Monday, February 28, 2011

Law 2: Beauty is Balance

Making Monday

There was a time, during the early years of the personal computer revolution, when discriminating computing enthusiasts assembled their own systems. If you studied the ads in the the computer magazines for a few months, you could assemble a system more powerful than anything available at retail for the same price. I took some of my first steps as a maker assembling XT and AT class IBM-compatible systems.

Then a sad day came when I realized it was time to stop building my own systems. You see, it was no longer simply a matter of finding the best components for the price and plugging them all together. The complexity of the systems had grown to the point that it took so long to configure and tune a home-brew computer that it wasn't worth the effort (particularly with the price of a perfectly adequate retail system constantly dropping).

Hoodoo (Wikipedia)
Sending a convoy across the North Atlantic during World War II was a harrowing business because the fleet could only go as fast as its slowest ship. The same kind of thing is true of computing systems: one sub-standard component can waste the power of the other, pricier components. For a system to perform well, its parts must be balanced against each other.

In a similar vein, we generally associate symmetry with beauty, particularly when it comes to faces. At least in biology, asymmetry usually indicates genetic defects or disease.

Another way to come at this idea is in terms of proportion. Something is said to be in proportion if no one part overwhelms the whole. This is easy to understand if you've ever heard a volunteer choir with someone whose voice doesn't blend.

Writers show their mastery of balance and proportion by skillfully blending narrative and dialog, through their understanding of pacing, and by including only those parts--from specific language choices to carefully presenting only those scenes that further the story--that contribute to the whole.

When the thing you're making is balanced--when each part contributes in proportion--then you can have a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Then you've created a thing of beauty.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, February 25, 2011

Publishing: It's not a System, it's a Market

Free-form Friday

It's both tempting and comforting to think of publishing as a system.

Systems, after all, have rules which, if followed, produce consistent results.

As aspiring authors, we study examples of things that worked, from pitches and queries to hooks and books, driven by the faith that if we can just figure out and follow the rules, we too will be published.

But publishing isn't a system.

First, there's no governing body to agree upon and enforce the rules. [Jane Friedman, a publishing industry veteran, has a blog called, There are No Rules to make this very point.]

Second,  it's not consistent. I've heard people wryly characterize publishing as a high-security facility and would-be authors as infiltrators. If an author breaks into the facility, there's a big celebration, and then the guards seal the breach and add extra security measures to make sure no one else can ever get in that way again. It's a bit cynical, but there's an important element of truth in that story: it's different for everyone.

So, if publishing isn't a system, what is it?

"I know this one," you say. "Publishing is a business."

That's a much better characterization, but it still falls short. "A business," implies organization, perhaps even a degree of centralization. The fact that the big six publishers are all located in in New York certainly looks like centralization. But publishing is more than New York (sorry, Big Apple), and is not well enough organized to call it, "a business."

The best characterization is that publishing is a market--not a commodities market (i.e., you can't replace writing with corn and have the same market), but a market just like the market for goods and services where you live.

Open markets are about the things being traded, but they're also about the relationships among buyers and sellers. Why do you patronize certain stores and not others? Likely because the people at the stores you like have done something for you, like remembering your name or giving you a discount.

In the context of a market, where customers can freely choose among vendors, following "the rules" doesn't guarantee that customers will buy from you. Will, for example, a restaurant that follows all the "rules" of good restaurants always succeed in a market where there are plenty of restaurants to choose from? The "rules" might be necessary for success, but they're not sufficient to ensure success.

Clearly, if you want to participate in the market, you have to offer competitive goods or services. The "rules" of writing help define what it takes to produce a competitive novel. But once you're in the market, the game changes to one of relationships. So stop wondering why no one has recognized the merit of your novel and get out and meet some people.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Jael McHenry's "Revise Without Compromise"

Reading thuRsday

Jael McHenry, writing on Writer Unboxed, address the question of whether revisions requested by agents and editors make the books more or less yours. She points out the difference between the two senses of the world, "compromise:" 1) to work together, and 2) to weaken the integrity of, and argues that working through revisions with agents and editors is all about compromise in the first sense and should never be about compromise in the second. It's a beautiful observation, marred only by my jealousy for not thinking of it first.

There's an important difference between trying to please people and finding ways to say what you're trying to say so that it's accessible to more people.

