Monday, October 31, 2011

WtMoM: Making and the Sacred

It is curious that on this night we revel--at least symbolically--in the final annual orgy of evil but do nothing tomorrow, on All Hallows Day, to express our gratitude that darkness has been vanquished and order restored to the world. In other words, we celebrate the profane but we don't celebrate the sacred.

Most of us would define sacrifice as giving something up, but the word literally means, "to make sacred." Now, at a personal level, by handing a lamb over to the priests you are, in fact, giving up your control over it. But in a broader sense, by making a thing sacred you've set it apart and it can no longer be used for normal purposes.

That which is sacred becomes priceless--not in the sense of being worth more than you can imagine, but in the strict technical sense that its value cannot be determined because it is no longer part of the economic system.

You may object that we know what other things like it cost, so we know the price. Users would agree because insofar as they are concerned, everything has a price and nothing is sacred.

For makers, almost everything has an element of the sacred because the act of making sets the thing made apart from others. You may have a ream of blank paper, but the sketch on one sheet gives it a completely different significance than any of the others. And that's the fundamental difference: making imbues the made thing with non-economic significance. As a recent series of credit card commercials pointed out, some things really are priceless.

Lest you think me an irredeemable curmudgeon, with all this talk of the sacred, I'm not here to denounce Halloween. Part of the appeal of Halloween comes from the fact that it continues an ancient tradition of celebrations in which the normal order of the world is turned upside down. During the holiday or carnival, common social constraints are relaxed and people can be something other than what they are the rest of the year. It is a collective way to let off steam and diffuse social tensions.But as you traipse about as some otherworldly creature, extorting candy, you might use the temporary inversion of sacred and profane to take stock of what you hold sacred, and, more importantly, what you are willing to make sacred.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, October 28, 2011

Kinds of Writers and Their Advice

One of the implications of quantum mechanics that writers have played with is the notion that there are universes in which every possibility is played out. I've heard the notion expressed as a root universe that buds into two new universes when it reaches a decision point.

Whether the real universe behaves this way or not, the writing universe seems to have split several times, and seems to be in the process of doing so again.

What do I mean?

If we don't count business writing and academic writing (about subjects other than writing), there are three writing universes for fiction:


The universe of professional writing is spread among the far-flung universities and MFA programs. A Slate article characterized this world as a kind of academic patronage for writers (where publishing is only a step on the way to the real goal of tenure for teaching writing).

Professional comes from profession, which comes from profess. The modern sense of the words, "profession," and, "professional," is tied up in notions of highly-trained--and highly-paid--specialists. With that sense, we lose sight of the root verb, "to profess," which means to espouse a body of knowledge and practice. Professing is also associated with the old, clerical notion of a calling.
Many writers aspire to be professional in the modern, highly-paid sense of the term, but go about their task more in the old sense of something to profess: literature is a calling, with commandments and a canon.


The universe of commercial writing orbits New York City. (The cynical might say that New York is the black hole at the center of that universe.) This universe is all about publishing, and advances, and royalties.

Commercial, of course, comes from, "commerce," i.e., business. The commercial writer is all about business: What are the trends? Where's the market? What are editors buying? I've heard several people say that unpublished writers talk about books, published authors talk about money.

Electronic Frontiers

There was a time when the distinction between the professional and commercial writer came down to labels like, "literary," and, "commercial." Writers in both universes had to squeeze through the same funnel because the only way to reach a large audience was through the distribution system controlled by the publishers.

We're now entering a new universe (or perhaps a hyperspace) of writing in the interwebs where it's possible to publish your message to the world by pushing a button. Compared to the older two universes, with their fairly well defined paths of advancement, this strange new universe is part of a larger reputation economy.


I've painted with a broad brush to characterize the universes of fiction writer. In doing so, I've surely missed a host of important details and qualifications. Even so, when you compare the structures of each universe, it becomes clear that the path to success in each one is different than the others.

What that means, in practical terms, is that when someone gives you writing advice you need to take the universe they inhabit--and the one you inhabit--into account. It's not that the advice is mutually exclusive--or that a writer can't exist in multiple universes--but that each context has different priorities. For example, a commercial rule like, "dive right into the action of the story," isn't as important in a professional story.

It's easy to see the writing world as a monoculture. But you'll be happier--and do a better job of finding adaptive strategies--if you think instead of a multi-verse teaming with variations.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

VP4W 8 Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

Whether it's a run of irrational investments, an engine pushed past the red line, or a person with more commitments than there are hours in a day, the phrase that often comes up--as true as it is cliché--is, "Something's got to give."

In Caught Shining, the previous beat of the Kim Hudson's* Virgin's Promise, the Virgin's temporary balance of her Dependent and Secret worlds has fallen apart. Now the only way to escape from the wreckage is for something else to give: the Virgin must Give Up What Kept Her Stuck.

Hudson explains:
"[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. It is also the most difficult to express and the key to the deeper meaning in the story. It identifies the dialogue in the Virgin's head that has kept her from moving forward and realizing her dream. In psychological terms, she is overcoming the complex that has been holding her back.


"Until this point in the Virgin's story she believed that she must be passive, servile, small, or nice. She now gives up that belief and becomes rebellious. She recognizes that she does not have to accept other people's authority over her or other's visions for her life."
One of the steps at the beginning of the cycle is to establish the Price of Conformity. It is critical to establish that context because the drama in this beat is driven by the Virgin's realization that, because of what she has become, the price is too great.

But that knowledge isn't sufficient because the Virgin is beset by fears that she might be hurt or no longer loved if she follows her own path.

When the Virgin musters the courage to act, the moment is cathartic: all the old limitations melt away and she finds herself in a world of possibilities--real possibilities, unlike the Secret World. Hudson puts it this way,"Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck frees the activation energy that allows the Virgin to complete her quest to achieve her dream."

Like the Virgin, often it is the web of expectations woven around us that keep us stuck. From the obvious expectations that we meet our daily obligations instead of dropping everything to write, to the more subtle but ultimately more debilitating expectations we have of our writing--that it has to be a bestseller or secure a large advance--we force our words and our efforts to craft those words to carry far more than their fair share.

Those expectations are often the root cause of writer's block: the fear that our writing is "not good enough" is really the fear that our writing isn't suitable for some predetermined purpose. It's no accident that remedies for writers block generally involve writing something that is explicitly useless because you must give up what is keeping you stuck to move forward.

After reading that last sentence, you may be tempted to put on your snark and say, "Well, duh. Give up what keeps you stuck? That's why it's called, 'Writers block.'"

That's an astute observation. (And you thought you were being snide.) The implied frustration--the of-course-I-would-give-up-what's-keeping-me-stuck-if-I-knew-what-it-was incredulity--is an important part of the Virgin's emotional turmoil during this phase. Think about your own bouts with writer's block and how in retrospect you knew what you needed to do but couldn't or wouldn't for a while.

Think, too, about how you felt when you got past the block: the burst of joy, perhaps even borderline euphoria, as the words--good words--began to flow.

Those are the feelings you need to channel as you write your protagonist through the arc of the Virgin's Promise. And those are the feelings you need to treasure and have them ready to call upon for encouragement when you can't move forward until you give up what is keeping you stuck.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, October 24, 2011

WtMoM: Limitation vs. Justification

What to Make of Making

The way in which a person reacts when they recognize a limit speaks volumes about their character. Whether it's an external limit, like a traffic law, or an internal limit, like a disability, the way they deal with constraints shows us who they are.

You see, Users justify themselves in transgressing limits; Makers accept limits.

To be clear, by, "limits," I mean those things which you cannot (or should not) change. It's what remains to impede you after you've overcome complacency, mastered your craft, and fueled the drive that keeps you going notwithstanding friction, distractions, and doubts that are part and parcel of living on this planet.

Some limits are structural. That is, they arise from the nature of the context in which you operate. Should you be stationed at an Antarctic base, for example, nude sunbathing would be out of the question. We generally think of the "laws of nature" as synonymous with this category, but it's much broader. You can't use an automobile, unmodified and unaided, to cross a large body of water. It's not that amphibious cars are impossible, it's that the cars we purchase and use are not amphibious.

At the other end of the spectrum of limits we find those that are purely social conventions. Speed limits, for instance, seem, as Hamlet would say, "to be honored more in the breech than the observance." Limits of this sort are much easier to flaunt because the only sanctions are social: if you egregiously violate the law of gravity in context that allows for more than a few seconds of acceleration, you will be dead. If, armed with your radar detector, you drive with either the brake or the accelerator in the fully depressed position, you may get somewhere faster or earlier, or you may get a ticket. (You may also wind up dead, but that's neither a necessary nor consistent outcome.)

The less immediate the consequences for transgressing a limit, the greater the temptation to risk it for the potential advantage. But users take it a step further: they're not merely willing to bend the rules or take a short cut, they believe they are fully justified in doing so. Perhaps you need to speed because you're a little late. You wouldn't have slid you car off the embankment if there had been a guardrail there. The economic and political woes besetting the current administration can always be blamed on the policies of the previous one, but they'll take credit for anything good.

Indeed, in the economic department, proponents of growth are basically system beaters who avoid paying the price now by growing out of the problem in the future. Nor is that kind of thinking reserved for Washington-based think-tanks: the common wisdom about mortgages is to take the largest one you can now because your income and the value of the house will both grow. [Like the man behind the curtain, please ignore the last four years of the housing market.]

It's not that makers discount or are opposed to growth, it's that they're more interested in durability and sustainability. True making includes, "made to last." With that mind-set, when confronted with limitations, the maker's response is not, "How can I get around them?" but, "How can I use or adapt to them?"

One of the limitations of the mighty oak beams builders had available four hundred years ago to span spaces like chapels is that they lose their structural integrity (i.e., may no longer be able to support the weight of the roof) after about four hundred years. It's said (and I choose to believe) that after completing a new chapel four centuries ago at Oxford University, the builders planted oak trees for the express purpose of providing replacement beams nearly half-a millennium in the future.

If that seems to lofty, then think of it this way: given an assignment, users will complain that they can't complete it they way they want to because of the constraints; makers will say, "Within those constraints, let's see what we can do!"

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, October 21, 2011

Politics and Narrative Conflict

One of the truisms of storytelling is that your protagonist is only as good as your antagonist. If, like the Monty Python sketch about the self-defense class, your antagonist threatens everyone with (wait for it) a banana, and your protagonist uses his pistol to save the day, we've learned nothing* from the story because the only stretching the protagonist was forced to do involved reaching for his pistol.

Part of what makes stories superior to daily life is the presence of a clearly defined villain (that and the fact that a good story-teller skips the boring bits). You may object that there are plenty of stories where the villain doesn't have a face or is something that can't be embodied in a single person. While that's true, those stories still ultimately reveal the nature of the antagonist (or antagonistic forces) and show how the protagonist overcomes (or at least deals with) them.

Conflict is the fuel that feeds the story engine. That's why a great deal of writing advice (like the Christopher Walken cow bell sketch on Saturday Night Live) boils down to, "Ratchet up the conflict." But you can't have engaging narrative conflict if the parties and their conflicting objectives are not clear.

When story needs to motivate as well as entertain, the need for a clear-cut antagonist is all the more pressing. If you were told two stories, one with rainbows and bright flowers about puppies who learn they should be nice to each other, and one about oppression and wrongs to be righted--right in your very own neighborhood--which is more likely to move you to do something more than turn to the next story?

The crux of the motivational problem is that we live in a world whose name, if we had to follow the convention of a large, U.S.-based toy retailer, could be, "Ambiguities R Us."

I should have foreseen the present partisan and cultural divide coming: parties need an enemy--a threatening "other"--to call their partisans to action. During the Cold War, one of the partisan battle fields was a tug-of-war (pun intended) over who was strongest on defense (which was code for who would stand up to the Soviet Union). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we've had a parade of mostly Middle Eastern dictators and terrorists. The latter, as a nebulous threat, haven't lived up to their narrative potential to provoke fears entirely out of proportion to their actual activities. So now, without a strong external threat, we have no choice but to look inward and find even more fearful threats at home. In other words, our lust for narrative conflict drives us to turn on ourselves.

For a significant portion of the middle ages, an irrational fear of witches served very nicely to keep village congregations huddled together. We now look back, tut, and shake our heads at such superstitions, and then, in practically the same breath, rise up in righteous indignation at their modern counterparts.

I'm not asking for enlightenment--or even tolerance. I'm simply pointing out something that as storytellers we, of all people, should understand: we're not the only ones who go out of our way to manufacture conflict because that's what a good story requires.

* Except that you should carry a pistol if you're likely to be attacked by fruit-wielding maniacs.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

VP4W 7 Caught Shining

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

"Too good to last," is the weaker corollary of, "too good to be true." In structural terms, if something is unsustainable then at some point something has to give. You may be able to study or work all day and party all night once or twice, but if you keep it up something like your health, an important relationship, or a critical responsibility will fall apart.

This beat is the inevitable consequence of the Virgin's attempt to balance her Dependent World and her Secret World. The tensions that built during No Longer Fits Her World snap, catapulting her in to the very conflicts she worked so hard to avoid.

Kim Hudson*calls this phase, "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. ... In Caught Shining the dream of the Virgin is no longer a secret. She is revealed to the world."
The catalyst behind her revelation may simply be the consequence of the Virgin's growth: she may, as Hudson says, "... grow too big to be contained by the Secret World." Or the circumstances that created the space for her Secret World may change. Sometimes others act to expose her Secret World. Someone from her Dependent World may recognize her. Or a confidant may betray her.

Whatever the cause, the critical consequence of this phase is conflict. Because conflict is precisely what the Virgin has been trying to avoid, this point in the arc of the Virgin's Promise takes her into the nadir of the cycle. Analogous to The Ordeal in the Hero's Journey, it is the beginning of her darkest times.

The more cynical scribblers may say, "Been there, done that--if you're a writer, it's definitional."

It does seem that writers are peculiarly susceptible to self-doubt (though it may be that we suffer no more angst than is common to mortals, it's just that we're better at expressing it), but the emotional ordeal of this phase in the arc is deeper: it challenges everything you thought you were becoming--either directly or by alleging damage to your dependent world.

You may be accused of neglecting your family, your job, or your future. You may be charged with making the people you care about suffer for your vanity. Or you may simply run into the realization that you have nothing more to show for all your efforts than a drawer full of abandoned manuscripts and rejections.

It's a time of questions and no answers.**

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise
** This isn't a pleasant place to stop, but that's precisely the point.

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, October 17, 2011

WtMoM: Making as a Way to Know Yourself

What to Make of Making

Are creative people born or made?

Do you need a certain degree of talent and aptitude or can you answer any creative calling if you're willing to work hard enough?

Beyond proficiency, there's a deeper question: given that creative work almost always involves an expressive medium, do you have anything to express? Once you've mastered the techniques and the craft, what are you going to do with that mastery?

The following statement was attributed to, "the guy who plays Dwight on The Office:"
"If you don't know who you are or what you're about or what you believe in it's really pretty impossible to be creative."
So, do you have to know yourself before you can make?

Clearly, study and practice are necessary if you want to do anything non-trivial. The question is really aimed at whether you can produce something worthy of an audience's attention if you don't know who you are or what you're about.

As you may have guessed if you've been following along, I believe the Laws of Making point the way to understanding this question.

Just like the best stories test the the limits of the protagonist's strength and resolve, true making is a way to know yourself. The fundamental dramatic question in a novel is often, "What is the protagonist willing to sacrifice to solve the story problem?"

The first Law of Making, "Love is the foundation of true making," establishes the baseline: if you love the project enough to undertake it (as opposed to dabbling or dithering with it), you've just discovered one part of what you're about.

Beauty and Truth, the second and third laws, are really about the essence of what you believe in.

Hope, Faith, and Charity (laws four, five, and six) are the natural result of learning that you're about something other than you.

Vision, Devotion, and Completion speak volumes about who you are.

In an absolute sense, none of us may really know who we are. But like the stories where the protagonist's actions reveal their character, the way you make reveals a great deal about who you are. The zen-like irony of the situation is that it is only through the selflessness--and by extension the lack of self-consciousness--cultivated by the Laws of Making that we can get a glimpse of our true selves. And that's what your audience really wants to see.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Home Improvement Guide to Story Structure

There is an eternal law, inscribed into the very essence of the universe before even the gods came on the scene, that any home improvement project will require at least three trips to the store.

Don't believe me?

Many creation myths show the gods making several attempts before we get the world in which we live. Even the book of Genesis has a do-over with Noah.


Many stories are basically a series of try/fail cycles.

Consider the archetypical home improvement project:
  1. Having decided to undertake some repair or improvement, you go to the store and get what you need.
  2. After working on the project for a while, you make another trip to the store to get all the things you didn't know you needed.
  3. Finally, a few injuries and explicatives later, you make a final trip to the store to get what you really need (as well as to replace the pieces you broke).
Of course, there are times when you make one trip because you know what you're doing and what you need. The point is that you would rarely tell a story about that activity because, a, "This was the problem so I got that part I needed and fixed it," story is boring--in fact, it's not a story, it's a recipe.

For a story to be interesting, it must show how the protagonist triangulated on a solution to a difficult problem. It's like the process of artillerymen finding the range to a target: the first shot falls short so they increase the elevation; the second shot lands behind so they dial back, but not as much as the first setting; the third shot is much more likely to hit.

And suddenly, without trying, we've discovered the three-act story structure: try/fail (act 1), try/fail (act 2), try/succeed (act 3). Each try is a possible solution and each fail shows why the solution falls short as well as ratcheting up the scope of the problem. In the realm of DIY, for example, you fail to reattach the loose tile in the bathroom because the wallboard behind has water damage, but you can't just replace the wallboard because the pipe inside is leaking.

If you scrape away all the formal baggage around, "The Three Act Structure," it really is that simple.

[That said, like any good DIY project, there's a big gap between the theory and actually putting it into practice in the form of a finished novel.]

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

VP4W 6 No Longer Fits Her World

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

Growth. At a macro level, economists tell us it's the only real answer to our financial problems. At a micro level, an endless parade of self-help gurus promise us the secret to personal growth.

There's much less discussion of the consequences of growth. Regardless of the scale, whether populations and economies or waistlines, unchecked growth in a finite context means we will inevitable get too big for our britches.

The Virgin's Promise captures a pattern of personal growth. The inevitable consequence of exploring possibilities in Dresses the Part and nurturing her dream in her Secret World is that the Virgin grows and comes to realize that she No Longer Fits Her World.

Kim Hudson* characterizes this phase as an increasingly precarious balancing act:
"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."
In dramatic terms, because the Virgin No Longer Fits Her World, she inevitably does something that puts either her Dependent World or her Secret World at risk. It may be as simple as deciding the task of achieving her dream is too hard and her Dependent World isn't that bad after all. Or, at the other end of the spectrum she may find her dream within her grasp and be put off by the prospect of losing her Dependent World. The Virgin may also become reckless or attract attention in some other way.

Whether the source of the dramatic tension is internal or external, it is a fundamental consequence of growth.

Writers, particularly if their efforts have met with some success, inevitably reach the point where they feel as though they've outgrown both their dependent and secret worlds. The siren song of the full-time writer is the single greatest temptation: think of how much more you could accomplish if you didn't have to divide your time with a day job.

If you're struggling with that temptation, step back and take a deep breath. In the vast majority of cases, it would be reckless to quit your day job. But beyond good advice, as someone who can see the entire arc of a story, you should recognize that you're going through a stage like this beat in the Virgin's Promise. The tension you feel between the safety of your old world and the alluring possibilities of the new writerly world is exactly what you should be feeling. Of course, saying it doesn't make it any easier, but perhaps if you recognize the structural source of your concern you can at least avoid anything rash or hasty.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, October 10, 2011

WtMoM: Makers and Artistic Integrity

What to Make of Making

The Laws of Making remind us would-be creators that our work has significance and consequences.

We don't make in a vacuum.

That means we have a responsibility, both for what we make and to the people for whom we make. Frugality, as I once heard it defined, is not about being cheap, it's about using our resources well.

Simon Pulman, writing about The Artist’s Responsibility on the Transmythology blog said:
"So I’m going to suggest the following: artists have a responsibility to each other.  A responsibility not to upload, share or publish work that is substandard, lazy, unchecked, unplanned, or (overly) derivative – lest you take away time and attention from somebody who has really put their heart and soul into their work."
Integrity means complete, whole.

In Star Trek (and other assorted space operas), hull integrity is one of critical factors in surviving a fight. If the hull loses integrity, it is no longer complete or whole. In other words, it no longer protects you from the hazards of space and you will likely be dead real soon.

The Laws of Making point the way to achieving integrity, both in your work and as a maker. Users knock something off, striving for minimum effort, and throw it out there as quickly as possible to get what they can out of it. Makers, out of respect for the resources and the audience's time, strive for integrity because they don't want to waste either.

Pulman says, "... artists have a responsibility not to ... [s]ubmit anything that has not been thought through and executed, to the best of your ability." He adds an important qualification:
"To be clear, I am not asking for perfection.  Nor am I suggesting that artists should not share work that is not “conventional” – God knows we need people to push the boundaries, merge media platforms and try new things.  If something is unpolished, because the artist does not have the resources to execute the project on a technical level – and is perhaps soliciting outside help and collaboration to improve it – I fully applaud that.  We’re all learning and improving.  What I am really asking for is thought, care, and love.  Really work on your idea and wait to upload until that idea is the best it can be and your work – even if it’s not the best work you are capable of – at least reflects the potential of your idea.  If you don’t, you are not only cheating yourself – you are cheating other artists.  So, the question I want artists to ask themselves honestly is: Is this work the best – or close to the best – that I am capable of at this stage in my artistic development, with the resources that I currently have at my disposal?"

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, October 7, 2011

Authentic Web Presence

In the there's-no-pleasing-some-advice-givers department, first we were told that prospective authors needed a web presence and now we're supposed to have an "authentic web presence."

What gives?

Well, to begin with, some web presence is better than none.

Chances are that other things you've done on the Internet will show up if someone searches for you. Ideally, there would be a way to have people remove old, irrelevant references. But in the decentralized world of the Web, there's no single repository where you can update your information. Part of the reason for the advice to establish a web site and blog and tweet and friend and circle is that new web activity will push old web activity down in the search results.

So why do we have to worry about being authentic?

Well, in simple terms, no one likes a salesman--or, more accurately, someone who appears to be nothing more than a salesman.

But there's something more going on with the Internet than a simple test of your ability to go for more than five minutes without shouting, "Buy my book! Buy my book! Buy my Book!"

The Internet is a slow, not entirely perfect, truth filter. Over time everything on the net is exposed for what it really is. Flash and SEO (search engine optimization) techniques may work for a while, but substance will win out in the long run.

So how do you do authentic?

Bob Mayer said,
"The first author we brought on board besides my books was Kristen Lamb with We Are Not Alone: The Writer's Guide to Social Media. ... And we incorporated the things she espouses in the book; the primary one is have your content first, before you start blasting things out on social media."

Authentic is about substance over form.

Like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, it's actually not that hard to get someone's attention. What's far more difficult, and hence much more significant, is keeping someone's attention. If there's an author whose books you buy whenever a new one comes out, it is because of the author's antics or because they've consistently given you a good reading experience?

Content is how you do authentic.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

VP4W 5 The Secret World

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

The idea that a superhero must have a secret identity is so firmly established it's well past cliché and on it's way to Law of Nature.

There is, of course, the practical matter of not giving the super villains a target when you need some down time. But at a basic psychological level, there's something powerful and invigorating in having a secret.

Kim Hudson* explains the role of the Secret World in the arc of the Virgin's Promise:
"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. She's not ready to reveal her dream to her Dependent World and face the consequences. The Virgin goes back and forth, juggling the impulse to meet the expectations of her Dependent World with creating a separate and Secret World where she can grow into herself."
A Secret World may be a place, a time, or simply an idea. It's generally something overlooked or ignored by the Dependent World--like the secret garden, in Frances Hodgson Burnett's book of the same name, which was literally beneath the notice of the housekeeper. In fact, it's critical that the Secret World is something that the Dependent World believes is inconsequential: if they suspect anything else they'll shut down the Virgin's explorations before she can threaten the complex of expectations placed upon her.

This is not to say that the Secret World must always be something benign and inoffensive. The Virgin may be doing something that would unsettle her Dependent World, if they knew, during a time when their attention is elsewhere.

The joy of exploring what's possible in the Secret World is colored--and perhaps heightened--by what Hudson calls, the Fear of Discovery: "There is constant tension that the Virgin will be exposed before she is strong enough to stand on her own." And discovery could mean anything from the death of the dream to an actual death sentence in the most restrictive contexts.

Again, unlike the hero who sets out to confront problems directly, in the arc of the Virgin's Promise it's important to be clear that the Virgin's motive is self-realization and that she actively avoids conflict, particularly with her Dependent World, during the initial stages of the arc. Hudson explains this in terms of pleasing everyone:
"In the Secret World, the Virgin believes she can find a way to please everyone. The good news is that she has added herself to the list of people who need to be pleased. ... The belief that she can keep them separate and preserve her Dependent World is crucial for the Virgin to risk exploring her dream in her Secret World."
As writers, it's easy to believe we can please everyone--we can be a star employee, a sterling partner and/or parent, and knock out a novel without breaking a sweat.

Some of you may be shaking your heads at that last sentence. In the cold light of rationality, we would all agree one can't do everything.

The cold light of rationality, however, doesn't shine on the Secret World because it is fundamentally irrational--not in the sense of madness but in the simpler sense that one can't make a rational evaluation with incomplete information. The Secret World is full of new possibilities, including the possibility of pleasing everyone. After all, wouldn't the people who depend on you be pleased if your novel brought them riches and fame?

This phase is particularly seductive for writers because we have not one but two Secret Worlds into which we can retire. The first is the role of the writer: we go from being mild-mannered, Responsible-Person by day, and sparkling, witty, Writer-Person by night. The second, and for those of us working in the long form more consuming, is the Secret World of the story, where for a time, with a heady mix of god-like power and child-like wonder, we are the only ones making footprints in the snow.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, October 3, 2011

What to Make of Making?

We've devoted the last nine months to an exploration of each of the Laws of Making. Amid all that time, energy, and thought, we didn't find a single tip or technique. That's because each law captures a facet of the character and wisdom of the makers.

While I've striven to show how ideas like love, beauty, and truth, which most people treat as abstractions, have concrete and profound application for makers, we're still faced with the general question, "Well, making sounds nice, but does it really make a difference?"

It does in the ultimately most important sense--which is only apparent after the fact of a life (and so admittedly isn't very compelling in the here and now). You see, in the end the most important thing you can make is yourself.

We are, by nature, users. We begin our lives as selves whose only concern with the wider world is how it affects us. The squalling child knows only that when something makes them unhappy crying brings relief. As we grow, we learn to do more for ourselves. And sometimes that's all we learn.

By doing something for someone else, with no regard for our own benefit, we make ourselves into something more than a user. We escape the inevitable spiral into despair of a self-centered universe and embrace the hope that our efforts will make the world better.

The Laws of Making are the fundamental guards that keep us firmly grounded on a foundation of hope. They give our efforts meaning. Without Love, Beauty, and Truth, our work is a sham. Without Hope, Faith, and Charity, our endeavors are infected with cynicism and guile. Without Vision, Devotion, and Completion, we sell ourselves short.

What day-to-day difference do the Laws of Making make?

The difference between joy and drudgery.

Image: Bill Longshaw /