stephenpalmersf

Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Author Life, Omnibus Edition

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. Being There

Being an author is different to being a writer. Writers put words together in an attempt to make a book. Authors put books together in an attempt to make a career.

I’m going to pass over the truisms – patience, persistence, then more persistence – to ask the question relatively few writers, especially new or unpublished writers, ask themselves. Why do you really want to become an author? Can you perhaps imagine the rewards – the money, the fame, the adulation? Especially the adulation. Desire for internet-wide adoration accounts for the desperation you see when new authors fail to make a mark in the ocean of novels, having assuming during the writing that they were bound to succeed. I’ve seen new writers claim they felt a sense of destiny at an early age, a certainty that writing success would be theirs. But destiny is an illusion, a refuge for the narcissistic, who assume they are the centre of the world and that chance, luck and randomness don’t exist. Well, they do.

If you want to become an author for the adulation of your fans, good luck. Having fans is not guaranteed. If you have fans, keeping them is not guaranteed.

As a consequence, you have to take a long-term view if you want to progress from writer to author. Say, twenty years. Or forty. Or perhaps never. A flash-in-the-pan is forgotten the month after. Slow build and slow burn is the way, if there is a way (which there isn’t). Of course, if you only want to be a writer then a flash-in-the-pan might be just the thing.

The best reason to be an author is because you can’t not be one. By this, I don’t mean because you idolise JJ Abrams, Tolkien or George RR Martin. If you do idolise them you’ll just copy them, either consciously or without knowing it. An author isn’t somebody who can’t not be George RR Martin. Authors have an inner drive to create, and in the best, most interesting cases that drive is independent of culture, of the genre or of specific authors. It is fine to be influenced by authors – I’m influenced by Jack Vance, Spike Milligan and Gene Wolfe – but it’s not fine to want to be somebody else. That just displays an internal void.

Then there’s the commercial success. Do you really want that, or would you rather be an artist? The number of authors who are true artists and commercially successful is vanishingly small, so you’d better get used to the idea that art and commerce are separate goals. It’s great when the money rolls in, but never expect it. You will need a 9-5 job that pays the rent, or have a high-earning spouse or just be lucky financially, which of course most people aren’t.

David Bowie said that the best place for an artist to be was just outside their comfort zone. Authors should always have a question at the back of their mind – how can I challenge myself with my next novel? Well, if you can follow your muse as you actively place obstacles in front of yourself then you’re well on the way to becoming a distinctive author. I want my fans to write in their reviews of my novels, ‘Blimey, I’ve never read anything like this before.’

Your brand should be yourself, but that unfortunately means taking the most difficult path of all. Still, that means it’s the most rewarding path. Writing a novel is an intensely personal thing; then you have to put it out there and submit to the opinions of readers. That’s never an easy experience, even if you’re not desperate, not narcissistic or not a fraud.

As an author you can and should take your art seriously, but it’s best not to take yourself seriously.

  1. In Character

Some of my reviewers have remarked that I’m not an author who “does” character. I think it would be true to say that character focus across my thirteen books does vary. Some of my novels are very character focused, but others are not; and some of the latter were more successful than others. But it is okay to write novels in which the characters are not an overriding, constant focus – for instance if you’re trying to evoke a sense of myth. Characters will usually be the heart of a novel when the reader has finished reading it, but that doesn’t mean you have to be Dickensian-brilliant all the time when you’re writing it. In some novels, the characters won’t be quite as important as in others. I think that’s fine – sometimes you want the reader to have a constant perspective on the feelings and thoughts of the characters, at other times that simply wouldn’t work with the voice you’re using.

When character is the main focus, I find it’s best to take a soap opera attitude. To keep the tension and readability you have to exploit the reader’s emotions just like they do in EastEnders. In that soap opera the emotional voyeurism is taken to an extreme degree, but it’s the method that counts, not the results on the screen. You have to tend towards melodrama without ever reaching that state. In such circumstances, all the plot comes from the characters. For instance, in The Girl With One Friend, a large part of the plot comes from Erasmus Darwin: from his ham-fisted attempt to get answers out of Sir Tantalus Blackmore, from his apostasy, from his difficulties in communicating what he thinks and feels – especially what he feels for Kora. And the last sentence of that novel is a cliff-hanger leading on to the beginning of the third volume, just like you get at the end of a soap opera episode.

These are all tried and tested techniques, but they’re not clichés. They work because most novels are about insight into other people’s minds. The modern format of the novel arose in the 18th century because at that time people were beginning to benefit from the new spirit of humanism in the West, which included liberalism, individualism and concepts of freedom. People, including those naturally able to be artists, began to conceive of others as individuals whose inner worlds were worth exploring.

Remember: there is no such thing as evil and there is no such thing as good. Your characters should have varying degrees of humanity and inhumanity, with the overwhelming majority of the latter sourced in their childhoods.

Too many writers worry about – if they are a man – not being able to write women characters, or – if they are white – not being able to write black African characters. I begin from a simple start: I take all my characters as flawed human beings. I ignore their gender or race and look at them ‘from the inside.’ Although this is not a perfect method, it is in my experience the best way of approaching this tricky issue. Thus, for instance, in Muezzinland all the characters bar a couple are black Africans. I treated Nshalla and Mnada as the daughters of royalty, not the daughters of Ghanaian royalty. I see no reason why a woman author should not have a valuable insight into the ‘male mind’ or why a black African should not have a worthwhile insight into a ‘white mind.’

The important thing is this: you have to be sincerely interested in your characters. If you’re not, it will come out in your novel and your readers will notice. That will put them off reading; it will deaden the novel. You have to be genuinely curious about other people and their lives. If not, you’ll be writing about various types of cardboard.

  1. World Building

I’m considered an author who has an ability with place and setting, which is a nice thing to hear and to read in reviews. However, in the majority of my published novels the world building came after some other inspiration. Only in Urbis Morpheos did the world definitively come before anything else. Elsewhere, it was often a tiny detail which sparked the book, such as the imagined scene of moss-covered roofs going down to a seashore which was one of the beginnings of Memory Seed.

World building is in large part about particular details rather than the big picture. I remember – 25 years ago now – receiving comments from a beta reader of Memory Seed which put it all into place for me. I’d written a sentence or two about the street computer screens, which went something like: “A patina of green algae covered the keypad, in which some reveller had scrawled Live it up! with their finger.” My reader highlighted this as something which brought the scene to life. Although it was such a small thing, it brought home to me the importance of tiny details in evoking a scene or a place.

In the Factory Girl trilogy and elsewhere there are other similar ‘small accidents of imagination’ which for me evoke the world – thousands of discarded paper strips blowing on the wind around a railway station concourse; the great cloud hanging above the Factory; the brown overalls of the Clockwork Garden employees: the blue brake lights of the Memory Seed motor-cycles, and deKray’s menthol sweets.

A balance has to be struck in most genre novels between the outré and the normal. If your world is too outré the reader won’t be able to identify with it, but if it’s too ordinary then the sense of wonder diminishes. One way to get around this is to use details which the reader recognises but which signify a wider imaginative world. Douglas Adams was an absolute master of this technique. One of the best examples in THHGTTG is the towel, that most ordinary of household objects, which he elevated to the status of enigma, thereby telling the reader as much about his imagined world as any info-dump.

In Urbis Morpheos my intention was to write a novel set on an Earth almost entirely unrecognisable. I knew this was a bit of a risk, but it was a path I wanted to follow. Most reviews of the novel praise the world-building but find the plot challenging. It was intended to be challenging – that was one of the foundations – but I did make some concessions to the reader’s 21st century world: the use of motor-cycles, the use of some ‘normal’ land features such as woods and forests, the use of inns and taverns as social centres.

An author shouldn’t be afraid of putting their disposition into their world. An author should have something to say. I’m occasionally criticized for being didactic, but that’s because my novels are always about something other than the plot/narrative. I do have something to say, and that’s fine. Nor should an author be afraid of being partisan – you’re not writing a scientific report. Put your thoughts and feelings into your world via its structure, make it coherent, have positive and negative players, then watch it go…

Always remember though that plot in 90% of cases comes from the characters. One of the best lessons I ever taught myself was when I was starting out, writing a novel that fizzled out about three quarters of the way through. A few weeks later I realised that all I had done was describe the world via an extended journey. There was virtually no plot, and that was why the novel had burned out. Having said that, some authors (China Mieville, Colin Greenland) can make a novel out of a journey; a novel where the journey is the point can work well. But you have to be skilled to pull it off, and usually that will be through the various fates of the characters.

I aim to make my worlds strange, wonderful and beautiful. It’s one of the great joys of creativity that imagination can produce any kind of world, possible and impossible.

  1. Language Issues

My mother – who has never read a single word of any of my novels – recently told me that she had decided to read The Girl With Two Souls “to get an idea of what your style is like.” I had to explain to her that to get an idea of my style – my voice – she’d need to read all my novels. I can’t read authors who use the same voice, even the same world, novel after novel after novel. That’s why, for all his brilliance, I couldn’t read more than about five Terry Pratchett novels.

It is okay for language use and writing style to change from novel to novel. That’s part of the fun of exploration – and authors should be explorers. If you get a subconscious voice saying “you ought to write it using this kind of language” before you begin a new work, you should listen. That little voice will be a very important part of the impact of the book. When I settled down to write Hairy London – which came pretty much improvised and unedited out of my subconscious – I knew the language would be madcap, surreal, flowery, absurd. Many words or phrases that I used were intended to make the reader’s job of imagining quite unusual; and one or two were, in Zen-like fashion, impossible to analyse. That surreality was part of the fun of writing (it was important to me that my sense of fun be conveyed to the reader), and so it was part of the language style too. Hence, the hot-air floating devices which you and I would call a balloon were placed somewhere between a balloon and an animal. It was just that kind of novel. To my delight, some of the reviews remarked that only I could have written the book.

Occasionally my methods don’t work. I wrote the published version of Beautiful Intelligence after Hairy London, and I think I had a kind of ‘surreal hangover,’ which meant the language use for Beautiful Intelligence sometimes didn’t work. Well, that’s life. You live and learn.

As many others have observed, prose should be like music. I’ve always thought this a particularly useful analogy. If you as a writer are sensitive to music, you can use that same sensitivity later to get a feel for your prose. Typically this is best done some time after you’ve written it. I usually give my novels two honing sessions, which have at the very least 3-4 months between them; the subconscious retains prose and mental images for a while, and that function is best avoided when editing.

As for grammar, I’ve never been one for taking it as seriously as many new or aspiring authors take it. My advice is always to concentrate on the quality of your imagination, not the orthodoxy of your prose. If the words work, they work. Nor do I think you necessarily have to know the rules to break them, although I do think that is a firm basis for iconoclastic success. What matters is (a) language matching novel and (b) prose being musical. When I was starting out in the 1980s I tried to make my sentences flow, but beyond that I didn’t know what I was doing. I think my musicality helped.

I also think that writing technique is an over-rated concept. Authors in my opinion should worry more about the quality of their imagination. Show not tell? Well, sometimes tell is better. Filter words? Meh. Use of ‘however’ not at the beginning of a sentence? If the sentence works, who cares? Begin a new paragraph with and? Why not?

The one element of technique however that I would emphasise is point of view switching. That really is a no-no, because regardless of the style – close, quite close, even omniscient sometimes – you want to avoid occasions where reading is interrupted because the reader can’t work out who is thinking what and doing what. For a close POV work it is particularly important never to head-hop. But even in omniscient mode you can invisibly guide and support the reader, for instance by using the ‘new’ character’s name at the start of the sentence where the POV switches, and heading off from there. The music will carry the reader if you do it well.

Interrupting the reader’s moment-by-moment experience of the narrative because of writing style is in a nutshell what not to do. For instance, in the matter of Yorkshire dialect for the Factory Girl trilogy I had to follow a difficult tightrope – simultaneously making the dialogue realistic but never so realistic that the reader couldn’t work out what was being said. That really was quite tricky. I had to devise some rules in advance that were not authentic, but which made sure my readers wouldn’t be confused by dialect words.

Other early advice I received was to avoid similes and use metaphors. Recently I’ve seen advice to the effect that metaphors also are becoming beyond the pale… I think in small doses they are fine though. But as Gene Wolfe said, a cliché is better than the phrase which does not work.

And, if you’re stuck, don’t think about the words – imagine it better!

  1. The Art Of Authoring

So, is it art or is it something else? Or is this in fact a false distinction?

For me, it’s art. Some writers of my acquaintance are uncomfortable with saying their work is art because they’re worried about mockery and censure. But every human being could be an artist, if they were allowed to develop themselves. Unfortunately most models of education, West and East, are based on the Industrial Revolution method: make all children aim for exactly the same goals ready for employment. The stem of our word education is educare, related to educere, to lead forth, to bring out. Education should be more about fostering what’s already there and less about putting stuff in.

For an artist or a non-artist, 5* reviews are an illusion. Aim for 3.5 and hope for at least one 1* review. If you’ve become an author but haven’t got people disliking your work, you’re either too boring or too predictable. Art should never be boring or predictable.

For me, a glorious failure is better in some ways than a predictable success, although it’s not necessarily much better – that depends on the ambition of the failed vision. Courage is a useful quality in an author, albeit rather a rare one. I aim to stay in the Bowie zone. For me, tradition, predictability and repetition are elements of passivity. I would go back to one of my previous worlds, but only for the most fabulous of reasons. For me the thrill is almost always in new territory. Yet we mustn’t forget that the Bowie of ‘Starman,’ ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Kooks’ was also the Bowie of Tin Machine, which I disliked as much as everyone else…

So, what is art?

Amy was so entranced by the beauty of the antelope pictured in the book that quite without realising it she took a pencil from the pocket of her dress and began sketching it on the blank page opposite. “This is the imaginary antelope,” she thought, as she continued to sketch. “I shall give it extra-twirly prongs!”

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“Why,” Amy said, taking her book of aphorisms from her pocket, “I do believe King George the Fourth had something to say on that subject. And here it is!” – There are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination.

Creativity is the human imaginative response to the real world: there are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination. Creativity is a direct consequence of sensitivity, of emotionality, of a holistic view. If you read accounts penned by artists like Matisse, Da Vinci and Cezanne they all describe their art as a response to what they see in the real world – usually, though not exclusively, in nature. As Matisse said:

“The painter must have no preconceived notion of the model – his spirit must be open and receive everything, just as in a landscape he would take in every one of the scents of the air… I am incapable of making a slavish copy of Nature. Instead I feel compelled to interpret it…”

And art does have meaning. It’s the cynic’s response to wonder whether it might not. Art always has meaning because meaning is all about coherence. The incoherent view is never accessible by others: if it is incoherent, what’s the point? Incoherence is tantamount to madness – a personal religion: no followers.

All this is not to say that authors who write for money or who don’t consider their work to be art are in the wrong; far from it. They should do what they like, and they contribute a huge amount to cultural life. In this omnibus blog I’ve tried to describe what works for me, and then generalise. But variety is the spice of life. My feeling is that it’s best for an author to interpret rather than to copy.

Personally, I prefer to make the best that I possibly can of the first draft. I’ve found that if I need to do a second, or even a third draft then a lot of the magic leaks out. It does vary however. The second draft of Memory Seed was the one which caught Orbit Books’ eye and lifted me out of the slush pile. What I try to do on my first draft is capture in as intense a way as possible all the magic and wonder I’m feeling as I create, then convey that to the reader. Usually it just doesn’t feel the same second or third time. But there are always exceptions. Beautiful Intelligence for instance was a merging of two separate drafts.

And you should make your readers work for their reward. All the novels that mean the most to me are challenging novels, where I’ve had to put a lot in to get a lot out. Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun is the example I usually give, but there are others. You have to really concentrate on Dune for instance to get everything out that Frank Herbert put in, even in that first, brilliantly plotted work, which is simple compared with later works in the same universe. But this is a long term strategy for an author. By writing challenging, dense or enigmatic novels you follow a course where the tactic often leads to reader loss, even though the strategy is a recipe for achievement, and a possible gain of readers.

An author should write for their readers, but not for their fans.

So it’s all about the magic; and sometimes that just isn’t there. Sometimes you have to accept the circumstance, press the delete button and never return.

Enjoy your creativity!

MZ front FINAL

Author Life, Day 5

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. The Art Of Authoring

So, is it art or is it something else? Or is this in fact a false distinction?

For me, it’s art. Some writers of my acquaintance are uncomfortable with saying their work is art because they’re worried about mockery and censure. But every human being could be an artist, if they were allowed to develop themselves. Unfortunately most models of education, West and East, are based on the Industrial Revolution method: make all children aim for exactly the same goals ready for employment. The stem of our word education is educare, related to educere, to lead forth, to bring out. Education should be more about fostering what’s already there and less about putting stuff in.

For an artist or a non-artist, 5* reviews are an illusion. Aim for 3.5 and hope for at least one 1* review. If you’ve become an author but haven’t got people disliking your work, you’re either too boring or too predictable. Art should never be boring or predictable.

For me, a glorious failure is better in some ways than a predictable success, although it’s not necessarily much better – that depends on the ambition of the failed vision. Courage is a useful quality in an author, albeit rather a rare one. I aim to stay in the Bowie zone. For me, tradition, predictability and repetition are elements of passivity. I would go back to one of my previous worlds, but only for the most fabulous of reasons. For me the thrill is almost always in new territory. Yet we mustn’t forget that the Bowie of ‘Starman,’ ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Kooks’ was also the Bowie of Tin Machine, which I disliked as much as everyone else…

So, what is art?

Amy was so entranced by the beauty of the antelope pictured in the book that quite without realising it she took a pencil from the pocket of her dress and began sketching it on the blank page opposite. “This is the imaginary antelope,” she thought, as she continued to sketch. “I shall give it extra-twirly prongs!”

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“Why,” Amy said, taking her book of aphorisms from her pocket, “I do believe King George the Fourth had something to say on that subject. And here it is!” – There are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination.

Creativity is the human imaginative response to the real world: there are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination. Creativity is a direct consequence of sensitivity, of emotionality, of a holistic view. If you read accounts penned by artists like Matisse, Da Vinci and Cezanne they all describe their art as a response to what they see in the real world – usually, though not exclusively, in nature. As Matisse said:

“The painter must have no preconceived notion of the model – his spirit must be open and receive everything, just as in a landscape he would take in every one of the scents of the air… I am incapable of making a slavish copy of Nature. Instead I feel compelled to interpret it…”

And art does have meaning. It’s the cynic’s response to wonder whether it might not. Art always has meaning because meaning is all about coherence. The incoherent view is never accessible by others: if it is incoherent, what’s the point? Incoherence is tantamount to madness – a personal religion: no followers.

All this is not to say that authors who write for money or who don’t consider their work to be art are in the wrong; far from it. They should do what they like, and they contribute a huge amount to cultural life. In this week’s blogs I’ve tried to describe what works for me, and then generalise. But variety is the spice of life. My feeling is that it’s best for an author to interpret rather than to copy.

Personally, I prefer to make the best that I possibly can of the first draft. I’ve found that if I need to do a second, or even a third draft then a lot of the magic leaks out. It does vary however. The second draft of Memory Seed was the one which caught Orbit Books’ eye and lifted me out of the slush pile. What I try to do on my first draft is capture in as intense a way as possible all the magic and wonder I’m feeling as I create, then convey that to the reader. Usually it just doesn’t feel the same second or third time. But there are always exceptions. Beautiful Intelligence for instance was a merging of two separate drafts.

And you should make your readers work for their reward. All the novels that mean the most to me are challenging novels, where I’ve had to put a lot in to get a lot out. Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun is the example I usually give, but there are others. You have to really concentrate on Dune for instance to get everything out that Frank Herbert put in, even in that first, brilliantly plotted work, which is simple compared with later works in the same universe. But this is a long term strategy for an author. By writing challenging, dense or enigmatic novels you follow a course where the tactic often leads to reader loss, even though the strategy is a recipe for achievement, and a possible gain of readers.

An author should write for their readers, but not for their fans.

So it’s all about the magic; and sometimes that just isn’t there. Sometimes you have to accept the circumstance, press the delete button and never return.

Enjoy your creativity!

NGFAF front FINAL

 

Author Life, Day 4

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. Language Issues

My mother – who has never read a single word of any of my novels – recently told me that she had decided to read The Girl With Two Souls “to get an idea of what your style is like.” I had to explain to her that to get an idea of my style – my voice – she’d need to read all my novels. I can’t read authors who use the same voice, even the same world, novel after novel after novel. That’s why, for all his brilliance, I couldn’t read more than about five Terry Pratchett novels.

It is okay for language use and writing style to change from novel to novel. That’s part of the fun of exploration – and authors should be explorers. If you get a subconscious voice saying “you ought to write it using this kind of language” before you begin a new work, you should listen. That little voice will be a very important part of the impact of the book. When I settled down to write Hairy London – which came pretty much improvised and unedited out of my subconscious – I knew the language would be madcap, surreal, flowery, absurd. Many words or phrases that I used were intended to make the reader’s job of imagining quite unusual; and one or two were, in Zen-like fashion, impossible to analyse. That surreality was part of the fun of writing (it was important to me that my sense of fun be conveyed to the reader), and so it was part of the language style too. Hence, the hot-air floating devices which you and I would call a balloon were placed somewhere between a balloon and an animal. It was just that kind of novel. To my delight, some of the reviews remarked that only I could have written the book.

Occasionally my methods don’t work. I wrote the published version of Beautiful Intelligence after Hairy London, and I think I had a kind of ‘surreal hangover,’ which meant the language use for Beautiful Intelligence sometimes didn’t work. Well, that’s life. You live and learn.

As many others have observed, prose should be like music. I’ve always thought this a particularly useful analogy. If you as a writer are sensitive to music, you can use that same sensitivity later to get a feel for your prose. Typically this is best done some time after you’ve written it. I usually give my novels two honing sessions, which have at the very least 3-4 months between them; the subconscious retains prose and mental images for a while, and that function is best avoided when editing.

As for grammar, I’ve never been one for taking it as seriously as many new or aspiring authors take it. My advice is always to concentrate on the quality of your imagination, not the orthodoxy of your prose. If the words work, they work. Nor do I think you necessarily have to know the rules to break them, although I do think that is a firm basis for iconoclastic success. What matters is (a) language matching novel and (b) prose being musical. When I was starting out in the 1980s I tried to make my sentences flow, but beyond that I didn’t know what I was doing. I think my musicality helped.

I also think that writing technique is an over-rated concept. Authors in my opinion should worry more about the quality of their imagination. Show not tell? Well, sometimes tell is better. Filter words? Meh. Use of ‘however’ not at the beginning of a sentence? If the sentence works, who cares? Begin a new paragraph with and? Why not?

The one element of technique however that I would emphasise is point of view switching. That really is a no-no, because regardless of the style – close, quite close, even omniscient sometimes – you want to avoid occasions where reading is interrupted because the reader can’t work out who is thinking what and doing what. For a close POV work it is particularly important never to head-hop. But even in omniscient mode you can invisibly guide and support the reader, for instance by using the ‘new’ character’s name at the start of the sentence where the POV switches, and heading off from there. The music will carry the reader if you do it well.

Interrupting the reader’s moment-by-moment experience of the narrative because of writing style is in a nutshell what not to do. For instance, in the matter of Yorkshire dialect for the Factory Girl trilogy I had to follow a difficult tightrope – simultaneously making the dialogue realistic but never so realistic that the reader couldn’t work out what was being said. That really was quite tricky. I had to devise some rules in advance that were not authentic, but which made sure my readers wouldn’t be confused by dialect words.

Other early advice I received was to avoid similes and use metaphors. Recently I’ve seen advice to the effect that metaphors also are becoming beyond the pale… I think in small doses they are fine though. But as Gene Wolfe said, a cliché is better than the phrase which does not work.

And, if you’re stuck, don’t think about the words – imagine it better!

h l

Hairy London – cover

Author Life, Day 3

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. World Building

I’m considered an author who has an ability with place and setting, which is a nice thing to hear and to read in reviews. However, in the majority of my published novels the world building came after some other inspiration. Only in Urbis Morpheos did the world definitively come before anything else. Elsewhere, it was often a tiny detail which sparked the book, such as the imagined scene of moss-covered roofs going down to a seashore which was one of the beginnings of Memory Seed.

World building is in large part about particular details rather than the big picture. I remember – 25 years ago now – receiving comments from a beta reader of Memory Seed which put it all into place for me. I’d written a sentence or two about the street computer screens, which went something like: “A patina of green algae covered the keypad, in which some reveller had scrawled Live it up! with their finger.” My reader highlighted this as something which brought the scene to life. Although it was such a small thing, it brought home to me the importance of tiny details in evoking a scene or a place.

In the Factory Girl trilogy and elsewhere there are other similar ‘small accidents of imagination’ which for me evoke the world – thousands of discarded paper strips blowing on the wind around a railway station concourse; the great cloud hanging above the Factory; the brown overalls of the Clockwork Garden employees: the blue brake lights of the Memory Seed motor-cycles, and deKray’s menthol sweets.

A balance has to be struck in most genre novels between the outré and the normal. If your world is too outré the reader won’t be able to identify with it, but if it’s too ordinary then the sense of wonder diminishes. One way to get around this is to use details which the reader recognises but which signify a wider imaginative world. Douglas Adams was an absolute master of this technique. One of the best examples in THHGTTG is the towel, that most ordinary of household objects, which he elevated to the status of enigma, thereby telling the reader as much about his imagined world as any info-dump.

In Urbis Morpheos my intention was to write a novel set on an Earth almost entirely unrecognisable. I knew this was a bit of a risk, but it was a path I wanted to follow. Most reviews of the novel praise the world-building but find the plot challenging. It was intended to be challenging – that was one of the foundations – but I did make some concessions to the reader’s 21st century world: the use of motor-cycles, the use of some ‘normal’ land features such as woods and forests, the use of inns and taverns as social centres.

An author shouldn’t be afraid of putting their disposition into their world. An author should have something to say. I’m occasionally criticized for being didactic, but that’s because my novels are always about something other than the plot/narrative. I do have something to say, and that’s fine. Nor should an author be afraid of being partisan – you’re not writing a scientific report. Put your thoughts and feelings into your world via its structure, make it coherent, have positive and negative players, then watch it go…

Always remember though that plot in 90% of cases comes from the characters. One of the best lessons I ever taught myself was when I was starting out, writing a novel that fizzled out about three quarters of the way through. A few weeks later I realised that all I had done was describe the world via an extended journey. There was virtually no plot, and that was why the novel had burned out. Having said that, some authors (China Mieville, Colin Greenland) can make a novel out of a journey; a novel where the journey is the point can work well. But you have to be skilled to pull it off, and usually that will be through the various fates of the characters.

I aim to make my worlds strange, wonderful and beautiful. It’s one of the great joys of creativity that imagination can produce any kind of world, possible and impossible.

Palmer cov

Author Life, Day 2

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. In Character

Some of my reviewers have remarked that I’m not an author who “does” character. I think it would be true to say that character focus across my thirteen books does vary. Some of my novels are very character focused, but others are not; and some of the latter were more successful than others. But it is okay to write novels in which the characters are not an overriding, constant focus – for instance if you’re trying to evoke a sense of myth. Characters will usually be the heart of a novel when the reader has finished reading it, but that doesn’t mean you have to be Dickensian-brilliant all the time when you’re writing it. In some novels, the characters won’t be quite as important as in others. I think that’s fine – sometimes you want the reader to have a constant perspective on the feelings and thoughts of the characters, at other times that simply wouldn’t work with the voice you’re using.

When character is the main focus, I find it’s best to take a soap opera attitude. To keep the tension and readability you have to exploit the reader’s emotions just like they do in EastEnders. In that soap opera the emotional voyeurism is taken to an extreme degree, but it’s the method that counts, not the results on the screen. You have to tend towards melodrama without ever reaching that state. In such circumstances, all the plot comes from the characters. For instance, in The Girl With One Friend, a large part of the plot comes from Erasmus Darwin: from his ham-fisted attempt to get answers out of Sir Tantalus Blackmore, from his apostasy, from his difficulties in communicating what he thinks and feels – especially what he feels for Kora. And the last sentence of that novel is a cliff-hanger leading on to the beginning of the third volume, just like you get at the end of a soap opera episode.

These are all tried and tested techniques, but they’re not clichés. They work because most novels are about insight into other people’s minds. The modern format of the novel arose in the 18th century because at that time people were beginning to benefit from the new spirit of humanism in the West, which included liberalism, individualism and concepts of freedom. People, including those naturally able to be artists, began to conceive of others as individuals whose inner worlds were worth exploring.

Remember: there is no such thing as evil and there is no such thing as good. Your characters should have varying degrees of humanity and inhumanity, with the overwhelming majority of the latter sourced in their childhoods.

Too many writers worry about – if they are a man – not being able to write women characters, or – if they are white – not being able to write black African characters. I begin from a simple start: I take all my characters as flawed human beings. I ignore their gender or race and look at them ‘from the inside.’ Although this is not a perfect method, it is in my experience the best way of approaching this tricky issue. Thus, for instance, in Muezzinland all the characters bar a couple are black Africans. I treated Nshalla and Mnada as the daughters of royalty, not the daughters of Ghanaian royalty. I see no reason why a woman author should not have a valuable insight into the ‘male mind’ or why a black African should not have a worthwhile insight into a ‘white mind.’

The important thing is this: you have to be sincerely interested in your characters. If you’re not, it will come out in your novel and your readers will notice. That will put them off reading; it will deaden the novel. You have to be genuinely curious about other people and their lives. If not, you’ll be writing about various types of cardboard.

tgw2s

The Girl With Two Souls

Author Life, Day 1

When I was first published in the mid 1990s a few of the SF authors I got to know had part-time jobs teaching creative writing, or gave ad hoc courses on the subject. I knew then that I couldn’t possibly attempt such a thing. I felt naïve, my debut Memory Seed, extracted from the slush pile at odds of ten thousand to one against, having been written on little more than imaginative power. I had poor grammar knowledge, and had written the draft which got picked on the basis of “this reads okay,” inspired by the writing techniques of authors I liked – for Memory Seed that was Mary Gentle and Gene Wolfe. Mary Gentle used a lot of semicolons, therefore I did too.

These days I feel different. I reckon I could teach a useful course in creative writing, although it would be like no other course because I’d only be able to teach how I do it. But, having recently read a few articles written by various authors on their craft, I thought I’d try some advice-giving myself. So upcoming on the blog it is Author Life week. I hope I can pass on a few useful tips, ideas and insights. What I suggest this week won’t be applicable to all however. Possibly, my advice will only be applicable to me.

  1. Being There

Being an author is different to being a writer. Writers put words together in an attempt to make a book. Authors put books together in an attempt to make a career.

I’m going to pass over the truisms – patience, persistence, then more persistence – to ask the question relatively few writers, especially new or unpublished writers, ask themselves. Why do you really want to become an author? Can you perhaps imagine the rewards – the money, the fame, the adulation? Especially the adulation. Desire for internet-wide adoration accounts for the desperation you see when new authors fail to make a mark in the ocean of novels, having assuming during the writing that they were bound to succeed. I’ve seen new writers claim they felt a sense of destiny at an early age, a certainty that writing success would be theirs. But destiny is an illusion, a refuge for the narcissistic, who assume they are the centre of the world and that chance, luck and randomness don’t exist. Well, they do.

If you want to become an author for the adulation of your fans, good luck. Having fans is not guaranteed. If you have fans, keeping them is not guaranteed.

As a consequence, you have to take a long-term view if you want to progress from writer to author. Say, twenty years. Or forty. Or perhaps never. A flash-in-the-pan is forgotten the month after. Slow build and slow burn is the way, if there is a way (which there isn’t). Of course, if you only want to be a writer then a flash-in-the-pan might be just the thing.

The best reason to be an author is because you can’t not be one. By this, I don’t mean because you idolise JJ Abrams, Tolkien or George RR Martin. If you do idolise them you’ll just copy them, either consciously or without knowing it. An author isn’t somebody who can’t not be George RR Martin. Authors have an inner drive to create, and in the best, most interesting cases that drive is independent of culture, of the genre or of specific authors. It is fine to be influenced by authors – I’m influenced by Jack Vance, Spike Milligan and Gene Wolfe – but it’s not fine to want to be somebody else. That just displays an internal void.

Then there’s the commercial success. Do you really want that, or would you rather be an artist? The number of authors who are true artists and commercially successful is vanishingly small, so you’d better get used to the idea that art and commerce are separate goals. It’s great when the money rolls in, but never expect it. You will need a 9-5 job that pays the rent, or have a high-earning spouse or just be lucky financially, which of course most people aren’t.

David Bowie said that the best place for an artist to be was just outside their comfort zone. Authors should always have a question at the back of their mind – how can I challenge myself with my next novel? Well, if you can follow your muse as you actively place obstacles in front of yourself then you’re well on the way to becoming a distinctive author. I want my fans to write in their reviews of my novels, ‘Blimey, I’ve never read anything like this before.’

Your brand should be yourself, but that unfortunately means taking the most difficult path of all. Still, that means it’s the most rewarding path. Writing a novel is an intensely personal thing; then you have to put it out there and submit to the opinions of readers. That’s never an easy experience, even if you’re not desperate, not narcissistic or not a fraud.

As an author you can and should take your art seriously, but it’s best not to take yourself seriously.

Memory Seed ebook cover

Memory Seed

UK PR

Nick Clegg, Friday 9 June 2017: “Tonight has once again proved that if you live by the sword you die by the sword.”

prlabour

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

I read Sapiens by this author and thought it a brilliant book. I’m not so sure about this one.

s

The sequel to Sapiens takes the reader through history into a speculative future, based on ideas of what the 21st century might be like. Sapiens showed the gift Harari has for summarising and describing with marvellous clarity how people have changed according to a number of revolutions – the cognitive revolution of (in Harari’s estimation) 70,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution. This book begins with a similar survey, before going into four chapters showing how human beings invest their world with meaning. Harari observes, as others have, that our modern world is conspicuously lacking the sense of meaning and order which existed in earlier times. But he does show how what he calls humanism took over from religious notions some time around the Enlightenment, to give us a situation where, instead of an external, usually religious source for meaning, it came instead from inside. “Listen to your feelings,” as he puts it. The third section of the book looks at how the recent modern world is changing, through genetics, AI and Big Data. These are the speculative chapters.

First, I’ll say what I think is good about this book. Harari exhibits the same sort of brilliance as, say, Karen Armstrong when it comes to extracting profound meaning from history. In the same way that Sapiens was brilliant, so is much of Homo Deus. Harari also has a laudable agenda of empathy with the animal world. Interestingly, he is a vegan – of which, more later. The speculative chapters are good, with the one on the decoupling of consciousness and intelligence – i.e. our headlong rush to create algorithms that do specialised tasks far, far better than we do – a particularly fine piece of work. There is much here for the SF author to be inspired by.

But this book has in my opinion quite a few flaws.

The first is Harari’s concepts of consciousness, of our understanding of consciousness, and of the nature of individualism, liberalism and humanism in modern society. The most significant lines in the whole book for me are these: “However, nobody has any idea how a congeries of biochemical reactions and electrical currents in the brain creates the subjective experience of pain, anger, love. Perhaps we will have a solid explanation in ten or fifty years. But as of 2016, we have no such explanation, and we had better be clear about that [my emphasis].” Throughout this book, Harari uses his gifts to persuade. The above line is the only place in the book where he bullies the reader into accepting his view.

This happens because the chapter on the human mind and consciousness is the weakest point of the whole work. Although there is one mention of Daniel Dennett and one (uncredited in the text) mention of 150, the Dunbar Number, there is no mention of any of the other pioneers of consciousness studies – no Hofstadter, no Humphrey, nobody else. Harari’s whole stance requires him to claim that the human mind and consciousness are still a mystery. But that is not the case.

The rest of the enterprise fails as a consequence. Harari is notably harsh on the concept of humanism, which he rightly propels into the foreground as the guiding light of post-Enlightenment centuries: listen to yourself, look within, listen to your feelings… In fact, there is a rather odd mocking of such notions in this book, which I suspect speaks of a deeper malaise. For the first time reading this author I noticed a certain misanthropy about him. I suspect Harari is a very sensitive man, who, like me, has been appalled, shocked and disgusted by what he has seen in his lifetime. This is a gay man who lives in Israel, it should be pointed out – he must have been through some exceptionally difficult circumstances. Whether this misanthropy is conscious or unconscious I don’t know, but I sensed it throughout much of the book.

The problem with Harari’s thesis is (a) we know far more about the nature of consciousness than he admits and (b) a mystery is not necessarily a mystery forever. To be fair, the author does say something along these lines in the case of (b), but his inability to see the value and likelihood of a scientific description of the human condition is a peculiar and notable lack.

And in the end, although there is a sarcastic paragraph on Hollywood’s portrayal of love, there is nothing else here about why human beings matter to one another. The sense of misanthropy I felt was revealed also by this strong emphasis on everything unlovely. But, as Harari knows, our many millennia of evolution have made us in a particular way. His jaundiced view has nothing to offer on compassion, love or even on social solidarity. And yet, with ultimate irony, the author is well aware of what the solution might be to some of the disasters human beings are looking at. It’s all about types of co-operation, styles of organisation.

Quite a few reviewers of this book have noted Harari’s veganism and made something of it. I’m a vegetarian and passionate about ethical farming etc, but I didn’t find this book’s pro-animal stance too overt. Harari is scathing about how animals have been treated since the agricultural revolution, and I think his explanations are good and accurate. There are only a few mentions of the issue, all are in context, and none bash the reader over the head.

Where Harari is undoubtedly right is in warning about the future. Blithely we are all giving the Big Data corporations all the food they need to get fat and to control our lives. For Harari it is all about algorithms – the virtual mechanisms we are making (or in many cases allowing to expand all by themselves) for what is supposed to be our convenience. We are making our own demise, I think – and this author agrees.

This is a book that, like Sapiens, all should read. It gives a lot despite being fundamentally flawed. But where Sapiens was a work of history and relatively neutral, Homo Deus is a much more partisan account. In tone it is often dismissive of human goodness. I find that rather a shame.

h deus

What’s The Point Of Art?

Thirty seven years ago, when I started university, one of the first people I met was a chap called Pete Wyer, then the guitarist in a friend’s band. We’ve remained good friends ever since, and in fact of all my friends Pete is the one I’ve known for longest. He’s a great bloke ― a musician and composer of many and considerable talents, a good friend, thoughtful, insightful and never less than interesting to talk to. We don’t see each other often, but it’s one of those friendships where you can pick up at any time, knowing the other will listen, will be interested, and do all the other things friends do.

Pete is an internationally reknowned composer, who recently published privately a collection of short stories. Recently I’ve had online conversations with authors and would-be authors about the nature of art, writing and commerce. At the back of Pete’s book was a coda, which I thought might make interesting reading for those entangled deep in the mire of the publishing world. Here it is.


 

What’s the Point of Art? (And: Shouldn’t We Rebrand the Species?)

“For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first.” ― Immanuel Kant

When you go to bed at night you go there to be transported to a strange, unknown land where you speak a different language: the language of symbolism and metaphor. Its a language that all homo sapiens speak and because we all speak this language we frequently use it in our creative works.

We are using symbolism right now, of course. These squiggly patterns on a page have no intrinsic meaning, if you doubt that cast your eye over a page of Sumerian script, it will only have meaning if you have learnt what each hieroglyph symbolises.

Why is symbolism important?

Symbolism allows us to convey large amounts of understanding with small units of information. If I say to another English speaker ‘kitchen’, ‘mother’, ‘climate’, ‘driving’ these arbitrary sounds represent concepts. This makes a huge difference because, while we may have massive storage room in our brains, our consciousness is tiny and typically has room for only a few items at a time. If we think of the brain being like a building the size of the British Museum, then consciousness is a little like the light from a pencil torch inside that building with the rest of it dark.

The brain does most of its work in this dark and, aside from having to manage bodily machinery such as intestines, hormone levels and the like, its day job also includes instincts, emotions and intuitions (the last one happens when stimulus queues up for the attention in the torch light of consciousness and doesn’t quite make it, giving us an ‘intuitive feeling’ about something. Hence it’s always a good idea to have a dialogue with your intuition since it’s telling you things you have unconsciously picked up, but not to assume it knows best; it’s as prone to mistakes as any conscious information).

Rebranding the species

Homo sapiens means ‘wise human’ – this is a terrible name for our species, firstly, because the most intelligent humans were probably homo neanderthalensis, the so called ‘Neanderthals’ whose brains were ten to twelve percent larger than ours, but more importantly our intelligence is not our most defining feature and, funnily enough, it may be that symbolism is. For example, homo erectus walked the earth for well over a million years, at least ten times longer than us, and was smart enough to develop tools, learn to make fire and to cook, so, where is the homo erectus cookbook? Or any book? When we study ancient humans we find homo sapiens are the first hominids to create ‘art’ and that is very telling.

Of course, art isn’t the reason for the ‘success’ of the species (‘success’ is a matter of perspective here) it’s a product of it. Symbolism allows us to create language, and language allows us to know each other’s ‘inwardness’; our thoughts, ideas, emotions. In other words it allows us to network and it’s this which defines our species. Any human-made object you encounter is likely to be the product of an unimaginable number of human interactions. Take the pen on my desk as I write this; were I to tell the story of this pen it would need to include its designers, manufacturers, the people who promoted the product, the ones who transported it, the retailers, but, of course, that would be the tip of the iceberg: each of these stories is a small part of a whole series of other stories: who the designers each studied design with, who developed the complex polymers that made the plastics possible, who financed them… then there’s story of the ink, the paper.. let alone the vast web of infrastructure that meant that all of the people in these stories could be who they were in the first place; providing them food, water, medicine, shelter, transport, schooling, parenting and so on. The accomplishments of any single human, no matter how brilliant, are nothing without our ability to form these networks, to exchange and build on each other’s ideas. Our image of ourselves is misleading. Take a look at a picture of a feral child or adult; that’s you or I without the network.

If intelligence was the reason societies developed then not only homo neanderthalensis but squirrels, cats, badgers, monkeys would all have evolving societies too, even if they developed more slowly.

Rebranding exercise: homo sapiens

So, while I’m here to talk about art, along the way I’m going to audaciously rebrand our species, I hope you don’t mind: we are not homo sapiens we are homo communicare, communicating humans. If we one day learn to overcome the evolutionary programming in our brains that gives rise to that great deceiver who masquerades as an angel of light, the ego, we will have done what the philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed when he said: “For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole”.

About Art

Enough about the species and its new brand name, back to art. We all speak the language of symbolism and metaphor in our dreams and so we use that language in ‘art’, but why do we then get into such confusion about it? I’ve seen people get red-faced and yell “is this art?”, with undisguised contempt. This is silly and many people are robbed of the enjoyment or experience of art because of it.

Here’s the root of the problem: the word ‘art’ has two meanings and both are in common use, worse, both regularly find themselves side by side in the same sentence and sit there in sullen, silent conflict, refusing to admit their differences.

So, let’s deal with the first: ‘Art’ is originally a 13th century word that means “skill as a result of learning or practice,” – this is still its meaning in, for example, a ‘Bachelor of Arts’ degree, but then in the 19th century, a French writer, Théophile Gautier, came up with the phrase ‘l’art pour l’art’: which became in English ‘art for art’s sake’. This was part of a movement against the idea that creativity should serve some didactic or moral purpose and it was the philosophical fork in the road from which a tangle of misunderstanding ensues to this day.

‘Art for art’s sake’ has come to be a euphemism for self-indulgence and pointlessness, but in fact it’s a good philosophical definition of the thing we’re seeking to describe: our motivation, art as our creative response to the ‘universe’. When we make things for this reason, we make ‘art’. Whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art is a completely different question.

Art is not Science

In science we seek empirical understanding of the universe, in art (as used in the later meaning) we make a creative response to it. Science deals in universal laws and provable theories which have to be tested beyond doubt. Art is anything but universal, every day in galleries around the world people stand side by side in front of paintings and have entirely different responses to them.

In the fog of different meanings we often conflate ‘art’ into both meanings: Our highest skills of craftsmanship married to our most profound and imaginative creative visions, we step back and say, in appropriately awed tones; ‘it’s a work of art!’. What we really mean is that we consider it a great work of art.

But there’s a problem; there is no universal definition of the experience of art – just ask the two people standing side by side in front of the painting: One of them may be transported to heavenly realms by it while the other may be utterly indifferent.

The answer is easy. We should use the word ‘art’ in the same way we use the word architecture. Architecture is ‘the complex or carefully designed structure of something.’ – the word doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the buildings or other structures but it groups things within a useful category so that we’re talking about the same thing: we can decide later whether it’s good, bad, unusual or common architecture but we can agree: it’s architecture.

Of course, it gets still more confusing because ‘art’ is regularly lumped in with ‘entertainment’, the dictionary definition of which is ‘effortless engagement’ and the ‘performing arts’? That’s just asking for trouble; the performers are regularly described as ‘artists’ in the 13th century meaning of the word whereas the work they are performing may be considered ‘art’ in the 19th century sense. Let alone the fact that still others try to measure art by its commercial value but its financial value is merely what someone will or has paid for it, and yet more by it’s popularity, but popularity fluctuates and is strongly tied to exposure.

It’s not surprising that we end up with red faced people who can’t agree because they are using the same word to talk about different things and trying to evaluate them by using different criteria.

It’s ok

You don’t owe art anything and art doesn’t owe you anything. You can live a happy, wonderful, fulfilled life without ever engaging with art, and many millions of people have done so, so don’t feel obliged, some of my fellow artists may scream ‘heresy!’ but if you opt out the world doesn’t end. However, before opting out, consider that art is the place we share our wildest creativity, our highest and our most extraordinary visions, and this is a party you’re invited to. It really can move, inspire and inform and it really does transform lives. Many people are passionate about art not out of pretension but because they love the world that it invites them into and it brings them enormous joy. Some would claim it deepens their experience of being alive.

When you go to bed at night you go there to be transported to a strange, unknown land where you speak a different language: the language of symbolism and metaphor, its a language that all homo sapiens speak and because we all speak it we frequently use it in our creative works. Hence, when Marcel Duchamp produces a urinal and puts it in a gallery (‘Fountain’, 1917) or John Cage produces a work that invites us to contemplate four minutes thirty three seconds of silence (4’33”, 1952) then we accept these as art because they are invitations to explore Duchamp and Cage’s creative responses to the universe – whether they are ‘good art’ or ‘bad art’ is up to you and to each person who encounters them.

However, while there’s no single definitive experience of a work of art I believe there are helpful ways to approach it. I’ve met people who are baffled and put off by art and who can blame them with all the confusion about it? (I’ve also met people who feel obliged to experience art and wondered what on earth they get out of it). So, in hopes it may be of help to someone somewhere, here’s my personal rule of thumb for considering any work of art (I call them the ‘Four E’s’):

Express: What is the artist seeking to say? Emotionally, philosophically etc

Explore: Are they doing anything new or just regurgitating old ideas?

Engage: Does it ‘resonate’ with the human experience? Or are the ideas so niche that only a few can connect to it?

Execute: So much for the ideas, were they able to pull them off?

If Art has anything to recommend it…

Art invites us on a journey and some journeys will mean more to one person than to another. One journey may be more demanding than another but you may find when you get to the pinnacle that the view is breath-taking and unforgettable. Others may make you smile but quickly be forgotten.

In the end, ‘art’, the place where we share our creative response to the universe, is, I think, a healing place. It can draw our attention to amazing things we’d otherwise have overlooked, make us laugh, cry and share more deeply the experience of being human.

It’s the last one, the ability to share the experience of looking at ourselves and others, that to me is the richest thing that art has to offer. It’s uniquely human and something that great wealth and extraordinary technology don’t offer and while in theory religions and philosophies with noble ideas do, ideas are often doomed to the same fate: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Communism, Capitalism*, Nationalism and ping pong teams throughout history have hit the same problem: we attach our ego to each of them and out there in the darkness of the brain an unconscious primal mechanism becomes active that, if unchecked, quickly turns those teachings into ‘us and them’ (of course, there are many devotees of all these faiths and philosophies who adhere to them and do wonderful things, nonetheless, in each of them we can find people doing extraordinarily destructive things that seem contrary to the teachings). The same pattern plays out over and over again throughout human history: psychologically we never kill ‘us’ only ‘them’. Empathy helps us see that this is nonsense because ‘they’ are ‘us’.*

Perhaps this is the point that underlies art: it helps us find our deeper connection to ourselves and each other. When we have a profound sense of connection and empathy we have the potential to break down the archaic barriers such as race, culture and gender that have haunted our species throughout its history, to one day become the ‘wise humans’ we thought we already were.

 

* In Adam Smith’s 1776 ‘Wealth of Nations’, capitalism had noble ideas, capitalism has been responsible for much initiative and advancement but anyone who trots these out as justification today should be thwacked over the head repeatedly with a gigantic graph illustrating the narrowing fortunes of the 99% of people who actually live in capitalist societies. In 2nd Century Britain, in response to the rebellious Britons, the Romans created an aspirational system under Agricola, where a very few had the chance to escape penury and join an elite, ruling society. In the chronicles of that time (by Tacitus) it says “because they didn’t know better they called it civilisation when it was in fact their slavery.”

PeterWyer

How To Win Friends And Ignore People

Ignoring people used to be a character fault – the height of rudeness – but in the internet age it could become an increasingly powerful force for humanity.

With the internet, so much now is about attention. (It wasn’t always that way of course.) It’s a truism that too many people have the attention span of a gnat and flick from nothing to nothing via nothing in their search for something to capture their imaginations, but in fact the many media/technology corporations out there are all desperately battling for your attention; and the struggle can only become more intense as the internet continues to dominate our lives.

I’ve long been struck by how difficult people find it to ignore provocation delivered to them via the internet – often through social media. Lefties go into paroxysms of rage at the Daily Mail, and presumably right-wingers do the same at the Guardian. But, as I mentioned in my blog Silence, organisations like the Daily Mail have no interest in reducing the 50/50 split of our polarised society, nor have any desire to stop the resulting flame wars. In fact, they’re doing everything they can to encourage polarisation.

Outraged people who share partisan provocation, on Facebook via memes for example, are falling right into the trap set up for them. A classic Daily Mail example occurred recently, when a “girls’ jobs/boys’ jobs” Theresa May topper was contrasted with the “Labour back to the 1970s” headline. Did the innumerable critics on Facebook really think that Daily Mail writers hadn’t noticed this juxtaposition? Did they think it was accidental? No – it was entirely deliberate. The sole aim of the writers behind the Daily Mail is to create a strong emotional reaction in their readers, and then in the opponents of their readers. The purpose of creating such reactions is to achieve and perpetuate tribal loyalty: that is, a constant, regulated stream of money flowing into the Daily Mail’s coffers. The actual “content” of such pieces, though limited to the usual anti-immigrant, anti Labour, anti-women stance, is irrelevant. But it suits the Daily Mail to be reactionary and bigoted because that is one of the most effective ways to split the country into tribes.

Sharing Daily Mail headlines online, however appalling those are deemed to be, is doing the work of its writers for them. They want their opponents to share. They want division, and everyone who shares such material is part of the problem. Without the oxygen of publicity – massively amplified by the characteristics of global communication – the Daily Mail and all its absurdities would stumble into the e-wilderness.

The problem is of course that most people find it impossible to restrain themselves. This is in part a natural human reaction in complex society, but it’s also an aspect of the internet and social media, which allows instant reaction and comment, thus bypassing reason, and even any attempt at basic thought. Yet our reactions can be modified, with a bit of effort.

Another example of the negative outcomes of such promotion is the case of Katie Hopkins. Reviled alongside Nigel Farage as “one of the most hated people in Britain,” millions of people are doing her a favour every year by constantly retweeting, reposting or otherwise disseminating her brand of ludicrous ignorance. But Katie Hopkins has a particular psychological problem, one shared by Donald Trump – she is intensely narcissistic. As a consequence she cannot survive without the attention given to her by the mass media and the internet. This is the motivation for her behaviour. Her utterances, like those of the Daily Mail, are to all intents and purposes content free, despite their apparent right-wing nature. They exist only to rile others and therefore get Hopkins more attention. They are effectively meaningless utterances. If people want Katie Hopkins to go away all they have to do is realise that there is no content then ignore her. But doing that requires self-control as much as it requires insight, and for many it’s easier not to bother.

The most extreme form of modern over-attention is terrorism. As Yuval Noah Harari observed in his book Homo Deus, “How, then do terrorists manage to dominate the headlines and change the political situation around the world? By provoking their enemies to overreact. In essence, terrorism is a show… In most cases, the overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves.” But it would take a considerable amount of effort for news organisations, based as they are now on a 24/7 schedule, to ignore, say, the terrorist incident in Manchester. In our current cultural environment that would be considered insulting to the victims. It’s hard to imagine it ever happening, in fact. Yet this is what needs to be done to counter terrorism, which entirely relies for its effect on media over-attention. Modern media methods are highly conducive to terrorism, and many people have argued that they foster it via the media’s modus operandi. Unfortunately, such modern media methods are like fertiliser in earth; it’s a vicious circle now. To ignore terrorists would require the beginning of a positive feedback loop, and at the moment there is only negative feedback – worse events, more and more media coverage. It would seem that humanity is trapped with the consequences of its own clever inventions.

Solutions are of a type despite the range of phenomena here. The solution to Katie Hopkins is not to be provoked by her. But this, as I said above, is difficult – it involves effort. And this illustrates the great irony of the situation we find ourselves in, whether we are social media users or not. You would think that ignoring is passive in nature, that it involves turning away, doing nothing. But in fact ignoring is an active deed. The passive deed in this case is to go with the flow and not think about the situation in its entirety, to follow simplistic drives, to react, to be appalled, to shout. That is passivity, and it is what Katie Hopkins, the Daily Mail and terrorists want you to do. They expect their readers to remain passive by going with the flow. In fact, they’re banking on that. The active response is to take the decision to ignore; to follow another path.

Where that path leads is up to individuals. Politics is of no use whatsoever here. Our world is so complex now it is for the very first time showing signs of evolving faster than human beings can mentally cope with. This means we are heading into very dangerous waters. But individuals can still make an individual response, if they want to. It depends on what questions you ask yourself.

My guess is that over the duration of the next generation we will begin to enter a post-politics world in the West. The gap between politicians and public has never been wider – and it will widen further. Politicians, already out-of-touch, won’t only be so, they’ll be shown to be so, time after time after time. The weapon of satire will mutate into something much more relevant: action. The independence of communities will begin to become a factor, making mere national devolution look like a charade. And as politicians show they are incapable of reacting to the speed of change, let alone to legislate with it in mind, they will be rejected in a move which will make ‘60s counterculture look like playground games.

Good grief!

snoopy