September 2, 2014 – Excerpt

“Everything went wrong after the oil slick. Choppy black waves washed onto the shores, bringing with them clotted sediment and bloated dolphin carcasses. Half-drowned bodies vomited up petrol. Ducks were wrung out directly into car engines. Someone brought soap and bleach to the beaches but was only able to clean a square foot. Many of us tried cleaning the spill by dipping paper towels into the darkness. The paper absorbed a few tablespoons of oil, then dripped it back into the water. When we drank water, we drank the black. At first, our lips tingled from ingesting so much oil. Our smiles were gray. Our tongues were even darker. Over time, we began preferring the oily water to the clean water of our past. At least there was flavor. And clean mouths were overrated.”

September 1, 2014 – Excerpt

“There was nothing lean to eat. We ate fat with our hands. We doused old vegetables in lard and homemade butter. Our mouths were perpetually slicked with grease. We swallowed what we could and even brick chunks slid down the tubes easily. Our stomachs ached and when we shitted on the floor, it was with an explosion of brownness. We couldn’t identify anything in the messes. We saw what might have been styrofoam popcorn, the angled flaps of cardboard boxes.”

August 29, 2014 – Excerpt

The writing is now a weird, dystopian nightmare sequence thing. I’m not even done with my other project but I keep working on this one. I spent the week binge-watching Twin Peaks with the husband and I guess I was especially inspired. It’s always nice when the writing process is so compelling.

“All there was to eat was lobster. All the other animals were gone. Only the ones in shells remained. Those of us with shell allergies died quickly. It was not from malnutrition but from our hunger. We ate the lobsters and immediately suffered adverse reactions. Our throats swelled to three times the normal width although our passages constricted. We sucked air in but none made it past the tongue. We stabbed at the inflation with forks but the tines bounced off the leathery meat. It was a series of quick bounces, one-two-three, and then the throats sealed shut permanently. Our bodies fell onto the floor and whined through our nasal passages. Those of us without allergies watched the ones who suffered and felt badly, but not for long. The less of us there were, the more lobster we had to eat. We ate the claws. We ate the tails. We didn’t bother cracking the shells with our hands. We put pulled off pieces of body into our mouths and ate. The shells cracked against our tongues. The shell fragments caught between our teeth and tore up our gums. We spit up blood. We dribbled the redness into the drawn butter which was just the little bits of lard we were able to smuggle out of the cosmetic surgery dumpster.”

August 28, 2014 – Excerpt

“Sometimes we took turns sitting on the cadaver’s lap. It was desperate for human contact and we were happy to oblige. We loved the musky smell that came from its shoulders. Sometimes in our hunger, we would stick our tongues out and push them into the cadaver’s ears, lapping around the whorls until a chunk of waxy meat came free. We ate that chunk quickly, then reached in for more. More often than that we curled up on the cadaver and whispered our darkest secrets into its mouth. We told the cadaver that we wanted to put the baby into the dryer. We told the cadaver that when nervous we couldn’t help but stick handfuls of hair into our mouths. The hair could either be from our heads or taken from numerous floors, both strange and familiar. We told the cadaver that for a month straight, we ate all the green meat we could find, then suffered a debilitating stomach ache.”

August 27, 2014 – Excerpt

Out of nowhere, I started writing something new. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it yet. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know how it will continue. I don’t know if it’s going to end up with a clear plot or end up being this weird, meandering, post-modern narrative. But I do know one thing. I like it. I like it very, very much.

 

“After the mouths went one way, entire bodies went to church. They filled wooden pews. Their backs ached from sitting so straight but it seemed right to demonstrate such proper posture. I sat near the back, remaining out of the way. Bodies packed in around me. We were anchovies in a religious can. We were sardines tucked tight into a pious net. We sat like so: |_ |_ |_. We were so good, so quiet, so sweet. We were everything the religious men would ever want. We kept the hymnals folded on our laps. We opened our mouths in prayers, then clapped our hands over our lips to keep from saying more. We muttered only what we were told. We recited, we repeated, we fell silent. Above our head, rotten leather shells swung from the flying buttresses and wooden crossbeams. Whenever the church doors swung open, a warm breeze came in as well, pushing the old shoes on their lines. The shoes were the last body parts belonging to the old, dead priests. The shoe tongues were so far gone that they vomited saw dust onto our heads. The priest beckoned us to walk to the front of the church and when we did, he laid his hands upon us, first one head, then another. He brushed his fingers through our hair. He shook our hair until the powder came off like dandruff.”

TRUE STORY NOTE: The shoes referenced in the piece actually exist. Or, they did exist, years ago, when I went to Spain. In one of the cathedrals, our group’s tour guide explained that the shoes of deceased priests were strung up from the rafters in remembrance of their dedication to the church. Old leather shoes hung in the air above our heads, moving slightly, then not at all. It was something I’ve never forgotten.

August 26, 2014 – Is it tense in here? (i.e., a discussion on literary tenses)

When I first started writing short stories, my default POV and tense was third person past. In my mind, it was how all the writers I read framed their work. I was a young writer and knew as much as I read in books and learned in Language Arts (the elementary school version of English), English (the high school version of English), and Literature/Composition (the undergraduate version of English). Near the end of high school and well into college, I began experimenting with the POV, moving from 3rd into 1st. Even during the beginning of my MFA, writing in the past tense seemed to be the right thing to do. Then I started to get a little wild stylistically, which involved changing the tense from past to present. For the last four years, I’ve written in the present tense (first person) almost exclusively. It was my thing (all writers seem to have a thing).

But, friends, it seems that my thing has started to fail. You see, I’ve been having trouble with my latest manuscript. At first, I wasn’t entirely certain what the work would be about, then I figured it out, then I decided on something else altogether (which seemed in better keeping of the narrative). I considered changing the POV from first to third but when I did a test paragraph, it didn’t seem right. My last ditch effort? Change the tense. Yesterday, I started the painstaking task of going through a previous manuscript I had been frowning over and changing the tense to past. The end result? A sense of relief.

