Friday, October 29, 2010

Literary Expression Constrained by "Nice?"

Free-form Friday

I recently read a piece in which some literary novelists complained that they were constrained by a market that wants "nice" or at least "likable" characters. Paraphrasing, they said, "Life isn't always nice. How can we show you what life is really like if we have to do 'nice?'"

My rhetorical question for those writers determined to show us life "as it really is," is why they don't put as much energy into painting incisive and nuanced portraits of the fact that life is often dull and boring?

It is a fact that life can be horrible. My deeper objection stems from a philosophical position that it doesn't have to be horrible. As we delve into our darker natures, are we seeing life as it has to be or life as it happens to be?

Two types of stories emerge when we get into these waters:
  • Ones that justify us in our conceits
  • Ones that challenge us to expand our horizons
I suspect the complaint that prompted this note comes from readers willing to go to dark places to expand their horizons if there are characters with whom they can identify (i.e., likable), and a story that ultimately holds out some shred of hope (i.e., "nice).

But my suspicion, as I mentioned earlier, stems from a belief that much of what happens to make life horrible is of our own doing; it is life as it happens to be, not life as it has to be and thus there is always hope.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Three Act Story Structure

Reading thuRsday

The topic of story structure may seem like one that should concern writers more than readers, but it's a basic element of reader-literacy.

I've seen systems that layout the structure of a story in such detail that it seems the writer's only job is to fill in the blanks. Whether it's the archetype of the hero's journey or the classic three act structure, there are outlines with fifteen to fifty elements that are supposed to be included.

I've also seen and heard writers who say they can't make heads or tails of such things, that over-specificity leads to rigidity, and that you should stop worrying and just write.

I came across video of Dan Wells, author of I am Not a Serial Killer, who gave a presentation on this topic at the 2010 Life, the Universe, and Everything conference at BYU. Dan discusses the seven point system he learned from the Star Trek Role-playing Game Narrator's Guide. The points are:
  • Hook
  • Plot Turn 1
  • Pinch 1
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch 2
  • Plot Turn 2
  • Resolution
This isn't too overwhelming, but it still has a fair amount of detail: what are pinches and midpoints and plot turns and so on.

But look at it this way:
Action (cause) = Plot Turn/Midpoint
Resolution (effect) = Pinch/Resolution
If we set aside the Hook as a special, initial case, were left with three pairs of high-level action and resolution. The resolution in the first two pairs is called a Pinch because it doesn't resolve the story problem.

If we stand back and squint, we see:
Act 1 = (Hook) Plot Turn 1 -> Pinch 1 [doesn't resolve the story problem]
Act 2 = Midpoint -> Pinch 2 [still doesn't resolve the story problem]
Act 3 = Plot Turn 2 -> Resolution [finally resolves the story problem]
We observed yesterday that story is fundamentally about cause and effect. So why three pairs of causes and effects? Because a problem worthy of a long-form story has to be hard enough that it takes more than one try to find the solution.

Three acts; three cause and effect cycles; the structure of a story need be no more mysterious than this.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Story is Fundamentally about Cause and Effect

Writing Wednesday

Ernest Hemingway once won a bar bet that he could write a story in only six word. His words were:
"For sale: baby shoes. Never used."
Like many other bar bets, it's impressive, but not quite what it seems to be. In particular, Hemingway's "story" isn't a story, it's a story prompt.

"What," you may ask, "do you mean? Why does the distinction matter?" You may even observe that each two-word phrase sounds roughly analogous to an act in a three act structure, where each new act takes us in a different and more dramatic direction.

What I mean by "story prompt" is that I have yet to meet anyone who isn't intrigued by those six words: they can't help speculating and filling in details to create a story in their own mind. And the story is always about what caused the effect of someone in the possession of baby shoes that were never used.

And that's the critical point. Story is fundamentally about cause and effect.

J. Michael Straczynski often uses this example:
The king died and then the queen died. (Not a story)
The queen died because the king died. (story)
Naturally, there's a great deal more to a satisfying story (or, more to the point, one for which people will pay money). Indeed, a novel will describe many causes and effects--though you may be more familiar with the writerly terms, "action" and "resolution."

Don't be mislead by the siren song of the "literary" and their conceit that a nuanced character study is superior to the plot-driven commercial offerings. Even a character study is about the causes and effects of the character's beliefs and behaviors.

Next time you think about your story at a high level, ask yourself if the causes and effects are clear and actually move the story in the direction you want it to go.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Writer Zen: We Are Our Own Protagonists

Technique Tuesday

As the protagonist approaches the climax of our novel, we pull out all the stops, throw ever thing at them, and turn what was a difficult situation into an impossible one. It's a good thing real life isn't like that-- except sometimes it is.

I spent most of yesterday expecting to find time to write up a note to post here, but there was always one more thing that required my attention. I resolutely fought through the legions of time-sucking details until I managed to clear some time in the evening. I signed on ready to write when, like drawbridge raising just before gaining the castle, I was met with a maintenance notice. I could almost hear the antagonist, doomed damsel in his clutches, on the battlements above cackling at my plight.

I hope that doesn't sound overly dramatic, but it gave me cause to consider the ways in which writing a novel is like the journey of the hero in our stories. We undertake the project confident we're up to the task of embodying our vision. There are set-backs along the way, with which we deal. And at least once during the project there comes a time that things look very dark and the prospect of finishing seems impossibly remote.

Mount Doom (Wikipedia)
With my own projects, I've often felt a real kinship with Frodo marching across the plains of Mordor: the end is plainly in sight yet it feels as though neither of us is ever going to get to the end. The analogy seems particularly strong when I have only a few chapters left to write--I know exactly where they're going and they're chock full of exciting stuff--but Heaven and Hell seem to be conspiring to use up my every waking moment.

I recognize those situations as the time for renewed resolve. And I console myself with the thought that the degree of opposition I feel must be a sign that I'm producing something really good.

But what it really comes down to--what sets us apart as novelists--is that, like our protagonists, we doggedly push through to the end.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, October 25, 2010

Laws of Making 2: Beauty is the Object of True Making

Making Monday

The second Law of Understanding is that Beauty is the Object of True Making.

To modern ad-saturated ears, the idea of beauty triggers instant associations with fashion and cosmetics. There is, however, an older sense of the idea of beauty--the one philosophers invoke when they used the term--as a aspect of things in the real world to which our senses respond. Part of the pleasure of a sunset, for example, is the way the spectrum painted on the clouds lights up so many retinal neurons.

The beauty that both inspires makers and is the object of their efforts is similar, but deeper. Not because makers enjoy any innate superiority but because of a deeper appreciation born of a study of structure and process. Or, put more simply, because they have some sense of the effort behind effortless beauty.

I can't provide an exhaustive enumeration of all the aspects of the maker ideal of beauty, but consider the following:

Integrity - One dimension of beauty is to be whole, or complete. Another is lack of guile. (Yes, things can have guile: consider something shoddily made that falls apart after a few uses.)

Form follows Function - The pedantic among you may argue that form is a subset of integrity. That may be so, but I wanted to highlight the particular beauty of a thing that is what it appears to be; of form stripped of the superfluous and embodying only that which is necessary. To abstract? Then think of an egg.

Elegance - Scientists and mathematicians judge theories not only by their ability to predict correct results but also by their simplicity. If two theories predict the same results, they prefer the simpler of the two and call it elegant.

A job well done - A process can be as beautiful as a thing. Take, for example, a waterfall: in essence it is nothing more than the process of water shedding potential energy, but the process takes place in a way that stirs our senses and speaks to us on many levels.

If you try to think as a maker, where do you find structural or dynamic beauty?

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sol Stein on the Job of the Writer

Free-form Friday

Sol Stein, in his article "Six Points About Character, Plot, and Dialogue You Wish You'd Have Known Yesterday," defined the jobs of the editor and the writer as follows:

"The job of the editor is to help the writer realize the writer's intentions. The problem is that the intentions of many writers are wrong. The job of the writer is not to express himself or get something off his chest; his job is to provide the reader with an experience that is superior to what the reader experiences in everyday life. His job is to give the reader (or viewer) pleasure; only then will his insight mean something. As a writer, you are, in one sense, a troublemaker. A psychotherapist tries to relieve a person's stress, strain and tension. You are not a psychotherapist. Your job is to give readers and viewers stress, strain and tension. They love it because it is not in their life; it is in a book or on screen."
What do you think? Does this definition capture the job of a writer?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Excellence and Elitism

Reading thuRsday

A hundred or so pages into a recent middle-grade fantasy I ran into a sentence that began, "Suddenly he slowly ..." I stopped short, wondering how the editor let that oxymoron get by. Then I caught myself. Aside from that construct (which was one of no more than five debatable craft points I'd noticed), the book was really quite good. So what had the editor done? Probably caught the dozen, or hundred, or thousand other things that I never saw because the issues were resolved.

In a note about finding the critique partners who could give you meaningful feedback, the author said something to the effect of, "So I wouldn't give my manuscript to someone who liked Twilight." My first reaction was, "Of course not. I'd want someone with more refined taste." Then I caught myself. If I want to reach the largest possible audience, I should try to understand how and why something that might have had a few technical flaws managed to strike a popular chord.

There's a fine line between excellence and elitism.

It's awfully easy, when you're trying to understand and follow every rule, to think less of other work that shows evidence of less care. It's particularly tempting to do so when that other work achieves greater success than your own. It's tempting to justify your situation by blaming the unwashed masses, who wouldn't know quality work if you hit them upside the head with it.

Excellence means striving to do your very best. Among other things, I am resolved to avoid using the phrase, "suddenly he slowly." But excellence does not mean dismissing everything that has a few flaws. So I am also resolved not to exclude people who have read Twilight from the pool of potential critical readers.

What have you done to stay on the right side of the line between excellence and elitism?

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Writing is Hard Work

Writing Wednesday

Someone, perhaps one of the agents whose blogs I follow, observed that, "Many people who say they want to write really mean that they want to have written." That is, many people aspire to be writers because they would like to be in the position of receiving the attention paid to someone who has published a book.

Writing is hard work. Rachelle Gardner commented on this a few months ago in a post entitled, "Is Writing Fun?" She said,
"Personally, I don’t enjoy the process of writing, but I do enjoy the results of what I write. However, I know many of my clients, fiction authors especially, love their writing time. For them, that creative flow is energizing. They love being in their made-up worlds and hanging out with their fictional characters and find it an enjoyable “escape” from the hard work of real life."
She went on to explain,
"But if you decide you really want to go for it, then you’ll be ready to accept and deal with the truth: Writing a novel is hard work. You’ll be able to commit to the work, hoping eventually there’ll be a payoff meaning that you’ll enjoy the results of your labor. That doesn’t necessarily mean being published, but simply enjoying your story on the page, and enjoying the feeling of accomplishment. In that way, it can still be a labor of love even if it’s hard work.

"Let’s keep in mind that the ultimate “labor of love,” giving birth, is not in the least enjoyable and in fact involves great pain. It’s the result that makes it a labor of love. Sorry, I know you’re a guy and all, but this is a good analogy. In fact, one of the things that defines a “labor of love” is the fact that a task can be extremely difficult and unpleasant, but the results are so “worth it” that you do it anyway. I don’t think “labor of love” means something is supposed to be fun."

There's an important difference between satisfying hard work and a joyless chore. My ongoing discussion about makers--their patience and devotion--is an effort to make this distinction clearer.

Some people say that you write because you have to; that you shouldn't write for a living if you can do anything else. I think those sentiments are shorthand for the fact that writing is hard work--the kind of hard work that not many people find satisfying.

If you find that writing is a joyless chore, that's a good sign that you should do something else.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Writer Zen: Caring and Not Caring

Technique Tuesday

Here's another Zen riddle: As novelists, we must both care and not care in order to succeed.

What do I mean?

  • You've got to write what you love, giving the story everything you've got-- and then not get even mildly perturbed by rejection ("It's not personal, it's just business") as we blithely proceed to pour heart and soul into our next project.
  • In public, say, for example, a signing, everyone is your friend-- and you mustn't pay any attention to reviews (positive or negative) from your erstwhile friends or take umbrage that none of them are actually buying your book.
  • Authors, editors, agents, publishing professionals (at least in public) are our colleagues-- and we must never grudge anyone for getting their inferior work published, or the fact that ours languishes for lack of marketing dollars, or bring up the glaring lack of editorial oversight, or ...

It feels like a situation where it would be easy to become cynical, behind our cheery public facade about the consensual illusion we call the publishing industry, if one isn't careful to chart a course that preserves integrity. (And by integrity I mean wholeness, not simply honesty.)

We must care enough, but not too much.

How can we do that?

I think one way is to remember and never lose touch with one of the fundamental things that sets the young and young at heart apart from the growed-ups: playfulness.

What do you think?

