Tag Archives: El Gruer

Sense of Place

When you write, how do you choose your location – and I don’t just mean the choice between the background chatter of a coffee shop or the secluded quietness of a study – I mean, how do you decide on where to set your story and find a sense of place?800px-Balloonreflection

With the deadline looming for my short story competition, I scratched a few pages out in the week past, but time, may I say, just keeps on getting the better of me. To be fair, my ‘free’ time has been caught up with journalism, but there has been little time for the more creative. However, for me, scribbling a few lines just as I’ve decided it really is time to hit the sack, often turns into a spurt of inspiration, which almost makes up for the lack of dedication throughout the week…

I was chatting this week to a young poet (El Gruer – no stranger to this blog!) who is taking part in the 4 Corners Festival in Belfast this Saturday. This year’s festival is focusing on the importance of storytelling, particularly in Belfast, given the troubled background the city has and the myriad stories people have to tell as a result. The brief for El’s event is as follows:

‘Where there are people there are stories, where there are stories there are songs, where there are songs there are people searching – for where they belong’.

El, being Scottish, will speak of how a sense of place influences her poetry and how her perspective on storytelling differs because she is, in effect, an outsider living inside somewhere else. Place affects our writing.Eljpg

With this in mind, the question is – what influences where you place yourself in a story and how you settle on a place from which to tell it? How much do we draw on our own experiences and how much do we try to distance ourselves from them in our storytelling? Can we really distance ourselves from them?

One of my new followers on Twitter has published three very successful novels and has travelled the world researching the sense of place for his tales. I heard an interview on the radio last week with a crime writer who also said he would categorically never write about anywhere in his books which he hasn’t visited in person. Readers can tell right away if you’re being authentic, he said – they know if you have truly created somewhere the way it really is.

I would agree that it adds authenticity to writing if you can describe in great detail, or simply describe in a realistic way, places which feature in your stories. It also, dare I say it, makes writing a little easier, because you don’t have to conjure up a whole new location – you simply draw on your own memory of a place and your experiences of it.

This is good and it is what I have drawn on for my short story entry. It is inspired, but is not completely true to, events I myself have experienced, and in a place that I know very well. In my children’s novel, too, I set my character in a place close to where I live – her home is akin to my home. However, being a fantasy adventure story, the tale soon takes her out of the ‘real world’ and into a world which I had to create myself – which was both freeing and fun.

A sense of place is key to any story, but I think that as long as it is evoked richly and takes readers to where you want them to be, does it really matter if the actual place exists? You can draw on real experiences and apply them to a made-up place. You can create an entirely new place and make up how you think someone would live there. You can write about somewhere you’ve visited or where you live.sky

As for how you place yourself within the tale, well – I’ve touched on this before in an earlier blog – but placing yourself on the periphery and looking in, is a good approach. Distance yourself enough from the story to see it as a reader might. Don’t become so immersed that you lose yourself in the writing and therefore lose your own sense of place within it.

Ultimately, in any book we read, we are all searching for a sense of place – whether it is a place we wish to explore, somewhere we want to escape to, or somewhere we really don’t want to be but are curious enough to visit it because we know that it is not real – as real as it may seem on the page…

So, how do you find your sense of place in writing? I think that often, it might just find you.


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ImageI appreciate that this might not be the most exciting photo in the world to share, but the message behind it is, because I have finally posted my book submissions!

Having finished writing my novel at the turn of the New Year, the time since has been spent re-drafting, editing, proof-reading and then going back and doing it all again… a good few more times. Suffice it to say that when I thought I was ‘finished’, so began the seemingly never-ending and fairly daunting task of writing the PR – that is, the dreaded synopsis (that which some say is the most important thing a writer will ever write!), the pitch/cover letter and the book summary/USP (‘Unique Selling Points – back to that in a bit). Oh, and not forgetting – re-writing my first couple of chapters!

Anyway, after so many versions of the synopsis that I’ve now lost count, the weekend past saw me gather everything together and head to the printer and on Monday – the final postal submissions were off to the Post Office! There are of course email submissions still to be sent this week, but I’m almost done and already making notes on my next book! I would just have to mention here that I am extremely grateful to those Irish and UK publishers/agents who accept unsolicited submissions from hopeful writers like myself, as it seems sometimes that unless you know the right people, getting to those with the power to publish is increasingly difficult.

