Joseph Clay – Author

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Numbers to Words: My Journey from Engineering to Writing

In Elmore Leonard’s book Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing one of the rules is, “Never open a book with weather”. Well, the weather plays an important role here, but this isn’t a book and I’ve already opened with Elmore’s rule about the weather so I’m covered. I will also try my best to break some more rules as we go along, such as the one about no backstory.

The summer of 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee was a hot one, with a stretch of 28 consecutive days – June 13 to July 10 – having warmer than average high temperatures. The day we all almost died was June 29, when the high temperature topped out at 107°F. (For reference, on that day the average high temperature is 88°F.) That type of heat, combined with a job as a Senior Service Tech for the steel industry, took its toll on this old man, who had always lived, worked and played hard, and whose body was showing the signs of his lifestyle.

Backstory: September 27, 1977. Location: Interstate 85 north bound, north of Newnan, south of Atlanta. Age: 17. Event: Honda 350 versus tractor trailer carrying a tanker full of peanut oil. Winner: tractor trailer. Injuries suffered in defeat: left leg suffered traumatic injury. The tibia and fibula suffered compound fractures. The tibia was ground down two to three inches by the asphalt as I skidded up the pavement. The fibula, when it snapped and shot through the skin, removed half of the left calf muscle. The left ankle was broken and crushed. The impact of the front bumper and fender of the tractor trailer severed the left leg four inches above the ankle. Three inches of skin was all that was holding the left foot to the leg.

I spent the next 8 months flat on my back in a hospital as they reattached the foot and let the wounds heal. Over the next several years I went through reconstructive surgeries that included bone grafts, rods and, later, a plate to hold everything together in my lower left leg. I had toes pinned and a wedge of bone removed from my left foot. Now I wear a size 11 right shoe and a size 9 left shoe – that foot never caught up with the right as I continued growing, but thank God I still have it. While I was being repaired I finished high school, went to tech school and college.

Back to the summer of 2012: I love the summer, the hotter the better. The heat doesn’t affect my joints like the cold does. I function better in the warm months than I do in the winter, point blank. That’s the reason I knew something was wrong; as hot as it was, I shouldn’t be limping around so badly, and my knees and ankle shouldn’t be giving me fits. The right knee, which had taken all the weight while the left leg was being reconstructed, had already been repaired once. I decided it was time to go see an orthopedic doctor. What I had suspected was true: the right knee had torn cartilage and tendons, the left knee needed to be replaced. Then I got the shock of my life. Before they did any type of surgery they wanted approval from a heart doctor, since I had a scar that ran down the middle of my chest from open-heart surgery.

Backstory II: Heart attack #1, 1993, aged 33. Heart attack #2, 2003, aged 43. Quadruple bypass. Heart attack #3, 2009, aged 49, Stent. That bring us up to date with what this blog covers, but wait, there is more. May 2014, cardiac cath, diagnosed with 37% left ventricular ejection fraction. Heart attack #4, 2015, aged 55. Removed clots and inserted stent.

With my heart history, the heart doctor decided that before he would give his approval he needed to do a stress test. Well, like all tests, I flunked it. He put me on some new medicine to try to fix the bigeminy and other issues that I was unaware I was having. The heart and orthopedic doctors consulted and came to the conclusion: no need to put new wheels on a car when the motor is going out. Their consensus: I needed to find and pursue something I was passionate about, within the next couple of years, to avoid any further damage to the leg. If the ankle fusion gave away then it could not be repaired and the foot would have to be amputated; this would also save wear-and-tear on the knees until they got the heart condition under control. The heart doctor interjected that, whatever I chose to do, I should stay away from stress. I had been juggling several projects for the previous 35 years. That and stress was all I knew.

I took my summer vacation to think about what the professionals had told me; I don’t always listen to doctors. Nina the Kat and I crunched some numbers, she concluded I could retire, I decided I had to find a way to beat this. I had to work as long as possible. So I sat down and decided to write a blog about the ordeal. I had started Am I The Only One Not Insane? Mind over Matter: My Mind is the Only One that Matters in 2009. When I pulled the blog in 2013 (at an editor’s suggestion: you don’t want your personal opinions offending someone who may buy a book), I had 3,000 plus followers. I wrote about controversial issues that included politics, sex and religion – you know, the three things you never discuss on a date – plus other topics. While I was writing the blog on my health I realized something: I loved to write, even though I couldn’t spell a lick. I thought what the heck and decided to write a novel.

