The story takes place in an imagined world, so it doesn’t have real-world placenames. The place is inhabited by indigenous flora and fauna that are unknown on Earth, so they have their own, local names. And the folks that live there have, to coin a phrase, never heard of Birmingham.
So of course, the names of all these things: the people, the plants and animals, the places, have to be different than anything you could encounter on Earth, right?
You’ve had the experience – because, like me, you love your science fiction and you love your fantasy – and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the classic, the retro, the crossover, the social, the literary, the romantic, epic or erotic: the names have to be exotic, so at least half of them are impossible to pronounce, and half of the rest you can’t be sure what pronunciation is intended.
The remaining 25% are either words of 1 syllable or they follow the rules.
As an author you should be worried about immersion. Immersion is the reader’s sensation of experiencing the story without being aware of the narrative mechanism, or to put it another way, the reader is enjoying the story without having to think about how the story is being told.
Anything you do that makes the reader stop to think forces the reader to think about the narration itself. There are plenty of ways to do this, but the Rules of Names are the simplest way to avoid doing it with names.
You see, in an unreal world, there’s another thing that they don’t have:
English (or insert Tellurian language of your choice).
And if you draw attention to names by making the names so difficult to pronounce that an English Speaking Reader has to stop to think, you risk the English Speaking Reader wondering why everyone in your non-Earth world is speaking English. This is the concept breaker of all non-Earth stories.
Even if it doesn’t get this bad, the reader is still going to have a hard time remembering who is who if she can’t say their names every time.
That is what the rules are for.
People are lazy.
Wait, I’ll say that in a broader sense. Nature is lazy.
Now you might find this opinion piece hard to swallow if you’re a young Earth creationist, and you might even find it problematic if you believe that God thought of evolution long before man was smart enough to catch up, although I hope you won’t.
I’m not a God denier, but a seeker of truth, and I think if God exists, then the more you learn about the Universe, the more you learn about Him, and the more you discover how inadequate your past understanding was compared with the awesome vastness of Creation.
You won’t often hear me talk about God, but in my experience, folks with strong religious convictions are often great storytellers. And I want as many as possible of the people with the storytelling urge to come along with me to the end of this line of argument.
All the evidence of the natural world is that nature tends towards both kinds of laziness. Nature won’ t try to specialize if generalizing will do. Nature won’t try to improve beyond good enough.
But also, Nature will tend to favor the solution that requires the least resources. The latter sometimes results in unexpected consequences.
In theory, apes like us should really be sitting on the sea shore stuffing our faces with shellfish all day, and doing very little else.
But Nature has a few other features that seem to conflict with this.
The main concern of nature is not to perpetuate any particular species, but to perpetuate Life. (If you are religiously inclined, and prefer to discover God through discovering His Creation) you’ve only got to look at the fossil record to see all the mass extinction events were followed by immediate and accelerated proliferations of life.
New lifeforms appear, and fill the gaps left by the recently extinct. And life endures by the simple expedient of diversity.
The more different lifeforms there are, the better the chance that some of them will survive mass extinction events. That’s the extreme example, it goes right down to the small, local and ephemeral, like culture: the more diversity there is within a population, the better that population’s ability to solve problems and adapt to a changing environment.
Diversity is not something to be tolerated, but something to be sought. It’s not desirable, though, it’s mission critical. Without it, you can’t meet unknown challenges.
Diversity results in competition. All it needs is an overlap between the resources being exploited by separate species, and the species are in competition – when one finds a better way to exploit the resources, the other suffers.
And this drives nature’s desire for efficiency. Get more resources for less effort.
It’s nature, folks. Spend less, acquire more, out-compete the neighbours.
It is out of instinct that many, though not all, of us (diversity) apply the laziness test to almost every need, demand, requirement or request that is presented to us. The laziness test comes in three stages:
The laziness test is vital, because it reveals the consequences of not doing something. And you may find that dealing with the consequences of not doing it requires less effort than doing the thing!
But the laziness test is insidious, and stage 3 is where the test can become dangerous.
Working on and sharing in writers’ creative process, I’ve encountered all sorts of people, and I’ve discovered that there is a strong generalization that I can make about writers’ attitudes to their own efforts at self-improvement.
If you are over 35, male, white and speak English as a first language, you are lazy to the detriment of your own creative output. In short, if you fit that demographic, you work less hard at learning to be a better writer.
My theory is that our culture cocoons white men. It’s more praising and accepting of their work, and less critical of it. Our culture tolerates less effort from white men.
Women and all people from ethnic and racial minorities have to work much harder to get the same level of praise, recognition and success.
And they do work much harder.
But the cocoon has a negative consequences for the over 35 white males. Because they have been spared the criticism, because they have not had to suffer so many rejections, because they have been challenged with the almost universal: “what makes you think I should read your work?” with not nearly as much aggression as the women and the people of color, they haven’t learned to adapt to it.
The white guys don’t know how to take criticism. They don’t know how to look at and address their weaknesses. They don’t know how to push themselves, and how to seek out the knowledge that will lift them above the competition. Because they haven’t had to.
In fact, back when culture was wholly dominated by the white patriarchy, they realized that they could apply stage three of the laziness test to creative writing – to writing of any kind – by mystifying creativity, and mystifying talent.
The idea that creative talent is something that can’t be understood, that either you have or you don’t have, is an invention (a relatively recent invention) that exists to protect those who make their living from it.
Even more, it exists to protect the minimum level of effort that they put into their work.
Even academic analysis and literary criticism work to perpetuate this, because they analyse the output – they analyse what the writer created, not the process of creation, which is protected from close scrutiny lest the competition discover that through study and practice, through imitation and emulation, through mastery of meaning and language, through immersion in culture and cultural history, anyone can become a great creative talent.
And today, it’s the women and the minorities, who have to be more open to and accepting of criticism, who have accepted the challenge to justify their claim to creativity, who have become more prepared to test, try and experiment, more prepared to seek and to learn, more prepared to find out how to become masters of the craft of creative writing, in order to be able to create great art.
If you’ve swallowed the fiction that greatness in creative writing is a mystery, then you’re stunting your creative ability, even if you are over 35, white and male.
But if you’re not, and you have the hunger for writing, you feel the urge to tell stories, then you’re already looking for how to become a great writer, and doing that is about putting in the hours. But not just hours writing.
Hours reading. Hours talking and listening to people. Hours going to shows. Hours watching the television. Hours reading the news. Hours exchanging views on forums and social media. Hours studying the work, but also the lives, of great writers.
Hours studying their sources and their inspirations.
The third kind of laziness is “engineer’s laziness.” The engineer who builds a bridge four times stronger than it needs to be because that way it will require less maintenance and won’t need to be replaced in a few years’ time.
Applying engineer’s laziness to creative writing is just the same. Bite the bullet, do the hard work now, so you won’t have to repeat it later. Build your knowledge and understanding so you can draw upon it later, while writing.
As an author, to varying degrees, you will inevitably have two ambitions:
Notice the word “great” is left out of the second one. No mistake.
What’s awesome about publishing and reading today is that there have never been more readers, and selling your book to readers has never been easier. Which means that although there may be no shortcut to greatness, there is a shortcut to sales.
Because you can sell a book as soon as it’s written. The same day (if you do a small amount of planning).
Which means you can put in all those hours that are needed to hone, perfect and master your creative abilities, and get paid for it.Continue reading
Data, big or small, will never write a good novel.
In so much of our daily lives, there are simple problems with simple solutions, or simple problems to which a few general rules can be applied to solve them. Consider a window that won’t close.
The rule “don’t force it” will prevent you from breaking the frame or hinges, and might also lead you to look for the blockage, free it, and close the window normally.
Then there are simple practical ways of helping yourself around things you find problematic.
For instance, I have trouble with short term memory, so I write a lot of things down. My Google Calendar is packed with notes and appointments, and I keep my phone near me at all times, mostly for timekeeping and remembering things.
Think of all the methodologies you had to learn in school and college. All the situations where there was a right way to do stuff… or several right ways.
If you know what science is – you’ve read your Karl Popper, you understand the principles of philosophy of science, then you’ll understand exactly why there are scare quotes around “the” in the title.
A lot of people who think they understand science will tell you “science is a methodology, not a set of rules or knowledge; science is not about what we know, but about how we know it.” This is true, of course.
But it it’s a misleading representation. Too many people who have never done science, think that it’s about acquiring knowledge by applying The Scientific Method. As if this were something repeatable.
You keep hitting a problem with The Scientific Method, and eventually it yields a solution.
But science is more abstracted than that.
The recursion is intentional. Because the scientific approach is to discover, invent or design the optimal method for each problem. Each problem, each area of knowledge, requires its own method. The scientist’s job is to invent the method that matches the problem.
The rigorous scientist discards the method as soon as it has yielded results, and looks for a new method to see if that will yield the same results.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the title you choose for your book will make a difference to how many people read it, because it will.
So you might also be forgiven for thinking what an awful lot, possibly most, other people think:
If you could only discover the underlying rules behind the titles of successful books, you could apply those rules to create a successful title.
I’m going to have a damn good try at showing you why that’s impossible.
You’re thinking, ‘a great title doesn’t make a great novel’ – the title might be awesome, but the book has to meet the expectations it creates, has to deliver on the promise; has to live up to the title, otherwise it’s a one way trip to Refund City.
But… if you have written a great book, then if you can apply the Ten Rules for Killer Titles, then you can find a title that will do your book justice; that will attract the readers who will discover the book, and you’re made, whereas if your title sucks, then it doesn’t matter how good the book is, because no one is going to discover it.
Of course not. But you saw that coming. Actually, it’s nearly true. You can certainly discourage readers with a bad title. Can you encourage them with a good one? Kinda.
Big Data isn’t anything new. But for the last few years, we’ve really, truly, had the processing power for it. It’s yielded some amazing results. Read the Wikipedia article, though. All of it.
Through Big Data, Google is a very effective search engine. Through Big Data, you can gather a lot of information about the topic you want to investigate, and apply statistical analysis to discover trends, correlations, discrepancies, and these can lead to discoveries, to new knowledge.
And since we want – that is to say I want, and I’m assuming you do, since you’re reading this – to become better booksellers as well as better writers, then Big Data must be able to tell us something about what makes a good book title.
My excuse is that I’m expected to write these compelling articles, that are at once obvious clickbait and deep, valuable content – knowledge and insight that you can apply immediately to improving your work. That is a lesson in marketing right there.
So I’m excusing myself for having spent some time analysing the data. I have a friend and author who is also an API whizz, who has acquired data for me on sales (estimated), ranking (provided by the retailer) and title. I have applied various analyses to this, by genre.
Yes, I am kidding.
But yes, I did the analysis. The best selling titles in Heroic Fantasy had 2, 3 or 4 words (I counted groups of digits as single words, so the title 1, 2, 3! is three words, but the title 123! is one word.).
I’m not giving the absolute numbers because the difference was not statistically significant.
It will come as no surprise that books with no words in the title had no sales. Consequently the Bell Curve was asymmetrical, but sales don’t fall sharply until the number of words exceed 12. I was quite surprised by that.
One word titles sold less well than 6 and 8 word titles but better than 7, 9 and more.
Reason suggests that this analysis has some sense to it, because it uses a measure that is only quantitative (objective). You could conduct this analysis, for instance, independent of language.
No, I am not kidding.
But yes, I’ve done the analysis, and so have others. I particularly like this analysis by Tor.com. My analysis used a much bigger sample than theirs, but the results were the same.
I’ve also done the same analysis on SF books, and this time I included subtitles and series name if it appeared on the cover, because I’m also interested in how redundant all that (Book 4 in the Arch Ark Arc series) is… I excluded the number that the book was in the series, so the only numbers are ones that appear in the main title.
Here are the top 15 (excluding the, in, and, of):
If you keep the subtitles and series names in there, then the most common words are Chronicle, Book, Novel and Series. I only point that out, because in SF, everyone seems to like to write a chronicle. I’ve written one.
For the next time I decide to do some unnecessary and fruitless statistical analysis on book titles, can we agree on a couple of things?
I get this is one of a series, or one in a world, or a universe you created, but when ‘Berth of Darkness’ is book one of the Dark Universe series, don’t call it:
The Dark Universe Book One: Berth of Darkness,
Berth of Darkness (Dark Universe Book One)
This is partly because it would make the statistical analysis easier. But spare a thought for the reader, too – and think like a salesman.
Readers who like your Dark Universe series will want to read all the books. Once there are 5 or more books in the series, they want to be able to identify as easily as possible which ones they don’t have.
They’ll search Amazon for “Dark Universe” and scan down the list. If the first words of every item are “Dark Universe” they have to read the whole title of every book to see if they’ve got it, whereas if it starts with the book title, they can tell at a glance.
The Dark Universe Book Two: The Dark is Everywhere
The Dark Universe Book Three: Dark Truth
The Dark Universe Book Four: A Lie in the Dark
The Dark Universe Book Five: Penury of Light
The Dark Universe Book Six: Dark Messiah
Berth of Darkness (Dark Universe Book One)
The Dark is Everywhere (Dark Universe Book Two)
Dark Truth (Dark Universe Book Three)
A Lie in the Dark (Dark Universe Book Four)
Penury of Light (Dark Universe Book Five)
Dark Messiah (Dark Universe Book Six)
(Please note this series does not exist. At least, I sincerely hope it doesn’t. In fact, if anyone reading this specializes in making horrible clichés a reality, you’re welcome to it.)
If you have to do the colon thing – and please don’t – can everyone please agree on a format? Either:
The Dark Universe: Berth of Darkness
Berth of Darkness: A Tale from The Dark Universe
Obviously, the latter is better.
Please (Arthur C. Clarke I’m looking at you here) don’t put a comma in the actual title.
Not only is this cliché mindblowingly pretentious, it’s also utterly pointless. Yes I know someone did this recently and got some big indy success.
I guarantee they did it out of insecurity coupled with the desire to evoke echoes of certain whimsical or experimental writers of the mid twentieth century.
Your book is going to be in the fiction section unless you’re unlucky or have so little tech savvy that you can’t get over the very low bar that Amazon wisely set in the KDP interface.
Anyone buying your book from the bookstore is going to find it in the fiction section and I promise you, bookstore owners and librarians will put it in the right place. They check.
This excellent Guardian Article has a choice remark to make about this strange practice.
There were 14 of these in my sample of the top selling 1000 SF titles, which isn’t as bad as I was expecting.
In Fantasy, if you analyze the titles including the series names, you get much the same outcome as you do with SF, but Book, Series and Chronicle are joined by the equally inevitable Saga and the ubiquitous Trilogy.
In Fantasy, the first word after these series words is, predictably, Dragon, closely followed by War and Blood.
You fantasy writers should be duly embarrassed by the fact that the next two most common words appearing in titles and subtitles in Fantasy are: Novel and Fantasy.
My raw data takes many thousands of the top ranked titles. So arguably, what I’ve been doing is analysing the words that appear in the most successful books.
The conclusion seems to be that the most successful book in either SF or Fantasy is a series. In SF, the first book in the series would be called:
End of the World (Alien Time War book 1)
… and in Fantasy:
Dragon Blood War: A Fantasy Novel (Book One in the Series Trilogy Chronicles Saga)
What’s the main thing you notice about those titles?
They look like everything else on those genre lists.
The result of applying a big data analysis to successful book titles to try to work out the rules for writing a successful title is a title that fails to stand out from the others.
And this is exactly what I’m expecting. I’m expecting it because I’ve approached this problem from two directions.
As a literary editor, I understand what creativity is, and how it works, and I’m aiming to show you exactly what creativity is, through this slightly silly exercise of word counting. Counting word use enables you to see what is happening. Specifically, it reveals trends.
Trends are what they sound like they are. In Fantasy, at the moment, everyone is still writing about Dragon Wars. And Blood. In SF everyone is still writing about Time Wars. And Aliens.
Now I don’t much expect the subject matter to evolve anytime soon. Those are proven favorites among readers. But it does look like there’s a trend for tediously and unimaginatively titling books as if they’re tins of paint, or baby food.
Dragon War is a book about war, with dragons. So much so obvious. Dark Magic Mage King is about… well, you get the picture.
If you look at the title trends in new books that are selling well, the titles all seem pretty samey.
However, look at the titles of the breakout hits of the last 100 years, there are quite a few oddities.
In #6 of Scott Berkun’s excellent little summary of the problem, he lists a few of them, and makes the best possible point about them: the titles we remember are the ones that are titles of good books… but also, are easy to remember, because the don’t have what the Guardian article calls the Samey Virus.
On the other hand, a few of the great books of the twentieth century have truly dull, samey titles that hardly set them apart from the pulp they either rose above or were already set above: Sons and Lovers, or A Passage to India.
But those were authors who didn’t worry too much about their titles because they knew the content was worth reading. And by “knew” I mean they knew it was true objectively, because they possessed the necessary literary education and experience to be able to judge.
The samey titles we see today are all coming from the wrong place. That place is: this is the sort of title that sells well, so this is the sort of title I should use.
But think about that for a moment, and go and read this article on the BBC News Website.
If it was really possible to work out how to make a killer title by analysing the titles of successful books using statistical techniques to develop algorithms with which to create new titles, then sooner or later, AI would be able to write novels.
And it will be able to, but not creative ones, for exactly the same reason that getting your title from the wrong place will mean your title is indistinguishable from thousands of others: it is inferring and then applying rules.
The result is therefore a kind of average, like a face average: it’s bland and anonymous; it could be anyone’s.
Creativity is the capacity to break the trend. To produce something that fulfills all the other needs of a title, which according to Scott Berkun (and I don’t disagree with him) are:
To be able to achieve all this, and not sound like every other book in your genre, requires creativity. Because only creativity can invent an alternative way to achieve these goals; a way that isn’t by the numbers; a way that isn’t based on satisfying criteria.
You can do this because you’re a human being, and you use a brain. Brains are messy. Brains use association. But crucially every part of your brain is used, in myriad different configurations, for many different purposes.
Which means you can make connections between ideas in a way that an algorithm, or even an AI (that isn’t based on some sort of highly plastic chaotic network), just can’t. You can make irrational associations; find, and indeed force connexions between ideas that really ought not to be there.
A lot of people think of creativity a something “going wrong” in the brain but actually, it’s an example of the brain’s necessary disorder going exactly as specified. Above all else, the brain is a shortcut machine.
Biological thought is embarrassingly slow, and the brain is an expert in short circuiting itself in order to save on resources.
So what is creativity? Creativity is thinking in leaps. Linking ideas that are not habitually linked.
If you insist. Here’s an example of a creative SF title:
The Time/Cost/Quality War
… and here goes with Fantasy:
The Accountant’s Apprentice
In these two examples, I’m satirizing the current trends to make a point. You will remember these – especially if their associations resonate with you.
But actually, if I had written a book in either of these genres, I’d look for something a little more creative. A title that evokes the genre but in no way suggests what the content might be. So for SF:
The Only Pace
… and for fantasy:
Olive Token in the Pod
This is a phrase invented by Terry Pratchett as part of the culture around the story of one of his earliest books, The Dark Side of the Sun.
With a typical mixture of mastery, wit, and a nod to popular culture, this title screams SF, but is incongruous, even impossible, in its meaning.
One of the features of the story is frequent mention of fictional philosopher and explorer Charles Sub-Lunar, and this phrase, the poet and the mad computer describes him. But it also describes the process of creative thinking.
The mad computer because your brain’s very disorder is what makes it such an effective thinking apparatus, and the poet because it is through mastery of meaning that you can both decipher and create great writing.
Here’s my advice for creating a great title.
Science is about finding stuff out, by applying a suitable means to a problem. Statistical analysis is not a suitable means of finding out what makes a successful title.
Although it can reveal patterns in current successful titles, it can’t tell what direction trends in titles is going to take. It can also reveal patterns in culture, thinking, behavior, even desire.
But empirical analysis is not a suitable means for understanding how a creative literary process works. If science means anything, it means knowing when to use analysis, and when not to.
The suitable means for creating a great title is the same as for creating a great story. It is the practical application of creative thinking.
And since creativity relies on the brain’s capacity to exploit disorder to find more efficient solutions, the results of creative thinking differ from person to person. In short:
Use your creativity and your titles will be unique to your way of thinking. Use analysis and your titles will be the same as everyone else’s.
That can’t be a good thing.Continue reading
There are a lot of reasons why there aren’t great novelists anymore.
I’m assuming you know what I mean by a great novelist. It’s someone whose fame as a writer of fiction is justified through the undeniable quality of their writing. Someone whose literary education, understanding, experience, effort, innovation and output is the source of their celebrity.
These people are easy to list. Whatever country you grew up in, you can list those writers because they’re the ones you had to read at school. If you’re British they include names like Dickens and Lawrence. If you’re American they include names like Twain and Steinbeck. If you’re French it’ll include Hugo and Balzac, if you’re German it’s people like Goethe and Boll (if it’s possible to suggest there have been people like Goethe). If you’re … okay this is starting to look like padding. You get the general idea.
Many of the great novelists you can list will be from before 1900, but the twentieth century was the peak of great novelists.
It peaked because of two things. Adult literacy rose faster than ever before, which drove a huge increase in demand for books to read, so everyone getting published, regardless of whether or not they were great, was selling lots of books. This meant that there was a big market for greatness, because there was a big market for everything.
But by the 1980s, publishers were feeling the pressure from other entertainment media, and had begun to change their publication model away from having many authors and many titles, to the “bestseller” model that is still familiar today – but which is probably beginning to fade. I suspect it peaked in the early 2000s though some insiders say it peaked earlier than that.
The result of this change was a squeeze on the number of people who could be published, and a shift of publisher’s priorities away from writers who would be admired for their literary quality, towards writers who could stimulate a public phenomenon – what today is called “going viral”.
There is an impression in recent culture, that is perhaps finally fading, that there is, a narrow group of intellectuals and critics who decided amongst themselves who was allowed to be thought of as serious writer, who could be a writer of Literature and therefore be authorized to vie for the title of Great Novelist. But if this is coming to an end, who, in the future, will be able to make that crucial pontification, who will be able to say, ex cathedra, that anyone is a Great Novelist? Maybe no one.
The period known as The Enlightenment began sometime in the early 17th century and ran (officially) until the late 18th century. It’s dates are sometimes given as 1630 to 1780. I had to look that up. I can’t memorize dates. Mostly because I don’t want to. And I have this thing call the “internet.”
The Enlightenment was characterized by major advances in science, technology, academic study and both political, social and ethical philosophy. It is said to be characterized by a rise in individual responsibility and a weakening of traditional authority.
Every country in Europe had its Enlightenment figures (as did the Thirteen Colonies that would later become the USA), with France, the UK and the German states having perhaps more than their fair share – for a number of reasons.
Almost all the major contributors to this movement had the same kind of education. They were privately tutored by specialists of all kinds, typically selected by their avant-garde parents. If you were a child of wealthy intellectuals, or wealthy social climbers who wanted intellectual children, or wealthy aristocrats who wanted fashionable children, you got an unique education, oriented specifically for you, and following the whims and caprices of your parents and tutors.
New Teaching, new thinking.
This created unique thinkers. People who saw the world in a way that was unique to them, and who, therefore, sought out the company of others who were equally different, which only further broadened their knowledge and horizons.
it is not, therefore, surprising, that those among them whose education had a literary bias became great writers. “Literary bias” makes it sound like a small thing. But education of the period was founded in the study of classical literature in the original language, and in a volume of reading that is almost unimaginable to us today, even though we have so much more choice as to what to read.
That kind of education is rare today. The only thing that comes close is some kinds of home schooling, though homeschooling today is rarely as intensive as it was during the Enlightenment.
You might not be surprised to learn that I know a few people who can and do. I can read classical Latin, if slowly, and with a dictionary to hand. But most of the great writers studied it properly in the original language.
Whatever cultural tradition you live in today will have been influenced by a small number of famous texts that were known and studied for hundreds, even thousands of years. All the stories you know will be in some way derived from those stories.
Most great writers studied those stories intensively and extensively – they studied all of them, in depth. Their understanding, therefore, of the archetypes of the stories central to modern culture is much deeper than ours. They also read and studied in detail the major religious texts of their region of the world, which also have a lasting influence on the nature of the stories that we tell today – on their structure, their orientation, even the way that we present characters to the reader.
Poetry was seen as a way of passing the time. Few were the wealthy intellectuals or aristocrats who did not both study and write poetry. Poets came in and out of fashion, and people learned their works to be able to recite them as a form both of entertainment and of intellectual stimulation.
Poetry was, therefore, not a marginal activity, or a hobby, and not at all a solitary or contemplative activity. It was competitive. It was social. Skill with poetry was considered essential to proving your intellectual worth.
The study and practice of poetry has a very particular effect on your language skills, and your understanding of how verbal communication works. With the added social and competitive element, there was strong motivation to excel at poetry, and great writers of fiction almost always do.
From at least the early 17th century, publishers were people who were passionate about books. There was a lot of money to be made in publishing, and there have been several periods in the history of the last 300 years where publishers have actively sought out writers and convinced them to try their hand at novel writing.
The relationship between the author and his publisher, or, more recently, his literary agent, used to be a lot less clearly defined. It’s not for nothing that terms like agent, editor and publisher still get confused by laymen, since until recently, these roles were not clearly defined or separate.
I have certainly already mentioned elsewhere the original “author’s editor,” Max Perkins.
Perkins worked most famously with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Not only did he help them to knock their books into shape, he gave advice, he interceded with publishers, he occasionally bailed them out or bankrolled their projects.
He may have been the most famous, but he was typical of a long tradition of editors working for publishing houses large and small, who made it their business to nurture talent; to see potential and show authors how to realize their potential.
With the rise of the bestseller culture that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, came pressure to write faster, to get to press faster, to sell faster, and, most of all, to develop author bankability™.
The risk of selling books on the name of the author has always been there – that the author will become complacent, and make less effort with later books, knowing that the public will buy anything with their name on. But once the publisher’s business model came to rely on this, it became inevitable that the author’s editor, who slowly nurtured talent until they began to achieve their potential for greatness, would soon disappear.
… In fact…
These are only five of the many factors that made the Great Novelists of the past unique.
But take heart, gentle writer.
One of the effects of mass education and the rise of the mass market paperback is the destruction of literary snobbery.
Most readers are not looking to be impressed or edified. They don’t want to read a book by someone better read, better researched, better educated, better cultivated than they are.
What readers want from an author is simple: they want an author who cares about giving them the reading experience that they want. They want a reader who wants to satisfy them.
Now some readers just want a thrill, others want nostalgia, some want a scare, or a threat, or to be shocked or challenged. It’s not just about pleasing the reader. It’s about giving the reader what they want.
You don’t have to be a Great Writer to do that.
You do have to be a good writer. You need a minimum of knowledge and skill, and those do take both learning and practice.
But to be a success at writing, you don’t have to be unique or special. You do have to be dedicated.
You don’t have to be out of the reader’s league. You do have to care about what readers want.
You will never be a Great Novelist. But you shouldn’t try to be.
If not Great, then what?
It may be that Greatness is still possible. But if it is, it cannot be the same kind of greatness, or in any case, the wellspring of future greatness will not be found where it was once found.
After all, the uniqueness of the great writers of the last couple of hundred years came from more from social inequality than almost anything else. Name any 20 great novelists from before 1900 and you’ll be hard pressed to find any women, anyone not either from an wealthy or an aristocratic family, anyone who isn’t very, very white.
Having the time for the kind of education and life of adventure and discovery that made a great novelist in the past was strictly the reserve of privilege. It is to be hoped that level of privilege will not repeat itself.
Find your uniqueness.
I still think that the best source of greatness for a writer is uniqueness. You aren’t going to find your uniqueness by looking into yourself. Uniqueness has to be earned through unique experiences.
With so many people on Earth now, having a single unique experience is pretty unlikely. But having a unique combination of experiences should be possible. Build your uniqueness by seeking diversity in all your experiences.
The easiest way to do this is always to take the long route. Always to choose the more difficult option. Do what makes you feel uncomfortable.
As long as these are finite experiences, they won’t ruin your life; for instance, don’t take a job you know you can’t do. Don’t marry someone you can’t stand.
All these are examples of the kind of experiences you should be looking for. They will all affect the way you think, the way you see yourself and other people, the way you look at the world. Only do the ones you have never done, and prefer the ones you really don’t think you want to do:
Look for any other experiences that are on offer. The principle is that they should be experiences that you had to look for.
Nothing that would have fallen into your lap.
Will this make you unique?
I don’t know. But it will prepare the ground on which future greatness might, one day, be built.Continue reading
When you’re ready to do character thoughts with sarcasm, you know you don’t need to think about POV any more.
At the end of this post I’ve done a bulleted list to show you what you need to do to POV like a boss, so you don’t have to wade through my rambling, if compelling explanation.
Here’s a jump for the TL;DR version.
I’m constantly trying to convince my authors to stop thinking about POV.
Something has happened amongst all you self-taught writers (and even some of the qualified ones, whatever that means) to convince you that for every story you write you have to take a conscious decision about POV, and think about it all the time.
The least egregious consequence of this is that the story slavishly follows one character at a time…
The worst consequences come when the author can’t stop himself from constantly reminding the reader whose POV is currently in focus…
This might sound a little strong, but I think I’m expected to be controversial where possible.
I’ve been told there’s this elusive quality called “clickbait” and I have to track it like a good little snarkhunter, but all sarcasm aside (for at least the next couple of sentences), conscious POV usually results in poor style.
Conscious POV – which is when the author consciously chooses to limit the reader’s experiences to those of one character at a time – is a gimmick.
Like 1st person narrative, present tense or “unreliable narrator” it’s a form of exoticism that an author should certainly learn how to use, and then employ occasionally, with care, for powerful effect.
You may have heard me make this claim before, and the more I examine the question, the more true I think it is.
3rd/past/omni is the narrative voice of fairy tales. It’s the narrative voice of Homer and Virgil.
It’s the narrative voice of preschool and early learning (although some authors of these ‘readers’ make the bizarre error of using the present tense to ‘make it easier.’)
My theory is that they are confusing learning to read with learning a foreign language.
It is the default narrative voice for thousands of years of written and oral storytelling. That sort of thing has long term consequences.
It means that any other narrative voice is exotic – if even mildly. So the choice of another narrative voice should come with other conscious choices.
In reality, I always encourage new writers to use the narrative voice that comes naturally to them.
The great writers – the really experienced ones, whose work will be remembered long after they’re dead – know that you either choose a different narrative voice because it will make the story stronger, or because they want the story to be bounded or limited, in an unusual way.
But one of the ultimate aims of the writer – a primary reason why I describe my exercises for writers as writer’s Kung Fu – is to pass unnoticed. The writer who succeeds in truly immersing the reader in his story does so by drawing attention to the story, not to himself.
You don’t want the reader to think “what a great writer” until she has finished the book. How to stay out of the way of the story should be your constant study; any time where you use an exotic narrative voice, you will draw attention to yourself, and to your technique.
It is possible to sidestep the whole issue of POV.
Narrow or strict POV is a device whose purpose is to limit the flow of information to the reader, which contains its own justification.
Usually, withholding information from the reader is a great way to annoy the reader, especially if you plan to spring it on the reader just before the climax, as a means of artificially raising the stakes.
But if you’ve withheld information because the main character had no way of knowing it, and the reader has got used to knowing only what the main character knows, then the reader will swallow your clumsy plotting without complaint.
That’s the theory in any case. (I managed to keep off the sarcasm for several paragraphs there!)
Sidestepping the issue of POV is as simple as just deciding what you intend to reveal, and what you don’t intend to reveal.
That’s definitely an oversimplification, right? Not really.
Most of the time, when telling a story, you’re recounting a series of events that happen to, are influenced by, and have consequences for, some people (characters).
To the observer, to a third party, those consequences may be shown. But the observer can also infer, deduce, intuit or, often, empathize those consequences: if the hero’s wife is murdered, you hardly need mention that the hero feels grief.
The third party is the reader.
I go to a lot of trouble to explain to writers that a work of fiction is an act of communication between two people – the author and the reader. But the principal conceit of fiction is that the reader is a third party, an observer.
In some fiction traditions, this goes as far as the writer imagining that he is telling the story to a character, and that if a reader comes along, this is coincidental.
But you should be aware that this is a conceit. A narrative device that ensures that writer and reader are on the same wavelength (a figure of speech which, to touch the mask, is a means of ensuring that you and I are sharing the same cultural tradition).
If you have read my blog before, or you have read my Editor’s Guide to Writing Fiction, you will be used to my vaunting of editor and writer Emma Darwin, and you may already have noticed that I’m working my way towards repeating a lesson I’ve taught elsewhere. Emma took the French lit. crit. category of pensée indirecte libre and evolved it into Free Indirect POV.
Free Indirect is when you relate a character’s point of view without saying so. Without having a convention to show whose POV it is.
To do so, you have to be a little more relaxed about what the reader is, or is not aware of. It works best if you have the self-discipline to keep to one main character per story, so that you don’t have to keep signposting the POV.
The ultimate aim of every author should always be to bring the reader to a point that is stronger than the trust required for so-called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. The point is one of willing complicity in the pretense.
How can you make a reader complicit?
By showing the reader that they are complicit. Jane Austen does it by sharing a joke with the reader at a character’s expense, right at the start of the book.
You might need a little more practice before you can get to that point. But once a character is well enough established, once the reader has got to know them well, the reader will start to have genuine expectations of the character.
To get to this point, however, you have to have shown how the character behaves. You have to have placed them in a number of situations that will have revealed their values, foibles, caprices.
It’s no good telling the reader that the character is needlessly finicky about trivialities, f’rinstance, you have to show enough incidents where this behavior creates obstacles or problems for the story, the character, or the people around them.
Once you know that the reader shares your opinion of the character, you have complicity.
The best measure of whether the complicity is sufficient is to see if you think you can get away with making a sarcastic observation about a character. If it seems okay to you, and your Beta Readers swallow it, then you’re probably doing okay.
Here’s an example from a soon-to-be-published series I’m working on right now. Esper, the character in question, has been established as meek but principled. Full of self-doubt, but with occasional flashes of resolve.
She’s also young, and the memory of being a childhood outcast – poor and a little nerdy – still smarts. She’s just gotten hold of a tablet computer…
It was an OmniWalker Tudor, last year’s most popular high-end model—not that Esper had followed such trends, or quietly envied the Harmony Bay scientists’ children who carried them.
Under normal circumstances, when editing, I would have flagged ‘not that’ as chatty – breaking the narrative register – and suggested something a little more formal.
But this is a point of complicity between author and reader, and therefore exactly the right time to break the normal narrative register to make a colloquial observation to the reader.
If you’re anything like me, and anything like most writers, you want your book finished. Now this is going to sound topsy-turvey, but one of the most effective ways of making your book shorter, of making it less about word count and more about the overall strength of your story, is to make use of backstory.
When I read reviews and talk to readers, among the most common complaints is that the book is full of background information that gets in the way of the story. In fact, a lot of readers will skip over the backstory as soon as they spot it. You probably already do this yourself.
As an editor, I’m constantly asking my writers whether they forgot to cut out a paragraph of character notes, because they have conscientiously written the important details of a character’s life-story into the first or second chapter.
Or they forgot to cut out a paragraph of story world notes, because the book opens with a lengthy summary of all the events leading up to the events of the story.
By writing all this stuff into your manuscript, you’re giving yourself a lot of extra writing to do.
But surely you’re also making the story world richer?
Surely you’re also making the character more rounded, deeper, more believable?
Indeed, surely by giving the reader all this information, it makes it so much easier for the reader to see why the character behaves the way he does; to see why the world, society or culture the book is set in is arranged as it is?
Of course you want the reader to find the story world rich, real and truthful. Of course you want the reader to find the characters rounded, deep, and a product of their rich and detailed past. And backstory is exactly the right way to do it.
However, if your manuscript includes all the backstory, then all you’re doing is bloating the book with redundant detail. Not just unnecessary, but redundant. The backstory doesn’t need to be there, because the purpose you think it serves is already being served.
And it’s being served by the backstory.
You’re right to use backstory. But including it in the manuscript just makes the job of writing it take longer, and fills the book up with details that the reader will feel he already knows, and will skip over.
Even worse than that, reader was looking forward to discovering what sort of person the main character was, through the process of reading the story, and you just revealed it all in a big block of backstory.
Worse still, your explanation of how the main character came to be avaricious and riddled with self doubt looks clichéd and unimaginative. Your explanation of how the society of the book came to venerate eunuchs looks clumsy and unconvincing.
If you’d just kept quiet about it, the reader would have loved the mystery, or imagined something better than you could have.
There is a right way to use backstory. It’s simple, and powerful, and will make your stories stronger and more compelling and easier to write.
I wanted to introduce a secondary character to my WIP. This secondary character is going to die. Someone has to at a particular point in the story, and its her.
I don’t approve of redshirting, as I have explained elsewhere, so in my work, if someone has to die, first they have to be someone.
I introduced the character casually. She was a lesser participant in a multi-way conversation earlier in the book, so to better fix the character in the reader’s memory, I had the main character delegate an essential task to her.
Someone had to do that task, it couldn’t be the main character, so it’s her. This way, the main character has a couple of interactions with her which also means I can show the reader how the main character feels about her. This will increase the impact of her death, later on.
But, as I started working my way towards preparing the scene where this poor young woman would have to die, I began to realize that she would have to take no less than three poor decisions, in order to put herself at risk, and have to choose the wrong person to trust at the crucial moment.
With all the work I had done on the character up to there, I couldn’t see a way of making this seem believable.
Now I hold myself (and my authors, actually) up to a very high standard when it comes to a believable course of events.
It has to be inevitable. Inevitability is difficult to pin down in fiction – it’s not as hit or miss as the physics equations that prove that an asteroid is going to strike the earth. It’s a lot vaguer, but I have a reliable test for it:
Even if the reader did not see it coming, after it happens, the reader has to think: Oh yes. That was bound to happen, sooner or later.
With my young woman, her death just didn’t seem that way. The reader, and I, didn’t know enough about her to be able to say for sure whether she might not have escaped or avoided the situation, even if by accident.
So I decided to deepen the character by giving her a backstory. I used my preferred technique. It is absurdly effective.
I have a stock character who never appears in any of my stories. He doesn’t have a name, and in fact, sometimes he is a she. I call him the Secret Service Recruitment Officer.
His job is simple. He has to interview important people from the past of any potential new recruit, to find out if they are suitable for the job. His special talent is his easygoing nature, that puts people at their ease, and gets them talking.
I have him go and visit all sorts of people from the character’s past. Siblings. Schoolteachers. Ex-comrades and ex-spouse. Coworkers. Drinking buddies. Parole officers. Parents.
He gets them talking, and then he listens, nodding and smiling here and there, occasionally prompting them to go a little deeper. And they talk. They all talk. Sometimes for a long time.
Sometimes he has to interrupt them to tell them that he’s found out all he needs to know. But he’s always gentle and polite when he does.
There’s one crucial feature to this technique:
I don’t write any of it down.
I play out the scene consciously, in my imagination. I articulate every word of the conversation – sometimes I catch myself doing it aloud. Which is fine. If people know you’re a writer.
This way I find out everything I could possibly want to know about the character. Usually, somewhere in there, there’s a detail – an event, a characteristic, an experience – from the character’s past that will give me what I need.
In this case, among other things, I found out that she ran away from her boarding school aged 11, and tried to get to India, alone. She got as far as Turkey before turning back. In all, the trip took her nearly 2 years. The school hushed it up.
That part was complicated and a little far-fetched. Her parents were in the colonial service in India, and she was supposed to stay at the school during the winter and spring breaks.
But you see, it doesn’t matter that it was far-fetched, because the reader is never going to know.
You don’t have to use a Secret Service Recruitment Officer. Sometimes I use a favorite TV detective (Morse and Columbo are very effective, I find). Sometimes I make the rounds in person.
What I’m doing is building up backstory for the character, so that I know her. I know her truth. I know what she would do.
And because I’m looking for someone who would make those bad decisions, who would be reckless, who would assume that whatever happens she can find her own way home… that is exactly what I find.
When it comes to worldbuilding, I call on a different member of staff. This one does have a name. His name is Reg, and Reg is a Loss Adjuster for the largest insurance firm in the universe.
He’s ancient, profoundly cynical, infinitely patient and bottomlessly curious. When I really need to know if my story world will stand up to scrutiny, Reg and I go out into the world, and he asks questions about how it all fits together.
If we meet anyone, they get a patient, polite, third degree. Whatever we see, whatever we do, is scrutinized and studied until Reg is satisfied that it is able to serve its intended purpose.
To work with Reg, generally I take a long walk in the real world. So again, I write nothing down. But any world that looks real, and true, through Reg’s eyes, will stand up to any scrutiny.
And Reg will keep watching, over my shoulder, as I step into new scenes, to ensure that everything fits with everything else. To ensure that it’s all possible.
You see, backstory used to ensure that you, the author, know all the details of your character’s past. Because you know them, the character’s behavior will always be consistent with them.
And a result of that consistency, the reader will perceive, dimly, that behind the character’s actions, there is past that informs and explains them. The reader will be able to guess at some of it, and you will be able to drop small hints, clues, and revelations, that will confirm what the reader has suspected.
That will make the reader think: Oh, yes. That was obvious all along.
Backstory will ensure that you, the author, know all the details of the workings of your story world – whether its the Bronx in 1973 or one of the Icy Moons of Jupiter.
Because you know them, the world will always be internally consistent. Everything will be only where it can, or must, be. So much so, in fact, that will a little sparse description, you will convey enough to the reader that he will imagine exactly the same setting as you do.
The reader will perceive, dimly, that behind all the action in the foreground, there is a whole world supporting it. Behind the hotdog stand, there’s a whole supply-chain economy.
Behind the interplanetary probe, there’s a whole pyramid of logistics – that you won’t have to describe in detail, not because you don’t know what it is, but because you do.
The reader will be able to guess at some of it, and you will be able to drop small hints, clues, and revelations, that will confirm what the reader has suspected.
That will make the reader think: Oh, yes. I could see that.
Of course, you can write down your backstory. If you’re planning an epic or a lengthy series, it might help your sanity to have a database or card-index.
It’ll help you to avoid continuity errors and retcons. But as you get more experienced, I hope you’ll abandon the crutch of written backstory, and keep it all as what you know about your characters and their world.
In the end, however you go about creating or discovering the backstory, the bottom line is this:
If you know the backstory, your book will be the stronger for it. Your characters will be more compelling, your world more believable.
If you keep the backstory to yourself, it will be easier and quicker to write, and your reader won’t lose patience, or skip or ignore whole pages at a time.
But even more than that, the reader will discover the world like exploring a new landscape, and discover the characters like making new friends.
It will be a source of joy and excitement, and most of all, of reader satisfaction.Continue reading
This is an article about a very famous book. See if you can identify it.
It’s a complex story of politics and war, but although there are several factions, most of them align pretty clearly on the side of Good or the side of Evil.
Since the story is complex, there are several main characters, of whom the most important is a King without a kingdom, waiting for the right moment to reveal himself and reclaim his title.
The secondary heroes include a pair of brothers, both of whom try, but only one of whom has the strength of character to resist evil and be a powerful force for good. There is a kindly old King whose daughter is another hero, and who rides to war against his wishes.
Other major characters include great wizards who battle in dark towers, antidiluvian horrors in deep chasms, and the Kings, Queens and Princelings of Godlike Elder Races, whose time has passed and who cling to their old ways.
It is, in fact, a very traditional story, inspired by the Norse, English and Welsh sagas, but there are odd flashes of Christian symbolism, and many people see in it parallels with several of the major events of the first half of the twentieth century.
In fact, this story reveals and exposes the profound truth about how characters function in the process of both telling and reading a story – the way in which the story is mediated through the characters.
If you haven’t identified the story, its because I have described it through its heroes, rather than through its central characters. Through its main characters, rather than the characters that the reader follows through the events of the story.
In many ways, this classic fantasy epic is about what most heroic fantasy is about: discovering that the adult world is not what we thought it was as children.
As children, we thought that the adult world was peopled by tall, high, elegant and all knowing near-gods. We thought that they were commanding and powerful. We thought ourselves small in stature and they tall.
Growing up, those of us who achieve maturity realize that these all-knowing all powerful Gods do not, and never did, exist. Our parents are only a little less clueless than we are, and most of us catch them up – some of us become wiser or more knowledgeable than our parents. Some of us become richer, some of us become more powerful.
But many can’t quite shake the impression that once upon a time there was a world where the grownups really did know everything. Where the ancients know more than we ever could. Where the Aztecs built spaceships and the Egyptians conquered death.
In the book in question, the central characters, around whom all these momentous events take place, literally look up at everyone around them, because they are Hobbits.
It’s actually remarkably common, especially in great books, that the character that the author thinks is going to be the main character is, through the drafting process, gradually pushed into the periphery, as the author discovers that there is another character who better represents what the author wants the story to show.
Tolkien’s education, however, gives him another option. Knowing so much about the ancient sagas, he uses them as a landscape – recognizing rightly that people love hearing about fragments and elements of the ancient sagas, but that the kind of heroes they describe are not the kind of heroes he needs to tell the story he wants to tell.
He wants a story about ordinary young people discovering the vastness of the world beyond their doorstep. And the best way to do this is to paint an enormous cyclorama, where there is so much detail that you could never communicate all of it to the reader, but in any case don’t want to. Because this is not a story about what heroes do, but about what they are.
By making his main characters Hobbits – who in accordance with the central motif of Bilbo’s story, don’t know what they are themselves capable of – he makes the likes of Aragorn, Faramir and Eowyn into secondary and largely symbolic characters.
Bilbo’s poem about Aragorn can famously be read two ways – obviously it’s about Aragorn hiding his true nature, but it’s also about the way that as children we take the adult world at completely false face value.
Ultimately, LOTR shows the Hobbits discovering themselves, and growing (in the case of Merry and Pippin literally) as a result of their experiences. Do the heroes grow? Eowyn… maybe. Aragorn? Nope. Faramir? Nope. Boromir… ha! Gandalf – pull the other one! Gandalf and Saruman are your two Grandfathers. The one you think you know and the one you know you don’t. The friendly one and the stern one.
I’ve already written about how Robert Louis Stevenson uses vanilla central characters as a means of connecting with bigger, more dramatic secondary characters.
Tolkien’s technique is similar, but more complex in both aim and execution. Recognizing that the true purpose of storytelling is to educate while entertaining, he’s also well aware of a generation of literature for young boys dominated by the work of G A Henty and his ilk, which taught the boys that they should wish to emulate and become heroes in the classical sense – and fight and die for dominance and acquisition.
This might seem like a very cynical recasting on my part of the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, but I’m well aware that I’m looking at it through 21st century eyes. And today’s writers could still learn plenty from Henty, even if they perhaps ought not give it to their sons to read!
Tolkien’s work – much of which, remember, was written while his son was at war (in North Africa?) – is a definite and conscious move away from this, presenting the young men going to war as naïve and immature, through the Hobbits.
But most importantly, the fact that the Hobbits will never grow tall means that they literally can’t become like the heroes of the story – Aragorn and Faramir are men, Gandalf is Maia, Legolas is an Elf; this separation by race is a clear message to the reader: the grand, dramatic, tragic heroes are in the past.
Hobbits are allowed, encouraged even, to remain ordinary. And those that are touched by that world of classical heroes, the Bilbos and the Frodos, eventually have to pass into the West.
The lessons for those who are learning to become writers is that in the greatest books, characters are serving a purpose beyond entertaining or inspiring the reader – in fact, the reader’s experience of the characters is often profoundly different from the purpose that they ultimately serve.
I think this is revealed by the recent movies of Tolkien’s work. The adaptations were made for an audience for whom war, although it dominates the TV and online news; although it features in the movies and TV dramas, is no longer a central aspect of the lives of the majority.
Very few “developed” countries have conscription, and war as a profession is a minority profession. This has made it possible to see LOTR as an adventure, and has also driven the near necessity of moving Tolkien’s shadowpuppet heroes in front of the semitransparent cyclorama that shrouds them in the books, and thrusting them into the center of the action.
Today, people want to see those sexy heroes close up. And modern audiences want the Arwens and Tauriels too – understandably.
Indeed you could argue that the war in Jackson’s LOTR films is deliberately overshadowed by individual heroics.
What I’m hoping to show here, as in the previous article about characters, is that the best stories are not built around characters that have been carefully preconcieved for their appeal. Tolkien constructed his characters to fulfill specific roles in a story structured around his central intent.
Nor, indeed, are the best stories conceived as a thrill ride for some compelling or attractive characters. Tolkien constructed his story to fulfill the purpose of his central intent.
The absense of female heroes in Tolkien’s stories – just like the need to invent them in the movies, is understandable because Tolkien’s intent is to “retire” the boy’s adventure heroes and classical heroes who had been used to inspire earlier generations to go to war.
He wants to show that not only can ordinary people (*cough* the smallest people) be courageous and heroic, but that they are often called upon to be so; and that they should be able, enabled, helped, to remain ordinary.
Nicholas Kahler, author and the business brain of Narrative Path, will always ask at this point: how can an author use this insight to improve his writing?
Writers often tell me that it is in talking to me, or other editors, or other writers, about their work, that they discover how their characters are playing this high level role, of representing a key component of their message. Often, when thinking this way about characters, we can give them labels that indicate their archetypes – hero, mother, everyman, warrior, activist, student, philosopher, poet – and on recognizing the archetype, see how the character fits into the structure of the book.
In practical terms, this often results in some winnowing. The number of characters can be reduced, because we realize that there is more than one mother; more than one dutiful son, more than one witch… obviously, sometimes this is exactly what you want. But it helps to be aware at a level above the story, where characters are symbols, where they represent some aspect of being human, some facet of many people’s behavior or personality.
For me, what arises from this is the “Archetype and Saga” analysis – a means of viewing your story from very high altitude, that will enable you to see it as a whole. Writers are generally down among the vines. It isn’t hard to lift your head high enough to see the whole vinyard, but this will really give you a bird’s eye view; you’ll see the rows of grapevines, and the gentle curve of the hill.
First of all, take your 6 most important characters (don’t do this for more than 10; 3 is probably best). Give each of them a one-word descriptive name, that corresponds to an archetype:
Remember these are not words that describe the character’s job or main activity, but their role in the story. There are a number of ways to find it. Any of the following work well:
Imagine the character was in a fairytale. Would they be the fairy? The frog? The annoying booted cat?
Imagine the character was in a Western. Would they be the sherrif? A bounty hunter? A “saloon girl” ? A gold digger? A snake oil salesman? A frontiersman?
Imagine the character was in Star Wars. Which character would they be?
None of this means you’re being unoriginal. Your originality is at lower levels, among the leaves and stems.
Your originality is in how these characters interract to teach a lesson (that passes, if you do it right, without the reader noticing) and to tell a story.Continue reading
Think of the story as a vague shape; a block of wood formed from your desires and experiences. Somewhere inside it is the story you want to tell. That is a different shape; it must be contained within the block, and suit the grain and density of the material, but doesn’t yet know its final shape.
And neither do you. But you have an idea of the order, kind and type of shape that you want to give it. You have an idea of how you want people to be affected when the see the final shape; you have an idea of what you feel, and what you want them to feel. An impression of the impression you want to leave.
Before you start carving the block, you need to get to know it well, to understand its potential. This is self knowledge – knowing your own experience and abilities, but also knowing what matters to you, both about the creative process and about what its outcome—the story—should achieve.
Before you start carving the block, you need to get to know well the idea that will guide and shape the process of carving it.
But who knows what surprises are hidden beneath its surface? What knots and twists in the grain, what interplay of the color of heartwood and sapwood, what new surfaces will you both reveal and create?
So, as you carve, you will incorporate these discoveries into your idea. Even as where you chuse to cut, chisel and scrape is guided by your story idea, so your story idea is formed and shaped as it adapts to the qualities and textures of the wood as you reveal it.
This is an idealized view of how the creative process of writing a story works. For many years I’ve been working towards a way to describe the process that takes account both of the infinite variety of methodologies that I discover in my writers, but also of their difficulties and frustrations. Probably the most divisive and dominant of all these frustrations is the conflict between planning and discovery.
The false dichotomy between what is unhelpfully called “plotter or pantser” has been obvious to me for a while. Doubly unhelpful because the terms themselves are misleading (which is a polite way of saying “wrong”).
“Plotting” (in storytelling, not moustache twirling) is primarily an activity for academics. Writers can usefully apply it for self-editing, using it to map out the events of their stories to help find flaws. Crime and thriller writers can also use it beforehand, as a means of understanding, revealing or making clear the events that cause the story. But not the story itself. There is a pervasive myth that somehow PLOT is the skeleton or substructure of STORY, so if you first create plot, story can be built on it, or fleshed out (shudder).
“Pantsing” is short for “writing by the seat of your pants”, which is taken to mean “writing without the security or safety of an outline”. But “by-the-seat-of-your-pants” was originally a term used by early aviators as a jokey way to explain to non aviators how they stayed in their aircraft, because for their own safety they wore no seatbelt or harness. This was for exactly the same reason that pilots have ejector seats today. You’re much more likely to survive a bad landing. Early aircraft were light and slow, so being literally thrown clear improved your chances. So flying by the seat of your pants was safer than being strapped in!
That is, of course, just a linguistic quibble, albeit a fascinating tangent.
I was talking about a false dichotomy, and it is this:
EITHER you invent the whole story and then write it,
OR you make it up as you go along.
Neither of these is true. All writers know, if varyingly, what story they want to write. If you really made it up as you went along, you wouln’t get beyond the first word, because you wouldn’t have a purpose for the first sentence. But equally, if you could really know every detail of the story before you wrote it, you would have to write motivated by self-discipline alone. It would be like doing homework for a subject that doesn’t interest you – sound familiar?
Actually, the pantsers have the easier side of the false divide, since they are following their creative instinct. They create difficulty for themselves through fear. They are afraid that if they work out too many of the details in advance, then the creative part of the process will have been done, and there will only be the tedious slog of writing it out. They fear the boredom, and they fear a loss of the creative spark.
They are right, of course, but for (partly) the wrong reasons. All communication is creative. Creative writing is better the more creativities are active as you write. That’s why poetry is such an essential learning tool: it seeks to engage every type of creativity at once, to exploit connexions and associations, by encouraging visual, verbal, imaginative, absurdity, nonsense, half-meanings, dissonance, harmony, and so on, all in search of communicative serendipity – the chance discovery of perfect arrangements of words that arises from a well prepared state of mind.
To be slightly Taoist again, the discipline of poetry is to cast off categories, to include everything, especially indiscipline.
The plotters are also right, insofar as they admit to themselves that you can’t write a story without first knowing what it will be. Where they go wrong is much the same as where people go wrong in all manner of human endeavor: believing themselves to be in a category, they try to conform to consensus about that category.
The most common example of this is when people conform to expectations of them that are based solely on their gender: they do so because they think it is right, and think there is something wrong with them when they feel ill-at-ease with it. In the UK, young men are expected to be fanatical about football (soccer) just because they are young men.
Plotters, having recognized that you need to know the story before you start writing, conform to all the planning, plotting and outlining advice they can find. They soon become unhappy with how constraining it is, but have been told that the only alternative is pantsing, which they won’t try because they believe what the pantsers believe: that it is done without any foreknowledge of the story; and they know this to be impossible.
I’m here to tell you (today) that everyone who writes a story has some foreknowledge of the story. How much foreknowledge should be what drives the rest of the creative process. If pressed to make a distinction, I’d say that some writers are much more conscious than others of what they want to write; they plan the story unconsciously, and don’t realize that they aren’t really making it up as they go along, but are actually working towards an unconscious goal.
Forget about left-brain/right-brain; not only is that distinction unhelpful, it also isn’t an accurate depiction of the way the brain works. Everyone is creative. But some people adapt better to having their creativity “channelled” (for which read “stifled”) than others.
An effective creative process arises from two things:
On a number of occasions I’ve applied Alfred Jarry’s invented science of Pataphysics to real-world problem solving. It is extraordinarily effective as it teaches people to shift paradigms at will – and paradigm shifting can only be done if you can encourage, develop and exploit the associative interconnectedness that is the real power of your creative brain. I really sound like I’m going to sell you some pseudoscience product now, don’t I? Any second now I’m going to use the word ‘quantum.’
Pataphysics is described as ‘the science of imaginary solutions.’ In Pataphysics, you present or describe a real-world problem, and encourage people to come up with solutions that can only work in their imagination.
This exercise encourages freedom of imagination, which is what post-industrial educational institutions beat out of you. It’s the imagination that you have to rediscover; non-instrumental imagination; imagination that does not, because it cannot, lead to concrete results.
If you are an experienced writer, you already have a process that works for you, and you aren’t reading this.
You aren’t reading it because you already know that it is impossible to write a story without knowing what it is going to be, but also impossible to write a story that can’t be adapted to what you discover while writing.
You’ve left the whole “plotting vs. pantsing” question far behind you, or given up writing for good, so you still aren’t reading this, unless indulging in the cup of regret.
So I’m addressing myself to those who are still on the steep part of the learning curve – the part where it looks like a sheer cliff-face.
Don’t try to be a plotter, don’t try to be a pantser. Try to discover the creative process that works for you.
Before You Start Writing
How much you do before you start will depend on what sort of story you want to write, so you should begin by understanding that. The key issues are going to be length and complexity.
Length can refer to word-count, but before you start writing, you should think about the density of events. If the story contains two or three major events and the rest is all about their consequences – emotional, psychological, economical, then even if it is 500k words, it has a low even density, so you won’t need to do much note-taking. If it is action packed, leaping from place to place, filled with significant encounters and twists-and-turns, then even if it is only 80k words, you may need to make some notes.
Complexity is revealed through looking at the interplay between story features (characters, locations, events, items, ideas) as well as how numerous they are. Broadly speaking, the more characters, the more complex the story, even if most of the characters are minor, if they appear more than once, they need to be tracked.
Forget anything you’ve learned or read about structure. If you define a structure and try to fit a story to it, then if you’re extremely talented, the story will be well-written but mediocre.
If it looks like it’s going to be long, complex or both, then you will make your life easier if you start thinking about a few objectives.
Finally, consider your availability. If you are already a full time writer, then you will be spending a considerable chunk of your time, daily, to your book. You aren’t likely to lose track of the bigger objectives, but probably need to make less notes. If you only write in your spare time, or at weekends, making notes and identifying objectives and writing them down becomes a necessity.
The Hierarchy of Objectives
Objectives are ordered from the vague and general at the top to the precise and local at the bottom. Think about all of them, but don’t write them down unless you think you are in danger of forgetting them, or getting distracted.
In my experience, the difference between a very good book and a great one is the existence of an outline; but an outline can cut both ways if you don’t know how to use it.
Think of your outline as the empty space between the beginning and the end of the story. What you put in between should be a balance of what you feel is necessary for you to be able to start writing, and any important ideas that you have that you might overlook if you don’t write them down.
Most important is that your outline is not fixed.
Even though you might sketch out in charcoal the shape you expect it to take on the outside of the block, once you start carving, you have to adapt.
The flexible outline has three qualities.
In short, the purpose of an outline is to let you get on with creation, but mitigate for your faults and failings. If I didn’t make notes of all the ideas I have while writing, I’d forget most of them. But I also note important fine details (recently, the colour of stockings that two characters were wearing) so I can refer back to them correctly (the right colours on the right legs, which I would certainly get wrong otherwise) AND expand them into the symbolic landscape (echoing the colours elsewhere).
Sparse Visual/Spatial Outline.
I like to use this one myself for editing, and especially when helping an author to develop a story idea. There is enough information here to start writing, provide you know what type of story you want to write.
How to do it:
At the top of the page, write a single line that describes the first event in the story – the event that starts everything happening.
At the bottom of the page, write a single line that describes the story’s ending. This is a lot more difficult; it can take several stories before you get proficient at summing up an expected ending, so don’t worry if it seems vague or unclear.
Draw a vertical line from the start to the end.
On the left-hand side of the line, write the major events that you expect to happen in the story, and mark with a short horizontal line approximately where you think that the event will occur.
On the righthand side, make a note of any other thoughts or ideas you’ve had, and if possible draw lines to the outline showing where they have influence. In the example I’ve just used characters, but other features – locations, idems, ideas – are all relevant.
The most important thing in this approach is that you DO NOT EVEN TRY to think of anything, let alone everything. Make a note ONLY of the ideas that have already come to you. If other ideas follow on from the process of making this outline, make a note of them only if you think you might forget them.
As you write, add events to the left, and other features to the right, as you write them. Evenually this outline will become quite cluttered, but keep it up to date and it will form a very accurate picture of your story by the time you reach the end. This is of very great value in self-editing.
Chapter by Chapter
Literally the opposite extreme, a chapter by chapter outline can be produced in a number of different ways, but my advice is to work by working your way down a hierarchy of objectives.
How to do it:
Using your favorite word processor or creative writing software, begin with some major objective signposts. Two of these are obvious:
There are a few others that are not too difficult to find:
If you already know what the key events of the story are going to be, give them simple names and put them in as objective signposts:
And so on. If you know that characters have to be in particular places or states of mind by any particular stage, use those, too.
Bear in mind that before you start outlining the actual chapter content, you may not have many clear objectives, but they will occur to you as you are developing the chapters. Write them down, in approximately the right place in the story, as they occur to you. Bear in mind also that as you progress through the chapter details, some major objectives may change or move. Do so as soon as it occurs, even if you haven’t finished writing a chapter summary.
Once you have your major objectives, begin working your way through each chapter in order. For each chapter, write a sentence or two describing the chapter objectives, and a few more describing how you think you will reach those objectives. I generally write the objectives first, and then build the story around them (see further below).
This is the outline for chapter 2 of a book I am writing:
We bring Chastity to Ake town. It is Saturday – the day after Chaper 1.
We get to see various features of Ake Town including Mill Scrap.
By the time Chastity and Warris sit down to dinner, an even worse storm is raging than the previous day.
Show that Chastity already knows Doad – inevitable really, considering how long she has been there.
End the chapter with more than a hint that Warris stays the night with Chastity.
As you work your way through the objectives for each chapter, you will probably find that details of later chapters start to suggest themselves to you. Make a note of these. Eventually you will start to see how the events of each chapter tie the major objectives of the story together.
The advantage of working ONLY with objectives is that it leaves completely open how you chuse to achieve them, and therefore enables you to create a clear definition of the story’s intention and it’s destination, without fixing the path that it follows.
Finding Your Own Balance
My technique is to begin with overall objectives but not to fill in any details until I am ready to write them. This is a process that builds up the story outline progressively as I write it.
Before I used Scrivener I used loose sheets of paper, because you need to be able to add new information between existing information.
With Scrivener, I have a folder for each chapter, and within it, a file for the chapter outline, a second file for the scene outlines, and then each of the scenes in a single file. But how you organize it matters less than the overall process:
How to do it:
Begin with a sparse outline, and then add in as many major objectives as possible. Write out a brief story summary. This is one paragraph for each of the major events, and lists the major revelations.
Then decide the objectives for the first chapter. Once you’re happy with them, add some details as to how the objectives will be achieved. This is the second chapter outline with those details filled in:
We bring Chastity to Ake town. It is Saturday – the day after Chaper 1.
She has been given various errands by other girls (and maybe by members of staff). She goes to town with Hope and one other girl. They have to leave her at the Star with the Inspector, who is expected to bring her back to the school.
Over the course of the afternoon, the weather worsens. The market closes up early.
We get to see various features of Ake Town including Mill Scrap.
By the time Chastity and Warris sit down to dinner, an even worse storm is raging than the previous day.
They convince each other that it would be best if Chastity stayed the night in town, in one of the Star’s comfortable rooms. The inspector uses the call box outside the Star to call Letter House.
This gives an opportunity to show that Chastity already knows Doad – inevitable really, considering how long she has been there.
Possibly drop a hint that Chastity has already slept with some local young man.
End the chapter with more than a hint that Warris stays the night with Chastity.
From here, you can identify individual scenes within the chapter, and outline them, immediately before writing them. Here’s scene 1:
Scene 1: the bus to town
Use the view from the bus to establish the broader landscape.
Also, use it to give the first glimpses of some important locations: Newly, the Old Mill, Mill Scrap.
Give some slim details of the town centre.
Develop the relationship between the three girls a little more.
Drop the mysterious parcel in there somewhere.
Get the girls to the tea rooms.
But, while writing, I continue to update the rough outline, and while writing a chapter, the chapter objectives and outline can also change, so I make sure to update it once I’ve finished each scene.
My main points in this article are these:
In short, writing, like any creative endeavor, is a mixture (rarely a balance) of expectation and discovery. Both are essential to creative excellence. If there is a balance to be found, it is between your anxiety, your needs, your desires, and the needs of the story you want to write. In other words, the right approach to writing an outline is going to vary with your personality and experience, and with the requirements and constraints of your chosen project.
What I hope you will do, therefore, is find a balance to suit you that is some sort of mixture of all three outlining techniques that I have described.
Your outline is there to help your story meet its objectives – to help it to become the story you want it to be. So your outline must not dictate the path that the story follows, just show it where it needs to get to.
Your outline should become more and more detailed as your story progresses. Your story shapes the outline.
The story you finish up with, is a combination of your intent, and the process of realizing your intent, and the tools and the medium you work with. As you carve the block, the wood pushes your chisel. You have to decide when to let the wood guide you, and when to force it. When to follow the grain and when to cut the grain. You have to learn to recognize the beauty that your process reveals, and balance actively searching with surprise revelation, balance force with discovery.
Art is meaningless without conflict. If it was a matter of every factor in the creative process working in perfect harmony, the results would not merely be uninteresting, but pointless.
No creative process can be uniform, nor uniformly easy. Some parts will be difficult. There will be times when you strike a knot, and have to completely rethink the shape of the final sculpture. And that is exactly how it should be.
Whatever process you follow to your current story, you should prepare yourself to begin the next one in the same way, with another uncarved block, and another journey, where you will again discover both the work of art, and the process of creating it, at the same time.Continue reading
Why are you looking for creative writing ideas?
Does that heading come across as a little aggressive? It will, if you feel guilty about looking for ideas. But why would you feel guilty about looking for ideas?
I suppose because:
We make these preconceptions for ourselves because our culture has us convinced that…
artists are special
… and once we start to see ourselves as artists, we start to see the value in being seen as special. And because we want to be what we seem, we try to be more special.
So surely if you have to go looking for ideas about stories to write, you aren’t very creative?
C’mon! I did an article about ghostwriting where I tried to show that you can have all sorts of creative ideas but no idea how to turn them into a novel.
So you can also have all the creative talent necessary to turn great ideas into great stories, but be short on the actual ideas. And you can, through the course of your artistic career wander all up and down those two continua.
I am going to tell you where to find the ideas that will make great stories. But I’m going to start with a few techniques for finding ideas, and here’s why.
You’re an artist, and you need to push and stretch your creative ability, to develop your range of expression and your reach.
You’re an artisan, you have a specific skillset related to writing, but you’re well aware that this is a skillset that takes a lifetime to master, that there is always new knowledge to add, new skills to incorporate.
This means that the core of your career as a creative writer is learning and development. With every new writing project you expect to learn something new; and I’m certain you do.
If you’re aware of this, then you’ll know that mastery comes from seeking mastery, and from practice. Lots and lots of practice.
Practice differs from free creation in one very critical way: it is artificial. The aim of practice is not to produce a work of art, but to hone your ability.
I’ve produced a whole range of exercises for exactly this. Some of which will be available for free on this very blog. Their purpose is to do more than just hone. My aim with those exercises is to challenge, to sensitize, to raise your awareness, to get you thinking about writing in new ways.
And that’s the other major component of practice: exploration.
If you’re lucky enough to already be a bestselling author, or you have at the very least a sure and steady income from it, you can probably do some of your exploration by getting a little experimental in your next published book. Try out new techniques, new ideas, new approaches.
