Tuesday, August 31, 2010

DC4W: Arguments, Opinions, and Errors

Technique Tuesday

Continuing our on-going series on Dale Carnegie for Writers (DC4W), the first three principles in the Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking, the third section in How to Win Friends and Influence People, are:
  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.
The title of this section, "Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking" may sound, at first, as though we've crossed the line into salesmanship. But look at it this way: convincing someone to invest ten hours in reading your words is fundamentally about wining people to your way of thinking. Your way of thinking is a fundamental part of your voice. People who become readers do so because they want to hear your story in your voice, all of which is a product of your way of thinking.

1. Avoid arguments.

How often have you felt compelled to read a book (perhaps because everyone else is talking about it and you don't want to be left out)? I commented in an earlier post about my reluctance to join the bandwagon if something becomes too popular. I often don't enjoy the thing that is popular because very few works can meet the expectations created by that much hype. Or to put it in Carnegie terms, I've not been won to the author's way of thinking, rather I've lost an "argument" with popular opinion. Arguments are all about compulsion. Compulsion will never win anyone to your way of thinking.

I think this advice is particularly appropriate for writers who receive criticism from a writing group, agents/editors, or reviewers. Arguing that the person offering the criticism doesn't "get it" isn't going to help them "get it." They'll simply dig in and reinforce their position.

The same is true with rejection. Argument simply confirms the rejector's opinion.

The best policy is to listen and learn. You may need clarification, but take care that your request for clarification doesn't put the other party on the defensive.

2. Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never tell someone they are wrong.

This principle flows naturally from the first. Telling someone they are wrong is the first salvo in an argument.

Notice, by the way, that the key word here is "opinions." If it truly is a matter of fact (and very few thing are), and the error could cause harm, that's another matter. But publishing is a deeply subjective business (which is a diplomatic way to say that nobody really knows what works in an objective or, more importantly, predictive sense).

Again, for writers, this is particularly important to remember when dealing with rejection. First, once someone has decided they can't sell your project, that opinion becomes their truth and you won't get their best efforts if you force the issue. Second, with the knowledge that it is the other person's opinion, you can move on confident that the rejection is not an objective condemnation but simply means it wasn't the right project for them.

3. If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

Admitting your mistakes quickly and emphatically is a good idea for more reasons that I can cover in a paragraph or two. It's a powerful way to defuse a potentially confrontational situation.

As a writer, this principle betokens a fundamental willingness to learn and improve. That willingness should apply to both your craft and the conduct of your public relationships.

And if none of that makes sense, consider that the most interesting protagonists are not perfect. As the protagonist of your own story, you don't have to be perfect either. Indeed, our culture generally views someone who is candid about their shortcomings far more charitably than someone who denies they have any short comings.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, August 30, 2010

Illusion and Reality

Making Monday

It's been a while since we've contrasted makers and users (or, more formally, system keepers and system beaters). Today I want to explore the observation that system beaters create illusions where makers create real things.

In 1987 Paul Hawken published Growing a Business. His book offers what sounds like counter-intuitive business advice. For example, contrary to the conventional wisdom that people go out of business because they don't have enough money, Hawken argues that the real reason most small businesses fail is because they have too much money. Specifically, people spend too much time trying to look like they're in business instead of actually building a real business.

One slotted, three pronged widget (Wikipedia)
Also said to be a great floor wax and dessert topping.
I've been involved in firms where I listened to the leaders and founders say, with a straight face, that the most important thing was for us to appear to be a successful company because that would attract both customers and investors. In other words, if we maintained the illusion long enough, it would become reality.

Users or system beaters are far more interested in image than substance because things only serve as means to their ends.  For users, appearance and intention are more important that the actuality because actual things can be discarded when they're no longer useful.

Makers understand the world in completely opposite terms. Makers deal in the substance of a thing because they understand that the image can change. For makers, reality trumps appearance.

Where do you stand on illusion and reality?

 Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Common Wisdom about Revisions

Free-form Friday

I came across a note on Writer Unboxed from someone who writes like I do. Juliet Marillier said:
"I’ve been reading a lot of expert advice lately, both here and elsewhere, about writing your first draft quickly and not allowing yourself to become stalled too early by niceties of style, structure or character. Get the rough and ready bones of the book down, people say, then worry about polishing them and giving them flesh and fine clothing. It makes perfect sense. So why don’t I work that way, and why am I unlikely to try it?"
Juliet goes on to explain that she revises as she writes, usually stopping every two or three chapters to go through the manuscript. Technically, it's one draft, but a draft that has been revised many times.

For may part, I generally do several stem-to-stern revisions after I finish my first draft, but these passes are usually about refining the tone and language, clarifying actions and arc development, and sharpening characters.

I suspect that the common advice to write first and revise later arises from the common trap of revision paralysis: the tendency to become so obsessed with perfecting a part of the text that you're never able to move on and finish the rest of the manuscript.

I further suspect that the advice to keep writing and avoid the temptation to revise is more appropriate for discovery writers: that is, in the first draft of a discovery project it's much more important, given the risk of putting a lot of effort into material you may not use, to explore the lay of the land than to capture the details of each nook and crevice. Writing from an outline, on the other hand, the more confidence you have in the overall shape and thrust of the story, the more it pays to polish as you go.

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Critical Reader

Reading thuRsday

I took a course in museum studies in graduate school. As part of that course, we toured a number of museums in the north eastern United States. The more museums I visited the more I noticed that the explanatory text in exhibits was almost always too small.

I've noticed that getting technical training in something usually takes the fun out of that thing as you develop professional sensibilities.

Thanks to my writing, I'm getting to that point with my reading.

I've read several new books recently and wondered why they had been released. For example, one book had the phrase "suddenly he slowly ..." (if that phrase doesn't bother you, see my complaint about "barely flooded"). Another was fine except that the story felt like another currently popular story with the serial numbers filed off. Then there are the books that are praised and given special promotions by their publishers and I don't see how they're better than others.

To be clear, in all these cases the books aren't bad in a general sense--in fact they were pretty good overall--but they weren't as polished, in terms of art or craft, as we're told our unpublished work must be.

Those of us who are still trying to get our books published (so that others can complain about us in turn) often come away with the feeling that there's a secret book of rules, the violation of even the smallest of which eliminates your chances for publication. So it's hard to understand something published recently in spite of the fact that they broke one or more of the secret rules.

My point here is not to complain about how unfair it is that the rule-breakers get published and I don't. Rather, I've become very interested in questions like, "What was the editorial process?", "What led to the decision to go with this book and not another?"

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Discovery vs. Outline: Does it depend on what you're writing?

Writing Wednesday

We've all heard about outline and discovery writers. We've even heard about some people who take different approaches for different projects. This lead me to wonder: are there different stories, or more technically, contexts, where one mode (outlining or discovery) is more adaptive?

Here's my hypothesis: fantastic stories require outlines, realistic stories need to be discovered.

In the first case (which includes fantastic things like murder mysteries and thrillers that take place in the realistic world), consistency, particularly where the fantastic elements are concerned, is paramount if we're to suspend our disbelief. In the second case, the real world is so full of elements with varying significance that you have to explore to discover the ones that belong in the story.

This, of course, is not to argue that discovery and outline writing are two mutually exclusive modes. [For my part, I like to outline at the chapter level, where I make note of key scenes and plot points (i.e., what the chapter needs to accomplish), and then "discover" what actually happens as I write the chapter.]

Rather, I argue that it is more useful to understand discovery and outline writing not as modes but as approaches or techniques. Like the artist who is more comfortable with one medium than another, you may prefer one approach. But the good artist knows how to work in both water colors and oils.

What do you think?

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

DC4W: Make the Other Person Feel Important and do it Sincerely

Technique Tuesday

Continuing our on-going series on Dale Carnegie for Writers (DC4W), the sixth principle in the Six Ways to Make People Like You, the second section in How to Win Friends and Influence People, is, "Make the other person feel important and do it sincerely."

This one is a challenge, and no mistake, because it doesn't work without sincerity. Carnegie tells of a party where he was cornered by a bore. He had to look long and hard to find something he could say with sincerity, but at length he said, "You're clearly someone who is passionate about this subject, and that's something I admire."

One of the simplest ways to make someone feel important is to give honest and sincere appreciation. At the most fundamental level, an expression of appreciation acknowledges that the other person exists and is valued--the cornerstone of feeling important.

Another general approach, as illustrated by Carnegie's example, is to find something you sincerely admire about the other person and share your opinion with them.

A thoughtful note or gesture, particularly in professional relationships where such things are not expected, goes a long way to helping a person with whom you deal (like your agent, editor, or publicist) feel important in a good way. Of course, it must be sincere, which almost always means it must be personal.

So as a writer, what can you do to make people feel important?

I've seen some writers who have a knack for making each and every person in line at a signing feel important. One, for example, thanked each person and asked if he could take their picture holding the book. I'm not sure how you develop the stamina to greet the 237th person as warmly as the first, but I'm sure it's important.

And in terms of what you actually write, the best stories are told with a voice that whispers, "You, dear reader, are so important I wrote this for you."

An interesting side effect with this technique is that the more you sincerely make the other person feel important, the more important you become to them.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, August 23, 2010

Making and Steampunk

Making Monday

Steampunk is a movement that began in literature (Jules Vern and H.G. Wells) and has since spilled out into art, style, and (for a few dedicated individuals) life.

The steampunk aesthetic combines beautiful enclosures, often of brass and wood, with exposed parts; a style where form follows function even when function springs from fancy. Custom, with all the idiosyncrasies that implies, is the order of the day.

I once heard steampunk, as a contemporary movement, characterized as, "We love the machine, not the factory."

There's a fair amount of overlap in the conceptual landscape between steampunk and making. Steampunk aesthetics provide strong visual metaphors for the individuality of the makers and the ideal openness of things made.

A steampunk-style desktop computers (from the Wikipedia article).

The care and craftsmanship that go into an enclosure like this show the love that is is the foundation of true making.

Tim Wetherell's Clockwork Universe sculpture at Questacon, Canberra, Australia (September 24, 2009)
The open parts here invite us to understand, repair, and reconfigure--to take responsibility for the made world in which we live.

 Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, August 20, 2010

Where do you get your ideas?

Free-form Friday

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas.

I once heard Brandon Sanderson answer this question. He said, "Writers train themselves to notice interesting things, wonder about them, and construct novels to answer their own questions."

It's not that writers get ideas any differently than you do, it's what we do with them after they come to us: we tend to hang onto them and bounce them off of each other until they start to stick together. Once enough idea atoms start to stick together, they form the structural seed around which a story can crystallize.

Put differently, because of the way books are marketed (publishers love nothing better than an evocative word or phrase that seems to capture the essence of the book), it's easy to assume that writers are home-free once they have a clever concept. Nothing could be further from the truth. The art of the novel is what you do with that clever concept to keep it interesting across hundreds of pages. A novel is actually the sum of tens of thousands of ideas all working together to create the pattern of the story that, from a distance looks like a clever concept.

So how do I get my ideas? I operate an unlicensed conceptual particle accelerator that bombards idea atoms until they fuse into stories. (Oh, and I try not to cross the proton streams.)

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Middle Grade Bullies: Just Say No

Reading thuRsday

I picked up a newly published middle grade novel after the agent who represented it said the book was the one that really got him excited about children's literature.

I was eager to dive into the story and see what made this book special. And much like diving into water that's shallower than it appears, I ran smack into a child of destiny being tormented by bullies among both students and faculty in an oppressive institution.

Eddie~S at Wikimedia
It seems as though most of the middle grade books I've read during the last few years begin with bullies. I'm beginning to think I missed the memo saying that such things are required. What's worse is that the bullies generally have nothing to do with the main story after the child of destiny transcends the oppressive institution (i.e., we never see the bullies again after they've done their scene-setting work at the beginning.)*

I know school isn't rainbows and unicorns, and kids can be mean to each other, but this is becoming a tired trope. So I'm calling for an end to bullies in middle grade novels. (Unless the novel is actually about bullies at some level and those characters are in the book to do more than simply set the starting scene.)

I know you middle grade authors are creative, so let's step up and find something other than the overdeveloped brute who takes senseless pleasure in pounding your protagonists. How about a rival? An enemy? Another kid so focused on what he or she wants that they run over your protagonist and don't even notice the bump?

At a minimum, please don't use a bully simply because almost everyone else has.

* At least C.S. Lewis had the decency to let his protagonists go back to their dreary new school at the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader and give their tormentors a proper comeuppance.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Positive and Negative Space in Writing and the Writing Life

Writing Wednesday

I came across a post on the Murderati blog about positive and negative space in architecture and the implications of those ideas in writing and the writing life.

Commenting on 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School  by Matthew Frederick, the author said that Frederick's definition, "We move through negative spaces and dwell in positive spaces," hit her like a revelation.

She goes on to say:
"When I thought about this in relation to writing, I had a twofold appreciation for the term. First off, just the physical aspect of the page—the words and paragraphs create positive space and the white space around it is the negative space. If you pick up any manuscript and it’s filled with long, dense paragraph after paragraph, it feels cluttered and heavy, weighted and overwrought, even before you’ve read a single word. A reader brings with her the expectation of balance, and you need white space to achieve that balance. Too much white space, though, feels bereft of weight, of value, of deeper meaning, and so it’s the writer’s job not only to craft the words, but to pay attention to the space those words take up on the page."
Simple enough, right?

The other meaning when applied to writing is the creation of the worlds we hope to evoke. Mr. Frederick goes on to explain:
“The shapes and qualities of architectural spaces greatly influence human experience and behavior, for we inhabit the spaces of our built environment and not the solid walls, roofs, and columns that shape it. Positive spaces are almost always preferred by people for lingering and social interaction. Negative spaces tend to promote movement rather than dwelling in place.”
Spaces in which to dwell and pass through. How does this apply to writing (where space is a conceptual space)?

  • Showing is a dwelling space, telling is a pass-through space. Both are needed if the story goes some place.
  • Perhaps in pacing: action is a pass-through space, quieter segments are dwelling space.

How does this concept apply to the writing life?

The author likened her task-oriented approach to pass-through space: get one job done and move on to the next. She said that she's now realized the value of mental dwelling space, which provides time and place to simply be. I've heard some people characterize mental dwelling space as refilling the well.

I think there's value in thinking about your writing and your writing life in terms of positive and negative spaces. What do you need to pass through? Where do you need to dwell?

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

DC4W: Talk in the Terms of the Other Person's Interest

Technique Tuesday

Continuing our on-going series on Dale Carnegie for Writers (DC4W), the fifth principle in the Six Ways to Make People Like You, the second section in How to Win Friends and Influence People, is, "Talk in the terms of the other [person's] interest."

This may seem a bit redundant in light of what we've discussed so far in this series, but it really goes to the heart of what it means to be a writer.


Telling an agent how they can help you fulfill your dreams of publication completely fails to talk in terms of their interest. What is in their interest? Placing books that will sell and earn them a nice commission. Your interests, aside from producing a book that will sell, are largely irrelevant to them. Indeed, in the early stages, all an agent really wants to know about you is that you're not crazy and won't be too painful to work with.

Editors and other Industry Professionals

Your interests and those of editors and other industry professionals has an even smaller overlap than the interests of you and your agent. Editors are interested in the particular project they've bought and care about your interests only to the degree that they help move the project through publication and out into the market.

The advice to communicate in a professional, business-like manner is another way to say that you should talk primarily in terms of the other person's interest.


To this point, the suggestions have been fairly straightforward--perhaps even standard practice for good interpersonal skills. But when we turn our attention to readers, we find something wonderful.

The key thing that distinguishes a writer from other people who put words on the page is that writers "talk in the terms of [reader's] interests.

Think about it.

The only reason anyone parts with their hard-earned cash and devotes hours to your book is because they believe it addresses their interests. From entertainment to information, readers only care about what's in it for them.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, August 16, 2010

Making and DIY

Making Monday

Late summer seems to be the time when honey-do's (projects around the house, not the melon) multiply.

After participating in many of the rituals of the season, I've discovered the Law of the Home Improvement Store, which is that every project requires at least three trips to the home improvement store:
  1. You get what you think you need.
  2. You go back to get what you forgot.
  3. You go again to get what you really need.
As frustrating as the multiple trips may be, doing it yourself is a maker virtue.

There's an anti-maker tendency toward things that are black boxes (like certain high-profile Apple products where the owner can't even change the battery). Of course, specialization is an important part of the development of society because it encourages interdependence. Taken too far, however, and we end up helpless and dependent.

Makers dream of a world where you can get at the parts and reconfigure a thing to do or be what you want it to be. It's not that, like some toddlers, they have to do everything themselves. Rather they want it to be possible to do it themselves.

So don't get frustrated if you find you have to make more than one trip to the home improvement store. Whenever you try to "do it yourself," you're learning a bit more about how the world works and how you can make it more like what you want.

 Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, August 13, 2010

Theory: Story as Model

Free-form Friday

When we make a model of something, it emphasizes some aspects of reality and suppresses others. That selective representation is an essential property of a model: if the model were a perfect representation of the thing being modeled, it would be a copy, not a model.

Why would we prefer the imperfect copy that is a model to the full fidelity of reality?

A columnist in Scientific American wrote,
“When the hard-nosed behavioral scientist James March taught his famous course at Stanford using War and Peace and other novels as texts, he emphatically was not teaching a literature course. He was drawing on works of imaginative literature to exemplify the behavior of people in business organizations in a way that was richer and more realistic than any journal article or textbook.
In other words, the very function of a model is to make something clearer than it might be in reality.

Speaking on a panel at the 2010 Provo Library Childrens Book Festival, Brandon Sanderson said, "Fantasy is like an experiment: human characters are the control, and the fantastic (world) is the experiment."

In other words, speculative fiction, for which the fantastic setting isn't just that--a setting, is a model, to one degree or another, of reality. And the function of the fantastic is to make some element (presumably the subject or theme of the story) clearer.

But it's not just speculative fiction. Stories depend upon a selective narrative. That is, we don't want to hear about all the ordinary things that happened between the interesting sequences. Imagine how tedious a first person narrative would be if we had to slog through everything the character did and thought during all their waking hours. Instead, we like to hear the heroes realize they can cut the bad guy off at the pass, skip the twelve hours it took to actually get to the pass (unless we get a quick shot of them riding through a dramatic landscape), and get on with the showdown at the pass.

As I think about the story I want to tell, I find it helpful to think of the story as a model and consider what I should emphasize and what I should omit to make the story clearer.

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, August 12, 2010

First Person

Reading thuRsday

I confess I've never been fond of stories in the 1st person. With that bias, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Savvy, by Ingrid Law.

As I thought about that gap, I realized that what I dislike is the way that first person has become synonymous with stream of thought--that because we read "I did this" we must be in the character's head and privy to all their thoughts. In YA that often means we have to wade through a lot of whining, moaning, and self-indulgence.

It wasn't always that way. There's an earlier tradition of 1st person = story told by an eye-witness. Treasure Island is 1st person, but we never hear Jim Hawkins wondering whether he'll have a date. We hear about Jim's thoughts only to the extent that we need to understand his motives.

In Savvy I enjoyed hearing the character's thoughts because the story was as much about thoughts as anything else. The narrator must first figure out what her savvy (i.e., her special know-how) is, then try to make sense of it. I don't think you could tell the story of her journey to understanding nearly as well if you weren't watching her thoughts.

What it comes down to, as it usually does, is that you must use the right tool for the job, and not simply follow fashions.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Writing Action Sequences

Writing Wednesday

In a recent episode of the Writing Excuses podcast, L.E. Modesitt talked about writing action sequences in an episode dedicated to practical fantasy.

Practical fantasy, by the way, means paying attention to the structural relationships in your fantastic world. For example, Lee mentioned a story in which two armies of 10,000 knights each met in battle, and pointed out that in this world it takes 1200 acres (or about 2 square miles) of cultivated land to support a knight and that it would be very difficult to maintain the political cohesion of that much territory with only horse-based transportation. In other words, if your story violates economics as we understand it in this world, then you're going to have to take the time to establish how it works in your world.

1944 USS Mount Hood explodes
You've got similar structural issues with actions sequences. I think of action as the flow and collision of opposing forces. There's a rhythm, pacing, and a certain inexorability to the action sequence. (If not, the characters could simply side-step the unpleasant consequences.)

Lee pointed out that most people don't realize how quickly real action happens; that there's a long wait before something happens, a moment of chaos, and a lot of work afterward to deal with the consequences. He said war is 99% boredom and 1% terror.

Lee also said that big action is made up of smaller action. I was reminded of J. Michael Straczynski's comments about the logic of a space battle between the Narns and the Shadows in Babylon 5. He broke the action down into more or less the following phases:
  • detection,
  • deploy long-range weapons,
  • close to effective range
  • major and minor encounters,
  • break off or destruction
  • aftermath
It's tempting to think about cool action--guys flying through the air, things exploding, etc.--but eye candy, whether in print or on the screen quickly grows tiresome it if doesn't arise from an inevitable underlying structural logic.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

DC4W: Be a Good Listener

Technique Tuesday

Continuing our on-going series on Dale Carnegie for Writers (DC4W), the fourth principle in the Six Ways to Make People Like You, the second section in How to Win Friends and Influence People, is, "Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.."

Unless you've been living under a social media rock, you know that relentless self promotion is the surest way to alienate people. Instead, we're encouraged to get out and interact, leaving, for example, thoughtful, relevant comments on blogs. Of course, you need to listen to the conversation for a while to determine which of the things you might want to say are relevant.

Listening and encouraging others to talk about themselves is even more important at conferences and events with publishing professionals. While you should be ready to have something to say for yourself--an introduction and a brief answer/pitch for the inevitable, "Oh, and what do you write?" question--you'll get much more out of encouraging others to talk about themselves.


Dale Carnegie tells a story of a salesman who asked a few questions and then spent most of his appointment listening. A few days later, the prospect placed a large order because the salesman was "such a nice young man." Put in more cynical terms, no agent or editor is going to fall in love with your manuscript based on your interactions at a conference, but they will be more interested in your project if you showed them that you're a good listener and interested in them. 

Finally, at the broadest level, you need to listen to the market. I'm not talking about chasing trends, but I do believe you need to meet the market half way. There are any number of ways to listen to the market--blogs, reviews, studying bookstores--but the single most valuable way you can listen to the market and encourage books to talk about themselves is to read them. Many writers will say that the single most important thing you can do to become a writer (aside from writing) is to read.

A reader suggested that the ratio of your ears to your mouth is a good guideline for the proportion of listening to talking.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, August 9, 2010

Making Meaning

Making Monday

M.I.T. has a long, proud tradition of hacking, which specifically means the creative and non-destructive rearrangement of matter and space.

In April, hackers suspended a lounge under the arch over entrance to the Media Building. At first glance, it might seem like random college hi-jinks, but hacking at M.I.T. is generally the expression of a fundamental maker need: to make meaning.

April, 2010. The lounge is on the underside of the arch.
[This may seem a bit esoteric, but bear with me.]

Meaning is the significance we attribute to things that enables us to distinguish among objectively indistinguishable objects.

That's a lot to digest, so try on an example: What is the difference between driftwood art and fire wood? They are both pieces of wood. What makes one worth keeping and the other worth burning? It's the meaning we attribute to each piece of wood: firewood has no significance while the art piece might remind us of something.

Making is fundamentally about creating meaning. Each conscious, purposeful act that transforms raw materials (whether actual or virtual) infuses the thing being made with significance. Even the simple act of stacking stones distinguishes those stones from the others on the ground because the stack doesn't arise naturally but can only be produced through purposeful action.

So what does this have to do with hacking at M.I.T.? By making something surprising and counter-intuitive like the upside down lounge, the students, like the microscopic whos in Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who, are changing the significance of the official environment to shout metaphorically, "We are here!"

In an ultimate sense, every act of making, every iota of meaning, of significance, is another shout of, "We are here!"

 Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, August 6, 2010

When Adding More Makes the Story Simpler

Free-form Friday

I'm a barely competent juggler. One of the things that surprised me on my (short) road to minimal mastery is that it's much easier to juggle three balls than it is to juggle two.

In a similar vein, I don't know if it ranks as a general rule of writing, but sometimes I've found that having more elements simplifies the problem of writing a scene or sequence. Perhaps it's just because the reader doesn't expect as much development with multiple elements, but it often seems easier to show the story when several elements are involved (actions, emotions, concepts) than when I must focus on one element. In an effort not to sound lazy, I think of the analogy to video where short scenes with cutaways are more interesting than long, static scenes.

Adding elements (within reason, of course) can also help "turn up the volume" or increase the stakes in the narrative. For example, it's alarming if the hero is confronted by a killer with a gun, but it's more alarming if the hero, who is afraid of heights, is confronted by the gunman on top of a building.

What do you think? Does more make it easier? Better?

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reader Investment and Books that are too Popular

Reading thuRsday

The Harrry Potter Theme Park opened this summer. My fans greeted the news with enthusiasm. As I see it, now there's yet another way for writers to feel inadequate:

"Wow, I got a movie deal for my novel!"

"Yeah, but did you get a theme park deal?"

I find, as a reader, that I'm reluctant to read novels that are too popular. For a long time, I could explain my diffidence only in unflattering terms like elitism. I've been thinking about reader investment and I believe I've found a more structural (and more flattering) explanation.

Rubeus Hagrid in Wikipedia
One of the downsides of publication is that the book is no longer entirely your own. Of course, you can no longer exercise the rights you've transferred to the publisher. But in a broader, practical sense, the more readers invest themselves in your book, the less freedom you have as an author (assuming you don't want to alienate your fans). For example, I once heard that J.K. Rowling planned to kill Hagrid until a relative said they'd never speak to her again if anything happened to the Hogwarts Keeper of Keys.

It's not that you owe your readers anything in an absolute sense. Rather, as more readers invest in your story, they create a kind of inertia, a social center of gravity.

With that in mind, if I'm late to the game with something very popular I'm generally reluctant to invest in it because I can no longer experience the work on its own terms and apart from its social context.

To use an economic analogy, the return on investment is generally biggest for the early investors. Later investors see less of a return because there are more of them.

So what do you think? Is this a sensible structural observation, or have I simply found an elaborate way to justify my elitism?

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Arc of Character Reactions

Writing Wednesday

According to conventional psychology, the process of grieving involves five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

Looking at that list recently, I was struck by the thought that those stages represent the arc of character reactions. That is, that the stages represent a hierarchy of reaction strategies.

Consider a primitive encounter in which a stranger approaches.

Denial: the simplest reaction strategy is to ignore the newcomer. If they lose interest and leave, you've dealt with them at no cost to yourself.

Anger: if the stranger won't go away, a brief show of aggression might drive them off. If they run away, you've dealt with them at only a small cost.

Bargaining: if the stranger isn't spooked, you might try bribing them to leave. This is more costly, but it still resolves the situation quickly. (Are you starting to see the pattern?)

Depression: the stranger still won't go away and now you despair of finding a solution.

Acceptance: you finally find a solution.

Loss and its attendant grief takes a character through all five stages because there is no solution that will restore the lost object. But other kinds of interactions can end at an earlier stage.

For example, take the stereotypical presentation of a bad report card:
Child: Here, you have to sign this.

Parent: What is this?

Child: My report card?

Parent: There must be some mistake. [Denial]

Child: No, it's mine.

Parent: You knucklehead! How could ... [Anger]
If, at that point, the child mumbled about doing better, that would be the end. (Of course, the reality most of us experiences as both the parent and child almost certainly involved bargaining and probably a fair amount of depression.)

The key observation is that most character reactions follow this arc or sequence of responses, in this order, even if the encounter doesn't go through all five stages.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

DC4W: Remember a Person's Name

Technique Tuesday

Continuing our on-going series on Dale Carnegie for Writers (DC4W), the third principle in the Six Ways to Make People Like You, the second section in How to Win Friends and Influence People, is, "Remember that a man's Name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.."

The unpleasant truth of the matter is that people are fundamentally self-centered. Noble aspirations and modern astronomy notwithstanding, we are each walking Ptolemaic systems: we are the centers of our universes. Using a person's name gives you a channel into the heart of their universe.

So what practical benefit does this principle have for writers?

First, learning and using the names of the people (like agents and editors) with whom you want to do business is more than professional courtesy; it signals that you're likely to take at least some of their interests into account. This is why botching a name or using a generic salutation like, "Dear Agent," in a query is generally a major strike against you. (If it's not clear why, then think about how people who can't be bothered to learn your name make you feel.)

Second, even in public situations like signings where most of us have no hope of remembering the names of all the people we meet, using the name of the person with whom you're speaking after you learn it is the conversational equivalent of a smile: it's a verbal token that says, "I recognize you."*

And if none of that moves you, because you enjoy being the center of your own universe, you should still trouble yourself about names because using names correctly will identify you as a member of the group and thus facilitate your aims.

* From the lonely center of our island universes, recognition is one of the things we crave.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Difference Between Hope and Happiness

Making Monday

On the League of Extraordinary Writers blog, Jeff Hirsch asked about Hope and Endings
"when we're writing for teens, be it post-apocalyptic or otherwise, do we ultimately owe our readers a hopeful ending?"
Some of the responses among the comments conflated hope and happiness, and said, "No, life doesn't always provide a happy ending so we should be honest with our teen reader."

Unless you equate happy endings with anything that isn't the worst possible outcome, there's an important difference between hopeful and happy endings. Happy means most if not all wants are supplied, problems resolved, and lose ends tied up. Hopeful simply means that it's possible to avert the worst outcome.

Perhaps a better way to say it is that hope and the possibility of change are deeply entwined. In a hopeless story, nothing you do can change your fate. But if there's even a tiny possibility of change, then the story is fundamentally hopeful.

To say that a story is hopeful doesn't necessarily make it happy. Indeed, the process of realizing the hope may be frustrating, painful, and heart-breaking, but the fact that change is possible makes the striving worthwhile.

There's a long tradition of dystopian stories that appear hopeless because they show what happens if we pass the point of no-return. But cautionary tales like this are still hopeful because of the conditional, "if." There's still time to change our course so we don't pass the point of no-return.

What does this have to do with making?

Making is a fundamentally hopeful act because we change initial materials into a finished thing. The fact that we can change something means that there's still hope in the universe. Even something as ephemeral as making sand into a castle is an act of defiance against the meaningless void.

 Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net