At the very start of my MFA, I was in England for 10 days surrounded by writers. During an informal reading that was held in the manor one night (yes, our school’s program was held at a very real, very old English manor which I was convinced had to be haunted although I never experienced anything supernatural), one of my closest friends read part of her memoir. We were all impressed. Then she shared that her mentor had told her to change the tenses in work. She had written it in the present and he thought it would be better served in the past. His position? He believed that when in the moment, a person wouldn’t experience something tragic and be able to describe it with such metaphor and grace. Which isn’t a wrong position. It’s true. True description is done in hindsight, as a way of processing what just happened. My friend ended up torn over what to do. Something as simple as tense can seem so personal.

I had a philosophical thought last night. We are never truly in the present. We are, but we aren’t. As I’m writing this, I’m in the present. But it isn’t one present. It’s a series of presents. With each sentence, each word, the past is falling on the page. I wrote the last sentence in the past. For the most part, when we’re thinking, we’re thinking in hindsight. When we’re telling a story, we’re reliving the past, trying to recreate something that has passed us.

That’s what I thought when I was working on my manuscript yesterday. Writing in the present almost seemed to be a sort of lie. There was so much I couldn’t do with my characters and the narrative because if the work was meant to be transcribed as it happened, no one would be able to add a footnote. There would be no time. Going back would mean entering the past.

I did an experiment to prove the position to myself. I started writing something. It was something new, something I hadn’t focused on. It was very strange. It came to me and I started scribbling. When the words fell onto the page, they were in the past. But because I wasn’t certain about writing in the past, I changed the tenses to the present. And then something interesting happened. When I read the text over, the magic that had been there had diminished. It no longer seemed as glittery, as frightening. So I changed it back. The magic returned. The shimmering. The atmosphere. Whatever it is that you want to call it, it was there because of the tense change. So now I’m thinking that as far as my writing goes (and as I said before, tense, just like every other aspect of literary style, is incredibly personal) maybe my work would be better suited in the past.

In a way, writing in the past tense is like returning to the fairy tales I’ve always loved. The stories wouldn’t have been the same if they hadn’t started “Once upon a time…” There was something wondrous in that phrase. It was something that happened a long time ago but it was being told to me regardless. It was a like a secret, something being shared that no one else really knew. If I wasn’t told the story, maybe no one would ever hear it again and it would fade from collective consciousness and be gone forever. That’s what I want to capture with the tense change, however simple an idea that might be.

Of course, if a writer really does prefer present and finds that past is too limited or archaic or whatever, then stick with it. If neither works, try out the future tense. Or, switch it up between works. Sometimes, a specific style might not work well for a certain kind of story. You have to figure out how you’ll write the story best. At least for me, this is a change to my writing that I think will turn out for the best.

August 20, 2014 – Excerpt

“One day, I will be drowned where I stand.

One day, I will eat the bitter pith of someone’s abandoned orange.

One day, I will forget how you and I met.

One day, I will take all the sand in this place and swallow it. This will be done without water. It will barely be done with air.

One day, I will carve a second face from my first face, then ask everyone I meet to vote on which face they like best.”

August 19, 2014 – Excerpt

“I looked up and the sky was orange. The orange seemed unnatural and so I was weary. It seemed that the orange might grow a mouth at any moment, a mouth so large it would gobble me whole. My ears were clogged with static. I heard tin foil crumpling in my brain. I could not feel my hands but knew that my fingers opened and closed. I waited for the sun to set and darkness to come but the orange refused to diminish. The sun wasn’t visible in the sky. It remained hidden behind the orange sheen. I felt faint in its power. I thought I might die. The sands shifted around me, grainy waves rising and falling, revealing cow skulls and petrified leather hides. The flow crossed the horizon and extended on, everything—even the ground—bright orange. The sky seemed to yawn, then swallow.”

August 15, 2014 – I’ve got (writing) issues

I meant to post this week. I really did. But I barely kept any of the writing I did. And without new writing, there can be no new posts. I wrote throughout the week and ended up only keeping a day or two’s amount of work. So the manuscript has been grossly reduced in size. Last night, I finally did some new writing and upon reflection, I didn’t hate what I came up with. The initial problem was a series of scenes where the main character (who is in absolute isolation) is having a conversation with herself. But the way the conversation was framed didn’t seem right. So I took those scenes out. Then I wasn’t happy with a scene where a new character is introduced. The third scene with major issues involved the main character getting sick. It was a long scene and in the long run, completely pointless. So I took that one out as well. After removing so much material, I started reconsidering the way the writing was arranged physically. I liked the indented paragraphs but I wasn’t as happy with having separate sections. I eventually removed the spaces between the separate sections so that the story is now one long, continuous narrative. I like how it’s more of a thought flow. And it reminds me of my love for block paragraphs only the sporadic indentations makes the text easier to read. It’s weird how a little burst of white space on the page can trick the eye into feeling relieved.

On the reading front, I finally focused long enough to finish Crystal Eaters last night. Good book. I enjoyed it. Next on the reading front are a number of books that I’ve already read but want to experience again, mostly because I feel like when I first read a book, I read it too quickly and don’t really allow it to absorb into my brain. I want to linger during the re-reading, to really commit to the pages in front of me. Wanting to read a story over and over again is always my way of knowing that the book was good (or at the very least, truly resonated with me).

And now, friends, an excerpt from what I’m working on. Next week, I’ll post more often.

“My arteries are beautiful. That is what you tell me. I want to listen to the celestial symphony. I should have known you would follow me here. You wandered the length of three deserts in order to find me. You were there in the silent room all that time ago. Instead of hearing me, you heard yourself. Your throat was so loud in your head. Your eardrums popped each time you swallowed. In addition to beautiful arteries, I have lovely thumbs and pretty knees. My ankles are inspiration. My shoulder blades are the bones that might launch a thousand ships, or at least three fleets of luxury automobile.”

August 7, 2014 – My bad

Two nights ago, I had a thought. While I was pleased with several sections of the new novel, there were a few points, mostly in the beginning, that I wasn’t certain of. They didn’t seem right. They were a little too… out there compared to the rest of the story. So I went through them, took my favorite points in them, and reworked them to make a dream sequence. But it’s a dream sequence where the narrator knows she’s dreaming. None of that dream-sequence trickery where the reader thinks it’s real and then REVEAL! It’s not. Like in a movie or television show. I hate when they do that. It’s so sloppy and contrived. I think the dream fits into this part of the book because the narrator is explaining the side effects of being in the location she’s in. In the end, I removed about 3,000 to 4,000 words and kept the rest of the material. There were also a few sections that were written, then immediately discarded after quick but careful consideration. One of the scenes in question involved clowns. The clowns make sense to the story but they weren’t really a direction I wanted to go in. Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting, then deciding that something doesn’t work. I owe you all an excerpt so today’s offering is a little longer than usual.

“[Is there something more I could be doing,] I ask the doctor. [You should get a hobby. My, these beds feel comfy,] he says. [But I own this motel,] I say. [Do you get any guests,] the doctors ask. [Business is slow,] I say. [I could be one of your guests,] the doctor says. [I don't know if you'd really fit in with the motel's clientele,] I say. [We could share a bed,] the doctor says. [Medication isn't worth that price,] I say. [How have your tonsils been feeling,] the doctor asks. [Fine. Sometimes swollen,] I say. [Are you able to swallow,] the doctor asks. [Most of the time,] I say. [I could say something dirty right now,] the doctor says. [I'd rather that you not,] I say. [How are your kidney functions? Do you urinate normally,] the doctor asks. [I go to the bathroom every four hours,] I say. [It's just like taking a painkiller,] the doctor says. [It hurts more though,] I say. [The urination,] the doctor asks. [Just the walking and the washing up,] I say. [That's your anxiety talking,] the doctor says. [And the mouth is unhinged and the throughway is unbuttoned,] I say. [That is your phobias speaking,] the doctor says. [What if I were to tell you that I don't have any fears,] I say. [I wouldn't believe you and would wonder why you insist on so much medication,] the doctor says. [The quiet makes more sense at night,] I say. [The medication doesn't work that way,] the doctor says. [Why are you so worried about my internal organs,] I ask. [Because too much medication can cause catastrophic changes,] the doctor says. [Such as,] I ask. [The constriction of your parkway,] the doctor says. We go on and on like this for some time until laryngitis consumes my voice.”

July 29, 2014 – Excerpt

“A sonic boom shakes the motel. The foundation sways deep in the sand. I run to the window. A plastic doll body is roasting in the oven. It doesn’t matter what I touch. Solidity shatters beneath my fingers. I am missing three-quarters of my fingertips. I miss them. I miss rubbing them over lightly moistened glass rims until a soft chime sound came back, a high-pitched HUMMMMMMMMM sound that traveled into my ears and went ricocheting down the canals. I crawl out from beneath the bed. In the event of a nuclear attack, hiding will save me from nothing. I will only be cremated against the box springs. I’ll be trapped beneath the mattress until some unsavory survivors locate my corpse by means of the resulting stench. What they do after will be inconclusive. They might bite the bits of intact flesh. They might drag me into the sand and leave me for predatory animals to eat.”

 

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Every so often, I have a million writing-related things I’m doing at once. This week, I’m trying to balance writing my new project with finishing the edits for my short story collection with reading more of Crystal Eaters with doing submissions (especially since I haven’t worked on submissions in about a month and a half because I was so distracted by going into damage control mode with the last project). There’s a lot of jumping around which is stressful but at the same time, I enjoy being busy. I like having a multitude of things to do because I feel like I’m accomplishing things. And in the midst of all this editing and submitting and reading and writing, I’m still getting new ideas for future stories. On Sunday, I had an idea for a sort of bizarro story that (at least in my head) seemed brilliant. I told my husband my idea and he seemed a little frightened. Often, people don’t know how to deal with really out there ideas. So now I’m really excited for the new project. Plus, with my new formatting, I could finally relax with my more literary project, a pseudo-biography/my-interpretation-of-events based on the story of my family moving to America in the 1960s. I’ve mentioned that story once before. That’s the project where I gave the first few pages to my husband to read over and when he got to the end of what I had written, he kept desperately clicking the page because he wanted to read more. Recently, I had been reconsidering the approach to that story but with the new formatting change (and as I said the other day, I know that it’s not a ground-breaking way to present my work but it’s something I haven’t really used, at least not in years), I feel like I can really get back into it and do the story justice. A lot of the writing was being inspired by paintings and so I put FocusWriter on my laptop for some creative inspiration. All I do is load one of the inspiration pictures as the background for the document and start typing while staring at the image. It helps me stay focused when I’m not feeling as inspired as I would like. Another program that’s similar to FocusWriter but that works for Windows is ZenWriter. I used that program on my last computer and it was very helpful. There’s something to be said for having a program that gives you a new perspective on your writing. There are other programs but the two I mentioned are the ones that I’ve actually used. But do some research and see which program would work best for you. Until tomorrow, friends.

July 25, 2014 – New Book! (Not Mine.) And formatting!

You know, I don’t want to brag but I’m going to. Just for a minute. I promise. My husband is (in my obviously biased opinion) the most amazing person ever. He came home from work last night with a Barnes and Noble bag in hand. In that bag? A beautiful, crisp, fresh, new copy of The Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones which he had the store order in for me because apparently, none of the B&N stores in New Jersey wanted to carry the book and he knew how much I wanted it. That’s a good partner right there. So friends, when you’re in a romantic relationship, I hope you’re with someone who will buy you the books you want because he/she knows it will make you happy. Because love is nice but so reading. I haven’t started reading the book yet because I have a new draft of my short-story collection to read over before sending it back to my editor but the book is sitting right next to my computer, whispering softly, “Alana, come read me, Alana.” And I will, book. I will.

Yesterday, I was trying out some things with my writing. First I did the abstract line breaks. Here’s a line break. There’s a line break. Everywhere is a line break. But I didn’t like all the white space around a line or two of text. It bothered me. So I started merging the smaller lines into larger bodies of text. That led me create giant blocks of text running between 2,000-6,000 words. For a moment, I was pleased. Then I frowned and considered the fact that there are many readers who might have some trouble with all that text squished together. It’s understandable. If it makes editing difficult and I wrote the damn thing, I should be sympathetic to those who have never encountered such a hodgepodge of words. So I went back through it and made smaller paragraphs. The only criteria was that they couldn’t be less than 500 words.

Then this morning (well, it’s still morning so earlier this morning?) I was paging through some books on my shelf, which is something I often do for inspirational purposes, and I started thinking of tabs and such. So now I have the year’s manuscripts formatted a little differently. Imagine, if you will, that I keep my document single-spaced, until it’s formatted for submission. And imagine that each paragraph is indented, while also being joined. And so I have a block of text broken up slightly, while physically being connected, allowing for the long text stretches to be more bearable because I allowed white space, but still having line breaks between each separate section. That might sound confusing so here’s a visual graphic:

     This is a little demonstration of the new way I’ve decided to format my work which is probably standard for a lot of other writers but is completely new to me.

     And it’s sort of fascinating that it’s taken me so long to write this way but what can you do?

     And so I’m going to continue rambling for another line just to demonstrate this little idea before stopping.

.

     La la la la. Here’s the new paragraph section, thus continuing the pattern. Paragraph section with smaller paragraphs, then a new section with more paragraphs. I guess you could it’s almost like an outline, with the paragraphs being the main points, and the smaller paragraphs the details of those points. Kind of.

     You get the picture.

Anyway, that’s sort of what I’m doing now. Also, imagine that in that example, the smaller paragraphs are closer together. Since indenting doesn’t really work unless I use the html codes (and I don’t want to), I used five spaces to denote each indentation. That’s the old standard from when tab keys weren’t common. Five spaces. It’s also useful for writing in an online form that won’t accept indentations. When you’re typing in a word processor, go to the paragraph formatting section of the program and check the tab settings. Sometimes, the indentations are set at a little less than .5″ (half an inch). I believe that my word processor has the default indentation set at .49″ (it might be .47″) so change that to .5″ that way you have a full half inch. It’s more even.

There’s a reason for my obsession in trying out different forms. I’ve been very concerned with reader experience. I’m trying to strike the perfect balance between what I want to create as a writer and how people read the book. When Hooks and Slaughterhouse came out last year, my mom said she never read it because the paragraphs were so long. My own mother, people! And if my mother says that the visual elements are a little much for the reader, then that’s something that must be pondered. Because my mom can’t be the only one who thinks that. I would ask my dad but he doesn’t open my books. Literally. He likes to keep them in mint condition. No one is allowed to open the books because he doesn’t want the spine being broken. He’s a weird dude. Anyway, I love my long paragraphs but I also recognize that a writer must have readers. It’s sort of helpful. So my new process (let’s hope this one lasts because we all know how wishy-washy I can be with formatting things) seems to strike the right balance between long paragraphs and brief breaks of white text to rest weary but still-reading eyes. As I continue writing today, I’ll work more on the form. But so far, visually speaking, I like how it looks. It seems like a nice balance. And maybe the formatting isn’t ground-breaking but it’s still new to me.

July 24, 2014 – Hello again

I know I haven’t really been around during the last couple of weeks but I have a good reason. I was technically on vacation. Well, it was more of a staycation really but does that matter? There were adventures. There was relaxation. There was a lot of fresh air and clarity. We walked 200+ feet above the Hudson Valley. We went to the beach and the aquarium. We walked through a lovely garden at twilight. I found a bunch of books I thought I had lost. Even better, I found a never-been-used-except-for-a-few-doodles-my-mom-did Moleskine notebook in the basement of my mom’s house. It’s now my new planning notebook, because it’s not so large that it’s unwieldy but not so small that I can’t write comfortably. Long story short, I barely did any writing since I wasn’t really home. And when I was home or in the midst of a car ride, I was either reading or daydreaming while looking out the window. So I didn’t have very much to report in the meantime. And the writing only began in earnest on Monday.

I was having some issues with the new novel the other night. I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go in. I wanted the book to sort of be a portrait of loneliness but also not. Since I find art to be so evocative when I’m writing, I made a file of inspirational pictures. It consists of photographs concerning the subject matter (more of the physical subject than the emotional) as well as paintings I thought I could work off of. Then I took out my planning notebook and started mapping out what I wanted to happen. Right now, I have about 18 plot points, which seems like a good amount to start with. Last night, I came up with a new section and wrote it down, then as soon as I put my notebook away, I came up with a better way to incorporate the idea and had to write that down. The whole purpose of being on vacation and not really worrying about writing was to just relax and let the novel’s purpose come flooding. I’ve also been really inspired by the idea of “singing sand” as well as music made from the frequencies emitted by the planets and sun. The sounds are eerie but meditative and I’ve been doing a fair bit of my writing while listening to that otherworldly music. I like the effect all these bits of inspiration are having on my writing.

Since I’ve been terrible at posting, here’s a piece for the novel that I started the other day. The piece is inspired by a trip I took to Montana in 2006. My cousin and I were exploring a ghost town partially-open to tourists. At one of the stores that was boarded up, I peeked through the smudged glass and saw a porcelain doll staring back at me. Only the doll’s face had been painted white, including its eyes, so that what I encountered was a face entirely blank except for the slightest hint of features. There’s also a little inspiration drawn from La isla de las muñecas, which is the super creepy doll island in Mexico. If you haven’t seen the pictures, look them up. The entire island is covered in dolls. Dolls hang from trees. They’re arranged everywhere. Why are they there? Their purpose is to appease the ghost of a little girl who drowned and has been haunting the island ever since. I’ve been wanting to incorporate those stories into something for years and I think this is the best way I can. It’s about dolls but not about dolls. The end result is a 2,700 word block paragraph with dolls present but not taking over anything they shouldn’t.

“Beneath one of the motel room beds, I find a porcelain doll with its eyes painted shut. Really, the eyes are painted white, smeared with what looks like whiteout to keep there from being retinas or pupils. If I tilt the doll just the right way, the eyelids close together in mockery of a blink. Out in the clown cemetery, there is a cactus overgrown with abandoned doll bodies. I didn’t put them there. They were nailed on long before I came trudging through the dunes. I keep a white sheet draped over the dolls so that when I look outside, I don’t have to see their gnarled faces. Their cheeks are cavernous, broken around the mouths so that their lips look too large for their faces. The doll beneath the motel room bed has suffered the debilitating loss of its rubber cheeks weakening. The infrastructure has fallen inward, creating a sunken quality to the face. I hold the doll by its right ankle and carry it through the hallways until I reach the kitchen. I go directly to the oven and throw the dolls into the back of the metal cavity. I turn the oven up to 475ºF and walk away, leaving the doll to melt into a coagulated mass on the oven floor.”

