”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.
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.
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.
If you want a well paid stable career today you do one of two things. You learn to work with computers. Or you learn to tell stories.
On the day I graduated university in 2001, with an allegedly useless degree in Media and Arts, I had precisely zero pounds in the bank. Luckier than today’s generation graduating with minus £50k or more, but it had taken every penny to buy myself a three month break from work to write my dissertation. Now I was skint. And so I did what anyone who knows how to tell a good story does…I got a job in sales.
“story is, to coin a phrase, the operating system of human consciousness”
Any good sales person knows that sales is storytelling. The stories are vaguely related to products, but what people are really paying for are the emotions those products evoke. An Apple laptop makes its owner feel like a member of today’s creative elite, just as those double glazed windows make pensioners feel safe from the noisy world outside. Products evoke these emotions through stories, and it’s the sales person’s job to tailor the story to the customer.
I’ve made a lot of money telling stories over the years, which is how I learned one of life’s great rules…those who can tell a good tale rarely go hungry. Advertising executives. Corporate CEOs. Sales persons. Priests and other spiritual gurus. Politicians. Cosmologists. It’s amazing how many jobs are really about telling a good story. And that’s before we even get to the people who admit that what they do is tell tall tales, those people commonly called “writers”.
Storyteller? Or Liesmith?
In the 60s the hippy radicals of Greenwich Village called all that storytelling “making the lie”. The writer is at least being honest about telling lies. Everyone else is trying to pass off their stories as truth. All these competing narratives get mighty confusing. As I write we’re heading into the final furlong of a United States presidential campaign where both sides agree on only one thing…that the other side is “spinning the narrative”. And it’s true. Elections are the premiere form of storytelling in democratic societies, as billions of dollars are spent on persuading the audience that your candidate’s story is the true story.
He (or she) who controls the narrative, and can conscript the most human minds to believe in their story, controls society. Kings, tyrants and dictators have always known this, that’s why they stamp their authority, literally, on every coin. The word itself, AUTHORITY, means the person who authors the story. The world is a damn big book, with a lot of determined egos fighting to get their name on the cover.
The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall is a book about how we came to underestimate story. The thing poets have always known, that story rules the world, is a fact the rest of our culture is only now waking up to. Gottschall brings an edge of empirical credibility, and some of the best evidence from neuroscience, to the task of showing us that story is, to coin a phrase, the operating system of human consciousness. Because just as OSX turns melted sand into a data processor, story turns meat and bone into this creature typing these words.
Artificial Intelligence is stumbling, Frankenstein like, into the world. It’s not going to be better tech that unlocks the full potential of AI, but better story. As we start to understand the role of story in human consciousness, AI researchers are experimenting with how story can make machines conscious. Is it ironic, or simply beautiful, that emergent AIs are being trained to “watch” movies by showing them Blade Runner? If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes. Machines won’t see as we see, but perhaps the true test of AI won’t be if it can hold a conversation, but if it can tell a story.
Storytellers are hackers. The system we’re breaking into is human consciousness, and the programmes we use to do it are films, tv shows, novels, or any other platform that can communicate the rhetoric of story. We can use these techniques to tell fairytales, or craft idle entertainments. But as any good sales person, or politician, or corporate executive knows, stories are at their most powerful when people don’t quite realise that’s what they’re dealing with.
Unpicking the Gordian Knot.
We’ve evolved to believe stories. They cut past our rational senses and splice straight into the emotion centres of our brain. That served us well when the story of the tribe helped bind a few dozen families together. But as our population screams towards 8, 10, 12 billion, our tribal consciousness is barely able to make sense of this strange new world, let alone pick apart the infinity of stories that comprise the Gordian knot of modern society.
If we’re going to liberate ourselves, we need to start recognising story when we see it. We need to have the self awareness to see that the brand values we attribute to our Apple laptops and iPhones are just the product of a fairytale, set in a pristine white room, spun in the comforting vocal tones of Johnny Ive. We need to start admitting to ourselves that it’s not just the other side spinning the narrative, that Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton both are characters in their own dramas, desperate to recruit us to their audience.
