Ep 315 Meet Pamela Cook, author of ‘Cross My Heart’.

In Episode 315 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Pamela Cook, author of Cross My Heart. Here’s your short story plan of action for this year! Discover 20 words to inspire you to write in 2020. Plus, you could win one of 3 copies of Inner Worlds Outer Spaces: Working Lives of Others by Ceridwen Dovey

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Show Notes

Your 20 words to live by in 2020

Short story contests in 2020

Short Story Essentials

Prize for young adult and children’s writing now open

Writer in Residence

Pamela Cook

Pamela Cook writes women’s fiction set in places you’ll want to escape to and books that will keep you turning the page. Her novels feature tangled family relationships, the ups and downs of friendship, and explore issues like grief and loss, belonging and love. She plans to tug at your heart-strings so if you cry while you’re reading her books, her goal is achieved! But don’t worry – there will also be a hopeful ending.

Her latest novel is Cross My Heart.

Follow Pamela Cook on Twitter

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Pamela Cook is the Australian author of four novels described in the business as rural fiction with romantic elements, and one novel, her latest, called Cross My Heart, which she describes as similar but different. Pamela is also the co-host of the Writes4Women podcast so of course, she’s all over the podcasting thing. And we would like to welcome her to our podcast today.

Pamela

Hi Al. Thanks for having me.

Allison

No problem. All right, so we’re going to go back a little bit in time, as we like to do, we like to get in the time machine first, and can you tell us your sort of story to publication journey? How did your first novel, Black Wattle Lake, come to be published?

Pamela

Okay. So Black Wattle Lake was the result of a Nano.

Allison

Nanowrimo?

Pamela

Nanowrimo month. It was. It was the first novel that I’d written in such a short period of time. So I did the 50,000 words for nano and didn’t do much more in the December or January following, but I did expand it a bit.

I had previously spent about six or seven years probably on a more literary style novel. And then a friend suggested doing Nano and I thought, oh. At first I thought, no, I can’t do that. There’s no way I could write 50,000 words in a month. But then I thought, well, I may as well give it a go and see what happens.

And I think, as so often happens, is that first novel was obviously the learning novel for me where I did spend all those years learning, I’d done a Masters in Creative Writing, and that’s where the idea for that particular book had come from. And you know, I learned all about writing and revision and lots of other things.

And when I sat down to write Black Wattle Lake for the Nano, it just basically wrote itself. It was amazing. I started with this image of a woman at the gate of a rural property, because we were into horses by this stage, my family, in a big way. And this story just came out. And it didn’t go away. It stayed in my head and over the course of the next twelve months I spent time revising it and brushing up. And then I entered the Hachette manuscript development program.

Allison

Oh okay.

Pamela

Yeah. That was where you apply, you sent 50 pages and then if they liked it they wanted to see the rest. Which of course I hadn’t actually revised the rest. So then I had a mad 48 hours of revision when they did request it.

And I was very lucky, very fortunate, to be chosen as one of nine people that went off to Queensland, to the Queensland Writers’ Centre for the weekend with the publisher who had already read the manuscript.

Allison

Wow.

Pamela

And gave me a little bit of feedback on it. I came back, did some revisions, sent it off, and then about six weeks later got a lovely phone call saying they wanted to publish it.

Allison

Well, that’s a bit exciting.

Pamela

It was exciting.

Allison

I think that’s one of our best journeys to publication stories yet! You’ve had it all. You had Nanowrimo, you had the competition, you had everything. That is fantastic.

Pamela

Yeah.

Allison

But let me just go back briefly into the earlier novel that you wrote for six to seven years. Where is that novel now? Is that in a drawer? Will that ever be seen again? Now that you know what you know about writing, all of the many novels that you’ve written, have you read that novel again?

Pamela

I haven’t actually read it again. But the novel that I’ve recently started, and I’m working on this month for Nano, has a lot of similarities to that first novel. So I was actually just thinking this morning, I might pull that out of the drawer and just see what’s there. I mean it was, as I said, a much more literary style novel because it did come out of a Masters where I’d done poetry and all that stuff. It has got some poetry in it. It’s partially set in, well, it’s largely set in Nepal, actually.

