Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Clever References

Writing Wednesday

I once heard of a study which claimed to show that modern children were much smarter than their ancestors because of The Simpsons. Okay, it wasn't simply because of that one program. The study tracked the number of reference to things, ideas, or events outside of the immediate story. They found that number increased over time. In other words, what the average viewer was expected to "get" moved in the direction of more and briefer references to a broader background of common knowledge.

Working references to popular culture into MG and YA work is tempting because it shows that you're oh so clever. But it's difficult enough to do that you should probably avoid the temptation.

First, there's the practical matter that most references will date your story. [Don't believe me? Find a picture of yourself twenty years ago--the trendier the better. How proudly would you display that picture now?]

Second, and more importantly, references to popular culture will almost always pull your reader out of the story, either to shake their heads if it's clumsy or in admiration if it's clever.

Consider the following lines from Phillip Reeve's Starcross. Together with Larklight and Mothstorm, the three MG books tell rollicking tales of daring-do in the space-ways of the solar system in a steampunk world where Isaac Newton's discovery of the alchemical secrets of spaceflight propel the British Empire across the stars. In that world, the American Revolution was only the American Rebellion (thanks to the Royal Navy's aether ships). In the midst of a series of adventures, a French agent, who has just revealed her plans to relaunch the Liberty (the one American aether ship from the rebellion) says,

"My grandfather hoped that he might capture a British warship or two, and set up a free American settlement upon one of the outer worlds ... He dreamed of founding a Rebel Alliance which would strike at your empire from a hidden base ..."

This is perhaps the best embedded reference to popular culture I've ever read: every single word in the sentence is both completely consistent with and fully motivated by the story. It's beautiful because it works on so many levels. And yet when I read it, I dropped right out of the story in admiration.

You're probably on less shaky ground if, like Reeve, you're working with comic material. That said, I still think the best advice is to minimize your references.

What do you think?

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

DC4W: Don't Criticize, Condemn, or Complain

Technique Tuesday

We'll start with the Fundamental Techniques in Handling People, the first section in Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.

The first principle is, "Don't criticize, condemn, or complain." Put another way, the simplest, most basic way to improve people's estimation of you is to stop being mean.

Carnegie gives examples of employers who saw a measurable increase in productivity and moral in their shops after they stopped shouting at their employees.

For writers, who interact with other people via the written word as much or more than they interact fact-to-face, the first thing this means is that we must discard any sense of entitlement. Yes, you've written a book--it's no trivial accomplishment. But the fact that you've written something doesn't obligate anyone else to read. You're not entitled to the attention of agents, publication, or commercial success.

If you approach the entire process with an attitude of humility, you'll have very little temptation to criticize, condemn, or complain.

What about all the things outside of your control as a writer?

Like the students who gripe about the cafeteria food they eat every day, it's satisfying, even soothing, to belly-ache about the publishing industry: to criticize the author who effortlessly churned out a sub-par book that's flying off the shelves; to condemn publishers who throw seven-figure advances at pointless celebrity books; to complain about the arcane query processes that blind agents to our masterpieces.

But stop and think for a moment. While it may feel good to rail against the publishing industry, just as it may feel good to chew out a slacking employee, these are the very people you want on your side. Wouldn't it be better to have employees whom you never need to shout at? Wouldn't it be better if the people in publishing wanted to work with you because you understand to some degree what they're going through?

The first step to winning friends for your writing and influencing people in the publishing industry is to stop criticizing, condemning, or complaining.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, June 28, 2010

Making Life Cycle

Making Monday

I generally enjoy watching cooking programs even though I know they're lying to me--not because what they show is inaccurate but because they only show part of the process.

Who wouldn't want to cook if it really was like the cooking shows? You'd only need to assemble the ingredients (magically arrayed for you in small glass bowls), pop the uncooked dish into the top oven, and pull the steaming, fully-cooked dish from the lower oven.