Also, regardless of whether I get published or not (and I know that in reality the odds of that are fairly miniscule…), I would also like to thank all those who have read and given me feedback on my chapters so far, advised on the synopsis and in marketing the book and just chatted with me generally about the writing process – most notably, these include Rosie JohnstonBernie McGill, Damian Gorman, Felicity McCall, El Gruer, Mark McCallum, Jenny Morris, DJ McCune… I will add in anyone I’ve forgotten!

Another thing I’ve been pondering recently is that of the USP – the Unique Selling Points of my book. Of course, what makes your story special is a thread constantly spooling around in any writer’s head as they create their work but when it comes to being specific about it and doing the ‘hard sell’, sometimes it takes a while to work out exactly the best way of putting it.

Is it the location/setting of the story? The quirky character? The richness of the story itself? Something else? I would like to think I have all of the above covered but then, only time will tell if the publishers think the same…


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Exchange Place

Through Belfast streetsImage

on Paris walks

We meet Kilfeather, Kilpatrick

the lost

A missing notebook

a friend long gone

working apart

or in the same song?

Suspense it hangs

truth out of reach

The writing’s fast

the chapters brief

We flit, we float between the two

the question is

– just who is who?


A wee taster of the book I’m currently reading (by Ciaran Carson) and soon to review…

In other news, I forgot to update about El’s writing class last week!

There was more mind-mapping – from words chosen at random from the blurbs of books – the creation of two characters sitting in a waiting room and… some work on our own writing which we brought in (with me, that was my synopsis and pitch letter – three ‘pithy paragraphs’? Excellent challenge!)

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Carnlough creativity!


Cherry mobile pic

Last Friday I took a very scenic trip along the north coast to Carnlough, passing through barely there villages and driving curiously along little twisty tree-lined roads and spacious mountain thoroughfares. I ended up in a small town snuggled against a beautiful backdrop of mountains and fronted by a calm blue bay. I was there to sample a creative writing class led by former Portstewart and long time London-based poet/author Cherry Smyth (see above) as part of the 11th John Hewitt Spring Festival and the journey was certainly well worth it!


I was a little early but the room, complete with fireplace and antique bookcases, soon filled with fellow writers – of prose and poetry – and introductions over, we got stuck in.

I’ve been going to quite a few one-off writing classes recently and there’s always the risk that things can get repetitive but this wasn’t the case in Carnlough, as Cherry’s exercises breathed inspiration afresh into our minds. In fact, it was breath that we first focused on.

We were asked to close our eyes and focus on our breathing – be aware of it – before writing, stream of consciousness style – about our breath. How was it now, how was it before we wrote, whilst we wrote? What was it like when we were afraid, stressed, excited, when do we take a sharp breath and so on. Cherry prompted us a little as we scribbled frantically and a few people shared their efforts at the end, but it was a good opener to the class.

Cherry quoted from the French writer Hélène Cixous‘ book, ‘Coming to Writing’ before the session, in which it says – ‘writing was in the air around me… Write me. Are you going to write me or not?’

The quote (which was longer than this, but that’s all I remember!) really struck a note with everyone and for writers, is a lovely answer to why, perhaps, we write – because words are in the air around us and because we have to. The writing needs to be written and our own particular writing can only be composed by us so… are we going to write it or not?

Next, it was the turn of the left hand (or whichever hand you don’t normally use to write with) to take centre stage, as we wrote a few lines in our childish, spiky writing from its point of view. For some, this meant a surge of creativity, for some, a freedom in their writing and for others, frustration and an annoyed leftie getting even! The it was back to the ‘right’ hand again, the underlying reason for all of this an exploration of not being able to communicate.

‘What could it stand in for?’ Cherry asked us. ‘What else could we use it (the exercise) for as a metaphor?’ For example, not being able to write could be used as a metaphor for humility, learning to trust, or falling in love – ‘like putting your left hand into a right-handed glove’.

We then had to think about one of our first experiences of learning to write and compose a short piece, referring to the sights, sounds, smells and memories that went with this, which resulted in a wonderfully varied collection of stories.

