Interview series #4: Zoe Venditozzi

Zoe Venditozzi Pic

Zoe Venditozzi is a novelist based in Fife. She’s also a qualified teacher and is currently working as a palliative care writer in residence. Her novel Anywhere’s Better Than Here was the public vote winner of Not The Booker and she is a former Scottish Book Trust Reader in Residence. We first met several years ago when I mentored her via the Scottish Book Trust’s mentoring scheme. You can follow Zoe on Facebook here and on twitter @zoevenditozzi.

(photo by Bob McDevitt)

This is the fourth interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

[Sophy]: When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

[Zoe]: Hmmm… I think the best advice (which I still need to take, frankly) is to just write. I spent (spend?) far too long worrying about it and comparing my writing to other people’s. It sounds really obvious, but if you don’t actually write anything, you can’t improve it and become something close to the kind of writer you aspire to be.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

I’m not sure that I fully believe in writer’s block. Or rather, I fully believe that you can be sitting for a long, long time waiting for inspiration to strike to no avail. It’s probably better to try and write something – anything – with the hope/desire/compulsion that at some point the right words will arrive.

Do you write every day?

No. Hilary Mantel wrote that people are always asking her if she writes every day. She said she feels like saying, “Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist?” which made me feel slightly sheepish.

Unfortunately, I don’t write every day, because paid work and my children and having coffee and doing the washing and reading books and being on Facebook all keep getting in the way.

However, Mantel went on to say, “I understand the question is really about the central mystery – what is inspiration? Eternal vigilance, in my opinion. Being on the watch for your material, day or night, asleep or awake” and I definitely agree with that.

I’m always thinking and reading and talking and taking it all in, hoping that it plays into my writing store so that when I do have more time, that it’s there, in my mind, ready to get to work.

Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?

I prefer to write out of the house otherwise I find excuses not to write. I like to have a coffee (because it make me feel like a “real” writer). I listen to particular music that helps me to get in to the right mood or headspace. For example, I listened to Mogwai’s soundtrack for Les Revenants for my last novel and I’ll be listening to a lot of Chopin for the next thing I’m doing. I spend a fair bit of time daydreaming and procrastinating first and then I write quite quickly and in quite a determined manner.

Have you ever kept a journal?

I’ve tried to, but what’s the point? I can hear all that in my head all the time.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

Not really, which is probably quite apparent from my lack of plotting. I’m much more interested in characters rather than actions, so I spend time thinking of who the characters are and what they would do next. I quite like a doodled flow chart and sometimes while I’m writing I’ll do a very poor timeline. However, I suspect that’s just a part of the panoply of distraction techniques that my brain is constantly throwing at me.

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Interview Series #3: Meaghan Delahunt

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Meaghan Delahunt is a novelist and short story writer. Born in Melbourne, she has lived for many years in Edinburgh. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Stirling and is also a qualified yoga teacher. I was trying to work out when we first met and think it must have been around 15 years ago, when she won a Saltire First Book Award for her first novel, In The Blue House, which is centred on the extraordinary true life story of Frida Kahlo’s friendship with Leon Trotsky. Meaghan’s most recent book is Greta Garbo’s Feet & Other Stories – see here for details, or her own website here.

This is the third interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

Sophy: When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

Meaghan: When I first started writing creatively, I was a small child. Later, in my twenties, I started writing ‘with intent’.  There were no courses or university degrees, and even if there were, I wouldn’t have wanted to do them.  I just read and wrote and read and re-wrote. Lived and tried to pay attention to living.  I still think this is the only way, fundamentally, that you become a writer. The advice that would have been most helpful to me, if there had been someone to give me advice would have been this:  Persevere, learn to become resilient, try to learn and be positive in the face of set-backs. Often your ‘failures’ are the springboard for something new.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

I’m a little suspicious of  ‘writer’s block.’ It always seems so melodramatic and Hollywood and far too neat a term for something much more complex.  It seems to me that ‘writer’s block’ takes different forms depending on the writer. Mostly, I think it is depression, fear and anxiety in the face of writing.  A blank page will easily conjure up all of these feelings, at some point. Often in the middle of a long piece of work you wonder if you will ever make your way out, you feel overwhelmed. Or at the beginning. Or at the end of a long piece of work, you wonder if you will have the energy and stamina for another one. You feel emptied out.  You need to feel these things, and let them go.  For me, knowing that these states of mind are ‘normal’ and that they also pass is helpful. Yoga and meditation have always been helpful to me in this regard,  in coming to know the rhythms of my own mind.  Acknowledging and making peace with ‘negative’ states of mind is the most helpful thing.  Even writing down how you are feeling on  a piece of paper and throwing this away before you start writing can be helpful. And trusting that these states are transient and that you will find your way back, towards, into the work, in your own time.

Do you write every day?

I write something most days in my journal. When I’m working on a story or a novel I would definitely write most days. When you are in the flow of something, it’s delicious, you don’t want to be anywhere else!  But when I’m between projects, or lying fallow at the end of a long project, I give myself permission not to write. I know then that I need to read and rest and do other things.

Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?

I have so many rituals, it’s ridiculous.   I must have two cups of tea in order to even kick-start the process. I have to meditate and do yoga.  I have to light incense.  I have to wear an ear plug in my good right ear ( I’ve had complete nerve deafness in my left ear since childhood)  so that the only thing I can hear is my thoughts. I like to face a blank wall.  No matter how early I get up, and unless I am really in the flow of something, by the time I get all this done it always seems to be either 11am or 4pm in the afternoon. It’s a mystery.  I seem to work best late morning and then late afternoon or evening.  I tend to create first drafts  at my desk, or on trains, planes or buses.  But then I like to edit in cafes and other places to give me a different perspective on what I’ve done. Fortunately, apart from the blank wall, my rituals can be performed anywhere.

Have you ever kept a journal?

I kept a little exercise book as a child. My mother found this and presented it to me one day, years ago. It had all my 10-year old yearnings and poems and also some grandiose stuff from when I was 16.  I don’t know where that journal is now. But it was an eye-opener to me, that this thing had been going on a long time – the desire to write. Also, that my voice was pretty much there, from the beginning.  In my mid-20’s I decided to start writing  in a journal. I now have nearly three decades worth of journals. I never look at them, unless I need  something for a story or a novel, and can remember that I wrote something useful down. But it is a way of offloading my emotions, fears, thoughts, things overheard, scraps of dialogue, ideas and so on.  A way of processing thoughts and dreams. Especially dreams.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

In life as in art, I am not a planner.  As a child I was always told that I was vague and dreamy.  I am not naturally organised or punctual – it takes a great deal of psychic effort for me to be either of those things.   I can’t  possibly outline a book in advance and am hopeless at writing a synopsis and I could never ‘pitch’ an idea – I don’t believe in that kind of process anyway.  When I am forced to ‘outline’ something in advance – for agents, publishers or funding bodies – I keep it as general as possible. I’m not at all interested in plot. I’m much more interested in interwoven stories, in layering, in patterns, digressions, in rhythm and counterpoint.  In the ‘mystery of personality’ as Flannery O’Connor put it.  I get an image, then some language coheres to the image, along with colours and a sense of place. It’s very visual. I start writing towards this and find out what I’m doing as I go along. I do a lot of drafts and start with what I call ‘draftlets.’  So, the first ‘draft’ of a novel, could be twenty pages or five pages.  And later those  pages could end up in the middle of the novel, or towards the end, or not at all. It’s a totally intuitive, organic process. It takes years for me to get a full first draft. I always start by handwriting, then transfer to the computer, then print everything out, read it, make handwritten comments, throw the pages on the floor,take scissors, sticky tape and post-it notes,  cut-and-paste, then back to the computer.  I do this over and over again. At each ‘draft’ I have to ‘see’ it all on the floor. It’s a very messy process, not at all efficient, but it’s my own process, worked through over decades, and there’s a comfort in that.

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Seaside Writing Workshop: Unlock Your Creativity

Come and spend a day writing by the sea in pretty North Berwick – more info here.

Interview Series #2 – Susie Maguire

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Susie Maguire is a writer best known for short stories. As well as two collections – The Short Hello and Furthermore – her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and Radio Scotland. She is also an editor, mentor and experienced Arvon tutor, and her background is in acting, stand-up comedy and television presenting. I can’t really remember how I first met Susie – but I think it was about 15 years ago, and we’ve worked together off and on since then. You can find out more about her work here or follow her on twitter here.

This is the second interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with my clients:

Sophy: When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

Susie: None, probably; I was writing secretly, without thinking about it, and in retrospect believe that was a very good way to start. The ability to let the unconscious out to play gets harder the more you (think you) know about what you’re doing and why, so it’s a nice stage, that playful time. Being surprised by what emerges when you’re just letting it flow, being enthusiastic about discovery.

But if someone has really decided ‘I Will Write’ and is actually seeking advice, then perhaps I’d say: don’t get hung up on formats and feedback and competitions right at the start, because that ‘end use’ stuff sometimes interferes with the process of listening to yourself and developing a trust deal with your subconscious. Another thing I’d suggest is to be careful how much generic ‘writing advice’ stuff you absorb and from what quarter. Lots of it is contradictory and you need to develop your own instinct and methods more than you need ‘how to do it right’ coming at you like a swarm of flies.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

That expression means different things to different people, doesn’t it? I’ve never been under contract for something that I then failed to complete, and I’ve never lacked ideas to pursue, but sometimes have lacked the courage to pursue them, or lost faith in my ability to do so to a level I deem good enough – i.e. fear has crept in, usually propelled by some other factor which then affects the writing-bit at a deep level.
What helps ‘block’? Realising that you’re over-thinking, that perfectionism has set up camp in your frontal lobes. Giving yourself permission to write badly but passionately, to get it out of your system, telling your critical self to make the tea and leave you to get on with it, tapping away at the keys ‘just for ten minutes, no pressure’, every day… some of those things help. Going for a walk. Movement of some kind. Doing other creative things, painting, drawing, even tidying a corner of a room, all those things can help short term block.
Sometimes the issue is finding or choosing the most viable idea for that point in your life (though usually your pressing theme is hitting you on the back of the head to get your attention, and is inescapable even if un-nameable).

For longer, nastier kinds of block, talking to someone you trust to find out where the fear is, and how to negotiate with it, might be necessary. Everyone has moments of doubt. If they become perpetual, then it’s time to consider the cause, and learn from that, and re-focus yourself appropriately, and with kindness. For that level of ghastliness, a mentor is highly useful; to be able to say, in confidence, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m lost’ and for someone further along their writing path to say ‘it’s okay, here’s the torch, let’s walk together for a bit’ – is wonderful.

Do you write every day?

Yes, but that might be less ‘Writing’, more just plain ‘writing’. Lots of uncapitalised writing goes on to maintain the dream-catching Writing person. Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. Argh.
I am not by nature an organised type, except on the page, and timetables make me feel rebellious, but it’s reassuring if you can develop a rhythm. Because my first break (in radio) came with short stories, I became adept at sprint-writing…teasing a story out over maybe three or four days, then a break from it, then a couple of days editing, (deleting, improving the prose, the tempo, etc) and then (for a commission) letting it go; that shape and time-ratio feels good to me. But on a longer project it’s probably wise to have a schedule, even if it’s a movable sacred hour that fits round your duties as griller of fish fingers or whatever.
Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?
No, and no. But I probably should. Yes, now you ask… I know that if I start writing when I’m cold, tired, hungry, or physically not well, it affects my mood and affects the work’s direction. Maybe I need to develop some professional tics. A certain hat, lipstick, candle, breakfast, pair of polka-dot pyjamas… ? A supply of a special type of biscuit baked by nuns in a remote convent in the Pyrenees? That’s the one.
Have you ever kept a journal?
Only as a child, but it was full of inane comments and drawings of dogs, and scribbled in loopy handwriting at long intervals.  Looking at them makes me feel a bit sad. On the other hand, I have vast email archives which, if I could be bothered to work out how to retrieve them, would illustrate preoccupations over the past 12 years or so quite adequately. I admire those who can and do ‘journal’, but loathe it as a verb and eschew it as a task.
Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?
See above for admission of being terrible about organisation.. I’ve often started writing plans and lists and plot outlines and synopses and abandoned them out of boredom, or after getting stuck, or when I realised that it doesn’t work for me, or not for all projects. I did once write a 45 minute play in two weeks, having planned the scenes quite carefully, but in general I’m resistant to knowing too much before I begin writing. I like finding out. Also, I usually use Scrivener to write, so I can write scenes or parts of scenes or questions or lines of dialogue and shift them about to find out what they are for and where and why.  I try to write as if I (or the narrator, or the reader) am living the story in an uncomplicated way, and then complicate it later.. if necessary. I tend not to start at the beginning, because I know now that I can leap in to a point further in, rather than write all that preamble or scene-setting which I’ll only end up cutting later.
However, none of these things is a rule, or a habit. Every new thing is a new thing. I have to sniff and lick and chew for a while to find out what it is, how to carry it, what it’s got in its pockets.

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Interview Series #1 – Graeme Macrae Burnet

GraemeMacraeBurnet

Graeme Macrae Burnet is a Glasgow-based crime writer, published by Saraband Books. We first met a few years ago, when he’d just won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers’ Award (submissions for this fantastic programme are open at the moment – apply now if you’re eligible) – part of his professional development support included a couple of coaching sessions with me. You can find out more about Graeme’s writing (and his abiding fascination with Georges Simenon) on his blog.

This is the first of a series of short interviews that I’ll be hosting here on the site, covering topics that often come up in my mentoring and coaching sessions with new writers:

Sophy: When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

Graeme: I don’t actually think you need any advice when you start writing. I think you need to try to find your own way of working. There’s such a cacophony of advice and ‘tips’ around for writers these day, I actually think it can be a bit burdensome. I’ve no doubt it’s perfectly possible to go online and find entirely contradictory ideas about how to go about things. The fact is there’s no right or wrong way. So I guess the piece of advice that would have helped me would be: Ignore all advice.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

I’m a bit suspicious of the term ‘writer’s block’. If it means that someone is simply not writing anything, then clearly (brutal though it may sound) there’s only one solution to that. Easier said than done of course.

Do you write every day?

I try to treat it as a kind of nine to five-ish sort of thing and if I’m at the stage of producing a first draft I aim to write a thousand words or so a day. But some days are more productive than others.

Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?

I go to the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. I enter by the back door and leave by the front, and if it’s free I sit in the same seat. I line up my coffee, water and extra strong mints, turn on an internet blocker, and, if the place if busy, listen to a loop of white noise. I generally I get most done in the afternoon.

Have you ever kept a journal?

No, but I keep a notebook to hand in case any little ideas spring to mind. I’ve got a terrible memory, and there’s nothing worse than knowing you had an idea, but not remembering what it was.

 Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

I hate planning. I want to the plot evolve from the characters, in an organic sort of way, rather than the other way around. But you can get yourself into a terrible mess working like that, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.

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Five best books about writing

There are hundreds and hundreds of books on writing out there, some good, some great – and some not so great. Here are my five favourite ones, the ones I recommend most often to clients or friends. These are not books on getting published, but on the act and craft of writing itself.

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Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott – probably my favourite of these favourites. Funny, full of wisdom about life as well as writing. You can also follow Anne on Facebook for occasional mini-essays.

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Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg – a close second to Bird by Bird, this will encourage you to build your writing practice and, as the book’s subtitle promises, ‘free the writer within’.

wiredforstory

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron takes a slightly different approach to the first two books here (which are more about getting you started with writing) and looks at how our brains respond to the universal patterns of story, and how to make use of these narrative drivers when we write.

storycraft

Storycraft: the complete guide to writing narrative nonfiction by Jack Hart – this is the best guide I’ve found to doing exactly what it says on the tin, using the craft of story writing to write compelling nonfiction.

becomingawriter

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande – I’ll leave this one to Hilary Mantel, who says:

“Read  Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t ­really need any others…”

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Retreats

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View from the window of Moniack Mhor

Retreats are such a privilege – a way of stepping back from the demands and details of your day to day life and focusing entirely on your writing. I’ve been thinking a lot about writing retreats recently, since I’m putting together options for future Spark retreats at the moment. Whilst those are brewing, here are some great options if you need to make some space and time to write:

Moniack Mhor is in a beautiful setting near Inverness. Formerly part of the Arvon stable, it’s now independent, but still offers a mix of taught courses and tutored retreats.

The Lint Mill is for those looking for a bit of solitude, combined with pampering. You will have access to an artist’s studio, a baby grand piano, and, very importantly, more home made and home grown delicious organic food than can possibly be entirely good for you.

Cove Park is in Argyll, overlooking Loch Long and hosts writers, artists and musicians from all over the world (I was involved in arranging Margaret Atwood’s stay there several years ago) – they run funded residencies but you can also self-fund.

I’ve been to Moniack, Cove Park and The Lint Mill and highly recommend all of them, but here are a couple that look lovely but which I can’t personally recommend (although a friend came back raving from the Banff Writers’ Centre a few years ago):

La Muse is a writers and artists’ retreat near Carcassonne in the south of France.

The Banff Writers’ Centre hosts an internationally famous writing programme. There’s a fantastic opportunity for Scottish-based writers here at the moment – a funded residency. Find out more here.

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Links round-up

Let’s start the week with some links love:

This piece on the pleasures of creative work.

This interview on short stories, Alice Munro’s in particular – makes me want to go and re-read them…

If you’ve nearly finished your novel, here’s some motivation for the final push – a £50,000 publishing deal for a first time author is up for grabs, see more here.

If you’re nowhere near that stage yet, here’s a cheering piece on the upside of being an amateur.

And if all else fails, according to this article, pretending you’re creative will make you more creative.

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Do we hold the secret of happiness in our own two hands?

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Photo by Drew Hays via Unsplash

Creating something with your hands fosters pride and satisfaction, but it also allows you to physically express the things that spring up in your mind, in the moment.”

Carrie Barron & Alton Barron, The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness With Your Own Two Hands

I’ve been reading The Creativity Cure by Carrie and Alton Barron recently – she is a pyschoanalyst and he is a hand surgeon – and the central ideas of the book are that creativity is the antidote to depression and that we all need to work with our hands more. They are advocates of writing in longhand and I’ve beeen mulling over the difference between handwriting and typing. I do think that there’s something more satisfying about the tactile process of holding a pen and writing on paper. Obviously, it’s not an efficient way to write your magnum opus (that would be Scrivener), but there’s a lot to be said for getting your first ideas down physically onto paper, and for journalling, that most intimate kind of writing, to be by hand, into a notebook.

The Barrons quote psychiatrist Andrew Brink as saying that creativity is “the original anti-depressant,” and psychoanalyst and paediatrician D.W. Winnicott as saying that it is creativity “more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living.” As they go on to say:

The more you reshape something outside yourself, the more you reshape your inside. But the converse is also true: transforming what is inside – instincts, conflicts, feelings, aesthetics, and knowledge – into something outside can heal the self. Psychoanalysts Janine Chassegeut-Smirgel and Jean Sanville, who have studied creativity, have cited the role of creative acts in self-repair. Tending, repairing, making and reshaping help us express and work through inner conflicts, though we may not even recognise or verbalize what is occurring… Using your hands… facilitates self-reliance, psychological movement, creative activity, and happiness.”

The twin driving forces of their ‘Creativity Cure’ come from two kinds of journal writing, one reflecting on past experiences and behaviour and one attempting to shift to a consciously positive perspective, plus a focus on working with your hands every day. They write:

If you take no other message from this book, take this: use your hands. Make, create, repair, cook, perform rote tasks, play an instrument. Your hands are very important for your happiness. We are affected by a cultural malaise that results from the overuse of computers and smartphones, and we have to make conscientious efforts to compensate. We have to be calculating about living naturally. Even if it means taking the long road or having a less polished product, go for it. Do it yourself if you can. This is about mental health. Keep your hands engaged.”

I thought that was an interesting thing to say – “We have to be calculating about living naturally.” It’s an effort to make things by hand rather than getting them ready made – and more broadly it takes effort and intentionality to live creatively. We have to go out of our way to carve out time for creating in our lives, no one is going to do it for us. But their book also highlights one of the huge reasons to do so, this connection between creativity and happiness, the idea that creating something is a natural anti-depressant.

How can you find time to create something over the next few days? Can you carve out ten minutes? Half an hour? And what about using your hands? Apparently even emptying the dishwasher counts, but true happiness might require baking…

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Brené Brown on Creativity

Let me sum up what I’ve learned about creativity…

  1. “I’m not very creative” doesn’t work. There’s no such thing as creative people and non-creative people. There are only people who use their creativity and people who don’t. Unused creativity doesn’t just disappear. It lives within us until it’s expressed, neglected to death, or suffocated by resentment and fear.
  2. The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.
  3. If we want to make meaning, we need to make art. Cook, write, draw, doodle, paint, scrapbook, take pictures, collage, knit, rebuild an engine, sculpt, dance, decorate, act, sing – it doesn’t matter. As long as we’re creating, we’re cultivating meaning.

…If creativity is seen as a luxury or something we do when we have spare time, it will never be cultivated… When I make creating a priority, everything in my life works better.

from The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

This is more or less the manifesto for this site – there really are “only people who use their creativity and people who don’t.” If you would like to fall into the first category, then remember, you can start small. Find a pencil and spend the next ten minutes sketching whatever’s in front of you. Write a list of ten places you can remember from your childhood, starting with your favourite place to hide. Or go online and buy the ingredients for a recipe you’ve never cooked before. Just don’t let it be a luxury, or something that you will get to one day, maybe when you’re retired.

If you’re not amongst the millions who’ve seen Brené Brown’s TED talks, I’d recommend taking a look (you can find them here).

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