February 26th, 2014

A few more things…

Man, I’ve got to get snappier subject lines… Anyway!

I have, as I mention above, been up to a few more things. CBC Books surveyed the Canada Writers readers on our favourite short stories–I would advise reading pretty much everything on this list.

And my story “Ms. Universe” is now posted on Byliner. If you’d like to read it there, and/or other stuff on Byliner, follow the link and than scroll down to the end of the page to get a 14-day trial of the site for free. Enjoy!

February 18th, 2014

Last Fall

Last fall I read about 550 short stories in two months for the CBC Canada Writes contest. I was a big crazy slalom, but I enjoyed myself and learned a lot. If you’re not familiar with Canada Writes contest, it’s pretty prestigious and pretty challenging–I read that many stories and I was one of TWELVE readers. In addition to the very stiff competition, the word count on the contest makes it all but impossible for me to even enter–1500 words MAX. I’m not really that kind of writer lately–I felt like I’d all but forgotten how to write an effective story in that tight a space and I was hoping that helping out with the contest would help me relearn that skill. It did, to some degree, but all really good short stories are truly just their own thing and while there’s a glimmer of “oh, I see how you did that” mainly the spell remains unbroken.

Anyway, the long list was announced on Monday–from that list of 36 it’s up to the judges to determine the shortlist. I do not envy them the task. There was plenty of dross in my pile of stories, of course, but when I passed on my selections for the long list they were all pretty damn amazing–any number could have won in my book.

If you want to read my thoughts on the three stories I chose that made it to the long list, you can do so in the little interview CBC did with me, Amber Dawn and Michael Hingston, two of the other readers. More of those interviews will follow in the next few weeks.

So now you know why I was always stressed and carrying a big pile of papers last fall….

February 13th, 2014

The Upcoming Holidays

I do not have anything new to say on the concept of Valentine’s Day–I looked it up and apparently my beliefs are exactly the same as on Vday 2011. And no one at any point has every cared for my Family Day is fascist position. So why don’t I just wish you a great long weekend of demonstrating affection for whomever you want however you want. I plan to take many naps and potentially see an aerialist.

February 10th, 2014

Cheap Writing Hacks: Characters

I’ve been reading tonnes and tonnes lately, which I guess I always do, but I’ve also been tired and busy and grouchy, and thus less patient with the lousy stuff. There’s a list of cheap writing hacks that I’ve noticed over the years–things we might do in fiction with plot or characters not because it makes sense or is interesting, but because it makes the writer’s life easier. Of course, I’m a giant snob, but to my mind they are cheating–even when I do it myself, I’m conscious of cheating–I’ll edit or rewrite or junk the story if I can’t fix it. Either I write what the fictional universe of the story demands or I don’t get to write the story–or at least, that’s the ideal I’m striving for.

In my current snarky mood, I have been mentally listing the fictional dodges I see most often–here’s a few about characters. Let’s be honest: character is what I care most about and I may well have a few unconscious hacks in other areas that aren’t priorities for me in my writing. But I’ll try to cover them later. If I’m not too tired. If you think of more hacks, about character writing or anything else, please comment to add to the list:

Prenaturally intelligent/wise-beyond-their-years children are written by people unable to write believable kid dialogue. So they about write short, slightly odd adults who like video games.

Loners are wildly popular in short stories and novels. There are any number of reasons why this is, but I suspect that a certain percentage of it is because it’s extremely hard to create the impression of a complex, interconnected social world without giving it undue space if that’s not what the story is actually about. The worst is in YA novels, because for kids their varying levels of friends and acquaintances are the whole world, but inevitably YA novels give protagonists one friend apiece, and rarely even mention other acquaintances by name.

Only children/people isolated from their families/people whose families are dead: see previous point.

Freelancers and other people with flexible schedules: see previous point but also this is a research failing. For some full-time writers, it’s very hard to imagine what a structured scheduled lifestyle with enforced contact with strangers and/or people they don’t like. So they give the characters a “freelance” gig that they spend almost no time on, and that never interferes with anything or causes them to have to do anything they wouldn’t have done anyway.

Villains are people who have no motivation other than to oppose the protagonist of a book or story, and seem to have little back story or indeed personality beyond their evilness. These people are distinct from fully imagined assholes, which everyone is welcome to write about all the time because they are so interesting.

Horrible marriages for apparently no reason: Fiction is often populated by spousal villains–jerkfaces that exist to thwart the main characters but are also somehow married to them. They have no positive characteristics and no one seems remember why they hooked up in the first place but now here we are…

***

Sorry for the snarkfest–I have had a headache for nearly a week now. Hopefully I will feel better soon and write something nice about something…

February 4th, 2014

Sometimes I do things

I wouldn’t want you guys to think I’d given up the literary lifestyle just because I rarely blog about it (or anything) these days. I do still take an interest in books, writing, and words–for the record…

February 15, 6-8:30, at The Old Nick at 123 Danforth (at Broadview), my friend Ron Schafrick will be launching his new book The Interpreters. He’ll be reading and signing, but I’ll be one of the opening acts (along with Mark Sampson. Come check it out!

My short story, Marriage, which was published in The New Quarterly last fall, was chosen for inclusion in Best Canadian Stories 2013, which will be out next fall. Very delighted!

The playwright/director/theatre guy Colin B Anthes has adapted some of the stories from Once in a live theatre performance that is going to be staged April 26 and 27 in St. Catharines. As I may have already mentioned in this space, I am SO excited about this and will definitely be there on the premiere weekend. If you live in the region or would be able to get there on those dates, please try to come. I will have more info as the situation develops, but just wanted to mention it due to the aforementioned excitement!

And I’m doing lots of other, non-literary stuff, like preparing to cast-off (at last!!) my blue knitting square; spending a lot of time failing to train my cat to do any tricks but for some reason he still really adores the process and *purrs* (very rare for him) while we’re training; visiting a bunch of babies. Oh, and one more literary thing, reading the best book ever (thanks for the recommendation, Kerry Clare!

January 18th, 2014

2014 Resolving

It’s been over a month–sorry, guys. I missed the holiday season completely on this blog–I hope you had an excellent one. Here at the Rose-coloured Ranch, the ice-storm left our power intact but stranded a householder in Moncton for a few days, so things were a bit scrambly. 2014 has actually been going fine for me, but my job has gone bananas, as it does a couple unpredictably timed months a year. It’s a good job and people have been kind to me there, so I try to role with the punches and put in the hours, but I really think I’m simply not cut out to work overtime. A few 10-hour-days, which is nothing to people in many other positions, and I am absolutely bonkers with nervous energy and fret. It’s not very nice to find out I have so little fortitude, but at least I’m certain I don’t now. I just want the month of January to be over, and with it this project.

I had been thinking about not doing resolutions this year–I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by simply getting through the days of late–but a few things conspired to inspire, so I figure, why not? I’m not going to get too bent out of shape if I don’t do these things, but…why not try?

1) Mini-M&Ms charity. I’ve always told people new to Toronto that you’ll make your life easier if you make a blanket decision about panhandlers. Maybe you give whatever’s in your pocket to whomever asks, maybe you never give on the street but donate to a charity that helps the homeless, maybe you stop and chat, maybe you pretend not to see. Whatever you are going to do, reason it out and stand by it–it’s the dithering that makes you crazy and sad. My usual policy is to give to charities like the United Way and local food banks, not to individuals, but to meet everyone’s gaze and apologize that I won’t give to them. This policy was born of being disorganized and not wanting to fumble in my bag and take out my huge wallet in front of strangers that may or may not be benign. Usually people who hit me up on the street for cash nod or shrug at my murmured apology; some even say something nice in return. Lately I’ve noticed a new phenomenon where I get some snark–one girl said archly, “Wow, that sounded really sincere.” I have no idea why she bothered–it’s a weird kind of pay-it-forward, because I’m not going to running back to shower cash on someone who said something mean to me, but it does make me think a bit harder about my own sincerity, and what I’m going to do the next time I’m asked.

Years ago, when my brother was living in Toronto and I wasn’t, he told me he used mini-M&Ms containers–small plastic tubes–to carry quarters in. They are just the right width for them, and you are able to fish them out without rummaging through all your belongings. You also know at a shake whether you actually have something to give or not, so you don’t waste everyone’s time. Of course, mini M&Ms disappeared from Canada years ago, a sad loss for many reasons. But beloved friend AMT brought me some from America recently and, delicious as they were, I couldn’t help but fixate on the container. It showed up at such fortuitous time, right when I was rethinking my street charity policy. As I type, it’s beside me, half full of quarters.

I don’t kid myself that 50 cents or a dollar from me is going to make a great difference to anyone at all. It’s the stopping and engaging that might matter, if not to the recipient, than at least to me. I’m worried that after nearly 12 years in Toronto, I’ve stopped seeing people on the street, despite my “sincere” little apologies. I’d like to start seeing again, and seeing where that leads me. Giving a little bit might help me do that–and I’m sure a few quarters wouldn’t hurt those who ask.

2) Learn to play guitar. I will count success as being able to play a recognizable tune on-key. I have had two lessons so far and have learnt two octaves of the B-flat major scale–progress. I enjoy the practicing well enough and am starting to develop some calluses. I’m also find that, as was true in my many years of piano lessons, and also with opening pickle jars, juggling, and holding hands with large-fingered men, my tiny little mouse hands are a handicap. One I plan to overcome, but the fourth fret poses some challenges for me.

3) Possibly file the papers I’ve had stacked on the floor of my office for over a year. Maybe.

4) Clicker train my elder cat, Evan, to give him something to focus his energies on so he isn’t such a pain all the time.

5) Knit a thing that has an actual purpose. I have been working on a pointless blue rectangle for more than two years.

In the number 6 slot, I could say something about my manuscript-in-progress here, but I sort of feel like at this point in the process that’s a bit like resolving to get a boyfriend. I’m going to do my best and not worry (as much as possible) about the rest. Actually, maybe that will be true on all fronts this year. That lack of worry in itself is a worthy resolution, I think.

7) Cook lots of new recipes, even ones not from the milk calendar.

8) Blog more frequently than once a month!

December 11th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews *The Pickup Artist* by Terry Bisson

Yep, I’m still working my way through my “to be read” list for 2012. The Pickup Artist by Terry Bisson is number 14 of a very confused and long-suffering 15.

Near as I can figure from his baffling website and much clearer Wikipedia page, Bisson is a well-respected American sci-fi writer with many serious, vaguely political novels to his credit. I researched this only briefly, but it sounds about right because *The Pickup Artist* read like the sort of cool-idea light-hearted adventure that serious author writes as a fun exercise and/or a wink at his fans. I found it a one-note, dull slog, but I’m not a fan (or a person who had heard of this author outside of this book) so I guess that’s why.

What is this book doing in my home, you ask? I have a theory about that. I had surgery in 2007 and it put me out of commission for a good while. Knowing this was coming, a few kind folks gave me books to read during recuperation. Some close friends gave me lovely things, but some people, just sort of generally wanting to be kind, seemed to give me books at random. I ended up with some really odd stuff, but it didn’t matter because I was both in a lot of pain and on a lot of pain medication (you’d think those two would cancel each other out, but no) and thus unable to pursue anything more intellectually rigorous than episodes of *Friends*, of which I watched many. I’ve been working my way through the books very slowly ever since I went off the codeine.

Which all just to explain what I was doing with a book in my house that contained none of the things I like about books. *The Pickup Artist* is about life on earth an indeterminate number of years in the future. The future is hazily imagined except one thing that is explained at GREAT length throughout the book–at some point, the world could not tolerate the backlog of artistic creation. New artists could not gain attention when there was so much old, excellent art lurking around for people to enjoy: how could you enjoy some new poet if you were constantly distracted by the Modernist canon? It’s the sort of logical-conclusion conversation people have late at night, and it’s interesting enough as a concept.

There’s one or two other interesting ideas–a cloning experiment gone wrong, a listening bug that convinces the target to keep it close with sexual gratification–but this book never gets past the level of the late-night ramble. The protagonist has almost no personality and certainly no backstory–apparently he was just a rule-follower who lived with his mother and dog and NEVER KNEW ANY OTHER PEOPLE. When he teams up Hank, a big-breasted librarian, it seems like things might take off, but even though they set off on a madcap roadtrip through middle America, Hank spends most of the rest of the book in sullen silence and we never learn much about her, other than that she has been pregnant for 8 years (don’t ask). She is the least interesting character in the world but she wears a mood sweatshirt that Bisson references almost every single time he mentions her. Apparently, if we know her mood, we don’t need to know anything else about her as a person.

The personal level of this book is non-existent. It’s all about the extrapolation of that one cool idea about the canon-purge. We get alternating chapters of “historical” (history in terms of the present-tense of the book, but still future from 2013) descriptions of how the laws came to be in place to delete certain works of literature, music, and visual art. Those historical chapters are shorter than the “plot” chapters, but they are crazy dull. There’s a twist at the end involving some of the historical characters and though I remembered who they were all too well, I did not care one  iota.

Blech. There’s a tiny bit about the protagonist wishing he knew his absent father, but this is merely repeated, never expanded or explored. You don’t find out what happens to anyone at the end, which didn’t matter except I kinda wanted the zombie dog to make it. No one develops or learns anything, they just go places very slowly and repetitiously.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Bisson is a great writer–this book reads like it was written in a weekend, maybe at an airport–he’s probably better when he puts more effort in. But I won’t be doing that because I disliked this book enough to steer clear of this author for a good long while.

Off the shelf fail!

December 8th, 2013

These things I know

Last week I did a “how to write short stories” talk in a grade 12 Writers’ Craft class at a high school uptown. Yesterday I went and talked literary analysis with a bunch of University College students who had read my second book. Both experiences were really fascinating and invigorating–the students were engaged and intense, and not afraid to ask the tough questions.

I love to do class visits (feel free to hit me up!) because students see different things in the writing process and my own work than I ever could, and it’s one of the few opportunities I have to hear that sort of stuff from the younger generation–or from anybody, really. In asking very basic questions, they can really challenge my ingrained assumptions about how literature should or has to work.

BUT I find myself getting very hedgey in these situations, too. Youth wants answers, I have found, and many questions simply don’t have them, or not definitive ones. I remember at that age, if I was certain something worked one way, that was the ONLY way. I just wanted to lock down an answer so I could move on to the next question; the idea that some things I’d still be pondering 20 years later would have been horrible to me at that point in my life.

So I’m very reluctant to give definitive answers in these classes. Most of what I say comes larded in, “Well, in my opinion, what works for me, some people say, I’m not at all certain but…” That probably gets annoying but better than locking impressionable young minds into the rose-coloured way of doing things when there are so many others.

There are a few things I find myself saying declaratively in these classes with totally comfort, so I guess those are the things I feel are totally true without reservation. Interesting to find this out about myself. From the two classes I spoke at recently, I have found I’m pretty sure that

1) It’s ok to be influenced by other writers. This one comes up a lot. I think it’s natural to feel other writers in your own work. The best part, though, is that the more books you read, the more you context you are able to give them so that you never quite have that overwhelming, suffused-by-genius feeling you have when you start reading you first truly good works of literature. The reason everything I wrote after I first read JD Salinger sounded like JD Salinger is that his style was pretty much alone in my brain at that point; I didn’t have any other first-person chatty, self-conscious narrator to, as it were, dilute Holden Caufield. The answer was not to read less Salinger but to read more Plath, more Colette, more Hemingway. Students who worry that their stories sound too much like their idols wonder if the best thing to do would be to read less, and sound more “like themselves.” Of course, no writer is self generated; we are all a pastiche of the people and experiences and books we’ve encountered. The trick is not to limit influences but to have lots, so that the way you put them together, your blend of influences, is truly your own.

2) There is no ideal writing schedule or setup. I’d say this to adults, too, but that doesn’t stop them–or me!–from loving to ask writers whether they write in the mornings or the evenings, with a pen or on a keyboard, at a cafe or in the kitchen. It’s funny, even while I gobble that stuff up, I have no idea why I care. No one ever asks actors whether they prefer to run their lines before or after lunch, do they? Or songwriters whether they get better melody lines if they sit at the piano or pick at their guitar? It doesn’t matter. The way you get work done is the way that works for you; it has everything to do with your individual schedule and temperament, and absolutely nothing to do there being a “best” way. The only reason to try a new schedule or chair or writing exercise is that you personally might enjoy it and it might make you feel so good you write more. I firmly believe that, if you produce better work with pen and paper than on a computer, you should keep on, but it’s really not because you have some mystical “connection with the page” that the keyboard does not afford. That’s stuff’s bunk. Do what works and, if it stops working, do something else.

3) A real writer can do something else “full-time.” I think most non-writers are a little baffled by the idea that you could be a legit, publishing, even somewhat (well, a little!) respected writer and still have to go work somewhere else. Millenials are actually less susceptible to the idea that everyone has one real occupation. The new way the world works, and the way it has always worked for creative folks, is you take the money you make from doing what you love and subtract it from your expenditures per month. The number that results is the amount of money you will earn per month doing something other than what you love. Possibly, hopefully, you will earn it in a job you like quite well, but most of us are willing to do what it takes. The idea that your real job is 9-5 and everything else is a hobby is going the way of the woolly mammoth, but the youth has still been talking to their parents and need a helpful reminder now and again.

4) I can’t tell you what my works “means.”  And this is not just because I’m refusing to do your homework for you (sad but true–when students email me for help writing essays on my stories, I am so flattered I usually help at least a little, even though I really feel I shouldn’t). Sometimes I know what I meant when I put the story down on the page, and sometimes I don’t–because I was myself confused or feeling ambiguous as I wrote, or because it was a long time ago and I forget. But even if I had a very definite thought behind what I wrote, the story is only the story. If you cannot divine what I was thinking, then for you, that thought is simply not in the story. You’re NOT wrong if you can’t see it (I mean, if you’ve read carefully and thoughtfully, and basically understand written English–otherwise you might be wrong). Stories are limited to the text and what the reader can bring to it; if I got to follow each story around and add my deep thoughts and feelings to what you read, that would be a different story  (and a far more annoying world for us all). So when I’m asked what my “themes” are or my “message,” I really honestly mean it when I say, “you tell me.” I guarantee, I won’t correct you.

5) You can learn how to write better. Many snotballs run around saying “You can’t teach someone how to write well.” (Interestingly, the first time I heard this was from a writing professor.) Of course you can–there are always refinements and reimaginings you can use to make your writing clearer, brighter, easier to feel for a reader. Some you learn from reading good work, some from having smart people read your work and tell you where it falls down. Sometimes you learn from staring at the same sentence for an hour. The thing is that all these things are hard and many dull, some depressing. Many people would like to stop writing fairly early on in this process, thereby not learning anything new. The rest of us slog on, getting better very very slowly, with the help of whoever is willing, forever.

 

 

November 13th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews the 2013 Giller Prize

Despite the phone ringing during the opening chords, I was pretty pleased with what I caught of Whitehorse. They’re great singers, but though I thought they were struggling pretty hard to work around the stage in their formal-wear and to set up instruments mid-song. No one could have helped them? Seemed a bit chinzy not to have a tech guy at an otherwise lavish event…

Onwards to the show! Jian Ghomeshi was hosting again, and he was his usual personable, suave self. The room was filled with elaborate tables with elaborate centrepieces. Mark and I now know enough literati, at least by sight, to have fun pointing out who we knew in the crowd, a game Mark is much better at than I am. I’m out of it enough that, as Jian announced each nominee, and the camera focussed in on a face, I assumed that was the nominee. Mark thought this was hilarious.

“Is that Craig Davidson?”

“No, it’s the guy behind him. You can sort of see his hair.”

The camera guys would struggle with this all night. Not sure why.

I failed to watch the Gillers last year due to the CBC website posting the wrong time on their website for their OWN broadcast–so lame–so I don’t know whether the changes I saw in the broadcast were new this year or not. I do know that they seem to have taken my 2010 Giller Review to heart and eliminated the very personal interview questions in the mini-movies. Actually they did that in 2011 too, but this year they replaced them with personal interview questions on-stage. I actually love those, but that is my nosy streak–I am not sure it was fair to ask Dan Vyleta about his late father in front of a live audience, though he handled it gracefully and wittily.

Something new, at least to me, is that the mini-movies are now readings of the stories, in the authors’ OWN voices no less. This is a huge improvement over previous years where there was neither an opportunity for the authors to speak nor any direct quotes of the celebrated books. I really liked the readings–great job, everybody. I was less crazy about the visuals in the movies, which were impressionistic, vague scenes from the books in question, more or less. I wasn’t wild about them, but nor was I embarrassed by them, and I also don’t have a better suggestion. Well, I do–it could just be the author standing there wearing nice clothes reading the book. That always does it for me at live readings. But TV being the action-packed medium that it is, I don’t think we’ll see that in future, so I’m fine with these glimpses into someone’s imagination of the worlds of the novel.

The best part of the evening, other than the winner, was unexpectedly the on-stage judge interview. Margaret Atwood, Esi Edugyan, and Jonathan Lethem comprised the jury, and vast variety of heights. They were already mildly amusing just standing there, with Jian Ghomeshi onstage, before anyone spoke. They looked like invitees to different parties, or like a mischievous sprite, the queen, and an awkward teenager, respectively. Ghomeshi kicked things off by mentioning that Atwood had asked earlier about the “banter” and she teased him from there, answering all the questions gnomically–the difference between her time on the Giller jury this year and previously is “being older”–and actually covering a giggle with her hand at one point. I have almost never seen video footage of Atwood, and I was shocked by a realization I’d not had previously: Margaret Atwood *loves* being Margaret Atwood. I am so happy for her–makes me want to read her new book even though it is about the apocalypse and I am very scared of the apocalypse. Ghomeshi capped off the interview by asking if we’d be surprised by the winner, and Lethem responded that it was a book on the shortlist. I’m not sure if I’m properly conveying how funny it all was.

The presenters were useless as ever–the weakest part of the show. I don’t know why the Giller organizers insist on pulling people from showbiz to present–as if many bookish people will be drawn in if there’s a hiphop star on it. Or as if hiphop fans would be! I forget every presenter’s name and most of what they said, but I did note that there seemed to be much more emphasis on the presenters proving they had actually read the books. I do not care if they had or not, as they did not have anything interesting to say about their reading experiences.

As far as I know, other industries have people FROM that industry present at awards shows. Film actors at the Oscars, tv folks at the Emmies, musicians for the Grammies (actually, I don’t for sure know these things and think that maybe should be Emmys and Grammys). ANYWAY, surely there are some writers somewhere who are telegenic enough to be Giller presenters. Isn’t that “presenter” role supposed to be a little bit of exposure for others in the industry who aren’t nominated? I think it would be great to see more Canadian writers than just the 5 nominees on Giller night. If I thought I could pull off an evening gown, I’d apply for the gig myself.

Um…cutting to the chase: *Hellgoing* by Lynn Coady won. I was delighted, not only because it is a book short stories, nor because it was the only book on the shortlist I had read, not because I thought Coady other book *The Antagonist* should have won when it was nominated in 2011. I thought that THIS book, this book that won, was very very good and deserving of accolades. I’m wary of a cumulative effects with big prizes–none of this “write enough good books and that will eventually add up to one great book.” And I don’t necessarily feel that this was a victory for short stories, though after book Giller night and Alice Munro’s Nobel win a few weeks ago, everyone’s been congratulating me as if my “team” had a victory. It would certainly be lovely if these two events brought more readers in general to the story, but in the meantime, I think Coady can claim whole ownership of this prize. She didn’t win for her subject matter (too varied), her lifetime achievements (too young), or her gravitas (too funny): she won because she wrote an inventive, intelligent, entertaining, sad, thought-provoking book. I’m hesitant to say the best (as I haven’t read the other books) but certainly a book very much deserving of celebration.

Coady’s speech was unexpectedly boring–she mentioned being overwhelmed and fair enough. The highpoint was that she noted two big factors in her success as a writer are a happy marriage and enough food. Hear, hear!

Best Gillers in my experience–even cautiously looking forward to next year!

November 11th, 2013

A blast from 2009 (from the Puritan)

If my last post has you intrigued about why I write what I write, this one should be up your alley too. Way back in 2009, my story “If This” ran in Issue 8 of the Puritan. 4 years later, the Puritans (that’s not what they call the editors there??) asked me to write a blog post on how/why I wrote it, and so I did. Enjoy!

It’s funny to be going back to older stories now. For ages, whenever I went back to something from a few years ago, I would want to shrivel up in horror at how bad it was. Now that I have published work that people have enjoyed (or claimed to), I am able to not feel that way sometimes, and instead just, you know, read the story. Sometimes, often actually, I can’t remember writing that bit or exactly how I felt about it or what I wanted to convey. I’m stuck on the outside as a reader interpreting rather than a writer knowing. It’s kinda cool, and kinda terrifying, actually.

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