Active Language

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Active Writing (Part 2): Active Language (Grammar, sentence structure, linguistics)

To recap: I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice, 2. Language and, 3. Plot.

I’ll keep this simple for both our sakes. If you need a grammar lesson, we’re both in the wrong place.

But, in the English language (as compared to, say, Kayabi, and whatever Yoda spoke), the simplest way to invoke energy and emotion into sentence structure is typically: Subject (S) + Verb (V) + Object (O). Thus: John (S) kissed (V) Mary (O). Or: Laura (S) + killed (V) + the snake (O).

As opposed to Mary was kissed by John. Or; The snake was killed by Laura. Or even more passive: It was the snake that was killed by Laura.

By rearranging the sentence structure to the less energetic Object + Verb + Subject (OVS), the writer’s placing the action’s instigator at the end of the sentence and slightly altering the emphasis. And in longer, more complex sentences, both nuance and structure can become uncomfortably apparent. You’re also clogging your story with extremely passive verbs; “was” and “were;” unnecessary prepositions, pronouns, articles and the so-called “little” phrases (e.g.; it would, that were, of the, by which). Such utterly unexciting placeholders act as a buffer between words and action.

For instance, a subtle but distinct difference exists between: Prince Clarion crushed the giant orc’s head and The head of the giant orc was crushed by Prince Clarion. While both structural formats can and will ultimately co-exist in your novel, play with the most active structure first. This is especially important in scenes of passion, action, high tension or terror.

Rule #6: The Jumping Cow Rule (Active vs. Passive Voice). I learned this tenet once upon a time in Eng. Lit. 101. These words have kept Prince Clarion blissfully crushing orcs’ heads ever since:

ActiveThe cow jumped over the moon.
PassiveThe moon was jumped over by the cow.
Bad passiveIt was the moon that was jumped over by the cow.*

* Exceptions always exist. You’ll eventually find this particular phraseology a perfect fit for your needs and, by all means, use it. However, if you find yourself using this grammatical gremlin as a basic structural pattern—then no, you’re not infusing sufficient excitement into your writing. You’re using passive language way too often. And no, Muse Harbor will probably not publish you.

And, no, simply because Hemingway frequently used passive voice, you may not. And, no, because David Foster Wallace did so in present tense—”I am this” and “I am that”—you may not. “It was…” is glaringly overused in modern fictive writing. More often than not, excessive passive voice is a sign of tired writing. Meaning your brain’s full. Put down your pencil. Take a walk. Take a nap. Clean the house. Because most “it” usage can transmogrify into far more descriptive prose. Occasionally, it fits such sentence structure may suffice your needs, but most often, it does not your words can be easily rearranged with far more passion and creativity.

While I doubt any author can (or should) write an entire novel strictly using SVO sentence structure, I suggest keeping this grammatical sequence as a staple tool for active writing. The volcano belched a cascade of hot lava. Rather than: Hot lava was belching from the volcano. Realize that by simply altering your subject (from OVS), you can maintain the SVO principle but also shift your reader’s attention, such as: Hot lava poured from the mountain’s ruptured peak. With nary a “was” or “were” in sight.

A good many novice writers (and even published pro’s) can occasionally slip into a steady flow of passivity. Be on the constant lookout for:

It was a dark and stormy night. Linda was sleeping. There was a noise that awakened her with a start. What was that? she wondered. Was somebody standing outside her door. Was it her husband, Teddy? It was because she didn’t know that she tiptoed to the door. There was only silence beyond the door. Linda was scared and we, dear reader, are ready to close this book forever.

So look closely for any steady stream of passive sentence structure beginning with tired phraseology: It was, They were, There was—and the dreaded It was because…. Each of these sentences can be actively rearranged (and the more you begin to do so, the easier such restructuring becomes).

