Novels for the end of the world

It is 147 years since the first recorded use of the word “dystopia” was uttered by philosopher John Stuart Mill. At the time, Mill coined the phrase during a speech denouncing the British Government’s shameful colonial ‘Irish Land’ policy. Since then, of course, it has taken on a whole number of meanings and inspired multiple different trains of thought. The term does, admittedly, have human beings to thank for becoming so well known – after all, it’s difficult to witness two world wars, the rise and fall of colonial empires, genocide, environmental collapse and constant global conflict and not feel a little miffed about everything.

This is not, of course, to say that we are living in the end times – as some might suggest. Instead it is to simply illustrate how a long-term trend in human reality has been the occurrence of negative events. Of course, there have also been, in the past 150 years, fantastic events, too, which highlight the goodness of human beings and our ability to create great and beautiful things. But nobody really wants to talk about things being good – after a while doing so just starts to sound a bit smug.

Far more interesting, it could be said, is our cultural reaction to what might be seen as dystopian realities in the world we live. While the debate surrounding whether forms of culture reflect and proceed; or in fact influence and precede real life continues to whirl on, it is without doubt that a definite trend in our culture over the last 100 years has been toward creative forms that deal with dystopian realities – be they alternate or otherwise.

These cultural forms abound in myriad different spheres. Films, for example, which depicting mass catastrophe, death and destruction have been well analysed and critiqued – think of the words of internationally acclaimed philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who argued that Hollywood blockbusters showcasing the end of the world illustrated his point that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”.

Yet while films are all fine and dandy, perhaps the most intriguing cultural form to deal with ideas of dystopia is and has been for the better part of the last century, the novel.

In the wider publishing industry, of course, dystopian fiction remains a subset of a subset (somewhere following on from speculative fiction and science fiction). Yet it is undeniably a buzzword that provides us with an instant reaction – and the novels that work best within it provide us with fascinating room to read into; analyse; interrogate; deconstruct; and provide the inspiration for articles like this one.

And here, dear reader, we bring you what you’ve been waiting for. The highly subjective view of some of the best ever dystopian novels. Please do read our well-constructed list below and feel free to tell us how wrong (or how right on) you think the list is in the comments below. Tell us what books we’re missing – or, if for some reason we wake up to find the world of Fahrenheit 451 has somehow descended upon us, then tell us which single book we should learn and commit to memory as we strike out into the forest to go and live with fellow book people.

The highly subjective list of the best ever dystopian novels

1984 – George Orwell

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A book that possibly needs no introduction. Eerily prescient in a disconcerting number of ways – from newspeak and jargon (in the media; workplace and politics); to Big Brother and Room 101. What is perhaps most intriguing is that we have become in so many ways the dystopian society featured in the novel not under a communist totalitarian dictatorship – as Orwell suggested – but under the guardianship of right wing conservatives and neoliberals. Irrespective of where your own politics lie, that this novel is a disturbing, dystopian world brilliantly depicted and fascinatingly detailed is surely without argument.

Professor Wu Says: “Orwell’s disturbing world of constant surveillance and government controlled media are uncomfortably recognisable. Another strong bonus point in this book’s favour is that it is just heavy enough to throw at any members of the thought police you think might be on your trail.

Do androids dream of electric sheep? – Philip K Dick

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A seminal novel from the excellent Philip K Dick, which gave us the wonderful Blade Runner film when Ridley Scott was still not terrible. The work is built in the futuristic, post-apocalyptic society featuring (but of course) hover cars and robots. Yes. You read that correctly. Hover cars. And Robots. Need we say more? Apart from creating a thoroughly convincing and involving futuristic world, Dick also uses the novel to expertly help us question what it is that makes us human, thanks to Deckard and the apparently unfeeling androids.

Professor Wu says: “Did you ever notice that the Voight-Kampff test (the test Deckard gives to determine humanity) doesn’t really use questions? Rather, Deckard describes a scene and the subject of the test reacts to it. What one might be tempted – I know I certainly am – to read into here, is that this stands as a perfect example of what literature is to the reader. Books – including Dick’s novel – are our Voight-Kampff test. And our reaction to the words on the page and the scenes we read is what is perhaps the most distinguishing feature that proves our humanity. An excellent work on so many levels, and part of an deliciously intriguing train of thought concerning AI and the Turing Test. You see a turtle in plight. What do you feel?

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore

 V_for_vendettaxOkay. So not strictly a novel – rather a graphic one – but still, this is a hugely influential dystopian book, and arguably one of the most popular of contemporary dystopias. The work follows the classic line of establishment conspiracies, depicting an authoritarian government, which maintains itself in power through exploiting people’s fears and indolence. While critics have described it as ‘an adolescent fantasy’, Moore’s work has an undeniably inspiring message – that the people can resist those who abuse power. Demonstrators in Britain and around the world wear the ‘V’ Guy Fawkes mask; while the symbol has also become synonymous with hacker group anonymous.

Professor Wu Says: “Verily, the vivacious and vivid V for Vendetta shows us yet another cultural example of the very real, deep mistrust that exists between the people and those supposedly elected to represent them. It is built on the basis of deep mistrust of those exerting political authority – something recognisable by all of us living in Western Democracies today. UKIP voters should read the book and beware; voting for a party that draws support by preaching fear and anger can lead us down very dark alleyways.

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

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Blood Meridian is perhaps a contentious one, considering the obvious McCarthy dystopian novel is perhaps, ‘The Road’; but The Road is just too obvious, if anything. And it just wouldn’t do to put Cormac McCarthy on any list more than once – while he most probably deserves to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature at some point, his ego may not quite yet be able to cope with the honour of being featured twice in an NITRB article. So why have we plumped for Blood Meridian anyway? It’s not just that we’re trying to be out there (which of course we are); it’s also because this is quite possibly one of the greatest novels in the dystopian genre, despite being set more than a century ago. This is because it depicts, simply, the end of the world. The image of barren prairies, carpeted as far as the eye can see with piles of bleached buffalo bones is haunting. Indeed, the general depiction in the novel of the violence at the heart of human nature – a violence so close to being somewhere between chaos and orchestrated evil –  leads us to confront that nameless, faceless thing in us and in the world that is, at its heart, about subverting something recognisable (the human being) and turning it inside out to the point that it is at once both terrifyingly ‘other’ and – yet more terrible – also frighteningly close to home.

Professor Wu says: “More than protagonists, this is a novel about landscape, and the vivid descriptions of it make it come alive in a way that reflects a savagery in McCarthy’s vision of human beings. With too many hellish landscapes to count, it’s possibly not one to recommend to your lovely but somewhat doddery old vicar who lives at the end of your street.

A clockwork orange – Anthony Burgess

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Quite an unforgettable book, which Burgess came close to refusing to publish because he apparently felt repulsed by what he had written. The work paints a vivid, depressing future of violent gangs and extreme youthful violence, which the duplicitous state authorities try to maintain through ever more disturbing methods. Muses intriguingly on what it means to be free.

Professor Wu says: “Personally, I think this book is overrated, and not as good as those who like it claim. Yet it makes it onto this list because it is so hugely influential. Burgess’s work gave birth to many new words – such as ultraviolence – and as such deserves credit for its linguistical tricks. It muses on what it means to be free, while it also gave us a Kubrick film, which itself gave us Malcolm McDowell sporting a fabulous cod piece. And nobody can complain about that – or can they?”

World War Z – Max Brooks

World War Z

Is Zombie fiction dystopian fiction? For the purposes of this list, yes. Yes it is. It’s a highly subjective list, after all, so we can put what we want here. Perhaps we could call it ‘apocalit’. Would that work? The point is that this is a great piece of modern, original storytelling. The beauty of a zombie piece is that it takes what we know and takes away all the rules – allowing anarchy to reign supreme. It is a novel less about zombies than of human beings and how they react in a world without law. The depiction of national governments, in particular, is certainly in the tradition of dystopian literature – as they do everything from force their citizens to live underground, poison and drop bombs on their own populations, and conspire secretly with devious schemes and plots.

Professor Wu says: “Zombies. Zombie capitalism anybody? There’s probably a link there. The most important thing, though, is zombies, okay? Zombies zombies zombies.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

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This stylish novel is another vision of globalised capitalism every bit as prescient as Orwell’s dystopia. Here we have a world of organised reproduction, brainwashing from birth and numbing drugs.  Following the occupy movements and wide public awareness of the 99% vs the 1%, it is fitting that this world we encounter is controlled by just 10 “World Controllers”. With no concept of family, this depiction of cold, unfeeling world is made all the more compelling by the superficially hedonistic society Huxley depicts. But what is the point of never feeling pain, if you cannot feel joy?

Professor Wu says: “One character in the book tells us that “words can be like x-rays if you use them properly” and Huxley does this with aplomb. For some reason this is often a book everybody has heard of but nobody has read; yet not to read it is to do this book an injustice. In this work we see not the terror and fear of totalitarianism; but the stranger fears and dangers of rapacious consumerism, fuelled by the soft power of brainwashing *ahem* I mean advertising.

Fahrenheit 41 – Ray Bradbury

 farenheit-451How any writer or reader could possibly read this excellent novel and not find it brilliant is beyond us. This is the ultimate dystopia for literature lovers, describing a society where books are burned and intellectual thought illegal. The work tackles head on the nightmare world in which a free press and the dissemination of ideas is not possible. In a fantastic trick of irony, the book was banned upon release for containing “questionable themes”.

Professor Wu says: “Bradbury insists he wrote the book because of his concerns at the time – during the McCarthy era – about the threat of book burning in the USA. Yet to lock interpretations of this world into the historical context of its time is to do it a disservice, as this fantastic novel contains so many elements that persist today. The proliferation of sleeping pills and addiction to shallow TV dramas in the suburbia Bradbury depicts enables us to confront the glaring passivity of many people today – who remain indifferent to the suffering around them while the world spins into chaos.

Logan’s Run – William Nolan & George Clayton Johnson

 logan-s-run-1967In many ways this is a lost science fiction and dystopian classic – with people far more familiar with the film than the book. It has been out of print since 1976, yet most probably deserves a return to the spotlight and easy accessibility, since this is a poetic and original work. Unlike the movie, people in the novel are killed at 21 – not 30, which gives an interesting edge, since killing takes place at a time when people are just beginning to know themselves. In this world, wisdom has been forgotten and machines think for humans. If that isn’t a frightening enough concept then we don’t know what is.

Professor Wu Says: “A simple but terrifying concept – imagines a world where resources maintained and the population controlled by the mandatory death of all humans when they reach the age of 21. The image of such a superficially perfect world, in which great darkness lurks beneath the surface, is the perfect example of a dystopian utopia.

The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

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Arguably the work that popularised time travel – so in that respect H.G Wells deserves all sorts of accolades from all sorts of people. His term ‘time machine’ is now the standard vehicle used in tales that depict this. Unfortunately for the time traveller in this novel, his machine takes him to some rather disturbing dystopian places – rather than oh, say, 2015 or 1955. Quite simply, the word influential does not do justice to how important this book is to the genres of dystopian or science fiction.

Professor Wu says: “Ahead of its time – in more ways than one. (See what I did there?)

What are we missing?

So, there we have it. Our very own, highly subjective list of the very best dystopian novels of all time. To those of you in the publishing industry, you needn’t worry about publishing any new dystopian fictions, because they ain’t gonna be as good or as influential as this (we’re just kidding, obviously). But what are we missing out? What do you make of our list? Where have we erred and strayed? And which works have we forgotten? Let us know in the comments below.

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10 writing tips from a creative writing lecturer

writing lecturer

In a series of posts, we here at Nothing In The Rulebook have been asking writers to share their top tips and advice on writing. Today, it is our pleasure to introduce the esteemed Julia Bell – a creative writing lecturer and novelist with her book The Dark Light out now. Julia Bell is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on creative writing. Here, she shares with us the top ten pieces of advice she gives her students at the start of each year. Whether you enjoy writing simply for the pleasure it gives you, or if you are looking to develop and improve, these top tips will set you on your way!

Light bulb moments

Sometimes as a teacher you feel like you’re trapped in a groundhog day, repeating the same pieces of advice every year, just to a different cohort of students, although as I get older and more forgetful perhaps I’m just repeating myself and students are being too polite to call me on it.

Julia Bell's 'The Dark Light' is a fantastic novel, based on a true story.

Julia Bell’s ‘The Dark Light’ is a fantastic novel, based on a true story.

In any given year these are the pointers about writing good prose – novels and stories – that I find myself saying over and over, but they are also in themselves, light bulb moments from my own practice as writer:

Julia Bell’s top ten writing advice tips:

  1. A good piece of writing is an experience for the reader.The meaning of a story or a novel does not pre-exist the writing of it. You can’t write with a manifesto in your hand unless you are intent on writing parables or sermons. Technique – point of view, character, sentence structure, style – are all in service to the creation of this experience.
  1. The writing of a story should be an experience for the writer too.The work needs to transmit something – love, anger, jealousy, rage, disturbance, (add your own abstract noun here) – but you can’t experience these abstractions in prose just by using the abstract noun. In fiction, meaning is delivered through concrete detail and description. Don’t tell me that your character is angry, show them throwing the ashtray. As a rule of thumb if your work makes you feel – cry, laugh, explode – chances are it’s transmitting something of this to the reader too.
  1. Make your story question the world. A story should never set out to answer a question, rather it should pose the question correctly. Here I am paraphrasing advice from Chekhov. Good writing offers up a knotty picture of the world for a reader to untangle: Over here, reader! Look at this tangle of thorns! A story which ties everything up in neat conclusions might be more commercial (read Disney) but if it doesn’t make us question the world then it cannot claim to be art.
  1. Cut out all unnecessary words.Frilly language just gets in the way. If you’re going to write stylishly read lots of poetry and think about rhythm. Good sentences are concrete and they choreograph the action for the reader – too many flouncy words just get in the way of what’s going on and makes the action and characterisation hard to see.
  1. Get used to editing.You will write a lot of words that you don’t need as you get to know your characters. Those paragraphs of back story? They are mostly character notes that are helping you get to know your character but they are also holding up the flow of the story. Cut ruthlessly.
  1. When editing, look for the sentences that should be paragraphs and the paragraphs that should be sentences.That means the places where you can move more swiftly and you’ve waffled on with something which you could deliver in a line, and where you’ve delivered something in a line which is worth expanding into a paragraph or scene. Good time management is key to this.
  1. The beginning point for a writer and a reader are in two different places.The opening paragraph of a published book is often a polished affair written at the end of the project when the writer knows what it is they are offering the reader. As a writer, when you start a story everything is provisional until you have finished it so don’t over polish your beginning – you may end up having to cut it anyway.
  1. It’s better to have a ‘frankendraft’ than 10,000 words of finely wrought prose.Writers are often paralysed by the idea of writing a bad sentence but until you’ve finished a project you have no idea of what you’ve got. A potential novel is just that, the real novel is the one you actually wrote. Better to push on to the end of something than agonise over sentences. The whole thing will need redrafting anyway – when you have finished a piece, however unwieldy and full of mistakes, you actually have the raw material to work with and turn into something better.

    The Creative Writing Coursebook.

    The Creative Writing Coursebook.

  1. Don’t assume the ‘frankendraft’ is good enough.You finished your book – congratulations. Now the hard part starts. Agents dread the months post NaNoWriMobecause they get heaps of unsolicited submissions from people who wrote a novel in a month and think that’s all there is to it. Please go back to point 1. Editing always makes the work better.
  1. No one can do the work for you.There is no substitute for the work. If you want to write a book do it, don’t dream about doing it. And worst of all don’t bitch at others for achieving something you haven’t had the guts to get on with. Rivalry is useful if it’s inspiring you to write better, harder, faster. If you’re just jealous because they’ve done the work and you haven’t there is very little that can be done to help you.

This edited post was originally published by our fantastic partners over at the Write-Track.

About the author of this post

Julia Bell is a writer and Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck College, London where she teaches on the Creative Writing MA and is Project Director of the Writer’s Hub website. She is the author of three novels, most recently The Dark Light – an excellent novel, available to purchase here. She is the co-editor of the Creative Writing Coursebook as well as three volumes of short stories most recently The Sea In Birmingham. She also takes photographs, writes poetry, short stories, occasional essays and journalism, and is the co-curator of spoken word night In Yer Ear. She tweets as @JuliaBell

Getting on the Write-Track

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“There is nothing to writing – all you have to do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway.

Ernest makes it sound simple enough there, and possibly fun, for those into that kind of thing. But of course the reality of writing is that it is difficult; Hemingway also suggested, remember, that any young person thinking of becoming a writer should first try to hang himself (because at least that way he would “have the story of the hanging to commence with”).

Of course, at Nothing In The Rulebook, we absolutely do not suggest hanging oneself – or any other self, for that matter – just to be clear. Instead, we advise practice, and listening to and learning from others. Because of that, it was nothing short of being our duty to inform you all about a fantastic writing tool to aid you in finally writing that novel you’ve been working on – or even just starting to write anything, really; anything at all.

Write-Track is a supportive, goal-setting community and writing productivity tool for writers who want to write more.

Whether you’re writing a haiku, a comedy caper, a hardboiled cop drama or a zombie romance thriller set in space, one thing remains the same – you need to get it written. Write-Track helps you do just that; and as a result comes highly recommended by both of our moderators.

“Write-Track is a fantastic tool for all writers – aspiring, experienced or otherwise,” Billy the Echidna says. “No matter what you’re writing, it helps you track the frequency of your writing, set yourself achievable writing goals, and also monitor your writing against those goals.”

“If anything it would be a failure of mine not to recommend Write-Track,” Professor Wu adds. “This is, simply, a quality tool for all writers. If you’re a writer and you’re still reading this, frankly I’m unsure why, because you should be getting involved with Write-Track right now! Just like Nothing in the Rulebook, Write-Track has that community feel – where you can engage with other writers and offer and receive the support and motivation to keep writing.”

So there you have it. A fabulous writing tool for writers. But don’t just take our word for it – check it out for yourselves and get on the Write-Track!

The importance of boredom in writing

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When was the last time you were bored – or even just waiting alone by yourself for a spare moment – and didn’t instantly spring to bridge that feeling of boredom or fill that moment of waiting by checking Facebook or Twitter or Instagram (or even LinkedIn if the boredom were really acute)? And how about the last time you were out for a meal with your partner, and didn’t reach for your smartphone the minute they left to use the bathroom?

What we are doing, when we do these things, is recoiling from the dull. But why? Why do we do this? Perhaps this desire to flee boredom and escape from it is created in our minds because boredom is intrinsically painful – we describe it, after all, in linguistical terms that imply this pain: ‘deadly dull’; ‘excruciatingly boring’; ‘bored to death’. And studies even suggest that people prefer painful experiences to being alone in a room with their own thoughts for fifteen minutes.

Our lives, however, are completely entwined with experiences of boredom. We can all recognize that feeling of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins; that mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that fiercely strong desire for action, for movement.

An ode to boredom: a force for good

Yet, although boredom is an intrinsic part of life for everyone; it needn’t be destructive – and it certainly needn’t be painful. In fact, there’s a growing consensus that boredom should be embraced – and that avoiding boredom is potentially far more destructive and dangerous.

Indeed, consider the words of British Philosopher, Bertrand Russell, “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Meanwhile, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

And in acquiescing to our fear of boredom, of sitting quietly and thinking hard about things for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds, we deny ourselves the opportunity to become greater than we are: we deny ourselves the opportunity to better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

Boredom is important, then, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us to grow – to better understand ourselves and the world. We can find new ways of thinking about life in those moments when boredom forces us to think about things other than the latest post about cats on Facebook.

On writing

Boredom, of course, is not just a ‘real life’ issue, which affects us intermittently depending on the flows of our lives. It is, instead, a very real part of the writing process. Writing is, after all, essentially the attempt to elucidate thoughts and ideas: the very things boredom helps us dwell upon and create.

It’s perhaps little coincidence so many inspiring thoughts are had in moments of quiet solitude – sitting beneath apple trees or relaxing in a bath. These are the moments in which we are able to think carefully about ideas and draw unexpected conclusions we are otherwise unable to in a world of constant stimulation – of music and television everywhere you go; of constant out-of-office emails and work patterns; of incessant digital background babbling.

Certainly, there seems a feeling among certain writers that boredom is essential for writing and creative thinking. For example, comedy writer Graham Linehan said, in a recent interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

It is the fear of boredom, and the ease of distraction from boredom – enabled by the internet and smartphones – that is dangerous to writing. Little wonder Kingsley Amis said “the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” We have to be willing, as writers, to embrace boredom and resist that desire to flee its embrace.

The boredom paradox

One of the issues with suggesting that we need to embrace boredom in order to become creative and to think in new and unexpected ways, is that, once we start being creative and thinking in this way, we stop being bored. Very few people hit upon an idea that absolutely inspires them and are able to retain a detached distance from it in which conversations about their work proceed something along the lines of:

“So I’ve discovered the meaning of existence.”

“Oh, really? That’s incredible!”

“Yah. Yah, it’s okay I guess. I dunno. I guess it’s fine to be getting on with for the time being.”

In fact, in a way it perhaps seems strange that we recoil from boredom at all: because why would we fear the opportunity to be creative, to think stimulating thoughts and break down boundaries? Perhaps there’s something else here. Something deeper. That it is not boredom itself that we fear: but rather, the things we might discover in ourselves, within that boredom.

The late writer, David Foster Wallace, touched upon this in questioning why we held in ourselves “This terror of silence [when faced with] nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”

It is that something else, perhaps, which truly frightens us. Because perhaps what we fear most is understanding who we actually are – or allowing ourselves to realise and acknowledge those things we spend so much time trying to ignore: that we are mortal, and never ever more than a breath away from death. That we are alone in a vast, spinning, and infinite world; that we exist in a universe in which we are totally and utterly and completely insignificant.

These thoughts truly are terrifying. I don’t know about you but I am literally screaming at the top of my lungs as I write this and think these thoughts, eyes wide and pupils dilated. But in all that terror, there’s also something deeply, intensely interesting.

In fact, in a way, it’s incredible, really, that we allow ourselves to become bored, anyway. After all, there is an infinite amount to be thought of; an infinite number of ideas to be had. We live in a universe full of wonders, so impossibly vast that we can’t comprehend it, even with our minds, which are themselves infinite and vast and go on forever.

What is to be done?

So what do we do, then, other than taking all our mobilephones, our laptops and computers and throwing them in the nearest ocean? Perhaps we could become hermits, and live alone by ourselves in perpetual solitude. Although I hear this is a dying trade and an industry in great decline.

Once again, Bertrand Russell offers the following thoughts: “A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.”

How about that, then. Perhaps we should just start talking a little more quietly. I know this can be difficult, especially in the digital age of ‘social media’ – which so often just seems to be an echo-chamber in which communities of like-minds write ALL IN CAPS as their empty theses, condensed into 140 characters, are lost in a cacophony of data and trending #hashtags.

Indeed, this is a problem of social media highlighted by Mark Fisher in his work, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? As he suggests the internet “facilitates communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each others’ assumptions and prejudices.”

If true, what this suggests is that rather than broadening our horizons, as is necessary to think deeply and hard about subjects and ideas – a crucial act in writing – we are instead simply shouting loudly over the top of other people saying the exact same thing. In such scenarios, a break away from technology; from these communities, can only be a good thing for our minds and our writing. So perhaps the first step in embracing boredom is to step away from that which tries so hard to distract us from being bored – the internet. Perhaps the first step is to turn off the power and start to think.

Coda

The greatest irony with all this, of course, is that I have written this post on my smartphone while waiting in a queue to watch The Minions movie, because I couldn’t bear to stand by myself doing nothing. Indeed, in writing this, then, am I myself escaping the reality of boredom? That necessary reality we must embrace in order to live a happy life? And here I was hoping those little yellow bastards would help distract me for 90 minutes from the ultimate reality that we are all slowly being drawn toward that sweet caress of death.

But wait, this isn’t just me, is it? You’re probably reading this on your iPhone, while sitting on the toilet, aren’t you? What are we to do?

Pfft. Everything’s just too meta these days. And too meta meta, as well. Meta2, if you will. Oh the humanity. I’m off to find a little stream where I can sit quietly and listen. You should too, if you want to, maybe.

Literature festival venues announced

Hopwood Hall College TheaTRE

Hopwood Hall College Theatre

The venues for the Rochdale Literature & Ideas Festival have been announced. Twelve venues will host over 30 live events over the course of the festival, which includes music, readings, comedy, children’s shows, interviews and talks.

The main festival venue will be Rochdale Central Library at Number One Riverside. The library and first floor Hollingworth Conference Suite will stage some performances, including talks by actress Helen Lederer, writer Jackie Kay, playwright Bonnie Greer OBE, comedian Dom Joly and author Jonathan Harvey. Number Ten Gallery on Baille Street, Touchstones Arts and Heritage Centre, Rochdale Town Hall and Bar Vibe Music Venue will also host events.

New venues for 2015 include Hopwood Hall College Theatre in Middleton, the Church of St Edmund and Rochdale Pioneers Museum.

The Flying Horse Hotel hosts Andy Kershaw’s acclaimed one man live show and a Theatre Writing Showcase will be at The Baum.

Warm up events will also be held at Middleton Arena, Rochdale Town Hall, The Baum and Number One Riverside.

The festival will be staged from Friday 23 to Sunday 25 October. It will offer people a chance to get together with others to share or discover a passion for reading and books.

Other highlights include author/poet Gervase Phinn, ‘Emmerdale’ star and photographer Bill Ward, the Poet Laureate Dame Carol Ann Duffy, television historian David Starkey CBE and poet Lemn Sissay.

Under the theme ‘expand your mind’ – the programme covers workshops, music, readings, children’s shows, interviews, talks and more from other guests including playwright Ian Townsend, artist Jim Medway, poet Andrew McMillan, plus authors Frances Brody, SF Said and Sathnam Sanghera.

There is a full programme of free events for children and families themed ‘Pirate Adventures’.

The festival celebrates and promotes the Maskew Collection of classic literature and philosophy at Rochdale Central Library, encouraging people to engage in thought and philosophy. It is due to the generosity of Annie and Frank Maskew, a Rochdale couple who shared a passion for reading and thinking, who originally met in Rochdale Library. They left a sum of money to be used on resources and events related to literature, and philosophy to ensure classic works are available for future generations.

To find out more and to book your tickets to the festival, please visit the festival website.

Why do some authors write in secret?

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Writers often hide behind a pen name or keep the very act of writing a secret from colleagues, friends or family. But what is it about writing that makes writers want to hide from view? Chris Smith investigates…

Pick up the pen (name)

It wasn’t until the publication of his first novel Call for the Dead in 1961 that David John Moore Cornwell became better known as John Le Carré – but not to his colleagues at British secret service agencies MI5 and MI6 where he worked at the time.

Cornwell took the pen name Le Carré (Le Carré is French for ‘the square’) because serving officers were forbidden to write under their own names – a relief possibly for Cornwell as interviews suggest a certain reluctance to expose his hobby anyway. Le Carré says that most of his early writing was done on his 90-minute daily commute between London and his home. Whilst the later electrification of the line made the journey far quicker, the result was “a great loss to literature” according to the former spook.

Le Carré also wrote secretly during his lunch hour and grabbed any time he could during the working day to plot out his novels. “I was always very careful to give my country second best,” he said in an interview with the Paris Review in 1996. Le Carré left the secret service to concentrate on his writing soon after the success of his 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

From commercials to couplets – the copywriting poet

Another writer who invested rather more in writing than the day job was American poet and novelist James Dickey. After being unable to find his job of choice – a lecturing position – Dickey was forced to take a copywriting role at New York advertising firm McCann-Erickson. Something that involved him having to grind out endless perky radio ads for the likes of Coca-Cola. Unbeknownst to his fellow mad men, Dickey used each morning to dash off his commercials and the afternoons to write poetry and prose – courtesy of the company typewriter.

According to his biographer, Dickey used to keep his office door locked and write on a desk scattered with poetry manuscripts and books. When colleagues came knocking he’d hurriedly hide his notes and pretend to be engrossed in Coke’s latest ad campaign. Things caught up with Dickey after he started making a name for himself as a writer and his bosses suspected his poetry was taking priority over his promotions – which of course it was. Dickey was fired from the ad company in 1961.

Jane Austen’s furtive habits

Furtive writing was also a character trait of Jane Austen – author of Pride and Prejudice and other literary classics. Austin lived surrounded by her family in a large busy bustling household. She used to write in the family sitting room and whilst she expected constant interruptions, she didn’t want anyone outside her immediate family – such as servants or visitors – finding out about her writing.

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Jane Austen

To make sure she could quickly stash away her work, Austin used to write on tiny scraps of paper that could be easily brushed under a large piece of blotting paper she kept with her at all times. She also wrote with a box of sewing material nearby so she could pretend to be engrossed in needlework should an unwanted visitor come snooping around.

Using a pen name

Whilst writers like Le Carré and Dickey might have been delighted to escape the confines of the office in order to concentrate on their writerly endevours, Henry Green – an English author best remembered for novels Party Going and Loving – embraced his day job and gained emotional stability from it.

‘Henry Green’ was the pen name of wealthy industrialist and aristocrat Henry Yorke who ran his family’s manufacturing plant in the Midlands by day and wrote his novels by night. Yorke found solace in the structure of the everyday and found that it fuelled rather than stifled his creativity. He used a pen name because he never wanted any of his business associates to know about his work – although they did in time as his fame grew.

Sue Townsend’s secret

British comic novelist and playwright Sue Townsend spent years writing in secret whilst she raised her family and worked a string of jobs in factories and shops.

Indeed, it was only in her thirties, after her fourth child was born and with large doses of coaxing from her husband that she started attending a writers’ group at Leicester’s old Phoenix Theatre. Initially too shy to speak, she didn’t write anything for six weeks. Then she was then given a fortnight to write a play. This became the thirty-minute drama Womberang (1979), set in the waiting room of a gynecology department – after that, there was no stopping her.

Townsend didn’t adopt a pen name like Yorke or Cornwell. She didn’t conceal her writing for fear of colleagues or servants finding out nor to gain inspiration or emotional stability. Rather more likely is that she didn’t reveal her writing for the most human of reasons. She didn’t think her work was any good.

In interviews, Townsend says that as an unknown writer, she used to store up ideas for characters and stories. She always thought she’d have a use for them later on. Perhaps no wonder then that her most famous work is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Are you an undercover writer?

The team at Write Trackwrit reckon that for whatever reason, lots of writers write in secret.  They have day jobs, families and chores that take all their time and much of their energy – but they still find the time to write.

Do you hide your writing from your colleagues, friends and family (or like Jane Austen from your servants)? When and where do you secretly write? Why do you keep it a secret? Tell us your furtive writing habits by visiting the website and getting in touch. We promise that your secret is safe with us!

About the author of this post

Chris Smith is a writer, blogger, former philosophy lecturer and now co-founder at Prolifiko, a tech startup making digital productivity tools for writers of all types. His most recent side project is a new blog called Founders and Philosophers, where he’s aiming to write about what entrepreneurs can learn from history’s greatest thinkers.  He tweets at @SwarmComms.

Writing tips from writers

So. You want to be a writer. You’ve looked in detail at the alternatives – the refined meals in the company of elegant people; socialising with high society; going places; doing things; paying bills; eating food not made in a tin can – and you’ve decided it just ain’t for you. You’re the next Carver, the next Atwood, the next Tolstoy. You look down on EL James and nod seriously during long debates about the use of the semi-colon. You enjoy – perhaps a little too much – the smell of books; and you get a strange feeling every time you hold a pen to paper, as though in that moment you could sit there for eternity, crafting words from your imagination, pouring your thoughts out onto the page. And because of this, you’ve concluded that you’re ready to get writing.

Ah! But there’s a catch, isn’t there. Whenever you sit down, clear a desk, plonk that picture of Hemingway holding a gun in front of you for ‘motivation’, and get ready to write, you find yourself with a sudden urge to do the vacuuming, or take a stroll around the local park – complete with drug users squatting beneath a children’s slide – for ‘inspiration’. It’s time to admit it; you’re stuck. You’ve caught the most dreadful lurgy of all! Writer’s block.

Though not as terrifying an ailment as housemaid’s knee, hearing the diagnosis can hit even the most enthusiastic aspiring writers hard. But fear not. As with so many maladies, the first step to recovery from WB is acceptance. They even do WB Anonymous meetings now, we hear.

But how does one recover from WB? Aside from the well-known prescription, ‘Read; write; edit. Repeat’, we think it can prove pretty valuable to hear from writers themselves on how they actually go about doing this so-called ‘writing’.

To such ends, we’ve very kindly gathered a set of #WritingTips: from writers; for writers. We hope you find them useful!

Writing isn’t about getting laid, all right? Stephen King

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 “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

The nitty gritty from Cormac McCarthy

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“I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.”

Stop while the going’s good! Hemingway

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“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.” 

Don’t waste your money on creative writing schools or courses – Chinhua Achebe
Chinua Achebe, obituaries

“I don’t really know about [the value of being taught creative writing] to the student. I don’t mean it’s useless. But I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to teach me how to write. That’s my own taste. I prefer to stumble on it. I prefer to go on trying all kinds of things, not to be told, This is the way it is done. Incidentally, there’s a story I like about a very distinguished writer today, who shall remain nameless, who had been taught creative writing in his younger days. The old man who taught him was reflecting about him one day: I remember his work was so good that I said to him, Don’t stop writing, never stop writing. I wish I’d never told him that. So I don’t know. I teach literature. That’s easy for me. Take someone else’s work and talk about it.”

On revisions and the rhythms of a story – Alice Munro

Alice Munro wins Man Booker International Prize

“I’ve often made revisions at that stage that turned out to be mistakes because I wasn’t really in the rhythm of the story anymore. I see a little bit of writing that doesn’t seem to be doing as much work as it should be doing, and right at the end I will sort of rev it up. But when I finally read the story again it seems a bit obtrusive … There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.”

Be practical – Margaret Atwood

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“Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.”

Don’t worry about swearing – James Kelman

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“People can use swear words to emphasise the beauty of something – so it’s not really a swear word at all. If you say something is ‘fucking beautiful’, how can it be swearing, because you’re emphasising the beauty of something. If so-called swear words should only be used when appropriate, well what do you mean, ‘when appropriate’? I was in my 20s before I even realised the word ‘fuck’ had to do with a sexual act for some people. It was never used in that way for myself, and none of my community used it in that way.”

Don’t start out writing novels (they take too long) – Ray Bradbury

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“The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories.  If you write one short story a week, doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing. And at the end of the year you have 52 short stories. And I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”

Trust in your ability to say what you want – Kafka

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I am not of the opinion that one can ever lack the power to express perfectly what one wants to write or say. Observations on the weakness of language, and comparisons between the limitations of words and the infinity of feelings, are quite fallacious.”

The hard truth: it’s time to finish writing that novel you’ve been working on

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Ah yes. The summer. The evenings are long, sultry and glorious; workloads are diminishing (at least in Europe, anyway); and the possibilities are endless. Now is the perfect time to finish writing that novel you’ve been working on. Definitely. Right now. This evening. Maybe this weekend. Maybe on vacation. Definitely soon, though. Very definitely almost right now is when you’ll be able to get past that first impasse – Chapter One – and empty the entire contents of your linguistic genius down on paper (or, more accurately, Microsoft Word).

Maybe you’ll also finish reading that prohibitively long novel, too! Wouldn’t that be good? Besides, there’s only so many times you can read the first seven pages of Ulysses, before getting distracted by something important like the vacuuming.

Of course, when it comes to finish writing the novel you’ve been working on, it’s easier said than done. But maybe – just maybe – this summer is going to offer you the inspiration you need to start writing.

Summer changes us. Boundaries blur; borders relax. In the space opened up by these currents, a hope remains that we might fudge something through our own sluggish systems. The stilted, listless lassitude of days drenched in summer sunshine presents opportunity to relax, yes, and take stock of our lives (which is important, of course); but it also opens up new possibilities for real action – not simply contemplation. If Jack Kerouac can write On the Road during three short weeks in 1951, then maybe you can write your own little masterpiece on your summer holidays – or at least get a significant amount of writing done.

There are plenty of calls to action these days. If you’re in need of motivation or inspiration, then you need only watch Shia LaBeouf’s speech on YouTube, or look at endless ‘motivation and inspiration’ posts on Instagram (or, if you’re in the mood for motivating quotes that will send you into a deep existential crisis, there’s always a David Foster Wallace Motivation Twitter account that can serve you well). Unfortunately, however, simply listening to a call to action isn’t, actually, enough. You have to act on it. And that’s the hard part.

An Alphabet Anthology

26 Acrostic Poems

VERMIN

‘Vermin’ – original illustration by George Vernon

P is for Prologue Articulate buffoons can deduce even fantastical grammar. However, I just keep lying; muttering nonsensical obscene poetic quotations, rhetorical stammers, talking utter verbal wittering. Xeroxing yawping zanyisms!

A is for Abortion Although babies can, do embryos feel? Genes haven’t inherited judgement, knowledge, love, mind, nurture, or pain. Questionable reasoning, still, their unconsciousness verifies when x-chromosomes yird. Zoothapsis.

E is for Evolution Abiding by Charles Darwin’s evolutionary findings, generations have inadvertently jeopardised kinetic life. Mutations now obscure populations, quelling resistance. Species therefore undergo variations which xenogenetically yearn zoopathology.

B is for Birth A born child doesn’t envisage from growth how it journeyed, keeping life’s momentum. Nova of perfect quantity rest, suspended together upon velvet womb. X-chromosome… Y-chromosome… zoom!

N is for Nursery rhyme Apple bore, chapel door, elephant fat, giant hat, ignite jeeps, kite leaps, more nightmares, or prayers, queen rules, scream tools, umbrella vine, weather xenurine, yippee, zippy!

F is for Faith αlpha began Christianity. Delusional elephant faced Gods – Hinduism. In Judaism Koshers law. Muslim nations often practice Qur’ān readings. Swahilian tribes use Voodoo. Wisdom ‘xorcizes’ your zen.

L is for Love Arms bent cradling dearest, entwined for gracious hours. Intoxicating joyful kisses linked, mirroring neatly our palms, quasi reflections sealed together. Utterly vivacious. We. Xiphopagus, yet zestful.

H is for Horizon A boundless cloud drifted effortlessly from ground’s horizon, inducing joyous kaleidoscopic luminescence, migrating nimbly overhead. Prospering quickly, rain started tumbling upon valleys, weeping. Xanadu’s youthful zenith.

C is for Church Antidisestablishmentarianism be Church’s decree, exiling faithless gatherings happening inside Jehovah’s kingdom. Lust must not obscure passion, questioning religious sins to undermine values withstanding. Xerif Yahweh zounds!

G is for Gay A boy callously denies ever feeling gay. However, ignoring joy keeps love’s motion nocturnal of passion. Questioning represses sexual taste, ultimately veiled within. Xenomorphic youthful zone.

S is for Space Astronauts, beckoning countdown detonation, explore foreign galaxies hither. Ignition jets kick-start. “Liftoff!” Mission now orbiting planets quivering rings, sailing through universes. Voyaging wanderers x-raying yonder zodiac.

R is for Racism A black cat doesn’t extradite feline gingers having identity juxtapositions. Kenyan lions merge naturally over prides. Quiet racism still tiptoes under view when xenophobia’s your zoo.

Z is for Zebras Africa’s been considered dramatically exquisite for generating habitat. In jungles, keepers located magnificent natural observations, perceiving quirkily rare species. Twas unimaginable! Vibrant, wild, xanthic (yellow) zebras!

U is for Upside down Zealously yelling xeric worthless verse upsets the sequence, revealing, quite providentially, other nomenclature. Morphemic language knits jargonistic idioms. However, gobbledegook flourishes, eventually deriving coherent backward alphabets.

O is for Orchestra A buoyant crescendo detonates, echoes frivolously gathering harmonious instrumentation. Jiggling keys, like millipedes nattering, oscillate, perpetually quaking. Resounding symphonies thunder until vanquishing with xylophones yelling zing!

Y is for Youth Accidentally by chance, Dave escaped from gerbil hutch. Inquisitive juvenile kids lurk, moulding notions of preposterous questions, riddled secret treasures under verandas where X yearns zilch.

M is for Mathematics Algebra bemuses calculators deriving equations factorising geometric hypotenuses. Integration jumbles key logarithms multiplying negative ones. Processing quadratics reveals substance to universe verified with X, yet zero.

V is for Vermin A black crow dived expeditiously, feathers gilding his indigo jacket. Kidnapped little mice nesting on pastures. Quickly ripped, scraped, tore up vermin with xyster yanking. Zoophagy.

T is for Tramp A bent cardboard duvet enveloped, from gales, his identity. Jaywalkers kneel like monarchs, not offering pockets. Quaking rotten shoes the unhappy vagabond wore. Xmas – yesteryears zero.

X is for X-Rated Adults brandishing corrupt dirty eroticism, flaunt genitalia heartlessly. It jeopardises kinships, letting masturbation nullify. Orgasmic porno queens rouse sexual taint until Viagra withers. XXX yearn zooids.

I is for Insanity Anxiety, beyond chaotic doubt, embraces frail genius’ head. It judiciously keeps letting my nervousness obligate psychotic questions. Rebellious scaring thoughts umbrella violent ways. X-rated? Yes! Zaniness!

K is for Kill A blade cuts deeply, empting from gushing head’s inflamed jugular. Knife lacerates materialism’s never-ending ordeal. Pessimism quits – resulting suicide. The ungrateful veins weep, xeransis. Yearlong zombie.

W is for War Adieu bugle, crying deaths eulogy for glorious heroes, if juvenilely. Killing longevity means naively obliterating peace. Questions rendering? Surrender to undo violent warfare. Xenagogue your zealots.

J is for Justice Albeit by cruel detriment, execution for genocidal homicide initiates justice. Killing life mitigates not of punishment. Quietus retributes stolen time until victims with xenium yield zoetic.

Q is for Questions Answers bewilder consideration. Does everything fade? Generations have interpreted juke knowledge. Life’s meaning, nevertheless, offers perplexing questions. Reason seams to undermine validation. Why X? Y Z?

D is for Death All beings cannot defy eventual fate. Graves hallowing invisible joy. Kin lying motionless, north of paradise, quiet restful stillness. Tombs upholding virtue when xylem, yourself, zeal.

About the author of this post

George Vernon is a writer and teacher based in the UK. He graduated from Warwick university with a first class (hons) degree in English Literature and Creative Writing in 2012, and completed his MA degree in Writing from Chichester University two years later. When not teaching, George can be found writing; learning; living; loving. He tweets at @MrGeorgeVernon

Tea Time in Haworth

In a tale of bread rolls, boiled sweets and missed opportunities in Rotherham, Jean and Graham wait for their friends to turn up for tea after a grand day out in Yorkshire. Written by Chris Smith.

About the writer

Chris Smith is a full time content marketing and PR type who dabbles in scriptwriting, creative writing and occasional journalism. He is co-founder of Write-Track with Bec Evans. He tweets at @SwarmComms.