"When Writing is a Two-Way Street: Writing with a Partner" with Cheryl Zach and Michelle Place.

Thursday, November 16, 2000

MODERATOR is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l00+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Nicole Byrd is the pen name for the writing team of Cheryl Zach and her daughter, Michelle Place. They write historical romance for adults, including Robert's Lady (Jove), out in May, and Dear Imposter, an August, 2001 release.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! Tonight should be a lot of fun! We're here to talk about "Writing with a Partner," or collaborating as authors. I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator and the web editor for this site. Tonight Cheryl Zach and her daughter, Michelle Place, will discuss what it's like to co-author historical romance novels. They write under the name "Nicole Byrd." Robert's Lady was out in May and Dear Imposter is due out in 2001. Welcome, Cheryl and Michelle!

Nicole Byrd: Delighted to be here :)

Moderator: Cheryl, let's start with you first. How did you get started writing?

Nicole Byrd: I had been writing for years and hoping to write historical novels for adults. I met an agent at a writing conference, and she advised me to do a category romance. I did and it sold--first book--but the genre was not a good fit for me, so I sequed into writing books about teens, which ended up sold as young adult (YA) romance. These did well, and I also tried middle grade children's novels, but I still had my original dream, and finally got back to trying a historical novel, ready to talk to grownups again. :)

Moderator: Michelle, how about you? How did you come to writing?

Nicole Byrd: I was studying to be an interior designer, then realized if I had to do this for one more day I'd jump out the window, so I had an epiphany and decided I really wanted to write. I switched my major to English and writing.

Moderator: Are you each writing separately, as well as collaborating?

Nicole Byrd: Yes, that's the plan, but Michelle has an almost two year old son, so she gets little else done right now!

SaraJ: Cheryl, what was that first book you sold--and which genre wasn't "a good fit" at the time?

Nicole Byrd: Oh, it was TWICE A FOOL, a Harlequin Temptation, and it made the Waldenbooks romance bestseller list, and was translated into over a half dozen languages, but I felt constrained in the genre, limited in topics and style. Besides, I lost the editor who bought (and loved) the proposal and ended up with another editor, with whom I didn't really see eye to eye. So switching to the YA was a relief.

christine collier: Michelle, has your interior design study ever come in handy with your writing?

Nicole Byrd: Certainly, especially researching settings for different time periods.

Moderator: How do you physically work together, i.e, does one type and one dictate?

Nicole Byrd: Actually, we work at different times, the other often baby-tending. Then after I write a rough draft, Michelle edits, and vice versa. We go over a scene several times before it's done.

Moderator: What kind of a work schedule do you have? Are there hour goals or page goals you set?

Nicole Byrd: We set page goals. Ten pages might take two hours on a good day, ten hours another! We're not that strict, though we do keep an eye on the deadline. We're concerned with quality and making the scene work, and some flow more easily than others.

Jon456: So you actually work in the same house/office, and on the same computer? Whose?

Nicole Byrd: Fortunately, Michelle lives close by, so we usually work in my study, which is bigger.

Moderator: Do you plan the book together--brainstorming together--or does just one of you do the plotting?

Nicole Byrd: Absolutely, that's one of the best things about having a writing partner. We talk and talk and consider possibilities and bounce ideas off each other.

Moderator: Do you work online together, like e-mailing drafts and revisions to each other to critique?

Nicole Byrd: We don't have to now because we're close, but we might in the future. BTW I did know a writing team in southern California; the older woman wrote the books and her daughter-in-law plotted; complete division of work. I know another writing team who do middle grade children's novels, who work like we do; one does one chapter and the other the next. We're not that strict; usually the person who is most enthused is the one who writes the first draft of the scene.

AnneKelly: How did you get the idea to work with your daughter?

Nicole Byrd: That was just happenstance, mostly. I certainly knew Michelle was very talented and she's well read in historical romance. When I put aside my doubts about leaving the 'safe' area where I was already published, I asked her to critique my rough draft. She had great ideas and good instincts about when the scene could be improved, so I finally said, hey, you write this one and she did, and it was a great rough draft, so we said, hey, this works!

Moderator: When you're blocked or lethargic or whatever, is it helpful (or an irritation) to have a writing partner who is expecting your share of the work to get done?

