Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

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:


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.

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.


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.

A Moving Experience

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

I’ve set this to autopost — well, really, all of these posts are set to autopost, that’s how I roll — but the point is, with this one, as you read it I am supervising the move of all my worldly goods from Wrigleyville on the north side of Chicago to the Prairie District on the south side. Hopefully it’s going well.

You learn two things, generally, when moving:

a) How much stuff you have
b) How little you need for basic survival

Of course, one aspires to slightly more than basic survival, which is why I have eight boxes labeled “kitchen” and about four labeled “linens”. In my defense, they’re small. I don’t have that many boxes of books, because I used to move a lot and books are heavy; I was a super-early adopter of the ebook, though I still don’t own an ebook reader proper.

From the ages of eighteen through twenty-eight, I moved at least once a year, every year. First for school, then away from school, then to Chicago, where I hit my third apartment in three years and decided I would settle there for a while. Despite a plague of wasps, a recurring stream of mice named Lorenzo (Pope Lorenzo XI, may he rest in peace, was the last of his line), and a hot water tap in the shower that I think may actually have had some kind of ancient curse on it, I stayed put because I was just so damn tired of moving.

(It turns out, btw, when you hire movers rather than moving shit yourself, it takes 90% of the stress out of moving. Who knew?)

In theory, I like travel, and I like to experience new places, especially as a resident. I enjoy learning a neighborhood, so I’ve usually tried to make sure that I am, in fact, living in a neighborhood worth learning. I eventually learned to disqualify certain swathes of the south loop during my home-hunt because they simply had no neighborhood. They were just blocks upon blocks of apartment buildings, designed for people who could drive to more interesting neighborhoods. There’s nothing objectively wrong with that; people have to live somewhere. But it wasn’t for me, an inveterate on-footer with a particular appreciation for awkward architecture.

Moving makes you examine your life pretty closely, not only because you’re packing it all up but because of the stress of moving and the cultural weirdness that surrounds it. There’s a sort of gestalt that says by the end of a move you’re supposed to want to kill everyone else involved in the move, and that there will always be unexpected stresses and last-minute messes. I intend to defy this, but then I’m sure I’m not the first. At any rate, it makes you take a step back and look at who you are and the direction your life is going, because our homes so often define us. Even when we aren’t financially able to choose a home to fit us — perhaps especially then — our homes speak volumes about where we stand in our society.

This is literally the first time in my life I’ve been excited about moving. Every other move in my history was either forced on me by external circumstances or was so fraught with financial and physical peril that it was more terrifying than it was satisfying. Moving from Austin to Chicago comes pretty close to being thrilling, but even then it was a leap of faith — no job, no furniture, no local friends, just me and a couple of suitcases on an Amtrak north.

For me, this apartment is a step into the middle class. Unlike many writers, I don’t fear the bourgeois; I’m looking forward to embracing my new condo culture and learning from it, and maybe punking it up a little.

Hopefully I’ll be able to liveblog the event; if so, keep an eye on my tumblr for photos of my new place, possible mentions of emergency room visits, and an update on the state of every belonging I own.

Cruelty and Criticism

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

A while ago — actually long before I started this blog — a book was published called The Book Of Kings, by James Thackara. I haven’t read the book. I’d never heard of it until I came across a link to a review of it. I’m not even sure how I found the review. I think it must have been in some kind of “cruelest reviews ever” roundup.

That’s not actually a joke or an insult. I think that’s genuinely where I found it. And the fact that I clicked the link is something we’ll come back to.

The Book Of Kings was not James Thackara’s first novel, though the review claims it is. Thackara published America’s Children in 1984, Ahab’s Daughter in 1989, and The Book Of Kings in 1999. He claimed to have been working on Kings for over twenty years, so I suppose that’s where the review got the idea that it’s his first. It received some critical acclaim and some just plain criticism, but the Observer review (later reprinted in the Guardian) by Philip Hensher was a standout for nastiness. Given the praise the book received in other quarters, it’s possible Hensher was making an eye-popping attempt at pointing out the Emperor has no clothes on. Certainly his review is infamous even fourteen years later; it made it into Thackara’s wikipedia page.

Reading the review, two questions arose in my mind. First, what purpose do such book reviews serve? Second, how do terrible books get published in the first place?

I wanted to talk about reviews today, and bad books next time, because when you come down to it, they’re not really related. The function of newspaper critics rarely has much attachment to publishing or how it works.

If there are analytics of the functionality of book reviews, they’re very well hidden. I looked, but I have no way of studying the numbers to see if book reviews actually cause a boost or decline in the sales of the books they critique. Surely a positive review in a nationally-circulated newspaper, the kind that is read by people who have the money and leisure to buy and read a lot of books, can’t hurt. The newspaper has never been where I go to find out what books I should be reading, and in this digital age, where there are review blogs and sites all over the place, I don’t go there, either — but I don’t know if in this case I’m an outlier. Analytics regarding the percentage of readers who source their new titles from book reviews are similarly scarce.

Mind you, I’ve done blog tours promoting my books where I had my book reviewed on various sites; I’m not knocking internet book critics, most of whom keep their review blogs out of a passionate love of reading rather than because it earns them any kind of living wage. (The book business is the business of passion and poverty.) I review books myself, as well, though I don’t have a dedicated blog for it, and I use the reviews mostly as a way of tracking what I’ve read from year to year. But the point remains that aside from a given individual site’s statistics, we still have no real way of knowing how strongly a review impacts a book’s sales.

So what is the purpose of such an angry, cruel review? Hensher is presumably not stupid enough to think his review is actually going to prevent people from buying the book. Indeed, people probably bought it to see if they agreed with him, or just to own a book so infamously panned by a prominent critic. And Hensher is by far not the only brutal critic; the club of people who revel in that form of literary criticism isn’t a select one. There are yearly contests for nasty book reviews (this year’s Hatchet Job winner was AA Gill’s “critique” of Morrisey’s Autobiography) and googling “worst book reviews” comes up with a lot of relevant hits. It’s almost a cottage industry, of a sort.

Cruel reviews are only very rarely about the books. Once in a while I’ve been angry about a book, but a book that can inspire such passion is not ordinarily a bad book. I threw The Stand across the room when my favorite character in it was killed, but I can’t deny that however tedious the rest of the book was, King’s characters were compelling enough that I kept reading for them in spite of the plot, and was viscerally hurt when my favorite died. I can’t mock the book, I can’t be nasty about the book, when it caused such a strong reaction. Even when I’ve been bored by a book that is poorly written, I can’t summon the passion to be mean about it. It’s just a bad book. I’d say perhaps it’s permissible to be mean if you’ve bought the book and feel you’ve wasted money, but highly visible literary critics don’t normally pay for their own books — and I get mine from the library.

I think cruel reviews are about critics. Jay Rayner, writing about why people love bad reviews, believes this also:

…if there is one thing my dozen years as the restaurant critic for this newspaper has taught me it is that while people may like my restaurant reviews, what they really love are the brutally negative ones. […] It is why I have been asked to compile an eBook that is solely a collection of my reviews of bad restaurants. “My Dining Hell” is not even intended as a guide to where not to go; the vast majority of the places included have closed. It’s simply because there is an appetite for take-downs.

Even for the reader of the review, it’s not about the book, or in Rayner’s case the restaurant — it’s about seeing how deftly the critic can skewer it. Rayner believes this is because reading about someone else being horrible at something makes our day better, based on Oliver James’ theory of Social-Comparison.

While there may be truth in that, I have a different theory. I think cruelty attracts us. Cruelty involves passion and drama, and a well-turned nasty phrase, if nothing else, can garner admiration.  It’s the same reason we watch boxing matches or police dramas. Passion, drama, and artistry most frequently come together, for humans, in brutality. That sounds awfully cynical, but I don’t advocate it; I just have seen it enough to believe it.

After all, I read a phrase along the lines of “possibly the nastiest review ever written” and yeah, I clicked the link. If you take away the fact that Hensher is stroking his own ego and getting our attention by viciously attacking the creative work of another person — if James Thackara isn’t real to us, and if we don’t intellectually comprehend that this book is twenty years of his life — then it’s easy to enjoy watching a deft takedown.

(In theory. I think Hesher’s review isn’t all that great at being cruel; I think he was giggling to himself when he wrote it about how clever he was, which rarely makes for good writing.)

I don’t think it’s honestly incorrect to say that the publishing industry doesn’t need the brand of viciousness that Hensher employed in reviewing Kings (or that Gill, who talked a lot about Morrissey as a person rather than as a writer, employed in reviewing Autobiography). But Hensher and Gill didn’t do it for anyone else; not to inform the public of a badly-written book, not to enter into a dialogue on writing with the authors (heaven forbid authors and critics interact), and not to champion higher standards in literary gatekeeping. They did it to get attention. Well, after all, it worked.

But we don’t need self-aggrandizing critics in publishing. We need writers, we need readers, we need critics who are interested in the business of advancing literature and helping people find books they will enjoy. That brand of criticism isn’t about publishing. It’s about public spectacle.

Initially, somewhere in this essay, I was going to say the phrase I’m not suggesting we only review books we like. I’ve gone back and forth, actually, about whether I am suggesting that. Hensher’s style of negative critique is unimportant and unhelpful to anyone; if the purpose of literary criticism is to tell people where the good books are, why shouldn’t we review only the good ones? After all, word of mouth is still one of the most effective publicity techniques for fiction, so giving a bad book no word of mouth at all will only keep it out of the public eye.

But criticism, even outside of academic criticism, goes beyond publicity. Critics, the best critics, should be talking about not just what book are good but why bad books are bad, and how in their view as active, critical, constant readers, these pitfalls can be avoided.

Cruelty can entertain us. Particularly when it’s written down, it’s easier to enjoy it, because nobody’s being physically injured, and we presume no-one’s basic well-being is actively at stake. A good takedown, especially when it’s our “side” doing the taking-down, is thoroughly satisfying. But I believe it’s important to remember that cruelty and criticism are different things, and the former is rarely, if ever, about anything other than getting attention.

And, of course, punching up to get attention is okay; punching down to get attention is just bullying on paper. Always punch up, kids, if you have to punch anyone.

The Future History Of The Book

In Uncategorized on March 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

The great speculative fiction writer, Octavia Butler, once did an essay for Essence Magazine in which she discussed how she studied the past and the present to predict the future, and the difficulties of predicting it accurately. She said, “How many combinations of unintended consequences and human reactions to them does it take to detour us into a future that seems to defy any obvious trend? Not many. That’s why predicting the future accurately is so difficult.”

But she also said, “I didn’t make up the problems [in my books]. All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now.”

Butler was speaking of major social and economic problems that she felt could lead to the collapse of our culture, but what she said is true of attempting to predict any trend: it is difficult, but with a consciousness of the past and present, it’s certainly not impossible.

Within the publishing world there is a loud and ongoing debate about what the future of the book will be, or should be. The industry has been in flux for a good five years now, since the rise of the e-reader and tablet and the highly visible, increasingly aggressive stance Amazon has taken against “brick and mortar” bookstores. The major corporations of our lives are all a part of a data revolution: Google quietly collects user information, and Adobe is capable of rendering a generation of e-readers into bricks with a simple code change (fortunately they decided not to, this time). Netflix’s hit remake of the BBC classic House Of Cards was written using analytics on the viewing activity of Netflix users.

All of these things impact the art of storytelling, and they are changing the world very quickly. They require us to ask questions: how will we buy books in the future? How will we read them? What will become of paper books? What will become of bookstores? Of libraries? And what will become of authors, agents, editors, and publishers?

I don’t have a lot of answers about most of that; if I did it would be a book in itself. But I can talk a little about the central worry of most readers’ lives: that the book will disappear. It won’t, not in any vital sense, and I’m here to use history to tell you why.

Until the turn of the century, books had changed relatively little for hundreds of years. You can pick up a book published in 1850 and it will hold together fairly well; you read it the same way you read any modern book. Because of the seemingly eternal nature of a book, we forget that society has experienced this kind of flux before: there was a time before now when the book became cheap, accessible, easily distributed, and thus available to, as it were, the peasantry.

In China, printing presses existed as early as 1041 CE, when Bi Sheng, a “man of unofficial position” (a commoner) created clay characters, baked them, and secured them in plates covered in resin and wax. A few hundred years later, around the same time Johannes Gutenberg was developing a printing press in Europe, a Chinese printer named Hua Sui was adapting Bi Sheng’s design to include durable bronze moveable type.

In the west, the legend of Gutenberg is more well-known: Johannes Gutenberg adapted a screw-press, a device originally used for pressing wine and olive oil, so that it took trays of moveable type and pressed them to paper. A Gutenberg press could put out about 3600 pages a day, and became the dominant literary technology of Europe.

Bi Sheng and Johannes Gutenberg’s creations, a hemisphere apart, became the heart of publishing on a global scale.

Before the advent of the printing press in Europe, block-printing and hand-copying were the only ways to produce manuscripts, and thus books were rare, expensive, and heavily “gatekept” — only someone with the economic means to employ a copyist or print a book could distribute it widely, reinforcing the domination of the moneyed classes. What the Gutenberg printing press did, more or less immediately, was make the printed word accessible to vast numbers of people at a relatively low cost. It was a new distribution channel, and it totally messed up every previous tradition associated with the written word.

That was roughly five hundred years ago. When was the last time you encountered someone who either owned or made hand-copied books? People do still produce them, but they’re generally…short. And made in very small runs. Even self-publishers use copy machines, or lulu.com.

So, five hundred years from now, will books still be printed? Presuming we don’t encounter another dark age, what will the book look like when our descendants are as far from us as we are from Gutenberg?

Well, we’ve seen the result of that revolution: hand-written and block-printed books became the province of the artisan, the hobbyist. The end of hand-copying signalled the reduction of visual expression in most literature, such as the beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages. Any illustrations for a mass-printed document had to be carved to be inserted into the press, and one-color printing became the standard because mass production didn’t allow for multi-colored pressings except in very expensive editions. You can still see the habits of the last fifty years of printing when you pick up a modern book. We have the capability now to easily insert images directly into text, but most books printed in the last ten years still insert any images they may have into a special section in the middle, or specific designated pages throughout the book.

But is all this automatically a bad thing? The book as a physical cultural item is important, and can be beautiful, but I think it is generally agreed that the contents of a book are more important than the container. Mass production saved many books that might otherwise have fallen to dust long ago. And the question of whether the physical book will indeed fade away depends on whether e-readers can be made so affordable as to be common, even disposable, items — we may think the preponderance of e-readers is a sign of things to come, but for many they are still fiscally well out of reach. The day an e-reader is as common and as cheap as a wristwatch is the day we really need to worry for physical books. That day may never come.

Perhaps most importantly, the printing press encouraged the spread of information and knowledge. We know the internet does this; it is literally a data-based world. It makes books easy and cheap to acquire, both print books shipped from a warehouse and e-books downloaded from a server. E-readers have also, in some ways, made the very act of reading easier. There is some evidence, for example, that people are more ready to read certain genres of book, generally genres such as fantasy and romance which have been marginalized in the past as “trashy”, if they can read them on an e-reader, where nobody can see the cover.

Of course, the data flow goes both ways. When you’re reading an e-book, that e-book may be reading youMost new e-readers are capable of recording how fast you read, what passages you highlight or linger on, and what your taste in books is like. Publishers receiving that information can use it in aggregate to direct the kind of books they choose to publish; authors, if they are allowed to see it, can use it to direct the kind of books they write. Textbook publishers already use this information to dictate content; it won’t be long before a novel publisher tries to, if they haven’t already.

On the one hand, it’s a strike against original, innovative work. An author who has been dictated a framework must either work genius within it or fail. If the data is faulty and the framework is bad, they may fail anyway. On the other hand, all this data offers authors insight into what their readers want, and how best to communicate their ideas within a structure that makes their readers want to read them. There is some pretty strong kick against this among authors, but the final verdict on its usefulness hasn’t yet been made.

There is, as with any major cultural sea-change, a spectrum of use for these new tools in this new world. Perhaps books will fall by the wayside, becoming dusty museum pieces and craft hobbies as digital books take over. Perhaps those digital books will be regimented and restricted by analytic guidelines set with user data, devoid of originality.

But it is a mistake to believe that The Book is a monolith, and that authors and novels can all be swept up in one broad stroke. Even publishers, dominated by six large corporations which believe they set the standard for all, have a wide array of philosophies. Novelists, certainly, are highly diverse and individual, and our culture has both celebrated and condemned that individuality. The public, connective nature of the internet has already begun removing certain outdated gatekeepers that have kept marginalized voices from being heard.

So perhaps books will return to a time when they were visual as well as literary works of art. Perhaps literature will experience a resurgence in popularity when books become even more inexpensive to produce and easy to distribute.

In dozens of centuries of the written word, across cultures and eras, through revolutions in communication and dark ages, the ethos of the novelist seems likely to remain: independent, defiant, and original for some, others guided by the rule of culture, others still as formulaic as they’ve ever been.

It’s always been hard to keep a good book downor even a bad one. I don’t give the next five hundred years good odds of succeeding where the last few thousand have failed.

This essay was written in response to a request from Flat Earth Theatre, currently in the final stages of production for What Once We Felt, a science-fiction exploration of the schisms in society and technology.

Why Wiki Walk

In Uncategorized on February 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

Back in January, when I was writing about going “too deep” when researching for fiction, I referenced Wikiwandering, a term so new I’m still having to explain it to a rough fifty percent of the people I talk to about it.

Wikiwandering or Wikiwalking is what happens when you access an informational website and, during the course of researching one thing, end up researching multiple others when you follow links in the text. It’s not confined to Wikipedia; it is infamously associated with TVTropes, where most people, once linked, can get lost for hours. It also surfaces frequently when using sites like Cracked, full of informational lists.

I decided I wanted to do a piece on Wikiwalking, which would ironically involve a lot of research. But it turns out very little has been written about it, or at least, very little that I could find.

What I was looking for in specific was a psychological or biological (or both) theory as to why we do it — why we find new information linked from known information almost irresistible. My own personal theory was that it had to do with acquiring new data; evolutionarily speaking that’s quite a good thing, and now more than ever we are socialised to want data.

I thought it might relate to the idea of uncovering secrets; when you see a link in an informational article, you don’t know what the link means, so clicking it gives you a sense of unveiling and discovery (this is worse in TV Tropes because the links usually have funny but not informative names). Really, discovering a secret and acquiring new data are very similar, however, and neither is necessarily an explanation. Why do we want to know secrets? Why do we want to learn so badly?

When I opened the floor for discussion on tumblr, I got some interesting suggestions. Some thought that perhaps the compulsion is linked to “continuity of definiton” — that the links answer questions which arise in the course of reading — or to tailored learning, because you control precisely what information you access, and that control is particularly easy to exert on heavily crosslinked sites. “Reward schedules” were also suggested: “Wiki gives you something of interest (a reward) just often enough, with just unpredictable enough of a schedule to increase reward seeking behavior.” But why do we consider new knowledge a reward?

Storytelling is a very low-risk way of providing/acquiring new data, as I’ve discussed, and while you may learn more by “doing”, the ratio of payoff to risk in “other people doing” is much lower. I’ve never seen much written on how to make nonfiction interesting, but most people are aware that conveying data in an entertaining fashion is more likely to keep people engaged. Sites like Groupon and Woot make “interesting” copy their stock in trade, occasionally to the point of obscuring actual necessary data (a complaint I will make in detail at some future point, probably).

So it seems as though it may be as simple as the human instinct to gain new knowledge, facilitated by an easy interconnected structure (and, in the case of TV Tropes, encouraged by a certain level of “secret keeping” in the form of obscurely-titled links).

I have a secondary theory, however.

It arises from some self-analysis done by TV Tropes, because it is such an addictive site; they’ve adopted the term “Browser Narcotic” to describe “Any website that results in you opening a dozen tabs in a single session and using up hours of your time”. The term comes from the alt text of an XKCD comic on the topic:

“Cracked.com is another inexplicable browser narcotic.”

The key word here, I think, is narcotic.

A narcotic is an addictive drug, of course, but it’s also a self-medication, a soothing device (“Narcotic” in particular is clinically defined as a sedative compound). When I looked up WikiWander in a google search and got connected to a perhaps less than scientific definition I found what I think is another indicator: “Not only do you learn a lot, but it motivates you to do lots of things on a boring day.”

No it doesn’t. Wikiwalking teaches you a lot, but you don’t actually do lots of things. You do one thing: you learn.

But it feels like doing lots of things, which is the crux of the matter. When you research via Wikiwalk, you feel like you’re getting a lot accomplished because your brain is very active. You’re not “doing” a lot but you are “acting” a lot — opening browser windows, closing browser windows, switching back and forth between different kinds of learning as you move through different subjects. And who doesn’t feel a little ping of satisfaction when they can close a browser window, having wrung every ounce of knowledge from it?

“Browser narcotic” websites are self-medication — they make us feel accomplished even as we do very little. Part of that is undoubtedly because of all the learning, but I think part of it is because our brains are lighting up without us having to move around a lot.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. God knows, everyone needs a little self-medication now and again. And soothing through learning is a very low-risk, high-yield form of “wasting” time. But I’m satisfied with the thesis that browser narcotics are so addictive because they provide a sense of accomplishment and increased knowledge attached to an extremely low-expenditure, low-risk activity.

Evolutionarily, we were made for Wikiwalking.

And just because I’m a cruel person, you can read more about Wiki Walking at TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life.

Research Part Two: Too Deep

In Uncategorized on January 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

So, last time we talked about not doing enough research. Most writers know they need to do their research, though; workshops teach it and everyone preaches it, and it’s easy to be humiliated by someone more knowledgeable if you don’t do it. So that seems to me to be a less prevalent problem in published work than the other side of the coin: too much research.

I thought about dedicating a post to how one should research, inbetween “too little” and “too much”, but research is such a subject-specific issue, and honestly it’s not that hard to learn how to look up what you need to know, especially with google’s search engine getting more frighteningly intelligent every day. So I thought it was more important to focus first on why you should research, and now on how you should deal with what you find.

An old classic from XKCD

It’s easy to go down the rabbit-hole when you’re researching, especially on the internet. It’s called “wikiwandering” — looking up one thing you need to know, and ending up reading about ten thousand things you didn’t need to know but suddenly desperately want to know. It happens on Wikipedia, but most infamously on the TV Tropes website, and other sites like Cracked.

As an aside, I did some looking-into the phenomenon of wikiwandering and found that there’s been essentially no scholarly work done on the psychology of it. I would venture to say that whatever the evolutionary trigger behind it, it’s worse on TV Tropes because usually on Wikipedia you at least have an inkling of the meaning of the link you’re following; on TV Tropes, because of the funny titles, you have much less clue about what the link will lead to, which inversely affects your curiosity.

Back to the subject at hand. There’s nothing particularly harmful about wikiwandering, at least in moderation. Some people call it a time-waster, but if the knowledge is valuable or even just entertaining, there’s not much wasteful about it; nothing more wasteful than reading a book on any given topic, or going to an educational museum. Even if you just meant to look something up and get right back to writing but got lost, the writing will still be there in an hour or two.

Occasionally, that sheer wall of knowledge can be paralyzing: information overload, the so-called bane of our time. There’s been a lot written about that online, about how our brains can’t handle the level of data we can now pull off the internet or the frequency with which a high level of data assaults us on a daily basis. (While I do agree that an overload can be harmful, the onus is not on the internet to filter your information for you. The responsibility lies with the individual, to put filters in place and to know when they’re reaching a critical point. It can be a process, but I think for a researcher it’s an important one.)

Being unable to write because of information paralysis is certainly an issue; there’s no real cure for that except to clear your head, ditch the research, write what you want, and fix it later. Especially since nothing ruins a good book, fiction or nonfiction, like information overload transmitted from the writer to the reader.

I was trying, a couple of years ago, to read the biography of a famous con man. It was a hefty book, which I’d hoped meant there would be a lot of meat about his life, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. The writer had clearly intended to write a biography, but what they had accomplished was a wide picture of life in the subject’s era. A little too wide, in fact; when the con man went to prison, a full history of the prison was provided; when he was put on a “prison ship”, a history of the ships was given as well. Not a paragraph, not a page, but page after page of information that was accurate but not relevant — at least not to the stated purpose of the book.

And if it’s possible to provide too much information even in nonfiction, it’s downright easy to provide it in fiction; you control what people say, so you have endless opportunities to make them deliver lectures on things the writer desperately wants to share but the reader probably doesn’t care that much about.

For a writer, research is a process of learning, in order to be able to place a framework on the page. The peril falls where the framework begins to devour the subject matter — where including a fact is more important than building a narrative. That’s a much harder filter to install, to be honest — the filter that says “okay, stop providing information now, it’s getting in front of the story”. There’s an urge to share knowledge that I think is natural and human, and the more interested in it we are, the more we want to share it with someone else. But that is — if you absolutely must share the information — what an appendix is for.  I would rather read a well written, poorly-researched novel than a poorly-researched but excruciatingly accurate one.

Put that brilliance in the back matter. Better yet, tuck it away in your brain and feel smug that your knowledge contributed materially to your novel, whether or not anyone else ever knows or notices.

Research Part One: Too Shallow

In Uncategorized on January 21, 2014 at 10:00 am

Well, I did say last time that the research aspect of writing deserves its own essay…and I ended up writing two.

Research is a necessary part of the writer’s toolbox, and most people are aware of this. Even if you’re writing “what you know”, like an autobiography, you will sometimes need to look up dates and names. Unless you have some kind of superhuman memory, in which case it’s not nice to brag, keep that to yourself. Writing fiction, where even “what you know” can be tweaked and changed, contains its own problems.

There are two aspects of research that can ruin a good story: “not enough” and “too much”. They’re very different issues, each with hidden perils as well as more obvious ones. Today is all about Not Enough; next time we’ll be discussing Too Much.

It’s reasonably obvious that you have to do research, even when writing fiction. Not necessarily sit-down-and-read-at-the-library research; maybe you just need to stop for a minute and Google what the weather’s like in Tokyo in the winter. But nobody really talks about the reasoning behind research; it’s the assumed good thing.

Why should you need to do research, after all, if you’re making the whole story up as you go along? Is it necessary to be slavishly faithful to the real world when you are writing fiction that merely uses it as a framework? Is it necessary to know facts when writing fantasy? It is naturally easier to get by without research when you’re making up the world as well as everything in it, but as humans we still want constants: we want physics to work the way it always has, we want people to react in ways that are comprehensible if not predictable.

Research does more than provide facts. Research creates the ground on which you build. Because we all have certain things we just grow up learning — like language, the layout of the areas in which we live, the ways our families cooked food — we don’t really think about those things as being “research” so much as “knowledge”, but the distinction is minimal. And extending knowledge is necessary even when it may not seem like it.

One of my favorite examples is the proliferation of fanfics in the Avengers fandom set in “Stark Tower”, a New York high-rise building, right after the film came out. Most of them were light on details, which is good when you’re light on research, but once in a while you’d have someone say that they could see the entire city from…the 29th floor penthouse. Which, if you’ve never lived in a major urban center, or been to the 29th floor of somewhere, doesn’t seem irrational. However, if you’ve ever worked in or visited a high rise building, you know that the penthouse is more likely on the 99th floor than the 29th — and you definitely can’t see an entire city from only twenty floors up.

Unless it’s a very small city, I suppose.

This kind of misinformation — assumptions based in neither knowledge or in research but just in “eyballing it” — can throw people out of a story. I admittedly have a limited tolerance for people who complain they’re thrown out of stories; sometimes it’s legit, sometimes it’s just nitpickery to make themselves feel bigger. The same holds true for scientific or historical nitpicking of films. Sometimes it’s educational! Most of the time it’s just masturbation.

A lack of knowledge does genuinely affect the prose, though. It leads to a shallowness, because so many things have to be either skimmed over or left out. If you have no depth of knowledge, it can often show through in what you choose not to say because you don’t know how to say it. It can also mean missed opportunities to add layers to a story because the information that would have supported those layers is lacking.

Most people know you need to do your research, but for beginning writers it can be a quagmire of where to start and more importantly where to end — which is what I’ll be discussing next time, in part two, where I defend wikiwandering and will probably link you to TV Tropes.