Grammar rules and how to break them: the run-on sentence

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Breaking rules are what all the cool cats are doing these days (and have been doing for years, to be honest with you – it isn’t something that goes out of fashion). Even though new writers may find themselves drawn to the myriad number of ‘rules’ for writing that exist on the internet, there are a lot of writing ‘Dos and Don’ts’ that were made to be ignored – so long as you do it right, of course.

Chief among these are often rules of grammar, syntax and punctuation. Not least because attempts to standardise language and the written word often leads to the suppression or marginalisation of communities and peoples.

Grammar rules do exist for a reason; yet learning when and how to ignore certain rules can enhance your writing.

To give you an example, in this article we’ll look at the run-on sentence – and show you how you can throw all conventional wisdom out of the proverbial window in order to write one hell’uva good story.

Cool runnings – an introduction to the run-on sentence

First things first; the basics: run-on sentences, also known as fused sentences, occur when two complete sentences are squashed together without using a coordinating conjunction or proper punctuation, such as a period or a semicolon. Run-on sentences can be short or long. A long sentence isn’t necessarily a run-on sentence.

What’s the problem with using a run-on sentence?

A run-on sentence lacks the correct punctuation to tell the reader where to pause or to signal that a new idea is being expressed. The reader may be confused about the meaning of the sentence or have to make their own decision about where to pause.

Correcting a run-on sentence can help your sentences read more smoothly and should help your reader understand what you’re trying to say more easily. The independent clauses help the sentences make sense and they are much tighter and concise by comparison to the run-on sentence structures.

Breaking the grammar rule

Now, we’re not advocating ignoring the rules around run-on sentences completely: you can’t use them for everything you write, constantly. But if you understand how to conveniently forget about the grammar rule around them from time to time, you can help bring some new-found life and variation to your stories that will leave your readers gasping for breath – and gasping for more of your writing.

In the spirit of one of the most frequently touted rules of writing – we aren’t going to tell you how to do this; but rather show you, by using examples from some of the greatest writers who didn’t think twice about what grammatical rules they may or may not have been breaking.

First up – and perhaps not surprisingly – we have James Joyce’s Ulysses, which  famously concludes with Penelope, or Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, which has 24,048 words punctuated by two periods and one comma. Here’s a part of the final episode:

“…I suppose he was thinking of his father I wonder is he awake thinking of me or dreaming am I in it who gave him that flower he said he bought he smelt of some kind of drink not whisky or stout or perhaps the sweety kind of paste they stick their bills up with some liquor Id like to sip those richlooking green and yellow expensive drinks those stagedoor johnnies drink with the opera hats I tasted one with my finger dipped out of that American that had the squirrel talking stamps with father he had all he could do to keep himself from falling asleep after the last time we took the port and potted meat it had a fine salty taste yes because I felt lovely and tired myself and fell asleep as sound as a top the moment I popped straight into bed till that thunder woke me up as if the world was coming to an end God be merciful to us I thought the heavens were coming down about us to punish when I blessed myself and said a Hail Mary like those awful thunderbolts in Gibraltar and they come and tell you theres no God what could you do if it was running and rushing about nothing only make an act of contrition the candle I lit that evening in Whitefriars street chapel for the month of May see it brought its luck though hed scoff if he heard because he never goes to church mass or meeting he says your soul you have no soul inside only grey matter because he doesnt know what it is to have one yes when I lit the lamp yes…”

If you find this difficult to follow, you’re not alone. At the time of writing, this soliloquy contained the longest sentence ever written at 4,391 words, which made it the master of all run on sentences.

Nonetheless, while you might not want to go quite as far as Joyce, you can see how ignoring conventional grammatical wisdom can enhance the intensity, voice, and style of your writing. It helps your words to flow freely, adding life and vigour to your writing.

For our second example, we’re turning to another literary great, David Foster Wallace. His short story Incarnations of burned children was first published in Esquire magazine and you can read it online for free (do it now).  The story consists of only nine sentences, and yet is 1100 words. The breathless run-on sentences intentionally lend to a panicked, anxious reading, a messy and somewhat incoherent babble as neither the narrator nor the Daddy nor the Mommy can slow down and think rationally.

Here are the first three sentences of the story, to give you a flavour of how Wallace breaks traditional grammatical rules to such devastating effect:

“The Daddy was around the side of the house hanging a door for the tenant when he heard the child’s screams and the Mommy’s voice gone high between them. He could move fast, and the back porch gave onto the kitchen, and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner’s blue jet and the floor’s pool of water still steaming as its many arms extended, the toddler in his baggy diaper standing rigid with steam coming off his hair and his chest and shoulders scarlet and his eyes rolled up and mouth open very wide and seeming somehow separate from the sounds that issued, the Mommy down on one knee with the dishrag dabbing pointlessly at him and matching the screams with cries of her own, hysterical so she was almost frozen. Her one knee and the bare little soft feet were still in the steaming pool, and the Daddy’s first act was to take the child under the arms and lift him away from it and take him to the sink, where he threw out plates and struck the tap to let cold wellwater run over the boy’s feet while with his cupped hand he gathered and poured or flung more cold water over his head and shoulders and chest, wanting first to see the steam stop coming off him, the Mommy over his shoulder invoking God until he sent her for towels and gauze if they had it, the Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose, not yet aware of how smoothly he moved or that he’d ceased to hear the high screams because to hear them would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done to help his child, whose screams were regular as breath and went on so long they’d become already a thing in the kitchen, something else to move quickly around.”

Protect your voice

If we were to ‘correct’ the work of Joyce and Wallace (to name just two authors who ignore the run-on sentence rule), we may make them conform more closely with standardised English language; but both works would lose something fundamental in doing so. They would lose their energy; they would lose their voice.

Since a writer’s voice has more to do with what meaning is or isn’t conveyed to the reader than the grammatical rules and syntactical structures we place upon our written language, these stories would have their fundamental essence rearranged and, ultimately diminished.

So, if you find yourself locked in a burst of frenzied writing energy and wake the next morning covered in raw coffee beans and ink (we’ve all been there) to find that your prose is riddled with run-on sentences; don’t worry. Sit back, re-read what you’ve written, and remember the timeless (though slightly paraphrased) words of Doc Brown from Back to the Future: “Rules? Where we’re going, we don’t need rules…”

 

 

 

 

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T.S. Eliot’s letter of advice to a sixteen year old aspiring writer

“Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one,” literary giant F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his fifteen-year old daughter in 1936. Sixteen years later, an aspiring young author, born in that year, called Alice Quinn reached out to T.S. Eliot – by that point one of the most famous writers in the world – in search of advice and guidance. The sixteen year old asked the poet who masterminded The Wasteland whether he could answer questions about the creative process, and – since nobody just “becomes” a writer – how he himself developed his poetic sensibilities and skills.

While Eliot was not known for responding to fan letters, something about the young woman’s earnest inquiry touched him. His warm, wry response, full of writerly wisdom, may be his most direct statement of advice on writing. It was only ever published in Hockney’s Alphabet — a lovely and perhaps sadly forgotten 1991 charity project raising funds for AIDS research through short essays by famous writers about the letters of the alphabet, each illustrated by artist David Hockney. Eliot’s response to Alice Quinn — the only posthumous contribution to the volume — appears under the letter Q.

Four years after he received the Nobel prize for literature, Eliot writes to the young writer:

Dear Miss Alice Quinn,

I do not often answer letters, because I am too busy; but I liked your letter.

[…]

I cannot tell you how to concentrate, because that is something I have been trying to learn all my life. There are spiritual exercises in concentration, but I am not the person to teach what I am trying to learn. All I know is that if you are interested enough, and care enough, then you concentrate. But nobody can tell you how to start writing. The only good reason for writing is that one has to write. You ask seven questions. No one event in one’s childhood starts one writing: no doubt a number of “events” and other causes. That remains mysterious.

My advice to “up and coming writers” is, don’t write at first for anyone but yourself. It doesn’t matter how many or how few universities one goes to, what matters is what one learns, either at universities or by oneself. My favourite essay, I think, is my essay on Dante, not because I know much about Dante, but because I loved what I wrote about. The Waste Land is my most famous work, and therefore perhaps will prove the most important, but it is not my favourite.”

At one point in the letter, Eliot reflects on an accusation and criticism levied against the poet – that his work is elitist and exclusive. On this question, he reflects:

“I am interested to hear that Kunitz & Haycraft say that I prefer to associate with Nobility and Church Dignitaries, but I like to know every sort of person, including Nobility and Dignitaries. I also like to know Policemen, Plumbers and People.”

He returns to the subject of how one grows equipped to be a writer:

“One does not always need to know a subject very well in order to teach it: what one does need to know is How to Teach Anything. I went to a very good school (which no longer exists) in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was well taught in Latin, Greek, French and elementary Mathematics. Those are the chief subjects worth learning at school; and I am glad that I was well taught in these subjects, instead of having to study such subjects as T.S. Eliot. At the University I studied too many subjects, and mastered none. If you study Latin, Greek, French, Mathematics […] that is the right beginning.

I like living in London, because it is my City, and I am happier there than anywhere else.

With best wishes,

T.S. Eliot”

Complement T.S. Eliot’s timeless wisdom with some of our collected writing tips; for writers, from writers.

A repulsive horror? How famous writers responded to winning the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction Award’

 

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Bulging trousers, gasps, moans and sighs – all feature heavily in the award winning passages of “bad sex in fiction”.

Every year in November, the lovers of literature hold their breath as they await news of the winner of one of the most notorious ‘booby’ prizes in the world: the Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Founded in 1993 by the Literary Review, the award causes titular delight among its hordes of fans, and has developed from a cult-prize into a world famous event – this year’s shortlist and award ceremony was covered by major newspapers and mainstream TV news channels across the globe.

Italian novelist Erri De Luca scooped the 2016 award, which recognises those authors who have produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel. A general consensus seemed to form relatively quickly that this year’s shortlist (which can be read here) didn’t quite live up to 2015’s, which was won by Morrissey. But perhaps this has less to do with the featured writing in both year’s shortlists, and more to do with the way Morrissey reacted to the news his book, The List of the Lost, was first shortlisted – and then announced as the winner.

Indeed, describing the prize as “a repulsive horror”, Morrissey told Uruguayan newspaper El Observador that he had “many enemies, and their biggest motivation, as you know, is to try to use all your achievements against you.”

So perhaps it was the added drama of Morrissey’s reactions that made the 2015 awards seem that bit spicier compared to Erri De Luca – who reacted by ignoring the whole thing.

With that in mind, how have previous winners of the notorious prize responded to the news? We’ve brought together a few choice reactions from these famous authors below.

“Honoured” – Rachel Johnson
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Rachel Johnson’s novel Shire Hill was singled out for her book’s slew of animal metaphors, including comparing her male protagonist’s “light fingers” to “a moth caught inside a lampshade”, and his tongue to “a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop”. Literary Review deputy editor Tom Fleming was also disturbed by the heroine’s “grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside”.

Johnson said it was an “absolute honour” to win, taking her place alongside former winners including Norman Mailer, Sebastian Faulks and Tom Wolfe. “I’m not feeling remotely grumpy about it. I know that men with literary reputations to polish might find it insulting,” she said, “but if you’ve had a book published in the year any attention is welcome, even if it’s slightly dubious attention of this sort.”

Read Johnson’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.

“Not the least bit surprised” – David Guterson  guterson_300.jpg

David Guterson snaffled the bad sex prize for his fifth novel, Ed King, a modern reimagining of the Oedipus myth. Judges were swayed by a scene introduced as “the part where a mother has sex with her son”, and including the passages: “these sorts of gyrations and five-sense choreographies, with variations on Ed’s main themes, played out episodically between 10 pm and 10 am, when Diane said, ‘Let’s shower'”; and “she took him by the wrist and moved the base of his hand into her pubic hair until his middle fingertip settled on the no-man’s-land between her ‘front parlour’ and ‘back door’ (those were the quaint, prudish terms of her girlhood)”.

“He says in brackets that these are quaint, prudish terms but I don’t think that is sufficient justification for using them,” said Jonathan Beckman, the Literary Review’s assistant editor.

The American author took his triumph in good spirits, saying in response that “Oedipus practically invented bad sex, so I’m not in the least bit surprised”.

Read Guterson’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.

You can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can’t make him get it.” – Tom Wolfe  Wolfe_at_White_House.jpg

American author Tom Wolfe, 74, best-known for his novel Bonfire of the Vanities and for his eccentric dress – he normally wears a white suit and carries a cane – was awarded the Bad Sex award for his novel I Am Charlotte Simmons. Judges were swayed by a number of passages of “ghastly and boring prose”, with the following extract drawing particular ire:

“Slither slither slither slither went the tongue. But the hand, that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns – oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest – no, the hand was cupping her entire right – Now!”

Wolfe did not react well to news his novel had won the infamous prize. He described The Literary Review as “a very small, rather old-fashioned magazine”, and went onto say that the British literary judges who awarded him a prize for the year’s worst sex in fiction simply did not understand that his description of a first encounter was meant to be ironic.

“There’s an old saying – ‘You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her sing’,” he said. “In this case, you can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can’t make him get it.”

“I purposely chose the most difficult scientific word I could to show this is not an erotic scene,” he added. “There’s nothing like a nine-syllable word to chase Eros off the premises.”

Read Wolfe’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.

“I blush to read my offending prose” – Iain Hollingshead

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British journalist and novelist Iain Hollingshead received the 2006 award for his book Twenty Something, specifically because of his description of sex on page 46 of his novel, in which he writes:

“I can feel her breasts against her chest. I cup my hands round her face and start to kiss her properly. She slides one of her slender legs in between mine.

Oh Jack, she was moaning now, her curves pushed up against me, her crotch taut against my bulging trousers, her hands gripping fistfuls of my hair.

She reaches for my belt. I groan too, in expectation. And then I’m inside her, and everything is pure white as we’re lost in a commotion of grunts and squeaks, flashing unconnected images and explosions of a million little particles.”

Judges were particularly keen to highlight the use of the phrase “bulging trousers”, and upon receiving the award, Holligshead wrote an entire article in the Daily Telegraph about the experience.

He said when he first discovered his book had been shortlisted, he “wasn’t too ashamed” because he was “sure I wouldn’t win”.

Yet, when he was announced as the winner, he wrote “I blush to read my offending prose now […] apparently the judges wriggled with mirth at [some of the phrasing] and I don’t blame them. Shamefully, it could have been even worse.”

He added:

“There’s something very British, of course, about celebrating failure. Some writers deserve to be taken down a peg or two, but most nominees take the awards with the good humour with which they’re intended. […] But there’s also something very British about the whole approach to sex. We’re good at smut, less good at genuine erotica. It is difficult to imagine the French or the Italians running a similar award.

It was once said that the English have hot-water bottles rather than sex lives. I think it’s more that we’re still not sufficiently grown-up to read and write about it properly.

No matter. It’s all harmless fun. Until now, friends’ concerns about my budding literary career have revolved around the possibility that I might, unfairly, be confused with the rather more successful Alan Hollinghurst, author of The Line of Beauty.

Since this surprise victory, I feel we’re on a level playing field. And he can keep his Booker Prize.”

Read Hollingshead’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.

“I deserve a Blue Peter badge for my description of sex” – Janet Ellis
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Not an eventual winner of the award, and so placed at the end of this short list, but Janet Ellis nonetheless makes an appearance after her novel The Butcher’s Hook was nominated for the 2016 award, and she wrote a lengthy article in The Guardian in defence of her own book.

The panel of five judges at the Literary Review singled it out for a surprisingly agricultural passage in which Ellis’s heroine Anne consummates her passion for butcher’s apprentice Fub.

“‘Anne,’ he says, stopping and looking down at me. I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. ‘Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.’ He sways and we listen to the soft suck at the exact place we meet. Then I move and put all thoughts of livestock out of his head.”

In her article, Ellis claims that she should be praised, rather than singled out negatively, for being willing to write about sex, because “I didn’t set out to titillate or shock, but to have skirted around the issue would have been cowardly. I didn’t let imaginary hecklers get in the way of what I wanted to write, or worry someone who’d watched me when they were a child would suffer the trauma of finding out I was a grown woman after all.”

She added:

“Writing about writing about sex is also difficult, of course. If you’re not describing what happens (when you can use all the available words any which way you choose, in an attempt to make a very old act seem new) you’re a hostage to fortune. Every phrase risks alerting the double entendre police, who are eager to nudge each other in the ribs if anything naughty arises (see?).

[…]

The paragraphs they’ve pulled out (sorry) for the shortlist are scarcely erotic, and weren’t designed to be, but the cumulative effect must have caused some flushing at least. I take some comfort from the fact that if, after such an avalanche, my writing stood out like a ski pole, I must be doing something right.”

Read Ellis’s extract alongside the shortlisted entries for the 2016 awards here.

 

So, dear readers, what do you think? How should writers react to winning prizes of the ilk of the Bad Sex Awards? With good humour and grace? Or are they right to feel aggrieved and challenge the ethos behind the award? Should they react at all? Sebastian Faulks, a previous winner in 1998, ignored the award at the time; but then paid homage to his ‘achievement’ with a couple of references to the experience in his 2015 novel Where my heart used to beat.

There’s no easy answer, of course; but let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

 

 

10 things nobody tells you about becoming an artist

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Think you know what it takes to become the next Picasso or Monet? Think again!

 

  1. There are 5000 shades of white – and they all have specific names that are usually unheard of. The most common shades are codswallop and bumdergard.
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What even is ‘white’, anyway?

  1. Wild easels make the best artistic companions, but they must be caught first. You can do this by tying a piece of camembert to a painter’s apron and leaving it out in the sun for an hour, the easels will eat the cheese and become dopey, making them easier to catch in the apron.
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A wild easel in its natural habitat 

  1. When you go to a modern art exhibit at a fellow artist’s gallery, there will always be a picture of a giant penis somewhere on the walls. The best thing you can do in this situation is to ignore the penis, and use the stock-phrases artists use in such instances. These phrases include “This art really smells like the decay of our modern civilisation” and “What a lovely shade of bumbdegard the artist is using”.

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  1. Never make eye contact with an artist you haven’t been introduced to, especially if there is a full moon due.

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  1. There is a hierarchy within the art world that must be strictly acknowledged. It runs thusly: Illustrator; Naked Illustrator; Impressionist; Naked Impressionist; Faux-renaissance post-modern lumberjack painter; sculptor; mole-rat enthusiast; naked contemporary artist; contemporary artist.

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  1. All art can be described as either ‘cliché’ or ‘erotic’.

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  1. If you ever see a photographer trying to sneak into your art studio, you have permission to beat him with your sharpest paintbrush – but only if you are painting with lilac or mauve at the time of his arrival.

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  1. The best background music to pipe into your gallery when exhibiting your own work is Enya – also known as ‘loud silence’
  1. The finest pieces of portrait art are those that evoke real, true emotions in the viewer. But beware! These are also the most likely pieces to come to life. If they do, you must burn them before they can take up jobs as inner-city accountants.

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  1. You will frequently get calls from an unknown number that hangs up as soon as you answer it. Ignore these, it’s just Banksy trying to get your attention, and street art can only lead to a life of debauchery and poverty.

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Creatives In Profile: Interview with Mike Dodson

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Creativity, in all its myriad different forms, can take us to the edge of the world and look beyond. It can inspire, inform, influence. Used in the right way, it can illuminate the path ahead.

Because of this, Nothing in the Rulebook has been founded to emphasise such creativity. Yet we’re also here to highlight not just works of creativity; but the creative individuals who write our stories and our poetry; take our photographs; create our artworks.

Our new ‘Creatives in profile’ interview series offers creatives the opportunity to discuss their life and art at length. And it is an honour to introduce our latest interview – with writer, editor and photographer, Mike Dodson.

Mike runs Vagabond Images – his photographic work, which is used by myriad different organisations from the BBC to Pearson. Cutting his teeth as a copywriter and editor, he wrote in various wage brackets for various publications of various respectability,including Beware The Cat, Time Out, the Easy Jet in-flight magazine, and Square Meal. He now writes short stories, maintains a blog, and continues to contribute to a range of organs, from Viz and Private Eye to the Metro newspaper and sundry other voices.

INTERVIEWER

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

DODSON

Via quite a significantly misspent youth in the punk, goth and metal scenes, I developed a strong desire to write, and somehow ended up in London studying Media Communications at Scumbag College. I fell out of there with half a pretend degree, and found myself surfing the very edge of the dot-com boom as a copywriter, where for three years companies fell apart around me, until I settled down into an editorship for a while. My father introduced me to photography in the early part of the new century, and, hindered by a complete inability to draw, photography became my medium of choice.

I still live in London, now with my beautiful wife Cat, and together we drink too much and associate with misfits. I’m a hugely disappointed, hopelessly romantic, pathetically optimistic misanthrope, and think that humanity has so much potential if only it just decided to apply itself.

INTERVIEWER

How do your passions for writing and photography complement one another?

DODSON

A lot of my writing is relatively visual in its discourse. I’m quite passionate about music, and my tastes are influenced hugely by detailed and coherent lyrical content, which has in turn influenced both my writing and photography. I think generally the two should stand separately beyond children’s books, although I know they don’t. A photograph should tell you of itself just as writing should; good writing should not need illustration, and good photography should not need description.

Berlin-Hauptbahn. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

Berlin-Hauptbahn. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any other creative passions?

DODSON

I used to hit things and make a noise behind some musicians for a while, and retain an irritating habit of playing nearby surfaces when I’m thinking. I retain my interest in music, but of late I’ve become interested increasingly in moving photographic composition, and will be developing my work there in the near future.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

DODSON

Anyone I’m able to or think I could have a drink with. I dislike pomposity, but I’m a fan of experimentation – one of the main influences I’ve taken in photography is perhaps Roy Lichtenstein’s snapshot/comic frame approach. The concept of framing a moment intrigues me – the interesting side of that most tedious of conversations ‘Yah, but what IS art?’

I like descriptive and passionate song lyrics, the clean lines of art deco, and the rebellion of punk. In terms of people, I’ve written some terrible, terrible poetry at girls I’ve wanted to sleep with – does that count?

'Boy'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Boy’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

Your work as Vagabond Images highlights numerous different photographic themes – from landscape pictures of British and American countryside, to intense urban scenes, sinister backdrops packed with brooding emotion, as well as imaginative profiles and shots of the people who live in all these different worlds. What catches your eye as a photographer?

DODSON

I’m quite intrigued by the arse-end of capitalism; The Man Behind The Curtain. Money is actually very, very weird if you look at it for more than a few seconds, and the concepts it relies on are quite literally surreal. This seems to me to be at significant odds with our nature as animals, and of all the places in the world to view this, one of the world’s leading financial capitals is one – have you ever been to The City at the weekend? It’s a ghost town – the quietest place you could imagine. Then at 7am on a Monday morning it’s covered in people with globally-reaching influence.

I’m quite a fan of high contrast images, as I find them easier to understand and digest than overly busy or detailed compositions. Contrary to this, however, the romantic in me finds open landscapes wonderfully desolate, and one of the things I like about the USA is how absolutely vast it is. In America you can drive for hours and hours – quite literally – through nothing very much at all, seeing absolutely no one, and getting absolutely nowhere significant. I love to just sit on a train or coach, staring out of the window, getting lost. This discourse applies to Europe too (With the notable exception of the Berlin-Warsaw train journey, which – other than the changing signage – is singularly crap).

'Accountant': Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Accountant’: Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

In Georege Perec’s ‘La Disparation’ the question is asked ‘Why do you take photographs so constantly, so obsessively? And the reply returns ‘so that I’ll see what I’ve seen’. Why do you take photographs? What draws you to the form?

DODSON

Photographs provide the opportunity for further exploration and re-examination, presentation and composition provide the opportunity for interpretation of a subject, and looking through a viewfinder makes whatever you see into a potential picture. In terms of form – form is often a fleeting moment – with people I like to fire off a lot of candid shots when people are socialising, as micro expressions can be so fleeting and yet so very powerful – it just takes that one pause to convey the truth, that one look when they both get the joke, or the glance that betrays their true feelings.

For architecture, high contrast is often visually arresting, and thus useful for that type of shot. The great thing about architecture is that it is static, and since so much of form can be dictated by lines, architectural photography allows you to fully explore these.

INTERVIEWER

The use of mirror images is used frequently in your work; as are moments of contrast – for example between darker and lighter shades – do you believe that there is a mirror image to everything? Is this world always a ‘world of opposites’? What role does juxtaposition play in art and – indeed – life?

DODSON

A mirror is a magical item – it provides us with a view of the unseen.  As animals our primary sense is vision, and a mirror simultaneously makes us more powerful, by providing us with greater visual knowledge, and potentially more vulnerable from the unknown and potentially threatening.  It expands our vision; it provides us with a glimpse into another, unseeable world. The metaphors a mirror can provide are easy to relate to through knowledge of the other – good/evil, light/dark, obscure/clear, etc.

It can also be used to great effect as a cheap trick in horror films, which – to Cat’s delight – I fall for. Every. Single. Time.

'Glastonbury Thorn'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Glastonbury Thorn’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

Your compilation of writings, are – in the way they so often pieces of ‘micro non-fiction’ – almost photographic. They provide glimpses and snapshots into real, lived events. Do you think your writing process is photographic?

DODSON

Photography translates literally as ‘Drawing with light’. If I had any ability I would draw (my artistic talent has a significant blind-hedgehog-in-a-bag aspect to it, and thus descriptive writing and photography have been my workarounds). I’ve always been intrigued by capturing that one moment, the perfect timing, and in the climax of the story. Just as a play is constructed of ‘scenes’, ultimately everything conceived visually is a type of photograph, and writing is a way of drawing pictures in other people’s minds.

INTERVIEWER

Images and words read differently, they may not fuse, but they co-exist. Do you think there is a disjunction between word and image? What do you make of the relationship between what is written and what is seen?

DODSON

While a photograph may capture the moment wonderfully, it won’t necessarily furnish the audience with all the information – look at the recent furore over the photograph of Aylan Kurdi. In terms of history it’s often quite hard to fully detail situations, although with fiction – well – everyone knows the difficulty of making the book into a film, because everyone’s imagination is different. A significant difficulty with journalistic photography is how far it’s acceptable to stage a photograph, and one quickly enters a Schroedinger-esque situation.  Writing, however, is in itself fallible as it is written from memory – Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time Of Gifts is wonderfully detailed for something written after the event. However, in terms of journalism, the World Wide Web and internet have changed it forever and completely – now one can experience real-life reportage instantly from the scene without it really affecting anyone involved at all.

INTERVIEWER

In much of your writing, there is the strong pervading sense of the ‘tragi-comic’ in your collection. So many of Shakespeare’s tragedies could easily become comedies and vice-versa. Your work captures the delicate balance between the two. Yet how do we tread this fine-line between tragedy and comedy?

DODSON

As a student, and as an idiot, I did the very minimum work required at university, at the very last minute, because – well – I’m an idiot. One day before a piece of work was due, I was in the library, searching frantically for a book to plagiarise, and on finding it flipped to the pages needed and read it as I hurried between the shelves, returning to my desk. At the end of the shelves was a portable step, over which I tripped and flew – absolutely flew – out from between the shelves, sailing past two very pretty (Of course they were very bloody pretty) girls. Seeing me explode out of nowhere, at a height of about three feet, and crashing head-first into a crumpled heap at the foot of a desk, one girl gasped in horror and concern, while the other instinctively pointed and laughed.

How should we tread the line? Honestly; as those two girls did.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in photography, what are your thoughts and feelings on the industry? And how would you advise aspiring photographers to break out onto the ‘scene’?

DODSON

The great thing about technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer. The problem with technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer. As Bailey expressed his hatred of digital for bringing everyone to the same level, so that level becomes ever more refined. Digital still has a long way to go to match actual film, and because of the physical discourse, filmic photography is becoming increasingly exclusive. Journalistic photography is now pretty well entirely open to the public, and increasingly reliant on celebrity culture.

In terms of digital trends, I notice that currently over-sharpening images is currently en vogue, while thankfully the awful profligacy of HDR seems to have bitten the dust, along with the adoration for the tilt-shift filter in Photoshop.  The problem and the blessing of digital is that it is so very easy now to dramatically alter a shot that it’s difficult to know when to stop, and also judge what a photograph now actually is.

If you want to get into photography you need to do a lot, a lot. The difference between a photographer and someone with a camera is the amount they shoot – if you take the shot a hundred times from a hundred different angles, to try and make sure that the right one’s in there, then you’re on the right road. Digital photography makes this all a lot easier.

If people start asking you to take photographs for them, then start asking them for money. You don’t ask a plumber to come ‘round and fix your boiler on the proviso that you’ll tell your mates about how great he is – don’t let them tell you such. And if anyone comments that that photo you took is really good, and remarks that you must have a really good camera, then legally speaking – legally speaking you can kill these people.

'Mirror'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Mirror’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

How about when it comes to writing? Are there any emerging trends you’re particularly interested in?

DODSON

The great thing about technology now is that it has made everyone a writer. The problem with technology now is that it has made everyone a writer.  The internet has enabled anyone with an opinion to express it and potentially be listened to – even the Katie Hopkins puppet commands a sizable audience on Twitter, and makes a sizable income for whomever the operator is. I’m quite interested in the effects that texting, Twitter and the rise of emojis have had on communication, and the fluidity of language – the concept of replacing words with numbers is as fascinating as it is irritating, and the idea of expressing sarcasm pictorially is just downright weird.

INTERVIEWER

How is the digital age impacting the writing and photography industries?

DODSON

Democratisation – there is a huge amount of noise now, the channels feeding on them are increasingly specialist, and the content increasingly diluted. The difference between professional and amateur is becoming very blurred. If you can pay your bills by doing what you do, you’re a professional. If you can’t, you’re not. The digital age thrives on vanity and narcissism, and our self-expression has been sold to us as the most important part of our id, by cynically manipulating our ego. The visceral pornography of instant gratification is encompassing in modern society now.

INTERVIEWER

When you write, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when compiling your initial drafts?

DODSON

‘Write in haste, edit at leisure.’ Michael Stipe of American rock band REM talked of ‘Vomit songs’ – where the whole lot would just come out in one hit. While successfully doing so would be incredible, it’s worth assuming that you won’t, and getting everything down as it comes – it’s awful having that excellent idea just before you go to sleep, and waking up remembering that you had to remember something. I heard that Stephen King has notebooks all over his house, which he harvests on a regular basis (This may be complete bollocks, but on a personal level I have practiced doing so ever since having read of it). Then edit, edit, edit. Rewrite and edit. Then wonder if it’s good enough for a first draft, have a huge attack of the nerves, and go back and edit it again. Do you know how long this piece of crap is taking me to write? I’ve been working on it since 1996!

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

DODSON

Generally I’m propping up a mantelpiece with a whisky, surrounded by a host of pretty young women all hanging on every word I say. Whether or not I actually am at the time I write is a matter of mere pedantry.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

DODSON

I think the democratisation I mentioned earlier is a significant aspect now. As the physical book becomes increasingly a fashion-statement for hipsters, so publishing and distribution is becoming easier and easier, as the internet allows you to write and publish your own work – either by website or on Kindle. I think as the collective attention span shortens, increasingly skilled editing will become prized – Strunk & White notwithstanding.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

DODSON

Creativity is simply creating. It’s not always a good thing – there’s a lot of absolute shite out there, but by the same token there are some wonderful, uncelebrated, absolute diamonds – which so many of us are. Wordsworth said that good poetry is born of strong emotion recalled in a time of tranquillity. My writing is often such; my photography less so – my photography requires a lot more elbow grease – pounding the streets and taking time to take and retake and look at and take. Eventually – hopefully – I will find among what I’ve shot The Shot. Sometimes I won’t, and that’s tough.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

DODSON

If you make money from strangers for writing, you’re a writer.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

DODSON

I’m terribly embarrassed to say that I don’t – I write what I write. That other people like it is nice – that other people have paid me on occasion for it is nice. But it’s what I do because it’s, er – what I do. Aim to have your work speak for itself.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

DODSON

Much of my writing is at the very least semi- if not entirely autobiographical. I will take artistic license here and there if necessary, but I’m not imaginative enough to come up with actual, real fiction – there’s always some basis of me in it. Even in my appalling and dark stuff – we all have dark thoughts, and that we are unwilling to face them or talk of them interests me – the disconnect between the social requirement for honesty and politeness is wonderfully flawed – as detailed by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.

'On The Road II'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘On The Road II’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

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

DODSON

I’ve just started working as a cameraman for a fledgling production company. It’s in its infancy yet, and the work is an entirely new discipline to that of stills, but the mechanisms and structures are there – hopefully we’ll have a productive year, produce some award-winning stuff, quickly become rich and the most famous outfit in Britain, and Winona Ryder will finally stop playing hard-to-get and start returning my bloody calls.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

DODSON

She shouted at him – he flinched.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

DODSON

You can only break the rules when you know the rules and you’ve followed the rules and you’ve lived the rules, so write, write, write, and edit, edit, edit. Remember that you are a font of absolute crap, but don’t ever forget that you also have such absolutely wonderful beauty.

Alternatively, if in a hurry:

  1. Red wine
  2. Cigarettes
  3. A deep yearning.