Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Hiatus

I don't know if our fascination with beginning and ending cycles is a habit we picked up since we began keeping calendars and telling time or if it's a side-effect of our innate pattern matching abilities. Whatever the reason, odometer days--days when our tracking systems reset or produce nice, round numbers--seem especially significant.

It's no accident that our end-of-year celebrations occur right after the winter solstice. When the days begin to get longer, we know the world won't dwindle in the cold of an endless night. It's natural, then, to consider our prospects for the new year.

I've decided its time to close this chapter of the Laws of Making. This blog will be on hiatus for at least a month.

I'll spare you all the considerations (most of them practical and not particularly interesting), except to say that, like a chapter in a novel, this part of the story has run its course and there's the promise of something new: I'm working on a new project I hope to be ready to announce in a month or two.

Thank you for being a part of our exploration of the Laws of Making and their application to long-form writing.

Thank you for your kind attention and generous comments.

May the holidays bring you peace and joy. And influenced, I hope, by the ideas we've shared here, may you go into the new year resolved to make your world better.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Friday, December 16, 2011

Calling Ourselves Writers

I recently suggested that there are no writers--at least not in the sense that there are doctors, medical schools, and a well defined course of preparation and practice in order to become one.

Have I now committed political suicide by flip-flopping? 

No. This is another example of the contradictions inherent to the writing life that you must wrap your head around.

My earlier point was that aside, perhaps, from becoming a tenured writing professor there are no established and accepted career paths that will, if followed, make you a nationally-acclaimed novelist. The only common denominator among the handful of people we would generally recognize as writers is that they wrote a lot for a long time. Schooling, jobs, writing habits--everything else was incidental from a predictive perspective.

And yet there is a time when it is important to call yourself a writer.

Sarah Callender, at Write it Sideways said,
"I don’t know about you, but for a long time, whenever a well-intentioned someone asked what I did professionally, I instantly became a mammering, mealy-mouthed mugwump. It just felt so audacious, not to mention goofy, to utter the sentence, “I’m a writer!’"

"Until one day it hit me. My under-confidence was far more damaging to my own work, to my own creativity, than [a friend's] over-confidence was to his dreams.

"We writers need to see ourselves as writers so that others will see us as writers.

"But ... we writers need to do the very, very hard work that will give us the knowledge, the certainty, that even if we are still unpublished, even if agents aren’t wooing us, even if we’ve submitted to seventeen thousand contests and publications yet have no acceptances or prizes, we are writers because we put our tush in the chair and get words on the page every day."
Giving yourself permission to be what you're preparing for but have not yet achieved is very much in line with the phase of Dressing the Part from the arc of the Virgin's Promise. It is consistent with the making version of, "fake it till you make it."

How do you take the idea of yourself as a writer seriously when publication and public acknowledgement of you as a writer is years away?

By calling yourself a writer, you have both the permission and the obligation to make a dedicated effort. If you're serious, for example,  about keeping a job, you'll do what's necessary to get yourself out of bed, make yourself presentable, and arrive at work on time--and you'll do it every day of the work week. When other demands or distractions arise, you say, "I'm sorry, but I have to go to work." Thinking of writing as your job (or second job) may seem like a sure-fire way to leach all the joy out of it, but if you treat it as an indulgence you'll either feel guilty or succumb when another good thing comes along to occupy your writing time.

Similarly, calling yourself a writer means adopting the discipline of a writer. Discipline is more than simply writing each day (thought that's certainly a good start). The discipline that makes a difference means a focus not just on doing the job each day but on getting better at the job each day.

The key point, as Callender says, is that calling yourself a writer means you accept the "very, very hard work," that comes with the title. Writer isn't an entitlement, it's something you live up to.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

VP4W Retrospective

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

Looking back on the arc of Kim Hudson's Virgin's Promise, we've come a long way. You might be tempted to say it's only the story of someone in a community who, constrained by a web of expectations, finds a way to grow into their dream, make a new place for themselves, and make the community better in the process. But that's both too curt and a touch dismissive.

First, like the Hero's Journey, the phases in the arc of the Virgin's Promise are each significant because each represents a failure point--that is, a test of character where a different decision puts an end to personal growth and returns the protagonists to their Dependent World. The personal transformation in both cases requires courage, determination, and stamina but in very different ways. While the hero faces an antagonist who is evil because his actions threaten the village, the Virgin faces antagonists who are good, or at least well intentioned. Even if the Kingdom suffers from a festering evil, the Virgin is only in danger after she exposes and challenges that evil. The Hero's courage to persevere in the face of a life-or-death threat is very different from the Virgin's courage to persevere in the face of well-meaning people who want her to accept her place in the community because they believe its the best way to make the most people happy.

Second, like all stories of real change, the process involves a number of necessary steps. In any particular case, the person going through the transformation may move quickly from one particular phase to another, but they short-circuit the transformation if they skip too many steps. Take the simpler example of grief: going from denial straight to acceptance means you didn't actually grieve. So too, if the Virgin goes from Opportunity to Shine to the Kingdom is Brighter it means that the web of expectations wasn't that constricting after all.

The necessity of the majority of the phases in the arc is clearer if we map the phases into a three-act structure.

Introduction (Establishing Context)
The Dependent World
The Price of Conformity
Opportunity to Shine (the Inciting Incident)
Act I (first try/fail cycle)
Dresses the Part
The Secret World
No Longer Fits Her World
Caught Shining (First Failure)
Act II (second try/fail cycle)
Gives up What Kept Her Stuck
The Kingdom in Chaos
Wanders in the Wilderness (Second Failure)
Act III (final try/succeed cycle)
Chooses Her Light
Re-ordering (Rescue)
The Kingdom is Brighter (resolution)
It is, however, not simply a matter of trying three times. The transformation occurs through the process of trying, growing, and failing in each cycle. Put another way, the Virgin given an Opportunity to Shine is capable of taking the small steps that bring her to The Secret World where she has a safe place to grow, but would wither if thrown into the challenges of Wanders in the Wilderness.

So what does it mean?

Beyond the obvious application to fictional character development, there are lessons for our own development, both as writers and as individuals.

Perhaps the most important for both life and fiction is that true change is neither quick nor easy. There is no growth without pain. It may be the acute pain of direct conflict or the chronic pain of a transformation that comes only after a long, slow process.

Moreover, failure is not only common but necessary to the process. That this is so is clearer in the the arc of the Virgin's Promise because her goal, particularly through Caught Shining, is not to change her world but simply to make a better place in it for herself. Her failure to balance the increasingly conflicting demands force her out of the places that are comfortable and safe into new territory where she must discover and draw upon resources she never knew she had.

Knowing these things won't make your cycles of growth less painful. But in recognizing them, you can take solace in the knowledge, even as you Wander in the Wilderness, that you're not alone and that if you find the hidden reservoirs of strength to stay true to your dream the Kingdom will be Brighter.

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Fake it till you make it," and the Laws of Making

Paul Hawken, in his 1987 book Growing a Business, argued, contrary to common wisdom, that most businesses fail not because they had too little money but because they had too much. To be sure, running out of money was the final failure. Hawken, however, observed that many businesses wind up exhausting their cash because they spent too much energy on trying to look and feel like they were in business--by leasing high profile offices and filling them with business furnishings--instead of working out how their business was actually going to start making money (so they wouldn't run out).

One of the pieces of well-intentioned advice, particularly for creative people, is to, "fake it till you make it." As with other bits of common wisdom that have been reduced to sound-bites, this particular notion packs both promise and pitfalls.

A malady common among people who want to make is the tendency to prepare but never actually undertake and finish a project. It is a symptom of the fear that we're not good enough to do our vision justice. And so we practice, sure that once we master some elusive technique or fill all the gaps in our understanding we'll finally achieve mastery. Practice and preparation are necessary and good, but as with most other good things you can have too much. In this case you need to, "fake it till you make it," in the particular sense that you must set aside your fears and make it even though you feel like a fake. It's not much consolation when you're bogged down with self-doubt, but the fact of the matter is that many of the people who you would say have made it feel as much like fakes as you do.

At the other end of the spectrum we find the creative equivalent of Hawken's over-funded businesses: the person who's initial efforts, whether by accident or design, got enough attention that they think they've made it. They embrace the form of their success without actually understanding its substance. This mindset is particularly dangerous because it breeds a sense of entitlement.

Makers strive to understand things as they really are. One of the simplest but most telling signs of understanding is repeatability. With a lucky strike, you might produce a stunning sculpture. It's only when you know what you did that you can produce a second stunning sculpture. But repeatability means more than simply duplicating your work: true mastery means you can apply what you understand in different contexts with appropriate variations.

The fake-it-till-you-make-it that comes closest to true making is captured in the observation that the process of making is a series of progressively better approximations of the final product. Models, mock-ups, and prototypes are perhaps the most obvious examples of fakes that are an integral part of making.

While the integrity of the makers has no room for anything fake, there are important ways in which, "faking," is an important part of making. That said, a distinguishing characteristic of true makers is constant vigilance against self-delusion.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why Our Writing is Better Than Other People's

As  a musician, I have a problem.

It's my own fault, really. And it goes all the way back to those childhood practice sessions I either skipped or muddled through until I'd done my time.

You see, when I play, what the poor folks forced to listen hear is nothing like the music I think I'm playing.

It's like the illusion that the moon on the horizon is much bigger than the same moon riding high in the sky. You might swear that it really does look bigger on the horizon, but if you take a picture of the moon in each position (taking care, of course, to keep the camera settings the same) and measure its size, you won't find any significant difference.

Fortunately, there's help for people with my musical affliction. It's called audio software. With a composition package I can set down the notes and refine them until what comes out of the synthesizer matches the music in my head. While this doesn't guarantee that another person will have the same emotional reaction to the music, it does guarantee that my lack of technical proficiency no longer creates a gap between what I intend and what they actually hear.

We have a similar but more subtle problem as writers. In this day, when the vast majority of writing passes through computers, the legibility of our writing is rarely a problem. We take it for granted that most people will see the same words we put down on the page. If they see the same words, they should understand the same things when they read those words, right?

Meaning arises from interpreting the words and the ideas you associate with those words. What may seem like a perfectly innocent statement to one person could have offensive connotations for another. We say reading is subjective--that readers bring their own baggage to the story--without truly understanding how deeply true it is. If you stop to think about it, it's a miracle that we understand each other as well as we do.

All of which is why we all think (though most of us are too polite to say it) that our writing is better than most other peoples: we know what our words mean when we put them down. With another person's writing, all we have to go on are the words on the page.

One of the reasons we might call other people's writing bad is if we can make no sense or get nothing meaningful out of it. It doesn't matter what they intended the words to convey. It only matters what you get out of them. This is why, no matter how certain you are of your writing's perfection, you need editorial feedback--you need to hear how other people react to your words.

The music in your head may be astonishing and sublime, but no one will ever know it if they can't hear the same notes.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

VP4W 13 The Kingdom is Brighter

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

The best atmospheric metaphor for the culmination of the Virgin's Promise is a sunrise: the dark night has ended and the day begins with renewed life and energy.

At the end of the arc, in a collective parallel to, and catalyzed by, the Virgin's personal transformation, The Kingdom is Brighter. In an important sense, the community has also chosen its own light.

As Kim Hudson* explains:
"The Virgin has challenged the kingdom and thrown it into chaos. They have accepted her back and made adjustments to accommodate her authentic nature or her dream. When the dust settles, the kingdom comes to realize that it is better off for having gone through this experience with the Virgin, for it was in need of change. In some way it has adjusted itself and benefited. The most common benefits include that evil had been revealed and removed, new life has been injected into the kingdom, others are inspired to follow their dreams, and unconditional love binds the kingdom."

The Virgin doesn't ride off into the sunset, as we discussed in the Re-ordering, because the problem all along was internal to her community. While the arc of the Virgin's Promise is, at one level, a story of coming into one's own as an individual, it is also about doing so in the context of a community--one that is neither wholly good nor bad. And as the Virgin had to stretch and grow and make a new place for herself to escape the web of expectations that kept her from realizing her dreams, so too did the Kingdom: whether because of complacency, traditions growing rigid, or a festering social evil, the Kingdom was also trapped and unable to realize the dream of its potential.

Like curtains thrown open to flood a room with the crisp light of a new day, the Kingdom blossoms with new life--figuratively and sometimes literally. More importantly, now that the social malignancy has been healed, there is an outpouring, at least in the Virgin's immediate circle, of unconditional love.

The beautiful thing about coming to the end of a satisfying and well-told story is that we're left to savor that final, perfect image. Life outside of the story has a tendency of marring a perfect, culminating moment through the simple fact that it goes on. The morning after you receive the Nobel Prize for Literature you'll still have to get up, get dressed, and do something useful.

I can't begin to imagine all the ways in which your kingdom will be brighter as you realize your writing dreams. But I can tell you that light is a fleeting thing. If you don't fix it in your memory, the time will come when no one remembers how bright the kingdom was.

But rather than despairing that it didn't last, take inspiration from the hope that what once was may be again. For one brief, shining moment, there really was a Camelot.

