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Over the past couple of days, I've asked questions about writing female characters with agency, and writing female characters as a male writer. Both have sparked some interesting, and for me informative conversations. After some consideration, I realize that, while what I learned from reading the responses was informative and useful, I've been asking the wrong questions.

I'm coming to realize that my writing, at least where my characters are concerned, is very flat. One person asked if my character, for whom I offered up a small sample of "interior monologue" (having seen the responses, I hesitate to lean to heavily on that term), was a psychopath. That shocked me a bit, but the poster backed up their question with evidence, and I couldn't argue (though I admit to being stung).

I have two characters, Celeste and Marko. The opening setting is 23rd Century Croatia. At the start of the story, the two have been courting for a few months when, on an adventure date, they find themselves thrown back in time to the 14th Century, entirely unprepared. Now they're stuck with each other in unfamiliar territory, so I have the opportunity for both external adventure (action) and internal adventure (how they respond to events). The trouble is, I don't seem to be able to write emotional reactions very well.

Celeste is smart, brash, and sharp-tongued. She admits to herself that she doesn't always think before she acts. I started out my queries (above) trying to understand how to write Celeste's interior monologue in a way that sounded like what a woman would think like, not wanting to presume that I, as a man, would be able to intuit that well (my wife insists that I usually don't get how women think).

Marko is a bit of a stoic, outwardly quiet, and internally boxes things up so he doesn't have to think too much about them. He plans almost everything, and feels confident that he has the toolkit to take on whatever is thrown at him. This adventure will test that.

Apologies for the length, but here's another snip, from Celeste's POV, as they start to realize what has happened to them. In the previous scene, they both threw up in the cave where they were swept back to the 14th Century.

“I have no idea where we are or how we got here,” said Marko.

Celeste looked at him blankly. “I clearly don’t know either. This is beyond anything I have the toolkit for understanding.” She turned, looking around the area, trying to find something… anything familiar. She saw an olive grove in the distance, but didn’t remember it. Had it been there before? She didn’t know. “Fuck!” she said.

Marko looked at her as if she were a stranger. “We may not know where we are, but between the two of us we should be able to solve the problem. We need to focus on what’s in front of us.”.

She considered him and what he said. While she took a certain joy she didn’t want to admit in teasing him about being young -- younger than her by a whole four months -- he displayed a strength of character that she hadn’t seen in others. And he was brilliant at problem solving, which she saw in the way he played chess and go with his father. Whatever this situation they were in, she felt safe with him. But what situation were they in? She had no idea. She felt sick to her stomach. “I don’t even know how to describe what’s in front of us, metaphorically speaking. Clearly… well, okay, it seems that we’re on the island we were on earlier today. Or yesterday. Or… I don’t know. The island. It looks like the same one.”

“I agree. And this villa: it looks not-as-old as it did… earlier. It’s like everything new is gone; like we’ve been thrown back in time.”

Time travel. Could she believe in it? Was it possible? She thought back to her science professor talking about quantum physics, about how scientists and mathematicians still only knew enough about it to know we didn’t know enough, and he had been fairly certain nothing would change. And there ended her learning about quantum physics and science in general. At some point you had to realize that there were limits to what you could understand, draw a line, and move on. And subjects like business, economics, and politics were more to her interest than unknowable science. Everyone, she told herself, had their limits. Her stomach growled. “One thing I can say for sure, I’m hungry. I left my lunch in that cave, and that run down the hill really took it out of me.”

So, to my question: how can I improve the emotional or just general interior perspective description for my characters? This is really going to become important when Marko falls into a deep depression, but along the way I need Celeste to go through some challenges, which will give her a toolkit to help him when he most needs it.

For anyone interested, I've shared the Google Doc that is my working document, with public comment capability turned on. All I ask is that, if you choose to comment, please be constructive.

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The problem I see with your writing, the answer to your question, is that you need to immerse yourself in your character's emotion. Put yourself in that emotional experience, in that moment. What do you feel? Your thoughts? Your responses? Your associations? Your visceral desires?

To use your example, having just time-travelled, Celeste is supposed to be confused, with a beginning of fear, right? Imagine yourself confused and scared. Would you, in that moment, wish to tease your companion about their age? Or would you want to grab their hand for support? Would you be all analytical about where you saw proof that the person next to you is good at problem solving, or would it just be a fact to you? At most, I think, you might remember a previous frightening episode the person got you out of - not strategy games.

Your character's internal monologue, her thoughts, are calm and analytical where we'd expect her to experience some emotion. Which makes a reader wonder if she is capable of experiencing emotions. You haven't gone deep enough into how she feels, and so you've created a disconnect between what we'd expect Celeste to feel, and what she displays.

I've actually struggled with a similar problem. I had this argument between a father and son written out. The comment of the first friend who read it was "yeh, that's how the father wishes the argument would have gone. Only he was angry, and afraid for his son, and a bunch of other emotions besides, so he ended up saying something completely different. And the boy was equally emotional about the whole thing, so his response wasn't what he would have liked it to be either. Now go and write not what they wished they had said, but what they actually said." After which I went and rewrote the scene with more visceral emotions and responses in it, and what do you know - it came alive.

To sum up, every time your character is supposed to experience an emotion, let them feel it. Not think "I'm afraid", but be afraid. Act afraid. Respond to being afraid. If you're still struggling, try to evoke the emotion within yourself. Feel that fear, not in your mind, but viscerally, and observe yourself in that state.

  • Can I effectively do what you suggest and pepper the description with each POV's observations about the other? Or do I just need to drop the description? – J.D. Ray Oct 12 '18 at 18:44
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    @J.D.Ray As Galastel is suggesting, try to get inside your characters' heads. Are they confused? Frightened? Resolved? Curious? And even if they feel the same way, they could still act completely differently. For example, one could react to fear by being extra cautious, while the other would feel the need to rush forward, to do something. It might help to write the scene (or maybe just the internal monologue) for each character separately before putting both into the scene together. – Llewellyn Oct 12 '18 at 20:57
  • @J.D.Ray What Llerellyn says, basically. Look at Amadeus's answer: Celeste's fear is expressed in physical descriptions (she "felt her pulse in her throat"), it's in her internal monologue ("that's impossible"), it's in Marko's response ("Don't panic"). You don't need to tell us that Marko noticed Celeste's fear - it's right in his response. And then there's her internal monologue in response to his help - "that's level-headed". So his character trait is noticed and appreciated. Amadeus is showing rather than telling, the emotion is there, and everything is in the moment - no rumination. – Galastel Oct 12 '18 at 23:29
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    I'm a bit unclear about your "pepper the description" question. I think that this is a sufficiently high-emotion situation that you can't force it to carry any more load than that emotion. It shouldn't be forced to carry their general feelings about each other, Celeste's philosophy about education and where you stop learning, Marko's ability about board games, their relative ages, his intelligence--any of it. – RamblingChicken Oct 13 '18 at 1:47
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I will present the counter-point argument.

It's not you, these characters are just emotionally boring – and that's ok but focus on what's interesting instead.

Here's the problem. When I hear inside their heads they are distractingly someplace else, talking about something I don't care about (chess, some old professor). As a reader, I've already accepted that we have time-travelled so these people need to get up and start exploring (adventure) this world (wonder, milieu) or have a conflict (relationship, character arc) or start solving this puzzle (mystery) about time travel (idea, event). The story needs to start going in a direction so these narrative elements can begin to develop.

Instead these characters are feeding me expository backstory that doesn't seem very important to the current situation.

Their thoughts are not that interesting – they are stupefied by the sudden situation, but they are not having any emotional reaction, at least nothing I can identify. They are also not puzzle-solving through reason. I don't need to be this close to their minds. This meandering, disengaged internal monolog is pulling me out of the immediate situation which I am curious about.

It's ok that this is their reaction, it tells me something about who these people are and maybe their competency level. They are not panicking or blaming each other. They each seem to be cool-headed, or maybe it is caution or denial. Either way their reaction might change as they learn more about their situation, but I could grasp their emotional state in a few lines of dialog while the narrator stays focused on the world details, and that seems much more important right now.