Nicole Byrd: It can be both, Michelle says! Sometimes it's just what you need to get you going, and sometimes it is irritating. But most of the time, in those moods, we need a good swift kick in the a-- :) You take your motivation where you can get it.

Lesley: Do you hold each other accountable for work getting done? Michelle, is it hard to do that with your own mother?

Nicole Byrd: She's not standing me over me with a whip, happily :) but yes, it does sometimes get hard to forget that your partner is also your mom.

Moderator: Can people collaborate who don't actually live close to each other? If our viewers wanted to try it, could they?

Nicole Byrd: Yes, one of the teams I mentioned started writing when they lived close by and worked together, actually, but one moved away. Now they do fine with e-mail and FAX and plain old snail mail when needed.

Moderator: Would this be similar to working as an author/illustrator team?

Nicole Byrd: Actually, there are very few of those. Most picture book writers, for example, never talk to the person who illustrates their books; the editor picks the illustrator. There are a few teams, like husband and wife Audrey and Don Wood, who are both writers and both illustrators, I believe, and they sometimes work together.

Moderator: How on earth do you work with your mother/daughter/anyone close without killing each other?

Nicole Byrd: We drink heavily. (JOKE!) That was Michelle (grin). It requires tact and more tact (Cheryl). We know each other very well, often have the same tastes, and get along very well, honestly, and our styles blend well (genetics?). Writing is such a solitary job that having a partner can be an inspiration and comfort (Michelle).

SaraJ: Are your personalities opposites? Is that almost a necessity to work together?

Nicole Byrd: No, our personalities are, if anything, too alike. Enough alike that we have a shorthand when we discuss a scene, and often pick up on each other's ideas.

Moderator: Is it difficult to NOT take criticism (of the manuscript) personally when it comes from a relative?

Nicole Byrd: Yes! You have to remind yourself that it's the book that matters, even if we don't agree. After thinking about it, one can usually see the other's point of view, in more ways than one. Re: the POV question, when we started, Cheryl was accustomed to using single point of view in the YA books; Michelle wanted to do multiple POV in the same scene. Cheryl was initially resistant, but after we tried it, decided she agreed that it worked best for what we wanted to do. So now we do switch POV, not just at scene breaks, though Cheryl still insists (bigger grin) we do it very skillfully. Which Michelle agrees, of course.

AnneKelly: Do you find it hard to stop talking about work when you're together, i.e., at a family gathering?

Nicole Byrd: I found it harder to take the personal life out of our work (Michelle). I can stop working more easily. Cheryl tends to keep thinking about the plot or the characters. Besides, Michelle has a two year old who can be very attention demanding, and that takes her back to reality!

Moderator: How about the mother/daughter thing? Mom, in a disagreement, do you "pull rank" either as the mother or the writer with more publishing credits and experience?

Nicole Byrd: I try not to pull rank either way, certainly not as 'mom' which is not pertinent when we are working. Michelle is aware that I published a bunch of books (she says I'm polite about it. (LOL) She says she'd be a fool not to listen to anyone with as much publishing experience. On the other hand, Michelle reads widely of current titles, so she has a good sense of what's out there and what's popular.

Marlene: How did you come up with the pen name, and also, do you mind not having your real names on the covers of the books?

Nicole Byrd: The pen name is from our names, actually. Cheryl Byrd Zach and Michelle Nicole Place, so Nicole Byrd. Michelle says she feels that Nicole Byrd IS part of her, though she does want to see her 'own' name on books too, someday.

Moderator: Cheryl, you said people often asked how you write the love scenes when you're working with a partner. DO you?

Nicole Byrd: Now, love scenes, boy, do we get questions about that. First, we do love scenes the same way as any other scene, one writes the rough draft, the other person goes at it, then we keep revising and trying to improve. Michelle says, in the love scenes, she's thinking about the CHARACTERS, not about her mother, or we'd be talking serious therapy here. :) And Cheryl adds, I think lovemaking is part of a developed adult relationship, usually, and a healthy part. And I'm a widow, Michelle is married, she has a baby who didn't come from under the cabbage patch :) So we know the facts.

