Tag Archives: social media

Identity of the Consumer: Body & Mind As A Place

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Lots of interesting stuff this week, and I may have got a little over-excited. Identity is high on my ‘cool ideas to think about’ list, particularly as the question underpinning my current book is centered around the balance of personal and social identity. When does taking care of oneself tip over into selfishness, what are the consequences of non-conformism, and is the individual more important than the community? I’ve touched on this before, a bit, but in the context of producing art rather than writing characters.

Conditioned IdentityConsumer-Society

In her essay on Consumer bodies, Elizabeth Jagger says that the rise of consumerism fundamentally changed the idea of identity, as media and cultural pressures began to dictate what people wore, ate, watched, read, how they behaved, where they went on holiday, and what they thought. I’m sure there were elements of this earlier in history but modern media channels make it far more pervasive. It removes an element of control over an individual’s identity, even if they don’t realise it. Those that choose to ignore current fashions are, to some extent, excluded from society as ‘odd’ or ‘other’ and thus the cycle continues. It’s not a new idea – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a brilliant, sickening look at an extreme version of modern consumerist culture and identity.

Jagger also makes a big point about the greater impact of dictated appearance on female identities, which obviously plays into the behaviour and power dynamics of characters. She says (and I agree) that women use appearance to manipulate their social position. This isn’t new either – it’s a pattern of behaviour that can be tracked back throughout history. Women manipulated, using whatever tools they could but mostly appearance and sex (which are almost always intertwined) to get what they want because they were rarely in a position to just ask for or take it. Is that any different today? With that in mind, how will it impact how my protagonist behaves, dresses, and achieves her goals?

There are a couple of points which Jagger didn’t address, due to the time of writing, but which I think are important. The first is social media. The rise of global communities has contributed to the fall of the geographical community, as individuals are no longer dependent on locality for ‘contact’. But that decreases physical contact which impacts individual identity, making it more fragile and more needing of external validation from the global community. Without physical contact, this validation becomes more about expressing the ‘correct’ opinions. It moves identity away from appearance and imposes taste onto the mind.

Fat-Green-TrollIt also has lead to the rise of the anonymous identity, such as internet trolls, which fundamentally changes an individual’s behaviour and attitude towards the community. That identity is totally separated from the body, and also from the projected mental identity that is shared openly. It is a fragmentation of identity between private and public, with the freedom of anonymity giving rise to identity without the influence of taste or external opinion.

The second point that Jagger doesn’t really address (although she touches on it in the discussion of female body builders) is that of trans-gender identity. For trans-gender, the body is fundamentally NOT a part of their identity, it’s an obstacle to it. But appearance is the only way society can be made to understand, whilst at the same time making the individual vulnerable to attack and ridicule. Issues of trans-gender leads to situations where the body and mind are at odds in determining identity, and community can be very oppressive – even dangerous, in some societies – in resolving this question.

Individual Geography

Okay, moving past the theory (I warned you I got excited) and on to the practical. You’ve heard of the setting being written as a character? Where it feels like it has a personality/atmosphere (see all the stuff last week about poetic topography). I’m going to cite Kate Griffen again as a good example of this – the London of her Matthew Swift novels feels like a real, breathing place that actively contributes to the story. Right, now flip this on its head: now try writing the character as a setting.

The body is relatively easy. Take a step back and view it as a place rather than a person. This is where similes become your friend, although the usual warnings about overuse apply. What can your body do? What can’t it do? How does this impact who you are? And then, having worked all that out, what kind of place does that make it? By way of example, here’s my answer to that last one:

I am a boat, running free before the wind. The pale planks of my deck soak in the sun and the salt, weathering fairly. My sails ripple as the wind changes, sometimes furled tightly, sometimes – more often, lately – stretched high and wide to catch the breath of the world. My compass spins in the gimbal, dancing between logic and desire. The smooth keel is painted with the depth markings of friends and family, keeping the little vessel upright. The small cabin is low-ceilinged, curving over a patchwork of memories and words. It is warm with hope and affection and soft sorrow. The door is open but there are only seats for three; the fourth is broken in the corner. Water sings like crystal beneath the foot of the prow, the horizon is wide, and the tiller is master of herself.

I’ll admit that I found describing the mind as a place much more challenging. To me, the body is the least part of someone’s identity (although, granted, the easiest identifier). It can be stepped back from and described as a place without too much of a leap. The mind, however, is the person. It’s too big and abstract and uncoordinated to easily turn into a setting. I’m not even sure what language to use.

One of the exercises was the following:

Part of the mind as place is how it interacts with the world and processes all of the information that comes in and goes out, such as language, color, light, etc. Imagine yourself as someone else, someone completely different from you culturally or socially. How does that person—this new you—exist inside his/her mind? What kind of place is it?

Because I was struggling with the concept, I made a list of some primary cultural traits that I have (privileged, educated, capitalist, liberal, atheist), worked out what the opposites of each are, and then wrote. I actually did the exercise a couple of times, for characters either out of LARP or my own writing. I didn’t plan what I was going to say in any way – I just held the whole concept of the character in my mind and starting typing. What came through each time was a little surprising and gave a very clear indication of what was most important to them. I’m not sure if it constituted writing the mind as a place but it was a useful little exercise. Again, by way of example, here’s what I came up with.

TAMSIN (poor, uneducated, faithful, optimistic)

There’ll be something to eat at the end of the day, there always is. The god looks after his own. Besides, I wouldn’t swap the open road for all the cushions and cakes in the world. They don’t see past their stone walls, poor folk. Never seen a sunset fire the sky, or had a storm wash off the dirt of a week. Never got by on the smells of a bakery and crusts stolen from a bin. Can’t taste food right if you ain’t felt hunger. I’ve begged for my supper and let me tell you: pity-bread fills the belly just the same as any other kind. But poached meat cooked on an open fire under the god’s stars? Ain’t no oven roast can compare with that.

ALEX (poor, uneducated, feudal, belligerent)

‘Course I know what I want. You don’t know, you’re gonna end up in the gutter – or forgotten at the bottom of the pecking order, if you’re lucky. You can get nearly anything, if you know what you want and have the balls to go after it. Yeah, there’s dark places but I’ll stand in ‘em and shout just as loud as the light ones. This is my life, my turf. You wanna do something with it, you’re in for a hell of a fight. And if you get in my way, the bruises are your own fucking fault.

EDIT: Looking back, I wonder if maybe my description of my body as a place is more accurately my mind as a place. Which sort of highlights how blurry the line between physical and mental identity can be. Hmm. Any thoughts?

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Telling Stories Across Media Boundaries: The Night Circus Example

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night circus

The circus arrives without warning…

Every now and then you come across a book that inspires you to write. A book so beautiful that, when you put it down, you think not “I will never be that good”, but “I aspire to write like that”. Guy Gavriel Kaye’s writing often has that effect on me, and now I’ve found another author: Erin Morgenstern, creator of The Night Circus. Like Kaye, she breaks a lot of rules – there’s multiple POVs, the timeline jumps all over the place, and so do the tenses. But that doesn’t matter because of the sheer beauty of the words.

The thing that lifts Night Circus past Kaye’s books, in my opinion, is its adaptability to different media. I’m going to briefly put on my work hat, so bear with me here. The project I’ve recently been researching is the use of digital content in brand marketing, and success is measured (as much as it can be) by two criteria: the emotional engagement of the content, and how well it can be delivered across multiple channels. There’s so much entertainment available in the world today that people are drowning in it. They will consume it in the most convenient / appetising way for them, so presenting something in one format only means you’re automatically excluding a large audience that doesn’t use that format.

