Writing And Reading In A Digital Age

tlc2 "These are the best of times and the worst of times," declared Robert McCrum. He paused, then added to wry laughter: "They are very confusing times."

Confusing, yes; cataclysmic, no. The attitude from both speakers and audience at Writing In A Digital Age, The Literary Consultancy's second annual conference, distinctly implied that the days of Chicken Licken are over; it's time to focus on action and leave the apocalypse to the journalists. In a session reviewing the past year's mergers, mistakes and mass-market mega-successes, Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at Random House, quoted Churchill. "This isn't the beginning of the end. It's the end of the beginning."

Both keynotes, from McCrum and Audrey Niffenegger, were bracingly optimistic about the current juncture in publishing's turbulent history. Niffenegger's review of the evolution of typography, set against her own journey from craft-obsessed book artist to seven-million-copy-bestselling author, posited that our new digital ecosystem is dissolving boundaries in an unprecedented way. As a professor at Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, as well as a prolific graphic novelist, illustrator and, most recently, collaborator with choreographer Wayne McGregor on Raven Girl for the Royal Ballet, she confided that "the word interdisciplinary lets you get away with a lot". Yes, the ebook is still in its clumsy infancy, just as the Gutenberg Bible aped the look of early manuscripts, but the book community is incredibly robust and self-sustaining. Allow time for the artists to catch up with the technology, she said, and in the meantime, stop worrying so much.

While Niffenegger focused on form, McCrum made a rallying call for content. In our "golden age of reading", he believes, readers still care most about compelling stories. Quality, original writing, rather than esoteric technological dabbling, is more important than ever before. He too called on the past to provide a sense of perspective, reminding aspiring authors that writing has never been free or easy, but often mortally dangerous. We need to take a longer view of progress - there were, after all, 50 years of novelistic drought between Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe - and focus on the language and ideas that are urgently meaningful to us now. If he were 25 today, McCrum claimed, he could think of no better place to be than independent publishing.

Of course, the debates that ran across the two days of this excellently curated event still contained plenty of juicy angst. McCrum's emphasis on the reader was particularly refreshing because, in all the conversation about author services, publishing strategies and interdisciplinary doodahs, the ultimate audience had a tendency to get obscured. The Collaborative Force panel, in which the Writing Platform's Kate Pullinger, Watershed's Jo Lansdowne and Media Futures' Nico MacDonald presented case studies of projects "pushing the boundaries of technology and narratives" - including the community novel Wiki A Million Penguins, the Neil Gaiman-backed Bristol-based narrative These Pages Fall Like Ash, and Microsoft's IE-ad-come-interactive-story Brandon Generator - provoked reactions ranging from silent meh to open animosity, as the Independent's Christina Patterson accused the panelists of peddling over-subsidised, underwhelming "posh art".

For me, the pressing question revolved around the degree to which these innovations truly improve on the core reader experience. The act of reading has always been subversive precisely because it requires - and perhaps depends upon - zero intervention from institutions, benevolent or otherwise. Our private imaginations are inherently anti-social and tricky to monetise. Most current digital collaborations appear to give more creative power and pleasure to their writers and designers (not to mention revenue and/or data to their sponsors) than to their readers. Do we really need our eyes and limbs guided by online prompts or offline ARGs, when for centuries we've created far more weird, wonderful and personally relevant "contextual content" in our heads? I can't help but think of my two-year-old niece, who still invariably prefers a cardboard box to a shiny plastic thing with buttons and beeps.

Steve Bohme's robust research from Bowker, on how readers are consuming and discovering self-published books, was a welcome corrective. Sure, the results were largely unsurprising. In 2012, self-publishing comprised 12 per cent of overall ebook purchases, with over 20 per cent coming from genre fiction such as crime, SF, romance and humour. Books were mainly found via browsing in subject, recommendation and offer sections online, and bought by older, prolific female readers, mainly on the merits of their price and blurb. But the very predictability of the findings was a sharp reminder of how out of touch traditional publishing can be with what free-range readers really want. It also touched on a second theme of the conference: value.

TLC's tagline is "literary values in a digital age", and in a panel of the same name Sally O-J, TLC editor and Sarah Waters' beloved first reader, mounted a spirited defence of the much-derided sphere of fan fiction. Yes, much fan fic is derivative dross, but it also exposes an alternative canon which, whether we like it or not, is inspiring hundreds of thousands of readers to grow their own. Take the example, O-J suggested, of the online popularity of slash fiction. Most agents would snort at the idea that heterosexual women have a voracious appetite for stories centred on gay male relationships, and would immediately consign such a manuscript to the bin. But by working with raw new authors to help refine their literary skills, and established ones to broaden their notion of the zeitgeist, might we approach a middle-ground between elitism and amateurism that could breed an interesting and profitable new wave of literature?

Considering value from the angle of money rather than morality, Dr Alison Baverstock made another insightful point in Saturday's self-publishing masterclass. There was much talk throughout the conference about pricing and the pros and cons of Amazon's KDP Select and Daily Deal services. Baverstock pointed out that publishers, who usually get all of their books for free, often underestimate how much people are willing to pay for quality work. Self-published author and SEO consultant Chris McVeigh agreed, insisting that he would never give his book away for free on a commercial platform. Perhaps, if we all believed more literally in the value of literature, and more strongly in the goodwill of readers - Niffenegger's self-sustaining book community - our literary values might not feel quite so compromised by the digital age.

On a lighter note, the two more performative sessions in the conference were as exhilarating and moving as ever. Canon Tales, nine seven-minute, Pecha Kucha-style talks where some of the UK's top literary and digital players used 21 images to illustrate their influences, obsessions and hopes, and Pen Factor, in which six brave writers had their works-in-progress critiqued and judged live by a panel of agents and publishers, were a reassuring reminder of the heartfelt, personal passion and talent at the core of the literary ecosystem.

But my overriding feeling on Saturday night was that as a community of publishers, agents and writers we must, as TLC director and conference organiser Becky Swift put it, "pull our socks up". Rather than getting swept up in expensive experiments, we need to think less about ourselves, less about short-term gimmickry, and more about readers and words. We must listen harder and fail better, all with our eye on the timeless goal: to get damn good books out there, and get them read.

This article originally appeared on Bookbrunch.

Reading Lessons From A Two Year Old

ESME When I first found out that my sister was pregnant, I knew there were countless pleasures in store. Hot, squirmy cuddles. The DUPLO farm. Jelly.

But above all, I couldn’t wait for the reading. I longed to rediscover the stories I loved as a child, from Each Peach Pear Plum to Pippin and Pod. I wanted to be the one to start her on the adventure of a lifetime, helping her discover for herself the freedom and nourishment to be found between a pair of wipe-clean boards.

What I didn’t anticipate was the fact that, two years and nine months later, it was my niece that would be teaching me. Sure, grown-up literature demands subtlety that a toddler can’t appreciate. But I soon realized that a lifetime of accumulated reading habits had derailed some basic instincts that were still strong in a box-fresh mind. Thanks to Esme, I’ve learnt some sharp lessons about how to be a better reader. Here are five of the best.

Be less forgiving

Kids are ruthless. At an age when the real world is as magical and mysterious as any fictional fantasyland, it takes a seriously compelling story to keep them on your lap. Forget subtle undercurrents and enlightening metaphors; if a book doesn’t hook them quick and deep, they’re off. And although there is much to be said in literature for the difficult and the digressive, I have realized that I am far too accepting of self-indulgent authors. Why shouldn’t a book have backbone as well as beauty? Why do I condemn my own failing attention span rather than a writer’s lack of skill in keeping me hooked?  I have determined to abandon my ridiculous rule of finishing every book I start, ploughing through languorous, critically acclaimed crap that seems to posit that plots are for plebs. There are too many genuinely good novels waiting to be read, and the DUPLO cow is missing again. Priorities have changed.

Read aloud

Why on earth do we stop doing it? As any editor knows, reading aloud is an unbeatable test of quality. Sentences that look fine on the page become claggy in the mouth. Repetitive words and grammatical structures drum an unwelcome rhythm into the listener’s ear. Lapses in pace, clumsy similes and unbelievable dialogue all explode on contact with the air. Conversely, writers who treat their words like notes in a symphony shine anew; step forward, F Scott Fitzgerald and Alice Munro. And the bond created by companionable reading shouldn’t just be reserved for kids. On a torrential Tuscan honeymoon, my husband and I took turns reading Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap during long, misty car journeys and foamy hotel-room baths. Not only did it prevent us from spending our time together but apart, locked into separate fictional worlds, it provided delicious fuel for discussion and speculation over our subsequent pasta and wine.

Move. Laugh. Scream.

Sometimes, an incident or passage in a novel is so shocking, moving or funny you just want to share. The end of Engleby. The opening of Earthly Powers. The rat scene in American Psycho. So why do adult readers sit, silent and tingling, when a two year old would shriek or clap or cry? Well, sure, we don’t want to be thought irritating or insane, especially if we’re on the tube. But in the privacy of our own homes, might we not lose control now and again? Punch the air when Lizzie Bennett tells Catherine de Bourgh where to go? Roll on the floor, weeping and vomiting, at a Dan Brown metaphor? And hell, once in a while, why not let rip in public too? I will never forget the woman I saw sitting in a Soho café, crying with laughter over her copy of collected PG Wodehouse. She made my day.

Re-read

I am a reluctant re-reader. With so many books to read and so little time, it seems positively irresponsible. But I cannot deny that much of the pleasure of Room On The Broom or An Evening At Alfie’s comes from their familiarity, each word turned over and over until the narrative nap is worn soft as silk. This has inspired me to go back and catch up with some old friends - Catch-22 and Madame Bovary are first on the list – but also to take more time over new ones. Children don’t just have favourite books, but favourite pages, too, which they will linger over and stroke. For grown-ups, re-reading arresting lines or paragraphs can reveal complexities and delights skimmed over in the first pass. It’s also a brilliant training for writers, encouraging us to root around for the mechanics beneath the bonnet.

Short is underrated

The recent popularity of doorstop tomes such as Game of ThronesWolf Hall and Dominion, abetted by the rise of the eReader, has somewhat thrown the joys of shorter fiction into the shade. But toddler-length tales provide a welcome reminder that fewer pages can have a disproportionately powerful effect. Apparently, May is Short Story Month in the US. In celebration, Flavorwire has asked a series of acclaimed short story authors to recommend their favourites, and over on Huff Post, Scott Borch has been talking to Random House’s Ann Kingman about why 2013 is ‘the year of the short story.’ I’m on the hunt for my old Chekov collection; what’s more, I might just have a chance of finishing one before the beast wakes up.

This article originally appeared in Bookdiva.

Flush Fiction

Menopause The coming of age novel is one of our most popular and powerful literary genres. From The History of Tom Jones to TwilightThe Catcher in the Rye to Carrie, we never tire of watching tender little Homo Sapiens get plunged into the boiling cauldron of life, and no wonder. Stories are based on conflict, and innocence v experience is the oldest and darkest fist-fight of them all.

But bildungsroman aren’t restricted to the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The German word simply means ‘novel of formation’, and the male mid-life crisis novel, a study of that second, mirror-adolescence from adulthood to old age, is a rich contemporary theme. Ian McEwan’s 2005 James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner Saturday and his 2010 success Solar; Howard Jacobson’s 2010 Booker-winning The Finkler Question; and Julian Barnes’ 2011 winner The Sense of An Ending all focus on men who watch their careers and sex lives shrivel from over the burgeoning curve of their guts.

So it makes sense that novels addressing the menopause should be rife. After all, although men and women both have to reorient their identities as they age, the physical, emotional and symbolic power of the female ‘change’ is unique. However, although there are plenty of fine literary books about women at ‘that time of life’ - Anne Tyler, Margaret Drabble and Elizabeth Buchan are three mistresses of the art – they seem strangely wary of focusing on the process itself. And the few menopause-specific novels out there - US author Nancy's Thayer's chick-lit series The Hot Flash Club, Anne Kleinberg's 2011 Menopause in Manhattan - can hardly be set against the male-centric prize-winners above.

Non-fiction writers aren’t so shy; Jane Shilling’s 2012 memoir The Stranger In The Mirror is an intimate exploration of her shifting self-image, while Marie de Hennezel’s bestselling The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting is a life-affirming rallying call. So why are novelists so reluctant to anatomise the menopause?

It was a question raised by John Sutherland at this year’s Oxford Literary Festival. In a session on sex and marriage in literature, Sutherland admitted that when he read Elaine Showalter’s introduction to the 1991 Penguin Classic edition of Mrs Dalloway, and discovered that Woolf intended the novel as an exploration of the menopause, it was a rewarding revelation.

When Woolf says of her heroine that “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street” or that “often now this body she wore […[, this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing – nothing at all”, it seems incredible that we could ever miss the allusions. And that’s without understanding contemporary attitudes to the menopause, which further enrich and complicate Woolf’s themes of generational conflict, madness and suicide.

Consider too Mrs Bennett, the laughing stock of that other perennial set text, Pride and Prejudice. Like Mrs Dalloway, Mrs Bennett is portrayed as frivolous, fragile and painfully self-conscious, but if we see her as a woman in the first flush of menopause, our derisive dismissal of her character becomes more subtle and sympathetic. Those famous nerves – her husband’s nemeses - become the symptoms of a woman struggling to with deep biological shifts. Her obsession with her daughters’ sexual ripeness – akin to Clarissa’s ambivalent relationship with her 18-year old Elizabeth - becomes a poignant parallel to her own fertility, once rampant to a character-defining degree and now presumably defunct. Her energy and ambition in the face of her feminine redundancy make her admirable, as well as exasperating.

It is understandable that such interpretations might not have previously entered the compass of a male academic born in 1938. But I studied both novels for my A-Levels in 1999 and I‘d never been exposed to those ideas before I heard Sutherland speak. A bizarre Victorian squeamishness seems to have followed the canon into the modern curriculum. My teachers of literature were as uninterested in the menopause as modern authors who, theoretically unbound by the social taboos, still seem unwilling to put it centre stage.

Last year’s study by the Associated Press found that women read almost twice the number of books as men, and account for a clear majority of the fiction market. A full-on menopause Wetlands might have a limited audience, but a deep literary exploration of this iconic and inevitable life event could be a huge commercial hit. Is the lack of it evidence of a lingering social stigma? Does the lack of interest come from authors, publishers or readers? Or have I missed a wealth of unabashed menopause bildungsroman? Set me straight!

This article originally appeared in Bookdiva.

3 Ways To Celebrate The Future Of Books

Futurebooking Do you love to talk about publishing innovation but realise that you behaviour as a reader has barely changed? Are you truly creating, or just 'being creative', online? Do you find that the opportunities for writers in social media essentially boil down to shinier and more addictive ways to procrastinate? Ah, Pinterest. Sweet Pinterest and your gleaming cornucopia of aspirational kitchen loft spaces.

I've always been deeply excited about how digital is changing how we write, read, publish and talk about stories, but I am even more excited now the conversation has moved beyond those boring either/or scaremongering polarities. Now that we've established that The Author, Journalism, God and All Hope are Totes Dead, we can get on with talking about the good stuff. Like how and if we are personally, daily, experiencing change. Like which technologies, tools and approaches have genuinely made us more productive, imaginative and skilled.

In short, now that we've accepted that the Queen Mother is going to ride back to earth on a super-asteroid, cackling maniacally as she rips pages from precious old folios and destroys us all in a massive fireball, we can settle down and share the fascinating, fallible, ever-changing paths we are all learning to navigate in our hybrid on-off, augmented-real, socio-introverted world.

Here are three great ways in which that sharing is going to happen this year.

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The first is the recent beta launch of The Writing Platform, "a website and program of live events dedicated to arming writers with digital knowledge" founded by two brilliant women, Joanna Ellis (ex-Faber and Simon & Shuster) and Kate Pullinger (writer and Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University) with support from Bath Spa Uni, the National Lottery and Arts Council England.

Not only does it feature a fantastic range of articles, from Margaret Atwood explaining why you need on online presence, to yours truly busting 10 common social media myths for writers, The Writing Platform is offering a bursary which will partner writers and technologists in an attempt to break down barriers and generate some inter-disciplinary magic. This sort of free, energetic and wide-thinking community is just what writers need more of, so visit the site, keep an eye out for events, apply to the bursary and start, well, generating some inter-disciplinary magic.

Second is Write The Future, a one-day micro-conference of creative short talks on the transformative power of science, technology, communication and speculative fiction, coming up in May. Driven by The Arthur C Clarke Award (the prestigious British award presented annually for the best science fiction novel of the year) in association with the Royal Society, it promises to be a stimulating mashup of writers, publishers, scientists, advertisers, trend forecasters and mutli-ilk curious creatives.

I'll be presenting a keynote called Don't Feed The Lizard Brain: Surviving the Social Media Comedown, focusing on three questions which will both examine where we are right now with social media and prompt us to tweak our direction for the future: Are we innovating? Are we connecting? Are we creating? In the evening there will be a dinner and presentation of The Arthur C Clarke Award, which, with recent winners including Jane Rogers, Lauren Beukes and China Miéville, is unfailingly controversial. #WTF13 is currently fundraising on Kickstarter so grab the chance now to scoop some tickets, with some great benefits such as free consultancy and a copy of the award anthology for those who want to dig a little deeper.

Finally, June will see the return of Writing In A Digital Age, the annual two-day conference from The Literary Consultancy, the UK's top specialists in assessing and editing manuscripts. Last year's event was incredibly honest, nuanced and inspiring; I was particularly engaged by the themes of gender in the publishing industryhow to become a happy writer in an uncertain landscape, and the challenges of social media as a self-marketing tool. #TLC13 looks to be even better, with a keynote by Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveller's Wife; a review of the industry over past year with some of the UK's top agents, publishers and journalists; and sessions asking questions such as 'What are ‘literary values’ and how are they being challenged by technology?' and 'Self-publishing off the peg: does one size fit all?'

I'll be one of the speakers taking part in Canon Tales, a short series of rapid-fire presentations from people working in the intersection between literature and digital, alongside the likes of Sam Missingham from The Bookseller/FutureBook and Bill Thompson from the BBC. Early bird tickets, on sale until the end of this month, hover around £2-300, but this event has such an inclusive and questioning outlook, it's worth the investment for anyone interested or invested in the publishing industry.

Of course, all this speculation and rhetoric only comes to life when it touches on people's daily stories and experiences. I'd love to hear about the impact that social media and digital technologies are (or, of course, are not) having on your own behaviour as a reader and a writer. Is all the hype and hyperbole nothing but the ramblings of an Ouroboron industry, nibbling anxiously on its own tail? What are your real hopes, fears and dreams for where innovation around books will take us?

This article originally appeared on Bookhugger.

5 Ways To Get Your Nature Fix In London

hampstead heath As I type this, Soho is sunny. Not just a-few-weak winter-rays sunny, but a glorious, blazing, Vitamin D fest that has us sweating into our suddenly unseasonal puffas. Yesterday evening, it was 4 degrees; today, miraculously, it is 16. And while the miserable London winter has given me a perfect opportunity to spend months feasting on some of the planet’s best theatre, cinema, art and lard, the only question in my mind right now is: where can I find a patch of green that isn’t crammed with media executives slowly lobstering in their lunch hour?

I grew up in the Oxfordshire countryside, and although I am now a happy Hackney resident, I still get painful cravings for nature a tad more splendid than the semi-feral Staffies and wilting perennials in my neighbouring Shoreditch Park. Evidently, I’m not the only one. Alain de Botton’s cultural powerhouse The School of Life is currently putting together a series of classes offering jaded Londoners advice on how to ‘treat their nature deficit,’ and course tutor Hugo Whately, a teacher, writer and educational researcher, believes that many city dwellers may be suffering from a wholesale ecological imbalance.

“Just spending more time outside is not the best way to address the idea of a nature deficit,” he explains. “Of course getting out and about is good on all sorts of levels, but to engage with the structures and systems of nature  - with ecology - is altogether another matter. That involves reflecting on how your work, your family, your friends, the things and people that you love and don't love, are all bound up together... Isolation and atomization are the pale brothers of individualism, and I think it’s worth working to counter them.” For Whately, the act of appreciating London’s historic streets can be a tonic in itself. “There is a sense of interconnections there between the present and the past; a sense that life is layered.  That, for me, is where the concept of ecology comes in.”

In that case, wandering lonely as clouds amongst London’s eight celebrated Royal Parks or 1110 square kilometres of further parkland and gardens may be a case of sticking a plaster on a deeper wound. But Whately agrees that the city’s surprisingly profuse pockets of nature are “a good place to start looking for inspiration” that might help transform your personal ecology long term. With that in mind, here are our five favourite ways to reconnect with your roots in the capital as spring starts to creep in.

1. Cycle along Regents Canal

Whately is a big fan of London’s eight and a half mile stretch of nineteeth-century canal. “Cycling by the canal on a cold sunny morning, you move through plumes of wood smoke as you pass by each canal boat, and the smell evokes another world entirely.  You might see great old carp gliding silently through the water; and a pair of swans gliding low over the water, necks swaying as their feet skim the surface.  I think just trying consciously to notice the activities of animals in the city as the seasons change can help you keep a sense of perspective on your own life.”Jump on a Boris Bike at Paddington and follow it all the way to Limehouse, looking out for kingfishers, herons, rare orchids and yes, Banksy’s rats.

2. Skinny dip on Hampstead Heath

The Ladies’ and Men’s Ponds on Hampstead Heath are the only life-guarded open-water swimming facilities in the UK that remain open to the public every day of the year. Originally dug as reservoirs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and fed by the natural springs in Kenwood, they are peaceful havens in the city, with thickly wooded banks providing shelter for a variety of water birds and dragonflies. March temperatures remain bracing to say the least but the camaraderie between swimmers is fantastic. Take the plunge first thing in the morning and your adrenaline rush will last all day.

3. Worship insects at the Natural History Museum

We’re all suckers for a big fluffy mammal, but the rich, complex micro-world of insects – they make up 80% of the species on earth, with ten quintillion (I didn’t make that up) alive at any one time - can give us a whole new perspective on our own busy hive-lives. Throughout March, Entomologist Erica McAlister, Curator of Flies at the Natural History Museum, is broadcasting a Radio 4 series called ‘Who’s The Pest?’, exploring how insects’ ‘superpowers’ have implications for human medicine, defence, food, art and architecture, helping us to live more healthily, safely and sustainably. Accompany the series with a tour of the museum’s state-of-the-art Cocoon experience, which uses virtual guides and interactive exhibits to provide a behind the scenes look at the latest scientific research into insect and plant life.

4. Stroke a kitten at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium

London’s first cat café is due to open in Shoreditch in May, after an overwhelming response to a pitch by Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium on fundraising platform Indiegogo. Based on the Japanese vogue for combining coffee with creature comforts, Australian Lauren Pears hopes that by sourcing her cats from North London animal charity The Mayhew Rescue, she might translate some temporary laps into long-term homes. Keep an eye on Pears’ blog for updates and prepare to get some feline face-time very soon.

5. Join a working party with London’s Wildlife Trust

London’s Wildlife Trust manages over forty nature reserve sites across the capital. Keen to engage the local communities that use the sites, the Trust organises working parties where you can get some soil under your manicure, and put that faux-Lumberjack Hackney beard to good use. Upcoming events include a spring clean of Chiswick Nature Reserve on Sunday March 24th, where volunteers are needed to coppice trees, cut back vegetation from meadows and paths, clear ponds, litter pick “and occasional DIY and arty stuff.” No experience is required for this drop in session, which will be a great opportunity to get down and dirty with amphibians, woodpeckers, sparrowhawks and fungi.

