The Power of Storytelling and Mythology

Art by Josephine Wall

Stories have power. Whether in the form of a novel, short story, film, TV series–or even a video game–a good story story has the ability to transport us from our everyday reality to whole other worlds. By engaging our mind, imagination and senses, stories can bring us excitement and wonder, making us laugh and cry, feel, dream, love, hope and think. They have the power to encourage, motivate, educate and heal–and they can help us better understand and relate to others and this world we’re all a part of.

I’ve always been aware of the power of storytelling. I knew that I wanted to be a writer from the time I was 6 or 7 years old. I could often be a bit of a precocious and unsociable kid. While everyone else was out playing I would be sitting in my room, paper and pen in my hand, creating new worlds and characters and setting them off on all kinds of epic adventures. I actually came up with the idea for my first novel when I was still in primary school! I was a born storyteller. I always knew that I had stories inside of me; stories that I wanted to be able to tell and share with the world.

As I grew up and started learning the craft of writing, I was determined to find of exactly why stories matter to us. Why do human beings have this innate compulsion to tell stories and why do we love hearing, reading and watching them?

An aspect of human nature

What I came to realise was that storytelling plays a vital role in human culture, and it always has. You might even say it’s part of our very nature. According to cognitive scientist Roger Schank:

“Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.”

So storytelling is basically hard-wired into us. It’s one way in which we understand and process reality.

Stories aren’t merely for the purpose of entertainment. They actually have the power to change the world and change us. The art of storytelling has been a key part of human culture as far back as we know. As Ursula Le Guin says:

“The story is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

Ancient stories

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Ancient cave paintings are believed to be the earliest records of mythology. They were essentially narratives created by early man in an attempt to understand and explain the nature of life, the world, animals, nature and the mystery of existence.

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Language is a relatively recent development in human evolution, so the earliest stories weren’t spoken or told in words, but most likely enacted and danced. In fact a number of cultures still do this such as Native Americans and other indigenous tribes. The cave paintings weren’t just created for the sake of it or to make the caves look decorative, but were believed to have been records, reminders and prompts to keep the tribe’s stories and myths alive.

Myth and mythology is the world’s oldest form of storytelling. Today the word ‘myth’ has come to mean something that’s false or untrue; a fabrication or lie. But the word stems from the Greek word ‘mythos’ which means story or tale. Myth is a story or set of stories holding significant symbolic meaning for a particular culture. As language developed, myths were generally delivered by word of mouth through speech, conversation or song. It’s only comparatively recently, in the past few centuries that they came to be recorded in the written word.

The purpose of myth is to help us make sense of the universe and our place in it. These myths might be based on factual accounts of events, discoveries and realisations, but were more often deeply metaphorical and filled with symbolic meaning. In other words, myths aren’t literal accounts of truth, but are stories with lots of hidden meaning. To understand them, you have to look beneath the surface and peel away the layers of meaning.

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The ancient myths often featured various gods and goddesses, demigods, supernatural heroes and ordinary humans, as in the ancient Greek myths. The Greek and Roman myths in particular had an enormous effect in shaping their respective cultures. The exploits of the gods and their adventures were almost akin to a modern day soap opera. The people were enthralled and spellbound, and the myths themselves served a number of important societal functions.

I first learned of these functions when I came across the work of Joseph Campbell, an American scholar and world-renowned expert in comparative mythology. As a young man, Campbell was fascinated by the legends of the Native Americans, which began a lifelong fascination and passion for mythology. His most famous work, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”, which I came across when I was about 21, was a book I found fascinating on multiple levels. It not only changed the way I looked at writing and storytelling, but it changed the way I looked at life.

The Four Functions of Myth

Campbell outlined four primary functions of myth. Bearing in mind that myth is the origin of storytelling as we know it today, this has relevance and can even be applied to some extent to literature, art and media in our culture too.

1. Metaphysical

The first function, which Campbell also believed was one of the most important, was what he termed the metaphysical. This refers to the ability of mythology to awaken a sense of awe and wonder about the very nature of existence.

This is something that we’ve lost in our culture. Young children naturally possess this innate sense of awe, but as we grow up we generally lose it. We get bogged down in the physical, our everyday mundane existence, taking everything for granted–least of all the fact we’re alive, that we exist!…which is a miracle in itself.

The conditions necessary for Earth to sustain life are innumerable and exact. The planet has to be just the right distance from the sun. It needs to spin precisely the right way and have the right amount of gravity, oxygen and various other elements in perfect combination before it can support life. The fact that we exist at all is beyond amazing, yet we totally take it for granted.

This Einstein quote sums up this function of myth perfectly–and it’s a great quote to live by:

“There are two ways to live your life: You can live as if nothing is a miracle, or you can live as if everything is a miracle.”

And one of the most important functions of myth–and all the great stories–is to get us to remember how incredible, wondrous and precious life is.

2. Cosmological

The second function is cosmological. Cosmology is the study of the Universe and its components, how it was formed and evolved. Cosmology was born of questions such as “what’s going on around me” and “how does the universe work?”

For millennia mankind used myth (specifically creation myths) as a means of explaining and understanding the physical world and universe. These myths were created to help early man make sense of nature, weather, the passing of the seasons and the cycle of birth and death.

For example, to explain the functioning of nature and the elements, cultures often assigned different gods or deities that controlled for the rain, sun, fire and water. Nature itself was personified, usually as woman–indeed, there are countless variations of the Mother Earth, Gaia, or Earth Goddess archetype across many different cultures.

3. Sociological

As a sociological device, myth and storytelling have the ability to validate and support the existing social order and promote social norms, customs and beliefs. Shared stories can create a social bond between people, enabling them to share the same beliefs, outlook and understanding of life, which brought about a sense of social cohesion and community. In ancient times, mythology was part of the glue that held tribes and societies together.

4. Pedagogical

The pedagogical aspect refers to mythology’s ability to guide the individual through the different stages of life–from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to maturity, maturity to old age and from old age to death.

