November 30, 2013

Experimental writing

Dear M,

Sometimes we have to write something we are not sure of, not very proud of, which we do not consider our best effort yet, just because those words came to us, and then toss it towards the world to see how it bounces back.

The more experimental or controversial it is, the more are the chances of unfriendly responses. If we consider it nothing more than an experiment, then no words (or reactions) can harm us. We could gauge the readers' behaviour, like a survey result based on a sample. There is so much we can learn from that. After all, we do write for the reader. How we provoke them, how we ignite them, how we soothe them, is our skill. We need to polish our skill, as well as keep testing to see if it is sharp enough. Deliver a bomb once in a while and see the reactions. If you have a blog, it becomes easier to do it.

Every once in a while we need to relax in our writing and forget about achieving perfection. Just let ourselves go with the flow. Write garbage and not worry about editing. Then publish, and let the world pick it to pieces. Snore.


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November 29, 2013


Dear M,

This discussion came up recently. Someone who read my writing (not on this blog) commented that he/she had doubts about my idea of gender equality. I glared and shook my head - I had no idea what she/he meant. Apparently I did not write 'he/she' as much as I should have. Wherever the gender was not specified, I should have used 'she/he'. That's how the world works today, he/she said.

I shrugged. That seemed to me to be the least important thing in the whole exercise of writing. After all, I am a fiction writer. In my stories, the characters are either female or male, generally. (I haven't ventured anywhere else, yet.) In my stories, I don't have to say 'he/she' - it is either a he or a she.

But I knew what made him/her say it. It's true that in most of my non-fiction writing, I do not pay any attention to it. I do believe in equal rights, but saying 'he/she' and making my text look robotic (example, this blog) was certainly not my idea of proving it. When I write, I see the person I am writing about. When I write about a writer or a reader or anyone else, I see someone I know. So automatically what comes to my fingers is a 'he' or a 'she' - because I am writing about a certain person, just as I write in my stories.

Sometimes I do edit the text and make it 'he/she' just to please others. Not always.

I am not quite sure about how grammar rules have evolved, this one probably did stem from the patterns of a male dominated world, but usually the generic 'he' is considered to encompass 'she' as well. Yes, that does sound quite offensive. I understand why he/she flew off the handle. And I should know.

One had no idea what one was getting into.
One had no idea what he was getting into.
One had no idea what he/she was getting into.
One had no idea what they were getting into.

Everyone should remain in his seat.
Everyone should remain in his/her seat.
Everyone should remain in her seat.
Everyone should remain in their seats.

It doesn't seem so bad now that I have written about it and cleared my thoughts. But I think I am going to stick to my preferred style at least in this blog, my own world, because I know very well there is no disrespect intended. Elsewhere, I may have to give due consideration to the sensitivities of the reader.


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November 28, 2013

No class can make you a writer

Dear M,

There are people who think becoming writers is like becoming engineers or doctors. As far as I know, it isn't. As far as I know, there is no Writing College where you can enroll for a four-year course (and there are also folks who believe it is a one-month or a two-day course) and emerge as Writers, and then churn out book after book, just like that.

No school can make you a writer. No crash course can. No four-year diploma can. No YouTube can. These courses can motivate us, inspire us to write, help us meet other writers, teach us about the techniques of famous authors that we can plagiarise, and provide us with the tools to use. They can drive us only that far, maybe as far as a week later, or a month later. After that, we are on our own. After the enthusiasm has died out, if we aren't writing, then we aren't writers. Nothing can inject passion into us if we don't find it ourselves. If there is no passion or dedication, then that's all what we are going to be - a person who attended a course.

When does a writer realise he/she wants to be a writer? In films, passionate and eager teenagers make the announcement that they are going to be writers. As easy as you please. Mujhe writer banna hai... I lost track of the number of times I have heard that dialog. Their parents object to it, but the youngsters' wish will triumph in the end. Yes, they become writers and they churn out best-sellers after best-sellers, just like that. As though they have just finished a four-year course.

Everyone has a different writing curve. I have seen people begin writing when they are fifty, and then write like crazy, churning out book after - yeah you got it. I have seen little girls writing poems, not knowing that they are already poets. I have seen a writer barely finish one novel, when someone just passing by happened to read what she wrote, unedited and raw, and offered her a three-book deal. I have seen writers who have finished five or seven novels and are still wandering in the dark, hoping someone would notice them, hoping that there would be some platform where they can showcase their work and try to grab the attention of someone big and important.

Of all the things you say, Make me a Writer should be the last of them. Those four little words can totally ruin you.


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November 27, 2013

Taking Notes

Dear M,

What do we do when inspiration springs all over the place? Oh no, we do not write with a vengeance until the fountain dries up, we take notes.

Because, (and old sages have said you should never begin a sentence with 'because') we cannot keep up with the pace of our ideas, and we do not have enough time in life to analyse each and see if they are worth exploring. Once you start grabbing ideas that are on their way south for the winter, there is no stopping you.

I used to keep a diary where I would jot down the thoughts that crossed my path. By the time I got to the diary or a piece of paper or even the compose screen in my mobile, I would have forgotten half of those, but I managed to capture (and imprison) many of them. I would feel terrible about the ones that escaped my clutches - they were such ingenious ideas, but what to do, they desired their freedom.

What happens after that is a Shakespearean tragedy (not that I know much of that). The notes, they just remain there. I sometimes visit and try to bring back the emotion behind each, but they don't return. The text does not convey to me or remind me the exact feeling that prompted the note. I remember the incident but the happiness, anger, hope or whatever it was, will be lost forever. I stopped taking notes, except when it is directly related to a story I am writing. About something I could incorporate in the latest MS, and write in detail, so that when I get to it, it is easier to copy even if the feeling behind it is lost. When it is the current manuscript, I could get to it faster than a random story I may (or may not) write in the next century.

So today I don't recommend taking notes. If it is important enough, if it is worth writing, it will come back to us. It has to. If it isn't, no amount of notes are going to help.


