I Might Want to Punch You

My mind is somewhere else today. So far, after two hours of “writing,” I’ve managed 154 words on a short story. And I’m pretty sure 81 of them are going to be removed when I revise it.

That's me, frustrated.

That’s me, frustrated.

As some may know, I plan to will publish my Young Adult science fiction novel, Runaways, this year (probably this summer). However, leading up to it, I want to publish a book of five or six flash fiction stories, just to get my name out there, generate some buzz, all that jazz (and other things that in end two Z’s).

BUT…I’m really struggling with four of the stories. One of the six is fully ready to go, one is finished and awaiting a second draft, and four are sitting there unfinished. I’m slowly beginning to think it’s because I don’t care about these four. Two of them have a lot of potential to say something, and the other two are a little, I dunno…silly?

I keep asking myself, “At what point do you say these aren’t the stories you want to tell and just move on?” Or is it just that I’m distracted and irritable in my life right now? There are so many times I feel I don’t have any stories I want to tell, but I still want to write. Most writers never feel that way. All the time I hear, “Even if I never came up with another idea, I’d have enough already to last the rest of my life,” or “I just don’t have enough time to write all the stories in my head!”

Then I punch them in the face.

Not really. I mean good for them. But I hope they see the punches in my eyes.


Update! As I was leaving the coffee shop where I wrote this, I found a quarter on the ground. So that’s a win!

 

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Two Questions to Immediately Improve Your Writing

In college, I learned the two questions to ask to immediately improve your writing.

pic from flikr

pic from flikr

I was taking a class on “Russian literature and film in the twentieth century.” On one of my first papers, the professor had circled almost every use of the word “that” and written “who.” There were a number of other uses of that which had just been crossed out entirely. Suddenly a lightbulb went on in my head and I saw what she was trying to get me to do. Those changes immediately made my writing better and they can work for you, as well.

First, the “that” vs “who” change. Once I learned this one, I’ve seen the mistake everywhere. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and even published books. Here’s how my professor explained it:
Use “who” for people, use “that” for everything else.
She was talking about a sentence’s direct object.

Example: He is the one that loved her.
It should be: He is the one who loved her.

It’s about the direct object and which word you should use to refer to it. Since “the one” refers back to “he,” and “he” is a person, use “who.”

Example: I love authors that use diverse characters.
It should be: I love authors who use diverse characters.
Again, though some would disagree, authors are people.

In cases where the direct object isn’t a person, that is correct.
Example: There are a number of toys that are needlessly sexist.
While sad, this sentence is grammatically correct.

The second piece of advice she gave me was the use of the word that as useless filler. Example? Before this professor, I would have written the sentence as The second piece of advice that she gave me was….

As writers, we want an economy of words. Just as most of us wouldn’t even think about writing The male boy was tall, we shouldn’t use any other unneeded word. And that is almost always useless.

I was thinking that orange really is the new black.
I was thinking orange really is the new black.

There are things that I’m doing to improve my relationships.
There are things I’m doing to improve my relationships.

This isn’t a matter of the word being “wrong;” it just isn’t needed. As writers, we want the words we choose to have meaning. You wouldn’t say rainy if you meant stormy. While similar, those words mean different things, and a good writer would want to use the one that means exactly what he or she wants to convey. And most of the time that doesn’t have meaning.

Ever since my professor pointed those things out to me, I’ve always questioned using that in a sentence. Sure, usually I don’t catch it until I’m revising, but that’s fine. As long as at some point I ask, “Can this word be changed to who? Can this word be removed without changing the sentence?”

 If you ask yourself these questions, too, you can easily improve your writing with little effort.

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Wanted: Cover Designer

“So what’s going on?” you might be wondering quietly to yourself. (Or asking me loudly, like Denise.)

Well, a few years ago, I wrote a YA science fiction novel, and after a number of drafts and revisions, I have decided that 2014 will be the year I publish it as an ebook. The book is pretty much ready to go and I am now in the process of looking for a cover artist. I have a pretty clear idea of what I want the cover to look like, but there are pretty much a quadrabazillion cover designers on the interwebs. Finding just the right one is proving to be hard. I actually haven’t even contacted any of them yet, because I’m a little OCD about things. As of today, I think I have my list narrowed down to 8.

There are a number of amazing artists out there who do great work with models in their cover work, but my book includes a reptilian humanoid and a Cyclops as two of the four main characters, so I may have to end up with an illustration, instead. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just can’t seem to find the illustrator I want to contact.

As I get farther along in the process, I’ll talk more about my novel, Runaways. But now I must take a look at the 7 tabs I have open in my browser and see if I can’t find the perfect match for my needs. Thanks, y’all!

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Thoughts on “Headlights” by Eminem

This Mother’s Day brought something I never thought I’d see: Eminem’s video “Headlights.” I never thought I’d see it because, although it is yet another song to/about Debbie Mathers, his mother, the song is an apology. An “I understand now you did the best you could” song. Their strained relationship has been public and rapped about for years, so no need to go into that, but here is “Headlights.”

Needless to say, explicit lyrics.

It’s been fascinating to watch someone go through this range of emotions, to watch someone grow up publicly. He wasn’t wrong to say the things he said about her when he was younger. That’s how he felt, the pain he was going through. The pain thousands have gone through, and he gave voice to that anger and hurt. But now he has grown, (he’s in his 40′s) and he hasn’t hung onto that pain. Yes, it defined him when he was younger, but he didn’t let it destroy him, and he didn’t let it define him for life. He grew and changed, as we all should. If we are the same person in our 40′s as we were in our 20′s, WE have done something wrong, not those around us. As we live, we should have the ability to see that it’s not always black and white. There may be reasons people hurt us that we’ll never understand, but it’s rarely out of evil or hatred. A lot of times, whether we see it or not, they’re doing the best they can, given the circumstances. And again, we rarely know the complete story of what those circumstances are. But growing up, becoming an adult, means acknowledging that we may have gotten it wrong or we may not have known the full story.

Good for you, Marshall.

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“Somewhere in Wyoming”

Stan rang the bell on the counter a second time, then wiped rain from his hair.

“Hello?” He was tired, he was wet, and he was impatient.

Finally, he heard a door open somewhere and the muffled sound of someone saying, “Just a moment.” A door behind the counter opened and an old man stepped out, still tucking in his shirt.

“Sorry it took me a second. I was catching a few winks.”

“It’s all right,” Stan said.

“Single room?” the old man asked, pulling a set of suspenders onto his shoulders.

“Yes, sir. And just one night.”

After a few clicks on a keyboard, the front desk clerk got the rest of the information he needed from Stan, then slid a key across the counter.

“Room 116,” he said.

Stan opened the door to his room and flicked on the light switch. Inside, he found exactly what he expected: two double beds with a night-stand in between them, a long dresser against the opposite wall, and a small table with two chairs in front of the window. A typical room in a typical motel, situated near a typical interstate. With embarrassment, he had asked the old man at the desk what state he was in. He had driven nineteen hours and had lost track of exactly where on the road he was. The old man said Wyoming, and Stan had no reason to doubt him, so Wyoming it was.

The clock between the beds said 3:17 A.M. He shook his head as he placed his duffle bag on the foot of the nearest bed. He knew he should have stopped earlier. He had been driving tired, but kept pushing on. Finally, after jerking himself awake when he hit the rumble strips on the shoulder, he decided it was time to find a motel. Two miles later he came across the Dew Drop Inn, located in what it turned out was Wyoming. He hadn’t caught the name of the town when the old man said it, but it didn’t really matter.

Reaching around the little table, Stan turned on the heat to knock the chill out of the air. Though it was just late September, he had been getting into higher elevations for a number of hours. He wondered what the weather was like in Seattle, his final destination. He took off his coat and tossed it beside the duffle bag. He walked into the bathroom and took a look at himself in the mirror. His hair was wet from the rain and he contemplated getting a shower. Instead, he simply grabbed a towel to dry off with. He was too tired to shower.

“Stan.”

He froze, the towel covering his head and face.

“Stan.”

He yanked the towel off his head but stood silently in the bathroom. Surely that whisper was in his head. He wasn’t going crazy; he was just tired.

“Stan? Seriously, come out of the bathroom. We need to talk.”

Stan swallowed hard. His eyes were beginning to ache from being held open so wide. There was someone else in the room, someone who knew his name. For the first time in his life, Stan Foster was truly terrified.

“Come on, Stan. We need to talk. If I could walk, I’d just go in there with you, but I can’t, so you have to come out here. You can’t stay in the bathroom forever.”

Stan slammed the bathroom door shut and leaned against it. He didn’t know what “if I could walk” meant, but he hoped it meant just that. How did someone who couldn’t walk get into his room? How did anyone get into his room, for that matter? He reached into his pants pocket for his cell phone. It wasn’t there. It’s in my coat, he realized.

“Stan? Stanley, come on, man.”

There was an odd quality about the voice, something he couldn’t quite place. It sounded like a male, but definitely not a man’s voice. Not a child’s either, for that matter. And there was a slight hollow sound to it. It almost sounded fake, like someone was using a fake voice to call out to him.

Finally, Stan got up the nerve to speak. “Who are you?”

“I’d . . . I’d rather not say. I think you need to see for yourself.”

“If you can’t walk, how did you get in here?”

“Stan, just open the door.”

“How do you know my name?”

“Stan!”

“All right, all right! I’m coming out. But you had better stay where you are, okay?”

“Okay.”

Slowly, trembling, Stan cracked the door. No one was standing in front of it, so he felt a little safer. He began opening it very slowly, still seeing no one. Finally, the door was open wide enough and he slowly slid out. A quick glance around the room showed him that there was no one else in the room with him.

“Good God, I’m going crazy,” he murmured.

“You aren’t going crazy,” the voice answered, and with it there was movement at his duffle bag.

Stan Foster stood wide-eyed with his mouth slightly open for what felt to him like years. There, poking out of his duffle bag was Teddy, the puppet Stan had used to make a living for the past nine years.

Little Teddy, as he had sometimes been called, was not a ventriloquist dummy, but a half-body hand puppet used behind a curtain. For nine years, Stan had gone to schools performing shows about the dangers of things. The dangers of drugs, the dangers of talking to strangers, the dangers of talking to strangers on the Internet, the dangers of peer pressure, the dangers of . . . well, it didn’t matter. Whatever the schools wanted him to cover, he covered. Sometimes Stan used other puppets at the assemblies, as well, but Teddy was a constant. He had been Stan’s first puppet and his favorite. And now Teddy was in the room with him, when Stan knew for certain he had left him behind. Stan planned to make a new life for himself in Seattle, and he no longer wanted to be a puppeteer. He had purposefully left Little Teddy behind with his old life.

“Stan,” the puppet said, and Stan screamed like a little girl, backing up into the clothes hangers behind him. Startled, he screamed again.

“Stan, seriously, get a hold of yourself.”

Somehow the puppet’s mouth was opening and closing on its own . . . like it was talking. It looked like it was talking to him!

“I’m dreaming! I’m going crazy! It’s late and I’m tired!”

The puppet shook its head, “You aren’t going crazy, Stan, and you’re not dreaming. True, it is late, but you’re not hallucinating because of that, if that’s what you think.”

“I need to sit down,” Stan said, partly to himself.

“By all means,” Teddy answered, and his left arm flopped to the side, indicating the other bed.

Stan slowly nodded and made his way to the bed. He sat down, facing the bed where his puppet sat in the duffle bag. His head seemed to be in a daze.

“How did . . . how is . . . I don’t . . . .” He couldn’t find the strength to finish any sentence.

“Stan, you tried to leave me behind in Greensboro and I understand. I forgive you for that. You’re trying to leave your old life behind you and I do not fault you. Sometimes we just have to move on, you know? I get that. I’m not mad at you.”

“I didn’t . . . I didn’t pack you in my bag.”

The puppet’s head tilted back and forth in a nod.

“When your bag was on the floor, I pulled all your clothes out and stuffed them under your bed. Then I climbed in and zipped myself up. I thought we’d never stop. Where are we, by the way?”

