Ignore the complainers, go ahead and tell your story

The Buddha offers some useful life advice to anyone trying to get anything done. People will complain if you do something wrong. More people will complain if you do something right. Some people will complain if you don’t do anything at all. People just like to complain!

Seven people signed up for my email newsletter in the last 24 hours. One person complained. The email pop-up goes away if you click the X, or anywhere on the screen, but sometimes people get confused and think they HAVE to sign up to read my posts. Occaisionally, people complain.

Here’s the thing. As a person trying to get thjngs done, YOU HEAR MUCH MORE FROM THE COMPLAINERS THAN ANYBODY ELSE. People who are generally happy with your efforts don’t often feel the need to say so. But people who are triggered by your actions often do. You’re out there doing, and taking the hits along the way. They’re not.
Of course it IS possible to market and promote your work counter-productively. BUT. Those people will just unsubscribe, or unfollow, or dump your email in the spam folder. Keep an eye on your engagement rates, that’s a useful indicator. Complaints, by and large, only tell you about the complainer.

I read the Sad Puppies. It was not a pleasure.

For the last few years, the Hugo awards for science fiction have been campaigned against by a group of writers and fans calling themselves the Sad Puppies – mostly male, very white, and overwhelmingly conservative. Unhappy with sci-fi’s growing diversity, the Puppies have deliberately block-voted for certain titles to get them nominated for Hugos at the expense of a wider field. They say it is their goal to “poke the establishment in the eye” by nominating “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy-handed message fic”. I say it is to sponsor awful writers.

Read more.

The Ted Chiang movie adaptation is on the way

Ted Chiang is, without any argument, the best science fiction short story writer of the last decade. He’s almost unknown outside the SF community, and is one of the humblest guys you will ever meet. Now there’s a film coming based on his work. Chiang is a clinical prose stylist, and a rigorous conceptual think. I do not know how well any of that will transfer to the screen, but I am very excited to find out.

What’s the number ONE reason you aren’t writing?

Because you aren’t reading.

The bar for entry for writers is so low that it might be better described as a line in the dirt. Got something you can type on and an internet connection? Then you can be a blogger. Or a Kindle indie publisher. Or @JohnDoeFantasyAuthor. But the washout rate for writers is up there with US NavySEAL training. So why is it so many bloggers end up with 3 readers a day (all of them Google search bots) or flatlined Kindle sales, and just up and quit? Or never get started at all?

“Books aren’t your pets any more, they’re your raw materiel, and you need to look at them in the same way a butcher looks at a cute little baby lamb.”

The British horror author (and comedy creation of Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade) Garth Merenghi often noted that he was the only author he knew who had written more books than he’d read. Sadly, that low bar to entry means I’ve encountered no end of authors who fall into the same category. Worse yet, in the internet age the totally clueless are able to form self-reinforcing cliques (see the Sad Puppies), echo chambering one another towards their doom.

But those who stick around soon hit an entirely different wall. You can have killer story ideas, and think relentlessly about one day writing them down, but if you aren’t reading you’ll find yourself completely unable to actually follow through and do the hard work of writing. And when I say reading, I mean consuming books in the way Olympic weightlifters eat potatoes…in bulk and with lashings of butter!

Forget the butter, but hold onto the point that as a writer it’s actually part of your unwritten job description to read all of the things, all of the time. It doesn’t matter that you USED to read a lot, any more than a pro.tennis player will win tournaments because they USED to be fit. Your brain, the engine that’s going to be doing the writing, needs to be constantly marinated in books, or it stops thinking in the bookish ways a professional writing brain needs to.

Garbage in, garbage out. There’s some benefit to reading bad writing so you can analyse the negative. By mostly you need to read books that are good at being books. Great sentences, good storytelling, brilliant characters. High nutrition health books to keep your brain WRITING FIT.

Television in, television out. Xbox in, Xbox out. Other things that are also stories do not count towards your book quota. Binging three seasons of Game of Thrones is not research. Chin stroking analysis of Pokemon Go doesn’t change the fact you’re wasting valuable reading time hunting Pikkachu. “I don’t have time to read” is code for “I can recite the URLs of every Hentai site on the internet”. Yes you do have time, but you also have many other pleasures you choose to prioritise ahead of reading.

If you want to make the writerly pro.leagues you need to move reading from the pleasure category of your life and into the professional category. You can still enjoy reading that book, but you need to read fast, read lots, and analyse every word. What’s the narrative style? How are the sentences paced? Where are the set-ups? What does this character want and how are we shown that? How many scenes per chapter? And the list goes. Books aren’t your pets any more, they’re your raw materiel, and you need to look at them in the same way a butcher looks at a cute little baby lamb.

Read new books. Read old books. Read shorts. Read novellas. Read experimental lit fic. Read commercial bestsellers. Crucially, track down and read writers who are better than you are. Better stylists. Better storytellers. Better anything. When you find books that do something great and you don’t know how? Read them again and again until you do know.

And this doesn’t stop if and when you turn pro. I’ve watched some of the world’s best and most famous author read through waist high piles of stories at the Clarion writer’s workshop, because they were genuinely interested in what talented younger writers might know that they didn’t. The whole point of writing workshops is to READ dozens of stories, in progress, by your peers. There’s literally no better way to learn. Except teaching itself, which is really just a way for experienced writers to immerse themselves in reading and analysing stories.

So pick a book, any book, and get reading.

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Do not take the audience for novels for granted

I’m not personally tempted to play No Man’s Sky, even while I find the phenomenon of its release interesting. Video games died a death for me at around the same time I found meditation. I had played games quite intensely since I was around 7, but then at age 30 or so, while playing a hacked version of Elderscrolls III, it struck me that every single game I’d ever played was just a graphical interface on a database. And I didn’t want to invest any more of life’s limited time on experiences that seemed so shallow. The scope and scale of No Man’s Sky doesn’t change that dynamic for me. It’s a very big database, but that’s still all it is.

I am very much in a minority however. This well written report by Robin Sloan on  the experience of both No Man’s Sky, and the huge community of live-streamers sharing the game’s launch, makes me at least partially interested again in the gaming experience. While the game itself remains little more than a pretty fractal, the community gathered around it is quite fascinating. A modern cultural phenomenon that is clearly deeply engrossing to those immersed in it.

“Once people have bought a few duff books in a row, they find other things to occupy their attention.”

It’s that aspect of community, or social engagement, and of human value, that has always made reading such an engrossing activity for me. Those words on the page come from another human mind. How fascinating to have that gateway into an alternative human experience, especially when that person is skilled at expressing that experience. There will always be people like me who find that experience through novels. But how many of us will there be?

As I’ve noted before, the novel is a very old medium at this point. Centuries old by any measure. And not all that much changed over that time. And it’s proved very resilient. But I suspect anyone who simply assumes the novel will remain quite as widely read doesn’t quite understand just how intense the contest for human attention is, or how many magnitudes greater that contest is becoming.

It’s not just that games – and there will be thousands of such games – that games like No Man’s Sky are INFINITELY large. Or that social networks like Snapchat have 100s of millions of users spending hours every day on their platforms. It’s that these kinds of things – and there are SO MANY of these kinds of things (don’t get me started on Pokemon Go!) – these kinds of things are profoundly changing how we all spend our time. And arguably, what the basic shape of our society is. And there’s really no reason to assume novels will have any significant roll in those new patterns of behaviour.

They might. The solitude of the reading experience might well be what saves it in a very near future we might call Massively Social (in the virtual sense of the word). Huge amounts of “content” are and will be, like No Man’s Sky, machine generated. The humanity of the novel, that it is written by one human mind and read by another, also give it value. And I do not see stories becoming anything other than more and more popular, in any form. But none of that makes the novel’s survival a sure thing.

What will kill the novel, and I believe is already irreparably damaging it, is a catastrophic rush to the bottom to meet the diminishing standards of most “content”. Traditional publishers, and the Amazon Kindle store, are both guilty of flooding a relatively small market with a huge number of novels, most far below any form of professional standard. The Fire-And-Forget model of publishing might turnover a a reasonable profit in the short term, but at big cost. Once people have bought a few duff books in a row, they find other things to occupy their attention. It happens. It is happening.

It’s why publishers are floundering, while individual authors, if they can establish a name, are doing very well. Once readers find you, and trust you to deliver, they are incredibly loyal to the authors they love. I think determined writers of really high quality – great storytellers, or authors with a wonderful voice, or a fascinating mind, are going to continue to do very well. But they might be more and more like islands in a sea of other distractions, rare outcroppings of enlightenment in an infinite galaxy of randomly generated planetoids, luring people to read those odd things called “novels” that otherwise only exist in the history…databases.

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Bureaumancy. My new favourite genre of fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with being a bureaucrat. So you’re a tiny cog in a machine made of abstract rules, paperwork, and the broken dreams of those who do not understand either. So what? You’re just misunderstood. Without you, nobody would know where to file their TPS reports. Nobody would even know what a TPS report is.

But writers understand. As species of personality go, the writer and the bureaucrat are closely related: they’re deskbound creatures who enjoy the comfortable certainties of Microsoft Office and dazzling us with wordcraft, be it small-print legalese or the impenetrable prose of literary fiction. Of course, Kafka understood the true power of the bureaucrat because he was one – and thus portrayed bureaucracy as a looming, all-powerful presence. The wonderful Douglas Adams imagined an entire planet faking the apocalypse just to get all its middle managers to evacuate in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, while in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, hell itself is one endless system of bureaucratic red tape, where doomed souls are made to sit through every last codicil and sub-paragraph of the rules pertaining to Health and Safety – all 40,000 volumes of them.

Read more.

It’s about the story, stupid!

What is a story? You arrange some words on a page, speak some sentences aloud, place some images in a sequence, or even string them together at 24 frames per second to make moving pictures. Words and images, that through some near miracle…

…make us believe they are real. As real, when done well, as the reality we are actually in. You’ve had that moment when you look up from a great book and feel actual SHOCK that you’re in your bedroom, not some far flung fantasy world.

Stories were “virtual reality” before computers were even imagined. How they work is something we’re only just starting to understand as we learn more about the human mind and brain. Put simply, stories are the operating system of human consciousness. When a story is well told, it hacks into the workings of our mind and, for a time, replaces our entire sense of reality. Woah! No wonder stories are so popular.

In the Rhetoric of Story I guide writers through the 7 foundational techniques that allow stories to create the amazing feeling of being in a different reality. But that’s not what I want to focus on in this post. Instead I want to think about all these crazy industries, like book publishing, TV stations, Netflix, Hollywood, and even video game studios, that hold so much of our attention.

All of these industries are in the business of telling stories. Every single New York editor, or Los Angeles movie maker, or London TV executive, stakes their entire existence on finding and telling great stories. That’s as true of reality TV as it is of theatre, and of a 30 second advertisement as an Oscar winning documentary. And as a writer, if it’s your intention to work as a professional in any of these industries, that’s your job as well.

And it’s a tough job. Because great stories are rare. That’s why editors get into bidding wars to buy them. That’s why journalists travel into war zones and the ends of the earth to document them. That’s why novelists work years or decades, and fail over and over again, to eventually reach the great story that is inside them. As writers we want to believe we can tell great stories on demand. But as lovers of story we know how demanding we are. Do you waste your time on stories that aren’t great? Be honest now.

But it’s also a wonderful job, which is why we risk all to do it. The great stories will still be here long after we’re all dust. Told again and again, performed by generations of actors, rebooted for the umpteenth time. And anyone can make storytelling their job. It honestly doesn’t matter who you are, if you tell stories that light up the human imagination like Times Square on new year’s eve, audiences and entire industries will sit up and pay attention. So the only question is…is that the job you are doing?

Is this the real Valyrian steel?

As a Game of Thrones fan, I couldn’t resist making a note of this tremendously beautiful Moorhaus knife. If the wavy pattern on the blade looks familiar, that’s because it’s Damascus steel…the closest thing in real life to the Valyrian steel from Game of Thrones!

Damascus steel had it’s peak in the 18th century, and was reputed to make blades that could cut through a steel rifle barrel. Impossible? Scientific tests on preserved damascus steel blades reveal the alloy contained carbon filaments, but all knowledge on how it was made has now been lost. Modern recreations don’t have quite the same qualities. Nonetheless, I’m sure I’m not alone as a lifelong reader of fantasy novels to think that all those super-swords might have a small basis in reality.

Stories are selfish.

No, not shellfish. SELFISH!

If one thing is certain about life, it’s that each of us will only ever see it through our own eyes. Go to the ends of the earth, climb the highest mountain, take a rocket into orbit. It will still be you, your eyes, your ears, your hands and other senses, at the centre of every moment of your life.

Stories are great because they let us, for a little fragment of time, get some idea of what it is to be somebody else. A great novel, a powerful play or movie, a storyteller by a camp fire, can all transport us into another human experience. That’s why “storyteller” in any form is one of the highest callings. And also the hardest.

“It’s not just others stories help us become aware of. They’re the best route we have to our own self awareness.”

How do we take one human being and help them see through the eyes of another? Helping you to find answers to that question is the aim of the Rhetoric of Story. Stories aren’t just make believe, they mirror the fundamental way your mind makes sense of the world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that stories are the operating system of human consciousness. And if you know how that operating system works, you can use that knowledge to tell powerful, compelling stories.

We all tell a story about our world, and we put ourselves at the heart of that story. So to captivate an audience, every great story has a self at its core. The hero. The protagonist. The central character. The self is given many names. These are the eyes we see the story through, the ears we hear the tale with, the hands that hold the world. The self isn’t just IN the story. The self IS the story. And we experience the story through them.

With a strong self at the heart of our stories, we can take audiences on adventurous flights of fantasy like Star Wars, or into the vivid romance of Wuthering Heights. The greatest storytellers show us how stories themselves are selfish, twisted by the limits of our perception, leading to the flawed tragic heroes of Oedipus or Hamlet. It’s not just others stories help us become aware of. They’re the best route we have to our own self awareness.

Learn more about the Rhetoric of Story.

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A brief thought on Television Prose

Can we have an honest moment? Between us readers of sci-fi, fantasy, and possibly other genres of fiction, who are by and large most of the readers of this blog? That’s good, I’m glad you’re open to the idea. Now, I’m just going to come right out and say it.

Most genre fiction is not very well written.

Note that I’ve phrased this in a peculiarly English way, avoiding the more direct American approach of shouting that most genre fiction is the written equivalent of a huge steaming turd of words. But there, now I’ve said that too.

As a reader and occasional reviewer my tastes in SF / Fantasy and genre novels tend towards the well written. I do enjoy the occasional Star Trek or Warhammer franchise novel, where the existing visual splendour of those stories makes up for less than stellar writing. But when it comes to original storytelling, I like good words, organised in fine sentences. When I find SF / Fantasy writers who can wield words well, I become a lifelong fan. But that is a rare event.

(At around this point somebody usually quotes Sturgeon’s Law that “90% of everything is crap”, which is the standard defence for the fact that 90% of SF writing is crap. Any field that NEEDS a standard defence for that accusation surely has a problem.)

(Shortly after that comes the old “It’s about the story not the sentences” chestnut, which, ok, if you really believe the sentences can be separated from the story in a novel, I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching the next Avengers movie produced on HI-8 camcorders.)

I was put in mind of this subject by K M Weiland’s post on “omniscient POV“, which I read with some interest. I don’t intend to critique that author’s teaching, which is well delivered, although I disagree with much of the content. But I do want to pick up on a specific point in the post which I find quite revealing.

“The problem with the omniscient POV—and one of the big reasons editors are no longer so keen on it—is that it’s dad-blamed tough to write. As you’re learning, this is largely because it’s a difficult concept to get our heads around in the first place!”

Hrrrrm. Well. Omniscient can be dad-blamed hard to write. But so in fact can Weiland’s preferred style, limited third person. Also interesting, of the two styles, limited third is far more artificial, which might make it a more difficult concept to get our heads around. An omniscient narrator is how stories have been told for millennia, and written down for centuries. Limited third person is only a few decades old, and is quite clearly a response to another narrative form. Television.

(For a high quality guide to the slippery nature of POV try How Fiction Works by James Wood.)

It’s for that reason that I call close third person, when it’s done badly (which is very often), Television Prose. It’s fundamental aim is to make the experience of reading a book much more like the experience of watching television. The story is presented through discrete scenes, focused on character actions and dialogue. Stories written in Television Prose also tend, ever more, to ape the dramatic structures of film and television. All of this CAN be great, different kinds of story SHOULD influence each other and share techniques. But I find Television Prose to be a problem for a separate but related reason.

Television Prose covers up bad writing.

But it doesn’t cover it up very well. Good writing is hard to write, regardless of the style it’s in. It takes a lot of skill and, crucially, time. But if you’re going to produce a lot of bad writing, often at high speed, then the limited third person style of Television Prose will hold together better than almost any other style. It’s basically descriptive in nature, which is easy to write and easy, if generally uninspiring, to read. With a kick-ass cover, in a popular genre, badly written Television Prose can often do just enough to please readers who, just as with franchise novels, are drawing on the stock imagery of visual media to do the imaginative heavy lifting.

And what’s wrong with that? I hear some folks saying. Nothing. You go ahead and read what you will, I’ll be over in my ivory tower enjoying my finer things. But. I do offer a mild warning for writers, who are getting this advice about “close third person ” all over the place these days. Learning to write in this flat, unimaginative Television Prose style is like learning to sing by copying pop stars who use auto-tune to sing. It’s a shortcut that, unless you win the hack writer lottery, will take you to a dead end. If on the other hand you put in the hard work, and really learn to write well, that’s a skill you will never regret having.

It’s actually fine to steal from writers you love.

Ideas are an odd form of property. We protect them under law with copyright, trademarks and patents, but when it comes to the inventions of fiction, it’s very hard to assert meaningful ownership in a court of law. Instead, writers and readers enforce an ad-hoc moral code against authors who are seen to have stepped too far over the invisible lines of literary ownership.

My column for The Guardian this week stumbled over two cases of writers borrowing from their colleagues. It’s well known that Iain M Banks took some inspiration from Larry Niven’s Ringworld for the Orbitals featured in his novels of the Culture. Banks is now, arguably, far better known than Niven, and he altered the idea while inverting Niven’s politics, all of which seems to have earned him a pass for his minor misdemeanor.

The accusation raised against Douglas Adams in the comments of my column was new to me and, at least as presented, seem rather closer to outright plagiarism. Further research revealed that those accusations, sourced to SF author Christopher Priest in his obituary of Robert Sheckly, were somewhat overstated. Nonetheless it raises the question of just how much authors can borrow from each other before those invisible lines are crossed.

My rather wooly answer, that I suspect will not satisfy officers of the court, is that it doesn’t matter…as long as you only steal ideas you love, from authors you adore. I’ll get into the deeper waters of why in a bit, because first I want to flag up why this matters. It’s not just some writers who thieve from others, it’s all writers. And, if you don’t engage in some friendly pilfering, the fact is, you’ll probably stop yourself writing all together.

Writers aren’t lawyers, thank god. We’re artists, creators and dreamers. (We might ALSO be lawyers, because most of use have at LEAST two people in our heads.) And we start our dream lives inside the dreams of others. All the stories we read as kids are the mulch our own stories latter grow from. In our own stories we express the symbolic inner language of our imagination, and inevitably, many of those symbols are shared with the imaginations of the writers we ourselves love. If you DON’T use those symbols, perhaps because you fear being criticised for unoriginality, you risk violating the first law of creative life…YOU MUST HONOUR YOUR DREAMS. If your imagination gives you a gift, not taking it is tantamount to insulting the gods. And we all know where that leads.

Entertainment conglomerates want to own stories so they can, exclusively, profit from them. But writers, when they are honest, know that nobody owns the stories anymore than they own the DNA of life (corporations are also rather keen on owning those, whenever they can.) Stories are archetypal. They come from the great mythic beyond that only fools and madmen claim to understand, and only the very deluded claim to own.

But. None of this means you should go around creating half baked rip-offs of your fellow author’s work. Remember, it’s OK to steal fron authors you LOVE. And if you love them, you’ll want to create something that they love reading as much as you love reading them. I know nothing about Robert Sheckly, but I suspect it would take a hard heart indeed not to love Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Steal like a master criminal, then create like a master artist.

Big Dumb Objects. Sci-fi’s USP.

We humans love things we can’t explain. Witness the vast array of outlandish claims made about Stonehenge, from ancient calendar to alien stargate, when in all likelihood it was just a big clock or an early marketplace, a neolithic branch of Tesco.

When the unknown is also alien, the mystery only grows more magnetic. Think of that iconic opening to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: a family of apes wake one morning to find a black monolith looming over them; that had its origins in Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. Did some super-advanced civilisation intercede in the early evolution of intelligent life on earth? Or was the monolith just filming a very special edition of Life on Earth?

Read more on Guardian Books.

Writer. Columnist for The Guardian. Writing teacher.

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