Category Archives: Writing Practice

How did Billions become the best show on tv?

With its stark insight into the financial world of post 2008, Billions is a Great Gatsby for our age.

Tv shows do what they say in the title. Friends is a show about friends. Star Trek is a show about a trek through the stars, and Breaking Bad is a show about a man breaking to bad. Billions is a show about Billionaires. But it’s also a show about the society that gives rise to billionaires, a global society of seven billion people and rising – the society of here and now.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Billions is a Great Gatsby for our times.”

There’s no missing the genetic fingerprint of HBOs prestige tv format in Showtimes production of Billions. Headline star Damian Lewis is no stranger to that format, having fronted Band of Brothers, the show that pioneered the 10 hour tv serial, and Homeland, a show that pushed the cutting edge of what that format was willing to say politically and socially.

Billions co-creator Andrew Ross Sorkin, a former columnist covering the New York financial world, culls real life events gathered over his career to provide flesh for Billions writers to feast on. The world post the 2008 financial crash, in which billionaires have gathered more wealth and power than at any time since the “gilded age” of the 1900s, is the world that Billions catalogues. It’s no exaggeration to say that Billions is a Great Gatsby for our times.

 

Billions is the most sophisticated example of “relationship driven” storytelling to yet hook binge-watching tv audiences.

Bobby “Axe” Axelrod stands as the billionaire founder of Axe Capital, surrounded by obsequious yes-men and ambitious traders, friends from his working class neighborhood who turn to Axe for favors, and wife Lara, queen to Axe’s king, who acts behind the scenes to aid her husband. Every character who relates to Axe is a courtier, and like a king of old, Axe holds in his grip the fortunes and status of everyone he controls.

Chuck Rhoades is a powerful public servant, a US District Atorney with authority over the financial district of New York. He is backed up by a team of conscientious assisstant DAs and dedicated FBI officers, all with an eye for their next promotion. Rhoades father is a rich investor, who secretly acts on his son’s behalf. Every character who relates to Rhoades is a player in a power hierarchy, within which Rhoades holds a high but not supreme position.

The key to understanding how the HBO television format hooks such intense attention from audiences — what else today do we give ten or twelve solid hours of our time to? — is to understand how the story is driven by its relationships. Every successful prestige format show of recent years uses the same technique, establishing a network of relationships that shift and evolve over time.

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Pick almost any scene in any episode of Billions, and you will find that the main action of the scene is a shift in the relationship between two or more characters present on screen. Lara losing confidence in her husband Axe. Chuck slyly dominating his idealistic assistant Bryan Connerty. The broiling jealousy of yes-man Wags to any threat to his status. And of course the love triangle between Axe, Chuck and the show’s lead female character Wendy Rhoades. We’ll come back to her pivotal role.

The relationship driven story certainly isn’t new. Playwrights have consciously worked with relationship networks since at least the 15thC and the Commedia dell’Arte of Venice, which, just like Billions, used relationship driven structures to critique and satirise the rich and powerful of the day. Shakespeare learned these techniques, and some of today’s best screenwriters, most notably Aaron Sorkin (no relation to Andrew Ross), borrow directly from the Commedia dell’Arte for shows like The Newsroom.

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The relationships between stock characters in the traditional Comedia dell-Arte.

Billions borrows a trick directly from the Comedia dell’Arte playbook. To manage the potential complexity of relationships between almost two dozen main characters, Billions limits its relationships to those that connect directly to its two central characters, Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod. This creates two opposing character nets, with Axe and Chuck at the centre of each, their orbiting characters only relating to each other in very carefully orchestrated breakout scenes.

The exception to this rule is Wendy Rhoades, wife to Chuck and therapist to Axe. Wendy is free to interact with any other character in the show, and it’s the shifting status of her relationships that, more than any other factor, drives the narrative engine of Billions. Wendy Rhoades is a “Columbina” character, the central figure of Comedia dell’Arte, whose presence allows the story to move freely through the social hierarchies it satirises.

Billions artful construction serves a razor sharp political purpose.
The conflict between prosecutor Chuck Rhoades and billionaire Bobby Axelrod is Billions central relationship. In the 12 hours screen time of Billions first season, Chuck and Axe share only four scenes together, each made electrifying by the stand out performances of Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti.

1_x6mRte6SI2Y1Hj3F4dRCkwBillion’s writers manage a hard narrative tricks in this relationship. Bobby and Chuck are dual protagonists, and each is antagonist to the other. The writers consistently hold our sympathies at a mid-point between the two men. Both are hugely intelligent and morally upstanding, but also hugely flawed and willing to violate their morals to win. It’s the irony that Chuck and Axe would, in better circumstances, be friends, that makes their conflict so powerful.

“Will the idealism of Millennials ultimately transform into the same corruption as their Baby Boomer grandparents?”

This central conflict also embodies Billions core theme, which is expressed openly in the climatic season 1 showdown between Chuck and Axe. Chuck calls Axe on a simple truth, he’s a criminal, profiting by breaking the law. Axe snaps back, Chuck is a leach, sucking from tax payer money. The personal conflict at the heart of Billions mirrors the political conflict splitting our society today. Public good vs private freedom. State vs enterprise. Left vs right. Red vs blue. Your side in this conflict will likely determine whether you empathise with Axe or Chuck.

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Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor Mason.

But Billions isn’t satisfied with being simply political. It wants to get to the heart of the personal conflicts that drive political strife. Season 2 introduces Taylor Mason, played brilliantly by Asia Kate Dillion. Taylor personifies the Millennial generation, a gender neutral digital native with huge insight into the light speed information flows that power the modern world. Taylor is hugely valuable to Axe, but we might expect the high morality of today’s Millennial generation to reject the rapacious world of the hedge-fund out of hand.

Instead, a much more complex picture of today’s Millenial is shown. Taylor is quickly seduced by the world of Axe Capital. But it’s not the allure of money, or the addictive quality of power, that lures Taylor in. The season 2 finale hits us with a final scene between Taylor and an idealistic assisstant DA, who thinks he can challenge the younger person on matters of morality.


Taylor is driven by the highest of all human drives, towards self fulfillment, towards experience over possession, and to creativity over all. All the drives that define the Millennial generation. It’s not entirely coincidence that Taylor Mason so closely resembles, in both ideals and appearance, the young heroes who emerged from the Stoneman Douglas school shooting.

But Billions season 2 leaves us with a disturbing final note. From the highest motivations, Taylor is nonetheless drawn towards the criminal, and the world of high finance that creates billions of victims globally. Will the idealism of Millennials ultimately transform into the same corruption as their Baby Boomer grandparents? It’s asking these kind of questions, through the structures of high drama, that makes Billions the best show on tv.

Join my course on the Rhetoric of Story : course code STORYTEN

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The 4 skills of the Full Stack writer

A stack of 4 core skills are key to success as a freelance writer. Mastering them unlocks huge opportunities.

I landed my first paid writing gig when I was 14. I had a paper route, and one day the local Indian restaurant invited me in, made me a chai tea, and asked how to get a leaflet into the newspaper. In the end I wrote the leaflet, got it printed, and distributed. I think I made £50 on the deal. Or, about 17 weeks of delivering newspapers!

“The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody.”

Fast forward two and a half decades, and I’ve been making a professional living as a writer for most of that time. I’ve written for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, The Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon magazine and freelanced for major London ad agencies. I’ve published dozens of short stories, won Arts Council grants for fiction writing, lectured at a half dozen universities, published research with Oxford University Press, and studied with Neil Gaiman at the Clarion writers workshop. But that all grew from writing ad-copy for a leaflet.

Over the course of my pro career I’ve seen the writing industries transformed by technology. The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody. And when I have a lot of deadlines, it sometimes feels like I’m writing them all! Businesses all over the world have a huge hunger for words, which has created whole new areas of work for writers. Right now I have clients in Bangalore, Idaho, Paris, Cornwall, Singapore and Shenzen. And this is a quiet month!

The gig economy, and freelance sites like Fiverr, have opened up a global marketplace for writing services. At the time of writing I am in the top 5 “Pro Writers” on Fiverr, and in the top one or two percent of writers by hourly earnings. The clients I have worked with via sites like Fiverr include Blue Chip corporations, tiny mom & pop businesses, famed entrepreneurs and hard working YouTube celebrities. The task of finding new clients, once a major problem for creative freelancers, is made easy by Fiverr.

The most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.

The recent Payoneer report into freelance earnings recorded an average income of $19 per hour for writers. But that average disguises a gulf in earnings between two very different groups of writers.

Read more.

Stop using guns as a symbol of personal empowerment

We don’t like guns because we like guns. But we DO like guns. Gun manufacturers don’t make $billions every year selling guns to farmers or even armies. The AR-15, America’s bestselling gun, is a sexy-as-hell consumer item. Like a lethal steel iPhone but significantly less useful.

I appreciate the vocal efforts of Hollywood A-listers campaigning for better gun laws. But it won’t mean much as long as Hollywood keeps churning out the high production value advertisements for firearms it calls “action movies”. Matt Damon wants you to do as he says when he says ban guns, not do as he does in a career based on shooting guns while looking super cool.

And super empowered.

I went on a mini-rant about guns-as-power-symbols over at my friend Ahimsa Kerp’s blog.

“Most guns, and basically all swords, only exist to kill people. Only a psychopath believes that killing people makes the killer powerful. And yet in stories we present guns and swords as symbols of personal empowerment, that heroes use to fight their way to self-realization. This is so pervasive, most people actually believe it. Imagine if we stopped using guns and swords as this symbol, and started using books instead? That would be closer to reality.”
–Damien Walter

I hate to break it to the middle aged dad-bods out there, but none of you will ever fight your way up 80 storeys of Nakatomi tower while shooting baddies to rescue your wife from Alan Rickman and save your marriage. You are, literally, 82 million times more likely to save your marriage by reading insightful books than by buying a Desert Eagle .45

And yet, from 24 to Taken, we watch the strange modern day ceremony of average middle aged men shooting their way to personal empowerment. And it’s not just the dudes. You can barely walk into a cinema or switch on a tv today without finding somebody liberating their inner agency by blowing somebody elses head off with a gun.

You could make this symbol ANYTHING. If our media churned out thousands of hours of entertainment a year in which average dudes found personal empowerment through the symbolic device of a monkey wrench, then average dudes all over America would manifest a fetisistic relationship to wrenches. They might even go around hitting people with their wrenches, but with a thankfully lower death toll than today’s sickening gun massacres.

People are impressionable. In the 1920s, an entire generation of women were persuaded that cigarettes, of all things, were symbols of personal empowerment, through a cleverly orchestarted marketing campaign arranged by Edward Bernays, father of “public relations” IE legitimised propoganda.

I doubt any Hollywood movie makers will see this blog post (but share it widely to increase the chances). However, you’ve heard the message here, and the chances are, you’re a storyteller. YOU can help change this situation, by using your gifts to NOT replicate the lazy, lethal story archetypes, that lead us to see the gun as a heroic symbol, rather than WHAT IT REALLY IS – a nauseating symptom of deep social sickness.

Replace the gun in your story with a book.

Or maybe a wrench.

Help me write gun free stories as a patron.

 

DAMO: Rebranded

My general approach to productivity is: if I don’t remember to do it, it’s probably better undone. But I do handwrite a ToDo list every couple of weeks. Not to remember things, but to forget them. A swirl of tasks in the mind gets in the way of more creative thinking. Writing them out as a list is like house cleaning.

Looking back at lists for the last few years, I have a variety of entries along the lines of “Social Media WTF???” and “Blog vs. Patreon!” or “FB page…what is it?” There are a lot of exciting tools today to publish writing of all kinds. In fact, there are far too many, and they can easily stop being useful, and start using you.

Social media is heavily “gamified”. Facebook and other social networks want your attention, and they’re setup to grab it and keep it, by playing on the dopamine hit we get from the little red status alerts indicating people are showing us approval. Social networks are potentially powerful tools. But I suspect for most writers, they are really just an addictive time sink.

Social media. You can’t live with it. But you probably can’t live without it either. I’ve taken the puritan path of switching it all off. But it’s like a starvation diet to solve a fast food addiction. Creatively and professionally social media is HUGELY important. But as it grows more and more powerful, using it without being used by it means much greater self-discipline.

