One thing I love about Stephen King books is the dialog. I can tell I like these people by the way they talk.

Susan smiled a little defensively. "Sure, I'm sure. He looks like . . . oh, I don't knowa college instructor or something."

"They say the Mad Bomber looked like a gardner," Mrs. Norton said reflectively.

"Moose shit," Susan said cheerfully. It was an epithet that never failed to irritate her mother.

DialogBubbleThat chunk is clearly from an early work, before Mr. King focused on eliminating all adverbs from his dialog attribution. Later, in On Writing, he'll take himself to task for those adverbs. I think they're delightful. Here's another bit where you can hear the voices if you care to listen.

"Sure it does. This isn't Boston or New York. It's not going to be just a matter of me keepin' my lip buttoned. People are going to talk. Why, there's an old biddy over on Railroad Street, name of Mabel Werts, who spends all day with a pair of binoculars"

"I don't care about the townspeople. My partner doesn't care about the townspeople. The townspeople always talk. They are no different from the magpies on the telephone wires. Soon they will accept us."

I like the way he uses dialog because somehow in the way he has his characters speak, we learn more about them than when he reveals what they're actually thinking. You can hear an open, honest thought process there. Dialog is also useful for demonstrating the bond between people. I tried to use playful banter between the boys in The Vivisectionist to demonstrate the friendship that evolved:

"Hey, you guys ever hear about that snake last summer?" asked Ben.

"Are you just trying to scare everyone?" asked Jack.

"No, seriously, you didn't hear?" said Ben. "Last summer this guy's six-foot boa got out of his house and lived in the woods for weeks."

"Shut up!" said Stephen. "That's the oldest story ever."

"Whatever, you don't have to believe me. Some guy almost hit it driving down Kirkpatrick Road." maintained Ben.

"Oh, wait — I heard about that," said Jack.

"You guys are full of shit," said Stephen.
"Really. I saw the picture in the paper," replied Jack. "The worst part was that when they caught it, it got upset and disgorged."

"Yeah, that's the one," agreed Ben. "Snakes get scared and throw up so they can run away."

"Well I do know about that," said Stephen, "but I still say you're full of shit."

"Anyway," continued Ben, "what they didn't say on the news was that it disgorged a whole baby."

"No way!" said Stephen.

 I don't think anybody wants to read page after page of pure dialog, but it does make a nice break the for the eyes to get some short, quick lines in there to break up all the text. There's one big problem though. It's really hard to know when it's right. It can sound right to me, perfect even, but I know how it's supposed to sound. If you cut out some of the description (trying to reduce the clutter), you can accidentally make a chunk of dialog that looks right to you, but is ambiguous to the reader. 

In the title of this post, I promised some free ideas. When an interesting bit of dialog crosses my path (overheard or imagined), I like to write it down. A lot of times I don't use it verbatim, but I try to capture the feel of it in a story. Here are some random ideas you can have for free (they're worth every penny):

"He doesn't say 'good morning,' he says 'morning,' and he says it like it's a warning."

* * * *

"I hate people who's names are verbs, but you totally Petered that."

* * * *

"You had sex with him, but you won't with me?"

"I actually care about you."

"Huh. Could you care less about me for a few minutes?"

"I'm starting to."

* * * *

"How long are you going to hold this against me?"

"Not the rest of my life, but probably the rest of yours."

We waded out through waist-deep water and then swam downstream to get to the big rock. On a hot summer day that rock would be covered by dozens of sunbathers, but on this late-spring day, the three of us were alone. Frank, Clay, and I had been trapped inside by a week of rain. When the sun came out that afternoon we didn't waste any time heading down to the river.

BigRockNewRiverTwenty-five miles upstream from where we sunbathed, the dam at Claytor Lake holds back 4,500 acres of water. That day, our late-spring day twenty years ago, the rain had collected in countless mountain streams and dumped into Claytor Lake, pressing against the face of that dam. When the operators opened the gates to relieve the pressure, a klaxon sounded to warn everyone downstream of the coming flood. Unfortunately, we were too far downstream to hear the alarm. The three of us napped in the sun while the water rose around us.

 

I remember being afraid of the dark when I was a kid. Something always lurked under the bed or at the back of the closet. I knew with absolute certainty that as soon as my bare foot hit the floor a hand would shoot out from under the bed and grab my ankle, pulling me under to die amongst the dust bunnies. The space between the mattress and boxsprings also seemed a likely place for a monster. Just let your hand dangle too far over the edge, and something could slip out of that gap and grip your wrist tight. What happened to those monsters? Did logic drive them away, or did their threat weaken simply because night after night they failed to materialize?

I read 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King for the first time when I was a teenager visiting Maine one summer. I stayed in a second-floor bedroom of a house built in 1856. As I stayed up past midnight, neck craned over my distressed paperback, the house played games with my fright. The old latch on closet door would suddenly spring and the door would creak open half an inch. Or, just as I was reading about the vampire Ralphie Glick showing up at someone's window, the rollup blind would raise six inches and then stop.  I've never been more scared by a book than I was that summer.

 

But all those frights paled in comparison to the fear that built when we realized we were alone on a rock in a rising river, six-hundred feet from shore. The opposite bank was much closer–only about one-hundred-and-fifty feet away–but it lay on the other side of nasty rapids. Also, swimming to the far shore would have left us twenty miles of walking to get back to the car. These are the facts we debated as the water lapped at the edge of the rock. Normally, that rock stood at least six feet out of the water. 

We made a couple of attempts to swim upstream to the shallow part of the river, but we were washed back down to the rock each time. Hundreds of feet closer to the car, two guys sat on the rock closest to the shore. We watched them dive in and head for safety. 

After twenty minutes of panicked debate, we conceded that our rock might be underwater before too long. Floods of ten feet or more weren't unheard of, and the water had only risen half that much. The three of us left together. Just downstream from the rock, the current tumbled over a ridge of rocks, kicking up whitewater. The swirl pulled me under and my ears popped as I was plunged towards the bottom of the river. I fought with flailing arms and legs until I came up, gasping for air. After orienting myself, I poured all my energy into swimming for shore. 

Realizations came in waves. I've always been a strong swimmer, but that day I realized that a cramp or an accidental mouthful of water can prove unrecoverable. Halfway across, I realized that if one of my friends went under, I wouldn't be able to save them. Although I hate to admit it, I realized that if one of them needed help, I probably wouldn't have even tried to save them. Finally, I realized that I could die. I understood for the first time that my life could end on a warm, sunny afternoon. 

When we'd made it within one-hundred feet of shore, we were out of the rapids and the water was swift but smooth. On the road that ran down the edge of the river, police cars, ambulances, and boats on trailers had arrived. We clawed our way up the banks amid a dozen rescue workers who ignored our presence. My body suffered scores of lacerations from tumbling against the rocks, and I was soon covered in blood. One of the paramedics asked if I needed help and I returned his question with my own:

"What are you guys doing here?" I asked.

"That lady saw a kid go under," he said, "right along here."

It was one of the guys from the close-to-shore rock. He and his friend had tried to swim for shore and he hadn't made it. The woman told the police that she'd seen just his arm and then nothing. They found his body the next day, thirteen miles downstream. He had suffered a broken leg and drowned. I read his name two days later in the paper, but I can't remember it now. At the time, I figured it must be a mistake. Even after I read the full story, I couldn't believe that we had lived and another person on those rocks had died.

 Clay and Frank made it to the bank, no worse off than I was. The three of us walked back up the road. We'd been washed about a quarter mile down the river during our swim. It felt like a long trip back to the car. 

I didn't lose my love of scary books and movies that day, but they've had less power over me since. I write scary stories to try to recapture that feeling when one's own mortality first sinks in. For example, in The Vivisectionist I explore that moment of realization with the boy strapped to the murderer's chair. How do you cope with the sudden knowledge that your life will end someday and there's nothing you can do about it? Would you cramp up, or would you swim?