  • Should I just trim out all of this exposition, or put it elsewhere? Cut it down, but leave some? – J.D. Ray Oct 12 '18 at 18:47
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    @J.D.Ray, it all depends on the pacing, and where you are in the story and their relationship. It seems like the EVENT has just happened, as a reader that is a driving moment. The "flatness" is because the story should be flowing very quickly right now while you have my curiosity. The exposition is killing the momentum. It's ok to set aside emotions (that might actually be what Celeste would choose to do, set aside her emotions, decide to focus and rethink what has happened). I see who she is because she decides to looking for food. Let her SHOW me, not tell me. – wetcircuit Oct 12 '18 at 18:58
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    Unless exposition is necessary to understand your characters, your plot, or the world it is set in, I'd trim it. In general, less exposition is usually better. – Jules Oct 12 '18 at 19:05
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I agree, too much exposition. Which likely means, too little "setup" in your book.

If Celeste thinks Marko is brilliant at chess or Go, that should have been shown earlier, in the story setup. (ACT I, typically first 20% to 25% of the story.)

You are being too repetitive, you don't trust your reader or you have fallen into over-emphasis, saying the same thing multiple times in different words to make sure the reader "gets it". I've bolded some of what are effectively repetitions to convey the "I don't know" claim in this passage:

Celeste looked at him blankly. “I clearly don’t know either. This is beyond [me] anything I have the toolkit for understanding.” She turned, looking around the area, trying to find something… anything familiar. She saw an olive grove in the distance, but didn’t remember it. Had it been there before? She didn’t know. “Fuck!” she said.

Saying "I don't know" five times doesn't create the sense of disorientation I think you are looking for.

Here would be my first draft on your scene. Yours would be different, but to show you what I mean. I've made them more collaborative, as well.

They raced down the hill, dead even halfway but Marko pulled ahead. Then stopped short, in the middle of a meadow, looking into the distance.

"What happened?" Celeste said, a little breathless, pulling up to him.

Marko turned his head to look at her. “I have no idea where we are or how we got here.”

Celeste looked too, and realized he was right. She turned her gaze to her right. It felt vaguely familiar, but she couldn't quite recall where she had seen it.

“Fuuuuck!” she said, then took a deep breath and blew it out. "Me neither."

She flashed on why it was familiar. "The hills. They look the same as the island we were on yesterday. Right?" She was turning back to the left, and spotted something, pointing, "Look! That villa. Remember?"

Marko looked with her. "Yes! But it's new now. And the gardens are much larger. And not flowers anymore."

Celeste felt her pulse in her throat. "And there is no information booth, or parking lot. No paved roads, anywhere."

"Like we're back in time. That olive grove behind it is new, too."

That's impossible.

She put her hands to her head to feel for a holo viewer, but felt nothing. Her alarm rose, her breath still short. "It's a trick, Marko. That island is a hundred miles from here. This isn't real!"

"Don't panic," Marko said. He stepped to her, offering his hand palm up for her to take."We made a wrong turn, I think. It's real, but a set for a holo game or something."

She took his hand, and squeezed it hard for a moment, then took a deep breath. "Those are all simulations."

"Okay," he said, nodding. "A resort re-creation? A replica made by robots. Let's go see what this villa is about."

That's level headed. He's right. Gather evidence. Solve the problem.

She felt slightly embarrassed, she had been silly. The villa was the only evidence of humans in sight. She firmed her grip on Marko's hand and stepped forward, resolute. He responded in kind.

"If this is a replica it must have cost a fortune," she said. "I hope they have a restaurant."


Hopefully that helps. I left out the exposition, invented some stuff. And mine is longer, I think, with less information conveyed than yours. The point is instead of telling us all about Marko and Celeste, we reveal them slowly, all through their actions and dialogue. Readers don't mind learning what they need to know as they need to know it, and it is easier to remember if it happened in a scene.

The reason exposition usually doesn't work is because you are asking us to memorize dry facts and history, and we (readers) just cannot.

