Monday, January 31, 2011

Law 1: Love is Precious

Making Monday

Sometimes popular culture colors a word. For example, gay was once simply a synonym for happy. So it is with some reluctance that I finish our deeper explorations of the First Law of Making with the observation that the love of the makers is precious.

Gollum, from Wikipedia
It's a tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Jackson, and Andy Serkis that saying, "precious," with a nasal tone now conjures an immediate association with our friend on the right.

And like our driven friend from Middle Earth, there's an undeniably obsessive element in any kind of deep love. For makers, that element is better characterized as fascination.

The word, "precious," is also used as a mild pejorative for people who are too wrapped up in themselves. In this sense, "precious," is a user value.

The love of the makers is precious in the older sense of value. When the world was far less affluent, something that commanded a great price was given special attention because it was so rare. Now we have gadgets over which our ancestors would have marveled that we casually discard when a new model is available.

For makers, both the things being made and the process of making are precious.

The Subject is Precious

There's the old saw that, "if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well." Unlike users, who see things only as means to an end, makers honor the value of the made thing as an end in and of itself. The value of the work creates a kind of obligation to see it through to completion. This is not to say that makers never abandon projects, but that they feel responsible for the thing being made.

The Process is Precious

Another basic but subtle truth, often ignored in a climate where productivity and growth are the greatest goods, is that how you do something is as important as what you do. The Shakers saw work and worship as aspects of the same thing, and captured the idea in their motto, "Hand to work and hearts to God." Makers understand that sentiment.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, January 28, 2011

One Client per 4000 Queries

Free-form Friday

On December 18, 2010, agents Kate Testerman and Kristin Nelson  shared their query stats for 2010.

  • Kate signed one client out of 4987 queries.
  • Kristen estimates her agency received about 36,000 queries, from which they signed nine new clients.
While this is hardly a statistically significant sampling, it suggests that, as a rule of thumb, an agent will find a client for every four or five thousand queries.

I'll let you take a moment to get over the shock of the apparent odds of 1 in 4000.

Now let me try to help you restore some equanimity.

I've heard a number of agents say that 90% of the queries they receive are non-starters: the query is addressed to, "Dear Agent," or to the agent and hundreds of other agents; it's a genre the agent doesn't represent; the word count is outside industry norms; the author sounds desperate, crazy, or both; and so on. If 90% of the queries are non-starters, then the odds for your well-crafted query sent to well-researched agents are probably in the neighborhood of 400 to 1.

400 to 1 isn't great, but it also isn't terrible.

If you look at it as purely a numbers game, it simply means that you've got to send about 400 queries. But before you fire up your trusty spam generator, consider that there are probably only about 100 agents who might be interested in a given project. You can't query those hundred agents four times unless you have four different projects.

Elsewhere I've heard that four seems to be the average number of novels people write before they get published.

I wouldn't blame you if, at this point, you're still a bit discouraged because the numbers seem stacked against you unless you're willing to put in a great deal of effort over the long term.

The thing is, that's exactly right: writing for commercial publication does take a great deal of effort.

That said, what I find comforting about all of this is that the picture here is generally consistent with the publishing advice I've seen on the interwebs.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, January 27, 2011

No One's Publishing Good Books Anymore: True and False

Reading thuRsday

Claiming that your book will stand out from the rest because no one publishes good books any more is one of the first things agents mention when asked to list elements of queries that mark you as an amateur.

I don't know about you, but I have a twinge of guilt each time I read a list like that because, try as I might, I can't exorcise the opinion that my book is better than most others.

Now before you rush to get your torches and pitch forks, let me explain the epiphany I had as to why this heretical opinion is both true and false.


As a writer, you have to believe that your book will be better than most other books in its neck of the publishing woods, otherwise you can't justify the effort it takes to write and polish long-form fiction. If you believe that others are producing better books than you ever could, why torture yourself when you could enjoy their offerings?

"Wait," you say, rising up in righteous indignation born from proper writerly humility, "there are masters whose inkwell I'm not worthy to refill."

The problem here is the word, "better," because it implies a single comparative dimension when novels can be good in many different ways. The "better" you have to believe in as a writer is that you have something to add to the conversation in terms of both the story you want to tell and the unique way in which you can tell it.


