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Anne R. Allen's Blog

...WITH RUTH HARRIS

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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."


Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Secret to Writing the Dreaded Synopsis...and its Little Friends: the Hook, Logline, and Pitch


If you "won" at NaNo, and you're madly editing that manuscript, you're probably thinking about how you're going to go about sending it into the marketplace.

Or you may have spent years working on a manuscript and one of your New Year's resolutions will be to get it published.

Whether you're going to jump on the old query-go-round or you're planning to go indie, you need to learn a new set of skills—how to "pitch" a book, using things like hooks, loglines, and...the dreaded synopsis.

Yes, even if you self-publish. That's because your "product description" on Amazon and other retail sites will combine elements of all of three. Book reviewers usually ask for a short synopsis, too.

NOTE: If you plan to query agents or publishers, be sure to check the individual websites to see exactly what each one requires. The specifics may vary even between different agents in the same agency.

A query letter usually starts with a hook, and most agents want you to include a one or two page synopsis (double spaced) as well.

I've heard a lot of agents say they don't pay much attention to the synopsis, but they want to see one to find out if the book has a satisfactory ending. They also want to be reassured that zombie werewolves from Betelgeuse don't suddenly appear in chapter 25 of your sweet romance.

But a few agents and editors read them carefully. And some still ask for hefty ten-to-twelve page tomes. (It's my own opinion that an agent who asks for a twelve-page synopsis lives too hopelessly in the past to be much good representing work to modern publishers, but make your own decision on that.) So you do want that synopsis to be polished and enticing.

If you get to meet an agent or publisher in person, you're also going to want to have a great pitch ready, and you may get asked for a logline.

So logline, pitch, hook, and synopsis: what are they? Aren't they all sort of the same thing?

They are similar in that they are composed in the present tense and give the bare bones of your story. The difference is length and manner of presentation. And a synopsis always tells the ending.

LOGLINE is a term once applied only to screenplays, but it has been creeping into the literary world. It consists of one or two sentences describing the story’s premise, like a film description in TV Guide:

Here’s the basic formula for a logline:

When______happens to_____, he/she must_____or face_____.

Here's one for the Wizard of Oz:

“When Dorothy Gale gets tornadoed to Oz and accidentally squashes an unpopular head of state, she must find a wizard to help her get home to Kansas, or be killed by the ruler's evil sister and some nasty flying monkeys.”

A HOOK is longer—a paragraph or two giving the characters, premise, and conflict, like a book jacket cover blurb. (Skipping the cover blurb accolades. Self-praise doesn’t just sound narcissistic, it screams “clueless amateur.”) It should also state genre and word count.

The hook should be the main component of a query letter to an agent, editor, or reviewer and is essential for your back copy or Amazon blurb.

“The Wizard of Oz is a middle-grade fantasy novel set in a magical land where much of the population suffers from self-esteem issues. When Dorothy Gale, a Kansas farm girl, arrives via tornado, she accidentally kills the ruling witch. The witch’s powerful sister wants Dorothy dead, but Dorothy only wants to get home, which she cannot do until she finds the right traveling shoes.”

Or you might want to try the “Hook Me Up” formula of the late, great Miss Snark. (Although I suggest stating the setting first if it's an important factor, especially for fantasy or sci-fi.)

X is the main guy; he wants to do_____.
Y is the bad guy; he wants to do_____. 
They meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't resolve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.

Don’t take the “bad guy” reference to mean you need to make your novel sound as if it has a Snidely-Whiplash-type villain. The antagonist can be anything that keeps the protagonist from his goals, from a wicked witch to the hero’s own addictions. If you want to read more on antagonists, Kristen Lamb has a fantastic blogpost on the subject, “Introducing the Big Boss Troublemaker.”

A PITCH can contain either or both of the above. You can make a pitch in writing or in person. It tells—in the shortest possible time—what your book is about and why somebody should buy it. This is what you prepare before you go to that Writers’ Conference, hoping you’ll get trapped in an elevator with Stephen Spielberg or an editor from Knopf.

When composing your pitch, you want to answer these questions: Who? Where? What’s the conflict? What action does the protagonist take? What are the stakes? How is it unique?

To get started, it's fun to play with Kathy Carmichael’s clever “pitch generator”. It's fun and amazingly useful.

Here’s her generator’s pitch for the Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz is a 54,000-word fantasy novel set in the magical land of Oz. Dorothy Gale is a Kansas farm girl who believes a legendary wizard can help her get home. She wants to return to Kansas to be with her Auntie Em. She is prevented from attaining this goal because her transportation vehicle is sitting on a dead witch, she’s being attacked by flying monkeys and her companions are a little dim.

A SYNOPSIS is a run-down of the complete plot, including the ending. Also include the genre and word count up front. It needs to include some details, but not a lot (one page is about 250 words.)

I know. Yikes. It's like taking your baby and squashing it into a horrible little box that hides all its beauty and subtlety and sparkle.

But here's the secret: you'll find it much easier to write a synopsis if you start with a hook or logline first. Try putting your story into Kathy's "pitch generator" and then add to the result.

That's right: work on the logline first. Imagine you're pitching your book to a film producer. Get all the sizzle you can into those few words.

Then write your synopsis using that as your first sentence.

This is a trick I learned from my friend Catherine Ryan Hyde, who was the #1 author on Amazon this summer, and the author of the iconic novel Pay It Forward. Here's what she says in our book, How to Be a Writer in the E-Age:

"You were worried about boiling 104,000 words down to 250. Weren’t you? Now you’re not boiling down...you get to expand it! You’ve got some elbow room, now! Boy howdy! You get to fill up a whole damn page!"

Try it. I'm not pretending it's not going to be easy, but Catherine's method makes it less painful.

In all four, you also want to convey the tone of your book:

1) You can have a humorous logline:


“When the romantic adventures of a southern belle are interrupted by an icky war PLUS her goody-two-shoes-BFF steals her boyfriend, Scarlett whips up a fabulous outfit in order to seduce Mr. Wrong, who in the end, doesn’t give a damn.”

2) Or punch it up by emphasizing high-stakes conflict:

“With his life in constant danger from the monstrous carnivore Snowbell, young Stuart must fight for his life, and prove once and for all whether he is a man or a mouse.”

3) Or go for the thrills by emphasizing the most dangerous scene:

“Marked for death along with his companions, a toy rabbit must learn to cry real tears in order to save himself from being thrown into a burning pit by the boy loves.”

4) Or give the overall premise:

"When the adopted son of Kansas farmer discovers he’s a strange visitor from a another planet, he tries to save the world, one clueless girl reporter at a time, in spite of opposition from an assortment of megalomaniacs armed with green rocks."

Then keep working on it.

Remember these are your most important sales tools. Whether you're selling to an agent, editor, or the general public, you want to make them sizzle. Pick out the elements that make your story unique and hit them hard.

Then leave out all the other stuff. Yeah, I know—easier said than done. But it's worth putting a lot of time into. These few words are as important as any you’ll ever write.

What about you, scriveners? Do you hate writing synopses? I'd love for readers to try the pitch generator and put your pitches in the comments.


Books of the Week

This week I'm featuring two books by Dr. Shirley Seifried Allen, my mom. 
She died last Sunday night, December 1st, at the age of 92. 
She published her mystery Academic Body at the age of 89.

I hope you'll consider buying one to honor her. I learned most of what I know about writing synopses (and pretty much everything else) from her. She was a Bryn Mawr PhD. who taught English Literature and creative writing at the University of Connecticut for many years.
She's also the author of the nonfiction book, Samuel Phelps and Sadler's Wells Theatre, published by Wesleyan University Press. It's out of print, but still available used. 

