Horrible Feet

Dancer's feet

When I was ten I saw a ballerina tear her Achilles tendon. I was sitting on the side of the stage during a recital rehearsal, unrolling a leg warmer on my left thigh. It was April, and I could hear heavy rainfall beating against the emergency exit doors of the theatre. My face was warm, and one of my legs was aching with a cramp. I sipped some water from my bottle as I looked at the girl who was going over her pas de deux behind the curtains opposite me. I knew her name was Camilla because she was the most promising dancer in our school, even though she was only fifteen. She was talking angrily to her dance partner, Alex, but I could not hear what she was saying. He was a handsome boy with wavy hair, and all the girls in my class were obsessed with him. Through the white empire-waist costume Camilla was wearing, tight on her flat chest and broad around her thighs, her ribs and backbone were visible. When I saw her walking towards me, I hastily looked down.

“Is this yours?”

I raised my eyes. Camilla was pointing at my water bottle. I nodded. From up close, I noticed that her hair was dirty and that she had a violet bruise on her neck, the shape of a jellyfish. She had an unlit cigarette in her right hand. She grabbed my bottle with her free hand and gulped like she was dying of thirst. Then she put it back next to me.

“Camilla!” Maria, our ballet teacher, joined us on stage. She was pregnant at the time, her belly round like a melon, bags under her eyes that were puffy and purple. “What are you doing?”

“Smoking.” Camilla talked to Maria as if they were equals, which surprised me, as I feared Maria more than anyone else. Maria took the cigarette from Camilla’s hand and broke it in two.

“You’re rehearsing.” She stared into Camilla’s eyes until she nodded, like a rebellious daughter annoyed by her mother. “Get ready now!” Then Maria noticed me, sitting at their feet: “Cecilia, after Camilla bothers to try her choreography, it’s your turn.”

Camilla and Alex danced like swans. She looked pale and weightless, while he touched her and lifted her. They ran away from each other and then jumped back into each other’s arms. I counted her pirouettes as her gown opened like a moonflower. Then I heard a snap, and Camilla fell. It was an audible pop; it echoed all over the stage. Alex stepped back, unsure of what to do. The music went on. Camilla was not crying.

“Fuck,” she screamed, panting.

Maria hurried on stage as I looked from behind the curtain. She knelt next to Camilla and caressed the back of her ankle.

“It’s the tendon,” Maria said, “I’m calling an ambulance.”

“No!” Camilla almost shouted and grabbed Maria’s arm. Her ankle was twisted, quickly swelling up. I wanted to go closer but I couldn’t.

“She’ll be fine.” I turned, and Alex was right behind me. I wasn’t sure whether he was talking to me or not, but I could tell from his face that she wouldn’t be fine at all.

*

I straighten my back and grit my teeth. I can feel blood staining my pointe pads; I did not have time to place them properly on my toes.

“Smile!” Maria shouts to the entire class, yet it feels like she is addressing me only. I’m her favourite, but she hates me. She has been my teacher since I was three. Now, after thirteen years, nothing has changed. She still treats me as if she doesn’t understand that I have feelings. I suspect she doesn’t have any.

I complete the sequence of assemblés and échappés, my ballet shoes clacking against the polished wooden floor, my hand holding on to the barre. When the music stops, the smiles drop off every girl’s face at once. Maria takes the CD out of the player. We are all waiting for her response, our necks sweaty, our legs shaking with exhaustion. Once, she took the CD out and threw it on the floor, then started shouting at me, saying that I was “rude”, “stupid” and “unfit” for the class. Turns out I kept yawning before starting the choreography.

This time, Maria turns to us and says: “Class is over.” She never says “well done” or “good job” or anything like it, but, if she doesn’t complain or insult any of us, it means she’s satisfied. I’ve learnt that silence can also be a compliment.

We leave class dragging our feet, looking forward to getting rid of our uncomfortable tights. In the changing room, the radiators are not working. I take my bag and clothes and walk to the bathroom; I don’t feel like talking to anyone. Sara follows me. She is older than me, like everyone else in the class. This year, her acne is gone and her blonde hair has grown long and glossy. When she rehearses without tying it in a chignon, it swings and arches like a golden rainbow.

Sara sits on the cold floor of the bathroom and wipes her sweaty chest with toilet paper. She starts removing her shoes slowly, first the heels and then the toes, which have become glued to the pointe pads. I remove mine quickly; I’d rather feel the pain hitting me all together. I stuff the pointe pads in my bag, then I rapidly place my feet under the freezing water coming out of the sink. Sara does the same. Our feet look terrible, mine covered in blisters, hers missing a couple of nails.

“Ballet shoes are not for everyone,” Maria has always told us. When we were ten and got our first pairs of pointes, we all looked at them with excitement. The satin was shiny and the sole was hard; it smelled of leather. I used to put them on at home, and jump and spin around my mother’s grand piano, coming up with choreographies that I would then perform in front of my family.

After getting dressed, we walk back to the changing room through a narrow, poorly lit corridor, then to the entrance, where all the other girls are waiting for someone to pick them up. I walk past them, stuffing my hands inside the sleeves of my coat. I see the lights of the cars driving away from the parking lot, chasing one another until they fade into darkness. I look at the illuminated windows of the terraced houses and at the floating moon. The outlines of other passers-by seem ghosts under the lamp posts, and I am glad they cannot see my horrible feet.

*

Alex has come to class today for a new pas de deux assignment. I haven’t seen him in six years, since the day Camilla tore her tendon. Sara, whose mother is friends with Alex’s parents, says he passed the auditions for the ballet school at La Scala Theatre but then quit because he wanted to go to university to study psychology. He has changed: he has tattoos on both his hands, his skin is stretched on his muscles and a hint of beard has appeared on his chin. He is sitting on the floor next to Maria and watches us as we perform the choreography alone, one after the other. I see him out of the corner of my eye: sometimes he stares blankly, other times he checks us out in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Emma, our headmistress, paces back and forth in the room, clapping her hands to the rhythm and shouting “posture!” She is in her forties, her hands are rough and wrinkly, and her long black hair looks dry. Still, when she moves, only hinting at the steps of the dance with her graceful limbs, she seems younger than any of us.

Maria is quiet, as always when Emma is around. Earlier today, I heard them talking about the costumes we have to wear for the next recital. Emma suggested we paint our faces red, which did not sound like a good idea to me. I still remember the dance contest when we had blue paint on our cheeks and so much glitter on our eyelids that some got into my left eye. It started to ache and water right in the middle of our performance, and everyone thought I had become emotional.

After she has observed all of us carefully, Emma says: “Cecilia will dance with Alex.”

The other girls whisper in disappointment.

“Does anyone have a problem with that?” Maria asks. Anna, who is shorter than me and as skinny as a twig, speaks up: “The best choreographies are always assigned to the same people.” Last week she almost fainted. I think she doesn’t eat much anymore; she keeps swallowing weight loss pills before class.

“Like who?” Maria stands up, walks closer to her.

“Cecilia is the only one who did a solo.” Anna’s top is slick with sweat and sticks to her back.

“Cecilia remembers the steps of the choreography and doesn’t complain.”

Anna flushes, and I notice her hands are shaking. Emma takes me by the arm and turns to everyone else: “You can leave early today girls. Good job everyone.”

I remain alone with Emma, Maria and Alex. He stands up and stretches. I wipe the sweat from my forehead.

“This is not a pas de deux as you imagine it. It’s not too graceful, too perfect, too clean,” Emma says. I look at Alex’s tattoos and then at my pink bodysuit.

“I want this to start quietly. You smile, you touch each other gently. Then you let go. Can you do this Cecilia?”

“Yes,” I lie.

“Good. Then let’s just try one sequence before you go home. Alex’s running after you, he catches you. So you stand and your arms reach out… remember?” We both nod and get into position.

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Alex runs after me, and his hands brush against my naked back. He takes me, and I raise my arms to the ceiling.

“Hold it!” says Emma, “Hold it Cecilia, you are a tree, a tree in the wind!”

I let my arms swing gently, and wonder what kind of tree I am.

“Your arms are branches, your hands are leaves!”

I feel Alex’s hands tight on my waist, his breath on my neck. I move my fingers and wrists, and tilt my head back, laying it on Alex’s shoulder. I decide that I am a weeping willow, like the one that grows in my grandmother’s garden, shading the daisies and cobblestones against the sun. Its branchlets turn yellow in autumn and look like a cascade of golden tears.

After class, Alex lights a cigarette outside, cupping his hand around the end. The tattoos on his hands are feathers, one for each finger. He has nice knuckles. I wonder if he remembers that I was there when Camilla got hurt. But that was a long time ago.

“Are you sad?” he asks me.

“Why would I be?” I remove the pins from my hair and let it loose on my back. He watches me as if we were intimate and not two strangers.

“Your friend hates you because you got the part.” He tilts his head a bit, his smile is cheeky.

“She’s not my friend.”

He laughs, ties his curly hair in a knot and walks away.

“See you tomorrow,” he says, without turning around.

*

Back home, I skip dinner and fill the bathtub with hot water and vanilla soap, as the smell of minestrone comes from downstairs. I undress slowly, my muscles tired and aching. I throw my clothes on the floor like waste paper. The water burns my skin but I slowly sink until I am completely immersed, my hair dancing around my face in slow motion. I close my eyes.

I hear a muffled knock on the door. When I re-emerge, my mum is folding my clothes, crouching on the bathroom floor. I rub the soap from my eyes and look at my toes that creep out of the suds, covered with plasters.

“How was class?” my mum asks.

“Tiring.”

“And this new guy Alex?”

“Too good.”

“Better than you?”

“Yes.”

My mum runs her fingers through my wet hair: “Should you practise more?”

“I already practise two hours every day. I also need to study.”

“But if you want to do the auditions for La Scala…”

The moonlight filters through the slats of the blind, striping her face. She takes my feet into her hands and rubs them gently.

“It’s my life not yours,” I say.

“Don’t talk to me like that.”

My mum wanted to be a ballerina but her family couldn’t afford to pay for her ballet classes. Once, I saw a photo of her dressed up in a light blue tutu, taking a bow in front of an invisible audience. The colours were faded and there was a blemish on the lower part of her face, so I couldn’t figure out whether she was smiling or not.

“I’m sorry, I’m just tired.”

“I’ll bring you something to eat.” She leaves the door slightly open, the light of the corridor illuminating the flowery tiles of the wall. I fall asleep in the cooling water, my head resting on the edge of the tub.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Alex and I rehearse two hours every day after my class with Maria. Emma supervises the choreography, sitting on a white plastic chair, swinging her head left and right to the rhythm. Alex does not seem to struggle with anything. I sweat too much, weigh too much, forget too much.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Some days Emma dances with Alex to show me what I do wrong. As they sway around the room in perfect harmony, they seem to hear each other’s thoughts, their steps echo in tune. I feel like an off-key note.

“We have to do this together, you know,” Alex says to me as we take a break, stretching at the barre. “It’s like finding a compromise.” I think that I’m not good at compromising but I nod.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

My horoscope says: “It is important for you to keep at least one foot on the ground, as powerful emotions are likely to take over the scene.” As Alex lifts my body in the air, his hands on my thighs, my back arched backwards to form a right angle with my hips, I wonder if the “foot on the ground” thing is physical or metaphorical. I start liking our practise, our stretching breaks, the cigarette he smokes before we go back home, hungry and exhausted.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

I learn that he is always a bit early with the tempo, that pirouettes are not his strength, but he jumps so high he seems to defy gravity. I learn that our bodies have a way of reading each other that slips beyond the things we tell – or fail to tell – each other. When my fingers brush against his shoulders I imagine I am opening windows, letting his light peek through the clouds.

When he runs after me, Emma repeats: “Cecilia is the direction you are going Alex! She is your path!”

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Emma hasn’t come to class today because her daughter is sick, so we have to practise without her. I look at Alex and myself in the mirror, at how his tattoos jar with my pale skin, his hair band that barely holds his curls back with my perfect chignon. The floor is dusty and covered in signs left by my pointes. We try the choreography until the sunshine does not come through the windows anymore, and we are left with the feeble light that comes from the bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

“I’d better go home for dinner,” I say as I put on my oversized sweater. Alex nods.

“Do you want me to walk you?” He has never asked me that before.

“That’d be nice.”

He smiles, picks up his bag. I open the door and, as I am about to walk out, he closes it from behind me, covering my hand with his. He kisses me, and I taste mint and smoke and remember when, as a child, I was looking at him with Camilla, wanting to be like her. I am like her now but I’m not sure it is a good thing.

*

On Saturday Sara insists that we go to a house party thrown by a boy from Anna’s high school. I drink too much beer, the kitchen table is sticky, and the people keep jumping in the swimming pool with their clothes on.

I love you like a love song baby. Anna and Sara drag me to the centre of the living room to dance. I look at them and copy their moves; the rhythm is repetitive and shallow but it’s nice to let go. And I keep hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat. Anna takes my hand and makes me spin; she doesn’t seem to hate me now, she looks beautiful in her leather dress, her curls loose. A tall boy comes up to me, offers me a plastic cup filled with wine. I, I love you like a love song baby.

“That’s Marco, he’s from my school, go and talk to him,” Sara whispers in my ear and pushes me towards him.

“So you’re a dancer,” Marco smiles, a bit awkwardly. He is wearing a nice, ironed shirt. I take the cup from his hand and gulp down the wine.

“Yes, but what I should really have been is a singer. Everyone kept saying it for years.”

“Wow. Really?” He sips from his drink. He seems more confident now, enjoying the idea of me singing for him.

“No. That was a joke. No one has ever told me that.”

He stares at me, confused, then laughs out loud. Before he can say anything, I feel the weight of someone’s arm across my chest and I turn and see Alex, a cigarette between his full lips, a wrinkled blue shirt looking too big on him. The music grows louder and Alex carries me outside, leaving Marco and his ironed shirt empty handed. The street is quiet and still.

“Let’s go home,” Alex says. He drops his cigarette, and I watch it glowing and bursting into sparks as it hits the ground. He drives me home, in silence. Re-peat-peat-peat-peat. The screen of my phone illuminates with Sara’s message: “you okay? Why did you leave?” I type: “practise tomorrow,” and wonder why I keep doing this, going to ballet classes, spending most of my days with people I don’t really like. I come to the painful realisation that I don’t have an answer.

Alex kisses me goodnight in front of my door, then drives away. From outside, I see my parents’ faces lit up in front of the television screen. I unlock the front door with difficulty, then walk up the stairs to my room. I hear the soft steps of my father’s slippers following me from the living room. I jump on my bed and hide under the sheets, my alcohol smelling clothes still on. My father’s head pops in, accompanied by a gentle knock.

“How was the party?”

“Fun.”

“Your mum is upset. The recital is in one week.”

“Tell her it’s fine.”

He nods. Doesn’t leave. It looks as if he is about to speak but then he closes my bedroom door behind him, and I am left alone in the dark.

*

I draw a big amount of brown eyeliner across Sara’s eyelids and smudge it with my fingertips, as we have run out of eye shadow. She is struggling to flatten her chest inside her bright red tutu.

“Can you stay still?” I ask.

“Why do I have big boobs?” she moans.

I spread some glitter on her cheeks and chest, then I fix my own headdress, whose orange and yellow feathers won’t stay in place. We are standing in a corner of the changing room, next to a harlequin costume that is hanging from the ceiling and keeps ticking our necks with its sleeves. The room is an explosion of colours, as girls and boys of every age walk around, trying to find space for their own bags and costumes, swearing whenever a hairpin falls and gets lost on the messy floor. Most of the older girls are stretching, leg warmers wrapped around their ankles and feet. The place smells of sweat and deodorant. The music that is playing upstairs, on the stage, is muffled by the buzzing that reigns backstage. Every now and then, the head of a ballet teacher pops in and tells us to lower our voices.

I crouch on the floor and close my eyes, focusing on the sound of Sara’s hands rifling through my make-up bag. I wonder where Alex is; he is late and I am meant to perform with him right after the dance with Sara and the other girls. I feel Sara’s fingertips finishing the touches of my winged eyeliner.

“You’re up next,” Maria’s voice comes from the stairs. I know she is talking to us, even before she walks down and repeats: “Cecilia, Sara you’re up next. Then I want Anna, Clara, Francesca, Paola! Quick!” She grasps Sara and me by the arms and drags us upstairs. We leave the changing room and enter the darkness of the stairs. We go past younger ballerinas who are already waiting in their yellow tutus, biting their nails. Emma’s husband is smoking by the door at the top of the stairs, keeping it open; the cold air makes me shudder and paranoid abut my muscles.

Maria speaks on my behalf: “Shut the door, Mario! Can’t you see they’re about to go on stage?” She keeps holding our arms, as if we weren’t able to walk by ourselves.

I stand behind the curtains with Sara, looking at the girls on the other side of the stage, as they twitch their hands and fix their shoulder straps and headdresses. Emma presents our choreography, a dance inspired by The Firebird with music by Igor Stravinsky. Then the audience applauds, and the lights go down.

My pointe shoes do not make any sound as I walk towards the centre of the stage with Sara, the other ballerinas spreading around us. I look up and smile; the light suddenly illuminates me, and the music starts playing. I stare at the upper part of the audience, where faces seem to melt into one another. My arms are wings, my fingers are light and long, my palms are speaking. When I jump near the curtains, I see Maria’s apprehensive face. She is counting to help us keep the rhythm. I finish the dance landing on my feet after an assemblè. The audience claps and shouts, I can see my mum’s proud face in the crowd; she is sitting in the front row.

We run backstage, and, in a second, a thousand hands are touching me, removing my tutu, working on my chignon and make up.

“She’s up next!” Maria says. Sound and light operators make room, pushing younger girls behind. Alex, already in his white costume, is stretching his neck with his eyes closed as if I wasn’t here. I stand half naked behind the curtains, trying to fit into my empire dress, as Maria wipes off my Firebird make up with a wet tissue. An assistant covers my cheeks in white foundation and my lips and cheekbones with red lipstick.

“The hair!” Maria removes the pins of my chignon, pulling the skin of my head. My eyes tear up but I have no time to recompose myself, as Maria pushes me towards the stage. I feel Alex’s hand into mine and I follow him.

There is only the two of us now, our bodies curved one on the other like two piled up spoons. We start dancing in the silence and our shoes echo on the floor, our breaths fill the air. We dance in circles, as if there was a revolving door between us, its glass never letting us touch each other. Then the music starts, his fingers grip mine, and I start doing my pirouettes. In a second, my neck paralyses. I lose my balance and fall; I feel Alex’s hands letting me go as I land on my ankle. A shooting pain makes me gasp. I try to stand up as gracefully as I can, but my leg cannot carry me and I fall again. I hear Maria’s whispers behind the curtains: “stop the music for fuck’s sake.” Silence, followed by Maria’s and Emma’s light steps on stage.

“I am sorry but we have to interrupt the recital, our ballerina has been injured, nothing serious, no need to worry.” Emma speaks into her microphone, and her words echo in the theatre. I raise my eyes and see the audience, all silent and staring back at me. One small figure detaches from the mass, the gracious silhouette of my mum, running towards the stage. She is wearing her best silk dress.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I whisper, as Maria and Alex lift me up and carry me backstage.

Back in the darkness of the curtains, the cold pavement is like freezing water against my back. My mum and Alex remove my ballet shoes, exposing my damaged feet that I don’t want anyone to look at.

“You’ll be alright,” Alex tells me.

*

The parking lot is empty in the early morning light, except for Maria’s light blue beetle car. I know I can always find her here in the morning; she prepares the choreographies before the afternoon classes. From the window of the ground floor, I see her standing at the barre, stretching her arms. I limp inside with my crutches.

“You look better,” Maria says when she sees me. There is a freshness in her face that I have never noticed, maybe it is the summer air or her blonde hair, always messily tied up, now loose and brushed.

“Last week before I can put these crutches away,” I smile.

“When do you finish your physical therapy?”

“Two more months.”

“So you can only do the winter recital. That’s fine. You can catch up with the choreographies afterwards, maybe you can come here every day after lunch, we’ll work together.” She speaks hastily, as if she was eager to make things go back to the way they were as fast as she can.

“I’m not coming back here,” I blurt it out all at once.

“What did you say?”

“I’m not coming back to classes in September,” I repeat.

“Why?”

“I want to focus on school, then try to go abroad for university.”

Maria takes a strand of my hair and smoothes it with her nervous touch.

“Think about it. You still have time to change your mind.”

“Yes,” I say, but I know I won’t. “Thanks for everything you have done for me. I’ll come back and visit.”

Maria seems to struggle with words.

“You are one of our best dancers,” she says.

“You have been a great teacher. You pushed us to our limits.” I turn around, the wooden floor creaking under my crutches.

Her voice follows me: “Alex says you haven’t been replying to his calls.”

“Say sorry to him from me. I’ll see him around, I guess.”

About the author

CostanzaCostanza Casati is a writer and screenwriter. After completing her Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick, she currently works as a freelancer journalist for the Canadian magazine HOLR and as a screenwriter for Erminio Perocco’s feature-length documentary about the 16th century Venetian painter Tintoretto. The first chapter of her historical novel has been published in Manifest: New Writing from Warwick and her short film Sguardi is available on Youtube.

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Book review: ‘Mumur’ by Will Eaves

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“I cannot help wondering if the real nature of mind is that it is unencompassable by mind, and whether that Godelian element of wonder – at something we know we have, but cannot enclose – may be the chief criterion of consciousness.” So opines the narrator early on in the latest terrific book from Will Eaves. Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into a world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence. What’s not to love?

Now when it comes to these topics, Eaves has touched upon these areas before – for instance, within The Inevitable Gift Shop. Yet here in Murmur he explores it with an astute intimacy from the perspective of an avatar, Alex Pryor, a character based on the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

It is not whether or not machines can think that is the main focus here; but rather, a potential inverse of the proposition – whether or not humans think like machines. Murmur is more concerned with the nature of human consciousness, how we come to be – whether we are pre-formed, destined to live pre-determined lives following a set of codes within our basic DNA, or if we are our own programmers (to stick with the computer theme).

As Turing himself argued in his seminal paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when asking the question ‘can machines think?’, it is firstly of critical importance to “begin with definitions of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’”. Determining whether or not something possesses artificial intelligence is not based on empirical fact, but rather, decision – the decision of the human beings setting the frames of reference for any AI test (the computer can play chess; can fool a human into believing they are conversing with another human; etc.). That a machine may ‘pass’ such parameters does not necessarily mean they have acquired genuine intelligence. As Noam Chomsky has argued, conversing with a computer shows only that a piece of software can be programmed to breakdown the codes of our language and repurpose them (as it has been told to do so by a human programmer). This is not intelligence; but parroting.

Yet the notion of conversing with a machine opens up linguistic questions and challenges. Numerous pieces of research have shown that language not only shapes our culture – but also shapes and manipulates our personalities. Language programmes us, in that sense. With this in mind – and considering the subject of Eaves’s book – the Turing test, which has for so many years been the gold standard of measuring a machine’s intelligence, becomes even more central to the core of Murmur. By choosing to frequently adopt a conversational style within his writing, the reader must begin to question the formal structure of the novel, and their relationship with both the words on the page, and the characters within it. Are we, as readers, engaged in a Turing test of our own? Asked without directly being asked to assess whether we are in conversation with machine or man; or, more simply, whether we are able to assess for ourselves what does and does not have consciousness? Do characters feel, if their actions and thoughts on a page make us as readers feel? Are books themselves alive, if they contain within them what looks, feels and appears for all intents and purposes to be consciousness?

These questions of course invite further questions. For instance, is it mere coincidence that formally, there are times Murmur’s structure resembles some of the (at first) seemingly disconnected pieces of text – memories, questions, letters, and so on – that might be produced by some of the ‘AI’ writing programmes that have been developed in recent years? Coincidence perhaps; yet the fragmentary nature of the novel certainly asks us to think about the ways our own ‘intelligence’ – or consciousness – is structured.

We like to think of ourselves as straight thinking, coherent and logical beings despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no clearer feature of the mind than its willingness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts. Our memories inevitably have gaps within them. Our focus can so easily be lost to distraction. Thoughts and memories pop up seemingly at random. A innocuous smell or sense of touch can make us involuntarily recall feelings and thoughts both good and bad; as well as those we have suppressed.

Life and consciousness are not logical (though they can of course be assessed and reviewed with logic). And this is one of the many things that Murmur does so well – it is, by its very nature, both an accurate representation of consciousness and human experience, as well as a thorough, logical analysis of these things. Through Alex Pryor, Eaves has developed a protagonist through which we may see these inherently complex ideas more simply.

This would be a triumph in itself; yet Eaves goes further – creating characters that are not simply tools through which we may explore high-level concepts, but through whom we empathise with, laugh with, and love with.

Perhaps this last part is the most important (as it so often is with a good novel). For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.

Not to be published for 100 years: Man Booker prize winning novelist Han Kang is the latest author to join the Future Library project

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You will have to wait a century before you are able to read Han Kang’s Future Library submission. 

Man Booker prize-winning novelist Han Kang has been named as the fifth writer to contribute to the Future Library project – a 100 year artwork that will see her work unpublished until 2114.

Han Kang joins Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjón, and Elif Shafak as the latest writer to contribute to the public artwork, which was first conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson.

In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Paterson said there was a familial bond between the authors involved in the project:

“I think there is a thread that connects all the authors together. There is this almost familial bond that we create with them. Like a family tree, and each author follows in the footsteps of the one before and through the annual ceremony we do create a chain of people who are connected through time and through the trees.”

Speaking about Han Kang joining the project, Paterson said:

“Han Kang expands our view of the world. Her stories are disquieting and subversive, exploring violence, cruelty, fleeting life, and the acceptance of human fragility. As 2018’s author, Han Kang makes us confront uncomfortable issues: injustice, pain, mourning and remembering; a shared loss of trust in humankind, alongside the belief in human dignity. She leads us into the very heart of human experience, with writing that is deeply tender, and transformative. I believe her sentiments will be carried through trees, received decades from now, still timeless.”

An entire forest planted to make books

As part of the project, one thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years’ time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.

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A path through the Nordmarka forest – where the footsteps of authors past, present and future will follow. Photo by  Kristin von Hirsch

Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Future Library project, spoke to Nothing in the Rulebook about the ethos behind the artwork:

“Projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.”

“Pray for the fates of both humans and books”

Speaking about joining the project, Han Kang said:

“My first impression of the concept of Future library, was that it was a project about time. It deals with the time scope of one hundred years. In Korea, when a couple gets married, people bless them to live together ‘for one hundred years’. It sounds like almost an eternity.

I can’t survive one hundred years from now, of course. No-one who I love can survive, either. This relentless fact has made me reflect on the essential part of my life. Why do I write? Who am I talking to, when I write? Then I imagined a world, where no-one I love exists any longer. And in that world, the trees in Norway still exist, who I once met when I was alive. The clear gap of the lifespan between humans and trees struck me. This meditation is so strong that it has the power to directly open our eyes to the impermanence of our mortal lives and all the more precious fragility of our lives.

Ultimately, Future Library deals with the fate of paper books. I would like to pray for the fates of both humans and books. May they survive and embrace each other, in and after one hundred years, even though they couldn’t reach eternity…”

Safe storage

All one hundred manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in the new Oslo Public Library opening in 2020. Intended to be a space of contemplation, this room – designed by the Katie Paterson alongside a team of architects – will be lined with wood from the Nordmarka forest. The authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but none of the manuscripts will be available for reading until their publication in one century’s time. No adult living now will ever know what is inside the boxes, other than that they are texts of some kind that will withstand the ravages of time and be  available in the year 2114.

Han Kang will hand over her manuscript in the Norwegian forest on Saturday 25 May 2019, everyone is welcome.

Creatives in profile: interview with Justin Sullivan

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Justin Sullivan

Justin Sullivan is a singer and songwriter; the founding member and lead singer of New Model Army. Formed in 1980 to play two gigs, 14 studio and four live albums later they are still going strong, releasing Winter in 2016, and currently touring South America. He also has two solo albums, and is part of Red Sky Coven, in which he performs with Joolz Denby and Rev. Hammer.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself – your background and your lifestyle.

SULLIVAN

I never tell too much about myself. It’s all out there if people really want to know…

INTERVIEWER

Music or writing as a first love – which came first, and how do they coexist in your output?

SULLIVAN

Music always came first. Like many people growing up, music made sense of the world and the mysteries of life and experience when nothing else did. I found that I had an ability to shape ideas and words later. Their coexistence is a tricky issue for me – how much precision and meaning to sacrifice for the sake of the song as a whole is a constant question. I love the ‘ideas stage’ of song-writing; that’s the easy bit – but the actual construction of songs is just a question of ‘putting the hours in’.

INTERVIEWER

Who and/or what inspires you?

SULLIVAN

Anything, everything. Things I see, read, stories that other people tell me. I try not to write too much about my own life and experiences; many songs begin with ‘I’ but really they are other people’s stories.

INTERVIEWER

You have often told of your love of being “by, in, or on the water”, and much of your work details this love. Where does this love stem from, and how does it inform your writing?

SULLIVAN

There is a physical sensation of communion when swimming in the sea or rivers because the water is moving around you, with you, almost like another sentient being. I also think that constant change is the principle of life but while forests and mountains and seasons are changing they’re not really happening in our time scale. The movement of waves and tides is much more something we can relate to.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a writing practice/system/habit?

SULLIVAN

The way we write songs is to have two cupboards. One is marked musical ideas – like drumbeats, chord sequences, bits of melody, bass-lines, jam sessions, anything collected from all members of the band. The other is marked lyrical ideas and at all time I have notebooks with me in which I write – sometimes just a line or idea, sometimes a whole story or rambling thought. When both cupboards are full I sit down and start to put things together; it’s important to wait until both cupboards are full and not be stuck in a studio scratching heads looking for inspiration. If you’ve got enough in storage the process becomes pretty easy  – again just a question of ‘putting the hours in’.

INTERVIEWER

Your writing work is sometimes cited as poetry – is there a significant difference between the poetry and lyrics in your mind, and if so, what is or are the differences?

SULLIVAN

I think there is a difference. Poetry (or at least good poetry) can have a certain musicality but it doesn’t have to be sung. The rise and fall of words can be altered by the person reading. In song-writing the melodic rises and falls are fixed and have to be right.

INTERVIEWER

Your lyrics are syntactically coherent throughout each song, and many convey full and detailed stories and sentiment. Many musicians write music first, fitting the vocal line, and thus the lyric, to the melody. What is your practice, and how does it affect the writing of lyrics, and the evolution of a song?

SULLIVAN

Mostly (though not always) I write in a recognisable form of structured verses, choruses, breaks etc into which I have to fit lyrical ideas as best I can, which takes more work and involves more hard choices.

INTERVIEWER

You and Robert Heaton worked closely with writer Joolz Denby, putting music to her poetry for several of her albums. In terms of composing music for lyrics/poetry, what do you think is most important to keep in mind?

SULLIVAN

I have done a few albums with Joolz – as have other musicians. These are particularly attractive projects because her poetry usually has a strong narrative, which allows music to be built around it – almost like a film soundtrack. On top of this she has an outstandingly musical reading voice (she once worked with a very famous Canadian jazz pianist who said it was like working with a jazz singer). We begin with the poem of course but can spend so long on the music that it’s important not to forget that in the end it’s still all about the poem…

INTERVIEWER

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

SULLIVAN

No, never.

INTERVIEWER

Is language itself a love for you, or just a tool? What are your thoughts on fluidity and development of language in the age of “text speak” and emojis?

SULLIVAN

Yes, language is a fascination and I am in total admiration of certain poets and authors, but as I said at the beginning, it does come secondary to the music for me. I like the way language changes. I love text messages for their brevity and precision. I’m not especially quick-witted in conversation. So the chance to think for a minute before replying is welcome. I don’t hate emojis as some people often claim to. In wider social media (I don’t do Facebook but of course I’ve seen it often), they are essential. In normal every day human conversation we read each other’s faces as well as listen to words which is incredibly important to gauge what people really mean, whether they’re joking or not, whether they’re hurt or upset. Without this communication the possibilities for misunderstandings and the escalation of bad feeling is multiplied many times over; hence the development of emojis.

INTERVIEWER

How would you say your writing has changed through your career, and what have been the major influences on its development?

SULLIVAN

When I started, I felt a need to state positions, emotions. After the first few years, I’d done that and didn’t feel the need to repeat them. Instead it became interesting to tell stories, even those of people whom I don’t naturally agree with or find sympathetic. It goes without saying that Joolz has been the most major influence on my development as a writer but of course there have been many others too. As lyricists I really admire Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, lots of country and hip-hop artists all for their precision and poetry. Oh and many, many others.

INTERVIEWER

In Song To The Men Of England, you “co-write” with Percy Bysshe Shelly, and the social climate in the West is hugely polarised, monochromatic and angry right now – what are your thoughts on poetry and music as protest and documentation?

SULLIVAN

Well I wouldn’t say we co-wrote it. It was for a straightforward political project – I can’t remember whose idea it was to use the Shelley poem, probably Joolz’s, and we created some music that fit with her reading. Political poetry and music rarely change people’s minds but what they can do is give focus and clarity to a half-thought and, most importantly, make people aware that they’re not alone in how they feel about the World. This is incredibly important. We’ve really felt a new electrical charge at our concerts in the last 5 years or so – as if people NEED this music more than ever and the sense of community that it creates.

INTERVIEWER

When we last met, you were telling me of how you’d found a proper original punk rock recording studio in Bradford, that you were looking forward to going to. Has that bourn fruit, and if so, what and when should we expect?

SULLIVAN

A long time ago now. ‘Winter’ was made there and so will at least part of whatever we do next.

 

Are your darlings dead yet?

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Variations on the well-worn phrase “kill your darlings” have been handed down in writing workshops and guides for decades. Precisely who first coined the term is a matter of some debate, with it being attributed variously to Oscar Wilde, Chekov, G.K. Chesterton, William Faulkner and Allen Ginsberg. It has also been popularised by Stephen King, who wrote: “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

But who said what exactly and when isn’t what’s important. What matters is the advice behind it is as good as it ever has been: because it’s true.

“Killing your darlings” offers three main benefits to your work. It can:

1) Enhance your characters and plot, cutting the bits (and people) who don’t quite fit – making your story more compelling
2) Improve the overall quality of your writing, meaning that your reader doesn’t have to drudge through laborious or self-indulgent prose to get at what you’re trying to say
3) Refine your self-discipline, so that you don’t keep wondering why the 3000 page manuscript you keep submitting to agents gets rejected all the time

What to kill…we mean, cut

Killing your darlings is one of the easiest ways to improve your novel. It’s a crucial part of the editing process. Here’s a short list of what you should be getting rid of.

Weak Characters. Those without strong personalities or purpose. Do they enhance your plot or affect your protagonists or antagonists? If not – you better get-a-murdering.

Unnecessary Plot Lines. Will your novel still work just as well even if you don’t have that sub-plot with the casino and the bank heist organised by some minor characters? If yes – then, you guessed it, it’s murdering time.

Note for an example of an unnecessary plot line – see Star Wars Episode VIII: The last Jedi

Pointless Metaphors and Similes. Sometimes we feel like going even further and just saying – cut all these out.

Backstory. If it isn’t plot – cut it out.

Unnecessary Scenes. As with extra plot lines; if the scene doesn’t cut the mustard, get your killing game on.

Bad sex scenes. We have an entire web-page dedicated to this topic. Too many authors (and agents and publishers) seem to think it necessary to include sex scenes so that people will read their book. But if you’ve just stuck a sex scene in there like a bad lover, or if your execution and technique is poor, it’s time to get killing again.

Fluff. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, your novel is nothing more than fanfare. Don’t hide behind unnecessary elements that will put your readers off.

Are you killing yet?

If the above hasn’t got you thinking about what might need to be cut from the work you’re currently writing, perhaps some sage advice on the power of the delete key from some of the finest writers will convince you to start murdering your beautiful little darlings.

Anne Carson – “Edit ferociously and with joy, it is very fun to delete stuff.”

Arthur Quiller-Couch – “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings”.

Ernest Hemingway – “Revision takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty… Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much”.

Zadie Smith – “When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second — put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal — but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.”

Truman Capote – “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Kurt Vonnegut – “Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

Helen Dunmore – “Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.”

 

 

Handwriting: famous signatures and what they mean

cursive handwriting

Handwriting is truly a fascinating thing. Every single detail about each of our personal handwriting style has a specific purpose and meaning, and each is unique to us as individuals.

Some people’s handwriting and signatures are rife with loops, slants and extra adornments, while others are straight, toned-down, and more modest.

Even more fascinating is what handwriting can reveal about our personal lives.

The team behind Invaluable created a really neat infographic that details famous signatures and the meanings behind them. From Edgar Allen Poe to Picasso, the details expose truly interesting information about the way each lived and operated.

Check it out below!

Virginia Woolf signature

TS Eliot signature

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Shakespeare signature

Check out the full list of 14 famous signatures via Invaluable

About the author of this post

Emma WelshEmma Welsh is a writer at Invaluable.com, the world’s leading online market place for fine art, antiques and collectibles. You can see more of her and her colleagues’ work at https://www.invaluable.com/blog

Dr Chuck Tingle’s writing tips for writers

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Good writing advice is hard to find. We’ve previously compiled various collections of writing tips from some of literature’s greatest minds; but we’re always looking to go one step further. As writers and creatives, our learning is built on the mentoring and advice of our peers and our mentors. The imparted knowledge they can share with us part of a long-standing tradition within the arts of helping one another to express ourselves.

Of course, the best type of writing advice is that which transcends the topic and becomes advice not just to inspire our best creative work; but also becomes advice by which we can live by, day-to-day.

Where can one find such advice, we hear you ask? Well, right here in this article, friendos!

In April 2018, we were honoured to interview Dr Chuck Tingle as part of our ‘Creatives in Profile’ series. The Hugo Award-shortlisted author of Space Raptor Butt Invasion and My Billionaire Triceratops Craves Gay Ass, and self-proclaimed as the “greatest author in the world” during one of the most incredible Reddit AMAs to date,  Dr Chuck Tingle provided some tip-top advice to keep in mind when writing a book (and it doesn’t have anything to do with word counts). He explained:

“most important thing to keep in mind when making all things as ARTISTIC BUCKAROO is to prove love that is only thing that matters really everything else is just decoration. there are so many ways to prove love so there are lots of options, but it is very important to REMEMBER that only rule for all layers of the tingleverse is that love is real this is consistant across all timelines.”

On the subject of creativity, and what it means to be creative, Tingle opines:

“being creative is just being yourself and trotting with YOUR OWN unique way. just waking up in the morning and stetching your bones is creative because every moment is making infinate timelines. you are so powerful in your way because for every decision there are so many new worlds spinning off and if that isnt dang creative i dont know what is thanks”

 

10 writing tips from Dr Chuck Tingle

Alongside his other timeless advice for writers, creatives, and just all-round human beings – Tingle also provided us with a short list of more prescriptive pieces of advice for writers. Read them below:

  1. drink chocolate milk buddy not that sick water throw that out
  2. you are important and so is your way. this is already a story that can be told
  3. the void is not worth your curiostiy
  4. listen to your buds
  5. there is something to learn from traditional horseplay and there is something to be learned from modern trots. respect both
  6. dont try to tell people what art is you will always be wrong
  7. there is not very much that separates you from a big timers sometimes it is hard work and sometimes it is luck but its almost never talent
  8. spend time with your family
  9. have gratitude if you dont youll look like a goofball and youll feel like one too
  10. prove love always

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…”

 

 

 

 

Ever wanted to own your own bookstore? Now you can!

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Attention all book lovers! Ever wanted to own your own bookstore? Well, now you can – and through a writing competition, no less!

From My Shelf is a small, independently owned bookstore in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, USA. Year round, they welcome in-store shoppers to browse the more than 60,000 new and gently used books that they have in stock at any given time. They also host regular writing and book-themed events.

And now, they are offering you the chance to own the store and run it yourself. What’s more, it comes totally rent free for the first six months!

All you have to do is explain, in 250 words or fewer, why bookstores are important to the community. No business experience is necessary, and there’ll be no credit check or monetary deposite required. All you need to do is pay your US$75 entry fee and submit your 250 word piece (the money will be returned to you if you win, or if less than 4000 people enter, in which case there is no winner).

The grand prize includes 60,000 books, 6 months’ free rent, an in-place staff and free consultation from current owners Kevin and Kasey Coolidge. The deadline is March 31, 2018, and entry details can be found at wellsborobookstore.com.

Nothing in the Rulebook’s Professor Wu says: “What’s not to love about this competition? In a world that so often appears to be ripping itself apart at the seams, in an era of massive globalization and corporatized capitalism, the relationship among readers, writers, publishers, independent booksellers is vital today, in an era in which it’s more important than ever to support community. When you think about all the ways in which an independent bookstore has impacted your life, don’t forget: we are as important to them as they are for us.”

While you’re here, why not check out some of the other fantastic prizes on offer to writers through our writing competitions page?

Author’s incomes continue to fall as literary fiction sales collapse

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At the start of 2016, Nothing in the Rulebook reported that authors’ incomes had collapsed to “near abject” levels – with professional writers earning on average just £11,000 a year.

Now, the trend seems to have accelerated, with a new report finding that a “collapse” in sales of literary fiction had seen advanced paid to writers diminish even further – meaning ever fewer authors were able to support themselves through their craft alone.

Indeed, the authors of the report, commissioned by Arts Council England, note that the shifts in the dynamics of the publishing industry have fundamentally changed the entire model on which writers previously built their careers.

The traditional model of writing could be said to begin with an author penning a masterful manuscript, subsequently being discovered by a powerful agent who lands said author an enormous book deal with a large advance. This supplies the necessary funding for the writer to pen further masterful manuscripts, with the same effect, all the while as their book sales continue to supplement their income. And so on ad infinitum.

Yet as 98% of writers report falling advances – with some noting cuts falling dramatically from over £50,000 per book to less than £5,000 – it seems this fall in writerly wages directly correlates with a collapse in sales of literary fiction.

Indeed, analysis of sales data from Nielsen BookScan found that hardback book sales slumped by £10 million between 2007 and 2001, with paperback sales falling even more dramatically – falling by over £40 million between 2011 and 2012 alone.

And, where once the book sales of ‘established’ or ‘major’ literary names could be relied on to supplement publisher’s investment in new or emerging writers, even these can no longer provide the financial support publishers need to sign on new talent.

Within the last 10 years, the only literary works to have sold more than 1 million copies include Atonement by Ian McEwan, the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, the Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Last year’s best selling novel was Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which sold 187,000 copies – roughly half the number of 2015’s best selling novel, Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.

As this collapse precipitates a further fall in income for new writers, the authors of the report note: “Outside of the top 1,000 authors (at most), printed book sales alone simply cannot provide a decent income. While this has long been suspected, the data shows unambiguously that it is the case. … What’s more, this is a generous assessment. After the retailer, distributor, publisher and agent have taken their cut, there won’t be a lot of money left from 3,000 sales of the 1,000th bestselling title. That we are returning to a position where only the best-off writers can support themselves should be a source of deep concern.”

So, what is to be done?

The image of the struggling – perhaps even starving – artist is one that is now so stereotypical as to be cliché. And while we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have tried subsisting on a carefully balanced diet of hopes and dreams, it’s fair to say it can leave a certain ache in the stomach.

With the trend in falling book sales and incomes continuing at pace, it seems as though aspiring writers must look to supplement their endeavours with funds from elsewhere.

Such is the current state of affairs that the authors of the report note that the traditional model and dream of a writing career “is now severely challenged. If you want to be on the inside of those networks and live in London, a £13,000 advance, spread over several years of work, won’t cut the mustard. Writers must, for better or worse, take on more financial risk in order to write.”

While the most obvious course of action may be to look at taking on a full or part-time job, such a decision may not necessarily be the best for one’s own writing. As Charles Bukowski put it: “To not to have entirely wasted one’s life working, seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.”

But perhaps in the digital age, old challenges can be met with new solutions. For instance, Crowdfunding projects can see writers’ dreams become realities – such as Josh Spiller’s exciting new speculative fiction project, The 8th Emotion, which has received through crowdfunding the necessary financial backing that is perhaps no longer there to be found via traditional publishing models.

Indeed, as the print publishing industry appears to rely ever more on sales from cookbooks than literary fiction, aspiring writers may need to seek ever more imaginative ways to get their (much needed) new ideas and writing out there.