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New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby glorybee » Mon Aug 26, 2013 8:05 am

Last week, Graham won a little contest that I sponsored in this forum, and he chose a critique of a Writing Challenge entry as his prize. He has graciously offered to make this critique public, so that you all could benefit from reading it, too. Thanks, Graham!

Here's a link to his story, Dead or Alive. I'd recommend that you read it from the link first, and try to find some strengths and weaknesses. What would you say about it, if you were to give it a detailed critique? Then come back here and read what I had to say to Graham.

Afterward, I'd love to read any reactions you have. Since a critique is largely a matter of opinion, there will surely be places where your critique differs from mine. Graham has already seen this, and we've corresponded genially about some areas where we disagree. Since Graham is willing--let's dissect this piece!

Dead or Alive

It was no more than a faint noise; distant, soft, almost unheard. The semicolon in the first sentence should be a dash. Semicolons should be used to separate two independent clauses. But Eli knew that noise and had no doubt about its meaning. The enemy were approaching.

The slow whine would increase in tempo and be replaced by a faint beat; another semicolon—this one should be a comma like small I generally think less is more for adjectives. In this case, you probably don’t need ‘small’, marching feet in the distance. Next would come a swishing sound beating at the air; delete semicolon until the wings of a thousand demons were pounding the air like base bass drums. If prayer failed, all would be replaced by clanging swords, buzzing arrows and thudding battle axes; use a dash here to indicate a sudden change in the direction of the sentence not to speak of the screams and moans of the wounded.

A small whine, I added a comma here but a very large army approaching, put thoughts in italics thought Eli as he cast a fervent look at the angel beside him; replace semicolon with period "Have they even started to pray?"

"I changed single quotes to double No! They're too busy arguing about raptures and tribulations."

"What? Are you saying...?"

"Eli, their end time theology is nonexistent."

"And they have no idea of what's coming their way?"

"None whatsoever!"

"Mercy. Are they going to get pummelled! Come on; replace semicolon with dash we'd better get a move on."

Quickly the two angels ran from the church car park and headed up town. They had to pay someone a visit.

"Do you think she'll make a difference, Eli?"

"Bound to. This old darling is regarded as too old and feeble in the head. But she'll stop them fighting and start them praying."

"But will the church members take any notice of her?"

"If they don't, I added a comma here then I pity them. This lady is nothing but pure fire when it comes to fighting for the Lord. She's the one who told them to hold tonight's prayer meeting; replace semicolon with comma but then took sick and couldn't get there herself."

As they approached the house, I added a comma here the soft I wouldn’t use ‘soft’ here. One adjective is enough, and ‘soft’ generally has a positive connotation , distant whine of the approaching enemy was overshadowed by a low chant; replace semicolon with comma just audible and coming from the house.

"She's praying."

"Didn't expect anything else." Eli crept to a window and peeked in. "Yep. Sick or not, she's on her knees and talking. Come on."

As the two angels entered Granny May's parlor, the old lady paused, lifted her head, cocked one ear towards the ceiling and her voice took on an excited edge; replace semicolon with period "They're here, Father. I just felt 'em walk in. I know they're here."

She paused to listen before replying; "Yes sir, Lord. If You say so."

Another slight pause before; My choice would be to delete ‘before’ and put a period after ‘pause.’ "Lord, it don't matter how I feel; this semicolon is correct if they'll support me I'll walk between 'em."

As she tried to rise from her knees, she fell face first and would have crashed to the floor, delete comma if four strong hands had not quickly caught her arms and lifted her.

Supported on either side, she headed for the church.

As she stumbled through the front doors, eyes quickly turned and folks jumped to their feet in concern.

"Granny," cried one young lady, "You you shouldn't be up and about."

"Granny May," called a man from the front, "let me get someone to take you home."

"Now you all listen up and listen good. While you're all here debatin' and fussin' about what's acomin', well, what's acomin' is almost here. Don't you realise the Pharisees and Sadducees made exactly the same mistake. Before they could finish debatin' if He was the Messiah or not, darn me if they hadn' up and killed Him. Don't think it'll be any different this time. If you don't want to miss what's acomin', well then, you best get out of your head and onto your knees." It’s apparent from your spelling and some of your usages (‘car park’ instead of ‘parking lot,’ for example), that you’re a UK writer. Yet Granny May appears to have a rural or Southern US accent. If you’re going to place her in the US, use US English in the rest of the piece. Alternatively, give her a rural (English? Aussie?) dialect.

