This month’s It’s Lit! covers the woman who made vampires sexy.
I was a young and impressionable university student when I bought The Vampire Lestat. It was not the first reimagining of vampires as more human creatures I’d read, but it managed to feel more substantial than other efforts. As a result, I went out and gradually made my way through the first half-a-dozen Vampire Chronicles. They still sit proudly on my shelf next to my wife’s collection of Twilight books.
There were obviously a lot of people who felt the same way as myself. We enjoyed the tales of immortals walking through history. We even liked that pensive sadness all the characters dripped. It certainly made the indulgent detailed descriptions of ancient art mildly tolerable.
And I think that is why I parted way with the Vampire Chronicles and Rice’s works in general. There was a moment in reading one of her novels, either Blood and Gold or perhaps a Mayfair Witches books, when I remember commenting upon the poem at the beginning of a chapter. Here was yet another very arty poem by Rice’s husband to skip over, what a waste of good paper.
Now, I generally dislike non-novel additions to novels. Chapter titles are fine, but sub-headings, dates, locations, quotes, poems, and other indulgences are just stuff in the way of my book reading. They often feel like attempts to make the work more arty or important than it really is. In the case of dates and locations, common in thrillers, they feel like lazy writing. And Rice was the author who made me dislike these things.
Once you start pulling at the thread, things start to unravel. I started to realise just how indulgent and boring much of Rice’s novels were. These were books I thoroughly enjoyed, yet I’ve not felt compelled to reread them since making this observation (I’d read several of the Vampire Chronicles at least twice at that point). Maybe I’m being too hard on Rice, I mean, she did pretty much reshape genre fiction (as discussed in the video). Maybe I need to revisit The Body Snatcher or The Vampire Lestat (again, as they were my favourites I’ve read multiple times).
Or maybe I should pickup some Lestat fanfic. Rice would love that.
Forbes once called her “The Warren Buffett of vampires,” but American author, Anne Rice has established herself as the literary queen of monsters of ALL kinds over her four-and-a-half decade career. Besides her 15 novels of the world-famous Vampire Chronicles series, she’s also written 21 other books featuring all your favorite dark, supernatural, and undead beings: witches, ghosts, mummies, werewolves, aliens, demons, angels, Jesus.
But the works of Anne Rice aren’t just light, pulpy fun monster books–her vampires changed the landscape of genre fiction as we know it?
Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
The incoming tide of new books makes me reflect and wonder whether writing still more books about climate change is a waste of precious time. When the UN is calling for governments to act to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, are books just preaching to the converted? My answer is no, but that doesn’t mean publishing, buying or reading more books is the answer to our climate emergency right now.
The science was still developing then. We knew human activity was increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Measurable changes to the climate were also clear: more very hot days, fewer very cold nights, changes to rainfall patterns.
The 1985 Villach conference had culminated in an agreed statement warning there could be a link, but cautious scientists were saying more research was needed before we could be confident the changes had a human cause. There were credible alternative theories: the energy from the Sun could be changing, there could be changes in the Earth’s orbit, there might be natural factors we had not recognised.
By the mid-1990s, the debate was essentially over in the scientific community. Today there is barely a handful of credible climate scientists who don’t accept the evidence that human activity has caused the changes we are seeing. The agreed statements by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, led to the Kyoto Protocol being adopted in 1997.
And so — as the urgency being felt by the scientists increased — more books were published.
Former US vice president and 2007 Nobel Prize winner Al Gore’s book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis was first published in 2008 and has since been issued in 20 editions. There have been more than enough books to furnish a list of the top 100 bestselling titles on the topic, recommended by the likes of Elon Musk and esteemed climate scientists and commentators. The ones I have acquired fill an entire bookcase shelf — dozens of titles describing the problem, making dire predictions, calling for action.
Does the new batch of books risk spreading more despair? If the previous books didn’t change our climate trajectory then what is the point in making readers feel the cause is hopeless and a bleak future is inevitable?
No. Writing more books isn’t a waste of time, but they also shouldn’t be a high priority at the moment. The point of writing a book is to summarise what we know about the problem and identify credible ways forward.
Those were my goals when I wrote Living in the Greenhouse in 1989 and Living in the Hothouse in 2005. The main purpose of the first book was to draw attention to a problem that was largely unrecognised, trying to inform and persuade readers that we needed to take action. By the release of the second book, the aim was to counter the tsunami of misinformation unleashed by the fossil fuel industry, conservative institutions and the Murdoch press. Rupert Murdoch spoke at News Corp’s AGM this week, maintaining: “We do not deny climate change, we are not deniers”.
But there are two reasons why I’m not working on a third book right now.
The first is time. If I started writing today, it would be late next year before the book would be in the shops. We can’t afford another year of inaction. More importantly, the inaction of our national government is not a result of a lack of knowledge.
On November 9, United Nations chief António Guterres said the world was still falling well short of the leadership required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050:
Our goal is to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Today, we are still headed towards three degrees at least.
Some believe the inaction is explained by the corruption of our politics by fossil fuel industry donations. Others see is a fundamental conflict between the concerted action needed and the dominant ideologies of governing parties. Making decision-makers better informed about the science won’t solve either of these problems.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has focused, rather than distracted, the community on the risks of climate change. A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group of 3,000 people across eight countries found about 70% of respondents are now more aware of the risks of climate change than they were before the pandemic. Three-quarters say slowing climate change is as important as protecting the community from COVID-19.
The growing awareness and sense of urgency are backed by another recent study looking at internet search behaviour across 20 European countries. Researchers found signs of growing support for a post-COVID recovery program that emphasises sustainability.
Still, preaching to the converted is not necessarily a bad thing. They might need to be reminded why they were persuaded that action is needed, or need help countering the half-truths and barefaced lies being peddled in the public debate. Books can fulfil that mission. So can speaking to community groups, which I do regularly.
I tell audiences the urgent priority now is to turn into action the knowledge we have about the accelerating impacts of climate change and economically viable responses. Our states and territories now have the goal of zero-carbon by 2050, so I am giving presentations spelling out how this can be achieved. We urgently need the Commonwealth government to catch up to the community.
Change is happening rapidly. More than 2 million Australian households now have solar panels. Solar and wind provided more than half of the electricity used by South Australia last year and that state achieved a world-first on the morning of October 11: for a brief period, its entire electricity demand was met by solar panels.
The urgent task is not to publish more books on the crisis, but to change the political discourse and force our national government to play a positive role.
My Comment: I think an important point to be made about books on a topic is about influencing the zeitgeist and creating the groundswell for change. While books are only a small part of that, they do tend to lend credibility to any argument and push for change (hence why there is such a large amount of science denial, political revisionism, and blatant propaganda books published by various think tanks, pundits, and reactionaries trying to legitimise nonsense).
But we also have to acknowledge that at some point books are less about communicating ideas and influencing the zeitgeist and more about grift. There is money to be made by writing books. Publishers certainly make money with those books (and by publishing contrarian books… you know, for balance… and cash). And no small part of this grift is selling those books to well meaning people who will feel like reading the books counts as doing something about the issues raised.
So we have to remember, both as readers and writers, that the knowledge step of the book is only as valuable and meaningful as what we do with that knowledge.
Many culturally important books by Australian authors are out of print, hard to find as secondhand copies, and confined to the physical shelves of a limited number of libraries. Effectively, they have become inaccessible and invisible — even including some Miles Franklin award winners by authors such as Thea Astley and Rodney Hall.
By digitising out of print books and making them available for e-lending, the project will create a royalty stream for the authors involved, as well as income for the arts workers we are employing as proofreaders.
