Ep 231 How to avoid the query stage with agents and publishers. And meet author Josephine Moon.

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In Episode 231 of So you want to be a writer: You’ll discover how to avoid the query stage with agents and publishers, and how other authors know when their writing is “good enough”. And meet Josephine Moon, author of Three Gold Coins.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

podcast-artwork

Shoutout:

J.L Maris from Australia: 

I have just started listening to this podcast and I absolutely love it. I’ve had to start from episode 1 as I don’t want to miss any of the episodes. I get a lot of useful information from them as well as an increased motivation to get my story out there. Thank you for the brilliant episodes. 🙂

Links Mentioned

Forget the Query Stage

Industry Insider: How to tell when your writing is ‘good enough’

 

Writer in Residence

Josephine Moon’s fourth novel, Three Gold Coins, was released on 21 March 2018.

Her novels are published internationally. She describes her novels as ‘books like chocolate brownies’—rich, inviting, a treat for soul but with chunky nuts to chew on, with a dash of sea salt that lingers on the tongue.

She is also the author of The Tea ChestThe Chocolate Promise and The Beekeeper’s Secret.

She lives in the Noosa hinterland, Australia, with her husband, son and a tribe of animals that, despite her best intentions, seems to expand every year. 

Follow Josephine on Twitter

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Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Australian author Josephine Moon’s novels are published internationally, and she describes them as ‘books like chocolate brownies’ – rich, inviting, a treat for the soul but with chunky nuts to chew on, with a dash of sea salt that lingers on the tongue. Which I love. Very poetic. She is the author of The Tea Chest, The Chocolate Promise and The Beekeeper’s Secret. And her latest novel Three Gold Coins, which was published in March this year. Welcome to the program, Josephine.

Josephine

Thank you so much for having me.

Allison

All right. So as we like to do, we’re going to just trawl back through the eons of time and go back to the beginning. When and how did your first novel come to be published?

Josephine

So my first novel, well, my first published novel… So I had a long track record of ten years of… So 1999, I decided I wanted to be a career writer. And so for the next 12 years I wrote ten manuscripts. And in all sorts of genres. And I think that was part of my problem was that I didn’t know what sort of writer I wanted to be.

And then I wrote The Tea Chest. And that one crossed the line. And I got my agent six weeks after my first and only son was born. And that was like, okay, that’s a different version of motherhood than I was kind of expecting. And the book sold really quickly with a two book deal and then was published. So that was 2012, and then it was published in 2014.

Allison

But that was your 11th manuscript that you’d written?

Josephine

That’s the tenth. Number ten.

Allison

Lucky ten. Okay. So what were you doing all the time that you were writing all of those many, many manuscripts that you wrote?

Josephine

When I first started, I was a teacher. I was in my first year teaching. So I’d done… I’m one of these people who’ve studied, kept changing their mind about lots of things. So I studied all sorts of things. But I did journalism, and film and media studies at one point, and then I did teaching.

So I was first year teaching, but I knew I didn’t want to teach. And I was at a course with the Queensland Writers Centre in Brisbane. And I just had this lightbulb moment where I just went, this is it. This is absolutely the job for me.

And so for those next twelve years I was working fulltime, working part time, working casual things, working from home. Doing all sorts of things. I’m terrible, I get bored very easily, so I kept changing what I was doing a lot. But I just kept writing.

Allison

And what sorts of things were you writing? You said you tried a whole range of different things. What kinds of things did you try?

Josephine

I wrote a couple of YA manuscripts. And one of those was shortlisted for the Text Prize one year. So I thought, oh, maybe that’s my thing. And kept going with that for a bit. I did a memoir, which was also shortlisted for Finch Memoir Prize, so I was like, oh, maybe that’s my thing. And I did nonfiction, text books, I did a general fiction book. I can’t even remember now. It was so many things.

But I know that eventually I went, maybe I should look at what I’m reading and try and write what I’m reading. And what I was reading, in my hand at the time, was one of Monica McInerney’s books. And I just went, I really resonate with this. This is my style. And I ended up writing… I say I wrote the book I wanted to read. So I wrote the book that was just not on the shelf for me as my perfect book.

