Never, ever define yourself as a “content creator”. Be an artist. Be a writer. Be a musician. Be whatever. Heck, be a bum if you have to be. But never under any circumstances devalue what you create as “content”. Here’s why.
Spartz calls himself an aggregator, but he is more like a day trader, investing in pieces of content that seem poised to go viral. He and his engineers have developed algorithms that scan the Internet for memes with momentum. The content team then acts as arbitrageurs, cosmetically altering the source material and reposting it under what they hope will be a catchier headline.
Spartz does not call what he makes journalism, even if he employs a few journalists, and he does not erect barriers between his product and his means of promoting it. Asked to name the most beautiful prose he had read, he said, “A beautiful book? I don’t even know what that means. Impactful, sure.
I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT BEAUTIFUL MEANS. With those words Emerson Spartz, a twenty-something web site creator who rules over a small kingdom of clickbait websites, tells you everything you need to know about the world of “content creation”. This feature in the New Yorker on The King Of Clickbait is a subtle but brutal deconstruction of Spartz, who I doubt will even notice his only ugly reflection in the mirror it holds up.
Spartz is a useful caricature for us as creators to examine. Because he is far from unique. This is the raw, unvarnished attitude of the entire media industry to “content”. Spartz is 27 and a dick. By no means a new combination of characteristics. Step in to any branch of the media, in to advertising, in to public relations, or any of the industries that make money from “content”, and you’ll find Spartz’s attitude replicated a thousand times over and then some.
“Art is that which science has not yet explained” Spartz argues during his interview. Which is a smart, if sadly incorrect, statement. Smart because it cuts to the heart of the reason why you, as a creator, as any kind of artist, must never ever fall in to the deep dark sewer that opens up beneath your feet when you define your creations as “content”, and your self as a “content creator”.
I’m not going to try and explain why to you. Either you know, or you don’t. Either you’ll learn, or you won’t. I’m not saying you need to eschew all sources of money for your creativity. I’ve written listicles for the best of them, and I likely will again. But it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a listicle made of gif images or a novel tugged out of your inner soul. YOU DO NOT CREATE CONTENT. YOU ARE NOT A CONTENT CREATOR.
If you absolutely need a reason, here’s one of many. Content, by definition, must be filling something. The thing Emerson Spatrz wants you to fill is a VOID. You’ll shovel content in to it for an eternity and never be done. And that’s no kind of life.
If you can’t find any way to define what you do as anything but content, then yes fuck it and quit. Your immortal soul will thank you later even if your bank balance won’t.
Repeat after me. I AM NOT A CONTENT CREATOR. I DO NOT CREATE CONTENT.
Man. This was a pretty active blogging year for me. In fact it’s been an incredibly productive writing year in every way, but many of the fruits of that won’t be seen until 2015. In preparation for that I decided to take my home blog more seriously this year, partly out of curiosity to see how far I could grow its readership. And the answer was – a lot.
My top 10 posts of 2014 reflect the main topics I write about on the blog – writing technique, digital and independent publishing, sci-fi and fantasy fiction, buddhist philosophy and alternative spirituality. I’ve never sat down and thought about those categories, they’re simply my interests! They’re also much more interrelated than they might appear, as I explore in my essay on writing practice, the piece from this year I am most proud of. Writing is as much a part of my spiritual practice as meditation – something I’ll be talking about more in 2015.
OK. So some people get really angry when i say this kind of thing. Anger of the “WRITING IS A PURE ART AND MY CREATIVE FREEDOM MEANS I MUST OBEY NO RULES RAAAH MOTHERFUUCKKER!” and my response is always “no problem you just carry on freely failing”. I understand the fear. There are a bazillion people trying to be writers, so you try to be a 100% original. But even absolute originals know the basics.
Each of these three books represents an essential area of knowledge for all writers.
Let me rephrase the statement. Every good physicist is more than likely to know math, classical mechanics and quantum mechanics. Every good coder knows at least one coding language, computer science and logic. Every good bricky knows bricklaying, mortar mixing, and how to make a cup of builders tea. Some skills may seem more or less important than others, but each job comes with its prerequisites. And writing is no different.
Are these three books the ONLY sources you as a writer can turn to. Of course not. There are many books a coder can learn C from, but there are also certain books that coders will recommend over others. Each of these three books represents an essential area of knowledge for all writers, and I highly recommend them as a great starting point, if you feel that area is one you need to develop in.
Story – Robert McKee’s scriptwriting classic, but equally relevant to playwrights and novelists. McKee’s writing seminars have such cult status in Hollywood that they have even been the object of satire in movies. Story is both a basic primer and advanced guide to story structure. If you can’t yet structure your Beats, Scenes, Sequences and Acts in to a coherent Narrative Arc, with a clear Inciting Incident, Midway Turning Point and Crisis / Climax / Resolution, employing Rising Action, Tension and Suspense, all crafted around the Deep Motivation of your Protagonist to communicate a Controlling Idea, then this is the place to start. Confused? Buy the book.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces – Every time I teach Joseph Campbell’s seminal book to students I see the same light of understanding bloom in their faces. Here’s the short version. All stories are projections of human psychology. THE END. Slightly longer version. Stories hook the reader by reflecting archetypal facets of human psychology – the Self, the Ego, the Shadow etc etc (these are terms from Jungian psychology) and playing out archetypal psychological struggles that we, the audience, recognise within ourselves. Want the full explanation? Buy the book.
Becoming A Writer – Dorothea Brande is a largely forgotten writer, except to students of writing who have found direction in this short but essential writing guide. Here’s the basic problem. To write, you need your mind and imagination to work well together. The problem is, they don’t get on. Your mind is a controlling parental figure, while your imagination is a tearaway hippy kid. Getting them to co-operate is the focus of Becoming A Writer, which has had a transformative effect for many writers struggling with that basic first step – actually writing stuff! Want to know how and why? You know the score by now.
Earlier in 2014 I declared that “transrealism” was the first major literary movement of the 21st century in my regular column for The Guardian. The piece got quite a response, from defensive sci-fi fans bellowing IT’S ALL SCIENCE FICTION, to interested literary readers recognising transrealism as something they had enjoyed for a long time without putting a name to it. Fiction and stories have taken a big step away from pure realism in recent years. In this interview Monica Byrne, author of The Girl In The Road, one of the writers leading that twist away from pure realism, sits down with the original author of the transrealist manifesto, Rudy Rucker himself. The discussion that follows is startling and revelatory. Read on.
Damien Walter, 2014
Let The Strangeness In : Monica Byrne and Rudy Rucker on the transreal revolution
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Monica :When I read your “Transrealist Manifesto” it was an uncanny experience, like I was reading a step-by-step description of my writing philosophy for The Girl in the Road. Except you’d written it when I was two. So first of all, thank you for articulating that mode of expression, then and now.
Can you point to a moment in time when you realized that science fiction literature wasn’t saying what you wanted to say—that there was a niche that needed filling?
Rudy : In the’70s, when I was trying to publish my very first novel, Spacetime Donuts, I got a provoking comment from the SF master Frederik Pohl: “This is a fascinating read, but it’s not science fiction.” Naturally my feeling was that SF had to change. Indeed, much of the SF of that time seemed flat and uncool to me.
I was coming from a place where my favorite writers were Kerouac, Pynchon, Borges, and William Burroughs. I wanted to do the Beat thing of having my novels reflect my life; I wanted to have fabulous yet logical twists in my stories; and I wanted to use rich language. I believed in SF the same way I believed in rock’n’roll. Selling to the mainstream literary market wasn’t something I even wanted to try.
Eventually I was able to get Spacetime Donuts serialized in an SF zine. And then, early in the ‘80s, with White Light and Software, I was able to start publishing my SF novels in paperback. And then cyberpunk hit, and I had a few good years. My cyberpunk novels had a transreal core. Like in Software, the old man Cobb Anderson is modeled on my father. And the mad Sta-Hi Mooney, he’s a guy I used to hang around with. Of course, to some extent, both of these characters are me. As Phil Dick wrote in the afterword to his transreal A Scanner Darkly, “I myself, I am not a character in this novel: I am the novel.”
Part of the appeal of getting high may be that it makes reality feel like science fiction.
Monica :Your novel The Secret of Life—the first book of the Transreal Trilogy—follows Conrad Bunger, an alter ego, through adolescence and early adulthood. He has a lot of experiences with drugs, including a peyote trip I don’t envy. I’m very square in comparison—the most serious thing I’ve ever done is pot, and the most exciting thing that happened was that I fell asleep to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” on repeat. But I remain very curious—reality is already pleasurably surreal to me, and it seems like drugs would make it even more so. Do you think you would have conceived of transrealism without drugs?
Rudy : Oh, I would have thought of transrealism anyhow. It’s not useful to try and reduce an artist’s ideas to drugs. Like, was Hieronymus Bosch high? Would it matter? You don’t really see other people painting like Bosch, no matter what they ingest.
This said, in the old days I did like smoking pot after hours, and I took psychedelics three or four times. Part of the appeal of getting high may be that it makes reality feel like SF. We tend to maintain an ongoing subconscious narrative about the world—naming and classifying the things we hear and see. When you disrupt that, you’re in a position to see the world raw, rather than seeing it as you’ve been taught.
And, as you mention, it’s possible to get into this mode of perception without being high. My writer friend Gregory Gibson terms this “the ongoing Venusian space-probe sensation.” It’s the sense that you’re seeing the world as if you’re a space probe sent by “Venusian” aliens, and you’re observing humans and their customs from the outside.
Monica : Speaking of observing from the outside, traveling is a sure way to unglue my mind from consensus reality. I remember my first time traveling abroad to Sorrento, Italy, and thinking that the very soil and air were different, but in ways I couldn’t articulate. What was your first experience traveling abroad?
Rudy : Travel gets you into that special mode of seeing reality bare. In my daily life, many of my thoughts and actions are like computer macros or like automatic apps. I’m half asleep. Travel wakes me up. It nudges me into my alert Venusian space-probe mode.
My first trip to Europe was in 1953. I was seven. My mother, brother and I went to visit my grandmother. They still hadn’t finished cleaning up from WWII—there were great mounds of rubble that I was warned not to play on And I encountered a man who scared me. If I were to write a story about this time, I might chose to sharpen the strangeness with transrealism. Like: alien eggs were lurking beneath the rubble, and the scary bum wanted to implant an alien larva into my flesh. More expressive that way, less been-done.
Monica :You’ve said before that your wildest dream is to be able to fly, and that you dream about it a lot. So do I. In fact, I’m pretty sure I flew down the stairs once when I was really little. That seems very common in children (and adults who still admit it to themselves).What are your flying dreams like?
Rudy : I know exactly what you mean about having the feeling that you once really did fly down the stairs. And that’s a good idea for a transreal story—I think it’s been used before, but you could make it your own.
I have a habit of pondering the objective correlatives for the events in my dreams and in my transreal novels. I don’t try to do this in any doctrinaire sense of hammering every nail home. It’s more a way figuring out what I’m doing, so that I can fatten up the texture of my fiction a bit more.
I’ve noticed that in many of my flying dreams, I’m hovering about eight feet off the ground, perhaps lying horizontal in the air, and I’m talking to my family and acquaintances who are, as usual, standing on the ground. And the galling thing in these dreams is that none of the people ever notice that I’m flying. I’ll mention it to them, even yell about it, but they obdurately refuse to acknowledge that I, Rudy the writer, am in fact floating at a level slightly above their heads.
Let The Strangeness In continues on the next page.
The first reason to use Scrivener is that it’s hierarchical “ringbinder” approach to organising a text channels you, as a writer, in to a number of useful habits. All writing is fractal in nature, and none more so than stories. Every scene in a story is itself a mini story, with it’s own beginning, middle and end. And every beat in every scene is an even more miniature story in its own right. Scrivener’s structural tools encourage you to think this way, and make organising your text easy.
“Plain text is your friend when moving your writing from one app to another.”
Scrivener’s “ringbinder” tools also make it the perfect word processor for this era of digital writing. Take a moment to think about how text works. I’ll bet good money that unless you have some experience in web design, blogging, or other areas of digital writing, you’ll be thinking in the PRINT PARADIGM.
In the days of print, the publisher determined how the reader saw the text. The publisher controled every element of typesetting, layout, fonts, titles, illustrations. The printed page of a book, magazine or newspaper means you can control exactly how the text appears. You’re working with a structural approach to text, where you determine the structure.
The DIGITAL PARADIGM flips this over on it’s head. the person determining how a text looks is the reader, and crucially, the device the reader is reading on. Your ebook will look different on a Kindle than it does on an iPhone, than it does on an Android tablet, than it does on a laptop. And on each of these devices, the reader can choose to change elements like the size and style of font at their own whims.
Digital publishing means thinking about text dynamically. It’s no longer vital how the text is formatted. Much more important is how the text flows on all the different devices it will be viewed upon. And Scrivener is the perfect tool for working with text in this way. Scrivener encourages you to forget about formatting, focus on writing the raw text, and determine how it will look when you actually compile your ebook.
Scrivener’s compilation tools are immensely powerful. A standard novel manuscript of some 100,000 words in 30 or so chapters, dived into a number of parts, can be exported for any digital format and to work on any device you might wish. Ebook formatting is relatively simple, but a single mistake can leave your text in chaos, as chapters collide in to one another. Scrivener’s tools allow you to make simple but strong formatting choices that will degrade gracefully, even if viewed on wildly disparate devices. And all without knowing a single formatting tag.
The idea of ‘workflow’ gets mentioned a lot in digital publishing, what does this mean?
You can simply your life immensely as a self publisher by doing things in the most efficient order. Have your text fully edited before compiling your ebook. Keep a master version of your Scrivener file, that you tweek for different ebook formats. Check your formatting is perfect before uploading to ebook stores. This sounds like common sense, but in the fear and excitement of publishing deadlines, common sense often goes right out the window. Know your workflow, and stick to it.
Do you have to work directly in Scrivener?
Not necessarily. I do much of my writing in Evernote for simple convenience, and then once I have a chunk of text I move it in to that project’s Scrivener file. The thing to be wary of is carrying formatting over from a word-processor like Microsoft Word on Pages for Mac. These apps use arcane formatting systems that can completely screw up your ebook formatting and waste a lot of time while you track down the bugs. Plain text is your friend when moving your writing from one app to another.
Can Scrivener make an illustrated book or even a comic book?
The basic answer is no. Scrivener can only deal with simple images and image formatting, but then this is true of most ebook formats, which are focused purely on text. What Scrivener can do is give you a structured text fill which you can then import to another programme, for instance iBooks Author, and create image and multimedia driven designs. But, it’s worth noting, these books will be specific to those platforms, and you’ll have to do a new design job for every platform you want to reach. If you’re looking to do graphic intensive publishing on many platforms, you’ll need Adobe InDesign, a far more expensive and time consuming option, and also total overkill for most indie authors.
It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.
On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.
I only get to help two or three writers a year develop their work, but nearly all the authors I help have a tale of editing woe. And it’s nearly always the same tale. They sent their book to a freelance fiction editor, but what they got back were basic spelling and grammar corrections that any English Literature graduate could make.
With the explosion of independent publishing opportunities via the Amazon Kindle and other ebook stores, it’s now common practice for writers to employ freelance editors as part of the creative team supporting their work. For authors new to the publishing process however, finding a good editor is remarkably hard.
Can you edit your own work? The answer to this question is, can you edit your own work?
This is partly because good editors are hard to find. Many writers work on intuition and “gut feeling”. An editor needs to know exactly what works on the page and why, at every level from word choice and sentence composition, up to dramatic structure and thematic devices. And they need to be able to communicate it back to the writer in a way that will improve the book. A rare combination of skills.
There are certain tell tale signs of bad editing. It tends to focus on spelling and grammar, which while important concerns, aren’t the key focus of a good editorial process. It uses opinion and vague language; “this didn’t grab me”, “this needs more pace”. Imagine taking your car to the garage and the mechanic telling you it needs to go faster. You’re editor is there to tell you exactly what tweaks and tune-ups the engine of your story needs to “go faster”.
To get the best value for your money when employing an editor, you need to know what a good editorial process does involve. Editing is commonly divided in to three different kinds, and most books need all three at the right point in their development. These might well come from different editors – a development edit needs quite different focus from a copyedit. (I’m a useless copy editor, so I hand that work over to other people when it’s needed.)
1. Development Edit – this can happen at any point from a book’s first conception, but it’s most commonly done after the first draft. When the editor and agent have an existing relationship they might well begin collaboration at the outline stage of a novel, with the editor making suggestions before any substantial writing begins. The focus of a development edit is the story. Common editorial guidance at this stage might include tweaking where the story’s inciting incident, combining characters that share the same function in the story, developing tension and suspense in a flagging mid-story, or flipping audience sympathies to create an explosive story climax. If there are major stylistic issues in the writing, a development edit will address those as well. For instance, if the writer’s use of point-of-view is inconsistent, an editor will point out examples and ask for it to be addressed in the next draft.
2. Deep Edit – can only happen once there is a solid first draft, but before a final draft is made. Doing it earlier can mean a lot of wasted work, as the development edit can knock out entire scenes and chapters from the story. If the development edit is about pushing the story to its fullest potential, the deep edit is about carving the writing in to the best possible shape. Does every sentence have a good rhythm? Is the narrative voice consistent? Is this line of description a confusing mixed metaphor? Does the dialogue all relate to each character’s motivation? Does every scene lead to a clear dramatic turning point? Do all these long passages of internal monologue add or detract from the story? These are the kinds of questions a good editor is addressing at this stage. It’s skilled and time consuming work. Consequentially, deep edits are expensive. Many professionally published authors don’t get deep editing support. But anyone who knows what they are looking for can see the difference instantly in a book which has been through deep editing.
3. Copy Edit – the last edit made on a text. A copy edit is about killing off as many textual anomalies as possible, things like spelling and grammar errors that throw a reader out of their immersion in the story. It can also include fact checking and logic errors. If a man sits down at a three legged table, he won’t feel it wobble for instance. Repeated words, repetitive sentences, repeated words, repetitive sentences, anything that might make the book look less than professional. A copy edit is never 100%. There will always be text errors. But there’s a major difference between three errors in a book and three errors per page in the impression a text makes on a reader.
How much editing does an independently published book need? It’s one of those piece of string questions, and it really varies from book to book. Two Crows by David Dakan Allison came to me needing a strong development edit and minor deep editing and copy editing. David’s writing style was already clear, concise and polished, and with work on the novel’s dramatic structure we were able to turn the book in to a winner through a relatively simple editorial process. In contrast, I’ve turned down two clients in the last year whose books simply weren’t ready to be edited.
One important consideration for independent authors is the more basic question, is my book ready to be edited? Employing a professional editor is a very expensive way to buy writing lessons. Realistically, even the best editorial process can only upgrade the quality of a text by one or two grades. Most editors will offer a preliminary read for a fee, and a good editor will tell you if a book isn’t ready and why.
Can you edit your own work? The answer to this question is, can you edit your own work? Most writers can’t, but some, often those who have worked as editors as well, can do so reasonably well. But editing is a valuable creative collaboration, and your entire writing career is likely to be poorer without it.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the most successful novels in history. A defining work of science fiction, Dune still outsells most new novels in the genre to this very day, almost 50 years after its publication.
“What is “story”? It’s the quality that keeps the reader following the narrative.”
While none of Herbert’s sequels, or the poorly written cash-in prequels by other writers, ever matched the quality of the original novel, in Dune Herbert proved himself to be a master novelist. In this advice originally published in the 2nd Writers of teh Future anthology, Frank Herbert discusses his most basic interest as a writer – story.
“The single most important piece of advice I ever got was to concentrate on story. What is “story”? It’s the quality that keeps the reader following the narrative. A good story makes interesting things happen to a character with whom the reader can identify. And it keeps them happening, so that the character progresses and grows in stature.
A writer’s job is to do whatever is necessary to make the reader want to read the next line. That’s what you’re supposed to be thinking about when you’re writing a story. Don’t think about money, don’t think about success; concentrate on the story—don’t waste your energy on anything else. That all takes care of itself, if you’ve done your job as a writer. If you haven’t done that, nothing helps.”
Why do readers love some novels, but not others? Often we do hand wavy gestures at this kind of question, while intoning the magic word “subjective subjective subjective”. Yes, different people like different things. But there are a few qualities which many, many popular stories have in common.
There are six core qualities for a strong commercial novel, which I use as signs that a novel might be pretty damn good! I can’t guarantee that every writer, editor or publishing professional knows these, but I can say that if your aim is to create popular stories that reach a wide readership, hitting these markers certainly won’t hurt.
If you find these useful, take a look at The Rhetoric of Story, a short course exploring the 7 foundations of powerful immersive storytelling. Turn to Page 2 below to see the first 3 signs.