So I set aside a few days to seriously look at and plan out my social media use. My website is recategorised to make sense of the 1000+ posts and essays I’ve written. My patreon page is completely rewritten. I’ve rediscovered my Facebook page and reduced my Twitter usage. Welcome to the new DAMO: Rebranded.

As I shared with my patreon backers this week, branding for writers is a counter productive activity. But that still leaves us with these powerful tools built, in large part, for projecting a brand image. I suspect I’m far from the only writer both intrigued and deterred by the struggle to use them in a balanced way.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.

A good friend needed help facing the blank page. I found this quote for him. Now I present it too you.

(It’s often attributed to Goethe, but in fact the authorship is unknown.)

Please share with anyone you think might love it.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back – concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:

That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

A small thing to help you be more creative.

Follow me on Twitter: @damiengwalter

What is the most important skill any writer can master?

Regular readers will know that I’m more that a little bit passionate about the power of storytelling. Over the summer I’ve been creating a course in The Rhetoric of Story, filming a series of seven video lectures in locations including Bali, France and Italy. The full course is almost complete, with just one more lecture to record at my current location in Thailand.

Chiang Mai is my favourite city in the world, so I was very happy to get back here after a summer of wandering. And even happier to get an invite to talk to the cities fantastic writing group. Chiang Mai is a city of writers, so it’s an honour to be asked to share some of my teaching with them. The talk was really well attended, with about 70 fellow writers there to hear what I had to say.

The talk went so well that I’ve decided to offer it as a short course on the Writing Practice, my online school. It’s a brief introduction to some of the content from The Rhetoric of Story, presented in a conversational style, with comments and questions from the audience. Follow the link below to learn more.

Storytelling for Writers. A new FREE course from the Writing Practice.

PS – I just need THREE more patrons to hit my target of 40 for my SUPER-PATRON promotion. Go on…you know you want to… https://www.patreon.com/DamienWalter

 

This exercise will make you a stronger writer (WARNING: it’s hard.)

My experience, during 6 years teaching creative writing to university students, is that most writers don’t want to do this exercise. To be fair, it’s hard work. But it’s also the single best way I know to develop your skills as a writer, or any other kind of storyteller.

“But Damo,” I hear some folks in the back saying, “Big shots like Stephen King din’t do no structural analysis exercise and look where they is now!”  To which I say, actually, Stephen King holds a BA in English Lit, taught English in the classroom, and even suggests this exercise in On Writing. So, there.

In more general terms, writers resist this exercise because it seems to go against the imaginative and intuitive parts of the writing process. A good story is like a great magic trick. As soon as you analyse it, the illusion is destroyed and you’re left with some smoke and a bunch of mirrors. But it’s not your job as a writer to believe the magic, it’s your job to create the illusion.

Think of this exercise as some short term pain in exchange for a lot of long term gain. And isn’t the the definition of exercise? If it was easy, we’d all be running the Boston marathon every year. But we aren’t, because getting really good at anything requires specialised effort and ultra-determination. So for those of you traipsing on the long and winding road towards literary genius, think of this as a deep muscle workout for your skills as a storyteller.

(This is one of the 7 super exercises I set my students on The Rhetoric of Story. Join in! If you have questions about story structure, that’s the place to find the answers.)

EXERCISE 6: STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS

The best way to learn about the structure of anything is to break it apart and then put it back together again. It may not work again, but you’ll learn a vast amount about how it worked. This is as true of stories as anything else.

Step One – choose a story that you know well. I’m going to assume here it’s a novel, but it can be a screen or stage play or any other form of storytelling. It’s important you know it well, or the exercise won’t work.

Step Two – you’re going to be writing a “structural analysis” of this story. It’s important to actually write this, your mind won’t really absorb the detail if you just think about it. Imagine you’ve been commissioned to analyse this story by a publisher. You need to deliver a professional report that captures the detail of this story’s structure.

Step Three – begin from the top level of structure and work your way down. Here are some suggestions for what you might be looking at:

  • Top Level
    • what are the major parts of the story? Or acts in a screen or stage play? What happens in each?
    • who is the protagonist? What do they want?
    • who are the major characters? What are their relationships?
    • what are the forces of antagonism and how are they manifested?
    • what is the dramatic question? How does it manifest as plot?
  • Mid-Level
    • what is the turning point of each chapter / scene?
    • how are the chapters structured?
    • what plot devices, like tension, suspense and mystery, are employed?
    • how do the character relationships change and evolve over time?
  • Bottom Level
    • what is the balance of beats / dialogue / description / scene setting in each chapter?
    • what point-of-view is employed? How are POV shifts handled?
    • what is the narrative voice? Who does it belong to?
    • how is the style determined by word and sentence choice?

This is very far from an exhaustive list. Depending on your understanding of story, you might approach the analysis quite differently. That’s fine. This isn’t about applying some rote understanding of structure. It’s about seeing how the story actually works on the page (or screen / stage). It’s the difference between driving a car, and deconstructing the engine to see how all the constituent parts go together. Capiche?

Step Four – outline a story based on your structural analysis. So, if you’ve discovered your chosen novel has four major movements, with one hundred and twenty scenes, following seven characters, and so forth, you’re going to outline a novel with that structure. Take this step as far as you want. A two page outline may be enough. You might, on the other hand, decide to write the whole damn thing!

IF you complete this exercise to Step Three, and feel you need some feedback, post your structural analysis on your blog, with a link back to this post, and pop me an email on: damiengwalter@gmail.com. I’ll get to as many as I can.

No comments here. Find me on Facebook or Twitter.

 

Twitter is the protocol for human psychic communication

I’m a writer. And so, of course, I’m on Twitter. Somedays it feels like 90% of Twitter’s users are writers, and that I suspect is a big part of Twitter’s problem at this time. Problems which have lead in turn to the possibility of its sale to Google, or Salesforce, or Disney, or please dear god no News Corp.

There is clearly a lot of value in Twitter. If you’re the place where Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump go to exchange bitchy sub-tweets, you must be doing something right. But nobody seems to know how to unlock that value as cash, least of all its current owners and management, who sometimes seem to be the people who understand the platform least in all the world. Twitter Moments? Please.

Twitter is, I think, the most misunderstood thing to come out of the last decade or more of social networking. Because twitter isn’t a social network. Sure, it networks people in a social way, but we can all see it’s not going to grow up to be Facebook. Twitter has grown up, it is what it is. And what it is, is deeply misunderstood.

Twitter is also not a media platform. Yes, I can put a video on Twitter. But is it convenient for anybody to watch that video on Twitter? Absolutely not. The animated GIF is great on Twitter. Because it’s succinct. It fits into the un-official, ever evolving grammar that is the answer to the question, “what is a tweet?” Because a tweet isn’t a status update. Neither is it a micro-blog. A tweet is a tweet, and what a tweet is, is something specific and very important to this age of digital communication.

Let’s consider this issue from the opposite direction. Imagine I waved a wand and made every human on the planet psychically connected to every other human. You don’t have to imagine that hard, we’re pretty close to that reality when we stare into our little black rectangles of glass and steel. And all our VR headsets and whatever follows them are taking us even closer. But take it the few extra steps to full on psychic communication, mind-to-mind, you think it I hear it kind of thing.

How in the hell would that work? Seriously, if the state of the internet is any indication, I don’t want to have the sordid contents of human kind’s collective consciousness squirted into my headspace. I don’t even want to be exposed to most of what people I LIKE think about, let alone the ugly thought processes of #gamergate or the #altright. To work, psychic communication, like all forms of communication, from smoke signals to the telephone, requires a protocol. And that protocol would have to look almost exactly like Twitter.

I don’t want to “hear” everybody’s thoughts so I choose people I’m interested in to follow. I only want to share specific thoughts of my own, so I package them in, oh, something like a tweet. Those tweets have to be succinct – 140 characters, an image, a micro-video perhaps, so they can go into a stream of all the people I follow, that I look at as and when I want to. And so on. The way Twitter works is much the way a future race of highly evolved psychic humans would communicate. Which I guess tells you something about how bitchy, petty, sordid and occasionally enlightening the future of human communication is likely to be.

Why not Facebook? Why not Snapchat? Why not some other social network? Facebook is, by design, a platform for limited social networks. Friends, family, work colleagues, etc. Snapchat is for the stuff you want to do on a social network that you want to DISAPPEAR FOREVER after it’s shared with a specific group. Both super important in their own ways. But twitter is the collective consciousness of all humanity. That’s why it’s where elections happen. That’s why it’s where the news discussion happens, and why every news reporter in the world is basically just a twitter scavenger at this point. And what Twitter has that makes it the platform of choice for the collective consciousness of our species, and those who want to communicate to it, is the best protocol to regulate that communication.

What Twitter does not seem to have is the first clue that it’s sitting on the protocol for human psychic communication. And, consequentially, Twitter has very little inkling of what Twitter actually is. Hence the long series of blunders and years of stymied growth that make a sale of Twitter likely. Will the new owners have any clue what Twitter is? Unlikely. Can Twitter be saved? It doesn’t really matter. The protocol that makes Twitter interesting, and the collective consciousness currently being regulated by it, will simply evolve around another platform if Twitter dies. But that would be a shame. I for one hope Twitter figures out what it has on its hands, and sees the quite obvious way ahead once that realization is made.

The first rule of contract negotiation for writers

The reality of life as a jobbing writer is that, like anybody running their own business, you have to do a lot of negotiating. Which for writers, all too often, means getting walked over.

The Society highlighted the case of Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon, who has not received any royalties from the television and film adaptations of her Horrid Henry books, despite the series being broadcast in 44 countries with more than 1.5m DVDs sold.

In an article last December, Simon revealed that she was missing out on the royalties because when she sold Orion her first Horrid Henry book in 1993, the book deal included film and television rights. A deal with Novel Entertainment for those rights was subsequently negotiated by Orion. “They did a poor deal. They did not use a lawyer,” wrote Simon in the Author magazine. “Not understanding their proper value led to the worst mistake of my career.”

I have only sympathy for Francesca Simon, and hope the show’s producers do the decent thing and offer her the deal she should have had in the first place. But the sad truth is, writers get stuck in horrible deals all the time. Which is because they don’t abide by the first rule of negotiation.

YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO SAY “NO DEAL”.

As a jobbing freelancer, who has made a living that way for over a decade, I say “No Deal” a lot. My freelance rates are relatively high, and no end of people feel I should be working for less. I always say “No Deal”. Often, people are surprised. They’re not used to writers doing that I guess. I also guess that’s part of why I make money when many others don’t.

This is undeniably harder when it’s your own creative work on the line. Some years ago, soon after finishing the Clarion writer’s workshop, I was offered a shot at a fiction book deal, based on a pitch and some hurriedly written chapters. Exciting right? Well, yes and no. Truth be told, my heart wasn’t in the idea, and the deal itself was so bad that I was actually angry reading the details. I would never, ever sign a contract like that in business, so why would I sell my creativity short? I said “No Deal”. Of course, I’ll never know for sure if I made the right call.

Which is exactly the psychological pressure that leaves writers in a hard spot when negotiating. These are your hopes and dreams on the line, if you turn down this deal, however shitty, will there ever be another one? The unhappy truth is, any experienced negotiator sitting across a table from a creative in that state will take full advantage of it.

Which is why agents exist, right? Not quite. Most of those awful deals were negotiated by agents. Yes, agents are on commission, and hence “in your corner”, but they have many clients and want to make many deals, so agents are also in the publishers corner, and likely to play along with the status quo if it’s to their benefit. As a writer, you’ll need to negotiate the right deal with your agent to ensure they do a good job on your behalf. And then, ultimately, you have to decide whether to take that deal. Or say, “No Deal”.

By being prepared to say “No Deal”, you reclaim the psychological initiative. Like a warrior accepting death before battle, you are taking control of a situation where control is limited. A good contract should be to the benefit of both parties, and lead to a healthy long term relationship. A good publisher will want to settle a contract like that. But it’s human nature to push for the upper hand. Unless you’re strong enough in negotiation to push back, even well intentioned professionals will walk over you.

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Read more at Guardian Books.

Non-Aristotelian storytelling is a thing. Just don’t expect it to box office.

To make sense of the world we tell ourselves a story. That’s the starting point of the Rhetoric of Story. As storytellers we imitate the kind of story the human mind tells naturally, which makes our stories seem real to the audience. It’s a conjuring trick, but one with some truly wonderful uses.

The first person to observe this kind of story was the philosopher Aristotle, in his little book on Poetics. The 3-act structure that is by FAR the most common shape of story told today comes from Aristotle. And so we call this style Aristotelian storytelling. Today nearly all cinema, a lot of theatre, and most commercial fiction is Aristotelian. Even if it doesn’t know it.

There are ways of telling stories that are Non-Aristotelian. To understand what that means, think about what your mind would be like without the story that makes sense of everything for you. In fact there wouldn’t be a you. You are the character at the centre of the story. No story, no you. Just a mess of sensory data, thoughts, emotions and the rest, all swirling around without any context or order. It might sound a little like this.

This is Not I, written by Samuel Beckett, and performed by Billie Whitelaw. Beckett was a modernist playwright, and like other modernist writers such as James Joyce, Beckett was interested in what was going on inside our heads. Our subconscious minds. Our inner monologues. All the stuff happening beyond the story told by our conscious mind.

If you’re like most people, you’ll find Not I hard to watch. Once you realise the mouth is reciting the internal thoughts of somebody in a state of high agitation or fear, it makes more sense. But it’s still hard to sit through. It’s like watching somebody vomit. You can’t help feeling the urge to retch yourself. It’s OK, you can switch it off now.

If Aristotelian storytelling mirrors the order of our mind to create the seamless illusion of reality, Non-Aristotelian storytelling picks the orderly mind apart to reveal the seething chaos of stuff behind the illusion of reality. Humans don’t enjoy this experience, any more than we enjoy going under the surgeon’s knife. Beckett’s plays are hugely acclaimed, but they’re never going to be a challenge to The Avengers at the cineplex.

Great storytellers do use Non-Aristotelian techniques. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s soliloquies, the inner narratives of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, or the cinematic exploration of subjective viewpoint by director Paul Thomas Anderson, great storytellers know that cracking open the consciousness of their characters leads to places purely Aristotelian storytelling can not reach. BUT. It’s done sparingly, and almost always within traditional storytelling structures, so that the audience stay on board for the ride.

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Learn a lesson from the slush pile

​”the experience of reading mounds of badly written fiction gave him an an indelible lesson in what constituted badly written fiction”

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

There’s a lot to learn from awful writing. But the slush pile isn’t even awful. Awful writers, like great writers, don’t tend to submit their work to contests or open calls from publishers. What you find in the slush pile is mediocre. Average. Quotidian. Like an endless queue for entrance to Heaven, only people who feel the need to be judged volunteer to stand there. The slush pile attracts the writers who want affirmation, and who still think there’s somebody out there – an agent or editor – with the authority to tell them YES YOU ARE A WRITER.

Instead of submitting your work to the slush pile, voluteer to screen the submissions. What you’ll find is nothing you want to read. But once you’ve ploughed through 300, 500, 1000 submissions, you’ll see patterns in the failure. Stories that aren’t stories. Sentences deformed at birth. The standard issue opening scene where a character orders a latte. Dialogue between characters drinking lattes. People who submit to slush piles write their stories in Starbucks, you conclude. It goes on, and gets worse.

Don’t be discouraged. The tedium of a slush pile is a feature, not a bug. Editors and agents soon realise that there really isn’t very much interesting storytelling to go around, they’re going to have to spend a lot of time making the most of the mediocre. But the writers job is easy. All you have to do is write great stories. Stories with that extra…magic… that we all recognise when we see it. The only catch is, nobody can tell you what it is. Finding it is what all the hard work is really about. 

The shameful joys of the franchise novel…and why the force is with them

Snobby attitudes to sci-fi and fantasy can mean missing out on great stories amid popular book series – a publishing genre that is sure to grow.

Make of it what you will, but it’s a plain fact of publishing life that more people will read the latest Star Wars franchise novel than all the books shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize put together. The world is a noisy place, made all the more so by the democratising influence of the internet, where it sometimes seems that all seven billion members of the global village have self-published their own book. Confronted with this tumult of competing egos, you can hardly blame the average punter for sticking with entertainment brands scorched into their psyche by the lightsabers of multibillion-dollar marketing budgets.

“with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills.”

The parochial world of literary fiction tends to deal with mass-media franchises in the same way it deals with genre fiction, comics and the other narrative arts that eclipse it by magnitudes for size, influence and profit margins: by giving them the silent treatment. This isn’t an entirely stupid strategy. Literary fiction may very well touch parts of the human condition its more successful cousins fail to reach. But then it may not, and the arrogant assumption that novels published within a franchise that has touched the hearts and minds of millions have nothing to tell us is … well … arrogant.

What franchise novels can certainly do well is compelling storytelling. And at their best, they can do it much better than the franchises that spawned them. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire introduces the malevolent Grand Admiral Thrawn to the extended Star Wars universe, where he remains hands-down its best antagonist. One of the many problems with the vastly overrated Star Wars movies (Empire being the moment of genius that rescues the entire franchise) is the absurd incompetence of their villains. Any evil galactic Empire that can be brought low with a missile up the exhaust pipe is not worthy of the name.

Set five years after Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy follows the painstaking progress of Admiral Thrawn as he leads the remnants of the Imperial fleet against the ascendent New Republic. Have no doubt, Thrawn is a merciless villain, but Timothy Zahn’s smart decision to cast the bad guys as the underdog gives the entire trilogy a compelling edge that the movies simply lack. With rumours about the latest Star Wars trilogy swirling, Disney even went as far as denying Zahn’s masterful narrative will play any part in the new movie. Which is shame, as the brinksmanship of Grand Admiral Thrawn would be a lot more entertaining than the predictable in jokes and cheesy pastiche of yet another JJ Abrams fangasm.

The kingdom of the franchise novel extends far beyond spin-offs from cinema and TV. You can keep your Lord of the Rings and even your Game of Thrones. If I could take only one fantasy novel with me to read in the dungeons of Mordor it would be Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil – better known to most readers as the redoubtable Kim Newman. In the early years of Games Workshop the creators of the Warhammer franchise it published a short run of novels that added some depth of charcater to the two-dimensional world of tabletop gaming. Drachenfels was by far the best, a little known gem of fantasy fiction still unrivalled in its canon.

Detlef Sierck is a playwright of Shakespearean talent with the ego of a young Orson Welles. He is pulled out of debtors prison by Oswald von Konigswald to recreate in theatre the prince’s youthful quest to destroy the great enchanter Constant Drachenfels. What follows is a taught phantasmagoria as the story within the story weaves itself back in to reality. Imagine the gothic horror of Hammer’s Dracula movies merged with the ironic humour of PG Wodehouse and you get a sense of Drachenfels. As with much of the best franchise writing, it’s the constraints and limitations of the Warhammer world that seemed to bring out the best in Newman’s writing.

star-wars-grand-admiral-thrawn

John Scalzi’s Redshirts boldly takes the franchise novel to explore strange new territory in a universe bearing some resemblance to that of the original Star Trek. The story follows the journeys of the low-ranking members on board a starship crew as they come to realise they are living in a television show. It’s a metafictional homage to the classic sci-fi serial, the writing of which gave Scalzi an insight in to the work of the franchise writer.

“I think there is a snobbery toward franchise writing that’s wholly unwarranted,” Scalzi says. “It’s a ridiculous double standard. Franchise writing requires flexibility, speed, the ability to adhere to canonical guidelines while still producing entertaining work. That’s a specific skillset.”

And writers with that skillset can make a solid living in the franchise novel market. That’s a reality that might come as a shock to their literary compatriots. The big names of franchise writing such as Peter David and Alan Dean Foster may struggle to command much literary respect, but with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills. Of course that kind of success can become a honeytrap of its own, with success in the franchise marketplace rarely translating to acclaim for a writer’s original material.

As the world becomes noisier the franchise novel will only become more powerful, and take on new forms. Writing is seen as a solitary enterprise, but the shared worlds of franchises like Star Wars are one way that artistic collaboration can help to lift a creation above the high noise-to-signal ratio of modern life. Perhaps instead of dismissing franchises out of hand, the challenge for writers is to find ways to create much better art within them.

Originally published in The Guardian.