Wednesday, November 30, 2011

VP4W 12 Re-ordering (Rescue)

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

At the end of the stereotypical western, the hero rides off into the sunset. The town is now safe from the desperadoes, and there are other wrongs elsewhere that need righting.

The arc of the Virgin's Promise never ends this way. As much as it seems to be the story of the Virgin coming into her own as an individual and making a place for herself in her community, it is also a story about the way in which the Virgin heals her community. The hero averts an external threat and his job is done when the village is once again safe. The Virgin had to undergo her transformation because of forces internal to the community and she hasn't addressed the real problem if she simply walks away. Even though her personal development culminates in the previous beat, Chooses Her Light, the story of her community isn't over until it passes through the Re-ordering (Rescue) phase.

Kim Hudson* defines the Re-ordering (Rescue):
"The Virgin has moved from secretly claiming some personal authority to being authentic in all parts of her life. ... the Virgin has challenged her kingdom to accept she has her own vision for her life. This is The Re-ordering.

"A good Re-ordering, from the feminine perspective has two elements: it recognizes the Virgin's true value when she is fulfilling her dream; and it reconnects the Virgin with a community."
The community that dismissed, vilified, or banished the Virgin in an attempt to make her conform to the Dependent World now acknowledges her value--that she has more to offer when she Chooses Her Light than she would by conforming to the expectations of her Dependent World. This is not simply a grudging admission that the Virgin many have had a point. "The obstacle," says Hudson, "established in the Dependent-World, that kept the Virgin from living her dream, must be addressed in the Re-ordering."

The process reconnecting the Virgin with her kingdom is not a trivial one.
"The Virgin has brought chaos to the kingdom and now it is time to put the kingdom back together again. This may happen through love, where the Tyrant grows into the Lover/King. Alternatively, the actions of the Hero may eliminate the evil force, to the benefit of all."
 If the evil force resists the re-ordering, particularly if it focuses on the Virgin as its primary antagonist, she may be in danger of being destroyed.
".... This is when the Re-ordering is also known as the Rescue. It is not the nature of the Virgin to assert her will over the will of others. She inspires others to change out of love or a drive towards joy. The Hero, on the other hand, does assert his will against evil. When the Dependent World of the Virgin includes an oppressive force that the kingdom needs to be free of, the Hero takes on the task of eliminating it, inspired by the Virgin.
It is critical that the Re-ordering (rescue) recognizes the Virgin's worth and reconnects her with her community. A rescue that accomplished only one of those aims is a false one. Reconnecting the Virgin with her community without recognizing her worth is nothing more than capitulating to her Dependent World. A rescue that recognizes her worth but places her in another community simply replaces her old Dependent World with a new one. Stories often tempt the Virgin with false rescues, but thanks to her transformation, she now sees them for what they are.

Seeing things for what they are is also critical to our development as writers. We start with dreams that are the literary equivalent of the girl in the chorus line who catches the producer's eye and is whisked away to stardom. Granted, our dreams have more to do with an agent getting us a great deal and an editor getting us award-winning prose, and sales people putting us on the bestsellers list.

Notice, though, how passive the object of all the attention is in these dreams. Like the arc of the Virgin's promise and its fundamental message that in order to establish yourself as an individual who has a valued place in the community, you must act and not simply be acted upon. This will mean different things for different writers, but they will all have the general character of doing things for motives that flow from you and not because of externally imposed expectations. For example, you will not write because you hope to catch the next market wave but because you have a story you want to tell.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, November 28, 2011

Making and the Big Pile O' Fail

One of the deep ironies of being a maker is that even though the word, "make," implies a successful outcome, we actually spend most of our time hip-deep in failure.

In a recent guest post on inspiration, author Sara Zarr said:
"I’m inspired by failure.

"Which is a good thing, because right now I’ve got a first draft of a new book in front of me, and it feels like a massive pile of FAIL. (I should note: this is my book.)"
Insofar as writing goes, no one aside from haters would call Sara Zarr, an award-winning author who recently published her fourth book, a failure. In fact, once you break in to the national market, you're a success right? How can someone as accomplished as Sara have a manuscript that "feels like a massive pile of FAIL?"

