Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Review - The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

While I was working on my English degree, I read a ton of books. Some were very challenging because they were written in old English, which was difficult for me to understand because authors write very differently in contemporary books. Our sentences are shorter and our stories more action packed. I remember listening to one instructor read a very old text and it sounded like a foreign language. As I studied more and more writers, I found that though some seemed to write meandering sentences they were really packing a ton of information into them. When I studied one of Henry James's books, I found I was absorbed in his writing and no longer felt I was struggling to follow the story line.

I’m telling you this because today I’m going to review Henry James’ book, The Turn of the Screw, one of my favorite stories. James wrote many well-known novels: The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of a Dove, Daisy Miller and The Ambassadors. But my favorite is The Turn of the Screw. He had a tendency, as was the custom in his day, to write long convoluted sentences, though each word served a purpose.

For example here is the very first sentence of the book:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.

See what I mean by convoluted sentences? But doesn’t it make you curious? What kind of story would leave them breathless? Why were they telling such stories on Christmas Eve? What kind of visitation was it? And why did it involve a child? Needless to say when I read this sentence I was hooked. I read this very short book (87 pages) in an afternoon. It took me a while because I was savoring the words and mining out the deeper meanings that were hidden.

Here’s the back liner of the book:

Widely recognized as one of literature’s most gripping ghost stories, this classic tale of moral degradation concerns the sinister transformation of two innocent children into flagrant liars and hypocrites. The story begins when a governess arrives at an English country estate to look after Miles, aged ten, and Flora, eight. At first, everything appears normal but then events gradually begin to weave a spell of psychological terror.

One night a ghost appears before the governess. It is the dead lover of Miss Jessel, the former governess. Later, the ghost of Miss Jessel herself appears before the governess and the little girl. Moreover, both the governess and the housekeeper suspect that the two spirits have appeared to the boy in private. The children, however, adamantly refuse to acknowledge the presence of the two spirits, in spite of indications that there is some sort of evil communications going on between the children and the ghosts.

Without resorting to clattering chains, demonic noises and other melodramatic techniques, this elegantly told tale succeeds in creating an atmosphere of tingling suspense and unspoken horror matched by few other books in the genre. Known for his probing psychological novels dealing with the upper classes, James in this story tried his hand at the occult—and created a masterpiece of the supernatural that has frightened and delighted readers for nearly a century.

Need I say more? I loved this little gem of a book. After reading it I wanted to try my hand at writing a spine-tingling, supernatural novel. I’m still working on the idea. I even started to plot it out last fall. And as soon as I finish a couple of other projects I plan to work on it again. All because of the influence of this book. The story was so gripping that even though it has been years since I read it, I still think about Miles and Flora and Mrs. Griffin.

The book has been made into a movie several times. Here’s a clip from the BBC version.

(Dover Publications Inc, published this novel. I bought my copy and have no financial interest in its success.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Character of Your Protagonist

We discussed the “push” last Wednesday and that what is relevant to your protagonist pushes your story down the path you want to go. Now let’s talk about your protagonist.

This goes beyond what your protagonist looks like, his favorite food, or where he lives. This is about the character of your protagonist. Just who is your protagonist? Do you know him/her inside and out? If not, it is imperative that you do.

Have you ever read a book and the protagonist does something that doesn’t make sense? Sometimes in a weak attempt to write fully fleshed-out characters, some writers will have the protagonist do something totally uncharacteristic, thinking this makes him/her three dimensional. Some writers defend what they’ve done by saying they didn’t want their protagonist to be stereotypical. These are flawed arguments. What is the problem? There’s been a disjoint in logic. A path has not be built to show:
  • how the protagonist’s mind works
  • how the protagonist feels
  • why the protagonist acts
  • and what the protagonist says.
If you know all of these traits about your protagonist and can smoothly write them in your novel, you will have a fully-fleshed out character and you'll know exactly how your protagonist will react in any given circumstance. AND you will have built the path making your protagonist think, feel, act and say things that are relevant to him/her.The relevant push is key to achieving this.