July 19, 2014 – Excerpt

“(5) I stumbled upon a landscape cut directly in half—one half, the top half, was a brushed on steel gray, and the other half, was a black so black there was no bottom I could see or feel; (6) the equivalent of three full city blocks was made entirely of thick red meat slabs and no matter how I tiptoed or shifted my weight, the meat squeaked whenever any part of my body fell upon it; I met a man who was stripped of all his skin and when he saw me, he demanded that I say, [What big eyes you have, what big teeth.]; (7) I wore a red hood thinking it might protect me from the carnivorous clouds but even with my hair tucked into the fabric, the nebulous forms still found it easy to nip at my nose; (8) Because I was hungry and the only items available to me were windows or curtain rods, I took my chances eating glass, which cut up my tongue but the damage was nothing a needle and thread couldn’t mend in the future; [...]“

July 11, 2014 – Writing at a moment’s notice

Sometime around dawn, I dreamed about writing. In my dream, I was packing for a trip (I believe I was going to England) and my bag was pretty much packed except for one important thing: my writing. I couldn’t figure out if I should bring a notebook or my NEO. I pondered this while running around the family home trying to find socks and a pair of boots I had forgotten in the closet. I packed the notebook, then took it out again. I replaced the notebook with the NEO, then took that out. I put the notebook back in. At this point, I was dangerously close to missing my flight. I had to make a decision but I couldn’t. I considered the options of both writing methods and just felt confused. The notebook was lightweight but whatever I wrote would have to be typed up. The NEO was considerably heavier but I could just transfer the file to the computer, making things easy on myself. While all of this was happening, I was arguing with the owner of a pizza place for giving me sass when I got upset that there were no pizza slices without meat. Also, there was a guy in the basement who wanted to start construction to make three apartments in what were formerly tiny closets. I don’t think I ever made it to the airport or finished packing my bag.

The struggle is real, my friends. I’m fantastic at packing for trips with the exception of figuring out what to do about my writing and reading. Should I bring a notebook? How many extra pens should I pack? What about the NEO? How many books should I bring? The questions are endless and I rarely have the answers. Case in point, the following writing setups for a series of trips I’ve taken over the last 15 years (not in chronological order and only including trips I distinctly remember packing for):

  • Montana/Wyoming trip, 2006 – two anthologies published by The Paris Review, pocket PC.
  • Miami, circa 1998-2000 – Jurassic Park by Michael Crighton, pad of paper
  • Family reunion, Miami, 2011 – pink Moleskine, NEO, book I can’t remember the title of because I never touched it
  • Bermuda, 2013 – One by Blake Butler and Vanessa Place, Anatomy Lessons by Blake Butler and Sean Kilpatrick, Sky Saw by Blake Butler, collected poems of Allen Ginsberg, NEO
  • Boston, 2012 – NEO
  • England, 2008 – The Tormented Mirror by Russell Edson, The Rooster’s Wife by Russell Edson, Tunnel by Russell Edson, notebook, pocket PC
  • Spain, 2001 – two notebooks (one purchased in Barcelona)
  • Hypothetical family trip, future – notebook, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

The trip set-ups are always various and never perfect. On the trips that used the pocket PC? Most often, I didn’t bother touching the device (except for Montana when I used it as a travel journal and even that was a pain because the battery never lasted). The notebooks? They weren’t used at all in Miami. The NEO? I didn’t use it in Boston. On the trips where I had a notebook, I wished for a typing device. For the trips where I had the NEO, I wished for a notebook so that my bag wouldn’t be as heavy. For the trips that had only books? I was desperate for a notebook. In my experience, here is what I figured out: for trips that involve a lot of sitting around with other people and the potential of a travel journal, a notebook is the best. For trips that are all downtime and you might not be talking to your travel companion for extended periods of time, the NEO wins (or whatever device you like to use for typing). For trips were you might be sitting around waiting but don’t want to commit to creating anything? Books. While the NEO is wonderful for typing on, there’s something to be said for actual handwriting. Part of the reason why notebooks weren’t really successful for me during some of the trips listed was because the notebooks weren’t the right size. I was using notebooks that were too small or had sewn bindings, making it hard to write on the back of the page. So I would use a larger (not too large) spiral notebook in the future.

On the subject of notebooks, I finished my latest project last night but felt a little uncertain about the final paragraph. Then as I was getting ready to do some before bed reading, a new paragraph jumped into my head. I ran for my notebook and scribbled fiercely. What resulted was an ending I was pleased with. Plus it explained the project’s title. Then I worked on my list of potential titles and considered each one. In the end, I scratched off about a 1/3 of the titles and was left with the ones I felt were strongest. I also picked the title for my new project, which I’ll be starting today. So friends, I hope that when you’re traveling, you have a writing setup that works for you. If you don’t, keep switching things around until you have a setup that works. For me, my theoretical family vacation setup seems the most ideal. But whatever your setup entails, make a point to write something. And if something doesn’t work, experiment with a different set-up the next time. Have a great weekend, everyone.

 

July 10, 2014 – Freeing the mind

When I was originally saving my writing drafts as pdf files, I put an editing mark at the beginning of each paragraph. Copying directly from a pdf doesn’t usually maintain line/paragraph breaks and by using the editing marks, I could just use the word processor’s find and replace feature to make editing easy on myself. So for awhile, part of my process involved putting the editing mark down, then starting the actual paragraph. And it was fine. But I almost looked at the editing marks as more chapter/story breaks than anything else. I didn’t like writing a series of paragraphs building off one another and having them physically broken up. To reduce that, I started doing excessively long paragraphs just to keep the text connected.

The process was fine for awhile, until I started reading Seiobo There Below. The style of the book itself was what drew me to it. It was written in the same way I imagined writing my own work. Long, elaborate, winding sentences. It was exciting. The thing is, it was hard to read. I only got a dozen or so pages in before I felt like my mind was melting. I read an article yesterday that spoke about the necessity of blank space in a work of art. The idea was that while the image was important, there was also something significant in the parts of the canvas/paper/whatever that were untouched. I think that was the problem I had while reading the book (and admittedly, editing my own work). All the lettering squished together without end sort of did a number on me. It was overwhelming. Visually, it needed to have a bit of white space to break up the text. So thinking about my experience with reading a book that was visually similar to what I’ve been trying to accomplish and then reading about visual art, I stared rethinking things.

When I mentioned the editing marks before, I said that they essentially signified the start of a new piece. Every novel I’ve been working on was a series of separate pieces. One piece after another. I wrote them with the intention of being able to use the pieces independently of one another. I almost turned the novels into an odd sort of short story collection. And while that isn’t necessarily a problem, it was stressing me out because I wanted to have those separate pieces. I couldn’t have a piece that was 10 pages long and then a piece that was a sentence. They had to be relatively similar. And so there are some scenes that were extended far longer than they should have been. There were some pieces that I stopped abruptly because I got bored.

On Tuesday, I removed the editing marks from my 2014-2016 master file (keeping the writing in three-year spanning documents instead of separate documents for each year makes things visually easy for me—I just prefer to see a small amount of files) and started writing the last part of my current project without worrying about editing marks. The editing marks were somewhat redundant in the actual document because the formatting is maintained. The document isn’t fixed like a pdf. It’s just a word processing document. Thus, the marks aren’t necessary. A paragraph is just a paragraph. But by eliminating the marks, the paragraphs became shorter. The writing seemed tighter. While the paragraphs were all related, they were still separate enough.  But writing them is easier. And reading back over them is easier. And to be honest, I don’t feel as stressed about writing the pieces. I placed unrealistic expectations upon myself with my writing and now I’m trying to return to a creative mentality that won’t feel oppressive.

But so far, the writing I’ve done has been pretty good. I’m happy with it. At the very least, I feel freer. When I feel like I need to start a new paragraph, I do. I let the story guide me instead of me trying to force the story. I think I was so used to my old mentality of doing super long short stories for chapbooks that I almost forgot that a novel needs a different process. It’s too difficult to maintain the energy on a project of 40,000+ words that I do on a project that’s only about a quarter of that size. And now, an excerpt from what I came up with after my creative upheaval:

 

“[When you left the garden, you took something with you,] the first woman says. [You took something that should never have left. Adam knew this. He lamented the loss. He called the losses your kidney stones. But they weren’t that at all. They were smaller things, egg-like. They were all the eggs Adam wished to fertilize. And he screamed and screamed. His screams echoed around Eden. They melted our wings. We screamed in response and that was the time of the screaming. The screaming wouldn’t end. Adam tore a hole in his throat from so much screaming. We came close to tearing our skin but we stopped the screaming much earlier. We weren’t screaming for you or for the lost eggs. We were screaming because Adam couldn’t stay quiet…”

July 7, 2014 – This and that

I was having some issues printing a page from my master file. I had the margins set to 0.1″ to conserve paper but because the margins were set so close to the paper’s edges, the printer kept cutting text off. So I changed the document’s margins to 0.5″ which did the trick. So when you create a file for your records, don’t be like me and create impossible margins. It’s not worth the aggravation. Use at least half an inch. Your sanity will thank you. I finished all the pending edits I had for my current project so now I can focus on adding some material to the end of another project. I thought that the newly current project was finished but I wasn’t happy with the end. The story came to a finish too abruptly and I couldn’t help but feel like there was something more to the storyline that I was missing. So I did some outlining yesterday evening and I’m pretty happy with what I came up with. There’s even a little part on the outline that my husband so helpfully inspired. He commented on something I said and the comment was so wild and so exactly what I needed that I had to scribble it down. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to get out of your own head and talk to someone you trust about a project you’re working on. You don’t have to get into detail. You just have to mention what it is that’s bothering you. Sometimes it’s really helpful to talk an issue out. You can end up really surprised by what paths the conversation leads you down. Or the person you’re talking to might say something completely innocuous that ends up being exactly what you were missing. That’s pretty much what happened in my conversation. And now I have the book’s ending mapped out. I should be able to finish it by the end of this week and then start working on the next project. I can’t wait to start something from scratch.

The planning actually went better than I had anticipated. Part of it was due to how quickly the ideas were flowing but another part of it was more physical. By that I mean the notebook size. When I did planning earlier in the year, I was using a pocket-sized notebook. I was used to all the planning being done on small pages that were cramped. I’d write a few words, go to the next line, write a few more words. A series of ideas took up several pages. Writing in the larger notebook (I mentioned last week that the notebook I’m using is about 6″ by 9″) gives me more room on each line, and thus, on each page. Yesterday’s outline took less than a single page. I know that it isn’t anything groundbreaking but sometimes I’m amazed by little realizations like that. Sometimes it’s about the little things.

I spent part of the weekend going over possible titles and adjusting some of the current ones. I’m still on the one-word-title kick but I didn’t want use words that are generic. So I ended up falling down a rabbit’s hole of dictionary words. I would come up with an idea, find the definition, click on a word in that definition, and just keep getting farther and farther away from the first word until I finally had something that was charged with energy. It’s the idea of finding the best word. And admittedly, not all the words used are in English. There are few that are in German and French because, why not? One title I originally had seemed kind of bland when it was in English but then when I found the German translation, it was music to my eyes. Anyone who doesn’t believe that words have power has never actually spent any time thinking about words. Because, friends, words are beautiful and otherworldly. They’re dangerous and seductive. They’re pretty perfect. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has encountered a word that almost seemed to speak to the soul. Granted, it would be a shame if words didn’t have any emotional effect on the writer. What’s the point of writing then?

July 2, 2014 – Excerpt

“At night, I hear the dogs whispering in your ear. I thought you had put them away a long time ago but it’s safe to say that they’ve just been hibernating. Their voices are clearer than I could have imagined. They are whining in your mouth, panting into your ears. They surround you while you watch television and eat a midnight sandwich. Their voices come from the ceilings, the walls. This house is old and so the acoustics are better than in the houses back home. When the dogs speak to you, their voices are so loud that they seem to be speaking to me. And the dogs howl into your tonsils, [You have to kill her. She's walking around, flaunting her womb. Have you noticed how golden it is? Have you realized how shining she is? It's like she carries a flashlight under her skin. She glows. It's unnatural. If something is unnatural, it is mankind's obligation to destroy it.]“

 

July 1, 2014 – Tables and tables of books.

I bought The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman over the weekend. I finished it in a few hours. It was really good. It’s one of those titles that I’ll most likely read again. After reading American Gods, I’m really starting to enjoy his work. I’ll have to get some more of his books. My husband and I were at BJ’s wholesale club getting some meat for a barbecue when I checked out the book section and found my little literary treasure. That’s my new thing when we go to the store. I scour the book section for anything that I’m remotely interested in. I have a giant list of books I want and it’s getting long. Dozens and dozens of books. So when I see a book that I can take off the list, I’m pretty overjoyed. The problem is that I end up wanting so many books that I can never completely catch up.

On the actual writing front, the current project is going well. When I first started the project, I approached it from a few different angles. One of them involved a serial killer but then I switched direction. But now I think that the section with the serial killer is the perfect thing to use for the last part of the book. The whole book has been about the main character grudgingly finding herself in a relationship with someone who is sort of a stalker/ex-boyfriend. Once I add on the serial killer aspect, it will be that as he becomes more and more oppressive in her life, he starts resorting to violence to keep her, except the violence is symbolically directed at her. I have to fix up parts of the previously written sections for that plot line but I expected that. Right now, I just need to make sure that the transition makes sense. I’m trying to lead the characters to a breaking point that will eventually cause the estrangement that will trigger the antagonist’s violent streak. I think it’s a better way to finish the story.

I’m hoping that the story will be done before the end of next week. Then I want to finish my Garden of Eden story (it’s almost done but there’s a bit more I want to add) before I can start my next project. The planned (so far) story is inspired by my being angry. I find that anger is a great motivation for creative work. The creative process becomes a bit more feral, slightly rabid. Emotion leaks into the words. So what cause the idea-inspiring anger?  I was irritated over the Supreme Court’s decision on health care and female contraceptives yesterday and immediately started writing something that expressed that anger. The story is shaping up to be about a sort of dystopian society focused on oppressing reproductive rights. Or, that’s how I imagine it at least. I have to think more about it but so far, I like what I wrote. I’d like to start writing that in August. I think it will be sort of based on a short story I wrote years ago. At the very least, the story will be providing some of the main structure. There’s some fairy tale influence involved as well. But we’ll see how that all goes once I really start writing it. First I have to finish the two semi-completed works before jumping into anything new. But the ideas are just bursting. I’d like to think that the ideas are also sprouting because I’ve been reading more. There was a brief period where I was so distracted by my writing that the reading was falling to the wayside (now I’m thinking about The Wayside School books. Those were so funny. I loved them when I was a kid). But now I’m making more of an effort to read every single day and it’s really benefitting my creativity.

I’ll post an excerpt tomorrow. Happy July 1st, friends.

June 26, 2014 – Notebooks!

Notebooks are a personal thing. Every writer has his/her favorite. Some writers like notebooks with colored paper and others like sketch books. Some like reporter-style notebooks and even more like fancy leather-bound journals from Italy. It doesn’t matter what journal style you like as long as it works for your purposes. As for me, I like Moleskine. I prefer the lined notebooks. I usual stick with the large-size notebooks because I find it easier to use both sides of the paper when the notebook has a smaller size. The thing is, people forget that with a journal like a Moleskine (i.e., most journals that are either perfect-bound or saddle-stitched), the dimensions are different when you open the book. The large Moleskine is 5″ by 8.25″ but when you open the book up, the notebook now has a width of 10″ which isn’t that uncomfortable to hold. But when you take the extra-large style into consideration (and don’t get me wrong, I love the extra-large but I rarely write on the back of the paper), what had a width of 7″ is now 14″ in length. Those extra inches make a difference, both in how you hold the book and write in it, as well as how much space you need when transcribing the work.

My personal writing set-up is a small desk with my laptop on one half of the desk and a giant printer on the other. Full disclosure: I hate the printer. Moving on. When I transcribe something from my Moleskine, I have to prop it open so I can see both sides of the page. Plus, it propping it open keeps the pages from turning as I’m typing. The problem is because I don’t really have extra room on the desk, I have to tilt my laptop on the diagonal to position the notebook where I can see it. That or I have to tuck half of the book behind the laptop, then try to move it around to see the other side. It’s a mess. And since I’m planning on spending time with nature a few times this summer, messing around with a notebook that doesn’t allow the pages to be folded back all the way isn’t going to cut it.

Long story short, I went to Staples and found two really nice college-ruled 6 1/2″ by 9 1/2″ Staples brand notebooks (they were on sale for $2 each. I love a good bargain). You might be inclined to say, “Alana, those dimensions are almost the same as the extra-large journal you said you were having issues with.” And you would be right. There’s a half inch difference with length which would be a full inch when opened all the way. But friends, this little writer got a spiral notebook. Hence, there won’t be any opening of the book all the way because there’s no point. I can fold the cover and page easily and then when I’m typing up what I wrote, I can just flip the page and move on with my life. No weird position. No scrambling. Just writing and typing. To test out the notebook, I wrote a page, then typed it. One notebook page is about 400 words when typed (the notebook has about 270 pages, so that should fit approximately 108,000 words). The actual writing act was as comfortable as handwriting can be. I think this is the start of a very productive summer.

June 25, 2014 – Files, reading, and such

Last night, I was looking at the old master file and lamenting why it was opening so slowly. No matter what program I use, it takes forever to open. At least twenty seconds (slowness is relative in the digital world) when it should have been so much faster. I decided to research why it was taking so long (admittedly, part of the reason is that the file contains 1.8 million words). The file is a doc file and as I researched, I stumbled upon a website that mentioned the new standard file format for Microsoft Office. Docx. I’ve encountered docx in the past but stuck with doc out of habit. Still, since my research led me in that direction, I continued reading. And I found out that as far as file size, quickness of conversion, and being less prone to corruption, docx is definitely better than doc. So I did a little test. I saved my master file in the new format. At that moment, I ran into another problem. My default word processor is OpenOffice. OpenOffice can read the docx files but it won’t write them. Then I checked my secondary word processor, LibreOffice, and found that docx is listed among the standard save formats. So I saved a copy, then compared. The doc version of my file is 14.5 MB. The docx version is 5.5 MB. So the new save was about a 1/3 of the original file. All my formatting was intact. I still had a picture on the last page. I exited out of both documents, then opened them again. The doc file took forever to load, as expected. The docx file had a slight delay after clicking it open but then opened right up. Even with the delay, it was still considerably faster than the doc file. So in the interest of not staring at the load screen every time I open the doc file and praying that the conversion doesn’t suddenly mess up (rendering my file useless) I switched to using the docx version. I always find that switching to a new file format is always a bit of a transition but I’m all about efficiency.