As we go through life we encounter many psychological, emotional and even physical challenges. Mythology provided guidance and signposts, often reflected in rites of passage and initiations. People weren’t left to struggle through these life changes on their own. They were given clear guidance through ceremony, ritual and myth and they knew clearly what was expected of them. Ancient India for example divided life into four stages: the student stage, the householder stage, the elder adviser stage and the renunciate stage where the individual leaves behind all worldly ties to seek final enlightenment.

Without this kind of guidance, confusion and psychological suffering usually result, as this is widespread in today’s world. We grow up in an unsettled, constantly shifting world, pretty confused and unclear about what’s expected of us and how we’re supposed to ‘make it’ in the world. In many ways we’ve got more choice than ever before, but this can actually make things harder and more overwhelming than if we have clearcut guidelines about what we’re ‘meant’ to do in life. Myth gave guidance, encouragement and motivation and a sense that we weren’t alone in life; that we weren’t on this journey without a map and compass.

Campbell described myth as being an outplaying of the various parts of ourselves that are in conflict with each other: our desires, hopes, fears and ambitions; the conflict between what we want in life and what we can get; between who we are and who we want to be. The mythological battles between heroes and demons–all the sacrifice and bravery, love and cruelty, victories and defeats–are metaphors for the conflicts of the human psyche. Myths originated from realisations of some kind that were then expressed in symbolic form to guide us. Many of them deal with the maturation of the individual, growing from dependency to adulthood, maturity and old age; and they explored how we relate to other people, society, our culture and the world at large.

The form of the myths change with the passing of time. To remain relevant to the culture they’re part of, they must evolve, adapt and transform as the world continually changes. If they don’t, they become obsolete. They lose their meaning and become dumb, irrelevant stories that confuse and mislead.

krishna-playing-fluteThe song of the universe

Joseph Campbell was astounded to discover extraordinary similarities between the great myths from vastly different cultures across the millennia. In fact there was a distinct and definite pattern that most of these myths seemed to follow.

He found that all stories, regardless of the time, place and culture in which they came from, tend to share a common structure. They are essentially the same story being told in an infinite variety of ways. Campbell had evidently cracked a secret code, the pattern behind all the greatest stories ever told. The whole human race, he believed, could be seen to be reciting a single story…a story with immense psychological, sociological and spiritual importance. Myth, he said, was the song of the universe, being sung by a thousand different peoples and cultures.

The way in which this story is delivered can be infinitely varied, but it has the same basic structure. Furthermore, when stripped down, it is always a story about universal human themes and questions such as: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What am I here to do? Is this all there is to life?

This story helps us explain the universe and our place in it, dealing with themes of identity, meaning and purpose. As science is discovering, humans aren’t wired to understand logic directly. Instead, logic is best grasped through the use of narrative and metaphor–and this is why stories can be so powerful.

As this universal story evolves through time, it takes different forms depending on the context of a particular culture. The story is told in an infinite variety of ways, but the fundamental elements remain strikingly familiar. Campbell called it the monomyth…or the hero’s journey.

The hero’s journey

The hero’s journey is basically the journey of every human being as they go through life. It’s relevant to all of us, because we’re each the hero of our own particular story. The hero’s journey is a guide to life; a map to help us along the challenging road we all have to take through life.

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The hero’s journey has a distinct structure. If you analyse great myths, epics, novels and even many films and television dramas, you can often see how they fit into the pattern basic of the hero’s journey, even if the elements are significantly rearranged or modified.

The basic structure is that the hero must undertake a journey, leaving their comfortable everyday surroundings and venturing into a new, challenging, unfamiliar world. They face all kinds of challenges and then return enriched by the experience, learning or bringing something of value to aid the world.

There’s always an emotional component to the journey. In any satisfying story, it’s necessary that the hero grows and changes in some way; that they go from one state of being to the next–from incompleteness to wholeness, from lack to gain, weakness to strength, ignorance to wisdom. It’s the emotional journey of the hero that captivates the reader and keeps them hooked and engaged.

Campbell outlined the Hero’s journey as having 17 distinct stages, but others have streamlined the model. The one I’m sharing was adapted by Christopher Vogler and is a bit simpler, using less archaic language.

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Here’s a simple breakdown of the hero’s journey.

1. The Ordinary World

The hero starts off in their ordinary, everyday world. It’s a world that might be considered humdrum, or uneventful. Often there’s a sense of restlessness or incompleteness experienced by the hero. Everything’s ticking along nicely, but the hero somehow doesn’t quite fit in. On some level they know that they’re destined for something different.

2. The Call to Adventure

The story begins with a call to adventure. Something happens that initiates the story. The hero is called away from their ordinary existence into the unknown. A problem or challenge of some kind befalls the hero.

3. Refusal of the Call

Many times the hero hesitates. They’re reluctant to leave their home, their friends and their familiar, safe world. The unknown is terrifying–especially when the stakes have been revealed. Often it’s a life and death quest they’ve been called to embark upon.

4. Meeting the Mentor

By now many stories have introduced what Campbell called the ‘supernatural aid’ which simply means a guide or mentor; someone who imparts information or guides the hero in some way, setting them in the right direction. The mentor might be a wise old man or woman; a veteran of some kind; a wizard, a teacher, a hermit or wanderer. The mentor helps prepare the hero for the journey into the unknown.

5. Crossing the First Threshold

The hero has committed to the journey and is ready to step into what Campbell called ‘the belly of the whale’: the special world! This is the moment the story really takes off. The hero sets off on their quest.

6. Tests, Allies and Enemies

Campbell called this the road of trials. The hero begins to learn the rules of the new world through much conflict and challenge. There’s usually a series of events and conflicts in which the hero begins to learn how to navigate the special world. Along the way they meet new people, good and bad, and make new allies and new enemies.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave

The hero has been tested repeatedly. He or she has learned a lot about this new world and made allies and adversaries. Now they near the inmost cave, a dangerous place, sometimes a dark place underground, perhaps the lair of his or her greatest enemy, where the object of the quest may be hidden. The hero often has to overcome significant danger and barriers that prevent them entering the inmost cave.