Some people think that as the source of expression, the artist is the sole guardian of the vision and any request for changes from another party will compromise that vision. Those people forget that writing for readers is a classic example of the old cliché about taking two to tango: you don't have "writing" unless the reader gets something they value out of your words.

But the notion of author as the source of pure expression is more deeply flawed. The words on the page are a lossy encoding of the author's ideas, so there's no such thing as a pure expression. Put in more contemporary terms, a writer is actually coding software that will run on non-deterministic wetware (i.e., brains). Real software developers have no qualms about debugging their code until it runs correctly. Why should authors complain when revision is essentially the same process.

Notice the key qualifier in the statement about debugging? Software developers strive to produce code that runs correctly. Revisions that clear away confusion and help the reader to better understand and appreciate the story are equivalent to debugging the code.

But here's where you, the author, need editorial help: because you know what you meant when you wrote it, it's hard to see where others might misinterpret what you wrote. That's why revisions are all about compromise, in the first sense. You want to work together to make it better.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Long Form: Trajectory

Writing Wednesday

Ever since Albert Einstein became the modern icon of brainiacs, we assume that Newton has been superseded and can be safely put out to pasture with other outdated scientific figureheads. (Besides, Einstein is a much better fit than Newton in the modern crazy hair department.)

Because it seems so obvious, and because so much of the modern world is founded upon it, we forget that Newton's theory of universal gravity was as mind-blowing in its day as relativity is in ours. Among the many things for which we have Newton to thank, ballistics--or the science of dropping ordinance on your enemies--ranks near the top.

Trajectory is the heart of ballistics. Using Newton's laws of motion, we can predict the path a projectile launched with a certain force and in a given direction will follow and thus determine where it will land.

Trajectory is also the heart of the art of the long form. Your reader is like a projection and the story is the arc that will bring them to a certain emotional and conceptual place. As long as your reader believes the story is taking them somewhere interesting, they'll stay with the story. As an author, therefore, you must know the end from the beginning, and like Michelangelo who revealed the statue hidden in the block of marble by removing the waste, you must clear away anything that that could pull your readers out of the trajectory of the novel.

This means that you must, at some level, understand the trajectory. It doesn't matter whether you come to that understanding before you draft because you are an architect and have planned everything, or after many drafts because you are a gardener.

We'll take up the question of what makes a good trajectory in the coming weeks. For now, unless you're Samuel Beckett, the key point is that a long form work must go somewhere. From the moment the inciting incident launches your reader into the story, they must be on a trajectory that will bring them to the climax just as surely as the shell fired from the canon will hit the enemy fort.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ideas: Random Name Generators

Technique Tuesday

A question commonly asked of writers is, "How do you come up with names for characters?"

The technique for finding names presented here is a good example of the general habit of wondering how the things you notice came to be that way--which seems common among the good writers I know.

The pattern is simple:
  1. Find interesting names
  2. Play with the history implied by the name.
Interesting names appear all the time in the written and spoken environment. I once noticed glycol ester of wood rosin among the list of ingredients in a bottled drink. Instead of fretting about obscure food additives, I wondered how Esther Glycol, the Regency-era daughter of an impoverish vicar, came to be mistress of the estate of Woodrosin. (You didn't know you could get that much from a list of ingredients, did you?)

If you need to find names more quickly, you can play the phone book game: open to a random page and drop your finger to find a given name or a surname. On one occasion, when I needed a set of modern, ethnically diverse names, I collected all the surnames and given names from the credits of a recent movie

I've written simple programs that randomly combine names from two or more lists of the lists I collected. If your list of surnames isn't too large, you'll get several first name/last name pairs and it's easy to imagine they're related. Not only will you have names, you'll have genealogies, and perhaps some ideas about family histories as well.

I've also used this approach to assemble names from syllable lists for fantastic or alien characters. One nice result of this approach is that the names sound like they came from the same culture because they're assembled using the same rules.

The important thing is to generate a number of names and then choose the handful that speak to you. Play with the names that are most evocative and see what else springs to mind.

I have to be careful when I play with names because it's so easy to find interesting names and invent histories and relationships that I inevitably collect more names than I can use and spend more time doing so than I should.

