Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Quote of the Day

I just saw this quote in Olivia Judson's column in the New York Times. She's explaining why she's taking a break from writing:

Writing in this space is the most gratifying job I’ve ever had, but also the toughest. It’s like owning a pet dragon: I feel lucky to have it, but it needs to be fed high-quality meat at regular intervals . . . and if something goes wrong, there’s a substantial risk of being blasted by fire.

The Science of Science Fiction--Geoengineering

If you're interested in what the world might look like in a few decades and what we might be doing to it, check out this article from the New York Times. It discusses several books that in turn talk about what types of geoengineering might be done to deal with climate change. I haven't had a chance to read any of these books myself, but they sound interesting. If you're going to set a story in the future, it's worth knowing how the climate may change and what the implications could be. If humans do attempt a technological fix, what can we try, and what sorts of side effects are possible? The impression I get from this article is that we're not ready yet for geoengineering and that once we start (if we do), we have to maintain it. Again, the side effects may cause more harm than good. As the article suggests, perhaps the change we need isn't technological, but regulatory.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Twitter Pitch Contest

I'm skipping Ten-Word Tuesday to bring you a Tale of Two Contests.

The QueryTracker Blog is hosting a Twitter Pitch Contest. Agent Suzie Townsend is looking for Twitter-length pitches (140 characters or less) for completed manuscripts in five different adult genres (science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, romance, and thriller). Entries will not be capped, and they'll start accepting them at noon on Tuesday, July 6. For further details, check out this link.

I plan to enter this contest, but since there's some time before it begins, I'd like to get some feedback on my pitches first. That's where the second contest comes in. Below are five pitches I've written for Across Two Universes:

1. An actor cloned from a rock star impersonates him in 1980 to save the star’s life and in 2156 to expose his own mother’s murderer. (131 characters)

2. A 22nd century actor finds himself living Hamlet when he suspects his great-uncle murdered his mother. Who will get caught in the Mousetrap? (140 characters)

3. A 22nd century actor must choose between saving the 20th century Lennon-like musician he was cloned from or exposing his mother’s killer. (138 characters)

4.Meeting the rock star you were cloned from isn’t fun when you’re trying to solve one murder, stop another, and avoid other time travelers. (138 characters)

5. Paul was cloned from a 20th century rock star, but the actor will only impersonate him to trick his great-uncle into a murder confession. (137 characters)

Which one hooks you best and why? Do you have constructive advice on how to make them clearer or more intriguing? Leave a comment below (note: for Facebook friends, you can also comment there when this blog uploads) by 5:00 p.m. CDT on Friday, July 2nd. As a thank-you for your help, each person who comments will be entered into a random drawing for a $10 gift card to Barnes and Noble. Let me know if you have any questions, and I'm looking forward to your feedback!

Monday, June 28, 2010

You Call My Name

Today at the bookstore, I decided to buy the first book in a paranormal mystery series by an author I hadn't read before. All was well until I came to a paragraph in which the narrator talked about people coming from the mountains of Wisconsin. Since the mountains of Wisconsin are as well known as the flatlands of Tibet (as Eugene put it), I was a bit taken aback. I didn't hurl the book across the room, but it did count as a serious strike against the author in my mind.

Something else that struck me was the introduction of a secondary character named Sandra. Since my name isn't all that common these days (and it's used more often as "Sandy," which I've never liked as a nickname), that certainly caught my attention. But although this character was friendly toward the narrator/protagonist, the narrator didn't like her too much. (This story is set in San Francisco. The narrator, a witch, thought Sandra, who owns a shop catering to tourists looking for the 60's San Francisco experience, didn't take the supernatural seriously enough.) Perhaps I'm too sensitive to this, but every time I read about a character named Sandra, she's never portrayed as a positive character. I wonder if people just have bad connotations about the name. Perhaps the name "Sandra" doesn't sound as friendly as "Sandy" does, though I feel it fits me better.

I'm not sure there's a writing lesson to this. Unless you're making up names (and thereby losing the power of association), you will use a name a potential reader might have. People with common names might be used to seeing them in stories, so perhaps it wouldn't bother them to see someone with their name as an antagonist or even villain. For someone with a rare name, it might be a different story. There may be many types of Michaels, but only a couple Quincys.

Have you read about a character with your name? If so, did you like how this character came across, and did it make a difference to you as you read?

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction: Microbe Nation

I was reading the July issue of Scientific American earlier when I came across this article on microscopic giants. Microbes make up at least half of the oceans' total biomass; it may even be as high as ninety percent. A single liter (about one-fifth of a gallon) of ocean water can contain over a billion microbes--I guess this is the real reason you're not supposed to drink seawater! But the point I found most inspiring from a science fiction perspective was the discovery of a mat of microbes off the coast of South America. The mat is estimated to be the size of Greece. What could you do with so many microbes? Could you create a mat solid enough to indeed form a new nation? How about a floating farm or a natural sponge to digest spilled oil? What if that mat was really a single enormous feature? What ideas can you come up with?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Writer's Vacation

I found out today I still have five full weeks of vacation time this year at work. (I carried over two weeks of vacation time from last year, and I've only taken one vacation day plus one floating holiday this year.) I think I better start using some of it! It's been a long time since my husband and I took a date day (we both take off work, drop Alex off at daycare, and go off on our own), so we'll have to do that. I'd also love to go somewhere--if we can figure out how to make that work with a three-year-old. Knowing me, I'll probably use some time just to clean the house. It would be nice to have some time to write and edit too.

What do you do on vacation? Do you still write? Or do you go somewhere and do things you can write about later?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sympathy for Your Characters

Plot to Punctuation (or Show Some Character!, which is the name of this blog on my reader) had a great post yesterday about how to create sympathetic characters. Some of the techniques listed there include creating a character who has a sense of humor and can laugh at him/herself, having them be kind to others, and having other characters admire them for their skills.

There's a section in Orson Scott Card's Writer Digest book Characters and Viewpoint in which he also discusses the traits that make us loathe and love particular characters. I was surprised that there wasn't much overlap between the two lists. Sure, having a good sense of humor might be part of having a good overall attitude, and Card discusses several aspects of the altruistic character. However, Card thinks physical attractiveness and cleverness can also make people love characters. What's interesting about those traits is that they're double-edged swords; for instance, some readers may resent characters who are too good-looking. (Card admits it's much harder to use physical attractiveness in books than in visual media, where you can see the actors/actresses.) As for cleverness, Card is careful to note that characters who come across as too intellectual or too pleased with their own intelligence can turn readers off.

I don't have an all-time favorite character; I'm so busy trying to keep up with my to-read pile that I don't have a chance to reread books. Sometimes when I'm following a series, I find I don't enjoy the later books as much as I did earlier ones. But I do like practical characters who can get things done, such as Alexia from the Soulless books and Mrs. Quent from The Magician and Mrs. Quent. Who are your favorite characters, and why do you like them?

P.S. If you don't already, I recommend following the Plot to Punctuation/Show Some Character! blog I linked to above. There's a lot of great posts there on characterization.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Illinois Railway Museum

We took Alex to the Illinois Railway Museum yesterday. He got to ride on a train, get even more Thomas cars, and see barns and barns full of trains. Of course, now he thinks they're all his and wants to drive one of them. I got to do some research for a train ride my characters take in Across Two Universes. Here are a few photos:

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Alex and the Paci Fairy

I thought I'd share a few child-related anecdotes and photos before returning to writing topics. I should warn you that this post is not for the faint of heart, though.

Alex starting using a pacifier very early--and kept on using it. He doesn't use it at daycare, and while it's mostly at bedtime, sometimes he uses it around the house. Although he can speak fairly well, and his dentist wasn't too concerned, we didn't want this dragging on forever. So when he lost some of his pacis, we didn't replace them. Soon he was down to one well-chewed paci. It had so many holes in it I doubt he could really use it; he just clung to it for security.

Yesterday, after naptime, Alex brought his paci with him while he used the toilet. Well, he flushed, then dropped his paci, and down it went. Even if I could've caught it, it certainly wasn't usable anymore! Alex was extremely upset, crying, yelling, and kept demanding his paci back "right now." I comforted him, but I told him it wasn't coming back. To distract him, I tried a technique I'd read about: I told him the paci fairy took it but would give him a toy in exchange. Fortunately, I had a bunch of toys one of my coworkers brought back from Japan, and we had fun opening them and playing with them for a while.

The paci fairy had one more gift for Alex, though. When he went to bed, he found one of the Thomas the Tank Engine trains waiting for him. (We bought a secondhand collection, which we intend to give him gradually.) He accepted it as a new comfort object and slept with it. I had prepared myself for a problematic bedtime, but he went down easily.

Looking back now, I wonder if we could have taken the paci from Alex sooner. But I think there are some advantages to the way it did work out. He knows it's gone, he can't blame us for taking it from him, and he got a chance to "get the mourning" out of his system, so to speak. Ah, our son is growing up.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bad Boys vs. Bad Guys

What makes a bad boy--the kind so often cast as the romantic lead--different from a bad guy--the kind we love to hate? Check out this post from the Supernatural Underground for insights (apparently, first impressions are key). There's also a book giveaway if you leave a comment, but you'll have to hurry, as the contest ends in a couple of hours!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I'm part of a blog chain with a group of other writers in various genres. (You can find links to the other members in the sidebar.) About twice a month, we discuss different writing topics. This time, Shaun, whose novel The Deathday Letter was just published this week, asked us this question:

From where do you get your inspiration for stories?  Give me the oddest, coolest, things that have inspired you.

Kate preceded me in the chain, and Eric comes after me.

I actually discussed this topic on my website ages ago, but I don't think it's enough for the blog chain to just provide a link. Besides, ideas are everywhere. I get them from my daily experiences, from people I meet online, from science articles, and from other books. This is good, as I feel one idea isn't always enough to create a story; you need two ideas to create a story with a unique angle. As an example, my short story "A Reptile at the Reunion" was inspired by an invitation to my graduate school reunion and a magazine's challenge to write a story around the line, "Say, aren't you dead?" (In the first draft of the story, my main character was presumed dead by her classmates, but in the final version, she's just been on another planet for a long time.)

I've also received inspiration from the Beatles, my favorite musical group. Their four-fold synergy inspired me to create a quartet of female magicians who must work together to save their country from a storm that mixes up the seasons. I also used to write Beatles fan fiction, and after reading a story about the Beatles in the Cavern (a club in Liverpool where they played before they became famous), I wanted to use the same setting too. As a science fiction writer, I wanted to give the story a SF twist, so I sent a descendant of John's back in time to clone him. That story, "Move Over Ms. L.," earned me an Honorable Mention in an international novella competition, but it also inspired me to then write a story about the clone. After many rewrites and removal of most of the Beatle references, I wound up with my current WIP, Across Two Universes.

That leads me to my final point: once I come up with characters and a story, I find that they inspire me to write more stories about them. What I think will be a short story may be the start of a saga. And while that may not be the oddest inspiration I've received so far, I still think it's pretty cool.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Description in Fiction

First, I'd like to say "hello" to my new followers. (I'm just one shy of 50 now!) I assume you found me through the blogfest. I haven't had a chance to read everyone's yet, but I hope to look at some more character interviews tonight. It was fun interviewing Anne and Clarice, and I learned something about them. I'll have to try that with some of my other characters.

I've taken a break from the story I'm writing about Anne and Clarice to reread Across Two Universes, as I feel it's sat long enough for me to look at it with fresh eyes. There are things I want to tweak here and there, but I don't feel I have to rewrite the whole darn thing, so I suppose that's progress. We'll see what the next set of readers think. One thing I have noticed, however, is that it could use more description; in fact, it seems more vivid to me in the places there is description. I never feel comfortable including description, so I have to go back over a rough draft and weave it in. Hopefully I can do this here without increasing the word count too much.

How do you feel about description when you're reading a book? I don't like huge tracts of it, but it does help bring the world to life, especially if you appeal to several senses. It seems that some of the subgenres I read, like paranormals or urban fantasy, tend to be sparse on describing the setting and focus more on action. When there is description, it's most likely to be involving a character. Have you noticed any other trends in description?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Character Interview Blogfest: Anne and Clarice

People on Facebook voted for an interview with my shapeshifting sisters, so Paul and Scott will have to wait to give their interviews. As I mentioned before, this blogfest is being hosted by Echoes of a Wayward Mind. Check the sidebar over there to visit the other sites participating in this character interview. Please note that I've "known" Anne and Clarice for a much shorter time than Paul and Scott; I haven't even settled on the sisters' family name. Some things may change as I learn more about them.

Setting: Anne and Clarice sit at opposite ends of a long couch. Anne, in her mid-late thirties, is still dressed for her day job as a paralegal, in a tan cardigan over a white blouse and dark brown skirt. Her short, dark brown hair is smoothed away from her face, and her pearl earrings are barely visible. Her glass of white wine, still more than half full, sits on the coffee table. Clarice, who appears to be in her mid-twenties, slouches against the couch. She's dressed for a fun night on the town in a turquoise halter top, white capris, and gold wedges. Her highlighted hair is tousled, and bangles in various colors chime softly whenever she raises her wine glass.

Sandra: So, Anne, Clarice, tell us a little bit about yourselves. Both of you can change into birds at will, but they're different types of birds, right?

Anne (nods): As different as day and night.

Clarice: That's her idea of a joke.

Anne: Seriously, I'm an owl, and Clarice is a crow.

Sandra: Did you choose your shapes?

Anne: No, there's a ceremony you go through when you're of age where you handle different animal skins. The one that bonds to you is the animal you can become.

Clarice: They say the animal matches your personality--

Anne: Most of the time. (raises eyebrow at her sister) Clarice sure talks as much as a crow, but you'd think she'd show more common sense.

Clarice (sticks out pierced tongue) Crows are some of the smartest birds, even smarter than owls. They can count up to three.

Anne (smiles sweetly): That's not very impressive for a human, dear.

Sandra (flips quickly through notebook for a question to change the subject): So, what are your goals?

Clarice: Meet a cute boy -- or boys -- and (glances sideways at her sister) have some fun.

Sandra: What about your long-term goals?

Clarice: What about them?

Anne: That's the problem, you don't have any.

Clarice: Well, I don't want to the lead the Council [the governing body of shapeshifters]! They're worthless!

Anne (leans forward): See, if I was on the Council, maybe I could get them to do something for us. We need more safe places for our animal forms, and we need to find more potential shapeshifters before we die out. We can't bite other people like werewolves, after all.

Sandra: Are werewolves a problem for shapeshifters?

Anne: Yes.

Clarice (speaking at the same time): No.

(the sisters glare at each other)

Sandra: Is it just me, or are you two your own worst enemies?

Anne (sighs): Clarice just likes getting her own way. She's the baby of the family, and Mom and Dad spoiled her all the time.

Clarice: Well, you make up for it by mothering me all the time like I'm still six.

Anne: If it weren't for me prodding you, you wouldn't have finished college so you could pay for a whole new wardrobe every season. You do pay off your credit card on time, don't you, sis?

Clarice (flushes): None of your business!

Anne: And if you'd listened to me, you wouldn't have gotten tangled up with that werewolf pack. Shifters and werewolves don't mix.

Clarice (crosses arms): I still say a shifter werewolf should have the best of both worlds.

Anne: Except it didn't work, did it? Do you want to tell everyone what happened when you let the werewolf leader change you?

Sandra: Let's not provide any spoilers before the story's finished, OK? Anne, Clarice, any final thoughts?

(They stare at each other for a long moment, their expressions finally softening.)

Anne: You don't have to be birds of a feather--

Clarice: To flock together.

(They rise from the couch and strip off their clothes. Before you can see their naked bodies, they shift into their bird forms and fly away).

Monday, June 14, 2010

Character Interview Blogfest

I just found out (and signed up for) this character interview blogfest being hosted by Echoes of a Wayward Mind. It's tomorrow, so if you're interested, hurry over to the link and sign up. So there will be no Ten-Word Tuesday this week.

