February 20 – 26: “How long does it take you to write a book?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5How long does it take you to write a book? Why do some stories flow so much faster than others? These are the questions posed this week to ITW Members Karen Harper, Jean Harrington, David Alexander, Heidi Renee Mason, Winter Austin, Paul D. Marks, Adrian Magson, Susan Fleet, A.J. Kerns and Ronnie Allen.

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David Alexander began writing early in life and began writing uncoaxed and spontaneously. His fledgling appearance in print dates to a sonnet published in a New York City daily newspaper when David was in elementary school in Brooklyn. Between then and today, he has written and published in virtually every literary category, including novels, novelettes, short fiction, poetry, essays and film scripts. He received his early education via the New York City public school system. He later attended Columbia University in New York City and Sorbonne University in Paris, France.

 

Winter Austin perpetually answers the question: “were you born in the winter?” with a flat “nope.” Having recently changed her address back near her hometown, Winter has stepped into the chaotic world of a full-time wife, mom, author, and employee. With her ability to verbally spin a vivid and detailed story, Winter has translated that into writing deadly romantic thrillers. Combining her love of all things rural, agricultural, and military, she’s turned her small town life upside down.

 

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning noir mystery-thriller White Heat. His story Howling at the Moon (EQMM 11/14) was short-listed for both the 2015 Anthony and Macavity Awards, and came in #7 in Ellery Queen’s Reader’s Poll Award. Midwest Review calls Vortex, Paul’s noir novella, “…a nonstop staccato action noir.” Deserted Cities of the Heart appears in Akashic’s St. Louis Noir. And Ghosts of Bunker Hill is in the December, 2016 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

 

Heidi Renee Mason is a passionate romance novelist and crafter of your next happily ever after. She loves listening to the voices in her head (from her characters, of course!) and creating worlds in which her readers can lose themselves for a little while. A native of the Midwest, Heidi now resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and three daughters.

 

Writing advertising copy for Reed & Barton, Silversmiths, was Jean Harrington’s first job, and she claims she has the spoons to prove it. Then for 17 years, she taught English literature at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts.  After moving to Naples, she began dreaming of murder—and the award winning, tongue-in-cheek Murders by Design Series is the result. Currently working on a new series, Jean is up to her knees in dead bodies and loving every minute of it.

 

yemenArthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). His award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Diversion Books, Inc. NY, NY published his espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract, and the sequel, The African Contract. The third in the series, The Yemen Contract, was released in June 2016.

 

Karen Harper is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of over 50 novels. Besides suspense, she also writes historical novels about real British women. A former high school and Ohio State University English instructor, Harper and her husband divide their time between South Florida and Central Ohio.

 

 

Hailed by the Daily Mail as “a classic crime star in the making”, Adrian Magson is the author of 21 books, the latest of which is The Bid (Midnight Ink), published on January 8, 2017. This the second book in a new series featuring investigators Ruth Gonzales and Andy Vaslik, after The Locker—Jan 2016—”Magson takes the suburban thriller overseas and gives it a good twist. Readers ……will happily get lost in the nightmare presented here.” (Booklist Reviews)

 

Ronnie Allen in a NYC native, relocated to rural central Fla. 8 years ago. She was a teacher for the NYC Dept. of Educ. for 33 years. In addition, she has a background in psychology and parapsychology. Aries is the second book in The Sign behind The Crime Series.

 

 

For many years, Susan Fleet was a successful freelance trumpeter in the Boston area. While teaching at Brown University and Berklee College of Music she began writing crime thrillers. In 2001 she moved to New Orleans, the primary setting for her Frank Renzi series. Premier Book Awards named her first novel, Absolution, Best Mystery-Thriller of 2009. Natalie’s Revenge was Feathered Quill Book Awards Best Mystery-Thriller of 2014. Susan’s other passion is promoting talented female musicians. While teaching at Berklee, she created a course about female musicians, jazz and classical. Her book Women Who Dared spotlights violinist Maud Powell and trumpeter Edna White. Susan writes about true crime on her blog: DARK DEEDS: Serial killers, stalkers and domestic homicides.

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39 Comments
  1. Of course, the same kind of book can take different length of time to write just depending on how it flows. Some rip along and some don’t.

    Since I write in two genres, I’ve found I have different demands for each. My historical novels take a lot more research than do my contemporary suspense novels, although those take background reading too. That adds about 2 months more for my historicals–usually 6 – 8 months for a historical and 4 – 6 for a suspense novel.

    And the ‘real’ world certain plays a part in how long writing takes. One thing I hope we can discuss this week is how to stay disciplined in writing through various ‘outside’ demands and problems.

  2. From my original “what if” conception to publication, my crime thrillers usually take about a year. NOPD Homicide Detective Frank Renzi is my series protagonist. Now that I’ve written the seventh book, Natalie’s Dilemma, Frank’s character is a dream to write. We’re best buddies!

    But for each book I invent new villains, the more complex the better. To do this, I create a psychological profile and a biography. Much of it may not appear in the book, but I need to understand my bad guys, and in the case of

    1. Hi Susan, talking about the bad-girl, I write female psychopathic killers, and those who have a very prominent ‘why.’ Readers of thrillers want to see that, as you know. I write very extensive character profiles too. In my first book, the reader knows the killer, Barbara Montgomery has to meet her demise in the end, and she does. In the second book, I wanted a killer so traumatized in childhood, even though Barbara was too, but I wanted with AriellaRose Larcon in Aries, that the reader would beg me not to kill her. And I didn’t, she’s hospitalized now, not fit to stand trial. I’m thinking of bringing her back in book 5. Those profiles help us in the writing process greatly.

  3. The concise answer is between 4-6 months. In truth, the 4 refers to when the first lump of the story is down on paper, and the 6 is when it’s ready to go off to my agent and publisher. In between tends to be a grey area. What it doesn’t include is the pre-writing time taken thinking about it, rejecting plots, ideas and scenes and generally driving myself – and those around me – crazy with the fear of ‘what the hell do I do if this is just a load of poop’
    Fortunately, I’ve always been okay working to deadlines, so the great driver is knowing that in the end, I’d better stop whistling and get it done.
    The flow of the story depends on how quickly the story and characters come alive in my head. This might sound odd to non-writers, but all it takes for me is a character (or two) who really hit the page running and a plot that has a strong direction to go with. After that it’s research, write and re-write. And more of the same until done.

  4. How long does it take me to write a novel? Between six months and twenty-five years. Seriously, each novel of the Hayden Stone series took me from six to eight months of writing and rewriting time to arrive at a manuscript for the publisher. The thriller I’m working on now I started about a year and a half ago and should have completed six months ago if it hadn’t been for multiple distractions. What is maddening is I know where the story is going and how it’s going to end. I just have to make the time to write 1000 words a day. Once seated, the story flows.
    Oh, the twenty-five year project: it’s my first novel and I’ve been working on it all these years. Crossing my fingers my agent can sell it.

    1. Arthur, I like your style! Six months? Twenty years? Who’s counting!
      But seriously, I can relate to the distractions. I’m in the midst of moving. Purging and packing, you know the drill. Very difficult to focus on writing. And then there’s the snow shoveling and scraping ice off my car …

  5. How long does it take me to write a book? Well, that depends on the story, so I guess I’m answering both questions here as one.

    A book that’s part of a series tends to flow together faster than a stand alone. No surprise there: In a series, the central character, his appearance, background, flaws, assets, interests, loves, hates are already established in the first book. The setting, too, is familiar to author and reader alike and doesn’t have to be rebuilt one restaurant, one building, one street at a time. The same can also be said for other aspects of the plot; the era, the ancillary characters, the tone—whether tongue-in-cheek, ironic, menacing, etc.

    With all that as a given, for me writing a series novel can take several months or even, if life interferes, about a year. Don’t gasp! For some, that may be a slow rate of production, but it serves me just fine. I write every day, usually mornings when the Muse is rested. This pace allows for ample revision time. And revision, the “re-seeing” the work with fresh eyes is, to me, critical to a story’s success, and that’s what I aim for in my current Murders by Design Series and in the upcoming Listed and Lethal Series. This second series features a realtor as amateur sleuth and asks, “What happens when a hot property meets a cold corpse.”

    1. That’s one thing I’m learning–writing a series is different from doing a series of stand alones that are not linked. I usually write stand alones, so that is like reinventing the wheel each time. However, I’ve done a 6-book Elizabethan mystery series and am writing a contemporary suspense series now–and I find, even if I keep good notes–I’m slowed down by (1) being careful not to repeat plots (2) keeping all the characters and details straight. Also, my series are set in various places, and that takes research for each book. In short, I guess good writing, series or not, takes time and each has its own perks and problems.

  6. Susan, I love the bad-girl-going-straight character angle. Am working on one at the moment! It’s such fun–for the writer–to include the character flaws (sins the nuns who taught me would have said)and then knock them down like bowling pins. Of course, sometimes the pins stand up to attack, and that can be even more fun for reader and writer alike.

    1. Hi Jean, yes, Natalie is one of my favorite characters. She appears in three books in the series. When Natalie was 10, her mother was murdered. Natalie wanted revenge! It took her 20 years, but she finally got it. But by then I couldn’t bear to lock her up.

  7. This question is so relevant to me because I’ve been asked it so many times. I’m glad this is a topic and I’m able to participate. My timelines for novel completion vary. I’ll give you the timeline for Gemini the first book in The Sign Behind the Crime series that I started in October 2011. Even in my screen writing days in the 80s to mid 90s, the thought of writing a novel was in my mind. In the mid 90s I began a journey into holistic health, and a 15 year career in nonfiction writing began. Being bored mentally in rural Central Florida in 2011 brought up that urge to write that novel that was sitting on the back of my mind all these years. Of course I got the usual responses when I told people I want to write a novel. The most common one was, “Yeah you and a million other people.”
    When someone tells me something is impossible, I always say, ‘try me.’ I write poolside, and every time this particular fellow would see me, he would ask me, “What are you up to now?” I’ll tell you, that was a motivating force. It was every day through the completion of a Gemini. In August 2012 I met my wonderful writer’s chapter of RWA. I received the knowledge, the coaching, the critique support, so that Gemini was completed May 2013 and it was pitched at RWA nationals in July 2013. Yes I got three rejections from agent and editor requests, but because I met them at a conference, I received feedback in their letters. I had POV issues. Rather than continue to submit the same manuscript, I mastered POV, rewrote and resubmitted to just a few more publishers. Gemini was contracted May 2014 and was released in June 2015.

    Now, Aries was a different scenario. I started writing Aries before I received the contract on Gemini. I wasn’t even aware that it was going to become a series yet. I’m a big believer in research. Gemini and Aries are heavy in forensics, police procedure, psychiatry, the psychopathic mind. A good portion of my time is spent on research. I plotted Aries for a good five months before I even started typing. It has a different forensic psychiatrist lead as well as other different characters. The forensic psychiatrist in Gemini comes in as a consultant in Aries, actually show the reader where he is at in the present. Because I plotted Aries so well, the 122k word manuscript flowed out of me in 3 months 10 days. When the Aries elements came out, I thought of the series tagline. My tagline was The Mind Behind The Crime because I write psychological thrillers. With Aries, it became The Sign Behind The Crime. I approached my publisher, they loved it and ran with it.

    I’ll talk about the timeline for Scorpio in another response because this is relevant to the second part of the discussion, what slows down the process?

  8. It used to be, I could write an 80+K book in about 6-7 months. Then reality and teenagers with lofty goals of showing livestock animals set in, so I had to return to the workforce. Working full time has rearranged my writing schedule and lengthened my time to write a book. It’s going to take nearly a year to write the current book I’m working on. However, I’m also pushing my boundaries and attempting to write a second book at the same time—at a much slower pace than the other, as the second isn’t contracted and the first is. It’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out for me.

    As to why some flow faster than others? I actually don’t know if I’ve had a difference in flow with any particular story. There are points in the writing process—acts if you will—where the ideas are stronger and the characters are really pushing me to write as fast as I can. These are typically the high action, suspenseful, climatic scenes. Then there are scenes where it feels like every line, every word is being dragged out of me. If I force the process, or put my characters in a situation I want, it never turns out well, and I end up ditching the whole thing.

  9. For me, writing a book is a multi-layered process. A lot of thought goes into characters and plots long before I ever write a word. I work many things through in my mind before I commit a word to paper. Once I move to the second phase, the plotting phase, I take these characters and ideas and begin a chapter by chapter outline (which for me, is always handwritten). The outline is very loose and constantly changing, but it’s a springboard for the ideas to begin flowing. After the outline is complete, I begin typing the actual story. This is the part where my creativity takes over. The characters begin talking to me, and it’s like watching a movie play in my head. At this point, I’m really listening to my characters and trying to bring their stories to light.

    As far as a time frame, it usually takes me around four months to complete the first draft of my novels. At that point, it is sent off to my publisher and the real work, the editing phase, begins.

    Obviously some stories come more easily to me than others. I feel that the more closely I understand my characters and their motives and feelings, the easier the story flows. For instance, the most recent book I completed (which will be released later in 2017) was difficult for me. The character is younger than I am, she’s from a big city, and her personality is quite different than mine. It took me a little more work to get into her head, and I had to revise the story several times. My other characters have been similar to me in age and lifestyle, so they flowed a little more easily.

  10. How long does it take me to write a book? It varies. If that’s a dodge it’s a dodge. Some short stories take almost as long as novels and some novels just fly. I can “write” a book in a week. It won’t be worth showing to anyone, but there’ll be a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s the refining, the editing that takes time, rewriting, reading it over and over, putting on the finishing touches that can take time and that’s where the headaches come in. First drafts are easy. They’re first drafts that, most likely, no one will see but me.

    I guess I’m a slow writer because I marvel at writers who can put out three books a year. I don’t think I could do that if my life depended on it. And some of those writers write some pretty good stuff.

    Some stories write themselves and go very quickly. Other times, stories we thought would go like greased lightning make you want to borrow your character’s gat and put it to your head. Often the stories you think will be easy are hard and sometimes while writing ones you think are going to be hard you have an epiphany and they just flow. I’m not sure if there’s really any rhyme or reason to it. – I’m working on a short story now that I thought would be a cinch. And it was…until I decided it wasn’t working. Now I feel like I’m slogging through a mudpit of words. This happens sometimes. But then you’ll be driving along or in the shower or wherever and a thought comes to you and then it all clicks and comes together. I’m hoping that will happen on this one…and soon.

    I always go into a writing project with high hopes that it will turn out good and that I’ll be able to get it out in a reasonable amount of time or by the deadline at the latest. But sometimes it can be a pretty rough road. As most of you know, there’s basically two types of writers: outliners and pantsters. I’m (mostly) a pantster. I say mostly because I do write out some notes ahead of time, but they’re pretty sparse and nowhere near a complete outline. So when I sit down to write I fly by the seat of my pants and my first drafts are pretty rough and can go through a ton of changes before the final draft since I’m getting to know the characters and situations as I go, whereas an outliner knows a lot of that ahead of time. However, I can still turn something out quickly sometimes whereas other times the process drags on and on. I don’t think it has anything to do with my method per se.

    I think it helps if you know the ending before you start, then you have something to write towards. So if you know the ending I think the writing might go faster than if you don’t. Though even that’s not always the case. On the problem story I mentioned above I know the ending. It’s everything else that’s giving me trouble…

    But mostly I think it’s an organic process. Some things just flow and others take more time to gestate. You just have to go with the flow and let the characters dictate the story to you. That said, you have to write constantly. You might not end up using everything, but no time writing is wasted.

    And remember, whatever stories don’t kill you make you stronger 😉

  11. It can depend on the kind of book being written and many other factors. Some used to call me “The Fastest Gun in the West,” but that was back when I was writing series novels of around seventy thousand words under contracts with three-month deadlines on average.

    Today I have no set rule for how much time to devote to writing a book, however I am diligent in sticking to my writing plan on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

    I believe part of the answer to the question of why some stories flow faster than others lies in the fact that a writer writes mostly with the subconscious, which is also processing other items of importance, and there’s only so much mental bandwidth to spread around.

    The other part is that some story subjects require less processing than others; the stuff of their assembly may already be present in the author’s mind, so less may have to be invented. This has certainly been the case in fiction I’ve written that was close to journalistic narration, albeit with enough fictive invention to keep it under the line.

    1. Yes, David, I agree with the subconscious taking over. When I’m in deep POV, I know it’s my Spirit Guide writing for me. That’s when the flow is the best, the panster comes through me, and many times, I love my first draft. When the characters take over and the writer is confident and trusting them, it’s a beautiful thing. When I re-read my chapter’s draft, I’m amazed at what I wrote because many times I don’t remember what I wrote. I’m that deep.

      1. Ronnie and Jean; of course, the term “subconscious” is itself a necessary oversimplification for processes that probably go deeper and may include those so-called “paranormal” mental states such as foreknowledge, remote viewing, telepathy, etc. Was it Shelley who suggested, in his Defense of Poetry (and along with the “unacknowledged legislators” line), that authors are engaged in writing one grand, cosmic work of literature? Whoever it was, that’s certainly like channeling, and I’m sure all writers of fiction have had the experience during intense composition of having it flow through them and out the hands onto the keyboard, and then the conscious or “editorial” faculties are there to offer insights and corrections, trimming the sails so to speak, and the process continues almost automatically.

        When it’s that effortless it’s always the most “real” experience of writing, not merely the most rewarding, or “better than a fuck,” but the “truest” in the now sometimes jested at but to me still valid Hemingwayesque sense of trueness. Now it comes back to me that the same English professor, Elizabeth Sewell, a fine poet in her own right, who long ago gave me, as a college student in her class on 19th Century Literary Criticism, the stuff above-quoted, also first clued me to Zen in the Art of Archery, where the line is “It shoots,” not the archer; you can’t even see the bull’s eye of the distant target; “It” has to take over and guide the arrow to its mark. So, clearly there’s a universally experienced process in literary composition that’s quite similar to the channeling experience, to automatic writing, to many psychic experiences. I think this speaks to both your remarks, but to Jean I would also add that many stories of scientific discoveries hinge on just that kind of “aha” moment you’ve described, and which we’ve all I’m sure had.

        Now, as to the transdimensional entities, dybbuks, demons, trolls, leprechauns, nymphs, incubi, succubi and even fairies, that possess us and make us act this way… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  12. David, I couldn’t agree more with your comment that “the writer writes mostly with the subconscious.” Highly likely that’s why after a night’s sleep–good or otherwise–a writer will often awaken and have an “aha” moment concerning a plot point that had him blocked. That certainly has happened to me many times.

    1. David, my psychology classes are in the past, but I do recall that instinct, insight, the “aha moments” are not as spontaneous as they might appear but the collected experiences of a lifetime that crystalize and emerge out of the mind when needed. Anyway, that’s a roughly described theory that I ascribe to.

    2. I very often have that “Aha” moment in the swimming pool while swimming my laps. It’s a Zen-type activity. No distractions, no phones! I’ve solved many a creative problem in the pool. Sometimes my characters talk to me. 🙂

        1. Sorry for being a bit telegraphic — that’s “stick kata,” which refers to the set or sequence of movements used in training with a fighting stick. Some consider this a form of meditation. Water aerobics must be good exercise, I think I can picture you doing them.

          1. Lol. Is stick kata part of a martial arts practice? I can see how you can become so involved in the movements, almost unconsciously after working with them a long time, that your mind can wander into your ms. I can do that with the dumb bells bc the movements are rote and repetitive.

        2. As Bruce Lee once said, “Be like water.” Martial artists are divided on the relationship of meditation to martial arts (viz. Zen Combat) but our teacher held that it was up to the individual practitioner to make that determination.

  13. Aries, the second novel in The Sign Behind the Crime Series, was released 7 months after Gemini, the first. Aries is out since Jan. 2016. Scorpio is being released in September 2017. Big difference in release times. Here’s why the third novel took me longer to write. I wanted to bring in the characters from both of the previous books. From Gemini that would be forensic psychiatrist Dr. John Trenton, his wife Vicki, their children, 9 year old Ricky and two month old twins, Detectives Lex Withers and his partner Bella Richards. From Aries, there would be forensic psychiatrist Dr. Frank Khaos, Detective Samantha Wright, which ended Aries as HFN. Sam’s partner, Nick Valatutti and FBI agent Brett Case, and DEA agent Marcus Willtower. As you can see there was a lot to plot because I wanted the Trentons, and Sam and Frank to have their own plots even though the latter two drove the story, and in the end, every character had to relate to each other. The subplots needed to be tied together and not remain as isolates. Also, as I was plotting Scorpio, Libra, the fourth book that I’m writing now, was plotting itself. I had to change some of the serial killer’s behavior and targets to fit the premise of the fourth book. I’m at 67k Words on Libra as of today, and it’ll finish close to the 122k of the first three. It’s been an amazing journey to see how all of the plots relate.

  14. I have found more than once that readers sometimes think that when a book comes out shows how long it took you to write it. For my new suspense series, THE SOUTH SHORES novels, the first 3 books were published every other month to give the new series a boost, especially since readers don’t like to wait between books–and the publicity feeds off each book to launch a series. Anyway, I’ve had several comments about, “I can’t believe you can write a book in two months!” A trilogy worked well for me with sales last time, but it does mean that I’m missing in action for about a year and a half to get those 3 books written. For the next 3 books in the series, spacing will be farther apart.

    1. Hi Karen, yes, regarding spacing, it’s hard to judge. My publisher likes 5-7 months between book. But with the third, it’ll be more like a year and a half, my doing in the length it took to write it. My explanation is in my last comment. It’s hard. I know I could have lost readers and hopefully I’ll get them back. In our genre the books are usually longer, so a longer time frame makes sense. I write long, naturally. I couldn’t put out a book every couple of months. My brain doesn’t work that way. As you said, when your readers made those comments, they didn’t realize you were writing them over a year and a half. Also, readers don’t know the work it takes to get the books out. They don’t know the industry or the process.

  15. I supposed we all have roadblocks when writing. One thing that can really slow me down is the middle of the book–which I call “the muddle” of the book. I usually get off to a great start and basically know what the ending will be. But that middle, where I’m juggling characters, motivation and trying not to let the middle sag can really bog me down. In a suspense, the middle usually needs a big plot reveal or scary/surprise events. Once I slog through the middle, I’m usually in good shape. The middle dictates how long it takes me to write a book. Anyone else have trouble with middle/muddles?

  16. Karen, My guess would be that virtually every writer has a problem getting through the saggy middle. It’s like Wednesday of the work week. Quite a bit behind you, but a long stretch ahead. And I couldn’t agree more that for a mystery/thriller/suspense novelist a good way to shore up the mid point of a story is to spring a surprise, a plot twist, totally unexpected, that will cause the reader to turn pages with renewed alacrity. Say the accidental death was not an accident at all; the father of the baby has concealed his true identity; the diamond in a ring that lights up the room has been replaced with well-cut glass. The possibilities here are endless and as varied as the imagination of the writer but they do go a long way to bringing the story to that marvelous moment when you write The End.

    1. Yes, Jean and Karen, the ‘sagging middle,’ something I try hard not to have. As you both said, in our genre it’s a plot twist, new idea. I just hit my mid-way point in the fourth book and in perfect timing, a new subplot emerged. It’s a perfect fit. Sometimes, I’d kill off a character in the middle or have a sex scene develope if appropriate. Pacing is so important. In my WIP, a serial killer emerges. I totally agree it all has to come together in the end.

  17. Ah, misery loves company in that sagging muddle of the middle problem. It’s great to be able to hear what other writers say about that. Of course, I’m painfully aware right now that sometimes things just don’t go right. I’m having that situation now after blazing my way through the first 3 books in my new suspense series. Book #4 is stubborn, so I went back and reread from the first line and several other possibilities occurred to beef things up. I had to backtrack and revise, but it was worth it. I’m now forging ahead again, so I hope my readers will too at this point.

  18. Question for everyone: With the more books you write, do you find that your writing process is changing? Going from plotter to panster or vs? For me, who started as a plotter with the first two, though I panstered in the second, I panstered a little more in the third, and Libra, the fourth is pouring out of me. I’m forcing myself today to step back and bring out the notebook to outline a subplot.

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