And I did, at the time, I did send it off to a few people and started getting a little bit of feedback. But what I found when I started writing Black Wattle Lake was that my voice had changed. So I think in that first novel, because I’d laboured over it so much and thought it had to be a particular style of writing and had to be a quite literary tome, if you like, I don’t think that was my natural voice.

Allison

Okay.

Pamela

So even though I learned a lot from it, once I then just sat down and let go of a lot of that, you know, thoughts about what I had to write or what I should write, I think my natural voice did then just come out.

Allison

Do you think it was just that kind of forward momentum of having to write the 1667 words a day, or whatever it is, that you didn’t have time to think about how to change it to a writerly literary style, that it just had to be what it was as it came out? Do you think that that’s why you got in touch with a different voice there?

Pamela

Yeah, I do, Al. I think that having to sit down and really having to let go of that perfectionism and that constant revision that I guess I’d been doing just to get the perfect work… Like, revision, of course is important. But not at that point. And I think by just sitting down and forcing myself to just write and see what comes up, I think a lot of things happen. You know, you tap into your subconscious. You sort of do have to let go of a lot of that fear of is this the right word, is that sentence beautiful? And it does push you through the story.

And I just kept thinking, if I got stuck, I’d just say to myself, well, two things – what happens next? And how can I make it worse for the character? And those two things just pushed me through and helped me to find the plot. Because I think my first plot, my first novel was very, very character-based to the point where the plot probably would put you to sleep. So I really was working more on the whole plot side of things in that Nano novel.

Allison

Is that because… So that’s an interesting thing. Because that’s often I think, I’ve got several friends who write in a much more literary style and I know that often with their first drafts and stuff there’s no story. Like, it’s beautiful. It’s all gorgeous and lovely and we’re swimming in gorgeousness. But it’s like, well, what happens? Nothing. For you to suddenly focused on plot, going forward, was that the kind of books you were reading? Like, where has that come from for you to have tapped into that?

Pamela

Yeah, that’s really interesting actually. Because I’ve historically I’ve been a very literary reader. You know, my bookshelves have lots of Tim Winton and a lot of classics, that sort of thing. And I guess I hadn’t really… I mean, all those books do have a much stronger plot than probably the one that I’d written first. But I read a lot of poetry and that sort of thing. And I guess I just thought in my head, that’s what I should write.

So when I then, you know, obviously over that period of time in writing that first book, I’d learnt a lot about the writing craft. And it wasn’t that I was just trying to write a plotless novel. It did have a storyline! But it was just probably not one that really kept drawing you in.

So for me it was about getting that balance between a character driven story, where the plot comes out of the character’s situation and putting the obstacles in front of the character and all that sort of thing. So I still feel like my novels are fairly character-driven. But there’s certainly a lot more emphasis on plot than I would have originally had.

Allison

Okay, so then has your writing process changed then? Like, I mean, obviously when you throw yourself into a story for Nano, that’s a different process to what you did with the literary style thing. But how do you go about writing a book these days? Are you still using that Nano blueprint of bashing out a first draft and seeing how it goes?

Pamela

That’s a good question. It’s been different for every novel, I have to say. For my first four books I was… Well, after the first one was published, I was then contracted for the next three. So I had a deadline.

Allison

Right.

Pamela

Which was fabulous. I’m really good with a deadline. I’m not great without one.

Allison

Sorry, you were contracted for three after your first one?

Pamela

Mm.

Allison

Wow. Okay.

Pamela

Not three at once.

Allison

Oh, I was gonna say. That’s intense.

Pamela

Yeah. So after each book came out, I then got a contract for the next one before I’d written it.

Allison

Yeah, okay.

Pamela

So I wrote over six years I wrote four books. The first couple came out within twelve months, and then there was a slightly longer gap between the next ones. So having a deadline was great.

And yeah, look, I still do think that, and I do try and do not necessarily the 50,000 in a month thing, but certainly getting that first draft out reasonably quickly, you know, within say a few months and then giving myself plenty of time for revision.

Allison

Yep. So are you planning them before you… Are you writing a synopsis before you start? Is that how that process works? So you know exactly what’s going to happen? Or are you kind of coming up with random woman at gate and where does she go from there? Is it more of a process like that?

Pamela

Look, I am a pantser by heart. But because Hachette had wanted to know what did I have in mind for the next novel, well, often the answer, immediate answer to that was, no idea!

Allison

Yeah.

Pamela

So I would have to just come up with something. And for the first, the second novel, Essie’s Way, I actually dug into some fragments of writing I’d done and mashed a couple of characters together, and that actually turned out quite nicely.

But I, yeah… Sorry, I’ve lost track of the question.

Allison

That’s okay. So have I. I can’t remember… I think we were talking about pantsing.

Pamela

Oh the writing process.

Allison

Yeah, and have you actually put together, you know, do you do a synopsis before you start?

Pamela

So they would ask, my publisher would ask me for a synopsis even if it was a rough one what I had in mind for the next novel. And that was always sort of vaguely… I always tend to know the beginning and the end. I don’t quite know how you’re going to get to the end. And I often find that when I look back at the synopsis, once the novel has been completed and revised, there’s quite a lot of changes from that original idea. But at least I’ve got some sort of vague outline.

Allison

Yeah, okay. So your first four books were published with Hachette Australia. But you have indie published your similar but different new novel, Cross My Heart, which is out now. Why have you chosen to do that?

Pamela

Well, it’s a slightly different genre. Well, it is a different genre from my point of view. So the first four books were marketed by Hachette as rural romance. And they were definitely rural. And after the first one, they definitely had a romantic element, as you mentioned. So there was a thread of romance.

I had this idea for this particular story, Cross My Heart, which doesn’t have any romance in it. And in my mind, my books have always been more about the woman’s story. You know, what happens to the woman with her friendships, her family relationships, that sort of thing. And the romance has been a more secondary element.

So I really wanted to write this particular story about friends. And I did approach my publisher with it. They didn’t really see that it fitted into the genre that I wrote for them in. So they weren’t overly excited about it. Did suggest that I maybe go on and write something else. And I thought about that, but I’d written a lot of this story. I was really drawn to these characters and I really wanted to see if I could do them justice, I guess, in a way. And do the storyline justice that I had in my head.

So I had a few friends that had done the indie thing, and I just thought, you know, they talked about having more creative control and being able to write the story you actually really want to write and get out there. And I thought, well, why not? I’ll give it a go. I’d learnt a lot over the years about publishing and all the ins and outs of it. So yeah, I just, that’s what I did.

Allison

Okay. Well, before I explore the indie publishing process with you a little bit more, why don’t you tell us about Cross My Heart? Give me the pitch. The elevator pitch.

Pamela

Okay. All right. So Cross My Heart is a story about friendship. And it’s a woman who, her best friend from childhood dies, and she has made a pact or an agreement if you like to be the godmother or the guardian for this child if anything happens to the mother. It’s been ten years. The girl is now ten years old. And the two women have drifted over that time. So they haven’t really seen each other.

The main character, Tess, doesn’t really know the young girl, Grace, because she hasn’t seen her since she was four years old. She’s now ten.

And the friend dies in mysterious circumstances. And she does take on this child. It causes ruptures in her marriage and with her family. And there’s also a secret from the past that happened and the two friends had decided not to ever talk about it. But being around the daughter brings up all these memories from her past that she then has to deal with.

Allison

Okay. That was a good description, but you do need to work on your elevator pitch. It’s a little bit long.

Pamela

Mm. Needs to be longer. Shorter. I know.

Allison

No, but good description. All right, so give your experience with the traditional publishing process, do you think you were prepared for indie publishing? Like, was there anything about it that surprised you?

Pamela

Look, I think I was fairly prepared for a lot of it. Certainly in terms of having to… Obviously I’d worked with a lot of editors, all that side of getting the book ready for publication. Things like having to make decisions about covers. While that was great in one sense, because you do have control, there’s also that scary thing that, oh, what if I don’t choose the right one?

Allison

Yeah, yeah.

Pamela

Is this really representing what I’m trying to get across. The other thing that I wasn’t ready for, and I did actually outsource this, was all the uploading of the books to the various online platforms. Amazon and Kobo and Apple. But certainly in terms of the marketing, which I’m sort of that end of it now, I guess, there was a lot that I had learnt. And I’m also finding there’s a lot that I still do need to learn about getting the book out to the people that you want it to reach.

Allison

Okay. So is there a lot of research involved in that? Are you finding that you’re having relearn, or learn, a whole different facet of publishing that you hadn’t really thought about before?

Pamela

Yes. So I have learned a lot. I’ve done some investigation and some reading and some looking up stuff online. I’ve also spoken to a lot of author friends who have done the indie thing themselves.

And as you know, Al, the online, not just the online, but the actual in person Australian writing community is very supportive and very helpful. And all those great connections that I’ve made through the first four books that I’ve published traditionally have been really good in making connections with different people who are more than willing to help. So it’s been really good to be able to call on some of those people when I just go, ah! I don’t know what to do at this point!

Allison

Yeah, I mean I guess, like the power of networking as far as when it comes to this kind of stuff is finding people who know what you don’t know, finding people who are willing to help you promote or get the word out about your books. Is that something that, like have you ever actively thought about that as a strategy? Or is that just a natural thing that’s occurred over the course of your career?

Pamela

Look, I think it’s just really occurred naturally. Like I’ve been writing, a part of the Australian writing community now since 2012, or 2011 I guess, in the published sense. And probably for about eight years prior to that in various writing groups and things. So I have met loads of people over the times, I’ve been to lots of RWA conferences.

And I think there is just this willingness there that when people have a book out or they have any sort of publication or anything like that out, everybody is more than happy to support each other and to help each other promote their work. You know, put it up on Facebook, put it on Instagram, talk about it on social media, do blog posts, that sort of thing. I think it’s just, yeah, sort of happened fairly naturally.

And I’ve been really appreciative with this book, particularly, because when you are indie, of course you’re doing all that side of it yourself, as well as getting it ready for publication. So it’s been really great to have that support.

Allison

So what are some of the ways in which you have promoted your books? Has it been something that you… Like, did you start two months out from when the book was due? And did you have a plan in mind as to what you were going to do and that kind of stuff? Or has it been more of a piecemeal, ad hoc thing with your… Because you have the podcast, you’re obviously active on Facebook, Twitter, and things like that. I guess the question is, are you doing more now than you had to before?

Pamela

Yes. I am doing more. And I did start, it was probably about six weeks before publication for this one. Because it was going to, it was coming out after it had been uploaded onto the platform. And I had advice to say don’t do any publication until you put the cover up and don’t put the cover up until it’s actually out on Amazon for pre-order and all that sort of thing.

Allison

Right.

Pamela

So I had a fairly intense window of pre-publication promotion. And that was great. In that time, I did manage to get some print copies, I sent those to pretty much all my writer friends who were great and put it up on social media.

I’ve printed off little cards and bookmarks and things. Every time I’ve sent a book out, I’ve put that in there and with the links for reviews. And it’s been lovely. I’ve been getting some really great reviews. Not just from friends, either! From book reviewers, from bloggers, and from people who have read the book.

I’m selling it through my website. So people are able to buy it on there.

Allison

Which is? What is your website?

Pamela

Which is PamelaCook.com.au.

Allison

Excellent.

Pamela

So signed copies available there. And yeah. It’s just been, it’s been really interesting to use the information and the knowledge, I guess, that I had already had about promotion, but also then to expand on that and to look for other ways of getting it out there. Because if readers don’t know about the book, they can’t buy it. And when it’s not, you know, all my previous books had been available in the chain stores. So you know, mainly through Big W, Target, that sort of thing.

Allison

Yep.

Pamela

This one isn’t. So it’s a matter of letting readers know where it is available and trying to make sure they’ve got all the information to be able to purchase it.

Allison

So do you have a newsletter that you’ve been working on for a couple of years, in the sense of being able to contact those readers directly as well?

Pamela

Yeah. I do. And I have to say, I’ve never been very good at building up that whole emailing list thing. But that’s now certainly a priority. So I do have a newsletter that people can sign up to on my website. And I’ve got to do a little bit more work on that side of things as well.

Allison

Okay. And as far as when it comes to indie publishing and stuff like that, are there traditional media opportunities for you as well? Have you sent out media releases? I mean, I’m just thinking about all the different things that a publisher does as far as getting your book out there. And all the different things that you can do yourself. Is it the kind of thing where you’ve really got to actually sit down and create yourself a marketing plan?

