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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


You never know. Your book might end up in an artistic book mobile, like this one at Storybook Cafe in Glen Rose, Texas.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings." -- Lewis Carroll, excerpt from “The Walrus and The Carpenter”

by Christine Kohler

What I am NOT going to talk about is kings, or presidents, or specifically President Donald Trump. I’d rather talk about cabbages and sealing wax and whether pigs fly than discuss politics publicly. So, if anyone posts a political comment, I’ll consider it off-topic and not approve. Sorry. My blog. My rules.

However, I am introducing this topic of how works take on a life of their own by using Steven Tyler, a musician with the rock band Aerosmith, as an example. When Tyler wrote “Dream On”—the chorus is an epic song for writers!—and Aerosmith released it in 1973, I doubt he had any idea who all would sing his song in the future. Miley Cyrus, Adam Levine, and Alicia Keys, to name just a few. He could not have foreseen that “Dream On” would sell Kia cars on 2018 Superbowl ads. Maybe he was surprised, flattered, when the cast of the tv show Glee sang it. (The royalties are nice, too.)

But in 2015, 43 years after “Dream On” was released, Steven Tyler had his lawyer send presidential candidate Donald Trump a cease-and-desist letter to stop using the song in a campaign rally. Now, Tyler has issued another legal letter to President Trump to stop using “Livin’ on the Edge” at rallies.

What I find interesting, according to an Associated Press article, is Tyler tweeted that it isn’t a political issue; he just does not let anyone use his songs without permission. This is the type of issue I used to enjoy debating in Media Law class at the University of Hawaii. A media law attorney could add to the discussion greatly by telling what case set precedence. Do we get total control of how our work is used? As writers, we do in that no one is allowed to use more than a percentage of the work without permission, and often financial compensation. This is how copyright law is supposed to protect us. However, I don’t know how this applies to music. This is a court case that would be interesting to follow, if Tyler pursues it.

Separate from the legal entanglements, the reason this news article caught my attention is because it shows how a work takes on a life of its own.

Several years ago, I typed my name into my daughter’s Google Scholar account. (Dr. Jennifer Sherman teaches at two universities.) I discovered that my first four children’s fiction books, published in 1985 by Concordia Publishing House, for ages 5-9 were mentioned in a book about working with at-risk children. I also found these books referenced in a scholarly journal. And in another article in a scholarly journal the writer had lifted a quote from an article I wrote while a political reporter. The writer used the quote to make a point very different than the topic of my article.

Children’s magazine writers often get requests to use their stories, nonfiction articles, and poems in testing materials, workbooks, and textbooks. The educational publishing companies pay nicely for these reprints.

When I wrote WORDS ALIVE! CHRISTIAN WRITERS SKILLS & PROMPTS I used examples from published novels and a humor book. In every case that the work was not in public domain, I got written permission from both the author (or heirs) and the publisher, or I wouldn’t use the selection. I’m sure when the writers wrote their books they never thought, “Gee, I hope someone uses this as an example of good writing craft in her writing book.”

Probably the most profitable spin-off a book can take is to have a tv show, or tv special, or movie made from the book.

Or, I’m sure you know of authors whose books were later produced on stage as plays.

If you are a writer, what are some ways in which your published work took on a life of its own?

We talk about birthing our work, and how books are our babies. And like our human children, it’s just possible as they age they will walk down a path we never imagined.  Read More 

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St. Augustine was one of the earliest to write autobiographical confessions in a journal. This cover is by Penguin Books.

by Christine Kohler

I have a lot of confessions to make in writing this article about “Confession Literature in YA novels.”


I never use nor recommend using Wikipedia for a source. However, there are different definitions for Confession and Confessional Literature, and the Wikipedia entry works best for what I plan to open a discussion on in this article. The following is a condensed version of a fluid (as opposed to concrete) definition of Confession, or Confessional, literature, according to Wikipedia:


In literature, confessional writing is a first-person style that is often presented as an ongoing diary or letters, distinguished by revelations of a person's deeper or darker motivations.
Originally, the term derived from confession. The writer is not only autobiographically recounting his life but confessing to his sins.

