Looking for an Agent: An Introduction

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Let’s say that I am happy about where I am with my novel and I have started doing some research about the process of finding an agent. During my last week in London, I worked as an intern for HHB Literary Agency, a small yet very well-know agency specialised in non-fiction. Together with the standard tasks of going to make coffee and tea, I also had to select the manuscripts that seemed interesting. I was very honoured and shocked to have such an important job – after all, I am the one who is used to submit short stories and pieces to literary magazines, so I knew the effort writers put into a submission.

Now I am back into Rachele as a writer and my novel is in a good place, or at least, I feel very satisfied about what I have done so far – not in terms of quality, which should be judged by agents and publishers, but in terms of quantity. I feel like starting to deepen my knowledge in terms of what the writer needs to do is something that I may want to do now, so I have read some articles about it and I am starting to realise that there are some common rules for contacting the agent “the right way”.

Before my work experience at HHB Lit Agency, which is located in a lovely wood-floored office in Warren Street, my idea of an agent was of someone cruel that only wants to rip off the author and makes money out of their work. More specifically, I thought an agent was someone whose life revolved around making dough through selling books, no matter what. Then I had the chance to work there, my vision has drastically changed: an agent is someone very nice who wants to make dough through selling books. Which is something an author should learn to do as well – the importance of selling rather than just seeing their own name printed on the cover of a book is what makes the difference between an experienced, intelligent author and an amateur. If you make a deal with a publishing house that does not distribute and promote your book, you may really regret selling your work to them.

 

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Anyway, I read a few things and here are some tips for the beginner (like me) who wants to start having an idea about what contacting an agent may imply. Also, this post is about submitting a novel, so do not look here if you are interested in submitting a collection of short stories or poetry.

First of all: what is an agent? I know this question may be silly, but before my work experience my idea of an agent was slightly different from the truth. So, an agent is the person you may want to contact in case you wish to sell your work to a publishing house. The agent is usually someone who has many contacts between publishing houses and knows them very well. No matter what you have written: if it is good, hopefully the agent will be able to present it to the right publisher. They will know the gaps in the market and the right people to contact. If you write chick lit set in London, then the agent will know who are the best publishers to contact.

If the author is lucky enough and if the agent is good, then the publisher will buy the book. The author will get their payment, and the agent will get something between 10 – 20% on the earnings. It is very important to remember that the agent makes money only if the author does – most of them do not even have a reading fee, so they will read your submission for free and will work their butts off to find you a good deal with a publisher without even knowing if they will actually manage to do so. You can imagine, then, that the agent has a very risky job, and that is why getting picked among the many submissions that arrive every day is very, very hard. This series of posts will hopefully be a good guide for the very beginner. Writing a novel is hard, but submitting it to agencies is not easy – not at all. So I have decided to write about the main tasks that an author needs to undertake when submitting their work.

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  • The First Chapters. Most agent will ask for the first 50 pages or 3 chapters of your novel. They are crucial for the agent to know how you write and what is the tone of the whole story, where it is going and how. So it is very important that they are well-plotted, well-written, well-edited, well-everything.
  • The Synopsis. There are many different kinds of synopsis and agents can be very specific about it. Some, for example, do not want one of more than 300 hundred words, other will request for a 1-2 page synopsis and some other will ask for a list of chapters where everything is very detailed and neat. This is one of the reasons why looking for an agent is a complex process that may require some time: everyone will ask for a different thing, and you can’t simply send the same material to every agent. It would be the easiest way to make an agent throw your submission in the bin. Be prepared to write different kinds of synopsis and send the right one to  the right agent.
  • The Cover Letter. This is a fundamental part of the submission and the first one the agent will be in contact with. In fact, it goes usually like this: you write a nice email, and the cover letter is in the body of the email, where you attach the three chapters and the synopsis. You can imagine how important the cover letter is. If your cover letter is lame, uninteresting and confusing, then it may be very likely that the agent won’t even open the three chapters and the synopsis. Usually, if you write a cover letter, the agent will read the synopsis, and if the synopsis is compelling, then they will go for the three chapters.

In the next post, I will write about how to write a good synopsis and then a good cover letter – all based on the research I have done in these last few days. I hope this was interesting and helpful enough!

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The Rich & Judy Book Club: Summer 2017 Reads

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A Report on Novels and Marketing Strategies

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As a result of a week of work experience at HHB Agency, a literary agency based in Fitzrovia, this report focuses on the eight books listed as the current reads of Rich & Judy Book Club. The work experience took place in the week between the 1st and 5th of May, and even though the eight books were published in 2016, they are all part of the Summer 2017 selection. Rich and Judy Book Club is a well-known institution in Britain’s literary world. As an Italian student, I was initially unaware of the importance of their choices for the literary and publishing sector, therefore the report opens with an excerpt about Richard and Judy. It includes the history of the program, its impact on British culture, its evolution and collaboration with WHSmith and some examples of its influence on the literary industry.

In the second part of the report, the eight books of the list will be introduced and followed by a detailed analysis of every single novel, including the synopsis and some insights about genre, category and author. The books are Conclave by Robert Harris, The Trespasser by Tana French, The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena, I See You by Clare Mackintosh, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’ Farrell and Miss You by Kate Eberlen. The insights on these eight books are also based on the analysis of some articles or interviews on prestigious magazines or journals such as The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Independent. I have also watched some interviews to the authors and hopefully this research will be helpful in understanding the power of these novels and the reasons why they were chosen in the first place.

This part of the report also provides a description of the physical copy of every novel as a result of an evening spent at WHBSmith in Westfield Shopping Centre, Stratford, and one at Stansted Airport, where I carefully touched every paperback, observing the packaging and graphic strategies used to make these books as much appealing as possible for the common readers.

The final section of the report regards the marketing strategies, the observation and research conducted around London to have a comprehension of how Rich and Judy’s choices impact the literary industry. Here, I try to draw some conclusions and how both the work experience and this research helped me being more aware of the literary and publishing sectors.

The Rich and Judy Book Club

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As an Italian girl, I did not know who Rich and Judy exactly were. At least, when Heather Holden-Brown mentioned them to me, I felt like I had heard their name, but I was totally unaware of their role in the British (and International) literary world.

Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan are a married couple and they are both columnists and television presenters. They hosted This Morning from 1988 to 2001. The program would include celebrity interviews, cookery workshops and housekeeping tips, and they became so famous that the audience started to call the show Rich and Judy. This gave the name to their next show, which they hosted on Channel 4 from 2001 to 2008. In these years, they interviewed important British and International celebrities such as Bill and Hilary Clinton, J.K. Rowling, Tony Blair, Al Gore and many others.

