How To Use Signposting To Make Your Story Less Confusing

Well, I thought that I’d talk about signposting today. This is where you provide the reader with quick, clear information about “who, where, when etc…” in order to prevent your story from becoming confusing. Although this is less of an issue in linear single-narrator first-person perspective stories and/or in most third-person perspective stories, it is absolutely essential in some types of first-person perspective stories and/or stories with a slightly unusual or non-linear structure.

In short, if you’re writing a story with multiple first-person narrators and/or lots of flashbacks or time jumps, then you need to signpost this. One common way to do this is by adding a few small pieces of information to the heading of each of your story’s chapters. This helps to reader to quickly and easily follow the story, without breaking their immersion by making them stop and think “what the hell is going on?“.

A great example of this can be found in Tade Thompson’s 2016 novel “Rosewater“. This is a first-person perspective sci-fi thriller that makes extensive use of flashback scenes (which aren’t always in chronological order) in order to add a second plot thread to the story without having to add multiple first-person narrators πŸ™‚

Yet, the story never really becomes confusing. This is all thanks to excellent signposting – not only does every chapter heading include both the date and location (eg: “Lagos: 2045”) but, even more importantly, it also states whether the events of the chapter are happening “Then” or “Now”. Although this might seem like stating the obvious if you’ve been paying attention to the dates, it is still incredibly useful because it instantly tells the reader which plot thread they are reading. Without this, the novel might have been a little confusing.

If you’re using more than one first-person narrator, then you also need to clearly tell the reader whenever the narrator changes. Usually, the best way to do this is just to include the narrator’s name in the chapter heading so that the reader instantly knows who is narrating the chapter.

Plus, there are also other ways of clearly signposting stuff when using slightly unusual narrative/perspective techniques. For example, both Tess Gerritsen’s 2002 police procedural thriller “The Apprentice” and Dana Fredsti’s 2012 zombie thriller “Plague Town” combine both first and third person narration. Yet, this never becomes confusing because the changes are clearly signposted via the use of italic type (for first-person segments in “The Apprentice” and for third-person segments in “Plague Town”). Not only that, both novels also make subtle changes to the writing style in each type of segment so that it is even more clear to the reader that something has changed.

Of course, signposting can be done in much more subtle ways than this in certain types of story. For example, many third-person perspective action-thriller novels will feature two plot threads involving two main characters in different locations. These novels don’t usually need to add signposting to the chapter headings for the simple reason that not only is a location change shown by a chapter change, but the name of the main character each chapter focuses on is usually mentioned within the first couple of sentences. The third-person perspective also means that there’s less risk of a change in focus being confusing.

This means that, when a chapter ends, the reader is ready for a possible location change – with the character names in the first few sentences also telling them which plot thread the story is focusing on. As such, stories that use techniques like this don’t usually need to add signposting to the chapter headings.

But, whatever type of story you write, the most important thing to do is to think of your story from your reader’s perspective (and this is also why reading regularly is important if you are a writer, since it gives you direct recent experience of being a reader). If something seems like it might be confusing to someone who has never read your story before, then look for a way to signpost what is happening.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Three Ways To Make Your Story More Readable

Although this is an article about writing easily-readable fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games (and, yes, this is sort of relevant to the topic I’ll be talking about).

After getting a vaguely modern refurbished computer a week or so before writing this article, I decided to test out a couple of modern games on it. One of these games was a survival horror game from 2018 called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” – which, at the time of writing, I’ve only had a very brief chance to play.

Although I was astonished that the game would actually run on a computer that I owned, the only way I could make it playable (albeit at about 15-30 frames per second) without a dedicated graphics card was to drastically lower the level of visual detail in the game. Still, the fact that I could actually play it really astonished me, even if it ended up looking like this:

This is a screenshot from “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018) running on some very low graphics settings (using integrated Intel HD 2500 graphics)

Of course, following on from this, all of this time spent gaming meant that I had slightly less time for reading. But, since I still wanted to keep reading regularly, I found myself gravitating towards books that were more “readable” (eg: fast-paced novels, TV/movie spin-off novels etc..).