And in a larger sense, this is why the Hero's Journey and the Virgin's Promise are archetypes: these are stories that are always unfolding. Coming to the end of one cycle means that soon we will begin another.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, December 5, 2011

Solitude vs. Isolation

The work of making requires focus and concentration. Makers take care to create workspaces free from clutter and distraction so that nothing interferes with the work. This means that solitude is often part of the workspace.

Some people are turned off by that fact. They say, "I need people. I wouldn't ever want to be so isolated."

Makers understand the critical difference between solitude and isolation. While they may spend a non-trivial amount of time alone, makers are never lonely. There is, of course, the work: in the process of its becoming, the work is an entity with which the maker interacts in a give and take that can be as lively as a good conversation.

At a deeper level, however, the work itself connects makers with their community and the wider world. As the very act of eating acknowledges our mortality and dependence on food for our very lives, the act of making acknowledges that there are things outside of ourselves that have has much right to exist as we do.

The despair of users is bred in isolation. Their isolation begins with the fact that, as the center of their own universe, no one is as important as they are. And as the centers of their own little universes, making (or anything else for that matter) is only significant to the extent that it provides some benefit to the user. Put another way, the idea of doing something to make things better in general doesn't compute for users.

True making is never an isolated activity because we make for others. Putting words in a persistent medium, for example, embodies our hope that someone else will read them. Realizing that something will make the world better is sufficient to motivate a maker to undertake the project.

Many makers cherish solitude as a rare and precious gift. If, in your own work, you begin to feel isolated, take that as a sign that something is amiss, whether with the project or your approach to it.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, December 2, 2011

On the Spread of the "No Reponse Means No" Policy Among Agents

"Don't call us, we'll call you."

It's the classic Hollywood line--the epitome of Tinseltown, that city of dreams built on a deep foundation of broken dreams. While we might be tempted to look down on callous film people, they're simply responding as rational economic actors in the presence of a dramatic oversupply of dramatic talent.

And now, more and more agents are going Hollywood: not that they're turning to film but that they're adopting an analogous query policy that no response means no. The more thoughtful agents have set up email auto-responders so that writers can know their query didn't get lost in a spam filter and have a publicly stated response time frame after which authors can assume the response is, "no thanks."

The SCBWI weighed in on November 15, 2011 with an open letter asking agents to reconsider their policy. Among other things, the SCBWI worries that the policy will not help agents reduce their query load because the absence of feedback will encourage writers to treat querying as a numbers game instead of targeting submissions after careful research.

Much of the discussion revolves around the question of what's right. If writers put lots of time into their query, aren't they owed the courtesy of a response?

While I would like to think that the industry still has the civility to cloak self-interest with the decency to encourage professional development, at a purely economic level the, "no response means no," policy means that agents have an oversupply of queries.

What caused the over supply? Has the number of writers querying publishable manuscripts grown dramatically in the last few years? Has the commercial market for debut authors contracted?

I don't know, but I suspect it's all of the above.

So what, if anything, should you do?

It's hard to resist the temptation to treat querying as a numbers game where you fire-and-forget at all the agents who seem to be in the ball park. Without feedback, you won't be able to refine your query after each small batch.

But there's a deeper question: can you stand out in an oversupplied market? Or should you, perhaps, look elsewhere, either to other agents who haven't instituted the policy or to other publishing avenues?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

VP4W 12 Re-ordering (Rescue)

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

At the end of the stereotypical western, the hero rides off into the sunset. The town is now safe from the desperadoes, and there are other wrongs elsewhere that need righting.

The arc of the Virgin's Promise never ends this way. As much as it seems to be the story of the Virgin coming into her own as an individual and making a place for herself in her community, it is also a story about the way in which the Virgin heals her community. The hero averts an external threat and his job is done when the village is once again safe. The Virgin had to undergo her transformation because of forces internal to the community and she hasn't addressed the real problem if she simply walks away. Even though her personal development culminates in the previous beat, Chooses Her Light, the story of her community isn't over until it passes through the Re-ordering (Rescue) phase.

Kim Hudson* defines the Re-ordering (Rescue):
"The Virgin has moved from secretly claiming some personal authority to being authentic in all parts of her life. ... the Virgin has challenged her kingdom to accept she has her own vision for her life. This is The Re-ordering.

"A good Re-ordering, from the feminine perspective has two elements: it recognizes the Virgin's true value when she is fulfilling her dream; and it reconnects the Virgin with a community."
The community that dismissed, vilified, or banished the Virgin in an attempt to make her conform to the Dependent World now acknowledges her value--that she has more to offer when she Chooses Her Light than she would by conforming to the expectations of her Dependent World. This is not simply a grudging admission that the Virgin many have had a point. "The obstacle," says Hudson, "established in the Dependent-World, that kept the Virgin from living her dream, must be addressed in the Re-ordering."

The process reconnecting the Virgin with her kingdom is not a trivial one.
"The Virgin has brought chaos to the kingdom and now it is time to put the kingdom back together again. This may happen through love, where the Tyrant grows into the Lover/King. Alternatively, the actions of the Hero may eliminate the evil force, to the benefit of all."
 If the evil force resists the re-ordering, particularly if it focuses on the Virgin as its primary antagonist, she may be in danger of being destroyed.
".... This is when the Re-ordering is also known as the Rescue. It is not the nature of the Virgin to assert her will over the will of others. She inspires others to change out of love or a drive towards joy. The Hero, on the other hand, does assert his will against evil. When the Dependent World of the Virgin includes an oppressive force that the kingdom needs to be free of, the Hero takes on the task of eliminating it, inspired by the Virgin.
It is critical that the Re-ordering (rescue) recognizes the Virgin's worth and reconnects her with her community. A rescue that accomplished only one of those aims is a false one. Reconnecting the Virgin with her community without recognizing her worth is nothing more than capitulating to her Dependent World. A rescue that recognizes her worth but places her in another community simply replaces her old Dependent World with a new one. Stories often tempt the Virgin with false rescues, but thanks to her transformation, she now sees them for what they are.

Seeing things for what they are is also critical to our development as writers. We start with dreams that are the literary equivalent of the girl in the chorus line who catches the producer's eye and is whisked away to stardom. Granted, our dreams have more to do with an agent getting us a great deal and an editor getting us award-winning prose, and sales people putting us on the bestsellers list.

Notice, though, how passive the object of all the attention is in these dreams. Like the arc of the Virgin's promise and its fundamental message that in order to establish yourself as an individual who has a valued place in the community, you must act and not simply be acted upon. This will mean different things for different writers, but they will all have the general character of doing things for motives that flow from you and not because of externally imposed expectations. For example, you will not write because you hope to catch the next market wave but because you have a story you want to tell.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, November 28, 2011

Making and the Big Pile O' Fail

One of the deep ironies of being a maker is that even though the word, "make," implies a successful outcome, we actually spend most of our time hip-deep in failure.