But to see, we have to understand. That story isn’t a miracle. Like David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear, stories are all smoke and mirrors. Even the greatest stories rely on the same few rhetorical techniques to persuade us of their reality. Learn those techniques and stories lose their power of persuasion. You see the pulleys and levers that make the Wizard of Oz talk. All the spin in the world won’t make a false narrative stick in your mind.
Or of course, learn the rhetoric of story, and you’ll know how to spin your own yarns, tell any tale however tall, and smith the most amazing lies ever seen.
The Buddha offers some useful life advice to anyone trying to get anything done. People will complain if you do something wrong. More people will complain if you do something right. Some people will complain if you don’t do anything at all. People just like to complain!
Seven people signed up for my email newsletter in the last 24 hours. One person complained. The email pop-up goes away if you click the X, or anywhere on the screen, but sometimes people get confused and think they HAVE to sign up to read my posts. Occaisionally, people complain.
Here’s the thing. As a person trying to get thjngs done, YOU HEAR MUCH MORE FROM THE COMPLAINERS THAN ANYBODY ELSE. People who are generally happy with your efforts don’t often feel the need to say so. But people who are triggered by your actions often do. You’re out there doing, and taking the hits along the way. They’re not.
Of course it IS possible to market and promote your work counter-productively. BUT. Those people will just unsubscribe, or unfollow, or dump your email in the spam folder. Keep an eye on your engagement rates, that’s a useful indicator. Complaints, by and large, only tell you about the complainer.
The bar for entry for writers is so low that it might be better described as a line in the dirt. Got something you can type on and an internet connection? Then you can be a blogger. Or a Kindle indie publisher. Or @JohnDoeFantasyAuthor. But the washout rate for writers is up there with US NavySEAL training. So why is it so many bloggers end up with 3 readers a day (all of them Google search bots) or flatlined Kindle sales, and just up and quit? Or never get started at all?
“Books aren’t your pets any more, they’re your raw materiel, and you need to look at them in the same way a butcher looks at a cute little baby lamb.”
The British horror author (and comedy creation of Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade) Garth Merenghi often noted that he was the only author he knew who had written more books than he’d read. Sadly, that low bar to entry means I’ve encountered no end of authors who fall into the same category. Worse yet, in the internet age the totally clueless are able to form self-reinforcing cliques (see the Sad Puppies), echo chambering one another towards their doom.
But those who stick around soon hit an entirely different wall. You can have killer story ideas, and think relentlessly about one day writing them down, but if you aren’t reading you’ll find yourself completely unable to actually follow through and do the hard work of writing. And when I say reading, I mean consuming books in the way Olympic weightlifters eat potatoes…in bulk and with lashings of butter!
Forget the butter, but hold onto the point that as a writer it’s actually part of your unwritten job description to read all of the things, all of the time. It doesn’t matter that you USED to read a lot, any more than a pro.tennis player will win tournaments because they USED to be fit. Your brain, the engine that’s going to be doing the writing, needs to be constantly marinated in books, or it stops thinking in the bookish ways a professional writing brain needs to.
Garbage in, garbage out. There’s some benefit to reading bad writing so you can analyse the negative. By mostly you need to read books that are good at being books. Great sentences, good storytelling, brilliant characters. High nutrition health books to keep your brain WRITING FIT.
Television in, television out. Xbox in, Xbox out. Other things that are also stories do not count towards your book quota. Binging three seasons of Game of Thrones is not research. Chin stroking analysis of Pokemon Go doesn’t change the fact you’re wasting valuable reading time hunting Pikkachu. “I don’t have time to read” is code for “I can recite the URLs of every Hentai site on the internet”. Yes you do have time, but you also have many other pleasures you choose to prioritise ahead of reading.
If you want to make the writerly pro.leagues you need to move reading from the pleasure category of your life and into the professional category. You can still enjoy reading that book, but you need to read fast, read lots, and analyse every word. What’s the narrative style? How are the sentences paced? Where are the set-ups? What does this character want and how are we shown that? How many scenes per chapter? And the list goes. Books aren’t your pets any more, they’re your raw materiel, and you need to look at them in the same way a butcher looks at a cute little baby lamb.
Read new books. Read old books. Read shorts. Read novellas. Read experimental lit fic. Read commercial bestsellers. Crucially, track down and read writers who are better than you are. Better stylists. Better storytellers. Better anything. When you find books that do something great and you don’t know how? Read them again and again until you do know.
And this doesn’t stop if and when you turn pro. I’ve watched some of the world’s best and most famous author read through waist high piles of stories at the Clarion writer’s workshop, because they were genuinely interested in what talented younger writers might know that they didn’t. The whole point of writing workshops is to READ dozens of stories, in progress, by your peers. There’s literally no better way to learn. Except teaching itself, which is really just a way for experienced writers to immerse themselves in reading and analysing stories.
I’m not personally tempted to play No Man’s Sky, even while I find the phenomenon of its release interesting. Video games died a death for me at around the same time I found meditation. I had played games quite intensely since I was around 7, but then at age 30 or so, while playing a hacked version of Elderscrolls III, it struck me that every single game I’d ever played was just a graphical interface on a database. And I didn’t want to invest any more of life’s limited time on experiences that seemed so shallow. The scope and scale of No Man’s Sky doesn’t change that dynamic for me. It’s a very big database, but that’s still all it is.
I am very much in a minority however. This well written report by Robin Sloan on the experience of both No Man’s Sky, and the huge community of live-streamers sharing the game’s launch, makes me at least partially interested again in the gaming experience. While the game itself remains little more than a pretty fractal, the community gathered around it is quite fascinating. A modern cultural phenomenon that is clearly deeply engrossing to those immersed in it.
“Once people have bought a few duff books in a row, they find other things to occupy their attention.”
It’s that aspect of community, or social engagement, and of human value, that has always made reading such an engrossing activity for me. Those words on the page come from another human mind. How fascinating to have that gateway into an alternative human experience, especially when that person is skilled at expressing that experience. There will always be people like me who find that experience through novels. But how many of us will there be?
As I’ve noted before, the novel is a very old medium at this point. Centuries old by any measure. And not all that much changed over that time. And it’s proved very resilient. But I suspect anyone who simply assumes the novel will remain quite as widely read doesn’t quite understand just how intense the contest for human attention is, or how many magnitudes greater that contest is becoming.
It’s not just that games – and there will be thousands of such games – that games like No Man’s Sky are INFINITELY large. Or that social networks like Snapchat have 100s of millions of users spending hours every day on their platforms. It’s that these kinds of things – and there are SO MANY of these kinds of things (don’t get me started on Pokemon Go!) – these kinds of things are profoundly changing how we all spend our time. And arguably, what the basic shape of our society is. And there’s really no reason to assume novels will have any significant roll in those new patterns of behaviour.
They might. The solitude of the reading experience might well be what saves it in a very near future we might call Massively Social (in the virtual sense of the word). Huge amounts of “content” are and will be, like No Man’s Sky, machine generated. The humanity of the novel, that it is written by one human mind and read by another, also give it value. And I do not see stories becoming anything other than more and more popular, in any form. But none of that makes the novel’s survival a sure thing.
What will kill the novel, and I believe is already irreparably damaging it, is a catastrophic rush to the bottom to meet the diminishing standards of most “content”. Traditional publishers, and the Amazon Kindle store, are both guilty of flooding a relatively small market with a huge number of novels, most far below any form of professional standard. The Fire-And-Forget model of publishing might turnover a a reasonable profit in the short term, but at big cost. Once people have bought a few duff books in a row, they find other things to occupy their attention. It happens. It is happening.
It’s why publishers are floundering, while individual authors, if they can establish a name, are doing very well. Once readers find you, and trust you to deliver, they are incredibly loyal to the authors they love. I think determined writers of really high quality – great storytellers, or authors with a wonderful voice, or a fascinating mind, are going to continue to do very well. But they might be more and more like islands in a sea of other distractions, rare outcroppings of enlightenment in an infinite galaxy of randomly generated planetoids, luring people to read those odd things called “novels” that otherwise only exist in the history…databases.