Everyone looked at Granny with stunned silence as she let both barrels fly. "Stop fussin' 'n' fightin' with each other and start fightin' the enemy. Spiritual warfare means just that. Spirits, both good and evil, are gunna gonna fight for your souls today. And the good'ns are going to need your prayers. Demons 're real and you can either fight 'em off with prayer or spend eternity conversin' with 'em later."

Then, before their very eyes, Granny May simply disappeared as the front doors burst open and a young man came running in; replace semicolon with period "I've got bad news. We just called by Granny May's place. She's dead! We found her lying on the parlor rug."

Those that were there looked blankly at each other before the pastor spoke; replace semicolon with period "I think we had better all pray."

The rest of the critique will cover the judges’ criteria when rating a challenge entry.

1. HOW WELL DID IT FIT THE TOPIC? While ‘whining’ was mentioned more than once, it wasn’t absolutely essential to the story. Nevertheless, it added important imagery to the story. I’d give this a 3.5 (out of a possible 5).

2. HOW CREATIVE UNIQUE, AND FRESH WAS THIS ENTRY? HOW MEMORABLE? Stories about spiritual warfare are not uncommon. However, this one had some creative twists (Granny May’s surprise death, for example). I’d give this a score in the 3.8 – 4.2 range.

3. HOW WELL CRAFTED WAS THIS ENTRY (overall crafting of the writing, including grammar and predictability)? Although there were frequent semicolon errors and a few other mechanical issues, the writing held my interest all the way through. It was well-plotted, and the characterization of Granny May was top-notch. Pacing was good. You have varied sentence and paragraph structures, giving the story a nice sense of flow. 4.5

4. DID IT START WELL? The beginning paragraphs were among the strongest here, with superb imagery leading up to the introduction of your angel characters, letting your readers know exactly what sort of story we can expect. You’ve started out with conflict, one of the essential elements of a good short story. 5.

5. DID IT COME TO A SATISFYING CONCLUSION? The surprise twist (Granny’s death) is outstanding. I think the last sentence is a bit of an anticlimax after that (blank looks, the pastor’s rather bland pronouncement). I’d suggest ending as it began—with strong sensory images. Perhaps the sounds of the congregation falling to their knees, the wings of thousands of angels rushing in, something like that. I’d give this a score in the low 4 range.

6. DID IT HAVE A CLEAR POINT OR MESSAGE? Absolutely, and it was achieved without being overly wordy or preachifying. Granny’s one longish speech gets the point across, but it’s written in an entertaining fashion. 5.

7. DID IT FLOW SMOOTHLY FROM START TO FINISH (no detours or rough bits)? Yes. From the first sentence, the story marches onward, with its changes of scenery (heaven, Granny’s house, the church) seamlessly achieved. 5.

8. HOW PUBLISHABLE IS THIS ENTRY FOR ITS TARGET AUDIENCE? The target audience for this story is mature Christians who are interested in this genre (spiritual warfare, end times). Some people in this audience may feel that this story is quite similar to others they have read. People who are newer to this genre will certainly be enthralled. The death of Granny is a great twist; to earn a higher score, one more unique idea would be needed. 4.2

9. HOW WELL DID IT CONNECT WITH OR INVOLVE THE READER? No problems with this criterion. 5.

So--now that you've read the story and the critique, do you have any reactions? Are there places where you disagree with me? Anything I've said that you don't understand? Let's talk.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby Mike Newman » Mon Aug 26, 2013 8:47 am

Thank you Jan and Graham for sharing that critique. It is very helpful to see how the writing is reviewed using the ratings sheet as well.

My one question is about the second recommended dash, in the line "If prayer failed, all would be replaced ...". Would the dash be the ideal construction in your opinion Jan, or better to use a period and form the latter fragment into a full sentence?

Again, thank you both. This was very helpful to me.


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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby glorybee » Mon Aug 26, 2013 8:56 am

MIke, this is one of those areas where personal style really comes into play, and where it's apparent that writing is more art than science. My preference is to use the dash, because the 'not to mention' part of the sentence really is an abrupt change from the beginning part of the sentence.

Nevertheless, there could be several correct ways of writing this sentence.

If prayer failed, all would be replaced by clanging swords, buzzing arrows and thudding battle axes--not to speak of the screams and moans of the wounded.

If prayer failed, all would be replaced by clanging swords, buzzing arrows and thudding battle axes. The screams and moans of the wounded would fill the air.

If prayer failed, all would be replaced by clanging swords, buzzing arrows, thudding battle axes, and the screams and moans of the wounded.
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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby JayDavidKing » Mon Aug 26, 2013 6:51 pm

Would this entry have fit the topic better if the church people had been "whining about theology instead of praying about reality"? Granny could have made a statement like that in her long speech. Or would that have been no more effective than the whining sound?

I agree this story had a lot of positives going for it. It was mostly the punctuation and sentence structure that distracted me

Overall, though, I would read Graham's work again--,...; eagerly.

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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby RachelM » Mon Aug 26, 2013 7:15 pm

Thank you for this lesson, Jan! And thank you Graham for being willing to share it here. I've only entered the challenge four times, but I really didn't know why some of my entries did well and others didn't. It was helpful to see you go through the criteria point by point. Next time I enter, I'll go through this list first to see if I can improve my entry.
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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby glorybee » Mon Aug 26, 2013 7:15 pm

JayDavidKing wrote:Would this entry have fit the topic better if the church people had been "whining about theology instead of praying about reality"? Granny could have made a statement like that in her long speech. Or would that have been no more effective than the whining sound?


That's a good question, because being 'on topic' is one of the trickiest things for challenge writers to get right. Some tend to hit the topic really hard, practically mentioning it in every sentence. Others seem to force it into a story that they already had in mind, just in an effort to be on topic. Graham did neither of those things, by the way--his story was certainly on topic and not forced. The score that I would have given him, had I been judging, was not a horribly low score.

When I was writing for the challenge, I always tried to write a story which would have been impossible to write without the topic word, but that wasn't about the topic word. It would be essential to the story, but not necessarily the star of the story.

Let's apply that as a test to Graham's story. In my opinion, this story could have been written and essentially unchanged without the whining. The sound of the demon horde could have been expressed any number of ways. Having the congregation do some whining of their own--maybe with a synonym for 'whine'--might have strengthened the 'on topic-ness.' Incidentally, this was one of the areas where Graham most disagreed with my critique.
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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby glorybee » Mon Aug 26, 2013 7:17 pm

RachelM wrote:Thank you for this lesson, Jan! And thank you Graham for being willing to share it here. I've only entered the challenge four times, but I really didn't know why some of my entries did well and others didn't. It was helpful to see you go through the criteria point by point. Next time I enter, I'll go through this list first to see if I can improve my entry.


You're welcome, Rachel!
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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby Shann » Mon Aug 26, 2013 9:30 pm

First, let me say what a brilliant idea this is! Thank you Graham for being willing to share this with the rest of us. I've always enjoyed your writing and don't think you've ever written anything that I read that didn't touch me. It shows your obedience to the Holy Spirit, and though you don't know how many hearts you touch, I can say with confidence that you've done your job as an author for God!

Also, thank you Jan for doing this. It's helpful to so many people. What a delightful award.

Obviously, by my comment, you can see that I didn't agree with the rating of 5 on the beginning. I think the second paragraph was great, but the first one didn't grab my attention. There were two passive sentences and in today's world, I think you need to have those first two or three lines grab the reader. It's too easy to click on something else. Of course, it's important to balance showing and telling, but in flash fiction you only have a few number of words, so it's important to make everyone count.

Also, you didn't mention it, but the enemy would seem like a singular noun so shouldn't it be the enemy was not were?

Once I got to that second paragraph though, I totally became immersed in the story and didn't even notice the spots with the semi-colons. (Normally that would be something I would see.)

I think the rest of the comments were great and will be quite helpful. The UK differences and being consistent is a great example for people to follow. I am not familiar with UK accents except maybe a Cockney accent, so I didn't pick up on it not being consistent with words like car park, but it is an outstanding point and something everyone can learn from. I have seen other pieces where people slip in and out of the accent so I think it's a great reminder for everyone, not just UK vs US
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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby glorybee » Mon Aug 26, 2013 9:54 pm

Shann, 'enemy' is a collective noun, and can take either 'was' or 'were,' depending on whether the main intent of the sentence is to treat 'enemy' as a unit, or as a group of individuals. It's not clear here, so 'were' seemed perfectly fine to me.

Not every sentence with a 'was' or a 'were' is in passive voice. Passive voice has action done TO the object of the sentence, or switches what would have been the subject of the sentence to the object. Here are a few examples:

Jack threw the ball (active voice).
The ball was thrown by Jack (passive voice).

Here are Graham's two sentences that use forms of 'was:'

It was no more than a faint noise; distant, soft, almost unheard.
The enemy were approaching.

The first is in the passive voice; the second is not. But passive voice is not universally poor writing. In this case, Graham captures the reader's interest by using sensory details; we almost want to lean in to try to hear what's making the noise. His third sentence ("The enemy were approaching") is short, accelerating the pace and introducing conflict.

But as I said in the intro to this piece, critiques are very individual and subjective. Thanks for your encouragement to both Graham and me!
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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Aug 26, 2013 10:33 pm

Jan,

I was going to throw my two cents in on Shann's post, but you beat me to it (which I'm glad of since you are the teacher and I'm just a lurker). I'll post my thoughts anyway since I already wrote them out. You'll notice that whereas you said that Graham's first sentence was passive, I said it wasn't. To be more precise, I should have said that it is an expletive construction, which some people consider to be passive and others consider to be a separate issue. You'll see I did put "voice" in parentheses.

Shann,

I don’t think either of the sentences in the first paragraph are passive. “It was no more than a faint noise . . .” is an expletive construction, not a passive (voice) construction. “The enemy were approaching” uses active voice, but with the direct object truncated/implied, as in “The enemy were approaching Eli.” The auxiliary verb “were” is there because the tense is the past continuous. Passive would be “Eli was being approached by the enemy.”

While it is true that TOO MANY expletive constructions (or passive constructions) are bad in writing, some are good (especially when done deliberately). In particular, expletive constructions have a pretty good pedigree for opening a piece. (Think “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” or even more, the full version: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way– in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby glorybee » Mon Aug 26, 2013 10:42 pm

Thanks, Steve! I always learn something when you post. I've never heard of expletive constructions.

Steve, I'm interested in what your thoughts are about the rest of my critique, if you have a moment.
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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby Dave Walker » Tue Aug 27, 2013 12:04 am

Thank you so much, Jan, for such a clear exposition of what the judges are looking for. It is really helpful and I am rushing to my pending entry to have a re-look!
I am blessed to have Graham as my writing buddy and feel a little guilty that I did not pick up on all those semi-colons. It is always a pleasure to get a sneak preview of what he is writing. With the vast ocean separating us (I'm in Cape Town, he in Oz) we nevertheless have become firm friends. That is what Faithwriters does.

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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby glorybee » Tue Aug 27, 2013 12:19 am

Dave, I have met some of my dearest friends here on FW. Some of them I've also met in real life, and some of them live inside my computer, but they are all dear to me.
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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Aug 27, 2013 1:12 am

When I first read your critique, I thought of 3 things: your number scores, what you said, and what you didn’t say. I know that you know that I graded written assignments for 10 years. However, contests are different, and I have only judged a few contests—maybe 3 or 4 and none at FW’s so take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

As for the number scores: I simply noticed that you are a judge (as I’m assuming you were pretending to be, since you have been one), who is not afraid to give top scores liberally. Now admittedly, Graham’s piece was a strong one, but I still noted that. I assume that is based on significant experience with Challenge and/or other judging.

I also sort of automatically (i.e., when I first read your critique, not just after looked you asked me to look at it) looked at the relative scores across categories, i.e., did I agree or disagree that each one deserved to be ranked equal to, higher than, or lower than the other categories. I did not see anything I disagreed with (with one tiny possible exception—see just below). Interestingly, you have had two points of disagreement with your assessment that we know of: you and Graham over how well it fit the category, and you and Shann over the strength of the opening. In each case, I agree with you (sorry Graham and Shann). I thought the opening was strong not weak, although I MIGHT (but only might) have given it a 4.9 just to put it a TINY tick below categories 6,7, & 9. I also thought “How well did it fit” should be the lowest score. And for exactly the reasons you articulated. I suspect Graham as the writer, THOUGHT “whine” was coming through much more than we as the readers PERCEIVED it to be coming through.

As for what you said: I agreed that all the semi-colons you marked should be changed. However, I would not always have made the same change, a la your response to Mike. Sub-point: some of these changes are required by rule, some are “required”/suggested by taste. But even where I might make a different change, I agree that in each case SOME change would be better than the original.

I won’t comment on other technical corrections that you noted that are obviously correct.

I agree with what you said about thoughts in italics—at least currently and in America.

I agree with what you say about adjectives. And even though this isn’t technically something you said, I also agree (generally or more than generally) with the times you did NOT comment on adjectives. Not ALL adjectives are bad. Without going back through this with a fine-tooth comb, my recollection of my first read of your comments is that I agreed with the times you objected to adjectives and the times you did not. However, I have often told writers to go back through their writing to see whether they needed to be more vicious about adjective and adverb elimination that I had been when giving them feedback.

I probably wouldn’t have made the comment about the accent that you made because 1) I would have assumed that there was some Aussie accent that Graham was trying to imitate and/or 2) I would not expect an Aussie writer writing to an Aussie audience (as I’m guessing Graham thought of himself as doing, even though he was actually writing to an international audience) to adopt American English just because he was giving a character a regional American accent.

Finally, you made one comment that was very important for me. You wrote, “I think the last sentence is a bit of an anticlimax . . . .” When I read that, I thought “Well I didn’t think so.” But when I went back and looked at it, I thought “Wow! Even though it didn’t bother me, I see how it would be re-written to be SO much stronger.” Now, Graham might or might not have had the same reaction I had. Maybe he knew the ending was flat; maybe he didn’t. But the point is different. And here we need to go beyond this example. The point is that talented editors will see things that writers simply can’t see in their own writing. That’s why critiques are so valuable.

As for what you didn’t say: There are lots of things that you often sees in critiques that were absent in your critique: things like words choice issues, paragraph breaks, transitions, etc., etc. Of course, the most obvious reason these things may be missing is because they are not necessary. Looking back at Graham’s entry, I am guessing that this is the reason. In other words, when marking up a piece of writing, a judge/critiquer will sometimes leave some comments off because the judge/critiquer believes the author will be overwhelmed if everything is addressed. Yet on the other hand, things often are not said because, as I noted, they don’t NEED to be addressed. I would say that this is the case in your critique of Graham’s piece. If so, I might have let him know that, e.g., “I saw no problems with, ______, _______, or _____.”

The only other question involving what you didn’t say is whether there are things that SHOULD have been said. I will give you my thoughts since you asked, but others may disagree—they may have seen other things worth commenting on or may believe nothing needed commenting on. Also, my thoughts implicate what KINDS of comments the critiguer thinks is appropriate.

I would have made 2 comments you did not. First, I thought there was one example of what I call “reader fake out.” First Graham wrote, “They're too busy arguing about raptures and tribulations.” Later he wrote, “their end time theology is nonexistent.” Apparently, they were arguing with each other about competing end time theologies, which implies that they had them. Multiple easy fixes come to mind.

Second, Graham wrote this:

Everyone looked at Granny with stunned silence as she let both barrels fly. "Stop fussin' 'n' fightin' with each other and start fightin' the enemy. Spiritual warfare means just that. Spirits, both good and evil, are gunna gonna fight for your souls today. And the good'ns are going to need your prayers. Demons 're real and you can either fight 'em off with prayer or spend eternity conversin' with 'em later."

To me this is will create lots of theological problems for most Christian readers (if Christians (and these folks are painted as Christians, not just church-goers) don’t win a particular spiritual battle (which the reader doesn’t know the nature of), they will end up in Hell). Unless this is Graham’s actual view, I would assume he would not want his readers to come to a grinding theological halt this close to the end of the story. In a critique, I would probably ask the writer whether this is what he meant or whether he should fix it. And now that I think about it, I might lower the score for category 7 because of this. But all of this is just me thinking out loud without knowing what sort of guidance FW judges may be given about situations like this.

So, in sum, I think you nailed the relative strengths and weakness in an already strong piece; you majored on the majors; you gave valuable insights; and a few thoughts of mine might or might not be appropriate.

Now, I hope you will critique my critique of your critique! :D
Steve
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Re: New Writing Lessons--WHAT A CRITIQUE LOOKS LIKE

Postby Shann » Tue Aug 27, 2013 1:33 am

I want to clarify. By no means did I think that the opening was weak. I thought it was quite good. I just would not have given it a 5. I think opening with an active line is more of an attention grabber than a passive one. I also questioned the string of adjectives made it less appealing to me. It's a personal preference and the second paragraph would more than make up for the things I thought could be tweaked a bit. It's hard for me to see so many fives because I feel it is nearly impossible to prefect a piece in less than a week.

I did think he had a strong beginning and would have rated it a 4.5 or so.

Just because I commented on it and gave suggestions that were only my opinion did not in any way mean I thought it was weak.
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