First Page Critique: Can Your
Language Be Too Blue?

By PJ Parrish

We have a new contribution from a writer today. For me, it hit home, because it made me think about something I had been dealing with in my own books. I’ll explain after you take a moment to read today’s submission. Thanks writer!

Darkness

His cell phone buzzed and rattled on the bedside table, forcing Jake Barnes to fight his way up through the haze of a deep sleep. He slapped blindly in the dark, searching for the offending device. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he looked at the screen. Shit, three thirty in the morning, and of course its work calling. When he had taken the supervisor’s position at the Energy Control Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, he hadn’t expected the phone to ring quite so often. And its always something they could handle on their own if they tried.

He answered the call with a quiet “Wait.” Sliding out of bed, he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. “This is Jake, go ahead.”

“Holy shit, man, I’m glad you answered. We are having some serious problems right now.”

Jake winced and moved the phone an inch away from his ear. “Not so damn loud, Glen,” he said, leaning back against the sink. “Take a few deep breaths and start from the top, OK?” Glen Reynolds was another of the supervisors at the ECC, running the night shift this week.

“Sorry. It’s been a rough night. We were running the Sunday night system scans when the backup went down. As soon as IT hit go, the damn thing went black. We called in Ron to help, but he couldn’t get it running either. So we are down to one SCADA, and we have no idea why we lost the backup.”

The line was silent as Jake thought about the situation. The SCADA were computers used to control complex systems, made by Siemens in Germany.

“Jake, you still there?”

“Sorry, I was thinking. Look, I know things fail, but when is the last time you saw one of the SCADA go down?” He paused, waiting for an answer. When Glen didn’t respond, he continued. “Exactly. Is the primary server still working?”

________________

Okay, let’s start with general observations. First, it’s cleanly written (except for some typos and such). It’s easy to figure out what is going on — guy (protag maybe?) getting roused from sleep with a “situation.”  But here’s the rub: Do we care?

I can’t count the number of times I have read this opening. The person’s job may change (usually, it’s a cop getting called out to a murder scene) but the action-catalyst is always the same — the call that comes to wake someone up and spur them to action. It’s been done to death. The fact that Jake isn’t a cop doesn’t really make it feel any fresher. It’s a tired trope of crime fiction and maybe it’s time to retire it forever.

We talk often here about how an effective, grabber opening conveys a sense of disturbance, how we need to show that something has gone awry in the normal world. The disturbance can seem small (but as the plot plays out, we learn it was important). Or it can be earth-shattering, like a killer comet is heading our way and someone has to save the world.

It can be personal. In fact, I’d say the best disturbance/openings are usually human in scale. I pulled Miami Blues off the shelve to show you this opening from one of my favorite writers Charles Willeford:

As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was a sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Not with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.

Or maybe the disturbance is something that the protag observes. Here’s a dandy from John D. MacDonald:

We were about to give up and call it a night when someone dropped the girl off the bridge.

Maybe the disturbance starts out personal but morphs into something big, like Stephen King gives us in It.

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

This opening gives us a boy who tries to retrieve a paper boat from a drain and gets lured in by a killer clown who cuts the kid’s arm off.

But what an opening disturbance shouldn’t be is trite or tired. It has to be a catalyst for the conflict to come. And it has to feel like you alone among all writers could have put it on paper.  So, if you’re going to start your book out with a phone call, you better make it good, like this:

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage killing a woman.

That’s Richard Stark aka Don Westlake. He knows his way around a juicy opening.

Back to our submission: There’s nothing wrong about it on the surface, as I said. Jake Barnes quite literally takes the proverbial “three a.m. call” challenge. The caller literally says, “We have some serious problems.” I wonder, dear writer, if there isn’t a more original way to begin your story? Just because it’s about computer geeks instead of cops doesn’t make it less hoary. If this big computer failure is your dramatic catalyst, why not start with Jake right on the scene? You can say he had been roused from sleep by a cohort, but why not START with him in action instead of in bed?

Now, let’s talk about the language — specifically the profanity. I’m going to throw this one out for discussion because there are arguments on both sides on this subject. Side 1: People swear. It helps make the dialogue feel more realistic. Side 2: Profanity is a big turn-off for a lot of readers, so why do it?

I come down on this somewhere in between. I write about cops and PIs, so my books have their share of blue language. I even drop the f-bomb when I really feel it’s needed. But over fourteen books now, and yes, after getting feedback from readers, I have really toned it down. In the first draft, I cuss like a sailor. But these days, on rewrites, I almost always take most of it out. Profanity can get old really quick. And not because it is offensive. Because it is can feel forced, almost desperate. If my characters swear, well, hell, they have to be well-rendered, right?

Now, I question every curse word I use. Here’s the original opening of our new book The Damage Done: 

Something was wrong. This wasn’t where he was supposed to be.

Louis Kincaid leaned forward and peered out the windshield. The gray stone building in front of him went in and out of focus with each sweep of the wipers, appearing and disappearing in the rain like a medieval castle on some lost Scottish moor.

But it was just an abandoned church, sitting in a weedy lot in a rundown neighborhood in Lansing, Michigan. Louis picked up the piece of paper on which he had scribbled the directions. It was the right address, but this couldn’t be the place where he had come to start his life over again.

He rested his hands on the steering wheel and stared at the church. A car went by slowly and pulled up to the curb, parking in front of him, maybe fifteen feet away. Louis sat up, alert. It was a black Crown Vic with tinted windows and a small antenna mounted on the trunk. But it was plate that gave it away -– three letters and three numbers, just like all Michigan plates, but this one had an X in the middle.

An unmarked cop car. The driver didn’t get out. But he didn’t have to. Louis knew who it was.

The devil. It was the f–king devil himself.

Now, Louis is looking at the man who once took away his badge. He hates the guy. But on rewrites, I took the f-bomb out. I didn’t need it. Because Louis isn’t an f-bomber by nature. And it works better simply as “It was the devil himself.” I have other f-bombs in the book, mainly uttered by another character because it feels true to his rough nature. But on the first page? I thought it was too in-your-face.

In this submission, we get two “shits” and two “damns.” Is that too much? I dunno. I’m just throwing this issue out for discussion here. Please weigh in with how you handle profanity as a writer — and as a reader.

Now let’s do some line editing:

His cell phone buzzed and rattled on the bedside table, forcing Jake Barnes are you sure you want to use the name of Hemingway’s most famous heroes? to fight his way up through the haze of a deep sleep. He slapped blindly in the dark, searching for the offending device. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he looked at the screen. and finally grabbed the phone. Shit, three thirty in the morning, and of course its work calling. Is this a thought? Then you should set it off in italics on its own line. When he had taken the supervisor’s position at the Energy Control Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, This is a mini-info dump. You can convey this info more gracefully through dialogue. he hadn’t expected the phone to ring quite so often. And its always something they could handle on their own if they tried. Tense lapse here. Should be: It was always something they could handle on their own if they tried.

He answered the call with a quiet “Wait.” Sliding out of bed, he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. Little confused here. He’s in his own home? He’s alone? Why the need to hide out in the bath? If he had a bed-mate, mention her. “This is Jake, go ahead.”

Holy shit, man, I’m glad you answered. We are having some serious problems right now.” Is there some way to up the stakes here? “Serious problems” isn’t very interesting.

Jake winced and moved the phone an inch away from his ear. “Not so damn loud, Glen,” he said, leaning back against the sink. “Take a few deep breaths and start from the top, OK?” Glen Reynolds was another of the supervisors at the ECC, running the night shift this week.  This might be where you could drop in the backstory: Glen Reynolds was another supervisor at Energy Control Center. (This way you get it OUT of your crucial first graph)

“Sorry. It’s been a rough night. We were running the Sunday night system scans when the backup went down. As soon as IT hit go, the damn thing went black. We called in Ron to help, but he couldn’t get it running either. So we are down to one SCADA, and we have no idea why we lost the backup.”

The line was silent as Jake thought about the situation. The SCADA were computers used to control complex systems, made by Siemens in Germany. Good way to slip in what this is. 

“Jake, you still there?”

“Sorry, I was thinking. Look, I know things fail, but when is the last time you saw one of the SCADA go down?” He paused, waiting for an answer. When Glen didn’t respond, he continued. “Exactly. Is the primary server still working?”

Me again.  So, as I said, it’s not a bad opening. But is a computer going down big enough stakes to make us want to read on? When I get a computer glitch, all I feel is frustration and annoyance. I don’t know if I want to read about one, even on a big scale (as this seems to be) UNLESS you find a way early on to make me care. Like can we get a hint about WHY this thing going down is important? Does it supply the artificial atmosphere for the desecrated planet? (sci-fi).  Does it contain the world data base of moles for the CIA (political thriller). Is it a matchmaking super-computer? (Don’t laugh. Lincoln Child wrote a terrific thriller on this subject called Death Match.) 

Any old computer dying isn’t interesting. If you can find a way to at least hint at what the stakes are here, we might be lured into caring…and reading on.

One last thing. About that title. “Darkness” is much too generic. If you are writing a thriller or mystery set in the computer sphere, why not go with something that tells readers what they’re getting? My computer geek Gary told me about a great slang term called “In the black mirror.”  It is what you see when your screen goes suddenly dark — your own mug reflected back to you in creepy blackness. I always wanted to use it as a title but I have no interest in writing a novel about computers, so hey, it’s up for grabs. You need to stand out from the pack while you shed some light on what your story is about. Simple Darkness won’t do it for you.

Thank, writer, for participating. The line is open for discussion!

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

23 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Can Your
Language Be Too Blue?

  1. Good post. Definitely with you on the profanity issue. It has to be in character, and it has to be so necessary that the scene works better with it than without it. Most often, I find a way to convey the “foul” thought to the reader without the character actually uttering it.

    • Yup, that’s what I now try to do. When the emotion is high in a scene, there are other ways to convey it. In real life, I get a little tired of listening to people who can’t talk about normal stuff without inserting profanity. So why would I duplicate that impulse in my own writing? Profanity is a powerful “spice” so it should be used with a light hand, imho.

      This said, I have had to censure myself at pickleball. 🙂

  2. Okay, I have to confess I had to read this three times to find the profanity. My mother used the “s” word. (Sometimes in English, sometimes in German.) To me this is mild, and I never mind “true to the character” profanity. In fact, when I start writing a character, I figure out what his go-to curse word is, be it mild or a bit stronger.
    What bothered me more were the its instead of it’s, which DID jump off the page, and using the “ing” verbs for non-simultaneous action.
    However, I agree fully with Kris that this isn’t a particularly compelling opening–something in the forefront of my mind after all the wonderful classes at Colorado Gold given by instructors including someone named James Scott Bell.

    • Yeah, it’s not blatant cussing so that is why I simply posed the question to the group at large — how much is too much? I don’t think this writer went overboard, but I just wanted to bring up the issue. I think MY use of the f-bomb on my opening page was far worse.

      • Profanity is noticed by a lot of readers. The lack of profanity is never noticed. I think drawing attention to a specific word can take the reader out of the story. Use carefully.

        Thanks for the opening from Stark/Westlake. The Parker books are so engaging. I put them right up there with the best crime novels of all time.

  3. Kris, treating profanity as “spice” is a great way to handle it. Terrific analogy. A little goes a long way.

    Blue language doesn’t bother me in the least b/c my husband often says he could make a Marine D.I. blush (and has!). But hearing it in conversation is different from seeing it written on the printed page. Somehow the written word seems more potent and stands out, like a neon font.

    One of my main characters is extremely foul-mouthed. In first drafts, he gets to curse up a storm. In subsequent drafts, I do global searches and wind up cutting nine out of ten swear words.

    Years ago, I read a novel by a Christian author about a criminal motorcycle gang. She wrote the entire book w/o using a single cuss word. Characters swore but she used ingenuity to get the message across w/o the specific curse word. Impressive.

    “In the Black Mirror” would be a great title. Good luck, Anonymous Author.

  4. I agree. Blue language adds excitement and sometimes humor later in a story but it was a lot early on here. Maybe just a muttered oath when he trips on his way to the bathroom. Also, who is in bed with him? Maybe just one line about that. Inquiring minds want to know.

