Markets and Money

Yesterday I spent an hour or so flicking through as many different YouTube channels as I could, trying to see as many different topics. There is such a large diversity that I found it difficult to believe, but as I thought about it, it’s not surprising that such obscure subjects can attract hundreds of thousands of viewers. This idea is something that writers can easily use to their advantage.

How many people read in the English and buy a book reasonably often, worldwide? A safe and low guess for me is around a hundred million in the Internet, and as a writer working on the internet, we can have access to all of them. Assume you have written a book that 0.1% of people will love, that seems like a vanishingly small amount, but with numbers outlined above, that’s a potential market of 100,000, which if promoted properly can certainly provide a writer with a decent living. I suppose that this is all to say, in the world of the internet, even the most obscure genres have a chance to get a decent number of readers.

To some bad news. For anyone with an interest in music history, the following will be common knowledge. A well-supported reason for the guitar becoming the dominant single musician’s instrument over the piano, is the ease of transporting a guitar and that it made things less complicated and expensive to tour. The reason big bands vanished and smaller ones became the norm, is that it was easier for small bands to make money for each individual member, as they were only sharing between three or four rather than twenty or more. To me, writing is in much the same place as the less efficient ways of playing music now, to put it simply, it is now easier to make a decent video that will entertain for half an hour than to write a decent short story that will do the same.

Additionally, viewers are accustomed to having adverts in their videos, but they are not accustomed to the same with a novel or short story. Combined with a distaste online for paying for a product, it’s a problem for writers. This means that making videos presents more avenues for funding than writing, unless the writer is innovative about these things. It seems to be a potential problem for any writers who seek to make writing their job. It’s the biggest question in writing now, how do writers make their money? I don’t have the answers for this, though I’ve a few ideas I can try. I’ll share any successful ideas and would implore other writers to do the same.

Popular Novels

I finished reading Harry Potter today and it was a reasonably enjoyable read. I like to read stories which I’m not interested in if they are popular, to discover any reasons that the book might be popular. I’m aware that a book’s popularity may simply be chance but it’s better to be open about the possibilities. In this case, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has a number of good qualities.
It is simple to read, simple enough for children six years old and up, depending on the child’s reading level, and the characters are also quite simple. Each character is quite distinct, almost clichéd in their level of good or bad, rich or poor, nervous or brave. They have certain traits which make them easy to distinguish, from Hagrid’s speech to Snape’s perpetual gloom to Hermione’s bookworm persona, and this does make reading more enjoyable. These simple characters are both a reason that the novel is not going to be known as a literary classic and why it is going to be a popular fan favourite.

It’s also notable that the novel avoids anything that could offend. I’m aware that people may say Harry Potter is a children’s book and shouldn’t contain controversial things, but culturally, Harry Potter is not a children’s book, it is a children’s book that is read by just as many adults. To me it is fine to assess it like any other book. With this in mind, there’s no real violence, nothing about romantic relationships and the people who are within the story may be horrible people but they are not evil, they aren’t Patrick Bateman, they are unpleasant.

The plot is well-worn but solidly constructed. Outsider taking the reader into a new world. Downtrodden person who is destined for greatness and overcomes the bigotry of those in better positions. There are sufficient ups and downs to maintain tension. The plot is surprisingly tight, with everything that seems to be a side plot finally coming together in the end, each being necessary to resolve the problem of the philosopher’s stone. The novel maintains the sense of increasing wonder as we further explore the world of Hogwarts and though I wouldn’t normally pick up a book like Harry Potter and didn’t as a child, it was an enjoyable read.

Harry Potter’s the first of these smash-hit novels that I’ve tried which has genuinely good aspects to it. To me, it’s in a different place to novels like Twilight or Fifty Shades, which relied heavily on their subject matter and had many technical problems with the writing. It is interesting, simple and well-written. Harry Potter is the kind of book which should be popular.

Unrealism: Character Consistency (Game of Thrones Spoiler)

When a character does something that contradicts their previously established beliefs or actions, we often hear that this is a character inconsistency and is an example of bad writing. While there is some truth to this, is it really the case that humans behave in accordance with their beliefs at all times? Is the inconsistency not actually proof that these characters are human, rather than idealised creations representing whatever virtue or vice the writer desires? This isn’t always the case, writers sometimes do write bad and contradictory characters without awareness, but I do think we over-generalise the principle.

The strangest part about this is that writing a character that is too consistent is probably the greater issue. A villain who is simply all bad and has absolutely no good characteristics may be good within certain narratives, but that villain cannot be interesting on an emotional level to the audience, they must simply be a device to impart fear or other emotions, perhaps themes. The internal life of such a character is likely to be rather dull, with very little decision-making.

With this idea in mind, I usually think of inconsistency differently to most. Any interesting or strange character should have what appear as inconsistencies, and indeed, a complex plot may require these inconsistencies or may use them as a focal point for the novel. For instance, why does Ned Stark from GOT decide to betray his belief in honesty being the best policy when it comes to Jon Snow and his parentage? This appears to be an inconsistency, until we realise that Ned has other values alongside honour, loyalty to his family being foremost, and when this conflicts with notions of honour he will often side with his family.

I understand that people will say that Ned is not an inconsistent character once every we understand the conflicts within him and I agree. The major point I am attempting to make is that we should not make swift judgements about a character behaving inconsistently as we may find later that these inconsistencies make sense, or we may never have it explained and have to guess at the motivations of certain characters. To me, this is a legitimate way of writing a story that an intelligent writer can use, and I think it would be a large shame to have the latter technique crushed under standard writing advice, demanding that a character’s every action be clearly explained by their beliefs. We should remain open to the possibility of not quite understanding characters, as both readers and writers.

Unrealism: Violence

This is a strange topic but I think it needs discussing. The most common criticisms of art today use realism, in my opinion, and despite this our fiction is utterly unrealistic in almost every aspect. I’m rather tired of this hypocrisy, seeing people disregard certain artworks because they judge them unrealistic whilst accepting other artworks which are as bad or worse. I think it’s a good idea to outline some of the most common problems I notice.

Violence is the worst culprit. Everyone probably knows that something like John Wick is unrealistic, but do they know how unrealistic most fights in films and stories are in general. Humans are not as robust as most people imagine and a clean punch from a reasonably strong man will be enough to seriously concuss most people and knock a decent number out. Hitting the back of someone’s head against a hard object once will knock out just about anybody and when we see these fights in films, where for a good few minutes two men take turns throwing heavy hooks at each other and hitting their chins, anyone who has seen fights or fought should now how ridiculous such a spectacle is. The ‘realistic’ and ‘gritty’ fight between Brienne and the Hound in GOT is a bad offender here, with Brienne hitting the Hound in the face with a rock to virtually no effect, such a fight is actually ridiculous and comical. Fights usually last seconds, with one side gaining a small advantage and using it to devastating effect.

My personal hatred is the speed of recovery from violence. I’ve have been beaten unconscious at one time during my life and had a few concussions whilst playing rugby, and to see the behaviour of those in films after such injuries is ridiculous. I can recall watching an episode of Supernatural where Dean is knocked out for a few minutes and returns to the action, fully functional, to help win the fight. I understand that many people will have no experience of such an event and I suppose I should relate how bad such a representation is.

If you have been knocked out for minutes and wake, there are a few things that are likely. You won’t remember being knocked out, probably, and you won’t remember a period of time before being knocked out, ranging from minutes to days. You probably won’t know where you are or how you got there and you will be extremely confused. You will not be able to balance, and your whole body will feel disconnected from your mind, it will take you a good number of minutes to understand what happened and you will need to have this explained to you by someone else. If someone is still attacking you during this time period, you will be as defenceless as someone who is extremely drunk, with sluggish reactions. You may, as MMA fighter Michael Bisping once explained, spend the next day experiencing short term memory loss, getting into a shower and forgetting the time between the knockout and showering, and have to have everything explained to you again.

What you are unlikely to do, is to get up and keep fighting. It may happen but you will be terrible at it and probably get knocked out again, to worse consequences, but there is another side to this, and that’s people who seem to be unconscious for half an hour, people who are beaten and then stored in a cupboard or some such.

I’m not some street thug, constantly fighting, but due to the sports I’ve been involved in and watch I’ve seen a large number of unconscious people. To be frank, I’ve never seen anyone go unconscious for more than five minutes and if I did see that, I would assume the person was dead or in a coma. By and large unconsciousness lasts for minutes and usually less, this unrealistic time period of seemingly hours in much fiction is as bad as the misunderstanding of unconsciousness in general. Much of this stuff needs to be removed from fiction and I’m happy to point it out where I can. I’ll probably talk about this more, in other areas where I’ve some knowledge.

Strange Bedfellows: Dune and Harry Potter

Trying to notice similarities between Harry Potter and Dune is quite difficult. There are some obvious similarities, such as Harry and Paul being from powerful families and regarded as boys who will grow to be important men, but this is a very common narrative for fiction, particularly fiction that’s based on adventure narratives. The primary similarity seems to be the large investment in world building, with a focus on a different reality to our own, but this similarity also demonstrates a large difference.

Harry Potter follows urban fantasy with its world, focusing on finding a strange and magical reality behind our normal world. For instance, the bank run by goblins, which is located on London’s high street and is accessed by pressing the correct brick on a bar’s wall. This’s interesting for fairly obvious reasons, what is not interesting about hidden realities and secret societies hidden within normalcy, what’s not interesting about the idea of your local hairdressers containing a wizard’s guild with thousands of years of tradition?

Dune’s world is completely alien to the reader. There are some parallels with our reality such as the use of terms Duke etc., and we can assume that we’ve a shared history with Dune’s world. We are also not dealing with a newcomer like Harry Potter, and while Paul is a newcomer to the new world his family will govern, he has lived in that overarching empire his entire life and has some understanding of its ways. This means that Herbert has to approach things differently to Rowling. There are simply a bunch of options that cannot be explored, such as using Hagrid to explain the way Hogwarts works.

I don’t know how others refer to a character such as this, but there are characters which are used for exposition in both stories. Paul has a number of advisors who give him additional information about his new planet, and while this is not as extensive as the otherworldly tour Harry is given, it does provide some knowledge. While this approach to exposition is generally criticised, I do think it’s primarily down to reader preference as to much a reader can endure. For instance, one of the criticisms I’ve seen of Dune is that it moves too swiftly into the narrative. I don’t agree with this, but I can see why someone would think it.

A common piece of advice is to weave the world building into the narrative, and this is a primary reason that main characters in books are often newcomers to town or the locale of the book. It means that the reader can discover things about the new world as the character does, can see new places and have them described in terms the reader would understand, terms that someone unfamiliar with the world would use. The idea can be more generalised, such as describing a room as a character moves around it, rather than describing it in one chunk when the character enters. Of course, this needs to be used wisely, some narratives require an information dump. Imagine trying to watch the Matrix without Morpheus’ speeches for an obvious example.

Another common features of novels is using multiple perspectives, which also allows more world building, alongside other narrative benefits. Rowling doesn’t utilise this but Herbert does, with a major antagonist having the second chapter in the novel, and the novel frequently switching into different character’s minds. This helps because it can show parts of the world where the main character wouldn’t ordinarily go, and in my opinion, novels that truly seek to construct large worlds have to utilise many perspectives, as one is simply too small to encompass an entire world. This’s even more true when the novel not only concerns a world but a universe, as Dune does.

There are universal tools that can be used to build world’s within stories and both novels use these. I think the numbers of these tools is probably limitless, but for most novels, only a few need to be used. It is more about the application of these tools, and that’s something I’ll seek in the next chapters of these novels. The next blog will probably be examples of the authors using these tools and trying to decipher why they are effective or not.