12 Writing Lessons from Ian Fleming, Creator of James Bond
How Ian Fleming's unique writing approach helped create a billion-dollar franchise, an immortal character, and the world's greatest spy stories
"My daily occupation in Jamaica is spearfishing and underwater exploring," wrote Ian Fleming, the now-legendary author of the original James Bond series. "But after five years of it I didn’t want to kill any more fish except barracudas and the rare monster fish and I knew my own underwater terrain like the back of my hand. Above all, after being a bachelor for 44 years, I was on the edge of marrying and the prospect was so horrifying that I was in urgent need of some activity to take my mind off it... So I decided to write a book."
That book, of course, was Casino Royale, the first in a series about James Bond, an English secret agent with a license to kill. The character lept from Fleming's imagination to the pages of his golden typewriter, scaled to the top of the best-seller list, and then vaulted onto the silver screen. The rest, as they say, is history. James Bond is firmly embedded into Western culture, and no matter who portrays him or how he morphs to fit contemporary zeitgeist, he remains one of the most recognizable characters of all time.
So how did Fleming do it?
James Bond almost got me fired.
Years ago I worked in a machine shop as a CNC Operator. It was monotonous, I was terrible at it, and I would leave the shop covered in metal splinters and cutting fluid.
Still, I remember that time fondly. I made it through those neverending shifts by listening to the James Bond audiobooks — every one of them.
In contrast to the dull, towering machinery and the constant smell of grease and oil, Fleming's books immersed me in a radiant, exciting landscape. A world of black and white concepts - good and evil, chaos and order, love and war - illustrated in vibrant mid-century technicolor. It was like teleporting into some exotic, extraordinary, action-packed version of "life," complete with a suave, English narrator.
I was engrossed by the stories, but they did no favors for my career as a machinist. I would linger in front of a dormant lathe or milling machine, forgetting to swap out a finished part until a supervisor snapped me out of my daydream. Or worse, I'd absentmindedly put a new piece of material in backward, and with the machine grinding and screeching in anguish, I'd have to smash the EMERGENCY STOP button like Bond terminating the launch of a nuclear arsenal.
In the process I became fascinated by Fleming's writing — the pace and tempo, the fantastical storylines and bizarre characters, the vivid imagery and descriptions. Why did he mention brand names so often? How did he write such intense, suspenseful action scenes? Who names a character Pussy Galore?
I wanted to learn his secret recipe. I scoured articles, interviews, letters, and of course, the novels, digging out the formulas and techniques that helped Fleming turn otherwise run-of-the-mill spy stories into some of the most successful thrillers of all time.
So without further ado, here's everything I learned — 12 powerful writing lessons from the creator of James Bond, author Ian Fleming:
1.) "You must know thrilling things before you can write about them"
How exactly do you create one of the most enduring, influential thriller series of all time? It starts with living a thrilling life.
As author Raymond Benson explains in The James Bond Bedside Companion, Fleming's "rather brave attitude, mixed with [his] undeniably boyish taste for the romantic, fed lifeblood into the Bond adventures, and for the most part, explains why they are so popular."
Ian Fleming's resume is laden with adventure and intrigue. Like his most famous character, Fleming was a naval intelligence officer in WWII. He was in charge of Operation Goldeneye, formed and directed not one, but two units of commandos, broke into the Japanese Consul General's office to steal a code book, helped build out the first major American intelligence agency — the list goes on.
After the war, Fleming became Foreign Manager at Kemsley Newspapers, traveling far and wide to pursue stories for The Sunday Times. He was a globetrotter, adventurer, and aficionado with a breadth of passions: spear fishing, treasure hunting, golf, gambling, skiing, mountain climbing, driving fast cars, collecting first edition books, and of course, drinking martinis.
It was Fleming's generalism - his wide-ranging interests and skill sets - that allowed him to create thrilling yet believable scenes. His love of gambling translated into the high-stakes baccarat game in Casino Royale. His skiing hobby informed the famous ski chase in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The harrowing scuba scene in Live and Let Die is just a nightmare version of Fleming's peaceful underwater forays exploring Jamaica's reefs and marine life.
In Thrilling Cities, a collection of his best travel stories, Fleming examines his sense of curiosity and adventure:
"All my life I have been interested in adventure and, abroad, I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide, well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns. It was perhaps this habit that turned me into a writer of thrillers and, by the time I made the two journeys that produced these essays, I had certainly got into the way of looking at people and places and things through a thriller-writer’s eye."
According to Fleming, most of the central incidents in his books are based on real events, either in his own life or from research and second-hand stories. This level of veracity helped flesh out the Bond character and novels. As the author explains in the aptly titled essay "How to Write a Thriller:"
"You must know thrilling things before you can write about them. Imagination alone isn’t enough, but stories you hear from friends or read in the papers can be built up by a fertile imagination and a certain amount of research and documentation into incidents that will also ring true in fiction."
Fleming wasn't the only fiction author to pilfer from the history books. George R. R. Martin, for example, is known for borrowing real historical events for the famous plotlines in A Song of Ice and Fire aka Game of Thrones. (For example, remember the infamous "Red Wedding" scene? It's pulled from Scottish history. Even Westeros, Martin's fictional world, is just Britain and Ireland turned upside down.)
To capture this important inspiration and source material, no matter where his adventures led him, Fleming was rarely found without a notebook.
2.) Take notes
Fleming's fiction danced elegantly on the line between fact and fantasy. The writer supplemented his first-hand experience with diligent research and constantly hunted for novel information to embed in the Bond stories. Fleming's friend Ernest Cuneo described the writer's frustratingly intense curiosity:
"Detail fascinated him... If he ran across a trick of the trade, a nuance, a fillip, he would pursue it like a ferret, for example, how cowboys on the range made a barbecue sauce with sugar, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. God, he’d pursue the detail like Sir Edward Carson cross-examining a murderer. The temperature and appearance of the fire, kind of wood burned, the size of the pan – all of these things he’d scribble down with the avidity of an explorer taking notes on the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb... He said that at the end of each day, he had compiled notes. These he amplified and typed out, no matter what the hour, at the rate of about 800 [words] a day. 'Figure it out for yourself,' he said. 'At the end of a year, I have about 250 or 300 of these daily memos, and when I go down to Jamaica, I weave them into a book.'"
Fleming leveraged real events, secondhand stories, and personal experiences, amplified them with his self-described "vivid powers of imagination," and then saturated them with factually-accurate, insider's details. It contributed to his unique style and provided the 007 novels with a level of depth, realism, and intrigue.
Then, with a head full of ideas and inspiration, Fleming landed on the beaches of Jamaica and took the first draft by storm.
3.) Bulldoze through the first draft
According to Ian Fleming, your goal for a first draft is simply to finish. Don't analyze, revise as you go, or wonder what so-and-so will think — just hammer on until you're done.
"If you once look back, you are lost... If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain... I don't even pause from writing to choose the right word or to verify spelling or a fact. All this can be done when your book is finished."
For Fleming, the first draft is supposed to captured ideas and tone, not perfect prose. On writing Casino Royale, the author reflected:
"I rewrote nothing and made no corrections until my book was finished. If I had looked back at what I had written the day before I might have despaired at the mistakes in grammar and style, the repetitions and the crudities. And I obstinately closed my mind to self-mockery and “what will my friends say?” I savagely hammered on until the proud day when the last page was done."
Author Chuck Wendig recommends a similar approach, describing a first draft as "the beach-storming draft." Like Fleming, his advice is simply to survive the first draft at all costs. Make it to the figurative beach-head no matter how messy and chaotic the process. If something is worth fixing, you can do so after the action of draft #1.
4.) Revise ruthlessly and develop thick skin
After he plowed through the first draft, Fleming combed through his manuscripts twice, copy-editing and diligently rewriting the worst passages before sending them to publishers.
The Man with the Golden Typewriter is an entertaining compilation of Fleming's Bond-related letters, including extensive correspondence with publishers. They provided feedback, corrected grammar, challenged him to avoid cliches and be more creative in his phrasing, encouraged him to avoid the passive voice and "therewasery," and much more. He readily adopted many suggestions and his writing improved for it.
However, he confidently discarded or battled against disagreeable recommendations. For example, when one editor suggested they couldn't use the character name Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, Fleming grandly replied, "Oh yes I will, and not only that, we're going to get away with it!"
Fleming learned to take criticism with a grain of salt. When the head of Fleming's American publisher expressed disappointment with The Spy Who Loved Me, the author pointed out that "oddly enough the very reasons for your doubts about it are those put forward by Capes [Fleming's publisher in London] for any special virtues it possesses." Hence the necessity of thick skin — the reason one person hates your creative work might be exactly the reason someone else loves it.
Fleming also received his fair share of brickbats from critics and fans, but took it in stride. He deflected silly suggestions, rude comments, and hate mail alike in a lighthearted, gentlemanly manner. "You are mad to think that I am thin-skinned about criticisms," he reflected in one letter. "One longs for them."
Expert suggestions from his audience, on the other hand, he found especially valuable.
5.) Listen to your audience
As Fleming's popularity grew, so too did his audience. Despite his incredible attention to detail, experts in their respective fields often wrote in with all manner of advice and corrections.
"In the 1950s... the world was more innocent," remarked Fergus Fleming, Ian Fleming's nephew and editor of The Man with the Golden Typewriter. "When British policemen chased a suspect they blew whistles or, more dashingly, rang a little bell at the front of their car. Guns were uncommon currency." As such, despite Ian Fleming's activity in the war, his choice in weaponry for James Bond was naive. It drove many firearm experts far beyond suspending disbelief.
For example, Geoffrey Boothroyd, a gun expert living in Glasgow, wrote to Fleming in 1956 and blew a hole in his credibility. "I like most of the things about [James Bond]," Boothroyd wrote, "with the exception of his rather deplorable taste in firearms." He critiqued Bond's choice in everything from pistols and rifles to the holster hidden under his jacket. But Fleming was delighted. He took the suggestions very seriously and after volumes of correspondence, "anointed Boothroyd as Bond’s fictional armourer and charged him, in real life, with answering the many queries that came in about his guns."
Similarly, in 1961 Fleming received a letter from Herman W. Liebert, a librarian and scholar at Yale University. Liebert, a huge fan of the Bond books, was appalled by the faux-American language and slang used by Fleming's supposedly US-based characters. He sent a long list of suggested replacements for words like "sponge bag," "damnably," "gammy," "arse-end," "chap," and "by gum," joking that "I don’t think an American has said this since the recent death of A. Lincoln." In response, Fleming thanked him profusely, incorporated most suggestions, and asked him to be an unofficial fact-checker and editor of his then still-in-progress Bond book.
When it came to suggestions and expertise from fans, Fleming was all ears. He valued - and deeply understood - his audience. That empathy was also key to developing his best-selling writing techniques.
5.) Build your unique toolbox
"I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money," Fleming confessed in "How to Write a Thriller." He was a craftsman — a writer rather than an author. He felt that "There are authors and artists and then again there are writers and painters.” Where the target of an author's work is the head and, to some extent, the heart, Fleming said his books aimed "somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh."
But that's not to say he cheapened his work. Fleming was a professional - a lifelong writer - and bore no illusions about his genre, audience, or expertise.
"My opuscula do not aim at changing people or making them go out and do something. They are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, aeroplanes or beds."
Fleming had a journalistic, "workmanlike" style and an arsenal of effective writing techniques. He relied on rich visual descriptions, near-cartoonish villains, visceral emotions, and potent action — qualities which translated perfectly to the big screen. He maintained an "unmannered prose style, unexceptional grammar and a certain integrity in [the] narrative." In other words, a book that highlights the hero and story, not the author and their indulgent writing.
Above all, Fleming believed that best-sellers share one vital quality: "you simply have to turn the page." To achieve the effect, he had an array of tools and literary gadgets.
Fleming used movement, momentum, and pacing to deadly effect. For example, he manipulated sentence, paragraph, and chapter length to heighten the intensity of action sequences, or to build inertia as the books reached their crescendos. He would also shift the point of view in certain stories, starting with a more objective, bird's eye view and then gradually moving toward Bond's more immediate, personal perspective. Fleming paid special attention to the finer details as well:
"You cannot linger too long over descriptive passages. There must be no complications in names, relationships, journeys or geographical settings to confuse or irritate the reader... Above all, there must never be those maddening recaps where the hero maunders on about his unhappy fate, goes over in his mind a list of suspects, or reflects on what he might have done or what he proposes to do next."
