alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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The NaNo Novel: One-Month Stand or LTR?

Tomorrow is the first day of National Novel Writing Month. Many of you will open your blank page of choice and inscribe the first words of your epic genius. It’s a heady moment; thrilling, exhilarating, and full of possibilities–like falling in love.

Photo by Epiclectic via Flickr

Photo by Epiclectic via Flickr

In those dreamy first days, it’s all chocolates and long walks on the beach (or screaming fights and great make-up sex, YMMV). But have you ever wondered what happens after? What if you and your novel want to stay together for the long haul? Can you make it work?

Just like in a human relationship, you’ll have to put in some effort to keep that author/novel flame burning. Not every day will be consumed by the fiery passion of your literary brilliance. Some days you’ll wonder why you ever returned this novel’s calls. Surely, it didn’t always have that bloated section in the middle where the protagonist runs around in circles and whines constantly? And why did you never notice that “chuckled” is used in every dialogue tag in Chapters 7,8, & 13?

Not every novel is a keeper, but if the romance is still there, there are steps you can take to keep the relationship strong.

  • “Me” Time – Yes, you love your novel, and there is a danger in only writing ‘when you feel like it’. But you don’t want to spend so much time together that you’re sick of the sight of your literary love. Taking judicious breaks–usually between drafts–clears the novel out of your conscious mind and frees you to have a fresh and generous perspective when you return.
  • Clear Goals – A novel goes through many drafts before publication (6-8 is an average number). One of the worst things you can do is try to work on too many drafts at the same time. If this is Draft #2, be clear about what you want to accomplish. If you’re fixing the plot, don’t worry about the prose. If you’re clarifying character motivations, don’t worry about the pacing. After all, you’ve got to save something for those other drafts.
  • (Semi-) Public Commitment – Stand up in front of your friends and family and proclaim your dedication to your novel. This doesn’t mean rushing out to buy a pound of gold-infused Stilton for the holiday cheese board because of course you’ll be getting a six-figure advance. For me, it meant contacting my beta-readers and asking if they’ll be ready to read by a certain date, because that’s when I intend to be done.
  • Manage Stress – The biggest challenge I faced in beginning the next draft was holding back the panic. Once I got a clear look at the problems and gaps, the job before me seemed enormous. I had to get that hysteria firmly stamped under a boot heel or I wouldn’t be making any progress. Step One was referring back to those Clear Goals: I didn’t have to fix everything with this draft; I just had to make it better than the previous one. Step Two was writing down a couple of phrases that made me feel better (“Better to fail than give up”; “You won’t know for sure until you finish”) and sticking them on the bottom of my monitor. Step Three: 10-minute guided meditations. I’m not a pan-flute kind of person, but I started listening to guided meditations to get through the stress of Clarion West, and the habit has (sporadically) stuck with me. Try the free ones from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
  • Support Network – Writing a novel takes a long time. You need people who know what you’re doing and how hard it is. Celebrate successes with friends. Turn to them if you’re having a bad day. When I was having a slump, I asked, “Tell me why I’m doing this again?” The answer: “Because its going to be awesome.” My writer friends have read early chapters, and they want me to write it. They want me to succeed. Feelings like that can carry you a long way.
  • Write – You’ve heard this one before. Writing a novel means having to write. It means butt-in-chair and fingers-on-keyboard. Whatever tricks you have to play to romance your muse or quell your rowdy two-year-old, you do it. Then you sit down, and you write. And then you do it again.
Sticky pep-talks

Sticky pep-talks


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October = Pie

IMG_20131019_174633

Colder weather makes me want to bake. This year, that urge resulted in an apple pie. But I can’t just leave it there. I need embellishments. Like cranberries. And ginger. And a classic Pennsylvania crumb topping (cribbed from the cookbook I grew up with, The Mennonite Community Cookbook)

The pie was a big hit when I took it to a dinner on Sunday night, and a couple of people have asked for the recipe. So if crisp weather also makes you break out the measuring cups, give it a try.