Users who claim to make are generally interested only in the most visible part of the process. Makers understand that the process of making spans a life cycle stretching (metaphorically) from cradle to grave. In outline form, the major steps look like this:

  • Design
  • planning
  • Accumulating (purchasing)
  • Preparing
  • Assembling in sequence
  • Intermediate processes (e.g. painting a sub-assembly)
  • Final assembly
  • Finishing (i.e., sanding and painting)
  • Installing or delivering
  • Cleaning up
Film production has three well known stages:
  • preproduction
  • production
  • post production
The process of writing a novel goes through similar phases.

The important point is that unlike cooking shows, true makers understand that a project has a beginning, middle, and end, and that while all phases are not equally appealing they are all necessary. A true maker doesn't call a project done until they've taken it through all the phases of its life cycle.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, June 25, 2010

The More Things Change, the More they Stay the Same

Free-form Friday

I've been listening to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. It was originally published in 1936, so I'm a bit late to the game.

I've found myself smiling, time and again, as I've listened to 40s-era advice that sounds like the latest pearls of wisdom from the social networking gurus. I trained as a historian, so I know that there's really nothing new under the sun. Still, I was intrigued by the parallels.

"That's nice," you may say, "but how could an advice book published in 1936 have anything for us now?"

I'll explain in detail in the coming weeks. For now I think the high-level take-away is that the publishing industry is no more mysterious than any other business because they're all fundamentally about human relationships. People haven't changed that much so the same principles for handling human relationships still apply.

I'm going to devote Tuesdays to a series of notes pointing out how Dale Carnegie's advice applies to modern writers. In preparation for that, here's a summary of the principles of How to Win Friends and Influence People from Wikipedia.

Fundamental Techniques in Handling People
  1. Don't criticize, condemn, or complain.
  2. Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  3. Arouse in the other person an eager want.
Six Ways to Make People Like You
  1. Become genuinely interested in other people.
  2. Smile.
  3. Remember that a man's Name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  5. Talk in the terms of the other man's interest.
  6. Make the other person feel important and do it sincerely.
Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking
  1. Avoid arguments.
  2. Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never tell someone they are wrong.
  3. If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  4. Begin in a friendly way.
  5. Start with questions the other person will answer yes to.
  6. Let the other person do the talking.
  7. Let the other person feel the idea is his/hers.
  8. Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.
  9. Sympathize with the other person.
  10. Appeal to noble motives.
  11. Dramatize your ideas.
  12. Throw down a challenge & don't talk negative when the person is absent, talk about only positive.
Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment
  1. Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
  2. Call attention to other people's mistakes indirectly.
  3. Talk about your own mistakes first.
  4. Ask questions instead of directly giving orders.
  5. Let the other person save face.
  6. Praise every improvement.
  7. Give them a fine reputation to live up to.
  8. Encourage them by making their faults seem easy to correct.
  9. Make the other person happy about doing what you suggest.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Me-too vs. Something New

Reading thuRsday

I finished a recently published YA paranormal and was underwhelmed. The twist I thought I saw coming never materialized and instead I was left with a me-too after taste. It's not that the book was bad--far from it. It's that the story followed well-trodden paths and felt like more of the same.

In contrast, I also recently read The Cabinet of Wonders, by Marie Rutkoski. The world, the magic, and the characters all felt fresh. It's a charming story whose Bohemian setting and sensibility take you off the beaten path.

Moonrat, the blogging editorial assistant,  posted a recent note about Laura Miller's "The Magician's Book." She wrote:
"Laura Miller says that, for us, you know, us kids who read constantly and obsessively when we were kids, we've spent our entire lives trying, like Lucy, to resuscitate that feeling of total immersion we felt when we read our Magician's Books when we were kids. We read things and like or enjoy them based on to what degree they can recall that ancient, complete escapism"
As a reader, I love the idea of "comfort" books--books we go back to again and again because they've become old friends.

As writers, I think we need to take care that we're producing something new instead of a "me-too." There's nothing wrong with loving a book and wanting to do something like it, but before you take the trouble to draft an entire novel, ask yourself whether you have something to add to the conversation.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Finishing Your Manucript: Scrutinize Overused Words

Writing Wednesday

I came across a note about "Writing Words to Avoid." The note attributed the list to 10 Easy Steps To Strong Writing, by Linda George, The Writer, Jan 2004.

Either the note writer or Linda said, "When writing that first draft, let 'em fly... then throw 'em from the train."

Here's the list:

  • a little
  • almost
  • anyway
  • began to
  • certainly
  • definitely
  • even
  • exactly
  • fairly
  • just
  • perhaps
  • probably
  • proceeded to
  • quite
  • rather
  • real
  • really
  • seem
  • slightly
  • so
  • some
  • somewhat
  • sort of
  • started to
  • such that
  • usually
  • very
  • which

I find this list useful not because these words should never be used, but because they need to earn their place in my manuscript. These are words we tend to use often in normal conversation and so they creep into our writing and dilute the ideas we're trying to convey.

For example, "almost" is occasionally useful to describing a degree of completion but it muddies the meaning when we use it to imply "a little less than." I kept the phrase, "... they had almost reached the trees when ..." (degree of completion) but removed the "almost" in the phrase "... he said, almost too brightly." The problem with the second, more common usage is that by saying what it almost is we're not saying what it is.

Similarly, "began to," and "started to," are occasionally useful when it's important to know that something happened in the context of starting some action, as in, "he started to run and then tripped." Often, in our writing, we use "began to" and say what a character started to do when it would be clearer and more concise to say what they did.

And that's what it really comes down to: overused words like the ones in the list are suspect because they blur the meaning. They still have their places, but those places are almost always fewer than you thought in your first draft.

What other words you would add to this list?

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Doing What Has to be Done

Technique Tuesday

Sometimes the only way to get something done is to do it.

Perhaps that sounds a big glib, but I've been surprised at how often I've watched people try to deal with their problems by hoping they'll go away or wishing that someone else would solve them. In other words, they do everything in their power to avoid doing what's in their power to do about the problem.

Lately I've heard people say you have to, "cowboy up," or, "pull up your big boy pants," and do what has to be done.

It's a surprisingly difficult technique to master because of the constant, overwhelming temptation to give up.

Of course, I'm not arguing for pigheadedness or ignorantly plowing ahead. I'm simply saying that sometimes the best solution to a problem is to stop worrying, roll up your sleeves, and get to work.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, June 21, 2010

Unpopular Virtues: Finishing

Making Monday

There's an interesting disparity in life. Have you ever noticed that there are shelves of books about getting a job, but none at all about leaving? We're endlessly fascinated with starting relationships--we have songs, articles, books, etc. about falling in love--but very little advice about ending them. The only major exception is contract law, where a substantial portion of the agreement covers the ways in which the contractual relationship might be ended.

Why are we more interested in beginnings than endings?

Beginnings are exciting: everything is possible and it's hard to imagine anything but the best outcomes. Endings are the opposite because the realities of the situation--the failings, the shortcomings, and the disappointments--are now all too clear. This is true whether we're talking about a relationship or a project.

All too often, I've watched enthusiasm for a project (particularly from executives) melt away near the mid point when both the limitations and the true cost of their brilliant initiative become apparent.

Tied closely with the virtue of responsibility, makers have the fortitude to finish what they've started. (Indeed, they ofter have to finish what others have started.) And finishing, for makers, includes not only pushing the project to completion, but also putting the tools away and cleaning up the shop.

There are a number of things that impel makers to finish. One of the main motives is integrity, both on the part of the maker and, more importantly, for the thing itself: to be finished is to be complete.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Candy Bowl as an Analog for Political Economy

Free-form Friday

One of the amenities in the salt mine where I labor is a candy bowl on the receptionist's desk. Each morning she fills it with an assortment of confections. And each evening the bowl is nearly empty.

After passing that candy bowl at various times during the day for the past several months, I've noticed a pattern: first the items wrapped in gold disappear, then the ones wrapped in silver, until we're left at the end of the day with cellophane-wrapped hard candy.

My first theory, perhaps because I trained as a historian, was that the folks in the office were subconsciously recapitulating the ancient theory that history was a process of devolution where society, which began in a golden age, had descended through ages of silver, brass, and iron to the present.

Then I realized there was a simpler explanation: my co-workers have simply internalized capitalist values. Like good little exploiters, they appropriate the highest value items first. (That, and the chocolate is wrapped in gold and silver.)

The theory was borne out when the receptionist added a canister of red vines next to the candy bowl. The communist influence of the pseudo licorice affected a redistribution of wealth (i.e., some of the chocolate actually survived until the end of the day.)

There are always amazing things to be found in the world, but I never expected to learn about political economics from sugary nibbles.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /
Chocolate bars by CycloneBill

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Responsible Reader

Reading thuRsday

In some respects, today's note is the most difficult to write because I'm not as sure about what it means to be a responsible reader.

It should go without saying that one should not read and drive, but apparently that fact that those are mutually exclusive activities is no longer clear in this shiny new age of texting.

A more useful notion of responsible reading might be the willingness to give a book a chance. I know of some people, for example, who will withhold judgment until they've read at least 50 pages. This is not to say that you should read everything uncritically, rather if you choose to read something you should give it "the old college try" before giving up.

Similarly, a responsible reader is willing to do a bit of work if the author seems to be doing his or her part. The responsible reader isn't put off by names that may be difficult to pronounce or ideas that may take some thought to understand. The responsible reader shouldn't have to do all the work, but like a good partnership they should be willing to do some of the work.

At a broader level, I think a responsible reader is like a responsible eater. In the same way that a healthy diet has variety, a responsible reader is willing to try new things.

What else do you think a responsible reader should do?

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Responsible Writer

Writing Wednesday

I've heard some people describe writing in terms of a dream-like state and argue that it's a purely artistic, right-brain endeavor. I find writing requires both brains: while I'm envisioning a scene with my left brain, I'm searching for the right words with my right.

Worrying about which brain may seem like a quibble, but it matters because writing is a conscious act. And that means it is something for which you as the author are responsible.

You're responsible for your words

You've got no excuse for lazy, imprecise writing. In conversation you can say, "It's like, you know ..." and if your listeners nod, they probably do know what you mean. But you have no such luxury with the written word.

The responsible writer has no place for cliches, excess adverbs, or thoughtless constructions (see "barely flooded").

You are responsible for your characters

The people you chose to write about should feel like people, not stereotypes or cardboard cut-outs.

You are responsible for your plot

Please don't try to pass off tired, retreaded stories. Step up to the challenge of finding something to add to the conversation.

"Is that the best you can do?"

That's the question the responsible writer constantly asks of him or herself.

What else do you think a responsible writer should do?

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How to Take Responsibility

Technique Tuesday

Taking responsibility doesn't mean accepting blame. Blame is, in fact, nothing more than shifting responsibility.

Taking responsibility is really about getting past blame and asking hard questions like, "What did I learn from that situation?" "What will I do differently the next time I'm in a similar situation."

Unfortunately, it's a hard thing to do. As I mentioned yesterday, in a world full of users we learn early and often how much easier it is if we can avoid responsibility. For example, every time there's a problem, someone says, "There ought to be a law." The more laws we add, the more responsibility we shift to the government.

The tendency to claim that we are exceptions is even more insidious. A great many people claim excuses because they belong to some disadvantaged group. Please understand: I know that life isn't fair and that people do a great job of being crappy to each other; there are a great many wrongs that should be righted. But you're going to have to wait a long time for things to get better if you don't ever ask yourself, "Is there anything I can do?"

Lest this wax too political, let's bring the discussion back to problem solving. The best problem solvers in my experience are more concerned with how to go forward than with what caused the problem. The history of the failure is only important to the degree that it shows the way to the solution. In other words, they take positive responsibility to resolve the matter.

In the immortal words of Rush (the band) from their song, Limelight,
Those who wish to be must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation, the underlying theme

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, June 14, 2010

Unpopular Virtues: Responsibility

Making Monday

Another reason makers are rare is because, unlike the great majority of people, they are willing to take responsibility at least for some things.

An act of making takes some existing thing and transforms it into something new. But not all transformative acts are acts of making. For example, smashing something transforms it into debris--not something we would call making (unless you wanted to be clever and say you're making a mess).

Making involves both intention and design. I once heard someone characterize construction as "systematic opposition to gravity." Design is about structure, patterns, and distinctions. It is, fundamentally about taking responsibility for the outcome.

Makers ask themselves, "What do I have to do to produce the result?" They know that no amount of wishful thinking or persuading others to believe will transform the raw material into the finished product. Like the story of the little red hen, everyone might agree that it's a nice idea but it won't happen until someone takes the responsibility to do it.

Users avoid responsibility because it makes it much more difficult for them to justify themselves. If a user can get someone else to take the responsibility, the user is free either to claim credit for success or to place blame for failure.

This is why, in a world of users, it is far riskier to be a maker. This is why making is fundamentally an act of courage.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, June 11, 2010

Mad at Fruit

Free-form Friday

This may sound like an awesome realization brought on by ingesting recreational chemicals*, but have you ever realized that a lot of the things we call vegetables are in fact fruit?

Per Wikipedia, "In broad terms, a fruit is a structure of a plant that contains its seeds."

Culturally, we generally think of fruit as sweet. But botanically, much of what you put into your salad is fruit: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, peas, beans, etc.

Roots (carrots, radishes, turnips, etc.), stalks (celery, rhubarb), and leaves (lettuce, spinach) are proper vegetables because they come from vegetative growth. But regardless of whether it's sweet, if it comes from a fruiting body, it's fruit.

This may be nothing more than the culinary equivalent of staring at a word until the letters look completely wrong, but it's enough to make you mad at fruit!

* Something, by the way, with which I have no first-hand experience.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why I Prefer to Read Fantasy

Reading thuRsday

Confession time: I tried to read a highly recommended contemporary young adult novel recently, but couldn't make it past the first few chapters. There were no problems with the characters, or plot, or writing. It's simply that it's a member of a class of novels that don't do much for me.


My glib answer is, "Because they're contemporary."

Let me try to explain.

In a contemporary story we, as readers, might have trouble with the choices characters make because we behaved differently when faced with similar experiences, while in a fantasy the rules are different and so it's harder to second guess the characters.

This objection is more subtle than characters simply doing things with which I don't agree: it's the sense that if they behaved a bit differently matters could be resolved without having to trudge through the whole book. For example, in this particular book and several others like it, much of the interaction takes place while the characters are hanging out. The story would be much shorter if one of the characters decided not to hang out any more.

On the heels of that observation came the thought that fantasy stories tend to have a lot less hanging out because the characters are trying to do something: get someplace, find something, unravel some mystery, etc.

But I think the heart of the matter is that contemporary stories are basically about making one's way in society--about finding friends and fitting in. Fantasy is almost never about fitting in, it's about being extraordinary.

I want to believe that all of us can be extraordinary in some way.

I realize that's a fantasy (and if the news has been particularly depressing, a wildly unrealistic one). But that's why I prefer stories that entertain the possibility that we might be wonderful over those that at best offer the hope that we might cope.

Please don't misunderstand: I'm not saying I have no appreciation for realistic stories. What I realized as I read the "well-written and highly-recommended" novel is that I have no interest in characters whose fundamental world view is that life is something to be put up with.

The only value in my generalization about fantastic vs. realistic stories is that there's no point inventing a new world if you want to tell stories about enduring life so those kinds of stories are rarely told as fantasies.

Fantastic or realistic, I like best stories that are fundamentally about engaging life and the world around you. 

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Conflict and the Moral High Ground

Writing Wednesday

I recently listened to a history of the US Marine Corps from World War II (WWII) to the present. There's no such thing as a "good" war, but some of the conflicts during the last seventy years seem more necessary than others.

The Marines say that warfare is fundamentally a clash of wills, and the party with the stronger one will prevail. The will to fight and win is closely tied to the notion of the moral high ground.

What I've noticed is that the party that has no choice but to fight often gains the moral high ground. Whereas the party that has more options literally has an uphill battle in the moral landscape because they have to show why choosing to fight is better than choosing not to fight.

I think this is why so many stories start when the protagonist's world changes because of the actions of the antagonist. The formally ordinary protagonist is forced do do something because of actions the antagonist chose to take. The protagonist essentially has no choice (because doing nothing isn't much of a story). That fact gives them easy access to the moral high ground.

This pattern is probably clearest in stories of overt conflict, but I think it applies just as well in stories about characters where the conflicts are primarily emotional. The character who is "forced" to resolve a difficult situation is more sympathetic than the character who chooses to cause the situation.

Keep this in mind as you develop your protagonist and your antagonist. The one who is forced into a conflict will almost always be more sympathetic than the one who chooses to cause the conflict.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Technique Tuesday

My son, at ten and a half, has a curious habit: he eats his meal in order, starting with the food he likes best. This means that he often ends with a lonely pile of something green--peas or lettuce--on his plate and a court order* not to leave until the plate is clean.

I confess I wasn't terribly fond of vegetables when I was his age. But at some point I discovered that my problem wasn't the vegetables (or the non-sweet fruits like tomatoes, cucumber, squash, peppers, etc. that get lumped in with them) themselves, but with the lingering taste if that was the last thing I ate. Once I began taking care to finish up with something neutral, that would mop up the aftertaste, I found I actually enjoyed vegetables.

There are two related techniques lurking in this anecdote:
  1. Doing what needs to be done
  2. Making an unpleasant task palatable

We'll talk about doing what needs to be done another time. Right now I want to share a few ideas about making an unpleasant task palatable.

The motivational games we discussed a few weeks ago are one way to make a task palatable.

Another is to break the unpleasant task into smaller, more manageable sub-tasks. I'm often astonished at the things I can do if I stop worrying about the whole, daunting task and focus instead on a smaller part I know I can do. It's hard to sit down and write a novel. It's much easier to sit down and write a scene.

But the real trick is to find the root cause**--what is it that makes the task unpleasant--and then come up with radical (as in addressing the root cause) solutions, like my discovery that I need to be careful about the aftertaste.

What have you done to make an unpleasant task more palatable?

* His mother, of course, embodies judge, jury, and executioner insofar as legal disputes around mealtimes are concerned.

** Root? Root vegetables? Yes, bad as it is, the pun is intentional. You're free to file complaints.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, June 7, 2010

Unpopular Virtues: Patience

Making Monday

One of the reasons makers are outnumbered by users is because makers depend on unpopular virtues like patience.

Many people think patience means, "putting up with stuff." That's true only in a superficial sense. The patience of the makers is intimately twined with the deep understanding required for true making.

I once heard a creation story in which each phase ended with the phrase, "... and the gods saw that they would be obeyed." I was struck by the thought that even the gods of creation had to be patient.

Impatience is one of the hallmarks of users. Their impatience stems from the fact that users believe they and their purposes are categorically more important than the thing being made.

For makers, patience is a fundamental virtue that can best be summarized as not cutting corners and not taking short cuts.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, June 4, 2010

Meaningful Contexts

Free-form Friday

As a variation on the philosophical conundrum about noisy trees falling in forests, I've wondered: if a capricious deity were to pluck Mozart out of Vienna and deposit him in the middle of darkest Africa, would he still be a genius?

The question about falling trees is tricky because it raises the spectre of absolutism vs. relativism. The question about genius is purely relative: genius is only meaningful in comparison to something else-- a context in which the distinction is meaningful.

Much of the art and craft of constructing a novel revolves around ways of creating meaningful contexts for readers. It's what gives them reasons to care about the characters. For example, with Savvy I was drawn in and wound up caring what happened to the whole crazy cast (to the point of feeling a bit disappointed that the crew from the bus didn't get to help wake her father). In contrast, with War of the Worlds I found myself feeling quite detached from the cataclysmic tragedies.

There's an analogous context for the place the book achieves in society. Marketing and promotion are obvious and explicit ways to create a meaningful context for a book.

But the contexts don't end there. The decision to acquire a book is made in the context of the publisher's concerns (and has very little reference to the author's concerns).

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Monist and Dualist Fantasies

Reading thuRsday

Dualism (as you may recall from my note on Monday) means seeing the world in terms of two mutually exclusive divisions. Monism means seeing the world as one thing.

Many fantasies are dualistic in the basic sense that you're either in this world or in the fantasy world: you're either in damp England or sunny Narnia, never both. Stories with portals (i.e., magic door), dreams, and time travel are often dualistic.

Magic realism and its more commercial paranormal cousins are monistic because of the conceit that the fantastic elements walk among us, part and parcel of the world we know.

In the novel I drafted about the makers, I created a universe of which the world we know is a part. The other places are no more alternatives for our world than Paris is an alternative for London. In some senses, those cities may feel like different worlds, but in a larger sense they are just places in the world.

I find these notions help me appreciate the different kinds of fantasies I read.

If you force me to pick one, I'd have to go with monistic fantasies: because I've had no luck finding a wardrobe that doubles as a portal, I want to believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Horatio's philosophy.*

* Hamlet, near the end of act 1, scene 5.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Magic of Context

Writing Wednesday

For good or ill, the way you introduce a manuscript creates a context against which people judge a manuscript.

I've come across several comments from agents and others in the business about how they would jump at the chance if a manuscript of Stephen King or Neil Gaiman came across their desk. The reason is that those authors come with a tremendous amount of context that practically guarantees wide interest in their next project. (I wonder how well The Graveyard Book would do as the début novel of an unknown author.)

Put another way, (and not to excuse the numb commuters who wouldn't pause for beauty) the virtuoso violinist in the subway was ignored in part because of the context. If Mozart were dropped into the middle of the pygmy jungle would he still be a genius or would he be an entrée?

Context helps us determine why we care.

As authors, we create two kinds of context that (borrowing from economics) I'll call micro-context and macro-context.

Micro-context is what we generally call "good writing;" it is all the internal details--beginning with the well crafted first sentence and running all the way to the satisfying conclusion--that collectively give us reasons to care about the story when we're reading.

Macro-context might be called "good presentation." While it might correctly bring to mind marketing and promotion, I think it is a broader notion that helps us decide why we should care about the book.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Parts and Wholes

Technique Tuesday

Part of the fun of an optical illusion is the way that it jumps in your perception from one thing to another. Similarly, being able to see things (particularly the situations in which you find yourself) in more than one way is an important skill.

One of the interesting things about working with computers is the number of orders of magnitude you need to understand. You can work with events that take anywhere from nano-seconds to months or years to complete. You need the mental agility to move across all those scales to build robust systems. The parts at one scale become the wholes at the next.

People working with systems must always be on their guard against the subtle trap of premature optimization. Premature optimization is at best a waste of time (e.g., optimizing a component used rarely enough that it makes no different in terms of overall performance). More often, it introduces errors by optimizing a component at the expense of a system.

Systems tend to work best when their components aren't all running at maximum. The ENIAC, the first general purpose electronic computer, contained about 18,000 vacuum tubes. The mean time between failure for those tubes in 1946 was such that on paper you could never have that many tubes functioning at the same time. By the simple expedient of running the tubes at a fraction of their rated power the engineers were able to create a relatively reliable system.

The key is to understand the role of the parts in the context of the larger system.

Image: luigi diamanti /