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Jamie Jo Hoang - Author & World Traveler

Tag: rewriting

5 Things You Need to Know Before Self-Publishing

There’s nothing like receiving your first proof, but unless you want it collecting dust on your bookshelf you need to get moving on marketing.

Switching gears from writing to marketing was quite possibly the most excruciating brain shift I’ve had to endure. That being said, I’ve learned a lot! So I thought I’d share my experiences to help anyone who is considering self-publishing. I also plan to revisit this page if I ever do this again for another novel.

Number 1 — Begin PR Planning at Least SIX Months in Advance

Six months seems like a long time to wait after the novel is done but trust me when I say it will fly by before you know it, and there is a lot of prep work. I’ll get into the nitty gritty later in this post, but allocating enough time to send out massive amounts of e-mails and get responses takes a long time. Had I known what I know now I would’ve started this process at the same time I began querying agents.

First things first, and I cannot stress this enough: GET A BOOK COVER. “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” be damned. EVERYONE is going to judge your book by its cover first. And you’ll need the cover to jumpstart everything else.

Then, get your ISBN numbers. You will need two–one for your Paperback and a different one for your e-book.

Also, there are 3 basic e-mails you will need to prepare, as you will be sending out thousands of e-mails.

a) Query Letter — If you haven’t queried before you should. Rejection sucks, but having an agent will help you avoid many of the mistakes I’ve made going it alone.

b) Book Review Query — The concept is very much the same as your Query Letter but you have to include book information. Here is a sample if you need help.

c) Newspaper Book Review Query — This one I found to be the least useful, since I got a 0% response rate, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work for someone else. Here’s a list of Newspaper contact info– if you have any luck with this please comment below. I’d love some tips.

Create a Press Release — I used PRweb (a paid service) because I had no idea how to even begin writing one.  You don’t need to send out a Press Release right away, but having the PDF file ready will you save you lots of time and a headache later. This is getting a little ahead of ourselves, but when you’re ready to release it (and please do check with someone who knows PR) here is a list of sites compiled by Mashable, where you can do so for free.

Number 2 — Get all of your Social Media Lined Up and Ready to Go

Setup/Update your: Personal Website, Facebook Author Page, Twitter, Goodreads Author Account, Amazon Author Account, Google+, etc.

Make sure you have a full page dedicated to your book: What’s it about? Where can I buy it? What are others saying about it?

Start building a Twitter following. There are useful apps out there for this. Hootsuite is great for planning out tweets in advance and Justunfollow helps you find people to follow via keywords (ie. #author, #books, #amwriting, etc.) This will ensure that you’re building a reader network and not just a bunch of random Twitter followers who just want a followback. Also, you’re building a network, so for the love of God, just follow people back. Unless you’re Stephen King and get 100,000 followers the day you sign up for Twitter, you need to look at social media as a reciprocal networking medium. I can’t vouch for other networking communities, but writers genuinely want to help each other out and you’d be surprised at how many people will retweet your book tweets.

Facebook: This will feel like you’re pimping yourself out a little bit, but GET OVER IT. Invite ALL of your friends and family to “Like” your author page. You’re going to need all of the support your can get and it begins with them.

At first, it’ll feel kind of lame to have these pages up with no news to post, but be patient we’re getting to that next.

Number 3 — Submit Your Book for “Reputable” Industry Book Reviews

Yes. You have to pay for some of these. And No, this does not guarantee you a good review. They’re pricey (~$250-$500 each) but a good review from just one of them is HUGE. This is where strangers begin taking a chance on your “Indie” book.

These are the 5 I’d hit up first:

BookList — Booklist is part of the American Library Association so getting reviewed here is a big deal. It’s free to request having your material reviewed. However, you MUST to submit to Booklist no later than you submit to any other pre-publication media AND they do not review an e-book unless it’s available in libraries already (one of those industry Catch-22’s).

Kirkus Reviews — If your browser is as keen to your searches as mine is, you will see ads for Kirkus Reviews EVERYWHERE. This made me wary of course, but make no mistake they are the Creme de la creme of indie book reviewers. Kirkus has been around since 1933 and for indie authors, getting a good review by them is like getting a good review from the New York Times (I have yet to figure out how to get The NY Times to review a book). It costs $425, but your review is automatically considered for their “Indie Book of the Month” promotion, which means A LOT of free exposure to book buyers via their website and bi-monthly magazine.

