Category Archives: Writing Journal

The Targaryen queen did NOT go mad

Daenerys did not go mad.

What she did was totally sane and rational.

It’s what America did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hence the imagery, which deliberately evoke nuclear destruction.

Demonstrate the capacity for huge violence, to take complete power.

 

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Zizek vs Peterson : why didn’t they fight?

It was billed as the “debate of the century”, but on the night Zizek vs Peterson turned into more of a love-in than a street brawl. In this new era of Intellectual MMA, who will be the Ultimate Debating Champion?

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Mindfulness will fuck you up

Mindfulness is part of a demanding meditative path that suits only a few people. There are better ways to be happier.

I don’t recommend getting an arm cast for a bad tooth, taking ibuprofen for stomach ache, or treating a broken leg with herbal remedies. To each illness, the correct treatment.

In today’s age of the “mindfulness app”, it’s become a common place belief that mindfulness meditation can help with the common problems of stress, anxiety and depression.

While breathing exercises can help us relax, the longterm “positive” benefits of mindfulness are often a form of numbing. The meditation becomes another form of distraction, like drinking a bottle of wine, or watching Netflix. Sooner or later the stress, anxiety and depression creep back in.

But our intuition that these are, at least in part, spiritual maladies, seems right. It’s our spirit, not our body, that seems to be in pain. But there are spiritual paths that are likely to help us much more than the tough practices of mindfulness meditations like Vipassana.

“Our inner landscape is not a placid lake, but a raging hurricane, that mindfulness unleashes.”

The word “yoga” comes from the word “yoke”. The way a yoke joins a cow to a plough is the way a yoga path joins your body and spirit. The are many yogas, many paths, and hardcore meditation may not be the path for you.

Bakthi yoga is a path of loving devotion. Find the people in your life in need of love and give it to them. Devote yourself to a higher cause. Depression doesn’t survive this kind of treatment for long.

Ashtanga yoga is a path of embodiment. Place yourself in a difficult physical pose and watch how your body responds. Stress can’t prosper if you’re rooted in your body, it being a being of the mind.

Tantric yoga is a path of experience. Getting married? Going bankrupt? Making love? Facing hatred? Whatever experience you are in, learn to be in it fully and completely. It’s a tricky practice, but anxiety, just another name for fear, disappears like shadows exposed to the light.

Within yoga practices, what we commonly think of as mindfulness is an aspect of Raja yoga. It’s central to the Buddhist practice of Vipassana or Insight meditation. It’s the path of the Buddha theirself, although many of the meditation practices taught today are much later creations.

Vipassana is a remarkably hard path. It suits people who are highly conceptual, who think in abstractions, and are rooted in their mind. It can, potentially, cut through all the fetters of of material existence. But it will be accompanied with intense mental anguish, as the delusions of life are stripped away. And it can easily become a trap. The meditator becomes so enamoured of the insights they have learned that, like a satellite orbiting a planet but never landing, we miss that the insights we seek  are right there in plain sight.

A partial Vipassana practice, which is what is most often taught as “mindfulness”, can open up sources of stress, anxiety and depression that the new meditator might then struggle to resolve. It can, please pardon the language, fuck us up. Our inner landscape is not a placid lake, but a raging hurricane, that mindfulness unleashes.

I talk in more depth about some of the pitfalls of mindfulness meditation on my YouTube channel. Please subscribe for new talks, and back me on Patreon to help me put more time into writing.

The highest art of story?

Premiere! Read on for details.

After five years teaching creative writing at universities, and a decade leading writing workshops in schools, libraries, prisons, care homes and more, I saw a problem in how we teach writing.

The Rhetoric of Story is my answer to that problem. Across seven lectures I layout my best understanding of how story works. The course took me a year to create, and years to research.

Since I first published Rhetoric of Story I have gathered over 13,000 online writing students across Udemy and Skillshare. It’s a great honour and I’ve been happy to help so many people, in more than 140 countries, develop as writers.