Fictionally, the confessional story is a story written, in the first person, about emotionally fraught and morally charged situations in which a fictional character is caught.
With the advent of the magazine True Story in 1919, the confessional (and later Romance) magazine was created, containing such stories. The formula has been characterized as "sin-suffer-repent": The heroine violates standards of behavior, suffers as a consequence, learns her lesson, and resolves to live in light of it, not embittered by her pain.


I found examples in YA lit where someone close to the first-person protagonist was caught instead. Also, in the adult market stories the confessor didn’t always repent. And in the YA novels the resolutions were to reveal the mystery of who the real culprit (sinner) was who committed the crime, usually murder or theft. The one thing all of these stories seemed to have in common besides the first-person confession, dark subjects, and deep emotional self-analysis, was a surprise twist at the end.


This year I have been reading novels in the adult market, mostly mysteries. Recently I read short stories in a collections of Edgar winners, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I noticed some of the stories were told in a confession style, but it was writer Samantha Allen whose story “Some Kind of Lonely” in EQMM that moved me the most. Allen’s essay about Confession Literature clarified for me this specific style. Check out her thoughtful essay “Weight of the Words”.
This is what led me to think about what YA novels are written in Confession style.


I have read all the YA novels I’m going to cite as possible examples of Confession Literature. However, it has been years ago since I read them. I also have no idea if the authors themselves would classify their stories as a Confession style. So, if you don’t agree, please speak up and tell me why any of these books don’t fit the Confession criteria. Or is you know of a YA novel that you feel does fit the Confession criteria, please add the title and author in comments. Here are four novels with links and summaries from Goodreads so you can look them up and judge for yourself if you haven’t read them:

[Note: The Monster summary is from one by reviewer Medeia Sharif and part of the Harpercollins book summary on Goodreads because the original summary is very long and I wanted to mostly highlight the mixed media methods author Walter Dean Meyers—oral confession, jury trial with witnesses, film, journal. (Note: Check out my earlier blog article on using mixed media in novels.)]

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein (Egmont, 2012)

1943 -- When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

[My note: I remember this story as a mystery being told from Verity’s point of view inside an interrogation room where German SS officers are trying to get a confession from her.]

DOVEY COE by Frances O’Roark Dowell (Atheneum, 2001)

My name is Dovey Coe and I reckon it don't matter if you like me or not. I'm here to lay the record straight, to let you know them folks saying I done a terrible thing are liars. I aim to prove it, too. I hated Parnell Caraway as much as the next person, but I didn't kill him.

[My note: This story is told from a courtroom with Dovey on trial for murder.]

THE SILENCE OF MURDER by Dandi Mackall (Knopf, 2011)

Seventeen-year-old Hope Long's life revolves around her brother Jeremy. So when Jeremy is accused of killing the town's beloved baseball coach, Hope's world begins to unravel. Everyone is convinced Jeremy did it, and since he hasn't spoken a word in 9 years, he's unable to defend himself. Their lawyer instructs Hope to convince the jury that Jeremy is insane, but all her life Hope has known that Jeremy's just different than other people—better, even. As she works to prove his innocence—joined by her best friend T.J. and the sheriff's son, Chase—Hope uncovers secrets about the murder, the townspeople, her family, and herself. She knows her brother isn't the murderer. But as she comes closer to the truth, she's terrified to find out who is.

[My note: This story is told during a trial, some scenes in the courtroom, and some elsewhere in flashbacks and outside the courthouse where Hope tries to solve the murder mystery to clear her brother. SILENCE OF MURDER is an example of the protagonist not being the accused. But her mute brother’s life is so entwined with hers that she speaks for him.]