Allison

Do you think that’s the difference? Is that what got you over the line with that particular manuscript? Is that you sort of finally found… Like you’d had that moment of, oh, okay, well clearly this is what I need to be doing?

Josephine

Yeah, I think it is. I’m a slow reader. I’m a horribly slow reader. Which is a terrible burden for a writer, because it’s one of your things is you’re supposed to be reading lots. But I’m a terribly slow reader, and I’m a very slow writer, and I’m a very slow thinker, and apparently I’m a very slow learner. Because it took me all that time to work out that that’s what I should be doing.

And then, The Tea Chest was a real… I actually started it and then I put it away for two years or more. And when I pulled it out I’d completely forgotten what I’d written. And I read it and I went, wow, that sounds like a real book. I might try and finish that.

And I was pregnant at the time and I really wanted to finish it before my son arrived. Because I didn’t know what was going to happen after that. And so that was my deadline there, for myself, was to get it ready and out there.

Allison

Okay. Well, that makes perfect sense. I’d be interested to know what… As you said, you wrote the YA, you wrote the memoir. Obviously in doing all of those different manuscripts you’ve been learning lots and lots.

Do you think – I guess what I’m trying to say here, because I do have a point and I will get to it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that do you think that every aspect of the craft that you learned by creating those other manuscripts came together for you in The Tea Chest as well?

Josephine

I think that no writing is ever wasted. I think that would be my number one belief there. Even now, I start books all the time that I research, I collect photos, I start notebooks, I write a few chapters and then I go, yeah, that’s not going to work. But nothing is ever wasted.

And quite often you can go back to anything you’ve written that hasn’t been published or come to fruition and pull it apart and pull characters out of it or pull themes out of it. You can do all sorts of stuff with it. So it all just adds to the whole compost of what you can grow.

Allison

Okay. Now on your website, you describe – apart from the brownie thing – you also describe your work, your brand, I guess, as “Uplit, Lifelit, FoodieLit, WomensLit”. So you’ve got those four things there. Is that something that you’ve come up with, now that you’ve written four books, you’re like, oh, okay, that’s how I can label this? Do you think it helps to have those labels?

Josephine

I think it’s such a huge question. Yeah, I think it helps. Because people will often say to me… You know, my elevator pitch is quite terrible. People will say, what do you write? And I freeze every time. I don’t know. I don’t really know.

Allison

Stuff. I write stuff.

Josephine

Yeah. I write lots of stuff. It involves a lot of food. And women in problems that need to solve… I just lose it. Even then. I’m just like, I don’t know. I find that, I mean, commercially…

It’s a really thorny area. Because commercially speaking, the books would be referred to as commercial women’s fiction. But that category doesn’t actually really exist. You don’t walk into bookstores in Australia and have a big title that says ‘Commercial women’s fiction’. You have a title that says ‘fiction’ or it says ‘general fiction’.

So what we are technically, which goes into Bookscan, is general fiction. So that’s a ginormous pool of types of stories. And it’s a difficult label, I think. Because if I say that to most people in the public, they think I’m writing romance. Which I’m not. I’m not a straight romance writer. My stories do you have, often, love stories in them. But that’s not the primary driver of narrative. So that’s kind of misleading as well. If people think that.

And then so after The Tea Chest came out, and people were very, very excited about the fact that I’d chosen this food theme as the central driver of the narrative, and so I thought well maybe I’m writing this new thing called Foodie Fiction. And so I was sort of using that phrase for a long time. But people just didn’t like it and didn’t get it. And really every time I say that they think I’m talking nonfiction. I’m talking recipes, I’m talking… So I sort of just can’t really define it.

I do love the phrase LifeLit, which I think actually Rachael Johns started using and credited her publicist, I think, for coming up with that. Which I think is actually, probably the most accurate terminology for what we’re doing. Because we’re writing about people in all stages of life, facing all sorts of life issues. And then…

But I do have this strong element, I love writing around food themes, and so I have that really strong element in there as well.

And yeah, the UpLit one. That’s a new term going around.

Allison

Is that upmarket? Is that where we’re going with that? Or is it cheerful?

Josephine

Not necessarily cheerful, because my books aren’t wholly cheerful, but that you feel better at the end.

Allison

Oh, I see.

Josephine

It’s that sort of rising… Raising people’s feelings about the world, I guess.

Allison

Well that’s an interesting thing because that’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. Because your novels do at first present as light easy reads. You’re sort of going along. And then all of a sudden they’re generally veering off into darker territory, the nuts and salt of your brownies, so to speak.

Josephine

Yes, that’s right.

Allison

Is that a conscious decision? Or is that just where your subconscious takes you? Because there’s quite a big mystery and it’s quite dark at the heart of Three Gold Coins. And I’m just wondering whether that’s something that you start with, or is it something that just develops as you write the story?

Josephine

It’s a really good question. I’m really glad you asked. It’s been a really evolving thing for me.

So if I start with the basic idea that I’m incredibly sensitive. So I’m incredibly sensitive to… I cannot watch the news. I cannot deal with the pain of the world. It’s just something I can’t deal with. So to begin with my real agenda was to put out stories that made me feel better at the end, because I was sick of reading things that left me feeling depressed and traumatised and not… Just not good. So I wanted to feel good.

But then again, I didn’t feel… Often the romance genre fills that agenda. But I wasn’t doing that either. So that’s sort of where I started.

And then with The Beekeeper’s Secret – and my first two books were pretty, I guess, light reads – and then The Beekeeper’s Secret turned up and really turned up as a book. I wish this happened every time. It had never happened before and it’s never happened since. Just really turned up with this very strong character of Maria as a former nun who had a big story to tell, and she wanted someone to tell it. And she wouldn’t go away. I was trying to write a completely different story and she kept turning up. And then I was trying to write her into that story and it just wasn’t working. And I had to go what is it that you want to say here?

And so there’s a theme in that book of child abuse in the Catholic church. And that was really challenging for me, because I was really worried about my readers and how they would react to that. But I haven’t had a single, I haven’t had anyone say that it was too much or they were traumatised or anything like that. And I worked really, really hard to make it not the focus.

So Maria is not a primary victim of that set of circumstances. She’s one step removed. So I was interested in that sort of secondary, tertiary victim. How those things go down through generations. So you can kind of avoid a lot of the really nasty stuff if you do that.

And so that was, fine, my readers went along with that. And I was like, okay, that’s great. And I guess I got a bit of confidence. Three Gold Coins was a totally different story. The book that’s on the shelf right now is the third version of the book that I wrote. So I could have written, I could have published about three books out of what I wrote in that. And when I got to the second version of it, which was most similar to what it is now, it was very clear to me that the book wanted to go in a dark direction. And I said, no. Literally, out loud, to the book, no.

Allison

And I said to the book, no!

Josephine

I did. I just said, Josephine doesn’t do that. No. And so I wrote this whole other story and then I sent it off to my editor Clara, who I always send my early stuff to, because she sees straight to the heart of it pretty quickly. And she sent me all this feedback. And she never tells me what to do, but I could just tell by the questions she was asking that it wasn’t strong enough. And I realised I’d made a terrible mistake there in avoiding doing what the story wanted to do.

And it was really, really hard. That book pushed me so hard to go to places I didn’t want to go and to really face up to that stuff.

And what I really learned writing that book is that your intention is everything. So my intention is not to focus on the trauma. The focus is really to deal with the resilience and the hope. And people are reading it that way. People are really sort of like, oh, you know, it’s hopeful. They’re giving me that term that it’s really hopeful and it’s optimistic. And that’s great. I’m really pleased that that’s how it’s been received.

Allison

Okay. Because that is a question I wanted to ask you. Because when you’re writing stuff that is, you know, you are… As you said, you set out to write a book that makes you feel better by the end of it. But when you are dealing with those darker areas, having to bear in mind the whole time that treat for the soul aspect and manage the light and the shade so that they’re not jarring as well, is that a difficult thing to do? Is that a difficult juggle?

Josephine

I found it terribly difficult. And I… For me, I think, I was avoiding writing it that way so much because I didn’t want to feel the pain. Because if my characters are going to feel pain, I have to feel the pain. So that was one thing. I just didn’t want to go there myself. And it really, really challenged me.

Now, looking in hindsight, I kind of go, oh, nothing. What was I worried about? But at the time, I actually had nightmares when I was writing it. It was really psychologically playing on me.

Allison

Well, you did write a character there that many of us would have nightmares about. I do feel that you’ve managed to tap into that aspect very nicely.

Josephine

Yeah. Well, that’s good. I tried not to, again, not to be too gratuitous with it. And I guess it’s more psychological than overt.

Allison

Yeah. But don’t you think psychological is actually more terrifying in many ways than overt?

Josephine

Probably.

Allison

I think it is. That could just be me.

Josephine

No. Yeah, no, you’re probably right. I always find what’s really interesting about books is that I’m so close to them when I’m writing that I don’t actually have that really strong… Being able to have that distance and see what’s really going on. And it’s often not until the book actually hits the shelf and people start emailing me or messaging me and saying, oh this, this and this. And I go, oh really? Yeah. Actually you’re right. I don’t even see it, really, myself. I’m just sort of… It’s this horrible uphill slog to get the thing finished and out on the shelf. So it’s really nice, actually, once it’s on the shelf and people start saying things like…

Allison

Telling you what’s in it.

Josephine

Yeah. Like with Beekeeper’s, the first two interviews I did, people said, oh, so you’ve written a mystery. And I was like, really? Did I? Okay. Cool. And now I’ve sort of really cottoned on to that, where I’m actually really enjoying the mystery element of writing stories.

Allison

So where do you begin when you start a new novel? Do you start with a character? Do you have… I mean, you said with The Beekeeper’s Secret that you had the character there. Was that the same with Three Gold Coins? Was it a premise? Was it a character? Was it a theme? What kickstarts you?

Josephine

Oh, well, Three Gold Coins was so messy I don’t even know where to start with that one.

Allison

Okay.

Josephine

But generally speaking I start with my character. I’m character driven. And then the characters pretty much tell me my plot. So I end up doing heaps and heaps of rewriting, basically. My first drafts are horribly messy. My stakes are never high enough, because I don’t like doing mean things to people. So no one is ever really dealing with anything terrible and I have to go back and do mean things to them.

But yeah, character driven first. Definitely. And I don’t know. I start with just vague ideas, sometimes. Sometimes I start with settings. Settings are actually huge for me. I actually can’t even write a scene if I don’t know where that person is sitting and what they can see. So my setting really drives what I’m doing as well.

Allison

That’s a question I wanted to ask you. Because the setting is obviously very important for Three Gold Coins. But how do you go about evoking that sense of place without getting lost in endless description?

Josephine

I don’t know. Again, it’s a really good question. I think I overwrite to begin with and then I start stripping things back a bit. But I mean, whenever I go to a location – I do lots and lots of location visits. And I take hundreds of photos. And I write lots and lots of notes in notebooks. And I guess it’s just picking out those things that really strike me as… I guess if it evokes some kind of emotion in me then that’s what I’m going to focus on.

Allison

Okay. Now I’m getting the sense that you’re not really a plotter, per se?

Josephine

No.

Allison

Just, you know, getting a little bit of a hint about that.

Josephine

I would like to be.

Allison

So what is your writing process? You just basically get some kind of an idea and off you go?

Josephine

Yeah. Well, do you know, what I have recently discovered, and this will sound terrible, I have only recently discovered the real value in writing a synopsis before I start a book.

Because in all that time that I was an unpublished author, I would just write. I would just write stories and then I would get to this point where I had to start pitching them to agents or publishers or whoever. And of course they’d want a synopsis. And so I’d write, I’d go, oh what’s the story about? And then I’d write a synopsis. And because I sort of…

I must have done one of those for The Tea Chest to get it to… Actually I didn’t. I didn’t even do it that way. So I didn’t even do one for The Tea Chest. And then I hadn’t written a synopsis at all until we were at the end of Three Gold Coins and my agent said, okay, well let’s start looking at where to go now. Maybe you should write a synopsis for your next book. And I didn’t even have an idea at that point. I was like, okay, that’s a bit of pressure.

And then for my fifth book, which I’m on second draft at the moment, the idea hit me very, very quickly. I watched something on television and I just went, ooh, that, that is what I want to write about. And so I spent a couple of days putting together a synopsis. And I’m just like, wow. That really, I can see the real value in having…

Allison

I see why people do this!

Josephine

Yeah. Like being able to see problems in advance. Before they happen. Because the first version of Three Gold Coins was actually set in the Cotswolds and that was a totally different storyline. And I got 50,000 words in and I just went, it’s not working. And it was horrifying. It was like, at what point should I have seen that I’d written myself into a hole here that I can’t get out of? And if I had done the synopsis, I may have been able to see that.

So there you go. There’s my great tip. Write a synopsis before you start writing the book. I told you. I’m a slow learner. I finally got it.

Allison

Do you have a writing routine? So how old is your… Did you say you had a son?

Josephine

Yeah he’s now five. He just started prep this year. So it is changed. What I do has changed every year that he has been around. So depending on how much he needs me, or where we’re living, or whether we could have a nanny, or we were at kindy or day care, whatever it was.

But absolutely right from the start, my husband and I just went, well, this is my job. If I had to leave the house to work, we would have to find some kind of childcare. So that’s how we’ve always approached it. So the time has always been built in there.

When he was really young, my son, it was horrendous. It was just… A friend of mine… We lived in a tiny town in the bush, and a friend of mine used to come up just three hours twice a week, and I just used to guzzle coffee and eat chocolate and just be like, right. I’ve got three hours, I must write.

I’ve recently changed. I used to be very wordcount driven. And I’ve actually found now I’ve become time driven. And I’ve taken all the pressure off myself and just gone…

I’m now dating my book. So I turn up to the book with my absolute best self on. I pretend that this is the most important relationship in my whole life for one hour. And I only have to be there for one hour, right. Because we’re all very scattered and our concentration levels are appalling these days. Certainly for me. So I go one hour, that’s it. Everything’s off. I’m just here. I don’t have to produce anything. I can just read it. I can just fiddle with my plot idea or do a bit of research, whatever I’m doing. But I just have to give it 200% focus for that time.

And I’ve actually found this has made me more productive. Which is just not what I expected to happen. But that’s what’s happening.

Allison

Right. So one hour a day focused on the book?

Josephine

At the moment. Yeah.

Allison

Wow.

Josephine

One hour, seven days a week. And that’s… That is working for me right now.

Allison

And that’s interesting. Because you said you were quite a slow writer. Are you on a book a year deadline?

Josephine

I am!

Allison

Right.

Josephine

Which is terrible. Because invariably my first drafts take about six months to write. Which is very slow, if you want to get out… So obviously then once I get into heavy editing, one hour a day is not going to cut it. But certainly for that first draft, one hour a day is quite enough.

Allison

And do you have… So once you’ve done your first draft, what happens then? Do you do an edit yourself? Or you send it straight to your editor and await her feedback?

Josephine

I have learned now to send first draft to Clara. Because I will eventually get to… I would eventually get to all the conclusions she gets to, but she’ll just get there so much faster. So that just… It’s like outsourcing my time, basically, my thinking time. I send it to Clara. She sees all the problems. Sends it back to me. And I go right. Now I can do a second draft rather than just kind of tweaking things for…

Allison

Faffing around.

Josephine

Exactly. Faffing’s a good word. I love that word.

 

Allison

Faffing’s a great word.

Josephine

It is.

Allison

Do you read while you write? Are you reading other things?

Josephine

Yes.

Allison

So do you seek out other writers in your area? Or do you consciously avoid them?

Josephine

No. I read a lot of people who are in my area. Absolutely. Because that’s what I love. That’s what I write. So no. My peers are my favourite writers.

Allison

Fantastic. All right, so when you’re writing about contemporary life, as you often are, is it difficult to distinguish yourself from the character? Do you sometimes find yourself thinking, what would I do in this particular situation? Rather than what would my character do in this particular situation?

Josephine

Yeah. I mean, I guess that’s kind of inevitable to some degree. Because you’re always going to pull on, you know, what’s in your mind and your experiences is obviously what’s going to be at the forefront of your thoughts all the time.

But I have, like Maria from Beekeeper’s, is 72. So I have to think differently as a 72 year old woman. And Lara in Three Gold Coins is 31. So I had to go, wow, okay, I have to change that mind shift again. So I think that always changes what you’re doing.

Allison

All right. Switching gears slightly. How do you feel about the promotional side of being an author? Is it something that you keep ticking over all the time? Or you just bring out Josephine Moon for book launches? Because you’re in a very competitive market. Is it difficult to stand out?

Josephine

Um… I do find that a really tough one. Because as an introvert, as most writers are, and a bookish personality, that’s where I’m most comfortable. I’m most comfortable sitting in the world of my book. Which is a very dreamy space. And then there’s this very intense time where you go out and do publicity. But I like both. I think one grounds the other.

And I always really love meeting readers. I have a very loyal readership. And some of the most beautiful people. I’m constantly blown away by how lovely people are. So I love meeting them. And particularly…

Just recently, last year I took ten months off social media. And that really improved my productivity, I have to say. I really… Because I do find it very distracting. Part of your brain’s always thinking about, oh, should I take a photo of that and put it on Facebook or whatever. It was just a very freeing time. And which I needed to do because I was in this shocking… Three Gold Coins was just a nightmare for me to write. So I needed all that concentration there.

So yeah, I go through phases where I’ll back off a bit when I’m in deep writing mode. And then start ticking over again. But people are lovely. Really. If I had horrible people saying horrible things to me I might feel differently about it. But people are just beautiful. So basically they make me feel better about what I do.

And really, really affirming, too. If I’ve had a really bad week or something’s gone wrong in the business aspect of what I’m doing and I’m feeling deflated about that… And then, you know, I write for readers. I don’t write for the publishing houses or the media or whoever it is. You write to connect with a reader. So my readers really do sustain me, a lot.

Allison

That’s just beautiful. That’s very author affirming, right there.

Josephine

You wouldn’t do it, you know, you wouldn’t do it if… I mean, I did do it for twelve years with no one reading anything I wrote. But that’s what you’re craving. You’ve got a story to tell and you want someone to read it.

Allison

That’s right. That’s right. All right, we’re going to finish up today with our famous, infamous, whichever way you want to put it, last question. Which of course is our three top tips for authors. So what have you got for us, Josephine?

Josephine

I think I covered the synopsis one. So definitely learn to write a synopsis and do it first before you start actually writing the book. I think that’s my big learning of 2018. So I’m really happy to share that one.

I always say, too, that the adage goes write what you know. And I think that’s a good place to start and it well get you so far. But I always say to people, write what you want to know. Because that really engages your curiosity and that freshness of looking at something with keen new eyes, rather than something that’s maybe a bit of a stagnant energy, you already know it. It’s a forward momentum. That works for me, anyway.

Allison

I like it.

Josephine

And the other one would be write short stories. Just keep writing short stories. And write, deliberately write, in a whole heap of different genres. So write as a mystery, write as a romance, write as a crime, write children’s… Whatever it is. Just keep changing genres so that you find your voice and you find your niche.

Because a short story is not a massive commitment. Putting out a 2 or 3,000 word short story is… Sometimes you can do that in a day. Certainly do it within a week. And it’s just not a huge commitment to get a lot of value back from that.

Allison

I think that’s great advice. And I think it’s an interesting thing. Because a lot of the authors that we talk to will say that they started out writing one thing, thinking that that’s what they should be writing. And then ended up falling into something else entirely, and discovering that that was the thing. That happened to me. So I think that’s a really, really good piece of advice. Because I think sometimes we get stuck with what we think we should be writing. Do you feel that’s the case?

Josephine

I think that absolutely happened to me in that twelve years. Particularly if you do get a bit closer like I did with a couple of shortlistings in prizes. And you go, oh well, maybe that’s what I should be doing!

But yeah. Just going back to the short stories. And again, it keeps that freshness alive. Because you’ll be stuck in a full length manuscript for a really long time. Years. So a short story. As I said, a small commitment for a big return of knowledge.

Allison

Fantastic. All right, well thank you so much for your time today, Josephine.

Josephine

You’re so welcome.

Allison

It’s been really great talking to you. And I’ve picked up some terrific tips there myself today. So I hope that our listeners are also, you know, agreeing with me. These interviews are always fabulous. It’s like a masterclass in writing every week for all of us, and I really appreciate your time.

Josephine

Thank you, Al, I’m so pleased to be here.

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