Writing on a Wall (part 2)

I’d like to continue the theme of my last blog, where I discussed established principles for writing text on a wall. These apply not only to museums and galleries, but other public spaces such as information boards.

It goes without saying that the writing should be grammatically correct. Less obvious is that sentences need to be kept short. People are reading wall text standing up, an arm’s length or more away. They may be tired and suffering ‘museum back’, and could easily be distracted by something more enticing in the gallery. Sentences beyond 15 words in length become increasingly challenging to read and some people will give up. By 25 words half the audience has been lost, and almost no-one is still reading at 30.

Punctuation is also the enemy of the curator. The ideal sentence contains no punctuation other than the full stop. A comma gives the reader an opportunity to pause, and indeed to stop reading. Subordinate clauses can make the meaning hard to follow, and people forced to back-track to fully understand may simply not bother. Colons, semicolons, em-dashes and brackets are beyond the pale. Question marks can appear patronising, can’t they? Exclamation marks can look childish – just ask the kids!

Without being simplistic, common words are preferable to long and obscure ones. Archaeologists ‘dig’ rather than ‘excavate’. Instead of them ‘evaluating’ or ‘elucidating’ or ‘extrapolating’, plainer English explanations need to be explored.

The objects are cool – so the text should be cool too.

Within these guidelines, the writing still needs to be fluid and engaging. Museum curators can borrow principles from magazine writers, who are aiming to entertain and inform without lecturing. The use of active verbs is preferred: “The dockers unloaded the ship” rather than “The ship was unloaded by dockers”. Excitement can be injected, where “The soldiers charged onto the beach” rather than “Soldiers were landed on the beach.” Weak nouns are also discouraged: “the soldier was brave”, he did not “display bravery”. This fights against the novelist’s training to avoid adjectives, so the truck “struggled to climb the steep hill” rather than “struggled due to the hill’s steepness”.

The above guidelines make it challenging to still write interesting text. Breaking up long sentences requires some skill and imagination. The text can become choppy. There is also a temptation to use a lot of T-words, namely The, Their, Them, They and That which makes for boring reading, especially when used for successive sentences such as in this paragraph. Curatorial knowledge is essential, good writing skills help, and editing to a ‘House Style’ becomes critical.

When you are next in a museum or gallery, have a look to see how many of these principles have been applied. You’ll never read a museum text board in the same way again.

With thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of images from their exhibition ‘Engage Warp Drive’.

 

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Writing on a Wall

Writing for museums is a skill in its own right. Tucked into a novel, you should become so immersed in the book you cease to be aware you are reading at all. In the same way, when you are in a museum, you should enjoy the objects on show and not be aware of the work that has gone into crafting those captions and text boards. The curator’s voice is a whisper not a yell.

Museum curators tend to be experts in their subject, and many write academic papers and books aimed at other experts, but exhibitions require a completely different approach. The curator may have a doctorate in archaeology, but the vast majority of people who view the exhibition will not. Visitors will include school groups, Dutch tourists, Dad keeping the kids busy on a wet Saturday, students working on projects and otherwise keen museum-goers whose enthusiasm is flagging a couple of hours into the visit.

The curator is not writing ‘a book on a wall’ – this mistake is often made by small museums run by enthusiasts. Few people have the time or patience to read more than a couple of hundred words whilst standing in a museum gallery, and want to get to the punchline as soon as possible.

 

Journalists working on popular tabloid newspapers face the same challenge; complex issues need to be explained to the ‘interested non-specialist’ using as few words as possible. However, it is important that in doing this the museum does not ‘dumb down’ or become simplistic.

Tabloid news is also often told backwards, with a give-away headline followed immediately by the crux of the story and then by the events leading up to it. Many people will only look at the photo, read the headline and the first few lines of copy and never actually get into the duller detail. I admit to reading most news stories like that.

Museums address this by using ‘three level text’. First comes the title on the text board, enough for people in a rush or those who don’t speak very good English to learn roughly what they are looking at. Next comes a paragraph of the key information for those who want a little more detail.  The third level offers additional paragraphs to satisfy the more curious, although in reality we are only talking another 2 to 300 words.