For instance, if your character is tenderhearted, you will know that when she sees an injured dog at the side of the road, she’s going to stop. The injured dog is relevant to her and is the push that calls her to action. So, what if your character is self-absorbed? That character wouldn’t stop for the dog. The animal isn’t relevant. Easy, right? Well, not so fast. What if your tenderhearted character didn't stop? That would become confusing for your readers. If your tenderhearted character sees the dog, but does nothing. Logic is broken. Doubt will creep into your reader’s mind.  

However, if you build a path as to why your tenderhearted character sees the hurt dog but doesn't stop, such as she’s driving her injured child to the hospital and it breaks her heart not to help the animal in need, but her child comes first, well then you’re on track again. Build a path keeping in mind how your protagonist thinks, feels, acts, and what he/she will say and your writing will shine.Show the workings of your character’s mind by the actions he/she takes, by the inner thoughts rolling around in his/her mind and by the words he/she says.

So here's a question to mull over...can a tenderhearted character also be self-absorbed? And if so, how do you write this character?

Writing tip: If your protagonist’s actions are confusing clarify! If clarification is impossible, leave out the action.

Writing challenge: Always try to show your protagonist’s true self by an action he/she has to take in chapter one. The key word here is “show.” Don’t tell us the main character is loved by every one show us.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Yes, I'm a Trekkie

I have a confession to make. This weekend I realized I’ve kept this secret far to long, and now I need to fess up. I’m a trekkie. Not a trekkie who goes to conventions and dresses up, but a trekkie who watches everything Star Trek. There, now I feel better.

When I was young, my brother was really into the TV series Star Trek. Since there was only one TV in the house, I pretty much had to watch it, so he would let me watch my shows. Secretly, I liked Star Trek. Over the years I’ve seen the series at least three times.

This last weekend my daughter wasn’t feeling well and whenever someone is ill we have a movie marathon. She picked all the Star Trek movies. So Saturday night we started with the very first Star Trek movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Okay, I have another confession, this is my least favorite. I’d forgotten why until we started watching it, and then I remembered as I watched very long visuals with no dialogue. I wanted the characters in the movie to interact like they had in the TV series. While the visuals were pretty good, the dialogue was disappointing.

The next movie we put in the Blue Ray was The Wrath of Kahn. Years ago when the second Star Trek movie was released I was married and my husband and I had moved our little family to Salt Lake City. We were poor and couldn’t afford a baby sitter, but for our anniversary we splurged and went to the movies. We saw The Wrath of Kahn at the old Broadway Theater. It was fantastic! The characters I’d grown to love were back doing what they do best. As my daughter and I watched this wonderful movie last weekend, we talked about our favorite scenes. In my opinion, Ricardo Montalban has been the best villain. His mere presence on the screen is fascinating. Here’s a scene I think you’ll remember.

The next movie, The Search for Spock, was okay. I mean I enjoyed it, plus Christopher Lloyd played a good villain. But the next favorite movie for my family was Star Trek: The Voyage Home.

As we watched we were quoting our favorite lines. There were so many of them.

The next movie was Star Trek: The Final Frontier. It was a good movie, but not one of my family’s favorites, so because my daughter and I were running out of weekend we decided to skip this one and went straight to Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country.

As I watched this movie, I realized why we liked it so much. For one thing, it was the last movie with the entire cast. They had aged along with their characters. The villain in this movie was again another favorite actor, Christopher Plummer. He, like Ricardo Montalban, has a very commanding screen presence. Plus, this movie has many twists and turns that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. What a wonderful weekend!

When the new Star Trek movie opened last summer, I was so hopeful it would be good. How in the world would they ever replace the old cast that everyone had grown up with and loved?

For me, the new Star Trek was spot on! They nailed the characters. And the action was through the roof. So, once again, my family anxiously awaits the next Star Trek movie. 

What is your favorite Star Trek movie?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Book Review - Where Are The Children? by Mary Higgins Clark

When I first started writing I read a ton of books and found I really liked romantic suspense. Though a great deal of those novels had profanity or sex scenes, which made me uncomfortable. I skipped a lot of pages in some books. Then one day, I happened upon a little book titled, Where Are The Children? by Mary Higgins Clark. No profanity or sex scenes, what a relief! The book doesn't reach out and grab you with the first sentence, oh no, it teases you in with what you think are everyday people until you suddenly realize something is very wrong and by then you're hooked and you have to read on to make sure everything turns out all right.

Here's the back liner of the book:

Nancy Harmon had fled the evil of her first marriage, the macabre deaths of her two little children, the hideuos charges against her. She changed her name, dyed her hair, moved from California to New England. Now she was married again, with two lovely new children and a happiness-filled life...

...until the morning when she looked for her children and found only one tattered red mitten and knew that the nightmare was beginning again... Where Are The Children?

Here's what one of my all-time favorite authors said about this book:

"Superb, engrossing suspense. I found myself experiencing the cold and sleet on Cape Cod, and fearing the threat of the secretive house by the sea. The reader is touched and involved and caught up in the terror." --Phyllis A. Whitney.

What I liked about the book is it's not only told through the protagonist's eyes, but also through the villain's. Yikes! But boy did that draw me into the story in a creepy sort of way because I could see what he was doing next and what he was thinking. Talk about heightening tension.

I was soooo worried for those children that I could hardly put the book down to fix dinner or make the beds. So a word of advice, make sure you have the time to read when you start this book.

I fell in love with Mary Higgins Clark's writing and read quite a few of her books. I would always know when I picked up a novel written by her there would be no worries of coming upon profanity or graphic sex. There would be romance and there would be sit-on-the-edge-of-your seat, heart-thumping drama which was exactly what I wanted.

I eventual met Ms. Clark at a writers conference. She is one classy lady and a speaker I could listen to for hours. She graciously let me take her picture as she signed my book. It was an experience I will always remember. And rats, I couldn't find my picture, but here's one thanks to Google.

I hope you'll read this little book and let me know what you think.

(Dell Publishing Co. Inc. published this book. I bought this book and reviewed it simply because I liked it. I have no financial ties to its success)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Push

Last Wednesday we discussed the relevant push and how it helps to focus your story on what is important to your protagonist and heads him/her in the direction you want your story to go.

Today we're going to discuss the actual "push". Moving your character down the right path is only part of what is needed. You need your protagonist to act; he/she needs to be pushed.

The push must:
1) demand a response and 2) make your character act.

For instance your character, let's call her Rachel, notices autumn leaves have piled up near the fence in her yard. Okay, she's looking at the leaves and knows they need to be raked up, but piled up leaves alone do not demand her to act. Something needs to push her to action. What could it be?

Since we used the genre of romance last week, let's focus on a different genre. If your story targets "women's fiction" and Rachel is a single mom struggling to provide for her two children, maybe this would give her a relevant push...Rachel notices something shiny under the leaves. As she walks nearer that shiny thing looks like gold! Here is the push that causes her to act.

Or if your story is a murder mystery how about Rachel notices the leaves piled up and for a split second she thinks she sees a hand beneath the leaves. Of course, she believes she's seeing things, but an odd foreboding makes her check it out. As she pushes the leaves away with her bare hands, she finds a bloody knife. Panicked she digs deeper and finds her ex-husband. She hears someone gasp. Looking up with the knife in her hands, she sees her next-door neighbor. Okay, I got a little carried away. But now you can clearly see how the relevant push sends Rachel down the path she needs to go for your story.

The "push" is something that your protagonist cannot ignore and something that calls him/her to action.

Look at the protagonist in your own book and make sure the relevant push takes your hero/heroine down the right path for your story. Let me know what you think. Will using a relevant push help your story?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hunting for a Healthy Body

I'm on the hunt for that healthy, slim body I use to have. I lost it somewhere between my kids graduating from high school and my becoming a grandma. That healthy trim bod that had no trouble standing up from the floor and walking two miles left behind this tired old lady. Well, I'm tired of her. I know what I have to do to get her back, but here's the deal...I hate to exercise.

