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Into The Wilds

The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which sometimes used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state.

We all need to return to that natural state from time to time – if not, too much sanity will drive us mad.  It’s particularly important for creative people.  This is how you tap into the unconscious where stories and art and music are borne.

It won’t happen naturally.  How you do it is down to you – I have many ways that work for me.  One is to make sure I get away into the wilds a few times a year.  Trek across wind-swept moors where there’s not a soul around for miles.  Sleep under the stars.  Dive into the ocean and let the swell carry you.  The Wild forces the front-brain to switch off.

And when you do, you start to see strands of myth all around you – like the installation above. And myth is the way the Wild communicates directly with the unconscious – the real – you.

I took this photo at the Eden Project (Motto: Transformation: it’s in our nature) on a recent journey through Cornwall, one of my favourite places.  If you want to see more of what I do in my life, make sure you follow me on Instagram.

The Future Of TV

When I’m not writing novels under my pseudonym James Wilde, most of my current work under my own name is screenwriting for TV, developing shows for both the UK and the US. I have several currently in different stages of development (more on these projects soon).

The nature of the industry is changing so fast you can almost feel the land moving under your feet.  Terrestrial broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, NBC, ABC – are in steep decline.  They’re fighting to get eyes on screens and talent to make their shows.  Streaming providers are winning.  Netflix, Prime, soon Disney and Apple, with a whole lot more in the pipeline.

It’s a great time to be a screenwriter.

Netflix has just taken over a massive new building on the lot of Sunset Bronson Studios on Sunset Boulevard.  If you want to get a sense of how they’re changing things up, this piece in Wired is a great read.

On January 7, 2018, Netflix had its biggest ever day of streaming, with users collectively watching 350 million hours of TV shows and movies. (Netflix puts this down in part to an increase in viewers around holiday periods.) It’s planning on spending $8bn on its video content in 2018; by comparison, Fox spent the same amount in 2017 on non-sports content.

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Here Be Dragons

Artist: Minjie Su

Later this year, I’ll be speaking at Here Be Dragons: The Oxford Fantasy Literature Summer School organised by the English Faculty at the University of Oxford.

My talk is all about writing fantasy, but if that doesn’t grab you, you can also hear about M R James, H P Lovecraft, C S Lewis, Tolkien, Arthurian fantasy, George R R Martin, J K Rowling, Diana Wynne-Jones and Philip Pullman. And much more across three full days.

It runs from September 11 – 13, and you can book a place here.

Pendragon Award Nomination

Been away from here for a few weeks, doing what I’m supposed to be doing – putting food on the table via scribbling away. (“Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr Gibbon?” ~ Prince William Henry, Duke Of Gloucester to Edward Gibbon on receiving a copy of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.)  So I thought I’d do a quick catch-up on my return.

What have I been doing?  Three TV series now in various stages of development – meaning somewhere between outline and script.  New novel delivered to the editor, and now wending its way into the trenches of the editing process.

And just to record here for posterity, Pendragon – which came out under my pseudonym James Wilde – has been shortlisted for the annual Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize for Best Published Novel.  It’s a relatively new award – this is the third year – and it’s an honour to be nominated. Details here.

I have a couple of public appearances lined up for September, one of them at the University of Oxford. More on that tomorrow.

Testimony – An Exhibition Of Haunted Art?

Bill Rich was haunted by terrifying demons. Some that manifested in his isolated home, as I detailed in my non-fiction book Testimony. And some that were firmly embedded in his psyche, as he always admitted.

All of it contributed to the art that he laboured over all his life, all of it, in some way, haunted.  In the book I wrote about the works he completed during the frightening events that swirled around him in his home, Heol Fanog, and which were influenced by the horrors there.  But Bill, who died two years ago, also left a body of work from the years before and after that troubled time.  One of his surreal paintings heads this piece.

Now his widow Liz is keen to stage an exhibition of Bill’s work.

She says, “Bill’s paintings have never been exhibited, which I feel is sad, as he was an unusually talented artist. During his life he dedicated his time to painting what he described as primitive surreal art. Most of his ideas came from dreams or interpretations of what was happening around him. Each painting holds immense emotion and visual stories.

“Bill’s dream would have been that his work could at last be appreciated and understood. I know he would have been overjoyed to see his art work reaching a wider audience.”

I’ve seen some of the art and it definitely deserves a public viewing.  I’m sure Liz would be keen to hear from anyone with gallery space or the wherewithal to make it happen.

If you can help, leave a comment here or send me a message through the contacts page.

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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.