Three Ways to Become A Writer

Disclaimer: Despite having become a writer, I’m still not sure I know how to become a writer.

That said, here’s the stuff I did that, in hindsight, was the most helpful in getting me to the point where my first book is a Real Thing That Exists in the World, my second book is in editing, and I have lost count of the number of non-book things I have published and where I have published them.

3ways

1. Read obsessively.

Forget reading like it’s your job: Read like it’s the only thing standing between you and the gaping abyss of death. Read like your brain needs words and not oxygen molecules to survive. Read in bed. Read on the toilet. Read in the shower. Read while walking the dog. Read while standing in line at the grocery store.

It matters what you read…kind of. An understanding of novel structure and character development, for instance, is hard to get from Washington Post articles or the back of shampoo bottles. So if you want to write in a particular genre, keep a good mix of that genre in your reading.

But read other things too. Restricting yourself to one type of reading material will burn you out and limit your vision. Read ALL THE THINGS. You’d be amazed at how often my reading of technical articles on blockchain management, treatises on late 17th-century sailing, or academic tomes featuring modernist interpretations of child psychology appear in my neuroqueer sci-fi.

2. Write even when you’re not supposed to be writing.

First: write when you’re supposed to be writing. Pick a time every day you will sit down with your writing tools of choice, and then BE THERE ON TIME READY TO WORK. Hiss angrily and throw things at anyone who tries to distract you. Be there even if you feel like you have no ideas and never will have any ideas. Be there especially if you feel like you have no ideas and never will have any ideas.

But: also write even when you’re not supposed to be writing. Taking a class where the lecturer repeats things you’ve already learned? Write instead of taking notes. Boring meeting? Write. Have six loads of laundry to fold? Write. Kids have a recital or soccer game? Write. (Okay, this one might be kind of mean. Don’t be mean to your kids.)

Over the course of my tenth-grade history class alone, I wrote over 300 pages of fiction. It’s all terrible fan fiction and I will never let anyone read it, but I wrote it. And it taught me a lot about how to write.

3. Practice courage.

Courage isn’t a character stat. It’s not an inherent quality that some people are born with “enough” of and the rest of us are doomed to deficiency in.

Courage is an act. Courage is what you are doing when you say, “Hey, I’m scared of this thing, but accomplishing X by doing the thing is more important to me than my fear,” and then you pursue the more important thing.

I didn’t link this one to writing until I started my first novel. But by that time, I’d been practicing courage for years as a figure skater, a colorguard performer, a litigation attorney, and a teacher. I’m still scared every time I submit a piece of writing to an editor, even if that piece was specifically commissioned and I know they won’t reject it. I submit it because getting the work out there is more important to me than indulging my fear of criticism.

There are lots of ways to practice courage, and courage is an essential skill. You can write for years (I did), but putting your work out there is what makes you A Writer.


4. Drink a lot of coffee. Buy it for friends. Friends like me.

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How to Get Motivated to Write Your Novel

Many writers struggle with motivation. Motivation is a fickle thing; it comes and it goes, and its visits rarely coincide with several free hours in which to focus on writing.

Yet people do, in fact, manage to finish writing entire novels. Or stick to an exercise plan. Or build a house. As someone who has managed to complete two of these three goals, I frequently get asked, “How can I maintain the motivation to write a novel?”

My answer: Don’t try.

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Motivation is the drive to complete a certain action. That drive can result from a number of factors, whether internal (like interest, hunger, or pain) or external (rewards and punishments). For most writers, the trouble lies not in the drive itself but in channeling it in the ways and means most effective for writing.

In order to goad ourselves into writing, we often turn to extrinsic motivators. “If I write for half an hour, I can have two cookies.” “No video games until I finish this chapter.”

It’s common to turn to rewards and punishments; after all, they’re a pillar of our educational systems and workplace environments. The problem is that they not only don’t work, but they actually degrade our intrinsic motivation over time. In other words, giving yourself a cookie or time on the Playstation in exchange for writing actually makes you less likely to want to write – and it makes you less likely to turn out quality work when you do write.