Time crept on however, and although we had two hours in the end, the minutes whooshed by like arrows and our final exercise was inspired by a sonnet – ‘The Children Of The Poor’, written by Gwendolyn Brooks. For this, we read the first verse and then picked a line which stood out to us for whatever reason and then write a poem with each line ending in a word from our chosen line or using that line as a title for a piece of writing. I chose the opening line – ‘People who have no children can be hard’ – as did a few others and, as Cherry said afterwards, the responses were a lot more intense with this class, given that it wasn’t just full of students, but had a more varied age range.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my taster of the John Hewitt Festival experience and am now considering applying for the bursary to attend the Summer School in Armagh in July. There are two bursaries up for grabs in the Coleraine area (forms available from Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart), so it’s worth a try!

In more writing news… I met with Portstewart young adult author, Debbie McCune, today at lunch to have a chat about agents, publishing and writing in general and came away with some good advice. Nothing beats talking with fellow writers and sharing experiences and she was very helpful in explaining how she landed her book deal and the ups and down of her writing journey so far. Image

For example, after a lot of hard work in writing her first novel, which was given the thumbs-up by agents and a top publisher, the marketing people then pulled the plug on Debbie’s first book, as they said they had already taken on enough novels of that genre at the time. As soul-destroying as this inevitably was however, Debbie kept on writing and it paid off, as she managed to get ‘Death & Co’ picked up by Hot Key Books and was also approached by a publisher regarding her original manuscript at around the same time!

It is of course, a tough business to break into, but there is nothing to be gained by not trying, so my next steps are to contact a few more writers I know and ask for feedback on a chapter (or as much as they would like to read) and Debbie has agreed to have a look at chapter one in the meantime (once things have calmed down with her own deadlines and engagements!) As she said – it helps greatly to network and meet people face-to-face and in the end, most writers do find that they just happen to be in the right place at the right time… well, the work needs to be sparkling as well!

There are also more writing events coming up in the near future which I hope to get along to and of course, El Gruer’s writing class (now delayed until tomorrow evening rather than tonight), which never fails to inspire! (Although, I think I need a new word for ‘inspire’ – I use it A LOT!!)

Anyway, I leave you now with a suitably atmospheric picture of The Vanishing Lake at Loughareema, which I snapped on Friday on the way home from Carnlough. Only thing is… the writing on the sign, courtesy of my flash,  seems to have vanished along with the lake!



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I may have to admit that I’m missing NaPoWriMo… just a little. The demand to write a poem a day was sometimes quite stressful but then again, they got written and May has brought with it a distinct lack of poetic creativity! (Well, so far). 

Anyway, I wasn’t able to go to Ms Gruer’s writing meet-up this week, due to work commitments, but I understand she posed some abstract questions to the writers who did make it, such as ‘what can you catch on your tongue?’ and ‘what would you do with a tail if you had one?’ I might have a think about those myself!

What I have been doing (other than posing with my Blackstaff Press books for a wee story in the paper!), is cracking on with ‘The Draft’ and seeking feedback… First up, I met with my friend (picture-book Jenny) at the weekend to exchange some encouraging words on our respective projects. Whilst I am poring through my novel making amendments, Jenny is currently crafting her picture book and I really enjoyed hearing what she had written so far. 

We both identified local writers we could approach about our writing and I will be having coffee with one of these – young adult novelist Debbie McCune – next Tuesday in Portstewart. Having just seen her book ‘Death & Co’ published (and so far very well received), Debbie has very kindly agreed to read a few of my chapters when she gets through her current flurry of PR activities. So… I will update on that as and when it happens.

Meanwhile, Jenny has now read my first chapter and delivered a very nice review, so that has boosted me quite a bit and added to the hope that it is actually, maybe ok after all… I was worried about getting the portrayal of my main character just right and her comments have helped allay the fear that I hadn’t described her as she was in my head!