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, October 18, 2010

Laws of Making 1: Love is the Foundation of True Making

Making Monday

At first glance, the Laws of Making may not sound terribly pragmatic. You're likely more interested in concrete, actionable ideas than the abstractions I presented last week, so I'm going to undertake a weekly series of posts, one per law, to explore the deep pragmatism hidden there in.

Love may seem like a nebulous, overly emotional place to start. If so, it's because of the degree to which the idea of love has been reduced to something emotional. Care, regard, and devotion are dimensions of love that that get much less airplay than the dimensions of love associated with romance. For example, the way in which one loves one's country involves a different mix of emotions, at different levels of intensity, than the way in which one loves one's lover.

The love of a parent for a child is closer to the love that is the foundation of true making than the kinds of love that arise in other human relationships.

If you love a child you attend to them, care for them, forgive their short comings, and acknowledge their independent existence by helping them grow into their own person.

Making something non-trivial--something worthwhile--requires time and attention, patience, and selflessness.

The first pragmatic observation is that it's much easier to do what is required if you not only love what you're doing but also love the thing you're making.

The second pragmatic observation is that in the course of making something, the thing being made will inevitably disappoint. If you love the work, you can forgive it and move on.

The third pragmatic observation is that there comes a time in every non-trivial project when you confront the question, "Is it about me, or about the work?" Users invariably answer that it's about them, and often come to hate the work because it's not giving them everything they expected. Makers answer that it's about the work, do what must be done to finish, and produce a thing with integrity.

True making, founded on love, gives the maker both peace and joy.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, October 15, 2010

Agents are Business Partners, not Leprechauns

Free-form Friday

"A leprechaun is a type of fairy in Irish folklore, usually taking the form of an old man, clad in a red or green coat, who enjoys partaking in mischief. ... If ever captured by a human, the Leprechaun has the magical power to grant three wishes in exchange for their release." (Wikipedia) 
 The title of this piece likely elicited a profound, "Duh." But after listening to writers talk about their quest to secure an agent, I can't shake the suspicion that most of us harbor the fantasy that once we capture one they will grant us three publishing wishes.

I spent most of a weekend with a group that included an agent recently (no, she's not my agent nor were offers of representation forthcoming), and discovered that the mythical creatures are, in fact, people too.

What does this mean?

First, that agents do not possess publishing magic. Having one does not guarantee publication, though it may help.* In fact, getting an agent is generally the precursor to a great deal more work on your part (revisions, galleys, promotion, etc.).

Second, as people (not Leprechauns), agents have their own personalities, backgrounds, and biases. You will like some and dislike others. By the same token, some will like you and your work while others won't care for one or both.

A corollary is that there is no universal and objective standard of book goodness to which all agents subscribe; there is no college of agents and publishing professionals who bless or condemn manuscripts; no matter how great your manuscript is, some, perhaps most, agents will not offer to represent it.

Third, and most important--as fun and interesting as agents may be as people--at the end of the day the relationship between author and agent is that of a business partnership. Proper partners have something to contribute to each other's business. And between them can create a whole that feels magical because it is greater than the sum of its parts. But don't be deceived: the magic is the product of synergy and a whole lot of hard work.

* Similarly, getting published doesn't guarantee success. Consider this variation on the old philosophical question: "If a tree is cut from the forest, pulped into the paper on which your book is published, and sits on the shelf until it's remaindered, is that any different from a tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear?"

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, October 14, 2010

World-threatening Stakes in Fantasy

Reading thuRsday

A writing friend asked, "Am I right in thinking that realistic fiction plots can be, 'I hope I get the cute guy,' 'I'm going to save my dad from this terrible disease,' etc. (i.e., major conflicts that we have in real life), but fantasy fiction plots have to involve the kingdom or the world?"

It's not that the stakes in fantasy must be world-threatening, it's that it's easier to make them so.

In the real world, nothing (except perhaps the sun exploding) threatens the entire planet; at best there are threats to our personal or social worlds. In fantasy, the author can say that Bad Guy's Frog of Doom will swallow the planet if Hero doesn't stop him and we the readers accept the threat because we accept the world.

Of course, the world we know is only one of a universe of worlds that can be imperiled. Aprilynne Pike's Wings, for example, is mostly the story of the protagonist's discovery of her fairy heritage and a rather nasty run-in she has with some trolls. But the stakes go up with the revelation that she was placed in our world to guard a gateway to the fairy land that the trolls would dearly like to find and pull apart, petal by petal.

Put another way, in fantasy it's easier to extrapolate the personal threats to a broader population and thus raise the stakes. If Bad Guy can turn Hero into a warthog, what's to stop him from turning everyone else into warthogs?

I suspect this is so because a deep, common fantasy is that we are specially significant in the larger scheme of things. We tend to bring out that theme (often as the "child of destiny") because it's much harder to indulge that fantasy in the real world (which sometimes seems to go out of its way to prove otherwise).

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Minimal Speech Tag Framework

Writing Wednesday

In ideal prose, the dialog is so distinct that the reader knows the identity of the speaker without any additional attribution. In practice, the ideal is rarely achieved and dialog requires attribution.

A Minimal Speech Tag Framework

Cardinal Rule: The reader must never be confused about who is speaking.

Strategy: Employ a consistent pattern of attribution so that your readers eyes slide right past the tags.

Attribution Rules
  1. Use said and asked almost all the time. An alternate tag might occasionally be warranted, but you'd better have a very good reason.
  2. Use the form "Fred said", not "said Fred." "Said" comes last in the prepositional form ("said he" sounds archaic). There's no reason not to be consistent (aside from the long fashion of using the said-first form).
  3. Only apply adverbs to "said" that qualify the physical act of speaking. Using adverbs to convey something about the emotional state of the speaker is lazy writing. You're telling the reader something about the way the character spoke if you say "said loudly" (and more direct verbs like shouted or cried aren't appropriate).
  4. Use associated beats to convey non-verbal communication and show the emotion state of the speaker. A beat is a sentence in the same paragraph as the dialog that describes what the speaker is doing or feeling.
  5. Omit speech tags when it's clear who is speaking. Use tags or beats to identify the speakers periodically so that the reader doesn't lose track of speaker order.
  6. Use speech tags whenever speaker order changes. In general, you are only able to omit speech tags when two characters speak in alternating lines.
What do you think? Does this framework help answer your speech tag questions?

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Writer Zen: Forest and Trees

Technique Tuesday

In geometry, you need two points to define a line, and a minimum of three points to have a trend. I sensed a trend when I came across theses three pieces of advice about queries in the course of a single day:

Holly Root, of the Waxman Literary Agency offers the following advice on what matters in query:
"Write the best book you can, then the best query you can. Submit written materials to agents. The worst they can say is no so don’t worry about fine-tuning that to the nanometer, just look for the right ballpark (i.e., alive, still in the business). Then press send."
Michael Bourret had a similar post titled, Queries: It's not about the details

And then Nathan Bransford (Curtis Brown) chimed in with Get the Big Stuff Right:
"I was thinking I'd discuss how if you just familiarize yourself with agent blogs and use your best judgment and act in good faith and send the best query you can you're going to be fine and there's no need to sweat the tiny details."
Nathan goes on to say,
"It is about the details in the sense that we are actually making a decision based on a short letter and maybe some sample pages and so of course it's about the details."
Here's his list of things to sweat:
  1. "Overall look - Around the right length, a reasonable font, 10 or 12 point font, broken into reasonable paragraphs, no fiddling with margins, pictures, indenting, colors, etc. Just a clean, professional-looking letter. Don't sweat if it's a little long or a little short, and definitely do not start messing around to try and make it look creative or different. When it comes to letters, "creative" tends to look "insane." It's like showing up to a job interview in a clown costume. When you're formatting your query: wear a boring suit."
  2. "The description of your work. Get. This. Right. Get it right. Get it right, get it right, get it right. Get it right. Sweat this. This is what we care about. We're looking for a good story idea and good writing, and you want both to jump out in the query.
  3. Annnnd, we're done!
One of the things that sets us apart as novelists is our ability not to lose sight of the big picture. We may agonize over a word or phrase, but we (the ideal we) keep in mind the role of those words in the scene and the role of the scene in the larger story.

In a similar vein, we need the ability to see the bigger picture on the business and marketing side of the endeavour. (Or we need an agent to do that job.) I suspect that one of the subtle differences between a pro and a wanabe is that pros don't lose sight of the forest and obsess about a particular tree.

What do you think?

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Laws of Making

Making Monday

I've talked about the Laws of Making for some time without ever actually spelling them out. It's time not only to list the laws, but to begin a series of posts exploring each law in turn.

There are nine laws organized into three sets of three. Together, they define the spiritual foundation for making that transcends techniques, talent, and areas of endeavor. The laws articulate different dimensions of the single great truth that true making is selfless.

The three Laws of Understanding
Love - Love is the foundation of true making
Beauty - Beauty is the object of true making
Truth - Truth is the substance of true making
The three Laws of Living
Hope - True making is an expression of hope
Faith - True making is an act of faith
Charity - True making is an embodiment of charity
The three Laws of Transcendence
Vision - The true maker sees beyond the actual to the potential
Devotion - The true maker's devotion never wavers
Completion - The highest power is to finish. The greatest wisdom is to know when to finish.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, October 8, 2010

Some of Nathan Bransford's Commnandments for the Happy Writer

Free-form Friday

As part of his week of being optimistic in March 2009, agent Nathan Bransford posted his Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer. The last few resonated with me and bear repeating.

(Besides, a smidge more than a year-and-a-half-ago is ancient history in Internet time.)

8. Park your jealousy at the door. Writing can turn ordinary people into raving lunatics when they start to believe that another author's success is undeserved. Do not begrudge other writers their success. They've earned it. Even if they suck.

9. Be thankful for what you have. If you have the time to write you're doing pretty well. There are millions of starving people around the world, and they're not writing because they're starving. If you're writing: you're doing just fine. Appreciate it.

10. Keep writing. Didn't find an agent? Keep writing. Book didn't sell? Keep writing. Book sold? Keep writing. OMG an asteroid is going to crash into Earth and enshroud the planet in ten feet of ash? Keep writing. People will need something to read in the resulting permanent winter.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Best Stories are Always Edgy

Reading thuRsday

Perhaps because of the conjunction with Banned Book Week or perhaps because the topic arises periodically, I've been involved with several on-line discussion of "edgy" books recently.

We often hear that agents and editors want stories that are "edgy," that "push the envelope," and that talk about how things "really" are.

The edge in question is usually the edge of social acceptability, where the scent of the forbidden entices our voyeuristic impulses. From a business perspective (and without trying to sound too cynical), it's much easier to sell something offering readers a chance to step vicariously outside their constraints.

The topic can easily become contentious. There are readers who feel life is too short to waste on vanilla when the "edgy" offers more exotic flavors. There are others who hear "edgy" and immediately think "uncomfortable," "gratuitous," or even "marketing gimmick."

It's unfortunate that there's a fair amount of ammunition for readers who associate "edgy" with "gimmicky" because there's an important place in the grand conversation for stories about the edges, not of acceptability but of society.

Stories from the social periphery give voice to people and experiences that are minimized or ignored. Going to the edge is certainly important for social justice, but it's even more important as a source of variability and vitality.*

But there's an even deeper point: at a structurally level, the best stories are always edgy in the particular sense that they take the protagonist out to the edge of their known world and then beyond. Whether the journey is actual or emotional, it's only in the unmediated wild beyond the edge of the safe and comfortable where character is revealed and proven.

* Chaos theory, for example, shows that the dynamic equilibrium between order and chaos is the region where the most interesting and complex things happen. The intertidal zone at the shore is a natural example of dynamic equilibrium. Another way to think of it is that the tendency of society to move toward monoculture is offset by the variations and novelties that arise on its periphery.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Story is Conflict

Writing Wednesday

Have you ever watched an ant hill? It's hard not to marvel at how all the individual ants work together. The magic, according to entomologists is in the signal chemicals that the ants exchange when they meet. Those chemicals allow them to recognize each other and coordinate their activities.

There's a good case to be made that for us story-telling is like the ant's signal chemicals. Long before we worked out conventions for courses, text books, encyclopedias, etc., we told stories. Story-telling has been a part of human culture for ages because beyond entertainment it serves the fundamental purpose of conveying information. Think of stories as a primitive "how-to." Stories essentially say, "if you find yourself in a situation like this, here's how to deal with it."

This is the reason why conflict is essential to stories.

A story must have an unmet need, an impediment, more than one possible action, and a resolution. Without all four elements, you're doing something other than telling a story.


If you're perfectly content, there's no story because there's no need to make any changes. If you want nothing, then you can do nothing but live happily ever after.


So now you want something. If you can satisfy your want with simple and/or well-understood actions, then again you have no story. "Fred was hungry, so he made a peanut butter sandwich." Well, good for Fred.

The impediment is usually what we focus on when we talk about conflict. The antagonist is almost always the impediment, but it could also be something external like a force of nature.


"I have an antagonist, so I have conflict, so I have a story, right?"

It's not that simple. If your protagonist has one or no options, then you still don't have a story. Remember, as a primitive how-to, a story tells us what to do in a similar situation. If there's noting you can choose to do, then you don't have a story you have fact (i.e., "If you step off the cliff, you will fall").

It's also not a story if the situation is resolved by events beyond your control. "I was poor, then I won the lottery," doesn't tell me how to change my state from poor to rich.


A story isn't just a relation of cause and effect, but if the narrative doesn't show how some action removed the impediment and satisfied the need then it's still not a story. There is a special case, the cautionary tale, in which you want to show why nothing works and admonish your listeners to avoid the situation entirely. But in general, only stories with solutions have value for their listeners.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

DC4W Retrospective

Technique Tuesday

Understanding is often likened to ascending a mountain. The trail to the summit winds through valleys where ridges obscure the goal. It's only on the summit that you can look back and understand the topographical logic of the trail.

It's time to look back on the major themes we found as we've explored Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People from the particular perspective of writers.

The first three 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.
can be summarized as, "Be kind and considerate of others."

The next section, which offers 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.
illustrates at some length, the Biblical call to love our neighbors. Put another way, the empathy that comes from getting beyond yourself and looking at things from the other person's point of view gives you a tremendous advantage when dealing with people.

The final section we explored, 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 and don't talk negative when the person is absent, talk about only positive.
shows that it is far better (and far more effective) to entice than compel.

The best writing entices. It engenders empathy for and with vivid characters. And above all, it is suffused with kindness and consideration for its readers. 

What have you learned about your writing from this series?

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, October 4, 2010

Makers and the Blank Page

Making Monday

Sidney Sheldon said, "A blank piece of paper is God's way of telling us how hard it is to be God."

When confronted with a blank page, do you see a howling void that paralyzes you with its very nothingness, or a exhilarating window into a universe of possibilities?

Makers, as you probably suspect, see the universe of possibilities.

Although, to be fair, I paint here with too broad a brush because both makers and non-makers see the universe of possibilities. What distinguishes makers is that they are not paralyzed by the infinite cascade of possibilities.

There is a religious tradition that has a creation story in which the world comes into its present form because the gods organize preexisting matter. In a smaller way (or at least one untainted with delusions of godhood), makers are not paralyzed by the blank page because they apply the power of organization.

Visual makers like painters and photographers, for example, see the canvas or unexposed frame organized into a grid of horizontal and vertical thirds because the intersections indicate the most critical parts of the composition.

Aural makers see the blank staffs in terms of temporal divisions, movement that grows and diminishes, rhythm, pattern, variation.

Makers who work on things understand the structural patterns that support forms in opposition to gravity.

Where does the power of organization come from? Organization reduces the universe of infinite possibilities into a universe of finite possibilities. (Think about it.)

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, October 1, 2010

Publishers as Risk Aggregators

Free-form Friday

It's comforting to believe that there's something inherently noble about books; that pages covered with words and stitched together between covers represent a repository of the thoughts, compressed and distilled, of others.

I think that's why we find the dissonance between books and the businesses that produce them fundamentally disconcerting, particularly in the way in which content seems a secondary concern at best.

One of the most important things I learned as an anthropologist is that there are almost always reasons, usually structural for why things are the way they are.

Coming to publishing from a career in high-tech, it didn't take long to notice the similarities between publishers and venture capital firms. Venture capitalists, for example, expect only one in ten of the companies they fund to succeed.

The structural role of publishers and venture capitalists is explained well in a post I came across about the role of big record companies by "A Photo Editor" that included the following quote from the Adam Carolla Podcast:
What record labels are really good for is essentially risk aggregation. It’s a very small percentage of bands that get to the level of being signed and even of those people who’ve gotten past that very high bar only about 5 percent succeed. So, 19 out of 20 fail. If it was your own money, you would be a moron to spend it, because there’s a 95 percent chance that money’s not going to come back even if you’re already at the level that record labels want to sign you.
So, the only way people can make that bet is to conglomerate all of them. You sign 100 bands and assume 5 of them are going to succeed and the other 95 fail you just need to make enough back from those 5, which is why record contracts are so onerous in the first place for successful artists, because the money you are now making is paying for the other 95 percent who failed.

Somebody needs to be doing that risk aggregation unless we only want the independently wealthy who are artists.
Here's the punch line:

Why must publishing companies be risk aggregators? Because no one, absolutely no one, really knows what will sell.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /