Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Hiatus

I don't know if our fascination with beginning and ending cycles is a habit we picked up since we began keeping calendars and telling time or if it's a side-effect of our innate pattern matching abilities. Whatever the reason, odometer days--days when our tracking systems reset or produce nice, round numbers--seem especially significant.

It's no accident that our end-of-year celebrations occur right after the winter solstice. When the days begin to get longer, we know the world won't dwindle in the cold of an endless night. It's natural, then, to consider our prospects for the new year.

I've decided its time to close this chapter of the Laws of Making. This blog will be on hiatus for at least a month.

I'll spare you all the considerations (most of them practical and not particularly interesting), except to say that, like a chapter in a novel, this part of the story has run its course and there's the promise of something new: I'm working on a new project I hope to be ready to announce in a month or two.

Thank you for being a part of our exploration of the Laws of Making and their application to long-form writing.

Thank you for your kind attention and generous comments.

May the holidays bring you peace and joy. And influenced, I hope, by the ideas we've shared here, may you go into the new year resolved to make your world better.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Friday, December 16, 2011

Calling Ourselves Writers

I recently suggested that there are no writers--at least not in the sense that there are doctors, medical schools, and a well defined course of preparation and practice in order to become one.

Have I now committed political suicide by flip-flopping? 

No. This is another example of the contradictions inherent to the writing life that you must wrap your head around.

My earlier point was that aside, perhaps, from becoming a tenured writing professor there are no established and accepted career paths that will, if followed, make you a nationally-acclaimed novelist. The only common denominator among the handful of people we would generally recognize as writers is that they wrote a lot for a long time. Schooling, jobs, writing habits--everything else was incidental from a predictive perspective.

And yet there is a time when it is important to call yourself a writer.

Sarah Callender, at Write it Sideways said,
"I don’t know about you, but for a long time, whenever a well-intentioned someone asked what I did professionally, I instantly became a mammering, mealy-mouthed mugwump. It just felt so audacious, not to mention goofy, to utter the sentence, “I’m a writer!’"

"Until one day it hit me. My under-confidence was far more damaging to my own work, to my own creativity, than [a friend's] over-confidence was to his dreams.

"We writers need to see ourselves as writers so that others will see us as writers.

"But ... we writers need to do the very, very hard work that will give us the knowledge, the certainty, that even if we are still unpublished, even if agents aren’t wooing us, even if we’ve submitted to seventeen thousand contests and publications yet have no acceptances or prizes, we are writers because we put our tush in the chair and get words on the page every day."
Giving yourself permission to be what you're preparing for but have not yet achieved is very much in line with the phase of Dressing the Part from the arc of the Virgin's Promise. It is consistent with the making version of, "fake it till you make it."

How do you take the idea of yourself as a writer seriously when publication and public acknowledgement of you as a writer is years away?

By calling yourself a writer, you have both the permission and the obligation to make a dedicated effort. If you're serious, for example,  about keeping a job, you'll do what's necessary to get yourself out of bed, make yourself presentable, and arrive at work on time--and you'll do it every day of the work week. When other demands or distractions arise, you say, "I'm sorry, but I have to go to work." Thinking of writing as your job (or second job) may seem like a sure-fire way to leach all the joy out of it, but if you treat it as an indulgence you'll either feel guilty or succumb when another good thing comes along to occupy your writing time.

Similarly, calling yourself a writer means adopting the discipline of a writer. Discipline is more than simply writing each day (thought that's certainly a good start). The discipline that makes a difference means a focus not just on doing the job each day but on getting better at the job each day.

The key point, as Callender says, is that calling yourself a writer means you accept the "very, very hard work," that comes with the title. Writer isn't an entitlement, it's something you live up to.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

VP4W Retrospective

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

Looking back on the arc of Kim Hudson's Virgin's Promise, we've come a long way. You might be tempted to say it's only the story of someone in a community who, constrained by a web of expectations, finds a way to grow into their dream, make a new place for themselves, and make the community better in the process. But that's both too curt and a touch dismissive.

First, like the Hero's Journey, the phases in the arc of the Virgin's Promise are each significant because each represents a failure point--that is, a test of character where a different decision puts an end to personal growth and returns the protagonists to their Dependent World. The personal transformation in both cases requires courage, determination, and stamina but in very different ways. While the hero faces an antagonist who is evil because his actions threaten the village, the Virgin faces antagonists who are good, or at least well intentioned. Even if the Kingdom suffers from a festering evil, the Virgin is only in danger after she exposes and challenges that evil. The Hero's courage to persevere in the face of a life-or-death threat is very different from the Virgin's courage to persevere in the face of well-meaning people who want her to accept her place in the community because they believe its the best way to make the most people happy.

Second, like all stories of real change, the process involves a number of necessary steps. In any particular case, the person going through the transformation may move quickly from one particular phase to another, but they short-circuit the transformation if they skip too many steps. Take the simpler example of grief: going from denial straight to acceptance means you didn't actually grieve. So too, if the Virgin goes from Opportunity to Shine to the Kingdom is Brighter it means that the web of expectations wasn't that constricting after all.

The necessity of the majority of the phases in the arc is clearer if we map the phases into a three-act structure.

Introduction (Establishing Context)
The Dependent World
The Price of Conformity
Opportunity to Shine (the Inciting Incident)
Act I (first try/fail cycle)
Dresses the Part
The Secret World
No Longer Fits Her World
Caught Shining (First Failure)
Act II (second try/fail cycle)
Gives up What Kept Her Stuck
The Kingdom in Chaos
Wanders in the Wilderness (Second Failure)
Act III (final try/succeed cycle)
Chooses Her Light
Re-ordering (Rescue)
The Kingdom is Brighter (resolution)
It is, however, not simply a matter of trying three times. The transformation occurs through the process of trying, growing, and failing in each cycle. Put another way, the Virgin given an Opportunity to Shine is capable of taking the small steps that bring her to The Secret World where she has a safe place to grow, but would wither if thrown into the challenges of Wanders in the Wilderness.

So what does it mean?

Beyond the obvious application to fictional character development, there are lessons for our own development, both as writers and as individuals.

Perhaps the most important for both life and fiction is that true change is neither quick nor easy. There is no growth without pain. It may be the acute pain of direct conflict or the chronic pain of a transformation that comes only after a long, slow process.

Moreover, failure is not only common but necessary to the process. That this is so is clearer in the the arc of the Virgin's Promise because her goal, particularly through Caught Shining, is not to change her world but simply to make a better place in it for herself. Her failure to balance the increasingly conflicting demands force her out of the places that are comfortable and safe into new territory where she must discover and draw upon resources she never knew she had.

Knowing these things won't make your cycles of growth less painful. But in recognizing them, you can take solace in the knowledge, even as you Wander in the Wilderness, that you're not alone and that if you find the hidden reservoirs of strength to stay true to your dream the Kingdom will be Brighter.

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Fake it till you make it," and the Laws of Making

Paul Hawken, in his 1987 book Growing a Business, argued, contrary to common wisdom, that most businesses fail not because they had too little money but because they had too much. To be sure, running out of money was the final failure. Hawken, however, observed that many businesses wind up exhausting their cash because they spent too much energy on trying to look and feel like they were in business--by leasing high profile offices and filling them with business furnishings--instead of working out how their business was actually going to start making money (so they wouldn't run out).

One of the pieces of well-intentioned advice, particularly for creative people, is to, "fake it till you make it." As with other bits of common wisdom that have been reduced to sound-bites, this particular notion packs both promise and pitfalls.

A malady common among people who want to make is the tendency to prepare but never actually undertake and finish a project. It is a symptom of the fear that we're not good enough to do our vision justice. And so we practice, sure that once we master some elusive technique or fill all the gaps in our understanding we'll finally achieve mastery. Practice and preparation are necessary and good, but as with most other good things you can have too much. In this case you need to, "fake it till you make it," in the particular sense that you must set aside your fears and make it even though you feel like a fake. It's not much consolation when you're bogged down with self-doubt, but the fact of the matter is that many of the people who you would say have made it feel as much like fakes as you do.

At the other end of the spectrum we find the creative equivalent of Hawken's over-funded businesses: the person who's initial efforts, whether by accident or design, got enough attention that they think they've made it. They embrace the form of their success without actually understanding its substance. This mindset is particularly dangerous because it breeds a sense of entitlement.

Makers strive to understand things as they really are. One of the simplest but most telling signs of understanding is repeatability. With a lucky strike, you might produce a stunning sculpture. It's only when you know what you did that you can produce a second stunning sculpture. But repeatability means more than simply duplicating your work: true mastery means you can apply what you understand in different contexts with appropriate variations.

The fake-it-till-you-make-it that comes closest to true making is captured in the observation that the process of making is a series of progressively better approximations of the final product. Models, mock-ups, and prototypes are perhaps the most obvious examples of fakes that are an integral part of making.

While the integrity of the makers has no room for anything fake, there are important ways in which, "faking," is an important part of making. That said, a distinguishing characteristic of true makers is constant vigilance against self-delusion.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why Our Writing is Better Than Other People's

As  a musician, I have a problem.

It's my own fault, really. And it goes all the way back to those childhood practice sessions I either skipped or muddled through until I'd done my time.

You see, when I play, what the poor folks forced to listen hear is nothing like the music I think I'm playing.

It's like the illusion that the moon on the horizon is much bigger than the same moon riding high in the sky. You might swear that it really does look bigger on the horizon, but if you take a picture of the moon in each position (taking care, of course, to keep the camera settings the same) and measure its size, you won't find any significant difference.

Fortunately, there's help for people with my musical affliction. It's called audio software. With a composition package I can set down the notes and refine them until what comes out of the synthesizer matches the music in my head. While this doesn't guarantee that another person will have the same emotional reaction to the music, it does guarantee that my lack of technical proficiency no longer creates a gap between what I intend and what they actually hear.

We have a similar but more subtle problem as writers. In this day, when the vast majority of writing passes through computers, the legibility of our writing is rarely a problem. We take it for granted that most people will see the same words we put down on the page. If they see the same words, they should understand the same things when they read those words, right?

Meaning arises from interpreting the words and the ideas you associate with those words. What may seem like a perfectly innocent statement to one person could have offensive connotations for another. We say reading is subjective--that readers bring their own baggage to the story--without truly understanding how deeply true it is. If you stop to think about it, it's a miracle that we understand each other as well as we do.

All of which is why we all think (though most of us are too polite to say it) that our writing is better than most other peoples: we know what our words mean when we put them down. With another person's writing, all we have to go on are the words on the page.

One of the reasons we might call other people's writing bad is if we can make no sense or get nothing meaningful out of it. It doesn't matter what they intended the words to convey. It only matters what you get out of them. This is why, no matter how certain you are of your writing's perfection, you need editorial feedback--you need to hear how other people react to your words.

The music in your head may be astonishing and sublime, but no one will ever know it if they can't hear the same notes.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

VP4W 13 The Kingdom is Brighter

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

The best atmospheric metaphor for the culmination of the Virgin's Promise is a sunrise: the dark night has ended and the day begins with renewed life and energy.

At the end of the arc, in a collective parallel to, and catalyzed by, the Virgin's personal transformation, The Kingdom is Brighter. In an important sense, the community has also chosen its own light.

As Kim Hudson* explains:
"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. When the dust settles, the kingdom comes to realize that it is better off for having gone through this experience with the Virgin, for it was in need of change. In some way it has adjusted itself and benefited. The most common benefits include that evil had been revealed and removed, new life has been injected into the kingdom, others are inspired to follow their dreams, and unconditional love binds the kingdom."

The Virgin doesn't ride off into the sunset, as we discussed in the Re-ordering, because the problem all along was internal to her community. While the arc of the Virgin's Promise is, at one level, a story of coming into one's own as an individual, it is also about doing so in the context of a community--one that is neither wholly good nor bad. And as the Virgin had to stretch and grow and make a new place for herself to escape the web of expectations that kept her from realizing her dreams, so too did the Kingdom: whether because of complacency, traditions growing rigid, or a festering social evil, the Kingdom was also trapped and unable to realize the dream of its potential.

Like curtains thrown open to flood a room with the crisp light of a new day, the Kingdom blossoms with new life--figuratively and sometimes literally. More importantly, now that the social malignancy has been healed, there is an outpouring, at least in the Virgin's immediate circle, of unconditional love.

The beautiful thing about coming to the end of a satisfying and well-told story is that we're left to savor that final, perfect image. Life outside of the story has a tendency of marring a perfect, culminating moment through the simple fact that it goes on. The morning after you receive the Nobel Prize for Literature you'll still have to get up, get dressed, and do something useful.

I can't begin to imagine all the ways in which your kingdom will be brighter as you realize your writing dreams. But I can tell you that light is a fleeting thing. If you don't fix it in your memory, the time will come when no one remembers how bright the kingdom was.

But rather than despairing that it didn't last, take inspiration from the hope that what once was may be again. For one brief, shining moment, there really was a Camelot.

And in a larger sense, this is why the Hero's Journey and the Virgin's Promise are archetypes: these are stories that are always unfolding. Coming to the end of one cycle means that soon we will begin another.

* Kim Hudson, The Virgin's Promise

Image: Simon Howden /

Monday, December 5, 2011

Solitude vs. Isolation

The work of making requires focus and concentration. Makers take care to create workspaces free from clutter and distraction so that nothing interferes with the work. This means that solitude is often part of the workspace.

Some people are turned off by that fact. They say, "I need people. I wouldn't ever want to be so isolated."

Makers understand the critical difference between solitude and isolation. While they may spend a non-trivial amount of time alone, makers are never lonely. There is, of course, the work: in the process of its becoming, the work is an entity with which the maker interacts in a give and take that can be as lively as a good conversation.

At a deeper level, however, the work itself connects makers with their community and the wider world. As the very act of eating acknowledges our mortality and dependence on food for our very lives, the act of making acknowledges that there are things outside of ourselves that have has much right to exist as we do.

The despair of users is bred in isolation. Their isolation begins with the fact that, as the center of their own universe, no one is as important as they are. And as the centers of their own little universes, making (or anything else for that matter) is only significant to the extent that it provides some benefit to the user. Put another way, the idea of doing something to make things better in general doesn't compute for users.

True making is never an isolated activity because we make for others. Putting words in a persistent medium, for example, embodies our hope that someone else will read them. Realizing that something will make the world better is sufficient to motivate a maker to undertake the project.

Many makers cherish solitude as a rare and precious gift. If, in your own work, you begin to feel isolated, take that as a sign that something is amiss, whether with the project or your approach to it.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, December 2, 2011

On the Spread of the "No Reponse Means No" Policy Among Agents

"Don't call us, we'll call you."

It's the classic Hollywood line--the epitome of Tinseltown, that city of dreams built on a deep foundation of broken dreams. While we might be tempted to look down on callous film people, they're simply responding as rational economic actors in the presence of a dramatic oversupply of dramatic talent.

And now, more and more agents are going Hollywood: not that they're turning to film but that they're adopting an analogous query policy that no response means no. The more thoughtful agents have set up email auto-responders so that writers can know their query didn't get lost in a spam filter and have a publicly stated response time frame after which authors can assume the response is, "no thanks."

The SCBWI weighed in on November 15, 2011 with an open letter asking agents to reconsider their policy. Among other things, the SCBWI worries that the policy will not help agents reduce their query load because the absence of feedback will encourage writers to treat querying as a numbers game instead of targeting submissions after careful research.

Much of the discussion revolves around the question of what's right. If writers put lots of time into their query, aren't they owed the courtesy of a response?

While I would like to think that the industry still has the civility to cloak self-interest with the decency to encourage professional development, at a purely economic level the, "no response means no," policy means that agents have an oversupply of queries.

What caused the over supply? Has the number of writers querying publishable manuscripts grown dramatically in the last few years? Has the commercial market for debut authors contracted?

I don't know, but I suspect it's all of the above.

So what, if anything, should you do?

It's hard to resist the temptation to treat querying as a numbers game where you fire-and-forget at all the agents who seem to be in the ball park. Without feedback, you won't be able to refine your query after each small batch.

But there's a deeper question: can you stand out in an oversupplied market? Or should you, perhaps, look elsewhere, either to other agents who haven't instituted the policy or to other publishing avenues?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /