Please welcome David Baboulene, author of The Story Book, to HearWriteNow. Over the past few days David and I have enjoyed a very interesting email conversation about some points that his book raised for me. We’ve now formalised our discussion, and we’d both be delighted if you’d comment and share your perspective on any of the issues here, or ask any questions you may have.
Elle: Some stories, and propaganda in particular, have been used to shape the opinions and cultural identity of one group at the expense of another, or, vice versa, to teach one group to accept their (inferior) “place” in the societal hierarchy. Do you think it is possible to write new stories to readdress these ideas, and eventually replace the old subtext, or would society as a whole first have to reach awareness and rejection of old stories?
David: The short answer is yes, absolutely, new stories can and do engender new behaviours, values and social dynamics (not simply reflect them) and no, society doesn’t have to reject the old stories first. It’s a natural and ongoing evolution, and it’s pulled forwards into the future by writers.
Most people think stories reflect our society, but they do a much, much greater job in driving our society. If you envisage the story teller as the teacher, who has been through a learning experience and wishes to communicate it, and the reader as the pupil, learning a life lesson from the protagonist’s experience, the opportunity is there for the author to have a profound effect on the readers’ understanding of life and his or her subsequent behaviours. And the most common and significant of the moral messages and metaphors that are important to society are repeated many times and in many stories and in many guises, so they become reinforced throughout our lives. That is why stories are always about human values – safety, family, friendship, economic security, a sense of belonging, status, sex and relationships, societal success and so on.
Stories are the most powerful tool of teaching and learning, because we learn both emotionally and analytically at the same time when we absorb a story. Our brains work in story structures and story processes, so a well told story can deliver experiential messages we think we thought for ourselves. This is extremely powerful – that is why all religions are delivered in story form (and thereby align communities in values and behaviours), and why the pen is mightier than the sword!
Elle: To me, this really hits home the importance for an author to take great responsibility for her or his writing. So many messages could be passed on inadvertently simply due to the author having certain opinions and beliefs. As I mentioned, my current project involves offering alternative fairytales to a group of parents who are appalled at the subtext of the Brothers Grimm and Disney versions. But I have to be certain that my “agenda” here is something I’ve looked at critically and objectively and taken responsibility for. It’s not a decision to be made lightly.
Thanks to Grimm and Disney, the concept of a character successfully completing certain expected behaviours and being “rewarded with a princess” (in fairytales and adventure stories), or “the man of her dreams” in romance novels and chick-lit, seems to be very entrenched in our society. Do you think this makes it difficult to sell stories that don’t follow this “rule”, or even actively try to break this rule?
David: This is a great question. The stories that resonate most powerfully with a reader/viewer are the ones that address the conflicts in the mind of the individual at that time. That is why a children’s story can leave a child breathless and yet bore the adult reading it, and a vampire romance that has the teens swooning leaves the parents rolling their eyes. That is also why stories that are ‘of a time’ often fail to grip when the society generally no longer has any dilemma with the core conflicts being addressed.
Cowboy movies are about the basic safety and security of a town and community. We no longer fear on a daily basis that our towns and villages will be taken over by bandits, so these stories tend not to engage and have all but disappeared. In the 1940s and 50s it was all war movies, of course, as these stories resonated with the generation who were trying to contend with these issues. In the 60s and 70s it was all about love stories, coupling up and a sense of belonging in groups and couples; often resolving with the happy couple off down the aisle to live happily ever after. Marriage is no longer the pinnacle of relationship achievement for the modern generation (indeed, it is generally seen as the beginning of a conflict rather than the end these days!) so Love Story doesn’t chime like it did. Today’s generation are obsessed with personal status, recognition, prestige and 15 minutes of fame. Star Wars was the first story to resolve on this new dynamic: Luke Skywalker didn’t get the princess (shock horror) – he paraded gloriously before his cheering and admiring peers and received status, recognition and prestige as a Jedi Knight. This dynamic heralds a new world. In recent stories, such as Harry Potter, he doesn’t get the girl either – he ends his stories parading gloriously through Hogwarts Banqueting Hall receiving the recognition and adulation of his peers.
You can see that today’s writers aren’t satisfied by having a hero win a Barbie princess, or a heroine define herself by finding the man of her dreams. Plotlines are often about the battle of the sexes, but they tend increasingly to resolve through active demonstration of mutual earned respect. This said, we have a long way to go before women are represented appropriately.
There will ALWAYS be a place for the romantic plot or sub-plot as we (humanity) are always driven, to a greater or lesser extent, by our genes, sex and procreation, so it will be interesting to watch the changes in the way these plotlines resolve in order to drive a society that represents and respects both sexes appropriately. When you think that for 99% of human evolution we have been foraging hunter/gatherers, with deeply entrenched innate drives towards hunting ‘provider’ men and child-rearing ‘dependent’ women, it’s remarkable how quickly things are balancing up, but there is some way to go before both men and women stop re-enforcing the stereotypes and advance gender equality.
And yes, writers have a simply enormous role to play this transition, through expertly positioning stories that take people from where they are (in mindset terms) to where they could be once they understand their own potential and opportunities.
As an aside, where do you think story resolutions will go next as we tire of the MeFamous generation? Well, once people have fame and fortune, they tend to realize how fickle and unsatisfying it is and commonly define themselves in their post-selfish phase by charitable work and selfless giving. Where the 80s and 90s have been defined by individual’s visibly gaining personal wealth, status and prestige, I predict that the next generation of stories will see success defined through giving of oneself to those less well off. Perhaps the success of The King’s Speech – a surprise to many – is due in part to the resonance of the actions of the therapist in going above and beyond the call of his own duty to help another? I think this is a sign of things to come…
Elle: I’m definitely looking forward to the end of the two-second-celebrity. I hope your prediction does come true.
Moving on to writing skills and subtext as a vital writing technique, I’ve seen with some of my critique clients that writers can sometimes struggle with releasing control of their story. They try to specify exactly how the reader should interpret and experience the story. To my mind this type of tight control over a story leaves very little room for subtext to form. How would you encourage such a writer to allow knowledge gaps into the story? Is it sufficient to have knowledge gaps between two characters, but few or none between author and reader?
David: The way to keep tight control and yet still tell the story with a depth of subtext is through ensuring that the key knowledge gaps will be interpreted by the vast majority of readers/audience in precisely the same way. So, for example, if you hear the expression, ‘The cheque is in the post’, we all get the same understanding delivered in the subtext. A debtor is fobbing off a creditor with an excuse as to why his money hasn’t arrived and yet keeping him sweet by pretending that his money is imminent. We can paint much more complex subtextual stories, and still be confident that the entire audience will ‘get it’ in the same way.
More esoteric subtext, that could be interpreted in multiple ways, leaves different people gaining different things from the same story. That is why Shakespeare is endlessly studied and interpreted in high places as people argue over the subtextual meanings in his amazing use of English. That is why great poetry is subject to endless academic analysis for the truth of the underlying meaning – because it carries the most subtext, but also the least clarity of commonly received understanding.
The best authors give us the greatest depth, persistence and quantity of subtext through the knowledge gaps they embed in their work. This give us the most subtext to interpret – it’s what we love to do. THAT is great writing in a nutshell. If you want to be definite in the uniform understanding the readership receives, you must still deliver your story in subtext, but choose your words carefully in order that everyone interprets your prose the same way.
Elle: I enjoy playing with ambiguity, so this gives me a lot of food for thought. But for writers who worry that they will be misinterpreted, word choice is vital.
In the Introduction to The Story Book you have an analogy of authors as gold miners, where the author who most attracts the publisher’s attention is the one holding up a finely crafted and polished necklace (amongst a group holding buckets of gold nuggets). Self-publishing authors have mostly received a lukewarm reception from traditional publishers thus far. Do you think this situation is changing? Does a self-published book have to come complete with sales and proven readership to constitute a “polished necklace”, as opposed to a manuscript that stands out as the “polished necklace” on its own?
David: Traditional publishers generally shy away from a self-published book that has already sold some modest but significant numbers. For most new authors, a publisher is looking to sell around 1000 books to be sure that they are going to make a profit and if you’ve sold 800 by yourself, they will see that as punching a huge hole in their possibility of making their money back. 1000 books doesn’t sound so much, but I promise you now, 99% of self-published authors have 900 unsold books under the bed and all their friends know what they are getting for Christmas…
More importantly, there are two different issues in play here: a) the creative brilliance of the story and b) the sales and marketing brilliance of the people behind it. A self published work that is brilliantly marketed has as much chance as any published work that is brilliantly marketed. The difference is that the traditional publishers tend to own the relationships and the channels that take a book to market and they put expert resources and money into the marketing effort.
This said, the brave new world brought to us by the internet has changed everything. The judgment of a book’s quality appears to be much more firmly in the hands of The People now, via blogs and review sites, online word-of-mouth, social media, and so on. In theory, this means that the avenues to market are available to everyone (i.e., we can all publish our work on Kindle without having to negotiate the filter of agents and publishers) and the quality of a work is decided by the thoughts and ratings of ordinary human reviewers. This means that the numbers of new authors and published works has suddenly become ludicrous as there is no professional filter, but on the other hand, this puts the judgment of a book’s quality where it should be – with readers – and the cream will rise to the top on the basis of review.
However, I can’t believe that the situation will remain as it is. Amanda Hocking may or may not be a great writer – I honestly don’t know – but she was certainly a self-confessed Twitter and Social Media addict in precisely the right place at precisely the right time to show us all where the new opportunities lie. Sad to say, books have always mostly been a bi-product of celebrity (which is why David Beckham and Katie Price are best-selling authors) and if the people power that comes with the internet shifts the focus on to the quality of the stories, I would welcome it whole-heartedly. Sadly, I don’t think that will be the case in the long term. The internet and new routes to potential buyers do a lot more to change the nature of (and opportunities for) celebrity than it does for the quality of writing (which will naturally go downhill through the massively increased number of publications). The main positive change I can see happening already is that there will be a huge increase in the numbers of shorter works. There has never been much option for a work of 10,000 to, say, 40,000 words. Ebooks mean there now is, and I believe there is a lot to be made of this new form.
The publishers have deliberately clung on to the old world – having watched the music and film industries lose a huge chunk of their revenue, they now see embracing the e-world as turkeys voting for Christmas – but soon enough they will be forced into the game, and I think we have a lot more changes still to come. My advice to aspiring writers? Unless you can use your celebrity to leverage book sales, all you can control is the quality of your story, so work hard to make it the best it can possibly be.
Lastly, I would like to thank Elsa for the opportunity to be involved in these fascinating conversations. I hope we can do it again sometime soon! I do hope you have enjoyed our conversations and do please get in touch if you would like me to send you a chapter from The Story Book addressing any specific story area that is puzzling you.
Elle: Thank you, David, for putting so much time into responding to all my questions. I have really enjoyed discussing these topics and I’m ploughing through the rest of The Story Book. I’ll update my review when I finish it, but I can already highly recommend it.
Visit David’s website if you would like to contact him about anything specific and receive a chapter of The Story Book. David will be visiting Blood-Red Pencil on 7 April, so mark your diaries for that one. You can also follow David’s virtual book tour here.
I know this has been a long read, but please stay a bit longer and leave a comment or question for David. Thank you.