8. The Ordeal

This is the hero’s darkest moment so far. They must face their toughest challenge where, for a time at least, all seems lost. In the myths this was a moment of death and rebirth. The hero dies a symbolic death and is reborn as something greater–with greater courage, greater power, or greater wisdom and understanding. It’s a brink of death moment; a moment in which everything really looks like it’s going to fall apart.

9. The Reward

Once the supreme ordeal is overcome the hero emerges stronger for it. They’ve come into their own power and are ready to seize their destiny. They take possession of the treasure (whether literal or figurative; the treasure, the ‘object’ they’ve been seeking, could be many things: a magical sword, a healing elixir, the object of their romantic affections, or perhaps knowledge or wisdom of some kind).

In ancient traditions, the tribe’s shaman didn’t get his supernatural powers until he’s experienced a death or sorts; a terrible illness, accident or hardship that almost kills him. His life is set in flames and only then, as he rises from the ashes, does he acquire the powers and wisdom of the shaman. Rebirth can only come from death.

The worst has now passed, the quest may have succeeded, but usually it’s not over yet…

10. The Road Back

The hero now has to deal with the consequences of confronting the dark forces during the ordeal. There’s usually a retaliation of some kind; they may have gotten away with the reward, but the villain isn’t going to give up so easily. There’s often an element of chase as the hero, having achieved his or her goal, attempts to return to the ordinary world. This is a turning point. It may involve a change in the aim of the story; a story about achieving some goal might become a story of escape, or a focus on physical danger might shift to emotional risks. It’s another moment of crisis that launches the hero on a new road of trials.

11. Resurrection

This stage is a second ordeal, almost a replay of the life and death struggle of the ordeal. It’s one last, final test for the hero in which they must face their greatest challenge and face a symbolic death and rebirth. Everything is on the line and the hero must use all they have learned during their journey.

In ancient times, hunters and warriors often had to be symbolically purified before returning to the tribe because they had blood on their hands. The hero therefore must undergo a transformation–a final life and death struggle–in which they emerge reborn prior to returning to the Ordinary World. The hero has been transformed in some way; they have grown, changed and learned. There has to be some element of change or growth in the hero to make an emotionally satisfying story.

12. Return with the elixir

The hero now returns to the ordinary world. They’ve come full circle and are back where they started, but they bring with them some kind of elixir, which may be a treasure, a gift, a piece of needed information or wisdom; or something that will solve whatever crisis had originally initiated their departure from the ordinary world. The journey is complete and the hero has come full circle, but is changed and can never be the same again.

A key theme of the ancient myths was the hero departing, going through literal or figurative hell, and then returning with new powers, new wisdom and new understanding.

This basic hero’s journey structure can be found in many of the greatest myths, fairytales, legends and in more contemporary stories–in literature, films and sometimes television. These are our modern day equivalents of mythology. But the hero’s journey isn’t just something that’s just applicable to stories. Recall that myth is a reflection of life; a symbolic means of navigating our way through life and understanding the nature of ourselves, others and the world around us. We’re each the hero of our own story. Our daily life is our hero’s journey and we go through those 12 stages all the time.

So the hero’s journey is a great tool not just for writing and analysing stories but also as a guide and compass for managing daily life. Whatever situation we’re in and whatever stage we’re currently at, we can know that it is all part of an ongoing process; a journey toward wholeness, healing and redemption–and that every stage is a step closer to our ultimate goal.

Hollywood takes notice

Joseph Campbell’s work became more and more influential through his lifetime. By 70s and 80s his work came to the attention of certain Hollywood screenwriters and producers, including George Lucas who created Star Wars. Lucas openly acknowledged that Star Wars was greatly inspired by Campbell’s monomyth and this can be seen quite clearly. Like the greatest myths, it follows the structure of the hero’s journey perfectly.

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A Hollywood screenwriter and producer named Christopher Vogler wrote a 7 page memo that outlined the practical applications of the Hero’s Journey and this inspired a whole generation of screenwriters.

The influence of the Hero’s Journey can be seen in a great many films, including The Lion King, The Matrix, Harry Potter, Avatar, Back to the Future, ET, Pirates of Caribbean, the Batman series and numerous animated films such as Finding Nemo, Shrek, Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda.

Films like those, which are popular entertainment for a modern audience, have a structure that echoes that of ancient myth, something that’s hardwired into us and which perhaps explains some of their enduring popularity.

There were criticisms at one time about writers using the hero’s journey too indiscriminately, adopting it as a kind of lazy formula without fully engaging their creativity. Upon its release, George Lucas’s fantasy film Willow was cited as one such example. There’s always a danger of stories becoming rigidly formulaic when they are built according to a set blueprint. So the hero’s journey is best applied not as a rigid framework, but a diagnostic tool for ensuring that all essential bases are covered to provide a satisfyingly coherent and structured story; a story that captures the transcendent power of the greatest of myths and stories.

In terms of my own writing, I never consciously set out to use the hero’s journey as a template. But when analysing my novels Eladria and The Key of Alanar , I discovered that they matched the pattern of the hero’s journey quite extraordinarily. Any times I have struggled, I found it helpful to read up on Campbell’s work and explore some of the ancient myths. This gave me an understanding of how stories work. The best stories have a clear beginning, middle and end, and a basic pattern and structure they follow, even if that structure has endless variations. One of the most important things I ever learned about writing is that there’s not just an art to it–there’s a science too. Taking some time to study not only how stories work, but why stories work, is an essential part of learning the craft.

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The true power of storytelling

The greatest stories, from ancient times right up to today, aren’t just a means of entertainment and passing the time. They’re a means of understanding life, exploring ideas and learning — learning about ourselves, the world and our place in it. When a writer or storyteller of any kind begins a story, they’re asking for an investment of your time; they want to take you someplace, and it helps if there’s a payoff to that; a reason for telling the story.

Like many things in our culture, most books, films and television are simply churned out to make money, to fill a demand, and there’s perhaps not much depth to them or thought goes into them. Stories like that don’t last. Myths, legends and fairytales have endured for centuries and millennia because they touch upon some core human themes–they speak to us about life, albeit in the language of metaphor.

Some people believe that the ancient stories don’t have much relevance in our postmodern age, but I’d disagree. We’re not ostensibly any different to the way we were thousands of years ago. Our culture has changed a lot, but human beings are the same . We go through the same stages of life, we all want to be happy, to find love and meaning, fulfilment and joy. We still ask the same questions about life, about why we’re here and what it’s all about.

As Campbell says, all mythic narratives–and all the truly great stories–are variations of a single great story: a story about transcending our limits, overcoming adversity and becoming all that we’re capable of being. These stories give us hope and guide us.

A culture without mythology is doomed

We explored the functions of mythology and why it has importance to society, acting as a kind of glue that binds us together as well as providing guidance for our journey through life. But what happens when a society loses its mythology?

Campbell believed that without a functioning mythology to make sense of ourselves and reality, society degenerates and breaks down. We’re arguably seeing this throughout the world today. Campbell warned that:

“When a civilisation loses its mythology, the life goes out of it.”

The mythology we tend to hold as a culture is a materialistic one that puts consumerism above all else. We’re trained to think that the purpose of our lives is to make as much money as we can so we can buy as much stuff as possible. We’re taught to believe that we have to buy our way to happiness. We’re not even people anymore, we’re just consumers. This mythology is causing widespread suffering and destruction of the planet, because it is an unsustainable way of living.

So we desperately need new, healthier mythologies to give us a greater vision of who we are and what life is about. What we’re really looking for is deeper meaning and a more vibrant and vital experience of being alive.

They had that in ancient and premodern cultures. In order to move forward we sometimes have to look back–and if we’ve strayed off the tracks, retrace our steps a bit until we find ourselves back on the path.

Campbell said that the goal of life is to make our heartbeat match the beat of the universe. We save the world, he claimed, not by trying to rearrange the world, but by saving ourselves–by coming fully alive and “following our bliss” (a famous quote attributable to Campbell, summing up his philosophy of life). He said that the influence of a vital person has a vitalising effect on others and the world.

He warned us not to just become consumed by the system, but to follow our own way, to be a maverick and to align our personal nature with the essential nature of life and to be in harmony with that.

“But if a person has had the sense of the Call — the feeling that there’s an adventure for him — and if he doesn’t follow that, but remains in the system because it’s safe and secure, then life dries up. And then he comes to that condition in late middle age: he’s gotten to the top of the ladder, and found that it’s against the wrong wall.If you have the guts to follow the risk, however, life opens, opens, opens up all along the line. I’m not superstitious, but I do believe in spiritual magic, you might say. I feel that if one follows what I call one’s bliss — the thing that really gets you deep in your gut and that you feel is your life — doors will open up. They do! They have in my life and they have in many lives that I know of.”

Living in this way changes our mythology! And the modern myth-makers, the writers, storytellers, artists, musicians, songwriters and all kinds of creative people have an important role in society and one that might even save our culture, by providing us with new, healthier mythologies by which we can understand and make sense of life.

Campbell said that “if you want to change the world you have to change the metaphor”. This is what takes us from a place of lack, loss, suffering and confusion to a place of wholeness, aliveness and redemption. That is the true power of storytelling.

 


 

(This article is based upon a talk I gave to some high school classes a couple of years ago. An accompanying Prezi presentation is available to view online here.)

The publishing industry is imploding

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(Things I wish I’d known about writing from the start, Part 2)

We live in a world in which change is rife, entropy is king and civilisations and species are faced with a stark choice: evolve or die. The 21st century has thus far been a time of immense change and unsettling insecurity. Technology is advancing at an incredible rate and a global economic downturn has created a whole new set of challenges and struggles. Few industries have been unaffected by the widespread societal changes taking place, and the publishing industry is no exception. I deliberately chose a provocative title for this blog and I stand by it. The past ten years have seen perhaps the biggest challenges to the publishing industry since its inception.

When I was growing up I had a slightly romanticised notion of what it was to be a published author, although it did have some basis in fact. A writer would be given a good advance and the necessary time, space and resources to write a (hopefully) amazing book. The book would be edited, published and promoted and the writer would then move onto his or her next book. Rinse and repeat. Those days are now gone. My experience of the publishing industry was a cold, hard slap in the face. Looking back, I can see how naive and idealistic my outlook was. The industry is cut-throat, and I suppose it has to be. It’s driven by money–and these days it seems there’s not much of that around.

Here’s what I wish I’d known before I became a writer. A publisher doesn’t really care about your book. They care about your book’s ability to make them money. Every week publishers are bombarded with manuscripts and many of them are indeed of publishable quality. They’re not looking for good literature however; they don’t necessarily care how well-written your book is, how meaningful the story is or how it could possibly impact the lives of readers. They are looking at it through a filter of marketability. How well is the book likely to sell, is it the right length, does it fit in with current market trends and popularity? If it’s a post-apocalyptic novel or a book about horny teenage vampires you can probably skip forward a few places in the queue.

Publishers don’t really care what you as a writer have to say. To the writer it’s all about the book; about bearing one’s heart and soul and creating something special and unique, something inspired by some deep and persistent yearning; something the writer simply had to create and share with the world. To the publisher it’s about product. It’s not about the writer at all, it’s about the reader and the market forces that compel that reader to buy certain types of book.

There’s no judgement or blame in this. It’s simply the way the game works. If I was a publisher struggling to stay afloat, I’d be no different. Publishing and releasing a book is a tremendous investment of money, time and energy. If there’s currently no market for a certain genre or style of writing, then that investment is simply not going to pay off and the publisher will go under, as many have.

The digital revolution has changed things in so many ways. As I explored in my previous post, books (and authors by extension) have become significantly devalued. Anyone can knock up a book and publish it that same day. The gross oversaturation of the book market has driven ebook prices to almost rock bottom. Even established, best-selling and award-winning authors are struggling in the current climate. In order to make a living many are forced to signficantly ‘up’ their output: to write more and sell it for less.

By all accounts, publishers are becoming more ruthless with their authors. I’ve heard that a number of publishers no longer offer in-house editing. That is now the responsibility of the author, who must hire his or her own editor (which, let me tell you, is not cheap). In many cases, marketing and promotion also now largely falls to the author. The author does most the work, yet the publisher takes most of the money. That was certainly my experience!

It’s a cutthroat industry and something of a zero sum game to boot. If you want the prestige of being a published author, you have to pay the price. You no longer own the rights to your own work and you’re only going to see a small percentage of the profits. That price is worth paying it if you can shift enough copies. But these days if your book fails to sell a thousand copies or so in the first week, you’ll find that you get short shrift from the publisher. I know some authors who were treated terribly by their publisher. It can leave a pretty sour aftertaste.

Industries are driven by money. When the pursuit of money is running the show, other things get compromised. The mandate ceases to be about people; about helping people in some way and contributing to the betterment of society and the world. Ideals are left by the wayside; and often morality and ethics are too. The corporate money-grabbers have little conscience and little soul. This is why the world is in the mess it is today.

It’s fair to say that I’m disillusioned with the publishing industry. But I’m not angry or bitter in any way. It simply is the way it is. The industry is driven by money and shaped by market forces. But I, as a writer and a human being, am not. I became a writer because I had a vision, I had stories I wanted to tell, and as ostentatious as this sounds, I wanted to change the world.

Writers are like that–and I mean the proper writers. We don’t become writers just to make money. Anyone even contemplating that needs a reality check. Go study law or something instead! Few writers will ever get rich from their labour. And people don’t realise what an immense labout it can be! Writers don’t just have to wrestle with words, they must wrestle daily with self-doubt, fear, uncertainty and the intensely solitary, often lonely nature of their vocation.

But writers, true writers, pursue their calling because something within them yearns to be born; stories must be told, words must be shared and ideas must be brought into the world. A true writer isn’t driven exclusively by money or market concerns. They want to bring something into the world that will better the world in some way. Ideas want to be clothed in words and shared with people. And although they start off intangible and abstract, there’s nothing more powerful, for it’s ideas that shape human culture, civilisation and destiny.

The publishing industry is struggling to adapt to a changing world. As the digital revolution continues to transform the landscape, many publishers are struggling just to stay afloat. No one quite knows where things are headed. Will ebooks in time completely replace old-fashioned hard copies? Are publishers even needed these days when authors can, and with increasingly frequency are, cutting out the middle-man and selling directly to their readers?

Publishers are getting nervous. They have been for some time. Nothing is the same anymore and a fundamental insecurity underlies everything. Some publishers are actually quite abusive to their capital: the very authors whose work they make a living from. Like most industries in our capitalistic machine, there’s a symbiotic but sometimes exploitative relationship between publisher and author. The unsettling truth for publishers is that while they need authors, authors don’t necessarily need them any more.

Here’s the thing. Writers are storytellers–and storytellers have been around throughout the entirety of human history. Even before the development of linguistic communication, primitive man still found ways to tell and share stories and ideas. This is an essential and intrinsic part of human nature. It is hard-wired into us. The publishing industry as we know it is a relatively recent development. In a rapidly changing world it’s not inconceivable that, with technology continuing to revolutionise the way we exchange and share information, the publishing industry may in time find itself obsolete. But as for writers–we’ve been around forever, and I can guarantee we won’t be going away anytime soon. The way we do it may change, but what we do will never change.

Why Books Have Become Devalued

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These are interesting yet precarious times for fiction writers. Although the digital revolution has given authors an unprecedented opportunity to share their work, it has come at a price.

The landscape has changed almost beyond recognition. It’s much easier to ‘be’ a writer now. Anyone and their uncle can churn out a book and have it published on Amazon Kindle that afternoon. In spite of this, it’s actually much harder to ‘make it’ as a writer, due to complete over-saturation of the market. Something in the range of 4,000 books are being published every single day. Competition can be a good thing, but it also has its downside. What happens when a market is oversaturated? The product in question inevitably becomes devalued, and so does the supplier of that product.

I believe the devaluing of fiction started off with supermarkets and online stores such as Amazon artificially slashing the prices of books. Publishers were in many cases willing to make only a marginal profit (if any) per unit in exchange for selling in greater quantity. I always suspected that mass market paperbacks had an adverse effect on other publishers and lesser known authors unable  to sell their product at such low prices.

In terms of Amazon Kindle, the leading ebook store by a wide margin, what I’ve seen happening is authors and publishers pitching their products at the lowest possible prices in order to stand above the competition. While this is good for the consumer in many respects–they can afford to buy more ebooks!– what it means is that artificially low prices have become the norm.

The reader clearly isn’t to blame. If there are so many books out there at 99 cents/pence or less, why should they be willing to pay more? The publisher of my first novel, Eladria, doesn’t seem to know how to deal with this, having charged everything from 99p to £6.49 for the ebook. I can’t see many willing to pay the latter price for a book by a first-time, sadly quite unknown author, even though the book in question took three years to write and garnered pretty impressive reviews. The only exceptions to the “pay cheap” rule are the big-name authors and they have the backing of big publishing houses behind them. And even a number of them are struggling in the new publishing landscape.

Again, this is good for the reader in the short term. It’s a buyer’s market without a doubt. But I fear that in the long term everyone may suffer. Writing is and always has been a very labour-intensive process. Some writers have the ability to churn out book after book in a conveyor belt-like process. If anything I’m a little envious of them. But I contend that the best books take time and care to write; not weeks, but months and possibly years. Unfortunately, authors who invest such time and care in their work are struggling to survive. The new model of cheap fiction is only viable if an author can release a LOT of work, very often.

I’m concerned that what the digital revolution has seen in terms of fiction is a shift to quantity over quality.

Unless they already have money in the bank, writers can no longer spend years on a single project. The focus is now on producing more, more often and selling it at knock-down prices. It’s inevitable that the quality of the output will suffer in some way. This looks set to continue and perhaps even get worse. Is the publishing industry on the verge of disintegration or can it, by picking itself up and adapting to changing times, create a radical new renaissance?

I’ve just published a brand new story (and it’s yours for free!)

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This week I released my first short story in over two years!

The provocatively-titled Kill The Past, Destroy The World is a prelude to my upcoming novel, The Key of Alanar. It tells the story of Mailyn, an embittered sorceress who returns to her homeland, determined to settle some old scores and seek revenge for the sins of the past. Guided by mysterious beings she believes to be ‘angels’, Mailyn is part of a dangerous plot that could spell the end for an entire world. Determined to set Alanar alight with the fire of the angels, only one man, the High Priest Ardonis, can stand against her and prevent her from unleashing a planetary apocalypse.

I found it a fascinating story to write, allowing me to explore the darker side of human nature, questioning what exactly makes a bad person ‘bad’. As a social science graduate, I learned years ago that human nature is largely shaped by environmental factors; there’s really no evidence that genes make people bad. It’s usually traceable to the formative years where something happens that shouldn’t happen, or something doesn’t happen that should. The story also paints the picture of a society in deep decline and teetering on the brink of its own demise; a society in which corruption and greed have caused an immense divide between the rich and poor, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. I found this a very timely theme!

While it might all sound a tad bleak, the ray of light in this story is the High Priest Ardonis, who is determined to stop Mailyn from unleashing a terrible horror upon the planet. And that’s where the shocking opening pages of The Key of Alanar will take off! This is the start of an incredibly epic tale that will span 10,000 years and multiple dimensions!

The short story is now available to preorder on Amazon, but because I’m a nice guy, I am offering it to you for FREE! All you have to do is click here to sign up for my newsletter (it takes all of 2 seconds) and you will be lead to a page where you can download the story immediately in Mobi, ePub and PDF format! It’s a pretty good deal if you ask me, and I’ll be able to share more exciting free content in the coming weeks and months.

So grab your copy now, and be sure to let me know what you think! I look forward to having you along for what I promise will be an extraordinary journey!

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Things I Wish I’d Known About Writing From the Start, Part 1: In Order to Write Well, You Have to Write a Lot

Hi everyone! This is the first in a series of short blogs in which I’m going to share some of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years as a writer.

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My journey to being a published author wasn’t always an easy one. In retrospect a lot of that was down to the fact I wasn’t approaching things with the right mindset. I’m naturally quite an idealistic and romantic person and looking back I can see how this, coupled with an unrealistic perception of the writing industry, a streak of crippling perfectionism and self-doubt, sabotaged my writing career for at least a decade. If I knew then what I now know, it would all have been so much easier!

The first thing I wish I knew back then was simply this: no one is born a good writer. Sure, some people do exhibit greater natural skill at writing that others. In school I was always praised for my creative stories, essays and writing ability. But when it comes to the craft of writing, it’s highly unrealistic to assume that our earliest efforts are going to be publish-worthy. Writing is a skill like any other and it takes time, effort and practise to develop and refine it. 

One thing I did do right was to take time to study the craft. I realised it wasn’t enough to have a great idea for a book and then just dive headfirst into the writing of it. It’s first necessary to learn how novels are structured, how to tell a cohesive story and how to develop satisfying character arcs.

Yes, writing is an art, but there’s also a science to it as well. Stories are structured a certain way and although we may have an intuitive understanding of how that works from having read a great many books, it’s still essential to understand the dynamics of effective storytelling. Taking some time at the beginning to learn the craft will save an enormous amount of time and wasted effort down the line.

As writers, our first efforts probably won’t be that great. They might even stink to high heaven. This doesn’t mean that we’re hopeless as writers and should immediately give up. It simply means that we are human. Our skill in the craft is developed by spending many, many hours practising it. In order to become competent writers, we have to keep, keep writing.

Writing two novels, short stories and countless blogs, articles and essays has not only helped me develop my voice as a writer, it’s also helped me become a better writer to build confidence in my abilities. It’s clear to me that each book I write is better than the last because my skill as a writer continues to develop. And that, I believe, is really the only way to do it.

While I’m generally a proponent of quality over quantity, here’s the funny thing: as long as we take care of the quantity, the quality tends to develop by itself. In order to be good writers, we simply need to write–and write…and then write some more! The skill and confidence comes with time and practise. Happy writing!

The 3 Steps to Writing Anything

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Whether you’re writing an essay, an article, sales copy or the great American novel, there’s a basic three-step process that, if understood and applied, can make it a whole lot easier for you.

If you’ve ever found yourself struggling to get the words out, or unable to get beyond the first couple of sentences, it’s probably because you’re trying to do the wrong step in the wrong order. Once you’re clear on how to apply this universal three-step method, you’re certain to find the process of writing easier, more effortless and hopefully more enjoyable too.

The three steps of writing are:

1. Planning
2. Writing
3. Polishing

That may appear to be pretty much common sense! Yet you’d be surprised at how often we tend to get these steps muddled up, resulting in all kinds of problems. Each stage needs to be understood and done in sequence before moving onto the next.

Here’s a rundown of each step.

1. PLANNING

Sprouting-Seeds

Planting a seed

Any creative endeavour begins with the planting of a seed. You get, wait for or are given an initial idea about what to write. Perhaps you have an idea for a story, or have received a brief for an essay or article.

Allowing it to grow
Once you have a starting point, you need to give yourself time to brainstorm and play with ideas. If you started out with a fairly broad focus, then you have to gradually narrow and refine it. If you’re writing fiction, this is the time to explore your story, theme and characters, to run with your imagination and allow the story to unfold and take shape.

If you’re writing nonfiction, perhaps you need to do some research and gather information and then arrange and structure it. The initial seed you planted begins to germinate and grow. It’s best to keep this stage as organic as you can, allowing it to unfold naturally. Trying to force it can restrict your creativity and obscure insights, inspiration and fresh ways of looking at things.

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Creating a blueprint
Once you have a fairly clear idea what you want to write, it’s time to take things up a notch and create a blueprint. Whereas the first part of the planning stage should be quite free-flowing, it’s now time to arrange things into a cohesive structure. Some people skip the blueprint stage altogether, and that’s a matter of personal preference and also depends on what you’re writing and why. But I find rushing ahead to write before I have a clear idea what I’m writing about often leads to dead-ends and a lot of frustration and wasted time. I like to have a blueprint for what I’m writing — or at the very least a clear idea of the beginning, middle and end. Then I can simply relax into the next step and be confident that there’s an underlying structure in place to keep me right.

To create a blueprint, you simply arrange your ideas or information into the appropriate structure. If you’re writing a story or novel, try to put all the elements of your plot into place so you know roughly what happens when. What this does is enables you to get a sense for the structure, rhythm and balance of the story. It’s helpful to have this in place before you start writing, because it’s a whole lot easier to change elements at this stage than it is when you’ve written the whole thing and realised that the basic structure of the story doesn’t work (doh!).

This doesn’t mean the blueprint needs to be rigidly set in stone. It should be flexible enough to add, subtract or move around elements as you write. But it gives you a solid foundation and the confidence to start writing. If you’re writing an essay or article, your blueprint will set out your introduction, each key point in progression and end with clear summary or conclusion. Once you’re happy with your blueprint you can move onto the next step.

2. WRITING

Writing

The mistake a lot of people make when writing is to assume that writing consists solely of — well, writing! But jumping straight into the process of writing without having a clear idea what you’re actually writing about is generally a recipe for muddle and frustration. So I’d generally advise people not to bypass the first step.

Once you have your blueprint in place, it’s time to get into the flow of writing. Make sure your first draft is just that: a first draft. It might be helpful to even think of it as a zero draft. At this stage it’s not about making it perfect; it’s simply about getting words down on the page. Now’s the time to write for your life and not look back!

Forget about formatting and editing and try not to read back over what you’ve written if you can help it. You may have a tendency to edit as you go along, trying to ‘perfect’ each sentence before moving onto the next, but it’s best to avoid that temptation. The next step is the editing stage; this is simply the writing stage. So make it easier on yourself: don’t skip ahead. You can edit and refine it when it’s finished, and not before.

The key to good writing is to get into that state where the words just flow with ease and effortlessness. There are different ways to reach that creative flow, and you may need to experiment to find what works best for you. One of the keys to entering the state of flow is to simply focus on the step you’re on; in this case, the writing. You’ve already got your blueprint in place so you don’t need to worry about that, and you don’t need to worry about editing what you’re writing — that’s the next step. Try to bypass your inner critic. Don’t judge the work before you’re finished, or you may never finish: you’ll simply end up in the sticky web of perfectionist paralysis!

Just let go, relax and write. It can be helpful to do a writing warm-up exercise before you start. For example, you might take a random word and do some free-flow association. Just write whatever comes to mind; complete stream-of-consciousness writing. Try that for five minutes and see if it loosens you up and gets you into the creative flow.

3. POLISHING

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The final step is the editing and polishing stage. Once you’ve finished your first draft, take a break if you can and then go back read over it. It’s now time for the inner critic take the reins for a while — although do make sure that any criticism is constructive!

You’ll likely get a sense for the flow and structure of the text. How does it read? What areas need improving? What needs to be added and, more importantly, what bits can you take out? I naturally tend to overwrite, so my editing stage largely consists of pruning things back. Try to remove redundancies and be alert to repetition. A good mantra for the editing process (and perhaps life in general) is: “if in doubt, cut it out!”

Perhaps your piece only needs some minor modifications or it may need several successive drafts. Keep going until you’re happy with it. An excellent tip is to actually read the text aloud. This helps you get a feel for the rhythm of the words and sentence structure and is also helpful for spotting errors that may have otherwise slipped through the radar.

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And those are the three steps to writing pretty much anything! Even though it seems so simple and self-evident, it took me a number of years to figure out this three-step process and to apply it to my work. The difference it made was immeasurable.

The most important thing is to know which step you’re on and to stay on that step until you’re ready to move to the next. No premature skipping ahead! This is especially important when you’re in the writing stage. If you’re always slipping into editorial mode and trying to make each sentence ‘perfect’ before moving onto the next, you’re almost certainly going to struggle. Besides, the sobering (or perhaps liberating) truth is that there’s no such thing as a perfect sentence. So just let go, relax–and write!

This article was originally posted on my other blog, Beyond The Dream, a couple of years ago and ezineArticles.com

The Creative Life: How to Overcome Self-doubt

I’m excited to be relaunching my Dreamlight Fugitive blog in addition to my main blog, Beyond the Dream! My first new post is about something that affects everyone in any creative field: the arch-enemy of creative expression…self doubt!

Illustration by Jack Spellman (jackspellmanart.com)

Yesterday, having finally finished my new novel after a year and a half of work (and the rest! But that’s another story!), I was clobbered over the head by an attack of self doubt. I’d just ordered proofing copies yet I found myself going back and picking away at random sentences, trying to find better ways of stringing the words together in order to reach that most elusive of writerly goals: the ‘perfect sentence’!

One thing led to another and I soon started to question the entire book. What if it wasn’t ready to be put out into the world? Feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction quickly turned to feelings of anxiety and dread. What if I was in fact one of the worst writers ever to pick up a pen or hammer away at a keyboard? I’m safe at the moment, but the moment the book is published it’s a target and as the one-stars reviews come flooding in, I’ll be revealed as the terrible hack I am! I even very briefly considered binning the entire book and starting again from scratch.

That’s how self-doubt works! It’s a vicious, pernicious and potentially crippling little monster. It hides away in the darkest recesses of the mind and is prone to jumping out at inopportune moments and letting rip with its penchant for woeful catastrophising. It’s something that every artist and writer must learn to live with and it does get easier with time.

Most of the time I have it under control. But coming to the end of a project, when you are actually taking the steps to releasing that work into the world, makes the self-doubt monster terribly antsy. Stirring from its slumber like a cat that was only really half-asleep the whole time, you know the meltdown is inevitable.

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“You’re thinking of publishing THAT? Are you crazy?! It needs at least another year of work. The critics are gonna tear it to shreds!”

Now, a little self-doubt is healthy. It gives us a certain objectivity about our work, which is useful in the editing stage (and throughout, really). It becomes harmful however when it degenerates into an overwrought, mud-slinging, anxiety-ridden neurotic monster, determined to convince us that nothing we do is good enough and that we’d be better off setting it aside and slumping onto the sofa and firing up Netflix. So pervasive and persuasive is the self-doubt monster, it’s almost certainly destroyed countless artists’ careers before they’ve even had the chance to get in the game. Left unchecked, this inner censor will not only hinder your creativity, it will completely destroy it and leave you a blubbering and, above all, blocked wreck!

The self-doubt monster is actually pretty easy to deal with it however. And here’s how.

First of all, take the ‘self’ out of self-doubt. It has nothing to do with who you are. It’s simply a thought and that thought’s corresponding emotion. It’s actually completely impersonal. We all get it — everyone, in every walk of life! It’s certainly not unique to us. Self-doubt is basically fear. It’s a defence mechanism designed to somehow keep us safe, even if it is a little misinformed and ultimately wholly counterproductive. Depersonalising it immediately takes the sting out of it.

Secondly, once I’ve depersonalised it, I personify it. This might make me sound utterly crazy, but I find it helpful to give it a name and form. I call my self-doubt monster Fred. Fearful Fred. He looks like a big, fat and slightly ungainly grey caterpillar. Most the time he just wiggles about in the recesses of my mind, doing whatever it is caterpillars do. Occasionally however, something gets Fred riled and he gets all worked out and inflates in size, becoming a gargantuan blob full of his own hot air. This happened last night when I somehow convinced myself I was the worst writer in human history.

I isolated the emotion in my body (it seemed to be around my belly, or solar plexus) and I decided to have a chat with Fred (as the personification of my self-doubt). He was beside himself with fear, anxiety and dread. So I made him a cup of tea, sat him down and explained that I’m grateful he’s so diligent in looking out for me, but there was no need for such stress and worry. Yeah, it’s always a little scary releasing a new piece of work into the world, as it probably is for a baby bird being pushed out of its nest in the hopes it will fly for the first time. But I reminded myself the importance of keeping everything in perspective.

I wrote an article last year about the power of karma yoga. Karma yoga isn’t a sequence of physical postures as you might expect, but a mindset with which we approach life. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, we have the right to act, but the fruit of those actions is not up to us. So the karma yoga attitude — which is the greatest antidote to stress that I know — is simply to do our best and let go of the results. Once an arrow has been fired it’s no longer up to us whether it hits the intended target. Chances are we’ve done our best to ensure that it does, but it’s now under the control of a set of natural laws and dynamics that are completely outwith our sphere of influence. All we can do is relax, take it easy and endeavour to take whatever comes with good grace.

The self-doubt monster can be an implacable and relentless foe to any creative person. It’s probably cost me years of my life. I’m certain I’d have more than one novel published by now if I hadn’t spent years under the sway of Fred, bless his heart. Now I’ve learned to master my mind and emotions a little bit more. This doesn’t mean that self-doubt and other self-limiting thoughts vanish forever. But it does mean that when they come up I can put them in their place and simply get on with things. As the Tao Te Ching says:

Mastering others is strength; mastering ourselves is true power.

Self-doubt and anxiety are defence mechanisms generated by the unconscious mind to keep us safe. But we are safe! As artists we follow our calling, we write the stories and paint the pictures that our muse is kind enough to share with us. We learn and grow and improve our skills all the time. We make mistakes, but mistakes are an essential part of the learning curve. Never be afraid to make mistakes! And never allow yourself to be held prisoner to the tyranny of other people’s opinions. Some people will love what you do, and some people won’t. Some people are fair in their criticism and some people are jerks with clear psychological deficiencies (I now refrain from reading comments sections on youtube and other websites because of this!).

Learn to wrestle with your self-doubt monster. Or make it a cup of tea as I do. Usually once I’ve had a firm but loving chat with Fred, I imagine sending him off on an all-expenses paid vacation to Tenerife where he can just relax in the sun all day drinking Pina Colada while I get on with what I have to do.

Self-doubt is ignorance masquerading as truth. Don’t let it cripple you. Take charge of it and educate it. You’re doing fine, let it know that and these lagging parts of the mind will eventually catch up. When we no longer give fear or doubt power over us, when we educate them and put them into perspective, we give ourselves the greatest gift of all. Freedom! And freedom is the ultimate goal of all creative — and moreover, all human — endeavour! So dance with your doubts and allow yourself to be free.

This fantastic song and video by one of my favourite artists, Bat For Lashes, is about just that. This was the song that Natasha Khan wrote after a long spell of creative block, and it’s very much about learning to tame and dance with the monsters of self-doubt, despair and fear. Enjoy.

Fantasy Author Rory B Mackay

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