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You can be creative, or productive, but not both

We love the idea of productivity, but most productivity systems are killing our creativity

Here’s a familiar event many artists will have encountered. You hit some creative milestone. Your new book is finished maybe, and a well-meaning friend responds, “I wish I had time to write / paint / sing / INSERT CREATIVE DREAM.”

Yes, there’s something more than a little passive aggressive in the statement. It seems to assume a) you somehow have access to time in a way other humans do not and b) you didn’t fight tooth and nail for that time.

The truth is that being productive can come at the cost of being creative.

To succeed at adult life, we learn to manage our time. For most of us that means “productivity” — the development of skills and systems that focus the hour glass sands of time on the most productive activities.

So it’s perhaps logical that we often equate productivity with creativity. The two most popular terms in the realm of “self help” and personal development are often used interchangeably. But the truth is that being productive can come at the cost of being creative.

Productivity is not a waste of time.

The author William Gibson once said that the difference between him and most wannabe writers is that he had spent as much time writing as most people spend watching tv.

If you’ve ever tried to transition from being productive, to being creative, you find that the habits of productivity start to get in the way.

It’s something of a tragedy that while we all have creative dreams, the modern world has a tendency to wrap our attention up in time wasting activities. Tv, video games, screaming about politics on Twitter. We can easily waste a whole life by wasting time.

The idea of productivity is a useful step-up from wasting time. Set goals, make a list of tasks, and Get Things Done. Maybe read The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Succeeders. Start networking, win friends, become an influencer of people.

Productivity systems of all kinds are a really great way to do essential things, from managing projects to running businesses. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you better be productive.

But if you’ve ever tried to transition from being productive, to being creative, you find that the habits of productivity start to get in the way.

Business is about filling your time, art is about emptying your time.

For most of my 20s I was The World’s Busiest Man. I ran the shit out of projects, fundraised, networked, did meetings, taught classes, hit an endless schedule of project milestones and writing deadlines. My todo lists had their own todo lists.

To make a much longer story short, I lost the creative part of writing. I was getting paid $200 an hour for words, but not my words. If I wanted to tell my own stories, things were going to have to change.

“You clear a big space, and creativity comes into it. It doesn’t clear the space for you.”

100% true story. I had a copy of the I-Ching on my bookshelves, that I had never read. One day I sat down, read the instructions, and cast the coins for the very first time, asking that ancient old book a simple question, “how do I get back to being creative?” Honestly, I’m not bullshitting you now, I cast hexagram 1, The Creative.

(Ever since this, I do my own I-Ching and Tarot readings, only at important times. I can and will write a whole essay on why they are so useful.)

This, in a nutshell, is what the I-Ching says about creativity. You must, if you want to create, forcefully evict from your life all non-creative things. And it MUST be in this order. You empty a big space, and creativity comes into it. It doesn’t empty the space for you.

For me, that meant I literally needed to empty out my life. Jobs were quit. Relationships vaporised. Friendships unfriended. I was pretty brutal about the whole thing, not least with myself. But that’s how it is when you’re driven to act.

But the space creativity demands isn’t really physical. You can create in the midst of clutter and busyness. You can create with seven kids and two jobs. When you CAN’T create is when you are fearful. The space and freedom you need to create is simply the freedom from fear.

The difference between productivity and creativity is simply this: fear.

If this is all sounding annoyingly quasi-spiritual to you (there’s a reason that God and creativity are linked, but that’s a whole other essay) then here is the science bit…

Human creativity then – the state of consciousness we need to write, paint, sing, dance and CREATE – is quite dependent on NOT BEING TERRIFIED.

…you and I and every other human alive are evolved from ape like creatures that, for MILLIONS of years, benefited from experiencing very high levels of fear. Our brains and nervous system are wired for Random Leopard Attacks. If we weren’t wired to live in semi-permanent fear states, we wouldn’t have survived.

But we no longer live in brutal environments where death waits at every turn. Assuming you’re reading this on Medium, you probably live in the hipster district of a modern city, with a high chance of a sub-standard, over priced latte and ABSOLUTELY ZERO CHANCE OF BEING EATEN BY LEOPARDS.

Yet the fear persists.

The higher your state of fear, the more your body’s systems drive you back to an animal state. If you WERE being chased by a leopard, you would become something like an ape again. Human creativity then – the state of consciousness we need to write, paint, sing, dance and CREATE – is quite dependent on NOT BEING TERRIFIED.

Productivity is a high-functioning response to fear.

Productivity is better than low-functioning reaponses to fear – like wasting time on video games, or shooting up heroin. These numb you out, so fear goes unfelt, but when they wear off, the fear is still there. That can send you deep into addictive cycles of permanent numbing.

But obsessive productivity is feeding the fear cycle in a different way. Most productivity systems are placatory. The fear of forgetting an important task is placated by a todo list. The fear of failing at a big project is placated with that $70 project planning app.

It’s not that these tools aren’t useful. It’s that their usefulness is secondary to their value as a fear management technique.

Naming no names, but the makers, and especially the marketers, of productivity systems know all about your fear. To sell you anything, marketers like me map your “pain points”, the things you’re scared of that we can use to pressure or persuade you into a purchase.

“Do you know that 1 in 7 American’s will lose their a job after forgeting an important call, meeting or task? Don’t rely on a second rate todo list app, buy INSERT NEW TODO LIST APP.”

Productivity is a fear centric marketing concept. Yes, it’s high functioning. Yes, you might ride that fear cycle into building a business, or even a fortune (you might also ride it to a breakdown or heart attack). But where a high functioning fear response will never take you is to anywhere creative.

When fear centric behavior becomes dysfunctional.

The Noble prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman identifies two systems which humans use to make decisions. System 1 is our intuitive or imaginative mind. System 2 is our logical thinking mind. I teach the need to balance both systems to my creative writing students.

System 2 wants to not be late for meetings. System 1 wants to NOT GO TO MEETINGS AT ALL. System 2 sees a day packed with meetings as productive. System 1 sees a day entirely empty of meetings as creative.

Fear, even in low levels, drives us towards system 2. In response to minor fears, like missing a meeting, disappointing a coworker, or losing a business deal, we’re natural driven to seek logical solutions that appeal to our thinking mind. Exactly the kind of solutions that productivity focusses on.

But those logical solutions are directly interfering with better decisions, driven by the intuitive processes of system 1. Here’s a practical example. System 2 wants to not be late for meetings. System 1 wants to NOT GO TO MEETINGS AT ALL. System 2 sees a day packed with meetings as productive. System 1 sees a day entirely empty of meetings as creative.

I very rarely agree to meetings of any kind, real or online. Because I’ve learned that, for me at least, the intuitive needs of system 1 are far more important than the logical needs of system 2.

Creating is living with your fear, and living in your fear.

If you’re not sold on my pitch yet, let me rephrase the same insight from a different angle.

The one thing I can say with absolute certainty about creativity is this – creating is always a journey into the unknown. No two books, businesses, symphonies or technologies are ever created the same way. Computers are things of rules and systems, but creating the computer was a terrifying walk into blind night for Alan Turing. Which is why we respect him, and other great creators, so highly.

These great accomplishments that we term “creative”, and the huge contribution they make to humanity, lie on the other side of uncharted oceans of fear. Your chimpanzee-like physiology was simply not evolved to make that journey into fear. That capacity comes from some higher place (sometimes, often, called god…sorry again for those who hate the idea).

Three years ago, sitting out fears of my own in the high Himalayan mountains around Dharamshala, I wrote a month long blog series on overcoming creative fear. There’s no answer to the question “how do I escape fear?” but there are answers to the complex ways of being WITH and IN fear.

We’re a planet of some eight billion semi-carnivorous apes, staring into the dark voids of the unknown, terrified. So it’s no surprise that most of what we do, however productive, is driven by fear. Our rare creative leaps come when we can stop being driven by fear, and can tunnel through, to whatever lies on the other side.

The 4 skills of the full stack writer

A stack of 4 core skills are key to success as a freelance writer. Mastering them unlocks huge opportunities.

I landed my first paid writing gig when I was 14. I had a paper route, and one day the local Indian restaurant invited me in, made me a chai tea, and asked how to get a leaflet into the newspaper. In the end I wrote the leaflet, got it printed, and distributed. I think I made £50 on the deal. Or, about 17 weeks of delivering newspapers!

“The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody.”

Fast forward two and a half decades, and I’ve been making a professional living as a writer for most of that time. I’ve written for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, The Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon magazine and freelanced for major London ad agencies. I’ve published dozens of short stories, won Arts Council grants for fiction writing, lectured at a half dozen universities, published research with Oxford University Press, and studied with Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman at the Clarion writers workshop. But that all grew from writing ad-copy for a leaflet.

Over the course of my pro career I’ve seen the writing industries transformed by technology. The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody. And when I have a lot of deadlines, it sometimes feels like I’m writing them all! Businesses all over the world have a huge hunger for words, which has created whole new areas of work for writers. Right now I have clients in Bangalore, Idaho, Paris, Cornwall, Singapore and Shenzen. And this is a quiet month!

The gig economy, and freelance sites like Upwork and Fiverr, have opened up a global marketplace for writing services. At the time of writing I am in the top 5 “Pro Writers” on Fiverr, and in the top one or two percent of writers by hourly earnings on Upwork. The clients I have worked with via sites like Fiverr include Blue Chip corporations, tiny mom & pop businesses, famed entrepreneurs and hard working YouTube celebrities.

The most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.

The recent Payoneer report into freelance earnings recorded an average income of $19 per hour for writers. But that average disguises a gulf in earnings between two very different groups of writers.

“Content writers” churn out dozens of blog posts a day, usually to promote websites via Google search, and often earn little more than minimum wage for their efforts. But the days when Google algorithms could be gamed by high volumes of low quality content are long gone. Businesses are learning quickly that the most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.

I call the second group Full Stack writers. These writers have a wide and deep skillset that allows them to deliver, not generic “content”, but high quality writing that people actually want to read. Writing with the potential to go viral in the short term, and to create a highly engaging online identity in the longterm.

Full Stack writers command hourly rates of $70 to $100 as a baseline, and are in increasingly high demand as the competition for attention online intensifies.

Aristotle. A Full Stack writer?

What skills define a Full Stack writer?

When I’m asked how I built a successful freelance writing career, the answer is rarely what people expect. I can’t suggest any special marketing tricks. I don’t know any underhand ways to hack the system, and I have used no gimmick promotions. I won’t tell you to give away your work for “exposure” or to build a portfolio. In the immortal words of Samuel Johnson:

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Samuel Johnson

Anyone working in startups and software development will be familiar with the idea of the “full stack developer”, a coder with a “stack” of skills that allow them to deliver complex projects single handed. The full stack developer is agile, and essential for small and medium sized enterprises innovating at high speed.

Full stack writers fulfil a very similar role, as a jack-of-all-trades; part journalist, part marketer, with the skills of a copywriter, a screenwriter, and a little dash of the poet, all rolled into one.

It’s my experience that success as a freelance writer rests on a “stack” of three foundational skills. These skills aren’t new, they have been known for thousands of years. But today they seem to have been almost forgotten. They’re rarely taught at schools or colleges, and many struggling professional writers don’t know them at all.

Mastering this trinity unlocks the path to a fourth skill that is, in my experience, the most valuable skill you as a writer can master.

Grammar.

Words and sentences. Whatever you are writing, from an advertising slogan to an epic fantasy novel, it’s made from these two building blocks. The better you know how to use them, the more effective your writing will be.

“The simplest and most powerful way to get ahead of the competition as a writer is to build your grammar skills.”

It might sound blockheaded to suggest that writers learn to spell! But sadly, many writers offering professional services don’t have a clear grasp of grammar. Instead they rely on their “instinctual” understanding of how language works.

If you’re trying to complete complex writing tasks, on deadline and to a budget IE the work that a professional writer does, day in and day out, instincts alone won’t cut it. You need to consciously understand the rules of grammar.

Consider a typical entry level writing task. You’re asked to rewrite a 500 word blog post to improve its readability. And by the way, the client needs it back in 30 minutes. If you know your grammar you can rewrite sentences so that the subject and predicate are clearly linked, reorder run-on phrases into clear cumulative sentences, eliminate unneeded adjectives, and a host of other solutions. You’ll be enjoying your coffee break while the “instinctual” writer is still struggling their way through the first paragraph.

The simplest and most powerful way to get ahead of the competition as a writer is to build your grammar skills. Train yourself in word selection and sentence structure with resources like Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style, Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon, or the most famous short guide to grammar, The Elements of Style.

Logic.

Writing is thinking, and good writing grows from clear thinking. While it’s rarely in the job description, the skill that will keep you most in demand with clients is the clear expression of thoughts, in a logical progression, as words on a page. Because, believe it or not, most people find this extremely difficult.

Writing is thinking, and good writing grows from clear thinking.

A major client in 2014 paid me almost 20% of my income in that year to produce a 3000 word document about their business. The unspoken job was working with the company founder and CEO to clearly define their business vision. I put many hours into logically organising all the concepts being expressed…and less than a day actually writing the finished document.

The simplest way to think about logic is as “information flow”. For a reader to understand any piece of writing, it has to introduce a clear idea, then develop the idea systematically towards a conclusion. If ideas come in an illogical or contradictory order, the reader will quickly become confused, then stop reading.

For instance, if this short essay had begun with a detailed description of logic, but only explained halfway through that logic was a useful skill for writers, this would be a failure of information flow.

Studying logic will allow you to identify and avoid common logical fallacies, produce writing that is consistent IE avoids internal contradictions, and to turn out complete arguments that convince the reader. To see logic used brilliantly, look at the work of science writers like Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.

Rhetoric.

Among my long term clients is a senior executive for a large international corporation. A major part of this client’s work is public speaking, either within the company or at events and conferences.

The client knows what they want to say, but wants to find the best ways to say it. The skills I use to help this client go beyond grammar and logic. As a speechwriter, the main skill I employ is rhetoric.

Put simply, rhetoric is the skill of using words to persuade. Something that humans have been doing for almost as long as we have been speaking.

In the city states of ancient Athens and Rome, over two thousand years ago, giving speeches was an essential part of public life for high born nobles. Speeches were so powerful they could topple kings and even start wars, as Shakespeare well knew:

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

William Shakespeare.

Mark Anthony’s speech at the funeral of Julius Caesar is, as written by Shakespeare, a litany of rhetorical devices. It weaves together ethos, pathos and logos – the three pillars of rhetoric – so adeptly that, while claiming to be against Caesar, Mark Anthony actually incites a riot in his memory. Such is the power of rhetoric!

In the modern era we experience profoundly powerful rhetoric in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and twisted but no less powerful rhetoric in the public pronouncements of Donald Trump. But the uses of rhetoric today go far beyond speech making.

Newspaper articles, television advertisements and viral tweets all employ the same techniques of rhetoric. And the Full Stack writer with a commend of rhetoric can turn their hand to all of these and much more.

The fourth skill the Full Stack writer must master.

Together, grammar, logic and rhetoric formed the “trivium” of the classical liberal arts, as they were taught throughout the Western world for thousands of years.

Name any great writer before the twentieth century – Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen – they would certainly have been taught the trivium.

But today these foundational skills are rarely taught, replaced by more “technical” education…which is why so many people struggle to express themselves in writing.

With the skills of grammar, logic and rhetoric at your command, you can complete almost any freelance writing task. Ad copy, blog posts, feature articles, news reporting, brand identities, white papers, landing pages. There is really no end to the number of highly paid writing tasks that mastering the trivium will open up to you. For many writers, this is enough.

In a classical liberal arts education, the trivium were the gateway to even higher level skills – music, arithmetic, and astronomy among them.

Today the trivium unlocks many more advanced skills. Advanced research, technical writing and more all grow from knowing the trivium. And a fourth skill that, in my experience, is the most valuable skill a freelance writer can offer.

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Storytelling.

Grammar can make our meaning clear, logic can make it complete, and rhetoric can make it convincing. Only story can make our meaning real.

When I began to build courses for writers, I made storytelling my first focus. After years of professional writing, and a three year stint as course director in creative writing at the University of Leicester, I knew that story is the most powerful single skillset any writer can develop.

Grammar can make our meaning clear, logic can make it complete, and rhetoric can make it convincing. Only story can make our meaning real.


How many hours a day do you spend reading novels? Watching HBO box sets? Lost in an epic MARVEL superhero movie? How much time do you spend lost in stories?

Story does something quite amazing. For the time we’re immersed in a story, it can seem almost real to us. We are the protagonist of the story, and we experience the events of the story as they unfold. As research into psychology and neuroscience have shown, our brain thinks in stories.

Story isn’t a mystery. Every story that is loved and that has lasted through time relies on 7 basic elements to create its immersive effect. Understanding this “rhetoric of story” can help you tell stories about any subject, at any length, in any medium.

For the Full Stack writer, storytelling is the skill that clients are hungriest for. My most loyal clients come back time and again because I help them tell great stories; about their business, about their products and brands, about their charitable causes, about their own lives.

Storytelling is, in my experience, the most powerful and valuable skillset today’s Full Stack writer can develop.

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

Damien Walter writes on scifi & fantasy for The Guadian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches the Rhetoric of Story.

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.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

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.

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Why writers have more to learn than ever

We live in exciting times for writers. There are more ways then ever to tell stories, and huge audiences hungry to consume them. It may sound strange if you’re not used to the idea, but the story is a kind of technology. Like the sword, or the motorcar, or the computer, the story has evolved over time. And today the technology of stories is more powerful than ever.

What is the rhetoric of story?

Whether you are making a Hollywood superhero movie, writing a literary novel, penning a monthly comic book, writing a presidential speech, scripting a 30 second advertisement, scribbling last minute copy, or woking on a $200 million AAA video game. Whichever aspect of storytelling today you are expert in, the basic elements of storytelling – the rhetoric of story – is exactly the same.

“Creativity needs structure like your muscles need your skeleton.”

Teaching writing at universities, critiquing and editing the work of thousands of writers, and in my own writing practice, I see writers struggling with the same problem again and again. As a critic for The Guardian I strip-down novels to their bare bones to see how they work, or in many cases, don’t. The problem is a failure of story, without which all a book’s other strengths are for nothing.

We’re all taught to be wary of rules, formulas and how-to approaches to creativity. What makes us like one story over another is subjective, so they say. But that’s also true of other arts like music, yet almost every pop song has a verse, chorus and a bridge, and almost every symphony has four movements in the styles of adagio, scherzo, sonata, minuet and rondo. Creativity needs structure like your muscles need your skeleton.

The structures we use as storytellers, the rhetoric of story, weren’t just made up at random. As psychology and neuroscience have taught us more about the human mind, we’ve learned that our brains are storytelling machines. We make sense of the world by telling stories. And the structures we build those stories around, are the structures that the rhetoric of story has evolved to mirror. So when we as writers do our jobs well, the story the audience are immersed in feels absolutely real.

Today writers are creating some of the greatest stories ever told. I’m an expert on the history and evolution of storytelling, and I love epic tales like Homer’s Iliad. But truth be told, the technical storytelling excellence of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies far outstrip the ancient epics that inspired them. Just as engineers, doctors and other professionals today are hundreds of times more skilled than centuries ago, writers also need to be far more skilled today than even a few decades before.

Want to script video games as moving as Jenova Chen’s Journey? Want to craft novels with the invention and power of Emma Donoghue’s Room? What to tell true life tales with the brilliance of Ira Glass? You can. We live in a golden age of story, and anybody can join in. It just takes the the passion and desire to learn the skills to match the creators you admire.

As writers we never stop learning. Today, right now, you can tap into the mastery of great teachers like Robert McKee. You can read invaluable guides including Wired For Story by Lisa Cron. Watch creators like Toy Story’s Andrew Stanton give TED talks about their insights into story. The richness of today’s storytelling technologies is there for anybody to learn.

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

The improvised word leaves space for you

Improvisation is a powerful part of art. Dancers, musicians and actors – those things we name the performing arts – all learn to improvise as part of their craft. Their work is temporal and transient. Once the move or note is performed it is gone forever.  A recording of Miles Davis playing Kind of Blue is only a representation. To experience the real thing you need to see the artist live.

The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami owned and ran a jazz bar before he began to write. Murakami’s books have an improvised feel, and it’s something he often touches on when interviewed. 1Q84 – Murakami’s recent three volume novel – has the structure of a thriller. There’s an assassination, a private detective, a stake out. But it’s a thriller written by Murakami (who happens to also make it a homage to Marcel Proust) so like no other thriller ever written.

Eleanor Catton is my favourite new writer for a long time. We need many more people in this world willing to say that creation is divine. In this interview for The Guardian she talks about the process of writing The Luminaries. It’s a mystery, that Catton made up scene by scene, by asking at each point what a reader might enjoy reading. That’s the heart of improvisation – being open to what comes in the moment.

Improvising doesn’t mean just making up anything. Neither is it an excuse for poor quality art. To improvise you need great expertise. You need to have internalised the structures of your art to such an extent that you can work them without conscious thought. That’s hard. It takes time and practice but also immense openness and trust. Because yes, you might fail.

When you plan, what is it you want? And which part of you wants it? Planning is an intellectual exercise. It pleases your mind to plan things out, because then your mind can be satisfied that everything is going to go as planned. Your mind doesn’t like uncertainty. It doesn’t like the possibility of failure. But without that possibility, there is no chance of success. You have to be wary of your minds motives. “I have to pay the rent this month” isn’t a thought that is going to help you create, however true it may be.

This isn’t an entry in the debate between outlining vs. not outlining a book. I don’t care, whichever is better for you. But be aware that both can be done either from grace or from fear. A fearful outline will try and fill in all the space that your imagination needs to improvise in. A graceful outline will focus much more on establishing narrative dynamics than plotting. Refusing to outline can be it’s own kind of fear, rejecting the mind’s technical knowledge, without which the imagination can create nothing tangible. “I don’t need to learn anything to be creative” is one of the first barriers hopeful creators will need to get over.

The beauty of improvisation in any creative act is that it allows us to experience the world as YOU see it. Write a thriller, that’s a great structure. But write YOUR thriller. Write a space opera or an epic fantasy, there are rich images and symbols in there to explore, but make them yours. That’s a scary thing to do. We might all see what an oddball you are! But for everything person who turns away, you’ll find many other who love you for being yourself.

Writing and the attention economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Sense of Wonder sucks

Many writers of fantasy fiction describe their work in terms of its ability to evoke a ‘Sense of Wonder’ in the reader, and go out of their way to find sources of ‘wonder’ to energise their stories. This is self-defeating in the most serious kind of way.

Stories that attempt to create a ‘Sense of Wonder’ fall in to a variety of traps. They return to ideas and images that evoked the sensation at some time in the writer. So we keep writing about manned missions to Mars, long after the idea has gone stale. They enter the escalating arms race of weird ideas. A troll isn’t good enough any more, it’s gotta be a steam powered were-troll…with laser eyes! And this exacerbates an already problematic tendency in fantastic fiction. You can’t actually create that steam powered were-troll in the readers imagination. You can try, with paragraphs of descriptive prose. But they’re far more likely to evoke boredom than wonder.

Trying to create ‘Sense of Wonder’ in a reader’s imagination is like trying to make the rabbit actually materialise out of your sleeve. Or believing you really can psychically intuit which number I’m thinking of. (42!) Magic tricks exist in the mind of the audience. The magician doesn’t create the trick, he plays on the fact that we desperately want to experience it, and will overlook his sleight of hand to do so.

A boy looking at a daisy through a magnifying glass can feel a perfect ‘Sense of Wonder’. It’s not the daisy’s doing, it’s all inside the boy. The other thing we call ‘Sense of Wonder’ is awe. We feel awe when we see things as they really are. You walk past millions of daisies without feeling awe. But when you stop to look, to REALLY look, then awe arises.

The writers job is just to make the reader stop and look. Leave the ‘Sense of Wonder’ to us.

Feel THE FEAR…and write it anyway

I did a little whoop of joy, followed by a nod of recognition when I received Gareth L. Powell’s guest post in my email inbox. The first because Mr. Powell is among Britain’s very best science fiction authors. The second because like every writer, I recognise THE FEAR that Gareth describes. You will no doubt recognise it also. Find Gareth L. Powell online at www.garethlpowell.com and on Twitter @garethlpowell

I’m always happy to feature guest posts from fellow writers and passionate readers. Find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

If you want to be a writer, then sooner or later you’ll have to face THE FEAR. However confident you may feel as you start to write your latest novel or story, at some point you’ll look at what you’ve written and hold your head in your hands.

“Give up,” a little voice will whisper in your head. And that little voice is THE FEAR.

THE FEAR will plant questions and doubts in your head. It will tell you that everything you’ve ever written is crap. It will tell you that you’re not a real writer, and that you should quit now before people find out what a talentless hack you really are and expose you as a fraud.

I have spoken about THE FEAR to other writers, and they all recognise it. They all have that inner demon whispering to them in their darkest moments, undercutting their confidence and self-belief. For some, those dark moments are at the beginning of a project, when they’re staring at a blank white page awaiting inspiration. For others, THE FEAR creeps up on them during the editing process, or just prior to submission.

For me, THE FEAR tends to manifest around the halfway point of a novel, when the end seems very far away, and it becomes almost impossible for me to objectively judge whether what I’m writing is any good or not. I start to worry that the characters are jabbering trolls gesticulating their way through a nonsensical plot, and that I’ll never reach the final chapter.

If you let it get hold of you, THE FEAR can paralyse you, leaving you unable to function. The only way I’ve found to fight back is to keep writing; to keep soldiering on until you stagger over the finish line. Only then will you be able to look back with anything resembling objective clarity.

But how do you keep going? How do you keep the motivation going when the voice in your head tells you that you’re wasting your time? You can blot out THE FEAR with alcohol, but that’s only a temporary solution; and most people find it hard to do their best work when they’re smashed.

The only practical way to prevail is to keep your goal in mind. Get in front of your keyboard every day and do the work. Tell yourself that you will finish what you have started. Listen to THE FEAR and learn to identify it. Don’t let it trick you. When it starts sowing its seeds, gather them up and lock them in a quiet corner of your mind. Tell yourself: “This is just THE FEAR talking.” And try to ignore it. Or, if you can’t ignore it, try turning it to your advantage. Harness the nervous energy to make you more productive. Surf that anxiety wave! Tell yourself that you are going to feel THE FEAR, and do it anyway. Keep your eyes on the prize, and keep buggering on until you get there!

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7 signs you are ready to self-publish (a checklist)

For my work at The Guardian I spend a lot of time looking at new books, and I’ve gone out of my way to look at new books by indie published writers. And my conclusion has been that the vast majority of independently published writers aren’t ready. The books aren’t ready and their authors aren’t ready either in most cases. Nonetheless indie publishing is now an established route in to professional writing for those who are ready. So how do writers know when they are ready?

This is an attempt to lay out some criteria that might help writers of all kinds make that decision. It’s hard to objectively assess our own progress. The ego is constantly whispering, ‘of course we’re ready’, and part of the problem with not being ready is that you don’t yet have the tools to even know you are not ready! Of course there is very little true objectivity in the world of books, and these criteria are effected by my own subjective experience. But it is an experience that has spent a lot of time looking at indie published books, and the books I have spotted that do succeed do meet many if not all of these criteria.

It’s worth noting that no measure of this kind can deal with outliers. The writer who never wrote a word before writing that bestseller. The untrained talent that pens a literary masterpiece. It’s also worth noting that many outlier stories are marketing hype, they provide a hook story that helps sell the book, when you dig you find the author has been around for twenty years in various guises. And of course, there is nothing your ego likes to glom on to more than outlier examples of success. It loves to convince you that you can succeed without doing the work. If you’re betting on being an outlier these criteria won’t help, and I wish you good luck.

Finally, you might wonder how many of these criteria you should fulfil. I’d suggest if you fulfil even one, you’re in the right place to try and consciously go after three more. If you manage four, there’s a good chance you are ready to indie publish. All seven is likely to help your chances even more.

If you find value in these pointers, consider enrolling on my short course for writers, The Rhetoric of Story, and learn the 7 foundations of powerful, immersive storytelling. Turn the page to read more of this article.

Writing is hard, lonely, low paid work

I think we need to spread the following meme as far and wide as possible:

“Writing is hard, lonely, low paid work.”

It’s a stark message, and perhaps lacking some nuance. But it needs to be to impact the growing legions attracted to writing as a pathway to celebrity, status and wealth. Those people need deterring for their own good, so I believe those of us who know better should start propagating this meme.

So why would anybody want to write? Especially smart people who could probably do better if they just concentrated their effort on their day job?

I work with a lot of people who want to be writers. Over the years I’ve had to try and explain to myself what that desire is about. Writing has become confused with celebrity and status. But the truth is I think we write to learn and grow as people. Mastering the skills of writing, finding your story and your meaning, even making the long hard journey towards publication, are all good for our spirit and soul.

(I mean good here in the way Spartan society believed exposing babies was good for them because it turned those who survived in to hardy souls.)

If you learn and grow enough, you might write something which contributes a little or a lot to other peoples growth. At which point, such things as success, acclaim, wealth may start falling in to your lap. But it doesn’t matter if you ever get to that point, as long as you get the growth you need from your own writing. Sure, your ego will take a hell of bashing along the way. But maybe a good hard kicking is exactly what your ego needs. Maybe thats why you are putting yourself through all this anyway?

Which is why its so damn sad when people enter in to this endeavour purely for the ego trip. Because they are condemning them self to a hell of a lot of pain until they learn better.

Yep. That needs another draft.

It’s a great feeling to finish a piece of writing. Triumphant. So looking at work you thought was finished and realising it isn’t finished at all is painnnnnnful. The mind goes in to self-defence mode. Or self destruct mode. Obviously you suck. What ever made you think you could write at all. Give it up. Anything, except the truth of the situation.

Yep. That needs another draft.

Swear a bit. Punch something inanimate. (Try not to break your hand though, you’re going to need it.) Have a stiff drink and / or a smoke. Then knuckle down and get writing, because what separates the professional and everyone else is the willingness to tear your writing apart and put it back together again, better, faster, stronger than it was before.

It’s going to be a long weekend.

Emotions when writing

Don’t underestimate or ignore the emotional and psychological challenge of writing. More writers are defeated in this arena than by lack of skill or imagination. Writing can be joyous and fun. But it can also be strenuous, isolating and, sometimes, downright scary.

Every piece of writing is a journey. Some longer or shorter than others. There are maps available, but you can trust them to be wrong as often they are right. It’s a journey you take on your own, across an unknown and often challenging landscape. Isolation brings its challenges.

Voices of doubt and dissent are liable to make themselves heard. Is this the right project? Are you good enough to write it? Will it ever get published? Are you wasting your time? Were all those people who tutted at the idea of writing, right? These are just a few of my personal favourites, every writer has their own versions.

The work itself slips and slides underneath you. One moment the structure and argument are clear in your head, the next all you have are a page full of apparently unconnected sentences and paragraphs. Frustration, anger and despair are all perfectly valid responses. Stop. Turn around. Go home. Or don’t. Only you can decide.

Their are practical issues to concern yourself with. If you’re investing the time needed to write anything worth a damn, especially on a full length book, its likely you aren’t spending enough time on work, friends, family. You might return from your journey to find one or all of them gone. Loneliness, shame and rejection loom like dark thunderheads on the horizon.

And that deep dark unconscious from which all great writing comes doesn’t give up its treasure without a fight. Even if all you’re after are a few colourful memories to set the scene, it will have a barrage of half-truths, unresolved conflicts and other neuroses to throw at you. Go looking for those powerful emotions like love, passion, fear and God help you with what you find. There are monsters on this journey, as scary as you can imagine.

Some writers stop all together when they encounter these emotions. Others avoid the really tough and most challenging emotional ground. Writing that is flat, predictable, generic, cliched and dull is often a consequence of sticking to easily travelled paths.

All you can do is be mindfull of the emotions that arise as you write. Oh look, frustration and anger again, I’ll let those pass and carry on. Horizon looks like bad weather, I’ll just rough it out. Monsters from the unconscious are blocking the path? CHARGE! And remember, if the destination is where your heart wants to be, the journey is always worth it.