Friday, April 29, 2011

Writing Journeys and Destinations

Free-form Friday

I often hear people talk about the writer's journey or their own writing journey.

At first I thought it was a nice metaphor implying the zen of traveling well; the value of stopping to smell the proverbial roses; the importance of enjoying the process over the product. It's also a concise (and gentle way) to help aspiring writers understand that the endeavor upon which they've embarked is likely to take a long time.

But metaphors are at least a two (and sometimes three) edged sword. I think one of the nastiest edges is the fact that a journey implies a destination.

The problem with publishing is that there's no destination. There are certainly milestones, but in this industry there's no place to reach that signals the end of the journey. Remember, breaking in only means that you're a player.

A cynical wit might suggest one's coffin represents the certain end of one's writing journey. While often true, there are some writers who are much bigger dead than they ever were alive.

Part of the problem is simply structural: remember, novel means new. In the market that is commercial publishing, like Hollywood, it doesn't matter what you did yesterday. The only question people care about is, what have you done for me today?

"Wait," you may protest, "when people talk about their writing journey, they mean their personal development as a writer."

Fine. But can one ever reach a point where they have completed their personal development as a writer? Are there authors who have mastered their craft and truly have nothing left to learn?

I thought not.

Now I'm not arguing that you don't measure up as a writer if you're not constantly producing new material. Quite the opposite: you should write because you want to write, not because you've got to undertake a journey.

My critique, however is more fundamental. I touched on some related issues in a post last year titled, On the Ultimate Goal of Publication. Since then I'm increasingly of the opinion that the very notion of a writing journey does more harm than good because it encourages aspiring writers to look forward to the day when they reach their destination. In other words, it's the writer's equivalent of saying, "I'll be happy when I [win the lottery; get a better job; lose some weight; etc.]

It's much better to live, and learn, and love in the present. Write your current project so that if you write nothing else you can still proudly say, at the final accounting, "I am a writer."

And if you must have a travel-related metaphor, writing is like being a nomad in the desert: it's not about getting to any place in particular, it's about living well each day.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Getting Dystopian Societies Right

Reading thuRsday

In the bumper crop of current YA dystopian offerings, the societies in which the stories take place tend to cluster around the ends of the spectrum between order and chaos.

At one level, this clustering is simply classic extrapolation: taking an aspect of current society, amplifying it, and working out its ramifications.

But at another level, we're in the midst of creating dystopian tropes and, soon, clichés, because some authors commit a sin with their society that they would never commit with their antagonists.

There's no room in modern literature for characters who are purely good or evil. Characters, at least the ones who ring true, are more complex. Indeed, the best villains sincerely believe they are the heroes of their own story and the fruit of their labors will be a better world.

So how do you avoid stereotypes, like a definitionally oppressive government, when developing your dystopian society?

Socrates set the precedent way back when, in The Republic, he suggested the way to understand personal virtue was to examine virtue on the scale of a state. In other words, approach your dystopian society just as you would an antagonist.

Just like good characters, societies need back stories that outline a plausible path to the present. People generally don't wake up one day and decide to be evil. Similarly, whole societies don't turn to oppression overnight. The good news is that a society showing the lengths to which reasonable people can go is far more frightening than one that's just bad because it's bad.

The proper study of how societies change over time keeps an army of sociologists, anthropologist, and historians busy. A short note like this doesn't begin to do justice to such a rich field of study. But one key to creating believable dystopian societies it to remember that there are always winners and losers: one person's dystopia is another's utopia. And the real engine of any society is the much larger group in the middle: people who are neither winners nor losers, but believe they can be on the winning side.

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Long Form: Persistence of Vision

Writing Wednesday

Toni McGee Causey has a post titled, "The Art and Soul of POV," that's well worth your time. In it she points out that in addition to, "point of view," POV stands for, "persistence of vision."

We often invoke persistence of vision to explain the fact that we see smooth motion when a projector shows a sequence of still images at a rate of more than 16 frames a second. Psychologists and physiologists don't have much use for the theory, but there's artistic truth in the concept that's particularly relevant to the art of the long form.

Each time a story element appears in the narrative we get a mental image of that element. Those images persist, at least on a conceptual level, and blend together to give us give us a synthetic view of the element. The remarkable thing, thanks to our ability to find patterns, is that our vision always includes more than we've been shown. Once we've seen enough of a character, we believe we know them because we can predict what they will do and how they will react.

In these terms, a key difference between long and short narrative forms is in the number of elements for which we can form persisting visions. The short form is like an evening out. The long form is a journey.

The artistic effect of persistence of vision gives us two keys for success in the long form:
  1. The images must all contribute to a consistent picture. 
  2. The implications in the collage of images must be congruent with the story.
Consistent Picture

In cinematography, an abrupt change in images is a jump cut, which we interpret as a change in context. In narrative, an abrupt change in character sticks out as an error of cheap trick. For example, readers won't accept a character that's been consistently kind to animals suddenly deciding to kick a cat. If kicking the cat is an important story point, then we need to see indications that the character might do such a thing before they actually do it.

Maintaining the consistency of the story elements is one of the challenges of the long form. On the flip side, the long form affords many more opportunities to show different dimensions of the element, weaving them together for the reader in a way that surprises and delights.

Congruent Story

Congruency is more subtle because it operates on the level of the readers expectations that go beyond the specific images you've shown in the narrative. My wife almost threw a book across the room recently when hours after the character finds true happiness (and scant pages from the end) they get run over and die. The twist was incongruent with her expectations, and she felt the author took the easy way out.

This is not to say that the story has to be obvious. Quite the opposite: done right, each twist and turn, whether character or plot, gives the reader a richer picture by showing all the images up to that point in a new light. The most artful narratives bring the reader to a conclusion that is surprising and yet inevitable.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Story Maps

Technique Tuesday

Fear about freedom is the point of contention between writers who are plotters (architects) and pantsers (gardeners). Architects take comfort in their outlines because they're afraid of dead ends. Gardeners take comfort in chaotic creativity because they're afraid of constraints. But in reacting to their fears, both camps are liable to overlook a fundamental story requirement and get themselves into trouble.

Brunonia Barry, in a post about, "The Mess in the Middle," on Writer Unboxed, talked about story maps, her solution for avoiding the narrative dead ends that usually crop up in the middle of a manuscript.

Story Maps are not about what happens, but why. For those of you gardeners whose hackles rise when you hear anything that sounds like a preplanned constraint, story maps are not plot outlines. They're maps of the motivational course of your characters through emotional time and space.

An intricately plotted story degenerates into a roller coaster ride without the trajectory of motivations that bring characters into conflict at certain times and places. A character driven story can easily veer off in to the weeds if the characters aren't constrained by their motivational trajectory and can do what ever they want. (Harry Potter, for example, wouldn't be Harry Potter if at some point he'd gotten fed up with the whole Voldemort business and settled in for some quality video game time with Dudley)

J. Michael Straczynski makes the case, in Bablyon 5, that the two fundamental character questions are, "Who are you?" and, "What do you want?" A story map simply tracks how a character's answers to those questions change over time.

The form of a story map is far less important than its function. You can use the dreaded outline, draw it as a graph, write it out as part of your bible, or etch it on the moon with a giant laser (well, maybe not that last one).

To put it another way, story maps are about what matters to the people in the story. They're one key way to approach the ideal of the Grand Unified Theory of Character and Plot.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hope is Both Specific and Ineffable

Making Monday

As an exercise, take a moment and try to define the taste of salt.

Wits in the audience might say, "Oh, that's easy: salt is salty." That answer, of course, simply begs the question. Besides, it's not a sporting answer because a definition describes something in terms of something else.

The more lyrical among you might say that by itself, the taste is sharp and a touch metalic (perhaps from the chlorine and sodium respectively). Where with food, it brings other flavors into focus and gives them a crisp edge.

Unfortunately, neither response would help someone who has never tasted salt understand a concept like salty. Part of the reason is that physiologists tell us salt is one of five basic tastes (the others are bitter, sour, sweet, and savory [umami]).

Salt is both specific and ineffable: we know when it's there (or not) and yet it defies expression or description.

The hope of the makers is like salt.

Makers express hope in the process of making and embody it in the thing made, but neither the process nor the product define that hope. Destroying the product doesn't destroy the hope (though it may frustrate the maker).

A novel can only come into being through consistent effort and clearly embodies a great many hopes. While rejection is painful, the fact that you've written one novel proves you can write another.

