Tools for the Discovery Writer (Aka, “Pantser”)

This morning I worked some more on the class I’ll be teaching Sunday afternoon at Context 27 (a speculative fiction con in Columbus, Ohio, coming up in about a month). I’ll be providing specific tools for the so-called discovery writer  (aka, the fly by the seat of your pants writer, aka, pantser, aka she or he who does not do a plot outline before starting a project.).

Preparing to teach this class is turning out to be a lot of fun, as it has provided an opportunity for my ideas on the topic — which have been percolating for a few years now — to coalesce into a meaningful whole.  Unless my memory fails me, everything I’ve written has been pantsed rather than plot outlined.  So I’ve had a lot of ups and downs with this way of going about things, and look forward to sharing what I’ve learned.

As I put my class materials together I’ll be posting one or two brief excerpts here on this blog.  You know, free samples.  Teasers.  Here’s a piece I worked on this morning.  Take a gander at it by clicking on the linky-link : Discovery writing workshop PDF

And, for more information about the workshop at Context 27, check out this link.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frantic Post-ReaderCon Entry….

Thinphoto(39)gs have been crazy busy, and I honestly don’t have time for a full blog entry, so here are some brief highlights of the last few weeks.

ReaderCon was a blast.  I had a chance to meet so many interesting folks in the weird fiction scene (if I list everyone, I’ll be here forever…and I’ll forget someone.  But, yeah, a lot of folks).  My novella Children of No One didn’t win the Shirley Jackson Award, but I enjoyed attending the ceremony.  Also, as a finalist for the award I was gifted the lovely, polished skipping stone pictured to the left.  Shirley Jackson…stone…get it?  (If you’re like the vast majority of my friends back home, you don’t.  But the crowd reading this blog is no doubt more refined).

Anyway, congratulations to all of the winners (especially Veronica Schanoes, whose novella Burning Girls won and Joe Pulver, who won in the anthology category for The Grimscribe’s Puppets).

In other news, I’m hopeful to have at least one new project to announce in the near future.  I can’t say much more than that and I’m almost afraid of jinxing it by even saying this much.  But I’m quite enthusiastic about the possibility of this working out.  Things are looking good.

And, last (but not least), this morning I enjoyed a brief Twitter discussion with Hugh Howey on his unbridled enthusiasm for Amazon.  I’m not anti-Amazon, but think Hugh’s enthusiasm could use some bridling.  Hugh (not surprisingly) disagrees.

Amazon isn’t the Evil Empire, but it isn’t the messiah either.  The truth is always more complicated than a bumper sticker.  It’s best to be a critical consumer of corporate press releases.  The Amazon vs. Hachette debate needs nuance and moderation (such as that offered by John Scalzi  and Walter Jon Williams), not cheer leading and talking points.  If you want to see the blow-by-blow Twitter recap, check it out on Storify.

And with that, I’m off.  Stay hip, cats!

 

Gearing Up For ReaderCon…

As I write this, I am about 36 hours away from departing for Boston (and, specifically, ReaderCon).  Having spent the early part of this week polishing a novella, I am ridiculously behind schedule.  I have not packed any bags.  The convention has not really been on my mind.  But it’s coming up.

I last attended this convention in 2011 and — if the blog I wrote afterwards is a reliable indicator — really enjoyed myself back then.

Some things have changed since those days.  This time, I come to the convention as a nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award (for my novella, Children of No One).  The ceremony will be held on Sunday morning.

I’m allowing myself to be hopeful of winning the award, but that’s not where I’m trying to focus my energy.  I’m trying to steer my energy in the direction of gratitude.  Gratitude for being nominated alongside a legend in the field like Ramsey Campbell.  Gratitude for being nominated alongside several other talented writers, too.  Gratitude for having my work embraced this way.  I may lose the award (most nominees do, eh?), but I hope to win the experience.  I hope to just savor being a nominee.

And who knows, I may win.  I hope I do. I’ll obviously be disappointed if I don’t.

But I won’t be crushed.  I’ll be having too much fun to be crushed if I lose.

But who knows, I may win.

(Repeat this line of reasoning over and over, about a gazillion times, and you have a window to my thought process about the whole thing).

In addition to being neurotically serene about the Shirley Jackson Awards, I’m also looking forward to seeing colleagues like Mike Griffin and Justin Steele (as well as my fellow-Codexians…who look as though they’re going to be well-represented at the con).

Alas, I must run.  So, there you have it.

How I Cope With Negative Reviews

I thought I’d share a little bit about this topic, since it seems to be in the genre news these days.  Not passing this down as gospel truth for anyone else.  Just sharing what works for me (in case anyone else is interested).  So, without further ado, here goes…

Step 1.  I read it again and ask myself:  “Is it really that negative?”

As human beings (and writers) we tend to pay more attention to negative criticism than to praise.  (At least I do.  I suspect I’m not alone).  There have been times when I’ve gotten reviews that were 2/3 positive and only 1/3 negative.  And yet where does my attention usually focus?  The 1/3 negative.  It’s human nature.

But just because it’s human nature doesn’t mean I have to yield to the impulse.  I can fight it.  Sometimes, I’m able to talk with my hubbie and (especially since he’s not in the publishing biz) he’s able to offer a more balanced perspective.  Sometimes I take a day or two away from Goodreads or Amazon or Facebook or blogs or wherever else the review occurred.  The best medicine, of all, for a negative review is to simply get back to work on the next project.

Anyway, the overall theme for step one?  I put the negative review in perspective and remember thatno matter how well I think I’ve written something — I’m not entitled to a chorus of unanimous praise.

Step 2.  I read it again and ask myself:  “Is there anything this review can teach me about how to improve my game?

Don’t get me wrong, I take plenty of reviews with a grain of salt.  But I read them all and I think I can learn something from each and every one.  (Sometimes what I learn is that my fiction just isn’t likely to appeal to certain kinds of readers.  If your favorite author is Dean Koontz or Brandon Sanderson, for example, you’re unlikely to dig my stuff.  Fair enough.)

But sometimes reviewers offer more substantial criticisms.  Sometimes these criticisms have led me to change my approach.  Not often.  Rarely, in fact.  But it happens.

Sometimes, it’s okay to admit to yourself (and maybe only yourself) that the reviewer’s right.  Maybe not even right about everything.  Maybe just right about something.

Step 3.  I congratulate myself.  Getting a negative review means my work is being read outside my immediate circle of well-wishers.  It’s a sign of a growing readership.

I first heard this idea from urban fantasy author Mur Lafferty on her podcast I Should Be Writing.  (Recommended listening, by the way.  You don’t have to be an urban fantasy writer to get something out of her show).  It’s an idea I’ve come, over time, to embrace.

The greater the number of readers, the more varied the responses will be.  Compare and contrast two different scenarios.

Scenario #1:  If I read a story to a group of twenty friends, most of them are going to say they like it.  They’re my friends.  We share a common frame of reference.  We think alike.  They might be writers, too.  Supporting each other might be part of an essential esprit de corps that keeps us all going in the midst of an extremely difficult career path.  Negative criticism may be seen as a betrayal of that espirt de corps.

There may be a temptation to buy into a notion that all of us are magnificent writers.  (You can see this in a lot of small, face-to-face critique groups.)  One of us is the next Hemingway, another the next Fitzgerald.  Why, our social circle is just like the expats in Paris!

It’s a phenomenon that can be particularly seductive in small press communities devoted to niche genres and subgenres.  There’s a temptation to let out a chant of:  “I’m great, / you’re great. / Isn’t it great / we’re all great!”  The good thing about chants is that they can bring a group together like perhaps nothing else can (as any NFL stadium can show you, in the fourth quarter).  The bad thing about chants is that they don’t leave a whole lot of room for nuance.

Scenario #2:  If, on the other hand, I read a story to an auditorium of 1,000 people, then maybe only seven hundred are going to really love it (if I’m lucky).  Two hundred may feel “meh” about it.  One hundred may absolutely loathe it.

They’re not my friends.  They may not share the same frame of reference at all.  They may not get that what I was doing in chapter one was a reference to Bruno Schulz (they’ve never heard of him, perhaps).  They wonder why my book isn’t more like The Hunger Games.  Or they wonder why my book isn’t more like Henry James.  The critiques may be coming from various different directions, but the common thread is:  they don’t like it.  Some may even be crass in their statements of why they don’t like it.  Because they don’t know me, they treat me in the same way they would treat a public figure.  (Because — surprise! — all of a sudden I am one).  I’m fair game.  They may say things that are hurtful.  Sarcastic.

Now, which scenario do I want?  If I’m in this only for ego-stroking, I’ll choose scenario #1 every time.  (And, with the emergence of fan fiction, hobbyist presses, micro presses and the like, there are more and more opportunities for writers to encounter scenario #1 — and only scenario #1. )

And, if that’s honestly all I want, then I’m going to focus my efforts in the direction of ensuring outcomes like scenario #1.

But if I’m in this to grow my readership and/or make a dent on my field, then that’s going to mean at least occasionally facing scenario #2.  That means I’m going to have to grow thick skin (if I don’t already have it).  Everyone’s heard this before, but it bears repeating:  bad reviews are part of the business.  If I tend to become extremely frustrated or sad each time I see a negative review, then I may want to focus my energy on toughening up.  If I find, over time, that  I can’t toughen up then I may want to choose another business.

Step 4.  I never, ever publicly lash out against the reviewer. *

*Okay, there was the one time I kinda/sorta made fun of an Amazon reviewer who seemed to say she felt Children of No One was based on real-life events (she said she knew it but “didn’t have proof”).  But even that wasn’t so much of a lashing out as a bewildered “WTF?”  And at least it was a three-star review, and not a one or two-star one.  :)

But, that incident aside, I don’t criticize critics.

Because if I do, there’s a chance that someone is going to see it as a simple case of sour grapes.  Maybe 99% of people are going to see it as justified.  But I suspect 1% won’t.  And I never know who that 1% might be.  It could be an editor.  It could be an agent.  It could be a reader.  It could be a colleague.  If I lash out, I have to accept that someone out there will lose at least a smidgen of respect for me.  If I was well-established in the field, I might be willing to take that risk.  But I’m pretty new.  So I’ll pass on the revenge, thanks.

Step 5.  I don’t talk about / link to / the negative review.

My work has mostly been well-reviewed, but I’ve gotten my share of negative reviews as well.  But I’ll never talk about them.  If people want to find them, they can.  Why should I put a spotlight on them?  When I ignore them, they lose their power over me.

So, to sum it up…

For me, negative reviews are like bee stings.  Sure, they hurt like a motherfucker for a few minutes.  But then the pain fades and I move on.  And, damn, there’s a lot of freedom in that.

Just my two cents.  Your mileage may vary.

 

 

 

Gigi Bannister’s Daughter is Missing…

Gigi Bannister has long been active in the independent horror film scene (for her own work — mostly behind the scenes —  as well as for being the wife of Phantasm actor and friendliest-guy-in-film Reggie Bannister).  I met both of them many, many years ago (ten?  twelve?)  at one of the early Horrorfind conventions in Baltimore.  I haven’t kept up a correspondence with them, but retain a memory of both Reggie and Gigi as down to earth folks and pleasant to hang around.

I was saddened to see the news that Gigi’s daughter, Autumn, has been missing since January.  To raise awareness of the search efforts, Gigi is producing a documentary called Autumn Leaves.  Here’s a link to where you can find out more about this project and how you can help.  Please join me in donating to this worthwhile cause.

The Shirley Jackson Award Nomination & Post-WHC Wrap-Up

I’ve talked about this extensively on Facebook and Twitter, but have yet to share this with blog readers:  my novella Children of No One has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.  This is my first award nomination ever, and I’m thrilled and honored that the jury found a little book set in Nowhere, Indiana worthy of inclusion in such a strong short list.  Congratulations to all nominees, especially my DarkFuse colleague Brian Hodge and the legendary Ramsey Campbell (both fellow-nominees in the novella category), as well as Joe Pulver (nominated for editing The Grimscribe’s Puppets, in which I have a tiny story) and Livia Llewellyn (nominated in the short story category, for her Grimscribe’s Puppets story “Furnace”).

I’m grateful for the extra attention the nomination has granted my work.  It’s a relief to get such high profile recognition, after spending so long honing my craft in isolation and true obscurity out here in the Midwest, far from the both the NYC publishing scene and the nurturing milieu of a MFA program.  An award nomination helps establish that I actually belong in this gig.  I knew suspected that all along, of course.  But a nomination like this lends some bona fides.

It also occurs to me that the nomination, in and of itself, is the sort of accolade that will end up in my Locus obituary someday (if I end up with a Locus obituary someday…Is it morbid to think about that?  Surely, I’m not the only one who thinks about such things).

At the same time, I’m trying to approach this (as I do all career ups and downs) with equanimity.  I have a staggering amount of work in front of me (on many fronts), and so I find it healthy to just focus on the tasks at hand (which I have control over) rather than ruminating about the awards (which I have zero control over).  But it merits a blog post, at least.  So there it is.

***

The other important thing I should mention is that I recently returned from attending the World Horror Convention in Portland, Oregon.  I saw many, many people there.  Friends, old and new (perhaps the biggest highlight, for me, was finally meeting W.H. Pugmire).  I only wish I’d thought to have someone take a picture of us together.

I participated in several business meetings, and am cautiously optimistic about all of them.  I read my story “A Catechism for Aspiring Amnesiacs” to a small audience that included S.T. Joshi.  I had one of my first experiences of someone I’d never met looking at my name tag and asking:  “Hey, didn’t you write that story…the one about the maze?”  I met Vincent Price’s daughter, Victoria, and chatted with her for a pleasant five or ten minutes.  Overall, I had a blast.  I wasn’t crazy about Portland.  It’s not a good fit for me, as far as cities go.  Far too frilly and obsessed with cutesy irony.  Portland is a warning to the rest of America:  this is what happens when the hipsters win.

But, annoyance at the host city aside, it was actually a positive business trip.  I’m leaning strongly toward attending next year’s gig, in Atlanta.

***

And so this is where I bid you all au revoir.  I’d love to sit here and blog in greater depth.  But the day job is calling.  Suffice to say, things are going very well — for now.  And I’m doing my best to enjoy the modest success while simultaneously keeping my nose firmly planted to the grindstone.

Later, y’all.

 

 

Gearing Up for the World Horror Convention

Things have been crazy-hectic around these parts (a state of affairs that was, unfortunately, worsened by a recent bout with bronchitis).  But antibiotics have saved the day, once again.  (Yay, science!)  So, now I’m back to having my nose firmly pressed to the grindstone.

Unfortunately, it’s a different sort of grindstone than I’d prefer to have my nose against:  the whole business grindstone.  I’m reviewing a contract for a new short story collection and preparing to send out a handful of hardcover editions of I Am the New God to my beta readers, one of my mentors, and the one reader who actually managed to score a copy from my personal stash.  That means I have to truck over to a store, buy shipping materials, go to the post office, etc.   I’m busy doing writing stuff, but it’s not…well…writing.

Next week, I’ll attend the World Horror Convention in Portland, Oregon.  This is a business trip, but not one without a fair bit of pleasure built into the experience, too.  Looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones, as always.  I’m very much looking forward to meeting W.H. Pugmire in person.  (After a few years of correspondence and enjoying his videos on Youtube.)   Also, I love air travel and I haven’t flown in awhile.  I love airports, even. I love the sense of all of these busy people on a gazillion different errands, all in one place for a brief period of time — comprising a temporary community of sorts.  I love all the shops in airports, and the way they try to give you a superficial sense of the city in which they’re located.  It’s what I’d imagine a 19th century sea port would be like — a sort of busy bazaar.

Last year Lucy Snyder and I drove down to New Orleans for WHC.  The year before that, I drove to WorldCon up in Chicago.  Hell, I think the last time I boarded a plane was in 2011, when I made it out to ReaderCon.  So, yes, I’m looking forward to dwelling among the clouds, once again — at least for four or five hours.

If you’re at WHC, you may want to know that I have a reading slot.  (Friday, 2:30 p.m., in the Hawthorne room).  Stop by.  Say hi.

I’ll also be participating in the mass autograph signing event.

Lookin’ forward to it.

Now, back to the grindstone.

The Hectic Post Book Tour Wrap-Up

i_am_the_new_godSo, last week, my latest DarkFuse novella, I Am the New God, was released.  If you haven’t already gotten it, I encourage you to check it out over at Amazon.com.  See what readers are saying about over at Goodreads.com, too. Overall, I’m pleased by the reception and feel that the book had a stronger first week than my previous work, Children of No One did.  I find that encouraging.  It means my readership is growing.  Things are moving in the right direction.  Thank you, readers, for being a part of all of this.  As always, I’m grateful for your support, and thrilled to be able to bring you something new, entertaining and — hopefully — thought-provoking.

My hubbie filmed several of our stops on the road.  There are Youtube videos up, documenting our reading/Q&A session in Indianapolis, as well as a reading shot at Calvert Cliffs (an actual state park on the shore of Chesapeake Bay, used as a setting in the book).  I’m hoping to upload some additional videos today.

I’ve also appeared on several podcasts during the last week or two (all part of getting the word out).  Miskatonic Musings had me on to discuss the work of Thomas Ligotti.  Dread Media did an interview with me that debuted last week (look for it in episode 345).  I returned to the internet radio program A Book & A Chat.  Though I was still getting over my head cold (and hacking up a storm), y’all will probably still find the interview quite nifty.  And, just yesterday, I appeared as a guest on Jeremy Maddux’s Surreal Grotesque podcast (along with fellow-guest, Andre Duza).

It’s been a hectic pace.  But it’s not work.  I love writing and I’m beginning to love the whole act of sharing what I’ve written with all of you.

More updates, soon, kiddos.  In the meantime, have fun exploring the linky-links.

The Finalized I AM THE NEW GOD Book Tour Schedule

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Indianapolis, IN

Thursday, April 3rd  7:00-8:30 p.m.

I Am the New God Book Tour Kick-Off Event

The Center for Inquiry

350 Canal Walk, Suite A
Indianapolis, Indiana 46202

This event is free and open to the public

 

 

 

Columbus, OH

Friday, April 4th, 12:00–2:00 p.m.

Reading and signing event

Kafe Kerouac

2250 N. High St.

Columbus, OH 43201

This event is free and open to the public

 

Freehold, NJ

Saturday, April 5th, 1:00-5:00 p.m.

KrallCon Music and Author Event

Freehold Elks Lodge

73 E Main St., Freehold, NJ

Requested $5 contribution at the door

Come on out.  Would love to hang out with y’all.

Originally, I was planning to tack on additional stops along the tour.  But instead, I’ll be visiting my ailing father and recording some video for little Youtube mini-documentaries.  (The plan right now is to essentially re-trace the path of I Am the New God‘s antihero,  Greg Bryce, as he fled from the police in southern Maryland and went to  join the hierophant in southern Indiana).  I’ll also be shooting video at some of the actual locations, such as Calvert Cliffs State Park, that I used fictionally in the book.  I’m particularly looking forward to that.

I’ll also be recording various podcast appearances and taking part in the I Am the New God online release party on April 8th.  Honestly, it’s going to be a crazy-hectic time.  I’m looking forward to it, though.  I Am the New God is a book that came from the marrow of my bones, and sharing it with others is something that’s important to me.  A privilege, not a burden.

 

My Field Trip to Barnes & Noble

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SUCCESS magazine with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos on the cover is a “Featured Title” in the magazine section of my local Barnes & Noble!

Last evening, I had to purchase a professional reference book that wasn’t available on Kindle, so I went to visit my local Barnes & Noble.  But I didn’t just grab the book and run, because in addition to holding my day job, I’m an author. (Specifically, an author who has just finished a first novel).

It had been awhile since I’d been inside a B&N.  Like many others in the industry, I’m a little obsessed about the future of book retailing.  Can B&N survive?  How long does it have left?  Do brick and mortar stores really enhance discoverability?  Should I focus my novel submissions on those publishers who can get me into brick and mortar stores?

So, with those questions in mind, I strolled around the place.  Took (mental) notes and a photograph or two.  Here ‘s what I took away from my visit.

Observation #1:  The inescapable Nook display at the entrance of the store is still there, but it was no longer staffed.  Granted, I visited on a Monday evening, so that might have had something to do with it.  Hell, maybe the guy (or gal…but whenever I visited it was a guy) just called in sick.  But, in any event, I was a little relieved to see the Nook display wasn’t equipped with a Nook-pusher.  Sometimes they can be a little hard-sell.

Observation #2:  I paid close attention to the amount of shelf space devoted to adult prose fiction.  (And by “adult prose fiction”, I don’t mean erotica, but simply fiction for grown-ups.  The kind of stuff I write; fiction not shelved in the — massive — children’s section,  teen section, graphic novel or manga sections).  Obviously, I couldn’t get out measuring tape and obtain a precise measurement of the percent of floor space devoted to adult fiction.  But my rough estimate was somewhere in the neighborhood of just 25% (and that might even be on the generous side).  There was a huge music and movie section (that had absolutely no customers in it, when I visited), and a huge children’s section.  There were massive non-fiction sections.  They still had a significant amount of shelf space devoted to magazines.   Toys and games intruded quite a bit, too.

This makes sense.  When C.E.O. Michael P. Huseby, reported B&N’s  holiday sales numbers, he attributed the (relatively) stable brick-and-mortar sales to (among other things) “strong increases in our Juvenile, Gift and Toys & Games categories”.

The take-away here is that for a national brick-and-mortar book store to keep its head above water, it will have to stop trying to sell so many…well…BOOKS and start selling…well…CRAP!  This isn’t just a trend at B&N.  I also have noticed it when I’ve taken similar field trips to my local Books-a-Million store.  If I recall correctly, they may have had slightly more floor space devoted to adult prose fiction, but were also integrating a vast array of toy, game, and novelty products.  (Including lots of obnoxious Duck Dynasty products).  In fact, if you’ve been observing closely, you’ve already seen that Books-a-Million is engaged in a subtle (or not-so-subtle) rebranding of itself as BAM! and touting toys and electronics, not just books, in their logo.

I want to emphasize this, because I think this is probably one of the most under-reported aspects of changes in bricks-and-mortar bookselling.  The big question is not:  “Can B&N survive?”.  The question is:  “What direction is B&N’s adult prose fiction shelf space going, up or down?”  A B&N that survives, but only as a result of steadily decreasing the shelf space devoted to adult prose fiction titles is little better than a dead B&N, for an author like me.

Observation #3:  I write dark fiction, I mean weird fiction, I mean thrillers, I mean horror, and B&N isn’t exactly friendly to my genre.  Of course, this is not a new phenomenon.  Many bricks-and-mortar stores chucked their horror sections after the bust of the horror boom, in the ’90s.  But, since it’s my genre, I think it’s a legit gripe.  I think it’s also important to mention, because it gets to the heart of the debate over one of the advantages bricks-and-mortar stores allege to hold over online retailers:  discoverability.

If I’m a horror reader going to visit my local B&N, I’ll find…

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CLIVE BARKER IN THE FICTION & LITERATURE SECTION

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LOVECRAFT IN THE SCIENCE FICTION SECTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, most confusing of all…

The novelization of Thephoto(17) Lords of Salem and a handful of horror anthologies in…of all places…the Westerns section!  (Alongside conservative commentator Bill Bennett’s The Book of Virtues , Amy Hempel’s New Stories from the South  , and…erotica titles.  Note:  I posted this photo on Facebook earlier, and a bookseller friend of mine commented that what I was seeing was likely the end of the African American fiction section, followed by the anthology section, and then the Westerns section underneath.  And, to be fair, I do remember seeing some actual Westerns on the lower shelves of the Westerns section.  But it is confusing.  And it still doesn’t explain the shelving of The Lords of Salem — apparently someone (customer or staff) thought it belonged there.

This same friend commented that Amazon had miscategorized his horror title as erotic fiction.  So, yes, those mistakes don’t just happen at B&N.  But at least he was able to catch the mistake and fix it.  Here, though, we have a shelving scheme that by design scatters my genre’s titles throughout the store.  And, short of a decision by corporate bigwigs, there likely is no fixing it.

Conclusions

Obviously, the conclusions that can be drawn from this little field trip are limited by the fact that we’re dealing with a sample size of one.  This isn’t going to convince me to ignore traditional New York publishing as a possible career strategy.  But it is another data point.

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