Archive Monthly Archives: September 2015

Overcoming Laziness: How the Writer Has Become Their Own Worst Enemy

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.

So Nature is Lazy

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.

Life

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.

Conflict

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.

Instinct

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:

  1. How long can I get away with putting this off for later?
  2. Can I get away with not doing it at all?
  3. Can I contrive a means for getting away with putting this off for later, doing it less often, or not doing it at all?

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.

Gender Politics?

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.

Cocoon

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.

The Pearl

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.

The Competition

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.

Hours Not Being Lazy

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.

  • The programmer who prepares a library of common functions so that she, and other programmers working on the same system, won’t have to repeat themselves.
  • The schoolteacher who teaches children how to learn effectively, so that later on, they will learn faster.
  • The mathematician who memorizes multiplication tables so that he won’t have to waste time with calculations.

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.

The Short Cut (That Isn’t Really a Short Cut)

As an author, to varying degrees, you will inevitably have two ambitions:

  • to write great books
  • to sell books

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.

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The Poet and the Mad Computer: Rules for Killer Book Titles

Data, big or small, will never write a good novel.

Why?

Easy Answers

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.

“The” Scientific Method

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.

Science is the science of how to know

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.

The Science of Book Titles

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.

I know what you’re thinking

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.

Right?

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.

Google It

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.

Time on my hands

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.

Number of Words in the Title

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.

The Best Words, by Genre

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):

  • Time
  • War (if you put ‘wars’ and ‘war’ together it takes the top spot… by a long way.)
  • Alien
  • End
  • World
  • Lost
  • Last
  • Fall
  • Hero
  • Dark
  • Extinction
  • Heart
  • Rise
  • Universe

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.

Incidentally…

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?

Start with the title of the current book.

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,

but…

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.

Okay, look:

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

And compare:

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

or…

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.

DON’T Subtitle it “A Novel”

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.

Serious Series

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.

Conclusions

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)

Same Difference?

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.

Creativity and Counting

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.

Comes From the Wrong Place

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.

Replaced by Robots

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.

What is Creativity?

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:

  1. Short
  2. Memorable
  3. Provocative
  4. Easy and fast to say
  5. Author won’t get sick of saying it
  6. Matches the soul of the book

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.

I demand an example

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

The Poet and the Mad Computer

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.

Actionables, M’kay?

Here’s my advice for creating a great title.

  1. Assume that people will love your book for the story, not the title
  2. Free your mind. Wear a tinfoil hat if it helps, but mostly, don’t look at the titles of other books in your genre.
  3. Look for titles that fulfil two criteria:
    • they fit the book
    • they don’t sound like book titles
  4. Finally, narrow it down according to the following rules
    • easy to say
    • easy to remember
    • easy to spell
    • short (7 syllables or less) (all the evidence points to short, memorable titles having better word of mouth)

The Science of Book Titles

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.

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5 Reasons Why You’ll Never Be A Great Novelist (And The Reason Why It Doesn’t Matter)

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.

1. This Is Not 1900.

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.

  • New Media. In spite of the arrival of new media – film and television – the public appetite for literature great and not-so-great was voracious. And the mid twentieth century was also when most of the nations with the highest literacy (and hence biggest markets for novels) also ended state literary censorship, with celebrated cases in numerous countries leading to much media attention.

    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”.

  • The “Literary Establishment.” One of the indications of this transition may be that the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, considered to be the top award for literary fiction in English, was awarded to the same writer in both 2009 and 2012. Is the field really narrowing?

    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.

2. You weren’t educated by private tutors any time between 1600 and 1850.

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.

3. You can’t read Classical Greek, Roman, Chinese, Sanskrit, etc, literature in the original language.

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.

4. You haven’t written thousands of poems imitating the hundreds of great poets whose work you haven’t memorized.

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.

5. You weren’t mentored by publishers who are also great literary experts.

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.

A. Most readers just want to read a good book.

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?

  • You should aspire to being respected
  • You should aspire to being loved
  • You should aspire to being valued
  • You should aspire to producing the quality work that your readers expect
  • You should inspire admiration
  • You should inspire trust

A New Kind of Greatness?

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.

Another list?

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:

  • Help out at the homeless shelter
  • Volunteer for the PTA
  • Take a vacation in a country you would never have chosen
  • Spend the weekend at a Spa
  • Spend the weekend hiking in the woods
  • Go to mass at 10 different churches even if you aren’t a Christian
  • Every day, make a fruit pie, and bring it to a different house on your street
  • Spend a day in the local courthouse
  • Volunteer at a Ren Fair
  • Go LARPing
  • Read a book that from the title, cover and blurb, you’re pretty sure you’re going to hate

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.

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