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November 26, 2013

A writer is someone who finishes her projects

Dear M,

Among the many challenges of being a writer, a significant one is not knowing which project to focus on. At the beginning of her writing career, the writer is working on one novel, has completed three short stories and has a few ideas for one more novel, etc. There is no confusion as to which one of these to work on. She may stop the novel for a week so that she can finish that short story that has been burning a hole in her head.

But as time passes, and there are more and more unfinished stories and holes in the head, it becomes difficult to decide which to work on. Should I work on that novel which is in first draft, or the new one in my mind? Should I polish the short stories so that I can try to get them published somewhere? Should I start on new projects or edit the old ones? And when do I start querying for my novel #1?

The correct answer is that there is no correct answer. But if you leave your novel #1 unfinished, you will never be able to let go of it. If you start novel #2, you may be tempted to leave it half way through because a third novel idea has started knocking on your door (and it sounds better than the one you are working on!). And short stories have no manners at all. They keep popping all over the place, unmindful of the time of day or the day of the week. How do you manage all these?

A writer is a person who finishes her projects.

Having two hundred and fifty five unfinished stories does not make you a writer. For all I care, they might be unfinished and unwritten and still in your head, and not on paper. Prioritise. Find out how you can finish each, one by one. It could even be possible to edit one MS in the mornings and write the new one in the evenings. I would not say that is a good idea - switching between stories could baffle us - but, whatever works for you.

It is important to finish, if you are serious about the writing. No one - repeat, no one - likes an unfinished manuscript.

And I look at my Folder full of manuscripts in different levels of completion and I repeat, No one likes work that is incomplete.


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November 25, 2013

How Hemingway drives me nuts

Dear M,

I don't understand Hemingway. I hate to confess it (well, who wouldn't?), and I hate myself for not understanding him, but there it is.

I have read The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea and also a few of his short stories. Of course I understand the story, the writing. And I like it. But knowing Hemingway, I know there is more beyond the writing - and that is what I cannot completely decode. When I read other writers, I can perceive the underlying foundation of the story, and afterwards I am able to analyse it and try to study the writing style.

I have tried for long to understand Hemingway. Apart from the fact that he used a writing style that he called the Iceberg Theory, I do not know anything else. It's one thing to understand the theory (it's described quite well in the Wikipedia link I have shared), it is quite another to implement it, or even see how he has implemented it. I really should attend some literature classes just to learn Hemingway.

And yet I have this strange relationship with him that I cannot let him be. If I don't like an author, I usually skip his/her books, or quit thinking about them. But I cannot, in this case. I dislike his writing so much that I want to understand it and find peace once and for all. I like it so much that I want to read more of it. And I am so hungry for knowledge that I want to dissect it and pull it apart and if possible read some of the notes he made so that I know what exactly he is doing. And I am frustrated that I cannot make headway into deciphering him.

Pretty much like that old crush who refuses to leave my thoughts.


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November 24, 2013

The Author's Book or the Book's Author?

Dear M,

The author, these days, is projected larger than the book. With the advent of virtual promotions via the Internet, it is more or less justified; nevertheless, I cannot help but think of a time when the author's Book was more famous than the book's Author.

The man/woman behind the book used to be a mere name. We probably also knew they lived in this or that city. Or maybe they were authors of the past, of whom we knew next to nothing.

What, O. Henry was not his original name? 
Did Jane Austen live in this century or the last? 
Which country did Kafka belong to?

It is easier to admire and adore a person whom we know nothing about. It is easier to call a certain piece of writing as brilliant, when its author exists only as a name, and lives in a different world. It is perfect when the author does not explain his/her writing, when it remains fascinating and incomprehensible. Anything that is to be explained, should be explained by the writing. When the author tries to explain what inspired him/her to write, I saw these two people on the road the other day and I thought I really should write about them, the writing somehow loses its charm. We readers don't want to know. We would like to interpret it in our ways. We would like to read it in a way that our experience has taught us to.

When the author is someone we know, it becomes difficult for enigma to exist in their writing. When we read each story, we see the author behind it, and we unconsciously assume that this could be his/her own story. We try to squeeze the character into the writer's skin. Or we are tempted to ask, What can she know about poverty, she has never lived in such circumstances? How can he write about the Partition, when even his Dad was not born during that era? You know, she has led such a wild life that I am not surprised that her story is all about wild women; must be her own story. When we know the person, we are prejudiced, and are quick to jump to conclusions.

There is another reason why I think the author should not be as famous as the book - the writing might be wonderful for a first attempt, but when the author talks about it (as he/she inevitably will, as fame demands), it might sound arrogant, she/he might appear unlikeable, and the little attention that the book had received might be destroyed. (As we have seen in a few recent cases.) The author as a person might not be the epitome of grace. His personal lack of charm should not stand in the way of his excellent writing. We often say that the character that an actor has portrayed is brilliant, but in real life the actor is a jerk. Something like that - just because the writing is exceptional does not mean the author should receive a Nobel Peace Prize.

Hence I believe it is the writing that should be appreciated before the person behind it, even though it is the person who wrote it. The book should be more famous than the author, if it is any good.

Incidentally this is my 100-th post, and a major milestone in the life of this blog.


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November 23, 2013

The other point of view

Dear M,

As writers, our greatest gift is our ability to see the other's point of view. If we cannot, we would not make good story-tellers.

There is always another side to every story. When we are able to bring it out, it adds a touch of beauty to the tale. It also makes the reader contemplate - and make her think of the possible other sides to her own story. When we write about the life of an insignificant person, the reader could think of a similar person in her own life, who exists without anyone giving him even a moment's thought, and maybe the next time she looks at the man, she would see him differently.

That's why some writers say that they write to make a difference. There are so many lives around us that we barely notice, or spend any thought on. We take them for granted without even knowing it. We expect them to do things because it is their duty, and if they fail to, we go mad. They all have stories too, they have families and friends, they too like a drink in the evening, or they listen to songs, they might have a Facebook profile - they all deserve a moment's thought, if that's the least we can do. If our story makes our reader smile at someone or do an act of kindness, then isn't that wonderful?