I know it is good for me. I know I need to do it, so I do, but I hate exercise. Another thing I hate is dieting, or rather eating foods that are good for me (a friend of mine told me to say to myself 'I choose to eat yogurt instead of a chocolate bar,' yeah right.). Fruit is okay, mainly because it is usually sweet, but vegetables. I've never met a vegetable that I'm fond of unless it is slathered in butter with a good dash of salt. Call me crazy, but why couldn't there be something nutrious about say...cinnamon rolls or chocolate. I do think they have found that dark chocolate is good for you. So--when are they going to find that pastries have a slimming effect on the thighs? Okay, probably never, but I can always dream. 

Now that I have that out of my system, I'm good to face what has to be done. I thought I would do muscle stretching exercises Monday, Wednesday and Fridays and on Tuesday and Thursdays walk. So I started last Monday with the stretching exercises. Oh my stars! I found muscles I'd forgotten I had. Could hardly sit down Tuesday, but I walked. Stretched again Wednesday. More stiffness and aching muscles Thursday. Friday morning I was so tempted to skip the whole routine, but I pushed through and exercised again. I was feeling pretty proud of myself by Saturday. I'd watched my diet. Only had one indulgence of sweets once a day and had lost three pounds. Yes! And then Valentines Day hit.

Last night I looked at my kitchen: chocolate cupcakes leftover from church, a box of Sees chocolates, marshmallow Peeps, chocolate dipped strawberries and grapes, and my husband was making chocolate chip cookies (a Sunday tradition). Talk about temptation. And sadly, I did partake. Duh! Valentines comes once a year, and I've been told there are no calories on that day. But sounder reasoning finally found me, and my day of indulgence is over.

Today I'm back on the trail hunting for that healthy I see more exercise in my future along with a large side order of vegetables. I know I can do this, but if you have some tips that will spur me on to victory, I'd really appreciate your sharing them.  :0)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Book Review - Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

Several years ago I attended a writers’ conference and had the great fortune of listening to author Shannon Hale. At the time I’d never heard of her. I’d gone to the conference to meet Jean Craighead George, who wrote Julie of the Wolves (another wonderful book). I slipped into to listen to Shannon, and I was totally blown away. First she walked into the packed room with a laminated roll of papers. She began her talk by setting the roll down on the floor. It unrolled nearly to the back of the room. Then she said, “Those are my rejections.” Right then and there I knew I like this woman. She talked for about an hour or so telling us where she went to college, how she struggled to become published and that if you work hard and keep at it you’ll eventually reach your goal. But she also said a lot has to do with having your manuscript at the right place at the right time.

After listening to her talk, I had to buy her book. The title didn’t really appeal to me and I probably wouldn’t have bought it if I’d never attended her lecture, but what a great find! Here’s the opening sentence: She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open her eyes for three days.

What a great hook! First you realize the character is royalty (interesting) and you have to wonder, why didn’t she open her eyes? Right there you’re thinking, must read more, right? I sure did. I was drawn into a wonderful fantasy world that I didn’t want to leave.

Here’s the teaser on the book cover flap:

She was born with her eyes closed and a word on her tongue, a word she could not taste. Her name was Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she spent the first years of her life listening to her aunt’s stories and learning the language of the birds, especially the swans. When she was older, she watched as a colt was born, and she heard the first word on his tongue, his name, Falada.

From the Grimm’s fairy tale of the princess who became a goose girl before she could become queen, Shannon Hale has woven an incredible, original and magical tale of a girl who must find her own unusual talents before she can lead the people she has made her own.

Shannon has added some wonderful touches of magic that makes this book very intriguing and elevates it to the forefront of books you must own.

(Bloomsbury published this book. I bought my own copy and offer this review freely without financial ties to either the publisher or the author.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Relevant Push

What is a relevant push? Before I answer, think back to the lesson “Through the Lens of Your Protagonist.” We talked about what your protagonist focuses on within a scene and how vital it is, not only in directing your reader to what is important, but also to what is relevant to your protagonist. Your entire book is seen through the lens of your protagonist. Now let’s turn our attention to relevance and how it pushes your protagonist. What is relevant to him/her?

Remember that even the filler in your story needs to reflect the tone of your book and what your protagonist will notice. You should also note that there is a relevant push that has to do with the protagonist's immediate situation and where you need your story to go.

