Bird Watching and Writing

I am a birdwatcher. Not the kind who can’t go out without my binoculars, but the kind who feeds hummingbirds and notices when a sharp-shinned hawk is building her nest in the woods behind my house. I also watch the EagleCam maintained by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

One winter two events came together: my obsessive EagleCam watching and the wait for my first grandchild. My daughter and her husband were nervous and afraid they really wouldn’t know how to do this whole parenting thing.

And a short story was born. In “Rutherford Speaks,” a young Saint Paul, MN, couple await their first child and learn about parenting from the eagles on the EagleCam. It was selected for inclusion in the Saint Paul Almanac Volume 11: On a Collected Path. I am honored. This is my fourth time to be part of this collection, which is a collaborative community publishing project.

One of the things I love about being a writer is when two disparate ideas come together to form a lovely whole.

Maudie: A Romance with Art

Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis.

If you think you’ve got it bad, get over yourself and go to Maudie, a quiet yet moving film about Canada’s most famous folk artist.

Sally Hawkins is incredible as the irrepressible, smart, yet fragile Maud Lewis. Ethan Hawke admirably plays her fish seller husband, the irascible and stoic Everett. It is a story of a woman who can’t help but paint and a man who, in the end, can’t help but fall in love with her. She is sunshine to his perpetual gloom. She is ready to laugh at life, when he can do nothing but growl at it. As Maud says in the movie, they are a pair of mismatched socks.

I have long admired the story of Maud Lewis of Nova Scotia, a woman who let nothing diminish her spirit—not disease (polio as a child left her handicapped and arthritis eventually made her fingers curl so she couldn’t hold a paintbrush), not a family who made her feel defective, and not a hardscrabble existence living in a 10 x 12 foot fisherman’s shack.

Instead of whining, though, Maud painted the walls, steps, door, even the window of her tiny, dour house with brightly colored flowers, animals, butterflies, and birds. She insisted that all the inspiration she needed was right outside her window. And, eventually, the world came to her door to buy her paintings.

Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke in Maudie.

My novel, Maud’s House, is certainly not a biography of Maud Lewis. However, her life and personality were the inspiration for my Maud Calhoun, who goes from child prodigy granted the freedom to draw on the walls to blocked artist in a small Vermont town. My Maud is lost, and her story is one of lost-and-found creativity. I don’t think, that even in her worse times, Maud Lewis was ever truly lost. Her work is filled with too much joy, her spirit too indomitable. How did she do it?

That was the question I kept asking myself as I wrote Maud’s House and learned more of Maud Lewis’s extraordinary story: what drives a person to create—no matter what? I came to the conclusion that we are all artists, and we pursue our art in many ways—in our gardens, in the food we make, in the songs we sing, in the pictures we paint and the books we write, in the relationships we nurture, in the kindnesses we scatter on our journey.

That’s why, when a reader asks me to inscribe a copy of Maud’s House, I write one sentence: Discover the artist in you.

If there is an inscription fitting for Maud Lewis’s life, it would be: See beauty in the world—no matter what.

_____________________

Maud’s House is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other retail outlets. If it is not available in your local bookstore or library, please ask for it.

You can see Maud Lewis’s house and some of her paintings at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

How Yoga and Patanjali Can Help Your Writing

Long ago in a land faraway a humble physician named Patanjali codified his thoughts and knowledge of yoga in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. This is a guide for living the right life. It is also a guide to right writing.

You don’t believe in all this yoga stuff? Fine. But I have found that yoga not only opens the body but the mind as well. It expands our possibilities, which is good news for anyone facing the blank page.

I write about yoga all the time, indirectly, in my mystery series: Down Dog Diary and Warrior’s Revenge. In these unusual whodunits, yoga teacher Maya Skye sometimes seeks answers in meditation and her yoga practice. Just as Sherlock Holmes had his violin; Maya has her yoga mat.

Patanjali’s 195 guidelines to enlightenment are considered the fundamental text on the system of yoga, so what do they have to do with writing?

Here’s a few ways Patanjali, the father of yoga, has helped me on my path as a writer and may bring new perspectives to your writing:

  • Nonviolence (ahimsa). This principle says do no harm to any creature in thought or deed. This is a tough one, especially in the fractious times in which we live. It is so easy with social media to cast judgments, to seek similar views, to fall in with the same crowd—and stop listening. But think about what would happen if you practiced ahimsa in your writing — writing that keeps an open mind elevates the conversation for us all.
  • Truth and honesty (satya). Ernest Hemingway once said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Don’t recirculate false stories or misinformation in your work. Whether you’re writing the next great American novel or a community newsletter, truth is important. Truthfulness touches our very nature and resonates in our soul.
  • Nonstealing (asteya). My writing mentor gave me this advice: “No one else can write your story.” And it’s true. There are a finite number of stories in this universe, but an infinite number of ways to tell them. Still, when I consider asteya, I realize that my stories don’t belong to me. They belong to my readers because, without them, my writing doesn’t come to life.
  • Abstention (brahmacharya). The writer who practices brahmacharya avoids listening to that little ego jumping up and down, shouting me-me-me. “Brahman literally means the vastness,” according to Yoga Sutra scholar Ravi Ravindra. Writing that dwells in vastness is not small or petty.
  • Nonpossessiveness (aparigraha). Free yourself from greed, hoarding, and collecting. Writers hoard ideas and truth; they throw up walls against criticism; they take sides. This inability to share leads to hard feelings in critique groups and cardboard characters on the page. When we don’t clutch so fiercely to our ideas, we have room to acknowledge the perspectives of others, which will always make our writing — and our lives — richer.

I love aparigraha for another reason: it helps us let go. The writer in us gets our snapping turtle jaws around an idea and holds on so tightly. But with aparigraha or nonpossessiveness, we learn to let go of those stories we’ve spent years on but still aren’t working. We can let go of bad reviews and harsh criticism. We can let go of our “darlings,” those sentences we love beyond measure but lay so heavy they drag down the entire page. We can move on. And who knows what wonderful story is around the bend?

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I admit I am nowhere near bringing all of Patanjali’s teachings into my writing. But every day, I try. Because this edgy world that we live in could use a little less anger and more love, a little less conflict and more peace, a little less me and more us.

Wrestling for Our Children’s Truth

When I was a child growing up in a small town in Missouri, I watched wrestling every Saturday night on television with my father. Inevitably, I would cry foul at a cheap shot or when a tag team ganged up on one guy on the ropes. “That’s not fair,” I’d complain to my dad. Even as a kid, I had a sense of justice.

“It’s just a show,” my father would reassure me, turning back to the fake entertainment with a grin on his face and a beer and a bowl of popcorn in his hands, the ones made strong hammering nails all day long.

But then on Monday morning, I saw boys replay on the playground the wrestling moves they had absorbed on Saturday night. Bullies were born and won, and the weak huddled and learned that the world is nothing if not unfair—unless someone says, “Wait a minute.”

So when I saw Prez 45 tweet a doctored video of him body slamming a CNN reporter, I was back in my old living room, hearing my father cheer on some pretender.

Someday I will tell my granddaughters that I was one of those people the leader of our country wanted to wrestle to the ground and punch. I was a journalist (not for CNN), but I worked for newspapers in Missouri, Vermont, and North Carolina. I went to journalism school (University of Missouri-Columbia) where we were taught to be the ones who shouted, “Wait a minute!” Because the truth matters.

What people don’t understand about journalists is that being a truth seeker is more than a job. It is what keeps us going. We are intensely curious, have somewhat of a savior complex, and truly try not to take sides. We want to know the secrets, and we want to protect the public from unscrupulous politicians, tyrannical leaders, inefficient government, greedy businesses. (And, before this begins to sound all too altruistic, one’s name in the byline doesn’t hurt either.)

The Founding Fathers must have thought we were a useful breed. Freedom of the press is one of the five freedoms designated in the First Amendment—the only profession the fathers considered essential to protect for the survival of a democracy. They’d seen what happened when a country was allowed to operate on secrets, tyranny, and corruption. They decided America needed a watchdog.

Yet, today, reporters and editors are ridiculed and threatened by Prez 45 and the public—the very people the press, by nature, are dedicated to helping.

Maybe someday my granddaughters will look at me and ask if I am an enemy of the people. Me: the one who bakes them cookies and reads them Curious George books by the bushel.

If you are a parent or grandparent, I hope your children and grandchildren never call you a fake farmer or a fake doctor or a fake bus driver.

Instead, I hope they call you open-minded, willing to look for the truth no matter what side you are on or where it leads you. Because there are times when we all need to “press” for more information and shout “Wait a minute.”

Times when we all need to remember: This spectacle we call politics right now is really just a show.

Where Does Light Come From?

In dark times when it seems the world is coming apart like a letter in the rain, we look for light, for the end of the tunnel. As Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

So here are a few places to look for illumination when you are feeling besieged or lonely or overwhelmed by current events:

In the names of our children. This week my second granddaughter was born. Welcome to the world, Ivy Lucia. Both of my granddaughters are light bringers. Lucia comes from the Latin “lux” or light. Ivy’s three-year-old sister is named Sabrina Luz; “luz” is Spanish for light. I have no doubt these children will live up to their names, and that’s not just a proud grandmother talking. Who knows how far these children—or any child—will shine their loving light in this world?

In people who stand up against snollygosters. Snollygoster means “an unprincipled but shrewd person, especially an unprincipled politician.” Merriam-Webster dropped it from the dictionary for lack of use then felt compelled to reinstate it in February 2017. Watching America’s current political drama, I think snollygoster is more fun to say than to live with.

In stories of heroes. Heroes do the right thing—even when it hurts. It seems the more heroes who disappear from our government and leadership, the more heroes Marvel Comics digs out of its archives. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.” Sometimes, I think we forget that we are living our own stories and that we are all on the hero’s journey.

In the sky. Look up. Whether you find the divine in a cathedral or nature, look up. Light is hope.

I am tired of darkness and being angry. I’m weary of worrying about the Monarch butterflies and melting icebergs and the world we are leaving to our children. I’m exhausted by the lies and the deceptions and the bullying. Aren’t you?

I’m so ready to snap on my sunglasses and turn my face to the light.

The world is cracked, and the light is flooding in. So watch out darkness bringers.

For now, we can see.

___________________

I write mystery novels with a yoga spirit. As the yoga teacher in Down Dog Diary, Maya Skye, would say, “Some people make it tough to believe in oneness.” But we have to keep trying.

Mr. Censor Goes to Washington

As the Academy squabbles about what were the best movies to hide out with in tumultuous 2016, here are a few movies that will NOT make the 2017 Academy Awards:

Mr. Censor Goes to Washington: Set in the murky and stifling halls of Congress, a Senate majority leader who resembles Mitch McConnell right down to the mumble forbids a fellow senator from reading the words of civil rights leader Coretta Scott King in her statement against the nomination of a racist attorney general. The female senator from Massachusetts was wrestled to the ground and silenced with Rules 19 duct tape. Rules 19 says senators are not allowed to badmouth each other. According to the director’s notes, this arcane regulation is most often used by those who fear a loss of power and those with exceptionally thin skin.

The Travels of 1984: A typical Minnesotan family—middle class, smart, charitable—lends their copy of George Orwell’s 1984 to a neighbor. The story tracks the journey of the book as it makes the rounds of all the neighbors until someone, finally, burns it. The resurge in demand for the book, which depicts a dystopian society where minds are erased and thought processes replaced by omniscient Big Brother, is not unusual. The publisher says this always happens when people fear they are going to be living in a repressive state. The son in the movie says with the brio of Alex P. Keaton, “What’s the problem? Prez 45 said he would put people back to work. They’re printing 75,000 more copies to meet the demand.”

Excuse Me, I’m Protesting Here: Time traveler Mary Richards, who is said to be able to turn the world on with her smile, attends her first protest. “Excuse me, sorry, excuse me, boy, there sure are a lot of people here,” she says, elbowing and smiling her way into the midst of the march on Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall. “Excuse me, I’m a reporter, and I just want to know your grievances. Why are you here? What? They’re banning people from entering the United States because of their religion?” In the final, revelatory scene, Mary tosses her beret into the air and shouts, “Doggone it, that’s just not right!”

Those Darn Cats: This documentary traces the history of protest from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. to Vietnam to millions of women flooding the streets in pink, homemade, knitted bonnets with pointy ears. It includes knitting instructions for bonnets.

That’s it for now, but movies are being churned out practically by the hour. So pass the popcorn—and a strong drink.

______________________________

In light of current events, it has taken me a long time to find my voice. For many weeks, I have not written. I have watched and pondered. I have considered the rights being trampled and been proud of those who will not allow America to go gently into the dark night. Still, I do not want to add more anger to this world, so I have chosen these satirical pieces. Some may call them fake reviews, but I prefer to define them as “alternative reviews.” I have a dishcloth from the Nobel Peace Center on my writing desk, one of those biodegradable Swedish wonders made of wood cellulose and cotton. It quotes Martin Luther King Jr: “The time is always right to do what is right.” So this is the time. — S.R.

 

Saved by the Great British Baking Show

Chocolate CakeIn this nasty and endless election year, I have turned to The Great British Baking Show for a dose of spirit-reviving civility.

Until this year, I never realized how much civility matters. I have always tried to be polite, but I have discovered to be civil from the heart is a whole other pastry.

In the Baking Show, the contestants are winning and charming, and the judges are kind and caring. No one yells. Enemies cheer for each other and hug each other. The winner celebrates with family, friends, and other contestants at a tea party (and not the American kind).

Perhaps it’s the accent.

In British speak, “Think you’ve missed the boat with this one. It tastes terrible.” comes out sounding like, “Sorry, old chap, but let’s pick up that spatula and give it another go, shall we?”

If you listen over the clatter of mixing bowls and oven doors, you hear that sometimes the words don’t matter as much as their source.

Do words come from hatred or do they come from love?

“Put her in jail.”

“Enough is enough.”

“She’s a liar.”

“I’m fired up and ready to go.”

“I don’t like losers.”

“When they go low, we go high.”

If we listen, we can easily hear where words come from: fear, confidence, anger, contentment, frustration, strength, hatred, love.

Words can lie, but their source cannot. Choose the gateau over the gutter.

_________________________

Words fly, as well as pies, in my novel Book of Mercy. Check it out.

5 Steps to a Great Book Cover

A book has only seconds to capture your attention, and its attention-getter is the cover.

As an author entrepreneur, a professional book designer, and an independent publisher, I’m always looking at covers. Some catch my eye, but many more make me wince.

So let’s look at five steps to creating a great cover.

Find Good, Meaningful Art

Step 1: Hire professionals to help you find or create good art that relates to your book and your genre.

WarriorsRevenge-AmazonI design covers for nonfiction, but not fiction. So when I was working on my mystery novels, I knew I needed help.

In my books, a yoga teacher solves mysteries. For the latest in the Maya Skye series, Warrior’s Revenge, I bought the work of two professional photographers: Cathleen Tarawhiti of New Zealand and Greg Nimbs of North Carolina.

If you are looking for atmospheric and beautiful, Cathleen is a wizard. She introduced me to the model Monique Wanner, who became Maya Skye in the first book in the series, Down Dog Diary, and returned in Warrior’s Revenge. See more of Cathleen’s work here.

Greg’s photo of a church in Murphy, NC, caught my eye the first time I saw it on Pinterest and stayed with me the whole time I was writing Warrior’s Revenge. I just knew the church in Greg’s photo was the Chapel of the Forgiving Heart in my story. Check out Greg’s work here.

Note: Do not use clipart on your cover. Invest in quality art from a stock library or the library of a good photographer.

So You Have Good Visuals, Now What?

Step 2: Tell a story, not write a ransom note.

The sure sign of an unprofessional book cover is a bucket of images plastered on top of each other—with no finesse.

For finesse, I turned to digital artist Katt Amaral Quinonez. Take a peek at her work here and see why I chose her. I wanted a mystical and mysterious quality for Warrior’s Revenge, but not too dark and forbidding. Katt nailed.

Maya morphShe took the photographs by Cathleen and Greg and blended them into one coherent image that had a beautifully illustrative quality.

Take a look at the lovely Monique in the flesh and how she evolved under Katt’s artful hand into my Maya.

Note: When it comes to fonts, once again, avoid the ransom note. Use no more than two fonts on your cover.

But Will It Play as a Postage Stamp?

Step 3: Make sure your cover is readable in all sizes.

Your cover has to be intriguing—from the shelf of your local bookstore to the thumbnails displayed in online retailers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo.

Make sure the title is big and your name is big. Avoid fonts that are difficult to read (no matter how cool they look on the screen).

The Front Cover Catches Them, But the Back Sells Them

Step 4: Plan your back cover real estate.

The back cover is prime real estate, the penthouse of space on your book cover. It is a powerful marketing tool and should include the following:

  • Subject category at the top. This standardized heading helps bookstores shelf your book appropriately. Find a complete list of publishing categories at Book Industry Study Group.
  • Summary of your book: Tell what your book is about in 100-200 words. Remember you are selling, not writing a synopsis.
  • Endorsements from reviews.
  • About the author. Offer a brief bio with photo. Be sure to note where you are from. Local reviewers will look for that connection right away.
  • Website URL so readers can find out more about you and your books.
  • Barcode and ISBN to make the stores happy.

Here’s What the Experts Say

Step 5: Create a thing of marketing beauty by working with professionals.

As the chair of the Midwest Book Awards, I want to see covers that wow the judges (who are themselves cover designers). From the evaluations of last year’s cover entries, we can glean the basics of good cover design.

  • Make it inviting, striking, and beautifully done. Those were some of the adjectives the judges used to describe the finalists in the book awards. Quality book covers stand out from the crowd.
  • Deliver on its promise. A cover is the beginning of a contract with the reader. It makes a promise of what is going to be inside. Does a cover promise fun, thrills and chills, or romance? A pink, fluffy cover with kittens on it will not sell a dark thriller.
  • Keep it balanced and integrated. The cover makes the reader feel comfortable (another part of that invisible contract) by integrating all the visual elements and balancing the images with the fonts.

Here’s one more tip (or rather 10 of them) from the experts at Writer’s Digest: 10 Tips for Effective Book Covers.

When you think about it, book covers have a heavy job. They have a function—to market the book—but the best ones are also works of art.

Where Ideas Come From: A Lesson from O. Henry

Unlike O. Henry, most of us are not short story factories.

We stare at blank screens and wonder if our writing lives are over. What if we never get another fresh idea? What if that last essay or story or novel was it?

Let’s look at how O. Henry defeated the blank page.

The Connection Gamehand-off

Once while dining with friends at a restaurant, O. Henry was asked by a reporter how he came up with all the plots for his hundreds of short stories. “There are stories in everything,” O. Henry said.

He then picked up the typewritten bill of fare and proceeded to outline a story of a lovesick typist reunited with her lost love all because of a typo on a restaurant menu. The conversation inspired O. Henry’s story, “Springtime à la Carte.”

Sometimes when I am stuck, I play a game inspired by O.Henry. I call it the “Connection Game”—seizing on something commonplace and letting the mind make connections. Here’s how it works: choose the first three words that pop into your head and then let your writer mind begin weaving them into a story. Don’t try to write a story. Just let the mind start making connections, pulling in things you have experienced, heard, or read. Trust it.

In one of my games, the words were: rabbit, spoon, and penny. What came when I sat down to type was just a vignette of a homeless man, a war veteran, who was camped in a woods and roasting a rabbit on a spit. In his shirt pocket was a silver spoon. He used the spoon for self-defense but also to dig out the pennies tucked into the crevasses of brick walls.

What did he do with the pennies? Eat them. Because everyone knows we stash pennies in cracks and throw them in fountains to bring us luck. Rabbit Man figured he was eating the good wishes of others when he ate the pennies.

This scene eventually became part of my novel, Book of Mercy. Runaway Ryder hooks up with Rabbit Man for the night and is changed forever.

It Wasn’t Always Easy for O. Henry Either

If you are mired in self-doubt and eating procrastination like chocolate, remember that it happens to all of us. Even O. Henry alternated “between procrastination and fits of feverish industry,” according to Harry Hansen in the foreword of The Complete Works of O. Henry.

All you have to do is stay in the game, perhaps by playing the Connection Game. As O. Henry inferred from his comment to the reporter, stories and storytelling are about connections, and connections are all around us.

__________________

Freebie: One of my favorite mystery series is all about connections. Author Estelle Ryan’s autistic art fraud investigator, Dr. Genevieve Lenard, helps solve crimes by making connections. The first book in the series, The Gauguin Connection, is free in eBook.

Surviving Book Awards

Books waiting to be shipped to judges in the Midwest Book Awards.

Books waiting to be shipped to judges in the Midwest Book Awards.

As chair of the Midwest Book Awards, I have discovered one can survive running a book awards program. It takes an immense amount of time, planning that would put most military strategists to shame, lots of contacts and friends with contacts, a patient and generous family, and a warm coat.

The Midwest Book Awards have been sponsored for 26 years by the Midwest Independent Publishing Association (MIPA). This is an organization that has dedicated more than a quarter of a century to raising the level of book publishing in the Midwest.

We still have a way to go, as I learned last year when AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) held its conference in Minneapolis. I can’t tell you how many times I heard writers claim they were surprised by how much literature is being produced here; they considered us a “flyover” between the big publishers in the East and the trendy ones on the West Coast.

The Midwest Is Not a Flyover Literary Abyss

Well, fly this: This year the book awards received 198 titles entered in 305 categories. At this very moment they are being judged by 58 independent judges all over the country. All of the books are from publishers located in MIPA’s 12-state region: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

My job is a simple one: find the judges, promote the awards, handle the entries and entry fees, keep on the good side of all delivery people, deliver the entries to the judges and field their questions, tally the results, send out the good and bad news, throw a big party in May to honor the winners and finalists, and do not, under any circumstances, screw up my Excel spreadsheet that has all these details meticulously recorded.

Is Entering a Book Awards Program Worth It?

Entering award programs are important for authors and publishers. I’m not saying awards will sell a million books, but they have value. It is a way to get feedback on your work. All the entries in the Midwest Book Awards (not just finalists and winners) receive copies of the judges’ scoring sheets with their comments. This is part of MIPA’s mission—to help educate publishers and authors about best practices so they can produce better books.

From a promotion standpoint, finalists and winners can send out press releases, announce their glory on their websites, add this honor to their portfolio, and purchase gold (for winner) and silver (for finalist) seals to decorate the covers of their books. One winning author called me while on a book tour: “Please send me more gold seals. The readers and buyers love them.” I mailed a fresh supply to her hotel.

When publishers ask me about entering book awards, I say go for it with one caveat: Spend your time and money on the good ones. Not all award programs are the same in terms of prestige and return on investment. For example, if an award requires you to send just one book, that means there is only one judge in your category. What if that judge is having a bad day when she reads your book or your writing style just isn’t her cup of tea despite your memorable characters and clever plot. The Midwest Book Awards has three judges for each category; that’s three opinions to balance out the bad day and three times the feedback.

Is Coordinating a Book Award Program Worth It?

As for me, has it been valuable to coordinate this program? Think about what I’ve learned (about Excel alone), the books I’ve seen, the people I’ve met. When those judges open their boxes of books, it is like Christmas morning. They are excited and grateful and proud to be part of this grand adventure. One judge told me she is learning about ways to improve her own writing skills by evaluating scenes and pacing in the work of others. Some judges have asked to judge this competition year after year, and their only recompense is our undying gratitude, free books, and tickets to the awards gala.

The awards gala will be truly special. I know because I’ve emceed the last two galas. The books of all the finalists will be displayed for everyone to thumb through and to generate buzz before the ceremony. The authors and publishers will be giddy, cheering for their favorites, and taking pictures of everyone with their cell phones. The wine will flow and the appetizers will disappear.

But what about the generosity of family and that puffy parka? You need family to help you with the logistics of an awards program sponsored by a volunteer organization; someone has to box and deliver hundreds of books of varying sizes and weights.

The parka is a personal preference. When I was sorting and moving books on a daily basis, I was doing it in my three-season porch, the only space available in my home to store that many books. It was December in Minnesota, and some days it was not much more than six degrees on my porch. So, yes, a good coat is the book awards chair’s best friend.

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