  5. Great feedback for this writer, Kris! As a former editor at a technology company that made the nerve centers for vast computer networks, I agree with your comment that the writer needs to set the stakes right off the bat. The references to Siemens and “Energy Control Center” give us a hint, but they’re too nonspecific. But if the system that crashed is responsible for managing a nuclear plant? Much more interesting.

    I’m assuming this story will eventually feature a malicious Stuxnet worm or something similar—great fodder for a techno thriller!

    • Nuclear computer melt-down. Good plot. If the writer is available, maybe s/he could weigh in and let us know what the main plot conflict is — what’s the deal with the computer? It’s so hard to get a sense of a book in a mere 400 words.

  6. Yeah, I’m on the “don’t use it” side (i.e, the George Carlin seven words you can’t say on television won’t show up in my books). Don’t need ’em. Fiction is not “reality.” It’s stylized prose for an effect. Don’t need F bombs for effect. How did Law & Order reflect gritty reality without it? They did. How did all the great crime movies of the 40s and 50s do it? They did.

    Also, I wonder if the author knows that “Jake Barnes” is the protagonist of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

  7. Although I understand some writers use blue language as a reflection of reality, I don’t care for it. My mind trips over the profanity and loses its focus on the story. That can’t be what the author intended.

    • That is the main reason I brought this up for discussion, Kay. I have gotten countless emails/letters over the last decade from readers who feel the same way.

  8. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I thought Kris did a fabulous job with her review, with lots of great examples and details. I usually try not to read other reviews before I write my own, because I don’t want to be influenced by another opinion before giving mine. However, I started reading Kris’ review and couldn’t stop. Here are some additional comments.

    First Line

    “His cell phone buzzed and rattled on the bedside table, forcing Jake Barnes to fight his way up through the haze of a deep sleep.”

    An opening sentence is more powerful (and more correct) if you put the character’s name first. If you keep this opening (and I don’t think you should for many of the reasons that Kris already mentioned), I’d write it something like this:

    James Barnes swatted at his bedside table in the darkness until he silenced the buzzing cellphone.

    You don’t want to begin your novel with a clunky sentence. The second part of your sentence ” forcing Jake Barnes to fight his way up through the haze of a deep sleep” is clunky and overwritten. Don’t explain the action. Just show the action. Make the first line assertive and immediate.

    Opening

    The opening isn’t original, as Kris mentioned. First page real estate is very valuable, and it took a whole paragraph before the protagonist answered the phone. Now, let’s get onto what you should be doing on your first page.

    Introducing Your Protagonist

    When I say introduce your protagonist, I don’t mean what he looks like or what kind of clothes he is wearing. Read “Introduce Your Character to the Reader” by Monica Partridge (available online) and “Making an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle.(also online) If you want links, email me.

    After you introduce your character, I should know something about your character’s personality (not just what job he has). What makes your character unique/special? Why is he “the guy” they call?

    Dialogue

    I’m glad that you included dialogue, but it’s too bloated, as written.

    Example:

    “Holy shit, man, I’m glad you answered. We are having some serious problems right now.”

    It’s fine to use contractions when writing dialogue to make it sound more like authentic speech. (We are becomes “We’re”). However, I think you can tighten this dialogue even more, and that’s something you should always be looking to do when you revise. Why not simply the line to something like:

    “We’ve got big problems.”

    Guys tend to be more succinct when they speak (unless wordiness is a character trait for a particular character).

    Example 2:

    “Sorry. It’s been a rough night. We were running the Sunday night system scans when the backup went down. As soon as IT hit go, the damn thing went black. We called in Ron to help, but he couldn’t get it running either. So we are down to one SCADA, and we have no idea why we lost the backup.”

    Generally speaking, long paragraphs of dialogue aren’t a good idea. Tighten this kind of stuff.

    Title

    The title makes me think that the story is about a power grid outage. I am a computer scientist, and your story interests me. I want to read on because I like the topic. However, I think you should take Kris’ wise advice about your opening and make it so good that it will suck everyone in, even people who aren’t necessarily computer geeks like me. I love one-word titles for thrillers, but like Kris mentioned, Darkness may be too generic.

    Stakes

    You need stakes. You are beginning with a problem that rocks the protagonist’s world, so to speak, but instead of spending so much time showing the protagonist rolling around in bed, give the reader a clue as to what the big problem actually is. Get to the gravity of the problem right away. We don’t need to see the guy waking up, answering the phone, and such. We don’t need to watch see him getting a shower and putting on his jeans as he gets ready to fly out the door, either. Get him to the scene taking charge of the problem. The reader needs a reason to care and keep reading.

    Grammar/Punctuation

    If you want “its” to mean it is, you need to write it’s.

    Literary agents expect writers to know when to use “it’s” and when to use “its.”
    There were other issues, but it’s important to get this right. Maybe this slip was just a typo (we all make typos), but use an editor before you shop this work.

    Where to Begin

    I’d start the story with the protagonist arriving at the scene. Show the protagonist taking charge of the problem. Why is he the one they call in the middle of the night? If this guy is a computer whiz, the opening should show him demonstrating that knowledge. You want to seduce the reader into admiring him.

    Actually, you don’t even need to begin the story with the protagonist solving the “main” computer problem. You can begin with him showing his computer genius in some smaller way that’s interesting and exciting before you introduce the main story problem. What is your character’s defining trait. Show me.

    Carry on, brave writer. I’d love to read your revisions. Best of luck.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Joanne. The main take-away, I think, is to get into the story a little later — ie, not waking up but already in action, doing something to confront the problem.

      The adage usually holds true: Get into a scene as late as possible.

      • Yes, always start the scene as late as possible. Of course, I also agree with you about the unneeded coarse language and the name Jake Barnes, even though I didn’t mention those things earlier.

        The thing I’ve learned to look for in an opening is a well-defined protagonist. What makes Jake Barnes different from some generic computer geek? In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes is a war hero whose wounds made him impotent. He has emotional and physical scars. In this snippet of Darkness, we don’t learn much about Jake Barnes other than his occupation. If our brave writer makes this Jake Barnes inimitable in some way, I’d almost be okay with keeping the name. (It’s not like recycling the name “Sherlock Holmes” or “Jay Gatsby” or something too obvious.)

  9. Regarding the profanity, I have to come down on the opposite side from you, PJ. Many people use profanity, maybe even most people, and to deliberately omit it from writing for fear of “offending” someone is, IMHO, a mistake. It does indeed reflect reality in many ways … the frustration of the speaker, the desperate conditions of the character, anger, maybe a come-on to violence … it fits a lot of situations. Of course, it can be overdone, but so can every other kind of dialogue. It’s up to the writer to use it appropriately. And if someone is “offended”, well, that’s their problem. They can freely choose not to read the book and that’s the chance the writer takes by including profanity. But that writer is quite likely to pick up more readers due to word-of-mouth buzz about the “realism” and “grittiness” of the book.

    People who are put off by seeing a profane word in print are almost always the ones who contact the writer on this subject, demanding their eyes be sheltered from such “offensive” words on the page. Those readers who feel the profanity fits in just fine, and for whom it is not a problem, seldom if ever let the writer know it.

    MAD MEN was a great TV series, one of the greatest, in fact. But there was virtually no profanity. Why? Not because the writers were goody-goody, but because the show was on AMC, a basic cable network, and profanity was more or less forbidden. Toward the last couple of seasons, they snuck in one or two profane words, but they basically avoided it the majority of the time. In my view, this hurt the show because the whitewashing was evident. In those situations where profanity could have added to the realism of the script, it was deliberately omitted and it showed.

    THE SOPRANOS, on the other hand, also a great TV series, was on HBO, and therefore not bound by any such restraints on profanity. The result was the viewer often seemed to be right in the middle of real conversations held by real gangsters. And guess what? More people watched THE SOPRANOS than MAD MEN, even though I’m sure HBO received their share of anti-profanity mail.

    My point in a nutshell: the smeary hand of censorship has no place in the unfettered, free world of the fiction writer where her only limit is that of her own imagination.

    Also, as an aside, the opening about Roy Dillon getting hit in the gut with a club was from Jim Thompson’s THE GRIFTERS, not MIAMI BLUES.

    • You make some good points, Don. As I said, my books have their share of profanity but it is a choice I make to convey a character’s personality or the intensity of a moment, not because I hope it will make my books feel more “gritty.” I never said it should NOT be used; just use with care. I am not censoring my writing for the readers because I believe if you start writing ONLY for readers, you’re lost. I self-censor because if you over-use any device in fiction, it gets old. There’s a point, for me at least, when profanity ceases to feel realistic and becomes a writer tic.

      Mea culpa on the Willeford mistake. A person of my age should never rely on memory.

  10. I don’t like profanity. I understand that, if you live life, you hear it and read it all across the scape of America and the world.

    I found myself changing the s-word to crap. My character is a petite, 24-year-old redhead, girl-next-door who became a military police officer, suddenly thrust into the middle of a firefight during her deployment in Afghanistan. The next is a slightly-altered version of the incident.

    The bad guy picked turned from the grenade that had landed next to him, and started to run. The explosion blew him into enough pieces so that each virgin would have at least one.

    I rolled over and got up on one knee. Diaz now bled worse. I slipped into the sling of my rifle and started to grab him and help the other guys drag him to safety. With no warning, something solid and deadly hit me on my shoulder. Thank God for flak vests. But even the best didn’t stop the eruption of pain and shock.

    “OW!” I yelled, going down again. “Craaa-aaaaappp!” I gotta stop saying crap.

    “Someone get Ryan!” The fire from the bad guys was starting up again.

    When I saw the version with the s-word, I just could not tolerate it.

    So, would a young Marine in the middle of a battle for her life yell out the s-word just after taking a solid hit from a Taliban round? She might. But would the same young woman, raised in the middle of fellowship in a large Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma do it? Knowing that her thought “Thank God” was not another bit of profanity but genuine prayer? She might not. But she might yell crap.

    She’s been immersed in U.S. Marine culture for nearly five years. Occasionally she might slip into the language. But I’d hope I had built enough character into her so that she stands for the things her family, her church, and her friends have helped instill into her.

    Sorry to post so late in the day. It’s a sick day. (If there’s such a thing for a retired guy.) I just woke up.

    • Given your heroine’s upbringing, I’d say “crap” was true to her nature. Now some guy raised in the Bronx might be more colorful.

      Don’t apologize for being late to the party. We stay up late here.

  11. Under my name (this one) I write and use all the 4 letter words you can think of – and then some! Under my pen name, I think the harshest word used is “damn” and that was sparingly. Two different styles and genres. But I do think the terms “profanity” and “blue” language is an Americanism for those that believe they have scruples or hold the high moral ground – while turning their back on the hungry and misfortunate in life. You don’t get such a discussion on language in fiction works in other western countries as you do here but other countries don’t have the pretense of piety as this. It is language plain and simple it has no color and like other forms of language can be used to express offense, shock, defeat, joy etc. Obviously, overuse is a killer but that’s the case with all words. I read the first page of a reasonably successful indie author and I lost count of the word “certainly” at over 50 – and it continued in all the following pages.
    I think Stephen King is a good example to go by. He doesn’t shy away from using such language – and knows when to use it for full effect – but doesn’t overdo it either. Well, I don’t believe he does.
    Another thing one has to take into account is the time period or the culture your story is set in. Did they use such language freely back then or in such a culture?
    Another book I read recently – or tried to – was a western and the language was right out of modern day urban life.
    So that’s my take.

    • Thanks for the input, Craig. Good stuff. I smiled at your reference to American piety and “blue” language. I only used the phrase cuz it sounds good in a headline..ie too blue. 🙂 (I used to write headlines for a living and had a weakness for alliteration, rhymes and such…old habits die hard).

      Your main point — that yes, you should use whatever words are appropriate to your character, story and genre — is well taken. Ditto your point that if you do use profanity, use it thoughtfully, not in some random attempt to coat your story with a gritty veneer. Thanks for dropping in!

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