Moving on to the reading/writing front, I got ridiculously excited this morning when The New Yorker‘s Facebook Page said there was a new post from Henri Cole. I’ve been reading his “Street of the Iron Poe(t)” series with The New Yorker and I love it. His writing is so beautiful and he manages to seamlessly integrate writing about his whereabouts with different thoughts on literature. His entries are part of The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog and they’re free to read. As of today, the posts are up to part XI (11).

Reading Cole’s work makes me think about my own writing when I’m traveling. My travel journals have always been very snarky. They relied a lot on sarcastic humor but they never stopped being about me. Cole’s writing about himself but it’s also about so much more. So the next time I travel, I want to expand my thoughts. I want to be present in the writing but more in the vein of a psychic channeling a spirit. I want to be the vessel through which the traveling makes sense of something. Maybe those ideas are a little too grandiose. But still, as the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And I’m going to venture because I want to.

I’m reworking two projects as we speak. They were previously finished and then I went over them again, frowning the entire time. About half of the writing stayed but I need to reconsider the stories, give more of a plot. So that’s what I’m doing. Instead of writing the pieces as A happened, then B, then C, then D, I’m looking at them more as fragments making up a whole picture. One scene here, another scene there. It isn’t necessary that they be connected because what happens in between isn’t necessarily important to the story. Or so I think. And with those thoughts, I leave you for the day. Happy Wednesday.

June 24, 2014 – Excerpt (and a small rant)

I feel… displeased? irritated? utterly let down? Really, it’s a hodgepodge of negative emotion. I finished Doctor Sleep and it was fine. I think The Shining was better. To be honest, I’ve always preferred Stephen King’s old writing to his new stuff. Salem’s Lot and Pet Semetery were so good. This one? I didn’t feel scared. I didn’t even feel uneasy. I felt… nothing really. And then, I realized that some of the names were wrong. As in, characters that were mentioned in The Shining suddenly had different first and middle names. How can a sequel to a book be released with the names of those previously established characters being wrong? I do not approve of that. Especially since the author’s notes at the back of the book mention that a research was hired to make sure mentions of The Shining were accurate. Dude did his job wrong if he couldn’t get the names right. I just feel sad. Things started out so well in the book. I was intrigued by the opening pages. As far as the story itself, it was okay. The horror wasn’t anything I would think twice about. Actually, it’s nothing I would give a first thought about. I prefer my reading material to have more tension and atmosphere, a sort of psychological terror that makes you think, what if? Hence why I always thought The Shining was so successful. A story about a haunted hotel to think about when hotels are already creepy enough? Yes, please. A story about psychic vampires roaming the country in RVs? Eh. I think The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich did the whole modern vampire thing much better. So in closing, if you write a book and it’s based on another book, be kind to your readers and at least make sure that previously mentioned characters are named correctly. It’s such a simple thing. Moving on, I promised you an excerpt:

“When I was young, I had a tooth in my brain. Every night, I would get a headache that felt like I was chewing myself. I cried and cried until a doctor passed me beneath a machine. The tooth was at the top of my head, surrounded by thick red lines that seemed like spider webbing. A woman shaved my hair away, then a knife cut into my skull. The blade cut until a circular flap of skin could be lifted. The tooth was easy enough to extract. There were no roots. It was just a tooth, unconnected from anything. I was awake during the surgery but felt nothing. I blinked rapidly while staring at the flickering lights. I saw the scalpel and it was bloody but I didn’t care. I watched the blade crust over with my fluids. I blinked and tensed my hands. I blinked and opened my mouth. The tooth was exactly like the teeth in my mouth. But my real teeth were rooted into my jaws. They were permanent. The tooth in my head was a dental joke.”

June 23, 2014 – Getting out of the house

I spend most of my time in the house so when I get the opportunity to get out and about, I revel in it. I love being in the sunlight and breathing fresh air. When I plan a vacation, I don’t particularly like to “relax” but I don’t necessarily schedule by the hour either. I just like walking around. During the weekend, my favorite thing to do is drag my other half out on a walk. Right now, we’ve started walking around the local reservoir. It’s such a peaceful area and at the reservoir’s shallow end, there are a bunch of turtles. Just tiny little turtles sunning themselves on rocks and branches. It’s great.

So when I plan a vacation, I like to figure out what to do. What are the prettiest areas to go? What should we spend time staring at? The possibilities always seem endless. The thing is, my husband isn’t as fond of walking as I am. In his defense, his job is pretty physical and he’s usually exhausted by the time he gets home. To him, weekends and vacation are a time for vegging. This is the one area where we disagree. I hate the idea of just sitting and doing nothing. I like being on the go. When I plan a vacation, I try to balance time out of the house with time in the house. That way, I get to go to the places I want and he just revel in not having to go anywhere. It works well.

Everyone needs a little getaway from time to time just to rejuvenate. And us creative types need to see different things. If you see something different, you get ideas. If you’re always staring at the same four walls and never experiencing anything, you might have a bit of trouble with your work. It’s nice to just get to breathe a little and absorb everything. And if you’re a writer, it helps if you bring a notebook along so you can take notes on anything that pops into your head. I find that I get most of my ideas when I’m least expecting them. If I’m consciously thinking of ideas, it’s so much harder to gather them. But if I just let things go, the ideas start coming in an endless… idea flood.

It’s the same thing with reading or going to a museum. If you take time away from your own creative project to experience someone else’s creation, usually ideas will be triggered. Maybe you see a painting and you want to write a novel based on a small detail in it. Or you hear a song and suddenly, your mind is racing with images that you need to sketch out. The idea is to get out of your comfort zone and just step back. Step back from your work for a little while. Step back from our life. Just go into the world and gaze upon something you wouldn’t ordinarily spend time with. Go to a mountain and sit there. Visit a waterfall and just listen to the water pour. Go to an art exhibit. Just do something so that you aren’t in your usual frame of mind (assuming that your usual frame of mind can sometimes become bored and a little stagnant). Give yourself permission to daydream and wander. Just enjoy the world around you and then, when you get ready to create, channel everything you witnessed into something amazing.

Side note, I started reading The Shining again the other day. Then my husband and I went to the store and I saw that Doctor Sleep, which is based on one of the main characters from The Shining, was on sale. So I got it. And I’ve been reading it. It’s pretty good. It’s not The Shining but it’s good in its own right. I’m about a third of the way through. This is what I mean. Get out of your rut. Do something different. Otherwise, life starts to seem really cyclical. Tomorrow, an excerpt. Happy Monday.

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