Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

In her study of the archetypes of storytelling, Kim Hudson* discovered a cycle she calls, "The Virgin's Promise," which is the feminine counter part of the masculine Hero's Journey. Hudson explains the complementary character of the patterns as follows:
"Although they are both stories about learning to stand alone, the Virgin story is about knowing her dream for herself and bringing it to life while surrounded by the influences of her kingdom. The Hero story is about facing mortal danger by leaving his village and proving he can exist in a larger world. The Virgin shifts her values over the course of her story to fully be herself in the world. The Hero is focused on developing his skills to actively do things that need to be done in the world. The Virgin is about self-fulfillment while the Hero is about self-sacrifice."
Hudson is careful to point out that the gender association of each cycle is a matter of common experience, not necessity: men and women go through both patterns at different times and places in their lives. The determining factor is whether you are already a part of a community and immeshed in its web of expectations or whether you must leave your community and make your way in the world.

Like the Hero's Journey, there are thirteen beats or phases in the Virgin's Promise:
  1. Dependent World - "The Virgin's journey begins with an introduction to the world upon which she is dependent, in which a part of her is lying dormant."

  2. The Price of Conformity - "The Price of Conformity is the suppression of the Virgin's true self. When the Virgin subscribes to the views of the people around her, she experiences a loss of self."

  3. Opportunity to Shine - "The Opportunity to Shine is the action that leads to the first expression of the Virgin's potential."

  4. Dresses the Part - "Dresses the Part provides the viewer with a fun and pleasurable sense that perhaps dreams can come true and life is meant to have joy in it."

  5. The Secret World - "Once the Virgin has had a taste of living her dream and has made it a tangible reality, she creates a secret place in which it can thrive."

  6. No Longer Fits Her World - "Through spending time in her Secret World, the Virgin increases her power in the form of self-knowledge, and starts to see her dream as a possible reality. It is also becoming clear to the Virgin that she cannot juggle these two world forever."

  7. Caught Shining - "[R]eality hits and the Virgin must face the fact that she cannot keep her two worlds separated anymore. The Secret World and the Dependent World collide and the feared consequences manifest. The Virgin often finds herself punished, shamed, or exiled."

  8. Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck - "[T]he Virgin must sacrifice some of her past to move into her future. Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck is the major turning point in the psychological growth of the Virgin."

  9. Kingdom in Chaos - "A ripple effect takes place as the Virgin begins to change and the result is chaos in the kingdom."

  10. Wanders in the Wilderness - "[This] stage is a test of the Virgin's conviction and it is her moment of doubt."

  11. Chooses Her Light - "[T]he Virgin decides to trust herself and pursue her dream or passion, whatever happens. ... She would rather shine than be safe or maintain order."

  12. Re-ordering (Rescue) - The Re-ordering "recognizes the Virgin's true value when she is fulfilling her dream; and it reconnects the Virgin with a community."

  13. The Kingdom is Brighter - "The Virgin has challenged the kingdom and thrown it into chaos. They have accepted her back and made adjustments to accommodate her authentic nature or her dream. ... the kingdom comes to realize that it is better off ..."
We'll take a look at each of these beats in more detail over the coming weeks, both to understand the narrative arc they form and to highlight analogous experiences in the writing life.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, August 29, 2011

Making and the Laws of Transcendence

Making Monday

The final trilogy of the Laws of Making is called, "The Laws of Transcendence." As with the other aspects of maker philosophy, the transcendence with which we're concerned here isn't the absolute move-from-one-plane-of-existence-to-another kind, but rather the relative sort that you find in the dictionary definition: to climb above; to rise above; to go beyond; to surpass, to excel.

The last three laws are:

Law 7: True Makers see Beyond the Actual to the Potential. (Vision)

Transcendence begins with a vision of the possibility of surpassing what has been done, even if only in some small way. Be it better, faster, simpler, or more elegant, makers who master the Laws of Transcendence are open and attuned to the potential to go beyond and to excel.

Law 8: The True Maker's Devotion Never Wavers. (Devotion)

The substance of transcendence is devotion. Devotion isn't about what you're entitled to. And it's not about what's fair. The devotion of the makers is about climbing above the situation in order to realize the vision. To paraphrase the band Rush, it's about putting "aside the alienation" in order to "get on with the fascination."

Law 9: The Highest Power is to Finish, and the Greatest Wisdom is to Know When to Finish. (Completion)

The final and full expression of transcendence is knowing when to finish and then actually doing so. Finishing creates a dual transcendence: the work transcends you and takes on an independent existence, and at the same time you transcend the work.

Making is, by its very nature, transcendental: the act of bringing a new thing into existence acknowledges the fact that you aren't the only thing in the universe.

And paradoxically, by making you can actually rise above the confined plane in which the self-interested users exist to a far more expansive realm.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, August 26, 2011

Time for a Change

Free-form Friday


It's the only constant.

(And statements like that drive logicians crazy.)

Another thing that can be crazy-making is trying to do all the good and worthwhile things you can imagine.

Given that my proposal for a 27-hour day has been rejected--again*--it's time for a change here: beginning next week I'll post on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Mondays, after we complete our exploration of the ninth Law of Making in September, will be a mix of making and technique topics.

