on the writing & reading trail

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Writing and critiquing



Writers Group meeting

Our Writers Group meeting where we critique one chapter of each other’s work takes place on the first Friday of each month. It is always an interesting exercise but sometimes the breakthroughs are truly exciting. Today felt special.

It was a delight to find that after a longish break the writing of one member was back to full-bore quality. The struggles she acknowledged with the effort to regain impetus and multiple rewrites paid off – they were not apparent to us. Although she is writing to an audience in another culture, having teens in her household authenticates the interactions between friends, acquaintances and genders in that age group. Every scene sparks. When she’s done, I predict the first agent or publisher to receive the manuscript will be sold straight away.

And because of her daily lived experience her critique of another member’s chapter on teen misbehaviour was so penetrating. The rest of us, now distant from that involvement applauded the small tweaks she suggested that will shift a great chapter to an exceptional one.

I am amazed at every meeting at how differently each of us sees segments of the stories and the mix of issues we pick up on – so valuable in representing the responses of a cross-section of readers.

All of us wanted one author to add depth to anecdotes by incorporating more personal details about lead-in decisions, emotional reactions to events and interesting historical details to cajole readers to feel more involved.

My chapter, about a quarter-way through the third book in The Long Shadows Series is set in wintry Edinburgh. I was grateful for all suggestions to increase the drama of a brother and sister interaction over a family mystery. Also important were promptings to refresh readers on carry-over details from previous books – such helpful reminders. The characters are so clear in my mind I sometimes forget that a new reader (or even someone who has read the previous material) might welcome a recap.

Today’s specialness was the forward leap of the member who has been battling for several years to write the harrowing interpersonal memoir through the final stages of a sister’s terminal disease. After several years she has found the key and is now able to visit the emotional trauma of their experiences with such power and insight. It is wonderful work.

Two members were unable to attend so that’s all for today. Exhilarated when we left.

Nostalgic video

Do have a look at this wonderful video with aerial views of Edinburgh in early winter – music worth a listen as well. Nostalgic for me – I lived there while at Uni long ago.

You can skip the ad if you want to. Enjoy.

Edit diary, writing, critiquing, reading

It’s been a while since I was in this space – life got in the way – more technology glitches – family health issues – time consuming investigations of retirement living options – eventually postponed decisions again. We are just not ready.

So, uncertainties settled for the time being, I’m back to the business of preparing Past imperfect, the first novel in the Long shadows series, for publication. Following my final edit, the manuscript is with readers.

Feedback: Readers are providing helpful feedback and I am thankful that one awkward blooper was discovered – absolutely confirms the need for dispassionate eyes to assess a manuscript. In one of my rewrites, an important intention of the protagonist was erased. Thank you Sara for your time generosity and discerning eye.

Writing: Am still working on front and back matter for the final submission – strangely more challenging than expected, but getting there. Until I press the publish button it is too hard to work on the host of other ideas that are calling my fingers to start new files to develop the short stories and memoir fragments that are clamouring.

Critiquing: Last Friday was Writers Group critiquing day, with a mixture of novel and memoir chapters, a short story and a writing exercise to discuss.  As usual we parted reluctantly from our session of laughter, serious comments and constructive criticisms, words of wisdom and mutual trust, with nourishing food for thought to improve our offerings.

Reading: The impulse to read fiction is curiously dampened when full-blown editing takes the stage but some still happens. My focus has been on social media and marketing ideas. I’ve mentioned it before, but the ProWriter course How to find readers and market your novel, devised by Joanna Penn and C J Lyons, is extremely helpful and I commend it to anyone preparing for e-publication. http://www.thecreativepenn.com/marketyourbook/.

However I did finish The secret life of bees by Sue Monk Kidd which was left behind by a family member who stayed recently – loved it. A Library Thing reviewer had this to say “The Secret Life of Bees is a coming of age story in the deep south in the early 1960’s. You will come to love each of the characters. Reading this book you will both laugh and cry. This book is about hope, empathy, and dignity across racial lines. I’m already to read it again!’

I am also reading The Forgotten garden by Kate Morton (only recently found her, and she’s an Aussie). If I’d discovered it earlier I might have found a way to adapt some of her seamless literary devices for backstory for use in Past imperfect. It is also interesting to find similar themes about compulsions that are driven by identity uncertainty, family secrets and family loyalties in her novel and mine. Find out about Kate at http://www.katemorton.com/

Next on the agenda: e-publication of Past imperfect – hopefully before the end of March.

Editing, writing, reading

November 10

Editing: It’s back to the drawing board. Amazingly the agent I approached viewed my sample chapters straight away, but the answer was negative – not interested – but might consider again if I undertake a lot of work. The suggestions were helpful and I’ll rework the novel again with some of them strongly in mind, and think some more about others. Am leaving that till next week.

Writing: I’m working on two short stories for our next anthology – there needs to be a twist. That is a challenge, but an item I read in a weekend supplement last week and an internet story I stumbled on have provided inspiration for family oriented tales – that is not a surprise for me. One focuses on the early stage of life, the other on the later stage – this isn’t new either – in one theme of our Ten Minute Tales anthology the same beginning and life end matters found their way to the top of consciousness. Is that what being the eldest of seven does?

Reading: Mainly focused on books the library will want to have back on the shelves again soon. Would love to keep Caleb’s crossing by Geraldine Brooks a while longer, to savour it. Denise Leith’s book What remains is another I will dip into several times before returning. Am also reading a local author Paula Watson’s YA story Shadows (about love, nightmares, angels, war) since hearing her speak about it at a local Author talk run by Redlands Libraries – had to wait a while for it as I was well down the ‘request’ list. Very clearly and well written; I’m enjoying the read even though fantasy type writing is not a preferred genre.

There are some books piling up that I couldn’t resist buying as well and I’m thinking of reviewing some indie titles on Smashwords or through Library Thing. Should keep me out of mischief. Won’t slow down the new writing though as reading is an evening activity.

Colleagues: Nene, a member of our Writers Group is busy working on her novel on advice from an e-publisher. I wish her well. Keep up with progress on her blog at nenedavieswrites.weebly.com Another member is also on the brink of submitting a novel for consideration as well. It’s a big step to let go. Thoughts are with her as she makes that decision.

The jacaranda are still magnificent.

Purple beauty against a stormy sky

Edit diary, writing, reading

Day 110 (August 30)

Editing: I continue to work on Present tense (Book 2 of 3).

The morning started well; mind felt clear, and I decided to skip continuity to a chapter containing different content. This is partly because the next chapter is currently with our Writers Group for critique at the end of next week and it seems prudent to wait for feedback before making changes there.

So, today I am with Alexander in an isolated setting in Kruger National Park and then in the air above the Park. He is enjoying this new adventure that began with an unexpected display of violence by a rogue elephant which found its way into the camp where his group of would-be photojournalists were starting the day. Although I made many changes (nothing of great significance) I decided to revisit earlier relevant research materials with a view to expanding a small part of the chapter. I found what I wanted, but more importantly I’ve ear-marked several topics from resources for possible incorporation into the third book relating to Freya’s experience in a Kruger game reserve.

A short sample from the Alexander chapter follows. He is undertaking an aerial survey in preparation for next year’s project, after leaving his boss at Park HQ in Skukuza to work on preliminary negotiations about locations:

For the first part of the flight Alexander was exhilarated in a low-key way by the natural appearance of animal trails and water holes spread across endless low scrub and grasses; little different from what he’d seen already. All looked well with the world until he met the obvious boundary between the park and humanity. The differences were stark. On the one side, evidence of rhinos, buffalos, wildebeests, impalas, elephants and more. On the other side very little natural land was visible, clearly overused for shelter, cattle grazing and cultivation by and for the vast and needy populations of people and beasts.

Alexander turned the cameras off and on as the landscape changed. Although he was fairly confident the sophisticated automatic and computer-driven cameras were working well, he backed up by taking notes on the board strapped to his thigh. Also when the terrain changed he shot a short manual segment with commentary and GPS record.

Writing: Today’s post brought WQ, the monthly publication of the Queensland Writers Centre. I’ve earmarked a number of short story competitions to follow up on as I’ve five or six stories that might fit if I did some work on them, and an endless fund of ideas. Time is the only commodity in short supply. Will have to decide a balance between urgency for editing and tackling some novelty action.

Reading: Crossing to safety is so beguiling. The four main characters feel vibrant and real. I want to invite them to a party. The power of first person writing is potent. I think I will explore that in a couple of short stories soon. Also I may be developing a little courage about trying to improve my blogsite. The WordPress book is helping. Hopefully changes will be evident soon – maybe at the weekend.

Editing priority change

Day 103 (August 23)

Editing: Decided to change the priority for a couple of days as energy levels are low – maybe the result of a day in the city with all the flu bugs around and lots of coughing in the bus on the way home yesterday evening. Everything feels lighter near home with a wildlife corridor running metres away from our house. Feeling like a dose of new creativity, so will focus on writing. There are a few competitions coming up.

Writing: Poetry is not my forte and nor is cricket for that matter but I’ve decided to have a bash – up to 150 words. An unlikely challenge but will certainly take me beyond usual comfort zone. Won’t tell my husband who is not quite a cricket fanatic but used to be close, just yet. I once did the unpardonable when I started to read a book at a cricket match because from our distant seats I was unable to see the ball and had no idea how it was going. Backyard games or small ovals like Canberra were more my scene.

There are also a couple of stories to tidy up that fit the word limits and if there’s time I might even try a short non-fiction stint. Could be a refreshing change from editing – maybe a week.

Words, writing, editing, critiquing, reading

Days 73-78 (July 25 to 30)

Words: I don’t remember what triggered the memory but the word ‘scunner’ drifted into mind and took me back many years to my early months and years in Scotland when I battled with accents, different word usage and what seemed like an endless procession of new and often strange sounding words and sayings. It was unexpected, as my father had adapted fully to Australian speech and mannerisms. Probably partly self-preservation as an immigrant and a little to do with his keen musical ear. He could play any tune on request after a few starter notes and was in demand for round-the-piano sing-alongs when friends got together.

Although a Scots word, I didn’t hear scunner used much in Scotland; more so by a Belfast neighbour in Northern Ireland. She would often say that someone or something was a scunner. Her tone of voice left no doubt that she looked on the person or thing with disgust. A vivid word. Scots and Irish history is interwoven with much population movement in both directions.

Two other ‘s’ words felt right as well when I got to know them. An irate father might say, ‘A’ll skelp the sleekit wee bugger’s bum if he tries that again.’ (I’ll smack the sneaky little one’s bottom).

More than half of my first draft novel, Past Imperfect, is set in Scotland. Initially I used a fair bit of dialect, but bowed to the recommendations of Writing Group critiquers and advice in books on writing and cut it back significantly.  What follows is a small segment that survived. Opinions welcome.


1941 – Gorbals:  Sssh Nancy, the wean’s sleepin’. Puir wee thing, she’s bin coughin’ sore. Her mam’s near roon the bend wi’ worry and she hates to leave her, but she’s nae choice but tae work.’ She laid down her cup with care to avoid it clinking. 

‘Aye, there’s a few in the same boat. Lucky she seems strong enough hersel’. Mebbe from all that guid highland air till she came here,’ whispered Isa.

‘The young’un would be the better o’ that for sure. It’s a wonder she doesnae go back to ‘er family now ‘er man’s been kilt.’

‘The gossip says she’d no’ be welcome back. Her old man has her a sinner for leavin’ the brethren and mixing wi’ unbelievers. They’re a rum lot they brethren. Ye’d hardly blink an’ it would be a sin.’

‘She’s aye at the kirk, and sayin’ prayers all the time and she keeps modest an’ looks oot for ithers, so she seems right enough tae me. An’ that young Dougal woulda enticed me awa’ frae hame too if I’da thought he’d have me.’

Isa hesitated. They said gossip was the devil’s work. But it was such a tasty morsel. ‘Ach well, there’s a story aboot that an’ all. Some’d say he was glad tae leave the north tae get awa’ frae her bossiness and wilfulness, and the religion too. She does seem more’n a mite inclined that way. . . . They made a bonnie pair though. ’Tis said he married her to save her face for following him here an’ bein’ ousted frae the family.’ She took another sip of tea and set the cup silently again before going on.

‘Ma cousin Ailsa heard in a roon-aboot way that Dougal was smitten wi’ her looks for a while when he was up there, but no’ for long. The word is, he tellt her there wasnae a future as he reckoned on the war comin’ and he was gaun tae join the military. Seems like she had ither ideas. But fair go, they did seem to be a’right th’gither till he was posted. An’ he was fair besotted wi’ the littl’un; chose her name an’ all. Ah heard tell it was because o’ the light in her eyes and her sonsie complexion he called her Claire. Agnes said it means ‘clear and bright and famous’. ‘Ye could see it might fit the wee thing . . . when she’s well that is.’

Nancy digested this in silence.

Isa continued, ‘Agnes complains aboot this place amang the Catholics and the Jews but she doesnae realise how lucky she is tae hae a place at a’. If Dougal’s Irish cousins hadnae taken her in she’d be in a right mess. It’s lucky the factor let her stay on when they moved to the country when the weans got evacuated for safety. They went after the Clydebank bombing. . . . That was awfy sad.’

On the stair outside, Agnes heard the next part of the conversation.

‘Aye, that’s another thing. She’s aye on aboot Dougal desertin’ her. Joinin’ up when he didnae need tae, him bein’ from the Irish Republic. He allus said he would fight for right though, and she couldnae move him. She thinks that makes her loss more’n others. Doesnae go doon so well aroon here. There’s nae shortage o’ the grievin’. An maist o’ the women are proud o their men for gaun in spite o’ the worry and the losses.’

‘Even she does think that, I wish she wouldnae say it in front o’ the bairn. She’ll hae enough to deal with, without thinkin her Da left her willingly.’

‘Aye, ye’re right enough aboot that, Isa. Agnes’ll no see it that way though, she’s all aboot hersel.’ 

Quietly Agnes stepped backwards down the stair, hoping no one would see her and call out; then she’d banged her way up noisily as if just arriving. Anger seared through her at the indignity of these women talking about her in that way. She’d get out of this place, and soon.

Editing: Good progress.  Stuck for days on one chapter, but moved through two today.

Critiquing: Finished the last two critique chapters yesterday. One was the continuing memoir of a London childhood in the 1940s. The other was the beginning of a new fantasy story – a war between good and evil will develop I suspect.

Reading: I’ve been flitting from book to book, trying to decide whether to persevere with a couple and needing to focus on my African stories. Five books on hold turned up today. Three of them will be useful research resources and were published after my earlier efforts completed.

Critiques, reading, editing

Day 72 (July 24)

Critiques: The month is powering on and it is time for sending chapters for critique and receiving work from others.

I did an early send to two of our members who offered to take an advance look at a chapter that I wasn’t sure worked as it is totally comprised of reflection by several of the characters after retiring for the night, following uneasy and puzzling interactions when Tony and Alexander meet with the two nurses at the aid camp. Thankfully both critiquers think the material achieves by filling personality and plot gaps as intended. I’d wrestled with other ways of conveying the necessary elements of the story without success. Hopefully when the material goes to other members they will agree, even though there are sure to be different suggestions for overall improvement, or maybe they will offer inspiration for a different approach.

Two short extracts from the chapter follow. The first focuses on the musings of Tony, a logistician, as he thinks about the local political dangers when planning his activities for the next few days.

Tony knew that even a minor provocation could translate to histrionic temper tantrums by the warlords and result in a veto on clinic activities, or additional restrictions on team movements between clinics, camps, embryo hospitals and outreach points, or even the planting of new landmines in the area. Or worse. But with guerrilla activities so unpredictable, guesses about potential reprisals could be notoriously off the mark. With the recollection that general intelligence for the area had been optimistic he dozed again. 

Recurring unease brought him suddenly awake at times.

During one of the wakeful times he started a mental check on the list of activities scheduled for tomorrow. He needed to cover all bases without reference to written lists. The commander he’d be negotiating with prided himself on getting things done and had little truck with education and learning. Tony knew that the tribal elders who would be present understood the tenuousness of talks and were always careful to avoid contentious issues. They wanted the best for their families and their people and he could rely on them to recommend good helpers for the measles campaign if agreement was achieved.

 In the second extract Alexander’s puzzlement emerges about Freya’s behaviour during their brief and unexpected meeting after many years.

Alexander lay for a while, staring at the sky without seeing it. He wrestled with a sense that something to do with Freya was out of whack but couldn’t hook it. Clearly she did not want to acknowledge their old relationship. She was the same, and different. She’d always been so open, transparent really, and now there were pockets of containment and opaqueness. A protective mechanism? He guessed she’d need something of that when doing this kind of work. The passion about anything she was doing hadn’t gone; the graceful gestures remained; still a toucher and comforter.

 So far I’ve received only one chapter for critique. It covers the ongoing development and success of the Australian opera singer who performs magnificently in Monte Carlo and who is bound for more tuition in Milan. Her ambitions are being realised. A few structural suggestions made – I hope they are useful.

I’m expecting several more submissions in coming days.

Reading: Hospital’s volume of short stories, Forecast: Turbulence has been fascinating. Such power. The blurb says: Janette Turner Hospital sensitively weaves stories of heartbreaking poignancy, shocking power and steadfast resolve, all honouring a universal question: how can we maintain equilibrium in a turbulent and uncertain world?

Although this is a theme in each of the three existing books in my family saga, it is much more so in the one I am currently editing than in the first. In the first book Past imperfect, the dilemmas are more at individual level, while the second book Present tense attempts to explore issues in a wider context. I am reaching out to emulate the power of Hospital’s prose. An elusive ambition I suspect.


While still dipping into Nigel Brennan’s different type of saga as the members of his family dealt with his incarceration and efforts to free him, I’ve also started to read The Postmistress by Sarah Blake which was recommended by a friend and just appeared on the hold shelf of the library yesterday. Looks promising.

Editing: I’ve finished the current sweep of Part One of Present tense and am now working on the humanitarian aid part of the story. Although exhaustively researched many months ago I need to re-read resources and perhaps find new material to strengthen what is already written. The passage of time has not made it any easier to represent with authenticity the atrocities that can occur between human beings or the impact of natural disasters. Among the survivors, resilience and hope prevail for those who are not broken; so many humbling stories in the midst of despair. Where are the ways to overcome evil and greed in their many guises? Maybe somewhere amongst the survivors the will and talents will emerge to find ways to share the resources of this marvellous world co-operatively?

Editing and critiquing

Day 43 (June 26)

Editing: Setting aside the first 50 pages of the second novel for a few days, waiting for feedback on the first chapter from Writing Group members. I need an opinion about whether it sets the scene for an independent book, given that the two parts that comprise it have been separated out from what was envisaged as a large whole. When I get to the end, the same will apply to the last chapter; will it wrap up well enough to be self-sufficient, before the third book unrolls the next part of the saga? I’m also playing with the idea of a different title – perhaps Present tense. Feels like a good follow-on from Past imperfect – maybe a bit risky though in linking it well enough with the storylines.

Critiquing:  Worked on a disturbing chapter of marital discord, appropriately set in the midst of a tropical Queensland storm (wonderfully described and felt). The woman of the family is not thinking straight, caught in a thrall of guilt about leaving her mother behind in Wales, even though she’d chosen not to accompany them. The husband is frustrated. He thought all had been resolved before they left, and he and the children are loving their new life in Australia. A few glitches, but I could see and feel the tension in the writing. Well done.

Short story competition: My story was not selected. I wasn’t that hopeful as it is a gentle low-key tale, not one to set the senses racing; I’d been aiming for more of a slow burn, but clearly it didn’t work. Not daunted, will keep on trying.

Comfort of knowledge

General:  I think I’ll head off early today. The library feels cold and it is dull and raining outside. Not so many in today even though the schools are on holiday. Home in front of a heater with a fleece around my knees sounds inviting – real old lady stuff. And a chance to continue reading Past the shallows.

When I was in the shopping centre at lunchtime one of the servers mentioned that there was no heating there, and usually isn’t anymore – cost constraints – electricity price hikes – pre-empting carbon price effects that start on Sunday. Concerns are real. Every week there seems to be at least one more shopfront pasted with closure notices. And other places worrying about laying off staff – some have done it already in preparation. The commentators are busy and people are hurting.

Editing, writing, critiquing, reading

Day 39 (June 22)

Editing: Moving through the chapters slowly, experiencing the same hiccoughs as previously, but generally satisfied with progress.


Short story: In the context of the Locked collection of stories I envisage, the first one is taking shape out of an amorphous conglomerate of ideas. About the experience of a young woman, about a first pregnancy, the story will mirror the inevitable expedition resulting from the unique genetic permutations that take her budding embryo through to the outside world. With a husband absent in a war-torn zone, she immerses herself, not just physically, but more and more emotionally and philosophically into the event. The question is: Can I do the ideas justice?

Another novel: Last year when I was travelling alone in Canada I filled some of the empty time spaces between viewing the landscape and being an inevitable eavesdropper on surrounding conversations during a couple of long train journeys, by jotting notes for a story that was hankering to be told. In odd moments this week (almost a year later) I’ve been typing up those handwritten scrawls and fleshing out the tale of an expat who was trying to escape memories of the violence of Northern Ireland in rural Australia. Not sure how it will go, but it seems that just when she was reaching longer spells of peace, a thoughtless prank by a youngster at her workplace revived the memories. But it also directs her energies in another direction.

Critiquing: Next Writers Group meeting is in sight so the chapters are dropping in by email clamouring for comments. I’ll make a start over the weekend, first with the ongoing fictionalised biography of Maggie Gard, an aspiring Australian soprano as she explores the mysteries of her teacher’s French castle in the gaps between lessons. The teacher, Emma Calve is most famous for her role in Carmen.

I’ll submit part of a late chapter from my own Present hope novel. That section won’t be in my editing sights for quite a few weeks. It’s a challenging multi-person conversation, so input will be most helpful for when I get to that stage.

Helpful sources

Reading: I’m spoilt for choice at the moment. Will finish the Atkinson yarn tonight – am totally devoid of predictions about the twists, there will be a few more to come for sure. My shelf dedicated to library books is full and I’ve a few favourites from my own collection set aside for re-reading sometime.

And now I have another choice: Wanted women: faith, lies and the war on terror: the lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui by Deborah Scroggins. What a wonderful coincidence that the author’s name beamed out from a library trolley of new acquisitions just as I was leaving today. I can’t be absolutely sure of the details after a gap of five or six years of thinking about my saga novels and following many lines of research, but I know that Deborah Scroggins had a role in how my story developed after I read her book Emma’s war. It is located in large part in South Sudan and tells the unique story of Emma McClune and her marriage to a local warlord. Some scraps in the book that referred to the work of Medecins Sans Frontier at that time led me on a much wider search, and later on, snippets of the experiences of women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali within Holland, found their way into my story as well. Now I know which will be my first read of choice after Atkinson is done.

Weekend: Won’t be able to turn a blind eye to the housework screaming out for attention.

Editing and beyond

Days 23-25 (June 6-8)

The days continue cold. There was even a threat of snow in our supposedly sunny state of Queensland. A rare occurrence. The kids love it. I saw snow for the first time in Scotland many years ago, aged nineteen. I was working in a Children’s Home. The young ones couldn’t believe their luck – an adult willing to play in the cold with them – snowballs flying. Maybe not such an adult!

Editing:  Progress slower than hoped. More effort than expected to weave in essential background from Book One. Hopefully picking up most issues, but will have to rely on friendly critiquers to find the outliers. Satisfied overall.

Other writing: Have been toying for a while the notion of compiling a topic-based collection of pieces. Over the last few days I’ve settled on the notion of ‘locked’. The ideas are flowing for short stories, reflections, mini-essays. Who knows if or when it will come to fruition. At the moment there are around thirty topics in the frame.

Short stories: Entered two stories for competitions within recent days. Although they are not remarkable in any way, it felt good to think outside my family saga series. I had fun fictionalising around some real life nursing incidents from long ago.

Restless thinking: It seems premature to be thinking two more novels when I still have almost two more to edit, and none of the three existing ones published, but that is what is happening. One has a few chapters down and might stretch to novella length – a fairly light-hearted story. The other would be the fourth in the family saga series, with Freya settled back in Australia after two humanitarian aid missions in Africa behind her, and becoming an advocate in the fractious politics of international adoptions.

Weekend reading

Reading: Enjoying the Yeldham novel, Glory girl, based around a true story. It’s good to be reminded of early aviation days in Australia and the beginning of QANTAS and the Flying Doctor Service. I’m set up for weekend with a surfeit of books and expect to dip in to each of the ones pictured. I’m also including some interesting and amusing links for anyone looking for some insights into authors Yeldham and Patchett.





Long holiday weekend ahead so writing output will be down. The Library is where I work best.

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