Moderator: You write historicals, so someone needs to research the periods. Do you both research, or how is that handled?

Nicole Byrd: We both research, we're both Anglophiles and love history, both have college degrees, so have experience with research, but also just enjoy browsing through this time period, which is our favorite. (Regency England, early 19th century, before the Victorians got too stodgy )

christine collier: I saw a book for sale in the Writers Digest Book Club that would tell you everything about a certain period of time, for instance, what shoes cost in the 1870's etc. Do you ever use books like this for your historical novels?

Nicole Byrd: Yes, we probably have that book, and many more. But don't feel you have to buy every research book you use. Interlibrary loans are really helpful, even if you live in a small town, say, as your library can search for a specific title and find it elsewhere, then retrieve it for you. Great stuff. You can also find likely titles in the bibliographies of other history books. And there's the Internet, of course, though I don't find that has replaced plain old books just yet.

SaraJ: You talked about writing love scenes: do the historical romances vary much with how "graphic" the love scenes might be? Can you give some examples of different kinds? I've read inspirational ones, and some that aren't "specific" at all, and some that are rated X.

Nicole Byrd: Some novels are more graphic in their love scenes than other, whether historical or contemporary and 'mainstream.' Literary books are sometimes the most graphic of all. There are numerous romance sites on the web which rate books and often will tell you how 'sexy' the book is, so you can look for what you prefer. They vary a lot in how graphic the scenes are written. Ours are sensual but nothing we'd hesitate to give to our relatives. :) However people have different tastes, and you should go for what suits you. When I wrote that first contemporary romance, I went home to my conservative, church-going family (both Michelle and I are church members, BTW, which is neither here nor there regarding the book). Anyhow, I tried to break it gently to my relatives that I was writing a book with sex in it. My aunt listened intelligently and nodded. "I just read a book by John Irving," she said, "with rape, group sex and homo-erotic stuff in the first chapter. Like that?" she asked. "Good lord no," I said. "Just plain ordinary sex!"

Moderator: When dividing the writing, do you decide who writes what on a day to day basis?

Nicole Byrd: Yes, depending on how it's going, who is excited or inspired, who has a baby with a cold (grin). Michelle says she often takes a scene which she feels is a challenge, and will stretch her writing skills, as with a card game in a gaming hell in our upcoming book, DEAR IMPOSTER. A gaming hell is the grandfather of night clubs, in early 19th century London. Also, in DEAR IMPOSTER Cheryl wrote the first chapter in which Gabriel appears and Michelle wrote the first scene (a good one, too, her partner says!) in which Psyche appears, and gives us a good look at her personality and her special problem, which has led her to make up a fiance and hire someone to play the part. But it wasn't Gabriel! The best thing about writing with a partner is being able to stretch your abilities.

Moderator: How do you handle the writing when you don't agree on the direction it needs to go? Can you think of a specific example in your book and how you handled it?

Nicole Byrd: Sometimes we may have to try it both ways, or just have faith in the other person and see what happens if she does it her way. And if it works, wonderful; if it doesn't work, that's what revision is for!

james55clinton: Do you follow an outline strictly?

Nicole Byrd: Not strictly, no. We do have an outline, but if the story leads us another way, we often go with it. Michelle likes an outline better than Cheryl does. Some of this may be experience but also it's different writing styles, I suspect. So we have an outline, but it's not cut and dried. Sometimes a character will develop in ways slightly different than you had expected.

james55clinton: Who does the marketing duties?

Nicole Byrd: Michelle reads the online boards and enjoys them; she found several sites which do reviews, and we submitted galleys of ROBERT'S LADY. Cheryl wrote copy for some print ads in Romance Writers Report and Romantic Times, and we do have an agent (jointly).

Moderator: How does a joint agent work?

Nicole Byrd: About the same way an agent always works. Cheryl had had two past agents, but had been working on her own with the YA books, but when we decided to write together, we went to several writing conferences, one of the best places to have the chance to hear an agent speak and get an idea about her personality and working style. We saw our current agent there and then submitted a partial manuscript. She liked the ms. and took us on. So in the end, it's the ms. that counts, not how many writers have created it.

SaraJ: To sell adult fiction, is it necessary to have an agent, even if you're unpublished?

Nicole Byrd: It helps, but many houses still accept unagented queries or proposals. A proposal is usually a short plot summary, under 10 pages, and up to three chapters so they can see your writing style. If you're not published they will likely ask to see the finished novel before you get a contract offer since they have to know that you can finish the book too! Another way to get an "in" with houses that may not be open to unsolicited mss. is to attend conferences and hear editors speak, and they may allow people there to submit ms. proposals. You might also be able to get a critique or five minutes to 'pitch' your novel. Boy, is that nerve-wracking. Practice first, is our advice. We did that, before we got our agent, though ended up selling to a different house after she submitted the ms.

Moderator: Are contracts done differently with collaborators? Do you each get a separate contract and payments?

Nicole Byrd: We have the same contract, with both our names on it and both are legally responsible for the work. They divide the checks and send each to each.

SaraJ: For tax purposes--who gets the deductions for mileage, paper, etc. and how do you file?

Nicole Byrd: We keep our own expense list and file, and when I buy something, I keep the receipt, for paper, computer supplies, conference trips, etc., and Michelle does the same. We have not incorporated under the Nicole Byrd name, though if we became really successful (we should hope!) it might be a possibility.

Moderator: How long do you intend to collaborate? Or is it just book by book?

Nicole Byrd: As long as the books are successful and we're having fun with it! As long as people want to read us :)

SaraJ: If you're interested in collaboration, but don't have someone in mind, is there a good way to find someone else who might also be interested? What should a person look for to find "a good fit"?

Nicole Byrd: I have to say I couldn't work with very many people; this was more of a fortuitous accident than something we planned to do. I think you'd have to really 'click' with the person. Make sure your views about what kind of book you want to write is very close. Michelle and I know each other very well, and have similar tastes, and even then we sometimes don't agree and have to sit down and talk it out. But mostly, we blend well. Even our editor says she can't tell where one of us stops and the other starts.

Moderator: Have you done book signings together or other promotional efforts as a team? Is promoting yourself easier that way?

Nicole Byrd: Yes and no. We haven't so far done a lot of book signing, because until you become well known, it's hard to attract people into the store, unless it's a special event. But on the other hand, being a mother-daughter writing team is different, after all, and I think our editor and publisher see PR possibilities there. Not that they have put us on the talk shows (grin) but I think it's a selling point. We did have a nice article in the local Nashville paper, and obviously it made a difference. The day the article came out, our sales dipped to 816, the first time we had broken a thousand. And this is very good for a 'first book' by a new author.

SaraJ: What do you mean "dipped to 8l6" on and broke a thousand? Is that sales?

Nicole Byrd: Yes, that's the ranking, but we don't know (they don't tell us) exactly what the sales figures are on Amazon. It just means that 815 books were, at that moment, selling more copies than ROBERT'S LADY and about two million were selling fewer copies.

Moderator: What kind of response did you get from your editor/publisher about writing as a team? Or did you even tell them it was a collaboration when you submitted that first book?

Nicole Byrd: Oh, yes, you don't want to keep secrets from your publishers. When we submitted, we had on the ms, Cheryl Zach and Michelle Place, writing as Nicole Byrd. For the contract, they do have to know your real name, for many reasons. There are a number of writing teams out there, so this is not terribly unusual, and editors are accustomed to dealing with it. I think they probably would want to know that you work together well and will not split up in the middle of a book, for instance. It does happen.

Lesley: Why do you think romances sell so well? The numbers I've read are huge!

Nicole Byrd: We think that they speak to us on a basic level; we all want to be loved and respected and appreciated. It's a very validating genre, both to women and as far as basic family structure, the value of love and loyalty and commitment. One romance writer says that romance holds the myths that speak to women, not just conquering the world, like men's fairy tales, but learning to love and trust and share your life, and much more. See Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz, where romance novels are examined in a scholarly way, as to archetypes and themes. Very interesting study.

Moderator: I never looked at it that way! Interesting! Ladies, what's your next project together?

Nicole Byrd: Our next book out will be DEAR IMPOSTER, out next August. We're calling it our Regency 'Remington Steele.' Our heroine creates a fiancé in order to rescue herself and her younger sister from a bleak future, and in walks this rogue with ideas of his own, and a dangerous past that has followed him and will plunge them both into perilous adventures. We like adventure AND romance, in case you haven't guessed. That book is already at the editors and we are discussing new ideas right now.

james55clinton: Is romance mainly paperback in the first printing?

Nicole Byrd: Often, most 'new' writers start with mass market paperback as the price makes the book accessible to many readers. Once an author has built a following, she or he may go to trade paper or to hard cover. And the novels are also sometimes picked up for book clubs in hard cover, even if they were published in original paperback.

Marlene: I think you mentioned earlier about being translated into foreign languages. Do you write with foreign audiences in mind, or just American?

Nicole Byrd: Basically, we just write the very best story, with sympathetic characters and an exciting plot; we try to keep the setting authentic. Whether it will translate well is something you really can't think about at the time, and is often hard to predict. But romance novels do make up an enormous share of the popular fiction market, with more sold than mystery or science fiction or horror, or any other genre you could think of. And literary novels sell much smaller numbers, by comparison, but get more review attention, by their nature.

james55clinton: Translations are tricky. We had a trade name 'Herculon' which sounded dirty in Spanish. Do you have any control?

Nicole Byrd: Sorry, we had to laugh. No, we don't have any real control over translations, and to be honest, I don't speak six languages, only a little French. Michelle speaks a little Spanish, so we wouldn't be able to tell how accurate it was anyhow. Michelle says she would only know if they changed the title to I Need a Glass of Water. (No, I will not attempt that in Spanish!) Sorry, we're getting a bit giddy here.

enyoc: You said the book was in the hands of the editors but wasn't due out until August. Is this about a normal time for a known author?

Nicole Byrd: Part of it has to do with the publisher's schedule; they only have so many books that can go out each month, and the stores only have so much room on the shelves. That's a big problem, actually, getting the books in the stores. Big name people can take up several shelves, and new authors have to pray to get a space in there somewhere :)

Moderator: Which writers do you two admire in this field?

Nicole Byrd: Cheryl: My favorite authors include Susan Wiggs and Pat Potter. Jude Deveraux's KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR is a classic. If you like historicals with more history, Dorothy Dunnett's Francis Crawford series, which starts with GAME OF KINGS, is excellent, set in Tutor England and the rest of the world. Michelle says: I have a lot; among them are 'old' Sandra Brown titles, Judith McNaught, Jude Deveraux, Annionette Stockenburg, Julie Garwood, Julia Quinn, and more.

Moderator: Do men write romances? Do they use women's pen names?

Nicole Byrd: Some men do write romance novels, such as Harold Lowery, just elected president of Romance Writers of America, who writes as Leigh Greenwood, I think, and is successful. And everyone knows about THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, which was a commercial success, though his latest books haven't done very well.

Moderator: Do you belong to Romance Writers of America? Why or why not?

Nicole Byrd: Yes, yes. Cheryl has been a member since the early 80's and Michelle joined a while back. It's a great resource for new writers who need to learn about the field, in writing skills, basic techniques, marketing, and business concerns. It also helps published writers share info and have a bigger voice in the publishing arena.

SaraJ: With the thousands of romances already written, how do you ever come up with an original idea?

Nicole Byrd: There's no such thing as an original idea (ask Shakespeare) but you try to put a new twist on an old idea. Also, if ten of you wrote about a boy and a dog, there would be ten very different stories when we were done. We all pull in our own life experiences. One of the reviews of ROBERT'S LADY noted that this book's basic conflict involved a man who has been declared dead, then comes back from the Napoleonic wars and finds his fiance, whose image kept him alive in a rathole of a French prison, married to someone else. The reviewer said it could really be about any returning POW from any war, as far as the homecoming issues and the conflicts that Robert and his new bride face... who is the sister of his'd have to read the book to find out exactly why this happens (grin). I hadn't really thought about that, but after I read the review (she loved the book) it occurred to me (Cheryl) that I am old enough to remember the Vietnam war, and knew friends who left college and never came home again. And we always take our own experiences, our own life story, and put it into whatever we write. This is another way that the same basic plot line is always different for different writers. I used to tell the kids when I spoke about writing in school visits that the story is made up, but the emotions are real.