Richard & Judy also launched two “clubs” and structured them similarly to the ones started by the American TV presenter Oprah Winfrey. Rich & Judy Wine Club and Rich & Judy Book Club were regular segments added to the show. The Book Club, born in 2004, had a huge impact on the reading habits of British people. The books that Rich and Judy selected, reviewed and discussed on the show, very often involving authors and guests, would generate an incredible chain of marketing campaigns and of course book sales. According to Richard and Judy website, the featured titles would increase sales by as much as 3,000 per cent over night, and they generated over £60 million in book sales. 

This led to a phenomenon that changed the literary world and still does, even if Rich & Judy Book Club is not broadcasted on television anymore. They have a fructuous collaboration with WHSmith, for which they select eight books every season. Unsurprisingly, The Guardian identified the couple as the most important people in publishing, and Graeme Neill of The Bookseller, who examined their impact on book sales, stated that a recommendation from Rich and Judy can really change the life of an author. This happened, among the many, to Julian Barnes, who was expected to sell 20,000 but shifted to 300,000 after Arthur and George was recommended on the club in 2006. The recommendation also helps the book being promoted in places where it would not normally arrive – such as important supermarkets as Tesco. And even if the literary world has expressed mixed opinions on the phenomenon, with authors pointing at the exclusively commercial aim of Rich and Judy’s choices, it is undeniable that their lists brought books to many different people, involving new readers that would not normally spend an afternoon choosing a book carefully from a bookshop.

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 Summer 2017 Book Club: The Books

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In the introduction to the Rich & Judy section on WHSmith website, a lot is promised about the new Summer 2017 Reads: the reviews of the books, interviews with the authors, preview chapters and bonus content from and about the writers. Interestingly enough, Rich and Judy seem keen on maintaining a good relationship with the audience, allowing them to vote their favourite book from the eight choices and to join the conversation on the books.

The first page includes a picture of the couple and the badge that is actually stuck on the chosen paperbacks displayed in the shops, which improve the sales in the shops. Then, the eight novels are listed, followed by the interviews and bonus content promised in the introduction.

This summer choice includes eight novels. The genres intertwine, but the list can be roughly described as made of two historical novels, four thrillers and two novels of women fiction. Of these eight, only three were written by very famous authors, and two where debuts. One author is American, five are British (one Northern Irish), one is Canadian, one is Irish.

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The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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The book opens with the protagonist’s dilemma on the strange behaviour of her neighbours. They have just invited her and her husband for dinner, but asked them not to bring their baby daughter as they cannot stand her crying. Even if the reason seems mundane, the protagonist finds it weird. The situation is already gripping: will the protagonist’s worst fears realise? The baby girl actually disappears, and the rest of the book is a crazy race in the discovery of who took her and why. After the great success of best-sellers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, Lapena’s book is a thriller based on the reassuring four walls of ordinary people’s life. Lapena’s publisher defines the book as a perfect product in the lucrative domestic suspense market, based on “the emerging trend of women writers who have all turned to crime after originally writing either under other names and/or genres”. Alison Flood from The Guardian praises the present tense that conveys the anxiety and urgency of the first chapter, when the baby is gone and the police is called. This is Shari Lapena’s first success. She had a lot of refusals, but even when she made it to be published, her work did not gain the same success as The Couple Next Door. The Canadian website The Globe and Mail reported that Lapena’s current agent read her manuscript twelve hours after she sent it to her and called her back immediately. As agent Heller states that she refuses 499 out of every 500 submissions, this book took off as an exceptional thriller from the very beginning. The Toronto-based agent for several best-selling thriller novels said that she could not put the book down, and as she distributed to publishers, everyone was soon after the book. Described by many critics as relentless, the book was chosen by Rich and Judy and this meant an incredible increase in its popularity in Britain. The novel is also immensely famous in the United States and in Canada.

Shari Lapena is a former lawyer and English teacher. She revealed to The Globe and Mail that she did think about the premise without reflecting on the plot from the back end, but starting it all with a gripping starting situation, wondering how complicated that situation can be made and what are the different incidents that can be taken into consideration.

The book cover, as many current psychological thrillers, has just a hint of an illustration, with the title taking up most of the space. The cover of the English edition is glossy and the inside font is quite big. The blue of the cover hints at pain, coldness and mystery. The pages are not very thick. It does look like the majority of commercial thrillers on the market, and this may be a marketing strategy to make it look familiar for the usual commercial thrillers’ readers.

 

Title: The Couple Next Door

Author: Shari Lapena

Publishing House: Bantam Press

Publication Date: 16 July 2016

Page Count: 352

Genre: Psychological Thriller

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This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell

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Daniel Sullivan is from New York and works as a teacher of linguistic at University of Belfast. He had two failed marriages behind him before meeting Claudette, a famous actress who’s run away from the limelight to live in rural Ireland. In her interview with Rich and Judy, O’Farrell revealed that her inspiration for the book was drawn by seeing a famous Hollywood star pursued by paparazzi in Soho, London. Eventually, O’Farrell ended up in a ladies’ loo with the star, who confessed all her misery and desperation to the writer. 

The marriage between Daniel and Claudette gets complicated during his trip to America for his father’s birthday, when Daniel finds out something about a past girlfriend which will lead to a series of events that will put his marriage in jeopardy. It is a novel about love, secrets, geographical displacement and marriage, and the story leaps across multiple points of view, time frames, places. Hannah Beckermann from The Guardian defined This Must Be The Place as the best novel O’Farrell has even written, praising her skilfulness in shifting the points of view and comparing the book with the ones by Kate Atkins in terms of playfulness with structure, “while retaining the hallmark emotional insight for which O’Farrell has become renowned”.

The cover itself, which seems like a map where someone has scribbled the title of the book, suggests that the story will cross continents and deal with very diverse and distant characters. In an interview with Headline Books, Maggie O’Farrell said that the novel faces the question of what does it mean to belong to a place or a person in a world where it is so easy to move from a place to another and from a relationship to another, where different cultures intertwine everyday in the multiculturalism of our big cities.

Maggie O’Farrell is very famous in the UK and this is her seventh book. Her novels have all been incredibly successful and she has won many prestigious awards for her work. This Must Be The Place is a Sunday Times Best-Seller and was shortlisted for several prizes, such as the Costa Novel Award and the Irish Book Awards.

The book is quite big, with thick pages and a small font. The cover page is soft and the design is very detailed, with names on the maps suggesting the themes of traveling, identity, difficult choices and distance, very current themes in the multicultural world where we live.

 

Title: This Must Be The Place

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Publisher: Tinder Press

Publication Date: 16 May 2017

Page Count: 496

Genre: Literary Fiction / Women’s Fiction / Romance

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Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

A new-born baby dies after a routine hospital procedure performed by an Afro-American nurse, who had been requested not to take care of the baby by his white supremacist parents. The novel is developed through the points of view of the father of the baby, the nurse and the nurse’s lawyer, who, interestingly enough, suggests her that raising the issue of race in her defence is not a winning strategy.

