How to bend the masses to your will with words alone

The internet, being composed of 50% text and 50% raw naked ambition, is full of how-tos and guidelines on ways to manipulate the written word to achieve your raw naked ambitions. They are called things like How to Write Compelling Content for the Web or 73 Ways to Manipulate the Weak Willed With the Power of Your Words.

But if you really want to push people around with the pure force of language then I suggest turning to a true master of the medium, the ancient philosopher Aristotle. We tend to think of these long dead philosophers like Plato and Aristotle as the fathers of all things democratic and hence good. But Aristotle’s version of democracy was mostly about the Greek nobility voting to decide what to do with the latest batch of slaves or which tribe to conquer next. One thing Aristotle did well was give his wealthy patrons advice on how to use the power of rhetoric to bend the uneducated masses to their will. And if you wish to do the same you could do worse than follow Aristotle’s three part structure for truly persuasive text…Ethos! Pathos! Logos!

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This is where you establish your credibility as a speaker. It is the foundation that your whole argument rests upon. Logically, it shouldn’t actually matter what the credibility of the speaker is if their argument is correct. But in reality it is often more important than anything else. Experience, qualifications, expertise. Just a few of the weapons you can deploy to prove that you are, in fact, the Man. (Or the Woman.) But don’t overdo it. There’s nothing people hate more than a smart-ass.

The bit where you establish an emotional connection to your audience. You know like in X-Factor where the wannabe pop star tells you they wannabe famous so their dead second aunt Petunia will be proud of them? Pathos. Of a blunt and obvious kind. But even more sophisticated appeals to the emotions all come down to the same basic technique, whereby the speaker establishes that he is just like the rabble he is speaking to. This is why you see politicians doing things like rolling up their shirts sleeves, or telling you for apparently no reason about the summer they spent working in a shop before they became part of the social elite. They are just like you and me, see? If you can establish pathos effectively the battle is as good as won.

This is the logical bit where you explain why what you are saying is correct. Ironically, it’s by far the least important part of the argument. If you have your ethos and pathos down, you can get the mob to do most anything. So the real purpose of of the logical bit of your argument is to tell your audience what it is you want them to do. Or, if there are critics in your audience, provide some bullet proofing against their accusations that all you’ve done is stand up and say what a great bloke you are (ethos) and that your aunt Petunia just died (pathos). In fact, if you provide a bit of wonky logic your critics will focus their efforts on pointing out just how wonky, which they can do to their hearts content because it won’t actually impact the brain washed masses under the spell of you ethos + logos.

Be careful with this, it’s some powerful shit. It might sound great to have a brainwashed mob obeying your every command, but I can assure you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Also, if you do it too transparently the ignorant masses will notice you are manipulating them and turn on you. Ideally you need a good Public School (Private School for American readers) education to teach you the nuance of social manipulation. But hey, even without that you can have fun bending the unwashed masses to your will!

All hail the New Pulp

Imagine a scale of literary productivity. At one end, place current darling of the American literary scene Jeffrey Eugenides, bating a steady average of one book per decade. At the other, put Jack Vance – at 95, perhaps the last of the great pulp fictioneers – who has produced 60 novels across the SF, fantasy and mystery genres, as well as hundreds of stories for pulp magazines such as Thrilling Wonder Stories. Label one end of the scale great literature, the other pulp fiction.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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Who profits in the creative economy?

A Bookseller article today reports that ‘less than 10% of self published authors make a living‘, based on a survey of around 1000 self-published authors. But the remarkable thing about this story is the intensely negative spin it gives to the data it presents. It could easily read “Holy Fuck! A percentage of self-published authors actually make a living!!!!!!” OK, it couldn’t read like that because the august pages of The Bookseller would never use that many exclamation points, but you get my meaning.

There is a clear argument that a self-publishing model, even one that continues to be complimented by a stripped down legacy publishing framework dealing with the very top authors, could deliver a far higher percentage of the revenue of the creative economy to writers. Why? Well put very simply, much of the revenue of publishing ends up in things which are extrinsic to the creation of good books. Some of that expense sits in things like the distribution framework for print books. But much of sits in tiers of executive management and of course the profits that go to owners and shareholders of the media conglomerates that own major publishers.

Let’s say that writers in the legacy publishing model receive a total of 10% of the revenue of publishing, not an unreasonable guess based on existing advances and royalties. Now lets say that in a self publishing model writers received 35%, the lower tiers of royalties paid by Amazon. Even at that low level, its quite easy to see how a much larger number of writers might make a living in a self-publishing model. What if the percentage were 50% or 70%, not at all impossible. I’m not frothing at the mouth to have mid-level regional marketing executive ousted from their jobs in publishing, but I would much rather see writers getting that money in the long run.

The conversation about self-publishing often turns around the argument of quality control. Perhaps at this point its more interesting to talk about the liberating creative potential in a model where writers who can achieve the quality have a much better chance of making a fair living from their work.

First person in The Great Gatsby

If you’ve picked up some corrupted ideas about 1st person narration from bad urban fantasy writing, The Great Gatsby is a good restorative.


Reading The Great Gatsby today, I’ve been struck by how well F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, and in particular how well he writes first person narrative. The Great Gatsby was first published in 1925 but would not seem dated if read alongside Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero published in 1985, a novel it bears many striking similarities to. Unlike style in film or other narrative forms which change year by year, quickly dating older media, prose only dates at the speed that the language around it changes. Fitzgerald and Easton Ellis both read as fresh and remarkable voices not so much because they were unique in their time, as because they handle the techniques they are employing with such mastery that they stand out at any time.

In How Fiction Works critic James Wood says that ‘The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors.’ By which he means narrative points of view. We can tell a story in first person or third person. We can also tell it in second person, but it’s rarely done its simply an unnatural way to tell a story. Wood also points out that while first and third person might seem quite different, they both lead to telling the story. Hence much of what is relevant to first person is also relevant to third.

But because in first person the presence of ‘I’ on the page makes us very aware of the narrator, its becomes all the more important to answer some questions about that narrator. I talk about some of those questions in my workshop on Narrative, but will recap them here for this context. Who is the narrator? Why are they telling this story, and why now? Where and when are they telling the story from? After the action? In the action? I could go on. These are the questions that Fitzgerald answers so intelligently in The Great Gatsby.

Unfortunately in lots of fiction, with a particular culprit being the current crop of urban fantasy writing, these questions remain largely unanswered. We do usually know who the narrator is…a kick ass female heroine on a mission with a thing for wereleopards more often than not. But then things start to get problematic. The author doesn’t tell us, directly or indirectly, why the story is being told, often because they haven’t thought this through themselves. They don’t tell us where or when the story is being told from, again because they don’t know. It’s not essential that we are told any of this directly, but it is essential that the author knows otherwise the narration loses its depth and colour.

So we end up with repetitive, flat narration that does nothing more than lay out a series of events, but completely misses the real beauty of first person narrative, which is the opportunity it gives the writer to show us the character of the narrator. Not just through what they say, but through what they leave unsaid and through what they downright lie about. What is often called the ‘unreliable narrator’ isn’t a occasionally used tool of first person narrative. ALL narrators are unreliable. All of us construct our story around ourselves in the way that best serves our self interests and prejudices. Some narrators are blind to their own selfishness. Some others lie to hide their own actions from themselves. Some have the quality of self awareness. But none are entirely honest.

It’s ultimately the self awareness of the author that is reflected in first person narration. Too often the kick ass heroine narrator seems to sow an author that isn’t aware that the the story is a reflection of their own fantasies. First person is a risky way to write because the ‘I’ on the page is always to some extent the ‘I’ of the author. The trick that Fitzgerald and Easton Ellis pull is to show us the full range of their humanity through the first person voice, both light and dark, and that is why their writing resonates so deeply with us still.

Why the same arguments repeat endlessly online

The internet opens up all forms of discourse to all kinds of people. Just a few decades ago, the dialogues of literary criticism were held between only a small handful of ‘qualified’ experts. Now, for better or worse, tens of thousands of people debate literature online.

When a discourse is conducted within a limited community, it is possible to manufacture a sense of progress. For instance, the Structuralist school of literary criticism is overtaken by the Post-Structuralist. In the unbounded conversational space of the internet there can be no such progress. All arguments exist simultaneously in states of perpetual conflict that can never find any satisfactory resolution. Progress and resolution can only occur on the individual level, as in the progress a learner through a body of knowledge.

Learning theory includes the idea of threshold knowledge and threshold concepts, ‘core concepts that once understood, transform perception of a given subject’. It’s the transformation of perception that creates arguments, because individuals at different stages of learning hold fundamentally different and often irreconcilable perceptions of the same issue. And as any teacher knows, the students who argue hardest in class are often the ones making the greatest leaps in their learning. In the dialectic model argument is a powerful tool for learning (although it relies on a degree of control over the ego that is rarely present in online arguments).

In the Science Fiction community some notable threshold concepts include: the relationship between genre and literature, the value of ‘hard’ vs ‘soft’ science fiction, the overlapping identity of science fiction and fantasy. There are of course many others. Wherever you see an argument being repeated again and again, you are likely to be observing the effect of a threshold concept and leaners in that discipline going through the process of transforming their perception (or failing to have it transformed in many cases).

You may have settled your perception of a threshold issue, in which case it’s tempting to dismiss familiar arguments. But don’t dismiss the people having them. They are just engaged in the learning process, and while they may seem behind you in this area, they may well be ahead in others. Such are things on the internet.

Fantasy must be a struggle with life

The more experienced I become as a writer, the more I realise I was closer to the soul of the art when I started out than after a decade and some lose change years studying its craft. Jonathan Franzen is a writer I discovered through The Corrections some time in the last year or so. In his recent lecture reprinted in The Guardian, Franzen talks about the relationship between fiction and autobiography, by way of Kafka.

Kafka’s work, which grows out of the night-time dreamworld in Kafka’s brain, is more autobiographical than any realistic retelling of his daytime experiences at the office or with his family or with a prostitute could have been. What is fiction, after all, if not a kind of purposeful dreaming? The writer works to create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning. And work like Kafka’s, which seems to proceed directly from dream, is therefore an exceptionally pure form of autobiography. There is an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life.

When I began writing I found myself tugged back and forth between two seemingly conflicted urges. One was to write about my life. My first half dozen published stories, all now hidden on my hard drive out of public sight, were very direct explorations of the tough bits of my own life. These stories, recounting for instance the exacting details of watching my mother die of cancer, felt uncomfortably like bludgeoning an emotional response from readers. (I have the same feeling even looking back at that last sentence) In literary terms I’d had the advantage of of a traumatic childhood. I had a lot of dramatic experience to draw upon and wasn’t afraid in my early twenties to beat the shit out of people with it. In fact I enjoyed the sensation and found some needed emotional resolution in it. But I couldn’t avoid the idea that this was an unfair way to treat the reader, and I could see that this was a limited kind of writing.

Fortunately, the other tug on my writing sensibilities was the urge to write fantasy. By which I mean everything from Tolkienesque high fantasy to Gibsonesque cyberpunkian sci-fi fantasy. It’s all fantasy to my way of thinking. These were the writers I’d grown up with, the imaginary worlds I had retreated in to as an escape from all that traumatic childhood stuff. But whenever I tried, or sometimes return to trying, to write fantasy as an escape, I found that what I wrote died on the page. I have half a dozen novels worth of failed fantasy that will remain locked away until and hopefully after the day I die. It all needed to be written, it has all contributed to the million words every writer must write for their apprenticeship. But none of it ever needs to be read. I can’t quite bring myself to burn / delete it all, but I could do so with no great loss.

The stories I have written that pass my internal quality tests, and which I have therefore left lying around for interested people to read, have all satisfied both my urges for biography and fantasy. Star, my latest short story upcoming in Universe magazine in June, is an alternative history of a fascist Britain, and also a memoir of the attempt to escape what seemed an overwhelmingly authoritarian educational system. My Lovesick Zombie Boyband is about a teenage girl with powers of necromancy, and also about having my heart crushed when I was eighteen. Circe’s Bar and Grill is a contemporary retelling of the Odysseus myth, and also my experience of serving rich people in restaurants. Momentum is an complete invention, except I do have boxes of scrawled notes from departed relatives hidden under my bed and I often wonder what they mean.

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s idea of autobiography and the fictive dream, I realised how distinctly biography and fantasy, far from being conflicting urges, have actually been aspects of the same urge for me. I can steal Franzen’s words to describe that urge as to ‘create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning’. It’s in the collision of the real and the fantastic that the vividness and and meaning of the dream arise.

Earlier in the same section of the lecture Franzen says:

My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life.

Whilst it might seem counter-intuative to some, all the fantasy writing I consider truly great conforms to that conception of the novel. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings struggles with his own story of surviving the trenches of World War One. China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels struggle with his own story of living as an intellectual and marxist in one of the worlds great capitalist cities. William Gibson’s novels from Neuromancer to Zero History struggle with his own story of understanding a world reshaped by the emerging web of media he calls ‘the net’. It’s the thing I find missing in most of the fantasy writing I encounter. However brilliantly it builds a world, tells a story, spinds out remarkable idea…if the author isn’t engaged in the struggle with their own story, it all adds up to little more than a calcified shell, missing the fleshy pulp of life within.

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Inspirational words for artists from Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman did not graduate from university. He did not even go to university. Instead he pursued his creative ambitions, and became one of the worlds greatest writers. Here he shares some words of wisdom with graduating students from The University of the Arts.

One or two of my favourite Gaiman quotes from this talk:

“Nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it.”

“People get hired because they get hired. People keep working because 1)their work is good 2)they’re easy to get on with 3)they’re on time. You only need 2 of the 3.”

I studied with Neil at the Clarion writers’ workshop in 2008. He told me off for my apostrophes, but also gave me three of the best bits of advice about my own writing I have ever had. If I ever get famous enough to give a commencement speech, I will share them with you.

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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


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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Fandom Matters

Original published @ Guardian Books

One of the notable features of science fiction and fantasy fandom is that it exists around five to 10 years ahead of the curve when it comes to information technology. The 50% of the early world wide web that wasn’t porn was made up of Star Trek: The Next Generation fansites; with every new territory opened up by technology, be it blogs, social networks or ebooks, SF fans have been among the early colonists. This is partly because SF and fantasy is part of the genetic code of most tech geeks. But it’s also because SF fandom is a tight-knit community, and from the earliest days of print fanzines onwards it has recognised new ways to build the strength of that community.

SF and fantasy writers understand that community, or they pay with their careers. Frankly, trying to become a SF author without an intimate understanding of SF fandom is like trying to become a Catholic priest without talking to the Vatican. For most SF and fantasy writers this understanding is innate; they’ve been fans from birth, and the web of conventions, societies, publishers and online communities that make up the architecture of fandom have likely been their safe haven from the annoyingly ungeeky “mainstream” for much of their life. Even the authors who appear to criticise or reject fandom, such as Harlan Ellison, do so with the studied skills of the expert insider.

So the success of a novel such as Fifty Shades of Grey is far less surprising to anyone who understands the dynamics of fandom than to the mainstream publishing industry. When James Bridle pointed to the book as evidence of fan-fiction as a rich seam for publishers, he managed to come amusingly close to the point while missing it altogether. That it was fan-fiction based in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilightverse is beside the point. That it was chosen by fans and made successful through their support is far more significant. Because what fans want above all else – what in fact defines the very essence of fandom – is ownership of that which we adore.

It is the emerging culture of fandom, empowered by the internet andsocial media, that explains the phenomenal success of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter. The platform’s most high profile success stories – The Order of the Stick’s $1m fundraiser, for example – tell only a part of the story. More informative perhaps is author Chuck Wendig,who raised just under $7,000 for the latest instalment in his Atlanta Burns series through crowdfunding. Wendig isn’t a superstar (yet) and doesn’t have a huge established readership (also yet). But what he has gained is the warm regard of a fandom through his Terribleminds blog. Every fan who buys a piece of Wendig gets to feel a real sense of ownership, far more than if they had just walked into a shop and paid for the book itself. In a very real sense Kickstarter makes fans as important as creators, because it is the fans who directly empower the artist to make the art.

But the demands of fandom are far from the lofty expectations of many who seek artistic fame and fortune. As musician Amanda Palmer relates to Techdirt, the people who are contributing to her Kickstarter, whichstands at $577,010 with 24 days to go at the time of writing, are giving because they know her. Twitter is the platform that has allowed her as an artist to develop a personal rapport with tens of thousands of people, on top of a relentless tour schedule. Palmer spends hours every day sharing her life on Twitter, and when it came time to support an artist they felt a personal bond with, her fandom have come through with more solid financial support that most artists will ever receive from a record label or book publisher. In Palmer’s own words, we are entering the age of the social artist.

Any writer working today who can’t answer the question, “What fandom am I writing for?” may as well pack up their pens and paper and settle into that call centre job. It doesn’t have to be SF fandom. In fact, preferably not, as we’re already swamped with refugee literary writers desperately trying to make out they’ve always been geeks at heart. In this age, fandom’s are the only true arbiters of taste. The publishers that survive will be the ones that understand that their role is to amplify the signal of those artists already chosen by fandom. The writers who succeed will be the ones who are there day in and day out, as much a part of fandom as any other fan, and on first name terms with the neighbours. Because if you aren’t willing to live on the ground as one of the fans, why should you expect them to hoist you on their shoulders for your shot at reaching the stars?

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Who is the wisest Sci-Fi & Fantasy author?

Over on Twitter and Facebook I asked folk to tell me which SF author they would turn to for life advice, for words of wisdom and guidance through the labyrinth of life. And I got quite a response!

[View the story “Wisest of the wise in SF & Fantasy” on Storify]

Popular choices include Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams. Is it just coincidence that these are also some of our most enduring writers?

It makes me wonder, beyond a good story, great characters, cool ideas and amazing worlds to explore, is what we really value in our writers is the wise guidance they offer us through life?