Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Grammar and Punctuation Refresher Quizzes

Grammar and punctuation aren't always easy. Rules can vary depending on what context you are writing, whether it be for a novel or a newspaper. There are also personal stylistic preferences. Plus you have dialogue, where almost anything goes. And just when you think you have it all figured out, a sly sentence will sneak along that would stump even the savviest Grammar Nazis. But there are general rules that will always apply—or at least if you apply them, you won't be wrong.

Back in the 10th grade in my alma mater of Royalton-Hartland High School in Middleport, New York, all students were forced to take a refresher grammar course. We scoffed at the notion that we didn't already know how to write. I mean, we were sophomores for God's sake! But it turned out to be one of the best additions to the school's curriculum. It helped solidify some of the rules we had forgotten.

I don't want to make this blog post about what are the proper ways to use a comma, or when to use "which" and "that" and so on. But I think a lot of writers should take the time to review all the grammar and punctuation websites and books out there so they will feel more comfortable with what they type.

In my recent role as proofreader for published authors, I would say the most common mistakes are in the usage of commas, numbers, and not writing in the active voice. Commas are the biggie, whether lack of, or in desperate overuse of.

There are a ton of free grammar/punctuation quizzes on to help. Here are a few:

All free quizzes on Have fun!

Recommended books:

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Monday, November 30, 2015

Hyundai Dealership Misdiagnoses Car Repair and Forgets Engine Cover

"No one likes a car payment."

That's the response I got from an assistant supervisor at Brown's Hyundai in Manassas today. And that's true. No one looks forward to high repair bills. But should one pay for misdiagnosed work?

On 9/23/2015 I took my car to Brown's Hyundai at 8651 Centreville Rd. in Manassas, Virginia. My car would crank repeatedly before starting. Sometimes I'd have to turn the key five or six times before it would catch. The car also hesitated when quickly accelerating.

I took the car to the manufacturer's dealership because they are supposed to know the most about their vehicles. Albeit, they charge an arm and a leg to get any work done. But for $126, they said they would diagnose the problem. And they did. They stated on their invoice that I needed a new fuel pump/filter, and possibly a fuel pressure regulator. Total cost for parts and labor: $940.

Two parts, all self-contained. Knowing that dealerships tend to amp up their parts and labor prices, I had a trusted service center do the replacements for $500--nearly half the price. And the parts were OEM Hyundai parts. But it didn't solve the problem.

For over two months I dealt with this, often sitting in a parking lot and cranking in intervals every 10-20 seconds until the car would start up again. The service center did a second replacement of the fuel pump/filter (just in case), at their own cost of time and labor, and that still did not correct the problem. They even replaced the fuel pressure regulator for free. Still no fix.

So today I took the car back to the Hyundai dealership for a second diagnosis. The first time they spent less than half an hour on it. This time--nearly two hours. Subsequently, they determined that the fuel pump "works as designed," and that the cause was simply bad spark plugs and wires. For $660, they'd replace those.

I asked both the assistant supervisor and write-up personnel if they would give me any discount on that service cost. I already shelled out $625 for a misdiagnosis. They relayed the information to the supervisor and came back with a frank, 'No.' They said (of course) that if I had the work done there, they would stand behind it. So I asked point blank, "So you are telling me that if I had paid that $940 and that did not fix the problem, that you would have replaced the spark plugs and wires for free until the problem was fixed?" The answer I got was a roundabout, and the word "yes" was not included. And they didn't even want to stand by their original diagnosis.

So they wrote up a ticket for $660 for new plugs and wires, and added $330 for a possible crankshaft sensor. I left, of course, frustrated that the dealership in which I purchased the car could be so untrustworthy and unwilling to work with me.

Five minutes later I pulled into a parking lot and lifted the hood to make sure everything was okay. And lo and behold, they FORGOT TO PUT THE ENGINE COVER BACK ON. Not only did the tech guy forget that (how can you miss a part half the size of a human body?), but he didn't even know which cylinder was #5 when we looked over the engine together. "No, that's not 5, 5 is in the back,"  I said.

Lesson? I think the lesson here is that dealerships need to work with their customers when they make mistakes. It can only lead to more pleasant outcomes, and repeat service.


Follow-up: My trusted service center, Automo's on Euclid Ave., replaced the spark plugs and wires for $375, much cheaper than the $660 the Hyundai dealership quoted.

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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Black Saturday at McKay Used Books

Another fun time for one and all at McKay Used Books in Manassas, Virginia today. Here are some photos of happy patrons who came to my signing and made white paper bag trees. Perfect for Christmas. Get the new Dollar Store Crafts & Recipes book for yourself or as a gift.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Time Management for Authors

Wouldn't it be nice if you just had time to write? To be able to sit down in your favorite spot and produce awesome, inspired work that both you and your readers can enjoy? To roll around in those fictional worlds in your mind for hours on end?

You can, but I'm seeing a lot of would-be authors who knowingly or unknowingly place roadblocks in their path from the paradise they dream about. I hope this blog post helps remove some of them.

Like many others, I'm a member of a writing group. I'm a member of several Facebook groups about writing. I am also someone who helps writers format their books, design their book covers, and self-publish their finished work. But mostly, I'm an author...and a filmmaker. Through both I have learned many things that keep me focused and on top of my projects. Here's how I do it:

1. Don't take on more than you can handle
I have never owned a day planner, or scheduler, or an app to schedule. Occasionally, I will write myself a note or Post-it so I don't forget an engagement (Book signing on Friday). Hey, I'm over 50, so it's okay. But if you are booking yourself up to the point that you need to write it all down, then you are sacrificing your writing time.

2. Don't join so many organizations
I always get this picture in my head of Marcia Brady at the school bulletin board signing up for every after-school activity. Remember that? She wanted to be popular, or involved, or whatever. The moral of that episode was "don't stretch yourself thin." Don't sign up for every writing seminar, forum, round-table discussion, meet and greet you can. Why do you do that? It's to avoid writing, but feel as though you're still somehow involved in the writing process. It's a mirage.

3. Cut back on Social Media
Wow, is this a BIGGIE. Just think how much time you'd save by not checking Facebook constantly, "liking" posts, and reading what others are doing. Here's my take on social media: Only engage in social media as a reward to your day's work. If you've written 1000 words, or 2000, or whatever, and feel as though you've accomplished something in that day, then go online. Make it a reward. Catch up with your friends. But don't spend all day checking. That breaks your concentration, actually rewires your brain to not handle long spans of focused activity, you really need to view or share so many cat memes? No, you don't. It's a waste of time, a cop-out, and a deliberate distraction.

4. Don't pick projects you aren't fully passionate about
This may seem obvious, but you really have to WANT to see the end goal of a project before you start it. If you have a minor interest in a story, don't do it. Ask yourself, "Will I still be interested in this story two or three years down the line?" If not, don't start it. Find something else that floats your boat. As you know, writing takes a lot of energy.

5. Make ONE goal and complete it
Not sure why I made this the last tip, because it's the most important. Do you want to write a children's book, or a Sci-Fi novel? Do you have short stories you've written and perfected since your adolescence or early adult life that you want to put together in a nice bound book? Whatever it is, stick to ONE goal and complete it, especially if you've never published a thing. Why? Because you want to get your first effort completed. There's plenty of time to follow up with other books you have in mind. But you need to get ONE done, and then you will feel that awesome sense of accomplishment. And each project after will build on that. You'll KNOW you can do it, because you will have physical proof.

Follow these simple rules and you are sure to get something out there. And, oh, what a relief it is! You did it. You got yourself a book. You...succeeded!

