Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ideas: Stories are Molecular, not Atomic

Technique Tuesday

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

"Is it atomic?"

"Yes, sir, very atomic!"

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

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

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

So, how do you build a story molecule?

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

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

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, November 29, 2010

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

Making Monday

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

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

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

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

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

How do they do this?

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

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

Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday

Free-form Friday

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

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

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

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

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Makers and Gratitude

Making Merry

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

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

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

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

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Antagonists and the Source of Conflict

Writing Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ideas: Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do you prime the creative pump?

Pay attention.

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

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

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, November 22, 2010

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

Making Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, November 19, 2010

Writing vs. Web Presence: the 90/10 Rule

Free-form Friday

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

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

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

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Stories Attribute Significance

Reading thuRsday

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Janette Rallison's Guide to Point-of-View

Writing Wednesday

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

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

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

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Research Techniques when Writing about the Unfamiliar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, November 15, 2010

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

Making Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how making is an act of faith.

Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ambitious and Strategic

Free-form Friday

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

What do I mean by that?

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

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

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

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

"But maybe it's not that simple.

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

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

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

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Extraordinary Characterization and the Danger of Muddled Metaphors

Reading thuRsday

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

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

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jeanette Ingold on Quieting Your Inner Editor

Writing Wednesday

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

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

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

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

Inner Editor

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

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

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


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

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

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

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Writer Zen: Unique in Context

Technique Tuesday

I've called this series, "Writer Zen," because like zen riddles there are things that writers must simultaneously believe and not believe. Today's pair is one of the most important.

Nearly every agent holds a querying author's claim that there's nothing on the market like the proffered manuscript as a major strike against that query. And not without reason: such a boast is usually a good indicator that the writer is not a reader.

And yet, at a certain level, every writer must believe their work is unique. If it isn't, if it's simply a knock-off of something else, why bother? Why put in all the agonizing time and effort to produce something that proudly shouts, "I'm a clone! I'm derivative!" The very act of writing implies (even if the ultimate product is derivative) that we believe we have something new to say, something to add to the conversation, or something that hasn't been said in quite the way we want to say it.

When it comes time to promote the work, however, everyone from agents and editors to readers wants to know what it's like. The classic Hollywood log-line, where we say {new movie} is like {movie A} meets {movie B}, is an extreme, but concise way of putting a new project in context. The same is true for the genera, audience, and comparable books we're supposed to include in our query letters.

The frustrated author might ask, "How can my work be both unique and at the same time like something else?"

The enlightened answer to this zen riddle arises from understanding that uniqueness is relative and only measurable in context.(Thus is it possible to be unique and similar.) Uniqueness* is best understood as a measure of the degree to which the new work exceeds or changes the expectations defined by the context in which the work is experienced. The original Star Wars movie (Episode Four for you young-uns), was unique when it premiered because its special effects gave it an almost documentary feel compared to contemporary space operas.

The deeper problem, of course, is the implication that the claim of uniqueness entitles the author to instant market recognition with no further effort. It's the literary equivalent of walking into a cocktail party and shouting, "Everybody shut up and listen to me."

Your job is to add something relatively unique to the conversation. But before you can add, you must be a part of the conversation and understand the context.

* I'm talking, of course, about novelty, not rarity.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, November 8, 2010

Laws of Making 4: True Making is an Expression of Hope

Making Monday

The first Law of Living is that True Making is an Expression of Hope.

I've touched before on hope and despair. It's a deep topic and one to which I can hardly do justice. Here's the key distinction:
A life built on a foundation of hope is open to the idea of a greater good. A life founded on despair admits no greater good than self.
The universe, if we understand the second law of thermodynamics correctly, will ultimately run down; everything tends to decay and dissolution.

Some confront that truth and despair. Makers, perhaps because they simply can't help themselves, create structure, order, pattern, and rhythm--not because they deny the ultimate end, but because they defy it even if only for a moment.

Defiance captures only a portion of the true maker because the sustained urge to create isn't motivated by hubris. True making transcends self. It's about communing with something greater by adding significance to the universe.

Making is fundamentally the process of transforming something. Intentional transformation adds significance to the thing transformed and sets it apart from the other, untransformed things. Consider two rocks, one of which has something carved in it: they're both rocks, but the one with the carving conveys significance because it was altered intentionally.

If that's a bit too abstract, consider this exchange between a grandfather and grand son:
"When you go to the beach, who’s building sand castles?” asked the grandfather.
The grandson shrugged. “Some kids?”
“Right. Why do you think adults rarely build sand castles?”
“They’re too busy?”
“Not the ones sunning themselves. I think it’s because they know the tide will wash them away. Now, why do you like to build sand castles?”
“I don’t know. I just think it’s fun. I never thought about the tide.”
“Nor should you. Building a sand castle is a small act of hope—not because you wish it would last, but because it’s worthwhile, or fun, right now. And when the tide does come to wash it away—and it always will—it simply means that you can build a better one.”

Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, November 5, 2010

Best Writing Advice: Eyes on Your Own Test

Free-form Friday
The Klingons have a proverb:
Revenge is a dish best served cold.
There's something about the passage of time that amplifies the significance of some things.

The best writing advice I've received to date was something whose importance I didn't truly appreciate until long after I'd forgotten who gave me the advice. This is what they said:
Eyes on your own test.
Jeff Hirsch, blogging at the League of Extraordinary Writers recently, shared some of his favorite advice from the newly available archive of author interviews published The Paris Review. He included the following quote from Jonathan Lethem, who expands upon the theme of keeping your eyes on your own test.
"You’re not fighting the other writers—that Mailer boxing stuff seems silly to me. It’s more like golf. You’re not playing against the other people on the course. You’re playing against yourself. The question is, What’s in you that you can free up? How to say everything you know? Then there’s nothing to envy. The reason Tiger Woods has that eerie calm, the reason he drives everyone insane, is his implacable sense that his game has nothing to do with the others on the course. The others all talk about what Tiger is up to. Tiger only says, I had a pretty good day, I did what I wanted to do. Or, I could have a better day tomorrow. He never misunderstands. The game is against yourself. That same thousand-yard Tiger Woods stare is what makes someone like Murakami or Roth or DeLillo or Thomas Berger so eerie and inspiring. They’ve grasped that there’s nothing to one side of you. Just you and the course."

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Readers and Learning Curves

Reading thuRsday
I once heard an author of epic fantasy say, during a panel, that writers should give their readers "a gentle learning curve." Of course, the point he was trying to make was that being able to ease your reader into the world of the book is a key skill.

Many people, not just writers, misunderstand the concept of a learning curve. In a graph that shows learning (on the vertical axis) over time (on the horizontal axis), a gentle curve actually means that it takes the subject a long time to learn. A steep curve, by contrast, means that the subject quickly acquires the knowledge and information that constitute learning.

As with many things, however, when we examine the notion of learning curves more carefully, we find that for both different kinds of stories and different aspects of stories we want different kinds of learning curves.

For example, the best otherworld stories have fairly steep learning curves. Paranormal stories, on the other hand, only need gentle learning curves because they're not too different from the world with which the reader is presumably already familiar.

Within a particular novel, the backstory should have a gentle learning curve. That is, a reader should be given a little at a time instead of a bid info-dump. On the other hand, the basic information about setting, character, and plot should have a steep learning curve so that the reader is grounded and oriented in the story as quickly as possible.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Home Video and Scenes that Move the Plot Forward

Writing Wednesday

Have you ever been subject to the exquisite torture of watching unedited home video? There's nothing like watching half an hour of junior about to take his first bite to make you seriously entertain the notion of gnawing off your own arm to escape.

The problem with unedited home video is that years of watching television and movies has lead us to believe that we should only have to watch the interesting bits.

This lesson applies equally to prose. (Though we usually talk about it in terms of moving the plot forward.)

Jessica Faust, an agent at BookEnds, LLC, explained how every scene must move the plot forward this way:
"In any book you read you’ll notice, sometimes subtly, that every scene has a purpose, and that purpose is to take the reader to the end, or give the reader the information required to get to the end of the book.

"One of the mistakes we often see with beginning authors are those who just love their characters and want you to love them too. They want to welcome you into their world and have you sit and share their experiences. Which is great, but not necessarily the best thing to build a novel on. Now, if that coffee chat is somehow discussing the state of the world you are building, clues from the mystery, or the heroine’s latest romantic adventure, in other words, if it’s moving the plot along, great. Keep it in. If not, you’ll need to find a different way to introduce your characters to readers."
In my own work, I found the analogy between a video scene and a scene in prose very helpful when considering what scenes to use and how to structure them.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Writer Zen: Just Right is Hard

Technique Tuesday

Most aspiring writers are at the stage where it's a struggle to get some attention-- any attention-- for their work. If someone suggests there might be such a thing as too much attention, we often quip, "That's the sort of problem we'd like to have."

I read a note from Brandon Sanderson shortly before his new epic, The Way of Kings, was released that reminded me how difficult it is to get just the right amount of attention: too much can be as bad as too little.

[This, by the way, is an example of why I generally like what Brandon has to say: it's rational, well-thought-out, and, most importantly, grounded.]

Here's part of what Brandon had to say about his upcoming book The Way of Kings:
POINT FOUR: However, the book is just a book.
My editor, bless his heart, compared THE WAY OF KINGS to DUNE and LORD OF THE RINGS in the catalogue copy that he wrote. He's a wonderful man, but I cringe when any new book is compared to masterworks like those. DUNE and LotR have proven themselves over decades, passing the test of time. They had monumental influences on their respective genres.

No new novel has the right to claim such a comparison out of the gate. If you go into KINGS expecting the next LORD OF THE RINGS or DUNE, you will be disappointed. I am not Tolkien or Herbert. I am what I am—a largely unproven writer still in the early days of his career.

Early in my drafting process for this book, I fell into some traps by putting too much weight upon the future of this novel. I began to think that KINGS would be the book that would define my solo career, and I began to worry (with all of the recent eyes that have been watching me) that this book needed to be something incredibly jaw-dropping and earth-shattering, otherwise it would be a failure.

That's a bad way to be thinking as you write a book, and probably an even worse way to be thinking as you start reading a book. The Wheel of Time didn't start to really make its mark until book three or four; it was the same for Harry Potter. Series like this take time to build. Beyond that, you can't go into a series with the mind-set that it needs to be a huge blockbuster to be successful.

I'm not sure what I want people to think about this book. I want them to read it, enjoy it, and say nice things about it. I want them to anticipate it and talk about it on blogs, waiting for the day it is released. But in the end, it's just a book. Let's not hype this thing to death.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, November 1, 2010

Laws of Making 3: Truth is the Substance of True Making

Making Monday

The third Law of Understanding is that Truth is the Substance of True Making.

First, a word about the word true: thanks to the degree that concepts from math and science have permeated our culture, most of us associate true with right and correct. But there's another, older sense of the word that means straight or serviceable. A board that is not warped is said to be true. There's also the sense of true that means loyalty and fidelity, as in, a true friend. The true in true making should be understood in the older senses: making that is straight and faithful.

So, how is truth the substance of true making?

Engineers deal more directly in terms of truth: if the device blows up on the lab bench, no amount of rhetorical spin will change that fact or make it suddenly work. In other endeavors, like politics, the truth of something can be changed by talking about it differently (see Truthiness).

Makers are largely uninterested in the ways in which something may be interpreted because they understand that a thing can't be made until you understand it as it really is.

I heard a story long ago about a factory owner with a troublesome machine. He called in a specialist, who listened for a few minutes, made some adjustments, and had the machine back in perfect working order. When the owner saw the $500 invoice, he protested that the specialist had only worked for five minutes. The specialist took the invoice and itemized it: Labor $10, Knowing what to fix $490.

As this story illustrates, once you understand the truth of a thing or situation, the actual work of making is often straightforward.

 Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net