Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ideas: Think Differently

Like the old beer commercial where people argued whether the best thing about the brew was that it, "tastes great," or that it's, "less filling," writers persist identifying themselves as, "plotters," or "pantsers."

If we must have distinctions, I think, "architect," and, "gardener," respectively are much better labels.

But we'd be even further ahead to view architecture and gardening, not as defining our nature as writers but as techniques in our toolbox that we use--like an artist uses pastels and oils--when appropriate.

I came across evidence, on the PsyBlog, that I'm not entirely out to lunch for thinking such a thing. They describe a study, in a post titled, "Unusual Thinking Styles Increase Creativity," in which people who solved problems "using systematic patterns of thought" (rational) and people who solved problems "by setting the[ir] mind[s] free to explore associations" were asked to change their problem-solving style.
The researchers wondered if people's creativity could be increased by encouraging them to use the pattern of thinking that was most unusual to them. So, those people who naturally preferred to approach creative problems rationally, were asked to think intuitively. And the intuitive group was asked to think rationally for a change.

Participants were given a real-world problem to solve: helping a local business expand. The results were evaluated by managers from the company involved. When they looked at the results, the manipulation had worked: people were more creative when they used the thinking style that was most unusual for them.

One of the reasons this may work is that consciously adopting a different strategy stops your mind going down the same well-travelled paths. We all have habitual ways of approaching problems and while habits are sometimes useful, they can also produce the same results over and over again.
The parallel should be clear: architects (or plotters) prefer to write rationally; gardeners (or pantsers) prefer to write intuitively. You likely feel more comfortable in one mode or the other. But if your deeper goal is to write creatively you would do well to switch up your style.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ideas: The Hallmarks of a Good Idea

It seems only proper, after encouraging you to distrust your first idea, that we should look into the question of how you know you have a good idea.

Of course, it's not possible to be certain you have a good idea until you test it on others. If it were, we'd have institutions that follow the model of drug companies devoted to finding and exploiting as many good ideas as possible. So the good news is that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. The bad news is that the best we can do is find heuristics to help us sort the good ideas out from the bad.

One of the best heuristics I've found is that good ideas have a longer shelf life or more staying power than mediocre ideas.

I once heard of a couple who didn't buy anything until they'd talked about needing it at least three times.

Similarly, if an idea comes back to you at least three times you may be on to something.

But by, "comes back to you," I mean something more than simply remembering the idea. When John Brown talks about creativity, he emphasizes, "zing." That's John's way of saying the idea gives you an electric shimmer along your spine each time you savor it.

Good ideas are the ones that still deliver that zing when you come back to them the third or fourth time.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ideas: Don't Trust the First One

I've encouraged you not to stop with one good idea. Implicit in that advice was the assumption that you started with a good idea. Being certain that you have a good idea is much harder than recognizing when your idea falls short of good.

The first litmus test for a poor idea is simple: is it your first idea?

In the game show Family Feud, the challenge wasn't to come up with the correct answer but to guess the answers most likely to be given by the hundred people surveyed. Of the four or five hidden answers, the top one or two usually account for more than half the responses. That is, the first answer that came to mind for a person taking the survey likely came to mind to every second or third person taking the survey.

As we've often observed, 'novel,' means, 'new.' If you go with your first idea, you stand a good chance of going down a well-worn path. If you want to be a novelist, you must internalize Monty Python's catch phrase, "And now for something completely different."

But this isn't novelty simply for novelty's sake. The deeper question is how can you take the raw conceptual material and make it your own.

Chances are, your first idea really isn't your idea. (Why, after all, did so many of the people surveyed for the game show come up with the same answer?) It's simply the first association that bubbled up into your consciousness. The first association is likely the strongest, having been reinforced by external influences. To make the idea your own, you need to let it steep in your unique soup of mental associations until it morphs into something that's unmistakably you.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ideas: Strength Through Association

You've likely heard the spiritual, Dem Bones, and know that the toe bone's connected to the foot bone, and the foot bone's connected to the ankle bone, and so on. It's both an anatomy lesson, of sorts, and reference to the Biblical prophet Ezekiel's vision of a valley of dry bones.

In the vision, Ezekiel prophesies, as commanded, to the bones and they come together, bone to bone, and sinews and flesh until "and exceeding great army" stands before him. Without delving into the religious significance of the vision, we can appreciate the structural significance: by themselves, the bones are dry and impotent but in proper association they become a strength and a beauty that is greater than the sum of its parts.

One of the strengths of the mass of interconnected neurons inside our skulls is in making associations.

I've talked before about story molecules: how a single idea isn't enough to carry a novel, which is why you need a constellation of ideas, working together, to sustain a long-form narrative. Associations are what bind those ideas together.

Think of it this way: if ideas are points, associations are the lines that join those points. Two point can be joined with one line. With three points, each can be connected to the other two with three lines. Four points have six lines; Five points have ten lines; and six points have fifteen. Each time you add one more idea, the number of possible connections jumps. It doesn't take many ideas before you have a rich web of associations.

Another way to look at it is that associating two ideas is a simple way to create a whole (the associated ideas) greater than the sum of the parts (the ideas in isolation).

Let's play a game: we'll start with one object, a gun, and associate it by proximity (i.e., placing it next to) another.
  • What comes to mind if we place our gun next to a shot of whiskey?
  • Now, what comes to mind if we place our gun next to a pair of baby shoes?
Associations become even more powerful if we link ideas into a chain. There was a fascinating series on PBS called Connections, in which host James Burke showed how an event or innovation in the past traced "through a series of seemingly unrelated connections to a fundamental and essential aspect of the modern world."

The associations in your stories need not be so profound, but you can use the same principle, particularly when brainstorming, to turn common-place ideas into something special.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ideas: How to See Something Special

I once heard a rabbi, speaking to a mixed audience, say, "You know the story of the Burning Bush and how Moses turned aside to see it. I like to believe that Moses wasn't the first to see the burning bush, but that he was the first to turn aside." (See Exodus 3)

While taking care not to conflate writers and prophets, one of the fundamental ways writers can get ideas is by being willing to turn aside and see something--even something incredibly ordinary--in a new light or with new eyes.

Something happens to us as we morph from children into adults: we move from a world of concrete and specific things into a world of abstractions and classes. The process is innocent enough. When a child points at the feathered creature hopping across the lawn and asks, "What is that?", they want to know about the specific one in front of them. But we answer, "Oh, that's a robin." In doing so we give the child a word for a class of birds, of which the specific one they see is only a representative. In time, we stop seeing that one one bird and instead see a robin.

What, then is the technique for seeing something special where others don't?

Like the child, ask, "What is that one? How did that one come to be here and now?"

Human language is powerful because of its abstractions, generalizations, and indirections. Most people use that power for their own purposes without realizing the degree to which they are, in turn, controlled or at least constrained by it. Writers, who regularly wrestle words to make meaning, are among the best equipped to get out from under the oppression of the abstractions and turn aside, like Moses, to "see this great sight."

I won't promise you a revelation, if you turn aside, but you're likely to see something special.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ideas: Random Name Generators

A question commonly asked of writers is, "How do you come up with names for characters?"

The technique for finding names presented here is a good example of the general habit of wondering how the things you notice came to be that way--which seems common among the good writers I know.

The pattern is simple:
  1. Find interesting names
  2. Play with the history implied by the name.
Interesting names appear all the time in the written and spoken environment. I once noticed glycol ester of wood rosin among the list of ingredients in a bottled drink. Instead of fretting about obscure food additives, I wondered how Esther Glycol, the Regency-era daughter of an impoverish vicar, came to be mistress of the estate of Woodrosin. (You didn't know you could get that much from a list of ingredients, did you?)

If you need to find names more quickly, you can play the phone book game: open to a random page and drop your finger to find a given name or a surname. On one occasion, when I needed a set of modern, ethnically diverse names, I collected all the surnames and given names from the credits of a recent movie

I've written simple programs that randomly combine names from two or more lists of the lists I collected. If your list of surnames isn't too large, you'll get several first name/last name pairs and it's easy to imagine they're related. Not only will you have names, you'll have genealogies, and perhaps some ideas about family histories as well.

I've also used this approach to assemble names from syllable lists for fantastic or alien characters. One nice result of this approach is that the names sound like they came from the same culture because they're assembled using the same rules.

The important thing is to generate a number of names and then choose the handful that speak to you. Play with the names that are most evocative and see what else springs to mind.

I have to be careful when I play with names because it's so easy to find interesting names and invent histories and relationships that I inevitably collect more names than I can use and spend more time doing so than I should.

A Sample of Name Generators on the Internet
  • is a site for the "etymology and history of first names." It has a generator that can be restricted to particular ethnic groups.
  • There's a US Census-based name generator at
  • Seventh Sanctum™ has a cornucopia of fantasy/gaming-inspired name generators for everything from people to pirate ships.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ideas: Don't Stop with One Good Idea

Animator Patrick Smith, writing at Scribble Junkies, shared some of John Lasseter's advice in a post on the 7 Creative Principles of Pixar.

The first principle is, "Never come up with just one idea."

Here's how John explains it:
“Regardless of whether you want to write a book, design a piece of furniture or make an animated movie: At the beginning, don’t start with just one idea – it should be three.

“The reason is simple. If a producer comes to me with a proposal for a new project, then usually he has mulled over this particular idea for a very long time. That limits him. My answer always reads: 'Come again when you have three ideas, and I don’t mean one good and two bad. I want three really good ideas, of which you cannot decide the best. You must be able to defend all three before me. Then we’ll decide which one you’ll realize.'

“The problem with creative people is that they often focus their whole attention on one idea. So, right at the beginning of a project, you unnecessarily limit your options. Every creative person should try that out. You will be surprised how this requirement suddenly forces you to think about things you hadn’t even considered before. Through this detachment, you suddenly gain new perspectives. And believe me, there are always three good ideas. At least.”
The first key here, and it bears repeating, is, "this requirement suddenly forces you to think about things your hadn't even considered before." There are a lot of people out there having good ideas. If you stop with your first good idea, chances are very good that someone has already thought of it. But with each additional good idea you bring to the table, the chance of someone else thinking of the exact same ideas drops dramatically.

The second key is the perspective you gain through detachment. That is, if you have more than one good idea then you've got a fall-back if one of the ideas proves less good than you thought. More importantly, you can compare and contrast the ideas and get a better sense of their relative merits than if you have only one, precious idea ... gollum.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ideas: Rebuttal Theory and Adding to the Conversation

I once heard that Shannon Hale's approach to retelling fairy tales is motivated by the question, "What's bugging me about this story?"

I started thinking seriously about this question after reading several books that bugged me enough that I wanted to make a rebuttal (it's hard to set aside old debating instincts). It's not that I had problems with the books themselves as much as some of the ideas in the stories.

Two interesting things happened as I thought about the ideas that bugged me in each story and they ways in which I might handle them differently:
  1. I was drawn into the "normal science" process of thinking through each idea (that I described last week) and uncovered a host of interesting ideas.
  2. The different lines of inquiry came together as a fascinating story molecule.
Shannon's question, "What's bugging me about this story?" is a powerful idea generator if you follow it with a second question: "How would I do it differently?"

There's another important consequence: as you work through the ideas until you can clearly express what bothers you about the story and how you would handle it differently, you find you have something to add to the conversation.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ideas: What do you do with a Great Idea?

What do you do with a great idea?

First, a reminder: one idea isn't enough to carry a novel. Long-form stories are best understood as a complex molecule made up of great idea atoms.

So, what do you do when you have a number of ideas in intriguing relationships?

Like any good evil genius, you turn to science!

Kuhn, 1962 (from Wikipedia)
More to the point, you turn to the history of science. Thomas Khun, a physicist who also studied the history of science, wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. In that book, Kuhn challenged the notion that science was steadily progressive and argued that it is in fact episodic.

The two key ideas I want to introduce here are the alternating phases of revolutionary and normal science that make up an episode in Kuhn's model.

Revolutionary science is the time when a breakthrough throws the field wide open. Like settlers pouring into newly open territory, scientist rush from one discovery to the next as they map out the new landscape of possibilities.

Once the early leaders in the revolution have discovered the extent of the breakthrough, the discipline settles back into normal science mode. Normal science is far less glamorous than revolutionary science because it's about the careful work of confirming the initial findings and filling in the details.

"That nice for historians and scientists," you might say, "but what does it have to do with writing or creativity in general?"

A great idea is like the breakthrough that triggers a period of revolutionary science. But that's only the beginning of the job. In order to develop a novel-length story, you must do the literary equivalent of the work of normal science.

What do I mean by that?

Let's say you've just had an epiphany: the world will end when pigs actually start to fly--it's the Flying Pig Apocalypse! Tingling with excitement, you sit down to write ... and immediately run into questions: how do they fly? Levitation? Wings that grow because a mad scientist wanted bacon-flavored buffalo wings? Lighter-than air gas bladders? Do they flock or are they loners? Do they cause the apocalypse by flying, or is the fact that they take flight a sign of the impending apocalypse?

My point is that a "great" idea isn't ready to become a story until you've done the detailed, far less thrilling work of thinking through the implications of the great idea.

Like science, which we tend to think of only in terms of revolutionary breakthroughs, creativity is more about the normal work of thinking carefully about the "great" idea than the revolutionary work of having the idea in the first place.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ideas: Stories are Molecular, not Atomic

In The 5,000 Finders of Dr. T, a strange and delightful musical fantasy created by Ted Geisel, there is a climactic scene that includes the following lines:

"Is it atomic?"

"Yes, sir, very atomic!"

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Wikipedia)
You will, of course, have to see the mover for yourself if you don't understand the reference. I mention it here simply to lead into a discussion about the fact that novel-length ideas aren't atomic, they're molecular.

I first heard this concept from Brandon Sanderson. The essence of the notion is that if ideas are atoms, a single one isn't enough to carry a novel. You need a number of ideas.

But it's not simply a case of arranging a butterfly collection of ideas. The ideas must be related. Brandon described his process of developing a novel as, "bouncing ideas off each other to see which ones stick." ("Stick," here, means, "form interesting relationships.") As ideas stick together, they form a story molecule.

So, how do you build a story molecule?

Begin with the basic creative process: ask questions and then generate lots of answers so that you can find the most interesting associations. Often, the best associations will be between something common and something, which in the context of the first idea, is surprising. In The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, we have something common, a boy who wishes he didn't have to practice the piano, and something surprising, his piano teacher's plans for world domination!

When people ask where the ideas in a novel came from, they generally assume that the book was produced through an alchemical process that harnesses mystic forces to transmute the base metals of common ideas into the gold of a finished story. The truth, like the transmutation of alchemy into the cold, hard science of chemistry is more prosaic. Like chemistry, which produces complex and beautiful molecular structures through a series of processes, the final form of the story molecule in a novel is the result not of mystic transmutations but processes that anyone who is patient and persistent can master.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ideas: Creativity

A question commonly asked of writers is, "How do you get your ideas?"

There are many answers (including facetious ones, like, "I buy them wholesale from the idea distributors,"). This post is the first in a series exploring techniques for collecting and assembling ideas.

The people who want to know where writers get their ideas assume writers enjoy a generous endowment of creativity. Creativity is defined as, "the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas."

Many people treat that ability as something innate and quasi-mystical. The problem with believing that ideas spring forth from a fount of creativity is that if you don't have a great idea handy then you must assume the well has run dry and you're stuck until something happens to get your creativity flowing again.

John Brown fell into this trap for a number of years before he discovered the secret to the creative process and went on to write Servant of a Dark God.

Here's John's mystic secret to the creative process:
Creativity is asking questions and coming up with answers.
A bit anti-climactic?

Perhaps I should clarify: a creative person doesn't settle for one answer to each question. If you stop after the first answer, you've done nothing more than identify the "traditional idea." Before you choose an answer, you want to come up with as many varied solutions as you can, particularly unexpected solutions. Given a large enough pool of candidate ideas, it's much easier to find "meaningful new ideas."

So how do you prime the creative pump?

Pay attention.

Notice things, particularly the things that strike you as interesting or intriguing. John says you should collect things that give you a little, "zing," when you hear or read about them.

If you'd like another perspective, spend ten minutes to hear what John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) has to say about Creativity.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Writing in the Dog Days of Summer

The Dog Days of summer go back to the Romans and the Greeks, who associated the sultry weather with the star Sirius (the "Dog Star").

"[The] Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time [when] "the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid..." [See Wikipedia]

When I was involved with an international business, our European partners became scarce during August. Our overachieving Americans, steeped in their Puritan work ethic, groused about our poor continental counterparts forced to languish as they took state–mandated vacations.

It has long been the habit of commercial publishers, particularly those in New York City, to emulate the good folk across the Atlantic pond. There's something of a collective pause in the industry during August both because it's a good time to escape the sweltering city and because there's business that can be better handled when everyone's back on the job in September.

The standard advice for writers (which is generally given by editors and agents taking August vacations) is to focus on writing during the quiet time (i.e., the time when their emails and calls to agents and editors will likely go unanswered).

But isn't what's good for the goose also good for the gander?

I'm not saying you should abandon a project if you're in the middle of something and the heat of the fires of your inspiration is driving your thermometer to new altitudes.

Still, your muses might have more to sing about if you give them a cooler place to dance. And you'll definitely need to refill your well if you're running your creative swamp cooler at full blast.

So, what do you like to do to keep the dog days from eating your writing homework?

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing Intentionally: Voice and Writing Every Day


Writers not only hear them, they're supposed to have one.

"What's voice?" the new writer asks. "How do I develop one?"

"I know it when I see it," answers the agent/editor/other publishing professional. Or they may try to help by recommending books they think have a great voice.

So the new writer absorbs the voice, tries to write something similar, is told the piece has no voice, and comes away feeling increasingly frustrated.

Artists, with their tracing paper, learn by copying. Why can't we? After all, isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

Ah, but there's the problem: imitation.

Just like the high schools that are full of young people trying to find themselves by behaving exactly like all the other young people trying to find themselves, you won't find what's authentically you in someone else.

Writing is about self-expression. Voice is about the self that is expressed.

The reason we have trouble with voice is that we've absorbed so many influences and have built up so many assumptions about the nature of writing that we've lost touch with our own unique modes of expression.

Erin Reel, in a guest post on agent Rachelle Gardner's Rants & Ramblings blog, titled "Finding Your Authentic Voice," says:
"Don't write in a language that's not your own. Forget about following a genre trend just to get published. Tell a good story—one that a large audience will want to read and can identify with."
Her tips for finding your voice include read, practice, get clear about the story you want to tell, and make it your own. ("Make your story authentically yours by writing many rough drafts through which your voice will eventually surface.")

Writing every day will help you get past all the influences and assumptions you've internalized. I credit the journal I kept for several years for much of my own development.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Writing Intentionally: On the Advice to, "Kill Your Darlings"

There's a set of actors, usually comedians, who can do remarkable work if kept tightly under control but quickly become tedious if left to their own devices. Robin Williams and Jim Carey are two example that come immediately to mind. I'm sure you can think of others.

I think of such talents when I hear the oft repeated writing advice that we must, "kill our darlings."

Where did that quasi-homicidal advice come from? According to Kill Your Darlings ATL (a community for writers):
William Faulkner is rumored to have coined the literary expression “kill your darlings,” but the expression actually comes from British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. ...

When describing “style” in his 1916 publication “On the Art of Writing,” Couch argues that “style” is something which “is not—can never be—extraneous ornament.” In an effort to stay on course, he created a practical rule to follow:
‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
“Murder your darlings” has since become “kill your darlings” as attributed to William Faulkner whose famously quoted to have said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” [See "The Meaning of the Literary Expression 'Kill Your Darlings'"]
While I understood and agreed with the sense of the advice, I couldn't help hearing its pithy formulation as, "you should delete the parts you like best." That implies you can only write things you don't like, which clearly goes too far.

A better way to say it would be, "if it's too precious to go, it probably should go."

But the best way to say it is that nothing in the story is nonnegotiable. Everything is open to scrutiny. If a word, phrase, passage, scene, or character doesn't contribute to the story, it should go. The overall balance of the story is more important than any individual element.

Which brings us back to the comedians. I realized that I find them tedious when they eclipse the story and reduce it to an excuse for a performance. But when a good director keeps them under control and allows them free reign only when it serves the story, the result can be delightful. Similarly, you don't have to kill your darlings when they're serving the story. If they call attention to themselves, "git the rope!"

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Writing Intentionally: "Revise Without Compromise"

Jael McHenry, writing on Writer Unboxed, address the question of whether revisions requested by agents and editors make the books more or less yours. She points out the difference between the two senses of the world, "compromise:" 1) to work together, and 2) to weaken the integrity of, and argues that working through revisions with agents and editors is all about compromise in the first sense and should never be about compromise in the second. It's a beautiful observation, marred only by my jealousy for not thinking of it first.

There's an important difference between trying to please people and finding ways to say what you're trying to say so that it's accessible to more people.

Some people think that as the source of expression, the artist is the sole guardian of the vision and any request for changes from another party will compromise that vision. Those people forget that writing for readers is a classic example of the old cliché about taking two to tango: you don't have "writing" unless the reader gets something they value out of your words.

But the notion of author as the source of pure expression is more deeply flawed. The words on the page are a lossy encoding of the author's ideas, so there's no such thing as a pure expression. Put in more contemporary terms, a writer is actually coding software that will run on non-deterministic wetware (i.e., brains). Real software developers have no qualms about debugging their code until it runs correctly. Why should authors complain when revision is essentially the same process.

Notice the key qualifier in the statement about debugging? Software developers strive to produce code that runs correctly. Revisions that clear away confusion and help the reader to better understand and appreciate the story are equivalent to debugging the code.

But here's where you, the author, need editorial help: because you know what you meant when you wrote it, it's hard to see where others might misinterpret what you wrote. That's why revisions are all about compromise, in the first sense. You want to work together to make it better.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Writing Intentionally: Story Bibles

One of the most important enablers for intentional writing is a system to help you keep track of story details. Having someone notice that the hero's hair color changes halfway through the book (without a trip to a stylist) is the literary equivalent of smiling with spinach on your teeth.

A family Bible, from Wikipedia
The best answer I've found is to turn to the bible. (A story bible, not The Bible.) A story bible and a high-level outline give me all the safety net I need to write confidently.

When writers talk about story bibles, they mean a place to collect all the information that pertains to the story. The notion comes (I believe) from episodic television where the producers had a document describing the situation and all the characters. They would give it to the writers brought on to pen different episodes so that the scripts they produced had a degree of consistency (e.g., you wouldn't want a character who is normally shy and retiring leap out to save the day in one episode and then go back to hiding under the table in the next).

When software architects design commercial data systems, they are careful to create a single source of truth. A story bible is really nothing more or less than this. It can be physical, like a folder or a binder (bound books are probably not suitable because you'll want to add, remove, and arrange your material), or virtual (anything from a text file to a database, depending on your ambition). All that matters is that it's the one place where you can keep everything related to your story.

Don't let the word, "bible," frighten you with visions of formalities with which you must comply. You'll probably come across suggestions that you subdivide your bible into sections on characters, settings, backstory, and so on. Those are reasonable but not the only ways to organize your material. You could also organize your story bible like an encyclopedia, with entries for each significant entity in your story. All that matters is that you have a way to organize your material so that 1) you can easily find it again, and 2) you know where to add new material.

Remember, this is your resource, so the only thing that really matters is to find something that works for you.

And, in the spirit of our recent discussion about writers who over-plan, don't let the bible become something that takes so much time to maintain that you have no time left to write the story. Promise yourself that the bible will forever be a private document, the information equivalent of what you look like when you get out of bed in the morning, so you're not tempted to try to make it presentable.

The good folks at The Write Thing have a thorough discussion of what you might want in a writing bible if you'd like more.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Independence for Writers

Independence is a funny thing: with tomorrow's celebration of the independence of the United States from Great Britain we will hear a lot about freedom but not so much about responsibility.

The standard narrative often runs along the lines of, "Things were difficult in 1776 but the founding fathers were men of vision and courage—and look where we are today." We conveniently gloss over the first 100 years of the country's history when its viability and sometimes its continuing existence were more or less in doubt.

Independence is a consistently harder road than dependence: like investments, greater rewards are always accompanied by greater risks.

During the last five years we've heard various proclamations that writers can now stand independent of publishers. The standard narrative about independent publishing is similar to the narrative about American independence: heavy on the new-found freedoms authors enjoy but light on the new responsibilities they must shoulder.

My aim in sharing these observations is not to argue that either the old or new ways are better, but to point out the deeper challenge of taking responsibility. The principle of taking responsibility should come as no surprise to writers: offering a book to readers under your name means you've taken the responsibility to provide intelligible, error–free, and grammatically–correct problems that tells a coherent story that will entertain and/or inform. One of the comforts in the old way of publishing was there were enough people involved that if you needed to apportion blame you could exempt yourself—the publisher chose a bad cover, the sales force to promote the book properly, or some event distracted the public, none of which was your fault. The inescapable truth of independent publishing is that, rise or fall, the book's fate is no one's fault but your own.

Some of you may think taking full responsibility for your book sounds harsh. There is nothing wrong with finding partners for your publishing project, but even there you are still responsible for making sure they are the right partners. While we might throw around dichotomies like right and wrong or easy and difficult, taking responsibility is ultimately about maturity—something to think about tomorrow, both as a writer and as a citizen.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Writing Intentionally: Architects

As I mentioned last week, there's a general belief that writers fall into one of two camps: outliners or architects, and discovery writers or gardeners. I'm not convinced that the distinction is real. In fact, I argue that the camps are simply approaches that can be used as you would any other tool.

That said, it is easier to illustrate some ideas with dichotomies like architect vs. gardener.

An important part of writing intentionally is writing confidently. Last week I made the case that gardener is a better model for discovery writers because gardening involves preparation, and preparation is a fundamental part of writing intentionally.

So, the architect, as the epitome of someone who plans out every detail in advance, is the poster child of intentional writing, right?

Not necessarily. There's such a thing as too much preparation.

I once interviewed with a company for a software development position, turned down the job, and then wound up working for them a year later. During the first visit, they showed me the design for the software package they planned to build. A year later, when I set to work actually implementing the software, I found stacks of paper with increasingly detailed designs, culminating in the pièce de résistance: printed flowcharts filled with code. Had they skipped the flow charts and put the code in source files, they likely would have had running software.

Writers, particularly those who work in the fantastic and need to create worlds with consistent history, economies, religions, languages, and magic systems are particularly prone to a malady that Brandon Sanderson calls, "world-building disease." It doesn't help that the mythology about the mythology of Lord of the Rings makes much of the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien spent twenty years building his world before he wrote the novels.

Computer scientist Terry Winograd's answer to the tendency to over-specify software projects is a new vocation he calls, "software architect." Like real architects, they must be able to work across a range of concerns, going from a meeting with the structural engineer that's all about bearing loads to a meeting with a client who wants a house that says, "Soaring! ... In mauve"

A true architect is more flexible that you might assume.

The writer as architect needs to avoid the trap of forever planning and never writing. Your goal is not to fully specify the story. Instead it comes back to writing with confidence. The challenge for the writer as architect is to have faith that your preparations have been sufficient and that they provide a framework in which you can solve the story problems that will inevitably appear as you proceed.

And then write.

Don't fall into the trap of inserting your code into flow charts when you should be building running software.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Writing Intentionally: Gardners

Continuing last week's theme on writing intentionally, what do you do if you're a discovery writer? How do you write intentionally if you can't really figure out your intentions until you've written the story and can look back over the ground you've covered to see the path that ties it all together?

Briefly, you should know where the story is going. There are certainly writers who start with an intriguing character or an interesting setting and develop a story around that nucleus. But if you don't have some idea of where the story is headed, you're more likely to meander.

Brandon Sanderson says he prefers the labels gardener and architect instead of discovery and outline writers. I think there's something important in the occupational analogy.

Calling discovery writers, "gardeners," addresses the fallacy that you don't have to plan ahead but can simply jump in as start writing. Gardeners don't simply throw seed out and wait to see what comes up. Based on their understanding of varieties and growing conditions, they plan which things to plant in different parts of the garden. Similarly, there's a fair amount of forethought that goes into deciding what kind of garden you want to grow. Is it a flower garden that will offer a changing canvas of shapes and colors as the season progresses? Or is the produce you'll harvest the main purpose of the garden?

Of course the gardener doesn't know whether a given seed will sprout and grow as intended. So they plant more than one. And they cultivate the garden, weeding, watering, and fertilizing, to make the desired outcome more likely.

So if you think of yourself as a discovery writer, try approaching your project as a gardener, accepting the fact that there's preparatory work to do. And even though there's a lot you don't know, if you take a little time to  plan your garden and prepare the soil, you'll find your ability to write intentionally grows--like your garden.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Single Most Important Author Characteristic Insofar as Readers are Concerned: Confidence

There's an amusing old episode of Red Dwarf in which Lister, the space bum, catches a mutated flu that brings his confidence and paranoia to life as distinct individuals: paranoia as a sniveling hypochondriac and confidence as an American-style DJ.

Confidence is a funny word because though we associate it with personalities and emotional states that range from quiet fortitude to bravado, its Latin roots literally mean, "with faith." In its original sense, the word means someone in whom we can put our faith.

As readers, the single most important factor in our willingness to suspend our disbelief is the degree to which we trust the author, believe they have the story firmly in control, and have faith they will take us somewhere wonderful and worthwhile.

A confident author is like the nautical pilot, hand firmly on the tiller, who knows how to guide a ship through the reefs and safely into port. Nothing that happens in the story is accidental. And everything the author brings to our attention contributes to the ultimate aim of a satisfying story.  

So what do you need to do to be a confident author?

It's not about bravado, but about control--and not the control of a commander shouting orders, but the control of the expert dancer or musician who makes what they do look effortless. Similarly, the confident author writes intentionally but with such craft that the reader is swept into the story and almost forgets it has an author.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Mind the Gap

Confession: I've never been to London. But I understand that the Underground is filled with signs encouraging passengers to, "Mind the Gap."

It turns out that this subway signage is particularly good advice for writers.

By Arz at Wikimedia

Jeanette Ingold taught me about the narrative gap:

  • Plot arises from the gap between expectations and results. The protagonist does something but the result is different from his expectations so he's forced to do something else (and so on up to the climax).
  • Keep surprising the character: What does the character want? What would he do to get it? Then show the gap that propels the character to the next scene.
  • You can bring characters on stage to pursue a short-term goal that is related to the long-term goal.
  • Story structure is about choices; choices lead to the next scene. Plot events force your protagonist to make decisions that he thinks will move him toward his goal but instead lead to more gaps until the final conflict.

You may have heard the gap called the character's driver or motivation. Those are fine terms, but the gap better-fits the structural terms in which I like to think.


Because story can arise from many different kinds of gaps. For example, I once heard Brandon Sanderson explain how setting can be another character (e.g., the landscape of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings). Brandon argued that the most interesting settings are those where different biomes, topographies, or cultures meet, creating gaps at the point of transition (think oasis and the different desert people who want or need to control the water).

Put another way, if everything is continuous and predictable, characters know what to do and so there's no story. It's only when there's a break in continuity and predictability, a cause with an unanticipated effect, that we have a story to tell.

So writers, mind the gap.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Essence of Writing: Saying What You Mean

In Fowler's Modern English Usage, (H. W. Fowler, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 1965) he explains that ambiguity "... misleads the reader only momentarily, if at all, but makes him think the writer a fool for not being able to say what he means." Fowler goes on to say, "... the purpose of this dictionary is to help writers to express themselves clearly and accurately ..."

Organizing ideas is the essence of writing, but when we talk about writing, our discussions usually focus on the how: rules, conventions, and techniques. We rarely pay attention to the what: having something to say that's worth saying so you can deploy all the rhetorical tools in the how toolbox to say it clearly.

Why do we avoid giving advice about the substance of someone's writing?

The practical answer is that the what of writing is really an editorial concern. Most of us who give writing advice usually have neither the time nor the expertise to critique a piece on its merits. And of course when we're talking about fiction we're picking our way through the swamp of subjectivity.

The tension between form and substance is an ancient one that likely goes back much further than Socrates' famous complaint about the schools of rhetoric that taught students how to win arguments without regard to the merits of the case. But form and substance are really two aspects of the same thing: if you have nothing to say or if you say it poorly it will mean nothing to your readers. Good writing begins with a clear understanding of what you mean to convey, and is demonstrated through your ability to say what you mean.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at
Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Traditional Publishers are Actually Trade Publishers

Whether we call the new mode of publishing self-, indie, or artisan, the most consistently used label for the formerly dominant publishing model is, “traditional.”

As people who work with words, we understand how important it is to use the right ones. There are, for example, some circles where traditional means, “time-tested values,” not, “hopelessly stuck in the past.” But the real problem with the label, “traditional,” isn’t whether it implies the business model is good or bad but that it doesn’t accurately describe the business model.

Major commercial publishers are, “trade publishers,” because they published to the book trade. They sell their wares to booksellers, not readers.

“But,” you may object, “readers are still the ones buying the books, so what’s the big deal?”

Consider the problem of children’s books: children don’t buy books. Thanks to the inconvenient fact that very few children have disposable income, essentially all children’s books are purchased by well-meaning adults. This means that the book must appeal not only to the child for whom it’s intended but also to someone in the circle of adults with an interest in supplying that child with reading material. It’s not uncommon for the two constituencies (children and adults) to have very different reasons for choosing a book.

Booksellers, of course, want to sell books. The ideal book for a bookseller is one that every reader will want. Readers want to buy books that will entertain, educate, or provide an experience. The ideal book for a reader is one that speaks to his or her specific needs and desires. Absent that ideal book, readers choose the ones that seem to best suit their needs from what’s available. It’s not uncommon for the two constituencies (booksellers and readers) to have very different reasons for choosing a book.

Booksellers order the products they resell from trade publishers. Trade publishers don’t deal directly with readers. That means trade publishers are primarily in the business of convincing booksellers to offer their wares to the reading public. Convincing readers to read their books is at best a secondary concern for trade publishers.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What Matters Most: Readers

The notion that the national book culture we once enjoyed—a consensus about the books everyone who considers themselves literate should have read—is withering under the assault of disruptive businesses and technologies isn’t simply an exercise in good–old–days revisionism: it’s actually one of the last gasps of the cultural monopolies created by trade publishers during the last half–century.

Through a complex web of bestseller lists, influential reviewers, English professors, and book clubs, trade publishers have attempted to create the commercial equivalent of a required reading list. The publishing ecosystem expends a great deal of energy trying to create a sense of urgency by making readers feel they are behind or missing out on the literary cutting edge.

While it is true that shared references are a cornerstone of culture, the idea that a book’s importance is best measured by the number of concurrent readers is one that benefits principally trade publishers and booksellers.

Tracy Hickman has been telling conference audiences for several years, “It doesn't matter if you're published. Being published is nothing. It is everything to be read.”

In the past, writers had to play the commercial lottery of getting published because it was the only game in town. Unfortunately, that system fostered an all–or–nothing mentality: your book was a failure if it wasn’t the talk of the nation.

Rejecting a manuscript because it wasn’t, “sufficiently commercial,” meant the trade publisher believed the book wouldn’t sell in the volume they needed to turn a profit. But that judgment took none of the needs of readers or writers into account.

An author needs readers, but he or she doesn’t need every reader. In fact, it is not possible to write one book that will appeal to every single reader. What is possible, thanks to the recent explosion in publishing opportunities, is to write things that will be read because the distance between writer and reader is now much smaller.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at
Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

James Patterson Mourns the Passing of our National Literary Culture

Several weeks ago James Patterson placed an ad in the New York Times Book Review and in Publishers Weekly asking why the federal government "has stepped in to save banks, and the automobile industry, but where are they on the important subject of books?"

(See Salon, "James Patterson speaks out about his aggressive 'book industry bailout' ads")

While many people have taken issue with the notion of a bailout for the traditional publishing industry, I see a deeper issue: what Patterson is really lamenting is the passing of an idealized national book culture.

The last question before the list of 38 books he considers important is, "What will happen if there are no more books like these?"

I was educated at an elite, east-cost university and hold a post-graduate degree. My home is filled with books (more than a ton of book boxes the last time we moved). I've read only four of the thirty-eight books listed in the ad. [To be fair, I've been affected by a few others on the list (e.g., movies).]

What's wrong with me? Why, in terms of Patterson's list, am I so poorly read?

Because I was reading other things.

There was a time when it mattered what was on television: with only three broadcast networks, you could always find people who had watched what you watched last night and wanted to talk about it. Now with hundreds of cable channels, video on demand services like Netflix, and YouTube, we can no longer assume anyone else watched what we watched.

With the possible exception of the Bible, not only is the same true for books, it has actually been a very long time since there were few enough books that one could make any assumptions about what most people had read.

Even though there has never been a national book culture, Patterson's lament is worth considering:

  • What does literary culture mean in the new world of textual abundance created by Amazon and its ilk? 
  • Who decides which novels belong in the canon of literature with which everyone should be familiar?

The answer is: we do.

In the infinite online catalog, we can actually vote (through reviews, for example), for the texts we consider worthwhile. Like democracy, the system isn't perfect, but over time it will tend to work better than tyranny, however benign.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at
Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Politics and Narrative Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Internal Conflict: Sine Qua Non

There's an entire set of words and phrases which have come down to us from Latin that we're slowly losing because a knowledge of ancient languages is no longer a hallmark of a good education. Even Harry Potter hasn't been able to resurrect more than a few spell phrases from that dead language.

It's unfortunate because some ideas are best expressed in other languages. For example, sine qua non is a Latin legal term that we must translate into the more awkward, "without which it could not be." Sine qua non, captures the notion of something so necessary it's definitional.

I thought of that phrase when in a comment on Non-character Antagonists and Conflict, Anne Gallagher said:
Sometimes I think dealing with internal conflict makes a better story. Character driven narrative rather than plot driven.

I'm also under the impression (in my genre I should clarify -- romance) there ALWAYS needs to be internal conflict for either the hero or heroine. One must always be conflicted by love.
Anne is right: internal conflict is the sine qua non of story.

Some of you, particularly if you equate internal conflict with navel gazing or whiny teenagers, may roll your eyes at that assertion. You may say, for example, that your story is about action and plot and your characters neither want nor need to take time off from dodging bullets to inventory their feelings.

I understand your objection, but answer this question: what's the common wisdom about characters and flaws?

If you said (thought) something along the lines of flawed = good (i.e., relatable and interesting), perfect = bad (i.e., boring or self-indulgent), you've been paying attention. (And if your answer includes, "Mary Sue," give your self bonus points).

So why do we like flawed characters?

Is it because they allow us to feel superior?

No. It's simply that flaws produce internal conflict. That's what people really mean when they say they find flawed characters more compelling than perfect ones.

Internal conflict gives us greater insight into character. There's nothing to learn from a perfect character: if we can't compare and contrast the thought processes that early in the character's development lead to failure and later to success, we can't apply any lessons to our own behavior.

Internal conflict also creates a greater degree of verisimilitude (because who among us doesn't have a seething mass of contradictions swimming around in their brain case).

Internal conflict and the expression of character flaws arises from uncertainty. If your characters are certain about how to resolve the problem, you don't have a story you have an instruction manual.

Ergo, conflict is the sine qua non of story.

That said, stories where conflicts at different levels reflect and reinforce each other are the most interesting because their resolution can be the most satisfying.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Conflict: Inner, Personal, and Universal

In a discussion about narrative conflict, someone suggested that there are only three kinds of conflict: inner, personal, and universal, where personal is conflict between persons and universal is conflict with forces larger than your social circle.

As I played with the idea, I hit upon the exercise of characterizing the kinds of stories you get when the protagonist and antagonist come into conflict in terms of the nine combinations of the inner, personal, and universal dimensions.

In the following table, read from the protagonist's row to the antagonist's column. For example, if the protagonist's concerns are primarily internal and the antagonists are personal, you have a coming-of-age story or a story about establishing one's place and identity.


InnerPsychologicalComing-of-age; Establishing one's place and identityThe socio-path or super man
PersonalIntervention and healingRomance, mystery, thriller, speculative fiction, etc. (i.e., Most kinds of narrative conflict)Rebels and underdogs
UniversalFatalist and extremistsOrder vs. chaos (anti-rebellion)Epic and political struggles

What I found most interesting about this exercise is that the primary locus of conflict in most stories falls in the center square (personal vs. personal). Many other stories fall on the diagonal (inner vs. inner or universal vs. universal). Asymmetric stories (e.g., personal vs. universal), are rarer.

I suspect this is because as social animals inter-personal conflict is the easiest to understand. Even if your story depends on another kind of conflict, your narrative will generally be most effective if you can put a face on the enemy for your readers. Your band of freedom fighters may be up against an empire, but your readers will identify with the dark lord who makes finding them his personal quest than with the legions of faceless soldiers he deploys. Similarly, readers will find a psychological struggle more accessible if there are other actors who symbolize the inner conflict.

It's also interesting to consider where different genres cluster in the matrix. For example, romance and mystery generally land in the upper left quadrant while speculative fiction and thrillers land in the lower right (with all, of course, overlapping in the middle).

Stories, clearly, aren't limited to one kind of conflict, so this analysis is only useful when we're considering the primary mode of conflict. Still, the moral of this story is that conflict is best when it's personal.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /