Monday, May 31, 2010

Monism and Dualism

Making Monday

Most fantasy involves two or more alternate worlds: you're either here or there. Philosophers call the approach that separates the universe into two groups dualism. Someone observed that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who separate everything into two categories and those who don't. (Think about it.)

Dualism, which means seeing things in terms of two opposing groups, comes naturally: as toddlers we learn the difference between hot and cold, happy and sad, and even good and bad. Perhaps more fundamentally, humans have had notions of us and them from time immemorial.*

In contrast, monism means seeing things as part of a single whole.

This brief mention hardly does justice to ideas that people have been discussing (and some times killing each other over) for thousands of years. But I did want to give a brief sketch as background to the observation that makers are monists and users are dualists.

Making a thing depends on a sense of how the parts compose the whole. But it doesn't stop when the assembly is complete because a thing well made fits into a larger context. And while you may focus on different parts as the thing is made, you can never completely separate the parts, the whole, and the context.

Users divide the world in to things that serve to promote their purposes and things that don't. The former group has value; the latter group does not.

* You can also talk about pluralism, or seeing the world as made of of more than two mutually exclusive groups, but in most cases there's not a significant philosophic difference between seeing the world in terms of two grand divisions and seeing the world in terms of more than two grand divisions.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Method to this Madness and an Invitation to the Conversation

Free-form Friday

Because people are beginning to notice this blog, I thought I should take a moment to explain the method to my madness and make it clear that everyone is welcome to join the conversation.

I spent quite a while trying to solve the chicken-and-egg problem of having a lot I wanted to say while knowing that it takes time to attract readers: do I post my good stuff now or later? If now, people might not see it; if later--well, like the old joke about the groom waiting in his wheel chair while the bride makes her way up the alter aided by her walker because they waited to marry until they could afford it--later might never come and so, once again, no one would see it.

Then I realized that the early days of a blog are a great time to build up a core of reference material, like the posts that answer "frequent" questions about writing or the tutorial on making that I run on Mondays. This approach solves the chicken-and-egg problem for me because I can believe that the posts I'm writing now will be useful in the future as reference links.

An unfortunate side-effect of this approach is that my tone may sound more like a lecturer than a discussion leader. Tone notwithstanding, I hope this will become more of a conversation. There's no need to hold your questions until the end of the presentation. Please feel free to comment as we go along.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Good and Bad Writing

Reading thuRsday

I saw an interview in which Stephen King gave sound-bite opinions on Stephenie Meyer's (bad) and J.K. Rowling's (good) writing.

I've always been puzzled by declarations that someone who has been published is a "good" writer or a "bad" (but usually quite successful) writer. Clearly there are people--very few of which have been published--who haven't mastered the basics of written communication and whose writing we could probably all agree is "bad" because it is unintelligible or fails to communicate. But if a piece has gone through an editorial process before being released for public consumption, presumably most of the basic mistakes have been corrected. So when we say {famous author} is "good" or "bad" we must be talking about something other than their ability to put together a coherent sentence or paragraph.

Of the few network sitcoms I've enjoyed, nearly every one of them stayed on the air for one or two seasons too many. In some cases the final season was so disappointing that it soured the entire series for me. The best programs delivered consistently and came to a graceful and satisfactory ending. Similarly, in sports, the players generally considered to be great are the ones who were consistent performers.

I wonder if the glib pronouncement that {famous author} is good or bad has some utility as an opinion of their ability to bring a story or series of stories to a satisfying conclusion. My purpose here isn't to defend King, but I think there's something to his pronouncement in terms of the way Meyer and Rowling ended their respective series.*

What do you think most people mean when they say someone is a good or bad writer? Is there utility in the notion that one is a good writer to the degree that they consistently satisfy readers?

*I'm under the impression that many readers found Meyer's Breaking Dawn something of a let-down.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Barely Flooded

Writing Wednesday

Not too long ago I found a post by Eric Cummings in which he shared the one basic, iron-clad, always-applicable rule of writing: say what you mean and mean what you say.

Eric said that in one of his first writing classes he thought he had a fairly good story, so he was surprised when the teacher read the first line and then stopped. His first line was, "Morning light barely flooded the room." The teacher asked, "What do you mean, 'barely flooded?'"

Barely flooded-- the words fight each other: to flood means, "an abundant flow or outpouring," so how do you barely have an abundant flow or outpouring? The sense of the two words are so different that the thing described can only be one or the other. It's the literary equivalent of the garlic ice cream I once sampled--my taste buds couldn't decide whether it was savory garlic or sweet ice cream.

Like details that don't add up (as I mentioned last week), the problem with thoughtless constructions, like "barely flooded," is that they interrupt the reader's flow and force them to worry that the author doesn't have either the language or the story under control.

The one fundamental rule of writing is that we must use our words deliberately and be willing to take responsibility for each and every one of them.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Motivational Games

Technique Tuesday

I've long felt as comfortable using numbers and reasoning about quantities as I have using letters and crafting arguments. Perhaps because of that appreciation, I've also long felt uncomfortable using numbers to measure performance. I finally came to terms with the practice when I realized it could (and should) be understood as nothing more than a motivational game.

When asked about their processes, I've heard many writers mention the motivational games they play. They generally follow the pattern of promising themselves a reward if they write some number of words, or for a given amount of time, or send a number of submissions, etc.

The best motivational games are little systems that help you move forward. The worst get in the way of what you're trying to accomplish.

Sometimes good games become a problem when you lose perspective. There are two insidious ways to lose perspective:
  1. the game gets in the way of doing real work
  2. the game becomes something that adds to your burden of guilt and makes you too depressed to do real work.
So, how do you do keep your motivational games in perspective?

That's a skill you'll have to develop because we all have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to distractions and procrastination. But here's an example to get you started.

While drafting my current novel, I played a game with my word count. I didn't have a particular daily target. Instead, I was simply looking for momentum--daily progress. So I counted the day as a success if I wrote at least 100 words. The game was to see how many consecutive days I could count as writing days. It may not sound like much, but that game helped me focus on steady progress during a period when my available writing time was constrained. And thanks to that steady progress, I recently completed another novel.

What motivational games do you find helpful?

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, May 24, 2010

Genesis of the Makers: The Astrophysics of Hope and Despair

Making Monday

Many people like to divide the world into two camps: white and black, us and them, good and bad. I find it more useful to understand the world in terms of spectrums or ranges--the extremes might look like the two camps, but most everyone and everything falls somewhere in between where things are more complex--and more interesting.

One of the few grand dichotomies I accept is that people's motivations tend to be driven, at a fundamental level, by either hope or despair.

This is something deeper, more subtle, and more pervasive than optimism and pessimism. A life built on a foundation of hope is open to the idea of a greater good. A life founded on despair admits no greater good than self. Making is an expression of hope*. Using is an expression of despair.

There's a striking analogy in astrophysics: stars, like beacons of hope, radiate matter and energy to warm the worlds around them; black holes suck matter and energy into themselves.

As I played with this analogy, I realized that the power of the makers arose from a universe where hope and despair were part of its physics. The pattern repeats at different scales, leading to entire ecosystems shaped by hope and despair.

* Why bother to make something if you believe everything is pointless because it's all going to fall apart sooner or later?

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, May 21, 2010

What is the most rewarding thing about being a writer?

Free-form Friday

What is the most rewarding thing about being a writer?

Wine! Women! Song!--No, wait. I imagined that. Rock stars, not writers, have a corner on those markets.

No, it's the raw power!  It may only be a side-effect of my congenital megalomania but when I write I exercise the god-like power of bringing something into existence where nothing existed before. With the stroke of a pen I call worlds into being. All power is mine ... until my characters take on a life of their own and reject me as their god (which is, of course, another story).