Pamela

Yeah. Yeah, you do. And I have a friend who is a writer and also a publicist. So I’ve been working with her. So I’ve basically hired her to help me with this, which has been great. And she has a lot of connections that I don’t have. So I have done a few radio interviews, for instance. I’ve got another one tomorrow which actually came up via a contact on Instagram.

Allison

Right. Cool.

Pamela

So that’s where I’m finding that things like social media often you get opportunities that you’re not expecting.

Allison

Yes.

Pamela

You know, people will get in touch when they see you’ve got a new book out and say, oh, would you like to be on this show or this podcast? Or would you like to do something for my blog? So I have had some of those opportunities, which has been really great.

There is the other side, I guess, where you’ve got to be very careful that the whole self-publishing stigma, I guess, is still around to some extent.

Allison

Right. Yep.

Pamela

Yeah.

Allison

So you have found that? Because a lot of people that I’ve talked to with regards to indie publishing will say that that’s definitely much less than it used to be.

Pamela

I think it is much less. And I think there’s certainly a lot of online places where it doesn’t matter if you’re traditional or indie. I think in traditional bookstores there’s still a little bit of a thing, you know. I went into a local bookstore and as soon as I, I could see that the change in expression as soon as I mentioned the word ‘indie published’.

Allison

Right.

Pamela

They did still take a few copies. But, and look I get it. There’s lots of books out there. They don’t have much shelf space. But I do think that having had that four books already traditionally published has been to my advantage as well. Because people, a lot of booksellers do know me. At least, they’ve sold my previous books. So that has been a great advantage.

Allison

All right, so you mentioned that you’re working on a new novel. Given how busy… No, wait a minute. Before I get to that, I want to talk to you about your podcast. How long have you been doing your Writes for Women podcast? And why did you start that?

Pamela

Yeah. Writes for Women probably started a couple of years ago and it came basically out of a conversation between Kel, my co-host, and myself, where Kel was a new writer, she’s working on her second book now, but at the time working on her first book. She knew that I had written a number of books and was published. And so she used to, you know, we’d have conversations about writing. And inevitably get onto conversations about women. It was around the time that Trump had just been elected. So there was, you know, a lot of stuff in the media about feminism and women’s voices.

And Kel was very familiar with podcasting and said, hey, we should do a podcast on women’s voices in writing. I had never listened to a podcast at that point, I have to say.

Allison

Not even my podcast, Pamela! Come on!

Pamela

Oh sorry, Al. I think I had. I think I might have listened to that one. But you know, I wasn’t a podcast aficionado, like Kel was. And yeah, in my usual manner I just went, yeah, why not?

So we started just doing recordings. And now we’re sort of at the point we’ve just launched a new website. And we’re getting contacted by publishers to have their authors on the program. And we’ve really, it’s taken us a while, but we’ve sort of really narrowed down what we’re all about. And it’s been great to actually spend part of your working week speaking to other writers about their process and about their books. Yeah, it’s going really well.

Allison

So how do you think that that has impacted on your writing career? Because there’s kind of two strains to that in the sense that it’s created a platform for you, in a different kind of way to what your books do or what your website might do or what your social media might do. So there’s that aspect of it. And the thing for me that I find incredibly… The reason that I turn up every week with this thing is basically that I get to talk to people! I get to talk to authors. And I get to find out more about, you know, how different people do things and ask all my questions that I always have.

And so I find it incredibly inspirational and motivational for myself, from that perspective. Is that what it has done for you? Because the flipside of that, of course, is that it takes a huge amount of time, which I would also put out there, does take a huge amount of time.

So there’s always that aspect. You’ve got to weight up all of those things. And do you find that it has impacted your writing career in positive ways, negative ways? Like, how has it worked for you?

Pamela

Yeah. Definitely in positive ways, as you say, in terms of the people that you connect with. Just the joy of speaking about writing and recording it and being able to put it out there and being part of that whole writing community. I think it’s extended my network of writers. It’s definitely given me another platform, I guess, to talk about my own book as part of that, and my own writing.

In terms of juggling the time, I’m not very good at time management. It’s always been my, one of my worst sort of… Ugh. But it is forcing me now, particularly now that I’m doing the indie thing, and now I’m not just the writer and the editor and the reviser, but I’m the publisher and the marketer and all that sort of thing as well. So I have to now really narrow down how much time I spend on things.

Allison

Yes.

Pamela

And yeah, it’s been really good in that, you know, lately we have been doing a recording a week or sometimes even more, for the podcast. And I try and read the books before I speak to each writer. So that takes up a lot of time. So it’s actually really forcing me to schedule my time more. I’ve bought myself a white board.

Allison

Oh look at you!

Pamela

I’ve got everything written on the whiteboard.

Allison

A whiteboard!

Pamela

So it’s actually been good for me that way. Yeah. It’s forced me to become a better time manager.

Allison

All right. Well, okay, let’s talk about that. Because given how busy you are with all of the things, you are writing a novel. How do you fit the writing in? Like where do you put that on your whiteboard, shall we say?

Pamela

Yeah. I don’t think that’s actually made it to the white board yet.

Allison

Oh no! Put it on the whiteboard! It’s the priority, remember?

Pamela

I know! It’s gotta get on the whiteboard.

I’m trying to drag myself out of bed earlier each morning. I used to be a morning person when I was younger, but that has changed.

Allison

Right.

Pamela

And I’m a bit more of a night owl. But I can’t write at night, either, cos I just find my brain is too dead. So I am trying to drag myself out of bed earlier and to use a couple of hours in that… When I say earlier, I’m only talking like six. I know some people do get up at 4am. And I wish I was one of them.

But yeah, to try and get up and at least get the words done before I launch into the podcast or whatever else I’ve got to do for the day, or the marketing or the research.

So yeah, trying to get the words out of the way. Because I am in the drafting stage for this new book. And making sure that they’re done is a priority before moving on to the rest. Because at the end of the day, the writing of the books is the most important thing.

Allison

Okay. So the million dollar question, I guess, is having experienced both traditional and indie publishing, is indie publishing something that you would do again? Or will do again?

Pamela

Um… Look, the jury is out a little bit. I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t do it, because it’s still fairly early days. Certainly in terms of putting the book together and getting it out, I would definitely do it again.

Allison

Yeah.

Pamela

I’m now finding that the whole letting people know about it, the marketing side of it, is a lot more difficult than I probably anticipated.

Allison

Right.

Pamela

Even though I did have a lot of those skills already. But it’s also, you know, I’m always about learning and finding new ways of doing things. So I am learning a lot. And if I ever did go back to traditional publishing, I know I could then transfer some of things that I’ve learned back into that world.

Allison

Definitely.

Pamela

So you know, a lot of authors now are hybrid. They sort of have both traditional and indie books. And I think that could be where I end up sitting.

Allison

Okay. Cool. All right, we’re gonna finish up today. Obviously, people can visit PamelaCook.com.au and buy Cross My Heart and all your other books and check out all your various bits and pieces that you have there. But we are going to finish up today with your top three tips for writers. What have you got for us, Pamela Cook?

Pamela

Mm. Okay. Well, definitely my first tip would be to remember that the writing and the revision are two separate things and use two different parts of your brain. If you are in draft mode, just concentrate, as you do during Nano, on getting the words down so that at the end of the month or at the end of the period that you’re doing your draft in, you actually have something to work with. And don’t worry too much about the ins and outs and being perfect at that point. Put that editor’s hat on later, when you’re in revision stage.

Allison

Yep.

Pamela

So that would be my first tip, I guess.

Second tip would be to just always have something ready to write down an idea. Like, I use my phone a lot now, and I know this is a common tip, but it’s so true. I never can remember something later. I’ll often think, oh, that’s a great little idea for a story. Or I could put that into my story, the current one I’m writing. It’s gone by the time I get home. So either use your voice recorder on your phone or your notes in your phone and just write it down, even if it’s in abbreviated form.

And the other one is I think to be part of the writing world is to actually connect with other writers. I’m in a writing group which I love. I’ve been in a writing group now for about 14 years and absolutely love it. I go to conferences, I talk to other writers, I meet other writers. And you get so much inspiration, so much support and so much help from them that I think it’s definitely a great thing to be doing.

Allison

Definitely. All right, that’s brilliant. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Pamela. Best of luck with your new book and your new role as an indie publisher. And we look forward to seeing where it all goes and what happens next.

Pamela

Thanks, Al. Great to talk to you.


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