Research shows that the majority of museum text and captions are not read by the average visitor; people pick and choose which items they want to discover more about, and tend to have more appetite for reading soon after arrival than they do an hour or more later.

 

The curator’s challenge is to not discourage the reader by making text too complex, too long-winded or too technical. ‘Access’ is a museum buzz-word which includes enabling maximum appreciation of the exhibition by visitors of diverse ages, educational level, cultural background and emotional maturity. Jargon and artbabble are simply turn-offs; the aim is to explain, not show off how clever we are. Museums should be for everyone, not just ‘posh white people who have been to university’.

In Part 2 next week I’ll be looking at some do’s and don’ts for wall text.

Thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of text board images

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New Year, New Novel

A New Year’s Day tradition for me has been to start a new novel, or kick-start one that has been slumbering as a few chapters in rough draft. A couple of hundred words will do.

This year I got ahead of myself. With the opening three or four chapters of ‘AW’ already in mind, I put down the first page three days ago.

NRT is done, as far as it can be before the next round of editorial comments come back. In the attached photo I am pondering potential titles for the book. Meantime the challenge is to write the follow-up. Not necessarily a sequel, mind. Who is saying that any of the lead characters survived? Perhaps their story arcs are complete.

What I’ve done is start plotting two follow-up books, using the same style and tone. Both are contemporary mysteries. Why two? Firstly because I have two ideas rattling around in my head that I want to explore. Also, although starting a story is easy, there is not always a middle to explore or a neat ending to be reached. Most real-world mysteries are solved extremely quickly or drag on for years in a mess of loose ends and inadequate evidence.

An author’s chat group ’10 Minute Novelists’ carried a story by one writer on how he uses whiteboards for plotting. To date I’d used ‘plot spiders’ scrawled on A4 paper, but this seemed like a great idea so whilst I was out Christmas shopping, I bought two.

The story with code name ‘AW’ hit a plot snag when I was two-thirds the way down that first page. A new whiteboard hung on my study wall is where I’m now planning my way around it. Perhaps the problem I hit as an author can simply be passed to the characters to solve? Meanwhile, I have both beginning and end in mind for the story code name ‘DC’  but need to think out a middle to tie both together.

So I’m daydreaming and doodling through post-Christmas television, starting to ‘remember’ the stories that have not been written yet. The chart on my whiteboard grows more complex, and I’ve opened two folders on my computers where the first ideas are taking root.

2018 is going to be an exciting year.

 

 

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A Writer’s Year

January is a hectic time at Guernsey Museum, as we turn around all the temporary exhibition spaces in three weeks. For me it means checking and proofing all the wall text, and numerous press releases. New Year’s Day is also when I like to pitch into the new book – NRT in the case of 2017

 

In an ideal world I’d skip February. It is a miserable month whose only redeeming feature is its brevity. I escaped to Barbados and hand-wrote some major plot twists of my new novel by the pool.

 

March saw the splendid Alderney Literary Festival, where I talked about ‘Glint” and signed a few copies. Mixing with the other authors of historical fiction/ non-fic/ biography was the highpoint though.

 

By April the literary year was hotting up, and I was off to Edinburgh for the annual conference of the Crime Writers’ Association. As usual it included talks by ex-coppers and criminologists on real-life cases; grim stuff like the ‘World’s End Murders’.

May saw both Bristol Crimefest (where I didn’t speak but met plenty of old friends) and the Guernsey Literary Festival (where I did both). I also interviewed Clare MackIntosh on her new book ‘I See You’; great fun, and only the second time I’d done a panel interview.

 

June’s big excitement was an emergency flight to Alderney to rescue what we could of an Iron Age burial ground sliced through by a JCB. Two days’ frantic work produced a wealth of finds that would keep us busy beyond the end of the year.

I was also back in Alderney in July, working ahead of a micro-excavator within the Nunnery Roman Fort. Enough evidence was uncovered to tempt me back in 2018.

 

It was my third visit to the Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in July. The last two had been blisteringly hot, but this time Yorkshire was grey and rainy. By now NRT was into its fourth draft, ready to start talking confidently about it to my crime-writing colleagues and send it to my erstwhile editor for a critique.

 

 

 

 

In late August, I went on holiday leaving Draft 5 in the hands of beta readers. I got off the Rock and headed for the wide open spaces of Wyoming, chalking up something over 2,000 miles in a fortnight. Plenty of iconic sites, but the ‘Great American Eclipse’ was an experience never to be forgotten; in Guernsey, Wyoming of all places.

Writing from a small island comes with its own challenges; 100 miles of water separates me from the mainland’s literary conventions, book fairs and library readings. In 2017 I took as many opportunities I could to combine a trip to the UK with a little literary interaction. September offered  a chance to drop into the small but perfectly formed ‘Morecambe  and Vice’ (“bring me some crime”).

 

The big October highlight was of course the CWA Daggers Awards Dinner, the Oscars of the crime-writing world. It was lovely sitting on the ‘New Blood’ table meeting the hopeful nominees and the eventual winner; I imagine we’ll hear more from all of them.

 

November was the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai, which features strongly in ‘Glint of Light on Broken Glass’. I engaged in a month of subtle promotion of the book on Facebook, and by nudging local shops. Interest in the battle in Guernsey had been minimal three years ago, but via a programme of lectures, museum displays, parades and living history events it was pushed into the forefront of Guernsey’s year.

So we came to December. NRT was finished, the final polish to Draft 7 being hammered out on my mother’s dining room table when I should have been socialising. Having discussed the idea the previous Christmas with London agent Annette Crossland. I sent off the manuscript and in a hectic couple of weeks I was signed up with A for Authors agency. Here we are celebrating at the CWA Christmas party. A pretty good end to 2017.

And the follow-up to NRT? The first page will go down on New Year’s Day. I’m also working on an artistic biography, our ‘Roman Guernsey’ book may finally see the light of day and ‘The Story of Guernsey’ will be published in German.  A Merry Christmas and successful New Year to fellow writers, readers and friends everywhere.

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Jason Joins A for Authors

a for a croppedIt is with great pleasure that I can announce that I have signed up with London Agency A for Authors. I am looking forward to working with Annette Crossland and Bill Goodall on a new mystery series. 2018 is going to be an exciting year.

With Annette Crossland

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How I Stopped Being Too English

Whilst selling my books at a Winter Fayre this weekend I tweeted “I sometimes feel I’m too English for this”. I’m no shrinking violet, but when I first came into writing I felt uncomfortable pumping up my own books (and hence, myself). I didn’t have the ego to say “my books are great, buy ‘em”, and keep saying it. Of course, that is what we now have to do as writers. Some self-published authors I know claim to spend half their working hours simply promoting their books, via Facebook, Twitter, forums, attending book fairs and answering fan queries.

I might protest that I’m a writer, not a marketeer, but today a writer must be both.

Again, I attend various functions with the great and the good and generally resist the temptation to have a selfie with that celebrity. A well-mannered little voice tells me that they’re here to have a good time and the last thing they want is this six-foot curly haired chap wanting a quick snap to post to Twitter. However it is likely that the celeb has a publicist who is telling them to “get onto as many people’s social media feeds as you can, dahling”. The actors, musicians and writers who appear on the talk shows are not there because they have nothing better to do; they have a product to sell.

Gradually I have come to realise that self-promotion is not an end in itself, but an essential part of the industry we are in. Yes dahlings, you might think that novel-writing is an art form but publishing is an industry. Enough Englishness remains for me to be wary of ‘shameless’ publicity-seeking, but as time allows I’m now tweeting and blogging with the best. As we reach the 100th anniversary of the events central to ‘Glint’, I’m running a Facebook campaign combining appropriate images with teaser extracts from the book. I have no idea ultimately how successful this will be, but I know exactly what the outcome of doing nothing will be.

Promoting one’s books may not be the mark of a gentleman, but it is the mark of the modern writer.

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Rubber Duck Moment

Okay, I admit it. My work-in-progress contains a rubber duck moment. Codename NRT, the novel has a very short timeframe. There is no chance to get to know the characters before they are plunged into the mystery on page 1. Thumbnails must suffice until enough pages have been peppered with hints and clues from their mode of dress, their speech, the background information they let free with and straight prose description. I’ve avoided ‘plot bricks’ as far as I can; those clumsy speeches where someone says ‘But Sally, you are my sister!’

Key pieces of a character’s history should fall out in natural dialogue, challenge and argument.  We as readers are new acquaintances of these people, and within the story come the subtle enquiries new acquaintances make – are you married, do you have any children? If not asked directly people often go for the opening, ‘So you actually worked for NASA?’ This explains the character’s hint of a Transatlantic accent and allows a lead in to how she ended up in the USA and why she came back. We already know she’s scarily smart. Police procedurals are allowed to be more blunt: ‘Exactly what is your relationship to the deceased?’

 Drink is great. In their cups, people often spill their life story. Not always in a coherent fashion, not always honestly and rarely in chronological order but it tumbles out. ‘I was drinking this stuff when I met him in that night club.’

 A point came in NRT where there were still many unanswered questions about character A. She keeps her own council, we never meet her friends or her family or her workmates; all these are usual vehicles for allowing us to expand our understanding of the person underneath. We often see a character at work, we see the interaction with Mum/Sister/Boyfriend and they naturally ask about her day, or remind her of some upcoming appointment. Not so with A. So I needed a rubber duck moment to allow her to open up, drop enough facts about her past to allow us to piece together the last clues to her motivation.

 The classic scene has our grizzled hero explain that the reason he’s hard-bitten and avoids company is because his father threw away his rubber duck when he was six. He never trusted anyone else again, never wanted to be a father himself, never cared for family. Movies often use this vehicle, some well, some clumsily. Unlike novels, a thriller only has moments to create thumbnail characters. Female thriller heroes/villains/femmes fatales often need such a moment to explain why their behaviour is abberant – an abusive relationship, a lost child, an ugly assault, bloody men obstructing their path to the top. By their nature males can often get away with violent, obsessive or antisocial behaviour without needing deep psychological analysis of how they got there.

 So two of my characters come together in bar, tired, jaded at the end of their tether. J is chatty, needing company. She gets very little out of A beyond single-line responses, but is enough for us to finally understand A’s life choices.

‘Do you want to call your people?’

‘I don’t have any people.’

‘Mum?’

‘Died having my sister.’

‘So you’ve a sister?’

‘She died too. It was very Victorian.’

Mother, sister and next her father are dealt with in a few words each. We already know why she quit NASA and are getting to understand how she came to work there in the first place. It is not purely a rubber duck moment though; by using the past, I lead into hints and undercurrents of what is to come. This woman has no family and no ties; but does she have a plan?

 

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Small Island, Big Discoveries

Following up from the earlier post ‘Bring up the Bodies’, the island of Alderney continues to throw up exciting finds. We had only two short days this summer to rescue as much as we could from an electric trench that ran for some 300m along the edge of Longis Common. The trench was barely 1m wide and up to 1.2m deep so was truly a section through Alderney’s early history. To complicate matters further it was cut entirely through wind-blown sand, which does not tolerate a straight section for more than a few hours. Indeed by the time we returned for our second foray a week after the first, there had been significant slumping of the sections into the trench. In some cases this revealed new finds, but in other cases it dumped archaeology in a heap. I am still not sure whether the features we called C, D and E were three burial cists cut perpendicularly or just one burial which happened to follow the line of the trench.

Some 35 tonnes of spoil had been machine-excavated. Members of the Alderney Society had retrieved over 50kg of archaeological finds from this by the end of the summer, plus a great heap of slabs which once belonged to burial cists.

We have now had two carbon-14 dates obtained from the burial ground. The cremation I dug out literally using my hands had been in a later  Iron Age pot, but its C-14 date range was 198-47 BC, so most probably second century BC. The first skull found on the site has been confirmed to belong to the otherwise headless ‘skeleton 3’. It worried us at first that this was at right angles to the other burials and appeared to have been in a coffin rather than a stone cist. However the C-14 date again pointed to the late Iron Age; 174-19 BC. So the burial was probably later than the cremation and could indeed have taken place in that transition period when the Romans were asserting their control of the region after 56  BC. This is the period in which I initially placed the fine ‘Belgic’ pedestal urn we extracted from a collapsing cist further uphill from the skeleton.

More fun has followed. A keen-eyed local chap brought in a clutch of three bracelets, two of which were made of shale (imagine grinding a bracelet out of shiny black shale!). The third was of copper bronze and in a fragile condition. It was taken to Jersey Heritage’s conservator, who initially thought it might have been silvered.

 

As he cleaned off the corrosion products he noticed a criss-cross lattice on the inside of the bracelet. Moreover, this seemed to contain metal threads. The provisional conclusion is that this is an impression of a fine material the deceased was wearing, or at least was wrapped around the bracelet. Textile preservation is rare in archaeology, but a fine material containing metal threads would be a pretty unique find for Iron Age Britain.

So we now know there was an extensive late Iron Age graveyard at the south end of the Common. Half a dozen graves were already known and this summer’s rescue dig revealed a dozen more. In addition there were traces of at least one building and suggestions of more, in a style suggestive of the Romans. The 50kg of finds have now been washed and includes Roman pottery. Overlooked by the Iron Age settlement of Les Hougettes, and running down towards the late Roman fort at the Nunnery, the electric trench suggests there is over 200m of archaeology in a west/east direction and we suspect this extends at least 100m to north and south.

‘Time Team’ once approached me for suggestions on potential sites for a programme on the Channel Islands and I said “go to Alderney” as the archaeology was fantastic and barely messed about by modern intrusion (they went to Jersey). The little island barely 3 miles long keeps turning up treasures. The sand of Longis Common appears to overlie an entire Iron Age and Roman landscape. We will certainly be returning in the summer of 2018.

 

Nazis – The Ultimate Villains?

We all hate Nazis, agreed? (If not, stop reading here). When I was a small boy, the ‘Germans’ were the baddies in our games, on TV shows and those stalwart WW2 films. Only when I began to study history properly did I understand the difference between the Germans as a people and Fascism as a creed. You could indeed have ‘Good Germans’, even in a WW2 context. In films such as Cross of Iron and Stalingrad, and the TV series ‘Das Boot’ and ‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’ we see the war from the German side. We empathise with characters doomed to fight a losing war they no longer believe in, but we never empathise with the Nazis. Even when we are rooting for the German squad or submarine crew we see the shadow of the ‘hardened Nazi’, the Gestapo and the SS falling over the characters’ lives. The ‘Good Germans’ become victims too. There is plenty of room for ambiguity – are we really hoping that Oberst Steiner will kill Churchill in Jack Higgins The Eagle Has Landed?

A panel at the entertaining ‘Morecambe and Vice’ festival last weekend chaired by Guy Fraser-Sampson comprised Howard Linskey, Chris Petit and Luke McCallin. All have set novels in the context of Nazi Germany. The question was posed as how a detective story can be written against a background of escalating horror and atrocity that marked the Second World War. When millions are being systematically murdered, when people can be arrested, tortured and killed without recourse to legal process, who cares about a single body in the library or the theft of some countess’ emeralds? It is the job of the author to make us care.

The Nazis were intensely bureaucratic and whilst their leadership behaved like gangsters, pillaging Europe’s riches for their own enrichment, the lower tiers busied themselves with solving humdrum traffic offences, fraud, theft and ‘ordinary’ murder. The Germans had tiers of police and security services – not just civilian police, but also the Abwehr, Kripo,  Gestapo, the SD, Sipo and so on making ripe territory for intrigue and setting tripwires in the path of any investigation.

Contrary to popular belief the Germans did not have a well-oiled efficient war machine. Nazis of all levels were spurred on by personal ambition, jealousy and fear as much as doctrine. Hitler encouraged jockeying for position between his officers. Inter-service and inter-departmental rivalry was poisonous, and putting a foot wrong could ultimately be fatal. McCallin’s Abwehr officer Reinhardt has to negotiate this political minefield to solve the murder of a high-profile woman in occupied Sarajevo. He remains the ‘Good German’ whilst others around him participate in war crimes with enthusiasm or at least allow themselves to be dragged along by the tide of history. ‘Only following orders’ many tens of thousands adopted a ‘grey morality’ simply to survive.

‘Great’ historical personalities such as Caesar, Alexander and Napoleon committed brutal acts that today we would call war crimes but the distance of time has dimmed the shock. All the world’s major nations’ histories hold atrocities to be ashamed of and there are a fair few men such as Ghengis Khan with the blood of millions on their hands, yet the Nazis hold a special place as the villains par excellence. Perhaps it is because their atrocities were so recent, perhaps because they were more visible than those of Stalin, or closer to home than those of Pol Pot. My Channel Island home fell under their darkness, and the rest of Britain so nearly fell too. The ‘what if’ of Len Deighton’s SS-GB came close to being a reality. The Czechs faced this horror at the hands of Heydrich, the subject of Linskey’s Hunting the Hangman; he shows up the contradiction in many Nazis, as when home from being a ruthless liquidator of undesirables Heydrich apparently loved his family.

The Nazis have become the poster boys for evil chic; smart grey uniforms, skull badges, black leather coats, sinister swastikas and screaming eagles. Unnervingly this still lends them glamour, shown by the auction value of SS-daggers and the like. Their uniforms contrast with the dull greens and browns of the Allies, their ‘wonder weapons’ contested against utilitarian Allied machines. History porn TV documentaries and books endlessly probe into their mystique. Their influence extends routinely into Science Fiction, especially the barely disguised ‘First Order’ of Star Wars Episode VII with its Stormtroopers and gleefully ruthless commanders. ‘Neo Nazi’ groups still strut around, forgetting how decisively the fascist creed was crushed.

Nazis become the enemy of choice in movies as diverse as the Indiana Jones series, ‘Captain America’ comics, to The Blues Brothers. It is so easy to cast Nazis as the bad guys that we writers must not become lazy. Yes, we know they are bad, we get it. Yes, the iconography oozes evil. Now make us care about the characters opposing them, or oppressed by them, or forced to co-exist with them; we know how Nazism ultimately fell, but the characters don’t.

 

Don’t Fear the Editor

 

So the draft NRT is back from beta-readers. The lovely things the trio said about the book were great, causing big beams of joy on my writerly face. The criticisms gave pause for thought. No, I’m not sharing – only the final version sees the light of day. What happens at beta-read stays at beta-read.

At first read-through an editorial critique of a draft can be daunting. Okay I take some comments with a pinch of salt, others can be easily adapted, but where there is a consensus saying essentially the same thing, those aspects need to be addressed. That means a lot more work on a story that already felt finished. I’ve asked a trio of people for opinions, and I have them. If there are faults, best address them now as literary agents and publishers take no prisoners.

A novel is like a cats’ cradle in that if you tweak one part, the rest trembles. More extensive structural editing is more akin to a game of Jenga; pull out the wrong block and the whole thing falls in a heap. Experimentally I deleted a whole scene, because I wanted to kill someone (not the editor, but the central character in the scene who would have been dead two days in the revised plot). Yep, that was the Jenga scene and whole chunks of plot blocks started to tumble down. Hastily I re-inserted it.

To get to Draft 5 has taken me 9 months and it feels heart-wrenching to start unpicking and rewriting. This is where the author takes over from a person who simply wants to write a book – some people I’ve met would have simply published Draft 5 as an e-book or KDP. It is not like starting again, though, and once I had that list of a dozen ‘must do’ edits morale soon spiked back up again.

The good news is that I have 85,000 words of pretty decent prose, a plot with beginning middle and end, a full set of characters and some near-perfect scenes that don’t need a jot of editing. Best of all, 85k is short of the 100k that a modern mystery should aim for. I have 15,000 words of headroom to develop that character, flesh out that subplot, and twist the middle a little more. The key danger to avoid is killing the cracking pace with 15,000 words of flab simply to tick the editors’ boxes. I was once asked simply to ‘make the book thicker so it looks better on a library shelf’­– that’s not the territory I’m in anymore.

So, draft 6 is underway. I’ve opened the bonnet, pulled out a few creaking parts and reached for the spares box. They say that the first page of your novel is never the first page when it finally comes to print, and with NRT that looks like being true. Rather than slipping into a gently escalating crisis, the lead character is now there on page 1, line 1 – and she’s in deep trouble.

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