Flash Fiction:
a complete story in one thousand words
or fewer.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

First Scene of a Novel

This 983-word novel excerpt is a solid piece of prose from J over at Hatrack River. (Did I mention that I solicited blog entries from Hatrack? :) ) It's relatively transparent: there's nothing standing between the reader and the story, no poetic language, no high diction. There's maybe a touch of country flavor to it, which, as you'll see, fits his setting and characters.

My goal, as usual, is about 25%. As you'll see, I only got down to 19%, but I'm still reasonably happy with the results.

Here's the original:

Micah slammed the bailing hooks into the last bale of hay in the cart. The bales were dusty and heavy and Micah's back ached from wrestling them over the cart's high sidewall. Ballard's sons huffed and sweated, stacking the bales Micah had unloaded against the back wall of their father's barn. The last bale thumped onto the barn floor, and Micah dropped the hooks and started slapping straw dust from his tunic.

"Can you handle those?" Micah nodded to the tumbled pile of unloaded bales in the middle of the barn floor. One of the brothers grunted, the other nodded. Micah climbed onto the driver's bench, and picked up the loose-lying reigns. Before he could twitch them, the carthorse ambled forward past the barn door and turned to the left, down the well-worn track to Ballard's house. Micah gave the reigns a tug just before the cart drew even with the front door. The horse looked back at him reproachfully. Father and Ballard stood in the doorway. Ballard was a big man, broad and sturdy, like most of the men that lived outside of the city. Father was larger still, a good four inches taller and broader across the chest. Both men were sun-dark and leathery, forearms corded from a lifetime of labor. Micah resembled his father, and took a secret pride in his inherited physical strength. He was careful never to boast of it, though. Strength was a gift of Thoth, and to boast of it without giving Him credit was to risk losing it.

As the cart drew up, the two men shook hands. Father climbed onto the bench beside Micah, and lowered the sack he was carrying into the cart bed. The horse started forward and turned left again, down Ballard's lane, heading for the cobbled stone road. Micah felt a thrill of pride at the road. The road ran parallel to the Great River though the center whole country, broad and straight from Great River's mouth at the edge of the desert in the south to the mountains in the north. Its whole length was cobbled stone, nearly three hundred miles all told. It had taken more than a generation to build, even with Thoth's aid, and Micah gloried in belonging to a people who could build such a thing. That, Father said, was the difference between their people and the outlanders. Their people were growers and builders who labored for Thoth, and were rewarded by Thoth in His generous mercy. Outlanders were thieves, selfish and godless. Pungent fresh cheese smells leaked from the sack. Micah's mouth fell open in unabashed desire.

"Close your jaw, boy; we'll be home for supper soon enough." Father said. Micah's teeth snapped shut, but his stomach growled.

"Any news from Ballard?" Micah asked, mostly to cover his embarrassment. Travelers on the River Road carried news, and they often stopped to buy feed or a bed in one of the spare rooms at Ballard's. Father leaned out of the cart and spit, careful to make sure his saliva did not land on the sacred road itself.

"More of the same, but worse. Outlanders raiding the southern herds. Big group of them rebuilt that bridge on the Little River near Alhay. They got a flock or two back across the bridge, and scattered what they didn't take. If the rumors are true, Thoth might be displeased with the number of cattle at the fall sacrifice."

"The Judges will recover the flocks," Micah said, believing it. Judges were invincible. "Especially if it is necessary to please Thoth at the sacrifice. They'll chase the outlanders across their own bridge into their own lands if they need to." Micah had every confidence that this was so. "Thoth is with them."

"Surely He is, as He's with all of us. Maybe even more so." Father nodded, then sucked on his teeth, like he did when he was thinking. There was more news. Micah waited. Father would tell him when he was ready.

"A Judge was killed during the raid."

Micah jerked back on the reigns involuntarily. The horse tossed its head and kept walking. "Not Jacob?"

"No, not Jacob, praise be to Thoth. Judge Asher of Alkut. He attacked the raiders alone on their way back to the bridge."

Micah's stomach unclenched. Anger replaced worry.

"There must have been a thousand outlanders to do such a thing! How many did he kill?"

"Ballard says he killed twenty, but rest of the brutes climbed over their own dead and got him."

