Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Artisan Publishing

The food industry in the United States is a curious one. Some words that appear on labels, like, “organic,” are carefully regulated and may only be used if the food or the process by which it was produced meets certain requirements. Other words, like, “artisan,” may be used with abandon.

The word, “artisan,” long carried the sense of common practitioner, as opposed to the artist who brought genius and inspiration to the work. But as mass production, and increasingly mass customization, has blessed us with a collective and mostly uniform affluence, artisan has come to signify a means of production where low unit cost and economies of scale are not the primary objective. Artisan bread, for example, is made by hand even though there are bread factories that are far more efficient in purely economic terms.

Why, if we are rational economic actors, would we ever choose a product that is more expensive and less available than a mass-produced equivalent? People who prefer artisan breads may argue in terms of the varieties or flavors available nowhere else, or the virtue of supporting local production, but for most people it simply tastes better.

In response to sandwich chains that have recently began advertising their bread as, “artisan,” people who produce food products that actually deserve the label were asked to define it. Some answered in terms of small production batches and traditional, hand-made methods that invite skilled crafts people, who control the means of production, to take greater care in their work. Others spoke about love, attention to detail, a greater concern with quality than quantity, and integrity.

It was in the particular sense of craftsmanship and pride in the work that I realized what I had set out to do in publishing my series of writers’ guides was best characterized as artisan publishing. It certainly wasn’t about the money. While I hope in time to see a reasonable return on the effort I invested in the project, I have no more illusion that my efforts will lead to a publishing empire than an artisan baker believes they will be the next giant food conglomerate.

Artisan publishing isn’t simply a variation on the theme of doing it yourself. The large, well-stocked home improvement centers dotting our suburban landscape owe their existence more to naivety, false economy, and hubris than to a genuine and supportable conviction that doing it yourself is the best way to get the job done well, right, and in a timely fashion. The path of an artisan publisher begins with having something worth saying and a thorough effort to determine the best way to publish that material. As with our writing, where no character, scene, or sentence is too precious to come under scrutiny, artisan publishing has nothing to do with shortcuts or showing the gatekeepers how wrong they were about your manuscript and everything to do with what is best and right for the project.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Finding the Words

Just as many of us suffer from innumeracy—the inability to think rationally about large numbers—many of us also tend to assume that if something has been a certain way for a long time that is how the thing is supposed to be. This is very much the case right now in the world of publishing.

For a substantial portion of the last century and most of the first decade of this, the publishing industry has been defined by the logistics of distributing books to bookstores and the companies controlling that channel. There were innovations, like mass-market paperbacks and book stands in supermarkets and big-box retailers, but none of these changed the fundamental distribution pattern. Setting yourself up as a publisher required a second-mortgage-level investment to print books and a tremendous amount of legwork to arrange for distribution.

Everything changed with the advent of electronic publication. The barrier to entry was reduced to little more than the time and effort required to write the book and some initial, minimal expenses like purchasing ISBN numbers. While electronic publishing doesn’t provide an easy avenue into bookstores, for a variety of reasons their importance has waned in the last few years. The number of new, e-book-only small presses attests to the viability of the new model.

Change is difficult for many reasons. One of the subtle but most vexing ones is that our ability to describe and define the change always lags the change itself. What we used to call simply publishing (or commercial publishing if we needed to distinguish between the standard pattern, where authors were paid by publishers, from vanity publishing, where authors paid publishers) now gets qualified with words like, “traditional,” “legacy,” or even, “dinosaur.” The swelling ranks of individuals taking advantage of the opportunities offered by electronic publishing use these terms to help define what they are doing differently. And now we're awash in terms like, “self-publishing,” “independent” or “indie publishing” (an attempt to align with the success and credibility of independently produced, or indie, films), and even arguments that trading a 70% royalty for a 15% royalty and recognition by a publisher is a new kind of vanity publishing.

The problem with all those labels is that they speak primarily in terms of how you are not publishing. “Traditional,” implies you’re not publishing through the new electronic media, or that you’re not using those channels well. “Self,” and, “Independent,” imply that you’re not publishing with partners.

So how are you publishing if you choose to do it yourself?

The label that fits best is, “Artisan Publishing.”

An artisan, according to Webster, “is one trained to manual dexterity in some mechanical art, mystery, or trade; a hand-craftsman; a mechanic.”

In its current usage, “artisan,” suggests craftsmanship and pride in one’s work, which of all the reasons bandied about for undertaking to publish your own work is the only one—as we shall see in the coming weeks—that stands up to scrutiny.

Image: Simon Howden /

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Character and Archetype

Character and Archetype

How to Make Readers Fall in Love with your Imaginary Friends

Strength of Character

I must confess, though I’ve tried many times, that I like fantastic stories better than contemporary ones. Given that stories of the fantastic are usually not at the top of the list for careful character studies, it is, perhaps, not the most auspicious way to start a guide to character and archetypes. But trying to figure out why I prefer fantasy is what led to the study you now hold.

At first I feared I was simply too judgmental of characters in familiar situations. In a contemporary story it’s easy to question the choices characters make when you can think of alternate courses of action. In a fantasy, where the rules are different, it’s harder to second guess the characters. The issue, however, is deeper than characters doing things with which you don’t agree: the story falls apart if a reader can think of other, simpler ways to solve the story problem. For example, there are a great many romances in which the couple is kept apart at some point by a misunderstanding that could be resolved with a five-minute conversation.

Regardless of the setting, whether fantastic or realistic, in order for your characters to ring true, readers must believe their actions are natural and inevitable. Readers fold every bit of character information you give them into a mental model. Behavior which reinforces the model feels natural. Behavior which extends the model feels inevitable. In a context with which readers are familiar enough to imagine alternatives, you’ve got to take greater care to establish why your characters wouldn’t or couldn’t behave differently.

Another difference I noted between fantastic and realistic stories is the relative degree of activity and passivity. In one well-reviewed and highly recommended contemporary novel, much of the interaction takes place while the characters are hanging out. Fantastic stories tend to have a lot less hanging out because the characters are trying to do something—to get someplace, find something, or unravel a mystery. Contemporary stories are often about making one’s way in society by finding friends and fitting in. Fantasy is almost never about fitting in, it’s about being extraordinary.

You might rightly point out that my view of narrative activity and passivity is subjective and argue that characters trying to understand themselves and their place in a complex world are every bit as active as heroes battling villains. I am guilty as charged: I prefer stories which entertain the possibility that we might be wonderful over those whose fundamental world view is that life is something to be endured and which, at best, offer the hope that we might cope.

But again, there’s something important here that goes beyond my entertainment preferences. Story is about change over time. In character terms that means story is about people who do interesting things—who engage life and the world around them—and who reveal their character through their actions.

Strong Characters

If we’re supposed to cheer for the hero and hiss at the villain, why is the bad-guy often the strongest character in the story?

Good antagonists, of course, believe they are the hero of their own story. On the strength of that conviction, they act. Their actions harm or threaten the hero, which sets the story in motion. The protagonist usually spends the first half of the story reacting because the antagonist has the initiative. We learn about each character through the things they do, but we learn more from actions than reactions—which is important insofar as the antagonist is concerned because we need to understand his or her character well enough to side with the protagonist.

So what makes a strong character?

First, character is what makes a person interesting. Someone who has no opinions, interests, or aspirations—who exists in perfect compliance—isn’t interesting.  An interesting character has their own view and agenda, and they make their own decisions.

Second, character is the sum of a person’s actions over time. We often fall into the error of reducing character to the initial description and first impressions. While a person’s appearance may provide some evidence of their character, we come away from a single meeting with nothing more than a caricature of them. It’s only after we’ve observed their behavior in different times and places that we understand them well enough to predict how they’ll react in a new situation.

It’s easy to get confused when we talk about strong characters because when we describe someone in real life as a, “strong character,” we often mean that they’re overbearing or obnoxious. Strong characters in narrative are simply interesting people whose actions give us insight into who they are.

Strong Female Characters

Strength, particularly physical strength, is generally a male attribute. What do we mean by, “strong,” when we’re talking about female characters?

For reasons ranging from biology to culture, the ways in which men and women can or are expected to show strength differ. That said, the things that make a strong female character are the same things that make a strong male character: a sense of purpose and the will to act.

Viewed in this light, strength of character and femininity are perfectly compatible. Most women may not be able to go toe-to-toe with the men in a barroom brawl, but they often exceed the males in the quiet, daily kind of strength. Similarly, women often show strength by drawing together a society who can collectively solve a problem instead of attacking it head-on. And unlike men who equate vulnerability with weakness, women are often strongest when they acknowledge their vulnerabilities.

Persistence in the face of opposition is a common sign of strength of character. A person who states a position and then changes his or her mind when someone counters with a contrary opinion is a weak character. A strong character has courage, in the particular sense that they don’t give up easily—not because they’re pig-headed, but because they know what they believe and why they believe it.

Strength of character is never measured on an absolute scale. It’s only meaningful in light of a character’s weaknesses. That a strong, healthy man who is versed in combat steps up to fight reveals less about his character than a physically weaker woman reveals about hers when she does something similar.

The best strategy is to approach each character, regardless of gender, as an individual with their own mix of strengths and weaknesses.

Choices Reveal Character

Fiction requires one more thing of strong characters: they must be problem solvers. It may sound like the pinnacle of courage when the black knight stands on the bridge and declares, “None shall pass!” but you don’t have a story if no one wants to pass and he’s simply standing guard. Strong characters try things, fail, learn from their experience, and try again. And in doing so, they show us what they’re made of.

The best way to show strength in narrative is to give the character two choices. If a character has consistently chosen safety over conflict during the course of a story, and if at the end they are offered a safe and honorable way out, the fact that they stay and fight says a great deal more than if they are simply cornered and have no choice.

* * *

There is, of course, much more to creating strong characters.

In the next chapter, we look at the techniques of natural characterization.

Chapter three focuses on character dynamics: the hierarchy of needs that motivate characters and the universal human pattern of reactions.

Beyond simply being active and interesting, the most compelling characters transform themselves over the course of a story. Through their experience we come to a better understanding of our own transformations. The majority of this book is dedicated to a study of the two archetypical patterns of transformation: the hero’s journey in chapter four and the virgin’s promise in chapter five.

We turn to romance in chapter six, and conclude, in chapter seven, with an approach to unifying character and plot.

But if you get nothing more from this book than the understanding that strong characters have a sense of who they are, what they want, and what they’re willing to do—that above all are active—you’ll improve your writing by an order of magnitude.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012



How Illusions, Confidence Games, and Skillful Lying can Improve Your Fiction

The Appearance of Truth

“Truthiness,” coined by Stephen Colbert, was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster. It’s a particularly funny word given the current cultural and political climate, but there’s a perfectly good, albeit venerable, word whose original sense means the same thing: verisimilitude.

Verisimilitude is, “the state of quality of being verisimilar; the appearance of truth; probability; likelihood.” (Webster 1886)

Having the appearance, but not the substance, of truth is generally not considered a good thing. Fiction, however, is an exception. When you’re dealing in something that in absolute terms is a lie (because it never happened in the real world), verisimilitude is a virtue.

