Political Language And Why The Words We Use Matter

In which I talk about dragons and fascists.

At time of writing, a suspect is in custody for the murder of eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history. The details of the atrocity are gut-wrenching and difficult for decent people to contemplate.  Equally hard to accept is the slow-dawning realisation that this may well be the new normal.

Across western society, we are having to fight battles we thought we’d won, ones we thought we’d never have to fight again.

There are numerous causes.  Hate-filled demagogues.  The Communication Age giving a voice to people who probably shouldn’t be empowered.  The disillusion of those who are finding it impossible to adjust to the 21st century.

But all this leads towards one outcome: the normalisation of things that in past times were so far beyond the pale they wouldn’t be discussed in polite society.  (“Mainstreaming’, in a piece of jargon – something I will get on to shortly.)

And key to that normalisation is the use of words.

When I began writing my urban fantasy series, Age of Misrule, about ancient myth and legend transforming the modern world, I began with one very key decision.  I’d be using some familiar tropes.  Concepts that we all know extremely well from childhood through the fairytales and mythic stories that we’re told almost from the moment when we understand what a story is.

As an author, this created problems for me.  These fantastic ideas would be so familiar to readers they came pre-loaded with assumptions, descriptions and prejudices.  In my books I wanted them to be seen with new eyes – the wonder caused by the shock of the unfamiliar – and free of any symbolism and metaphor so I could use them in my own way.

So I could give them the meaning I wanted to convey.

That’s why I decided to call them by unfamiliar names.  Dragons were Fabulous Beasts.  Vampires were the Baobhan Sith, the blood-drinking supernatural figures of Irish mythology.  And so on, with all the other core concepts of myth and legend.

Hopefully all those preconceptions would be re-set as readers tried to work out who the Baobhan Sith are, say.  It seemed to work.  The books sold all over the globe, and are still selling.

It’s an important lesson.  Tell someone the thing they thought they knew well is now called this new name, and they re-set their opinions.  They start working out how it now fits into their own worldview.

This is how fascism becomes just another strand of the Left-Right political battle, rather than a reprehensible philosophy that caused the death of millions.

The term Alt-Right is key.  It’s thrown around in the media as if it’s simply another strand of Conservatism, harder edged, more pure, something that young men (usually) can jump on to to appear cool when they can’t get girls, or boys.

The Alt-Right is, as Wikipedia tells us, “a grouping of white supremacists/white nationalists, anti-semites, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, neo-Confederates, Holocaust deniers…and other far-right[2][3][4] fringe hate groups.”

Nazis like Hitler.  Fascists who slaughtered Jews in their death camps.

Does Alt-Right make you think of that?  No, it makes you think of some sub-genre of music that all the cool kids like.

Don’t use Alt-Right.  You’re helping them win.  You, you and you.  And, yes, you, CNN, NBC, BBC, Washington Post, The Guardian and all the other media organisations.

Words are not about what they mean.  They’re about what they make you feel.

The name Incel – Involuntarily Celibate – was self-selected by boys who can’t get girls and feel very sad about it.  That one word allows them to become a movement, disenfranchised victims who should be treated like any other minority.  It allows them to terrorise women – as a right.  To ‘mainstream’ hatred and even to justify murder.  One word.  Because without that word, everyone everywhere has their perception of who and what they really are.  They’re very clever, mainstreaming their own troubles.  It gives them legitimate reasons to both feel bad and be collective victims of a societal problem.

Revenge Porn.  We all know what that is, right?  It’s there in those two words.  Porn – “the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal” (Wikipedia again).  Porn – a bit dirty, but a bit good too, yes?  ‘Arousal’.

Except it’s Domestic Violence.  The psychological abuse of a woman, and sometimes a man.  Not so kinky now, is it?  Not so much arousal.

Stop calling it Revenge Porn.  Call it Domestic Violence.  Then we’ll feel it, instead of grasping to understand it.

This goes much wider and deeper.

People used to fighting political battles understand each other.  They use a shared language, packed with technical terms.  And while they have no problem with understanding, and while the public may generally know what the jargon means, it doesn’t have the gut-punch of a well-used word. It doesn’t convey meaning.

Anti-semitism is seemingly the root cause of the atrocity in Pittsburgh, and was a major issue on the other side of the Atlantic all this year with allegations levelled at the British Labour Party.

We know what antisemitism is.  But we don’t feel it, do we?  Call it Jew Hate, then we get it.

Many of us know what misogyny is.  It’s a term bandied around by political campaigners in the UK and US.  Talk to people on the street, and they know it’s bad, in that detached I-kind-of-understand-what-that-means way.  Call it Woman Hate, then they get it.

Words matter.  All writers know that.  But they matter more than any of us may realise in shaping the society we live in, and the one we want to live in.  George Orwell understood it when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Let’s re-learn that lesson so we don’t have to keep re-fighting old battles.

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.

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.

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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2018 – The Year When Everything Changes

For a while there, I was thinking of changing the name of this blog to The View From The Bunker.  On a personal and professional level, 2017 was all-round great, if not one of the best for a while.  But…you know…out there in the world…

Now, stuffed full of turkey and mince pies and brimming with martini and champagne, I feel a bit more optimistic.  Still, whichever way you look at it, this year is going to be another one where Big Things Happen.  No point trying to ignore it.

Everything is connected.  Outside/inside.

On that theme, I plan to be writing a lot more here.  For a while, I’ve wanted to pass on what I’ve learned about the writing world.  How to go about making a living from novels and TV and film and journalism, say.  Because when momentous events are occurring out there, it’s also a good time to shake up your own life.  If you’ve ever wanted to walk away from the mundane world of 9-to-5, to carve out the existence you’ve always dreamed for yourself, now’s the time.

One thing the current Age of Upheaval has taught us is that time is running fast, life is short, and there’s no point counting on the status quo to see you through.  The people who win big are those who take calculated risks.  There won’t be a better time to reimagine who you are and what you do.

I’ll be talking about all that here.  Maybe you’ll pick up something that might help you.

My own work-front is looking pretty crammed.  I have three TV series in various stages of development with major broadcasters, and a movie script underway.  Can’t say any more about any of those right now.

There’s a new book out from my pseudonym, James Wilde, in July:

The paperback edition of Pendragon is out in March:

And various foreign editions all hit the shelves across the globe.  For a while, I’ve kept the “Mark Chadbourn” name just for screenwriting, but this year I’ll be publishing something under that moniker which will appeal to Age of Misrule fans.

And in the summer, I’m being inflicted on the poor students and conference visitors at the University of Oxford, talking about fantasy, Tolkien, writing and more.

Hold on tight. 2018 is going to be epic in all the right ways, if you decide to make it so.

Pendragon Proofs Now In

The road to publication follows familiar landmarks – finishing the first draft, the various edits, through the delivery of the first box of books to publication day and the subsequent round of publicity and signings.  One of the key moments is the arrival of the uncorrected proofs – softbound copies of the novel, usually replete with the odd error, that go out to reviewers and booksellers.

The proofs for Pendragon, by the ‘other me’, James Wilde, are now in.  If you fall into one of those two groups, get in touch with Penguin Random House UK publicity to order your copy.

“Before King Arthur…before Camelot…before Excalibur…the Legend begins…”

You can pre-order this reimagining of the beginnings of the Arthurian myth here, or from your favourite book store.