In addition, Benson observed another tactic that helped turn the Bond stories into best-selling page-turners: "The Fleming Sweep." Fleming ended chapters with tantalizing "hooks" which heightened tension and pulled the reader deeper into the book. For example, a late chapter in Dr. No ends with:
"Head first, Bond’s body shot out of the shaft and fell through the air, slowly, slowly, down towards the gunmetal sea that waited for him a hundred feet below."
Without even knowing the story or the stakes, as the protagonist's body plummets down toward the ocean surface, you can't help but wonder what happens next. Fleming compels the reader to turn the page.
From a technical standpoint, Fleming's writing was sound and well-suited to his genre and audience. He knew how to create a readable, credible, magnetic story. But there were other, more distinct tools and tactics that made him truly unique, and helped the Bond books redefine a genre.
6.) Thrill the reader by engaging their senses
For Fleming, the perfectly exciting book contained something fascinating on every page. Whether he described the story's chaotic climax or a character eating breakfast, his goal was "total stimulation of the reader all the way through, even to his tastebuds."
In The Art of Memoir, author Mary Karr describes this engagement of the senses as "carnal writing," emphasizing that it is key to engaging, sophisticated prose:
"Carnality sits at the root of the show-don’t-tell edict that every writing teacher harps on all the time, because it works. By carnal, I mean, Can you apprehend it through the five senses? ... Getting sophisticated about carnal writing means selecting sensual data - items, odors, sounds - to recount details based on their psychological effects on a reader. A great detail feels particular in a way that argues for its truth. A reader can take it in. The best have extra poetic meaning. In some magic way, the detail from its singular position in a room can help to evoke the rest of the whole scene."
Fleming bombarded his reader with carnal details. You can feel your heart racing and knuckles aching through his description of a car chase or fight scene. When Bond senses danger, vicariously your adrenaline surges and your senses sharpen. Palpable aftershaves, colognes, perfumes, and other, sometimes less pleasing smells pervade his novels. He famously - almost to the point of self-parody - described Bond's meals and cocktails in vivid, mouthwatering detail. Only by engaging each of the senses could Fleming truly immerse readers in the world of James Bond.
But to keep his audience engaged, Bond's outlandish world needed to retain some sense of familiarity.
7.) Ground your writing in reality
Fleming admitted that his thrillers went "wildly beyond the probable but not, I think, beyond the possible." He made a point to ground his writing in reality, helping readers suspend disbelief no matter how farfetched an event or storyline. He accomplished this in part through "the constant use of familiar household names and objects which reassure [the reader] that he and the writer have still got their feet on the ground." Fleming explained in more detail:
"This is where the real names of things come in useful. A Ronson lighter, a 4.5 litre Bentley with an Amherst-Villiers supercharger (please note the solid exactitude), the Ritz Hotel in London, the 21 Club in New York, the exact names of flora and fauna, even James Bond’s Sea Island cotton shirts with short sleeves. All these details are points de repère to comfort and reassure the reader on his journey into fantastic adventure."
In The James Bond Dossier, Kinglsey Amis called this the "Fleming Effect" — "the imaginative use of information, whereby the pervading fantastic nature of Bond's world ... [is] bolted down to some sort of reality, or at least counter-balanced."
While the trick was effective, it was only supplemental to the story. Readers didn't flock to Fleming's books to hear about how James Bond shaves with a Hoffritz safety razor. They wanted to hear about the razor-sharp throwing knives hidden in his attaché case, or a barracuda's razorlike teeth sinking through his scuba suit and into his flesh.
8.) Juxtapose mundanity with exoticism
Fleming's thrillers offered readers a much needed sense of escapism and vicarious adventure:
"What I aim at is a certain disciplined exoticism... I think you will find that the sun is always shining in my books—a state of affairs which minutely lifts the spirit of the English reader—that most of the settings of my books are in themselves interesting and pleasurable, taking the reader to exciting places around the world, and that, in general, a strong hedonistic streak is always there to offset the grimmer side of Bond’s adventures. This, so to speak, 'pleasures' the reader."
Normal, humdrum life depressed James Bond. He grew restless and miserable in a dreary office, flooded with the "intolerable drudgery" of paperwork. Surely his fans could relate. But beautiful women, fast cars, exotic islands, storied cities, and heart-pumping action resurrected the real 007. In the process, it awakened the readers' inner adventurer. Brawls with hooligans, deadly shootouts, and harrowing near-death experiences filled the character, and in turn his fans, with vitality. For that the books - and later the movies - became famous.
To borrow a line from Billy Joel, readers relied on Fleming's stories "to forget about life for a while." To feel the thrill of being Bond, if only for a moment.
10.) Create an aspirational hero
The allure and staying power of James Bond stems from his charisma, charm, glamor, and formidability. He visits exotic places, plays with powerful gadgets, drives luxurious vehicles, blows things up, out-gambles his foes, out-boxes their henchmen, and in the end, saves the world and gets the girl. With his top-secret missions and his double-0 "license to kill" clearance, he exists outside of the normal world.
But the character's story is one of contradiction and contention.
Ironically, Fleming initially set out to create an unexceptional hero, a generic automaton through which his readers could live vicariously:
“When I wrote the first one, in 1953, I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened; I wanted him to be the blunt instrument. One of the bibles of my youth was ‘Birds of the West Indies,’ by James Bond, a well-known ornithologist, and when I was casting about for a name for my protagonist I thought, My God, that’s the dullest name I’ve ever heard, so I appropriated it. Now the dullest name in the world has become an exciting one.”
But as Fleming continued the series, the character and narratives evolved and exploded in popularity. Even President John F. Kennedy became a James Bond fanatic, citing From Russia with Love as one of his favorite books. Fleming admitted that Bond became "a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war," fleshed out the character's personality and backstory, and imbued 007 with many of his own tastes and tendencies.
One of Bond's most famous proclivities, of course, involved the opposite sex. In this respect, Fleming's work has not aged entirely well. Perhaps because he wrote for the average Joe in postwar Britain, his depictions of women ranged from simplistic to preposterous to, as described by Daniel Craig, misogynistic.
But the franchise and its love stories, at their core, deal in archetypal themes. A constant in Fleming's work was the archaic "princess and dragon" motif: Bond would save a stunning woman - usually a type of empowered, albeit unidimensional damsel in distress - in the process of defeating some evil genius.
In other cases, Bond himself is saved by a fickle femme fatale. He charms the villain's imposing mistress into switching sides, and in return she saves him from some elaborate execution. Then, in one fell swoop, Bond takes the bad guy's wife and his life and rides off into the sunset.
The spoils of victory usually include a trip to the bedroom, if not the altar. "To Fleming's target audience," comments the BBC, "emerging from both post-war austerity and traditional codes of morality, womanizing was just another aspirational activity like driving fast cars and sipping cocktails."
The books gave way to the movies, and in turn, the blunt prose-Bond gave way to the suave, sophisticated movie-Bond. In 1962, a young Sean Connery starred as 007 in Dr. No., and almost overnight the spy stories ascended from popular thriller series to a worldwide phenomenon.
Fleming continued to write while playing a major role in creating the blockbuster early Bond films. When he needed a break from 007, he absconded to other, unrelated projects: nonfiction works like The Diamond Smugglers and Thrilling Cities, or the children's story Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, which became a hit in its own right.
Fleming proved that his success was no mere flash in the pan. His judgment, writing prowess, and creative routine held weight beyond the realm of spy books.
11.) Build a disciplined writing routine
Fleming described himself as lazy and easily discouraged at the prospect of writing a 60,000+ word book. But unlike most would-be novelists, the old veteran knew how to work around his limitations. He controlled his setting and used an efficient routine to remove willpower from the equation and maximize his productivity.
First, Fleming sought to "create a vacuum in my life which can only be satisfactorily filled by some form of creative work." So while employed by Kemsley Newspapers, the author negotiated for two months of consecutive vacation each winter, which he spent at Goldeneye, his Jamaican estate.
Once he isolated himself in paradise, he coaxed the Muse into visiting through efficient, structured work. As he explained in one interview:
"I find that unless I stick to a routine, if I just wait for genius to arrive from the skies, it just doesn't arrive... I just get on with the work."
Fleming woke around 7:30am and swam in his private Caribbean cove. He had breakfast and then relaxed until manning his typewriter around 10:00am. Fleming wrote for a solid two hours without stopping to edit, and then stepped away to lounge on the beach or snorkel through the nearby coral reefs. He would settle into an afternoon nap, then return to the typewriter, refreshed and recharged, for another hour of work.
Rather than plow through the book using sheer discipline, Fleming was realistic. He alternated between diligent work and deep relaxation, a routine that helped him consistently write roughly 2,000 words per day. After a few weeks he would finish with around 60-80,000 words, then begin his rounds of editing, amplifying, and polishing.
By secluding himself in his dedicated writing space and adhering to a consistent but realistic routine, Fleming reliably produced one book per year for over a decade.
12.) Aim high
"The Second World War left him with two ambitions," Fergus Fleming says of his uncle. "The first was to build a house in Jamaica, which he had visited during operations. The second was, as he declared, to write the spy story to end all spy stories."
Ian Fleming was keenly aware of a division in the thriller genre: cliché, dime-a-dozen mysteries and whodunits versus high-caliber "thrillers designed to be read as literature." Commanding the latter category, he cited authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler, and Graham Greene. "I see nothing shameful in aiming as high as these," he admitted. Fleming set his crosshairs on the best of the best, and as the saying goes, worked until his idols became his rivals.
In doing so, Fleming continually raised the bar and surprised readers. "It is... very difficult to find new ways of killing and chasing people and new shapes and names for the heroines," Fleming joked in one letter. But there was truth in the sentiment — it emphasized how, despite ascending to the peak of his genre, the writer never rested on his laurels. He constantly worked to enhance even the more banal details.
He also pushed the boundaries with each successive book, stepping out of his own - and his reader's - comfort zone.Throughout the series he introduced fantastical new villains, allies, gadgets, plotlines, twists, narrators, and settings. For example, in The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming wrote a large portion of the book from the perspective of a young woman named Vivienne Michel. She leaves home for a solo trip through Europe, runs into trouble, and eventually encounters, and of course falls in love with, James Bond. Inevitably, this bait-and-switch upset some fans. They purchased the book expecting to find Bond at a baccarat table or in some exotic hotel, but instead realized they were seeing the world through a young woman's eyes. As Fergus Fleming wrote: "for the time (and for the author) it was a brave stab at reinventing Bond."
Brave — it's the right way to describe Fleming's books and aspirations. His work and ideas are so deeply embedded into Western culture that even parodies have become cliche. But when the writer first manned his golden typewriter, the spy-thriller genre was a tiny niche, and he knew it. Success was far from inevitable. But still he threw himself headlong into the first novel and his reward was a surprisingly positive reception. Without hesitation, he set out to capitalize on the early success, exclaiming to his publishers:
"I feel it would be very unadventurous if we did not set our sights high! The field of thriller writers is extremely bare. There is a vacuum to be filled and I really do not see why we should not fill it."
Fleming committed to writing best-sellers and tailored his approach accordingly. He relied on a fast-paced journalistic style, undistracting prose and grammar, a commitment to research, accuracy, and authenticity, and an intuitive grasp of what makes a thriller truly thrilling. He blended fact and fiction, detail and action, mundanity and exoticism, love and violence, and produced, like a masterful cocktail, a world-renowned franchise and a perennial character.
James Bond remains one of the most popular - and commercially viable - characters of all time. He is a British cultural icon, having escorted the real-life Queen Elizabeth II in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
Mega-brands like Heineken and Aston Martin pay handsomely for product placement in the films. Superstar songwriters vye for the opportunity to write and perform the next Bond title theme. In recognition of his legacy, Fleming is consistently included among Britain's most influential writers.
And it all started with the author escaping to a cottage in Jamaica, terrified at the prospect of marriage, dreaming up a fantastical spy story to quell his adventurous spirit and occupy his idle mind.
Cue the Bond theme.
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