OK. So some people get really angry when i say this kind of thing. Anger of the “WRITING IS A PURE ART AND MY CREATIVE FREEDOM MEANS I MUST OBEY NO RULES RAAAH MOTHERFUUCKKER!” and my response is always “no problem you just carry on freely failing”. I understand the fear. There are a bazillion people trying to be writers, so you try to be a 100% original. But even absolute originals know the basics.
Each of these three books represents an essential area of knowledge for all writers.
Let me rephrase the statement. Every good physicist is more than likely to know math, classical mechanics and quantum mechanics. Every good coder knows at least one coding language, computer science and logic. Every good bricky knows bricklaying, mortar mixing, and how to make a cup of builders tea. Some skills may seem more or less important than others, but each job comes with its prerequisites. And writing is no different.
Are these three books the ONLY sources you as a writer can turn to. Of course not. There are many books a coder can learn C from, but there are also certain books that coders will recommend over others. Each of these three books represents an essential area of knowledge for all writers, and I highly recommend them as a great starting point, if you feel that area is one you need to develop in.
Story - Robert McKee’s scriptwriting classic, but equally relevant to playwrights and novelists. McKee’s writing seminars have such cult status in Hollywood that they have even been the object of satire in movies. Story is both a basic primer and advanced guide to story structure. If you can’t yet structure your Beats, Scenes, Sequences and Acts in to a coherent Narrative Arc, with a clear Inciting Incident, Midway Turning Point and Crisis / Climax / Resolution, employing Rising Action, Tension and Suspense, all crafted around the Deep Motivation of your Protagonist to communicate a Controlling Idea, then this is the place to start. Confused? Buy the book.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces – Every time I teach Joseph Campbell’s seminal book to students I see the same light of understanding bloom in their faces. Here’s the short version. All stories are projections of human psychology. THE END. Slightly longer version. Stories hook the reader by reflecting archetypal facets of human psychology – the Self, the Ego, the Shadow etc etc (these are terms from Jungian psychology) and playing out archetypal psychological struggles that we, the audience, recognise within ourselves. Want the full explanation? Buy the book.
Becoming A Writer – Dorothea Brande is a largely forgotten writer, except to students of writing who have found direction in this short but essential writing guide. Here’s the basic problem. To write, you need your mind and imagination to work well together. The problem is, they don’t get on. Your mind is a controlling parental figure, while your imagination is a tearaway hippy kid. Getting them to co-operate is the focus of Becoming A Writer, which has had a transformative effect for many writers struggling with that basic first step – actually writing stuff! Want to know how and why? You know the score by now.
Earlier in 2014 I declared that “transrealism” was the first major literary movement of the 21st century in my regular column for The Guardian. The piece got quite a response, from defensive sci-fi fans bellowing IT’S ALL SCIENCE FICTION, to interested literary readers recognising transrealism as something they had enjoyed for a long time without putting a name to it. Fiction and stories have taken a big step away from pure realism in recent years. In this interview Monica Byrne, author of The Girl In The Road, one of the writers leading that twist away from pure realism, sits down with the original author of the transrealist manifesto, Rudy Rucker himself. The discussion that follows is startling and revelatory. Read on.
Damien Walter, 2014
Let The Strangeness In : Monica Byrne and Rudy Rucker on the transreal revolution
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Monica :When I read your “Transrealist Manifesto” it was an uncanny experience, like I was reading a step-by-step description of my writing philosophy for The Girl in the Road. Except you’d written it when I was two. So first of all, thank you for articulating that mode of expression, then and now.
Can you point to a moment in time when you realized that science fiction literature wasn’t saying what you wanted to say—that there was a niche that needed filling?
Rudy : In the’70s, when I was trying to publish my very first novel, Spacetime Donuts, I got a provoking comment from the SF master Frederik Pohl: “This is a fascinating read, but it’s not science fiction.” Naturally my feeling was that SF had to change. Indeed, much of the SF of that time seemed flat and uncool to me.
I was coming from a place where my favorite writers were Kerouac, Pynchon, Borges, and William Burroughs. I wanted to do the Beat thing of having my novels reflect my life; I wanted to have fabulous yet logical twists in my stories; and I wanted to use rich language. I believed in SF the same way I believed in rock’n’roll. Selling to the mainstream literary market wasn’t something I even wanted to try.
Eventually I was able to get Spacetime Donuts serialized in an SF zine. And then, early in the ‘80s, with White Light and Software, I was able to start publishing my SF novels in paperback. And then cyberpunk hit, and I had a few good years. My cyberpunk novels had a transreal core. Like in Software, the old man Cobb Anderson is modeled on my father. And the mad Sta-Hi Mooney, he’s a guy I used to hang around with. Of course, to some extent, both of these characters are me. As Phil Dick wrote in the afterword to his transreal A Scanner Darkly, “I myself, I am not a character in this novel: I am the novel.”
Part of the appeal of getting high may be that it makes reality feel like science fiction.
Monica :Your novel The Secret of Life—the first book of the Transreal Trilogy—follows Conrad Bunger, an alter ego, through adolescence and early adulthood. He has a lot of experiences with drugs, including a peyote trip I don’t envy. I’m very square in comparison—the most serious thing I’ve ever done is pot, and the most exciting thing that happened was that I fell asleep to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” on repeat. But I remain very curious—reality is already pleasurably surreal to me, and it seems like drugs would make it even more so. Do you think you would have conceived of transrealism without drugs?
Rudy : Oh, I would have thought of transrealism anyhow. It’s not useful to try and reduce an artist’s ideas to drugs. Like, was Hieronymus Bosch high? Would it matter? You don’t really see other people painting like Bosch, no matter what they ingest.
This said, in the old days I did like smoking pot after hours, and I took psychedelics three or four times. Part of the appeal of getting high may be that it makes reality feel like SF. We tend to maintain an ongoing subconscious narrative about the world—naming and classifying the things we hear and see. When you disrupt that, you’re in a position to see the world raw, rather than seeing it as you’ve been taught.
And, as you mention, it’s possible to get into this mode of perception without being high. My writer friend Gregory Gibson terms this “the ongoing Venusian space-probe sensation.” It’s the sense that you’re seeing the world as if you’re a space probe sent by “Venusian” aliens, and you’re observing humans and their customs from the outside.
Monica : Speaking of observing from the outside, traveling is a sure way to unglue my mind from consensus reality. I remember my first time traveling abroad to Sorrento, Italy, and thinking that the very soil and air were different, but in ways I couldn’t articulate. What was your first experience traveling abroad?
Rudy : Travel gets you into that special mode of seeing reality bare. In my daily life, many of my thoughts and actions are like computer macros or like automatic apps. I’m half asleep. Travel wakes me up. It nudges me into my alert Venusian space-probe mode.
My first trip to Europe was in 1953. I was seven. My mother, brother and I went to visit my grandmother. They still hadn’t finished cleaning up from WWII—there were great mounds of rubble that I was warned not to play on And I encountered a man who scared me. If I were to write a story about this time, I might chose to sharpen the strangeness with transrealism. Like: alien eggs were lurking beneath the rubble, and the scary bum wanted to implant an alien larva into my flesh. More expressive that way, less been-done.
Monica :You’ve said before that your wildest dream is to be able to fly, and that you dream about it a lot. So do I. In fact, I’m pretty sure I flew down the stairs once when I was really little. That seems very common in children (and adults who still admit it to themselves).What are your flying dreams like?
Rudy : I know exactly what you mean about having the feeling that you once really did fly down the stairs. And that’s a good idea for a transreal story—I think it’s been used before, but you could make it your own.
I have a habit of pondering the objective correlatives for the events in my dreams and in my transreal novels. I don’t try to do this in any doctrinaire sense of hammering every nail home. It’s more a way figuring out what I’m doing, so that I can fatten up the texture of my fiction a bit more.
I’ve noticed that in many of my flying dreams, I’m hovering about eight feet off the ground, perhaps lying horizontal in the air, and I’m talking to my family and acquaintances who are, as usual, standing on the ground. And the galling thing in these dreams is that none of the people ever notice that I’m flying. I’ll mention it to them, even yell about it, but they obdurately refuse to acknowledge that I, Rudy the writer, am in fact floating at a level slightly above their heads.
Let The Strangeness In continues on the next page.
The first reason to use Scrivener is that it’s hierarchical “ringbinder” approach to organising a text channels you, as a writer, in to a number of useful habits. All writing is fractal in nature, and none more so than stories. Every scene in a story is itself a mini story, with it’s own beginning, middle and end. And every beat in every scene is an even more miniature story in its own right. Scrivener’s structural tools encourage you to think this way, and make organising your text easy.
“Plain text is your friend when moving your writing from one app to another.”
Scrivener’s “ringbinder” tools also make it the perfect word processor for this era of digital writing. Take a moment to think about how text works. I’ll bet good money that unless you have some experience in web design, blogging, or other areas of digital writing, you’ll be thinking in the PRINT PARADIGM.
In the days of print, the publisher determined how the reader saw the text. The publisher controled every element of typesetting, layout, fonts, titles, illustrations. The printed page of a book, magazine or newspaper means you can control exactly how the text appears. You’re working with a structural approach to text, where you determine the structure.
The DIGITAL PARADIGM flips this over on it’s head. the person determining how a text looks is the reader, and crucially, the device the reader is reading on. Your ebook will look different on a Kindle than it does on an iPhone, than it does on an Android tablet, than it does on a laptop. And on each of these devices, the reader can choose to change elements like the size and style of font at their own whims.
Digital publishing means thinking about text dynamically. It’s no longer vital how the text is formatted. Much more important is how the text flows on all the different devices it will be viewed upon. And Scrivener is the perfect tool for working with text in this way. Scrivener encourages you to forget about formatting, focus on writing the raw text, and determine how it will look when you actually compile your ebook.
Scrivener’s compilation tools are immensely powerful. A standard novel manuscript of some 100,000 words in 30 or so chapters, dived into a number of parts, can be exported for any digital format and to work on any device you might wish. Ebook formatting is relatively simple, but a single mistake can leave your text in chaos, as chapters collide in to one another. Scrivener’s tools allow you to make simple but strong formatting choices that will degrade gracefully, even if viewed on wildly disparate devices. And all without knowing a single formatting tag.
The idea of ‘workflow’ gets mentioned a lot in digital publishing, what does this mean?
You can simply your life immensely as a self publisher by doing things in the most efficient order. Have your text fully edited before compiling your ebook. Keep a master version of your Scrivener file, that you tweek for different ebook formats. Check your formatting is perfect before uploading to ebook stores. This sounds like common sense, but in the fear and excitement of publishing deadlines, common sense often goes right out the window. Know your workflow, and stick to it.
Do you have to work directly in Scrivener?
Not necessarily. I do much of my writing in Evernote for simple convenience, and then once I have a chunk of text I move it in to that project’s Scrivener file. The thing to be wary of is carrying formatting over from a word-processor like Microsoft Word on Pages for Mac. These apps use arcane formatting systems that can completely screw up your ebook formatting and waste a lot of time while you track down the bugs. Plain text is your friend when moving your writing from one app to another.
Can Scrivener make an illustrated book or even a comic book?
The basic answer is no. Scrivener can only deal with simple images and image formatting, but then this is true of most ebook formats, which are focused purely on text. What Scrivener can do is give you a structured text fill which you can then import to another programme, for instance iBooks Author, and create image and multimedia driven designs. But, it’s worth noting, these books will be specific to those platforms, and you’ll have to do a new design job for every platform you want to reach. If you’re looking to do graphic intensive publishing on many platforms, you’ll need Adobe InDesign, a far more expensive and time consuming option, and also total overkill for most indie authors.
I only get to help two or three writers a year develop their work, but nearly all the authors I help have a tale of editing woe. And it’s nearly always the same tale. They sent their book to a freelance fiction editor, but what they got back were basic spelling and grammar corrections that any English Literature graduate could make.
With the explosion of independent publishing opportunities via the Amazon Kindle and other ebook stores, it’s now common practice for writers to employ freelance editors as part of the creative team supporting their work. For authors new to the publishing process however, finding a good editor is remarkably hard.
Can you edit your own work? The answer to this question is, can you edit your own work?
This is partly because good editors are hard to find. Many writers work on intuition and “gut feeling”. An editor needs to know exactly what works on the page and why, at every level from word choice and sentence composition, up to dramatic structure and thematic devices. And they need to be able to communicate it back to the writer in a way that will improve the book. A rare combination of skills.
There are certain tell tale signs of bad editing. It tends to focus on spelling and grammar, which while important concerns, aren’t the key focus of a good editorial process. It uses opinion and vague language; “this didn’t grab me”, “this needs more pace”. Imagine taking your car to the garage and the mechanic telling you it needs to go faster. You’re editor is there to tell you exactly what tweaks and tune-ups the engine of your story needs to “go faster”.
To get the best value for your money when employing an editor, you need to know what a good editorial process does involve. Editing is commonly divided in to three different kinds, and most books need all three at the right point in their development. These might well come from different editors – a development edit needs quite different focus from a copyedit. (I’m a useless copy editor, so I hand that work over to other people when it’s needed.)
1. Development Edit – this can happen at any point from a book’s first conception, but it’s most commonly done after the first draft. When the editor and agent have an existing relationship they might well begin collaboration at the outline stage of a novel, with the editor making suggestions before any substantial writing begins. The focus of a development edit is the story. Common editorial guidance at this stage might include tweaking where the story’s inciting incident, combining characters that share the same function in the story, developing tension and suspense in a flagging mid-story, or flipping audience sympathies to create an explosive story climax. If there are major stylistic issues in the writing, a development edit will address those as well. For instance, if the writer’s use of point-of-view is inconsistent, an editor will point out examples and ask for it to be addressed in the next draft.
2. Deep Edit – can only happen once there is a solid first draft, but before a final draft is made. Doing it earlier can mean a lot of wasted work, as the development edit can knock out entire scenes and chapters from the story. If the development edit is about pushing the story to its fullest potential, the deep edit is about carving the writing in to the best possible shape. Does every sentence have a good rhythm? Is the narrative voice consistent? Is this line of description a confusing mixed metaphor? Does the dialogue all relate to each character’s motivation? Does every scene lead to a clear dramatic turning point? Do all these long passages of internal monologue add or detract from the story? These are the kinds of questions a good editor is addressing at this stage. It’s skilled and time consuming work. Consequentially, deep edits are expensive. Many professionally published authors don’t get deep editing support. But anyone who knows what they are looking for can see the difference instantly in a book which has been through deep editing.
3. Copy Edit – the last edit made on a text. A copy edit is about killing off as many textual anomalies as possible, things like spelling and grammar errors that throw a reader out of their immersion in the story. It can also include fact checking and logic errors. If a man sits down at a three legged table, he won’t feel it wobble for instance. Repeated words, repetitive sentences, repeated words, repetitive sentences, anything that might make the book look less than professional. A copy edit is never 100%. There will always be text errors. But there’s a major difference between three errors in a book and three errors per page in the impression a text makes on a reader.
How much editing does an independently published book need? It’s one of those piece of string questions, and it really varies from book to book. Two Crows by David Dakan Allison came to me needing a strong development edit and minor deep editing and copy editing. David’s writing style was already clear, concise and polished, and with work on the novel’s dramatic structure we were able to turn the book in to a winner through a relatively simple editorial process. In contrast, I’ve turned down two clients in the last year whose books simply weren’t ready to be edited.
One important consideration for independent authors is the more basic question, is my book ready to be edited? Employing a professional editor is a very expensive way to buy writing lessons. Realistically, even the best editorial process can only upgrade the quality of a text by one or two grades. Most editors will offer a preliminary read for a fee, and a good editor will tell you if a book isn’t ready and why.
Can you edit your own work? The answer to this question is, can you edit your own work? Most writers can’t, but some, often those who have worked as editors as well, can do so reasonably well. But editing is a valuable creative collaboration, and your entire writing career is likely to be poorer without it.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the most successful novels in history. A defining work of science fiction, Dune still outsells most new novels in the genre to this very day, almost 50 years after its publication.
“What is “story”? It’s the quality that keeps the reader following the narrative.”
While none of Herbert’s sequels, or the poorly written cash-in prequels by other writers, ever matched the quality of the original novel, in Dune Herbert proved himself to be a master novelist. In this advice originally published in the 2nd Writers of teh Future anthology, Frank Herbert discusses his most basic interest as a writer – story.
“The single most important piece of advice I ever got was to concentrate on story. What is “story”? It’s the quality that keeps the reader following the narrative. A good story makes interesting things happen to a character with whom the reader can identify. And it keeps them happening, so that the character progresses and grows in stature.
A writer’s job is to do whatever is necessary to make the reader want to read the next line. That’s what you’re supposed to be thinking about when you’re writing a story. Don’t think about money, don’t think about success; concentrate on the story—don’t waste your energy on anything else. That all takes care of itself, if you’ve done your job as a writer. If you haven’t done that, nothing helps.”
Why do readers love some novels, but not others? Often we do hand wavy gestures at this kind of question, while intoning the magic word “subjective subjective subjective”. Yes, different people like different things. But there are a few qualities which many, many popular stories have in common.
Editors, agents and other professionals in the the publishing industry look for these qualities in the novels they choose to represent. This is as true for independently published authors as it is for those who choose the traditional route. Each year I’m only able to work with two or three writers to help edit and market their novels. So I have to choose the ones I think are likely to do the best with my help.
A few chapters in to my first read through of David Dakan Allison’s novel Two Crows, I could see it had many of the core qualities of a successful novel. The book needed a strong structural edit, which I could provide, and it needed help finding its niche in the publishing market, also an area I could help with. But fundamentally, there was a strong series of commercial novels in Two Crows and its sequels.
There are six core qualities for a strong commercial novel, which I use as signs that a novel might be pretty damn good! I can’t guarantee that every writer, editor or publishing professional knows these, but I can say that if your aim is to create popular stories that reach a wide readership, hitting these markers certainly won’t hurt.
High Concept – the whole concept of a high concept has a bad reputation with some writers. But the truth is, if your book doesn’t have a singular focus that is original and engages the reader’s attention, very few people are likely to expend time and effort on reading it. This is clearly true of commercial fiction. Harry Potter is the story of an orphan boy who goes to magic school. Each volume is a new school year. It’s clear, and it frames everything else that happens in the story. But this is also true of literary fiction. Underworld by Don DeLillo is a multilayered tapestry of human life and politics. But stitching it all together is a baseball, hit on a home run on the first day of the Cold War, and the novel follows all the lives the baseball touches, through to the end of the cold war. A high concept and a half!
Larger Than Life Characters – most people, faced with a terrorist takeover of a jet liner, stay in their seat. Your characters are the people who get up and organise to take the plane back. Playwright David Mamet argues (correctly I believe) that the single most fascinating thing in the world is a strong willed human being. Most people aren’t strong willed. They conform to the world, rather than bending the world to their will. Your characters are absolutely not “most people”. When war scout Two Crows rides across the desert after being shot in the back to rejoin his tribe, he isn’t being most people! Again, this is as true in a small and intimate story as it is in an epic. Most people hang around in crappy, abusive relationships for years. Your character is the person who walks out the door, and your story is what happens next.
Inspiring Locations – one of the reasons we pick up a novel is to experience places and experiences unlike our daily life. There’s a reason why James Bond’s adventures don’t take him to Slough or Clacton-on-Sea. Or why Star Wars isn’t set in a galaxy quite close to home. On the immediate level, locations that have natural beauty, or even alienating strangeness, are the ones readers will gravitate towards. A tropical paradise, an urban metropolis, an icy moon orbiting a black hole, or the rolling prairies of Montana. These are places many people might like to experience. In a more granular analysis, inspiring locations tend to attract interesting people. If you want to write a political thriller, it’s not going to work set in a provincial town in Derbyshire. You simply won’t find many political power brokers in Bakewell. On the other hand, it’s exactly the kind of place you might find a retired crime solving lady like Miss Marple. There are no absolutes with location, but you do need a good one!
Close Relationships – one of the reasons I saw potential in Two Crows was because, despite crossing almost two centuries of time, the half-dozen characters at the centre of the story were all very closely related, by family, friendships and rivalries. Think very hard about your life. How many people are you really, deeply and truly related to? A dozen? At their most fundamental 99.99% of the stories people love are about relationships between siblings, children and parents, best friends, lovers or lifelong rival. And if they aren’t, they are about relationships that gain equal intensity. In Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, the lead detective and the serial killer he is pursuing barely meet. But they share elements of the same pathological personality, that manifest in different ways. A profound and intense relationship.
High Stakes – is your story about saving the world? Lord of the Rings is. Every life in Middle Earth turns on Frodo’s mission to destroy the One Ring. Epic stories turn either on the fate of the world, or of a city or community of another kind. The heroes actions avert a disaster, or bring a gift, that improves everyone else’s life. And the stakes must be equally high within the context of a smaller story. Jane Austen isn’t talking trivia when she describes Elizabeth Bennets quest for a happy marriage in Pride and Prejudice. Every other moment of her heroines life turns on her marriage, at a time when most women were trapped in loveless unions of economic advantage. What would not have worked is if Jane Austen had based the story around Lizzy’s regular sewing circle evenings, which while fun, had little bearing on her fate. You get the point.
Multiple Points-of-View – we all see the world through our own eyes, but the world is crowded with many points of view. It’s a fundamental aspect of human psychology that our view is fundamentally self centred, and therefore inaccurate. To show us the full picture then, stories need to take us through multiple character’s points of view. Many novels do this literally, such as the hyper-succesful Game of Thrones books by George R R Martin, which dedicate one chapter at a time to each of a half dozen POV characters. Other novels stay in a single POV, through which we encounter numerous other characters who see the events of the story very differently. Either choice is fine. The important issue is that, one way or another, we see the world of the book through more than one limited, subjective set of eyes.
(It’s worth noting that these six points can also make a brilliant structure when pitching a story idea. Don’t try describing a convoluted plot in a few sentences. Set-up the concept, introduce the location, pin down the characters and their relationships, then hit your audience with the stakes. You’ll see film trailers do this over and over again, because it works.)
I am not alone in believing that writing can have a stress reducing and revelatory effect. A research psychologist at the University of Texas, James Pennebaker, has conducted a number of controlled experiments that confirm the effectiveness of writing as a therapeutic tool. He found that writing about thoughts and feelings arising from a traumatic or stressful event—what he calls expressive writing—helped many people cope with the emotional fallout of the events, and they experienced less mental and physical damage in the long run.
Pennebaker also found that writing had long-term effects on diseases such as asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and arthritis. It turns out that when people write (or use dictation) approximately twenty minutes a day for three to four consecutive days (preferably at the end of the day), they will likely have fewer medical visits (half the rate of the people who don’t write or use dictation).
I worked with writing for many years in therapeutic settings, and can add some first hand observations on the therapeutic value of writing. Have you ever imagined a story in deep, immersive detail and then sat down to write it, only to find that all you have are a few shredded images and shades of emotion? (This is, incidentally, why writers learn to dream on the page, as dreaming done off it is largely wasted effort.) We’re wired to believe that our thoughts are whole and complete. But my experience is that our minds befuddle us with mere fragments of ideas. It’s only when you sit to write them down that the thoughts take on concrete form in words. Writing is, in the most literal terms, thinking.
The problem with those fragmentary, illusory thoughts is that the mind can turn them over and over forever without reaching any useful conclusion. If that’s true with stories, it’s twice as true with worries. Bad memories and fears for the future sit in our mind, half born, but filling us with anxiety. Which becomes stress. Which in turn becomes all of the chronic physical conditions noted above, and many more.
The act of writing our worries down forces them to take form. 9 times out of 10 we realise the worry has no form, or that missed essential facts make it irrelevant. Your mind is worrying on a trip to the dentist that will be terribly painful. When you write the worry down, you realise the dentist won’t hurt at all, and will actually relieve the pain you are already feeling. On the occasions the worry is real, writing it down can help place the problem in the context of our life as a whole, and achieve kinds of healing that are much harder when the fear is unexpressed.
All writing has therapeutic value, but sitting to write about traumatic experiences can be in itself traumatic.
You have to be careful about using the tool, however. Pennebaker cautions that writing about trauma may initially trigger temporary distress. He also emphasizes that the timing of the writing matters. Studies have shown that people who write about a traumatic event immediately after it has occurred may actually feel worse after writing about it, possibly because they are not yet ready to face it. Pennebaker advises his clients to wait at least one or two months after a traumatic event before writing about it.
Therapeutic writing is best done with some guidance from a fellow writer, or if alone, at a time and place where you can banish the negative emotions after you have raised them. I do my own writing practice in the early morning, when the clear light of a new day can burn away feelings of anger, hurt or other suffering that the “morning pages” might bring up.
Yes, the creators of South Park have given many gifts to the world. Now they’ve turned their attention to Buddhism and Zen philosopher Alan Watts by animating a selection of his teachings, in their usually hilarious and irreverent style. It’s wonderful. Press play and enjoy.
If you haven’t encountered it already #VATMOSS refers to a bloody awful new law passed by the European Union on the taxation via VAT of digital goods – which includes things like ebooks and online courses. The aim of the law is to stop Amazon and other big digital retailers from running all their VAT through Luxembourg and hence dodging taxes. The outcome – intended or otherwise – is that every single person or business selling any digital product to anyone in the EU has to register for VAT. A massive and expensive admin burden, so expensive it will stop most of those people trading.
Crappy huh? It’s certainly in the running for shittiest law ever written. There’s a petition to stop it here, you should go and sign it.
“All of us, us citizens of this world, need to get much better at seeing the big picture of laws made to govern digital technology.”
There is also a lesson to be taken from #VATMOSS, one we all need to start learning. In reality, unless tax authorities aggressively enforce these new laws, most people will ignore them. In this regard, #vatmoss is very similar to the current laws on digital file sharing, commonly called piracy. Potentially huge fines and prison sentences can be used against people who pirate digital goods, but because so many people do just that, in practice the laws are not enforced, except in largely futile “show cases” that inflict horrific damage on a few individuals, in defence of laws that no sane government would every pass, let alone enforce.
#VATMOSS and our piracy laws both exist for the same reason. The attempt to treat digital goods in the same way we treat physical goods. Everyone knows that digital goods AREN’T the same as physical goods, so why are our governments proceeding as though they are. In both cases it’s because of vested interests, who want to hold back progress to defend the status quo that happens to benefit them (and their bank balance).
Our piracy laws have been heavily lobbied for by media corporations, including major publishers. Those businesses have an established business model, and they want digital goods to fit in to it. Creators tend to support these laws. Most writers I know are against piracy, and consider it theft. There are notable exceptions of course. I’m quite outspoken in favour of file sharing. Not because I want to hurt the careers of writers, but because I want to see laws that are in line with reality. And the reality is digital music, films and books etc can and will always be shared and pirated by people. We need laws that work WITH those facts, not laws that IGNORE facts in favour of vested interests.
The facts are that millions of people now make small, or occasionally large, sums of money selling digital goods online. Making a law to make all of those people sign up for VAT in a dozens of countries is patently ridiculous. And yet, here we are. Because once again, our law makers are treating digital goods like physical goods. In the case of #VATMOSS this seems to be primarily a matter of ignorance, and governments who simply don’t understand that millions of their citizens are exercising their entrepreneurial talents and generating wealth by making and selling digital products. But I would not be surprised if any number of vested interests have nudged the #VATMOSS laws in their current absurd direction.
All of us, us citizens of this world, need to get much better at seeing the big picture of laws made to govern digital technology. I’ve offended no small number of my fellow writers by telling them bluntly I think they are selfish to support existing piracy laws. Yes, I understand the pain of people copying your books without paying. But that’s simply the world we live in now, and supporting laws that aren’t in line with that reality are not a solution. And in the mid to long term, it leads to laws like #VATMOSS, that most writers will be against. We all need to start prioritising the common good in digital law making, otherwise the digital commons will quickly be divided between more powerful vested interests.
B&N: DON’T YOU SAY IT DAMO DON’T YOU DAMN WELL SAY IT
DAMO: Woah there, are you OK?
B&N: No. Yes. We’re fine. We’re absolutely fine. Just fine. Why don’t you ask us about Sync-Up’s AMAZING gifting features.
DAMO: OK, but couldn’t I just give any book I’ve bought to anyone I like, I mean-
B&N: You’re not helping.
B&N: YOU’RE NOT HELPING DAMO WE’RE IN A FIGHT AGAINST A CORPORATE BEHEMOTH HERE FOR THE FUTURE OF BOOKSELLING AND YOU’RE NOT HELPING AND LITERALLY THOUSANDS OF POORLY PAID BOOKSELLERS ARE GOING TO LOSE THEIR CRAPPY JOBS IN SOULLESS CHAINSTORE BOOK RETAIL UNITS AND YOU AREN’T HELPING.
DAMO: Oh. Kay. I think we’ll leave it there.
B&N: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WON’T YOU THINK OF THE MARKETING EXECUTIVES.
DAMO: I assure you I am.
*please note, this is a satire, not a real interview
Nicola Griffith has an excellent and in depth post up about the balancing act between developing depth of craft as a writer, and branding the art that comes of craft.
Branded. It’s a brutal word for a brutal practice: a label burnt into the hide without permission. On a cow a brand marks an animal that belongs to a herd. Yet to create art the artist must be as free as possible from the herd mentality: neither belong to any group nor follow any but our own particular, often peculiar path.
The short answer on branding for writers is – don’t. Here’s why.
Branding is about imbuing low value ingredients with qualities that give it a high value. To steal a line from Ricky Gervais, Coca-Cola is just fizzy brown water with sugar in. It costs pennies to produce dozens of gallons of coke. So those clever folks at the Coca-Cola corporation spend literally billions of dollars every year making advertisements that market Coke to you. They don’t do this to inform you that Coke exists. They do it so that when you see Coke, you associate it with certain brand values – America, vitality, sex, sun. To name a few. Now the fizzy brown water with sugar in has gone from low to high value, because when you drink Coke, you feel like those values apply to you, an experience worth paying for.
Now consider the strawberry. The strawberry requires no advertisements, no marketing strategy, and no brand values. Strawberries have been hunted by man and woman for all of human history, simply because they are fucking tasty. Do you know what isn’t tasty? Sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil and modified starch. These being the main ingredients in Angel Delight (a kind of synthesised dessert mouse, for those fortunates never made to eat it). The modern food industry doesn’t start out with the desire to make a lovely dessert. it starts out with a cheap, abundant “ingredient” that often exists as a byproduct of another industrial process. In this case, modified starch, and asks “what can we make with this that we can sell for the highest mark-up? And hence the deluge of processed foods, that will do as much to ruin your health as smoking, and cause chronic obesity. Why does anyone eat them? Or worse, feed them to their kids? The answer? Branding of course. And a little artificial strawberry flavouring.
If you’re a working parent, who can’t afford real strawberries for your kids the this ad for Angel Delight, which is only “food” by the very loosest of definitions, hits all the right buttons. Of course! Angel Delight is like strawberries and cream! All whizzed together! Perfect for pud! And there, the branding has you. And it’s the same story for all major brand products – low value ingredients, made in to a high value product with the clever application of brand values.
What, as a writer, are you? Are you a producer of a low value product? Do you need to persuade readers that your writing has brand values that actually it doesn’t? Do you actually believe your writing has real value? If you’ve been through the complex process of learning to write that Nicola Griffith explores in her essay, you’ll be tremendously wary of branding. Because you know your writing is a strawberry. It doesn’t need to be marketed. As soon as people get a whiff if its sweet stench, they’ll come hunting for the fruit.
When writers do enthusiastically brand themselves, it’s always a sign that they’re trying to sell you Angel Delight. A book full of wonky sentences, half cooked plot ideas, and cheap characters. So they use the brand values of genre to try and make you think this botched epic fantasy will be like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or that this cliched cyberpunk novel will be a shiny chromium prize like William Gibson’s Neuromancer. But it never is. In fact, once you know the signs, branding is one of the most counter-productive things a writer can do. because if you’re channelling a lot of effort in to branding your work, it tells me that deep down you believe it’s of low value.
They want you to believe that #ReaderGate is evil. The Literery Elite want to tell you, that we, the silent majority of readers, yes readers who are the only reason the Literery Elite even get to be elite at al, who have been silent too long, are wrong. But I’m here to tell you not to believe that elite who you made.
No. #ReaderGate began when vigilant readers became suspicious about the highfalutin so called opinions of so called “book reviewers”. It began as whispers by those too sacred to speak out. Scared by a Literery Elite who too long have towered like ivory towers over common readers. But we would be towered over no longer! And hence #ReaderGate was born.
#ReaderGate is a consumer revolution. A book is a bit of content, and it should not matter what that content is, just so long as we like consuming it. The demands of #ReaderGate are simple, and all #ReaderGators agree, except the ones who don’t who aren’t real #ReaderGators. Some say, they being the aforementioned Literey Eliters, that #ReaderGate is just abuse. Or excuse for abuse. Or both. This is a lie. #ReaderGators reject all abuse. Except the ones who don’t, who aren’t real #ReaderGators either. And also they started it.
Without readers, writers would only be men holding their pens. It has been proven, by vigilant readers of #ReaderGate, that writers are disgracing the noble profession of writing by making it corrupt. How? Let me tell you how. A key demand of #ReaderGate is that novelists stop making stuff up about people. That’s how.
Actually #ReaderGate is about ethics in book journalism. For generations book critics have discriminated against writers on the basis of quality. #ReaderGate demands equality for all writers regardless of quality. A book is just entertainment. It shouldn’t matter whether the book is quality or not for it to entertain some people. Don’t make the books political. Books are about people. They should never be political.