I have a confession to make: for many, many years I did not understand what was meant by the word trope. I started writing long before Google could answer all our questions, or Alexa or Siri would provide information on topics we never considered asking about before the advent of such all-knowing apps.

I gradually came to understand, thanks to certain publishing houses, what was meant by the word and I thought that I would likely never be writing such things. My books didn’t fit the mold of billionaire cowboys or secret babies.

Or so I thought.

I attended a monthly presentation of my writer’s group a few months back and the topic was just this subject, only it focused more on characterization than on plot. To my surprise, I came to realize that I was guilty of using some of these stereotypes, even if in a superficial way, and it’s changed the way I look at my characters, especially my heroine. (A quick shout out to the presener, Katharine Ashe, for her insightful and eye-opening workshop!)

These characterization tropes included:

  • the misogynist – the woman-hater who just hasn’t met the right woman
  • the harasser – the guy you’d call HR about at work if you didn’t label him the hero
  • the rebuilder – he destroyed her, now he seeks to rebuild her
  • the exception – she’s the only woman in the world like this
  • the stooge – a woman so clumsy she can’t walk to the car without falling down

There were other plot tropes discussed – two people vastly unequal in terms of wealth or sexual experience, stalkers, coming to the rescue, the evil overly-sexed female who seeks to foil the H/H.

I think tropes are used because they are easy, or as easy as it gets in writing a book. They lend themselves to some fairly straightforward conflicts and resolutions and many readers like that “formula” for their books. But I think in a genre that is largely written by and for women, we need to do better. Now don’t think I’m waving a feminist flag here – I’m not intentionally doing that. I’ve nothing against feminism but I’m talking primarily about good fiction. The fact that it lends itself to strong female characters is just a bonus.

As writers, we need to push the boundaries at all times, on all subjects to move our genre forward, to attract new readers, and explore the topics that are meaningful to our audience. Could you imagine 30 years ago reading a story about female spies in WWII (The Alice Network) or a biracial romance set during the Civil War (An Extraordinary Union) or a female economist who hires a male prostitute (The Kiss Quotient)? When I starting reading romance in the early 80s, it was about virgins in their early twenties who fell for the wounded, rich, powerful male in his mid to late thirties.

Flip that trope. Smash it. Tweak it in new and exciting ways. Use this diverse, wonderfully chaotic world we live in to set the stage and background for your characters to explore. It can be frightening – what if your editor or reader don’t like it? Tropes are safe. Tropes sell.

So do things that break the story ceiling. Harry Potter. The Help. The Firm.

It won’t be easy but as they say, nothing good every comes without hard work. We’re writers. We’re used to hard work.

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Speak to the dragon

I went on a writer’s retreat recently. Nothing fancy or organized; just me and another writer friend hold up in a nice cabin in the mountains with nothing to distract us but a lot of trees, the view and a hot tub. Since it’s July the hot tub wasn’t all that distracting, but man oh man that view could suck up your attention.

I’m starting to fight the effects of carpal tunnel and even with an ergo keyboard my left wrist is not happy with all the hours I spend typing. I even bought a new keyboard recently – one of those very expensive split keyboards – to see if that will help. It arrives on Wednesday so I’ll report back later. But in an effort to stem the pain, I’ve been looking into Dragonspeak, or something similar, and my friend actually uses the software.

His process is more manual. He writes out his pages long hand then simply dictates them; what he calls ‘talking to the computer.’ I thought of trying it but found my writer brain is not a linear thing. I write a sentence, then edit it, go back a few paragraphs, edit some more, tweak another couple of words, add a comma, delete a comma, fix the typos then erase the whole thing and start again. It’s not a process that lends itself to dictation.

I know many writers that use such software so I’m very curious how they get it to work for them. Perhaps it’s like so many other things associated with writing a novel  – it takes practice.

Meanwhile, I wear a lidocaine patch on my left hand and wait for my new keyboard. I’m also going to see the chiropractor to see if she can help.

