In the small world of science fiction short stories, Ted Chiang is a superstar. It’s easier to list the major SF awards he hasn’t won than those he has, and he’s equally acclaimed in the broader field of literary short fiction – all for a body of work that could probably fit within half a Game of Thrones novel.
And I have nothing very special to say. I started this blog ten years ago to help me write more. It has done exactly that. So, to all my readers over the years.
Today I’m starting a new journal. 2017 is an exciting year for me, for reasons I can’t share quite yet. But I’ll be charting my creative progress through the year, exclusively for my supporters on Patreon. To kick things off I’m offering SUPER-PATRON level membership for anybody who joins on or before Sunday 13th November. Any level of support will get your name on my Super-Patron page up to and including that date. The first post in the new journal is coming soon.
Just caught the first episode of Westworld. I suspect it’s a show I’ll be writing about more. Some first thoughts, not so much about the show, as about why I think it matters.
Science fiction is the art of metaphor. It gives us ways of thinking and talking about things we can’t otherwise easily talk about. In that regard Westworld is science fiction at it’s best. A metaphor of such cut glass clarity was spun in the first episode that my mind is still turning over where it might go. What is it a metaphor for? Well, if I could say that we wouldn’t need the metaphor, would we?
And we do need metaphors. In fact, we need better ones. The robot / android as a metaphor for human life is a powerful one. It’s not just in Westworld, or movies like Bladerunner. In daily life our culture routinely talks and thinks about human life as being like a machine. We describe the brain as a kind of computer. We treat education like programming that computer. We fix the body by replacing it’s parts. Worse, we treat people like machines. We force ourselves and others into mechanistic processes, especially in the workplace. We don’t fit well into those processes. Because, of course, we aren’t machines at all.
You might be among the people saying, “Damo, Damo, Damo…we are BIOLOGICAL machines, but still ultimately machines”, but that’s not really my point. For a time the machine was the best metaphor we could find for the state of being human. But it’s taken us as far as it can. Wherever you look, you see the limitations of the machine metaphor for life. So we need a new, and more nuanced, metaphor. And that, I think, is what Westworld has joined the struggle to find.
That’s interesting. I’ll catch up with episode 2 during the week, and see what progress it has made.
I like this story in The Independent about China’s plans for a social scoring system.
In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticising the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly, could cause you to lose points. And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are – determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant – or even just get a date.
I also love the implicit suggestion that we don’t already live in a world where a point scoring system determines whether you can get a seat at a restaurant or *gasp* a date. It’s called money, we’ve had it for a few thousand years, and the only people who don’t think about it much are the people who have it.
One of the things about being 1) a writer and 2) a digital nomad, is that I meet a fair few people who have a lot of money. Swiss bank account type money. People whose whole life is spent jetting from one yoga retreat to another. Once you reach the point where you don’t have to think about money, it simply becomes a way of…keeping score. Because that’s all money is, the point scoring system in the weird Game of Life that is modern society.
What is interesting about the Chinese plan, is how very closely it mirrors exactly what is happening already in the online world. We’re already in the mid-phase of replacing money with a new scoring system that’s better adapted to digital life. How many Twitter followers do you have? What’s your business’s score on TripAdvisor? What’s your products star rating on Amazon? And on and on. The internet is made of point scoring systems, of more or less relative value.
A lot of people are upset about Vine closing. The 6 second video sharing app had some dedicated users. Can’t they just share videos elsewhere? Sure. But imagine you had $10,000 in the bank, then the bank just closed. That’s what just happened to Vine users. A big Vine following had a value, and that value just got deleted. Social networks and internet life aren’t just fun and games at this point. The time you spend garnering attention online is an investment. Invest in the wrong things, your time will be wasted.
If this all seems kind of far fetched, perhaps you haven’t being paying attention to what’s happening in our economy now. Consider this thought experiment. Imagine everything in the world is free. Food, cars, holidays, healthcare. All of it, everything you could possibly want, free. In that world, what still has value? It’s the thing that every big brand, every media company, and every kid on YouTube today are all fighting for. Your attention.
