This is a very short book. You’re either going to read it because you like Lee Child’s writing or are curious what the author of the most successful contemporary series of books about an archetypal hero has to say on this subject. If you know someone who likes Lee Child, this may be the perfect gift.
I like Lee Child’s writing a lot. He delivers great Jack Reacher books on schedule once a year and more often than not they are brilliant, and always they are exactly what you want and expect from these stories. I am not damning with faint praise here – he is a superb writer. I heard – or read – him say once that he took a great deal of care over his sentences, and was always delighted by ones he liked, but that success was writing that didn’t draw attention to itself.
I mention this because this book is a lovely example of his writing outside of the Reacher series. It’s an essay on the origins of fiction and of the idea of the hero. Both the prose and the structure are a joy to read – just like Child’s fiction they pull you in, carefully, steadily and keep you transfixed. Friends have told me they read Reacher books faster than any other and the reason is the writing – it’s hard to take your attention away. It’s almost as if you are afraid you will miss something. That’s good writing.
I read it in one sitting.
The essay takes you on a waltz through history and anthropology and evolutionary psychology without ever showing off or slowing down.
I loved it. You should buy it and read it too.
The last thing the world needs is another jeans brand. Isn’t it? With so many companies competing in so many different ways – price, name, heritage, exclusivity – you better have something pretty special to bring to the market…
When David Hieatt opened the proceedings at the Firestarters event at Google the other evening, he told us that a new jeans brand was exactly what he was building.
Another perspective on storytelling came from game designer Paul Bennun and sound designer and composer Nick Ryan, who collaborated most recently on the intriguing iPhone game, Papa Sangre. They set out to discuss the “special relationship between sound and storytelling”.
Papa Sangre, if you haven’t seen is set in a pitch black underworld and you have to rely on navigating by sound – apparently about one in ten people just can’t get their head around it, but those who love it.
For the technical-minded, Nick’s passion is for binaural recording, creating soundtracks which when listened to in headphones mimic how sound works in the real world (which is different to stereo – see Wikipedia for an explanation).
There were some really interesting discussions during the session, including ideas about creative an “navigational language of sound” for storytelling, which I’d like to hear more about.
One point which really struck me was when Nick reminded us just how hi-tech recorded sound was, how new it was – just a hundred years ago, as he put it, if you heard a sound you could be sure it was something happening nearby. Recorded sound allows us to separate time and location from the listening experience and
Nick also described a project for Macmillan publishers where he created an “audio enhanced” edition of a Ken Follett novel called Fall of Giants, which looks (sounds) really interesting – in the demo you hear sounds of the battlefield as the text is being read – I’d like to try that out.
* * Update: the audio for this talk is live at the Storythings blog * *
We’re not progressing through the day in chronological order, but now we have discussed the talk that was practically of use to me as a writer, let’s move on to the one which was both exciting but also so intellectually challenging I felt exhausted afterwards.
Adam Curtis is someone I previously knew mostly from The Power of Nightmares, a documentary that probed how fear and specifically terrorist threats are useful to those in power. After hearing him talk at The Story, I just want to hear more.
The caveat for these notes is that I may have at times missed the point, or got the wrong end of the stick, but here’s what I heard:
Can you use the web to tell stories?
- Adam began by saying that many at the BBC were beginning to doubt that the web was something you could use to tell stories effectively.
- He seemed to feel that we hadn’t reached a point where we understood the web well enough to talk about it, to tell stories about it and with it.
- The web manifests the emotional realism that defines our culture. Emotional realism is about thinking that what you feel about things is the most real, most important thing.
- The web is associative – you go where you like, where your fancy takes you. Narrative needs constraints, for you to be able to hold the attention of the person hearing the story.
- So far story-telling on the web has not lived up to initial hopes for its potential, it has been whimsical at best…
- It comes down to a fact that we have not come to terms with the power structures of our time and how they are manifest in the web (see below) – stories about these things give rise to great art, e.g. Tolstoy writing about the relationship between individuals and historical forces.
The web is useful for sharing long-form content, by-passing media formats we no longer trust
- Adam showed a video clip from a news piece of an Afghani BBC journalist interviewing a member of the Taliban, a soundbite about the arrival of British troops.
- He then gave us context – there were five Taliban who were all local farmers previously. The journalist was a metropolitan poet, who was new to the job, and both scared of the Taliban and feeling socially and intellectually superior to them. They’d not been interviewed before, he’d not interviewed many people in this situation before – the Taliban marched past the camera in a circle, changing the positions of their weapons each time, presumably to give the impression that there were many more of them.
- the longer, raw version of the video was played and it felt altogether more bathetic, scary, odd, almost funny at times. It reminded me of Four Lions, especially the marching Taliban and the awkward responses from the interviewee that wouldn’t have made the final news report.
- Emotional realism meant we valued this longer clip with all the disjointed human detail more than the news report. We, the journalists, everyone knew that the narrative from the politicians and the news organisations didn’t make sense. Why were we fighting there? It didn’t really add up. We all accept that its false and begin to look elsewhere for meaning.
- “The fact that it doesn’t make sense any more makes it feel more real.”
What history feels like as it happens
- Adam talked about a project he worked on with a theatre group called Punch Drunk. He made a film of spliced together TV, film and news clips trying to capture a sense of what it was like to live through some momentous events in the 1960s in the United States.
- When we are living through events, they don’t make sense, they are confusing and disconnected – he said the films were emotional realism, representing the emotional experience of the 60s. I can’t find the exact piece of film he showed, but this is part of the same piece of work.
Follow the power
- Adam railed against cyber-utopians – who doesn’t? – presenting the web as a free space, separate from the hierarchies and constraints of the “real world”.
- The web is in fact “plugged in – literally – to the power hierarchy of the real world”.
- If you understand how modern power flows through the web and shapes your experience of it, your emotions, then you are seeing it as it really is…
- There’s no innocence or freedom online, the web is a cultural expression of our age of emotional realism.
- Adam talked about Soviet Realist art, which looked nice to people at the time, but now we understand and see as representing the brutality of that power hierarchy in Soviet Russia. Some day, perhaps people will look at our online world and see it in a similar way, as “a cultural expression of the dominant power structures of our time” (perhaps about the tyranny of individualism, self-obsession, greed prevalent in our culture).
Image: Little did they know they would be seen as artistic expressions of the regime’s brutality…
Adam was making lots of different points, related to one another, but it was hard to follow a central argument through his talk (not that it was any less thrilling for that). But he seemed to draw some of the strands of thought together in his conclusion, which went roughly like this:
- The strength of the idea that we can’t make sense of the world is one that suits those in power.
- There is a power framework around the web which shapes it.
- If we can develop a framework, articulate it and talk about it – a big theory – then we can move on from the light, whimsical storytelling that we’ve seen so far on the web.
- Stories are complicated – we shouldn’t shy away from trying to tell this one…
: : If you are interested in ideas about how power works, I think that Dan McQuillan is a good person to follow, read more of – he discusses the idea of power literacy and how important that is in affecting change in society. Dan – shout if I’m wrong on that…
: : To read more about Adam Curtis’s thinking and work, his BBC blog Adam Curtis_The Medium and the Message is the best place to start…
* * Update: Audio for this talk is now available free at Storythings * *
Image: by Paolabililty ©2011 (as Cory Tweeted: “t
The Story 2011 was exactly like the inaugural event a year ago. It was like the day just continued from where it left off – and for anyone who had been before, that was exactly what they wanted.
The Story is the brainchild of art, TV and tech Renaissance man, Matt Locke. He curates it unashamedly as “the conference I want to attend”, and it brings together a collection of storytellers from every medium and persuasion, from scientists to sculptors, live action role players to documentary makers.
For 2011, let’s start near the end… with the conversation between Graham Linehan, who wrote two of my favourite TV shows Father Ted and The IT Crowd, and Cory Doctorow, spec-fic author and co-editor of one the most popular blogs in the world.
In geeky circles, this was such an exciting pairing, I’m surprised there wasn’t some kind of Twitter singularity…
Star power aside, there were some brilliant insights into the writing methods of two very different writers.
Graham Linehan’s Method for Writing Sit-Coms
Graham starts from the producer of Father Ted’s maxim, that every sit-com episode needs two or three memorable set-pieces, e.g. Dougal on a Milk Float in a spoof of Speed…
- He spends six months of constructive procrastination – he calls it “systematised goofing off” gathering ideas while mainly surfing the web.
- Everytime he gets an inspiration it goes on a card. Cards are colour coded by characters.
- An example would be a YouTube video he saw of a child crawling into an amusement arcade machine where a claw grabs the prizes – that became a set-piece in The IT Crowd where Moss dives into one after an iPhone…
- When he has about 100 cards, it is time to begin…
- The cards are laid out on the floor and he begins to string set pieces into episodes, about ten per episode (presumably they get thinned out).
- Once he has the stack of set pieces per episode he has ” a good place to start”
Graham Linehan on collaborative writing online
Graham was clear that crowdsourcing and writing didn’t mix well, or at least they didn’t sit easily with him. He mentioned issues around taking advantage of people, reward, keeping conversation on topic and the risk that people feeling that their ideas had been “stolen”.
Incidentally, his prize bit of advice for writers starting out was not to be so worried about people taking their ideas – it is them themselves that will be what is valued by producers etc. That’s great advice for all sorts of creators – ideas are cheap, it is who carries them through and how they do it that makes all the difference.
There’s no tool that makes this easy, says Graham, having spent a fair bit of his “systematised goofing off” trying anything suitable out. So he uses Basecamp. He’s also thinking about experimenting with Beluga, which allows Twitter-like conversations in smaller groups.
He and about eight writers collaborated on the last season of The IT Crowd, using all sorts of things to spark off ideas, such as posting photos from awkwardfamilypetphotos.com and asking: How would Roy and Moss find themselves in this situation?
Cory Doctorow on blogging and writing
Whether he meant it this way or not, Cory’s approach to blogging was lovely, and I know I will be referring others to it as a useful approach to the format/platform in future:
- Blog about why something is interesting in five sentences.
- By doing that you are creating a searchable database.
- If it is interesting, people will annotate it with comments.
- After a while, there are enough posts and emerging themes that the case for a long-form piece of writing becomes clear.
: : Graham talked about the episode of The IT Crowd with the courtroom drama. In that there is a joke about malapropisms – one character talks about “a damp squid” while another talks about putting women on a pedal-stool. Maybe he was being slyly self-referential referential then when he was talking about “hyper-bowl“? Regardless, it tickled me. “We all have our blind spots, Jen…” (BTW – this how to pronounce “hyperbole” video is hilarious in itself (and yes, I appreciate I am writing an invitation to pedants to pick over my pronunciation, grammar etc, but that’s life on the web…).
: : Aside: Mostly these days I will take notes into an Outliner app on phone or Mac, or straight into Curio, but something about The Story made me want to take analogue, ink-based notes, so I grabbed notebook on my way out. When I opened it I realised it was the same one I used to take notes at The Story 2010. If I get the time (unlikely) I may even go back and put soem of those onto my blog as well.
This is a post about three lovely things that are all about using technology to help tell stories in new ways.
In private alpha development at the moment, Storify looks like a wonderful way of tying together different bits of your and other people’s content on the web (photos, Tweets, videos) to tell a story, and package it up. Its classic curating behaviour, but in a really simple package – I really hope i get to try it out soon.
The example they use in the video is telling the story of a conference, which it would seem to be a perfect solution for, but I imagine using it also to tell the story of big projects. For instance, at last year’s The Story conference, Aleks Krotoski told the story of the making of The Virtual Revolution BBC TV series, by stitching together Tweets, photos and videos that she had made during the process.
I always fancied doing that for the story of writing Me and My Web Shadow, but I’ve not got round to it. I guess Storify is the sort of tool that would make a similar process even easier.
Keeping stories about projects and experiences would be a lot better for organisations than dull, dry reports. They would get read and remembered more than traditional documents, I reckon.
via Adam Tinworth (who also has a video interview with the Storify guys on his blog).
Facebook hardback book by Bouygues Télécom/DDB Paris
A French Telecom’s agency, DDB Paris, created hardback Facebook books for a small number of people, taking content (I think with their permission) from specific instances and connections and curating them.
It’s a lovely idea, and one which maybe Facebook or a partner should automate. Imagine creating a book about your online conversations during a wedding, or just a yearbook about you and your closest friends. Echoes of the lifestreaming sell that new social network Path is trying to push, perhaps…
These kinds of ideas and applications all indicate a growing sophistication in the way people are thinking about their personal social networks and the data they are creating about them online. It is about more than communication in the now, it is about creating a record of parts of our lives and thinking about how to make the best of that…
Via Creative Review.
Cinemek storyboard composer for the iPhone
Last of the three is Cinemek, which is an iPhone app for creating storyboards. You add your pictures, and can then start turning them into a storyboard, to plan a film, animation or any interactive media experience.
There are some demoes on Cinemek’s Vimeo page, but this one brings it to life for me, as someone storyboards a movie sequence for a suspense thriller on the fly, using a model and inserting cutouts to represent other characters – really cool…
Pricier than many apps at £11.99 on the apps store it still seems incredible value for this kind of tool…
Via Ewan McIntosh
As someone who has played with and in and designed transmedia games and stories (the same thing, really) for a good long while, Dan’s got a great perspective on this whole area. He makes a plea for playfulness, putting his finger on some disquiet I had watching Seth’s presentation, that the “gaming layer” thesis could be seen as being about little more than the cynical manipulation of the masses (cue the pricking up of old-school marketer ears.
There’s something sordid and resistance-worthy about the idea of “gameification” as the latest quick-fix way to drive sales, change behaviours, fuel greed.
You can create a compulsive game that people are driven to return to, says Dan, but if it is joyless and cynical and pointless they will start to resent it. Watch the whole video for the delicious slide showing a discontented Farmville player’s protest at their addiction (I’d love to show it here, but it would definitely be stealing the wind from his sails).
I’d like to hear Dan go further on this topic, I suspect he has a lot more to say, but for now he leaves us with a plea to keep the fun in games, the playfulness.
Being an optimist, I’m hoping that people will quickly evolve their awareness of game mechanics as a ploy to manipulate them and zone them out just as they filter out and ignore interruptive advertising.
: : Nota bene: I *know* I used a lot of quotation marks in this post: yes, they were stylistic tongs for holding words and phrases I’m not comfortable with, but also to indicate that that they are still unfamiliar. they may turn out to be really useful, you never know. I probably felt the same way about “social media” once…