“Wyoming.” His own voice sounded far off, distant, and he wondered whether he was going to faint. His eyes gradually rose from staring at Teddy and he looked at the curtain, listening to the rain outside. Yes, he decided, he was going to faint.

“Stan? Stan! Stay with me, man, this is important. I didn’t zip myself up for a cross-country trip for the fun of it. We need to talk.”

“Okay.Yeah. I need some water.”

Stan rose and made his way to the sink, watching Teddy in the mirror the whole time. His hands were shaking and he couldn’t unwrap the plastic from the cup on the counter. Finally, he stuffed the plastic back into the cup and filled it that way. He drank two, three cups of water, keeping an eye on the puppet. His fourth cup of water he splashed in his face, to wake himself up. When he turned around, he saw that it hadn’t worked: Teddy was still there, watching him.

“Can we talk now?”

Dear God, he thought, it’s still moving its mouth.

“I need to sit,” he said and he went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet lid. “I think it will be easier to talk if I can’t see you.”

He heard what sounded like the puppet clearing its throat.

“Stan, she won’t marry you just because you drive to Seattle to see her. Change of heart like that only happens in the movies. She doesn’t love you anymore and no amazing, romantic gesture is going to change that.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Stan burst out of the bathroom. “That’s not why I’m moving to Seattle! She has nothing to do with—what the hell am I doing talking to a puppet? I’m losing it! I’m going crazy.”

“The only thing crazy about this is you believing she has nothing to do with your move to Seattle.”

“There are a lot of theatre opportunities out there. I want to get back into legit theatre and away from stupid puppet shows. Sure, she’s in Seattle, but that isn’t why . . . Are you smiling? Why—and how— are you smiling?”

“Do you hear yourself, Stan? ‘Theatre opportunities?’ Do you really believe that? What about New York City? Ever heard of that place? The theatre Mecca of the world? Or Chicago? Or L.A.? Hell, you could have moved an hour and a half to Charlotte!”

“Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I do. And that’s why you’re talking to me. You can’t ignore me or just write me off as a hallucination, can you, Stan? You’re talking to me because I know you better than anyone else in the world. Probably better than yourself. I may be fake but I’m not stupid, you idiot. You try spending nine years with someone’s hand up your ass and see if you don’t get to know them fairly well.

“You’re going to Seattle because you still love her . . . aren’t you?”

Stan walked to the door and opened it. He needed the cold air. He needed to see the rain drifting through the beam of the lone streetlight in the parking lot somewhere in Wyoming. In all honesty, he didn’t know why he left Greensboro. Yes, he wanted to see her again, but he had no delusions of a loving reunion. Other than seeing her with his own eyes, he had no other plans for Seattle. He hadn’t really thought that far. He had just packed and gotten in the car. Even during his trip he had rarely thought of what would happen when he arrived on the West Coast.

“I just want to say goodbye,” he whispered. “That’s all.”

“Really?”

The voice behind him seemed to distant and out of place, yet so familiar and so much a part of him. He realized that Teddy was speaking with the voice that he himself had been providing for nine years but had never heard outside his own head before. The voice was coming into his ears, not from his own mouth, and it made him uneasy. He reached his hand out into the rain. The feel of cold rain running across his hand made more sense, somehow. His shirtsleeve began to soak up water and get more and more damp before his eyes. This, too, made sense somehow.

“Yes,” he answered. “I just want to see her. I do still love her, but it’s not about winning her back or anything. I’m stuck, Teddy.”

“I know, Stan.”

“That’s why I left you in Greensboro. I want to start over. I want a new life. I don’t want to be a puppeteer anymore, and I don’t want to love her anymore. I had to leave you behind, and I need to say goodbye to her. To give her one last hug, look into her eyes and say, ‘You failed me. You took my trust and my love and failed me.’ I want her to know that I won’t love her forever, and that she failed the person who loved her the most.”

Stan’s arm was soaked as he dropped it to his side. He was cold but barely felt the chill. The slashes of rain in the parking lot changed from silver to gold and back to silver as they passed through the lonely beam.

“That’s all, Teddy. I don’t want her back.” He laughed to himself as he finally understood it. “I just need to say goodbye.”

Stan turned from the rain and looked at his duffle bag. It sat on the bed, unzipped. He walked over to it, already knowing what he would find. Sure enough, when he opened the bag, there were his clothes, just as he had packed them. Reaching for a dry shirt, he smiled to himself.

“I’m sorry I left you behind, little man, but I think it’s better this way,” he whispered to the air. “Besides . . . I know what I’m doing now.”

 

 


This story was written years ago, but since I’m in rehearsals I don’t have time to get something new posted. What’s fascinating to me is that this was written years before I moved to NYC . . . and became a puppeteer. An interesting case of life imitating art.

 

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Building Inspiration

I’m pretty sure I’m going to adopt this building as the kick in the pants I need to get to work.

photo by Chris Murphy. Some rights reserved.

 

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about creating. Musing, dwelling, pondering…all that fun stuff.

But not creating. Not writing. Not crocheting. Not building. Not drawing. I feel like I’m drowning and all I can think about is swimming to the surface, but I’m not kicking.

I know all the tips and tricks to get started, but I’m not starting. Part of it is this long winter. With SAD, the cold and the gray of NYC is probably the worst thing for me. I retreat home from work and slowly melt into the couch. I watch TV or not. Either way, I’m barely absorbing any stimulation that comes my way. I haven’t finished reading a book in over a month. I start, I get bored, I put them down. It’s like pleasure can’t penetrate through the water around me.

I feel like I have no stories to tell, no vision as to where they are going. I can’t even finish the flash fiction I started! ha

But spring will come. Green will come. Stories will come.
Those are things I can count on.

But I also know that you can’t wait on the Muse. You have to be working and if the Muse shows up, so much the better, but it’s not required. Novels don’t get written because of Muses. The Stand couldn’t have waited on inspiration to get to 1168 pages. The Chrysler Building couldn’t have been built if the workers waited until their Muse showed up. No, they put the building together from the ground up, piece by piece, whether they were “feeling it” or not.

I don’t know much of the history of the Chrysler Building, but it’s one of my favorite pieces of architecture in the city, maybe anywhere. Sure, an artistic mind was behind the design, but it still had to be put together, piece by piece, day by day. And that’s the way of Art. You just get in there and do it.

So when I need “inspiration,” I’ll step outside, take a look at Manhattan, then go inside and get back to work.

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G.I. (broke a ) JOE

Clutch  G.I.Joe 25th Anniversary  VAMP Driver -  2008  008

Let’s face it: growing up, there was nothing worse than when the rubber band inside a G.I. Joe broke. Nothing. First off, there was no way you could fix it. Secondly, and this is what usually fueled my 8 year old rage, most of the time the rubber band didn’t break. It just came unhooked from the lower body. It was right there! But you could not ever hook it back.

(Take a look at this guy’s post to see what I’m talking about.)

So what were you left with? An upper body, complete with a head and arms. A mid-section that looked like a pair of underwear, perfectly matching the soldier’s pants. And two little legs, dangling from what looked like a mini-clothes hanger.

This is trash, right? What can we do with this “new” toy? Well, we have a few options, believe it or not.

Option 1: He gets hit by missiles. A lot.
He’s just standing there (certainly can’t be walking around), keeping guard from one of the towers, when BAM! he gets hit by a missile. An enemy missile hits him and he is blown into pieces! (Three, to be exact.) His falling body parts land among the soldiers on the ground and alert them that Cobra is attacking.

Option 2: He climbs out of holes.
His upper body is placed on the carpet and suddenly: he’s in a hole! Very simple.

Option 3: He climbs into holes.
This involves placing his legs upside-down on the carpet, feet in the air. Again, very simple.

Really, those were the only options.

With the news that Kindle Worlds is opening up to G.I. Joe soon, I might just have to tackle a Joe story of my own. If I do, I assure you, someone will get hit by a missile. And someone WILL fall into a hole.


This post originally appeared online in 2004, in a different form, on another one of my blogs.

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NC Boy in NYC

As a southern boy (NC) in Brooklyn, it’s the cold that is the hardest to adjust to. Not the traffic, not the subway system. The horrible, unrelenting cold. Yesterday was March 6, and in the afternoon it was 28 degrees.

Today I found this outside a cafe.

Spring

 

“Spring? That’s the one with the snow, right?”

You have no idea how much I’m looking forward to Costa Rica in a few weeks. If you could get away to anywhere right now, where you go and why?

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In the Beginning

The beginnings of stories are usually pretty easy for me. It’s all that other stuff that follows where I get bogged down.  Most of the time, I get the first few lines of a story in my head before anything else. Seldom do I get a plot idea first. And about ninety percent of the time, I think of a line of dialogue and go from there. Something like:

“Well, what do you think?”

You can see the other person in the story now has a bajillion possible responses, and I, as the author, get to pick one randomly. I get to create an entire story based on how that question is answered. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a collection of five or six stories all using the same first line of dialogue. I’m sure this would work really well with flash fiction.

The other ten percent of the time, it is an image of someone doing something that comes into my head and the story begins with me describing it.

What’s interesting, (and I’ve heard from other writers that this happens to them, too) is that sometimes I’ll come across the start of a story in a notebook or on my computer, and it’s obviously my handwriting/style/laptop, but I have no memory of writing it. When a found piece is a year old or more, it makes sense that I don’t remember the few moments it took to get the first three lines of a paragraph written, but sometimes it’s only been a couple of months and still nothing is triggered in my mind, no matter how many times I read it. I find it so odd. And an unsettling hint at what Alzheimer’s disease must feel like.

The following was written by me November 23, not even four months ago . . . and I do not remember it at all. I thought I would hand it out to anyone who needs a story prompt.

 Tabitha smiled as she sat on a folding chair in the late Mrs. Anderson’s front yard. Fanning herself with the auction brochure, she looked around at her neighbors. Most of them were at the auction just to have something to do. She, however, was there for Lot 16.

Feel free to use it. If you do, I’d love to read what you come up with. I’m curious to see what it might be, because I don’t know.

How about you? Do you get story concepts first, or the start of a story first?


If beginnings aren’t your strong suit, check out First Line. Although the blog is no longer being updated, there are more than 200 first lines for you to chose from.

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Shhh…I’ve got a secret

In a recent post, Ben Lane Hodson wrote about a few of Joss Whedon’s writing techniques. My favorite one was “Give every character a secret.”

Why is this such an important, yet simple, technique for writing? Because as humans, we all have secrets. When I read that tip from Joss, it was a smack-your-head moment for me. I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it when writing. No matter whether we’re talking about our friends or the characters we’re creating on page, people’s motives and lives are highly influenced by the secrets they hold.

Think about the massive secret Ben Kenobi withheld from Luke Skywalker and how it ended up shaping the boy’s life.

Think about your two friends who start acting odd around you, and then you find out years later that they had a one night stand.

Think about Professor Snape.

Secrets shape us, define our motives, create challenges for us to overcome or try to live down. And when it comes to writing fiction, characters with secrets will have those same things in their lives. Maybe these are secrets only the character and the reader knows. Maybe the reader only finds out the secret near the end of the story. Or maybe the secret is just between the author and the character. That secret still motivates the character’s actions, even if the reader never knows about it.

An author might create a protagonist who is a loving, doting husband, prone to showering his wife with gifts. Sure, this is something some husbands do (so I’ve heard). But where might the story take us if this specific husband is acting this way because ten years earlier he had an affair and has never forgiven himself for cheating on his wife? Even if that is never revealed in the story, if the author knows that is in the character’s past, it could have great implications on the husband’s personality. Perhaps he still feels like a horrible wretch and nothing he does is good enough for his wife in his eyes. Possibly he sees actions of hers as “signs” that she is cheating on him, recognizing things he did ten years before.

He has a secret and it’s eating away at him. Or it’s making him be a better man. Or he has an unknown child somewhere who shows up. Secrets shape us, and if we want to write realistic characters, they should shape them as well.

Use the comment section to talk about how secrets (or lack of) have influenced your writing.

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