One year ago, I started P90X for the first time. I didn't have a specific goal in mind when I started. A friend of mine (David V. Libby) left P90X at my house one day and it sat there, unused, for the better part of a year before I picked it up. In retrospect, an odd combination of events led me to start, but these were the two biggest:BrunoPuppy

  1. I got a puppy. I had been biking (on a trainer) for over a year when I got my puppy, Bruno. He was very well behaved, but I couldn't really use the bike trainer without worrying about him trying to play with the spokes while I rode. I wanted to keep working out, so I needed to find something else I could do in my house.
  2. I decided to write more. Coincident with getting Bruno, I decided it was finally time to dedicate a portion of my working hours to writing. Prior to last year, I only wrote on nights and weekends. That left very little time for editing, publishing, and promoting. With the first draft completed of six novels, I wanted more time to see if I could turn them into anything, so I reduced my job to twenty-four hours a week and dedicated the rest of the week to making books.

Suddenly I had more time and required a different workout. P90X seemed like a logical place to turn. I brought a modest amount of enthusiasm and zero competence. The first day's workout (Chest & Back) struck me as impossible. I could do some push ups, but I didn't do a single pull up that day. In fact, it took me months before I could do any pull ups. I started to doubt that I ever would. I just really, really sucked at them. But I used a chair as a crutch and faked them the best that I could. When I started I had just two twenty-five pound weights and the pull up bar. I think that's all the equipment I needed for quite a while.

After that first workout, I never had any doubt that I could muddle my way through the program. I didn't really commit until the end of that workout, but once it ended I promised myself that I would finish the entire 91 days. I wanted to do it clean–no missed days, no substitute workouts. That requires a bit of luck (to not get sick or injured), but I guess I just got lucky.

In the first ninety days, I lost about ten pounds and a bunch of inches off my waist. I did every workout, but I really change my eating habits at all so I still weighed about 200 pounds. For round two, I decided to crank it up a notch.

I started my second round of P90X at the end of June, 2011. I reduced my intake to 1200 calories / day (I ate extra calories to make up for any I lost to my workouts), and I switch to the "doubles" version of P90X. "Doubles" adds an extra cardio workout on the strength days (starting with phase 2). July went really well. I lost twenty more pounds and really started to look and feel thin. I also began to execute honest, well-formed pull ups. Everything seemed perfect until I sprouted a new lump in my lower abdomen.

After many weeks off for surgery and recovery, I restarted my second round of P90X. I managed to finish by the end of the year and I lost another thirteen pounds. This year, my friend and I have been doing an extended round of P90X2. Once we finish that up I have every intention of going back to the original P90X for a third session. It's really that good. I thoroughly enjoy the discipline that P90X brings to my exercise schedule. I don't see any reason why I should stop doing it.

If you're not doing P90X already, you should really consider it. It doesn't require much equipment, takes an hour a day, and produces great results.

 

P90X2PhasesWe finished the second phase of P90X2 the other day. Phase one was all about strengthening your core, and getting you ready for the rest of the program. I see the point – there was a lot of isolation in the original P90X, so perhaps you didn't get to workout all those supportive muscles, especially the core ones.

And, as advertised, the first phase did bring a lot of core engagement. The second phase was supposed to be all strength though:

  • Chest + Back + Balance – push ups and pull ups
  • Shoulders + Arms – biceps, lats, triceps
  • Base + Back + Mobility – plyo and pull ups

Once again, Tony takes all the exercises you're used to and then adds a twist. Your curls are done on one leg, or at an angle. Your overhead triceps pull is on top of a stability ball. All of these modifications are supposed to help you bring all sorts of different muscles into the exercise, but they also mean that you're not going to lift as much or really feel like you're targeting one muscle to exhaustion. I suppose that's the strategy – overall fitness instead of body building – but it seems like a step backwards in the progress I made in the original P90X. 

I really miss the good old Legs & Back from P90X. We did Legs & Back one day between the second and third phase (we had a couple of days to kill around a trip I had to make), and it still kicks ass. Nothing gets you sweating harder than full-on legs with weights interspersed with pull ups. That said, Base + Back + Mobility is awesome. In that workout, you alternate between really hard plyometric exercises and pull ups. That's a blast if you like max heartrate. 

I'm not sure why the second phase didn't satisfy me. Maybe it's because I lacked the overall strength to really work as hard as I should. If you can't stay balanced on one leg well, you downgrade the weight and then don't get as good an arm workout? Could be. The only way to know would be to start from the top and try to improve. I might do that, but I suspect right after P90X2 I'll be right back to the first P90X. 


OnWritingAbout twelve years ago, Stephen King published a book called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This book is fantastic. Let me give you my summary of the book and then we can talk about it a little.

** SPOILER ALERT ** 

Near the bottom of this post (2nd to last paragraph), I talk about the endings of  'Salem's Lot, Misery, The Stand, It, and The Dome. I also (of course) reveal details about On Writing, but you would have guessed that, right?

** SPOILER ALERT **

Mr. King opens with an autobiography of sorts. He mostly covers the parts relating to his writing career, but you get other little stories as well. His style and his voice are so clear. This section is just as engaging as one of his novels, but in a way it's even better. If you've read a bunch of King, you've probably made a habit of picking up little details about the author from his characters. So many of his main characters are writers who seem to reflect him clearly: Ben Mears in 'Salem's Lot, Jack Torrance in The Shining, Thad Beaumont – The Dark Half, Paul Sheldon – Misery. It's hard not to equate these guys with Stephen King. They're each a thoughtful adolescent in a grown man's body, trying to do well for the people he loves. But in this book you don't have to peer at a reflection. He's standing right in front of you, showing you every detail.

By the way, there's a great article on Wikipedia which lists all the novels written in SK books by SK characters.

King talks about not having an answer to the "Where do you get your ideas?" question. But after claiming ignorance, he demonstrates the process. He was nineteen or twenty when he worked briefly as a summer janitor in Brunswick High School. There he cleaned the showers in the locker rooms and witnessed that the girls' shower had curtains and tampon dispensers. While recalling that at another job, he remembered a story from Life magazine – telekinesis emerges with puberty and then "Pow! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea." That idea turned into Carrie, the first book he sold.

After the autobiography, King addresses the toolbox you'll need to write:

  • Vocabulary – keep it simple; don't try to show off; find the right word.
  • Grammar – kept it simple; make it active; don't use adverbs.

Mr. King dedicates the last half of the book to the process. He has firm ideas that he delivers as edict.

  • You must read and write a lot. There's no other way to understand the craft.
  • Write your first draft behind a closed door, but for your second draft, leave the door open. King believes that your good ideas will evaporate in the light of day. You must grow them secretly, in the dark, like mushrooms.
  • Books should be composed of narration, description, and dialog. No plot! "Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest."
  • His books generally come from a "what if?" question that forms in the collision of ideas: "What if a young mother and her son became trapped in a stalled car by a rapid dog? (Cujo)"
  • Backstory and research belong in the far back. It's easy to become enamored with the knowledge you've collected in your research. You become so fascinated, that you spend twenty pages describing a process that nobody cares about.
  • Write for your Ideal Reader.
  • Before you revise, leave it alone for six weeks. Then use this formula: "2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%."
  • Flashbacks are corny.
  • You don't need writing classes. You need experience.

He gives you all these rules along with the events that led him to these revelations, or at least his thought process behind them. I find it easy to just accept all these ideas as facts. He is enormously successful. If feels like that should count for something. King is careful to say that just because he's sold books doesn't make him an expert on the process. After all, he was born to write. Perhaps he's just a prodigy? But he did learn the craft from scratch. He started young and mostly taught himself, but he did end up sitting on a stack of best sellers.

About one thing I'm sure he's correct–at some point you have to understand the thing from the inside looking out. It makes no sense to try to study writing until you've spent a decent number of hours banging away at it. You have to learn the frustration of trying convey tension in a scene before you can step back and recognize where someone else pulled it off flawlessly. Only then can you analyze the technique and really be instructed by it.

This book is capped with a detailed, present-tense, frank picture of his accident (when he was hit and almost killed by a van). Finally, you get to see a passage of 1408 in its first draft, and then after his hand-written revision. It's a brilliant lesson. 

I'll repeat what I said up top: this book is fantastic. In fact, I love almost all the books he's written, but this book is my favorite. It finally helped me put a reason behind why I generally love his books but hate his endings. I like intricate, twisting books, and he's got plenty of that because he just goes wherever the story takes him. Nobody knows where the characters will end up. But they eventually have to end up somewhere, and that's where a lot of his books fall down. Somewhere in the last 10% of a King novel you're going to find that spot where he knows it has to end, but he isn't quite sure how to wrap it up. Some turn out great ('Salem's Lot–kill the boss, chase the rest; Misery–kill the bad lady, haunted forever) but some take a wrong turn and just stop (The Stand–hand of God blows up the nuke? It–the clown was an alien spider?? The Dome–bored/mean alien kids???). That said, the first 90% is generally so good that there's no chance I'll stop reading. 

