5 Common Writing Pitfalls

Before we get started, I would like to announce that my new book Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer is now ready for purchase at B&N in e-book. This week, we are going to take a break from talking about the antagonist and, instead, focus on some common writing errors that seem to plague virtually all new writers. I generally like blogging about the larger issues, namely structure, because that is the killer. If the story’s plot is fatally flawed there’s little hope of connecting with a reader. If we need a Dungeon Master Guide and a team of sherpas to navigate our story’s plot, then finding an agent is the least of our worries. So plot matters, but, to be blunt, there other rookie mistakes that can land us in a slush pile before an agent (or reader) even gets far enough to notice a problem with plot.

So today I am putting on my editor’s hat and going to give you a peek into what agents and editors (and even readers) see in those first five pages that can make us lose interest.

If Your Novel has More Characters than the Cast of Ben Hur, You Might Need Revision

Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies. If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part. Many characters in our novels will be what Bob Mayer calls “spear carriers.” Spear carriers do not need names.

I did not know this, years ago, and I felt the need to name the pizza guy, the florist, the baker and the candlestick maker. Do NOT do this. When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals. Only name them if you plan on getting attached.

We do not have to know intimate life details about the waitress, the taxi driver or even the funeral director. Unless the character serves a role—protagonist, antagonist, allies, mentor, love interest, minions, etc.—you really don’t need to give them a name. They are props, not people.

And maybe your book has a large cast; that is okay. Don’t feel the need to introduce them all at once. If I have to keep up with 10 names on the first page, it’s confusing, ergo annoying. Readers (and agents) will feel the same way.

If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision

Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.

Angelique leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Drake. She needed her twist-ties and fuzzy pink pipe cleaners if she ever was going to diffuse the bomb in time. Blood ran down her face as she reached out for Gregor’s hand. They only had minutes before Sondra would be back and then it would all be over for Fifi, Gerturde and Muffin.

Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?

Thing is, you don’t care. You aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. We have discussed before how Normal World plays a vital role in narrative structure. As an editor, if I see the main character sobbing at a funeral or a hospital or hanging over a shark tank by page three, that is a big red flag the writer doesn’t understand narrative structure.

Thing is, maybe you do. But, if we are new and unknown and querying agents, these guys get a lot of submissions. And, if our first five pages shout that we don’t understand narrative structure, our pages are likely to end up in the slush pile. When we are new, we get less leeway about trying to reinvent narrative structure, and the thing is, three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.

It’s like the wheel. Round. It rolls. The wheel works. Don’t mess with the wheel. Don’t mess with narrative structure.

Some other picky no-nos… .

Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow…the carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

Too much Physiology…

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.

Adverbs are Evil…

Most of the time, adverbs are a no-no. Find a stronger verb instead of dressing up a weaker choice.

She stood quickly from her chair.

She bolted from her chair.

Also be careful of redundant adverbs.

She whispered quietly…

Um, duh. The verb whisper already tells me the volume level.

She can, however, whisper conspiratorially. Why? Because the adverb isn’t denoting something inherent in the verb. To whisper, by definition is to be quiet BUT not necessarily to conspire. The adverb conspiratorially indicates a certain quality to the whisper.

I will do more of these in the future, but the points I mentioned today are very common errors. Many editors and agents will look for these oopses to narrow down the stack of who to read. These are also habits that can frustrate readers should the book make it to publication. I know some of you are thinking of self-publishing and that is certainly a viable path these days. But, if we have 42 characters by page five? We are likely going to frustrate a reader.

Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing.

Some books to help you clean up your prose and become a master at your craft? Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a MUST HAVE in your library. Another MUST HAVE reference?  102 solutions to Common Writing Mistakes by NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer,

What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of May, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of May I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Important Announcements

Make sure you join our LOVE REVOLUTION over on Twitter by following and participating in the #MyWANA Twibe. Read this post to understand how this #MyWANA will totally transform your life and your author platform.

My book We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media hit THREE best-seller list on Kindle yesterday. #2 in Computers & Technology, #13 in Authorship and #17 in Advertising. THANK YOU!!!!! This book is recommended by some of the biggest authors AND agents in New York, so make sure you pick up a copy if you don’t have one already.

Also, if you want to learn how to blog or even how to take your blogging to a level you never dreamed possible…get your copy of Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer  today. Not only will this book help you learn to blog, but you will be having so much fun, you will forget you were supposed to be learning.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

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  1. #1 by Jenni Holbrook-Talty on May 9, 2011 - 1:33 pm

    Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer is also live on Kindle as well. http://www.amazon.com/Are-There-Blog-Writer-ebook/dp/B004ZUIUFI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=books&qid=1304947897&sr=8-1

    Print book is processing. Its an exciting week!