But, as a writer, you also have to understand that you're writing for an audience--a paying audience--and that their opinions and tastes are all that matters when it's time for money to change hands.

So, how do you know what your audience wants?

Short of conducting your own interviews and surveys, the best thing to do is forget about "good" and "bad" and pay attention to the books that people are actually buying.

Which brings us full circle: the problem with claiming your book will stand out is that you're saying you know better than the market and everyone, including the agent you've queried, involved with it.


What can you do to keep your head from exploding?

Believe in your secret heart that your book will be better as you write. And if you've mastered showing instead of telling, your readers will discover how truly superior your manuscript is for themselves. Remember, it's a secret that just might be true if you never tell it.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Writing Intentionally: Gardners

Writing Wednesday

Continuing last week's theme on writing intentionally, what do you do if you're a discovery writer? How do you write intentionally if you can't really figure out your intentions until you've written the story and can look back over the ground you've covered to see the path that ties it all together?

Last week, we covered what you should know before you write a novel. Briefly, you should know where the story is going. There are certainly writers who start with an intriguing character or an interesting setting and develop a story around that nucleus. But if you don't have some idea of where the story is headed, you're more likely to meander.

I heard Brandon Sanderson say recently that he'd heard someone use the terms gardener and architect instead of discovery and outline writers. I think there's something important in the occupational analogy.

Calling discovery writers, "gardeners," addresses the fallacy that you don't have to plan ahead but can simply jump in as start writing. Gardeners don't simply throw seed out and wait to see what comes up. Based on their understanding of varieties and growing conditions, they plan which things to plant in different parts of the garden. Similarly, there's a fair amount of forethought that goes into deciding what kind of garden you want to grow. Is it a flower garden that will offer a changing canvas of shapes and colors as the season progresses? Or is the produce you'll harvest the main purpose of the garden?

Of course the gardener doesn't know whether a given seed will sprout and grow as intended. So they plant more than one. And they cultivate the garden, weeding, watering, and fertilizing, to make the desired outcome more likely.

So if you think of yourself as a discovery writer, try approaching your project as a gardener, accepting the fact that there's preparatory work to do. And even though there's a lot you don't know, if you take a little time to  plan your garden and prepare the soil, you'll find your ability to write intentionally grows--like your garden.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Writer Zen: Mindful Writing

Technique Tuesday

I once heard a poet named Scott Livingston say that, ""Poetry is intentional brevity."

I've talked before about your responsibility as a writer to produce purposeful prose: narratives crafted with intent that give the reader a well-prepared experience. There's no place in good writing for pool-hall bravado (i.e., claiming you intended the balls to go where ever they went).

I've also talked about flow in writing, which is the notion that you can get into a state where you're so fully immersed in the process that you stop worrying and simply do. It's a frictionless balance between right-brain vision and left-brain detail.

Now it's time to consider the synthesis of flow and purpose. I call it mindful writing and I've shamelessly borrowed the Western psychological take on the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness.

When you're mindful of your writing, you're both aware and not aware of what you're doing (and therein lies another Zen riddle). You see the story and hear the voices of the characters, but then you have to capture what you see in specific and intentionally chosen words.

If that's not entirely clear, then consider the problem of mental telepathy.

In fiction, whether on the page or on the screen, we generally portray the telepath as somehow having access to a person's secret inner monologue--something that's often represented as a stream of speech. But modern brain scans find nothing of the sort. Our brains are alive with activity, and while the patterns of active regions change, there's always a number of things going on.

So how can a telepath fish a finished thought out of the sea of brain activity?

I suspect they can't.

There is an analogy between quantum uncertainty and conceptual fluidity: like the quantum notion that a particle exists in a superimposition of all its states until by measuring it you force it to collapse into a single state, our thoughts are fluid until we fix them in some form like words on the page.

I realize this sounds esoteric, but there's something practical here: mindful writing is the process of transforming fluid thoughts and fixing them in encoded forms (e.g., words). The technique that arises from this understanding--that I characterize as being both aware and unaware at the same time--is to pay "attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, January 24, 2011

Law 1: Love is Fascination

Making Monday

One of the symptoms of the infatuation stage of being in love is that can't get enough of the object of your affection. This is the kind of love that is easiest to eulogize (or lampoon). It's also something that wears off over time.