But if you reckon you’re onto a winning formula, or you just want to build up a loyal fanbase by giving your readers what they love the best about you, then you might not want to get too experimental in a book you intend to sell.
And of course, if you haven’t hit on that winning formula, then clearly you need to keep experimenting.
And that’s where practice comes in.
Working for nothing
It’s hard to convince a writer to spend her precious writing time on work that will never see the light of day. Actually, I’d like to see writers who do my exercises post the results on their Facebook or their Website, to encourage the others – but mostly to show that most creative people create better within constraints. All the writers I’ve worked with write better to order than when writing what they want to write.
But time is the constraint. Most writers do not write full time – though since the e-book revolution, a lot more do than ever did before. This means your time is limited, so practice writing doesn’t seem like an efficient use of your time.
A truth, cautiously and mostly acknowledged
Most people seem to agree that the best way to sell more books, long term, is to write better books. So even if your priority is to get rich from writing, your primary long term goal must be to become a better writer.
This will never happen if you don’t try to become a better writer.
And a harsh truth, mostly ignored
You won’t become a better writer by reading books that claim to tell you how to become a successful writer. You certainly won’t become more creative, or become a better artist. And you need to become more creative, and become a better artist, to become a better writer.
Let me put it this way…
Which is easier for a salesperson:
Wouldn’t you rather try to make money selling great books than try to make money trying to sell mediocre ones?
You should look for creative writing ideas for practice.
Stories are everywhere
We make almost everything we do into a story of some sort. Stories are everywhere. In the simplest form, a story is
how we explain what we want and how we get it
Stories like this abound in everyday life, generally as answers to questions, but sometimes as the questions themselves, their explanations, their justifications.
Most people would answer that kind of question with a story. So all those questions are story prompts. Story ideas.
The more you go looking for them, the more you will find them. But if this still looks a little arcane or obscure, then start simpler.
Look for conflict
Conflict makes stories like nothing else.
A conflict is easy to express in a few words, and its resolution always brings a sense of release, and of completion.
Conflict can start very small.
An ant, trying to climb over a grain of sand.
Conflict can be real or imaginary.
Is your neighbor trying to steal your parking space or does he just not know whose it is?
Conflict can be internal.
Should I have another biscuit?
You ate all the pies!
… and make the practice effective
Narrow the scope
The more you restrict a story idea, the more you will learn from it. Artificial restrictions are exactly what you need when you practice. So give yourself limits in both the idea itself, and in the treatment:
Only the ant’s point of view
in 50 words
with only dialog
with no dialog
every verb has an adverb
all in the future tense
All of which means that practice shouldn’t take up too much of your time. If the restrictions are tight enough, it will force you to explore and discover and innovate and experiment. And this will have consequences when you go back to your book.
There are plenty of online resources that have lists of writing prompts. Use those, but stick to the most restrictive ideas, and the ones that you think will be difficult; the ones where you think you will have a hard time finding something to write.
The story is almost unimportant.
Even I’d admit that the very greatest writers chuse stories with great care. But they aren’t just plucking the stories out of the air. They certainly aren’t looking for conflict and drama, and turning that into a book.
They’re chusing their story to match, complement and enhance their central theme.
The theme is important.
Think of your book as a message, from you to the reader.
If you think you’re writing for yourself alone, then I can’t help you become a writer. Until you start writing for the reader, you won’t be a writer.
If your book is a message from you to the reader, what do you want that message to be? Here are some I’ve encountered recently, in every genre from pulp detective fiction through historical, SF, heroic fantasy, “chicklit”, contemporary fiction, urban fantasy and “literary fiction” (whatever that is). I guarantee you can’t guess which theme goes with which genre:
All these statements have one thing in common. They are opinions.
Strongly held, perhaps even beliefs, but opinions. And they are the opinion of the author. Sometimes the author is surprised when I point it out to them.
What you care about
How do you find your message?
It shouldbe fair to say that you write because you have something to say.
It may not be a darkly hidden fire or a bright flame in your eyes. It may just be an issue you care about or a current cause of anxiety or concern.
It may not be some trauma from your past – though it could be.
It may not be some dread for the future – though it often is.
It ought to nag at you.
Think about what makes you bridle. What gets you on the defensive, or the offensive.
What makes you angry?
The first time you identify your theme or message before you start writing will probably result from identifying what makes you angry.
Anger is born of frustration – at incapacity, injustice, incompetence – at any situation that could be remedied, but where the people who could remedy it take no steps to do so.
Anger may be personal, it may be social. It may be irrational. It may be idealistic.
But if you are angry, it will show in your writing.
And this is good.
Because if you can find and latch on to a strong emotion, it will provide you with a message.
The ideal message
Should take the form:
this is so, or seems to be so. people seem to accept it.
this should not be so. people should not accept it.
Doing it wrong
This is the wrong way to think about it. True, I said that great writers will select or build or design a story around their central theme, so that the theme is served, and never undermined, by the story.
But if you take your message and try to build a story around it, you will end up with a plodding, obvious fable that constantly repeats the message until the reader is sick of it and throws the book at the wall.
The secret of rhetoric
Rhetoric is the Classical art of public speaking. In it’s simplest form, it has three stages:
This applies just as much in a book. Want to get your message across, but the reader can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t accept just passively listening to your moralizing.
The reader wants and needs to be entertained, and if you can give the reader his dose of stimulation, escapism, excitement – whatever he is looking for, then you can also deliver your message, and this is the killer:
deliver your message with passion, and you will enhance the reader’s experience
but here’s the caveat…
let the reader become too conscious of the message, and it will destroy the reader’s experience
Striking a balance
Finding that balance between a satisfying reader experience and the requirement for a heartfelt message is what leads to the best reading experience. Getting there is all about your approach, and this is where I come back to the heresy:
The story is almost unimportant.
Choose a story that you think you will enjoy writing
Possibly the best way to do this is to write a story that you would like to read. Or imitate or emulate a story or writer that you love. There is a great tradition of writers wearing their inspiration like a badge of honor. Don’t be afraid to dedicate your book to the author you want to be like.
Give yourself clear boundaries
In exactly the same way that artificial restrictions force you to work harder and better at practice exercises, so clear boundaries will result in both clearer and more coherent work, and a better class of creativity.
Clear boundaries can be as simple as:
Be careful that your boundaries aren’t in direct conflict with your desires. It’s one thing to give yourself a challenge; if you are constantly fighting the structure you imposed on yourself, maybe you should ease off on the structure.
But be equally wary of giving yourself too much freedom. If anything goes, there’s no tension. If there’s no tension there’s no drama. If there’s no drama, there’s no reason for the reader to read.
DO NOT think about your message when you are writing
But think about it as much as you like between writing sessions, because it matters. Talk about your message. Develop your thinking around it, inform your understanding of the issue. Research it.
BUT DO NOT WRITE ABOUT IT
Your book must not contain the message. It must be the message. So you absolutely cannot, must not, make any explicit reference, exposition or explanation of your message of any kind in your book…
You won’t be surprised to learn that rule one of writing is that there is no rule one. Or something like that.
It’s more like:
the more you master your art, the more you learn that there are secret paths
These are not secrets in the sense of mysterious techniques that experienced writers are hiding from you. They are secrets in the sense that they can pass unseen and unnoticed.
When you use a metaphor, you are using figurative language as a means of giving a clearer, simpler, faster or more efficient sense of what you want to convey to the reader.
Figurative language is the tip of the ominous iceberg of symbolism.
Symbolism is the art of writing without writing. Of telling by showing. Of giving information with doubt. Of inviting interpretation then denying everything.
Symbolism is the language of signs. It is without doubt an advanced technique. To apply it effectively you need to know how to use poetry and you will need to learn all about symbolism.
By far the best way to give the impression that you are a skillful writer of learned articles is to make some contentious statement right at the start and then re-evaluate it at the end.
Telling you this is called “touching the mask” – an expression borrowed from the Commedia del’Arte which refers to breaking the illusion by drawing attention to the mechanisms behind the illusion.
I’m touching the mask here because I want to reveal to you that there is another way to think about writing stories.
I really think it is all about inspiration. But inspiration is not what you have been raised to think it is. You can’t get inspired passively. You need two things for inspiration:
Desire is what comes from within. It’s why you want to write in the first place. If you have that, then dammit, you are special. Just not all that rare. Most people want to communicate. Most people want to express themselves. You want to do it by telling stories. So you are special, and you’re going to be a creative artist.
Stimulus is what you need to trigger a story. And you have to go looking for it. You can find it anywhere you look, as long as you are looking. You can hear it anywhere you listen, as long as you are listening.
You find stimulus by engaging with the world around you. And stories are about people. So you find stories by engaging with people.
You will have noticed that I take exception to deconstruction – the practice of textual analysis to find out how a story works.
It’s fascinating but creatively empty. You can’t learn to tell stories from it, because it doesn’t reveal how the author tried to reach his objective.
Through the story creation process, the author worked towards an intended (in some cases, hoped-for) effect on the reader.
More and more, I think the author-story-reader communication is like PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption: you can’t discover the author’s writing process by analyzing the manuscript.
In this post, I look at the characters of four authors:
I want to examine why these characters were created, and their role in telling the story, because I think they all reveal the true relationship between character and storytelling.
Before I start talking about this book, I’m going to be mean: if you haven’t read both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, you ain’t never going to be an American author.
A lot of culture is like laying the table for a meal. There are all sorts of things you can put on the table that aren’t strictly necessary, but that almost everyone does. Like a plate. For most meals, you can serve the food eat it directly on the table.
Writing in English without having read Twain is pretty much like eating without a plate.
Sure, you can do it. You’ll still get the food in your mouth. You can imagine the rest.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (retitled “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because that’s what everyone calls it) was first published in 1884, and is, broadly speaking, the sequel to Twain’s 1876 bestseller, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It’s a sequel insofar as the action takes place a year or two after the story in Tom Sawyer.
The character of Huck Finn is (you might be forgiven for thinking) firmly established in the earlier book. The vagabond son of a vagabond, Huck is uneducated, idle and a bad influence on the other children. But there’s a profound difference between Huck in the first book and Huck in the second.
In the first book, he’s established through the eyes of the other characters. This is important, so take the time to think about it.
Why is Tom’s book called ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and Huck’s book called ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?’
Did Sam dream up the characters and think, “Damn, those boys oughta have a book written about them.”?
I’m pretty sure he didn’t. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he invented both boys because he needed them. Neither book is about boy’s adventures, or about the likely friendship of the most popular kid and the vagabond kid. That’s just how the books look to folks who think they’re books for children, and that suited Twain just fine.
Because his purpose, as always, was to satirize both the society he grew up in, and the society that persisted into his adulthood.
Many critics have drawn attention to Twain’s obvious love for freedom and equality, his disdain for authority and oppression, and these themes pervade. But there are features of human behavior that he hates even more. The pettiness, the hypocrisy; false piety, snobbery, mob behavior. When I re-read Huck Finn in particular, I see a lot of anger.
What better way to show that, than to reveal a society through the eyes of smart, savvy children and show those children through the eyes of that society?
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain shows the world through Huck’s eyes, and by doing so, shows Huck. Huck is transformed from archetype to person.
This isn’t a story for, or about, a popular character from a popular book. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a diatribe about Twain’s American South, for which he needed the character of Huck Finn, and needed to pair him with Jim, and use them to reveal each other and the world around them.
This is the story serving the author, and the character serving the story. The author’s purpose is met through bringing together world, character, and events into a story that is formed by them as much as it forms around them.
First published (serialized) in 1881 and published as a book in 1883, RLS’ celebrated book was inspired mostly by the rather fanciful accounts of pirates’ lives in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates (usually known as ‘History of the Pyrates’) by Captain Johnson (almost certainly a pseudonym).
Treasure island is best known for two things: cementing the fantasy pirate and all its trappings in the popular imagination, and the character of Long John Silver.
So many films have been made of Treasure Island that it’s probably safe to say that far more people have heard of Long John Silver than have ever read the book.
There’s something very peculiar going on here, though. You could be forgiven for believing that Long John Silver is the book’s main character. But he isn’t.
The book is told in the first person, by Jim Hawkins, a young lad who is as modest to a fault as he is courageous to a fault. You might also be forgiven for thinking that perhaps everyone thinks that Silver is the main character because he has so often stolen the scene in the movies – filmmakers preferring to give screen time to this exaggerated character who brings out the best and worst in actors.
But look at another of RLS’ adventures, Kidnapped. The main character is another virtuous if somewhat naive young man; and the most memorable character is Alan Breck Stewart, a fictionalized version of Allan Breac Stewart, a stalward Jacobite and the prime suspect (and probable murderer) in a celebrated real life crime.
In Kidnapped, Alan Breck is portrayed as brave, honorable, competitive, a little too proud at times, cunning, loyal, a little nostalgic, and there’s a strong sense of ongoing internal conflict.
In many ways, Alan Breck is the flipside of Long John Silver.
There can be little doubt that RLS was inspired by real people and events when he wrote Kidnapped, but at the same time, he had an underlying theme, which was the disappearance of an older kind of Scotsman, the highlander – whose identity was wrapped up in his Clan and lands, in force of arms, in loyalty, in kinship; at its replacement by a new kind.
The lowlander, whose identity was defined by his sense of the politics of the wider world, by wealth and trade, by alignment, by religion, and by choice rather than duty.
As is typical for him, RLS makes no clear judgment about this. As always, he expects the reader to decide for herself (or indeed, as many assume, himself, but let it not be forgotten that at the time, when boys were encouraged to read tales of adventure, girls were not encouraged to read at all).
In both books, RLS employs exactly the same trick. He wants to write about adults, and about their behavior and attitudes. But he’s writing for children, so he selects bland, good-example, boyscout types as the main characters, as this will not offend parents and editors, and will also provide the reader with a familiar experience: that of observing adult behavior and finding it confusing, inconsistent, unpredictable, irrational.
The profound lesson in both books is that adults do not have it all worked out. That they still have their internal struggles, and that they do not always prevail in them.
Long John Silver serves this aim. He is a character of extremes, but shows that he can be affectionate, nostalgic, protective, but also less conventionally loyal and entirely unconventionally honest.
He never stops being terrifying even as he is sympathetic, just as he never lets Jim down too far even as he is thoroughly untrustworthy. Long John Silver is the most complete character in the book, and this is because he is never entirely what he seems, never fits completely in any category.
Coming back to this book has been a particular pleasure for me, for here you see a truly compelling tale that utterly demolishes the idea of protagonist and antagonist.
If anything, Long John Silver is both – he’s his own worst enemy as much when he is trying to do good as when he is trying to do ill. Jim certainly isn’t a protagonist; he’s swept along by events largely (if not altogether expertly) orchestrated by Silver.
Conan Doyle’s Holmes is seen through the eyes of Watson, his loyal friend. There can be little doubt that for the reader, the main compulsion was Holmes’ unusual character; not just his ‘unique brain’ but his behavior. In particular, the way that being super-intelligent (if you believed Conan Doyle’s mythmaking) set him apart as well as set him above those around him.
Conan Doyle was writing for a ravenous public who wanted more Holmes until the author himself was sick of it. And not for nothing; the cult of Holmes’ personality was detracting from the author’s capacity to tell his story.
I’d feel dishonest if I didn’t say that I feel Agatha Christie was a better writer. But also much more prolific, for much longer, and didn’t believe in fairies. All these contribute to her characters never getting bigger than her, even if she understood marketing well enough to let it seem that way.
The point of Agatha Christie’s country-house murder mysteries is that you think you’re being treated to the thrill of deduction, following trails of clues, the chase, the revelation – in short, a crime thriller.
But actually, the most important words in country-house murder mystery are country-house.
Agatha Christie’s success arose not from her brilliant plotting (it’s actually rather mechanical; the genius of Christie is her ability to disguise how she uses her genius), but from her depictions of the lives of the wealthy, aristocratic, famous, powerful, in short of celebrity, and her prurient depictions of their sordid and mediocre goings-on – in short, gossip.
Christie’s novels are celebrity gossip disguised as murder mysteries, and this is repeatedly lampshaded, in Poirot with reference to his reputation and in Marple with all her observations of how she is reminded by various suspects of people that she has gossiped about throughout her long life. Poirot is a celebrity sleuth. Marple is a gossip sleuth.
Both characters have been (ruthlessly) invented in order to serve Christie’s marketing strategy. Give the reader’s of pulp what they really want but are too snobbish to ask for.
Christie’s ruthlessness is amply displayed in the character of Ariadne Oliver. Mrs Oliver is a famous writer of detective fiction. She occasionally ends up involved in real murders, and doesn’t usually succeed in solving them. This is ruthless parody of the writer by the writer.
Arguably Christie’s worst book is so bad that I believe she deliberately wrote it to be as bad as possible. It’s called “The Big Four.” It reads as if her publisher told her she had to write a spy caper based on an international conspiracy of criminal master minds as that was all the rage at the time. Poirot features but is little more than guignol, in line with most of the other characters, all of whom come across as if they’ve been selected from a rack of standard caricatures.
I think it’s a mark of Christie’s strength of character and her confidence as a writer, that the characters are chosen to provide an opportunity for a story (of the kind that her public will love). She never gets over-fond of her characters.
It is impossible to imagine Christie ‘assembling a group of interesting characters and then observing them;’ on the other hand, carefully creating an ill-assorted crowd of misfits with guilty secrets and then killing them off one by one?
Nailed that one.
Everyone thinks they know James Bond. The books have gone in and out of fashion since they were first published, and the films have both helped and hindered Fleming’s reputation and popularity – in spite of the fact that none of the films has come close to showing what Fleming wanted to show.
In popular culture, Bond is trapped in an uncanny valley somewhere between the peaks of Bulldog Drummond and George Smiley – both of whom are better characters in better stories.
But Bond was never meant to be a good character, and in Casino Royale, Fleming wears his heart on his sleeve. Bond is supremely lonely. He is a character built from loneliness. He does a job that only a handful of people do; only handful of people know he does it and only a handful of people know who he is. He doesn’t like any of them. He’s emotionally immature. He has epicurean habits derived from genuinely refined tastes. But he’s a brute because that’s how you get the job done.
In 1995’s Goldeneye (Martin Campbell, he of the Casino Royale ‘reboot’), Judi Dench’s ‘M’ calls Bond a ‘misogynist dinosaur.’ But he isn’t a misogynist. He hates himself more than he hates anyone else. In fact he prefers women to men, which shows in the way that he always expects men to betray him, but occasionally he hopes that a woman won’t.
This persists into the later books, where we discover that Fleming himself is a bigger misogynist than Bond. Bond isn’t a dinosaur, either. He’s damaged goods, and that’s why the Service uses him. Fleming uses Bond as a whipping boy.
He suffers repeated humiliations, and in Casino Royale, it isn’t even Bond who overcomes the bad-guy. Bond gets out alive by good luck – he doesn’t happen to be on the SMERSH hit list at the time.
Fleming’s intent seems to be to write a series of books about loneliness, in particular, the loneliness of doing a job that no one understands, and that few appreciate. Fleming’s wartime experiences are almost certainly the origin of this sentiment.
In the books, even Bond’s philandering isn’t a compensation for his loneliness. If anything, the cliché of girls who sleep with him getting killed is more than a cliché; it’s the leitmotif. It is impossible for Bond to find even a quantum of solace. Because that’s the point. Fleming creates a character who doesn’t really deserve redemption.
On the surface, you might think that Daniel ‘Craggy’ Craig’s troubled, brooding Marlon Bondo is closer to the original. But far from it. The Craig Bond is a deliberate attempt to make him into Heathcliffe – he’s violent and nasty because he’s troubled and brooding. It’s just to appeal to the women that the studio hopes are there to look at Craig in the first place.
If anything, Moore’s Bond is closer to the truth, because the wisecracking, the casual violence, the casual sex, the aloofness, are all characteristics of a man struggling to deal with his own emotional emptiness. Remove the comic timing (such as it is) and you’re left with the terrible bleakness of Fleming’s lonely Bond.
It’s probably clear that these characters have something in common.
They have all been created with the purpose of telling a particular story.
The story has been created in order to achieve a specific effect on the reader, even if it is just to play on the reader’s aspirations, in order to get the reader to buy more books.
In fact, take any “classic” or “great work of literature” and you will find that the author has created the characters as part of the story. It’s curious how when you ask schoolchildren of almost any age, ‘what is this book about?’ the answer will begin with ‘it’s about a wo/man, boy, girl…’ because of course we relate to a story through its characters, what they experience, how we feel about them, and how we feel about what they experience.
In a way, that’s the reason it’s a story.
The author wants to communicate something to you about human experience:
It would be very easy for these educated and highly articulate writers to write a 500 word monograph on the topic they have chosen, and you would understand exactly what they were thinking. But would you feel it? I doubt it.
To convince you, they have to show you the truth. They do this by creating characters that seem realistic to you. When these characters take decisions and actions, you find them believable. If you believe that Bond would kill this mook but spare that one, then you would believe it of a real person.
As a result, the author can show you a complex network of human interactions all of which develop and demonstrate the human experience that the author wants you to understand.
It is a common experience of writers who are studying writing, to be asked to do character creation or character development exercises. You write ‘character sketches’ and congratulate each other on how much curiosity a character sketch inspires.
These are useful exercises, but should not be done in preparation for writing a book. They will teach you to recognize characters who will compel or inspire the reader. But they won’t lead you to the story you want to tell.
At worst – and it happens all the time – it will lead to stories that are an ego-trip for the character (not even the writer!).
You might think, especially since software for writers usually includes templates for “character sketches” or other “character management” tools, that coming up with a cast of characters beforehand, carefully fleshing out their backstories and describing their foibles, flaws and physical appearance is the proper – or at least usual – way to proceed.
I’m drafting this post on Scrivener. When I write stories in Scrivener I have a folder for characters. It contains a card for each major character.
Character Management is what to do.
You should have a list of characters. Under each character there should be an outline.
No character should have a card unless at least one scene they have appeared in has been written.
There shouldn’t be anything on the card other than information that is present in the scene that you have written.
Enough with the abjurations! Do this:
Character management is mostly about continuity. If you know you don’t need to write down any of the information in the previous section, then you don’t need to write down anything about your characters outside what is in the manuscript.
Because characters are part of the story. They aren’t something the story is built around, or even about. The reader learns everything he needs to know about the characters from the story.
But also, the reader learns everything you want to tell him from the story. So the characters have to be more than a good match for the story. They have to be integrated with it.
Jenga characters. Remove them and the story collapses.
Your purpose in telling a story, the reason why you write in the first place — whether it’s educational, high-minded and literary, or just sound marketing — is communicated to the reader through a story that creates its characters who create the story.
You can’t create the characters and then the story any more than you can create the story and then the characters. You can decide what general type of story you want to write and you can even select the genre.
To some extent, you can decide what the major incidents and events might be. But for the rest, you have to develop the story.
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