All of which is true only in my imagination--which brings me to the most accurate answer: the thing I find most rewarding as a writer is that I get to spend quality time with my imagination.

What is it that you find most rewarding about writing?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thinking Readers are Engaged Readers

Reading thuRsday

Continuing the theme of Thinking Readers we started last week, I want to make the case that thinking readers are engaged readers. At least the books I enjoy most are the ones that invite me to think about the story both as I read and when I have to stop reading.

I had a peculiar experience reading the recently-published dystopian YA novel I mentioned yesterday: I didn't like the beginning, I liked the middle, and I didn't like the end. More often than not, it's the middle that's weak. [The only other case I can recall where I liked the middle act best is Star Wars, episodes 4, 5, and 6-- I like The Empire Strikes Back a bit better because I think that's when I felt most fully engaged in the story. But it's not really comparable because I liked A New Hope and Return of the Jedi very much too.]

The first act seemed like a parade of contrivances to withhold information from both the protagonist and the reader.

In the second act, the protagonist finally gets some information and acts on it. I became engaged because I wanted to see how the experiment played out and what information that gave us for subsequent efforts to solve the problem.

Then in the third act, through a series of startling reveals, I the reader, am effectively told that everything I know is wrong, there's no way I can figure out what's going on based on the information I've been given, and so the only thing to do is hang on for the wild ride to the startling end.

So what does this mean for those of us who want engaged readers?

I think the fundamental lesson is that reading is interactive; that your readers want to participate in the story. So the best way to alienate them is to say, in effect, "Shut up, sit still, and let me take you for a ride." Put another way, except for the middle, the author didn't show me how to enjoy his story, he told me how to appreciate his cleverness as the designer and operator of the roller coaster ("Please keep your hands within the vehicle at all times.")

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Devil of Disbelief in the Details

Writing Wednesday

As an author, how do you win your readers' trust-- particularly if you want to tell a fantastic story (as in, "unreal elements," and not "really good")?

Sanderson, Wells, and Taylor, the Writing Excuses podcast crew like to say you should be very thorough about a small detail, like the mechanics of zero-gravity movement, and then simply assert the major things (say, faster-than-light travel or sentient dragons). In other words, show the readers that you know that you're talking about in one case (which they can verify, or that at least rings true), and they're generally willing to believe what you say about other cases (particularly the ones they can't verify). If, however, you botch the small details, readers have reason to doubt everything you tell them.

I ran into this problem with a recently-published dystopian YA novel: there were several places where the numbers didn't add up.

Livestock in the Safe Zone

The author describes the safe zone as being "several times the size of a football field." A bit later he says the livestock pens hold cows, pigs, and sheep, which make the community of about 50 mostly self-sufficient. Leaving aside the fact that sheep produce nothing the residents can use (there's no mention of any attempt to process wool, likely because the weekly supply runs provide clothing and footwear) until they're slaughtered and are thus a terrible choice for the constrained space of the safe zone, we have several kinds of domesticated animals that require either a non-trivial supply of feed, or a non-trivial area in which to graze. Specifically, cows generally require 3-5 acres each.

There are 43,560 square feet in an acre.

A regulation football field, with end zones and side lines is 120 x 60 yards, or 64,800 square feet.

If several football fields means 4, that's 259,200 square feet, or about 5.9 acres. Even if we're generous and assume it's twice the size, that's only 11.8 acres, or enough pasture for about 4 cows.

But the safe zone is divided roughly into quarters, with a lot of paving. Moreover, the livestock quarter has barns and the slaughter house. So there's barely enough land to support one cow, which clearly isn't enough to support the roughly 50 residents.

Does it matter?

This may seem pedantic or nit-picky, but the numbers that didn't add up pulled me out of the story and diminished my willingness to trust the author.

One of the funniest moment in Plan 9 from Outer Space is when the zombies reanimated by the aliens march out of the graveyard and the tombstones vibrate, giving them away as cardboard cutouts.

Last week I posted a note about Thinking Readers. You may want to believe that your readers will be so swept away with the story that they won't notice the wobbly tombstones. It didn't work for Plan 9, and it ultimately won't work for your thinking readers. Botching your details is a sure-fire way to reduce your literary classic to nothing more than a laughable B-movie.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Five Whys

Technique Tuesday

One of the most important things engineers do is analyze the root causes. If, for example, defective items start to flow down an assembly line, it's much more important to find the cause for the defect upstream than to fix the defective items. Finding the root cause means that the assembly line will no longer produce defective items.

There's a powerful analogy here for writers, who need to understand both characters and their motivations and the forces that have produced the settings. Story arises from conflicting forces and motivations. If those forces and motivations are definitional (e.g., the villain is simply evil) the story will feel much more contrived than a story in which the forces and motivations flow naturally from root causes.

So, how can you get to the root causes as either a writer or an engineer?

One powerful method (which I vaguely recall being attributed to Toyota) is the 5 Whys.While it sound at first like an exercise in being an annoying child, the essence of the method is to ask, "Why?" five times.

  1. Why is that character the villain? Because he's evil.
  2. Why is he evil? Because he hates people.
  3. Why does he hate people? Because he's never known anyone who didn't let him down, beginning with his parents.
  4. Why did his parents let him down? Because they ignored him.
  5. Why did they ignore him? Because they were too busy working with the League of Do-Gooders.

Granted this little example is a bit contrived, but it illustrates the method of digging deeper with the 5 Whys: we've gone from a bland, definitional villain to one that has a bit of depth--though not nearly enough to be a compelling antagonist. And that brings us to a second point about the method: it's something you must use repeatedly to really understand the situation. In our example, we should use the 5 Whys to explore how the villain came to power, what his plans are, and so on.

Give "Why?" a try.*

*Who thinks this would make a good T-shirt slogan?

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, May 17, 2010

Genesis of the Makers: The Distinguishing Power

Making Monday

I have peculiar and probably not noteworthy talent: on a road trip, I'm almost always the first one to spot the sewage treatment plant when we drive through a new city.

Bear with me, it's relevant.

As I mentioned last week, my ideas about the makers were catalyzed by the final disintegration of the start-up with which I worked. The fact that after a number of transitions and missteps, we'd finally made something significant was largely irrelevant to the people with money. Of course, we were simply following a pattern I've seen repeated a number of times.

I began to wonder what a world would look like in which the people who made things had real power. Notice I didn't say they had the power: that would simply replace one controlling group with another. I imagined a "magic system"* that was open to anyone but only manipulable by people with the sensitivity and aptitude of the makers. It's not that users are forbidden from exercising the power, it's that they don't have the aptitude, the patience, or most importantly the unconditional love to make.

The essence of the power of the makers is the ability to see the whole and the parts simultaneously. One of the ways to understand this kind of double-vision is in terms of infrastructure: the devices we use and the cities in which we live exist because of the infrastructure that supports them--something most people blithely ignore. But I see the world in terms of structural and systematic relationships. That's why I started with my knack for spotting sewage treatment plants.

How does this give you power? Once you understand both the parts and the whole, you see how a change here produces an effect there. Then you can take responsibility for a thing and shape it according to your purpose.

This, of course, only scratches the surface of the power. But that's just fine: makers are patient and understand that real, sustainable change (like learning something non-trivial) takes time.

* The "magic" of the makers is nothing more than being able to rearrange matter, much like a potter, in certain places. It's closer to nano-tech than hocus-pocus.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, May 14, 2010

When did you decide to write?

Free-form Friday

I decided many times. I wrote parts of several bad novels during high school along with stories and all the other things young people should try to write. But I think the real catalyst for me was that as a teenager I began playing Dungeons and Dragons.

A funny thing happened: I participated in a few games as a player, but it wasn't long before I found I was most interested in being the dungeon master. It was far more satisfying to set up the dungeon than to explore it. In fact, I noticed I was spending more time and getting more pleasure out of preparing the adventure than actually running the game.

As the years passed, I noticed that pattern again and again: regardless of the nature of the activity or endeavor, I felt a need (practically a compulsion) to get the story right.

And a big part of getting the story right is the context (back-story and setting) and the structure (the pattern and rhythm of the narrative). I was delighted to discover that these questions apply equally well in music and software and prose.

Writing is closer to the center of what I've been orbiting in my professional life and so I concluded it would be most graceful to bow to the inevitable.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thinking Readers

Reading thuRsday

On The Spectacle, P.J. Hoover asked, "Do people want to think when they read?"
In much of spec fiction, we’re dealing with new worlds, new rules, new technologies, new creatures. And with any of these things, as writers, we need to provide answers to the who/what/where/when/why questions.

As writers of spec fiction, it is our responsibility to make sure these questions are addressed and answered. But do the answers need to be in the pages? And if so, how detailed should they be?

In my opinion, most people read spec fiction to immerse themselves in a new world. And immersed in this place, they don’t want to have to think to hard. They want to lose themselves in the words. They don’t want to see detailed technical details that take them out of place.

As a reader, I most enjoy the books that give me plenty to think about when I'm not reading. Conversely, I find tedious the books that that say, in effect, "shut up and enjoy the ride." Novels of that sort might create more of a drive to read through them to find out what happens, but they do so at the price of re-readability.

Of course, we don't want to bring the story to a halt with a physics lecture in the same way that we don't want to bring the story to a halt with a history lesson (i.e., a back-story dump). A skillful writer will weave all the key information the reader needs into the story.

There are actually two skills in that last sentence: 1) the skill of weaving information into a story without breaking up its flow, and 2) a sense of the information the reader actually needs.

For example, most readers will probably accept silicon rock creatures without worrying about their origins if the writer says they exist in the world of the story. In the middle of the book, readers would only care about the evolutionary biology of the silicon rock creatures if that information is the key to defeating them. But after they've read the book and want supplementary material, they may find the topic very interesting.

I think the sweet-spot is a book with a seamless narrative that gives the reader plenty to think about when they're away from the book.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Meeting the Market

Writing Wednesday

There's a great deal of wisdom hiding in the story of the three bears. Of the three, however, I nominate baby bear as the wisest. Why? Because he has everything just right--not too hot and not too cold.

People tend to see the world in dichotomies. Psychologists tell us that the tendency toward dualism (black/white, us/them, etc.) comes from the basic way our brains are wired that enables us to perceive me/not me. In fundamental cases, reducing the complex world to one of two cases serves us well. But living in a complex society, we're better served by an approach more like baby bear's: Neither extreme is as appropriate or adaptive as someplace in the middle.

So what does this have to do with integrity in writing?

There are two inaccurate caricatures of writers: the hack that panders to the market and the artiste whose work must be good because it is so obscure and impenetrable. At best, those stereotypes define the ends of a spectrum.

The goal of every quality writer should be to follow baby bear's example and produce books that are just right. Put another way, you need to meet the market halfway with your creativity.

Everything happens in context. The leading lights among us metaphorically stand a little taller or see a little further. Take your favorite genius (say Mozart or Einstein) out of context (i.e., drop them in the middle of Africa) and they're no longer a genius (or, more accurately, none of their new acquaintances care).

A quality writer produces a book with integrity when they take the parts of context, convention, and expectations, add their love, personality, and creativity, and come up with a whole that is greater than the sum. Indeed, it takes more creativity to do something fresh within a well defined context than to have a field day with a blank slate.

I once heard Stacy Whitman, Editorial Director for Tu Book at Lee & Low, ask rhetorically, "Do you write for love or money?" Her answer, "Yes".

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Decision Trees

Technique Tuesday

Back in the early days of personal computers, when graphical displays began to outnumber character-mode displays (and state of the art computers had less processing power than modern smart phones yet took up most of your desk), a remarkable game came out that made those underpowered machines look like far more expensive graphical workstations.

The game was called Doom and it achieved its magic through a special incantation called binary space partitioning (BSP) trees. Without belaboring the algorithm, BSP trees enabled the game engine to quickly determine what the player was looking at so that it could ignore most of the information about the environment and focus the computer's meager processing power on rendering just those things the player could see.

Decision trees are an organizational tool that has much of the same magic as BSP trees. While there are more rigorous applications of decision trees, the basic idea is that you lay out a tree of possible outcomes for each decision. As you work through the tree, the best course of action often becomes clear because you can eliminate branches that lead to undesirable outcomes. For example, when it was time to go courting it didn't take me long to realize that the vast majority of women were not suitable candidates for a spouse (for a variety of reasons) and that I would be less frustrated if I devoted my attention and efforts only to those women that were suitable.

Again, like other little systems, the goal here is to reduce potentially complex situations to simpler and more manageable forms.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, May 10, 2010

Genesis of the Makers: A Less Than Noble Catalyst

Making Monday

If "revenge is a dish best served cold,"* then writing is a great way to get revenge: the publication time tables are such that the dish is very cold by the time the book is on the shelves.

My notions about makers and users arose not from a need for actual revenge, but from a desire to show former associates how wrong they were. You see, the start-up I'd been with for seven years finally fell apart and I found myself with some time on my hands.

The fundamental problem with the start-up was that after seven years, it was still a start-up: we'd managed to attract a lot of venture capital but we hadn't produced any revenue. Between mistakes and bad luck, we'd had plenty of set backs. Nonetheless, towards the end we'd finally put together a solid technical foundation. of course, because the universe is governed by irony, that's when the investors finally decided to pull the plug (which was actually about four years after the company should have died, but that's another story).

Time and again I've noticed that the makers, those creative, brilliant people who actually make things, tend to be at the mercy of the people who are good at using, particularly in the sense of gaining control of wealth and resources.

In the midst of the emotional turmoil of a business falling apart in spite of the extraordinary efforts of most of the technical contributors, I wondered what the world would look like if makers had real power.

That was the seed around which my ideas about system keepers and system beaters crystallized and grew into first a setting for a series of fantasy novels and then an entire philosophical framework.

And best of all, thanks to the philosophy, I transcended my initial motives. I came to understand that true makers have no time for vengeance.

* Old Klingon proverb

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Clipboard of Power

Free-form Friday

In my note about techniques this week I make a case for keeping something handy to record ideas as they pop up. I said that I like to use my "Clipboard of Power."

After drafting that note I realized that the rising, digitally-augmented generation will likely never see the full power of a clipboard. Why? Because personal digital devices are becoming ubiquitous.

There was a time when carrying a clipboard in public place suggested you were acting in an official capacity--all the more so if you consulted the clipboard regularly and periodically made annotations. On a number of occasions (some purposeful and some not), I've been approached, while in public with my clipboard of power, by people who needed directions or assistance and assumed that I must know something about the store or museum.

But if you try something similar now, you'll most likely be ignored. If you use a clipboard, the anachronism gives you away because everyone knows that anyone official will use an electronic device. And if you try it with a digital device, you'll be ignored because everyone has their their own devices. To paraphrase Syndrome, now that everyone has personal data capture devices, no one is special.

Don't mistake me: this isn't a paean to the good-old-days. It's simply that sometimes you notice that, over time, things do change.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, May 6, 2010

How to read a book: Context

Reading thuRsday

I began with the title, "How to read a book." But as I thought about it, I realized there's no way I can do justice to the subject in anything less than a hundred posts. Even qualified, the topic is probably overly ambitious. Given, however, that my ambition knows no bounds, that's not much of a problem.

When I was in graduate school, I took a course on ante-bellum* social history. At our first meeting, the professor greeted the class and then told us he hoped that during the course of the semester we would learn how to read.

Remember, this was graduate school. I'd already amassed a substantial collection of books, a degree, and debt. Surely all of that was proof I knew how to read. I was, as you probably suspect, a bit miffed. But I'd also been at school long enough to know that one often needs patience when dealing with professors.

True to his word, the professor did teach us how to read. Specifically, how to read critically. Each week we worked on a different book. And each week the professor would begin the discussion by asking, "So how do we get out from under this book?"

We were, of course, dealing with academic non-fiction, so I will simply summarize the techniques: it all came down to context.

We asked questions like, "Who is the author? Where were they? When did they write? What else was happening when they wrote?"

For instance, we read a book about the anti-abolition riots during 1830-1840 that was written during the civil-rights riots of the late 60s and early 70s. Not a coincidence.

So what does this mean for fiction?

Looking at both the internal and external context can help us.

Internal context includes everything from a sensible plot to a sensible back story and a sufficiently fleshed-out setting. External context includes evidence, or at least guesses, as to what the author may have been responding to when they wrote the story.

* Ante-bellum means "before the America Civil War" for all you non-history geeks.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How did you learn to write?

Writing Wednesday

Many writers will tell you that they learned their craft by reading and by writing.

With many things in life, the best way to learn something is to jump in and try to do it. This is particularly true for writing: Slamming words together on a regular basis in a way that makes sense to someone else is harder than it looks. It's certainly much harder than reading tamed words lined up smartly in a row and showing no sign of the struggle required to beat them into submission. (If you think that last bit sounds overblown and is just a pathetic play for sympathy, consider that English, as a mongrel and acquisitive language, has the largest vocabulary of any human language. This means that having put down one word a writer working in English has far more choices of what word to use next than writers working in other tongues.) The best way to truly appreciate the nature of the work involved is to try and do it.

Once you've tried putting words together to express your ideas, you can learn a lot by reading the work of other authors and seeing how they handled similar problems. You'll also learn a lot about conventions, cliches, and readers' expectations. I should add that I'm talking here just about reading in your 'genre' or reading works that are similar to the the ones you wish to undertake. Writers should also be widely read outside their genres--it's the best way to keep your idea pump primed.

Having repeated the orthodox answer, it's time to confess that for all my reading and writing, I really learned to write by watching TV, composing music, and developing software.

Reading and Writing

I started doing a lot of reading and writing when I was young. Indeed, I did so much reading and writing that they because a constant part of my life as I did various things. I got very good at academic and techicnical writing. But my attempts at fiction were less than satisfactory--something was missing, but how can you name something you can't see?


Meanwhile, I was developing software. If buildings were built like software, you would constantly be tearing them down and rebuilding them. There are thousands (sometimes millions) of things that have to be right in order to get a non-trivial piece of software working. It's overwhelming unless you can see the larger patterns and relationships. There's a lot more to say about the parallels between writing and developing software and I trust I'll return to this topic often. For the present it is sufficient to say that I learned about balancing abstraction and concrete implementation and how to move across concerns at multiple levels of magnitude without getting lost. A writer must be able to do the same thing, keeping in mind what the current section and chapter and part and book are all going while crafting the current paragraph to do its job in a what that supports all the other levels.


There's a strong connection between writing and music because both forms of expression are experienced linearly. I've composed a fair amount of music for my own use. Doing so has given me some feel for theme, motif, tension, resolution, anticipation, and direction. I'm not making any claims about my music other than to observe that you can figure out whether a song is going somewhere interesting more quickly than you can make the same determination with a novel.


Before I get to the punch line, I want to point out that when talking about "writing," we're talking as much about storytelling as about a way with words.

So how did I learn to write from television (a medium that hardly seems to belong in the same sentence with the phrase "great literature")? I watched Babylon 5. Okay, I also followed along as J. Michael Straczynski, executive producer and primary writer for Babylon 5 described what he was doing on the internet over the roughly seven years from the pilot to the final episode. I found it immensly enlightening to read what Straczynski said he was trying to do in an episode and then to see how it actually played out. I was finally able to see concrete examples of things like character development and multiple themes weaving into large story arc playing out in a way that clicked for me.


So, was that it?

No, I'm still learning how to write everyday, but neither you nor I have time for an endless post.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Healthy Literary Diet

My good writing friend, Becca Wilhite, posted a note today about healthy reading habits. Here's her analog:
Healthy literacy is like a healthy diet. To eat well, you need a blend of this and that. Lots of variety. Lots of color. Would it hurt you to have a cupcake once in a while? Of course not. Go for it. As long as you’re eating real food, too. If all you eat is cupcakes, you’re going to get a tummy ache.

And here's her point:
I asked the kids, “Is there anything you should NEVER eat?” – and there was a short silence and then some funny response. But my point was this: You should never, never eat rat poison. It is only made to kill. Likewise, there is “literature” out there that is like rat poison. You shouldn’t read it. It will poison your mind and kill your soul.

"Ah," you say, "but how do I know what's the rat poison?"

Becca has a good answer. You should read her entire post.

For my part, her analogy resonates strongly enough that I wanted to call it to your attention.

Write it Down

Technique Tuesday

I planned to discuss another little system this week, but I want to make a case for the importance of having a simple and consistent way to capture ideas as they arise and hold them until you have time to act upon them.


Twice this week, on consecutive days no less, I had an epiphany as I showered about topics I wanted to cover in this blog. The ideas were so good that I was confident I would remember. But one thing and then another required my attention and ... well you know where this is going.

Psychologists say (perhaps apocryphally) that the average person can only keep track of seven things at a time. If something new requires your attention, then one of the seven things you're currently tracking falls off the list. (In a number of cultures, seven is a holy number. Coincidence?)

I try to keep pen and paper nearby for this very purpose. Some people like notebooks or bound journals. I prefer my clipboard of power* and a stack of scratch paper.

Where the relative permanence of binding calls for something significant, scratch paper is definitionally expendable and so it doesn't matter what or how I write. But an obligation (or lack thereof) to write something significant is only half the story: I use my scratch paper as a temporary repository to hold the idea only long enough for me to act upon it. Others like the bound notebooks because they want a record of their ideas.

My point is not to argue for scratch paper over notebooks. Rather, I want to encourage you to develop a little system for a) capturing and b) acting upon your ideas. And for those of you who try to do this, let me encourage diligence.

* A sleek, all-aluminum clipboard that never runs down its batteries and is almost as stylish as the fruit-themed products from Steve's Job Shop in Cupertino.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, May 3, 2010

System Keepers and System Beaters

Making Monday

If you accept the notion that most of the human world can be understood in terms of systems, then we're ready to ask how people deal with system.

I tend to be suspicious of grand dichotomies that divide people into two camps, although I do find it hard to argue with the observation that there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind that divide people into two kinds and those that don't.

I say that because I think there are two basic ways to deal with systems: embrace them or get around them. I call the first system keepers and the second system beaters.

System Keepers

System keeper are willing to play the game. The challenge for them is to see how well they can do within the framework of the rules. The question of whether they could do better if the rules were different is at best a separate issue. They're more interested in seeing how the maker intended something to work than in seeing how far they can push it before it breaks.

System Beaters

System beaters are always looking for shortcuts, loop holes, or flaws that they can exploit to their advantage. A system represents something to be beaten or something to be used as a means to some other end. They tend to submit to a system only to the degree that they benefit by doing so.


System keepers see themselves as part of the system. System beater see themselves as exceptions.

System beaters are far more common than system keepers because life is much easier if you never have to truly take responsibility for yourself: system beaters always have an excuse, system keeper never do.

If that's not clear, think about this: Las Vegas is the temple of the system beaters.*

* Because everyone who goes there thinks that they will beat the odds.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /