“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days. […] Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance.”
― J.K. Rowling

How to Start Writing When You Won’t Start Writing

I have a book in mind to start writing. For three years now. I read advice that tells me “just start writing.” And still I don’t start.  I send e-mail, update social media, check off tasks, do my tried-and-true work.

Truthfully, I’m paralyzed about how to begin this new work.  I feel I need to know exactly where this book is going before I can even start. It’s an unfamiliar format for me, away from kids’ picture books. I need chapters and more than 500 words! I simply am not trusting myself to believe what I’ve seen before: That once I get going, my mind will connect to the process and the story will evolve.

eggtimer

Egg Timer by Tanakawho

Because the “just start writing” advice isn’t working for me, I’ve had to come up with some other techniques to power through my paralysis.  See if one of these might help you get started on a new work.

1.  Make a Mind Map of your Idea.

mind map is a diagram used to visually organize information. A mind map is often created around a single concept, drawn as an image in the center of a blank landscape page, to which associated representations of ideas such as images, words and parts of words are added.  This un-sticks me as this process doesn’t need a beginning.  Rather, I can doodle possibilities around a central theme, for example, chapter ideas, people to interview, etc.  

2. Make some Top Ten Lists.  Or Top Five.

Ask yourself, “What are the top 10 things I want my reader to learn?  To feel?  To know?”  What five things would I want a reviewer to say about my book?  Perhaps this very exercise will help you back into your reason for writing that may seem elusive.

3.  Use an Egg Timer

Legendary copywriter Eugene Schwartz created a system of working that, before he was finished, enabled him to write nine books, dozens and dozens of successful ads, and countless articles for well-known publications all over the world.  How did he do it?  He set a small kitchen timer to 33.33 minutes and pressed the start button.  His rules?  Yes, he could drink coffee but no he could not leave the chair.  So either he got very bored or he got busy writing. 

4.  Record Yourself Thinking Aloud

I can tell you what I want to write about IF I could get myself to write!  That prompted me to use the recorder on my IPhone to capture myself rambling about my ideas for what to include in an introduction, the chapters, etc.. I hit ‘play’ and transcribed my dialogue to paper.  The relaxing process of typing what I was listening to jumpstarted me to actually fill in content inspired by my stream of thought.

How do you get started writing when you’re feeling paralyzed?

PRACTICE

Right now, set your egg timer for 14.5 minutes and write! Or go through the exercise of telling us five things you want your reader to feel after he or she reads your next great work.  As always, encourage your fellow word artists!

About Marianne Richmond

I'm Marianne Richmond—writer, artist and inspirationalist. My words have touched millions over the past two decades through my children's books and gift products. Basically I put love into words and help you connect with the people + moments that matter. You can find me on my website, Facebook, and Twitter (@M_Richmond21).

  • I love this! The egg timer idea is awesome. Here’s mine.
    Jayce had no idea what she was going to do as she watched Michael leave the room. She had been working at the hospital for over a month now and while all of the other patients would talk her, even in the smallest ways, he would not.
    She had been told by the other teens in the ward that he doesn’t really talk to anyone. He keeps to himself and exercises in the rec yard every single day.
    She leaned back into her chair and closed her eyes for minute. Only a minute though because anything longer was a commitment to a nap and there was no way out. She slowly opened her eyes again and stretched her body, walking over to her cabinet to get Michael’s complete file rather than just her notes from they day’s session; which we doodles of clouds and elephants because he never spoke and that’s all she knew how to doodle.
    She grabbed the file, filled her tea cup, and sat back down in the overstuffed chair she’d lugged into the hospital from home.
    The file was thick and like the others, held no history of Michael’s life before he came to the hospital, which was a fact that became more and more disturbing each time Jaybe opened a file.
    He had several instances of running in place or doing push-ups in his room in the dead of night. The nurses documented these carefully at first and then that same nurse just began to write the exercise, time found, and time put back into bed.
    Jayce went down a mental rabbit hole and recalled all of the crappy nurses she’s come across and then the few wonderful ones.
    Back to the chart.
    He spoke to one nurse, an elderly woman that Jayce hadn’t had the chance to meet yet because she worked in the evenings. Her handwriting was beautifully curvy and looked like it came from a romance novel. Her cursive easy to read and she was very detailed.
    “He wants to know where he came from,” she wrote. “Constantly asks about family and parents and as he does so he wrings his hands and begins to tear up.” Another one a few days later, “Michael exercises in the evenings but doesn’t seem to sweat much, it’s as if these exercises no longer tire him.”
    Jayce highlighted this section of the chart.
    She flipped back to the basic information sheet to see if he was on any sort of medication that would effect the sweat glands.
    When she saw his date of birth she snorted tea into her nose. Coughing and placing the cup back onto the saucer, she raised the info sheet closer to her face as if that would make the information any clearer. Michael wasn’t 15 or 16 like the rest of the patients here. He was 27.
    He was the same age as Jayce yet he looked like he belonged on a high school football team. From the conversations he seemed to have he seemed to have about the same maturity level. He asked simple questions, made no demands, and fully accepted the authority.
    Jayce closed the file and put it back down beside her.
    This ward was for teens, and these teens had all been here the same amount of time.
    Why on earth did Michael not remember more from his life? Why was he placed with these kids?
    More importantly, did he even know how old he was?

    So this is a project I’ve been working on After my timer I discovered a few things. I had no idea Michael was that old, apparently neither did Jayce. I don’t what this means for my character but I’m excited to find out! Please let me know what you all think!

    • Chloee

      Amazing it really grips you.

      • Thank you!!

        • Pedro Hernandez

          This is incredible…. There are no words to describe it… It feels like a book I would read until the dead of the night. Beautiful.
          I am curious how this story will take shape and evolve. This is the beginning of a masterpiece by a genius

    • I soo much want to read the finished piece

      • Thank you so much! As I said on the other comment, I’m actually really struggling with it. There are seven different patients in the ward and each have a diagnosis, whether
        it’s body dysmorphic disorder, schizophrenia, autism, they all have
        “something wrong” with them and there is no history of their lives
        before the hospital. In reality, they have always lived there and
        nothing is wrong with them. Orphans taken by Dr. Edwards for experiments
        of the brain. Jayce will uncover this but I have NO IDEA why Edwards is
        doing these experiments or what he hopes to achieve.

        • Sandra

          it’s a interesting idea for a story and I am sure there is a lot to think about here.

        • Guess by working on their back stories for yourself, you can discover this story’s hidden potential. Since I am replying pretty late, I hope you would have found it until now 🙂

    • George McNeese

      I like where this project is going. Here is Michael, an adult with the mental capacity of a teenager, struggling to find his place in the world. And you have Jayce. She embarks on a journey to help this patient, but looks as if there will be a number of obstacles and secrets she may discover along the way that may not be pleasant. This has a “Silver Linings Playbook” feel to it. I’m interested to see where this goes.

      • Thank you so much! I’m actually really struggling with it. There are seven different patients in the ward and each have a diagnosis, whether it’s body dysmorphic disorder, schizophrenia, autism, they all have “something wrong” with them and there is no history of their lives before the hospital. In reality, they have always lived there and nothing is wrong with them. Orphans taken by Dr. Edwards for experiments of the brain. Jayce will uncover this but I have NO IDEA why Edwards is doing these experiments or what he hopes to achieve.

        • Luna

          You should definitely keep at it! I’m so intrigued, and I promise you I will buy that book if you ever finish it!

    • Jill

      Sounds interesting. Reminds me of Torey Hayden’s books about special kids.

    • Maggie

      I would definitely read this! You’ve already got me hooked! 🙂

    • This is amazing; will love to read the whole story.

  • George McNeese

    If I write a book, here are five things I want my reader to feel. I want to create a protagonist to which the reader can empathize to his circumstances or conflict. I want to create a villain that a reader doesn’t necessarily despise, but someone a reader would love to hate. I want to create a story which is relatable in some fashion. I want the reader to feel like the antagonist or villain gets his comeuppance. And finally, I want my reader to feel as if they’ve been on a roller coaster.

    • I love hating a villain. Have you read Silent to the Bone? The villain was done so well in that book because you just love to hate her. She’s sickening but you can’t quite prove why. You should check it out if your looking for that villain that doesn’t SCREAM I’m the bad guy!! Here’s a review with a focus on that character. http://teathespiritandapen.blogspot.com/2013/10/silent-to-bone-characters-you-love-to.html

    • Marianne Richmond

      Such clarity! Than you can take that one more step and say, “what quality / situation would make my reader empathize?”

      • George McNeese

        I agree. I am working on an outline for a new story and I am asking myself those questions for a character who’s not nice. She is spiteful, at best. I guess she would qualify as an antagonist, so creating a situation and an appropriate comeuppance is challenging. On the upside, it’s giving me opportunity to think outside the box.

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  • Jill

    I want to write a book for kids. Boys , specifically, but I assume there will be girls that like it too. I would’ve. I was that kind of girl. I want it to be the kind of book that draws a kid in without him realizing it. Draws him in and pushes him out the door into nature, to do stuff. Anything. Boy stuff. Building things, climbing things, hunting things, chasing things. Exploring, getting lost, getting found, surviving. I wanted to be that kind of kid, but something kept me from it. In my mind I was that kind of kid, but when I get realistic about my childhood, I was afraid. There were deadlines. I had to be home, I had to tell someone where I was. I had to ask permission to use tools, and then I was limited by my age and ability. As a mother, I understand those limits. I want to know where my kids are and what they’re doing, but most of all I want them to go have fun. I want them to be that kind of kid. We live in the country with fields, forest, rocks, creeks and lakes at our fingertips. So why do my kids like nothing better than sitting in the house reading books, when they could be out there conquering the world?

    My plan is simple. I will lure them in with a story. A book that they typically couldn’t put down, but somehow this book will trick them. It will trick them into getting up, going outside, getting dirty, making a mess, learning something. How will I do it? How will I fool them? Who will be my main character? A kid that likes to sit and read or a kid that jumps from adventure to adventure? When will I start? Is this starting?

    Steve rolled over in bed. He heard his mother calling, and burrowed deeper under the covers pretending to be asleep. Another day. Another boring day, with nothing to do. He had finished his sixth book from the library last night, and he knew it was a week before his mother would take him into town again. If only he had a dirt bike. Then he would have something to do. But his father had said, “no dirt bikes. ‘Til you’re 14.” His mother had said, “no dirt bikes. ‘Til you take responsibility for getting the lawn mowed.” So, no dirt bikes for him for at least 4 years…

  • Catherine

    Here are my Top 10 things I want my future readers to come away feeling….
    1. …there is always hope. Hope for themselves and for the world and people around them.
    2. …they have the power to shape and change their lives.
    3. …they must learn from the past but not linger there. For if they linger long, they become trapped and they can never move forward.
    4. …they are brave enough to stand up for what they believe in and for others, even though it may not be ‘the norm’ or the most popular thing to do.
    5. …better about themselves because they understand that being human means it’s natural to fall. What makes them people is the ability they have to get up again.
    6. …inspired to overcome debilitating habits and tendencies.
    7. …that a man is not an island.
    8. …there is still light in this world.
    9. …darkness does not defeat the light- not forever.
    10. …all life is precious, including theirs. It is worth fighting for.

    These are not in any particular order- just the order in which I came up with them.
    (Okay that ^ was not a stellar sentence…)

    • Pedro Hernandez

      Great! This is already a good start!This seems like something I’d like to feel while reading a book, and many other people too, I bet :3. Good luck fellow writer! May your writings be prosperous and fruitful!

      • Catherine

        Thank you so much! I’m glad you feel that way, and I hope you’re right. 😉 May you also succeed in all your writing endeavors fellow writer!

    • Marianne Richmond

      Would love to read this book!

      • Catherine

        Thank you! You don’t know how it thrills me to hear (or rather read) those words! Thank you ever so much for this fantastic post and your inspiring support.

  • Chloee

    This is a story I’ve been working it’s about Alex a seventeen year old boy that’s been in a insane asslomy for the last seven year’s and now must find his way in the world but find’s out he’s the world’s only hope for survial.

    I lifted my suitcase of the bed that I had slept on for the past seven
    year’s of my life. My curly balck hair fell in strange places covering
    my eye’s. I waited for them to unlock my door as I darted over the
    room for a second. Weirdly I was going to miss this place. When I
    first got here I slowly sank into the the spiraling slide that was
    depession and of course the reason I came here’s because I listened to
    the monster’s in my head now they only visited every now and then so I
    was deemed sane or as sane as I could get. I glanced at the spot’s of
    the wall where drop’s of blood sprinkled the white wall’s thinking of
    what caused it. I pushed the memory back and hopped from one feet to
    the next.
    The nurse Missy open the door. “Hey Alex how you doing today?”
    She asked kindly.

    “Good today’s the day remember? Finally time to get
    out of here! I’m seventeen.” I smiled. Lydia shaked her head. “Well Alex
    lets get you ready.”

    I walk down the hall my red converse squeaking on
    the wax floor to the sectary desk that I had signed in at seven year’s
    ago I breathed in the familiar smell of disinfect spray and non
    bacteria soap distant patients voices cluttered my mind and once in
    awhile a nurses.

    “Alex!” I turn my head to a short skinny girl with
    chopped of brown hair and murky hazel eye’s. “Lindsey!” She wraps her
    arm’s around my lanky waist. “Bye my brother form another mother!” She
    laughs. She suffered from schizophrenic but she was a good person well
    at least to me and a few other people. She wiped tear’s from her
    eye’s. “Write everyday okay or I’ll find you!” She playfully shakes her
    fist at me. I laugh.” I will don’t cry or you’ll make me cry!” She let
    go. “Okay I’ve got to go before they find me and stick me in the padded
    room again!” She walked down the hall talking to herself. “Alex you’re
    paper’s are done”. Missy handed me the paper’s. “Thanks Missy.” I
    grabbed my bag and opened the door.

    The fresh summer breeze hit me. It
    had been so long since I had freewill to go outside not just for yard
    time. I waited on the bench outside for the taxi. I waited and stared
    at the building that I had been locked up in for seven year’s. It was
    weird I felt like I was going to miss it even though I hated being
    locked up.A taxi pulled up and I walked over to it. I opened the door
    and slid in. “Where to?” The driver asked. I suddenly realized that I
    had nowhere to go then I said the first thing that come to my mind.
    “Califonia.” “A bit far from home aren’t you?” “Yeah I’am.”

    • Pedro Hernandez

      This is one great start!

  • Pedro Hernandez

    Tell me what you think and what I could improve and such. You are all wonderful people! I wrote this up and want to know what you think of it.
    So without further ado, enjoy!
    The punch flew at my belly. I fell, clutching my belly as a kick sent me crashing into my back, the pain felt like touching a hot stove. Then my attacker looked down on me, grinning with his ugly face. I kicked him in the leg, making him fall over. While he was getting up, I stood up and crashed into him, sending him back to the dirt. I punched him repeatedly in the face, feeling the vigor of my blows on him, I only hit him harder. It felt great as I pounded him into the floor, and soon he began coughing up blood. Then he shoved me off as he tried to stand up, But I got up faster and kicked his ugly face, sending him backwards into a wall, he collapsed and was trying to regain his breath. I went over and lifted him by his throat, feeling his pulse under my fingers. Anger smoldered in his eyes as I held him against the wall. “How do you feel now, Bryan?” I asked sarcastically as I threw another punch at his face. “Go to hell, Ciar” He coughed blood into my face. I sent a blow to his belly, causing him to bend over as I stepped back. I felt the millions of eyes staring at me from the audience. I walked off, leaving Bryan coughing up blood in his little corner while his “Friends” flocked over to help him. I went into the alleyway, and there I took many turns so they could not follow me to tell me what to do. I felt the smoldering anger in my body, I wanted to rip him limb to limb. I stormed past shops and houses as I headed toward my home. I passed countless people going about their business, but I really didn’t care to know what they were doing so I just walked past them.

    • Laurean Brooks

      Pedro, this is very good. I love the visuals. The only thing I’d change is the second sentence. I wouldn’t repeat the word “belly” so soon. Instead I’d write : “I fell, clutching my midsection, ribcage, stomach…” Or you could change “belly” in the first sentence. “The punch flew at my stomach…midsection.” The idea is not to repeat the word too soon.

      • Pedro Hernandez

        Ah, Thanks Laurean Brooks! The critique is very appreciated 😀

  • Warjna Waleska Kaztjmjr

    This was an interesting article. #4 is something I’ve done before. I have one of those voice recorders, and when I do long-distance driving I just tuck it into my bra (sorry for the image!) and ramble. I’ve worked out dialogue, and I’ve worked out the WORST problem I had with motivations and plotlines by just putting my mouth in gear and leaving my brain in neutral.

    My real problem with writing is that I’m ADD. Yup. Ooh, shiny! I have Facebook only because there are two people in my life that I don’t want to lose track of, but I don’t dare go on it because I’ll lose about four hours!. Same problem (only WORSE!) with Pinterest. Ye gods! I’m a night owl, and my best writing time is between 11 pm and 5 am, but if I touch Pinterest, that’s shot. But I’m looking for just that right picture to use as background, or just the right face for my character…

    • Marianne Richmond

      Ah, but you know your weakness and avoid it! LOL. I can truly relate and am glad to hear the voice recorder strategy can work!

  • I think the reason we so often hear the advice “just start writing” is because, really, that’s all you can do. However it’s also important to be flexible about what “writing” means in this context: if you take it to mean “start at the beginning of the novel you want to write” then there is a good chance you’ll get stuck. If you can be more flexible then you have a much better chance.

    Write the ending.

    Write a random piece in the middle.

    Write a piece of backstory that will never make it into the final product.

    Write a description of a character.

    Write a side story about one of the minor characters.

    Write about the day you had yesterday.

    Write a shopping list!

    • Maggie

      I like this advice. I often find myself procrastinating writing a new idea because I don’t know how to begin the story. When I have started and have a beginning, I need to know what happens next.

      Lately I’ve found that little snippets and scenes pop up in my head out of chronological order. I’ll get them down but ultimately don’t know how or where they fit in to the finished product.

      • Catherine

        I suffer from the same problem. I have notebooks full of random, possible scenes and exchanges between characters. Not to mention in depth notes regarding themes, symbolism, and characters’ faults. Right now I’m trying to tackle questions and plot holes I have about my story- in hopes of giving it better legs to stand on. By doing so, I’ve discovered some very interesting sub-plots. These sub plots are the events and people who made the current happenings of the story possible and give them purpose. I have been trying to find this for a long time, but I didn’t expect to discover a whole new cast of characters whom I now love and can’t wait to write about.

    • Gabriela

      I like this too! I can begin a story but then get stuck because the planning hasn’t yet been done because I don’t know what I want the plan to be in the first place. Meanwhile, the ‘training’ of the craft suffers because I don’t write anything.

      I’m very good at shopping lists but the other suggestions are brilliant, many thanks for sharing them!

    • Marianne Richmond

      Thank you Alex! This paralysis is so unlike me as I usually just get things done. So I’ve really had to get creative with how to move through my block — I love your ideas!

    • George McNeese

      I like the idea of being flexible. I usually have a hard time writing a story from beginning to end. And most of the time, it follows an archaic formula of acts and structure. I wrote a story in which I switched things up in the draft. I started in the middle and jump around at different points in the story. I got more enjoyment writing out of place.

    • Love this! Such a no doy moment for me. Embarking on my new project, I’m looking forward to the freedom and creativity bouncing around will (hopefully) bring. Thanks Alex!

    • Inga

      love this list on flexibility! this most definitely will get the juices flowing in a lot o other areas in a story idea…

  • Wonderful Marianne! This post made me think of John Irving. He doesn’t begin writing a novel until he’s got the entire story mapped out in his head, sometimes mulling over an idea for years. Sometimes people just aren’t ready to write, but that doesn’t mean they have to sit idle.

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  • Pedro Hernandez

    I want my readers to feel that the main character is slowly going insane, Losing his mind by the minute, becoming more bloodthirsty and dangerous to others until he becomes a killing machine, just like the villain and eventually, becoming THE villain (Literally)

    • Sandra

      that sounds pretty cool. Like noir.

      • Pedro Hernandez

        Thanks! (Though I dont know what noir is, can you link it for me? I cant seem to find it…)

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  • winter bayne

    I do the egg timer idea.

  • I swear by the egg timer method! It pushed me through the second half of my book in record time (compared to the painfully slow first half). I wished I had started using it from the beginning and will definitely do so with my next project.

  • Sandra

    OMG she cried to herself, she pressed her palms into the gritty cement, particles of sand pushing in her hand. A 6 foot by foor room, on the door was a tiny window. But besides this there was nothing.

    Hot tears stung her cheeks. When her meal was given to her through an opening in the door she ran to get it and sat down with it. She poked the contents with her fork. A green vegetable of some kind and pieces of cubed meat. But then she ate it up quickly.

    What are the things that come to mind when you find out you are sentenced for life in prison for something you didn’t do. And the person who did this to you is out having a picnic somewhere. Anger seethed her body.

    She had never known want or hunger and had little in the way of boredom, so for her this was quite the change. She’d hoped her family would come for her, but she was starting to think that it wouldn’t be so.

    Then again maybe they just haven’t had enough time. Maybe they would come. They should figure out what happened soon enough, I mean how long could they go on living not knowing where she was. We’re family.

    As time wore on she was allowed a couple things to pass the time. A book, some paper and pencil.

    She licked the tip of her pencil and set to writing to her sister.

    Dear Elizabeth:

    I don’t know why the family has not come but I think of you everyday. In case you don’t know I am in the prison in England. I hope I was wrong about your husband, and if I ever do get out of this cell I will give him another chance and not just wack my jaw at him.

    I hope we can go on a walk in the garden soon,

    Love, Your sister forever

    Kate

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  • LisaYang

    Haven’t written anything for quite some time, so here it goes:)

    People are like ships that are attached to each other. At times though, we are left behind, floating by ourselves and cut loose from everybody else. We float and float, waiting for a wave that lifts us high up in the air, so high that the ocean unfolds beyond us, so high, that the ships, that are occasionally out of sight appear before us, a reminder that we not merely exist, but co-exist, that loneliness is but a state of mind.

    Life takes many turns however and some are stuck longer than others.
    When you’re lucky, you catch that good wave and you get lots of company, you get many ships. When you’re really unfortunate though, you are swallowed by the sea, never to emerge again.
    Depression must feel like this: wanting to struggle upward, out of deep and haunting waters, but lacking the strength.
    From below, you see the floating ships on the water surface, but they are ships not submarines, and so you drown, unseen, unnoticed. Drowning in despair, aching.

    Other ships will follow, other people will feel, what you have felt, once darkness has swept over you. For the ships on the surface are not all as invincible as they appear to be. No one wants to be pitied, everybody wants their ship to look majestic and beautiful, glowing with bright colors, glistening and hopeful. But one day, there will come a wave, stronger and more destructive than any other wave, a wave that will wash away the colors of their boat, the colors that don’t belong there and don’t stick. And left behind are the cracks, the holes, the leaks that are drowning them, that have been pulling them down all along and then they fall. Deeper and deeper.

  • I love this idea too! I was paralyzed when I read you needed an outline to be successful. I’ve been writing since I was 6 and never used an outline. This completely stopped me. Now, I’ll set the timer, freefall through my freestyle and see where we land. Cup of mint tea mandatory 🙂

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  • “I’m already 27, wasted almost half of my life trying infinite things. The things leading me nowhere. What would I do in my whole life? Am I pracrastinating too much? My old classmates are already earning thousands of rupees each month. They are enjoying the fruits of well-settled life. And what am I doing is nothing?

    Well, this all started few years ago. I was new comer in the educational world. I didn’t know what is art? What is commerce? What is science? I just catched the flock of sheeps and admitted to the Arts Junior College. It was the only education institution in our area. People told me Commerce is difficult, Science is terrible and I should go with something smooth like Arts. So I did.

    After completing my two years of Junior college the time was there when I stucked in my life. What to do next? I was a full grown teenager. I knew I am not an Art person. But it was the time when I had already lost my lot of teenager life in studying History and Geography of my country.

    Then I decided to switch over my educational journey to the Commerce.”

    And the timer stopped at 14.5 minutes.

  • Mr. Seeber

    No, it pretty much works like you were told. Your ideas are loony.

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