Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What's it About?

A writer considering a new project and a reader considering whether to read a new book are both confronted with the same question: "Is it worth my time?"

For the reader, it's only a matter of eight to ten hours. For the writer, the number of hours is on the order of thousands. How can you get some reassurance that your project is worth all that writing time?

Think about the way you answer the analogous question as a reader. If someone recommends a book, your first question is likely, "What's it about?

While it doesn't guarantee success, if you can answer the reader's inevitable question, "What's it about?" (and if the answer is more interesting than, "a total and utter yawn-making bore of bores,"*) you probably have something worth undertaking.

The holy grail of what's-it-about-ness is a single line that captures the essence and the enticement of the book. You might have heard it called a one-line-pitch, a log-line (from film), or a hook. Beware, though, because the kind of hook we're talking about has more than one sharp edge. First, like poetry and other concise art forms, they're hard to do well. Second, if you do come up with a stunning hook it's hard to resist the temptation to think your job is done. (Snakes on a Plane, need I say more?) Third, you may come up with a line that's perfect--if you already know the story--but doesn't say a lot to new readers. (You could, for example, say Harry Potter is about a lightning-shaped scar: that line packs loads of meaning if you know the series, but won't rate as appetizing if you know nothing about the story.)

You're on firmer ground if you can work out a synopsis, outline, or even a story bible. But these exercises come with the attendant distraction of all the cool things you're going to include in the book, and you're liable to sound like a four-year-old when you talk about it ("... and it has this, and this, and this, and this ...). Once again, you'll miss the what's-it-about mark, this time with too much information.

Caveats about it's reliability aside, my favorite framework is Wikipedia, specifically the notion of writing a Wikipedia entry for your book. To be clear, this is a completely private exercise: it's only value is to help you think clearly enough about your book that you can zero in on the one or two paragraphs that explain what your story is about (i.e., the introductory paragraphs that appear above the contents box in a Wikipedia entry).

How do you do it?

Like artists who trace the masters, find a few entries that do a good job of capturing books with which you are familiar and emulate them.

Let me reiterate that while you may be able to use some or all of these exercises when it comes time to market the book, their primary value is in helping you to develop a clear and compelling mental model of the book. Your sense of what it's about will guide you as you work through the project, even it if changes over time.

The goal is to discover the glowing ember--the combustible combination of concept and passion--that is the essence of what it's about.

* Thank you, Vicar of Dibley

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

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Verisimilitude: Engaging Readers

[The following is some of the material I covered in my presentation on Verisimilitude at Life, The Universe, and Everything (LTUE) 31, last week.] 

In a post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog by agent Jon Sternfeld called, Engaging Your Audience, he said:

"What ‘engage’ means here, and it may come from my teaching days, is give your reader something to do. Readers are not passive vessels looking to be dragged somewhere and told a story. They’re looking to get involved in a storycaring about the protagonist, wrestling with any issues that the narrative brings up, and most importantly, guessing what happens. This is not just an issue with mysteries or thrillers but with all narratives. All genres are mysteries, in one way or another; don’t forget that.

"A reader that is not doing anything is a bored reader. Not only should a reader never be ahead of the author, he/she should be engaged in a back and forth with the author. Readers want to take what is there on the page and extrapolate, use their imagination, draw conclusions, make assumptions. It’s why they’re reading a book and not watching a movie."

The idea of giving your readers something to do nailed the issue for me. I trust if you've read a few of my posts here you won't be at all surprised if I confess that I like to think about things. Much of the enjoyment I get out of a good book comes from all the things it gives me to think about, not only while reading but during the times in between when I can't read.

Boring a reader by not engaging them is bad enough. But letting a reader get engaged and then invalidating their efforts with a sudden twist borders on the criminal.

You may object that such things happen regularly in the movies. If so, reread Sternfeld's last line in the quote above.

I have good reason to suspect the books I've read that failed to engage me were written by authors who looked to movies for their inspiration. I like a book with a cinematic feel, but there are important differences between the experience of watching a movie and reading a book. It all comes down to respect: crafting your story so that it is, in effect, a conversation with your reader (the back and forth Stenfeld mentions).

Engaging you reader, however, goes beyond simply giving them something to do. When a reader is engaged with your story, they will feel it has a greater degree of verisimilitude--they will judge it to be a better story--because of all they contribute to the experience of reading the story.

[If you'd like more on this topic, you may be interested in my book on verisimilitude in writing.]

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Verisimilitude in Dystopias

[The following is some of the material I'm going to cover in my presentation on Verisimilitude at Life, The Universe, and Everything (LTUE) 31, on Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 1:)) pm.]

"Truthiness," coined by Stephen Colbert, "was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster." (see Wikipedia)

I certainly enjoyed the humor of truthiness, but there's a perfectly good, albeit venerable, word who's 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.

There is an art to giving readers enough of the appearance of truth in your story that they are willing to suspend their disbelief. Howard Tayler is fond of saying, "Explain the heck out of something small, then wave your hands over the big things." In other words, show your readers you know what you're talking about in one case and they're more likely to assume you also know what you're talking about in others.

More generally, verisimilitude depends upon patterns and precedents, not arbitrary assertions.

Consider, for example, the recent bumper crop of dystopian novels.The societies in which the stories take place tend to cluster around the ends of the spectrum between order and chaos. At one level, this clustering is simply classic extrapolation: taking an aspect of current society, amplifying it, and working out its ramifications. But at another level, we're in the midst of creating dystopian tropes and, soon, clich├ęs, because some authors commit a sin with their society that they would never commit with their antagonists: stereotying.

There's no room in modern literature for characters who are purely good or evil. Characters, at least the ones who ring true, are more complex. Indeed, the best villains sincerely believe they are the heroes of their own story and the fruit of their labors will be a better world.

So how do you avoid stereotypes, like a definitionally oppressive government, when developing your dystopian society?

Socrates set the precedent way back when, in The Republic, he suggested the way to understand personal virtue was to examine virtue on the scale of a state. In other words, approach your dystopian society just as you would an antagonist.

Just like good characters, societies need back stories that outline a plausible path to the present. People generally don't wake up one day and decide to be evil. Similarly, whole societies don't turn to oppression overnight. The good news is that a society showing the lengths to which reasonable people can go is far more frightening than one that's just bad because it's bad.

The proper study of how societies change over time keeps an army of sociologists, anthropologist, and historians busy. A short note like this doesn't begin to do justice to such a rich field of study. But one key to creating believable dystopian societies is to remember that there are always winners and losers: one person's dystopia is another's utopia. And the real engine of any society is the much larger group in the middle: people who are neither winners nor losers, but buy in to it because they believe they can be winners too one day.

[If you'd like more on this topic, you may be interested in my book on verisimilitude in writing.]

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Blooming in Unlikely Places: LTUE 31

There is an established order to things: movies come out of Hollywood and books come out of New York. The coasts are where the interesting things happen and the middle states are what you fly over. And in an established order, you must go to the center if you want to succeed. No one will find you if you set up shop off the beaten path.

Except when they do. Sometimes if you build it, they do come.

Life, The Universe, and Everything (LTUE) 31 will meet on February 14 – 16, 2013 in Provo, Utah. The symposium organized thirty-one years ago by a BYU professor has grown into one of the largest writing conferences in the Intermountain West.

Provo? Utah? There’s nothing there but snow, salt, and a peculiar religious tradition, right?

Actually, Utah boasts a surprising — some would say disproportionate — number of writers. And LTUE is only one of nearly a dozen writing conferences held in Utah. It’s hard to say whether the number of writers grew because of the conferences, or the conferences because of the writers, but we have a vibrant, vital writing community out here in what many would say is the middle of nowhere.


Because no one took any notice of the fact that portions of Utah look remarkably like Tatooine or that their Western home was far away from the bright center of the publishing universe. Instead, they devoted themselves to what they loved: they wrote and they found like-minded people who wanted to get together periodically and talk about writing. They didn’t worry (too much) about what was going on elsewhere or, more importantly, what anyone else thought.

Sometimes the best way to succeed is to forget about the established order, pursue your fascination, and simply invite others to share what you’ve discovered.

For those of you in the area, I will be sharing two presentations at LTUE 31: “Verisimilitude: How Illusions, Confidence Games, and Skillful Lying Can Improve Your Fiction,” (Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 1:00 pm) and “Weaving a Complex Narrative: How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps,” (Friday, February 15, 2013 at 11:00 am). I’ll also be holding forth on various panels about anachronisms, archetypes, and anthropology. (And if you’re a real glutton for punishment, stop me in the hallway.)

Image: Simon Howden /