Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ummm, you want to read what?

photo by laura604

Last spring I sent out the 2nd draft of one of my novels to over 30 people. THIRTY PEOPLE. Amazingly enough, 18 of those 30 actually read the entire book and gave me a full critique. Some of those readers, bless their hearts, pretty much line edited all 101,000 words. (It's now down to 71,000).

I remember sitting at my desk with all 18 critiques open on my computer. I tried to find a paper bag as my breaths kept coming shorter and shorter, but nothing was in sight. Instead I closed the critiques as fast as I could and ran outside for some fresh air. What was I thinking!? The more feedback I got, the better? Oh, groan groan groan.

No offense to any of the wonderful, smart, and incredibly helpful readers who read my book last spring, but all that great advice kind of sent me into overload. It took me a few months to decide what I should do. Much of the advice bordered on the major revision side. I finally decided to rewrite the whole book - like, open a new document rewrite the whole book. So I did. Now I'm finished again.

I think one of the most flattering things a person can do is tell you they want to read your book - that they're dying to read your book. Really? My book! Wow, of course you can! Let me polish it up and send it right over.

Then I remember the paper bag.

This is difficult for me to admit because I'm always afraid it will keep people from telling me they're interested in my work - but I'm becoming increasingly more careful about who and when I let others read my work. Is this a bad thing? How do you decide who and when will help you with your work? Do you let people read just for fun, or is it always for a beta-reader type critique?

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. I choose my readers very carefully. I can usually tell in the first few pages of critique if comments are going to be constructive or destructive. If they're the latter, I don't even finish reading. I toss them aside and find a new critiquer. It's not that I can't take criticism, it's just that the wrong type of criticism can be crippling.

  2. I am very careful about who I let read my book. I sent a short piece of work to someone in my family once, and she FORWARDED it to her friends! Not cool.

    Other than my husband, my family is not allowed to read my work until it is published, and presumably, unalterable. I want my beta readers to be objective. I'd be too inclined to make changes based on a family member's perceptions that a character who is loosely based on them is acting in a way they wouldn't.

    I find that too much feedback is confusing. Five or six opinions for me is enough to sort out trends in critiques that really need fixing, versus one person not liking something.

  3. I hope I wasn't too critical! I hate being critiqued. (however you spell that). I would LOVE to read your revised book. I loved it the first time!

  4. I'm getting over random critiques pretty darn fast. I don't like them because of all that inner chaos they create. Too many hands in the cookie dough. I can handle putting my faith in one good writer I trust, and bantering ideas back and forth.

  5. What a great post, Michelle. Clearly getting so much feedback ended up being a good thing--you know have your rewrite and maybe you wouldn't have been inclined to do one if you'd only had a couple of critiques. So maybe there was a method to the madness--but I still feel for the woman sitting in front of 18 opened critiques!

    This is a very timely post for me. I have this one story (Davin will know which one!) that I can see, feel, know, but I'm just not sure I can tell. I don't feel that way about other stories; just this one. And that self-doubt makes it very hard for me to show it to anyone.

    Yesterday I was walking with one of my closest friends who happens to be an English prof. She has read other things I've written and used to read my blog religiously when I was blogging. So she knows my writing. I don't feel shy about it in front of her. But while we were walking she asked why I won't let her read that one story. So I told her the truth: "Because if you don't like it, I'll never be able to talk to you again and I'll miss you." Okay, I was kind of joking, but I think we can agree that it's become sort of blown out of proportion. That can't be healthy for the story or the creative process--so I'm going to show it to her. Because I really do want her feedback. I think. :)

    So while you are trying to limit the people you show things to, I am trying to do the opposite. Which do you think is easier?? :)

    And here's another question for you guys--do you ever give up on a story that you really, really want to be able to tell?

  6. I've gone back and forth on this issue. My critique group girls will obviously read it, and a few family members, but other than that I'm not sure. Once I've gotten feedback from those sources, I've thought about going to my teenage sister's friends (the book is YA) and seeing who would like to read it and give age appropriate feedback.
    I've thought about putting out an open call on my blog, but I don't know if I would be comfortable with that. I love my followers and appreciate them so much, but do I know them well enough to entrust them with my pride and joy? We'll see.

    I guess when it's ready to be critiqued I'll see if anyone requests to read it, rather than put out an open call.

