Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “query letter”

It Should be Called a Quarry Letter not a Query Letter (we’re hunting, not asking questions)

If you stop to think about it, “query letter” is a pretty stupid thing to call what we send out. Look at agent interviews about the things that will get them to stop reading one after the first sentence – at least half the answers are some variant of “asking a rhetorical question.” The response to, “Did you ever wonder why the Pope wears a giant hat?” is not going to be, “Gee, yes, I have always wondered that,” opening the door for the author to describe her papal alien space opera. Instead, the agent is content with saying “nope,” and sending a form reject with two mouse clicks.

The term query letter exemplifies the problem with a lot of queries – the mindset that we are asking agents for something. I prefer to think of them as quarry letters; as in “we are hunting, and agents are our quarry.” Hell I’d even prefer to think of them as quarry letters as in “I’m going to turn your brain into a pit and pull something valuable out of it.” That beats the crap out of, “I’ve got a question.”

Last time, I covered what a query letter is and isn’t, and this is the first post oriented toward explaining the nuts and bolts (and rainbows and unicorns) that go into constructing an effective query. It’s an art as much as a science, and mindset is key. Worse than literally asking questions is giving the impression that you’re the trembling little orphan from Oliver saying, “Please sir, I want some more.” Two words: Fuck that.

A good query letter isn’t asking anything, isn’t asking for anything, and sure as hell isn’t begging. Agents aren’t looking to see who can make them feel the most superior or godlike. Those godlike feelings will evaporate right after lunch, when the agent is on the phone with an acquisitions editor, trying to sell a client’s book without sounding like an orphan with an empty bowl in his hands.

What an agent is looking for is someone who shows up with a book that makes that job easy. It helps if we are not complete douchebags, too. On either end of the spectrum, from begging and pleading to being a condescending jerk, anything that comes off as being something other than a competent, pleasant, well put together person detracts. With that in mind:

The Three Elements of a Successful Query Letter Preliminary Business Proposal:

1)    It’s about my book. A good PBP (I’ll feel like a hypocrite if I call them queries through this post) is, almost entirely about your book. Even if you write nonfiction and have the greatest platform in the world, it’s more about your book than you. If you wrote a novel, it should be almost entirely about the novel – the agent doesn’t care if you’ve been writing since you were four or got into Princeton. If your book sounds good, she’ll read pages.

2)    My book is awesome. The ultimate show don’t tell moment. The second you say “my book is great,” the agent will assume (almost certainly correctly) that it is not. The goal is to make the agent think, based on what you say happens in your book, that there is a chance your book might be great.

3)    Im not a tool. I didn’t fawn over you, I didn’t kiss your ass, I didn’t include conditions or demands in my query that make it clear that I’m a jerk who you won’t enjoy working with. In short, I treated you with the professionalism and respect that I anticipate you will treat me with in our prospective professional relationship.

Plus there’s the housekeeping stuff (genre, word count, proper business letter formatting, etc.). Because it’s all part of the important initial impression, and we get about 10 seconds to make that impression a good one, I’m not saying the boring housekeeping stuff isn’t important. In fact [spoiler alert] the title of a post I have scheduled for next week is: PBPs (a/k/a Query Letters): The Boring Housekeeping Stuff. It’s not sexy, but it’s critical.

At this point, you are sending a PBP about an awesome book to the right agent. The point behind the PBP is to let the agent know those two things (your book is awesome and she is the right agent). Hopefully, your novel makes both of those things obvious on your behalf.

Most query letters get right to the awesome book part, essentially throwing out their hooks in the  first sentence of the first paragraph. I think, as a general proposition, that’s a smart way to go. I don’t think it’s the only way to go (things get moved around to improve the flow and cadence of a query, and it’s possible this can end up moving back a sentence or two). My most recent version blended the genre/word count component with a setup for the hook in the first sentence. Something I never would have mapped out on purpose, but through dozens of revisions it just flowed so well I went with it. Even if I ended up querying 10 more novels, I wouldn’t be surprised if that formula never worked again.

What you don’t want to do is make your query about you instead of your book. If you’re a firefighter with 20 years at the department and 9 citations for bravery, you should certainly mention that: (a) after you’ve given an overview of your book; and (b) if that book is about fires or firefighting. If you wrote a compelling tale of a veterinarian who communicates with animals telepathically, that’s great. And we appreciate your service to the Fire Department. But it’s not going to help us sell books about a dude who talks to gerbils with his brain.

