Why @ChuckWendig is wrong.

Chuck Wendig’s notoriety extends it’s reach through the viral network of the interwebs with this little post about Turning Writers Into Motherfucking Rockstars. Apparently this would make writers better respected, or at the very least, better paid. I disagree. Vehemently. To show you why, let’s examine some of the unexamined assumptions Wendig builds his case on.

Mommy's boy

Hemmingway? Wilde? Rockstars?!
You see that picture of Hemmingway holding a shotgun? Take away the shotgun, what have you got? A flabby old guy working hard to suck his gut in. Hemmingway was a mommy’s boy who felt the need to act macho and write macho because there wasn’t much else going on behind those clipped sentences. Wilde was gay and liked tea. That describes many British writers of literary fiction and much as I love them they are about as Rock’n’Roll as that sounds. I’ll give you Hunter S. Thompson as a rockstar…but as a writer? While he literally committed the act of writing I thought mostly his readers just looked at the pictures?

Rock’n’Roll = Fame’n’Fortune
Most of the rock’n’roll people I know work as day labourers or, on a good day, call centre assisstants. No disrespect to those noble trades, but they rarely lead to ownership of an MTV crib. The problem with wasted youth is that once you run out of it you still have decades of minimum wage employment ahead of you. Rock stars in mansions? That’s just the star prize the capitalist system offers to one in a million so all the others will persist in the self-destructive behaviour that leaves you unempowered and disenfranchised…IE a perfect member of consumer society.

What are you rebelling against? My own future as an empowered individual.
Why is it that teenage rebels all dress the same? It shouldn’t take more than one rock festival and the sight of fifty thousand identically garbed rebels to make an intelligent person question what’s really going on here. Rock’n’Roll is about as rebelious as slapping a collar and chain around your neck, giving one end to The Man and begging him to make you dance like a puppet on a string. If you want to engage in some real rebellion, try reading a book. But aren’t books for speccy four eyed geeks and old maid spinster crazy cat women? THAT IS WHAT THE MAN WANTS YOU TO THINK. If you were an evil capitalist conspiracy bent on keeping your fellow man as a servile, submissive work force, which would you encourage? Books or Rock’n’Roll? I rest my case.

All the hot chicks are rock chicks.

Rock Chick
Book Geek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I rest my case. Again.

Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll give you something to write about
The case for the defence ask you to look at exhibit A, an interview with rock god Slash of Guns’n’Roses. We particularly like very time he answers a question with a monosylable. If this man ever publishes a book I hope the ghostwriter is good. Very good. I rest my case. For the last time. Except.

Neil Gaiman is a nice person
Not when you’re alone in a room with him and he’s telling you exactly what he thinks of your writing he ain’t.

So as we can see, Wendig’s logic is built on the shabbiest and most crumbly possible foundations. Why would we want writers to be more like rockstars, when rockstars are such uncool minions of The Man? No, what we need to do isn’t crush writers down in to the degraded mold of mass media rockstardom. Instead, we have to raise the masses up until they realise that if you really want the freedom the Rock’n’Roll dream is built on, it’s to be found in the books they are burning, not the CDs they are selling.

Advertisements

Not the Booker Prize

Man Booker Prize
Image via Wikipedia

The Guardian opens up nominations for the 3rd annual Not the Booker Prize today. Clearly I am biased, but this now ranks among my favourite literary prizes for it’s sheer anarchic energy. The first year of the prize unleashed a frenzy of block voting in the longlist stage, and gave us Sam Jordison’s review of James Palumbo’s ‘Tomas‘, probably one of the greatest book reviews of all time. The 2010 prize resulted in a split decision and further controversy around the voting procedures when an actual recount was required to decide the shortlist! Wonderful fun.

So. This will be my third year attempting to strongarm a China Mieville book in to the shortlist. My failure to date proves the fair and just nature of SF fandom, who certainly could block vote any book they wished in to the top spot, but actually the votes Mieville has garnered each year have been predominantly from people who really have read and enjoyed his books. So I won’t be engaging in underhand tactics beyond suggesting that, should you so wish, you might click the link below and vote for your favourite book of the year. If that *happens* to be Embassytown then all the better.

Make your nominations for the Not the Booker Prize.

A Game of Egos

A wealthy dynasty brought to its knees by popular revolt, the highest in the land caught in a web of corruption, and at the heart of it all a powerful woman with remarkable hair. If you see the Murdoch clan, Chipping Norton set and Rebekah Brooks in these archetypes then you have clearly been spending too long watching the news. If on the other hand you recognise the Targaryen kings, Small Council and Cersei Lannister then I accuse you of reading A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga.

Read more on The Guardian books website.

Flash fiction is not the future

Isaac Newton's personal copy of the first edit...
Image via Wikipedia

Here is a fact that us writers are struggling to wrap out heads around. Content is no longer in scarce supply. There will be more content generated in the time it takes me to type this sentence than any of us could consume in a lifetime. Putting content in to the world doesn’t make you special. It doesn’t even make you interesting. It just makes you another source of noise that people get better at tuning out with every passing day.

SIDENOTE: If you have ever used the word content to describe you’re own writing you are lost far from the true path. Start making you’re way back, there is still time to catch up.

Some of us, noting that in the attention economy demand far outstrips supply, toy with ways to use less of the scarce resource. Surely, in the fierce competition for human eye-ball time, stories that take only moments to read will multiply their chances of survival? Every fifteen minutes, somewhere on the internet, a new flash fiction publisher is launched. Where are they all? Does anyone read them? Anyone?

There is a basic principle that all salesmen know: It’s easier to close a big deal than a small one. Because you never sell the reality of the cost, you sell the dream of the reward. The bigger the deal, the bigger the dream. Billion £/$ deals are agreed in two sentences with a handshake over a drunken lunch, while the rest of us spend  an hour choosing between two different mobile phone contracts separated by pennies, and probably end up getting neither, because the truth is we don’t really care.

A book is never a big deal financially, unless it’s Newton’s Principia Mathematica or some such. But in the attention economy, a book is a very big deal. A book eats up hours of scarce eye-ball time. Our eyes could be looking at anything in that time…they could be gazing on miracles. And yet, every hour of every day, billions of us, choose to point our eyes at bits of paper with squiggles on. Why? Because implicit in that big deal is a big dream…that the book in our hands will unlock new potential in our minds and in our lives. That is the great dream that great books offer us all.

Flash fiction takes that dream and throws a glass of luke warm water in its face. Flash fiction is like opening a sales pitch with an apology for the poor quality of your product. What kind of dream is flash fiction offering? A cheap and dowdy one. Flash fiction sells itself as being perfect for people who only want to read for five minutes on their multi-function smartphone during their morning commute to their corporate job. To paraphrase Bill Hicks…the reason I read is so I don’t end up like those people.

At the start of the 21st Century, in the midst of the information revolution, is no time for books to be backing down. Books are the Jesuit missionaries of the intellect. They get sent out in to the barbarian world to bring civilisation. The great books of the future won’t apologise for their existence by trying to hide away in the gaps between other things. Like the great books of the past they will demand attention, in exchange for the dream of better things.

Oh please GOD no STOP writing! (so much)

There’s a terrible meme emerging from the internet writing community. It arises from good intentions and common sense, and like most examples of common sense applied to complex situations it is utterly, utterly wrong.

You can see this meme at work in the debate around publishing a book a year following Steph Swainston‘s retirement from fiction. You can see it Chuck Wendig’s (who I agree with more often than not) recent musings Write More, Word Slave. You can see it in the 50,000 word a month culture of NaNoWriMo. And you can see it in the commonly held wisdom that if, as a writer, you can just get your name out there in front of readers enough, you will eventually achieve fame and fortune.

You won’t. Well, you might. But it won’t be because readers have seen your name so often that they just give up and declare you a genius. It will be because somewhere in that torrent of words you’ve poured out in to the world, some of them were good enough to really stand out.

If you had only put those words in to the world, you would have done even better. Many writers seem determined to become their own worst source of signal interference on the channel between their work and those people who might be interested in their work.

The Entertainment Machine

Part of the problem here seems to be the belief that writers are part of the entertainment industry. That a writers product should be as uniform and regular as eight seasons of Star Trek : the Next Generation. I have a soft spot in my heart for Star Trek, I do. But if I want easily digested mind fodder then the TV is right there to give it to me. From books and the writers who write them I want insight…into life, society, the world, the universe. Writers are as much part of entertainment industry as doctors are part of the pharmaceutical industry. The latter’s job is to make product from which they make money. The former’s job is to heal people.

Protestant Work Ethic

Many of us work in places where the prevailing belief is that if you turn up from 9 to 5, do all the things you are told to do and do them well, you will prosper and may eventually get a promotion. These places are called factories, whether they are producing car parts or processing data of one kind or another, many work places are still factories. But writers are not factory workers. The rules of the protestant work ethic don’t apply to writing. You don’t get rewarded for producing x number of words, or x number of novels. Your job is to make things that are unique, wise, truthful and inspiring. That’s why you’re an artist, not a labourer.

Update Your Marketing Savvy

We’ve all grown up in a world where marketing was a thing done to the masses. You turned on your favourite TV programme and it was interrupted every 10 minutes by a mega corporation with a message designed to make you feel insufficient so you would buy their product. With enough people watching, and enough money spent buying ad space, the products sold. This approach has never worked for writers. It doesn’t work so well for Mars and Coca-Cola any more. Writers who try and flood the market with a book a year, or four books a year, or a short story a month, or a short story a day, or eight short stories a minute, or whatever, are attempting to apply the dynamics of mass marketing to a niche audience. It’s absurd and counter productive.

The Need to Make a Living

Stop trying to make a living from writing. You may as well try to make a living as spiritual leader or political revolutionary. People do make a living at these things, but it’s rarely their first priority. They’re trying to change the world, hopefully, for the better. It isn’t every writers job to change the world, but you should be trying to effect the people you are writing for. I don’t read Haruki Murakami, or Neil Gaiman, or Ursula Le Guin, or Stephen King, or M John Harrison, or Mary Renault, or Kelly Link, or any of the writers I love, because I feel the need to contribute to their bank balance. I read them because they show me the world in new and wiser ways. I’m sure you read your most loved authors for the same reason. Write something true and wise and brilliant. Making a living will look after itself.

How to eat a pomegranate

Pomegranate Fruits.
Image via Wikipedia

It is pomegranate season.

Which is a dangerous time for me. I have very little self-control when it comes to the kind sweet, tangy, fruit based deliciousness pomegranates promise.

Which is a meandering introduction towards the revelation that I have just eaten two whole, very large pomegranates. The first one was good. Bright scarlet berries and a sweet flavour. But the second one. Oh lord. This was God’s own pomegranate. Dark crimson berries so juicy that as soon as I cut it open it seemed to be bleeding blood. And tangy, like a cherry crossed with a lime.

One of the benefits of living in a diverse city like Leicester is that the residents know where to import the best fruit from. Wherever the current batch are imported from (I would guess Israel) the consequence is I’ve spent many evenings this week gorged out of my mind on fruit.

As a good friend of mie says, a pomegranate is more than just a fruit. It’s an experience.

But before you can get to that experience, you have find a way in. And as another friend says, the pomegranate is an intimidating fruit.

The best pomegranates are dark skinned, almost scaly, and irregularly shaped. Avoid pale, shiny round pomegranates. They will be artificially grown in big greenhouses. The berries will be pale and tasteless so you just end chewing seed. And it will be mostly pith anyway (more on the pith later). Not good. It’s this kind of poor pomegranate experience, often from a supermarket bought pomegranate, that puts many people off. Size wise, a pomegranate should be around the size of an orange of a big apple. Smaller ones can be tasty, but frustrating (I would have to eat three small pomegranates at least) bigger ones again risk being artificial and tasteless.

Assuming you can source a few good pomegranates, you are going to need a nice bowl and a good sharp knife. I use a paring knife with a short, fat blade. I’ve used a professional grade 12″ chopping knife in the past out of desperation, but as you will see, control is an issue. Oh, and somewhere comfortable to sit. And maybe some good music.

Carefully dig the tip of the knife under the evil looking stem on top of the pomegranate, then cut around in a circle. The aim is to cleanly detach this and dispose of it. It serves no further purpose.

Now, you’re going to make a slicing incision from near the top of the pomegrante, down to around two thirds of the way to the base. YOU ONLY NEED TO SLICE THROUGH THE SKIN, NOT INTO THE FRUIT ITSELF. Now, make another identical incision about one sixth of the way around the circumference of the pomegranate. Make a third small incision to join the top of the two existing one. Imagine this as demarcating a slice of cake.

With the slice ready, you use the edge of the blade to gently leaver it out of the body of the fruit. You should then get a whole chunk of berries attached to the rind.

In a moment you’re going to be able to eat some berries. But first a note on pith.

Pith is not, contrary to what my mother said the first time she gave me one of these fruit, lethally poisonous. You do not need to remove every single tiny bit of pith from every single damn berry, as I did, thereby extending the eating time to three or four hours. Pith is rather bitter and chewy however, so you do want to avoid it mostly. The best way to do this is to us your fingers to pick a cluster of berries off the slice and then eat them.

Go for it.

Good huh?

Once you’ve finished a slice, you will want another one. Repeat the incision and levering / lifiting process until you’ve eaten the berries from all six slices. Then you can dig in to the main body, unless you’ve been eating those bits as you go, which is actually how I usually do it.

The base of the pomegranate is rather wondrous. Assuming you’ve been methodical you will basically have a seventh, circular slice. Now, of you remove most of the pith, and then press the bottom upwards, the whole thing radiates out like some kind of pomegranate flower. Don’t admire it too long, it’s meant for eating.

Now at this point I usually get a second pomegranate and continue eating. If that was the second pomegranate, I debate having a third, assuming there are any left and reminding myself I will DEFINITELY feel sick afterwards. Which is why I’ve been writing this post, as I consider that question. And now I have made up my mind.

Weird Things

I’ve been dying to talk about this for weeks but have had to wait until the right time…which is now! Weird Things is my new column for The Guardian which I will be writing fortnightly. It’s all about the weird ideas in SF and Fantasy novels or any book with a weird idea at its heart. The first column is published today and tackles our fear of Robopocalypse, and the more nuanced ideas in Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects.

Should we fear the Robopocalypse?

The robots are revolting. But will they kill us…or cuddle us?

Daniel H Wilson’s debut work of fiction Robopocalypse comes pre-packaged with two Unique Selling Points. That the author holds a Phd in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, and is hence more than just another oddball Sci-Fi writer with an overactive imagination. And that, having been bought by Steven Spielberg for production ‘even before it was finished’, the novel is already a success, and nothing breeds success like success.

Read more on The Guardian website.

How will writers make a living in the future?

Printing press from 1811, photographed in Muni...
Image via Wikipedia

It’s worth considering the idea that we won’t.

We are living through miraculous times. Knowledge, once a scarce resource, is being made freely and universally available to all. To understand how miraculous this is, consider the Dark Ages. For somewhere in the region of a thousand years, Europe was held in the iron grip of the church by a complete embargo on knowledge. An educated priestly elite dictated that the only true knowledge was the bible, which was written in latin which, low and behold, only they could read. that scarcity of information aloud the complete suppression of the entire European population for millennia. It’s no coincidence that as knowledge began to flow again, and then blossomed with the waves of information technology that took us from the printing press to the  internet, society became progressively more free.

It’s very likely, in fact I would argue almost certain, that the freedoms unleashed by the internet will bring almost unimaginable benefits to every person alive today and every person that comes after us. The society that emerges from today’s information revolution will be as far advanced from our society today, as our society is from the Dark Ages.

In that future society, it won’t be possible to make a living from writing. Even the idea of making a living from writing will seem strange. In much the same way we might think making a living from talking a little odd…although it seemed perfectly natural to the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation. But then, if we make it down the rocky road of change that leads there, the idea of making a living itself will seem a little odd…

Tell don’t show

I want you to tell me a story. I want to hear your voice like a whisper coming up from the page even though you are thousand miles or a hundred years away. I want you to command my attention like a master storyteller bringing a hall full of rowdy warriors to silence with a tale of the weird and fantastic. I want every word you use to count, because if you wouldn’t stand and say them to an audience, why print them on the page?

Please don’t show me a story. Please don’t waste tens of thousands of words describing the technicolor movie spooling in your head because I’m not going to waste my time reading them. Please don’t open your novel with pages and pages of words describing the setting and the characters in endless, pointless detail because if you can’t create the image in a sentence a paragraph won’t do it any better. Please don’t treat your novel like a screenplay, or a stageplay, or a poem, or a comic script, or a feature article, or a blog post, or a text message, or like a fucking twitter update. Because it’s a novel, and it isn’t any of these things any more than a car is a plane or a boat or a hover craft, and trying to drive it like one is going to lead to disaster.

If you don’t tell me the story first it doesn’t matter how hard your try and show it to me later, because you have already lost my attention. Which is why I’m writing this post, because I’m looking at a pile of new novels for review, and too many of them want to show me spectacular images but have completely forgotten to tell me the story first. So please, for the sake of my meagre reading time, tell don’t show.

Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Image via Wikipedia

 

Originally published on Fantasy Matters.

In my regular blog for The Guardian, I’m on record as saying that there are only two truly great science fiction movies. These are, of course, 2001 and Bladerunner. And if I think about science fiction as a ‘genre of ideas’ then I stand by that statement. No other SF movie even comes close to the vision of these two.

But. I have a confession to make. There are other SF movies that I love rather a lot, even though they have none of the philosophical depth of truly great SF. And when it comes to SF movies lacking any philosophical depth, there are none greater than the greatest of all Star Trek movies…Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan.

Let’s be frank. Star Trek taken in its entirety has nothing of any great depth to say. Yes, I know, I know. The Federation is a utopian future society. If you altered the laws of physics just a teeny weeny little bit everything on board the Enterprise-D REALLY WOULD WORK, and classic Trek episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” played around with political ideas like the civil rights movement. I grew up a Star Trek geek, I know the arguments. But let’s be honest with ourselves here for just a moment…all that stuff is just trimming around the edge of what we really love about Trek…it’s unabashed pulp storytelling.

From the opening sequence of the Kobayashi Maru, through Khan’s mind control ear wigs, to William Shatner’s greatest screen moment screaming ‘KHAN!!!’ in the Genesis caves, WoK is simply the greatest pulp adventure movie ever made.

I challenge even the most high brow cinema goer not to release a small whoop of joy when, with the USS Enterprise dead in space after an underhand attack from the hijacked USS Reliant, Kirk and Spock hack the opposing ship’s computer, lower her shields and, even as the eponymous Khan gloats over their defeat, unleash phaser hell on the Reliant. HURRAH!!

But there is more. Star Trek may not be deep in concepts or philosophy. But it does have heart and soul. Beneath all the photon explosions and vengeful villains, WoK is a film about friendship. With the Enterprise unable to reach warp speed, Spock enters the radiation filled warp chamber to fix the engines, sacrificing his own life to save those of his crew. Kirk and Spock’s final exchange, even through an inch of plexiglass, is genuinely moving. Bill Shatner overcomes his usually wooden acting style and manages to shed a tear. And I’m not ashamed to say, I do too.

 

Pick me! Pick me!

“Employees wait to be picked for promotion, or to lead a meeting or to speak up at a meeting. ‘Pick me, pick me’ acknowledges the power of the system and passes responsibility to someone to initiate. Even better, ‘pick me, pick me’ moves the blame from you to them. If you don’t get picked, it’s their fault, not yours. Reject the tyranny of picked. Pick yourself.”

Seth Godin, Poke the Box

Writers are never employees. Even when they are employed. A writers job is always to say what no one else has yet said. And you can’t wait for your boss to tell you what that is. This is one reason why those structures where writers are employed, are waiting to be told what to do, businesses like newspapers and publishers, are either collapsing or going through revolutionary change, and being beaten in to the ground by dynamic systems where writers do not wait to picked, by blogs and other social media.

Writing is now such a competitive career that saying ‘pick me!’ is hardly even an option anymore, if it ever was. Too many writers think of editors, agents and other publishing professionals as people who are waiting to pick them. The truth is that no good editor or agent interested in making a living is interested in picking a writer. The writers worth working with are the ones who have already picked themselves, who are instigating and building their own career and who understand the value of the relationship they have with other professionals, agents and editors.

What does this mean in practical terms for you as a writer? Above all else it means you need to be aware of what you need to do to instigate your career. If you have never written a word and dream of writerly stardom, you need to enrol on a good course and spend a few years learning your trade. If you have published a few dozen stories and have a strong novel in progress you need to get out and network at events where you will meet people who might publish the book. You’ll quickly find out if it has potential. If you’ve sold 400 million copies of your novels about an orphan boy at magic school it might be time to ditch the agent and the publisher all together and sell direct to your readers.

Don’t mistake a rash leap in the dark for instigating your career. Self-publishing a multi-volume urban fantasy on Lulu is just another way of shouting ‘pick me!’ at a readership swamped with other desperate hopefuls doing the same thing. But don’t fear if you happen to have done this or any of the other host of miss-steps writers take early in their travels, for a fortunate consequence of this kind of failure is that, by definition, no one will have noticed.

(But it is probably a good idea to take that 18 volume saga off Lulu well before you actually publish a real book.)

And now go and read the combined wisdom of Clarion as introduced by James Patrick Kelly.