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Dollar Store Craft Book Brings Out the Kid in Everyone

The new Dollar Store Crafts & Recipes book is out and selling! On October 17, 2015, kids and adults took part in my book signing at McKay Used Books in Manassas, VA. I set up a craft station next to the book table where patrons could make paper bag trees. Here are some of the pictures from the event. Next signing will be at the Evergreen Home and Craft Fair in Haymarket, VA, October 24, 10 am - 4 pm.

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Monday, August 31, 2015

Typos Mean You're Brilliant

There's this little thing called your brain. And inside that brain, as you may have heard, are lots and lots of neurons. Our thoughts and memories are dependent upon those neurons connecting through intricate pathways. Once they connect through those pathways, over and over again, memories can be easily stored and retrieved. These pathways are like flattened grass in a field, dirt-covered trails in the woods, and those welcome tire tracks on the highway after a heavy snowfall. They are the easiest paths to take.

But what if that memory is incorrect, i.e., you've typed the word "on" but you meant the word "one"? Once it is set in stone, or goo, or however you want to describe that gray matter in your head, it's hard to see it another way. And that's the problem.

So, what causes typos in the first place? Much of the time it's simply that we are not able to type as fast as we think. Take, for example, this typo I caught in my Drug Commercials on the Evening News poem:

It makes we wonder, and gives me a fright
Why they show these ads, night after night

What happened here was my mind was thinking about the word "wonder" while I was typing "me." So the "waa" sound got imparted onto "me" and turned it into "we." I was ahead of the game. Brilliant. See?

We make mistakes because these things called computers with their keyboards and such still aren't up to par with the capabilities and speed of the human mind. Should we slow down our thoughts until our hands catch up? What good would that do? Some of the best ideas come when our minds race at breakneck speed. Why interrupt that flow to catch a few typos?

When it comes to editing, everyone is guilty of missing typos. It's back to that old pathway thing. When you read a sentence or a paragraph over and over again on the screen, seeing it the same way on a letter-sized document on the screen, for instance, it sorta digs the trench deeper. Our minds fill in the mistakes with the way we heard them in our head. We are so brilliant that we autocorrect. The best way to jump out of that trench and recreate a new pathway is to look at your writing in a different way.

Print it out on paper. Reformat the document with different margins so words shift around. View it on a different device, like a tablet or phone. Have it read back to you with a text-to-speech program. Or have a proof copy printed and read it like a finished book. Suddenly, typos jump off the page. They scream back at you. It makes your stomach ache and your heart plunge. Oh my god, I look so stupid. How did I not see that?!

You didn't see that...because you're brilliant.

Also read: How to Edit Your Own Book

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Smart Car Hacking Predicted in Horror Story

It's happening. Just as planned. Well, just as I had predicted it would in my short story "Bad Drivers" from the People Who Need To Die collection of satirical horror stories. Smart cars are being remotely controlled by hackers, giving them the ability to control steering, braking, and other driving functions.

It's been in the news over the past few weeks. Cars connected to the Internet can be as vulnerable as your mobile phone or computer. And no one thought about protecting them. Also as predicted, entire traffic systems can become compromised. Imagine having your steering wheel wrenched from your grip and your accelerator pedal dropping down to full throttle. The light suddenly changes to red and you are about to plunge through cross traffic like a speeding bullet. You probably won't survive.

In my story, set in 2021, I go a step further. Not to spoil the outcome, you'll want to read "Bad Drivers" on Amazon. Or, do yourself a favor and read the entire collection to see what happens to obnoxious cell phone users, horrible bosses, litterbugs, spammers, Internet trolls, mean neighbors, even Black Friday shoppers in six years.

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Saturday, August 8, 2015

Little Free Library at The New School in Manassas

Today was the ribbon cutting ceremony for the first Write by the Rails Little Free Libraries, which will reside at The New School building (also the Old Town Historic Post Office) at 9108 Church Street, Manassas, Virginia. Little Free Libraries will be placed around the area to encourage reading for both children and adults. "Take a book, leave a book" is the motto of the project, which has spread across the country.

Among those attending were Councilman Ian Lovejoy, Alice Mergler, Lee Mergler, Jim Barnes from the Washington Post, Gary Miller, and authors Belinda Miller, Dan Verner, Nick and Stacia Kelly, June Forte, and Victor Rook (me). Here are some of the pictures of the event:

Authors from Write by the Rails and Councilman Ian Lovejoy gather outside The New School building.

Belinda Miller, Stacia Kelly, and Councilman Ian Lovejoy place books into the Little Free Library.

The New School founder Alice Mergler adds a book to the library.

The first to make use of the library. Cooper Mergler (right) gets copies of Belinda Miller's Phillip's Quest book.

Nick Kelly with another Little Free Library.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

My NanoWriMo Novel Open: 700 Words

Here is a the beginning of my novel for National Novel Writing Month of 2014. It's about a writer trying to concentrate while dealing with noisy neighbors....who may have to die for his art to flourish. Should I continue with it? Tell me in the comments section. It will be divided into Days like a diary.

Day 1

It took me eight goddamn months to get the courage to write my first novel. All that time I wasted away in my car, or in my bedroom, or on the couch, pecking away at that old NEC Mobile Pro 790 unit I purchased on ebay way back in, oh, 1998? I got it because I hate the idea of sitting at this damn console, this monstrosity. How can you get creative on a work computer?

So I typed away, or at least tried to type away, on those tiny keys on that tiny device that looked so cute and compact and portable and all, but, fuck. It's too damn hard to type on. Sure it has great features, like instant on, tap screen, and that mini version of Windows known as Windows CE or Windows Lite or some shit like that. That's all you need, really. If it can save characters, allow you to italicize and bold and indent, then that's all you need. That's all I need, at least. And the screen just glows at night, making it so inviting to type my masterpiece in the mystery of darkness.

The truth: the damn keys are too small, and my mind, my goddamn mind, moves faster than I can type. I peck away, and I'm a good pecker, I have a good pecker, oh, that was uncalled for, but, you see, this is sorta how I got myself to this point. I started typing stupid stuff. Every time I got a hold of that terrific little thing, I wrote shit about what was going on in my head. I made it my diary. And how sad it is that part of my daily entries were how scared I was to type on that damn thing because my mind moves faster than I can type. I want it to flow...and it does my mind, at least. But my nimble fingers would accidentally hit the caps lock AND THEN EVERYTHING I TYPED HAD TO BE RETYPED AGAIN.

So I switched to the Dana. Oh, you've never heard of the Dana? Also a remnant of the '90s, it's this one-piece blue plastic thing that has a battery life of like twenty days and a full-size keyboard. That was the attraction there. That was what I needed. I needed a full-sizer. Then I could sit in my car, or on the couch, or on my bed, and type my masterpiece.

But the fuckin' thing has a screen about half the height of my middle finger. About fives lines at a time is all it'll show. But that's fine, really. Except the damn backlight is so weak and it's that '90s green color. Who can type on a screen with a green backlight? And if I used it during the day, you had to angle it just right so you can actually see the light-black text. Lovely keyboard, fucking awful screen. Another $200 wasted.

So shit. My main console is actually the best for writing. I mean, I can prop my legs over the left side of the desk—the one I purchased twenty years ago in 1984 after college—and slouch my butt down in the chair so my hands hit the keyboard at the optimal angle. And that's perfect. Perfect, except, I'm sitting where I don't want to be sitting to be creative. GOD, how I hate that. But, it will have to do. Because I refuse to have my fingers ttripp up on those other keyboards, or have to squint my eyes to see what I've written.

So today, I begin my novel. My masterpiece. And just three minutes in I'm reminded why I hate sitting at my desk in my home.

"Papi! Papi!" Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

My neighbors and their bratty kids. It's starting again. That pounding and screaming and pounding and running and screaming and fucking non-stop noise that makes me want to...want to...

Well, this day is shot. Can't do it with all that noise. And I really can't pick up my HP tower and take it with me to my car, or my couch, or my bedroom.