Apple Cranberry Ginger Crumb Pie

One 9-inch pie crust
You’re on your own with this. Use store bought, your favorite recipe, etc. Mine was half-butter, half-Crisco.

Filling:
approx. 4lbs of SweeTango apples, peeled and cored
2-4 Tbl fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup dried cranberries
2-4 Tbl minced candied ginger
2 Tbl flour
2 Tbl corn starch
1/2 cup + 2 Tbl sugar
cinnamon, nutmeg, 5-spice powder
pinch salt

Crumb Topping:
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour
1/3 cup butter
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Oven: Preheat to 425F

The Apples: I used “SweeTango” because they had 4-lb bags at Sam’s Club and they looked like a good idea. They’re a cross between Honeycrisp and Zestar (which I’ve also never heard of.) They worked well in the pie, and were delicious for crunching up while peeling. You can probably also use Honeycrisp, Fuji, Pink Lady, Jonagold, or any other crisp, flavorful apple. You may not need the whole bag. I had one apple left over, and probably ate another while peeling.

The Filling: Slice apples thinly and cut slices in half. Toss in a large, non-reactive bowl with the lemon juice, cranberries, and minced ginger.

In a separate bowl, mix the flour, cornstarch, sugar, spices, and salt. Sprinkle flour mixture over fruit and toss to combine.

Crumb Topping: Mix flour, sugar, & cinnamon in a medium bowl. Cut cold butter into flour mixture and rub together until crumbs form.

Assembly: Lightly grease pie plate and fit with crust, trimming edges and pressing down with the tines of a fork. Prick the bottom of the crust all over.

Pack apples into pie shell, mounding high. If you’re strategic and place the apples in a handful at a time, they will (almost) all fit. You may choose not to add all of the juice that has collected at the bottom of the apple bowl if it seems like too much.

Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the apples. Press lightly to firm.

Bake: Put the pie plate on a foil-covered baking sheet in the middle or lower-middle oven rack. Bake at 425F for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350F and continue baking for 40-50 minutes. Watch the crumb topping for over-browning during the last 20-30 minutes, and cover with foil if necessary.


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The Wanderer King at Podcastle

My short story, “The Wanderer King” is now available at Podcastle for your listening pleasure.

We steer clear of the mines–that’s Fixer territory. The Wanderers are dangerous, too, ever since they came fighting back around Day 30. But there’s always been less of them–less in all, and less because they scatter through the woods on their business instead of fixing to the towns and mines.

We step along to the city, fitting the crown on all we come across. We sleep in the darkest part of the day when the sky dips to dark blue. At first, in the country, there aren’t many heads to try. But we come up on the city, and we slow. We even try it on Fixers because Pansy says the King is the King and it doesn’t matter whose body he’s in. “The King is for all,” Pansy says. “Anyone can carry the King.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 9.01.42 AMhttp://podcastle.org/2013/10/10/podcastle-281-the-wanderer-king/

For those who like to hold a book in their hand, “The Wanderer King” was originally published in Mike Allen’s Clockwork Phoenix 4.


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8 Reasons Why Your First Novel Isn’t Working

In my previous posts, I talked about Why Novels Are More Fun Than Short Stories and lifted your spirits with How To Not Hate Your First Draft. Now that you’ve dried your tears and have begun to envision a glorious future for your deformed brainchild, it’s time to talk about exactly how you’re going to climb that gilded staircase to the stars.

In June, I spent two weeks at the Fantasy & Science Fiction Novel Writer’s Workshop in Lawrence, Kansas, learning from two sharp and insightful instructors: Kij Johnson and Barbara J. Webb. On the first day of the workshop, we eight first-time novelists sat around the table in the fishbowl and listened as Kij told us everything we had done wrong.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Prior to the workshop, we had all submitted the first three chapters of our novel-in-progress plus a complete synopsis. Kij read our sacrificial offerings and summed up her reaction with an inventory of our collective crimes. Use the handy-dandy checklist below and see how your first novel holds up.

Common Problems of First Novels

  1. Not Enough Plot. It can be hard to wrap your head around just how big a novel is. First-timers often try to stretch a thin little string of circumstance over 200+ pages. Other possible offenses: Too Much Plot and Poorly-Paced Plot.
  2. Rushed Scenes. When discussing my chapters, Kij pointed out places where she wanted more description and more setting, and my instinct was to resist. “But that’s boring,” I’d think, “I have to get to the action.” While struggling with short fiction, I had trained myself to mercilessly stamp out every curlicue of narrative elaboration. Now that hard-won skill was working against me. Novel readers look for different pleasures than short story readers: they need immersion, and they need time to settle in.
  3. Churning. Looking at that vast expanse of blank pages you have to fill, it’s easy to get panicky and start throwing incidents at the page. You slap on an explosion here, a gunfight there, sprinkle a one-eyed ogre army over Chapter Five, top it off with a messy break-up and call it a plot. But activity doesn’t = plot. A plot is a sequence of events in which each event causes the next, leading to the central conflict. A lot of flashy unrelated action will never get you there.
  4. Stakes Aren’t High Enough. You’re not going to convince a reader to go along for a novel-length ride if all that’s at stake is whether your protagonist is going to have a bagel or a Belgian waffle for breakfast. Your stakes don’t have to be mortal danger or the fate of the universe, but whatever you choose must feel like annihilation for your character. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes.
  5. Lack of Agency. Related to #3. Activity also doesn’t = agency. First novels often feature characters pushed around by circumstance, or ones that don’t initiate activity. Your protagonist must go out into the world and cause things to happen. Preferably bad things that will hurt him/her and rain misery on their hapless head.
  6. Backstory & Exposition Poorly Managed. This one happens in short-story land, too. The reader gets a couple of pages of a scene with a good hook and then everything screeches to a halt while the author explains the full timeline of events since the protagonist’s birth*.
  7. Poor POV Choices. Novels typically have more characters than short fiction, and can handle multiple points-of-view. But are you choosing them wisely? Are you switching POVs at the right places? Kij suggests that more than one POV can improve your story, but if you introduce too many, you’re more likely to trip yourself up. Analyze your POV changes and ask yourself if they are the best interest of your story. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 4.13: Juggling Multiple Viewpoints.
  8. Anemic Description. Characters need to be grounded in their environment. I did this one wrong and so did pretty much everyone else. If your story is set in the Wild West, the reader needs to know not just how it looks, but how it smells, how to saddle a horse, and how long it takes to travel by train. Useful description is what makes a world feel real to a reader. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing.
Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.  Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.
Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Keep in mind that though everyone in the class was a first-time novelist, we were reasonably experienced writers with publications in professional markets like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Writers of the Futureand we still did it wrong.

That’s because writing a novel is hard. It’s probably not much like anything you’ve written before. So don’t freak out: now that you know what’s wrong, a second draft is the perfect place to fix it.

*If you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, you’re going to get the founding of the nation in which she lives and the genealogy of her ancestors.


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Rewrite Your Way to Greatness

Today, I’m less than 10,000 words away from the end of the first* draft of my first** novel. You might think that at this point I’ve got the finishing line in sight and I’m feeling good.

You would be wrong.

Photo by Karl Baron, via Flickr

Photo by Karl Baron, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Now that I’ve written more than 50,000 words and have the overall shape of the novel in front of me, I have this lovely, panoramic vision of All The Things I’ve Done Wrong. It’s like the view of Mordor from Mount Doom. We’re talking volcanoes and wastelands: this is not the kind of stuff I can put right with another measly 10,000 words.

The last couple of days, sitting down to work has made me want to cry and yell at the cats for…having fur and stuff. I wont lie–it feels terrible. But, just as with most other things about writing novels so far, this is just another crisis of faith.

Photo by saxcubano, via Flickr

Photo by saxcubano, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Maybe (okay, probably) some of what I’ve written is terrible. Maybe it’s missing big chunks of plot and character motivation. But that doesn’t mean the book itself is going to be terrible.

I think, as novice writers, we fall into a trap. We compare our first drafts to somebody else’s completed novel. In a side-by-side comparison, that thing we just made–that we struggled with and worked so hard on–looks like crap. Because the thing we made is NOT a complete novel. It’s an early stage draft. And you never see anybody else’s early stage draft. You don’t see the mangled first pages of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or Life After Life, or Wild Seed.

You may, in fact, have the most precocious, promising, early-stage draft in the history of novel-writing. But if you compare it to that OTHER thing, the finished novel, what you have looks like utter, meaningless crap.

Would you compare a cement block to a skyscraper? Would you look at that block and scorn it because it doesn’t have a marble lobby and banks of high-speed elevators that shoot straight to the rotating rooftop restaurant?

The humble cement block. Photo by Jeremy Price, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The humble cement block. Photo by Jeremy Price, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Yet, when that skyscraper’s finished, that worthless cement block will still be a part of it***, hidden somewhere inside, doing its bit to keep the rooftop restaurant turning out platters of regionally-sourced pork belly and craft cocktails.

A first draft is a necessary step on the way to completing a novel.
A first draft is not the same thing as a novel. Not even close.

Go ahead, have a drink. You're going to need it. Photo by David Kenny, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Go ahead, have a drink. You’re going to need it.
Photo by David Kenny, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To prove it to you, Maggie Stiefvater dissects a first draft of a chapter from her novel, The Scorpio Races, and walks you through step-by-step of what she changed and why.

And then she gets ten other novelists to do the same. Including blog hero, Margo Lanagan, talking about her latest, The Brides of Rollrock Island.

There’s also “Writing Excuses: 5.29: Rewriting,” in which guest author and Writers of the Future judge Dave Wolverton (Farland) promises that even Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning authors write terrible first drafts. This is a really good episode, with specific advice, and I highly recommend checking it out. After all, it’s only fifteen minutes long.

This is how novel-writing works:
You write a draft, you find the problems, and then you fix them.
And then you do it again.

* “Real” because this draft was preceded by a zero draft, written at breakneck (NaNo) speed last November.
** In some senses this is my third novel, but those other two have been put quietly away and we’re not going to talk about them.
***Don’t tell me that modern skyscrapers don’t include cement blocks or that’s the wrong kind. It’s an analogy, okay?


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Why Yes, I Will Sign Your Book

photo1This past Saturday, I had my first-ever solo book signing, at the Barnes & Noble in Bloomington, IN. I admit, I was a bit nervous beforehand, but everything went well. I even sold out of books! One of my friends (who shall remain nameless) asked for a message customized to his personality. Which led me to Bill Ryan’s blog, Insulted by Authors. I’m too squeamish to insult as well as either of the Sedaris siblings (see blog), but with a little help from this, I think I did alright.


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Wiscon Schedule

Two days to Wiscon!

Mini-preview of Lynda Barry drawings for the Tiptree auction

Mini-preview of Lynda Barry drawings I’m donating for the Tiptree auction

Things I’m looking forward to:

My schedule:

Novel Writers’ Workshop

Mike Underwood (mod), Marianne Kirby, Aaron Micheau, Alisa Alering

Friday 9am — ?

Everyone in my workshop is working on a YA novel. I’ve been reading the chapters, and we’ve got shape-shifters and parallel worlds, and strange and dangerous beasties. I met Mike Underwood at Wiscon last year (He’s a fellow CW alum & for a while we lived in the same town.) I heard him read from his debut novel, Geekomancy, and I think his sense of humor is right on target for the project I’m working on. Should be good fun.

How To Create When Life Isn’t Slowing Down For You

Cliff Winnig, Alex Bledsoe, Rory Metcalf, Kiini Ibura Salaam, Alisa Alering

Friday, 4:00pm — 5:15pm, Room 629

Writing the perfect novel or story is difficult while juggling a job, long-term relationships (spouses, children), and the constant interruptions that happen. However, as projects like NaNoWriMo show, it is possible to manage time effectively to create while still maintaining some semblance of life. Let’s talk about time and project management, organizing ideas, and using the dead time (waiting in lines, driving) to plan out projects.

Class in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Ian K. Hagemann, Eileen Gunn, Madeleine E. Robins, Alisa Alering

Saturday, 2:30pm — 3:45pm, Wisconsin

In speculative fiction, we create entire worlds and societies. How does SF handle social and economic class? Is there room for improvement? If so, what?

Broad Universe Rapid-Fire Reading

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan, F.J. Bergmann, Ada Milenkovic Brown, D.L. Burnett, Kater Cheek, Anna LaForge, Julia Dvorin, Heather McDougal, Katherine Mankiller, Alisa Alering

Saturday, 9:00pm — 10:15pm, Conference 2

Come hear the members of Broad Universe read from their current projects. Not sure what I’m going to read yet…

I’m also going to be volunteering for the:

Tiptree Bake Sale

Saturday, 11:30am — 5:15pm, Room 627 

“World Domination through Bake Sales!” That’s one of the slogans at Tiptree Juggernaut Headquarters. The Tiptree Award supports gender-bending SF/F, publishes, auctions, and loves chocolate chip cookies! A wide variety of cookies, breads, cakes, pies and delectables are baked and donated by Tiptree supporters.

I’ll be dishing out goodies from 11:30 – 1pm. I’m also bringing these:

SFS_GoodyGoodyBars_276613


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Poetic Interlude (AKA, Wheee! Words)

Early this morning, author Marly Youmans invited the world to take part in a word-doodling in the form of a beau présent, a poem that contains only the letters in the recipient’s name, but using one’s own name.

I’ve been spending a lot of time doing serious, logical, ferrety work with a novel outline and I couldn’t resist the invitation to play with words in a whole different way.  My name gives me a lot of vowels to wrangle, but once I started making word lists, I felt rather fond of the words I contain.

A Singing
Alisa Alering beau présent

In rag lane,
grain is grail
sail is sea

In rag lane,
I glean–
gill, gale, lens & rain
I learn–
rage, sin, rail, & gain

In rag lane,
I ran–
A girl, a sage, a sag-song gal
A leg, a leer, a rage-real nail

Learners reel,
Rings align–
Release gale!

In sea, a song.
In song, a sail.

In rage lane,
In sere rain,
I reign.


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Writers of the Future 2013, Day 5

At the book factory

At the book factory

Friday, April 12

Up early today for a trip to the book factory. We pile into a couple of vans for the trip out of LA towards Magic Mountain. I cling to my caffeinated beverage and look out the windows trying to get a feel for the terrain. Until now, I haven’t seen anything of CA except the same few blocks of Hollywood Boulevard.

Mystery machines

Mystery machines

After a brief introduction we’re taken on a tour of the plant (Bang Printing). There is a ridiculous amount of picture-taking as we wander through the factory looking at all of the cool big machines. And then we see it–OUR book. The covers of L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers and Illustrators of the Future Volume 29, coming off the press. And there are SO MANY of them.

Illustrator winners check out the book

Illustrator winners check out the book

That’s one of the best things about winning the contest. Not only do I get a prize, and this trip, and a fantastic cohort of fellow winners, people—LOTS of people–who I’m never going to meet or hear from are going to read my story. Some of them are going to like it, and some of them are going to say “eh” and move on to the next one. But with so many copies of the book in existence, my story is really truly going to be read. That’s a writer’s dream come true.

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In the afternoon, Rebecca Moesta & Kevin J. Anderson are back for an encore, this time with professional advice about agents, editors and the big bad publishing world. Mike Resnick tells a few industry horror stories, one involving a New York cocktail party and some nose-punching. Liza Trombi, editor-in-chief of Locus passes out copies of the magazine.

Dinner with Nina Kiriki Hoffman and 50% of Andrea Stewart

Dinner with Nina Kiriki Hoffman and 50% of Andrea Stewart

Class ends early as we adjourn to a nearby restaurant for a big celebration with the Illustrator winners, Author Services staff, arriving judges, and returning winners. I share a table with Nina Kiriki Hoffman, my roommate Andrea Stewart, writer-winner Marilyn Guttridge (the contest’s youngest-ever winner), and Marilyn’s mom (AKA Tammy). I eat lots of sushi and Nina shows me the very cool journal she’s started keeping, filled with cards and programs and stickers and the colorful flotsam of what looks like a very interesting life. I then eat some more sushi and there is also a possibility that I consume a number of raw oysters and a dainty portion of tiramisu.

Tomorrow: Stage rehearsal for the awards ceremony

Catch up with what happened on: Day 1Day 2Day 3, Day 4


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Writers of the Future 2013, Day 3

24-hour story writers arrive at the Frances Howard Goldwyn branch of the Los Angeles Public Library

24-hour story writers arrive at the Frances Howard Goldwyn branch of the Los Angeles Public Library

Wednesday, April 10
Library Day!

As a former librarian, I’m always interested to see what a public library looks like in somebody else’s neck of the woods. We’re supposed to be researching for our 24-hour story (that will begin this afternoon!). I have this idea that I want to pick a specific-yet-random date in history and pluck an event from that day to use as the catalyst for my story. I sit down at one of the computer terminals and call up historical newspaper databases. I make a few notes about “New Smoked Halibut” and “All Prisoners in the Cook County Jail Burned to Death,” but I can’t concentrate–the deadline clock is already ticking too loudly.

In their morning talk, Tim Powers and David Farland suggested that mythology can make a good framework for a story. I head to the stacks and walk along the 200s, snagging a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I grab anything else that catches my eye, hoping that contrast and serendipity will be my friends.

Too many ideas

Too many ideas

I want to jumble things up, but maybe I jumble them too much. I take notes on El Cid, the Spanish Inquisition, the prophylactic virtues of unicorn horn, traumatic insemination in bedbugs, and the first lines from short story collections of several vintages. I am hoping that if I can’t get started, I can use the ‘translation’ method I learned from Bruce Holland Rogers last year.

After lunch it’s time for the third and most-dreaded component of the 24-hour story: Interview a Stranger. I don’t doubt that there are any number of characters along Hollywood Boulevard with whom I could strike up a conversation. But the most important qualification for me is finding an interviewee that will let me end the conversation. And who won’t want to resume when I pass by the next day. I shuffle around, clutching my notebook to my chest, trying to appear bright and open. All of the sane people are–well, sane–and aren’t particularly interested in striking up a conversation with a stranger. I covertly observe a normal-looking young man working at a sunglasses kiosk. He doesn’t have a lot of business, and he looks bored, which means he might be willing to talk. I take the plunge.

Interviewing a stranger

Interviewing a stranger

He tells me how long he has been in the U.S., how beautiful Istanbul is, and that his brother is a policeman. We chat for 20 minutes or so, then his boss arrives, and I say how nice it was talking to him and melt away into the crowd. Success! I scurry down the block to Author Services to meet up with the rest of the class. Marina Lostetter also interviewed a young man from Istanbul working at a sunglasses kiosk. But it’s not the same guy. We are given a final pep talk and released at 4pm and instructed to return at 4pm the next day, with a completed story.

Now it’s time to write.

Catch up with what happened on Day 1 & Day 2. Or read on to Day 4.