15 excellent short stories you can read for free right now

Book and Stones

Are you a literature addict looking for that sweet hit of literary ecstasy that comes from reading well-told stories? Are you also – like so many of us slaving away with ever-increasing work demands – short on time? Fortunately, we have just the thing for you that can satiate your craving for well-told, expertly-crafted fiction; bringing you tightly controlled beginnings, middles and endings in the time it takes to eat your lunch or smoke a cigarette (there’s a reason flash fiction used to be called smoke-long stories, after all).

We’re talking, of course, of some of the finest short stories that you can read for free thanks to the wonders of the interwebs. There are untold thousands – probably millions (if not billions) of these pieces floating around in the digital ether, but to get you started we’ve compiled 15 of our favourites, mixing together writing from new and aspiring artists with established literary titans.

Once you’ve had your fix, fear not! We also have many other collections of short stories you can read for free from legendary writers including J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth and Alice Munro among others.

And if you need even more literary satisfaction; we’re pretty sure you’ll find it thanks to some of these fantastic places you can read tens of thousands of literary texts completely legally and completely for free.

Back to the matter at hand: check out these brilliantly crafted short tales from magazines around the world below.

‘Black Moons’ by Robert Wyatt Dunn

Black Moons

“There were some things you could only do in New York.”

Read the story in Litro.

‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ by George Saunders

“Work, work, work. Stupid work. Am so tired of work.”

Read the story in The New Yorker

‘Bullet in the Brain’ by Tobias Wolff

“The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped.”

Read for free online.

‘Broads’ by Roxane Gay

“Jimmy Nolan has a thing for broads—loud, brassy women who sit with their legs open and drink beer straight from the bottle—women who always say exactly what they’re thinking and for better or worse, mean what they say.”

Read it via Guernica.

‘Ganymede’ by Chelsea Harris

“Tonight I am Venus. We’re sitting on top of the kitchen counters. Daddy hasn’t been back in days but I’m not worried.”

Read it via Okay Donkey

‘Tell-tale heart’ by Edgar Allen Poe

“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night.”

Read it courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

‘That was back before, of course’ by Samuel Dodson

“She never knew what Maxine wanted. But it started the moment Mark Dean emerged from all the rust. Then it ended with a knife and the sound of something scraping against metal, some sound almost like an animal.”

Read the story for free courtesy of The TSS

‘Goose’ by Chelsea Grasso

“It’s okay, my goose. She will come back.”

Read the story via Carve Magazine

‘Girls at play’ by Celeste Ng

“This is how we play the game: pink means kissing; red means tongue. Green means up your shirt; blue means down his pants. Purple means in your mouth. Black means all the way.”

Read the story thanks to Bellevue Literary Review

‘Anatomy of a burning thing’ by Monica Robinson

“He was falling in on himself.”

Read via Blanket Sea Magazine 

‘Hills like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway

“I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?’”

Read for free online. 

‘Fitting’ by Molly McConnell

“I left a relationship because it was too tight. But once I was out, I wanted back in.”

Read the story in Rabid Oak

‘The lady with the dog’ by Anton Chekhov

“It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.”

Read courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

‘Five baked beans’ by Katy Thornton

“I had started wearing earrings again, after the break-up. Not that I hadn’t worn earrings because of him – I’m sure we never had a conversation about it. I guess at some point I’d grown out of wearing my green-skin inducing costume jewellery and decided only to wear jewellery with sentimental value.”

Read thanks to Porridge Magazine

‘The Veldt’ by Ray Bradbury

“‘Nothing’s too good for our children,’ George had said.”

Read for free online

 

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Creatives in profile: Interview with Papertrail Podcast founder, Alex Blott

 

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It’s no secret that the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook are always looking out for new and exciting creative projects. So when we stumbled upon the brand-spanking-new (and quite-ruddy-brilliant) Papertrail Podcast our minds were immediately filled with an assortment of creative possibilities.

Founded in 2016, Papertrail Podcast is a monthly book podcast featuring interviews with authors and creatives about their favourite books.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview with the founder of this fabulous podcast, Alex Blott.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

BLOTT

Sure, I’m in my late 20’s (just got pushed into them by my birthday). I studied English Lit and Creative Writing at undergrad and then got my Masters in Professional Writing. More than anything, despite the course titles, I think my studies turned me into a better reader, and it was probably being introduced to  different writers by the course that gave me the idea for the podcast in the first place. I don’t know I’ve spent that much time thinking about my own ethos, but the site was founded to help me grow my reading and knowledge of writers, so I suppose ‘keep learning’?

