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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.

 

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Take Off : 4 steps to going nomad

Before I made the jump to living and working as a digital nomad, I had been thinking about the idea for 18 months. As is so often the case in my life, I didn’t realise I was actually planning and preparing to go nomad, but on an unconscious level that’s exactly what I was doing. In retrospect I can see the steps I was taking that meant, when in early 2013 I made the decision to hit the road, I was ready to go just a few months later. I think these four basic steps are likely common among most digital nomads, in varying amounts.

Save Money – Even if everything works as planned in your transition to digital nomadism, getting to that point will mean front loading many of life’s expenses in to the period before you set off. Flights, insurance, immunisation, equipment and numerous other expenses will mount up before you start travelling. And almost certainly, your plans won’t work out. New ones will appear, and better ones. But you’ll always be glad of a financial buffer. Most nomads have at least 3 months living expenses saved, many a year or more.

Location Location Location – The most common early failure for many digital nomads is travelling to too many locations in too short a time. Travel is both exciting and time consuming. These are not good qualities for productivity. Slow travel is the key to combining work and interesting locations. Three months is a good period of time to stay in one location, enough time to complete some solid work and replenish your finances before heading off again. But which location? Low cost combined with high standard of living are the key metrics for digital nomad locations. Chiang Mai scores very highly in both, and now has the bonus of a bustling nomad community. But there are many other options.

Have A Business Plan – What are you travelling to these locations to do? As a writer I can take my work anywhere. My primary project is to finish work on my novel. Secondarily I’m continuing a range of freelance writing and journalism that in the short term is covering my living and travel expenses. I also have two other non-writing projects I want to complete in the next year. Many nomads are bootstrapping apps or business ideas which a year or two of living in a much cheaper location is facilitating. Whether your ambitions are business centred or more creative, a clear plan can help to keep you focussed while many things are changing around you.

Build Your Networks – You’re leaving behind many things to go nomad, not least friends and family. But the age of social media means you can stay in contact. My Facebook account is dedicated to close friends and family, and Twitter is also becoming very useful for close relationships. But these are also great tools for building new networks. For two months before heading to Chiang Mai I had open searches in Twitter for the city and related terms. By the time I got here I already knew dozens of people on the ground and have had fun getting to meet them in person. And of course, whatever business you’re building while travelling, set aside time and effort to get to know the network of people already involved in that area.

There’s a lot more to say about the different kinds of digital nomads, and the different kinds of businesses they are building, but I’ll keep those for future posts.

Your Government vs. Your Tech Provider

We might be facing the most largest tectonic shift in the power structures in the modern era since World War One finally ended the old empires of Europe. But this isn’t a conflict between the interests of nation states. It’s a power struggle over you, and the question of to who you owe your primary loyalty as a citizen. And it’s playing out between your government and your tech provider.

The NSAs invasive surveillance techniques may, on the surface, seem like a national security story. And in one regard it is. But the real national security threat is not terrorism. The real power struggle here is between the established power of the nation state, and the emerging powers of what we might begin to call the “technological state”.

Today Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL made a major counterstrike in this conflict by backing radical legislation to reign in the powers of the NSA. This marks a transition point. For at least the last two years the tech giants have conceded to government demands for their cooperation in surveillance. Now these companies are testing whether, in the ultimate measure, their power is greater than the NSAs. At least to determine who can access their user’s data. To have taken this step, they must already believe they are likely to win.

The history of human politics shows us forming ever larger political groupings. From family cluster to tribe. From tribe to kingdom. From kingdom to empire. From empire to nation state. From nation state to super national identities – the United States of American, the European Union, the Association of South East Asian States. But there is every reason to suppose that digital information technology will allow the next stage of this political evolution to transcend geographic boundaries. The technological state will not exist on any map of the planet. Instead it’s border are much more like to be plotted by shared economic interests and political ideals.

