Seen in literary fiction as well as SF, this genre weaves together complex debates in a way that can offer a clearer view of the future – think Atwood, DeLillo and Asimov.
Weirdly enough, science fiction is not the best lens through which to examine science fiction. In the 80s, critic Tom LeClair came up with an alternative category for all the weird literary novels that veered into speculative territory: the systems novel. These books pick apart how the systems that keep society chugging along work: politics, economics, sex and gender dynamics, science, ideologies – all can be explored through fiction, especially experimental fiction. LeClair applied this tag specifically to Don DeLillo, but it can be expanded more widely: think Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan and Umberto Eco, among others.
That may seem like an eclectic bunch to unite under one banner, but the systems novel is ultimately a space for ambitious thinkers, the ones who want to weave complex thoughts into a tastier parcel than some impenetrable academic tome. The dramatic kick in a systems novel is usually found in the points where the different systems overlap: tackling climate change isn’t all about physics, it also about unpicking the economics of a carbon-driven economy, for example.
As regular readers will know, over the last few months I’ve been dedicating some of my professional time to building a Patreon. In around 6 months I went from $18 of support, to over $2oo per month, which buys me a couple of extra days each month to work on my own writing. But most of the work to make that happen started long before Patreon even existed.
To think about why Patreon works, it’s useful to be familiar with the term “Revenue Per Reader” from Nicholas Lovell’s excellent handbook on making a living as a creator in the digital age, The Curve. Most writers assume they get paid because people buy their books. To an extent, that’s true. But the digital world changes that substantially. Many writers give their books away, and even encourage people to “pirate” their work. Why?
RPR is the answer, and it’s an important idea if you want to build a career as an independent writer. In the words of Tim O’Reilly, the challenge for most writers is not piracy, but obscurity. With so many people trying to be heard, it’s simply a fact that most writers have to give away much of their work in order to reach readers at all.
To make a living then, a writer needs to think laterally about how their work makes money. When a new reader finds my blog, I don’t expect them to stump up a £29.99 subscription to access my words through a paywall! But if that reader buys a book on Amazon through one of my reviews, I get a few cents. If they later jump aboard as a patron, I might get a few dollars. If they buy my short story collection or forthcoming books, a few dollars more. All of the clients for my editing services and online courses also begin as blog readers.
Patreon is one way of building an income from a small pool of readers who really connect with your work. Nearly all of my patrons are people who began following me online in the last 2 years, often after reading this blog. Everything I write on my blog is given way for free, but there are a growing number of ways for writers to increase the RPR we get in return. And, of course, the more I can earn from writing, the more of my time I’m able to dedicate to the thing I love…writing!
Use coupon code PROWRITER to access a 15% fee reduction when you enrol on The Rhetoric of Story online course.
It’s that moment when you look up from Lord of the Rings, and it hits you, BLIMEY! I’m not in Middle Earth. It’s the feeling when the lights go up after three hours of King Lear and you remember you’re not a tragic hero. It’s the sensation of being so lost in the world or The Avengers that you almost believe you could beat up the baddies like Scarlet Johansson. It’s the thing that we hunger for in story.
Unique among art forms, for the time that a story lasts, it can make us believe that the world, characters and events it shows are as real as the world of our mundane lives.We don’t just read or watch stories, we get inside them and drive them around like alternate realities…which in some senses is exactly what they are. But HOW do stories do this? And, even more important for those of us who create them, how do we make stories that capture this magic?
“A story is a way of structuring information – words, pictures, video or more – that mirrors how our mind models the world around us so that we experience it as almost real.”
~ Damien Walter
As we learn to understand our mind and brain better, cognitive sciences have shown us that stories are more, much more, than idle entertainment. To make sense of the millions of bits of data about our world that our senses generate, we shape them into a story. We place ourselves at the centre of this story, at the heart of a web of relationships, and we focus attention on key moments of change. In a very real sense we are the creator of our own life story.
When we place ourselves in the hands of a skilled storyteller their art, for a few hours at a time, replaces our story with the story they are weaving. Far from being complicated, the immersive qualities of story rely on only a few basic elements. But when we are immersed in story they can be hard to see, just as it’s hard to learn a magician’s tricks by watching them on stage. Great storytellers know them instinctually. They can be learned by trial and error by studying thousands of stories. They’re the rhetoric of story, and understanding them opens a doorway to creating powerful, immersive stories.
There are just a few hours left to join my rhetoric of story course. Join in, and in a series of video lectures to follow at your own pace, we’ll explore the magic of storytelling.
Imagine if your local bookshop was modelled on a Cash & Carry. Towering 3 storey riveted steel shelving units, housed in a cavernous warehouse unit on the edge of a nameless industrial park, echoing tinnily with the greatest hits of boy band One Direction. It has all the books, but they’re stacked inside cardboard boxes, with just a tiny pixelated cover image and a few sample pages stapled on the front for reference. And the books…well…suppliers who sell cheap get put at the front of the shelves, so most of the warehouse looks like this.
This is the Amazon Kindle store in 2016, the world’s biggest marketplace for ebooks, in which every publisher and author of any note does business. And it has all the charm and wonder of Mike Ashley shouting at his minimum wage slaves in a Sports Direct warehouse, mixed with a low end brothel catering to travelling sales reps. Which is odd, and sad, and self defeating, because books deserve better and if they’re going to prosper in the years beyond 2016 they NEED better.
Take the Amazon star rating system. Please. This is EXACTLY THE SAME SYSTEM used to rate laptops, pet supplies, kettles, and anything else the Amazon warehouse ships. Fine for most of those things, but not for books. Unless of course you interpret this as a cutting insight into the literary qualities of the book it is reviewing.
On a long enough timeline, five star rating systems are statistically doomed to all converge at 3.82. They’re absurdly easy to game, and as seen above, they encourage a utilitarian mindset that ends up with classics of literature being critiqued for the size of their font because the reader doesn’t know they can change that.
But this is only symptomatic of Amazon’s one-warehouse-fits-all approach to retail. One of the reasons people go to bookstores is because bookstores are a nice place to go. Toppings of Bath or Shakespeare & Company in Paris are spaces that people travel to like pilgrims once journeyed to Canterbury. They mean something to people. Ebook stores might never match that, but surely they can do better than than the dank digital spaces, stinking ever so slightly of pee, of today?
Amazon clearly has some sense of this. Its Kindle Devices are all well designed, with the new Kindle Oasis pitched at a luxury brands market. But those light drenched images of models reading in hammocks are rather a contrast to the store the the device opens onto, which is more like a Bangkok lady-boy show than a Bali yoga retreat. So why can’t Amazon polish up its Kindle store, and bring it up to scratch with, say, a bog standard high street Waterstones? In the hope the answer is nothing more ominous than a lack of ideas among the Amazon engineering team, here are three of suggestions.
Let me market my goods damnit!
Digital goods are intangible, which makes the marketing surrounding them all the more important. When I run, say, and online writing course, I’m able to tailor a landing page, to shape the information new students see. Same with platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter, all have a digital marketing focus. Not so Amazon, where it’s needed more than anywhere. I should be able to design and format a beautiful landing page for the stories and novels I sell on Amazon, a page that draws readers into the experience of the book. But, NO, all Amazon gives me is a tiny cover image and a single text block I can’t even italicise!!
Curation, Curation, Curation.
Amazon might not want to curate its bookstore, relying instead on the dead hand of the algorithm, but MANY OTHER PEOPLE would be happy to take the curator’s roll. Stop treating the Kindle store like a monolithic entity, instead let it evolve into the curated showcase of human knowledge it so obviously wants to become. I write one of the only regular sci-fi books column in a major newspaper, I’d curate the hell out of a proper sci-fi ebook store hosted on the Kindle platform. People can carry on pumping seedy erotica into the Kindle store, it’s a free world, and other people can curate a better experience for the majority of readers.
Expand the affiliate scheme for books.
I use the Amazon affiliate scheme on a casual basis, simply because my job entails linking to books a lot. The % are far too low to make it worthwhile to develop any further. But combined with ideas 1 and 2, a nominally higher %, specifically for books, could unleash a small army of enthusiastic book sellers, hand selling to their own niche audiences.
I suspect these ideas aren’t high margin enough to catch Amazon’s eye. But hear is the thing. As gargantuan as Amazon is, they’re no longer the kooky company readers fell in love with in the 90s. And if they don’t recapture the beautiful experience book buyers hunger for, an agile little upstart might just sneak in and take the ebook market from them. And if they do, I have a feeling these ideas will be part of how they do it.
We live in exciting times for writers. There are more ways then ever to tell stories, and huge audiences hungry to consume them. It may sound strange if you’re not used to the idea, but the story is a kind of technology. Like the sword, or the motorcar, or the computer, the story has evolved over time. And today the technology of stories is more powerful than ever.
Whether you are making a Hollywood superhero movie, writing a literary novel, penning a monthly comic book, writing a presidential speech, scripting a 30 second advertisement, scribbling last minute copy, or woking on a $200 million AAA video game. Whichever aspect of storytelling today you are expert in, the basic elements of storytelling – the rhetoric of story – is exactly the same.
“Creativity needs structure like your muscles need your skeleton.”
Teaching writing at universities, critiquing and editing the work of thousands of writers, and in my own writing practice, I see writers struggling with the same problem again and again. As a critic for The Guardian I strip-down novels to their bare bones to see how they work, or in many cases, don’t. The problem is a failure of story, without which all a book’s other strengths are for nothing.
We’re all taught to be wary of rules, formulas and how-to approaches to creativity. What makes us like one story over another is subjective, so they say. But that’s also true of other arts like music, yet almost every pop song has a verse, chorus and a bridge, and almost every symphony has four movements in the styles of adagio, scherzo, sonata, minuet and rondo. Creativity needs structure like your muscles need your skeleton.
The structures we use as storytellers, the rhetoric of story, weren’t just made up at random. As psychology and neuroscience have taught us more about the human mind, we’ve learned that our brains are storytelling machines. We make sense of the world by telling stories. And the structures we build those stories around, are the structures that the rhetoric of story has evolved to mirror. So when we as writers do our jobs well, the story the audience are immersed in feels absolutely real.
Today writers are creating some of the greatest stories ever told. I’m an expert on the history and evolution of storytelling, and I love epic tales like Homer’s Iliad. But truth be told, the technical storytelling excellence of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies far outstrip the ancient epics that inspired them. Just as engineers, doctors and other professionals today are hundreds of times more skilled than centuries ago, writers also need to be far more skilled today than even a few decades before.
Want to script video games as moving as Jenova Chen’s Journey? Want to craft novels with the invention and power of Emma Donoghue’s Room? What to tell true life tales with the brilliance of Ira Glass? You can. We live in a golden age of story, and anybody can join in. It just takes the the passion and desire to learn the skills to match the creators you admire.
As writers we never stop learning. Today, right now, you can tap into the mastery of great teachers like Robert McKee. You can read invaluable guides including Wired For Story by Lisa Cron. Watch creators like Toy Story’s Andrew Stanton give TED talks about their insights into story. The richness of today’s storytelling technologies is there for anybody to learn.