The Visionary Fiction Revolution – And How Words Can Change the World, Part 1 – Guest post by Rory Mackay

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

The 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?

RoryHave 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.

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 why we’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?

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Author Bio

Rory Mackay thumbnailA natural born writer, thinker and dreamer, Rory Mackay was born and lives in Scotland. As an ardent student of Vedanta, Zen and Taoism, one of Rory’s true passions is exploring the potential of fiction and art to elevate mood and expand consciousness. His second novel, The Key of Alanar, a visionary fantasy/sci-fi epic will be published September 14, 2015. He is also the author of the novel Eladria, a translation and commentary of the Tao Te Ching, and several short stories. He is in the process of writing a self-help book and writes a regular blog at http://beyondthedream.co.uk. His website is http://www.dreamlight-fugitive.co.uk.

 

 

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18 Responses to The Visionary Fiction Revolution – And How Words Can Change the World, Part 1 – Guest post by Rory Mackay

  1. Bob Edward Fahey says:

    This fellow thinks as I do, and I wish I could agree with all parts of this. And yet when one truly does step out of the pack, reach for new layers of creativity, of character depth and richness; when he opens a brand new genre; s/he must often create his own readership. Think Poe ; think Cervantes; think – well – me.
    Take a peek at a few pages of contest winners these days and you find writing that is relatively safe. Look at back cover descriptions and you often find very simple re-configuring of same ol' same ol' plot elements. As my partner told me the other day, the average reader doesn't want to be challenged. James Patterson can have other people write his books for him, for Pete's sake. Dean Koontz can change very few elements and whip out a "new" book and it will sell. I had a discussion moderator disagree with me on an internet writers' group the other day because he insisted reviews were only for the readers; that there was nothing for writers to learn in any on-going effort to constantly develop and refine his art.
    My books are never one like the other. I must shock myself at twists all through the story or I will not offer it to another. For me, writing is creative exploration and I can never know where we're going next.
    I don't believe this is so for most writers however, and most readers seem to support them in this shortfall of impassioned originality.
    Oh, How I wish this wasn't so.
    I thrill to what Mr. Mackay has to say here, and am doing my best to follow his highest ideals.
    Let us hope.

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    • Hi Bob. I wonder if you've read the following books by Dean Koontz: One Door Away From Heaven, The Face, Watchers, Odd Thomas, and Innocence. I admit, I haven't read all of his work, but these books alone are proof that he doesn't just change a few elements and "whip out" work that is guaranteed to sell. He is known to rewrite some of his pages as many as 40 times before he is satisfied with them, and the only sameness I've noticed about the novels I mention above may be the philosophy behind them, which is what characterizes them as "visionary."

      I believe the reason authors like Dean Koontz, Steven King, and, yes, Paulo Coelho are best-selling authors is that they've been able to "step out of the pack," yes, break away from the millions of other authors "whipping out" new books, and write novels that touch and satisfy readers deeply, which is the only real guarantee for future sales.

      As Rory said in today's post, "…stories have the power to shape our culture, society and our views, beliefs and our very experience of reality.The greatest writers do not write to entertain the world. They write to change the world. And the very best of them actually do." Dean Koontz is one of the very best of them, and THAT explains why he is a success.

      I offer the following words from Koontz himself in response to a post I wrote about his work on VFA: "You got to the heart of what I try to give readers when you mentioned hope and healing, and spoke of seeking to 'help readers see the world in a new light and recognize dimensions of reality they commonly ignore.'”

      If your books and mine ever reach above and beyond the millions of others out there, I hope it is not only as a result of our talent and hard work, but because we touch people's lives. Again, a quote from Rory: "…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."

      Exactly what we visionary fiction writers are attempting to do.

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    • I agree Bob, that there is a lack of innovation in what we might term commercial or mainstream publishing, but as Theresa has pointed out below, that is different from a story of the visionary type.

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    • amoyaan says:

      Glad the post resonates Bob! 🙂 Keep pioneering!

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  2. Bob Edward Fahey says:

    Another downside of this has been that I won't spend any appreciable time with a book unless I can read a few pages first on the "Look Inside" feature. But then as I do so, if I find no real depth and eloquence to the characterization and story telling, I move on anyway. Raising one's standards as a writer tends to raise them in the demands he makes as a reader as well. This leaves me lonely for really great writing.

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  3. First off, massive amounts of electronically available information? Sounds like the Age of Aquarius has definitely landed.

    I agree. We are in the middle of a sea change in publishing. Right now, everybody thinks they can write, at least it seems that way to me, which is why I've taken to downloading samples first. So the downside is there's lots of stuff out there that's not really ready to be published.

    On the other hand, isn't it great to be free from the unconscious censorship of the university trained NYC editors and press? I say this as a Ph.D. in English who teaches in this system. These folks do share to some degree a worldview and they quite naturally select books that resonate with that worldview. I'm glad their world has been shaken up. There are some stories that need to be told that don't resonate with that world view.

    Plus, writers have more power now. We used to go through such contortions submitting to agents, editors, and publishers. I still see writers on lists suffering through it all. "This agent has my work and I haven't heard in umpteen months, and this other agent wants to see it. Should I send it? Should I email the first agent? I don't want to upset him/her. I don't want to seem pushy. I want them to think I'm easy to work with." Then I met a Canadian book distributor who'd made her millions on writers who got 10% if they were lucky on their books. So, hooray for indie publishing on that account, too.

    But I digress. Rory's talking about telling a story worth telling, a story that flows from a higher place and says, "You, write this down. Let's put this energy out there into the world." This is the heart of it all.

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  4. Bob Edward Fahey says:

    Well said and valid.

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  5. "The publishing industry is in the threshold of a transformation comparable to the advent of the Gutenberg print press over 500 years ago." I agree, and VF is one example of such a change. Joseph Campbell's monomyth, or the poetically phrased 'song of the universe', is an interesting idea. And VF is both an ancient and a new take on how to tell that one essential heroes journey, with its emphasis on a shift in consciousness for the reader.

    I really appreciate this post, Rory. I heard an author once say, "I listen for the story, then write it down." I like that method of storytelling!

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  6. tuilorraine says:

    There's no such thing as two identical people. Not even if they're identical twins, their natures are still individual. As long as your characters are carefully created individuals who are allowed to be themselves as they interact with other unique individuals, then your story will be CHARACTER driven, and that's what makes a story unique.

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  7. Beautifully written, Rory. Thank you!

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  8. Rory, thanks for this powerful article on the "purpose" of story. I will be eagerly awaiting the next part.

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  9. Excellent topic, cogent comments, some healthy controversy. So many juicy threads to pull on. Will limit myself to what seems to be the background music behind the statement: "This ‘democratization’ of publishing is in many ways a good thing but it does have many implications."

    Those of us who have experienced teaching writing to children know to celebrate the outburst of creativity represented by the 4,000 books published daily. I recall helping my 10-year-old step daughter "publish" her first book about dogs, her passion. She wrote it, illustrated it, and published it on folded 8.5×11 sheets saddle-stitched. Yes, it was crude, had smears, etc. But it was uniquely and perfectly hers and damn any elitist who came along and criticized it.

    Because I know the effort and focus it takes to write any book, even a very bad one, I am reticent to criticize anyone's offering. Marketing and making a living at it still has to be sorted out in the electronic age, but that's a different subject. So is quality, which I am the first to endorse for the writing professional. But every writer should remember s/his roots: sitting at a kitchen table, tongue sticking out, fat pencil in hand, eraser shards all over the place. Every human being has a story and each has the right (need?) to tell it in their own way and share it with to whomever they wish. If that's what the democratization of publishing means, I'm for a lot more of it.

    Looking forward to Part 2, Rory. Thanks.

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  10. Well done, Rory. Much to think about.

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