But we can remember a visualized scene and character actions (including feelings conveyed as part of the scene). This takes longer, but readers don't mind reading if a scene and interactions are in progress.

The Hollywood maxim is, 'Dialogue IS action'. Dialogue should always have an element of conflict in it, even if it is slight disagreement, even if that disagreement is only expressed in thought. It can also be surprise at something somebody said, confusion, resentment, anger, pity, etc. But preferably not just a long talk where everything is in agreement. It should also involve some stage craft, characters are moving, thinking, itchy people!

And although it is tempting to think of them serially (Marko says something, then Celeste says something, then Marko considers that and replies), IRL while you are talking I am thinking and half ignoring you, and vice versa. Think, what is Marko thinking about when Celeste is talking, and vice versa? It isn't always a volley, the same person can speak twice in a row, and the response to a statement may have nothing to do with the statement, the respondent's mind may have gone off on another track. That will come to you naturally if you stop to consider whether that happened or not.

Finally, your virtual acceptance of time travel is too quick. We don't believe impossible things until we are forced into it, and people from C23 will have sophisticated, immersive entertainment that will make them think of many things before actual time travel. They need to exhaust every possible other explanation first. It may take a serious injury or death before they accept that what they are seeing is real, and not acted. Hence the "resort for the rich" idea, a futuristic Disneyland, and the get it, nobody breaks character, ever, because it would cost them their job.

Of course, even in Disneyland, Goofy will break character if a man is disemboweled and dies in front of him. When something like that happens and none of the "actors" break character, and Celeste doesn't believe it was some kind of illusion, then she believes it's real. They time traveled.

  • I've spent quite a bit of the ~40K words I've written so far having them "deal" with the challenges of being in the 14C. Most of that is setup for the larger story. The fact of their time travel is significant, but almost incidental to the overall story. But I take what you're saying. I'll have to chew on how to balance this. Thank you again for your efforts. – J.D. Ray Oct 12 '18 at 23:00
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    @J.D.Ray That shouldn't be your "setup". The setup is to get to know the characters in their normal world, which would be the 23rd. It must have some conflict, but the primary purpose is to introduce them, see them solving (minor) problems or perhaps dating (that is conflict too). The 14th is the END of the setup, called "The Inciting Incident". Generally followed by a disorganized "reactive" phase of trying to deal (Act II.1), then a more focused "proactive" phase of dealing (Act II.2), that leads into the conclusion (Act III). As I thought, you are rushing the story, hence the urge to cram-- – Amadeus Oct 12 '18 at 23:25
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    -- exposition into this scene. Your characters will fall flat because the reader doesn't know them, so this crisis point (ending up in unknown territory) falls flat because the reader doesn't care about them or how they feel, and to compensate for the lack of setup you have to load it with exposition that drags it down. Show us Celeste in her day-to-day, dealing with minor issues, work and others she interacts with, her siblings or parents or boss or coworkers. Show us Celeste on her previous date with Marko, so she (and we) hear some BG on him. They have sex. They go on this date. – Amadeus Oct 12 '18 at 23:33
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They are both being very detached and clinical about their situation. Perhaps that is a result of who they are and how they were trained, combined with a lack of serious challenge in their smooth as glass lives.

She seems to initially give up, turning into a damsel for him to rescue. ‘I don’t have the toolkit’ etc.

The villa possibly was not built yet,though one issue is that in that span of time there would be considerable differences in the appearance of the landscape, forests where in the future there are fields, vice versa.

Those first moments of shock could be silent, simply Celeste pointing at trees that ought not be there and wondering where or when they are. Once they determine the where, when becomes the X factor.

Get inside their heads. Imagine yourself waking up in a cave with a Rip Van Winkle effect and wondering ____________? You turn to your companion and do you say anything? If so, what and why?

The point made about dialogue going in directions otherwise intended is an excellent point.

Marko’s confidence that they can figure it all out might be sheer bravado.

These two have had a placid existence and such is not always conducive to complexity, but now they are many centuries in the past. The language, which should be the same, has altered over time and seems foreign to them.