If you’re seriously considering writing a novel, however, you already have some intrinsic motivation. The key, then, is to provide yourself with the support you need to move from motivation to a finished product.

Planning: The Key to Motivation

Motivation is a primarily internal sense, feeling, or drive. To create tangible results, it needs to be focused into action. That’s where planning comes in.

A 2002 study in the British Journal of Health Psychology split 248 adults into three groups. The first group was given motivation to exercise in the form of a pep talk and a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise in reducing heart disease risks.

The second group received the same pep talk and pamphlet. However, before Group 2 left the talk, each member was asked to complete the following statement: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].

The third group got none of the above, thus serving as the control group.

Each group then tracked their exercise: day, time of day, and place. The control group, who had received no motivational materials at all, saw 38 percent of its participants exercise at least once a week.

The first group, who got the pep talk and pamphlet, had a 35 percent exercise rate – actually lower than the group that got no motivational materials at all.

And the second group? Ninety-one percent (91 percent!) of its participants exercised. By writing down what they would do and where and when they would do it, this group managed to boost its ability to achieve its goal by more than both of the other groups combined.

The takeaway? Motivation doesn’t matter. Planning matters.

How to Plan to Write an Entire Novel

Writing an entire novel is a big task. Getting it published adds additional challenges. But since your manuscript has to exist before you can pitch it to publishers, let’s start with how to get it written.

1.  Break down the goal.

Your ultimate goal is “finish the novel,” but that’s a big task. Broken down into smaller pieces, that task might look like:

  • Create character profiles.
  • Create a timeline.
  • Choose major plot points.
  • Outline the novel.
  • Outline a chapter.
  • Write a chapter.
  • Write a paragraph.
  • Write a sentence.

Every item on the list should be something that leads in a concrete way to the goal of writing an entire novel manuscript. “Research cover artists” won’t help you get anything written. Neither will “buy the perfect notebook.” If it doesn’t lead to you putting story words on paper, save it for a later list.

2. Work out timing.

How much time do you have to devote to writing each day? Write it down, whether it’s 12 hours or 12 minutes.

At what time of day can you take this time to write? Write it down, whether it’s 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.

On what days of the week can you write? Write these down, whether it’s “all seven” or “just Tuesdays.”

Congratulations: That’s your writing time.

Put this time in your calendar. Right now. And treat it as scheduled time. When something or someone else wants that time (and they will), say, “Sorry, I have something scheduled then.” You don’t have to tell people what it is or why it’s more important than their yearning to binge-watch Seinfeld or rinse out their socks in public drinking fountains with you. “No” is a complete sentence here.

You may find yourself adjusting this time period, and the days of the week in which it occurs, as you write. That’s fine. The focus is to find your time to write and guard it against all other possible intrusions.

3.  Slot #1 into #2.

You might get profiles for every character written in 12 hours. You might get a sentence, or even two, written in 12 minutes. Once you know how long your writing time is and on what days, you can break down the first list into chunks that are as large or small as you need in order to spend your writing time on writing.

Voice of Experience: I recommend being flexible here. Show up to your writing time intending to outline a chapter, only to have a character in your head insist on spilling their life story? Write it out. Tempted to skip writing time because you don’t know what comes next? Show up anyway and freewrite about the worst things that could happen at that moment.

The point is to land your butt in the chair during writing time and to put down words that directly relate to the story, whether those are plans and outlines or the story itself.

4.  Save other plans for later.

The urge to edit while writing overwhelms a lot of writers, especially on their first novel. If it arises, remind yourself that you will plan the editing and revision phase after you are done with the writing phase – not during the writing phase.

Then, do that. Once you have a novel’s worth of story on paper (or in pixels), follow the same steps for your revising and editing time. Then for publishing. Then marketing.

By building a plan and sticking to it, you eliminate the need to “feel motivated.” Instead, you turn writing into a habit – allowing you to focus your energy on the story itself.

How I Wrote a Novel in 10 Months With Untreated ADHD, Part 3: The Notebook

Part 1, I talked about how I organize my schedule, or when I write. In Part 2, I talked about my workspace, or where I write.

Now let’s talk about how.

ADHD III

Part 3 is the story of the heart of this entire operation: The Notebook.

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“The Notebook” makes it sound portentous, like I spend hours searching for just the perfect vessel to hold my Great American Novel(TM) and I might die without it.

Not going to lie: I went through that phase, in my late teens. I still have the two Moleskines I filled back then. But it was only about eight months before I realized that putting The Notebook on that kind of shrine was actually making it harder for me to write.

These days, I use single-subject college-ruled notebooks I pick up during the back-to-school sale at my local big-box store for about $0.25 apiece. I buy at least a dozen every year, and I keep the unused ones within easy reach:

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Back in the days before I published the vast majority of my work on the Internets, I filled a notebook a month. These days, it takes 1-3 months for the same amount of handwriting.

The used ones occupy several different shelves. This photo is the central repository but by no means the only one:

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Once, in 2009, I went through all the notebooks I’d filled since 1998 and broke them down, discarded everything I thought wasn’t “useful,” and put the rest in a giant three-ring binder. I have regretted it ever since, which is why I will not be repeating the process anytime soon.

It took me quite a while to make the notebook work for me. I loved it from the start as a writing tool, but like a lot of folks with ADHD, I really didn’t grasp how to make it work as a planner and an extension of my memory. For years, I juggled The Notebook, notebooks for work, notebooks for school, a day planner, a to-do list, you name it.

I tried a Franklin planner. I tried OneNote. I tried bullet journaling. And it all made me even more confused.

Then, while browsing the Intertubes one day late in 2015, I stumbled across a system that was far simpler than keeping a bullet journal. The blogger I read this from claims to have learned it from a Japanese businessman he was sitting beside on a flight once.

I just know it works for me. Here’s how:

The very first thing I do with any new notebook is flip to the back side of the final page.

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Here, I write the major categories of stuff in the notebook, and make a little “tab” by blacking in the edge. I like to space my categories widely because it makes the tabs easier for me to find.

Often, I’ll start with the first thing going in that particular notebook. This one, for instance, has outlines for Nahara and The Ambassador on the first few pages, so the top tab is “novel.” The first not-novel page I used had a to-do list on it, so that went under “personal and journal.”

You can tab as many things as you like, or as many as you have lines for. In theory, you could also flip to the second to last page and tab again in different colors, too. I rarely have more than five tabs in any notebook, and these four are always on the list.

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Each page then gets a corresponding tab. Here are the first three pages in this notebook, all of which are outlines.

(I am sorry to report that the rumors are true: Nahara does not feature fully automated luxury gay space communism.)

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Every time I start a new page, it gets a new tab. This is the page I started for the outline for this blog post series.

I love this system for two ADHD-y reasons:

  1. It cut me down to one notebook. Much harder to lose, especially since it lives with my wallet and keys on my desk. (Not impossible to lose, though, which is why my name and email address are always on the inside of the front cover.)
  2. I don’t have to care what order the pages are in anymore. I used to juggle two notebooks because I cared about page order. A lot. I hated having a to-do list pop up halfway through a chapter I was drafting, for instance. I found it super distracting.

Now I don’t have to care, because every page has its tab:

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I also appreciate how the tabs help me see where my time went over the past month or two. This notebook, for instance, makes it obvious that I spent a huge chunk of time on marketing and “outside” writing smack in the middle of it, taking a pretty obvious hiatus from the novel to do so.

Those chunks, btw, include both the pieces I submitted to Spoon Knife 3: Incursions, which you’ll all get to see in a few months.

Here are two pages from the draft of Nantais:

 

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When I sit down to write, I date the margin, just because I like to see my own progress. I tab each page as I start it. Notes about things I need to go back and fix, scenes that are relevant to this scene, or character background I don’t want to dig into here but that I’ll need for consistency later on all goes in the margin as well.

My goal, in my nightly two hour writing slot, is 350 words. That’s it.

They don’t even have to be story. If I’m particularly stuck on the story, I’ll spend time sketching what could happen next, or working out character motivation, or detailing someone’s history or mythology. As long as it’s related to the novel and written with the intent of helping me get unstuck, it counts.

After the Notebook But Before Editing: The Typing Stage

Approximately every ten pages, every chapter, or just when I’m starting to get a little lost as to what the heck happened to get me to this point, I’ll take the handwritten draft and type it up. But the first draft of all my fiction is always written longhand.

 

The reasons are a mix of practical points and straight-up “I like doing it this way so there”:

  • I find the Intertubes distracting as heck. “I went to look up one thing and eight hours later I realized I had 422 Wikipedia tabs open and also it was Tuesday” isn’t a meme; it’s literally my life. If I drafted on the screen, nothing would ever get done.
  • I revise as I type. The first typed draft is always my second draft. Rewriting the entire draft this way allows me to address a lot of mistakes and clunky text. It also lets me do things like write “[nearby star with habitable zone]” in the draft, then Google that when I get to the typing phase, saving me from the Wikipedia hole.
  • I feel free to screw up. Since I know no one will ever see the handwritten draft, I can cross things out, rewrite entire sentences mid-draft, draw giant arrows to move pieces from one place to another, and write things like “FIGHT PIRATES, DO A SCIENCE” or “THIS BOOK DOESN’T EXIST WTF IS HE READING” in the margins (two comments that actually exist in the margins of the handwritten draft of Nantais).

…And, perhaps most selfishly but also most importantly, I just like the way it feels. I like the feel of writing and the look of my own handwriting covering pages and pages of notebooks.

Writing longhand greatly increases my joy in the process. It feels like making something. And that’s really the only reason I need to do it – and the reason I never insist other people do it the way I do.

The whole point of the entire system is to move the crap out of the way in order to find the joy in the work.

Ironic twist: While starting Ritalin has changed my life with regards to my work, my relationships, my ability to eat and sleep, and the general orderliness of my house, it has actually made fiction writing harder. I don’t write on Ritalin. I wait till it wears off first.

Why? I’m still trying to pinpoint the reasons, but the biggest one appears to be that having everything on the whiteboard of my brain at once, while a major challenge in ordinary life, is actually exactly what I need in order to keep track of all the moving parts of a story as it unfolds.

I wrote Nantais before I ever started Ritalin, and now that I have, I only write fiction after it wears off. Go brain!

Part 2: The Workspace
Part 1: The System


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How I Wrote a Novel in 10 Months With Untreated ADHD, Part 2: The Workspace

In Part 1, I talked about how I organized my time to ensure I had both the gap in my schedule and the mental wherewithal to write every day.

Here in Part 2, I’ll talk about how I organized my writing space.

ADHD II

This is where I write:

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I got lucky in our current house: this desk fits perfectly into this alcove in our spare bedroom. On the walls of the alcove are Chalkboard Left and Chalkboard Right, which I mentioned in Part 1.

You can see some of the paperwork hanging off the bottom of Chalkboard Left in this photo, next to the lamp.

Chalkboard Left contains my weekly schedule; Chalkboard Right contains the basics of whichever novel I’m working on at the moment. Right now, that’s Nahara, the sequel to the novel I just released.

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On the left is the outline for the novel in progress. On the right are some notes I need nearly every time I write, and above those are the list of works I want to write or that come after the novel in progress. (The list on the top right is a recent addition; I got tired of keeping that list in my head.)