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If you didn’t know that means too stupid to live.  I’m not sure who came up with the term but it’s a common ailment in horror movies where the busty blonde tries to escape the serial killer by going down the dark stairs into the even darker basement while wearing 4 inch stilettos and a bra that wouldn’t hold a lusty thought much less the triple-D bosums bouncing in a too-small shirt.

I had an epipheny during a random binge of apocalypse movies. Writers use TSTL in order to create conflict. The family fleeing the coming zombie horde always goes back for the missing teddy bear and gets eaten by the zombie hiding in the living room. The lone woman survivor who has the last working car stops for the poor stranded guy and has her car stolen, if she’s lucky, and gets murdered and/or raped if she doesn’t. The idiots fleeing the pending volcanic explosion can’t find water when the  landscape is literally covered in snow and the earth is exploding in fire. Oy.

This is not conflict in case anyone is wondering. Or at least not good conflict. Yes, it creates a situation for excitement and creates a need for characters to make hard choices but they are usually (intentionally?) wrong choices in the heat of the moment. Then these wrong choices become fodder for the next series of fake conflicts and bad choices until, by luck, a few survive their own stupidity to make it to the end of the story.

Conflict is different than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Conflict requires sacrifice. Conflict requires growth. Conflict requires opposition, not just physical opposition where there’s a zombie coming to eat your brains but opposition through moral and ethical dilemmas that test a characater’s mettle. So if you want to use the zombie coming at you to eat your brains for a conflict, at least add the twist that the main character can save only one of their two children in the room.

Think of the classic Romancing the Stone when Jack has the long sought after emerald in one hand and a dangling-off-the-cliff Joan in the other. Now that’s conflict! One dream or the other? The right thing or the wanted thing?  While the choice may seem easy to you and me, for Jack it takes a moment’s thought and it’s not “do I let her die or keep the big shiny rock?” It’s more a decision of “can I have them both?” Because that’s so often what conflict comes down to – can your character have both what s/he’s always wanted/dreamed of/worked for AND this new thing they didn’t even know they wanted until they had it in their grasp?

The answer is usually no and when they finally make the leap they discover that this new thing was worth it and what they really always wanted. Happily ever after ensues.

Don’t forget the zombies or the dark basements or the volcanic eruptions because let’s face it, those make for good reading. Just don’t let that be the only conflict in your book.

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Memories of romance

I am working on a romance story and trying not to kill people. No, not REAL people. Imaginary people. I primarily write romantic suspense and this is a straight romance but that mystery element keeps poking its head into my story. Even in the first book of this series, there was a minor mystery element so hopefully I can get away with that minor mystery element again.

I started to think back to my (much) younger years and my early dating days, that first moment you see someone, that first touch, the first kiss.  But I also started to remember those other moments, the moments that don’t normally get pegged as big romantic moments but hold a special place in the memory nonetheless. What makes you feel romantic when with that special someone? Not a tear-their-clothes-off kind of feeling. This is gentler, sweeter.

Here are a few of my memories that generated the heart-melting, breath-stealing moments.

Sitting next to one another in the car. Not just both in the front seat, but sharing the driver’s side, thighs touching, one hand entwined with the other person’s, leaning into one another on the turns. You’re sharing space and it surrounds you with intrigue and possibility.

Holding hands. Have you ever had someone hold your hand, and their thumb is making little circles on the inside of your palm or wrist? The warmth radiates outward from that single point of contact. There’s nothing sweeter in my opinion than holding hands with the one you love. Or even like a lot.

That smile when they see you unexpectedly. And you can tell from the way the smile reaches their eyes and fills their face they are truly happy to see you.

Comfortable silence. It takes a certain level of security with another person to sit in silence and not feel the urge to fill that with pointless conversation. Not to say that your voice is unwelcome. But it’s ok to not say anything.

Grocery shopping. OK. I know that’s weird but one of the best relationships I ever had was with a person with whom I enjoyed going to the grocery store. We would plan a meal, or even get a craving for something weird and go shop for the ingredients, come back to the house and cook. Easy conversation filled the time. Laughter when we’d mess up the recipe which happened quite often. Delight when we got it right.

So those are my memories of romance. Since I’m feeling less than romantic these days, I try and pull out these memories when writing because I do remember that heady feeling when you see your special person enter a room. It’s a feeling I want to capture for my readers.

