Friday, July 29, 2011

ePublishing and Internet Footprints

Free-form Friday

If you are an unpublished author, it's easy to feel left out as one metaphorical old coot after another runs into town crying, "There's gold in them eBooks! Saddle up your back list and go West!"

So I appreciate Bob Mayer's reasonable attempt to counter-balance the electronic self-publishing frenzy. He recently answered the question, "If I were an unpublished author, would I self-publish?" on his blog, Write it Forward.
"I’ve thought a long time about this, putting myself in that position, but using my 20 years of experience in traditional publishing and 2 years in indie publishing and having been successful in both.

"My answer:  No.  I wouldn’t self-publish my first manuscript. I’d be querying the traditional publishing route (primarily agents) while focusing on writing my second manuscript.  Then when I finished that, would I self-publish if I hadn’t gotten an agent?

"No.  I’d still keep querying, getting feedback from beta readers, and be writing my third manuscript.  Also, I’d have the three books be part of a series in terms of theme and content.  Same characters, setting, whatever, but they should essentially be the same genre.  When I finished that third book would I self-publish?

"Yes.  If I had gotten positive feedback from agents (but no sale) and beta readers and made the corrections.  I’d put all three titles up.  Then spend 50% of my time promoting while writing my fourth book."
Back in the dark ages of floppy drives and modems, the old shareware game formula was that you'd give one volume away free to entice users to purchase the other two. Three volumes was the magic number because it created a sufficiently large conceptual footprint (i.e., you were paying for twice as much as you received for free when you bought the game).

I note with some fascination that three volumes is the minimum footprint Bob recommends in the new world of self-publishing. The twist here is that the new Internet formula is about instant gratification. Think about it: if a web search turns up something cool, don't you expect to see all the associated cool things at the same time? The problem with self-publishing your first book is that there will be nothing else for your new fans to find. With so many other things clamoring for people's attention, how likely is it that they will wait patiently during the year it takes you to produce your second book?

Like most other "overnight successes," you'll probably "suddenly" make your fortune in eBooks only after you've put in the patient work to build a large-enough footprint.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Verisimiltude: Natural Romance - A Time and a Place

Reading thuRsday

Given the title, you may expect curmudgeonly comments along the lines of, "Get a room!" but what I really want to talk about is food poisoning.

Once, in a conversation with my brother-in-law, he mentioned that he'd suffered through a bout of food poisoning. I asked how he knew it was food poisoning. "You know sometimes you're sick enough that you're afraid you might die? With food poisoning you're sick enough that you're afraid you might live."

I know, it's not a pleasant topic. I mention it, however, because I recently had the pleasure of fearing that I might live and can assure you that during the experience I didn't give a single thought to romance.

Long ago I studied a computer simulation of simple organisms. The creatures moved through their environment searching for food and could reproduce only after they had accumulated enough excess energy. Of course, movement burned energy and food wasn't evenly distributed, so the organisms had to develop search strategies to find enough food close by to be able to reproduce.

As abstract as that simulation was, it captured an important element of natural romance: because it takes effort above and beyond what is required to simply survive, there's a time and a place for it.

We've discussed the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs before, but I wanted to call your attention to the fact that love and intimacy don't register until the third tier. Sex is in the first tier of physiological needs. That gap illustrates the difference between reproduction as a biological imperative and romance. Indeed, natural romances is as much about the fourth tier--esteem: respect of others and respect by others--as it is about the third. And true love, in a partnership where you're a genuinely better person because of the other, moves you toward the pinnacle of the pyramid.

This hierarchy also shows why structurally, romance occurs only after people have established themselves as competent, viable individuals (i.e., have learned how to satisfy their needs on at least the first two tiers).

In addition to these structural needs, there are corresponding needs for time and a place in the social and cultural dimensions. For example, most societies frown on excessive displays of affection in public spheres. Because we are social creatures, finding a partner who knows how to behave appropriately is as important as a partner who is healthy and knows how to acquire and manage the resources that satisfy our physiological and safety needs.

So I suppose I really have come full circle back to, "Get a room!"

More to the point, unless your story is specifically about people living way outside social and psychological norms, natural romance is much more about patience and discretion than passion and erratic behavior.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

HJ4W 9 The Reward

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

While I continue to hope there's a special ring of Hell reserved for public school coaches who say, "That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger," the hero's journey provides the kernel of truth to that old saw. Having faced the Crisis, and lived to tell the tale, the hero now knows the real nature of their antagonist.

Kim Hudson* describes the Reward as follows:
"The hero gains inspiration and information from the Crisis that gives him the edge when he again faces evil. He has a renewed drive to ensure that evil no longer threatens the safety of his village. The hero grabs the sword, the potion, the hostage, the information, or his new self-realization as his Reward, and takes a moment to celebrate."
Knowledge and empowerment are the key outcomes of this phase. The hero now finally understands the scope of the threat and what's truly at stake. Often, the hero has also managed to acquire something that will prove critical in the final confrontation. For example, when Luke and Han blast their way out of the Death Star, they have the plans (in R2D2) and the means (Leia and her connection with the rebellion) to destroy the Empire's ultimate weapon.

The writers who complete their own hero's journey emerge from the ordeal of rejection with the knowledge that it won't stop them. As painful as it may be, a rejection is only one person's reaction and not the final, game-ending buzzer.

Often, among the debris of rejection, we find nuggets of information that light the way to a stronger revision. It's hard, but if we accept that what we sent out the first time wasn't perfect, the combination of the feedback we've received and the passage of time that allows us to approach the manuscript with fresh eyes, gives us insight into things we may improve.

And most important of all, now you understand the true nature of the conflict and what it will take to see it through to the Final Battle.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Creative Life: Geography is No Longer Our Master

Technique Tuesday

The was a time (now past thanks to real-estate development and immigration) when I was related to nearly half of small town in south-western Utah. Visiting there as a child, I felt, like Luke Skywalker says of Tatooine, that I'd come to one of the places farthest from the bright center of the galaxy. [Except there was so little light pollution that the Milky Way blazed in its starry band across the summer nights and it was actually easier to see the bright center of the galaxy there than from other, more civilized places.]

Now, thanks to telecommunications and significantly improved roads and freeways, that corner of Utah is a bedroom community for Las Vegas.

Austin Kleon's seventh point in his presentation, How to Steal Like an Artist, is, "Geography is no longer our master."
"I grew up in the middle of a cornfield in Southern Ohio. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was hang out with artists. All I wanted to do was get the heck out of southern Ohio and get someplace where something was happening.

"Now I live in Austin, Texas. A pretty hip place. Tons of artists and creative types everywhere.

"And you know what? I’d say that 90% of my mentors and peers don’t live in Austin, Texas. They live on the internet."

We live, at least in the developed world, in an age of pervasive interconnectivity.

Distance no longer prevents you from seeing the great works (though there is something ineffable about seeing it in its actual setting).

The accident of location no longer dictates whether or not you may associate with other creative people.

The tyranny of space no longer prevents you from studying with the masters.

The confines of your current community no longer keep you from finding the audience who responds most strongly to your work.

In short your latitude and longitude no longer excuse you from your calling to live the creative life.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, July 25, 2011

Law 7: Vision - To See Beyond

Making Monday

There is an episode of Red Dwarf (Camille) in which Lister, the space bum, tries to teach the android Kryten how to lie.

Kryten: It's no good, sir. I just can't lie. I'm programmed always to tell the truth.

Lister: Kryten, it's easy. Look, [holds up an apple] an orange, [holds up an orange] a melon, [holds up a banana]  a female aardvark.

Kryten: That's just so superb, sir. How do you do that? Especially calling a banana an aardvark. An aardvark isn't even a fruit. That's total genius.
While admittedly silly, it does illustrate our capacity to see beyond the actuality of a thing.

We constantly make distinctions between objectively identical things: an otherwise unremarkable ring, for example, might be a cherished heirloom because it belonged to someone significant.

Makers take this a step further by being able to look beyond the present reality of a set of raw materials and see what they could become.

The seventh Law of Making, the first of the final trilogy called the Laws of Transcendence, is, "True Makers See Beyond the Actual to the Potential."

Makers see what can't be seen both in terms of the end of bringing something new into existence and the means of making the impossible possible. They find equal satisfaction in doing something that common wisdom holds can't be done and in creating a new thing. For writing this means a liberal helping of new ideas mixed with a fresh look at old ones.

The downside of this kind of vision is that once you've gone beyond an average banana to the exquisite universe of potential and possibilities that include a female aardvark, you'll find it difficult to be satisfied with the ordinary world. And you'll find it's nearly impossible to accept a half-hearted, run-of-the-mill effort from yourself.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, July 22, 2011

Publishing is Slow - Why Not Have Fun?

Free-form Friday

One of the things that makes self-publishing attractive, if your patience is anything less than saintly, is the fact that the time between the moment you finish your book and the point at which it begins appearing on shelves in the book store is best measured in years. Agents and then editors can take months to read your manuscript and then books are acquired roughly eighteen months before they will be published.

Why so long?

Large publishers have systems in place to make sure that they have books in the pipeline to meet their publishing schedule. The eighteen month schedule includes time for editorial revisions, all the aspects of book production from cover art, layout, and design to buying paper and scheduling the print run, and about six months of marketing efforts prior to publication.

Rachelle Gardner recently talked about why publishing is so slow.
"In reality, everyone is making decisions at exactly the speed they need to, in order to fill their lists. Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s fast. But you can be sure that no matter where in the pile your project is, this process isn’t all about you. Don’t take the perceived slowness personally."
It's hard to say how the new world of electronic publishing might change this picture, but one thing is certain: the time lags will never disappear completely. Editorial revisions will always take time. There's still book production work to do formatting files and testing them on various readers. And it could easily take six months of marketing effort after you publish to build an audience.