I continued to work, as I needed to eat, and began my writing journey. I spent my vacations, holidays, weekends and other spare time I had in front of my computer screen, writing my masterpiece. To me the process was easy. The book went through many titles: A Bullet Mends a Broken Heart, Noon Judgement, West on the East. It wound up going to the editor’s under the title West on the East – Noon Judgement.

The basic plot follows the life of Levi West a young man who suffered sexual abuse as a preteen, along with his best friend Elena, at the hands of the ranch nurse Charlotte. Levi has lost all his family – mom, dad, grandma and grandad – to freak accidents that he is sure were in fact murder. To top all that off, he suffers panic attacks along with showing signs of mental disorders, paranoia and schizophrenia, all while dealing with paranormal activities at the ranch. Since Levi is a minor, Carven Smith, the cornerstone of the ranch and Levi’s confidant, asks the lawyer John Basham to allow him to be Levi’s legal guardian until he turns 18, at which point the trust, which Carven is also in charge of, will make Levi a billionaire. Levi’s job is to take over the ranch, but he bucks at the thought, wants no part of it and would rather be a cowpoke with a real job. That is when the story begins.

The book was packed full of characters, major and minor, protagonist and antagonist, and alongside the main plot I had written in several minor subplots. It was a complicated tale I had woven.

Once it was finished in late October of 2012, my search began for a publisher. I was visiting a good friend, John Cannon, a local artist here in East Nashville, when I noticed a bookstore in the Idea Hatchery complex into which John had moved. I walked down the way a piece and stopped in the shop called East Side Story, where I meet the owner, Chuck. He explained that his shop only sold books by independent authors that were located in the Nashville area. I explained to him what I needed and he pointed to a flyer that had pull-off tabs on the bottom of it. My excitement was growing; I had found a place to sell my book and someone to edit it. I had taken the bull by the horns and was well on my way to author status and living the good life. Back home I called the number on the tear off. A deal was struck: this company would do a manuscript review for 100 bucks. If they liked the book they would edit and publish it, taking a percentage of the sales until the publishing fee was paid. I sent the manuscript to them and waited. With the holidays over November and December, it took a while.

The first week in January 2013 I got the reply I was waiting on. I eagerly opened it. The email gave me some pointers that I needed to follow, which are listed below.

  • Most new authors don’t start by writing a novel that is over 100,000 words. Reasons are as listed: with that many words it’s hard for new authors to hold the reader’s attention, as they have not learned the art of showing instead of telling. Your plot, although strong, was overshadowed by some of the subplots, which were also strong, taking away from the main plot. This manuscript had too many subplots; it would have worked better with one main plot and two to three subplots – no more than that.
  • Your manuscript was written more like a screenplay than a book. Once again, we feel this comes from telling the story instead of allowing the reader to visualize and feel they are in the story by using the five senses. The below suggestion should help in this area.
  • Take a creative writing course to learn the basic principles of writing.
  • Like your plot and subplots, your characters are strong, but there are too many of them in this book.

“Mr. Clay we believe you have some of the traits that good authors have. This manuscript proves that. However, until you hone your skills we must reject your manuscript at this time due to the above, and due to the sexual content that borders on pornography. We have made suggestions throughout the manuscript, highlighting your strong points and weaknesses, along with suggestions. Please contact us if you have any questions on those mark-ups.

“We have an idea that you may want to consider. Since the characters are strong, we suggest you hang on to this manuscript, pull two of the characters out of it and write a short story around those two people. We would make it a standalone story, fewer than 50,000 words, that doesn’t have anything to do with this manuscript. Once you have penned that story, come back to this manuscript, pull two more characters from it and write another story with a word count no more than three times the first story, 150,000 words maximum. Once that is complete, once again return to this manuscript. Divide it up into two, three or maybe four books and make it a series.

“When doing this, keep in mind to use only one major plot and no more than three subplots. Sexual scenes are OK in a book, but they must be limited, not one after the other, or your book will get tagged as erotica, which will kick you out of the mainstream market. We suggest doing some research on the difference between erotica and pornographic material. If your book gets labeled ‘pornographic’ it can only be sold on certain internet venues and in print at adult book stores and truck stops. The reason we bring this up is that some of sexual scenes were written well, and with some modifying of slang words they could be used in a story that would pass in the mainstream marketplace. Also, one of the biggest selling genres on the internet is erotica. You could pull the sex scenes from this manuscript that are not used in the series of books or the two previous stories, and write in that genre. Once again, you would need to tweak the wording a little. We have pointed these areas out in the manuscript critique. Thank you for giving us a chance to review your work and good luck in your endeavors.”

I pondered their suggestions for several months, trying to decide whether this was really what I wanted to do. I still had my day job and I hadn’t planned on hanging it up till the end of 2015. I discussed it with Nina the Kat; we both asked ourselves, what could it hurt? I decided that I wouldn’t give up, but that I was not going to spend all my spare time writing or worrying about it. During my summer vacation that year, 2013, Nina the Kat had a brainstorm to get me on track; you can read about her writing exercise in the blog ‘Birth of the Demons’.

If you refer back to Backstory II, you’ll see that I wasn’t able to continue working to the end of 2015. In May 2014, the same month that my first e-book, Demons of the Jungle, was published, the heart doctor highly suggested that I change careers, as my line of work and environment were not doing my heart any favors. I continued till August of that year before hanging up my hard hat and pursuing writing full-time.

Below are some excerpts from the West on the East – Noon Judgment manuscript critique. They are funny now, but back then they pierced my heart like an arrow.

  • “Everything needs to be broken up into paragraphs and the dialogue needs to have quotes and attribution. ‘Blah blah,’ he said.”
  • “This could all be its own chapter and told from the point of view of Remington as a child.”
  • “This reads like erotica. That’s fine if that is your intention. You will have limited options for publishing if you keep this in, but there are online options for erotic literature.”
  • “You’ve switched to Bethany’s point of view, but the rest of the novel is from Remington’s point of view. Need to pick one and stick with it. Or each character can have a chapter.”
  • “If you want to refine this to publish as erotica, some of the slang would have to come out. Otherwise it’s really more just pornographic.”

As you can see from the above, there was really nowhere from me to go but up.

Thanks for stopping by, and never give up. I can attest that doing something you love really isn’t work.

 

Blog edited by Clare Diston @ Human Voices.

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When is a second edition needed?

One of the questions I’m asked a lot is, “Why did you stop the writing process on your third book to do a second edition of your first published novel? It has a three-star rating on Goodreads and four stars on Smashwords.”

I always take a deep breath and explain that the ratings are great, but they are not from a lot of readers. Three or four stars would be acceptable if you had 50 or more people rate the book, not one or two. Then I take another breath and explain the process that brought me to the conclusion to write a second edition of Demons of the Jungle. I have decided to put this process in a blog before I release the second edition so that new readers, along with new authors, can see why I thought a second edition was needed.

I will start off by saying that I’m a retired engineer and I worked with numbers every day for 35 years. Demons of the Jungle was first released May 24, 2014 as an e-book on Smashwords. From there it hit Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes and Noble and the other major retailers; the paperback version came out later the next year. Total book sales to date (November 11, 2015): 169. Sounds OK for an author’s first published work.

I decided to take a closer look at the numbers. For the first month of release I offered coupons, so the book was free. I learned in a hurry that readers love free books—the total number of freebies I gave away was 109, giving me 60 true book sales. 60 (true sales) divided by 18 (the number of months the book has been available for purchase) = 3.3 books a month. Now the numbers that looked OK in the beginning are looking worse.

Next I looked at the number of partial downloads, a feature authors use to give the reader a sample of the book (Demons of the Jungle’s was set to 20%). I had 164 sample downloads. Given my 60 book sales, that gives me a 37% ‘download to buyer’ percentage. Ouch, that hurts! A new author should run closer to at least 50% (that’s my opinion, not a stated fact).

So why were people only reading 20% of the book and not buying it to see how the story ended? At that time my second book was ready to go to the editor and I was almost through with the third book. I stopped writing and set out on a mission to see why the numbers were so low on the first one. Sure, I write because I love to write, but I would like for the reader to enjoy what I write too. There was no reason to continue with the second book till I found out what was wrong with the first one.

First, I ruled out some of the problems that keep most independent authors from selling books (e.g. poor spelling and grammar, amateur artwork and an incoherent plot), because my book:’

  • had been proofread and edited by a professional;
  • had cover art designed by a professional artist;
  • featured illustrations in the printed version that were done by the same artist;
  • had been read by beta readers when it was a manuscript.

After ruling out those issues and talking to my editor, I hit the streets, literally, with the 20 printed books I had in stock and with a plan she and I had devised. From the numbers, I knew that readers like free books. My first stop was at the group of stores in which my artist friend had a shop, and which also had an independent author bookstore. Now, this artist is also a lawyer and English major, so I gave him a copy of the book because his artwork was on the cover and his illustrations were inside. I asked him to read it again, not looking for illustration ideas but as a book as a whole. Next I headed to the bookstore, pulled the five books that were on the shelves and discussed my plan with the owner. He agreed and I put my plan into action. With my 24 books in a box I began walking the area, stopping people at random and asking, “Do you like to read and, if so, do you like the paranormal genre?”

If they replied yes, I continued.

“This is my first published book. It’s not selling and I need to know why. I’ll give you the book—do you mind reading it and then answering this questionnaire and mailing it back to me?”

If they answered yes, I gave them the book, a questionnaire and a self-stamped envelope.

Many of the people I talked to also asked me questions, and the questions I was asked shocked me and shed some light onto why my books were not selling. These were the most asked questions in order of how frequently I was asked them:

  • “Do you have a Facebook page?”
  • “Do you have a website?”
  • “Do you have a Twitter account?”
  • “Do you have a Google + page?”

At that time all I had was a WordPress blog and personal accounts on the other social media sites. With each question I would explain this and then ask, “Do you think I need an author page?”

The overwhelming answer was yes—that way, when people searched for local authors, I would show up. Readers want to be able to like a page rather than become friends with the writer; they want updates and to occasionally leave a comment; and, to my surprise, they would rather buy printed material from an author’s website than Amazon.

Once I had given away all the books, it was time to wait. I made good use of that time by creating Facebook, Google + and Twitter accounts, and building the official website, AuthorJosephClay.com. While completing those sites I was also doing what all writers should do: reading. Over the next four weeks I checked out Cruel & Unusual and Flesh and Blood by Patricia Cornwell, Woman with a Gun and Sleight of Hand by Phillip Margolin, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing and Fire in the Hole by the late Elmore Leonard, and Split Second by Catherine Coulter. To read my reviews of these books and what I learned from each author, click on the link and it will take you to my official blog, AuthorJoeClay.com. After reading all these books, my style of writing came to me, as well as the way I wanted to handle back stories, how the book would be laid out, and more.

The questionnaires started rolling in and I began reading them. The first thing that jumped out at me was that the parts my beta readers (all authors) had told me I needed to cut were the very parts these readers wanted to know more about. Be careful, the author beta reader may be sabotaging your work. After all, there are thousands of writers and your book, in reality, is their competition. They may claim we are all one happy family and be more than willing to help, but stop and think about it.

Here are the other things these readers suggested, from most frequently stated to least.

  • The story would be better if the POV was changed to be seen from the eyes of the stronger protagonist.
  • They felt disconnected in certain areas of the book and didn’t feel like they were in the story (that told me I was doing more telling than showing).
  • The cover art was nice, but they wanted more of a visual, a face to put with the story, and something that didn’t look like art.
  • The introduction was way too long and the information in it would have been more interesting if tied into the story (there was my answer as to why only 37% of people were buying the book after the sample download. With a 64-page book that has a 20% sample you get roughly 13 pages. Take away the title page, copyright page, preface, acknowledgments, table of contents and a boring five-page introduction, and you are left with only three pages of the actual book).

The things they liked were: the illustrations as, once again, they helped them visualize the story and the surroundings; and everything the professional proofreader/editor had suggested that I change.

I had all the information I needed and decided that the reader deserved my best work. After all, I had since written two more books and learned a lot. I didn’t know everything, but I knew more and felt that a second edition was what was needed—people were spending hard-earned money on a book that I felt was inadequate.

I formulated a new set of rules and a process that I would follow for each book I wrote, starting with the re-write of Demons of the Jungle.

  1. Use beta readers who like the genre of the book; no writers at all.
  2. Take no advice from a writer who has not published as many books as I have. Now, if James Patterson or Stephen King calls I’ll listen to every word.
  3. Never use a preface; I can say what I need to at the back of the book under the author notes.
  4. Never use an introduction; if the book needs back story there is a way to add it into the book.
  5. Use a graphic designer for the cover art and make sure there is a face to tie to the story.
  6. Engage and interact on social media by making a minimum of three posts a week.
  7. Trust my proofreader/editor over everyone else, including  James Patterson and Stephen King. (Note: Your best beta reader is the proofreader/editor. Get to know yours as a friend as well as a co-worker.  Sure, you pay them, so technically they work for you, but treat them like an employee and they will do you a good job—treat them like a friend and they will go above and beyond to help you be the best you can be. I know my editor for Demons of the Jungle held my hand every step of the way and made suggestions that she didn’t have to, like what instructional books on writing I should read, or how to make a character’s dialogue so distinct that the reader knows who is speaking before they get to the end of the sentence. Your proofreader/editor is the best friend and partner you and your book can have. I have three that I work with and I consider each to be a colleague and a friend.)

Look for the new and improved version of Demons of the Jungle, Second Edition in late December of this year or early January 2016. Follow me on one of the above linked social media sites for the exact date of the release.

How did Demons of the Jungle get its beginning and what went into writing the story? I’ll cover that very interesting writing exercise in next week’s blog.

Blogs in this series: “When is a second edition needed?”,Birth of the Demons”, “Piecing it all together“, “Who is Debra Wright?”, “Who is Patricia Mitchell?”, “Who is Levi West?”, “The Demons”, and the teaser before the release, “A deal too good to be true”.

 

 

Blog Edited by: Clare Diston @ Human Voices

Night of Dreams-Flash Fiction

This story was entered into the 2013 Writer’s Digest Short Story Competition, with a maximum word count of 1500. I had written one piece of flash fiction before, titled Memories, and enjoyed packing a basket full of emotions into a small package, so I figured what the hay, you can’t win if you don’t enter.

Night of Dreams
Author: Joe Clay
11-15-2013

Joey was awakened by the sound of the alarm clock blaring old classic rock. He rolled over to turn it off as the bright red LED lights informed him it was six thirty and another day had rolled around. He flipped back over to make sure the alarm had not woken Lisa. She was still asleep in all her beauty. Joey sat on the side of the bed clearing his eyes and his head. Joey’s sleep was always so restful and filled with dreams of pleasure and accomplishments. Last night was different: his dream had become a nightmare which caused him to toss and turn all night. He felt as if he had not even been to bed. The nightmare was so realistic he had to shake his legs just to make sure they were still there. After some stretching and grumbling about why it should not be this cold in South Georgia in late September, his feet hit the soft carpet and headed down the hallway to the kitchen. His athletic body needed some fuel. He would go ahead and start breakfast and have it ready by the time Lisa began to stir. Two scrambled eggs, toast with strawberry jelly, and a protein shake to wash it all down was his normal breakfast. He prepared Lisa her favorite: toast, eggs, and oatmeal with strawberries. The smell of her coffee brewing would bring her out of her deep slumber. Joey placed the morning meal on the small two person round table in the breakfast nook. He looked up to see Lisa coming down the hall wearing nothing but his long sleeve blue Oxford shirt. Her long black hair was all over her head and face. She was moving it away from her brown eyes so she could place the thick, black framed glasses on. Without them she could not see down the hall. Lisa continued walking and began buttoning the shirt from the top down. The task was complete as she reached the nook and kissed Joey on the cheek. They had plenty of time to enjoy the food, relax, and spend some time together. Joey did not have to be at the ball park till ten for the team meeting. They ate in total silence, only with glances of love being shared. Joey was a lucky man and he knew it. Lisa was not a typical jock’s idea of a perfect girlfriend. When they met in high school, most of his teammates were with cheerleaders. For some reason, Joey was drawn to Lisa. They had met in American Literature. She was tall but not fully developed and was a little clumsy. At that time she kept her hair in a bun with a pencil stuck through it. Joey thought she looked just like a librarian, and the glasses just added to the fantasy. Lisa loved to read and planned on penning a novel herself after college. They continued dating and attended the same university where Joey excelled in baseball earning him a first round draft pick by the Georgia Thunder in his senior year. Lisa majored in business with a minor in literature. While in college, she also developed into the prettiest creature he had ever laid his eyes on. They married when Joey got promoted last year to AAA ball after shooting up the ranks in A and AA in less than a year.
“Joey, you appear a little troubled this morning. Are you worried about the final game of the series tonight?” Lisa questioned.
“Not at all: with our win last night our team has a one game lead. The worst case scenario would be a one game playoff. My stats this year against them are phenomenal.” He answered.
“Being that confident, why were you so restless last night?” Lisa inquired.
“I had a dream, well a nightmare. I lost the use of my legs in a freak accident. The left one was broken in three places with a crushed ankle.” He answered.
“What happened?” She inquired.
“I can’t remember how it happened. The doctors were able to save it, but my speed was gone and so was my career! My legs were going to make us rich and me famous next year! You could stop working at the book store to make ends meet and work on your dream. Instead we both had to work. I was working in a steel mill and was in constant pain daily. My only comfort, you stayed by my side through it all.” Joey explained.
“Honey it was just a dream. I attribute it to the pain injections you took after being hit by a fastball in your left thigh last night. You should never have stolen home. No need to worry either way. My dream of a book deal is in the works. I should be hearing something soon from the publishers. When it comes to pass we can have it all plus more.” She replied.
“You are right, I’m sure everything will work out for the best, and we both will be celebrities.” He said.
They had finished breakfast and Lisa cleared the table and started the dishes as Joey prepared to shower and head to the ball park.

The game would be decided in the last inning. With Joey at bat he felt he was living his dream. The situation was not just like it, but close! The count was 2 balls 2 strikes. The runner on third led off the inning with a triple and had been stranded there. The game was tied 4-4. Joey looked down the third base line to get the sign from the coach. He was given the hit and run sign on the two/two pitch. Joey knew he would need to place the ball in a perfect spot on the ground. A fly ball could be caught. In the back of his mind he just had to get it past the pitcher and make the third baseman field it. The infield had moved back with two strikes; no one in their right mind would try to bunt. The pitch was delivered and as Joey started his swing, the ball began to break. He lunged and made contact. The bat connected with the pitch at the very end of the wood. The runner on third broke towards home! The hit was weak but hard enough to clear the pitcher and was headed up the middle. Joey was in disgust as he bolted down the first base line. He hoped the weak grounder had enough speed to get through the infield. All he could do was pray that his speed would get him to the bag in time. The diving shortstop made the play. His only chance was to throw Joey out at first as the runner was almost home. His arm was considered to be the best in the league. Would that arm be a match for the cheetah-like speed of Joey? The shortstop sprang to his feet quick as a cat. He planted and cut the ball loose rifling a fastball strike to first. Joey’s speed was too much for the strong and accurate arm of the gold gloved infielder. He beat the throw by steps, driving in the winning run. They had clinched the division and were playoff bound. The celebrating was pure chaos as the fans stormed the field as the players were gathered on the mound congratulating each other. They lifted Joey up on their shoulders and headed to the dugout through the crowd. Joey spotted Lisa in the front row. He blew her a kiss.
“I love you, see you at home.” He shouted
She blew a kiss back and headed out to her car. She would wait to tell him about her phone call and the book deal she had landed. Lisa wanted him to enjoy his moment in the spotlight.

The team continued the rejoicing in the club house. The manager came by and pulled Joey to the side.
“Good game.” The manager said.
“Thank you Sir.” Joey replied.
“Hope you can do that in the majors. I just got the call; they want you on the big league team for the remainder of the season. I do not want to see you back down here.” He said.
“Holy crap. Thank you Sir, I will make you proud!” Joey screamed.
He could not wait to tell Lisa. He rushed to shower and prepare to leave the club house. Joey exited the stadium and mounted his Harley and headed home to inform her that the struggles were over. They would be rolling in money!

The morning paper headline read: ‘Star of Last Night’s Game and Top Prospect Involved in Near Fatal Crash with a Semi on I-85.’ Tucked in the lifestyle section was: ‘Local Author Signs Major Book Deal’.

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