How to Start Writing a Book: A Peek Inside One Writer’s Process

how to start writing a book
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Three months ago I started writing a memoir.

This story has been hiding in my brain for the last decade, percolating without me knowing it. Long story short, back in middle school I started dating a guy and it turned into a seven-year, mildly abusive relationship.

A decade after it ended, I realized the microscopic hooks that found their way into my veins so long ago were still part of me today. I didn’t realize there was a story in it until so much time had passed, I had a rush of fresh blood to my brain. Three months ago, I woke up.

My mother mailed me the dozens of worn journals I kept during that time and I’ve spent almost every morning since poring through them. When I realized this story could be a memoir, I had a rush of excitement I haven’t felt in a long time.

Like all writers, I’m a rabid reader, devouring anything from bestsellers to crime to nonfiction to fantasy to YA to obscure self-published novels. And while I’ve been writing for the entirety of my life, I know nothing about writing a book.

I don’t even know how to start writing a book, where to, literally, begin. Do I start at the beginning of the story and end at the end? Should the book be a series of flashbacks? Do I write the last page first? Do I outline? Do I transcribe my journals? Or do I just sit down and start with whatever comes out?

writing a book

Step 1: Procrastinate writing by reading about writing

The first thing I did was search Amazon for “how to write a book”. The first promising result was Stephen King’s On Writing, a fantastic memoir-slash-rant on bad writing. If you haven’t read it, do so.

But while King helped me understand the importance of daily writing habits and slaughtering adverbs, his approach scared me. Apparently King just sits at his desk and starts telling the story, a story with characters who magically write themselves, a story that simply takes on a life of its own, beginning to end.

Step 2: Sit down and see what happens

So that’s what I tried. I sat down and tried to write the first scene of my story. Two problems promptly (ugh, adverb, sorry) presented themselves:

  1. I don’t know the story. Sure, I know the basic scenes and plot structure, but I don’t fully know how this story ends. How do I know what to focus on, what themes to tease out if I don’t yet know those themes?
  1. My first attempt was horrible. I started writing about the day Tom (not his real name, of course) and I met. What tumbled out was a list of actions:

I was at my friend’s birthday party and Tom was sitting across from me. Someone dared us to kiss. I blushed. Tom leaned forward.

Oh my God, I can’t even. Someone shoot me. I should definitely never write books and should probably just push papers for the rest of forever.

Step 3: Copy someone else

What I wanted to know was how to write well. How to structure my story. Not just the book, but a paragraph. A sentence.

So what if I just copied someone else? Just to try?

I opened the first page of one of my favorite memoirs, Eat, Pray, Love. Lucky for me, the first scene was about a kiss.

Elizabeth Gilbert starts her bestseller, “I wish Giovanni would kiss me. Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea. To begin with, Giovanni is ten years younger than I am, and — like most Italian guys in their twenties — he still lives with his mother.”

So I wrote:

I was sinking into the couch, surrounded by an array of other sweaty thirteen-year-olds, tugging at my shapeless T-shirt, praying someone would dare him to kiss me. It was just getting dark outside, the floor-to-ceiling windows, curtain-less, making me feel like we were alone, tension rising, in a cave.

I felt instant relief. Better.

While obviously not copied word for word or action for action, reading Liz Gilbert’s lines about a kiss while thinking about my own put me smack dab into the headspace I craved. A headspace where I could more easily capture tone and rhythm and sensation. A headspace I trusted to tell my story.

For weeks I did this, religiously opening my favorite books and copying their structure. If they started off with a piece of dialogue, that’s what I did. It they started with an action, i.e. “He swung his leg out of the bed,” so would I.

And that’s when the magic happened. Copying other writers only lasted a few minutes before I found myself mid-rampage, tearing through my story, able to tap into my own style.

So that’s what I did. I took it story by story, memory by memory.

Step 4: Create a to-do list and use helpful tools

At the beginning, I was using Evernote to create a new note for every memory. I created one master notebook I called “Tom Stories” and wrote a giant checklist of all the snippets, big or small, I could remember: our first kiss, my 16th birthday, learning how to drive, college fights…

Every morning I would pick the memory that seemed most appealing and I would tell it as if I were writing a novel.

After while though, my brain scattered. Where was the kiss story again? I worked on it last week but it’s gone now. While Evernote’s search function is great, I wanted to stop writing little snippets and start visualizing it as the book I wanted to write. Unfortunately, Evernote sorts by the date you last edited a note, and it was getting messy.

I did a bit of Googling and discovered Scrivener, a tool to help you organize not only your writing, but your notes and table of contents and research. I downloaded their free trial and played around. Each Evernote file became a section in Scrivener, complete with a quick summary for each scene, so I could easily scan and organize.

It wasn’t until I started using Scrivener that I finally felt like I was working toward something important and real.

Step 5: Create a routine

I still don’t have the daily eight hours Stephen King thinks I should have, but he’s right about one thing: Dedicating the time and energy into writing every day is the only way to get your story on paper.

But I have a day job, giving me maybe three hours, at the absolute maximum, to work on my book (never mind that I don’t really have three hours because my brain is fried at the end of the day).

So every morning before work, instead of walking the dog (oops) or reading a book, I work for a maximum of one hour on one story. Sometimes a story takes me 20 minutes. Sometimes I find myself going for hours. Most of the time I don’t want to start, but once I do, 90 percent of the time I’m ecstatic that anything comes out at all.

Step 6: Go where the story takes you

I hate this advice because it’s like love — you’ll know it when you find it — but it’s impossible to anticipate.

That said, I took a memoir-writing class while working on one story in particular. I shared it with the class ,and after the critique I realized it worked both as a chapter in my memoir as well as a stand-alone personal essay.

So I took a break from working on the book and have spent almost two months perfecting this one essay. I hired an editor and have a big hairy dream of getting it published in the holy grail of personal essays, Modern Love.

Doing this has given me two surprising benefits:

  1. It turns out this one piece is representative of the whole story. Trying to nail this essay is most of the battle. So while it’s taken me out of the day-to-day of writing the book, working on a snippet has helped me discover the wider themes behind my story.
  1. If I can publish parts of the memoir prior to pitching agents and publishers, I’m going to have a much easier time marketing my book. So I’m actually almost doing some pre-publicity, while also reinforcing my brand so I can have at least a small audience for this book before it even goes to print.

I obviously don’t have the answers, but I’ve done more with this book in three months than I’ve done on any other project. It’s all boiled down to creating a daily habit, organizing my work, working on small sections and hiring an editor. I’m looking forward to where it takes me next!

Have you written a book, especially a memoir? Do you have any tips for me as I embark on this journey?

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Marian Schembari is a writer, storyteller and brainstorm partner based in Germany, who left her heart in San Francisco, New Zealand, London and New York. Part of her heart belongs to the internet, too. Marian believes in the internet’s power to invite a real, deep look into our... .

Marian Schembari | @MarianSchembari

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Comments

  1. I think you’re so write about going over pieces of other writers’ works that you love and dissecting the structure. It gives you a starting point and a framework. I do this with my copywriting and it jump starts the process. I’m working on an e-book (non-fiction) and I feel like I need to do it with this as well. Otherwise, I just continue to read about writing and not actually writing.

    • Haha, totally! I think it’s a happy medium between reading about writing and actually doing the work. At least this way, you kick start the juices (or some other mixed metaphor) and usually something great happens and you get sucked in.

  2. Every novelist does it differently! I’ve completed two (unpublished) novels, and in both cases, I started by outlining: First a few sentences that would never appear in the finished book about what the story had to say about human nature, then a paragraph-long synopsis of the plot, then some character sketches, then a chapter by chapter outline. I knew there would be changes as I went along, but it gave me a scaffold on which to structure my work. I probably spent weeks at the outline stage, getting up early before work and working through my lunch hour, before I finally wrote the first sentence of Chapter 1.

    That’s what worked for me. This essay tells what worked for Marian Schembari. You must find what will work for you!

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services and Writing Coaching
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • There’s a fantastic metaphor I’ve heard when talking about outlines: imagine you’re painting a room. You wouldn’t just buy a can of paint and start going. You’d eventually hit a mirror or a piece of art or a light fixture and have to do double the work trying to work around it or taping it off. You’d waste so much time trying to coordinate, never mind the inevitable spill on the furniture. On the flip side, if you take everything off the walls and cover the furniture and use painter’s tape to block off the windows, suddenly all you need to do it take out your roller and swipe a few times.

