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ash2_5Ashley Lane’s novel, Minnie, and mine were both up for a vote to be the 100th title reviewed by the LL Book Review. (As it turned out, neither of us won.) That led to some writing talk across e-mail lines and, now, to some questions and answers about Minnie and the new projects on Ashley’s plate.

Ashley lives in Washington state. Her book was published in December 2007.

Q: What spurred the idea for Minnie?

When I was a sophomore in high school, it was required that each student volunteers for 24 hours before they could graduate.  I volunteered at a nursing home, where the main character, Sadey, did, as well, and I enjoyed my experience.  So, a few years later, I thought, “What if someone was forced to volunteer and had a bad attitude about it?”  With this new thought, Minnie was born.
 
Q: Once you had a solid idea in your head, how long did it take from conception to completion?

It took me about two years from outlining to publishing on Lulu.  Of course, I never consider Minnie absolutely complete, as I see things here and there that I can improve.
 
Q: You chose to publish with Lulu. Why that service? Did you query any agents?

minnieI stumbled over Lulu one day and decided to give it a try.  I’ve queried agents and editors before with other works of mine, but only to receive the famed rejection letter.  So, instead of playing the wait-for-three-months-even-though-I’m-going-to-get-rejected game, I wanted instant gratification to hold my book.  With Lulu, that was achievable for less than $10.  I’ve queried agents for Minnie, but have only received kind rejection e-mails.  Every now and then I’ll get this burst I feel in my heart to query an agent, just for fun.  It’s easier when I don’t have a heavy heart involved.
 
Q: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned on your independent publishing adventure?

I’ve learned to write what I want to write, not what an editor wants.  Since I’m not contracted with a  publishing house, I’m freer to enjoy writing, rather than doing it for money and fame.  When it comes to covers and interior formatting, I’ve used attractive books for models.  For Minnie, I used Where the Heart Is for the interior layout and I’ve received lots of compliments on how professional my book looks. 
 
Q: How much do you draw from your own experiences in shaping characters and stories?

Minnie was heavily based on some people and events in my life.  To begin with, the whole opening plot was Sadey ending up volunteering at a nursing home so that she could get twenty-four hours of community service.  As a high school sophomore in 2003, I volunteered at a nursing home to get twenty-four community service hours in order to graduate.  I ended up with fifty-two and yes, there was a real Minnie, but alas, I only took her name for the title character.  One of Sadey’s “friends” is named Wynter in the book, but in real-life, I had a friend named Autumn (get it?  Winter/Autumn?) who was a bad influence … or tried to be.  She never got to me and we didn’t stay friends long.  As for other life-altering events in my book (neglect, falling in love, being pregnant, having a parent die, nearly getting raped), I have no experience with that and just did my research with those topics.  Without volunteering in the first place, Minnie would not be in existence.
 
Q: Tell us a bit about how you work. What is your ideal environment for writing? Do you outline?

I have outlined everything I’ve ever written.  If I didn’t outline, my pieces would be super-short and not very deep!  Sue Monk Kidd didn’t outline The Secret Life of Bees and still managed to create a twisty and rich story.  I’m jealous!  Anyway, I make a bare bones outline with the beginning, somewhat of a middle, and how I’d like it to end, then I fill in all the intrigue and twists from there.  I like to write late at night in bed, when my brain kicks it into high gear and can somehow carry me through typing five pages at once. 
 
Q: Who, if anybody, helps you shape your work? Do you have a writing group? Trusted friends?

I know it’s highly recommended, but I’m not in any writing group and my readers don’t really tell me what to alter.  I was in a Creative Non-Fiction course in college that I found remarkably enjoyable and even looked forward to the comments and constructive criticism, but since then, I’ve not let a single soul tell me what to do.  Not by choice, of course, but because that’s how it has worked out for me.  If I had an editor, that would change. 
 
Q: You’re adapting Minnie for the stage. What has that experience been like?

Yes!  It has been just as, if not more, exciting to imagine it as a play than as a movie.  It has been somewhat painful to decrease the scope of my book for the stage because I’ve had to cut some characters and scenes.  I pretty much have to condense thirty pages to a scene and I’ll most likely leave out some important events and just connect the ones I do leave in.  However, it is nice to see that Minnie is still Minnie despite all the changes.
 
Q: Are you working on any new original works? How far along are you?

I have several ideas that are in pre-production.  Next up is a piece I have titled That Feeling.  It’s about running away from heartache, starting anew, and finding what you are really after.  Another piece was inspired by an antique photograph I bought and on it is written “Sincerely, Mildred,” which will be the title, as well.  It’s set in the 1930s and about a shy girl falling in love with a pilot she reads about in the newspaper.  All I know is that I’m going to have to research the heck out of the 1930s, just like I had to research heart disease for Minnie.  One idea revolves around equine therapy and then another is about leukemia (not inspired by or related to My Sister’s Keeper).
 
Q: What question would you ask of fellow writers who are trying to make a go of it?

What does it feel like for you when inspiration hits you?  My heart literally jumps and feels like sunshine has entered into it.

You can find out more about Minnie and purchase the book here: www.lulu.com/laneaj

The novel I self-released in February is being picked up by Riverbend Publishing and will re-emerge this fall in a new size, with a new edit, a new cover and a new title. (What the new title will be remains a bit of a question mark. If you have a good idea for one, send it along. If it’s used, I’ll make you a character in my next book. I’m totally serious.)
 
Getting the book into the hands of a traditional publisher has been my goal since I audaciously decided to release it myself, a few months after blasting through it during National Novel Writing Month in November 2008. I really had no idea what I was doing, but with some hard work, the book found an audience. I’m confident that Riverbend, a respected regional publisher, can help it reach corners I just wasn’t going to get to doing fulfillment out of my car and home.

I’m proud to be working with Riverbend, an outfit that does well by Montana and Montana authors. It published The Watershed Years, a novel by a writer I deeply admire, Russell Rowland. William Pack’s debut novel, The Bottom of the Sky, just came out through Riverbend and is drawing raves. And Riverbend also publishes some older works, such as On Sarpy Creek and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. For a full list of Riverbend’s offerings, go here.
 
As for my reconstituted novel, it will be available in bookstores regionally and by order through any bookstore in the country, as well as being orderable (if that’s even a word) on the usual online channels (Amazon.com, BN.com, etc.).
 
So here’s what I want from you (you didn’t really think you were going to escape without a pitch, did you?):
 
When the book comes out — more details on that to come — please, please, please on your next visit to your favorite bookstore, tell the good people there that they really ought to stock a few copies of my novel. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it, tell a friend. If you haven’t read it, please do. If you’re somewhere I’m likely to be in the coming months — HELLO, DALLAS/FORT WORTH! — be on the lookout for a signing/reading/other appearance. I would love to see you there.

Closer to home, I’ll be out and about in the Last Best Place, visiting with readers and potential readers. I’m looking forward to it.

head-cb-spur2If you’re a writer intent on independent publishing, you would have hard time finding a better model than Carol Buchanan. The Montana-based writer’s debut novel, God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana, scored a major coup this year by being selected for a Spur Award by the Western Writers of America.

A better-late-than-never success story, Buchanan is hard at work on the follow-up novel, Gold Under Ice.

Q: Your debut novel, God’s Thunderbolt, came well into your career as a writer and a student of literature. What was the breakthrough, if any?

I quit writing nonfiction for a living. It paid well, but I had had the story of the Vigilantes in mind for fifty years and decided now was the time to write it if I were ever to do it. The genesis of the novel came during a family vacation to Virginia City (MT)  just before I started the eighth grade. After supper I walked up to the Hangman’s Building, where the Vigilantes hanged five outlaws at once, and went inside. I stood looking at the beam and heard the ropes creak. Remembering that still raises goose bumps for me.
 
Learning to write fiction after so many years of writing nonfiction (journalism, scholarly writing, and technical writing – airplane and software manuals) was not easy. The first step to becoming a fiction writer was to read my old stories and realize how bad they were. The second step was to find out why they were so awful. (Trust me. They were truly bad.) That took a year or so, while I was researching God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana. I had to track down a reliable person who would level with me without being afraid of hurting my feelings. I didn’t care if my feelings were hurt; I just wanted to be as good a writer as I could be, and I sensed that I could write better.
 