Wednesday's will continue to be devoted to writing.

Fridays will be a mix of reading and free-form topics.

While the number of courses may be fewer, I hope you'll continue to enjoy the meal.

* Something about the unintended consequences of messing with orbital dynamics.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Verisimilitude: Magic Systems

Reading thuRsday

When we think of magic, synonyms like wonder, amazement, or even supernatural likely come to mind. When we write about magic, particularly when we're creating fictional worlds in which magic plays a part, words like supply, demand and cost should be foremost in our minds. Economics seems about as far removed from magic as you can get, but it's the foundation of verisimilitude even when we're dealing with the most fantastic things.

One of the basic rules of economics is that given two equivalent items for sale, people, as rational economic actors, will always choose the one that is less expensive. When innovations come along that deliver the same or better experience for less, people abandon the old in favor of the new. CDs eclipsed vinyl and then MP3 players became all the rage.

What does this have to do with magic?

What do you think would happen if people could conjure what they need and want with little thought or effort?

I suspect commerce, specialization, and even initiative would disappear. Much of what we strive for simply wouldn't be worth the bother. Most importantly, at least for writers, in a world where the price of anything you want is the wave of a wand, conflict goes away. Put in economic terms, without want (demand, and its implied willingness to pay a price) there is no market.

So what can you do if you want magic in your story? Are there any precedents that will give some degree of verisimilitude?

Arthur C. Clarke famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The smart phones that many of us tote, for example, would give most lamp-based genies a run for their money (assuming adequate cell coverage during Arabian nights). So the best way to increase the verisimilitude of your magic system is to let your experience with advanced technology be your guide.

In a post on, "Creating Magic Systems," Heather Moore shared her notes from a presentation by Holly Black:
"Holly Black described her world-building process as “6 crazy blue circles”. Each of her “circles” are the springboard for answering the important world-building questions.

"According to Holly, coming up with a magic system that works, you must ask yourself these 6 questions:

  1. Who has it?
  2. What does it do?
  3. How do you make it happen?
  4. How is user affected?
  5. How is world affected?
  6. How are magic users grouped & perceived?
In a similar vein, Brandon Sanderson (who has more experience with systematic magic than most of the rest of us) says that "Magic systems can fall anywhere in the spectrum from wonder-based to rule-based, but to be credible, there must be constraints and consequences."

That conclusion flows directly from Sanderson's First Law:
"Your ability to solve problems in your book with magic is directly proportional to how well your reader understands the system of magic."
Sanderson suggests developing magic as you would the setting:
  • Focus on an ability that isn't overused or give it a unique twist.
  • Add an interesting cost to use that ability.
  • Find good visuals that provide an interesting way to describe the magic as it is used.
  • Include limitations on how the magic can be used--these are usually more interesting than the power itself.
As with just about everything else we've covered under the rubric of verisimilitude, rhyme and reason resonate more strongly than coincidence.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Hero's Journey for Writers in Retrospect

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

The hero's journey was most succinctly characterized by Bilbo Baggins when he titled his memoirs (which we know as The Hobbit), "There and Back Again."

Because of the overriding urgency of the impending crisis that impels the hero to undertake the journey, we tend to think of a linear progression from problem, through attempts, to the ultimate solution. When painting with broad brushes, we use quest as a task-oriented synonym for the hero's journey: obtain the goal or meet the conditions of the quest and you're done.

In doing so, we lose sight of the fact that the hero's journey is a mythic cycle.

Myth is not history. History is what happened in a particular time and place. Myth is what happened (and is happening) in many times and places.

And the important thing about the pattern is that it is a cycle: the hero's journey is really about coming full circle.

Consider the outbound and inbound parallels:

It begins in the The Ordinary World and ends there when the hero Returns with the Elixir. Called to Adventure, the hero Refuses the Call because of fear--the very fears he must confront in the final conflict and transcend in his Resurrection as a new man. One or more Mentors help the hero Cross the Threshold into the unknown world, just as hard-won Rewards give the hero the knowledge and the wherewithal to take The Road Back that leads to the final confrontation. The middle of the journey is about discovering Allies and Enemies, attempting to resolve the crisis by Approaching the In-most Cave, and enduring Ordeals.

There and back again--because the hero's journey is an archetype of personal transformation.

This all may seem overly academic.

Why can't we just say, "Stuff happens," and be satisfied?

Because when there's a recurring pattern, stuff isn't simply happening.

The twelve phases of the hero's journey are not simply labels that Joseph Campbell found convenient for his purposes. Each represents a point of failure:


The Ordinary World
If the hero is too comfortable, there is no journey. If the writer is too comfortable, there is no book.

Called to Adventure
If nothing threatens the village, there is no need to undertake the journey. If there's no moment of inspiration, no, "Hey, I could write a book," there's no need to fire up the forge and begin hammering out words.

Refuses the Call
If the threat is easily dismissed, there is no need for a hero. If the idea is only strong enough for a blog post or an essay, there is no need for a book.

Without guidance, would-be heroes generally flounder and fail. Without guidance, or at least support and some kind of positive feedback, would-be authors generally flounder until their enthusiasm for the project peters out.