We could always look for the other's perspective - and after a while, it becomes a habit. The beggar by the roadside, the security guard who opens the gate at our apartment, the delivery boy from the hotel, the woman who sweeps the office floors every morning, the man who cleans up the garbage, the cab driver, the sleeping dog you pass every day on your way out.

We all see (and forget) so many lives, we see (and forget) so many stories. We could make a difference (at least in our own lives) if we see the other point of view.


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November 22, 2013

Everyone has a story.

Dear M,

Not only do we write about people we dislike (and put them inside our story so that we can murder them) to exorcise the hatred-devil from inside us,


but we also write about people we know - either we know so well that we run a risk of writing passionately and the reader will immediately know who we're talking about or we try to make up stories and wrap our characters around them.

Then there are others who inspire us. I wrote about it in this post. Every day I find someone new who makes me wonder, what might their story be? Everyone has a story, of course. The only difference is that some of those stories are not tragic or comic or breathtaking or intriguing enough for us to want to put it into paper, and for others to read.

I have this habit of writing next to the window. Yesterday this little girl - she must be five or six years old - came out of her house, stood near my window, looked around and assuming that she was alone, began to take off her clothes. I was too astonished to do anything. Her attention was on the door of her house from where her mother or grandmother might emerge at any moment. She was unaware that anyone was watching her. All the other kids of the neighbourhood were at school; I know what they would have done to her, had they seen her. Before I could rise from my seat and guide her slowly back to her house, someone called her and she ran back inside. I have been observing her for a few months now. She does not play with other children. When they are all at school, she goes out and enjoys nature and even screams to her heart's content, and slinks back inside when it is time for the flock to return. She is not invited to birthday parties, because no one remembers her. I don't know what her story is, but I am sure there is one. And the selfish, callous writer is already cooking up a few pages of it.

We can find stories everywhere. There is a young man whom I see a couple of times a week. We don't exchange more than a 'Hi' and sometimes a 'Thank you', or a curt nod or a trace of a smile to acknowledge each other. I am sure he has a story too. Maybe he doesn't but the young man in my pages does.

Not a day passes by without me telling myself, the incident I just witnessed should be included somewhere in my story. Not a day passes by without at least one story making its appearance before my eyes and tempting me.


*(Image taken from the Internet / Social Media)

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November 21, 2013

If you're an artist, your rudeness is excusable

Dear M,

Apart from the fact that we can take revenge on people through our writing, writers have one more advantage. (A writer's life is pretty much miserable most of the time, though outsiders assume otherwise, but these are the little joys we can count on.)

Again, this is applicable to all creative artists.

In general, non-writers (by that I mean people who are not mad about writing as the rest of us) consider writers a slightly-disoriented, absent-minded, genius-type lot, bordering dangerously on insanity, and can be excused for their unfathomable (or embarrassing) gestures and speech. (The kind of kurta-wearing, cloth-bag-carrying, hair-in-disarray, spectacled genius scientists that we get to see in movies.) I hardly think it's true these days when every second person is a writer. Writers and thinkers have become fab-looking and fashionable too. However I believe this old-school assumption gives us an advantage. We could be mysterious, forgetful and annoying when we please - we have a real valid excuse. In fact, we can be just rude and walk away talking to ourselves, and we could almost hear them murmuring to themselves, "oh, these writer types!"

The spouse forgives the writer's weird unbearable behaviour and action for the same reason. After all, writers have to be a little eccentric so that they can produce something worthwhile for us to read.

Yes, that is a safe bank that we can rest on, when we make mistakes. They live in their own world, our friends think, that they cannot be bothered with the mundane priorities of this world. If you look gloomy and do not interact with others during a party, they will attribute it to the failure to find an exciting climax for your story (that's how heroes in films behave when they cannot find a climax - and the best misery that writer-heroes face is a failed climax).

Your lapses are forgiven if you are a writer. People will shake their heads and tell themselves, Poor thing, he/she is a writer. It happens.


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November 20, 2013

The Creative Revenge!

Dear M,

Life (or the World or Nature - or all of it) isn't fair. It just refuses to let us be and continues to toss unfairness at us. But as writers we are a lucky lot.

There are people who see each day as a punishment, and are seething inside, but are unable to do anything about it because they are bound by norms or rules or practices or other weird rules humans go by. But writers (and other creative artists) have a ready tool at their disposal to take care of such situations.

We all know that secretly we always write about people we know. We pretend to be creating characters from sand, developing them from nothing, etc. But what we do not confess (unless the character is a real hero) is that most of our characters originate from someone we know. There is a tinge of them somewhere that we alone can spot (and if someone else spots it you say, Well, whaddya know! I never noticed the similarity).

When our rage or extreme emotions threaten to overwhelm us, we creative folks have that outlet that no one else has. An angry man may go hack the man he's mad at or shower him with curses or damage his precious things or destroy his family or set his house on fire. We do it in our story (or painting, or music). Oh yes, we do. We destroy the man, his family, his life, his precious things, his thoughts, his very character itself. And we find peace in it (and even chuckle about it). That's revenge too - without a drop of blood being shed or property destroyed. It's our own cathartic experience.


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November 19, 2013

The truest sentence

Dear M,

Creativity has to come from within. You cannot force it into existence. When you say writing from the heart, that's what you mean. If you try to write something that isn't yours or that didn't originate in your heart or wasn't your own experience, in other words if it was planted there, the difference is out there for all to see, that the writer probably doesn't even believe in the theme.

I believe that's what Ernest Hemingway meant when he said Write the truest sentence that you know. If not, I haven't yet figured out what it means.

Many years ago (about three-four years ago, but feels like a couple of centuries!), I participated in a short story contest. There was a theme. And there was a deadline. So I cooked up a story, used my imagination to fit the characters and the plot into the theme, and wrote something that had a beginning, and an end, and a plot, and a flow, and everything. I thought it looked good, so I submitted it. Needless to say, it didn't come anywhere close to getting selected.

Today I know what the problem with the story was. It did not come to me from within. I tried to create something by force, twist it into a shape that the theme demanded, limit the creativity to a timeframe, and... to cut a long narration short, the whole driving force (and purpose) behind my short story writing was fake. It wasn't me, it didn't come from me. I wouldn't know the difference, but the reader would (and evidently did).

We could do the theme-based writing, as an exercise, to test ourselves, to see where we go, to know what we could come up with, to explore how far we can stretch ourselves, to get a feel of our limits and to experience how we can expand upon a thought. Or just for fun.

But as far as serious writing goes, it should emerge from us, if it is to be any good.


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November 18, 2013

After the first draft

Dear M,

We think our first draft is everything. We tell ourselves that if we get there, if we just get there, dammit.

What happens after the first draft? Everything. First Draft is a release of all pent-up feelings. All emotions we wanted to get rid of. All words we ever wanted to say. The romance, the rage, the fear, the agony, the ecstasy - getting it all out of the way. First Draft is delivered without thinking. It's all about letting the heart find its way, while the brain waits by the side for its turn.

After the first draft, the brain takes over (or has to). The heart has had its say. Now it is time to see if it is any good, if it can be salvaged, if it can be chipped and patched and broken into pieces and glued together. Time to snip the meaningless banter off the text. In other words, a major chunk of the work happens after the First Draft.

The author of the work has myopia (or something) - he/she cannot see the manuscript from the outside. He/she still thinks it is the best work, the best and only way the story can be told. But this, in most cases, is not true. There will be a lot of modifications that can be done, so that the story is presented in a beautiful way.

The best thing to do after the First Draft is to take a break. Typically three to four weeks (or upto six weeks). Just enough to forget all that you have written. The break would also help to brace yourself for what is coming. It is essential to approach the story afresh. Almost like a new reader, though the author can never be a new reader of his/her own work. Things - errors, issues, mismatches, discrepancies of all kinds - begin to pop out of the story. The same old story that you thought was an embodiment of perfection!

Thus begins some back-breaking work. And the end of this modification? No one knows. It could go on and on. There would always be one sentence to slice or shorten or rephrase, or a verb to change to something more appropriate. After we do about a million rounds ourselves, comes the editor's level of editing. Harsh, merciless snipping, rewriting. About ten percent of the text is assumed to be removed during editing. Because nothing short of perfect can dream of getting published.


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November 17, 2013

The First Draft

Dear M,

When we start writing, we only have one goal in sight. Finish the first draft. We don't think much about what the first draft is, or how we know we've reached when we get there.

"First draft" is indeed a vague phrase. It means different things to different people. For some, it means that the skeleton of the story is written in one place. Prior to writing, we would have made notes all over the house, on the ground, on the walls, on paper, on sand, everywhere. Gathering them all up and joining them into a readable (or vaguely understandable) format and splitting them into chapters and adding connecting scenes between them makes it a first draft. What we need now is the fleshing out.

For others, the work is not in first draft until we finish the skeleton, then flesh out the characters and the plot, and connect all the dots, run a basic check for ambiguities, etc. Different writers see the first draft in different ways. But when we are racing towards the chequered flag, we don't pause to define what the flag is all about. Hit it running is the only aim. After all, it doesn't matter which definition of first draft is correct. The first draft is only a milestone; it is by no means the end. It is where you pause, take a long break, throw the effort to one side and look around. Then again, we have to return to back-breaking work, perfecting the draft.

The first draft is the easiest part of the business, contrary to popular belief. It only involves writing. Just writing non-stop, without thinking more than necessary. It's after the first draft that the tough part comes. Sometimes it involves rewriting the whole manuscript, ploughing the manuscript up and making changes wherever needed.

But when we start writing, we do not bother about any of these. (If we do, we will not be able to start.) We do not bother about the skeleton or the flesh. Nor about the plot or the character development. Nor about the editing or the ploughing. We just write, our eyes on the goal - the end of the First Draft.


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November 16, 2013

NaNoWriMo - half-way

Dear M,

Yesterday NaNoWriMo crossed the half-way mark. Though I am not participating this time I could not help thinking of the thousands who are. Many must have made it across the 25K. Many might not have. But the motto and the spirit behind NaNoWriMo is that every word counts. Whatever you achieve in this month is a reward. So many new novelists are made in November, every year. I have heard of several who have gone on to complete their novel, then edited, polished and published it. I have also heard of those who gave up after a while and then never returned to those unfinished books.

NaNoWriMo is a learning, an experience, an adventure. For writers cooped up with their creation within four walls, it is an outdoor experience, a picnic with writers from across the world - through the Internet.

Here's to successful completion of NaNoWriMo to all those writers out there, going mad and excited and frustrated and jubilant over their stories!


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November 15, 2013


Dear M,

He was a person who lived his life to the fullest.

I don't know why I dislike this phrase so much. Maybe because it implies that the rest of the world does not know how to live life to the fullest and they live it by the quarter or in fractions. So whatever they have achieved in life is worthless? (Makes me feel guilty that I am living it in bits and pieces at the moment.) A person who lives life to the fullest gets to do what he wants, is that it? Others who have family and career pressures or money issues or such, cannot live to the fullest? This person has certain privileges that others don't? You know what it is leading to, right?

Or maybe I dislike it because I have heard it so much. It's one of those overused phrases people use in stories when they want to describe this man. (The author of the story is evidently in love with this person-who-knows-to-live-life-to-the-fullest.)

That's what clichés do. They do not let you focus on the story, they make you squirm over a simple, single, small, overused phrase lying around. In support of the cliché, I would say this: in most cases, they are so apt and precise, that if we use them, we don't have to go looking for other methods to explain our thought to our reader. (But at the risk of having our reader groan at the phrase.)

Writing guides are quick to point out that clichés should be avoided at all costs. "Avoid them like the plague." (Heard that one? Yeah, it's an overused joke.)

But the truth is that we all have to go that route if we are to get rid of them. If we haven't used any cliché in our life, how will we know how not to use them? We have to cross that bridge first. We have to use them, overuse them and then get tired of them. That's when originality kicks in.

I am, once again, talking about normal people, of course.


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November 14, 2013

The Pram in the Hallway

Dear M,

Surely you have heard the controversial comment: "The pram in the hallway is an enemy of good art". Unkind as it is to the baby, I like to (as usual) believe that there is more to it that the reference to the pram.

Mothers would agree that working on creativity when there is a baby demanding your attention can be challenging as well as frustrating, because you do not get the time to spend on your work as much you would like to, and when the burst of creativity surges in, you cannot leave your child and attend to it. You will have to store it in your head and let it out later.

I know many writers (who are not Moms) who do not have the luxury of writing when they want to. They have to devote their attention to other very important things - as demanding as a crying infant - and squeeze time between these to attend to their passion. Illness (their own as well as that of their spouses or parents or siblings), taking care of aged parents, a 24 X 7 profession, a job that requires them to travel back and forth almost every day, are just some of them. Those are the prams in their hallway. So the phrase is not strictly limited to mothers.

I don't say that the pram (or its metaphorical reference to other demands of life) is an enemy of good art. It probably does keep the artist away from his work. But in a way, it contributes to his creativity. It helps him to think. If he is always bent over his work, he loses the wider view. He needs to step back and think, once in a while. He might not do it on his own. When the pram demands his attention, he has to take a break. The issues in his life might make their way into his book because he is writing about people who face and tackle difficult situations, not about the ones who are luxuriously locked up in their rooms writing, sleeping and eating all the time. Let's face it: it's the pain that brings out the best artist in you.

The pram in the hallway is not an enemy of good art, instead it is actually a stimulant for creativity.
That's what I like to believe, anyway.


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November 13, 2013

Is every writer a poet as well?

Dear M,

You may not agree with the suggestion. Every writer need not be a poet in the strict sense of the word. The thought occurred to me because many of my social media writer friends write poems.

They don't make a big deal of it - when they write a chapter or finish a book or sign a contract, there will be champagne flowing (and a lot of yelling and screaming) all over my Facebook wall or Twitter TL but when it comes to poems or haiku, they just drop it on the timeline casually. Like something unimportant. As though they just typed it down on their way to get the newspaper in the morning - in all likelihood, that's what they did. Jotted down the words as they came to them. Some write on their blogs; even when they are secretive and protective like a fierce tiger mom about their novels, the poems just flow free around the Internet, uncontrolled and unsupervised. I doubt if anyone (least of all themselves) keeps track of all the haiku they have been dropping all over the place.

However, this does not justify the title of this post. There is a subtler meaning to it. Many writers, when they write prose, make it appear like poetry. Now look at how I wrote that - it sounds almost vulgar. They make it appear like poetry, indeed. I should have known to phrase it better. What I meant is that, they know how to make the text flow, in ripples and waves, in a tide or as a storm, in a gentle gush or like a ravaging sea, and burst upon us like a destructive cyclone. (Phew)

Yes, writers of prose know how to write poetry into their fiction. In that sense, every writer is essentially a poet.


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November 12, 2013

To have confidence - and to show it

Dear M,

As very new writers, we tend to be apologetic about our writing. That needs a little explanation, methinks. People who start writing early in their lives may not have experienced this, but those who recognise writing as their calling in adult life, or those who start writing just because they found themselves a new website, feel a certain lack of confidence in their words. They apologise for their first blog post, for their first poem, for their first short story and for their first article.

Even when they don't, we can feel it in their writing - a fear, a sense of looking around to make sure no one is watching while they sneak out. It will pass, as we know so well, and the writer becomes confident with each passing word.

But unless we write because someone is paying us per word, we don't have to explain our writing to anyone. It's our world, to create as we wish. We don't have to make excuses for not being a writer, for this being our first effort, for feeling this new love for words.

Every reader can sense that lack of confidence. In fiction, it would stand out powerfully between the lines, and that alone can diminish the beauty of the story. Write with the belief that if I say it is so, then it is so. Our reader may know better, maybe he/she will want to correct us, but if he/she feels that we write from our heart without fear, then he/she will respect us for it. And it will not matter if we are wrong, because we have the confidence to correct ourselves.

Have faith in your words, in what emerges from your heart. We will gain confidence in ourselves only if we keep on doing what we love doing.


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November 11, 2013

The road to publishing

Dear M,

I recently saw an update on one of those social networks. A person who has just completed a book (or will complete soon) is looking for publishers and wants to begin discussions with them.

Like the wrinkled old woman in the story who laughs at the naïve, arrogant, optimistic and pretty young woman, I guffawed quite a bit at this. But I hate to kill anyone's enthusiasm so I did not respond, and walked away whistling (as much whistling and walking away as the Internet permitted me to do).

Seriously, as aspiring newbies, we expect publishers to line up before us and we only need to choose the best from among them. No, that's an unkind way of putting it. Everyone knows that publishing is tough business. But we do half-expect that the publisher will see our book as the next big thing. And we do think that things are going to sail smooth and in the next two months, we will have a book to show. Even when we read everywhere that these publishers get a thousand manuscripts a day, we still believe ours will stand out (and possibly shoot a Cupid's arrow). Even when we read that brilliant authors have had only a hundred rejections, we still believe ours will not have to go through the torture.

It is the boundless optimism (as well as ignorance) of the new writer that actually serves as the initial push to take the plunge. Once he begins to read up on different publishers he would realise that we need to approach them, and they are not hiding behind our gate for a glimpse of the next best-selling author. Then once he lists out all the possible publishers and agents that he is going to blow over, he would realise that querying is as tough a job as completing a novel. And that, even for some kind of a response to come, it could take up to six months. Rejection letters sometimes come after a year.

As time passes the optimism wears thin, until it is a shadow of its former gigantic, towering self, and that's when the test really begins. That's when you know for sure if this is what you want to do for the rest of your life.

I cannot say all this to a new author putting up enthusiastic updates on social media, and I will not. Even if I do, he is not going to believe me (Thank God). He will have to find out for himself and then decide how to put his knowledge to good use. And if he is really the genius he believes he is, then he would not have to know any of this either.


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November 10, 2013

The existential question

Dear M,

I am back to the existential question that bothers each one of us, in different ways, at one point or the other. The one question that changes forms with each individual but exists nonetheless in all minds.

Some wonder, Why were we born, some ask, What is the purpose of my existence, some wonder without knowing what they are wondering about, some ask Why so, and some, Why not. Each one finds their own solutions; openings to jump through to the other side.

As for me, I ask time and again, Why do I write? Why do I want to write? Why this desperate need? If I look around, I wonder the same about others. Why do they write so much on their blogs? Why do they take pictures and post them online? Why write stories for the world to see? Why demonstrate their poetry skills? Why does everyone want to share their talents?

First of all, I don't think it is bad - but the Why evades me. I read a lot of blogs, articles, poems, short stories, travelogues, everything. I know why I read them. It is I who benefits from the efforts of the bloggers, writers, authors, poets, photographers. What do they get? Why this urge to share?

If I ask myself this question about this blog - what do I hope to achieve from this? My answer is very clear. The purpose behind this blog is a very selfish one. I am writing to myself. I am trying to sift through the junk in my mind and pull out only what's necessary. I need clarity. When I put it to paper (or blog, as the case may be!) it becomes more vivid. If a few others read it as well, it is a bonus. Discussions are certainly enriching, but that's not why I started writing.

If we think about it, isn't that what everyone else is doing? Their efforts, their pictures, notes, are all expressions of themselves. We create to give an outlet to our creativity.

I have not found my answer yet. I would have to revisit these questions again and again. Why do we write? Why do we wish to share it with the world?
And while we are on the topic, why in the world are we alive at all?


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November 9, 2013

Star Signs and Character Development

Dear M,

Star Signs was the topic that came up a few days ago when I was chatting with friends. Inevitably, the conversation turned funny and interesting, as we compared the "pre-defined" star sign characteristics of each of us to our own behavioural patterns.

As I had mentioned once before, character development is one topic (among a million others) that has always intrigued and baffled me. So any new thought that arises around this would excite me immensely. I found that reading up on star signs was a good place to look for defining our characters. Look at these words that I scrounged from one of those sites:
natural leaders
love challenges
cool, calm, collected

And so far I have reached only three star signs. Imagine the cluster of characters hiding inside each of those. Chip and fine tune and polish each one of them and insert them into your story. I think it would be a good exercise to create a person of each star sign just for fun.

Meanwhile, I came across this article which claims that each character of Gone with the Wind is moulded specifically from a star sign, because the author was an astrologer... okay, forget about the true or false of it all, and just read it for the heck of it. And think intriguing thoughts about character development.


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November 8, 2013

What's your genre?

Dear M,

What genre do you write in?

Many of my writer friends have clarity in what they want to write - such clarity that makes me jealous.
I am a fantasy writer.
Mine is Sci-Fi.
Oh, me? I read and write romance.

I had no idea about the genre I would want to write in - thriller? I didn't think I could thrill anyone. Horror? Ugh, it will sound like comedy. Comedy? People will cry. Fantasy? Hmm. Perhaps a touch of it here and there. Science fiction? Same. Romance? Naaaaaaah. No way. Literary fiction? Gulp. The safest bet was to call my story contemporary fiction. Neither here nor there. Perfect.

They say you should write the story you would love reading. If it were only that simple. It's like trying to steer the bicycle for the first time. We know where we want it to go, but that bicycle doesn't. It decides to go where its fancy takes it. We cling to the handle bar for dear life and try to turn it this way and that, and to keep it steady, but the dude has his own mind and makes decisions on his own. (And lo and behold, we find ourselves on our a$$, on the ground.)

That's what happened. I tried to write the story I would have wanted to read, something inspired by a story I enjoyed reading, a novel that made me think, this is the kind of story I like. Yes, that's what I want to write. Then it began to steer me.

I had absolutely no idea where we were headed, the story and I. And we ended up in a place that was not exactly the destination I had in mind. And yet, I did not find myself on the ground either. I guess somewhere along the way, I learned to keep my balance. (But my genre is still contemporary fiction, until I learn to steer closer to one of the other solid ones, without crashing to the ground.)

I think we should try our hand at every genre, at least those of us who aren't sure of ourselves yet. A little experimenting never hurts. For one thing, it will show us clearly which ones we are good at. For another, (I believe) we can observe a curious phenomenon: when we try Sci Fi, we will end up writing a lot of fantasy as well. When we try Romance, we introduce a touch of fantasy into it. When we write thrillers and adventure stories, there will be a bit of fantasy here and there. The inclination towards fantasy will not escape us, if we are observant enough. And voilà - that's our genre.


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November 7, 2013

Just keep writing

Dear M,

In one of those meanderings across the Web, I came across the review of a book. This book (though I have not read it yet) had been highly acclaimed, much awaited, and since the author had literary genes and hereditary associations of some kind with the fictional world, it was a best-seller before it hit the shops.

I remember reading rave reviews a few years ago. I had forgotten about it somewhere along the way, otherwise I would certainly have put my hands on it.

In the review I read yesterday, the blogger has thrashed it in the simplest and most straightforward way possible, that I buckled under its force.
I didn't like it. I was disappointed. It is trash.

Thank God it ain't my book, was my first response. I mean, so what was all that hype about then? But of course, as we already know, someone will always like what we write, and many will always hate our style. Now this review has done two things - it has reminded me of this book and it has made me want to come to a conclusion myself. (Let's just say that there were certain words thrown around in the review which added to my curiosity). I am sure I will be picking it up sooner rather than later.

Now to J.K. Rowling. In the now-famous piece of history, J. K. Rowling suffered a setback when she tried to publish her new novel under a pseudonym and was rejected by pretty much everyone she had approached. Eventually she confessed to her own agent and that's how the rest of it became history.

What's the lesson and what am I trying to say here? (This is what happens when you force yourself to write and over-write every damn day. I am losing track of thoughts.) I think the point is that we aren't perfect, none of us.