So you’re telling the agent about the book. And this particular agent loves stories about animals and books about paranormal activity. So this is the perfect agent for this book. If that’s true, trust me on this, she’ll know it. I am not saying you can’t mention that her interest in animal books and paranormal activity are the reason you queried her. You absolutely should. But do it in one sentence saying only that. Don’t tell her it’s perfect for her, she’d be a perfect fit, you can’t think of any agent who could love it more, or anything else like that. Keep it to one sentence providing the objective evidence (“I read in your interview with Writers’ Digest that you were looking for animal books involving paranormal activity.”). She’ll draw the conclusion you want for herself (“Holly shit, look at this book about animals and paranormal activity! It’s exactly what I’m looking for.”).

Think of this as the PBP diet plan:

You get one sentence to talk about yourself. Not a run on sentence either. Just one, straightforward: “I was President of the United States for eight years and appeared on the Tonight Show five times.” I am not saying you have to throw one of those in, but, if you do, that’s how long it should be.

You get one sentence to talk about the agent. And you don’t get to use words like “perfect,” “wonderful,” “love,” or “fan.” Again, you get to state facts: “I saw the comment on your blog that you wished you saw more YA paranormal fiction involving animals.”

That leaves about 200 words to talk about your book. Which is to say 200 words to summarize (a) who the main character is; and (b) what the main sources of conflict are. Conflict can be a Death Star or an eating disorder or a mystery. Ideally, there will be disastrous consequences if the conflict can’t be resolved (the rebellion and Luke are destroyed, the emotional and physical trauma, more people will be murdered).

And then…

The hard part…

You stop.

Do not resolve the conflict. The ideal query letter is a snapshot of the moment the shit hits the fan and just before the first fleck has hit the wall. As rendered in the professional diagram I had commissioned for this, spare no expense, blog:

 

What does that picture tell you? Aside from the fact that I have mad MS Paint drawing skillz, it tells you what a query is. It is a snapshot of your story at the moment the shit has all hit the fan. All the conflict is in the air, nothing has been resolved, and something is a millisecond away from happening.

You need to tell enough about your characters and background for the conflict to matter and make sense. You need to tell everything you can about the conflict. Then you stop. Because if you did a good job doing the first two things, the agent will want to know what happens.

You want to know how the conflict gets resolved? Tough shit. Read my book. The next thing she’ll do is read the first sentence of the first page of your manuscript. In other words, your query did its job. She’s looking at your first 50 pages or first three chapters or whatever. Those pages brilliantly spell out conflict and characters in the voice she liked so much from your query, but they won’t resolve any of that conflict. In other words, tough shit. Read my book. So now you’re getting an e-mail asking for the rest of the book. You’ve been upgraded to a full MS request. So now she’s earned the right to see how the conflict gets resolved. And I’m sure you did a brilliant job resolving it, too.

The whole quarrying/querying/PBPing process boils down to enticement. Resist the urge to tell the agent how brilliantly you resolved the conflict. The price for that knowledge is reading your book. If you have a bunch of conflict and it looks interesting, the agent will be willing to pay that price to find out. That’s what gets your manuscript the best chance of being read beginning to end by an agent, which is the entire purpose behind sending a query letter in the first place.

Query letters aren’t about us asking for anything. They exist to make agents and publishers ask for pages.

Querying Overview: What a Query Letter is (and isn’t)

Being new fairly to the whole ‘I want to try to publish a novel’ world, the querying process blows my mind. I’ve said it before — There aren’t a lot of other arenas in which someone with no background or credentials of any kind can fire an e-mail off to an insider in a multi-billion dollar industry and say, “check out my awesomeness.” I can’t hotlink a YouTube video of myself singing and dancing to a Broadway agent and have even a theoretical chance of playing Frank in the next revival of Rocky Horror. But in the world of literature, I can do just that.

 

Publishing was doing American Idol before American Idol was a thing. I’m not all roses and sunshine here; the numbers are daunting. I was unable to find any source that reliably estimated the number of queries sent out in a year, but I’m willing to bet its somewhere between a buttload and a shitpile. One established, successful agent kept track of his slushpile for a year. He received around 11,000 queries, one of which resulted in an offer of representation. He was what I will call an A (or at least high B) list agent, so the numbers aren’t always that bad, but nobody goes on Idol wanting to hear Paula say she sings nice before getting voted off.

As much as people want to bitch about the process, it’s still one of the most egalitarian processes imaginable. There’s just a whole lot of competition. Worse than the real competition, there’s a whole lot of noise. Which brings us to what a query is (or needs to be): First and foremost, it is something that cuts through the noise. I said “first,” so I should probably start numbering this shit:

1.     (big surprise here) A query needs to be something that cuts through the noise. This is not as hard or tricky as it sounds. It does not mean sending your query about brutal kidnappers in a box with a candy (or real) human finger enclosed. It’s not about being kitschy or clever (your ideas need to be clever, the way you present them needs to be straightforward). Cutting through the noise starts with being concise, clear, and direct. Your query should be grammatically pristine. The first person to read your query will not (as often as not, assuming you’re querying top-shelf agents) be the agent. It will be a reader, often an unpaid intern or, at best, an underpaid assistant. This person’s primary job is to weed out the garbage. I want to believe (and for purposes of this post, need to assume) that your actual manuscript is awesome and people are going to want to publish, buy, and read it. That’s not going to happen if your query about a serial killer is scrawled in pig blood on a sheet. There are enough queries that fail to directly and effectively give an indication how good the book is, you can stand out from the noise best by doing that.

2.     A query needs to follow the rules. Not the “rules of querying” because there are no such thing. But every agent has decided what he or she wants to consider when looking at an initial submission. Some want a query and three chapters. Some want fifty pages. Some want five pages, or a given number of words. Some want one or more of the above, plus a synopsis (and usually state a maximum number of pages for that piece). Next to pig blood and fingers, few things will kill your querying chances faster than not following the agent’s submission guidelines. I have yet to look at an agent who accepts unsolicited queries without finding a web page that has a tab with information about submissions. Read them. Follow them. There is no excuse for not doing this.

3.     A query needs to be directed to the right person. I don’t mean send it to an agent, not a butcher. I mean send it to an agent who reps the type of material you wrote. If you wrote a MG fantasy, don’t send it to an agent who exclusively reps athlete memoirs. If you sent it to a butcher, and she liked it, she may give you a couple of stakes – meaning you would, literally, be better off sending it to the butcher than an agent who doesn’t rep books in (or even near) your genre. [Note: I realize MG is not a genre, although fantasy is, but it’s easiest for purposes of this discussion to ignore the distinction between marketing categories and genres and just say genre.]

4.     A query has a specific job to do, and it isn’t to tell the agent all about your book. Or about you. Your query’s job is to get the agent to look at the first sentence of your manuscript. Period (as though the period at that sentence were not enough). That’s it (Because just saying period after typing a period was not enough). I’m not just filling space here. Understanding that’s the only job your query has to do is crucial. It’s also hard to do. We’ve poured our hearts and souls into 100,000 word masterpieces. The coolest thing in the story is the intricate way three plot lines converge in a brilliantly plotted twist. Our characters are amazing; the tribal rivalries between our gnomes and trolls or the flora and fauna of our intricate world are wonders. But the reader and/or agent aren’t going to give a shit about any of that. They look at a query with one question in mind: Is there a chance this person sent me an interesting, well written story. If the query makes one of them think there’s a decent chance the answer is yes, he or she will read your first sentence. At that point, it no longer matters how good your query was. All that matters is whether the first sentence is good enough for him or her to move on to the second. Because you’ve submitted an awesome story that people will want to buy, you’re golden. The query’s job is over when the agent reads that first sentence.

5.     A query is a business letter. And it’s not. It’s a combination business letter/sales pitch, but there need to be solid reasons for straying from the business letter courtesy and professionalism before you do. If you write erotica, and you’re querying a book about a bunch of people banging the shit out of each other on a cruise ship, your query is obviously not going to read like a quarterly report. But an agent who reps erotica (which is who you’re querying because you did your research) isn’t reading your query out of prurient interest. An efficient explanation of the plot and conflict coupled with the fact (which should both be stated and obvious from your explanation) that it’s erotic fiction will get you there. If you really want the agent to get a boner, throw in a demographic breakdown on the age of purchasers of erotic fiction and how it coincides with the demographic who book cruises in a way that makes it seem reasonable you could sell 100,000 copies. He’ll need to call his doctor in four hours.

6.     A query is a business plan – a short, incomplete, and overly generalized one, but a business plan nonetheless. Agents love books, or they wouldn’t be in that business. But it’s also how they pay for their kids’ braces and their cats’ food (don’t ask me, agents really seem to dig cats). There’s a two-part inquiry, and the parts overlap: (a) is this a great book; and (b) can I sell it. If you were to send an agent a beautifully written book about a subject she and seven other people in the world hold dear, you will probably get the nicest rejection letter imaginable. Because there is no market for your book, there’s no way she’ll be able to sell it to a publisher. A critical part of writing an effective query is accurately determining what your market is. This does not mean, “I think I write just like Harper Lee, and To Kill a Mockingbird has sold a billion copies in hardback.” It means doing some honest-to-goodness analysis of who your target market is. You can do this with similar author comparisons, but – since that’s what everyone just throws out – if you can find a better market basis, it will strengthen your query enormously. Using the above-example, which do you think makes an agent see dollar signs more concretely:

“This book will appeal to readers of Danielle Steel.”
 
Or

“The largest and fastest growing segment of the destination cruise industry is thirty to fifty-five year-old women, who also happen to be the purchasers of over eighty percent of all romance and erotic fiction.

[Note: I made up every statistic in that sentence, and you need real numbers, not made up numbers for this to actually work.]

Because I come into writing and querying after decades in business, the standard comparables query makes little sense to me. It strikes me as saying, “I have an unknown, untested, and unproven product that offers the same thing as an established brand does, at the same price.” I think you are more likely to be noticed if you can: (a) identify a clear market segment who would be interested in buying your book; and (b) stating how your book fills an unmet need in that market. You don’t want to be the 30th person that day who tells Mr. Erotic Romance Agent: I’m going to be the next [whoever]. You want to be the 1st person this month the agent thinks may someday be showing up in queries from people claiming they will be the next her.

7.     A query needs accurately represent your manuscript. This is where a query that does its job (gets the agent to read the first sentence) can still be a fail. There are a number of reasons the disconnect between query and manuscript can occur, and all of them are on us. There have been times I’ve read or seen interviews with agents and thought, “That’s someone I’d love to work with,” only to discover she only represents MG and YA authors. I’m not doing either of us a favor retooling my query to make it sound more YAish than it really is. I’ve also seen this happen through well-intentioned collaborations. If a query is, well, bad, there’s still hope. Most writers’ websites have a query critique section, and a lot of extremely helpful advice is available. With enough people helping critique and polish a query, a bad query can become great. The problem is, when all people know about the manuscript comes from the query they are critiquing, they may be suggesting changes that make the query look better on its own, but take the query a few steps away from accurately representing the manuscript. Once that happens a few (or a few dozen) times, it can be like a bad game of telephone. What comes out on the end bears little resemblance to what started. Even if the agent likes the query and reads your first sentence (and your first sentence is excellent, by the way), you can still end up with a fail just because you’ve set the wrong expectations before the agent started reading. It’s like taking a sip of tea, only to discover that it’s chicken broth. You don’t stop to think about how good the broth is – it tastes disgusting because it isn’t tea. And you were expecting tea. So you spit it out, not realizing it’s probably the best chicken broth you’ve ever tasted.

8.     A query is not an ass-kissing festival. This goes back to the business letter concept. On the one hand, I didn’t query agents at random. I targeted specific agents for specific reasons, and I am perfectly happy articulating those reasons (if it works into the flow of the query I’ve tailored for that agent). For example, my manuscript is a satire that directly addresses a hugely controversial subject. One of my target agents said in an interview, “I am happiest when I’m representing books that take on controversial subject matter.” Of course I’m going to tell him I’m querying him, in part, because that’s what I’m looking for in an agent. But I’m not going to fawn on him about his bravery or his brilliant work or how much I admire the authors he represents or how hot he looks since he got that new haircut or how I friended his ex-wife on Facebook just so I could tell her off about that shitty thing she did with the kids custody in their recent divorce. Instead, I recommend approaching it from the perspective that this is a mutual selection process. The agent has to want to represent me, but I also have to want to be represented by that person. Hopefully, my criteria include something more than a pulse in that regard. Articulating the objective reason in a professional manner enhances your credibility lets the agent know this isn’t a spammy, one of 4,000 queries I sent today query. And, that is abusiness plan (between you and the agent) in a business letter, that cuts through the noise, and lets everyone know you’ve directed it to the right person.

There are many moving parts to a query, some of which I touched on in this post. I’ll get to the nuts and bolts elements of constructing a query later this week. I wrote out what is, essentially, a 2,000-word description of what a query is first, because the right query for each manuscript is going to be different. Sometimes, the right query for a particular agent on a particular manuscript is different from the right query for another agent. I wanted to start with the general concept, which boils down to this: A good query is a professional and concise sales tool that accurately describes the basic concept behind your manuscript to the right person in a way that makes her want to read the first sentence of that manuscript.

Period.

Picking an Agent, Step Two: “Hey, baby, how you doin?”

The PG-13 Adventures of Debbie Agent

Debbie Agent never goes to the club planning to hook up, or even wanting to. She is already juggling more men and women in her life than she should. People think she’s a little slutty, but that’s not it. Even if she won’t admit it to herself, she is a romantic. Debbie glances at the door every time someone walks in – feigning annoyance but secretly hoping for love.

The guy at the door catches her eye for a second, but then he shouts over the noise in the room, “Ladies, the Ricker is here and he’s open for business.” Her annoyance is no longer feigned. Eleven of his fraternity brothers pile in and start pounding Jäger Bombs.

“I’ve had it with this shit,” she says to herself, reaching for her wallet.

“I was that young once.” The voice startles Debbie; somehow, it calms her, too.

Debbie sizes up her new companion. “I have a feeling you didn’t refer to yourself in the third-person, as an adjective.” She slides the wallet back onto her lap.

“True.” A smile flashes in her companion’s eyes. “I did things far worse than that.”

That voice – what is it about that voice? Less than fifteen words and that voice is teasing her, making her crave more. “I don’t mean to sound forward,” Debbie lies, meaning to sound forward as hell, “but give me fifty pages.”

As far as I can tell, querying agents is no different from hooking up in a bar, with a willing, if somewhat jaded and leery, partner. To look at the first part of the dance, we need to leave the perspective I just gave you (third-person limited, Debbie) and start looking through the eyes of the mysterious stranger. That’s us, and we have been secretly stalking Debbie for months. Not in the creepy, restraining order way, but almost as obsessively.

How to Pick Whom You will Stalk This, like everything else, was much harder in the days before teh interwebs. Now, at least initially, it is easy to come up with a list of agents you want to hit on. Start by looking at your favorite, currently-publishing authors. Not only favorites, but also those most similar to you in terms of genre, tone, and style. This will take some work, possibly even requiring you to read several novels you did not plan on reading. Well, good. You should be doing that anyway.

Stalkers Can’t be Slackers  If you are serious about wanting to be a commercially viable, published author, you need to have a clue what is happening in the world of commercial publishing. I am not encouraging you to spend time learning about the intricacies of the industry itself, but you should have a decent idea what other people are writing about and how they are writing it. The only way to accomplish that is to read – a lot. The fact that you are writing a book is no excuse for not reading more than one. To make this work, you have to. At least some of those books should be the very best books in your area/ topic/ genre. The people who buy those books are likely to be your target audience as well.

How does this relate to Debbie? One of Debbie’s old clients happens to be an author who appeals to the same sensibilities as our mysterious stranger. Our mysterious stranger knows that for any number of reasons:

  • Simply Googling the author’s name and the phrase “literary agent” will usually get you there (agents love to brag about their successful clients)
  • AgentQuery and QueryTracker both allow you to look up agent names by author. You wrote the next Godfather? Mario Puzo’s agent is listed.
  • If Mario Puzo’s agency turns you down, you can still search by genre at either of those sites (not my favorite, because the results are not as specific).
  • Last but not least, PublishersMarketplace provides current details on deals as they go down. Knowing Penguin laid out six figures in a three-book deal for a choose-your-own-adventure erotica series is key if you happen to write choose-your-own-adventure erotica. Even though that particular agent may consider it a conflict, you can use that as a starting point to find agents with similar tastes.