So what's a writer to do?

The same thing you do with any other aspect of life when you're forced to wait: you can either complain or have fun. 

If you choose the more adaptive path, in addition to working on your next project(s) you've got time to come up with creative ways to promote, launch, and augment your book.

And if it stops being fun--the hard, satisfying kind of fun--and becomes something you'd rather complain about, it might not be the right thing for you to do.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Verisimilitude: Natural Romance

Reading thuRsday

Some years ago I attended a panel where Tracy and Laura Hickman, Lynn Kurland, Julie Wright, Stacy Whitman, Leslie Muir Lytle discussed romance.

I was particularly interested in their answers to the question, "How do you make a romance feel natural?"

Leslie Muir Lytle: Any setting and character can be romantic. If you know your characters, you'll know what will attract them.

Within the overall qualification of the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs (i.e.,  a couple probably won't worry about working out the nuances of their relationship during a gun battle), romance can blossom anywhere. Even though everyone laughs, the moment in The Empire Strikes Back right before Han is frozen in carbonite when Leia professes her love and Han says, "I know," is deeply romantic if you think about it from the perspective of two character who may never see each other again.

On the other hand, the accoutrements of romance--food, wine, music, low lights are likely to produce unnatural romance where the couple play their parts but their hearts aren't in it because, at best, they are in love with being in love.

Like the force, natural romance flows from the characters, not from the setting.

Stacy Whitman: Give your protagonists flaws, but don't make them superficial.

Perfect people are as unnatural as a perfectly romantic setting. Need I say more?

Stacy Whitman: If the romance is a subplot, it needs to have bearing on the story.

Romance isn't a condiment that you can add to a story to spice it up. Use sex for that--everyone else does--but, as Tracy Hickman observes below, don't mistake sex for romance.

Julie Wright: Tension/chemistry--the discovery of each other; getting to know one another; how to cope with each other; all the games they play to get to know each other (the mating dance).

Natural romance is a growing, dynamic thing. It's not an all or nothing affair. While there are certainly people who are like volatile chemicals together, swinging between the extremes of love and hatred because of the intensity of their passions, very few of those couples achieve a happily-ever-after (which, by definition, is a stable, committed relationship). Which is not to say couples developing a natural romance won't have their ups and downs, but that their overall trajectory is to grow closer over time.

Leslie Muir Lytle: Men are compartmentalized; Women related everything to everything else, creating emotional ties between things that men would never recognize as related.
Laura Hickman: Give equal time to both viewpoints

There are important, if sometimes subtle differences between the genders. A crucial part of coming together is learning to live with someone who can at times make you doubt the fact that you are members of the same species. Put another way, if your hero and heroine think and act exactly alike, you don't have a romance, you have a duet of narcissism.

Tracy Hickman: Romance isn't about sex--everything but the act of sex tells us about us as humans and about the characters.

Our biological imperative to mate could be satisfied with the first healthy, willing, and able member of the opposite sex we find. Unlike many mammals who breed when the female is in estrous (i.e., "heat"), that's not how we work. The complex process by which we select a partner from among available mates is informed by concerns that span Maslow's hierarchy from basic sexual drives through family, culture, and society, to abstract notions of beauty, love, and truth. Because of that, the way our characters approach romance speaks volumes about who and what they are.

Rhyme and Reason

The bottom line is that natural romance has rhyme and reason. The rhythm may not be apparent to the characters (or the readers) in the midst of the process, but even in the moments that seem most irrational, it's still there. As with many other aspects, a romance has verisimilitude when the reader believes there are reasons for what's happening.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

HJ4W 8 The Ordeal

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

Having gathered Allies and made preparations on the way to The In-most Cave, in the mythic cycle the hero and their party undergo an 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."
Likely because that sounds too esoteric, Kim Hudson* calls this phase The Crisis:
"The Crisis is the first major confrontation with the antagonist. The villain's power is revealed and the hero gets a good taste of fear as he barely escapes with his life. This is sometimes knows as the false death and comes as a foreshadowing of the impending challenge to death in the Final Battle."
While there are any number of things that can go wrong on our journey as writers, the single biggest ordeal is rejection.

The first round of rejection is particularly challenging because (if you tried to do things right) you put so much effort into polishing the manuscript before submitting that it's hard to believe there's anyone who wouldn't like your story.

And largely because of all that effort, the rejections unleash the monsters of self-doubt: if all those industry pros don't like it, the story can't be as good as you thought--in deed, you can't be as good as you thought. Why are you even trying?

This is the moment in the cycle when the hero is overshadowed by death.

This is the moment when many writers succumb, because no amount of hearing you should expect rejection prepares you for the reality of the pain that comes when something into which you've poured so much love, effort, and devotion into is rejected.

Even if you know at a rational level that given the number of competing manuscripts your chances are slim, it doesn't lessen the sting of the rejection.

Even if you've been down the publishing road before, and have already suffered more than your fair share of rejections, the second, or fourth, or ninth time doesn't hurt any less (in part because you think you know how to do it right this time).

So what do you do?

The hero in the journey pushes on, strengthened by the fact that they faced death and lived. And, painful though it was, they've learned or acquired something (though they may not know it) that will help them in the Final Battle.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Creative Life: Do Good Work Then Put It Where People Can See It

Technique Tuesday

Nearly a year ago, I asked this question: As a variation on the philosophical conundrum about noisy trees falling in forests, if a capricious deity were to pluck Mozart out of Vienna and deposit him in the middle of darkest Africa, would he still be a genius?

One of the problems of the creative life, no matter how much we want to believe our art is pure and unsullied by the opinions of others, we need an audience: we need to believe that there is someone else out there, perhaps not even born yet, who will respond to our work.

Audiences, however, are much harder to come by than you might think. As Austin Kleon explains, in item 6 of his presentation, How to Steal Like an Artist, "... most of the world doesn’t necessarily care about what you think. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. As Steven Pressfield said, 'It’s not that people are mean or cruel, they’re just busy.'"

What, then, can you do to build an audience?

Kleon continues:
"If there was a secret formula for getting an audience, or gaining a following, I would give it to you. But there’s only one not-so-secret formula that I know: Do good work and put it where people can see it."
In other words, the only way to build an audience is to provide something they value enough to pay attention to.

So why, as a creative person, do you share?


The word, "validation," carries connotations of dependence, but at a certain, fundamental level we need the reassurance that others will respond favorably and that we are, in fact, not crazy.


One of the simple, yet powerful metaphors in the New Testament is that of a lit candle hid under a basket. It's even more significant if you remember that the metaphor comes from a time when candles weren't cheap or plentiful enough to be squandered on birthday cakes.

A truism of publishing is that the one way to guarantee you'll never get published is to never submit.


But the best reason to share is because we find something fascinating.

I'll give Kleon the final word:
I tell people this, and then they ask me, "What’s the secret of the internet?" Step 1: Wonder at something; Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, July 18, 2011

Law 7: Vision - To See Detail

Making Monday

I first began to wrap my head around the concept of orders of magnitude after watching Eva Szasz's Cosmic Zoom (National Film Board of Canada, 1968) many years ago. (An order of magnitude, by the way, is simply multiplying by ten: ten is an order of magnitude greater than one.)

The film starts with a boy in a row boat, zooms out to the scale of galactic clusters, back down to the boy and in to the scale of atoms, and then returns to the scale at which we exist. It's a great way to blow your mind without smoking or ingesting anything.

I draw two morals from the cosmic zoom:
  1. There's always a bigger picture in which the current big picture is just detail.
  2. It's the details that make the big picture interesting.
I once came across the claim that where most people are comfortable dealing with three or for orders of magnitude (from ones to thousands or ten thousands), those who build computer systems, both hardware and software, must routinely work across two or three times more orders of magnitude (millions or billions). In fact, with current processors that execute instructions in billionths of a second to systems that might run continuously for a billion seconds (about 32 years) you have eighteen orders of magnitude.

"But what does this have to do with me?" you might ask. "I'm a writer. I don't do numbers."

Just as the vision of the makers enables them to see far, it also enables them to see the details. In other words, in order to be a maker you must develop your own kind of cosmic zoom.

In a novel of, let's say, one hundred thousand words, you've nominally got five orders of magnitude between the book as a whole and any individual word. Each word is the detail that makes the sentence in which it occurs interesting. Each sentence builds it's paragraph. And so on through scenes, chapters, acts, and the book. (And the book, of course, may be part of something larger like a series.) But you've also got other dimensions--characters, plot, theme, setting, etc.--that span additional orders of magnitude.

The power of the vision of the makers is in seeing how the details can take us beyond the horizon to a new whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, July 15, 2011

Wendig on Six Reasons to Stop Writing

Free-form Friday

One of the secret fears that haunt us would-be scribblers in the wee hours of the morning, when sleep is scarce and we have no choice but to peer into the existential abyss, is the question, "Is anything going to come of our writing, or are we simply wasting our time?"

The good news is that this fear is natural and common to our species. In fact, it's necessary: we'd never bother to revise and improve if we didn't have the slightest doubt about the perfection of our writing.

The bad news is that sometimes the answer to that fearful question is, "Yes."

As Chuck Wendig explains in a PG-13 post about six signs that it's time to give up writing:
"Writing is a career that offers a tireless parade of moments emblazoned with self-doubt and uncertainty where you’re forced to ever reevaluate who you are and why you do this. You’ll often have to hold up your dream and examine it in the harsh light of day just to see how substantial it really is."
So how do you know if you'd be better off doing something else?

Chuck offers the following six signs:
  1. You’d Much Rather Talk About Writing Than Do Actual Writing
  2. You Spent Your Time Doing Everything But Putting Words On Paper
  3. Your Production Levels Are ... *Lone Coyote Howling*
  4. That Teetering Tower Of Rejections Threatens To Crush You And Your Cats
  5. You Got The Wrong Idea About Writing
  6. Writing Is An Endless Sisyphean Misery
(The "Wrong Idea About Writing," by the way, includes things like you love books, you want to work from home, you want to be rich and/or famous. "Writing," Chuck succinctly explains, "is about writing. It's about telling stories. That's why you do it.")

My aim in highlighting Wendig's signs isn't to depress you, but to make the point that until you're under contract you have no obligation to write. Specifically, you have no obligation to write novel length manuscripts and attempt to sell them to traditional publishers.

We live in a time when there's almost no limit on ways in which you can express yourself. From blogs to videos (with a detour through flash mobs somewhere in the middle), the opportunities to shout your barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world are multitudinous. (We'll ignore, for a moment, the fact that a multitude is simultaneously yawping.) Perhaps there are other media that are a better fit for your particular genius.

And if you return from the abyss with your dream intact, then it's a substantial dream that's worth pursuing.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Quest and Romance: Oil and Water?

Reading thuRsday

Last week we looked at the structural analogy between romance, as the journey of two people coming together, and the hero's journey. Having compared the two kinds of stories, it's only fitting that we take a moment to contrast them as well.

At a conference presentation on romance, the speaker asked which male character in the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV - VI for you young-uns) was most romantic. By overwhelming consensus the audience voted for Han Solo.

Why not Luke? It is, after all, the story of how he becomes a hero.

The answer is in the verb near the end of the last sentence: becomes.

What is Han? Easy: he's a rogue and space pirate (and some of you might insist on adding the qualifier, "devilishly handsome").

What is Luke? It depends on when you ask. At different times he is a farm boy, an orphan, an apprentice, a pilot, a soldier, a student, a son, a Jedi, a brother, and a savior. All of these are aspects of Luke becoming a hero--which is as it should be because the hero's journey is fundamentally about a character's transformation.

Now think about the classic romance pattern: the romantic lead is often well-established in some fashion. For example, we meet Mr. Darcy when he's the master of Pemberly, not as the callow youth being sent off to school for the first time. Han Solo has the Millennium Falcon and has made a place (albeit a tenuous one) for himself in the galaxy. As clichéd as it is, there was a time when the guy in high school with the car got more attention from the girls because it was proof he had the wherewithal to acquire and operate an expensive piece of machinery.

Here's the key point: you can't have a classic romance while the hero (and/or the heroine) are transforming themselves from debatable youths to wiser, tested, and fundamentally more admirable people.

For example, in Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, it's clear Taran and Eilonwy are fond of each other from the first volume, but their romance doesn't blossom until the final volume. In the intervening volumes, they both go through one or more hero's journeys largely on their own.

This, of course, isn't an argument that you can't have a classic romance in high school. And heaven knows real life is usually a perplexing muddle of being and becoming. But in terms of structure, where a hero's journey is as much about becoming an individual who can stand on their own, a classic romance is about distinct individuals becoming a couple. They're fundamentally different kinds of stories.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

HJ4W 7 Approach to the In-most Cave

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

The seventh phase of the hero's journey is the Approach to the In-most Cave. In the mythic form, something critical--a talisman, a weapon, or simply a key bit of information--lies hidden and guarded in an actual cave. The hero and the allies he gathered in the sixth phase now understand enough about the special world to take this step to improve their chances.

Kim Hudson* describes the preparations characteristic of this step:
"Once the Hero has amassed a group of allies, they need to get information or some object that will increase their chances of success in the Final Battle. They begin by making a plan to infiltrate the villain's inner sanctum. There is a moment of calm while the Hero and his allies plan and bond as a group. The operation is laid out, dangers are highlighted, and the significance of the mission is explained. ... The object is to get in and get out, and be wiser for the effort."
For writers, this phase corresponds to working with critique groups and beta readers to revise and polish the manuscript in preparation for submission.

Agents and editors, as much as they say they open every query hoping to find the next big thing, are structurally handicapped by the volume of material they receive and must as a matter of survival stop reading as soon as they find one too many problems. Getting past all the automatic reasons the people you query have to say, "No," is very much like infiltrating the villain's lair (not that agents and editors are villains but rather that the effort to stand out amid all the other queries is analogous to getting past the defenses). So you and your allies go through the drafts of the manuscript, synopsis, and query, sharpening and strengthening everything until you're ready to launch your submission.

And in that quite moment when you survey your work and realize you are prepared as you can be, there's a delicious mix of confidence, excitement, and a sprinkling of anxiety--as you nod and think this could actually work--to savor.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Creative Life: Side Projects and Hobbies are Important

Technique Tuesday

In a perfect world, Austin Kleon's fifth point, in his presentation, "How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 other things nobody told me)," Side projects and hobbies are important, shouldn't need saying. The world in which we live, however, is not one most of us would mistake for perfect. Among the catalog of ills that beset us North Americans is that we are immersed in a culture that values long hard work over leisure.

Economic measures show U.S. workforce productivity growing year after year as we do more with less, cover job functions for people who have been let go and not replaced, and desperately try to realize the myth of multitasking. We even take a perverse sort of pride in getting roughly half as much vacation time as our European counterparts.

An interesting side-effect is that we work just as hard at play as we do at work. If you believe the soft drink adds, you're not really recreating unless you're careening down a mountain on a snow board, mountain bike, or para-glider. We've reduced play to excitement and entertainment by squeezing out time-wasters like concentration and contemplation.

Kleon argues that we need to balance our directed activities with non-directed activities:
Speaking of play — one thing I’ve learned in my brief tenure as an artist: it’s the side projects that blow up.

By side projects I mean the stuff that you thought was just messing around. Stuff that’s just play. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens.
Hard work has its place, so long as we don't lose sight of the magic that makes it all meaningful.

There's truth to the cliché about refilling the well. Kleon says, "It’s also important to have a hobby. Something that’s just for you."

The technique here is to make time and space where you can play the kinds of quiet games that help your creativity to flourish.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, July 11, 2011

Law 7: Vision - To See Far

Making Monday

Horizons are magical. They mark the boundary between the known world and terra incognita (where there may even be dragons).

Most of us live with horizons far narrower than the landscape we can see. We spend our days constrained by the bounds of work, family and friends, and ever-changing patterns of pixels that wink at us with the promise of endless virtual horizons.

The seventh Law of Making, the first of the final trilogy called the Laws of Transcendence, is, "True Makers  See Beyond the Actual to the Potential."

One of the ways makers see beyond is that they see far in both space and time. From going to the high ground to take in the lay of the land to understanding how things work over time, makers have broader horizons. It's not because makers are seers: they don't see what will be. Instead, they see what can be.

At one point in Joe Versus the Volcano (a fascinating movie, by the way, if you want to study narrative recursion), Patricia says,
"My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement"
Makers, when they can see the big picture, are like that.

Where most people confronted with a blank page see, for example, an unfinished assignment, makers see beyond to a universe of possibilities. In the sixth grade, we were assigned to write sentences that used our spelling words. The first week, I turned in a single twenty-seven word sentence that used all twenty spelling words. The second week, having decided that concise was too easy, I turned in a four-page story that incorporated my spelling words. Then I decided I would write a twenty-page story and use one spelling word on each page in something other than its ordinary sense but in a way justified by the story (e.g., "donkey" as the name of a vehicle instead of the animal). The goal, of course, was too ambitious for my twelve-year-old discipline, but it illustrates the ambition.

An aspect of the vision of makers, which has particular relevance to writers, is that they can see the dependency chains. A dependency chain is a high-sounding title for all the things that need to happen to produce a particular outcome. If, for example, you want to be in another city at a certain place and time you have to book your flight, pack, get to the airport, get through security, get to the right gate, board the plane, and so on. In a novel, one of the best ways to get to the cool climax you envision is to start there and work your way back, asking at each step what had to happen before to get to this point.

Of course, there is a price to be paid for this vision: the dark side of seeing far means you need more patience than normal. Makers constantly see things that can't yet be: the time may not be right, resources aren't yet available, your audience isn't ready, or the process simply takes time. Whatever the reason, makers need the courage to be patient until the thing they see from afar can be realized in the right way.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, July 8, 2011

On the Difference Between Commerce and Culture in the Bookstore

Free-form Friday

Meghan Cox Gurdon published a follow-on piece, titled "My 'Reprehensible' Take on Teen Literature," discussing the reactions to her earlier  complaint about the seemingly overwhelming darkness in the YA section of the bookstore.

Both pieces sparked a lot of discussion, with opponents saying Gurdon was calling for censorship and ignoring the therapeutic value of such books.

Amid the hullabaloo (or is it a brouhaha), people seem to have forgotten the difference between commerce and culture. Put another way, we like to think that books are about culture, but we have them because of commerce.

It would be nice to get the industry, both publishers and book stores, to commit to providing a variety of culturally relevant voices, but thanks to the ghost of Adam Smith and his invisible hand, it won't happen.

You see, market driven economies are very good at oversupplying a perceived need. (That's why three Lambada movies were released within weeks of each other in the '90s.) The moment something seems to be gaining popularity (I'm looking at you, Twilight) authors, then publishers, and finally book sellers rush to that part of the cultural spectrum in the name of being responsive to readers (and shareholder's) needs.

And every one of those commercial players (authors, publishers, booksellers) is complicit in creating a kind of cultural imperative that says some combination of, "This is what everyone else wants, you should too," and "We think this is more important than other stuff."

The mother Gurdon described (in her first essay) who popped into the bookstore to find a book for her thirteen-year-old daughter walked into the YA section and discovered she couldn't simply pick something from the shelf because it's likely to be full of horribleness.

Therein lies the real problem: book buyers.

As readers, we have bought into the conceit that publishing is a cultural institution when it is, in fact, an industry. There are people who read everything on the bestseller lists who neither know nor care whether the laundry soap or soft drink they prefer is the market leader. We chant, "Buyer beware," to ourselves when we go into a car dealer, but it slips our minds when we go into the bookstore.

Readers need to take responsibility by voting with their wallets in the commercial arena of the booksellers for the kind of books they believe will yield the greatest cultural benefit.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Verisimilitude: Romance - The Journey to Together

Reading thuRsday

At the end of When Harry Met Sally..., the titular couple appear in the pseudo-documentary that punctuates transition points in the movie with various couples telling how they came together:
Sally: The third time we met, we became friends.
Harry: We were friends for a long time.
Sally: And then we weren't.
Harry: And then we fell in love.
That, in a nutshell is the arc of a classic romance.

Lynn Kurland, speaking at LTUE 2009, described the three phases of a classic romance this way:
  1. Boy meets girl (meeting) - this is as important as setting up the quest; here the reader decides whether it's worth the time to follow the story. The meeting leaves the reader wondering, "How in the world are they ever going to overcome this and get together?"
  2. Stuff happens (courtship)
  3. Boy gets girl and they go off to their happily-ever-after (pay-off). 
In terms of overall structure, if the story doesn't end with a happily-ever-after, it's not a classic romance.* As romantic as portions of Romeo and Juliet may be, the story is a tragedy. In a sense, a romance is analogous to a hero's journey because they both end with the goal attained.

Lynn's comment that the meeting in a romance is "as important as setting up the quest [in an adventure]" piqued my interest in the parallels and differences between the two kinds of stories.

First, they both are fundamentally about journeys that cross the space separating a problem and its resolution. But where a quest is about crossing a physical space, a romance is about crossing social and emotional space. Also, at a fairly abstract level, both kinds of journeys involve separation (the hero from the village they're trying to save, the couple from each other) and eventual reunion, but a quest has a single trajectory where a romance has two.

Second, both kinds of stories must have several try/fail cycles. Just as a hero who saves the village with a fifteen-minute trip to the convenience story isn't much of a hero, a couple who meet and head right to the wedding chapel don't provide much romance. I'm not saying such things don't happen in the real world, but as narratives they're not even worth a short story.

Try/fail cycles demonstrate that the stakes are far greater than the protagonists (and the reader) imagined. The hero's first attempt to right the wrong usually results in them getting knocked down, perhaps almost killed. Similarly, the couple's first meeting should show as many or more reasons why they'll never get together as why they might. The failure, however, is never complete and shows that the hoped-for outcome is still possible.

But there's more going on in the try/fail cycles of a romance than, "Could it work? No. Could it work? No. Could it work? Yes." The key difference is that a romance follows the trajectories of two people who must not only find each other, they must find in the other someone they respect and who completes them. In both Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, our heroines had to reject the first chance for marriage because the resulting union would have been dangerously imbalanced.

The couple's journey together is the substance of the second phase ("Stuff happens") in a classic romance. There are, of course, more dimensions to an actual romance, but if you can at least show through try/fail cycles how the two people develop a balance partnership, without ever losing respect for each other, until they reach the point where they can see how they complete each other, your romance will have a high degree of verisimilitude.

* Yes, I know the English Romantics explored the entire spectrum of emotion and sensuality, including some pretty dark and tragic themes. But here we're discussing what readers currently expect from romance.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

HJ4W 6 Tests, Allies, and Enemies

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

There is a great Sid Harris cartoon that, while it says a lot about science and scientists, also says something profound about middles--both how difficult they are and how, particularly in narratives, we like to skip ahead to the good bits.

Sid Harris, Science Cartoons Plus
With the montage, films have a powerful idiom that conveys the fact that the characters have been occupied for some period of time without boring the audience by showing a sampling of the highlights or representative moments of those activities.

In the sixth phase of the hero's journey, Test, Allies, and Enemies, "the hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World."*

In Star Wars (Episode IV), for example, Luke finds allies in the cantina, tests his skills on the way to Alderaan, and meets his enemies on the Death Star. Of course, even that narrative is more complex because that sequence can be seen as a series of tests and training to prepare Luke for the final confrontation. The important observation in terms of the hero's journey is that Luke starts as a farm boy very much out of his element and ends, as they battle the Tie fighters before they can make good their escape, as a budding hero (who still needs to be reminded not to get cocky).

Unfortunately, life and narrative diverge because in real journeys this phase is the part that takes most of the time. We have to live through all the moments that end up on the cutting room floor when the editor makes the montage.

That's not to say that the phase of tests, allies, and enemies is something tedious we must endure. It is, in fact, the substance of what we learn and how we transform ourselves on the journey.

As writers, this is the time when we actually produce a draft. Our skills as wordsmiths and storytellers are tested, we find allies--whether figurative or literal--that help us write, and enemies that block us.

And most importantly, unlike our protagonists who only have to go through the narrative highlights, we need patience and faith to do the all the actual hard work of passing the tests, developing our skills, finding allies, and identifying enemies required to produce a manuscript.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Creative Life: Use Your Hands

Technique Tuesday

If you've been writing for any length of time, there's advice you've probably heard so often that your partner sometimes has to wake you in the middle and tell you to stop mumbling, "Show don't tell," in your sleep. A corollary to that writerly axiom is that we should engage all our reader's senses when showing. So it's deeply ironic that we scribblers often do our work watching screens as we type on keyboards, using as few of our senses and as little of our body as possible.

Austin Kleon's fourth admonition, in his presentation, "How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 other things nobody told me)," is to Use your Hands:
"So my advice is to find a way to bring your body into your work. Draw on the walls. Stand up when you’re working. Spread things around the table."
When we talk about being fully engaged, we're usually referring to one's attention. But consider times when you've been fully engaged in a physical activity. Perhaps it was the bottom of the ninth, or in the morning cool of the garden, or dancing with a certain someone. In those moments, do you remember thinking about how your were going to move or what you were doing next, or did one movement flow into another?

We've talked about the psychological state of flow--a conceptual analog to superconductivity where the distinction between you and the work blurs, at least in a conscious sense, and everything seems to come together almost effortlessly. Flow is more common when you're physically engaged in an activity. It springs from the joy of feeling fully alive.

I have a three-year-old nephew whose barely contained glee with all the things he can (or imagines he can) do drives him to fling himself bodily into every bed, cushion, or pile of leaves. And if he suffers a bump or bruise, he cries with the same passion until it's time to leap into the next adventure a few minutes later.

On a quieter note, I have, for many years, supplied my family with flour tortillas. It's as difficult to reduce the experience of mixing, kneading, forming, rolling, and cooking to words as it is to explain why and how I shape a round of dough before I roll it without using my hands. Sometimes, it's as though the day's frustrations melt out of my arms as I knead the dough. Sometimes, it's like making mud pies when I was almost as buoyant as my nephew. Over the years, I suspect I've saved a significant amount on therapy while producing something warm and tasty to share with those near and dear.

One of the subtly sad things about growing up is internalizing all the ways in which we're not to use our hands. And so, one of the best and simplest ways to tap into our creativity is to channel your inner three-year-old and get dirty with joyous abandon.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, July 4, 2011

Law 7: Vision - Building a Nation

Making Monday

The seventh Law of Making, the first of the final trilogy called The Laws of Transcendence, is the law of vision: true makers see beyond the actual to the potential.

Vision is a word that once had prophetic overtones, and now, at least in corporate America, is almost as meaningless as mission statements.

But the fact that there is a corporate America to complain about is one of the things we're celebrating today in the United States.

When the founders drafted the constitution and established the union, there was good money wagered that it wouldn't last. And there have been a number of times during the ensuing several hundred years when it looked like the naysayers were going to collect on their bet. Yet in establishing a system in which competing interests were balanced under the rule of law (not the influence of a powerful few) they strove to get beyond the actual state of human affairs and realize the potential of something far grander.

Regardless of what happens in the undoubtedly tumultuous years to come, the founders had the vision to make something that transcended them and their narrow interests. That's worth celebrating. And that, in a nutshell, is the goal of all makers.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, July 1, 2011

Storytelling on British and American Television

Free-form Friday

I enjoy British sitcoms more than American ones.

There I said it. And I'm prepared to face accusations of a lack of patriotism or, worse, elitism.

Part of it is the cultural distance: it's easier to believe people across the pond are like the ones I see in the programs because I don't rub shoulders with many counter-examples. Cultural distance is, however, even more important on a structural level. The British programming with which I'm most familiar has come through the good offices of various PBS stations, who presumably have selected the best programs.

I also confess a weakness for the language. Between the accents and the slang, viewing British comedies is a more engaging experience because it requires effort on my part to follow along. Their writers seem to have a particular gift for articulate, literate, sarcasm.

But I think the most important reason is the format. Thanks to the commercial interruption, American sitcoms have two acts, where their British counterparts have only a single, longer act.

In addition to forcing the story into two acts, the American format requires the first act to end on a strong enough note to keep the viewer's interest during the commercials. Then the second act must bring down the tension in order to have enough runway to build to the climax of the story. In other words, the story has to have two high points: a false climax at the end of the first act and the narrative climax at the end of the second.

In contrast, British sitcoms can spend the entire half-hour developing the characters and building the narrative tension toward a natural (in the sense of having only one climax) resolution.

This is why there's some truth to the generalization that British comedies are driven by character, while American comedies are driven by caricature.

Of course my point here is not to argue for English superiority but to show how structure effects storytelling.

If you haven't seen any British sitcoms, you owe it to yourself as a writer to compare and contrast. It's an eye-opening exercise.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /