A Fantasy Author's Adventures in Fiction & Life

Tag: critique partner feedback

Critical Reader Checklist: Act 3

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Photo by Yuri Efremov

Your book has covered a lot of ground to reach Act 3. Now its time for reader payoff. If you’re a writer, this critical reader checklist of questions will help you ensure Act 3 is clear and rewarding for readers. If you’re a critical reader, responding to these questions will help you provide invaluable feedback to the writer. (Missed my previous checklists? You may like to start with Chapter 1 or Act 1.)

Story Progression and Reader Engagement

Does each scene build your anticipation of the final resolution of the conflict?

Does each character realisation build towards the character’s Moment of Truth?
(Or even foreshadow their final state, particularly if the character is an antagonist with a positive arc, who changes sides at the end)?

Does the tension of Act 3 pull you in and hold you in from start to finish?

Scene Level Considerations

Do scenes give you enough time to absorb events and information, especially character deaths?

Are there thematic or scene-level elements (too many things going on) which distract you from the resolution or which make it harder to follow?

Climactic Moment

Are you with the main character, whose at the heart of the action during the climatic moment?

Or does narration flit between point of view characters scattered between conflict locations too often?

Or does the main character observe others actions too much, making this scene feel emotionally distant?

Does anything else distract you, or make you impatient for the scene to get a move on or reduce its tension?

Has the writer positioned you to scream encouragement at the main character through the climactic moment? Are you excited, thrilled or really happy when they triumph? Or shattered if they don’t?
Or did you not connect emotionally to them well enough throughout the novel to care much either way?

The Resolution

Is each aspect of the conflict, and each step of how it needs to be resolved and why clear to you?

Do particular skills or abilities of each pov and secondary character play a relevant and fulfilling role in the resolution of the conflict?

Does the resolution deliver on thematic promises, e.g. character lessons, framing key themes of the story and showing the role they play in the resolution?
Or was it mentioned that Tom needed to learn to make friends, and that subplot was forgotten? Did it play no role in the resolution, breaking that promise to you as a reader?

A Satisfying Ending?

Are you feeling satisfied by the way characters resolve their differences?

By how supporting characters being their typical self helped resolve the story problem?

Are you satisfied with how the story is wrapped up, and with the state in which you depart the story world and its characters?

If not, is this because the ending feels rushed? Or did the story stop too soon, leaving things unresolved that you wanted to know about and which would have made the ending more satisfying for you?
Or does an epic conflict leave the world in a state of devastation, instead of fast forwarding to a scene showing that the world does in fact recover?

Not the Last Book in a Series?

If this book marks the end of one stage in an epic conflict (as opposed to a stand alone novel), do you still feel there was a clear beginning, significant plot development and that it took you on a journey? Is Act 3 leaving you satisfied with the ground covered in this book?

Are you satisfied with how much characters have grown in this book, or did they feel flat or their growth stagnate at any point?

Does this book’s final state scene show which things pov characters are still grappling with, foreshadowing what their character development may involve in the next book?

Is it clear how, despite this book’s main conflict being resolved, a significant element of conflict is still out there? and are you left with some idea of who it still threatens and how?
Does this suggested continuance of conflict feel like an organic continuance of story, or like its been tacked on? Does it feel like another great instalment in a saga, or a prequel movie designed to make it producers money?

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Critical Reader Checklist: Act 2

Mixed race woman with long curly black hair in black velvet hat sitting cross legged on a sofa reading, with a bookshelf
Photo by Seven Shooter

Some writers dread the middle of a novel. Its an easy place for characters, themes, plots and subplots to get stuck, lost, or to go on unnecessary tangents. The critical reader questions in this post are designed to help reader feedback to support the writer in keeping Act 2 on track, and ensuring it gives the reader a good experience. (I developed them while working with and as a beta reader, and they have companion blogs for Chapter One and an Act 1).

Are the Characters Engaging?

Are you seeing enough character actions, and hearing enough dialogue and internal thoughts to feel tensions between characters?

Have you seen enough of character’s personalities to understand why certain characters are drawn to or inclined to be in conflict with each other?

Do you react to some character actions with ‘of course he/ she/ they did!” because you feel you are getting to know them?

