Thursday, March 31, 2011

Organic Conflict

Reading thuRsday

Writing on the Utah Children's Writers Blog, Julie Danes pointed out that conflict should not be contrived.

What is a contrived conflict?

In comic books, bad guys are bad because they're bad. Slap on a label like, "Nazi," or, "Terrorist," and your job is done. Other examples include oppressive clergy, greedy corporations, and government conspiracies. It's conflict by definition, which is the height of contrivance.

Another kind of contrived conflict is what I call irrational conflict: characters at loggerheads whose differences could be resolved with a rational, five-minute conversation. Romances are particularly liable to this kind of contrivance when the author can't think of a better reason to keep the leads apart. Yes, misunderstandings occur in real life, as do coincidences, but as a general rule (because you don't want your readers rolling their eyes) you're only allowed one of each.

Of course, it's not that some kinds of conflict are contrived and other are not. Any conflict where the reader sees the puppet strings, or worse, the puppeteer (author), is contrived. Readers need and want to believe that the conflict in the story arises organically from the mix of setting, plot, and characters, and that the conflict couldn't have played out any other way.

When I think about organic conflict, whether it arises from characters or plot, I imagine the parties to the conflict as forces of nature. Picture what happens when a surge of the restless sea meets the immovable cliff. Or when the speeding car meets the brick wall.

The most compelling conflict feels inevitable: notwithstanding everyone's best efforts, the collision occurs.

Unlike the watered-down food label, natural, organic conflict is a much healthier, and a much more satisfying choice.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Long Form: Motif

Writing Wednesday

Watching Star Wars in 1977 (before it had any Roman numerals, back in the Early Pleistocene for you youngsters), was an amazing experience--one that's hard to convey to the generation that was weaned on photo-realistic computer graphics.

But for me, listening to the Star Wars sound track album was an even more amazing experience. I heard the story unfold in another dimension that shadowed the visual experience, complementing, enriching, and extending it. That was when I began to understand musical motifs.

A motif is, "a recurrent thematic element."

At an abstract level, a motif is simply the application of the principle that a well-developed context makes references meaningful. Put that way, it sounds pretty bland. But think of the times when you've been caught up in a story and a well-placed word or phrase triggers a cascade of associations and emotions.

In John Williams' score there are motifs--the main theme, the rebel fanfare, the imperial march, Leia's theme, etc.--that are strongly associated with certain story elements the first time we hear them. There after, the themes are quoted in other, often more complex, music for sequences like battles where the elements all come together. The quotes remind us, in the shadow dimension, of what happened when we heard the theme before and what that means for the stakes now.

A Palette of Motifs

At one point (in the Late Pleistocene*, for those of you keeping score), I thought I'd figured out how to stir-fry: chop up a bunch of vegetables, and some meat, run it through the wok, and presto. Except my stir-fry wasn't as good as the offerings in the Chinese restaurants. Then I noticed one key detail. The dishes in the restaurants had fewer ingredients that I was using. Less was more. There was more flavor when there were fewer flavors competing with each other.

Artists have long known that a picture is more vibrant with a limited palette of colors. Similarly, a palette of motifs is much more effective in a long-form work because the thematic elements must recur. Mix in too many motifs and you'll wind up with bland stir-fry.

* This is an example of a recurring thematic element.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Small Steps and Milestones

Technique Tuesday

Some of the techniques we've discussed are, in essence, Jedi mind tricks you play on yourself.

Today we have two related techniques that fall squarely in that camp: small steps and milestones.

Small Steps

When I graduated, I was paralyzed by the thought of picking a career. I simply couldn't imagine doing anything for forty years. The scope was overwhelming.

But I could imagine doing something for four years. After all, I'd just completed an undergraduate degree. So I stopped trying to find a career-scale answer and instead attacked the problem in four year chunks.

It wasn't the first time I learned the lesson of taking down overwhelming problems by breaking them into manageable chunks.

There's real power in saying, "I don't know if I can do all of it, but I can do this part." Repeat the heads-down process of dealing with manageable chunks often enough and you'll be amazed at how insignificant the formerly overwhelming problem has become when you come up for air.


Which brings us to the second, complementary technique: stop to acknowledge milestones.

Graduations, anniversaries, the odometer rolling over--these are all opportunities to pause and recognize our progress. Some people find this difficult, so let me hasten to add that an important part of this technique is to take stock of what you've actually done, not what you hoped to do.

If I'm careful, and realistic, I'm generally pleasantly surprised at how much I've actually done. Of course, it's never what I imagined I'd do. But it's always better than I feared.


By way of showing that I try to follow my own advice, today is this blog's first anniversary.

The task of writing 255 blog posts (five days a week for fifty-one weeks--I took the week between Christmas and New Year off) is pretty daunting viewed in its totality. In the beginning, I wasn't sure I had a year's worth of material, and if I'd thought of how much I would actually have to write I may not have done it. But I didn't worry about the long term: I thought, instead, in terms of manageable chunks--five posts, enough for a week.

And so it's reassuring to do the sums and realize that, at an average of 300 words per post, in the course of a year I've written the equivalent of a draft of a 75,000 word novel.

Don't underestimate the power of small steps. If you chip away a little each day, in time you'll look up and realize that you've moved a mountain.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, March 28, 2011

Law 3: Truth is Not Isolated

Making Monday

Any workplace where employees may be exposed to chemicals is required to have material safety data sheets (MSDS) on file for those chemicals. MSDSs describe the hazards and precautions to be taken when handling a given chemical.

My favorite MSDS details the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO), a colorless, odorless, tasteless substance that kills tens of thousands each. As one of the public awareness web sites explains:
Most of these deaths are caused by accidental inhalation of DHMO, but the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide do not end there. Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage. Symptoms of DHMO ingestion can include excessive sweating and urination, and possibly a bloated feeling, nausea, vomiting and body electrolyte imbalance. For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death. [See, The Dangers of DHMO]
This pernicious substance, more commonly known by its chemical formula H20, is literally everywhere.

By this point you're probably groaning that I've gotten so worked up about water. And you're right: the quote does overstate the case. But go back and read it. Every statement is strictly true.

So, is water good or bad?

For someone stranded in the desert, it is definitely good. For someone with a new pair of cement galoshes who's about to take a long walk off a short pier, it is definitely bad. The truth of the matter is that you can't determine the truth of the matter without a context.

Makers are largely uninterested in absolute truths. The truth that is the substance of true making is relative and practical: a made thing will be fit for some purposes and not for others.

By the same token, when you write, don't fall into the trap of perfection. Strive, instead, to create an expression of your story that is true to your vision and true to your audience.

Plato argued that there exists the idea of a perfect sphere, of which all the balls in the world are but a poor approximation. The fact that we have not achieved the perfect sphere doesn't stop us from enjoying the ballgame.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, March 25, 2011

Professional Relationships

Free-form Friday

How many of us wouldn't jump at the chance to be a professional writer?

How would it be to spend our days wrapped in a comfy smoking jacket, pipe in hand, dispensing pearls of prose to eager readers? Oh, wait, that's the fantasy writer. We know better.

We know that professional writers work hard at writing, revising one book, drafting another, and outlining a third all at the same time. We know that professional writers work constantly at promotion in every venue, both real and virtual, they can find.

We know that, and we think we're up to the job.

But do you know how much of your private prerogatives you'll have to give up?

One of the things you must give up as a professional writer is your private opinions. That's not to say you don't have opinions, simply that you're no longer at liberty to share.


Because professionals must work with everyone.

The mantra of the consultant is,
I'm a professional.
I don't have problems.
I don't cause problems.
I solve your problems.

As a professional, you don't have the luxury of not liking someone, particularly in an industry as small as publishing where there's a real chance you might have to work with them at some point in the future.

In a panel on professional comportment at LTUETracy Hickman said, "There's only thing you can be sure of: you never know who you're talking to, so treat everybody as important."

In the same panel Howard Tayler reminded us of the 2010 Dr. Who Christmas episode where, in response to someone who says another character isn't important, replies, "How fascinating. I've never met anyone who isn't important."

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On the Advice to, "Write What You Know"

Reading thuRsday

Doubtless you've heard the advice to, "Write what you know." It's at least as old as L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, in which the precocious red-head publishes a story about Avonlea after all her high-minded romances have been rejected.

"But," you object, "we wouldn't have hobbits and Narnia if we only wrote what we know."

That might be true, if you take the advice literally.

Like the gossip game, where players relay whispered messages and then laugh at the garbled version that comes out of the end of the chain, I suspect we've received only a degenerate version of the advice.

We should say, "Write what you know, not what you think you know."

L. M. Montgomery's Anne thought she knew the style in which she should write. Contemporary writers often think they should write in a particular genre (sparkly vampires) or to a particular audience (YA) because they know those are hot.

Distinguishing between what you know and what you think you know is often difficult because most of what we know is actually what we think we know.

Perhaps it would be less confusing to say that writing what you know isn't about the facts and information at your command, or even about your experiences. Writing what you know is fundamentally about what you understand.

The advice to "write what you know" should also be understood as advice to, "Write what you love." Sometimes your heart knows what you know better than your reason.

That's why, if you love a world no one else has seen yet, you can honestly say you're writing what you know.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Long Form: Emphasis

Writing Wednesday

Now that we've talked about variation and rhythm, we can look at how to use these long-form tools for emphasis.

I've previously explored the idea that stories are models and that models have the property of not being a perfectly faithful representation of the original. This is a good thing. A map that represents the precise location of every pebble in a field would have to be as big as the field. Similarly, a story that faithfully represents every single, trivial thing a character does would be staggeringly boring.

A large part of the art of the storyteller is choosing the interesting bits and sequencing them into a narrative that evokes the times, places, and events without getting lost in the details. It's fundamentally no different that creating a model or map to express the most interesting aspects of another thing.

But how do you know what to select for your story?

Some things may be inherently interesting. But most of the elements of a story are interesting because the storyteller gives them emphasis.

Attention Budgets

From retinal structures in our eyes that detect motion, through subliminal filters, to the seat of reason in our frontal lobe, our brains are exquisitely designed to safely ignore most of the information flowing into them. Attention is our cognitive priority queue. To say that something caught our attention means that, at least for a moment, that thing was the most important element in our personal universe.

The act of selection--singling a particular person, place, or thing out from all the similar ones--creates emphasis by calling it to our attention. Similarly, dwelling upon something creates emphasis. Readers, for example, assume that the amount of text devoted to a subject indicates its importance. A common novice mistake is to give us a loving crafted description of a character, say, a waiter, who appears only once in the story.

Which brings us to:


I've heard it often enough to be willing to accept it as an advertising rule-of-thumb that a person must hear about something seven times before they'll take action. Fiction doesn't have to be quite so repetitive to create emphasis.

That said, I'm a firm believer in the Rule of Two: if it's important enough to put it in the book it--whatever it is--should appear at least twice. Think of it as a way of rewarding the reader for paying attention.

But repetition, in the long form, is more than just a tool for creating emphasis. In conjunction with variation, it enables us to explore a deeper issue: how does the significance of something evolve over time?

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ideas: Strength Through Association

Technique Tuesday

You've likely heard the spiritual, Dem Bones, and know that the toe bone's connected to the foot bone, and the foot bone's connected to the ankle bone, and so on. It's both an anatomy lesson, of sorts, and reference to the Biblical prophet Ezekiel's vision of a valley of dry bones.

In the vision, Ezekiel prophesies, as commanded, to the bones and they come together, bone to bone, and sinews and flesh until "and exceeding great army" stands before him. Without delving into the religious significance of the vision, we can appreciate the structural significance: by themselves, the bones are dry and impotent but in proper association they become a strength and a beauty that is greater than the sum of its parts.

One of the strengths of the mass of interconnected neurons inside our skulls is in making associations.

I've talked before about story molecules: how a single idea isn't enough to carry a novel, which is why you need a constellation of ideas, working together, to sustain a long-form narrative. Associations are what bind those ideas together.

Think of it this way: if ideas are points, associations are the lines that join those points. Two point can be joined with one line. With three points, each can be connected to the other two with three lines. Four points have six lines; Five points have ten lines; and six points have fifteen. Each time you add one more idea, the number of possible connections jumps. It doesn't take many ideas before you have a rich web of associations.

Another way to look at it is that associating two ideas is a simple way to create a whole (the associated ideas) greater than the sum of the parts (the ideas in isolation).

Let's play a game: we'll start with one object, a gun, and associate it by proximity (i.e., placing it next to) another.
  • What comes to mind if we place our gun next to a shot of whiskey?
  • Now, what comes to mind if we place our gun next to a pair of baby shoes?
Associations become even more powerful if we link ideas into a chain. There was a fascinating series on PBS called Connections, in which host James Burke showed how an event or innovation in the past traced "through a series of seemingly unrelated connections to a fundamental and essential aspect of the modern world."

The associations in your stories need not be so profound, but you can use the same principle, particularly when brainstorming, to turn common-place ideas into something special.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, March 21, 2011

Law 3: Truth is Choices and Consequences

Making Monday

J. Michael Straczynski has often said that the problem with television is not that there's too much violence but that there's not enough. Specifically, there's not enough of the life-cycle of violence.

In your average action/adventure yarn, when the bad-guys pop up you can send them packing with a lovely explosion. We never concern ourselves further with the consequences of that explosion. The gore of those blown to bits might have some cinematic interest, but we certainly can't be bothered with the people knocked out of the fight because they're suffering from concussion damage.

To his credit, Straczynski often showed people on Babylon 5 picking up the pieces in the aftermath of a battle: medics patching up the wounded, doctors certifying the dead, and commanders writing the final, terrible letter home.

The truth of the matter--one which users try to ignore but makers honor--is that actions, in general, and choices, in particular, have consequences.

Lest this sound overly moral, consider the fact that a groove is the consequence of running a certain chisel over a piece of wood. If employing the chisel had no consequences, there would be no woodcarvers.

In more neutral terms, we can describe the same thing as cause and effect.

I've observed that the best stories are about cause and effect. That's true at the macro level of the story, but it's also true at the micro level of the story telling. Every word, sentence, paragraph, and scene are the result of a choice, either conscious or unconscious, made by the author. At one level, mastery of the craft of writing is no more complicated than understanding the individual and cumulative consequences of each and every one of those choices.

"We create by making choices," John Vorhaus said in a post called The Writer's War at Writer Unboxed. "The writer’s war is the struggle to make choices without going nuts."

Like the horror that is an inevitable and natural part of witnessing the before, during, and after of real violence, the truth of choices and consequences is not pretty. It takes courage to face the truth--whether it's the truth that people can be seriously and permanently hurt if they try to do things they see on television, or that the words you've written aren't as meaningful as you imagine. And when you face the truth of choices and consequences, you begin to learn how to make choices without going nuts.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, March 18, 2011

"Don't beat yourself up. The publishing industry will do it for you."

Free-form Friday

During one of the sessions at Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE 2011), I heard Julie Wright say,
"Don't beat yourself up. The publishing industry will do it for you."
Which, of course, immediately reminded me of Bob Dylan's, "Everybody Must Get Stoned." and my own comments about the great chain of rejection that is the publishing industry.

But I think there's more to this than a lets-feel-good-about-ourselves moment.

To begin with, there's clearly a difference between self-criticism and beating oneself up. Where the latter is about grief spirals and pity parties, the former involves a realistic assessment of where you are and constructive plans to improve.

There will, naturally, be people who hate your work and loath you, often for reasons entirely beyond your control. But the number of unambiguous foes, who would gladly beat you up if given the chance, is dwarfed by the vast majority of people who inadvertently beat you up because they need an excuse to not pay attention to you.

You can understand this behavior in terms of the query problem. An agent who gets thousands of queries a year when they might realistically be able to take on one or two new clients doesn't open each query hoping it will be the one. They're looking for the quickest way to determine if it's something they can safely ignore. It's nothing personal. It's simply the most rational way to deal with an avalanche of material.

So beyond the simple psychology of a positive attitude, if you don't believe in yourself, who will? If you're not your own best advocate, who's going to do it for you?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, March 17, 2011

It Doesn't Matter if You're Published, it Only Matters if You're Read

Reading thuRsday

I've mentioned Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE),  the SF/Fantasy/Writing Convention I attended in February. It's an amazing event: three days packed with multiple panels from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm. Of necessity, you must pick and choose, knowing that you're missing great things in the panels and sessions you can't attend.

I missed a particularly good panel, so I'm shamelessly borrowing the following from Julie Wright's LTUE summary at Writing on the Wall:
It doesn't matter if you're published. Being published is nothing. It is everything to be read. --Tracy Hickman

[Julie] This is absolute truth. My first book was published by a very small press. I was published. It was exciting! But was a I read? no. No, not really. And looking back, I am glad I wasn't read. it was a first book. I was a very green author. I had no idea what the rules were. I had no idea about craft. I had a long way to go. Being published isn't really the goal of a writer. What we want is to be read. We want to enter that dialogue with the reader. We want the intimacy of pulling readers into worlds we created--even if we'll never meet those readers, even if we're separated from those readers by continents, or even centuries. What a writer really longs for its to be read. The best way to achieve that is to learn the craft and write well.
A contrarian might point out that being published matters to your pocketbook. But if your pocketbook is what matters most, there are far more efficient (and less risky) ways to line your coffers than write a book.

The deeper truth here is that books, whether fiction or not, only have value if they provide an experience and contribute to the conversation.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Long Form: Rhythm

Writing Wednesday

I read a fascinating article in Scientific American about learning in babies and toddlers. The authors suggested that very young humans act like little scientists, learning about their world by comparing hypothesis with experimental results. Before you object too strenuously, that's simply the clinical way to say little people reacted differently when they observed something that didn't match their expectations.

In one experiment, toddlers were shown a clear tub containing the same number of black and white balls. Researchers tracking eye movements showed that the children paid much more attention to a person who pulled balls of only one color from the box than one who pulled an equal number of balls of each color. What astonished the scientists was how quickly the toddlers were able to assess the ratio of black and white balls in the box and settle on the expectation that the balls pulled out of the box should be equally distributed between black and white.

Jokes about white men not being able to dance (or jump) because they got no rhythm notwithstanding, a sense of rhythm seems to be a basic human trait. I once heard a musician explain that wherever he went--and regardless of language or culture--if he gave an audience a three-note pattern they could always supply the fourth, on the beat.

When we talk of rhythm, we think first of music--perhaps because the beat of the song and the beat of a heart are not too far removed. But nearly everything we experience over time has rhythm. The toddlers in the experiment, for example, likely didn't do a quick count of the different colored balls in the box but they could easily have seen the visual rhythm of the black and white balls.

What about rhythm in writing?

Pacing is likely the first thing that came to mind. It's usually among the topics when we study the craft of writing because inconsistent pacing, like losing the rhythm in music, compromises the story. In critique groups we'll often point out places where the story slowed down.

Pace is a speed. There is more, however, to rhythm than maintaining a narrative velocity.

Like tension and release, a rhythm that mixes faster and slower is more interesting than only one or the other. Short sentences and clipped dialog read faster and imply action, whereas complex sentences in long paragraphs slow the reader down. Just as a story that's non-stop action wears you out, writing entirely in short or long sentences quickly grows tiresome.

There's the rhythm of the story and the rhythm of the storytelling. In well written stories, those two rhythms work together.

At an even higher level you have the structural rhythm of the novel. A book that switches from one view-point character to another with each chapter has a different feel than a book told from one view point for the first half and another view point for the second.

Timing is another dimension of rhythm that's even harder to characterize. As evidence, you likely know people who can't tell a joke to save their souls. One theory of comedy is that you build your audience up to expect that you'll turn right and then, at the last moment, you turn left. The key element in that theory is the "at the last moment" part. It's simply not funny if you turn too soon.

In terms of writing, I heard an author say she learned that the closer together the resolution of the story threads, the stronger and more satisfying the ending. She had a draft where the protagonists resolved their personal relationship in one chapter, they prepare to confront the antagonist in the next, and had the final confrontation in the third. Readers where indifferent. Then she reworked the three chapters so that none of the threads were resolved until the third and reported that most readers were moved to tears. The important point is that the story didn't change, only the timing.

Rhythm is one of the subtle but deep dimensions that distinguish great novels from the merely good. But like other aspects of the art of the long form, it rings hollow if you apply it too consciously. Instead, try to internalize long form rhythm by learning the rhythms that work in symphonies, films, and novels.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ideas: How to See Something Special

Technique Tuesday

I once heard a rabbi, speaking to a mixed audience, say, "You know the story of the Burning Bush and how Moses turned aside to see it. I like to believe that Moses wasn't the first to see the burning bush, but that he was the first to turn aside." (See Exodus 3)

While taking care not to conflate writers and prophets, one of the fundamental ways writers can get ideas is by being willing to turn aside and see something--even something incredibly ordinary--in a new light or with new eyes.

Something happens to us as we morph from children into adults: we move from a world of concrete and specific things into a world of abstractions and classes. The process is innocent enough. When a child points at the feathered creature hopping across the lawn and asks, "What is that?", they want to know about the specific one in front of them. But we answer, "Oh, that's a robin." In doing so we give the child a word for a class of birds, of which the specific one they see is only a representative. In time, we stop seeing that one one bird and instead see a robin.

What, then is the technique for seeing something special where others don't?

Like the child, ask, "What is that one? How did that one come to be here and now?"

Human language is powerful because of its abstractions, generalizations, and indirections. Most people use that power for their own purposes without realizing the degree to which they are, in turn, controlled or at least constrained by it. Writers, who regularly wrestle words to make meaning, are among the best equipped to get out from under the oppression of the abstractions and turn aside, like Moses, to "see this great sight."

I won't promise you a revelation, if you turn aside, but you're likely to see something special.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, March 14, 2011

Law 3: Truth is Not Wishful Thinking

Making Monday

During the day I make software and systems. One of the benefits of working in technology is that I spend proportionally more of my time with people who deal in truth.

Engineers quickly learn that if a device blows up on a test bench, no amount of wishful thinking will turn a smoking ruin into a functioning device.

I listened recently to a discussion on Science Talk, a weekly podcast from Scientific American, about how much of the population understands scientific thinking. The editors defined scientific thinking as willingness to understand the facts of the matter and draw conclusions based primarily on evidence and not emotion or ideology.

Making has much in common with scientific thinking. Makers are more interested in what a thing is than what it should be. Only when they understand the truth of a thing can they make it into something else. For example, a piece of wood can't become a beautiful carving if it has a hidden flaw.

Makers also understand that wishful thinking can't finish a thing half made. Redefining something unfinished as finished compromises the integrity of both the maker and the thing being made.

We fall prey to wishful thinking in writing, for example, when we bang out a draft and assume it's ready for agents, or when we dismiss criticism.

I've often heard the best writing characterized as the result, often painful, of digging deep to reveal the emotional core of the story. There are other truths, like flat dialog or a dull midsection, that writers as makers have the courage to find and face. The best writers are never content to take refuge in wishful thinking.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, March 11, 2011

How to Follow Trends

Free-form Friday

About a month ago, agent Mary Kole shared a note about trends on her KidLit blog.

She points out that you'll always be late to the table if you write to trends because it takes 2 years to go from manuscript to publication and what's hot now is practically guaranteed to be dull by then.

The best, and most consistent advice is to write a story you love instead of chasing the market because there will always be a market for a good story.

So as we write, driven only by the pure flame of inspiration, can we safely ignore trends?

For the most part.

I've talked before about meeting the market half-way. In order to meet the market, you must have some sense as to where the market is and where it seems to be going. For example, if you were an auto maker, would now, with the price of gas rising, growing concerns about our dependence on foreign oil, and a strong green movement, be a good time to introduce a monster truck whose fuel economy is measured in gallons per mile? By the same token, in a market glutted with vampire stories, should you really try to do one more? Or is there, perhaps some other under-appreciated paranormal type that sucks away your life (like lawyers) with which you could do something fresh?

In terms of market awareness, there's some value in being aware of trends. But there's a big difference between being aware and following.

So is there any time you should actually follow a trend?

Only when you're currently shopping a manuscript and can use the trend to help position your piece. If, say, you've written about sparkly, salmon merfolk and their eternal battle with the were-bears, and if you learn that an editor wants a paranormal fish story, you should waste no time crafting a query that says, "I've got just what you 're looking for!"

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, March 10, 2011

LTUE: What Makes a Strong Female Character

Reading thuRsday

One of the panels I attended at the recent Life, the Universe, and Everything conference addressed the question, "What makes a strong female character?"

Here's what the panelists had to say:

Bree Despain
"Someone who makes their own decisions."
Clint Johnson
"All great characters are problem solvers: they do things. Women tend to solve problems differently than men. Where men often try to attack the problem head-on, women build teams and solve the problem socially."
Jaleta Clegg
"A strong character must have courage."
Sheila Nelson
"There are more kinds of strength than the 'kick butt' kind. The women who had the greatest influence on me all had a quiet, daily kind of strength."
Jessica Day George
"Strength doesn't mean they're never vulnerable. Perfect characters are dull. Characters whose strengths and weaknesses play off each other are much more interesting."
Clint Johnson
"In the best stories, the strongest characters are those that act with the greatest strength in spite of their weaknesses."
Echoing Clint's comments, the fundamental answer is that the things that make a strong female character are the same things that make a strong  male character: someone interesting who does something, and whose actions give us insight into who they are.

The  panel touched on the fact that, for reasons ranging from biology to culture, the ways in which men and women can or are expected to show strength differ. If you're not careful--if you work from stereotypes--you're likely to make mistakes like writing "men with boobs" in the name of "strong female characters." Instead, the best strategy is to approach each character, regardless of gender, as an individual with their own collections of strengths and weaknesses.

Clint Johnson also said, "Strength in narrative has to be proven." Again, regardless of gender, the best way to show strength in narrative is to give the character two real choices and show that they are able to choose either way (I call this my Second Rule of Two). If a character has consistently chosen safety over conflict during the course of a story, and if at the end they are offered a safe and honorable way out, the fact that they stay and fight says a great deal more than if they are simply cornered and have no choice but to fight.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Long Form: Variation

Writing Wednesday

How many of you have been with a child who wanted to watch the same movie or sing the same song over and over? How many of you survived the encounter without needing medication or counseling?

Doing the same thing over and over quickly becomes tedious. This is why picture books are so hard to do well. Only the most masterful stand up well on their fiftieth reading.

But variation is more than simply changing things. Wikipedia says, "In music, variation is a formal technique where material is repeated in an altered form. The changes may involve harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm, timbre, orchestration or any combination of these." Musical variation only works if the listener can recognize both the theme and the ways in which it has changed.

At the fundamental architectural level, the three-act structure, with try-fail cycles embedded in each act, is simply three variations on the theme of solving the problem. Similarly, the arc of the relationship between two characters can be characterized as variations on the theme of the relationship. Or you could have two or more characters trying to achieve the same goal in different ways.

Some literary long-form writing uses self-conscious variations of a symbol or image. There are commercial writers, at the opposite end of the spectrum, who would swear on a stack of dime-store novels that they never allow nonsense like that to interfere with a good story. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, there's a natural way to use variation to enrich your long-form narrative: simply identify a basic element in your story and look for places where variations of that element might surface.

For example, if romantic love is an important part of your story, you could compare and contrast that kind of love with a main character's love for a sibling, or love of duty. Consider, for a moment, the nearly limitless variations on the theme of love.

Turning to the dark side, your story of revenge could include everything from lashing out in the heat of the moment to the Klingon-inpsired dish best served cold.

Abstractions work as well as emotions. Light can run from blinding to illuminating. Truth, from absolute to relative. I'm currently at work on a project that explores variations of certainty and uncertainty.

As a technique, variations only work when the reader can recognize the relationship between variations and thus appreciate the similarities and differences.

As a practical matter, don't get hung up on variations as an abstract exercise or as a way to show future English-lit students how clever you are. The point of the story is the story. Use variations to make the story richer and more compelling, but never as an end in and of themselves.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Finding Balance

Technique Tuesday

Sandra Tayler, speaking at the 2011 Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE) conference, addressed the perennial question of finding balance. She said you can balance your life by paying attention (as in at least 10 minutes a day) to the five things that are most important to you.

I've amplified Sandra's five things to illustrate the technique.

Source of Inspiration

The word inspire comes from Latin root that mean, "to breath into." Many creation stories have God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the Amorphous Essence of the Universe breathing life into creation.

What is it that breaths life into your writing, your work, and your very existence?

What fills you with joy in being?

Whatever it may be, take time each day to reconnect with your source of inspiration.

Important Relationships

For good or ill, humans are social animals. Much of our sense of who we are is a function of those with whom we are close. Put another way, much of what we do is motivated by the people with whom we have the most important relationships. Some have pursued their art at the expense of those relationships and wound up with no one to share it with when they won the prize.

Take time each day to acknowledge and nurture your important relationships. Not only will you have more support right now, you'll likely have someone to appreciate it when you succeed.

Health and Welfare

As Count Rugen, in the Princess Bride, says, "If you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything."

Take time to take care of yourself.


As I mentioned in the note about making time, if you are serious about writing it should have a high priority. While writing every day is an important habit, the point here is that you ought to do something related to writing each day to keep in touch with your passion.

"Something only I care about."

Sherry Wachter, writing on The Blood Red Pencil, talked about the importance of a room of one's own. That is, how having a project of your own makes it easier to compromise when you're working on someone else's project. Taking time each day to do something only you care about is essential if you don't want to lose track of yourself amid all the demands placed upon you.
Balance = The Things that Matter

You can think of this as the plate-spinner approach to personal balance. Like the performer who runs back and forth spinning up the plates that are slowing down, taking time each day to at least touch the five most important things in your life will go a long way to helping you find balance.

And don't think of it as balancing your life. The job of balancing an entire life is overwhelming. Sandra Tayler said, "Balance the day and the year will take care of itself."

Mary DeMuth, in a guest post on agent Rachelle Gardener's Rants and Ramblings blog, offers additional thoughts on finding balance with her three goals for writers.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, March 7, 2011

Law 3: Truth is True

Making Monday

One of the side-effects of the scientific revolution is that we've reduced true to one half of a binary proposition. When we hear, "true," we almost always understand it to mean, "not false," and, by implication, "correct."

We've rarely use the true that means fidelity, as in true love. Aside from that phrase, have you recently heard anyone talk about a true friend? (In this age of ten thousand friends on FaceBook, a true friend seems like an antiquated notion.)

We've lost touch with the true that means constant precision, as in a true course.

And so few of us work with wood that most people don't know that a true board is one that is straight.

The third Law of Making is, "Truth is the substance of true making."

While makers have no patience for falsehood, and enjoy being right as much as the next person, the truth they seek, the truth that is the substance of true making, is closer to fidelity, constancy, and straightness than correctness.

Makers are most concerned with fitness, or the degree to which the thing made fills the measure of its creation. A thing that appears to be one thing but is, in fact, another, is false. A thing, like a warped board, that is what it appears to be but doesn't serve the purpose for which it was created is false.

There are strong parallels in writing: when we ask whether a story is true, we want to know if it is based on independently verifiable facts. And yet we recognize, at some level, that fiction can be more true than fact: that a story can teach us truths in a way that is more real and more meaningful than statistics, experiments, and analysis.

This brings us to the same question: does the writing fit its purpose? In an important sense, the only significant difference between good stories and bad is that the former are true in the deep sense that they are faithful, constant, and fit for their purpose.

Think about it.

Do you write true stories?

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, March 4, 2011

How to Hear Success Stories

Free-form Friday

Aspiring writers are drawn to success stories, like moths to flames. And we're all guilty of a little twinge of jealousy that we aren't the subject of the story. But as inveterate optimists (what else can you call someone who devotes years to a single manuscript), we soak up the stories hoping that one day we will be the hero of a similar story.

So it's deeply ironic that we who are storytellers often fall prey to the tricks of our own trade when we hear these stories and afflict ourselves with unrealistic expectations. We hear, for example, of the writer who went from query to book deal in 37 days, note that our own queries have gone unanswered for more than 37 days, and conclude that we're not worthy.

Why do we do this? We forget that the foundation of the storyteller's art is to skip the boring bits. Advice about pacing, pithy dialog, and scenes ("in late, out early") all comes down to artfully avoiding the boring stretches that are an inevitable part of real life.

And how will you tell your success story? Fresh from the process of scrupulously scrubbing all the boring bits out of your manuscript will you say, "Then on the following Tuesday, I wrote 1673 words. But when I looked over the new material on Wednesday, I decided I needed to rework half of it so I didn't reach my new word count goal that day ..." No, you'll apply your craft and weave together a concise narrative of the highs and lows of the experience with a sprinkling of lessons learned. Above all, you will make it a story with protagonists, antagonists, try/fail cycles, a climax, and a denouement.


Because that's the essence of what you do as a storyteller.

The next time you hear a success story, remember that it is a story. Learn what you can from it, but don't compare it directly with your experience because you simply don't know all the boring bits that were skipped to make it a good story.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mind the Gap

Reading thuRsday

Confession: I've never been to London. But I understand that the Underground is filled with signs encouraging passengers to, "Mind the Gap."

It turns out that this subway signage is particularly good advice for writers.

By Arz at Wikimedia
Jeanette Ingold taught me about the narrative gap:
[From my notes]
  • Plot arises from the gap between expectations and results. The protagonist does something but the result is different from his expectations so he's forced to do something else (and so on up to the climax).
  • Keep surprising the character: What does the character want? What would he do to get it? Then show the gap that propels the character to the next scene.
  • You can bring characters on stage to pursue a short-term goal that is related to the long-term goal.
  • Story structure is about choices; choices lead to the next scene. Plot events force your protagonist to make decisions that he thinks will move him toward his goal but instead lead to more gaps until the final conflict.
You may have heard the gap called the character's driver or motivation. Those are fine terms, but the gap better-fits the structural terms in which I like to think.


Because story can arise from many different kinds of gaps. For example, I once heard Brandon Sanderson explain how setting can be another character (e.g., the landscape of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings). Brandon argued that the most interesting settings are those where different biomes, topographies, or cultures meet, creating gaps at the point of transition (think oasis and the different desert people who want or need to control the water).

Put another way, if everything is continuous and predictable, characters know what to do and so there's no story. It's only when there's a break in continuity and predictability, a cause with an unanticipated effect, that we have a story to tell.

So writers, mind the gap.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Long Form: Tension and Release

Writing Wednesday

I have an album of selections from a classical oratorio, each of which is reinterpreted by powerful contemporary singers and musicians. Individually,  the songs are amazing, but I can't listen to more than a few at a time: every performance is so energetic I'm worn out before I've finished the album.

Clint Johnson pointed out that, "People adapt to steady stimulus so if the conflict in your story stays at the same level your readers will think it's diminishing." A fundamental tenet of storytelling is that things must always get worse. This is what we mean by phrases like, "build toward the climax." How you do so is one of the fundamental arts of the long form.

DuPont Powder Wagon (Wikipedia)
The original DuPont powder mills were situated next to their power source along Brandywine Creek. Moving the heavy wagon loads of raw materials and milled black powder between the uplands and the river bed was a problem because no team could pull the load all the way up the slope.

They solved the problem by building a wagon road of small slopes broken up with level stretches, like a stairway. The horses were able to haul the loads up the succession of slopes if they could rest a bit on the level sections.

Many popular songs use a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. The choruses are usually more energetic than the verses, giving listeners an experience that alternates between lower and higher tension. Then the bridge comes, releasing the tension of the preceding chorus but building a new kind of tension--because it's different--before exploding into the climax of the final chorus.

I'll bet you haven't considered the similarities between music and wagon roads before. But that's okay because it's now time to add fish to the mix.

The techniques of tension and release in the long-form story are much like the patient fisherman playing out line and then reeling in his catch, each time bringing the fish a bit closer to the boat. Each relaxation cycle should release some but not all of the tension. Then the next tense episode takes readers to a new high. Together, they move the reader through the story, keeping their interest with variety and treading a skillful line between wearing them out with too much and boring them with too little tension.

This pattern of tension and release may sound as though it runs counter to our discussion of trajectory last week. But that's only because we've changed our metaphorical zoom level. A graph of average tension over story time should show steady growth to the climax and then the denouement brings the final release.

Skillfully done, the cycles of tension and release are the visceral foundation of the experience your readers want from long-form stories. They'll experience many things vicariously through your characters, but they'll experience the tension and release directly. 

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Finding Time/Making Time

Technique Tuesday

In a session on organizing the writing life during Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE) 2011, Julie Wright said, "Time is always made, never found."

So how do you find time to write?

At one level, it simply comes down to the question, "What are you willing to give up in order to write?"

Of course, saying it that way makes you sound less than committed if you're not a writing hermit.

So how can a person who has a life outside of writing make time?

Consider the following techniques (all of which were discussed in the LTUE session I mentioned above).

Ways to Make Time in General:


Many of us treat our writing as a hobby--not that we're lacking in commitment but rather that we approach it more like a leisure activity. Let me hasten to add that there's nothing wrong with writing as a hobby if you're satisfied with the time you are able to devote to it. If, however, you wish you had more time to write (a lament I've heard from nearly every writer I've met), raising the priority of your writing to the same level as, say, exercising, would mean that it's no longer optional.

Sandra Tayler said, "When I write first, the laundry gets easier."

Little Systems

Now that you've raised the priority of your writing, how can you make time by spending less of it on other things? There's an entire industry devoted to offering answers to that question. And every situation, of course, is different. That said, I've found the pattern of making little systems to be surprising powerful for something so simple.

I've discussed little systems elsewhere. In brief, a little system is anything that helps you streamline a recurring task. For example, I sort mail (the paper kind) over the trash can because most of it will end up there.

The most effective sort of streamlining is to remove decisions points. If you like to write in the morning, but find it hard because of the time it takes you  to get ready for the day, choosing your clothes the night before means one less decision to make in the morning.

Ways to Make Time to Work on Long-form Fiction

Clear Space, Both Physical and Temporal

Creativity is a safe, adult-appropriate word for play. In order to sustain the focus we need to create long-form works, we need a place in time and space to play. We need a place where we can leave our half-built castles in the air while we attend to other things secure in the knowledge that they'll be there, undisturbed and ready for us, when we return.

In this age of convenient mobile computing systems, setting up your writing environment may be no more complicated than opening a laptop and firing up a word processor. Clearing your schedule and your internal worry processor are more difficult. This is why many writers will go to a library or a cafe. Whatever you do, the key is to find a time and space where you can focus on your project.

Create Stability

Emergencies will derail your writing. You can't prevent all emergencies, but you can take care of things under your control so that you're not creating problems for yourself.

If, for example,you paid your bills when you receive your statement, you'd never run the risk of leaving it all to the last moment and then having a fire drill to get everything paid. I know people who, as a matter of principle, pay their bills at the last possible moment in order to deny the entity whatever interest it might have earned having the money a few days earlier. I prefer to discharge my obligations as soon as they come due so that I can devote the time I would have spent keeping track of my unpaid bills to my writing, secure in the knowledge that it's safe to play.

Image: luigi diamanti /