If you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends on Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere.
Can we have an honest moment? Between us readers of sci-fi, fantasy, and possibly other genres of fiction, who are by and large most of the readers of this blog? That’s good, I’m glad you’re open to the idea. Now, I’m just going to come right out and say it.
Most genre fiction is not very well written.
Note that I’ve phrased this in a peculiarly English way, avoiding the more direct American approach of shouting that most genre fiction is the written equivalent of a huge steaming turd of words. But there, now I’ve said that too.
As a reader and occasional reviewer my tastes in SF / Fantasy and genre novels tend towards the well written. I do enjoy the occasional Star Trek or Warhammer franchise novel, where the existing visual splendour of those stories makes up for less than stellar writing. But when it comes to original storytelling, I like good words, organised in fine sentences. When I find SF / Fantasy writers who can wield words well, I become a lifelong fan. But that is a rare event.
(At around this point somebody usually quotes Sturgeon’s Law that “90% of everything is crap”, which is the standard defence for the fact that 90% of SF writing is crap. Any field that NEEDS a standard defence for that accusation surely has a problem.)
(Shortly after that comes the old “It’s about the story not the sentences” chestnut, which, ok, if you really believe the sentences can be separated from the story in a novel, I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching the next Avengers movie produced on HI-8 camcorders.)
I was put in mind of this subject by K M Weiland’s post on “omniscient POV“, which I read with some interest. I don’t intend to critique that author’s teaching, which is well delivered, although I disagree with much of the content. But I do want to pick up on a specific point in the post which I find quite revealing.
“The problem with the omniscient POV—and one of the big reasons editors are no longer so keen on it—is that it’s dad-blamed tough to write. As you’re learning, this is largely because it’s a difficult concept to get our heads around in the first place!”
Hrrrrm. Well. Omniscient can be dad-blamed hard to write. But so in fact can Weiland’s preferred style, limited third person. Also interesting, of the two styles, limited third is far more artificial, which might make it a more difficult concept to get our heads around. An omniscient narrator is how stories have been told for millennia, and written down for centuries. Limited third person is only a few decades old, and is quite clearly a response to another narrative form. Television.
It’s for that reason that I call close third person, when it’s done badly (which is very often), Television Prose. It’s fundamental aim is to make the experience of reading a book much more like the experience of watching television. The story is presented through discrete scenes, focused on character actions and dialogue. Stories written in Television Prose also tend, ever more, to ape the dramatic structures of film and television. All of this CAN be great, different kinds of story SHOULD influence each other and share techniques. But I find Television Prose to be a problem for a separate but related reason.
Television Prose covers up bad writing.
But it doesn’t cover it up very well. Good writing is hard to write, regardless of the style it’s in. It takes a lot of skill and, crucially, time. But if you’re going to produce a lot of bad writing, often at high speed, then the limited third person style of Television Prose will hold together better than almost any other style. It’s basically descriptive in nature, which is easy to write and easy, if generally uninspiring, to read. With a kick-ass cover, in a popular genre, badly written Television Prose can often do just enough to please readers who, just as with franchise novels, are drawing on the stock imagery of visual media to do the imaginative heavy lifting.
And what’s wrong with that? I hear some folks saying. Nothing. You go ahead and read what you will, I’ll be over in my ivory tower enjoying my finer things. But. I do offer a mild warning for writers, who are getting this advice about “close third person ” all over the place these days. Learning to write in this flat, unimaginative Television Prose style is like learning to sing by copying pop stars who use auto-tune to sing. It’s a shortcut that, unless you win the hack writer lottery, will take you to a dead end. If on the other hand you put in the hard work, and really learn to write well, that’s a skill you will never regret having.
Ideas are an odd form of property. We protect them under law with copyright, trademarks and patents, but when it comes to the inventions of fiction, it’s very hard to assert meaningful ownership in a court of law. Instead, writers and readers enforce an ad-hoc moral code against authors who are seen to have stepped too far over the invisible lines of literary ownership.