Cross the Threshold
If the hero stays with the mentor, to prepare a bit more or hone another skill, and never sets out on the journey proper, the village will not escape the peril. If the writer is forever studying the craft and keeping up with the industry, going to conferences, taking courses, participating in critique groups, and all the dozens of ways in which one can feel like a writer without actually writing, the book will never be finished.

Allies and Enemies
If the hero fails to distinguish between the allies and enemies he encounters in the special world, his journey will end badly. If writers don't know who to trust, if they follow bad advice, or get impatient and rush to market, the book will end badly.

Approaching the In-most Cave
If the hero never attempts to carry the fight to the enemy, he'll never learn what he needs to know or acquire the item that will make the difference in the final conflict. If the writer never puts their work out for others to see, they'll never learn about their strengths and weaknesses, who their audience is and what resonates with them, and where they need to improve.

If the hero succumbs to the ordeal or loses his nerve, he fails. If the writer is overwhelmed by rejection and withdraws, they fail.

If the hero fails to claim the reward for surviving the ordeal or the hard-won knowledge it has to offer, he will not have what he needs to win in the final battle. If the writer doesn't learn from and grow stronger through the rejections from agents and editors, they'll stand no chance against the merciless one-star reviewers who will pounce on the published work.

The Road Back
If the hero turns aside from the road back to the final confrontation, the battle is over before it begins. If, in the seemingly endless rounds of revision, the writer loses faith, interest, or even the vision that carried them to this point, the book will die before it's been born.

If the hero isn't transformed by the final conflict--if he doesn't transcend his foes--he will win, at best, a hollow victory and stands a good chance of becoming the new enemy. If the writer doesn't transcend the painful, grinding process of publication, and find a pure and unsullied joy in their work, they go down a path of bitterness and cynicism, in which writing becomes a Sisyphean chore.

Return with the Elixir.
If the hero doesn't return with the elixir, the village will not be made whole and the hero betrays everything for which he has suffered and fought.. If the writer never gives back to the readers, to the writing community, or even to themselves and those nearest and dearest, they are headed for irrelevancy, perhaps even ruin.

It's no accident that Campbell discovered the archetype of the hero's journey in myths from around the world. It's a powerful pattern that can transform you both as a person and as a storyteller.

[If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Character and Archetype, book 6 of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.]
Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Creative Life: Retrospective

Technique Tuesday

Motivated by Austin Kleon's advice to, "Steal Like an Artist," we've
examined the creative life from the framework of the ten, "Things Nobody Told Me." As Kleon explains, "It’s a simple list of 10 things I wish I’d heard when I was in college."

Here's the list:
  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. 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
  10. Creativity is Subtraction  
In retrospect, we see themes like be genuine, positive, and pleasant; be disciplined; and be confident. But the notion I think best sums up Kleon's perspective on the creative life is humility.

Now many people, particularly in a world that lionizes out-of-control celebrities, philandering sports stars, and ruthless captains of industry, hear humility as more of a character flaw than a virtue. And who can blame the children of an age of relentless self-promotion.

True humility, however is about perspective not abasement. While it's true that we're put in our place when we realize we're only a small part of the world, the other side of the proverbial coin is that we are a part of the world and have a place in it.

So, what is the essence of humility in creativity?

Kleon gets it down to two steps:
Step 1: Wonder at something. 
Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, August 22, 2011

Law 8: Devotion and Excellence

Making Monday

Citius, Altius, Fortius

The Olympic motto is Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger."

You might have heard the same idea, likely from a member of a previous generation giving unsolicited advice, expressed in the less trade-markable form, "If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well."

Devotion is more than constancy and focus, more than doing what is necessary, and more, even, than going above and beyond. The capstone of the devotion of the makers is the devotion to excel.

Malcolm Gladwell coined the "10,000 hour Rule" in his book, Outliers. Based on a study by Anders Ericsson, Gladwell asserts that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. [The good news for writers is that with 10,000 hours, you only have to write 100 words an hour to produce the million words you're supposed to throw away.]

But it's not simply about putting in the time: it's how you use the time. More to the point, the people who become experts practice differently than everyone else. They're constantly honing, refining, stretching--it's all about a deliberate focused attempt to become better. For example, I once read an interview with a an extremely talented keyboardist who said he was working on exercises to strengthen his left pinky finger.

Makers aren't satisfied to repeat their success. Doing so puts one on the road to becoming an assembly automaton. Instead, each time they make something, makers ask themselves if they can do it faster, more efficiently, or more elegantly. And their motive in asking the question is the simple curiosity of, "I wonder if ..."

Users settle for second-rate, or good enough, because the thing only matters as long as it serves some other purpose. Makers really do believe that, "If the job's worth doing, it's worth doing well."

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Effectiveness of Author Blogging and the Gartner Hype Cycle

Free-form Friday

If you spend much time in the high-tech industry, you'll run into a Gartner Hype-Cycle chart. With any new thing there is an initial spurt of wild expectations ("It will solve all our problems!") followed by an inevitable backlash ("It's not good for anything.") that gives way to a more measured assessment of the innovation's utility and place in the industry. The analysts at the Gartner Group use this framework to assess the relative maturity of various technologies and companies.

Insofar as writers are concerned, I suspect we're somewhere near the Peak of Inflated Expectations when it comes to social media.

At one level, it's simply structural: the early movers--the people well positioned to take advantage of the situation at the beginning of a gold rush--will see astonishing returns for their efforts (e.g., Amanda Hocking), giving everyone else inflated expectations.

At another level, it's so difficult to gauge the effectiveness of blogging and tweeting and friending that we take it as a matter of faith that it's probably a good thing to do.

Livia Blackburn recently observed that with regard to the critical issue of reaching the audience for which we write books, most author blogs are not very effective.
"At some point, unpublished fiction authors started feeling the pressure to build platforms. The problem is, they forgot all about target audience. Rather than being a means to reach the right readers, blogging became an end in itself – a box to tick off self promotional checklist. Fiction writers, being somewhat one-track minded, overwhelmingly decided to blog about writing. And thus, the writing blogosphere was born, with articles, contests, and promotions all aimed at fellow writers.

"The thing is, we haven't created effective platform. What we've created is a never-ending writing conference. Good for many things -- forming friendships, professional development, and learning your craft. But nobody (I think) would argue that attending SCBWI conferences every weekend will catapult your book onto the New York Times bestseller list. In the same way, blogging for writers will not sell your book to the general reading population. This is even more apparent in the field of children’s literature. There are thousands of YA and MG writers (me included), blogging their hearts out to adoring readerships, while ignoring the inconvenient detail that their number of actual teens they’re reaching can be counted on one hand."
Livia followed up with a second post with some thoughts on actually blogging for your target audience.

There is some value in creating an Internet footprint so that when you're shopping your book, agents and editors will have no trouble finding you. But I suspect that many of us are guilty of magical thinking: of believing that if we do all the stuff we're supposed to (without considering whether it's effective) we'll be successful.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Verisimilitude: Monocultures - Just say No

Reading thuRsday

One of the nice things about fantasy is that you can define away moral grey areas by making enemies a different species who are congenitally at war with the good guys. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, none of the fellowship give a second thought to the morality of killing orcs.

That advantage, however, can quickly become a liability if you fall into the trap of creating monocultures.

The term originally described the industrial agricultural practice of growing vast fields of genetically identical plants. It's much easier to run a mechanized farm around such a uniform crop, but you'll lose everything if a disease develops to which the plants are susceptible. Planting with a variety of seed may not yield as much under optimal conditions but the chance that some of your crop will survive in a bad year is much better. Indeed, agricultural scientists have begun to recognize the value of wild varieties because they serve as a genetic reservoir against ever more vigorous diseases.

As in agriculture, so too in fiction.

Monocultures are the world-building equivalent of stereotyping, and they're a problem for the same kinds of reasons. In the worst cases, entire races have a single personality and you can't tell one individual from another.

Pick a group in the world around you. Do all adherents of a particular political party or faith act and think the same way? Their opponents likely make that claim, but if you've ever met a few of "those" people you know it's not true.

Outside of special organizations, like the military, which go to great lengths to enforce uniformity, any time you have a group of people you'll have variety of appearances, attitudes, and approaches. In fact, it is the tension between conformity and conflict this is one of the primary drivers of all societies.

The same is true of settings, as we discussed in our look at evolution and world building last week.

The best way to improve the verisimilitude of the world and its people in your story is to show diversity.

So, stop with the single biome planets and homogenous races already.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

HJ4W 12 Return with the Elixir

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

After all the excitement of the Final Battle and the hero's transcendent victory, the final stage of the hero's journey, in which he Returns with the Elixir, may feel like an obligatory dénouement.

Kim Hudson* describes the return as follows:
"The hero has thwarted the impending threat to the village. The village is now safe, the wrong has been righted, order has been restored, or the source of evil has been removed. The hero Returns with the Elixir, which secures the future safety of the village."
In many stories, the return is a cause for celebration and/or a wedding--something to show that balance and peace have been restored.

You may be tempted to dismiss it as a bit of a formality. In fact, many movies end with the dawning of a new day (either figuratively or literally) after the antagonist has been defeated, confident that the audience understands that everything will be well now.

But there's an important dimension to the return that you mustn't overlook: it is the proof of the hero's transformation.

Take, for example, the hobbits' return to the Shire after all their adventures across Middle Earth and in the final War of the Ring. Instead of the furtive four who barely made it to Bree and Strider's protection, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin (along with the hobbits who rally round the heros) are more than a match for the ruffians who had taken over their homes.

And what about you, as a writer?

How has the journey transformed you?

What will you do with your hard-won power and knowledge?

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Creative Life: Creativity is Subtraction

Technique Tuesday

Many people believe that if some is good, more is better. As exhibit A, I present super-sizing. Need I say more?

Austin Kleon's final point in his presentation, Steal Like an Artist, is, Creativity is Subtraction.
"It’s often what an artist chooses to leave out that makes the art interesting. What isn’t shown vs. what is.

"In this age of information overload and abundance, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s important to them."
Less is more: an uncluttered context highlights the creative work--why do you think art galleries have big blank walls?

Think about the creativity of subtraction.

Sculpture is clearly the art of subtracting the extra material hiding the finished form.