The hope of the makers transcends any single project because it is neither simplistic nor dismissive. Their hope is too expansive to be embodied by any one thing because there's always something else to make.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, April 22, 2011

Gatekeepers and Advocates

Free-form Friday

An established author made news recently by walking away from a $500,000 deal with a major publisher in order to become his own publisher in the new disintermediated world of electronic publishing.

In the past, there was a clear line between traditional and vanity publishing because it was difficult and expensive to set oneself up as a publisher. Now that anyone can be a publisher, the electronic pioneers wonder if traditional publishers bring any value to the table.

It's a good question--and I don't have any answers. But I want to point out a structural truth that's getting muddled in the agony and ecstasy of the invasion of the e-readers.

We often talk of all the gatekeepers we have to get past in order to get published. I've even heard the phrase,"vetted by publishers"--as if publishers where somehow the guardians of all that is good and true. But our sloppy language contributes to our confusion about the role of publishers.The problem is that we've confused gatekeeping with advocacy.

Advocacy is an important element in maintaining the social fabric. A too-evident self-interest triggers alarm signals in the fairness centers of our monkey brains and we become deeply suspicious of the proposition. On the other hand, if a nominally disinterested party champions someone's cause we take that as an indication that the case has merit. That's why we need lawyers and agents.

The role of publishers, in the market that is publishing, is advocacy through investment. Talk is cheap. Putting your money where your mouth is by investing a substantial sum in a book says something. Of course there's no direct correlation between the amount invested and the quality of the book. But if publishers are rational economic actors, a non-trivial investment implies an endorsement: if the publisher was willing to contribute so much to a project, perhaps it's worth our attention.

The new world of frictionless, costless e-publishing changes the nature of advocacy. Some people have done well as self-publishers because they've cultivated a legion of on-line advocates. But that same lack of friction has attracted mindless hordes of content-farmers, with automated systems that spider the web for articles and spew random compilations as e-books, who can make a fortune even if people buy only a few copies of each book.

My point is that regardless of the form, whether traditional publishers or social media reputation networks, our structural need for advocates doesn't go away in the digital world.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Plot and Character: Grand Unification Theory

Reading thuRsday

Carrie Vaugh, sharing a, "7 Things I've Learned So Far," post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog, wrote:
6. Plot and character are the same thing. A story's actions should arise out of the decisions and reactions those particular characters make. Different characters would drive the story in a different direction. Why are these things happening to these particular people and not someone else?  Changing the characters, the kinds of people they are, would change the story. If the events of a story would happen no matter who the characters are, then the characters have no impact on what happens, and why should I want to read about them?
I wanted to expand on this idea.

We're often told to raise the stakes in our stories: why have the bad guy threaten to blow up a city block when he could blow up the entire city! But there are diminishing returns as you continue to raise the stakes. The terrorists are about to detonate a home-made nuclear device that will kill a million people. That's frightening. Now we raise the stakes by adding a nuclear scientist to the terrorist line up who knows how to make a better bomb, one that can kill ten million people. Is that ten times as frightening?

The scope of what's at stake is at best secondary to the significance of what's at stake. That's why a quiet book about someone's heart being broken by an untimely death will elicit more tears than a shoot-em-up where bodies fall faster than autumn leaves.

I'm sure you've heard literary fiction characterized as character-drive in contrast to plot-driven commercial fiction. But the deeper truth is that good stories, regardless of the genre, are about things that matter.

And how do we know what matters?

Because someone cares about it.

Significance is a fascinating attribute because it is not an objective property. Significance only exists because we attribute it. Washington, D.C., sits on a patch of ground that was utterly insignificant until George Washington argued it should be the capital. Once a few people cared about it, a great many others came to care about it too.

Carrie Vaugh's suggestion that plot and character are the same thing leads us to a grand unification theory: character and plot are internal and external aspects of the deeper, underlying unity that meaningful stories about the people and things that matter to the people in the stories that matter to us.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Long Form: Fractals

Writing Wednesday

Perfect order is completely regular and predictable. A screen showing a single color is perfectly orderly.

Complete chaos is perfectly random and utterly unpredictable. A screen showing noise is completely chaotic.

But perfect order and perfect chaos are both perfectly boring. Where as things that are a complex mix of order and chaos are infinitely intriguing (at least in the case of the Mandelbrot set).

A representative fractal from Wikipedia.
Put another way, have you ever wondered how computers can draw impossibly complex things like clouds, landscapes, and trees?

The answer comes from the mathematics of fractals and iterative systems.

