Good Writing vs. Bad Writing vs. Writing You Love

Beth, Slayer of Foley, has nailed it on the head with her take on what constitutes good writing vs. bad writing vs. writing you love.

It’s funny that she used the food analogy, because I’ve done the exact same thing, only I used Doritos instead of Little Debbie cakes. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying Doritos, and there’s also nothing wrong with not particularly enjoying high-falutin’ food that requires fresh ingredients and a modicum of skill to make. But to say that the two are equivalent is, I think, a somewhat muddle-headed thing to do. In terms of hateration, The Stone Diaries incites a similar intensity of feeling in me that Desire’s Blossom does, but I reserve the title of Worst Book of All Time for Desire’s Blossom, because frankly? It’s impossible to be worse than THE WORST BOOK OF ALL TIME. The Stone Diaries exhibited skill and a certain coherence despite its non-linearity, while Desire’s Blossom exhibited all the skill and coherence of a drunk midget trying to run the 100m hurdles at the Olympics.

And to stretch the food analogy even further:

Sometimes you can acknowledge that the dish is really, really good, and you would’ve loved it—except there was cilantro in it, and you know, gaaaaaah cilantro PUKE. You might learn to love cilantro down the line, or encounter a chef might so skillful in her cilantro usage that she creates a singular dish, The Only Dish With Cilantro You’ve Ever Enjoyed, but by and large, cilantro = death to your tastebuds.

And you look at people who will consume whole sandwiches consisting almost entirely of cilantro, and you cringe in horror, but at the same time, you can acknowledge that a cilantro sandwich made with freshly-baked home-made bread is NOT in the same league as Doritos or Little Debbie.

Or, conversely, your hatred of cilantro is so all-encompassing that anything with cilantro in it = crap and a danger to good nutrition and a moral society as we know it, the end. I’d disagree with that view, even if I dislike cilantro, too, because dude: it’s just cilantro.

And then there are other dishes that are made with skill and the finest ingredients, but they kind of piss you off because you don’t get the point of this particular mingling of flavors. These dishes are usually entirely too fond of their own cleverness and innovation, like the chi-chi platters you get at upscale fusion restaurants that don’t put dollar signs before their prices in the menu, like so:

Sardines broiled in a raspberry compote, served on a bed of raw oysters and drizzled with rice wine reduction 85

And you look at it and think “what in the hell,” but dayum, look at all the people slurping up the raspberry sardines on raw oysters around you, apparently enjoying their meals. So you think OK, I’ll try this, how bad can it be, and you do, and IT’S EVEN WORSE THAN YOU’D IMAGINED IT’D BE. It’s not just death to your tastebuds, it’s death by dysentery.

Or, maybe you love it, and you’re telling all your friends about this crazy dish, and they tell you to stop hitting the crack pipe so hard before heading out for overpriced fusion cuisine but you swear up and down that it’s GOOD, it’s not just the hype.

Anyway, now that I’ve beaten that particular analogy to a bloody, whimpering pulp…. Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to tip your servers.

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Kate R says:

    I thought I’d beat the whimpering food pulp thing some more—but now I’ve come back to read the your analogy more closely and realize you did it way better than I did and I hate you for that.

  2. 2
    Sarah F. says:

    But then there are the classic authors that people tell me are good writers, and I seriously don’t see it.  Melville, Kerouac, for example.  I’m a literary critic by trade and I can look at Hawthorne, if you hold a gun to my head, and admit that the way he strings words together is Good Writing.  But I don’t think that Melville and Kerouac are Good Writers.  I think they’re truly Bad and I don’t understand the hype.

    I’m sure that proved something, but grading has fried my brain.

  3. 3
    Raina_Dayz says:

    I indulged my unholy lust for swiss cake rolls just last night, while reading a Dara Joy.  Keep that junk food coming.

  4. 4
    Candy says:

    OK, never read Kerouac so I can’t write intelligently about his work (not that I can write intelligently too often, haha), but I have read Melville. I hated—HATED—“Benito Cereno” in a way I hadn’t hated a work by a Dead White Person since Wuthering Heights. Moby Dick, on the other hand, I adore. The great thing about Moby Dick is, it’s a giant, sloppy Twinkie with way too much filling that squidges out in weird spots. It tries hard to be home-made cake, and actually succeeds in certain spots, but by and large, a large, unwieldy Twinkie. And if you like sloppy Twinkies masquerading as cakes, either for the novelty or because you just kinda like Twinkies in general, you’ll probably enjoy Moby Dick.

    The Literature professors I know who worship at the altar of Melville generally praise him as an innovator, and seem more interested in his subtext than the text itself. He was one of the first Giant Squidgy Twinkie Masquerading As Home-Made Cake guys, and for that, the professors think he deserves props.

  5. 5
    Beth says:

    Dude. Why’s everybody gotta link me when I don’t even proofread, much less thoroughly think through whatever I wind up saying?

    I like Kerouac. Never thought he was Great Writing, but I do think he has enough there to be considered Good Writing.

  6. 6
    Amanda says:

    Hmm. I hate cilantro. Ditto Moby Dick , Dickens & Kerouac. But I love Hawthorne, Little Debbie, Stevenson & Gaelen Foley. Go figure.

    The discussion here, at Beth’s & at Sara Donati’s blog are all excellent. More power to open discussion & constructive criticism.

  7. 7
    Robin says:

    Okay, now that you’ve gotten me hungry for a Little Debbie Peanut Butter Bar, I’ll distract myself by saying that I totally agree with Beth.  But I would also add a layer that I think accounts for some of the discrepancies among readers, either within a certain genre or between them, and that layer is authorial voice.

    No matter what words we choose, how we construct our sentences, how we phrase things, and what we aspire to do in our prose, through it all is, IMO, our personal and individual voice.  And I think this voice is like a fingerprint—unique in at least one aspect from person to person.  It’s why fan fiction never sounds quite the same, for example, even when you have someone who knows a writer’s style inside and out. 

    Of course there are quantifiably better craftsmen and women of language, and we have all sorts of relatively objective ways to measure some of those differences.  How does an author handle metaphor? Simile?  Metonymy?  Parallel structure?  Range of vocabulary and word choice?  Tense shifting?  I think it gets a little dicey, though, when you have a writer who is an exceptional craftsperson (i.e. Judith Ivory) writing in a genre where the effectiveness of writing is sometimes measures in contrast to wrtiers known specifically for their craftsmanship (i.e. people think Nora Roberts is a better writer than Jane Austen).

    I hear people over and over again talking about how exceptional a writer Nora Roberts is, for example, and while I don’t think she’s a terrible writer, I don’t view her as a particularly exceptional craftsperson when it comes to the art of prose. BUT, I think Roberts has a distinct authorial voice that works for many people (including me, as long as she’s writing as JD Robb, and even then, some of the books have seemed “off” to me).  In those circumstances, I think it’s natural for readers to conflate a writer’s style with their voice, their writing with the particular way they articulate themselves using the written word.  If it works for us, we see is as good writing, and if it doesn’t, we see bad or overblown or ineffective writing.

    At its best, IMO good writing is a combination of talent in the craft of writing and using language (i.e. Melville, Kerouac, Austen, Ivory), and in some cases (Balogh’s early books, for example), an author’s voice is much more compelling than her prose, and in other cases, both an author’s voice and prose are weak.

    So while we talk about the differences between good and bad writing—objectively—which I absolutely think we can do to a great extent, I also think we need to talk about voice.  Because that’s, IMO, where a lot of the battles are being waged, especially when we’re arguing over authors who are working with a certain level of skill, but who will never be confused with, say, Shakespeare or Marvell or Twain.

  8. 8
    Mar says:

    I’m just amused that the only review of “Desire Blossoms” on Amazon gives it 5 stars. *snigger*

  9. 9
    Amy E says:

    Mar, whoever wrote that review?  Totally smokin’ some cilantro.

  10. 10
    Mar says:

    Really, Amy? But, but… the review was so well-written and grammatically correct! How can someone who is smoking the cilantro compose a review of such brilliance as this:

    the book was very interesting i had a very hard time putting it down.i would take the book where every i went.after reading one chapter it made you want to keep reading on . now i have book stores calling me when any of cassie edwards books come in ..

  11. 11
    Amy E says:

    True, so true.  My mind, it is boggled.  See the mind?  See that thing it’s doing?  That, my dear, is boggling. 

    boggleboggleboggle

  12. 12
    Rosina says:

    coupla things:

    Beth? Stop writing interesting things if you don’t want people to pay attention. Sheesh. Or open up your comments, that would work too.

    As far as this general discussion goes, I think Robin’s got an important point about voice, but I also think that where we all get confused is because we don’t think about the quality of writing as something independent of the quality of storytelling.

    Because you can be a great storyteller and a pretty crappy writer, and you’ll probably make money, because for most readers, the STORY COMES FIRST.

  13. 13
    Rosina says:

    also, on cilantro:

    you do realize that it’s a genetic thing? Some people have got this gene that makes cilantro completely unpalatable to them. When I taste cilantro goodness, that person tastes soap. So it’s not a matter of learning to like something. It’s like being able to curl your tongue or curly hair or whatever the genetic wheel of fortune handed over when your turn came up to give it a whirl.

  14. 14
    Robin says:

    “I also think that where we all get confused is because we don’t think about the quality of writing as something independent of the quality of storytelling.”

    I’m trying to decide whether or not I consider storytelling an element of voice.  On the one hand, I think so, because why else would we be able to relate anew to the same story told over and over again.  But on the other hand, it seems somewhat separate, since some readers seem perfectly content to fill in the same old blanks for authors I consider to have really ineffective voices.  But then again, we all resonate differently to different voices (I always think of radio DJ’s when I ponder this— you know, how some people find Howard Stern the greatest while others find him utterly annoying).

  15. 15
    Ammie says:

    Thanks for this: “These dishes are usually entirely too fond of their own cleverness and innovation…”

    I remember, god 6 or 7 years ago or maybe 10? when the new trend was “semi-autobiographical” novels. There is nothing that beats a “semi-autobiographical” novel for writing rift with smug, self-indulgent prose. Not good. Not good at all. But they thought they were good. They really did. They thought their lives were interesting and filled with portents and truth and depth—but it was all just crap. Crap, crap, crap.

  16. 16
    Ammie says:

    Here’s my hypothesis about literature. The books they made you read, you hate and you will always hate. People can tell me until the end of time Dickens is good. I could give a flying fuck. I had to read it as a freshman in high school and it was a melodramtic peice of garbage. I was too young to understand it. Now every time I think about reading “literature” I get a feeling of dread that I will have the same experience—slogging through an overwrought book filled with people who make choices no sensible person would.

  17. 17
    Candy says:

    Sara: I had NO IDEA about the cilantro heinousness gene. Because cilantro has always tasted like soap to me. Huh. Nobody else in my family thinks so, though.

    Mom….? Is there something you want to tell me?

    Ammie: I’m enough of a freak that I gobbled up any and all books assigned to me throughout school. The only ones I hated were ones I would’ve disliked on my own, too—Wuthering Heights, which was assigned reading for my Romantic British Lit class in college, for example, was a book I’d read and hated when I picked it up voluntarily a a much younger age. Another memorable bad college-assigned book was Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, which had moments of brilliance but was much too overwrought and in love with itself for my tastes. Otherwise, I largely enjoyed my assigned reading. But I can definitely see how book assignments (especially if combined with a bad or ineffective instructor) can turn people off reading certain types of books.

  18. 18
    Darla says:

    Oh, yes, yes, yes.  I’ve been trying to figure this out ever since I started discussing books.  There’s writing, storytelling, and voice—three distinct elements in any book.  They may overlap, one element affecting another, but it’s entirely possible to love the voice, hate the story, and find the writing mediocre—which is the case with the book I just finished reading.

    Whether the storytelling and the voice are good is a matter of opinion, but the quality of the writing itself is, I believe, more objective. 

    The food analogy is perfect for describing storytelling vs. writing, but now I’m trying to figure out how to wedge the elusive ‘voice’ into the analogy.  Maybe it is part of storytelling.  Or maybe it’s the combination of foods—separate from the quality and whether you like it or not.  Or…  HELP!  I haven’t had enough caffeine for this.

  19. 19
    Amy E says:

    If the story is the actual food, the voice is the presentation.  Let’s face it, you can slap a steak and some green beans and some mashed ‘taters down on a plate and toss it on the table and it’ll taste the same, but who wouldn’t rather have a nice, artistic plate with those long green beans arranged around the steak, and the mashed ‘taters shaped into a model of Mount Rushmore?

  20. 20
    Darla says:

    I love it, Amy.  I bow to your brilliance.  And that of Candy and Beth and SaraDonati and Robin and… hell, all y’all are such smart bitches—consider yourselves bowed to.

  21. 21
    Norma says:

    I threw a book across my bedroom because it was crap.  I absolutely could not read more than the first twenty pages.  I said to the cats, “This is total crap.  I could have written this shit.”  And then I launched it.  If the reviewers would have just come out and said this book is crap, don’t waste your money, I wouldn’t have.  Now I know where to find the “real” reviews before I make a purchase.

    Cilantro:  My sister used to be a fantastic cook until she discovered cilantro….nasty, revolting stuff.

  22. 22
    Candy says:

    Sara Donati has further ruminations on this issue on her blog. Go check it out.

  23. 23
    Robin says:

    “There’s writing, storytelling, and voice—three distinct elements in any book.  They may overlap, one element affecting another, but it’s entirely possible to love the voice, hate the story, and find the writing mediocre—which is the case with the book I just finished reading.”

    I agree with a lot of what you say, Darla, but I would distinguish storytelling from the story per se, lumping storytelling in with voice (since it’s the act of telling) and story as something separate. 

    Sometimes I think people are so fond of a particular story, that they don’t care how many times it’s told, who’s doing the telling, or any variation on the details, which can be magically re-transformed in the mind of the reader anytime.  But even if people aren’t aware of the concept of voice in a text (or storytelling to use your more descriptive term), I think they wither resonate to it or don’t, and that accounts for some of those respones like, “Well, the writing wasn’t all that great, but there was something about this book that kept me reading it.” One of my recent reads that falls in this category is Lisa Valdez’s Passion.  The book had, IMO, a number of pretty significant flaws, but Valdez’s voice carried the book, somehow, and compelled me to keep caring and keep reading.  In fact, it’s that book that really made me start thinking about this issue seriously, because it stayed with me for quite a while afterward, despite some flaws I could articulate graphically and disdainfully.  Now, as an aside, Valdez spoke up on the AAR board about her book, and her voice there was quite different—and I was glad it wasn’t that voice I heard in her book!

  24. 24
    Candy says:

    Some verrrry interesting points made, especially the story/storytelling/craft divisions. I’m trying to write the review for It Happened One Autumn by Lisa Kleypas, and I liked it, but at the same time, there is SO MUCH to snark about it. Reading this discussion has crystallized some of those issues. Question: would characters/characterization fall under the storytelling umbrella? Because I’ll put up with some wonky storytelling and a story that doesn’t make too much sense if I care enough about the characters.

    Robin: I have Passion in my TBR. We seem to have very similar tastes, so I’m glad to hear it’s not a total loss.

  25. 25
    sherryfair says:

    That’s the great conundrum, for me, Candy. I’d think that romances would live or die by the quality of the characterization of the hero and heroine. That is, you could screw up the plot, leaving loose ends everywhere, you could write flat-footed or nearly technical business manual prose (that’s my day job, so I can laugh at it), you could use wallpaper history or clumsy world-building … but if you managed to get a convincing rendition of a human being in there, showing you’d studied the species live, in their natural habitat, then the romance might still manage to be appealing.

    Probably that human being would have to be the male character, since I’ve seen a lot of plastic female dolls whose lifelessness didn’t seem to concern the readers. Maybe the trick is, if you can write a man really well, so that he seems lifelike, and appeals to the female readership, and if you can show him being in love convincingly, you’re in?

  26. 26
    FerfeLaBat says:

    It all makes sense now.  I LOVE cilantro.  Salsa is crap with out cilantro.  I love the smell of it, the taste of it and if there is no cilantro, then no ceviche.

    I am an herb and spice kinda gal.  I love variety in books and food.  Very few books have ever made my “total crap” list and … when I read one, I NEVER think to myself, “I could write this!” Because, you know, then I would be saying that I could write crap.  I can, but I don’t want to.

    Off subject.  I screwed up something on my laptop two months ago with Windows 2003 Server Setting that prevented me from posting when the site used a pop-up for comments.  Don’t try and help me. I am undeserving.  I bought a new laptop and the old one is about to have the memory wiped.  No evidence of abject failure left to taunt me in the future.

    I am sneaking in here and at Kates to check in and say hi.  So.  Not that I was missed, but …

  27. 27
    Robin says:

    “Question: would characters/characterization fall under the storytelling umbrella? Because I’ll put up with some wonky storytelling and a story that doesn’t make too much sense if I care enough about the characters.”

    Good question.  First I guess I’d make the distinction between narrative voice and authorial voice, because, while they can be one and the same, I don’t think they always are.  For example, an author might write from the head of one of her characters, but still ahve a very distinct voice as an author

    that carries over from book to book regardless of other elements of her style, storytelling technique, plot, characterization, etc. 

    So in regard to my earlier comment about voice and storytelling, in the words of Gene Wilder channeling Willy Wonka “Stop! Reverse that!” and realign storytelling with narrative voice first and authorial voice second.  So in that way, I think yes, certain elements of characterization fall under the storytelling rubric, especially where you’re talking about POV, etc.

    To me, authorial voice is often the source of that ephemeral sense of like or dislike we develop for an author.  I think it contains many elements of narrative voice, characterization, etc., but is also distinct and individual. It’s captured in and reflected by phrases we love or moments we attach to or the feelings a particular book evokes. But it’s not perfectly replicable, IMO.

    Part of my job involves a certain amount of writing, and apparently, I have a strong style (one that I didn’t really notice until someone pointed it out for me).  Over the years, people have tried to replicate my style for professional purposes, but even if they use a lot of the language I favor, it doesn’t sound like me.  At all.  Because, IMO, my style may be easily discernable to some people, but my voice—anyone’s voice—is as unique as a fingerprint. 

    The reason I bring this up is that I think there are some books and authors we simply fall for ever so easily, and while we may be able to come up with some objective reasons for the love affair, mostly I think we are just seduced by the very specific tenor and quality of their personal voice. 

    “Robin: I have Passion in my TBR. We seem to have very similar tastes, so I’m glad to hear it’s not a total loss.”

    I’ll be interested in hearing if you hated the same things I did, and liked the same things I found admirable. 

    And I liked the new Kleypas, as well, and got a REALLY nice little note from her on AAR after I stood up for the book on the Reviews board (and dammit she has no email address for me to suck up further!).  Although I generally try to ignore the public persona of an author (because doesn’t it SUCK to dislike the persona when you love the prose?), she was SOOOOOO gracious in the face of some harsh hateration toward IHOA, I was especially happy that I’ve liked her Wallflower books so much.  I think her writing shows a confidence and a sense of flow it never has before, which went a long way toward erasing all the things I could have picked on so very easily.  She is a true comfort read for me, one of a relatively small number of authors I always trust, even when I dislike their books.

  28. 28
    Candy says:

    Sherryfair: I’d think that romances would live or die by the quality of the characterization of the hero and heroine. (…) Probably that human being would have to be the male character, since I’ve seen a lot of plastic female dolls whose lifelessness didn’t seem to concern the readers. Maybe the trick is, if you can write a man really well, so that he seems lifelike, and appeals to the female readership, and if you can show him being in love convincingly, you’re in?

    I did some more thinking about this, and I think ultimately, it’s all about tolerances for different things. I think of it as kind of like whipping egg whites: you can overwhip egg whites, but you can salvage it by turning the mixer to low speed and adding more sugar to it, bit by bit. But sometimes the whites are so overwhipped that there’s no salvation for them, or your technique is off for the sugar remedy and THAT doesn’t work, either.

    Man, something about this topic makes me bring up food.

    Anyway, the point being, different readers probably assign different weights to the assorted aspects of a book.

    For romance, character, voice and craft are the two most important to me, with only a couple of notable exceptions like Dara Joy and pirate romances, where character and plot take over. I’ll tolerate a lot of silliness in the plot if I love the characters and the prose style doesn’t make me want to thump my head against the wall, but up the stupidity enough and it can overwhelm both. A notable example of this is the two “funnies” Patricia Gaffney wrote, Crooked Hearts and Outlaw in Paradise, which had really interesting characters, but the situations (and maybe the voice? It’s been a long time since I’ve read those books) really rubbed me the wrong way.

    Ferfe: I am an herb and spice kinda gal.

    Yup, me too. I always have fresh herbs on hand, especially the Holy Trinity, basil, rosemary and thyme. Which sounds odd coming from a Malaysian girl, but egad, making curry from scratch is ungodly difficult, and do you KNOW how hard it is to find fresh curry flowers in Portland, plus the lure of the very convenient Aroy canned curry is too much for me to resist. Anyway, that doesn’t change the fact that cilantro always has tasted like soap to me. It’s good in measured amounts in salsa, guacamole and certain types of Thai curry, but that’s something I had to learn to like.

    Ferfe again: Very few books have ever made my “total crap” list (…)

    This is probably true for a lot of bibliophiles, because if most of what we read were total crap, reading wouldn’t be particularly fun, would it? The number of totally crap books I read (or, more accurately, read partway since I make it a point not to finish crappy books nowadays) can’t compare with the OMG SQUEE titles, if only because I’m fairly adept at learning from pain and usually don’t allow an author a second chance to inflict agony on me.

    The majority of books I read seem to fall into the B and C categories—kinda good and kinda crap in assorted admixtures.

    And Robin: interesting point about narratorial vs. authorial voice. Something for me to ponder. Some authors, like Mark Twain, Jennifer Crusie and Loretta Chase, have very strong authorial voices that I love that carry over from book to book. Crusie’s voice, for example, is chatty and amiable and rife with run-on sentences. Others, I have harder time picking up on, like Laura Kinsale’s, or George Orwell’s.

    When you mention narratorial voice, I immediately think of two other books that I really love, namely To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye. Two very dissimilar narrative voices, both of which I enjoyed for different reasons. I would’ve loved to read more from Scout’s perspective, she really seemed like somebody I’d really like if she was real, but Holden’s story was just the right length. Part of his charm was how he irritated and exasperated me in just the right way, but if there had been more stories told from his POV, I think I would’ve tired of it.

    And the new Kleypas got bagged on hard? Awww. I mean, it’s not her best, by any means, but I gulped it down in two sittings, which is rare nowadays, given my terrible attention span and multitude of distractions, many of them being TV series on DVD. Mystery: I put them on hold at different times at the library, and they all have different numbers of holds on them, yet inevitably, they all arrive at the same time, which means first few of seasons of Seinfeld, the fourth season of Mr. Show and the first season of Deadwood ALL showed up at once.

    Woohoo, check out the length of this sumbitch!

  29. 29
    Candy says:

    Oh boy, on re-reading my comment, I realize I forgot to comment on sherryfair’s observation about the hero being the most important aspect for romance novel readers. I agree, and I think it’s because the men are the objects of desire. It’s why male actors in porn movies are allowed to be gross, but the female stars have to comply with certain standards of attractiveness and desirability.

  30. 30
    Robin says:

    “Others, I have harder time picking up on, like Laura Kinsale’s, or George Orwell’s.”

    Try reading Orwell’s “Politics of the English Language” and see if you pick it up then.

    As for Kinsale’s voice, I think it came through clearest for me in My Sweet Folly, which, incidentally, is actually one of my favorite Kinsale books.  But the cracking plaster effect of that book, especially as it went along, really brought her voice into sharp relief for me (even though I can’t read it without thinking of The Yellow Wallpaper and the narrator’s case of post partum depression—don’t ask my why).  It comes across to me as a little impatient, forceful but somewhat guarded, yearning, and strangely logical (in the way everything gets worked with and through during the course of one of her books).  At least that’s how it sounds to me.  I “hear” it really clearly in Seize the Fire and Midsummer Moon, too.

    As for the Kleypas book, most of us enjoyed it, but one post in particular started this whole chorus of “I’m not going to read this book!” comments.  It wasn’t an inappropriate post, just pretty aggressive and dismissive of a book of which she only got to page 90.  Anyway, the whole thread reminded me how little it takes for some people to avoid a book and how much strong voices online can carry. 

    As for me, since Kleypas is defecting from historical Romance after this series, I’m just savoring the books right now.  She has, IMO, improved SO much in her basic writing skill, that I’ll forgive her boatloads of stuff I would not necessarily overlook in other writers.

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