Commercial publishing lists, such as Text Classics and Allen & Unwin’s House of Books, do a great job of breathing new life into some of Australia’s lost books. But they often focus on literary fiction, to the exclusion of genre fiction, children’s books and non-fiction, which also need to be preserved.
Here are 10 of our favourites we’re excited to digitise so you can borrow from your local library straight to your e-device. We expect these and other books in the project to be available in the first half of 2021 – and you too can nominate a book for inclusion in the collection here.
Working Bullocks (1926) by Katharine Susannah Prichard
Noonkanbah: Whose Land, Whose Law (1989) by Steve Hawke, with photographs by Michael Gallagher
In 1979-80, the Yungngora people protested to stop the American company Amax drilling for oil on a sacred site on Noonkanbah Station, Western Australia.
This book is the detailed first-hand account of what became a high profile, ground-breaking land rights campaign, leading to the formation of the Kimberley Land Council. The Yungngora people wouldn’t have their native title rights recognised until 2007.
Alongside the reporting by Hawke, son of former PM Bob Hawke?, the book includes photographs taken by anthropologist Michael Gallagher.
In The Unlucky Australians, Hardy tells the story of the Gurindji people and the opening years of the strike they began in 1966.
Their protest against poor working and living conditions, seeking the return of their traditional lands, lasted nine years.
The Whitlam government returned some of those lands in 1975 with the historic transfer of “a handful of dirt” and the strike led to the passage of the historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976.
A vital piece towards understanding the shameful labour conditions inflicted upon Indigenous Australians, this book should never have gone out of print.
Inspired by three real life charismatic and dangerous individuals, these dark stories of abused trust and misplaced faith are transformed, taking on a gothic quality, with complex narratives, unlikely narrators and fairy-tale elements.
The White Garden is an ambitious novel following the misdeeds of the psychiatrist Dr Goddard (or Dr God, for short) in a hospital in the 1960s. Red Shoes takes us into the world of a religious cult. Cape Grimm looks at a religious order after its members are killed by their charismatic leader.
The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks (2003) by Brett D’Arcy
The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks is coming-of-age story about “Floaty Boy”, an 11-year-old with a love of body-surfing, his family, and what happens when his older brother disappears.
Described by the Australian Book Review as “Tim Winton on speed”, D’Arcy shines his own spotlight on Western Australia, exploring the duality of a life spent between the waves and the shore – and what happens when a family becomes torn apart by loss.
Untapped will launch with a free online celebration on November 24 at 6pm. Register for the launch here, nominate a book for inclusion at untapped.org.au – and let us know what you think we should digitise in the comments.
Literary culture carries profound social value. In general terms it is essential to employment, cultural literacy and understanding of community, as well as to Australia’s post-pandemic recovery and growth. It is also radically underfunded and in urgent need of new support.
I am particularly concerned with the low level of investment in literature through state and federal funding agencies compared with other art forms.
The economic benefits
Literature is a mainstay of the creative and cultural industries, which contributed $63.5 billion to the Australian economy in 2016-17. Creative arts employ 645,000 Australians and those numbers were increasing before the pandemic. Literature operates in the economy in many and complicated ways, since writers are “primary producers” of creative content.
Books form an often invisible bedrock of robust resources for the wider economy. They provide creative content in areas such as film, television, theatre and opera; moreover they contribute fundamentally to the educational sector, to libraries, events and what might be called our forms of cultural conversation.
The most conspicuous areas of economic benefit and employment are libraries, universities, schools, festivals, bookshops and publishing.
Indirect benefits, such as to tourism and cross-cultural understanding, are often overlooked in reference to the economic benefits of literature. Our books carry implicit, prestigious reference to a national culture and place; they attract interest, visitors and students and arguably establish a presence of ideas above and beyond more direct mechanisms of cultural exchange.
Cross-cultural exchange and understanding are crucial to the literary industries and of inestimable benefit in “recommending” Australia and its stories.
However, writers’ incomes are disastrously low, $12,900 on average; and COVID-19 has eliminated other forms of supplementary income. It has always been difficult to live as a writer in Australia (which is why most of us have “day jobs”) and it is clear writers are disproportionately disadvantaged. Although essential to the economic benefits of a healthy arts sector overall, writers are less supported by our institutions and infrastructure.
We need additional government-directed support such as the funding delivered to visual arts through the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy ($6.6 million in 2018-19), regional touring delivered through Playing Australia ($7.4 million 2018-19) and the Major Festivals Initiative ($1.5 million 2018-19).
Shaping national identity
The literary culture in Australia is chronically underfunded, but its benefits are persistent, precious and immense. “Social well-being” requires social literacy, a sense of connection to one’s history, community and self: these are generated and nourished through narrative, conversation and reflection.
The literary arts create a sense of pride, community and solidarity. A single library in a country town can offer astonishing opportunities of learning and self-knowledge: how do we calculate value like this?
As someone who grew up in remote and regional areas, I’m aware of how crucial libraries and book culture are to a sense of connection with the nation. Moreover, reading is an indicator of mental health, especially among young people.
“National identity” also requires reflexive literacy: social understanding and agency derive from reading and writing; a nation that neglects its literary culture risks losing the skills that contribute to creative thinking in other areas — including in industry and innovative manufacturing. Local reading and writing initiatives have had remarkable success in areas like Aboriginal literacy and aged care mental support.
More Australians are reading, writing and attending festival events than ever before. Reading is the second most popular way Australians engage with arts and culture.
Writers’ festivals are flourishing and attendances growing. Libraries remain crucial to our urban and regional communities. It is no overstatement to claim that literature has shaped and reflected our complex national identity.
Australian literature at universities
The formulation of a Creative Economy Taskforce by Arts Minister Paul Fletcher is a positive step in establishing better understanding of this crucial economy. I would draw attention, however, to the lack of literary expertise on the taskforce. The appointment of a publisher or a high-profile Indigenous writer, for example, would give more diversity to the collective voice of our literary community.
The education sector will have a role in implementing creative arts initiatives. There has been a deplorable lack of support for Australian literature within the academy.
Under the current wish to renovate the jobs sector through the creative arts there is an opportunity to direct dedicated funds within the education budget to establishing a Chair of Australian Literature in each university (or at least in the Group of Eight).
For a comparatively small outlay in budget terms, such a move would signal direct support for Australian reading, writing and research and would be widely celebrated in the education and library sectors.
It is embarrassing to discover that some European universities (in my experience Belgium, Germany and Italy, in particular) study more Australian literature than is offered in our own nation.
The case for increased Australia Council funding in the neglected area of literature has already been made. Writers’ incomes are, as attested, direly low and I worry in particular about diminishing funding for new and emerging writers.
An injection of funds into the literature sector of the Australia Council is another efficient and speedy way in which to signal understanding of the fundamental role of literature to our cultural enterprises and economic growth.
Cuts to publishing, festivals, journals, individual writers’ grants and programs generally, have had a disastrous effect on the incomes and opportunities for writers in this nation. Notwithstanding a few highly publicised commercial successes, most writers truly struggle to make ends meet. The “trickle down effects” — from a sustaining grant, say, to a literary journal — have direct economic benefits to writers and therefore to the wider economy.
Most writers’ work is not recognised as a “job”; if it were, if there were a definition of “writer” as a category of honourable labour (such as it is, for example, in Germany and France), writers would be eligible for Jobmaker and Jobseeker benefits.
This may be blue-sky thinking, but I look forward to a future in which forms of precarious labour, like writing, are recognised and honoured as legitimate jobs.