"Dead?" Micah asked. Excitement and dread rose in his chest. Shame at the reaction followed. Judge Asher was one of Thoth's chosen, to whom the safety of Thoth's people was owed, and his passing demanded sincere mourning. Micah tried to conjure sadness, but the nervous excitement in his gut would not be ignored.

"Dead," Father said. "They'll have to hold trials three months from now, at the fall sacrifice, so they can anoint someone to replace him."

Micah released his breath slowly. There was going to be an anointing, and he was of age. It didn't happen for everyone. Judges were nearly invincible. Thoth protected them Even though they fought constantly against outlanders, they rarely died. They suffered losses so infrequently that many men went right through the age of eligibility without a chance to try. As Father had. Micah would turn twenty-six at the fall sacrifice. Three more months, and his time would have passed. Three months, and he would have been old enough to seek permission to marry. He had set his mind to marrying. But now a Judge was dead, and he, Micah, was still of age. A tremendous weight slammed into his shoulder and he jumped. It was Father's hand. Father was smiling.

"Don't worry, son. You're a powerful strong man—stronger than your brother was. We'll see about making you stronger still come fall."

983 words. As I read through it, I thought I noticed a little bit of redundancy and some overuse of prepositional phrases. The latter can be deadly: not only do they lead to bloat, they can also impart a monotonous rhythm. And of course, I'm always on the lookout for forms of "to be", which can often be rephrased more concisely and powerfully.

Besides the grammatical trimming, I also think we can eliminate some of the extra content. If there's stuff I don't need to know right now, don't tell me. Of course, only the author knows whether something's important enough to introduce early, but as usual I'm going to cut as deeply as I can -- you can always put stuff back later.

Here we go.
Original:
Micah slammed the bailing hooks into the last bale of hay in the cart. The bales were dusty and heavy and Micah's back ached from wrestling them over the cart's high sidewall. Ballard's sons huffed and sweated, stacking the bales Micah had unloaded against the back wall of their father's barn. The last bale thumped onto the barn floor, and Micah dropped the hooks and started slapping straw dust from his tunic.

Bailing hooks, last bale, bales were dusty, last bale. The next paragraph starts with a reference to unloaded bales. There's got to be a way to condense all of those references.

"into the last bale of hay in the cart": I may not be able to trim this particular sentence, but three prepositional phrases in a row tells me that I should be on the lookout for them.

We know the bales were heavy, because Micah's back ached from wrestling with them -- we're showing and telling here.

Something I notice whenever I cut things: we humans repeat a lot of the same words inadvertently. "the tumbled bales Micah had unloaded" is in once sentence, and "the tumbled pile of unloaded bales" is in the next paragraph. This isn't a slam against J -- it's something I notice in my own writing, too. And it's a sign that we should condense.

To just tidy things up, I might do something like this:

Cut:
Micah slammed his hooks into the cart's last bale of hay. His back ached from wrestling the dusty bales over the high sidewall. Ballard's sons huffed and sweated, stacking the unloaded heap against the back wall of their father's barn. The bale thumped onto the barn floor, and Micah dropped the hooks and slapped hay dust from his tunic.

Not bad. 72 words goes to 59, an 18% cut.

I could have said, "Micah's back ached as he slammed the hooks", but the force of "Micah slammed" is good, and shouldn't be mucked with.

I changed "pile" to "heap" because I didn't want to lose the sense of "tumbled", but I thought that "unloaded" was important to make sure the reader knew that the Ballard boys were outside of the cart.

"Micah had unloaded" might be good if the author wants to emphasize that Micah did all that work, and that the other brothers couldn't keep up with him. I'm taking it out; it's the author's call if he wants to keep it.

Some nits: "reigns" becomes "reins", and since straw is different from hay I change "straw dust" to "hay dust". If J knows better, he can change it back.

Okay, but can we take it farther?

What's the purpose of this paragraph? I got several things from it:
  • Micah is strong, keeping Ballard's sons busy all by himself.
  • They are country boys: farmers maybe, familiar with animal husbandry.
  • I got a bit of the hay dust in my mouth from the imagery.


I know from the first read-through that there's a man named Ballard, but so far neither the man nor his sons have any particular relevance to the story: they're just so much furniture. We should probably minimize the amount of space that they take up. How about this, instead?