Or maybe the point is that the writing is the journey and that success is relative. (I told you I am exhausted.)

Or maybe the point is that... there is no such thing as the Perfect Writing - which looks adorable in everyone's eyes. Maybe we don't have to worry about how far we are yet to go or to learn, to become good writers (or good at anything, for that matter.) What's important is that we keep trying. We keep writing. We keep finding satisfaction in every word we write. Everything else can go to hell for all we care. We write about people, but we could stop caring about what people think.


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November 6, 2013

Writing Scenes into the Novel

Dear M,

Sometimes stories come to us in bits and pieces, and not in a continuous flow. I have experienced it in the case of short stories as well as novels. Perhaps because we are too involved in the story or obsessed with it, everything we come across in life reminds us of our story. We are constantly processing how to incorporate a new development in life into our fictional world.

I write these scenes down as soon as I get some clarity on them. Sometimes it takes days for the scene to polish itself. I keep changing the text, either in my mind or in paper. (It is so easy to lose the phrases from the mind than from paper!) Most often, it's the dialogs that come to me. The better we know our characters the sharper their dialogs become - because we know how they are going to react. The person who meets his ex-lover who has ditched him for a better man, for instance. We know he isn't going to explode or anything. He's a sad, pathetic little being anyway. The initial scene had too many dialogs. Then I snipped and scraped and scratched and struck out many lines, and it became concise and precise, just enough to reveal who he was, who she was, how things had happened, why they happened as they did.

I like writing scenes like that, out of the blue. I haven't yet written what comes before that, I haven't ventured into what's next. But this scene, I take my time to write it in. I wrote one complete novel that way. I knew its ending scene, then a few scenes before that, then a few at the start, etc. I did not pause to think, I kept writing these scenes into their respective chapters as per my original notes so that the order was maintained. Finally when all the dots were connected, I read them from start to make sure that the continuity was not lost. Of course there were jerks and abrupt transitions where these scenes were stitched in. The next step was to iron them out.

You don't have to believe everything I say. Every author (at least the ones I have seen so far) likes what they write, every author believes their own method is the best, every author praises his own style, even if his/her writing is nowhere near good.


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November 5, 2013

Reading, Writing and Webpage Ranking

Dear M,

We can learn different things from different books. Our mind is tuned like an antenna towards the right signals. But since we do not know which the right signals are, we receive everything and then we have to process it.

A few thoughts arise from this.

The first is about a novel I am reading. It is almost as though I am learning from a text book. There are so many lessons in it. It is a story, but my antenna is tuned to these literary lessons embedded in it - on character development, show-not-tell, premise, the touch of superstition and fantasy, the convincing narration, plot development. Speaking of plot, I have read up to page 90 of the 500 page book. But I still do not know what the plot is, where the story is headed. The title does not reveal anything, and there is no blurb anywhere. So I am plodding on, hoping that the theme will make its appearance soon. So far I have been introduced to plenty of characters with very vivid descriptions and idiosyncrasies. I do not know which of them are important to the story, and how many will vanish after introduction. Maybe their purpose was just to introduce us to someone else or to set the premise or to move the story forward. But I am not bored yet, and I plan to continue reading until I am either bored or I figure out where all this will end up.

The second thought is that, poor writing influences us as much as good writing does. Our antenna pulls those in too. And unknowingly we imbibe that style. We need to be open to all kinds of writing, because there is a lesson in each - the lesson from poor writing will be that I can write better than this. This is not how it could have been written. I could make these changes and make it look better.

Yet another thought is about Alexa ranking. Surprised? Let me explain. Every blogger is concerned about his/her page rank. Everyone reads up on how to improve their rank. There is something I have read over and over again: if your website is linked to from higher ranking sites, the better are your chances of improving your ranking. If poor sites link to you, it could even cause you harm. I may have put it in a crude way and SEO experts will tell you more about it, but this is the general idea. Apply it to reading. If we read good books, our writing would certainly improve. If we read poorly written, poorly edited, poorly presented books, they would pull our own style down.

If we think about books we have read in our teenage, we would barely remember anything about the writing. We remember the story, a little something about the characters or perhaps only the protagonist, a vague scene of greenery or desert or rocky mountains. But the writing? Character development? Very little or none. As time passed, and we began to try our hand at writing, we became conscious of these, the tools used by other writers.

We're constantly learning.


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November 4, 2013

"What's past is Prologue" - W. Shakespeare

Dear M,

My novel begins with a one-page prologue.

In its first draft form, there was no prologue, the story began from Chapter 1. Of course, in that form, it was as bare and empty as a skeleton. It took about a year (or more?) to get it into some shape. When I began expanding the story, I figured that a bit of backstory would be ideal. So I inserted it into the prologue. It looked good to me, and whatever looks good at first sight makes me suspicious. So I began to read up more on prologues.

The first advice I read was, Do not use prologues. So I closed the article and did not read any more. Because, try as I may, I could not find a way to remove my prologue. It could not be worked into the story. It could not be made Chapter 1. It could not be deleted. The novel could survive without any prologue, but it seemed clearer with a little light thrown into it at the start.

(Read up on the title of this post here.)

Now, after polishing the novel to its final gleam, I revisited the prologue. This time I was more open to reading about them and assessing their necessity. I knew I wasn't going to remove it from my story, but it was time to understand its purpose better.

This time I saw that the advice I had read and closed was not complete, there was more to it. It said, Do not use prologues for certain reasons. Here is one article that explains the purpose of the Prologue.

Do not use a prologue if it can be worked into the story, or if it is not needed, or if it can be renamed as Chapter 1. Most of all, do not use an excerpt from the novel as the Prologue.

I also Googled a bit on whether it is a good idea to send the Prologue to the publisher or agent when we query. Though there were several opinions for and against, most of the writers seemed to agree that it was better to send the prologue with the sample chapters. I agree, the Prologue is our first chapter, in a sense. It is the first thing that the reader reads. If the publisher or the agent finds it redundant, we could just drop it.