MONSTER by Walter Dean Meyers

Steve Harmon is a teenager on trial for allegedly being an accomplice in the murder of a drugstore owner. The author makes use of not only the courtroom, but also Steve’s journal and a movie that Steve’s film club is making of the crime. As a way of coping with the horrific events that entangle him, Steve, an amateur filmmaker, decides to transcribe his trial into a script, just like in the movies. He writes it all down, scene by scene, the story of how his whole life was turned around in an instant. – summary partially by reviewer Medeia Sharif & Harpercollins; see Goodreads for Sarif’s full review


I am convinced that most of the readers of this blog are introverts. Not that I mind, but I would love for you to discuss this topic in the comment section so we can have a dialogue. Confession Literature is something I have not written in fiction, only in poetry and my own journals. It’s not a genre or style I’m experienced with. And I was surprised how I fumbled at coming up with YA novels that could be considered Confession Literature. So, please comment, your opinion counts.  Read More 

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by Suzanne Kamata

A couple of weeks ago, I entered a writing contest. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me; I enter contests all the time. Some may think that it’s not worth the time or the cost of the entrance fees. After all, many contests get hundreds of submissions, and judging is often somewhat subjective – every reader has different likes and dislikes.

I have lost more contests than I have won, but sometimes I get lucky. Thanks to winning or placing in writing competitions, I have received plane tickets to Paris, Sydney, and Columbia, South Carolina (from my home in Japan). I’ve also been awarded cash, medals, trophies, and plaques and shiny prize stickers for my books, not to mention bragging rights and prestige. A contest win can also be an excuse for a burst of publicity – Twitter tweets, Facebook posts, mentions in newsletters, and interviews with your hometown press. Contests may lead to recognition, getting an agent or publisher, and book sales.

So how do you decide which contests to enter? How do you win? Here are a few things to consider:

*Previous winners – Who won the prize/contest in the past? Is it someone whose writing you respect? Would you be honored to have your work mentioned alongside theirs? The entry fee for the Nautilus Book Awards was a whopping $185 ($135 for books for children and young adults), however when my publisher suggested I enter my short story collection, THE BEAUTIFUL ONE HAS COME , I did because winning or placing would put my book in the same company as many writers that I admired, such as Barbara Kingsolver, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Gayle Brandeis. the book cover.

*The narrower the category, the better -- Some contests attract a broad range of submissions, and are therefore more competitive. Those with a narrower focus obviously attract fewer entrants. My YA novel GADGET GIRL: THE ART OF BEING INVISIBLE, features a biracial (Japanese/Caucasian) girl with cerebral palsy and is set partly in Paris. Instead of entering the book solely into heavily competitive contests for YA fiction, I entered it into contests for books concerning Asian-American characters, and those with a disability or Paris connection. Happily, it was awarded the Asian Pacific American YA Honor Award and the Paris Book Festival Grand Prize.

* New contests offer new opportunities -- Typically, your chances of winning a brand new, or newish contest are greater than an older, established one simply because fewer people know about it. When I entered the second annual Jeremy Mogford Prize for Food Writing, my entry was a finalist. Although I didn’t win the 10,000 pound prize, I was thrilled to have been a contender. At the time, there were “nearly 400” entrants, however over 1,000 stories were entered in last year’s competition, the fifth, making it more difficult to win. Similarly, when my novel THE MERMAIDS OF LAKE MICHIGAN was named a finalist for the Helen Sheehan YA Book Prize sponsored by Elephant Rock Books, my manuscript was competing against nearly 70 other submissions. This year’s contest drew over 100 entries. As winners of this contest have gone on to be named a finalist for the Printz Award and a Junior Library Guild Selection, the prize is rapidly gaining in prestige, and in the number of contestants.

*Follow the rules – This should go without saying, but make sure you take a good look at the guidelines. As a contest judge faced with a mountain of submissions, I have been quick to disqualify those who have obviously not paid any attention to the rules. If a contest asks for up to fifteen pages, don’t send a PDF of your entire book. If manuscripts are judged blindly, make sure your name doesn’t appear in the header.

*If you don’t succeed, try again -- I was awarded a work-in-progress grant from SCBWI the second or third time that I applied, and a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation on my second try. The winner of the 2017 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest was a semi-finalist two years before.

*Submit your best work – Give it your best shot. Often unusual, quirky, or unclassifiable works stand out above the crowd. Choose your most unique, most special work for contest entry, and hone it till it shines.

