Here be ravens: The Ravenmaster review

The Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace. Photo: 4th Estate

Christoper Skaife lifts the lid on an impenetrable fortress and its guests

Could the raven surpass dog as man’s best friend? It’s unlikely despite the bird’s usefulness, intelligence and uncanny ability to remember humans for life. But it’s perhaps what self-described Raven Master, Christopher Skaife wants to pose to us, the uninitiated.

As hidden as the secret life of its ravens, The Tower of London is as mysterious a jewel as the treasure (stolen?) it houses. The lives of those held captive there are told in other stories; Hess, Raleigh, Casement, Krays. What sets Skaife apart from other writers though is the delicacy with which he lifts the veil to this primordial ‘black site’ of Tudor-era renditions. Skaife preserves the mystery while answering every question we could ever have about literature’s feathered doom harbinger.

In The Raven Master, Skaife shares what almost ten years of chief raven husbandry has taught him about these misrepresented animals and the site its fabled will crumble to dust should the ravens ever depart. Skaife’s goal is to keep the Tower from crumbling by keeping the ravens satisfied. He calls it the ‘oddest job in Britain,’

The Ravenmaster Photo: 4th Estate

The Ravenmaster Photo: 4th Estate

This book starts as many good books do: at 5.30am, when the Ravenmaster’s duties begin. Climbing the Flint Tower with the urgency of the commuters he can hear entering the city, wishing they’d used the toilet before they got on the train, Skaife hopes today will not be the day the ravens left. He breathes easy when he sees all seven ravens present and accounted.

Starting with this apocalyptic prophecy unfulfilled Skaife propels the reader through ages as he describes the weight of his position – Yeoman Warder –  a title dating back to Henry VII. A position the young soldier couldn’t possibly have plotted a course towards when he joined the Army so he could go fire guns in the Falklands. It would lead to quarter century in the Forces, uneducated until the ravens zeroed in on their newest pupil.

When we are introduced to those who rule the roost, they’re presented as if they were part of a crack team of chaotically good mercenaries: “Rocky. Male. Entered Tower Service July 2011.” Skaife separates his charges with the single-mindedness of the Birdman of Alcatraz even if he is the jailor of this prison and some novelists could learn from the deftness with which Skaife characterises a non-speaking rogue’s gallery with only a few tactical ‘Ghars’.

With one eye on his flock, there’s a sense Skaife worries whether the position he’s lovingly fostered can weather the transforming fog rolling in from the Thames. A spiritual epilogue to this book might involve Skaife in dialogue with the Tower’s first yeoman explaining how he can reach more people with a tweet than ever conceived. Skaife chronicles all the post-war ravenmasters in an appendix which testifies to the author’s humility. The Tower (and its ravens) will succumb to the sieging modernisers. At the time of writing, beefeaters remain in dispute with their employers over a controversial pension change. Skaife’s sketch of a unglamourous royal palace will record this moment on the precipice so that if the ravens do in fact depart, something will remain in tact.

***
The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife, published by Fourth Estate, is available at all good bookshops. 

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6 things that should be better known

Better Known

At Nothing in the Rulebook, we love starting conversations and building new creative relationships. So we were thrilled to be invited onto a wonderful new podcast called Better Known Show, hosted by Ivan Wise, which seeks to uncover new things that guests think should be better known.

As Ivan set out in an article for NITRB, “If you need a recommendation right now, there will be no shortage of suggestions. The problem is that far too many of them are exactly the same.”

Well, we couldn’t agree more. On the show, we pick six things we think should be better known. If you don’t want to spoil the surprise – click the link and subscribe (on Android or iTunes), and check out our episode!

But, if you don’t mind spoilers, read on!

6 things that should be better known, according to Nothing in the Rulebook

  1. The Future Library project in Norway
  2. Dr Chuck Tingle Professor of Massage
  3. The bad sex in fiction awards
  4. No Alibis book shop http://www.noalibis.com
  5. Richard Serra’s “portend I slugten” at the Louisiana art gallery in Denmark http://channel.louisiana.dk/video/richard-serra-porten-i-slugten
  6. Josh Spiller’s IF comic book anthology on superheroes
    http://www.joshspillercomics.tumblr.com

And a few things that we mention that almost made the cut:

Now what are you waiting for? Go listen to the episode!

Book review: ‘Truth and Dare’ by Martina Devlin

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Martina Devlin describes the eleven Irish women featured in her collection Truth and Dare as her ‘heroes’. Her admiration is evident; it is impossible to read this book and not discover something interesting. Devlin’s impressive research is fuelled by her conviction that these women were overlooked – sometimes even blatantly abused – in their own lifetimes. The collection is an attempt to redress the balance and give these women the recognition they deserve. It’s compelling and timely, particularly after the 2018 Irish Abortion Referendum, and is full of powerful moments. In Nana’s Ark’, Nana’s father smuggles her onto a merchant ship inside a chest stuffed with wool so that she can attend a convent school in France. In ‘Tucked Away’, two sisters burn to death at a society dance when the crinoline of their dresses catches a spark from the fireplace. Devlin shows us the underbelly of history, tells it from perspectives normally suppressed or dismissed, and it makes for refreshing reading.

It’s an ambitious goal, rejuvenating the legacies of eleven different historical figures within two hundred and sixty pages, and perhaps at times Devlin stretches herself thinly. In her determination to do the lives of the women justice, she prefaces each story with a detailed non-fiction biography and wraps it up with an italicised summation of their subject’s impact on Irish society. In the introduction to the collection, Devlin admits that she was unsure whether to write the book as fiction or non-fiction. ‘I decided on fiction because of the uncanny hold stories have over us,’ she writes. ‘Fiction is laced with enchantment. It hums with energy. It has the power to transport readers – to let us inhabit someone else’s life. Stories connect us with one another on a more intimate level than history or biography allows, creating space for magic to happen – the imaginative leap.’ In fact, Devlin’s storytelling is compelling enough to render the biographies unnecessary. The stories are short and dense, filled with context and historical knowledge, but the best moments are those that are emotional and human. Mary Ann McCracken is the only member of her family to walk with her condemned brother to the scaffold. Incarcerated Hanna Sheehy Skeffington is visited mid-hunger-strike by the ghost of her dead husband. It is only his company that keeps her from imagining delicious meals and distracts her from the cup of congealed tea in the corner. In these moments, the transformative effect Devlin sets out to create begins to emerge.

While fiction ‘brings history to life’, it does also have limitations. Readers are unlikely to be able to inhale facts from a story the same way they would from a reference book, though from a fictional account of someone’s life they are likely to get much else: atmosphere, context etc. Devlin is aware of these limitations, stating in her introduction that ‘none of these stories represent the total sum of the woman concerned. After all, each of them led fascinating and productive lives, whereas a short story can do no more than filter light towards some element or other which caught my attention.’ The stories are most successful when Devlin realises this point and reduces her own scope, choosing one or two moments within a person’s life and using them to paint a human, rather than a heroine.

In ‘Somebody’, featuring activist Anna Parnell (1852–1911) and ‘No Other Place’, about writer Alice Milligan (1866-1953), Devlin appears to do just this. In each, she describes a long scene – a visit to the pawnbroker’s, a conversation with a policeman over a cup of tea – and uses objects to trigger memories, a line of dialogue to open up the character and invite the reader into their past. This method is more satisfying for a historical short story and is well-executed by Devlin. Sometimes, the stories are so detailed they become stationary tableaus – revealing and beautifully described – but slightly overwhelmed by biography. The technique would be hard to sustain as a writer and difficult to absorb as a reader in anything longer than a short story but are probably a result of its form and the need to be concise. Devlin can’t draw it out because she doesn’t have time but, by unlocking information with imagery, manages to convey an extraordinary amount of research in very few pages.

The concision is admirable but it is possible that, in Truth and Dare, Devlin has the making of eleven novels rather than a collection of short stories. The content is arresting and disturbing – the description of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington dreading her impending force-feeding is particularly brutal – and could easily withstand a more thorough examination. Devlin is an expert researcher and prolific writer, having already written nine novels and several short story collections. Truth and Dare is a tantalising hint as to what could be possible, almost a catalogue of stories waiting to be novels or biopic movies starring Meryl Streep. At this time, with these characters, I’m sure a lot of people would buy tickets.

About the reviewer

Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

A Writer’s Guide to Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons Dice

Pssst… are you playing Dungeons & Dragons yet? In case you didn’t know, it’s not just for ‘nerds’ any more, hiding in their bedrooms with stacks upon stacks of impenetrable lore. These days, D&D has experienced a massive resurgence — partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things — and is now the focus of some of the most watched podcasts on the internet, played by stars like Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello, Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll and action superstar Vin Diesel. Groups across the country are springing up and struggling to make room for massive influxes of players.

That’s because D&D is buckets of fun, but it’s also a fantastic tool for writers, allowing them to sharpen their craft without even thinking about it. I started playing D&D around 18 months ago — first as a player-character, and then embarking on a year-long campaign as the group’s dungeon master. The benefit for writers is present on both sides of the screen, whether you’re taking your Level 5 Fighter for a romp through the Underdark or plotting your players’ demise at the hands of Strahd von Zarovich, so whichever way you’re taking part, there’s plenty of opportunity to learn a thing or two.

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D&D has seen a massive resurgence in recent years, partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things

But wait, the treasure’s over this way!

As a player or a dungeon master (DM, if you’re being technical about it), one of the first things you’ll need to get down is improvising, and being quick about it. When there are multiple voices at the table, and dragons have gotta get slain, there’s no time for extensive debate. So, if the DM throws in an assassination attempt on your way back to Waterdeep, or your party’s dwarven warlock decides to hijack the party’s boat, you need to figure out how you’re going to react.

That quick-fire storytelling can be really helpful when it comes to your own writing, especially when you find characters wandering off in their own direction, or a plot thread that seems to be steadily gaining a life of its own. Don’t be afraid to see where the rabbit hole takes you; a little improv can take your story in new and exciting directions.

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As with writing, mastering D&D requires preparation – especially if your DM happens to enjoy curveballs (or, indeed, balls of any description)

Preparation is key

 Playing the role of the DM? You’ll need to make sure you’re prepared for your next session. Even if you’re running a module, also known as a pre-written campaign, you’ll need to read through the sections you’ll be handling before your session. It’s often helpful to draft a few pieces of dialogue or something to set the scene, and having that ‘prep time’ in mind can give you the perfect excuse to carve out time in your weekly schedule to write.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably toss out about 70% of what you had planned for the session, based on how your group react, but that’s okay — after all, that’s what editing is like most of the time.

Accents maketh the monk

D&D is also your opportunity to do really, really silly accents. I’m currently playing a Grave Cleric called Gwendolyn who sounds like she’s from Merthyr Tydfil, and while it may seem like an excuse to play the fool, giving my character an accent is one extra level of separation for me. As soon as I start talking like Gwendolyn, I find it much easier to inhabit her shoes, figure out what her motivations are and make decisions that are wholly within her character, rather than what I would do personally — a handy trick for writing difficult passages. The same goes for DMs; giving non-player characters a distinctive accent that’s different from your own voice can help them become more than just Goon #1, and you might be able to build a compelling story around them.

This is our story, nobody else’s

Perhaps one of D&D’s biggest appeals (besides an excuse to hang out, eat junk food and sink a few beers) is the fact that it’s a story everyone can get involved with. Working with other people to effectively create and tell a story is ridiculously good fun, and especially if you’ve been struggling to find the time to start writing, it can help you satisfy that creative itch. Even if you’re playing a classic module, or a campaign you’ve completed with a different group, the story is different every time.

Bardic inspiration

Once you step away from the table and put the d20s back in your bag, the fun doesn’t end there. When I get back from a session, I’m filled with ideas for what might happen next time, and sometimes that even translates into a new story or something to try out in an existing piece of work. It’s thanks to D&D that I’ve felt more creative in those past 18 months than I have in years, whether I’m devising a new campaign scenario or coming up with a backstory for my latest character.

So, where to start…

While D&D can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated at first, the main thing to remember is that it’s a game, with the primary purpose of having fun with some friends. Creating a new character shouldn’t take hours upon hours (unless you want it to!) but should serve as a springboard for your next adventure. Sit back, relax, pick up a pencil and see where it takes you – whether that’s fighting bandits, sourcing magical ingredients or changing the multiverse as you know it.

 About the author of this post

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Robyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

The same but different

panoramafromcathedralroofi

Berlin

Berlin is not what you’d call ‘chic’. A lot of the city was flattened in the war and the subsequent Wall drama kept it on its toes, driven by practicality rather than aesthetics. It’s fairly square and industrial, with huge signs of corporations stretching over streets and into the sky. Occasionally, however, you find an old building that remains un-bombed – a relic from another age. I was there last weekend, with two old friends, Bex and Charlotte. Our apartment was in one of these old structures, above an Indian restaurant. Inside, there was a wide, shallow-stepped staircase, hidden by huge heavy oak doors.

Our host, Gesine, emerged from the darkness of the flat with a runny nose and sore throat.

‘I feel like shit,’ she said. ‘Also the apartment is very historical. Look at the bullet holes in the door. They are from the second world war.’

We dragged our cases back out to look at the holes. There they were. Then we dragged everything back in.

The flat was small and massive at the same time. There was a tiny, low-ceilinged hallway, full of piles of miscellany everywhere. Sewing equipment, boxes of beer, creepy dolls with cracked faces – if Gesine owned something, she stacked it, normally under something heavier. But if you could break through the hall, you reached the rooms prepared for us, which were huge and light but still weird, with cinema seats and paintings of wobbly fruit.

‘I did the bathroom myself,’ Gesine said. She had, as well. She’d signed the painted tiles with her name and gave us a bucket to take into the shower. I’m not sure why.

But we didn’t come all the way to Berlin to look at tiles and wobbly fruit. We came for food and culture and more food.

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Brandenburg Gate

Charlotte’s boyfriend, Andy, is a good cook who is picky about where he eats. He refuses to go to restaurants that have pictures of their food on posters outside or on the menu. In Berlin, Andy would starve. If it wasn’t a photograph of schnitzel, it was a portion of fries, or a burger or a pizza. Every restaurant in Mitte, it seemed, threw photographic evidence of their cooking at you. Of course, it’s our own fault. We can’t speak German. If they told us they served Hähnchen or Kartoffeln or Eintopf, we wouldn’t know what the hell that was, so of course they have to label everything. This became a recurring theme of the trip: language shame. The locals looked at us, knew we were English and started to speak in English. I’d downloaded Duolingo on my phone, brought a phrasebook with me, but I kept getting zwei and drei mixed up and they had to go back for another glass. I was causing pain and confusion, making everyone’s lives difficult, but still I persisted because I am English and ashamed.

The waiting staff were using a lot of English – the English seemed to be the only people out. The streets were wide and deserted. We walked a few miles a day, from one landmark to another, without seeing many people. Then we’d stop for lunch or dinner and hear someone at the next table order ‘two ham and mushroom pizzas, please.’ So where were the Germans? Probably inside because it was freezing. It was only the English, in their bobble hats, clogging up the Straßen.

It got me thinking about the ways people are the same and the ways people are different. When I lived in Paris, I met a guy from a tribe in Indonesia. He was in my French language class and wanted to show us pictures of the particular kind of batik (dyed cloth) his tribe were famous for producing but he couldn’t because the projector wasn’t working. He pressed a few buttons, shrugged and sat down with his arms folded in a way that reminded me of the boys at my high school in Lincolnshire. Now, when I travel, I like to spot the domestic arguments in languages I can’t understand. Mitsuko having a go at Akihiko because he’s put the hand sanitizer in the wrong pocket of the rucksack and now she can’t find it, daughters getting ratty with their fathers in Swahili. It makes me feel good, the idea that no matter where we come from or the language we speak, we’re all basically the same. It makes me feel good but I don’t know if it’s true – not anymore.

A lot of things have happened recently that have made me think my comfortable truth is a lie. I was in Paris when the Brexit vote was announced, had a depressing meal out with friends where we all stared into our pizza and wondered what the hell was happening. And now, thirty years after the Berlin Wall came down, we have a man in America trying to put another one up. We’re not all the same. People think insane things, do terrible things as a result, and from the outside, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who they are.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is just along the road from the Brandenburg Tor, so we did both in an afternoon. The Memorial is next to a building site which, to be honest, is the same for most things in Berlin. It’s a load of grey blocks of various shapes and heights, assembled in a dip so they look more or less level from the top, with a museum underneath.

‘The vibe’s a bit off,’ Charlotte said, as we stared out at the cubes. A group of tourists were taking selfies as they stood on the blocks. ‘It’s a bit weird. The way it’s just here, in the middle of everything.’

On the other side of the monument I could see the light of a Subway sandwich shop. We went down into the museum and it seemed clear, then, that that was the point. The people getting murdered were ordinary and the people doing the murdering were ordinary too. You stare into the faces of these people and you see shop assistants, student, doctors, teachers. Then you come out of the museum and you’re back on Ebertstraße, buses rolling past. We like our evil at the edges of the city, where we know where it is, but it walks among us, sits at the next table, gets on the train behind us. You’d think we’d have learned by now that evil doesn’t come in a uniform. It’s in that moment, when we reduce a person to one thing, rather than a load of contradictions, that we do the damage.

The more you learn about nationalism and monarchy and all that, the more you realise what a huge mess it is. On our final day, we went to Charlottenburg Palace which is basically the German Versailles and was even built by the same architect, Dutchman Johann Friedrich von Eosander. Charlottenburg was built in the 17th century under the instruction of Sophie Charlotte, wife of King Fredreich I and sister to George I of England. It’s just the one family tree, you see, spanning the whole of Europe. It gets even worse when Queen Victoria starts having children, planting them in every royal dynasty she can. They all copy each other’s interior design skills too. It’s all impressive, but there’s no escaping the fact that these palaces do look the same. They share architects, employ the same engravers, all dabble in chinoiserie and have whole rooms devoted to their porcelain. One room in Charlottenburg resembled Gesine’s flat, with chinoiserie ornaments piled high one on top of the other, duplicated a million times over by the mirror panelling and reflections in the golden gilt.

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Charlottenburg Palace. “Waiting for it all to come crashing down.”

‘I’m just waiting for it all to come crashing down,’ Charlotte whispered.

Up at the top, near the ceiling, was a stuffed stag lunging down the wall towards the vases. No placard or segment in the audio guide – just the corpse with glassy eyes.

 

Upstairs, there was an exhibition about the origin of the Prussian royal family. In order to pad out their lineage, they made up a person called Otto who was a great fighter and won a load of battles. There were painting and engravings in his honour. He was amazing, Otto. He just didn’t exist which, when you’re establishing a royal house, apparently doesn’t matter.

Finally, on our way to the airport at the end of the trip, I got my domestic argument. Behind us on the train was a woman with two small wailing children, one of which was brandishing a fully-functioning toy shop till, complete with flapping receipt paper. At one point, the woman, who I assumed to be his grandmother, grabbed it off him and shouted. When this did not silence the children, she FaceTimed a man who must have been their father or grandfather, who screamed at them in Arabic. She then shouted at them again and they disembarked with us at the airport, till training behind. Perhaps us the kid was going to charge us for his screaming? We got a move on before we ran up a bill.

If there’s one thing that’s going to unite people, it’s bad service from an airline. Our airline of choice seemed keen to strip everything right back to basics, doing just enough to keep you airborne, while a member of cabin crew wheeled a trolley of cut-price cologne down the aisle. Before we even boarded, they told us our flight would be delayed, then that it wasn’t, then kept us all cooped up in the tiny area beyond security for an hour. When we finally got on the plane, the ice on the wings had to be thawed. They did this slowly, with a truck that seemed to be powered by a single AA battery.

‘They charged us an extra thirty quid so we could sit together,’ the couple in the row in front muttered to the German woman next to me. ‘We’re never flying with this lot again,’ they said.

‘We always say that and yet we always do,’ said the man next to them. He’s right – we’re all the same really. Except for the ones of us that aren’t.

About the author of this article

Ellen Lavelle

Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelleon Twitter.

Creatives in profile: interview with K.M. Elkes

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Writing flash fiction takes skill, precision and – perhaps more than anything – hard work and dedication. When done well, these micro-stories can throw the reader in and out of the human condition in profound and unpredictable ways.

Some have said flash fiction stories are a part of our social media age, our insta-lifestyles, our shortened attention spans, our handheld devices, our micro-making of everything. Yet, in a world preciously short of big ideas, we could do with some of the big ideas contained within these short tales. And we could do with more

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with one of these writers willing to put pen to paper to bring these short tales – and their ideas – to us.

K.M. Elkes’s short fiction has won (or been placed) in a number of international writing competitions including the Manchester Fiction Prize, The Fish Publishing Flash Prize, the Bridport Prize and the PinDrop Prize, as well as appearing in more than 30 anthologies. His work has also been published in literary magazines such as UnthologyThe Lonely CrowdStructo and Litro. A flash fiction collection All That Is Between Us will be published in paperback by AdHoc Fiction in 2019. He is a short story tutor for Comma Press and his work has also been used on schools and college curriculum in USA and Hong Kong.

Elkes lives and works in the West Country, UK. A recipient of an Arts Council England award, he is currently working on a debut short story collection and a novel. As a writer with a rural working class upbringing, his work often reflects marginalised voices and liminal places.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

ELKES

In summary – writer, teacher, musician, traveller, ginger, potty-mouth. Not always in that order. I currently live in Bristol, but my background is rural working-class Shropshire.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

ELKES

Writing is one of the things, like making music, that I cannot not do. It’s more complicated than love or passion.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ELKES

Single-minded people – I’m too ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, so I draw inspiration from writers, particularly women or those from less privileged backgrounds, who have had the singleness of vision to succeed against the odds.
And pole vaulters – their sport is rife with symbolism.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

ELKES

I went to a tiny rural primary school in Shropshire that had about 30 children and two teachers. It was stuck in a 1930s time warp – two classrooms, no inside toilets, dinners delivered lukewarm on the back of a van. But that school and those teachers instilled a hunger for reading in me that has been the catalyst for many things.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to flash fiction?

ELKES

As a form based around concision, it combines poetry’s attention to language and rhythm with the prose tools of plot, characterisation, dialogue etc. Within that there are infinite colours, moods and stories, so what’s not to like?

INTERVIEWER

One of the joys of English is that, while its huge vocabulary can be deployed in mesmerising Joycean arpeggios, it can just as easily concentrate its meaning in a few well chosen words. In the age of Twitter, why do you think so many people are increasingly attracted to the brevity of short, flash or ‘micro’ fiction?

ELKES

I’m not a fan of the notion that people have short attention spans so they are attracted to shorter forms. Just because something is short doesn’t mean it requires less concentration and effort to read. I would hope more people are attracted to the form because they recognise it can produce genuinely good writing. The rise of social media and digital platforms for writing has no doubt helped.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a story needs in order for it to be a story?

ELKES

Movement. Not necessarily plot, but a sense that something has changed.

INTERVIEWER

How easy do you find it to move between different writing forms/mediums – can you balance writing a novel with crafting flash fiction or short stories?

ELKES

Transitioning between different forms is not difficult. Writers who claim otherwise are probably just procrastinating. In fact, changing forms is a good way to give the kaleidoscope a shake to find new ideas. What is difficult, sometimes, is the act of writing itself, whatever the form.

INTERVIEWER

How do you maintain your motivation for writing?

ELKES

By reflecting at length on the fact that I don’t have motivation to carry out just about any other form of gainful employment.

Also by dreaming of the day when I can walk into a bookshop and find a section devoted just to short fiction, rather than having to play ‘hunt the collections’ among the general fiction…

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel writers should feel any ethical responsibility in their roles?

ELKES

I don’t think it is ethical for a writer to create ethical responsibilities for other writers – they need to deal with their own shit.

Having said that it grinds my gears when well-established writers phone it in for cash. Such as when novelists supply distinctly average ‘been-in-the-bottom-drawer-awhile’ pieces for occasional short story specials in newspapers or magazines. In this case, maybe the ethical motto should be: ‘Do your best or don’t bother’.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?

ELKES

No. Except that maybe the fantastic audience who came to a live literary event I did in Bath last year and laughed like drains at my funny stuff and emoted all over my sad pieces. They can come and sit in the room while I’m writing (if they bring their own chairs).

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry (if we can call it thus)? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

ELKES

The trend to encourage more diversity in writing and publishing is something I would like to see continuing. As someone from a working-class background, I know there are barriers still in place. But I also know I have to check what privileges I have as a white male. Even those at the epicentre of the white, male, middle-class, London-dominated and Oxbridge educated system must acknowledge there’s a better way. Done right, I think more diversity would mean more readers, more books sold, a more robust industry.

Another big challenge is how writers, whose average income from books continues to decline, can earn enough to keep creating. There is an unrealistic expectation in society that creative work should merely be another form of free content.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

ELKES

I’m editing a collection of flash fiction called All That Is Between Us which will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction in Spring 2019. I’m also working on finishing a short story collection and starting a novel.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5-10 top tips for writers of flash fiction?

ELKES

  1. Give yourself permission to write crap, then use that freedom to write well.
  2. Read lots of short fiction in collections and online to learn more about what works and what doesn’t
  3. Don’t grab at the first idea for a story, let things brew for just a little while longer.
  4. Write hot, edit cold
  5. Ignore lists of top tips for short fiction writers and write whatever feels risky and surprises you.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ELKES

Instagram and Twitter allow this:  #Thewomandreamedofstrollingdampwintermeadowswithherlatehusbandbefore wakingtofindherloverwashingherfeet

 

 

Beyond the popular canon: things that should be better known

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“We soon learn that Shakespeare, the Grand Canyon and the Bible are worthy of our attention because everyone keeps telling us so.”

If you need a recommendation right now, there will be no shortage of suggestions. The problem is that far too many of them are exactly the same. For instance, in looking for something to watch on a Saturday night, your search for “greatest films” will be answered with an infinity of lists compiled with varying degrees of judgement but surprising levels of consistency. Automated recommendations generally just give you more of what you have already asked for. Critical ones seem to clone themselves, as if unwilling to depart from an agreed line. Citizen Kane is repeatedly right up there, according to the American Film Institute (number 1 film of all time), Sight and Sound (number 2), Hollywood Reporter (3) and Rotten Tomatoes (4). But what if you’ve already seen it, and didn’t even think it was that good? What then?

By adulthood, most of us are aware of the historical figures, places and books represented by what can loosely be categorised as the canon: the list that you were taught at school, that books and newspapers tell you are the best and most important. Sometimes, we agree with them, sometimes not, but we soon learn that Shakespeare, the Grand Canyon and the Bible are worthy of our attention because everyone keeps telling us so. It is supplemented by a popular canon, as expressed by your social media, of more ephemeral, instant pleasures, that may have an unstoppable democratic force, but that does not mean that you always share them.

Any canon is important, as it provides a society with a shared catalogue of experiences and reference points; otherwise, how does one know what to speak about to a stranger? But your curiosity about the world need not stop there. How much more interesting, every so often, to put the canon to one side, and say to someone, “Tell me about a great book that I’ve never heard of.”

My podcast Better Known sets out to ask people what they love that the rest of the world does not seem to value. In short: what should be better known?

People are keen to answer the question, firstly because we all love talking about what we are passionate about, but also because we do not always get the opportunity. Most people have quirks in their tastes that are slightly unorthodox but we rarely get a chance to talk about our obscure preferences, precisely because other people are not familiar with them. Generally, in conversation, most people are looking to have their beliefs confirmed than challenged, and so they may not be in the mood to hear anything new. Instead, much of our social life only covers those topics which we know are popular and thus safe, and so it is easy to live one’s life with others only through the pleasures which the news picks out for us.

Through dozens of interviews, I have heard about the fascinating objects, events and ideas which guests hold dear and feels compelled to impress upon other people. The novelist Joanne Harris spoke about the Child Ballads, hundreds of traditional stories collected in the nineteenth century. Biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett discussed a book which her mother had written about a nineteenth century dinner party of writers and artists. Writer Ben Schott explained why movie posters look the way they do. It has been inspiring to hear and then take up these suggestions of things which I would otherwise have never known about.

For some guests, the obscurity of their choice provides a pleasure. They like the fact that they have uncovered something that others have not. For others, they enjoy the obscurity, particularly of a place, for a more practical reason: if lots of people knew about the place, then its serenity, part of its appeal, would be ruined. But, most of all, they make their choices because we are all individuals, and sometimes what we like most of all may not have officially made the grade, but is nonetheless worthy of their – and maybe your – time.

Each episode aims to bring a person with private obscure passions to an audience eager to learn more about what is best in the world. Each guest selects six things, and so you begin to get a real sense of who they are through the range of their choices without necessarily knowing particular facts about them, their job or their life. By way of contrast, and to ensure we do not drown in positivity, they also get to pick one thing which they think should be less well known and it is frequently a highlight for me to hear someone go from such radiant optimism to unbridled cynicism so rapidly. Picnics, liver and jeans are among those proposed as being overrated. But the focus always then returns to what they like.

It is easy, as an adult, to stop learning anything new, and to exist endlessly off inspiration from the past. If you want to remain curious about the world, and continue to be inspired, you have to make an active effort. Better Known aims to be an entertaining introduction into a world of inspiration that you previously knew little about. You will not agree with all recommendations, but you will hopefully learn something new. After all, how many more endorsements for Citizen Kane does one need?

About the author of this article

IW.jpgIvan Wise presents the Better Known podcast (www.betterknown.co.uk). He is a former editor of The Shavian, the journal of the George Bernard Shaw Society, about which he has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher Educational Supplement and The Guardian website, and was the expert witness on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives. He works in the charity sector, for Think Ahead, a mental health organisation that recruits and trains graduates to become social workers.

The 8th Emotion – book launch

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Here at Nothing in the Rulebook, we often find affinity with Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, on that we love it when a plan comes together – especially when that plan involves fascinating new ideas and copious amounts of creativity.

Josh Spiller’s debut novel, The 8th Emotion, is heavy on both new ideas and creativity. We originally told you about the plan for this project when it launched on Kickstarter in 2018.  So it’s rather brilliant to now let you all know about the official launch of Spiller’s searing new novel.

Described by legendary writer Alan Moore as marking “the emergence of a fascinating fresh voice” and “Not so much fantasy as post-science science fiction”, The 8th Emotion promises to be everything you’d want from a book to read in 2019.

So, we’d strongly encourage all of you to make it over to the launch of the book on 1st February in London, where you’ll be able to meet the author and hear Spiller reading an an extract of his novel, meet fellow creative artists, writers and book lovers, and enjoy a selection of food and drink. The event details are here below:

Date: 1st February 2019

Time: 18.30 – 20.00

Venue: South Kensington Books (22 Thurloe Street, Kensington, London, SW7 2LT

In case you can’t wait that long, you can have a sneak peak inside the book and read a pre-released chapter right here on NITRB.

And you can also read an interview with Spiller about his book, writing, literature and everything else in between.

Blurb for The 8th Emotion

“I recently found something out… A way we can end all violence forever.”

In a tribal utopia, an unprecedented human emotion erupts into existence. It may be the key to an almost miraculous future.

But a vicious, predatory rot is also growing. And soon Jak, his best friend Martin, and his sister Laura, will become embroiled in a struggle that will irrevocably alter their lives, their society, and ultimately, the World…

How jiu jitsu helped me become a better writer

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The handshakes, that’s how I first know I’m in trouble.

I’m at a Jiu-Jitsu class. Wednesday. I’m recovering from the usual winter cold, have even opened my email twice that day to compose an excuse.

Sorry, Kev. I’m feeling under the weather – can I rearrange for next week?

Delete. If I send that I won’t ever go.

Down a coffee. Get in the car. Drive to the gym.

Now, the handshakes. There are ten men and each greets me by gripping my hand and telling me their name – I forget the names but remember the grips. I don’t know if it’s the coffee or the panic, but I don’t feel ill any more.

What followed was like a nature documentary, but instead of Attenborough’s voice putting the gazelle’s death into perspective, it was the sweaty grunting of ten men and me making noises like Kermit with tuberculosis. They choke me out, one after the other but are very polite about it.

I learn a few techniques and try to use them, without much success – still, I am getting better, surviving longer before they politely choke me. I start to figure that it’s about strategy, not just muscle and reflex. I have been using all of my strength and “gassing out,” while these men, some in their sixties, are effortlessly squishing me like soft cheese. Then they reacquaint me with their grips. Around my neck this time.

I stay on for the advanced class and start to last a little longer before tapping out. All the while, there is a strange thought in the back of my head: if these were fights to the death, I would be dead twenty-six times.

By the end it’s more like thirty.

I shake Kev’s hand, tell him I’ll be back for the next class, and leave with a smile. I am sore all over, have burns on my fingers and toes, but I keep replaying what I’ve learnt as I drive home, and later, when I’m lying in bed, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking of how I will improve next time, how I will change my game.

Now, I have been to four Jiu-Jitsu classes. I know nothing. But already, I’m noticing how it affects other areas of my life – my writing in particular. So… why?

Failure. Nothing acquaints you with it better than Jiu-Jitsu. You will be choked. But after a while, that becomes not so scary. And then, once failure is accepted as a necessary step for growth, once it is seen that the only way you learn is through doing something wrong in the first place, there is a feeling of freedom. Get choked. Get up. Go again. You know better this time. If you aren’t afraid to fail, you are willing to try new things, to play risky, to be interesting. Same with writing, and everything else worth pursuing, failure is inevitable – bad drafts, abandoned projects, rejections. Every novelist I know has a project-graveyard file on their computer. That is no source of shame. It is a mark of craft. Lose the fear of losing. A winner is someone who never let loss stop them.

Struggle. We as human beings are not built for sitting on beaches with cocktails. That is nice for a while, but only for a while. We need a target. Something with which to contend. Placing happiness as all important is wrong – better to pursue something difficult, something worth the struggle, something with meaning. Often it isn’t pleasant, but in pursuing that target, you are fulfilled. Do something difficult, just to see if you can. You will surprise yourself. Struggle upwards, towards a goal, and you’ll have something better than brief happiness. It’s why we run marathons, why we climb mountains, and it is why we writers choose to sit and write every day when we’d much rather be somewhere else. We turn up, at the desk, ready to contend. It requires an immense amount of work and effort – the trek out into that hinterland of composition. We are grappling with plot, emotions, ideas, and that greater thing, that unconscious current which dictates the direction we pursue, which word follows the previous. Jiu-Jitsu is just a physical manifestation of that which happens every day at the desk. You are willingly contending with something difficult, and it is often painful, but once it is over, you know it was worth it, and you can’t wait to go again, to see if you will be better. To see what you will learn this time.

A piece of writing is just a by-product of this process of struggle. This contention with the unconscious, the constant working and re-working. If something is jarring with the rest of the work, try something different. In doing this, the process itself will become rewarding – the pursuit of the target. The journey becomes what is important, that process of learning. Like Jiu-Jitsu, if something isn’t working, adapt and find the right technique, be satisfied with the journey, the constant reshuffling of set-ups and finishes. Maybe you will be choked in the end. Who cares? A novel is a by-product of the process of contending with the unconscious, of reshuffling and learning. The process is paramount. The pursuit. You don’t make a sandcastle, you abandon the sandpit.

Tenacity. The most important thing. In my last class, Kev, the instructor, rolled with me for the last thirty minutes. My ribcage is still bruised. At one point I think he just sat on me, but I can’t be certain. What I do know is that I didn’t quit. He asked if I wanted to stop but I caught my breath and carried on. And at the end, after my total annihilation, he called me “strong as an ox.” That felt good. Still, I think Kev could easily choke out an ox. I left that class aching, but proud that I had not given up. It’s rare today to encounter that kind of situation, but its good to know that if one were to arise, you have the ability to survive, the tenacity to continue. This directly correlates to writing – 40,000 words into a novel, it will feel like Kev is sitting on your chest. Be an ox. Kev will still sit on you, but the important thing is that you aren’t quitting.

Aggression. Everyone harbours it, no matter what they tell you or themselves. It’s normal. However, it will manifest itself in other, unwanted, parts of life if not acknowledged and integrated. Jiu-Jitsu lets you channel that aggression, and in doing so, gives you the confidence to integrate that assertive side in your life, when people might try to take advantage, when you need to stand up for yourself. It becomes a tool rather than a hindrance. There are circumstances where being nice just isn’t helpful – that isn’t to say that everyone should be an ass all the time. But for those of us who struggle to say no, whose first instinct is to be agreeable, this integration is life-changing. It’s a confidence. A self-belief. Again, an important quality for writers, who are (myself included) some of the most self-critical people around.

Humility. Try enduring a ritual strangling twice a week. It quickly teaches you humility. Appreciate that you will always be learning, that there are others who know more, that cockiness is laziness. If you are humble you are active, always trying to improve the work, but someone who believes they know everything has given up their desire to learn. Inactive. “There are no egos here,” is the phrase they use like a prayer or affirmation. It is a constant reminder that we are all learning, that we are all on the path – as Ursula Le Guin says so perfectly, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

I am halfway through writing a novel at the moment. Kev is sitting on my chest, but I am not quitting. So, on Wednesday, I’ll be back for another choking, and when I get home, I will write my 500 words.

Both are painful, but worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

About the author of this post

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Christopher Baker is a writer, published in the Writers of the Future 35th anthology and with theatre work that has won The Stage Award at Edinburgh Fringe. He graduated from the Warwick Writing programme with a First Class BA Hons in English Literature & Creative Writing. He has three dogs and is often covered in their hair. His twitter is @CSBker

Legendary writer Gabriel García Márquez’s archive available online for free

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There are precious few writers who can claim to have influenced the course of literary history and literary criticism in the manner of legendary author Gabriel García Márquez. For aspiring and established writers and litterateurs alike, Márquez stands out as an idol for his role in helping to launch what became known as the “boom in Latin American literature”.

It is a rare gift indeed then, to learn that the entire archive of this most influential of authors has been made available for everyone to read online entirely for free. Especially when that author’s works were still under copyright.

But this is precisely what the University of Texas has done, after acquiring the  Colombian-born writer’s archives in 2015, a year after his death.

The archive includes manuscript drafts of published and unpublished works, research material, photographs, scrapbooks, correspondence, clippings, notebooks, screenplays, printed material, ephemera, and an audio recording of García Márquez’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. It was bought by the University of Texas for US$2.2 million.

The searchable, online archive is comprised of almost 30,000 items, so it’s easy to get lost in there.

“Often estates take a restrictive view of their intellectual property, believing scholarly use threatens or diminishes commercial interests,” Steve Enniss, the director of the Harry Ransom Center, which digitized the archive, said. “We are grateful to Gabo’s family for unlocking his archive and recognizing this work as another form of service to his readers everywhere.”

Many researchers and academics have been pouring over the archive since it first became available in 2017, and have credited the University of Texas for making such a valuable resource available for free. Many expect that access to García Márquez’s archive, including his personal notes and marginalia, will help advance literary research and criticism.

But this is not just a resource to be enjoyed, used and appreciated by academics. One of the most incredible things about García Márquez’s writing is how accessible it is – as The Guardian noted in its obituary of Garcia Marquez, his most famous novel, 100 years of solitude “not only proved immediately accessible to readers everywhere, but has influenced writers of many nationalities, from Isabel Allende to Salman Rushdie”.

So, what are you waiting for? Get on over to the Harry Ransom Center and start exploring (and getting lost in) this incredible literary resource.