Category Archives: Thoughts

Consumerism – In itself, it’s just crass.

It’s one of these topic where almost everyone who speaks about possesses a polarised view on the subject. Either you take a look at the world today and see a society that rejects previous methods of being happy in favour of a shallow, crass desire for material wealth propagated by large corporations via the media. Or, you see consumer society as a good thing, a place where a wide range of products can be bought, and with such competition it’s easy to get goods at a bargain rate. From slight variations of these two opinions, the topic never seems to get any further, which I find is lamentable. If you have a look around, the majority of posts on this topic fall into those two broad camps, outlined above, with little room for grey areas.

Consumerism, turning is into mindless zombies!

This problem is reflected even in the definition of consumerism. Source: http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/consumerism

noun

[mass noun]

  • 1 The protection or promotion of the interests of consumers: the growth of consumerism has led to many organizations improving their service to the customer
  • 2 Often derogatory the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods: many people are becoming increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of consumerism

For those of you who love wikipedia, their definition gives a greater sense of this divide. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumerism

 

  1. One sense of the term is to describe the efforts to support consumers’ interests.[4] By the early 1970s, it was the accepted term for the field and began to be used in these ways:[4]
    1. “Consumerism” is the concept that consumers should be informed decision makers in the marketplace.[4] Practices such as product testing make consumers informed.
    2. “Consumerism” is the concept that the marketplace itself is responsible for ensuring economic justice and fairness in society.[4] Consumer protection policies and laws compel manufacturers to make products safe.
    3. “Consumerism” refers to the field of studying, regulating, or interacting with the marketplace.[4] The consumer movement is the social movement which refers to all actions and all entities within the marketplace which give consideration to the consumer.
  2. While the above definitions were being established, other people began using the term “consumerism” to mean “hih levels of consumption”.[4] This definition gained popularity since the 1970s and began to be used in these ways:
    1. “Consumerism” is the selfish and frivolous collecting of products, or economic materialism. In protest to this some people promote “anti-consumerism” and advocacy for simple living.[4]
    2. “Consumerism” is a force from the marketplace which destroys individuality and harms society.[4] It is related to globalization and in protest to this some people promote the “anti-globalization movement“.[5]

Although the definition varies from source to source (this is why language has no truth, due to no fixed meaning) the latter sums up the problem here in greater depth. Consumerism exists in society as an ‘either or’, where each stance effectively defines itself against the other. To be blunt, it seems you either think it is crass materialism or it isn’t, or you think it either ensures fairness in society or it does not. There is little in between, little grey and if you ask me, it exists little more as a sensationalist term. It’s even trendy to say you’re against consumerism; making you a conforming non-conformist, another fun matter entirely.

What is my point? We don’t allow our thoughts about consumerism to reflect reality. I wonder, how many of you reading this laughed with scorn and thought it a sad state of affairs when people queued overnight for the release of the latest iPhone? How many of us would then actually quite like to own an iPhone? How many of us do? It shows a double standard, where we might mock those who appear to slavishly follow consumerist trends, while at the same time you’ve already done so, since you now own that very product. I wonder, are any of you reading this on an iPhone? If so, you’ll in the exact position I want you to be for thinking about this problem. Even with the above example, we encounter a problem if we peel back our narrow view on the subject.

At face value, this is just crass consumerism.

There are other things we queue overnight for, even camp out for. Back in time, you used to do the same thing for movies at the cinema, ticket sales for festivals, and still today people camp overnight and queue for hours to get tickets at Wimbledon when the tennis is on. But we don’t scorn them, we don’t say they are slaves to materialism. You’re paying for an experience; the ticket gives you access to it. We view watching great sportsmen and women play as something that is priceless, as it is an experience, but when you break that down, you realise it’s still a product. Just because there is no material object involved does not mean it is not a product. Something is being sold, something is being bought. You don’t just pay for an iPhone after all, you pay for the experience of owning one. I can go into an apple store and experience it, but only if I buy it can I own that experience. In the same way, I can watch the Wimbledon final on the TV, but there’s this tangible sense that I don’t own the moment, since I’m not there in person – there’s no physical link, not attempt at ownership by being there.

Are we all just hypocrites then? Have we fallen into some trap where we don’t realise how deeply we subscribe to consumerism? Are we all mindless slaves, driven to buy products without even noticing it? No. That’s sensationalist. That’s deluded. I’m leading you with those sentences towards a conclusion that is another polar extreme, not an actual understanding. I tend to find in artists that we are very often in the camp that rejects materialism and consumerism. We create for our own benefit, we produce (see where this is going – think about why I’m using ‘produce’ here) for ourselves. What do artists produce? Art. Do we offer commissions? Yes. Do we therefore sell our products? Yes. Does art have a material value? Yes. Is art necessary? No. So what do artists do? We create a product that has no real value in terms of practicality, and then we sell it to those who collect products. It’s a more permissive form of economic materialism, but it still is.

So how do we escape from this? We can’t. Don’t be dismayed either; dismay comes from one of the polar extremes. In reality, what happens? Do we mindlessly collect art? If you view art as worthless, yes, if you see art as impractical, yes. But if you see art as something of value? We view those who appreciate art or literature as cultured; we see those things as motifs of “high culture” but what makes it any different to buying a pair of shoes? I might see no value in a pair of high heels, but others do. Does that make the person who buys art and different to the person who buys shoes? No. What’s the issue then? It’s not that you’re buying something, that everything can be viewed as either a necessary product or an unnecessary one. The problem we fail to recognise in our polar attitudes towards consumerism is that it relies on what you judge to have value. Value is permissive, value has no fixed definition. It varies from person to person. What even constitutes value is not fixed. Some define value in terms of how much money it’s worth. Some have defined the value of a product as relational to a sale price and the price of labour in producing it – that was Marx. We can define value as something that is based on necessity. Do we need that product? Yes/No? Then depending on the answer, the product either has value or does not. Need is of course determined by the individual’s circumstances, and even then, what do we mean by need? We’re getting caught in an endless attempt to define. Even simply, value can be determined by whether we like it or not. It can be as simple as that.

Value. Yes, you can buy a car, clothes and work in a job. Or you can have no job, walk everywhere and be naked – because we don’t need it. It’s all about how you interpret value.

If you’re still here, take a breather. I promise we’re almost done.

What this means for us is that we can neither escape consumerism nor can we be part of it. Others can say our purchases are not based on necessity. I can go buy a pair of walking boots, but someone can turn around and say that is not necessary because I can always walk anywhere barefoot. It just gets silly – and that’s what this is. It’s silly to apply one person’s ideas of value onto another. It’s silly to say that purchasing something because you like it is consumerist, because our like of a thing is a measure of value.  It’s silly also to suggest that we should make everything ourselves and therefore avoid money. Some of us will be better at other things, so we’ll naturally trade things, rather than just continue making our own bit of rubbish. If, say we are hunter-gatherers, I might be better at hunting animals, and you might be better at making clothes from animal fur. It would be mindlessly stupid for me to hunt and then make shoddy clothes myself, or you to try to hunt but not catch the right animals. Net result, we wouldn’t survive winter unless I went out and hunted for us both, and you then made clothes from those skins for us both. This is called the division of labour, and you know, Marx said this. Read the German Ideology – it’s in there. Society is basically made up by dividing labour and then trading based on our merits. We are no longer hunter gatherers, but the principle still applies. Have a think. Dividing labour makes sense, and is also efficient. However, the hunter gatherer can also learn to hunt or make clothes, which does throw a wrench in that. I guess that means dividing labour only then works if we don’t have the time to do that all.

So to conclude? It’s foolish to think of consumerism in a simple way. There are complex interactions going on, which can both label us as consumers or not. What is crass materialism to one isn’t to another. Our everyday actions reveal both consumerist tendencies and non-consumerist tendencies at the same time. I for one have commissioned artists. I’m a consumer. At the same time, I’m teaching myself to draw. So with that, I’m a consumer who is not a consumer. Doesn’t consumerism just feel silly now?

 

Ideas – They Don’t Just Pop Into Your Head

I’d say the greatest challenge for a writer is quite a simple on actually. It’s not writing well, or getting published. Even at a push, I’d say it’s not about staying motivated either. It’s having lots of ideas.

When we think about writing, we have this notion that ideas are the one thing you can’t change. Either you have a good idea or you don’t, either you can think up of many ideas or you can’t. It’s a bit of a naive attitude though, because it relies on the fact that ideas for writing simply stroll into our heads, that we have sudden moments of creative genius that happen outside of our control. It’s sensationalist, and encouraged because of its appeal, but it doesn’t do much good in reality.

If a writer were to say the idea for their entire book just walked fully formed into their head, I’d tell them to stop being overly dramatic. What are ideas? They’re by no means so tidy or obedient even. When you pause to break it down, the idea for a work is more of a single one, a stub, a starting point. One idea might be something very simple, and as you think about it, you come up with more. Whenever I write, I start with a small idea in mind. It’s my goal for what I’m going to do. Then as I continue, I get more ideas the more I think. I don’t just sit there waiting for inspiration to hit me, I ask myself questions about the idea I’ve had. Sometimes I get answers. Sometimes I don’t. But it creates more ideas for you to play with, rather than struggling with just one.

In reality, a story is an amalgamation of many ideas. One idea starts the process off, but then others join it. Some contradict each other, and some turn the story away from your original idea. But as you ask yourself questions, you build up a single, cohesive story. It’s like building a rubber band ball. You start with the first one, and as you add more the ball takes shape, until all those rubber bands behave like a single ball, rather than a pile of them.

So, you can think creatively by asking yourself questions. That’s a start, but it’s still limited in boosting your imagination. I’m not going to launch into a long paragraph about reading other books, because that’s a stock response. I’d say, read a selection of books. Ones that interest you, ones that you know nothing about. Even ones you think you won’t like. Don’t stop with contemporary fiction, but go back in time. Have a dig. Don’t limit yourself to fiction, but look at non-fiction. History is a very good place to come up with ideas, as you ask “what if” questions as you read. What if Rome didn’t fall? You can have some fun with that. Even then, I’d encourage brave writers to read philosophy. Stories will give you ideas for events, and philosophy will give you understanding of different modes of thought, which means, better characterisation.

Life experience is a great asset too. You know how looking back at your past work is almost always something that makes you cringe? That’s greater experience talking. How can you make your work better? By going out and living. Gain experiences, don’t just slave away at the keyboard. You can draw inspiration from the experiences you’ve had yourself, and the great thing about this is that it is free, and it’s going on all the time. If you can travel, then do, but if you can’t try to experience other cultures. Books, encyclopaedias, TV, these will all give you experience.

Ideas aren’t just a solitary affair. Have willing volunteers read your work. Discuss ideas. It’s always good to have friends that are writers for this purpose, and even better if you have a mentor. So in short, there are things you can do to have more ideas. It isn’t just about creativity on its own, because it is extremely hard to pull something from nothing, even if it is in your head. Experimentation is key, and you must not limit yourself by sticking to only what you like.

My question is how do you come up with ideas? Do you struggle, or do you have too many?

The Freedom from Names – Why I Write Under Alias

I’ve never been drawn at all to using my real name on the internet, or as a writer even. It’s not born out of any conscious desire for security, but instead to keep me free from names. What do I mean?

Well, if I don’t use a name it leaves plenty of factors out entirely. Try as we might, we do form an opinion of a person from a name even. It’s just part of how we build a judgement of that person. It’s also a way people can categorise what you do. To be honest, I don’t even want my writing to be associated with my name. It allows my work to stand out on an individual basis and solely on their merit. There can’t possibly be any notion that because I wrote X, Y must also be good too. It leaves no room for presumptions – and doesn’t allow you to build a bibliography of my work up. That, and it also makes my life as a writer easier, as I don’t have to worry about expectations being placed upon me, and it keeps my writing firmly apart from myself. Once I finish writing this, it can’t be put to my name. In short, my writing can’t come at me when I’m not writing.

The best aspect of alias are that it’s impossible to pin down a gender on my writing. You can’t point at my writing and say “this is a woman’s writing” or “this is a man’s writing” because there is no name to give you a hint. Tying anything down to a gender is pointless – because what influence does it really have? I don’t want you to know, because I’m wanting you to read what I’ve written for what it is. Rather than try to break it down as a work of a female or male writer.

As for myself, it gives me freedom to write anything. Do readers place expectations upon author’s based (either fully or in part) by gender? I believe we all do, even subconsciously. Remaining an Alias means that I can write whatever idea enters my head.

As a quick question, do you believe writing under alias are a good or bad thing? Do you think gendered expectations are placed upon writers? Should literature be influenced by the gender of who wrote it? Discuss!

 

Escapism, Reality and Writing – Why Do We Create To Escape?

At the face of it, writing creatively is a purely self-destructive activity. Of all the things to spend your time, you choose to write on fictitious events, worry over imaginary characters and work to create the unreal. All when today, we retain the idea that we should do things of relevance, and that concept of what makes something worthwhile is intrinsically tied to a grounding in reality. In short, it is seen as productive to have a hobby that has some benefit to you in reality.

Here’s a hobby of mine. Rock Climbing. A good way to exercise; so it would seem. The practice of heaving yourself up vertical surfaces. Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? Yet even now when we’ve long passed over the hunter-gatherer stage of human development when this kind of skill would have been relevant, we still view it with an air of justification. Instead of using it to heave yourself up or down steep terrain to get to food others might not be able to access, it’s good exercise. It has a benefit to the body. Exercise releases endorphins, which make you happy. A happy citizen, a happy worker, a more productive worker. So, that’s fine, go climb those walls.

Yet writing? Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. It’s just daydreaming. It’s just imaginary nonsense. Haven’t we grown up and learnt to focus on what’s real, instead of inventing things? Yes, oh dear. It’s a tenuous position, sitting and dealing with imaginary people, treating them as if they were real. We’re adults now, not children, we must focus our minds in the real world, upon all that is real and nothing else. Why is that? Because we’re meant to ‘grow up’, a concept that involves expunging childish practices from us in order to become a rational adult. With that in mind, the following paragraph will sound mad.

I spent several hours today inside my head, thinking about a world I created. I wasn’t just thinking about characters, I was imagining myself as them. I thought as them, felt as them.

Sounds like a mental problem, doesn’t it? Especially if you know the characters I write about.

It’s worrying when you break out of the daydream, blink, and realise for a split second, you were thinking and feeling like that character.

Really, writing in first person present screws with my mind at least. Not that I was complaining. Oh, take that society!

In short, this is why I opened by saying writing is self-destructive. Perhaps we spend our time inside our heads too much, imagining an escapist world like a child does, instead of being a good little worker and getting on with our lot in this world. Or rather, instead of learning to cope with the world itself, coping by proxy.

But hey, I don’t actually believe that at all. I wouldn’t say writing is self-destructive. But why did I just lead you on that tangent? I had to explain that in order for you to understand the next idea. Well, there’s a refuge in the word ‘writer’. The practice of writing is a refuge for imaginative process that would have been culled around the time you go to secondary school. That begins when you’re 13 if I remember correctly. Think back in your education. When did the emphasis on creativity and imaginative practice go? When instead of writing a story in English you had to start writing essays? When did they focus shift onto getting good grades for oh, that seemingly distant job? See, it’s an implicit part in the practice of ‘growing up’. The imaginative gets sidelined for the practical. Creativity is preserved only if it can serve an economic purpose. Learning suffers the same as well. Cram your head with the facts to pass the exams. Who cares if it’s something you want to learn about.

Creative problem solving. That’s useful, it means you’ll be a good worker that can better deal with unforeseen problems. What about being a writer? You’re using the imagination to write stories that sell. That’s the refuge. So all day, I’m not potentially wasting time indulging a denial of reality. No, I’m working to create a product. The thing is, unless writing can justify itself by selling, creativity for creativity’s sake alone is cast of as void. It becomes a nice thing for children to do. Paint a picture, write a story. How many artists and writers have we lost because they never thought to keep their creativity into adulthood? I look around at the people I know here at university. Of the English students, how many that say they are writers are? Few. Precious few. They’re here for inspiration. They’re here to learn how to write. Perhaps. But how many go of and write? Of them, who writes regularly? Who is really working on that book, and not just stuck in some limbo falsely labelled as work in progress?

Let’s say I haven’t found one yet. None isn’t a word I want to hear, but that’s another topic.

The continued existence of the refuge of writing presents a strange idea though, and why do I label it’s existence down to consumerism?

Well, it exists because it’s a balm, a slave for all the dreary existence we find ourselves trudging through. Working 9am to 5pm, seeing the same sights, living a life of routine without any change. It creates a craving for adventure. In all ways, all stories tell one. Whether it is as literal as that doesn’t matter. There are changes. There is excitement. It is novel. Buy a book, or better yet, write one and you can create your own adventure, with all the security of the current existence intact. I don’t doubt that anyone will ever be truly content with their lives. We can always find something more we want. Perhaps loosing yourself in a wood full of elves helps. Perhaps not. But the need for this alternate reality still exists, and it is a healthy one.

The question is, why do you start writing (if you are a writer) and if not, what do you think about creative endeavours? Do you indulge in escapism?

It Belongs In A Museum, Not A Bin – The Problem With Literary Canon

It’s no lie. I would without hesitation throw away many literary classics for being dull, contrived and boring. I can imagine that will upset some people reading this, but I have reasoning.

For instance, let’s ask why some books are ‘classics’ in the first place, and not others. With all artistic endeavour, it is impossible to give a concise measurement of a book, and thus you cannot say what criteria makes something a classic. Like all works of art, they only gain status when people are willing to go out and say why they think such a piece is a classic.

But there’s a problem I think we as readers, and certainly as writers, have a duty to address. As far as I’m concerned, ‘literature’ is a stagnant entity. Stuck in a time-warp more likely. Our definition of literature that belongs in the cannon seems to be stuck around the necessity that it must either be old, or deal with deep spiritual and philosophical points. Of course, any selective criteria creates a picture that does not represent the whole. As such, the canon does not represent the entire summary of writing out there. I wouldn’t even say it’s the best. I think we can all list a few literary classics that we’d never want to touch again.

Literature has lost something in becoming so conceited. It has lost its primary function, the thing that made all writers start in the first place. That is telling a good story. Sadly, along the way, storytelling became sidelined, cast into the realm of sensationalist fiction, and therefore not literary. Hence, anything that is popular cannot be literary. Why do we not see science fiction or fantasy included in the canon? We know the answer.

This is what I think must change in order for literature to maintain its credibility. It must not linger in the past alone, but actively engage with present works, rather than exclude them because the author isn’t dead, or because it’s set in a fantasy world.

In light of this, what would you put in your own literary canon? What would you champion, and what would you leave out? Would you put Shakespeare in the bin, or would you keep things as they are?

Moving Forwards With Your Writing

Writing is a unique experience. Unlike other pursuits, you are the only person solely responsible for everything. You must be the one to write in the first place, but you must also have the willpower and discipline to continue to do so. Even when you’re fed up with edits. Even when you feel like you can’t be a writer anymore. The only way you can be a writer is by pushing yourself, and managing your progress towards every single goal you set up for yourself.

No one else can interfere.

The questions I’ve been hearing from good friends is how you stay focused as a writer when you try and get your career in the field going. There are plenty of ways to make a start. You can publish traditionally or by yourself. You can submit short stories to a variety of publications, enter competitions and such. The problems with those common ideas are that they are too closely tied to success. They garner themselves to the expectation of instant success and when the inevitable rejections come, you’re left wondering what else you can do to get started. It would seem your aspirations have been nipped in the bud before they got to flower.

Firstly, forgive yourself for hoping to have success at the first try, regardless of the level.

So your short story got rejected. Your self-published book didn’t sell anything like you hoped. That’s fine. Don’t lie to  yourself about wanting to succeed at the first, second, third, fourth or even firth (or more) try, because if you didn’t you wouldn’t have ever bothered in the first place. Recognise you want to succeed quickly, but don’t allow yourself to repress that feeling because your head might tell you that’s such a vain hope.

It’s not, and you’re only human.

But if submitting work to various outlets sets you up for a blow to your hopes, what else is there to do? The problem is not finding some other outlet, but simply valuing the activities you do before you think about publishing. You’ve got to sort yourself out mentally, so you can condition yourself to react to rejection in a positive way. This means evaluating your approach to both your writing and goals for it on a regular basis that is constructive and enables you to better appreciate what you do.

When we talk about publishing, particularly publishing failure, we often try to find external sources to blame. The editor was picky. The reader didn’t understand the point you were making. Whatever the excuse, we scrutinise ourselves last when things don’t go our way. Of course, we don’t want to for a number of reasons. The primary ones are that it’s easier to blame someone else, and that we’ve invested a whole load of time and emotion in our work. As such we’re extremely unwilling to find fault in ourselves as it negates all the work previously put in. It is painful to realise that you need to rewrite an entire story because you wrote it in the wrong way. Again, take a step back and don’t hate yourself for being only human. No matter what you do, there’s no way to get rid of that horrible, sinking feeling in your stomach when you realise you made a mistake. You’re justified in feeling that way; a mistake is not something to celebrate.

A mistake in writing is never a total disaster as long as you respond to your emotions correctly.

Don’t jump in the deep end; don’t delete all your work because it “isn’t good enough” because there is very much the chance that it might well have been a case that the editor just didn’t like what you did. Writing is subjective, and you can edit your work as much as you like but it might still get you nowhere. In all cases, I would say that you must never delete anything as a rule of thumb. Once it’s deleted, it’s gone. Instead, keep everything you do and edit. Edits are how your improve your writing, not deleting and starting from scratch. You must also learn to be confident in your own skills as a writer. Evaluating yourself requires that you have a good gauge of your abilities as they truly are and you must appreciate them. To do so otherwise is purely destructive, as you’ll never know where to focus your efforts, but more importantly, you’ll probably end up destroying something that you actually do well – you just didn’t have the confidence in your ability to see that. There are plenty of writers who will tell you everyone gets rejected so many times, and even the ones held up as literary greats got rejected many times as well. So, go build up your self-belief and remember that you will get there as long as you keep on trying.

A true rejection is if you give up without getting published.

What you must also reconsider is how you gauge your progress. Don’t measure yourself by letters, but instead do so in how much you write. Perhaps the greatest thing we forget when trying to gauge progress in our respective writing careers is how much we write in itself. I feel we really undervalue it if we measure progress only by how much you’ve published. Writing is the prelude to publishing, it is the very first step on that road and it is crucial to it. Nothing else can come if you don’t write first.

So if you find yourself thinking that you’re going nowhere in writing, stop and look at how much you’ve done. The reality is that you’re always going somewhere and all of it is progress.

I keep myself writing with one thought in mind. I enjoy writing in the first place. Such enjoyment will always keep you going as long as you focus on it, and not things later down the road. Keep such reasons in your mind first, and all other worries second otherwise you just burn yourself out.

If you want to succeed, keep writing and remember it’s just as much about writing well as it is being able to continue going forward in spite of all hardship.

 

Making ‘Fiction’ Fiction.

When you stop and think about it, writing is actually quite a silly thing to pursue. It’s down to logic. Why write about something that isn’t real? Or even better, why continue to agonise over something imaginary? If we measure our behaviour towards productivity, then writing is something that doesn’t fit. To be purely logical, why should anyone spend time that could otherwise be spent on facilitating some sort of material gain? Is there any value we can actually place on stories apart from emotional ones? It’s hard to find an answer. Financial inventive might work, but its rare to find any author who began writing for financial gain. It further collapses when you realise stories only sell because people invest emotionally in them. Quite simply, people buy stories because they like them.

As we grow up, we’re increasingly exposed to pressure that determines what we should and shouldn’t do. As such, the focus on imagination and unrealities dies off in favour of logic and reality. It’s why English classes go from having exercises in creative writing to writing analytical essays about works of literature. ‘Literature’ itself rarely includes any works of fantasy or science fiction. Those are populist, low-brow, sensationalist and therefore not high-brow. The irony is that many ‘classic’ works of ‘literature’ actually were criticised in their times for those same perceived faults. We only have to look back so far as to Modernism to understand that novels in themselves were criticised for lacking intellectual weight. The result is that even within the literary world, writing both struggles to and rigorously attempts to justify itself. There still is no answer.

Why is it then some of us continue to imagine the unreal, and therefore write?

This isn’t a post about defending writing, or trying to legitimate the process. Quite the opposite, I believe writing actually suffers from trying to legitimate itself and justify its place in society. The question shouldn’t be why you are you dreaming, but in fact asking those who asks such questions why they don’t dream. Imagination is key to being a good writer, so you shouldn’t try and legitimate your writing by neglecting it. Quite simply, this means where you should write where your imagination first takes you, and not where your head takes you to. As such, perhaps writers should not focus on writing fiction about our current reality, but instead write fiction that is truly fictitious. That is, it is not set in our reality, in our time. Instead, it dares to be imaginative, to deal in created worlds, rather than based on the one we’re already writing in.  In this way, you make ‘fiction’ fiction.

Writing 101

Approaching Writing – A short guide to constructing ideas and dealing with writer’s block.

A tutorial on how to write – we’ve seen it all before. Why then, should you even bother to read any further into this one? I’m not just going to tell you how to write, but what I’ve learnt through experience. I’m also going to break a few moulds, and show you how some of the well known advice doesn’t exactly work in the simple way others make you believe. As a side note, this is a repost of I guide I previously wrote which got quite a bit of interest from people, and more importantly it seemed to help them. If you read this and find nothing here helps you, that would make me happy actually, as it means you’re beyond whatever help I can offer. Also, if there’s something you’d like to add, please share your tips!

1.The Idea

So, how shall we start? Let’s begin by examining what gets you writing in the first place. That of course is the idea.

It’s obvious, but often neglected when trying to provide advice on how to write better.  Your ideas are the single most important thing that will make your writing great. Being able to write grammatically perfect English doesn’t guarantee a good, thrilling read. Strong, technically flawless writing can’t make that promise either. People read because they love stories, not brilliant writing. I will admit though, the two go hand in hand. A good story is better when written well, and visa versa. However, my personal belief is that ideas have to come first over writing, simply because your writing can be improved by instruction and practice. Ideas however, don’t work in such a logical way. No one can teach you how to come up with a great idea.

Understanding this concept is all well and good, but it doesn’t help you actually come up with that story. Coming up with ideas is an illogical, haphazard process. A story rarely leaps into your head fully formed, and anyone claiming that they have is lying.  Unfortunately, you have to spend time thinking out your story. I’m one of those people who get ideas as they write, but every so often I get stuck too, and I end up needing to plan as well. This means I need to sit and brainstorm ideas down on paper. You can never rely on inspiration striking, because it’s a random and fickle thing. As tempting as it is, waiting until you feel inspired is a sure way to make yourself frustrated about your writing. Why? Because you’ll be staring at a blank document, wanting to write, but unable to because you have no idea where you’re going. It is a horrible cycle that is hard to break out of. The more frustrated you feel, the less you feel like writing. I’ll talk about this later.

Planning will give you the ideas and structure you need to continue writing. To plan out your story, I find it helpful to write down a few short statements that outline what you want to achieve in your book. It is best to have a number of these that differ from each other. Try to write down themes you want to tackle within your book, and any messages you want to convey. To give you some ideas, here are some potential statements.

1. I want to write a fantasy book.
2. I want to create my own fantasy races, not the usual elves, dwarves and orc races.
3. I want to write battle scenes as well as adventure ones.
4. The natural world is important to me, so I will write scenes that deal with nature vs. industry, or machines.

So, those seem to be fairly obvious, formulaic statements. The point of these it to serve as starting points for you to branch out from with increasingly complex ideas and statements. It’s obvious, but you must always deal with what seems glaringly simple, even if it feels stupid. It works as a focal point from which you can better elaborate and expand upon. This means that when it comes to writing you have an idea of what you want to write, and therefore will spend less time agonising over what to write in the first place. Hopefully then, the words will come much easier.

A crucial thing to understand about the planning stage is that it takes a while for ideas to come. Just keep brainstorming, keep writing notes. If you want to be more detailed, write notes for specific chapters, scenes and characters to help you get a better idea of your story. You must be patient and disciplined. Ideas develop over time, and you must be willing to invest time before you get them.

2.When to Write

I briefly touched on this in the previous section, but there is in fact a time to write. For a lot of writers I’ve come across, most say they only write when they feel inspired. This is what I feel distinguishes serious writers from casual ones, but crucially writers who’ll never finish that book and those who will.

I used to subscribe to this style of doing things, but now I don’t. Unfortunately, writing when you feel inspired is a bit of a self-destructive cycle. I’m not being dramatic either. Most of the time, you won’t feel inspired to write. Let’s be honest, we’ve all told ourselves we’ll do it some other time. This means you will struggle to make any meaningful progress on your stories. This in turn, will make you frustrated, which will increasingly leave you feeling even less inspired than before. It’s an unpleasant cycle that doesn’t leave you with good feelings about your writing ability.

In my case, I spent two years writing when I felt like it, and I only came up with 40,000 words on my book. At first, that feels like a sizable amount, but when you break the years down, you realise how little that actually is. With some simple maths, it means that in 730 days, I would have written on average 55 words. Of course, you can’t write every day, but I did waste a lot of time doing nothing simply because I didn’t feel like writing, and then telling myself that any lack of progress was fine because I didn’t feel inspired or even in the mood.

The hard truth is, if I hadn’t gotten my act together, I doubt I would have finished it at all. I certainly didn’t feel good about it either. To me, the amount of time you spend working on a story is only justified when you finish it. If you quit before you do, then you’ve just wasted all the time you spent on it. Besides, if you want to be a published author, you can’t write 55 words a day.

The key to feeling motivated when it comes to writing is all about setting goals for yourself. You’ve got to be disciplined in order for this to work. Motivation is key. I work by writing a thousand words a day, for five days a week. This means I can have the weekend off as a break so I don’t get fed up with writing the same story all the time. It allows me some time where I won’t feel guilty about not writing. Furthermore, it will take on average around forty-five to an hour and fifteen minutes to write a thousand words. What this system means is that in two weeks, I can have ten thousand words written down. What would have taken me two years, takes only two months. So I neither get fed up with writing, nor frustrated with a lack of progress.

However, such a system should be tailored to what works for you. Find a balance between words written and time. For me, I put aside an hour in my day so I can write my thousand words, without having to worry about other obligations. It will probably be a different story for you. Just remember to make a target system that you are happy with, and most importantly, provides progress without making you feel like a slave to your keyboard.

In this part, I’ll also deal with writer’s block. I’m sorry to say, but it’s a case of tough love right now. Firstly, there is no such things as writer’s block. If you are disciplined and prepared, you will have no problems writing. In such, writer’s block really speaks of laziness on the part of the writer, because it is used as a way of justifying a lack of progress to themselves.

Yes, I realise I’m challenging the orthodoxy.

Why do I say this? Because I speak from experience. If I couldn’t be bothered to get writing, I’d just cite writer’s block to myself and hop off to play a computer game. It was an easy excuse, and one that I could use to not make me feel bad about writing. What made it worse was that I felt that I could only write when I felt inspired, because I thought that forcing myself to write would mean I would write badly.

I pretty much impaled myself on a double-edged sword.

Fortunately, I was wrong. As I said, with planning and self-discipline, I could write just as well as when I felt inspired. Sure, there were days when it felt like I was wading through waist high mud, but when I stopped, looked at my notes, I could get going a lot faster. Even if I wasn’t happy with it, I just kept going until the work I had to do was done. When I came back to read it, I realised that it was just me. There was no marked difference between pieces when I felt inspired and when I didn’t. Besides, you’ll always go back and make edits later, so you don’t need to worry about writing brilliantly first time.

That’s the hard truth of it, and it’s something not many people say. I only snapped out of such methods recently. I’d just watched an entire summer holiday slide by with no progress whatsoever. The truth was, I was disgusted with myself. I spent an entire summer doing nothing but lying around, being lazy and playing computer games but I still would call myself a writer. At the end of it, I had nothing to show for it, and that’s what made me feel bad. That in turn, provided me with the kick to actually get something meaningful done. Finding the time to write just becomes harder as you grow up, and life in general will test your commitment to writing. Sometimes, you’ll have to write while half asleep on the train back from work, or just before you go to bed. You might even have to understand that writing will have to fit around other more important duties, and this will test your motivation to do so in the first place.

Learning, Intelligence, IQ

And all that nonsense. Yes, I say nonsense for many reasons. I’ll outline the premise of why here before going into some depth, so keep reading while I get the introduction out of the way.

Asking what intelligence is, how it can be cultivated and how we can measure it is very much an epistemological concern, but one that is also rooted in a perceived financial necessity. We live in a society that is geared to rewarding intelligence because of its ability to enhance financial productivity, and we can see this in the salary differences between various professions. Graduate jobs tend to pay more than jobs that don’t require a degree, and it’s an easy trend to observe when looking for work. However, the problem as I perceive it is that society is too geared towards cultivating a specific type of intelligence, one that fills economic necessity. As such, society is about intelligence for economic gain, rather than intelligence for the sake of it.

It’s fair to say we’ve all gone through the meat-grinder that is state education, and to everyone potentially reading this I ask you to consider how much of what you learnt as part of either state curriculum or at university you firstly can actually recall, and secondly, how often you use it in your everyday life or profession. Then, compare that to what you’ve learnt yourself through your own learning independent of an academic institution. Again, the question is of these two categories, which one do you remember the most? That, and which one benefits the career path you are on?

Of course, let’s not pretend we’re living in some idealistic world where we all go off and learn about things in our spare time. That’s not a realistic assumption. But the question to engage with here is one whether state education and society in general encourages a sort of ‘legitimate’ intelligence (intelligence for the sake of it) or an economically productive intelligence.

Going through all levels of education, the focus has never been upon learning the content of a subject for long term reference, but to demonstrate the ability to use certain skills – such as analysis or communication. The interest in having a qualification is not that you learnt information about the world from that course, but that the mark you gained showed the degree you can use that skill. The best example I can personally think of is not that for one course in history I had to learn over 100 years of Russian history in detail, but that I could demonstrate the ability to exercise judgement, analyse information, present an argument and then communicate effectively. The latter abilities would be the economically productive intelligences, while the former, being all facts, is just information for the sake of it. With skills of analysis, the subject matter is interchangeable and frankly irrelevant. While a drive in state education towards economic intelligence is understandable and even logical, there’s something said from the lack of interest in education once a job is secured. You might undergo varying degrees of training, but once those are over, it is time to use your economically productive intelligence to benefit the firm you are working for. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what you know any more, but merely the functions you can preform.

That’s the thing that I find lamentable, and perhaps worrying even. We spend our childhood learning information and skills only to fulfil and adult society’s demand not for intelligence, but productivity. Now, this isn’t a simple issue either. It isn’t just logical, but essential to have an education system that encourages productive intelligence. However, if the outcome of education is economic productivity alone, then that very aim is endangering itself.

Yes, it comes down to that predictable outcome that creativity is valuable because it is a way of coming up with new solutions to things. And yes, we must do more to value creativity. But, what we should also look at is how we perceive intelligence. Intelligence should not be perceived to be confirmed by economic success, neither should “intelligent” individuals have the expectation of doing certain jobs only, and anything else is a waste of their ability. As we’ve outlined, only a specific type of intelligence is financially rewarded, and we risk creating very narrow perceptions of intelligence if we do so. It ironically comes down to the principle of genetics – a healthy population has multiple versions of many genes and has a large population. Low genetic diversity is bad for the species, and in the same way, a low diversity of intelligence created by a perceived validation by economic success risks not only making society a poorer one culturally, but also risks harming that very model of economic success because of a lack of diversity.

From this, let’s finish upon society. If a certain type of intelligence is valued only by society, then we must ask what questions this poses about ourselves. Is it correct to brand someone as “stupid” if they do not conform to a narrow set of exceptions? Is so, does this mean we understand “stupidity” as merely an individual who is not economically productive? One of the common arguments you hear batted around in general conversation is that “I know someone who knows lots of facts but isn’t smart”. How can knowing lots of facts not be smart? If these facts are not useful, who decides so or how is it decided that they’re useless? Again, we come down to that issue of productivity. But in terms of society, we must have a shake up of the perceived intelligence roles for individuals. Does stacking shelves make someone “stupid”? Does that mode of productivity define our expectations of that person? I think the answer is yes, and it shouldn’t be such that we make a judgement upon that person based upon that fact.

In the end, the issue is that society is enslaved by an idea that economically productive intelligence is the only form of intelligence. From this a number of problems are spawned – what do we view intelligence as, but more importantly, it spawns a very dangerous idea of intelligence, where individuals are defined by this specific form of intelligence.

Literature and Science

One of the strange things about being a writer is that you become sucked into having a stance upon scientific endeavour, and its relationship with literature. As far back as primary school, you’d become aware of the tension between these two schools of thought and be forced to pick a side. Yes, it’s the typical Literature versus Science debate. What I find amusing, frankly, about this argument is that firstly there is no need for there to be an argument, and secondly, that scientific endeavour has a great habit of exposing people’s insecurities about their own paths. This whole topic I’ve found is brought up more by writers, English Literature students and other affiliated parties than those with a grounding in or an actual career in scientific fields. That tells you something in itself.

As a writer, I’ve got the worst history I think you could possibly get. Instead of starting writing early and being fascinated with stories, I actually spent most of my childhood interested solely in science. In school my best marks where always in the sciences, I always enjoyed doing science, and I hated doing English and creative writing. Ironically, I simply couldn’t write creatively and at that point I was convinced I wanted to do something in the sciences for a job. Now things are totally the flip side – I’m studying English Literature at university and I spend my time writing. I fit the mould for being a writer better now yet the thing is, I’ve sat on both sides of the camp for this topic. Quite honestly, this whole issue is a laugh for me because it’s not an issue at all.

In several of my lectures so far, I’ve been bombarded with a bit of literature propaganda as I’d like to coin it. I’ve had Shelly’s quote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” repeated more times than I care for (even though that number is one – its such a vain quote) and lectures dealing with the issues of scientific enquiry, each with the veiled implication that literature isn’t pointless. What strikes me about the tone of these lectures is the implicit self-justification, the underlying tone that seeks to reassure both the speaker and the vested interested of the students listening. The message varies, but the overall trend is the same, that literature has a point in the face of science.

What’s interesting is how the perception for such arguments is that science is hostile to all other modes of thought, that it is trying to prove all other schools of thought wrong. That’s an entirely unjust categorisation. The goal of science is to learn the truth about things (a huge generalisation), but the crucial distinction to make is that it seeks to understand and arrive at what can be proved as truth. Thus, it only deals in the physical and the material. Issues of belief and thought are not it’s concern, because no test can be determined to prove a thought true. Therefore, it is not out to prove other modes of thought wrong. Ironically, those knowing in the operation of language should be savy to this distinction. In scientific enquiry, it is determined that a theory can be tested and by confirmation of test results, proved to be correct beyond reasonable doubt. It therefore operates in the psychical world, not the world of ideas. A great example would be that science is not out to prove religion is false, because there is no test that can be devised to prove the existence of deities. The conclusion is that science is a way of determining the properties of the physical world, but it is not in the same realm as philosophy, art or literature. Philosophy deals with thoughts, mostly questions of why. Art and literature cross into philosophy, but they’re also about aesthetic pleasure. Studying English is simply learning a mode of analysis and thinking – just with a different subject matter.

In the end, it becomes clear that Literature and Science are on two obviously different paths, aims and fields. They could not be more different, and thus more separate. One cannot transgress and try to disprove the other because they have no overlapping currencies. This means that yes, arguing that one field is more important than the other is irrelevant. What it only reveals, as I said in the introduction, are the insecurities of individuals. Science can determine what cake is, while language explains what cake is. One is about what it is, the other is about what it means. Both however at first deal with what it is, and it’s the small distinction in what “is” or “being” can mean that you must remember.