Category Archives: Writing Practice

Why writers have more to learn than ever

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.

What is the rhetoric of story?

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.

The pre-sale offer for The Rhetoric of Story ends on Sunday 12th June. Join today & follow at your own pace.

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Will the book be replaced…by the block?

An interesting article over at Rhizome speculates on the future of Blockchain as a disruptive technology within publishing.

What does the verb “to publish” mean in a society where every thought, movement, and moment is recorded and stored?

Let’s say that publishing is the act of making something public and drawing attention to it. And let’s agree that the opposite of public is private. In the past, these two spheres—public and private—were clearly defined and separate. Today, they overlap, merge, and melt together. In the context of traditional publishing, the acts of printing, binding, and distributing a book delineated an unmistakable step from the private to the public sphere. The writer in her room, working on the manuscript, bringing it to the publishing house, and so on down the production line. In contrast, many current info-tools work in a gray zone in between, obfuscating where data ends up and how it is exploited.

Today, it is clear that the categories “private” and “public” need to be redefined in order to give the user the choice of where on this private/public spectrum she is communicating. Is the message meant for one person? Or for the community of all intelligent lifeforms? Should it expire after five minutes? Or persist until the last bits of information succumb to entropy?

The block exist on the extreme point of both the private/public and the temporary/permanent scale: a block is absolutely public and permanent. An inscription in stone.

The full article falls a little bit into the hype cycle and is rather overstuffed with jargon, but taken in all it’s articulating exactly the issue that I believe many of us are coming to understand. On the one hand, publishing has already been irrevocably and terminally disrupted by digital technology. It’s only a matter of how long that disruption ultimately takes to play out. To paraphrase William Gibson, the publishing industry is already dead, it’s just unevenly distributed. On the other, the new model that has emerged is…well…ebooks basically suck, and Amazon is almost the shittiest imaginable ebook library. A wholly corporate owned knowledge silo, where every text is locked down by private owners and can’t even be effectively searched, with the whole thing literally flooded with junk ebooks attempting to game the system.

Can Blockchain provide a better solution? In short, yes. Whether it will is about whether the vested interests in the writing and publishing world can see to making it happen. But however it plays out, I suspect we’re nearing the point of letting go of the “book” as the central concept of publishing, especially in non-fiction. Knowledge is now far more modular. If I want to, for instance, lear to use Adobe Illustrator (which I’m currently doing) I don’t buy a book. A make thousands of Google searches and read hundreds of blog posts, as and when I need to answer specific problems. That’s the new landscape of knowledge and learning, and the offer of Blockchain is that it will provide an effective reward and incentive system, possibly through micro-payments, for writers toiling in that landscape.

Read my short essay on Blockchain and book piracy.

Writing Practice: why it’s time to stop thinking of writing as a profession

If you go to a good art school (and yes you STEM readers out there, such places do exist) they teach you to think of your art as a practice. And to think of yourself as a practitioner. There’s a purpose to this tradition. Admittedly, it takes most art students – myself included – until well after we graduate to understand why.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

“that the best thing any writer who wants to become a professional can do, is to stop thinking of writing as a profession at all”

What is a professional writer?
Today the professional writing world is facing a certain amount of turmoil. And when I say “certain amount” I mean HOLY CRAP WHERE DID OUR INDUSTRY GO! Digital technology has destroyed entire industries that writers once worked in. And is creating many new ones.

This change could be seen coming decades ago. But many writers and publishers are struggling to adapt. Today a personal blog can have more readers than a national newspaper, and a self-published ebook can sell more than bestsellers in the bookshop. So the question of who qualifies as a “professional writer” is harder than ever to answer.

That word “professional” is one to think on. In the recent past professional writers were those who produced content for the print publishing industry, for which in return they were paid. Today that line around professional is a lot less clear. A self-published Kindle author, or a blogger pushing traffic to a Google Adsense account, might qualify as a professional. They can certainly be making much more money in some cases. But the status of professional, I believe, is still what most writers crave on some level. I also believe that the best thing any writer who wants to become a professional can do, is to stop thinking of writing as a profession at all.

And start thinking of writing as a practice.

What the hell is a “writing practice” anyway?
What do writers, artists and other creators mean by the term “practice”? I’m going to put forward three meanings for the term, all of them useful. But perhaps the third is the most significant.

Practice 1 – When asked about the sticky question of “making it” the comedian Steve Martin says “be so good they can’t ignore you“. That’s not a message a celebrity saturated, get rich quick culture likes to hear. And it’s sometimes disturbing how many people bring the get-rich-quick mentality to writing. Of all the ways you might try to grasp at fame and fortune, writing is possibly the most masochistic. As I’ve stated *repeatedly* before on this blog, the only way to achieve anything that resembles traditional perceptions of “success” as a writer is to get very good at writing. And yes, even Dan Brown, E L James and Stephanie Meyer are good writers. Within the bounds of what they do, they excel. And those are the outliers who achieve huge fame and fortune.

The vast majority of writers who sustain a career over time are highly skilled at one thing – writing.

Want a long lived career as a feature journalist? You’ll need to be as good as these Pultizer prize winners. Getting that good at anything means practice. And if you want to get that good at writing, then writing is the thing, day in and day out, that you will have to practice. And that means more than just cranking out words- it means studying, reflecting, and critically appraising your own work. There’s no getting around it, if you want to be a writer you’re going to have to practice and study just as hard as you would for any other advanced career.

Practice 2 – Doctors, lawyers and architects also have a practice. When we talk about a “legal practice”, we mean a business. These are professionals who build a unique skill set, expertise, or creative style. A General Practitioner might have broad knowledge of many disciplines, but they have unique knowledge of their patients. Lawyers have areas of expertise and hold delicate and confidential information on their clients. To succeed at the highest levels architects must develop a unique style and vision, like but unlike any other before or after. The business of these professionals – their practice – builds around them as their expertise grow and their relationships to their clients expands.

Writing is a business. And all successful writers build a professional practice.

Haruki Murakami – by any measure among the most successful writers of today – puts his success down to the fact that he writes books that hook people. And over the decades of his career, millions of people have been hooked by his books. So, when Murakami publishes a new novel, it sells millions. How different is that to the absurd idea, held by far too many writers, that they can “build” a career by flooding stories in to the world at a rate of 10,000 words a day – or 80,000 words in a weekend! – that will sweep them to fame  and fortune. Nobody wants to read your shit. Successful writers build their practice book by book, reader by reader.

“When someone feels the draw to write, they’re feeling the same draw a daisy feels to turn its face up to the sun.”

Practice 3 – For most of my 20s I helped people with writing. I don’t mean helped them learn to write, although in my 30s I’ve now taught creative writing at a dozen or so universities. No. I ran writing workshops and community projects that used writing to help people. Sometimes that meant working with kids. Sometimes old people. Sometimes people with poor mental health. Sometimes people with addictions. Or people who were just poor and lonely and depressed. I wrote a little about this for Aeon magazine last year.

One of the things I learnt – and I mean really learnt in the you won’t stick your hand in the fire again kind of way – is that you can’t help people. You can only be there as they help themselves. Which is, when you think about it, much harder. The other thing I learnt is that there is a reason why so many people are drawn to writing. And I’d guess at least a quarter of all people feel a serious draw, at some point in their lives, to expressing themselves seriously in words. And a proportion of those will pursue it. But this isn’t idleness, vanity or ego driving them. Writing, as people explore its potential, is a tremendous tool for growth and development. When someone feels the draw to write, they’re feeling the same draw a daisy feels to turn its face up to the sun. All of us, even those “professional” writers among us, write to connect with a source of nourishment inside us, without which our souls shrivel up and die. As Ray Bradbury said in Zen in the Art of Writing, if he went a day without writing, he felt restless. Two days, sick. Three days and he felt his mind falling apart.

There’s a term for something that we do that feeds our being in this way. It’s a spiritual practice. Or if that term offends you might call it a health practice. Although in the final account, our spirit and our health are one and the same. I’ve had a meditation practice now for five or six years. It began with sitting on a mat every morning for 30 minutes watching my thoughts. Now it extends in to most of my day, cultivating awareness of the present moment as I experience it. It’s been invaluable to my happiness. And so has my writing practice, which I’ve had for most of my life.

When we write, we’re drawing on our deep imagination, that blooms from the unconscious mind where our dreams our kept. And we combine that imagination with language, the very mechanism of our conscious mind. That’s hard. It takes practice. And it is sooooo good for you. Writing is for the mind as running is for the body. Sitting down with a blank page, grasping an image from the imagination and spinning it out in to language is something I do every day. I almost take it for granted. Except when I teach workshops, I see what a revelation it is to people who, perhaps never in their lives, had that experience. Right there inside everyone – and I do mean everyone without exception – is a wellspring of imagination. Some people struggle with the language to express it. Others have too much language, it gets in the way of the imagination. Different kinds of blocks. But all of them can be worked out.

The three meanings of practice are all parts of the same process.

You’re drawn to something that you want to excel at, writing for instance, so you begin to practice. That practice is, of course, great for you. It is part of growing and developing as a full human being. And over time, as your practice develops, it can also become a profession. Because if you get good enough, they can’t ignore you. As I said up at the top of this, I think the third of these meanings is the most important stage of the process to think through. Because it is the easiest to lose sight of in a world that can leave very little space for good spiritual health.

If you accept, even for the moment, the idea of writing as a spiritual practice, that calls in to question some common ideas about it as a profession.

Because while it is entirely possible for your writing practice to grow in to a profession, the attempt to make it a profession can seriously damage it as a practice. The most unhappy and creatively unfulfilled people I know are those who traded in their writing practice for a professional career at a time or in a way that was not in balance with their needs as a practitioner. And it’s an easy trap to fall in to. If you take the time to get good at writing at all, you’ll quickly find that all kinds of people do in fact stop ignoring you. They’re often extremely kind and generous, sometimes thoughtless, and occasionally malicious. The agent who suggests you write a genre style that’s currently “commercial” but clearly not what you do. The editor who says your writing has to be in close third person because that’s what George R R Martin writes. The reviewer who savages your short story because, on some level, they wish they’d had the courage to write it. Or you can do it to yourself, by giving up on that promising but odd story with no real direction to write something more saleable instead. All of these things can, if balanced with your writing practice, be the right thing to do professionally. But they can also crunch your practice. And more often than not when they do that, they don’t work out professionally either, and you end up with neither.

Protect your writing practice at all costs.

The happiest and most creatively fulfilled writers I know are the ones who tend to put their writing practice ahead of any and all professional concerns unless they can be balanced. They also, in the counter-intuitive way of such things, tend to be the most successful in professional terms as well. Here is one of them.

Let me flip this around in to another perspective, to try and convince any stragglers who are still determined to sell their writing out at the first opportunity. What calls you to writing? What calls you to reading? A kind of joy, one hopes. It’s the same thing that calls you to play games in the playground as a kid. Or tells you, out of the blue one day, that you need to get in to snowboarding / French cuisine / dog grooming [DELETE AS APPLICABLE] so you go to a class and BOOM meet the person who will become your husband / wife.

Some people call that our soul, our higher self, God, intuition. Try not to get turned off if those aren’t your words. They are just words, in the end. The question is, do you listen and act when when the calling comes? Or do you, instead, react with fear. Because if you’re called to write, but instead try to turn your writing prematurely in to a profession, that’s fear. Maybe it’s rational fear, because writing might mean living a different kind of life than the one your parents want for you. But it’s fear nonetheless. And if you allow fear to dictate your responses in life, you’re guaranteeing yourself a great deal of unhappiness.

My way of resisting that fear is always to return to the idea, that I learnt at art school, of my writing as a practice. I try not to ask professional questions – what will sell, who should I network with, what is my status. Instead I focus on the basic questions of a practice. What do I need to learn next to get better? What do I need to make next to grow my practice? Who am I writing for? What do I want to tell them? And the intuitive reality is that, whenever I focus on my practice, I make professional progress.

Learn more about my Writing Practice.

Is the death of the bookshop a sign of progress?

High street bookshops maye soon be a distant memory. Should we take this as a sign of progress, or the regression of society to a pre-literate state?

Today the last big bookshop in Leicester, the city where I reside, closed its doors. The out of town Borders went three years ago. Waterstones on Market Street shut it’s doors today, leaving a much smaller sub-branch in the nearby shopping mall. I do not hold much hope of it surviving, and feel convinced at this point that dedicated high street book retailers will soon be a memory. That is sad. I love bookshops. But should we take it as a sign that society is regressing, or is it actually a sign of progress?

Some thoughts for both progress and regress:

REGRESS : The bookshops are closing. That’s where people buy books. Where are they going to buy books now? Taken in isolation, closing bookshops is a terrible sign of a crumbling society.

PROGRESS : Bookshops have been superseded by the internet, ebooks and smartphones, which form a much better infrastructure for distributing knowledge. Big gains for everyone.

REGRESS : That digital infrastructure is only accessible to people who can afford the technology and have the knowledge to use it.And it’s owned by a small number of mega tech corporations. Big loss of privacy and maybe freedom.

PROGRESS : Poorer people culturally excluded from bookshops, much more likely to access books via widely used and ever cheaper smartphones. Anyone can publish a book digitally.

REGRESS : The infrastructure of bookshops, publishers & distributors is what pays writers to write books. Without payment, only rich amateurs can have time to write.

PROGRESS : Retailers, publishers take a lot of the money made from selling books. Digital distribution might mean more money going to writers. Writing might become more like being a traditional artisan, as is happening in other creative professions. This is a big might.

Creative Writing at University of Leicester now offering £1000 bursaries for students.

Overall, I feel the argument for progress outweighs regress, quite substantially. But that doesn’t mean I cheer the death of bookshops. Progress means change, and change rarely comes without waving goodbye to things we love. We just have to believe that they space they leave behind will be filled with things we can love just as much or more.

Writing and the attention economy

As a writer you are asking for the most valuable commodity your readers have. Time. Each of us gets a finite portion. No sum of money can buy us any more. And the demands on it are ever greater.

The novel evolved at a period in history when the constituency of its readers had much more time to waste. Karl Marx would dub them the ‘bourgeoisie’, the section of society who owned the means of production, so profited vastly from industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. The middle and upper classes had time on their hands and little to do with it. The novel became one of the most popular ways of being idle.

“many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited”

The bourgeoisie no longer exists in quite the same way, and it and the proletariat both have innumerable ways of occupying whatever free time is left from work. Yes, there are dozens of forms of entertainment. Films, music, games, sports. But there are also more and more ways for people to invest their time in improving themselves. Is your book really going to compete with the vast range of information available to me for free on Wikipedia? Or the infinite social networks accessible through Facebook and Twitter?

Information of all kinds is becoming a post-scarce resource. While the time it takes to absorb information becomes scarcer and scarcer. And yet many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited. Writing two novels, four novellas and ten short stories a year is great productivity. But completely counter-productive in an attention economy. Because if I read one story by you and it’s any less than excellent, I’m very unlikely to read another. Your first novel is very important to you, but as a commodity in the attention economy its almost certainly worth less than the value of my time to read it. Which is why the vast majority of material written and published every day on the internet disappears without a trace.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” As a writer working in the attention economy you should take Pascal’s remark as the first rule of your professional life. Take the time to write a short letter to the world. Churning out fiction can give you the comforting illusion of progress. No doubt you’ll find one market or other to publish it. But think about the writing you really love and value enough to come back to again and again. How long do the best authors take to create their work? Why should you aim to be anything less than the best?

Live-writing challenges the writerly ego…which is a very good thing

The rules were simple. Keep to the scheduled study hours, always wash your mug, and under no circumstances touch the coltan. So far Aidan had kept a clean sheet on all counts. Now he was planning to commit the only serious possible infraction. And that did not mean coffee rings on work surfaces.

Aidan’s Rock

Which is the first paragraph of my short story Aidan’s Rock, live-written on a Google document in response to prompts from friends on Twitter. You can read the full finished draft here. Writing a story with up to fifty observers not just looking over your shoulder, but directly at the words appearing on the page, definitely added something to writing this story. But what?

The Guardian pick up on live-writing here in response to a fantasy writer producing her novel live, also on a Google document. There’s certainly a potential car crash element to the live-writing experience, which writing an entire epic fantasy in the form might be playing to. Like the conversation around self-publishing, a lot of the conversation about live-writing is likely to be ‘look at how naff this is!’

Which, being a slightly perverse individual, is part of why I like it. Writers like to spin a myth around their work. They all want you to believe they are the authors of Heartbreaking Works of Staggering Genius. It’s part of the writerly sales schtick. And who can blame us? Writing is a tough profession. Cultivating the appearance of being just that bit clever than the common mortal is how you make it pay. But that doesn’t stop it being bollocks. I quite like the idea that someone looks at my half formed prose and thinks ‘hey this guy’s just an average schmo like me!’, because I am. So are you. So are all those other people. The only difference is that writers do the work of writing, and getting good at writing.

And yeah, I’m a bit of a show off and like attention. That’s the other reason.

That’s why Harlan Ellison made a habit of climbing in to bookstore windows and banging out a story. Because it was good publicity and he was a show-off, and because it showed people writers were mortal and what they did was write, and that writing was not and is not some higher thing. Its just writing. But it only happens because of hard work. So let’s show the writer working, faults and all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few ways of avoiding mental exhaustion whilst writing:

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

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

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

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

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

How to bend the masses to your will with words alone

The internet, being composed of 50% text and 50% raw naked ambition, is full of how-tos and guidelines on ways to manipulate the written word to achieve your raw naked ambitions. They are called things like How to Write Compelling Content for the Web or 73 Ways to Manipulate the Weak Willed With the Power of Your Words.

But if you really want to push people around with the pure force of language then I suggest turning to a true master of the medium, the ancient philosopher Aristotle. We tend to think of these long dead philosophers like Plato and Aristotle as the fathers of all things democratic and hence good. But Aristotle’s version of democracy was mostly about the Greek nobility voting to decide what to do with the latest batch of slaves or which tribe to conquer next. One thing Aristotle did well was give his wealthy patrons advice on how to use the power of rhetoric to bend the uneducated masses to their will. And if you wish to do the same you could do worse than follow Aristotle’s three part structure for truly persuasive text…Ethos! Pathos! Logos!

Join the Rhetoric of Story and learn the 7 foundational skills of persuasive storytelling.

Ethos!
This is where you establish your credibility as a speaker. It is the foundation that your whole argument rests upon. Logically, it shouldn’t actually matter what the credibility of the speaker is if their argument is correct. But in reality it is often more important than anything else. Experience, qualifications, expertise. Just a few of the weapons you can deploy to prove that you are, in fact, the Man. (Or the Woman.) But don’t overdo it. There’s nothing people hate more than a smart-ass.

Pathos!
The bit where you establish an emotional connection to your audience. You know like in X-Factor where the wannabe pop star tells you they wannabe famous so their dead second aunt Petunia will be proud of them? Pathos. Of a blunt and obvious kind. But even more sophisticated appeals to the emotions all come down to the same basic technique, whereby the speaker establishes that he is just like the rabble he is speaking to. This is why you see politicians doing things like rolling up their shirts sleeves, or telling you for apparently no reason about the summer they spent working in a shop before they became part of the social elite. They are just like you and me, see? If you can establish pathos effectively the battle is as good as won.

Logos!
This is the logical bit where you explain why what you are saying is correct. Ironically, it’s by far the least important part of the argument. If you have your ethos and pathos down, you can get the mob to do most anything. So the real purpose of of the logical bit of your argument is to tell your audience what it is you want them to do. Or, if there are critics in your audience, provide some bullet proofing against their accusations that all you’ve done is stand up and say what a great bloke you are (ethos) and that your aunt Petunia just died (pathos). In fact, if you provide a bit of wonky logic your critics will focus their efforts on pointing out just how wonky, which they can do to their hearts content because it won’t actually impact the brain washed masses under the spell of you ethos + logos.

WARNING!
Be careful with this, it’s some powerful shit. It might sound great to have a brainwashed mob obeying your every command, but I can assure you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Also, if you do it too transparently the ignorant masses will notice you are manipulating them and turn on you. Ideally you need a good Public School (Private School for American readers) education to teach you the nuance of social manipulation. But hey, even without that you can have fun bending the unwashed masses to your will!

The Unspecified Reader

[pullquote]I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers.

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I talk About Running

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So a captain is married to her ship, and a novelist is married to her readers. Earlier this week I wrote about the social artist in my column for The Guardian, and collected some irate responses in return. What about the loner artist? What about us guys and gals who want to sit alone in our bedrooms and explore the inside of our own craniums in intimate detail. I feel certain there are any number of writers who just want to do this and nothing and I raise no objection to their doing just so. But when we talk about what it is that takes a writer from their bedroom, in to the minds and imaginations of thousands or millions of other people, it has to be some intense fascination with that unspecified number of readers. Social media gives that fascination form. Writers can’t leave Twitter alone because it provides 24 hour access to the unspecified reader who in the dark ages of print were only available through books. There has to be something in the psychology of a writer that makes the unspecified reader more important to them than any other relationship.

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The value of reading, and the cost of ignorance

Yesterday I watched the great Bali Rai read a story aloud to twenty-thousand people at the Walker’s stadium at half-time of the Leice

ster vs. Scunthorpe match. I’m not sure what the people of Scunthorpe made of it, but the football fans of Leicester loved it, and took away thousands of copies of the story to read at home after the match.

This was all part of the Everybody’s Reading festival which I, along with a team of committed and hard working people from libraries and elsewhere, have spent much of the last three months organising. We like direct project names here in Leicester, so when we set up a festival to get everybody reading, we call it Everybody’s Reading.

It is a real honour for me to have spent a good part of my career to date working on the cause of getting people reading. Some of that work has focussed on basic literacy, but more of it has been about encouraging a passion for books and reading, and a love of learning. I have organised festivals of reading, world record reads, teen reading awards, reading days, reading groups and even done the odd thing here or there with writing and writers. And I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.

Like many people who dedicate their time to encouraging reading – librarians, teachers, writers, to name just a few – books and reading have had an an enormous, positive impact on my life. Growing up with just my mum, in a small flat on a big housing estate, with very little money or options, the horizons of life seemed very limited. But my mum had a real love of books and reading that she passed on to me. And it was through books that I got access to a whole wide world of knowledge and experiences that would otherwise have been completely closed to me. Even when my mum passed away when I was in my late teens, books carried on providing a route through life. A path towards university, a Master’s degree, a career, and even to discovering my own identity as a writer.

The value of reading – the knowledge, learning and growth it unlocks in us – is incalculable. The cost of ignorance – the hole that we fall in to when denied the chance to learn and grow – is seen every day on our streets and in our communities. An estimated 1 in 5 adults struggle with reading, and it is no coincidence that those people are also more likely to have worse employment, poorer health, greater chance of mental illness or imprisonment and are likely to die younger. Reading is not just a pleasurable activity for middle class intellectuals, it is a fundamental life skill without which we can not grow and reach our full potential.

It is all too easy to take for granted the access to books and the levels of reading we have achieved in our society. Less than a century ago, very few people were able to access books, and it is only in the last few decades that almost everyone in our society has gained both access to books and the chance to develop a real passion for reading and for learning. It is also easy to be complacent about this achievement, and forget that without continual effort, we could easily lose the schools, libraries and other social institutions that have opened reading to everyone.

Everybody’s Reading is really a very tiny drop in an ocean of work needed to support and develop reading culture, but it’s a drop I’m quite proud of. If you are in Leicester or nearby, then I hope to see you at one of the many great events during the festival.