As far as my editing goes – I’m now mid-way through the third read-through and this time around, it is much easier to spot phrases or paragraphs which need tightening up or simplified, having already corrected bits and pieces on previous occasions. It’s surprisingly sometimes what you can miss! After these corrections though, I’m confidant I will have a manuscript poised for the next step…

I may have missed El’s class this week but tomorrow evening I will be taking the scenic route to Carnlough – to the Londonderry Arms Hotel to be precise, for a creative writing workshop with poet, critic, curator and now novelist, Cherry Smyth, who is taking part in 11th John Hewitt Spring Festival. I’m looking forward to both the class and also to meeting more writers and seeing bits of the north coast I have to admit I haven’t seen before, so… more details on this next week! Image

I actually had the pleasure of chatting with Cherry this morning, as I’m writing an article for the paper about her writing experiences and the forthcoming publication of her debut novel ‘Hold Still’. So… I will leave you with some of her words…

“Life-changing events… are very very affecting. Poetry is a cure for that. You can look back and see the state you were in and see yourself coming out of it from the poem.

“I love having those sort of verbal trophies. It’s like an image of the struggle and the poem is the prize.”

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Workshops galore!


This week, I have been keeping myself busy with not one, but two writing workshops, so I will begin with the most recent, which took place at the Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre in Limavady yesterday morning. The class (which focused on poetry!!) was led by Irish News columnist and BBC Radio Ulster broadcaster, Anita Robinson and included myself and members of the Jane Ross Writers Group. We subsequently enjoyed a very lively session of composition!

First up, was a group effort to produce a ‘Kenning poem’, something I’d never heard of, but which is apparently a poem composed of two-word phrases which describes something using a metaphor. We came up with:


Door slammer / Mood swinger / Tantrum thrower / Ghetto blaster / Mischief maker / Biscuit burglar / Duvet snuggler / Bear hugger / Heart warmer / Teen!

As Anita said – ‘Poetry is the music of being human’ and ‘the distillation of an idea’.

We moved onto Haiku next, something I’ve become more familiar with recently thanks to El’s writing classes. The simple three-line / 5-7-5 syllable format sounds easy, but can often be more tricky to write than you think! Anyway, the subject was Spring and my effort produced…


Shadows softly fade

Tentative twitterings sound

Nature now stretches

Moving swiftly on to the next challenge and I was greeted with the friendly Cinquain, which I became acquainted with during NaPoWriMo. This, for those who er, ‘forget’, is a five-line poem with the syllable structure 2-4-6-8-2 and our topic was May Day (something I have to confess I know little about!) However…


Dancing children

Peals of joyful laughter

Weaving in and out to music

May Day

Our penultimate exercise was to compose a three-verse piece beginning with variations of ‘I’ e.g. ‘I am…’/ ‘I wonder…’ / ‘I hear…’ etc. I came up with:


I am a writer

I wonder about the thoughts growing in people’s minds

I hear life and want to write it down

I see hope and follow it

I want to inspire

I am a writer.

I pretend that it’s just for fun

I feel though, that with words I’ve won

I touch paper, soft and smooth

I worry about not writing ‘right’

I cry only if it goes terribly wrong

I am a writer.

I understand not everything works

I say it doesn’t matter 

I dream of creating magic

I try to pin it down

I hope and hope and hope

I am a writer.

That was my effort on the hoof yesterday anyway! It could maybe be tweaked a bit but, as Anita said, it probably does tell a lot about me!

Our final exercise (after some tea and biscuits of course!) was to pick an object from a variety set out on the table and then write something about it. I chose an old, chipped metal toy figure of Red Riding Hood… (I don’t know what it is with me and figurines.. I chose a similar object when El did this exercise!)


She reaches, beckons

cloaked in red,


Forgotten, discarded

or lost?

Age etched on her chipped paint

Owner unknown.

So, all in all, it was a busy enough morning but great to meet the Jane Ross writers and Anita – who takes ‘a poem with her pills’ before bed every night! A recommendation for everyone indeed, although maybe not necessarily with pills!


On to El’s class then from Tuesday night! As you can see, I was joined by a little stowaway, but he lay peacefully at my feet throughout the entire session and was good as gold! (Except when it came to looking at the camera!)

We were joined this week with a few new and much welcomed members and kicked off as we did last week, writing in a stream of consciousness for 13 minutes. It’s something I’m beginning to like I think!

