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WRiTE CLUB 2020 - Semi Final Bout #1

We're not messing around anymore! By the end of this week we will have narrowed the field down to just four and we still need to determine which two contestants will be submitting their 1,000-word writing sample to the panel of celebrity judges. In order to do that we must first hold a pair of semi-final bouts, and today is #1.

We do ask that you leave a brief critique for both of our contestants because that is one of the real values of this contest – FEEDBACK. Please be respectful with your remarks!

The voting for both of this week's bouts will close on Sunday, June 21st (noon central time).

Here once again are the voting guidelines –

1) One vote per visitor per bout.

2) Anyone can vote (even the contestants themselves), but although our contestants are anonymous, voters cannot be. Anonymous votes will not count, so if you do not have a Google account and are voting as a guest, be sure to include your name and email address.

3) Using any method (email, social media, text, etc) to solicit votes for a specific contestant will cause that contestant's immediate disqualification. It’s perfectly okay, in fact, it is encouraged to spread the word about the contest to get more people to vote, just not for a specific writer!

4) Although more of a suggestion than a rule - cast your vote before you read other comments. Do not let yourself be swayed by the opinions of others.

Without further ado...welcome back to the ring our first contestant...A. Lynne Smithee



Denny wasn't like the rest of my brothers. He wanted to be a scientist. He loved weird stuff, stuff you're not supposed to love, like bugs and weather. And math. Mama always said Denny was going places.

I shouldn't have been surprised when Denny left for college, but I was. He took me out on the porch and we sat on the edge of the steps, the concrete smooth and warm like a dish right out of the microwave. He told me he was going to Massachusetts, and that it was a long way from Oklahoma.

My other brothers didn't cry when Denny said he was leaving. When they came out on the porch and saw me crying, they called me a sissy and Marlin threw acorns at me until Denny made him stop and scooped me up in a hug. It only made me cry harder because who would make them stop once Denny was gone?

He let go of me, our sweat-soaked shirts peeling away from each other like cling wrap. "Don't worry, little brother. You'll see me again before you know it."

"But why do you have to go?"

"To learn things." He wiped the tears from my eyes with a thumb and pointed at the sky. "You remember that time we were sitting right here and we saw a star disappear?"

I nodded.

"Well, I learned why."


"It’s called dark energy," he said. "You can’t see it but it’s everywhere, and it’s pushing everything in the universe farther and farther apart. When a star disappears like that, it's still out there, it’s just gone so far away that its light will never reach us. It's going to happen to all the stars eventually."

"There won't be any more stars?"

"No," he said. "There will be new stars, but you need to remember that the old ones are out there, too. You just can't see them. Kind of like you won't be able to see me, but I'll always be there."

He was trying to make me feel better, so I smiled. We went inside and had Mama's peach cobbler for dessert and he left the next day.

It was late afternoon when I heard Daddy wailing. It didn't sound like Daddy, but like some sick animal. He and Mama were in a heap on the living room floor. "My boy. My boy," Daddy said again and again.  

When they told us Denny's plane had crashed, I didn't believe them. We dressed up nice for the funeral and I stood by a fancy vase that they said had bits of Denny inside, but it wasn't Denny.

I sat on the smooth spot on the porch every night the rest of the summer, staring at the sky until Mama would come get me. Sometimes I’d see a star blink out and disappear, and I'd think of Denny, and remember he wasn't gone, but going places, and racing away from me too fast to see.


And their most worthy opponent...give a hearty welcome to Miss_Sunflower

Berries spread across tables in the market sparkled like jewels in the sun. The scent of them added a layer of sweetness to the salt and fish from the Baltic Sea. There was a crowd wandering through, but it wasn’t oppressive or loud. People were taking their time. Summer in Finland had none of the frenetic ‘I’ve got two days to see everything’ energy I had left behind in San Francisco. I tried to read the signs on the booths by reflex, but the dual lines of Finnish and Swedish meant nothing to me. 

“Look, your metro pass is valid for the ferry to Suomenlinna,” Natalya said with excitement, pulling me closer to the docks. 

“The ferry to where?” I followed. Sure enough, the sign in front of a ferry had the same logo as the pass we’d used to get into Helsinki that morning. It also showed a photo of ruins on an island. 

“It’s the sea fortress, you’ll love it.” Natalya stopped before the sign. “You can walk the island, there’s a museum, it’s beautiful.” 

“I thought you were tired. I’m fine going back to your house.” I broke into a cold sweat. That was what we’d agreed on at lunch. 

”I’m pregnant and I need a nap, plus I’ve already been. You should see as much as you can here, without me limiting you. Go explore, and I’ll see you back at the apartment for dinner.” She grinned and pushed me towards the ramp. “I can’t wait to hear all about it!” The crowd that had seemed so open swallowed her. 

Short of screaming, ‘Natalya!’ and possibly causing an international incident, there was nothing to be done but go forward. The ferry was nearly finished loading. My hands shook as I fumbled for my metro pass in my backpack. After scanning it in the machine, I found a seat on the open deck among the other tourists. We chugged away from the docks. The city of Helsinki spread out behind us. The White Church glowed behind the square that held the market. On the other side of the bay the Red Church had gold-tipped towers that caught the light. The whole scene stole my breath. I tried to capture the moment with a photo. As I lowered the camera to my lap, my mind registered what I was hearing.

The people around me were chatting amongst themselves. That family there was speaking German. Two little boys were Spanish, those men were Italian and that couple was speaking what I thought might be Greek, there at the rail. I caught more of what I recognized as Finnish and Swedish. It was the first time in my life I had truly been alone in a foreign country. The boat rocked gently through the bay. Exhilaration made me smile. For the first time in three days of travel, anxiety, and disorientation, my shoulders loosened. My shaking stopped. I was out in the world.

“Thank you Natalya.”


Please leave your votes and critiques in the comments below. Again, be respectful of your remarks and try to point out positives as well as detraction's.

We’ll be back Thursday with our second semi-final bout. 

Please help all our writers out by telling everyone you know what is happening here and encourage them to come vote.

This is WRiTE CLUB—the contest where the audience gets clobbered!


  1. My vote is for Miss Sunflower

    For A.Lynne bond between brothers felt real, but it would have helped if there were some differences between the brothers mentioned, height, facial hair, etc. basic cues to indicate or strengthen age difference. I can also see how the younger brother would adapt Denny's explanation to cope with his passing. Not sure if the other brothers and their bullying adds a bunch to the story it felt like that could have been used to develop Denny and the younger brother more, especially since we don't see them again.

    For Miss Sunflower, loved the imagery and sensory details in your start, and how we get a feel for the character through perceiving his unfamiliar surroundings is great. There is a great sense of setting out on an adventure here and would definitely keep me reading!

  2. Oh this is the hardest one so far! It’s obvious we are in the semi-finals. These are both excellent.

    A.Lynn Smithee - You packed so many emotions into this, it’s amazing. Love, Adoration, Grief, Sadness and Hope. The last line brought a tear to my eye. The only distraction was using the same word 3 times in one paragraph (cry and crying). But I really felt the sense of loss, yet hope, that the little brother felt.

    Miss-Sunflower - I so relate to this story I feel like it was written about me. You so expertly captured the rare burst of joy that can explode in us in even mundane moments. You covered 4 of the 5 senses. I would change one sentence only to 'and that couple by the rail was speaking what I thought might be Greek.’

    Because of the intense emotion I feel every time I read the last paragraph of Starlight I have to vote for A Lynn Smithee.

  3. Congratulations, writers! Look how far you've come!

    A Lynn: This is my favorite of your stories so far. My biggest piece of feed back is that I have absolutely no idea how old the narrator is. We know Denny is the big brother who's going off to college, and we know there are a bunch of other, younger brothers, but are they all older than the narrator? I'm getting vague idea that the narrator is maybe in 5th grade and is the baby of the family, but nothing in the story backs that theory up, including the voice.

    I loved the line "...warm like a dish right from the microwave", but the shirts like cling wrap line fell flat for me. I'm just not convinced a child would make that association. Especially a boy from an Oklahoma family full of boys who chide one another and call each other sissies.

    It's a small thing, but I wish you had described both parents's heartbreak. As the mother of a son who is going away to college in a couple of months, I can assure you if I got news like this, I'd be wailing every bit as loudly as my husband.