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Building the business

Passion. Obsession. Dream. Delusion. All are words that have been used when speaking about me and my writing. I’ve received my share of eye rolls and my share of pats on the back. Contest wins and losses. Rejections. Classes and conferences and speaking engagements. Even publication. Through it all, I’ve tried to “sell” both myself and my books with varying degrees of success but I never approached it like a business until 2014. 

I think this is where writers fail the biggest, not as writers but as business owners. Read that word again: OWNERS. Whether we self-publish or go a more traditional route or do a hybrid journey to the printed word, we own our words, lock, stock and barrel. It’s up to us to build the store front, keep the inventory stocked and push the merchandise.

There were three facets to my business plan I’ll share with you.

The first was my brand (my storefront). A Writer’s House. I didn’t want to tie my brand to a single pseudonym because I write under several, and had several more planned. I thought about this long and hard, knowing how difficult it is to push ONE name to easy recognition. Using A Writer’s House gave me what I needed and I began to build my family of writer names. With the website, came Twitter and Facebook, then there’s all the other social media, and it’s a lot of upkeep to maintain a presence. Someone much wiser than me said to pick three (which is my lucky number) and then focus on those.

Next came the inventory. I was writing and publishing but I needed to add another element and thus developed Cypress Press, my editing service. Also captured under the umbrella of A Writer’s House, it is more than just for the published writer. I have beta reading, proofreading, story development and coaching. I don’t pretend to be an expert but I think I’ve garnered enough experience to assist the novice and advanced beginner craft a better story. At least I hope my clients think so!

The last leg of my journey is about education. I actually did more of this before I was published which I find a bit ironic. Now my focus in 2018 is to get back out there with the classes I’ve developed over the years and present at chapter workshops and conferences, possibly even online. I’m also doing more freelancing than ever before and wondering if I could make a go at it full time.

Regardless of which I’m working on, they feed back into the #1 goal for my business: build the brand. No matter which writing persona I’m wearing, I want to lead people back to the entire world I’ve created with multiple pseudonyms and business offerings for the writer. I’d like to think I’ll be big enough one day to only focus on writing but until I get there, the electric company and student loans demand monthly sacrifices from my pocketbook.

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Researching my heart out

I wrote an article called Weapons of Mass Characterization recently for my chapter’s newsletter and it got me to thinking about the research books that I use regularly. As my daughter will attest, I’m something of a research book whore. I have boxes of research books, even though I can easily call up the info on the internet. But I can’t quite make myself get rid of these. Some of them are out of print, I’m sure. Even more are probably out dated. Yet, they still fill up a corner of my home office. (And DD, they likely always will).

So what fills these boxes?

I find that many of them deal with characterization. I use them to flesh out my characters, build the GMC or the backstory. I use Linda Goodman’s Love Signs for this. Even though I’m not a believer in astrology, I like the information presented on how people interact. It gives me strengths and weaknesses, flaws and weapons. Weapons are what I call those elements of a character that drives their reactions. For instance, a person who has been on the receiving end of great betrayal will react to deceit a different way than someone who thinks people are basically honest.

The Emotions Thesaurus is relatively a new addition to my library. With the motto “show don’t tell” ringing in my brain, I like how the thesaurus not gives me the traits that go along with a particular emotion, it gives me physical responses. Anger can be shown as a clenched fist, but also as a steely silence.

Do you ever find yourself using the same words over and over and over…yeah, like that. The Synonym Finder is an easy reference thesaurus that is much more user friendly than a typical thesaurus. It’s arranged like a dictionary and I find it much easier to thumb through the listing.

And what keeper shelf is full without Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon? Between this and the Writer’s Brainstorming Kit, both from Gryphon Books for Writers, I’m not sure which I use more. Given my propensity for charts, these books just tickle my fancy in every way. GMC helps me build a skeleton while the Brainstorming Kit puts flesh on the bones. The Brainstorming Kit helps me find unique ways of looking at a trait that could be a cliché.

Since I like to murder people (in my books) I’m also a fan of the Howdunit Series which publishes fun books like Modus Operadi: A Writer’s Guide to How Criminals Think and Cause of Death: A Writer’s Guide to Death, Murder and Forensic Medicine. I’m not a gritty police procedural writer but I want things to be relatively accurate

When I was writing historicals, I loved using the Everyday Life in America series. Whether you’re writing Colonial America or post-Civil War, they had good books that gave the textural elements of small towns or big cities, general info on housing, transportation, marriage, family and the changing landscape of a country changing day by day.

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Maybe I’m not a romance writer anymore

I started writing romance when I was 15. I fell in love with the genre after reading a series of historicals by Patricia Matthews and Kathleen Woodiwiss. I think I loved historicals initially because it was about women doing things they wanted or had to, in an environment that didn’t support them. I wanted to be that brave. I wanted to be that free.

Fast forward a few years, when the desire to be a writer was strong but the reality, as my dad was quick to point out, was that making a living as a writer was not practical. Thus came the degree in chemistry. But the desire never went away. I wrote. In secret, of course, because writing was not practical. And writing romance was enough to send my mother’s eyes into the back of her head. I certainly didn’t tell people I was a writer.

I came out of the closet as a romance writer, and proudly tell people I’m a romance writer. I still love the genre. I still love the fairy tale endings. Lately, though, writing romance is not like it used to be. I think that’s because dating is not like it used to be and since I’ve pretty much given up on romance and dating, I think I’m going to have to change genres.

My interest of late has been the zombie apocalypse, but any end-of-the-world scenario will do. Not sure what that says about me. Guess we’ll find out.

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Settings: Fictional vs. Reality

My very first contest win was with an historical entitled Southern Belle, a post-Civil War story set in the fictional town of Belle Terre, Louisiana. This was before they told me post-Civil War stories didn’t sell, but not before I imagined an epic love story spanning the decades. Some of you might recognize Belle Terre as the setting for my new release, Sex and Insensibility.

Belle Terre was easy for me to create. It’s based on my Louisiana hometown, though I’ve taken liberties with some aspects of the geography and history. I also didn’t want to be restricted by the pesky facts that can limit the possibilities or anger readers when you don’t get it exactly right.

But how far can you take it? I figure if Hollywood can make Abe Lincoln a vampire-hunter, then pretty much anything goes. Magic schools, dragons, time travel, matriarchy rule, an honest president. Let’s say however you want to stay truer to history. You can’t have the Normans invading England in 1492. Of course, in your version of history, maybe you can.

The rule of thumb I use? Feasibility. If it’s possible in a logical way for my story, then I will do it. If you’re using historical figures, then the feasibility test is a little more important. You can’t have Abe Lincoln giving a speech 2 years after the Civil War ended, or have him hunting in Texas the day he gives the Gettysburg Address. But if history shows he’s in Virginia, you can reasonably have him run into your characters while traveling around Roanoke.

Unless they’re reading an autobiography, readers are prepared to suspend reality. But even that has its limits. You can’t ignore the laws of physics without the right set up but once you set the rules for your universe, be sure and follow them.

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Characters to Love

Would you still love the books you love if the characters developed differently? Would Harry Potter be just as great if Hermione was focused on fashion rather than magic and studying? Would Silence of the Lambs be as disturbing if Hannibal Lecter merely killed his victims rather than served them up with some fava beans and a nice Chianti? Would Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer, one of the romances on my keeper shelf, be as engaging if the two protagonists weren’t both wounded outsiders? Would we revel as much in their happily ever-after-ending?



To me, it’s because they are the story, the reason we’re reading. The plot – that thing we, as writers, work so hard to keep moving forward – is what happens around them, to them, but they are what make us care, or what gets us up at night to check the locks on the doors and windows for the third time.

Readers connect with the characters. The plot may intrigue, the setting may inspire, the dialogue may make us laugh, the sex scenes may make us….well…let’s skip that part. Characters are why we turn the page. Readers want them to succeed or fail, grow or perish, reach the brass ring or fall into the fiery pit. And it’s their journey that readers crave.

Few character types intrigue me more than the bad boy or bad girl. Rebels without a pause button. Outsiders who don’t look in. We see in them the chances we never took, the road not taken or the road abandoned. They have been knocked around, perhaps, but not knocked out. They fight back by standing apart from the norm.

The bad boy/girl appeals to the part of us that wants to defy expectations. Because let’s face it, most of us do what’s expected. School. Job. Marriage. Children. Saving for retirement. We are the epitome of responsibility. The bad boy/girl challenges the expectation. They are usually ostracized for it and our bad boy/girl responds with strength and conviction to their own expectations rather than those of others. And whether or not they want it for themselves, readers want acceptance for them, even if it’s only with their soulmate. We want others to see how wonderful and special they are, even if they are “bad.”

The wounded soul. Will Parker and Eleanor Dinsmore of Morning Glory are two of my favorite fictional characters. Eleanor and Will are wounded on a deep level. When you learn their stories you can’t imagine anyone giving people – much less love – another chance. Desolate souls adrift without a compass or an oar, and there’s a hole in the boat. No, two holes. And sharks. They are so beat down by life they’d have to look up to see rock bottom. Theirs is a story of second chances, not just at love but at life. When the story opens, they are weakened by life experiences but don’t mistake me, they are not weak. They are strong. They just don’t know it. Every victory they take, every step, every newfound piece of confidence is Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas morning and New Year’s Eve rolled into one glittery package. While you want them to succeed, success is not the prize. For the wounded soul, the prize is a rediscovery of their self-worth. I don’t think Morning Glory would have worked if both characters had not been as wounded as the other. Their journeys complemented each other. They could cajole and tempt and even fight with each other because they had walked a similar path. They knew the risk to the heart and soul and they’re willing to take it for each other.

While the first two character types can apply to men and women equally, I think the next two are fairly exclusive to one gender, at least in fiction. There are always exceptions, and good ones at that, but for the most part, you’ll find these two stick are respective to a particular gender.

The alpha male characters are massively popular with romance readers. Navy Seal. High-powered exec. Fire fighter. Uber rich guys with six pack abs, a limitless American Express card and a private jet. They tend to be male because the vast majority of romance readers are female. For me, the alpha male appeals to that part of me I don’t talk about, the part that wants to be taken care of.

It’s not that I can’t take care of myself. I’m independent and self-sufficient and all those things Gloria Steinem and Gioia Gottini tell me I should be. But sometimes it’s just nice to give up the reins and let someone else drive. It’s tiresome to always be “on” and finding an honest, sexy, funny strong man to take that off the shoulders now and then is appealing. The alpha male’s take charge attitude and endless sex appeal make us feel soft and feminine. Like with Will and Eleanor, don’t mistake wanting that for weakness. I’m not promoting a cave-man mentality. These guys know the special qualities that make us strong also make us desirable. We appeal to them as much as they appeal to us. What’s not sexy about that?

For my female character, I love to take her and put her totally out of her element. Not just a fish out of water, but a genetically modified, one-finned speckled grouper in an alternate dimension of space and time who’s running out of oxygen (or water, she’s a fish after all) while the aliens converge on her spaceship.

I know this type is not isolated to women but because our audience is primarily women I find the appeal ignites the survival instinct in us. It’s more than an underdog with potential.  It’s “give me your worst and watch me overcome it.” (ROAR!!) We want to know we can tap into a hidden reserve or go all McGyver on a problem and if (when) we hit rock-bottom, we will pull ourselves up.

The great thing about the FOOW is she appeals to both alpha and beta males. Alpha males see her personality as a strong complement to their own. Beta males – more reserved and intellectual – love watching her solve the puzzles of life.

Regardless of the arc type, the arc is what is important. That progression to a new and better self. Much better writers than myself have given us the journeys that go along with this progression so I won’t go into that. But I see the journey as an inverted rainbow: start high, dip low, struggle and rise to the top again. And whether the pot of gold at the end of the upside down rainbow is love, magical supremacy or not being eaten by the monster, the character is the reason we go on the journey. They take us with them because we want to go. We are invested in their story with each page and the payout at the end makes it worth it.

Maggie Preston writes emotionally packed stories of second chances, with things that usually blow up along the way. Her first book, Sex and Insensibility, was released in June. Visit her at or follow her on Twitter @maggie_preston.

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Don’t roll your eyes at me!

I went to a liberal arts college, a place that’s supposedly deeply connected to the humanities. In my freshman lit class, we read Beowulf and were asked to re-write the story as part of a final exam. Imagine that! The professor (aka the evil professor) then encouraged me to take a creative writing class he offered and of course I jumped at the idea. But day one of class, he learned I wrote romance, did the eye roll we’ve all likely experienced and told me I was wasting my time. No one in the class read, or admitted to reading, romance. I got very little help in my writing other than to know I should keep this a secret. So I did.

Years later I was taking another class on writing and met evil professor’s evil twin, who looked upon romance writers with disdain and eye rolls.  However, I did meet a fellow romance writer who introduced me the local RWA chapter. Here I learned about critique groups, an interesting concept for someone who’d actively hidden the fact that I wrote romance (imagine appropriate eye roll here) and had not let anyone read my work since college.

But into the fray, as they say. I found a critique group and one very patient, very kind mentor. Now, this was before the advent of online collaboration and emailing documents so everything was done via hard copy. The first set of pages I got back was covered in purple as we were not allowed to use red ink because it looked like the pages were “bleeding.” I learned the phrase “purple prose monster” and was introduced to topics like POV and voice.

I learned a tremendous amount about the craft of writing from my CPs. I also learned how to be a valuable critique partner. Here are my take-aways on a good CP relationship:

  • Find a critique partner at a similar point in the road to publication. Being a good CP means being able to share your knowledge, struggle, success, etc. with your partner and the best way to do that is working with someone who shares similar knowledge, struggles, and successes. It doesn’t mean you have to be in the exact same place, or even write the same genre. When the two CPs are at vastly differently places, however, one can always feel like the teacher which means they aren’t learning as much. And if one always feels like the student, they can start to feel like they aren’t contributing valuable suggestions. Critiquing must be a give-and-take.
  • Don’t just tell them the story is wonderful. Everyone wants to know what they do well so tell them often, and highlight it in big, bold colors. Include smiley faces if the mood strikes. But in truth, we go into a critique situation to learn what we can improve. They’re not called Happy Partners, after all. What doesn’t resonate with you as a reader? What reads awkwardly? Where does the story fail to connect the dots or jumps the shark? My favorite question is “why does the character do this action” if the motivation is not clear. These are things a new set of eyes can give a writer, so give it. Give it kindly, of course. Diplomacy is never wasted, IMO.
  • You can’t teach someone everything there is to know about a particular craft topic, so don’t try. Give a general idea about what you think needs to be improved. Show them an example in the text on what you mean, explain your thoughts about why it doesn’t work, and maybe point out other examples without going into elaborate detail. You don’t need to point out every incident of this particular foible. The writer has to learn to spot these things on their own, after all. Then suggest places to find more information. A book or article or class. As a CP, you’ve done your job. Now let the writer do their job.
  • Not every suggestion has to be incorporated into the work. This was the hardest for me personally. Anytime I got back a critique from a contest or a CP I did everything they suggested. Soon I didn’t recognize the story as mine. And when a fellow CP didn’t take my advice, I wondered if I was wasting my time. How could they not listen to such sage words of wisdom? Ahhh….see the comment about not recognizing the story as mine. It’s not an insult to ignore or be ignored about a piece of advice. Advice is subjective. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be considered. If multiple people give you the same advice, maybe it should be taken more seriously. Take what works for you and your story.
  • Let your CP relationship grow and change. As you get to know the other people in your CP circle, your relationship with them will evolve. Sometimes that means it will go extinct. Hopefully it means what you give and get – knowledge, encouragement, inspiration – will broaden over time. It takes work to maintain any relationship and a CP connection is no different. Even when a CP relationship fails, knowing why means you hopefully won’t make that same mistake again. Communication is key.

I’m sure I could add another few points to ponder and if you talked to other people they would have a different take on the CP relationship. The bottom line is find someone who complements your strengths and weaknesses and can be honest and supportive.

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