Today Google provides your information (search) and your communication (email). Tomorrow it could easily provide your transportation (self-driving cars) and your currency (bitcoin or some variation of the same). These are all major functions of government, quickly being filtered away to tech companies, for the simple reason that these organisations are structurally specialised to develop the needed technology. It makes perfect sense that these competing power structures begin to test one another’s boundaries. The NSA story is simply among the earliest and most high profile examples.

This isn’t to say your government is going away. But it is almost certain to cede large parts of its powers to the emerging technological states. Will you one day have a Google passport? Will you be a citizen of Apple? Some might argue you already are. Perhaps the more important question is, which of these powers should you support? If your ultimate interest is in individual freedom, it seems at this time that the self-interest of the tech giants is more likely to provide the future you need. If your concern is more socially focussed, to the greater good of the community, the rhetoric of governments is a stronger siren call. But realistically, it’s only by keeping such great powers balanced against one another that most people will remain free and society will retain its cohesion. At the moment it seems government has accrued a little too much power, but no doubt sooner rather than later the tech giants will need radically reigning in. But not today.

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The wisdom of technology

Wisdom 2.0 has grown very fast in only four years. From its first panel discussion in May 2010, between Google VP Bradley Horowitz and zen teacher Joan Halifax, the conference has stayed focused on its signature blend of technology and spirituality. In February 2013 Wisdom 2.0 filled the Concourse Exhibition Centre in San Francisco with some 1500 attendees, attracted by speakers including Ford CEO Bill Ford, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, Huffington Post editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington and members of US congressTulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan. A remarkable cross section of technology, business and politics for a conference that whose main focus is on the work of spiritual teachers like Jack Kornfield and Eckhart Tolle.

For many people the question, “what can technology learn from spirituality?” will meet with the flat out answer, “nothing”. Our secular society has learned to question spiritual teaching with the same skepticism we might bring to discussions of the supernatural and mysticism. But the success of Wisdom 2.0 suggests that its mission — to explore how we live with greater presence, meaning, and mindfulness in the technology age — is relevant to a growing audience. Technology confronts all of us with many challenges to our well being, from dealing with the “always on” work patterns facilitated by mobile technology, to managing the fragmented global communities of social media. As Wisdom 2.0 conference organiser Soren Gordhammer wrote in his 2009 book of the same title; technology is not the answer, but neither is it the problem. What matters instead is awareness, engagement and wisdom.

Read more on Wired UK

 

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Are you wasting your time on social media?

The onslaught of online information is endless. Is the time thirsty sponge of social media just wasting your time?

GUEST POST : Sadie Greening is an aspiring crime author, creative writing student and mother – follow her on Twitter @octaviagrey

If it is then you are not alone. I’m new to the social media side of the Internet. I’ve had a Facebook profile for a few years now but then again, so has my dad. I dabbled a bit with updating my status and checking in with friends I haven’t heard about since school, but Twitter, Kickstarter, Pinterest? It was like people were speaking Swahili when they talked of tweets, ‘following’ people (I heard ‘stalking’) and crowd funding.

It almost became a pride thing for me to say, “Nah, not my bag that,” whenever people spoke of social media. Well, they do say pride comes before a fall. And fall I did because as I set off on my path to achieve literary fulfilment with a writing career, I realised my error. These media platforms are an integral part of the networking process for a new writer. They are the way people communicate in this field. I need them.

I set up a WordPress site for my blog. Well, okay, I got a friend who’s a real techy genius to set it up for me, but I populated it! It looks great and you can check it out at http://www.octaviagrey.com. I started to blog. The previously forsaken Twitter account was activated and I set up not just a Facebook profile but a Facebook page. With a huge pat on my own back I congratulated myself in having nailed it.

It wasn’t long before I grasped the sheer weight of effort necessary to make these platforms work and almost gave up. In the online ether people don’t look for you – you have to go out and get them. And that requires time. Lots of time. Time to research the blogs that relate to your area of interest, find them, read them, comment on them, stalk, sorry follow, the writers themselves, tweet them and build a rapport. You need to invite them to come to your blog as a guest post, you return the favour, you book review everything you can; tread the fine line between saying what you mean and not alienating someone you might either meet, or worse, come to rely on later down the line. The list is endless.

This activity sucks you in. You need to do it so you do, to the expense of, in my case, university assignments, housework, cooking, washing and on some days, sleep. Keeping a day job whilst being a full time student means life is full on as it is. Add in the mix the black hole of social media surfing and the only thing that can give is sleep.

One recent blog post I uploaded was on the very subject of how people find the time to blog when they’re working too. One writer commented on the blog and her opinion of how people juggle both sides of the coin was:

‘Basically, you don’t! I launched my first eBook in Aug (11 previous novels publ by mainstream publishers, but dried up in recession). BEFORE doing this, I started a blog in May. Then joined Twitter in Aug. New book? Put on back burner for 7 months while I built my profile. Good bits: making some money at last!! Meeting some great people who are now friends. Less good bits: having to be away from the WIP. From what I gather, and your blog confirms it, mainstream publishers now expect writers to do a large part of the publicity themselves. I actually quite like it, but I shudder to think what the ‘shy, retiring’ author is going to do. Get remaindered pretty fast, me thinks!’

She makes an interesting point. Publishers are increasingly relying on authors to publicise themselves. With success stories such as Fifty Shades of Grey, which started life as internet based fan fiction for Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, the self-published, self-publicised novel is no longer spurned as it once was. Publishers are realising that their publishing budgets will go further if the authors are doing the majority of leg work during those crucial early stages. With less of an initial outlay, publishers can wait for the reaction of the masses prior to shelling out. In the age of austerity that’s an attractive prospect.

So it equates then that an author with an established platform and fan base, or following, will be a more enticing prospect that one without. Salt Publishing, the UK indie publishers of Booker Prize shortlisted novel The Lighthouse by Alison Moore actively state on their website that they will look at an author’s online platform before making a decision to take them on. They urge would-be authors to follow their listed authors on Twitter, get involved with them and engage in their publicity machine. It’s genius – free publicity for them! But what the rest of us get, as we struggle to follow their suggestions because we desperately want to be the next Booker prize nominee, is another few hours in the day devouring darkness of the online onslaught.

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Writing and the attention economy

As a writer you are asking for the most valuable commodity your readers have. Time. Each of us gets a finite portion. No sum of money can buy us any more. And the demands on it are ever greater.

The novel evolved at a period in history when the constituency of its readers had much more time to waste. Karl Marx would dub them the ‘bourgeoisie’, the section of society who owned the means of production, so profited vastly from industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. The middle and upper classes had time on their hands and little to do with it. The novel became one of the most popular ways of being idle.

The bourgeoisie no longer exists in quite the same way, and it and the proletariat both have innumerable ways of occupying whatever free time is left from work. Yes, there are dozens of forms of entertainment. Films, music, games, sports. But there are also more and more ways for people to invest their time in improving themselves. Is your book really going to compete with the vast range of information available to me for free on Wikipedia? Or the infinite social networks accessible through Facebook and Twitter?

Information of all kinds is becoming a post-scarce resource. While the time it takes to absorb information becomes scarcer and scarcer. And yet many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited. Writing two novels, four novellas and ten short stories a year is great productivity. But completely counter-productive in an attention economy. Because if I read one story by you and its any less than excellent, I’m very unlikely to read another. Your first novel is very important to you, but as a commodity in the attention economy its almost certainly worth less than the value of my time to read it. Which is why the vast majority of material written and published every day on the internet disappears without a trace.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” As a writer working in the attention economy you should take Pascal’s remark as the first rule of your professional life. Take the time to write a short letter to the world. Churning out fiction can give you the comforting illusion of progress. No doubt you’ll find one market or other to publish it. But think about the writing you really love and value enough to come back to again and again. How long do the best authors take to create their work? Why should you aim to be anything less than the best? Every word you write is asking for the gift of the reader’s time. Make sure it’s worth it.

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Why Standard Manuscript Format matters more than ever

For the last few days I’ve been following the editorial pains of friend and fellow British Fantasy Award judge Hal Duncan on Twitter. I don’t know what it is Hall is editing, I’m just glad its not me having to do it!

It’s amazing how many writers can plaster their manuscript in copyright warnings, but can’t format it worth a damn. This says all the wrong things about how you see your own work. Because what it says is, “I don’t believe in myself as a writer.” If you really believed in yourself as a writer, you would know that no reputable editor would ever rip your work off (if you’re sending to disreputable editors then no amount of copyright warnings will protect the work). Editors and publishers need great writers, not just great writing. If they like what they see, they don’t just want what the book they are reading, they want the next dozen books that follow it as well.

I’ve seen two discussions recently about Standard Manuscript Format basically saying, why bother? Sure, there are editors who aren’t concerned about manuscript format, mostly at small presses and fanzines because they haven’t heard of it. But there are also many, many editors who won’t even read a manuscript that isn’t in SMF. Why? Because if the writer doesn’t even have enough respect for their work to place it in the professional format, how can you trust them to be professional in the thousands of other ways a writer needs to be if you’re going to invest in publishing their manuscript? Also, they get a bazillion scripts a week so it’s an easy way to just get rid of some.

SMF was once essential because the manuscript had to go through many processes that depended on standard format. Now word processors make those processes easier. But they also mean there are more writers, submitting more manuscripts than ever before. If you really want to stand out from the crowd, don’t hand scrawl your manuscript on mauve paper scented with truffle oil. Put it in Standard Manuscript Format. Make it look like nearly every great, soon-to-be-published book that has ever hit the desk of any editor anywhere. These days, that kind of professionalism and confidence stands out a mile.

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The Density of Words

At anywhere between 80,000 to 150,000 words or more the average commercially published novel might seem like a huge space to fill. I know the idea of creating that many words is often intimidating to my writing students, who may never have written more than 2-3 thousand words on one story in the past. But once you start to work at the novel length, you quickly begin to realise that even with 150,000 words to fill, you don’t have words to burn.

Once you establish the scene structure of your story, the style and structure of your chapters, and the information on character, setting and action you need to give the reader to support the story, there really should not be much dead space on any given page of your novel. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

(The last time I posted this on Twitter I got a tweet back from @Neilhimself with the addendum “or be funny” which also works for me.)

NaNoWriMo is an excellent exercise. It’s a great way to demonstrate to yourself that you *can* find the time to write around all other commitments. And it’s great fun. But. Whether you achieve the 50,000 words in that month or not, I would suggest that 50,000 words a month is not a realistic writing goal for any writer.

Can you write 50,000 words in a month? Yes. But they will most likely fail Kurt Vonnegut’s and Neil Gaiman’s advice. Can some writers write 50,000 *good* words in a month? Yes. But only under exceptional circumstances, in an established style they can produce effectively at that speed. Do some professional writers produce and publish 50,000 *bad* words a month? Yes. But do you really want to be one of those writers?

I’m personally comfortable producing around 5000 words of fiction a week, or around 20,000 a month. That’s about what I’ve been doing every month for the last three years. At that speed my first draft is 80% of where I want it to be. Any faster and that dips radically to 50% or less. Any faster for me would certainly not be better.

What rate of wordage do you find most productive?

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How to work with theory without snuffing out your creative spark

I spent much of the last weekend live-tweeting from Weird Council, an academic convention on the writing of China Mieville. Many clever people were in attendance, many clever things were said. I only understood about half of them but felt quite good about getting that much. As a good friend of mine says, if more than four other experts in the world understand what you are saying you are not a real academic.

Throughout the day I saw occasional tweets from writers wondering how all these complicated theories about literature combined with the actual act of creative writing. And I believe that is a perfectly valid concern. Most writers recognise that it isn’t the intellectual bit of their brain that writes a great novel or short story. That comes from an imaginative spark. And anyone who writes knows that too much intellectualising can snuff that spark right out.

But nonetheless, all that theory stuff can actually be pretty useful. Science Fiction is sometimes called a conversation. The ideas that writers have developed over the decades are contributions to that conversation. If you don’t know what’s been said before, you risk being the chap walking in to the middle of a discussion and saying what everyone else already said an hour ago. Theory can help bring you up to date with where that conversation is. And this isn’t just true of SF but for any form of creative expression. And theory can also help to spark fantastic and original ideas, if you learn to use it without letting it use you.

When you engage with theory as an artist, you have to resist the powerful temptation to try and be right. Theory often presents itself as an argument, and demands that you take a side. It’s the job of the academic to have that argument, because from the dialectical process of two or more opposing positions debating, new knowledge can be discovered and tested. But that process can be death to the artist. Be curious, ask questions. Enjoy the novel ideas theory can offer. But don’t take a side. Don’t get sucked in to the argument. And don’t try and be right.

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Feel THE FEAR…and write it anyway

I did a little whoop of joy, followed by a nod of recognition when I received Gareth L. Powell’s guest post in my email inbox. The first because Mr. Powell is among Britain’s very best science fiction authors. The second because like every writer, I recognise THE FEAR that Gareth describes. You will no doubt recognise it also. Find Gareth L. Powell online at www.garethlpowell.com and on Twitter @garethlpowell

I’m always happy to feature guest posts from fellow writers and passionate readers. Find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

If you want to be a writer, then sooner or later you’ll have to face THE FEAR. However confident you may feel as you start to write your latest novel or story, at some point you’ll look at what you’ve written and hold your head in your hands.

“Give up,” a little voice will whisper in your head. And that little voice is THE FEAR.

THE FEAR will plant questions and doubts in your head. It will tell you that everything you’ve ever written is crap. It will tell you that you’re not a real writer, and that you should quit now before people find out what a talentless hack you really are and expose you as a fraud.

I have spoken about THE FEAR to other writers, and they all recognise it. They all have that inner demon whispering to them in their darkest moments, undercutting their confidence and self-belief. For some, those dark moments are at the beginning of a project, when they’re staring at a blank white page awaiting inspiration. For others, THE FEAR creeps up on them during the editing process, or just prior to submission.

For me, THE FEAR tends to manifest around the halfway point of a novel, when the end seems very far away, and it becomes almost impossible for me to objectively judge whether what I’m writing is any good or not. I start to worry that the characters are jabbering trolls gesticulating their way through a nonsensical plot, and that I’ll never reach the final chapter.

If you let it get hold of you, THE FEAR can paralyse you, leaving you unable to function. The only way I’ve found to fight back is to keep writing; to keep soldiering on until you stagger over the finish line. Only then will you be able to look back with anything resembling objective clarity.

But how do you keep going? How do you keep the motivation going when the voice in your head tells you that you’re wasting your time? You can blot out THE FEAR with alcohol, but that’s only a temporary solution; and most people find it hard to do their best work when they’re smashed.

The only practical way to prevail is to keep your goal in mind. Get in front of your keyboard every day and do the work. Tell yourself that you will finish what you have started. Listen to THE FEAR and learn to identify it. Don’t let it trick you. When it starts sowing its seeds, gather them up and lock them in a quiet corner of your mind. Tell yourself: “This is just THE FEAR talking.” And try to ignore it. Or, if you can’t ignore it, try turning it to your advantage. Harness the nervous energy to make you more productive. Surf that anxiety wave! Tell yourself that you are going to feel THE FEAR, and do it anyway. Keep your eyes on the prize, and keep buggering on until you get there!

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Is there any such thing as Realist Horror?

The latest guest post here on damiengwalter.com comes from Niki Valentine, author of psychological horror and literary fiction under an alternative pen name. But where do we draw the line between supernatural and realist horror? Niki Valentine may be one of the few authors who really knows the answer. Check out her novels and other writing at: The Niki Valentine Amazon page

I’m always happy to feature guest posts from fellow writers and passionate readers. Find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

When I wrote my first Niki Valentine novel, I originally described it as a supernatural thriller. Sadly, this adjective has been rather hijacked in recent years by stories about sparkling vampires and friendly werewolves, so that my publisher was keen to avoid the word. Instead, we called it psychological horror and it went on to the shelf in time for Halloween. Personally, I think this label is spot on. If you look at The Turn of the Screw on Wikipedia, that’s how this classic ghost story was described. I was very inspired by the Henry James story and it was one of the reasons I wanted to write the kind of ghost story I did.

There are some issues with the ‘horror’ label. It evokes a certain set of expectations in the reader about blood and gore, about monsters and zombies. My novels, The Haunted and Possessed, don’t really work that way. There is very little blood and gore, something I don’t find especially frightening and I think can tend towards being cartoonish if overused. And, although there is a haunting and a possession, as the titles might imply, it is a very subtle affair. Like the haunting in the classic James story, there are many ways to view it. Nothing happens that is so overtly supernatural that we can be sure about. In both, we’re deep inside the head of our protagonist and never know for sure how much she’s imagining. I make no apologies for any of this; it was exactly the kind of story I wanted to write.

I saw a lot of slasher movies as a teenager in the 80s; they were in vogue. They made me feel sick from time to time but not scared. The most frightened and affected I ever felt was thanks to a Hitchcock film, screened on the BBC Tales of the Unexpected. A woman, determined to escape from prison, enlists the help of the prison undertaker. He agrees to bury her and dig her up later, telling her to climb into the coffin the next time the death bell tolls. She does so. She is buried. She waits and waits for her rescuer. Bored, she reaches for her matches and lights a flame. She sees the body beside her and it’s the man who was supposed to dig her up. The film ends with a view from above of the fresh mound of earth, her screams ringing out with no one to hear. It left me in a cold sweat and it took me weeks to get over. At a recent family barbeque my brother and I were discussing this. Neither of us had forgotten and we both agreed it was the most frightening film we’d ever seen.

The Hitchcock story left a lasting impression. It’s this kind of realist horror that I’m interested in as a writer, and a reader or viewer. In my novels, I like to allow the possibility of haunting and possession and other supernatural events but I also like to leave the reader unsure. For me, the title of the Henry James story sums up psychological horror as a genre. The screw turns until the protagonist can take so more. Depending on how you look at it, the metaphor can be about madness, or stress and pressure, or whatever other normal human experience you like, but it’s also about the way the supernatural manifests in reality. I’m not a complete sceptic and can’t decide myself if these manifestations are real but I do know they always leave us with room for doubt. So often people recounting these events say ‘I suppose I could have been imagining it.’

At a recent horror convention, I sat in on a panel about horror tropes. It was suggested during the discussion that stories like American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange were horror stories with alternative, realist tropes. I thought this was an interesting point. I write literary fiction in another name and my books have been compared to both of these novels, and more like it too. In fact, despite my earlier denial, my literary fiction is a real gore-fest at times. It was odd to realise this, and to understand that, in my own way, I’ve been writing realist horror from the very start.

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The Unspecified Reader

[pullquote]I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers.

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I talk About Running

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So a captain is married to her ship, and a novelist is married to her readers. Earlier this week I wrote about the social artist in my column for The Guardian, and collected some irate responses in return. What about the loner artist? What about us guys and gals who want to sit alone in our bedrooms and explore the inside of our own craniums in intimate detail. I feel certain there are any number of writers who just want to do this and nothing and I raise no objection to their doing just so. But when we talk about what it is that takes a writer from their bedroom, in to the minds and imaginations of thousands or millions of other people, it has to be some intense fascination with that unspecified number of readers. Social media gives that fascination form. Writers can’t leave Twitter alone because it provides 24 hour access to the unspecified reader who in the dark ages of print were only available through books. There has to be something in the psychology of a writer that makes the unspecified reader more important to them than any other relationship.

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