Maybe it's a sign. That I shouldn't be writing a novel anyway.

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Write By The Rails Authors Build First Little Free Library

Authors craft words together. Today, several authors from Write By The Rails, the Prince William County chapter of the Virginia Writers Group, became craftsmen (and women) of a different sort by constructing one of several Little Free Library boxes to be placed throughout the area. Spearheaded by children's book author Belinda Miller, these cases will allow readers young and old to freely take out and add books for the enjoyment of the community.

First little library awaiting a door, paint, and fabulous embellishments.
A first prototype was constructed in just a few hours using donated recycled materials. Authors Dan Verner and Nick Kelly repurposed a few shelving panels and a solid birch top to create one of the now five designated libraries. We are still in need of more wood, hinges, knobs, and plexiglas, so if you have these supplies and would like to donate, email Belinda at

Here are some pictures from today's event:

This shell will be transformed into something amazing.

The cheering section and nail sorters.

A donated cabinet to be converted into an indoor free library.

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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Ushering Myself Ahead: Flip Phone to Smartphone

This is it. Make or break. The time has come. The time has long come.

In ten days I will switch over from my handy, hard-to-break flip phone to my new Android-based smartphone. I've held back for two reasons: my monthly plan with increase from $30 to $45, and I've been reluctant to fall into the generation of "eyes glued to portable screens."

Albeit, I've had an Android tablet for over three years now, but that never leaves the house. So I don't check Facebook or Twitter or anything when I'm away, just an occasional voice or text message. However, I find it necessary for me to upgrade so I can accept credit card payments with the Square app and attachment. You need Android 2.3 or greater and, unfortunately, my tablet bottomed out at Android 2.2.1. That was the last and final firmware upgrade.

So I am here to make a pledge on what I will and will not do with my smartphone. I hope you do the same.

1. I will never operate the phone while driving.

2. I will never have my phone "on" to check Facebook flags or Tweets or incoming calls when I am with people. I will reserve that for quiet times alone, like in a parked car after scarfing down a burger.

3. I WILL use the phone to take better photos of things I may miss when I do not have my professional Lumix camera handy. There are times when the flip phone's low-resolution camera just doesn't cut it.

4. I WILL use Instagram, as I hear that's gaining popularity among authors and readers...even more so than Twitter. Plus, it will be nice to shoot photos directly into apps when I'm in the woods or at an event. The immediacy is appealing.

In my "Cell Phonies" short story within People Who Need To Die, overly obnoxious smartphone users meet their bitter end in 2021. So I have less than six years to set a good example. 'Cause, it's gonna happen. And I don't want to end up like these people. Wish me luck!

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Donate Supplies for Little Free Libraries

Write by the Rails, the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club, of which I am a member, is proud to announce that we will be building several (perhaps as many as ten) small free library cases within the area. But we need your help.

We need screws, nails, pallets or wood, plywood, trim, paint, shingles, plexiglas, etc. If you have any of these items and would like to donate, please tell us what you have to donate in the comments section of this blog post and contact Belinda Miller at

Thank you!


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Friday, June 12, 2015

Bull Run Observer Covers Local Author Fair

Thank you to the Bull Run Observer for writing a piece on the May 23 Author Fair at the Bull Run Library in Manassas. Observer writer Heidi Baumstark spent several minutes with many authors, including myself, and included details about our work in her article. Below are images of the paper taken by writer Kathy Moya.

People Who Need To Die is mentioned in the bottom two paragraphs on the left.

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Manassas First Friday Catches on Big Time (6/4/2015)

The overcast weather didn't dampen the spirits of hundreds of town seekers who came out this first Friday of June 2015 to enjoy good eats and good treats. I was skeptical about First Friday ever taking off -- I've sat outside and sold books on a couple and it didn't seem to be much different than any other Friday--but it's obvious now that word has gotten out! And it's just what the city needed.