My column for The Guardian this week stumbled over two cases of writers borrowing from their colleagues. It’s well known that Iain M Banks took some inspiration from Larry Niven’s Ringworld for the Orbitals featured in his novels of the Culture. Banks is now, arguably, far better known than Niven, and he altered the idea while inverting Niven’s politics, all of which seems to have earned him a pass for his minor misdemeanor.
The accusation raised against Douglas Adams in the comments of my column was new to me and, at least as presented, seem rather closer to outright plagiarism. Further research revealed that those accusations, sourced to SF author Christopher Priest in his obituary of Robert Sheckly, were somewhat overstated. Nonetheless it raises the question of just how much authors can borrow from each other before those invisible lines are crossed.
My rather wooly answer, that I suspect will not satisfy officers of the court, is that it doesn’t matter…as long as you only steal ideas you love, from authors you adore. I’ll get into the deeper waters of why in a bit, because first I want to flag up why this matters. It’s not just some writers who thieve from others, it’s all writers. And, if you don’t engage in some friendly pilfering, the fact is, you’ll probably stop yourself writing all together.
Writers aren’t lawyers, thank god. We’re artists, creators and dreamers. (We might ALSO be lawyers, because most of use have at LEAST two people in our heads.) And we start our dream lives inside the dreams of others. All the stories we read as kids are the mulch our own stories latter grow from. In our own stories we express the symbolic inner language of our imagination, and inevitably, many of those symbols are shared with the imaginations of the writers we ourselves love. If you DON’T use those symbols, perhaps because you fear being criticised for unoriginality, you risk violating the first law of creative life…YOU MUST HONOUR YOUR DREAMS. If your imagination gives you a gift, not taking it is tantamount to insulting the gods. And we all know where that leads.
Entertainment conglomerates want to own stories so they can, exclusively, profit from them. But writers, when they are honest, know that nobody owns the stories anymore than they own the DNA of life (corporations are also rather keen on owning those, whenever they can.) Stories are archetypal. They come from the great mythic beyond that only fools and madmen claim to understand, and only the very deluded claim to own.
But. None of this means you should go around creating half baked rip-offs of your fellow author’s work. Remember, it’s OK to steal fron authors you LOVE. And if you love them, you’ll want to create something that they love reading as much as you love reading them. I know nothing about Robert Sheckly, but I suspect it would take a hard heart indeed not to love Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Steal like a master criminal, then create like a master artist.
Is it a secret? Some times a thing is so obvious we can look at it a billion times and never know it.
SOMETHING HAS GOT TO CHANGE.
You can tell where a writer is in their development by the answer they give to a simple question. What’s your story about. “It’s an epic fantasy crime noir blockbuster.” Beginners think about genre, which is nothing more than marketing categories. “It’s like The Sopranos written by Neil Gaiman.” Well OK, at least that tells us something about tone and form, but where are you, Mr Author?
It’s about a poor orphan boy who becomes a knight of the realm.
It’s about a man who protects his family but ends up destroying them.
It’s about a woman who learns to live again after losing her child.
NOW we’re getting somewhere. Not every writer knows it consciously (many do) but at the heart of 99% of the stories that have ever succeeded in fascinating an audience, is CHANGE. Were you entertained by Kingsman? Awed by The Godfather? Blown away by Gravity? Alfonso Cuaron fills the cinema screen with a vast spectacle of space based drama, but it’s the simple change at it’s heart which informs every part of the story.
EVERYBODY WANTS TO BE SOMEBODY.
A great story can be told around any kind of change. But the stories that really stick with us are stories of BECOMING. How does a boy become a king? How does a woman become a hero? How does a good person turn bad? When does childhood end? These changes are the subjects of hundreds of stories. They’re archetypal, and that makes them interesting to everybody.
Every person who ever walked the earth is only human, but some humans become exceptional, or infamous, revered or reviled. We’re wired to be fascinated by these archetypal human changes, and tune in over and over again for stories that capture them. If you want to tell stories that people love, change is the secret. Learn more about the Rhetoric of Story, course enrolment is just $59 through the weekend ending Sunday 10th July.
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.