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I use Blake Shelton’s “beats” system to outline each novel. It was designed for outlining screenplays, but since I tend to write off the movie screen in my head, the beats system was remarkably easy to adapt.

The outline helps me remember the central theme or idea of whatever point I’m at in the story, as well as how I got that far and what needs to be set up in order to move to the next scene or chapter.

In addition to this outline, I typically write an outline or synopsis of each chapter as I’m working on them. Since I only need those for as long as I’m working on that part of the draft, they live in my notebook (which I’ll cover in Part 3).

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These are photocopies out of my notebook, which I pinned to the board after I got frustrated flipping back and forth between pages and (later) with remembering where I had put this particular notebook. The top one is a bit of core mythology; the bottom is a general outline of all three novels in the trilogy. Behind it are a few more pages I refer to frequently, like main character bios/histories and a timeline.

The list above is works in progress. On the left are short story ideas; on the right, book-length ideas.

Because the desk sits so closely between these two walls, my peripheral vision is pretty well filled up by the chalkboards. But then there’s the view. Take another look at my desk:

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That view is many writers’ dream, but for me, it’s distracting as heck.

One of the main reasons I write from 9 to 11 p.m., aside from the fact that I can focus then, is because it’s dark out. About the only thing I can see is the neighbor’s yard light, which doesn’t light up much – and the neighbor is usually in bed well before dark anyway.

I keep a few fidget toys in the mug along with my pens. The Pygmy Puff to the left of the mug is also a cozy fidget, and the disapproving stare of Mr. McShade on the right keeps me motivated.

Apart from the writing space and the lamp, the desk is allowed to hold only certain items:

  • My wallet and keys. If they’re not here, I don’t know where they are.
  • Things that urgently need my attention. When I took this photo, those included returning a purchase (the small box), sorting out my business receipts (the paper pile), and giving my cat her nightly meds (the pill bottles and the other box).

Other stuff does end up on my desk from time to time, usually on its way to the trash, my backpack, or one of the drawers. The drawers are the nightmare clutter hiding beneath my otherwise sorted desktop.

I do nearly all my novel drafting here and 100% of my novel revision here. I also work from home as a freelance writer, but I do that writing downstairs, in our office/library. Other essential desk stuff, like my noise-canceling headphones, live in my backpack, since I need those out in public more often than I need them at home.

Part 1: The System
Part 3: The Notebook


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How I Wrote a Novel in 10 Months With Untreated ADHD, Part 1: The System

I was diagnosed with predominately-inattentive-type ADHD in October 2017.

I finished writing my first novel in October 2016.

During the ten months I spent writing Nantais, I knew I had significant executive function problems. I’d had them all my life. But I didn’t know I had ADHD. And since caffeine betrayed me by becoming a major migraine trigger in 2015 or so, I wrote the entire novel with no chemical assistance whatsoever.

I want to show y’all how I did it.

In this post, Part 1 of 3, I want to talk about systems. Focusing on systems is more productive for me (and not just me) than focusing on goals – so I put a lot of work into my daily system.

Here’s my system and how it keeps me on track.

ADHD I

1. The Challenges

Like a lot of folks with ADHD, I have terrible time perception.  My sense of time is basically “Now” and “Not Now” – and “Not Now” is a giant black hole from which no scheduled event will ever emerge. Basically, if it’s not in front of my face right now, it doesn’t exist to me.

Because of this, my approach to work has always been to do as much as I can while I can remember to do it. And my results have always been short bursts of productivity followed by long recovery periods.

But writing a novel is a marathon event. It takes slow, steady work over time. “Just write something every day” is great advice – if you are constitutionally capable of doing it. My system makes me constitutionally capable of doing it.

2. The Schedule

On each side of the alcove that houses my desk (more on that in Part 2) hangs a chalkboard. Chalkboard Left contains my monthly, weekly, and daily schedules. It looks like this:

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Chalkboard Right, which is not visible from my bed but which is closer to my chair when I’m at the desk, contains my writing stuff. I’ll talk about Chalkboard Right in Part 2.

Let’s take a closer look at Chalkboard Left’s components.

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This is a typical monthly calendar for me. I made the form in Excel. I usually have two months hanging up at any given time; here, January 2018 is hiding behind December 2017. Since December is almost over, I’ll be making February 2018 in a week or so.

Each of my days is sectioned into five components:

  • M: Morning project. A 3-hour slot from approximately 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
  • E: Exercise. I prefer to do this between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., but scheduled appointments sometimes require me to move it elsewhere in my day.
  • A: Afternoon project. A 2-hour slot from approximately 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
  • C: Chore. That’s “chore,” singular – one cleaning thing, fix, or errand per day.
  • D: Professional development. Working on the novel goes here almost always.

Although they’re not listed on the calendar, I typically eat breakfast before 8 a.m., lunch between 11 and 11:30, and tea around 4:30. Dinner is usually anywhere between 7 and 10 p.m., depending on when my husband gets home and how fancy we feel like being.

I sleep from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Every day. The wake-up time is less a choice than a duty imposed by the Hungry Cat Alarm.

Sleep, meals, and exercise are the three foundations on which the entire system rests. After that come the weekly slots, then the calendars themselves.

Every Sunday, I use the monthly calendar to move things to the board for the week ahead. Here’s what this week looks like:

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When I first starting using this system, I was suffering from chronic overwork. So I made a rule: In any given day, I would do only the five things on the list. If it wasn’t scheduled, I wasn’t doing it.

That one rule has changed my life.

That said, you can see here how some of the categories are flexible. For instance, Monday’s afternoon activity and chore are both “concert.” That’s because herding middle and high school students takes a lot of energy – enough for two ordinary daily activities.

Also, notice that the “exercise” slots don’t say “exercise.” Instead, they list specific things I can do, like “weights,” “rink,” “walk,” and so on. After a morning of work I don’t have the brainpower to pick an exercise. So Sunday Me schedules them ahead of time, freeing up Weekday Me to just go do the listed thing.

Other slots are flexible too. For instance, my “professional development” for Wednesday is “commute.”

Wednesdays are tough for me: I volunteer at the local Humane Society in the morning, then drive halfway across the state to see my therapist in the afternoon (anyone who has ever searched for years for a good therapist instantly understands why I make that drive).

I never have any brainpower left by the end of Wednesday, and I don’t try. Instead, I acknowledge that commuting takes effort by making the commute a separate Thing from the activities I’m commuting to.

3. On the Road

If you have ADHD, you’re probably thinking, “That’s great, but how do you remember this stuff when you’re not at your desk?”

I’m glad you asked.

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This is a Google Keep note that lives on my phone. Once my week is on the board every Sunday, I type it into the Keep note. The Keep note has an alarm attached, so it pops up on my phone screen every day at 8 a.m.

If stuff comes up while I’m away from my desk, I drop it into Keep to add to the schedule when I get home. Since I will definitely forget to add it when I get home, the 8 a.m. alarm reminds me to add it the next morning.

(PS: The initials are codes for various freelance clients. If a code comes up, I check my email for their latest project specs.)

4. How the System Helps the Writing

“Professional development” is a squishy category in terms of time (as is “chore”), but when its set task for the day is writing, it happens from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. It happens at my desk. And it goes in the notebook.

I’ll talk more about the time and place in Part 2 and the notebook itself in Part 3, because they’re also integral parts of the system. In fact, having dedicated places/tools/containers for particular projects is integral to me getting just about anything done.

Why It Works

The schedule keeps me from exhausting myself. It recognizes that writing takes effort (which is why it gets its own slot), and makes it a priority in my day (you had five jobs and this was one of them!).

The schedule ensures that I can write, making it much more likely that I will.

Part 2: The Workspace
Part 3: The Notebook

 


 

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