The world of the Night Circus is perfectly suited to adapt, because of its whimsical and flexible nature. The traditional migration of stories to a new format is from page to screen, and there is already a film in development. But it’s not the only road. War of the Worlds went with radio, to resounding success. For the modern world, Failbetter Games, who made Fallen London and Sunless Sea to great critical acclaim, have released a module that covers the world and story of the Night Circus.  It gives control of the world to the player, who can go off-page to explore some of the back alleys of the circus that are only hinted at in the static words of the book.

Of course, letting your audience right inside means the world setting needs to be pretty damn robust and developed. But then, it should be anyway. Writing a believable world requires a considerable amount of depth, even if you don’t intend to show it to anyone. The sense of reality will be there, even without the details. This is where, in the past, turning my settings into RPGs has really helped, because the players are allowed into the scenery to kick over the bins and ask what’s underneath. And, not that I am in any way comparable with his work, but Jim Butcher did the same with his Harry Dresden Files and I know quite a few people who spent money buying his RPG source books.

I’m rambling a bit now. I guess what I’m really saying is that you should build your world on the assumption that your readers will be able, at some point and through some media, to come right into it and poke about. Also, Night Circus is totally awesome.

Apparently I’m Versatile

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versatile-bloggerSue Archer, better known as the Doorway Between Worlds, very kindly nominated me for a Versatile Blogger Award last week. I hadn’t heard of it before, but then I’m not really up to speed on the various blogging awards so that’s no surprise. Having now looked into it, it seems to be a reasonably major deal, so thank you very much indeed, Sue!

There’s two things you have to do to accept. The first is to nominate and share 15 blogs that you think deserve the title. The second is to share 7 things about yourself. So here goes.

15 Blogs To Read Before You Die

  1. Mad Genius Club – a conglomerate of US writers, blogging about the trials of writing and publishing from multiple perspectives
  2. Kirsten Lamb – the blog of WANA’s (We Are Not Alone) founder, guru of social platforms for writers
  3. Writing & Rambling – an interesting take on fiction writing from the agent’s perspective
  4. Andrew Knighton Writes – my long time friend, inspiration and professional writer, on how to make writing as a career work
  5. Terrible Minds – Chuck Wendig’s hilarious blog, ostensibly about writing but actually about whatever wanders through his brain
  6. EsoterX – invaluable resource on the myths of monsters and the science / history behind them
  7. Creative Writing with the Crimson League – more tips on creative writing from author Victoria Grefer
  8. Writerology – tips on character creation from the expertise of a psychologist
  9. War of Memory – genre fiction reviews and musings
  10. Often Clueless – tips and exercises for creative writing
  11. Suffolk Scribblings – more tips on creative writing from author Dylan Hearn
  12. Celine Jeanjean – yup, you guessed! Tips and reviews from another writer
  13. Writing Excuses – if you don’t like podcasts, they do an update of the weekly discussion on the blog instead
  14. Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows – forgotten words, poetically explained
  15. Bridget’s Ceramics – okay, so this is cheating a bit as it’s my mum’s blog on her career as a ceramics artist, but she is awesome and totally deserves support

The Secret Seven

  1. I am a lizard. True fact. I have no ability to regulate my body temperature, and heat up by basking. I can also run up vertical surfaces.*
  2. The sound of mosquitoes terrifies me. As a child, I was once shut in a room for a night that contained 50,000** mosquitoes, and I didn’t get a wink of sleep. The noise of that whine still brings me out in a cold sweat.
  3. I am an atheist who took Theology A-Level, run by a C. of E. priest and with four devout Christians as my fellow pupils. The main thing that course taught me was how to be contrary.***
  4. I once broke my ankle by falling from the heady height of 10cm. Graceful, I am not.
  5. I love bread sauce. I love it so much that I eat it despite a) being allergic to yeast, and b) having once mistakenly eaten a large dollop of horseradish sauce instead. See above RE contrariness.
  6. I write my best dialogue whilst talking out loud to myself during a walk, and my best plot twists whilst swimming. The people in my neighbourhood stopped staring after about 6 years.
  7. I don’t drink tea and I don’t like bacon sandwiches. Positively un-English. If it weren’t for the fact that I speak with an RP accent, I’d be concerned about letting the Empire down.

* This last bit may not be true.
** This isn’t untrue but may be a slight exaggeration.
*** At the end of the first term my school report said ‘Be more stubborn.’ My mother has never forgiven the teacher.

So there you have it! Thank you for the vote of confidence from my fellow bloggers, and to you – the reader – for continuing to check back in on these occasional ramblings.

happy-lizard

From Me to You to Me to You

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Following on the theme of storytelling by community, I strongly encourage you to take a look at a recent project by Neil Gaiman called A Calendar of Tales. Gaiman posed twelve questions – one for each month of the year – to his fans via Twitter. For each month, he took the answer he liked best and wrote a short story about it. He then posted the story and asked for illustrative art. The result is something not quite collaborative but certainly not solo, and entirely beautiful.

This also kinda ties in with some of the stuff Andy Knighton’s been talking about recently regarding the new approaches to stories that modern media offers. Twitter, Facebook, all these social media sites let writers reach out to their audience more directly and – crucially – allows the audience to reach back. I’ve seen books funded by Kickstarter with similar principles, where the more you donate the more you feature in the creative process in some way. The author retains control but the audience is invested long before the final story is revealed.

Basically, we seem to slowly be getting back to storytelling as a community activity. And Gaiman’s project is very cool.

Q: Why is January so dangerous? A: Because an aging veteran just retired, to be replaced by a dangerously unqualified youth, no more than a babe in arms.

Q: Why is January so dangerous?
A: Because an aging veteran just retired, to be replaced by a dangerously unqualified youth, no more than a babe in arms.

One Tale, Many Voices: using stories to build a community

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Following on from my guest post for Mr. Knighton, and the thing about creative ownership earlier this week, I wanted to explore the idea of communities based on storytelling a bit further. It is, after all, the fundamental reason that we tell stories – to communicate to an audience. So understanding how that works is an important foundation to storytelling in general.

The role of oral tradition

You too could be Brad Pitt

You too could be Brad Pitt

Before literacy was commonplace, storytelling was done via oral tradition. A bard (or whatever they called themselves at that time and place) spoke to an audience, passing on tales via listening and memory. It was a moment of communal gathering and shared experience, and that dates back a very long time indeed. For a recent example, though, the kids’ cargo cult in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is good.

The Homeric Epics were originally formed from aural traditions, with a specific underlying purpose relating to building a community spirit. At the time, the Greeks existed in independent city states that frequently warred between themselves. But a greater threat existed round the continent in the shape of the Persians – a unified empire with an ambitious king and an impressive army. By sharing stories of a similarly unified Greece who defeated a legendary Eastern opponent (in this case, Troy), it was hoped that a sense of a national community would be instilled despite the more recent history of inter-city wars.

Granted, that’s a fairly extreme example of using stories to build a sense of community, but it makes the point. A shared tradition of stories, told to a gathered audience, serves to strengthen the bonds between them.

Oral versus written history

As Western culture moved from oral to written tradition, storytelling began to move from a group activity to an individual one. It also began to segregate the audience by education and class. The sense of community that had been engendered by oral storytelling underwent a fundamental change. It also meant that story structure itself underwent a change.

Oral tradition has a number of significant traits which exist to help the narrator remember the entire tale. Repeated phrases, lists of names, stock scenes – these all were a standard feature of memorised stories. With written texts, however, none of that is strictly necessary and so the style of narration shifted. The focus now was on entertainment via words alone, rather than performance.

For a long time, it also meant that different types of stories were recorded. Given the segregation by class and education, texts catered to the tastes of those who could read and afford to buy the written word. Anything that was interesting only to poor communities – rather than rich individuals – was left unrecorded. So not only was oral tradition under siege, its replacement did nothing for those that it had primarily helped.

Communal storytelling today

Fear of the unknown, helplessness and loss of identity

Fear of the unknown, helplessness and loss of identity

We’re now, according to Walter Ong, in the age of secondary orality – a time in which oral storytelling is consciously reliant on written material. I’ve talked about this a little bit before when I covered the Gutenberg Parenthesis, but it’s important here because Tom Pettitt’s conclusion is all about the growing online community in which stories are told by secondary orality to a community that is no longer confined by geography. The community has, essentially, become worldwide (it’s also been called the global village and is a fairly hefty sociology subject).

…rapid communication with large groups of people in a speed that would resemble oral storytelling, without having to share the same physical space with your audience.   ~ Secondary Orality in Microblogging, Liliana Bounegrou

Because the stories being told are written they can be referred back to, cited and built upon. The Slender Man myth is the best modern example I know of a community-created and told story, developed through secondary orality. It links into key fears that are shared by a community, highlights them as a concern and binds the community together against those fears. We’ve almost come full circle.

As a roleplayer, of course, communal storytelling is a fairly major part of my life. I regularly get to see the power of stories bringing people together in a tight-knit community that relies on shared narrated experiences for bonding. I have to say that seeing it in action – all those lives and imaginations working together to create something communal – is actually quite powerful. The uninitiated might only see geeks in funny clothes waving rubber swords around but there’s a very real kind of magic going on beneath the surface.

That’s not all, folks

As evidenced by the littering of links, particularly in the last part, this is a huge subject and one which I’m not properly equipped to explore. I know almost nothing about sociology or anthropology, both of which are major factors in the function of storytelling. But it is something I find fascinating so, if any of you know more, please do share. I’d really like to learn.

Wattpad: the next step in self publishing?

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My friend BB pointed me towards a website called Wattpad at the beginning of this week. I’d never heard of it before but it’s been running for over a year and currently has over 40 billion stories on it.

Wattpad is a place to discover and share stories: a social platform that connects people through words. It is a community that spans borders, interests, languages. With Wattpad, anyone can read or write on any device: phone, tablet, or computer.

There are two unique things about Wattpad publishing. The first is that you publish a chapter at a time, rather than the whole story. You build up an audience through suspense, in effect, making them anticipate the day of the week that you are due to bring out the next instalment. That’s the ideal, anyway. The second is the level of interaction between reader and writer. The readers can live comments per chapter, email the writer directly with feedback, and even affect the events of the book as it’s written.

This is a very different relationship from the traditional one. The author comes off their pedestal or ivory tower and has to communicate in a dialogue – not a printed monologue – with their audience. We’ve seen something similar develop in other arenas, particularly off the back of fast-moving social media. Consumers want flexible responses and the feeling that they are involved with the creation. This sort of thing is what TV Tropes calls Ascended Fanon, and is especially noticeable in Season 3 of Sherlock, to use an on-screen example.

wattpad

Anyway, the question I’ve been asking myself whilst looking at Wattpad this week is how it fits in with the road to publication for modern aspiring writers. I have for a long time believed that it’s best to aim for a traditional publishing deal – at least to start with – because there’s so much about the industry that I don’t know. I’m not a professional editor, a marketer or a cover designer. I don’t know how to promote my work most effectively or compete with the gajillions of other new manuscripts out there. Most importantly, I don’t know what I don’t know about publishing. Surely it’s far better to have experience of that structured approach before attempting to strike out into the world of self-publishing?

Ah, but what if you can go to a publishing house and say ‘I’ve already got X thousand confirmed readers’? You’re selling yourself to them as a low-risk prospect with an established fan-base. That’s got to be more attractive than the alternative, particularly in these days of publishing uncertainty.

The ‘chapter by chapter’ publishing model of Wattpad also enables you – if you’re so inclined, and good enough – to make a bit of money. You can publish the first handful of chapters for free and then charge a nominal fee (say, 5p?) for every chapter thereafter. It’s a gamble – you might piss off your readership by suckering them in, or you might lose them if your work just isn’t engaging enough – but the opportunity exists. 5p for 35 chapters is £1.75 per reader. Compare this to the 10% (ish) of the profits you’d get from a traditional e-publishing deal where the whole book might go for 99p. Interesting maths.

I haven’t made my mind up about it yet. It requires further playing with, I think. What I have done, though, is start to post some of my older work (i.e. not Spiritus or Corpus) for free on the site. If you feel like a read, I’d love the feedback! I’d also be very interested to hear what you think about Wattpad and its role in publishing.

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EDIT: BB wishes it to be known that he isn’t a little French girl in a red floppy hat, and he should henceforth be known as ‘Benisaurus Rex’. So now you know.

The Gutenberg Parenthesis: storytelling in a modern era

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At the end of last week I came across a theory called the Gutenberg Parenthesis. This basically deals with the evolution of myths and legends in today’s world, when communities are structured very differently – i.e. over the internet, rather than based on geographical proximity. The theory was developed by Professor Thomas Pettitt, Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern Denmark, and the title of it is actually a bit misleading. Gutenberg was the man who developed movable type printing and started the printing revolution in Europe (c. 1440), introducing a culture of written knowledge. Prior to that, knowledge and stories were generally shared through oral tradition. After Gutenberg there was a five hundred year break (or ‘parenthesis’) and now, so Pettitt posits, oral tradition is back.

Sort of.

When there were no books, how did people sort out the truth? How did they decide what they would rely on and what they wouldn’t rely on? It’s a new world to find your way around. But that new world is in some ways an old world. It’s the world from before print.   ~ Professor Thomas Pettitt

Pettitt draws a distinction between written knowledge and online chat, calling the latter ‘secondary orality’ which seems to work in a very similar way to oral tradition. He says that this developed, at least in part, because people stopped trusting the truth of the printed word. As newspapers became less reliable, secondary orality stepped in to fill the gaps in shared knowledge. The raptor pointed out that this makes quite an assumption about causation, but it does seem to be the case that we’re coming back to a time of ‘orally’ developed and shared myths.

Found on a wall in the abandoned Cane Hill Asylum, Coulsdon, London

Found on a wall in the abandoned Cane Hill Asylum, Coulsdon, London

One of the strongest examples is the evolution of the Slender Man myth, which began as an internet meme in 2009 before taking on an apparent life of its own. The tall, thin, featureless character represents one of the prevalent concerns of the current time – the abduction or traumatising of children. The figure went viral, resulting in art, stories, videos, cosplay and even video games (not just Enderman in Minecraft – he got his own). Aleks Krotoski, a commentator for BBC Radio 4, called the Slender Man “the first great myth of the web”.

Incidentally, compare the appearance of the Slender Man to that of the Doctor Who bad guys, the Silence. First mention of the Silence was made on the programme in June 2010, and they didn’t come on-screen until early 2011. I can’t find any mention of Moffat linking the Silence with the Slender Man, but the similarity of appearance is very striking. A modern myth grown large enough to achieve screen-time?

Urban legends have been around for a long time. I’m not entirely sure, in fact, how Professor Pettitt distinguishes urban legends from ‘secondary orality’. The original distinguishing factor is that urban legends are held to be possibly true, whereas stories like the Slender Man are patently fiction. But does anyone really believe the urban legends? And, regardless of fact or fiction, don’t they disprove the basic idea of the Gutenberg Parenthesis – that oral tradition took a 500 year break? I’m not sure we ever really stopped talking to each other. We just changed how.

Nonetheless, it’s a very interesting theory. If you want to hear more from Professor Pettitt’s own mouth, you’re in luck. Click here for a four minute video of him outlining the theory. Then come back and tell me what you think.