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Archive for August, 2014|Monthly archive page

The Craft Of Manipulating Your Feelings

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2014 at 10:00 am

Last week I talked about the somewhat surprising frankness with which the Chronicle of Philanthropy has been discussing the art of manipulative storytelling. Most storytellers want to arouse emotions in their readers, and not all of them know how; I wanted to share some tips and tricks from this unusually open discussion of manipulation in storytelling. These articles, not being about for-profit marketing, are a lot less distasteful than a marketing manual might be; being about nonfiction narratives, they also come across as a little more ethical.

And honestly, I wanted somewhere to stash some of this advice.

Let’s begin with the very recent “Are You Really Telling Stories?” which focused on the essential task of making people care in the first place. This is the bare bones of the narrative, but because it’s so basic, it sometimes gets overlooked, even in writing classes. They asked four questions, three of which I’m going to hit up here:

1. Who is your protagonist?

The protagonist cannot be an organization or a community or a large group of people. […] The psychologist Paul Slovic points to research that says people become numb to social problems when too many individuals are affected.

2. What does she want?

When gathering or writing stories, ask yourself or your storyteller about her needs and desires. Listen for words like “love” or “angry” or “searching”—anything that indicates the journey she’s on and where she imagines it leads.

3. What obstacles does she face?

Many nonprofits leave us in precisely this sort of storytelling hell of no obstacles, no conflict, just smooth sailing to the end. I suspect that’s partly because they don’t want to reveal their own difficulties as an organization for fear of alienating their supporters. “No, we’re doing great–keep giving us money!”

In almost every instance (Haruki Murakami excepted, perhaps) these three questions form about 80% of your story. If you can answer these, you’ve made the bare bones of your outline. If your work is fizzling, then perhaps the reason is that the answers to these questions aren’t clear. This isn’t even about manipulation yet — this is just about good basics. Also about good basics comes the advice “Mix struggle and success” from How To Turn Audience Emotion Into Action:

…too many success stories leave out the struggles that the real-life characters go through to achieve that success. […] Leave out the struggles, and all you have are pleasant “examples” that nobody can connect with and act on.

This is something I often face in my literary work. I shy away from confrontation in my life, and because I avoid it in life, I tend to avoid it in writing. It’s a major issue I’m still working on.

All this leads nicely into an article about the Essential Elements of Storytelling, which mainly addresses storytelling from a non-prose perspective — ie, what you have to do on the back end to get a good story out the front end. It is in two of their four elements where we start to see the ways you can tinker with your reader:

Practice

We think in stories, we tell stories, we hear them and read them and watch them every day. So there’s a temptation to say that the best and really “authentic” stories are those that spring fully formed from someone’s heart. Sometimes that’s true, but most of us need practice.

An opinion piece that I’ll get to in a minute supports this, citing the 2008 Obama presidential campaign which used “Public Narrative”, a technique developed by Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, to strengthen itself and its message:

Volunteers would get together in groups and tell stories about what drew them to the campaign, how they identified collectively, and the challenges facing the country. Those stories were then used to help them connect personally to voters and build grassroots leadership. The method is now used by civic, student, and activist groups worldwide.

Practicing storytelling isn’t simply about increasing vocabulary, developing grammar, and learning how to write clearly — it’s also about working out how you structure a narrative, who you are as the writer, and what works (or doesn’t) when it comes to impacting a reader. Essential Elements went on to talk about understanding your reader:

Market Research

Suppose an advocate tells an audience that one in three black men in Baltimore is behind bars; that audience might not take that statistic as evidence of bias in the criminal-justice system but as evidence of the inherent criminality of African-American males. Research on public opinion would help inform what stories that advocate tells and to whom.

Knowing the beliefs held by those you address is important in activist writing; understanding the target audience for your story helps you work out how to impact them. Understand your genre or, if you’re not writing within a genre, identify who you are writing for, and learn about them. The more you know about who you’re speaking to, the more efficiently you can work out how to influence their reactions to your work.

Once you’ve actually begun work, there’s great advice from an article on small wins and long-term goals for constructing single scenes in large narratives:

Speaking of his “fireside chat” radio broadcasts, [President Roosevelt] said, “I want to explain to the people … so that they will understand what is going on and how each battle fits into the picture.” The president was confident that people could “take any bad news right on the chin” if they understood the larger story.

Brett Davidson […] cited the example of the marriage-equality work of the Human Rights Campaign. That organization, he says, “does a great job of highlighting small or interim victories and featuring individual stories at the heart of these battles, while maintaining a clear long-term vision.” The organization’s website features stories of victories and setbacks in individual states, and maps and other tools to show the big picture.

In a clear marketing campaign, or in a well-constructed linear narrative, every small scene, even ones that are complete stories in themselves, is part of a larger story — the ultimate goal is the large story, but the hook that keeps people interested is the momentary scene. (I am aware the HRC and its focus on marriage equality can be problematic, but lots of problematic organizations get to be big and problematic by having really well-crafted narratives.)

Now let’s revisit the fourth question from the earlier article on basic storytelling:

4. How does it end?

You owe your audiences an ending, something that gives meaning to what you’ve just told them. As story trainer Andy Goodman wrote for the Working Narratives blog, “By the time the last line is spoken, they should know exactly why they took this journey with you. Otherwise, you’ll have wasted both your time and theirs.”

I didn’t find the full answer entirely satisfying, so instead let’s leap to that opinion piece I mentioned earlier, on the purpose of storytelling in not for profit campaigns:

Last fall I attended a talk by David Simon [creator of The Wire]. I expected him to say he was drawn to his subjects by a desire to change society, but he said that’s not at all how he sees it. Instead, he’s drawn to “fault lines” in the culture. Not coincidentally, it’s at those fault lines where issues of social import lie. But social relevance is not necessarily the same as social change.

[…]

We must link personal narratives to political challenges; provide audiences with ways to take action; treat stories as one dimension of a larger effort to create change; and engage people who may be new to a cause or who disagree with us.

VanDeCarr has seen a lot of “tell your story!” and “awareness raising” projects fall by the wayside or fail to create direct action because they don’t point out a way to go or a solution to a problem. This is a dicey subject in social justice circles, because calling out the dysfunctions of our society should not require the person doing the calling-out to suggest a solution. But within a more narrow boundary, that of storytelling, your narrative will have more impact if a suggestion of action or resolution is made. Dr. Seuss knew this:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
SO! Catch, calls the Onceler….

An ending, for an activist writer, needs to be a call to action. For a wider-band storyteller, perhaps not, but it still needs to do one of two things: provide a resolution, or challenge the reader with its lack. There’s a difference between a story that simply stops, and one that demands you provide your own resolution; the latter should cause readers to examine their beliefs as they work to answer their questions about the ending.

We always have something to learn from other disciplines, and I’m lucky that I get to learn a lot about my secret writer alter ego’s craft from my Clark Kent Day Job. The ultimate lesson of all that, above and beyond the visible, is to keep learning, and keep asking your own questions, whether or not someone gives you a resolution.

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Ethical Emotional Manipulation?

In Uncategorized on August 22, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the websites I read regularly for my job is The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which runs news about the world of not for profits: who’s getting grants, what new fundraising techniques are being deployed, who’s changing jobs. It’s not the most informative site I visit (for professional purposes that would be Philanthropy News Digest, and for general Being An Adult purposes, Fortune Magazine online) but it often has a slightly offbeat take on the activity of philanthropy which makes it intriguing. This summer it’s been running a series of articles about storytelling.

In my “day-job” industry, storytelling has a different and more specific definition than in the world of publishing, or indeed culture as a whole. Nonfiction storytelling employed by charitable organizations is extremely goal-oriented. Nobody is telling a story for fun at a charity; storytelling in this sense is a tool, in the same way it’s a tool for marketing agencies and political campaigns. That stories are fun is one reason they’re used, but pleasure is not the primary purpose of the not-for-profit storyteller.

Storytelling, from a charitable organization, toes the lines that divide journalism, performance, and marketing. Stories that are told to raise money often focus on individuals or small communities because we relate to those; nobody cares about a story that involves the entire city of Chicago having sort of crap trains. But if a single train derails, and if the news shows one wounded child from that single train, people are more likely to agitate for increased funding and safety precautions. (It behooves me to note here that Chicago’s trains may be sort of crap and I hate the new carriage design, but they’re pretty safe, in relative terms. I’m just saying.)

It can admittedly feel a little creepy, because frequently another word for “marketing” is “manipulation”. As a culture we have a pre-existing story about charities, which is that they are run by the noble, the self-sacrificing, the honest, good, and true. And it is true that most people who work for charitable organizations aren’t there because the money’s good, since it’s not. Our former managing vice president made six figures, true, but he could easily have been making eight in the for-profit sector, and I am employed at a specifically very wealthy institution.

Nobility and frankness does not generally attract much in the way of money, particularly money that doesn’t see a tangible return in the form of goods or direct services. So, like any other company, the solicitation that a charity does is based in part on manipulating you. With strong integrity and the highest of goals, perhaps, but nonetheless, manipulating you.

Storytellers do this. Most of us want to make a point of some kind; even those writing without a social agenda generally want to inspire a feeling in the reader. Often the degree of fame a writer achieves is based on their degree of skill in emotional manipulation. I’m a big fan of Stephen King, but he’s not the greatest prose craftsman of our generation — just one of the very best at manipulating us into fearing what’s under the bed.

In the realm of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the articles on storytelling have been open, if not direct, about techniques for manipulation, because they are blending narrative and marketing. Bearing this in mind, they have provided excellent tips for writers of fiction who are looking to polish their emotional manipulation skills. Next week I’m going to be featuring a series of quotes from these articles; some will be fairly basic, but I’m hoping all of them will be helpful for prospective writers or for readers who want to understand the books they read with more depth.

And remember — just because I’m manipulating you doesn’t mean it might not be a fun ride.

 

Novels And Conferences Post X-Files

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

All right. Last week we talked about the relationship between digital communication and brickspace data relay a little. Let’s see if we can hook it into fiction and books this week.

It was once said of George Bernard Shaw that his essays were the price you paid for his plays, which would make less sense if you didn’t know that he often put his essays into his plays, thinly disguised as monologues. Shaw was a radical, an egotist, and an essayist to be sure, and like most writers throughout the ages he attempted to convey a message using fiction.  He wasn’t the first to do so — I just really love that quote about him because I think it applies to a lot of storytellers. The price you pay for a good story is often your absorption of, collusion in, or at the very least momentary complicity with the ideology of the author. That’s the point of most fiction reading, after all — to put yourself into a story. This isn’t automatically a bad thing; some authors have ideologies well worth adhering to.

Prior to the mid-nineties, these stories were heavily gatekept by economic necessity. Between Gutenberg and — for amusement’s sake — let’s say the  first episode of The X-Files in 1993, anyone could print a screed or a story or a play and distribute it, but you were paying your own way, especially if you didn’t turn an eventual profit. Which meant you had the kind of cash to spend on that, or a patron who would spend it for you, be they a wealthy donor to your cause or a publisher interested in selling your book.

When we talk about twentieth century gatekeeping we primarily talk about the publishing industry pre X-Files which, being in it for the money, published books that they thought would sell. They published compellingly written books, pop-appeal books, scandalous books, or books by someone who already had fame riding on their side. (It is also important, if not necessarily directly relevant here, to point out that the only people who generally got a look-in for consideration were white dudes, so assume that the above was not applied in an equal-opportunity setting.)

The communication of data has always required resources — the ability to pay for printing, the ability to travel to a conference, the ability to purchase ad time. This is still true in the digital age. You must have access to a computer, which must be connected to the internet, and you must have a basic level of literacy plus either training in digital communication or the time necessary to train yourself in its arts. This is not an insignificant burden and it is the reason we have the term “Digital Divide”.

That said, these resources are much easier to procure than at any other time in human history: libraries offer free access to computers and the internet, MOOCs offer free tutelage in internet use, and if you have a laptop or a smartphone you can get wifi at McDonalds for the cost of a cup of coffee. People often have access to computers and internet through their workplace if nowhere else. And people who have the money to buy a computer and pay for monthly internet are still potentially paying far less for access to mass-communication tools than they would have for most of human history.

This kind of mass communication somewhat invalidates the old reason we met face to face at conferences, as I discussed last week, but conference culture has been slow to catch on. It also invalidates, in some sense, the old reason we published nonfiction books. Don’t get me wrong, I love nonfiction and I read a lot of it, but the same information can be conveyed through the internet. A lot of scientists and historians have blogs, and STEM podcasts are proving very popular (my personal favorite is Caustic Soda, run by non-scientists with science guests). The reason we still turn to nonfiction books is narrative — a book forms a more cohesive experience, and even a nonfiction book still tells a story. And there are people who legitimately prefer reading a book to reading a screen.

So what about fiction books? Are we returning — or could we return, and should we return — to the serial model? Serial novels worked like gangbusters in the 19th century, when rising literacy rates and lowered printing costs made newspapers, and magazines like the Strand, available cheaply for mass public consumption. Internet readers seem resistant to the concept of fee-based fiction online, but Netflix has proved the fee-based consumption model at least functions, and Amazon is attempting to change peoples’ minds with its “Netflix for books” (with understandably limited success, given the traditional definition of “netflix for books” is library). Bloomberg recently suggested that the fight between Amazon and publishers currently going on over print books is sad to watch because it’s already irrelevant — that fee-based access to books in a permanent cloud will be the new face of publishing. Their logic was unsound and their research was shoddy, so I can’t recommend taking the linked article too seriously, but they are suggesting an Amazon-derived model that has realistic potential. It may be too soon to tell — or the people handling the big data may not want to share their results yet. I’m just a paladin author, usually with no publishing house to my name, so it’s difficult for me to say.

I also, last week, discussed the idea that in some cases a website about a subject could draw more attention and accolades than a presentation about the same subject, and could actually provide fodder for a better presentation. This is the new, non-gatekept marketing: hook ’em online and get interaction going, instead of shouting advertising at people and hoping something sticks. “Going viral” is a dream that has yet to be bottled, because nobody seems to be able to quantify what drives the nature of a viral meme, but going viral has never been as helpful as a long-term, hooked in, loyal and interactive fan base, known as the “long tail”. These are difficult and can be expensive to build, but the long-term return on investment is much greater, as long as the product continues to please and engage the consumer.

As an author, attending a non-author day-job-oriented conference, what I think I carried away is a confirmation that primary digital engagement is often a step in the right direction — but that not a lot of people have caught on yet.

And as I’m writing this on my authorial blog, I may be preaching to the choir.

The Trouble With Communication

In Uncategorized on August 8, 2014 at 10:00 am

So, this past weekend I went to Las Vegas and looked at a lot of powerpoint slides with hyperlinks in them.

(This is not an entirely fair assessment of my time in Vegas, perhaps. I also sprained some terribly important muscle in my foot, and was nearly assaulted by a man in a Bert From Sesame Street costume.)

Other than the genuine learning about my day job that I did at the conference, my “take-away” from the conference concerned communication, how we engage in it, and how far behind some of us are in technique for it.

I attended a lot of basic skills sessions, being relatively new to certain areas of research, and I didn’t much care for many of them. I’ve done college and grad school and literary criticism and social analysis, so when I attend a learning session I look for concept and innovation. I’m not looking for data, except as it supports the concept.

This is a little difficult to vocalize, so bear with me.

Once upon a time in the 1980s and before, you saw your colleagues in the field (any given field) once or twice a year at conferences. It was a time to come together and network and socialize, but also to share information and resources. Before the internet took off, communicating data at a mass assembly was really the only way to communicate data at all, if you didn’t want to use some kind of terrible phone tree. I’m talking here about hard data: resources, facts, terms. In my case, a lot of demographics and resources for valuating non-cash, non-stock goods.

But we have the internet now, and we have the capability both to build webpages and to mass-communicate in private through email. My discipline even has a mailing list on the old “-L” mass mail system.

So a lot of the presentations I saw this year didn’t really need to happen. And I hate to say it because people worked hard on them and the information in them was important. But it wasn’t information that needed narration. Many of the presentations I went to could have been posted online as a list of links. Many of them should have been — they’d have drawn more attention to the creator as a blog post than they did as a mediocre conference session, and the interaction surrounding the links page would have helped to make the presentation itself a lot more dynamic. (I am currently watching this happen with a colleague who, rather than present a glossary of foreign-language terms we use, put up a web glossary and is getting all kinds of kudos beyond any session attention she would get, because she’s providing a resource and not just presenting knowledge.)

The way we communicate is changing, everyone knows that, and a lot of the methodology has already been incorporated. You can livetweet a keynote speech now and your tweets will show up on a board behind the keynote speaker. You can exchange email addresses with a newly-met colleague at another institution. My colleague with the glossary had business cards made up for her website, which was a brilliant lifehack considering business cards are still the currency of choice at these conferences.

But there are subtle infrastructure issues we haven’t yet addressed — like the fact that information presentation isn’t as important as it used to be. Concept presentation is where it’s at now, since the information can come to us much more quickly and openly online. One of my internet colleagues, Lex, pointed out that after your first two years of a given conference, you’re really just there to network anyway.

(This made me want to create the Shadow Conference for next year, where those of us who don’t need certain sessions blow them off and meet in secret to do intense, Illuminati-style networking. I may yet arrange it.)

In thinking about all this, I was trying to relate it back — as I do basically everything — to my writing, but I think given that I’m running low on ideas for blog posts, I’ll handle the relationship between digital communication, brickspace communication, and literary communication in a digital world for next week.

The Book That Saved My Life

In Uncategorized on August 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

NOTE: This post contains frank and in-depth discussion of depression and suicide. If these are likely to affect you negatively, you may wish to consider skipping this one.

About two weeks ago, souridealist on Tumblr asked me about the process of turning Animagus Winter, a made up book in a Harry Potter fanfic, into Nameless.

I scratched my head a little, because I honestly remembered almost nothing of the process, and then I realized that I had so little memory of it because depression can affect memory, and I was in the middle of a major depressive episode when I wrote Nameless. So I wrote about that, and I thought I’d archive it here for folks who don’t follow my tumblr.

For those of you who don’t have all the context on this, it goes like this: I wrote a fanfic, Cartographer’s Craft, in which there is an original character named Ellis Graveworthy, who, yes, the E.G. of Dead Isle stems from. He was a novelist who had written several books (you can read about them here if you don’t want to read 43 chapters of Harry Potter AU fanfic). One of those books, Animagus Winter, became the skeletal structure of my first original novel, Nameless.

There is some discussion of the process of writing Nameless in the afterword of the book, which you can read for free here. (If you like the book, consider buying a copy!) But how did Animagus Winter get to be Nameless?

Here’s the thing about Nameless: it literally saved my life. I probably would have killed myself if I hadn’t written it. I have clinical depression and that was certainly part of the headspace I was in at the time, but I was also going through a lot of external pressure: living at home with my parents (who are lovely people but dysfunctional to live with), in a Texas suburb, job hunting after grad school, and generally feeling like a failure. I couldn’t support myself, couldn’t help my parents as much as I felt I ought, and I felt like I had done no actual single concrete useful thing with my life. So I thought, I’m going to write this fucking book, and when it’s done at least I’ll have done something. I worked on it from ten to midnight, every night, and sometimes the promise of those two hours was all that got me through the rest of the day.I want to stress two things here:

1. If you have not “done anything” with your life you are not a failure. If you’re living with your parents or unemployed or both, you’re not a failure. It’s just that when you are in a major depressive episode, everything you are and do makes you think you’re a failure. You could be curing fucking cancer and think you’re a useless waste of oxygen; being an unemployed boomerang child just makes that feeling much, much worse.

2. I had friends, lovely friends who were helpful inasmuch as they could be considering I didn’t tell them I was dying inside. I was lucky to have a safe place to live and food to eat and the support, however difficult, of my parents. It’s just that when you’re in that deep, nobody else can pull you out because you won’t let them. So you have to climb out yourself. It sucks more than anything else in my life has ever sucked.

Back to our story.

Nameless had a lot of iterations. Changing over from transformative to original work is really hard. Not to say that fanfic is only for children, but seriously, moving from writing fanfic to writing a novel is like going through puberty. It’s hideous and awkward and you’re not really aware of how hideous and awkward it is until you’re on the other side. As a bonus, however, it will make you a better fanfic writer.

So, I wrote the first draft of Nameless following the basic structure I’d laid out for Animagus Winter; I just set it in a world where magic, as far as Christopher knew, didn’t exist. I polished it, rewrote some bits, and sent it to agents. I was still miserable, but at least I now had two irons in the fire — I was being rejected left and right for jobs, but I also was sending out this thing that I had made up out of my own brain, and getting a literary rejection letter made me feel less like a failure and more like Jack London. (I had seen Jack London’s case of rejection letters at his museum, as a younger man, and admired his guts in keeping them all around. I kept mine for a long time, but I’ve since thrown them out.)

But the reason it was getting rejected was, of course, that this book blew. It was terrible.

In the meantime, however, I had scraped together enough money (with a small loan from my parents) to get my ass to Chicago, where I got a job. It was terrible and abusive, but it was a job. Then I got another less terrible job, and I started to both come out of my depression and pull my life together. I mean, it wasn’t a perfect life, but it was mine and it was self-sustaining, so I stopped thinking about killing myself a lot.

Eventually, I got bored and dug Nameless out for no real other reason than I thought it might be fun to share it, since (rightly) nobody wanted to publish it. I was able to see how bad it was by then, so I rewrote it, then I posted it, and then I got this huge outpouring of critical commentary which eventually became the basic pedestal of the Extribulum process of crowdsourced peer review. I rewrote it again, a few times, and then self-published it, and it’s gone very well for me since.

So Nameless is the product of Animagus Winter, indisputably, but there were other factors at work — my wrestling with my own depression, which you can see a lot of in Lucas; my wrestling with my abilities as a writer, which are evident in the prose; my struggles to get to a place where I was self-sufficient financially and stable emotionally and balanced between the two, which you can see in the journey that Christopher took, pre-novel, from being this young urban power suit with a literal broken heart to being a small-town entrepreneur who has a specific, much-loved place in the life of Low Ferry.

That’s the story of Nameless, with the benefit of about seven years of hindsight.