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The Library of Babel

February 3, 2016

Imagine a library. In this library is every word that has been, and will ever be, written.

If the concept seems familiar, perhaps you’ve read a short story by Borges, called ‘The Library of Babel’, which revolves around a similar collection of volumes upon volumes of every word ever written in every possible permutation.

Borges’ Library is a hypothetical. A thought experiment. The notion that a colossal library filled with every work of literature, every hastily scrawled love note, and every council tax bill ever written is an entertaining thought, but is surely, sadly, an impossibility.

It exists.

Libraryofbabel.info is the brainchild of Jonathan Basile, a computer programmer and self-described ‘librarian of Babel’. Within the virtual stacks of the library, a program whirrs away, frantically tapping out letter after random letter, filling books and neatly tidying them away upon the shelves. Unlike Borges’ Library, which features books which are, although bizarre, at least somewhat comprehensible, the vast majority of the ‘books’ in Library of Babel are absolute gibberish, occasionally interrupted by legible words, or even entire paragraphs. Perhaps a better comparison would be to the proverbial room full of monkeys, eternally striving to type the works of Shakespeare.

Of course, unlike those poor immortal monkeys, Library of Babel actually has typed the works of Shakespeare. At least, it’s typed 3200 characters worth of the works of Shakespeare.  It’s also typed The Aeneid.  And the wikipedia page for ‘The Library of Babel’. And this very blog post.

It’s not a trick, Basile explains. Anything you find while surfing the Library’s shelves will remain exactly where you find it, forever. ‘We do not simply generate and store books as they are requested – in fact, the storage demands would make that impossible.’

So I’m left to ponder a couple of pretty tough questions.

  1. If everything I will ever write has already been written by an insane typing robot, can I truly say that anything I write will be ‘original’?
  2. If the next bestseller is lurking somewhere in this huge collection of text, could I steal it, publish it, and make a killing?

I’ll address the Question #2 first, because I’m feeling too upbeat to tackle Question #1, and because Question #1 is a concept that’s already been tackled at least a dozen times.

So anyway, Question #2. The ‘if’ is not a hypothetical – there is no question that somewhere in the Library of Babel, the next Harry Potter, the next 50 Shades, or the next horrible amalgamation of the two, is waiting to be discovered. The sheer number of iterations of different words and letters almost guarantees that this will be the case. And should someone discover the magical sequence, copy+paste it, and ship it off to a publisher, it would be impossible to prove that they had in fact stolen it from a virtual room full of monkeys. It would be the perfect crime.

Of course, all of this supposes that someone will actually be able to find that bestseller. A quick skim through the first few pages of the first book on the first shelf in the first room of the Library (entitled tig .xswfor the curious) reveals that most of what you will find in the Library will be complete and utter gibberish. It would take somebody a lifetime, maybe ten lifetimes, to sort through the books in the first room alone. Which is why Basile built a program to do that exact thing in the first place.

Which brings me to the big failure of the Library of Babel. I’m reminded somewhat of a question I ran into on willyoupushthebutton.com that went: ‘You can have infinite knowledge on every subject, but you will never be able to tell anyone what you know.’ That situation is embodied in the Library of Babel. One of those books will be 409 pages of random letters and 1 page of a snippet from the Library of Alexandria, and we might never know. Now that the Library of Babel is (probably) complete, there’s been a substantial effort on the forums to collate and analyse what information (if any) there is to be found. They have some pretty cute ASCII art. There’s also a guy searching for his own obituary. So far, no bestsellers. So far, no library of Alexandria.

So far.

 

 

 

 

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books | writing | writing tips

Reading Aloud

January 6, 2016

When I was four years old, something incredible happened to me. I was sat in my classroom, just before lunchtime, poring over a copy of Meg and Mog. All around me I could hear the gentle rhythm of my classmates reading aloud their own books. My own voice, small and wavering, joined them.

But then all of a sudden, something clicked. All of a sudden, I was no longer reading aloud – I was reading in my head. ‘Great!’ I thought, ‘Now I never have to embarrass myself by reading aloud like a baby ever again!’ There would be no more ‘sounding out’ of words like ‘and’ and ‘then’, no more long pauses while I carefully turned the page with tiny, chubby hands. All my reading could be stowed away safely in my mind, unscrutinised by teachers or friends.

I’m not at all surprised that for most people, the art of reading aloud is lost in those first moments of silent triumph. If I hadn’t had the benefit of being a massive show-off (I could do all the voices, and sometimes the actions, and I wanted everyone to know about it), I might never have read a book out loud again. Most people never do read aloud again, unless they’re forced to by their teachers, or later, by their children. We all know that reading aloud is good for us, and good for our listeners, but very few of us actually do it.

Isn’t that weird? I started thinking about reading aloud again the other day, halfway through a drunken dramatic reading of that keystone of modern literature, My Immortal. ‘What if,’ I thought, ‘What if I read aloud more often? Would it be weird, like singing in the shower? Would it be interesting? Would anyone want to listen?’

Then I forgot all about it and spent the next hour eating pizza and building a blanket fort.

A few days later, I realised that I might actually have been on to something. Reading aloud, I realised, was a good thing to practise doing. Firstly because I am a writer, and sooner or later I’m going to have to read something to someone, and it would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to stumble through names of characters or places I’ve just now realised I’ve never heard pronounced before.

Secondly, reading aloud is a great way to edit. When I wrote scripts, I read back the lines to myself (while waving my arms around and pulling funny faces, of course) all the time, to double check that they made sense. Why not do the same for my prose fiction? Why not do the same for other people’s prose fiction?

When we read aloud, we appreciate the written word in a way that we don’t when it’s ‘in our head’. In our head, we’re much more forgiving of misspellings and odd turns of phrase, because our brain, being the clever little snot that it is, has a tendency to correct things for us.  Out loud, there’s no such escape for the bland dialogue or the misplaced comma.

When we read aloud, we force ourselves to really take note of everything we read. We run the words along our tongues like each one is a particularly satisfying ice lolly. We learn to appreciate each pause for breath. We give the characters voices, and we spot immediately any weird deviation from their usual personality. I’ve heard it said a hundred times that any good writer first has to read, has to pore over the classics and the moderns in search of that little kernel of technique that they can adapt for their own work. Reading aloud helps us spot problems in a work, but it also helps us to appreciate when something is really, really good. Did that last sentence sound good to you? Read it again. Say it in your own voice. Say it in someone else’s voice. You could do this all day.

Don’t want to sit around in an empty house reading to just yourself? Find a willing audience. Children, obviously, love being read to. Apparently, so do pets.  If it’s your own work you’re reading, try signing up to an open mic and give it a test run in front of a real audience. If you want to get a feel for a certain style, or just test out your voice, why not volunteer for the talking newspaper, or join a reading group? If you find that reading aloud is the best thing you’ve ever tried, I’d like to hear about it. Or, if you try it and end up ridiculed by your peers and peed on by your cat, I’d like to hear about that too. The comments section is right there, below this post.

 

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writing | writing tips

Dreams and Inspiration

January 5, 2016

Everybody dreams. Everybody has woken, shivering, in the middle of the night still brushing imaginary shadows from their face. Everybody has drifted off on the bus, wondering if the stranger sat beside them might be a secret agent, or a wizard, or any number of unlikely things.

Our dreams are limitless, in ways that the real world is not. Taking inspiration from our dreams seems natural, even for realistic fiction – and for fantasy genres, our dreams can provide a good starting point for the magical and fantastical.

I keep a dream journal under my pillow (it’s not a very big journal), along with a pen, and whenever I wake up in the middle of the night, or when I’m blinking away the cobwebs in the morning, I try to jot down the gist of what I was dreaming about.

It’s not easy, at first, to remember your dreams – your brain treats them a bit like a yoghurt carton. First it wants to scoop out the gooey memories  of your day so it can digest and make sense of them over the course of a night, and then when you wake up, it tosses out the dream.

And like a yoghurt carton, if you are so inclined, you can scoop those dreams out of the rubbish, scrape out every last morsel of inspiration, and examine it under a microscope.

That’s the first step to recalling your dreams. Be prepared for the disappointment that comes when you awaken, full of brilliant ideas, only to find that they’ve drifted out of your mind in the few seconds it took to open up your notebook. Be prepared to really rack your brain for just one moment of your dream. Be prepared to really irritate your partner by waking them up at 6AM to grab your journal from beneath the pillow.

Slowly but surely, it will get easier. Instead of being able to recall nothing but vague shapes and key ideas, you’ll be able to remember tiny, almost insignificant details and complex plots. You’ll find that your dreams become richer and more varied by the day. You’ll be able to pick out recurring themes and symbols. Now comes the easy part – using your dreams in your writing.

Start by paying attention to the atmosphere of your dream – the sounds, the colours, the feel of different objects. Dreams take us to places we can quite literally only imagine – so make them real with your writing. Say you dreamt about dancing on a cloud. How does it feel? Is it cold? Warm? Was there music? What could you see around you? The trick is to blend your real-life experiences and expectations with the fantasy of the dream world.

Of course, you’re not going to dream up a novel in one night. Drawing inspiration from dreams is the same as drawing inspiration from anywhere else – you have to build on those isolated moments of imagination to create something bigger, something better. Try merging snippets of dream together to create a prompt, or combine your dream journal with your real-life journal to create characters, places and situations that are well and truly unique.

 

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Uncategorized | writing

Write Every Day: My New Year’s Resolution

January 4, 2016

Well okay, it’s January 4th. I’m a bit late off the mark for a proper New Year’s Resolution, and that’s precisely why it’s so important for me to have one.

Back in November, I managed to not just write every day, but to stick to a pretty high wordcount goal as well. Some days were easier than others – one day I might write 4,000 words, only to fall behind and churn out a lacklustre paragraph the day after.

So there’s no wordcount goal. The only requirement is that I write something reasonably creative every single day from now until next year. It might be a blog post, it might be a short story or a poem – it might be a few more pages of that novel I’ve been working on. I’m feeling good about this – let’s see how long I can keep it up!

Does anyone else have any writerly New Year’s Resolutions they’d like to share? I’d love to hear about them. Let’s stick to our goals together!

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books | reviews

Review: Sister Noon

December 16, 2015

Sister Noon is one of several books I’ve read recently that have promised adventure, magic, and mystery, and yet have delivered nothing but the drabness of the everyday. In some ways, I think that was the point. Minor spoilers below.

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writing

November’s End: The NaNo update

December 15, 2015

I have a pretty big announcement to make. On the 30th of November, after a month of illness and grouchiness filled with days (and sleepless nights) where I had literally nothing to do except write, I won NaNoWriMo for the first time since I first attempted the challenge way back in 2008. It’s kind of a big deal for me, because it’s the first time (and I know, this sounds pretty bad) that I committed to writing every single day and actually managed to stick to that commitment.

So anyway, it’s now the 15th of December and I haven’t ‘written’ a single thing since the 1st. Now I have my excuses – I’ve been busy with work, I’ve been healthy enough to seek out activities outside of my snot-stained bedsheets, and my brain is slowly becoming filled with glittery, jingling alarm bells as Christmas draws closer and I realise that I haven’t even begun shopping yet.

So I haven’t really been writing. What I have been doing is planning. I’ll be honest with you – I wasn’t happy with the way my NaNo novel turned out. For one thing, it’s nowhere close to finished – 50,000 words has only carried my beloved protagonists through a single plot point, and they’re not a whole lot closer to uncovering the mystery that has haunted all of their lives for more than ten years, defeating the darkness that destroyed their childhoods, or avenging the friend they didn’t have the strength to save. Part of the problem (most of the problem) is that I just didn’t know any of that stuff was on the agenda until I’d spent 30,000 words aimlessly shuffling those protagonists around in the hope that a plot would leap out at me.

So now I’m thinking things through. Who are my protagonists? Who are they really? What do they want? Why do they want it? Where are they going? There’s a lot of ‘W’-words in italics involved. It’s tricky stuff.

The short version is, I’m not writing. At this rate, I might not be writing for a while. But when I do start writing, I’ll be writing more carefully, more confidently than I’ve ever written before, because I won’t be churning out words without purpose to meet an arbitrary deadline – I’ll be churning out words with a plan. And thanks to NaNoWriMo, I have a solid foundation of words on which to build this novel, brick by brick.

 

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Octarine: Submissions now open!

October 19, 2015

Recently I’ve gotten myself involved with an exciting new project. It’s called Octarine, and it’s a student-run literary magazine based at the University of East Anglia. What drew me to Octarine was that their mission statement rejects the insular nature of most student magazines – Octarine wants to showcase work from beyond the confines of the university, and reach out to the wider Norfolk literary community.

Why bring this up now? Well, submissions have just opened for Octarine’s very first issue, and I can’t contain my excitement any longer! I feel so lucky to be involved with such an amazing project, and I’m especially looking forward to seeing our first issue in print.

I’m part of the editing team, so if you’re interested in having me hunch over your work in the early hours of the morning, nitpicking away at your precious literary babies, you can submit it now by sending it to octarinemagazine@gmail.com with the title SUBMISSION (TITLE, YOUR NAME).

A lot of passion has gone into making Octarine, and so that’s the theme of our first issue. Specifically, we’re looking for submissions themed around this quote, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“I want to know what passion is. I want to feel something strongly.”

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my work | writing

Help! I’ve been Anthologised!

July 3, 2015

Well, I’m now a published author. In real life. I have a silly bio line and everything.

Honestly, I feel there’s no way I could have done this without the help of my coursemates and tutors at the UEA. Without them, I’d still be a grumpy teenager sat writing weird fiction in my bedroom. Now, I’m a slightly-less-grumpy adult sat writing weird fiction in my bedroom.

You can read their wonderful stories in Undergrowth, now available to buy from Eggbox Publishing. I’ve included a short excerpt from my own story, ‘Rat Man’, below, just to sweeten the deal.

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1 Year Later…

August 10, 2014

Well, it’s been over a year since I started this blog. Along the way I’ve learned a lot of things, and none of them are to do with writing blogs. Sorry.

I think my favourite part about this blog has been having the ability to broadcast whatever I like across the internet. It’s been good sharing my (unpopular) opinions on music, video games, and the dreaded feelings. It’s been even better seeing people respond to those opinions. It’s good to know that I’m not just shouting into the void. So thank you, everyone who commented, reblogged, liked and shared my stuff. I really appreciate it!

So what’s next for me? Well, to begin with, I want to increase my output here. I’ll be posting a lot more of my own work, both extracts from things-in-progress and finished pieces. I want to write more reviews, and introduce more interesting things that I’ve come in contact with to the rest of the world. I also want to share more writing tips, which is something I’ve been pretty lax on lately.

In the present moment, however, I’ve embarked upon a writing project with my awesome friend Izzy Ball. It’s called Witch Lad, and you should definitely, definitely check it out!

 

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my work

The Traffic

August 5, 2014

Hello. This is the traffic news at noon.

There has been a breakdown on the M6 Northbound between Junctions 4 and 5, where a young woman at the pinnacle of her professional career has just buried her face in her hands knowing that wherever she goes from now will be down. Delays are expected as she pulls her self together and fumbles in the glovebox for a tissue, or a wet wipe, or, or something, and wipes the dripping mascara from her eyes so hard the skin beneath turns red, because she is, quite frankly, being ridiculous.

An update on the situation on the A40, where earlier this morning a couple found themselves unable to locate the exit to the ring road and have spent an hour and a half driving up, and down, and up again in a futile attempt to escape: their son has now called, asking if they’re alright and whether or not they’re still coming for dinner. They are, they are, the mother yells, unable to comprehend how to turn the damn thing to speakerphone. They pass the exit for a fourth time. In the ensuing argument, they forget to hang up.

A big hello to everyone stuck in traffic on the M25 – especially the man in the business suit and tie jamming his hand on the horn as though the sonar waves will somehow dissolve the endless buildup of vehicles before you – you know who you are, sir. Next time, just take the train.

There has been an accident on the motorway just outside of Cambridge – two cars collided when the driver of one of the vehicles lost control and careened into the blue ford fiesta carrying a young mother and her child. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, and for the rest of the man’s life he will deny that he let go of the wheel to finally feel what it was like to take a risk. Meanwhile, onlookers stare in shock and horror at the mangled fronts of the cars, unable to help and equally unable to drive away – except for one student, who has pulled over beside the weeping child in order to tweet about her awful morning.  ‘How dare they crash and cause a traffic jam,’ she pounds the keys frenetically as she types, ‘on the same day I was going for lunch at the pony club?’ Hashtag : rude.

A man and his teenage daughter have been waiting at a roundabout outside Shrewsbury for two minutes, enough time for the song she is singing – by, he thinks, uh, ‘The Starship Cobras’? or is it, ‘Her Chemical Romance’? He can’t keep track. But she’s quite good. And as she reaches the chorus – music is so repetitive these days, he can’t stand it – his mouth shapes the form of three words, three words that he hasn’t said in a long time. But that would be pretty uncool, and some idiot has just cut him up, and before he can stop himself he’s murmuring ‘SHIT!’ and slamming his hand down on the horn. The noise startles the girl, and she stops singing to sweep her fringe back into her eyes roll them at the sun streaming in through the glass. Vehicle recovery has not yet been attempted.

Traffic is moving slowly on the A5 moving south towards St. Albans –  a bus full of school children appears to have come to a complete stop after their history teacher began to lecture them on the history of what he has dubbed ‘the world’s first motorway’ – how it began from humble origins as an ancient dirt track, and grew to be the most beautiful road in England – don’t you think? Anyone? Anyone?

They will continue to move at this slow pace all the way to what Mr Smith insists on calling ‘Verulamium’ – ‘As the Romans did!’ It is still at least an hour away.

Further delays are expected in Hull town centre later on this evening – A man at a zebra crossing, although initially outraged that his journey home should be interrupted by bloody pedestrians, will suddenly realise that his headlights are illuminating the woman of his dreams. He stops. He stares. For a brief moment his eyes will meet hers as she squints to see past the windscreen. It is dark. She sees nothing. In a heartbeat, she is gone, leaving him to sit there stunned and confused until a fellow commuter beeps their horn and calls him a blitherin’ idiot.

And each and every one drives away. The wheels keep turning, the fossil fuels keep burning. The roads twist and turn. Bad boys with their lights on full race past grandfathers, bipping their horns and screaming wild into the night. Parents wait patiently (or not) outside Welcome Break bathrooms, and promise their little ones McDonalds when they get home. Taxis ferry back and forth, back and forth, 12PM to 6AM to 12PM again. Lights change : lane closed, lane open, delays expected. And we all drive on. We all drive on, and on, and on.

This has been the traffic.  

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