A Sample of Name Generators on the Internet
  • is a site for the "etymology and history of first names." It has a generator that can be restricted to particular ethnic groups.
  • There's a US Census-based name generator at
  • Seventh Sanctum™ has a cornucopia of fantasy/gaming-inspired name generators for everything from people to pirate ships.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, February 21, 2011

Law 2: Beauty is Elegance

Making Monday

Occam's razor, or the Law of Parsimony, says that given two theories with equal explanatory power, we should generally prefer the one that is simpler.

When we talk about the history of cosmology, we usually get a short paragraph on the Ptolemaic (or geocentric) model of the solar system before moving triumphantly to the Copernican (or heliocentric) model. We happily accept the implication that understanding the Earth moves around the Sun shows we're much more sophisticated than our benighted ancestors. But what we miss in the gloss is that astronomers used the Ptolemaic system to prepare astrological charts for 1500 years. Put another way, a model that places our planet at the center and describes the apparent motions of celestial bodies around it isn't wrong. So why do we glibly say that the Copernican model is better? Because it's simpler. Occam's razor, Q.E.D.

Elegance, as a dimension of beauty, can be inelegantly defined as maximum effect for minimum effort. 

The lengths to which one must go
to pick up a weak radar signal
Here's a recent, technical example of elegance. Radio based systems, like WiFi, cannot transmit and receive at the same time because the signal produced by the transmitter is so much more powerful that the signal consumed by the receiver that the former washes out that latter. Interference patterns are one of the staple topics of high school physics (because you only need a tray of water and a simple wave generator for the experiments). Where a single wave generator produces ripples that pass through every point on the surface, a pair of generators produce what appears to be a stable pattern where the waves are twice as high in some places and the surface of the water is perfectly smooth in others. Researchers recently realized that if they used two transmitters instead of one, and positioned them correctly, they could use the interference pattern to produce a region around the receiver that's quiet (devoid of the transmitted signal) enough for the receiver to continue to pick up the weaker signal from a distant transmitter. In other words, by making a very simple change, radios can now both transmit and receive at the same time.

The idea of elegance is more complicated in writing because there was a time when, 'ornate,' lived in the same neighborhood. Then the cultural pendulum swung away and we came to celebrate inelegance as, 'gritty,' and more realistic. But the elegance we're examining here is a deeper matter of art and craft: everything from gritty realism to lofty ideal can be expressed elegantly.

Consider some of the synonyms: refinement, clarity, purity, ease, grace.

Elegant writing, as with all made things that are beautiful, is like the Zen garden where a bit of sand and stone become oceans of meaning.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, February 18, 2011

On the Second Book Funk

Free-form Friday

I've heard a number of published authors say they had a major crisis of confidence when they started their second book. They're haunted by the fear that they had only the one book in them and will never again be able to produce anything as good.

Why are writers susceptible to such fears?

Putting on my amateur therapist goatee and breaking out the bubble pipe, we have not one but two potential pitfalls awaiting us when we finish a project. The first is psychological and the second structural. They're a nasty pair because they feed off of each other. If you're not careful, you'll find yourself immobilized.

The Psychological Problem

In other professions, one can use a title only after a significant and demonstrable achievement. Lawyers have bar exams. Doctors have medical school, and internships, and residencies. Many other professions can't be practiced without a license. It's natural to assume that a published book is the writer's equivalent of professional certification.

Then there's the arduous process of turning ideas into prose, polishing the manuscript, and persevering through the publishing process, and you have every right to think that you've accomplished something significant. When you've done that, it's natural is to believe that you've learned something and are better at what you do.

The net effect is a tendency to believe that now you're good. You may have given yourself license to suck when you were starting out, but you're beyond that now, right? So you bang out the first few pages of the new project and ... they're not very good. And suddenly you have to question everything you assumed about your new identity.

The psychological trap is believing you've become something different than you were when you started your first project.

The Structural Problem

The more fundamental mistake is to forget the process by which you created your first book--the multiple drafts, the rounds of revisions, the hours spent agonizing over a key word or phrase.

You'll only succeed in depressing yourself if you compare your new project to the book you just finished. A project that's only a month old will always look primitive compared to one you've revised and polished for a year or two.

If you must compare something, compare first drafts. Chances are you'll find that the first draft for your second project is better than your first draft for your first project.