This feature originally appeared in London Calling.

5 Top Online Tools For Writers

Online tools for writers Ah, tools. Such a seductive word, with that tactile, workmanlike ring. And such seductive implications. Accumulating tools feels like the very opposite of time wasting. Tools promise to transform us into humble, brine-browed word-carpenters, conscientiously whittling our masterpieces in brain-workshops full of sunshine and space, while topless, and grunting. In short, tools rule.

Of course, as a writer, any tools other than your mind, your fingers or voice, and a basic recording device, are entirely superfluous. Browsing the app store, watching little download circles rotate and fiddling with complicated settings are all byways, not highways, to becoming a laser-focused sentence-whore. In fact, reading articles about good online productivity tools for writers is one of the best ways to feel productive without achieving a damn thing. Close this tab! Go! Write!

Still here? Okay, I have to admit that from deep within the towering dung-heap of procrastination-friendly digital shiny things, I have managed to uncover a few gems that consistently make me write more, and very possibly better. Enjoy, argue, pass them on, and don’t be shy about suggesting a few of your own.

Scrivener

From the first day I tried Scrivener, “the first and only word processing program designed specifically for the messy, non-linear way writers really work”, I knew I could never go back to the plodding constraints of Word or even the sensual pleasures of paper and pen. Like many who grew up with screens, I write in a highly architectural way, and Scrivener brilliantly anticipates exactly what my chaotic brain needs.

An independent piece of software developed by an aspiring writer who couldn’t find a way to order his research and his notes, Scrivener has won numerous awards for its ingenious system of folders, corkboards, notes and composing windows, which allow you to keep all your references, drafts, notes and inspirations in one place and instantly navigate between them; tag, categorise and search for super-specific elements; track character arcs or themes; and eventually, download the whole manuscript in the auto-format of your choice, from Kindle eBook to screenplay. Normally a manual hater, I strongly recommend completing the on-screen walkthrough, which will help you understand all sorts of clever shortcuts, details and customisations to get the most from the software. In practice, I spend most of my time in the simple ‘blackout’ composing screen, which focuses your text in the middle of clean, distraction-free black page. But I would be lost without the ‘snapshot’ function, which allows you to capture and store the current version of your document at any time, and the synopsis panes, which force me to summarise each chapter succinctly as I go. A no-brainer. Download it now.

Evernote

Inspiration usually strikes in places where it is difficult to whip out a notebook – on the tube, on the toilet, in a work meeting, at the gym. I always loved the idea of carrying a beautiful personalised Moleskine and fountain pen wherever I went, but in practice I would forget, or spill coffee on it, or run out of ink, and when I returned to my scribblings they were not only illegible but impossible to organize into a coherent structure.

Evernote is the best digital note-taker I’ve come across. This free, simple app allows you to capture notes on your phone via text, audio, video and photo, then synchs them across all your devices, such as your laptop and tablet. You can search by tag, keyword or even text within an image, and easily transfer notes to another application such as Scrivener. Using your online Evernote account, you can also access them from anywhere in the world, safe in the knowledge that they are always floating in the cloud, and that you need never again lose that perfect opening sentence that you scribbled on a paper napkin with eyeliner. Oh, that sentence. You still mourn for that sentence, don’t you?

Shareist 

Fresh out of beta, Shareist is the quickest and easiest tool I’ve found for capturing and organising the research and inspiration I find on the web. An evolution of the old bookmarking platforms, Shareist provides you with a button for your browser which will capture any webpage, blog, video or image; allow you to title, tag and comment on it; and then turn it into an entry in a private ‘notebook’, which you can edit, format and even export as a book or a blog post.

The key feature here for me is the privacy. Online bookmarking has traditionally been seen as a social facilitator, whereby you display, share and discuss cool stuff you’ve found. Shareist, on the other hand, is geared towards helping you create and curate your own personal treasure trove. It allows you to move more quickly through the glittering mines of the web without getting distracted by individual nuggets; just chuck ‘em in your Shareist bucket, and return to them when you have more leisure for Gollum-like fingering. The free version only allows you to create one notebook, which can be a pain if you’re working with multiple projects or themes, but it’s definitely worth a try. 

Lulu 

You’ve finally finished your first draft. First, you need a drink or twenty; then, you need some perspective. After months spent nose to laptop, it’s hard to read your story with fresh eyes, so take a week off, sign up to Lulu.com and turn your draft into a proper book. I have heard more good word of mouth about Lulu than any other self-printing platform. It is clear, easy and quick to use, offers competitive pricing and allows you to order just one copy. A 300 page black and white paperback will set you back around eight quid, and will be shipped within 3-5 days from whichever global print operation is nearest your address, so with a good wind you could have your embryonic darling on your doormat within a week.

This is not an encouragement to consider your first slew of brain diarrhoea as a finished product – nor an excuse to spend hours mocking up cover art complete with ‘Booker Shortlist 2013’ sticker (don’t pretend you haven’t); but it will help to de-familiarise your work. Your Lulu book should be approached as a single working copy to scribble all over, not a mass order to share. Read it through once without making notes to experience the overall flow and only then pick up your red pen. You won’t want to print off a full new copy after every draft, but after the marathon of the first, it really helps.

Quit

We don’t need scientific research to know that the Internet is turning us into goldfish. When I finally, properly committed to writing my novel eighteen months ago, I found myself having to entirely rewire my behaviour. At first I could only manage a few sentences before I cast around for a link to click. I was sure that I could physically feel my brain fluttering like a moth trapped in a jar. With practice, it has calmed considerably, but a ‘quick email check’ still has the ability to turn me into the writer’s equivalent of Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, dashing breathlessly from Pinterest oubliette to Facebook bog while the great social media Bowie-god in the sky waves a hardback in front of me with a mockingly raised eyebrow.

I’m not a big believer in online ‘nanny tools’ such as Cold Turkey or Chrome Nanny, which forcibly shut down timewasting applications or restrict your web access.  I am, however, a big fan of the rewarding sensation of self-control. So acquaint yourself with that unfortunately Americanised little menu-option called Quit. Yes, turn shit off. Close your email application. Shut down your browser. Deactivate Skype and MSN. Don’t just put your phone face down on the desk, tuck it in your bag and do up the zip. Promise yourself a ‘check-in session’ every ninety minutes. I still sometimes find this really difficult; I recommend meditation as an effective accompaniment to keep your focus muscles lean and mean.

This feature originally appeared on The Writing Platform.

A Perfect Fit?

A Perfect Fit? Last spring, our editor became a runner. Not a sashay-in-St-James’s-Park sort of runner, but a proper, no-fags-and-booze, marathon-by-April semi-athlete. Naturally, PHOENIX HQ shone with pride (and a fair amount of shock).

Using her story as a springboard for a feature for this issue – an issue that just so happens to coincide with a certain historic international sporting event taking place in our hometown – seemed a no-brainer. An editor’s education? From Lacroix to Lucozade?

But there was ambivalence when the idea was initially touted to the team. High fashion, the consensus went, is just a little lofty for pedestrian tales of protein shakes and nipple rub; fashion students are too busy with all-day appliqué and all-night raves to bother with keep-fit clichés. And that ambivalence, of course, is where the real story lies. Because, from crinolines to body con, the fashion industry has had a rocky relationship with health and fitness for centuries.

So we decided to investigate what is really happening behind the fashion scenes in the wake of London’s Olympic year. Are we still a bunch of chain-smoking anorexics? Or are we now clean, lean Marc Jacobs-style machines? If a healthy lifestyle is all about moderation, can the extremist diva that is fashion ever truly subscribe?

A Perfect Fit?

Zero to hero

One thing is certain: our editor is not the only one changing her spots.

“In my experience, over the past 15 years there’s been a change of attitude in the fashion crowd,” says Matt Roberts, the London-based personal trainer whose clients include Tom Ford, Naomi Campbell and John Galliano.

“If you look at anyone in big business – finance and politics as well as fashion – there’s no doubt that you now have to be seen as healthy, fit and energised. People are more productive in their workouts, more focused on their diet and generally much more aware of themselves in a very competitive marketplace.”

James Duigan, whose clients include Elle Macpherson, Jennifer Lawrence and Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley, agrees.

“Fifteen years ago,” he explains, “personal training wasn’t a proper job. It was Mr Motivator; a joke. But now so many people in fashion have a trainer. We train a lot of the editors and assistants at Vogue, maybe two at the same time, and they namedrop who they train with.”

This may come as a big surprise to those used to associating fashion with salads, cigarettes and cocaine. “The overwhelming trend in fashion has been about being thin,” admits Roberts. “There’s still an idea that not eating, or quick-fix weight loss is the answer. In that sense fashion has been slower than other industries.”

But the trainers themselves are becoming experts in producing a ‘fashion’ look. “We are careful,” Duigan agrees. “When you’re training someone who has half a million dollars riding on their appearance you can’t get it wrong. I know how they need to look, and you can do it in a healthy way.”

Freeze frame

But before we all clink our glasses of coconut water and jog off to the shops, it’s clear that the situation is a little more complex than this. In reality, improvements in the fashion industry’s approach only serve to throw its lingering contradictions into even starker relief.

For example, fashion has a deep-rooted aesthetic of immobility that still holds fast to our imaginations today. “A detailed examination of what passes in popular apprehension for elegant apparel,” wrote the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen in 1912, “will show that it is contrived at every point to convey the impression that the wearer does not habitually put forth any useful effort. […] The substantial reason for our tenacious attachment to the skirt is just this: it is expensive and it hampers the wearer at every turn.”

One hundred years later, our most coveted clothes still imply louche inactivity, whether through luxurious fabrics (silk, lace, embellishment) or directional street styles (flatforms, maxi shoulders, palazzo pants). Daphne Guinness stumbling her way around London in a pair of McQueen Armadillos is not so different from a shuffling bound-footed Chinese concubine; Botox, whether injected to eliminate wrinkles or sweat, is a chilling exemplar of the continuing hold of this static feminine ideal.

Health and fitness are still not a comfortable part of fashion’s public visual discourse, and a dash of ‘post-workout glow’ Nars Orgasm or a piece of ‘luxe sportswear’ – try actually hitting a backhand in an Alexander Wang mesh leather T-shirt – cannot change that essential truth.

Tortured artists

Moreover, if you examine how fashion’s top power players actually approach fitness, it’s a confusing and not entirely appealing melange.

Who is a better role model? Alber Elbaz, whose beautifully dressed bulk hints at a refreshing everyman disregard for industry dictates, but whose constant self-deprecating confessions about carbs suggest quite the opposite? The plastic not-so-fantastic look of Donatella Versace and Karl Lagerfeld? What about poor messed-up Galliano, whose extreme workouts failed to save him from extreme substance abuse and mental decline?

Or the new fashion/health poster boy Marc Jacobs, whose three-hour-daily gym binges and goji-noni-acai superdiets have all the obsessive evangelism of a drug addict-turned-endorphin junkie?

“I think very creative people have short attention spans and low boredom thresholds,” Roberts explains. “Opting for extreme measures for a short period of time appeals to their psyches. I’ve dealt with a lot of fashion designers who have gone for that approach, working out for several hours a day and attacking it hard, but then falling off the wagon because it’s not sustainable. It’s like a different sort of addiction, big highs and lows.”

Ayurveda guru ‘Yogi Cameron’, aka Cameron Alborzian, used to be one of the top male models in the world, gracing Vogue covers and Madonna music videos. He agrees that the fashion industry tends towards extremes. “It’s a very either/or culture. Models tend to vary between being smokers and drinkers to being extremely health-conscious.”

Inevitably, the image of the tortured and hedonistic artist remains much more beguiling than the Pilates fan who gets his five a day. But Duigan believes that stereotype is wearing thin.

“Speaking frankly, being unhealthy and feeling miserable and being on a drug and alcohol rollercoaster gets boring really quickly. Dude, you know what? Clean up. Go for a jog. You might even be a bit more interesting.”

A Perfect Fit?

Personal brands

Fashion folk’s struggle to find balance can be attributable to factors other than creative temperament. One is simple logistics. “When I was a model back in the 90s, I went out, stayed up late, and travelled constantly,” Cameron admits. “The body at 20 takes the hits much better than at 40. Maintaining health while on the road is a hard thing to do no matter what business you are in.”

Another is that old villain, class. Admitting that your streamlined figure comes from Fitness First and Whole Foods rather than excellent breeding and nanny’s macaroons or, at the other extreme, humble poverty and a diet of work and fags, is still deeply uncool. A ‘healthy lifestyle’ is just so middle class, and middle class is perennially the least fashionable thing to be.

But in a highly competitive marketplace, this very British attitude – part embarrassment, part arrogance – won’t wash for long. American fashionistas have always been loud and proud about the work it takes to look good, from LA’s juice-swilling gym bunnies to New York’s groomed Bikram queens. And Matt Roberts believes that the future will come from further afield.

“There are some amazing fashion designers coming out of the Far East and they are hugely ambitious and hard working both in terms of their products and themselves. We have to realise that people want to buy into a brand and that the designer is part of that brand. There’s a whole Eastern culture about meticulous presentation. In this country we’re in severe danger of falling behind.”

Role models

This social media-fuelled emergence of designers, editors, models, make-up artists, hell, even interns, as brands in themselves explains why any of this matters in the first place. People who work in fashion are becoming as influential as the clothes; and the moment that teenage girls – the fastest growing group for obesity in Europe – get interested in fashion tends to coincide with the moment that gym knickers lose their appeal.

“Around that age boys are idolising footballers but there’s no one girls see as a strong fitness role model,” Roberts sighs. “That is where I think fashion could play a part. I was really pleased to see that Stella [McCartney] is doing the designs for this year’s Olympic clothing. It doesn’t mean people who buy the products will do the exercise, but it does create a link. Fashion has a role to play in making girls stay interested in health.”

And as for our editor? She smashed her personal best for the marathon; she looks better than ever in her Choos; she’s back on the cocktails; and she got the last issue out (just) on time. Perhaps fashion is capable of cleaning up its act – without compromising its spirit – after all.

This feature originally appeared in PHOENIX magazine. Illustrations are by the awesome Artaksiniya.

10 Social Media Myths For Writers

What the hell happened with social media? We were told that the fierce publishing-industry lion wouldst lay down with the fragile disenfranchised-author lamb and share the cool bounty of the literary watering hole. UnicornRainbow They promised that we’d be able to get all warm and snuggly with readers across the world while just happening to shift millions of copies of our noir circus thriller on the side. We were assured that from now on, becoming a global writing success would be easier, quicker, cheaper, and much more amenable to the uninterrupted wearing of Marmite-stained pyjamas.

So how did our glorious peer-to-peer revolution turn into a riot of BDSM fan fiction trilogies, ‘15% OFF MY NEW SCIFI EBOOK @GREATDISMAL LOVES IT BUY NOW’ tweets, and £250 workshops from seven year olds offering to gift us the secrets of social self-promotion success?

The truth is, it’s our fault. Most writers persist in labouring under a series of illusions about what social media is and isn’t, can and can’t do; illusions that generate huge frustration and anxiety. Weeding out these pervasive myths can be painful at first, but the sooner you identify exactly if, and how, these channels fit with your skills and aims, the sooner you can get back to that draft. So let’s go.

1.     Social media is a great marketing tool

Social media is a rubbish marketing tool. This set of technologies was designed to help us build relationships and share passions, not become the delighted recipients of targeted messages from strangers trying to steal our attention and our money. Attempting to establish yourself online once you have completed your manuscript, for the sole purpose of flogging said manuscript, will feel like bashing your head against a brick wall. Wrong hammer, crooked nail.

Example: Frankie Sachs outs the book spammers in fabulous style.

2. It’s the perfect place to talk about you and your book

Ah yes! Just like how people love it when you corner them at a party and bend their ear about your brilliant opus, right? Wrong. If you focus on connecting with likeminded people on their own terms, garnering inspiration, reading others’ work and having interesting debates, your online community probably will develop curiosity about your own work and evolve into readers somewhere along the line. But you need to give in order to receive.

Example: @chuckpalahniuk and @neilhimself are generous, witty, eclectic and useful tweeters.

3. It’s quick

Getting someone who likes expressing themselves in 140 characters to commit to 80,000 words – let alone Vols II and III of your Downton/alien trilogy – requires a reader relationship more akin to a marriage than a one night stand. Building large-scale engagement in social media that really will drive sales takes serious man-hours, and requires a hefty emotional investment, too.

Example: Self-epublishing specialists Joanna Penn and Louise Voss both recommend spending 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time networking through social media to get results. That’s as quick as treacle.

4. It’s cheap

See above. Your time is money. It may well be better spent making your book really good. This is historically the reason why authors have preferred to pay agents and publishers to have ego-stroking lunches with influential people in Soho House, so you can have Marmite on toast and write, instead.

Example: Rob Eager writes eloquently on the hidden costs of social networking.

5. You can keep your personal and professional selves separate

Because we all love getting close and personal with Author: The Brand? You can’t treat social as a PR project.  You have to find what you love about this way of communicating, and bring an authentic sense of your own self to the playground. If you really hate that idea, if you think it’s all so much timewasting, you simply shouldn’t be there. We can tell.

Example: @lindasgrant is a self-confessed one-time sceptic who learned to love the Twitter beast – and Twitter loves her back.

6. You just need to be yourself

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t don a sexy and efficient business hat. Be strategic. Understand what you want to achieve. What proportion of your time will you spend talking about yourself, versus asking others questions or sharing their content? Figure out who your target audience is, where they are talking, and be as helpful, interesting and relevant as you can. Sure, look at shoes on Pinterest, but don’t pretend it’s work.

Example: Michael Hyatt used social media to get his book on the New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal best-seller lists, but it took some serious tactical planning.

7. You need to be on every new platform

Whether it’s Path or Soci or MySpace (again), there will always be a box-fresh platform promising to be the next best thing, so you need to keep your head and choose the tools that most suit your personality and target audience. A witty satirist who loves peddling opinions about breaking news? Twitter’s your tool. A lengthy pontificator penning an epic historical drama? You may do better with a blog. Your protagonist is a photographer? May I suggest Instagram?

Example: Dennis Cass used video to brilliant effect with his ‘Book Launch 2.0’.

8. Facebook is the holy grail

It is very difficult to gain any kind of meaningful professional traction on Facebook. Liking a page or post involves minimal effort, but also minimal passion. Facebook a good place to spread the word amongst your family and friends, but they’re probably in your corner already; and self-promotional messages grate in the midst of the intimate chat and photos. Sure, use Facebook, but don’t depend on it.

Example: Some sobering examples of the meaninglessness of Facebook Likes.

9. You can always pay someone else to do it for you

It might seem easier, but this is a big fat waste of time. The whole joy of social media is that it cuts out the middle man between you and your readers. Why on earth would you put the middle man back in? Again, if you really hate this stuff, don’t do it. There are more than one way to skin a cat. If this blade doesn’t fit your hand snugly, go back to the drawer.

Example: If the thought of this doesn’t make you die a little inside, you’re already a corpse.

10. It’s the best place to generate word of mouth

No, it’s the best place to easily see word of mouth. US researchers Keller Fay consistently report that 90% of WOM still occurs face to face. So if you’re only thinking about how to be conversational online, you’re ignoring the iceberg beneath the tip. Team up with local bookshops, cafes and reading groups. Seed some copies on trains and planes with personalised notes. Focus less on the venues for where the conversation will happen; focus more on creating the sparks that will ignite it.

Example: Keller Fay’s The Face To Face Book is mandatory further reading.

This feature originally appeared on The Writing Platform.

My Life In Twelve Books

Screen Shot 2013-02-12 at 12.25.57 Last week, a colleague of mine asked if I would participate in a Pinterview (a Pinterest interview. Don’t judge.) called ‘My Life In Books.’ The idea was that I would submit images of the covers of twelve books that had been important to me at different stages of my life, in chronological order, with a short description of why each one had made such an impact at that time.

Try it. How long does it take you to reduce your literary soul down to a handful of JPEGs? I initially found the exercise excruciating, but soon realized that I was making two big mistakes. First, I was trying to squeeze in my all-time favourite books, when what was really needed were ones that affected me strongly at a certain time of my life, but which may be much less relevant or beloved now. Secondly, I was, inevitably, worrying about what other people might think. Was the proportion of cerebral classics to trash just high enough to suggest the perfect cocktail of rigorous intellect and fun-loving unpretentiousness? If I left out Dickens or Woolf or Franzen or Mitchell, would the Thor Of Writing render me incapable of typing a decent sentence ever again? Did I have enough women? Did I have enough racial diversity? Did, in short, my bibliophilic biography suggest that I was a big fat middle-class British cliché?

Well, yes, it did. But it also stirred up some wonderful memories and has proven to be a brilliant talking point with fellow clichés of all backgrounds and tastes. I’ve outlined my twelve below, but I’d love to hear about yours. Post them in the comments or add a post to the Nudge Facebook page. It’s the perfect opportunity to get to know the Nudge community better. Just try to be honest, and please, don’t judge.

1988: The Beano 

So it isn’t exactly a book, but my early love of the Beano sparked a devotion to comics and graphic novels that holds firm today. From Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’s Ex Machina series about a New York mayor with superpowers to Shaun Tan’s lyrical story for all generations The Red Tree, I still experience unparalleled energy and emotion from comics. Also, I had the best pair of Dennis the Menace bell-bottomed jeans.

1991: The Owl Service by Alan Garner 

As an introverted country tomboy I was an obsessive bookworm and an expert in hedgerows, ditches and streams.  Garner's weird mythic magic burrowed deep into my brain and stayed there, and I find his influence shining through as I write my first novel now.

1995: Riders by Jilly Cooper 

I used to read my sister’s Jilly Coopers on the school bus, hidden inside virtuous dustjackets so that my mother wouldn’t confiscate them.  Rupert Campbell-Black lived in an 80s glamour-world I could only dream of, and dream, wetly, I did. Cooper remains the original and best romance queen.

1997: The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot

Oh, those opening lines… Chaucer and Eliot are my favourite London poets. Their ghosts are with me beside the murky Thames, in the self-conscious chatter of the Soho members' clubs and in the grimy Hackney back streets alike. Eliot reminds me of my tall, wonderful clock-repairing grandfather: musical, bleak, funny, obsessed with time. I read an extract from Four Quartets at his memorial service.

2000: His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman 

Pullman’s breathtakingly subtle and ambitious trilogy contains one of those stories that always seems to have been waiting to be told, and outlines a beautiful humanist philosophy that never fails to make me appreciate the world anew. Incidentally, my daemon is a falcon with green eyes called Lysander.

2001: Beowulf by Seamus Heaney 

My university specialisms were Middle English, Arthurian Myth and Shakespeare: ideal preparation for modern life. The audiobook of Heaney reading his translation guarantees goosebumps every time. Hasped and hooped and hirpling, indeed.

2003: The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett 

My mum read these sixteenth-century historical epics in her early 20s and passed her foxed paperbacks on to me. Dunnett's research is mind-blowing research, her dialogue knife-sharp, and Francis Lymond is the best blond in fiction.

2005: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson 

In my twenties, I suddenly realized that I had miraculously become part of a generation where my geekdom was a positive thing. It’s difficult to choose between Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson and Gibson in terms of my influences at the time, but Gibson simply blows my mind with his urgency, his energy and his exuberant ideas. Although I do now fear I may be turning into Bigend.

2009: The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox 

In 2009 I was invited onto BBC Radio 4, as a guest on A Good Read alongside Michael Mansfield QC. I chose this dark, sensual tale of a fallen angel in nineteenth century Burgundy which seemed to leave both Mansfield and the deeply lovely Sue McGregor utterly baffled, but I was so delighted to be in the mothership, and talking books to boot, I didn’t care.

2011: Incognito by David Eagleman

I'm intrigued by neuroscience and started exploring several authors concerned with positive and cognitive psychology at this time. Eagleman not only thinks big but writes beautifully. His collection of short stories Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives is a cult gem, too.

2012: Waterlog by Roger Deakin 

Living in Hackney, I miss proper nature with a visceral ache. Deakin’s part-travelogue, part-memoir, part-nature essay is an incredible love song to the disappearing wonders of wild Britain. I must read more non-fiction.

2013: Mog by Judith Kerr 

I've now come full circle with my two year old niece Esme, revisiting the books I loved as a child. Mog perfectly expresses feline disgust for the human race in general, and babies in particular. Judith Kerr’s books have more than stood the test of time.

This feature originally appeared on Bookdiva.

Close Encounters Of The Word Kind

PROSE This Christmas, I bought my mother-in-law a Smythson ‘Book Notes’ journal: 128 leaves of gilt-edged, pale blue featherweight paper bound in monogrammed navy lambskin, with each double-spread designed to record the Date, Title, Author and Comments of your latest read. Yes, I am a kiss-ass. She makes great eggnog. But I’m also deeply admiring of her diligence in keeping detailed notes and research on everything she reads in preparation for her local book club.

What was the best book that you read this year? It’s a classic festive dinner-table question but one I find almost impossible to answer. While my mother-in-law is able to rattle off long lists of best and worst, with ample context and lucid argument, I stare blankly into space trying to remember a single thing I’ve read other than whatever’s currently in my bag. And while I’d like to blame my lack of elegant stationary, I know that the real culprit is my propensity to gobble novels like Lindor truffles. I usually read compulsively, voraciously, in a glassy trance from which I emerge only faintly aware of what I’ve just experienced, like a compulsive binger who stares around at the empty Pringle pots in surprise.

The answer is quite obviously to read more slowly, more carefully and yes, perhaps even with a scribbled observation or two. But three years of a Literature degree bequeathed me, along with an impressive but hard-to-monetise fluency in Middle English, a decade-long phobia of literary criticism and its concomitant slow, analytical appraisal of text (horrible word). Anyone who has ploughed their way through a curriculum-issue paperback, circling metaphors, highlighting themes and writing things like ‘subjugation of the other!!’ in the margin, will have experienced the depressing reduction of a living, breathing story to, in the words of TS Eliot, “a patient etherised upon a table.” Close reading has all the romance of bowel surgery, and trails a whiff of righteous killjoy akin to pulling the casket from a conjurer’s hands in order to cook his rabbit.

But a recent New Year present-to-self – Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer – has persuaded me to recommit to its joys. Prose is both a working novelist and a university professor, and her witty, down to earth approach reframes close reading as a humble, intimate and joyful art. As she says, “writers say that there are other writers they would read if for no other reason than to marvel at the skill with which they can put together the sort of sentences that move us to read closely, to disassemble and reassemble them, much the way a mechanic might learn about an engine by taking it apart,” and through chapters such as Words; Sentences; Paragraphs; Character and Gesture she encourages us to examine a book’s nuts and bolts while never losing sight of the pleasure of the whole.

Prose’s admirable and rare belief that it is “easier to learn by example then by abstraction” results in parsed extracts from writers as diverse as Jane Austen and Gary Shteyngart, but she also steers clear of excessive nit-pickery, rather pointing our eye in the right direction and letting us intuit how the alchemy works. Of the last two paragraphs of Raymond Carver’s short story, Fat (which you can hear Anne Enright read here):

It is August.

My life is going to change. I feel it.

- she reflects that Carver’s bold structural decision manages to “combine statement and qualification, certainty and doubt” but “in a way that we can no more ‘explain’ than we can summarize the ‘point’ of poetry or analyse how it operates on us.” It is this combination - the clarity of Prose’s observations teamed with her refusal to reduce the results of literature to something mechanistic - which makes her book so good.

In an early chapter, Prose exhorts us to fill a bookshelf by our desk with works by authors who demonstrate mastery in the specific writing skills most pertinent to, or indeed most lacking in, ourselves. It’s an excellent idea, and asking others for recommendations is a great way to build a 2013 reading list – and, sometimes, to be surprised by the acuity of your friends. My fledgling collection includes several novels by Rose Tremain, for the rhythm of her sentences and her exquisite evocation of sense of place; Elizabeth Knox for subtle, glowing imagery; Dorothy Dunnett for dialogue and exposition; Jonathan Franzen and Joshua Ferris for characterisation and point of view; Virginia Woolf for words and, again, sentences; and Dickens for gesture and stage management. I’d love to hear which authors or individuals works you would chose.

I’ve also committed to reading one poem slowly every night before I go to sleep. Poetry is a great training ground for close reading, excavating nuance and surprise from the most simple words and grammatical choices. The anthology Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation, edited by Roger Housman, yields both old favourites and surprising gems, all with a focus on reinvigorating the overlooked everyday, and has become something of a personal primer.

As a writer, my work is hugely improving by shifting from an instinctive education-by-osmosis model of reading to a more purposeful and present one. But I’m also noticing that those passages I read with such deep attention cling to my mind like raindrops; their images, meanings and music glistening at unexpected moments, and resonating throughout my day. I’d recommend it. Close reading may give you a serious advantage round the turkey next year.

This article originally appeared on Bookhugger.

London's Top 10 Cultural Cafés

People watching is one of the greatest pleasures a big city affords. It’s especially good when practiced from a warm corner with a flat white and a home-made cupcake. It’s even better in a location that guarantees an eclectic crowd of trendsters, students, tourists, quirky arty types, and regular joes. And it’s best of all when, once you’re down to dregs and crumbs, you can rise from your armchair and catch an outstanding play or exhibition to round off your day.

From national museums to indie cinemas, London’s cultural institutions provide some of the best watering holes for socialising, slobbing and inspiration-seeking in the world. And with every Brit worth their salt boycotting Starbucks for its creative approach to tax, now is the time to support a classier breed of café. Here are ten of our favourite cosy hangouts in the capital, perfect for winter afternoons.

1. Wellcome Collection

Located just inside the foyer, the Wellcome Collection’s café may be furnished in an uninviting Duplo/IKEA hybrid style, but it is unfailingly buzzy and buoyant. Exhibitions are free, so after exploring the extraordinary current show on the iconography of death, you’ll have plenty of spare change to indulge in caterer Peyton and Byrne’s old school English treats - the gourmet black forest fairy cakes are a must. It’s also adjacent to the one of the best-curated cultural bookshops in London, so pick up the likes of David Eagleman’s Incognito to feed your brain as well as your belly.

2. Hackney Picturehouse

Cinema cafés tend to be lurid monstrosities, where the height of sophistication involves ordering a stale instant coffee to go with your supersized Ben and Jerry’s sundae. But Hackney Picturehouse’s scrubbed-wooden shared tables and retro booths make it as popular for relaxing as for watching its selection of popular and art-house films. With the Everyman’s brand of louche luxury bringing home-made apple-crumble muffins and chai lattes to the scrappy heart of east London, you’d be a fool not to head to their £6 Mondays. Just remember to bring your very best facial hair.

3. National Gallery Café

Yes, it’s full of elderly art-lovers and twenty-somethings taking their mums out for lunch, but the National Gallery’s high-ceilinged, big-windowed, wood-paneled room is a calm, elegant Henry James oasis in the heart of London’s tourist trail. The hard wooden chairs and benches encourage good posture rather than lazy lingering, but a bracing cup of oolong and a sharp apricot pastry are just the ticket for putting the spring back in your step. Oh, and one of the world’s best free collections of West European painting lies a few paces down the corridor. There is that.

4.  Almeida Theatre

Under artistic director Michael Attenborough, Islington’s Almeida theatre has become a reliable hit-factory; The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Nick Dear's new play about the life of poet Edward Thomas, is already garnering glowing reviews. At night, the theatre’s very small café/bar resembles a game of sardines, but in the daytime it is a light-filled, peaceful haven in which to pick at delicious fresh food and stare wistfully out of the Upper Street-side window. The kind of place where prosecco feels mandatory past 3pm.

5. Blueprint Café

With its magnificent views and clean, neutral decor, the Blueprint Café, on the first floor of the Southbank’s Design Museum, is deeply tranquil. Food is on the expensive side, but there’s no reason not to string out an espresso and a panna cotta while peering down at riverside passers-by through the signature blue binoculars. Use the free Wifi to tweet a message with the #digitalcrystal hashtag, then head into Swarovski’s Digital Crystal exhibition to watch it appear on the 1000 LEDs hidden in the crystals of Ron Arad's Lolita chandelier.

6.  Benugo Lounge @ BFI

Rumour has it that the BFI’s shabby-chic Benugo lounge is the top online-dating meet-up joint in town, but don’t be put off by sweaty-palmed trysts. The dimly lit open-plan room, with its mismatched velvet armchairs and squishy leather sofas, works for noisy groups of mates and solo laptop bunnies alike, and once you’re finished with the loose-leaf tea you can move seamlessly onto cocktails and sweet potato fries. The crowd tends towards self-conscious be-scarfed media types, but December’s Doris Day season will help you greet the most pretentious posers with a beaming grin.

7. The Cut

If you’re feeling seasonally sluggish, you can practically snort the energy from the air at The Cut, the Young Vic Theatre’s restaurant and bar. Host a go-getting breakfast meeting over poached eggs and Virgin Marys, but bring your cashmere as the warehouse-style space can get cold. Very pretty people abound, attracted by the equally young, experimental and international theatre companies that showcase their work on the stage. Lunch on the divine banana split, then catch a matinee of Going Dark, their multi-sensory winter show, and you’ll explode back onto the streets with the scales dropped from your jaded eyes.

8. Gallery Mess @ The Saatchi Gallery

Seated in splendour amidst vaulted ceilings, exposed brickwork and edgy exhibits, every visitor to the Gallery Mess Café looks like a work of art themselves. In a sea of overpriced and underpowered Chelsea joints, this achingly stylish space provides welcome respite from the madness of the King’s Road, and Saatchi’s famous ability to nail the artistic zeitgeist makes a stroll through the gallery’s free exhibitions a must. Knock back a bespoke fresh fruit smoothie, explore the current display of new Russian work, and you’ll leave feeling truly refreshed.

9. Royal Court Theatre Café Bar

The Royal Court’s basement café/bar may be too dark to comfortably read, but you’d have to be blind to miss the theatre celebrities lurking in its moody corners. Find directors, playwrights, actors and even the odd sir or dame sitting at the wooden tables, squinting at their reviews in the Telegraph, sipping excellent fairtrade coffee and forking up slices of quiche. Some of the world’s best new theatre writing gets premiered at the Royal Court, so pick up a playtext or two from the shop before you settle. Mobile signal can be patchy, providing an excuse to sit back, relax and - God forbid - talk.

10. The V&A

Famously positioned in Saatchi & Saatchi’s late-80s ad campaign as “an ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached”, the V&A has a long history of giving good café. Although the tables and chairs are standard plastic-utilitarian museum fare, the original nineteenth-century refreshment rooms they sit in - which were built to house the first museum restaurant in the world and intended to showcase the best of modern design, craftsmanship and manufacturing - are simply spectacular. It’s the ideal setting to bring your Moleskine and make some sketches over a slice of Victoria sponge.

 This article originally appeared on London Calling.

Dead Ends @ The Ministry Of Stories

Although novelists can come up with a justification for almost any procrastinatory activity (I need to eat this cake! My protagonist loves cake!), we can genuinely benefit from watching the odd episode of a soap opera. Want to create strong characters your readers would happily spend years alongside? Get in late and leave early with your scenes? Nail tight pacing? Raise your stakes to the roof? Show not tell? Cram in more twists than a superunicorn's horn? (they do so exist; if you were a virgin you could see them, reprobate). Soaps own most novels on every count. Even - no, especially - if they're written by a bunch of schoolkids with no previous writing experience and a budget of almost-zilch.

On Monday night I went to the screening of the Ministry of Stories' Dead Ends project. This summer, eight 8-to-18 year olds spent their precious evenings in after-school workshops, devising and scriptig four 5-minute episodes of a new soap opera inspired by Hoxton Street. Supported by EastEnders writer Pete Lawson and the MoS's volunteer writing mentors, their output is incredibly impressive - taut, gritty, heartfelt and utterly compulsive viewing. One episode is being uploaded online each day this week - here's the first to whet your appetite.

I have been meaning to get involved with the Ministry of Stories for years - based in my area, along with the accompanying Hoxton Street Monster Supplies Shop, their work empowering youngsters to get excited about writing is ambitious and of exceptional quality. No patronising rubbish poetry pamphlets here. Another of their recent projects, The Children's Republic of Shoreditch, got kids to create their own independent state, complete with passports, newspaper, and letters sent to the PM, Secretary of State and the Queen. It looks and reads as beautifully as the work of any top-end Soho creative agency wonks.

Ministry of Stories was founded by the charismatic trio Lucy McNab, Ben Payne and novelist Nick Hornby in 2010, following the example of Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari's 826 Valencia, a writing centre and shop for pirates in San Francisco. It reminds me of another favourite charity, First Story, which puts writers-in-residence into challenging secondary schools across the UK.

Those of us lucky enough to have been encouraged to read and write from an early age surely have an obligation to pay it back by supporting these causes with our time, money, attention and word of mouth; and not as superior benevolents graciously bestowing our wisdom, but as ignorant rookies who have a hell of a lot to learn from these kids' courage, verve and skill.

Forget Little Women; Embrace Real Heroines

Did you know that Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm - not to mention twenty-four other novels, three volumes of short stories, four volumes of poetry and copious journalism - was forced to move to “a dark little den” at the back of offices of weekly women’s magazine The Lady for distracting other members of staff by making them laugh so much? Or that Gertrude Stein, the brilliant experimental writer and Left Bank doyenne, popularised the use of ‘gay’ as a term for homosexuality (including her own), and cultivated a taste for cannabis-infused ‘haschich fudge’?

Intimate details about extraordinary lives always make for compulsive reading, and Sandi Toksvig’s latest book Heroines and Harridans: A Fanfare of Fabulous Females presents twenty-two pithy stories of brilliant, eccentric and disobedient women, complete with beautiful illustrations from Sandy Nightingale. From twelfth-century Japanese samurai warrior Tomoe Gozen to nineteenth-century African-American-Indian aviatrix Bessie Colman, the book features women who helped shape the world they lived in but who sunk into obscurity or ignominy thanks to personalities that didn’t fit easily into the conventions of the day.

Written with Toksvig’s signature wit, it’s a light-hearted pleasure, but it has a serious and admirable mission at its heart, and it got me thinking about other great books I’ve read that have put real, wayward women on the page.

In the non-fiction category, Alison Weir, the highest-selling female historian in the UK, is the undisputed queen of, well, queens. She is probably most famous for her works on Henry VIII’s wives, mistresses and daughters but she has also tackled Eleanor of Aquitaine, She-wolf Isabella, and the less famous but no less fascinating Katherine Swynford, fourteenth-century Duchess of Lancaster. Weir’s hallmark is impeccable research teamed with passionate, vivacious prose that makes complex lives both thrilling and relatable, and she should be compulsory reading for every bored girl who spends history lessons playing with her iPhone. For fans of Weir, Helen Castor’s She Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth (also a BBC4 series) is less academically rigorous but also written with equal clarity and verve.

Looking to other eras and continents, Robert Massie’s recent portrait of feisty Russian ruler Catherine the Great, manages to turn a ball-busting icon into a nuanced, vulnerable human being. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Shiff’s exploration of the enigmatic icon Cleopatra is full of sharp surprises and vivid details which evoke a very different woman – Greek, hook-nosed, intellectual and multilingual - to the Shakespearian diva we think we know. In The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, Frances Wilson unveils an important influence on our literary canon, rescuing Dorothy from her traditional role as William’s doting sister to portray a wild, intense woman who was a brilliant writer in her own right. And journalist Peter Popham’s The Lady and The Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, which draws from the diary of Aung San Suu Kyi’s turncoat confidante Ma Thanegi, gives moving and timely insight into this private, enigmatic and divisive political heroine.

When it comes to novels, Philippa Gregory has to take the crown for popular bodice-lit. But although her riffs on Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon and co are tasty pieces of tense, high-stakes storytelling, it’s all too easy to stay within her medieval-and-Tudor-Europe domain. Why not travel back 2600 years and meet the bisexual ancient Greek poet Sappho? Although she has scant historical fact to work with, Erica Jong’s Sappho’s Leap offers an exuberant and unashamedly empowering take on the adventures of one of our oldest recorded female rebels. I’d also recommend The Difference Engine, a glorious steampunk thriller by cybergods William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which takes us inside the imagined head of Ada Lovelace, the real female inventor of the internet. Finally, I rate Richard Skinner’s The Red Dancer, a taut and impressionistic recreation of the life of wartime spy and erotic dancer Mata Hari. Told through the imagined accounts of those who knew her and spanning the Netherlands, Indonesia and fin de siècle Paris, it is a study in the collision of female legend, reputation and reality.

Powerful and provocative women have all too often been recorded through the lens – and pens - of hostile and conservative men. Writing them back into reality is not only important but a hell of a lot of fun. What reinventions would you recommend?

This article originally appeared on Bookdiva

Too Much Too Young

Written as part of Book Slam's second anthology Too Much Too Young, for which twelve writers picked a song and used it to inspire a short story, David Nicholls' coming-of-age tale 'A Little Soul' is a clear, clean little jewel that is well worth half an hour of anyone's time. As I sit down to write, these two sentences have proved more invigorating than a triple espresso:

This poetry lark was harder than he’d first expected, even with candles. It was like a game of chess, where the first move opened up a galaxy of possibilities, except in chess there were only sixteen pieces to choose from, rather than the whole of the English language.

You can read it on the Times's Scribd account or, better yet, buy the whole limited edition, cloth-bound hardback tome (which also features Diana Evans, Jeremy Dyson, Marina Lewycka, Emylia Hall, Nikesh Shukla, Jesse Armstrong, Jackie Kay, Craig Taylor, Patrick Neate, Salena Godden and Chris Cleave) from the Book Slam site. Make a cup of tea and let it create a window of perspective and pleasure in your busy day.

Deathstyle @ The School Of Life

I am afraid of death. Deeply, wibblingly, atheistically afraid. Terrified of losing my consciousness (not to mention my Whistles green silk shirt) forever more. I suspect that I'm not alone, but I'm not entirely sure. Sexual fetishes, political affiliations and personal finances have all become acceptable conversational nibbles to pair with cocktails, but admit to thanatophobia and even your closest friends can react as if you've admitted to contracting a terrible STD.

Which, of course you have. That STD we like to call life.

No wonder I pulled out the credit card when I saw that The School of Life was running an evening class about how to think about, talk about, and do a better death. Cultural thinker and writer Roman Krznaric believes that our 'deathstyle' matters as much as our lifestyle and is on a mission to help us learn from the past and forge a better annihilation.

Over the two hour class Krznaric examined international and historical ways of living more closely with death - medieval Momento Mori art, cemeteries as a social hubs, Mexico's Día de los Muertos - and posed a series of exercises and questions to help us start to design and implement our very own 'deathstyle.' Here are three. Go on, I dare you. Scribble some answers down.

  • What 3 things could you do to get closer to death, so you might live with greater passion and presence?
  • What question would you most like to ask your partner or best friend about death?
  • What do you risk having as your greatest regrets at the end of your life? What are you going to do about it?

Seriously, that last one's a killer.

He also suggested a number of books, movies and articles that contain death-wisdom. My pick would be Kraznaric's own Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live; Studs Terkel's oral history masterpiece Will The Circle be Unbroken: Reflections on Death and Dignity; Hal Ashby's film Harold and Maude; and the Philippe Petit documentary Man on Wire. I'd also add Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which lays out the best spiritual philosophy about death that I've ever encountered, in the most enjoyable way.

I wouldn't say I'm now a liberated grim reaper groupie, but I've at least started my journey (not to mention identified that I want it to end with plumed ponies, rainbow-coloured Gaultier couture and Seth Lakeman playing the fiddle). Have you began yours?

Explore New Horizons At The South Asian Literature Festival

When you sit down for a bedtime recitation Grimm’s Fairy Tales, do you realize that many of those weird and wonderful folk tales have their origins in the ancient Indian animal fables of the Panchatantra? When you hum Baloo’s catchy tune from The Jungle Book, do you know that Kipling’s original story sprung from a real-life saga of love, lies, troubles, and family secrets played out across colonial India, Edwardian England, and Vermont? And when you settle with some popcorn for the latest glitzy Bollywood epic, have you any inkling that you’re watching an interpretation of Shakespeare?

Tonight, the Bush Theatre will host the opening event of London’s inaugural South Asian Literature Festival, and the next ten days of talks, readings and film screenings in venues across the capital such as the British Library, The Commonwealth Club and Waterstones Piccadilly will hold many surprises for those of us whose reading struggles to escape the Western hemisphere. Personally, I may have wolfed down Jhumpa Lahiri’s searingly beautiful short stories, recommended Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things to everyone I know, and adored Rohinton Mistry’s classic A Fine Balance, but I rarely know where to venture beyond the award winners and bestsellers reviewed in the broadsheets. And, with some outstanding new authors emerging from South Asia such as Pakistani Jamil Ahmad and Banglandeshi Tahmima Anam, it’s time that changed.

“I loved the idea of having a proper excuse to learn more about India and a region of the world I knew very little about,” explains festival director Jon Slack. An Aussie now living in London with a decade’s worth of publishing experience at Taschen, Transworld, Aurum Press and Borders Adelaide, Slack exemplifies the eclecticism and passion of both the festival and London’s wider literary scene. “The kind of new writing in English which is coming out of places like Bangladesh is fantastic – we’re helping to launch a new anthology of woman’s writing this weekend. Literature and publishing in South Asia is booming and there’s some excellent work now coming to light. We’re still in the early days of a truly flowing publishing subcontinent, but it is exciting to see these changes happening now.”

Highlights of the festival include The Blind Man’s Garden, an exclusive preview of Nadeem Aslam’s novel set in post-9/11 Afghanistan; Mughal Nights, a late extravaganza at the British Library inspired by a party at a Mughal Palace, with music from DJ Ritu, art from British Library artist-in–resident Christopher Green and mehndi artists from Ash Kumar, and dancers from Nutkut; and Shakespeare’s South Asian Stage, where RSC director Iqbal Khan, Globe-to-Globe artistic director Tom Bird and the legendary Tim Supple will investigate the art of adapting Shakespeare in South Asian settings.

Although funding for the festival in tough economic times has been a predictable struggle and its viability has depended on scores of dedicated volunteers, London was always destined to be the festival’s home. “It is the world’s great melting pot,” Slack declares. “There are South Asian communities in many corners across the city. Then there’s the British Empire, with its tremendous historical ties to the region through the East India Company, and the generations of immigrants who’ve since made homes on our shores. Not to mention all the Londoners who’ve made a life in India! What better place to celebrate the coming together of cultures, and to connect with people who are open to new ideas and influences?”

His aim for the festival is to make unexpected connections – “we want a real mix of people coming together, realising they have more in common than they know” – and Slack hopes that it will be the start of a much bigger and more fluid interchange. “We’d love to see a regular community continue to grow around this kind of writing, and to see what other ways of telling stories can be explored. I love the idea that stories are not just words on paper but can be movement or film or sounds – any number of things. Hopefully we’re pushing the boundaries between storytelling and ideas.”

It’s a rallying call which is hard to resist. And with a selection of events that ranges from Madhur Jaffrey launching her new cookery book Curry Nation to Brown Kids Can’t Jump, an exploration of why there were so few British Asians in the Olympics from an ex-footballer, a Labour MP and a BBC sports reporter, there should be session to inspire everyone.

As November hits and London seemed greyer then ever, I for one will be spending the next ten days immersed in the colour, warmth, richness and, above all, surprise to be found in the next gen of South Asian lit.

This article originally appeared in Bookhugger.

Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

What more can there possibly be to say about Shakespeare?

This was the ignoble thought I carried into the British Museum’s much-hyped autumn blockbuster, Shakespeare: staging the world. Frankly, Shakespeare exegesis suffers from the same paradox as the diet industry. Every commentator ends up saying the same thing, and what they say contradicts what they are currently asking their audience to do: stop studying the theory and take action. Go get on your cross trainer. Go watch the plays. Go live.

Moreover, thanks to this year’s national Jubilympic chest-beating, we’re in serious danger of Shakespeare saturation. The bard is the punchline to every British identity crisis; we may be repressed, recessed and responsible for The Only Way Is Essex, but hey, look, we also produced this.

Staging the world forms the tail end of the Cultural Olympiad’s World Shakespeare Festival, which has spawned a bumper crop of great productions (current stand-outs include The Globe’s Twelfth Night, the National’s Timon of Athens and the Almeida’s King Lear) alongside an overspilling codpiece of related Elizabethan delights, from Branagh’s burst of Tempest at the Opening Ceremony to the sonnets being set to music for the first time.

All of which sets the British Museum a big challenge. How to persuade pomp-weary Londoners that this exhibition will truly enhance their drizzly back-to-school lives? Even the title sounds like the product of a Twenty Twelve brainstorm. “OK folks, let’s take a room in Bloomsbury and oh, I dunno, put the whole planet in it. That’ll be totes amaze.” But for your own sake, don’t be put off. Original, clearly articulated and deeply moving, with Staging the World, they’ve saved the best til last.

Unsurprisingly, this is an exhibition full of words, with specially recorded RSC actor-projections and pithy quotes plastered on the walls.  The space hisses with overlapping voices; the sound of an incoming theatre audience piped through the entryway is a nice touch. But it’s the thinginess of this show that makes it sing. As you encounter the chunk of legend-drenched Hernes oak, the ear scoop excavated from the site of the original Globe, and the spade and watering pot enabling citizens to bring a little patch of Arden into their urban back yard, you quickly discover that these hardy scraps of territory and identity evoke our pre-digital past in a way that timelines and Red Dwarf talking heads cannot.It is such stuff as dreams are made on; phenomenal poetry, a drama of gear.

It is a great tragedy that Shakespeare has become associated with the middle classes, via public school thespians and white-haired audiences. Three of the first exhibits are a 1600s dagger and rapier hauled out of the Thames, the skull of a bear used for baiting outside the playhouse, and a 1603 manuscript showing royal orders to prevent the spread of the plague. Shakespeare’s London was visceral and dangerous, and playhouses were immersed in poverty, cruelty and crime. Curator Dora Thornton has been careful to highlight the political implications of playwriting, too. ‘Kingship, rebellion and witchcraft’, a room dedicated to James I, outlines the “theatrical torture” which drew crowds to a very different sort of stage; in the middle of the room, a small silver reliquary holds the shrivelled right eye of Gunpowder Plotter Edward Oldcorne. Gloucester’s gouging and Shylock’s pound of flesh were no mere metaphors, and our coalition grumbles are cosy compared to stakes as high as this. Browsing the relics of horror and fear, I began to suspect that Shakespeare is no longer the poet of London. His world has much more to say to the Sudan or Pakistan.

Of course, the point of recreating Shakespeare’s world is to hold a mirror up to our own. Moving through the nine sections that make up the exhibition, from Arden to the classical past, Venice to exotic New Worlds, you realise that his was a time of exploding global connectivity akin to our own social media-enabled ‘revolution’. An extraordinary 1596 portrait shows diplomat Henry Unton presiding over scenes from his travels like the star of a giant Pinterest board; Sir Michael Balfour’s friendship album, a little journal of sketches and comments from his Venetian travels, is a beta Facebook. Maps, far from being geographically functional, were controversial political tools, a truth to which Apple and Google certainly still adhere. A golden ‘astrological compendium’ from 1593 combining compass, perpetual calendar, nocturnal, lunar calendar and list of altitudes is the ultimate backpacker’s app. However, the Elizabethan response to these new horizons was not a drive to comfortable homogenisation but a fetishism of the strange. Exotic fabrics, relics and customs became the ultimate status symbols. Even the most jaded Attenborough fan has to draw breath when confronted with the six-foot narwhal tusk hanging on the wall.

But if there is one theme that unites these 190 paintings, maps, books, coins, suits of armour, medals, tapestries, textiles and, well, oddities, it is an assertion of the complex power that physical objects wielded in Shakespeare’s day. A grubby beanie is revealed to be a ‘statute’ cap, which was declared mandatory wear in 1571 to boost a struggling wool industry. The Stratford Chalice, a gorgeous silver communion cup, turns out to be an instrument of social control that forced rich and poor parishioners alike to swallow politically-driven Protestantism. The Glenorchy charmstone, an equally gleaming crystal and silver treasure, is actually a crusading aristocrat’s treasure drenched in centuries’ worth of pagan healing lore. A set of 52 playing cards bearing exquisite illustrations of the counties of England and Wales represents a whole project of British identity-making, as monarchs shuffled their territories in a global game. In the era of IKEA, it is hard for us to comprehend that functional objects such as caps, cups and cards might be so urgently culturally, religiously, politically and socially endowed.

Playing with identity - Swamibu @ Flickr

As Antony Sher’s accompanying audioguide puts it, “magical thinking, beyond any specific belief in witchcraft or the occult, was universal in Shakespeare’s world.” We are not talking here about religion or superstition but about a whole way of seeing reality: an incredibly thin membrane between the physical and the imagined, the symbolic and the sensual. And that membrane is the canvas that Shakespeare’s plays slide across, paint on and puncture. Opening ourselves to it is central to understanding the unique pleasure and power of his words.

If there’s one thing we need as winter draws in, as fourteen year old bloggers get shot and disgraced heroes are stripped of their medals and the exhilaration of the summer fades into bruised memory, it’s a reminder that magic can still be found in the world - even if that world is violent, unjust and unstable to its very core. The British Museum is a good place to start.

This article originally appeared in London Calling

 

James Bond: Trash Or Art?

Indulge me in a little exercise. Open a new tab on your browser, enter Amazon.co.uk and type ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ into the search bar. After multiple DVDs, CDs and audio downloads (but thankfully before the OPI nail varnish, ‘retro maxi poster’, 1:36th scale Aston Martin DBS model and silver framed magnetic notice board) you’ll find Ian Fleming’s paperback. Click on Look Inside! and read the first chapter.

Aren’t you glad you indulged? Whether you’re that rare creature, a Bond virgin, or whether, like me, you simply haven’t revisited the original books for several years, I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised, especially if you’re a woman. Because with all the excitement around this month’s release of Skyfall - the latest, and according to most reviewers, one of the greatest, in the Bond film franchise, which also happens to mark the fiftieth anniversary since Dr. No brought James to our screens in 1962 – it can be easy to underestimate the skill and subtlety of a writer associated with girls dipped in oil and gold like bankers’ crudités.

For me, the most immediate accomplishment of ‘Seascape with Figures’ – a chapter heading more reminiscent of Virginia Woolf than Pussy Galore – lies in the author’s aptitude for detail. Like any good journalist, Fleming names rather than describes what he sees, and his specificity – the plant species, the exact distances and sizes of things, the names of the playground enclosures, the colours and flags on the boats – evokes vividness without sentimentality. This is filmic writing from the off, where minute close-ups alternate with wide-lens sweeps, and contrasting shades and shapes are carefully juxtaposed. My first reaction is not surprise that such successful action movies have been made from such lyrical books, but that the films themselves aren’t more beautiful. Fleming’s writing is more Boudin than bonkbuster, and it throws the action into sharper relief.

The next delight occurs when we plunge from the plages straight into Bond’s head, only to bypass the self-assured sophisticated for a childhood James: grubbing in the sand, dirty, frustrated, vulnerable, chastised. It gives instant depth and humanity to the focused killer, for all that he quickly shakes off the memory with a flick of his cigarette.  And this is swiftly followed by Fleming’s wit, a subtle knife which has none of the glibness of the films and which judges our hero more harshly than we might expect. Bond, caught in a moment of introspective weakness, asserts himself with gruff self-dramatisation as a woman-hunting spy; Bond observes coldly, scientifically, the prominence of French girls’ navels and their relationship to fertility. It’s funny, damning, bizarre. I simultaneously laughed out loud and cringed.

There is darkness in this passage too; genuine darkness, without the camp histrionics of a movie set piece. The “briefly, grittily” writhing lovers on the dusky abandoned beach and the fragility of the white, hunted girl on the bloody sunset-streaked sand is more Don’t Look Now than For Your Eyes Only. And finally, you get the smooth Drambuie savour of his masterfully engineered plot. In the text, the end-of-chapter segue to flashback, which can come across as so clunky on screen, makes you want to punch the air with glee.

Admittedly, I’ve picked a good ‘un. Fleming certainly has his flaws, and reading too many Bonds can leave you with a stale aftertaste akin to a Martini hangover. The writing’s earnestness and endless references to aspirational cars, drinks, clothes and cigars can be wearing. The sexism (which even Fleming’s niece Lucy concedes) is difficult to dismiss as a trait that belongs solely to Bond. And individual novels are of variable quality; Fleming himself tried to block the UK paperback edition of The Spy Who Loved Me after critics and fans alike quite rightly lambasted its slapdash characterisation, sleaze and violence.

The literary establishment has traditionally been rather dismissive about Fleming; the Oxford Companion to English Literature concludes his three-line entry with the sneering aside that “Bond has appeared in many highly popular films which mingle sex and violence with a wit that, for some, renders them intellectually respectable.” The fact that other novelists, such as Sir Kingsley Amis (under the pen name Robert Markham), John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver have been roped in to produce their own Bond novels over the years, has also reinforced an unhelpful belief that while Fleming’s central idea is precious, his prose is not.

However, the importance of that central idea is not to be underestimated. In Christopher Booker’sThe Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Fleming’s plots are hailed as some of the best examples of the ancient ‘Overcoming the Monster’ archetype, their hold over our collective imagination timeless and timelessly satisfying. As for prose, when Faulks was asked to write Devil May Care, a one-off instalment to celebrate the centenary of the author’s birth, he was surprised, on re-reading, “by how well the books stood up. I put this down to three things: the sense of jeopardy Fleming creates about his solitary hero; a certain playfulness in the narrative details; and a crisp, journalistic style that hasn’t dated.”

Indeed, Fleming’s ability to inspire not just filmmakers and merchandisers but other writers is a sign of how potent his mixture of lyricism and action, interiority and object fetishism, really are. In a 2007 BBC Radio 4 programme Amis, Amis and Bond, Martin Amis spoke with equally effusive super-fan Charlie Higson about the deep impact Fleming had on his father. In fact, as a stunt for the premiere of Skyfall, Higson has even been squashing 007 plots into 140-character tweets: Bond as (repetitive) poetry, no less.

So whether you’re inspired by or indifferent to Daniel Craig’s majestic brooding, I’d urge you to give Fleming’s original texts a try. Having raced through three, I’m continuing to uproot my action/thriller aversion and finding other unexpected joys in John Le Carré, A.D. Miller’s recent Booker-shortlisted debut Snowdrops and even that old stalwart Wilbur Smith. Shaken out of my snobbery, stirred by surprise, I’m being reminded that genre prejudice remains the book-lover’s true criminal mastermind.

This article originally appeared in Bookdiva.

Theatreland's Celebrity Ladder

TThe moment Stephen Fry utters his first lugubrious syllable in Tim Carroll’s Twelfth Night at The Globe, a frisson runs through the assembled crowd. By now, surely no nation on earth remains untouched by repeats of QI, and a good number of tourists and Londoners alike will have braved the October weather to see Lord Melchett as Malvolio. Fry repays them amply; this is, after all, a man who trod the boards long before Hollywood called. And while he milks the monologues for maximum wit, Fry is much subtler than Blackadder fans might expect; he is willing to hold back on easy laughs in order to remind us that this betrayed butler is a poor forked creature with hopes and dreams as real as ours. In short, he reminds us that he can actually act. It is a delightful reclamation of a performer who has, on TV and film, become almost a pastiche of himself.

Celebrity is a tricky concept in the theatre world. In ancient Greece, theatre had as central a role in society as government or religion, yet the actors’ masks encouraged personal fame to be subsumed beneath the archetypes they played. In Shakespeare’s time, most actors were hard-living, politically cunning and ruthlessly mercenary, equal parts hero and villain. Nowadays, too much fame, let alone fortune, can brand a stage-grown success a sell out; too little, and they find themselves continually sidelined for the latest overhyped starlet looking to claw back a little credibility under a west end pros arch.

So what are the celebrity strata that determine rank in the theatre world? What does stardom really mean in a distinctly unglamorous industry?

Fry is undeniably an A-list thespian. He also happens to be an A-list movie star. But these two categories of fame are very different, and frequently incompatible. Several box-office darlings with coconut water and method coaches in tow have discovered that film A-list does not only not guarantee status in the west end, it makes it even harder to earn. In theatre, ‘A’ must stand for Authentic, as well as Adored In America; it begins with a youthful period of dues-earning in the fringes or spear-bearing at the RSC and usually ends on its knees in front of the Queen. Bona fide A-listers include Maggie Smith, Ian McKellan, John Hurt, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh and Julie Walters (who recently, brilliantly returned to the stage for the first time in over a decade for The Last Of The Haussmans at the National Theatre to prove she can still act, too): essentially, the cast of Harry Potter.

And unlike film, theatre’s A-list has a shadow cabinet: the S-list. S-listers have all the form and talent of the ‘A’s – often more – but a quirk of career path, age or looks has kept them out of the international screen scene. Mark Rylance, also playing in Twelfth Night with a reprise of his Olivia from ten years ago, is a great example of this. Back then, he was an eccentric industry darling little known outside theatre circles. Thanks to cross-Atlantic accolades and awards for his role in Jerusalem, he’s now selling tickets as effectively as Fry. But the fame is still largely theatre-centric, and casting directors have always found it hard to accommodate his particular brand of genius on the screen. Rylance is too much of an original and a rebel to wholly fit into the ‘A’. He will continue to do some of the best acting ever witnessed, but where he does it best: on the stage.

Other S-listers include Rory Kinnear, Simon Russell Beale, Iain Glen, Helen McCrory and Anne Marie Duff. They give good character on British TV, but to catch their prime you have to leave the house. When asked for recommendations from theatre novices, I’ll try and pick a production with an S-lister at the helm. I know they’ll produce the kind of magic you just can’t get on film, and that the recommendee will come away amazed they’re not international stars. But that’s the thing about S-listers: we want them to stay ‘S’, because they’re our secret.

Which brings us to the I-list. The I-listers are the actors that regular theatre-goers have admired for years, and slightly resent becoming public property – hence ‘I’ for ‘I Knew Him When’. Ah, cry theatre lovers, what is Ben Wishaw’s cute turn as Q compared to his 2004 emaciated Hamlet or his brutal Elliot in Mercury Fur? Benedict Cumberbatch is another classic ‘I’; we knew him as the oddly sexy star of Richard Eyre’s Hedda Gabbler and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein before Sherlock suddenly catapulted him into a very different league of fame, and we’re slightly discombobulated that our weird crush has become mainstream hot. And anyone who saw Tom Hardy in In Arabia We’d All Be Kings at the Royal Court in 2003 or the National’s The Man of Mode in 2007, will watch him ace the film The Dark Knight Rises with the mournful pride of a mother sending her special soldier off to fresher’s fair.

Behind the ‘I’’s come the 'W's: the ‘Weren’t Theys’ – actors and actresses who, in a reverse journey from screen to stage, have found a niche on TV and now earned the right to their first decent theatre roles. Again, Carroll’s Twelfth Night offers a perfect example in Samuel Barnett’s Sebastian. Barnett recently gained a cult following with a beautifully observed turn as the obnoxious PA Daniel in the BBC’S Twenty Twelve, and his entrance induces a classic W-list audience sequence of frown; squint; recognize; squeal catchphrase for instant nerd points (‘Soya latte? Great choice! Enjoy!’) Spotting W-listers is a rewarding game; there is particular pleasure in seeing a promising young actor start to mingle with the greats.

Finally, we get to the ‘C’s. The ‘C’s have no celebrity at all. The ‘C’s are Canon Fodder: anonymous, fresh faces playing bit-parts in the regions to get their first break. Unrecognised, exhausted, trying to fling out their handful of lines with enough panache to make a casting director bite, they are apparently the backbone of the British theatre tradition, but they don’t feel like backbone, they feel rubbish (I speak from experience). They’d trade their experimental Ibsen for a corpse part on Holby City in a blink. But, because we’re talking about theatre, the ‘C’s have perhaps the greatest status of all. They are what gives the ‘A’s their authenticity. They are what separates a Spacey (fantastic, but hasn’t lain shivering in a B&B awaiting the opening night of a ‘modern take on Electra’ in Barnsley Town Hall) from a Judi. They’re top of the ladder, because they’re holding it from below.

So yes, buy your ticket for Fry. But once in a while, take a chance on the fringiest bit of fringe you can find as well.

This article originally appeared in London Calling

Writers' Rooms

Why do I have such an enduring fascination with seeing the places that writers write? Forget overblown S&M; Fifty Shades of Farrow & Ball Elephants Breath is my preferred flavor of porn.

One of my favourite procrastinatory activities, after having sat for a few minutes with my fingers quivering above the keyboard as if I were bloody David Helfgott contemplating Rach 3, is to shy like a pony and slope off for a dose of Writers’ Rooms from the Guardian archives. Compulsively consuming the details of Sebastian Faulks’s student-digs study, or Martin Amis’s glass-ceilinged nook provides sweet reassurance that even brilliant, long-practiced writers hoard bizarre talismans, stare out the window and get tempted by Spider Solitaire.

The photographs for the series are taken by Eamon McCabe, who mounted an exhibition a few years ago; you can still watch his audio slideshow on the BBC website. Browsing these spaces is a way of feeling closer to authors you love, of picking up on telling hints about their personalities and daily routines, but I’m also sure some small, irrational part of me searches these scribes’ pads for coded secrets of success. If my desk were vintage cherry, not Ikea MDF, might I develop the ability to resist adverbs? Would the manic energy of a Pollock on the wall render me incapable of cliché? Wait, is that Montaigne I see on a bookshelf again? Dear God, why have I never read Montaigne?

Once you fall into the (sound-proofed, rattan-floored) rabbit hole, you realise how many pushers there are out there tempting you to indulge. Just this week I’ve been distracted by the Huffington Post’s slideshow of ‘Famous Writers’ Retreats: The Rooms Where Classics Were Created’ (poet Robert Stephen’s Hawker’s Hut puts a whole new spin on suffering for your art) and, slightly bizarrely, an album of 15 writers’ bedrooms from Apartment Therapy, as if soft furnishings have the ability to convey bons mots to the sleeping brain.

The more images you see, the more you notice a tension between the sensualists and the minimalists. Predictably, as most authors famous enough to be profiled are middle-class and relatively mainstream, there is tendency towards shabby chic, art-filled wombs with tribal masks on the wall and sash windows looking out onto trembling lime trees. But there are still proponents of what McCabe calls the “bare-lightbulb” approach: a shabby simplicity that harks back to a long tradition of starving wordsmiths and which feels, no doubt unfairly, like a more authentic habitat for those with supremely colourful brains. McCabe remembers being most surprised by V.S. Naipal’s Spartan “sixth former’s study” but on further reflection this bareness seems the perfect foil for a mind transported to the rich chaos of India. Russell Hoban’s crammed basement hovel  “should carry a health warning” but is also “the best room ever” – in the tradition of CS Lewis’s wardrobe, its mundane mayhem looks like it could be a purposefully innocuous portal to other worlds.

It’s a tension that fascinates Kyle Cassidy, an American photographer whose ‘Where I Write’ project -showing fantasy and science fiction authors in their creative spaces – started as an insert in the Worldcon 2009 programme and is now graduating into a book, featuring Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold, and many others along with interviews. “It’s always a bit of a surprise”, Cassidy explains. “I can’t really tell from someone’s writing if they’re going to have a cluttered space with a 15 year old computer and a layer of dust or an immaculate one with a bowl of fresh fruit and a collection of fountain pens and handbound journals. It does seem that once you get super-successful your room gets a little less interesting (though possibly more functional) because you have people to help you out with things, and very likely because you’re so busy that you have to get more organized.”

Unlike McCabe, his photos feature the writers within their rooms, and the intimacy he shared with his subjects while he shot were a bibliophile’s dream. “I think probably the most fun I had anywhere was at Piers Anthony’s. I got to watch him shoot a bow and arrow — and how many times are you in the woods watching Piers Anthony shoot a bow and arrow at a paint can? Though Harry Harrison’s place was like the most awesome party you’ve ever been to where there was nobody there but you.” He’d like to shoot the spaces of J.K. Rowling, Joss Whedon, or Stephen King just for the fanboy fun, but “there are some that I think I’d love to photograph because I have absolutely no idea in my mind what they’d look like – like George R. R. Martin or Harlan Ellison. “

Playing through the literary keyhole isn’t just something that intrigues other creative types. When I say that I write, one of the first questions people invariably ask me is not what, or why, or how, but where. The implication is that creativity needs special treatment: isolation from the mundane, or extra oxygen. But writing is about five percent creativity and ninety-five percent hard graft, and for your average spare-time hack, time to write is such a luxury that place becomes purely opportunistic.

Personally, I favour the sociable anonymity of a library. My annual membership of the London Library – intimate in feel, epic in knowledge, with a calm yet charged atmosphere – is a worthy investment. But I will write anywhere; I must, if I am ever to hit my word count. Admittedly, nailing a difficult sentence in someone else’s spare room while everyone gets ready for a wedding, or crouched on the filthy carpet of Las Vegas airport illicitly stealing the plug space of a fruit machine, is not ideal. But rootless writing often returns the best results, and my ideal writer’s rooms is a moving one. Train carriages and airplanes send me into a productive trance, as if the movement negates my own restlessness and allows the words to flow as freely as the scenery. The excuse of poor connectivity means that I can shut out the world, hunker into a corner, let the randomness of strangers filter quietly through my ears, and get a hell of a lot of shit done. If I could afford the fare, I’d spend my days rattling back and forth from London to Aberdeen with nothing but a lunch box and some eye drops.

Do you have an ideal writing or reading space? Whose would you love to peek into if you could?

This article originally appeared in Bookdiva