long reads

In praise of Creatavist

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Creatavist is a digital publishing platform from the team that brought us long form non-fiction publisher/app The Atavist.

I managed to swing myself an invite to the Beta version, and last week I used the platform to publish a short story.

I’m not easily impressed (something to do with copious amounts of self-loathing) but I’ve been running round like a giddy schoolgirl all week telling everyone who will listen how great Creatavist is. Let me explain why.

The platform allows content creators - writers, photographers, filmmakers - to easily publish multimedia stories for apps, ebooks, and the web.

Their tagline is ‘Storytelling without limits’ and after playing with the software for five minutes it’s easy to see why. Firstly, It’s simple to use.

Secondly; the finished product looks pretty fucking spiffy.

Originally designed for The Atavist team to produce their multimedia-enhanced e-singles and long reads, the tool allows creators to easily embed audio, video and text into an ebook.

With non-fiction the advantages of this are clear; making additional information available to the reader - extended video footage, interviews and appendices - without affecting the main narrative. 

Now with Creatavist (see what they did there?) the team have made their in-house publishing tool available to the individual user, opening up the platform to content creators from multiple storytelling disciplines.

For me, it provided the opportunity to experiment with multimedia to enhance fiction, rather than non-fiction. It’s an opportunity to tell a richer story, to enhance the experience of the reader.

Imagine a character in your story finds a map. With Creatavist you can easily upload an image of that map, and then embed it on the word 'map’. Users can then choose to click the word to see it for themselves. 

Or let’s say a character is discussing a real world event. Perhaps a news story. Why not embed a video of the news report to let your reader learn more about it, to give those unfamiliar with the story the chance to catch up.

You could commissioning a soundtrack to play in the background, or just drunkenly sob into the microphone so the reader knows exactly how miserable/drunk you were when you wrote it. Yay art!

I used the enhanced features to add an audio file to each chapter, so you can choose to listen to me read the story in my Northern English accent if you wish (I’m no Neil Gaiman, but by all accounts I did a serviceable job). 

The story I chose to test on Creatvist was a short I’d previously made available on my blog, expanded and re-edited for this new outing.

The character is a personal trainer, and talks quite technically about exercise and the body. When I first wrote the story back in 2004, I added footnotes, letting the narrator speak directly to the reader to explain certain terminology.

I cut the footnotes in later drafts, but for this version I decided to bring them back, albeit in multimedia form.

For example, when the narrator references a particular exercise, you can click the term and see a YouTube video of some equally ridiculous personal trainer demonstrating the exercise.

When he references an article he’s reading or a makes a particular topical statement, you can click to see a sidebar and read the relating news article in full.

Fun fact: I trawled back through the Googles to find the actual news items I’d read when first researching the story back in 2004. 

And that’s not all Creatavist does. You can upload multiple cover images so it appears correctly on all devices, you specify Twitter and Facebook sharing links and copy, you can add ISBNs and customise the metadata.

Hell, if you’re so inclined and have the know-how, you can specify custom CSS for your book, should you need particular pages or passages to appear in a certain way. 

Once I was done with my story, I selected the formats I’d like to generate and with a single click of the 'publish’ button, my story was available to read on the web through my own Creatavist homepage, through their app, and to download as .epub and .mobi files so I could put the short on iTunes, Amazon, Kobo and more.

What I did was quite basic, really. Very soon people will be using this platform with all manner of auto-magical techno-wizardry to create amazing, unique multimedia stories.

Creatavist is a work in progress. There are optimisations yet to make - hence why the platform is currently in Beta - but apart from a few minor adjustments there is nothing I need as an individual that it doesn’t provide.

Essentially Creatavist changes everything, and it changes nothing.

For the individual user it makes creating and publishing your own ebooks effortless and with a much greater scope and scale, but at the same time, you still need a great story to tell.

Creatavist gives you the tools to enhance what is already there, but it can’t spit-shine shit.

As storytellers we’re standing on the crest of some grandiose and overused metaphor, with tools like this giving us new ways to communicate with readers.

But more than ever we need to remember why we tell stories in the first place. Just like 3D and CGI at the cinema, we risk losing our stories and our readers under the flabby gut of unnecessary gimmicks. 

Done well, in moderation and with imagination, we can use technology like this to expand our stories and delight audiences.

Stories began life being spoken around fires, and purists will argue that that’s all we need, the story; not the bells and whistles. 

But back in the day (a Wednesday I believe), someone artistic type decided to start drawing those stories onto the walls of caves.

Another bright spark decided to write those stories down on animal skins and tree bark and eventually paper.

A chap with a dream and a tool shed invented a printing press. Someone else a word processor. We got photographs and celluloid film and projectors. We got an internet and ereaders and Twitter.

We will always tell stories, but they way in which we tell them will grow and change and evolve.

I’m excited about the opportunity presented by Creatavist. I hope you will be too. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

You can read my short story here, or read more about Creatavist here.

The Importance of Being Sweary

Writing is a lonesome pursuit. Whether you’re in a cabin or in an office, in a cafe or up a fucking tree; you’re writing alone. It’s a solitary endeavour.

But as isolated as you may be, you aren’t alone alone. Figurativley and shit.

Of course there are people lining up to make you feel that way. Take the assholes for example, who can’t help but share insightful fucking gems like ‘there’s no money in writing’, and ‘why don’t you just write something commercial’.

Insight like that can have you diving into a bottomless Pinot Noir, filled will hatred and cry-wanking; where shame-fucking and intravenous drugs seem like reasonable antidotes to your despair. I know. I’ve heard it all.

And it’s not just the assholes.

There are writers too who would rather see you fail than accept the fact they may not succeed; sock puppetry and thinly-veiled attacks masquerading as serious critique are just a few of the obstacles facing published or would-be authors.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Thank fuck for the internet. 

I started this Tumblr at the beginning of the year. This is my 200th post. Among the ubiquitous quotes, the Hemingway-appreciation and pictures of my Catcher In The Rye collection, the posts that have most resonated with readers have been the sweary rants.

A-fucking-men. See, for me, the sweary rant is catharsis. It allows me to explore and articulate my frustrations, to vent whatever seething rage is making me want to punch babies.

But it’s not just catharsis. Sweary rants are a cold beer in the hand of the maligned and misunderstood, a topless cuddle for the solitary scribe; a rub and tickle for the most bespectacled and bedraggled of literary doormats.

The sweary rant is a call to arms. It lets the assholes know we’re not going to lie down and take it any longer than it’s pleasurable to do so.

‘That’s right fuckers,’ the Sweary Rants says, 'you don’t own us.' 

If there’s one thing the world needs more of, it’s Pinot Noir. If there are two things, then the second is a toss up between mass murder and sweary rants. That latter is where you come in.

Writers; your profession needs you. We need you articulate, thoroughly pissed off and mostly drunk. Pants are optional.

Yes, writing is a lonesome pursuit. But the sweary rant is drunken group karaoke at 2am; we may not be singing in tune, but we’re singing together and holy fuck are we loud when we do.

Turn around bright eyes… and go write a filth-laden, fuck-peppered sweary rant. There are writers out there who will be glad you did. Thank you in advance.

5 Fiction Lessons From The Screen Trade

I know, I know. What the fuck has screenwriting got to do with fiction?

Any asshole who has a poor taste in cinema and a napkin to scribble on can be a screenwriter, right?

Not exactly. 

Sure, it’s probably true that every bartender within a hundred miles of Hollywood has a script in his back pocket.

And no, you’re right, you can’t get a seat a coffee shop in California due to the number of ‘screenwriters’ with $2000 Macbooks and serious misjudgement of their abilities hogging tables.

But don’t let a few bad eggs spoil the picnic; screenwriting is an artform, and yes there are people who fucking suck at it - but when done well it’s poetry. 

In the remarkable rant, “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script”, published on the Village Voice website earlier this week, screenwriter Josh Olson (A History Of Violence) made some great points about the perception of screenwriting.

(Aspiring screenwriters) think that screenwriting doesn’t actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie.

Screenwriting is widely regarded as the easiest way to break into the movie business, because it doesn’t require any kind of training, skill or equipment.

Everybody can write, right?

You may remember me saying similar things about fiction writing. For their sins, screenwriters are perhaps more maligned than their fiction-bothering brethren. And unfairly so.

If you’re working on a story of any kind, you’d do well to study up on screenwriting, because those crafty, malnourished bottom-feeders have some tips and tricks that, simply put; will make your manuscript better.

1) Show Don’t Tell

In screenwriting this is both lesson number one, and crime number one. People have a tendency to write page after page of exposition-heavy dialogue rather that wrting one sentence of direction.

In fiction, there is no excuse for this. I read books that have shocking amounts of poor, exposition-leaden dialogue. Say more by having your characters say less. Much less.

Instead, use your silky prose skills to find ways of revealing information that is lyrical, original and compelling.

2) Structure

While it might be the most analytical approach to writing I’ve ever seen - discuss structure with a screenwriter and you’ll get a thoroughly mathematical breakdown of the three act story in a 90-page frame, including the precise page number that plot points should happen on - screenwriting is hard to beat for learning how to plot a compelling narrative.

Sure, this meticulous approach leads to asshole hacks selling their 'proven formula’ in books and at seminars for hundreds of dollars a pop, but these pasty-skinned basement dwellers make some good points.

Good screenwriters are masters of advanced planning and plot mechanics - the basic motivation of which is that there is a limited time with which to tell the story, leaving no time for waffle.

In fiction, all too often writers chew on the fucking potatoes way too long before getting to the meat. Decide how long your story needs to be, plan a plot structure within that word count, and stick to it. No-one needs to read 20 pages on grass. Fuck the grass.

3) Enter late, leave early

Which moves neatly into the next lesson; your characters should always be doing something. Motion, motion, motion.

Seen the West Wing? Famous for the walk and talk. You know why? Because your characters should always be doing something. Two people standing in a room talking is a fucking stage play. Nothing wrong with plays, but we’re writing novels.

In a good screenplay, if the main characters have to go somewhere for some reason, you don’t see them stand around and talk about it. They don’t chit chat about what they had for dinner or what they’re doing later. They go and fucking do it.

To enter late is to arrive in the scene as late as possible for it still to be compelling. i.e. instead of showing two detectives receive a dispatch call, then drive to respond only to find a body, you start with them finding the body.

Same way, have them leave the scene early to follow a lead rather than hang around talking.

In your novel, if you’ve got a chapter where a character thinks about doing something for a few pages, then spends a few more pages on their way to do something, and then finally does that thing, cut the first two and start with her doing that thing.

Everything else is static.

Exception to the rule; Tarantino. It is highly unlikely you are Quentin Tarantino, and if you’re that good, then fuck you.

4) Keep It Simple, Stupid

You are not David Foster Wallace. If it doesn’t work without footnotes; simplify.

5) Whammy!

Joel Silver is the venomous asshole responsible for producing some of the finest action films of the past 30 years. Die Hard? Joel Silver. Predator? Joel Silver. Lethal Weapon. Beverly Hills Cop. The Matrix. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The list goes on.

Sure sure he’s a fucking vulture, but he understands what audiences respond to. And the key ingredient? Whammy.

A whammy is something exciting. Explosions, death, sex, a kiss, a car chase, a scare, a revelation. It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be exciting.

'Fuck art, give me whammy.’ - Joel Silver.

Silver’s basic rule is you need a whammy every 10-12 pages to keep the pace up, to keep your audience on side.

I’m not telling you to go out and write a commercial thriller, but you need whammy. And you need it regularly.

Write a thinker. Write a cerebral book about a guy dying of motor neurone disease. Write a novel from the point of view of a fucking chair but in the name of all that is holy give it some whammy. Your readers will thank you.

Literature doesn’t have to be slow. Don’t make your readers work for you, make your story work for them.

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So there, off you go. Pick up a copy of Story by Robert McKee, or Screenplay by Syd Field, or Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, or take a seminar. Go to a coffee shop and meet some screenwriters and learn from them.

Just, whatever you do, don’t fucking become one. You’re a fiction writer. You’re too drunk to be a good bartender.

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A disturbing thing happened at about 11:30 tonight.

I’m walking to my building from the car and a cab screeches to the curb in front of me. 

A girl jumps out of the passenger seat, and shouts ‘are you fucking kidding me?’ at the driver. She slams the door and he speeds off.

The cab is gone. I’m alongside the girl now. She’s shaken. I ask her if she’s okay. She jumps away, startled. I’m sorry, she says. I’m sorry.

She bursts into tears and turns away. I apologise. I keep walking. I’m 6'4, broad and tattooed, I realise I must cut an intimidating figure on a quiet street late at night, especially if the driver has assaulted her in some way. I kick myself for not getting his plates.

I stop at the crossing up the street, opposite Edgecliff station. I press the button and wait. She’s waiting too, but keeping her distance

As we cross I can see her peripherally. I’m going to the store above the station. She’s behind me as we walk inside, but I lose sight of her as I go up the escalator. I want to turn back and see if she’s okay, but I don’t. The station is light and populated. She’s safe here. 

I look for her as I leave the store, wondering what happened in that cab, but she’s gone, hopefully safely on her way home via train or bus.

I called the local police station when I got home and made a report, though my lack of info on the taxi made it seem futile.

I hope she reports it. And I hope she’s okay. I’m not easily shaken, but this got me. 

I’m also not easily intimidated so can only imagine how she felt/what he did to shake her so badly. Wish I’d got his plates. Hope she’s okay.