Fractals have a number of fascinating properties, but for our purposes we'll focus on self similarity. In simple terms, self-similarity means that the parts look kind of like the whole. A branch, for example, looks like a tree, and a twig looks like a branch. Of course, they're not exactly alike (giving us an element of randomness), but they are similar (giving us an element of order).

Good long-form narratives have a fractal character. One example, is when there are parallels between the outer and inner conflicts.

In the most general sense, this is because the parts all fit together and contribute to the greater whole. But it's more than simply satisfying the functional requirements. Consider buildings: while all of them must have a foundation, walls, and a roof, some transcend their merely thrown-together peers and achieve such integrity that you suspect they arose naturally instead of begin a contrivance.

There's more to it than the dichotomy between natural and artificial. A novel is arguably a purely artificial product. So are fractal algorithms. But the images they produce are remarkably lifelike.

I suspect that the reason long-form works are as long as they are is because that's how much time and space you need to explore the fractal character of the work in that medium.

What do I mean?

In a short story, you only have time for one beginning, one middle, and one end. Compare that to the levels of self-similarity in a novel:
  • Novels have a beginning, a middle, and an end, usually made up of acts.
  • Acts have a beginning, a middle, and an end, usually made up of chapter groups.
  • Chapter groups have a beginning, a middle, and an end, usually made of up chapters.
  • Chapters have a beginning, a middle, and an end, usually made up of scenes.
  • Scenes have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  • (and we could keep going with paragraphs and sentences)
That's about five levels of nested beginnings, middles, and ends.* You can get the narrative complexity that makes a long-form story rich and qualitatively different naturally if you see the particular beginning, middle, and end on which you're working as a part of the beginning, middle, or end of something larger.

Of course, no one is going to complain about lack of fractal character when they critique your manuscript. And consciously trying to make your story fractal will probably feel terribly artificial. As with other aspects of the art of the long form, it's something to internalize. That said, the best way to make your work more fractal is to look for patterns and parallels that can create similarity at different scales (i.e., act or chapter or scene).

* This, by the way is why people agonize over chapter one, scene one: it's the beginning (scene) of the beginning (chapter) of the beginning (chapter group) of the beginning (act) of the beginning (novel). That scene must start the story at a number of fractal levels--so, no pressure, right?

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Revisions on a Kindle

Technique Tuesday

I've run across the suggestion, in several different places, that when revising it can help to print your draft in a different font or on colored paper. Changing the look and feel of your manuscript helps you approach it with fresh eyes.

Some of my recent posts about the dawning digital millennium, particularly ones on Friday, may have sounded a bit curmudgeonly. So in the name of restoring balance, because I haven't heard it elsewhere, and because it's green, here's how you can do revisions on a Kindle. (I used a Kindle 3, your mileage may vary with earlier models.)

You may not have thought of an e-reader as a revision platform because it's best for going through a text sequentially. They're still not very useful if you're in the middle of early revisions and need to rearrange large chunks of text. But they shine for later revisions where you're reading for tone, consistency, and polish.

Of course, the first step is to get your manuscript on to the e-reader. With Kindle, you can email your manuscript (if it's in a supported format) to {your address} to have it automatically converted and downloaded, or use a conversion program like Mobipocket eBook Creator.

As you're reading, if you want to make a change,
  1. Using the Kindle d-pad, move the cursor to the beginning of the word or phrase
  2. Begin keying-in the note. A note panel pops up. When you finish with the note, be sure to use the d-pad to select "save note."
  3. When you reach the end of a chapter, press the MENU button and select, "View Notes & Marks"
  4. The note display will show you your note and its context.
  5. Go to your word processor and disposition each change
  6. Finally, delete the note on your Kindle.
The key is to process your changes periodically while you're reading so that you don't wind up getting lost paging through notes on the Kindle's small screen.

Of course, the key board on the Kindle isn't suitable for recomposing large blocks of text. You'll be further ahead to simply make a note, like "fix this paragraph." So, again, this is better suited for a final pass when you need to re-read the entire manuscript one more time.

That said, I was surprised at how fresh my manuscript felt as I revised with my Kindle. And it was fun to imagine the auto-flowed text was, in fact, the published version.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, April 18, 2011

Law 4: Hope is Constant

Making Monday

Cameras and close-ups have undermined the ancient thespian art of playing it big: gestures and the emotions they implied had to be big enough that the people at the top of the amphitheater could follow the story. In its place we get dramatization. The camera shows us how the stakes are bigger, the despair deeper, the hope more soaring, and the resolution sweeter.

