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Thread: Starting a novel with a prologue

  1. #51
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    My personal assessment on prologue popularity is based on agents and publishers saying that a lot of readers don't read them, and that they themselves skip them.

    I agree they can be used well, but at the risk of sounding harsh, in a majority of cases they seem to be an influence from visual media. Films often have prologue like start, but films have severe time constraints and narrative limitations that books don't suffer from. So many prologues, especially (it seems) in fantasy, devolve into authorial indulgence.

    It goes without saying a good book can get away with anything ;-) The Chronicles of Amber starts with a man waking up... and having amnesia. It's perfect, excellent. But it doesn't change the fact that I'd strenuously caution most new writers against using either of those elements in an opener (including myself! Because I am new, too.)

    The problem with prologues is similar to the problem with waking up openers, imo. Both require a fair amount of know how to pull off effectively, and yet both look deceptively simple, so they end up being a go-to or crutch for people still learning their craft. Starting in media res is also actually quite difficult, but I see a lot of learner writers being told it's an easier approach (it isn't.)

    Again, doesn't mean it can't work. But the above is why I'm wary of them.
    Last edited by Harlequin; 01-03-2018 at 06:34 PM.
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  2. #52
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    Quote Originally Posted by eastallegheny View Post

    My prologue is literally about 350 words long,
    Based on what you've said overall, and particularly the above, I think making it a prologue is probably appropriate. (That doesn't mean there aren't other ways to do it, but if a prologue works, it works.) One reason readers are often put off by prologues can be the sheer length. Who wants to wade through ten or fifteen pages of pre-story before getting to Chapter One? Many don't. But 350 words is a mere mouthful, and if it's compellingly written (<--this is key!), I can't see it being a stumbling block.
    Last edited by BethS; 01-03-2018 at 06:35 PM.

  3. #53
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Justobuddies View Post
    I know everyone hates this answer, but if the story needs a prologue, give it one. If it doesn't need it, leave it out. Assuming that you'll send it out at some point; if the story works and the prologue doesn't, publishers will let you know.
    +1

  4. #54
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    Quote Originally Posted by mccardey View Post
    Heh. Me, too.

    My general feeling is that if chapters can be skipped without detriment to one's understanding of the story, then may as well skip the whole story. Since it's clearly not doing what it needs to do.

  5. #55
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    Well, I suspect quite a few people skip POV chapters in GoT. Most of them die anyway, in the end, unless they're Dany, Tyrion or Jon Snow >.>
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    Quote Originally Posted by BethS View Post
    My general feeling is that if chapters can be skipped without detriment to one's understanding of the story, then may as well skip the whole story. Since it's clearly not doing what it needs to do.
    Maybe I'm too harsh of a reader, but usually at that point a book is getting closed and put back on the shelf.
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  7. #57
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    Well, I suspect quite a few people skip POV chapters in GoT. Most of them die anyway, in the end, unless they're Dany, Tyrion or Jon Snow >.>
    I remember skipping POV chapters in The Wheel of Time series. Of course, I quit the series somewhere in the middle, so those chapters probably played into later storylines in an important way.

    My thought on prologues is that it's the same as most advice. People say don't use prologues (or dialog tags other than said, or semicolons, or an opening that describes the weather, etc.) because when most new writers do it, they do it badly. Agents would just rather writers not do it at all than do it badly. But if you know what you're doing and you've given it careful consideration, only you can decide if it's truly necessary for the story you want to tell.
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  8. #58
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    I agree they can be used well, but at the risk of sounding harsh, in a majority of cases they seem to be an influence from visual media. Films often have prologue like start, but films have severe time constraints and narrative limitations that books don't suffer from.
    I would suggest you read more and read widely.
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  9. #59
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    I'm referring to unpublished mss in crit groups. A lot of early prologues I've encounter, including some I wrote myself, fell into that category.

    I am happy with the amount and scope of my reading list.
    Last edited by Harlequin; 01-04-2018 at 02:30 AM.
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  10. #60
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    Quote Originally Posted by onesecondglance View Post
    I would suggest you read more and read widely.
    That's kind of insulting. Rather than comment on the writer, perhaps you could comment on why you disagree with what they say.

  11. #61
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    Not to hijack the thread from the original poster, but I'd appreciate any comments on my situation....