*Winning isn’t everything – Some contests, especially those sponsored by literary journals, send every entrant a copy of the issue containing the winning story. Others promise a critique to every entrant. At the very least, your entry fee may be helping to keep small press publishing alive. In some cases, books entered in competitions are donated to libraries and other places where readers gather. Judges often take note of strong entries, even when they are not chosen for first prize., for example, Leapfrog Press has published several of the finalists of its annual fiction contest in addition to the winners. Even if you don’t win, if your entry places, take that as encouragement. Keep writing, and keep revising.

Good luck!

• Editor’s note to blog readers: What contests have you entered with what results?  Read More 

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By Victoria J. Coe

Writing a synopsis is a lot like eating a Reese's peanut butter cup. In fact, the only difference I can see is there's no wrong way to eat a Reese's.

Maybe nibbling along the outside works for you, or perhaps you're more comfortable diving right into the middle. Some ways just feel right. But if your favorite method has begun to lose its flavor, why not spice it up by trying something new?

Before digging in, I'd like to squash a bit of misinformation. You may have heard that a synopsis is a tantalizing morsel designed to leave the reader salivating for the rest of your story. Not so! Your synopsis is where you tear off the wrapper and highlight your main ingredients, right down to the last tasty crumb.

When editors or agents read your synopsis, they want to get a sense for who your main character is and where you're going with the premise. Your synopsis, along with your query letter and sample chapters, will help them determine whether your story might be a good fit for them. You don't need to include a lot of detail, just what is necessary to understand the protagonist's motivation and the plot.

The first thing I do when writing a synopsis is sum up the whole story in one paragraph.

• Begin by telling the entire plot in one sentence.

• Next, explain the main character's motivation in one or two sentences.

• Then summarize the "middle" of the story and climax in one or two sentences.

• Finally, tell how the main character grows or what he learns as a result of his experiences.

Of course, if you can combine any of these points, by all means do!


Charlie wants to visit Mr. Willy Wonka's top secret candy factory. After he and four other lucky children win a tour of the factory, misfortune befalls the selfish, misbehaving four, while amiable Charlie earns Mr. Wonka's trust and inherits the factory.

This short paragraph not only tells the premise and plot, but also shines a light on the theme. Like the unmistakable aroma of chocolate, this story's theme, "good guys finish first," wafts through the page and stimulates the senses, but doesn't overwhelm the reader. Try this with your own summary. If the theme isn't clear, revise or tweak until it is.

If there is a subplot, next is the place to spell it out. One or two sentences should do it. For example, "Throughout the story, there is a subplot in which _______."

Skip a line, and dive right in to the plot outline. Think of your story in three major sections:

• Beginning - Main character's motivation is established and basic plot is set up

• Middle - Main character faces obstacles, which build to a climax

• End - Climax is resolved.

The beginning, climax and ending will take up most of the synopsis, with less weight given to the middle:

Reveal your beginning in two or three paragraphs, leaving off with your plot clearly set.

For the middle, lead with an introductory sentence, then encapsulate your major plot points as bullets, leading up to the climax. Take two or three paragraphs to describe the climax and twists.

Finally, tell how the story is resolved in one or two paragraphs.

Here's an example of the rest of the synopsis of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At 450 words, this synopsis will take up only 2-3 pages. Yet the plot, theme and essence of the main character all come through like the unbeatable combination of peanut butter and chocolate wrapped up neatly in a bright orange wrapper.

Sweet Charlie Bucket loves chocolate. But his family is so poor that he gets it only once a year, on his birthday. Walking past Wonka's Chocolate Factory each day is torture.

Charlie's grandfather tells him that Mr. Willy Wonka is so concerned about guarding his secrets that he has closed off the factory. No one has been seen going in or out for years.

An announcement appears in the newspaper: Five lucky children who find golden tickets inside Wonka bars will win a personal tour of the factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. Charlie is very excited -- his birthday is next week.

After the first two tickets are discovered, Charlie opens his birthday chocolate with great anticipation, but his hopes fall when there is no golden ticket inside.

Soon the third and fourth tickets are found. Then Charlie's Grandpa Joe shows him a Wonka bar he has kept hidden. The two open it gleefully, but inside is chocolate, nothing more.

One day Charlie finds a dollar in the snow and buys two chocolate bars. He is shocked to find the last golden ticket!

The next day, Charlie, Grandpa Joe and the other winners arrive at the factory, where they are delighted and amazed to meet the wildly eccentric Willy Wonka.

While Charlie and his grandfather marvel at the wonders of Wonka's factory, one by one the other children meet with misfortune when they fail to heed their host's admonitions:

Gluttonous Augustus Gloop drinks from the chocolate river and falls in

Gum-chewing Violet Beauregard chews an experimental stick of gum and turns into a gigantic blueberry

Spoiled Veruca Salt grabs a squirrel and ends up in a chute for bad nuts

Television-obsessed Mike Teavee is shrunk when he tries to become the first human to travel over television waves

After each mishap, Mr. Wonka tells the dwindling group that the others will all come out in the wash.

When at last only Charlie is left, Mr. Wonka tells him that he's giving him the whole factory. Wonka explains that he's been looking for his successor -- a good, sensible, loving child to entrust with his precious candy-making secrets. Thrilled, Charlie and Grandpa Joe burst through the roof of the factory with Mr. Wonka in the great, glass elevator. They fly to the Buckets' cottage and collect the rest of the family before returning to live at the Wonka Factory.

Sounds easy? It is! Now roll up your sleeves, grab a napkin and dig in!


A synopsis is a content-driven summary of a story's plot. Most often a synopsis, along with a query letter and sample chapters, is part of a fiction book proposal.

Usually part of a non-fiction book proposal, an outline is structure-driven. As most non-fiction books are not actually written until after the proposal has been accepted, the outline describes the type of material to be covered chapter by chapter. Therefore, the outline is generally not a summary of already-written chapters, but a plan for what the author intends to include.

Sometimes, a publisher's guidelines for fiction request a chapter by chapter outline. This type of outline is really a blend of a synopsis and an outline. A writer might think of an outline of fiction as an expanded synopsis, including each and every chapter in summary.


• Tell, don't show!

• Use Omniscient POV

• Write in present tense

• Keep it short and sweet


• Shape your synopsis into a fitting format

• Single space your name and contact information in the upper left hand corner of the first page

• Center your title, all in capital letters

• Skip a line, then center the word "synopsis," in bold, capital letters

• Skip two lines, then double space your synopsis.

• Insert a header on subsequent pages, listing "your last name/Manuscript Title, Synopsis" on the top left and listing the page number on the top right.

• The fewer pages, the better.


Victoria J. Coe is the author of the 2017 Global Read Aloud & One School One Book selection FENWAY AND HATTIE, the first title in a middle grade series from Penguin Young Readers. She teaches creative writing in Cambridge, MA.

© by Victoria J. Coe  Read More 
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A Kairos moment
by Christine Kohler

Think back to carefree childhood activities before your parents sent you to school. You lost yourself in imaginative play, exploration, and creativity. No one set a clock and said, “You have 15 minutes to make a mud pie.” Or, “Shimmy up that tree, pretend you are Rocky the flying squirrel, then vamoose down again in 20 minutes.” (If adults did put time restraints on your imaginative play, shame on them.)

Observe a newborn and toddler amazed at the newness and wonderment of things we take for granted. Notice how they move at their own pace, without concern for adult schedules. This is true with human and four-legged young ones.

These unfettered childhood behaviors are done during a period known to the Greeks as Kairos, an appointed time, an opportune moment, or a due season.

Once children begin school, schedules are enforced. The alarm clock wakes you up, the bus arrives at a specific time, tardy bells clang. Your body is even supposed to regulate when it goes to the bathroom and what time it has to fall asleep at night. Adulthood and the work place demands more of the same.

This regimented system is Chronos, a measurable time, such as seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, calendar years.


Consider how this applies to writers. Unless you didn’t begin writing until college in a course such as technical writing, then chances are you started writing as a child because you enjoyed doing so, not for homework assignments only. I was aware by age 9, around fourth grade, that I was writing compulsively. I began writing my first novel while babysitting at about age 13. Yet, I don’t recall a teacher assigning me to write a story until my junior year in high school, at age 16. (I still have it. It’s titled “Kidnapped” and I got double As.)

So, if you were like me, and you wrote as a child out of compulsion, or for pleasure or praise, chances are that no one assigned the topics. No one gave you a deadline. No one expected you to do anything, least of all produce an entire poem, or short story, or article. Certainly not an entire novel. You wrote for the sheer joy of writing, to relay interesting information or tell a story. You wrote to express yourself. You wrote to vent, or out of loneliness, or because your imagination was overflowing with inventive ideas. (Notice I didn’t say “over-active imagination.” That term might have been made up by a curmudgeon who didn’t want to hear your fantasy stories.) For whatever reason, you wrote without being told to, without having time limits to produce a finished product. You took the opportunity to write in the perfect Kairos moment. You took a season to write your piece, if necessary, and wrote for a season until you reached an age where a teacher or boss imposed Chronos time on you.


Chronos time is imposed on writers by teachers and bosses, if you are required to write at work. I have often said that I don’t believe in writer’s block because, as a reporter, you either make your deadline or get fired. As a news reporter, I wrote three to five articles per day on deadline. And that was after spending all day outside the office gathering information and interviewing. The actual writing took place in about two hours of my workday. Educational writers also have brutal deadlines. Some novelists are expected to produce two to four full-length novels per year.

Chronos time can also be self-imposed. Those who commit to writing X-amount of words a day, or for X-amount of time per day, write on Chronos time. Those who do NaNoWriMo are writing on Chronos time. I don’t do NaNoWriMo. However, I confess that when I hack out a first draft of a novel, I usually do so in six to eight weeks, sometimes writing up to 10 hours a day. I do this self-imposed Chronos time for continuity, to get the first crappy draft down on paper (finish what I start), and because I can.


So, I am not condemning writing on Chronos time. It has its place. However, let’s not abandon seasons of Kairos. Too often I hear of writers flagellate themselves for being stuck, or taking a day, or (gasp!) a week off from writing. Instead, perhaps they should embrace the Kairos to step away the work and spend non-timed moments to meditate, contemplate on a deeper level. Or do whimsical play. Or inventive pursuits. Make mud pies out under a Bing cherry tree, if you must. Return to the unfettered activities of your youth before authoritarian figures imposed Chronos time on you.


Published authors often admonish other writers to “enjoy the journey” instead of obsessing about getting published. But what does that really mean? How does a writer really enjoy the journey when the hype is to keep their eyes on the publishing prize? Perhaps the key is in relishing the Kairos moments when we lose ourselves in our writing. When we forget about the discipline and writing rules and deadlines, and instead return inwardly to writing for the sheer joy of telling stories.


When my dad retired from Ford Motor Company, he took his watch off. He told me he no longer wanted to be dictated by a timepiece. Most writers never retire. But the body slows down. People enter a different season of life. Instead of bemoaning the limitations, embrace the Kairos moments. Write deeper, more meaningful, more playful, more fantastical. Focus on the quality instead of the quantity. Get lost in story. Create something worthy of your fullest potential.


One footnote to contemplate, if you decide to read further about the difference between Chronos and Kairos. The Greeks personified concepts. Chronos is depicted as Father Time, carrying a scythe and an hour glass. He resembles the Grim Reaper. Chronos is crazy--he eats his own son. In Christian theology, Chronos leads to death in hell. However, Kairos is the icon of everlasting life. Kairos is the concept of seasons Solomon wrote about in Ecclesiastes. It can be one small ripe, full, and perfect moment. Or it can last a season.


My New Year wish for you all is that you give yourself the gift of freedom to seize Kairos moments to take joy in the journey. May you create timeless art.



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By Christine Kohler

As a former journalist, I have often said I don’t believe in writer’s block. I stick by that statement. Not writer’s block in the sense most people speak of it, as if they can’t get any words down on paper for a period of time. Poppycock. Research  Read More 

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