Roxanna Britton, a Biographical Novel. Special December sale: Only 99c on Amazon, Amazon UK, and Amazon CA


"This has become one of my all time favorite stories of "real" people. Ms. Allen's adept use of dialogue and her clear eye for drama and suspense kept me compulsively turning the pages. Her evocation of a bygone era, rich with descriptive details--the historical Chicago fire is one vivid example--is absolutely brilliant. 

I will never forget Sanny and her family, especially her struggle and her daughters' struggle to become individuals in a male dominated world. But it is family that triumphs in the end; and the need for it to survive resonates most deeply in my mind and heart. An excellent novel that I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys reading true stories about people who not only overcome adversity with grace and integrity but through strength of character also prevail. Well done, Ms. Shirley Allen!"...Ann Carbine Best


Academic Body: A Classic Cozy Mystery in the Agatha Christie tradition. Available for $2.99 at Amazon US, Amazon CA, Amazon UK, Nook (where it is mysteriously only 99c), and Kobo

"The academics at Weaver College are maintaining their exemplary standards, setting a stellar example for their students. Extramarital affairs, presumptuous posturing, blackout drinking, and gossip are part of campus life for this faculty. 

But when their blackmailing dean is suddenly murdered, all who saw him that night become suspects. Retired stage director Paul Godwin, lately turned professor, and his actress wife Lenore ponder the dean's death with the theatrical knowledge of given circumstances, personal motivation, and a thorough comprehension of Shakespeare's classic tragedies and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which seamlessly parallel the action. 

A hilarious farce about college life delivers us to the circumstances that lead to murder most foul."...Kathleen Keena


Opportunity Alerts


Dog Lovers! Here's one for you: AMERICAN KENNEL CLUB FICTION WRITING CONTEST  NO ENTRY FEE. Submit one short story, maximum 2,000 words. Entries can be on any subject, but must feature a dog. (But it can't talk) Prizes $500, $240, $100. Deadline January 31, 2014. 

CRAZYHORSE PRIZES IN FICTION, NONFICTION, POETRY $20 fee (includes subscription). This is a biggie, well worth the fee. This venerable literary magazine has published the likes of John Updike, Raymond Carver and Billy Collins. Winners in each category receive $2,000 and publication. Submit up to 25 pages of prose or three poems. All entries considered for publication. Submissions accepted in the month of January 2014 only.

DRIFTLESS REVIEW ANNUAL FLASH FICTION CONTEST $15 ENTRY FEE for up to three stories. Each short-short story limited to 500 words. $500 prize. Deadline December 31

Dark Continents Publishing's Guns and Romances anthology. They're looking for previously unpublished short fiction from 3500-9000 words. Any genre as long as there's a tough protagonist, weapons, and... at least one reference to music. Sounds interesting. Payment rate is a one-off of $20 per story plus a percentage of the ebook royalties. Publication estimated in late-2014. More info on the website. Closing date for submissions is February 28, 2014.

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35 Comments:

Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Very sad about Shirley.
Good breakdown of all those elements. The back of book blurb is something I struggle with the most. However the logline comes much easier. Go figure.

December 8, 2013 at 11:12 AM  
Blogger Keith said...

Thanks for such a clear and concise... er... synopsis of the process, Anne. I'm currently writing a historical novel with three main characters so the standard approach to crafting these sales tools doesn't quite work for me. The three people's lives are intertwined throughout the story and each character has a complete arc, but it seems my logline and hook would be excessively long if I attempt to reveal all three. The overarching story that unites the three people is the lumber boom along the California coast that brings fortune, then ruin, then obscurity to the towns in Mendocino County. Would it be better for me to focus on that aspect instead?

December 8, 2013 at 11:16 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alex--Thanks. It's a tough time. The back of the book blurb is basically your hook, so the "hook me up" formula may help.

Keith--I have that problem too. When you're writing a "sweeping saga" it's hard to know which character to focus on. You might find that treating the setting as your main character does the trick, as you've suggested. "When the lumber boom hit the Northern California Coast, it brought three people, who...." might be a good way to start.

December 8, 2013 at 11:34 AM  
Blogger pat said...

Well, I tried the pitch generator and don't think it'll work for me -- but here's the result, as you requested (slightly edited for grammar).

"Advice From Pigeons is a fantasy novel set in the Royal Academy of the Arcane Arts and Sciences at Osyth. Hiram Rho is a brand-new faculty member in the demonology department who believes animals are more trustworthy than humans. He wants recognition and success to provide the security his life has been missing. He is prevented from attaining this goal because he's picked up a demon with its own agenda."

The main weakness I see in this is tone. It doesn't leave space for any of the throwaway words I used in the real tag to clue people in that it would be academic satire. Though had I known just how the generator worked, I could have inserted that stuff. OTOH, maybe the generator knows better than I what readers really care about.

I'm sorry to hear about your mother. I've purchased her mystery - it looks right up my alley!

December 8, 2013 at 12:44 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Pat--It's true that the generator produces a kind of dry product. But you can use it as the framework and add some words that will punch up the humor. Sounds like my kind of book! Love it. I hope you enjoy my mom's tale of nefarious deeds in Academe!

December 8, 2013 at 12:54 PM  
Blogger kat anderson said...

Thank you for this info. I'm not to that point in my writing yet, but I have it bookmarked for when the time comes for publishing.
My condolences to you and your family on the loss of your mom. I love mysteries and will read her book.

December 8, 2013 at 1:04 PM  
Blogger Tamara Marnell said...

Those fake loglines are hilarious, and I know you put them up for entertainment, but they're terrible examples of real loglines. They make fun of their stories more than sell them. If you were to put them on Amazon product pages, people would think Gone with the Wind is chick lit and The Velveteen Rabbit is a dark thriller.

It's crucial to convey the tone and genre of your story--possibly more crucial than conveying the content--because potential readers, editors, and/or agents will use it to make a snap prejudgment of the reading experience. The description generates certain expectations that, if they decide to buy and read your book, you are obligated to fulfill...or fail at your peril.

If your story isn't sexy or exciting, but you make it sound sexy and exciting to sell it, people will be disappointed. Even angry. It's dangerous to make your logline steamy if romance isn't the focus of your plot, or to stuff it with high-stakes fast-paced action when your book is slow and sweet. The sizzle has to be genuine.

December 8, 2013 at 1:16 PM  
Blogger Joy Moore said...

I got so inspired I dropped my laundry and finished my log-line.

Thanks to you!

December 8, 2013 at 1:37 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

December 8, 2013 at 2:11 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

kat--Sometimes if you try to write a logline for a WIP, it can help you move forward, so even if you aren't ready to "sell" your work yet, this will help you set your goals.

Tamara--That was exactly my point. I wanted to show (in a humorous way) that you can show genre and tone in a logline. If you can make a kids' book sound like a thriller or a historical saga sound like chick lit with just a few words, you can show the genre and tone of your own work.

I always assume my readers will get my jokes, but it's true not all minds work the same as mine.

So for people who don't get my humor: you don't want the logline of your book to sound like the wrong genre, even though that's what I've done here for comic effect. That would be like putting a shirtless man on the cover of a cozy mystery, or a cartoon girl with a shopping bag on the cover of a dark Scandinavian thriller. Everybody gets disappointed.

Joy--I apologize to your laundry. :-)

December 8, 2013 at 2:20 PM  
Blogger Chihuahua Zero said...

In small town Missouri, the local weird kid is the main guy, along with three other classmates; they want to destroy the portal spitting out dangerous Celtic creatures.

A deranged professor is the bad girl; she wants to keep the portal open and keep the creatures for themselves.

They meet in town, and [insert Celtic afterlife] breaks loose.

If the portal doesn't close, then a swarm of monsters will swarm through and then it's "goodbye, town".

How does that sound?

December 8, 2013 at 5:07 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Chihuahua--That's a great one. "Dangerous Celtic creatures"--I think I went to that bar once. LOL.

December 8, 2013 at 5:17 PM  
Blogger Trekelny said...

My personal record for reading and responding to your wonderful posts! And it's a great one- I've been struggling so hard to write the current WiP that it feels like my old synopses and hooks were ancient history. And I've never encountered the log-line. Have to try it out. Maybe if I synopsize the story, I'll be able to actually write it!
Take care and good to see you back- your mom serves as an inspiration to everyone, publishing at that point in her life.

December 8, 2013 at 5:31 PM  
Blogger ryan field said...

This is a great, solid breakdown of something highly important we all need to know, and not just for querying.

I also completely agree with this statement below. I remember doing that years ago, and it would be a red flag for me now:

"(It's my own opinion that an agent who asks for a twelve-page synopsis lives too hopelessly in the past to be much good representing work to modern publishers, but make your own decision on that.)"

That's really something more along the lines of an outline now. I've done plenty of outlines for publishers in the past, and there's nothing wrong with that. But as for a query I'd be cautious.

December 8, 2013 at 5:38 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

C.S Perryess scrolled down a bit to far and put this on an earlier post. It's too good to lose. Here's his pitch for his YA novel, WAYNE'S LAST FIT.

"Great post -- the generator is a stitch. Here's what it did for my early YA MS, Wayne's Last Fit:

Wayne's Last Fit is a 37,000-word Young Adult novel set in middle class suburbs. Grady Whitman is his disabled older brother's keeper who believes in a bizarre Uruguayan acupressure method. He wants to bring his brother back from a coma and get Celia's attention. He's an ethical, yet shy guy. He is prevented from attaining this goal because Wayne is in a coma and Grady is clueless about girls. "

December 8, 2013 at 7:02 PM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

This information is exactly what I needed at the exact time I needed it. But then, you do that all the time, somehow! Thanks!

December 8, 2013 at 7:54 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Trekelny--I have a mystery author friend who always writes a synopsis for her novels--then changes it every week as she writes. But she says she couldn't get through the first draft without her ever-changing synopsis. So it might work for you.

Ryan--I'm glad you agree. I wouldn't have felt that way a few years ago, and I've written my share of looooog-a$$ synopses and outlines, but these days, the agent needs to know the art of the pitch as much as we do. And yes, we need pitches and synopses for all sorts of things, like querying reviewers.

CS Perryess--I would totally read that book. Fascinating and unique premise! Uruguayan acupressure. That's the opposite of "derivative"!

Christine--I hope it helps you write that golden query that gets you your dream agent!

December 8, 2013 at 8:16 PM  
OpenID joanneguidoccio.com said...

WOW! This post could easily replace any "How to Get Published" workshop I have ever attended.

Thanks for all these wonderful tips.

December 9, 2013 at 9:58 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Joanne--High praise indeed. Thanks so much. Glad to hear the post helps!

December 9, 2013 at 10:19 AM  
Blogger G. B. Miller said...

It took me about two months to write a synopsis for my novel "Line 21".

Having no real clue on how to write one, I had to Google "synopsis" and check out a half dozen websites, print a few detailed pages, then write multiple drafts to distill it down to 1000 words/4 pages.

When I wrote the synopsis, blurb and hook for my novella, time frame was much shorter:

1) Hook: one week.
2) Blurb: one hour.
3) Synopsis: twenty minutes.

December 9, 2013 at 3:09 PM  
Blogger fOIS In The City said...

So sorry to pipe in late, Anne. My heart is with you this week. Your mom was a great lady and I see the "nut" didn't fall far from the tree.

Thanks for introducing her to us and thanks for being you :)

December 9, 2013 at 5:43 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

G. B.--Looks as if you learned your "hooker" lessons very well :-)

Fois--Thanks so much. It's a tough time. But she had a wonderful, long life.

December 9, 2013 at 6:30 PM  
Blogger Rosi said...

Sorry to hear of your loss. You do seem to be soldiering through. This was a terrific and helpful post. I've bookmarked it.

December 9, 2013 at 9:27 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Rosi--Thanks so much. My mom was generous to a fault, and she taught me that helping others is the best road to happiness. So if I helped a few writers with this post, I'm carrying on her tradition.

December 9, 2013 at 10:12 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Anne. I'll try the place as character for a start. When I was first trying to get a handle on my story, I also created a logline for each main character. That exercise really helped me clarify the arc for each character.

December 10, 2013 at 7:52 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Keith--That's BRILLIANT! Why haven't I thought of that? Write a logline for each character. Boom. I think that will help me with my WIP. Secondary characters can be a trial. If you don't tell enough about them, they're cardboard, but if you tell too much, they can hijack the story. Hmmm--I feel a new post coming on. Thanks, Keith!

December 10, 2013 at 9:08 AM  
Blogger Keith said...

Anne,

Glad I could provide some inspiration in return for what you've given us. Here are my character and story loglines, tweaked up after your wonderful advice:

MC#1
A free African American man in Gold Rush San Francisco learns of the new Fugitive Slave Act and seeks refuge along the Mendocino Coast to protect his freedom.

MC#2
Forced into a marriage of convenience with a much older man, a young woman tries to cope with lost love, isolation, and the hardships of 19th century, male-dominated Mendocino County lumber towns.

MC#3
When a young man becomes disgusted with his father’s business failures, he heads for Gold Rush California, determined to find fortune and leave his indelible mark on the world.

Entire Story
When a lumber boom strikes 19th century Mendocino County, the lives of three people become entwined as they struggle to make a place for themselves along California’s rugged Redwood Coast.

Thanks again.

December 10, 2013 at 12:04 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Great stuff, Keith. Thanks for sharing it and thanks again for the tip!

December 10, 2013 at 12:20 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

What can I say, Anne? This is, pardon the pun, pitch perfect. All anyone needs to know to ease their way into a synopsis. Loglines, yep. First step for me when I set out to write the first word. Sets the tone. If I veer a bit from the initial log line and it works, I just modify it and keep on going to the end. Can't say enough about log lines and love the idea of whittling them down to the first sentence of a synopsis. WHodathunk? I'm gonna give it a try. Next time with my NaNo draft. Perfect timing for all of us nono-ing into the new year. Thanks so much for this helpful guide. Worth it's weight in diamonds.

December 10, 2013 at 2:00 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Paul--Thanks much. I've never started writing a book with a logline, but it's a great idea! Might help with my stalled WIP, at this point, too.

Major congrats on your Rainbow Award for "The Other Man".

December 10, 2013 at 2:26 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

I'm sharing this post on my author page! Great stuff here. I struggle with all of it. But…I like writing a skeleton log line and jacket copy before I write the first draft. It helps keep me focused. Of course it's terrible and has to be rewritten, but that's ok.

December 12, 2013 at 6:41 AM  
Blogger Kittie Howard said...

I'm so sorry about your mother, Anne, and send you hugs during this difficult time. I will purchase her book once I post here.

December 12, 2013 at 8:59 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Julie--Thanks much for the share. When I first started writing novels, I didn't have any kind of synopsis or logline and I wasted a lot of time on meandering storylines I had to cut later. I think writing one--even if it's utterly changed later on--is a great idea.

Kittie--Thanks. I'm so glad you're going to buy one of her books. She was an amazing woman.

December 12, 2013 at 9:43 AM  
Blogger Leanne Dyck said...

I like your idea about starting with the log-line and pitch and then writing the synopsis.
The tips I'd add are start writing your synopsis when you've reached the middle of your first draft. By that time you've figured out the story and you're stoked about it. Also follow your protag. Meaning, when considering what to leave in, all things concerning her.

December 13, 2013 at 4:36 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Leanne--Great tip! I tend to let secondary characters run away with the plot, so "follow your protag" is something I should embroider on a sampler! Thanks.

December 13, 2013 at 5:03 PM  

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