Write with the assumption that our story does not need a Prologue. But if something comes up that cannot fit in anywhere else, probably it could become the Prologue.


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November 3, 2013

The opening line

Dear M,

The opening lines of a book must catch a reader's attention.

In any book, the first line is the most important one. That one line decides whether the reader wishes to read on, or toss the book away. It must be gripping, it must be simple, it must make the reader wonder. It must make the reader go on to the next line, and then to the next. Writing the opening line is an art in itself.

Apparently many authors spend more time on their opening lines than on the rest of their novel. So we can guess it is not an easy task. One of the opening lines I remember from a long time ago is,
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. 
Yes, the famous line from Rebecca.

And from more recent times, from One Hundred Years of Solitude:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. 

There is enough stuff in it to make us ask one hundred questions.

If you Google for "opening lines of novels", you can find several more famous opening lines and even tips on how to write a good first line. (I hope the opening line of this blog caught your attention!)

Here is a list of some of the famous first lines from books.

These lines look easy, effortless and quickly written, without any hardwork behind them. The authors alone know the hours and effort and number of crumpled sheets of paper that went behind each.

Sometimes these opening lines come to us at the start of our writing, when we project the story we're about to write. We know how it is going to begin. We do not know yet if it is a great opening line. It looks good and we go from there. At other times, the opening line we write is lousy. We don't waste time on it at that instant. We just concentrate on finishing the first draft. Once we connect the dots, we could come back. We know now how the story progresses, we know how the theme emerges. We know what we're saying.

The opening line could contain everything about the story in a few words. Or it could just be specific to the opening scene.

I am an invisible man.
See? It is everything the story is about. And there is enough to invoke curiosity, and make the reader wonder, to make the reader read on.

We, the authors, alone know what the opening line of our story can be. There are no rules we can follow or formulae we can implement to arrive at the perfect one. We have to keep writing many, discarding many, until we arrive at one that could possibly catch a third person's eye.


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November 2, 2013

Listen to the inner voice

Dear M,

Since we are on the topic of editing, I thought there's one thing we should touch upon. I did briefly talk about it when we spoke of the different aspects of editing, but this deserves special mention and a dedicated blog post.

The editor who reads our story is first and foremost a reader. Not just any ordinary reader. A more focussed reader, a reader who has read a lot of books, a reader who has tried to analyse books and a reader who knows what writing is. Her opinions count, even when we feel that she has been unfair or unkind or even that 'she did not seem to have understood my exceptional piece of prose.' If she hasn't understood it, then it is unlikely that any other reader would.

Having said that, the editor is one among many readers - the way she sees it is not the way another reader would see it. Some of her suggestions on the text may be valid, some may not. For instance, she may say that 'this particular paragraph contrasts sharply with what has been mentioned earlier. Make changes so that this matches with that.' Maybe we have a specific reason for bringing in that ambiguity, maybe we intend to explain it much further, later in the story. But the point remains that she had not caught it. So the takeaway from her comment is that our explanation isn't thorough. We need to make a change, but not necessarily the way she has proposed. Sometimes she may make a grammatical suggestion. Our sentence is grammatically correct, but she has come up with a better or different or more popular way of saying it.

As the author of the brilliant new novel in the block, we own our writing. What we write and what changes we make is up to us. The editor can make only suggestions. Of course, she will also point out glaring errors that we should scamper to correct. But when she makes suggestions on certain points, we are the ones who decide how the change should be made. We could decide that the grammatically correct sentence of ours would stay.

When we get feedback from our editor, it is essential to go through them with an open mind. We expect our story to be beyond all criticism, but I doubt if even the most accomplished writers have attained that level. They too depend on their editors to point out things that have escaped their eyes. So it is quite natural for our editors to come back with a lot of comments. Over time, as we perfect our writing, the comments may wear thin and the mistakes we make in our first draft may reduce.

When the feedback arrives, go through them in our own time, and analyse each, ask ourselves if the comment is valid or can be safely ignored. Listen to our inner voice. Ask it again and again. After we decide the change that has to be made, run it by the editor. Hear what she thinks. The chances are high that once we explain the need to retain what we had written or the change that we plan to make, she would stand by our decision.

Push pride to one side. Pride does not get us a masterpiece, only our openness to correct ourselves will.


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November 1, 2013

If you think you should rewrite it, you should.

Dear M,

After we finish our first draft, or while we are writing it, we get a feeling that certain areas need to be re-visited later. We mark them for future reference. And when we come back to rewrite and polish the draft, we try to pay more attention to these areas. As we continue to edit, we discover other areas where paragraphs of text need to be rewritten or moved from a certain page and inserted elsewhere where it would be more appropriate.

All this is easier said than done. We know the backbreaking effort that went into getting the first draft to be worthy of being called a first draft. Now looking at all the two hundred or three hundred pages of it, having to rewrite some of them seems almost revolting.

We still trudge forward, sifting through the junk and the brilliance of our words, modifying, rewriting, removing, improving.

Yesterday, I completed one round of editing on my MS that brings me as close as possible to the final version (which means, I am hoping that my editor would not bring up any more discrepancies in the story!). My editor had left a couple of comments for me to improve the plot - she had raised a few questions. It struck me that her comments had zoomed into focus the very passages that I had noticed during my last edit. I had hovered for long over those, wondering if I should change them, pull them up from here and place them elsewhere. That would involve a lot of work - and I said to myself that it was okay, the text could survive where it was (I really was tired of editing the whole damn story a million times). And what happened? The editor noticed it as soon as she read it, and made her observation on it.

The point here is, as an author if you feel some change is required, then a change certainly needs to be done. We convey more than we think, and our uncertainty in those passages would come through to the reader, as clear as daylight. If I had done those changes in the last edit, I would not have had to visit those passages again. I changed them now, and also rewrote some others that I noticed. I hope there are no more left and that I can throw this MS away once and for all. Looking at the same story again and again and again is exhausting, boring and disgusting too (especially when it is our own), believe me. Better rewrite and polish as much as possible before we let another pair of eyes fall on it.


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