In a recent guest post on inspiration, author Sara Zarr said:
"I’m inspired by failure.

"Which is a good thing, because right now I’ve got a first draft of a new book in front of me, and it feels like a massive pile of FAIL. (I should note: this is my book.)"
Insofar as writing goes, no one aside from haters would call Sara Zarr, an award-winning author who recently published her fourth book, a failure. In fact, once you break in to the national market, you're a success right? How can someone as accomplished as Sara have a manuscript that "feels like a massive pile of FAIL?"

A failure, in structural terms, is simply a gap between intent and outcome. It is not a sign of moral weakness or a personal indictment in and of itself. A consistent gap between intent and outcome may be symptomatic of other problems, but we're talking about the failure that is part and parcel of learning, making, and living--all of which involve trying, failing, and trying again

Do those try/fail cycles sound like story theory?

It's no accident. Much of our social experience as humans comes down to encouraging others--or being encouraged by them--to deal with failure. Have you ever sat down with a child who tried something once, failed, and declared they would never be able to do it?

The challenge is that  as the scope of our intent increases so too does the scope for our failure. NaNoWiMo celebrates the the accomplishment of amassing 50,000 more or less coherent words in a month. If, however, your ambition is a finished novel, those words must all be coherent and build to something that is more than the sum of the parts. And if you want people to give you money for those words, there are more and increasingly ineffable requirements.

Put another way, the greater your ambition, the greater the gap between your first efforts and your ultimate attempt will be. Part of the wisdom of making is to understand that this gap is natural. It's why the first Law of Making, "Love is the foundation of true making," includes the ability to forgive the work while it fails to live up to your expectations. 

Sara concludes her post with this thought:
"Today, I’m looking at my draft and its large and small failures, and I know: if everyone I admire and respect, everyone whose work has endured for more than five minutes, everyone who has come out with something beautiful, has struggled in this same, frightening gap, I must be on the right track."

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Time Off

If you're in the U.S., I hope you enjoy the holiday.

I'll be away for the rest of the week.

My regular posts will resume on Monday, November 28th.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Monday, November 21, 2011

To be Used with Prudence and Thanksgiving

There was a time in the history of what would be come the United States that it was fashionable to name women, "Prudence," and carry blunderbusses.

During this week, when we celebrate the first-ever tailgate party, it would be good to revive some of those original fashions. While blunderbusses are pretty cool in a seriously retro way, I've been thinking about prudence since I came across the phrase, "to be used with prudence and thanksgiving."

Prudence, according to my 1886 Webster's, is "the state of being prudent: wisdom applied to practice; caution evinced in forethought."

Forethought and, "wisdom applied to practice," speak to the heart of making: carrying out your intent requires forethought, and doing it well comes from applying wisdom to practice.

Some older ideas that are synonymous with prudence are frugality and husbanding one's resources. These ideas hark from a time before machines made basic necessities like food and clothing practically dirt-cheap. It was also the time before machines made the weather largely irrelevant--when the harvest season wasn't a gluttonous celebration of football, but a time to set aside stores in preparation for a winter that might leave you snow-bound and dependent on your prudence for weeks at a time.

But prudence speaks to something beyond good domestic management. Approaching your circumstances with prudence and thanksgiving is the antithesis of the entitlements, great and small, that permeate our culture and society. Gratitude is founded upon acknowledging that you are not entitled to that for which you are grateful: the gift didn't have to be given, the meal didn't have to be prepared, the million and one goods things that make our lives comfortable and convenient didn't have to be provided.

Hunting cultures often have some variation on the tradition of apologizing to the animal spirit, explaining that we kill because of need, and thanking the spirit for giving life to our people. While I'm not suggesting that we should apologize to the lumber before cutting it up, there is an important analogy for makers in that notion: makers understand that to use something for one purpose often means it can't be used for others. That is why forethought and wisdom are essential to making.

Take a moment, as you make meals and make merry during this season of plenty, to think about it from the perspective of a maker. You may be convinced, as I am, that they best way to celebrate is with prudence and thanksgiving.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, November 18, 2011

On Authors' Peculiar Susceptibility to Hooks

Perhaps it all started when Dr. Seuss rhymed about a nook with a book on a hook--his secret marketing advice to writers--though it's more likely hooks have been doing extra duty as symbols and metaphors ever since that day long ago when a proto-fisherman noticed an oddly shaped bone and said, "I wonder ..."

As writers, the sort that trade words for money, our literary livelihood ultimately depends on how often we're read. In order to catch as many readers as possible, reel them in, and leave them in the bottom of the boat gasping for more story, we're admonished to deploy a wide variety of hooks.

If you've had more than passing exposure to the community of commercial writers, the first thing that comes to mind when we say, "hook," is either a pirate captain or a pithy one-liner, carefully designed to compel you to read more. Story hooks often take the form of an improbable juxtaposition (like, "I always hated warthogs until the day I turned into one,") that force the reader to wonder how such a thing could be true.

There are many other kinds of hooks: covers, tag lines, jacket copy, author blurbs, reviews, book trailers, bookmarks, and so on. In fact, a good story is filled with hooks, large and small, that pull the reader deeper into the narrative.

Hooks are all well and good for readers, but they pose a subtle but real danger to writers: we hear a hook and instantly imagine the story we would write and then get jealous because someone else has already written it.

It's part of the more general grass-is-greener phenomenon. We look at other's success and think how their assets would solve our problems, being complete unaware of the problems they have that their assets can't solve (e.g., you may be rich but in poor health).

So appreciate and use hooks for what they are: ways to draw readers into your story. And remember, writers, as you try not to be jealous of either a book or its hooks, that you can't create the perfect hook without the perfect book.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

VP4W 11 Chooses Her Light

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

Stories are fundamentally about choices and consequences. There are, of course, highly praised and elegantly wrought novels that show the meaninglessness of existence, but the vast majority of stories are about people who choose and do--even if it is a mistake. One common way to talk about story structure is in terms of try-fail cycles.

The eleventh phase of the Virgin's Promise, Chooses Her Light, is the point where the Virgin chooses to let the light of her true self shine and acts accordingly. Kim Hudson*puts it this way:
"[T]he Virgin decides to trust herself and pursue her dream or passion, whatever happens. This is the last stage of her transformation and a joyous climax to her story. She would rather shine than be safe or maintain order."
Because of the Chaos in the Kingdom, she was banished to Wander in the Wilderness until she repented by the forces trying to restore order to the Dependent World. Choosing Her Light is neither capitulating nor giving up. It is the moment in which the Virgin transcends her Dependent World, and in so doing gains the power to act and not be acted upon. As Hudson explains:
"The choice the Virgin makes when she Chooses Her Light is a clear action toward her dream. ... Some tangible, finite goal is reached. This is the third and final stage of changing a belief. It is important that the decision to pursue her dream and be true to herself is an identifiable action made by the Virgin."
It is critical that the Virgin acts for herself--that she is the prime mover in this phase. Even if her actions place her in danger and she needs help, she's the one moving everything forward. Hudson warns against the temptation to have a hero step in and save the day:
"In some cases, after the Virgin chooses her dream, her action precipitates danger and she is rescued. Never does she need to be rescued, then choose to love her rescuer as fulfillment of the Chooses Her Light beat. This would be a major step backwards into another Dependent World."
The core of the transformation that comes with Chooses Her Light is that the Virgin finally harnesses and harmonizes her inner desires and outward actions in order to realize her dream.

Hudson characterizes the way in which the Virgin introduces her true form to the kingdom with the metaphor of going to ball as a radiant beauty. For writers, the opportunities to stand out in our respective kingdoms in all our authorial splendor are few and far between. It's nearly impossible to come out as a writer as a prelude to living happily ever after because no matter how lovely last night's ball might have been, there's always a blank page awaiting you in the cold light of dawn.

It is the choosing that resonates most strongly with the writer's experience: after wandering in our own personal wildernesses, we choose our light as writers and take clear and concrete action to move toward our dreams--the clearest and most concrete of which is to put our words down on the page, and then to do it again tomorrow.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Job Well Done vs. Perfect

"Tis a gift to be simple," according to the Shaker hymn popularized by Aaron Copland. The Shakers understood the difference between simplicity--one of their highest virtues--and simplistic. Any fool can be simplistic, but it takes true mastery to make something look simple.

The difference between perfect and perfectionism is similar.

The word perfect comes, via Middle English and Old French, from the Latin, perfectus, the past participle of perficere - to finish. The first definition at is, "Lacking nothing essential to the whole."

In that sense, makers always strive to perfect their work.

Most people, however, understand perfect primarily in terms of, "without defect or blemish," and "pure, undiluted, unmixed." Put another way, they think "perfect" is an absolute, synonymous with ideal.

That's why makers more commonly talk not about perfection but a job well done.

Perfectionism is dangerous because absolute perfection is unattainable. No made thing will be perfect for every purpose. Sometimes you need a sledge hammer, and sometimes you need a chisel.

An even greater danger of perfectionism is that you become vulnerable to the opinions of others. Shouldn't a perfectly sad song evoke the same emotion in every listener? Shouldn't the perfect query convince every agent to read your manuscript? But there are people who will say, "meh," after the most stirring music, and you simply can't be a great author without a collection of rejections.

Makers don't worry about that kind of perfection because they recognize the practical danger of never finishing. They focus on arriving at the end of a project with a work "lacking nothing essential to the whole."

Authentic Navajo rugs always have a flaw. I've heard various explanations, all likely apocryphal, but the one I like best is that we are imperfect and we offend the spirits by striving to be something we are not. (It's also a great way to spot machine-made knock-offs.) Whether the reason for the flaw is profound or pragmatic, the idea of expecting and accepting a flaw is liberating. Instead of seeing our work as failing to achieve an ideal, we see it for what it is, improving it until it is complete and lacks nothing essential.

Like the Shakers with simplicity, makers devote their attention to a job well done and perfection follows naturally.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, November 11, 2011

There are No Writers

With many occupations, you can say, "I'm a ____," because you received some certification. Indeed, the most important professions require rigorous training and state-level licensing.

Not so with writers. (Or literary agents.) Anyone can hang out the proverbial shingle and declare, "I am a writer." Perversely, there are few milestones that unambiguously identify one as a writer: even hitting the New York Times Bestsellers List only proves that you have written.

I'm beginning to believe there are no writers.

If you've been patient to this point, you might now object that there are obviously a great many writers. Millions of books are published each year. Millions of people are employed in jobs whose practical output is words on paper (or screens). Beyond that, nearly every citizen of the literate world strings at least a few words into sentences each day.

All true. And yet most of this vast army of writers write in the service of some other purpose. Just as nearly every scientist uses mathematics to do their work but they don't call themselves mathematicians, the majority of people who write don't call themselves, "writers."

So what does it mean to be a writer?

In the world of commercial publishing, the only writers who matter are the ones who have enough of a following that every book they release is a guaranteed bestseller.

In the world of the literati, the only writers who matter are the ones (usually dead) who have produced the masterworks that they endlessly discuss.

It's pretty slim pickings if you're looking for a role model.

Which is precisely the point.

Writers are like curry: it's an approach to preparing the food, not a particular dish. There is no single approved model of success or failure as a writer. Rather, like an entrepreneur, there's a world of opportunity and any number of creative ways to take advantage of those opportunities.

Unlike other professions, where the pathway to achievement is clearly marked, writers have a blank page.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

VP4W 10 Wanders in the Wilderness

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

The ancient religious sanction of excommunication carries far less weight than it once did. In our complex society, with its layers of real or virtual social networks, it's easy to find a new community when we leave (or are thrown out of) an old one. There was a time, however, when being cast out was tantamount to a death sentence.

The inevitable consequence of the Virgin's bid for independence, which leaves the Kingdom in Chaos, is that she suffers the ultimate sanction in the Dependent World and is excommunicated by the agents trying to restore order. This forces the Virgin, whether figuratively or literally, to Wander in the Wilderness.

Kim Hudson* describes the tenth beat of the Virgin's Promise this way:
"[This] stage is a test of the Virgin's conviction and it is her moment of doubt. ... The Virgin has gone against her Dependent World and is unsure of her ability to stand alone. There is no guarantee that she can make it on her own. She is at a fork in the road: go back and appease the Dependent World, which seems the easiest option because it keeps most people happy, or go forward and make a new place for herself."
Like The Ordeal in the Hero's Journey, Wandering in the Wilderness is the Virgin's near death experience. But as a social death she usually has the option to go back to the Dependent World, which makes her choice more difficult. Where the Hero faces life or death, the Virgin chooses between kinds of life. Determining how you will die says a lot about your character. Determining how you will live says more.

Hudson continues:
"Wanders in the Wilderness is the second stage of changing beliefs and in it, life is uncomfortable. The Virgin must emotionally separate from the world she has known and feel the essence of being alone. Her choice to move toward change in the face of hardship is the mark of a strong character and the indication that change will stand the test of time."
Because it is a solitary pursuit, writers often wander in the wilderness: every time you share your work and get a reaction other than the one you expected, you have reason to doubt yourself. During a time when you get nothing but rejections--if you get any response at all--you have to wonder if the crazy one in this relationship might actually be you and not the world.

Like the aphorism that character is what you do when no one is looking, the way you handle those times when you wander in the writing wilderness speaks volumes about who you are and whether you have the stamina and strength of character to stand the test of time that is the author's vocation.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, November 7, 2011

Are Rules Made to be Broken?

My son, who has just entered high school (or perhaps because he just entered high school), announced confidently in the middle of a recent conversation that, "Rules are made to be broken."

"How do you know that?" I asked.

"Everybody knows that."

"Does that mean even the rule, 'Rules are made to be broken,' must be broken?"

He rolled his eyes and that was the end of the discussion.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to dismiss questions about rules that are meant to be broken so easily.

On the surface, it seems like a purely User sentiment: rules are made to be broken if it gives me the advantage or helps me achieve my goal. In contrast, Makers might seem like the ultimate rule followers.

But following a rule simply because it is a rule is as much of a mistake as flaunting it simply because it is a rule. Making is as much about wisdom as it is about technique; it is about being mindful and present. Among other things, that means being mindful of rules that no longer serve their purpose and need to be broken.

So, in what ways is it true that rules are meant to be broken?

To begin with, rules were made because they were broken. Someone did something that went too far, caused more trouble than it was worth, or simply didn't work. Many rules, like the yellow lines painted on shop floors, represent a consensus about a safe operating area.

Where rules are an attempt to systematize a body of knowledge and experience, can you understand the rules without breaking them and experiencing the failure yourself? It certainly seems to be the case that young children need to feel some pain to understand what, "No, don't touch, it's hot," means.

But systems are finite. Once you've mastered the system, you begin to discover the edges--cases where the rules provide no clear guidance. Does that mean the rules are bad because they don't cover all cases? Michael Shermer, in a recent skeptic column in Scientific American, discussed "scientific residue." In the case of UFO sightings, a fraction can't be easily explained away. Shermer pointed out the fact that if a theory doesn't explain everything that doesn't mean it's wrong, it means there's more work to do.

This brings us to the most important way rules are meant to be broken by makers: by transcending them. Many of the rules of writing, like don't have too many point-of-view characters, are rules because most writers can't go there and still deliver a good, coherent story. That is, they're rules not because something can't ever be done but because it is so rarely done well.

It takes a great deal of humility to truly transcend a rule. Most people engage in pseudo-transcendence: they find a way to excuse themselves from following the rule. Real transcendence come through following the rule so well and mastering the art so thoroughly that the rule becomes irrelevant.

I read of a master glass-maker who produced exquisite art not because he never made mistakes in his processes but because he knew how to compensate without ruining the work. This is the way in which true makers strive to break the rules.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, November 4, 2011

Marketing: Before vs. After the Fact

Of all the exotic animals Dr. Dolittle met in his adventures, the pushmi-pullyu (pronounced, 'push-me--pull-you') ranks high on my list of favorites. It was a gazelle-unicorn cross with two heads (and no tail) that often had trouble deciding which way to go.

At first I was going to use the pushmi-pullyu as an analogy for indecisiveness in the publishing industry. But it's a much better analogy for having it both ways--something that's also endemic in publishing.

For a variety of structural reasons (some of which stem from the quarterly pressure to deliver profits to corporate masters and some from the big release model that works best for large chain bookstores), publishing's promotional Holy Grail is before-the-fact marketing: a confluence of buzz and publicity that has people lined up to buy the book at midnight when the book is released. By the same token, publishers  love nothing better than an author who is so well established that the phrase, "The next first-name last-name book is out," is enough to make people pull out their credit cards.

Then there are the books that sell year after year with no visible marketing. These books are in fact marketed after-the-fact by word of mouth. Rather than saying, in effect, "The author is good so his or her new book will be good," they can say, "This is a good book--I know: I've read it." The book, by the fact of its existence and availability, can essentially market itself. Rather than having to take the opinion of thought leaders on faith, an interested reader can see for themselves.

Once upon a time, publishers made most of their money from their backlist, which provided consistent returns each year without a great deal of marketing effort. Then structural changes shifted the emphasis to first the front list and then the blockbuster sales model. That model depended upon turning the publication of a book into an event and creating a sense of urgency--which worked when there were fewer channels and distractions.

Now, with a never-ending parade of distractions, the backlist is making a big comeback because the only way to win through the Internoise is with constancy. A publicist recently said, "I'm counseling authors to approach publicity as a long-term, on-going strategy." In other words successful publicity in the twenty-first century isn't about making a big splash, it's about a constant stream of enticing content.

The challenge for contemporary writers is that the major publishers now want projects that they can sell both before-the-fact with a blockbuster push and after-the-fact by keeping electronic rights in perpetuity. That's why the industry feels increasingly like a pushmi-pullyu. And that's why it's increasingly the author's responsibility to understand the business implications of before-the-fact and after-the-fact marketing so that they can make the best deals in light of the short and long term trade-offs.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

VP4W 9 The Kingdom in Chaos

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

One of the things that sets us apart, as a species, is our ability to recognize patterns--or, more to the point, our ability to detect patterns and variations. We instantly notice when something, or someone, is out of line.

Stepping out of line is precisely what the Virgin did in the previous beat, Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck. Now, what had been a private struggle becomes public as others in the her Dependent World notice and react to the Virgin's choice. That's why this phase is the Kingdom in Chaos.

As Kim Hudson* explains:
"A ripple effect takes place as the Virgin begins to change and the result is chaos in the kingdom. The world becomes uncomfortable. What was an isolated craziness as the Virgin juggled her two worlds, now affects many people. The old sense of order begins to crumble."
Whether the Virgin's actions are the direct cause or only a catalyst for simmering tensions that existed in the kingdom before she was Caught Shining, the forces of order and stability react--and sometimes overreact--in an effort to bring the Virgin back in to line.

If conflict is the narrative fuel, this is the point where the story's afterburners kick in. While there are ample opportunities for external conflict, complete with violence and physical coercion, the realization of the fears she discovered in No Longer Fits Her World, and the attendant burden of guilt, throws the Virgin into an internal conflict that is as bad or worse than the external situation.

Writers can face a kingdom in chaos at a number of levels. Perhaps breaking out of your writer's block, or a revision letter from an editor, leave your manuscript in chaos. Perhaps an unbreakable stream of rejections leaves your plan to work toward publication (and your dreams) in chaos. Perhaps life intrudes and leaves your writing in chaos.

When it seems as though the universe is conspiring against you, the fears you can never banish will rear up and confront you with your own inadequacy: you're a fraud, you know it, and it would be best for everyone if you gave up this writing nonsense and went back to where you were safe and comfortable.

It's not pretty and it's not fun, but these are the emotional depths you must plumb in order to capture the dramatic crux of the struggle to realize the Virgin's Promise.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, October 31, 2011

WtMoM: Making and the Sacred

It is curious that on this night we revel--at least symbolically--in the final annual orgy of evil but do nothing tomorrow, on All Hallows Day, to express our gratitude that darkness has been vanquished and order restored to the world. In other words, we celebrate the profane but we don't celebrate the sacred.

Most of us would define sacrifice as giving something up, but the word literally means, "to make sacred." Now, at a personal level, by handing a lamb over to the priests you are, in fact, giving up your control over it. But in a broader sense, by making a thing sacred you've set it apart and it can no longer be used for normal purposes.

That which is sacred becomes priceless--not in the sense of being worth more than you can imagine, but in the strict technical sense that its value cannot be determined because it is no longer part of the economic system.

You may object that we know what other things like it cost, so we know the price. Users would agree because insofar as they are concerned, everything has a price and nothing is sacred.

For makers, almost everything has an element of the sacred because the act of making sets the thing made apart from others. You may have a ream of blank paper, but the sketch on one sheet gives it a completely different significance than any of the others. And that's the fundamental difference: making imbues the made thing with non-economic significance. As a recent series of credit card commercials pointed out, some things really are priceless.

Lest you think me an irredeemable curmudgeon, with all this talk of the sacred, I'm not here to denounce Halloween. Part of the appeal of Halloween comes from the fact that it continues an ancient tradition of celebrations in which the normal order of the world is turned upside down. During the holiday or carnival, common social constraints are relaxed and people can be something other than what they are the rest of the year. It is a collective way to let off steam and diffuse social tensions.But as you traipse about as some otherworldly creature, extorting candy, you might use the temporary inversion of sacred and profane to take stock of what you hold sacred, and, more importantly, what you are willing to make sacred.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, October 28, 2011

Kinds of Writers and Their Advice

One of the implications of quantum mechanics that writers have played with is the notion that there are universes in which every possibility is played out. I've heard the notion expressed as a root universe that buds into two new universes when it reaches a decision point.

Whether the real universe behaves this way or not, the writing universe seems to have split several times, and seems to be in the process of doing so again.

What do I mean?

If we don't count business writing and academic writing (about subjects other than writing), there are three writing universes for fiction:


The universe of professional writing is spread among the far-flung universities and MFA programs. A Slate article characterized this world as a kind of academic patronage for writers (where publishing is only a step on the way to the real goal of tenure for teaching writing).

Professional comes from profession, which comes from profess. The modern sense of the words, "profession," and, "professional," is tied up in notions of highly-trained--and highly-paid--specialists. With that sense, we lose sight of the root verb, "to profess," which means to espouse a body of knowledge and practice. Professing is also associated with the old, clerical notion of a calling.
Many writers aspire to be professional in the modern, highly-paid sense of the term, but go about their task more in the old sense of something to profess: literature is a calling, with commandments and a canon.


The universe of commercial writing orbits New York City. (The cynical might say that New York is the black hole at the center of that universe.) This universe is all about publishing, and advances, and royalties.

Commercial, of course, comes from, "commerce," i.e., business. The commercial writer is all about business: What are the trends? Where's the market? What are editors buying? I've heard several people say that unpublished writers talk about books, published authors talk about money.

Electronic Frontiers

There was a time when the distinction between the professional and commercial writer came down to labels like, "literary," and, "commercial." Writers in both universes had to squeeze through the same funnel because the only way to reach a large audience was through the distribution system controlled by the publishers.

We're now entering a new universe (or perhaps a hyperspace) of writing in the interwebs where it's possible to publish your message to the world by pushing a button. Compared to the older two universes, with their fairly well defined paths of advancement, this strange new universe is part of a larger reputation economy.


I've painted with a broad brush to characterize the universes of fiction writer. In doing so, I've surely missed a host of important details and qualifications. Even so, when you compare the structures of each universe, it becomes clear that the path to success in each one is different than the others.

What that means, in practical terms, is that when someone gives you writing advice you need to take the universe they inhabit--and the one you inhabit--into account. It's not that the advice is mutually exclusive--or that a writer can't exist in multiple universes--but that each context has different priorities. For example, a commercial rule like, "dive right into the action of the story," isn't as important in a professional story.

It's easy to see the writing world as a monoculture. But you'll be happier--and do a better job of finding adaptive strategies--if you think instead of a multi-verse teaming with variations.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

VP4W 8 Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

Whether it's a run of irrational investments, an engine pushed past the red line, or a person with more commitments than there are hours in a day, the phrase that often comes up--as true as it is cliché--is, "Something's got to give."

In Caught Shining, the previous beat of the Kim Hudson's* Virgin's Promise, the Virgin's temporary balance of her Dependent and Secret worlds has fallen apart. Now the only way to escape from the wreckage is for something else to give: the Virgin must Give Up What Kept Her Stuck.

Hudson explains:
"[T]he Virgin must sacrifice some of her past to move into her future. Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck is the major turning point in the psychological growth of the Virgin. It is also the most difficult to express and the key to the deeper meaning in the story. It identifies the dialogue in the Virgin's head that has kept her from moving forward and realizing her dream. In psychological terms, she is overcoming the complex that has been holding her back.


"Until this point in the Virgin's story she believed that she must be passive, servile, small, or nice. She now gives up that belief and becomes rebellious. She recognizes that she does not have to accept other people's authority over her or other's visions for her life."
One of the steps at the beginning of the cycle is to establish the Price of Conformity. It is critical to establish that context because the drama in this beat is driven by the Virgin's realization that, because of what she has become, the price is too great.

But that knowledge isn't sufficient because the Virgin is beset by fears that she might be hurt or no longer loved if she follows her own path.

When the Virgin musters the courage to act, the moment is cathartic: all the old limitations melt away and she finds herself in a world of possibilities--real possibilities, unlike the Secret World. Hudson puts it this way,"Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck frees the activation energy that allows the Virgin to complete her quest to achieve her dream."

Like the Virgin, often it is the web of expectations woven around us that keep us stuck. From the obvious expectations that we meet our daily obligations instead of dropping everything to write, to the more subtle but ultimately more debilitating expectations we have of our writing--that it has to be a bestseller or secure a large advance--we force our words and our efforts to craft those words to carry far more than their fair share.

Those expectations are often the root cause of writer's block: the fear that our writing is "not good enough" is really the fear that our writing isn't suitable for some predetermined purpose. It's no accident that remedies for writers block generally involve writing something that is explicitly useless because you must give up what is keeping you stuck to move forward.

After reading that last sentence, you may be tempted to put on your snark and say, "Well, duh. Give up what keeps you stuck? That's why it's called, 'Writers block.'"

That's an astute observation. (And you thought you were being snide.) The implied frustration--the of-course-I-would-give-up-what's-keeping-me-stuck-if-I-knew-what-it-was incredulity--is an important part of the Virgin's emotional turmoil during this phase. Think about your own bouts with writer's block and how in retrospect you knew what you needed to do but couldn't or wouldn't for a while.

Think, too, about how you felt when you got past the block: the burst of joy, perhaps even borderline euphoria, as the words--good words--began to flow.

Those are the feelings you need to channel as you write your protagonist through the arc of the Virgin's Promise. And those are the feelings you need to treasure and have them ready to call upon for encouragement when you can't move forward until you give up what is keeping you stuck.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, October 24, 2011

WtMoM: Limitation vs. Justification

What to Make of Making

The way in which a person reacts when they recognize a limit speaks volumes about their character. Whether it's an external limit, like a traffic law, or an internal limit, like a disability, the way they deal with constraints shows us who they are.

You see, Users justify themselves in transgressing limits; Makers accept limits.

To be clear, by, "limits," I mean those things which you cannot (or should not) change. It's what remains to impede you after you've overcome complacency, mastered your craft, and fueled the drive that keeps you going notwithstanding friction, distractions, and doubts that are part and parcel of living on this planet.

Some limits are structural. That is, they arise from the nature of the context in which you operate. Should you be stationed at an Antarctic base, for example, nude sunbathing would be out of the question. We generally think of the "laws of nature" as synonymous with this category, but it's much broader. You can't use an automobile, unmodified and unaided, to cross a large body of water. It's not that amphibious cars are impossible, it's that the cars we purchase and use are not amphibious.

At the other end of the spectrum of limits we find those that are purely social conventions. Speed limits, for instance, seem, as Hamlet would say, "to be honored more in the breech than the observance." Limits of this sort are much easier to flaunt because the only sanctions are social: if you egregiously violate the law of gravity in context that allows for more than a few seconds of acceleration, you will be dead. If, armed with your radar detector, you drive with either the brake or the accelerator in the fully depressed position, you may get somewhere faster or earlier, or you may get a ticket. (You may also wind up dead, but that's neither a necessary nor consistent outcome.)

The less immediate the consequences for transgressing a limit, the greater the temptation to risk it for the potential advantage. But users take it a step further: they're not merely willing to bend the rules or take a short cut, they believe they are fully justified in doing so. Perhaps you need to speed because you're a little late. You wouldn't have slid you car off the embankment if there had been a guardrail there. The economic and political woes besetting the current administration can always be blamed on the policies of the previous one, but they'll take credit for anything good.

Indeed, in the economic department, proponents of growth are basically system beaters who avoid paying the price now by growing out of the problem in the future. Nor is that kind of thinking reserved for Washington-based think-tanks: the common wisdom about mortgages is to take the largest one you can now because your income and the value of the house will both grow. [Like the man behind the curtain, please ignore the last four years of the housing market.]

It's not that makers discount or are opposed to growth, it's that they're more interested in durability and sustainability. True making includes, "made to last." With that mind-set, when confronted with limitations, the maker's response is not, "How can I get around them?" but, "How can I use or adapt to them?"

One of the limitations of the mighty oak beams builders had available four hundred years ago to span spaces like chapels is that they lose their structural integrity (i.e., may no longer be able to support the weight of the roof) after about four hundred years. It's said (and I choose to believe) that after completing a new chapel four centuries ago at Oxford University, the builders planted oak trees for the express purpose of providing replacement beams nearly half-a millennium in the future.

If that seems to lofty, then think of it this way: given an assignment, users will complain that they can't complete it they way they want to because of the constraints; makers will say, "Within those constraints, let's see what we can do!"

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, October 21, 2011

Politics and Narrative Conflict

One of the truisms of storytelling is that your protagonist is only as good as your antagonist. If, like the Monty Python sketch about the self-defense class, your antagonist threatens everyone with (wait for it) a banana, and your protagonist uses his pistol to save the day, we've learned nothing* from the story because the only stretching the protagonist was forced to do involved reaching for his pistol.

Part of what makes stories superior to daily life is the presence of a clearly defined villain (that and the fact that a good story-teller skips the boring bits). You may object that there are plenty of stories where the villain doesn't have a face or is something that can't be embodied in a single person. While that's true, those stories still ultimately reveal the nature of the antagonist (or antagonistic forces) and show how the protagonist overcomes (or at least deals with) them.

Conflict is the fuel that feeds the story engine. That's why a great deal of writing advice (like the Christopher Walken cow bell sketch on Saturday Night Live) boils down to, "Ratchet up the conflict." But you can't have engaging narrative conflict if the parties and their conflicting objectives are not clear.

When story needs to motivate as well as entertain, the need for a clear-cut antagonist is all the more pressing. If you were told two stories, one with rainbows and bright flowers about puppies who learn they should be nice to each other, and one about oppression and wrongs to be righted--right in your very own neighborhood--which is more likely to move you to do something more than turn to the next story?

The crux of the motivational problem is that we live in a world whose name, if we had to follow the convention of a large, U.S.-based toy retailer, could be, "Ambiguities R Us."

I should have foreseen the present partisan and cultural divide coming: parties need an enemy--a threatening "other"--to call their partisans to action. During the Cold War, one of the partisan battle fields was a tug-of-war (pun intended) over who was strongest on defense (which was code for who would stand up to the Soviet Union). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we've had a parade of mostly Middle Eastern dictators and terrorists. The latter, as a nebulous threat, haven't lived up to their narrative potential to provoke fears entirely out of proportion to their actual activities. So now, without a strong external threat, we have no choice but to look inward and find even more fearful threats at home. In other words, our lust for narrative conflict drives us to turn on ourselves.

For a significant portion of the middle ages, an irrational fear of witches served very nicely to keep village congregations huddled together. We now look back, tut, and shake our heads at such superstitions, and then, in practically the same breath, rise up in righteous indignation at their modern counterparts.

I'm not asking for enlightenment--or even tolerance. I'm simply pointing out something that as storytellers we, of all people, should understand: we're not the only ones who go out of our way to manufacture conflict because that's what a good story requires.

* Except that you should carry a pistol if you're likely to be attacked by fruit-wielding maniacs.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /