Category Archives: Writing Journal

The minimalist worldbuildng of Diana Wynne-Jones

Guest blogger Jean Lee explores the world-building of Diana Wynne-Jones. The classic British children’s author was a master of creating fantasy world’s because she knew when to keep it minimal.

Learn more about the inner workings of storytelling with the Rhetoric of Story.

My grandfather adored the study of little things and how they worked. His rough but steady hands handled sheet metal in the day and models at night. I still have the windjammer he built from scrap metal, a glorious creation nearly 3ft high with metal strands for rigging and tiny port holes. He often wished he had gone into watch work. I can imagine him before a worktable covered with cogs and pins, spirals and screws, all vital to the watch’s creation.

“Any part that halts the story’s inner workings does not belong.”

Stories are very much like watches. Any character, detail, plot point—all are necessary to serve the story. When the watch has just the right number of parts, it will function. Too many will clog its workings, making it useless.

Yet it’s so tempting, isn’t it? We want readers to fully appreciate the craftsmanship. Surely they can only do that if we use every. Single. Part. So we cram it all in: the ill-sized versions that helped us find the proper fit. The duplicates, the broken. And rather than a working piece of beauty, we finish with a monstrosity of parts appreciated by no one.


Diana Wynne Jones proves one does not need to overload a fantasy with world-building for the reader’s sake. Her fantasies for children follow people through various lands, dimensions, and times; of course the setting matters, but it only makes up a few gears in the works. Therefore, her attention to setting is limited strictly to its function within the story. For instance, Howl’s Moving Castle, one of her most well-known stories (also adapted into a film by Studio Ghibli—a marvel in its own right), begins with one of the most succinct bits of world-building one could ever hope to find.

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”

One sentence in, and we already know we’re in a different country where magic is commonplace. We also get a touch of foreshadowing: why would Jones include the cog about being the eldest of three unless it matters? It does: two sentences later we learn the protagonist, Sophie Hatter, is the eldest of three daughters.

51wy1cz212lRecently I finished Drowned Ammet, the second volume in Jones’ Dalemark Quartet. Surely her epic fantasy spanning centuries would have loads more world-building, yes? Well, she does include a map. That’s different. But her sparse world-building style continues here, too. Take this first line.

“People may wonder how Mitt came to join in the Holand Sea Festival, carrying a bomb, and what he thought he was doing.”

So, we have a sea culture, and some level of technology. As the story continues, we learn there is unrest due to the extreme divide between rich and poor. Jones doesn’t take time to describe the slums, the currency, or the weapons. She gives us whatever makes sense at the time for Mitt to learn. It’s Mitt’s story. The story needs what he needs. No other parts required.

I find myself at the worktable now, parts strewn about the story’s frame. So damn small…and yet, one protagonist takes in only so much: that which she needs to complete herself. Jones has shown me that any world-building detail must serve a function in the protagonist’s experience; one cannot throw a handful of cogs in for “background,” or “context.” Any part that halts the story’s inner workings does not belong.

That is why stories such as Jones’ still run flawlessly today.

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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books in preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children. Learn more at:

Doctor Strange : Nope, Buddhism won’t give you magic powers


It’s a familiar story by now. A straight white male – and it almost always is a straight white male – is living a kind of ordinary life when BAM! Events transpire that send Mr. Straight White Male on an epic adventure through which he gains Incredible Powers of magic and / or kung-fu. Star Wars? The Matrix? Every goddamn “Heroes Journey” narrative ever written. And now here we are again, with Doctor Strange.

“And it’s definitely not magic. Quite the opposite, Buddhism teaches its students to engage with the reality of the here and now.”

At some point our Straight-White-Male-Hero-Destined-To-Master-KungFu ends up studying with someone who looks a lot like a Buddhist monk, in something a lot like a Buddhist temple. Because, as we all know, Buddhism IS the gateway to to an altered perception of reality that unleashes powers of magic / kung-fu, right? Doctor Strange literally travels to Tibet (Nepal in the movie, because, you know, Hollywood doesn’t want to alienate the Chinese market) where he meets the “Ancient One” (who in the movie is randomly CELTIC, see above reason) who inducts him into House Gryffindor, so he can fight the evil Slytherin menace. Oh wait, getting my magical induction stories confused.

It’s all great. I love the Doctor Strange movie, and I’m a sucker for this kind of story. But then I (mostly) conform to its demographic targeting. And I love the more recent twist of having a really cute straight white woman in the lead role, although I’m honestly not sure this is as radical a demographic shift as is sometimes claimed. I’d like to see more dowdy middle aged protagonists go on magical adventures. They’re the ones, I think, who really need it.

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But can we please clear something up here? BUDDHISM IS NOT THE GATEWAY TO SECRET MAGICAL POWERS. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of hours you spend in meditation, you’ll never be able to summon power from other dimensions, conjure cool looking glowing sigils with wavy hand movements, or indulge in the joys of astral projection. Got it?


“Oh Damo!” I hear one of you sigh, “You’re just taking this all too seriously! Nobody believes Buddhism can REALLY give them magical powers. Any more than they believe they can really upload their mind into a computer to achieve immortality! Oh, wait, loads of people do actually believe that…” As, in fact, do many people really genuinely believe Buddhism will give them magic powers. And much as I would like to blame this on Hollywood, it’s a much, much older problem.

While I’m lucky not to have had my hands crushed in an automobile accident, my own life took me into the Himalayan mountains, to study at the Buddhist temples in Dharamsala. I’ve been a student of Buddhism for eight years now. I stepped out of a successful, creative career – that was killing me incrementally – and Buddhism was part of what helped me transition to a different kind of life. Now I live in Thailand, a Buddhist nation, to study Theravada Buddhism. In 2015 I travelled across India, to the capital of the Tibetan government in exile, and home of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, to study Mahayana Buddhism.

That’s my path. No doubt, if enough people read this, somebody will crop up who’s all like “Well I went to Nepal and I TOTALLY learned how to do hand wavy magic stuff you just got the wrong brand of Buddha Damo the cheap stuff without the MAGIC” and OK, fine, I have met some of those people. They are welcome to their beliefs. And you can have those arguments within Buddhist circles, they’re absolutely part of the dialectic learning process Buddhist teaching guides students through.  Because from some angles, Buddhism can seem quite magical. Which is why it’s important to remember that it isn’t.

When the Buddha was asked about things like magic powers, he always had the same reply. And he got asked a lot. India of 2500 years ago, around when it’s believed the Buddha lived, was a melting pot of every kind of spiritual belief you can think of. Spiritual teachers made a good living wandering the land, giving out all kinds of teachings, with the secrets of magical powers among them. And the Buddha spent years of his life studying these paths, before eventually arriving at the Middle Way described in Buddhism. So when people asked about gaining magical powers, the Buddha would simply say, that’s not what Buddha teaches. Buddha only teaches the way out of suffering. (Buddha talks about himself a lot in the third person. I know, right?)

Essential Doctor Strange Volume 1. Guess how much?

Doctor Stephen Strange is seeking a way out of suffering. After his hands are shattered, he wants a cure. And most people who come to Buddhism are suffering. It might be a terrible illness. It might be depression. It almost certainly centers on some kind of loss. Loss of power, loss of status, loss of love. All of Buddhist teaching resolves down to the question of suffering, and how best to deal with it. And of course, gaining magical super-powers is a SUPERB way of dealing with suffering. Woosh! Just wave your magic wand and the cause of suffering is fixed! Except when it isn’t. Which is most of the time. One of the reasons I like the Doctor Strange movie is because it doesn’t let the character off the hook that easily. Strange has to accept that his hands will never truly recover. He has to accept his suffering.

The acceptance of suffering is, as best as I can express it, the starting point of Buddhism. You really have lost your job. You really do have a broken arm. You really have lost the person you love. From that acceptance, the pain might transform to something else. Or you might have to accept that it’s going to stay a long time, maybe for your whole life. It’s not easy. Nobody can do it without great attention. And it’s definitely not magic. Quite the opposite, Buddhism teaches its students to engage with the reality of the here and now, as deeply and fully as they possibly can. Which is why there’s a great irony, and no small danger, in how the entertainment industry constantly makes Buddhism a gateway to magic, fantasy and escapism.

But. If we can remember that magic is just a metaphor, a way of talking about things we can’t talk about literally, then like all myths, it can be very useful to think about. The Doctor Strange movie works so well because it’s aware of its own metaphorical meanings, in a way that a story like the vomit inducingly awful Batman vs Superman never even came close to being. If you find the time to see Doctor Strange, I hope you’ll tell me what those wonderfully woven magical metaphors meant to you. I’d love to know!

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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.)


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: I’ll get to as many as I can.

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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.


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.


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.

Storytellers are hackers. The system we’re breaking into is human consciousness

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 gets 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.

Humanity OS

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The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall is a book about how we came to underestimate story. The thing poets have always known, 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.

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Transrealism: the first major literary movement of the 21st century?

It’s not science fiction, it’s not realism, but hovers in the unsettling zone in between. From Philip K Dick to Stephen King, Damien Walter takes a tour through transrealism, the emerging genre aiming to kill off ‘consensus reality’

A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K Dick’s most famous but also most divisive novels. Written in 1973 but not published until 1977, it marks the boundary between PKD’s mid-career novels that were clearly works of science fiction, including The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and his late-career work that had arguably left that genre behind. Like VALIS and The Divine Invasion that followed it, A Scanner Darkly was two stories collided into one – a roughly science-fictional premise built around a mind-destroying drug, and a grittily realistic autobiographical depiction of PKD’s time living among drug addicts.

“Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic.”

It is also, in the thinking of writer, critic and mathematician Rudy Rucker, the first work of a literary movement he would name “transrealism” in his 1983 essay A Transrealist Manifesto. Three decades later, Rucker’s essay has as much relevance to contemporary literature as ever. But while Rucker was writing at a time when science fiction and mainstream literature appeared starkly divided, today the two are increasingly hard to separate. It seems that here in the early 21st century, the literary movement Rucker called for is finally reaching its fruition.

Transrealism argues for an approach to writing novels routed first and foremost in reality. It rejects artificial constructs like plot and archetypal characters, in favour of real events and people, drawn directly from the author’s experience. But through this realist tapestry, the author threads a singular, impossibly fantastic idea, often one drawn from the playbook of science fiction, fantasy and horror. So the transrealist author who creates a detailed and realistic depiction of American high-school life will then shatter it open with the discovery of an alien flying saucer that confers super-powers on an otherwise ordinary young man.

It’s informative to list a few works that do not qualify as transrealism to understand Rucker’s intent more fully. Popular fantasy or science fiction stories like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games lack a strong enough reality to be discussed as transrealism. Apparently realistic narratives that sometimes contain fantastic elements, like the high-tech gizmos of spy thrillers, also fail as transrealism because their plots and archetypal characters are very far from real. Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic, for a very specific purpose, that seems to have become tremendously relevant for contemporary readers.

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The potential list of transrealist authors is both contentious and fascinating. Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale and her novels from Oryx and Crake onwards. Stephen King, when at his best describing the lives of blue-collar America shattered by supernatural horrors. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, among other big names of American letters. Iain Banks in novels like Whit and The Bridge. JG Ballard, as one of many writers originating from the science-fiction genre to pioneer transrealist techniques. Martin Amis in Time’s Arrow, among others.

This proliferation of the fantastic in contemporary fiction has at times been described as the “mainstreaming of science fiction”. But sci-fi continues on much as it ever has, producing various escapist fantasies for readers who want time out from reality. And of course there’s no shortage of purely realist novels populating Booker prize lists and elsewhere. Both sci-fi and realism provide a measure of comfort – one by showing us the escape hatch from mundane reality, the other by reassuring us the reality we really upon is fixed, stable and unchanging. Transrealism is meant to be uncomfortable, by telling us that our reality is at best constructed, at worst non-existent, and allowing us no escape from that realisation.

“Transrealism is a revolutionary art form. A major tool in mass thought-control is the myth of consensus reality. Hand in hand with this myth goes the notion of a ‘normal person’.” Rucker’s formulation of transrealism as revolutionary becomes especially meaningful when compared to the uses transrealism is put to by the best of its practitioners. Atwood, Pynchon and Foster-Wallace all employed transrealist techniques to challenge the ways that “consensus reality” defined who was normal and who was not, from the political oppression of women to the spiritual death inflicted on us all by modern consumerism.

Today transrealism underpins much of the most radical and challenging work in contemporary literature. Colson Whitehead’s intelligent dissection of the underpinnings of racism in The Intuitionist and his New York Times transrealist twist on the zombie-apocalypse novel, Zone One. Monica Byrne’s hallucinatory road-trip across the future of the developing world and the lives of women caught between poverty and high-speed technological change in The Girl in the Road. Matt Haig’s compulsive young adult novel The Humans, which invites the reader to see human life through alien eyes. Transrealism has 30 years of history behind it, but it’s in the next 30 years that it may well define literature as we come to know it.

Originally published by The Guardian.

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Write better sci-fi stories with this simple idea

When high-falutin people talk about sci-fi you’ll often hear them use words like novum and the like. Critic and academic Darko Suvin came up with novum to describe the…thing…at the heart of every sci-fi story that makes it sci-fi. Androids hiding as humans! A world populated by talking apes! A portal that leads to every possible world! These are all novum of a kind.

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The problem. And it’s a pretty big problem, at least if you’re a jobbing sci-fi author who would like to get read (and hence paid). The problem is that your novum, even when it sounds mighty interesting, is actually boring. There, I said it, novums are fucking insanely dull!

“something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being”

But but BUT Damo! A portal that leads to every possible world sounds really interesting! What did I just say? It SOUNDS interesting. But if it’s actually going to BE interesting for your audience, the novum has to do something much more than just sit around being a cool idea.

All stories, not just sci-fi tales, contain something like a novum. The Oscar winning 1979 movie Kramer vs Kramer isn’t even slightly sci-fi. But the film still has a novum…a couple go through a difficult divorce. But the divorce is only the surface, exterior level of the story. It provides the framework for the much more important story happening on the interior level, as Dustin Hoffman’s character has to finally grow up and take responsibility for home and family. It’s not details of divorce proceedings that make Kramer vs Kramer compelling, it’s the inner human journey, the EMOTIONAL journey, that the audience are captured by.

How hard do I have to argue to persuade you that a story that’s actually about divorce proceedings, with long detailed speeches from lawyer characters about the details of marriage contract law, will be quite boring? Then why would a story about a portal that connects all world’s, with achingly long monologues by competent scientists on the details of multiverse physics, be any more interesting? If the story is about its novum, it’s going to bore the hell out of people, because the novum is only intellectually interesting.

Humans are creatures of emotion. And stories are powered by our hunger for emotional experience. The problem – the HUGE problem – for science fiction is that it wants to dispense with emotion and deal only with the intellectual. And so it obsesses over novums, concepts, ideas, explanation and other intellectual modes. And that leads to stories that might be interesting, but are never compelling.

What’s the solution? Remember the portal that connects all worlds? If you find that, or another novum interesting, it’s because something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being. Spend some time sitting with your emotional response to the novum that inspire you. A portal that connects all worlds might give those who step into it the chance to be all people. That’s the seed of an emotional experience. Let it grow, and it might one day shiver your audience’s soul.

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Damien Walter’s Extra Special Blog EXTRAVGANZA

My blog turned 10 years old earlier this year, and is barrelling towards it’s 1000th post (this is post 990). To celebrate this cornucopia of anniversaries, I’m announcing the next week will be dedicated to an EXTRAVAGANZA of blog posts. Here’s some of what to expect!

I’ve never restricted my blog to being about any one thing. I write a lot about sci-fi. I post thoughts on writing practice as I learn more. Now and again I comment on politics, and where geek culture meets political life. I write about life as a digital nomad. My blog reflects my passions, and over time of course, those change.

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