Thursday, June 30, 2011

Verisimilitude: Romance - Each Partner Completes the Other

Reading thuRsday

I don't know if it's a trend--or simply something I never noticed before--but of late I've seen a number of explicitly complementary Halloween costumes for couples: you and you partner can dress as a plug and socket or a key and a lock.

After you're done giggling (or, with your best Queen Victoria impression, being, "Not amused,") at the sexual innuendo, remember that there was time before the triumph of interchangeable parts when only one key fit a given lock.

We talked before about mutual respect as the structural foundation of a romance. Respect is necessary but not sufficient to explain why a couple came together. Each partner likely respects several potential mates so there must be something more that brings two people together.

Sarah Eden, speaking on Writing Excuses (episode 5.31), said that in a good romance, each partner fulfils a need in the other: they complete each other.

You might be tempted to either get sappy about the one key to someone's heart or to wax rhapsodic about soul-mates. What we're really talking about is a structural completion: each partner is a better person or more fully alive when they are with the other.

More than simply the act of falling in love, romance is about the possibilities that spring into existence when two people come together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

HJ4W-5 Crossing the Threshold

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

On January 10, 49 BC, Caesar led his legion across the river Rubicon and started the civil war that would end the Roman Republic. Once he moved his army across the provincial boundary, there was no going back: he would either triumph or be destroyed.

To, "cross the Rubicon," is to go past the point of no return* and commit to a course of action. While I don't know that I would go so far as to say Caesar completed a hero's journey to become Dictator of Rome, when he crossed the river he enacted the fifth phase of that journey: Crossing the Threshold.

Kim Hudson** characterizes Crossing the Threshold this way:
"By this point in the story, any barrier the Hero felt to accepting the adventure is outweighed or removed, and the Hero selflessly commits to the adventure for the good of his village. ... At this juncture, there is no turning back for the Hero until the village has been saved."
The hero's journey doesn't truly get underway until the hero passes the point of no return. This is simply because prior to Crossing the Threshold there is little or no cost in turning back. Once past the threshold, turning back becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.

In classic stories, this point is often a literal threshold where stepping across to the other side changes everything. This discontinuity makes the threshold magical--almost sacred--though that quality is often clear only in retrospect.

When writing, particularly in the long form, there is a time where we commit to the story. You may not be able to point to a specific event, but your concept of the project changes from, "Can I do it?" to, "I can do it." Indeed, the commitment usually takes the stronger form of, "Now I have to do it."

Perhaps you told all your friends and family you were writing a book and can't face the shame of saying you gave up. Perhaps you've fallen in love with the story and need to know how it all ends. Perhaps it's simply the realization that the time and effort you've already spent on the project will be wasted if you don't finish. Whatever the reason, your journey into the unknown begins in earnest when abandoning the project is no longer an option.

Now you've left behind the safe realm where you know how things work and are striding into the wild lands where anything is possible. Welcome to the undiscovered country of the writers.

* The "point of no return" in navigation is the point in the course when you no longer have enough fuel to go back where you came from and your only choice is to continue on to your destination.

** Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Creative Life: Write the book you want to read.

Technique Tuesday

At one level, Austin Kleon's third suggestion, "Write the book you want to read," (from How to Steal Like an Artist) sounds like simply a variation on the common writing advice to not chase trends.

Why is that advice so common? Or, more to the point, why do we need to repeat it so often?

It all comes down to Return on Investment.

A novel requires a substantial investment of time and energy. As relatively rational economic actors, we all would like some assurance that we'll receive a return on that investment at least equal to our opportunity costs. (Or, in simpler terms, we'd love to know if we're wasting our time.)

Writing to a trend is seductive because we can point to a proven market.

But consider. If through means fair or foul you acquired a time machine just long enough to pop back to, say, 1995 and tell your younger self that a story about an eleven-year-old boy going off to a boarding school for wizards was a sure thing, how likely is it that you would have a castle in Scotland now?

It's not the idea, but the execution (as we've also frequently pointed out).

So we're back to square one: how do you know that your book will be worth the effort?

Kleon's answer gets to the heart of the matter:
The question every young writer asks is: “What should I write?”
And the cliched answer is, “Write what you know.”
This advice always leads to terrible stories in which nothing interesting happens.
The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s write what you *like*.
The best way to find the work you should be doing is to think about the work you want to see done that isn’t being done, and then go do it.
No one really knows what's going to work. (If they did, the major corporations that own the big publishers would manufacture all the best-sellers and shut us would-be scribblers out of the market.)

You might sigh, nod, and say, "I suppose if I write the book I want, then at least one person will like it."

That's true in a minimal sense, but Kleon's advice captures something more powerful and empowering: if you like it--if the story really speaks to you--then others will like it too because most people don't know what they like until an artist shows them.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, June 27, 2011

Law 6: Charity - Getting Beyond Yourself

Making Monday

It's comforting to think that science is progressive: the more we learn, the better we get at creating theories which express the reality of the universe. The triumph of the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system over the geocentric Ptolemaic model is one of the poster children for scientific progress.

But how, exactly, is the sun-centered model of the solar system better than the earth-centered model?

The only objective way to compare the theories is in terms of their predictions. It turns out that both theories can make accurate predictions but the earth-centered model is more complex and harder to work with. In other words, the Copernican model is better than the Ptolemaic model because it's easier for us.

While the objective difference between the two models isn't as great as we think, the heliocentric model is ethically superior to the geocentric model.

If it's not obvious why that statement is true, play a partial anagram with, 'geocentric,' and transform it to 'egocentric.'

The charity of the makers is Copernican: like the earth, you're an important part of the system but it doesn't all revolve around you. Users, in contrast, truly believe everything revolves around them.

Why does this matter?

Making is about bringing something new into the universe. When finished, the new thing exists independently of the maker and others are free to interact with it. In order to make, you must--at least at some level--get beyond yourself.

This idea is clearer in terms of writing. Whether we admit it or not, the act of putting words on a page is at best an imperfect encoding of our ideas. So why do we do it? Writing is fundamentally about reaching out to others; it is an attempt to share our thoughts in a way that someone else might understand. It only works if you have some concept of and empathy for the other: you must get beyond yourself to write for a reader.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, June 24, 2011

Best Networking Advice Ever

Free-form Friday

Networking. It's yet another thing we're supposed to be doing to build our careers. As an anthropologist, I've long understood the value of well placed relationships in theory, but I've been unclear how to put that theory into practice.

Recently I came across the best networking advice I've heard to date from Doug Eboch. In a post on, "How NOT to Network," he advised us to network laterally.

Here's how Doug defines networking laterally:
There are different kinds of networking. What Joe was trying to do I would call “networking up.” In other words, he’s trying to build a relationship with someone more successful than he is. That is a logical way to go but actually not the most useful kind of networking. Tom Cruise networks with Steven Spielberg, I don’t. I don’t have much to offer Spielberg and real networking is a two way street.

"You’ll get most of your breaks by networking laterally. When I was starting out as a writer the people that helped me the most were the interns at production companies and the assistants to agents and producers. Those people are looking to move up and they do that by discovering great material that nobody else knows about. If my work is good then helping me helps them."
Perhaps part of my difficulty is that most of the networking success stories focus on networking up: making that critical connection to someone who can give you a break. But if I put on my anthropologist cap and think about what I've observed, the real networks that pay dividends day-in and day-out were formed among peers.

So how do you do it?

In a second post, titled, "How to Network," Doug lays out his rules of networking:
  1. Nobody is doing you a favor. "If you are talented and your work is good, you have value in the business relationship."
  2. It’s an ongoing relationship. "When you meet someone the goal should be to build that relationship not to get them to do something for you."
  3. Nobody is unimportant. "The guy delivering your script could be a major player long before your movie ever gets made." Corollary: "What you need to be looking for is talent and drive."
  4. Quality is the commodity. "All the charm in the world will not help if you don’t deliver good work."
Don't put your energy into trying to impress someone who's much further along than you are. (Chances are they don't have the time or energy to pull you up to their level anyway.) Instead, look to peers--people in roughly the same place as you--and see if there might be some place where two heads are better than one.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Verisimilitude: Romance - R E S P E C T

Reading thuRsday

An artist, a banker, and an engineer were discussing wives and mistresses over lunch.

"I will never marry," the artist declared. "The passion, the longing, and the mystery of an affair--this is what powers my work."

The banker shook his head. "Nonsense. Stability, not to mention the tax advantages, make a wife the best choice."

"I always have both," the engineer said.

"How can this be?" the artist cried.

The banker frowned. "What about the risk?"

The engineer shrugged. "As long as each of them thinks I'm with the other I can go to the lab and get something done."

* * *

As a confessed engineer, you may think I lack not only the credentials but even the aptitude to discuss romance. You may be right, at least in terms of how we commonly approach the topic, but I can't help observing that even romance has structural principles.

Character is the foundation for romance. How else do you choose among eligible mates?

And the most critical aspect of character for the couple is respect.

Lynn Kurland, speaking at LTUE 2008, argued that for a romance to work the hero and the heroine--even if they spar--must never lose each other's respect; they must never lose sight of the lovable in the other.

Consider the canon (Pride and Prejudice): Darcy might be haughty and disdainful, but he's always respectable. Some of that is simply a consequence of his station in the social structure, but the greater part of his respectability flows from the way he navigates his circumstances. Even when he's working against Elizabeth by undermining Jane's relationship with Bingley he does so for respectable reasons (i.e., concern for his friend's welfare).

Here are some additional tips from Lynn about the structural elements of romance:
  • Never make either of your protagonists unlikable. The hero has to be some one the heroine can look up to. The heroine must be someone the hero can trust.
  • Never make your protagonists look stupid. The hero and heroine can spar, but they must never undermine each other; they must retain an underlying core of admirability--something redeeming about them--that the other can see.
  • If you have a conflict between the hero and the heroine that could be resolved by a conversation between them, you don't have enough of a conflict to carry the book. To be a book, the characters must butt heads.
  • Delay the boy-gets-girl/happily-ever-after until the end. Don't have much of a gap between them becoming a couple and the happily-ever-after (otherwise you just frustrate your readers).

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

HJ4W-4 Meeting with the Mentor

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

Several weeks ago we talked about how the hero's journey begins with the Call to Adventure. For our protagonists, this is the inciting incident--the point at which the Ordinary World changes and life as usual can't continue. In other words, it is when the story starts.

For writers, this is the moment when we get serious about our writing and actually put pen to paper. But as much as writing is a solitary endeavor, we can't get very far down the path without some external validation. While it's gratifying if friends and family respond well to our early attempts, we generally don't make real progress until we Meet the Mentor.

The mentor or guide is critical to the hero's journey. First, as someone who has been down the road (or one like it) before, they are living proof it can be done and that we (the protagonist and the writer) aren't crazy for trying. Second, the mentor helps the hero stop floundering and sets them on the proper path.

More formally (following Kim Hudson*), the mentor prepares the hero for the task, nudges them forward, and sometimes keeps them alive.

Keeping Them Alive

The hero needs a mentor because they lack perspective, particularly when it comes to self-assessment. The hero sets off, after they decide not to Refuse the Call, overconfident, perhaps wildly optimistic. A setback may send them to the other emotional extreme.

Think about how crushing it was the first time someone rejected your first not-ready-for-prime-time manuscript. It shook your entire sense of identity and self-worth as a writer.

Structurally, leaving the Ordinary World means leaving safety and comfort. The hero often realizes they are beyond accustomed help when they get knocked down, either literally or figuratively. The mentor is generally the one who picks them up and provides a temporary refuge while the hero recovers and prepares.  

Preparing for the Task

Preparation and training are the most obvious ways a mentor helps the hero. Because of their knowledge and experience, the mentor guides the hero to focus on the skills and aspects of character that will matter most during the journey and its attendant trials.

For writers, the preparation is largely a matter of craft and, if you're fortunate, art. Much of what we think of as, "the rules," is actually guidance to steer us away from rookie mistakes. At a higher level, it often takes a mentor to show us the art behind the craft, like how much narrative business--waking up and looking in the mirror and going down to breakfast and so on--we should skip because it covers up the parts that matter and interferes with the real story.

Nudging Forward

Mentors, because they are in a position to give the hero a more honest appraisal, provide perspective. They help the hero recognize and correct weaknesses.  But the greatest gift they give the hero is telling them that they're ready to go.

Mentors for Writers

In our stories, it's far more effective if mentors are characters. As writers who live in a complex, over-scheduled, information-rich world, we can find mentors in forums, blogs, books, conference, classes, critique groups, and writing friends, as well as among teachers and professionals. Whether our mentors are actual or virtual, their structural role in the journey is to give us perspective at a time when we have none.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Creative Life: Don't Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Make Things.

Technique Tuesday

There's an old wisecrack that, in this age of iPods, is fading into disuse: ask a teenager what instrument they play and they'll answer, "The stereo."

For a long time, the only music you had was the music you made yourself. Prior to the era of recorded music, refined young women were expected to entertain with their playing and singing. Now it seems more common for young people to not even bother to learn an instrument because even with a lot of effort they still don't sound as good as the $0.99 download from iTunes.

Austin Kleon's second point, in "How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me), is, "Don't wait until you know who you are to make things." He says:
"There was a video going around the internet last year of Rainn Wilson, the guy who plays Dwight on The Office. He was talking about creative block, and he said this thing that drove me nuts, because I feel like it’s a license for so many people to put off making things: “If you don’t know who you are or what you’re about or what you believe in it’s really pretty impossible to be creative.”

"If I waited to know “who I was” or “what I was about” before I started “being creative”, well, I’d still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things that we figure out who we are."
Kleon's argument that we figure out who we are by making things is a powerful insight, fully in accord with what I've been saying on Mondays.

Wilson, however, also has a point: we're not going to be able to add anything new to the conversation until we have some idea of who we are, what we know, and what we want to say.

I think the difficulty between the two is that Wilson is talking about product while Kleon is talking about process. As with an instrument, which you won't master without a great deal of practice, it takes time and effort to produce something that people other than your mother will acknowledge as creative. But you'll never master the instrument if you only practice scales and postpone making music until you think you're good enough.

If you've been focusing on short stories and writing exercises because you don't think you're good enough to write your novel, you're on a path that leads to self-fulfilling prophesy. Granted, short stories are a better way to prepare to write a novel than watching video games. But the best way to write a novel is to write a novel.

Put another way, Kleon encourages us to play and to, "Fake it till you make it." Children don't wait until they're good at something before they try it and it doesn't matter if they fail.We spend most of our time as adults either dealing with the consequences of failure or working to avoid it. But an all-or-nothing approach--we must succeed: failure is not an option--stunts our creative life, confining it to the tiny areas where we know we can succeed.

What, then, does Wilson have to do with Kleon's liberating advice?

Simply this: don't expect to write a bestseller the first time you put pen to paper. It takes a lot of work, including some soul searching to figure out what you have to contribute, before people will sit up and take notice when you play anything other than the stereo.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, June 20, 2011

Law 6: Charity - Acts of Kindness or Benevolence

Making Monday

It may simply be one more piece of evidence that I was destined for the path of making from an early age, but as a child I was much more interested in watching insects than stepping on them. I was disappointed as I grew older to learn that not everyone was fascinated by such creatures as they went about their business and content to let them be. (I have a nephew who treats bugs on the side walk like a video game.)

Making is benevolent: it is a gentle art.

Benevolence is, "a disposition to do good; possessing love to mankind, and a desire to promote their prosperity and happiness." (Webster, 1889) At one level, the benevolence of makers is a natural consequence of their opposition to the selfishness of users. At another, it springs from the integrity of makers: beauty and durability flow from making that is true to the nature of the subject.

The process of making is fundamentally benevolent because it has more in common with nurturing than conforming. For example, rather than seeing multiple revisions as a burden, makers accept that this is how a manuscript grows into its final polished form.

Thoughtfulness, or mindfulness, goes hand-in-hand with the benevolence of the makers, who strive never to be rash or arbitrary, but always steady and sure. It takes constant, careful attention to draft a novel. We have to sustain the emotional intensity and narrative drive, which our readers experience over the course of a few hours, for months or years.

But please don't mistake the charity of the makers for moral superiority: it's simpler and deeper than that. Their benevolence is a natural and artless consequence of an outward orientation, a fundamental belief that other things in the universe have as much right to exist as we do, and the conviction that everything is better when it is filling the measure of its creation.

That's why makers rarely try to step on bugs.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, June 17, 2011

Gurdon's "Darkness Too Visible:" A Call for Variety

Free-form Friday

On Saturday, June 4, Meghan Cox Gurdon published an essay in the Wall Street Journal that unleashed a twitter-storm of righteous wrath because she dared to question the overwhelming focus on darkness in contemporary fiction for teens.

Her piece, Darkness Too Visible, asks:
"Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?"
Given the history of well-intentioned over-protection in children's literature, I understand the passionate and heartfelt reactions to anything tainted with even a whiff of censorship, particularly if it comes wrapped in high-minded terms.

But in the visceral reactions to Ms. Gurdon's essay, at least in the pieces I've read, most of her opponents have glossed over a critical, if only anecdotal fact: the woman Gurdon mentions at the beginning of  her essay who popped into a Barnes & Noble to find a book for her teenage daughter, "left the store empty-handed."

Some of the people who take exception to Ms. Gurdon's questions do so in the context of extolling the value of having books that speak in an authentic voice to young readers, particularly those whose lives have been touched by darkness. There's a larger, on-going discussion about the need for greater diversity in YA so that young readers can identify with the characters they read about.

I find it ironic that few of the early responders were bothered that the mother mentioned in the essay didn't find anything on the bookshelves for her young reader. I wonder how different the reaction would have been if it had been a person of color who couldn't find any books to buy.

I, personally, wasn't offended by Gurdon's piece because I read it as a call for greater variety.

Isn't the fundamental point of those who object to Ms. Gurdon that we should have something for everyone? If so, why are we so troubled when someone points out that the commercial side of bookselling currently seems focused on only one part of the spectrum?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Roller Coaster Stories Redux: Engaging Your Audience

Reading thuRsday

A roller coaster story is one in which readers aren't able to do anything other than sit back and enjoy the ride. I've argued that we don't want roller coaster stories, but I wasn't convinced my argument was compelling.

Then I came across a post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog by agent Jon Sternfeld called, Engaging Your Audience. He said:
"What ‘engage’ means here, and it may come from my teaching days, is give your reader something to do. Readers are not passive vessels looking to be dragged somewhere and told a story. They’re looking to get involved in a storycaring about the protagonist, wrestling with any issues that the narrative brings up, and most importantly, guessing what happens. This is not just an issue with mysteries or thrillers but with all narratives. All genres are mysteries, in one way or another; don’t forget that.

"A reader that is not doing anything is a bored reader. Not only should a reader never be ahead of the author, he/she should be engaged in a back and forth with the author. Readers want to take what is there on the page and extrapolate, use their imagination, draw conclusions, make assumptions. It’s why they’re reading a book and not watching a movie."
The idea of giving your readers something to do nailed the issue for me. I trust if you've read a few posts here you won't be at all surprised if I confess that I like to think about things. Much of the enjoyment I get out of a good book comes from all the things it gives me to think about, not only while reading but in the times in between when I can't read.

Boring a reader by not engaging them is bad enough. But letting a reader get engaged and then invalidating their efforts with a sudden twist is, in my reckoning, bordering on the criminal.

You may object that such things happen regularly in the movies. If so, reread Sternfeld's last line in the quote above.

I have good reason to suspect the roller coaster books I've read recently were written by authors who look to movies for their inspiration. I like a book with a cinematic feel, but there are important differences between the experience of watching a movie and reading a book. Reader engagement is the key to understanding those differences.

It all comes down to respect: crafting your story so that it is, in effect, a conversation with your reader (the back and forth Stenfeld mentions) is the best way to steer clear of the roller coaster.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

HJ4W-3 Refusal of the Call

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

Last week we talked about the Call to Adventure, the heady moment when something has changed and you have a chance to leave the Ordinary World. The thrill of the possibilities offered by the adventure is inevitably followed by the terror of all that could go wrong during the adventure, and with it comes the temptation to Refuse the Call.

Structurally, as Kim Hudson* points out,
"The Refusal of the Call expresses what's at stake for the Hero. It is an opportunity to spell out the grave dangers that lie ahead and the many ways the Hero could die an excruciatingly painful death."
I'm sure none of us believe that writing a novel carries with it the risk of dying an excruciatingly painful death (although there are enough dissidents and free-thinkers who have wound up on the receiving end of the full weight and sanction of the legal systems to which they were subject that we have to admit it's a possibility). But we do run a real risk of dying an emotional or social death should we fail.

What if we're wasting our time?
What if we're no good?
What if everyone finds out we're no good?
What if we don't like it but can't stop because of what we told our friends?

There's no end to the doubts and the fears because most of them are quite rational. Like the hero in the story, there are real, non-trivial things at stake for you personally as you face this undertaking.

Perhaps the most useful thing I can say is that, like buyers remorse, these fears are natural. They're also necessary. The worth of the prize to be won is directly proportional to the risk of failure.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Creative Life: Steal Like an Artist

Technique Tuesday

Austin Kleon's first piece of advice in "How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me) was motivated by his honest answer to the inevitable where-do-you-get-your-ideas question: "I steal them."

Before your ethical early-warning system goes into a tizzy, remember that copyright protects the expression, not the idea. J.K. Rowling's lawyers can't do anything to stop me if I want to tell a story about a boy at a boarding school for wizards as long as it is my own expression of that basic idea. (If you think you have an idea that is inherently valuable, you need a patent my friend.)

Kleon makes two key points: "Nothing is original," and, "You are the sum of your influence."

Nothing is Original

With between six and seven billion minds on the planet right now, what statistically is the chance that no one else has had an idea similar to yours? Add the constraints of archetypes and only a handful of fundamentally different stories and you don't have much scope for something unique.

[This, by the way, is why agents reject quickly when you claim that there's nothing on the market like your manuscript.]

It would be easy to decide that it's not worth trying because it has already been done when you hear that nothing is original. But Kleon says the idea gives him hope: instead of wandering in the desert, spending a lifetime searching for an original idea, you can drink deeply from the same well everyone else uses. What matters is not the ideas, but how you use them.

You are the Sum of your Influences

What kind of story could a brain grown in a vat tell? What are the chances that you and the brain would have enough common points of reference to communicate? To put it another way, how many encyclopedias would have to accompany your novel so that the brain in the vat could understand it?

We exist, physically, socially, and mentally, in a vast web of shared ideas. Our explicit communication is only the visible part of an iceberg of references and associations. That last sentence, for example, works only if you know that icebergs are mountains of ice floating in the ocean with only about 10% of their mass visible above the surface. Think how exhausting communication would be if we had to spell out every reference and association.

Steal like an Artist

What does this mean for those of us who aspire to unique expressions?

Kleon says it very well:
"An artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: hoarders collect indiscriminately, the artist collects selectively. They only collect things that they really love."
An artist "steals" by becoming a conceptual omnivore, selecting and saving the ideas that resonate most strongly in a mental stock pot where their essences can commingle. The richer your broth of influences, the better your chances for making a unique association, or hitting upon a twist that is both surprising and inevitable.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, June 13, 2011

Law 6: Charity - Inclined to Think Favorably of Others

Making Monday

A man driving along a little-used country road at dusk got a flat tire. He swore when he opened the trunk and discovered his jack was missing. As he walked back to the nearest farm house he grumbled about the inconvenience and how it would soon be too dark to fix the flat anyway and how the farmer was probably already asleep and would curse him for waking the family. And by the time he reached the farmhouse, he'd worked himself up into such a state that he charged up the porch, hammered on the door, and, when the farmer answered, shouted, "I don't want your damn jack!"

Prejudice is a word we generally understand in terms of race and social relations. But it is, simply, "An adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts,"

Charity, in the sense of, "inclined to think favorably of others," and, "liberality in judging men," is an important part of the antidote to prejudice.

There is a very rough inverse correlation between prejudice and progress in arts and techniques. It is difficult for us to understand the radical change in human affairs brought about by the doctrine that people, even suspected criminals, are innocent until proven guilty. For a very long time people organized their world in terms of exclusive categories where entire classes of people could do no good. They approached the world of what could be made in similar terms.

That kind of thinking walls off all but a tiny portion of the universe of possibilities. Early English mariners reported that there were unicorns in Florida because the natives told them there were lions and everyone knows that lions and unicorns are natural enemies. Because of their categorical thinking (and the fact that they were a bit short on time because they didn't want to get caught by the Spanish) they missed the far more fantastic flora and fauna that actually live there.

Makers must forswear the luxury of prejudice because the only way to succeed at making is to approach the thing or project on its own terms. Whether a block of wood or a story idea, true makers don't impose their preconceptions on the subject: they enter into a kind of relationship with the subject in order to discover and express its particular potential.

This is extremely important during the early phases when everything you do with your subject seems to take it farther from what you thought it might become. Patience is clearly part of the equation, but charity, in the sense of, "inclined to think favorably" by not prejudging is fundamental. It's the one thing that keeps us from damn-jacking the project when we get frustrated.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Zen of Taking it Personally

Free-form Friday

With all the frustrations endemic to publishing, we generally do well to remember that it is a business and, whatever happens, we shouldn't take it personally. The form rejection your query received doesn't mean you're a bad person who should never be allowed to put pen to paper again. It only means that the agent wasn't compelled by your query.

But as with many things in the world that are more nuanced than black and white, there is another level at which you should take it personally. Howard Yoon, in an interview at the Guide to Literary Agents blog, said:
Take everything personally. If you get rejected, take it personally. Do better. Find out ways to improve yourself so that you don’t get rejected again. Fix your cover letter or your proposal or your writing. Trash your concept and start over. Don’t blame the industry or the market or the system. Take it upon yourself to improve YOUR chances.
He also said:
And when you get accepted, take it personally. Congratulate yourself. Treat yourself to a celebration. You earned it. You deserve it.
"But," you may ask, "isn't that completely contradictory? How can you both take rejection personally and not take it personally?"

Ah, herein lies another zen riddle.

You must not take it personally in any debilitating sense: don't allow a rejection to make you query your worth as a writer--or a person. Don't let the agonizing lack of response dampen your dream.

At the same time, you must take it personally in a constructive sense. Don't comfort yourself with the thought that a rejection is evidence of an agent's lack of vision. Instead, take responsibility for the fact that your query didn't work and ask what you can do to make it better, or to do a better job of finding agents who are likely to be interested. Or perhaps your story isn't as compelling as it could be (or another might be more compelling). In the end, the only question that matters--and the only aspect of the process over which you have control--is the question, "What can you do?"

[And sometimes the answer--perhaps the most difficult answer--is, "stay the course and be more patient."]

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Verisimilitude: Getting Science Right

Reading thuRsday

I attended a panel, at the 2011 LTUE conference, on Archeology in Science Fiction. The presenters were credentialed archeologists and they gamely fielded questions from the audience about the scientific plausibility of various plot points.

As someone who also trained in the dusty science, it was fascinating to listen to the questions. The audience understood that contemporary archeology looks nothing like an Indiana Jones adventure. Nevertheless, the issues they raised betrayed a simplistic hope for drama and excitement.

Real science is less exciting than you think and more thrilling than you can imagine. Every wet lab I've been involved with has had to mix flasks of colored water for the photographers because real chemistry and biology usually happen in clear or slightly tinted liquids that make for dull pictures. But when you understand what's actually happening in the reaction vessel, it blows your mind in a way pictures never could.

One of the questions to the panelists was, "What's the coolest thing you've ever found on a dig?"

The coolest thing I found during a dig was a tiny pearl button, perhaps a quarter inch in diameter.

I trust you're suitably disappointed: how could a little button compare with the Staff of Ra or perhaps a respectable pile of treasure?

But context changes everything. We were excavating a federal army outpost in southern New Mexico that was occupied for about ten years before the civil war. The button, which came from a dress--perhaps one that belonged to an officer's wife--spoke volumes about army logistics out on the frontier. (Following the Mexican-American war, the trade routes running south to Mexico shifted to the east in territories occupied by the U.S.)

The key point about science is that most of the time it's like a mystery where once you understand the context, one key piece of evidence unlocks the puzzle. It's rarely about drama because science is fundamentally about being as certain as possible that you know what you think you know. Drama, in contrast, flourishes in uncertainty.

To give the science in your fiction a degree of verisimilitude, approach it like a mystery, not a thriller.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

HJ4W-2 The Call to Adventure

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

The hero's journey begins when life in the Ordinary World is interrupted by a Call to Adventure. The call, following Kim Hudson*, may be a warning of danger, a wrong to right, or something unsettling: restlessness, temptation, or opportunity.

In terms of story structurally, the call to adventure is the inciting incident, the event that starts the journey. It is the thing that makes it impossible, at least for the hero, to continue life in the ordinary world: either they step up and undertake the journey or they live in terrible anticipation of what is coming or what could have been. When Frodo realizes he must take the ring from the Shire, when Luke stumbles upon Leia's message in R2D2, when Jim Hawkins learns he has a map to Treasure Island--each of these characters is at a point where, regardless of what they do, nothing will be the same.

This is why the first critical skill for storytellers is identifying the inciting incident. Specifically, what out of the mix of setting, circumstance, and character makes it impossible for your protagonist to continue with their safe, comfortable life in the ordinary world?

Those of use who take up the pen experience a similar call to adventure. Perhaps it was the danger of a layoff, the wrong of one bad book too many thrown across the room, the restlessness of a dream too long deferred, the temptation of famous authors laughing all the way to the bank, or a really good idea that simply wouldn't leave us alone.

You may not be able to point to a dramatic (or even specific) event that set you on your way, but there was a point at which you stopped toying with the notion of writing and started writing. I know of several cases, for example, where the author banged out a chapter or a short story to prove to themselves or others that they couldn't do it (and in fact proved the opposite).

The notion that you could do it--not just in the idle sense of declaring a book, "crap," and boasting you could do better, but the knowledge bubbling up from the deeper, behavior-changing well of motivation that you have enough talent, skill, and determination to produce a novel--changes everything: you can no longer be content simply reading other people's work.

Established writers have a similar experience, reaching a point where (for reasons from the practical--like having a contract for another book--to the personal--believing, for example, that you can do better) they can no longer be content with the work they have done.

What is consistent, whether we're talking about your protagonist or your experience as a writer, is that the call to adventure is a heady thing because it is fraught with peril and promise.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Steal Like an Artist: Introduction

Technique Tuesday

On Wednesday, March 30, 2011, Austin Kleon did us all a tremendous service. That's when he posted, "How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)."

Stop now and go read his presentation. It's well worth your time.

I was so impressed that I'm going to take Austin's advice and steal his presentation--like an artist. More to the point, I'm going to riff on Austin's ten techniques in the coming weeks. Here's an overview of what's to come:
  1. Steal Like an artist.
  2. Don't wait until you know who you are to make things.
  3. Write the book you want to read.
  4. Use your hands.
  5. Side projects and hobbies are important.
  6. The secret: do good work, then put it where people can see it.
  7. Geography is no longer our master.
  8. Be nice. The world is a small town.
  9. Be boring. (It's the only way to get work done.)
  10. Creativity is subtraction.
Austin is working now to turn Steal Like an Artist into a book. I encourage you to keep an eye out for it.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, June 6, 2011

Law 6: Charity - Giving What Only You Can Give

Making Monday

The sixth Law of Making, the third of the Laws of Living, is, "True making is an embodiment of charity."

When I say, "charity," the thing that most likely comes to mind is donating to a worthy cause. It's not bad for an initial association, and we'll start with giving even though charity in all its senses is a much broader and more profound topic.

A large part of the charity of makers is being willing to give what only you can give. A gift that is the product of your time and effort means more because you made it. A hand-written note or well-crafted email means more because of the time you devoted to it.

I'm sure you've heard the claim that there are only three (or five, or seven, or twelve) basic stories. Assuming that's true, why is there such demand for storytellers? Because while we may have heard this kind of story before, we haven't heard it the way you tell it.

As we focus on your unique gifts, beware of ego-centric misunderstanding: This isn't about being God's gift to the world, but about being willing to share what you can do without worrying what you'll get out of it.

The Shaker's motto, "Hands to work, hearts to God," sums up all the ways in which they practiced the charity of the makers and made their lives a prayer.

Making is an act of charity because you give some of yourself when you make.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, June 3, 2011

Voice and Writing Every Day

Free-form Friday


Writers not only hear them, they're supposed to have one.

"What's voice?" the new writer asks. "How do I develop one?"

"I know it when I see it," answers the agent/editor/other publishing professional. Or they may try to help by recommending books they think have a great voice.

So the new writer absorbs the voice, tries to write something similar, is told the piece has no voice, and comes away feeling increasingly frustrated.

Artists, with their tracing paper, learn by copying. Why can't we? After all, isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

Ah, but there's the problem: imitation.

Just like the high schools that are full of young people trying to find themselves by behaving exactly like all the other young people trying to find themselves, you won't find what's authentically you in someone else.

Writing is about self-expression. Voice is about the self that is expressed.

The reason we have trouble with voice is that we've absorbed so many influences and have built up so many assumptions about the nature of writing that we've lost touch with our own unique modes of expression.

Erin Reel, in a guest post on agent Rachelle Gardner's Rants & Ramblings blog, titled "Finding Your Authentic Voice," says:
"Don't write in a language that's not your own. Forget about following a genre trend just to get published. Tell a good story—one that a large audience will want to read and can identify with."
Her tips for finding your voice include read, practice, get clear about the story you want to tell, and make it your own. ("Make your story authentically yours by writing many rough drafts through which your voice will eventually surface.")

Writing every day will help you get past all the influences and assumptions you've internalized. I credit the journal I kept for several years for much of my own development.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Verisimilitude: Getting Economies Right

Reading thuRsday

I've enjoyed Harry Potter along with a substantial number of the other residents of this planet. And I've dutifully paid my Potter-tax by purchasing both the books and the movies. However, part way through I found that I enjoyed Rowling's mix of magic and muggles more if I thought about it less.

To say that parts of the wizarding world doesn't quite ring true is laughably like straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel because, in an objective sense, none of it is true (oh, and as long as I'm crushing your dreams, the Easter Bunny isn't real either). But there it is.

What's my problem?

The wizard economy.

So we have wizard gold. And some families have more of it than others. Aside, though, from the obvious parallels to the economic disparities in the world of our ordinary experience (i.e., wizard who aren't independently wealthy have jobs--apparently all at the Ministry of Magic) we don't see the wizard economy in action. And because the ability to do magic appears to be wholly unrelated to the size of one's account at Gringott's, we don't get anything more than an anecdotal sense (Weasleys vs. Malfoys) of what it means for witches and wizards to be rich or poor.

Of course, J.K. Rowling never set out to do an economic study. And a staggering number of people have enjoyed the stories as they stand.

The point I want to make with this example is that a little more attention to these questions could have improved the verisimilitude of the economic dimension of the  stories.

And why does that matter?

Because knowing what things cost increases the tension and ratchets up the stakes.

So how do you get economies right?

If I knew the answer to that question I'd set aside writing and take over the Federal Reserve.

Remember, our goal here is not something objectively correct. Rather, we're shooting for right enough to give the story a greater degree of verisimilitude.

Economies are networks in which actors take inputs and transform them into higher-value outputs they can exchange with other actors. A trader, for example, buys low at the source and adds value by transporting the goods to a market where relative scarcity allows them to sell high.

If you only have time to read one book to learn about real world economies, I recommend Jared Diamond's Collapse. Studying the way something falls apart is a great way to get a sense of how it works and how it fails.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

HJ4W-1 The Ordinary World

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

The hero's journey, which at one level is the transition, both physically and psychologically, from dependence to independence, begins in the ordinary world.

Because it is the stuff of our common experience, it's easy to gloss over the ordinary world. And because the interesting things only happen when the hero undertakes the journey, it's easy, both in our own experience and as storytellers, to give the ordinary world short shrift.

At the most basic level, the ordinary world provides the context for and counterpoint to the hero's journey. Memories of the ordinary, simple pleasure of the Shire sustain Frodo and Sam while suffering the rigors of their journey, and fear of what might happen to their home if they fail keeps them going.

The ordinary world is also the locus--perhaps threatened, or lost when the story begins--of safety and security. This is a critical element in the hero's journey because leaving the ordinary world means crossing from the known to the unknown, the tame to the wild, the safe to the unsafe, the light to the dark.

The hero's journey for writers begins in the ordinary world of readers, where we are dependent on others for the stories in which we delight. Whether our love grows or cools as we find more to read, over time we notice our dependence and toy with the notion we might someday become authors too.

In the ordinary world of readers, we are largely ignorant of the publishing world and the often perverse ways in which it works. There are two practical consequences of this ignorance.

The first is that we enjoy the luxury of criticism. We can declare books good or bad with impunity on the strength of the fact that as readers our opinion is the only one which matters.

The second is that we grossly underestimate the effort required to produce a book. For example, there are plenty of people who look at picture books and think it would be trivial to knock out a few hundred simple words and send it off to the illustrator (completely missing the fact that a picture book has to work for both the children and the adults reading to the children). Looking at a book, we have no idea how many agonizing revisions stood between the draft and the finished product.

What I find fascinating is that even those of us who have finished a novel find ourselves starting again from the "ordinary world" when we undertake a new project: completing the last one brought us to a safe place which we'll have to leave if we want to write another book.

Image: Simon Howden /