Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Country's Genre Map

Technique Tuesday

I recently suggested that Genre is no more or less complicated than identifying your audience. Put another way, genre is a crude, pre-Internet way of approximating, "customers who liked this also liked these others."

The problem of categorization doesn't go away in the coming e-book utopia where we won't be limited by traditional bookstore shelving constraints. In fact, the always-on world of digital media multiplies the opportunities (or demands) to know what other books your is like.

So, how can you confidently determine the genre of the book without reading every other genre? The good folk at Book Country have produced an interactive genre map. (The example here is only an image.) Click on a genre to see a list of representative books.

One of the ways to use the map is as a guide for your reading. Once you've chosen which of the five general genre feels most like home, go through the sub-genres and make sure you've read at least one book in each list.

Still not sure where your book belongs because it's a thrilling romantic mystery set in a future where a technological society battles medievaloid magic users? Try the exhaustive, pair-wise comparison exercise: for each pair of genres, if you can only choose one, which genre best characterizes your book. Then tally up the winner for each pair. The genre with the highest score is your primary genre.

I should point out that the genres in this map are for adult fiction. Young Adult and Middle Grade books can be classified in similar terms, but were, until recently, all shelved together. Barnes & Noble now has different shelves for YA genres like paranormal. In other words, while genre boundaries aren't quite as strictly drawn in children's literature, you can't ignore the question.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Laws of Living

Making Monday

The nine Laws of Making are divided into three sets of three. The first three are called the Laws of Understanding, the second three are the Laws of Living, and the last three are the Laws of Transcendence.

Understanding and transcendence arguably have more to do with making than living. And the middle set looks even more out of place when we look at the the laws:

What is the relationship between hope, faith, charity, and living?

My grandfather, a carpenter who took pride in being fit, liked to laugh at the high school athletes who could sprint faster than him but couldn't keep up when he put in a full day's work.

I've talked about makers and users in terms of our nature--implying we're either one or the other. But the truth is we are both. What matters over the long run is where you spent the most time.

Put another way, like the high school sprinters, many people can be makers for a time. Keeping at it across weeks and months and years is another matter.

A maker isn't made in a day.

The second trio of the Laws of Making is about living because hope, faith, and charity are the qualities that sustain you as a maker.

Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, May 27, 2011

eBook Pricing and Value: Lessons from Shareware during the Early Pleistocene

Free-form Friday

In March, Jennifer Mattern discussed e-book pricing with Zoe Winters in a post at allindipublishing.com.

Zoe initially priced her novellas at 99 cents because she wanted to build her audience. After a while she decided to increase prices. Money was part of it:
"I realized I couldn’t maintain decent earnings at that price because although I sold a little over 6,500 ebooks in June of last year, that’s just hard to maintain. If you aren’t the ebook flavor of the month, it’s just not sustainable for most people. I started raising my prices, partly in response to the realization that to make a living I needed higher prices."
But it was the attitude of the people buying her books at 99 cents that pushed her over the edge:
"I’m not saying everybody who buys 99 cent ebooks is “bad”, but, there is a big number of readers who buy at 99 cents just to hoard. They don’t read, they just buy thinking maybe they’ll “get around to it”. But they didn’t invest enough money in it to really care if they ever read it or not. And many who do read, act “entitled”. A strange but true rule of business is that the customers paying the least amount for a product or service always complain the most and try to squeeze more out of you. ...

"Then there was the fact that I wanted to cultivate a loyal following and most people who expect ebooks to be 99 cents aren’t that loyal. They’re shopping by price as their main deciding factor. I just don’t want those readers. Anybody that price sensitive just isn’t the demographic I’m going after."
As I read, I flashed back to the heady days of shareware in the late '80s and early '90s. The pre-Internet world of modems and dial-up bulletin board systems became a remarkably efficient way to distribute software without the costs associated with major software publishers--who were very good at putting boxes with disks and manuals into stores and catalogs.  [Does any of this sound (cough)e-books(cough) familiar?]

There are plenty of parallels we could mine, but let's look at pricing. Shareware authors had the same choices: undercut to build audience or charge more for value. The interesting thing about software is that higher-priced packages tended to do better because (to make a gross generalization) people buying software for their personal computers associated value, quality, and security with the higher price.

Of course, it's not as simple as expensive = good. But there is a tendency to treat something that's cheap as ... well, cheap.

This is not to say that you should never price you ebook at 99 cents--it might be a market savvy thing to do if it's the first volume in a series (after all, the classic shareware games gave the first volume away in the hope that people who enjoyed the game would purchase the other volumes)--but do you really want people to think that your books aren't worth any more than a three to four minute long song?

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Verisimilitude in Fiction

Reading thuRsday

"Truthiness," coined by Stephen Colbert, "was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster." (see Wikipedia)

I certainly enjoyed the humor of truthiness, but there's a perfectly good, albeit venerable, word who's original sense means the same thing: verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is "the state of quality of being verisimilar; the appearance of truth; probability; likelihood." (Webster 1886)

Having the appearance, but not the substance, of truth is generally not considered a good thing. Fiction, however, is an exception. When you're dealing in something that in absolute terms is a lie (because it never happened in the real world), verisimilitude is a virtue.

There is an art to giving readers enough of the appearance of truth in your story that they are willing to suspend their disbelief. Howard Tayler is fond of saying, "Explain the heck out of something small, then wave your hands over the big things." In other words, show your readers you know what you're talking about in one case and they're more likely to assume you also know what you're talking about in others.

The essence of the art is to understand and apply real-world patterns and structures in your stories. For example, we talked last month about getting dystopian societies right by applying the pattern of winners and losers (i.e, that one person's dystopia is another's utopia and thus the latter has a vested interest in maintaining the system at the expense of the former).

Similarly, as L.E. Modesitt points out, even in a fantasy world you can't ignore basic laws of economics (like how much farm land and how many people it takes to support a single knight in the battle field in a medieval economy.)

We'll return to this topic in the coming weeks. In the mean time, consider what you can do to increase the verisimilitude in your fiction.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Hero's Journey for Writers

Writing Wednesday

I've observed before that, as writers, in the process of writing we become our own protagonists. The stories we tell often invoke at least some of the elements of the hero's journey. In the course of our discussion of the long form, I realized that the parallels between the story we express and the experience of expressing that story are much stronger and much more significant to our personal development as writers than I imagined.

In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell develops a theory of the monomyth, or hero's journey based on the archetypes, or basic patterns that recur in stories from around the world and across time. We can't do justice to Campbell or all the subsequent work in the area by anthropologists, mythologist, psychologists, etc. Instead, we'll explore the somewhat simpler version used by authors and screenwriters.

The hero's journey, as distilled by Christopher Vogler (see The Writer's Journey) and summarized on Wikipedia has the following stages:
  1. The Ordinary World. The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
  2. The Call to Adventure. Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
  3. Refusal of the Call. The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
  4. Meeting with the Mentor. The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
  5. Crossing the Threshold. At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
  6. Test, Allies, and Enemies. The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
  7. Approach to the In-most Cave. The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
  8. The Ordeal. Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
  9. The Reward. The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
  10. The Road Back. About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
  11. The Resurrection. At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
  12. Return with the Elixir. The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
I intend to examine each of these stages, not as a way of structuring our stories, but as aspects of our experience as writers. In a sense, each time we write a book we take a journey through these stages.

My source and inspiration (should you want to read ahead) is Kim Hudson's, The Virgin's Promise, which expands on Vogler's work (among others) with a parallel structure for stories of self-fulfillment. We'll explore that pattern in the coming months, too.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ideas: Think Differently

Technique Tuesday

Like the old beer commercial where people argued whether the best thing about the brew was that it, "tastes great," or that it's, "less filling," writers persist identifying themselves as, "plotters," or "pantsers."

If we must have distinctions, I think, "architect," and, "gardener," respectively are much better labels.

But we'd be even further ahead to view architecture and gardening, not as defining our nature as writers but as techniques in our toolbox that we use--like an artist uses pastels and oils--when appropriate.

I came across evidence, on the PsyBlog, that I'm not entirely out to lunch for thinking such a thing. They describe a study, in a post titled, "Unusual Thinking Styles Increase Creativity," in which people who solved problems "using systematic patterns of thought" (rational) and people who solved problems "by setting the[ir] mind[s] free to explore associations" were asked to change their problem-solving style.
The researchers wondered if people's creativity could be increased by encouraging them to use the pattern of thinking that was most unusual to them. So, those people who naturally preferred to approach creative problems rationally, were asked to think intuitively. And the intuitive group was asked to think rationally for a change.

Participants were given a real-world problem to solve: helping a local business expand. The results were evaluated by managers from the company involved. When they looked at the results, the manipulation had worked: people were more creative when they used the thinking style that was most unusual for them.

One of the reasons this may work is that consciously adopting a different strategy stops your mind going down the same well-travelled paths. We all have habitual ways of approaching problems and while habits are sometimes useful, they can also produce the same results over and over again.
The parallel should be clear: architects (or plotters) prefer to write rationally; gardeners (or pantsers) prefer to write intuitively. You likely feel more comfortable in one mode or the other. But if your deeper goal is to write creatively you would do well to switch up your style.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, May 23, 2011

Law 5: Fidelity and Faith in our Work

Making Monday

Fidelity is a word we rarely hear unless it's attached to banks or investments. Outside of those contexts, the word seems quaint. Perhaps because of the constant stream of novelties and the ease with which just about anything can be replaced, it has become unfashionable to give any thought to fidelity at a personal level.

My 1886 edition of Websters defines fidelity as faithfulness, continuing with:
  • adherence to right; careful and exact observance of duty, or discharge of obligations;
  • adherence to a person or party to which one is bound; loyalty
  • adherence to one's promise or pledge; veracity; honesty
  • adherence to the marriage contract
To adhere is to stick to something. It is the essence, for example, of the common wedding vow of, "for better or worse." The same is true of loyalty and discharging obligations--you can't only do what you said you'd do when it's convenient.

In addition to resolution, there's an element of steadfastness in each of the senses of the definition of fidelity.

The faith of the makers encompasses all these things. Makers understand that the process of making involves swings from elation to disgust and that the work will never be done if they let either extreme undermine their fidelity. This is why among writers we constantly encourage you to keep writing: if you never finish the book you can't go back and fix it.

High fidelity, in the sense of the truest possible reproduction, is a shade of meaning that hadn't emerged when my old dictionary was compiled, but it is another aspect of the faith of the makers. While no made thing can be the perfect embodiment of an idea, makers, who give little thought to absolutes, strive for the highest fidelity in their making. This means revising as often as necessary to perfect the story for writers.

The final dimension of fidelity--the last duty and obligation of makers--is to finish the work and give it its place in the world. It is an act of faith to trust that you have done all that was necessary and that the work can stand on its own.

Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, May 20, 2011

Self-Conscious of the Audience: Talking down to Children

Free-form Friday

The folks at The Appendix podcast recently (episode 12), discussed writing down to kids. They took up the topic, as have many others, after reading what Martin Amis said in a February article in the Guardian:
"People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book ... I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book', but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable. ... I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write."
I couldn't help smiling at what Amis said because I've long been convinced that Madeleine L'Engle came much closer to the truth when she said:
"You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."
But there's something deeper here than an I'm-right-you're-wrong tempest in a teapot. Amis said, "the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me." In children's literature, the worst kind of talking down to children comes from authors who are conscious--or, more to the point, self-conscious--of their audience.

So does that mean Amis is right? That you should be unconscious of your audience?

No, quite the opposite.

You need to know your audience so well that addressing them in appropriate and evocative ways is simply second nature. One of the hallmarks of a master is that they make what they do look easy--as if they didn't give it a second thought.

Amis can say, "fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable," because in the first case he knows his present audience so well that he is effectively unconscious of them, and, in the second case, coming to know another, younger audience would, for him, be a process full of self-conscious restraints.

Children's authors feel none of the restraints that worry Amis because they don't talk to their audience, they talk with them. And the very best are, themselves, still very much a part of their audience.

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rehabilitating the Reputation of the Middle

Reading thuRsday

I had a peculiar experience reading a well-promoted YA dystopian novel: I quite liked the middle but didn't care for either the beginning or the end.

Writers so often have trouble with the middle of the story that we call that set of problems, "the muddled middle." In general, the problem is that, with an intriguing beginning and a mind-blowing ending, the middle gets reduced to what you have to go through to get to the end.

We talked recently about story maps as a way to navigate what Brunonia Barry calls "The Mess in the Middle." Then I came across Justine Musk's post about, "The secrets and revelations of a powerful middle act." Justine said,
An important part and purpose of a story’s middle act is revelation. The middle act, as Michael Halperin puts it, “is the central place where revelations, motivations, and confrontations take place – making the stories we create live and breathe.” Information rises from that secret underside to raise the stakes, deepen character, and shift the reader’s perceptions.

It also changes the course of the story. The protagonist is forced to deal with this new information and the impact it has on his life. He can no longer hide or deny. He is past the point of no return. But because of the necessary confrontations that result, his character transforms. He gains the wisdom he needs, the shift in perspective, to become a more complete individual — which allows him to defeat the antagonistic forces in a way he could not do at the beginning of the story.
Viewed in this light, the middle is more important than the beginning or the end because it is the place in the story where the transformation occurs that makes the ending possible.

One of the reasons writers have trouble with middles is because they confuse complications and revelations. Complications, often in the form of a string of problems, are like trying to fly into a busy airport where you spend more time either on the runway waiting to take off or in a holding pattern waiting to land than it takes to cover the distance to the destination. A revelation, to continue the travel analogy, is taking ground transport because you missed the flight, discovering you can get get to the destination more quickly, and then using that fact later to help defeat the antagonist.

I enjoyed the middle of the book I mentioned above because it was full of intriguing revelations (and I didn't enjoy the end because it made many of those revelations irrelevant).

Look at your middles. Don't bloat them with empty complication calories. Test each scene in the middle and ask, "does this scene reveal something the characters need to know or be by the end, or is it simply delaying the resolution?"

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Long Form: Retrospective

Writing Wednesday

I sure you've often heard hindsight is 20/20. It is so well-worn a saying that it's beginning to take on a negative connotation like arm-chair quarterbacking.

Perhaps the larger problem is that there's so much novelty constantly vying for our attention, but it is unfortunate that looking back is falling out of favor because one of the most illuminating perspectives is retrospect.

One of the ultimately most powerful but least appreciated potentials of the long form is what you come to understand some time after the strong finish. Only after enough time has passed for the experience to mellow and ripen can you begin to understand the work's lasting effect.

It's time to bring this now fourteen-week series to a close. During that time, we've covered:
It's too soon to say whether it will have any lasting effect. Still I hope at very least I've convinced you that working in the long form is more than simply making the short form longer.

I also hope that in doing so I haven't left you feeling intimidated by the terminology. If the list above seems daunting, think of the items simply as the facets of a jewel. And like that jewel, the essence of the art of the long form is to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ideas: The Hallmarks of a Good Idea

Technique Tuesday

It seems only proper, after encouraging you to distrust your first idea, that we should look into the question of how you know you have a good idea.

Of course, it's not possible to be certain you have a good idea until you test it on others. If it were, we'd have institutions that follow the model of drug companies devoted to finding and exploiting as many good ideas as possible. So the good news is that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. The bad news is that the best we can do is find heuristics to help us sort the good ideas out from the bad.

One of the best heuristics I've found is that good ideas have a longer shelf life or more staying power than mediocre ideas.

I once heard of a couple who didn't buy anything until they'd talked about needing it at least three times.

Similarly, if an idea comes back to you at least three times you may be on to something.

But by, "comes back to you," I mean something more than simply remembering the idea. When John Brown talks about creativity, he emphasizes, "zing." That's John's way of saying the idea gives you an electric shimmer along your spine each time you savor it.

Good ideas are the ones that still deliver that zing when you come back to them the third or fourth time.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, May 16, 2011

Law 5: Good Fatih

Making Monday

The folks at Wikipedia characterize good faith this way:
"In philosophy, the concept of Good faithLatin bona fides “in good faith”, bona fide “genuine” — denotes sincere, honest intention or belief, regardless of the outcome of an action; the analogous concepts are bad faith (duplicity) and perfidy (pretense). In law, bona fides denotes the mental and moral states of honesty and conviction regarding either the truth or the falsity of a proposition, or of a body of opinion; likewise regarding either the rectitude or the depravity of a line of conduct."
Which is a long way of saying that when you work in good faith you work without guile.

Good faith, both in terms of honest intentions and a demonstrated willingness to follow through, are an important part of the faith of the makers.


Users always have an angle, a short-cut, or an ulterior motive. Makers can afford no such luxury.

When users approach a writing project, they're more interested in what they'll do once it's finished. That's why the blank page is so terrifying: it's the barrier between them and their schemes. Makers, who come to write ready to immerse themselves in the process of distilling thoughts and feelings into words, see the blank page simply as the playing field.

There is, however, something more subtle--yet ultimately more significant--about good faith. Undertaking a project with honest intentions means that you bring no mental baggage that might mar the work and distract you from the process.

We generally think of intentions, not actions, when we use the term, "good faith." But in a legal context, the only way to demonstrate good faith is with evidence of actions consistent with the claimed intentions.

Due diligence, which again in a legal or fiduciary context means taking actions that show more than a token attempt to discharge one's duties, is an important part of acting in good faith. Makers don't expect the first draft to be the final without the due diligence of revisions.

But the hardest part of good faith is follow through. While there are projects that should be abandoned, the good faith of the makers means that when they start something they're willing to see it through--even when it's frustrating, inconvenient, or tedious.

Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Sky is Falling

Free-form Friday

Between the economic downturn during 2008 and 2009, and the rise of e-books in 2010, it seems that the voices prophesying upheavals of apocalyptic proportions for the book business have grown louder and more insistent.

Today (Friday the 13th) seems like a particularly auspicious day to celebrate doom and gloom for the publishing industry.

Of course, there's been a book business for roughly four hundred years, so doom and gloom are nothing new. In just the twentieth century, and not counting the Internet, radio, television, paperbacks, video tape, and computer games have all been identified as evidence that the sky is about to fall on the publishing industry.

'Wait," you say, "this time it feels different."

Perhaps. But things tend to survive, sweeping change notwithstanding. Automobiles are pervasive, but there are still buggy whip manufacturers.

Books aren't going away any time soon. The book business, however, is another story.

If I asked you to name the major players in computing you'd likely answer, "Microsoft, Apple, and Google." If you're tech-savvy, you might add Amazon (because of their cloud computing services), and if you have a sense of history, you would include IBM. With the single exception of IBM, it wasn't that long ago that a completely different pantheon, with names like Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Cray, dominated the industry. And before them, there were the elder gods like Control Data Corporation.

Other industries have seen a great deal more changes. What is it that has shaken publishing to its roots?

It's simply that we can no longer rely on the certainties that defined the business for decades.

So, what's going to happen to publishing?

The most cogent argument-by-historic-analogy I've heard is that publishing is more like television than music. (See Kristine Kathryn Rusch's piece on changing times in the publishing industry for a much more thorough and thoughtful analysis of the structural changes facing big publishers.)

The key similarity between the two industries is that they grew up around a distribution network that was, for a time, basically the only game in town. If you wanted your television program to reach a national audience, it had to go through one of the three major networks. If you wanted your book to reach a national audience, it had to go through one of the major publishers. Remember, the key service historically provided by publishers was distribution.

Television changed when cable systems expanded and provided new channels outside the three networks. As viewers, we have more programming options than ever before. For broadcasters, it looks like the audience is smaller because we now spread our attention across all the providers. (And for the national networks, it feels like fall from grace because they're just one of many providers now.)

The new distribution systems supporting ebooks will most likely produce an analogous change: readers will have more to read than ever before, while the major publishers will have to compete for what looks like a smaller audience.

We clearly are subject to the old Chinese curse that says, "May you live in interesting times."

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, May 12, 2011

In Late, Out Early

Reading thuRsday

Heidi M. Thomas said, in a recent post on pacing in writing at the blog The Blood-red Pencil:

"Most writing gurus these days advise to “arrive late and leave early.” By this, they mean, start in the middle of the action or with an element of suspense that will help prompt the reader to keep reading."
Heidi is right that stories should (and readers expect to) skip the boring bits. Why slog through the dull set-up and waiting when you can jump in right at the point where things get interesting. By the same token, why hang around after the interesting bits when you can jump away to the next interesting thing. And what prompts the reader to keep reading is that they come to trust that you won't bore them with dull stuff.

But in-late/out-early is more than simply a way to keep your reader hooked. Once you develop a masterful sense of just how long a scene needs to be, in-late/out-early evolves from a mere technique into a tool for directing reader's attention and encouraging their engagement by inviting them to fill in the blanks.

Directing Focus

Like their visual counter parts, scene breaks and "screen" (or page) time tell the reader where to focus their attention. In a long scene, where several characters come and go and other things transpire in the background, readers can pay attention to many things so no one thing will have their full attention. In a short scene, they can only pay attention to what you give them.

For example, let's say you have a scene whose purpose is to show the reader that the main character notices another character acting strangely. If you show the main character strolling through the hall at school, greeting friends and chatting about the prom, until the boy she's had her eye on runs into them, nearly knocking her over while muttering something about the penguin revolution, and then the character and her friends spend a few more pages talking about what just happened, the reader may miss the key revelation about the penguin revolution. If, on the other hand, you jump into the scene moments before the collision and then jump out right after the first, "What was that?" comment, there's no danger of distracting the reader with the other people or the pending prom.

Fill in the Blanks

However, the most subtle use of in-late/out-early--at a level that approaches zen mastery--is to leave as much unsaid as possible. On several occasions, I've heard Howard Tayler say, "The monster you imagine when I say something goes bump in the dark is far scarier than anything I could describe."

By showing only the most critical part of the scene, we allow the readers to fill in the blanks by imagining what happened before and after the scene. In so doing, readers create a far richer experience for themselves than you as the author could by describing it all for them.

Think about it.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Long Form: Strong Finish

Writing Wednesday

We occasionally say, with a touch of nostalgia, that all good things must come to an end. But the way a thing comes to an end determines, to a large extent, how good the thing was.

The ending matters. No matter how beautiful the prose, how evocative the characters, or masterful the dialog, if a short story fails to deliver a satisfying ending, you walk away feeling cheated out of your time. Given the far greater investment of time required by the long form, readers expect a commensurate payoff--as we discussed last week when we considered the obligation of transformation.

The long form is the most powerful medium for strong, satisfying endings because it affords authors the time to develop multiple story strands, each significant in its own right, and then weave them together for a strong finish. All those strands also mean, if you're not careful, that you've got enough rope to hang yourself.

Finishing, however, is much more than the ending.

A year ago, in the context of the question about the nature of good and bad writing, I said:
Of the few network sitcoms I've enjoyed, nearly every one of them stayed on the air for one or two seasons too many. In some cases the final season was so disappointing that it soured the entire series for me. The best programs delivered consistently and came to a graceful and satisfactory ending. Similarly, in sports, the players generally considered to be great are the ones who were consistent performers.
A strong finish is the capstone of a consistently good performance. That's why world-class gymnasts are expected to make a perfect landing after everything else in their routine. 

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Text Metrics

Technique Tuesday

Motivational business rhetoric is full of old saws like, "if you can't measure it, you can't improve it." While true in straightforward situations  like how many widgets per hour come off an assembly line, as we stray from the purely quantitative realm into the qualitative wild lands, metrics become more nebulous--and in some cases do more harm than good.

So, in full knowledge of their debatable benefits, let's look at some of the text metric tools you can use to improve your understanding of your manuscript.

Word count is the most important metric for queries. Microsoft Word 2010 has a running word count in the status bar. With earlier versions, File|Info (Alt-F, I) brings up the Document Properties dialog where you can view the Statistics tab. (The same dialog is available in Word 2010 via File|Info|Properties|Advanced Properties.) OpenOffice/LibreOffice has a Word Count item in the Tools menu.

Metrics are most useful for comparison. You can use the tools at Renaissance Learning to look up the word counts of published books like yours to see if your manuscript is in the right ball park.

There are a number of other web-based tools like the word frequency and phrase frequency counters at writewords.org.

The good folks at UsingEnglish.com have an advanced text analyzer for members in the Tools area (there is no charge to register and by doing so you can store and compare up to twenty texts.). They offer everything from overall readability to word and phrase frequency.* It's a rich resource geared toward eduactors.

Textalyser.net is a simpler site that offers a similar set of metrics and doesn't require registration.

And if that's not enough, you can have the Gender Genie predict the gender of the author implied by your text.

While none of these tools will guarantee publication, it's worth your while to see what insights you can glean. At very least, run some representative chapters through the tools that show word and phrase frequency and see if you have a problem with pet words.

One final caution: while it's highly unlikely that anyone will appropriate your manuscript if you enter it in one of the web-based tools, there's no need to analyze more than a few chapters to get a good sense of what's going on with your text.

* UsingEnglish lists the following features for their advanced text analyzer: "General Statistics, Readability Ststistics, Word Analysis (Distribution, Length, Frequency, Word Cloud, Hard Words), Phrase Analysis, Lexicon Analysis, and Graded Text Analysis."

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, May 9, 2011

Law 5: Faith is Trust

Making Monday

One of the frightening things about an intimate relationship is that you expose yourself to the other and must trust they will not take advantage of you. Intimacy, in terms of the trust required, is an act of faith much like the faith of the makers.

The word, 'faith,' comes from the Latin, fidere, to trust.

Generally, when we have to trust an institution or another person, we need assurances that our trust is well placed. It's no accident that financial repositories, which often bear names like, 'bank,' and 'trust,' try to express their strength and stability in everything from their stationary to their architecture. Classical columns flank the entrances to many a bank, suggesting (or so the trustees and their architects hope) stability and durability sufficient to entice us to put our money there.

But the faith of the makers is counter-intuitive: makers trust their weaknesses when they make.

Part of that trust arises because creation begins with weakness. Before it becomes the steel in a skyscraper, iron ore is something that can be crushed. Before the book is a best-seller, it is a first draft rife with issues. Like a tender plant, just sprouted, in the first stages of making the project is a fragile thing that can crumble to oblivion without the care of the maker.

A deeper, and far more personal, dimension of the faith of the makers is the trust that only by exposing their own weaknesses can they bring something new and wonderful into existence. Each time we put pen to paper, we give our critics evidence that our characterization is weak, or that we don't do dialog very well, or that we have occasional lapses in grammar, or any of a thousand and one other weaknesses. But the fire of the idea that compels us to make won't let us wait until we've perfected all our skills. The irony is that a guileless passion often produces a more meaningful expression than a technically flawless execution.

And so we make.

Even though the very act opens us up to scoffers and detractors.

Even though our self-doubts can combine into something that makes our critics pale in comparison.

We do it because we trust that through the intimate process of making we can transcend our weaknesses in the joy of bringing the new things in to existence.

Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sympathy for Agents

Free-form Friday

I'm not an agent, and the only kind I play on TV is secret (wait, I've said too much), but I've worked through something recently that has ratcheted my sympathy for literary agents up a notch or two.

During the past month, my mild-mannered alter ego had to do some hiring. We posted a notice with a handful of requirements for the position and for the process (e.g,. send us a resume) in a public place. Then we watched as responses from all over the map rolled in:

  • Some had nothing to do with the job.
  • Some came from people with wildly inappropriate experience (e.g., I've operated a cash register so I can build enterprise software).
  • Many came from people who didn't follow the simple instructions to include a resume.
  • "Queries" from people other than the applicant, who didn't follow instructions either.
  • There were even people who felt they had to berate us for not recognizing their inherent talent and our flawed decision making (e.g, "if you had been more diligent, you would have reached a different conclusion," when we decided they wouldn't be a good fit.
If you've followed any agent blogs or found posts when they talk about query mistakes, this list will sound familiar.

Another familiar note that surprised me was how quickly I was able to dismiss 90% of the responses because they clearly showed that the people hadn't paid attention to either our requirements for the job or the application process. By the same token, it was easy to see who among the respondents had made a good-faith effort and we didn't hold unimportant details like resume format against them.

The first thing I want you take away from these observations is that you should do yourself and the agents you wish to query a favor and try to follow their submission instructions. Just that much care and attention on your part will put you ahead of 90% of the people sending queries.

The second thing you should take to heart is that a good faith effort, which includes doing enough research to be confident that the agent actually represents projects like yours, is more important than agonizing over every fiddly detail. This is not to say you'll get a pass on grammar and spelling errors. But no agent is going to care whether you indent the first line of each paragraph (which you shouldn't in standard business letter format) if the words in those paragraphs describe a project that fits what they're looking for. (For more on what to worry about in queries, see "Writer Zen: Forests and Trees."

Put another way, what we wanted in response to our job posting wasn't that hard, and yet I was amazed at all the ways people found to make it harder. Querying agents doesn't have to be as hard as some people make it: relax, take a breath, read the instructions twice, and then give it your best shot. I can't tell you how refreshing it was to open a response and see that they'd actually paid attention to our request.

[Edit] As you'll see in the comments, I should have added a final qualification: we, of course, didn't hire everybody who sent us a good resume. Similarly, no agent is going to respond favorably to every well-crafted, carefully-targeted query.

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fixing Unlikeable Characters

Reading thuRsday

Stephanie DeVita, writing on the Dystel & Goderich Literay Management Blog, asks about likeable--or more to the point--unlikeable characters:
Over the weekend, I came to the sudden realization that the manuscript I was considering wasn’t working for me for a specific reason: I found some of the characters to be completely unlikable. ... So for a writer, if a person comes back to you, having read your manuscript, with the critique that your characters are unlikable, how do you fix something like this?

Darth Vader + Kitten = problem solved, right?

Or, as David Horton playing King Herod in the Christmas Pageant on the old BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley, said, after ordering his soldiers to massacre the infants in Bethlehem, “But kill them gently!”

More to the point, likeability has more dimensions than good or bad. It’s one thing to give the otherwise-evil villain some justification because of something in their past that turned them to evil. But what do you do, for example, about contemporary characters who are unlikeable because they’re annoying, or tiresome?

A simplistic answer is to change the character so they’re no longer annoying or tiresome. That answer, though, masks a deeper question that you, the author, need to ask explicitly about every character (because your readers will ask the question implicitly): why would I want to spend time with this character?

Just like the fact that people come to your blog or web site asking, “What’s in it for me?” readers expect to get something in return for the time they put into a book. When readers say a character is unlikeable, they’re really saying they’re finding it increasingly difficult to predict what their return on investing time in the character might be.

Regardless of how morally reprehensible they might be, we like characters that give us some insight or teach us something. I look at my unlikeable characters and ask whether they’re doing anything more than simply taking up space.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Long Form: The Obligation of Transformation

Writing Wednesday

Have you ever walked out of a movie wishing you could get a refund not of the money you paid for the ticket but of the two hours of your life now lost forever?

When you produce a long-form project for an audience, you have an obligation to deliver something that is worth their time. The longer the form, the greater the obligation.

To be worth the time it takes to read, a novel must do more than merely distract. Modern audiences can find plenty to distract them, in the conceptual equivalent convenient, bit-sized pieces, on YouTube and its ilk. And the parade of dancing cats and groin shots doesn't demand any focus or commitment.

What do readers expect for their effort?

It's not enough that the story goes somewhere, it has to transform the reader in the process.

Transformation is an intimidating word because we tend to use it only in the context of sweeping change. But don't be put off: we're talking here of transformation with a small 't.' Changing lives isn't the purpose of the long form--though it can happen. Rather, the art of the long form is most truly expressed when your audience leaves enriched by the experience.

It is no accident, for example, that many narratives fit the pattern of the hero's journey. But at another level, the act of reading allows the reader to take their own hero's journey: the story takes the reader from the world they knew before picking up the book, into the abyss and the epiphanies of the unknown where they gain secret knowledge, and finally brings them back to the known, transformed by the journey.

That said, please don't get yourself worked up with worry that your manuscript isn't sufficiently mystical. The key here isn't mysticism, it's experience. Another way to get a handle on what the obligation of transformation means is to go back to the books you like to re-read. What is it about those books that keeps you coming back? Congratulations, you've just identified the transformative elements that, if you emulate, will help you meet the obligation in your own work.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Ideas: Don't Trust the First One

Technique Tuesday

Last year I encouraged you not to stop with one good idea. Implicit in that advice was the assumption that you started with a good idea. Being certain that you have a good idea is much harder than recognizing when your idea falls short of good.

The first litmus test for a poor idea is simple: is it your first idea?

In the game show Family Feud, the challenge wasn't to come up with the correct answer but to guess the answers most likely to be given by the hundred people surveyed. Of the four or five hidden answers, the top one or two usually account for more than half the responses. That is, the first answer that came to mind for a person taking the survey likely came to mind to every second or third person taking the survey.

As we've often observed, 'novel,' means, 'new.' If you go with your first idea, you stand a good chance of going down a well-worn path. If you want to be a novelist, you must internalize Monty Python's catch phrase, "And now for something completely different."

But this isn't novelty simply for novelty's sake. The deeper question is how can you take the raw conceptual material and make it your own.

Chances are, your first idea really isn't your idea. (Why, after all, did so many of the people surveyed for the game show come up with the same answer?) It's simply the first association that bubbled up into your consciousness. The first association is likely the strongest, having been reinforced by external influences. To make the idea your own, you need to let it steep in your unique soup of mental associations until it morphs into something that's unmistakably you.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, May 2, 2011

Law 5: Faith is Active

Making Monday

The fifth Law of Making, the second of the Laws of Living, is, "True making is an act of faith."

Faith, particularly in institutions and traditions, is not much in fashion at present. While there have been high profile cases of institutions betraying the trust of their faithful members, the problem, at a deeper level, is that many institutions and traditions teach a passive faith that encourages dependence.

The faith of the makers is active. Rather than trusting that somehow things will get better, makers trust that they can make things better--that doing something constructive is better than doing nothing.

To the extent that there is such a thing as a national character, the American can-do spirit is similar to the faith of the makers. When makers hear the New Testament promise that with as much faith as a mustard seed you can move mountains, they reach for a shovel.

And when it comes to writing, makers express their faith by putting words on paper.

The oft shared advice to break your writer's block by writing something--anything--is a good example of the faith of the makers in microcosm. Writing, even the simplest sentences, forces you to organize your thoughts at least enough to join a few words into a coherent sentence. That sentence creates a small bit of order in the chaos of the blank page. Add another sentence and you've created a bit more order. Meaning arises from the order we create out of chaos. Soon, what seemed like a hopeless jumble become something significant. You may not have the prose you need to complete the project, but you will at least have eliminated the fear that you can't write. You will, in other words, have made it better.

Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net