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

BLOTT

All sorts of people. Writers and Podcasters, obviously. But also people who are out there getting work done. I love watching documentaries or reading articles that show people hard at work on something they obviously care about. No matter what that it is, there’s always something you can learn from watching that process.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Papertrail Podcast – what inspired you to first set the podcast up; and how has it developed from then?

BLOTT

Sure, Papertrail is a monthly podcast series where I speak with authors and other creative people about the books that matter to them or have influenced them in some way. We do our best to keep the show spoiler free, but throw up a warning if there are any major spoilers in the show. The three books chosen by my guests are intended to serve as both an insight into who they are as people, but also to introduce listeners to authors they might otherwise never hear of.

In terms of what inspired it… Years ago I was listening to a bunch of literary podcasts and I realised that all of my favourites at the time were American. That’s not so true anymore, but at the time I started thinking how great it would be to have a show like those that wasn’t so US centric. It took me three years to actually make my own show, and in that time I found a lot of podcasts that were doing exactly that, but I thought I had an interesting idea so I pushed on with it and here we are!

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Papertrail Podcast is a monthly book podcast featuring interviews with writers and creatives about their favourite books. Check it out! 

INTERVIEWER

What does it take to pull together a literary podcast?

BLOTT

It’s a bit of a daft thing to say, but you need to have a genuine interest in your topic. Not just a basic ‘I like reading’ kind of interest (although that’s a great place to start). You need to really care about producing something good, and have a solid idea of what you’re trying to achieve with each episode. A lot of people start podcasts and then burn out because they didn’t really know what they wanted it to be, or they weren’t as enthusiastic about the topic as they thought. One of the reasons it took three years for me to make the show was because, although I knew I wanted to make a literary podcast, I didn’t know what the show looked like. It was only once I really narrowed it down and focused on my desire to broaden my reading that I had an idea good enough to execute on. Knowing that the show’s central purpose is to introduce people to new authors and books influences the way I interview, the way I read the books, and the way I talk about them.

INTERVIEWER

How do you plan and prepare for each new episode?

BLOTT

Sourcing authors takes some time. I keep an eye open online for people who are writing interesting stuff or attracting a lot of great praise. Then I’ll read some of their stuff to get a better idea of who they are and what they’re interested in. Then I’ll get in touch and, if they’re keen to record, set a date. I read all of their chosen books ahead of time as well, which isn’t something I planned on doing when I started the show. Turns out if only one person has read the book it can be hard to keep a conversation going, who knew! After I’ve read the books I make a few notes, but I try to keep them very simple so that I’m always engaged in the conversation rather than re-reading what I’ve already written. If you do that you risk missing the good stuff.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any other podcasters you listen to regularly for new ideas? Or any like-minded websites that you’d recommend checking out?

BLOTT

Absolutely! I could talk about this all day so I’ll trim it back to three shows that I really enjoy and respect.

First, Other People with Brad Listi. This was the show that got me thinking about what I wanted to achieve with my own podcast. Brad uses a very similar line of questioning with every one of this guests, and if you looked at the format you’d think it doesn’t sound all that interesting: ‘Where did you grow up? What were like you like as a child? Were your parent’s creative? What’s your writing practice like.’ They’re simple questions, but really they’re there to open up Brad’s guests and allow him in to talk about much more personal stuff. It’s a very genuine show, and that made me uncomfortable when I first started listening to it, but now it’s really something that I aspire to. If you check it out, persevere through Brad’s monologues, they get better as you get to know him more.

Second, The Longform Podcast. This is a fantastic series focusing on creative non-fiction writers and journalists. The podcast itself is an extension to an already brilliant website. It’s got three hosts, all with their individual interview style and approach, and the people they have on are simply fantastic. Longform was basically my gateway to better and more varied non-fiction reading and I am hugely thankful for it. In terms of what I learn from it, I enjoy the way they interview their guests, mixing in personal questions and anecdotes with more deep-dives into the work itself. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out how to do consistently well on Papertrail, but I’ll get there.

Finally, Literary Friction. This is a fantastic monthly podcast series that, for me, shines the brightest of all the current British literary podcasts. The show is consistent, professionally produced and excellently formatted. Every episode revolves around a theme, and the hosts, Octavia and Carrie, always speak on whatever topic they choose with equal measures of humour, sincerity, and intelligence. They have some fantastic guests on to make their own book recommendations and talk about their own work. It’s fantastic.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

BLOTT

I work as a freelance copywriter so pretty much just sat in front of the computer getting words down. I tend to read in the evenings or when work lulls, and then once a month I spend half a day recording and editing a new podcast episode, getting it ready for release.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a podcast should be for? Why are they important?

BLOTT

I don’t know that they ‘should be’ for anything. Podcasts are just like any medium, it’s all about what you can do with them. That said, I think they flourish as a source of information and learning because they’re so accessible and can be listened to on the move or in the car or while you work.

As for why they’re important. I think a lot of people can find time to listen to a podcast when they might not be able to watch a video or read a book. Also, it’s a growing creative medium, and we need as many of those as we can get!

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see podcasts playing in this new “digital era”?

BLOTT

Greater minds than me are trying to figure that out at the moment, so I’ll bow out. If you’re interested in this question though, I heartily recommend Gimlet Media’s ‘Startup’ series. In particular, the first season and later episodes that examine Gimlet itself, and how they’re responding to the explosion of podcast popularity.

INTERVIEWER

When there are so many podcasts, and so many different voices speaking at once – how do you try to make your voices heard – how do you cut through the babble?

BLOTT

It comes back to what I said earlier about knowing what you’re trying to do with the show. No matter your niche, be it a pop-culture round up, a weekly marketing trend discussion, or a DnD play-along with your friends. The best shows, the ones that rise to the top of the rankings, have a specific goal in mind, and execute on that week in, week out so that their listeners know exactly what to expect.

Also, sound quality. It makes such a difference, nobody wants to listen to your voice through a haze of static or the sound of your PC in the background.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

BLOTT

Reading time. I want to give every book its due and make sure I’m soaking in what it has to give, but sometimes a recommendation comes in that’s a bit of a tome and I know I’m going to have to grind it out and make extra time. And of course, now and again, you get a book that you’re not a huge fan of, but I haven’t found that to be a big challenge , because I’m reading them in the light of the person who recommended it, and that’s always interesting.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

BLOTT

Bloody hell.

I guess for me it’s getting into something and looking to innovate and improve every day. It’s got a lot to do with knowing in your heart that you can do it a little better or a little more interesting. You just need to figure out how. Which can also cause a lot of anxiety, so it’s important to pair that with an understanding that what you’re doing now still has worth. What’s the saying? Perfection is the enemy of done?

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for the podcast? Any exciting projects or episodes in the pipeline?

BLOTT

Yeah! Lots of great guests lined up, I was pro-active towards the end of 2016 with booking authors ahead of time so that’s freeing me up to start thinking about what else to do with the website. I’ve been speaking with a few friends about adding some written interviews and other work, which would be loads of fun if it does take off.

I’ve resolved to get better at Twitter as well. I am a terrible Twitter user. But I’m better when I have someone to talk to, so if you’re reading this and want to talk books then @PapertrailPod and we can have a natter.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

BLOTT

Secret biscuits, gobbled while she’s away. (I hope she doesn’t read this)

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring podcasters?

BLOTT

Lightning round!

  1. Do research before you start your show. Know who you like, who you want to emulate, and why they are successful.
  2. Soft launch first. Don’t do a big song and dance for your first episode if it’s your first time doing it. Put it on social, share it with your friends for feedback, but focus on a good show first. Marketing second.
  3. Audio quality matters. Invest in a decent microphone.
  4. If you’re going to use Skype, get people to record their own audio at their end and then splice it together. Don’t just record Skype.
  5. Don’t splash loads of cash on editing software. Audacity is free and excellent. Use the money you saved to buy a better mic.
  6. Don’t start a podcast to make money. If it happens, great, but most podcasts either break even, or lose you money.
  7. Join the community. There’s a fantastic network of hobbyists and professionals talking about podcasting online. I spend plenty of time lurking the podcasting subreddits and asking questions when I need help. It’s by and large a friendly and supportive community, and it’s also a great place to find listeners for your show!

 

Writing when you’re broke: authors’ incomes collapse to “abject” levels

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Shocking new statistics show that the number of authors able to make a living from their writing has plummeted dramatically over the last eight years, with the average professional author now making well below the salary required to achieve the minimum living standard in the UK.

According to a survey commissioned by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), the median income of the professional author has fallen to just £11,000 – a drop of 29% since 2005 when the figure was £12,330 (or £15,450 if adjusted for inflation). This figure is well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living.

The survey of almost 2500 working writers – the first comprehensive study of author earnings in the UK since 2005 – was carried out by Queen Mary, University of London. It also found that the typical median income of all writers (not just professional authors) was a miniscule £4000 – compared to £8810 in 2000.

The study also found that in 2013, just 11.5% of professional authors (defined as being those who dedicate a majority of their time to writing) earned their incomes solely from writing – with a vast majority of writers supplementing their writing income with earnings from other sources. Again, this figure has declined sharply since 2005, when 40% of authors said they did so.

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Will Self, who has previously written that “the literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes”, the statistics from the survey were unsurprising. He said: “My own royalty income has fallen dramatically over the last decade. You’ve always been able to comfortably house the British literary writers who can earn all their living from books in a single room – that room used to be a reception one, now it’s a back bedroom.”

Children’s author, Mal Peet, echoed Will Self’s words in The Guardian – pointing out that his own income from his books had “dwindled really significantly” from receiving around £30,000 every six months to just £3000 for the first six months of 2013.

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“My direct income from sales is abject – literally abject. There’s been an absolutely radical decline in my income over recent years,” said Peet. “I do live by writing, but that’s because I have got a backlist of educational books which keeps on selling, and I have a pension, and I have to go on the road. Because I’ve a certain reputation, I can ask for a £25,000 advance, but then you spend a year writing the book, and £25,000 is a loan against sales and you can easily spend five years earning out. So that’s £25,000 for six years.”

Author James Smythe also said in the Guardian that he would never “earn out” an income from his writing. “Being a writer can’t be treated like it’s a job. It maybe was once, but no writer can treat it as such nowadays. There’s no ground beneath your feet in terms of income, and you can’t rely on money to come when you need it,” he said.

“I know very few writers who earn above the Minimum Income Standard, and that means that they need second jobs,” Smythe added. “Awards and critical acclaim used to be enough, in the heady days of 1970s publishing. It’s simply not, now.”

The ALCS described the new figures as “shocking”. “These are concerning times for writers,” said chief executive Owen Atkinson. “This rapid decline in both author incomes and in the numbers of those writing full-time could have serious implications for the economic success of the creative industries in the UK.”

For those writers who see self-publishing as a realistic means of earning an income from their writing, it also appears as though such hope remains just that – hope. Smythe pointed out that “self-publishing is even less of a way of earning money from your writing if you’re any good than conventional publishing.”

According to Smythe, “the industry works the way that it always has, just with tightened coffers”. So “if you sell, you’ll get more money next time around. If you don’t, then you’ll earn less. In most jobs, you work hard, and you deliver results. Unfortunately – and this is out of everybody’s hands – working hard in publishing guarantees no such results. You could write the best book in the world, and it could still sell dismally. My publishers are great, in that they believe I’ll write something that pays off. So I get to keep doing this. But one day, if I fail to deliver results, that will change. Why would you keep paying somebody money for no gain?”

Of the 2454 writers who took part in the ALCS survey, 56% were men and 44% women. 17% were under the age of 44, with 54% aged 45-65 and 29% 69 years old or over.

Poet Wendy Cope said that the findings of the survey may come as a surprise for many people.

“Most people know that a few writers make a lot of money. This survey tells us about the vast majority of writers, who don’t,” said Cope. “It’s important that the public should understand this – and why it is so important for authors to be paid fairly for their work.”

Do poets dream of electric literature?

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Google’s dreamscapes – the product of an artificial neural network being asked to amplify and pull patterns out of white noise. Photo credit: Michael Tyka/Google

In 2011, one of the longest-running student-run literary journals in the USA – Archive at Duke University – ran its annual call for poetry submissions for its Fall Issue. The editors, shifting through the reams of poetry, stumbled upon a short poem called “For the Bristlecone Snag”. It was environmentally themed. It struck a slightly aggressive tone. It contained a few of those clunky turns of phrase that can so often be found in student poetry, including the less-than-immortal line: “They attacked it with mechanical horns because they love you, love, in fire and wind”. Regardless of these slight failings, the editors of the journal decided to run with it. An unremarkable decision and an unremarkable nine-line stanza at first glance, except for one thing: the poem was written by a computer algorithm, and nobody could tell.

Of course, it remains too soon to predict when the TS Eliot Prize will be won by a robot. However, what it could mean for the future of poetry – and writing in general – is gradually gathering a great deal of attention, and stimulating significant discussion.

It’s important to point out that Bristlecone Snag is not the only example of machines writing poetry. In 2008, a US high-school student, Sarah Harmon, used Java to create a computer program that wrote poetry. Again, she submitted poetry created by this machine to student journals. And again, the submissions were successful.

There is nothing fancy about these machines. They are not magically complex. They are simple algorithms built by simple tools. They follow predefined rules of grammar and structure to compose poetical-sounding snippets. For example, Harmon’s poetry machine – named OGDEN – came up with the refrain: “He was perfectly strange,/His world was shyly hopeless,/Then he tasted his dreams.”

OGDEN poetry via Shutterstock

Image via shutterstock

These more recent examples are nothing new, either. In 1984 one of the first computer bards – Racter – wrote prose largely at random. It produced a book of poetry and surreal dialogues called The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed.

But is it surprising that simple coding tools and skills can be used to create poetry that readers find passable? After all, William Carlos Williams wrote that “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words”. A nice, simple statement of a poetic position. But also one that picks up on the essentially formulaic aspects of writing. If there are reproducible structures and characteristics – as one would find in any industrial machine or piece of new technology – then it stands to reason that computers can do just a good a job at recreating patterns and writing their own poetry as human beings.

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Image via Shutterstock

Just as aspiring writers will look to the poems and novels of their favourite authors, and are able to identify similarities of style and structure that they can imitate, it does not seem unreasonable that digital programs are able to identify the same patterns and imitate them. After all, Booker-nominated author Will Self said of creative writing courses that they are a like to working from “a pattern book”. If such formula can be taught, it can just as easily be programmed.

But what next? Can machine-written poetry ever go beyond simple imitation? Can a computer ever be creative in and of itself? Can it ever create lasting poetic expressions that stand the test of time among human readers without having any examples of real, lived experiences to draw on?

And, perhaps a more pertinent question, would we ever want any answers to these above questions to be ‘yes’?

Ever since the Luddite machine-breaking rebellion 200 years ago, advocates of ever-advancing technology have learned to scoff at technofobes. The argument goes that machine efficiency allows resources to go further, so what does it matter if workers are displaced?

Such an attitude has held firm as industries like coal mining, agriculture and banking and finance have seen miners replaced by coal-cutting machines, farm labourers by tractors and combine harvesters, and bank clerks and analysts by computerised ledgers and algorithms. Although of course we all know that this last one has not been without some teething problems.

The digital Shakespeare 

Yet as IT systems and ever-more capable artificial intelligence evolve, is it truly desirable to have so many aspects of humanity computerised and automated? Do we want to read poetry and novels written by machines, as writers huddle together in the last vestiges of hipsterism in some dusty London cereal café pining for the old days, trying to remember what pens, pencils and paper were called? And will we come to exist as those humans depicted in Pixar’s WALL.E – utterly reliant on automation for sustenance and entertainment, and unable to think for ourselves?

Quite what poets like Blake – who envisioned an England of “dark, Satanic Mills” at the face of the country changed with the advent of the industrial revolution – would make of computerised poetry remains unknown. Though it’s probably possible to at least take a rough guess about his feelings.

George Orwell’s 1984 envisioned a world in which we have already reached this point in history. Here, the “proles” are entertained by books produced by machines. Perhaps unfortunately – depending on your point of view – such a future may not be far away.

Professor Philip Parker, of Insead Business School, has created software that has generated 200,000 books, with over 100,000 of these titles available on Amazon. He notes: “A computer works very well with rules and the most obvious way is poetry.”

“We did a blind test between a Shakespearean sonnet and one that the computer had written. A majority of people surveyed preferred ours,” Professor Parker added. “That’s not to say it was better, but it was what people preferred.”

Writer as algorithm

The algorithms at the heart of Professor Parker’s software have also inspired a new suite of writing software that threatens to compete with journalists for the already minimal numbers of jobs going within the news and media industries.

Startup company Narrative Science creates articles without a human doing the writing.

With 30 clients for its articles already, written automatically by a machine collating data and writing “rich narrative content” from it, the death of the journalist has been mentioned in more than one speculative column.

Business news site Forbes is using the service for a number of pieces each weekday.

More questions than answers?

What this illustrates is the extent to which digital technology represents a force of change for writers of all ilk and forms. Some writers will no-doubt realise potential opportunities created by the emergence of new technologies. Think, for instance, of Iain Pears’s new novel, Arcadia – a 600 page hardback that works in close conjunction with an app of the same name. Or else Melville House’s line of “illuminated” novels with QR codes that lead to extra digital content. Or alternatively, Picador’s “The Kills” – a 2013 “digital first” thriller that links to online films from the characters’ points of views.

But perhaps an issue with these examples is that they all utilise technology under the assumption that the human being remains in control. Here, poets, novelists, publishing houses and media groups embrace these tools as enablers, but do not consider where the future is heading. How long before all the news stories we read have been written by machines? How long before we are all reading pre-programmed novels created by robots? How long before studentds are studying the poetry of AI-8976R, or the HAL-9000, instead of Blake and Shakespeare? And what would this mean for our culture?

These questions remain purely hypothetical. Yet as technology develops, we must begin to consider how we can answer them.

 

Writers on their favourite books

Everyone has that book they can’t get out of their head. The story that will forever hold a special place in their hearts and souls. We were lucky enough to have the chance to ask* five famous authors about their favourite books** – here’s what they told us…

  1. Jonathan Franzen – The Hungry Caterpillar

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“This is a fabulous allegory for rapacious capitalism. The caterpillar clearly represents neoliberalism. He bites into every fruit, takes just one bite and moves on, getting fatter and fatter. He’s exploiting everything. The caterpillar might as well be called Ronald Reagan. It’s great! Also I liked the colours.”

  1. Toni Morrison – Fifty Shades Free

Toni Morrison

“Like most people I prefer to read the ‘Fifty Shades’ series upside down. It really puts things into perspective. You are hanging there, reading this, and everything becomes so clear. What I realised was that this book goes so much deeper than most people give it credit. And in fact you can do so much with it. You can dip it in Pepsi. You can spread Nutella over it. You can cut out all the words and arrange them in little patterns on your fridge by sticking those tiny magnets to them. It’s interactive, in that way.”

  1. Ernest Hemingway – The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

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“Every so often you come across a book in which it feels as though the author has reached a hand through the page and taken yours in its grasp. You see yourself in the characters. You become the story. The story becomes you. This is the book that does that for me. When Adrien writes “I have never seen a dead body or a female nipple” I wept. It was too close to home.”

 

  1. George Saunders – Sex and the City
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Photo of George Saunders. (Chloe Aftel/Random House)

“One of my favourite aspects of Sex and the City is how you can read it with your eyes closed, trying to guess aloud what words will come next. I’m really good at this game now – I play it with my son, who frankly is terrible at it. But part of this just comes down to practice. A lot of the time you’ll get it right by shouting one of the following phrases: “I could so do with a margarita right now”; or “This once again illustrates the fundamental problem with modern economic theory, and makes you realise that we are increasingly becoming a plutocracy, rather than a democracy.” That’s a good hint I gave you. Don’t tell anyone.”

  1. Margaret Atwood – The Eye of Argon

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“This story has unfairly got a bit of a bad rep, I think. Too many books these days are written by people who seem to think the only thing that matters is whether or not their characters drink enough Mountain Dew or wear the latest Nike trainers. This is one of those rare books that doesn’t suffer from that sort of nonsense. It’s concise. And yet it feels alive.”

 

 

* May not actually have had the chance to ask these authors anything.

** May or may not be their favourite books. It’s all pretty much conjecture at this point.

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.”