So think of it this way…

1) A relevant push should show a change in the protagonist’s outer situation.
2) Not only is the push affecting the protagonist’s outer world but also his inner battle.
3) This inner battle he/she struggles with will guide your protagonist to act in a way that will take your story down the path you want it to go.

Easy peasy, right?

Let’s look at the park scene we used a couple of weeks ago.

Small town USA, stores frame a park in the center of town and at the head of the park is the courthouse with a clock tower. In the park children are playing on a swing set, a woman walks by pushing a stroller, two men are sitting on a park bench, and a dog chases a stick a young boy has tossed.

We’ll see this through the lens of a man in his late thirties, who has just broken up with his girlfriend, and he realizes he may never have a family of his own. On his lunch break he goes to the park. He sees the kids on the swing, the boy with the dog and the woman with the stroller. Without thinking he stops the woman with the stroller and gazes down on a beautiful sleeping baby. As he chats with the woman, he notices her beautiful dark, chocolate-colored eyes, her easygoing nature and her low, sexy voice. He finds out she is the baby’s nanny. The clock on the courthouse tower bongs. She immediately excuses herself saying she has an appointment and leaves. He has no way of getting in touch with her, so in the hopes of meeting her again he comes to the park every day at the same time.

What was the relevant push for the man to speak with the woman with the stroller? What changed in the protagonist’s outer situation? His girlfriend broke up with him. Not only does he not have the comfort of his girlfriend (she's not physically there), but he is now alone not only in his outer world, but in his inner world (no one to love). Because of his yearning for a relationship and children his inner battle pushes him to speak with the woman who has the stroller.

For a romance, once he learns the woman is the baby’s nanny and that she is very appealing to him…you have the beginning of a relationship. BUT that relationship is threatened when she abruptly leaves (nothing like a good hook). Now he returns to the park everyday in hopes of running into her again.

The relevant push drives your story in the direction you need it to go, in this case towards a romance.

See, it’s not so hard. As you write a scene always think about what is relevant to your protagonist and what will push him/her to walk down the path you need your story to go.

Next week we’re going to discuss the “push” itself.

Happy writing!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bits and Pieces and Betty White

Today’s blog is going to be bits and pieces of what’s been going on in my world.

I did something this last weekend I thought I’d never do in February. What, you may ask, is that? I finally took down my Christmas village. Do you believe it? I’m so ashamed. Here’s the deal though, we put our village on the top of the kitchen cupboards. You know, in the space between the ceiling and cupboard. It wasn’t in the way, no everyone could see it unless they came into my kitchen or dining room. So, it remained there until last Saturday. What a relief to get it down. Because even though no one could see it every time I walked into the kitchen it nagged at me.

For my birthday a couple of weeks ago my hubby surprised me and gave me a wonderful, beautiful, huge white board. You should see it! (I’d take a picture, but it’s still in the box.) It’s four feet high and six feet wide. I can plot, make time-lines, draw diagrams, make a grocery list, draw stick figures, or whatever on this humongous board.
BUT (you knew there was going to be a but) it doesn’t fit in my office. Though it does fit in the bedroom next to my office which we call the library (I have more books in my office than in the library). What to do?

Since most of the books in the house are in my office, I’ve decided to move my office into the library and move the library into my office. (Are you confused yet?) This is going to be a MAJOR undertaking. It will probably take several weeks. The carrot dangling before me is getting that wonderful, beautiful, huge white board where I can use it.

The Whitneys were announced last Friday. Sadly The Forgotten Warrior did not get nominated, but there were some outstanding books that did. Check them out at:

Did you watch the Super Bowl? I’m really not a football fan unless I know someone on the team, so I mainly watched for the commercials. I loved the one with Betty White.

I just received my brand new shiny driver’s license. I was so hoping to have a better picture. Well, it came in the mail today and over my face is some faint light tanish-yellow police logic. Which is kind of good, because the picture was horrible, but I wonder what’s the point of the picture if they're going to do that?