    I agree with the person above who said a little differentiation between all the brothers would be helpful, but I also wonder if all the extra brothers are necessary. They don't really add much to the scene and removing them would give you more time to explore the dynamics between Denny and Little Brother.

    Miss Sunflower: I stumbled over your first sentence a couple of times because there's so much crammed into it. It could use some tightening, for sure. Perhaps merging it with the second sentence somehow would help. Something like:

    "The berries spread across the marketplace tables sparkled like sun-drenched jewels. Their scent gave a sweet note to the briny salt and fish aroma of the Baltic Sea." That reworking saves you three words, which you could use to your advantage elsewhere.

    You've done a fantastic job of capturing the wonder and anxiety of being in a new place all alone, but I was left wondering who Natalya is and why the MC traveled so far to see her. The last paragraph would have been a wonderful place to have the MC think about their personal growth and how far they've come on their own. It would give the reader a sense of what the character left behind and how they've grown.

    Both of these stories are fantastic, but my vote goes to Miss Sunflower.

  4. I really liked both stories today, so this is a tough decision. In the end, the dynamic between the two brothers and the emotion of A Lynn's story got to me, so I'll give my vote to A Lynne Smithee.

  5. Miss_Sunflower gets my vote. As always, the writing was glorious, plus this sample had an emotionally satisfying end that didn't come out of nowhere. A. Lynn Smithee -- I usually love your writing, but this piece's abrupt ending turned me off. It's tough to form a narrative arc with so few words, but I think I would have been better not to try so hard.

  6. A Lynne Smithee: loved the imagery and emotions. Again you pack so much into 500 words, and you make it work. Weaving the family dynamic in with the story you told was very well done. The writing is so clean. I really felt the emotions you portrayed.

    Sunflower. Nice descriptions. The beginning was a little confusing. Had to read three times to figure out who was who. With the inclusion of the ruins on the island, I got interested, but the story fell flat. A story should be about something.

    My vote, A. Lynne Smithee

  7. A. Lynne Smithee, this piece is so full of voice and heart. I loved it and teared up at the end. Very well done.

    Miss_Sunflower, the writing is strong, but beyond being a tourist who depends on others to get around, I don't know who the protagonist is or what his/her relationship to Natalya is.

    A. Lynn Smithee has my vote.

  8. Ack!!! Such a hard decision! Both stories were powerful and well matched! Ultimately, I’m gonna have to place my vote in Miss Sunflowers corner simple due to enjoying her courage in mixing it up and giving us something aside from fantasy; and enjoying her strong writing style.

    Recap: my vote goes to Miss Sunflower

  9. Miss Sunflower gets my vote, for me the writing is much more immersive.

  10. Oh, my heart. A. Lynne Smithee -- Starlight is a gem. I fell in love with the relationship between the brothers, the POV of the young boy, the message Denny communicated to a child without talking down to him, the language, the imagery (I've heard that soul-wrenching sound of a father's grief, you caught it perfectly) -- it was all captivating AND THEN the ending. Tears sprang from my eyes, are pooling there still.

    Miss Sunflower, this is a lovely piece. Well-written, the descriptions are vivid and the main character is drawn so well. I've actually had the pleasure of coming into Helsinki on a sunny day from the sea, perusing the market, hiking as far and wide as possible to do in a day, so I enjoyed this so much. I'm sorry that I fell so deeply into the other entry that ...

    I have to vote for A. Lynne Smithee. But, I wouldn't change a thing about either entry.

  11. A Lynne—I wanted to love your story but I felt no emotional connection to either character. They felt flat to me and the story was more telling than anything.

    Miss Sunflower—I loved your turn of phrases and imagery in such a short piece. Part of me wanted more, like a mystery or something big, but there’s a lot of beauty in the simplicity of the tale and the relatability of your MC.

    My vote: Miss Sunflower.

  12. My vote is for A. Lynne Smithee.

    A. Lynne Smithee: this is a sweet little story, with a clever message. I can imagine this helping soothe a distressed youngster, perhaps one of several such stories.

    Some small issues:
    Why are they sweating? That's odd. And sweaty peeling shirts is 'ewwww.'
    Does the mother have no feelings about this? She's completely silent. I find that a little disturbing.
    What are your MC's feelings about his brother's death? I'm guessing he's young so might have difficulty articulating such intense feelings, but the story slides a little too quickly over it. Perhaps something like "I didn't get out of bed for a week and Mama didn't make me."

    Miss_Sunflower: Hmm. Is this 'A woman takes a terrifying step into the unknown, alone - and survives'? Because the story I'm getting is 'A woman gets prodded to sightsee alone, has a bit of anxiety, but gets over it'. I have no idea who this woman is, so I can't care about her feelings. I wonder if perhaps you have such a strong sense of your MC in your mind, but you're forgetting to put it down on paper. Is she Natalya's 80-yr-old mother who is just out from 30 years in jail? In my head she could be.

  13. A. Lynne Smithee: What a beautiful roller coaster of emotions. For some reason I assumed the narrator was a girl, until the fourth paragraph when you made it clear. The scientist in me doesn't believe you could actually see a star disappear with the naked eye as the result of dark energy. Yes, it's pushing things farther away, but the ones that are fading beyond detection are way farther away than that. I'd have liked it more if Denny just talked about the mind-blowing idea of the universe growing too big for even the best telescopes to see. Still, the story worked beautifully for me.

    Miss_Sunflower: The sensory information was exceptionally vivid, but it took me several sentences to figure out the narrator was a visitor and not native to this scene. I would have liked a bit of explanation for why the narrator reacted to the idea of getting on the ferry with such terror, or why the terror faded away so quickly.

    I vote for A. Lynne Smithee because the last sentence makes me cry.

  14. My vote is for A. Lynne Smithee.

    Both pieces are good, but I liked how Starlight blended physics with emotion, and it touched me deeper inside.

  15. My Vote: A. Lynne Smithee

    SOBS. Great heaving sobs. So full of emotion in so few words. Bravo.

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  17. My vote is for A. Lynne Smithee! I loved this piece and hated it at the same time, but for all the right reasons. It evoked emotion that led to involuntary physical responses. To me, that is how I judge a great story or song. If it gets me to laugh out loud or tear up or gives me goosebumps, that's it. Great job and good luck!
    Miss_Sunflower had a well-written story and one I really related to but for some reason it didn't hit me as deep as the other story. Loved this one too though and I wish you luck as well.

  18. This feels like a semifinal bout.
    Hats off to Miss Sunflower. I'm so glad you didn't give us a third installment of the same story. This was a big improvement. I loved the writing. What I didn't love is the piece's lack of narrative drive. It goes nowhere, and some of the descriptive words early on make me think I'm in for a different story than you deliver. The cold sweat and short of screaming build a tension that doesn't play out.
    A. Lynne Smithee, this is the best of your pieces. It's touching but not heavy-handed, and using the stars as an analogy and as foreshadowing was brilliant. Love the voice, and the way the reader is forced to feel the emotion that the main character denies.
    Have to vote for A. Lynne Smithee.

  19. I vote for the first one.

    🌻 was good, but I wasn't as locked into it. Just not my groove.

    But that first story, yeah it was sad, but it had hope.

  20. Yeah, first one for me, too. So sad :( but in a good way.
    Sunflower, good story, but starlite gets my vote.

  21. Vote Miss Sunflower. The imagery and prose are absolutely beautiful.

  22. My vote goes to A Lynne Smithee for Starlight.

    This was beautiful, emotional and thought-provoking. I loved the metaphor with the stars disappearing. And I can almost feel the sweat-sticky shirt clinging to myself, just imagining a hot August in Oklahoma. I’m not sure how you could have done more with the 500 words you were given. Bravo.

    Miss Sunflower, I liked this story quite a bit but the first sentence is clunky. While it isn’t quite a misplaced modifier, it sounds like the tables are sparkling like jewels. I hate to key in on such a little thing, but its the opening line to the story and I had to read it three times to understand it. Otherwise, this was an adorable tale of the first step to adventure.

  23. Miss Sunflower you paint a vivid picture of a woman overcoming her anxiety, a subject that is so important. The writing is simply beautiful.
    you get my vote.
    A Lynne Smithee, good attempt at trying to make us feel, but sadly your characters are too flat and the story is too crammed that it feels you are forcing the tragedy onto us for votes. This reads very rushed and unpolished. I can't vote for something that feels like it's written for a reaction, unlike Sunflower that unfolds and is written with care.

  24. Great stories, both of you, but I have to vote for A. Lynne Smithee.
    The emotion was so real in this for me. Miss Sunflower, I like the travel log idea, and the sense of conquering your fear, but the characters were too vague for me.

  25. A. Lynne Smithee - For me, a beautiful story simply told. It would have been nice to know the general age of the narrator straight away. Otherwise, I felt the brothers' bond and all the emotions. And that last line? I had to grab a tissue.

    Miss Sunflower - The description of the market is lovely but at odds with the inner emotions of the narrator. I wish we had an inkling up front of the traveler's angst so it could connect us to her(?) him(?) and carry us through the piece. In fact, you seem to establish a sense of peace in the first paragraph, the narrator having left behind frenetic energy in SF. Then you contradict that emotion in the last paragraph. So I'm left confused. Having traveled in foreign countries by myself, I finally connected to the narrator's joy with the last line. But way too late, I'm afraid.

    My Vote: A. Lynne Smithee

  26. Miss Sunflower, the story is well written, but it seemed at first you were taking the story to something scary. Then you backed away from scary and brought the story around to the MC resolving her anxiety.

    A Lynn Smithee- The story is beautiful, and a reminder that not all beautiful stories are happy ones. The emotion was realistically portrayed, yet not overly dramatic, leading the reader to an ending that was sentimental. I teared up, read it again. Teared up again. So well done.

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    1. I'm not sure why this comment is showing as removed by the author when it wasn't - but the vote has been recorded nonetheless.

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  31. A. Lynne Smithee-- "he wasn't gone, but going places, and racing away from me too fast to see" Right in the feels! Virtual fist-bump for this. Wow. You have my vote.

    Miss_Sunflower -- I'm having trouble relating to this. There are plenty of very popular books that I can't relate to, either. I'm absolutely sure there are those who will enjoy your story. It's just not a genre that appeals to me. Good luck to you though.

  32. A. Lynne - I felt your story was a bit predictable. That said, it is well written, and it gets my vote.

    Miss_Sunflower - I wanted to connect to your character, as I love traveling, and the theme appeals to me, but there wasn't enough about the MC to make me care for her or understand her. Maybe in a short piece, you could have zoom in on her anxiety? Your description of the market was lovely, but I would've preferred if you described what was at stake.

  33. miss sunflower gets my vote todaY

  34. Lynne: a sweet family story. But the abrupt turn at the end, from out of nowhere, feels forced and dramatic. I don’t know enough about the MC to be invested.

    Sunflower: excited to see a brand new piece. It took me a couple reads to figure out where MC was and why she was so nervous. It’s nice to see a bit of character arc.

    I vote for Sunflower.

  35. Great writing in both!
    My vote goes to A Lynne - that connection between the 2 brothers will stay with me

  36. Very tough. Both have an emotional weight. I'd like to know more of why the protagonist in the second snip is afraid of travelling by herself. Looking again at the first piece, it's almost like the conversation about stars is a kind of foreshadowing... Voting for Miss_Sunflower!

  37. Congratulations to both semi-finalists with such strong writing!

    A. Lynne Smithee: What an emotional whallop. In such a short piece, there were a few things that confused me that you probably would have fleshed out of you had a few more words (age difference, and why didn’t Denny say anything sooner?) I actually appreciated the rush through the ending - death can make us feel like we are living in a daze, so we can see he’s not quite processing it - especially since he wants to believe Denny is exploring even bigger worlds. Also liked the description of how Dad handled the news.

    Miss_Sunflower: What vivid descriptions that really landed you in the scene-right down to the fact that even though she couldn’t read the language, she recognized the logo. I probably would have introduced Natalya as her guide earlier on - she feels a bit like she comes out of nowhere, but I also feel like this is part of a larger piece, so she may have already been there. Personally, the emotional payoff at the end didn’t work because I would be beyond freaked out at that point. But I feel this might be a chapter in a longer story where it would work.

    My vote goes to A. Lynne Smithee.

  38. My vote is for A Lynne Smithee. Another great story.

  39. A. Lynne. Smithee - I'll start by saying, I like this story better than the seal one. It is well written, and your attempt to pull at heart strings works. Using the galaxy as a way to tell the tale is a nice choice (better than the seals, for sure!) That being said, there are parts that I think could be improved, and parts that for this reader, don't work.

    I wish you had given some indication as to when this story took place in the MC's past. Is it a day after the event, a year, 10 years? Depending on when it occurred will affect the characters voice, which in parts reads inconsistent. If the boy is still a child it is unlikely he would use phrases like "cling wrap pulling apart," but if he's an adult or older child, some of the phrases sound much too young. On editing, I would make the timeframe clear, that way you can adjust the voice to be consistent throughout the piece.

    I'm confused with the mentioning of the older brothers. They get a few lines and never appear again, not even when their sibling dies. It seems their only purpose in the story is to make the MC appear more of a victim, as they only show up to tell us the MC also gets bullied. I wish instead they had been used to show that they'd be there for him when his brother left. That would have set a better overall tone.

    It's a nice story, but it was so obvious in the way it was set-up/ foreshadowed that something terrible was going to happen to Denny, it made the writing seem forced. In a longer piece it may have worked better, but in 500 words it felt much too rushed. Denny just leaving for college could have worked to produce a similar feeling of loss for the younger brother that would have felt more organic. I think if this was reworked to take out what feels very forced: the mentioning of bullying and the death that is so obviously coming, it would be a much stronger piece of writing. These factors don't feel authentic, but feel as if they've been added simply to pull on a reader's emotions.

    Miss Sunflower - I have to admit to not fully understanding your previous entries, though your writing skill has won me over regardless. You have a way with words that is clearly poetic. This piece feels very different from your other two, but it showcases again your talent for putting the right words together - the unusual setting jumps off the page thanks to the sights and sounds you manage to convey.

    There are some parts I feel could be improved on edit. The sentence where Natalya says: "I'm pregnant and need a nap," does not feel very authentic. I interpret from this piece that the traveler with Natayla knows her, so her saying:"I'm pregnant," read very much as being there for a reader's sake. Surely her companion would know this fact? To improve, I'd suggest finding a way to show us that she's pregnant, instead of telling us.

    I also found the last paragraph a little confusing in the way it was written. The use of phrases like: "that family there," "those men were" etc. The text reads a too wordy. I think you could simplify that paragraph, and it would read better.

    Lastly, I think the very last sentence might work better as an internal thought, rather than as spoken words, which it appears to be.

    I have to add, I do not understand one person's comment on this piece of writing, who wrote: "A story should be about something."
    The story is clearly about something. It is about traveling to unknown lands, stepping out into adventure on one's own, it's about self-exploration and about discovery. Honestly comments like that in the quarter final where writers have earned their spot, or any round for that matter, are hard to read, and border on disrespectful.

    Both entries could easily win my vote, but as I need to choose one, I'm going to vote for Sunflower, as I had a stronger emotional feeling to it. I could see myself there, smell the salt and fish as I read, and that takes incredible skill.

    Vote: Miss Sunflower.

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  41. Wow great stories my vote is fro A. Lynne Smithee

  42. My vote is for A. Lynne Smithee. A beautifully written story that allows the reader to feel sentiment, without being overly emotional. It is told almost mater of factly, but still the last line is powerful enough to bring a tear to the eye.

    Miss Sunflower wrote a good story, entertaining and inviting. Nice descriptions of places and people. It seemed to be taking me to a different place, and the end was a bit disappointing. But well done over all.

    My vote goes to A. Lynne Smithee

  43. what a great semi final you are all having. I really like these amateur writers efforts, well done.
    If I am not too late to vote, I would chose the piece that Miss Sunflower has provided as it shows such courage and is an issue I think women can relate to, men too for that matter. I would edit your work, for publication though, but as this appears to be part of a novel I would be interested to read the synopsis, to clarify some points before advising you further.

  44. Oh my! Smithee pulling at the heart strings. This story was very good. I went past the summer and was wondering what happened to the little brother? I needed more than disappearing stars.

    I loved Miss Sunflower's descriptions. Makes me want to go on a vacation!

    My vote goes to Miss Sunflower.

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