Friday, 25 January 2013

Out with the Old, In with the New

Never let it be said that I don't try to give you something different every Friday. I'm going to kick this week's post off with a bit of 1960s Situationist philosophy on the nature of consumerism, so pay attention at the back:
Wherever abundant consumption is established, one particular opposition is always at the forefront: the antagonism between youth and adults. But real adults — people who are masters of their own lives — are in fact nowhere to be found. And a youthful transformation of what exists is in no way characteristic of those who are now young; it is present solely in the economic system, in the dynamism of capitalism. It is things that rule and that are young, vying with each other and constantly replacing each other.
That particular quote is taken from The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord, published in 1967. It probably loses something in translation from the French, but I was really engaged by his ideas about the consumer society, especially that last sentence. In some ways, we take for granted the idea that newer is better, that young people are the true dictators of what is cool in this world, and the rest of us just hang around, smelling a bit mouldy and generally getting in the way of progress.

In Debord's view, the perceived conflict between old and young is simply a marketing gimmick, a way of driving consumption by convincing us that buying into the "new" is far preferable to sticking with the "old" things we already own. Nowhere is this dynamic more in evidence than in the technology market. Every day brings a hail of new product announcements: e-readers, smartphones, tablets, laptops, tablets that transform into laptops, smartphones that make candyfloss (ok, I made that one up). Each new technological advancement makes the printed book seem increasingly old-fashioned, as we find more and more ways to deliver content electronically.

But is this progress illusory? Are we really gaining from the move to digital, or just transitioning for the sake of it, because the new technology seems to offer us a more convenient way of accessing content? Yes and no. Digital does offer a lot of opportunities, new ways of publishing that make it easier to access and interact with the written word. Digital also offers a wealth of feedback that wasn't previously feasible – it's now possible to see how quickly people read books, which sections they reread, even which page makes them abandon the book and never return. But all this doesn't stop the printed book being a very effective (and attractive) delivery method in its own right – not better or worse than digital, just different.

Guy Debord's ideas are striking in others ways, not least that they are still so pertinent, over 45 years since they were written. Perhaps in that time, the nature of consumer society hasn't changed that much, because it still seems that the teenager rules much of popular culture. How many times have you heard people complaining that books, films or technology are predominantly targeted towards teenagers and young adults, rather than the majority of the population? You only have to look at how many YA books are being read by adults (84% according to a recent survey) or notice that the 12A has become the go-to certification for blockbuster movies. There is a worrying trend too, in the US, towards commissioning YA novels from younger and younger writers, many of them barely out of their teens. Some of them are very good (Divergent by Veronica Roth springs to mind), but many others feel more like youth-driven marketing gimmicks.

Will Debord's predictions continue to be proved right? Perhaps change is coming - as the consumer society looks increasingly shaky, it can no longer rely on younger people to set the trends and do all of the spending (especially when they can't get a job). In the publishing arena, the apocalyptic predictions for the death of the book are yet to be fulfilled, and the decline in print sales has slowed. Rather than the old ways being swept aside to allow for the new, it seems as if print and electronic products may coexist in the marketplace, each serving a different purpose. Indeed, it may be e-readers that are swept aside, as more and more people choose to use multifunctional tablet devices to read their e-books. The competition between the things, it seems, will continue as long as we have money in our pockets.


Friday, 18 January 2013

Going Global

I was pondering a post on story franchises yesterday, when, as luck would have it, a link to this article was posted on the SCBWI British Isles Facebook group. In it, Eric Huang from Penguin Children's (who I interviewed for the SCBWI Transmedia panel last November) talks about globalised story brands and his vision for the future of publishing. This is a topic that Eric touched on during our panel and Eric is a passionate defender of the place of publishing in a cross-platform world. As he says at the end of the article:
We [publishers] were the first storytelling industry and I feel that I am not going to let our sister industries be the ones that survive because I think we are the master storytellers.
Eric's approach to ensuring this survival is for Penguin to take on the role of brand curation for authors and other creators. In this model, the publisher becomes the guardian of the story world and is able to control how that story, its characters and settings are exploited across media. Not coincidentally, it also means that Penguin will control all of the rights to that property and will have a guaranteed slice of the revenue if it's a success. This kind of strategy finds the publisher putting a foot firmly into the world of the agent, who would normally seek to manage publishing and other rights for their clients. But then, if you look at how many agents are publishing books directly these days, perhaps it is just another example of traditional roles becoming blurred.

In the movie world, global consolidation has long been the norm. Movies are immensely expensive to both make and to market, which makes a worldwide business approach essential. Click the image below to see a huge infographic at Empire Online about who owns which movie franchise:

Franchises and global brands are now seen as being essential to the movie business, to the extent that it's much easier to adapt your ideas into a reboot of an existing property, than it is to strike out with a truly original idea. And that gets to the crux of the problem, because the vision of the future that Eric and others are promoting sounds terribly sterile. There aren't many creative people outside of advertising who get up in the morning and think: "I know, what I really want to achieve today is to create a globally recognised brand." But the paradox is that most of the major story brands in the world today were started by just one person. Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, The Simpsons, James Bond, The Muppets – the list goes on.

Large companies are rarely a good environment for the kind of original thinking that's needed to birth a franchise. But once that initial concept has been successfully launched, corporations are much better placed than individuals to take a story world and turn it into a long-term money-maker. They might also ruin it in the process, but the good news is that corporations like Disney are becoming much more adept at running story businesses without running them into the ground. There's even a chance that the new Star Wars movies might invigorate the franchise, rather than taking it still further from where it started. Here's hoping, anyway.


Friday, 11 January 2013

Finding the Fun

Last month, I wrote the following on this blog:
I do wish writing could be more fun for me – I lost much of the joy during my own rush to publication and subsequent depression a couple of years back, and I'm still struggling to find it again.
This is a subject that I've been thinking about a lot recently, especially with the change of year and the change of habits that implies.  And it seems like I'm not the only one with this problem. Everywhere I look, I see articles encouraging writers to be playful or find the fun in what they do. It makes me wonder if these tough times have brought on an epidemic of joylessness.

However, just as you can't cure depression by telling someone to "cheer up," so you can't make writing fun for someone by telling them that it should be. In fact, such advice can have the opposite effect by making someone (i.e. me) feel guilty that they're not enjoying it! Part of my motivation for presenting the Museum of Me was to turn the clock back to a time when I was having fun, simply creating for the hell of it.

But is "fun" even the right word? It's a term that encompasses the lighter parts of the process but not the darkness or the emotional catharsis that writing can bring. Perhaps satisfaction is a better way to look at it: I want to be more satisfied by the process of writing.

It's not that I lack a writing routine. Every day I sit down at lunchtime with a pad or my netbook, but then I invariably freeze up. By the end of an hour, I will have a hundred or so words, but it will also feel like I've had to winkle each one out with a sharp implement. This happens pretty much every day except Thursday, when suddenly the words start flowing. Except they're not flowing into my book, but into this blog.

I'm driven to wonder what makes it so much easier for me to write a blog post than it does to write a novel. Is it the immediacy of the format, or the clearly defined length and schedule? Is it that I get to talk about something completely different every week with no need to get myself back into the world of a novel? It's been a weird thing for me to realise that I'm probably much more defined nowadays by my blog output than by my children's writing.

There was a great blog post this week on Finding Your Voice. It's aimed at illustrators, but a lot of the advice can be easily adapted for writers. The author suggests making a list of the things you like drawing, so you can include some of these to personalise your own work.  I was inspired by the article to start a list of the elements I enjoy putting in a story. Here's what I have so far:
  • Bad puns
  • Alliteration
  • Slapstick
  • Jokes about Star Wars (these seem to creep in without me noticing)
  • Bizarre action scenes
  • Social comedy
  • Tonal shifts (eg. from comedy to danger)
  • Mental health issues
  • Subversive behaviour
  • Made up technology

Interestingly, pretty much all of these things feature in my work-in-progress, which leads me to wonder how much this list is influenced by what I'm doing right now. Clearly, I need to dig a little deeper and keep adding stuff, but it did make me feel that – however hard the process is – I'm on the right track with this book.

I'll report back in a few months on my progress at putting the satisfaction back into my writing life. I'm going to keep adding to that list of thing I like and also try to apply what I enjoy about blogging to the novel writing process. I will try new techniques as well, like writing in different places or dictating the story instead of typing it. Here's hoping that I can make 2013 the year that I start writing books purely for my own enjoyment again.


Friday, 4 January 2013

Eight Rules for Better Action Writing

Wait a minute, is it 2013 already?

I'm very pleased to say that my first article of the year is a guest post about writing action scenes for Lorrie Porter on her excellent This Craft Called Writing blog.

You can find the post right here.