  7. The first time around on one of my WiPs, I had two people reading portions and I was in a crit group of sorts. My two betas were a co-worker at Barnes and Noble and my 12th grade English teacher. My co-worker was great for overall readerly feedback. (Such things as "that creature totally creeped me out, in a good way" and "I want more of this.") My English teacher was great for nitty-gritty stuff. I've yet to have beta readers since startig the process over again, but that's mainly because I'm not finished. I know I'll be super picky when the time comes to pick readers and crit partners, though.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. There are a few people I send my work to for critiquing, and that's mostly based on the perspective they offer.

    There's my crit group -- for line edits and writerly stuff; two of my coworkers for random ideas; and my best friend who gives good "average reader" input.

    Other than them, it kind of depends on what viewpoint I want to get from the person. Average vs. advanced reader, male vs. female, genre fan vs. non-genre fan. And so on.

  9. For me, the most important thing about swapping a full manny is doing a test swap of a few chapters first.

    This way, you can make sure you both like what you're reading. And that you're both in the same headspace about what you're looking for from the critique.

    Which brings me to the second most important thing, which is that both people in the swap need to exlpain to the other person what they're looking for in a critique and how they plan to critique in return.

    For example, if you're editing a late draft and winding up to query, someone who just finished their first draft might not be ready for the level of critique you're in the mindset to give.

    And it also sucks to slave over someone else's baby, trying to give them the best and more detailed feedback you can, and they send you a paragraph critique in return for your ENTIRE manuscript...

    Communication and openess when you pick your readers is the most important thing, otherwise people are going to be disappointed on both sides of the swap.

  10. I choose my readers very carefully. I normally don't want a line-by-line edit. Tell me if something's not working - ugh, huh??, or just a bunch of ???? by a paragraph will do. : ) Or, put a smiley face, great, brilliant, or whatever by the passages that do work.

    My main question for my beta readers and critters: does this story work for you and would you recommend it to your friends??

    I've also learned to take the good with the bad and trust my instincts. There are times when a suggestion, while good, and with merit, truly doesn't work in the grand scheme of things.

    Lastly . . . I'm always nervous when I send things out for review. Always. I don't think that will ever change. I hope it doesn't change. As much as I believe in my work, I think too much confidence borders on arrogance, and arrogance normally precedes a disasterous fall! : )


  11. I'm extremely picky. I have my crit partner now...and I love her to death because she's completely honest with me and tells me when something's not working. She helps me brainstorm the solutions without being too delicate about it.

    I've picked out one beta reader who is also a writer, because I know she'll give me her initial, *emotional* response to the writing (I write romance), and that's information that will be very valuable to me in polishing.

    I'd like just one other beta reader...the ever illusive reader who does not write. I want the opinion of an average reader, someone just out to read a good story. She or he will be harder to find, I think, but invaluable if I manage to snag one.

    And that's it. I have confidence in my writing. I have confidence in my crit partner's ability to point out things I missed in line edits. Two other beta reads to round it out, and I'll be comfortable sending it off to an editor or agent. Any more than that would just be "too many cooks", in my opinion.

  12. LOL, I thought the bag was to put over your head at first. ;)

    That's how I feel when I'm waiting for crits. I am really not very picky when it comes to readers, but I prefer writers to readers, and they usually write in my genre or something similar.

    Also, I prefer several smaller batches of revisions for two reasons. 1, I can revise again and still have fresh eyes to look at it, and 2. I don't get overwhelmed with so many opinions on what is probably still a fairly rough draft.

    Congrats on finishing your book. Save that bag for when you're querying, it'll come in handy. ;)

  13. It depends on the work in question. I always let my wife read early (and incomplete) drafts. She doesn't really offer a critique, per se, but I can gauge her reaction to the material.

    When I solicit beta readers, I hold firm the perspective that I am not obligated to use their advice. I try to find common threads in the feedback, but I don't get bogged down in the minutia.

    My biggest pet peeve is when a critter suggests a change that will make a story different, but not better. They aren't pointing out plot holes, or offering ways to enhance characterization...they are just saying "or you could do it this way" because they feel they have to change something.

  14. Jennifer: "do you ever give up on a story that you really, really want to be able to tell?"

    I don't know about giving up, but I have two stories that I really like but something about them doesn't work, so I've shelved them for now. I also have an idea I love for a book but I know that I don't quite know how to write it yet, so that's also on the shelf.

    But it's also true that sometimes, writing it out when we have no idea what we're doing is a good way to find the way we want to tell it, even if it means time spent on dead ends and false starts.

    Glam: I only let a handful of people read my stuff. Who we let read our works in progress depends, I think, on what we want in the way of feedback. At the early stage, we're all proud simply to have written a first draft, and we want to share our enthusiasm and hear how cool we are. At later stages, we want constructive feedback that we can use to make the book better. How far along we are as writers will determine what sort of feedback we can use. Mighty Reader, who works in non-fiction publishing, has a great eye for details and character. My agent has a great eye for large-scale structure and pacing. Other readers look at different layers of the work.

    I don't want to give my stuff to people who don't like literary fiction, and I'm not the best reader for a lot of genre fiction. I'd like to think that taste doesn't matter when looking at craft, but it really does.

  15. I have two face-to-face crit groups and those people are great for instant feedback. I wouldn't be able to handle 18 critiques at once, though. It's hard enough to spread out half a dozen and consider the red ink.
    However, the decision to rewrite my novel came from only two readers: A senior editor at a well-known house and an agent. I met both at writer events and from their critiques of my first chapter I realized some bigger picture changes I needed to make to greatly improve the story. So quality of critiquing can be more useful than quantity. Obviously, it takes time to find people who are a good fit.

  16. I have only a handful of people who I will "let" read my MS. My alpha readers are my mother and 3 of my closest friends. My beta readers are my new critique group...and we'll see how that works out! I don't think I'll ever get over the self-consciousness that comes with "handing it over" to anyone!

  17. I use my online critique group which consists of six writers. Feedback from five people, whose opinions I trust, is plenty! On a second rewrite I might send to one or two beta readers who haven't read the first draft.

  18. First of all, having thirty people willing to read your book is awesome, as is eighteen full critiques! (I again apologize for not turning in mine. I don’t have to explain how life happens when you least expect it.) I guess when you have a wide array of readers to choose from, you can be … choosy.

    Understanding that an offer to critique is no small thing, I hesitate (now) for two reasons;

    1 – I’m still at the exploring stage. I’m feeling my way partly on instinct, and partly trial and error. Most likely, a writer at the point of needing critiquing is at least at my level, probably beyond.

    2- We’ve gone through this before, but putting into words what doesn’t work is a different skill altogether. Besides mastering your craft, there’s tact to consider. I don’t have it, plain and simple. My writing classes were thirty years ago. Rules (acceptable form*) change, and minds (mine) mush up. I’m no dummy; I know what works and I know what feels right, but I don’t think I have it in me to judge anyone’s work. I’m not qualified. (Before you disagree, imagine what Scott would do with a line by line, in-depth critique of his book from me. I’m visualizing a fireplace.)

    How “I” decide is fairly straightforward. If anyone ever offers to critique my babbling banality, I’d welcome it. lol

    *A bit off-topic, but: The importance of hooking the reader by the first page, paragraph, or even the first sentence is an approach that detracts from a story with a nice slow build up. Following in the footprints of trendy pop songs and reality television shows, it seems the publishing business considers the average reader is getting dumber by the day. I’m tiring of reading prologues where a character is dropped out of a helicopter, eaten by genetically altered killer goldfish, or suffocated by the thighs of an escort. (Well, sometimes a quick hook is cool.) Picking up a book, bestsellers anyway, is getting predictable. Personally, I blame MTV. :)

  19. I think it's important to choose carefully as well. You want people you already know, who you trust, who you know have your best interest at heart, and who you know will inspire you through their slashing.

    I let people read for fun, too. But not writers. Just friends or family. If the person is a writer, I expect them to crit the writing.

  20. I think I'm getting more open about my writing as time passes. When I first started, I was too embarrassed (and in complete denial) that I was attempting something so monumentally insane as writing to let people other than my best friend read it. Now, I think I might be ready to let people read it for fun, though I'd probably ask for their feedback anyway.

  21. B.J.: Ah, good point about telling right away. Even if a critique is well done, it sometimes still doesn't help because, as you say, it can be the wrong direction you're looking for.

    Michelle: Wow... forwarding a manuscript is like a sin! Yikes! Five or six critiques sounds like a great amount, especially if they're all ones you really know and trust. Although I sometimes like to get a new opinion from a new reader.

    Suzy: Aww, of course you weren't too critical! Nobody was. It was just a lot of opinions to go through.

    Aimee: Inner chaos... now that's a good way to put it. No matter how great it all is, it can really put me into panic mode!

    Jennifer: I understand about what you said to your English professor friend. There are some friends I have that giving them my work is very nerve wracking. I'm afraid they'll lose all faith in me as a writer, and even a person, if they don't like my work. I know that sounds silly, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. I hope not!

    Interesting that you're trying to do the opposite! I had that problem when I first started out. If you ever need a reader... :)

    Meghan: Having teenagers read your YA work is a good idea, I think, since they're you're intended audience. I love my followers too. I don't want people to feel like I'm not letting them read my work because it's against them or anything. What a tough situation. I think most serious writers will totally understand though.

    Stephanie: Thank you for sharing your experience! And good luck when you go out to get beta readers. It can be tough to find the right people who work for you and your work. Whoever I end up going with, they are like GOLD for all their willingness to help!

  22. Yikes! I'm about a month away (or so) from being ready for critiques. Thankfully I know myself well enough that nobody who I'm extremely close with will be doing it - family, husband, close friends... I'm ashamed to admit it but anything (even constructively) critical from them makes me feel like a failure.

    Instead, I'm sending it to people whom I know and trust, but have never been too, too close with. Move me past my "in circle" and my skin suddenly grows thicker - and my stupid ego becomes more accepting of other people's thoughts!

    I've also taken several creative writing workshops - but I don't think I'd ever put any of it through one of those because I've found that the participants (most of them anyway) tear into things too quickly. Not because they want to be constructive, but because they want to come across as being "in the know" - and love to hear themselves speak!!

  23. I would be flattered if 18 wanted to read my full ms, but I know I will be completely overwhelmed.

    How many and who do I send my work to? I am still finding out the answer. Having been in different crit groups, face to face as well as online, I've learned a little about how to filter critiques. I think I've developed the sense between hearing something unpleasant but necessary, and something unpleasant that is way out there. But so much of it is at the gut level that I hope I don't filter out the very things I need to hear.

  24. I've let people read just for fun (family and friends), but my beta readers (other writers) have been so helpful. I know what you mean about it being overwhelming, though. I've basically had to rewrite my entire first six chapters because of their feedback. It's not as bad as the whole thing like you had to do, but still, it knocked the air out of me. But it will be better in the end. I am finding myself being much more careful about who I let read my work this time around.

  25. First, I LOVE your new pic. You look beautiful!

    I'm kind of picky, but I think it has more to do with my own insecurities than anything. If I've read someone else's story, I'll let them read mine. I've never sent it out to so many people though. I can't imagine how you felt. *shudder*
    It's amazing that you finished the rewrite. Do you think it's a stronger work now?

  26. Charlie: "The importance of hooking the reader by the first page, paragraph, or even the first sentence is an approach that detracts from a story with a nice slow build up."

    I agree. I hope it's a fad. I also think that a lot of writers who don't spend time reading agent blogs are ignoring this advice and getting published anyway. I don't want a story to grab me by the throat from the first word. I want a writer to show me that he has the skill to tell me a good story, to establish my trust.

  27. I have a couple of friends that read my book for fun, and currently only have one beta reader. It's hard for me to pick who will read my baby, and also who I can trust (since most of the people who want to read it are online).

  28. I think that wanting fewer people to read it is just a matter of experience. As you and your beta readers get more experienced, you realize what you can see no your own, and your readers respect you more and respect your vision more. So, over time, I think you end up changing less of your writing and your readers learn to appreciate it more.

    I find that I'm showing my work to people after it is much farther along than I used to. Readers are having to look at my first drafts anymore--which I think is a relief to them. When I choose my readers, my first priority is to pick people who's reading I admire. Then, occasionally, I'll select based on a person's taste. I know that some people will hate or "not get" my writing, so asking for their opinion will probably only confuse me.

  29. Jennifer, I've started your story and I hope to get back to you soon! :)

    Regarding your question, I have a handful of stories that I really want to tell that I haven't been able to write yet. Every time I try, they turn out really bad. But, for me, it's not a matter of giving up on them. It's just a matter of waiting until my brain and heart are ready to write them as they need to be written. I find that with these stories, every year, I am able to get more material on them, develop them further, even if I haven't finished them yet. These are my most personal stories.

  30. Charlie, I've given up on that opening hook too. Or rather, I've settled for a less prominent hook, smaller barbs, if you will.

  31. Davin: I think more these days of opening a door for the reader and inviting them in, rather than hooking them and pulling them after me.

  32. MattDel: Oh, I like that - what viewpoint you want to get from the person. Choosing different critique partners for different works is a great idea.

    Erin: I LOVE your idea of testing with chapters first. That's a great way to start! And I agree about communication and openess. That's so important to keep things running smoothly.

    Scott: I don't normally want a line edit, either, until a really late draft that's almost ready for querying. Trusting your instincts is important, too. And interesting about confidence! Disastrous falls are definitely an outcome of Awseomeitis (still need to do a post on that).

    Jamie: Ah, I have a beta reader who's not a writer, and it works out beautifully! Good luck finding someone. :)

    Tere: I will need the bag when I query, that's for sure! I like your "small batches" idea. That sounds like it would work pretty well for me too. It's kind of what I've done with my partial revisions this time around.

  33. I suppose I'm selective about who I show my work to. I'm a member on Critique Circle, and I have a handful of people in a private queue. I pretty much dump any draft I finish (or novels in progress) on the queue, so they CAN read if they wish. It's a totally no-pressure read-only queue.

    When I specifically want betas and crits, I'm a little more selective of who I ask. I'm extremely careful starting email crit exchanges unless I know someone.

    In a general sense, I don't necessarily care who reads what I write--but unpublished things, I prefer to have some control over who sees it. (more for future publication than anything.)

    When I'm looking for betas, I pick and choose and prefer to keep the number under 10 so there's a variety, but not so many opinions it becomes difficult to sort them out. ;)

    I don't think being selective about betas and early readers is a bad thing at all. Do what works for you and what you can manage (and how much feedback you can absorb). Once it's published, then everyone else can read it. O:)


  34. sometimes I think the reading can be just for fun. Just for general impressions (friends and family), but if I'm sending it to writer friends I'm looking more for critique. I'm hoping they will help me make my writing better.

  35. Rick: I use my husband for that same thing - to gauge the reaction. I agree about suggestions that change the work to something more along the lines of how they would write it. I try not to do that unless I make it very clear I'm suggesting how I would do it to maybe give them a different perspective and direction if they're feeling stuck.

    Scott B.: I know how you feel about giving your work to those who don't read literary fiction. It's because they're reading on an entirely different level than most of your audience will be reading on, and their suggestions will probably not be any that can help you out much.

    Tricia: I wish I had a face-to-face crit group! You're very lucky to have that. Deciding to rewrite a novel is a huge decision. I'm glad you found those quality critiques you needed!

    Beth: Wow! I wish my mom could be an alpha reader. I don't think she'd give me the feedback I need, though. Last time she read a book of mine she said it was good and that was it. Hehe. That I can remember, anyway.

    Good luck with your new critique group!

    MG: I think letting someone who hasn't read the work at all is always a great idea. I usually need that kind of feedback at least once.

    Charlie: NO APOLOGIES! I totally understand!

    I like your comments here. I agree with everything you have to say, especially the hook part. I think that oftentimes we work so hard on all "the firsts" in our work, when we really should be focusing elsewhere to make that story great. I don't think Nathan's contest, for example, is to encourage too much attention to first paragraphs. It's mostly for fun. I wish people could see it that way and not freak out when he doesn't choose their paragraph. I know there will be bitter feelings shared in the comments section when he announces finalists. Hmmm.

    I agree about being tactful with critiques. I have a hard time critiquing because it's all so subjective. I try to use the sandwich method, and that usually works well.

    Elana: Hehe! Inspire you through their slashing. Nice, Elana. But it does work that way!

    Dominique: Wow, well congrats on getting to that point! That really is a HUGE step.

  36. Lois: That's an excellent point. I want people who read my books to enjoy them, first and foremost. Even when I'm sharing with writers for critique, the main thing I wonder is if they enjoyed reading it. Otherwise, what's the point? I've had the same "first reader" for 20 years. The first thing I ask her is, "Did you like it?" Everything else is secondary.

  37. I think it depends on how you take a critique. I happen to be leather when it comes to it. (Just ask some critters out there) I can take what speaks to me and discard the rest. I think, as writers, we all know where something is wrong. We get what isn't working... I am always thrilled when someone figures it out for me and I can breathe a sigh of relief. Now, when I know it is a matter of taste vs actual problem? Then I just let it SLIDE BABY SLIDE... like raindrops.

  38. I had a bad experience with a beta reader who critiqued only one chapter my last novel. This reader was overly critical to the point of attacking me as a writer. I am more careful now. For my first novel, about seven people read it and four of those people were my critique group members, the others my friends and family.

    Someone mentioned earlier that it would be a good idea to exchange a few sample chapters and to also set expectations at the beginning. I like those ideas.

  39. Sara: I think you have a great point there about letting people we truly care about and are very close to read our work. Anything they say can hurt us a lot - even the tiniest little critique. You're smart to figure out who's best to help you out! Good luck!

    Yat-Yee: Yes, it was super flattering. Like soooo flattering that I kind of let it go to my head. NOT GOOD! Haha.

    Knowing the gut level part of things is very important. It sounds like you're getting there, and that's great!

    Susan: I think it's important to be careful, but also important to make sure we're not just choosing people who will give us praise. That's always tempting for me if I'm feeling lazy and don't want to put a lot of work in. I'm not saying you're doing that - just what I've had go through my mind before.

    Jessica: Thank you!

    Yes, I think the novel is SO much better. By leaps and bounds, really. It was a hard decision to make because I had to really figure out if I wanted to rewrite it because of what others said or because it was really what needed to happen.

    Mariah: It's very difficult. I've been careful lately to let people I've developed good friendships with online help me out. It's been great so far!

    Davin: Excellent observations! I think you're spot on about the experience. I've had a similar experience as yours - not showing readers my earlier drafts.

    Merc: Thank you for your thoughts, Merc! I really like the queues on Critique Circle. Mine are all going to disappear if I don't pay my yearly fee again...

    Lois: Yes, I try to make it quite clear to those I hand my work to what I'm looking for in feedback. I've made the mistake of not doing that before, and it was a bit disastrous.

  40. I have different people that I let read my work at different stages. 1st draft-husband only (and only excerpts that I think are particularly clever). 5th draft family members (they'll be honest but super nice). 10th draft-critique group (it's clean enough by this point that I don't have to be embarrassed by all my mistakes--usually).

  41. Suzanne: Oh, WOW! You've got some great skills there - being able to let things slide that! I always take things too personally.

    Crimey: I'm sorry you've had a bad experience. It's a really tough thing to go through, but sure teaches you a listen in being careful. I like Erin's idea of trading chapters, too. It saves a lot of time if it's not going to work out.

    Natalie: That sounds like a great system! My husband reads my work, but often tells me he doesn't want to read it until it's at least first-draft finished. :)

  42. So far my experiences with beta readers have been great. They've been very gentle and given excellent feedback. So I've been lucky. But I really need to find some more people to read my work but it's kind of hard to find people you trust, who have the time and know what they're talking about

  43. I am selective because I am a big fat chicken.

    And also because I fear the random critique. I mean, who's to say that the critiquer really knows what they are talking about.....all that they can give you is a reaction.

    Now, I do like to let others read my work for fun and to see what their reaction is. But really, I'm not a fan of molding a book into somebody else's idea of what is good.

    thoughtful post.

  44. Alexa: Yes, it almost seems impossible at times. But keep networking. You'll find someone! And you know I'm always more than happy to look at your work.

    Shelley: Oh, I agree. It's sometimes difficult for me to separate things in my head from what's just uneducated opinion from "you really should be listening to this advice and following it, Michelle!" Takes practice. :)

  45. Since I am in the early stages of me writing journey I am very selective. I need expertise. My work is truly an infant that needs lactose free formula. We are too gentle to just grab anything over the counter.

    Great post and Great courage to rewrite the entire novel. Wow.

    Happy writing!

  46. I'm pretty picky. If I don't trust you, you're not going to read it.

  47. Well hopefully you trust me then because I'd like to read your work sometime. :)


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