I’ve occasionally come upon an interesting side-effect of passive language. If a writer twists and contorts various, meaningless phrases long and hard enough, the words sometimes almost sound correct. In fact, a writer may even convince himself that such lavish flow of language sounds positively Shakespearean. But this style of writing is roughly akin to spritzing a pig in expensive French perfume. He may smell nice for awhile, but you still won’t want to kiss him.

For example, this sentence still smells like a pig: “Of that substance to which Richard was most disinclined ever to confront, he promised himself never again to touch it to his lips.”

Keep your message simple. What’s the idea you’re trying to impart here? It’s: Richard hated chocolate, right?

So how might one say that creatively? How about: Richard couldn’t understand the world’s love affair with chocolate. On his tongue, the candy oozed like motor oil, and tasted, to his best perception, like dirty butter.

A simple thought, distinctly perceived, clearly transmitted. Active, not passive.
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Active Voice

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Active Writing (Part 1): Active Voice

When I’m editing a work of fiction, I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice, 2. Language and, 3. Plot.

Active writing… the antithesis of passive writing. Friends who write and creative writing teachers, editors and agents, publishers and critics and helpful relatives at Thanksgiving dinner—they’re always imploring us to “Write active, not passive.” So what part of the creative writing process—voice, style or composition—should continually sparkle with activity?

The answer is:Yes, yes and yes. All of the above.

Remember Rule #8Keep your characters moving. Inhale or Exhale. A fiction writer constantly, continually pushes a character toward conflict, or pulls her away again. Active Writing breathes passionate resonance into your storytelling (and style, and voice) at the appropriate times. Anybody who’s ever read a great work of fiction can pretty much intuit an inhale from an exhale. (If you can’t, you’re probably in the wrong business. No offense.)

However, breathing life into a novel isn’t a singularity. It happens (subliminally or not) on multiple levels during the creation of a novel. I look for the life of a novel on three distinct levels: Voice, Language and Plot. But let’s look at voice, first.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Show, don’t tell. (And a bit more about the specifics here, but keep reading…!)

Show, don’t tell. Meaning… show the reader the gleam of the diamond, the glint of hard steel, the fragrance of new blossoms in the spring—and not simply tell the reader, it’s a rock, it’s a sword, it was warm.

When you tell a story in passive voice, you’re providing a bare-bones, superficial glimpse through a dispassionate, authorial (a.k.a.: omniscient) voice. For example:

John hated Mary.

The statement may be clear and simple—but it’s hardly exciting writing. When you allow us to glimpse morsels of your story by using active voice, you’re using interpretive sensory details far more illuminating, and pleasing—or horrifying, if that’s your intent—to the reader’s senses. You’re revealing hidden passions or characteristics or secrets that may not otherwise be revealed. You’re sifting through the layers of each character, seeking those few gleaming shards that best illustrates the fact that John does indeed hate Mary. You’re picking a single carrot out of the stew, and investigating that one morsel in breathtaking detail.

Mary recoiled at her husband’s touch. She found his breath cloying, his voice dripping with a sarcastic bitterness that betrayed his disgust with the woman who had once captured his soul.

Or ponder the efficient, yet detached: Joan loved Paul.

Now consider the alternate: She adored the way Paul reached for her hand when they walked together on the beach, or how he touched her face in the moonlight, and whispered her name.

Not once does a writer need to use the words “love” or “hate.” Instead, the reader intuits those vibes from the use of richer language. A single tear falling from an eye can be a far more poetic experience than Joan sobbed all day long.

So… Is  Showing, Not Telling a principle element of Simple, but Exciting? Or of Exciting, but Simple? It is, IMHO, the best of both worlds. Let’s backtrack a sec:

She adored the way Paul reached for her hand….

A pretty basic concept, no? A single, simple sentence evokes an emotion, a bond between Joan and Paul. A confident writer might intuit that no further character development is necessary yet, or else add a line or two more to impart other significant detail about their relationship at the moment. However, lavishing nuance after nuance into another dozen pages would, indeed, complicate the obvious. Once we intuit that Joan indeed loves Paul, it’s time to move on. Thus, a writer might begin to scene set, adding details about the endless, palm swept, black-sand beach. Or perhaps it’s time to infuse a plot element—introducing that unseen, 18-foot Great White swimming hungrily just beyond the breakers.

Rule #20: Don’t extend a scene past the “just enough” point. For instance, “too much” might look like:

She adored Paul because he’d once bought her flowers that had cost twenty dollars at the carnival in Rio, but back then Paul had a part-time job as an undertaker, so he didn’t mind spending so much, even though he could have bought roses cheaper down the road at a place called Pepe’s, where Paul had once dated a girl named Rita.

Unless any of the above rambling “summary” is later crucial to the plot (or a very specific style choice that’s leading somewhere), Paul’s former career, the existence of Pepe’s or Rita’s mention, that information does not belong in the book. And certainly none of it belongs on this beach. If any of the information is later crucial—introduce those elements at the appropriate time. In other words, if we don’t meet Rita again for 150 pages, don’t mention her in passing now. We certainly won’t recall her name! Nor should you expect a reader to carry that baggage for 150 pages. However, if Rita will develop later into a necessary character, give her ample stage-time (if only a few paragraphs), or some specific trait, sufficient for readers to remember her 150 pages hence.
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Exciting, But Simple

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Exciting, But Simple.

I’m not sure if there’s a sage in the world who can teach the secrets of exciting writing. If they can’t, I certainly can’t either.

I happen to believe that writers, like ball players, concert cellists and chess masters, are born into this world fully equipped with the ability to succeed. Some will never have the chance or the perseverance to fully explore or hone our true talents. Others will spill blood, sweat and tears, but never catch that lucky break. (Sorry, yeah, it’s about luck, too.) Sometimes, good writers simply encounter bad timing. Or the wrong agent, or editor, or the wrong publisher. And don’t think I haven’t lost a sleepless night or two fretting about that last quandary. I have.

And sometimes, the most diligent of souls, the sweetest of people, simply aren’t good enough. Almost, but not quite. The world is filled with manuscripts, piled high in milk crates crammed into back corners of countless closets. As my grandmother used to say, “You can’t make a Ferrari out of a Studebaker.”

She’s right. But the biggest tragedy is never knowing. Never trying. The world may indeed be overladen with Studebakers pretending to be Ferraris, but I suspect the world has its fair share of idling Ferraris, glumly assuming they’re Studebakers. These are the writers who’ll never allow themselves the chance to experience themselves flying balls out down that literary speedway of life. And that’s a shame.

As hopeful authors, most of us are capable of crafting and honing our mechanical abilities—we can read creative writing books, we can study language and craft and attend workshops—we’re able to eventually intuit a noun from a verb. Because a writer can learn the simple stuff. But you can’t learn what can’t be taught. You can’t learn writing excitement.

When I talk about excitement, I’m talking about a writer’s individual style, that unique blend of panache and enthusiasm and articulation. Style can’t be bought or taught or handed down, generation to generation. Nobody taught Picasso Cubism. Nobody taught Babe Ruth to hit homers. Nobody taught Einstein to think. They each had it in ’em, all along.

If you have it—and Tom Wolff would call it the right stuff—good for you. Aim for the center field bleachers. If you don’t have it, you’ll discover that soon enough and move on. Ninety-five percent of wannabe fiction writers move on, and often to even greater endeavors. Ain’t no shame in crossing off write a novel from your bucket list, before skiing the Alps or designing a home or discovering cold fusion.

So… do I have advice for those of you attempting to determine your own stylistic prowess? (Does a goose have paté?) I can offer a few suggestions to flint that spark, to perhaps ignite something inside that might never extinguish.

Suggestion #1. New to fiction writing? Overwhelmed by the concept of writing 350 pages end-to-end? Unsure of your own abilities or talent or stamina? Start with smaller bites. Write a short story. Write an idea. Write a slice of life—a simple scene, a simple page with no beginning or no end—with no other agenda than pure enjoyment. Write for yourself. Make yourself smile. If that works… write another page. If you find yourself pouring out your soul, or simply amusing yourself with your own creative genius, perhaps you’re onto something. But writing a novel is kinda like giving birth. Give it time. Give it room. If you start pushing too hard at three months you’ll only hurt yourself, and the kid’ll be thinking WTF, mom?

So…. Rule #3. Always write for yourself. If you find yourself writing for an audience, you’ll eventually lose yourself in the crowd. Even if you’re successful, sooner or later you’ll probably sell your soul. So write to please yourself, first and foremost.

Suggestion #2. Chances are, if you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. As a reader, what excites you? When I write, I keep a favorite novel on my desk and, most mornings before I begin working, I pick a random page and begin to read. Sometimes I read a few paragraphs, sometimes a few pages. I read until I’m filled with awe and appreciation and amazement that, yeah, that’s great stuff. And I can do it too.

By reading snippets, I’m not attempting emulate a writer’s style or content—I’m not plagiarizing substance or verbiage—I’m simply trying to jump start my own creative juices by absorbing another writer’s creative juices. It’s the literary equivalent of a Vulcan Mind-Meld.

Suggestion #3. Concentrate on dialogue. The eyes may be the portal to the soul (as the poets like to say), but in fiction, dialog is the portal to a character’s soul. (See Dialog.) I believe dialog to be the single most important asset to a unique voice. Try writing a few pages of dialog; two people simply talking to each other. No other modifiers (i.e.; he said sweetly, or she chuckled insanely.) Simply two voices. Don’t think about it—just begin a dialog. You might be amazed at how spontaneous (again, as in don’t think about it) you’ll find a situation (no matter how irrelevant) developing:
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S’up?”
“Nada.”
“Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Been busy.”
“That your elephant?”
“Nah. My mom’s.”
“He gotta name?”
“Buster.”
“Buster?”
“He don’t come when you call him, though.”
“No, I don’t think he’d give a shit.”
“Unless maybe you have ice cream.”
“Peanut butter?”
“Strawberry.”
“Man, you’d think peanut butter, huh?”
“Seriously, yeah.

…or some sort of totally random, unrehearsed, out-of-nowhere stuff. Try to create characters by voice alone, and see where that leads you. Maybe nowhere. Maybe a character sketch. Maybe a story. Maybe a novel. (Stranger things have happened.) And more about dialog later…

Suggestion #4. Keep your voice active. Not passive.
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Simple, But Exciting (Part 2)

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. An editor’s perspective.

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Simple, But Exciting (Part 2)

A writer will also utilize three necessary ingredients to successfully navigate a successful story—and you’ll continually weave these components throughout your writing, like spiraling filaments in a thread.

In no particular order:

• Scene Setting. As a reader, I want to be grounded early in each new chapter or scene. Give me a glimpse of where I am, and who I’m with and, if appropriate, when. (After dark? Before lunch? Late autumn?) Depending upon your writing style, setting a scene can be elaborate enough to fill several pages (a la George R.R. Martin), or as sparse as a few suggestive wordsI walked into Charlie’s ramshackle Bar & Grill. The place smelled like old cigarettes and older sweat. You know, the kind of establishment where patrons paid in dimes and quarters, where cockroaches and winos went to die. — enough to impart sufficient information to identify or intuit the whereabouts of your character(s).

• Character Development. Give me essential information that builds or strengthens or reveals the important nuance of a character. Not all at once, of course… but bits here and there. Character development often relies on subtle nuances, appropriately placed.

• Plot Development. Give me essential information that builds or strengthens the plot. Sometimes nuanced, sometimes with the speed and intensity of a runaway train. But keep pushing the plot forward. It’s as simple as that.

In each scene you write, you’ll combine elements of scene setting, plot development and character development. Include nothing else. If you find yourself writing material that doesn’t further the plot or distinguish a character or ground the reader in time or place, those words probably don’t belong in your novel. (And if the words feel important to the the story, look closely—they’re likely one of the above ingredients.)

These three key elements, by the way, comprise Rule #5: Continually scene set, character build or move the plot forward. In novel writing, nothing else matters.

Okay, so here’s a brief hypothetical:

Barnaby awoke before dawn, shivering beneath the insufficient weight of a blanket that smelled of manure and wet straw. The frigid air lay heavy with smoke drifting from a myriad of scattered campfires that burned in the meadow. He gazed upward through the misty tendrils, into a coal black winter’s night. High amid the heavens, he could see the constellation Orion. The hunter.

…Come daylight, he knew, they would all become hunters.

He could hear a distant murmur of sleepless men, of braying horses. Somewhere in the tall grass, a young soldier sobbed. Even though he’d slept, Barnaby instinctively sensed dawn’s approach—soon the drums and bugles would beckon the war, and with its arousal, an unmitigated savagery would descend upon the brigade. Before sunset, many of those stirring restlessly around him would lay dead.

Not long ago, he might have wept at the thought of the carnage that morning would bring. But staring into the heavens, he wished for only solace. He longed for an eternity absent of fear, of hatred, of misery. For the first time since the fighting had begun, Barnaby found himself anticipating the absolute surrender of death, and relished its embrace.

…….….……
In the above paragraphs we find a piecemeal semblance of scene-setting and character development, although not much plot. Yet by the end of the passage, we infer a battle’s brewing (basic plot development) and, if properly scene-set, we suspect our character to be a soldier of some bygone era. Campfires. Horses. Bugles. Even by the discreet choice of names—Barnaby—the writer implies a subliminal clue. No, we don’t know which war…but we assume we’ll be told fairly soon and, if the writing moves us, we’re willing to wait. Nor do we have a clear physical description of Barnaby (our protagonist we presume, although still uncertain)—and yet we’ve glimpsed the lost fear in his soul. Another important character trait.

By juxtaposing well-considered snippets of information, each sentence becomes an integral piece of an enormous puzzle, yet none of the overall picture which will be revealed in haste. The writer utilizes only those pieces that properly fit, and has already begun interlacing individual filaments (of plot, character and grounding) that will eventually weave into a narrative tale. We may not know key elements of the character until far into the novel. We’re learning about this man piece by piece. We may not learn about the writer’s true intent in telling his story—perhaps not the war itself, but rather a young man’s journey to find himself, through various aspects of fate. The writer’s only begun to build a mystery of voice, of plotting, and yet each sentence is precise and methodical, like so many footprints in the sand, one after another after another in meticulous formation toward an inevitable conclusion.

* * *

One last note: When is simple too simple? When simple becomes passive. So keep your simple sentences active. (See Active Voice.) For instance:

Passive: John was sleeping. (Simple? Yes. Exciting? No.)

Active: John’s snores reverberated through the house with the fury of an approaching thunderstorm. (Better.)

Remember: Simple, but exciting.

 


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Simple, But Exciting (Part 1)

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Simple, But Exciting (Part 1)

If I could distill the fundamentals of potentially great storytelling, my advice would be this: Keep it simple, but exciting…exciting, but simple.

While such advice may seem paradoxical (“Paint it black, but paint it white.”) you’ll find a marvelous co-dependency at play in writing a novel that: A) moves the story swiftly forward, without confusion or unnecessary intrusions, and; B) imparts a breathlessness, a passion, a cerebral metamorphosis that transforms the reader’s reality into one entirely of your choosing.

One manages such duality by keeping: A) the fundamentals simple, and; B) your voice exciting.

Simple: The mechanics and structure of your writing, the clarity of your language. (In other words, grammar.) Note that simple doesn’t mean uninteresting or brief, nothing synopsized or truncated—but rather clear and concise.

Exciting: The unique personality of your style and voice, the ebb and flow of your journey (that is, the structure of your plot), your joie de vivre. Your subtle—but oh-so-witty—nuance. Your tantalizing dialog. (See Exciting, but Simple. Also see Dialog.)

Even those writers who attempt to climb (metaphorically speaking) the Mount Everest of epic adventures or those who navigate the Pan’s Labyrinth of complicated plots, the basic mechanics of fiction remain fundamentally simple: Write in clear, precise sentences. (That’s Rule #7, by the way.) Communicate to your reader in intelligent thoughts, carefully constructed, while providing a constant, continual procession of relevant information.

Think of writing a novel as being similar to a long trek through the Sahara. As a reader, I’m following the trail you’ve intentionally set out on page one. I must be able to follow (e.g.; comprehend) each footstep you take along the way. A misplaced thought or a convoluted sentence will give me pause. What did you mean? A muddled chapter and I may be stymied. Am I still on track? Which way did you go? Lose readers midway through the desert and they’re likely gone for good.

My advice? Don’t get deviously clever or snarkingly cute with your audience. Do not withhold necessary information or keep secrets—intending a sleight of hand later in the story. Do not write under the influence of an advanced thesaurus. Do not assume we’ll dig deeply enough to catch your subliminal brilliance, your existential aura, your interpretive, Nureyev-like rond de jambe. Yes, your characters can be devious, but not your language. Sure, your plot can be multi-layered, but not your innuendo. Your protagonist may be shrouded in mystery, but do not shroud your words from the reader. Maintain clarity. Keep it simple.

Stagnation = Boredom. Movement = Drama.

Another fundamental? Every sentence you write, every scene, every chapter, every act, must constantly push your characters toward trouble (a.k.a. conflict, a.k.a. tension, a.k.a. drama), or else snatch them away again.

You’re either pushing your lovers toward elusive but everlasting happiness, or else dragging them away.

You’re pushing your swashbuckling adventurer toward a buried treasure, or wrenching her away again.

You’re pushing your Hobbit toward Mount Doom, or dragging him away (…again and again and again and again).

You’re pushing a hapless antihero toward a life of crime, or pulling him back—perhaps toward that carefree Montana horse ranch where lithesome Marilyn toils, pining for a good man. But, wait! Her ominous, one-eared stepbrother, Bart, also has lusty designs on Marilyn. Why? Because one can (and should) impart many tug o’wars into a story, often working in simultaneity. A writer is continually pushing or pulling each character into or away from situational danger, continually building or relaxing tension—with always a final goal in mind.

Such constant motion need not include physical expression (sprinting, dueling, skydiving without a ‘chute) but rather be certain that your writing is rich in emotion and dramatic impact. For instance, you’re concocting elaborate schemes inside your prisoner’s head that will ultimately spring him from his tiny cell, or you’re creating unforeseen obstacles that pull him away from his anticipated freedom.

See a pattern developing? If you’re not constantly pushing or pulling, you’re miring the plot, your characters, in mundanity. Think of movement this way: A novel is like an aardvark. Both have to constantly breathe—inhaling, then exhaling; inhaling, then exhaling. A flat plot or uninteresting characters or passive writing (see Active Voice) is pretty much total exhalation. Ask an aardvark to exhale continually for 300 pages and what happens? Right. Dead as a door nail.

Hint:

Inhale: A thousand snarling, brain-craving zombies lurch through a dark tunnel, hungry for you and your family. At the other end, you find the tunnel’s hopelessly blocked! But, wait! You discover a service hatch! While you all scramble safely through that well-placed emergency exit, Aunt Mildred trips over her shoelaces and gets munched.

Exhale: Sobbing afterwards, safe and sound, you and your family mourn poor Aunt Mildred. But, wait! Wasn’t the dear woman carrying your only map to the Zombie-Free Safety Zone? And also your last bottle of water? Now you have neither. You all stare at one another, aghast. Overhead, thunder rumbles ominously.

Thus, Rule #8: Keep your characters moving. Either push your characters toward drama or pull them away again. (a.k.a.: Inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale…)
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