, anyway. I’m not sure I could handle food that actually talked to me.

Seriously, my mental image is stuck somewhere in the mid-20s to mid-30s, with excursions back to late teens when I have an angsty fit (Yes, I was an angsty teen. It’s a good thing I grew up). Maturity? Oh, hell no.

Besides, there’s no way I’ve lived all those 50 years. There just isn’t. Everything has kind of blurred together and there’s suddenly this marker saying “thou art old” or something and I’m saying “Wait, whoa. Where did that come from and why is it talking to me?”

Actually, on second thoughts, I think I know where it’s got to. It’s taken off with my sanity and my brain, and they’re all having a threesome on a tropical island somewhere, drinking fancy drinks with umbrellas in them, and generally having a whole lot of fun. And they don’t even send post cards.

I have to wonder if getting old feels the same way for everyone, like someone’s played a dirty trick on you and slipped you a bunch of extra years you don’t feel like you really lived.


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