Since I'll write up the character interview tonight, I thought it would be interesting to see if my readers are interested in a particular character. I know I mention Paul Harrison, the protagonist of Across Two Universes, quite often here; do you want me to interview him? How about one of the secondary characters from that novel, such as Scott, Paul's best friend? Or would you like me to do a dual interview with Anne and Clarice, my shapeshifting heroines from my NaNoWriMo novel? Please vote in the comment section before 5:00 p.m. CDT. Thanks!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Lawnmower Woman

This morning, as Eugene was mowing the lawn, Alex wanted to follow him outside. That meant I had to go along to supervise him. We bought him a tricycle yesterday, so naturally he wanted to play with it and go to the park. (He's still getting used to pedaling instead of pushing himself along.) Unfortunately, Alex has recently developed a strong fear of bugs, so he got panicked and insisted on going back to the house. Then only Daddy would do to comfort him, but Eugene hadn't finished. So I did the only thing a mother could do: I offered to finish mowing the lawn so Eugene could take care of Alex.

I've only mowed a lawn once before, when I was a teenager. The yard was steeply sloped, and my foot slipped, nearly going under the lawnmower. I wasn't hurt, but I wasn't in a hurry to try mowing the lawn again. Eugene had to show me how to operate the lawnmower before bringing Alex inside. It was a bit tricky to steer at first, especially around objects like the trees and the swingset. I also left a swath by the side of the house undone after turning off the lawnmower, and although I tried, I couldn't pull the cord hard enough to restart the mower. Eugene came out later to finish up and do the edges, but he appreciated the assistance.

I suppose if I were to apply this incident to writing, I would say sometimes it's worth trying something you're not comfortable with and to be careful not to let your project get away from you. Since it's late, the only witty thing I can come up with is that the grass is always greener on the other side of keyboard.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Discussion: Stories/Characters We Never See

Yes, I know it's Friday, the start of a summer weekend, and I should post something light and fluffy. But Alex has had a hard time transitioning full-time into the preschool room at daycare. He's been very clingy at dropoff, and he's been waking up at 2 and 3 a.m. Unlike Alex and Eugene, I have a hard time falling back asleep once I've been woken up, so I'm managing on less than four hours of sleep on top of my normal sleep deprivation. All this is my roundabout way of justifying why I want you to discuss this topic with me; I can't manage it on my own. ;)

Anyway, we all know there are certain tropes that are a convention in fiction: the good guys always win, the hero always gets the girl, Dorothy will always prefer Kansas over Oz. (Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, but I'm generalizing.) Do you prefer stories that match these conventions or ones that defy them? For me, I'm more inspired by the stories that don't get told, such as ones where the main character, after visiting a new world, decides to stay instead of returning home. (I guess Avatar would count as this type of story, wouldn't it?) What  stories can you think of that don't abide by the normal tropes of fiction? What types of characters are underrepresented in fiction who deserve to have stories told about them?

As for light and fluffy, perhaps I should make frozen citrus bars.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Is the Pen Really Mightier Than This Sword?

 I mentioned in my WisCon report that I'd won a sword from a book dealer. I didn't have any pictures at that time, but I do now. Here are a couple of them:

I think it would be cool sometime to rent a costume and take more pictures of me with the sword. Perhaps once Eugene gets his portrait equipment set up in the basement we can do that.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Alex's Third Birthday Party

I wanted to post this last night, but Blogger was down.

For Alex's last two birthdays, the parties were for our family and friends. This year, we decided he was ready for a kid's party. We'd been to one last year that was held at a kid's gym, so I found one in our area and booked a party. They took care of most of the arrangements: sending out invitations; ordering the pizza; and supplying the cups, plates, and other necessary items. The only things I had to do were assemble the guest list and goodie bags, order the cake, and bring in snacks and extra food for the adults. Some of the guests weren't able to make it, but we had eight other children besides Alex. Most of them were from his daycare/playgroup; some of them were kids of our friends.

Alex can be a bit clingy in new situations, so I was worried he might take some time to warm up at his party. Even though he didn't nap very well, he did better than I thought he would. (It might have helped that I told him about his party in advance and that he saw the cake and goodie bags.) He was a bit hesitant when we first arrived, but once we brought him into the gym, he took off, running, laughing, and having a good time. Most of the other kids did the same.

The kids got to play in the gym for an hour. It was set up for gymnastics with kid-size equipment: balance beams, uneven bars, and plenty of mats. Alex particularly enjoyed crawling through a donut-shaped mat:

Later on, the coaches plugged the donut and placed it between two wedges. The kids got to ride on top of the donut and, with the help of the coach, tumble over and land on their backs. Alex and a couple of the kids liked it so much they did it several times.

In addition, the coaches blew bubbles, brought out balls, and played with a parachute. Alex found a foam sword and chased his "girlfriend" around with it. Toward the end of the hour, they brought out an AirTrack, an inflatable bouncy thing that the kids (and some of the mothers, including me) could jump on. Alex's girlfriend got her revenge by wrestling Alex and pinning him down!

After the play hour was over, the kids sat down at a square table for pizza, juice boxes, and cake. This was the first year we lit candles for Alex's cake (I didn't feel it was safe before). He tried blowing them out, but I wound up helping him. He was more interested in the plastic cars decorating the cake than the cake itself; he took a couple bites of frosting, then played with the cars. We gave out goodie bags and balloons (supplied by the gym), then took Alex and all of his presents home. I think the kids all had a great time; perhaps we'll hold his party here next year too.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

If a Picture's Worth a Thousand Words...

Then my husband regularly outwrites me. ;) He's an amateur photographer, and he started a blog yesterday devoted to his photography. You can find it here. He hasn't posted anything yet, but he plans to upload a photo at least once a week. Join me in harassing reminding him to keep up with his blog!

Friday, June 04, 2010

Website or Blog?

I was going to upload my panel notes from WisCon 34 to my website last night, but it's been so long since I've done anything to my website that I've forgotten how to embed internal page links. I'll have to try it again tonight. But that made me wonder this morning as I was driving to work what's more effective for authors: websites or blogs. To me, websites are places I go to for static information, such as if I want to check the author's list of works or learn more about him/her. Blogs are easier to update and are more interactive. I personally visit more blogs on a daily basis than I do author websites, which I only check out if I have a specific question. And while I'm not planning to ditch my website, I do like that Blogger now allows me to put up separate pages on my blog, which I use for my bio and list of sales. (At some point, I intend to move my links from the sidebar onto their own page.) I'm even thinking of reviving my LiveJournal blog, since it seems that a fair amount of people in the SF community use that instead of Blogger. Maybe if I can sync up my blogs I can actually maintain two at once. So I'd like to hear your opinions: are you more interested in an author's website or blog? Does it make a difference to you if the author is published or not? (I go to more published authors' websites but read more unpublished writers' blogs.) Do you maintain a website, blog, or both?

Contest Annoucement

To make sure you're committed to writing (that's dedicated to it, not insane--although sometimes there's a fine line between the two *grin*), Christine Fonseca is running a "Go Big or Go Home!" contest on her blog. You can win both a $20 gift card from B&N and a ten-page critique from her. All you have to do is publicly commit to writing on her blog. You can find the full details here. Better hurry, the contest ends Sunday, June 6th!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction--Thinking Big

Big animals, that is. If you want to create a world with huge land animals, you couldn't ask for better models than the dinosaurs. This Q&A from the New York Times lists some of the anatomical features that helped the dinosaurs succeed. (The article is based on another article from Biological Reviews.) They're listed below.

1. A very long neck to reach food
2. A small head that didn't put a lot of weight on the very long neck
(Side note: if you've been to the Field Museum in Chicago to see Sue the T. rex, you may have noticed that her head is displayed separately from the rest of her skeleton. Without the muscles and connective tissue, the skeleton can't support the weight of her skull.)
3. A digestive system that didn't require food to be chewed extensively (this apparently allowed the head to be small)
4. A highly dispersed respiratory system that made it easier to breathe and helped keep the dinosaurs cool.

So there you have it. I can't help but wonder if the environment also played a part. There is some evidence that there were increased levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which would have allowed plants to grow faster. You would need a lot of plants to feed dinosaur-sized herbivores! But could you have huge, intelligent creatures with small heads? Perhaps if they had a decentralized nervous system, though to me, it seems unlikely that a "spread-out" brain could give rise to intelligence. But in science fiction, perhaps it can.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

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