Celeste gets to meet who she really is, discover what matters most to her. Her ambitions, fears and petty dislikes; everything that contributes to making her her.

Marko is also meeting his true self and discovering that he is both stronger and weaker than he thought and fear, such a foreign concept to them that they never really internalized the concept, becomes a part of their lives and they find courage.

Having these people a bit flat might work if you just want them as plot devices with names, but they can be dynamic.

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If I were to write this in my voice, there would be far less formality, less rationality, less insertion of background information. It would all be frantic dialogue and an occasional gesture.

OK, I'm going to write it in my own voice:

Marko looked left, right, out to the sea, each turn of the head a little faster than the last. “I have... I have no idea where we are. Or how we got here. I'm lost."

"Yeah." Celeste folded her arms, then unfolded them again. She had an urgent need to gesture. "Yeah. Unfamiliar. OK. So. OK. There's some explanation here."

"Hon, my first explanation is that I fell and hit my head and this is all a dream. In that scenario, you're not much help."

"Shut up. Not funny." She turned, looking around the area, trying to find something… anything familiar. She saw an olive grove in the distance, but didn’t remember it. Had it been there before? She didn’t know. “Fuck!” She grabbed his hand and squeezed it so hard she hurt her own fingers.

He returned the squeeze. That hurt, too. But it was a comforting reminder that he existed. "We'll be fine. We're both smart, remember? Let's sit down and take inventory."

"Inventory? What the fuck does inventory mean? We're on an island. It looks like the same island, except--redecorated."

"New drapes."

"Not funny. The stonework, that wall, it looks newer. Like somebody made a Hollywood set out of where we were before. If you mention Elizabeth Taylor or Errol Flynn I'm not going to warn you you're not funny; I'm going to hurt you."

I'm not carrying any load here but their frantic confusion, a tiny bit about the setting, and a tiny bit about how they interact while under stress. I feel that's all the situation can support.

  • I’m going to re-read this several times until I’m familiar enough with the flavor that I can reproduce it in my own kitchen. Thank you. – J.D. Ray Oct 14 '18 at 4:44
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You are telegraphing what you as the author do not know, and this is killing any emotion and turning your story into a data-dump.

“I have no idea where we are or how we got here,” said Marko.

Sounds like you have not worked out the backstory.

Celeste looked at him blankly. “I clearly don’t know either. This is beyond anything I have the toolkit for understanding.” She turned, looking around the area, trying to find something… anything familiar. She saw an olive grove in the distance, but didn’t remember it. Had it been there before? She didn’t know. “Fuck!” she said.

Compare with: She saw an olive grove in the distance. Something about the color of the leaves, so like the fabric of her mother's skirt rustling as she pulled a tray of brioche from the oven. God, it had been years since she thought of that. Her father had loved Mere's brioche... her cooking... he used to joke that he married her for her mirepoix... and she'd hush him with a kiss and everyone knew it wasn't the sauce that kept them together.

Marko looked at her as if she were a stranger. “We may not know where we are, but between the two of us we should be able to solve the problem. We need to focus on what’s in front of us.”.

For all the world it sounds like you are trying to figure out the story as you are writing it.

"We may not know where we are, but we know we are from the same time. We know we have the same frame of the world." He was right, and it was a start. Like a recipe, like her mother would do. Start with the ingredients. A cup of flour, a teaspoon of salt... They had, at the very least, ingredients to start with.

She considered him and what he said. While she took a certain joy she didn’t want to admit in teasing him about being young -- younger than her by a whole four months -- he displayed a strength of character that she hadn’t seen in others. And he was brilliant at problem solving, which she saw in the way he played chess and go with his father. Whatever this situation they were in, she felt safe with him.

Meh. (Thank God a strong man is there. /sarcasm.)

"His chess was passable, and he might even beat her at a match. But that wouldn't help them get back to their own time. Unless it was a matter of strategy. A matter of moves.

She was back in the study, with her father, and he said to her to always protect each piece with three other pieces. King, rook knight. Queen, pawn, bishop. Never move without a guard of three.

"We need a guard."

But what situation were they in? She had no idea. She felt sick to her stomach. “I don’t even know how to describe what’s in front of us, metaphorically speaking.

Dude, just figure it out. Assign what's going on. That's your job.

Clearly… well, okay, it seems that we’re on the island we were on earlier today. Or yesterday. Or… I don’t know. The island. It looks like the same one.”

“I agree. And this villa: it looks not-as-old as it did… earlier. It’s like everything new is gone; like we’ve been thrown back in time.”

Time travel. Could she believe in it? Was it possible? She thought back to her science professor talking about quantum physics, about how scientists and mathematicians still only knew enough about it to know we didn’t know enough, and he had been fairly certain nothing would change. And there ended her learning about quantum physics and science in general. At some point you had to realize that there were limits to what you could understand, draw a line, and move on. And subjects like business, economics, and politics were more to her interest than unknowable science. Everyone, she told herself, had their limits. Her stomach growled. “One thing I can say for sure, I’m hungry.

I bet you were hungry when you wrote that.

It sounds to me like your problem is you are discovery writing and trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

If you want emotion, there are tons of tips out there. Pull in what the characters' life experience is. Your job is to know it. That's part of worldbuildling.

Any detail can trigger anything. Any detail or memory or skill can be relevant. These are your tools.

Good luck.

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You are piling up fantasy on fantasy, so your characters and story look artificial

You basically took some characters from 21st century Western liberal world and made their lifestyle and ideas mainstream in 23rd century. You start the story with world in some kind of conflict (end of devastating war) but you never explain why your main characters live in relative luxury. If you start the story with the war and genetic modification, it is a biggest gun on your wall (Checkov's gun). You also do not explain why people in 23st century still go to taverns, catch the fish with nets, use boats with ropes etc ... To put it simply, your characters are two rich kids from 21st century transplanted to 23st century. And then, instead of further explaining 23rd century, you magically transport them to 14th century and start their adventure there.

My suggestion would be throw out unnecessary baggage. Either you are writing story about 14th century or 23rd. In former case, drop the introduction and make kids from current era somehow go to 14th century. Such kids would feel familiar to your audience, and you would not need to explain their behavior, social norms etc ... This would be easier path for you, because most of your story already belongs to 14th century. In latter case, well ... you would need to start anew and explain 23rd century.

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    I might have missed something, but where do you see anything about a devastating war, or any sort of conflict, in the 23rd century? If it's from the Google Doc, it might help other people who read your answer if you edit it to explicitly say so. Also, while what you're saying might be valid criticism of the work in general, I'm not sure it answers the particular question the OP poses. – Galastel Oct 13 '18 at 7:35
  • @Galastel Read the story man :D Of course it is in the Google Doc, it is foolish to criticize something before you even read it. – rs.29 Oct 13 '18 at 7:37
  • Ah, but this site is not for providing general criticism of a work. It is explicitly only for answering specific questions, where all the information needed to answer the question must be contained within the question itself. Asking for general criticism of a work is expressly off topic. Note that OP doesn't ask to have general criticism here either, but suggests criticism goes into comments on the Google Doc. Take a look at our tour and help center pages, they might help you understand better what is on and off topic here, what kind of questions we answer here and how we answer them. – Galastel Oct 13 '18 at 7:43
  • @Galastel OP asked advice about characters. His characters are artificial because he doesn't have coherent backstory (in fact coherent world) for them. As I said in my answer, they are 21st century Western kids transplanted to 23rd century, and then back to 14th century. I suggested to him how to rewrite them and the story around them . – rs.29 Oct 13 '18 at 7:56
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    You misunderstand. The OP cannot ask for general advice about his particular characters - that would be off topic. What he is asking is very specifically how to write the internal thoughts and emotions of his characters - a question that would be relevant to many other writers. He might ask whether he should have 23rd century characters in the 14th century, in which case your answer would be applicable, but that would have to be a separate question on the OP's part. – Galastel Oct 13 '18 at 8:11

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