So, this made me think about writing more readable fiction. So, here are a few tips:

1) Visual detail and descriptions: Just like how I was able to get a modern game to run on what would probably be considered a “low-end” modern computer (but futuristic compared to my vintage mid-2000s machine) by adjusting the graphics settings, the level of descriptive detail in your story can affect how readable it is. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t describe anything or that you should just set your story in generic mundane locations that you don’t need to describe much.

You still need to include descriptions, but you need to be a bit more careful about how you include them. You should mostly try to integrate shorter descrptions into narrative sentences. In other words, include lots of little descriptions in your story. For example: ‘Jack sat on the wine-stained sofa.’ or ‘Sophie creaked the scratched door open and darted inside‘. But, don’t do this with literally every sentence, because that can look very amateurish. In short, your descriptions need to appear alongside more gripping story-related actions when it improves the story.

Still, there are times where you will need to include longer descriptions. After all, if you need to include a new location or set the scene in some way, then a longer description is needed. The trick here is to think about placement, length and quality.

Not only should these descriptions only appear in situations where the story would be ruined without them, but they also need to focus on the most essential details of what you’re describing. If you describe a few important details really well, then your reader’s imagination will fill in all of the rest. This means that you can include a very descriptive passage that is also short enough (maybe a couple of paragraphs or so) not to break up the flow or pacing of your story.

Plus, a few well-placed high-quality descriptions will also make the rest of your story seem more detailed and atmospheric too. After all, once you’ve given your reader a mental image of a particular location, then they are probably going to remember it (although adding a few shorter recap descriptions of the location later in the story can be a good idea too).

2) Writing style and vocabulary: Just because you’re writing a readable story doesn’t mean that you have to use extremely simple language. By definition, readers are intelligent people. But they might have slightly less time or they might just want to relax and not put the effort into reading ultra-formal or experimental writing styles.

So, the thing here is to aim for a “normal” writing style, one that is clear without being too simplistic. Likewise, although you should include more complex sentences when necessary, try to make sure that your sentences are as short and to the point as possible (without making your story sound like it was written for a five-year old) to improve the pacing. In other words, just write clear narration aimed at ordinary people.

Of course, if you’re interested in writing, then you’re probably a reader too. You probably have a slightly larger vocabulary because of this. You’re probably going to use it. And, there’s nothing wrong with this – if it is handled properly. In other words, if you’re going to include an obscure word in your story, you need to either make it’s meaning obvious from the context or include a brief explanation.

For example: ‘The piercing smell of petrichor, a field after the rain, filled his nostrils.‘ or ‘By the fountain, a drenched busker played a haunting tune on the hydraulophone that had been drilled into a metal pipe.

3) Narrative and/or signposting: In short, your readable story should have a fairly linear narrative that moves forward and can be followed easily. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have multiple story threads, but keep the number of them fairly low (eg: 2-3 of them) and make sure that each chapter follows on from earlier chapters in a logical way.

If your reader doesn’t have to worry about things like keeping track of non-linear elements (eg: lots of time jumps, long flashbacks etc..) or doesn’t have to worry about deciphering more experimental writing, then they’ll be able to relax and enjoy your story more easily.

But, this isn’t to say that you can’t do a few experimental or non-standard things if you genuinely feel that it improves your story. However, if you want your story to be the kind of readable thing that people can relax with, then you need to signpost these things.

In other words, like with a complex computer game, you need to include a hidden tutorial to guide the audience without them even knowing. This is thankfully a lot easier than it might sound. It can be as easy as just providing a few small details at the beginning of each chapter (eg: location, time, who is narrating) or using formatting to signpost when you’re doing something different.

For example, Tess Gerritsen’s 2002 crime thriller novel “The Apprentice” includes a mixture of first and third-person narration. However, this doesn’t become confusing or disrupt the flow of the story because each type of narration is clearly signposted. The third-person narration is written in normal text and in the past tense. The first-person narration is written in italics, uses a different narrative style and is in the present tense. It’s very easy to tell the two things apart.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Two Very Basic Tips For Reading A “Difficult” Book

Well, I thought that I’d talk briefly about “difficult” books today. This is mostly because I recently read William Gibson’s 1993 novel “Virtual Light” and it took me a while to get used to his (awesome, but something of an acquired taste) writing style again.

This reminded me of my very first attempt at reading Gibson’s 1984 sci-fi classic “Neuromancer” when I was about seventeen. Back then, I just couldn’t get into the book and abandoned it after one chapter. Two or three years later, I read the whole novel and was astonished by it. So, yes, sometimes books can seem “too difficult” to read. But, luckily, there are ways around this.

1) Let it wash over you: One of the simplest ways to handle a book that is written in an experimental, archaic or unusual style is simply to keep reading even if you don’t understand literally everything. Just let the words wash over you and don’t try to make too much sense of it. Not only does this help you to get used to the writer’s style but, after a while, you’ll probably find that some parts of the story will begin to make sense too.

Yes, this doesn’t work with literally every story. But, if the novel has an interesting idea behind it or if individual sentences are interesting enough that you actually want to read more of it, then this is the way to deal with it. Just let the words wash over you, don’t expect to understand literally everything and, gradually, at least some parts of the story will begin to make sense to you.

The best thing about taking this slightly “open” approach to reading is that it makes you better at dealing with these types of things in other books.

For example, between my abandoned first attempt at reading “Neuromancer” and my successful attempt at reading it a couple of years later, I read a few 1950s-60s “beat literature” novels (which sometimes include almost-incomprehensible plots and/or experimental writing techniques). So, when I returned to “Neuromancer”, I felt a bit more confident.

2) Practice reading widely: First of all, if you can’t get into a “difficult” book, then there’s no shame in putting it aside and returning to it at some later point. One of the best ways to deal with a “difficult” book is simply to get more practice at reading before you read it. But, remember to read books by lots of different authors and to take chances on authors you haven’t heard of and/or haven’t read before.

This is important for several reasons. Firstly, it gets you used to reading lots of different writing styles, which means that adapting to the style of a “difficult” book is a bit easier. Secondly, and most importantly, it means that you might encounter milder versions of the writing style you’re having trouble with – which means that you’ll have a better chance of understanding the “difficult” book when you return to it.

For example, reading 19th century-style narration became a lot easier after I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories at the age of seventeen. Since these stories are short, really compelling and have clearly defined plots, they are a fun way of acclimatising to (and appreciating) these older writing styles. And, it also has the side-effect of making other 19th century novels (and modern 19th century style ones) more readable/understandable afterwards.

Likewise, when I read Gibson’s “Virtual Light” recently, it was a lot easier than the time I managed to read “Neuromancer” for the simple reason that I’d read a lot more books in the meantime. I could see how Gibson’s style was similar to “hardboiled” 1930s-50s American detective fiction, how it took influence from thriller fiction, how it was similar to other cyberpunk authors etc…..

So, practice reading widely and you’ll find that “difficult” books become a bit less difficult to read.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

What Can Games Teach Writers About Challenging Their Audience? – A Ramble

Even though this is an article about writing “challenging” fiction that your audience will actually read, I’m going to have to start by talking about playing computer games for a while.

As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later. Still, if you want to jump to the writing advice, then skip the next four or five paragraphs.

At the time of writing, I’ve found myself in the strange situation of having two games on the go at one time (both of which I hope to review at some point). One is a fantasy/action game from 2002 called “Enclave” and the other is a set of fan-made “Doom II” levels called “Stardate 20×7” (which is the sequel to “Stardate 20×6). Anyway, the reason why I haven’t reviewed either game yet is because of how challenging they are.

This is a screenshot from “Enclave” (2002), level twelve is proving to be quite the challenge…

This is a screenshot from a set of “Doom II” levels called “Stardate 20×7” (2017). Ironically, this is one of the easier parts of this particular level…

In short, there’s one level on “Enclave” which I seem to be making very gradual progress with, due to some especially powerful in-game adversaries. Likewise, I got totally stuck on the second level of “Stardate 20×7” because – after about two hours of searching- I couldn’t work out where I was supposed to go next. This eventually got to the point where I actually ended up skipping the level (via cheat codes) so that I could carry on with the later levels, which feature more enjoyable combat-based challenge and more solvable puzzles.

Both games are challenging – yet, I’ve progressed a decent way through them (I’m about halfway through “Stardate 20×7” and about two-thirds of the way through the light campaign in “Enclave”). I still enjoy them and haven’t abandoned either one out of frustration yet – unlike, say, “Clive Barker’s Undying“.

So, why have I started this article by talking about computer games?

Simply put, they offer a very literal example of how challenge affects the audience’s experience of a creative work. Both of these games are enjoyable enough to keep playing because I’ve had a lot of practice playing computer games over the years, because they have a good difficulty curve, because of everything surrounding the games, because they have a reasonable length (eg: “Enclave” is split into two medium-length campaigns, and “Stardate 20×7” has a total of eleven levels), because they are in a genre I enjoy, because they have an interesting setting and because one of them gave me the option (via in-game codes) to skip a part I didn’t enjoy.

Yet, I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve abandoned reading fairly early on because of the author’s writing style, the length, the pacing or just the story itself.

So, what can games teach us about keeping the audience reading? Well, most of the stuff on the list of things I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago can also apply to stories too. I don’t have time to go into literally everything I’ve mentioned, so I’ll just talk about the most important points.

The first is the subject of a difficulty curve. In novels, this translates to a compelling, readable beginning. A great example of this can be found in G.R.R. Martin’s “A Game Of Thrones”.

Although “A Game Of Thrones” is a slow-paced and complex novel about the politics of a medieval-style world, it begins with a gripping first chapter about a team of soldiers in a frozen wasteland who are attacked by ice zombies. It is dramatic, it is suspenseful and it reads like something from the middle of a good horror novel. And it makes you want to read more! If G.R.R Martin had started his novel with a complex political discussion, the reader would probably be less intrigued.

The second is the subject of an interesting setting. This one is pretty self-explanatory. But, a great example would probably be William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”. This cyberpunk novel is written in an ultra fast-paced way that fires futuristic jargon at the reader constantly (with the audience having to work out what most of it means from the context). Yes, it took me two attempts to read this book. But, I loved it! Why? Simply put, the futuristic world of the story is absolutely fascinating.

The third is the subject of context. In short, if a novel taps into or relates to something the audience finds intriguing, then they’ll persevere. For example, when I was a teenager, I was – as teenagers are – obsessed with “edgy” and “controversial” things.

This is why, when I was a teenager, I read Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho”. I’d heard that the book actually had an “18+” age restriction in a couple of other countries and that it had actually been banned in some places. I had to read it. Even though this meant slogging through numerous dreary descriptions of posh restaurants and grimacing my way through scenes that made even the horror novels I read regularly at the time seem like light comedies by comparison, I persevered because someone, somewhere didn’t want me to read it. And reading it made me feel like I was rebelling.

Finally, there’s the subject of length. In short – the shorter your book is, the more challenging you can be. Another example of this from the list of “controversial” books I read when I was a teenager was Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”.

The entire novel is narrated in bizarre futuristic slang and the audience has to decipher what it means from the context. It is, as you would expect, a very slow read because of this. Yet, it is something I persevered with because it’s a fairly slender novel (I can’t remember the exact length, but the edition I read was probably 200-250 pages at most).

On the other hand, when I tried to read Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” during my teenage years, I abandoned it about halfway through. This novel also uses a slightly experimental narrative style, but it is at least 300-400 pages long. If it had been half the length, I’d have probably finished reading it. So, yes, length matters when you’re challenging your readers.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Why Making A Comic “Unfriendly” To Readers Can Work Sometimes – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from talking about webcomics and talk about narrative comics instead. This is mostly because, whilst sorting through some of the stuff in my room, I stumbled across a rather cool graphic novel that I’d forgotten that I owned.

It’s a graphic novel from 2005 called “Silent Hill: Paint It Black” by Scott Ciencin and Shaun Thomas which tells a self-contained story that is based on the disturbing fictional world of the old “Silent Hill” videogames. This article may contain some mild SPOILERS though.

Suddenly discovering this graphic novel was both a cool… and mildly ominous… experience at the same time.

Anyway, one of the most interesting things about this comic is that it is very deliberately designed to be “reader-unfriendly”. In other words, this isn’t the kind of comic that can be read mindlessly in five minutes. And, surprisingly, it’s actually a better comic because it isn’t designed to be easily read.

This decision to make the comic “unfriendly” to readers mostly works because of the context. It wasn’t just a random decision that was made in order to appear “edgy” or “avant-garde”. So, the main lesson here is that context matters a lot when it comes to deciding how ‘reader friendly’ to make your comic. But, let’s look at some of the reasons why it works in the context of this comic.

Firstly, this is a horror comic based on a series of disturbing horror games. As such, the story needs to evoke a feeling of unease in the audience. So, making a comic that can be easily and quickly read without thinking about it too much wouldn’t really work in this comic. By including things like disturbing artwork, an unusual main character, a slightly bizarre storyline etc.. the comic is deliberately designed not to be relaxing.

Secondly, the occasionally bewildering story of the comic works well because it is a brilliant fit with the comic’s main character. The comic follows a homeless artist who ends up travelling to the haunted town of Silent Hill and living there. After a while, it quickly become apparent that he is more comfortable when surrounded by evil monsters than by people.

As such, some of the story’s more confusing and outlandish plot elements (eg: such as the arrival of a bus filled with cheerleaders at one point in the story) work because they make us question whether we’re seeing the “real” world or merely the main character’s anxieties, memories and nightmares. This is also heightened through the use of bizarre visual symbolism too – for example, any visitors to the town of Silent Hill that the main character sees appear as indistinct mannequin-like figures who are dressed in yellow overcoats.

All of this means that the reader also sometimes has to pause for a second to work out what exactly is going on. This approach to narrative is designed to make the reader feel like they’ve been dropped into a strange and dangerous place. If the story was a bit more logical or straightforward, or if the comic explained some of the symbolism a bit more, then this effect would be lost.

Finally, a lot of the art in the comic deliberately looks slightly “unfinished” too (eg: with visible sketching etc..). Not only does this reflect the fact that the main character is an artist but, in a stroke of genius, this “unfinished” art style is also combined with some rather slick-looking digital artwork. This visually-jarring blend of art styles helps to heighten the disturbing atmosphere of the comic surprisingly well.

This is a detail from “Silent Hill: Paint It Black” (2005) which shows how the artist has blended an “unfinished” sketch-like style (eg: the man’s hands and trousers) with more advanced digital effects (eg: the lights in the background)

Yes, the comic could have probably heightened this effect even more by using a more unique style of lettering than the “standard” type of lettering that appears in virtually every print comic. But, this small concession to readability actually sort of works since it focuses the reader’s attention on the events of the story. Even so, a more erratic and/or scrawled style of lettering would have also worked really well.

But, yes, sometimes making a comic “reader unfriendly” can actually work. However, it requires a lot of careful thought in order to get right. Not only do you have to take the context of your comic’s story into account, but you also have to make sure that you have a good reason for every reader-unfriendly thing you include in your comic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Four Ways To Make Sure People Actually Read Your Book After They’ve Bought It

2016 Artwork Ways To Make Sure Your Book Isn't Unread

It’s amazing where you can find universal truths about your own relationship with books. A while ago, I read a sarcastic article about modern computer games, which briefly mentioned that no-one ever reads all of the books that they own. I didn’t even have to glance at the book-filled room around me to know that this is indeed true. Although I don’t seem to read anywhere near as many books as I used to, even back when I read extremely regularly, I still had far more books than I could ever read.

And, there’s nothing wrong with this. There’s something oddly reassuring about being surrounded by books. There’s something oddly reassuring about having more books than you could ever read. It’s almost like you’re the owner of a small private library.

However, this isn’t an article about book collecting. It’s an article about what makes the difference between a read book and an unread book. Whilst different readers obviously have different tastes, I’ll try to keep this list as general as possible – although the only information I have to draw on is what made me choose to read a particular book.

1) Cover design doesn’t matter (in the way that you think it does): Yes, a book should have a cool-looking cover. A cool-looking cover is one of the many factors that makes someone decide to actually buy a book in the first place. It’s one of the things that you need in order to make your book stand out from the crowd. A cool-looking cover is not a bad thing.

However, it doesn’t mean that someone will actually read your book after they’ve bought it. Cool-looking covers contain cool-looking artwork, and one the many functions of art is that it can be used for decoration and it can be collected. Having lots of cool-looking books lying around can be a surprisingly good way to spruce up a room and make it look more interesting.

Having a shelf full of cool-looking books can make you feel cool and sophisticated. It can be something to look at when you’re feeling bored. But, a cool cover is no guarantee that someone will actually read your book, because…..

2) The concept matters a lot more: Although I’ve read a lot less books in the past few years than I would have liked, there has always been one thing that has drawn me to a particular book – the concept behind it (as long as it’s backed up by good writing, of course).

For example, back in 2013, I ordered a brilliant book called “Viking Dead” by Toby Venables and read it within a couple of days of it arriving. The cover design was fairly ok, but as soon as I read the description of the book (a zombie novel set in the time of the vikings), I just had to read more.

Likewise, back in 2009, I sought out and read a copy of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” in the same day purely because someone told me something about the ending that made me curious about how a writer could end a book in this way. It was the concept behind the story that made me interested, not the slightly generic cover design on the copy I bought.

What I’m trying to say here is that the idea behind your book matters a lot more than anything else when it comes to whether someone who has bought a copy will actually read that copy. Not only will a good idea intrigue people enough to make them want to read more, but it’ll also mean that they’ll recommend it to other people.

3) Author appeal: One of the best ways to make sure that someone reads one of your books is to get them to read another one of your books (eg: by using an interesting concept, getting good word-of-mouth reviews etc…).

If they like that book, then they’ll want to check out some of your other stuff, so that they can repeat the experience. If one of your books impresses someone, then they’re significantly more likely to actually read your other books.

For example, one of the other factors that led to me buying and reading Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” in the same day was the fact that I’d read other Agatha Christie books before. Although I didn’t geek out about them in the way that I geeked out about Sherlock Holmes, I knew from experience that Christie was adept at writing clever detective stories that were filled with intriguing twists.

4) Use a fascinating opening sentence (or sentences): This is one of the oldest pieces of writing advice in the world, but it’s stood the test of time for a good reason.

Even with the books that I’ve bought and never fully read, I’ll usually take a brief look inside. After all, if you’ve spent money on something – even a cheap second-hand book from a charity shop- it’s your natural instinct to want to inspect your new belongings.

So, a fascinating opening sentence that grabs your reader’s attention and refuses to let go is a great way to ensure that they don’t put your book back down ten seconds later.

For example, one of the first Lee Child novels that I read after someone recommended him to me was “The Hard Way”. Chapter one begins with this intriguing sentence: “Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever“. I’ve been a Lee Child fan ever since.

In fact, Lee Child is something of an expert when it comes to creating fascinating opening sentences. Seriously, if you ever want to learn how to start your novel in an interesting way, then you can learn a lot from his thriller novels.

The very best (and most illustrative) example is probably in Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow”, which begins with four extremely gripping sentences: “Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of tell-tale signs. Mostly because they’re nervous. By definition they’re all first-timers.

Each of these sentences is extremely short, which forces the reader to read quickly. Not only that, they instantly introduce a dramatic threat and they hint that the narrator has life-saving knowledge that he’s willing to share. In addition to this, there’s also a small amount of dark humour, which both makes the narrator sound like a badass and also prevents the reader from being frightened away.

So, when it comes to making sure that people actually read your book after they buy it, the first sentence (or four) matters quite a lot.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