[Note here, PublishersMarketplace has both free and paid access, and the free is extremely limited compared to the other sites and, being cheep, I have no idea how functional or useful the paid portion is]

The point here is: the stranger sitting next to Debbie was no accident. There may be a dozen other attractive agents in the club, but our stranger did not shout to all of them at once. Debbie finding our stranger attractive was no accident, either. The stranger knows who Debbie has gone home with before – and the stranger is her type.

What if I think half the agents in the club are my type? For starters, don’t pull a Ricker and yell to them all at once. Pay attention to Debbie’s needs. Go to her website and make sure you are giving her those 50 pages just the way she wants them. Make her feel like she is the only agent in the world – until she’s gone. Then find another agent whose needs need you can attend to, and do the same. The Ricker may have been yelling at thirty agents when he walked in, but he was not communicating with any of them. Ten may represent nonfiction, five only deal with children’s and YA and five specialize in Christian publishing, not exactly a hotbed of choose-your-own-adventure erotica. The other five could have been maybes, but going after more than one at a time killed his chances with those as well.

Query in batches. I would recommend small batches, at that. In the first place, don’t be desperate – at least not until you have thirty rejections on your wall. It takes some serious time and effort to locate agents who are good fits who have solid track records of sales and represent a number of quality clients. The websites I cited above are a good starting point, but you need to go to the agent websites as well, look at their client lists, check the notes on the bulletin boards (including absolutewrite.com, which has a very active bulletin board). Tailoring each query so the agent knows it is not a generic e-mail to a thousand agents helps immensely – nothing too ass-kissy, just “You mentioned in an interview last month that you wished you saw more choose-your-own-adventure erotica…” That is time consuming. And worth it.

So, if you’re in a hurry, think of querying in small batches as the fastest way to do it. You do not need to wait until you have a dozen agents scoped out if you are sure you know who your top one or two choices are. Send out one or two queries.

Another reason to query in batches is that you may receive some input from your first few. Five queries all received form rejections? Maybe that query needs a little work. That straggler beta finally read your manuscript three months late but found a typo everyone else missed on the third page? (Believe me, that happens) It’s nice to know that you are sending out a few with pages that do not include the typo.

The biggest reason to query in batches is something I have said before. You get one shot at each agent. If you get a fistful of personalized rejections telling you the fatal flaw in your novel, you do not get to requery those agents after you fix it (“Oh my fucking god, this isn’t even the post about revising anymore, and I am revising again.”) If you query every agent who has ever represented anything like your book on the first day, there is nobody left to send it to after you fix the problem. You may get lucky and have one of those agents tell you to redraft and resubmit, but you may not. The entire point behind this blog is to reduce the importance of luck in this process.

Double-Bonus Tuesday: Extra reasons batch querying is good. Apart from the strategic reasons for doing it, there are some psychological benefits as well.

1)    You are going to get rejections, and rejection sucks. Having a few agents queued up with the query drafted and the submission materials just the way she wants them provides a nice morale boost when they come in. I’ve got two on deck right now (and, to be honest, one of them may be a better fit for me than most of the agents I am waiting to hear from). The next rejection I get is permission for me to send that out. Within ten minutes of receiving my next rejection, I will be back to a dozen queries or manuscripts out.

2)    You are going to get MS requests, hopefully, and I would not want to try to respond to three of those on the same day, either. In the first place, it is hard to type a brief and professional cover letter to an agent you thought was an urban myth while your hands are trembling on the heels of having just shit yourself. Sometimes, they will ask for something you don’t have. For example one agent asked me for a “10 page or less outline.” I had an outline that was functional when I was writing (incomplete sentences transient thoughts, arrows, two-word memory triggers that I knew how to turn into a chapter, etc.). I did not have something another human could understand, let alone something that would look professional. Creating that outline was a full day’s work.

Because our mysterious stranger did everything right, Debbie was intrigued. Picking the right agent (and walking past the girls walking the curb outside the club, offering the same thing but asking for money), knowing why she was the right agent, and offering her just enough to make her want more (which will be the subject of its own post), lead to the inevitable outcome, “give me fifty pages.”

If our stranger does things right, the next thing Debbie will say is “I need you to give it all to me. Give me your full.”

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