      I’ve read amazing books that have followed this type of process. I’ve also read amazing books that let the characters guide the story. I’m not sure which writer I am yet, but I couldn’t agree more that we need to find what works for us. And the only way to do that is by sitting down every day and doing the work.

  3. Neil Larkins says:

    This is great, Marian. My first attempt at writing was a memoir, back in 1993. I wrote about when my first wife and I met, but couldn’t get past a few pages. I just didn’t know how to do it and tried again and again with various approaches and gimmicks. Finally I gave up and devoted myself to other writing. While writing I also read up on writing from a variety of sources. My aunt, a published author, gave me pointers and sent me copies of Writer’s Digest, along with a copy of Bird by Bird. Then she sent me Stephen Kings, On Writing. I purchased other books on my own and read numerous articles online. But it wasn’t until I had written a novel, started a sequel, and penned a couple dozen short stories that I gave the memoir another shot. The task became amazingly easier when I realized that I should write the memoir in the manner of a novel or short story. Not entirely, of course, but it helped me to fashion the character of myself the protagonist. It helped further by treating the account as a “dual memoir,” that of myself and of my wife who cannot write hers because she has passed away. (She had wanted to for years, though.) This gave me two distinct main characters and two voices to speak from the past. This process has worked quite well for me. I started mid-2014 and finished about three months ago. What I had been unable to do for 22 years became a reality in less than a year.
    Thanks for your advice, Marian. Hope you have success, which I believe you shall.

  4. Wow really great advice for creating a book! Thank you! (:

  5. Marian (and all the other first time writers who might read this post),

    This is a great post and full of information and ideas on writing a first book. Congratulations on getting started. That’s half the battle.

    The difficult thing about writing is that nothing works 100% of the time for 100% of the writers. There is no Right Way To Write.

    There just isn’t.

    I’ll take that a step further and say there’s no method that works for everything written by one author.

    I currently have seven or eight finished manuscripts (fiction and non fiction). Some were written seat of the pants (with no pre-planning). Some were heavily pre-planned. Some were sort of planned and sort of seat of the pants.

    LOL, sometimes I start at the beginning and sometimes I start in the middle. Once or twice, I’ve started with the end! There is no rhyme or reason to the process. It’s whatever works best for the book I’m working on.

    The way you’ve tackled writing your first book is what I’d recommend to any first-time writer. Explore. Experiment. Use what works. Toss what doesn’t. Adapt where necessary.

    Everything you write will improve your writing skill so keep after it.

    And best wishes (I don’t believe in luck).

    • This is such an encouraging comment Carrie Lynn, thank you so much for sharing. I love hearing that there’s no right way because that’s definitely what I’ve found. What Stephen King says in his book, Anne Lamott says the opposite in hers and Elizabeth Gilbert says the opposite yet again. I’ve loved reading about other writer’s processes though because it gives me a place to start. I’ve loved experimenting with my schedules and routines and techniques. Some have stuck, some haven’t, and that’s the magic in it!

  6. Thanks Marian I am sorry that I do not have any advice to offer you instead I am actual learning from your advice. I have always wanted to write but held back thinking who would be interested my book I am not a famous person. I have done a lot of reading about writing but certainly have not read King’s book which I will have to go and buy now. I did attend a few of budding writers workshops but that did not do anything to motivate me to actual write.
    Fortunately for me I have always kept journals for every phase of my life so I have material which can be translated into a book. I must say ever since I started blogging , that seem to be helping me to be disciplined to write a piece on a daily basis I now enjoy writing as I respond to daily prompts.
    Thank you for your post which has given me a lot to think about and to try as I contemplate on a project of ever writing my owm memouir. Thanks again.

    • Ha, that’s okay! We’ll learn together. As for not having anything to say because you’re not famous, that’s crazy talk. Elizabeth Gilbert wasn’t famous when she wrote her memoir. And “all she did” was travel. Neither was Cheryl Strayed and “all she did” was hike. I think we all have stories in us and it’s the stories of everyday people that help us all feel connected to each other. So I say go for it! That’s what I’m telling myself. Maybe I can get my book published, maybe I can’t. But at the very least I’m enjoying the process.

  7. This was an interesting piece and so helpful. I especially love the part about reading snippets of other writers to get going. I thought I was the only one who did that!
    I also like the idea of planning and writing as a routine. Inspiring. Thank you.

    • Omg you do it too?! I thought I was the only one! Hahah. I love how writers, even without resources or books, often find their way in the same direction. Even though I’ve read so many tips on finding your voice – and I strongly believe that – I also think there’s a lot to be said from really studying the authors you love to help you find your own.

  8. Thank you for sharing your process with us this morning, Mariam. There are plenty of good ideas here. I’ve just finished a book you might like – The Memoir Project – by Marion Roach Smith. I think it’s the best book I’ve read on the subject. 🙂

    • Thank you so much for the recommendation Kathi! I haven’t read that one. And I take it as a good sign that the author and I have the same name, so I’ll definitely check it out now 😉

  9. Your point that the “one piece can be representative of the whole” is 100% correct. I have found that to be exactly the case with the book I am writing now. The good news is that it is the hardest part. The words just fly (see how I did that?) out of my fingers onto the page now. Fasten your seatbelt Penguin Books.

  10. Jan Young says:

    Great piece! Yes, each of us has to find our own way, exploring and experimenting. I started out with Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, began daily writing for a half hour, then a JC course in creative writing thinking I wanted to be a nature writer. Came out of the course a poet. Dabbled in that for years, continuing to read anything and everything about writing, nature writing and then memoir. Love Stephen King’s book, and Ann Lamott as well. Suddenly my ten year old inner child began writing her memoir. Loving playing with that, and interestingly, the latest version is written as poetry. I continue my half hour daily writing and another memoir seems to be appearing on the pages. I would be lost without my writing!

    Keep up your explorations and experiments – but never forget to walk the dog (my dogs and I are helping walk him for you now so you are off the hook on that one.) 🙂

    • I love this Jan! (And I love that you’re hanging out with my dog — he’s a handful.) Writing Down the Bones is next on my Kindle, but you’re totally right: experimenting is the only real way to go. Amy Poehler has a great quote about this very thing. She says “The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.” And maybe I’ll finish this memoir, maybe I won’t. Maybe it will turn into a novel. Maybe I need to write this just to get one essay out of it. Who knows. But the only way to actually figure it out is to “do the thing”.

  11. These are priceless tips for writer beginners like me. Thanks for sharing.

  12. ashok shital says:

    Hello Marian, I just happened to read how you started writing and it really kept me glued to it until i was through it. I wish I could write a book too. I would try your tricks and ways mentioned in it.

  13. I had not thought of reading my favorite authors and using them as a launching off point, but I do the same thing when I listen to music and try to emulate my favorites when I start trying to write songs! Thanks for the tip!

  14. It takes guts to be this open about your process – #HUGSSSS

    Thank you for your honesty and humility <3

    Kitto

  15. Marian,
    Thanks for sharing the difficult details about getting started. I think learning from every writer, regardless of how published or accomplished is incredibly important. I once had a professor comment on a story that to really flourish, I should explore every technique of story telling until I found the one that fit the most.

    As Carrie Lynn Lewis mentioned in the comments, there is no ONE particular way that works universally. That’s part of what makes the process so difficult to start yet so exhilarating once you’ve written something.

    One technique I’ve read about many times over is “The Seinfeld Strategy”. What it basically is have a large calendar near your writing station. Every day you sit down to write, mark the day off with a huge red “X” on the day. Eventually you’ll have a chain of “X’s” that will greet you every day. The chain gains its own momentum, and you won’t want to break the chain. You can Google The Seinfeld Strategy and read about it in greater detail if you’re interested.

    Thanks again for sharing. I really appreciate the honesty about your difficulties and strategies – it can be really motivating to know that in this solitary action we take, there are others doing the same!

  16. Bettye Brown says:

    Thank you, Marian, for your very helpful and practical advice. I’m currently trying to write a memoir. I found the answer to a stumbling block I had. I’m a very private person and found writing about my thoughts and feelings for anonymous readers was troubling. So much so that it slowed down my writing. I found a very simple device that has solved the problem. I chose another name for myself and wrote in the third person. I was amazed at how much more smoothly my woods flowed when I was not aware I was speaking about my own experiences.

    I hope this is helpful to others who may have the same reticence I had.

    • I like that idea Bettye. I found I was having the same issue and even stopped working with my book coach and did not pitch an editor who was considering me for a column. However, having had some essays published recently has helped. My issues boiled down to fear. It is your life out there for the world to judge. Handling a few internet trolls is going to help me deal with criticism when my book is published.

    • Bettye I like your idea of a pen name and writing in as the third person. I too have found it difficult to write my story and found that I stumbled on my words even though I had already done a lot of work and wrote out the main outline Scrivener. I will try your idea and see what happens. Thanks for sharing

  17. “If I can publish parts of the memoir prior to pitching agents and publishers, I’m going to have a much easier time marketing my book. So I’m actually almost doing some pre-publicity, while also reinforcing my brand so I can have at least a small audience for this book before it even goes to print.”

    I am also working on a memoir. We have the same game plan, so I hope you are right! 😉 I just submitted an essay for the upcoming Eat, Pray, Love anthology. It is a great example of a memoir, IMO. Good luck getting onto Modern Love and your future book release!

    • OMG I submitted to the same anthology! That’s so funny. I wish we had known about each other sooner otherwise we could have formed our own little EPL writing circle.

      Best of luck to us both my friend!

  18. Meenakshi says:

    Hey Marian, I just love the way you pen down your first masterpiece !
    You see I am quite into writing a book for a really long time, but have always abstained!!
    I guess post reading this write-up, I feel quite inspired and that hitch of what and how exactly should I structure my story is beginning to vanish. You taught us a really tricky yet helpful technique of how to frame in Step 3. Must say, a really helpful one !

  19. I think Neil and Bettye are on to something. Neil suggested that writing a memoir as though it were fiction is a good technique, which is akin to Bettye’s proposal to write with another name and in the third person to distance oneself from “main character” in the memoir. I have long been a fan of fiction and have never really considered a memoir but I definitely think that creating distance is a good start–it definitely can help with the objectivity. As far as whether to start in the beginning, middle (in media res) or end depends on the impact you want to have on the reader. If it’s a lesson learned you want to convey in your memoir, I almost feel as though starting at the end is the most logical point, since you can move from the result/lesson back through the experience. Great post, Marian.

    • It’s so funny, I had never considered changing names until I was in the final draft as I worried it would distance me too much. Part of the reason I love to write is that it connects me with old emotions and helps me process and write them as honestly as possible.

      However, I recently submitted a personal essay to an anthology and changed the name of my “characters” halfway through the editing process. It was INASNE how much it changed my perspective. The whole ending shifted and it’s a much better essay because of it. I love this advice and will definitely be using it from now on!

      I also agree about writing as if the memoir were fiction. The only memoirs I truly love are the ones that I would never know were memoirs. I want to get sucked into a story and I think too often writers who focus solely on personal narrative and non-fiction get caught up in the facts too much. So who knows, maybe this memoir will turn into a novel!

  20. “Do I start at the beginning of the story and end at the end? Should the book be a series of flashbacks? Do I write the last page first? Do I outline? Do I transcribe my journals? Or do I just sit down and start with whatever comes out?”

    That’s the beauty of it! There’s no “right” way to start writing your book. You can literally do it however you want. I’ve known authors who have started writing their book in the middle and then decided on the beginning and end as they went. It’s truly fascinating to see how each author differs in their process.

  21. I’m not a reader nor am I a writer. I must say that in my quest for understanding how to tell my own story, I’ve come across your tips and I must say, that I’ve enjoyed reading it. I have started and have been encouraged since I was in my early teens to write my life’s story, but I do get cold feet whenever I get started. I also tend to ramble on and loose my focus. Anyhow, lately, I have a burning desire to write my story, I don’t have the means hire professionals or the appetite to read on how to write. I feel like if I do have to read on how to write, I will never write. I might just go with the flow and write cold turkey. I figured since I never read a novel, that I cannot copy from anyone and whatever I write will be coming from me, mine, pulling from way back God knows where. Then I will leave the the rest up to the editors. I mean, I see some crazy stuff out there and the Authors are doing well.
    Good luck and happy writing.

    • Bernadine, I wish you all the best on your writing journey! I encourage you to think of it at this point as journaling for your own self-discovery, rather than as professional writing to be read by others. It is too easy, I believe, for many writers to adopt definitions of success and failure that are appropriate to a different type of writing from the one they are doing.

      Not reading a single novel (not one?????) is not so much a recipe for creativity as for repeating the cliches found in every novel from past years, because you will not recognize it when you find yourself writing the same thing as other writers before you. However, what’s wrong with using some cliches to tell your own story to yourself, if that’s what works for you? If your book accomplishes that, it will be a success, by the right definition.

      If you are like many writers, after you get a taste of writing for yourself, you may later decide you want to try your hand at writing for a wider audience, and if so, that’s the time to start working on the craft of writing. But until then, you are right that getting too hung up on reading about writing can get in the way of actually doing the writing.

      Again, I wish you a good journey.

      Trish O’Connor
      Freelance Editorial Services and Author’s Coaching
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      epiclesisconsulting.com

    • David STEVENS says:

      Bernadine, don’t be afraid to write, to ramble and to edit. Listen to your story after you begin writing and it will tell you how it wants to be written.

  22. ive really been wanting to write a book & i wanted to know if there was anyone who could help me ! Cause i still dont know where to start honestly

    • David STEVENS says:

      Vinecia, start with a catchy title and begin writing in the middle of the story. As you write, the story will tell you how it begins and how it ends.

  23. how do you get the computer to do the writing?

  24. Well done. Being part of a writers group has helped me understand that there are many ways to move a story forward. I found it helpful to find a mentor – someone who gives me honest feedback and gently reminds me they haven’t seen anything recently. I too found Scrivener to be an excellent tool! It is always open on my computer as I start the day. A visual reminder there is work to be done.

  25. Amber Bowen says:

    Great advice. Struggling to keep focus though, I’ve been through alot when I was a kid I had percocious puberty, a few years later a brain tumour all while growing up while my parents were going through divorce which to this day has screwed up my mind and I had scoliosis, my family was torn apart. I really want to write something so that I can express what it’s like to others and so I have some peace if mind because I’m not good talking to people in person about it. But I think now that I’m 21 I’d really like to try and get my life to as close to normal as possible because of what I’ve been through I have anxiety and depression. Can anyone recommend anyone that could help me write it please?

  26. Kay Cooray says:

    Hi Mariane

    I do love to write my life story. I believe it is going to be very inspiring for others and to learn a lesson to how to create a happy life. It has lot of personal details which are very heartbreaking. I do like to write and publish this story.

  27. OK so I’m trying to write a book about my history, I’ve had a hard life as most of us have and it seems like failure after failure almost like it’s hereditary or it within my jeans. A lot of people of told me you should write a book about your life story and have always push that off and said it would be interesting. So here I am facing another major crisis in my life with my wife my job and my health. Looking back through my childhood years to present there’s a lot of things that I never dealt with that were like skeletons in the closet and I feel the need to write it down and let people know that we all have hard lives and to ask how do we correct them how do we correct the mistakes that we’ve made in the past so that the future can be positive. I look forward to hearing back from someone to let me know if this is something that people would read? I appreciate your comments good or bad thanks.

    • David STEVENS says:

      Hi Kevin, I’d like to read your book if you can write it about all you’ve learned about life and what I can learn from you and pass on to my kids & their kids.

  28. anshika says:

    hey marian,
    i am actually just a 14 year old trying to write a novel about my mothers sufferings in life, and how i changed as a person with a very sad end. its something like the fault in our stars but the plot is a lot different. i obviously know about the happenings and stuff because ive seen it myself through the years. but i honestly am very confused on how to start? as u mention in ur article, im confused about how and from what point in mt life should the beginning be.. like when i was born, when my parents got married, before that? or just flashbacks? please help me begin my first piece of writing! could we connect over a call? or probably mail?
    thankyou xx
    much love!

    • David STEVENS says:

      Listening to your story, I want to hear you begin with your birth, jump forward and then flash back to your parents. Though this is not my personal preference this is the feeling I got from reading what you wrote, so perhaps it will mean something to you.

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