Cut:
Micah dropped the last bale of hay onto the barn floor. His back ached. He hung his hooks on the side of the cart and slapped hay dust from his tunic.

Ballard's sons were stacking the heap of unloaded bales against the wall of their father's barn. ["Can you handle those?"...]

(To make this work, I had to shift the reference to Ballard's sons to the next paragraph. I kept those words in the word count, though. The words in square brackets don't count against my percentages, because they're part of the next section to be cut.)

This is better. 72 goes to 47, a 35% cut.

From my own hay-mowing days, I know that I personally wouldn't drop the hooks: I'd hang them. (Of course, I never wore a tunic, either.) That change made it possible for me to open with "Micah dropped the last bale" without worrying about Micah also dropping his hooks. I might also cut "His back ached", but it adds another of the six senses to the description.

I've now spent over 40 minutes on 72 words. Time to move on...
Original:
"Can you handle those?" Micah nodded to the tumbled pile of unloaded bales in the middle of the barn floor. One of the brothers grunted, the other nodded. Micah climbed onto the driver's bench, and picked up the loose-lying reigns. Before he could twitch them, the carthorse ambled forward past the barn door and turned to the left, down the well-worn track to Ballard's house. Micah gave the reins a tug just before the cart drew even with the front door. The horse looked back at him reproachfully. Father and Ballard stood in the doorway. Ballard was a big man, broad and sturdy, like most of the men that lived outside of the city. Father was larger still, a good four inches taller and broader across the chest. Both men were sun-dark and leathery, forearms corded from a lifetime of labor. Micah resembled his father, and took a secret pride in his inherited physical strength. He was careful never to boast of it, though. Strength was a gift of Thoth, and to boast of it without giving Him credit was to risk losing it.

As the cart drew up, the two men shook hands. Father climbed onto the bench beside Micah, and lowered the sack he was carrying into the cart bed. The horse started forward and turned left again, down Ballard's lane, heading for the cobbled stone road. Micah felt a thrill of pride at the road. The road ran parallel to the Great River though the center whole country, broad and straight from Great River's mouth at the edge of the desert in the south to the mountains in the north. Its whole length was cobbled stone, nearly three hundred miles all told. It had taken more than a generation to build, even with Thoth's aid, and Micah gloried in belonging to a people who could build such a thing. That, Father said, was the difference between their people and the outlanders. Their people were growers and builders who labored for Thoth, and were rewarded by Thoth in His generous mercy. Outlanders were thieves, selfish and godless. Pungent fresh cheese smells leaked from the sack. Micah's mouth fell open in unabashed desire.

I wanted to edit these paragraphs separately, but notice that they both contain similar imagery. The personality of the horse, the well-worn tracks, Ballard and Father talking and shaking hands, Micah's pride in his family, his people, and his god. In fact, it's a little odd that Micah gives a tug in the first paragraph, and the second paragraph starts "As the cart drew up." I think these get cut together.

These paragraphs give me the personality of the horse (which incidentally reinforces Micah's animal husbandry characteristic), a feel for the physical characteristics of the local stock, a view into Micah's relationship with his father, and a taste of his respect for Thoth.

Notice in the second paragarph how J refers to Micah heading for the road, the thrill of pride at the road, the road ran parallel.

Cut:
[Ballard's sons were stacking the heap of unloaded bales against the wall of their father's barn.] "Can you handle those?" Micah asked. One brother grunted, the other nodded. Micah climbed the cart onto the driver's bench and picked up the reins. Before he could twitch them, the carthorse ambled past the barn door and turned left, down the track to Ballard's house. Micah was still several hundred yards away when he saw Ballard and Father in the doorway. Ballard was a big and sturdy man, like most of the country folk. Father was larger still, a good four inches taller and broader across the chest. Both men were sun-dark and leathery, forearms corded from a lifetime of labor. Micah resembled his father, and took a secret pride in his inherited strength. He never boasted, though. Strength was a gift of Thoth, and to boast of it without giving Him credit was to risk losing it.

Ballard and Father shook hands as the cart drew even with the front door. Father climbed onto the bench beside Micah and put a sack into the cart bed. The horse started forward and turned left again, down Ballard's lane, heading for the cobbled stone road. Micah felt a thrill of pride: the road ran broad and straight for nearly three hundred miles, paralleling the Great River from the desert at its southern mouth to the northern mountains. It had taken more than a generation to build, even with Thoth's aid, and Micah gloried to belong to the people who could build it. That, Father said, was the difference between their people and the outlanders. Their people were growers and builders who labored for Thoth, and Thoth rewarded them in His generous mercy. Outlanders were thieves, selfish and godless. Pungent fresh cheese smells leaked from the sack. Micah's mouth fell open in unabashed desire.

364 words to 294, or a respectable (though not thrilling) 20%. I think I'd like to cut more, but it's tougher than it looks: though Ballard's not needed on his own, his description is actually a foil for Father's.

Cuts are judgment calls, as always. For instance, I thought that a "track" is usually well-worn so I cut "well-worn"; the emphasis it provides that this route has been taken many times before doesn't seem necessary. Your mileage may vary.

As a side note, I think the last two sentences should be a new paragraph.
Original:
"Close your jaw, boy; we'll be home for supper soon enough." Father said. Micah's teeth snapped shut, but his stomach growled.

"Any news from Ballard?" Micah asked, mostly to cover his embarrassment. Travelers on the River Road carried news, and they often stopped to buy feed or a bed in one of the spare rooms at Ballard's. Father leaned out of the cart and spit, careful to make sure his saliva did not land on the sacred road itself.

"More of the same, but worse. Outlanders raiding the southern herds. Big group of them rebuilt that bridge on the Little River near Alhay. They got a flock or two back across the bridge, and scattered what they didn't take. If the rumors are true, Thoth might be displeased with the number of cattle at the fall sacrifice."


I didn't have a lot to cut here. If I were cutting this "for real", as part of a larger editing job, I would change a few things (a comma inside the quotation marks before "Father said" in the first paragraph, for instance). Since I'm just trying to cut, I'll leave those alone.

I didn't think I should cut anything in the first paragraph; the third is dialogue, and I don't want to lose the flavor that J gave his characters (note how terse Father is, because that comes into play later); so I only cut the second paragraph, like this:

Cut:
"Any news from Ballard?" Micah asked, mostly to cover his embarrassment. Travelers on the River Road often stopped at Ballard's for feed or a bed, and they carried news. Father leaned out of the cart and spat, making sure his saliva did not land on the sacred road.

For the second paragraph, 58 words becomes 48, a 18% cut. For the whole section, 137 becomes 128, only 7%.
Original:
"The Judges will recover the flocks," Micah said, believing it. Judges were invincible. "Especially if it is necessary to please Thoth at the sacrifice. They'll chase the outlanders across their own bridge into their own lands if they need to." Micah had every confidence that this was so. "Thoth is with them."

"Surely He is, as He's with all of us. Maybe even more so." Father nodded, then sucked on his teeth, like he did when he was thinking. There was more news. Micah waited. Father would tell him when he was ready.

"A Judge was killed during the raid."

Micah jerked back on the reigns involuntarily. The horse tossed its head and kept walking. "Not Jacob?"

"No, not Jacob, praise be to Thoth. Judge Asher of Alkut. He attacked the raiders alone on their way back to the bridge."

Micah's stomach unclenched. Anger replaced worry.

"There must have been a thousand outlanders to do such a thing! How many did he kill?"

"Ballard says he killed twenty, but rest of the brutes climbed over their own dead and got him."

"Dead?" Micah asked. Excitement and dread rose in his chest. Shame at the reaction followed. Judge Asher was one of Thoth's chosen, to whom the safety of Thoth's people was owed, and his passing demanded sincere mourning. Micah tried to conjure sadness, but the nervous excitement in his gut would not be ignored.

"Dead," Father said. "They'll have to hold trials three months from now, at the fall sacrifice, so they can anoint someone to replace him."

Note in this excerpt how much J hammers repeats Micah's faith in the Judges. "believing it." "Judges were invincible." (Note that later he says "Judges were nearly invincible.") "Micah had every confidence". Again, J is showing us (through Micah's speech) and telling us (with a series of asides) the same thing: Micah has faith in the Judges. We can cut a lot here. I'll leave in one internal reference just to show that Micah's sincere, and cut the rest.

Similarly, "There was more news" is Micah's way of reacting to "then sucked on his teeth". I don't need to be told that Father sucks on his teeth when he's thinking, because Micah's reaction makes it obvious. I also like the anticipation created by the choppy sentences stuck together, which contrasts nicely with Micah waiting for Father to be ready.

Also, we've already seen that the Judges are protectors of Thoth's people, so I think we can safely cut that.

Because Father is terse, I made him more so. For example, "Ballard says he killed twenty" is a longish way of responding to "How many did he kill?", so that went to "Ballard says twenty."

I cut "Micah asked" because the dialogue is a clear back-and-forth, and used his name instead of a pronoun in the following sentence ("Excitement and dread rose in his chest.").

Cut:
"The Judges will recover the flocks," Micah said. Judges were invincible. "Especially to please Thoth at the sacrifice. They'll chase the outlanders across their own bridge into their own lands if they need to. Thoth is with them."

"Surely He is, as He's with all of us. Maybe more so." Father nodded, then sucked on his teeth. There was more news. Micah waited. Father would tell him when he was ready.

"A Judge was killed during the raid."

Micah jerked back on the reins involuntarily. The horse tossed its head and kept walking. "Not Jacob?"

"No, not Jacob, praise be to Thoth. Judge Asher of Alkut. He attacked the raiders alone on their way back to the bridge."

Micah's stomach unclenched. Anger replaced worry.

"It must have taken a thousand outlanders! How many did he kill?"

"Ballard says twenty, but the brutes climbed over their dead and got him."

"Dead?" Excitement and dread rose in Micah's chest, followed by shame. Judge Asher was one of Thoth's chosen, and his passing demanded sincere mourning. Micah tried to conjure sadness, but the nervous excitement in his gut would not be ignored.

"Dead," Father said. "They'll hold trials three months from now, at the fall sacrifice, so they can anoint someone to replace him."

258 words becomes 220, an 18% cut.
Original:
Micah released his breath slowly. There was going to be an anointing, and he was of age. It didn't happen for everyone. Judges were nearly invincible. Thoth protected them Even though they fought constantly against outlanders, they rarely died. They suffered losses so infrequently that many men went right through the age of eligibility without a chance to try. As Father had. Micah would turn twenty-six at the fall sacrifice. Three more months, and his time would have passed. Three months, and he would have been old enough to seek permission to marry. He had set his mind to marrying. But now a Judge was dead, and he, Micah, was still of age. A tremendous weight slammed into his shoulder and he jumped. It was Father's hand. Father was smiling.

"Don't worry, son. You're a powerful strong man—stronger than your brother was. We'll see about making you stronger still come fall."

Cut:
Micah released his breath slowly. There was going to be an anointing, and he was of age. It didn't happen for everyone. Judges rarely died, even though they fought constantly against outlanders. Many men went right through the age of eligibility without a chance to try. As Father had. Micah would turn twenty-six at the fall sacrifice, just three months before his time would have passed. Three months, and he could have sought permission to marry instead. He had set his mind to marrying. But now a Judge was dead, and he, Micah, was still of age. The tremendous weight of Father's hand slammed into his shoulder and he jumped. Father was smiling.

"Don't worry, son. You're a powerful strong man—stronger than your brother was. We'll make you stronger still come fall."

152 becomes 133, a 13% cut.

Doing this blog is somewhat artificial, because I explain the reasons behind all of the cuts. When I look at everything together, I sometimes make additional cuts or put things back. What follows may be slightly different from what I have above. Here's the final version:
Micah dropped the last bale of hay onto the barn floor. His back ached. He hung his hooks on the side of the cart and slapped dust from his tunic.

Ballard's sons were stacking the heap of unloaded bales against the wall of their father's barn. "Can you handle those?" Micah asked. One brother grunted, the other nodded. Micah climbed onto the cart. As he took the reins, the carthorse ambled past the barn door and turned left, down the track to Ballard's house. Micah was still several hundred yards away when he saw Ballard and Father in the doorway. Ballard was big, a sturdy man, like most of the country folk. Father was larger still, a good four inches taller and broader across the chest. Both men were sun-dark and leathery, forearms corded from a lifetime of labor. Micah resembled his father, and took a secret pride in his inherited strength. He never boasted, though. Strength was a gift of Thoth, and to boast of it without giving Him credit was to risk losing it.