Do you know any characters well enough to guess what they may do next? Does this make the story more engaging?

Is the Story Engaging?

Does each chapter end by doing at least one of the following:

-adding tension between key players?

-providing another clue in the overall mystery?

-affirming or challenging the lie the pov character believes?

-adding another complication the pov character must overcome to resolve the main conflict? Eg. the character gets something wrong and makes their own life harder.

-moved the pov character nearer to getting what they want, what they need or (if it differs from both) does each chapter take them a step closer to resolving the main story conflict?

Character Development & Plausibility

Can you follow the character’s logic as they persist in believing a lie, or begin to realise the truth?

Do you see and are you convinced by why the character still clings to the lie?

Are you convinced by how characters experiences are changing them?

Progression

Are you being shown or reminded of things you’ve already seen (especially when it seems unnecessary?) Or is each scene making you feel like the story is moving forward and drawing you on to its next stage?

If you don’t feel the story is moving, and you’re starting to lose interest -which bits aren’t appealing to you? Do you know why or what the writer could change to resolve this?

Are relationship dynamics between characters -positive or negative- being tested and changing? Or is everyone getting along perfectly? And is the supporting cast solely focused on helping the MC achieve their goal (instead of characters having their own goals? And are character relationships too idealistic and or flat?

Story Tone

Occasionally, I’ve beta read books with an Act One mixing serious themes, humour and playfulness, then in Act 2 -boom! The story turns a corner and is suddenly twice as dark or twice as violent as Act 1’s tone led me to think it would be. So are you jolted by how light or heavy, how serious or playful, how gentle or violent later chapters are, compared to earlier ones?

Story Focus

Does the story home in on particular themes, particular relationships and particular character goals?

Does it focus on too many things for you to follow or appreciate?

Or does it focus only on one or two main things, when there’s room and other things you’d like to see further developed to give you a real sense of payoff?

Connections

If the characters went to that place, or the MC was given that thing, or we know a secondary character loves x, does the middle of the story start referring back to and building on these?

Examples:

Does the secondary character’s knowledge because of an interest you’ve already read about, or skills from a hobby mentioned earlier start helping the MC tackle aspects of the story problem?

Does the location where we met key players later yield clues in solving the murder? Or is it a place about which we know family secrets are kept or where other allies are now being sought?

If there something about a character, a place, a device etc that got your interest, but hasn’t been developed and that you would like to see more of?

Action Scenes

Can you picture who is where, doing what? Or are there so many details that you lose sight of the main actions in a scene?

Are you hanging on the edge of your seat, reading short, sharp sentences which narrate at the speed the scene unfolds? Or is some of the suspense and tension killed by long winded sentences?

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12 Critical Reader Partnership Tips

Two women looking at a computer.
Photo by CoWomen

You’ve found a critical reader or a story to read! How can you ensure that working with the reader or the writer is a positive, productive experience? I’d like to say the hard part is finding each other and from now on it will all be sunshine and rainbows, but I’ve heard stories of critical reader feedback such as, “This is wrong” or “That was poorly done” and even “You’re such a bad writer.” Or maybe you agreed to read a novel, you get it and… it’s not your cup of tea, or so raw that just re-reading to figure out what’s happening will take more time than you want to give it. To help you create effective partnerships (and pull out of ineffective or negative ones), here’s 6 critical reader tips for positive partnerships, and 6 tips for productive partnerships.

6 Tips for Positive Partnerships

1. Ensure feedback is given with the aim of improving the quality of the writing

Ideally, feedback will indicate where the writing can be clearer, easier to follow and a more engaging read. It will spell out when the reader gets confused, when they start to lose interest, what they want more of and what they really enjoy. It won’t be, “This is wrong/ rubbish/ you should never…” Aside from being negative, all that really says is, “I think something here doesn’t work.” That’s of limited help. Whereas feedback like, “This scene was a bit slow for me,” suggests the problem and a solution -editing to accelerate pace and keep the reader engaged.

General positive statements can also help with editing. Its easy to lose sight of whether your writing is any good when you edit, so as a reader, commenting on things you find effective, entertaining or which really impact on you can help writers identify what’s working –and to not lose sight of and accidentally edit it out.

2. Ensure Feedback accounts for the reader’s personal bias.

If you want to make a suggestion but can’t cite an objective reason, its good to let the writer know, “This might just be my preference but…. ” Objective statements like “This should…” can make the writer feel that ‘everyone’ sees it that way and they ‘must’ change something, when reading can be very subjective and it may only be some readers who find it that way.

3. Feedback Is Honest.

Holding back to ‘spare the writer’s feelings’ does not improve the quality of the writing. Yes, feedback can be painful, especially if the writer in question sees every observation or suggestion as something they ‘did wrong’, as opposed to something they ‘can do more effectively.’ But the writer is asking for feedback because they believe comments about how a reader sees their story can help them tell their story more effectively, so denying them feedback isn’t helpful. If you’re inclined to hold back because of prior experience with giving a writer feedback, no. 4 might be the problem.

4. The Writer Must Be Receptive to Feedback.

No, I don’t mean ‘the writer has to edit everything the critical reader says.’ A critical reader may love that character and want to know more about their backstory, or for the book to delve deeper into theme x. They may suggest the writer do so and the writer may disregard that feedback, because it doesn’t fit with what they’re trying to do with their story.

I’m talking about writers who are consistently defensive or argumentative in the face of feedback. Writers who seem unwilling to receive constructive feedback, let alone act upon it. I’m also talking about writers I’ve seen tweets about, who appear to think a critical reader’s job is to shower them with praise, not to indicate that they have work to do. If either description matches the writer you’re reading for -your time may be wasted on them.

Writers, I’m not saying you can’t wince or flinch when you get feedback, especially on your first book (and you’re more likely to do so if you see suggestions as ‘I did something wrong,’ as opposed to, ‘here’s a potential opportunity to make my writing more effective for readers’). Nor am I saying the reader won’t make occasional comments about your story that are incorrect. What I’m saying is if your standard reaction to feedback is to defend yourself -you’re not being attacked, the reader is trying to help you improve your writing- or to argue -yes, a reader may make mistakes, but arguing with most things they say is essentially sticking your fingers in your ears- then you need to step back, and figure out why you respond this way to constructive criticism before seeking more of it.

Is Feedback Positively Phrased?

Is it “This is poorly done” and “Why are you doing that?” Or is it, “This word is repeated 5 times in 2 lines”? Or “I’m not convinced by the character doing x because y”. There is a line between being honest and direct and being arrogant, talking down to people or constantly telling them they’re doing it wrong. It can be hard to spot, and different people may perceive it as lying at different points. But if you’re finding feedback stressful, if it’s eroding your confidence or negatively impacting on your wellbeing or writing, it may be that you need to part with your critical reader because their feedback is too negative. (It may also be that you’re not in the right frame of mind to work with critical readers at that point, because life is negatively impacting how you respond to constructive, as opposed to negative feedback -especially during covid times.)

If you still find negative feedback helpful, bear in mind that constant negativity can wear anyone out -so try to phrase your feedback in terms of how the writing impacted on you as a reader- not ‘objectively’ judging what’s ‘wrong’ with the writing.

6. Does Feedback speak to the writer or reader as an equal, or lecture them?

Have you ever asked someone a question about a particular topic, and they assume you know nothing and start explaining everything about it? Don’t be the writer who assumes the reader has completely misunderstood your character and begins explaining things the reader’s other comments tell you they already know. Don’t be the writer who spots a potential gap in your critique partner’s craft and starts lecturing them in crafting that aspect 101, when -as is likely- you’ve just found one of their many author bias blindspots, or they thought that was a problem but they didn’t realise how big a problem it was.

If you aren’t sure what was unclear to the reader, ask a clarifying question. Eg. “Were you unsure how Barry’s relationship with Fred impacted on Barry’s decision, or why Barry made the choice he made or about something else?” Don’t lecture your critique partner about pacing, just say, “I’m wanting the story to move on now.” Or, “I think you could cut this paragraph without the story losing anything.” Starting a conversation with a reader or writer this way gives them a chance to respond and show you what they know or what they’re thinking, as well as being clear and effective communication. (As a primary school teacher by trade, I’m very conscious of this, because its how I make a living.)

6 Tips for Productive Partnerships

Man and woman high fiving over laptop.
Photo by krakenimages

1. Only agree to read (or swap) the first 1-3 chapters initially.

As a Reader You may find that the book isn’t your cup of tea. That you don’t want to read the whole thing. Or perhaps you find it interesting, but so much isn’t working for you, and or commenting on this novel would be a bigger time commitment than you’re prepared to make.

As a Writer You may find critical reader feedback unhelpful. If you’ve asked the reader to comment on character and plot development and how they find the overall story, and they mostly comment on your punctuation, I’d be saying, “Sorry, I don’t think we’re well-matched.” If this happens, here’s some places to find more critical readers.

2. Talk about how much you can read/ edit and over what time period upfront.

How many chapters are you aiming to read a day/ week/ fortnight? Don’t assume you have a similar balance of day job, family life, reading/ writing etc as your reader/ critique partner. Some of my initial CPs finished editing their whole books with other CPs while we were only up to commenting on each other’s chapter 6-9. Knowing what your goal is helps you have realistic expectations about what to expect from each other, and when.

3. Tell the reader what you’d like them to focus on, or tell the writer what you’re likely to notice and comment on.

As a Reader: the writer may be grateful for any and all feedback, but they may also want feedback on particular things. If, for example, you’re passionate about world building and the writer is desperate for feedback on their characters -you may identify from the outset that you’re not the right match. Or (as is probably more likely) -knowing that world building is your thing- the writer may also seek another beta reader who’s passionate about characters.

As a Writer: if you don’t ask your critical readers to comment on anything in particular, they may not happen to comment on things your editing focused on, leaving you no idea whether those edits did enough to support or engage the reader. You may also find that your critical reader comments only on what they like, or don’t like, or -if they’re also a writer- on aspects of craft which happen to be their personal strengths. This can leave you without an overall impression of how readers see your character, plot or tone and can mean missed editing opportunities. Yes, these impressions are subjective, but I recently noticed that one of my battle scenes may be far darker than I intended for a YA Fantasy, and that kind of overall impression is useful for a writer to know.

For ideas on what to ask your critical readers to look for, see my Act 1 Critical Reader Checklist.

4. Critique Partners: Allow for Stylistic Differences

I was conscious of this from the first as a critique partner, because one of the writers I was reading for favoured longer phrasing and descriptive writing, while my style is more concise. I had to think carefully about whether his style was slowing the pace and losing story tension at a chapter level, or whether I was getting hung up on his sentences because I didn’t like their style. As a CP -style isn’t your concern- but things like losing interest because of drawn out sentences slowing the pace is. So if your CP’s writing style is different -respect it- and try to only comment on it when it poses problems for you as a reader.

5. When you’ve Given/ Received Feedback 

As a reader if you’ve given feedback, eg. you can’t visualise the scene, and you see from the writer’s reply, revised chapters or Google docs that the writer has ignored that feedback, I suggest just commenting on what they are editing at that time, as they may only focus on certain things during each edit. However, if the writer appears to be editing hardly anything -again you may have a writer unwilling to take on feedback, best parted with.

As a Writer Don’t hesitate to ask the reader if they could comment a bit less or a bit more about certain things. I have a tendency to get hung up on sentence structure, but some of my CPs have been more interested in my thoughts and feelings on characters and how engaged I am in the story. So if you want less feedback of one kind or more of another: ask for it. 

If you get feedback you think is helpful, but you’d like to know more -ask a follow up question. When I interviewed Halla Williams recently, she said that when she got feedback on her query letter, “I really interrogated it.” She asked follow up questions based on reader comments, then revised certain things and asked if people could take another look. As one of her critical readers, I saw how much her drafts developed and how much stronger her query letter became from one revision to the next, which asking follow up questions clearly helped with.

6. Be Flexible

Even if a critical reader wants to read the whole book, or both critique partners are invested in commenting on each other’s books till the end, life happens. Circumstances can differ and vary across time. During my country’s second lock down, I had a few restless days where I wanted to escape and I smashed through half my CP’s novel. Then I reached a point where I was so emotionally drained and exhausted that I couldn’t write comments which made sense, and I had to stop reading for her for 3 months. During covid times more than ever, I’d see timeframes you agree on as aspirational.

As a writer, you can have critical readers or CPs pull out for one reason or other at any time. During covid times, this is more likely. So don’t rely on one or two critical readers. Have at least three and ideally more. If someone can only comment on your first 3 chapters when you’d really like feedback on the entire book -take them up on the offer for three. It all helps.

Critical Reader Checklist: Act 1

Woman reading on window ledge in early dawn light.
Photo by Yuri Efremov 

Act 1 is crucial in guiding readers into your character’s world and maintaining reader engagement. Critical readers can help evaluate how your Act 1 impacts on readers, but in my experience, they may be inclined to comment only on what annoys them, what they love and if they’re writers -their personal strengths in writing craft. If you don’t ask your critical readers to comment on anything in particular, let alone provide a critical reader checklist, their feedback may exclude clues about which aspects of your craft -or a particular novel- may need developing.


This beta reader checklist asks reflective questions to help guide well rounded critical reader feedback throughout Act 1 (and in some cases beyond). As a writer, you may like to select or adapt some questions to give your readers. As a reader, you may consider where the strengths and weaknesses of the story you are reading lie and which questions you’ll give feedback on. If you missed it, you’ll find my Chapter One Critical Reader Checklist here.

Do You Understand The Point of View Characters?

Do you have a clear sense of point of view character goals?

Do you understand what drives these characters?

Do character actions make sense to you? And do characters emotional, physical & verbal reactions match what you’ve read about them so far?

If you feel jarred by a character’s actions or reactions, telling the writer so can help focus their edits.

If the pov character thinks in italics, do you read the italics and do you find them effective or annoying?

Do you get a good sense of who a character is and what they’re thinking and feeling through their dialog, actions and internal thoughts, or do they seem distant or unknowable?

What is your overall impression of point of view characters?

Telling the writer can help them reflect on whether they have accurately and consistently represented their characters throughout their story.

Do you get a Good Feel For Character Relationships?

Can you see why new friends/ love interests are drawn to each other?

Do you get a feel for the dynamics of the main characters key relationships?

If these draw you into the story, it can help the writer to know this. If you can’t get into the story because characters or their relationships feel flat, stereotypical or underdeveloped, knowing they don’t engage you also helps inform the writer’s edits.

How Do You Find the Setting/ World Building?

Does what the MC sees, hears, smells, thinks and feels about their world draw you into the setting?

Are you getting a sense of the setting through the characters experience, or through chunks of disembodied narration? Either way, does it engage you?

If there is a magic system, or an alternate political or class system, do you understand how the system impacts on characters lives and the story? Is this made clear to you, or are there details you need to understand to follow the story which seem murky?

Green treed shores of a rock bordered oasis bellow sand dunes in Aswan, southern Egypt.
Photo by yours truly.

How Do You Feel About the Antagonist?

Do you feel like you’ve ‘met’ the antagonist early enough? Or are the characters wandering around having a lovely time, and you don’t feel drawn into the story because there doesn’t seem to be any tension or signs of conflict?

Do you understand the nature of the threat the antagonist poses? Is the worst they (or it) can do at any given point in the story made clear to you?

If the antagonist is a person, do you understand what drives them and what their goal is?

Is the Story Engaging?

Are you meeting interesting people, seeing interesting places & learning interesting things about characters and their world?

Do you feel like the story is going somewhere? Are there signs of things being not quite right, growing tensions between characters or within the world or signs of danger or trouble to come?

Are point of view characters having overlong internal monologues where you’re dying for someone to do or say something?

Do any details of narration bog you down, overwhelm or confuse you? Or do you want to skip ahead at any point?

Are you staying engaged throughout scenes? If your engagement drops, I suggest commenting when it does and if you think you know why, saying so.

Larger Casts, and Characters acting in groups

Does each character speak with their own distinct voice? (Ie. in speech patterns which reflect their personality, age, background, education, class, culture etc.)

Can you see that the characters have different personalities?

Do they show their emotions with different gestures and behaviours or do multiple characters act like they’re the same person emotionally?

Can you remember which character is which within a scene and across chapters, or do you feel like there’s too many characters to keep track of?

Or are some characters so similar that you get them mixed up?

Letting the writer know this may indicate that they need to differentiate characters more or to amalgamate similar characters (who don’t need to be separate people), so the reader can keep track of and get to know the remaining characters properly.

If the characters are working in a group, do they have their own ideas about how to precede? Is there tension and different opinions on how the group should respond to story problems? Or does everyone agree with each other to an unrealistic extent?

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Further Reading

Beta Reader Checklist: Chapter One

Beta Reader Checklist: Act 2

12 Critical Reader Partnership Tips

Finding Critical Readers (or mentoring programs to help you develop any of the above aspects of your craft) + When is my Editing Finished?

Critical Reader Checklist: Chapter 1

Mixed race woman with curly black hair wearing a black brimmed hate, and reading cross legged on a sofa before a bookshelf.
Photo by Seven Shooter

Critique partner and beta reader feedback can be gold, but as editing is a complex task, it can be difficult to decide what exactly you’d like critical readers to comment on, especially in the crucial first chapter. The reflective questions in this beta reader checklist will help guide critical reader feedback (and in some cases self-editing), giving you insight into how engaging, well paced and easy or difficult to follow unfamiliar readers found your opening chapter.

Does the story start in the right place?

Chronology

Does ‘chapter one’ narrate whole paragraphs or more of events which happened before chapter 1 began? (If the reader really needs to know such events, those events might need to become chapter 1).            

Narration

Does chapter one begin with the present story, or with info dumping or backstory? Or does it slowly show the reader the character’s life, with chapters and chapters of narration before the inciting event indicates the character’s life is about to change and the story actually moves forwards? (If it takes ten chapters to reach the inciting event, I suspect the story starts six to nine chapters earlier than necessary).      

Character Action

Is the main character (or chapter one’s point of view character) doing something interesting to read on page 1? (Or lead up actions like a long, dull drive, instead of opening with characters reacting to their destination as they climb out of the car on arrival?)

What is your impression of the MC? -this can help a writer check that they have portrayed their MC consistently throughout the novel, and that they haven’t over or underdone their MC’s nature/ situation etc in the opening chapters.

Can You Get to Know and Care About Characters?             

Main Character

Does the main character’s dialogue and actions give you a good sense of who the MC is and what they’re about? Can you relate to the MC or their personal situation/ relationships in some way?

Supporting Characters 

Are there too many named characters for you to keep track of?

Or are any character names too similar to each other to easily tell apart?

All Characters

Can you spot any discrepancies in character actions or dialogue?

Do you understand the characters actions, and can you follow the character’s logic -or do character actions confuse you or seem implausible?

Do you get bored or does your interest wane at any point? (How do you find the pace?)

Letting a writer know you’ve lost interest at a certain point in a chapter and want to start skimming is helpful -because it suggests a problem with pacing. If you can give feedback about why you think you started to lose interest -that’s even more helpful. It might be because; you feel the narration is getting bogged down with details or descriptions which slow the story. Or because there’s info dumping or chunks of telling which isn’t part of dialogue, character internal monologue or reaction to the present scene, ie. without context, possibly pulling you out of the story.

Backstory

Are you catching neat little peeks of what’s already happened in characters’ lives or the world in general as the character interacts with other characters and their world? Or does a character stand still so the writer can tell you five paragraphs about an event they’ve already experienced (but you missed)?

World Building/ Scene Setting 

Have you got a clear enough sense of where and when the story is taking place?

Do you have a sense of character roles within their world? Of their jobs, status, what they can and can’t do? (For SFF this will go right into how clearly magic systems, alternate political systems, tech etc are shown).

Is it clear to you what is magically/ politically/ scientifically/ militarily etc possible and likely within the story?

Information -Showing V.S. Telling

Where possible, do you get to ‘see’ things by what the character sees, hears, says, smells, thinks and how they physically, verbally or emotionally react to their world and story? Or does the writer tell you, ‘the city has x and that character felt impatient because he had a headache.’

(NB. Bear in mind that the point of ‘showing’ is to make the story more interesting to readers and it isn’t practical to ‘show’ everything. Eg. Things like creation myths may need to be told.)

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Further Reading

Beta Reader Checklist Act 1

Beta Reader Checklist Act 2 (which links to Act 3)

12 Critical Reader Partnership Tips

Finding Critical Readers + When is Editing Finished?

If your betas feel your characters are underdeveloped, try my post on Developing Characters.

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