Music is the art of sounding only a few (usually) consonant tones out of all possible noises at any given time.

Film is fundamentally about selecting only those images that contribute to the story.

The best writing conveys powerful images, emotions, and ideas with a few, well-chosen words.

In all these cases, the artist creates a model that emphasizes some aspect of reality while minimizing (or ignoring) the rest of the complex world in which we exist. It is through selective focus that we create meaning.

If the subtractive principle of art is still not clear, let me leave you with the image of a Zen garden where a single stone and a bit of raked sand convey oceans of meaning.

From WikiMedia

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, August 15, 2011

Law 8: Devotion - Above and Beyond

Making Monday

In conjunction with last week's example of war posters from the world wars, it may seem that our study of the eighth law of making has taken a decidedly bellicose turn. It is a sad fact that only in such extremes does pure devotion shine.

The Presidential Unit Citation is the highest award in the U.S. military for collective heroism. Of the many worthy units that have received the award, the actions of the Headquarters, Headquarters Battery, and Battery A, 213th Armored Field Artillery Battalion on May 26-27, 1951 is a remarkable illustration of devotion that goes above and beyond.

Here is the narrative portion of the citation, taken from the History of the 222nd Field Artillery:
"During the night, a force of approximately 4,000 enemy soldiers, which had been encircled by the friendly infantry, attempted to break out of its trap and rejoin the main body of the enemy army. The only escape route open to them led directly the the valley occupied by Headquarters and Headquarters Battery and Battery A.

"During the early morning hours of 27 May [1951], the hostile forces suddenly opened fire on these two units. All available men from both batteries were immediately deployed in defensive positions. The enemy fought fiercely to break their way through the valley but, despite the necessity of hand-to-hand combat, the artillerymen held their ground ...

"At dawn, the enemy attacks abated and the men of Headquarters and Headquarters Battery and Battery A organized a combat patrol, using a self-propelled 105mm howitzer as a tank. Driving down the valley, the friendly patrol engaged the enemy, destroying numerous machine-gun emplacements and inflicting many casualties among the hostile troops ...

"The retreating enemy force then attempted to climb the surrounding slopes but they were immediately subjected to an intense artillery barrage. This devastating fire caused the hostile troops to turn back and surrender to the artillery units."
Remember that we're talking about artillery units, which were normally positioned a few miles from the front (105mm howitzers have a maximum range of about seven miles). Artillerymen rarely have to fighting like the infantry, so no one would have been surprised if they had retreated during the night attack. Similarly, many units would have waited for other troops to come the next day and drive the enemy off. Instead, they took the initiative. Using the armored, self-propelled howitzer as a tank was a stroke of brilliance. And the final coordinated barrage enabled the unit to capture about 800 prisoners.

Here's the final portion of the citation:
"Headquarters and Headquarters Battery and Battery A, 213th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, displayed such unshakable determination and gallantry in accomplishing their mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set them apart and above other units participating in the action."
Most remarkable of all, in the course of all that action, only four artillerymen were wounded. It's hard to say what would have happened if they'd only done what was necessary, but there's a strong case to be made that their devotion in going above and beyond saved the lives of many of the members of the units.

Why such devotion when the unit would have been perfectly justified calling in reinforcements?

Captain Ray Cox said, “I knew that if we ever got home, I would be meeting the parents of those boys on the streets in our small town, and I didn’t want to face any of them if their son didn’t make it home because of anything I failed to do as his commander.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, August 12, 2011

Publishing Industry Crystal Ball: Demand for New Books Will Drop

Free-form Friday

In terms of publishing industry credentials, I have no business writing this post.

But given that a great many other people offering opinions about the future of the industry haven't been troubled by similar scruples, I'll join the crowd rushing in where wise men fear to tread.

I'm here to prognosticate that demand for new books will drop as the corpus of out-of-print books becomes available. Please note that I'm not saying there will be no demand for new books, just less.


Consider the structure of commercial publishing prior to 2011: the primary distribution channel through bookstores demanded a constant stream of novelty to keep customers coming back to the bookstore to see what was new. The business model was like that of many other retail industries in that it relied on turning inventory over periodically. In practice, this meant that individual titles might be available on the shelf for four to six months before all but a few solid sellers were cleared away to make room for the latest release.

The key structural consequence is that titles generally went out of print after they had been exposed to the public because no one could afford to keep them on the shelves just in case there was occasional interest. That system, in conjunction with changes to copyright law that have extended the period before a work enters the public domain mean that there's a large reservoir of out-of-print books.

The advent of a viable market for eBooks, essentially unlimited virtual storage, and essentially no barriers to electronic publication, the out-of-print dam has been breached.

Once everything that has been published and taken out of print during the last fifty years becomes available as eBooks, readers will have so many new authors (i.e, new to the reader) to discover that they won't need that many new new authors.

Put another way, just as we no longer assume others watched the same thing we watched on television last night, it will soon cease to matter to most readers whether something was published recently.

Elizabeth Gumport, in her piece, "Against Reviews," in N+1 Magazine, said:
"Not only do we not want to read about Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, we don’t even want to know it exists. Newness is not a fixed property. There must be a less arbitrary, more sensible way to encounter books, an organizational scheme better suited to identifying and highlighting excellence; one which doesn’t foreground mediocrities simply because they are the newest mediocrities. 'Recent' is not a synonym for 'relevant.'"

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Verisimilitude: Evolution and World Building

Reading thuRsday

I took a course, lo these many moons ago, whose subtitle was, "The future isn't what it used to be." We studied a historiography of futurists (people writing about the future for various reasons). One of the professor's most telling observations was that in virtually all the visions of the world of tomorrow there was no evidence of the past: not a single decrepit or historic building sullied the prospect of the gleaming City of the Future enjoyed by its residents from their flying cars.

At first it didn't bother me, but as I continued studying Cities of the Future I found them, like the latest Japanese androids that look almost but not quite human, uncanny. Without historic reference points, I couldn't place them in respect to the world I knew. Was the architectural fantasy of domes and monorails decades or millennia away?

The world in which we live is the product of processes acting over time. From the broad sweep of geology and evolution (to be understood here as the study of change over time, not origins), to the conscious and unconscious effects of people living their lives, the present is an amalgam of the past.

When asked for his advice on world-building, Scott Westerfeld said, "Pay attention to how this world works, and how complicated it is."

Much of that complexity arises around points of contact where different forces, be they natural or social, collide. Add the dynamics of ebb and flow to the forces and you have the natural recipe for a complex web of competing interests that ring true. Think of the intertidal zone, alternately flooded and exposed, and the profusion of life you find there.

In contrast, particularly among those of us who tell fantastic stories, the setting often becomes simply the ground (literally) on which we compete for the most outlandish vision. Without any thought to the processes and forces that could have given rise to such a thing, we're playing the same uncanny game as the architects of the City of the Future.

The best way to ratchet up the verisimilitude of your world is to give it a history and fill it with evidence of the past. You don't need to turn your fantasy adventure into a fantasy history textbook, but if you show your readers evidence of things in your world that have changed over time, they'll be willing to believe that, like our own, your world has been around long enough to feel real.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

HJ4W 11 The Resurrection

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

At the climax of the hero's journey, in its mythic form, the hero challenges and defeats the greatest antagonist of all: death.

In this last great conflict, the hero descends to the darkest pit, subdues the foe, and rises above it all, resurrected, either literally or figuratively, as a new, transcendent man.

In contemporary storytelling, we generally think in terms of a final, decisive confrontation. Everything is at stake in the Final Battle, and the hero will either triumph or be destroyed along with everything he holds dear. The resolution of this conflict changes everything, most particularly the hero.

As Kim Hudson* explains:
"In the face of impossible odds and almost certain death, the hero rises to his potential in the Final Battle ... Previously the hero came to the realization that he can recover from near-death. Now the hero proves his transformation has become a part of him." 
Notice the theme of transcendence and transformation.

Like a rite of passage, the journey, particularly it's culmination, changes the hero into a new person. That change mirrors the larger change in the world brought about by the antagonist's defeat.

Of course in our day of superabundant media, writing a book rarely changes everyone's world. But like the hero's Final Battle, seeing your project through to its conclusion (which may or may not involve publication) can change your world. While there may be external changes, like a publishing contract, the ones that really matter are internal: in ways large and small, this process has transformed you.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Creative Life: Be Boring. (It's the only way to get work done.)

Technique Tuesday

It's not much of a confession to say I have no patience for the breathless, glitzy Hollywood gossip shows. They're simply an endless parade of celebrities behaving badly. The only reason those programs are worth a mention is that the people they feature are usually too busy being famous to produce anything that even loosely resembles art.

Austin Kleon's ninth point, in his presentation, "How to Steal Like an Artist," is, "Be boring. It's the only way to get work done."

There's a romantic notion that artists are tortured souls who straddle the boundaries of polite society, finding temporary solace in an excess of wine, women, and song (or sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll). As with everything, there are, of course, outliers, but as usual the exceptions prove the rule: riotous and dissipative living really gets in the way of working on your art.

Kleon explains it this way:
"As Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

"I’m a boring guy with a 9-5 job who lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife and his dog.

"That whole romantic image of the bohemian artist doing drugs and running around and sleeping with everyone is played out. It’s for the superhuman and the people who want to die young.

"The thing is: art takes a lot of energy to make. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff."
I'm sure you've had times when you were on fire with creativity. But if you're like me, the flames die down as soon as you start bumping into impediments, running afoul of inertia, and dissipating energy as friction. What I've realized is that those moments are the creative equivalent of afterburners--the speed is exhilarating, but it really sucks up your fuel.

Art, as a way of life, is really a long game. You win, eventually, if you have the staying power to keep showing up. Which means that, like the distance runner, you must pace yourself. Which really means that, like the distance runner, what you're doing is going to look boring to outsiders.

There's another important part of being boring that Kleon's Flaubert quote really nails: your regular and orderly habits are critical to creating the time and space where your creativity can flourish. This is why, for example, one of the most common suggestions for new writers is that they should find a way to write every day, preferably at the same time.

You'll have to decide the particulars of the regular and orderly habits that work best for you. But you'd be well-advised to think in those terms if you want to get something done.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, August 8, 2011

Law 8: Devotion - Doing What is Necessary

Making Monday

I recently attended an exhibit of American war art. Many of the pieces were posters designed to encourage recruiting, production, and morale. In some, the propaganda was blatant. Others were more subtle. But what fascinated me most was the difference in the tone of the art for World War I and World War II.

The recruiting posters for WWI (like the one to the right) were buoyant and lively--almost cheeky. The life of a soldier would be a jolly lark and really impress the girls back home.

The WWII posters had a much more serious tone of solemn resolution. Perhaps it was only the shocking gap between the posters of the last generation and the gruesome reality of the meat grinder that was the front lines, but I'd like to think it was something more.

I spent some time studying the Norman Rockwell painting of a machine-gunner used for the production poster below. The soldier, whose shadowed face is barely visible, is beat-up, dirty, and tired. There's none of the romance or allure of old-style martial displays in the exquisitely detailed image. Just the quite heroism of an average Joe doing what has to be done.

It's overly morose (and a bit melodramatic) to say that making is an exercise of grim determination. And yet, there are times when it comes down to that.

There are times when things go wrong, when distractions intrude, when everything you try fails and the only thing that keeps you going is your determination to carry on.

And sometimes the work demands sacrifice--not, clearly on the scale of those who stand in harms way--but painful enough to doubt and look longingly at other pursuits.

The devotion of the makers begins with taking responsibility--your book isn't going to write itself--and it flourishes in the candle-light of the solemn resolution to accept the burdens and pay the price of seeing the project through.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, August 5, 2011

What's it About?

Free-form Friday

A writer considering a new project and a reader considering whether to read a new book are both confronted with the same question: "Is it worth my time?"

For the reader, it's only a matter of eight to ten hours. For the writer, the number of hours is on the order of thousands. How can you get some reassurance that your project is worth all that writing time?

Think about the way you answer the analogous question as a reader. If someone recommends a book, your first question is likely, "What's it about?

While it doesn't guarantee success, if you can answer the reader's inevitable question, "What's it about?" (and if the answer is more interesting than, "a total and utter yawn-making bore of bores,"*) you probably have something worth undertaking.

The holy grail of what's-it-about-ness is a single line that captures the essence and the enticement of the book. You might have heard it called a one-line-pitch, a log-line (from film), or a hook. Beware, though, because the kind of hook we're talking about has more than one sharp edge. First, like poetry and other concise art forms, they're hard to do well. Second, if you do come up with a stunning hook it's hard to resist the temptation to think your job is done. (Snakes on a Plane, need I say more?) Third, you may come up with a line that's perfect--if you already know the story--but doesn't say a lot to new readers. (You could, for example, say Harry Potter is about a lightning-shaped scar: that line packs loads of meaning if you know the series, but won't rate as appetizing if you know nothing about the story.)

You're on firmer ground if you can work out a synopsis, outline, or even a story bible. But these exercises come with the attendant distraction of all the cool things you're going to include in the book, and you're liable to sound like a four-year-old when you talk about it ("... and it has this, and this, and this, and this ...). Once again, you'll miss the what's-it-about mark, this time with too much information.

Caveats about it's reliability aside, my favorite framework is Wikipedia, specifically the notion of writing a Wikipedia entry for your book. To be clear, this is a completely private exercise: it's only value is to help you think clearly enough about your book that you can zero in on the one or two paragraphs that explain what your story is about (i.e., the introductory paragraphs that appear above the contents box in a Wikipedia entry).

How do you do it?

Like artists who trace the masters, find a few entries that do a good job of capturing books with which you are familiar and emulate them.

Let me reiterate that while you may be able to use some or all of these exercises when it comes time to market the book, their primary value is in helping you to develop a clear and compelling mental model of the book. Your sense of what it's about will guide you as you work through the project, even it if changes over time.

The goal is to discover the glowing ember--the combustible combination of concept and passion--that is the essence of what it's about.

* Thank you, Vicar of Dibley

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Verisimilitude: Natural Romance - Working Together

Reading thuRsday

I've mentioned before that the TV series Babylon 5 is a profitable case study in long-form storytelling. It's also a gold mine of character insight. One scene, in particular, sprang to mind as I considered how to develop this week's topic.

During an especially stressful time, when the titular space station was cut off from Earth by a civil war, a visiting minister advised the captain to find someone with whom he could share his burdens.
"You know, before I got married, Emily used to come by sometimes and help me clean out my apartment. Well, I asked her, "How come you're so eager to help me clean up my place when your place is just as bad? She said, "Because cleaning up your place helps me to forget what a mess I made of mine. And when I sweep my floor, all I've done is sweep my floor. But when I help you clean up your place, I am helping you." Of course, the way I lived back then sometimes the mess was too much for both of us, but ... it sure was nice to have the company."
Natural romances are also long-form stories. There are a lot of hours to pass when you're spending your life together and in the grand sweep of time, most of those hours will be spent on romantic things like sleeping and working.

"Sleeping and working," you may object, "are hardly romantic."

But if you enjoy the company and appreciate the help, just about anything can contribute to your romance if you're working together. When we were dating, I once took my wife to help me milk a cow. My sisters were appalled that I called it a date, but we had a lovely time (and it was the beginning of many such lovely times).

A number of species have mating dances, in which the partners synchronize their movements as they draw closer together. In many cases, the dance displays the health and vigor of the individuals and proves their suitability as a mate.

We are, of course, much more sophisticated than the creatures with which we share the planet and yet romance can be seen as a mating dance that spans dimensions from the physiological to the social. Our goal in each of those dimensions is to find out if we can work together because that's one of the main ways couples complete each other.

The verisimilitude of your romance will suffer if your couple does nothing except share candle-lit suppers and passionate evenings. In contrast, natural romances are often kindled between people who have done something difficult together: the shared experience provides strong evidence that they can work together. So when you're stocking up to provision your romance, don't forget the elbow-grease.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

HJ4W 10 The Road Back

Writing Wednesday - The Hero's Journey for Writers

In its tenth phase, the pace of the hero's journey quickens as, armed with the hard-won Reward, the hero embarks on The Road Back that leads inevitably to the final confrontation.

The critical opening of this phase is the determination, made in the full knowledge of what the hero has suffered and what the antagonist is capable of, to go back and fight again.

Kim Hudson* characterizes The Road Back this way:
"The hero has faced death and survived. He has gained some kind of reward from this experience and armed with this knowledge, realization, or sword, the hero looks to secure the future of the village. He knows he must face death again, but this time he must do more that just survive. He needs the skill, cunning, and strength to assert his will over the will of the villain."
As writers, one aspect of The Road Back is a determination to keep submitting with the full knowledge that we're setting ourselves up for more rejection. Another, and perhaps more important, aspect is to keep writing, with faith that our hard-won knowledge will make our work better.

But you must be prepared:
"The Road Back is complicated by a seemingly impossible series of obstacles heaped onto the hero."
Unlike the hero's journey in stories, the pace of your real-life journey will not pick up in this phase. Indeed, you may feel that things are slowing down. What you'll find is that you spend a lot of time cycling between Ordeal, Reward, and The Road Back because final confrontations that irrevocably change things one way or another are rare.

The one thing, though, that is true in both stories and life, is that the hero keeps going.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Creative Life: Be Nice. The World is a Small Town

Technique Tuesday

Austin Kleon's eighth point, "Be nice. The world is a small town," is a corollary to last week's observation that, "Geography is no longer our master."

At one level, it should go without saying that we ought to be kind to the people around us, giving them the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. At another, it's something we need to be reminded of because there seems to be no shortage of examples of people getting ahead because they behaved badly and took advantage.

As we move forward in to the brave, new world where Internet-enabled info streams insinuate themselves into every aspect of our lives, one of the many distinctions that is fading away is that between cities and small towns. I've lived in both and they have advantages and disadvantages. Small towns are warm and welcoming because everyone knows you, but they can be stifling because everyone knows you. Cities can feel cold and menacing because no one knows you, but they can also be full of possibilities because no one knows you.

Kleon's point is that we're moving beyond the time when you could reinvent yourself simply by moving somewhere else and jettisoning your social baggage, and back into a time when everyone knows who you are.
"An important lesson to learn: if you talk about someone on the internet, they will find out. Everybody has a Google alert on their name.

"The best way to vanquish your enemies on the internet? Ignore them.

"The best way to make friends on the internet? Say nice things about them."
What this means more generally is that as a creative person, you'll always come out ahead by enticing your audience instead of compelling them. Give them a better reason to come to you than your enemy. And sometimes, particularly in terms of professional relationships, that better reason is a simple as being a pleasant person.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, August 1, 2011

Law 8: Devotion and Focus

Making Monday

In a secular guide to meditation, referenced in a recent article about dealing with the ever-growing number of enticing streams of information that insinuate themselves in our lives, I noted with interest that the key to the technique for enjoying greater serenity is focus. We can produce calm by shutting down all other distractions and holding a single, tranquil image in our minds.

In our contemporary world, which seems well characterized by the observation that attention is the new currency, it's no accident that everything around us is carefully designed to distract us from whatever else we were doing. It's worse than the proverbial kid in the candy store: we exist like bees in a conceptual garden where the flowers are locked in a vicious struggle to attract us.

The Latin roots in the word advertise, (ad and vertere) literally mean, "to turn away"--as in, turn your attention away from what you were doing to the message the advertiser wants you to hear.

The eighth Law of Making is, "The True Maker's Devotion Never Wavers."

Devotion is a concept we generally hear only in rarefied contexts such romance or duty. Which is unfortunate because there are many other contexts where a practical, down-to-earth sense of the word would be immensely helpful. For example, enough devotion to a person or event to be fully present by turning off your smart phone.

The devotion of the makers begins at the practical level of focus. It's impossible to conceive of, much less carry out anything but a trivial project without focus. If you can write 500 considered words an hour, you'll need 150 hours to write one draft of a 75,000 word novel. You'll never emerge from the other end of all those hours with something coherent if you can't focus. (In fact, you'll probably never emerge with a completed draft because you'll get distracted long before the end.)

In a completely natural way, the practical devotion of true makers is like meditation in that you must devote your attention to that thing you're making in order to make any meaningful progress.

* Considered words: some minor revision or rephrasing, not simply typing flat-out.

Image: Bill Longshaw /