  2. #2 by B.C. Young on May 9, 2011 - 1:34 pm

    Great post and suggestions. I’m sure I’ve made these mistakes, but this should help me with my future writing. I love that there are people out there constantly trying to help us writers improve!

  3. #3 by amyshojai on May 9, 2011 - 1:37 pm

    *raising hand* Oh yes, I’m a serial mistake-maker, please heal me! And after returning from the OWFI conference with big-name speakers, y’all need to listen to Kristen cuz she’s preaching the same great info that Steve Berry et al shared. Incidentally, I suggested a couple of my fav speakers be added next year to the lineup–Kristen Lamb and Bob Mayer would be awesome!

  4. #4 by Marcia on May 9, 2011 - 1:38 pm

    Great post, as always. Going back to chack and see if I’ve made any of these mistakes. Bought “Are You There Blog” last night on Kindle. It’s on my list to read very soon!

  5. #5 by Jess Witkins on May 9, 2011 - 1:40 pm

    Perfect timing with this post Kristen! I’m editing my work to send to the critique group soon, so I know to watch for these mistakes (like adverbs, UNHOLY ADVERBS! LOL) in my story as well as help to point them out and fix them for other writers in the group. Thank you for doing a post on these issues, it was really helpful and nice to have further resources to check out.

    When will your new book be in print?!

  6. #6 by Piper Bayard on May 9, 2011 - 1:46 pm

    Ok. You clearly based this blog on my first submission to you.🙂 Great post, Kristen. Thanks for the advice.

  7. #7 by Stacy Green on May 9, 2011 - 1:53 pm

    Great list! Thanks for tips. I have to watch my adverbs, but I’m going to keep the rest of the list in mind. It’s really good to know what editors/agents are looking for right out of the gate so that we have a chance of them actually getting past page one.

  8. #8 by Melissa K Norris on May 9, 2011 - 2:22 pm

    Good advice. The opening is our most important, doesn’t matter how great the rest is, if the opening stinks, no one will read it. I just finished editing mine and would love to see if I finally “got” it.🙂

    Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  9. #9 by Tiffany A White on May 9, 2011 - 2:26 pm

    Very helpful tips! Thanks for sharing, and I look forward to future posts on the matter. I’ll also check out Bob and Larry’s books. Question – will “Are you There Blog, it’s Me Writer” come out in print or only ebook?

    • #10 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 9, 2011 - 3:08 pm

      It will be available in print in 2 weeks😀.

  10. #11 by Katja on May 9, 2011 - 2:39 pm

    I’ve cut with the adverbs on my WIP. Think I’m doing rather well with them. Awesome tips as always.🙂

  11. #12 by mammyoaklee on May 9, 2011 - 2:44 pm

    Thank you for the helpful tips, Kristen🙂

  12. #13 by Steena Holmes on May 9, 2011 - 2:48 pm

    One opening of mine had the MC in a death grip with an unknown assailant. LOL. it took a few hard knocks from a few betas for me to realize the middle of an action scene isn’t always the best place to start.

  13. #14 by RDoug on May 9, 2011 - 2:49 pm

    I really do love your latest blog, Kristen. It’s stuff we writers should all know, but it’s nice to have the reminder. It’s sort of making me rethink the character introductions in Chapter One on my current work-in-progress, The Globe. I may have to go back and revisit it before I send it off to my agent.

  14. #15 by Brenda McCreight on May 9, 2011 - 3:03 pm

    Helpful post – I would like to repost it on my blog with your permission. I have you on facebook and will add your link to my writing blog and I follow you on Twitter – surely that should get me some kind of free read?? Have a great day.

    • #16 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 9, 2011 - 3:10 pm

      Sure. Post away. I will put your name in extra times. and actually that really does improve your odds in the drawing. Almost everyone who has won was a regular commenter and included trackbacks. Thanks!

  15. #17 by educlaytion on May 9, 2011 - 3:05 pm

    Great points. I especially like that point about not naming characters unless we’re supposed to get attached. That will stick with a lot of people. And I really appreciate the alien body movements. See that everywhere and laugh. Misplaced modifiers too. Finally, Stephen King said that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. True day. What else, what else…

    Oh yeah, CONGRATULATIONS!!! And a big Kristen SQUEEE for you! Go on wit yo ebook girl🙂 Happy to be in the twibe.

  16. #18 by Brenda McCreight on May 9, 2011 - 3:08 pm

    ps your link will be more prominent when I have time to figure out how to re-arrange my site. I find that learning the tech stuff is far harder than the writing!

  17. #19 by Amanda Holtom on May 9, 2011 - 3:27 pm

    “Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts!” lol HIlarious–sooooo many people do this!

    Thanks, Kristen

  18. #20 by nataliefaybooks on May 9, 2011 - 3:36 pm

    Hey! Great post as usual😉

    I agree with all of them, and I must watch out for the alien movements, sometimes I write *different* images that are way too different.

    And thank for the tip about the mistake of sending your characters into major action on the first pages. Some people tell you that you need a hooker on the first pages and writers tend to interprete that as putting an action scene. I read some books that forced a scene into the first pages and all I could think was “I don’t care”.

    One topic that I would love to have on the blog is:
    How to use all the five senses on story telling. For example, I tend to over use sight, and I believe that is a common mistake: my characters are gazing, staring, and etc all the time. And things like “his watery eyes” pop on the page constantly. Enough eyes! I must stop this!

  19. #21 by Suzanne Lucero on May 9, 2011 - 3:53 pm

    I’m trying to think of how many named characters are going to become spear carriers when I get to the first rewrite stage … and how many fewer times my MC is going to cry. (One good, heart-rending cryfest, and maybe a stray tear once or twice. Otherwise, it’s “man-up” time.) Thanks for the tips.

  20. #22 by Suzanne Lucero on May 9, 2011 - 3:56 pm

    PS I subscribe to your blog and follow you on Twitter.🙂

  21. #23 by Terrell Mims on May 9, 2011 - 4:02 pm

    Great info. I loved it when you first taught it to me and it’s still good to hear it again.

  22. #24 by Tamara LeBlanc on May 9, 2011 - 4:14 pm

    Just judged a contest recently and one of the submissions contained two of the no-no’s you mentioned, flying body parts and too many names.
    I remember making alot of those same mistakes. It’s hard when we’re first starting out. We have to learn these things somewhere, and contests, and critique partners and great blogs like yours are a wonderful place to brush up on the do’s and dont’s in novel writing.
    Just wish I knew about you years ago, but I am glad I have your wisdom now…I’m still learning!
    Congrats on the book release!!! Have plans to download after i close this comment:)
    Have a productive afternoon and good luck on your continued success!!
    Tamara

  23. #25 by Raelyn Barclay on May 9, 2011 - 4:28 pm

    Just about spewed coffee on my computer with those alien movements and fuzzy eyeballs, LOL

    Another great post. And I agree with Natalie, I’d love to see a post on using all five of the senses without it coming across as some high school creative writing assignment.

  24. #26 by Natalie C. Markey on May 9, 2011 - 4:30 pm

    Great post! I’m guilty of beginning with oo much suspense. I’ve changed the start of my YA so many times because of this. Another BIG problem I have is info dumping. I like to give you the character’s life story. Now I know that I need to introduce info to the reader as they need to know it. I’ve found that some of my favorite back stories on my characters end up being left out because they just are not important to the story. But as funny as it sounds, I like making mistakes. That is the only way I will learn and now I can look back and laugh at my first draft that will NEVER see any agents or the light of day🙂

    • #27 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 9, 2011 - 4:32 pm

      All my students write detailed character backgrounds FIRST before we plot. I learned that from Bob Mayer. Take time to get to know your characters. This way you aren’t using your manuscript to get to know them. Most new writers, the first 100 pages is a total figh head. The real writing doesn’t start until after that 100 pages because the author is using that time to understand who is who and what it all means.

      • #28 by Aanna on May 10, 2011 - 3:59 am

        This is so true! In fact, I believe I spent two whole drafts getting to know my characters. It feels counter-intuitive to spend time writing something OTHER than your manuscript in order to make your manuscript better, but this is a lesson I am slowly learning.

        • #29 by Ted Henkle on May 10, 2011 - 5:48 pm

          This is where I think role playing games (RPGs) come in handy. There’s been quite a variety published in the past that go beyond D&D. Along with fantasy, there’s sci-fi, modern, pulp adventures and historical have been available, along with books on creating exetnsive character backgrounds. Unfortunately, they often go out of print rather quickly. However, you can find them on sites that sell used/OOP games.

  25. #30 by Patrick Thunstrom on May 9, 2011 - 4:34 pm

    Is it bad that the naming lesson I never learned, more allowed inherent laziness effect the cost-benefit analysis of naming placeholder characters?

  26. #31 by ChemistKen on May 9, 2011 - 4:35 pm

    I’m glad to see you mentioned tip number two. Some other blogs seem to suggest that if your MC’s life isn’t in danger by the end of page one, there’s no point in writing the story. I always thought that was a cheesy way to try and grab your attention.

    • #32 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 9, 2011 - 4:53 pm

      We have to be careful about whose advice we are taking. I am not published in fiction, but I have edited for a long time. This is why you will ALWAYS see me cite real experts like Bob in addition to my lessons. He has hit all the best-selling lists in FIVE genres.

  27. #33 by Tony Southcotte on May 9, 2011 - 4:50 pm

    I’ve been wondering about this: when is it appropriate to add action? In my current work in progress, there is a fighter who is getting prepped for a fight. As his hands are getting wrapped, his teammates and coaches are interacting with him, as well as a minor antagonist. Last I checked, there are about 3,500 words before the actual first fight (which is a smaller fight compared with the others in the novel).

    It has action, and it feels like the pace is right, but it might be a bit amateur to have it start so soon. Is it a question of length? Or do we simply need enough to make the reader care? In your thriller novels, how do you decide when to add the action?

    • #34 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 9, 2011 - 4:52 pm

      Get Story Engineering. Will be the best $15 you spend. It is a fast and easy read and he will make you a master plotter in no time. I can’t really answer because I have limited information, but you do know your story and Larry’s book can help you answer that question yourself.

  28. #36 by Jami Gold on May 9, 2011 - 6:22 pm

    Hi Kristen! Question for you…

    One thing I noticed about Harry Potter was the fact that JKR mentions a *lot* of names in the first book. They don’t show up at the beginning of the story, but during the sorting hat scene, JKR mentions virtually every student who will eventually have a minor role in the story. These students don’t have a speaking role in book 1, but they do eventually later on in the series. What do you think of this approach?

    As I reader, I kind of enjoyed seeing that these characters “always” existed and weren’t just thrown in later to fulfill some plot requirement. It made the “world” more realistic to me in a things-happen-outside-of-the-pages way. Since these names weren’t right at the beginning of the story, I didn’t get confused by them either, as I already had a pretty good handle on the story and what it was going to be about. So I wonder if the rules can be slightly bent for series, assuming the author doesn’t dump all the names in at the beginning?

    Thanks for the great post!

    • #37 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 9, 2011 - 6:25 pm

      Just give them to the reader slowly and that’s fine. What I am seeing A LOT of is a zillion names in the first ten pages. It interferes with me connecting to the protagonist. When dating, we eventually want to introduce the guy to our family…but not on date ONE. Ease the reader into these characters. Give time to connect to the protag, and enough “room” to spot the sory problem and CARE.

  29. #38 by Yolanda Early on May 9, 2011 - 6:43 pm

    I have been soooo guilty of jumping into the action to soon. My stories always felt rushed, like something was missing. That missing thing turned out to be the Normal World intro. I didn’t give the readers enough reason to care. Poor, poor readers. I found it hard to connect to my own stories for the same reason.–Great Post, very useful.

  30. #39 by Danielle Meitiv on May 9, 2011 - 7:08 pm

    Did I miss the announcement of the publication of “Are You There Blog?”

    Of course I’m going head on over to…well, somewhere and get a copy, now!

  31. #40 by marykateleahy on May 9, 2011 - 7:26 pm

    Adverbs ARE evil and I am so guilty. Lock me up quickly and throw away the key🙂

    • #41 by Danielle Meitiv on May 9, 2011 - 7:37 pm

      I meant did I miss the twitter rollout, etc -I see it announced up there. Congrats Kristen!

  32. #42 by Delorfinde on May 9, 2011 - 7:40 pm

    This will help me a lot … thank you! I love your blog but rarely comment as I get it straight to my email. However, I read every single post and they’ve done more for my writing than I could have thought – mostly warning me not to start as I didn’t have a plot.

  33. #43 by Catherine Johnson on May 9, 2011 - 7:51 pm

    Great post and congratulations Kristen!

  34. #44 by Bob Mayer on May 9, 2011 - 8:38 pm

    Okay– did you know Ben Hur was written by a General who fought with Grant at the battle of Shiloh? Interesting bit of trivia.

  35. #46 by Patricia Caviglia on May 9, 2011 - 9:00 pm

    I have to keep that “Adverbs are Evil” in mind. Thanks Kristen!

  36. #47 by Leigh D'Ansey on May 9, 2011 - 9:05 pm

    Going back over and over again is my big problem. Re-reading and ‘fixing’ this and that so it takes me forever to move ahead. It’s not only with fiction writing. I do it with everything I write. My kids’ school notes used to take me so long they’d got over whatever it was ailed them before the note got to school. Any ideas!?

  37. #48 by Ruthmary (Rumour) Weiler on May 9, 2011 - 9:40 pm

    I remember when I started reading the Wheel of Time series I was only a few chapters in and I was bawling because I was terrified that one of the characters was going to die.

    That’s when I realized Robert Jordan was a fantastic writer.

  38. #49 by Patricia DeWit on May 10, 2011 - 12:00 am

    Another great post. Thanks so much for taking the time for your readers. “Find a stronger verb.” So simple but so true.

  39. #50 by K.B. Owen on May 10, 2011 - 12:35 am

    Okay, so I’m chanting to myself, “don’t mess with the wheel…more cowbell…don’t mess with the wheel….”

    “…buy Kristen’s new book…” LOL. Love this post. Lots of crucial stuff that’s important to keep in mind. I had to slaughter a lot of adverbial innocents before my ms was ready to query for an agent.

    Thanks, Kristen!

  40. #51 by Marilag Lubag on May 10, 2011 - 6:03 am

    Ouch! I’m guilty of several of these! Now, picking the easiest thing to change–adverbs! I’ll come back to the ones I missed some other time.

  41. #52 by Donna Newton on May 10, 2011 - 8:32 am

    I wonder who inspired you to write this blog post😀

    I am printing it out, highlighting the relevant, and sticking it on the wall next to my ‘Crappy Excuse Troll’.

    You ROCK, girl xx

  42. #53 by Andy Penpraze on May 10, 2011 - 11:26 am

    Great post. It’s amazing how many of the rogue adverbs just “fall in” to the story as the ideas flow. Underlines the importance of comprehensive re-reads and self-edits to catch these blighters!

  43. #54 by talespinfiction on May 10, 2011 - 5:58 pm

    Adverbs tend to give me fits. I find it interesting that almost no one gives me negative feedback on them, although I KNOW them to be a weakness in my writing. I wonder if that signals a general unease with them.

    As for starting with a funeral, well, I am guilty, guilty, guilty. To be fair, it is a burial service, and not an actual funeral. And the real action of the book is what happens because of the death, not the death itself. But my oh my, will I be rereading chapter one tonight!

  44. #55 by Gene Lempp on May 10, 2011 - 7:28 pm

    Great post Kristen and I’m sure I’ve done all of these (and still do on occasion but I’ll need a cookie or two before I can talk about that)…tissue…okay…

    Excellent advice. Two other great resources are James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure and Jack M. Bickham’s Scene & Structure. Adding these two to Larry Brooks Story Engineering gives a full view of novel structure from Macro to Micro, including the uses of narrative, dialogue and the many layers of well-designed characters.

  45. #56 by Stephanie Scott on May 11, 2011 - 12:14 am

    Great post! I’ve been following #myWANA on twitter, but now I’ve finally crossed over to the blog.
    This post called me out on naming unimportant characters. I know now that Pete has to die. Or, he at least will be relegated to a title only. I love Pete. But his 2 paragraphs of hilarity are not worth it in th end.

    I will continue to kill my darlings as I work toward a clean, coherent, adverb-light story!

  46. #57 by CMSmith on May 15, 2011 - 10:17 pm

    Thanks for the tips. I have read my memoir manuscript about 25 times now, and paid someone else to edit it and I still find things that need changed. Is it ever done?

  47. #58 by Vicki Moss on May 21, 2011 - 12:22 pm

    Great post and I would like to re-post on my blog as well with your permission. Can’t wait for your new book to come out – great tips! ~Vicki

    • #59 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 21, 2011 - 9:29 pm

      Repost away. Just link back here and give credit and post all you like😀.

  48. #60 by Constantin Gabor on May 30, 2011 - 11:24 am

    I love these tips!

    I’m not actually a writer and don’t particularly care to be. I just love blogging (content marketing) and copywriting.

    Also enjoyed the book “On writing” by Stephen King.

  49. #61 by submeg on October 5, 2012 - 6:01 pm

    The question is, how many characters is too many?

  50. #62 by breezy on August 31, 2013 - 12:56 pm

    How do you organize and tame all the thoughts/ideas/concepts into a novel? Also, as far as a Hero story goes, how do you carefully craft the trials?

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