Stealing Fire

This is an important book for creatives. It talks, in very clear terms, about ways to achieve the Flow State, that period when the world falls away and you’re lost to a rush of pure thought and inspiration. When you achieve Flow, you feel like you can write, or paint, or create music, forever. But it’s incredibly elusive. Getting it is hard. Holding on to it for a sustained period is even more difficult.

‘We have very little success training people to be more creative. And there’s a pretty simple explanation for this failure: we’re trying to train a skill, but what we really need to be training is a state of mind.’

As the subtitle of Stealing Fire suggests – How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionising The Way We Live and Work – authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal have done their homework. They provide a range of new research, thinking and practise across several disciplines.

Anything which manages to pull together how the NAVY SEALs train, elite athletes, the Burning Man festival, and tech entrepreneurs micro-dosing with LSD,  is anything but ephemeral in its approach. The book is about how to hack your mind to produce the best results, and the authors suggest several approaches, some of which you might wish to consider, some which may seem a step too far (but which are working extremely well for many high-performing individuals).

‘By treating the mind like a dashboard, by treating different states of consciousness like apps to be judiciously deployed, we can bypass a lot of psychological storytelling and get results faster and, often, with less frustration.’

Kotler and Wheal are talking about achieving ecstasis, ‘stepping outside oneself’, and trace it back two thousand years to the initiatory rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Greece. It’s not all dry theory. They manage to interview a range of really interesting people who are putting these practices into effect and transforming their lives and environment in the process.

‘When we say ecstasis we’re talking about a very specific range of nonordinary states of consciousness (NOSC)—what Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Stanislav Grof defined as those experiences “characterized by dramatic perceptual changes, intense and often unusual emotions, profound alterations in the thought processes and behavior, [brought about] by a variety of psychosomatic manifestations, rang[ing] from profound terror to ecstatic rapture . . . There exist many different forms of NOSC; they can be induced by a variety of different techniques or occur spontaneously, in the middle of everyday life.”’

And it’s not just for creatives. Stealing Fire is very much a book about the 21st century, the changing world we live in, and the changing nature of the people who inhabit that world. There’s also some interesting work reported from trauma studies, about how the techniques discussed here can help mend what’s broken. The same techniques, practiced regularly, can ‘nurture what is best in ourselves,’ and ‘cultivate the exceptional’, according to the scholar Alan Watts.

‘It’s the same physical world, same bits and bytes, just different perception and processing. But the cascade of neurobiological change that occurs in a non-ordinary state lets us perceive and process more of what’s going on around us and with greater accuracy. In these states, we get upstream of our umwelt. We get access to increased data, heightened perception, and amplified connection. And this lets us see ecstasis for what it actually is: an information technology. Big Data for our minds.’

If you enjoy Tim Ferriss’ books about how to adapt and thrive in the modern world – The Four-Hour Workweek, The Four-Hour Body – you’ll undoubtedly enjoy this.

True Horror – Testimony

A quick reminder about True Horror on Channel 4 at 10pm this Thursday April 19, which examines the truly terrifying case that I investigated in my non-fiction book, Testimony.

When Bill and Liz Rich moved into an isolated farmhouse, it already had a reputation locally for being haunted. What they found there was far, far worse than their wildest imaginings…and it threatened their sanity and ultimately their lives.

If you like what you see in the True Horror drama-documentary, read the book for the full story.  You can get it here.

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True Horror On TV

I’ll be popping up on Channel 4 next week in the drama-documentary series True Horror. The first episode on April 19, 10 pm, is a chilling account of the Rich family’s terrifying experiences in an isolated farmhouse, which I wrote about in my non-fiction book Testimony. (You can read about it here.)

Far more than a haunting, this story goes to some very dark places indeed.  Some have called it the British Amityville, but it’s more than that.  I decided to investigate because it wasn’t simply an account of the family at the heart of the disturbing events.  Many other people, all of them unconnected, experienced disturbing, inexplicable events in that place.

Worth a look.

One Simple Rule To Sell Your Writing

Writing for a living is filled with many amazing moments. Seeing your book on the shelves. Your name in the credits of a film or TV show. Cash in the bank account. Paid! For doing something you love so much you’d do it for free. What a world to live in.

There are hard times too. Those rejections. They never stop, even when you’re a professional. Sometimes you feel like that’s all there is.

Some people make it even harder for themselves by not applying brutal logic to what they’re doing.

Pop quiz. What’s the essential nature of a publishing company? Most people say publishing books. They’d be wrong. The essential nature of a publishing company is the same as every other business: making a profit for shareholders. Publishing books is just the way they’ve chosen to do it.

It’s the same answer for film and TV production companies, and for agents. It’s a simple notion, but for many writers it comes as a revelation. They spend their lives immersed in art so that in the end that’s all they can see.

RULE # 3: If you want to get paid, remember it’s a business.

Ram that idea deep into your mind: everybody who might buy your work wants to make a profit for their shareholders, and allow all the editors and commissioners to keep their jobs and put food on the tables for their loved ones. They’re not going to turn down an opportunity to do that. They’re just not. And you need to run that rule over everything you do: will this idea connect with enough people for the publisher/TV/film company to make money out of it?

Here’s the thing: nobody in the creative industries cares about you. Nobody cares if you live or die. Nobody needs to publish your work – they’ll get along just fine with all the thousands of other ideas that cross their desk every year. They don’t have to give you a chance. They don’t need to try ‘new stuff’. They don’t need to push back boundaries. The publishing or film and TV industries don’t owe you a living. They don’t need to change their business practices, however much you rant about ‘gatekeepers’, because: You. Don’t. Matter.  Your art doesn’t matter. Your great, world-changing idea doesn’t matter.

But persuade them that your idea can reach an audience and make a profit for their shareholders and they’ll be all over you. Because that’s their business.

Writers hate to hear this. They absolutely hate it. They think it puts them on a par with, you know, people who do actual jobs. Money is grubby. Writing for cash makes you a hack.

(The truth is, they’re just patsies for big business. There’s nothing the sharp-suited sharks like more than creative people saying I do this for art…while they do the profit.

Do both.

In fact, you owe it to every other writer to try to get cash. The more you perpetuate the idea that art is it’s own reward, the easier you make it for business predators to depress earnings across the industries.)

Then those whining writers disappear down the rabbit hole of reasons why their work isn’t getting bought. Most people find it psychologically hard to accept that their genius is being rejected – there has to be some explanation, some massive failure in the system. So here’s a little psychological salve: in the end there’s really only one reason. The people doing the buying don’t think they can get good returns on their investment.

That’s quite liberating, in a way. Seeing it as all about cold cash means it’s not about you personally and that it’s simply about finding the idea and style that convinces.

How you change perceptions of the commerciality of broader cultural issues is a totally separate post. Why did Marvel break with long-standing movie tradition that only a predominantly all-white cast finds an audience? Black Panther blew that one out of the water. The short answer there is that it’s not down to the individual writer or director or producer. Society itself does the heavy lifting to change minds on the earnings potential of creators, subjects and markets. What we’re focusing on here is what the individual can do.

If you have only one idea, you’re not a writer. All writers have multiple ideas so they can sift and discard and then decide which one they want to devote the hours of their life to. So the first thing you need to consider if you want to make a living out of writing is, can someone make money out of this? Is it a pale copy of something else? If so, people will always buy the original. Does it have themes and subjects that reach into the lives of a majority of people?  If yes, there’s an audience.  If it’s niche appeal, there’s likely no audience. Is it original? If yes, then people like to invest in new experiences, new information or a new way of seeing. Is it so original that you can’t explain it to friends without spending ages setting up the context? Your idea won’t reach people if it needs a rulebook.

It means pulling out of the story, and the idea, and looking at it objectively. Which is exactly what the ones buying it will do. Do the art thinking, and the business thinking.

If you want to sell your work, all of these are questions you should ask yourself very early on in the process. There are no real surprises there.  The only really surprising thing is that a great many people think the rules of business don’t apply to something where money changes hands.

All of the glamour industries are businesses, and they operate by the rules of business.  Don’t like that, don’t work for them. Give your stuff away for free. But if you do want to get paid, you have to play by their rules. You have to accept you’re playing by their rules.  Because they won’t change.  The only choice lies with you – do it or not.

A New Dark Age On The Way

The manuscript for my next novel, Dark Age, has been delivered to my editor, and I’ve completed a promotional piece for the Random House blog for the forthcoming paperback publication of the last book, Pendragon.  i’ve been head down immersed in this for the last few weeks – always the best way to finish a novel – but this week I’ll be getting back to blogging here about writing for a living, for those interested.

Check back soon.

Writing For A Living – The Big Payday Fallacy

All you need is that one big break and you can quit the rat race and live your dream.

That’s the thinking, isn’t it? It’s also the mistake that just about every writer makes.

You’ve spent your life reading books, or watching films and TV, and you’ve decided the life of a writer is a great one. Better than wasting the days of your life in an office, or on the shop floor, or digging ditches. And you’d be right. It might not all be unicorns and stardust – it’s a job, what job is? – but it’s about as near-perfect as it gets.

You set your own hours. You don’t have a boss needling you in your place of work. More importantly, you get time. To reflect on life. To spend with your thoughts. To appreciate the world around you.

That’s a big deal. (And most writers will tell you, it’s more valuable than money.}

But money is still the key in the equation.

Everyone has responsibilities. When you’re in your twenties, it’s making sure you can pay the rent and eat. When you’re a little older, it’s, perhaps, a significant other, perhaps children. How many get to be self-indulgent and take a leap into the dark to launch that fantastic writing career?

And so the plan is to steal all your free time, in the morning when everyone is asleep, or late at night, or in your lunch break, and scribble away. And then you sell your novel/script and take all that cash, replace your salary, and ease seamlessly into the writing life.

That’s not a plan. There are no milestones, no measurable data, no paths to an achievable target.

It’s a fantasy. A child’s wish.

You’ve read the stories of the writers who get big, life-changing pay-outs, but you’ve never read the stories about the ones who get some, but not quite enough. Because those stories are boring.

Most book advances are the equivalent of a year’s salary on minimum wage. You might think you can scrape by on that until the bigger stuff starts rolling in. You might be right. Or you might never be published again. You might sell one TV script and no more for years. To stake the existence of all those people who rely on you on a roll of the dice like that, is not kind, or wise.

So if you’ve got responsibilities, that’s it for the writing dream. Is that what I’m saying? There’s no way to gain escape velocity from the mundane life into the place where you’re making a living from writing?

Wrong.

There’s no simple way, but there is a clever way.

Forget the idea of a big pay-day as a mirage that will lure you away from the path you should be on. Once you ignore that impetus, you can start plotting the way ahead.

RULE # 8: Build your portfolio.

We’re in a new world now. You no longer need a ‘job’ like mum and dad. Increasingly, people are carving out a good living away from the nine-to-five. They get money *and* freedom *and* fulfilment.

The trick is building multiple income streams so you’re not relying on one paying gig that could fall apart. This is your portfolio. It’s what all 21st century writers are doing – and it is something you can start putting together while you’re in regular employment.

Start off writing for some online sites that pay. Work on an ongoing relationship. Self-publish on kindle. Do some journalism. Ghost write. Do ad copy. Teach a class at your local college. Write some comics. The thing here is, you don’t need to make a lot of cash from each individual job, but cumulatively a little becomes a decent amount.

There are plenty of tiny pots of money out there if you’re spry and you pay attention.

Keep a good account of earnings. Data is everything. Once you can see you can pay the month-to-month bills you’re close to take-off. And then when you do sell your book, or a script, or get a pitch accepted, or get to write an episode of Doctors (the entry level for screenwriters and who accept *lots* of new writers every year – £4,700 for a half-hour script and you can do several a year), you’re ready.

Even so, there’s still going to be one key moment when you have to take the big decision: stay where I am or take a leap into the unknown?

Question any person who’s found their way into one of the glamour industries, or any successful person anywhere, and they’ll tell you that at some point they were faced with risk. Taking the risk – a calculated one, of course – was the key factor that moved them out of the pack and into the front-runners.

There is no safe path to being a success. There is no easy road to making a living out of writing.

But if you treat it like a business, building your client base, you can minimise that risk and dart through the open door.

Agents, And Why You Need Them

In a café in North London, my screen agent leaned across the table and gave me his first – and probably most important – piece of advice. He said it to every single new client who signed with him.

“Nobody in this business is going to do you any favours.”

That stands true for every area in which you might be trying to sell your writing, not just the film and TV industries. Publishing. Comics. Games. Journalism. No one will give you any chances. No one will give you a shot because you’re plucky, or because you had a beer with someone they know, or because you’ve worked really, really hard and you feel you deserve an opportunity for your efforts.

Every single opening has to be made by you, and earned by the quality of your writing.

It’s a great piece of advice that may not be obvious when you’re starting out (it’s very clear when you’ve been doing it a while). But it also shows the value of having experienced people around you.

If you want to maximize your earnings from your writing, you need to develop a good team who can take all your hard work and run with it. Agents are the key part (and we’ll get to the other members – your network – in a future post). It’s entirely possible to sell novels and short stories without an agent, but it’s a huge mistake because you won’t make a fraction of what you could be earning. Even if you’re self-publishing, Amazon offers better terms for work submitted through an agent. (Didn’t know that? One reason why you need an agent.)

And if you’re hoping to work in film and TV, you won’t get anywhere without an agent. Nobody will read your work. And if they do, by chance, scan the first few pages, they won’t take you seriously.

More importantly, as we crash towards the third decade of the 21st century, everything has changed. Media is converging, the opportunities are endless, and a good agent will help you navigate the labyrinth to that pot of riches.

Back in the bad old days of the last century, writers generally did one thing. They’d have a book agent, say, who sold that great opus to a local publisher, maybe a few foreign publishers. And that was it.

Nowadays your book can be sold in multiple territories across the world, with an advance in each one. And then books become films, TV, comics, video games, board games, virtual reality experiences, and all those things become all the other things. If you don’t have a good team with expertise and contacts in all those areas, you’ll miss out on the gold rush.

One of the questions I often get asked is why this or that book hasn’t been made into TV or film.  “It’s brilliant!” “Better than XXX!” It’s not been made because the author hasn’t employed a good screen agent who can get that book on to the desks of producers and sell it hard. That’s how it works. If no one sells it, it doesn’t get made. (Usually. There are one or two exceptions that prove the rule). Producers haven’t got the time to find you.

RULE # 4: Build your team.

I have two agents, both based in London – one for books, one for screen. My books agent is Euan Thorneycroft at the long-established agency, A M Heath. Euan pitches book ideas to editors on my behalf, negotiates my contracts with Random House, mainly in the UK, but sometimes in the US depending on the project. Euan is widely connected in the industry, so he picks up intelligence about who is looking for what, what’s been bought, what sells, what’s the likely next trend.

But here’s the thing: because A M Heath is a big agency, they have other departments and a wider range of contacts to get your work earning. There’s a dedicated Foreign Rights department with a wonderfully multilingual staff, who know the editors at publishing houses everywhere else in the world. In the last few months they’ve sold, among other things, my novel Hereward to a big German publisher, and my novel Pendragon to Italy.

My screen agent is Conrad Williams at Blake Friedmann. Conrad sells my screenplays and my two-page pitches. He also suggests me for projects that he hears about where a writer is needed. Producers come to his office to tell him what they’re looking for, and he regularly meets with the movers and shakers of the UK and US TV and film industry on their home turf. His contacts are impeccable. Conrad also makes sure my novels, short stories, novellas and comics are optioned for film and TV. Even if they don’t get made, there’s always a fee for optioning. And once an option expires, usually in a year or two, the option can be re-sold. Some writers make a good living merely from having their work optioned, without it getting anywhere near a screen.

Euan and Conrad are in regular contact to exchange intelligence and to make sure my work is getting out there to all possible outlets.

In my experience, the bigger the agency you can land, the better. They’ve got more contacts, more clout, and departments of experts in different areas. In screen, they can package you with directors and stars to make a better ‘offer’.

That’s going to put a lot of noses out of joint. One-person bands will tell you their contacts and clout are just as good, and they can give a personal service. There’s some truth in that. But see what kind of personal service you get from a big agency if they start making any money out of you. But really, just get the best agent – with the most experience, and the most contacts – that you can. It’s hard to land on the books of bigger agencies, and you’ll need to prove they’re not wasting their time with you.

But: not all agents are equal.

Some people decide one night they’re going to be an agent and set up a website the next day. Poor writers get excited they’ve got an ‘agent’. But these people have no contacts and no clout. The writer would be better served sending out their work themselves. In fact, these kinds of agents can damage careers from the get-go. Remember, you sign with an agent – there is a contractual agreement. They have rights to your work that they’ve, allegedly, marketed during that period, and can hang on to the agenting rights so no other agent can touch it. If they were hopeless at the start, they’re not going to get any better. That book or script is essentially dead, unless you can get them to null and void their rights.

Other agents – usually in the one-person band group – don’t keep up with industry standards. Some still operate as if it’s a 20th century business. They haven’t developed contacts in film or TV, games, whatever. Others are simply unaware of the advances in digital. One agent told an author to give up his entire ebook rights for his backlist to his publisher, because ‘at least they’ll be earning’. No advance or at least only a nominal one. Those ebooks now sit on the company server, not marketed, earning a tiny royalty, and they’ll sit there forever. The author could have made a fortune self-publishing them. The agent had no idea.

Find good people you get on with. Clever people. Connected people with a track record. With a team like that, you’re out there punching hard, and you’re not doing it on your own.

 

The Stories We Need To Tell Ourselves

There is a shiny red apple filled with poison and a crone with eyes like steel. There is a virginal girl as pure as snow, a sleep like death, and a kiss that wakes her into a new life of Happy Ever After.

This tale has survived from ancient times because it was always more than just entertainment. It was an instruction for living.

We’re moving into a new age now, one of unparalleled and accelerating technological change. Every aspect of our existence is being transformed. Hang around in the coffee shops and bars and you will catch murmurs of unease. Old friends are vanishing by the day. Familiar, comforting ways of doing things lost. Nowhere seems safe.

Never has there been a more important time for stories that instruct and guide and explain. A new narrative for a new age.

Read it all here, by me, on Medium.

The Age Of The Psychopath

In case you missed it, I published a piece on Medium: Is the Age of the Psychopath Over?  You can find it here.

“Look around you. Out on the street, all those faces. They look just like you. But some of them aren’t like you at all. They’re so different, they might as well be another species. They are the secret masters of this world, and they always have been.

If you think there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we live our lives…if you think the game is rigged…that politics, business, commerce, warfare, produce terrible, unnecessary outcomes…it’s probably down to them.

There’s a very good reason why you instinctively recognize it (no, you’re not being paranoid). But now, after thousands of years of civilization, we might be moving into an age where you’re not beaten down, hounded, tricked and marched towards the sound of gunfire…”

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Get Pendragon At A Knock-down Price

If you’ve ever considered trying the work of my pseudonym, James Wilde, now’s a good time.  Until the end of January, Amazon is offering Pendragon for just 99p as part of the Kindle Monthly Deals.  That’s a whopping £14 saving.  Will appeal to anyone who likes Game of Thrones, Arthurian myth, Age of Misrule, and historical fiction.  Here’s the link.

The blurb:

Here is the beginning of a legend. Long before Camelot rose, a hundred years before the myth of King Arthur was half-formed, at the start of the Red Century, the world was slipping into a Dark Age…

It is AD 367. In a frozen forest beyond Hadrian’s Wall, six scouts of the Roman army are found murdered. For Lucanus, known as the Wolf and leader of elite unit called the Arcani, this chilling ritual killing is a sign of a greater threat.
But to the Wolf the far north is a foreign land, a place where daemons and witches and the old gods live on. Only when the child of a friend is snatched will he venture alone into this treacherous world – a territory ruled over by a barbarian horde – in order to bring the boy back home. What he finds there beyond the wall will echo down the years.

A secret game with hidden factions is unfolding in the shadows: cabals from the edge of Empire to the eternal city of Rome itself, from the great pagan monument of Stonehenge to the warrior kingdoms of Gaul will go to any length to find and possess what is believed to be a source of great power, signified by the mark of the Dragon.

A soldier and a thief, a cut-throat, courtesan and a druid, even the Emperor Valentinian himself – each of these has a part to play in the beginnings of this legend…the rise of the House of Pendragon.