If you have any ideas you'd like to write, or just like a good book, read On Writing. Have you read it already? What did you think?

Red_DragonFor Dexter fans the scene is familiar: the killer has his victim strapped to the table one second, and the next he's disposing of the body in a completely untraceable way. No need to worry about the police. He has once again outsmarted them easily without breaking a sweat, missing work, or even raising the suspicion of his babysitter. No need to worry about how he captured the victim, got them to the "kill room," or always manages to go unnoticed as he saws apart the corpse. How does he pull this off? The short answer–who cares?

In the first season of Dexter, we were given more detail about his methodology. Specifically, you may remember the third episode where we flashed back to Dexter's first kill. In the flashback, Dexter's dad (Harry) gives him permission to hunt a nurse who kills her patients with an overdose of morphine. This kill establishes Dexter's penchant for using a syringe containing an opioid to immobilize his prey. Dexter uses M99 (etorphine), which is a large-animal tranquilizer and classified as a Schedule I drug in the US. A little research suggests that M99 would be a terrible drug for Dexter to use on humans. First, it doesn't work instantly. The victim would have about thirty seconds of thrashing around before he settled down. Second, after the thirty seconds, the person would die and Dexter wouldn't get to do his "you can't escape from Dark Passenger justice" theater.

I know, I know, we're not supposed to worry about the details. We're supposed to suspend disbelief and just play along with Dexter's perfect crimes. After all, the M99 isn't even the most obvious problem with Dexter's modus operandi. How does he corner these people alone without being spotted? How does he get their unconscious bodies to his car? How does he chop up the bodies and package them so neatly in a reasonable amount of time? How does he move them to his boat in the middle of the night without arousing suspicion? We just merrily ignore the holes because the plot lies elsewhere.

BTW, Dexter orders his M99 using an alias: Patrick Bateman, M.D. My serial killer in The Vivisectionist also uses that alias in his written communication. I wrote that book a while ago, but it must have been after the Dexter mention. I'm currently debating if I should go back and change it, but who will notice?

There's a whole genre of serial killer fiction where the details are left to the imagination of the audience. Jigsaw from the Saw movies doesn't show his work, just the amazingly intricate results. And he's dying in most of those movies (I stopped watching, but I think he might now be dead). Other movies give you a taste of the work. For example, in the opening credits of Seven (or Se7en, if you prefer), you glimpse Spacey cutting the skin away from his fingertips. It's not much, but it hints at the sacrifice the killer makes to master his craft.

On the far end of the omniscient spectrum, you've got Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger. These killers are unstoppable. It doesn't matter if the police can track them because they have paranormal abilities.

This brand of TV Show/Movie paints such a different picture from law enforcement procedurals like CSI. In those shows the killer will be caught–it's just a matter of time. No matter how smart the killer, the cops are smarter. They'll find some DNA or physical evidence somewhere and then trace it back.

One of the really interesting things about the more recent season of Dexter is that he's now portrayed as supernaturally good at solving crimes. He used to be clever, and sought after, but now he can recreate all the minor details of each crime within seconds. That makes him the only person in the Dexter universe who could possible catch Dexter. In Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris plays this line back and forth: only Will Graham was smart/lucky enough to catch Hannibal Lecter; only Hannibal Lecter could deduce the identities of the Tooth Fairy or Buffalo Bill. Lecter then plays live-action chess with the detectives and killers from his prison cell. At first, it seems that these books presuppose that good police work will eventually win. But in the end, the omniscient Lecter prevails.

What kind of killer do you prefer? The omniscient? The paranormal? The kind the cops will catch at the end? I guess I like the ones who are too smart to be caught. But perhaps when the show/movie/book is over and the lights are out, I vote for the third kind.

consumers-thumbI'm preparing another novel for Kindle right now. At the moment, it's called Debunking the Lies of the Prophets. I say "at the moment" because everyone who has read it so far has told me that it's a terrible title. So I'm still working on that part. Got any suggestions?

Perhaps you should read it first... Which brings me to my title question:

How would you like to get a free copy of my next novel?

It's a very simple process.

  1. Write a review on Amazon.com of The Vivisectionist. This doesn't have to be a long review, or even a positive review. You can just click some amount of stars and then just put in a sentence or two. I'm just looking to have a few more opinions posted about that book before I put up the second one.
  2. Post your review on facebook. If you don't do facebook, then just tell a friend about the book. 
  3. Send me your email address. You can use the little box in the right column or just This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I will only use your address to send you the free book and announce future books. I won't share your address with any of the thousands of SPAM merchants whom I regularly deal with. I swear.

Just three simple steps and you'll be done. I'll send you a copy of my next book for free, just as soon as I come up with a decent title and finish my editing. It will really help -- thanks!

coreThe second week of P90X2 is the same as the first. That means Core, Plyo, Recovery, Total Body, Yoga, and Balance & Power. It's a good week that features more core and balance than weightlifting to build strength. The philosophy is that you're building up your base and you'll be adding the showy muscles later. Before I started, I figured that I already had all the core muscles I needed. After all, shouldn't I have built up my base last year when I did the classic P90X? 

Despite increasing my reps and weights this week, I burned way less calories. On average, the week two workouts clocked in at about 80% of the calorie burn from week one. That's not surprising – less confusion and frustration made everything seem a little easier. 

You're supposed to continue on Phase One for three to six weeks. Then you do a week of recovery before moving on to Phase Two. I'm torn. On one hand, I'd like to keep going with core until I've mastered all of these moves. On the other hand, I'm anxious to get back to some serious strength training. The results of weightlifting are more tangible because you're recording weights and reps for everything, not just a few things. I guess I'm leaning towards moving on. I can always come back and do Phase One again when I'm all done.

 

 

cat_burpeeI've learned to hate the word "Burpee." As far as I can figure, it has something to do with dropping to your hands and kicking back your legs so you can do some pushups before jumping back to your feet. There's no amount of cardio fitness that makes these any easier. In the classic P90X, your Burpee exposure is limited to "Prison Cell Pushups." In this new version you'll find many flavors, including the "Dumbbell Super Burpee" in this routine.

You'll find a lot of hard moves in this video, but not a lot of weights. Sticking with the theme of strengthening the core, these moves challenege you to defy gravity without breaking your wrists and ankles. 

In the original P90X, you start out the ninety-one days faking it – just flailing your way through the videos doing your best. After a while, you graduate to working hard but cheating here and there to make it through to the end. Hopefully, before you get to the end of the plan, you've developed enough proficiency to really maximize your efforts. That's when it really feels like you're making progress. Some of the moves in this video seem so complex and difficult that I'm not sure I'll reach proficiency by the end of the first phase. On the other hand, it's a really tough workout and all that work has to be doing my core some good.

PretzelI've heard that a lot of people complaind about P90X yoga. In fact, I heard that from Tony Horton. I never complained; I found it indispensible. If I've got a cranky knee or a sore shoulder, an hour's worth of yoga can usually fix me right up. Perhaps P90X people don't gravitate to yoga because they're looking for a more aerobic workout. With yoga, you're really responsible for showing up with the intensity. It's not like you can write down a weight and then try to beat that next time. You're only going to burn calories if you challenge yourself to deeper lunges and twistier twists.

The biggest difference between classic P90X yoga, and the yoga you'll find in P90X2 is the duration. The classic ran over ninety minutes; the new one only takes a little over an hour. It's not like they cut a bunch of stuff out, though. Sure, they replaced a couple of moves, but mostly they just sped everything up. Actually, it seems a little too fast. You get zero time for the transitions, and Tony keeps his mouth shut. I ended up looking at the screen an awful lot, just to figure out what I should be doing. A couple of the sequences are notably harder – think you spent a lot of time on one leg before? P90X2 significantly increases the amount of time you'll need to balance on one leg.

You still get a good chunk of abdominal exercises at the end. They're all new moves, which keeps things interesting. Overall I think they could have made this video harder. Another thirty minutes of sweating would have been welcome.

Subcategories

Reclusion - the state of being separated from society, but this word carries the connotation that the separation is a chosen way of life. 

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