I found out that my book, The Stone Traveler, has been bumped to an August release. So look for it in AUGUST!!!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Book Review: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Several years ago I took a class about writing children's books. At the time I was working for a curriculum publisher and writing concept books for children K-2. It was a wonderful class. Towards the end of the term the teacher had a drawing for some books that had won the Newbery Medal. Surprise, surprise, I was a winner. But the book I won I wasn't really excited about. At first glance it looked like one long poem. I appreciate poems and the genius that goes into writing them, but I've never been a real fan of poetry. The instructor of the class said it was outstanding, so I gave it try. Am I glad I did!!!

Out of the Dust is a book in poem form, but grabs you in the first stanza. Take a look.

As summer wheat came ripe,
so did I,

born at home, on the kitchen floor.
Ma crouched,
barefoot, bare bottomed
over the swept boards,
because that's where Daddy said it'd be best.

I could not put this book down. I read it cover to cover in a couple of hours and was totally awestruck. Scenes from this novel clung to me long after I'd put it down. But more than that I felt the emotions of this girl. I cried when she cried and laughed when she laughed. I don't usually do that. Here's the backliner of the book.

A terrible accident has transformed Billie Jo's life, scarring her inside and out. Her mother is gone. Her father can't talk about it. And the one thing that might make her feel better--playing the piano--is impossible with her wounded hands. To make matters worse, dust storms are devastating the family farm and all the farms nearby. While others flee from the dust bowl, Billie Jo is left to find peace in the bleak landscape of Oklahoma--and in the surprising landscape of her own heart.

If you have the chance buy this book and add it to your library. You won't regret it.

(Scholastic Inc., published this book. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book and freely gave this book review.)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Off the Hook

I know it's Writing Wednesday and for the last few weeks I've posted about writing chain reactions, the logic of emotions and through the lens of your protagonist. But I need to take detour today. I had some unexpected edits come my way that absolutely have to be done asap, so I have to plead for your forgiveness. You're off the hook this week (hmm a good topic to write about "hooks"). Next week I'll be back on track.

But just so you know I appreciate your stopping by take off your shoes, kick up your feet and take a look at this fun movie trailer about Nim's Island. I saw this movie a couple of years ago with my daughter. She hated it, and I must admit in certain areas the storyline was weak, but I enjoyed watching Jodie Foster play the part of a novelist. If you get a chance and you just want to laugh, check it out.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Just Keep Swimming

I received some discouraging news. Whenever I hear bad news or I'm feeling down I think of Dory. You know, the little fish in Finding Nemo. I loved her. Here's a character that should be so down and feeling sorry for herself, but is she? No! She kept singing, "Just keep swimming." Well, I'm going to take her advice. Love this picture I found on google. Thanks Pixar and Disney! My sad news seems to have teeth just like this fish. But keep in mind Dory gets away.

There are many things in life that are just out of our control and all we can do is go with the flow, keep swimming, and hope that at sometime things will work out. And that's what I'm going to do. With that said, I'm sad to tell you that my publisher has decided not to publish the sequel to The Forgotten Warrior. Sales for book one weren't what they had hoped for. The economy has been very tough on everyone, book publishers and authors as well. BUT and this is a mighty big but . . . they are publishing another book in the series, The Stone Traveler. I'm very excited about this book. You'll be happy to know that it does NOT have a cliffhanger ending. Some questions you may have had while reading The Forgotten Warrior may be answered by reading this new book!

Take heart though, I'm not going to give up on book two of The Forgotten Warrior. I will do everything I can to get it published. There are several options, and I'll explore them all. But in the meantime, I've posted the first chapter of book two on my website. Some of your questions will be answered. Just go to, click on The Forgotten Warrior book. Two pdf icons will appear. Click on the "Sneak Preview for Book Two" and there you'll be able to read chapter one. :0)

Thank you to all my fans who have been so patient. Please hang in there. I'll keep you posted of other developments in regards to the sequel. This is where Dory would start singing, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.

In the meantime, please pick up The Stone Traveler when it's released in June. If sales are high for that book, it will bode well for book two of The Forgotten Warrior. And it still might find its way to book store shelves.

Because Dory is such an inspiration of never giving up I've added a clip from the movie Finding Nemo.


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