The fascination that is part of the love in the First Law of Making has some of the character of infatuation but parts ways when when we get into the realm of compulsion and lose of control. It's better characterized as a deep and abiding interest. And it's not something that begins to wear off until the making has been completed.

It's also quiet fixation. The making looms large in your thoughts when you must attend to other things, and you find yourself a bit anxious to get back to the work. Indeed, you start to see everything around you in terms of the project. You take particular delight in finding connections between the other things in which you are involved and your project, like a lover finding a present for his or her beloved.

Some times a writing project, particularly if it's something like a school assignment that's been imposed upon you, can be a chore. And some times the writing is like a lover from whom you are loathe to part. One of the subtle techniques for completing tasks and enjoying the process is to find something fascinating about it.

Fascination, taken too far, can be a user trap, particularly if it's not the thing being made but the fact that you are making it that you find so fascinating.

As with any powerful force, where some is good, too much can be dangerous. Remember that higher laws of making teach us to finish our work and let the made thing take its place in the world. Like the idion, "still waters run deep," the love that drives the makers and is celebrated in the First Law of Making is quite and constant: not a pathology but a source of power.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Insidious Circle of Acceptance

Free-form Friday

When I originally shared the ideas in last week's post on the Great Chain of Rejection, one of my writing friends chided me for the negativity and asked for something positive.

My point in about the great chain is that rejection doesn't mean much because everybody in the industry--writers, agents, editors, publishers--gets rejected by somebody else. So now let me turn to the other side of the coin: why acceptance doesn't mean that much either.

Clearly, having your writing accepted means that someone else thinks you've done something worthwhile. And at a practical level it means a chance to get a return on the investment you made in your first project and another turn at bat for your next project.

But it doesn't mean that you've been magically transformed from a peasant scribbler into a princely author.

The Romans would post some one next to the conquering hero to remind them they were mortals and not gods as they paraded past the adoring crowds. We probably need someone like that when acceptance and success come, particularly if they come too easily.

The fact of the matter is that acceptance is nearly as subjective as rejection. Consider how may bestsellers of yesteryear lie now forgotten on dusty library shelves and dark corners of used bookstores.

So, given that I'd tried to find the positive in the negative of rejection, I couldn't resist trying to find the negative in the positive of acceptance. That said, I think there's a deeper, even-keeled truth: rejection or acceptance, what really matters is that we keep writing deliberately and consistently, unperturbed by the crests and troughs of the waves of life.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Roller Coaster Story: Just Say No!

Reading thuRsday

Roller coasters can be loads of fun if you ignore the fact that you're simply going round in circles and that the ride is exactly the same every time. Indeed, there's something nice about being able to pretend you're doing something dangerous while knowing that the engineers have done everything humanly possible to make sure the ride is safe.

Just make sure you keep your roller coasters in the amusement parks where they belong. Don't let them sneak into your plot.

"Wait," you object, "roller coasters are exciting. Don't we want our books to be equally exciting?"

Yes and no.

Clearly, if your story doesn't offer an experience that is compelling or enticing, few people will give you their money and invest their time to read.

On the other hand, if your characters have as much influence on the course of events in your book as the riders on a roller coaster have on the direction in which they travel, you don't have a story. Story is about cause and effect. We love good stories because we learn something about how to solve our problems by going along with the characters as they try to solve their problems. A roller coaster story teaches us nothing more than, "Sit down, hang on, and enjoy the ride."

Last week I made the case that you don't have a real character unless they have two real choices and the ability to go either way. There's an analogous rule for plot: you don't have a story unless there's the real possibility that things could go either way.

This is why you'll often hear people characterize the three act structure in terms of try-fail cycles. In act one, the protagonist tries something that fails to solve the story problem. They try something different in act two, which also fails. It's only in act three, where we're afraid the protagonist is going to get their third strike, that they succeed.

Of course, in an objective sense, a story is just like a roller coaster because every time you go they take you to the same place. The difference is that while we can see the roller coaster's tracks the tracks of the story can disappear beneath the interplay of cause and effect, the verisimilitude of characters that have real choices, and situations that could go either way.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, January 19, 2011 is Giving Away a Substantive Edit!

Our friend at is giving away a substantive edit for a completed (<80k) MG/YA manuscript:
I always urge writers to celebrate when they complete a draft because that’s a really big deal, and today I’m taking my own advice: I just sent the manuscript for Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies to my editor and I’m celebrating with everyone by giving away a free Substantive Edit* of one Young Adult or Middle Grade fiction manuscript.
The contest closes at midnight on January 31, 2011 (PST).

If you have a completed MG/YA manuscript that could use a substantive edit, check it out.

What Should You Know Before You Write a Novel?

Writing Wednesday

Last August, Nathan Bransford posted a note on how to write a novel. He said there are six things you should know before you start:

  • Plot arc
  • Obstacles
  • Protagonist
  • Setting
  • Style and voice
  • Climax
It's a good list and half of us could profitably spend our time discussing each item.

Why only half?

Many people who share writing advice divide the universe of writers into two camps: outliners and discovery writers (or "plotters" and "pantsers" if you like alliteration).

I've already argued that diving right into the story and doing a lot of preparation before you write are better viewed as techniques than a consequence of your nature as a writer. Now I want to make the case that there's one fundamental thing required, regardless of where you fall on the outline/discovery spectrum:

You need to know enough so that you can write with confidence.

So, what does that mean for Nathan's list?

I say it still stands. Even if you're a purely discovery writer, you must have some notion of where the story takes place (setting), who the protagonist is, what obstacles they face, where the story is going (climax), how you're going to get there (plot arc), and how you'll tell the story (style and voice). Otherwise you'll have the literary equivalent of a slow river: your text will meander about but not really go anywhere.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Writing Environment for Multiple Untrusted Computers

Technique Tuesday

Last week we looked at Dropbox, a service that synchronizes files among multiple computers. It makes life much easier if you want to work on the same project on several different computers. It also has the side-effect of providing an evergreen backup.

But what if you need to use multiple computers that you don't control or don't want to leave your data on (because, for example, other people use them too)?

A thumb drive is the obvious answer for the data, and now there's a lovely, open-source way to take take your favorite programs along too called Portable Apps. The PortableApp platform allows you to run applications from a thumb drive on any Windows computer without first having to install them on the host system.

Setting up a thumb drive to run PortableApps is simply a matter of downloading and running the appropriate install package. PortableApps is available as a platform (with no bundled software) or as a suite (with a browser, email client, virus checker, etc.). The installation only adds software to your thumb drive so you don't have to worry that your files will be erased (although a backup is always a good idea before you make major changes like this).

I installed PortableApps on a thumb drive because I found another full-screen text editor, named Q10 that I wanted to use. Q10 is a lot like WriteMonkey in that it gives you a full screen to fill with text without distractions. Q10 is available in standard and portable versions.

The process for installing a package like Q10 on your PortableApp platform is also straightforward. Simply download the PortableApps version of the application, select Options | Add a New App |  Install from the PortableApps Menu, and select the file you downloaded. (Installable PortableApps packages will have "*.paf.exe" as their file extension.)

In the interest of full disclosure, you don't really need the PortableApps platform to run Q10. Q10 is a stand-along application (i.e., it doesn't need to be installed). But it is a good way to demonstrate how you can create a custom environment with PortableApps.

I was pleasantly surprised by how useful I found the PortableApps/Q10 combination. I recommend something like this if you need to work on multiple, untrusted computers.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, January 17, 2011

Law 1: Love is Long Suffering

Making Monday

I've discussed patience a number of times, particularly in the context of Making Monday. We've looked at patience as one of the unpopular virtues of makers, how authors need to be patient with readers, and how patience is arguably the supreme writerly virtue. Patience figured prominently in our discussion of the First Law of Making because it's central to that first step on the path to true making.

Today we're going deeper.

I first heard the phrase, "long suffering," in the Apostle Paul's description of charity or love. (1 Corinthians 13:4) [Although in KJV English, the phrase is, "suffereth long."] The word, "suffering," bothered me--both the suggestion that benevolence might bring pain and the implication that one who exercised the virtue of charity would gladly bear the pain.

We usually think of joy and pain as polar opposites. In time, I came to understand that, at least in the context of creative endeavors, they are different dimensions of something deeply felt and experienced. Becoming a parent is the most commonly shared experience of the mix of joy and pain that is long suffering (after all, it has happened billions of times yet we still call it a miracle). But it's something I've also experienced, to differing degrees, with other projects like novels.

This may sound like a variation of the old saw about artists suffering for their art. That's part of it, but only touches on one side of the experience.

Then there's the worn triptych of, "blood, sweat, and tear," which we usually hear as in the context of self-declared martyrdom. But consider, for a moment the tarnished truths in this phrase: blood may have been spilled or it could be the energy and vitality devoted to the project; sweat comes from effort; and tears might spring from either joy or pain (or both at the same time).

Like the endless string of disappointments that are the day-to-day reality of rearing offspring that we forget in an instant when our child favors us with a smile, true making is as much about the thousand and one things that go wrong, or at least not quite right, as it is about the transcendent moment when everything comes together and you get a shiver down your spine.

True makers are long suffering for the love of both the process of making and the thing being made. They accept and embrace the moments of anguish and joy that are the substance of making something worthwhile. And they allow neither to distract them from making.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Great Chain of Rejection

Free-form Friday

Given that January is such a bleak month, I thought I should write about something cheery. So, in an effort to engender bright, sunshiny thoughts, I offer the following heaping cup of cheer:

Welcome to the Great Chain of Rejection that is the publishing industry!

I came across this notion in one of the blogs I read. At the time, I was mildly amused but didn't make a note of the source. So, without proper attribution, here's the gist of it:

The agonizing rejection we regularly enjoy as would-be scribblers is only the first link in a great chain of rejection:
  • agents reject authors
  • editors reject agents
  • publishers (or internal surrogates like the publishing committee or the sales team) reject editors
  • and readers reject publishers
Viewed in its entirety, it is a thing of beauty (cue Circle of Life from The Lion King). Your one small rejection is part of the great web of rejections that is publishing. That form letter makes you part of something much greater.

Isn't that a happy thought for a gray, January day?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Second Rule of Two: Two Choices

Reading thuRsday

In a recent repost of an observation about character catalyzed by "some old guys at [the] gym," Nathan Bransford helped clarify something I've also observed:

A character doesn't show any character unless he or she has two real choices.

You might object that regardless of the situation the character can always choose to act differently. While true in principle, in practice many of those choices are not real choices: if the space aliens come, demanding that you obey or be exterminated, choosing to be exterminated is a choice that generally accomplishes little more than taking you out of the story.

We have a lot of stories in comics, TV, and movies, where the hero does the right thing because they're the hero. I can't deny that simple stories like that have an element of fun. But consider how much more it says if a character, whom we've seen behave with both cruelty and kindness, chooses, at a critical moment, to be kind.

The key is to establish that the character has the capacity to go either way. Only when they're free to choose and capable of carrying out their choice do we see real character.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Balancing Action and Information

Writing Wednesday

Balancing action and information is a challenge in any story.

If you start with action--explosions! riots! mortal combat!--your readers won't have any reason to root for the hero (aside from the fact that he or she is the hero) and will likely be confused.

If you start with an exposition about each character and why they matter, readers will likely lose interest before they get to the exciting bits.

With stories set in the real world, you have the luxury of relying on common knowledge and convention. In a political thriller, for example, it is sufficient to say that the conspirators are working to topple the government and proceed on the assumption that the reader agrees such an outcome would be a bad thing.

With fantasy, you have the additional problem of introducing a reader to a world that contradicts or extends their common experience. In order to care, the reader needs to know what's at stake (otherwise the action is meaningless). But in order to know what's at stake the reader needs to understand the fantasy world (which interferes with the action). The problem of finding the right mix of action and information isn't unique to fantasy, but it seems that a fantasy author walks a finer line because of the additional burden of revealing information about a new world.

The best practice I know is to weave action and information together: start with a small action that, in addition to its intrinsic interest, provides a way to share some information with the reader. Of course, both action and information are most interesting when we experience them in a way that tells us something about the characters.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dropbox for File Synchronization and Evergreen Backup

Technique Tuesday

January is traditionally the time we pay at least lip service to things we ought to do. Since the advent of personal computers, one of the perennial guilty topics is backups. Elsa Neal at The Blood-Red Pencil, for example, discusses some quick and easy techniques for backing up your work, among which her favorite is to email your files to another account.

Backup is one of the few areas where more really is better, both in terms of frequency and techniques. As Elsa mentions, you can back up to another folder on your hard drive, to an external hard drive, to a thumb drive, to a shared location on a local network, and to a web service. If you want a more permanent record, back up to write-once media like CD/DVD ROM. The best practice is to use several different devices and methods instead of relying on a single kind of backup.

So far, so good. There's nothing revolutionary here. It's good advice that we'll likely honor more in the breach than the observance.

But all of that was simply to pave the way to telling you about a web service with which I'm quite taken called DropBox.

You see, I have a problem. I like to write on several different computers. I've dealt with this problem by using a thumb drive to move files among the various computers. That works well when I'm in the middle of drafting a manuscript and have only a few files to manage. But it becomes burdensome when I'm working with a larger number of files.

Enter DropBox. It's a folder that stays synchronized across a set of computers and a password-protected web service. Change a file on one system and you'll find the same version of the file ready for you on the second system.

DropBox is primarily a synchronization service, not a strict backup. It does offer a 30-day history of file changes, but it won't help if you need to keep older versions of the files for the long term. That said, if you chronically fail to keep your resolution to backup your work, DropBox is a good way to guarantee you have the latest copy of your files in more than one place.

Oh, and best of all, DropBox is free for the first 2 GB.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, January 10, 2011

Law 1: Love is Passion

Making Monday

Love is the foundation of true making.

Asked to define love, many people might start with romantic love. (And the facetious might point out that the relationship between love and making is obvious if you add, "out" after making.) The more thoughtful who go in that direction might arrive at the notion of passion, though more in the sense of "a strong affection or enthusiasm for an object" than "ardent affection."

The problem with the romantic analogy is that relationships that are fundamentally about passions, drives, and basic instincts, tend to be short-lived, burning brightly in the night of desire till only ashes remain in the harsh light of day. Mercurial artists who fling a dollop of paint on a canvas and call it art notwithstanding, making is about more than a one-night stand.

That said, there is a degree of the irrational, compulsive, and inexpressible, so well characterized by romantic love, in the love of makers. Making is purposeful--an expression of intent--but if you press for motives, at a deep level the answer to the question, "Why do you make?" is, "Because."

In contrast, the user knows exactly why they make: they've carefully calculated what they expect to get through their efforts.

In writing circles we often say that writing is our passion; that you must write for love (because you're likely to be disappointed if you write for money); that you must write because you have no other choice. Those ideas are a reasonable approximation of the passion that is part of the love of the maker.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, January 7, 2011

Freeform Friday in 2011

Free-form Friday

Finally, we come to Friday. As the day qualifier implies, this is the day for anything that doesn't clearly fit under the topics covered on other days.

It might be something completely random, like RSMSLWALF (my ill-fated attempt to start a new political party while still in high school), a link to Hyperbole and a Half's alot, or a truly spectacular hack back at the old alma mater (the upside-down lounge is also very good).

Other times, you might find observations about the industry like why some of the counter-intuitive aspects of publishing make a sort of sense if you understand it as a risk-aggregation mechanism, or an explanation of why agents are not leprechauns.

I don't plan to change anything about Free-form Friday (because as a catch-all, I already have free rein). That said, the invitation I've made all week still stands: please tell me if there are any topics you'd like to cover that don't fit comfortably under any of the other themes.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Reading thuRsday in 2011

Reading thuRsday

Aside perhaps, for software*, we expect, when we write, that our words will be read. One of the most difficult things for a writer to do is learn how to evaluate their own work as a reader.

Put another way, writing for comprehension (or consumption) requires a parallel skill set as broad and rich as the skills you need to express yourself in writing.

It's something that I learned slowly. In fact, I originally intended Thursdays to be a day for discussing the books I've read. I'm not ready to admit that will never happen, but I'm more interested in the general problem of not losing touch with your inner reader, especially when it comes to your own work.

This is the most difficult of the topics to pin down: I haven't yet found a simple rule to distinguish between posts that run Wednesday and Thursday. The decision isn't arbitrary, but it's not systematic. I have an informal sense of which discussions belong where. I hope that with your help we'll get better at formalizing and expressing the distinct but complementary nature of writing for expression and comprehension.

* Making sense of a program written by another software developer is often so challenging that programmers lament about "write-once/read-never" code.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Writing Wednesday in 2011

Writing Wednesday

I originally planned for Wednesdays to be writing advice day. But over the course of the previous year I've discussed aspects of writing under all the headings.

We've considered topic from basic craft questions like kinds of points of view to patience and persistence as writerly virtues.

Going forward, on Wednesdays we'll discuss writing as a means of expression, or writing from the perspective of a writer.

I'm going to try to illustrate the laws and concepts of making in terms of long-form (novel) writing, both at the level of the story and at the meta-level of the writer and his or her approach, discipline, and engagement.

You won't find anything like, "10 Sure-fire Shortcuts to Bestsellerdom!" here. I agree with Jane Friedman, who thinks that kind of advice does writers a disservice by glossing over the real complexities of publishing. Beyond that, looking for shortcuts smacks of user thinking that turns writing into a cynical means to an end.

Like the investment firm that boasts they build wealth the old-fashioned way through solid investments with consistent returns, I'm only interested in the long, hard, deeply engaged process of creating something that deserves to occupy its place in the universe.

As with the other topics, I'd love to know what you think about our discussions.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Technique Tuesday in 2011

Technique Tuesday

Tuesday is about techniques for makers in general and writers in particular.

What's the distinction between techniques and the other topics we discuss here?

The Free Dictionary defines technique as:
  1. The systematic procedure by which a complex or scientific task is accomplished.
  2. The way in which the fundamentals, as of an artistic work, are handled; Skill or command in handling such fundamentals.
Our focus on techniques strives for practical advice. That said, topics in 2010 have spanned the spectrum from geek hints and life hacking to conceptual frameworks (like the series of posts on Dale Carnegie for Writers).

This year I propose to continue in the same vein, but with an emphasis on practicality. I realize that not everybody is as fond of abstractions as I am. And while I still believe that having the right conceptual framework and building on a solid foundation are practically synonymous*, I'm going to try to stay away from theory in favor of practice on Tuesdays.

To that end, I'll need your help: in addition to asking questions and suggesting topics, please let me know if I seem to be getting to abstract. And if you have something you'd like to contribute, I'll happily consider guest posts.

* For example, as a school boy, the mathematician Gauss produced, in a matter of minutes, the answer to an assignment that his teacher intended to occupy the class for at least an hour. The assignment was to add all the numbers between 1 and 100 (inclusive). Instead of adding 1 + 2 + 3 and so on, Gauss realized that if he folded the number line at 50 he would get fifty pairs of numbers that each summed to 100, so the answer was 50 x 100 + 50, or 5050.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, January 3, 2011

Making Monday in 2011

Given that a number of people have joined us recently and the tradition that the beginning of a new year is a time for reflection and renewal, I thought it a good time to reintroduce each daily theme and ask for your comments. What would you like see more of? What might be improved?

Making Monday

At first glance, the concepts of making look more like an exercise in philosophy than practical advice. And in part, I stand guilty as charged: I've come to believe that the way you approach a project lays a foundation that colors everything about the project. Put another way, even though the Laws of Making are abstract, they have critical practical consequences.

Whether we're talking about writing, sculpting, coding, or composing, making is an ethically charged undertaking. Through the application of time, matter, and energy, you transform one thing into another. In addition to the direct costs, you also incur opportunity costs: generally, once something has been made, it can't be unmade. The ethical questions all fall under, "Why?" What are your motives and intentions? The Laws of Making help keep you on the right side of the line between makers and users.

Making Monday in 2011

Last year was devoted to laying out the conceptual ground work and discussing the Laws of Making. This year I plan to explore the practical implications of each of the Laws of Making with examples from writing as well as other creative endeavors. I want to show that the principles are both general and effective. I'd like to make this exploration more of a discussion, so I welcome and encourage questions and comments about making.

Writing, of course, will continue to be the center of gravity. The worst writers are users who use the tricks of the trade to compel you to buy stories about hollow worlds, devoid of truth or beauty. The best writers are makers who conjure new narrative worlds where we can see truths more clearly than in the confusing world of our common experience.

What do you think? Does this sound like a good use of our time together on Mondays? Are there any topics related to making you'd like me to explore?

Image: Bill Longshaw /