The essence of the art of verisimilitude is to understand and apply real-world patterns and structures in your stories. Even in a fantasy world you can’t ignore basic laws of economics—like how much farm land and how many people it takes in a medieval economy to support a single knight in the battle field—if you don’t want to alienate readers.

Why Fiction?

There is no such thing as, “objective,” history; every attempt to recapture the past is an interpretation in which some things are emphasized more than others. We build models for the same reason: to emphasize some aspects of the thing being modeled while ignoring others. Interpretations and models are a simplification of reality. Fiction is the literary equivalent of model making. Our stories can speak truth more clearly because they omit the confusing and distracting things that are part and parcel of everyday life.

One of the basic rules of writing is, “show, don’t tell.” It’s also a fundamental rule for life: people are much more willing to adopt an idea if you show them how to arrive at the notion themselves than if you hand it to them finished, polished, and ready to be placed on their mantle. A story can be spun that shows how concepts affect the lives of your characters much more clearly than trying to find an example in the life of an actual person.

Why do we tell stories, particularly ones that aren’t true?

Because sometimes the jester is the only one in the court who can speak the truth: sometimes the untrue is truer than the true.

Truth in the Patently Untrue

The first fantasy book that captured my imagination was the last book in The Chronicles of Narnia. I stumble upon The Last Battle in my elementary school library after exhausting their meager collection of books on World War II. The word, "battle," in the title is probably what caught my eye.

I was mesmerized by the apocalyptic themes—it was easy to entertain apocalyptic notions during a time when everyone assumed nuclear war was inevitable—and enthralled by the conceptual scope of the fantasy. I found the theme of ever expanding vistas of worlds wider and richer than the one we know to be particularly compelling.

The transcendental surrealism (not a term I had in my grade-school lexicon) of the story was far more effective than a mind-expanding drug. I got my first taste of the way in which one could understand something more deeply and vibrantly if they were unencumbered by the constraints of ordinary experience.

And that was it: one (metaphorical) puff of fantastic fiction and I was hooked.

Fantasy is far more than the relatively recently defined genre of medievaloid settings with magical elements. In the most general sense, a fantasy is any story with contra-factual elements. Some people prefer speculative fiction as the umbrella term for everything from classical swords and sorcery, through paranormal romance and alternate history, to science fiction.

Contrary to the common sense notion that the farther a story strays from the real world the less relevant it is, fantasy enables us to abstract away ambiguity and tell a clearer and more compelling story about underlying truths. An interspecies war between orcs and elves is much easier to understand than a conflict between competing human ideologies and economic interests in the real world.

To be clear, I'm not arguing that fantastic stories are better than more realistic ones: any kind of story can convey truth.

“But why,” you may ask, “worry about truth in a book about creating the appearance of truth in fiction?”

Because stories, like the best lies, are founded on truth.

The True Core of a Story

With all this talk of truth, you may feel overwhelmed, particularly your aim is to entertain, not discourse on universal truth.


The true core of the story is much closer to internal consistency than moral certitude.

I had a peculiar experience reading a trendy dystopian young adult novel: I didn't like the beginning, I liked the middle, and I didn't like the end. The first act seemed like a parade of contrivances to withhold information from both the protagonist and the reader. In the second act, the protagonist finally gets some information and acts on it. I became engaged because I wanted to see how the experiment played out and what information that gave us for subsequent efforts to solve the problem. Then in the third act, through a series of startling reveals, I was effectively told everything I thought I knew about the story was wrong, there was no way I could figure out what was really going on, and so the only thing I could do was hang on for the wild ride to the end.

The novel had no true foundation. Except for the middle, the author didn't show me how to enjoy his story, he told me how to appreciate his cleverness as the designer and operator of that particular roller coaster.

So what does this mean for those of us who want engaged readers?

The first key to verisimilitude is that reading is interactive; your readers want to participate in the story. The best way to alienate them is to say, in effect, “Shut up, sit still, and let me take you for a ride.” Engaged readers are ones who think about the book both while they read and after they stop. The best way to engage them is to establish the consistent foundation—the core truth—upon which the story plays out and because of which, when the tale ends, the reader will agree, even if it was a surprise, that the conclusion was inevitable.

A satisfied reader is the first, and most important, hallmark of verisimilitude in fiction.

* * *

This volume is designed to help you better satisfy your readers.

Chapter 2 begins with a readers’ Bill of Rights, courtesy of Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, because the overall way in which you go about spinning your story determines whether your book rings true with readers.

Chapter 3 explores the verisimilitude that arises naturally when thinking readers engage your story.

Verisimilitude is the illusion of truth. We consider techniques that conjure or dispel those illusions in chapter 4.

In chapter 5 we look at competent wordsmithing, specifically those verbal non-sequiturs, awkward expressions, and linguistic gaffes that jar readers out of the story and break the illusion.

Conflict that rings true is the dynamic key to verisimilitude. Chapter 6 attempts to wrestle the subject to the ground.

In chapter 7 we look at the ways in which flubbing the details scuttles the verisimilitude of your story.

Chapter 8 continues the theme of enhancing verisimilitude by showing how to get major elements like action, societies, economies, magic, and science right.

Writing intentionally, whether you prefer to outline or discover the story as you go, is the capstone of verisimilitude. Chapter 9 looks at the preparation and research necessary to give your readers the illusion that you know what you're talking about.

Finally, the appendix describes some story development tools that may prove helpful as you work to improve the verisimilitude of your book.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Story Theory

Story Theory

How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps

Why do We Tell Stories?

Watching an ant hill, it’s hard not to marvel at the way in which they work together. The magic, according to entomologists, is a matter of chemistry. Ants exchange signal chemicals when they meet, enabling them to recognize members of their colony and coordinate activities.

Storytelling is our version of chemical signaling. Long before we worked out conventions for courses, text books, encyclopedias, etc., we told stories to convey information and coordinate activities. Stories are the original, “how-to.” They say, in essence, “If you find yourself in a situation like this, here’s how to deal with it.”

Stories are about Cause and Effect

Ernest Hemingway once won a bar bet that he could write a story in only six words. His words were:

“For sale: baby shoes. Never used.”

Like other bar bets, it’s impressive, but not quite what it appears to be. In particular, Hemingway’s, “story,” isn’t a story, it’s a story prompt.

In arguing that Hemmingway did indeed have a story, you might point out how each two-word phrase is like one of three acts, taking us in a different and more dramatic direction at each turn.

That’s true, but I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t intrigued by those six words: they can’t help speculating and filling in details to create a story in their own mind. And the story is always about what caused the effect of someone possessing unused baby shoes.

J. Michael Straczynski explains story this way:

  • The king died and then the queen died. (Not a story)
  • The queen died because the king died. (A story)

In the first case, we simply have two events—two royal deaths listed in the chronicles. In the second, the story organizes the two events into a cause/effect relationship.

Naturally, there’s a great deal more to a satisfying story—a novel, for example, will describe many causes and effects on different levels and in different dimensions.

Must all stories show cause and effect? What about literary fiction?

Don’t be misled by the siren song of the literati and their conceit that a nuanced character study is superior to plot-driven commercial offerings. Even a character study is about the causes and effects of the character’s beliefs and behaviors.

Stories Attribute Significance

There is a Native American tale which explains how the mountains surrounding the tribal homeland were created when the trickster trapped giants and turned them to stone as punishment for their wickedness.

One of the remarkable things about The Lord of the Rings is the way in which Tolkien produced a fictional landscape full of the significance accumulated over the course of three ages: there were stories, often only hinted at in the text, behind so much of the landscape that it became a character in its own right.

In both cases, it is the stories that give the landscape significance.

Stories work their magic on people and events as well as physical features. They tell, and more importantly show, why we should care about someone or something. By rehearsing the cause of a particular effect, they teach us why the subject is important and stands out from others like it.

Wits have wryly observed that we can’t collectively understand a tragedy until we’ve watched the made-for-television movie about it. If we peel away the cynicism, the remaining kernel of truth is that by defining meaning and attributing significance, stories are how we make sense of the confusing world in which we live.

Story Problems are Non-trivial

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

Don’t believe me?

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 many times when you make one trip because you know what you’re doing and what you need. But you don’t tell a story about those episodes because a this-was-the-problem-so-I-got-the-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. 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 may 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.

And suddenly, without trying, we’ve stumbled upon the three-act story structure:

  • Act 1 is an attempt to solve the story problem that fails
  • Act 2 is another attempt to solve the story problem that also fails
  • Act 3 is the attempt to solve the story problem that finally succeeds.

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

The Best Stories are Edgy

We often hear agents and editors want stories that are, “edgy,” “push the envelope,” and talk about how things, “really,” are.

The edge in question is usually the edge of social acceptability, where the scent of the forbidden entices our voyeuristic impulses. From a business perspective (and without trying to sound too cynical), it’s also much easier to sell something offering readers a chance to step vicariously outside common social constraints.

The topic can easily become contentious. There are readers who feel life is too short to waste on vanilla when there are more exotic flavors to be had on the edge. Others hear, “edgy,” and immediately think, “uncomfortable,” “gratuitous,” or even, “marketing gimmick.”

It’s unfortunate that there’s a fair amount of ammunition for readers who associate, “edgy,” with, “gimmicky,” because there’s an important place in the grand conversation for stories about the edges—not of acceptability but of society.

Stories from the social periphery give voice to people and experiences that are minimized or ignored. Going to the edge is certainly important for social justice, but it’s even more important as a source of variability and vitality. Chaos theory, for example, shows that the dynamic equilibrium between order and chaos is the region where the most interesting and complex things happen. Another way to think of it is that the tendency of society to move toward monoculture is offset by the variations and novelties that arise on its periphery.

But there’s an even deeper point: at a structural level, the best stories are always edgy in the particular sense that they take the protagonist out to the edge of their known world and then beyond. Whether the journey is actual or emotional, it’s only in the unmediated wild, beyond the edge of the safe and comfortable, where character is revealed and proven.

* * *

This book focuses on the structural underpinnings of a sustained narrative. In an effort to express ideas clearly and succinctly, some of what follows may seem a bit academic.

Don’t be put off by the tone.

The concepts we’ll explore are simple, but have profound implications for stories and storytelling. If you can master the patterns, you’ll open up rich new dimensions in your writing

We begin, in chapter 2, with a look at the way in which stories are models—like maps, they emphasize some details and suppress others. Many of the, “rules,” about which writers agonize are heuristics for creating satisfying narrative models.

But models are patterns, not recipes—something we make clear in chapter 3.

Chapter 4 explores the recurring pattern of threes in many kinds of cultural expressions, including storytelling, and argues three acts, parts, or beats in a story correspond to the minimum container of significance.

How do you go from the simplicity of a beginning, middle, and end to the narrative complexity of a satisfying novel? Chapter 5 provides the fractal answer in three easy steps.

In chapter 6, we turn from structure to dynamics with a look at story drivers.

The discussion continues in chapter 7, where we focus on the kind of conflict that advances a story.

Drawing upon all we’ve covered, in chapter 8 we explore the art of the long form: what, beyond the principles of good storytelling we’ve covered in the earlier part of the book, do you need to keep readers engaged for hundreds of pages.

Finally, in chapter 9, we close with a look at the practical skills of editing and revising that you’ll need to transform your application of story theory into something someone else will actually want to read.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sustainable Creativity

Sustainable Creativity

How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse

The Substance of Art

Many people who say they want to write really mean they want to have written. That is, many people aspire to be writers because they would like to be in the position of receiving the attention paid to someone who has published a book.

You’ve probably heard you should write because you have to: don’t do it for a living if you can do anything else. That sentiment is best understood as shorthand for the fact that writing is hard work—the kind of hard work only a few people find satisfying. If you find writing to be a joyless chore, it’s a good sign you should do something else.

Agent Rachelle Gardner said:

“…  if you decide you really want to go for it, then you’ll be ready to accept and deal with the truth: Writing a novel is hard work. You’ll be able to commit to the work, hoping eventually there’ll be a payoff meaning that you’ll enjoy the results of your labor. That doesn’t necessarily mean being published, but simply enjoying your story on the page, and enjoying the feeling of accomplishment. In that way, it can still be a labor of love even if it’s hard work.
“Let’s keep in mind that the ultimate “labor of love,” giving birth, is not in the least enjoyable and in fact involves great pain. It’s the result that makes it a labor of love. Sorry, I know you’re a guy and all, but this is a good analogy. In fact, one of the things that defines a “labor of love” is the fact that a task can be extremely difficult and unpleasant, but the results are so “worth it” that you do it anyway. I don’t think “labor of love” means something is supposed to be fun.” [1]

Art requires real and sustained dedication—much more than we assume if we only see the end product. The hallmark of mastery is that you make it look easy—as if the work simply flows from your fingertips.

Flow in Writing

You’ve probably heard about people who say the writing just flowed. It’s hard to hear that without taking it to be something mystical or judging yourself to be a lesser writer if you can’t make a similar claim.

Wikipedia defines psychological flow this way:

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.” [2]

There’s nothing mystical about flow. Indeed, it is effectively the opposite of mysticism because when you’re in a state of psychological flow you’re neither awed nor terrified. When you’re fully immersed in the process, you find, to the extent that you’re even aware of your internal state, that you feel a profound calm.

Flow means you’re neither too hot with great ideas, nor too cold bogged down in the details, but just right with ideas and the words to express them coming together at the same time.

Some people argue writing is a purely creative, right-brain activity. There’s truth in that claim, particularly for those who see the action and the setting, and hear the voices of their characters. But encoding those ideas in well-chosen words and ordering those words in compelling, grammatically correct sentences is a left-brain activity.

The hardest thing about writing is being sure your reader will get something from the marks on the page similar to what you had in mind when you made them. Unlike speaking with someone, where their expression helps you gauge how well they understand what you’re saying, a writer must encode ideas and mental images as words on a page in a medium that can be consumed at another time and place.

Much of the substance of art comes down to mastering the techniques and conventions that usually manage to convey your ideas to your audience. Put more simply, figuring out what you want to say is often easier than figuring out how to say it so that your readers come away thinking about roughly the same thing you had in mind.

People who focus on one side of the brain or the other short-change themselves. In my experience, flow is most likely to occur when I’ve mastered the left-brain mechanics (e.g., proficiency at typing, a command of grammar rules, and a rich vocabulary) and energized the right-brain to focus on the story (and not entertain every distraction that comes along). You can think of flow in writing as balancing right and left brains as you produce and encode ideas.

Art and Your Inner Critic

Unfortunately, your inner critic also lives in your left-brain and can stifle the wondrous flights of fancy soaring through your right brain. The people who tell you creativity can only flourish if you stay away from the left side of your brain live in fear of their inner critic. Part of the reason art is so often associated with, “recreational chemistry,” is because intoxicants are a time-honored way of overcoming your inhibitions.

A self-destructive war between the hemispheres of your brain, however, isn’t the only way to produce art. Your inner critic nags at you to keep you safe, not to sabotage your efforts. Jeanette Ingold characterizes our inner critic as, “no-nonsense; it wants to keep you out of trouble; and doesn’t want you to make a fool of yourself.”

The first step toward embracing your inner critic is to enlist it as your editor—the artistic equivalent of a conscience. Just as real editors help us refine and perfect our work, our internal editor can compliment the work by managing all the details that will make it shine.

There is, of course, a time and a place for everything. You don’t, for example, need your internal editor while you’re working on your first draft: everything is still fluid and the things that worry your inner editor may get changed before the story finally settles.

So, how do you work with your internal editor?

Liberating Processes

Remember, your inner editor is all about details. The best way to keep your inner editor happy is to keep it busy with detail-oriented tasks like:

  • Make a map of where the story takes place.
  • Create calendars and time-lines of events critical to the story.
  • Keep notes about character decisions.
  • Study similar books to see what works and what doesn’t.

More generally, having a process helps calm your inner editor. If you work systematically, it’s much easier to convince your inner editor you’ll come back and correct the details that may be amiss in the early drafts. For example:

  • Don’t be a binge writer: try to write every day.
  • Take advantage of forward momentum. Just keep going forward even if you realize something needs a major change.
  • Don’t worry about getting the writing perfect. Worry about getting your story on paper. There will be plenty of time with subsequent drafts to polish the text.
  • First drafts should be written chronologically.

And when you finish, let your first draft season for a month or so. Read it straight through to the end to get a gut feeling for the pacing. After that first read-through, you can unleash your internal editor, who will get busy and cut out everything that doesn’t belong in the story.

If you take a step back, what you’re really doing is setting up a cycle of creation and refinement that you’ll repeat until the work is finished. 

Mindful Writing

Scott Livingston said, “Poetry is intentional brevity.”

You have a responsibility as a writer to produce purposeful prose: narratives crafted with intent that give the reader a well-prepared experience. There’s no place in writing for pool-hall bravado (i.e., claiming you intended the balls to go where ever they went).

Flow is the state where you’re so fully immersed in the process that you stop worrying and simply do. It’s a frictionless balance between right-brain vision and left-brain detail.

The synthesis of flow and purpose is mindful writing. Like the Zen practice of mindfulness, which is to, “pay attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally,” when you’re mindful of your writing, you’re both aware and not aware of what you’re doing. [3] You see the story and hear the voices of the characters. At the same time you’re capturing what you see in specific and intentionally chosen words.

While a perfect, Zen-like union of apparent opposites—in this case the two sides of our brains—in a creative synthesis may seem unobtainable, as you practice mindful writing you’ll find the amplitude of the create/refine cycle decreasing as the frequency increases. In other words, you’ll become consistently creative and produce higher quality work.

* * *

In this book we’ll explore creativity and the creative life, using writing to illustrate the broader principles.

We begin, in chapter 2, by clarifying the distinction between an idea and the expression of that idea, and show that creativity is primarily about the latter.

In chapter 3, we expand on the notion that creativity is only meaningful in context.

Ideas provide creative fuel. Chapter 4 explores ways to generate and collect ideas.

Chapter 5 looks as how the raw material of a collection of ideas can be organized into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

We turn to a series of observations, inspired by Austin Kleon, on the creative life in chapter 6.

Sustainable creativity requires discipline. Chapter 7 describes simple and creative ways to improve your discipline.

In chapter 8 we face the uncomfortable truth that creativity is hard work, and look at how you can step up to the challenge.

Chapter 9 suggests a number of techniques for organizing your affairs in order to clear time and space in which to exercise your creativity.

Finally, chapter 10 looks at the subtle problem of staying creative over the long term.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Professional Relationships

Professional Relationships

How to Deal with the Characters you Can’t Re-Write

It’s Not About You

When asked where they get their ideas, writers often say they listen to the voices in their heads. Perhaps it’s because they want readers to experience their characters as vivid and self-willed. And yet the rarely acknowledged fact of the matter is that those characters can always be rewritten.

Unfortunately that’s not true for characters that exist outside your head. Other people—real people—have an annoying tendency to go off-script and you have no other option but to take them as they are.

While you can’t correct people with a flourish of your pen, the good news is there are time-honored—and time-tested—ways of interacting with other people to create and build relationships that even writers can master.

Old School Networking and Social Media

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was originally published in 1936. How could an advice book published before World War II still be relevant?

Publishing, like nearly everything else in our lives, is fundamentally about human relationships. And people haven’t changed much over the last century. If you brush aside the cobwebs and blow away the dust, you’ll find Carnegie’s ‘40s-era advice is as good as or better than the latest pearls of wisdom from social networking gurus.

And what does Carnegie advise?

Here’s a summary of the principles of How to Win Friends and Influence People:

Fundamental Techniques in Handling People

  • Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.
  • Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  • Arouse in the other person an eager want.

Six Ways to Make People Like You

  • Become genuinely interested in other people.
  • Smile.
  • Remember that a man’s Name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  • Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  • Talk in the terms of the other man’s interest.
  • Make the other person feel important and do it sincerely.

Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking

  • Avoid arguments.
  • Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never tell someone they are wrong.
  • If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  • Begin in a friendly way.
  • Start with questions the other person will answer yes to.
  • Let the other person do the talking.
  • Let the other person feel the idea is his/hers.
  • Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
  • Sympathize with the other person.
  • Appeal to noble motives.
  • Dramatize your ideas.
  • Throw down a challenge and don’t talk negative when the person is absent, talk about only positive. [1]

How does this apply to writers?

The key to winning friends and influencing people, in both the art and business of writing, is empathy. You can’t capture characters or readers without it.

Empathy is no more or less complicated than putting the other person first.

The single most important take away from Surviving the Writing Life, the first of the Dunlith Hill Writers’ Guides, is that it’s not about you: the vast majority of the people with whom you’ll do business as a writer—particularly your readers—care about a relationship with you only because of what’s in it for them.

This volume takes that theme and, using Carnegie’s principles as a framework, explores the ways in which you can navigate the variety of professional relationships you’re likely to have as a writer.

We begin with a careful look at Carnegie’s three fundamental techniques in handling people and how those techniques provide the foundation for your professional relationships as a writer. Chapters two through four explore, “Don’t Criticize, Condemn, or Complain,” “Give Honest and Sincere Appreciation,” and “Arouse in the Other Person an Eager Want.”

Chapter five covers approaching and working with agents.
In chapter six, we’ll consider Carnegie’s, “Six Ways to Make People Like You,” and then look at particular applications of those principles as you find and build your audience in chapter seven.

Chapter eight reviews Carnegie’s, “Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking,” which we apply in chapter nine’s introduction of a principled approach to marketing and promotion.

In the world before pervasive interconnectivity, getting published was the writer's holy grail because the publisher, who controlled the book distribution system, was the key to getting into the bookstores and ultimately finding readers. Now writers have additional ways to reach readers. And, more importantly, readers have ways to find and acquire books that don't include bookstores.

Tracy Hickman summarized the new reality for writers:

  1. “What makes you an author? Readers.”
  2. “The challenge now is to find your audience, not your publisher.”
  3. “The future of publishing is to find, connect with, and maintain your audience.”

The way in which you establish a professional relationship with your readers makes all the difference. And the key is to remember: it’s not about you the author; it’s about what you, the author, can do for your readers.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Surviving the Writing Life

Surviving the Writing Life

How to Write for Money Without Going Crazy

Hard Questions and Sober Answers

You want to be a writer?

Ok, you’re a writer.

Like ants, which live in an exquisitely complex world of chemical signals, we exist simultaneously in the physical world and a universe filled with streams of encoded symbols. If we define writing as assembling strings of symbols in some medium—lists, notes, messages, letters, email, presentations, reports, and so on—almost everyone in the literate world writes.

The fact that you have this book means that you are thoroughly a part of the literate world, and thus are a writer.

“No,” you say, “I want to be a writer.”

Ah, you mean you want other people to call you a writer.

It is true that while almost all of us write, very few of us are called or call ourselves writers. That’s because writers produce a particular kind of writing: work that is consumed by people in general instead of someone in particular.

Implicit in the dream of being a writer is the hope that you will derive some or all of your livelihood from your writing. That is, being a writer is often synonymous with writing for money.
If you’ve ever entertained such a dream, this book is for you because it will help you explore two critical questions:

  1. Why should perfect strangers trade their money for your words?
  2. Are you willing to do what it takes to produce the kind of words strangers will want to buy?

Why do you want to be a writer?

People who say they want to write a book usually mean they want to publish a book. They take it as given that the book they produce will naturally have publishers bidding for the privilege of publishing it and readers lining up at the book stores to purchase it.


Because they wrote it: because they brought a prodigy into the world for which future generations will sing their praise.

Does that sound a bit over the top?

Think about it: does anyone set out to write a mediocre book? Does anyone dream of their book debuting to lackluster sales?

Publishing in the commercial market is a trying and exhausting undertaking. Yet I’ve met far more people who want to be published than want to release an album or play professional sports, even though the requirements for success in all three endeavors are similar. Like many things that take skill and dedication, writing at a professional level is not as easy as it looks.

So, why do lots of people believe they should be published?

  • Many confuse a passion for reading with a need to write.
  • A number think that because they can write they should write.
  • Some want to prove they can write something better than the stuff that’s out there.
  • Some who can write fall prey to the, “cute kid,” syndrome and assume everyone will love their baby as much as they do.
  • Others who say they dream of writing really dream of having written so they can bask in the glow of their accomplishment.

On the Ultimate Goal of Publication

Many would-be writers talk about the journey toward their ultimate goal of publication—as if writing is a sort of personal quest and publication is the Holy Grail. What’s odd about this ultimate goal is that publication, in some form, is easier now than it ever was: if your quest is simply to publish, there are a variety of ways to achieve it that don’t require agents and major New York publishing houses.

Of course, what we don’t want to admit when we talk about our writing journey toward publication is that our goal is really vindication: we want the stamp of approval from the gatekeepers (agents, editors, and publishers) which will admit us into the ranks of the published authors and make us citizens of the shining literary city on the hill.

It is true that the personal experience of producing a novel is much like a journey. And it’s perfectly understandable that we should want our largely solitary pursuits validated by other people. But the stark reality is that the publishing industry doesn’t exist to bolster your self-esteem or even acknowledge your worth. The only thing that matters is whether you have a project that will appeal to an audience large enough to be profitable.

Why should you publish?

With the advent of the Internet, there are more ways to share one’s writing with others than ever before. You can publish anything you want, from the profound to the profane, in a multitude of formats—and many people already have.

Combine the exponential eruption of new material with the wholesale loading of everything that’s ever been written onto the Internet and we have a situation where you wouldn’t make a significant dent in the list of things to read even if you had a thousand lifetimes.

Why should you add a few drops to this rising ocean of information?

You might argue everyone has a right to express themselves.

Perhaps, but no one else has any obligation to pay any attention to that expression.

This brings us to the crux of the matter.

Writing for money isn’t about you

If you intend to write for a general audience, the vast majority will neither know nor care about you and your reasons for writing. The only thing that matters to your readers, and the only reason they’ll give you money for your words, is that your book gives them something—an experience or information—they can’t get somewhere else or as conveniently.

If you understand this one fundamental truth about commercial writing, you’ll be well ahead of the legions of would-be writers.

* * *

So what should be your motive for writing?

At one level there are as many answers as writers, but after you peel away motives like vanity and fame that can’t endure the grueling course that is the life of writing, the only sustainable answer is that you write because you must.

Most people understand, “you write because you must,”as a compulsion—which seems obvious when we’re talking about the dedicated time and effort required to produce a hundred thousand words. But the compulsion to write is not a nameless force bubbling up from our subconscious. The answer we arrive at in the final chapter is that the reason to write is because you have something to contribute to the conversation.

In order to understand what that means and what you’re getting yourself into, we’ll begin in chapter 2 with a look at the stamina, dedication, and self-confidence required if you want to write for a general audience. Chapters 3 and 4 explore the world of commercial publishing and your role in it as a writer. After an interlude in chapter 5 to help you understand how to make sense of the wealth of writing advice you’re likely to encounter, we’ll turn in chapter 6 to the mindset you’ll need to develop to survive the writing life. In chapters 7 and 8 we elaborate the ways you can provide value to your reader when you understand your job as a writer and take a closer look at what constitutes good writing. And then bring it all together in chapter 9 with a discussion of the ways in which you can contribute to the great conversation embodied in our written legacy.

This volume also includes a pair of appendices that explore the changes in commercial publishing brought about by the eBooks revolution and suggest a strategy for participating in the e-Publishing revolution.

None of this, of course, will guarantee you fame and fortune as an author. But then no book can—not even the ones that say they do. What it will do is give you the tools, in the form of concepts, expectations, and mindsets, to chart your own course through the seas of commercial publishing without going crazy.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Dunlith Hill Writers Guides

Surviving the Writing Life

How to Write for Money Without Going Crazy

Like real life, the writing life is filled with contradictions and perplexities. The world of commercial publishing is counter-intuitive and writers dive in weighed down with misconceptions, delusions, and unrealistic expectations.

Perhaps because most of us write in some form every day we believe we can—and should—write a book. We also assume writing is the hard part and once our manuscript is finished publishers will line up for the privilege of delivering it to the world. This is why many people who say they want to write really mean they want to have written.

This volume offers a sober perspective on the writing life: what writing for money is really about and what you need to be prepared to do in order to endure its rigors. Once you understand what’s actually going on, you’ll be able to steer a clear-headed course as you participate in the great conversation. And you’ll come out the other side with your sanity—and dreams—intact. [Read the first chapter.]

Professional Relationships

How to Deal with the Characters you Can’t Re-Write

For good or ill, once money enters the picture you become a professional writer: even if you’ve never received a penny for your words, as soon as you try to sell them—to agents, editors, or the public—the nature of many of your social relationships changes. People will no longer care about you; they’ll only care about what you and your writing can do for them.

This guide looks at all the people who will be involved in buying and selling your books, what you need to understand about them, and how to deal with them. Using the principles in Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People, as a framework, you will learn how the mantra of the professional—“I have no problems; I cause no problems; I solve your problems”—is the key to your success as a writer. [Read the first chapter.]

Sustainable Creativity

How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse

We generally associate creativity with spasms of brilliance even though waiting for inspiration is like waiting for lightning to strike—it happens, but it’s rarely predictable or repeatable.

Committed, long-term relationships don’t simply happen: more than just hard work, it takes discipline and wisdom to keep a romance alive. The same is true for creativity.

This book is about the discipline and wisdom of creativity, particularly as it applies to writers. If you master the techniques in it you will be able to make the time and space to collect ideas and arrange them in novel combinations that will delight your readers.

Sustainable creativity is more than talent or mind-set: it’s a way of life. Like a lush garden that blossoms through careful cultivation, you too can enjoy a constant yield of creativity by design instead of the occasional happy accident. [Read the first chapter.]

Story Theory

How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps

We all know how to tell stories just like we all know our native language, having heard both since we were born. People, however, who study their native language discover there’s much they misunderstood or simply didn’t know. The same is true of story when we look at it more carefully.

With topics that include the theory of story as model, the fractal key to narrative complexity, and the art of the long form, this volume will show you the essence of stories and storytelling.

It’s advanced stuff—no writing prompts or exercises here—but if you want to understand how stories are the minimum container of significance, how storytelling is like commanding an artillery battery, and why the three easy steps are, 1) lather, 2) rinse, and 3) repeat, this volume is for you.

And like deep magic, once you comprehend the nature of the art, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a master story weaver. [Read the first chapter.]


How Illusions, Confidence Games, and Skillful Lying can Improve Your Fiction

In terms of objective reality, a work of fiction is an elaborate lie. No writer thinks of themselves as a liar simply because they write fiction, but that’s the fact of the matter. And no other writing guide will admit to teaching you to be a better writer by showing you how to be a better liar—at least in a narrative sense.

A good lie rings true. Verisimilitude, or the appearance of truth, is critical in a novel because readers open the book knowing it is fiction. Their willingness to suspend disbelief is like a house of cards—if you make one wrong narrative move the illusion of truth falls apart.

This volume looks at the ways in which you can break the illusion in your writing and how to avoid them; it explores what you can do to increase the degree of verisimilitude in your stories; and shows why less really is more. You will learn how to satisfy readers with strategic detail, reassure them you know what you’re talking about, and convince them they can trust you as a storyteller. [Read the first chapter.]

Character and Archetype

How to Make Readers Fall in Love with your Imaginary Friends

One inescapable fact about our species is that we’re social animals: people are at the center of our universe. We have a long history of trying to understand the natural world by personifying its aspects. That’s why believable characters make or break our stories.

A novel, however, is not a portrait. What readers really want is to see how interesting characters act and transform themselves over the course of your story.

This guide explores the structural underpinnings of character and characterization in terms of mythic cycles of transformation like the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise. Once you understand these patterns your characters will ring true and your readers will believe in them, too. [Read the first chapter.]

Artisan Publishing

Why to Choose the Road Less Traveled

Electronic publishing has upset the equilibrium enjoyed by the publishing industry for the last half-century. While some celebrate the overthrow of the gate-keeping elite and the democratization of publishing, others lament the end of literary culture.

Beneath the enthusiasm and the angst, a new market has opened as commercial publishers abandon mid-list books in favor of blockbusters. Thanks to online markets where books never go out of print, it is now possible for authors to earn a living writing and selling books they and their readers love.

This guide explores artisan publishing, a new approach to creating and releasing books where the focus is on quality and the integrity of the author’s editorial vision. The path of the artisan isn’t a short-cut to fame and fortune, but it is the best way to create something you’ll be proud of and in which your readers will find lasting value. [Read the first chapter.]

The Artisan Way

A Collection Containing the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides to Surviving the Writing Life, Professional Relationships, Sustainable Creativity, and Artisan Publishing

Being a professional writer involves more than mastering the craft of writing and the art of storytelling. There are the constant challenges of managing your own expectations as a writer, dealing with other people in the industry, maintaining your creativity, and running what is, in truth, a small business.

Masterful Writing

A Collection Containing the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides to Story Theory, Verisimilitude, and Character and Archetype

In order to master the craft of writing and the art of storytelling you must internalize the rhythms of the human experience and the ways we share that experience. There are deep and consistent patterns in the ways we tell stories, weave narrative illusions, and develop fascinating characters.

This collection includes three Dunlith Hill Writers Guides:


When you understand and apply the simple but powerful patterns you will learn from these guides, you will be well on your way to becoming a masterful writer. [Learn more.]