The battle for geek culture

As a fan of fantasy fiction, it’s been entertaining watching mainstream cultural critics’ baffled responses to Game of Thrones, which has surprised many by becoming the biggest show on TV this year. Gina Bellafante of the New York Times was among the first to come a cropper when she made the rash statement that no woman could ever enjoy the show, only to find herself hounded across the internet by legions of female fantasy fans.

Read more @ Guardian books.

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7 signs you are ready to self-publish (a checklist)

For my work at The Guardian I spend a lot of time looking at new books, and I’ve gone out of my way to look at new books by indie published writers. And my conclusion has been that the vast majority of independently published writers aren’t ready. The books aren’t ready and their authors aren’t ready either in most cases. Nonetheless indie publishing is now an established route in to professional writing for those who are ready. So how do writers know when they are ready?

This is an attempt to lay out some criteria that might help writers of all kinds make that decision. It’s hard to objectively assess our own progress. The ego is constantly whispering, ‘of course we’re ready’, and part of the problem with not being ready is that you don’t yet have the tools to even know you are not ready! Of course there is very little true objectivity in the world of books, and these criteria are effected by my own subjective experience. But it is an experience that has spent a lot of time looking at indie published books, and the books I have spotted that do succeed do meet many if not all of these criteria.

It’s worth noting that no measure of this kind can deal with outliers. The writer who never wrote a word before writing that bestseller. The untrained talent that pens a literary masterpiece. It’s also worth noting that many outlier stories are marketing hype, they provide a hook story that helps sell the book, when you dig you find the author has been around for twenty years in various guises. And of course, there is nothing your ego likes to glom on to more than outlier examples of success. It loves to convince you that you can succeed without doing the work. If you’re betting on being an outlier these criteria won’t help, and I wish you good luck.

Finally, you might wonder how many of these criteria you should fulfil. I’d suggest if you fulfil even one, you’re in the right place to try and consciously go after three more. If you manage four, there’s a good chance you are ready to indie publish. All seven is likely to help your chances even more.

1. Do you have a great High Concept?
It’s all too easy to say a book like The Da Vinci Code is badly written. There are different levels of writing, and at the conceptual level Dan Brown’s mega-seller is brilliantly written. It’s the same kind of writing that makes a good ad campaign. Most of the effort has gone in to the concept. A great concept like The DaVinci Code sells itself from the title onwards. Another recent example might be Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Note that these concepts are great because they capture a zeitgeist, an idea which is in many peoples minds but the author is first to articulate. Copying a successful concept is not a high concept.

2. Have you practiced for 10,000 hours?
Malcolm Gladwell identifies 10,000 hours as the length of time it takes to achieve mastery in any discipline. It’s the amount of time you spend in school to age 16. It’s the amount of time The Beatles spent playing live gigs before they succeeded as recording artists. And it should be the amount of time you have spent writing before you publish your work. If you treat writing like a part-time job, and write for 20 hours a week, it will take you about 10 years to reach mastery. In my experience that’s about how long it takes most serious writers to go from greenhorn to seasoned pro. Some people start publishing before the 10,000 hour mark, but they often end up hiding their early work later in their career.

3. Have you subjected your work to serious criticism?
Would you launch a commercial product without testing it? If you do you massively increase your chances of failure. Find a source of serious criticism for your writing. Not your family, unless you’re certain they will give you honest feedback. Form a critique group of writers around your level, you can all grow together. This process will hurt. It’s supposed to hurt. Your ego will take a pummelling. All the excuses it makes on your behalf get stripped away, and you’re left with only the work itself. All serious artists seek out serious criticism and learn from it. If this idea seems abhorrent then you’re still learning to separate your self from your work.

4. Are you well read in your genre (and preferably beyond)?
Genres are just traditions in writing. You can think of any genre, from Epic Fantasy to Literary Fiction, as a path of progress through the forking possibilities of prose fiction. Would you honestly expect to become a blues musician without listening to a lot of blues? And do you think a great musician becomes great by only listening to blues? To excel in any art you have to absolutely immerse yourself in it. You can become a functional artist by learning one tradition in your art form. You take the step towards greatness when you learn multiple traditions and begin to interweave them. Look at the career of an artist like Picasso, who deliberately learned new traditions every few years, and with each step made his own art exponentially greater. If you want to write, get reading.

5. Do you have a platform?
Whether it’s your own chat show on prime time TV, or a few dozen followers on Twitter, having a platform from which you speak is essential for writers. Publishers can provide a platform, that’s the major service they provide to writers in fact. Indie authors must build their own. You might have 150,000 Twitter followers, but are they actually interested in your writing, or just the other 150,000 wannabe writers who also have 150,00 Twitter followers? Social media is a great tool for writers, it’s also a deceptive echo chamber that tells you what you want to hear. A few dozen people who really dig your work might be a much better starting point. The point is, know what your platform is and work with it, don’t delude yourself.

6. Are you willing to invest in your book?
Publishers provide cash investment in your book, primarily by buying the services of skilled professionals such as editors, designers and marketing folk. Perhaps you have those skills, in which case can you take enough time out of your day job to spend hours editing your book? And days or weeks of time marketing it? Do you have the money to invest in hiring professionals to do it for you and are you willing to risk it on your own product? Without that professional investment, which ultimately comes down to the investment of hard cash, your book is very unlikely to appear professional. Yes, your book might succeed despite its amateurish presentation, but ask yourself, if you aren’t willing to invest in this book then why are you putting it out in to the world?

7. Are you ready?
Seriously, in the end it comes down to asking yourself this question. Because it’s important to be ready. Your book already represents a major investment of time. Waiting another year or two or more, writing another draft or three or four, training for another 1000 hours, saving the capital to employ an editor. All of these things are the right choice for most writers, in a climate where 99% of indie authors are publishing without being ready. The most expensive investments are the ones that have no return. Unless you are truly certain in your own mind that you are ready, wait. Take more time to develop. You really won’t regret it.

And if you really can’t wait? If you don’t meet any of these seven criteria but want to leap in to the white waters of indie publishing anyway, just for the hell of it? Well then good luck to you, and enjoy the ride, wherever it takes you. To help you get there, why not learn a little about the neuroscience of storytelling?

What neuroscience tells us about the art of fiction

Jim Worrad is a founder member of The Speculators, Leicester’s most bad ass SF writing group, Clarion workshop graduate and a BAMF of a writer to boot. Find more of the man here. Under discussion in this guest post is what neuroscience can contribute to the craft of fiction. Read on!

One of the very first pieces of advice I ever received about writing fiction was to shorten my sentences whenever a scene’s tension rises. It’s a good piece of advice, I’ve found, one as fundamental to romance as to action.

The reasoning goes that, subconsciously, your body is ‘speaking’ the words you read and your breathing patterns begin to reflect this. In turn, breathing faster stirs your brain and nervous system, releasing endorphins (the Iggy Pop of opioid peptides).
[pullquote]Your fiction, done right, can alter the chemical equilibrium of a reader’s body.[/pullquote]
You may well have got this advice early on too, but let’s stop and think about it because it’s some heavy shit. Your fiction, done right, can alter the chemical equilibrium of a reader’s body. Not as much as running a marathon, admittedly, but a startling amount for anyone slouching on a beanbag. Absolute Derren Brown stuff. And yet…

And yet the trail pretty much ends there. As far as writer-development goes, it seems no one wants to look under the hood. Plough through several ‘how to write’ books and, if their take on creativity is not outright spiritual, it’ll at least imply story and prose arise from some vague platonic realm. I find this a real shame, given science’s recent breakthroughs in understanding the brain.

For instance, the line ‘He had leathery hands’ has just stimulated your sensory cortex in a way ‘he had rough hands’ can never hope to. Pop that first line in the middle of your favourite SF trilogy and the effect rises exponentially. The brain, it seems, doesn’t make much of a distinction between reading and actual doing. Words such as ‘lavender’, ‘coffee’ and ‘soap’ will similarly affect the sensory part of the brain, whereas ‘John grasped the object’ not only stimulates the motor cortex, but the part of it governing the action of grasping itself.

Want more? Well, your prospective reader’s ‘theory of mind’ is only so generous. Compare-

“Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate”

To:

“Peter said that Paul believed that Mary suggested Jane liked chocolate”

Evolution has gifted you with comprehending the former with relative ease. For the purposes of survival, the ability to visualise three mind-states is more than adequate. Add a fourth, however, and you suddenly have to engage in a different, more analytical, mode of thought. A fifth, and understanding drops by 60%. So, the protagonist of your epic suspecting the dragon fears the princess is more than acceptable. Anymore (and I’m looking at you here, Virginia Woolf), and you’re dealing in bad craft. Your reader will be flung from your prose-world like they’re in an ejector seat. Simple as.

Perhaps all of this is knowable enough through sheer writing instinct. Still, nice to have it verified. Yet elsewhere, neuroscience is answering one of literature’s greatest debates: Does reading improve our morality?

The answer seems to be ‘yes’ (but not always in the way we might think).

Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.

(New York Times, 2012)

See? The more you scribble, the more you’ll make the world a better place. Doesn’t matter what kind of scribbling, either. The empirical evidence suggests there are no ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ reads, merely simulations for our brains to engage with and analyse. Presumably, a full and varied diet of fiction is preferable to one based solely on ‘true’ literature- something that flies in the face of our culture’s preconceptions.
[pullquote]I’d like someone far more qualified than me to contextualise it all into a neuroliterary guide to writing[/pullquote]
I don’t know about you, but I’m ravenously hungry for these kinds of titbits. Ideally, I’d like someone far more qualified than me to contextualise it all into a neuroliterary guide to writing (I’m not sure ‘neuroliterature’ is even the correct term, which is a sign of just how threadbare matters are). Why is the writing industry—with all its guides, blogs and workshops—so sluggish in this regard? Even literary academia (not a place famed for its evidence-based approach, let’s face it) is beginning to grasp the matter. Why can’t we?

Fear of dissection, maybe. Suggest we scan a thousand reader’s brains so as to get a clearer picture of what The Great Gatsby (to give a blog-relevant example) actually does to us and the reaction, I suspect, would be one of visceral horror. Words like ‘crude’ and the ever-reliable ‘reductionist’ would fill the air (the latter being nonsense; if anything, we’d only be adding to matters). Many relish the fact that at the heart of writing lies that most overrated of things- a mystery.

There’s is nothing to be gained in preserving mystery. The craft of writing will be better off without it. I picture a future for writing that dispenses with mystery wherever it can, that embraces the astounding strides in thought-organ research. Ideally, a future where neuroimaging both miniaturises and becomes widespread, augmenting the craft of authors, critics, agents and publishing houses.

Picture Amazon book reviews of the twenty-thirties:Was this magnetoencephalograph useful to you?

Look after your brain. They don’t issue new ones.

Bobby Fischer was arguably the greatest chess player of all time. American chess champion at 14, grandmaster at 15, world champion at 28. A brilliant but brief career cut short by schizophrenia. By the time of his death in 2008 Fischer was a ranting, anti-semetic caricature of insanity.

There are a number of possible reasons why Bobby Fischer went mad. Genetics perhaps. An unbalanced upbringing. The pressures of celebrity. The possibility his paranoia regarding CIA and KGB plots to control him was less than 100% paranoid. But the idea I find most credible is put forward in the documentary film Bobby Fischer Against the World, that Fischer’s insanity was intrinsic to his greatness, both caused by diving too far in to the near infinite complexity of chess.

It is estimated that there are the same number of potential moves in chess as there are atoms in the entire solar system. “Look in to the void, the void looks back in to you” as Nietzsche said. And the infinite complexity of chess is a void of a kind. The mind can contemplate it forever and never reach a conclusion. Which raises the very real possibility that the mind and brain will work themselves in to states of madness in the attempt.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy suggests that many mental health disorders including depression and schizophrenia can be caused by cyclical rumination. Thoughts turn over and over in the mind, literally overworking the brain which becomes physically exhausted, running out of receptor chemicals which support neurone communication. In the short term this produces negative mental states. Over time it can cause irreparable damage. Thinking too much can literally drive you insane.

A complex system like chess or a hard math problem can do this. But so can your emotions. Intense unhappiness, anger or traumatic experiences can drive the mind in to downward cycles of rumination. There is often no answer to be found to these emotions intellectually. All the thinking serves to do is exhaust and possibly damage the brain, and exacerbate the problem. Which is why not thinking about a complex problem or emotional situation is often the first step to finding the answer. The brain recovers its chemical balance, and unconscious processes that do much of the ‘heavy lifting’ of cognition provide an answer.

A novel, or any sophisticated work of art, can be thought of as both a very complex AND emotion centred problem. Your mind is trying to track all kinds of patterns on levels of plot and theme, whilst also experiencing the heightened emotional states common place in fiction. It’s worth considering that if, as many writers do, you find yourself affected by depression or other mental health problems, while they may have many extrinsic causes, they may also be intrinsically related to the writing project at hand. And it’s also worth considering ways of looking after your mind and brain whilst working on any major project.

A few ways of avoiding mental exhaustion whilst writing:

1. Write on the page, not off it.
If you find yourself thinking about the story at all times of day and night, try putting these thoughts on hold and keeping them for the periods when you are actually writing

2. Take regular breaks.
And actually stop thinking about the story during them. Experience some real life instead.

3. Is the project too difficult?
This can be a hard thing to admit. But our intellectual powers grow with practice. If you are struggling to write the project, you may just not have the technical or intellectual skills for it yet. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Game of Thrones. George R R Martin had decades of experience in fiction and screenplays before he tackled an epic work. If he hadn’t, he might well now be a gibbering wreck now too!

4. Sleep
One of the things about sleep deprivation is that it masks its own effects. Chief among which are bad judgement, which can persuade you you’re actually practicing good judgement. Quality of sleep is also important. Hence why that coffee is a bad idea, as stimulants interfere with your deep sleep patterns.

5. Meditation
A useful practice for a healthy mind in general, but particularly if practiced immediately before you write. We all bring an immense amount of mental clutter to each writing session. Learning what it is can help you put it to one side and focus on the task at hand.