AnneKelly: Would a male writer use a woman's pen name because mostly women read romances?

Nicole Byrd: Yes, although there are a few closet male readers out there. We just got a letter from a guy who was 65 and enjoyed ROBERT'S LADY. But mainly the readers are female. (Michelle says we don't count the guys behind bars).

SaraJ: Are there certain "rules" you must follow when writing romances in general and/or historical romance specifically?

Nicole Byrd: The only genre which has 'rules' are the category, and even those are much more open to new ideas than they were even when I started. Most readers want a happy, or at least bittersweet, and emotionally satisfying ending, and characters they can identify with. Michelle said years ago she read a 'romance' with an unhappy ending, and she never picked up that author again. Readers do have expectations. If we want unhappy endings, we can read Tess of the D'urbervilles (grin). We both have English degrees, mind you, so can poke fun. Or Cheryl says, we get enough in real life to cry about. Why pay money to cry?

AnneKelly: Where can we find specific help if we want to break into this field?

icole Byrd: New writers who need more specific details should look for a RWA chapter near you; check the RWA web site for local chapters. Also, Julie Beard just published The Idiot's Guide to Writing Romance Novels, and there are other texts out there. Just watch the date they were published, because this market and the readers have changed a lot in the last ten or twenty years. No more innocent virgins and brooding older men, no more "alas poor me" stories.

teddybear: How would you begin to write books with your mom, if you would like to write with her?

Nicole Byrd: Michelle began by critiquing my rough drafts, then she wrote a rough draft, and it worked well into the story, so we decided to collaborate.

SaraJ: Can you tell us what a romance writer--a new one--might expect to earn on their books in this field?

Nicole Byrd: Don't put the down payment on the villa in France yet. A new writer might get anywhere from two or three thousand up to five or six as an advance on a first novel. Hopefully, your readership will build, and with it, your advances. You usually get an advance against a royalty payment, which is best. A few publishers want to give you a flat fee, but that is not a good deal for the author. A first sale author will not have much room to negotiate, however, with or without an agent. After some success, you can begin to bargain. :)

Moderator: Is this one genre in which you could earn a living writing full-time? How many books per year would that take?

Nicole Byrd: Yes, you can, but not starting out. Some people who write short books may do four or five books a year, but people like us who write longer novels may do one or two a year. These books take time to write, and there is also a lot of research to do. You sometimes hear about new authors getting a big advance, but that is rare, and newsworthy because it's rare. Not that many writers are Stephen King with his millions!

Moderator: Do you get paid more for historical romances than regular ones, due to the extra work researching history?

Nicole Byrd: No, not really. You may get paid a little more considering it is a longer book, but basically, you get paid, in the end, according to how many copies you sell. Which brings us to the publishers and their horse-drawn checks. That is, they are always late, sigh. You get royalty statements twice a year, and you never know how much you will get. That does make it hard to budget. Most writers have another 'real' job when they start out, or a spouse with a regular pay check. Later, you hope to achieve more income. (Michelle says she is rubbing every bottle she finds, looking for that genie with the moneybags.)

Moderator: Me too!

SaraJ: How long are your historical romances? Word length, that is? And is that predetermined for you?

Nicole Byrd: Good question. Our books are around 100,000 words; DEAR IMPOSTER turned out about 125, 000 words. Publishers usually have ideas about how long the book should be (word length will be in your contract). Longer books cost more to produce, also, because of paper costs, etc.

Moderator: I'm sorry to interrupt this fascinating discussion, but I'm afraid we're out of time. Thank you both, Cheryl and Michelle, for coming tonight to share on a topic few of us know anything about. I'm sure you've inspired several people to try collaborating!

Nicole Byrd: It's been a pleasure. Good luck to all the new writers out there!

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on November 30 when we'll be talking with Karen Hammond about "Write Time." Karen will talk about writing wherever you are in your life--young parent, retiree, city dweller, or living in a small town. She'll discuss finding time to write and finding things to write about, then how to get those things into print. Karen's work has appeared in national publications and she has written it all: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and books, winning several awards for her writing. So do come back in two weeks to discover that no matter what your situation is, it's the "Write Time." In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, and safe travels! Good night!

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