I took a couple of online classes, and learned a great deal from both of them, and I took classes locally. And I read everything I could find on the art of writing fiction.
 
 The breakthrough came as I was writing the second draft of God’s Thunderbolt. (Second draft or 22nd – they all blend together.) I was priming the pump one morning, doing one of the writing exercises in Brian Kiteley’s wonderful book, The 3 a.m. Epiphany, and it hit me how much fiction is like poetry. Suddenly the idea of “distilled narrative” came into my mind, because I had been reading the poems of Jane Kenyon and Billy Collins, and some of my long-time favorites such as Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and the poems of John Donne. And of course, William Wordsworth. I did my dissertation on Wordsworth, and my book Wordsworth’s Gardens was a top ten finalist in the Washington State Book Awards. Each scene in a novel is, for me, like an image in a poem that builds toward a complete whole. (I’m saving the details for an essay in my blog.) At that moment I became a writer of fiction instead of nonfiction.
 
Q: God’s Thunderbolt is a meticulously researched and written novel of historical fiction. Walk us through the process. How long did it take, start to finish?

cover-spur-350On that same vacation trip I bought Thomas J. Dimsdale’s The Vigilantes of Montana, a nearly eyewitness account of the events during the winter of 1863-1864, and read it. Then I joined the Montana Historical Society in high school and bought all the back copies of Montana: The Magazine of Western History that had any articles about the Vigilantes. By the time I actually had the time to write GT (starting in 2001), the revisionist historians were turning their story inside out. I began by wondering if there were any truth to the revisionists’ allegations that the wrong people were hanged and the actual criminals were the Vigilantes, but as I dug further into contemporary accounts and read as many of the eyewitness accounts as I could find, I realized that the revisionists are just plain wrong. More than that, they falsified the evidence to support their claims. They cherry-picked what would support their theory and ignored what wouldn’t. They never mention Conrad Kohrs’s account of a run-in with Henry Plummer. Nor do they acknowledge facts of early Western mining such as the sovereignty of each mining district. Their research is incredibly sloppy—at best. 
 
For a year or two I wavered between writing history and writing historical fiction. I decided to write historical fiction because when you write history, you can’t write about how it felt to live in a place without law* and with access to wealth beyond belief. I read an estimate that between May 1963 when the Alder Gulch placer deposits were discovered and 1866, when they played out, more than $20,000,000 in gold was taken out of Alder Creek. This at a time when hazard pay was $3.00 a day for hardrock miners, and a cowboy made $30 a month and found. (Meaning board and room was included.)
 
Besides, to write history I’d have to mess with all those footnotes and their proper forms and the bibliographical forms, where the commas are, and the semicolons, and do the pub dates come before or after the issue numbers. Scholarly writing is enough to make a person crazy. Me, at least. J I wanted to get it right without the nitpicking formats. (I had enough of that in graduate school, both in my MA thesis and my PhD dissertation.) I put the bibliography for God’s Thunderbolt on my Web site (http://www.swanrange.com)
 
If I had written a history, I would not have been able to imagine how it felt to be a Vigilante, how it felt to put the noose around the neck of another human being, someone you knew. I would not have been able to imagine how it felt to be a woman, a mother with children, in that place, at that time.
 
And after I decided to write historical fiction, and nail it as close to the history as I could, along came the definitive history of the entire Vigilante era (not just the beginnings of it as I have written of). Frederick Allen’s A Decent, Orderly Lynching came out just as I began the first draft of the novel. It was tremendous help to me because he had found things I hadn’t and he included an exhaustive bibliography and notes. And he told the truth without blinking or apologizing for it. A very fine book. I’m glad I didn’t have to compete with it.
 
All in all the research took five years and the writing took two years, but they overlapped quite a bit.
 
* When I say without law, I mean that literally. Montana had not been split off from Idaho Territory then, and  Congress had forgotten to attach the U. S.  Constitution to the Territory when they created it, so there was no governing body of law. The Idaho legislature did not meet to rectify Congress’s mistake until January 1864, and Lewiston, then the capital of Idaho Territory, is some 500 miles west of Alder Gulch, over the Bitterroots, mountains so rugged that no highways yet go through there. Communication went from poor to rotten to nil in our winters.  There weren’t even any federal mining laws until 1866. The only laws the miners had were the ones they made themselves. And the Ten Commandments, of course.
 
Q: You’re one of the indie publishing success stories, someone who pushed her own book into print to much acclaim, winning the Spur Award for best debut novel. What led you to the indie path?

Sheer impatience. Probably a factor of my age. I don’t have time left, literally, to wait years for agents and editors to get around to responding. Or to bring it to the public. A book can take two years to go through the traditional publishing process.  I tried that route, but after the book sat on people’s desks for six months – when they had asked to see it – I said, “Nuts. I don’t have time.” (Then again, though, maybe I will have time. My mother lived past 106.)
 
Another factor is that the book gets classified as a “Western.” And Westerns have been (a) declining in popularity, and (b) ignored by agents and publishers alike. They aren’t even listed in many lists of genres. It seems that if historical fiction is written with a setting east of the Mississippi it’s “historical fiction.” If it’s set west of the big river, it’s a “Western.” There are signs that the popularity of Westerns is rising; I don’t think a major writer like Robert B. Parker would bother writing Westerns if he didn’t think it worth his while to do so. Nor do I think his publisher would publish them, but then again, Mr. Parker probably has enormous clout with his publisher.
 
However, God’s Thunderbolt is not a Western. It does not end with two men or two groups of men shooting it out with pistols. One reviewer called it a “literary Western,” and I like that label. (Sorry, I digressed.)
 
 I researched self-publishing options for 4 months and about the time I realized I was wasting time with agents and publishers, I decided to sign with BookSurge. My account rep, Whitney Parks, was very good about answering all my questions forthrightly and honestly. She was a major factor in my deciding to go with them. I also checked them out with Better Business Bureau, and found no outstanding disputes. In business, disagreements are bound to arise, and part of the measure of a company is how the company deals with them. (Like Tylenol. Trust in that company rose because of their handling of the product tampering.) Whitney still is available to answer my questions.
 
Q: What is your writing process like? What sort of environment do you need?

Quiet. I early adopted Virginia Woolf’s saying, that in order to write a woman needs “a room of her own and 500 pounds a year.” When Dick and I married, I told him I was a writer and needed a room in the house to write. I’ve had my own writing room everywhere we’ve lived, with one brief exception, and we don’t live there any more. I don’t like writing fiction in short bits of time, but a person does what they have to do. The secret of making use of small time spaces is discipline. Another secret is to believe in the subconscious, though I do check in with mine throughout the day when I have to leave a scene unfinished or am about to start another one.
 
Q: You’re an active reviewer of others’ works, particularly those who have published independently. What mistakes do you commonly see in self-published books? 

Oh my. Most of the mistakes I see appear to stem from the writer’s belief that because “I” wrote it, it must be wonderful. Not so. The horrid truth is that we can pour our hearts into a piece of writing and have it turn out to be junk. Writing fiction, especially, is so incredibly scary it’s a surprise that anyone does it, when you think of it like that.
 
Mistakes I see are these (not an exhaustive list, by any means):

  • Poorly developed characters, especially historical characters who are merely modern people dressed funny.
  • Impossible coincidences in the plot.
  • Careless research for historical fiction.
  • Sloppy editing that misses homonyms. No spell checker will catch those. (Grizzly remains rather than grisly remains.)
  • Generally poor writing.

I think people believe that anyone can write, because we’re all taught in school how to put one word after another, and besides, we speak English, don’t we? But writing well takes so darn much work that I wonder anyone wants to do it. It’s like music in a way. I took years of piano lessons, got to be pretty good, but I could never be a concert-level pianist. I just didn’t have whatever it takes. And no way could I compose music. I don’t hear music like I hear words, or see people in my imagination. (Sometimes, writing a scene is writing what I see and hear.)
 
We owe it to our readers to write the best we can. When people buy God’s Thunderbolt or Gold Under Ice (next year), I want them to have the best work I can do because they are investing their time and their money in my work. I don’t want them to waste either. Some people haven’t liked the book because they are offended by the swearing in it, but those were rough men and I called it as I saw it. I can’t help if someone has a problem with something in it, like a sex scene. (More about that later.) If I know I did my best work, got the history right, and wrote it well, I can live with criticism. I owe everything, all the success God’s Thunderbolt enjoys, to the readers who bought it, read it, loved it, and told their friends. And that includes the judges of the Spur Awards.
 
Sex scenes are boring to read about. I don’t like to write them as a technical manual: “Put this here. Put that there. Press this.” These days, nearly everyone who’s old enough to read my book knows how that’s done. I write sex scenes as metaphors for how the people feel about each other. 
 
Q: You’re in the midst of writing a sequel to your novel, called Gold Under Ice. Are you intent on independently publishing again, or has your success prompted overtures from larger publishers?

I’ve had no overtures from larger publishers. Except that I signed a contract with Books In Motion for it to be made into an unabridged audio book, I remain firmly obscure. 😉 My three nonfiction books were published by reputable publishers, but I’d have to take a good look at what a regular publisher could offer. “Show me the money,” in other words.
  
Q: What’s on your nightstand? What sort of works do you read for pleasure?

Thrillers: Craig Johnson,  James Lee Burke. Mysteries: Tony Hillerman, Margaret Frazer, Ellis Peters. Michael Connelly (Does he write thrillers or mysteries?) Robert B Parker’s Westerns. (I also enjoy his minimalist style.) Literature: E. L. Doctorow: The March. Kim Edwards: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Louise Erdreich: The Painted Drum. Jane Kenyon’s Poems, Shakespeare’s plays (currently Henry VI) and Sonnets. The King James Bible above all. I love the music of the English language, and its richness.
 
Q: What’s a question you would ask of other independent authors trying to make a go of it?

Why are you doing this?

*****

God’s Thunderbolt, printed book

God’s Thunderbolt, Kindle edition

Carol Buchanan’s Web site: http://www.swanrange.com

Carol Buchanan’s blog: http://www.swanrange.blogspot.com

 

 

author_portraitWelcome to what I hope will turn into a semi-regular feature in this space. (I’m not promising anything, like every Friday or whatever, because that’s just tempting a crash.) I’d like to turn the focus on authors and how they approach the craft. The feature is likely to lean toward those who have chosen an independent route to publishing, but in time, I’d like to take on all comers.

The first guest is R.J. Keller, author of Waiting for Spring. She’s based in Maine and a member of Backword Books, a collective of independent authors.

Q: Where did the idea for Waiting for Spring come from, and once you had the basis for a story, how long did you spend working on it?

I just really wanted to tell the story of a group of regular people dealing with the kind of problems everyday people face, the kind of things I saw the people in my life dealing with. So many authors tell stories about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances — housewives or businessmen who stumble into danger and end up saving someone’s life, or saving the world — and that’s cool. I like those kind of books, too. But getting out of bed in the morning and forcing yourself to go to work when your heart is breaking after a divorce, or when your world is falling apart because someone you love has died, is heroic, too.

I began work on the novel in March of 2006. The first version of the first draft took me about six months to write, but it went through a series of rather intensive edits, so it wasn’t completed until early fall of 2007.

Q: You chose to publish Waiting for Spring independently. Why?

waitingforspringI did try for a while to get it published traditionally, and I found some interest. I kept getting turned down, even though several agents liked the manuscript, because they felt it wasn’t marketable. It doesn’t fit into a particular genre or have an easy answer to, “What’s your book about, in ten words or less?” I felt like Jerry Seinfeld trying to pitch his ‘show about nothing,’ except that my novel felt more like a ‘book about everything.’ It’s more about the way the story is told than about what actually happens.

I finally decided that since I believed in myself and in my novel, who better to put it out into the world? The Internet opens up a so many new ways of publishing, of finding and reaching readers directly. I knew I had something worthwhile, so I used those tools and found the readers.
 
Q: The book is an intense character study of your protagonist, Tess, someone who sees some of the grittier aspects of life. How do you approach the writing of intense scenes?

I have to dig very deeply for those scenes. I can’t just ask myself, “What would I do if I was in this circumstance.” I have to become my character at that point. I crank the music in my headphones and close my eyes and play the scene in my mind, not as though I’m watching it or choreographing it, but as though I’m there in the thick of it and it’s happening to me. I wait until I’ve hit the particular nerve I need to hit in order to make the scene real (I call it “exposing the core”) before I start to actually write it. I usually start writing with my eyes still closed, so that it doesn’t feel like clunky words being typed onto a computer monitor, but rather that the emotions themselves are dissolving onto it. I suppose it’s a little like method acting.

Q: How do you plot out a story? Is it mostly in your head, or do you do detailed outlines and notes?

I nearly always start with my characters, and let the plot spring naturally from them. Once I get going, I make notes based on what I’ve already written — timelines and family trees, for example — so I can keep things organized.
 
Q: You’ve said that Waiting for Spring was, on some level, your attempt at writing female-driven literature that spoke to the world as you see it. What do you mean?

I live in a very rural, somewhat poverty-stricken area of Maine. So much of the contemporary women’s fiction that’s been popular over the past ten years or so deals with urban characters and situations. There’s so much attention paid to where these characters shop and what brands of clothes they buy there and what kind of shoes they wear, and not enough to the actual characters. It was hard for me to relate to these women, or to care about them.

And even the books that are set in rural areas seem very out of touch to what I see around me, because most of them are written by people who live in the city. They might drive through the sticks to get to the lake or the coast while they’re on vacation, but that’s about it. They don’t live and work and breathe in these small towns, so too often their characters are stereotypical: Big Town Fish Out Of Water, Oppressed Small Town Girl Who Longs For Bigger Things, or Ignorant Hick. I wanted to shine a light on what we’re really like out here.
 
Q: Like many other writers, you’re balancing a “regular” job and family life. How and where do you carve out time to write?

It’s a real challenge, especially now that I’m home schooling my kids. I do my writing after everyone in the house has gone to bed, which works out well, because that’s when I’m at my creative peak. In fact, I think it’s more accurate to say that I have a harder time carving out enough time to sleep than I do carving out time to write.

Q: You’ve been at the forefront of experimenting with low- and no-cost offerings of your book in electronic formats. What is your thinking there?

I put myself in readers’ minds. R.J. Keller is an unknown, self-published author. She doesn’t have a big name publisher behind her, so what guarantee is there that they’re not throwing their money away on her book? The only way is to make that risk negligible by offering my work inexpensively, even free. I was, and still am, gambling on the hope that once people read my stuff, they’ll trust me enough to pay more next time around.
 
Q: Who, if anybody, helps you shape your work? Do you have a writing group? Trusted friends?

I don’t belong to an official writing group. I tried it, and it was counter-productive for me, although I know that other writers really benefit from that experience. I’m good friends with two editors who do me the favor of reading my work, and the even bigger favor of being brutally honest with me about it.
 
Q: What are you working on now, and how far along are you?

I’m working on what I call a ‘sort-of sequel’ to Waiting For Spring. It explores the relationship of my male protagonist (Brian)’s parents, Rick and Wendy. Most of the “action” of the novel takes place in one day. Their story is shown through Rick’s eyes, in flashbacks, as he’s preparing to carry out a brutal murder.

Q: What lessons have you learned in independent publishing? How will you bring them to bear on your next project?

Practically speaking, I’ve had to learn a whole new set of technical skills that will make formatting my next novel a lot easier. I’ve also gained a lot of confidence in myself and in my writing. But I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that I’m not alone. There’s a growing number of talented indie writers who are building a community, sharing what they’ve learned with others, encouraging each other. It’s a very exciting time, really.

Q: What question would you ask of fellow writers who are trying to make a go of it?

I like picking other writers’ brains for marketing ideas. There are so many avenues out there and I’m sure there are methods for promoting my novel that I’ve never heard of.

*****

Here are some links to more information about R.J. Keller and her books:

Blog: http://rjkeller.wordpress.com/
Web site: http://www.rj-keller.com/
Waiting for Spring on Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B001MTEN6K
Waiting for Spring in print: http://www.amazon.com/Waiting-Spring-R-J-Keller/dp/1440461163/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1229752118&sr=8-2
Waiting for Spring on Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/268
Waiting for Spring on Scribd: http://www.scribd.com/doc/15651830/Waiting-for-Spring-RJ-Keller
R.J. Keller on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rjkeller
R.J. Keller on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/rjkeller

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