Overwhelmingly, my students agree that the final talk in the Rhetoric of Story is the most powerful. I’ve been gradually making the talks available on my YouTube channel. The final talk, on Emotion: The Highest Art of Storytelling, will “premiere” there on Sunday 3rd March at 14:00 GMT.

The entire course will be free on YouTube for one week after Sunday. Then it will be available at specific dates and for all students enrolled in my RoS seminar groups.

I want to make all my teaching available free on YouTube. You can help me achieve that goal by subscribing to my channel, or becoming a sponsor on Patreon.

Five years. 555 runs. Five Lessons.

From zero experience, to three 10k runs a week, then back down to a regular 5k distance, running has changed my life. And taught me some valuable lessons.

It’s coming up for five years since I left the UK and began “digital nomading”. This time has been occupied with two stories, building my writing practice, and learning more about Buddhism. I write about both of those topics now and again. This is an essay about a third story I don’t mention so often.

In early 2012 I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (The answer, incidentally, is writing) and was inspired to buy some Nikes and try running. I don’t remember loving it, and those early runs were often only a few hundred metres.

“I don’t know about your mind, but my mind is the biggest barrier between me, and me getting things done.”

Just before I left the UK I bought my first pair of “barefoot” Merrell trail runners. In my first test run (on a treadmill) I was awed by how much more interesting running became when I could feel the ground under my toes. The Merrell’s were also lightweight for the single, carry-on backpack that I am, five years layer, still travelling with. They quickly became a centre-piece of my new minimal existence.

Early in my travels I fell in love with the city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. I stayed there for fifteen months on my first visit, and it was in CM that running really became part of my life. Freelancing full time meant I could set my own schedule, and mid-afternoons, as the Thai heat abated towards sunset, became running time.

Chiang Mai has a leafy, labyrinthine university campus where I love to run. Further out of town is the Huay Kaew reservoir where it’s possible to do a 10km circuit. There’s also the Moat Run, a 6km circuit around the city’s square moat road, negotiating crazy traffic and angry tuk tuk drivers all the way.

I did my first 10km run in Chiang Mai, and was so shocked to complete the distance that I spent the next hour lying in the shade wondering if my legs would ever work again. At one point I was running 5 to 7km daily with one or two 10km every week. It was too much, my weight plummeted so far that my 30″ waist jeans were falling off. I made a conscious decision to gear down the runs and replace them with weights, and at the time of writing have regained the lost muscle mass and added a bit more.

Today I hit my 555th run. An auspicious number in my 5th year of running. These are some lessons I’ve taken from the experience of running. Like Mr Murakami, when I talk about running, I’m also talking about something else. For me, running has been transformative, both body and soul. So these lessons are, in part, my reflections on how transformations happen.

Buy good tools.
I have often carried a poverty mentality through life. Given the option, I’ll tend to go for the budget solution to a problem. I think, with the things in life that matter, this is a mistake. I would never have run 555 runs in my squishy Nike trainers. My Merrel running shoes made all those runs much more enjoyable, and safer, I’ve had one minor injury in five years. Of course, there are all kinds of excessive and unneccesary things sold to runners, but when it comes to essential tools for any activity, I will always buy good ones now.

Quantify progress.
Nike didn’t win me with their trainers, but I have to thank them for the wonderful Nike running app, the reason I can look back and see my progress over five years. Being able to see how far and how fast I’ve run is really integral to my motivation. I like the satisfaction of hitting the 5k mark, and logging my minimum 3 runs a week. Every Sunday I take part in the Nike Global 5k race, with millions of people worldwide. Quality is important for running, as for any experience, you should enjoy the process first. But being able to quantify that process, whether it’s metres run or words written, is also a big help.

Habit is everything.
I wind down my work day about 4pm and usually run at 5. I’m lucky, of course, that I can do this as a freelancer. I’ve always found that time of day difficult, and commonly “slump” into negative thinking in the afternoon. Or did, until running replaced that old bad habit with a new good one. Habit, I believe, is everything when it comes to change. If it’s your habit to write for 3 hours a day, you’ll write great things. Anything you want to achieve, to change, or to stop in life, will be made easier or even possible at all, by thinking through the habits that feed it. It would take a lot, a real lot, to make me let go of my running habit. I’ll be 80 and on sticks, but I’ll still find a way to hobble for some distance.

