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.
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.
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.
In independent publishing, 10% of the book sale goes to the author, perhaps another 10% to the printer, and up to a whopping 70% for distribution. What’s left has to pay the publisher, editor, marketers, admin staff and keep the lights on.
But we can improve our approach to author rights. Here are five lessons we can learn from elsewhere to help Australian writers earn more money.
Traditionally, contractual “out of print” clauses have let authors reclaim their rights when a print run has sold out and the publisher doesn’t want to invest in another. But in our recent analysis of almost 150 contracts in the Australian Society of Authors archive, we found 85% of contracts with these clauses allowed authors to reclaim their rights only when the book was “not available in any edition”.
These days, books can be kept available (at least digitally or via print-on-demand) forever – but that doesn’t mean their publishers are still actively promoting them.
A better approach is to allow authors to reclaim their rights towards the end of a work’s commercial life, determined with reference to objective criteria like the number of copies sold or royalties earned in the previous year. The Australian Society of Authors recommends authors only sign contracts that have this meaningful kind of out-of-print clause – but many publishers still try to get authors to sign up to unacceptable terms.
A growing number of countries (including France, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Macedonia and Brazil mandate author rights based on objective criteria. The French law is an interesting model. There, authors can get their rights back if a book has been published for at least four years, and they haven’t been credited royalties for at least two. This opens up new possibilities for the author to license it to another publisher, or even sell it directly to libraries or consumers.
#2: ‘Use it or lose it’: return author rights when they’re not being used
Publishers take very broad rights to most books: in our recent archival analysis we found 83% took worldwide rights, and 43% took rights in all languages. It’s easy to take rights – but if publishers do so, they should be obliged to either use them or give them back.
To that end we can learn from the “use it or lose it” laws that bind publishers in some parts of Europe. In Spain and Lithuania, for example, authors can get their rights back for languages that are still unexploited after five years.
#3: Introduce a ‘bestseller’ clause to contracts
Of course, it’s not always the case that there’s no money in publishing: sometimes a title that was expected to sell 5,000 copies sells 5,000,000. That changes the economics enormously: but in many cases, the contract only provides the same old 10% revenue for the author. For works that achieve unexpected success, we can learn from Germany and the Netherlands (and the proposed new EU copyright law). They have “bestseller” clauses that give authors the right to share fairly in unexpected windfalls arising from their work.
#4: Legally enshrine the right to fair payment
Even where there’s not much money to be made, the author should still receive a fair share. Again, Germany and the Netherlands lead the way on this. There, authors are entitled to “fair” or “equitable” payment for their work – and can enforce those rights if their pay is too low.
These laws don’t set a dollar amount, since what is “fair” depends on all the circumstances. However, such laws at least provide a minimum floor. If the contracted amount is unfair or inequitable, authors have a legal right to redress.
#5: Put time limits on transfers
In Australia, copyright lasts for the life of the author, and then another 70 years after that. Publishers almost always take rights for that full term – only 3% of the contracts between publishers and authors we looked at took less. But publishers don’t need that long to recoup their investments. In the US, authors can reclaim their rights from intermediaries 35 years after they licensed or transferred them.
In Canada, copyrights transfer automatically to heirs 25 years after an author dies. We used to have the same law in Australia, but it was abolished for spurious reasons about 50 years ago. If we reintroduced a similar time limit on transfers, it would open up new opportunities for authors and their heirs (for example, to license or sell to a different publisher, libraries or direct to the public).
It’s true that there’s often not much money in publishing. But by changing our approach to author rights, we can help writers earn more and make Australian books more freely available.
The first rule of this month’s It’s Lit! is that you don’t talk about the narrator.
Unreliable narrators are an interesting topic. To some extent, I regard all narrators as flawed in some way. Unless you have omniscient narration you always have a limited viewpoint, and it could be argued that even with omniscient you still aren’t pulling away from the main narrative so it is limited as well. So I would argue that unreliable narrators are more a case of how unreliable are all narrators.
Who is the most powerful character in fiction? Villains may doom the world, heroes may save it, but no one has more control over the plot than the narrator – expositing the who, what, where, when and how directly into the reader’s mind. But how can you tell that the person telling you the story is telling you the whole story?
It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, a eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading.
Industry and educators are agreed: the world needs creativity. There is interest in the field, lots of urging but remarkably little action. Everyone is a bit scared of what to do next. On the question of creativity and imagination, they are mostly uncreative and unimaginative.
Some of the paralysis arises because you can’t easily define creativity. It resists the measurement and strategies that we’re familiar with. Indisposed by the simultaneous vagueness and sublimity of creative processes, educators seek artificial ways to channel imaginative activity into templates that end up compromising the very creativity they celebrate.
For example, creativity is often reduced to problem-solving. To be sure, you need imagination to solve many curly problems and creativity is arguably part of what it takes. But problem-solving is far from the whole of creativity; and if you focus creative thinking uniquely on problems and solutions, you encourage a mechanistic view – all about scoping and then pinpointing the best fit among options.
It might be satisfying to create models for such analytical processes but they distort the natural, wayward flux of imaginative thinking. Often, it is not about solving a problem but seeing a problem that no one else has identified. Often, the point of departure is a personal wish for something to be true or worth arguing or capable of making a poetic splash, whereupon the mind goes into imaginative overdrive to develop a robust theory that has never been proposed before.
For teaching purposes, problems are an anxious place to cultivate creativity. If you think of anyone coming up with an idea — a new song, a witty way of denouncing a politician, a dance step, a joke — it isn’t necessarily about a problem but rather a blissful opportunity for the mind to exercise its autonomy, that magical power to concatenate images freely and to see within them a bristling expression of something intelligent.
That’s the motive behind what scholars now call “Big C Creativity”: i.e. your Bach or Darwin or Freud who comes up with a major original contribution to culture or science. But the same is true of everyday “small C creativity” that isn’t specifically problem-based.
Relishing the independence of the mind is the basis for naturally imaginative activity, like humour, repartee, a gestural impulse or theatrical intuition, a satire that extrapolates someone’s behaviour or produces a poignant character insight.
A dull taming
Our way of democratising creativity is not to see it in inherently imaginative spontaneity but to identify it with instrumental strategising. We tame creativity by making it dull. Our way of honing the faculty is by making it goal-oriented and compliant to a purpose that can be managed and assessed.
Alas, when we make creativity artificially responsible to a goal, we collapse it with prudent decision-making, whereupon it no longer transcends familiar frameworks toward an unknown fertility.
We pin creativity to logical intelligence as opposed to fantasy, that somewhat messy generation of figments out of whose chaos the mind can see a brilliant rhyme, a metaphor, a hilarious skip or roll of the shoulders, an outrageous pun, a thought about why peacocks have such a long tail, a reason why bread goes stale or an astonishing pattern in numbers arising from a formula.
Because creativity, in essence, is somewhat irresponsible, it isn’t easy to locate in a syllabus and impossible to teach in a culture of learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are statements of what the student will gain from the subject or unit that you’re teaching. Internationally and across the tertiary system, they take the form of: “On successful completion of this subject, you will be able to …” Everything that is taught should then support the outcomes and all assessment should allow the students to demonstrate that they have met them.
After a lengthy historical study, I have concluded that our contemporary education systematically trashes creativity and unwittingly punishes students for exercising their imagination. The structural basis for this passive hostility to the imagination is the grid of learning outcomes in alignment with delivery and assessment.
It might always be impossible to teach creativity but the least we can do for our students is make education a safe place for imagination. Our academies are a long way from that haven and I see little encouraging in the apologias for creativity that the literature now spawns.
My contention is that learning outcomes are only good for uncreative study. For education to cultivate creativity and imagination, we need to stop asking students anxiously to follow demonstrable proofs of learning for which imagination is a liability.
In Canada, they get them back 25 years after they are dead when the rights automatically revert to their estate. In Australia, our law used to do the same, but we removed the provision in 1968. In our law, authors are never given back what they give away.
Some publishers voluntarily put such clauses in their contracts, but that is something they choose to do, rather than something the law mandates.
Australia’s copyright term is long. For written works it lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. It was extended from 50 years after death as part of the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement.
What copyright is for
Copyright is a government-granted limited monopoly to control certain uses of an author’s work.
It is meant to achieve three main things: incentivise the creation of works, reward authors, and benefit society through access to knowledge and culture.
Incentive and reward are not the same thing.
The incentive needn’t be big
The copyright term needed to provide an incentive to create something is pretty short.
But, in practice authors, artists and composers are often obliged to transfer all or most of their rights to corporate investors such as record labels or book publishers in order to receive anything at all.
In the film and television industries it is not unusual for creators to have to sign over their whole copyright, forever – and not just here on Earth but throughout the universe at large.
Canada’s law already protects authors by giving rights back to their heirs 25 years after they die. Bryan Adams’s proposal is to change one word in that law. Instead of copyright reverting to the creator 25 years after “death”, he wants it to revert 25 years after “transfer”.
Copyright is meant to be about ensuring access
Handing rights back to creators after 25 years would not only help them secure more of copyright’s rewards, it would also help achieve copyright’s other major aim: to promote widespread access to knowledge and culture.
Right now our law isn’t doing a very good job of that, particularly for older material.
Copyright lasts for so long, and distributors lose financial interest in works so fast, that they are often neither properly distributed nor available for anyone else to distribute.
In the book industry my research into almost 100,000 titles has found that publishers license older e-books to libraries on the same terms and for the same prices as newer ones. That includes “exploding” licences which force books to be deleted from collections even if nobody ever borrows them.
Publishers are interested in maximising their share of library collections budgets, not ensuring that a particular author continues to get paid or a particular title continues to get read.
Restricting access to books is not in the interests of authors or readers.
… and directing rewards where they are needed
If rights reverted after 25 years, as I have proposed and as Adams now proposes, authors would be able to do things like license their books directly to libraries in exchange for fair remuneration – say $1 per loan.
We could do it all without changing the total copyright term imposed on us by the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement and other treaties. We could get creators paid more fairly while keeping Australian culture alive.
Creativity is often defined as the ability to come up with new and useful ideas. Like intelligence, it can be considered a trait that everyone – not just creative “geniuses” like Picasso and Steve Jobs – possesses in some capacity.
It’s not just your ability to draw a picture or design a product. We all need to think creatively in our daily lives, whether it’s figuring out how to make dinner using leftovers or fashioning a Halloween costume out of clothes in your closet. Creative tasks range from what researchers call “little-c” creativity – making a website, crafting a birthday present or coming up with a funny joke – to “Big-C” creativity: writing a speech, composing a poem or designing a scientific experiment.
Psychology and neuroscience researchers have started to identify thinking processes and brain regions involved with creativity. Recent evidence suggests that creativity involves a complex interplay between spontaneous and controlled thinking – the ability to both spontaneously brainstorm ideas and deliberately evaluate them to determine whether they’ll actually work.
Despite this progress, the answer to one question has remained particularly elusive: What makes some people more creative than others?
In a new study, my colleagues and I examined whether a person’s creative thinking ability can be explained, in part, by a connection between three brain networks.
Mapping the brain during creative thinking
In the study, we had 163 participants complete a classic test of “divergent thinking” called the alternate uses task, which asks people to think of new and unusual uses for objects. As they completed the test, they underwent fMRI scans, which measures blood flow to parts of the brain.
The task assesses people’s ability to diverge from the common uses of an object. For example, in the study, we showed participants different objects on a screen, such as a gum wrapper or a sock, and asked to come up with creative ways to use them. Some ideas were more creative than others. For the sock, one participant suggested using it to warm your feet – the common use for a sock – while another participant suggested using it as a water filtration system.
Importantly, we found that people who did better on this task also tended to report having more creative hobbies and achievements, which is consistent with previous studies showing that the task measures general creative thinking ability.
After participants completed these creative thinking tasks in the fMRI, we measured functional connectivity between all brain regions – how much activity in one region correlated with activity in another region.
We also ranked their ideas for originality: Common uses received lower scores (using a sock to warm your feet), while uncommon uses received higher scores (using a sock as a water filtration system).
Then we correlated each person’s creativity score with all possible brain connections (approximately 35,000), and removed connections that, according to our analysis, didn’t correlate with creativity scores. The remaining connections constituted a “high-creative” network, a set of connections highly relevant to generating original ideas.
Having defined the network, we wanted to see if someone with stronger connections in this high-creative network would score well on the tasks. So we measured the strength of a person’s connections in this network, and then used predictive modelling to test whether we could estimate a person’s creativity score.
The models revealed a significant correlation between the predicted and observed creativity scores. In other words, we could estimate how creative a person’s ideas would be based on the strength of their connections in this network.
We further tested whether we could predict creative thinking ability in three new samples of participants whose brain data were not used in building the network model. Across all samples, we found that we could predict – albeit modestly – a person’s creative ability based on the strength of their connections in this same network.
Overall, people with stronger connections came up with better ideas.
What’s happening in a ‘high-creative’ network
We found that the brain regions within the “high-creative” network belonged to three specific brain systems: the default, salience and executive networks.
The default network is a set of brain regions that activate when people are engaged in spontaneous thinking, such as mind-wandering, daydreaming and imagining. This network may play a key role in idea generation or brainstorming – thinking of several possible solutions to a problem.
The executive control network is a set of regions that activate when people need to focus or control their thought processes. This network may play a key role in idea evaluation or determining whether brainstormed ideas will actually work and modifying them to fit the creative goal.
The salience network is a set of regions that act as a switching mechanism between the default and executive networks. This network may play a key role in alternating between idea generation and idea evaluation.
An interesting feature of these three networks is that they typically don’t get activated at the same time. For example, when the executive network is activated, the default network is usually deactivated. Our results suggest that creative people are better able to co-activate brain networks that usually work separately.
Future research is needed to determine whether these networks are malleable or relatively fixed. For example, does taking drawing classes lead to greater connectivity within these brain networks? Is it possible to boost general creative thinking ability by modifying network connections?
For now, these questions remain unanswered. As researchers, we just need to engage our own creative networks to figure out how to answer them.
There are so many cool bookshelves around – yes, cool still applies to books. Here are 20 cool designs that will keep your books safe, albeit only a few as the shelves themselves are the centrepiece, not the books. I mean, who needs a bookshelf to actually store books? The Tardis and Tree bookshelves are my favourites.
This is comedy gold that every parent will be able to relate to.
I am a ten-month-old baby and I write because my mother has been sending out my “Christmas List” to people, and her list does not in any way represent the things I really want. I could give two s#*ts about receiving stacking cups.
And I know you’re ready to make the joke about ten month-old babies and how all we want is the wrapping paper and the boxes. Touché,Santa. Touché. We do, of course, want those things. But I have a number of additional things I want very badly.