Tonight there were musicians, artisans, authors (Belinda Miller, Carol Covin, Dan Verner, and Nancy Kyme), period actors, and just a lot of folks having fun. Cornhole tournaments and chalk drawing contests filled Center Street. Several shops had free cookies and drinks to entice patrons.  And tomorrow, June 6, is the Railway Festival, which is sure to draw more people into Old Town. I'll be signing my books in front of Prospero's from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m. Enjoy these pictures from tonight, and we'll see you on the next First Friday, July 3, one day before Independence Day! Vic

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Everyone Should Write Their Memoir

It was only seven years ago when I began writing books. I was forty-five years old and my mother had just passed away. I started with a simple, four-page story called, "My Mother, My Sister, and Their Dogs." It detailed, jokingly, how every time I'd come to visit, they'd spend two minutes with me and the rest of the visit mollycoddling their dogs. "Do you have to go out?" "Make that funny sound. A-woo-woo-woo. A woo-woo-woo." I wrote it with no intention of writing a full book.

Then little moments in my life crept into mind: the day my mother took us to Tastee Freez three times, how I fixated on the Swivel Sweeper box in CVS one afternoon, and all the shitty jobs I'd had in my life. I turned each of those moments into little short stories. Some as short as two book pages. Most, no more than four. After two years I had fifty-one anecdotes, and so I put them all together in my first book, Musings of a Dysfunctional Life.

Like a lot of writers who take to the task to share their experiences in life, I just needed to get it all out. It was therapeutic. And I wanted all my trials and tribulations written down before they slipped from my head. I knew that someday I'd want to look back at them. Recently I pulled that book out and reread a few. It was amazing. And I'm so glad I did it. And my friends, family, and strangers have connected with it as well.

There seems to be this belief that you must be famous or have accomplished something grand in the public eye to write a memoir. I remember after I finished Musings, I told a local bartender about it. She said, "You've written a memoir because you've done what?" I was taken aback and hurt by her lack of enthusiasm, but I understood where she was coming from. Who am I to write about my life and myself? Well, I'm here to tell you that you should do it because your life experiences are important. They're important because you may have triumphed over pain or overcome obstacles that will help others. For me it was an alcoholic father, being lonely, gay, and dealing with a lot of shit-ass people in my life. Plus you can also make people laugh. You don't have to be famous to do that. As a matter of fact, I've read several autobiographies from public figures. Outside of their claims to fame, many have led pretty boring, uneventful lives.

So start simple. Think of a moment in your life: first bicycle, first bully, first kiss, etc. And write down the memory as if you were telling a friend. Detail how you felt at the time. It doesn't have to be long. You'll know you're done when you've exhausted all you can say about it. Then, move on to another memory. Let it flow from your head to paper. This is not the time to hold back. People like sincerity. Write one a week and you'll have a book to share in a year. How cool is that?

Below is a list of books on writing memoirs that I found helpful while writing my own. They were very encouraging.

Oh, and that bartender. I'm on my fourth book and she's still serving beers seven years later. So, yes, I have accomplished something. Bitch. ;o)

Helpful books:
Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas
Writing Your Life by Patti Miller
Advice for Writers by Jon Winokur

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Baby Owls in Oak Tree with Names (5/18/2015)

Two of the three babies are moving around the large oak tree, and now they have names. Victor (named by the homeowner after moi) was the first to come out of the nest. Sophie came second. We still can't find the third runt, but hear noises now and then. They hide really well! Enjoy these images taken today.

Victor flew to the nearby maple tree while the lawn was being mowed. Daddy was close by.

Momma sleeps while baby Sophie peeks. I filmed Sophie getting preened as well.

Baby Sophie sitting in a tree, looking at me.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Proud Daddy Owl and Baby (5/13/2015)

Two of the babies are out of the nest. One was sleeping in the oak tree this morning. We can't seem to find the other two critters. They easily camouflage. But we did spot daddy looking proud within a backdrop of ivy. Love that picture. Here they are:

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