Where is my mind?
I listen while I run. Music of course, but I also love good audiobooks and podcasts. I’ve learned more about Buddhism from audio recordings of dharma teachings than I have sitting in temples! And I’ve learned more about meditating from running than from sitting on a cushion. I listen because I want to keep my mind from worrying about feeling tired. I don’t know about your mind, but my mind is the biggest barrier between me, and me getting things done. My mind throws tantrums, declares defeat, cries exhaustion at the first drop of sweat. When I’m running I keep part of my mind present in the run, while distracting a different part with interesting stories and ideas. My mind is always happy to have run, so once I was able to train it to get out of the way and let my body take care of the actual running, it became much more positive about the whole endeavour.

Do what you can.
I’m not a fast runner. I average 6:30 per km. My fastest 5km is 24:30 but I’m usually well over minutes. If I held myself to the standards of competition runners I would always be failing. But by the standards needed to improve my own physical and mental health, I win every day. As a professional writer, I hold myself to standards of productivity I that would be completely counterproductive for anybody who didn’t make their living in the field. One of the quickest ways to kill any positive activity is to set lofty goals we will always fail at. I’ve done this so often in life, it feels like an achivement in itself just to value steady progress.

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The pro-writer’s guide to Upwork and Fiverr

Lots of people dream of building a pro career that also feeds their creativity. Online freelance platforms can be a big part of making that happen, IF you know how to profit from them.

I was surprised and more than a little honored to look at my Fiverr profile last month and discover I was the number 1 rated professional writer in Articles and Blog Posts. Along with the 100% Top Rated status I’ve had on Upwork for the last year and a half, that gives me a pretty good claim to being the number 1 writer on the internet!

Hyperbole aside, I thought it would be helpful for many of the writers I work with to put together a short course on how I use these platforms. I use online freelance platforms as part of my digital nomadic life. But I’m very careful to use them as a tool to feed my larger creative practice, which I think is key to using them successfully.

You can watch the full hour long interview on Udemy, using course code LANCETEN.

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The key to writing a great short story

All great stories have momentum.

Every line of a great joke is building up to its punchline. Every scene of an action move is screaming towards the final fight. Every beat of a stage tragedy is building tension to the revelation of a flawed character.

The literary short story, made famous by authors from Anton Chekhov to Alice Munro, contains a singular element that powers its momentum.

Epiphany.

 

“Derived from the Greek word epiphaneia, epiphany means appearance, or manifestation. In literary terms, an epiphany is that moment in the story where a character achieves realization, awareness, or a feeling of knowledge, after which events are seen through the prism of this new light in the story.”

LiteraryDevices.net

“It probably has a million definitions. It’s the occurrence when the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul focus together and see an old thing in a new way.”

Maya Angelou.

“The soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant, and may be manifested through any chance, word, or gesture.”

James Joyce.

Taking a deep dive into the literary technique of epiphany, and laying out what what I learn along the way, has made me realise just how central the idea is to all forms of storytelling.

One of the biggest challenges in storytelling is illustrating the internal transformations of characters. The journeys that human beings take, from innocence to experience, from victim to villain, from outsider to hero, and thousands more, are the stuff of great stories. And epiphany is the key to illustrating those journeys in your stories.

Follow my creative process for writing a short story with epiphany.

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The thematic genius of Iain M Banks

I spent years searching, after I first read the Culture novels of Iain M Banks, for other space opera novels that equalled them. And this is what I discovered.

Nothing else in the space opera genre even comes close to the Culture. Nothing. Zip. Nada.

As Theodore Sturgeon said, 90% of everything is crap. But as a young reader I wondered why, with all these books marketed as space opera, did none read like the Culture?

The answer is – theme.

Science fiction tends to obsess over concepts, but almost entirely ignore themes. Scifi is full of big ideas about the nature of reality or the physics of space travel. But scifi that deals with the basic themes of human life is a rare, rare thing.

Banks was a genius at weaving high concept scifi stories together with great thematic depth. In my new video essay for the Technology of Fiction I look at the opening chapter of what is, arguably, Banks’ most thematically complex novel – Excession.

Read the full novel – Excession by Iain M Banks

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The top 5 Iain M Banks novels

Over three decades after they were first published, the Culture novels of Iain M Banks are more popular than ever.

Our first image of Iain M Banks’s Culture universe is a man drowning in sewage: a stark precedent for what was to come. And 30 years after its first publication, Consider Phlebas remains a novel grimily opposed to the shiny rocketships and derring-do of most space opera. Banks broke the genre apart, and with a little inspiration from M John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin (and some outright theft from Larry Niven), he created a series of space opera novels that remains unmatched.

But for all his mastery of high-octane action sequences, and the sheer invention of his Big Dumb Objects, Banks’s science fiction – credited to M Banks, his literary fiction going without the middle initial – has lasted because of his deft balance of galactic scope with human-scale stories. Stories of loss, grief, rebirth and self-discovery are the core of the best Culture novels. He did not write sci-fi and literary novels – he was a master of storytelling that combined both.

These are my top five Culture novels, but I could have included at least five more. I’d put Use of Weapons at six, which might perplex fans of Banks at his most gung-ho. Seven would be short-story collection The State of the Art, which contains only brief glimpses of the Culture. Matter (eight), Inversions (nine) and Surface Detail (10) all have their own strengths, but lack the genius of Banks at his best – which I think you’ll find here:

 

 

 

Five: The Hydrogen Sonata
The final published Culture novel was a return to top form for Banks. The Gzilt are ready to “sublime” to the the next plane of existence. But first some old scores must be settled. It’s the most openly satirical of all Banks’s SF novels, offering an angry critique of “third-way” liberal leaders like Tony Blair. But the star of the show is the Mistake Not, a Culture ship of “non-standard” type IE packing lots of high-level weaponry. It shows exactly how tough the utopian Culture can be.

Four: Excession
Minds – sentient thinking computers – are the secret stars of the Culture novels, but here they take centre stage. What do virtually immortal, super intelligent AIs do for fun? Among other things they play out decades-long plots to topple less developed, more barbaric civilisations. But even Minds sometimes run up against opponents they can’t outwit. Featuring the Affront, a race literally named for how outrageously evil they are, this is Banks at his most playful, comedic and inventive.

Three: Consider Phlebas
After almost drowning the hero in sewage in it’s opening scene, the first published Culture novel goes on a rip roaring killing spree across the major sights of the Banksian universe. Space pirates, ringworlds, cannibal cultists, a lethal card game, and a Planet of the Dead… the Culture is shown through the eyes of those who hate and fear this machine lead society, creating by far the darkest of all Banks’s science fiction writing.

Two: The Player of Games
Both a love poem to the joy of game play, and a warning against the psychology of the game player, the story of the Culture’s best gameplayer, who is on a quest to compete against an alien society where games decide real world hierarchies, is the most complete and accessible book in the Culture series. This makes it a good starting point for the Iain M Banks neophyte, and also the first book I recommend to non-science fiction readers curious about the genre.

One: Look to Windward
I suspect that Look To Windward was Iain Banks showing off at the peak of his talents – and what a great show it is. The meddling Culture have accidentally set off a caste war in a civilisation they were trying to liberate. A young, high born officer, maimed in battle and broken by grief, is manipulated to commit a terrorist attack in revenge against the Culture. Meanwhile, an exiled composer creates a symphony to mark the light of an ancient super-nova, seen at two points and six centuries apart, by the immortal Mind who blew the star up. The fact that half the cast are six limbed tiger-like predators somehow only adds to the poetry. Look to Windward is where Banks’s interleaving of science fiction imagery, and literary themes,reaches it’s own symphonic climax, making it not just the greatest Culture novel, but perhaps the greatest ever science fiction novel.

Science Fiction vs SciFi vs SF: what is the true definition?

If there’s one thing science fiction fans love, it’s an argument. And if there’s one argument they love more than all others, it’s the attempt to define what science fiction actually is, and what is or isn’t included in that definition.

Join the discussion SciFi & Fantasy on Facebook.

In perhaps the all time most fiercely contested fight over an acronym ever, fans have been declaring sides on the Science Fiction vs SciFi vs SF debate for almost five decades. But, I hear the still sane among you declare, what does this even mean? And why should you care?

For the ever growing army of writers, bloggers, editors, critics, academics and just plain old obsessive fans of this thing that may (or may not) be called sci-fi, there is at least some method in this madness. Each name and definition reveals a different aspect of the immense creativity sheltering within sci-fi. Or SF. Or whatever the hell it’s called!

So, here is a brief glossary of the various competing definitions of sci-fi. Much of this may reveal some bias on my part, so please feel free to correct me where I have strayed from the facts as you understand them.

Science fiction n by the late 1930s, stories featuring space rockets and robots had been around in the pages of pulp magazines for a long time. It was then that influential editor John W Campbell hit upon the brilliant marketing strategy of calling these stories “science fiction”, thereby claiming a veneer of scientific credibility for the genre. The idea stuck, and is the reason many readers now insist science fiction must be based on real science.

Hard SF n not satisfied with claiming scientific credibility, many writers of made-up stories further distinguish their work by only making up stories based on ideas drawn from the hard sciences. In particular, physics. Unless, that is, they happen to need a faster-than-light engine to transport characters across the universe, in which case they just ignore physics all together. See also aliens, time travel etc.

Sci-fi n Star Wars made “sci-fi” big business. But for many, it is not true science fiction because it has no basis in science. In fact, most of what the general public thinks of as science fiction is viewed with some disdain by core science fiction fans, who dismiss it as “sci-fi” or “skiffy”. Sci-fi became an early catch all term for many related things, like video games and RPGs, that are now more often called Geek or Nerd Culture.

SF abbreviation because science fiction fans didn’t like “sci-fi”, they started abbreviating what they did like to “SF”. Pronounced “ess eff”, not “sniff”. Because no one knows what SF means, writers and fans are forever telling people it means “science fiction” before then correct people when they say, “Oh, you mean sci-fi,” which tends to annoy both parties. If someone says “I read / write SF” you know you’re talking to a true believer.

Speculative fiction n now things get complicated. Because lots of science fiction writers don’t actually have any science in their SF, they call it “speculative fiction” instead. To make matters worse, even though it’s specifically not science fiction, speculative fiction likewise gets abbreviated to SF. This has also become the default term for literary writers who want to write fiction with science in it, but without calling it science fiction.

So, to recap. Science fiction is a genre consisting of made-up stories with science in. Unless the stories are sci-fi, which doesn’t have science but is what most people think of as science fiction. Unless it’s called SF, of course, which most people think means “San Francisco”. Or speculative fiction, which is what posh people call sci-fi.

Phew! Right, now then.

Fantasy n (‘fæntsi) one solution would be to say that, because all these stories are primarily made-up or imagined by the writer, they are all kinds of fantasy. Problem is, because of JRR Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, most people think “fantasy” refers to stories with elves in. They therefore get confused if the word is also used to talk about stories with rockets in. Fantastika has been mooted, mostly by the critic John Clute, as an altertive catch all term, but sounds a little too much like a really good curry

I could continue with definitions of cyberpunk, steampunk, weird fiction, horror, urban fantasy, new weird, new wave … the list goes on. They’re all part of what makes [insert preferred collective noun] such an oddball and fascinating community to be part of, and create stories in.

But I did say there was method in this madness. Boil this insanely complex and largely pointless argument down to its essentials, and you arrive at something quite interesting. Is it enough for a story to be purely the product of its creator’s imagination? Or should a story instead be extrapolated from an external, rational and scientifically provable truth? In a world starkly divided between reason and fantasy, it’s an intriguing question to ask.

Originally pubished in The Guardian.

Yes, The Bible is science fiction

There’s a theory of education called “learning thresholds” which I wrote about for my post-grad certificate, back when I was treading the academic path. It’s an idea I use widely in my professional life today, for reasons I’ll get to.

A learning threshold is a point on a learning curve where a paradigm shift in thinking is required. Not only do you have to learn new knowledge to cross the threshold, but you have to accept that the new knowledge alters or invalidates most of your old knowledge.

“Christian mythology gave us a millenia or so of cultural dark ages. I wonder sometimes if scifi mythology will be even worse.”

Examples of learning thresholds:

  • the shift from Newtonian to quantum physics.
  • the concept of object oriented programming.
  • use of perspective in image making.

As an educator, learning thresholds are a very useful way of understanding where studemts will struggle, or even rebel. It takes a high degree of ego control from a student to admit that knowledge they hold is “wrong”. Not all students cross the threshold.

As a writer and journalist, learning thresholds tell me where the attention of my readers is. For instance, if I write about how Donald Trump uses socialist ideas to appeal to his voters, I’m hitting a learning threshold. The idea is true, but quite contrary to the more simplistic idea of Trumpism many folks hold.

We’re compelled to debate learning thresholds, as a way to cross into deeper understanding of the issue. Many people will insist the idea is wrong, “TRUMP’S NO SOCIALIST!” But if the idea was simply wrong, it would just be ignored. It’s because it represents a learning threshold that we give it our attention.

 

What are the learning threshold’s for science fiction?

On one level, science fiction is a genre of entertainment media, that tells stories with sciencey bits. Space rockets! Robowarriors! Hyperdrives! It’s a Will Smith movie you watch on Netflix, or an Arthur C Clarke novel you loaned out from the library when you were ten. Billions of people engage with scifi, and most don’t need to know any more than this.

But, if you start to dig more deeply into science fiction, especially if you start to think about making it, you’re going to encounter another way of thinking about scifi. Like all threshold concepts, it’s an idea that can only really be grasped if you’re willing to let go of your old understanding.

Science fiction is our modern mythology.

I’m not going to argue the case for scifi as mythology here. You’re either on it, and you’ve read Tolkien on mythopoeia and the other arguments in favour, or it’s an idea you’re not ready for. That’s the nature of learning thresholds – you have to cross them, nobody else can do it for you.

But I will look at some of the reasons why the idea hits resistance:

  1. It requires an expert knowledge of mythology. Myths aren’t nonsense stories from the past. They were the formational narratives of the cultures that our culture evolved from.
  2. If scifi is a mythology, it’s doing a lot more than entertaining us. Consider the strange, outright cult like obsession that follows The Matrix. Swallowing the Red Pill has become the 21st century equivalent of seeking redemption by eating the flesh of Christ the Saviour.
  3. Future humans will almost certainly look back on our mythology of space craft, aliens and warp drives as just as crazily wrong as all the mythologies that came before it.

 

Will we one day worship the Best Science Fiction of The Year anthologies?

My recent list of “scifi novels to rewire your consciousness” got the same comment about 200 times on various forums where it was posted.

What’s the Bible doing on a scifi list? What’s the Bhagavad Gita doing on a scifi list?

If you’re asking that question, and especially if you’re angry or confused by it, you’re standing at the threshold of a deeper understanding of scifi. If it seems totally obvious to you, congrats, you already passed to the next level. Ten years ago I was studyng scifi writing at Clarion, and even though I knew of the idea, I didn’t really get it.

What I find fascinating, and a little bit terrifying, about scifi as a mythology, is how quickly it’s metastisising into a belief system of religious proportions. It took centuries for a some fantasy stories written by a Mesopotamian princess to be raised into a the holy text of the Abrahamic religions. In a matter of a few decades scifi has given birth to transhumanism, with a growing army of adherents convinced they have a shot at eternal life in silicon heaven, if they can just make it to the Rapture of the Geeks.

Christian mythology gave us a millenia or so of cultural dark ages. I wonder sometimes if scifi mythology will be even worse.