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The Visionary Fiction Revolution – And How Words Can Change the World

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Art by Mar-ka on Deviantart

This article was originally written for The Visionary Fiction Alliance and posted on their website in two parts. It’s one of the most important and, for me, most cathartic pieces I’ve ever written. It helped clarify why I’ve always wanted to write, why I’m passionate about the power of storytelling, and why I will probably still be churning out words when I’m 90! I hope you find it interesting!


It’s estimated that nearly 130 million books have been published in modern history. 28 million books are currently in print in English alone. When contemplating writing a book, I can’t help but reflect on these staggering statistics, as indeed I think all authors should. Does the world really need another book to add to those 130 million others? In what way is writing a book going to benefit the world and enhance the lives of its readers? Is there a reason for telling a new story – a need, and a purpose for doing so? If not, then why invest the substantial time and effort in writing a book? If it’s just to make money, then there are certainly easier and less labor intensive ways of doing so – particularly with the market as saturated as it is, with more books published than any time in history and an apparently downward trend in readership.

A changing landscape

shutterstock_112499642smThe publishing industry is in the threshold of a transformation comparable to the advent of the Gutenberg print press over 500 years ago. The way we read is changing substantially, and the way writers release work is also changing. The advent of digital publishing has resulted in an explosion in the number of books being published. I’ve heard it said that we are experiencing an overproduction of books. The scarcer a commodity the more valuable it is, and indeed vice versa. There are more books to choose from than ever before, and to compete in this wild new literary world, authors and publishers must keep prices rock bottom and increase their output to compensate.

Our 21st century civilization is guilty of the crime of excess, if nothing else. In the current information age, we have more information than we’ll ever know what to do with, all readily available via magical little devices we keep in our pockets. Whether this unprecedented access to information has made the human race any wiser is a matter for debate. As far back as 1984, John Naisbitt famously remarked that our culture is “drowning in information, but starving for knowledge”. This clearly extends to the literary world. We’re drowning in a sea of readily available books; ours to download at the press of a button. Upwards of 4,000 books are being published a day. But of these 4,000 books, how many are adding something new, something necessary to the world?

Have writers lost their way?

The issue of social entropy is something I find interesting and a little disturbing. It’s a basic law of physics that any system will, over time, veer from a state of simplicity and order to ever greater diversification, complexity, chaos and eventual degradation.

I believe the writing world is, like many other things in society, experiencing a degree of entropy. There’s greater diversification than ever before and an immense volume of literature being pumped out. Anyone can be a writer now. You could theoretically write a book this morning and have it ready to download on Amazon by suppertime. Heck, if you’re lucky it might even sell! Some of the bestsellers of the past few years haven’t even been particularly accomplished in a literary sense. This ‘democratization’ of publishing is in many ways a good thing but it does have many implications. Although anyone can now be a writer, perhaps only a few of those writers are likely to spend the time learning, developing and honing the skills and craft of storytelling.

I believe it is essential for a writer to have a clear understanding of the basic function and purpose of storytelling. We need to understand why human beings have a compulsion to tell stories, and how these stories have the power to shape our culture, society and our views, beliefs and our very experience of reality.

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When writers lose touch with the purpose of storytelling, stories lose their power. They become merely a form of superficial entertainment; distraction and escapism, bereft of meaning and depth. Oh, we keep telling stories, but without an understanding of whywe’re telling the story and what it’s actually about, the stories become mechanical and lackluster, often relying on gimmicks, clever marketing and shock factor to grab our attention. Otherwise it’s a case of, as Dexter Palmer wrote in his novel The Dream of Perpetual Motion: “Stories? We have no time for them; no patience.”

If the storytellers have forgotten why they even tell stories, beyond the obvious material gain and the desire to be creative, why should the readers and audience care?

The ancient power of storytelling

The greatest writers do not write to entertain the world. They write to change the world. And the very best of them actually do.

Truly classic stories have a timeless power to them — which is why they can endure for hundreds, even thousands, of years. They are not just a succession of meaningless events interwoven to distract, entertain and amuse, no matter how cleverly written. They have a meaning to them; a purpose, a message to impart and questions to explore.

Modern society provides us with every luxury conceivable, but it comes at a price. We are all cogs in the capitalist-consumer machine, and for all the latest smartphones and smart watches and smart TVs we have to distract us, on some level we are crying out for something more: greater wisdom, greater meaning to our lives, and some kind of inner nourishment to counter the relentless stress and struggle of modern life. What we yearn for is to be free — and, at heart, all the greatest stories are about freedom of the human mind, heart and soul.

Human beings are born storytellers. The story was invented long before the wheel and we’ve been sharing them since possibly before the advent of linguistic communication. Cave paintings are believed to be the earliest records of storytelling, in which the history, myths and narratives of ancient tribes were set, literally, in stone. As I explored in my article The Power of Storytelling and Mythology’ storytelling is hardwired into the human brain, as one of the ways that we interpret and make sense of reality. Mythology, one of the world’s oldest forms of storytelling, was a way of understanding the universe and mankind’s place in it. Whether as creation myths or tales of heroes battling gods and demons, mythological stories were deeply symbolic and metaphorical, holding significant meaning for particular tribes and cultures.

It’s often said that there are no new stories, only the constant recycling of various plot elements in different combinations. Indeed, Christopher Booker wrote a book in which he claimed that there are only seven basic plots, which can be reconstituted and adapted in various ways. Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that all stories and myths at their basis were in essence variations of a single story, which he called the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, “the song of the universe” being sung in different ways by various cultures and people throughout history. Is it possible that all stories can be boiled down to one essential story?

Art by Josephine Wall
Art by Josephine Wall

We tell stories for a reason

Mythology, which is storytelling at its most essential level, was not purposeless. It played an important role in shaping and sustaining society and, according to Campbell, had four primary functions. The first was to open the eyes of the individual and awaken a sense of awe, humility and wonder about the very nature of existence; to become aware of an interplay of tangible physical and elusive metaphysical realms.

The second function was cosmological; using stories and metaphor to help people understand the universe around them, making sense of time, space and biology. On a sociological level, mythology was also used as a means of forming and maintaining social connections. Having a shared narrative enabled tribes to stick together, supporting the social order and maintaining customs, beliefs and social norms.

On a more personal level, the tribe’s stories provided signposts for navigating life, sometimes reflected in ritual and rites of passage. The individual was not left to muddle through life without guidance. The epic tales of mythology were used as metaphors for dealing with the challenges and conflicts we face along life’s journey. These stories, properly understood, contained great wisdom and guidance.

Mythological tales were reflections of the human psyche and the conflicts and desires that drive it. The catastrophic battles between heroes and demons, the sacrifices, betrayals, jealously and love were reflections of the forces powering the human mind and heart. Furthermore, as stated before, Campbell believed that they could all be reduced to the same basic pattern, the same essential story: a story of trial, transcendence, rebirth and redemption. It was always a story of overcoming great adversity and conflict and finding that most cherished of all things, the true goal behind all human endeavor — freedom, whether a literal freedom or freedom of mind, heart and soul. Adversity and emancipation were therefore the themes of this ancient monomyth.

The basic motif of the mythological hero’s journey is repeated endlessly throughout time and across widely different cultures. It still has relevance to us today, for it is a universal story that transcends any particular cultural context. It is the story of the human condition and our striving to overcome conflict and adversity (both inner and outer); to know ourselves, to find our place in life and to be all that we are and are capable of being. It is a tale of redemption and the quest for power through transcendence and self-knowledge.

This message is needed as much today as it ever was — perhaps even more so. We live in precarious times. Economic and social structures are eroding, political and religious conflicts are rife, and through exploitation and greed we are in danger of irreparably damaging the environment that sustains us. We are essentially destroying ourselves–a long, slow suicide caused by human insanity on a wide scale. If we as a species are to survive and thrive, we clearly must change our trajectory.

Campbell was adamant that we need mythology: for “when a civilization loses its mythology, the life goes out of it.” Without a functioning mythology to make sense of reality, to provide meaning, self-knowledge, inspiration and social cohesion, society begins to break down. Mythology must continually adapt itself to stay relevant to the ever-changing society, or else it becomes not only obsolete and irrelevant but maybe even dangerous — as might be seen with some religions. When our stories no longer serve us, we must invent new stories that utilize the same monomyth framework but which work for the age, culture and context in which we live — reinvigorating the ancient wisdom for a modern age, sharing the same essential tale of redemption and emancipation in new and accessible ways.

Words and ideas can change the world

Writers have a responsibility. As Robin Williams’ character in the film Dead Poets Society said: “No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” While it’s perfectly permissible for writers to write and sell trashy fiction (and there is a sizable market for it), writers have a higher calling.

Words can set people free. The greatest novels have always been about the emancipation of the human spirit. That is why books such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are still celebrated and immortalized centuries later. By exploring the nature of human suffering, writers can offer solutions, answers and new paradigms of thought. Like the shamans of ancient times, writers have the potential to be healers in some way, offering a way out of pain and suffering by presenting new ideas, new interpretations and new ways of understanding and relating to life.

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Visionary Fiction

Amid the increasing diversification of the literary world, a number of writers are pioneering a new genre called Visionary Fiction. Really this isn’t a new genre at all, for writers have been producing visionary works for thousands of years, from the Indian epic The Mahabharata, to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hesse’s Siddhartha and Coelho’s The Alchemist. There is now a growing recognition that words have the power to heal, to inspire and to change our experience of reality from a mindset of lack, loss and disconnection, to one of wholeness, connection and power.

Visionary Fiction echoes the best of ancient myth, utilizing the functions of mythology as elucidated by Joseph Campbell, by reinventing the great monomyth for a modern age. If we’re essentially telling the same great story, the story of human adversity, struggle and transcendence, then it has to continually be told in fresh, engaging and relatable ways.

Many books can have a visionary element. Such stories draw attention to the power and potential of the human mind and spirit; our inherent struggle for identity, wholeness and freedom from limitation. The story is driven as much by the internal journey of the characters as by external events, exploring the expansion of mind and consciousness. Following the timeless pattern of the hero’s journey, the characters face adversity, challenges and a symbolic (or perhaps even literal) death and rebirth. These stories may question the nature of reality and consciousness, opening the reader to new ways of looking at life. Some of the most famous authors whose work includes a visionary element include Richard Bach, Herman Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Paulo Coelho and James Redfield.

Visionary Fiction is not about getting the reader to share the author’s same beliefs and ideas, but an invitation for the reader to explore for themselves, to question, think, dream and push the boundaries of what they previously thought possible. An entire life can change in an instant with a simple change of perspective. As Marcel Proust said, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” The best stories enable us to see with new eyes; taking the reader out of our ordinary, mundane existence, and presenting new ways of understanding and relating to life.

That is the gift of a great story. That is why storytelling is still immensely relevant to our lives and why, if they choose to accept the challenge, writers have a whole lot more to offer their readers than simple escapism. They can offer people the tools they need for dealing with life’s inevitable pain and suffering. Joseph Campbell stated, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” Changing the stories we tell changes the way we see life, which in turn changes life.

There tends to be a great focus on darkness and human dysfunction in modern literature, film and television; a fascination and almost glorification of the very worst distortions of human nature. Many excellent writers are adept at exploring the darker side of the human psyche and its reflection in our culture, but visionary writers take us beyond the darkness into the light at the end of the tunnel, revealing that which is highest and best in us, and highlighting our endless capacity to grow, reinvent ourselves, and rewrite our own faltering narrative. Literature needs this. The world needs it.

Writers are not just here to entertain the world. Writers have the potential to change the world, and they should be content with no less than that. More and more people are waking up to the reality of 21st century life — that we have to change the way we are living in order to survive and create a sustainable future for our children. As this continues, I suspect that Visionary Fiction will come to the fore as a means of awakening our collective imagination and our capacity to live, dream, love, and change our cultural paradigm for the better. A good story can change lives. A great story can change the world.

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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?