    My first book begins in era II. To begin the novel, chapter one, I will tell of the present and define everything for everyone, as much as it is needed. Is a prologue welcome, in book 1, era II, if it only describes just some very basic elements (such as a major war, the type of rule, who ruled, and the like) of era I? I laid the books of era I out, so I know what happens, who dies, and so forth. The goal, for me, is to announce that book one, era II, begins in a time of calm after immense turmoil. This is what I would use the prologue for. If the books, era II, do well, it serves as a teaser for era I books too.

    Throughout books of era II, information will be shared from era I through various forms of discovery.

    I feel awkward trying to explain buildup for era II in chapter one, book one, of era II (and discuss era I basics). My initial thought is to separate them, and the era I information I can cover in a couple pages max.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Enlightened View Post
    The goal, for me, is to announce that book one, era II, begins in a time of calm after immense turmoil.
    Then focus on that. "Type of rule, who ruled" is not necessary for that. You can drop those details in later, as they become relevant, or just to give texture.

    And show it, don't tell it. Plowing under a field of crops trampled by hooves. A dented battle helmet repurposed as a planter.

    If you're feeling like you have to apologize for you prologue, and promise to keep it short, it's probably a better idea to drop it. An agent is going to make a decision on a few pages. Is it putting your best foot forward for half of them to be prologue?

  13. #63
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    For me, I don't mind prologues IF they are ACTUAL prologues... the definition of a prologue being 2 to 3 pages to introduce a previous event important to the plot, but does not take place in the same timeline as the novel.

    But far too often these days, authors use the prologue as a place to lecture the readers or write a 90 page worldbuilding explanation of what the world looks like or a detailed 50 page history of a battle or whatever. I feel like the bulk of authors these days don't know what a prologue is anymore and just slap anything at the front of the book and stick the title "prologue" on it no matter what it is.

    Fantasy is my primary genre, both as a reader and a writer, and as a result of this recent trend of 50 to 90 page "prologues" that are not prologue... I've stopped reading prologues all together for any book written in the past 10 years.

    There was a time when a prologue was a quick 2 page introduction to the back history of the story.


    Not anymore!


    Yie!


    For the past 5 years, almost every prologue added to a Fantasy novel, is now a 50 to 90 page detailed description of not only the world, but all the things the author researched as well.


    I started reading a book a few months back... it had a 90 page prologue - NINETY FREAKING PAGES! - on why Neanderthals make the ideal basis for the book's main character race, and why dinosaurs and Humans should never be in a novel together, and then a detailed history of all the author's Anthropology and Archaeology degrees, then listed off all the actual fossil dig sites he dug at....


    I was like... does this guy even know what a prologue is? This is not a prologue, this is a damned history lesson! I mean, if this guy ever wrote a college textbook on the history of the Jurassic Period, he'd be amazing! He really knows his stuff, I'll give him that. But you don't put stuff in your novel! I just felt so much, like this guy had never read a novel in his life and the only movie he had ever watched was Jurassic Park, and that the only reason he wrote this novel was so he could tell fans of dino-sci-fi they were jerks (his word) for liking those types of books. (Yes, he started right in the "prologue" that readers of dino-sci-fi were "jerks"!)

    So I contacted this guy and asked him about it and...oooooooooh boooooooy....


    WOW! I got a 60+ page response telling me that "Fantasy readers needed to be taught a lesson" (his words), and that they had "no business making up fictional races that couldn't possibly exist" (his words), and he proudly boasted that he never in his life ever read a fiction novel and never would....yow.


    Well, it certainly showed in his novel writing, that he had never read a novel before writing one.... but it especially showed in his so called 90 page long "prologue", because it was clear by reading his prologue that he had no clue what a prologue even was!


    And I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but, dang, I'm seeing this sort of "prologue" being written more and more often. Especially in self-pubbed Fantasy. And, as a self-pubbed Fantasy author myself, I know this sort of thing reflects on ALL of us. The more prevalent these sorts of quasi-prologues become, the more they turn off readers to prologues.

    For me as a reader, these days, I'm likely to skip even buying a book if it has a prologue, let alone read it. ESPECIALLY if it's self-published, as it's become a trend of late for authors to let their egos lose in prologues. You don't see it in agented/trade books that often, because editors don't let those sorts of author rants go in the book. And as a self-pubbed Fantasy author, I'm worried that this sort of thing is not only putting readers off Fantasy with prologues, but turning them away from ANY self-pubbed Fantasy prologues or no. Yes, this is something I worry about a lot, because I know that as a Fantasy reader myself, I'm tending to avoid self-pubbed Fantasy lately, because of this "fake prologue" issue... and that worries me because I LOVE self-pubbed Fantasy and don't want to avoid them! Newer self-pubbed books these days have these weird "fake prologues" that are insanely long. 50 pages is fast becoming the norm, and I've seen longer ones.... which I wouldn't mind if they were actual prologues and not just the author having a hissy-fit rant.


    My belief is, if the author feels they have to explain the details of their story, outside of the story, then that author is a very poor writer and in desperate need of taking some writing classes so they can learn how to tell a story and include everything the reader needs to know, woven within the story.


    I would like prologues if they did what they were supposed to do, and BRIEFLY in a few pages, introduce the setting/backdrop of the story. I mean if it's an ACTUAL prologue, then fine, I don't mind.

    But I think far too many authors these days don't know the difference between a prologue and an "here's my life history on how I wrote this book"...and it's ruining my perspective on books with prologues.

    I mean, you look at books written 30 or more years ago, and how prologues were written... they BELONGED with the story. They were PART of the story, but they were just a part of the story that didn't fit in the story. And they worked, because they helped the reader get to know the plot and characters better. Prologues like that I'm fine with and don't mind reading.

    But I don't want to read 50 pages of an author explaining how they did their research to ensure that we stupid readers know the difference between a cave man and a neanderthal, followed by explanations of all the hows and whys of the ice age and its effect on the story, followed by the author listing off all their degrees in anthropology, and which digs they dug at, blah, blah, blah. I bought the book to read the story, and if I want to know the history of how and why they wrote it, I'll head to their website and read their "About Me" page.


    Far too many authors use their prologues as a way to talk down to their readers and, I wanted to read a story, not be lectured by an arrogant author.

    Now, from what I'm understanding, it sounds like you want to tell you story from one character's perspective, but it's important to the plot, that the reader know a bit of backstory from another character's perspective first? But you don't need to do a 2 PoV story, so you just want to write a quick short story told from 2nd character's PoV, and call that a prologue? Right? Well, that's EXACTLY what a prologue is supposed to be. A quick backstory, from the PoV of someone not the PoV character, to help the reader understand the main character.

    Based on what you have described, I think your prologue sounds like it fits the story and is actually a prologue being used as intended. So I would think your story would be fine with a prologue.

    That said however, I still as a buyer, would probably skip buying the book, just on grounds that it had a prologue at all, even one done right, simply because I'm so fed up with trying to slog through world building info dumps and author lectures, disguised as "prologues", that I just don't even bother to sift through fake prologues trying to find real prologues.

    So, with that point in mind, I think, it may in fact be in your best interest to rather then write it as a prologue, instead write it as a flashback, and then title it Chapter 2 (not Chapter 1) So, what I'm suggesting is, use chapter 1 to introduce your main character and plot; then swing into the important backstory in chapter 2, then jump back into the main character's story in chapter 3. Does that make sense? You end up weaving the "prologue" into the story itself that way, instead of it being a separate piece before the story.

    Or perhaps, if the prologues was very long... perhaps you could tell it throughout the whole story. Say for example your novel is 200 pages long, and your prologue is 20 pages long, and your novel is 20 chapters long. You could have 1 page of the prologue at the beginning of each chapter; have it be an "opening scene" printed in italics, on the first page of each chapter, so taking the entire book to tell the prologue, each page ending abruptly with a '...'. With the reader learning a little bit more at the beginning of each chapter, resulting in it being a sort of mini-story within the story. It makes sense in my mind, I hope I'm explaining it correctly. I think that method would work pretty well with the particular story you are describing.

    In the end, I think, some stories NEED prologues, but most stories don't, and far too many authors, thinking ALL books REQUIRE a prologue, slap together something that is NOT a prologue and stick it at the front of the book and call it a prologue when it isn't one.

    As a reader, I don't mind prologues that really are prologues, but I'm fed up with things that are not prologues being slapped in the front of a book and being called a prologue.

    So, if your book needs a prologue, give it one, but if it doesn't need a prologue, don't write up something just for the sake of having something at the front of your book.
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  14. #64
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    Quote Originally Posted by Enlightened View Post
    Not to hijack the thread from the original poster, but I'd appreciate any comments on my situation....

    My first book begins in era II. To begin the novel, chapter one, I will tell of the present and define everything for everyone, as much as it is needed. Is a prologue welcome, in book 1, era II, if it only describes just some very basic elements (such as a major war, the type of rule, who ruled, and the like) of era I? I laid the books of era I out, so I know what happens, who dies, and so forth. The goal, for me, is to announce that book one, era II, begins in a time of calm after immense turmoil. This is what I would use the prologue for. If the books, era II, do well, it serves as a teaser for era I books too.

    Throughout books of era II, information will be shared from era I through various forms of discovery.

    I feel awkward trying to explain buildup for era II in chapter one, book one, of era II (and discuss era I basics). My initial thought is to separate them, and the era I information I can cover in a couple pages max.
    IMO, this is exactly what a prologue shouldn't do. A prologue should be a part of a story, not a shortcut to world-building. Whatever info about era I is important will come up in your book. If it's not important to that book, you don't need it included at all.

    ETA: Write your book without the prologue and see how it reads with you stringing the important info into the story. After you've written it, go back and reread. See if it makes sense without it. My guess is you'll find you don't need it.
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  15. #65
    Lots of people dislike prologues, but I feel they can be used really well. In a book that's told from only one character's POV, the prologue can be a good way to show another character's POV for a single chapter.
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  16. #66
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    I've been told that I am wrong, and I probably am- well, I know I am. I do it anyway.

    I start every book with a prologue, for book 1 it was a major event that really set the tone and mood of the series. It was my first impression on the reader and I needed to introduce them to the fear my MC will face through the novel. The book still makes sense starting at chapter 1, but it defiantly helps to read the prologue. Ive noticed some of my readers skipping the prologue, then reading it way later and messaging me like "why the heck didnt i read this to begin with."

    A lot of readers just skip over the prologue.

    As an author that confuses me, I wrote it for a reason- I didn't do that just to waste your or my own time. It's there, friken read it.

    Book 2 has a prologue as well, but I use it to set the tone of my MC's mental state and plant hints toward what happened in Book 1 and how she got where she is. Chapter 1 flows from the prologue directly, which is slightly more confusing for me because a reader now HAS to read the prologue for the first Chapter to make sense.

    I keep my prologues short, they are 1,000-1,500 words long as my chapters are generally 3-5k words each. These are action packed short concise scenes that I personally find important for setting the pace or adding shock factor. It is a scene that is the catalyst for the rest of the novel.

    The way I write offers no time lapses, one day flows into another and I narrate everything. There are no "3 weeks later" type situations. So my prologue is always the scene that jump starts the rest of the novel.

    In reality I should probably just call my prologues Chapter 1- but I really don't want to.
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  17. #67
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cekrit View Post
    I start every book with a prologue, for book 1 it was a major event that really set the tone and mood of the series. It was my first impression on the reader and I needed to introduce them to the fear my MC will face through the novel. The book still makes sense starting at chapter 1, but it defiantly helps to read the prologue. Ive noticed some of my readers skipping the prologue, then reading it way later and messaging me like "why the heck didnt i read this to begin with."
    All three of my published books have prologues, and I'll vigorously defend their use to anyone who challenges them.

    (And I don't have a huge readership, but it may be worth noting that nobody's challenged them, at least to my face. The closest I got to that was the pre-release ebook and audiobook samples of the first book, where they skipped the prologue, and that pissed me off to no end. It's there now, but without the prologue that book in particular is really misrepresented.)

    Quote Originally Posted by Cekrit View Post
    In reality I should probably just call my prologues Chapter 1- but I really don't want to.
    I'd argue that a prologue is a different beast than a chapter, and you're right to label it as such.
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    Hello all. Thanks to everyone who responded to my query.

    PinkUnicorn: I think the prologue as a flashback element of chapter two (or maybe a later chapter) is a fantastic suggestion. I shall look into this more. Thank you! I never thought of doing something like this; mostly, because I am not a fan of flashbacks. However, this is different. This is a great use of it.

    Sage: "A prologue should be a part of a story...." I think this supports what PinkUnicorn noted, although it can mean many things.
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  19. #69
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    Some prologues are well done and work fine. But often they are used as a crutch to shoehorn in an info-dump about backstory (this is usually what makes me skip them.) Have you tried writing it both ways? Gotten feedback from others?

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    I'm an unproven/unpublished author. In hindsight, I can see why it is a detriment to have it in one's first attempt at a novel. I shall leave it out.
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  21. #71
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    Quote Originally Posted by Enlightened View Post
    I'm an unproven/unpublished author. In hindsight, I can see why it is a detriment to have it in one's first attempt at a novel. I shall leave it out.
    Just to be clear, I was an unproven/unpublished author when my first novel with a prologue was published.

    Whether or not a prologue works doesn't depend on the author's publishing background.
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  22. #72
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    Quote Originally Posted by Enlightened View Post
    Not to hijack the thread from the original poster, but I'd appreciate any comments on my situation....

    My first book begins in era II. To begin the novel, chapter one, I will tell of the present and define everything for everyone, as much as it is needed. Is a prologue welcome, in book 1, era II, if it only describes just some very basic elements (such as a major war, the type of rule, who ruled, and the like) of era I? I laid the books of era I out, so I know what happens, who dies, and so forth. The goal, for me, is to announce that book one, era II, begins in a time of calm after immense turmoil. This is what I would use the prologue for. If the books, era II, do well, it serves as a teaser for era I books too.

    Throughout books of era II, information will be shared from era I through various forms of discovery.

    I feel awkward trying to explain buildup for era II in chapter one, book one, of era II (and discuss era I basics). My initial thought is to separate them, and the era I information I can cover in a couple pages max.
    I understand your motivation. FWIW, when i put the events that had been in my prologue into the story proper, the decision solved certain problems *and* I no longer needed to worry that those parts might be skipped. I am still missing one key element that had been in prologue, and trying to figure how to get it in - but it's just a little thing and will get there.
    I'm also on twitter where I routinely upset people. at pltavormina

  23. #73
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    lizmonster: I think I would feel more comfortable having a published book before I tried to insist on a prologue. That's just me though.

    Patty: Sounds like a cosmetic adjustment. I think you made the right decision, for you. I like the suggestion given to me regarding a flashback.
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  24. #74
    All the nopes. lizmonster's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Enlightened View Post
    lizmonster: I think I would feel more comfortable having a published book before I tried to insist on a prologue. That's just me though.
    I understand what you're saying, but that's not at all what I meant.

    Either a particular book needs a prologue, or it doesn't. "Insisting" doesn't enter into it. If it works, it's as important as any other part of the book. If it doesn't, it should be cut, even if you're Stephen King.
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  25. #75
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    This was a few years ago now, but I attended a talk by a major acquisitions editor for a big SFF imprint where she said that she's not a fan of prologues, BUT approximately 1/3 of SFF novels published still have them. Clearly they aren't the poison pill some make them out to be.

    I am guessing that the challenge is assessing whether or not a prologue really is the best opening, and if it is, making it riveting enough to pull the reader in without alienating them when the story shifts gears for the "real" chapter 1. I've put down novels because I got so invested in a riveting prologue that the introduction of the "real" main character or plot in chapter 1 elicited a strong, "Do not want!" reaction. I wanted to read a story about the person or situation introduced in the prologue, not its implications years later or on the other side of the world or for another character I have to bond with all over again.

    I've also put down novels whose prologues were way too long, or read like dull "history book style omniscient" world building that should have been introduced as the story unfolded, or possibly confined to an appendix or glossary.

    Other prologues have worked just fine for me. I tend to prefer them when they are short and the segue into the main story is smooth and logical (and it foreshadows something interesting), but that's my taste and may not be everyone's.

    Some people recommend writing the novel with chapter 1 first, then determining whether or not it still needs a prologue after the first draft is complete. Others recommend just writing your first draft in the way that feels right, but be prepared to make some extensive edits if alpha readers, such as critting partners, (or your own re-reading) point to the prologue being problematic, boring, confusing, or misleading.

    Note: I think prologues have gotten a bad name in recent years because historically so many SFF books had ones that really did read like ancient religious texts or history lessons, which don't tend to make for riveting reading if one is not yet invested in the world. The best of these were quite short, or cleverly done (like the Encylopedia Galactica entries sprinkled throughout Asimov's books), but some went on and on and on and were skipped by most readers, if the book was read at all.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; Today at 12:48 AM.
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