Next, it was onto some ‘Mind Mapping’. El dispensed various titles and we had to decide if we thought they would work best as a novel, poem, short story etc and how that would look. There were quite a few interesting ideas for ‘The Following’ – including a cult, a familial tree and an X-Factor-type show for voting who gets to live – Jesus or Barabas! I of course, read out my ‘Chicken and Eggs’ rhyme which er… I ‘forget’!

Characterisation was next and answering a series of questions about two different people linked to an old tennis racquet. Again, lots of different scenarios here! From there, it was onto ‘Voice and the consistency of voice‘ and for this, we wrote a journal entry from the perspective of a 59 year-old man who had just been told his wife had drowned. It was a really good way to create something in a completely different voice to your own and great practice for getting ‘in character’!

I can see this post is getting ever longer so I’ll leave it at that for now!

Well, almost… I had a lovely piece of news yesterday afternoon when I found out that I’d come second in the Blackstaff Press Skypen short story competition! I’m very chuffed indeed and my story will now appear on the Blackstaff Press blog AND I got to pick a free book from their online store. Brilliant!

For those who are interested, you can read it here on Sky Pen 🙂


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Balloons and buoyancy!


Today is a day of catch-up for Tuesday (apologies) but that being said – Tuesday was a fairly busy day! I will begin with my Day 23 poem for Image, which asked us to write a triolet – an eight-line poem.

‘All the lines are in iambic tetramenter (for a total of eight syllables per line), and the first, fourth, and seventh lines are identical, as are the second and final lines. This means that the poem begins and ends with the same couplet. Beyond this, there is a tight rhyme scheme (helped along by the repetition of lines) — ABaAabAB.’


I have my own hot air balloon

I spy on people, from the moon

On rainbows bright I slide with glee

I have my own – hot air balloon

It’s really nothing strange to me

On clouds of dreams I snuggle

I have my own Hot Air Balloon

I spy on people from the moon.


I’m not quite sure if this reads as the er, best triolet ever, as I found it a little tricky, but it’s an effort anyway! Yesterday also saw the final (or so I thought) night of creative writing with El Gruer but… she’s very kindly added on another three weeks! So, NaPoWriMo may soon be ending but poetic inspiration will continue…

Last night with El (over a pot of tea of course), we began by sharing our homework – an extension of last week’s exercise with the painting. (I chose to write a ‘Painter’s Poem’ from the perspective of the painter on the beach.) From this we moved on to writing in a stream of consciousness for ten minutes, which sounds long but actually flew by really rather quickly. This produced a lot of, as El aptly put it ‘mind vomit’, but as the ten minutes were nearing to a close I did actually begin to write something a bit more meaningful. Personally, I love reading this type of writing (eg James Joyce/Virginia Woolf), but I know it’s not for everyone.

The purpose of this was to clear our minds of all our cluttering thoughts so we could get to the good stuff. It’s something I’ve never done in my writing generally, but El told us how some writers she knows do this every time they sit down to write – before they write what they’ve set out to do – so they can de-clutter and focus properly. Some also use it as a diary, doing it every day and some go back to see if any word pairings or phrases could be salvaged and used in their writing. Useful stuff!

Next up was an exercise in abstract thinking as we filled in the gaps in a generic sentence with quirky/creative words (an eg of why I need to do this type of exercise has just been demonstrated… ‘quirky/creative’ – I use these words a lot!). So, one example of mine was: ‘A sparrow in an orchard of sparrows‘. We then listed the sights, sounds and senses we associated with the images we had created – all a very original way I thought, to create writing to grab a reader’s attention.

THEN, it was feedback on the first chapter of ‘The Draft’… I am pleased to report however, that the comments were positive and the advice was very well received! My plus points were in the structure and flow of the story, the pace and the hook – that is, El thought for the young age group I’m aiming for, the adventure began at an appropriately early stage and would grab their attention. (Here’s hoping!)

Points to consider included repetition of phrases/words/sentences and saying the same thing quite close together but in different ways. Also, for the 7-12 age range I’m writing for, making sure the language I use is simplistic and explanatory enough is a key point, which I know I need to work on in various parts of the book. Sourcing punchy, exciting adjectives which differ from the norm and ‘get beyond the usual’ was also advised… like I said – El’s exercises help a lot with this (as does a thesaurus..) 

