Of Cats and Dragons

Carol E. Leever Camilla Ochlan

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12 Steps To Becoming An Author

Published: Aug 11, 2017 11:32:04 am
Camilla Ochlan

-- My Version

Tormy in armor
Step 1: Face The Music

"What else are you going to do?" I don't know if my partner in Werewolf Whisperer crimes, Bonita, remembers saying that to me a handful of years ago. We were catching up, after losing track of each other for nearly two decades. I was still waffling about my dubious career choices, having come to terms with the fact that the actor's life I had chased since college was not at all working out the way I had hoped. I was pretty devastated when Bonita and I sat down for lunch. I had spent so long running after one dream that a lot of other options were no longer options. Her question changed my way of looking at my life.

Step 2: Who Are You?

I'd spent a lot of time thinking of myself as an actor. That was who I was, until I wasn't anymore. My process became a lot like when Lorelai on GILMORE GIRLS tries to decide if she really likes Pop-Tarts, or if she just eats them because her mother didn't want her to eat them.

Lorelai

Acting had been my Pop-Tarts of freedom and rebellion. But instead, it had become the thing that made me angry and sad and anxious and trapped. With acting out of the picture, I set out to discover who I was and what mattered to me.

Step 3: Discovery

Tucked away, secret for a long time, was my writing. And once I had let go of pursuing acting -- grueling drives to auditions, the annoyance of rearranging my work schedule on a moment's notice for something that would turn into nothing (and risking the day job), the sharp judgment and apathy of casting, the constant roller coaster of hollow hope and inevitable disappointment, the paralyzing self-hatred -- the writing sprang into action.

Stage 4: Education . . .You're On Your Own

I started with a whole mess of reading, so much in fact that my husband repeatedly asked, "Haven't you read all the writing books by now?" "Not yet," I'd answer. "But soon."

My degree is in English, and I' d always fooled around with journaling and writing short stories. But when I’d finally made my way through Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, I started putting word to paper in a new way, with purpose.

But while I read a lot of awesome books, I found very little that helped me cross that elusive line between wanting to write and writing.

Step 5: How To Start -- The Small Idea

A small idea. I had an idea for a short film. It stuck with me for a few days. I'd cry about it, alone in the shower. I didn't like the idea. It bothered me. It scared me. It challenged me. To get rid of it, I finally wrote it down, following screenwriting format from a book and using an ancient version of Final Draft.

Step 6: Ideas Beget Ideas

But the small idea didn't just sit in a drawer. I had the fortune of having my short film produced, and the privilege of being present for every day of the shoot. Hours on set are long. And as I was sitting around, waiting for the next shot (I was wrangling the dog stars), a new idea hit me.

The idea didn't let go for a few days after the shoot. The idea made me laugh and intrigued me. I shared my thoughts with a friend, but it didn't hit the right cord with her. Oddly, that didn't deter me from loving the idea. For once I didn't shut down. I knew the glimmer of a story just wasn't developed enough.

So, I sat down and wrote a little treatment and a short script. I envisioned the story as a web series. Fleshing it out was fun, and I had a title: THE WEREWOLF WHISPERER.

I shared my idea with Bonita, who had just completed a short film of her own and was interested in developing a web series. We spent a summer writing a twelve-episode season. We had a blast, but by the fall we realized that the story had become too expensive to produce on our budget.

Step 7: Accept The Challenge
WWWcover

We decided that THE WEREWOLF WHISPERER needed to be a novel. We loved the idea and the characters too much to let them go. I'm glad we didn't know how hard it would be when we started. We've moved mountains to create this series, and we did so because we were passionate about the material (still are).

Before I knew it, sitting down and writing two thousand words a day was just what I did. Not impossible. Not a chore. My routine. I'd get up at four A.M. to get in a few writing hours before work. Writing daily had become that important. And everything else had to fit around it.

Step 8: It's Never Easy -- Keep Going

Knowing that you can do something doesn't mean you will continue to do it. THE WEREWOLF WHISPERER was not an easy book to write. Working with a partner is great, but I had to keep a tight grip on my individuality as a writer as well.

I wrote THE SEVENTH LANE right after book one of THE WEREWOLF WHISPERER because something in my head was starting to tell me that I would only ever write this one werewolf story, and that I could only write with Bonita. We could write together, but was accountability to a writing partner the sole key to my discipline?

THE SEVENTH LANE proved to me that I could make a go of it on my own. It was also my first foray into having my book turned into an audiobook. I was trying new things.

Writing the second WEREWOLF WHISPERER book, THE ALPHA & OMEGA, Bonita and I had some upheavals in our lives, and sometimes just getting a chance to work together for a few uninterrupted hours was epic. We'd end up FaceTiming each other while sitting in the car because it was raining and there was nowhere else to go. We struggled through month-long moves, nursing sick dogs, pneumonia, sports injuries, insomnia, narcolepsy, film shoots, family vacations, devastatingly slow internet service and those first two intense months of raising a brand-new puppy -- all the real-life stuff that can so easily derail the best of intentions.

I became very sensitive to the fact that these potential pitfalls were primarily what Steven Pressfield calls "Resistance." The closer you get to creating something, the harder Resistance will try to stop you. This is an ongoing problem -- for everybody.

Step 9: The Marathon

I learned that writing is a marathon and not a sprint. I don't think in terms of one book, or one series. I think in terms of many stories. I have a book full of story ideas. I add to it whenever something pops up. Some stories have been lingering, unfinished. Some will never be written. Some are vocal and tap long fingers on my shoulder and make throat-clearing ahem sounds. Those stories get the most attention. But even if there aren't stories tugging at you, marathon writing means writing every day. Further education. Diving deep. And always, always coming back.

Step 10: Shouting Into The Wilderness -- Don't Get Discouraged

Getting stories in front of the right audience is so difficult but so important. I spend more time than I want trying to figure out how to get my stories and books to people who will love them. I submit, of course. But I also self-publish. The self-publishing world is like the Wild West. Things change rapidly, and I try to stay as informed as possible.

The Creative Penn podcast has been a great resource, not only for information but also for sanity. Joanna Penn has a wonderful way of helping me keep perspective and balancing marketing and creativity.

Step 11: The Lifelong Goal
NightsGiftcover

I've written about how OF CATS AND DRAGONS began and developed, so I won't repeat myself here. But let me say that tackling this world of stories has been a lifelong goal. And I had to do all that other work before I could take this on --develop my craft, learn to be organized and disciplined.

Carol and I have been deeply committed to developing these characters and lands and plots. There is so much we want to write about, and there's so little time -- in the grand scheme. Not that long ago, Carol and I were sifting through our database of stories, trying to determine where the series would go (I want to mention here that a total of five books have already been written and are waiting for the final editing touches), and after she'd listed storyline after storyline ("Remember the time Tormy . . . What ever happened to . . .) for nearly an hour, we both simultaneously realized that we already had enough material to write this series for the rest of our lives.

So many books, so little time. It's a macabre thought, but it motivates me to push myself harder.

Step 12: If You Love Something, Let It Go

Love the story, then let it go. NIGHT'S GIFT is on the verge of being released. Soon, characters we have loved for decades will be out there, hopefully entertaining other people. There's no more editing, fixing, adding, re-listening to the audiobook files, or waiting. All we can do is take a deep breath and move on to the next book.

Bonus Step 13: Next

And speaking of the next book, which I briefly stopped editing to write this blog post, it's important to have a plan for what happens next. When I used to do theater, I would always get depressed over closing a play. After working so hard during a run, suddenly stopping was like a shock to my system. And then I'd fret that I would never work again ☺.

Depression over finishing a book is real as well, especially when you go from a very packed writing/editing/publishing schedule to . . . nothing. I am very aware how that kind of change in momentum can potentially send me into a downward spiral, so I plan ahead.

With OF CATS AND DRAGONS, there's a long list of stories to get to -- ASAP. And Bonita and I are working on the third WEREWOLF WHISPERER book. And I have a few side projects waiting for me, tugging at me.

Thinking back on what got me here (going from zero to ten books in a few years), it occurs to me that somewhere along the way I crossed that seemingly unreachable line from not writing to writing. And there was only ever one piece of advice that mattered at all -- if you want to write, then write. It's as easy as that. It's as hard as that. Because -- What else are you going to do?

From There to Here

Published: Aug 04, 2017 05:05:50 pm
Camilla Ochlan
dice

Our storytelling roots are in Dungeons & Dragons. We've written about how we started gaming together freshman year and continued building our fantasy world over many, many years throughout high school, college, and beyond. We haven't talked about how gaming led to a book series.

Chances are, if you've played D&D, you've thought that your campaign, your characters, the world you role-play in would make excellent fodder for a blockbuster movie, bestselling book series or awesome video game. You and your friends die laughing, are moved to tears, adventure with grandness -- live a better story than anything you've seen on TV or on the big screen.

You're right! Your experiences are awesome and authentic and meaningful -- and guess what, real. In an infinite multiverse, anything is possible. But the sobering truth about writing is that your awesome, authentic experience will not simply translate to other people. That's where storytelling craft comes in. And, no matter what, craft takes practice. And practice takes time.

While Carol and I wandered the world OF CATS AND DRAGONS for decades, creating plots in the telling, we did not think about sharing any of our stories with other people. This was just for us and a very few other friends who came in and out of the process over the years. But mostly it was just us. We also didn't use modules. The world we built is completely homebrew. Gary Gygax may have shown us the way, but we traversed it all by ourselves, fueled and fed by a plethora of great sci-fi and fantasy books. Our best games developed over the years we were roommates during and after college. That's when Omen and Tormy came along.

When I moved to L.A. to go to acting school, we had to adjust from regular games to only being able to get a game together a few times a year -- sporadic visits, talking the phone (back when long distance calls were expensive), and email. After a while, we started writing stories about or inspired by our characters to entertain each other.

Carol, by the way, published a few of those stories in Marion Zimmer Bradley's magazine and consequently in her Sword and Sorceress anthologies.

A lot of time passed.

Carol is a web design wiz, so eventually she gathered our stories in a database. We found that writing about the characters helped us keep them fresh in our minds, so that when we did have a chance to get together for a game, we could just launch right into it.

My path took me from acting to screenwriting and -- through THE WEREWOLF WHISPERER -- to writing novels. I devoured anything I could read, study or watch to learn the craft. I have an English degree, but this was years of putting myself through my own Creative Writing MFA. I am obsessed with craft, and I will never stop learning.

But even with all of that, it took us even more time to get our stories to a point where they could be shared. Of all the characters, we had to choose one as the central focus -- at least for the first book. We had to decide on the timeline. When were we going to start, and what would that mean? We had to scrub any hint of anything that wasn't uniquely ours. You can borrow to your heart's content when you gamemaster -- names, storylines, characters. But when you're writing a book, obviously everything has to be yours. We whittled it all down to our creations. We decided to start with Omen and Tormy, and we decided that it would be the story of a young Omen. We hoped that would allow the reader to jump into this strange and huge world.

And then the plotting began.

I am a pretty hardcore outliner. Carol is more of a discovery writer. Despite that, our growing pains were few. I think that's because of the complete trust we've built over the decades.

And here we are, at the dawning of the OF CATS AND DRAGONS series. We have so many plans. We're busy finishing the second book (RADIATION) and starting the third. But I really want to take the time to enjoy this moment. The story is still just ours, but in a few short weeks, we're going to release our cats and dragons into the wild. It's been a very long road getting here, but in a way, this is really just the first step.

Audiobook Magic

Published: Jul 27, 2017 10:12:20 pm
Camilla Ochlan
Nights Gift Audio Book Cover

NIGHT'S GIFT has been turned into an audiobook!

It is done, delivered, and I will shout from the rooftops where you can get it. I am so thrilled.

Hearing our story performed has been nothing short of magical for me. As I wrote about in Finding a Voice, it's an incredible thrill to hear your words performed. As the narrator lends talent and voice to the characters who have only resided in your head, the story goes from ephemeral to real.

So, how did we get here?

This process was somewhat easier for us as authors because my husband P.J. is part of the audiobook industry. He is an Audie Award-winning, multiple Earphones Award-winning, and Voice Arts Award-nominated narrator of hundreds of audiobooks. And, as a narrator, he has a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over a very long career ;)

OF CATS AND DRAGONS' audiobook narration requires voices and dialects for scores of monsters, intrepid heroes and talking cats from a range of families, countries, and realms. P.J. more than delivered.

But if you don't happen to have a narrator in the family, how do you turn your book into an audiobook?

If your publisher bought your audiobook rights, then you just sit back and wait until someone tells you that your audiobook is done. Under those circumstances, sometimes authors get input, sometimes they don't.

But if you are taking the process on yourself, here are a few things to think about:

How to prepare:

Finish your book. Really. Edit your book. Really. Once you give your manuscript to your narrator, you will not be able to do any more editing. It will be set in stone, so make sure you are happy and your manuscript is done, done, done.

Your narrator might find typos and minor grammatical mistakes, and he or she might tell you about them in time to make fixes. But that is not their job. You have to assume that the narrator will read what is on the page, even if it's utter nonsense. You wrote it, it's on you and not on them.

I highly recommend you have someone read your work out loud while you follow along in the manuscript. Carol and I have a process that is pretty OCD, so I won't go into it here. But let me assure you that we read aloud and listen to the manuscript many, many times during our joint editing process. Siri (or any text to speech program) can help you out. The robotic read is torturous to listen to, but you aren't listening for entertainment, you are listening to catch word repetition repetition and other anomalies.

This is the time to make firm decisions, especially if your book is part of a series. Look ahead. Make sure you describe what characters sound like the first time they appear. And then stick with it. Don't give recurring characters surprise accents or vocal characteristics in later books. I remember hearing about one extreme example where an established character all of a sudden had an accent in book three of the series. A professional narrator will typically prep the entire manuscript before recording and will know about late surprises, so you have a bit of a safety net with your audiobook. But, and this is just a side note, for your writing in general, it's a good idea to offer vocal descriptors up front. Whether you are writing a series or a standalone book, it can be jarring to your readers to have an imagined sense of a character radically upended for no reason. You risk taking them out of the story and losing them as a fan.

These are just a few things to consider as you prepare your book to be narrated.

Carol and I have tried to be very conscious about what is to come in OF CATS AND DRAGONS. Book one -- NIGHT'S GIFT -- is fairly contained. One city, only a handful of characters, but we know the requirements of books to come. We are ten books deep into the series as we are releasing book one, and we have hundreds of stories to draw from.

For example, Avarice, who only has a few lines in NIGHT'S GIFT, will be featured more prominently in other books, and other characters come from the same country she's from, so her accent has to be logical and sustainable for the overall story.

Further, when you write, keep in mind that your words will be spoken. Have that audiobook in mind. Even if you end up not doing an audiobook, you will improve your writing if you keep an ear to the soundscape you are creating. Write dialogue that can be spoken by humans -- this goes for interior thoughts too. Long convoluted sentences, crazy alliteration, and accidental rhyme are the bane of the audiobook narrator (and the reader).

Selecting a Narrator

Unless you are already an established and successful voice over/audiobook narrator or a bankable celebrity, resist the temptation to narrate the book yourself. The technical challenges of audiobook narration are numerous, and as a newbie you're just setting yourself and your book up for failure. Who needs that pressure?

Think about what voice you want for your narrator: Male? Female? Do you need different voices? Accents? Dialects? Before listening to narrator samples, be really clear what you are searching for. If you just go in and listen to a bunch of samples, you may be swayed away from what's right for your book. Hear the book first, then listen to narrators. Also, and this is no small consideration, understand what style of narration you want. Do you want a straight (Siri-like) read where the narrator adds no performance? Or do you want a voice performance? There are so many great narrators. And their styles and talents run the gamut. Find the one that is right for your vision.

Once you are certain you know what you want, start exploring professional narration.

You have a choice here to enlist the help of an audiobook producer or you can go it alone with ACX. Either way, you want to be involved, so take your time listening to samples or listening to narrators' reels. Some authors have gotten very excited about auditioning narrators. Please be respectful. Don't waste people's time. Chances are, everything you need to know is already available for your listening pleasure. Do your research, but don't take advantage of actors' willingness to do free work in order to win the job. You don't like writing extra samples to prove you can write when you already have work available for consumption.

But depending on your relationship with the process -- producer/publisher/directly with the narrator -- you may or may not be in a position to weigh in on the casting and performance. Some audiobook publishers and producers invite the author to complete a questionnaire to provide character input, pronunciations for invented names, places, languages, etc. If you're working independently and directly with your narrator/producer through a platform such as ACX then you certainly have the opportunity to share your guidance and requests. But just as with the communication through a publisher, timing is essential. Input is welcome prior to production.

If you aren't married to name pronunciations, it's actually fun to hear what the narrator comes up with. I had a different pronunciation in mind for the character Riaire, but Carol and I ended up preferring how P.J. said Riaire's name. So, stay flexible. It can be a fun collaboration if you are open to it.

The ACX platform is set up so the narrator/producer must provide the first 15 minutes for your approval before moving on with the recording. This is an additional opportunity to weigh in on technical quality/production value, tone, and also your last chance for input. You may not rewrite the book at this point. You may not spring brand new, not previously discussed requests on the narrator ("I really need the character to sound like a Scottish Greta Garbo -- and please scream all the lines"). However, if you hear something is going in a wrong direction -- maybe tonally ("She's actually happy as she's sawing through the intruder's leg"), or something that could generally improve the book -- this is your time to speak up.

However, even at this point, be aware that you've already cast this professional actor to perform your book. Not every one of his/her choices will match what you've imagined, but their creativity and freedom is integral to this stage of the process. Most professional narrators understand the responsibility they have to capture the tone you've intended and to not reimagine/reinterpret your book. Attempting to micromanage line readings or character voices is never productive.

When It's All Done

Carol and I were positively giddy when we first heard P.J.'s narration of NIGHT'S GIFT. Omen has been an important character in the landscape of my imagination, but he's only ever had my voice. Since this book is written with a tight POV, we get a lot of Omen -- both action and his internal thoughts. Hearing Omen's characteristic swagger mixed with his constant self-examination brought him to life in a whole new way to me. The same is true for Templar -- more layers. And forget about all the cool creature voices. It's one thing to read about the undead alchemist's hissed "s" and the ringmaster's flourishes, but hearing these characters spring to life is awesome.

The glory of hearing your book read is unequal to anything I've experienced. Screenwriting gives you the great pleasure of seeing your work performed, but remember scripts are rewritten and changed until they are sometimes unrecognizable even to the writer.

Your book is your book. Every word is yours. And once it's an audiobook, it's alive.

Alive!

And now it's time to shout it from the rooftops (more stores to come):

PreOrder from DownPour: Night's Gift

Downpour Nights Gift Image

Art Talk: Werewolves

Published: Jul 21, 2017 11:48:02 am
Carol E. Leever
No Beast So Fierce image

My writing partner Camilla writes another series with our friend Bonita Gutierrez. The Werewolf Whisperer is urban fantasy about two awesome women fighting their way through the werewolf apocalypse. It is predominately set in modern day Los Angeles and other parts of California. Camilla and Bonita have lived most of their lives in California (so have I for that matter) and they write about places they know with such clarity that the setting becomes a character unto itself in the stories.

Recently they asked me to do a cover for their story No Beast So Fierce. They kicked around various ideas for what they wanted on the cover, and I made a couple of attempts at painting something. But none of it was quite right.

And then they came up with a rather ridiculous idea -- why not just do a cute werewolf plushie? (Word of caution -- The Werewolf Whisperer series is violent and dark, filled with dystopian brutality. And while there is humor in the story -- it is not cute.)

The setting for No Beast So Fierce is the Folsom Renaissance Fair near Sacramento, California. The story actually does feature a stuffed werewolf child's toy wearing a Renaissance costume, complete with a full Elizabethan collar.

While I was a bit skeptical of the idea, painting a child's toy was actually on my list of things to do. I keep a list -- a long list of things I want to paint. Some of them are paintings of images and scenes I want to illustrate, but many of them are things I want to paint for the learning process alone. These are what artist call 'studies' and often consist of painting random things, or copying the various paintings of the masters, all in an effort to improve your technique. Every beginning artist should be doing studies. (From what I gather even the professionals who have been painting for years still do studies.)

A child's toy was on my study list specifically for the process of learning how to paint different materials -- the soft fur of a toy (not the same as cat fur), as well as the different texture of clothing, and the hard surface of button or glass eyes. So the request lined up well with my planned practice, and I was happy to get started.

No Beast So Fierce image

The first step was coming up with a basic design. This was my initial sketch -- I'm a terrible line artist, and like I've said before, most of my paintings start out as something a child would draw. Camilla has seen some of my horrible sketches and understand the process I go through to get to a finished piece, but poor Bonita looked at it and immediately went 'uh oh'. (To be fair, that is also my reaction -- every single painting I start makes me want to give up. They're REALLY bad for the first 10 hours or so.)

Now while the final image was meant to be the poor little toy after the climax of the book (the toy does not fair well), I decided to do a a clean, pristine version of the toy first (image at the top of the article). The Elizabethan collar in particular was time consuming. Drawing anything that is 'white' is tough; you can't really use white as a color -- it isn't a color (okay, technically it is considered a color without hue, but that wasn't the point). White is a highlight. To paint something that is white, you have to use a different color -- some sort of shade of gray (I could do a whole blog on 'gray' -- it's an awesome color).

Googly Eyes

Between the collar, the tunic and the fur I got my full share of 'materials' to study. And I was pretty pleased with the final results. The eyes actually took me the longest time -- not because they were hard to do (they're just black ovals) but because I tried about a dozen different designs before deciding on the simplest version possible. At one point he even had googly eyes.

No Beast So Fierce image

Once the 'clean' version of the toy was done, I had to tear him apart. This also allowed for another material study as I needed to draw the stuffing coming out of the tears. That meant more white that can't actually be white. I'm not sure the stuffing was as successful as the collar was -- but in the end he looked sufficiently pathetic.

The blood splatters were the last thing I painted. The drips on the sword were just painted normally, but the splatter on the collar was done using a few red swipes of paint on an overlay layer that blended the color into the existing material nicely. Last minute, I decided to put his missing eye on the ground beside him.

You can download the book for free on Book Funnel. Here's the final version of the cover.

No Beast So Fierce Cover Art

High Fantasy

Published: Jul 12, 2017 04:20:39 pm
Carol E. Leever
Skull from Nights Gift Cover

You may have noticed that we modified our cover art slightly -- adding in the dark background element of the skull.

When I was kid, genres were simple. Most of what I liked was labeled "SciFi/Fantasy," lumped together under one term. There were some subcategories such as "high fantasy," or "military science fiction," but most of those terms were in the mind of the readers and not formal designations. Much of what I read back then would be consider Young Adult (YA) today. There have been many essays written discussing whether or not YA is considered a "category'" or a "genre," but regardless of the conclusion you reach, it is still a very broad term that doesn't tell the whole story. For that you have to look at the genre and sub genres.

As near as I can figure, the term YA is given to a novel if the protagonist in it is "young" --between the ages of 12-17. That means the classic series The Belgariad would be considered YA -- Garion was a child when the books started. For that matter, much of what Stephen King wrote would technically be considered YA since he has many young protagonists, some not even teenagers yet. It's an odd designation which doesn't tell a reader much about the book itself -- only that the main character (or characters) are young. But I think for many people (parents particularly) they see YA and think -- it's safe for children.

And what do you do with a series like The Game of Thrones? Many of the point-of-view characters in that series are young -- very young in some cases. Does it meet the criteria for the YA label?

Now a days I think it's more important to pay attention to the sub genre. The Twilight Series is YA as is The Hunger Games -- but one is a vampire romance series and the other is a post-apocalypse, dystopian battle for survival. The sub genre tells the more accurate story and these days we have literally hundreds of sub genres.

So what does this have to do with changing our cover?

Our series Of Cats And Dragons is extensive -- book one and two follow one of our main protagonist's early journey to find his companions. He's young in these books -- so are his companions. But he will grow up. And we have other stories in this series about adults -- as well as stories told from the point of view of very young children. Some will be humorous and lighthearted. Some will be dark. We will try our best to label the stories as such.

Which brings me to my cover -- the cute, fluffy orange kitten is obviously dominant on the image. There is a cute, fluffy orange kitten in the book -- and he talks. He's adorable. And he's integral to our hero's journey.

Tormy from Nights Gift

But the book is also violent -- our hero Omen has to fight for his life, and the life of the kitten and the people of his world. And the monsters he faces are vicious and horrific.

So can a ten-year-old read it? Well, that would depend on the ten-year old. I know many ten-year-olds who read and watch things that terrify me. And I know ten-year-olds that can't make it through a Disney movie because they're too scary or too sad.

And that's why we changed the cover -- because, yes this is a high fantasy novel with a fluffy orange talking kitten in it. But as the old maps proclaimed -- here there be monsters.

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