The attention economy has been one of those ideas kicking around since the early days of the internet. And now, along with machine learning and self-driving cars, it seems like it’s actually taking form. But I wouldn’t get too excited about it’s utopian possibilities. I very much doubt that extreme poverty will be a major feature of the world a few decades from now. But the kind of micro-managed behavioral shaping emerging in China very much will be. Do you enjoy playing games? Because our emerging future is going to look and feel much like a huge game. With no end. And no way to stop playing.
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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.
Recently 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: http://www.jeanleesworld.com
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.
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?)
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!
My experience, during 6 years teaching creative writing to university students, is that most writers don’t want to do this exercise. To be fair, it’s hard work. But it’s also the single best way I know to develop your skills as a writer, or any other kind of storyteller.
“But Damo,” I hear some folks in the back saying, “Big shots like Stephen King din’t do no structural analysis exercise and look where they is now!” To which I say, actually, Stephen King holds a BA in English Lit, taught English in the classroom, and even suggests this exercise in On Writing. So, there.
In more general terms, writers resist this exercise because it seems to go against the imaginative and intuitive parts of the writing process. A good story is like a great magic trick. As soon as you analyse it, the illusion is destroyed and you’re left with some smoke and a bunch of mirrors. But it’s not your job as a writer to believe the magic, it’s your job to create the illusion.
Think of this exercise as some short term pain in exchange for a lot of long term gain. And isn’t the the definition of exercise? If it was easy, we’d all be running the Boston marathon every year. But we aren’t, because getting really good at anything requires specialised effort and ultra-determination. So for those of you traipsing on the long and winding road towards literary genius, think of this as a deep muscle workout for your skills as a storyteller.
(This is one of the 7 super exercises I set my students on The Rhetoric of Story. Join in! If you have questions about story structure, that’s the place to find the answers.)
EXERCISE 6: STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS
The best way to learn about the structure of anything is to break it apart and then put it back together again. It may not work again, but you’ll learn a vast amount about how it worked. This is as true of stories as anything else.
Step One – choose a story that you know well. I’m going to assume here it’s a novel, but it can be a screen or stage play or any other form of storytelling. It’s important you know it well, or the exercise won’t work.
Step Two – you’re going to be writing a “structural analysis” of this story. It’s important to actually write this, your mind won’t really absorb the detail if you just think about it. Imagine you’ve been commissioned to analyse this story by a publisher. You need to deliver a professional report that captures the detail of this story’s structure.
Step Three – begin from the top level of structure and work your way down. Here are some suggestions for what you might be looking at:
- Top Level
- what are the major parts of the story? Or acts in a screen or stage play? What happens in each?
- who is the protagonist? What do they want?
- who are the major characters? What are their relationships?
- what are the forces of antagonism and how are they manifested?
- what is the dramatic question? How does it manifest as plot?
- 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll get to as many as I can.
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 reality of life as a jobbing writer is that, like anybody running their own business, you have to do a lot of negotiating. Which for writers, all too often, means getting walked over.
The Society highlighted the case of Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon, who has not received any royalties from the television and film adaptations of her Horrid Henry books, despite the series being broadcast in 44 countries with more than 1.5m DVDs sold.
In an article last December, Simon revealed that she was missing out on the royalties because when she sold Orion her first Horrid Henry book in 1993, the book deal included film and television rights. A deal with Novel Entertainment for those rights was subsequently negotiated by Orion. “They did a poor deal. They did not use a lawyer,” wrote Simon in the Author magazine. “Not understanding their proper value led to the worst mistake of my career.”
I have only sympathy for Francesca Simon, and hope the show’s producers do the decent thing and offer her the deal she should have had in the first place. But the sad truth is, writers get stuck in horrible deals all the time. Which is because they don’t abide by the first rule of negotiation.
YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO SAY “NO DEAL”.
As a jobbing freelancer, who has made a living that way for over a decade, I say “No Deal” a lot. My freelance rates are relatively high, and no end of people feel I should be working for less. I always say “No Deal”. Often, people are surprised. They’re not used to writers doing that I guess. I also guess that’s part of why I make money when many others don’t.
This is undeniably harder when it’s your own creative work on the line. Some years ago, soon after finishing the Clarion writer’s workshop, I was offered a shot at a fiction book deal, based on a pitch and some hurriedly written chapters. Exciting right? Well, yes and no. Truth be told, my heart wasn’t in the idea, and the deal itself was so bad that I was actually angry reading the details. I would never, ever sign a contract like that in business, so why would I sell my creativity short? I said “No Deal”. Of course, I’ll never know for sure if I made the right call.
Which is exactly the psychological pressure that leaves writers in a hard spot when negotiating. These are your hopes and dreams on the line, if you turn down this deal, however shitty, will there ever be another one? The unhappy truth is, any experienced negotiator sitting across a table from a creative in that state will take full advantage of it.
Which is why agents exist, right? Not quite. Most of those awful deals were negotiated by agents. Yes, agents are on commission, and hence “in your corner”, but they have many clients and want to make many deals, so agents are also in the publishers corner, and likely to play along with the status quo if it’s to their benefit. As a writer, you’ll need to negotiate the right deal with your agent to ensure they do a good job on your behalf. And then, ultimately, you have to decide whether to take that deal. Or say, “No Deal”.
By being prepared to say “No Deal”, you reclaim the psychological initiative. Like a warrior accepting death before battle, you are taking control of a situation where control is limited. A good contract should be to the benefit of both parties, and lead to a healthy long term relationship. A good publisher will want to settle a contract like that. But it’s human nature to push for the upper hand. Unless you’re strong enough in negotiation to push back, even well intentioned professionals will walk over you.
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Read more at Guardian Books.
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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”the experience of reading mounds of badly written fiction gave him an an indelible lesson in what constituted badly written fiction”
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
There’s a lot to learn from awful writing. But the slush pile isn’t even awful. Awful writers, like great writers, don’t tend to submit their work to contests or open calls from publishers. What you find in the slush pile is mediocre. Average. Quotidian. Like an endless queue for entrance to Heaven, only people who feel the need to be judged volunteer to stand there. The slush pile attracts the writers who want affirmation, and who still think there’s somebody out there – an agent or editor – with the authority to tell them YES YOU ARE A WRITER.
Instead of submitting your work to the slush pile, voluteer to screen the submissions. What you’ll find is nothing you want to read. But once you’ve ploughed through 300, 500, 1000 submissions, you’ll see patterns in the failure. Stories that aren’t stories. Sentences deformed at birth. The standard issue opening scene where a character orders a latte. Dialogue between characters drinking lattes. People who submit to slush piles write their stories in Starbucks, you conclude. It goes on, and gets worse.
Don’t be discouraged. The tedium of a slush pile is a feature, not a bug. Editors and agents soon realise that there really isn’t very much interesting storytelling to go around, they’re going to have to spend a lot of time making the most of the mediocre. But the writers job is easy. All you have to do is write great stories. Stories with that extra…magic… that we all recognise when we see it. The only catch is, nobody can tell you what it is. Finding it is what all the hard work is really about.
Snobby attitudes to sci-fi and fantasy can mean missing out on great stories amid popular book series – a publishing genre that is sure to grow.
Make of it what you will, but it’s a plain fact of publishing life that more people will read the latest Star Wars franchise novel than all the books shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize put together. The world is a noisy place, made all the more so by the democratising influence of the internet, where it sometimes seems that all seven billion members of the global village have self-published their own book. Confronted with this tumult of competing egos, you can hardly blame the average punter for sticking with entertainment brands scorched into their psyche by the lightsabers of multibillion-dollar marketing budgets.
“with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills.”
The parochial world of literary fiction tends to deal with mass-media franchises in the same way it deals with genre fiction, comics and the other narrative arts that eclipse it by magnitudes for size, influence and profit margins: by giving them the silent treatment. This isn’t an entirely stupid strategy. Literary fiction may very well touch parts of the human condition its more successful cousins fail to reach. But then it may not, and the arrogant assumption that novels published within a franchise that has touched the hearts and minds of millions have nothing to tell us is … well … arrogant.
What franchise novels can certainly do well is compelling storytelling. And at their best, they can do it much better than the franchises that spawned them. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire introduces the malevolent Grand Admiral Thrawn to the extended Star Wars universe, where he remains hands-down its best antagonist. One of the many problems with the vastly overrated Star Wars movies (Empire being the moment of genius that rescues the entire franchise) is the absurd incompetence of their villains. Any evil galactic Empire that can be brought low with a missile up the exhaust pipe is not worthy of the name.
Set five years after Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy follows the painstaking progress of Admiral Thrawn as he leads the remnants of the Imperial fleet against the ascendent New Republic. Have no doubt, Thrawn is a merciless villain, but Timothy Zahn’s smart decision to cast the bad guys as the underdog gives the entire trilogy a compelling edge that the movies simply lack. With rumours about the latest Star Wars trilogy swirling, Disney even went as far as denying Zahn’s masterful narrative will play any part in the new movie. Which is shame, as the brinksmanship of Grand Admiral Thrawn would be a lot more entertaining than the predictable in jokes and cheesy pastiche of yet another JJ Abrams fangasm.
The kingdom of the franchise novel extends far beyond spin-offs from cinema and TV. You can keep your Lord of the Rings and even your Game of Thrones. If I could take only one fantasy novel with me to read in the dungeons of Mordor it would be Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil – better known to most readers as the redoubtable Kim Newman. In the early years of Games Workshop the creators of the Warhammer franchise it published a short run of novels that added some depth of charcater to the two-dimensional world of tabletop gaming. Drachenfels was by far the best, a little known gem of fantasy fiction still unrivalled in its canon.
Detlef Sierck is a playwright of Shakespearean talent with the ego of a young Orson Welles. He is pulled out of debtors prison by Oswald von Konigswald to recreate in theatre the prince’s youthful quest to destroy the great enchanter Constant Drachenfels. What follows is a taught phantasmagoria as the story within the story weaves itself back in to reality. Imagine the gothic horror of Hammer’s Dracula movies merged with the ironic humour of PG Wodehouse and you get a sense of Drachenfels. As with much of the best franchise writing, it’s the constraints and limitations of the Warhammer world that seemed to bring out the best in Newman’s writing.
John Scalzi’s Redshirts boldly takes the franchise novel to explore strange new territory in a universe bearing some resemblance to that of the original Star Trek. The story follows the journeys of the low-ranking members on board a starship crew as they come to realise they are living in a television show. It’s a metafictional homage to the classic sci-fi serial, the writing of which gave Scalzi an insight in to the work of the franchise writer.
“I think there is a snobbery toward franchise writing that’s wholly unwarranted,” Scalzi says. “It’s a ridiculous double standard. Franchise writing requires flexibility, speed, the ability to adhere to canonical guidelines while still producing entertaining work. That’s a specific skillset.”
And writers with that skillset can make a solid living in the franchise novel market. That’s a reality that might come as a shock to their literary compatriots. The big names of franchise writing such as Peter David and Alan Dean Foster may struggle to command much literary respect, but with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills. Of course that kind of success can become a honeytrap of its own, with success in the franchise marketplace rarely translating to acclaim for a writer’s original material.
As the world becomes noisier the franchise novel will only become more powerful, and take on new forms. Writing is seen as a solitary enterprise, but the shared worlds of franchises like Star Wars are one way that artistic collaboration can help to lift a creation above the high noise-to-signal ratio of modern life. Perhaps instead of dismissing franchises out of hand, the challenge for writers is to find ways to create much better art within them.
Originally published in The Guardian.