Another area that may work well with literature is foreign aid. The government of Canada, for example, donates entire libraries of Canadian literature as part of its aid program. (I’ve seen one installed on the campus of the University of New Delhi.)
This works as a stimulus to the host economy (benefiting publishers and writers) and also the receiving community, for whom access to books and education may be difficult. It also encourages study of the host culture’s writings and has benevolent “soft power” effects of inestimable worth.
The government has indicated physical infrastructure (buildings and so on) will be necessary to the renovation of the domestic economy post-COVID. This is a wonderful opportunity to consider funding “literature houses”, purpose-built sites for readings, writer accommodation for local and overseas residencies, places for book-launches, discussion and the general support of literature.
The Literaturhaus system in Germany, in which all major cities have funded buildings for writer events, and in which, crucially, writers are paid for readings and appearances, is a wonderful success and helps writers’ incomes enormously.
The inclusion of Indigenous, regional, rural and community organisations in proposals for “literature houses” would stimulate local building economies and generate community recognition of Australian literature.
A priority for this inquiry could be support for initiatives in literature, perhaps through existing library or schools infrastructure, to address creatively matters of both rural innovation and disadvantage.
Encouraging workshops in writing, including visiting writers, addressing reading and writing as a creative enterprise for the community as a whole: these could form the basis for an enlivening cultural participation and skills. Dedicated funds in literature for regional, remote and rural communities are urgently required.
Literature, in all its forms, is crucial to our nation — to the imaginations of our children, to the mental health and development of our adolescents, to the adult multicultural community more generally — in affirming identity, purpose and meaning.
I have a couple of points to add: 1) $12,900 average but $2,800 median. The Median figure is much more relevant and telling. 2) Literature needs to be defined as all of the genres, not just the small section that is held up as “important”. Otherwise you will further erode the writing industry.
This month’s It’s Lit! is looking at the career of Stephen King.
I’m not sure I fully appreciated Stephen King until more recently. When I was younger I didn’t get into his books; IT was particularly popular when I was in primary school. Then when I was a bit older, I tried a few novels with mixed results (Carrie was great, the first Dark Tower didn’t grab me).
My view of King changed when I picked up On Writing. Every writer recommends it as a must read for budding authors. It was while reading this book that I realised just how prolific and successful King has been.
Take a look at the NYT bestseller lists for fiction. From the mid-70s through to today you will battle to find a year where King didn’t have at least one bestseller. That’s without even looking at top 10s for those years either. There aren’t any authors with that sort of staying power and talent. Most would battle to even churn out something half-readable after a decade or two.
Few writers have had the sheer staying power, popularity, and prolific output as Stephen King. From insatiably flesh-hungry clowns and sentient cars to telekinetic teenagers and mystical gunslingers, if there’s one author who has taken up valuable real estate in that part of our imaginations, it’s Stephen King. But it’s not just his monsters that have lasting power—it’s also the very human and very psychological elements in his work that linger.
So come with me, Constant Reader, while I lead you through the dark and twisted world of Uncle Stevie, the King of Horror…
Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
You might have seen a recent article from The Guardian written by “a robot”. Here’s a sample:
I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!
Read the whole thing and you may be astonished at how coherent and stylistically consistent it is. The software used to produce it is called a “generative model”, and they have come a long way in the past year or two.
But exactly how was the article created? And is it really true that software “wrote this entire article”?
How machines learn to write
The text was generated using the latest neural network model for language, called GPT-3, released by the American artificial intelligence research company OpenAI. (GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer.)
But let’s step back and look at what text generation software actually does.
Machine learning approaches fall into three main categories: heuristic models, statistical models, and models inspired by biology (such as neural networks and evolutionary algorithms).
Heuristic approaches are based on “rules of thumb”. For example, we learn rules about how to conjugate verbs: I run, you run, he runs, and so on. These approaches aren’t used much nowadays because they are inflexible.
Statistical approaches were the state of the art for language-related tasks for many years. At the most basic level, they involve counting words and guessing what comes next.
As a simple exercise, you could generate text by randomly selecting words based on how often they normally occur. About 7% of your words would be “the” – it’s the most common word in English. But if you did it without considering context, you might get nonsense like “the the is night aware”.
More sophisticated approaches use “bigrams”, which are pairs of consecutive words, and “trigrams”, which are three-word sequences. This allows a bit of context and lets the current piece of text inform the next. For example, if you have the words “out of”, the next guessed word might be “time”.
This happens with the auto-complete and auto-suggest features when we write text messages or emails. Based on what we have just typed, what we tend to type and a pre-trained background model, the system predicts what’s next.
While bigram- and trigram-based statistical models can produce good results in simple situations, the best recent models go to another level of sophistication: deep learning neural networks.
Imitating the brain
Neural networks work a bit like tiny brains made of several layers of virtual neurons.
A neuron receives some input and may or may not “fire” (produce an output) based on that input. The output feeds into neurons in the next layer, cascading through the network.
The first artificial neuron was proposed in 1943 by US neuroscientists Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, but they have only become useful for complex problems like generating text in the past five years.
To use neural networks for text, you put words into a kind of numbered index. You can use the number to represent a word, so for example 23,342 might represent “time”.
Neural networks do a series of calculations to go from sequences of numbers at the input layer, through the interconnected “hidden layers” inside, to the output layer. The output might be numbers representing the odds for each word in the index to be the next word of the text.
In our “out of” example, number 23,432 representing “time” would probably have much better odds than the number representing “do”.
GPT-3 is the latest and best of the text modelling systems, and it’s huge. The authors say it has 175 billion parameters, which makes it at least ten times larger than the previous biggest model. The neural network has 96 layers and, instead of mere trigrams, it keeps track of sequences of 2,048 words.
The most expensive and time-consuming part of making a model like this is training it – updating the weights on the connections between neurons and layers. Training GPT-3 would have used about 262 megawatt-hours of energy, or enough to run my house for 35 years.
GPT-3 can be applied to multiple tasks such as machine translation, auto-completion, answering general questions, and writing articles. While people can often tell its articles are not written by human authors, we are now likely to get it right only about half the time.
The robot writer
But back to how the article in The Guardian was created. GPT-3 needs a prompt of some kind to start it off. The Guardian’s staff gave the model instructions and some opening sentences.
This was done eight times, generating eight different articles. The Guardian’s editors then combined pieces from the eight generated articles, and “cut lines and paragraphs, and rearranged the order of them in some places”, saying “editing GPT-3’s op-ed was no different to editing a human op-ed”.
This sounds about right to me, based on my own experience with text-generating software. Earlier this year, my colleagues and I used GPT-2 to write the lyrics for a song we entered in the AI Song Contest, a kind of artificial intelligence Eurovision.
We fine-tuned the GPT-2 model using lyrics from Eurovision songs, provided it with seed words and phrases, then selected the final lyrics from the generated output.
For example, we gave Euro-GPT-2 the seed word “flying”, and then chose the output “flying from this world that has gone apart”, but not “flying like a trumpet”. By automatically matching the lyrics to generated melodies, generating synth sounds based on koala noises, and applying some great, very human, production work, we got a good result: our song, Beautiful the World, was voted the winner of the contest.
Co-creativity: humans and AI together
So can we really say an AI is an author? Is it the AI, the developers, the users or a combination?
A useful idea for thinking about this is “co-creativity”. This means using generative tools to spark new ideas, or to generate some components for our creative work.
Where an AI creates complete works, such as a complete article, the human becomes the curator or editor. We roll our very sophisticated dice until we get a result we’re happy with.
The Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer was regarded by his friends as a master in the art of mind-wandering. He could become ‘enwrapped’ in his own pleasant reflections, wrote the German humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, at which times Dürer ‘would seem the happiest person on Earth’.
Many of us are familiar with mind-wandering in a number of guises: procrastination, reflection, meditation, self-flagellation, daydreaming. But while some mental meandering seems fruitful, on other occasions it has the unmistakeable bite of a bad habit, something that holds us back from reaching our full potential. Reverie can be a reprieve from reality and a font of inspiration, yes. But equally familiar is the mind’s tendency to devolve into sour and fruitless rumination when left to its own devices, especially when we’re in the grip of depression, anxiety or obsession.
Can art itself be a useful catalyst for nudging us towards more helpful emotions and mental states? Whether in the form of literature, rap or abstract oil painting, many of us know we can improve the tenor of our thoughts by contemplating art. The Germans have a lovely saying for the benefits of keeping an idle (or idling) mind: ‘die Seele baumeln lassen’, meaning ‘let the soul dangle’. Now, the emerging science of neuroaesthetics is beginning to reveal the biological processes that sit behind such ‘dangling’.
To begin with, contemporary cognitive science has presented a vast amount of evidence that mental states send and receive ripples of cause and effect across the rest of the body. Think how your mouth might water when you look at a photo of a tasty chocolate cake, or how tense you feel when watching a suspenseful TV drama. Thoughts, feelings and emotions, whether aimless or deliberate, are a somatic cascade of multiple biological events. And it’s this cascade that art somehow taps into.
Galen, the second-century Greek physician, was well aware of the connection between mind and body. He believed that mind-wandering was the result of physical and mental lassitude, and so prescribed a regime of logic and hard, structured work to avoid it. ‘Laziness breeds humours of the blood!’ Galen is believed to have said. The assumption here is that concentration is a kind of psychobiological discipline, something we have to work at to stop our wayward minds and bodies from veering out of our control.
However, there’s an even older tradition from Ancient Greece that views daydreaming as a boost to our wellbeing. Galen’s Hippocratic forebears argued that mind-wandering was in fact the best strategy for guiding us back into healthy states. And modern-day research in developmental psychology has shown that children and adults who engage in certain kinds of mind-wandering actually display more cognitive flexibility, and perform better when called upon to exercise ‘executive’ functions such as problem-solving, planning and managing their own thoughts and feelings.
Neuroimaging – a method of ‘seeing’ the brain in action – has started to reveal the brain processes that correlate with these mental states. Far from falling idle, the brains of people asked to stay still and think of nothing in particular continue to fizz and pop in patterns of activity known as the default mode network (DMN). These activations are closely related to those engaged during self-referential thinking, the experience of the self, and intuition. Moreover, they are observed alongside activation patterns in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the area typically associated with those important ‘executive’ functions. Strikingly, the greater the strength of the relationship between these two domains of the brain – intuition and executive function – the more creativity a person tends to display when asked to solve a problem. Brain scans demonstrate correlation, not causation; but even so, they hint at the possibility that reverie might help to prime us to think both productively and creatively by somehow cementing our sense of self, drawing body and mind together in a train of thought and biological action.
Art can be a catalyst for this sort of reverie, as well as a tool to regulate and control it. Both the basic properties of art (whether it’s in a minor or major key; the colours of a painting), as well as the complexities of its content (the lyrics of a song, the facial expression of a person in a painting), can induce reflections and emotions – and will invariably affect our body’s physiology. Thinking creatively, and engaging with works of art, have both been correlated with DMN activity – especially when people report that the aesthetic experience was particularly strong and meaningful to them. In these moments, our encounter with art seems to trigger an autobiographical daydreaming, a flow experience with a ‘me factor’.
Of course, art can also provoke unhelpful ruminative urges. Listening over and again to that song might not help you get over a heartbreak. But art-induced sadness doesn’t always make you slide into negative mental loops. In fact, art can help us adapt to the immediate source of pain by acting as a prop for emotional catharsis. We all know the strange, pleasurable, consoling feeling that comes after having a good cry. This experience appears to be precipitated by the release of the hormone prolactin, which has also been associated with a boosted immune system, as well as bonding with other people. The arts are a relatively safe space in which to have such an emotional episode, compared with the real-life emotional situations that make us cry. Even sad or otherwise distressing art can be used to trigger a kind of positive, psychobiological cleansing via mind-wandering.
History is full of examples of the relationship between reverie and creativity. Here is one, idiosyncratic example: the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) organised his library of 50,000 books with the aim of promoting mind-wandering. His collection was the kernel for the Warburg Institute in London, where we now work as researchers. Each of the library’s four floors is devoted to one of four themes – image, word, orientation, and action – and separated into sub-themes, such as ‘magic and science’, ‘transmission of classical texts’, and ‘art history’. Guided by Warburg’s ideas about what makes a good neighbour for a book, this unique approach to classification allows a withered 17th-century medical tome to cluster next to texts on mathematics, the cosmos and harmony. The shelves promote intellectual serendipity as you skip from the book (or thought) you thought you wanted, to another intriguing idea or topic that hadn’t even occurred to you.
Art appreciation is held in high esteem in most cultures and societies. It is often portrayed as a laborious cognitive exercise, but this is to forget that the arts provide an opportunity for intense emotional experiences, positive mind-wandering and psychobiological self-regulation. Dürer perhaps captures the activity of such inactivity best of all. ‘If a man devotes himself to art,’ he wrote, ‘much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.’
Julia Christensen, Guido Giglioni & Manos Tsakiris
Meet Otis. He’s eight years old and until recently he didn’t want to read or write. Then his teacher changed the way she taught and things began to improve.
After a few weeks, Otis (not his real name, but he’s a real child) wanted to read and write at every opportunity. With this new-found knowledge and motivation his skill increased too. And his confidence.
So what was different? Technically, Otis’s teacher had begun using what is known as a structured approach to teaching literacy. Essential for children with a literacy learning difficulty such as dyslexia, it has been shown to be beneficial for all children.
The structured approach is a departure from what is known as the “implicit” teaching approach most teachers have used in the classroom. There are now calls for “explicit” instruction to be adopted more generally, including a petition recently presented to the New Zealand Parliament.
New data suggest this is an urgent problem, with growing numbers of young people turning off reading. According to a recent report from the Education Ministry’s chief education science adviser, 52% of 15-year-olds now say they read only if they have to – up from 38% in 2009.
The report made a number of recommendations, including that the ability to “decode” words become a focus in the first years of school. The importance of decoding to literacy success was reiterated by learning disability and dyslexia advocacy group SPELD NZ. It called for a change in teacher training and urgent professional development in structured literacy teaching.
Structured literacy teaching means the knowledge and skills for reading and writing are explicitly taught in a sequence, from simple to more complex. Children learn to decode simple words such as tap, hit, red and fun before they read words with more complex spelling patterns such as down, found or walked.
Learning correct letter formation is a priority. Mastery of these skills builds a strong foundation for reading and writing, without which progress is slow, motivation stalls and achievement suffers.
The books children first read in a structured approach employ these restricted spelling patterns. Reading these with his teacher’s help, Otis built on his skills with simple words and progressed to decoding words with advanced spelling patterns.
These structured lessons also allowed him to master letter and sentence formation, so he made progress in writing too.
Old approaches aren’t working
By contrast, an implicit approach to teaching reading essentially means children have lots of opportunities to read and write, and learn along the way with teacher guidance.
Unfortunately, children like Otis can get lost along the way, too.
Implicit reading books use words with a variety of spelling patterns – for example: Mum found a sandal. “Look at the sandal,” said Mum.
When Otis tried to read these books, he looked at the pictures or tried to remember the teacher’s introduction before attempting the words. But he was not building his skills and was getting left behind.
Otis is not alone, and New Zealand’s literacy results support the calls for change. Despite many interventions and the daily hard work of teachers, it is common for schools to report 30% of children with low reading results and 40% with low writing results.
However, a Massey University study in 2019 found reading outcomes improved when teachers were trained in a structured approach. The results were particularly good for children with the lowest results prior to intervention.
Overall, the findings suggest the change in teaching had a positive effect on children’s learning.
Change is already happening
Fortunately for children like Otis, more teachers are now seeking training in a structured approach. One project based on the Massey research involved more than 100 teachers in over 40 schools. Teacher comments suggest the knowledge and training support has helped them change their teaching for the benefit of the whole class.
Further signs of hope include recent Ministry of Education efforts to develop structured approach teaching materials, and the resources now available for teachers on the ministry’s Te Kete Ipurangi support site.
No one pretends change is easy in a complex area such as literacy teaching. But every child like Otis has the right succeed, and every teacher has the right to be supported in their approach to helping Otis and his peers learn.
With courage and effort at every level of the system – not just from classroom teachers – a structured approach to literacy teaching can improve outcomes and have a positive impact that will stay with children for the rest of their lives.
I got to about page 8 of War and Peace. So only 0.6% of the +1200 pages.
Well, obviously I didn’t give the novel a fair chance.
Don’t care. I have no intention of revisiting it.
People always talk about battling through War and Peace in small chunks because it is such an important and blah blah blah book. If it was really important it wouldn’t have been so boring as to necessitate reading it in small chunks.
I’ve previously mentioned War and Peace in my post on books people claim to have read but haven’t. As discussed in the video, it isn’t a novel that most are going to get into or enjoy. The appeal of a book of this sort is rather narrow. That doesn’t make it a bad book, despite my comments above, but it does mean that there is a certain cachet to having read it. It is certainly the sort of “important” book literary snobs love to talk about.
In some respects, I’m glad that War and Peace is something of a publishing relic. Otherwise, we might have dozens of “very important authors” churning out 1000 page novels with 500 characters and scant regard for the plot/point.
According to Tolstoy himself, War and Peace was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.”
And in this day and age of publishing, where word count, “readability”, and topical relevance are the lifeline of getting a novel to print, we look at books like War & Peace as something of a relic.
Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favourite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavour.
In this month’s What’s the Difference, CineFix look at Total Recall* and Phillip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Can you believe it has been 30 years since the release of Total Recall? At least nobody invented Johnny Cabs in that time.
Many years ago I wrote a post discussing my thoughts about the differences between the first Total Recall movie, the remake with Kate Beckinsale (and some guy called Co-lin Faarill), and the book/short story. In it, I talked about how quickly the movies diverge from the book, essentially before the end of the first act (around the inciting incident). And then I went on to spend several thousand words complaining about the lack of massive biceps and extra boobs in the remake.
For me, this comparison of book to movie and remake shows just how far you can diverge from the source material whilst still retaining a lot of similarities. It also shows the strength of the original premise from Phillip K Dick, because even the remake of Total Recall didn’t completely suck, despite having Len Wiseman involved.**
I’m sure by the time the fortieth anniversary for the original movie rolls around, Hollywood will have released at least two remakes, a TV show, a Mars Lander tie-in short movie with a digitally recreated young Arnie, and a triple breast augmentation procedure.
* The first one, not the bland remake with the genocide of robots.
** The remake mainly suffers from being just that bit soulless. It doesn’t feel like anyone involved cared that much about the film, just that it was a good solid paycheque. As a result, they churned out a good solid action movie that is largely forgettable. Another one in the long line of perfectly adequate movies that make you feel like you’ve been robbed of the opportunity for something better. Not bad enough to justify your hate, but not good enough that you’ll forgive its flaws.
I apologise for the lack of updates lately. I have several book reviews I haven’t gotten to, a couple of posts I’ve contemplated and then given up on, and a few of my regular posts (like this Book vs Movie series) that I haven’t published. This is partly sheer laziness and partly due to having taken on a freelance writing job for a magazine due out later this month. I’ll attempt to get back to weekly posts soon.
Let’s have a look at making up languages for stories.
I don’t know how I feel about constructed languages in fiction. On the one hand, it can be a great part of worldbuilding, something that adds another layer of realism or interest to the story. On the other hand, it’s a fake language that I’m going to skip reading because I can’t understand it BECAUSE IT’S MADE UP AND NO ONE BUT THE AUTHOR UNDERSTANDS IT.
Obviously, a lot of thought goes into worldbuilding, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. Part of that will be trying to come up with interesting places that naturally derive the conflicts of the story. Where would it be realistic for a clan of ninja pirates to run a soup kitchen for homeless astronauts? What sort of world would allow a conflict between the soup kitchen and a basketweaving franchise run by outcast chartered accountants?* These are not easy things to construct in a satisfying and consistent/rational way.
Language is a natural extension of this worldbuilding. The ninja pirates are clearly not going to have the same slang or language as the chartered accountants. But they still have to be understood by the homeless astronauts. Does this require a language though? Does it even require rational slang? Is it going to feel natural to Ar and Eye through dialogue or is it going to feel annoying and distracting?
When all said and done, is this just backstory that doesn’t need to appear on the page? Often what happens is that because someone has put so much time and effort into creating a language (or other worldbuilding antics) they feel the desperate need to make sure every excruciating detail is given to the reader. Some readers may enjoy tolerate this, but others may sign the offending author up to be the chief target holder at the World Beginners’ Archery Contest.
As with everything in writing, good execution is key. Especially if you want to avoid just the execution.
Tolkien is widely regarded as the most influential author on the fantasy genre… period. But one of the less-discussed aspects of his work is the way Tolkien used constructed language in his writing.
Nowadays authors are constantly making up words and languages for the worlds they build, but Tolkien was unique in that he constructed languages first, and then created worlds so his fictional languages would have somewhere to live.
Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
This channel has an interesting series on writing craft and worldbuilding. The most recent video covered social structures that has some nice parallels with language.
* The answer to both of these questions is, of course, Florida. I don’t want this to sound mean to Floridians, but the latest “Florida man/woman” arrests news articles suggest if there is a place anything could happen, it is Florida.
** Had to share the meme, but a friend of a friend pointed out it is inaccurate, and that Amon Amarth are awesome:
Yeah, hate to be that guy, but Treebeard had a name that “was growing all the time” – Treebeard was shorthand for hobbitish convenience. Tolkien had multiple names for most things, and it’s disingenuous for the OP to pick on just one. Mount Doom, for example, was Orodruin and Amon Amarth, a name so evocative it was co-opted by a melodic death metal band.
Edward Cullen. Han Solo. Killmonger. Lestat. What do all these characters have in common besides being heartthrobs? They share a common ancestor: the Byronic Hero. Brooding, sensual, violent, intelligent, and single-minded, the Byronic hero has been a staple in literature dating back to the 19th century, but the archetype is all over film, TV and even video games. I see you Cloud Strife, all sad and angsty with your giant sword.
Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favourite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavour.
Time for another instalment of It’s Lit. This month it’s time to look at zombies pandemic fiction.
Everyone has Covid on the brain at the moment. It is easy to forget that pandemics* occur with painful frequency and that we’ve got a nasty habit of forgetting the previous outbreak – ebola, zika, swine flu, SARS… Our forgetfulness is an interesting trait, but it could be argued that our love of pandemic fiction is where we pour our fears of the next outbreak.
Considering that the risk of pandemics is increasing in both spark and spread, that means pandemic fiction isn’t going to stop any time soon. Long live the zombie!
But it is also worth remembering that pandemic fiction doesn’t have to be a fear of disease and death. It can represent our fear of an all-consuming society that will overrun us, swamp us with mediocrity, and drag us down to become just another mindless member of the hoard. Odd that it comes up a lot during uncertain political climates.
Stay safe. Read a good book. Or a bad one. Whatever.
Although we are currently living through a pandemic that has disrupted our lives and will shape the course of humanity, pandemics have been around since the dawn of civilization, as have stories about fictional pandemics. So now seems like as good a time as any to explore how fictional pandemics have evolved over time, and what they say about their own time.
Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix looks at The Kingsmen and it’s comic origins in Mark Millar’s comic.
While I can remember reading Mark Millar’s Secret Service, I can’t remember having enjoyed it. I’m not actually sure if I read the whole first run. I do remember thinking that it was an interesting if average take on the suave spy genre.
Needless to say, I was somewhat surprised when The Kingsmen arrived in cinemas. Secret Service didn’t exactly strike me as worth adapting. Bond had been reinvigorated, Vin Diesel’s XXX had come and gone*, and Austin Powers had mined a couple of jokes to death over three movies. Did we need this movie?
And it was a surprisingly good movie. Not to mention, it also manages to be an adaptation that, I think, improves upon the source material. I think the “Kingsmen” aspect, as mentioned in the video, was certainly part of what elevated the movie above the source material.
I think if there is anything to learn from Secret Service being adapted, it is that a good adaptation will fully realise the potential of the source material. That doesn’t require faithfulness, but rather an understanding of the themes and ideas.
* And then came back again. Why, I’m not entirely sure.
So yesterday I was thinking about an upcoming piece I’ll be writing for LitReactor and chuckled at the amount of reactions I’ll surely get. You see, I’ve been doing the columnist thing for almost a decade. It all started back home with a monthly political column. By the time I stopped writing it in early 2016, I’d received four death threats. In any case, I tweeted this: “Everyone who’s gotten angry at one of my columns should hear the stuff I don’t even bother to pitch.” The result was almost immediate; a bunch of authors said they wanted to read it. I’m all about making my friends happy, so here we are. Thank the writing deities that we have crazy, brave venues like CLASH. Let’s get started, shall we? Here are ten types of authors who can go fuck themselves (God I’m good at making friends!):
1. Authors who hate almost everything about writing
There are a bunch of authors out there who are constantly complaining about how hard editing is, how much it sucks not to be famous, how the market is flooded with books, how much rejection blows, and how they failed to meet their self-imposed word count for the day. Listen, if writing brings you nothing but pain, quit. Seriously. Everyone’s an author. We need more educators, honest police officers, taxi drivers, cooks, etc. There are other options. Editing is how you make your work better. Stop bitching about it. Rejection is part of the game. If you can’t take it, don’t play. I received a rejection last week. Did I complain? No, I thanked the editor for his time and sat down to read the story and try to figure out how I can make it better before sending it elsewhere. No one owes me anything, so I hustle and try to get into publications. I win, I celebrate. I lose, I work harder and try again. If writing is hard, painful task, stop doing it.
2. Authors who are professional coattail riders
Two things are bound to happen if you do the writing thing long enough. The first is that some good folks will reach out and help you. There are a lot of good folks in the publishing world, and they take the time to help others out. The second thing is that you will meet big-name authors at conventions or readings or online. We all need as much help as we can get, but what we do is mostly up to us. That’s why it makes me angry when I see authors out there befriending successful authors just because they think that being friends with them is a quick path to publication or an agent or a blurb. Stop doing that. Riding someone’s coattails makes you look like an asshole. I know many successful authors and the one thing they have in common is that they are humble people who sit down and put in the work. You should do the same.
3. Authors who forgot how to be humble
The previous one kinda ties in with this one. As many of you know, I’m also a book reviewer, and the easiest way to get me to turn down your book is an email telling me how exciting, great, amazing, genre-redefining, outstanding, unique, superb, and special your book is. You spent a lot of time working on your novel. I understand that. Trust me, I do. I want people to read it and enjoy it and say nice things about it. When that happens, you can quote them. What I don’t want is you to tell me how amazing your work is. Really, go fuck yourself. Stay humble, folks.
4. Authors who don’t know how to use social media
There are approximately a trillion articles online telling folks what works and what doesn’t when it comes to using social media as a selling platform. However, I still see folks every day sending out DMs about their book on Facebook and Twitter the second someone accepts their friend request or starts following them. Stop. Doing. That. Shit. It’s unprofessional and annoying. Yeah, too many people do it and this is probably the entry that’s gonna lead to the most hate. I don’t care. Pay attention to what people say about authors who do that and you’ll see I’m right. You can be interesting and engaging and that will lead to more sells and attention than plastering a link to your book in every thread you participate in. Don’t mention your book when folks ask for recommendations. Don’t use DMs to sell someone your book before you’ve ever interacted with them. Social media can be a great tool, but only if you use it right.
5. Authors who put down people for what they read and talk smack about other genres
I don’t read YA. I don’t read comics. I don’t read a lot of fantasy or cozy mysteries. You do? Awesome! If you make some good points, I’ll even check out stuff you recommend. Putting others down because they enjoy stuff you don’t is like considering someone an idiot because they like a different dressing on their salad. Likewise, I love horror, crime, bizarro, poetry, nonfiction, and many other things. I like to spend my time sharing my love for those genres instead of hating on romance and historical novels. The fact that I don’t like something doesn’t make it bad and doesn’t mean that someone who enjoys that thing is less smart. Authors who insult others based on what they love instead of sharing what they love can go fuck themselves.
6. Authors who want to “destroy narrative”
Let me explain this one before you react. I’ve seen too many authors who made their name with traditional narratives say that they now want to destroy narrative. I’ve also seen authors who have never told a story say that their main goal is to destroy narrative. I’m all for destroying shit. We can set out to destroy patriarchy, racism, or transphobia any day you want. However, when you say you want to destroy narrative, I have to stop, sit down, and analyze both your discourse and your work. Every time I’ve done that, the result is the same: usually it is an author who sucks at storytelling, or a known author who made his or her name writing traditional narratives, and is now out of ideas. Sure, I’ll check out your experimental work, but if your pitch is “My novel has no story, characters, plot, or dialogue. It’s basically about commas taking a shit on the page. I put some doodles in there, too,” well, I’m gonna take a pass on that one. Furthermore, this line almost always comes from folks who describe their work as “smart,” “cerebral,” or “post-narrative.” I’ve been fooled before, homie, so fooling me now is hard as fuck. You wanna kill narrative? Maybe we need to sit down and talk about how your storytelling sucks.
7. Authors who spend more time beefing than writing
You know who you are. You write 2000 words a day hating on folks, defending your previous comments, and engaging in nonsense. I look around at most of my successful friends and can’t find a single instance of them wasting time doing that. You’re angry? Write. You want to make a point? Write a piece like this one. I know some editors and will recommend your work if you need me to even if I disagree. You wanna spend all your time fighting online? Go ahead! We probably don’t wanna read the book you’re not writing anyway.
8. Authors who don’t support other authors
If you think every other author out there is your enemy, you can go fuck yourself. We’re all on the same boat regardless of our level of success. Retweet stuff. Share links. Give praise when someone deserves it. Be a good literary citizen and your grain of sand will help us all construct a nice little beach free of hate and stupid nonsense. Trying to hurt others or going out of your way to bring them down or mess up their careers makes you a douchebag. Don’t do it. Don’t engage with those who do it. Karma is a thing.
9. Authors who are so salty they feel the need to reply to this piece
Oh, went a little meta on you on that one, didn’t I? Hah. Seriously, if you’re guilty of one of these and you’re so angry at me that you have to write a blog post telling me I’m wrong and or you feel the need to drop a scathing comment below…go for it! Opinions and assholes, right? Well, these are my opinions and you’re not gonna change them, just like I’ll probably won’t get you to stop sending messages with a link to your book to every new friend you make (they’re gonna unfriend you with the quickness, by the way). In any case, I’m jaded. I don’t care about the opinions of most people, especially if they’re strangers. I care even less about the opinions strangers have about my opinions. I call it noncareception. You hate me and this piece so much that you wanna fight? Really? Fine, come see these hands or go fuck yourself, bud! Kisses.
10. Authors who think what they do is a gift to the world
You’ve met them. They share chunks of their WIP and want all of us to thank them with tears of joy running down our cheeks. They ignore all other authors because no one can surpass their greatness. They talk about writing all day and you have no idea when they actually sit and write. Oh, and their last published thing came out three years ago. They use words like “craft” and “polishing a gem.” Here’s the main things most authors need to internalize: if you stopped writing tomorrow, the only one you’d really hurt with your decision is yourself. Even if you have thousands of fans. Trust me, they’ll find something else to read. We’re lucky to do what we do. We love to do what we do. We write because that’s the only option. We write even when the stuff we write doesn’t get published. We take time away from friends and pets and partners and family and sit by ourselves and listen to the voices in our heads. It’s a beautiful thing and we need to be grateful that we get to do it. The moment you lose track of that and start thinking that everyone needs to pay attention, that people owe you their time and their focus, and that the world is a better place thanks to the stories you “gift” it, then…well, you can go fuck yourself.
Every author is asked by new writers for advice. There is, however, no all-encompassing, single answer that also happens to be correct. Quite a lot of commonly offered suggestions (“write every day”) don’t work for everyone and must be approached with caution.
A few years ago, I set out to create a list that will benefit all new writers. I put ten commandments through the wringer of my peers, who suggested modifications and noted that this list applies not just to new writers but to writers at every stage of their career. Indeed, I’ve needed reminding of more than one myself.
Here, then, are the 10½ commandments of writing – with an extra one for free.
1. Read widely
To succeed as a writer, you must occasionally read. Yet there are wannabe-novelists who haven’t picked up a book in years. There are also, more tragically, writers too busy to engage with the end-product of our craft. If the only thing you’re reading is yourself you are bound to miss out on valuable lessons.
The same applies to reading only within a favourite genre. A varied diet will strengthen your literary muscles.
No need to thrash out 1,000 words a day or pen a perfect poem before breakfast, but you do have to write. The fundamental qualification for being a writer is putting words on the page.
If you aren’t doing that now, it’s possible you never will.
3. Follow your heart
When you really want to write literary fiction, but the market wants paranormal romance, write literary fiction. Chasing paranormal romance will be futile. Writing well is hard enough without cynicism getting in the way.
Passion doesn’t always pay, but it increases the odds of your work finding a home.
4. Be strategic
But the choice is never between just literary fiction and paranormal romance. You might have poetry and narrative non-fiction passion projects as well, and it’s possible narrative non-fiction will appeal to the widest audience. If a wider audience is what you want, narrative non-fiction is the one to choose.
If, however, you don’t give two hoots about your audience, write what you like.
There are lots of different kinds of writers and lots of different paths to becoming the writer you want to be.
5. Be brave
Writing is hard, intellectually and physically. It also takes emotional work, dealing with exposure, rejection, fear and impostor syndrome. It’s better you know this upfront, in order to fortify yourself.
These crises, however, are surmountable. We know this because there are writers out there, leading somewhat normal lives, even healthy and happy ones. You can too, if you don’t give up.
The ones who persist are the ones who prevail.
6. Be visible
Many writers would prefer they remain hidden in a dark cave for all eternity. But stories demand to be communicated, which means leaving that cave. Whether it’s you or your written word, or both, broaching the bubble of self-isolation is important.
This doesn’t mean assaulting every social platform and attending every festival and convention. Find the kind of engagement that suits you and embrace it, and don’t overdo it. Remember: you still have to write.
7. Be professional
Don’t lie. Don’t belittle your peers and don’t steal from them. Keep your promises. Communicate. Try to behave like someone people will want to work with – because we all have to do that, at some point.
Heed what people you’re working with are saying, because you never know what gems of knowledge you might glean – about craft, about the market, about something you’re working on – among the knowledge you (think you) already possess.
9. Don’t settle
Every story requires different skills. You’ll never, therefore, stop learning how to write. The day you think you’ve worked it out is the day the ground beneath you begins to erode, dropping you headlong into a metaphorical sinkhole – and nobody wants that. Least of all your readers.
Readers can tell when you’re getting lazy, just like they can tell when you’re faking. You’re one of them. Deep down, you’ll be the first to know.
10. Work hard
Put in the hours and you’re likely to get some return on your investment. How many hours, though?
There’s a wonderful saying: “Even a thief takes ten years to learn her trade.” Writing is no different to any other career. Hope for overnight success; plan for being like everyone else.
The bonus commandments
When I put this list to my friends, several raised the importance of finding your people. Although I agree this is an important principle, I would argue it is implicit in commandments 6-8: these have no meaning without engaging. I decided to encapsulate this as 10.5. Embrace community
After I’d been teaching and giving talks on this topic for several years, someone suggested another commandment that lies beneath the rest. It is so fundamental none will work unless you have this in spades. It is 0. Really want it, which sounds so obvious that it barely needs stating – except it does.
One day, I may no longer want to write. If that happens, I will take every mention of writing from this list and substitute the name of a new vocation – because this list applies to everything.
I’m just going to say it: I’m comfortable with the label of nerd.
More specifically, I’m a Nerdius scientifica.
Being a nerd is more accepted nowadays, what with our bulging brains and chiselled knowledge. And the reality is that us nerds have a lot to offer, like research skills.
Writing requires a lot of research and writers generally fall into two categories in this regard: those who need to learn how to research, and those who took up writing to justify those dodgy topics they’ve researched. This post will hopefully help the former. But if anyone does want to know how much slack rope you need to hang someone correctly from your homemade gallows, I have a spreadsheet calculator for you.
I stole am reblogging a post from Writer’s Digest with a few of my own comments.
Ernest Hemingway said writers should develop a built-in bullshit detector. I imagine one reason he said that is because readers have their own BS indicators. They can tell when we writers are winging it. We have to know well the worlds in which our characters act. Readers don’t have to believe the story really happened, but they need to believe it could have happened. So with that in mind, I offer a few thoughts on research for fiction.
I’d argue everyone should have a BS detector. [Insert topical political joke here] But the important point to note is that a writer can’t be an expert in all topics, yet readers are likely to come from a wide background. So if you haven’t done your research thoroughly, readers who are well versed in a field will notice, which can ruin the book for them.
1) You can’t do too much research. In the military, we often say time spent gathering intelligence is seldom wasted. The same concept applies in writing a novel. You never know what little detail will give a scene the ring of authenticity. In a college creative writing class, I wrote about how a scuba diver got cut underwater, and in the filtered light at depth, the blood appeared green. Though the professor didn’t think much of that particular story, he did concede he liked that detail. In fact, he said, “The author must have seen that.” And indeed, I had.
This point is both true and false.
Gee, thanks Tyson.
Okay, what I mean is that while you need to have done enough research to be able to include those little details that sell the story, at some point, you have to stop researching and write the damn thing. Maybe you want to be able to accurately describe what arterial spray looks like for your serial killer novel, but you can only research that for so long before you need to put down the knife and pick up your pen.
2) You can write what you know. We’ve all heard it before. Experience may be a cruel teacher, but it is a thorough one, and experience is the purest form of research. Things you’ve done in life can inform your writing in surprising ways, even if your characters aren’t doing those same things. When I watch the old Star Trek shows, I can tell the creator of those stories knew something about how a military flight crew works together. He understood the dynamics of a chain of command, how a commander learns the strengths and weaknesses of his team, how those team members communicate and work together. Turns out that Gene Roddenberry flew B-17 bombers in World War II. Roddenberry, of course, never flew a starship. But he knew from experience how the crew of a starship might interact.
Soooo, about that serial killer novel… Pure research. No experience. I promise.
Writing what you know is one of those bits of advice authors receive that you can honestly shrug your shoulders at. It’s not untrue. If you’ve been involved in something as a professional you will know it better than anyone trying to research it. But it can also be severely limiting.
Take the example used. If Star Trek understands how military flight crews operated, why did it insist on sending the most important crew members on the dangerous away missions? Aside from the chance to shag the aliens, obviously.
I think the more helpful advice is seeking help from people who know. Go to forums, discussion groups, ask friends, put out the call on social media, cultivate contacts. The internet makes us closer than ever to experts, why limit yourself to what you’ve done?
3) You can do research on the cheap. If you can’t visit an exotic location, you can pick up the phone and ask questions. The worst that can happen is somebody thinks you’re crazy and they hang up. Then you just call somebody else. (Believe me; I used to be a reporter, and I’ve learned a lot by asking questions.) You can visit a museum, or a museum’s website. Develop an eye for small details.
While you CAN do research on the cheap you COULD still use your writing as an excuse for that holiday to an exotic location.* For your art. And tax write-offs.
The internet is the cheapest and best research tool ever invented. Things like Google Street View, location webpages, travel blogs, and that person you went to high school with who fancies themselves as an Influencer’s Instagram feed, all offer information from your desk. No travel required. The same applies to any other aspect of research.
But be careful. Your Influencer friend might be distorting the truth for clicks. That travel blog may have been paid content from a tourism company. And Google Street View may be tracking your data to target you with ads.** Lateral reading and critical research are key.
4) You can find anything on YouTube. Seriously. But you have to know your topic well enough to know how to search for it. In The Renegades, I have a character whose lungs collapse from a bullet wound. I wanted to find out how a medic would treat that condition. Sure enough, someone had posted on YouTube a video with detailed instructions on how to perform a needle decompression.
You can find anything on YouTube. If you want to know about how the Earth is actually hollow and filled with shape-shifting lizards who have roles in every government and are most celebrities, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how vaccines are a secret government conspiracy by the lizard people to depopulate the planet and make the survivors docile sheep ready for the coming invasion, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how white people are being replaced as part of a globalist agenda and the only way to stop it is by becoming a Nazi, then YouTube has you covered.***
Again, lateral reading and critical research are key.
5) You can find things anywhere. You’re a writer, so keep pen and paper within reach during all waking hours. You might get an idea from a news story on television, a song on the radio, or a Tweet from a friend. About a year ago, I was driving along on a warm day, listening to the radio with the windows down. An oldies station played “Wind of Change,” the Scorpions’ 1990 ballad hailing the end of the Cold War. I hadn’t heard that song in a long time, and I cranked it up loud. The power chords brought back memories of flying relief missions to Bosnia while based at a disused Cold War alert facility in Germany. Not really a pleasant memory–for Bosnia, the end of the Cold War brought something worse. But that flashback from early in my military career inspired a scene in the novel I’m working on now.
While I agree with this point, I think people get carried away with always having a pen and paper handy. A lot of the ideas you end up writing down are rubbish. The flight of fancy comes and goes. The things you write down should be the sticky things. That thing you wanted to look up, you’ll remember it if it was actually important.
6) You can use all of your senses. Find out what things taste like, smell like, feel like. Say, for example, you set your novel in Warsaw. Maybe you can’t afford to go to Warsaw, but you can go to a Polish restaurant. (See item number three above, about doing research on the cheap.) As you write one of your scenes, include a line about the texture and flavor of something your character eats. You’ve just made your writing more alive and authentic.
This is good advice, particularly with internet research. It is easy to look up photos of a location. Harder to look up what it smells like, or if the road is uneven underfoot, or if arterial blood feels warm on your skin. We’ve got roughly 20 senses, so your research (and writing descriptions) should reflect that.
7) You can leave some things out. If you do thorough research, you’ll find more material than you need, and no reader likes a data dump. In my own writing, I could bore you to death with the details of aircraft and weapons. But a very good creative writing professor once advised me to let the reader “overhear” the tech talk. Say, if my character punches off a HARM missile, that might sound authentic and pretty scary. But scary would turn to dull if I stopped the action to tell you that HARM stands for High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, which homes in on anti-aircraft missile radars. Who cares? The damn thing goes boom.
This is the most important point about research, even in science. Most of it doesn’t end up on the page. Nobody cares about the lab experiments that failed, they want to know about the results from the one that worked. Nobody wants to read your detailed and accurate Linux commands the hacker types in, sudo leave that stuff out.
I think the point of research is to better understand the universe we live in. For a writer, research will help to create more believable universes for their stories. It isn’t easy to tell the difference between good and bad information. It isn’t easy to know when to stop. And it is hardest of all to not brag about how big your research is.
* Ever notice that novels by successful authors are never set in boring locations? The characters are never having the exciting chase scene through the streets of Canberra, Adelaide, or Perth Australia, they are in Paris, or New York, or London. Funny how those places are regarded as top destinations for travel.
** Maybe? Try definitely. I said may because you can run tracking and ad blockers and deny cookies. Good advice to stop some… interesting ads coming your way.
*** I’m not even covering the worst and most obviously wrong conspiracies with these examples. Not even close. Two of those three examples are getting people killed.
In this month’s What’s the Difference? the CineFix team delve into the crazy world of The Mask.
The Mask turns 25 this month AND the comics are coming back! So it’s time to look back at Jim Carrey’s half cartoon turn as the big green head. Based on a shockingly violent graphic novel, how did The Mask go from a splatterfest to slapstick? It’s time to ask What’s the Difference!?
When I was a young lad, The Mask was one of the most quotable movies that weren’t R-Rated Pulp Fiction. It was Jim Carey at his zaniest, a digitally enhanced Ace Ventura. It was funny… for teens and some adults.
I’m not sure if the movie has dated poorly, or if it became too popular and thus annoying – the ever problematic oversaturation phenomenon – or if we’ve had enough of the zany Jim Carey, or if I’m just an old man shouting at clouds now. But there was a time when this movie was cool and funny. It was Looney Tunes for teenagers who grew up watching reruns of Bugs and Daffy.
The comic… I remember trying really hard to read it. But after having watched the movie first, the differences were too much. The dark and violent humour of the comic was asking too much of a younger me who was expecting zany Bugs Bunny style slapstick.
This video did leave me with the question: what if they’d asked Sam Raimi to direct The Mask with Bruce Campbell in the lead? You could have the horror styled darkness and all the humour, just like Army of Darkness. Not too late!