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The one technical skill no writer can do without

Technology and the internet have changed writing and publishing forever. Way back in the mists of time copying a book meant paying dozens of monks to sit and transcribe each word by hand. It was expensive! Around 1450 the Gutenberg printing press made it much easier to print a few hundred copies of a book, but it was still a laborious process.

Fast forward to 2014 and digital technology lets us copy an entire book in moments, and send it to nearly anyone in the world via the internet. If you want to work as a writer in books, newspapers, magazines or any other part of publishing today, it’s essential you understand how digital publishing technologies work. And the one skill I recommend time and time and again to new and established writers alike is…

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WordPress is best known as a blogging tool, but that disguises it’s real value as a publishing platform. Want to set up a blog to publicise your latest teen vampire urban fantasy novel? Sure, WordPress can do that. Want to publish your episodic techno-thriller online? No problem, WordPress can do that too. Maybe you want to set-up a community news site for your home town of Palookahville? Yup, WordPress can do that. How about an image rich celebrity gossip magazine to share your secret photos of Miley Cyrus? Absolutely no problem. And here’s the thing, WordPress is free and open source, so all these publishing projects can be done for a fraction of what they used to cost.

But doesn’t this all take mad technical skills?

No, it doesn’t have to. You can sign up for a free blog at WordPress.com that you’ll be able to start using in minutes with no technical knowledge. But if you take a little time to learn about using tags, categories, and some fundamentals of online writing, you can start to unleash the full power of WordPress. I’ve coached hundreds of writers in WordPress skills, and even the biggest technophobe can be up and running in a few hours at most.

You can take WordPress up a level by having your own custom installation. This allows you to access a host of plugins and themes to make WordPress even more powerful. Advanced plugins like BuddyPress can let you craft your own private social network, a great way to build community among your readers. WordPress can even be extended as an online store, to let you sell items like e-books and branded merchandise directly from your website. Take a look at a great WordPress resource like WPMU Dev to see the hundreds of different jobs WordPress can do.

I set up my first WordPress blog in 2004. In the decade since then I’ve gone from amateur blogger to professional writer for publications including the BBC, The Guardian, Wired UK and many others. The WordPress skills I learned early on have helped every step of the way along that path. If you have questions or would like some 1-2-1 help getting the most out of WordPress just shoot me an email on: damiengwalter@gmail.com

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Being a professional writer is…kind of bullshit

The incorrigible Will Buckingham here literally de-bullshits the increasingly bullshitty idea of being a professional anything, and in particular a professional writer. Not because it’s bad to be a professional, but because our entire idea of what professional means has become corrupted away from it’s true meaning, to profess a commitment to a skill…

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But what about professionalism? Let’s go back to the etymological dictionary, for the following…

professional n. c.1200, from Old French profession, “vows taken upon entering a religious order,” from Latin professionem “public declaration,” from past participle stem of profiteri “declare openly”. Meaning “any solemn declaration” is from mid-14c. Meaning “occupation one professes to be skilled in” is from early 15c.; meaning “body of persons engaged in some occupation” is from 1610…

What I love about this yes, I love it, because I’m an incorrigible amateur is that if you strip away bullshit going forwards, if you forget about suits and ties and stale-coffee boardrooms, you get to something much more existentially meaty: vows or commitments that are taken upon entering an order. In making such vows, you are not just saying “Oh, I’ll do x, y, or z” but you are making a much bigger commitment, a commitment that is public, one that marks the fact you are joining a community albeit a loose-knit one, and one that may change the direction of your life. In other words, you are making a commitment with a degree of existential heft to it. This deeper notion of ‘profession’ has two aspects: the making of an existential commitment, and the public declaration of this commitment, the willingness to say, “Yes, I have committed myself to this, and I’ll see it through.”

It is in this sense, I think, that it can be of use to writers to be not just amateurs, not just lovers, but also professionals. Love is a more personal affair. And love comes and goes. But as a writer, you may find that your writing really starts to bite, really starts to go deeper and further, when you decide that you are going to commit yourself to the act of writing, and when you make this commitment known to others, be they writers i.e., members of the loose-knit order of writers, or non-writers.

via Amateurs, Professionals and Bullshit Going Forwards | Will Buckingham.

 

On not being a hack

There is a story that the young Plato, being gifted with an excellent intellect, wrote a play to submit for the Athenian Dionysia. Taking it to submit before the judges, he found Socrates meditating upon the steps of the theatre. Having been told the play was good by friends and family, Plato was only too happy to read parts of it to Socrates. After Plato was done, the older Socrates – already a famed teacher of Athenian nobility – agreed that the play was good. The he asked Plato a single question about the meaning of his play. Plato found he could not answer, and as he considered the question, he realised that the play was unfinished. As it was, it could never answer Socrates’ question. So rather than be shackled by the chains of the failed play, Plato decided to begin again. That night he had a brazier lit, and burned his first play as an offering to the gods.

There, that’s what it takes.

Why Ello’s $450,000 in funding is a really, really good thing

Ello is the hip young social network that this week seemed to cross the threshold, from one of many, to the single most serious contender for Next Big Thing in the social online world. It has picked up an unknown but significant number of new users, many of them power user migrating from Twitter. And, of course, it’s been given some money by the Powers That Be in the form of venture capital.

Quite rightly, this has lead many folks if Ello has already departed down the slippery slope to evil, despite its charming manifesto packed with good intentions.

Here’s another way to look at the same data. Ello has one thing, and only one thing going for it. It has declared on the side of privacy – and the rights of its users – at a time when outrage at a lack of privacy and the exploitation of users for commercial gain is peaking. In short, Ello is the ethical choice. This is the only reason it now has users, and the only reason it now has money.

Ethics are Ello‘s unique sales point. They are its killer app. Ethics are the product the money is invested in. If that trend continues, we could quickly see a flip towards ethical business models – that preserve privacy and protect users from commercial exploitation – not just in social networks but in all forms of online services that have previously relied on data mining.

Oh, and we’ll be paying for them all directly…hurrah!

(Will ethical services dominate? Who knows. Historically the ethical choice tends to be the third choice. But it’s a topsy turvy world we’re living in!)

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Ello – why is everyone moving to this half built social network?

Trust me, this post really is about Ello, it just needs a little context.

The world appears to be complicated. But really it isn’t. oh sure there are 7 billion people crowded on to this relatively tiny lump of orbital debris we call a planet, divided into some 196 states and some 2,896 major cities, operating a variety of political systems from capitalist democracies and plutocracies to totalitarian military dictatorships. The global economy is worth in total – adding together every single thing people do for money from school janitor to Fortune 500 CEO – an estimated $72 TRILLION. It’s a big number, and we keep ourselves busy making it all happen. But the brutal truth is that all of this human activity, all of the work, play, art, love, hate and BUSINESS of human life boils down to, and is energised by, one very simple idea.

Status.

We have a lot of names for status, some may seem more relevant to you than others. Wealth. How much money do you have? But billionaire or bum, wealth is really just a scoring system that we use to measure status. Power. What do you control? Do you command armies? Do you chair the boardroom? Are you head of the family, tribe, clan? But power is just a measure of what your status buys you. Identity. Rockstar. Artist. Professor. Father. Mother. Lover. Who are you? What is your status? That’s the question every human alive is struggling to answer, and it can only be answered in relation to others. Our status only exists in relation to society.

(Worth noting that I don’t necessarily like this any more than you do, but I do believe it to be true.  Are there ways out of this status nightmare? Yes, but that’s a topic for another time.)

So one way to understand the staggering explosion of social networks in the last decade is as the latest evolution in the millennia long contest for social status that powers pretty much every facet of human life. What we’re doing on social networks like Facebook and Twitter is transporting the complex webs of social status from the physical in to the digital world. Family, friends, work colleagues, professional networks. Social media makes our social relationships easier, quicker and more effective. And it lets us forge new social networks. To build new online lives and careers to go with them in many cases. But the fuel super-charging the engines of social media isn’t an extension of the status-quo. No. What dragged so many of us to Facebook and Twitter was their potential for social revolution.

I would never have had the kind of writing career I have today before social media. Never in a month of Sundays.

Once we have status, we want to keep it. And the more status we have, the more invested we are keeping the status quo intact. If society collapsed tomorrow the biggest losers would be the elite – the politicians, billionaires, celebrities and the rest whose vast privilege relies on millions of other people buying in to the society they sit at the top of. Following the financial crash of 2008 lots of people woke up to the reality that ballooning debt bubbles had disguised – our emerging global society is just as unjust and inflexible as every other society that came before it. If you are born in to a farm labouring family in Nigeria, a working class family in Russia, or an upper class family in Switzerland, you’re likely to stay in that relative status for your whole life. Our society is structured to protect and maintain itself, and while social mobility is possible as an individual, the statistics dictate that it will only be possible for a few individuals in any given group.

And then comes an explosion of computer technology, the internet, and with it, social media. Technological innovation always disrupts social hierarchies in the short term. The industrial revolution displaced old aristocratic systems in most of the world, replacing them the merchant class and today’s modern corporate system. The information revolution is displacing existing power structures all over the place. The little world of book publishing I deal with is being gutted by Amazon, a technology savy business quickly destroying the powerful publishers that came before it. Social media has been phenomenally popular not just as a venue for crazy cat videos and sexting. In a myriad of smaller ways, social media has empowered people to find new kinds of status that weren’t available before.

Here is an admission. I would never have had the kind of writing career I have today before social media. Never in a month of Sundays. Before the internet the UK media and the publishing world were a rigged game that you only got access to if you were born in to the right level of society that could get you to a good university, and probably some kind of inheritance to subsidise your income. I’m just a kid from a council estate with a minor aptitude for words that would never have seen light of day without the internet. Without my blog, the comment threads and forums and social networks where I built my profile, and the revolutionary shift from print to digital that has created every opportunity I’ve ever had as a writer, I’d be doing whatever people like me did before the internet.

(Theft in my case, looking at the careers of most of my school friends.)

So why the hell, given how much so many people have gained from social networks like Twitter and Facebook, are a whole bunch of power users from those places leaping on board a half-built upstart newcomer like Ello? Let’s be clear, it’s really not about it’s hipster design ethic. It’s also not the only social network you’ll see people migrating to over the next few years. Be prepared for a long haul social network shuffle, as savvy internet denizens shift their assets from one virtual territory to the next. Why? Because as fast as these networks challenge the status quo, they then lock it down again. The impetus to move from Twitter to Ello was the announcement that Twitter would begin filtering timelines. Translated to the eternal status game of human existence, this mean Twitter locking down its status structure, so that those with status – the famous, the rich, governments and corporations – can once again dominate the conversation that they temporarily lost control of.

This is what we mean when we say that Facebook or Twitter has gone “evil”. These companies have built a business on the promise of disrupting and levelling the status-quo. Now, at the perfectly predictable moment, they’ve sold that promise out to the Powers That Be, in exchange for VAST wealth, power and personal status. Twitters founders, executives and, crucially, it VC funders, aren’t looking to make a living. They’re playing to win the ultimate status, to become the new aristocracy of the new social structure these new technologies are creating, with the reward that they and their children and their children’s children for generations to come will have the very highest levels of status. The Enclosure of the social media commons begins, and like the robber barons of old, the Twitter founders and their funders will reap the highest rewards. The sad truth is, if you were given that option, you’d take it as well.

And of course, the lovely founders of Ello will in due course also turn evil. We forgive you, in advance. But in the mean time, another window of revolutionary opportunity to disrupt the status quo has opened. Enough people have leaped aboard the Ello bandwagon this week that we can guarantee that something interesting is going to come of it. As interesting as the early days of Twitter, which made a new kind of internet celebrity? Unlikely. But who knows, maybe there is life in old social media horse yet.

 

Photograph: Lionsgate/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Why we’re all reading young adult fiction

It’s an easy win for a book critic. Harry Potter, then Hunger Games, and now Divergent have dominated not just book publishing but popular culture for more than two decades. So after telling adult readers they should be ashamed to read children’s books, all Ruth Graham had to do was sit back and watch the outrage unfold. The Times film critic, AO Scott, took the same argument a step further this week by proclaiming the death of adulthood itself, with young adult fiction the leading symptom of a culture collapsing into permanent adolescence.

But is the failure of “serious” literature for adults really the fault of an immature readership? And make no mistake, it is a failure. A glance at any fiction bestseller list of recent years shows publishing dominated by escapist fantasies, violent crime thrillers, various shades of erotica and, of course, young adult. In 2013, among the only works of adult fiction to reach widespread public awareness was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a coming-of-age story that follows its protagonist through, yes, his young adulthood. Isn’t it more credible that the sub-culture of serious literature is at fault, rather than every single person who enjoys reading the Hunger Games

Read more @ Guardian Books.

The New New Space Opera

Science fiction is not a genre. The most successful literary tradition of the 20th century is as impossible to neatly categorise as the alien life forms it sometimes imagines. But “sci-fi” does contain genres. The rigorous scientific speculation of Hard SF. The techno-cynicism of Cyberpunk, or its halfwit cousin Steampunk. The pulp fictions of Planetary romance and the dark visions of the sci-fi Post-Apocalypse. These genres flow in and out of fashion like the solar winds. After years condemned to the outer darkness of secondhand bookshops, Space Opera is once again exciting the imagination of sci-fi fans.

At the box office Guardians of the Galaxy has resurrected the kind of camp space adventure made popular by Flash Gordon, while on the printed page Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie has scooped the prestigious double honour of Hugo and Nebula awards. Stories of space exploration have never lacked popularity. In the early 20th century when it was still possible to think space might be crowded with alien civilisations, stories like EE “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series were immensely popular. But as we probed the reality of outer space we found only infinities of inert matter and a barren solar system.

Read more @ Guardian books

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What is the relationship between artists and depression?

The skilled and thoughtful William Gosline returns for a second guest post. The news of Robin Williams’ suicide has sparked an ongoing conversation about depression and mental ill-health among artists and other creatives. In a nuanced post Gosline reaches beyond the simple correlation between creativity and depression, to reflect on the real and complex relationship between the two.

Read William Gosline’s serial fiction Jury Selection at the author’s blog.

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A week has passed since the world lost one of its best and brightest. Robin Williams took his own life. The Internet has writhed conjecture, as is its nature, but perhaps as a sign of its maturation, the overarching tone is one of loss and sadness. Eulogies as memes abound. Because who amongst us hasn’t felt the heavy hand of depression, either within a loved one or ourselves? Robin Williams’ passing epitomizes one of humanity’s great contradictions: that the most gifted and giving of us are often the most tortured.

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Ernest Hemingway

Artists are especially susceptible. Depression, madness and suicide recur elliptically in the lives of our great creators. Spalding Gray, after watching Tim Burton’s Big Fish of all movies, drowned himself in the river. Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven. Ernest Hemingway, stripped in his dotage of his trademark virility, took matters into his own hands.

But what is the connection between vision and psychosis, between depression and creativity? By rights, Picasso should have been mad: he worked in four dimensions. Dali, with his wild eyes and curled mustache, only pretended to be mad and when asked to play a truly mad man, the Emperor in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never realized Dune epic, sanely declared he would–for the sum of $100,000 an hour. A cynical nod to the shrewd megalomania of Hollywood and a point in fact: his madness was self-promotion.

“alienation, while important to the formation of the writer, is not necessarily a prerequisite to insanity or depression.”

Van Gogh, on the other hand, painted the commonplace, pastoral world in which he lived. Dali and Picasso consciously manipulated reality, its tropes and dimensions. Van Gogh, for all the effulgence of his art, the broad strokes and bold colors, painted what he saw. Yet, it was he who lost the battle. Perhaps then in contemplation of his craft, we can get a bit closer to the crux of the question: what is the relationship between the artist and depression or madness.

In the course of doing research for a character based off of Jack Kerouac, I pieced together an extremely rough sketch of the famous Beat writer. I read some of his work but also found the ancillary scholarship on him just as illuminating. Of French Canadian extract, he was a quasi second-language speaker whose first language, Quebec French, was dismissed as nothing more than a backwoods colloquial dialect. Like many writers, he was astride two worlds, at home in neither. But such alienation, while important to the formation of the writer, is not necessarily a prerequisite to insanity or depression.

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Salavdor Dali was mad but mad north-north-west. When the wind was Southerly, he knew to ask Hollywood for a big pay cheque.

Of more value is a consideration of the method by which he worked. The manuscript of On the Road is almost as famous as the book itself: one long scroll that he pounded away at over the course of a few weeks, literally churning it out of the typewriter. It is here that we might begin to discern a connection, in the spontaneous, feverish “channeling” of Kerouac’s recollections. In fact, in the preface to his collected letters, the editor mentions the perils of spontaneous writing. Kerouac, like Gene Wolfe’s famous character Severian the Torturer, was doomed to forget nothing. The avalanche of memory crushed him and towards the end, even the solitary heights of Big Sur, an aerie to which he had oft retreated for silence and solace, couldn’t save him.

But if Kerouac was powerless before memory, exhuming it in frenzied streams, others are powerless before sensation. Van Gogh was evidently that and in the world of literature, his match might be the forgotten Swiss writer, Robert Walser. Robert Walser, like Van Gogh and Kerouac, was the passive observer. In an essay by William Gass, his anonymous narrators are described as “will-less wanderers, impotent observers of life, passive perceivers of action and passion.” As Walser drew nearer to the asylum where he would live out the rest of his life, his writing became increasingly disjointed and impressionistic, the nebbish narrator flitting from field to café, from cobbled street to farm, like a drift of cloud.

I believe that Robin Williams held something in common with these artists. His improvisation was explosive: machine-gun one-liners uttered at the speed of thought; impersonations rattled off in a bricolage of association. His performances were gut busting, hilarious, his ability to transition from idea to idea, mind-boggling. But in light of recent events, there is also something troubling in the frenzy of his delivery. As though, through frantic incantation like a Catholic priest or a mystic, he could stay just one step ahead of his ghosts.

I have ventured too far down the path of conjecture. The truth is I was as shocked and dismayed by his death as everyone else. My rambling is just an effort to make some sense of it, to furrow some parameters around depression and its relationship to the artist as a means of self-preservation. Because Robin Williams had fooled us all, with his broad smile and kind eyes. Here is a man, we thought, who has attained peace despite his tribulations. But his suicide is an object lesson for us of how easy it is to mistake someone who has come to terms with their demons with someone who has succumbed to them.

Photo by Jennifer Durham

21 Of The Best British Sci-Fi Writers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

The World Science Fiction Convention touches down in London this week, bringing together fans of sci-fi, fantasy and horror novels from all over the world. LonCon3 is the first time this fete of the fantastic has visited the UK since 2006 when the 63rd worldcon hit Glasgow. Here are the top 21 sci-fi and fantasy authors you should be reading this year.

Read more @ Buzzfeed.

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Horror – just not scary any more

Whereas Victorian writers could rely on repressed sexuality to generate unease, today’s horror and fantasy novels put sex on the front cover. But the best new examples of the genre still bring up the things we don’t like to talk about.

When Bram Stoker penned Dracula in 1897, Eastern Europe was still remote for most Britons. But Jonathan Harker’s tortuous overland journey to Transylvania would today be a short hop on a budget airline. And Count Dracula, as both a Romanian immigrant and wealthy foreign plutocrat, would be attacked on arrival first by the Daily Mail for taking our jobs, and then the Guardian for forcing up property prices in the capital.

The fear of foreigners that fuelled Dracula is nothing today but a tabloid scare story, putting it alongside the other great fear of Victorian society – sex – which has also been reduced to mere page filler. Mina Harker doth protest too much when the sexy Vlad Dracula turns up in place of her dowdy solicitor husband. Today’s horror heroines, like vampire hunter Anita Blake, are just as likely to screw a vampire as slay them.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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Writer. Guardian columnist. Writing a book.

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