The novel’s themes of prejudice, justice and racism in the US are current for the times. As Judy states, they are more poignant than ever, in a time where Donald Trump racist policies are much discussed. The hook, the moral dilemma that Ruth has to face when the baby goes into cardiac distress and she hesitates before performing the procedure, catches the reader attention immediately. In an interview for Penguin Random House, the author described the long research she did before embarking in the difficult process of writing about race, especially in the case of writing in the Afro-American nurse’s point of view. The author attended social justice workshops and interviewed many women of colour, in order for her to have a clearer and more authentic idea of her character’s voice. Despite this, Lucy Scholes from The Independent stated that the novel did not make it “to capture the complexities of the political and social landscape it claims to portray”, suggesting that, perhaps, the author should have stuck to the white, middle-class lawyer’s consciousness alone, as it was, “unsurprisingly”, the most authentic and vivid. Nevertheless, the novel was #1 New York Times Bestseller and will be soon made into a major motion picture.

Jodi Picoult is a high-profile writer. She has written 23 novels that were translated in 34 languages and sold in 35 countries. Five of her books were made into movies, and they were all great successes. She is one of the three famous writers in the list of Rich & Judy. A close observation of the paperback at WHSmith (both in Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford and in Stansted Airport) provided me with details about the cover and the physical aspect of the book. The cover has a big, embossed title. There is no illustration, just some flamboyant colours in the background. Even if these features and the fancy font used for the title may suggest that the book is a romance novel or a romantic comedy, the contrast between the colours and the black, big title may represent the striking contraposition between white and Afro-American cultures. The pages of the book are thick, and the font of the whole book is very small. It seems a very high-quality product.

Title: Great Small Things

Author: Jodi Picoult

Publishing House: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication Date: 22 November 2016

Page Count: 512

Genre: Literary Fiction / Women Fiction

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I See You by Clare Mackintosh

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Part of the Top 10 of the Sunday Times, I See You is the second novel by author Clare Mackintosh. The book starts with the protagonist Zoe Walker seeing her pictures in the classified section of a newspaper in London. Even if puzzled, she thinks it is just a coincidence, a girl that looks like her, but from the next day on, she sees the same ad, with the same name and the pictures of different girls. And then another girl pictured in the same ad is robbed on the tube, and another is found murdered in a park. The paranoia fuelled by the ads and the pictures leads the protagonist to ask herself questions about someone actually watching her and other girls who commute and take the same route in London every day.

After The Girl On The Train, the condition of commuters and the anxiety of being watched or spied on, especially with the culture of social media and dating apps, has been largely explored in fiction and psychological thrillers. As The Couple Next Door, this psychological thriller does not start with some investigation, some murder or fraud, but it has its roots in the – apparently – reassuring every day life of ordinary people. Commuting is a chore that many people need to face everyday, and, in the claustrophobia of the tube in the rush our, the sensation of being watched by someone who is taking notes or pictures of us does not even cross our minds. But what if…? The trend of the psychological creepy thriller set in ordinary life scenarios that become suddenly creepy seems thriving. The book takes a more “classic turn” when the protagonist talks to the police and an investigation on the case is started and led by a female detective. Clare Mackintosh knows what she is talking about, as a retired police officer herself. Her first novel, I Let You Go, has seen off J.K. Rowling’s alter ego Robert Galbraith to win the Theakston Old Peculier as the best crime novel of the year. I See You is her second novel and has been largely praised by the critics. Janette Wolf from The Independent commented the impact of the book saying that the commuting to work will never be the same again after reading this book.

Clare Mackintosh is a British author from Bristol. She is very active on social media and likes to have a direct relationship with her readers. Her debut novel was chosen by Rich and Judy as well, and sold more than one million copies. I See You has been sold in 26 countries so far.

 

Title: I See You

Author: Clare Mackintosh

Publishing House: Berkeley Books

Publication Date: 28 July 2016

Page Number: 384

Genre: Psychological Thriller

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Conclave by Robert Harris

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The pope dies. In the hectic three days before the new most important spiritual figure in the world is elected, 118 cardinals prepare to vote. Their ambition is strong, and there are rivals and allies in this race to power. Rich and Judy’s review suggests a twist at the end, and this is not surprising, having seen Robert Harris’s previous successful novels. Conclave is a Sunday Times Best-Seller and it is a political thriller with suspense, historical and crime elements. Ian Sansom from The Guardian defined the book as “unputdownable”. Harris is a very famous British writer, and he started out as a political journalist. He wrote books about British politics and set novels in ancient Rome, always stressing on a very much important theme: the corruption of power.

Having known many powerful people, Harris knows how to make them look like ordinary flawed people acting on a much broader stage than many others, and still having to face the same delusions and minor dilemmas as everyone else. Every sequence of the book is accompanied by twists and complications. In an interview with Penguin Random House, Harris said that the whole ritual of electing a new pope, with the few men choosing the right candidate for the job, seemed the perfect story for him, the perfect narrative that would make a great novel. Even if God should guide the cardinals in voting the best candidate, there is a lot of politics involved in choosing the new pope, and Harris was fascinated by the dynamics of these last days before the decision. The ritual of locking themselves up, the limited time and limited number of characters were an opportunity, rather than a limitation, for the author.

Robert Harris was a political journalist before turning to fiction, and he had ten best-selling novels. He won the prestigious Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and his book The Ghost was made into a movie directed by Roman Polanski. His novels are translated in 37 languages and he is part of the Royal Society of Literature. He is probably the most famous British author in the Rich and Judy 2017 Summer reads.

The cover of the book is very similar to the one of classic historical and political thrillers. It is glossy, with the illustration that suggests what is going to happen: a helicopter, product of human beings’ intelligence and ambition, flies around St. Peter, the symbol of spirituality and religion on earth. Therefore, the design is very catchy, and together with the title it immediately takes the reader inside the setting and story. The use of red and orange colours may hint of the passion of ambition and the complicated relationships between the cardinals. The title is very big, just like the font inside, and the pages are thin.

 

Title: Conclave

Author: Robert Harris

Publishing House: Hutchinson Press

Publication Date: 22 September 2016

Page Number: 287

Genre: Political Thriller

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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Set in London and in Essex in 1893, the book is about the life of a widow who settles down in Essex after the death of her husband. She is a naturalist and does not believe in superstition and religion, so, when some rumours about a mythical serpent terrorizing the Blackwater estuary are spread, she is excited by the possibility that it may be a new species to discover. In her exploration, she is introduced to a vicar, and even if they do not agree on anything, their curiosity will bring them together in a relationship that will take unexpected turns and twists in the unfolding of the story.

This novel, the “most historical” one in the list, is a gothic Victorian tale that follows Sarah Perry’s success of her first book After Me Comes the Flood. The Essex Serpent is crammed with incidents and plot twists, and John Harrison from The Guardian said it is very difficult to stop reading and wondering what is going to happen next. He describes the serpent as “a trick of the light, a tale told to frighten children, a story sold to tourists; it’s an upwelling of individual or collective guilt, a blatant sexual symbol hauling itself like Bram Stoker’s White Worm out of the Blackwater estuary in convulsions of Victorian anxiety”.

The narrative shifts restlessly between the city and the marshes and touches the themes of relationships between governance and poverty. It faces the slum life, the privilege and the atmosphere of the late Victorian period, “with its fears for the present and curious faith in the future”.

Sarah Perry is a British author. She grew up in a Catholic family and had no access to contemporary art and literature until quite late in her life. She got a PhD in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway University, where she wrote a thesis about gothic literature. The Essex Serpent is her second book and won the prestigious prize as the Waterstones’ Book of the Year in 2016. It was shortlisted for other many prestigious prizes. The element of romance, historical fiction and Victorian atmosphere all intertwine into an amazing narrative that brought the author to beat Beatrix Potter and J.K. Rowling in several awards.

The beautiful cover was designed by Peter Dyer and the design was inspired by William Morris’s work, and Lucy Scholes from The Independent described it as “a tantalizing taste of the equally sumptuous prose that lies within”. During my research ad WHSmith, I could noticed that the scales of the snake on the cover are iridescent and shimmering, making it even more eye-catching. The whole design of the cover suggests the setting and the historical, fantastic and naturalistic topics. The pages are very thick and the font inside is small.

 

Title: The Essex Serpent

Author: Sarah Perry

Publishing House: Serpent’s Tail

Publication Date: 27 May 2016

Page Number: 441

Genre: Historical Fiction

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 Miss You by Kate Eberlen

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Tess and Gus are meant to be. They may not know it – they meet fleetingly when they are both on holiday in Florence in 1997, at the age of eighteen, then they go back to England and back to reality, and both of them go on with their life. They face their difficulties and losses and their paths cross more than once for the next sixteen years. The reader goes on relentlessly, wondering if they will even meet again and realise that they are perfect for each other.

The book is about the impossibility of love, about distance, about the different chances in life than shape our future – as Rich wonders in his review of the book: are we really the masters of our path? In the increasingly connected world of the millennial generation, is it possible to miss the person that is right the one for you? What if a person that collided with you for just a few seconds was the one you should be with?

Miss You has already been translated in 26 languages and it is the first Eberlen publishes under that name, together with the first that actually brought her to success. Critics have compared this to the famous One Day by David Nicholls, which was a phenomenon in British publishing world, and many said that Miss You offers even more. Stephanie Cross from The Guardian defined it as a “wonderfully light romance”. Interviewed by The Bookseller, Kate Eberlen said that she has always been fascinated by “that idea of how many lives cross ours every day. I often think about it, particularly on holiday. When you are [on holiday] somewhere like Florence you’ll be doing the same route—almost—as other people. So you’ll have these lives that are just next to yours for a little bit and sometimes you’ll even pass them again, and at the end of the day you’re almost on smiling terms. Then you might—or you used to, before selfie sticks—say, ‘Do you mind taking a photo of me?’ So you’ll be in somebody’s life for just a moment.”

The structure of the novel was much praised. Eberlen did not plan the whole thing, but decided to write as much as she could about one character, then she would break and think what could be happening to the other, without planning the touches of one’s life in the one of the other’s. This brought to a great development of the plot. Being compared to One Day, Miss You physical aspect has for sure some elements of the romantic comedies or romantic dramas books: the big title, with the M and the Y of Miss You shaped as a heart and suggesting the themes of the book.

 

Title: Miss You

Author: Kate Eberlen

Publishing House: Mantle

Publication Date: 11 August 2016

Page Number: 464

Genre: Romance

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The Trespasser by Tana French 

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Antoinette Conway is a tough detective. She is part of the Murder Squad, who is very well-known by Tana French’s fans. She has written several thrillers about the Murder Squad, but now Anoinette knows that her role in the group is not the same anymore. She has partnered up with Stephen Moran, but the squad is planning to get rid of her.

The case she and Stephen deal with looks like a slam-dunk lovers’ tiff, but when Antoinette takes a look at the victim’s face, she realises she knows her. She has seen her somewhere, and what immediately crosses her mind is more shocking than what she expected. Since then, the two start investigating dark truths and paths that will lead to incredibly exciting plot twists. Alison Flood from The Guardian described the book as a “gnarly, absorbing read” and defined Tana French “one of the best thriller writers we have”.

Tana French is a very famous Irish novelist and theatrical actress, and her work won several prestigious prizes. The Independent defined her the First Lady of Irish Crime, “who very quietly has become a huge international name among crime fiction readers.” Her books are all part of the series of Dublin Murder Squad, and The Trespasser is the sixth.

Laura Miller from The New Yorker said that “most crime fiction is diverting; French’s is consuming”, stressing the social critique that Tana French manages to do in this book. Interestingly enough, each of the six Dublin Murder Squad novels is narrated from the point of view of a different detective, and this enables the readers to understand the perspective of the whole squad, with its issues and dramas.

The Trespasser sees the only female detective in the squad as the protagonist, and therefore also deals with the themes of misogyny and sexism, as she is the target of cruel jibes and jokes. She is of course not the first female detective in history, but the theme of sexism in professions that are normally associated to men is a much more discussed and current subject nowadays.

The cover is dark, with a big, bright title. The name of the author is also big – even if this is not common for thrillers – because the writer is a famous one, author of the five novels of the same series. A shunned person alone in the dark can be seen on the cover, suggesting the themes of loneliness and uneasiness, the same that the detective feels in the squad when the campaign to get rid of her squad.

 

Title: The Trespasser

Author: Tana French

Publishing House: Viking Penguin

Publication Date: 22 September 2016

Page Number: 449

Genre: Thriller

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Wandering around London after consulting the Rich and Judy list, it was very easy to see posters of the books everywhere in the city. The tube was scattered with posters of these books, which is quite interesting and very different from what happens normally in Italian cities, even in Rome and Milan.

I have also visited the WHSmith in Stratford and Stansted Airport, and there was a specific section for the books chosen by Rich and Judy. They were close to the ones that were in the list in the past seasons, but of course the central part was taken up by the current reads. They all have the badge of the Rich and Judy Book Club.

It is not easy to understand why these books were chosen. I am not an expert in publishing trends nor in Rich and Judy’s tastes – in fact, the work experience at HHB Agency gave me the opportunity to get to know this important part of British literary world for the first time. The eight books do not seem examples of sophisticated literary fiction, but are indeed commercial products that face important and current themes. Jodi Picoult built up an interesting plot around the issues of race in the US, and the election of Donald Trump made this subject more current than ever; The Couple Next Door and I See You take two ordinary setting of normal people’s life and turn them into a hell of suspense and mystery, touching the problems of technology and privacy. The issues of technology and connection are also faced in Miss You, under, of course, a romantic light. The Trespasser is a more classical thriller, but it does come after a successful series set, and Conclave and The Essex Serpent touch some themes that are still very current nowadays – the ambition of men, religion, superstition, power and privilege. Some of the authors are well-established and often very famous authors, but writers like Sarah Perry and Kate Eberlen are moving their first steps into the publishing world, which is a good message of hope for the aspiring writers.

Accepting Your Tastes in Writing

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Last week, London changed my life. I know, it has already changed it when I was accepted to the MA and many other times, so I guess I should say that London changed my life again.

It changed everything because, finally, I felt like I could accept who I am… in literature. This may sound silly, but I really think every writer needs that kind of moment, sooner or later. The thing is that, when you say that you are a writer (I never say that, I tend to say that I like writing), there are so many expectations raining down on you. Writers are well-known for taking themselves so seriously, almost as seriously as artists. My education in Italy brought me to think that a “serious” writer needs to really bloody enjoy all the classics, the post-modernist literature, all the poems by Allen Ginsberg. That is what is normally expected from a good writer. A writer needs to write deep, important novels and poems that will change humanity.

Well, last week I saw two movies at the cinema. I went to Westfield and saw La La Land with my boyfriend. And I also saw T2 Trainspotting at Picturehouse (to be honest, I saw it twice. Not in a row, though). I have spent my whole life trying to re-define my tastes, to adapt them to what a “serious writer” needed to appreciate. And I never thought that what I do write is not just shite. It is always what I say: I write shit, I just write frivolous stuff. But then, and I know many people will not believe that I’ve come to realise this after an MA in Creative Writing, I finally saw that writers don’t have the pressure of not being serious enough nowadays. I am a beginner. I do not feel the pressure of writing the great, 21th century novel in London.

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And I loved La La Land. I want to write love stories that make the audience get stuck to the page until they fucking find out if the couple is going to end up together or not. I do not want to write novels that will change the world. My objective is to write stories that compell the reader, that make them want to go on until the book is over. Same happened for T2 Trainspotting. What is that makes us care about the story of such a loser as Mark Renton, a part from him being interpreted by Ewan McGregor in the movie? Well, it was Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle who made him a character you want to care for. You want to see where he’ll end up, just like you want to do with Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie, even if Begbie is a fucking piece of shit.

So why did these two movies made me realise what I want to write in my life? Well, because yes, of course I do enjoy the classics and I really like post-modern literature. I love reading books that are deep and serious and obscure (well, not too obscure). Among the last authors I read there were Erri De Luca, Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O’Connor, Thorton Wilder. Pretty serious stuff. But what I also really love is a fucking good story. The right amount of emotions, and alcohol, and sex, and guys and girls that have reached a dead-end point in their life but they are really too romantic to stop dreaming and trying. They want something badly – whether that is a smile on the face of their lover or a hit of heroin or money or glory or a great career. This is what I love. A compelling, involving, tremendously cynical and tender story that will make the reader hate and love the characters at the same time. I love a good amount of conflict. I love emotions and gazes clashing.

I need to accept myself as a writer. I need to accept that there are some things that I will never enjoy – sorry, Iain Sinclair – and some others that are fucking good – like chick lit, my soft spot. Tonight I bought Skag Boys, the prequel of Trainspotting and Porno. I had never read it because I lost a bit of my fascination for Trainspotting after it became huge and fashionable. I bought it online and said, fuck it. I love it. I love Irvine Welsh. I don’t care if my fellow writers say it’s cheap. In my head, it will never be.

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The Sonnet: An Introduction

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When studying poetry, it is essential to get to know the form of the sonnet, one of the most popular and well-known kinds of poetry structures. In class, we read Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare, about a man who is desperate about his life. He has no hope anymore, no friends, no scope. But, when he thinks about his beloved, his world uplifts, and he feels blessed and lucky. It is a simple poem, made by three quatrains (stanzas of four line) and a couplet at the end. The third quatrain starts with yet, as a contrast with the previous quatrains about his terrible life. That yet represents the volta or turn, the moment when the direction of the sonnet changes completely. Being very traditional, this sonnet has a very strict scheme of rhyme and exactly 10 syllables for every line. The rhyme scheme is in fact ABAB, but the last two lines (the couplet) are rhymed (brings /kings). In her article about learning the sonnet, Rachel Richardson draws an interesting history of this form and discusses the requirements to write a traditional sonnet.

The sonnet is indeed an enduring form. It comes from the Italian word sonetto, which means little song, and it was invented by Giacomo Lentini in thirteenth century. It was used in the Italian court and Francesco Petrarca was its most famous early pratictioner. The Petrarchan sonnet is different from the Shakespearan one. This form was used during the Elizabethan period, where it assumed the form that is most famous in UK and US: 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. Even if the strict rhyme scheme and metrical regularity contribute to the musicality of the sonnets, they were also thought as the first poetic form to be read silently and not performed. Paul Oppenheimer said that the sonnet was “the first lyric of self-consciousness, or of the self in conflict”. The sonnet can be devided in two parts, as in Sonnet 29: the proposition and resolution, where the volta, the turn, represent the distinction between them. In the first section of the poem, the speaker presents a problem or question, which is resolved at the very end of the poem thanks to a new perspective. The requirements of the sonnet are: 14 lines, iambic pentameter, and an ABBA ABBA CDECDE or ABBA ABBA CDCDCD for the Petrarchan sonnet, or a ABAB CDCD EFEF GG for the Shakespearean. A Rachel Richardson says, in the Petrarchan, the sections are broken up into an octave (first eight lines) and a sestet (final six slines). In the Shakespearan, there are three quatrains and then a couplet, as we have seen. Both types have a volta, a transition to the final section.

The sonnet is often compared to a box, as they also look very dense and square on page and they have such strict requirement. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon refers to teaching prison inmates about poetry as “teach the sonnet’s a cell” and then, “now try to escape”. Working within such a strict form, they trascend this escale, and the voice bends the form to its own will instead of just blindly following the rules and demands. In Sonnet 29, the rhyme scheme and syllable structure is very traditional. The volta is given by the word yet, put in bold in the sheet. That yet represents a contradiction. Yet, still, even so, neverthless. It is the moment of realisation. The character is miserable and uses a very archaic language, old fashion. The poem tracks his emotional journey. This was also interpreted by the singer Rufus Wainwright, who sang it in a beautiful and mournful song. The tone uplifts at the end, when the speaker comes to a resolution. Ron asked us if our stories have this kind of turns. He also asked us if we break rules or if we do stay true to the demands of the genres and forms. As with the turns, I guess I always try to put some sorts of epiphany in my stories. I also think that, when you are learning the craft of writing, you should learn the rules and practice them as much as you can before you can allow yourself to break them. I consider myself as a student, so I try to stay true to the rules of the genres (at least, in fiction). With poetry, well, I am not able to say it yet. I have started writing poetry just a few weeks ago, it is kind of hard to say it now. Ron told us that poetry is tribute and treason. Tribute to rules, and treason to those rules.

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One of the most popular aims of the sonnets is to write in praise of someone or something beloved. The famous My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing like the Sun by Shakespeare is interesting because it is a love poem in which the speaker praises unlikely qualities in his beloved, saying that she stinks, she is not beautiful at all. And yet (volta), the speaker is completely enraptured by her. It is a parody of the more classical sonnets where women are represented as angelic creatures. The final couplet corrects, explains the first part of the poem, as an expression of completely different ideas. Many poets have tried to change and to alter the form of the sonnet. The requirements are all so strict, that of course many of them have tried to change them in different ways. The sonnet is such a well-known form that anyone who tries to write a 14 lines poem is going to be said as writing a variation on the sonnet. Some of these variations are very loose, but many are somewhere in between, and some of the original characteristics of the sonnet can be recognised. The sonnet, anyway, proves to be quite a flexible form. It is possible to write longer lines and play with the accents in order to make it sound as having the sonnet’s rhythm. The formal decisions are very important and often interact with the subject matter of the poem. Some sonnets are not rhymed, or do not have iambic meter.

Some poets may want to write about subject matters that require more than the brevity of fourteen lines. Therefore, it is possible to string together a group of sonnets into a sonnet sequence. They tell a longer story. They can also be linked one to the other by repetition: as Richardson explains, each successive sonnet uses as its first line the last line of the preceding sonnt. The final sonnet ends with the same line that begins the first sonnet, completing the circle. This type of sequence is called a crown of sonnets. Some poets don’t take this final step of circling back to the first line at the end of the sequence. The story is not a circle, but it evolves. All these parts are brought into play together, and allow the reader to reflect on every part and on the sequence as a whole.

In class, we read the crown of sonnet Exchanging Vows by Janine Joseph. It is about a failing marriage, and as the first sonnet is the most linked to the traditional conventions, the poems evolve in more free, untraditional sonnets. In the first there is no space between the stanzas (as in Sonnet 29), the rhyme scheme is not too strict but it follows the Petrarch’s stystem. The lines have between 9 – 11 syllables. The last word of the last line is used as the last word of the first line of the following sonnet. It is interesting to notice how, going on towards the end of the sequence, the author chooses to move sentences around the page, putting them in weird places, how sometimes the last couplet is distanced by the first part of the poem. When dealing with such a traditional form, structural and formal choices can have a very important meaning. In this sequence of sonnets, the city is rooted in places, and there is a clear image of Las Vegas. It is impressive how difficult may seem to tell a story through 7 sonnets and being able to do it in such a natural way as it happens here.

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We also read Renegades of Funk by Patrick Rosal, where again the last line of every sonnet is taken and, even if is not exactly the same, affects the first line of the following sonnet. Here, the sonnets are structured in different ways, and the rhythm of every short poem is very well connected to the subject matter. In IV, there is a lot of italic, as the speaker is quoting the lyrics of a chant or a song. The line repeated sounds almost as a chorus, given the reader the impression that it would be an amazing piece to perform. After that, we read Rapture by Jonterri Gadson. In the first sonnet there are many assonances, inner rhymes and allitteratons. It is a beautiful sonnet about the relationship between daughter and mother. The following sonnets all take exactly the last line of the previous one as their first line. This crown of sonnets leaves the tradition but also takes care of it, following some of the rules of the sonnet (for example, the number of syllables). The most shocking sonnet that we read was Sonnet, with Pride by Sherman Alexie, who wrote this very weird sonnet that is shaped as a piece of prose, with justified text. The text is divided by numbers, from 1 to 14 (as the lines of a sonnet), in small paragraphs. It is about a bunch of lions that escape from Baghdad Zoo during Iraq war. It made me think that everything is possible with poetry. Is it really possible to write a sonnet that looks like a piece of prose? Of course you can, I thought. Poetry is tribute… and treason. Alright. Howard Rambsy II said that several African American authors wrote crowns of sonnet, which became a very popular genre in poetry. These poems, in fact, represent the writer’s ability to write a structured and connected piece made out of many smaller ones, all linked by a theme. This help them become well-known in the literary world, where their publication in magazines and the award-winning represent the acknowledgment of their poetry skills.

At the end of our reading, Ron asked what we found surprising in these poems, what we think we should try. We read about many techniques and found others in reading the poems (inner rhymes, allitteration etc). In many of the contemporary sonnets, the form is still present, with the conventions and rules of the genre, but it is not shoved in our face. Is it something we want to try? I would love to try telling a story by writing down a crown of sonnets or just a simple sequence of 7 sonnets. It must be very hard, but it is definitely something I want to take on, just to try and see what it comes to my mind. I love telling stories, and I guess a crown of seven parts allows me to tell it in a way that I’ve never tried before. Laurie Ann Guerrero wrote an essay where she explained her approach to the sonnet. She talks about her grandfather, teaching her how to water tomatoes. He would tell her stories as they were working in their field. He had never learnt to write, but he used to tell amazing stories, choosing the details and the words carefully, as in writing sonnets. The pacing, she says, was always perfect, and his tone always turned just right. In her approach to poetry, she discovered her grandpa’s style: “whole worlds in bite-sized bits“. The art of watering the tomatoes was adjusted and trasmitted for centuries, just like sonnets. Laurie Ann Guerrero compares the last and first lines of the crown of sonnets to the water trickling over to the next row of tomatoes. She wanted her poems to feel “indigenous, easy, from the earth“. I found this extremely inspiring. Her sonnets do not stick perfectly to the rules and conventions of the Italian and English poems, but they are charactered, she says, “like us… working class, rough, Tejano… maybe even beautiful”. This made me think about my approach to poetry: I always think that I really need to uplift myself to write poetry, to talk about important matters and issues, but this is actually only partly true. Poetry must come from the depht of the writer, in my opinion. And those dephts cannot be easily controlled.

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Obstructions

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To introduce the concept of Obstructions, Professor Villanueva showed us a movie called Det Perfekt Menneske (1967), by Jørgen Leth. He asked us what we thought it was and how we would respond to it. It showed two ordinary people, a male and a female, doing normal things that all people do. At the beginning, it seemed like a “how to” video, showing how human body is done and works, and the same with human behaviour, as it may happen with animals or even pieces of furniture or machines. The music was really contrasting with the atmosphere and the theme of the video – it was very lively and sweet.

Professor told us that we were watching Leth’s signature film. He asked us what we noticed about it. I think the woman was much more sexualised than the man, and she looked like she was posing for a magazine. I loved her fancy dress with feathers, the shoes that were very 60s. I really appreciated the sounds the guy and the girl were producing, especially when he lit up his pipe. There was a lot of repetition in their actions and in what the voice-off said, so yes, there was definitely a lot of repetition both in action and language, and the voice was a bit monotone. I also noticed that the man and the woman had no scenes together, they were always separated. I liked that she wore makeup and smoked, which I found was a sign that the film didn’t represent perfection at all. They were very serious all along the video, except from the end, when he started dancing and then smiling. That was of course the most interesting part.

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After the movie, Professor told us that Lars Von Trier revised the movie, and showed us a clip about the making of his own movie. So there were three movies inside one: Det Perfekt Menneske by Leth, the 2003 Lars Von Trier version, and the film of the making, which is called The Five Obstructions. The director of the 2001 version was Leth himself! He was instructed by Von Trier with very precise obstructions. From Wikipedia:

  1. Leth must remake the film in Cuba, with no set, and with no shot lasting longer than twelve frames, and he must answer the questions posed in the original film; Leth successfully completes this task.
  2. Leth must remake the film in the worst place in the world but not show that place onscreen; additionally, Leth must himself play the role of “the man.” The meal must be included, but the woman is not to be included. Leth remakes the film in the red light district of Mumbai, only partially hiding it behind a translucent screen.
  3. Because Leth failed to complete the second task perfectly, von Trier punishes him, telling him to either remake the film in any way he chooses, or else to repeat it again with the second obstruction in Mumbai. Leth chooses the first option and remakes the film in Brussels, using split-screen effects.
  4. Leth must remake the film as a cartoon. He does so with the aid of Bob Sabiston, a specialist in rotoscoping, who creates animated versions of shots from the previous films. As such the final product is technically an animation but not a cartoon. Nevertheless, von Trier considers the task to be completed successfully.
  5. The fifth obstruction is that von Trier has already made the fifth version, but it must be credited as Leth’s, and Leth must read a voice-over narration, ostensibly from his own perspective but in fact one written by von Trier.

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We only saw a part of the film, but it was very interesting. Lars Von Trier called his constraints “a gift“, as limits could actually help creativity. This is something that may people would not like, but I actually find it exciting. I like to feel challenged when writing. Obstructions can lead to even better and surprising results – and I think that, in this case, this is definitely true. There is also more satisfaction in dealing with challenges rather than just doing what you like and how you like.

And anyway, everyone has always their own way to get to a result, their own lead, despite obstructions: you still use your creativity. Detours can bring to a better destination. Language and Imagination, the title of this class, means also to see and keep off the form, or keep it close to us. To break the rules but also follow them and see where they can take us. They can instruct us more than we think.

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First Lesson in Poetry: Failure

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I know why I waited for so long before starting posting again on this blog. The reasons are many – one of these is that I have came back to London recently, I had to find a new place to live and start classes. I also wanted to find a good job, and I did. I don’t think I have celebrated enough the fact that I found my first paid job.

Anyway, a part from these reasons, there is one that is more important. This semester I am going to take a poetry class, and of course I need to do my reflective log about it. This may seem the same as all the other classes I took, but, well, it’s not. I was deeply scared by poetry. As a non-native English speaker, how is it possible to write poetry in another language? How is it possible to do it without even know all the complexities, the small differences, the sounds and shades of the words?

Then, before our first class, I read an article that our professor sent us. It’s Bhanu Kapil’s commencement speech at Goddard College, and it gave me the courage to face this new, challenging and frightening class. The focus of the speech is failure. This made me realise how important it is, for writers as for any other creative personality, to learn how to deal with failure. Bhanu Kapil’s father was a migrant in London. According to the story, he failed 75 times before he could be taken into serious account as a professional.

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This story spoke to me not only because everyone can fail many times before finding their own way, but also because as a non-native English speaker I know that my path in writing in English will be particularly difficult. I am reading a beautiful book by Jhumpa Lahiri, it’s called In Altre Parole and it’s all about her experience with learning and writing in Italian. She is an English writer, even if she has bengalese origins. Writing in a different language and about a different culture, as well as being migrants, is always a huge source of inspiration, but is also a great challenge. How can a person write themselves out of one life and into another? How can a person understand deeply the culture and the way of life of a place that is not theirs?

That’s it. Failure is always there, waiting for you to stumble in it. That is why writing in another language and facing a completely different culture helps you getting used to failure. Everyday I  fail. I fail when I say that I want puff pastry to the guy at Sainsbury, but I don’t know how to say it in English and I just try to describe it. I fail everyday, when i’m pretty sure a word is pronounced in the wrong way and my classmates laugh – it’s fine. Failing helps. It helps you believing in duration, which is, as Kapil says in her speech, an essential part of writing. Learning a language is hard and it takes a life. More than a life. The same goes with writing: how does a narrative become itself in time? Circles of dormancy are, says Kapil, extremely helpful. Weirdly nutritive.

Failure is an aperture to many other possibilities, for other chances, for other paths where your piece, novel or poem may go. It is important to find the joy in rewriting, the same joy we find in writing. Rewriting is writing, says Kapil. Writing is rewriting. The most incredible part of the speech is the ending: Kapil wishes the students fail. Fail in such a way that you start to shine as brightly as you did when you first began.

As this reading wasn’t eye-opening enough, we also have to read other pieces to prepare ourselves for the first class. One was a piece by Wendell Berry, an american poet, novelist anf farmer, born in 1934. It was taken from its Poetry and Marriage. The Use of Old Forms. Form, he says, serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us, deflect our intented course. I could identify myself in this piece as well – traveling to another country is a form of detour, right? Alright, now everyone tell you that having experience abroad is important for your career, so it has become a sort of standardised path, but still – if you want to learn the language, try to understand and assimilate the culture of the place, then it is a challenge. And when we don’t know what to do, then the real work comes.

Every day there are a thousand of occasions when I don’t know which way to go. And that’s when we began our journey, writes Berry. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

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This spoke to me because I know that all the pieces I wrote in the last years are deeply inspired by my traveling. In the last three years, I spent my life in very different places. I have studied in Oslo for a semester, I have come back to my city in Italy, Livorno, but studied in Florence, then I was awarded a scholarship to spend a semester in the States and now I am here, in London, where I am actually trying to settle down. The impeded stream is the one that sings. I have written stories set in Oslo, Livorno, Florence, New York City, Bronxville, London. All places that left an incredible mark in my life as a person and as a writer. Challenges, new people, new houses, new languages inspired me. I am grateful.

The last reading before class was a poem. We needed to come to that, right? After all, this is a poetry class. And of course, you can’t write poetry if you don’t read poetry. And I want to read more of it, because I know that poetry is like that mysterious guy in the corner – he’s handsome, but a little too dark to tell if he’s going to like you as well. And I want poetry to like me just as much as I want to fall in love with poetry. I know I can. The intented stream is the one that sings. Poetry will be a challenge. It will inspire me, as everything I did before. Maybe I won’t be that good, my language will be poor, my metaphors a bit cheesy. Doesn’t matter. I’ll find my voice.

This poem was written by W.S. Merwin, an American poet based in NYC and born in 1927, and it’s called “Berryman”, from Flower and Hand: Poems 1977 – 1988. It is about a man who talks to the author and expresses his view about poetry. Passion, he says, is the presence that permits everything, the essential part of transmitting emotion into poetry. Passion can bring everything to movement, to invention.

But the poem is also about failure. The man suggests to paper the wall with rejection slips, and the author asks him how can you even be sure that what you write is really good. How can you? Well, my answer would be, if they publish your stuff you don’t have to be that bad, right? But the man in the poem sees it another way, and he’s right. You can’t ever be sure. You can only be sure that you could die without knowing, if you don’t try. If you have to be sure, don’t write

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Unveiling my Project through the Creative Practice Books

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The deadline for the final project is dangerously close. I have decided what I am going to write about and I did some research at London Bishopsgate Archives. I also interviewed a person that gave me some interesting insights about the subject of my creative non-fiction piece. I was very curious to learn more about creative non-fiction as a genre, so I wanted to summarise briefly the books we have read in class, which are all interesting examples of creative non-fiction. All of them, in fact, incorporate some of the methodologies that we have studied in class.

We have analysed immersive writing, writing in place, oral history and the selective dialogue. Our path started with Rodinsky’s Room, that contained all the methodologies we have studied.

Rachel had lived through her own trials and doubts, the book was writing itself. An unstoppable momentum; the joyous, terrifying rush of having to work to keep pace with what’s there, the revealed story. Author as scribe. It’s a wonder when it happens, draining the writer as she struggles to live with the promptings of her own inspiration, the voices from elsewhere.

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Rodinsky’s Room is not just a book about a young woman that wants to unveil a mystery. It is a book about London, about a man who is not there. It is actually a book about culture, about art, about writing itself. This is something that I really want to put in my project. How does writing work? I want to write something that I care about. This is so important for writers. The protagonist of Rodinsky’s Room is not Rodisnky – it is Rachel herself. So this is the first great lesson that I am learning about creative non-fiction. My project can be all about the author: ME. And about another character that is not there. That is just made by dust, by records, by his/her own traces.  As a previous fiction writer, I am going to put myself in my writing more than I have ever done.

Another book that we’ve read is Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison. It is not a contemporary book, and it was written about a part of the East London where we had a trip with our class. It was very interesting, and the fascination of this place brought many writers to study it. The East London that we all know now – Liverpool Street, Brick Lane, Shoreditch – was not as nice and hipster, just some time ago. It was all slums and bad guys. That is what interests me. Bad people. One of the most interesting things about fiction is that you can make people understand “the bad guys”. You can make people understand their reasons, their flaws, their weaknesses. You can be fascinated by them, maybe even like them. As it happens in Child of the Jago.

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So: the process of writing about someone who’s not there. And bad guys. This is all very interesting, but I need to put something else in it. And it is London. The city. What can London give me? What is it actually giving me? What am I missing and what am I taking? Am I noticing everything I could? Of course not. It takes more than a life to get to know London. And that brings me to London Overground, another interesting book that we read, written by Iain Sinclair. Even though it wasn’t easy to follow (as you have noticed, English is not my first language), it was interesting. It gave me the feeling that I was there, with him, and that everything could be written about a city. Everything, all the little details, are important and can be poetic. Iain Sinclair writes poetry in prose. About London. That is something I can try to do. Building up an atmosphere through words. The setting comes alive. London is a character itself. 

From the slums of the East End to the clean, swift and quiet rolling of the London Overground train. London was, is and will be full of many things to discover, explore and write about. There are so many books, museums, documents and archives. And, of course, places to see.

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The London Overground leaves Dalston Junction station.

Then there is the listening part. Hard Times by Studs Terkel is all about listening. People can be interviewed and be willing to talk about the subject we want to write about. I interviewed a person that opened my mind, said interesting things and drank a beer with me. We were at an East London pub, and the sun was shining a little bit. We smoked a cigarette together, and the interview went pretty smoothly. I listened to him and recorded him, then I made him sign a permission certificate. It was everything like we had done in our Oral History workshop, inspired by the work of Studs Terkel. Here it is. Another book that we read and was useful for my research.

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The last books we have studied were Findings by Kathleen Jamie and The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. They both helped me in realising what creative non-fiction could be about. We had always read about London, but of course the city is not the only setting that can come alive. Even if the city is full of inspirations, new things to do, little details to discover, every place can be important. Everything can make narrative come out. It can be the beautiful countryside and the research of a bird, like in Findings. Scotland nature is just the place where a woman memoir unfolds. Or it can be the memories,  the thoughts that accompany you during a slow walk. Every kind of thoughts. About life, mortality, decay. The most important thing is to make people interested in the discovery that you want to do – and it doesn’t have to be a physical discovery. You’ll uncover a mystery. And that is what people should care about. The city can be full of mysteries, but every place can be. You just need to involve the reader and make their care about what you are researching.

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The director Quentin Tarantino once said that details sell good stories. Describing the details is essential. The reader must see what’s happening. It doesn’t matter if the story is set in the coolest place ever. I prefer to write stories about not so famous or attractive places in London. If you provide good details, a story set in a McDonald’s will be more interesting than a story set in Oxford Circus. This is something that I really need to deepen in my own writing. It will be interesting to try to place every sentence and statement of my project in a specific London. East London has a great impact on me. I had never visited it before, and now I feel like I know it. A little. And all these books helped me in realising what I want to write about, how and why.

I am writing a project about Jack the Ripper. I know, I know, it is very banal. But I want to write about Jack the Ripper… and me. And London. And writing. And bad guys. And evil. And the East End. And listening to people, researching in the archives. And creating evil characters just because we need to pour our evil part into something or someone else. And a lot of other stuff. I am very happy about doing this. It is a broad topic, but I’ll put all myself in it. Me, my writing and my insane passion for bad guys.

Damn, how I love bad guys.