BookLife  — BookLife is the Indie arm of Publishers Weekly. They’re still in Beta as of now, but they are accepting Indie books for review and it’s FREE. However, if you want to advertise your review with them it does cost $149.

Readers Favorite — It takes 3 months to get the free one and they review over 50% of their submissions. But if you’re in a hurry you can pay $59 for a rushed review and get it within 2 weeks.

Foreward Reviews (If you do this 3 months prior to your publication date, it is possible to get a review for free.) If they choose to review your book, you will get a spotlight in the Magazine as well.

Clarion Reviews — Clarion is a division of Foreword (and the more recognizable industry name). If you miss the Foreward deadline (as I did) you can pay $499 for Clarion to review your book. Both reviews are conducted by the same group of people.

Number 4 — Submit Your Book to Bloggers for Book Reviews

This is what grassroots campaigning all about. Book bloggers have your target audience hooked into their reviews so it’s the best way to promote your book and it’s FREE. It does take a long time to e-mail everyone, but if you’ve done the first 3 steps you will a pro by the time you get to this part. Book bloggers get a lot of e-mails so they need at least 2 months to schedule in your book.

Depending on your genre, you’ll need to do research on the blogs that best fit your book, but for anyone writing women’s fiction here are the sites I used:

Book Blogger List

The Indie View

Additionally, Digital Pubbing wrote an amazingly comprehensive article on how to find reviewers and readers, among other things.

Update: Once you get 25 or so positive blog reviews, watch the pages and request book reviews from other bloggers who comment. You’re response rate will be higher and it’s direct targeting.

Number 5 — Figure out Printing/Pricing

I made the mistake of doing this part first. But could you really blame me? I really wanted to see it in print! It does take a lot of time and research to find the printing press that is best for your needs. I went with IngramSpark and you can read why here. But there are definite drawbacks–the major one being the $25 fee to upload new versions of your book. If you’re tight on money, make sure you have everything proofed several times before uploading. This is not a problem if you go with CreateSpace. The other perk to CreateSpace is being able to set up pre-orders. That being said, with IngramSpark the book fits in easily with any book you’ll find in a bookstore and you better believe book buyers take that into account when considering your book!

As far as pricing, if you’re like me and all you want is to have it out there for people to buy, you’ll want to set the price as low as possible. However, there are several things to consider still.

a) Just because your e-book is $.99 cents it doesn’t mean people will buy it. Sometimes pricing it that low makes people think it’s of poor quality. Look up books in your similar genre and price-match to stay competitive. OR just price it at $2.99. It’s a respectable price for an e-book and even popular New York Times Best Sellers go for that low. I mean it’s the price of a cup of coffee.

b) Paperbacks are a little more nuanced. There are hard costs to Print On Demand, but then you also need to consider that retail book buyers will want a wholesale discount and to avoid paying them to buy your book, you’ll need to raise the price. A 50% markup is where I’d start because wholesale buyers typically want a 35%-55% discount. Besides, you presumably spent a long time writing this thing– don’t sell yourself short. I’d say for a first book $8.99-$12.99 is a good range.

Once you’ve completed all of these steps an agent you queried way back in step 1 will probably call you and you’ll think you did it all for nothing. But you would be wrong! What will likely happen is the next e-mail they send you will be a link back to my site with the subject line: Let’s Get This Baby Out There! And the both of you will be simultaneously relieved. You, because Ta Da! You’re done! And she (or he), because they were mentally geared up for the long haul and you took the express train to meet them halfway. They will be so impressed with you for being at the top of your game.*

*Note: If you could kindly remind them that I am still looking for an agent that would be great! Thanks! =)

Finding the Story

Banh Tet

Bánh tét (The South Vietnamese traditional Lunar New Year Dish)

“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.”
― Robert McKee

Every year for the Lunar New Year (i.e. Chinese New Year) my grandmother makes bánh Tét. A New Year’s tradition, this dish is known to have originated in South Vietnam. Wrapped in banana leaves and tightly bound by plastic string are sweet rice, cooked mung bean, and pork belly. This was, and still is, my favorite dish to date.

My grandmother is 73 years old, 4’9” tall, and when she smiles a line of blackened teeth appear—the result of over 6 decades of chewing tobacco. Grandma is a badass.

In 1979, after the fallout of the Vietnam War, my grandma made a decision that would change the course of my existence. My grandfather, a casualty of the war, left her alone with five children and a choice: stay and endure the consequences of being on the losing side of war, or flee and hope for a better life. She fled. In the dead of night she escaped Vietnam with only the clothes on her back, a few valuables, and her last three unwed children.

In 1995, at the age of 10, I visited Vietnam for the first time. Over 15 years had passed since my mom last set foot on homeland soil and tensions were high. The searing looks of the guards at customs, the quiet way we had to sneak about commuter trains, and the hushed tone of conversation whenever we passed a Viet Cong officer made for a visit that was less than comfortable.

I remember details from that trip as if they were motifs in my everyday life. The smell of skewers on a grill, the broken pairs of plastic sandals outside every door, the general lack of furniture, dirt roads, large cement barriers between homes, hand washed clothes, dirty drinking water, mosquito nets, and the smell of Tiger Balm.

In the years since my first trip to Vietnam I have traveled back twice more and recently I began to piece the two halves of myself together. I am American, but I am also Vietnamese. Three days before the 2010 Lunar New Year (February 14, 2010) I traveled home to make bánh tét with my grandmother. Together we shopped, prepared the ingredients, and cooked.

Because of her I understand the power of story. Rich in tradition, folklore, and culture, our daylong conversation became fuel, in the form of inspiration, which now drives the narrative in my writing. If Robert McKee is correct and stories are in fact, “the currency of human contact,” than I have been blessed with more riches than perhaps I deserve.

Time has a funny way of shifting perspective with each new generation, but as a writer and avid reader I am certain that the future cannot be written without a clear understanding of the past. Parents and grandparents are not always forthcoming about the truths that they have suffered, but talk to them long enough and eventually the good stuff will flow.

Stories that resonate with readers are the ones that resonate with you. They are the narratives that move you to take action, sway you to believe, and inspire you to write. And finding them, well that’s only a matter of listening.

Playing Like Picasso

One of Picasso's first cubist Paintings - Les Demoiselles

One of Picasso’s first cubist Paintings – Les Demoiselles

Guest post by: Ryan Andrew

For the longest time, I used to startle awake in the middle of the night. I’d look around and not know where I was… I wouldn’t recognize the shapes of my apartment walls or furniture in the dark, and it would take me a moment to get my bearings. As I’d lay there looking up at the ceiling, suddenly my problems would flood around me like my bed had been floating in the ocean and was just now submerging and dipping under the surface. Things always seemed worse at night: if I was having problems at work, financially, or with a relationship, it was always magnified ten times at these late hours. 

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was In the Night Kitchen. If I remember correctly, it was about a boy who floats out of his bed in the middle of the night, drifts out the window, and high over the city. He eventually drifts into a bakery and falls into a womb-like vat of dough, somehow losing all of his clothes in the process. I’m not sure why it suddenly popped into my mind while lying there in the dark at the age of 32, but I found myself thinking about it.

I imagined myself floating out the window and rising up, high over the city. The streets would be empty around my building, and as I climbed higher and higher, the street lamps would turn into a grid of pinpoints. The moon was full, and its blue light illuminated much of the city, but beyond that… darkness. I could see east and north from Los Angeles, and it was nothing but desert, empty, barren and dark.

This was the best my imagination could muster? This was me “playing” as an adult? When I was a child, I loved the idea of floating around like the boy in In the Night Kitchen, drifting into a bakery, meeting three jovial bakers… It seemed like an adventure. Now I shot up into the sky like a rocket, looked out over hundreds of miles… and saw nothing.

Picasso was quoted as saying that he spent the better part of his career learning to paint like a child again. I have spent the better part of my life learning how to play again. Society subtly removes play from our lives in incremental stages: we have recess up to a certain point (usually middle school), and then we just sit around during lunch and talk. Many of us play sports, usually through high school or college, and then once we get jobs and life gets in the way, we’re relegated to sitting on couches or in bars and watching others play sports on TV. We are shadows of our former selves.

Last summer, I took a business trip to Indianapolis for the premiere of a film I had edited. My boss, the director, invited me over for a yearly basketball game he played with his friends. It was the beginning of July– about as hot as it gets– and about 30 seconds into the game I felt like I was going to pass out. I was so winded and dehydrated, and I could see fingers of electricity crawling in at the corners of my eyes with the impending threat that I was going to black out. I was thankful when my turn was up, and I collapsed in the chair on the sidelines, soaked in sweat. My boss turned to me and said, “You know what’s funny? Every time you go up for a layup, you’re grinning ear to ear.” I doubted the validity of that statement… I was so exhausted, I felt like I could possibly have been smiling… But then I realized what it was: it was a fossilized remnant of my childhood, like a mosquito caught in an amber rock or a giant ribcage bone from a wooly mammoth. But it wasn’t some prehistoric creature– it was my ability to get lost in the moment, to have fun, and play.

In a flash, it was gone. The weekend passed by in the blink of an eye, faster than you can snap your fingers (those summer weekends always do)… and I’m back in Los Angeles. I’m jerked awake in the middle of the night again, and it takes me a moment, but I catch my breath and remember where I am. It’s cold outside– early fall– and I can feel the chilly air drifting in through the open window.

I lie back in bed and stare back up at the ceiling. I reminisce about that summer and I am touched by a moment of sadness. Life is passing by too damn fast. I used to have entire summers full of those moments, but they are now few and far between.

But then, something gently grabs ahold of me. I feel my self lift out of bed, but instead of flying out the window and high up into the sky where I see nothing but desert and darkness, I drift over to my computer. I take off all my clothes until I am completely naked, just like the character of In the Night Kitchen. Instead of falling into a vat of dough, I open a blank document and fall into my imagination. I let go.

I have never written a blog entry just for the sake of writing it. The words aren’t premeditated, there is no outline, and I have no idea what it’s for, or why I’m doing it, but I do it. Because it’s fun.

That’s how I played tonight.

Giving Characters Freedom To Be Wrong

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Aubrey Johnson, the protagonist in my manuscript Blue Sun, Yellow Sky, is a painter who discovers that in six to eight weeks she’ll be completely blind. I myself couldn’t paint a flower to save my life, but I was fascinated with the idea of someone in her late twenties losing the identity she spent her life cultivating. Ideas are fickle that way; sometimes they emerge but require a great deal of research.

To get into the mind of a painter, I spent a lot of time in art galleries and museums. Not being a painter myself, I had to read a lot about painting technique, color mixing, shadow and light composition and historical context. But I also needed my character to be relatable and feel real, so she couldn’t just spit facts out here and there about art. She needed to have a unique perspective.

As the writer, I needed to readers to first believe that she was a painter and then accept the quirky facets I attached to her personality. I was very self-conscious that readers wouldn’t connect with my character or think of her as a real painter if I didn’t adhere to certain artistic standards. So, at first, I pulled facts and ideas from books I read about certain art pieces and I tossed the phrases into her vernacular every chance I could. But when she started to feel like an art history major I knew something had to change.

In my research, I came across a TED talk by Tracy Chevalier about finding the story inside the painting. At the beginning of her talk, she boldly admits that when she walks into an art gallery or museum, many of the paintings simply do not strike a chord with her. This might be pretty universal but not many people talk about it, and that kind of raw honestly about art’s subjectivity was what released me from the chains of “authenticity” and moved me towards creating a unique character with a distinct voice. Characters, like people, are most interesting when they’re flawed, so unbinding her from the idea she had to know everything about every painter and style of painting was freeing.

Unless I’m writing a historical piece my character can be whoever she wants to be. Restricting her tastes to what is commonly considered to be the highbrow tastes of artists limits my ability to create my own character. By allowing Aubrey to sometimes like things that might be considered lowbrow among art enthusiasts, I avoided the pitfall of creating a clichéd character. After all, who wants to read about a character that never surprises them?

I’m not saying not to do the research. Without a basic understanding of the medium it is impossible to build on or strip away an identity. What I’m suggesting is do the research and then give your characters the freedom to choose whether or not they accept or reject those ideas. Then watch as your characters’ personalities open up and they start to come alive.

 

Waiting on Inspiration

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A couple weeks ago, I finished the umpteenth draft of the Untitled Novel I’ve spent the last two years writing. I should’ve felt accomplished, proud, or, at the very least, relieved. I didn’t. The novel wasn’t finished.

When I started this unnumbered draft, I felt pretty confident in the viability, marketability, and overall concept of the story. I’d tested the idea on a handful of friends who fit the targeted demographic, and they all thought it was interesting to varying degrees. My friends are awesome. They’re super-supportive and wonderful liars. So I could tell when a worried furrow creased their brow at the same time they smiled with feigned interest. The fact that they had finished the book meant the idea held their interest, but I could tell I hadn’t hit a home run. The ending was unsatisfying.

To be fair, before I even sent them copies, I knew this was true. That annoying creature that sits on every writer’s shoulder and nags us to press our fingers to the keyboard day after day when all we want to do is go have a drink with friends…it told me so. But I didn’t listen. I didn’t want to acknowledge I needed yet another extension on my self-imposed deadline. I take deadlines very seriously. I have to– otherwise, I’d never accomplish anything. The art of procrastination was a specialty of mine, but Pride also guided many of my actions, and Pride would not let me miss a deadline.

Guilt and shame rushed through me and I started to panic. How much longer could I keep my friends at bay and hide out in this writer’s bunker in the middle of nowhere before I went crazy? Better yet, was this book even worth all the personal sacrifices I’d made?

I had an incredible network of friends who supported me, literally, with meals and offers of free places to stay while I finished my book. But to be quite honest, coasting along for the past few years on the backs of others was embarrassing. They loved me, my friends, and if I never made a dime as a writer, they would still support me… but two years was enough. It was time to publish this book.

But I couldn’t. It wasn’t done. The ending was flat. The conclusion lacked a soul. I knew it needed something, but I had no idea what that something was. So for the last three weeks, I had ruminated. I thought of different ways the book could end– plot stuff– but that wasn’t what I needed. The ending required something I couldn’t just create. I had to wait for it. I knew I would recognize it when it showed up and that I’d have to be ready with a pen and paper when it came, so I sat around in coffee shops, parks, and the beach ready to jot down notes at a moment’s notice.

It wasn’t coming though, so I left on a short weekend trip to NY with my family and then it happened. The idea struck me as I was walking down Madison Ave window-shopping with friends and without a pen and paper in hand. I whipped out my iPhone and furiously began to record the idea in my “Notes”. It came out as a jumble of specific images and broad tonal instruction, which I quickly translated into shorthand notes I hoped would make sense later.

Elizabeth Gilbert best describes the struggle with creatively in her TED talk on nurturing creativity. But I’d like to take that notion a step further and explore the idea that if something isn’t coming to you…be patient. Go to a museum, park, mountaintop, observatory, your backyard, or wherever inspires you, and just be on alert because it will come eventually.

Tomorrow I’ll start the rewrite of Chapter 24.

Overpasses

One minute over the 5

Photo taken by Chris Collins

I hate to run, but I love to walk. The sheer thought of walking sends calm, reassuring messages to my normally anxious body. If I’m walking, even with no particular destination in mind, I can convince myself I am accomplishing something with that time. The same cannot be said for running on a treadmill or any other likewise piece of gym equipment.

So the other day, as I was wandering toward downtown Burbank, I came across a freeway overpass. It was late, maybe 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., so the sky was a dark blue and the cars whizzing by were nothing more than streaks of light. As I stood there watching the world speed past, I felt hypnotized. The universe had somehow found a way to show me what I had been feeling for so many months.

As writers, we dive into story so deep sometimes that we forget we still have to live in the realm of reality. Sometimes when I’m able to venture so far into the minds of my characters–think Being John Malkovich–that I get lost in my story, I may not speak to anyone for 48 hours. Tapping into that inner creativity is like being on some sort of drug: it’s addictive because it’s euphoric. But the feeling doesn’t last long; in fact, most days are plagued with “writer’s block”, which is like a mental prison without a judicial system or public defender to bail me out.

Those moments, the ones where I feel like I’m stuck in a kind of purgatory of thought, are like standing on that freeway overpass. Everyone below seems to be going somewhere–home from work, to a movie, out to dinner–and their lives are shifting so fast that by the time I register their existence, they’ve already vanished into a streak of red taillights.

I’ve spent two years on this book idly paying attention to the events happening around me (marriage, babies, graduate school, job promotions). Life seemed to move at the same speed as my fictional characters. Both seemed to develop and move forward, while I stood in-between the two worlds, unable to fully join either side. This is what being a novice writer feels like (and maybe a professional too, but I cannot vouch for them), and it’s terrifying.

But as I stood on that freeway overpass looking down on hundreds of cars as they flashed by, I realized I felt fortunate to be not moving, at least for the moment. I got be the girl standing at the top of that overpass, concocting theories about the lives they led in funny and interesting ways. I might even be the story someone re-told later that day. Someone below, for example, might see me and be inspired to write a thriller about a kick-ass girl getting ready to leap over the overpass railing and onto a moving car. To inspire a spark of creativity simply by being part of the world is the kind of cosmic karma that we both put out and wait to receive. Writing is about standing still as much as it is about chasing a story. Because we writer’s are the mere vessels through which creativity passes and sometimes not moving is how we find the great narratives.

On the Subject of Writing

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“Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” — Gene Fowler

I took a photo of that quote for Instagram and blasted it out to my followers, not thinking much more about it. But, as I wake up every morning to a pile of edits for the 128th draft of my first novel, the quote nags at me. Writing is hard. No one will blame you if you just give up. The devil is always sitting on my shoulder.

Writing is an exercise, and every day I have to remind myself of that. I read books– lots of them. When I fly through them in two days, I always think, Man, will I ever be this good? But writing is like running a marathon: no one starts out running one mile the first day and 26.1 the next. A typical training schedule consists of 16 weeks of 3-5 runs per week. Sometimes a 10 mile run will be followed by a two mile run. Writing is the same way. I write like a madwoman for two days, hit writer’s block, spend four hours with a blinking cursor on the screen, and I backslide to the beginning. I am not a marathon runner, but I feel their plight.

For me, reading is like watching others cross the finish line far off on the distance and wondering how long it will be before I pass through any kind of checkered flag of my own.

I read two books last month, Shantaram and The Fault in Our Stars. They were two completely different books for two completely different audiences–each considered to be a masterpiece of its genre. Shantaram is hard to put down because, for the vast majority of us who have never been to prison, Lin’s life and exploits are so different from our own. In 900 pages of fast-paced, vulgar writing, he gives us a glimpse into the life of a fugitive within the framework of a fictional story. For two weeks, I read at night after long days of editing and lamented on all the things his book had that mine didn’t.

In general, I have a rule that when I write I do not read. (Unfortunately, another rule I live by is to break rules as often as possible.) There were, and are, so many problems with my book–from story structure to character development–that it seemed pointless to continuing chipping away at it. So, I downloaded The Fault in Our Stars. The author, John Green, is part of this Nerdfighter online presence and his book is very clearly marketed to the Young Adult population. I thought that this book would be a confidence booster. Wrong.

Green’s audience may be young, but he doles out some serious and heavy medicine in The Fault in our Stars, and in two days of non-stop reading (clocked in as “research” for my writing), I completed this audacious and witty “Juno”-style book about two teenagers living with the knowledge that they will die too soon. Like I said, heavy. The story is fictional, as Green mentions in his prologue and again in his Special Thanks, but it gives a voice to a small niche of the population who are told that death will be a landmark before many others. “You die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence,” Hazel, the main character, reflects–wise beyond her years. I finished the book at 2:00 a.m. last night.

At 9:00 a.m. this morning, I stared at a blank screen, with a stack of notes 400 pages deep, and waited for the blood to form on my forehead. I waited for it to exude through the pores of my skin in profuse quantities as fear gripped me and I began the day as I always do: with a blank screen and the vague hope that hundreds of words strung together in fierce combinations will make their way onto the screen and into my own fictional novel.

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