So, after my second read-through and correction of the manuscript, my third reading will see the circling of all of the above – repetitive phrases, ordinary adjectives and difficult language! It has definitely re-inspired me and made me buoyant once more!

Anyway, back to the class. It was then onto a ’12 Days of May’ exercise, where we wrote ‘On the first day of May I…(walked over a rainbow)’, unleashing our inner child/dreamer to come up with all the fantastic things we might have done. This was a good way, we were told, to delve into your character’s mind – for example, what details would they pick up on? Also, once again, it inspired creative thinking and alternative ways of describing things.

And finally, the night closed with some ‘Writing for Screen’ tasks, as we jotted down how we would shoot the opening scene for various scenarios. Of course, different things must be considered when writing in this way, so brevity and directness are key.

As I said, there are now three additional weeks of El’s classes on the horizon and I am in no doubt they will continue to inspire and spice up my writing. If you’re near Coleraine on a Tuesday evening (7-9pm), pop into Hope & Gloria and try them out!

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You look a little lost

I wonder where you’ve come from and just how much it cost

Your eyes are tinged with sorrow, wrapped up with strings of pain

the flecks of hope and love must have burrowed through your brain.


Do your memories flood your mind

Have you forgotten all you fought for, have you left it all behind

Your brow’s a little furrowed – lines gouged as if by claws

did the tiger grip you tight, did it catch you in its jaws.


I can see a curve of smile

Mouth twitches for a second, even though it’s been a while

Your heart it now beats quicker, the shackles they have gone

the key to light and life in your darkest parts has shone.


You look like you’re ok

I’m glad you’ve put the past behind and held on til today

A spark I think is growing, in your heart and mind and soul

It’s the ultimate achievement and I think, that’s been your goal.

This is my contribution to day 17 of Image… a poem of greeting.

Meanwhile, last night was creative writing workshop number five with the lovely poet El Gruer at Hope & Gloria and the exercises came thick and fast to stir up our inspiration.

We began the evening with ‘A Series of Serious Scenarios’, which essentially meant coming up with what we would say in response to a set of questions and then writing what we wouldn’t say (but which we might be thinking). All in all, very fun and a good way to think about how you portray your characters when writing.

Still with characterisation, we then studied a painting from the shop and devised five key questions we would put to the figure in the picture, before answering them ourselves. We then looked at the scenario from the artist’s point of view, answering some questions about him, such as where he was when he painted the picture, how he felt, where he lived etc. This was an interesting way in which to get acquainted with a collection of new characters and create new voices – by looking at a particular scene from different perspectives.

Our next task was to locate ourselves in relation to what we had just done – where were we? In the picture? The artist? The girl in the painting? I chose the girl and so followed a journal entry from our selected character, which tied together the various parts of the exercise quite neatly.

The final imaginative feat for the night involved studying four random pictures from a magazine and mind-mapping the words, images and phrases which came to mind, circulating the shots around the group. We then chose one word from each of our lists as being representative of that picture, then chose one of these four words to mind-map further. This new mind-map threw up yet more words and again we picked one, mind-mapped it and… sketched what it evoked in our, er, minds. (Confusing yet? It was more clear while we were doing it, I promise!)

Anyway…. I know I’ve reeled everything off rather teacher-like here but all in all, Ms Gruer once again enlightened us with novel ways of conjuring up truly creative writing. Especially working in a newspaper environment, I am used to approaching writing these days in a very straightforward, clear-cut way and these sorts of exercises are therefore really useful in helping to encourage my thoughts in a different way.

As El said to us before we parted (when we asked her just how she arrived at some of her mind-mapping words!), sometimes you have to let go of your own voice and embrace others to produce the prose you really want. I thought this was refreshing, considering most writers are constantly being told to ‘find your voice’!!! Yes, find it but then, loosen your grip a little and let others in…

PS I drew a twisted, bare-branched tree.

NB Tomorrow’s NaPoWriMo effort will have to be posted on Friday, along with the poem for day 19, as I will be heading to Derry on Thursday to see (and hopefully meet) the poet Lemn Sissay! 

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