A failure, in structural terms, is simply a gap between intent and outcome. It is not a sign of moral weakness or a personal indictment in and of itself. A consistent gap between intent and outcome may be symptomatic of other problems, but we're talking about the failure that is part and parcel of learning, making, and living--all of which involve trying, failing, and trying again

Do those try/fail cycles sound like story theory?

It's no accident. Much of our social experience as humans comes down to encouraging others--or being encouraged by them--to deal with failure. Have you ever sat down with a child who tried something once, failed, and declared they would never be able to do it?

The challenge is that  as the scope of our intent increases so too does the scope for our failure. NaNoWiMo celebrates the the accomplishment of amassing 50,000 more or less coherent words in a month. If, however, your ambition is a finished novel, those words must all be coherent and build to something that is more than the sum of the parts. And if you want people to give you money for those words, there are more and increasingly ineffable requirements.

Put another way, the greater your ambition, the greater the gap between your first efforts and your ultimate attempt will be. Part of the wisdom of making is to understand that this gap is natural. It's why the first Law of Making, "Love is the foundation of true making," includes the ability to forgive the work while it fails to live up to your expectations. 

Sara concludes her post with this thought:
"Today, I’m looking at my draft and its large and small failures, and I know: if everyone I admire and respect, everyone whose work has endured for more than five minutes, everyone who has come out with something beautiful, has struggled in this same, frightening gap, I must be on the right track."

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Time Off

If you're in the U.S., I hope you enjoy the holiday.

I'll be away for the rest of the week.

My regular posts will resume on Monday, November 28th.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Monday, November 21, 2011

To be Used with Prudence and Thanksgiving

There was a time in the history of what would be come the United States that it was fashionable to name women, "Prudence," and carry blunderbusses.

During this week, when we celebrate the first-ever tailgate party, it would be good to revive some of those original fashions. While blunderbusses are pretty cool in a seriously retro way, I've been thinking about prudence since I came across the phrase, "to be used with prudence and thanksgiving."

Prudence, according to my 1886 Webster's, is "the state of being prudent: wisdom applied to practice; caution evinced in forethought."

Forethought and, "wisdom applied to practice," speak to the heart of making: carrying out your intent requires forethought, and doing it well comes from applying wisdom to practice.

Some older ideas that are synonymous with prudence are frugality and husbanding one's resources. These ideas hark from a time before machines made basic necessities like food and clothing practically dirt-cheap. It was also the time before machines made the weather largely irrelevant--when the harvest season wasn't a gluttonous celebration of football, but a time to set aside stores in preparation for a winter that might leave you snow-bound and dependent on your prudence for weeks at a time.

But prudence speaks to something beyond good domestic management. Approaching your circumstances with prudence and thanksgiving is the antithesis of the entitlements, great and small, that permeate our culture and society. Gratitude is founded upon acknowledging that you are not entitled to that for which you are grateful: the gift didn't have to be given, the meal didn't have to be prepared, the million and one goods things that make our lives comfortable and convenient didn't have to be provided.

Hunting cultures often have some variation on the tradition of apologizing to the animal spirit, explaining that we kill because of need, and thanking the spirit for giving life to our people. While I'm not suggesting that we should apologize to the lumber before cutting it up, there is an important analogy for makers in that notion: makers understand that to use something for one purpose often means it can't be used for others. That is why forethought and wisdom are essential to making.

Take a moment, as you make meals and make merry during this season of plenty, to think about it from the perspective of a maker. You may be convinced, as I am, that they best way to celebrate is with prudence and thanksgiving.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, November 18, 2011

On Authors' Peculiar Susceptibility to Hooks

Perhaps it all started when Dr. Seuss rhymed about a nook with a book on a hook--his secret marketing advice to writers--though it's more likely hooks have been doing extra duty as symbols and metaphors ever since that day long ago when a proto-fisherman noticed an oddly shaped bone and said, "I wonder ..."

As writers, the sort that trade words for money, our literary livelihood ultimately depends on how often we're read. In order to catch as many readers as possible, reel them in, and leave them in the bottom of the boat gasping for more story, we're admonished to deploy a wide variety of hooks.

If you've had more than passing exposure to the community of commercial writers, the first thing that comes to mind when we say, "hook," is either a pirate captain or a pithy one-liner, carefully designed to compel you to read more. Story hooks often take the form of an improbable juxtaposition (like, "I always hated warthogs until the day I turned into one,") that force the reader to wonder how such a thing could be true.

There are many other kinds of hooks: covers, tag lines, jacket copy, author blurbs, reviews, book trailers, bookmarks, and so on. In fact, a good story is filled with hooks, large and small, that pull the reader deeper into the narrative.

Hooks are all well and good for readers, but they pose a subtle but real danger to writers: we hear a hook and instantly imagine the story we would write and then get jealous because someone else has already written it.

It's part of the more general grass-is-greener phenomenon. We look at other's success and think how their assets would solve our problems, being complete unaware of the problems they have that their assets can't solve (e.g., you may be rich but in poor health).

So appreciate and use hooks for what they are: ways to draw readers into your story. And remember, writers, as you try not to be jealous of either a book or its hooks, that you can't create the perfect hook without the perfect book.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

VP4W 11 Chooses Her Light

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

Stories are fundamentally about choices and consequences. There are, of course, highly praised and elegantly wrought novels that show the meaninglessness of existence, but the vast majority of stories are about people who choose and do--even if it is a mistake. One common way to talk about story structure is in terms of try-fail cycles.

The eleventh phase of the Virgin's Promise, Chooses Her Light, is the point where the Virgin chooses to let the light of her true self shine and acts accordingly. Kim Hudson*puts it this way:
"[T]he Virgin decides to trust herself and pursue her dream or passion, whatever happens. This is the last stage of her transformation and a joyous climax to her story. She would rather shine than be safe or maintain order."
Because of the Chaos in the Kingdom, she was banished to Wander in the Wilderness until she repented by the forces trying to restore order to the Dependent World. Choosing Her Light is neither capitulating nor giving up. It is the moment in which the Virgin transcends her Dependent World, and in so doing gains the power to act and not be acted upon. As Hudson explains:
"The choice the Virgin makes when she Chooses Her Light is a clear action toward her dream. ... Some tangible, finite goal is reached. This is the third and final stage of changing a belief. It is important that the decision to pursue her dream and be true to herself is an identifiable action made by the Virgin."
It is critical that the Virgin acts for herself--that she is the prime mover in this phase. Even if her actions place her in danger and she needs help, she's the one moving everything forward. Hudson warns against the temptation to have a hero step in and save the day:
"In some cases, after the Virgin chooses her dream, her action precipitates danger and she is rescued. Never does she need to be rescued, then choose to love her rescuer as fulfillment of the Chooses Her Light beat. This would be a major step backwards into another Dependent World."
The core of the transformation that comes with Chooses Her Light is that the Virgin finally harnesses and harmonizes her inner desires and outward actions in order to realize her dream.

Hudson characterizes the way in which the Virgin introduces her true form to the kingdom with the metaphor of going to ball as a radiant beauty. For writers, the opportunities to stand out in our respective kingdoms in all our authorial splendor are few and far between. It's nearly impossible to come out as a writer as a prelude to living happily ever after because no matter how lovely last night's ball might have been, there's always a blank page awaiting you in the cold light of dawn.

It is the choosing that resonates most strongly with the writer's experience: after wandering in our own personal wildernesses, we choose our light as writers and take clear and concrete action to move toward our dreams--the clearest and most concrete of which is to put our words down on the page, and then to do it again tomorrow.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Job Well Done vs. Perfect

"Tis a gift to be simple," according to the Shaker hymn popularized by Aaron Copland. The Shakers understood the difference between simplicity--one of their highest virtues--and simplistic. Any fool can be simplistic, but it takes true mastery to make something look simple.

The difference between perfect and perfectionism is similar.

The word perfect comes, via Middle English and Old French, from the Latin, perfectus, the past participle of perficere - to finish. The first definition at is, "Lacking nothing essential to the whole."

In that sense, makers always strive to perfect their work.

Most people, however, understand perfect primarily in terms of, "without defect or blemish," and "pure, undiluted, unmixed." Put another way, they think "perfect" is an absolute, synonymous with ideal.

That's why makers more commonly talk not about perfection but a job well done.

Perfectionism is dangerous because absolute perfection is unattainable. No made thing will be perfect for every purpose. Sometimes you need a sledge hammer, and sometimes you need a chisel.

An even greater danger of perfectionism is that you become vulnerable to the opinions of others. Shouldn't a perfectly sad song evoke the same emotion in every listener? Shouldn't the perfect query convince every agent to read your manuscript? But there are people who will say, "meh," after the most stirring music, and you simply can't be a great author without a collection of rejections.

Makers don't worry about that kind of perfection because they recognize the practical danger of never finishing. They focus on arriving at the end of a project with a work "lacking nothing essential to the whole."

Authentic Navajo rugs always have a flaw. I've heard various explanations, all likely apocryphal, but the one I like best is that we are imperfect and we offend the spirits by striving to be something we are not. (It's also a great way to spot machine-made knock-offs.) Whether the reason for the flaw is profound or pragmatic, the idea of expecting and accepting a flaw is liberating. Instead of seeing our work as failing to achieve an ideal, we see it for what it is, improving it until it is complete and lacks nothing essential.

Like the Shakers with simplicity, makers devote their attention to a job well done and perfection follows naturally.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, November 11, 2011

There are No Writers

With many occupations, you can say, "I'm a ____," because you received some certification. Indeed, the most important professions require rigorous training and state-level licensing.

Not so with writers. (Or literary agents.) Anyone can hang out the proverbial shingle and declare, "I am a writer." Perversely, there are few milestones that unambiguously identify one as a writer: even hitting the New York Times Bestsellers List only proves that you have written.

I'm beginning to believe there are no writers.

If you've been patient to this point, you might now object that there are obviously a great many writers. Millions of books are published each year. Millions of people are employed in jobs whose practical output is words on paper (or screens). Beyond that, nearly every citizen of the literate world strings at least a few words into sentences each day.

All true. And yet most of this vast army of writers write in the service of some other purpose. Just as nearly every scientist uses mathematics to do their work but they don't call themselves mathematicians, the majority of people who write don't call themselves, "writers."

So what does it mean to be a writer?

In the world of commercial publishing, the only writers who matter are the ones who have enough of a following that every book they release is a guaranteed bestseller.

In the world of the literati, the only writers who matter are the ones (usually dead) who have produced the masterworks that they endlessly discuss.

It's pretty slim pickings if you're looking for a role model.

Which is precisely the point.

Writers are like curry: it's an approach to preparing the food, not a particular dish. There is no single approved model of success or failure as a writer. Rather, like an entrepreneur, there's a world of opportunity and any number of creative ways to take advantage of those opportunities.

Unlike other professions, where the pathway to achievement is clearly marked, writers have a blank page.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

VP4W 10 Wanders in the Wilderness

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

The ancient religious sanction of excommunication carries far less weight than it once did. In our complex society, with its layers of real or virtual social networks, it's easy to find a new community when we leave (or are thrown out of) an old one. There was a time, however, when being cast out was tantamount to a death sentence.

The inevitable consequence of the Virgin's bid for independence, which leaves the Kingdom in Chaos, is that she suffers the ultimate sanction in the Dependent World and is excommunicated by the agents trying to restore order. This forces the Virgin, whether figuratively or literally, to Wander in the Wilderness.

Kim Hudson* describes the tenth beat of the Virgin's Promise this way:
"[This] stage is a test of the Virgin's conviction and it is her moment of doubt. ... The Virgin has gone against her Dependent World and is unsure of her ability to stand alone. There is no guarantee that she can make it on her own. She is at a fork in the road: go back and appease the Dependent World, which seems the easiest option because it keeps most people happy, or go forward and make a new place for herself."
Like The Ordeal in the Hero's Journey, Wandering in the Wilderness is the Virgin's near death experience. But as a social death she usually has the option to go back to the Dependent World, which makes her choice more difficult. Where the Hero faces life or death, the Virgin chooses between kinds of life. Determining how you will die says a lot about your character. Determining how you will live says more.

Hudson continues:
"Wanders in the Wilderness is the second stage of changing beliefs and in it, life is uncomfortable. The Virgin must emotionally separate from the world she has known and feel the essence of being alone. Her choice to move toward change in the face of hardship is the mark of a strong character and the indication that change will stand the test of time."
Because it is a solitary pursuit, writers often wander in the wilderness: every time you share your work and get a reaction other than the one you expected, you have reason to doubt yourself. During a time when you get nothing but rejections--if you get any response at all--you have to wonder if the crazy one in this relationship might actually be you and not the world.

Like the aphorism that character is what you do when no one is looking, the way you handle those times when you wander in the writing wilderness speaks volumes about who you are and whether you have the stamina and strength of character to stand the test of time that is the author's vocation.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, November 7, 2011

Are Rules Made to be Broken?

My son, who has just entered high school (or perhaps because he just entered high school), announced confidently in the middle of a recent conversation that, "Rules are made to be broken."

"How do you know that?" I asked.

"Everybody knows that."

"Does that mean even the rule, 'Rules are made to be broken,' must be broken?"

He rolled his eyes and that was the end of the discussion.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to dismiss questions about rules that are meant to be broken so easily.

On the surface, it seems like a purely User sentiment: rules are made to be broken if it gives me the advantage or helps me achieve my goal. In contrast, Makers might seem like the ultimate rule followers.

But following a rule simply because it is a rule is as much of a mistake as flaunting it simply because it is a rule. Making is as much about wisdom as it is about technique; it is about being mindful and present. Among other things, that means being mindful of rules that no longer serve their purpose and need to be broken.

So, in what ways is it true that rules are meant to be broken?

To begin with, rules were made because they were broken. Someone did something that went too far, caused more trouble than it was worth, or simply didn't work. Many rules, like the yellow lines painted on shop floors, represent a consensus about a safe operating area.

Where rules are an attempt to systematize a body of knowledge and experience, can you understand the rules without breaking them and experiencing the failure yourself? It certainly seems to be the case that young children need to feel some pain to understand what, "No, don't touch, it's hot," means.

But systems are finite. Once you've mastered the system, you begin to discover the edges--cases where the rules provide no clear guidance. Does that mean the rules are bad because they don't cover all cases? Michael Shermer, in a recent skeptic column in Scientific American, discussed "scientific residue." In the case of UFO sightings, a fraction can't be easily explained away. Shermer pointed out the fact that if a theory doesn't explain everything that doesn't mean it's wrong, it means there's more work to do.

This brings us to the most important way rules are meant to be broken by makers: by transcending them. Many of the rules of writing, like don't have too many point-of-view characters, are rules because most writers can't go there and still deliver a good, coherent story. That is, they're rules not because something can't ever be done but because it is so rarely done well.

It takes a great deal of humility to truly transcend a rule. Most people engage in pseudo-transcendence: they find a way to excuse themselves from following the rule. Real transcendence come through following the rule so well and mastering the art so thoroughly that the rule becomes irrelevant.

I read of a master glass-maker who produced exquisite art not because he never made mistakes in his processes but because he knew how to compensate without ruining the work. This is the way in which true makers strive to break the rules.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, November 4, 2011

Marketing: Before vs. After the Fact

Of all the exotic animals Dr. Dolittle met in his adventures, the pushmi-pullyu (pronounced, 'push-me--pull-you') ranks high on my list of favorites. It was a gazelle-unicorn cross with two heads (and no tail) that often had trouble deciding which way to go.

At first I was going to use the pushmi-pullyu as an analogy for indecisiveness in the publishing industry. But it's a much better analogy for having it both ways--something that's also endemic in publishing.

For a variety of structural reasons (some of which stem from the quarterly pressure to deliver profits to corporate masters and some from the big release model that works best for large chain bookstores), publishing's promotional Holy Grail is before-the-fact marketing: a confluence of buzz and publicity that has people lined up to buy the book at midnight when the book is released. By the same token, publishers  love nothing better than an author who is so well established that the phrase, "The next first-name last-name book is out," is enough to make people pull out their credit cards.

Then there are the books that sell year after year with no visible marketing. These books are in fact marketed after-the-fact by word of mouth. Rather than saying, in effect, "The author is good so his or her new book will be good," they can say, "This is a good book--I know: I've read it." The book, by the fact of its existence and availability, can essentially market itself. Rather than having to take the opinion of thought leaders on faith, an interested reader can see for themselves.

Once upon a time, publishers made most of their money from their backlist, which provided consistent returns each year without a great deal of marketing effort. Then structural changes shifted the emphasis to first the front list and then the blockbuster sales model. That model depended upon turning the publication of a book into an event and creating a sense of urgency--which worked when there were fewer channels and distractions.

Now, with a never-ending parade of distractions, the backlist is making a big comeback because the only way to win through the Internoise is with constancy. A publicist recently said, "I'm counseling authors to approach publicity as a long-term, on-going strategy." In other words successful publicity in the twenty-first century isn't about making a big splash, it's about a constant stream of enticing content.

The challenge for contemporary writers is that the major publishers now want projects that they can sell both before-the-fact with a blockbuster push and after-the-fact by keeping electronic rights in perpetuity. That's why the industry feels increasingly like a pushmi-pullyu. And that's why it's increasingly the author's responsibility to understand the business implications of before-the-fact and after-the-fact marketing so that they can make the best deals in light of the short and long term trade-offs.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

VP4W 9 The Kingdom in Chaos

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

One of the things that sets us apart, as a species, is our ability to recognize patterns--or, more to the point, our ability to detect patterns and variations. We instantly notice when something, or someone, is out of line.

Stepping out of line is precisely what the Virgin did in the previous beat, Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck. Now, what had been a private struggle becomes public as others in the her Dependent World notice and react to the Virgin's choice. That's why this phase is the Kingdom in Chaos.

As Kim Hudson* explains:
"A ripple effect takes place as the Virgin begins to change and the result is chaos in the kingdom. The world becomes uncomfortable. What was an isolated craziness as the Virgin juggled her two worlds, now affects many people. The old sense of order begins to crumble."
Whether the Virgin's actions are the direct cause or only a catalyst for simmering tensions that existed in the kingdom before she was Caught Shining, the forces of order and stability react--and sometimes overreact--in an effort to bring the Virgin back in to line.

If conflict is the narrative fuel, this is the point where the story's afterburners kick in. While there are ample opportunities for external conflict, complete with violence and physical coercion, the realization of the fears she discovered in No Longer Fits Her World, and the attendant burden of guilt, throws the Virgin into an internal conflict that is as bad or worse than the external situation.

Writers can face a kingdom in chaos at a number of levels. Perhaps breaking out of your writer's block, or a revision letter from an editor, leave your manuscript in chaos. Perhaps an unbreakable stream of rejections leaves your plan to work toward publication (and your dreams) in chaos. Perhaps life intrudes and leaves your writing in chaos.

When it seems as though the universe is conspiring against you, the fears you can never banish will rear up and confront you with your own inadequacy: you're a fraud, you know it, and it would be best for everyone if you gave up this writing nonsense and went back to where you were safe and comfortable.

It's not pretty and it's not fun, but these are the emotional depths you must plumb in order to capture the dramatic crux of the struggle to realize the Virgin's Promise.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /