Friday, December 24, 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Seducing Readers Deeper into the Story

Reading thuRsday

I've heard the best books described as a hierarchy of enticements or compulsions: the first line encourages the reader to read the first paragraph; the first paragraph pulls them on to the first page; the first page pulls them into the first chapter; and so on.

As a principle, this seems like a sound and effective approach. But how do you pull it off in practice? How do you lure the reader from the beginning into the meat of the story?

Consider what Stephenie Meyer did with Twilight. At a structural level, she used a small mystery to seduce the reader into a larger mystery. Specifically, every-girl Bella arrives in Forks expecting that it will be a challenge to fit in. But her assumptions prove false: everybody likes her except one aloof boy who seems to hate her except when he's saving her life. This setup provides an irresistible emotional mystery for the book's target audience: what could possibly explain the anomalous behavior. The master stroke is that the answer to that mystery opens the door to the larger problem of the vampire story.

Love Twilight or loath it, you have to admit that it produced a strong reaction among its readers--like an emotional drug. We would do well to study and apply the pattern, seducing readers deeper into our own stories.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Does Conflict Mean that Someone's Mean?

Writing Wednesday

We've often heard that conflict is the heart of a story. In fact, I've said that story is conflict. But that seems out of character with a season that is, nominally (shopping mall melees notwithstanding), about good-will. Perhaps the disconnect arises from an assumption that in order to have conflict someone has to be mean.

I spoke recently with a writer who was concerned that she didn't have enough conflict and was afraid she couldn't fix it because she didn't like to write about mean people. I pointed out that because they've found ways to justify their actions, even the most hardened criminals don't believe themselves to be bad people.

Worrying, however, about whether people are good or bad, nice or mean, muddies the storytelling waters and actually introduces a subtle bit of moralizing.

How so?

Some of the best writing advice I ever heard was that story and conflict arise from two simple questions:
  1. What do each of your characters want?
  2. What are they each willing to do to get it?

If you have two characters who each want the same thing (a thing that only one of them can have) and who are both willing to do a great many things to get it, you have automatic conflict.

And the beauty is that neither of them has to be mean. In fact if they're both driven by worthy motives you'll have a much better conflict than a simple good vs. bad scenario.

After all, the parents grappling in the stores for the last trendy toy are only in the melee because they want to do something nice for their kids.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ideas: Don't Stop with One Good Idea

Technique Tuesday

Animator Patrick Smith, writing at Scribble Junkies, shared some of John Lasseter's advice in a post on the 7 Creative Principles of Pixar.

The first principle is, "Never come up with just one idea."

Here's how John explains it:
“Regardless of whether you want to write a book, design a piece of furniture or make an animated movie: At the beginning, don’t start with just one idea – it should be three.

“The reason is simple. If a producer comes to me with a proposal for a new project, then usually he has mulled over this particular idea for a very long time. That limits him. My answer always reads: 'Come again when you have three ideas, and I don’t mean one good and two bad. I want three really good ideas, of which you cannot decide the best. You must be able to defend all three before me. Then we’ll decide which one you’ll realize.'

“The problem with creative people is that they often focus their whole attention on one idea. So, right at the beginning of a project, you unnecessarily limit your options. Every creative person should try that out. You will be surprised how this requirement suddenly forces you to think about things you hadn’t even considered before. Through this detachment, you suddenly gain new perspectives. And believe me, there are always three good ideas. At least.”
The first key here, and it bears repeating, is, "this requirement suddenly forces you to think about things your hadn't even considered before." There are a lot of people out there having good ideas. If you stop with your first good idea, chances are very good that someone has already thought of it. But with each additional good idea you bring to the table, the chance of someone else thinking of the exact same ideas drops dramatically.

The second key is the perspective you gain through detachment. That is, if you have more than one good idea then you've got a fall-back if one of the ideas proves less good than you thought. More importantly, you can compare and contrast the ideas and get a better sense of their relative merits than if you have only one, precious idea ... gollum.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Laws of Making in Retrospect

Making Monday

We've spent a fair amount of time considering the Laws of Making.

So what does it all mean?

There are two fundamental subtexts:


There was an episode of the television series Northern Exposure in which we learned that one of the characters was very good at complex paint-by-number landscapes. Another character insisted the first wouldn't be a true artist until he burned his newest painting because art is in the process and the painting was simply an alienable by-product.

I'm not here to tell you to burn your creations. That said, there is a recurring thread of selflessness in the laws of making. Users see a universe that revolves around them. Makers strive to create things that can take on a separate existence. This is why the highest Law of Transcendence is completion.

Life Cycles

The nine laws of making can be arranged into a 3 x 3 matrix:

UnderstandingLove (1)Beauty (2)Truth (3)(beginning)
LivingHope (4)Faith (5)Charity (6)(middle)
TranscendenceVision (7)Devotion (8)Completion (9)(end)

Notice that as we move from the Laws of Understanding, through the Laws of Living, to the Laws of Transcendence, we have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Similarly, as we move from left to right in each row, we have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

True makers have a role in and patience for all three acts.

The Wisdom of the Makers

Of course, stating the Laws of Making clearly, and illustrating them with a few examples, doesn't begin to convey the depth and majesty of the vision of true makers. You've got to experience making in all its dimensions to begin to understand.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, December 17, 2010

Kevin Smokler: Promotion is an Expresstion of Gratitude

Free-form Friday

Authors often wince when they come to understand just how much they need to promote their work. I confess to being in that camp, particularly when it sounds like we're expected to go out and convince people to read our books.

That's why I was quite taken with Kevin Smokler (co-founder and CEO of and his idea that promotion is fundamentally an expression of gratitude. In that vein, I want to thank Nick James, who blogs at The Spectacle and posted the following
"I think the word “promotion” sends a shiver down many people’s backs. At its worst, it connotes a situation where an author is more or less trying to shove a product down readers’ throats. Very few people want to feel like salesmen. And not everybody is skilled in that area. That’s why Kevin’s definition struck me so strongly.

"Promotion, he says, is primarily “an opportunity to meet people who are interested in your book and thank them for their interest.” Or, more succinctly, it’s “an expression of gratitude and graciousness.” [source]
On Nick's recommendation, I listened to all of Dan Blank's interview with Kevin Smokler at We Grow Media. I recommend you do the same. Kevin has a number of interesting things to say about the changing role of the author in book promotion and about the industry in general.

I'm going to add the phrase, "Promotion is an opportunity to meet people who are interested in your book and thank them for their interest," to my list of mantras.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Metaphors Should Flow from Character

Reading thuRsday

Jael McHenry, writing on Writer Unboxed, answered a reader's question about generating metaphors.

I was so delighted with her "lightbulb moment" that I've reproduced the two key paragraphs here:
"I had a HUGE lightbulb moment about metaphors a few years ago, thanks to Sands Hall, whose workshop I took at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival (that same program I mentioned above.) Before that I just considered a metaphor a metaphor: they were either lovely and apt or dead and clumsy. But when Sands described how she made each character’s point of view distinct in her book Catching Heaven, she mentioned how important it was that each character’s metaphors were true to that character. And that was the lightbulb. A rancher will use different metaphors than a schoolteacher. Even if the book is in third person and not first, if the point of view is close-in to the character, you want to apply that character’s “filter” to everything – including the metaphors.

"I took this to an extreme in my book The Kitchen Daughter, where the narrator Ginny is so obsessed with food and cooking — and so uncomfortable dealing with the wider world — that she filters absolutely everything through the lens of food. She bumps into a shoulder and it feels “like the shank end of a ham”; the voices of the people in her family she compares to orange juice, tomato juice, spearmint, espresso. In most cases your characters will draw from a larger pool, but still, the idea that there is a pool, and that it comes from that character’s particular bias and experience, that’s clutch."
One should probably resist the temptation to rely too heavily on idiosyncratic, character-based metaphors, particularly in a fantasy where the reader doesn't know the character's referential context. (Does, "He was as happy as a skurlump on a fringbol," say anything to you?)

That said, not only are a few well-chosen character-based metaphors a great way to contribute to the voice of the narrative, this is also a good way to avoid anachronistic metaphors if you're writing about another time or place.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Showing Involves Specificity

Writing Wednesday

From time to time, I see comments about pieces having or needing concrete detail. Several years ago I came across a discussion by Annette Lyon about specificity on the Writing on the Wall blog that helped clarify my understanding of concrete details:
"Showing has several elements, but specificity is one of my favorites. The gist is to take a general noun (such as a car) and tell us more. Make us see it.

"Is it a VW Bug? Is it a little red Toyota truck with rusted wheel wells? Is it a sleek, black Jaguar? A yellow Jeep with fuzzy, pink dice hanging from the mirror?

"The more specific you are, the more clearly readers will see the “movie” in your head—and be drawn into your imaginary world."
[You may read the entire post here.]

In your quest to be specific, however, remember that if some is good, more is not necessarily better. If you describe every detail in the scene or setting minute, concrete detail, your story will grind to a halt and you stand a good chance of losing readers with anything less than a Herculean attention span.

In general, a few specific, evocative details, leaving plenty of room for your reader to fill in the rest, work best.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ideas: Rebuttal Theory and Adding to the Conversation

Technique Tuesday

I once heard that Shannon Hale's approach to retelling fairy tales is motivated by the question, "What's bugging me about this story?"

I started thinking seriously about this question after reading several books that bugged me enough that I wanted to make a rebuttal (it's hard to set aside old debating instincts). It's not that I had problems with the books themselves as much as some of the ideas in the stories.

Two interesting things happened as I thought about the ideas that bugged me in each story and they ways in which I might handle them differently:
  1. I was drawn into the "normal science" process of thinking through each idea (that I described last week) and uncovered a host of interesting ideas.
  2. The different lines of inquiry came together as a fascinating story molecule.
Shannon's question, "What's bugging me about this story?" is a powerful idea generator if you follow it with a second question: "How would I do it differently?"

There's another important consequence: as you work through the ideas until you can clearly express what bothers you about the story and how you would handle it differently, you find you have something to add to the conversation.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, December 13, 2010

Laws of Making 9: The Highest Power is to Finish. The Greatest Wisdom is to Know When to Finish.

Making Monday

The third Law of Transcendence is that The Highest Power is to Finish, and The Greatest Wisdom is to Know When to Finish.

Finishing is implied by the Second Law of Transcendence, Devotion, but it is an under-appreciated and poorly understood element of Wisdom. The final step of the Buddha's enlightenment, for example, was his realization that he had completed the final step to enlightenment.

Our culture is fixated on beginnings. If you visit a book store, you'll find shelf after shelf devoted to getting a job or starting a business. There are very few books on leaving a job or ending a business. We enjoy a collective myopia with the comforting belief that everything we'll be fine and we'll know what to do if we can only solve our present problems.

A related problem is that in much of our experience, certainly at school and often a work, someone else has defined what it means to finish. With that training, we tend to think of projects in terms of assignments and gauge our efforts based on the "grade" we hope to receive.

Of course, saying that you should judge a thing finished based on your own criteria is not a license to ignore mentors, coaches, and teachers. There's a place, particularly in training situations, where it is right and proper to conform to criteria established by someone else. Rather, it's a challenge to transcend them by developing your own wisdom and your understanding, as a maker, of the integrity of the thing being made. True makers are not copy machines: unperturbed by the terror of the blank page, they live to bring new things into the universe. That's why the First Law of Transcendence is Vision.

The Law of Completion is the complement of the Law of Vision. Specifically, you must have some idea what finished means when you begin a project. Not that you must know exactly how it will end, but you must have a clear enough vision of where you're going that you can recognize the place when you get there.

Finally, and most difficult of all, when the project is complete, you must let it take its rightful place in the universe and move on. This is the transcendence of the makers.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, December 10, 2010

Entertainers vs. Artists

Free-form Friday

Writing in the November 2010 issue of Electronic Musician, Steven Wilson said, "This, for me, is the distinction between an entertainer (cater to an audience) and an artist (create your own audience)." [Emphasis mine.]

I found Steven's distinction enlightening, not because the artist is more noble than the entertainer but because of the way in which it clarifies the nature of the audiences.

This is not about selling out or maintaining artistic integrity. I've already discussed the notion of meeting the market half-way. That's something you must do whether you're catering to an audience or creating one. In the catering case, you've got to bring something new to the existing audience: without some variations on the theme, they'll get bored and go elsewhere. In the creating case, you've got to frame your novelties in familiar terms so that the audience you attract can get their bearings.

The distinction between catering to an audience and creating an audience is like the distinction between promotions that are compelling or enticing. When you're catering to an audience, you need something that will compel them to pay attention to your project. When you're creating an audience, you need to entice them to explore something new.

How do you know what kind of audience you should address?

If you're writing something that fits comfortably in one genre, like epic fantasy, where readers expectations are fairly clear, the audience expects you to cater to them. If you're writing something that mixes genres, you'll likely have to create an audience.

Think about what you're trying to do. Now think about how your audience will find you. I suspect the distinction between the entertainer and the artist will help clarify the issues.

[If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Professional Relationships, book 2 of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.]
Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Messages or Conversations

Reading thuRsday

Many of the people who give advice about writing are quick to say that nothing kills a story faster than having a "message." A corollary is that if you have a message, you shouldn't write fiction.

On the other hand, I really dislike books that aren't about anything (e.g., standard swords and sorcery that seem to be a chronicle of the violence perpetrated by a muscle-bound barbarian who is, apart from a few more scars, no different at the end).

I understand the dangers of allowing something about which you feel strongly to subvert your story, but if you don't have anything to say your story is, at best, nothing more than a "me-too" exercise.

So what's the difference between a message (bad) and something to say (good)? I think it's the difference between a conclusion you want to promote and an idea you want to explore. Put another way, it's the difference between a lecture and a conversation. Readers have no patience for the former but they're happy (sometimes eager) to engage in the latter.

The Great Books series from the University of Chicago was founded on the belief that the classics are part of a great conversation that has been going on for thousands of years. I like that idea because I believe the best new books contribute to that grand conversation.

How will you contribute to the grand conversation?

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Which is the Highest Writing Virtue, Persistence or Patience?

Writing Wednesday

If you had asked me whether persistence or patience was the highest writing virtue several months ago, I would have chosen persistence. Now I'm more inclined to say patience.

I've discussed patience here as one of the unpopular virtues of makers and as an important tool for writers.

Natalie Whipple brought the topic to the forefront for me with several posts this past week. In the first, she discussed the grinding doubt of being on submission for fifteen months without a sale. In the second, she explored what she learned from the experience.

You might argue that patience and persistence are both aspects of devotion; that both similarly imply sticking with something even if you don't want to. Granted, but I think there's one important distinction: persistence implies something more active than patience.

Here's what Natalie said:
"What I was least prepared for was the loss of control. It was easy to have faith in my agent, but at the same time it was strange not being able to do anything. I just have to...wait. In querying, when you get a rejection you can send another letter out. You can decide who to send to, when, and what. That all goes away, and while it's nice it's also weird. I was so used to working for myself, and now my writing fate is out of my hands."
For those of use who cope with difficult situations by finding something constructive to do, situations where the only thing you can do is wait are extremely trying. Put another way, the wannabe-writer-sphere is so full of encouragement to keep writing that it leaves you ill-prepared for the time when the writing is done and the waiting begins.

"But isn't that when you should work on your next book?"

Yes, of course. My point is that for some of us it can be very difficult to accept the fact that there comes a point where there is nothing more we can do to improve the chances of success for the book that's on submission--that there's no more scope for persistence--and that patience is the only way to continue.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ideas: What do you do with a great idea?

Technique Tuesday

What do you do with a great idea?

First, a reminder: one idea isn't enough to carry a novel. Long-form stories are best understood as a complex molecule made up of great idea atoms.

So, what do you do when you have a number of ideas in intriguing relationships?

Like any good evil genius, you turn to science!

Kuhn, 1962 (from Wikipedia)
More to the point, you turn to the history of science. Thomas Khun, a physicist who also studied the history of science, wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. In that book, Kuhn challenged the notion that science was steadily progressive and argued that it is in fact episodic.

The two key ideas I want to introduce here are the alternating phases of revolutionary and normal science that make up an episode in Kuhn's model.

Revolutionary science is the time when a breakthrough throws the field wide open. Like settlers pouring into newly open territory, scientist rush from one discovery to the next as they map out the new landscape of possibilities.

Once the early leaders in the revolution have discovered the extent of the breakthrough, the discipline settles back into normal science mode. Normal science is far less glamorous than revolutionary science because it's about the careful work of confirming the initial findings and filling in the details.

"That nice for historians and scientists," you might say, "but what does it have to do with writing or creativity in general?"

A great idea is like the breakthrough that triggers a period of revolutionary science. But that's only the beginning of the job. In order to develop a novel-length story, you must do the literary equivalent of the work of normal science.

What do I mean by that?

Let's say you've just had an epiphany: the world will end when pigs actually start to fly--it's the Flying Pig Apocalypse! Tingling with excitement, you sit down to write ... and immediately run into questions: how do they fly? Levitation? Wings that grow because a mad scientist wanted bacon-flavored buffalo wings? Lighter-than air gas bladders? Do they flock or are they loners? Do they cause the apocalypse by flying, or is the fact that they take flight a sign of the impending apocalypse?

My point is that a "great" idea isn't ready to become a story until you've done the detailed, far less thrilling work of thinking through the implications of the great idea.

Like science, which we tend to think of only in terms of revolutionary breakthroughs, creativity is more about the normal work of thinking carefully about the "great" idea than the revolutionary work of having the idea in the first place.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, December 6, 2010

Laws of Making 8: The True Maker's Devotion Never Wavers

Making Monday

The second Law of Transcendence is that The True Maker's Devotion Never Wavers.

Devotion is, "ardent, often selfless affection and dedication, as to a person or principle." The word comes from the Latin verb vovere, to vow. Other  senses of the word mean to set apart by vow, or to consecrate.

I've already discussed devotion as one of the unpopular virtues of the makers. But it earns a place among the Laws of Making because, more than a good idea, it is a foundational maker value.

The devotion of makers is best understood in terms of selflessness and loyalty or fidelity. You could express this, the second law of transcendence in colloquial terms, such as, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. And if it's worth doing right, you better see it through to the end."

You might point out that the Law of Devotion is similar to the First Law of Understanding, Love, and the Second Law of Living, Faith. And you would be right: the Laws of Making are like facets of a jewel that reflect part of something more elemental and inexpressible. But there are also important differences, the most important of which is that the maker stands with the thing being made, faithful and patient, even when no one else will, until it is finished.

If this is still too abstract, then consider what the parent of an infant does during the long months of sleepless nights. Is there a better word for that than devotion?

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, December 3, 2010

Web Presence Theory: Create an Online Context for Discovery

Free-form Friday

The common wisdom among writers, agents, and editors is that you need to have a web presence. The problem, of course, with common wisdom is that it bundles up and glosses over a number of assumptions.

I'm not saying I think the common wisdom is wrong. Rather, I was never satisfied that I understood what a writer's web presence was supposed to accomplish in concrete terms. Yes, we talk around notions like building an audience and establishing a reputation. But what does that really mean? Or, more to the point, how can you know if you're doing it well.

Then I found an answer in an essay by Brian O'Leary at Magellan Media called, "Context First." Brian said:
"When content scarcity was the norm, we could live with a minimum of context.  In a limited market, our editors became skilled in making decisions about what would be published.  Now, in an era of abundance, editors have inherited a new and fundamentally different role: figuring out how “what is published” will be discovered."
The fundamental problem of the Internet is managing abundance. When a quick search returns hundreds of thousands of results, how do you make sense of any of it? How do you select what is meaningful out of all the background noise?

Meaning depends on context.

As I read Brian's essay, I had an epiphany: building a web presence is about creating context; it's how your book will be discovered. This isn't about search engine optimization or other ways of gaming the system. The context (which comes from Latin and literally means "with the text) that matters is the web of relationships, associations, and references that lead ultimately back to your book.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Suspense According to the Panel at LUTE 2009

Reading thuRsday
I recently unearthed notes I took during various panels at Life, The Universe, and Everything 2009 (LUTE). Today's selection comes from a panel on suspense with Brandon Mull (BM), James Dashner (JD), John Brown (JB), Howard Tayler (HT), and Dan Wells (DW).

What is suspense?
  • JD - worring about the character
  • DW - Making people wait for something
  • BM - A system of tension and release
What is not suspense?
  • JB - Making things unclear is not suspense. You want a very clear threat where the only thing the reader doesn't know is when it will happen.
How do you like to do suspense?
  • DW - "People aren't afraid of what happens to them, they're afraid of what they're going to do."
  • JB - Give the reader a threat or opportunity (romance); suspense is fed by uncertainty; ratchet it up with conflict and surprise
  • DW - Leave things open and people will fill it in more effectively than you could
  • HT - Switch (briefly) to the PoV of the monster; the reader will tell themselves a better story about the monster than you could.
  • BM - Action is the release in the system of tension and release
What makes bad suspense?
  • JB - You need to care about the characters. The purpose of the beginning of the story isn't to build suspense but to build curiosity.
  • DW - The "other shoe" - you've got to establish the pattern; people won't wait for the other shoe if they don't know (or care) how the pattern works.
Final Thoughts
  • JB - If you build something up for a long time, people expect a big payoff

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Flow in Writing

Writing Wednesday

Wikipedia defines psychological flow this way:
Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.
You've probably heard about people who claim that the writing just flowed (and you've probably felt a bit jealous of them). It's hard to hear such a thing without, 1) taking it to be something mystical, and 2) judged yourself to be a lesser writer for not being able to make a similar claim.

I can't guarantee that you'll always enjoy flow in your writing, but if you understand the nature of the state then you might be more likely to experience it.

The most important thing to understand is that there's nothing mystical about flow. Indeed, it is effectively the opposite of mysticism because you're neither awed nor terrified. When you're fully immersed in the process you find, to the extent that you're even aware of your internal state, that you feel a profound calm.

Flow is like Baby Bear: you're neither too hot with great ideas, nor too cold bogged down in the details, but just right with the ideas and the words to express them coming together at the same time.

I've heard people argue that writing is a purely creative, right-brain activity. There's truth in that claim, particularly for those who see the action and the setting, and hear the voices of their characters. But encoding those ideas in well chosen words and ordering those words in compelling, grammatically correct sentences is a left-brain activity. Of course, your inner editor lives in your left brain.

People who focus on one side or the other short-change themselves. In my experience, flow is most likely to occur when I've mastered the left-brain mechanics (i.e., proficiency at typing, a command of grammar rules, a rich vocabulary) and energized the right-brain to focus on the story (and not entertain every distraction that comes along). Put another way, you can think of flow in writing as balancing right and left brains to produce and encode ideas.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ideas: Stories are Molecular, not Atomic

Technique Tuesday

In The 5,000 Finders of Dr. T, a strange and delightful musical fantasy created by Ted Geisel, there is a climactic scene that includes the following lines:

"Is it atomic?"

"Yes, sir, very atomic!"

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Wikipedia)
You will, of course, have to see the mover for yourself if you don't understand the reference. I mention it here simply to lead into a discussion about the fact that novel-length ideas aren't atomic, they're molecular.

I first heard this concept from Brandon Sanderson. The essence of the notion is that if ideas are atoms, a single one isn't enough to carry a novel. You need a number of ideas.

But it's not simply a case of arranging a butterfly collection of ideas. The ideas must be related. Brandon described his process of developing a novel as, "bouncing ideas off each other to see which ones stick." ("Stick," here, means, "form interesting relationships.") As ideas stick together, they form a story molecule.

So, how do you build a story molecule?

Begin with the basic creative process: ask questions and then generate lots of answers so that you can find the most interesting associations. Often, the best associations will be between something common and something, which in the context of the first idea, is surprising. In The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, we have something common, a boy who wishes he didn't have to practice the piano, and something surprising, his piano teacher's plans for world domination!

When people ask where the ideas in a novel came from, they generally assume that the book was produced through an alchemical process that harnesses mystic forces to transmute the base metals of common ideas into the gold of a finished story. The truth, like the transmutation of alchemy into the cold, hard science of chemistry is more prosaic. Like chemistry, which produces complex and beautiful molecular structures through a series of processes, the final form of the story molecule in a novel is the result not of mystic transmutations but processes that anyone who is patient and persistent can master.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, November 29, 2010

Laws of Making 7: The True Maker Sees Beyond the Actual to the Potential

Making Monday

The first Law of Transcendence is that The True Maker Sees Beyond the Actual to the Potential.

To transcend is literally to climb above or beyond. True making is transcendental (with a small 't') because it always contains a generative element: that is, true making is, at some level, always about bringing something new into existence. Makers transcend the limits of what actually exists by adding order, significance, and design to the universe.

The first step toward transcendence is to see the potential for something new. How, after all, can you transcend if you can't see beyond what's immediately in front of you?

I've often heard that Michelangelo's approach to sculpting was to see the statue in the block and then simply remove the excess marble.

Makers, as I've mentioned earlier, are not terrified by the blank page, but see instead a universe of possibilities.

How do they do this?

At one level, the ability of true makers to see possibilities is nothing more mystical than the basic process of creativity that John Brown characterizes as, "You ask questions and then you come up with answers." In a purely procedural sense, makers see the potential beyond the actual because they've learned to make the associations that generate enough answers that they can discard the common ones and arrive at the intriguing ones.

Of course, stating the first Law of Transcendence clearly and illustrating it with a few examples doesn't begin to convey the depth and majesty of the vision of true makers. Like all the other laws, you've got to experience making in all its dimensions to begin to understand.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday

Free-form Friday

Today is a commercial holiday, more holy in the minds of retailers and capitalists than Thanksgiving or Christmas: Black Friday.

In fact, according to the advertising flyers that spill from my mailbox, it is the beginning of a three-day bacchanalia of holiday-driven consumption--almost as if we felt the need to appease the dark gods of the world for having the temerity to celebrate a self-less virtue the day before.

Black Friday is a user holiday because it inspires the opposite of gratitude: it's all about getting the best deals for me.

That said, it's actually not a bad day for makers. It's a good time, while everyone else is out shopping, to get something constructive done.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Makers and Gratitude

Making Merry

In a large country with an open society, such as the United States, there's very little that isn't controversial at some level. Some see historic and political problems with Thanksgiving.

Be that as it may, there is something to be said for a national holiday devoted to gratitude.

Gratitude is another of the unpopular virtues of makers. It's not that makers have any special monopoly on gratitude, but rather that someone who knows from experience how hard it is to make something is naturally grateful when someone else makes something for them.

So on this day, when we celebrate the bounty of the harvest by trying to eat as much of it as possible, stop between courses and thank those who prepared the food, and those who produced the food, and all the others who have contributed to warm, comfortable place where you're stuffing your face.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Antagonists and the Source of Conflict

Writing Wednesday

When we talk about the fundamentals of writing, we often juxtapose protagonist and antagonist without any separate consideration of the source of conflict. Because the antagonist is often the source of conflict, particularly in realistic stories, this gloss is fine. But other times, the antagonist is motivated to oppose the protagonist by an external source of conflict.

It helps to be clear on the distinction between the antagonist and the source of conflict, and to understand the structural implications for stories where they are one and the same, and stories where they are distinct.

The antagonist opposes the protagonist by acting against him or her. In order to show and understand the conflict that drives the story, the antagonist must be introduced at about the same time as the protagonist.

The source of conflict is the person or agency that causes the antagonist to act against the protagonist, either directly through some sort of motivation (the bad guy sends his henchmen), or indirectly by creating the conditions that force the protagonist and the antagonist to compete (they must fight to the death in the arena).

Emperor Palpatine (Wikipedia)
For example, in a fairy tale, the minion sent out to slay the child of destiny and who tries but fails during the course of the book is an antagonist, while the evil queen who sent the minion is the source of conflict. Often the climax includes the revelation that the minion, whom we thought was pretty bad, is nothing compared to the queen.

You might argue that the source of conflict is the ultimate antagonist because many stories end only when the protagonist finally manages to destroy the source of conflict. If you want to think in terms of major and minor antagonists, that's fine.

But it's important to be clear on the distinction between the character who actively opposes your protagonists and the reason that character opposes the protagonist. The Emperor Palpatine was the source of conflict and Star Wars didn't end until he was destroyed, but it was Darth Vader who most actively opposed Luke and Han.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ideas: Creativity

Technique Tuesday
A question commonly asked of writers is, "How do you get your ideas?"

There are many answers (including facetious ones, like, "I buy them wholesale from the idea distributors,"). This post is the first in a series exploring techniques for collecting and assembling ideas.

The people who want to know where writers get their ideas assume writers enjoy a generous endowment of creativity. Creativity is defined as, "the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas."

Many people treat that ability as something innate and quasi-mystical. The problem with believing that ideas spring forth from a fount of creativity is that if you don't have a great idea handy then you must assume the well has run dry and you're stuck until something happens to get your creativity flowing again.

John Brown fell into this trap for a number of years before he discovered the secret to the creative process and went on to write Servant of a Dark God.

Here's John's mystic secret to the creative process:
Creativity is asking questions and coming up with answers.
A bit anti-climactic?

Perhaps I should clarify: a creative person doesn't settle for one answer to each question. If you stop after the first answer, you've done nothing more than identify the "traditional idea." Before you choose an answer, you want to come up with as many varied solutions as you can, particularly unexpected solutions. Given a large enough pool of candidate ideas, it's much easier to find "meaningful new ideas."

So how do you prime the creative pump?

Pay attention.

Notice things, particularly the things that strike you as interesting or intriguing. John says you should collect things that give you a little, "zing," when you hear or read about them.

If you'd like another perspective, spend ten minutes to hear what John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) has to say about Creativity.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, November 22, 2010

Laws of Making 6: True Making is an Embodiment of Charity

Making Monday

The third Law of Living is that True Making is an Embodiment of Charity.

Charity? Isn't that a bit touchy-feelly?

Only if your understanding of charity is limited to, "giving to the poor." True making embodies charity in the broader sense of, "benevolence or generosity toward others or toward humanity," and "the [Christian] theological virtue defined as love directed first toward God but also toward oneself and one's neighbors as objects of God's love."

This law flows directly from the fundamental difference between makers and users. Briefly, nothing in the universe is more important than self for the user: things have significance only to the degree that they are a means to an end. Makers acknowledge that others (be they things or individuals) have as much right to exist as they they themselves do: that things can be ends in and of themselves, apart from what they may signify to their makers.

Making is about bringing something in to being and giving it an independent existence. Making arises from a genuine regard for the made thing and its context, and a belief that both are made better by the existence of the made thing.

Makers express charity during the making by having patience with the thing and the process: they see it through to the end and finish what they started. The charity continues when they let go (literally or conceptually) of the finished thing and allow it to take its place in the world.

I trust you can see how this pattern applies to many different kinds of endeavors like writing novels and raising children.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, November 19, 2010

Writing vs. Web Presence: the 90/10 Rule

Free-form Friday

Even knowing that the ether is awash with conflicting advice, you don't have to read long before you come away with the impression that you must blog and twitter and friend and comment in order to have any hope of success. But if you do all that, when are you supposed to find time to write the book that you're doing all that to promote?

Agent Rachelle Gardner suggested the following guidelines for balancing writing and platform building:
"If you are writing fiction. And you are unpublished. You really MUST be putting your writing first. Spend most of your discretionary time learning to write. You do this by continuing to write, and by reading high quality fiction, and by using critique partners, and reading books on craft. But mostly from writing, writing, writing.

"Dabble in social networking for fun and leisure, and to get a head start on what you'll need in the future. But you should keep in mind a 90/10 ratio. Spend 90% of your free time on your writing, and no more than 10% on platform building."
Clearly, "if you build it," they won't simply come. That is, you can't expect to write a novel and then sit back while your audience finds it. But if you haven't written a novel, there won't be anything for your audience when you invite them to come.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Stories Attribute Significance

Reading thuRsday

I once heard a Native American creation tale which explained that the mountains surrounding their homeland came into being when the trickster punished wicked giants by trapping them and turning them to stone. I was struck by the way in which the story imbued the landscape with significance.

One of the remarkable things about Lord of the Rings is the way in which Tolkien produced a fictional landscape full of the significance attributed (or accreted) by three ages of lore: there were stories, often only hinted at in the text, behind so much of the landscape that it becomes a quasi-character in its own right.

There's something very interesting going on here. In both cases it is the stories that give the landscape significance.

But stories work their magic on more than simply physical features. Stories give people and events significance. A number of people have wryly observed that we can't collectively understand a tragedy until we've watched the made-for-television movie about it. If we peel away the cynicism, the remaining kernel of truth is that stories are one of the most powerful ways of defining meaning and attributing significance.*

* This power arises from that fact that stories are models, which emphasize some elements of the thing being modeled and suppress others.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Janette Rallison's Guide to Point-of-View

Writing Wednesday

Several years ago, I listened to Janette Rallison discuss point-of-view.

She began with this observation about the rules of writing:
"I can't give you rules that guarantee you'll be a good writer, but I can give you rules that will help you avoid being a bad writer." 
Janette encouraged us to, "keep the rules most of the time, so that when you break them you do so because you have a good reason and can do it in a meaningful way."

First Person (I)
  • Advantages: Intimate feel; easiest point-of-view to master; easy to show your main character's thoughts.
  • Disadvantages: All action must bee seen by the narrator.
Second Person (You)
  • This PoV is hardly ever used any more outside of "Choose your own ending" books; it doesn't feel natural to the ear.
Third Person (He/She - but we're still in the character's head so we can see their thoughts)
  • Advantages: Common; easy to superimpose yourself in the story; you can have more than one point-of-view character; the story can follow the action
  • Disadvantages: It's the easiest mode in which to make point-of-view mistakes.
Omniscient - (The author's point-of-view - the omniscient author is practically a character)
  • Advantages: The author can dispense information to the reader that the characters don't know yet; the reader gets to know the inner workings of the situation.
  • Disadvantages: It makes the book more about the author than the nominal main character; it's difficult to get this one right
Fly-on-the-wall - (Nobody's point-of-view - we're not in anybody's head but simply reporting the events)
  • Advantages: Doesn't reveal characters' internal thought or motives
  • Disadvantages: Seems sparse and emotionless; you have to work harder to convey emotions through action and dialog.
Changing the Point-of-View
  • It's hard to make PoV switches work in the middle of a passage; why add to your burden?
  • 90% of the slush pile has PoV problem. Editors assume you're an amateur if you confuse PoV
  • It's confusing to the reader.
  • You'll never get deep enough into any one character to let us know something meaningful about them.
It is always a mistake to change the point-of-view in the middle of a passage because it confuses the reader. Only switch the point-of-view at scene or chapter breaks.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Research Techniques when Writing about the Unfamiliar

Technique Tuesday
In the October 3, 2010 of Writing Excuses, Brandon, Dan, and Howard take up the topic of Writing the Unfamiliar. Dan introduced the topic by observing that if we strictly followed the advice to, "write what you know," we'd never produce any speculative fiction.

So, how can you write about a real place you've never visited but which others know very well? The trio from Writing Excuses, suggested that you draft the story you want to write and then enlist people who know the subject to correct your errors.

Naturally, they also acknowledged the importance of research (though Brandon said that felt like stating the obvious).

It's easy to assume that everyone (or at least everyone who's been to college) knows how to research a topic. Indeed, thanks to Google, it feels deceptively easy.

Writers, however, have a particular challenge when it comes to research: they generally can't afford to do it.

In one sense, writing is illusion. So the critical question is how can you do just enough research to create a compelling illusion?

The biggest pitfall for a writer is to go with common wisdom or accept something on face value. Of course, we know not to do that with our characters and our plots: we avoid stereotypes and tired old plot devices by digging deeper into the character or story. But we forget that we need to dig deeper in our research.

If you go with common wisdom, or take things at face value, you will always make the kind of glaring mistakes that will encourage people who know more about the subject to throw your book across the room, disgusted that you couldn't be bothered to take a bit of time and look into the matter.

For example, we "know" that history is a story of progress because we now have cities and luxuries on a scale that our ancestors couldn't imagine. So common wisdom tells us, for example, that medieval warriors would have bludgeoned each other with heavy, clumsy swords. People who studied a number of real medieval combat swords found that common wisdom was wrong: the swords weighed between two and four pounds, and with the right technique were agile and deadly.*

When you want to write about something with which you are unfamiliar, begin with this guiding principle:
People generally don't do things that don't make sense, and they almost never do things contrary to their own interests.
Simply asking whose interests are being served often helps you zoom in on the most important facets of the subject, whether it's a place, a person, or a process.

Remember, your goal is not to become a world-class expert on the subject, but to know enough to convince the people who do know that you've done enough homework to avoid the obvious errors.

In the spirit of little systems, here are two touchstones to help you know when you've done enough research:
  • Your research isn't done until you've discovered something surprising about the topic.
  • Your research isn't done until you can explain how the conventional wisdom is right and wrong.

* I found this link in the The Fantasy Novelist's Exam, which has been circulating in conjunction with NaNoWriMo. The exam lists a series of questions. If you answer any of them, "yes," it's a pretty good indication you should NOT write a medievaloid fantasy. Instead, do you homework until you understand what the answer to each question should be, "no."

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, November 15, 2010

Laws of Making 5: True Making is an Act of Faith

Making Monday

The second Law of Living is that True Making is an Act of Faith.

Faith is a tricky word because it is used and abused with impunity. "Have faith," is often short for, "Suck it up and don't complain," or, "Just take my word for it."

I once heard faith defined as, "hope for things which are not seen, which are true."

The qualification, "which are true," gets closer to the faith of the makers. Makers don't operate in ignorance. Which is not to say that makers have perfect knowledge: sometimes we don't know exactly how a process, like firing glazed clay, might turn out. But making, by definition, is about intention and purpose. The faith of the maker is in the process of bringing the unseen into existence.

At the deepest level, faith is the power to set aside fear.

Makers, like everyone else, have plenty of fears at the beginning of a project:
  • What if I can't do it again?
  • What if I'm no good?
  • What if I fail?
  • What if no one likes it?
  • What if someone breaks it?
Unlike everyone else, makers know how to set aside those fears and move forward. It's not that they're immune to fears, but simply that they're not immobilized by them.

Sometimes the fears are realized. But like the old line about getting back up when you fall off a horse, makers don't let set-backs stop them. They know that making, both the process and the product, are worth it.

This is how making is an act of faith.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ambitious and Strategic

Free-form Friday

Several years ago I learned that my first novel was too ambitious to be my first novel.

What do I mean by that?

Lots of people talk about writing the "break-out" novel, but before you do that, you need to write the "break-in" novel.

There are many areas of endeavor where you've got to prove your ability before you're given free reign. I don't think we should be surprised that commercial publishing is one of them.

We often encourage writers to follow their dreams, reach for the stars, go for the gusto, but many of the ambitious people who have attained a measure of success understand that passion must be tempered and disciplined with strategy.

Serendipitously, I came across a reference to a post by Aprilynne Pike on writing firsts. I recommend you read her entire post, but here's a sample:
"Okay, I have been thinking a lot about firsts lately. And by first I mean, your first agent, your first book deal, your first publisher, etc. In case you are not familiar with my history, I spent almost two years looking for an agent and then spent a year with that agent (and two different books) before I got a contract. By the time I got an agent, I was basically desperate enough that I probably would have taken any legit agent I could get. By the time I got published, I would have taken just about any legit publisher I could get. I know a lot of aspiring authors have felt and do feel the same way.

"But maybe it's not that simple.

"I owe my agent connection to luck. I will state that right out front. But because I did end up with my incredible, fabulous agent, she matched me with a wonderful editor and a house I could not be more happy with. But, also luck, I managed to get the idea for a genre I am more than happy to spend my whole career writing in. All of my firsts, set me on the path I want to be in. On the path that my fit my goals. But, what was not luck, is that when it became obvious that my book was not going to sell, I looked for another way to meet my goals. I wrote another book. It eventually lead me to the career I have now."
For good or ill, publishing is very much about pigeon holes. Strategic writers take care to choose a pigeon hole with which they are comfortable.

Aprilynne goes on to say that she's watched others who took the first agent or deal they got find themselves in places other than where they wanted to be (e.g, a small press, or a genre that isn't their first love).

Here's her final admonition:
"Not everyone is going to be a bestseller/lead title/ next big things/etc. That's not the point. But whatever your personal goals are, don't settle for less just because the other option is shelving your book and trying again. Those firsts are so important. Make them the right firsts."
November on the writing calendar is overshadowed by NaNoWriMo. I know this month is all about getting the words down--and I don't mean to distract--but when you can't get to the keyboard, it might not hurt to consider the bigger picture: what are your goals and your strategy to reach them?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Extraordinary Characterization and the Danger of Muddled Metaphors

Reading thuRsday

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein says the following about characterization:
"... characterize by an action. We individualize by seeing characters doing things and saying things, not by the author telling us about them. Don't ever stop your story to characterize. Avoid telling the reader what your character is like. Let the reader see your characters talking and doing things."
He continues:
"There are at least five different ways to characterize:"
  1. Through physical attributes.
  2. With clothing or the manner of wearing clothing.
  3. Through psychological attributes and mannerisms.
  4. Through actions.
  5. In dialogue.
So far, so good.
"Readers don't read novels in order to experience the boredom they experience in life. ... The experienced writer will give us characters--even in common walks of life--who seem extraordinary on first acquaintance. ... What makes a character extraordinary? Personality? Disposition? Temperament? Individuality? Eccentricity?"
I certainly agree in principle. But some of his examples of good characterization sound overwrought out of context. Worse, others mix or muddle metaphors. For example, instead of "Ellen looked terrific in her gown." Stein likes:
"In her gown, Ellen looked like the stamen of a flower made of silk."
The stamen and the pistils of a flower (the spindly bits that stick out in the center of a flower) are the plant's reproductive structures--probably not the first part of the flower we visualize when we think of beauty. There's also the inconvenient fact that the stamen is the male part of the plant, so at best we're dealing with a muddled metaphor.

The essence of Stein's advice is that the world of our common experience is so common, so ordinary that only the uncommon, the extraordinary serves to characterize. I agree. But be careful when striving to capture the extraordinary not to gloss over details that undermine what you're trying to achieve.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jeanette Ingold on Quieting Your Inner Editor

Writing Wednesday

Several years ago I listened to Jeanette Ingold's suggestions for quieting your inner editor. I recently came across my notes and decided to share the highlights.

Jeanette began with the observation that editors are a critical part of the writing process because they "help bring out the power of well chosen details." Indeed, it is in the details where editors shine.

All of us who put pen to paper (if only metaphorically), have an inner editor--the writer's equivalent of a conscience. "Your internal editor is no-nonsense; wants to keep you out of trouble; and doesn't want you to make a fool of yourself."

The problem with the inner editor is that "when you're trying to do something new, you don't need your internal editor looking over your shoulder. You certainly don't need your internal editor when you're working on your first draft. At that point, you're still playing with the basic ideas of your characters, what they want, and who stands in their way."

Inner Editor

So, how do you get rid of your internal editor?

Well, you can't. But you can do the next best thing: put them to work.

Remember, your inner editor is all about details. So send them of to:
  • Make a map of where the story takes place
  • Create calendars and time-lines of events critical to the story
  • Keep notes about character decisions
You can also keep your inner editor busy reading books. [Every writer knows, of course, that when you're not writing you should be reading.] Turn your inner editor loose on current books in your genre to see what works and what doesn't.


Process is also a good way to calm your inner editor. If you work systematically, it's much easier to convince your inner editor that you'll come back and correct the details that may be amiss in the early drafts.

Jeanette offered the following suggestions about process:
  • Don't be a binge writer; make a plan to write every day
  • Take advantage of forward momentum. Just keep going forward even if you realize something needs a major change.
  • Don't worry about getting the writing perfect. Worry about getting your story on paper. There will be plenty of time with subsequent drafts to polish the text.
  • First drafts should be written chronologically
  • Let your first draft season for a month or so after you finish, then read it straight through to the end ("for pleasure") to get a gut feeling for the pacing.
  • After that first read-through, you can unleash your internal editor.
  • Now the editor will cut out everything that doesn't belong in the story.
  • Have some fun and write a jacket blurb before you turn your editor lose: it will give your internal editor an editorial framework.

Finally, when you start editing, remember, "The strength of your antagonist determines the strength of your protagonist." Look for ways to:
  • Make your villains more villainous
  • Pump up the stakes
  • Make sure your hero really is the hero--the one who makes things happen

Image: Simon Howden /