The hope that is the expression of true making can't get the time of day in Hollywood because it's constant. Steady is the antithesis of drama.

This is not to say that makers plod through life, unperturbed by anything. No, quite the contrary, someone who cares enough to make is going to be perturbed far more often than someone who doesn't care enough to do anything more than go with the flow.

Rather, the hope that arises from the conviction that it's worth it burns steadily, neither flickering into despair nor flaring into irrationality.

You can see it in the steady work of the novelist who, day after day, scene after scene, patiently assembles a book. The work takes long enough that you've got to have something to sustain you when the fires of passion burn out mid-way through the manuscript. This is where techniques like small steps and milestones can protect you from the despair of a half-finished manuscript. Instead of worrying about all the chapters yet to be written, work steadily, a scene at a time.

Like still waters that run deep, hope--the constant hope of the makers--is something that is remarkably powerful over time.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, April 15, 2011

Libraries: How the Ancient Tree-Killers did Free

Free-form Friday

The prophets of the digital millennium, a utopia of always-on, uber-connected, instant gratification, cry from their virtual street corners that free is the way to attract eyeballs.

The thing is, we stodgy old authors have been there and done that.

With all the talk of boldly going into an infinitive-splitting future, I haven't seen anyone point out that there are hoary institutions, built on the carcasses of dead, ink-smeared trees, that have been providing free content for a long, long time (nearly 10,000 years ago in Internet time): they're called libraries.

I will grant that going to a library isn't as convenient as clicking a link in your browser, but if you were willing to expend a little effort it has been possible for readers to sample an author with no direct cost for almost a century.

The true disciples will doubtless point out that you had to 1) get a book published, and 2) get it in the library, so you weren't free to make your work freely available even if the library was free.

Clearly it is easier now to put your work out where people can get it if they want. We have gone through an inflection point where the content problem has shifted from scarcity to abundance.

None of that changes the lesson of the libraries: free doesn't guarantee an audience. Yes, you might decide you like an author well enough to go buy their books. But you might also decided you're never going to buy an author's books

So what is the answer for those who produce long-form fiction in the new eWorld?

I don't know. But as we try all the things there are to try in the new content world, fraught as it is with possibilities and pitfalls, can we please move on from simplistic answers like make it free?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fuel for the "But They Broke the Rules" Fire

Reading thuRsday

Annette Lyons discussed, "The 2 Sides of a Good Writer" in a recent post at the Writing on the Wall blog, and identified the writing versions of the Hatfields and McCoys: the storytellers and the word smiths.

If we peel away the petty jealousy for those who collect royalties when we collect rejections, the complaint that someone broke the "rules" and still succeeded often comes down to storytellers and wordsmiths complaining about each other.

How often have you heard writers complain that a best-selling author tells a good story but is a terrible writer? How about critiques that someone writes beautiful prose but the story doesn't go anywhere?

You might say that storytelling vs.word smithing simply echos the distinction between commercial and literary fiction, where the former is all about the story and the latter is about how the story is told. But that observation only speaks to the stereotypes.

The deeper point is that storytelling and word smithing represent two fundamental approaches to the way we share narrative information. Storytelling is about selecting and presenting the best bits. Word smithing is about telling a bit well enough that it's interesting in its own right.

So, does this mean we have to choose sides?

Those of you who have been following for a while know that I don't like dichotomies unless they lead to a synthesis. The real answer is to make peace between the Hatfields and McCoys and strive for a good story, well told.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Long Form: Series

Writing Wednesday

No discussion of the long-form would be complete without looking at series.

There are two kinds of series: the open-ended series, in which known characters have continuing adventures (e.g., Nancy Drew), and the finite series that tells a story larger than a single book (e.g., Harry Potter). Open-ended series are like episodic television and could, in principle, go on forever (which is why most open-ended series are owned by the publisher who brings in work-for-hire authors to produce new volumes). Finite series are extra-long-form narratives, generally the work of a single, acknowledged author, that build to a final culmination. (We'll focus, for the rest of the discussion, on finite series.)

Done right, a series can be a rewarding experience. If each book contributes a new, enriching view of the story, we begin to feel at home in that universe. Done poorly, we feel like we're stuck on a roller coaster covering the same increasingly tedious ground.

Undertaking a series is challenging--and risky if you're unpublished (which is why the common advice is to sell the first book before you write the others).

If you think you'd like to write a series, ask yourself some questions:
  • Do you have enough story for multiple books? Or do you simply want to keep playing in the same playground?
  • How will you give readers more of what the want and make it fresh instead of basically rehashing the first book?
  • Are you holding back your best ideas for the end of the series? What's going to keep the middle of the series from feeling like filler?
  • Will your characters continue to develop?

I've tried to make the case that the art of the long form is qualitatively different from the art of the short form. The same is true for the art of the series compared to the art of the novel, though the differences are more subtle.

I can't do justice to all the differences between a novel and series of novels, but consider the problem of the promise made to the reader at the very beginning: not only must you sustainably deliver new and interesting material across multiple books, you've also got to satisfy reader's expectations across the entire span. Time and again, a series was ruined for me when the author, perhaps because they'd grown bored or jaded, took an unexpected turn at the end.

A novel is a tremendous undertaking. A series of novels kicks the undertaking up by an order of magnitude. Beyond art, it takes a tremendous amount of dedication to do a series well.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Corpus of Historical American English

Technique Tuesday

Using language well is one of the hallmarks of a writer. (After all, if no one ever learn'dja ta-talk good, why'dja think you-kin tell stories?)

One of the reasons it's critical for writers to read widely is because they must develop a sense of the differences--sometimes subtle--in how people have used our language in different times and places. It can make the difference between sounding false and achieving verisimilitude (or, for those of you more comfortable with the colloquial, "the difference between screwing it up and getting it right").

That's why you must run, not walk, and add to your bookmarks. The link will take you to the Corpus of Historical American English (CHAE). The site shows you how frequently a given word appeared in published works each decade for the last two hundred years.

For example, the word, 'airship,' comes out of nowhere with 30 instances in the 1860's, nothing in the 1870s, ramping to a huge spike (195) in the 1910s, falling down to only 4 instances in the 1950s, and then climbing back to a respectable 38 in the 1980s. Notice the linguistic shadow of the rise and fall of the technology?

Nothing can replace being well read, but the CHAE is a great way to spot-check potentially anachronistic word and phrases.

Addendum: A reader kindly pointed out that the 30 airship references in the 1860's all come from references to Tom Swift and his Airship, which somehow got mixed with period-appropriate text. So the resource isn't perfect, and as with everything else on the Internet, one should always check the sources.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, April 11, 2011

Law 4: Hope is not Dismissive

Making Monday

One of the consequences of the casual way most of us use the word, "hope," is that we generally conflate it with optimism. What's insidious about the simplistic, cheerful, power-of-positive-thinking approach is that it categorically dismisses the friction, challenges, and frustrations that are part and parcel of any non-trivial undertaking.

The hope that is expressed by makers has little to do with positive attitude. Makers, more-so than others, understand that anguish and joy are inseparable parts of any creative effort. They know that in every project there will come a time when it feels as though Heaven and Hell have combined against you--as if the universe has come to test your resolve by asking, "How badly do you want this?"

Makers understand the dark night of the soul.

The hope of the makers is not of the grin-and-bear-it sort. The hope of the makers rests on the conviction that, "it's worth it."

Makers don't laugh at the darkness. Nor do they hide until it goes away.

Makers have the courage to face the darkness and embrace it as part of the process, because the process is as worth it as the product.

This is why makers see the project through when users run away. If you give up then your fears that the project is crap come true. If you finish, you might discover you were mistaken. And even if the thing made is deeply flawed, you've made yourself better because you now understand those flaws.

That's why makers keep going: they know, deep down, that it's worth it.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, April 8, 2011

What Does it Mean to "Break In?"

Free-form Friday

When authors tell the story of how they came to have books on the shelves in the bookstores, they often talk about how they "broke into" publishing. Perhaps that's why we don't laugh when people say that publishing is like a high-security facility.

And because of the way we tell stories (i.e., we skip the boring bits), it's easy to hear "breaking in" as synonymous with having "arrived."

What does it really mean to break in?

It might mean many things. The one thing it doesn't mean is that you've made it.

In terms of the market that we call publishing, it means that you're now a player.

At the most fundamental level, it simply means that someone is willing to make a non-trivial investment in your work.
  • Getting an agent, for example, means that he or she is investing their time and energy because they believe they can land a contract for your book and get paid. 
  • Getting a contract means that the publisher is investing real money, both by financing your advance and through the cost they will bear, in your book.
  • Getting readers who will buy your book means they are investing some money and, more importantly, time in your story.
Breaking in only means that you're invest-able. There are no guarantees, for any of the parties involved, that the investment will pay off.

As with many things in this delightfully perplexing industry, "making it" is really a euphemism for "starting a whole new game."

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, April 7, 2011

On the Advice to, "Kill Your Darlings"

Reading thuRsday
There's a set of actors, usually comedians, who can do remarkable work if kept tightly under control but quickly become tedious if left to their own devices. Robin Williams and Jim Carey are two example that come immediately to mind. I'm sure you can think of others.

I think of such talents when I hear the oft repeated writing advice that we must, "kill our darlings."

Where did that quasi-homicidal advice come from? According to Kill Your Darlings ATL (a community for writers):
William Faulkner is rumored to have coined the literary expression “kill your darlings,” but the expression actually comes from British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. ...

When describing “style” in his 1916 publication “On the Art of Writing,” Couch argues that “style” is something which “is not—can never be—extraneous ornament.” In an effort to stay on course, he created a practical rule to follow:
‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
“Murder your darlings” has since become “kill your darlings” as attributed to William Faulkner whose famously quoted to have said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” [See "The Meaning of the Literary Expression 'Kill Your Darlings'"]
While I understood and agreed with the sense of the advice, I couldn't help hearing its pithy formulation as, "you should delete the parts you like best." That implies you can only write things you don't like, which clearly goes too far.

A better way to say it would be, "if it's too precious to go, it probably should go."

But the best way to say it is that nothing in the story is nonnegotiable. Everything is open to scrutiny. If a word, phrase, passage, scene, or character doesn't contribute to the story, it should go. The overall balance of the story is more important than any individual element.

Which brings us back to the comedians. I realized that I find them tedious when they eclipse the story and reduce it to an excuse for a performance. But when a good director keeps them under control and allows them free reign only when it serves the story, the result can be delightful. Similarly, you don't have to kill your darlings when they're serving the story. If they call attention to themselves, "git the rope!"

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Long Form: Theme

Writing Wednesday

"Wait," you say. "Theme? What gives? We've talked about motif, emphasis, rhythm, variation, tension and release, and trajectory. Isn't it all basically the same thing?"

Perhaps--if you step back far enough and squint.

Part of the power of the long form is that with it you can examine subtle differences whose real significance only becomes apparent over time.

But at a deeper level, the topical similarity of the posts to date in this series on the long form illustrates today's topic: theme. That is, all of these posts explore the theme of the long form.

Some writers stumble when asked the theme of their novel. They say it's simply a story--nothing hidden below the surface. Others take the question of theme as open season, with no boredom restrictions. The truth, as always, lies between these extremes.

Every piece has a theme because story is a model and the author has chosen what to include. But no piece's theme is the definitive statement on the topic because story is a model and the author has chosen what to exclude.

Theme is simply an idea you examine from various angles in the course of your piece.

The various angles are the key difference between theme and other dimensions, like emphasis. If, for example, you have a character who loves his wife, his dog, his work, and orange soda, you have four angles from which to explore the theme of love (particularly if some of those angles are in conflict). On the other hand, a book about why-my-political-philosophy-is-right-and-yours-is-wrong may have a theme in the abstract sense of repetition with variation, but fails the various angles test.

Another way to think of it is that theme is the heart of the meta-conversation you want to have with your readers: the ground that you'd like to explore together.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Making Time Revisited: Writing is a Habit

Technique Tuesday

In a recent feedback episode (188) of the I Should Be Writing podcast, where the topic was health, producer Patrick Hester said:

Eating one piece of cake doesn't make you fat.
Not eating one piece of cake doesn't make you thin.
This is true of many things, but I wanted to point out the writing corollary:
Writing one day doesn't make you a writer.
Not writing one day doesn't make you not a writer.
Habits form over time.

Writing, in case you haven't noticed is habit forming. As with other habits, there are good ones and bad ones. Bad writing habits are the ones that may give you a rush for a while, but overall tend to leave you feeling guilty and depressed. Good writing habits may have less of a rush but produce a general feeling of satisfaction.

Does this sound uncomfortably like food habits?

It's no accident because the psychology is similar.

A recent piece in Scientific American explained that we systematically choose short term benefits over long term resolutions because we believe we can always do better tomorrow.

Patrick Hester said that for him, the light bulb went on when he realized that he couldn't change all the habits accumulated over a lifetime overnight, but he could change one thing today.

For those who aspire to write but can't seem to make the time, you're not going to change all the habits that make it hard to make time overnight. What you can do, however, is to choose to write instead of doing something else when you have a few minutes.

Think of it as the writing equivalent of not having a second piece of cake. In time, you may no longer need the first piece of cake (i.e, you may find it easier to make a bit more time to write). If you can stop dreaming about your bestseller (and getting down because your draft isn't even close), and think instead in terms of small steps and milestones, you'll be amazed at the effect even a small change can have over time.

After all, writing is a habit.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, April 4, 2011

Law 4: Hope is not Simplistic

Making Monday

The fourth Law of Making, the first of the second trinity that are collectively called the Laws of Living, is, "True making is an expression of hope."

Hope is a funny word because most of use it so casually: I hope it doesn't rain; I hope this ends soon; I hope I win the lottery.

Our causal use of hope extends to the grammatically dubious, "hopefully," Most people take the sentence, "Hopefully he'll come," as a synonym for, "I hope he comes."* This is a problem (admittedly only for people who pay attention to grammar) because hopefully is perfectly good adverb that means in a hopeful manner. But very few of us care, or need to specify, that he will come in a hopeful manner.

I mention this casual usage because it is entirely unrelated to the hope of the makers.

The cliché question about whether the glass is half-full or half-empty sums up, in a trivial way, a basic existential question: is the universe fundamentally driven by hope or despair?

By virtue of their making, Makers come down on the side of hope. Taking the time and energy to create a new thing expresses a belief, or at least an assumption, that the investment will return dividends in the future.

Think of the effort required to produce a novel. Why invest thousands of hours in the words if you have no hope that your world, somehow, will be better for it? Put another way, if you truly believe everything is meaningless and will come to naught, you're better off investing your time in some quality TV-watching: it, at least, is guaranteed to leave you comfortably numb.

Some people say they write because they must.

And what, at the deepest level, drives them to write?


The hope of the makers is not simplistic. It is not the casual, wouldn't-it-be-nice-if, hope we toss off without a second thought. Rather, makers resonate with a deep and abiding hope that the striving, the effort, the frustration, and the doubt are, in fact, worth it.

* Those who argue that hopefully should be allowed as a sentence adverb, by analogy with mercifully, would say that it is a general predictive and could be rendered, "It is to be hoped." Be that as it may, I've often heard people in casual conversation use hopefully in place of the personal declarative, "I hope ..."

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, April 1, 2011

Demystifying Genre

Free-form Friday

In a recent episode of The Appendix, a writing podcast, Robison Wells, Sarah Eden, and Marion Jensen discussed choosing a genre.

Marion Jensen said, "When you pick a genre, you've got to pick something  that you like. It's kind of like picking a career."

That's right, writers. No pressure. Just like the end of high school when well-meaning people like guidance counselors and parents say, "Now that you've spent your life listening to us tell you what to do, it's time for you to make a decision, oh and by the way, this decision will have life-long consequences."

Choosing the genre in which you'll write is a critical decision only if you succeed.


Because with each book you publish you create precedents and build expectations among your growing circle of readers. It's not that you can never try anything different, but imagine the hue and cry if J. K. Rowling decided she wanted to write gritty detective stories full of graphic sex and violence.

The advice about picking a genre is better understood in terms of setting up shop someplace where you're comfortable because you could be spending a lot of time there.

One of the reasons this seems like a big deal is because genre is to kind as veal is to beef. This is another in a long series of cases where we have two words in English with the same meaning, but the Latinate, or more specifically French, version sounds more sophisticated.

Repeat after me, "Genre means kind." It's nothing more or less complicated than deciding what kind of books your book ought to be shelved or grouped with.

And why does that matter?

Because you're hoping to take advantage of recommendation engines, whether human or automatic, that will suggest someone might like your book if they liked something similar.

Put another way, in terms of publishing being a market, genre is shorthand for your audience.

That's why you must decide on your genre: you must know your audience and their expectations.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /