Month: February 2015

No Post Friday

I’ve been working on the novel and have not had mental space to think of a post subject for today, so I’m afraid this is a content-free day. I am sad that Leonard Nimoy has died, though.

Back on Monday I should think.

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System Rigour

In yesterday’s outline progress post, I mentioned that I wanted to define the protagonist’s abilities better. Why would I want to do this rather than just have her do whatever she wants?

Fundamentally, it’s about narrative consistency but more generally it’s to do with being able actually use her abilities to solve problems.

Sanderson’s First Law of Magic relates to any system of imagination, whether magic or invented technology: communicating how it behaves* permits the storyteller to use the system to solve problems without it seeming like a deus ex machina.

We can take some cues here from roleplaying game systems, in that they are relatively rigorous descriptions of magical or technological limits in the context of the game. And really limits are what we are looking for here – defining what is possible in order to tell stories about the edges. I’m not proposing that you should write a set of game mechanics around your magic system (although those kinds of exercises are fun – one day I will my metapsychic rules!) but those systems give a necessary layer of structure to what characters can do and how much they can do which is instructive when writing fiction.

And this is what I am doing now with my story: capturing detail about where abilities spring from, what the limits of those abilities should be, and how the abilities can be exploited by the characters to advance their goals.

One great example here is from Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter and their Long Earth series.

WARNING: slight spoiler ahead – skip the next paragraph if you haven’t read the books yet and would like this to be a surprise.

Still here? The characters in the book can step into parallel earths carrying everything that is on them except iron. This is theoretically great for escaping handcuffs, but those who want to stop people stepping away implant stainless steel parts which will cause death if removed by the wearer jumping away. It’s a really good bit of exploitation of the system, anyway, and I know this paragraph has gone on too long but I want to leave enough text at the end to fully obscure this slight spoiler from casual glances backwards.

End spoiler.

I’ve done this kind of work before in the context of a roleplaying system. When I was preparing A New Dawn, I wanted to filter the powers available to the characters through the origin of those powers.

Obviously collecting and calibrating character abilities for a novel is a little different. In my case I am going to collect notes about:

  • where the characters come from and what leads them to have the abilities
  • what the abilities are
  • what the rules for those abilities are
  • how the abilities relate to the character situation
  • strategic ways to appear to break the rules without actually doing so

Back to generating story ideas through creative restriction!

[*] not how it works, of course, or we would have written it up or started a business or something.

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Outline Progress

It was with great joy and not a little tiredness that I completed the detailed outline for Shapes last night. That is why I didn’t post anything on the blog yesterday – I was writing the last few summary sentences for the novel.

There’s good and bad about this detailed outline process:

  1. good: it gives you an intimate knowledge of the story and its current state.
  2. good: it brings forward lots of ideas to improve the story.
  3. bad: it takes a long time. I started this outline at the beginning of the year, so it’s taken me almost eight weeks for a 100k manuscript. There again, I do now have a 30k outline.

Having completed that significant effort, what’s next?

My plan for the year was to pick up Song for a bit, to review that second draft and fix it up for publication, but having built the car I want to take it for a spin.

So the new plan is to work with the outline to make Shapes into a better story. There’s a handful of things I need to do and lots of ideas for things I want to try out. These include:

  • fixing timing issues
  • who knows what when
  • tweaking the initial conditions
  • making the antagonists more consistent in their behavior
  • defining the protagonist’s abilities a bit better
  • fiddling with the plot to improve the pacing
  • completing the closing scenes (because the fourth act was truncated which lost a lot of the character motivation information)

I am expecting to work on this outline until it’s done, then take a break from it before writing the second draft. We’ll see whether the car holds up.

How are your writing efforts going? Do you use outlines?

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… But Walt Disnae

Disneyland is weird.

It’s quite different from other theme parks I’ve been to* in that not only are there areas within the park which are thematically linked, but the rides themselves are freighted with story: when you ride the Peter Pan ride you fly over London and through Neverland; when you go on the Indian Jones ride you are immersed in an expedition borrowing elements from the films. They really are little narrative bundles intended to represent and re-present the films they are drawn from.

This idea of the visitor entering the narrative world of Disney permeates the park: the staff are termed “cast members”, whether that is a ride operator or a costumed performer (“people puppets”, as my oldest termed them when he was three). It’s all about engaging the visitor, making interacting with the story the normal thing to do.

The neighbouring California Adventure is more mixed: there are some rides which are just the ride, a pure thrill (the California Screamin’ rollercoaster, for example), but there are some sections which immerse you in the film world and bring the characters to life in their own environment. This is especially true of Radiator Springs, the desert community from Cars**, where you can walk down the high street, eat at the cafe, visit the tyre vendor, and race through the sculpted desert.

It is, for the most part, delightful. We spent three days trundling around the two parks, and it was constantly engaging and enthralling.

Not inspiring, though, at least not for me: I enjoy a lot of Disney product, but I don’t draw inspiration from it. It’s too complete in and of itself: it doesn’t leave the kind of ragged edge needed to inspire stories in the same or related settings***.

Quite apart from the slickness of the presentation, there are so many things that Disney does well in their parks. They manage crowds and queues better than anyone else I’ve seen, for example. When you join the line to ride, the queue path is convoluted and takes you close to the ride before taking you away, hiding the loops and twists of another 25 minutes of waiting inside a house – always hidden from anyone approaching the outside of the ride, though… they are honest in their posting of the times to wait (a little pessimistic if anything), but it’s a lot different seeing a couple of ranks of waiting riders than the entire queuing mass. And there are so many things to look at while waiting – the Radiator Springs fountain, or the excavation equipment.

When you get to the ride itself, there is deep efficiency in the way they load and, crucially, unload the cars. Most of the rides we went on had the riders who were done climb out one side while the new riders climbed in the other. Many of the attractions have more than one loading track which are then switched in to the attraction’s main track in turn. Similar technology is used to accommodate disabled patrons: we saw this in action at Space Mountain, and it is impressive.

Disney parks are an experience worth having. I don’t see us becoing regulars there, but I am glad we went while the boys were still young enough to feel wonder and joy there.

Q: what’s the difference between Bing Crosby and Walt Disney?
A: Bing sings, …

[*] which, admittedly, mostly consists of Alton Towers.

[**] I think it says something that the least substantial of Pixar’s films gets the most elaborate thematic treatment while The Incredibles gets nothing, but I am sure this is based on crowd-attractiveness.

[***] indeed, it seems strangely fitting that Disney should have purchased the rights to Star Wars. There was an excellent roleplaying game published in the 1987 set in that galaxy far, far away but much as I enjoy the films I never found there was much inspiration to be had for writing roleplaying stories there.

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What I’m Working On in February 2015

I’m a writer. What am I working on at the moment?

I should explain that there are several reasons for this post:

  • the public reason is that I have been talking recently on this blog about some of the process details I am wading through, and about games and other things that I see story in, but there I don’t actually talk all that much about the work itself. Why, in other words, am I doing this? Why would anyone else want to read the results?
  • personal reason #1 is that I want to practice explaining what I do in a succinct way.
  • personal reason #2 is to remind myself why I am doing this, why I find this kind of work exciting.

The Shape of My Work

I am a speculative fiction author, although most of my work at the moment is leaning pretty heavily in a science fiction direction.

My goal is publish through a traditional publisher. I’m not opposed to self-publishing in principle and it obviously works for some people, but it’s also not for everyone and in particular I don’t think it’s for me.

Having said that, I don’t write in order to be published – I write for myself, because I want to read the kind of stories I write. Indeed, I am painfully aware that the chances of making a living from fiction alone are vanishingly small, and I am grateful to have a solid day job that pays well enough that I only need the one paying gig.

The Novel

The book that I have which is closest to being publishable is A Turquoise Song. Set in a near future Portland, it tells the story of a synaesthetic robot repairman who stumbles on a world-altering plot to undermine the artificial intelligence ecosystem.

It was originally a NaNoWriMo project in 2011, and I completed the second draft during NaNoWriMo 2014. That draft is resting so that I will have enough distance to be objective about its flaws when I finally read it.

The Other Novel

My process typically means that I have two stories bubbling at once, and the other novel is my NaNoWriMo project from 2013. It’s called Shapes of Chance, about a young woman who grows up in a rural peasant village and who lives a very predictable life until one day – her wedding day – she finds out that she can see probability. After that she is unwillingly drawn into a war which spans worlds.

I am currently outlining this story so that I can do the surgery required in a more fitting medium than great slabs of narrative text. That task is about 80% complete.

My dilemma is whether I continue to work on Shapes while the ideas are fresh in my mind, or whether I follow the plan and cut across to Song, reviewing that draft for worthiness.

Games

I enjoy roleplaying games (and have done since University), and I have been running a superhumans campaign called A New Dawn for my group. The story goes that the characters go to sleep as normal people one evening, and then wake up weeks later with superpowers. They have no memory of the time that has passed, although it is apparent that they have not been missing: someone has lived their lives, but they have a ten week hole in their memory.

The campaign is in abeyance at the moment, but I expect to be raising the curtain on the next season fairly soon.

Blog

This writing blog has been invaluable in forcing me to keep writing and that is one of the reasons I maintain it. I try to keep the content focussed on writing and story-telling, with a very significant part of that being keeping myself accountable by posting regular goal updates.

The Day Job

I am fortunate to have an engaging and interesting day job. However, “interesting and engaging” also means “demanding” – I try hard to insulate my fiction and other writing from the exigencies of the day job, but that is not always possible when deadlines loom.

Balancing

I’ve come to realise recently that I have three strands of personal work: the novel, gaming, and the blog. All of these are important and they inform each other, but it is rare that I can do all three at once in the margins around the day job. I have tried, and usually one of them fails messily.

Basically, I can do two. That way I can divvy up the time I have sensibly and stay on top of those two activities. At the moment those two activities are the blog and one novel, but that will change over time. In particular, when A New Dawn starts up again I will probably reduce or drop the blog – keeping going on the novel is the most important thing from a publication perspective.

Anyway, that’s who I am and what I do.

What about you?

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After Evernote

This post is about my distributed electronic notes system. It’s basically what I am using to replace Evernote after I could no longer use that tool.

Where the wild files are

The core of it is Dropbox, although any cloud storage drive with clients for everything would do. In my Dropbox drive, I have a directory structure organised by topic –

~/Dropbox
    notes
        admin
        blog
        games
        roleplaying
        running
        writing

Each of those directories contains text files – this blog post, for example, lives in a file called “~/Dropbox/notes/blog/distributed-notes”. Some of these directories have subdirectories for finer division of the topic.

Because these directories are in Dropbox, they get copied automatically to all of the devices where I have Dropbox installed – my laptop and my phone, for instance – but the information does not exist solely in the cloud: if Dropbox went away tomorrow, I would still have all the local copies of my files as well as local backups.

Phoning it in

I use the text editor of my choice* to edit these files on the general purpose computers in my life, and then I use a text editor with Dropbox support on my Android phone.

There are a number of editors available on Android which can access Dropbox, but the one I am using is 920 Text Editor: it’s functional without being flashy, displaying text on the screen in a readable but compact font so I can see enough of the file to get context when I’m working on something. The most important thing about it is that it will edit any file in Dropbox – some Android editors setup their own application folder within Dropbox, which is not helpful for editing shared data.

The workflow for editing an existing file is easy: go to Dropbox, find the file, open the file. Usually it goes directly to 920 Text, but sometimes I will be asked to select an application.

Creating a new file on the phone is slightly more fiddly: I can’t create it in 920 Text. Rather, the file has to be made by Dropbox and then opened with 920 Text. This workflow goes: create new text file, save file, close file, then reopen with 920 Text. That’s a bit more convoluted than I would like, but it is not the main workflow anyway.

Blogging

The last thing I wanted to discuss here was writing blog posts in this system.

This blog is implemented in WordPress, and I often had trouble copying blog text from Evernote into the WordPress text editor.

I’m managing that now by writing in basic HTML and then pasting the text into the WordPress text editor rather than the visual editor. This way I spend a lot less time mucking about with tweaking line breaks, and all it requires is putting in a few explicit tags for italics and headlines.

The next thing

I have exported all of my notes from Evernote, but I have yet to convert them into general purpose text files. I’ll post that script when it’s written.

[*] vim.

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No Friday Post

So much for a Friday post. I thought I would be able to make time for it, but things did not work out in that direction. On the plus side, I am more than two thirds of the way through my outlining for Shapes.

I expect to be back on Monday, or “tomorrow” as it is also known.

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Testing Magic

So, you’ve built a deck (perhaps following some of the previous statistical guidance). How do you know if it’s any good?

This post is about testing to see if the deck you’ve built behaves consistently, and whether it’s actually competitive. It’s basically expanding on the closing points I glossed over in the second Magical statistics post.

Draw Testing

The first thing to do is to shuffle and draw a hand to see if you got the land proportions right.

  1. shuffle
  2. draw seven cards
  3. is the hand playable? If not, then mulligan: back to step 1, but draw one fewer cards this time.
  4. If you have a playable hand, then play it – put down a land for your first turn, then draw and play another land and a spell, and so on. Imagine how your opponent would respond; imagine the results from your actions.

The goal here is to get a playable hand in the first draw or the first mulligan, and then to continue to have land to cast spells and things to do each turn. If it regularly takes more than one mulligan to get to a playable state (and winning from an opening five card hard is way more difficult), or if you are regularly left with nothing to do on a turn, then you should look at the reasons for the unplayability and adjust things in the deck:

  • too much land, not enough land, or the wrong colour mix: look again at the number of land cards. If this is too hard to get right, then maybe that five colour deck is just not going to work out.
  • too many expensive spells: look again at the mana curve for your deck.
  • not enough creatures: look again at the mix of creatures to non-creature spells

Pilot Testing

Once you have a deck that consistently makes playable hands and draw sequences, you should try playing it against other decks.

If you’re building a limited deck at a draft event of some kind, that testing will be done against other players and the decks they build in the course of the event.

However, if you’re building at home for later play, then you’ll want to play the deck against another baseline deck or two to see how it fares.

  1. clear a space large enough to layout two board positions close to each other.
  2. roll to see whether left or right goes first.
  3. lay out the cards as you would normally, but if they’re side by side then I would recommend mirroring the two.
  4. play each hand in turn. Stick to the normal phases of play* on each turn. This isn’t just good practice, it will also help you to not forget anything – the phases are a checklist for each player’s turn.
  5. keep notes of how the test hand performs.
  6. make adjustments if appropriate or possible.
  7. test again.
  8. and again. Normal matches are best of three, so you want to run each iteration of a deck against the baseline at least three times.

Tips:

  • use all the paraphernalia you would use in a normal game: life dice, tokens, and counters – the more authentic you can make it, the more thorough the test is.
  • try to play each hand based only on what that player can see. Try to ignore the knowledge you have of the other player’s hand.
  • if you have trouble separating the two in your mind, try putting the different board positions on opposite sides of a table so that you have to get up and move to the other side in order to play the other hand when the turn changes. This physical change can reset things and help with mental separation.
  • if there’s an instant response which one player would likely make, leave a marker visible which will remind you to glance at the other hand at the proper time.
  • don’t be afraid to go back and fix something if you made a mistake playing one hand because you forgot something the other player would have done, but only do this retconning for situations where there is a response the defensive player would have made based on the information at hand rather than because you’re rooting for one side or the other.
  • be honest, and be brutal. Your opponents won’t cut you any slack because it’s a new deck, so don’t soft-pedal your baseline deck to give the other deck a chance.

Or, of course, get a friend to play against you instead.

Different Tests for Different Contexts

So far, I’ve only really played limited formats with (what should usually be) 40 card decks. In that context, I have kept my first limited deck intact as a baseline deck: it plays fairly consistently, it has multiple win conditions, and it has actually won quite frequently during my play tests**. What I’ve been testing are different clan decks*** drawn from a sealed pool.

If you’re playing a constructed format (whatever the deck size) you should consider pulling together archetypal builds for test purposes. These are the kinds of decks you will encounter at competitive events, so if you new deck can’t beat them then you need to rethink.

… and by “pull together” I don’t necessarily mean buy all the cards for those builds, but rather find a deck list and print out proxy copies of the cards. Unless, of course, you like those decks and want to start playing with them.

For the Modern format, Red Deck Wins or Mono Blue Tron seem representative. If you’re playing Standard then this budget Mono Red deck will be a good test bed. Those are all Tolarian Community College videos because I find the Professor’s presentations easy to understand.

Good luck with your decks, and may the statistics be supportive of your plan.

[*] untap, upkeep, draw, main, combat, second main, end of turn, cleanup.

[**] originally it was a 60 card deck which consisted of all my relevant picks from the booster draft, but that was a mistake. Trimming it to 40 made it good. If that’s not a metaphor for the value of editing, then I don’t know what is.

[***] these being the clans of Tarkir, the current play set as of this writing.

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Organising Papers

It’s tax return time in the USA, and so I am spending a lot of time sifting through papers and typing numbers and dates into a tax program*.

This leads me to thinking about my paper notes.

Electronic notes are easy enough – I’m not using Evernote any more, but I have a similarly folder-structured set of notes. I’ll write about the specifics of that once I’ve finished importing all my Evernote notes into it.

But paper? How should that be arranged?

Actually, there’s a couple of issues here which intersect in the problematicalness:

  1. I’ve got a lot of notebooks and, with a couple of exceptions, no clear plan about what goes in each one. If they’re classified at all, it’s by location – the one in the backpack, the one on the shelf over my desk at home, the one that travels with us… very much situational rather than functional.
  2. I rarely go back and read old notes.

Fortunately, I don’t have much in the way of loose-leaf notes: I’ve never been one for grabbing napkins or envelopes to scribble on, for example, and if I make a note on a piece of scrap paper it usually gets transferred into an electronic form.

How should I manage my notebooks, then?

Well, I think the key thing is to figure out time for review rather worrying about saying what things go where. Having a single notebook would be nice, but it’s not that important as long as the notes are seen again.

So, here’s the plan.

  1. keep writing in the notebooks I already write in.
  2. have a standing weekly task to review my notebooks. Read what’s been written that week, then start digging back into the past.
  3. stuff which has been read and doesn’t need to be looked at again should be crossed out. Not obliterated: just a single diagonal stroke through the entry so I know I don’t need to worry about that page any more.
    Not needing to be looked again could be because the idea has been used, the page is just obsolete, or because it’s been copied into the electronic realm.

Now, what notebooks do I have to trawl through?

[*] I admire those who do their own taxes on paper, but I did not grow up with the US tax system and the paperwork here is frighteningly complex compared to the Inland Revenue’s forms.

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Working With An Outline, part 2

Last time I talked about the specifics of how I lay out and compile a detailed outline. This time I want to talk about what I use that outline for.

This post covers both things I’ve already done (or am in the middle of) and things I plan on doing once the outline is complete. Many of these activities are also going to be things to be applied iteratively. Keeping multiple versions of the outline file might be a good idea too, but that is a subject for another post.

Finding Big Holes

As you’re making the outline notes, insert commentary and questions about the plot or setting or breadcrumbs you want to include. In this contrived example, I’ve got a couple of questions to raise for when I’m going through the outline later.

1: Introduce Mary, shepherdess. [Once upon a time, there was a young woman called Mary. She was a shepherdess, which means she spent long periods of time up on the moors away from other people but surrounded by sheep.]
2: Describe how Mary is well-suited to this isolated work and does not care for the villagers. Q: did Mary grow up in the village? [This suited Mary fine, since she generally found the villagers who owned the sheep to be about as bright as the sheep themselves.]
3: Recount that the villagers reciprocate by not caring for Mary much either. Q: do sheep have harnesses? [Despite entrusting their sheep to Mary, her work as a shepherdess was not highly-regarded by the villagers and so they didn't always keep the sheep harnesses in good repair.]
4: Mary had a little lamb. Mention that she got it from the blacksmith. [Mary also had one lamb of her own that the blacksmith had given her in lieu of payment for her shepherding. She tried not to play favourites with the sheep (not that the sheep would notice, of course) but she was very fond of this little lamb, who she called Algernon.]

This is where I am at the moment in this process for Shapes – adding outline notes and notes on holes.

Making It Just An Outline

Next up is the need to remove the actual text, and start working on the outline itself.

1: Introduce Mary, shepherdess. [Once upon a time, there was a young woman called Mary. She was a shepherdess, which means she spent long periods of time up on the moors away from other people but surrounded by sheep.]
2: Describe how Mary is well-suited to this isolated work and does not care for the villagers. Q: did Mary grow up in the village? [This suited Mary fine, since she generally found the villagers who owned the sheep to be about as bright as the sheep themselves.]
3: Recount that the villagers reciprocate by not caring for Mary much either. Q: do sheep have harnesses? [Despite entrusting their sheep to Mary, her work as a shepherdess was not highly-regarded by the villagers and so they didn't always keep the sheep harnesses in good repair.]
4: Mary had a little lamb. Mention that she got it from the blacksmith. [Mary also had one lamb of her own that the blacksmith had given her in lieu of payment for her shepherding. She tried not to play favourites with the sheep (not that the sheep would notice, of course) but she was very fond of this little lamb, who she called Algernon.]

As a reminder, the vim command to do this is:

:%s/ \[[^\]]\+\]//

Fixing Big Holes

Now we can start fixing holes.

1: Introduce Mary, who came up from the lowlands with her family and is now a shepherdess.
2: Describe how Mary is well-suited to this isolated work and because she does not care for the villagers who seem foolish to her.
3: Recount that the villagers reciprocate by not caring for Mary much either.
Tell how the villagers treat their sheep poorly when they are not with Mary and so her job is harder.
4: Mary had a little lamb. Mention that she got it from the blacksmith.

Obviously this is a contrived example so the “fixes” don’t necessarily help, but note how I’ve added an unnumbered outline element between lines 3 and 4. This will become relevant in the last step of the process.

Trying Out Ideas

We now have a much more manageable piece of text to work with, do it easier to experiment with large scale changes to the structure of the story.

This is where you get to mutate the story into something else. I’m not going to work through this since it’s pretty meaningless in this example context, but things I’m looking at for the Shapes outline include:

  • changing the initial conditions: make the protaganist different, add or remove secondary characters, and so on. Work through the consequences of the protagonist being a half-orc who suffers uncontrollable rage at the smell of bananas after the change is made.
  • add or remove sub-plots: is something the protagonist does coming out of the blue? Maybe she needs to go on an adventure with her kid sister to explain why she would be such a killer shot with a rubber band gun. Or perhaps the quest to find the last My Little Pony figure in the 1993 set is distracting from William’s primary goal of putting together a crack squad of goat herders for the Capricorn Cup. Add or remove such sub-plots as necessary
  • fill out truncated writing: this is an especial problem for me during NaNoWriMo – if I am running out of November to finish the story, I will trim the closing chapters to finish the story arc. So, a large part of my outline work will be to fill in the missing plot points so as to explain why the head Bad Panda has such an animus against the protagonist.

… and so on. This is where you play with the storytelling to make it better.

It seems likely that you’ll make the new plot points at a macro level and then refine them. This kind of iteration and refinement is used in the Snowflake Method, although this is rather more organic.

Making It A Story Again

You may have wondered about those line numbers in the outline format I use. It is when reinflating an outline back to a full story that they come into play – you can use those line references to find the original text and copy it back across.

The process goes like this:

  1. copy the original text back into the outline form. This is something I will likely use a script for when it comes to Shapes (and I will post that script here when I write it), unless there have been a great many changes in the outline structure, nut the basic point is to restore the text so as to have something to apply the outline notes to.
  2. go through the outline + text combo doing the following:
    • changing the original text to match the outline
    • writing new text to fill in the new elements of the outline
    • updating the outline notes to match new insights into the text

This is going to be a fun bit.

Once you’re done, you now have a new text version and a new outline to match. Separate those into distinct files if you like, and copy the text into the processing tool of your choice.

Whatever’s Next

This series has been predicated on working with existing text in order to analyse and (one would hope) improve upon it. The next thing for me to try is to write the outline first and turn that into a story. I’m thinking I might do a worked example of that on a short story at some point, since I’ve always had trouble writing short stories.

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