Ballard and Father shook hands as the cart drew even with the front door. Father climbed onto the bench beside Micah and put a sack into the cart bed. The horse started forward and turned left again, down Ballard's lane, heading for the cobbled stone road. Micah felt a thrill of pride: the road ran broad and straight for nearly three hundred miles, paralleling the Great River from its southern mouth in the desert to the northern mountains. It had taken more than a generation to build, even with Thoth's aid, and Micah gloried to belong to the people who could build it. That, Father said, was the difference between their people and the outlanders. Their people were growers and builders who labored for Thoth, and Thoth rewarded them in His generous mercy. Outlanders were thieves, selfish and godless.

Pungent fresh cheese smells leaked from the sack. Micah's mouth fell open in unabashed desire.

"Close your jaw, boy, we'll be home for supper soon enough," Father said. Micah's teeth snapped shut, but his stomach growled.

"Any news from Ballard?" Micah asked, mostly to cover his embarrassment. Travelers on the River Road often stopped at Ballard's for feed or a bed. Father leaned out of the cart and spat, making sure his saliva did not land on the sacred road.

"More of the same, but worse. Outlanders raiding the southern herds. Big group of them rebuilt that bridge on the Little River near Alhay. They got a flock or two back across the bridge, and scattered what they didn't take. If the rumors are true, Thoth might be displeased with the number of cattle at the fall sacrifice."

"The Judges will recover the flocks," Micah said. Judges were invincible. "Especially for the sacrifice. They'll chase the outlanders across their bridge into their own lands if they need to. Thoth is with them."

"Surely He is, as He's with all of us. Maybe more so." Father nodded, then sucked on his teeth. There was more news. Micah waited. Father would tell him when he was ready.

"A Judge was killed during the raid."

Micah jerked back on the reins involuntarily. The horse tossed its head and kept walking. "Not Jacob?"

"No, not Jacob, praise be to Thoth. Judge Asher of Alkut. He attacked the raiders alone on their way back to the bridge."

Micah's stomach unclenched. Anger replaced worry.

"It must have taken a thousand outlanders! How many did he kill?"

"Ballard says twenty, but the brutes climbed over their dead and got him."

"Dead?" Excitement and dread rose in Micah's chest, followed by shame. Judge Asher was one of Thoth's chosen, and his passing demanded sincere mourning. Micah tried to conjure sadness, but the nervous excitement in his gut would not be ignored.

"Dead," Father said. "They'll hold trials three months from now, at the fall sacrifice, so they can anoint someone to replace him."

Micah released his breath slowly. There was going to be an anointing, and he was of age. It didn't happen for everyone. Judges rarely died, even though they fought constantly against outlanders. Many men went right through the age of eligibility without a chance to try. As Father had. Micah would turn twenty-six at the fall sacrifice, just three months before his time would have passed. Three months, and he could have sought permission to marry instead. He had set his mind to marrying. But now a Judge was dead, and he, Micah, was still of age. The tremendous weight of Father's hand slammed into his shoulder, and he jumped. Father was smiling.

"Don't worry, son. You're a powerful strong man—stronger than your brother was. We'll make you stronger still come fall."

983 becomes 793, a 19% cut. That's respectable, though not that deep, and when you consider that J will probably want to put some things back in, we'll be lucky to hit a total of 15%.

Why not cut more? For instance, "Father was larger still, a good four inches taller and broader across the chest" could be "Father was larger, four inches taller and broader across the chest" or even "Father was a good four inches taller, and even broader." But I thought that "a good four inches taller" gave the prose a flavor, a kind of country smoke, that I didn't want to lose. Your judgments -- and J's, more importantly -- may differ.

Also, I'm not upset about only getting 15%. It's nothing to sneeze at. 15% off at a store saves real money, and 15% off a story -- if you really don't need what you're cutting -- keeps the pace that much faster. Heck, if I dropped 15% of my weight, I'd go from 195 pounds to 166 -- I'm sure both my wife and my doctor would love it! So while my goal may have been higher, I think I would have done too much violence to J's prose if I had tried to hit it.

What do you think?

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1 Comments:

Blogger JNG said...

Some very insightful cuts here, Jake. Authorial pride won't let me agree with everything you did, but this was an excellent reminder of some of my bad word use habits. I don't think you were very heavy-handed at all, and I anticipate shamelessly adopting a number of your cuts!

-J

8/15/2007 11:06 AM  

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