So What Can You Do?

Doctors, who have real credentials, practice medicine. Writers would do well to follow that example: we should see ourselves not as a someone who possesses some expertise but as someone who practices the art of refining words into stories through a patient process.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Expression vs. Experience

Reading thuRsday

Why do we write?

Because we have something to say, ideas to share, and emotions to express. Because we need to be heard.

Why do we read?

Is it because we want to hear what someone else has to say?

Or listen to the ideas they want to share?

Or feel the emotions they want to express?

Well, not exactly. That is, most of us wouldn't put those things at the top of the list of reasons why we read.

As writers, one of the best ways to find stories is to, "mind the gap." In the real world, friction arises where things meet. In the world of stories, conflict arises where differing expectations meet.

Did you notice the gap, or potential for conflict, here between writers and readers?

And how, in our stories, do we resolve the problem created by a gap?

Someone must bridge the gap. One or both of the parties must adjust their expectations until they're in-line with the realities of the situation.

I suppose there are writers of such celebrity that people do, truly, want to hear what they have to say simply because they say it. That's not me, and I'm willing to bet it's not you. So given that there's a gap between one writer and many readers, who needs to change?

Fundamentally that advice to stop worrying about expressing yourself as a writer and focus on delivering compelling experiences to your readers is as fundamental as Dale Carnegie's advice to talk in terms of the other person's interest. Your readers only care about what's in it for them.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Art of the Long Form

Writing Wednesday

I once heard Clint Johnson say, "Generally, when we talk about writing, we look at the components of story piecemeal. But knowing the pieces doesn't mean that you know how to put them together to function as a whole."

 The fact that you can string words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into a coherent narrative doesn't necessarily mean that you can or should keep doing it for 300 - 400 pages. The fact that you can pen lyrical descriptions, whip out sparkling dialog, and present a good scene, doesn't necessarily mean that you can sustain a novel-length story.

No one assumes that if you can run a hundred yards you must also be able to run a marathon. But with writing, perhaps because we use words all the time, we generally assume that if you master basic fiction techniques, you can simply scale them up and produce a book.

Of course, people who put in the effort, have discipline, and persist can write a novel. And in the course of that work, they'll discover much of what we'll touch on today and consider in the coming weeks. My point is that there's more to the art of the long form narrative than the basic components of story.

To begin with, you need to have enough story to sustain the long form. Generally, that means a difficult story problem or problems. If your protagonist is hungry and then makes a sandwich, the story is over. (On the other hand, if your protagonist is hungry and has just crashed in the middle of the desert, you could fill a novel with the story of how he survives.)

You've also got to have a story that builds enough to keep the reader's attention. Clint Johnson also explained that people grow accustomed to constant stimulus so you must increase the stimulus over time just to maintain the reader's interest.

It's no accident that pop songs have a three act structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. This structure gives both repetition and variation.

You might be tempted to say that a novel is easy because its chapters are like a string a short stories. To be sure, there are some novels which fit that description. But what distinguishes long-form works, whether feature films, symphonies, or novels (to name a few), is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

In the coming weeks we'll look at topics like trajectory, tension and release, theme, motif, rhythm, repetition, and variation in an effort to develop a better understanding of the art of the long form.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Revisions: Nice and Slow

Technique Tuesday

Recently, agent Jessica Faust offered excellent advice on responding to revision requests from agents.

She wrote her post after @agentgame tweeted, "I've gotten back revisions on an overly fast turnaround that damaged the book rather than making it better."

Jessica says she understands why authors might be anxious to respond quickly (e.g., fear she'll lose interest or hope to appear responsive), but cautions:
"getting it back to me quickly isn’t going to do you a damn bit of good if what you send back is in even worse shape than the first version. If you think it had to be perfect before, now it has to be even better than perfect. There aren’t many second chances in life. When you get one, use it wisely."
I found the second of her suggestions for handling a revision request particularly illuminating:
"Remember that revisions to a submission are only just the tip of the iceberg. Revision letters to my clients can be pages and pages long. I’m not going to spend that time on a submission. Therefore, you have to carefully read between the lines. Look at what I’m saying and then beyond that, and fix it all."
I encourage you to read the entire post.

In the spirit of using second chances well, there's another reason not to rush your response to a request for revisions.

We advise writers to let some time pass between completing a draft and diving into revisions so that they can approach their work with fresh eyes.

There's a similar dynamic with readers: over time the specifics of a story fade into a general impression. The agent who asks for a revision clearly wants to see the project again. Why squander the opportunity to have them take a second look at it with fresh eyes?

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, February 14, 2011

Law 2: Beauty Arises When Form Follows Function

Making Monday

In August, 1628, the warship Vasa, pride of the Swedish navy, foundered in a light wind and sank less than a nautical mile into her maiden voyage.

Wikipedia describes the Vasa as follows:
"No expense was spared in decorating and equipping the Vasa, one of the largest and most heavily armed warships of her time, adorned with hundreds of sculptures, all of them painted in vivid colors. She was intended to express the expansionist aspirations of Sweden and the glory of king Gustavus Adolphus."
Model of the Vasa (Wikipedia)
There are a number of lesson we could take from this incident. In terms of project management, for example, the ship was top-heavy and unstable in port, but no one was willing or able to tell the King, who was anxious to deploy the ship in the conflict that became known as the Thirty Year's War, that the ship wasn't ready. But the Vasa is more commonly held up as an example of problems you face when form doesn't follow function.

The Vasa's ornamentation was the work of master craftsmen and a thing of beauty in its own right. And contrary to our modern sensibilities, it served the function of expressing the glory of the king. So the issue of form and function with the Vasa is more complex.

We often fall prey to the temptation to overload the function of a thing. In the case of the Vasa, it was called upon to fulfill the functions of a warship and a symbol of prestige.

With people, we have the old phrase, "jack of all trades, master of none." In the same vein, some wit long ago observed that a camel was a horse designed by a committee.

One of the dimensions of the Second Law of Making is that beauty is directly related to the degree that the form of the made thing arises from the integrity of that thing.

I once worked with a software development manager who explained how the technical beauty of system eroded over time because of the toilet paper syndrome. He said, "When you design a system, it's a thing of beauty, like a silver ball. The marketing people come, say it's great but would be better with one more feature that in effect throws a wad of wet toilet paper on the shiny ball. Over time, so much toilet paper accumulates that you lose sight of the ball altogether."

In terms of writing, you can lose the silver ball of your story if you try to please everyone who offers comments and suggestions.This is not to say you should simply ignore any feedback. Rather, you need to understand what you're trying to accomplish well enough to be able to distinguish between suggestions that make the work more beautiful and ones that just pile on wads of wet toilet paper.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, February 11, 2011

Writing is an Exercise in Extremely Delayed Gratification

Free-form Friday

Writing can be protected in the U.S. with a copyright but not with a patent.

What's the difference?

Patents protect ideas. Copyrights protect the expression of ideas.

This means there's nothing to stop you from writing a story about a boy wizard who falls for a sparkly vampire while they're trying to survive as contestants in a blood-sport arena. The fact that other writers have already expressed those ideas in books that achieved commercial success doesn't necessarily stop you from expressing the same ideas. (As long as it is a new expression and not plagiarism or a cheap knock-off.) What matters, both in the eyes of the law and in the marketplace, is the quality of the expression of the idea.

Like the experiment in Plato's Republic, where Socrates examined states in order to understand personal virtue, there's an analogy between copyright law and the delicious ideas that spring up as you imagine the story you'll write. 

In your enthusiasm for those ideas, you'll be tempted to share. There's nothing so heady as cornering someone who will listen to you and explaining how great the story will be because it's all present and vibrant for you. Of course, what you really want is the validation that comes when someone else acknowledges your ideas.

But the fact of the matter is that great ideas about what could happen in your story are meaningless until you express them (i.e., write them down). Put another way, if, like the tree that falls in the forest, no one else can appreciate the idea in its expressed form, then for all practical purposes, it didn't happen.

At a personal level, this means that the satisfaction of someone saying, "Yes, that's a great idea," must be delayed until you've found a compelling way to express that idea. And if you're looking for acknowledgment from a circle larger than critique partners, beta readers, agents, and editors, you'd better be prepared to wait years between the idea and its publication.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Single Most Important Author Characteristic Insofar as Readers are Concerned: Confidence

Reading thuRsday

There's an amusing old episode of Red Dwarf in which Lister, the space bum, catches a mutated flu that brings his confidence and paranoia to life as distinct individuals: paranoia as a sniveling hypochondriac and confidence as an American-style DJ.

Confidence is a funny word because though we associate it with personalities and emotional states that range from quiet fortitude to bravado, its Latin roots literally mean, "with faith." In its original sense, the word means someone in whom we can put our faith.

As readers, the single most important factor in our willingness to suspend our disbelief is the degree to which we trust the author, believe they have the story firmly in control, and have faith they will take us somewhere wonderful and worthwhile.

A confident author is like the nautical pilot, hand firmly on the tiller, who knows how to guide a ship through the reefs and safely into port. Nothing that happens in the story is accidental. And everything the author brings to our attention contributes to the ultimate aim of a satisfying story.  

So what do you need to do to be a confident author?

It's not about bravado, but about control--and not the control of a commander shouting orders, but the control of the expert dancer or musician who makes what they do look effortless. Similarly, the confident author writes intentionally but with such craft that the reader is swept into the story and almost forgets it has an author.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Writing Intentionally: Story Bibles

Writing Wednesday

One of the most important enablers for intentional writing is a system to help you keep track of story details. Having someone notice that the hero's hair color changes halfway through the book (without a trip to a stylist) is the literary equivalent of smiling with spinach on your teeth.

A family Bible, from Wikipedia
The best answer I've found is to turn to the bible. (A story bible, not The Bible.) A story bible and a high-level outline give me all the safety net I need to write confidently.

When writers talk about story bibles, they mean a place to collect all the information that pertains to the story. The notion comes (I believe) from episodic television where the producers had a document describing the situation and all the characters. They would give it to the writers brought on to pen different episodes so that the scripts they produced had a degree of consistency (e.g., you wouldn't want a character who is normally shy and retiring leap out to save the day in one episode and then go back to hiding under the table in the next).

When software architects design commercial data systems, they are careful to create a single source of truth. A story bible is really nothing more or less than this. It can be physical, like a folder or a binder (bound books are probably not suitable because you'll want to add, remove, and arrange your material), or virtual (anything from a text file to a database, depending on your ambition). All that matters is that it's the one place where you can keep everything related to your story.

Don't let the word, "bible," frighten you with visions of formalities with which you must comply. You'll probably come across suggestions that you subdivide your bible into sections on characters, settings, backstory, and so on. Those are reasonable but not the only ways to organize your material. You could also organize your story bible like an encyclopedia, with entries for each significant entity in your story. All that matters is that you have a way to organize your material so that 1) you can easily find it again, and 2) you know where to add new material.

Remember, this is your resource, so the only thing that really matters is to find something that works for you.

And, in the spirit of our recent discussion about writers who over-plan, don't let the bible become something that takes so much time to maintain that you have no time left to write the story. Promise yourself that the bible will forever be a private document, the information equivalent of what you look like when you get out of bed in the morning, so you're not tempted to try to make it presentable.

The good folks at The Write Thing have a thorough discussion of what you might want in a writing bible if you'd like more.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Adverbs in Speech Tags

Technique Tuesday

Several months ago, I presented a minimal speech-tag framework. The third rule says:
Only apply adverbs to "said" that qualify the physical act of speaking. Using adverbs to convey something about the emotional state of the speaker is lazy writing. You're telling the reader something about the way the character spoke if you say "said loudly" (and more direct verbs like shouted or cried aren't appropriate).
A reader found my example and parenthetical comment about direct verbs confusing and asked for a clarification.
The job of an adverb is to modify a verb. Sometimes we need to qualify an action and we don't have a direct verb that does the job. So adverbs have their place so long as we use them sparingly (like that one).

We get in trouble, particularly in speech tags, when we confuse human actions and intentions. For example, consider a medic working on a battlefield. Saying that the medic cut quickly or cut carefully qualifies the action and gives us, as readers, evidence to infer the medic's intent. On the other hand, saying he cut viciously qualifies the intent behind the action and not the action itself.

So with a speech tag, I resist using adverbs because it's too easy to fall into the trap of qualifying intention (e.g., "he said disdainfully"): it's lazy writing because character's intention should be conveyed either through dialog or description.

The exception I allow is for adverbs that qualify the act of speaking. If a character has been speaking at a normal volume so that everyone in the conference room can hear and then turns to a companion and says something to that one person but doesn't whisper, you could use, "he said quietly."

You might point out that a beat like, "He turned to Fred and lowered his voice," would be a better way to do it than, "he said quietly." And I would concede the point on stylistic grounds.

Similarly, you should always use a direct verb (e.g., shouted or called) instead of a qualified verb (e.g., said loudly) if the direct verb can do the job. But occasionally no direct verb has the right sense so you need to qualify the closest verb. For example, if you wanted to describe a character nominally speaking to one group who raises his voice to be sure that someone else in the room will hear, he's neither shouting nor calling, so "said loudly" might be your best choice.

[If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Verisimilitude, book 5 of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.]
Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, February 7, 2011

Law 2: Beauty is Form and Contrast

Making Monday

The creation myth of the Quiché in the Popul Vuh, begins,
There was neither man, nor animal, birds, fishes, crabs, trees, stones, caves, ravines, grasses, nor forests; there was only the sky. The surface of the earth had not appeared. There was only the calm sea and the great expanse of the sky. There was nothing brought together, nothing which could make a noise, nor anything which might move, or tremble, or could make noise in the sky. There was nothing standing; only the calm water, the placid sea, alone and tranquil. Nothing existed. There was only immobility and silence in the darkness, in the night.
Nothing existed.

Nor can anything exist, in creation myths, until the gods give form to the formless.

Form arises from contrast and distinction. "Darkness was upon the face of the deep," so "Let there be light." Separate the land from the water. 

Artists discuss figure (subject) and ground (the subject's context). It sounds overly simplistic to say it, but the best way to define the ground is as not-figure.

One aspect of the beauty of the made thing is the degree to which its form is distinct from it's context. Think about a flower in a field of flowers and a flower in a vase. The latter attracts our attention and inspires our contemplation because it stands out. In this case, we've created a figure by placing it against a new ground.

In writing, we have the form of the story (the internal form) and the form of the project (the external form). The internal form is what we mean when we talk about craft: who should tell the story (POV), what episodes should be included, what details enhance the story, and so on. The external form is everything that helps establish the place of the story in the world, including positioning (genre), packaging, and promotion.

What about a thing that has the form of something else but is not that thing? We call it a fake. This is one way users pervert beauty.

Volumes have been written about these ideas and I can't begin to do them justice. That said, a first step toward understanding the second law, Beauty is the Object of True Making, is to consider the form of the thing being made as an expression of what it is.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, February 4, 2011

Novels and Novelty: NYC Publishing and the Relentless Drive for the New

Free-form Friday

In January, Agent Janet Grant published a  post entitled, "Stuff You Need to Know for 2011: Hold Back Those Book Trailers and Book Covers."

Janet suggested that we should resist the impulse to release trailers and book covers when they're created--which is often as much as a year before the book will be published.

If, as a reader, I’m exposed to these promo items (yes, that’s what a cover is), I soon start to think that the book is old news. Heavens, I’ve watched the trailer, I’ve seen the cover several times…didn’t I read that book already? If I think I haven’t read it, well, I just dismiss the book. I want to read what’s new.
It's no accident that we call long-form works of fiction, "novels." The word comes from Latin, via Italian, and means new, as in a new story (as opposed to retellings of Greek and Roman classics).

But, "novel," is even more appropriate in a business whose engine is a relentless drive for something new. Partly because of the curious consequences of an industry where the product is 100% returnable, and partly because of the publisher's roll as a risk aggregator and the consequent pressure to make big releases, it's the new thing that matters most.

This is one of the fundamental ways in which the interests of authors and publishers diverge: authors, like soaring birds that glide for hours on a single wing beat, strive for books that will provide royalties for decades to come; publishers must constantly flap (with each release) to stay in the air because they need the constant boost of short-term revenue.

"So," you ask, "are you complaining about the situation?

No. This is about understanding the true nature of the situation so that we can have proper expectations.

Don't grudge other authors their moment in the spot light. Prepare for yours. Expect the moment to be brief. Then get busy on the next "new" thing.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Characters, Expectations, and the Maslow Hierarchy

Reading thuRsday

Several weeks ago, Stina Linderblatt shared a post, titled "Deepening Your Character's Needs," on the QueryTracker Blog. She described Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which range from the basic (like food) to the esoteric (like morality), and how characters are more realistic and more compelling if their behavior is driven by needs from more than one place in the hierarchy.

People and, by extension, characters generally work their way up the hierarchy, satisfying needs at one level before moving up to the next. This means, for example, that your readers will cry foul if your characters stop in the midst of sudden peril to worry about their self-esteem (or, more commonly, have a romantic liaison during a lull in a gun-battle).

But it reveals a great deal about a character if and when they violate a lower-level need in favor of a higher level need. For example, someone may place themselves in danger (violating their need for safety) if by doing so they can save a loved one (satisfying their need for love and belonging).

In order to get away with violating your reader's common sense about the hierarchy of needs, you must establish the character's overriding need before they act against expectations.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Writing Intentionally: Architects

Writing Wednesday

As I mentioned last week, there's a general belief that writers fall into one of two camps: outliners or architects, and discovery writers or gardeners. I'm not convinced that the distinction is real. In fact, I argue that the camps are simply approaches that can be used as you would any other tool.

That said, it is easier to illustrate some ideas with dichotomies like architect vs. gardener.

An important part of writing intentionally is writing confidently. Last week I made the case that gardener is a better model for discovery writers because gardening involves preparation, and preparation is a fundamental part of writing intentionally.

So, the architect, as the epitome of someone who plans out every detail in advance, is the poster child of intentional writing, right?

Not necessarily. There's such a thing as too much preparation.

I once interviewed with a company for a software development position, turned down the job, and then wound up working for them a year later. During the first visit, they showed me the design for the software package they planned to build. A year later, when I set to work actually implementing the software, I found stacks of paper with increasingly detailed designs, culminating in the pièce de résistance: printed flowcharts filled with code. Had they skipped the flow charts and put the code in source files, they likely would have had running software.

Writers, particularly those who work in the fantastic and need to create worlds with consistent history, economies, religions, languages, and magic systems are particularly prone to a malady that Brandon Sanderson calls, "world-building disease." It doesn't help that the mythology about the mythology of Lord of the Rings makes much of the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien spent twenty years building his world before he wrote the novels.

Computer scientist Terry Winograd's answer to the tendency to over-specify software projects is a new vocation he calls, "software architect." Like real architects, they must be able to work across a range of concerns, going from a meeting with the structural engineer that's all about bearing loads to a meeting with a client who wants a house that says, "Soaring! ... In mauve"

A true architect is more flexible that you might assume.

The writer as architect needs to avoid the trap of forever planning and never writing. Your goal is not to fully specify the story. Instead it comes back to writing with confidence. The challenge for the writer as architect is to have faith that your preparations have been sufficient and that they provide a framework in which you can solve the story problems that will inevitably appear as you proceed.

And then write.

Don't fall into the trap of inserting your code into flow charts when you should be building running software.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Writer Zen: Fairness and Your Monkey Brain

Technique Tuesday

On of the ideas I picked up from a biography of the Buddha is the
Zen notion of the monkey brain. The first image of a monkey brain that springs to mind is likely that of a frenzied simian bouncing around the cage of desires in which Buddhists would say we are trapped. There's clearly good writing advice to be mined from this image about creating a writing space, whether virtual or actual, where one can be free from distractions.

But I found another, intriguing association with the phrase, "monkey brain."

I came across a study that showed brown capuchin monkeys have a strong sense of fairness. The monkeys were trained to trade pebbles with researchers for food, usually pieces of cucumber but sometimes grapes. If pairs of monkeys made the trade and one of them got a better deal (i.e., grapes), the other would throw a fit.

Does this sound familiar?

What if I replace, "monkey," with, "writer," and, "researcher," with, "publisher?"

More familiar now?

This isn't a rehash of my advice to, "keep your eyes on your own test," though the points are related. No, this is about your basic expectations.

The fact of the matter is that the business of publishing is grossly unfair.

Your options are to throw a fit and go sulk in the far corner of your cage, or to transcend your monkey brain--particularly the part that keeps oh-so-careful track of how fair the situation is--and keep writing.

Image: luigi diamanti /